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Monday, Jun 22, 2009
Fabled Flash writer Mark Waid takes the helm on JLA #33 as guest-writer. In a brief interchange between Superman and Batman, Waid not only sets the tone for his forthcoming run on JLA, but also pays homage to his earlier work on Flash.

In the closing pages of ‘Altered Egos’ Superman confronts Batman, demanding the latter reveal his identity to the remaining members of the Justice League. Batman makes his own position perfectly clear. If all the members of the Justice League had known that Batman was in truth Bruce Wayne, they would have had no way to counter the White Martian, the major enemy of this issue.


With this exchange, Mark Waid establishes the scope of his vision for his upcoming run as JLA writer; the League is about the very different views held by its top tier members, and conflict that arises there from. With Superman openness and frankness are a prime concern, with Batman, tactical maneuvering outweighs teammates’ feelings. Although both hold to ideals of justice, their views are diametrically opposed. Artist Mark Pajarillo’s use of a viewscreen and slight changes in viewing angle (with readers’ worms-eye view of Superman heroically emphasizing his rectitude in the first panel, but destabilizing it with a birds-eye view in the next) make a visual argument for the incompatibility of the characters’ views, and the impossibility of readers deciding which view is correct.


With ‘Altered Egos’, Waid showcases his understanding of Grant Morrison’s vision of the Justice League in JLA. Resurrecting the threat of the White Martians, the villains from the opening storyarc of Morrison’s run on JLA, Waid offers readers a reason to trust that he would continue Morrison’s vision. But along with an implied promise to continue Morrison’s work, Waid brings his own storytelling powers to bear on the JLA. The traumatic ‘birth’ of the White Martian mirrors the ‘birth’ of Professor Zoom in Waid’s acclaimed Flash story ‘The Return of Barry Allen’.


With the issue’s final caption reading ‘It’s not about trust, the League has plenty of that’, Waid harkens back to the title of the issue in which he brought Barry Allen back from the dead. Along with that, comes a promise for grand storyarcs yet to come.


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Sunday, Jun 21, 2009

It was a strange year, 1836. It was the year that would invent the twentieth century.


Naturalist Charles Darwin stepped off the HMS Beagle on the morning of October 2nd, seeing his native England for the first time in five years. Novelist Charles Dickens would begin publishing his first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club serialized for weekly publication. And Sam Colt would finally perfect his invention of the revolver.


For Darwin it would be the beginning of a long career, one that would enshrine him as one of the greatest scientific minds of his age, and one that would bring him into conflict with the established power of the Church of England and its dogma. Ten weeks into publication of The Pickwick Papers Dickens would spark a cultural revolution. His character Sam Weller would be so highly regarded that it would be openly stolen and reproduced in bootleg copies of his work, Sam Weller Joke Books and various other merchandizing. Dickens would helm a new kind of literature that would set the tone for such later innovators as Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka and R. Crumb. And Sam Colt would, with a single stroke, reconstitute the way our species conceives of justice, law, injury and animosity. We would not need a writer the quality of Tom Fontana to remind us that with the advent of the revolver “the wound is personal”.


Each of these revolutions could be seen to engage with the writings of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, whose dystopian view of the world arose from his famous slogan: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Malthus would use this offer a savage critique of the welfare system of 19th century England. It is in this way that 1836 holds up a mirror to the global economic collapse of 2008. Economics as the crucible for three cultural revolutions; one of scientific and religious conflict, one of literary innovation, and one of civilian armament.


While the visionary work of manga writer Yasuhiro Nightow in his anime series Gungrave offers comment on the confluence of Colt’s legacy and Darwin’s (in Nightow’s series dead gangsters dressed as cowboys hunt down genetically engineered zombie supersoldiers), it is 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes edited by Mark Waid and written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum that offers a perspective on the confluence of Darwin, Colt and Dickens.


Five years after the economic collapse of the United Planets, the idealistic Legion of Super-Heroes crawl from the wreckage, now jaded by the failure of their dream. Things were not supposed to be this bad. Now facing a galactic society on the brink crumbling into civilian militias, the Legion must confront the encroaching threat of an expansionist xenosociology. The story is told on the same 3x3 grid popularized by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, but to a far more brutal effect.


This Wednesday’s Iconographies feature explores how 1989’s reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes offers comment on both 1836 and 2008.


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Friday, Jun 19, 2009
A seemingly throwaway tale from the early days of Spider-Man's career. Writers Brian Azzarello and Scott Levy hold back on the lead character's appearance until page 21 of a 22-page story.

It is the kind of neo-noir that fans of writer Brian Azzarello have come to love. That ‘essential inner darkness’ that Frank Miller speaks of in his introduction to Criminal: Lawless. ‘Not many people really understand what makes a crime story tick. Like they did with the early Batman movies and with nearly every attempt at film noir since movies went color, they dress it up dark, even murky, but the essential inner darkness that a good crime yarn exposes, relishes in, releases never occurs to them’. But Azzarello has that inner darkness in spades, and with Scott Levy he doles it out by the bucketful in the seemingly throwaway tale, ‘The Last Shoot’.


Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, the series in which the Azzarello/ Levy scripted ‘The Last Shoot’ appears, was meant to tell the stories of ordinary New Yorkers, and how their lives were touched by the emergence the superhero. Spider-Man saves lives, but what of those lives he actually saves, the book sought to explore. An ensemble book in the truest sense, Tangled Web saw writers submitting short stories or storyarcs that ran only a few short issues. Each issue of Tangled Web would have at least one backup story. And Spider-Man himself would only be glimpsed at.


Azzarello’s creative genius for neo-noir fiction sets him up for apparently committing Tangled Web’s only cardinal sin; by page 20 of the 22-page lead story, Spider-Man has still failed to appear. But the tale of small-time crime and petty, workaday woes that is wrestler (or ‘shooter’, a wrestler who wrestles for real) Joey Hogan’s life proves so arresting that readers almost forgive Azzarello and Levy for the let-down. Does it really matter that Spidey doesn’t show? Wasn’t this a good story anyhow?


But of course, Spider-Man does show. This is the moment of his birth. When a young, brash, reckless kid endowed with incredible powers uses it to entertain and earn a paycheck. This is the darkest moment in Spider-Man’s history. A moment when he was at his most vulnerable. When he was perhaps most easily seduced by cheap applause. The impoverishment of Crusher Hogan’s world threatens to swallow him whole. How many lives may have gone unsaved? It would eventually take the death of his foster-father to show Spider-Man the path of responsibility he would walk later in life.


But staring across that essential, inner darkness of a whole world poised like a knife-edge to the throat of a hero who can save it, Crusher Hogan’s words speak to the indomitable in each reader. ‘The man that beat me…? Would be a hero’.


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Thursday, Jun 18, 2009
The reinvigoration of John Constantine after 20 years in print. Writer Andy Diggle in his first storyarc as series regular, confronts Hellblazer lead character Constantine with the effects of two decades of dishevelment.

Shortly after taking duties as regular writer on occult horror book Hellblazer, Andy Diggle gives protagonist John Constantine a sudden confrontation with a forgotten past. Reflected in a storefront window, Constantine sees the man he once was. In doing so, Diggle establishes arguably the most engaging central conflict for Constantine since Garth Ennis’ run in the 1990’s. Like readers, Constantine is confronted by a vision of his former self; elegant, dapper, draped in the finest clothes and steeped in confidence trickery. What ever happened to that Constantine? What ever happened to the arrogance, the self-assuredness, the cocky smile that would elicit a “thank you” as it bartered away your mortal soul?


When readers first encountered John Constantine in pages of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, they were greeted by a working class magician, more a confidence artist than master-mage. Nothing but arrogance and a charming smile was more than enough to plant any curse or save a human soul or storm the houses of the holy. But this was not a Constantine that would endure.


Eventually appearing in his own title, meant Constantine would find his way back to the streets of his native London. With the relocation, Constantine would take on a different color. Hellblazer stories would emphasize Constantine’s personal history as a survivor of Ravenscar Asylum (where he was incarcerated following a botched exorcism). In the pages of Hellblazer Constantine would subtly be evolved as a character who survived by ingenuity, eventually to become the kind of character who simply survived. Over the years that unmistakable charm was delicately eroded, replaced by the jaded cynicism of a hardy survivor of the occult underworld. While Constantine was never meant to inspire unbridled optimism, there was a certain exuberance at always winning in a game of cosmic one-upmanship.


Diggle’s true gift is a capacity for exceptional characterization. Over twenty years of appearing in the pages of his own comicbook, Constantine’s slide into becoming a psychic survivalist was so subtle it remained barely perceptible. Diggle’s emphasizing of this muted degeneration, this near-imperceptible diminishing of the character, and his reversal of the trend sets the tone not only for engaging stories, but for a reinvigoration of the Constantine character itself.


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Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009
On the eve of Starman Jack Knight's last, and greatest battle, Ted Knight the man who invented the Starman legacy spends time with his son, visiting a Starman exhibit at Opal City Museum. While there, father and son discuss the most elusive Starman of all. With an end in sight for the monthly series, Jack Knight discovers there is still more history to come.

Arising from the pages of DC’s 1994 summer crossover event, Zero Hour, new series Starman would always emphasize the telling of the superhero story as a generational one


. From father to at-first reluctant son, from scientist to new-age hipster artist, from Theodore Knight to Jack, writer James Robinson would set himself the task of unveiling the personal lives of superheroes with Starman. Running just shy of 100 issues, the series would unmask the secret connections between superheroes of the Golden Age; “The Mercury Seven of superheroes”, as eponymous Starman Jack Knight at one point claims of his father’s generation. Moreover, Starman would show the sons and daughters of superheroes and their adversaries. In the scope of a single monthly comicbook, Robinson would reaffirm, not a nostalgia, but an enduring sense of how much a world has changed for there being superheroes and supervillains.

“Grand Guignol” the ninth and penultimate book in the Starman library, takes its name from the farcical, ultra-violent French plays of the 19th century, where murder and mayhem were usual fare for thrilling audiences. This book provides Jack Knight with the completion of his character arc. Initially, he only even used his father’s superhero technology to save a hospital memorial wing bequeathed in his mother’s name. Now he must stand in his father’s place as defender of Opal City (a city Jack himself loves) against an occult conspiracy a century in the making. Family ties have been strengthened and Jack no longer shuns his father’s legacy.


Slowly, readers begin to feel that most endearing parts of Starman, the telling of the secret histories of the DC universe, have run their course. All that remains now is the final and very mundane super-heroics of punching and kicking and saving the world. But on the eve of Jack’s final battle, Robinson takes a moment to remind readers that one storyarc remains, and that past histories will once again be the centerpiece of the book.


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