Monday, June 24, 2013


Wasteland (John Ostrander, Del Close & various artists) - A really strange beast, hard to imagine that DC ever even published this weirdo series. It's a horror anthology, written by John Ostrander and improv guru Del Close, and drawn, at first, by a cast of four artists (David Lloyd, George Freeman, William Messner-Loebs, Don Simpson). This group doesn't stick to the usual horror formula, opting instead for psychological and metaphysical horror — more than anything, it's the horror of living in a fucked-up world. The stories are some combination of bizarre, druggy, darkly humorous, creepy, politically satirical, ridiculous, ugly, unsettling, but seldom outright horrific. In 18 issues, each of which housed 3 short stories, only rarely did Ostrander and Close resort to the usual supernatural/gore touchstones, instead opting for weird morality studies, futuristic satires, grim studies of fragmenting mental states, and absurdist glimpses into Close's autobiography, most of which are footnoted with admissions that some of the truth has been, shall we say, tweaked, deliberately calling into question just how true these crazy "true stories" are. Like any anthology, not all of it is great or even good, but collectively it's a great work, and there are stories and moments that stand out as especially bracing and powerful.

Some of Close's ridiculous autobiography is just tiresome, but at his best he's entertaining, especially in a weirdly profound encounter with L. Ron Hubbard, and a two-parter about a theater troupe in a violent mining town. Issue #3 is one of the best all-around issues, opening with a bizarre, richly ambiguous Close/Simpson pastiche of American Splendor, then delivering Ostrander/Lloyd's "Dies Illa," one of the series' most horrifying and creepiest vignettes, pairing Lloyd's muddy, grimy art with Ostrander's jaw-dropping portrait of a cop gradually coming to believe in an impending apocalypse — and experiencing a metaphysical rather than religious hell. In #4, Ostrander and Freeman memorably build a tale of Reagan-era suicidal angst around a Shakespeare sonnet. In #5's "Big Crossover Issue," Close and Ostrander meander through a metafictional reality, illustrated in a less stylized vein than usual by Lloyd, in which various DC superheroes wander into the frame, with Swamp Thing memorably mooning the audience with a flower growing out of his butt. #15 has Ostrander and Close exploring mortality and memory through "Zero Hour," with Joe Orlando providing whimsical images that evoke Peanuts at first, only to gradually become experimental and fluid as the story's logic breaks down and reforms, and the whole thing takes on a new meaning. There's also the Ostrander/Loebs "Dead Detective" trilogy, which seems simultaneously nostalgic for old genre forms and all too sadly aware of their irrelevance in the grim and complex modern age - the literally dead anti-hero of these stories sits stoically at his desk, understanding nothing, doing nothing, blood oozing from the bullet wound between his eyes as the world goes crazy around him.

#11's "Dissecting Mr. Fleming" — by Ostrander/Close with Ty Templeton guesting as artist — is probably the highlight of the whole series, an offhandedly amoral slice of gory horror, the shuddery terror of which is increased tremendously by Templeton's slick, cartoony images and the ending's golly-gee moral takeaway. It's a great story, well worth seeking out on its own, and it makes great use of the cartoony style, so different from most of the anthology's artists. The series concludes, in #18, with the only issue-length story they ever did, a hallucinatory trip back through many of the preceding stories, weaving them together into a dense and metafictional pastiche, written by Close/Ostrander and drawn by several of the series' most frequent artistic contributors. It's a great way to wrap it all up, revisiting the themes of alienation, questioning reality, and mundane horror that had driven the preceding 17 issues.

Throughout, there are plenty of throwaway tales, too, and at least a few that resort to groan-enducing twist endings of precisely the kind that most of the series tries very hard to avoid. Still, the high points are well worth the trip, and even when a particular story or issue isn't up to snuff, the overall spirit of experimentation is hard not to love. This book often feels more like 70s underground comix than anything at the Big Two, including even, or especially, the old anthology horror books from which it was ostensibly taking its format. The stories are weird, and the art is quirky and individualistic, with each artist imparting his own skewed style onto his contributions. Today, it probably wouldn't even be made at either Marvel or DC, and it's something of a miracle that DC put out 18 issues of this even in its more experimental and daring pre-Vertigo days. It's odd, too, that Wasteland isn't discussed more often as one of DC's predecessors to Vertigo — if it had been put out a few years later, it would have fit in very nicely indeed alongside the rest of the inaugural Vertigo line, and it definitely belongs in that conversation with Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and the other out-there stuff DC was doing in the late 80s and early 90s. It's a really interesting series, a nearly forgotten artifact of corporate comics' weirder fringes.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kingdom Come, The Kingdom, Hourman

Kingdom Come (Mark Waid & Alex Ross) - A classic epic that treats DC's heroes almost as myths, as gods, legends, icons, their feats and adventures rendered glossy and titanic through Ross' slick paintings. I'm usually no fan of Ross, but his style is undoubtedly suited to a project like this, that aims for such a purposefully overblown, biblical style. In this book, the "classic" heroes have been replaced by a new, more violent and abrasive breed — an obvious metaphor for the 90s comic industry - until Superman returns from self-imposed exile to inspire the old guard heroes anew. It's all about what kinds of heroes we want, and how superheroes are poised between godhood and humanity. The series is an impassioned argument for superhero comics that inspire readers instead of merely wallowing in nihilism and violence — it's about getting back in touch with the glossy archetypes, through these alternate versions that are aged but very resonant of their most iconic antecedents. This is big, bold, glossy, colorful, an idealized vision of what superheroes mean, tinged with plenty of nostalgia for the simpler times in which these old heroes were born.

The Kingdom (Mark Waid & various artists) - The sequel to Kingdom Come, done without Ross since he and Waid couldn't agree on a direction. It's a worthy successor, though, with an interesting structure: two bookend issues comprising the meat of the tale are built around a series of one-shots about some important characters, most of them children of the iconic heroes who were at the center of Kingdom Come. This sequel is even more metafictional than its predecessor, making itself more or less explicitly about the process of changing time and the nature of the DC heroes. It's about continuity, really, about recovering from the loss of the multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths. In the especially meta conclusion, Rip Hunter wonders why anyone would prefer the boring straight lines of a linear continuity to the chaos and possibilities of multiple timelines and multiple realities.

With that in mind, this series reintroduces such possibilities, courtesy of Grant Morrison's hypertime concept, which provided an elegant way of celebrating divergence and alternatives and elseworlds, and which of course nearly everyone ignored after this series was done. That's a shame, because the idea's great, and it's just one of the dazzling ideas that Waid throws out here. I especially love the Planet Krypton issue, which is seemingly disconnected from the rest of the series — beyond some hints and a thematic emphasis on heroism — and tells a nice street-level story, but which brilliantly ties in to the finale. Also poignant is the way the series deals with superhero legacies and the relationships between parents and children — particularly in Offspring's eventual embrace of his similarities to his goofy joke of a father.

Hourman (Tom Peyer & Rags Morales) - Yet another spinoff from Grant Morrison's JLA, taking a minor character from "Rock of Ages" and DC One Million and developing him into a full-fledged character with a rich and vibrant supporting cast. Hourman was a near-omnipotent android, a plot device allowing for time travel, but Peyer makes him genuinely compelling, a naive youth saddled with cosmic greatness. Hourman settles down on modern-day Earth, the distant past for him, with former (now disgraced) JLA sidekick Snapper Carr, who teaches the robot about humanity and fallibility and second chances. It's fun and fast-paced, crackling with humor and wit, loaded with heart, with a real love of language in the contrast between Hourman's stiff formality and Snapper's beatnik throwback cadences.

A particular highlight is #5, in which Hourman swallows a Miraclo pill and relives the life of his predecessor, Rex Tyler. Illustrated by Morales in a variety of different pop-art styles, this issue is a standalone masterpiece that encapsulates this series' considerable charms. Beyond Peyer's great character work and sharp writing, there's also the appeal of Morales' art, with its distinctive weight and strong sense of motion. Of particular note is Bethany, Snapper's ex-wife and Hourman's current main squeeze, who Morales draws as an impossibly sexy cheesecake confection in ridiculous outfits, even as Peyer makes her a fun and compelling presence beyond the visual va-va-voom. The continual evolution of Amazo as Hourman's nemesis over the course of the series is another great component in an overall fantastic assembly.

Monday, June 10, 2013

JLA Classified + more JLA

This is a round-up of a few bits and pieces read as a follow-up to my big readthrough of the whole Morrison and Waid JLA runs.

JLA Classified #1-3 (Grant Morrison & Ed McGuiness) - The first leftover from my JLA readthrough is an arc Morrison did years later for this series, which was intended as a gathering place for orphaned arcs and projects that didn't belong in the then-current JLA continuity. This belatedly picks up the characters from the earlier Ultramarine Corps. arc of JLA, putting those characters in the spotlight. Like Morrison's JLA, this is setting the stage for things to come, namely the Seven Soldiers epic and the Club of Heroes stories in Batman, driving home just how densely intertwined much of Morrison's DC work has been. This is also sheer bonkers entertainment, right up there with the high points of his earlier JLA run, another great example of his dense, elliptical action format at its best. This thing moves at a breathless pace and barely ever pauses, and every page is an invitation to marvel at Morrison's grand concepts, to laugh along with a bit of perfectly timed dialogue, to enjoy the well-calibrated sweep of McGuiness' art and the eye-popping colors that complement it. Love this, especially all the stuff with Beryl/Squire in the first two issues. This is right up there with "Rock of Ages" as the peak of Morrison's JLA work.

JLA/WildC.A.T.S. (Grant Morrison & Val Semeiks) - I skipped this cross-company crossover in reading through Morrison's run on JLA, but it's very much in the tenor of his run, like a condensed version of one of his arcs. Big world-threatening bad guy, craziness ensues, go! It's pretty fun, with the JLA dimension-hopping to team up with some Wildstorm counterparts, briefly fighting each other because that's the superhero convention, then teaming up to stop the bad guy. A lot of it reads like JLA-by-numbers, and that's fine, but the time travel element adds some additional wrinkles, like the great opening scene in which Kid Flash is rescued from the Lord of Time by... of course, Wally West, all grown up now and no longer appending "Kid" to his superhero name. There are also some wonderful scenes in which the baddie, his consciousness expanding as he conquers all of time and space, is overloaded by the sheer amount of information bombarding him. Not a bad extended issue: some typical superhero fight scenes, some nice Morrisonian chaos, a touch of sharp humor especially in the rapport between Batman and Grifter.

JLA: Paradise Lost (Mark Millar & Ariel Olivetti) - A spinoff from Morrison's JLA, centering on Zauriel, a fallen angel who Morrison introduced because at the time he couldn't use Hawkman. Zauriel, like the other Morrison/Millar new character of the time, Aztek, isn't especially memorable, and neither is this miniseries. It's totally credible action using a familiar premise — an angel gives up immortality for the love of a human, then must protect her — but it doesn't zing and careen around with the vitality of Morrison's JLA. The angel arc wasn't Morrison's strongest moment to begin with, and this continuation of that story doesn't add much to it or really do much to justify Zauriel's importance as a character. A few nice moments here, and Olivetti's art is fine, with a bit of a scratchy Vertigo vibe, but it's overall a forgettable story, and Zauriel's love interest isn't much more than a plot device.

JLA Classified #10-15 (Warren Ellis & Butch Guice) - A good basic JLA arc by a very good writer. It's the usual JLA template, the same one that Morrison and Waid followed throughout their runs: big world-ending threat appears, JLA scrambles, saves the world yet again. What makes it fun is Ellis' subtle and brainy approach to this material. Instead of the heroes defeating the villains with sheer brawn and fighting, they do it by outsmarting the enemy, by thinking through the problem and overcoming the threat with ideas. Ellis excels at this kind of conceptual stuff, and he does a great job of placing each hero into a seemingly overwhelming situation, only to have them think their way through it — rarely have braininess and lateral thinking seemed so dynamic or action-packed. Ellis also nails the character interactions, giving some witty dialogue to the various JLAers. The highlight in that respect is the relationship between Clark and Lois, whose gentle, affectionate marital sparring is razor-sharp and sexy as hell, calling to mind old-school Hollywood charmfests like The Thin Man. I'd love to see Ellis do a whole Clark/Lois reporter series based around that repartee. Guice's hyper-realistic art and mastery of facial expressions is a big draw as well, particularly in the aforementioned scenes of downtime with the characters in their ordinary lives. A nice little story, not essential but certainly a fun enough read.

JLA Classified #37-41 (Peter Milligan & Carlos D'Anda) - Originally intended to be a standalone graphic novel, it was cancelled and wound up here years later instead. It's not hard to see why it got shelved, though the idea behind this series is great and there are scenes (mostly early on) that really live up to that potential. It's Milligan's story about Kid Amazo, a cyborg "son" of the JLA enemy Amazo. This cyborg didn't know of his origin, and was going to college with false implanted memories until his father bursts into his life and reveals the truth. Milligan's conception of this burgeoning young villain as an angry, confused teenager is pretty brilliant: he wants to rebel against his father, so of course he becomes a superhero, but then he realizes that the Justice League also just want to control and discipline him, so he swings the other way. His girlfriend breaks up with him so he threatens to kill Wonder Woman. He ponders Nietzsche while trying to define his own identity, separate from his programming. There's some interesting stuff here about the nature of free will, philosophy, growing up, family, and so on. But the execution is spotty. Milligan seems disinterested in the actual JLA, who consistently act out of character, and the ending is a mess, discarding much of what made the premise so interesting to begin with. D'Anda's cartoony art is also nothing special, a little stiff and posed during what should be the big dynamic action scenes. Overall a disappointing read, mainly because the idea is great and Milligan could do so much better with this material if he was in peak form.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Mike Baron's opus is the epic tale of an intergalactic assassin, a man named Horatio Hellpop who is haunted by dreams of mass murderers, and as a result is compelled to go out and track down the subjects of his dreams, killing them with his cosmic powers. What's great is that Baron populates this universe with a huge cast of varied aliens, a complex and ever-shifting political system, multiple subplots arising from the clashing motivations of countless minor or major characters, and a near-constant focus on morality, vengeance, and justice. At first, Baron's storytelling can be frustrating, because he steadfastly refuses to stick to the usual rules of narrative payoffs, instead employing a scattershot style in which gratification can be *massively* delayed — characters and situations might crop up, then disappear into the background for years, only to suddenly re-emerge as the remainder of the story plays out. In the early issues, especially, this extremely elliptical storytelling can be disorienting, but Baron quickly grew more proficient with his chosen approach, and over time he developed the impression of a huge, chaotic, heavily populated universe where all sorts of plots and machinations play out independently of one another, their unpredictable intersections and disconnections forming the fabric of the ever-growing Nexus storyline.

Nexus debuted in 1982 at the ill-fated Capitol Comics with a 3-issue black-and-white series, then a color ongoing that was cut short by Capitol's demise. The color series was soon revived and continued at First Comics, where it ran for 80 issues until 1991, when First also closed its doors. Baron's co-creator and primary artistic collaborator on these comics was Steve Rude, a masterful artist who started out great on those early Capitol issues and quickly became downright amazing, his slick, clean cartooning and lively design sense developing by leaps and bounds throughout Horatio's early adventures. He's equally adept at drawing the expressive, realistic human forms of Horatio or his girlfriend Sundra, or the host of inventive alien races that he designed for the series, from the four-armed, one-eyed bodyguard Kreed to the ape-like Dave and Judah to the oval-headed yellow rock star Mezz. His dynamic page designs, aided by the luscious colors of Les Dorscheid, meld perfectly with Baron's poppy, energetic writing, which liberally mixes humor and high drama.

Nexus can be diasarmingly funny, its characters colorful and larger than life, but at the same time it's constantly dealing with the nature of morality — the main character is a killer of killers, driven to do this "job" by an alien force that he doesn't understand, and his missions continually bring him into contact with the contradictions and complications implicit in this kind of vigilante justice. The series grapples with political oppression, environmental destruction, and government exploitation, but most especially with the nature of morality and the need for punishment. Many of Horatio's targets are no longer the vicious killers they once were, but have changed, reformed, grown in various ways, and yet still they must die for what they did. This moral complexity only increases as the series goes on, as Horatio begins to question his mission more and more — and especially once he discovers the source of his powers, which completely changes the story and triggers years and years of complex plotting.

Much of this comes to a head in the original series around issue #50, as well in the concurrently running miniseries The Next Nexus, which paid off 50 issues worth of complex characterization and plotting by weaving together many of the long-gestating subplots and triggering a massive change in the book's status quo. Unfortunately, after drawing much of the lead-up to issue 50 as well as all 4 issues of The Next Nexus, Rude was on and off the book sporadically before leaving for good to take on other projects. In his absence, the art mostly suffered. There were issues here and there that were good, notably a nice fill-in by Adam Hughes, who would have been a good replacement for Rude, but most of the artists who took Rude's place during the second half of the First run were not up to par. The low point was inarguably issues 66 and 69, both with rough, hideous art by Mark Heike, but even Hugh Haynes, who became the regular Nexus artist for its final 10 issues, was nothing special. Even so, these post-Rude issues remain compelling, because Baron completely shakes the book up, shifting its former main character into the background, introducing a brand new Nexus, and focusing more on the politics of Ylum, the once-unpopulated planet that had gradually filled with refugees gathered on Horatio's missions, and over the course of the series had taken on a life and a government of its own. One of the most interesting things that Baron explores over the course of the series is the tension between Nexus' violent "job" and the expectations that others place on him to be a savior, a liberator, a leader, a humanitarian. It's in these issues, after the events of The Next Nexus, that that tension becomes most apparent, and it's great stuff, even if one wishes that Baron still had Rude around to provide these stories with the visual brilliance they deserve.

Something probably also needs to be said about the backup stories that ran through the entirety of the series. One long-running backup was a Baron-written showcase for Clonezone the Hilariator, an aggressively unfunny alligator stand-up comic whose path crossed with Nexus a few times in the main storyline. It's an opportunity for Baron to indulge his obvious love for corny, "bad" jokes, and it has a great vaudeville, Borscht Belt vibe to it, wacky and silly and, in spite of itself, often pretty funny. The problem was that First received a seemingly endless supply of letters complaining about the feature, saying either it wasn't funny or that a humor strip was out-of-place backing up Nexus, which was often humorous itself but nevertheless had an overall dramatic, serious tone. So Baron unfortunately gave in to pressure, eventually, replacing poor Clonezone with an action-oriented backup about Judah, a popular warrior character and a boisterous foil for the introspective Horatio. On his own, though, he's just boring, especially since Baron soon handed the backup off to other writers, mainly Roger Salick, an utterly undistinguished writer whose work here bears no resemblance to the moral and thematic complexity of Baron's comics. It's a perfect case of "careful what you wish for" — fans asked for more action and seriousness in the backups, and they got it, in the form of dull, forgettable action fluff. The backups were almost never mentioned in letters at all after this, which I guess Baron and his editors decided was better than incessant complaining, and Clonezone stayed away for good.

The First series ended as the company floundered and cancelled all its ongoings, planning to resurrect them all in a yearly miniseries format. The company died for good before that happened, and the planned Nexus revival occurred instead at Dark Horse. Baron and Rude were reunited in the 90s for a series of minis, doing anywhere from 3-6 issues of Nexus every year. Despite the format, these miniseries weren't really structured as discrete arcs, but as aggregations of shorter tales and pieces of larger plots, much like the previous Nexus series. The yearly miniseries was simply a way to package Nexus in bite-size chunks, to give Baron and Rude the time to create this series together without fill-ins or delays. It's a joy, in these comics, to have Rude back on the series whose look he defined, his art cleaner and prettier than ever, and these series represent a fine continuation of the Nexus legacy. This is especially true of Alien Justice and Executioner's Song, which do a great job of balancing all the moods and tones of the Nexus universe and paying off long-standing characters and plots, while still keeping each issue more or less self-contained. Notably, the last issues of both The Wages of Sin and Executioner's Song are all-out standalone comedy issues, hilarious and madcap and a total blast. The series stumbles a bit with the very odd God Con, which brings the deities of various religions tangibly into the Nexus world, with somewhat mixed and confused results. The first half of the final Dark Horse miniseries, Nightmare In Blue, also seems off, though it picks up in a big way for its frenzied final few issues. That miniseries was published in black-and-white, for the first time since the original Capitol series, which perhaps suggested that the numbers for the various Dark Horse Nexus projects were not so great, and despite the promise of more Nexus to come, there's an air of finality to this mini's conclusion.

Indeed, Baron and Rude didn't team up again for another ten years after this, at least partly because of those financial hurdles. When they returned, the Space Opera series was published not by Dark Horse but by Rude's own new self-publishing venture. This series is in some ways a bit of an unfortunate departure in tone, as a lot had happened in 10 years. Among other things, Baron's conservatism had started to express itself in the kinds of anti-Muslim rhetoric that were ubiquitous on the American right post-9/11. Baron's libertarian ideals had always been perceptible in the series, mostly in small ways, and even in the 90s the seeds of his more radical ideas were apparent when he cast the treacherous Elvonic cult as an analogue for Muslims, depicting the whole culture as fundamentally incompatible with Western-style democracy. He expands on those ideas here, jettisoning much of the subtlety and complexity that had always been hallmarks of Nexus. The low point comes in a pitiful backup story that offers up crude satires of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, utterly wasting some stunning fully painted art by Rude (who apparently shares Baron's ideas, as evidenced by the letters pages in these issues). This stuff shifts into the background, thankfully, for the double-size final issue, which after much delay consolidated what would have been the final 2 issues of the miniseries into one book. This finale focuses more on the long-running Horatio/Sundra/Ursula triangle, and provides a thrilling, visceral conclusion that feels far more like vintage Nexus than the inconsistent, overly blunt first 2 issues of Space Opera.

Those missteps in this latest Nexus offering do nothing to erase the many years' worth of remarkable storytelling that preceded Space Opera. In Nexus, Baron and Rude have created a living, constantly changing universe that has increasingly taken on a greater importance than the titular main character. Nexus himself has become just one player in a complex intergalactic political saga, with a massive cast all pursuing their own motives and goals. It's this openness to change and endless convolution that has made Nexus so enduring and vital throughout its many incarnations.