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Superman: Birthright (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

You gotta love a good Superman origin. It seems like there are just so many of them floating around, especially in recent years. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin and Mark Waid’s Birthright were all published within the last decade. You could throw in Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity if you aren’t too bothered about the weight of shared universe continuity.

All of these stories are interesting on their own merits, worthy additions to the character’s back catalogue, but none of them really completely define Superman as a character. None of them really encapsulate everything essential about the character in the way that a strong origin story really should.

Birthright is a fascinating take on Superman’s origin with several clever twists and wonderful ideas, but it feels somehow inessential. It’s an alternative take, a version which feels – by its nature – somewhat secondary. It doesn’t encapsulate everything essential about Superman, but instead allows as a glimpse at the hero from a different angle.

This looks like a job for...

This looks like a job for…

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Earth X (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

“Your kind does love to rewrite history, Richards,” the Watcher observes towards the end of Earth X, after we get an introduction and brief recap of the life of Tony Stark. Almost every issue of the collection opens with a review of an iconic Marvel character’s back story, as writer Jim Krueger and plotter Alex Ross attempt to tie the tapestry of the Marvel universe together in some way. It turns out that everything a character underwent wasn’t just their own personal development, but part of a broader tapestry of history within the Marvel universe. No character evolution, it seems, happens in isolation. Everything is interconnected, even if we (or the writers or the characters) never realised it at the time.

Earth X is really just an attempt to tie most of the Marvel universe up in one gigantic knot, to connect everything to everything else. In a way, published in 1999, it seems to foreshadow the current era of Marvel publishing, where absolutely everything within in the shared universe must somehow be connected to something else. Avengers vs. X-Men, for example, would connect the Phoenix from the X-Men to the Iron Fist mythology. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men connected the Weapon X project to the development of Captain America. The X-Men and the Avengers must be united as part of Uncanny Avengers.

In many ways, Earth X reads more interestingly as a treatise than as a comic story. It’s far stronger as a thought-experiment than an actual narrative. It’s more fun on purely technical level, watching Jim Krueger and Alex Cross connect all those dots, than it is as an adventure in its own right.

Stellar...

Stellar…

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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Ignition, The Secret of Barry Allen, Rogue War

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, but – in the spirit of the character – we’re going to have a marathon run through Flash stories before we get there. Check back daily this week for more Flash-ified goodness…

Superman soars above everyone. Batman hides from everyone. Wonder Woman preaches to everyone.

Me? I run right alongside everyone. My name’s Wally West. You probably know the rest.

– The Flash reintroduces himself, The Secret of Barry Allen

Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash can really be split into two distinct sub-runs. The first saw him working with artist Scott Kolins, defining Keystone and building up a supporting cast. The second, following the climax of Blitz, is something of a revised origin for the character – an attempt by Johns to tell his own particular version of an origin story for the character. Of course, it isn’t a literal origin like his own Green Lantern: Secret Origin or Superman: Secret Origin, rather a rediscovery. Although I do have a slight preference for the earlier half the run, there’s no denying that Johns has put together quite a wonderful story during his tenure on The Flash.

What a run...

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Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s Run on the Flash – Emergency Stop & the Human Race

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, but – in the spirit of the character – we’re going to have a marathon run through Flash stories before we get there. Check back daily this week for more Flash-ified goodness… We’ll start with a tie-in to last month’s theme, with the time Grant Morrison wrote The Flash.

Wally, you are definitely spending too much time around Scottish people!

– Linda bends the fourth wall. Quite frankly (or should that be “Frank Quitely”, referencing Morrison’s long-term collaborator?), I’m surprised it’s still standing by the end of the run.

If you believe everything you read, it was actually Mark Waid’s landmark run on The Flash that inspired Grant Morrison to write Justice League in the first place, a run currently being collected in nice deluxe hardbacks. So, when Mark Waid took a year off from the title to pursue his own interests – including the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash and JLA: Year One – perhaps comics’ most mind-bending Scotsman would make a logical choice to replace him on a character who has always had a bit of a surrealist bent. And Grant Morrison brought a friend with him – Mark Millar, now better known as the writer of Kick-Ass and The Ultimates, but who originally started out with a string of partnerships with Morrison through the nineties involving a prologue to Justice League and Aztek, along with many others. Their collaborations aren’t exactly looked back upon as comic book gold – despite the fact that the two of them, working separately, have redefined the superhero genre – but their year-long fill-in gap on The Flash is irrelevant and charmingly fun. Nothing more (unless you’re a continuity nut – in which case the pair tease several essential Flash concepts) and certainly nothing less (unless your comic book tastes don’t run towards the “wacky” end of the spectrum).

Chased by a shadow...

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Mark Millar’s Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 3 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

Mark Millar isn’t quite the tough guy he makes himself out to be. Asked a few years ago about whether the birth of his child might tame some of his more sensationalist tendencies, Millar replied that – if anything – he would be even more motivated to push the envelope in order to demonstrate he hadn’t mellowed. And, in fairness, the years since have seen ideas like Kick-Ass or Wanted or Nemesis, all excessively and ridiculously cynical, graphic and violent. However, I maintain that Millar is a stronger writer when he channels his inner softer romantic – for example, demonstrating the respect he showed Superman in Red Son. Taking over Ultimate Fantastic Four for a year (perhaps on a trial run before writing for regular Fantastic Four), you get a sense that Millar has a genuine affection for these characters and their world – too much to try to make them “darker and edgier”, for example. While his run on Ultimate Fantastic Four isn’t the best thing he’s written, it is sharp and entertaining – and delivered with enough energy that it can’t help but warm the reader’s heart.

Never a drag...

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Mark Waid’s Run on the Fantastic Four – Vol. 1-3 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

The Fantastic Four helped launch Marvel to publishing greatness over the 100+ issues drafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but they’ve seldom occupied a prominent place in their publishing line-up since that dramatic introduction. Sure, the title earned a place as one of the three Ultimate on-going titles (at least before Ultimatum) and sure, there were occasionally hugely successful and iconic runs like that of John Byrne, but these were the exception rather than the rule. The title never really reached a stage like the X-Men, Spider-Man or even Avengers books (in modern Marvel), where they were clearly the title to watch. While I’m not entirely convinced he succeeded, Mark Waid is consciously trying to find a definitive approach to the title. And I respect that.

The adoring public…

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Warren Ellis’ Run on Ultimate Fantastic Four – Vol. 1-2 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

I have to admit that I’m quite surprised to see Warren Ellis writing for a year on Ultimate Fantastic Four. You could make the case for Ellis – an avowed technophile – as perhaps the perfect author for a high-concept series like the Fantastic Four. It was Mark Waid who dubbed the family “Imaginauts” – explorers of the imagination, rather than superheroes or guys in costumes. In a way, given how skilfully Ellis handled Tony Stark’s technological transformation in Extremis, you might not have been unreasonable in expecting he’d prove a deft hand with Marvel’s first family. However, reading the twelve issues he wrote for the title, it’s hard to get a sense that Ellis was ever really giving it his all – although he does play around a bit, it never feels like he’s genuinely pushing things to the limit and playing with all the associated toys. In fact, quite a lot of his run feels like it’s playing it safe.

See, the Thing is...

Note: Ellis’ run on the title picks up after the initial six issues written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, and so is split over the second half of the first hardcover and the first half of the second. The second hardcover is rounded off by a two-part Think Tank story from Mike Carey (who would take over as regular writer after Mark Millar) and an annual written by Millar. So this review/retrospective just covers the issues written by Ellis.

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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Rogues, Crossfire & Blitz

What with Geoff Johns returning to write The Flash, I figured I’d dig out some of the old collections of his first run on the title – arguably the run which brought the writer to the attention of comic book readers everywhere. In a run spanning five years, Johns managed to not only offer a suitably impressive successor to Mark Waid’s run on the title, but also tell his own boldly unique story. In a way, the writer’s time on the title can be broken down into two distinct halves – in fact, the final issue collected here is consciously a transition, with the universe being massively re-written and the status quo irrevocably altered. This collection represents the end of that first half, in which Johns was paired with artist Scott Kolins. I think it’s fair to say that the pair made magic on the title.

The Rogues take the opportunity to chill out...

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Absolute Kingdom Come

The nineties were a tough decade for the comic book medium. Violence sold. “Grim and gritty” represented the direction for most major comic books. Superman died. Batman was crippled. Green Lantern became a genocidal maniac. The Flash had long since abandoned the comic book universe. This was the era back-to-back Venom miniseries, the rise of Rob Liefeld and the lethal vigilante. A lot of people trace back this trend to the success of groundbreaking series like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, which demonstrated that darker imaginings of conventional superhero comics could sell. Of course, that wasn’t the point of the comics at all, but such complexity is not the speciality of managers and executives. However, if the birth of that so-called “Dark Age” of comic books could be traced back to those roots, then perhaps Kingdom Come can be identified as the birth of a counter-movement against such trends.

Superman brings a lot to the table...

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