Fantastic Four,  Howard the Duck 2001 Marvel Comics / DK2 images 2001 DC Comics

Daniel's Comic Book Column # 2, December 2001
by Daniel P. Dern (ddern@world.std.com)

With the holiday season upon many of us -- and it's never too early to start thinking of birthday presents, so with that in mind, here we go.

This month's Recommended Title: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN #1 
DC (Issue 1 of 3), Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, Prestige Format $7.95

Last month, this was the "Comic to Watch For." Now (December 5) it arrived in the stores. I was at the Outer Limits comic store in Waltham, where I've been buying most of my comics for the last fifteen or so years. Steve, the owner, had already read it -- "to make sure it was worth recommending." Uh huh. I've bought and read it, and re-read it. Short answer: Worth waiting for, worth paying for, worth reading!

Somewhat longer answer: Fifteen years ago, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS ("TDKR") (written by Frank Miller, illustrated by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson with Lynn Varley -- DC, 224 pages, $14.95 trade paperback -- pricier editions also available) gave us a middle-aged Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement, back as Batman, in a world both grimmer and no longer superhero-friendly. Lots of stuff happened. Villians, superheroes, fights and changes, in a compelling style best describedas not quite as over-the-top or dense as Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!"

Worth reading, worth owning. Helpful to have read TDKR before reading THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN. Essential? Hard to say. Some general knowledge of Batman (Joker, Two-Face, Harvey Dent, Commish Gordon, Alfred) wouldn't hurt either.

THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN (TDKSA) picks up three years after events in TDKR, In this issue's 80 pages, lots of stuff happens, and it's clear there's lots more to come. Carrie, who we met in TDKR, is back, ditto Superman, Wonder Woman, and other familiar faces. I'll have to re-read this issue and also TDKR to decide whether the art's still as good -- my first impression is, not quite. But it's good enough.

Good dialog, good ideas, good plot. Worth the eight bucks, and I'm confident the next two issues will be as well.

Another Frank Miller Batman book work getting, by the way, is BATMAN: YEAR ONE, 104 pages, $9.95, with art by David Mazzucchelli.

(Miller also did that seminal run on Marvel's Daredevil before all this, I think also with Mazzucchelli, introducing us to Stick and Elektra.)

As the name suggests (especially if you're familiar with current comic book lingo), this is from Batman's "first year" (which usually means "when they were just beginning to done their costume and officially start superheroing"). It's a wonderful book (originally issued as four comics, like TDKR).

Or, if you're feeling extravagent and get lucky, go for THE COMPLETE FRANK MILLER BATMAN, which includes THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, BATMAN: YEAR ONE, and a few other stories. Leatherbound, and cost only 29.95 when Longmeader Press did it in 1989. Probably costs more now -- assuming you can find a copy. (Mine's not for sale.)

Now, speaking of Daredevil and Marvel, let's shift away from the DC side of the street...

Some Marvel Comics Worth Following

Last month, I said that while I do want to talk about some of Marvel Comics' current titles, "'Nuff Said" month was nearly upon us; the twenty-two Marvel titles participating in "'Nuff Said" month are/will be free of words (dialog, captions, sound effects, etc.) for one issue. Marvel is including the script as a bonus in the back of each book, which, among other things, 
will show there's still writing involved, and it's harder than it may look  -- you can also read the 'Nuff Said scripts online.

These 'Nuff Said issues may or may not be interesting, individually and/or collectively, but I suspect they're a less than good place for newcomers to jump in. (Also, I probably won't buy any, so I won't have anything to say about them :-)

So let's look ahead (with one exception) to some issues scheduled for January 2002, because there are comic titles from Marvel worth following, in my opinion. (And probably others I'm not following -- don't take my failure to mention/recommend anything as necessarily indicative of a negative opinion.)

Disclaimer: I'd pretty much stopped following Marvel titles around when Peter A. David
(a.k.a. "PAD") was let go as writer on THE INCREDIBLE HULK. (PAD had a great run
while it lasted -- fabulous, insightful, ranging from moving to hystically humorous. Check him out now at DC, doing good stuff on SUPERGIRL and great team comedy in YOUNG JUSTICE.) I pretty much missed the SECRET WARS brouhaha (ho hum), tried following HEROES REBORN (had some good moments, but I didn't understand how the continuity discontinuity fit in), the SpiderMan Ben Reilly/clone hoo-ha, whatever was going on in a bazillion X-titles... too much, too weird.

It's dangerous to blink or look away, though; suddenly things can get interesting again. (Not paying attention is how I missed  Walter Simonsons great runs on FANTASTIC FOUR (cosmic) and THOR (whacky!) some years back, it took luck and digging in the quarter-box to find some of what I'd missed.)

FANTASTIC FOUR: FANTASTIC AGAIN

Anyway, first of all, let's talk FANTASTIC FOUR, Marvel's original supergroup, courtesy of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Reed Richards, Sue Storm and her brother Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm, transformed by cosmic rays (remember, in the Marvel Universe, radiation isn't always fatal, sometimes it's weird. Or you're a mutant -- or perhaps both.) into, respectively, Mister Fantastic (he stretches, and was already a big brain), Invisible Girl (she also does force fields), the Human Torch (he's hot!), and the Incredible Thing (ugly but strong). No secret identities (a novelty at the time), lots of bickering and angst (ditto). 

Like many Marvel heroes/groups, the FF have had their ups, downs, and sideways, but they still got legs. A few years back, they got great again, as far as  I'm concerned, anyway, with Chris Claremont taking the helm for one or two dozen issues of fabulous stuff. (Not everybody agrees with me.) I think it took the current creative crew of Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marin, and Jeph Loeb a few issues to find their stride, but they're definitely in the swing of it. 

(You can catch up on some of these in  Fantastic Four: Into the Breach, $15.95, 144 pages, scheduled to go on sale mid-January 2002, and I believe there's a collection of previous issues as well.)

Fantastic Four # 50 was scheduled to ship December 5 (it didn't, though). It's a thicker issue, for $3.99, with cover art by Barry Windsor-Smith. One 'Nuff Said story out of four.

Then, if I interpret what it says on Marvel's site correctly, a month later, Karl Kesel takes over the scripting for four issues, starting with Fantastic Four #51 ($2.25).

Too soon to tell if it's time to blink again, worth giving it a try.

Spider-Man: Swinging With Straczynski

Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gained amazing powers which he does his best to use for good. He also has a lot of angst, or at least did while he was a teenager. Spidey's been through a lot of changes over the years, and not just the extra four arms he sprouted for a while, or the living costume.

Anyway, I gave up on Spidey some years back, on the "Enough is enough" theory. But earlier this year, J. Michael Straczynski, a.k.a. JMS, best  known for the TV series BABYLON 5, became the writer for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (there are several other Spiderman titles, just like there are several different comics with Batman, Superman, all them X-Men...), starting with issue #30. And JMS did it -- whacked away enough of the cruft and got back to basics with good plot, some new characters, changes and new troubles for Peter Parker, with excitement, insight and new ideas comparable to what Frank Miller did for Daredevil a decade or whenever ago. On the art side, the pencils are by John Romita Jr., with Scott Hanna inking. (I confess I don't see those layers, I just see "art" as a whole.) I knew JMS was doing the book, but hadn't grabbed the first or second issue. Steve over at the Outer Limits urged me to check it out. Fortunately, and refreshingly, Marvel had near-instantly reprinted the first three issues in a $3.95 combo, so I was able to get caught up cheaply. This story arc wrapped with two or three issues later.

If you can't borrow them from a friend, Marvel's putting them out in a trade paperback The Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home. At $15.95, I consider it pricey -- OK, it's only a couple bucks more than the individual issues cost when they came out. DC is much better about keeping the trade collections affordable -- but I doubt you'll be able to find the original issues around anywhere, and if you do, they won't be cheap.

Anyway, the action picks up again after 'Nuff Said month with #39. Watch for it.

X-MEN MARK THE SPOT

The X-Men (mutants, including women as well as men, not to mention teenagers as well as adults) have been another of Marvel's creations with a lot of  ups and downs and muddles. 

If you're already an X-fan, as it were, you don't need my recommendations or opinions, and I haven't been following most of the titles for a while.

But if nothing else, for a different flavor, as it were, check out what Grant Morrison (DOOM PATROL, JUSTICE LEAGUE, FLEX MENTALLO, ANIMAL MAN...) has been doing lately over in NEW X-MEN. Crisp, different, striking. 

RECOMMENDED REPRINT/COLLECTION OF THE MONTH: Duck! Howard's Back!

Unless you're turned off by black-and-white reprints of what was originally color art (I'm mixed on this myself), get ready for THE ESSENTIAL HOWARD THE DUCK, due out the end of January. 528 pages of everyone's favorite opinionated, seegar-smoking sapient quacker -- issues 1 through 27 plus three other Duck tales, by Steve Gerber, for $14.95.

Comic-related Web Site of the Month

100 Greatest American Comic Book Artists Site, sponsored by Atlas Comics. 

I turned this up while checking something for this column; a good quick introduction to who's who and some of what they're known for.

Next month, the current incarnation of the Justice League of America, my standard "where to start, to get back in the comic habit" recommendation for out-of-practice comic fans, and thoughts about comic stores.

Daniel P. Dern
ddern@world.std.com
(www.dern.com)

(Daniel P. Dern is a free-lance technology writer. He was previously Executive Editor of Byte.com. He's been reading comics on and off for about four decades.)