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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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Tuesday, Jun 16, 2009
You can almost hear the click of the marker pen's cap as it snaps back into place. McCloud's comics are the best kind of comics; immersive and immediate. But more than the quality of his comics, McCloud makes a profound statement about the comics industry and the direct market.

Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics comes 7 years after 1993’s groundbreaking Understanding Comics. In the 2000 successor, McCloud offers readers a new agenda; rather than look inward at the mechanics of comics, Reinventing Comics would look outward. How are comics received by its audience, and more broadly by society? Why, perhaps more than other media, does comics struggle with institutional recognition? What would it take for comics to be accepted legitimately as literature, and legitimately as an artform? But more than simply speaking about comics’ 2000 present, McCloud goes on to speak about the future. At the start of the 21st century, McCloud begins to think about the roles of digital production and digital delivery. Two ‘revolutions’ that he believes will shape comics in the coming century.


Removed by nothing more than a decade, McCloud’s cries for great institutional acceptance, for comics’ greater recognition as art and literature already seem to have been answered. Over the past decade, comics has come to assume a more fitting place in the national consciousness of popular culture. The Smithsonian Institute’s Book of Comic-Book Stories has been hailed by long-time comics evangelist and legendary comics creator Will Eisner as “a necessary introduction to the maturity of the medium”.


While comics has come to find a broader validation in the popular culture over the course of the past decade, one ‘revolution’ identified by McCloud remains dangerously antiquated. In “Negativeland”, the second chapter of Reinventing Comics, McCloud turns his focus on direct marketing and distribution.


Writes McCloud, That combination of narrow purpose and the primacy of technical skills leads to the breakdown of the creative process into its assembly-line parts. Most American corporate comics feature separate “writers”, “pencilers”, “inkers”, “colorists” and “letterers”. Thus a young artist with a compelling unified vision for comics will encounter the same response again and again. “That’s not what we’re looking for”… The readers are just as abandoned by the corporate system as the creators, despite the importance supposedly given to their hard-earned dollars.


But rather than demonize the direct marketing system, McCloud ends the chapter hopeful that it can change to better reflect the needs of both creators and consumers. But the final closing sequence is a stern warning. If direct marketing cannot change, it could easily be replaced by digital delivery.


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Monday, Jun 15, 2009
After a day spent convincing family and friends that his newly supercharged powers may make him near-omnipotent, but no less human, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner (now returned to Earth as "Ion") offers readers a surprise and perhaps even terrifying denouement.

Following the cataclysmic events of the previous issue, Kyle Rayner returns to Earth not as the universe’s sole remaining Green Lantern, but as the supercharged Ion. His new powers make him near omnipotent, giving control over all matter and energy conversions. He can speed up chemical reactions, just as easily as he can suspend gravity, or cause a mind to not pick up a rock to throw. What’s more, using the Ion, Kyle can duplicate his presence multiple locations. Within the first few pages of the comicbook, Kyle has feed starving masses in Africa, restructured soil there to allow for crops to grow, prevented a drive-by in Oakland, slowed a careening truck in Mexico, DF and foiled a bank heist in London. His power is at once incredible, and fearsome.


Instead of focusing on the exhilaration of Kyle’s newfound powers, writer Judd Winick chooses to present “Day One” as a character study of Kyle himself. Readers easily dismiss the early fears of supporting characters, particularly the fears of Jen, Kyle’s girlfriend and daughter of Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott. Surely it is simply a case of other characters being unable to comprehend the full scope of Kyle’s powers. Surely the Kyle Rayner readers have come to know over the past 100 issues remains unchanged?


As the pages turn, readers find increasing validation for Jen’s fears. If Kyle could easily, and perhaps innocently, “suggest” to his roommate’s subconscious the desire to buy coffee, what else is Kyle doing to manipulate human minds? Is Ion suddenly becoming a beloved superhero a natural response, or is Kyle himself nudging public opinion? As these question’s around Kyle’s influence and values mount, his dark side is glimpsed at when he brokers a peace on the distant planet Tendax by simply preventing any act of violence. To what lengths would Kyle go to ensure peace? And at what cost to personal freedom would such an enduring peace come? Is this the beginning of Kyle’s transformation into a tyrant with universe-wide reach?


In the closing stages of the book, wholly unaware of the events on Tendax, Jen stages an intervention. Can Kyle prove his humanity to her by foregoing his power for just one night. Ultimately Jen concedes the point of his simple vanity in giving himself a haircut is the most human of things to do. The book ends on a melancholy note as Kyle and Jen enjoy a movie together, with Ion nowhere in sight. It is not until the final page that Kyle himself confirms Jen’s and readers’ worst fears. He has not only lied about using his power, but is now completely addicted.


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