Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid, art by Leinil Francis Yu
Yeah, yeah, I know–another freakin’ retelling of Superman’s origin story. Next-to-last thing we need is another one of those. Last thing we need is me talking about one of those. However, after the septic abortion that was Superman: Earth One, I felt it behooved me to show that these things aren’t always terrible. Hell, once in a great while they’re even fantastic. And who better to provide proof of this than a creator who’s proven himself brave enough to publicly call Jay out on his foolishness?
I’m frankly surprised (or maybe I’m not) that Waid hasn’t gotten a crack at Superman more often. He’s probably the single best superhero writer, and he’s given ample opportunity to prove it here. Waid’s neophyte Man of Steel is the polar opposite of Straczynski’s, never being anything less than full to bursting with essential decency and humanity even as he struggles to find his place in the world. He’s every bit the Superman you probably think is boring, assuming you’re used to seeing him written badly like I am. The thing is, Supes is arguably not the real star of the show here. An argument could be made that the true main character of Birthright is Lex Luthor. Waid revives the old Silver Age conceit of Clark and Lex having been childhood friends to bring us a Luthor who is every bit as wounded and broken as he is brilliant and crafty. He’s an indisputable genius, coming to certain conclusions well ahead of anyone else (hell, he figures out Superman’s from Krypton before Superman does) without it ever seeming like cheating. At the same time, however, his sheer arrogance prevents him from connecting certain dots which may have swung the fight in his favor. The concept of “Villain of Hero is Hero’s dark mirror” is seldom done well, but this is one. Here we have two men of near-limitless potential, where one can’t help but use it to help others, while the other can’t even conceive of doing so.
It’s not just these two, either–the character-building is pretty great across the board. Just as an example, Birthright has, no joke, my single favorite depiction of Lois Lane. Couple that with some pretty awesome art (is it weird that I think Yu’s work resembles Scott Wegener’s?) and we have a winner on our hands. It’s like John Byrne’s Man of Steel, only with much better writing this time around.
Batman (New 52) vol. 2: The City of Owls, written by Scott Snyder, art by Greg Capullo and others
You’ve probably heard me sing the praises of this series a time or two in the past (translation: “can’t even type the word ‘Batman’ without gushing all over everything”), but now at long last I have the space to do so properly. While Snyder has some annoying flaws as a writer, chiefly a tendency towards textwalling, this winds up being barely a stumbling block. This series is everything a Batman book should be–it’s eerie and phantasmagoric, creating the sort of world that would give rise to a Batman in the first place. It’s action-packed, of the bone-crunching variety you’d expect from a comic starring a guy who goes to the gym a lot. Gotham City, while decaying, carries enough Art Deco glitz to catch a ray of hope here and there. Fold in a story of ancient conspiracies, family secrets and the downfall of hubris and you’ve got pretty much the perfect Batman comic.
The principal combatants in this story are Batman and the Court of Owls, two factions who believe themselves secure in their position in their home city, whether to protect it (Batman) or rule over it (the Owls). Only one can be right, but neither side is getting away unscathed. Batman is not now, nor has he ever been the sort of fellow who breaks easily, but in both this volume and the last he manages to come very damn close. That an all-new antagonist is challenging the Dark Knight so effectively (the traditional Bat-rogues are all but absent here, apart from the minor involvement of Mister Freeze) and it never feels forced or like we’re being shilled a badass-come-lately speaks both to Snyder’s talent and the Court’s efficacy. It all culminates in the revelation of a purported family secret that leaves you not wondering whether or not it’s true (in fact, you’re given ample reason to think it isn’t) so much as it leaves you worrying that it might be true.
On the irritating side, this is another New 52 run with roughly a bajizillion artists working on it. At the very least, it’s consistently good quality (I’m never not happy to see Becky Cloonan), though I really wish Capullo had drawn the whole thing, for the sake of consistency and because what he does matches Snyder’s work so well. Quibbling aside, however, this remains one of the very, very few New 52 books worth buying. At least until DC editorial fires Snyder because he keeps writing Batman sitting down.
Batman Incorporated (New 52) vol. 1: Demon Star, written by Grant Morrison, art by Chris Burnham
But you know what? While the Snyder Batman may be my current favorite DC book, that’s mostly through attrition. Were it not due to wrap up soon, I’d be giving the prize to this series. I love how it has precisely sweet F.A. to do with current DC continuity–it is for all intents and purposes a Vertigo book. DC appears to have allowed Morrison to do whatever he wanted because even people as stupid and careless as the folks running DC at the moment realized they couldn’t afford to piss him off.
Assuming you’re not as petty as I am–and few people are–there’s plenty of other reasons to like this book. While not as straightforward as his JLA run, Morrison keeps his trademark weirdness on a leash, using it as a tool rather than an end in itself. As menaces go, Leviathan seems even more otherworldly than the Court of Owls (there’s that continuity thing–it would make absolutely no sense for those two organizations to be operating simultaneously), not to mention more populist. Against the sleeper agents and ninja Man-Bats, even a dozen Batmen don’t seem like enough.
What I’ve always liked about Morrison’s superhero work is his genuine love for the genre. It’d be easy for an author this “high concept” and “out there” to treat the material with condescension, if not outright contempt. We’ve seen it plenty of times, after all. Morrison will have none of that, however. This is clearly a man who adores Batman, in all his incarnations–the Silver Age in particular. I’m half-convinced he came up with the very concept of Batman Inc. just so he could play around with a bunch of forgotten characters/concepts from that era of comics. Morrison proves it is possible to pay homage to the Silver Age without oodles of rape and murder–you paying attention, Brad Meltzer? Not that Morrison neglects the more down-to-earth elements of storytelling, though–Damien Wayne in particular continues to refuse to be the gimmick character he well could have been, getting several downright heartwarming moments in this book, the “Bat-Cow” scene in particular. The issue devoted to Matches Malone is my favorite of the book, however–basically what we have here is Batman being as cool and badass as ever, while convincingly playing a completely different persona. And it is glorious.
Doesn’t hurt that the book’s gorgeous, either. Chris Burnham’s work looks like a ripoff of Frank Quitely at first glance, and while they are similar, Burnham has uniqueness to spare. Certainly his work is a lot cleaner than Quitely’s, and he’s actually capable of getting facial proportions correct. Burnham’s work is sleek, punchy and trippy, all without sacrificing charm. As a result, it complements Morrison quite well. Then again, Morrison has a knack for this sort of thing–even the ghastly Arkham Asylum had spectacular artwork. Funny I should mention Arkham, actually–dude basically went from worst Batman writer to best Batman writer in the span of twenty years. If you have to pick one entry from this week to read, this is the one.
The Simon and Kirby Superheroes, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
I leave you this week with yet another ginormous volume of works by the two men who are arguably most responsible for the modern comic book industry, at least from a creative standpoint. The title of this collection is somewhat misleading, though I’ll grant The Simon and Kirby Superheroes Who Aren’t Owned By Marvel Or DC probably wouldn’t have fit on the cover.
The works on display here aren’t Simon and Kirby’s best work, though at least none of them are about child soldiers this time around. This is not to say, however, that the collection isn’t worth a read. Just as a for-instance, this collection includes the very first comic Simon and Kirby ever worked on. It was work-for-hire and very crude by their standards, but it’s still very much of interest if you’re a comic-history buff like me. Apart from that, you may be amazed at how much of the stuff on display is straight-up parody. Apparently people (or at least Simon and Kirby) started lampooning superhero comics about ten minutes after they were invented. I have no problem with this sort of thing so long as it’s funny, and in this case it is. The Stuntman character proves it is, in fact, possible to be an effective superhero while serving at the beck and call of a lazy, cowardly idiot. I’d been wondering about that. As for the most famous character in this volume, Fighting American (whose entire original run is collected here), it’s pretty obvious, and has since been admitted, that Simon and Kirby got fed up with the original premise pretty quickly and deliberately made the series as outlandish and stupid as possible. The result is an absolute goddamn delight to behold, elevating the character above and beyond the pale Captain America ripoff he was intended to be. (RIDDLE TIME: If a ripoff is created by the same people who created what the ripoff is ripping off, is it still a ripoff?) Joe Simon turns out to have had a pretty demented sense of humor–this is, after all, the same guy who created a character called Brother Power, The Geek, which has been scientifically confirmed to be the most hilariously awesome name ever, followed closely by This Magazine Is Haunted.
As for the art, it’s pretty standard pre-Marvel Kirby work; that is, great while not quite up to the levels he’d attain in his Silver Age work. It’s somewhat stiff by his standards, and he hasn’t even invented the Krackle yet. That said, his stuff still has raw power and dynamism to spare, and each punch still looks like the attacker has grenades for fists. This serves the collection well even in its weakest offering, The Fly, which in addition to being possibly the single worst Simon/Kirby creation is indirectly responsible for Kirby’s later delusion that he created Spider-man. Long story. All that unpleasantness aside, however, this book is worth a library pickup for Fighting American alone. If you’ve got fifty bucks burning your pants, however, and you have to choose between this and a Fourth World Omnibus…yeah, just get the Omnibus.