Just thinking out loud here. I figure I have to or this becomes another one of those “essays” I “ought” to write instead of a fun thought that others might want to elaborate.
What I have in mind isn’t a list. What I have in mind is whys and wherefores, sort of the way professor fury writes about G.P.R.D.
Okay, define your category. Not to exclude other possibilities but so as to not waste time arguing over.
And the Oscar for Greatest Superhero Graphic Novel (or Series of Graphic Volumes Telling One Story (or World Evoked by a Complex of Interlinked Stories)) goes to . . .
First of all, the magnificent Willworld. This thing is genius from start to finish: The glorious colors, the scope of the imagination, the perfect drawings and inkings, the sense of space, the weird beings of a weird universe that somehow makes sense, just repulsive enough to be real, the looming menace of the floating heads despite all the comedy, the Holy Head Cheese, the little boy. Like they say, I could go on and on. I haven’t begun to touch on the subtleties, the echoes, the harmonics, the satisfactions. This comic is Alice in Wonderland quality. I go back to it regularly. My thanks to J. M. Matteis, writer; Seth Fisher, artist; Christopher Chuckry, colorist and separater; and Tom Orzechowski, letterer.
I wish I could give more DC comix a nod, because I grew up with DC, but I can’t think of any others I would call great. Classic, yes. Great, no.
Batman is the victim of the age’s preconception of the hero. He’s been seriously modified in response to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. No matter who writes or draws Batman nowadays, he’s portrayed the same way: with the aloofness, the hauteur that Miller contributed, but with a good deal less brutality. This Batman never feels doubt and is always right, but is so distant from people that what is conviction comes off as arrogance. Nevertheless, his friends forgive him. Come to think of it, this Batman is a whole lot like John McClain. He is also, like McLain, capable of incredible feats of athleticism and control. He’s a master of many esoteric physical disciplines which confer such physical abilities on him. Never mind the fact that it would be impossible to be adept at any one of at least half a dozen of those disciplines and yet allow oneself to continue the mental suffering that Batman supposedly routinely endures on behalf of his murdered parents.
One thing I think that demonstrates is that the narrative preconceptions of the age seldom rise to greatness. No age reads itself accurately.
The early Batman was, well, cartoonish.
Superman is harder to say no to. I love Superman. Superman has always been my favorite. But nope. There aint any great stories. There was one that came close, was it called Secret Identity? In the world of the story, Superman is a character in a comic book—but there is a “real” Clark Kent, living in Kansas, who has been affected by a meteorite, and develops the same powers. He takes the identity of the comic character, is hunted by a secret government agency, comes to an agreement with them, keeps his freedom and powers. But he ages, and it is clear he is going to die and knows it. But he has a child, and the child has powers. Last panel, he’s hanging in front of the sun in space, thinking it over. I can’t give the names because I don’t have the book any more.
Damn good comic. But not transcendent.
A more recent Superman candidate might be Emperor Joker, by a whole crew of writers and artists I’m not patient enough to list. It works, it’s impressive visually, it’s a damn good book. But there is just that little tootle of vaingloriousness which dooms most superhero comix nowadays. Infinite City, by Mike Kennedy and Carlos Meglia, is a fine inventive story, a lot of fun. No vaingloriousness—what there might be is handled with humor. I really like it. But not what I mean by masterwork.
The continuing sagas of The Authority came close for a while, but then it began to seem the heroes gloried a bit much in the slaughter they habitually wrought—always on those who deserved it, of course. Lovely images of skulls knocked out of skins, brains out of skulls, spines out of bodies. Soliliquies in which the characters justify their carnage with righteous outrage. Realpolitik, no doubt.
Over to Marvel. My favorite is Spiderman. Read a lot of Spiderman. Prefer the modern one. The old Stan Lee stuff looks awful now. Yay for computer graphics. But I am getting sick of wisecracks from impossibly wise and cute and big-eyed teens and I don’t buy the whole older and married bit and House of M is just an attempt to drum up importance from what was a godawful idea in the first place, The Civil War. Not much use for X-men and I despise supersecret superpowerful government agencies who know what’s best for us all and will, albeit it sadly, do the most horrible things if that’s what it takes to keep America free, so you can guess how I feel about S.H.I.E.L.D. I like Wolverine, but as it turns out only one book. I don’t have it anymore, keep meaning to buy it. Can’t remember the name. It’s the one where he’s short and grubby, isn’t with the X-men, and doesn’t wear a uniform. The cover has him astride a motorbike under a sign with the name of the town. The name of the town is the name of the book. That’s the one Wolverine that seems to me to do a genuine job of imagining what it might be like to actually be someone like that. The next one, where he crosses the Rio Grande and gets involved with a murderous female drug dealer and causes her death but rescues her child, is pretty good. Different artist. The conception stems from the previous one but seems more weakly realized somehow. The others are all full of hoo-hah superspook supersoldier crap.
From one of the realms I would least have expected it, though, comes number 7 in the Ultimate Fantastic Four, God War. I quit reading FF quite a few years ago, when I realized how silly their abilities were, how much based on cartoon reality and not physics. Now this new series, by an impressive succession of the very best writers and artist. The whole series is smart, well-imagined, beautifully drawn, consistent, a delight to read.
There is a bit overmuch of scientificish, the opposite error to cartoonish. RR is given to babble ceaselessly in pseudotechnical terms that seem to offer glimmers of insight into how things actually work but are actually the window-dressing we demand before we will accept the miracles. I find it unsurprising that in an age which considers itself scientific, we require these litanies of apparent technological chatter. I say apparent. Surely no one would argue this is real science? But if it isn’t real science, why is it there? I say to suit the taste of the age.
But number 7. Number 7 is something else. Written by Mike Carey, art credited to Pasqual Ferry, and credits to a whole host of others, who again, I have not the patience to list. Since this is unofficial, don’t guess it matters, huh?
Anyhow, the stunning visuals that make incredible beings and abilities seem real, the profligate invention and yet consistency. I respect minds that can evoke—not merely suppose, but evoke—worlds, realms, orders of existence wholly different in organization to our own, and yet consistent enough and familiar enough to make me want to inhabit them. This is a hell of a book, deeply cross-connected and involving. I love what it implies for hope, love, beauty, fierceness, ability across the range of universes.
I’ll close out, weary at having gone on too long, with the Local Cluster that is the assembly of galaxies including Top Ten, Smax, and The Forty-Niners. Can’t do them justice with the energy I have left, but the sympathy combined with comedy, the stimulating and wildly imaginitive mix of beings, the easy way with translating the essence of the police procedural to a wholly fantastic realm, the evoked reality of the worlds set forth, the interconnections, the layers and layers and layers of implication and joke and cross-fertilizing concepts: the cross-over war of the supermice, you think all us blue guys know each other, the beautiful pathos of the death of the western cavalry. Then to move to the imagined prestory of the Forty-Niners, which seems to have been implicit all along when one revisits the two volumes of Top Ten. Or to the high comedy of Smax, the absolutely delightful imaginings of the magical world Jaffs Macksun has come from, somehow featherweight humorous fantasy easily balancing all the darkness that shadows the equally wonderful but grimmer humor of Top Ten.
Everybody knows Alan Moore is tops, of course. There are quite a few artists responsible, most notably Gene Ha and Zander Cannon. What a satisfying world they have created.
The Tom Strong series is delightful, as are the ABC comix. Love the droll humor of Jack Quick (takes a thorough conversance and fascination with physics to play such jokes with it), the B-grade melodrammer of Greyshirt, the social and comix satire of First American.
I know most people would nominate League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Watchmen or V for Vendetta, but me, not quite. LEG is a blast, and very satisfyingly brought to life. It is the best of adventure stories, but doesn’t rise above the genre.
Watchmen seems to me a tour de force by someone of unmatchable ability, but it doesn’t have the heart or wit of the Top Ten group. I am offended by the Comedian, yes, which does not mean I do not think such a behavior would be possible, given the world. The Nixon-forever background brings back my nightmares from the late sixties and early seventies. But I do not believe, as Ozymandias appears to, that human history is deterministic, and can be predictably guided with just the right push, his justification for killing half a million. And I don’t think the book is clear enough about his error. On the whole, it seems a parade of grimness to impress. As for V—impressive. Impressive. Don’t think the opposition of 1984 to Shakespearean fatedness and beauty quite takes. The formal structures do not quite mate with the would-be serious theme. But it nevertheless gets at some pretty profound stuff. And he was how old? Twenty-Two?
Okay. Out of words and ideas. See you in the funny-papers.