Romance, Westerns, Superheros – DC Comics’ SOLO Collection

I can safely say that, as of late, DC Comics has been a bit disappointing.  Sure, they’ve got Sandman: Overture starting up in October and some Vertigo titles are still pretty great (I’m looking at you Unwritten!), but as a whole… The company seems to be, creatively, headed for a valley.

The New 52 is sputtering like an octogenarian gumming his way through breakfast, Before Watchmen was a horrendous misfire that didn’t stir up sales as much as controversy, and their new plan of having a Frank Miller-style battle between Batman and Superman is… distressing to say the least.

But, after nearly seven years, DC Comics has finally collected their bi-monthly series Solo into a very nice Deluxe hardcover.  How does this collection fare?  Read on, read on…

Solo
Written and Illustrated by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Michael Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Damion Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy
DC Comics
June 5, 2013
568 Pages

Solo The Deluxe Edition Cover

Solo, when originally released, was published bi-monthly and done as a sort of artist’s showcase with some of the finest illustrators working in comics.  Just check out the list above and you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to enjoy in this volume.  And the best part?

It isn’t all DC continuity!  In fact, probably less than half of the stories had anything to do with DC Comics characters.  Batman shows up quite a bit, as to be expected, but that’s about it.

The biggest surprise was a brief story written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen and starring Boston Brand, the Deadman (proving once again that the Brits will invariably go ass over elbow for the Silver Age of comics), but Darwyn Cooke’s entire issue was top-to-bottom fantastic, Tim Sale’s issue is pretty great (even with the terribly uneven Jeph Loeb), and Sergio Aragones is (expectedly) fantastic.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, at least for me.

Despite how cool it was to see some Western comics, many of those kind of blend together for me and are, at the end of the day, forgettable.  The same goes for the adventure comics as well.

Similarly, some of the art just didn’t do it for me.  Artists like Brendan McCarthy, whose cover art I loved in the Vertigo Shade, The Changing Man series, was too weird.  Much of looked to me like Grant Morrison fucked R. Crumb in a psychedelic love-nest.  But it didn’t work for me.  I’m sure someone who actually knows anything about art would have found more to enjoy.

But if I were to whip out my biggest complaint, it would be that there’s a very small amount of female creators involved in the project.  None of the twelve issues focuses completely on any female artists.  Thankfully, Laura Allred shows up to assist in the writing and coloring of her husband Michael’s issue… But we couldn’t get Jill Thompson in there?  Amanda Conner, or Pia Guerra?  I know that much of comic books is (unfortunately) a man’s world, but certainly there could have been at least one female artist brought on board for this project.

Couldn’t there?

Despite this painful oversight, this still warrants a buy vote from me.  Michael Allred’s issue reads like a bizarre love-letter to the Silver Age of comics (and his story “Batman A-Go-Go!” is by far the best deconstruction of the character as it exists in a post-Miller world) and Darywn Cooke’s issue shows why he’s one of the best working in the business today.

Even with several of forgettable stories, this is a strong collection with a good mixture of serious, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking comics that show that comic books are more than just muscular dudes in tights.

Sometimes, it’s also Batman doing the batusi.

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Lamenting the Death of a Hero – The Sad Decline of Jeph Loeb

I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m going to be walking on eggshells a bit in this post.  I want to go full-on NERDRAGE here… But I know it isn’t fair, to either Jeph Loeb the creator, or Jeph Loeb the person.

In fact, I almost made an accidentally inappropriate cancer joke in my post about Ultimate Spider-man which I deleted… mainly because the layers of it were incredibly offensive, both as a comic reader, and the spouse of a cancer survivor.

Anyhow…

To me, Jeph Loeb’s career is one of the saddest stories in modern comics.  Let me be clear: I’m sure there are people that still read and enjoy Loeb’s work.  Great!  I’d love to talk to you about it.  Seriously!  I want to know because I’d love to be able to enjoy anything he’s done recently.  But I don’t.  And it saddens me greatly.

My exposure with Jeph Loeb began with one of his many collaborations with artist Tim Sale in the Batman story The Long Halloween (1996). I loved The Long Halloween.  So much.  When Loeb gets with Sale, they can give birth to an excellent story (more on that in a bit).  The follow up to Long Halloween, entitled Dark Victory (1999) is also excellent. Both stories have a mixture of superheroes and film noir that give them a distinctly different feel from a typical Batman story.

Then there’s Hush.  Oh boy, is there Hush.  Unlike Long Halloween and Dark Victorythe Hush story arc took place within the confines of current Batman continuity (running through issues 608 and 619 of the Batman monthly comic in 2002).  These stronger ties to the ongoing continuity of the Batman tales meant that Loeb’s creations and storylines, such as the villain Hush, would be available to all other writers and artists in the future… well… until the New 52 wiped all that away, I suppose.

But Hush was great too!  It had Batman against a large collection of rogues, involved in a mystery with murder, intrigue… and Superman’s there too!  The writing was solid and the art, provided by the incomparable Jim Lee, was an excellent companion to Loeb’s dialogue and pacing.  One of my favorite modern Batman stories!

2002 also brought us another Tim Sale collaboration: Spider-Man: Blue and the following year brought Hulk: Grey, another team up for Loeb and Sale.  Both great stories about classic Marvel characters.  The color theme for Marvel characters began with Daredevil: Yellow (2001), which I haven’t read because… well, I have no interest in the character.  Hate me now!

But here our troubles begin.

2003 brought the fairly inconsistent, if entertaining, Superman/Batman comic.  I’ve read the first 12 issues or so and there’s nothing particularly wrong with the story… there’s just nothing terribly outstanding from Loeb in the first couple arcs.  Maybe it comes from my not-so-subtle distaste for ongoing caped-hero stories, maybe I try to hard to compare it to Loeb\Sale’s excellent 1998 miniseries A Superman For All Seasons.  I don’t know.  I just don’t I didn’t particularly care for Superman/Batman.

Superman/Batman #25 was the last issue written by Jeph Loeb, but not the last written by Loeb.  His son, Sam Loeb, wrote issue #26, but passed away from cancer before it was completed.  The issue includes a back-up story entitled “Sam’s Story” written by Loeb and illustrated by Sale.

The cynic that lives right below the surface of my mind wants to be cynical about the issue, particularly the back-up, but… I just don’t have it in me.  It’s a wonderful tribute to a young author who was never able to fully realize his dreams.

Late 2007 into early 2008 gave us Ultimates 3 which suffers from many issues, but the most glaring and painful is how forgettable it is… which is particularly bad because the first two volumes, written by known mad-man and possible future-Grant-Morrison-hit-target Mark Millar, are spectacular (well, mostly).  But I could forgive Loeb for that if it weren’t for Ultimatum.

I’m not going to go on and on about the faults and issues present in Ultimatum (November 2008). Honestly, someone much funnier and much more well-versed in comics has already done so.  But suffice it to say that even for someone who has only thus far attached to the Ultimate versions of Spider-man and Hulk… Ultimatum is almost enough to turn me off the rest of the Ultimate universe forever.

Almost.

That said… if Loeb gets back on Batman or another title I rather enjoy… I’ll still give him another chance.  His 2007 tie-in to the death of Captain American titled Fallen Son was roundly well-written… and obviously comes from the depth of sadness Loeb had after his son’s untimely passing.

Plus, as head of Marvel Television, Loeb is at least partially responsible for bringing us the animated Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes which is fun, quick-witted, and well plotted… there are individual episodes, but most of them contribute to a larger, over-arching plot that covers the whole first season.

So Jeph… well, OK, Mr. Loeb… please team up with Tim Sale again.  Give us the story we’ve been waiting for.  Something introspective, thoughtful… maybe a little bit of a noirish sort of feeling.  Toss in a bunch of villains, shake well and remember… We want to enjoy your work as much as you want us to enjoy it.

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Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 3 – Reinvention of the Modern Super Hero – Black Orchid

I read somewhere online that said when Neil Gaiman was asked by DC Comics what character(s) he wanted to work with (after they rejected his initial idea to do a revival of the Golden Age Sandman character), editor Karen Berger misheard him through his British accent and thought he said, “Black Hawk Kid.”

I don’t know where I read that, or if it actually contains any truth… but it makes me laugh. And wonder. What if Neil Gaiman hadn’t done Black Orchid?  It was the first mainstream, US exposure for both Gaiman and Dave McKean and Gaiman has stated that it took a lot of work to get DC Comics to agree to partner him with Dave McKean.  Black Orchid‘s debut predates Sandman by about a year (as well as Dave McKean’s breakout artwork for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) and one wonders if Sandman would have even seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the successes seen in Black Orchid.

Fortunately, the series did quite well.  But after nearly twenty-five years, does it still hold up?  Well… yes. Yes it does.

Black Orchid
Script: Neil Gaiman 
Art and Covers: Dave McKean
Lettering:  Todd Klein
DC Comics
160 Pages
September 1, 1991

Now I’m reading this in the trade format, not the original prestige format books, but it doesn’t seem to have lost anything in translation.  The art is beautiful and McKean’s attention to detail in fantastic.  There’s a full-page illustration (tri-panel) depicting the three major DC characters (besides Orchid) who have deep connections to the Green (think of it as a plant-based spirit world) that is breathtaking.  It shows full-on shots of Swamp Thing (Alec Holland), Poison Ivy (Pamela Isley), and The Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue) and is the only time I’ve seen McKean draw Swamp Thing (though I hope more exists because he does beautiful work!).

To speak further on McKean’s art… he is unafraid to change up the art style depending on the perspective, time-frame, or narration.  Much like Violent Cases and Mr Punch, McKean’s art transcends what we would normally see in comic books and it blows the mind to realize that he was so early in his career.

Gaiman’s writing is particularly strong as well and, given his intimate connection to Alan Mooreit isn’t particularly surprising that much of the style (both in the prose and panel transitions) comes from Alan Moore’s game-changing Swamp Thing run.  One character’s words in one panel are echoed by another in the next, Gaiman transposes song lyrics (Frank Sinatra’s American Beauty Rose) with ugly dialogue, and Gaiman and McKean mix it up in fun (if a bit derivative) ways.

The story remains a stand out today for many of the same reasons that Gaiman’s own Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen still remain the pinnacle of comics storytelling… it takes something familiar (in this case, superhero tropes and cliches) and turns them slightly off-kilter.

For instance, at the start of the story, Orchid is caught attempting to infiltrate a crime organization and is tied to a chair.  The mob boss tells her that he knows all the bullshit ways criminals get caught in comics and movies, and proceeds to shoot her in the head, burn her alive, and blow up the top few floors of the building, leaving no room for error in the elimination of an enemy.  A James Bond villain, he ain’t.

Of course, this mobster (under the employ of known supervillain and all around douche-nozzle Lex Luthor) has no way of knowing that Orchid was one of many plant\human hybrids created by scientist Philip Sylvain.  When the original Orchid is killed, another awakens in a lab and begins a journey to attempt to understand who she is, what she is, and why she is.

Given that this is a DC title (not Vertigo, where it was later collected in Trade), Gaiman takes us throughout the DC Universe.  Orchid meets up with Batman and the inmates at Arkham Asylum (specifically The Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy, but a few others make guest appearances).  As cool and fun as this is, the best stuff for my money is the Swamp Thing section of the book.

Dave McKean portrays Swamp Thing better than almost anyone (Rich Veitch is still a personal favorite of mine) and Gaiman infuses the short scene with the right balance of gravity and humor and it comes off as one of the best scenes in the book.  Also interesting to note:  One of Neil Gaiman’s earliest scripts to DC Comics was a Swamp Thing tale called “Jack in the Green” that went unpublished until the fantastic collection Midnight Days hit around the turn of the century (Midnight Days? “Jack in the Green?”  I smell a second Bites of Bits post for Gaiman Month!!!).

Anyhow… Eventually, we end up in the South American rain forest for our final showdown between Orchid, Luthor’s men, and the wild card Carl Thorne.  Needless to say, McKean’s art continues to shine as he illustrates the lush greens of the rain forest and the conclusion?  Well… you’ll have to read it yourself.

The story is quite good. I’ll say that, unlike a lot of Gaiman’s work, it tends to play it safe at times.  And for as much as the book tries to distance itself from traditional comic stories, it does still feel at times like a superhero comic.

At the same time, though, Gaiman infuses his characters with life and humor, which is odd for any comic that was coming on the tails of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  He also gives a spark of humanity to Orchid, who begins the novel as an unrelatable enigma, which speaks to his strengths as an author.

McKean’s art, as I’ve said far, far too much already, is beautiful.  He jumps around style-wise, but most of the book is done in a semi-realistic style that fits the tone of the book quite well.

Gaiman and McKean’s strength shows in this, their… what, fourth or fifth pairing at this point?  Many of the DC mainstay characters go unnamed (who doesn’t know who Batman is, honestly?  Or The Joker?) and at times, the characters themselves are either completely hidden (Batman) or camouflaged (Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy).

For as violent as the book is, most of the actual violence occurs either off panel, or is done through suggestion.  You’ll get a flash of a knife, or see the start of the bottle’s arc to someone’s head, but the end result is obscured in some way.  Still, there’s plenty of blood and cursing, so… children, dig in!  Your mind can’t be warped worse than The Hunger Games and this… well this is funny too!

If you haven’t read superhero comics in a while, or if you haven’t read any Black Orchid is a good place to start.  The three issues are a bit longer than the standard comic book, but the pairing is stellar, the humor is subtle, and the use of the medium is just plain fantastic. Early as it is, Gaiman’s work shows a clever mind and a lot of promise… promise that would later be realized in works like Sandman and Neverwhere.  The book remains, even twenty years later, one of the finest examples of a superhero comic done right.