Monday, June 21, 2010

Five Comics Worth Reading Extra: Dope Debuts

When I was compiling Five Comics Worth Reading last week, I had a surplus of books to choose from, in large part because so many new series have made a great impression on me just in the last month. In order to trim the herd, I decided to cut anything I hadn’t read a second issue of yet, but I’m gonna talk about five of those comics now, because they keep up the tone they’ve set thus far, they’re most certainly worth reading.

It seemed like this one would be a gimme, as Christos Gage and Mike McKone are one helluva creative team and this book would get to ride the momentum of the Heroic Age, but I think there was a lot of pressure here as well, given not only that the title would have to stand up with the higher profile Avengers launches, but there’s also already a much-beloved team of young Avengers out there (called the Young Avengers). I’m pleased to report that from where I sit, Avengers Academy has bucked any jinx and lived above the hype with the first issue. Gage had a tough task as far as creating yet another group of teen heroes in a Universe and industry already filled with them; thus far he has made them distinct by willingly taking risks and going to a dark place psychologically yet one that does not rely on graphic violence or anything like that. He’s writing a smart book here and his characters’ flaws are complex, not surface level, in a way that makes them instantly compelling (that he has described one cast member as “maybe on the autism spectrum, maybe a sociopath” more than once gives you an idea what I’m talking about). As for McKone, he’s redefining himself and his legacy here already, and for a guy whose work and career I follow with as much reverence as his, I think I’m making quite a statement there; Mike’s work over six years ago on Teen Titans was breathtaking, but the experimentation in mediums and techniques he’s doing here is really something.

Full disclosure: Yes, Jim McCann is a dear friend, so I have certainly been in his corner and delighted as he has ascended to a real bonafide writing star on the rise over the past couple years. At the same time, I am very much honest with Jim in terms of assessing his work even when I find some flaw in it (and for his part, he takes criticism as well as anybody and takes it to heart). So it’s with a lot of pride that I read the first issue of Hawkeye & Mockingbird and not only saw so much of what Jim has set out to do with this, a dream project for him to be sure, realized, but also how hard he has worked to elevate his work to a level it wasn’t at even a few months ago; Jim not only has more evident love for his work and the characters in his charge than most, he also puts in that extra mile to write for the guy least likely to enjoy what he’s doing and bring them around. I know what affection he has for Clint Barton and Bobbi Morse and at times during New Avengers: The Reunion I felt those personal feelings may have overshadowed creating something everybody can process, but I’m so pleased to report that’s in no way the case here, as both Hawkeye and Mockingbird as well as the neat little world Jim has built for them remarkably quickly shine in a way I don’t believe decades of familiarity is a requisite to dig. Jim sets a lot of stuff in motion simultaneously in terms of solid mysteries and adventure, but he also never loses sight on selling that central relationship. He’s also got a tremendous creative partner in David Lopez, whose work I have enjoyed since Catwoman and who puts—if it’s possible—just as much enthusiasm and effort into the artistic end of this book as Jim does the writing. Very much looking forward to seeing this book continue to grow both as a fan and a friend.

So far, so good; Paul Levitz is proving to me that even two decades later, you can indeed go home again. Levitz of course famously wrote Legion of Super-Heroes for nearly 15 years from the mid-70’s and late-80’s, taking the franchise to heights never before—or arguably since—seen both creatively and commercially, deftly balancing a cast that at times included two dozen or so characters and making each and every one of them his own in the process. Understandably there had to be some skepticism over whether or not the old master could do it again in an industry that has come a long way since 1989, but I must say I enjoyed the heck out of the first Paul Levitz-written issue of Legion of Super-Heroes in 21 years and felt like it didn’t miss a beat from one of my all-time favorite runs. The most impressive thing is that Levitz’ work here doesn’t feel dated and meshes well with the evolved feel of the medium, yet he doesn’t seem to have sacrificed any of the tricks that made his first go-around so great, from the constantly-shifting focus every one-three pages—I really didn’t realize how much I missed that—to the soap opera-on-steroids feel of the book’s teenage protagonists. Elements introduced in recent years by Geoff Johns like the jingoistic Earth Man or the Legion’s problems with the United Planets don’t feel like inherited items Levitz feels he must deal with, they seem more like challenges he relishes. As for artist Yildiray Cinar, I’d say my judgment still needs to be formed, as he’s brilliant one page and then a bit unfocused the next, but the raw material is certainly there. For now though, I’m mostly just in awe of how this book settles so nicely into a niche that has been sorely missed; welcome back, Mr. Levitz.

So this is the Sean McKeever I’ve heard so much about. In all seriousness, Young Allies does seem like it’s going to be the long-awaited breakout book for Sean after years of under-the-radar success and near-hits, and it could not happen to a nicer guy. It’s a great array of characters, with an old standby like Firestar, McKeever’s own pet character Gravity, new blood in Toro and then the square pegs he has impressively made fit with Nomad and Arana really providing quite a unique blend of personalities. But as much well-deserved credit as Sean has gotten via books like Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane for providing an entertaining look at the teenage experience, he’s also dynamically good at taking that old-fashioned struggle between good and evil we a lot of us came to comics looking for in the first place and both explore the shades of grey while also stripping it down to its component parts. His new villains, the Bastards of Evil—who are literally the supposedly discarded children of existing bad guys—are great examples of this, with a really twisted yet strangely endearing motivation that goes out the window as soon as they start trying to blow everything up. The old school fan in me really grooves on McKeever’s dedication to showing via Gravity, Nomad and friends why even in the mixed up world both they and we live in why morality and heroics still have a place, albeit one found via much angst and self-exploration. David Baldeon is a nice match on art as his work similarly has a surface-level simplicity that belies much more thought-out and even sinister stuff going on deeper within.

As he demonstrated time and again via his work on the Batman and Superman animated series as well as his collaborations with Alex Ross, Paul Dini very much understands the core of what makes certain DC character tick and is able to distill that essence into highly enjoyable stories perfect for hardcore fan and interested observer alike. I was a big fan of Dini’s work on Detective Comics immediately following the One Year Later event where he showed that the sensibilities he brought to those projects carried over nicely to done-in-one stories set in an ongoing series as well. Now Dini has finally got his dream project: a monthly platform to showcase his favorite character of all, Zatanna, and it’s off to a very nice start. Again, Dini seems to be playing to his strengths as the first issue while setting up a bigger tableau also stood nicely on its own both as an introduction to the character and neat little adventure that combined mystery and magic, so I’m hopeful this is a pleasant sign of things to come. Dini’s enthusiasm for the character makes the stories enjoyable to read and it’s nice to see Stephane Roux on sequential work where such care is clearly being given, so I’m hoping for a monthly treat here.

It would seem bright times lie ahead for us fans, my friends.


George Washington Carver said...

1) My shop sold out of this, but Gage is awesome. I wish McKone wasn't drawing it though, cause he makes everyone look like they have Down's Syndrome.
2)I like Hawkeye, but I think he and his wife are supporting characters at best. I get my fill of them in the Avengers books. And while I"m sure Jim McCann is a nice guy and moderately talented, he's not a star by any stretch of the imagination.
3)I flipped through it, Levitz isn't like a lot of those old writers where you can tell they are just completely lost by modern comics, so that's good. However, I can't take any more reboots/continuity jumps in the Legion, so I'm passing on it.
4)Don't care.
5) Paul Dini is pretty awesome, but the first issue didn't impress. I hope he can pull it together in the next couple of issues or I'm out. Good art though.

Ben Morse said...

So negative, Dr. Carver! But to each their own.

Jim McCann said...

Much better. ;)

In all seriousness, thanks Ben! As someone who has read everything I've written over the past 2 years, I'm glad to hear that you (as an outside observer, not just my friend) have seen growth in my work.

Ben Morse said...

The pleasure is all mine, Jim. Issue #2 better not suck and make a liar out of me.

Also, George Washington Carver apparently hates you. Between him and Megan's friend who sat next to you at my wedding, you've got some tough critics.

George Washington Carver said...

Don't exaggerate, Ben. I never said anything about not liking Jim. I just said he wasn't a star in the comics writing world.

Ben Morse said...

I'm just having fun, GWC.

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