Remembering the David Michelinie Era of Spider-Man

I’ve been reading comics for a good two-thirds of my life now, and it often strikes me how many great runs by various writers or artists are forgotten. We all know the classics: Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Lee/Ditko’s Spider-Man. O’Neil/Adams’ Batman and Green Arrow/Green Lantern. Claremont/Byrne’s X-Men. Walt Simonson’s Thor. And on and on; the list is as long as your arm.

But for any and all of those classic and oftentimes definitive runs on various characters, there are dozens of great, fun runs by writers that are utterly glossed over at best, or completely forgotten at worst. And that’s a real shame, because most readers don’t have a firm understanding of the true history of the characters they love beyond their own lifetimes. I myself am guilty of this, having only recently discovered the Bronze Age works of Gerry Conway, including Amazing Spider-Man and a brief stint on Avengers. True, these older writers’ styles and narrative sensibilities might seem dated in today’s terms, but that’s no reason to brush them aside as though they never happened! Is it somewhat obnoxious to have to trod through several pages’ worth of recap from a character’s thought bubbles when he or she is in the middle of a life-and-death firefight? Yes! But it was the standard of the time, because nobody had THOUGHT OF recap pages yet! Gotta start somewhere.

To that end, I’ve decided to revisit and appreciate certain writers’ and artists’ runs on various titles where I see fit, if for no other reason than to tip my hat to the men and women who created their bodies of enduring, if overlooked work. Some of them are within my own lifetime, and others not. It really doesn’t matter, because good work is good work regardless of when it was produced.

So today, I’m going to look at writer David Michelinie’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man, issues 296-352 and 359-388. He had written some sporadic issues prior to taking over the book full-time, most notably 290-292, in which Peter Parker proposes to Mary Jane, and the subsequent annual in which they were wed (#21, 1987). He also had brief run on Web of Spider-Man in the mid-’80s, most notably writing the sequence in which an unseen assailant–later revealed to be Eddie Brock, A.K.A. Venom–shoved Peter in front of an oncoming subway train without setting his spider-sense off. After Michelinie was removed from that book, it would be three more years before he could revisit that subplot in Amazing, when just a handful of issues into his run on that book, he introduced Venom.

Up until that point, Michelinie was primarily known as the man who turned Tony Stark into an alcoholic, during artist Bob Layton’s and his epic “Demon in a Bottle” saga in Iron Man. His second tenure on that book featured the seminal “Armor Wars” story, and introduced perennial foe Justin Hammer. But in my mind, he topped all of that with his Spider-Man work.

Up until that point, it had been a few years since Amazing had lived up to its name. Writer Roger Stern’s tenure had been cut short as of issue 252, leaving the book–including the ongoing soap opera revolving around his creation Hobgoblin’s identity–in the less-than-capable hands of editor-turned-writer Tom DeFalco, whose style is largely known for contrived plots, atrociously stiff and expository dialogue, and eye-rollingly unmemorable villains such as the Rose and the Black Fox. There was a need for someone to come in and clean things up, to bring back a sense of fun to Spidey’s flagship book. David Michelinie was Marvel’s man for the job.

Fortunately, his arrival coincided with artist Todd McFarlane’s, whose own career (and ego) were about to shoot into the stratosphere thanks to his work on Spidey. McFarlane had been around the industry for a few years, and had recently wrapped an extremely well-received run with writer Peter David on The Incredible Hulk. (For my money, NO ONE ever nailed the cocky, emotionally defensive swagger of the grey Hulk like McFarlane.) It also didn’t hurt that, as stated above, his first few issues introduced Venom, the definitive Spider-Man villain for the ’90s, and is one of only two Spider-Man villains to debut in the last three decades to have any sort of meaningful staying power. (I’ll get to the other one in a bit.)

As a grinning, psychopathic “anti-Spider-Man,” Venom proved to be an instant hit with fans, a shot in the arm to the then-tired Spider-mythos. With McFarlane along for the ride, Michelinie couldn’t miss. Which was a good thing, as one other little thing had recently occurred that had some fans’ hackles raised–Spidey was a MARRIED MAN! With his marriage to Mary Jane still a new and unexplored plot point, Michelinie got to be the point man on defining their married relationship. Anyone who’s married knows that that relationship is a vastly different one than the unwed relationship–but no writers up to that point had had much of an opportunity to explore how it affected Peter and Mary Jane both as individuals and as a couple. Sure, Gerry Conway was writing both Web and Spectacular Spider-Man at the time, but for as much fun as those books were, they weren’t much focused much on the domestic side of Spidey’s life. Conway would be succeeded on Spectacular by uber-drama queen J.M. DeMatteis, who, though talented, wasn’t the man to focus on anything other than psychological torment; and over on Web, he was succeeded by an endless litany of no-name hack writers whose contributions to the overall Spider-Man mythos amounts to the silver-and-black Spider-armor, known mostly as a variant costume in any number of Spider-Man video games. With that in mind, the task of defining the Peter and Mary Jane marriage fell to Michelinie, and in that I feel is where his legacy should truly be secured.

Again, aided and abetted by Todd McFarlane, Mary Jane went from being a rather drab, nebulously-defined party girl to a glamorous, gregarious model who wasn’t just Peter’s colorless wife–she was his friend, his support, and sometimes his critic. She was everything Gwen Stacy hadn’t been, and everything Black Cat should have been (if she hadn’t been a loon). Frankly, Peter, still scrambling to make a living selling pictures to an indifferent Daily Bugle and perpetually worrying about his never-NOT-frail Aunt May, was lucky to have her. Fans were lucky, too–anything less than an awesome portrayal of married life for Spider-Man would have been a PR disaster for Marvel. Peter and Mary Jane were young, sexy (and constantly making allusions to their sex life, at least as much as the Comics Code would allow), and just finding their way as a cohesively functioning married unit. If the idea of perpetually-down-on-his-luck Peter Parker marrying a supermodel and living in a high-rise luxury condo didn’t feel “right” to you, no worries–it wasn’t long before Michelinie had them evicted and MJ’s career put into jeopardy by the condo owner who was murderously fixated on her. Nothing says “loser” more than having to pack up your wife and move back in with your aunt in Queens, of all places.

Michelinie and McFarlane ran the gamut of classic Spider-Man villains: Sandman, Chameleon, Mysterio, the Lizard, the Green Goblin, Hobgoblin, the Rhino, and the Scorpion all put in appearances in the duo’s twenty-eight issue run. Venom returned for round two, and was (unconvincingly) defeated. Of course, Michelinie can be pegged for his introductions of less-than-stellar villains such as Styx and Stone, and eventually Cardiac, but then again, even Stan Lee invented the Kangaroo. Nobody’s perfect.

Eventually, McFarlane was crowned a comics superstar and awarded his own book, the adjectiveless Spider-Man, to draw and “write” (I use that term VERY loosely when considering McFarlane’s earliest attempts at it), thus ushering in the ’90s and the era of the artist taking precedence over the writer. The Image revolution was but two years away.

But Michelinie had the good fortune to have Erik Larsen waiting in the wings to take over ASM‘s art duties. Larsen had a looser, funkier art style than McFarlane, one that owed much to Jack Kirby and the design sensibilities of Walt Simonson. Which worked out perfectly, as Michelinie had developed his own looser, funkier style of writing, one owing less to clunky boxes of exposition and more to a witty back-and-forth between characters and the narrative boxes. Spider-Man might be lost in thought at the end of one sequence, wondering what happened to a villain who’d gotten away. The next page would transition to a scene revealing that villain’s fate, but instead of a lengthy and ultimately pointless description of the same, or a bland “MEANWHILE, AT SUCH AND SUCH PLACE…” text box, Micheline would simply say, “Nope!” or “Guess what, Spidey? You’re RIGHT!” or some other playful banter that  served to move the story forward. This sort of thing isn’t present in Michelinie’s earlier work; it’s a tack he developed specifically for Spider-Man. And it worked perfectly.

Larsen stayed on for about two years before moving on to replace McFarlane on Spider-Man before scooting on to help form Image. But before doing so, he illustrated my personal favorite story from Michelinie’s ASM in issues 349-350, in which, while attempting to stop the Black Fox’s latest act of thievery, Spidey runs afoul of none other than Dr. Doom, who proceeds to kick Spidey’s ass. BAD. Spidey barely escapes with his life, and winds up with a pretty serious concussion but is still determined to intervene in Doom’s plot to kill the Black Fox, despite Mary Jane’s insistence that while she will always support her husband doing the right thing, she couldn’t and wouldn’t support him going out and committing suicide. In the end, Spidey prevails not by means of fisticuffs, but by using his head and appealing to Doom’s common sense (and ego). It’s a beautiful, relatively simple, completely overlooked story that features Spider-Man at his absolute self-sacrificing best, not unlike the classic–and far more often remembered–Spidey vs. Juggernaut yarn.

With Larsen departing, Michelinie had the good fortune of lucking into Mark Bagley for a replacement. Bagley’s style had a raw kineticism to it that was counterbalanced by a near-flawless knack for rendering emotion. His Spider-Man wasn’t overly rippling with muscles like McFarlane’s vision or endlessly, inhumanly contorted like Larsen’s, but rather had the lithe musculature and energy of a gymnast. He came on board just in time for Michelinie to take a well-deserved break for six issues while the completely forgettable “Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge” biweekly tale rolled out, which basically turned ASM into a team-up book for any character who was only popular for about five minutes in 1992 (and the Punisher, who was EVERYWHERE at the time). But when Michelinie returned, after a quick detour for a rather pointless tale featuring Cardiac, the man who looked like a blue-and-white EKG reading, he had a surprise: CARNAGE, the spawn of Venom, and as I alluded to above, the only Spider-foe from the last three decades to have any sort of lasting impact.

Carnage was, in a lot of ways, the perfect early-’90s villain. He was a serial killer, so he could tap into the post-Silence of the Lambs fascination with them, abut then he was also just like Venom–but more EXTREME. (In the early-to-mid-’90s, EVERYTHING had to be EXTREME!!!!!! RAAAARRRR!!!!!) In this, he was also fairly one-dimensional–but the fans ate him up anyway, and just a year after his debut, Carnage was the focal point of the first-ever crossover between all four Spider-Man books (and the new quarterly Spider-Man Unlimited), the aptly-titled “Maximum Carnage.” “Maximum Overexposure” was a bit more on the nose for all the depth the story had, but Michelinie couldn’t be blamed for this. As told in Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, this was an era when the marketing department was literally making editorial calls. Carnage was popular. Carnage sold. Hence, the big Carnage crossover would be spread out over fourteen comics for three months.

It was around this time that Michelinie did an about-face with one of his major characters to have contributed to Spider-Man: Venom. For all of his existence, Venom had been hung up on “innocents,” and was vociferous in his insistence that he protect them from “fiends” like Spider-Man. Once he (finally) realized Spidey was one of the good guys after witnessing him save the life of his ex-wife, Venom abandoned his crusade to kill Peter Parker and was spun off into his own miniseries, “Lethal Protector,” written by Michelinie and drawn by Bagley. Going back to the ethos that allowed beancounters to dictate editorial policy, Venom was big bucks–and therefore needed his own series. Thus did Venom go from being one of the pre-eminent Spider-Man villains to a sort of quasi-anti-hero, the star of an endless array of miniseries chronicling his solo adventures. Michelinie, fortunately, only wrote the first of these series, but the continued oversaturation of the Venom character would eventually prove to be a deathblow to the character’s popularity, and he eventually became a symbol of everything wrong about comics in the ’90s. The character has yet to regain the both the popularity or the significance he enjoyed twenty years ago.

As for Michelinie, he was nearing the end of his tenure on Spider-Man by that point. At the end of ASM #365, he brought Peter’s parents back from the dead, with a whopper of a story involving the Red Skull, spies, Taskmaster, and I think Jimmy Hoffa’s body. Mistrust was seeded for months on end as Peter debated whether or not these were truly his parents, miraculously returned from the dead. And of course, in typical Parker luck, the moment he revealed his identity to them as Spider-Man, they were revealed to be some sort of  T-1000-wannabe robots who gooped around and tried to kill our hero, all part of a bizarre revenge scheme by the second Green Goblin (Harry Osborn, then dead by that point in Spectacular) that somehow also involved the Chameleon. And thus began the J.M. DeMatteis era of Amazing Spider-Man, which began in the aftermath of that event, had Spidey renouncing his humanity and wanting to be called “the Spider,” introduced a character named Traveller whose power set was so ill-defined that literally NO ONE at Marvel knew what his deal was, and ultimately kicked off the Clone Saga, the most reviled story in all of Spider-Man’s history. Michelinie had the good sense to read the writing on the wall with what the editors were wanting and jumped ship while the jumping ship was good.

And by that turn, it should be noted that David Michelinie’s run on Spider-Man was the last TRULY good run for the character (in-continuity, that is–2000 saw the debut of Ultimate Spider-Man, easily the definitive Spidey book of the 21st century)  until J. Michael Straczynski’s first couple of years, circa 2001-02. The intervening years saw, of course, the unending train wreck of the Clone Saga, followed by a truly uninspired turn by professional hack Howard Mackie, and a pathetic attempt at retconning the hero’s origin by washed-up former superstar John Byrne.

David Michelinie had the stupendous good fortune of getting to work with Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Mark Bagley as his artists–a murderer’s row of talent if every there was one. He also gave us the definitive take on the Peter and Mary Jane marriage, which for those of us who grew up with it, is the gold standard, no matter how much retconning to it has gone on since. The man’s work wasn’t perfect, but even when introducing a silly-looking villain like Cardiac, or a groan-worthy pair like Styx and Stone, Michelinie always played it straight, and wrote the hell out of it. He truly understood not just what makes a good Spider-Man story, but also what makes Peter Parker ticks, and that’s a tricky balance. Less than a half-dozen writers or so over the last five decades have managed to pull it off. Stan Lee, obviously, followed by Gerry Conway. Roger Stern. Brian Michael Bendis. And David Michelinie. The man deserves recognition for being in that company alone, yet his run with Spidey is often glossed over and forgotten by comics historians. And that’s a shame, because writers who so thoroughly understand the inner workings of a character, ANY character, are few and far between.

Michelinie hasn’t written much since leaving Amazing Spider-Man–just odds and ends, and a weak attempt at opening his own comic publishing company with artist Bob Layton, called Future Comics, in the Aughts. It seems he has retired, as, according to Wikipedia, his last published work was a four-issue Iron Man miniseries in 2009. All good things must come to an end, of course, and at age sixty-five, Michelinie has maybe just decided to call it a day. But for me–and a legion of fans that were growing up at the time–he was the definitive Spider-Man writer in the ’90s, before it all turned so bad for so long. My hat goes off to him, and the body of work he created.

But mostly his Spider-Man yarns.

Keep Readin’ Those Funnybooks!

~ILL DIABLO~

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Marvel’s Star Wars.NOW? No!

All good things must come to an end. Sometimes, though, the inevitability of a demise is worse than the demise itself. Today’s case in point: the announcement that Dark Horse has lost the license to Star Wars comics effective next year. It’s been a looming threat since Disney purchased LucasFilm, and to the ire of many a Star Wars comics ubergeek, Marvel (also owned by Disney, duh), will (again) be the curators of George Lucas’s bastard children.

I never read too much of Dark Horse’s Star Wars books myself, mainly because I’m content to watch the original trilogy and feel fulfilled with that story in and of itself. I don’t need to know umpteen centuries of universe-building backstory to feel I know the “whole” story. However, there are plenty of fans who DO, and for them, twenty years of continuity is being chucked out the window violently and suddenly for the sake of… a boardroom deal.

From Disney’s perspective, it of course makes sense to bring the Star Wars comics to Marvel, and thus under its own umbrella. It’s a business move, plain and simple, one that will allow them to milk the golden calf that is Star Wars much more efficiently and effectively, with the added bonus being Marvel’s larger overall market share leading to a higher overall sales percentage.

But back to those forlorn Star Wars comics ubergeeks: for them, it’s the end of an era. And in a larger sense, it is for the entire comics industry.

If you’re an under-thirty fan, you grew up with Dark Horse’s Star Wars line. Period. And since they obtained the license, they have done a stellar job of curating Lucas’s mythos, and building on it with a respect and reverence for the original source material that was, frankly, unmatched up until that point. In other words, Dark Horse set the gold standard for licensed comics. Prior to that, licensed comics were fairly heartless affairs, often written and drawn by uninterested, uninspired creators who were clearly only in it for the paycheck.* Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics, on the other hand, were written and drawn by creators who were fans, and who understood the tone, character, and history of the tales they were attempting to augment.**

For over twenty years, Dark Horse has built upon all things Lucas in that manner. They expanded the mythology forwards and back, printed numerous character-focused miniseries, found ways to make characters from even Phantom Menace seem three-dimensional,*** and even had the balls to kill Chewbacca. And the fans LOVED THEM FOR IT.

Will Marvel’s iteration of the Star Wars line be as good? Worse? A straight-ahead continuation of Dark Horse’s line? It’s too early to tell. Although chances are good it won’t be a continuation of Dark Horse’s saga, since doing so would entail a certain amount of coordination with Dark Horse, which at this point is a non-starter. Surely it will be different, as Marvel will probably bring its own house style to the books. It also bears mentioning that old-school fans looking to Marvel’s original run probably won’t find much guidance; Jim Shooter-Marvel was a vastly different beast than Joe Quesada-Marvel. Marvel will also very likely bring its own brand of top-flight talent to the book, so expect something written by Brian Michael Bendis and/or drawn by Steve McNiven (actually, the latter would be pretty cool). One positive about this is that it IS giving big-name creators a chance to write a Star Wars yarn without the constraints of 20+ years of continuity. The downside is the potential for a Bendis-penned Star Wars comic.****

The other looming question is what the loss of the Star Wars license will do to Dark Horse’s overall market share. Surely it will hurt; the question is how much. I don’t foresee it threatening Dark Horse’s overall existence, as they have too many other strong properties to fall back on, but the loss of the entire Star Wars line will hurt and hurt BAD.

Dark Horse says it has big plans for its final year as stewards of George Lucas’s legacy. I certainly hope so, because their fans deserve it. It may have been inevitable that the Star Wars license would go to Marvel… but that doesn’t mean Dark Horse doesn’t have to cast so large a shadow, Marvel doesn’t have a hope in a Sarlacc pit of succeeding.

Or that it hasn’t already.

 

Keep Readin’ Those Funnybooks,

~ILL DIABLO~

 

*Yes, I’m aware that Alex Ross made his official debut in a Terminator comic. Sue me.

**Check out Dark Horse’s opening salvo, Dark Empire, if you don’t believe me. Boba Fett, represent!!

***All except for YOU, Jar-Jar. May you burn in the fiery pit of abortive supporting character hell for all eternity, along with Orko, H.E.R.B.I.E., Dobby, and any other annoying-sidekick types that have been foisted upon us over the years for cheap and immature laughs.

****Hey, I love the guy, but NO. His style would definitely not mesh with the tone of Star Wars.

Neil Gaiman’s Overture

In honor of today’s release of The Sandman: Overture, I recently took it upon myself to reread Neil Gaiman’s epic masterpiece from start to finish for the first time in years. My intentions were twofold: one, it seemed a good idea to refamiliarize myself with the story, since it had been years since I’d done so. Second, because hell, it’s a damn good story, and all damn good stories deserve to be reread time and again.

Similar to my last blog regarding Y: The Last Man, there’s not much I can say to add to the countless praise that’s been heaped upon the series over the years. So instead, I thought I’d relate my own thoughts on each TPB in and of itself, along with some token reviewing. One note: I’m grading these trades on a Sandman-only scale, since the body of work in its entirety trumps just about anything else out there critically. So, without further ado:

1. Preludes & Nocturnes: Morpheus’ first fling is a little bit of a mixed bag, as by Gaiman’s own admission, he was a little lost having not written an ongoing series before. It’s a basic quest tale: the king is imprisoned, the king breaks free, the king must then set about the task of rebuilding his fallen kingdom. Along the way he interacts with various denizens of the DC Universe, including Mr. Miracle, Dr. Destiny, and J’onn J’onzz. All of the series core concepts are laid out, including the Endless (although only Destiny and Death make an actual appearance), the Dreaming, and its myriad denizens such as Lucien, Cain and Abel, Eve, and Matthew (Cable) the raven. Lucifer makes his first appearance, setting the stage for his epic abdication. Oh, and some guy named Dave McKean began making a name for himself with his trippy covers. Like I said, it’s a little unfocused as compared to what was to come, and it certainly didn’t hit the literary heights of its sequels. But it’s a solid foundation, and an extremely competent successor to the “British Invasion” kicked off by Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Score: 7/10.

2. The Doll’s House: Generally considered to be the ultimate Sandman story, “The Doll’s House” is Neil Gaiman let loose and at his best. Still in the process of rebuilding his kingdom, Morpheus discovers upon taking a census of the Dreaming that several of its key residents are missing: Brute and Glob (the embodiments of brute strength and base cunning), Fiddler’s Green (a place who takes the form of Teddy Roosevelt), and the Corinthian, the eyeball-chomping living nightmare. Gaiman tied ideas and characters from Jack Kirby’s Bronze Age iteration of a kid-friendly, superheroic Sandman into a waking nightmare of child abuse, serial killers, monsters literally living in your head, and a girl named Rose Walker tying it all together. Rose quickly became the prototypical female Gaiman protagonist: outgoing, thoroughly modern, and extremely strong, but with a niggling bit of immaturity at her core. The story itself is actually staged as a three-act play, with Rose and Morpheus acting as the strings that tie the whole thing together. As a bonus, the story takes a break in the middle to introduce us to Hob Gadling, a man whose refusal to die begets a lifelong friendship with Morpheus that’s a key piece of the series’ tapestry. It’s a beauty of a story, and showed the world that Neil Gaiman was on his way to very, very big things. I absolutely love this story, and it’s tied for my personal favorite of the series. Score: 10/10.

3. Dream Country: The first trade to collect one-shot issues of the ongoing series, this collection of but four issues is a great showcase for Gaiman’s wide range as a writer. The first tale is of psychological horror, featuring a novelist who magically enslaves a muse to aid him in his quest to get out of a sophomore slump; the tale of what cats dream about, and why we should be afraid; the World Fantasy Award-winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, performing his classic play for an otherworldly audience; and finally, the weird, extremely out-of-place “Facade,” featuring a female version of DC stalwart Metamorpho who just wants to die… but can’t. “Facade” is easily the weakest issue of the entire Sandman run for the simple fact that by this point, Gaiman had skillfully illustrated that he was very, very far beyond his initial (however tangential) connection to the DCU proper, and Miss Metamorpho (or whatever her name is) taking center stage for an issue was a very strange, unnecessary choice indeed. But beyond that, the rest is great, particularly seeing Gaiman play with history a bit in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He has an uncanny knack for portraying Elizabethan England, supported by his encyclopedic knowledge of the same. A great primer for Sandman; I’d readily hand this to someone who had never read the series before as a gateway drug. Score: 8/10.

4. Season of Mists: Gaiman, at his audacious best, blows the roof off of Christian theology by having Lucifer abdicate his throne as monarch of Hell. He then hands Morpheus the key to Hell, takes his bow, exits stage left, and heads off to Earth to admire sunsets and open a nightclub. Morpheus is left with the seemingly-simple task of finding a new caretaker for Hell, and what follows is a gather of deities both major and minor, along with an abstract concept for two, vying for control. The whole thing is wrapped like a burrito by Morpheus’ initial task of freeing an ex-girlfriend from Hell, whom he banished there 10,000 years ago for spurning his romantic advances. Gaiman’s intricate working knowledge of different mythologies, and allowing those deities to play off each other, creates an immensely entertaining ride as the stakes grow ever-higher the more he deliberates. Unfortunately, the ending is a deus ex machina, and Morpheus never has to actually make said decision, which is a letdown to say the least. But still, this is the first time we really begin to see the subtle change in Morpheus’ character in dealing with ex-girlfriend Nada, a result of his seventy-five years in captivity. That slow change would take hold over the remainder of the series, and become a key point in the series’ conclusion. Score: 9/10.

5. A Game of You: This time around, it’s fairy tale tropes that get turned on their head by Gaiman. Playing off the idea that everyone has a secret, fantastical world inside their head wherein they’re the star of the show, Gaiman introduces this concept in the form of “skerries:” minor facets of the Dreaming that exist only as long as the person internalizing them is alive. A skerry from the inside of protagonist Barbie’s head is reaching critical mass, as a creature known only as the Cuckoo begins to assert itself and cause disaster in the waking world. There’s a wide assortment of supporting characters in this arc who would later reappear in the series and/or its spinoffs, including punky/homey lesbians Foxglove and Hazel, and the witch Thessaly. This story typifies what would become a recurring theme in Sandman as it continued: stories in which Dream himself is not the focus, but instead merely plays a supporting part. Incidentally, this volume’s art by Shawn McManus is the best sustained run for the series as a whole. That’s not to knock earlier collaborators Sam Keith or Kelly Jones, but their contributions were minimal and never for entire stories. Overall, a solid, but not great outing. Score: 8/10.

6. Fables & Reflections: The second volume to collect the series’ myriad one-shots, plus the “Song of Orpheus” special. Similar to “Dream Country,” this is a great entry point for someone unfamiliar with the series. A couple of the stories, though, are fairly inessential reading: “The Hunt” and “Soft Places,” while technically proficient enough, add nothing to the overarching, ongoing tale of Morpheus. The other side of that coin is “Song of Orpheus,” which is one of two seemingly-unassuming issues that play key roles in setting up the series’ finale in “The Kindly Ones.” (The other is the end of “Doll’s House,” in which Dream lays claim to Lyta Hall’s unborn son.) The trade is rounded out by the classic “Ramadan,” sumptuously illustrated by P. Craig Russel. This issue stands as one of the finest one-offs in the entire series, and is fondly remembered as such. Score: 8/10.

7. Brief Lives: Morpheus’ and Delirium’s quest for their missing brother, Destruction, is the focal point of this story. Dream, stuck in a funk after the termination of his latest romantic entanglement, decides walking the waking world with his little sister in order to find their wayward brother would be a good means of taking his mind off his problems. Morpheus has no intention of actually finding Destruction, who left instructions when he quit his post that none of them ever seek him out. But the best laid plans of the King of Dreams come crashing to a halt when it appears that some mystical force is acting to stop their quest by killing those they seek in order to find Destruction. This story brings to a head several plot points that set the stage for  sthe epic “Kindly Ones,” including Morpheus being forced into making a decision that will ultimately seal his fate before the series finale. It also sees Morpheus changing and embracing his own humanity, a trait he has long denied within himself. But a kinder, gentler Dream King ultimately cannot sustain the course he’s on… Score: 10/10.

8. Worlds’ End: Gaiman got into a bit of a slump story-wise in the arc that bridges the events of “Brief Lives” to “The Kindly Ones.” This six-part story defies all known storytelling conventions to become an ode to telling tales. In the eye of a “reality storm,” myriad denizens from all different times, places, and dimensions seek refuge at the Worlds’ End, an inn/bar that remains fixed outside of all reality for just such an occasion. The residents of the inn then spend six issues telling various stories, all of which wind up involving Morpheus in some way or another. Each issue is technically well-rendered, but when you look at the entirety of the six issues and try to stack up a meaningful overarching story, you find there isn’t much of one… which is the point. The point is in the individual stories themselves; the trees rather than the forest, as it were. This results in a somewhat tedious outing, especially if you’re looking for, say, forward momentum. Noteworthy exception is the issue that focuses on Bronze Age oddity Prez, the teenager who became President. Similar to what he did with Kirby’s goofball in tights ’70s iteration of the Sandman back in “Doll’s House,” Gaiman deconstructs a fairly bizarre concept and applies basic notions of logic to his otherwise fantastical story. This volume is frustrating to get through; it’s almost as though Gaiman just wanted to show off his writing chops for six issues rather than jump immediately into “The Kindly Ones,” which is really his only real misstep throughout the course of the series. Score: 6/10.

9. The Kindly Ones: The first Sandman story I ever read also happens to be Morpheus’ last. At a whopping thirteen issues, there’s a lot going on here, and not all of it is especially essential to the overall story. Yes, it’s nice to see Rose Walker return, and revisit a few of the denizens from “The Doll’s House,” but how does her quest to uncover the truth behind her lineage tie into “The Kindly Ones,” exactly? Or how about the angel Remiel’s attempt at getting Lucifer to reclaim Hell? Neither of these have a single thing to do with Lyta Hall’s vengeance against Morpheus after her son, Daniel, is kidnapped by Loki and Robin Goodfellow (and just who they are working for or why they kidnap the child is never addressed, either). But honestly, these diversions are so well-written, they actually serve to deepen and enrich the overall plot. Lyta’s vengeance brings down the Fates on Morpheus’ head and domain, and there’s very little he can do to stop them except for embracing the inevitable. A true tragedy in every form–starting with the fact that it didn’t have to happen the way it did–Gaiman rose to the challenge of bringing Morpheus’ story to a close with style, dignity, and power. Marc Hempel’s abstract art style is off-putting at first, but soon transmogrifies into the perfect visual realization of this tale. Score: 10/10.

10. The Wake: The epilogue to end all epilogues, Gaiman takes the first three issues of this volume holding a wake for Morpheus, and introducing us to Daniel, the new aspect of Dream. Gorgeously illustrated by Michael Zulli, the capstone of Morpheus’ life is the somber reflection you’d hope for. Daniel proves from the outset to be a more humane version of Dream than Morpheus ever was, opening the promise of a whole new feel for the series had it continued. But to do so would have been in error: this was Morpheus’ story, not Daniel’s, and so the introduction of Morpheus’ successor is a fitting end indeed. The other three issues involve the following: the last word on Hob Gadling’s refusal to die; a return to one of the “soft places” that serves as an unnecessary juxtaposition of Morpheus and Daniel; and finally, “The Tempest,” which is the follow-up to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and portrays an older William Shakespeare, nearing the end of his life and writing his final play to fulfill his bargain with Morpheus. The latter is the final word on the comic’s literary aspirations, a sort of fourth-wall-breaking vehicle for Gaiman to say, “Look. Comics can have the same value as prose any day of the week.” Which was sort of the point all along! Score: 9/10.

And that concludes my personal overview of the Sandman library. Gaiman, of course, extended the reach of the series with his two fantastic miniseries starring Death, “The High Cost of Living” and “The Time of Your Life.” (Bonus: these stories both feature the best work of one of my favorite artists, Chris Bachalo, before he became tainted with manga stylings.) He would also go on to write the Endless Nights hardcover, featuring all-new tales of each of the Endless, and The Dream Hunters, a prose hardcover featuring art by P. Craig Russel. And then of course there’s the two ongoing series that grew out of Sandman’s fertile soil: Lucifer by Mike Carey, and the less-fondly-remembered The Dreaming by… whoever. The series got cancelled because it couldn’t hold a candle to its source material. And then there’s the dozens of spin-off miniseries, featuring everyone from Thessaly the witch to Merv Pumpkinhead to Petrefax from Worlds’ End. I haven’t read many of these series, but they’re definitely a collective portrait of quantity over quality.

And now it comes full circle, with Neil Gaiman back to write one more yarn featuring Morpheus and company, taking it back to the beginning, to the events just prior to Preludes & Nocturnes that left him so weakened he was able to be captured by a mortal man for seventy-five years. Gaiman is back, Morpheus is with him, and it’s about damn time.

Y: Brian K. Vaughan’s Masterpiece

I just finished binge-reading Y: The Last Man last night for the first time. “Whaaaa?” you ask. “How the hell could you miss out on this series? It’s only one of the most celebrated series of the last ten years, fool!” (Cue Mr. T voice.) Well… I’m not perfect, and the last ten years have certainly seen more than one occasion where I could barely afford the comics I was already buying, let alone checking out anything new, no matter how critically acclaimed and well spoken-of.

And so Y slipped through the cracks. HOWEVER….

After the awesomeness that is Saga piqued my interest in his writing earlier this year, I set out to fill the Brian K. Vaughan-shaped hole in my life by first checking out Ex Machina, followed by the adventures of Yorick Brown, Agent 355, and Dr. Alison (not Ayuka!) Mann. Now, Ex Machina was a great, well-thought out read capitalizing on post-9/11 political weirdness, although its economy of words (a Vaughan trademark) and its abrupt, serious downer of an ending marred it a little for me.* But the originality of the plot, the meticulous nature of its execution, and above all, the flawlessly humanistic approach to both the writing and the characters make it, as a series, one of the all-time greats. However, for all its naturalism, Ex Machina is a little too episodic, a little too written-for-TPB. It’s still a great story, populated with well-rounded characters (not to mention its not-too-subtle lefty politics; hey, I’d vote for Mitchell Hundred!), but that episodic nature prevents its overall story from having as organic a feel to it as would present in Y, and that stalls it out a bit, particularly as the story heads to its conclusion.

But then it came time for Y: The Last Man.

I approached the series almost haphazardly. I was in a Barnes & Chernobyl, had a gift card to spend, and hastily grabbed the first trade without much thought other than, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to read this.” Yoink.

….And upon reading it, I was hooked. Not just hooked, but amazed. Awed. Um… wowwed. Vaughan’s world where all men have died, except for the aforementioned Yorick and his campuchin monkey, Ampersand, is one of the greatest comics I’ve ever read. It’s easily among the top Vertigo series of all-time (joining the heights set by SandmanTransmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, and Preacher), and frankly, should be looked upon as not only the best series of the Aughts, but one of the best comic series ever written, period. I do not make this claim lightly, as anyone who has read my list of Desert Island Comics might attest.

Y is a grand, sweeping epic, taking place in real time over the course of five years. It addresses thoughts and notions on what a man-free world might look like that only the most intricate imaginations can conjure. Crazy ladies with one boob running around in an Amazonian cult? Check. Hardcore Israeli women determined to capture the mythical last man in order to solidify its “tentative” hold on power and autonomy? Check. The highest-ranking American female politician unexpectedly thrust into the role of President? Check. How about the male Russian cosmonauts stuck in orbit when the “gendercide” strikes? Do they hold the key to mankind’s return? Check, check, check. Vaughan’s man-free world is layered, nuanced, and of infinite depth.

And then there’s his characters. Yorick, 355, Dr. Mann, and all the rest are among the most fully-realized, three-dimensional people ever put to page. Their thoughts, hopes, fears, senses of humor, frailties, and failings are as rich as anything written in any medium. There’s Yorick’s unrealized death wish. 355’s inability to emote for fear of being hurt. Dr. Mann’s fierce determination to break away from her childhood. Hell, even the monkey, Ampersand, has all the personality of the favorite pet you had growing up. (Bonus: he won’t quit throwing his poop.) Vaughan has all of these characters constantly playing off one another, building off each other, with all of the skill and wit of Joss Whedon on BuffyThese traveling companions, determined to reach San Francisco so that Dr. Mann can continue her research into what caused the gendercide (not to mention why Yorick and Ampersand are immune), and then head to Australia, where Yorick’s long-lost fiance was last seen, form bonds the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen in comics (or any other medium for that matter). They’re not just friends, they genuinely care for one another, and thus so do we readers.

I could continue to blubber on about how astounding Y: The Last Man is. But certainly, enough has been written over the years by finer wordsmiths than me, and all I’m doing at this point is being redundant. So I’ll leave it at this: my inner life is richer than I ever could have imagined for having read this series. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and read it in its entirety now. Not tomorrow, not next week, now. You’ll thank me for it. And if you have read it? Read it again, fool!

Keep readin’ those funnybooks,

~ILL DIABLO~

*No exaggeration: Ex Machina has one of the harshest downers of an ending I’ve ever read in anything or seen in any movie. Not quite on par with, say, Schindler’s List, but pretty goddamn depressing.

When Creators Give a Shit

Sometimes, it’s just the little things that blow me away. One of the great things about comics is that, despite our differences of opinion, there’s generally a sense of community among our little group of fans. That extends to the retailers and on up to the creators, too–the guys who put in the appearances at the cons, who shake hands, sign autographs, and happily (and sometimes not so happily) dish on whatever questions you have to ask, even if they’ve heard the question a thousand times before. A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting artist Darick Robertson at a regrettably underattended local signing, and he was more than gracious enough to sign more than one pieces, grant me with not one but two original sketches, and put up with my sputtered, star-struck “line” of unrelated and no doubt overasked questions.

This sort of thing goes a long way with me, and I think, anyone in the funnybook community. It humanizes the creators and creates an almost-tangible link between them and their readers. It goes a lot further than, say, ranting and raving online and alienating your readership, or avoiding cons altogether like Alan Moore and becoming a spectral recluse, a figment of the imagination only glimpsed in passing from the corner of the eye.

But then there’s the sort of thing I experienced this morning in the wee hours. Quite a few years ago (the year 2001, to be exact), Erik Larsen published an essay in an issue of Savage Dragon that dealt on the subject of change and death in comics. It’s an extremely well-thought out opinion piece, and it has always struck a chord with me for hitting the nail so well on the head. So instead of trying to rephrase Larsen’s own words as I broach the subject on this blog, the idea struck me: why not just reprint his essay and let him do the talking for me this time?

It’s admittedly not a technique for conveying my opinion I want to get comfortable with using in this blog, because it’s admittedly pretty lazy to just reprint something and say, “See? Look here at what this guy’s saying. This is what I believe.” But it just so happens this piece is a mostly-apt summary of my feelings on the matter to a tee.

So I went ahead and emailed Mr. Larsen, requesting his permission to reprint his twelve-year-old essay. Frankly, I expected no response, or a response from an office lackey, or at least not one for awhile (especially seeing as I sent the email at about one in the morning). But then something really, really cool happened: less than an hour later, THE Erik Larsen took a moment to respond! In the dead of the night! The fanboy in me felt like he’d just gotten laid for the first time, this was so cool. Actual contact with not just a comic creator, but one of my most-respected and favorites, and the guy was awesome enough to respond to my missive over my stupid blog just like that!? First contact had been established and I was on the winning end!

Okay, so right now I’m gushing a bit. It’s not really a big deal… except, to me, it kind of is. When a guy who writes and draws his own monthly comic (and has inked/colored/lettered it as well in the past!) takes a second, in the dead of night, to holla back at some schmo from the Bible Belt about a twelve-year-old essay… well, that’s pretty validating. But it also confirms for me that Larsen is one of the top class acts in the game, a guy who genuinely loves his fans for what they give him (other than money, I mean). If more creators had this level of commitment to their fanbase, comics might not be in the freefall they’re currently seeing. I mean, nothing can halt the march of the digital age, but still….

In other words, asshole creators out there who ignore their readership: STOP BEING ASSHOLES! Take a moment to touch back with your readership, and come down from Mount Olympus to mingle with the common folk! There will be time for absinthe and LSD later, Grant Morrison. Alex Ross, you can paint yourself blue, but don’t forget about the people who are the basis for your canvases of work. And Neal Adams, stop being absolutely bugfuck crazy RIGHT THIS INSTANT!!

My point is this: creators who give a shit are much, much more important to me than the ones who are clearly in it only for the paycheck. Guys who work hard, sweat it out month after month, and take a minute to keep in touch with their fans will always, always endure longer than the Todd McFarlanes* of the industry. And they will remain respected members of our extended comics family, because they actually care. A tip o’ the hat to you then, Mr. Larsen, for proving to be one of the good guys.

Watch for my reprinted Larsen essay in the next couple of days.

~ILL DIABLO~

*Seriously, fuck that egomaniac.

The 4th of July: A.K.A. Captain America Day!

In honor of America’s 237th birthday, let’s take a moment to have a tip of the hat to Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America. He wasn’t the first patriotic hero, but damned if he hasn’t been the most enduring. The guy made his world debut punching Hitler in the face, so you know he’s all right!

What is it about Cap that makes him work, and endure, per se? A lot of people have a lot of theories, but my personal opinion is that he embodies what’s supposed to be the best in us as Americans. He doesn’t take partisan lines on issues; the guy simply stands up for the egalitarian beliefs this country supposedly embodies. (Of course, there are more contradictions than you can shake a shield at on that issue, but I’ll leave that up to my pal Wes over at Riffing Religion.)

Cap doesn’t see things in terms of divisiveness. There are no white or black people, there are just people. No men or women, just people. No young bucks or old fogies, just people. He’s out there, doing his best to protect good, ordinary PEOPLE from the assholes of the world. Which is probably why he winds up fighting Hydra and AIM so much, because those guys are serious assholes.

The other key piece as to why Captain America endures as a character is that he’s a man out of time. With the clever conceit that he was frozen in suspended animation in the days just prior to the end of World War II, Marvel has the license to forever move him forward in time, stretching that time he was frozen out for more and more decades at a whim as real time progresses. Unlike, say, DC’s JSA characters, who had no such conceit, and thus had to continue having magical reasons pulled out of their asses to account for their continued youth and vigor but simultaneously keep them tied to WWII, Marvel has an iconic character that at once embodies the mythic spirit of the “Greatest Generation” and at the same time fulfills the ever-popular fiction trope of the man who doesn’t fit into the world. AND, he has wings on his head.

It’s been seventy-three years since Simon and Kirby debuted Cap, yet he still endures. Few characters in fiction have that going for them: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Sure, you can trace dozens of other characters that are still around and kicking today back to that time, but really, how iconic is Namor? Or Dr. Mid-Nite? Or Lady Satan? (Okay, Lady Satan’s not still around and kicking, but she’s in the public domain, so SHE COULD BE!!!) My point is this: mediocre characters come and go, and some of them even stand the test of time to some degree or another. But it’s the truly great ones that ENDURE, because dammit, they’re just the BEST. A million theses could be written on why this is so, but I’ve got a decent buzz going and have to be up for work in five hours, so I’ll just come back to my initial thought and leave it at this: Captain America endures because he’s the MAN. Because he’s what we, as Americans, should aspire to.

…And because he slings a hell of a mean shield at the forces of evil.