A pop culture addict who loves to talk about movies, music, books, comics, and all of the other things that move and entertain us.
I have a confession to make: I rarely buy single issues of comics anymore. The cost has risen to be prohibitive to following the titles I would like to follow. Other demands of my time and money make it harder to keep up. In addition to this, I feel like each story has given way to opportunities for big crossover events and publicity attempts. These have the opposite of the intended effect on me, making me less rather than more likely to buy comics. However, I still love going back and reading my favorite comics from the past.
Here are seven of the comics that I go back to again and again:
- Spider-Man Blue
- Y: The Last Man
- Batman: Year One
- Marvel Knights Spider-Man
- Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
- She-Hulk: Single White Female
- Spider-Man's Tangled Web
1. Spider-Man Blue
This book, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, has Peter Parker talking to the deceased Gwen Stacy, recounting the days of their relationship. It flashes back to Spidey's early days as a hero, how he met and fell for Gwen Stacy, and fights with some classic villains like the Rhino and the Vulture (two for the price of one). The beginning of the love triangle with Peter, Gwen and Mary Jane is shown. Of course, the whole time Spider-man fans know how the story ends, giving everything an extra emotional weight. At the end, MJ discovers Peter recounting his tale, and instead of anger or jealousy, her reaction is to ask Pete to say hi to Gwen for her. The mystery villain seems unnecessary, considering that it's just Kraven the Hunter, and we are familiar with this period of Spidey's career. We know how this turns out, there is no need to try to add a layer of suspense that is impossible to maintain.
The reason people like books like this is for nostalgia, to revisit their heroes during the period when they first discovered them. Some people don't like the way that Jeph Loeb retells stories that have already been told. I feel like often in the main books things move so quickly that the emotional ramifications of events are glossed over. I like the extra depth these re-tellings are able to give to known events. I also like the way the dialog feels like a throwback to the days of Stan "The Man" Lee. Tim Sales's art is great, crisp and clean, reminiscent of a time when comic storytelling was simpler. This book is a quick read that is perfect if you are looking for a fun ride that also gets in some emotional stuff.
2. Y: The Last Man
Dystopian post-apocalyptic futures are a theme that has been done to death. I groan every time I see a trailer for a new movie set in a futuristic wasteland. Because of this, it took me a long time to give Y: The Last Man a chance. I kept hearing good things about it and finally decided to try it. Boy, am I glad I did! It gives a new spin on the apocalypse by making it only the men of the earth who are wiped out. All of them, that is, except for our hero Yorick. Somehow he and his pet monkey Ampersand become the only two living creatures with the y chromosome. Yorick sets off to find his fiancee Beth and ends up being hunted by different groups for different reasons. Some want to study him and find out why he didn't die with the other males. Some want to use him to try to save humanity. Some want to kill him and finish the job of eliminating males from the planet. Yorick ends up falling for the agent that his Congresswoman mother sent to look after him.
The story manages to feel fresh despite being a twist on a theme that has been otherwise played into the ground. There are interesting twists and turns along the way, and overall the book is a lot of fun to read. The books have suffered some complaints of chauvinism, perhaps not entirely unjustified. I won't try to defend it on that level but will say to keep in mind that it is a product of the 90's when comics books were by, for and about boys by and large, so the female perspective, when it is shown at all, tends to a bit skewed. Personally I don't feel like this is enough to ruin an otherwise good story. The book is written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Pia Guerra.
3. Batman: Year One
For better or worse, Frank Miller has become the writer whose Batman has managed to grab and stay in the public's imagination. Grim and humorless, driven to the point where one could question his sanity, he is the darkest of Dark Knights. This story from the 1980s is a touch less dark and political as some of Miller's other Batman stories but is still pretty intense especially for the period when it was first released.
As the name implies, Batman: Year One chronicles Bruce Wayne's first forays into crime-fighting as Batman. This is a period in Gotham when the streets are not filled with masked psychos, and instead the citizens were contending with street crime, police corruption, and the mob. Around the same time that Batman makes his debut on Gotham's rooftops, Jim Gordon moves to town and begins his career as a Gotham City cop. He is dealing with the same problems as Bruce, only he is doing so from within the corrupt police department. Gordon and Batman end up taking on both mobster Carmine Falcone and police Commissioner Loeb. They find an ally in assistant district attorney Harvey Dent. They forge an alliance to clean up Gotham and find their respective paths.
Another flashback story like Spider-man Blue, this one is less about emotions and more about filling in the gaps. It introduces Selina Kyle and shows her transformation into Catwoman, and the Joker is of course teased but not revealed. This comic was the loose inspiration for the Christopher Nolan movie Batman Begins, but I guess they decided they couldn't have a superhero movie without a supervillain, so Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow were brought in, along with Batman's ties to the League of Shadows. It's a story that has been told more times than I can count, but this is one of the best tellings. I also think this is the book that was responsible for all of the flashback books that came later, DC doing multiple year-one books for characters and teams and Marvel doing their color-coded series, i.e. Spider-man Blue, Daredevil Yellow, Hulk Grey. David Mazzucchelli handled the art duties for this one.
4: Marvel Knights: Spider-Man
Marvel Knights was one of Marvel's attempts at producing more "mature" comic books. Featuring darker stories with more graphic violence, it was targeting the aging comic book buying public. One of the stranger decisions was to include kid-favorite Spider-man in the mix. The results were not as bad as one might expect. The stories were actually pretty good, though they lacked Spidey's signature sense of humor. The violence was cranked up a bit, but this worked in the favor of villains like Venom, who always seemed so toned down. The book starts with a fight between Spider-man and arch-enemy Green Goblin where Spidey loses his cool and unleashes on the villain. The citizens of New York call Spidey out for going too far. This is one of the first instances I can remember of what is becoming a fad, which is showing the public turn against heroes for being too destructive or violent in their attempts to save the public. The story soon pulls in venom, Scorpion and the Black Cat. The Venom symbiote wants to be rid of Eddie Brock, who auctions off the alien suit to the highest bidder. Venom really gets to get psychotic in this book, which is cool to see. Aunt May gets abducted, which leads to Spidey being coerced into breaking the Green Goblin out of prison with Black Cat's help. After this is accomplished, they have to face the Sinister Twelve (if six villains are bad twelve are worse, am I right?) with a newly Venom enhanced Scorpion playing second fiddle to the Goblin's leadership. The Goblin also recreates a moment from his and Peter's shared past, capturing Mary Jane and taking her to the Brooklyn Bridge. To be honest, the only thing that sets this apart from other Spider-man arcs is the ability for the villains to really cut loose with their murderous tendencies.
The story is pretty engaging though, and it was great to see Venom as really threatening for the first time in a long time. The new mature direction was short-lived before the book was brought back to being Sensational Spider-man and then cancelled altogether in favor of publishing Amazing Spider-man more often. This was also one of the last runs before Spider-man joined the Avengers, which was inevitable but which was a move I was against. If you are in the mood for some brainless super-powered mayhem, this is definitely a good book to check out. The initial run was written by Mark Millar with art by Terry Dodson, Frank Cho, and Rachel Dodson.
5. Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Superman is one of my favorite comic book characters. When he is done right, there is no other hero as fascinating or inspiring. Unfortunately, he has rarely been done right. He has at times been given some ridiculous powers. His villains were sometimes campy or just relied on a rainbow assortment of kryptonite. His friends had bizarre adventures and backstories that made no sense to new readers. When DC decided to end their very confusing multiverse with Crisis on Infinite Earths and reboot their heroes, they decided to give their premier hero a fitting sendoff first. Alan Moore wrote the story, and he is arguably one of the best comic book writers out there.
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? begins ten years after Superman has disappeared from the scene. A reporter sets out to find out what became of the alien and seeks out Lois Lane. She recounts the story of Superman's final days. Most of Superman's big-name villains show up for this final fight, joining forces to finally rid the world of the Man of Steel. Lex Luthor, Brainiac, even Bizarro has an appearance. Superman has holed up in the Fortress of Solitude with those closest to him after his secret identity is revealed. The villains lay siege, using a force field to keep earth's other heroes from interfering. Superman's friends find some old keepsakes from times when they gained powers, and use these to aid Superman in the fight. Lex Luthor is killed,as are Lana Lang and Jimmy Olsen. Yes, this is a pretty dark Superman story. Once the mastermind behind the attack is revealed to be a much more menacing than previously realized Mr. Mxyzpptlk, Superman kills him in an attempt to banish him to the Phantom Zone. In remorse at breaking his rule of never killing, Superman uses gold kryptonite to strip himself of his powers and wander off into the Arctic. This being Superman though, we couldn't end on a downer like that. The end of the story reveals that our beloved Kal-El has taken up life as an ordinary man, a mechanic, and married Lois Lane. The two have a son who shows signs of being rather super himself. The couple are left to live happily ever after. Right after this came John Byrne's reboot, which is another great Superman run, doing away with some of the sillier baggage of the preceding decades. This story is a fitting send-off to earth's first and most powerful superhero. It uses a lot of the elements that made a reboot necessary but almost makes you feel like you are going to miss them when they are gone.
6. She-Hulk: Single Green Female
She-Hulk was not a character I was ever interested in. I would tolerate her in the Avengers or in Fantastic Fantastic Four, but I was not yearning for solo adventures to read. When writer Dan Slott took over writing her book, it didn't even make a blip on my radar. But then I began to hear about this great book. Everyone was talking about how well written She-Hulk: Single Green Female was, how funny it was, how fresh it was. So I picked it up and gave it a chance. It turns out that in this case, everyone was right. This was a great book. The theme of a hero coming ton terms with their power is an old one, but this book turns that theme on its head.
You see, Jen Walters loves being She-Hulk. In fact, it bums her out that her new law firm wants her to work as Jen Walters. So this is a story about a hero coming to terms with her regular alter ego. There are a lot of nods to uber nerdy comic fans, pulling up characters and referencing incidents from Marvel's murky past. Of course, there are cameos, and the book is not without some super powered action. The thing that makes it great though is the humor and the fresh spin it puts on super hero stories. Also, it's a rare book with a female hero that doesn't make the mistake of trying to pander to girls. Now, I am not a girl, but I am willing to bet that this book portrays them in a truer light than most "female" comic books. And since it's not all full of hearts and flowers and horses, boys enjoy reading it too. It's a win-win.
7. Spider-Man's Tangled Web
I guess the cat is out of the bag. With three entries, it is probably apparent that I am a huge Spider-man fan. This series is one of my all tie favorites. It was meant to give different takes on Spider-man. The first story line ends up being pretty run of the mill stuff for Spidey. But after that, hoo boy the fun begins. The writers tell stories focusing on the villains and other people in Spidey's life, with the wall crawler at times only tangentially involved in his own book. There is a story about a favorite lieutenant of the Kingpin, and the fallout when he fails his boss. It is unnerving to see the dedication and loyalty of the man to this crime boss, even to the point of helping to make his murder at Wilson Fisk's hands look like self defense. Then there is Flowers for Rhino, where Rhino falls in love and undergoes experimental brain surgery to become more intelligent for her. He builds a vast criminal empire, winning the girl along the way, but eventually outgrows her. He finally gets to go back to being his old dumb self, taking joy in knocking down walls. The apparent moral is don't let anyone get in the way of doing what makes you happy.
The book shows Spidey's adversaries commiserating on their various defeats at his hands, giving a fun look at Spidey from their point of view. It shows the resentment of one of Spider-man's lesser known enemies at his not being able to make much of an impression and being considered kind of a dumb villain. It has a fun goofy one off about Peter and the ladies in his life. Fun is the major thing about this book. Sure there are times when it takes itself seriously (Occasionally even maybe too much so). But even then it tells the stories in ways that are different from the main titles, and helps to give depth to the Marvel world. The series only lasted 22 issues, so you can easily pick up the full run. If you are a Spidey lover like I am, and you haven't read this series, you need to read it now.