With even relative box office-flop Green Lantern making over $50m in its opening weekend, and The Dark Knight currently occupying third place in the highest grossing films of all time list, it’s fairly obvious that the amount of interest in superheroes as characters far outstrips that of the comic books from which they emerged. Superheroes in comics have often accumulated decades worth of continuity baggage, which can become an obstacle and prevent potential fans from picking up the books. It is no surprise that many opt to watch a two hour film instead, telling its own story from scratch.
Hope for the medium of comics is not all lost however, there are a number of great comics which simultaneously manage to be easily accessible to new readers while retaining the sense of being set in a thriving, vivid world the decades of universe building have afforded. Here are my top 5 of them.
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
Marvels is essentially a tour of the Marvel universe from its Golden Age beginnings up to the end of the Silver Age (roughly from the late ’30s to the early ’70s) and charts the emergence and activities of the superheroes of this era through the eyes of everyman character Phil Sheldon. The book charts Phil’s life from being a young man encountering the first Marvel heroes, and witnessing many of the defining moments of their early careers through his job as a photojournalist. Using this concept, Busiek and Ross have constructed a narrative which allows readers to be taken through a succinct history of the Marvel characters and witness the events from an outsider’s perspective.
This would all be for nothing if the core story was unable to hold everything together, but Phil Sheldon’s story is an engrossing one, featuring touching personal moments such as his encounter with a homeless mutant girl following (mutant) race riots, and those grander in scale, including Spider-Man battling for the life of his girlfriend with the Green Goblin or the seemingly biblical arrival The Silver Surfer and Galactus. Special note has to be of Alex Ross’ painted, photo-realistic artwork. I first read the book as a kid and the level of realism coupled with the seeing the action from the perspective of an bystander was incredible to me. Over a decade on, Marvels is still as unique and impressive as ever.
Spider-Man / Human Torch by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton
Spider-Man / Human Torch is the collection of a five issue mini-series with each issue focusing on a different time period of Spidey and the Torch’s careers, from their beginnings in 1963 to present day, chronicling their alternating states of rivalry and friendship. The script and art both pay some homage to the classic Lee/Ditko/Romita days of Spider-Man and it manages to invoke their fast-paced and fun feel. The book balances wacky scenarios such as Spidey taking a trip to another dimension after swapping jobs for the day with the Torch, or the pair driving vertically up the buildings of New York City in the Spider-Mobile chasing telepathic Soviet apes, with the personal drama and soap opera that helped to define Marvel comics from its Distinguished Competition in the ’60s and mostly continues to do so.
Writer, Dan Slott succeeds where many versions of Spider-Man, including the movie trilogy, fail; in making him genuinely funny. The rivalry between the two lead characters is fertile ground for witty dialogue and their straight man sarcasm in the face of the over the top scenarios allow them to be amusing rather than silly. In addition to this, the personal lives of Spider-Man and Human Torch in their identities of Peter Parker and Johnny Storm add some melancholy to the proceedings, as they deal with real world issues such as work problems, relationships and even the loss of loved ones. Overall, Spider-Man /Human Torch is a well rounded and fun book with some of that trademark Marvel pathos.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
In 1987 DC Comics published a new and definitive origin of The Dark Knight, charting his first year of operating as the Batman. The story begins with Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham after many years of training and ready to begin his war on crime, from his decision to “become a bat” to give himself a psychological advantage following a disastrous and nearly fatal ‘reconnaissance’ mission and onwards. As his progression continues we see a Batman who is becoming more confident but maintains a level on uncertainty about himself, a humanising aspect of the story and something not commonly seen in later books. A parallel narrative runs through the book of Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s simultaneous coming to Gotham City and his attempt to clean up the corrupt city from within the police force.
As would be expected, Batman: Year One contains a number of classic Batman set pieces. My personal favourite is the scene in which Batman interrupts a meeting of Gotham’s top public figures and gangsters by emerging from a destroyed wall to inform them, from the shadows that they are no longer safe. Anybody who has seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins from 2005 will recognise the scene where Batman repels a blood-thirsty SWAT team by summoning a swarm of bats.
With its film noir-esque inner monologues, adult tone, powerful action sequences and vision of Gotham City as a dank, hostile place, Miller and Mazzucchelli shattered the popular camp, farcical idea of Batman in a more successful way than anybody before, and arguably after.
All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
As opposed to the origin tale of Batman: Year one, All Star Superman is the story of the end of Superman, yet is written in a way which doesn’t require prior knowledge of the character’s history to fully enjoy. The book begins with a masterful page which uses four panels and eight words (Doomed planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple) to provide all the origin information required before diving into the rest of the story. From this point, the book chronicles Superman’s last days after cells have become terminally overloaded with solar energy following the rescue of a sabotaged manned mission to the Sun.
With a slightly grim sounding premise, the book is uplifting and positive, showing a Superman renewed with a new sense of urgency in his quest to help humanity. Grant Morrison’s grand and undeniably crazy silver age-esque ideas, such as Superman battling a cube-shaped Bizarro planet, meeting the time travelling “Superman Squad” from the future, and introducing Lois Lane to his pet Sun-Eater which feeds on miniature galaxies exhibit a level of creative exuberance rarely matched. The adeptly written series has far more than high concepts up its sleeve however, and each of the mostly self-contained chapters provides a new insight into the character of the Man of Steel. Scenes such as Clark’s struggle to convince Lois of his real identity and Superman taking the time to comfort a suicidal teenager are as powerful as the epic events taking place alongside.
Artist, Frank Quitely’s genius lies in being able to craft completely authentic, expressive characters and reality-bending concepts in an equally believable way. For the sheer amount of ideas which are present in the book, no page ever appears cluttered or difficult to follow, Quitely’s heavily detailed and gorgeous artwork allows the story to be comfortably savoured and enjoyed at a somewhat leisurely pace, taking in each panel with the time a masterpiece like All Star Superman deserves.
Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III
When compared to most of the characters featured in this list, Batwoman/Kate Kane is a relatively new character. Introduced in crossover event “52” in 2006. “Elegy” is her first solo story, and while not an origin story, provides a rich back-story via the flashbacks throughout. The main story of the book is of Kate trying to put a stop to an organisation called The Religion of Crime, who were obsessed with her and succeeded in stabbing her in the heart in the pages of “52”.
Without going into too much detail and including spoilers, this is an action packed book, something that is truly taken advantage of in J.H. Williams’ artwork. Every scene featuring Batwoman in action is jaw-dropping, utilising a combination of realistic painted artwork and experimental panel design which drives the action as much as the characters themselves. The way conventional page layout is obliterated and replaced by these flamboyant designs frame the events in a manner only possible in the medium of comic books.
I specified scenes featuring Batwoman in the above paragraph as the only the scenes where she is in costume are rendered in this way, to add to their fantasticism. The sections of the book with Kate Kane in her civilian identity are drawn in a more traditional way, with rectangular panels separated by white gutters and are the parts that allow writer, Greg Rucka to take the spotlight. Rucka, gives us a captivating lead character with real depth and as the book switches between the present and the past, we are left with a clear view of her personality and motivations. I have been scarce with details of plot developments in this synopsis due to their powerful emotional delivery. There are numerous heartbreaking moments for the heroine, though she, and the book in general retain an optimistic outlook.
Rucka and Williams are truly two artists at the top of their game and Batwoman: Elegy is well worth checking out to find a new superhero with as much gravitas and flair as the classic characters.