Too serious about comics.

Alan Moore

Best Comics of 2012: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009

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loegcentury2009fcwebA captivating mess of contradictions, Century 2009 showed perhaps more strongly than any other work that an Alan Moore not operating at the height of his powers remains more compelling than most other writers in comics. Perhaps only he could get away with putting out a comic that was in many ways so flawed, yet which still remained one of the most essential reads of the year.

For fans of the series and its ongoing plot, this was easily the most satisfying instalment of the third volume – in contrast to 1910 and 1969, which, for their strengths, had faltered in providing a solid, structured narrative (or, in the case of the former, any real discernible story at all). At times it’s difficult to look upon this volume as being the same comic as the original first series, but the through-thread of Mina’s life with the League remains its heart and spine, while the tale of her relationship with Allan here reached a final and devastating conclusion.

The Haddo/Antichrist plot had felt slightly uninspired during 1969, but here resolved itself superbly; the twin twists of Haddo’s unhappiness at being shunted into the background of his own plan, and the revelation that the Antichrist of twentieth-century fiction is none other than – basically – Harry Potter (albeit with elements of a few other characters chucked in), render the climax of the tale an odd and unsettling one rather than any kind of huge apocalyptic battle. The Potter analogue was particularly inspired (if a little mean-spirited), while the identity of the pretty-much-literal deus ex machina who shows up to save the day even more of a riot. Here, as with both the Moore and Craig Bonds showing up in the same panel (while the Judi Dench “M” was revealed as an older Emma Peel), or the BBC3-teenager dialogue of the ultimate villain, was Moore simply having tremendous, clever fun with his concept, as he has done with League since the beginning.

And yet at times it was hard to shake the feeling that the book had lost its way satirically, somewhat.  In stark contrast to how he had handled the literary references in the series’ early days, 2009 gave the sense that Moore didn’t really understand the cultural world he was spearing. All manner of hat-tips to Armando Iannucci and co. can’t mask the fact that so much of where 2009 placed itself seemed to miss the point, and leave Moore coming across as a crotchety old man grumbling about the youth of today. This extended to the often half-arsed application of the series’ fabled use of fictional cameos – where once they were subtle and clever or integrated carefully into the background of the story, here we just saw a succession of characters (some not even immediately recognisable) in the foreground of panels, peering out at the reader. In some cases these were even anachronistic – okay, so Doctor Who is a time traveller, but nevertheless the Matt Smith incarnation is utterly irrelevant to the cultural milieu of the year 2009 (having only debuted on New Year’s Day in 2010). Perhaps an unimportant example, but it’s never really been possible to accuse Alan Moore of lacking attention to detail before now, so to be able to do so here feels unsettling.

Fortunately, where the book excelled – in the character work with Mina, Allan and (yes, finally!) Orlando, in the mesmerisingly horrific denouement, in unexpectedly setting up an entirely female possible future League (finally once and for all rendering the series’ umbrella title utterly meaningless), in its peerless metatextuality, in O’Neill’s one-of-a-kind, frequently terrifying visuals – rendered these concerns less relevant than they might otherwise have been. Century 2009 may have seen Moore reach a little further than he was able to successfully grasp when it came to turning his gaze up on the stories of others – but fortunately, in and of itself it was one of his own strongest stories for some time.

Watchmen Babies

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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.”

[JH]

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]

Alternate Cover Team | 2nd February, 2012

30 More Days of Comics #19: A comic you’ve read but don’t own

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Ah, Miracleman. The comic it’s okay to admit you downloaded, at least for as long as the messy rights issues persist in preventing a proper re-release of the now-scarce trade paperbacks. In fact, considering the fact that the character of Marvelman (although yes, I’ll be calling the comic Miracleman throughout this piece – sorry, purists, but that’s how I encountered him, and for reasons I’ll come to, it feels more right to me) was originally a thinly-veiled ripoff of a character that was himself a thinly-veiled ripoff of a different character; and that the subsequent use by Moore in Warrior that defined him as an iconic figure has, in later years, been almost conclusively proven to have been carried out by people who didn’t have the rights to do so; and finally that the rights to the character are currently held by a company who had previously spent years legally opposing its publication and who don’t actually yet own the rights to the interpretation that everyone wants to see printed; considering all of that, reading the series in illegally-downloaded form almost feels like the most appropriate way to do so.

As it happens, mind, I actually first read it entirely legally, with copies loaned from a library in Liverpool about five or six years ago. But their set of trades was incomplete – not least because the entire series hasn’t actually been collected, due to the book’s publisher folding only two issues into the Silver Age storyline – and so a short while afterwards Miracleman became what I suspect is probably the first comic I ever, shhh, downloaded (I also have Flex Mentallo in .CBR form, and that’s all you’re getting out of me).

At the time that I read it, it seemed a vitally important series to finally get around to reading – and had a profound impact on me, as I considered it possibly even a better treatment of the superhero myth than Watchmen had been. In later years, however, that impact has dimmed – nowadays I’d place Moore’s run, in his own canon, below Watchmen, V, LOEG and even the likes of Top Ten and Halo Jones. That’s not to say there’s not still a lot that’s appealing – and at times staggeringly good – about his run. But it does stumble about all over the place somewhat, particularly in the early part – and the second volume, while containing some strong ideas (the Red King flashback/dream sequence is inspired – indeed, perhaps the best element of the Moore run is the brilliant lifting and repurposing of the original Marvelman’s world, in a manner that upset plenty of purists but is to me the perfect example of a good retcon), is badly compromised by the utterly dreadful Chuck Beckum/Austen artwork at the (jarringly mid-storyline) point the publication moves over to Eclipse in the US. Things are markedly improved in the third volume, though, largely down to the astounding work of John Totleben – and, of course, issue #15 is a masterpiece of unrelentingly grim despair and carnage (never, ever has the likely effect of a “super” battle been portrayed in such a devastatingly realistic fashion).

But actually, if anything, I think Miracleman actually gets a bit stronger when Alan Moore leaves and Neil Gaiman takes over. The six Golden Age issues are an oddly brilliant collection of divergent musings on the sort of themes of myth, story and legend that Gaiman would explore to a fuller extent in Sandman, and offer an opportunity for Mark Buckingham to superbly express an array of artistic styles from issue to issue. Not only that, but they actually quite successfully meet the challenge laid down by Moore (and that Moore himself didn’t feel he could take on) – just how do you tell convincing stories about a superhero in a world that that superhero has turned into a totalitarian utopia?

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the full extent of Gaiman’s answer – The Golden Age is quite deliberately an exploration of the world that Moore had left behind, making us wait until the frustratingly incomplete Silver Age to see the plot actually move on. Nevertheless, there’s some great material in The Golden Age – the Evelyn Cream-starring Spy Story (one of a handful of issues I do actually own, as it happens) and the Andy Warhol issue are particular standouts, and it’s because of the Gaiman run that Miracleman has always felt like the more appropriate name – after all, far more is made of the name than Moore ever did with the “Marvel” part, which makes me wonder just how odd it’ll look if Marvel (Comics) ever do get round to republishing it (and indeed finishing the story) with the name re-lettered to a form Gaiman had never actually written it as.

In a way, Miracleman/Marvelman is more worth reading for the experience of having read it than for its worth as a truly unmissable comic – it’s far from perfect, although it does contain many outstanding moments and ideas. But it’s undeniably a significant moment in comics history – as well as being an enlighteningly formative point in the development of two of its finest ever writers – and until the big lovely reprint edition that we all hope we’ll one day get shows up, reading it on a screen (or being lucky enough to borrow it) will have to do.

30 Days of Comics #13: A comic you’ve read but don’t own

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I’m tempted to say “all of Miracleman” here, but then, I hoped this series of posts would concentrate more on individual issues, and it’s veered so far off that course that it’s currently stuck behind a shed in someone’s back garden. I could fudge it and pick any one of the 25 issues of Miracleman, but I’m going to try and stick to the spirit of the law and choose a single issue of something that I’ve read but don’t own.

And the issue I have chosen is: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. Which is a collection of two individual issues. Ah well. I tried.

First, I should excuse myself for having read this but not owned a copy. I can’t actually remember where I read it. I might have read it at Seb’s house (and perhaps he’ll know that better than I do). I’m sure I didn’t borrow it, because I’m not much of a borrower. If I borrow things I never manage to buy them, and I like owning things because it means they’re always there if I need or want them, and I can never tell when I’ll feel like pulling it off the shelf at 3am one sleepless night for a re-examination.

And, as a comic, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is one which I think requires a bit of re-examination. I’m not all that familiar with Superman and it’s written by Alan Moore, so I’m sure there are things I missed about it the first (and so far, only) time I read it. Indeed, it might just be that the thing I missed is that it’s a story that doesn’t really have any relevance in a Post-Post-Crisis era, or that much of its meaning has since been stripped away by how much of an influence it exerted over the stories that followed – but really, I’d like the chance to discover that for myself, especially having read Gaiman’s Caped Crusader companion piece in the recent past.

As with yesterday, there’s really nothing preventing me from remedying this situation other than my own attitude towards it. It’s an Amazon click away, any time I have the money to burn – but it’s never high enough up the pile that the time seems right. I know I want to read it – but I also know that it’ll be in print whenever the time comes, so I have absolutely no urgency about actually doing so. It’s become one of those detrite intentions I carry around every time I develop a vague interest in a writer, or artist, or character, or series.

You know, I’ve been meaning to rewatch Almost Famous for probably two years now, and that’s one of my favourite films AND I already own a copy of it. How the hell will I ever get around to re-reading a Superman comic I enjoyed, but not very passionately and don’t even own yet? For my own sanity, it’s probably best I try not to think about it.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910

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A new League book is always cause for celebration, as Moore’s sole ongoing piece of comics work, but it’s fair to say that this one – the first story from the third volume, “Century”,  hasn’t quite had us breaking out the fireworks. So why is that?

Part of the problem is the format – although the book is loosely structured around the story of Nemo’s daughter making the transition from carefree princess to becoming the new pirate captain of the Nautilus, that story does disappear for vast swathes of the pagetime. The decision to release Century in thirds, something more than issues but less than graphic novels, plays with reader expectations slightly too much – this might be big enough to contain a full narrative, but it is, instead, unquestionably the opening act of a wider story. As such, the pace is slow, the structure is weak and the plotting mostly consists of things that one imagines will be paid off in future volumes.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining – the returning Mina and Quatermain are joined by Orlando, also seen in the Black Dossier, and various other miscreants and outcasts from fiction throughout history. The closest thing we see to an antagonist is Haddo, the League’s Alistair Crowley analogue, and it’s his potential threat, along with Carmacki’s prophetic visions, that drive the action forward as the League, such as it currently is, attempts to unravel what’s going on – which, as it turns out, isn’t actually very much.

Moore’s Victorian wit utterly shines through in the dialogue, and O’Neill’s artwork in particular is as brilliant as it’s ever been, and there’s a particularly brilliant moment with Norton, Prisoner of London, as he snaps back to the “present” – after so long regarding O’Neill’s artwork as shorthand for “the past” it’s appropriately jarring to see him now rendering present-day King’s Cross in all its glory. For a change, the frequently prose section at the end of this volume is almost as enjoyable as the preceeding comic, and vastly outclasses the previous attempts. As a collection of very short vignettes, it offers some welcome references to other League stories and some all-new material as well, all of which have their own strengths – it’s a far more preferable supplement than Volume 2′s utterly impenetrable almanac was.

Although written by one of the most technically proficient writers ever seen in comics, there are some moments where the book falters a little, as it tries to move beyond the usual boundaries of a comic. Moore has made frequent attempts at inserting musical elements into comics for decades now, and always with mixed success. While it’s completely like him to try and take the medium to new places, there’s a sense that after yet another lukewarm attempts, it might be time to admit that a comicbook musical might simply be beyond the capabilities of the form. Certainly, the songs – or rather, lyrics – in this story don’t really work on their own terms.

Since the last instalment of League, The Black Dossier, was Moore at his experimental best, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by – songs aside – this volume’s return to more traditional comics. For the first time, we get an instalment of the League that doesn’t definitively better its predecessor. The best excuse for that, of course, is that we’re not supposed to be evaluating it as a complete work – but when it’s presented as such, it’s a little hard to get out of that mindset. It delivers all the elements one could expect from the League – obscure references, in-jokes, a peculiarly English mix of polite reservedness and dark, unforgiving cynicism – but when it comes down to it, it’s just not a satisfying narrative – in a couple of years, when the series is complete, one suspects these complaints will be entirely moot. Unfortunately, that point is still some time away.

The Sunday Pages #50

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Warning: This week’s anniversary 50th edition of The Sunday Pages isn’t much longer than normal, but it does cost $4.99. However, it does contain an exciting plot development that will change the way you look at one member of the Comics Daily staff forever. Not a dream, not an imaginary story, this episode will have lasting consequences that lead well into this summer’s big event and beyond.

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The Sunday Pages #29

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We’ve all been off at the Birmingham International Comics Show this weekend, so there ain’t much to look at, but you do at least have a few Capsule Reviews – but not many because, well, it’s been a pretty poor week for releases, hasn’t it? Seb and Julian have important things to say about Supergirl #34, Top 10 Season 2 #1 and The Authority #3 inside!
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The Sunday Pages #13

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header_test.jpgComics Daily coverage of Final Crisis continues as our more qualified DC enthusiast, Seb Patrick, takes a look over the events of DC Universe #0 and, elsewhere, the viral marketing for The Dark Knight. I geek out about the latest Spider-Man announcement, and then there are more examples of articles we’ve written for Den of Geek, which covers Moore’s defining Batman/Joker story, The Killing Joke, and everyone’s new favourite Marvel character, Iron Man. Read the rest of this entry »

The Sunday Pages #2

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In this week’s column, there’s an update on speculation about Pixie’s status in the post-Messiah Complex X-Men, some stuff about the new Invincible Iron Man ongoing, and speculation about what Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan might be up to… Read the rest of this entry »

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