Sunday, April 4, 2010

Comics Events That Stick the Landing

It ain’t easy being a comic book writer.

Now I’m not speaking to you as the acclaimed writer of Werewolf By Night: Werewolf By Eve here, but rather as a (I guess) longtime comics professional and longer time comics fan who has seen the process, the struggles and the results up close enough to know how hard these guys and gals work. And among the many mountains these scribes must climb, fewer are more difficult than not only spooling out a big-time event story, but bringing said epic to a satisfying conclusion.

The great challenge of ending an event, particularly in today’s era of everything needing to be bigger, higher stakes and more dangerous is that after spending years building the threat(s) in your tale to be nigh insurmountable, you need to find a way for the good guys to win that’s clever, rewarding and not too clichéd—way easier said than done.

Sure this is a hurdle that folks writing movies, television, novels, etc. also face, but no other medium but comics offers you quite so many tempting tools to fashion obstacles limited only by your own imagination that you will at some point need to put down in an issue or two.

A lot of complaints come flooding in when the solution to foiling the big bad turns out to be basically the equivalent of “fire a bigger energy beam” or “punch a little harder,” but the fact is that if those scenarios are played out with proper skill and drama by a writer in full cognizance of their own creative gifts, they can still kick some major ass.

Other popular go-to outs include the heroic sacrifice or the unexpected cavalry, both of which done right can be perfection and done wrong can bring down the wrath of a furious fanbase. And of course once every so often there’s that wonderful “How did he/she ever think of that?!” out of left field clever endgame that you need to just stand up and applaud.

Here are a few events that earned my standing or sitting ovation with their passion and/or ingenuity.

(And since I kinda need to summarize these endings to explain why I dig them…SPOILERS AHOY!)

What Happened: Thanos unites the six Infinity Gems, becoming nigh omnipotent and defeating not only all of Earth’s heroes, but also the big gun cosmic entities of the Marvel Universe, from Galactus to Eternity. However, after being spurned by Death—the lover whose approval he sought through his actions—because he is now so far above her in station, Thanos becomes distracted enough for his granddaughter, Nebula, to steal the Infinity Gauntlet. In a 180, Thanos teams with longtime foe Adam Warlock and the other good guys to get the Gauntlet back from Nebula.

Why It Rocked: Nobody could defeat Thanos but himself. Literally every other would-be savior, from Captain America on up to Eternity, tried and failed. But as Warlock confronts Thanos about as they prepare to battle Nebula, he knows his enemy’s soul well enough to know that he allowed himself to lose, just as he always does, because deep down he knows he’s not worthy of ultimate power and fears possessing it. It was a pattern writer Jim Starlin had established in prior stories years earlier, so it didn’t come out of nowhere and was a character-building development rather than a complete Deus Ex Machina. I have also always dug the irony that the one thing Thanos always wants, the love of Death, was the one thing he couldn’t have no matter how powerful he was, and that played into his undoing.

What Happened: Adolf Hitler gets his brain transferred into the uber-powerful body of Dynaman, and after the secret gets out, begins laying waste to Washington D.C., brutally murdering any hero who gets in his way. It’s a dog pile of Golden Age DC heroes against the greatest foe they’ve ever faced, but Hawkman, Johnny Quick, Hourman, Starman and even Green Lantern as well as dozens of others prove not-so-up to the task. In the end, a young Captain Comet surprises the exhausted Dynaman and gets kicked in the nuts for his trouble, but gives Liberty Belle an opening to stab the bad guy through the chest with Starman’s Cosmic Rod.

Why It Rocked: The whole “one hero after another takes a go at the unstoppable bad guy” is a timeless trope that James Robinson laid out perfectly in his script and that Paul Smith drew to perfection. The moment where Green Lantern finally shows up when it seems all hope is lost really gets your heart racing—but the fact that he fails is even better. I’m a suck for the folks you least expect being the ones to get the job done in the end, so Captain Comet, who had just debuted in the series a few pages earlier and is a barely known commodity besides, being the guy who makes the difference and then the barely-powered Liberty Belle getting the kill shot just gives you the warm and fuzzies (as much as anything can when you just witnessed a psycho Nazi superman butcher a bunch of beloved heroes).

What Happened: Stryfe frames Cable for an assassination attempt on Professor Xavier, kidnaps Cyclops and Jean Grey, and manipulates Apocalypse, Mister Sinister and various others to play them, the X-Men, X-Force and other factions against one another as he seeks mysterious revenge against all parties. Ultimately, Apocalypse saves Professor X’s life, and various members of the X-Men, X-Factor and X-Force head to the moon where Stryfe has Cyclops and Jean held captive and has opened a time portal for unrevealed reasons. Only Cable and Havok are able to breach Stryfe’s force field; after battling Stryfe to a standstill, Cable throws Cyclops a device that allows him to send both men into the portal then collapse it, seemingly killing them and ending the threat.

Why It Rocked: This was the kind of overblown soap opera-on-steroids stuff that was like my crack at age 10. Those climactic panels of Cyclops hesitating to condemn Cable and Stryfe to death as he has connected the dots we as readers had much earlier—that one of the two of them is Nathan, the son he sacrificed and sent to the future years before—while Cable screams at him to push the button is classic. In those days, I was too young to know that dead didn’t mean dead when it came to comics and really the industry had yet to prove that axiom, so this felt like a really big deal and appropriately huge price for the good guys to pay in order to get the win.

What Happened: After Hal Jordan-as-Parallax attempts to recreate the DC Universe from scratch following his destruction of the original timeline, a motley crew of heroes that includes Superman, Kyle Rayner, Green Arrow, Donna Troy, Guy Gardner, The Ray, Damage and others stands as the last hope to stop him. Time guardian Waverider has an elaborate plan that involves getting as close to Parallax as possible to stop him and then feeding enough energy into Damage that he can create a huge explosion that will generate a new “Big Bang” and restore the prior universe as closely as possible. The heroes—along with an eleventh hour assist from The Spectre—are able to distract Hal and his henchman Extant for a period, but Parallax triggers his own endgame when he attempts to kill Damage and ends nailing an alternate reality Batgirl instead. This prompts Hal’s longtime best friend, Green Arrow, to let loose a shaft right into the chest of his weakened buddy, nearly killing him and tossing both he and Kyle Rayner into the timestream just as Waverider’s plan works.

Why It Rocked: As you can tell from the paragraph above, there was a lot of complicated shit going down in this climax, perhaps too much, but Dan Jurgens, who both wrote and drew it, had such a mastery of the important beats as well as the foresight to utilize the huge cast he had at his disposal that I felt it was a great and powerful conclusion to a series that had its ups and downs. I’m always a suck for The Spectre coming in at the last moment and Damage was a great wild card savior, but the tense stare down between Hal and Ollie as Green Arrow makes the hardest shot of his life—and sadly, an ultimately futile and unnecessary one—is just tremendous stuff.

What Happened: A DC Universe version of the devil himself, Neron, tempts various heroes and villains, empowering many of the latter group in a campaign designed to sow chaos and move different pieces into place so that he can make a power grab by seizing a pure soul and presumably expand his kingdom. Neron surrounds himself with several prominent baddies like Lex Luthor, The Joker, Circe, Doctor Polaris and Abra Kadabra as his inner circle, but also brings The Trickster under his wing, seeing great potential within him. Ultimately, it turns out the soul in question was Captain Marvel’s, and Trickster saves the day and the world by instructing Cap to offer it without asking for anything in return, realizing a completely unselfish deal was the only thing that could defeat Neron.

Why It Rocked: Kudos to Kiel for reminding me of this one. A C-rate Flash villain who had not been relevant in years, Trickster was an absolutely inspired choice to be the guy who brings Neron down, and Mark Waid’s handling of him during this story is nothing short of brilliant. That James Jesse didn’t go on to anywhere near the level of coolness this story demonstrated he had the potential for and ultimately backslid into being a villain again before dying a nearly anonymous death is one of comics’ saddest examples of squandered potential in my view. Not only was this an awesome expectations-defying wrap to a solid story featuring a truly grin-worthy hero turn, the path to victory was quite well-thought-out and layered, a true thinker’s conclusion.

What Happened: Having destroyed the Nova Corps, captured Quasar’s Quantum Bands and conquered huge swaths of the universe with his Negative Zone army, Annihilus now turns his attention to destroying existence, planning to harness Galactus as a weapon after jailing him and utilizing Thanos’ technology. Realizing Annihilus’ plans, Thanos turns against him moments before his own death at the hands of Drax, allowing Moondragon to free the Silver Surfer, who in turn unleashes Galactus and destroys the base of the Annihilation Wave. Annihilus escapes only to find himself confronted by Nova; following a savage battle, Phyla-Vell tips the scales by swiping the Quantum Bands and Nova ends the universal threat by tearing Annihilus’ guts out through his throat.

Why It Rocked: I’m not doing the complexities of Keith Giffen’s ultimate cosmic war story and its twisting, turning plot justice with that write-up, but you get the idea. The various hoops the array of characters had to maneuver their way through in order to get things to a point where Nova could deliver a decisive deathblow made that moment all the more sweeter—and it was already pretty darn sweet. Granted I’m biased here, but Giffen and his cohorts did an incredible job building up Nova as a Luke Skywalker/Rocky Balboa underdog throughout all of Annihilation, so when he disembowels Annihilus from the outside, I dare you not to cheer at the very least on the inside.


Matt Ampersand said...

Annihilation was such a great event, from beginning to end. The end, however, was flat out amazing. The "This is for the Nova Corps" scene is one that I am sure is going to be fondly remembered years from now.

Another event with a great ending was War of Kings. It wasn't a clean end, but an incredibly cathartic one. As opposed to Annihilation, where it was pretty clear from the get-go that it was good vs. evil, War of Kings was two factions battling each other (even if Vulcan/Shi'Ar were presented as the more "evil" side). Much like war in real life, there were no clear endings, just more (although different) battles still to be fought, even if the war was already finished. said...

How was The Golden Age an event? It was a stand-alone Elseworlds mini-series that didn't tie in to anything else.

Ben Morse said...

You're right, it technically wasn't an "event" in the classic sense, I suppose, but it featured a shitload of heroes in an epic story, so I counted it.

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