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Forgotten Runs

Forgotten Runs: Batman – KnightQuest

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Title: Batman: KnightQuest (The Crusade) and KnightQuest (The Search)
Publisher: DC
Creative Team: Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Doug Moench, Dennis O’Neill (writers); Graham Nolan, Mike Manley, Vince Giarrano, Bret Blevins, Jim Balent, Barry Kitson, Ron Wagner, Scott Hanna, Eduardo Barreto, John Beatty, Frank McLaughlin, Josef Rubinstein, Steve George, Ron McCain (artists)
Core Issues: Detective Comics #667-675, Batman #501-508, Shadow of the Bat #19-28, Legends of the Dark Knight #59-61
Essential crossovers: Justice League Task Force #4-6 (The Search); Robin #1, Catwoman #6-7 (The Crusade); Robin #7 (Conclusion)
Years: 1993-94

There’s been a renewed level of interest in the KnightFall saga recently, courtesy of the announcement that the character of Bane is to feature as the (or a) major villain in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises film. Going back over the storyline in the wake of this, however, reminded me of an odd quirk in the publishing of the whole thing – in that a massive chunk of the story as told monthly has never actually been collected in trade – and thus, will never have been read by the majority of the people who’ve sought out the rest of the saga.

In the current print editions, KnightFall consists of three distinct chapters (collected in three separate books). Part one, “Broken Bat”, concerns Bane’s arrival in Gotham and eventual defeat of Bruce Wayne. Part two, “Who Rules the Night”, tells the story of Jean-Paul Valley taking over as Batman, and his initial descent towards being a more brutal version of the hero, before redesigning the costume and then taking on – and beating – Bane himself. The third part, “KnightsEnd”, then sees a healed Wayne return to reclaim the mantle of the bat from the increasingly deranged Valley.

However, when originally published, KnightsEnd was actually the third of a trilogy of Knight-prefixed storylines that ran consecutively from one-another, rather than just being a chapter of KnightFall itself. Indeed, the first edition of the trade didn’t say KnightFall anywhere on the cover – it’s only later ones that called it “Part Three”. And missing completely from any sort of trade collection is the entire middle section of the trilogy – KnightQuest.

Running through about eight months’ worth of comics (but taking in a lot of different titles – the four Bat-books of the time, as well as issues of Robin, Catwoman and Justice League Task Force), KnightQuest actually followed two major plot strands – and referred to each by its subtitle on the banners of the issues. The shorter one, “The Search”, is a particularly odd little tale, in which a recovering Bruce Wayne investigates the disappearance of Dr Shondra Kinsolving – the woman who had begun the process of miraculously healing his injuries through little more than her touch. It loses its way badly towards the end, when it gets bogged down in the sort of story that really doesn’t feel like it has a place in a Batman comic – but in the first half, there’s some decent material, particularly the Alan Grant-written three-part segment set in England, which introduces the UK-based vigilante Hood (of note at the moment due to the character’s apparent planned use by Grant Morrison in Batman Inc).

The bulk of KnightQuest, however, is the storyline “The Crusade”, which sees Jean Paul Valley struggling more and more with the weight of the Batman identity, coupled with his own delusions (brought about by the brainwashing/programming that turned him into Azrael). Along the way, he continually makes tweaks to his costume – until it becomes the fully armour-based suit, complete with extensive weaponry, seen in KnightsEnd – and shows less and less care for the well-being either of Gotham’s criminal population, or even its innocents. This comes to a head with the most significant part of the story, seen in Batman #508, in which Valley allows the serial killer Abbatoir to fall to his death in a vat of molten metal. Although he strictly speaking doesn’t kill the villain, it nevertheless represents a significant watershed moment, as he crosses a line that Bruce Wayne never would have. More importantly, by not bringing the killer in for questioning, he slows down the police in their efforts to track down his latest torture victim, Graham Etchinson – who subsequently dies before he can be found.

At the very least, the Abbatoir story should have made it into collected print somewhere. Anyone reading the story in trade, or years after the fact, would surely be left baffled by reading about a hugely important event in the overall story, but not actually getting to see it happen on the page. The sudden shift in costume between the end of Knightfall Part Two and KnightsEnd is also jarring if you haven’t seen the incremental changes (and the reasons given by Valley each time, as heldover elements of the original outfit, such as a cloth mask and the cape, are increasingly considered detrimental).

As for the rest of the story, there are good parts and bad parts – although in terms of tone and overall quality, it’s pretty consistent with the other parts of the run (the same goes for the art, too – some of it’s good, some of it’s lousy, and whenever Bret Blevins gets his hands on it it’s an absolute joy). Perhaps one reason for not bothering to collect it in trade is that Valley is a difficult character to spend much time with as a lead. One of the storylines, a crossover with Catwoman, shows a conflicted side to him as he becomes obsessed with Selina while chastising himself for doing so – but even that comes off a bit creepy, and in a general sense, as a character whose sole purpose is to be shown to be unfit for his job, he’s largely just irritating. And when I was younger, I thought the “subway rocket” he uses (taking convenient advantage of an abandoned rail station that backs on to the Batcave) was cool, but nowadays its existence, and importance in helping AzBats stop a particular crime, just seems contrived.

Another major problem is that the KnightQuest section is pretty long – the character had to be in the role long enough to make it seem like he was supposed to be sticking around – without the stories ever really going anywhere (beyond nudging him slightly further into demented sociopathy each time), and that too could be a reason for not bothering to collect the issues. Nevertheless, a number of the individual stories feel like little more than treading water – the Joker’s movie-directing scheme might just be his worst plot ever - and, one senses, could have been excluded to at least make a KnightQuest trade that would at least have included the important bits. It’s odd that an entire chunk of one of the most-remembered comics events of the last couple of decades should have slipped between the cracks, but while in some cases it’s justified, there’s much of KnightQuest that shouldn’t be ignored by anyone following the Bat-saga of the ’90s.

Forgotten Runs: Nicieza & Bagley’s Thunderbolts

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Title: Thunderbolts
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team:Fabian Nicieza (writer), Mark Bagley (Penciler), Pat Zircher (Fill-in Penciler), Norm Breyfogle (Annual Pencils)
Core Issues: Thunderbolts #34-50, Thunderbolts Annual 2000
Essential crossovers: Avengers (Vol. 3) #32-#34, Maximum Security
Years: 2000-2001

Kurt Busiek may have been the original Thunderbolts writer, but the one with the longest pedigree on the series is still Fabian Nicieza, who shaped the team from issue #34 of the original series, right up until #109. Nicieza spent most of his run working with artist Pat Zircher, who took over with issue #51 – but many will have forgotten that for the first year or so, he mostly collaborated with original Thunderbolts penciler, Mark Bagley.

Today, when creators leave a title, it’s generally at the end of an arc, and often involves a relaunch or repositioning of the characters. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, Busiek actually began several plot threads in the couple of issues before he left for Nicieza to pick up – the most major being the series climax, in which Hawkeye (who was leading the team at the time) announced that the Thunderbolts were going to take down the Hulk.

Much of Nicieza’s early run owed something to Busiek’s plot notes, which is why the veteran writer retained a credit for several issues after. With events such as the return of The Beetle, the debut of MACH 2, the unmasking of Citizen V, the introduction of the new Scourge and the death of Jolt the early issues retained – indeed, recaptured – the pace of Busiek’s earliest stories. Although the opening 12 issues are considered classic, the latter half of Busiek’s run was comparatively limp – many of the book’s biggest events, in fact, occurred during the Nicieza/Bagley period.

Artistically, the book had been consistent ever since the series began. Bagley had drawn almost every issue, and his particular blend of superheroics and storytelling was then, as it is now, a joy to read. When Bagley was taken off the title to concentrate on his Ultimate Spider-Man run, he quickly became one of the industry’s top talents – or rather, people finally recognised him as such. Those of us reading Thunderbolts were already well aware.

For many years now, Marvel has treated the series rather like the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe. While Busiek’s opening 12 issues garnered much acclaim, it was soon eclipsed by his work on the returned Avengers title. Nicieza’s run – explosive though it was, by the fans’ standards – never quite managed to get the book much attention. A cancellation was undone by a Busiek and Nicieza Avengers/Thunderbolts collaboration, and the relaunched book ticked over under Nicieza until it was handed to Warren Ellis and reworked into something massively successful – though perhaps not entirely similar to what came before.

In light of the rejuvenation of the brand, Marvel did little to remind people of the Thunderbolts’ more conventionally superheroic past. Even Busiek’s run – acclaimed though it was – has never been reprinted past issue #12. Nicieza’s run, even those issues with a name collaborator like Bagley – is unlikely to ever see print, if only because the second and third volumes required to get to it will end up slogging through Busiek’s weaker period first.

And yet the Nicieza/Bagley issues are arguably the title’s fasted-paced period, every one featuring a major event and interleaving several compelling plot mysteries. Although Nicieza eventually succumbed to his own predeliction for convoluted plots and pet characters, the run with Bagley, which ended in the title’s fiftieth issue, was incredibly entertaining.

It might not be revolutionary stuff – but if you’re interested in reading a companion to Busiek’s own Avengers run (which received a complete reprint in hardcover), the Thunderbolts of this period is the perfect book for it – not just because of the direct crossover, but because Songbird features in Avengers Forever, the Genis-Vell Captain Marvel of Avengers Forever guests in Thunderbolts, and the 2000 annual follows up on a Hawkeye/Mockingbird plot thread introduced in one of Busiek’s earliest Avengers stories. And best of all, it’s doubtlessly available on the cheap.

James Hunt | 12th February, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Dan Jurgens’ Spider-Man

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Title: Sensational Spider-Man
Publisher:
Marvel
Creative Team:
Dan Jurgens (story, pencils), Klaus Janson (inks)
Core Issues: Sensational Spider-Man #0-#6
Essential Crossovers: “Media Blizzard”, “The Return of Kane”, ”Web of Carnage” and “Blood Brothers” (multi-part stories, each also taking place in the other monthly Spidey books)
Years: 1996

In converstion with James about George Perez recently, I remarked that the legendary Teen Titans/Crisis/Avengers penciller had achieved one of those rare feats in comics – that is, becoming a widely-revered artist with both the Big Two publishers. There are a handful of artists that have done it, but very few in the great scheme of things that have achieved the same level of respect on both sides of the divide – but Perez has undoubtedly managed it, to the extent that you couldn’t really call him a “DC” or a “Marvel” artist over the other.

Dan Jurgens, meanwhile, is very firmly a “DC” artist – but he had a shot at becoming another one of those exalted few in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, a pairing that seemed for all the world like a perfect matchup – Jurgens drawing Spider-Man – ended up only lasting around half a year, and culminating in disappointment all around.

Having spent the first half of the ’90s establishing himself as the definitive Superman artist of that era, the prospect of seeing Jurgens apply his bold, clean-cut style of superheroics to Spider-Man was a mouthwatering one; and while he’s always been a better artist than writer, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his scripting of the Man of Steel, and again his style seemed a good fit. But from the outset, circumstances were difficult: the high-profile launch of Sensational Spider-Man, the new “third” monthly Spider-book given to the writer/artist, also happened to be the first issue featuring Ben Reilly as Spider-Man – new hairstyle, costume and all.

For those of us who actually liked Reilly, this was no bad thing (even less so if you happened to like the Bagley-designed costume, too – which I certainly do/did). But unfortunately, while he had a game stab at setting up Ben’s new supporting cast and setup (the launch issue #0, while a little bogged down in the sort of expository talking-to-self narrative of which Jurgens has always been fond, was actually pretty good fun), Jurgens’ heart wasn’t really in it. He wanted to be writing and drawing the real Spider-Man – but as far as Marvel were concerned (publicly at least), Ben was in it for the long-haul.

Still, we got some good material out of the run – even though the publication style of the time means it’s difficult to follow Jurgens’ issues alone as one whole, as only the first and last issues actually stood alone. The rest were all individual chapters of storylines spread across all three monthly Spider-books – so in Sensational we get part one of the Mysterio-starring “Media Blizzard” (the only story that had little to do with the ongoing saga, also featuring an utterly cracking redesign for my favourite Spidey foe), part two of “The Return of Kaine”, part one of “Web of Carnage”, and parts one and five of “Blood Brothers”. It’s all a bit bewildering, really.

Nevertheless, through all of that, Jurgens was working hard to try and carve out a niche for Ben himself. Of the three monthly books at the time, Sensational was the one that really seemed to care about the character – it’s the one that gave him his job and supporting cast – while Amazing and Adjectiveless were more concerned with the longer-term, Clone-Saga-fallout ramifications. As such, there’s some good character material – and of course, Jurgens got to play with his one major contribution to the Spider-mythos, courtesy of Ben’s brief relationship with the photographer Jessica, who turns out to be the daughter of Uncle Ben’s killer. A potentially intriguing plot, it’s wrapped up in far-too-hasty fashion due to Jurgens’ last issue on the title being as early as #6 (one suspects he would have drawn the story out far longer had he stuck around – as it is, that last issue is simply a rush-job of loose-end-tying). Tired of being stuck writing the adventures of a fake Spider-Man (even though at the time the editorial line was that Ben was the “real” one), he left the Spidey books, never to return.

The cruel irony is that if only he’d stuck around for a bit longer, he would have had the chance to do what he wanted after all – the new creative team of Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo only had to do five issues themselves before Reilly was promptly dispatched, in the “Revelations” storyline; and by the first issue of 1997, Peter Parker and the classic duds were back. It’s a shame, as Jurgens’ run had been an interesting new direction – and looked terrific, especially under the inks of Klaus Janson – and it would have been nice to have seen him have a crack at the character proper. Although I can’t help but wonder, if he had stuck around, how long it would have taken for him to put Spidey in a time-travel story…

Seb Patrick | 7th February, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Claremont & Larocca’s Fantastic Four

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This twice-weekly project posted throughout February sees us looking at the forgotten creative runs on some of Marvel and DC’s biggest properties. Uncollected, uncelebrated, and unexplored, these runs fell between the cracks of history – and in this series of articles, we try to decide whether or not they actually deserved to.

Title: Fantastic Four
Publisher:
Marvel
Creative Team:
Chris Claremont & Salvador Larocca
Core Issues:
Fantastic Four (Vol. 3) #4-#32
Essential crossovers: Iron Man (Vol. 3) #14, Heroes Reborn: Doomsday, Heroes Reborn: Ashema, Heroes Reborn: Doom
Years: 1998-2000

After the conclusion of the “Heroes Reborn” event (which farmed out several of Marvel’s biggest properties to Image creators), Marvel intended to bring back those series with some of their top-notch creative talent. Busiek and Perez’s Avengers run was undoubtedly the jewel in the crown, while Waid and Garney reprised a celebrated run on Captain America. By comparison, Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis’ Fantastic Four series was over almost before it started. Only 3 issues in, the team was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Chris Claremont and Salvador Larocca.

It’s clear that Claremont and Larocca’s arrival wasn’t particularly planned – Lobdell had previously stated an intention to stay on board the title for a 50-issue run, and his plots were used for two issues following his departure. Claremont, for his sins, had recently returned to Marvel to work as an “editorial director”, and was presumably just in the right place at the right time to take over at short notice when relations between Marvel and Lobdell/Davis broke down, for whatever reason.

Having written the Fantastic Four at least once in the past, during the X-Men Vs. the Fantastic Four miniseries, it’s relatively easy to see what Claremont’s interests in the team are, as many were reprised here. In that series, Claremont wrote Doom as the dark mirror of Reed, capable of forging a diary so convincing that even Reed didn’t notice it was fake. This duality would later inform the ongoing plot when Reed found himself trapped in Doom’s armour and becoming more and more Doom-esque in his actions, mannerisms and morality.

Such big, character-centric ideas were the high points of Claremont’s run. However, it would take nearly a year for him to make any steps towards the Doom/Reed plot, and the intervening issues were incredibly weak and convoluted. As soon as Lobdell’s plots had been worked through, Claremont immediately set about reinventing the book’s status quo in his own tradition. His first year on the title relied heavily on alternate universes, and he introduced three separate new female characters, all of whom were the standard, Claremontian archetype – spunky, brilliant and utterly flawless. Two of them – Alyssa Moy and Valeria Von Doom (the teenage version) – caught on and enjoyed life beyond Claremont’s run on the title. The third – Caledonia – didn’t. Not least because, as an alternate Captain Britain, she was really an Excalibur refugee (as were many of the title’s concepts and villains during this period)

Despite being Rachel Summers with the serial numbers filed off (she even took the codename Marvel Girl) Valeria Von Doom – apparently the daughter of Sue and Doom from the future – would eventually become the focus of the book’s direction, as much for what she implied about the future of the team than for the mystery of where she came from. Although the plots became turgid as Claremont bounced the core team from dimension to dimension, the mystery of Marvel Girl’s origins drove the book’s subplots – as did the tension between Sue and Reed over various extra-marital issues (Reed’s ex-girlfriend, Alyssa Moy’s presence, Sue’s villainously-revealed “heart’s desire” to be Namor’s Queen, and of course, Valeria’s stated origin).

The book only really got going when Doom returned, forcing the various plots Claremont had been seeding to actually start blooming together. His X-Men run had long since proven that Claremont was a master of long-term plotting, but the convoluted nature of the individual issues and massively off-theme storylines suggested that his single-issue plotting was much rustier than his macro plotting. The final issues (#25-32, together with a group of “Doomsday” one-shots) cap Claremont’s run off, and tie up the loose ends so satisfactorily that it almost excuses the 18-issue mess that precedes it. A wordless, underwater sequence that opens issue #32 even proves that despite’s Claremont’s much-criticised wordiness, he does know what to be quiet occasionally.

Unfortunately, despite a truly enjoyable finale, the flaws in Claremont’s run were incredibly pronounced, and probably familiar to those who read his subsequent X-Men stories. The supporting characters and villains Claremont used – many of them new creations – were usually little more than a codename and visual (I’m looking at you, Lockdown, Rosetta Stone, Caledonia, The Ruined, The Bacchae and the Twisted Sisters), and characters had a tendency towards exposition that constantly grated. Many of the stories involved mind-control and body-modification (more staples of Claremont’s work) and the plots were virtually photocopied from issue-to-issue. It wasn’t a high point for either Claremont or the Fantastic Four.

There is, at least, one thing that can be universally praised about this period in Fantastic Four history: Larocca’s art. For me, this is Larocca at this height of his ability – before the horrific digital inking of X-treme X-Men, before the lifeless photoreferencing of Invincible Iron Man – just pure storytelling. Even if he does have a habit of drawing Sue Richards like she’s smuggling melons in her uniform, and the computer colouring (by Liquid!) is so obviously a product of a company who just got access to their first copy of photoshop and want to squeeze every available colour onto the page.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see why Claremont and Larocca’s run has passed into history fairly unnoticed. Although his series finale works well as a postscript to the Heroes Reborn era, the series’ main contributions to the lore were to introduce Alyssa Moy (who was given a near-total makeover when she returned in the Millar/Hitch run) and to introduce Valeria, who was eventually replaced by her own infant self when Carlos Pachecho and Jeph Loeb were writing the book. Hardly broad strokes. Still, there are some good ideas in there, and if nothing else, it’s consistently a good-looking book, even if the writing is uneven. It might not be a hidden gem, but the finale plotline, at least, is worth a look. Just avoid everything before #24 and you’ll be fine.