Part one covered 52 to Ex Machina! Part two was Fat Freddy’s Cat to The Punisher! What about part three? Well, read on to find out what my remaining thirty-four, alphabetically-sorted, instinctively-chosen favourite comics of all time are…
The format for this post is shamelessly nicked from the excellent Colin Smith, who recently posted a quickfire list of his 101 favourite comics – whether issue, trade, GN, strip or whatever – over on his blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. As he explained when introducing the list:
I’ve long thought that it would be a good idea for any critic – Sunday Supplement seer or Sunday League comics blogger – to make such a hefty disclosure of their preferences. Over the past few years, there’s been any number of times when I’ve wished I could point at such a list and say, “Actually, these are the creations that I’m most moved and inspired by.” Most often, it’s been me that I’ve wanted to point in such a direction. It’s all-too-easy to lose track of the things we love in the face of both babble and plenty. As such, what follows is nothing more or less than the 101 comics and strips – listed in alphabetical order – that I’d be most likely to rescue from a fire as of 14.14 on the 10th October 2013. Given how impossible it is to reach a definitive answer as to which options should be embraced, recantations and mea culpas are only to be expected.
I (Seb) liked the idea (not to mention the style of listing them) so much, and was also sufficiently emboldened by his suggestion that it’s A Good Idea for anyone who writes about comics to do, that I thought I’d do my own.
Here, then, is the first part (of three) of my list of 101, with the remaining 67 entries to follow shortly…
I’m a big fan of crowdfunding. I love a model that puts artists and creators in control of their work with naught but their reputation at stake. In particular, I like the democracy inherent in the idea that if you can find a big enough audience for your work, you deserve the chance to make it. It’s not a model without flaws (not least the suggestion that creative merit is linked to popular opinion) but it is, at the very least, one you can implement which doesn’t rely on publisher capital.
Crowdfunding has become fairly important to the comics industry of late, to the point where some people have called Kickstarter the #2 publisher of graphic novels in the US. As someone who has backed a lot of projects and is currently in the process of fulfilling one, I’m interested in how the model works. If, indeed, it does. To try and gauge that, I thought it’d be interesting to look at my crowdfunding history and see just how well things are progressing with the projects I’ve backed. Some are comics based, others aren’t, but they all share the same quality: they’re about curators and creators receiving patronage from their audience. For that model to work (and I want it to) these kinds of projects have to work. They have to leave me convinced that the money I spend is better off with them, rather than sitting in my bank account earning me interest. And perhaps more importantly, they need to leave me willing to back a project by the same people again.
So do they? Read the rest of this entry »
Blah blah blah Man of Steel movie, blah blah blah Comixology running massive sale of around 200 Superman comics, blah blah blah runs until 20th June, blah blah blah my carefully considered recommendations. All these issues are either 99c (69p), or flat out FREE, meaning there are some quality bargains to be had. You know the drill by now: shall we crack on?
Best of the Best
Readers may recall that a short while ago, I already recommended five major Superman books or arcs that I feel give a good primer on the character. Happily, four of them – All-Star Superman, Secret Identity, Birthright and The Man of Steel are all included in this sale. So the immediate recommendation (assuming you’re willing to splurge around $35/£25 on Superman books) is to buy all of those.
If you’re only looking to check out a couple of issues here and there, then as much as I love Birthright I’d suggest skipping that (as you do really need to read all twelve issues – it’s one big story). All-Star Superman, just about the greatest Superman series there has ever been, also works best as a medium-form narrative, but again, if you want to just sample it, then there are a couple of issues that make for good standalone stories. Quite aside from issue #1 being available for free, issue #6 is very much a highlight, and very accessible for newer readers; while issue #10 is basically my favourite single superhero issue of the last couple of decades (but is a bit more reliant on your buying into the myth of Superman in the first place).
Secret Identity, meanwhile, is an utterly delightful series, and at under four dollars/three quid for the entirety of it, it absolutely demands your attention.
(In that previous article I also warned readers off Azzarello and Lee’s Superman 204-215, so I’ll reiterate that, too!)
John Byrne (et al)
If you like what you see from Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries, then the obvious next step is to sample some of his ongoing run that immediately followed. As part of this sale, DC have put the bulk of his run on Comixology for the first time, so it’s a great opportunity to snap up some otherwise often overlooked issues. As this material follows a page-one reboot, it’s all generally very accessible material that relies on little prior knowledge of the character.
Tread carefully, though, as there’s also some dodgy stuff in there (such as the time a mind-controlling alien called Sleez forced Superman and Big Barda to make porn films together. No, really.) As a general rule, I find the issues of Superman he did to be of a higher quality than those on Action Comics. He also took over Adventures of Superman for a little while, but prior to that, issues were usually by Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway. Anyway, here are some picks from that run:
Superman #1 – Superman battles the new Metallo. Not an amazing first issue, but as it’s free, you can’t argue with the price.
Superman #2 – This, by contrast, is one of my favourite ever Superman stories. Luthor devotes considerable manpower (and computer power – hey, it’s the ’80s!) to trying to figure out what the link is between Clark Kent and Superman, and comes to a startling conclusion. The ending to this issue is one of the best character beats that the Lex/Superman dynamic has ever been given.
Adventures of Superman #424 – Wolfman and Ordway’s first post-Crisis issue is also one of their strongest, introducing Professor Emil Hamilton and Cat Grant.
Superman #11 – Mister Mix Yez Freaking Pittle Ik. That is all.
Superman #12 – The Post-Crisis reimagining of the Lori Lemaris story which – surprisingly – follows more of the beats of the original than you might expect. Reviewed in further detail by me here.
Superman #13 – Despite being tied to the beginnings of a best-forgotten crossover, this has some good stuff about Clark’s relationship with Lana.
Superman #8 & Action Comics #591 – A two-part story featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes that attempts to explain how Superboy can can exist post-Crisis when Clark was never actually him. Works surprisingly well, and features lots of bonus Krypto the Superdog.
Superman #21, Adventures #444 & Superman #22 – Byrne’s last arc introduces post-Crisis versions of Supergirl and General Zod, and features a genuinely shocking denouement that carried significant long-term weight for the modern version of the character.
Action Comics #592 & #593 – Oh, alright then. If you’re really curious, this is the “Super Sex-Tape” story…
Superman For All Seasons
Four-part miniseries. From when Jeph Loeb was good! With gorgeous art by Tim Sale, this is a charming – if slightly lightweight – take on Clark’s early life in both Smallville and Metropolis. Don’t expect Long Halloween levels of quality, but this is a world away from Loeb’s Marvel work.
Three-part miniseries. The Superman story that many people who don’t actually seem to like Superman all that much cite as the best Superman story. Which should tell you a lot about it. Not that there’s not plenty of merit to it, just that it’s a fun “what if” (the premise, as one-line high-concept as all Mark Millar’s best are, is that Kal-El’s rocket landed in Soviet Russia) that doesn’t really go too much into the actual character of Superman. Generally good, but not an earth-shattering masterpiece, largely due to some of the usual Millar flaws.
Superman #423 & Action Comics #583 – Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? – the official “last ever story” of the pre-Crisis Superman – is pretty much the greatest Superman story, but it is also very heavily reliant on an existing love for the character and his trappings (as they existed pre-1985). So it’s an odd one to try and recommend off the bat – yes, it’s magnificent, but if you need to be told that it’s good, you’re probably not ready to read it; and if you are ready to read it, you probably already know that it’s important.
Superman Annual #11 – While not as good as Whatever Happened…, For The Man Who Has Everything is actually easier to recommend as a Moore Superman story. More stand-alone, less weighed down by baggage, has Dave Gibbons on art and a terrific “What if Krypton hadn’t exploded?” dream-induced premise. Oh, and it’s got Batman in it.
Six-part miniseries. Well, look, right – the writer of this retelling of Superman’s origin seems to have so little faith in it that when he took charge at DC, he was involved in a continuity re-scrub that wiped it out less than two years after it had been published. That’s an even shorter timeframe than the one between this and the far superior Birthright, which it replaced as the “official” Superman origin. So what does that tell you? As a story in and of itself, it’s not bad – and Gary Frank’s art is lovely if a little stiff, with a fine line in making Clark look like Christopher Reeve – it’s just one that’s been done better. But if you don’t want to spend eight quid on Birthright, this is about half the quality for about half the cost.
Four-part miniseries. It’s funny, I wouldn’t really think of this as a Superman story first and foremost, as it covers basically the entirety of the DC canon – but of course, that’s exactly what it is. Predominantly, it’s an exploration of what happens when the kind of “heroes” that were edging out Superman in popularity in the early ’90s become the norm, and serves as a reaffirmation of the original superhero’s power and impact. Well, at least, until things all go a bit tits-up. Anyway, it’s an absolutely brilliant “alternate future” story, with art by Alex Ross that’s arguably even more stunning than his work on Marvels, and features a Batman-related twist/reveal that’s among the character’s finest ever moments.
Honestly, the “Death” part of the Death/World Without/Return trilogy is probably the least interesting bit of it (you’re talking to an unashamed JurgensSuperman fanboy who genuinely loves the Return arc, so believe me when I say this isn’t just anti-1990s snobbery), but if you want to give it a read, then the order of issues (a bit tricky to pick out the way the Comixology sale is ordered, unfortunately) is:
Have a bit of fun by counting the number of panels on each page as the story gets closer and closer to the end…
Also from roughly the same era (but slightly earlier), and not really fitting into any other grouping, is Action Comics #662, by Roger Stern and Bob McLeod, in which Clark reveals his identity to Lois. It’s quite good, but Stern’s Superman work is generally pretty under-served by Comixology so far, so it’s always worth grabbing what little bits are available.
And The Rest
Geoff Johns/Richard Donner’s Action Comics? Best avoided. Johns’ solo Action with Gary Frank on art? Has its fans, but I’m not really among them – Secret Origin is probably the best stuff they did together. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel? I haven’t actually read, but am checking out myself as part of the sale. Wagner’s Trinity? Pretty, but Zzzzz. The New 52 Superman, Action and Justice League? Best avoided. Loeb and McGuinness’ Superman/Batman? Only if you like BIG PUNCHY DUMB stories. Anything else that’s free? Well, you might as well grab it, mightn’t you?
There. Phew. Anything I’ve missed?
Last week, I had to buy a recent comic from an online store, due to the fact that I hadn’t got out to an Actual Shop in time to snatch a copy of Batman Inc #9 upon its release. When the issue arrived – promptly and at a reasonable price, thanks very much Books ‘n’ Comics - there was a little promo bookmark from DC chucked in. This promotional item exhorted readers to “get ready for” The Man of Steel by buying six graphic novels/collections of stories about the character.
The thing is, with one notable exception, I don’t think the recommendations were actually very good. It’s partly that they’re largely comics that I didn’t really like – but more significantly that if you’re specifically pitching at people who want to see what all the fuss over Superman might be about in advance of a huge movie in which they’re supposed to care about him, then I really don’t think that the chosen books do the job.
What’s more, I’ve already seen people online who say they don’t really “get” the character, but are keen or at least curious to learn, asking which Superman stories they should read in order to try and get a handle on him. So for each of DC’s five recommendations (two of the six were in the same series of books, so I’m counting them as one), I’ve come up with one of my own that I think better gives a good impression of why the character is the greatest and most enduring of superheroes. And I’ve even shown you where you can buy them, just to prove that I’m not entirely opposed to the principle of DC hawking these books as a movie tie-in.
So, let’s get started with the totally unsurprising turn of events that is Alternate Cover recommending that you shouldn’t buy a JMS book…
… and no, not the new, younger, hipper, watered-down DC Universe Constantine title that debuted this week (more of that on the next podcast), nor the inevitable emotionally-and-narratively unsatisfying final issue of Hellblazer. But, rather, the fact that DC and Comixology have rather marvellously – in just about the only good thing DC have done in the last couple of weeks – put every single issue of Hellblazer on sale, for 99c (around 69p) each, until next Thursday.
Now, you could just go and buy every single one of the 300 issues right now – but who has £200 or so to spend on comics in one go, especially when a fair chunk of them are a bit rubbish? With that in mind, then, if you’ve always wanted to start reading the misdaventures of John Constantine but have no idea where to start, let me offer a few suggestions as to which issues and storylines stand out from the various writers’ runs…
Jamie Delano Era (#1-40)
Obviously, given that the first issue is free, you should definitely start there. Early Hellblazer under Delano is a mostly pretty unsettling horror comic, but if that late-80s-British-urban-horror thing is your bag, then you should give the first handful of issues a go and see what you think. Issue #11 is notable for telling about the Newcastle event, a pretty major moment in Constantine’s backstory. To be honest, though, although they’re important in establishing the character (and moving him away from his roots in Swamp Thing), I’m not the biggest fan of Delano’s issues overall. They’re worth dipping into, but they’re far from the most definitive take.
As Delano’s run goes on, a few big-name creators pop in for fill-in issues. The results are mixed, however. Grant Morrison and David Lloyd’s two-parter, issues #25 and #26, is a bit disappointing given their pedigree – worth picking up if you’re a fan of either creator, though. Rather significantly better is issue #27, an utterly wonderful done-in-one by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean called “Hold Me”. I’ve talked about it on here before, but basically, if I were to recommend one individual issue of Hellblazer (as opposed to an arc), this would be it.
Garth Ennis Era (#41-83)
Look, I can’t stress this enough – Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer is one of the best runs by any creator in comics ever, and if you’re thinking about laying down a wodge of cash on this sale, then the very first thing you should do is buy every one of these issues.
If you want specifics, mind, then I’d say that Dangerous Habits (#41-46), Tainted Love (#68-71) and the hugely and depressingly epic finale Rake at the Gates of Hell (#78-83) are the standouts. There are also some lovely single issues here and there – #63 (Constantine’s 40th birthday) and #76 (drinking with Brendan’s ghost) among them. But really, in much the same way as you wouldn’t necessarily pick out single arcs of Preacher or Sandman, because they’re specifically long-form layered narratives that develop their characters throughout, the same is true here. Start with Dangerous Habits, and read the whole damned lot. Seriously. Go. Do it now.
Paul Jenkins Era (#84-128)
This is probably the largest chunk of Hellblazer stories that I’ve barely read any of – probably because it’s the one DC have pretty much wilfully refused to put in trade. From what I have seen of it, it’s a bit flat and inessential – although it couldn’t really be anything else, following Ennis – so I can only really recommend dipping in if you’re a completist who’s going after the entire lot.
This “era” actually starts with a one-shot by Delano, followed by a couple of issues by Eddie Campbell, but neither are particularly essential either.
Warren Ellis Era (#129-143)
An odd grouping on Comixology’s part, given that the first six issues are actually Garth Ennis’ brief comeback story, Son of Man (#129-133). Much more light-hearted than Ennis’ original run – while still ridiculously unpleasant at times – it’s worth a look if you like seeing Ennis and artist John Higgins at their most excessive.
As for Ellis, his run was of course truncated due to the furore over “Shoot” (which, if published, would almost certainly have been his best issue on the title). I’m not massively keen on his initial arc, Haunted, though it has its fans. I think he really comes into his own with the four single-issue stories that follow – with his final issue, Telling Tales (#143) the best of the lot. Still, there are so few issues that picking up his entire run hardly breaks the bank, and it is Ellis.
Brian Azzarello Era (#144-174)
There are people who may tell you the Azzarello era of Hellblazer is great. These people are wrong. If you must investigate for yourself, then give his first arc, Hard Time (#146-150) a go. It’s about as good as it gets – as the run goes on, it really does fall to utterly catastrophic pieces. Don’t bother with the two Darko Macan issues that precede Azzarello, either.
Mike Carey Era (#175-215)
I really like the first two issues (#175-176) of Carey’s run, which return him briefly to Liverpool (Carey’s home town as well as Constantine’s), have art by Steve Dillon, and introduce the excellent Angie Spatchcock. After that, though, I find the run a bit patchy. The first arc proper, Red Sepulchre, which follows on from the introductory two-parter, is quite decent – but the run later gets bogged down in stuff with Swamp Thing that, while perhaps harking back to the roots of the character, feels a bit out of place. The celebratory Issue #200 is worth checking in on, though, featuring as it does guest appearances from artists and characters of Hellblazer past.
Denise Mina Era (#216-229)
An underrated run, this. Although ostensibly split into shorter arcs, it’s another longer-form story line, predominantly set in and around Mina’s native Glasgow. Try the first part, Empathy is the Enemy (#216-222) and if you like what it’s doing, the second half is worth sticking with as well.
Andy Diggle Era (#230-249)
Truncated by Diggle’s sudden move to a Marvel exclusive contract, this run consists of a number of shorter storylines and shows a really strong grasp on the character. In at the Deep End (#230-231) and Joyride (#234-237) are both pretty great. There’s also a break for a good two-parter, Newcastle Calling (#245-246) set back in Constantine’s punk days by Jason Aaron, with art by the great Sean Murphy. With his closing three-part arc, The Roots of Coincidence (#247-249), Diggle starts to set in motion a move back towards the slicker, more confident John Constantine of the early (even pre-Delano) days – but with his departure, it stops short in preparation for the next run…
Peter Milligan Era (#250-300)
Still more recent in the memory, Milligan’s run is pretty up and down in nature, and is perhaps coloured now by the knowledge that everything in it heads towards the character’s final ending – even though it never began with that intent. Scab (#251-253) is quite good, as is Hooked (#256-258). The Long Crap Friday (#260), meanwhile, is the better of two one-shots that both feature utterly amazing pencil-based art from Simon Bisley. But after that, things falter somewhat – India (#261-264) is a bit dull, although the punk-based No Future (#265-266) is quite fun, with the return of Bisley to boot.
By this point, at least, you’ll probably have an idea of whether you want to carry on with the really quite drawn-out final few storylines (I didn’t, to be honest) – particularly when Shade the Changing Man gets involved. If you like Milligan’s style, there’s still stuff to enjoy, but otherwise (and with a brief stopoff for John and Epiphany’s wedding in #275) you might just be best skipping on to Death and Cigarettes (#298-300) just to see how it all ends…
As the long-running British comics institution The Dandy breathed its last this week – at least, its last print-based breath, before its reinvention as an apparent multimedia extravaganza for the digital age – a number of columnists (most of whom probably hadn’t even thought about The Dandy or indeed any other British comic for twenty or thirty years, but that’s not the point here, so let’s not get sniffy) stepped forward with an assortment of different laments.
One of these was Telegraph tech-blogger Mic Wright, who in a piece titled – presumably by an editor – Desperate news for Dan: The Dandy goes digital-only, sucking the life out of its characters admits that he feels “downhearted” that its stable of characters will now only be available digitally. Mic goes on to say:
One of the joys of receiving a comic when I was a child was having something I owned and being able to build a collection. Though that is obviously still possible with the digital files, it feels less tangible… Behind the glass of a tablet, comics feel less alive. There’s a kind of alchemy at work in a traditional printed comic – the coming together of story with the paper and the ink – that’s missing in the digital recreations. It’s as if the life has been sucked out of the characters.
Instinctively, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what Mic is saying. There’s certainly nothing unreasonable about it. Indeed, I’m picking out his article not because I disagree with it violently – and I like Mic as a person and a writer, we’re mutual Twitter followers although we’ve never actually met, and I certainly don’t want you to think I’m going “hur hur look at this idiot in the press”, because that’s not it at all – but because it expresses a view that up until very recently, I probably would have espoused myself.
But as I read Mic’s piece, took in his opinion – a gut feeling that he’s perfectly entitled to – an odd thing happened. I felt obligated to shout from the rooftops about how bloody great digital comics are.
Now, here’s the thing. I’m a collector. I love comics, as objects. I always have done and probably always will. As I write this, I’m sitting directly in front of an Ikea Billy bookcase that contains two shelves packed full of TPBs (with bigger hardbacks like my Absolute Sandman editions having to live elsewhere in the room due to lack of space), with the remaining four shelves holding, at last count… ooh, approximately 1800 or so single issues? While there are lots of regretted one-off purchases among those, there are great swathes of singles that I’m terribly proud to have accumulated complete or near-complete runs of – either as they’ve been released (Ultimate Spider-Man) or bit by bit throughout adult life (the Giffen/deMatteis Justice League). While myself and my futurewife have tried to cut down on the amount of extraneous crap in our house over the last year or so, it’s a hard and fact truth that we both just bloody love stuff. And I, in particular, if I’m OCD about anything, am anal about having collections of things. If I have issues #1-18 and #20 of something, then you can guarantee I’ll be trying my hardest to get hold of #19 from somewhere, even if I’m not bothered about reading it (or even if I already have). All in all, I’m a quintessential physical comics buyer.
Meanwhile, although I’ve had a collection of .CBR and .CBZ files sitting on my PC for many years – I’m not going to pretend I’ve never pirated a comic, but let’s not go into that whole debate right now, suffice to say I’m a lot more honest than I used to be – I’d never really gone wholesale for the whole digital comics thing. But when I started to see how good comics could look on an iPad – and how easy it all was – my head started to turn.
And then, recently, I got a Nexus 7. It didn’t present me with my first opportunity to legally buy digital comics – I’d bought the odd thing on my iPhone when I needed to read it but couldn’t get to a comic shop quickly enough, although was often frustrated by Comixology’s insistence on employing the “guided view” reading scheme when actually, I could read the whole page fine on the phone’s little Retina display – but it certainly opened a massive door. Aside from the fact that I simply wanted more of an excuse to hold the gorgeous little thing (in much the same way as my first Kindle led to a fresh explosion in reading “proper” books again), introducing tablet computing into my life coincided nicely with the Marvel Now! relaunch, giving me the chance to try out a load of new series while at the same time starting to trim away the increasingly disappointing DC arm of my pull list. It naturally made sense to start picking them up digitally, being as how a new era was beginning in which they were all available on the day of release.
After a few weeks of reading more digital comics than physical, a few things have struck me. First of all, and most obviously, is just how smooth and straightforward the whole experience is. Okay, so the Comixology app isn’t without its flaws – some of which I’ve even directly discussed with the support team on Twitter – but the fact remains that there is suddenly a huge library of comics, classic and new, available in an easy-to-reach and (mostly) cheap manner. In order to cover Days of Future Past in the latest episode of our podcast, I didn’t have to fork out for a TPB that included far more issues than the actual titular two-part storyline – I spent less than £2 getting them both digitally. They were delivered instantly, rather than my having to (a) find somewhere that still sells back issues and (b) find the money to buy two highly sought-after issues from 1980.
Similarly, if I want to catch up with Hawkeye - not having realised in advance that it would be great or that it would be impossible to find a copy of either the first couple of issues anywhere in London after the fact – or if a particular issue of something else inexplicably proves far more popular than usual and disappears before Wednesday is out, then I can hop on and get those as well. It’s such a great way of keeping up with periodical comics that I’m actually now changing my plans to buy certain later new series releases in hard-copy form from the beginning, as Marvel Now feels like such a distinctively “digital” concern to me.
All of this would be moot, however, if – as Mic asserts – comics were stripped of their life and power by the transition into the digital form. But here’s the thing: they aren’t. It’s fair to say that if you’re reading a particular comic in the best possible hard copy form – and we are talking overblown, amazingly-printed on gorgeous-paper, Absolute edition quality here – then no digital version will ever compete. But otherwise? Hey, they look pretty darned great. Colours are deep and rich and lively. Image quality is often ridiculously sharp. Even on a 7-inch screen, you can take in a whole page and not be missing out on closer-in detail – I can only imagine how good things look on a 10-inch screen (well, I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve looked at other people’s, but you know what I mean). And hey, it’s not exactly difficult to pinch-and-zoom on a particular image, a much preferable option to the Kryten-style moving your head closer to the page.
I recently read two of my favourite comics runs on my tablet over a few days’ commuting, two series that are noted for having especially outstanding art: Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men and Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman (yes, alright, they were CBRs, but I do own both runs in physical form as well already; in fact, in the latter case, twice). In both cases I was actively amazed by how good they looked digitally – in some ways, even better than on the page (I was particularly struck by how sharp some of the famously smaller and picked-out details of Quitely’s art looked).
(A third point about digital, albeit one that is probably more specific to me and only a few more sad cases like me, is that it takes away the “Well, I’m onboard now” guilt of buying certain series. If I’d been reading Morning Glories digitally I’d probably have given up months ago due to the increasingly frustrating Lost-like wilful impenetrability of the story; but because I’ve already bought twenty-odd issues that sit there on my shelf looking at me accusingly, I feel like I’m in it for the long haul, and dropping out partway through an arc would just be silly. And that isn’t the first time that’s happened to me with a particular book. Digital comics eradicate almost entirely the risks in trying out a single issue of something new. I didn’t really like either of the first issues of Uncanny Avengers or A+X – but only one felt like a waste of money, because only one was bought physically.)
Physical comics will never go away, of course. Even now, there are series that I’ll continue to buy in that form – partly out of that collector’s instinct (I’d have gone digital on DC’s superhero books as well as Marvel’s already, but the New 52 titles I’m still buying are ones I’ve been onboard with since day one), and partly because certain series (I’m largely thinking of things like Saga, Powers and Casanova here) do make an effort to make the floppy single issue a desirable object in its own right. And besides, I could never quite give up the enjoyable experience of flicking through the racks, and taking a monthly stack of books to the till. Nor would I want every 1980s back-issue I ever read to be in digital form – not when I could enjoy the faded yellow pages, distinct “paper stored badly for decades” smell and all of those magnificently tantalising Captain “O” adverts.
And no, I’m not saying that the end of the Dandy as a print concern is entirely a great thing. I would imagine, for example, that its publishers may well use the fact that it’s now digital-only as an excuse to make everything cheaper – and that could well be a bad thing for the writers and artists who work on it. But on the whole, I think the disappointment that The Dandy will no longer be on the shelves is one borne out of nostalgia – and it’s nostalgia for something that simply isn’t as relevant to the kids of today. Something like The Phoenix shows that print comics for kids can and should still exist – but if the Dandy characters are worth surviving well into the 21st Century, then they’re more likely to do so if they can be introduced via a medium with which their target audience are now so much more familiar. And it is a medium in its own right – you don’t need to be Scott McCloud to see how looser the restrictions are.
So, yes. Print comics are, of course, great. But so too – and to my eternal surprise – are their digital cousins. And they deserve to be celebrated rather than simply seen by default as a poorer, backup alternative.
Hell, I might even buy the first Digital Dandy. Even though I did always prefer the Beano.
You may not have heard, but DC have today announced plans for a series of prequel stories to Watchmen, titled – in a remarkable piece of imagination – Before Watchmen. What you may have heard, however, is the mass collective outrage online – and what’s interesting is that there seems to be as much outrage from folks who think that other folks shouldn’t be allowed to get outraged about its existence as there is outrage from folks who are outraged about its existence. That’s a lot of outrage.
The pair of us each have a number of issues with what DC are doing by publishing this comic – but we’re finding that a number of these criticisms are being faced with arguments that might seem punchy in the 140 character field of Twitter, but which we don’t feel stand up to a huge amount of scrutiny. So rather than attempt to debate it in that format… we’re going to talk about it here, instead.
(n.b. for brevity, let us acknowledge now that Moore is the co-creator of Watchmen, with Dave Gibbons. Any time we assert Moore as “creator” or “owner”, we do mean both of them.)
Argument 1: Alan Moore is a hypocrite! Why does he object to Before Watchmen when he wrote Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?
There are a lot of people asking how Moore can complain about other writers taking on his creations, when he seems to have built his career on doing exactly that to other people. This seems like a fair point to make, but is it really the same thing? Let’s think about it logically.
Whenever Moore has written company-owned characters – the likes of Superman, Judge Dredd, even Miracleman – it was under the belief that an authorial mandate existed which allowed this to happen. These characters were created with the intention that a company would own them. Whether such terms were fair is debatable, but certainly when Moore wrote using them, people weren’t demanding that the characters be removed from circulation – quite the opposite. They just wanted to be paid for their use. This is not the same situation as with the Watchmen characters, which anyone who writes does so in the knowledge that they’re acting directly against the creator’s wishes.
Of course, Moore has also written famous literary characters in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls – characters for which there is no specific mandate to continue. But these characters are out-of-copyright, their mandates dissolved by death, history or cultural currency. Even a copyrighted character, like James Bond, who is used with a wink in The Black Dossier, is portrayed artistically defensibly, under laws governing parody. This is not the same situation as with the Watchmen characters, who are not public domain, are not being parodied, and are not being used to create derivative, artistically valid interpretations.
The question, then, is who has the ability to mandate new stories with the Watchmen characters? It’s either Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons) or DC. If we believe Moore’s side of the story (and we have no reason not to), the contract he signed in the 80s was not intended to allow DC exclusive and perpetual use of the characters and work, and that the rights would revert to him and Gibbons – but by keeping the book in print since then, DC has managed to prevent this.
The choice, then, is a moral one: do we feel bad for Moore falling into the same trap as Ditko/Kirby et al and having his work effectively stolen from under him by contract, or do we side with DC and say “tough luck, you signed the contract, there’s a loophole.” It’s obvious that DC is legally right – but morally, can you say Moore shouldn’t have control of the comics he created and which are now being used in bad faith? Clearly not.
That is why Moore isn’t a hypocrite. The mandate for more Watchmen stories issued by DC is illegitimate, unlike the mandate for new Superman/Swamp Thing stories which Moore operated under.
Admittedly, Lost Girls might use existing characters in ways that their original authors would probably balk at – but at the same time, it’s making a valid artistic point about their original portrayals. As Kurt Busiek said:
It seems to me that anyone who thinks LOST GIRLS is merely a sequel to PETER PAN et al in the way that BEFORE WATCHMEN will be a prequel is really missing something. There’s a difference between “build and transform and make something new” and “let’s have more of that.”
Argument 2: Moore has disowned Watchmen anyway, he shouldn’t be taking this all so seriously!
Funnily enough, serious is one of the few things Alan Moore doesn’t seem to be. Principled, yes. Agressively so, at times. And despite our last point, we admit that he does say things that are hypocritical or ill-judged at times – like thinking there are currently no interesting writers, then saying he’s not read comics for years. In that sense, he’s human. As the saying goes, he contains multitudes.
However, it seems to have escaped a lot of people’s notice that Alan Moore is also a very funny man. Go and look at his deeply self-satirising Simpsons appearance if you don’t believe us.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen him do talks, formal and informal, and one constant thread is that he’s very much a comedian. He prepares material, and he re-uses it across interviews and appearances just as a stand-up would their own jokes. Much of what he says is delivered with a tone that’s wry, knowing, and deeply ironic. A tone that all but disappears on the page, stripped of its visual and audio data. When he accuses DC of “stalking” him by buying Wildstorm… it’s a joke. When he says DC is creatively bankrupt and has no ideas, he’s poking fun as much at his own persona as a legendary talent and legendary grump as he is at DC for re-using his ideas (which in fairness, isn’t wholly untrue either.)
I admit, it’s hard to defend some of the things he says, particularly when it disparages the hard, genuine work of other creators, and I certainly don’t want to be accused of putting words into his mouth or thoughts into his head. All I can say is that in my experience, he isn’t saying these things maliciously. He actually seems to find these stories kind of funny. If you ever get the chance to be in the room when he tells them, maybe you’ll be convinced – but until then, try giving him the benefit of the doubt. If he sounds unreasonable, maybe he wasn’t supposed to sound reasonable.
Of course, none of this gets around the fact that “he said something I disagree with so he deserves to be treated poorly.” is, in itself, an difficult position to maintain. Ask how you’d feel if they were treating Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison or another creator you like in the same way. Would you still be okay with it if it wasn’t Grumpy Old Moore on the chopping block? [JH]
Argument 3: There are still stories to be told with the Watchmen characters!
Are there? Here’s the thing about Watchmen - the characters aren’t really the draw. That’s not to say they’re not good characters, in so much as they play their roles in the story… but by the same token, none of them are really characters that you could imagine enduring across decades in the way that the likes of Spider-Man or Batman do. No, not even Rorschach. They exist purely in order to tell that particular story.
There are lots of things that make Watchmen brilliant, and they don’t need listing at length here. But I can’t help but feel that if you came away from reading it thinking “I really want to see more of those heroes’ adventures!” you were missing the point somewhat. Take the characters out of the context of Watchmen, and you’re left with… well, you’re left with exactly what they are, which is some thinly-veiled analogues of not-especially-popular Charlton Comics characters. A comic doesn’t just need to be about this set of characters in order to be worthy of carrying the word “Watchmen” on its cover – it needs to share the sensibilities and intent that Moore and Gibbons went into the original series with.
And aside from that, doing a prequel seems to miss the rather glaring point that if there was anything important that needed to be told in the histories and backgrounds of these characters… well, Moore already covered it. Pretty extensively, as it goes. Issue #4 of the original series, “Watchmaker”, is one of the most staggering storytelling achievements in the history of the comics field (and, for everything you might have to say about Zack Snyder’s movie, it was adapted pretty effectively onscreen, too). Tell me: would it really be improved by filling in a few more of the gaps in Jon Osterman’s history that it didn’t cover? [SP]
I also wanted to make the point that the very fact that these characters are analogues of Charlton heroes proves that if you’ve got a good story, it doesn’t matter who’s starring in it. In that sense, The Watchmen prequels are quite openly being sold off the back of what Moore and Gibbons’ have done, rather than what the creators could under their own devices. If the stories they’ve got to tell are any good, they wouldn’t need to star Watchmen characters. Just like Watchmen ultimately didn’t need the Charlton heroes. [JH]
Argument 4: The comics will be excellent, because the creative teams are so good!
Well. They’re alright. Admittedly, a pretty stellar array of artists have been lined up – although J.G. Jones is a little style-over-substance (and his Comedian cover is pretty depressing), and Andy Kubert seems to have made Nite Owl look a bit too much like Batman for my tastes. But Amanda Conner is one of the best artists in comics right now, and her Silk Spectre cover is a work of sheer unadulterated beauty; and the Adam Hughes Dr Manhattan one isn’t half bad either. Darwyn Cooke’s effortless quality, meanwhile, almost goes without saying these days.
But on the writing front? I can’t say it’s a set of names that make me sit up and take notice. Azzarello has written some great comics, but also some significantly less great ones. And our shared distaste for Straczynski, both in terms of the quality of his recent writing and his shockingly unprofessional behaviour in taking on huge projects, having other people fit their work around his not-always-brilliant ideas, and then skipping out before completion, is well documented on this site already. Having Len Wein involved is interesting, but not hugely so, and while I’m sure Darwyn Cooke will do fun things with the Minutemen, I can’t imagine what about the characters will make this superior to the likes of The New Frontier and The Spirit.
There are writers who might well have made some kind of Watchmen spinoff, prequel or sequel something genuinely challenging or interesting. But I’m not sure any of them are involved with this project. [SP]
Argument 5: Hey, you guys are right! Before Watchmen is something to get really angry about!
Well, actually… this one I’m not so sure about. And this is part of the reason why the over-defensiveness that some in comics have demonstrated has annoyed me so much. Because I think there are perfectly valid criticisms of the project (as outlined above), but by the same token, the book’s defenders are holding up the most deranged and excessive of raging critics as representative of all of us. Simply put, I think Before Watchmen is a daft idea (with a terrible name), that DC are only putting out in order to cash in on the huge success of the brand Moore and Gibbons created, and I think the time of all the talented people involved in it would be better spent either doing something entirely original, or creating something new with characters that have a bit more depth and appeal. But by the same token… I’m not going to claim that the publication of the series will destroy anything, or tarnish it, or “rape my childhood”, or anything like that. Watchmen still exists. It’s still one of the greatest comics of all time. If my love for V For Vendetta can survive “eggy in a basket”, then DC/Warners could go ahead and make something like this and that would still be true. [SP]
I’m a little less ambivalent. I’m certainly not outraged that the project exists – I’ll simply avoid it entirely (as I did the movie) – and while I’d expect nothing less of a corporate entity than to ruthlessly exploit what it owns, I am disappointed at the people who made it happen. For decades, Watchmen was considered untouchable. It was a line that wasn’t ever crossed, which made people hope that the practises of the early comics industry, where business strip-mined creators and left them with nothing, were truly in the past. Now that hope is gone, and that isn’t a good thing. If they can do more Watchmen without Moore (and indeed, apparently without Gibbons) then nothing is sacred, and all that’s left to protect creators is their contracts. I’ll take bets now on how long until someone at DC realises they can make money publishing Sandman prequels on their own, rather than waste effort trying to convince Gaiman to return for them.
The bottom line is that had Watchmen (and Sandman) been published under the ecosystem that, let’s not forget, they helped create – that of creator-owned work at DC – this would never have been an issue. Aside from the paradox that without Watchmen and Sandman, there’d probably be no Vertigo, if either had come 10 years later they’d doubtlessly be owned by their creators, and justly so. The industry should learn from its past and respect that, otherwise the next Moore, the next Gaiman, the next Kirby, might just go somewhere else instead. It should embarrass us all that what has happened to Moore is happening again. [JH]
In part one of my opinionated rambling about the Big Epic Massive DC Relaunch, I looked at the various wider publishing decisions that were being taken by the company. Now, it’s time to look at each of the 52 new #1s that are being launched in September, and be about the millionth person on the internet to go through and self-righteously declare which ones look worth my hard-earned dosh and which ones look worth chucking in the bin. Some of these are probably a bit predictable for anyone who’s ever read anything I’ve written about comics, like. Grant Morrison on Action Comics? Yeah, can’t see why I’d be interested in that.