Sunday, September 16, 2007

A History in Comics

I recently had the opportunity to trade a Q and A with a friend in Tasmania about our respective likes and loves in comic books. The more I thought about the questions and my answers, the more I wanted to write about my connection to the genre and my history with it. Eventually, I’d like to write at length about what comics mean to me in terms of their influence on my development and personal philosophy, but that is an even longer essay that I just haven't had the time to tackle yet. The following is a somewhat rewritten version of my response to my pen pal. It serves as both a mini-biography and a list of recommendations for anyone looking to pick up what I think are some of the best comics out there.


Comic books are, in a roundabout way, what inspired me to become a designer. I start drawing at an early age; mostly copying pictures from artists that I liked and then later creating my own work. My brother caught the bug from me and started drawing, too. He has always had an innate talent for art that I don’t have, but alternatively, I have always had a better facility with words (I hope). As a result, he went on to study illustration in college and I went on to complete confusion. I had a 10-year college career spent careening from one major to another. I studied Comparative Literature, Art History, Creative Writing, History, Modern Literature, a couple of film survey courses, Comparative Mythology, Drama Literature and even Fine Art with a specialization in Printmaking. I ended up with an Associates Degree in Fine Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Graphic Design. In the end, we both became Graphic Designers. Now we work together at the design firm he started in 1997.

With the exception of a brief period in the mid-nineties, I’ve never stopped buying comics. My first job was in a comic shop. I worked there throughout high school and ended up the Assistant Manager. The hook was sunk early and deep.

I still remember the first comic I picked up: Star Wars #8, Eight for Aduba-3, in 1977. It had a 6-foot tall, talking green rabbit on the cover brandishing two pistols like an old west gunfighter. The story was a rip-off of The Magnificent Seven, though I didn’t have the movie chops to it then. For the most part, what I read in those earlier years were a mixed bag of whatever my parents picked up or that which caught my juvenile eye. Looking back, it seems that DC must’ve dominated the spinner racks then because I remember burying my face in The Batman Family, Superman Family, Brave and the Bold and Weird War Tales.

When I took control of my purchases in the early eighties, I became a complete Marvel Zombie. I cut my teeth on the X-Men and for a while they were the be-all-end-all of comics. My first issue was Uncanny X-Men #132. That issue introduced the Hellfire Club and kicked off of the now famous Dark Phoenix saga. In their heyday, Chris Claremont and John Byrne defined what it meant to be comic creators for me.

My tastes quickly broadened to other Marvel Comics. I collected Moon Knight, Master of Kung-Fu, Captain America, Avengers (when George Perez was on the book) and Fantastic Four (when Byrne was writing and drawing them). My favorite was Power Man and Iron Fist. I never got into Spider-Man, though. The one DC exception was the New Teen Titans with Perez and Marv Wolfman. Honestly, at that time I thought most DC books were ridiculous and inane.

It wasn’t until Crisis on Infinite Earths that I finally came around to reading DC Comics again. After the series was over and they re-launched their Big Three, I got on board with them in a big way.

Mind you, I was also grabbing up independents this whole time as well. Just like about every comic book snob, I bought Cerebus. I even went along for the ride with Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse. Firearm was an excellent title and introduced me to the writing of James Robinson, but we’ll talk about him later. I was also really impressed with the pantheon of Dark Horse Comics’ Greatest World books. The whole concept was short-lived, but I saw a lot of potential there with The Machine, Ghost and Hero Zero. Even Barb Wire in her nascent form was a fun read.

Heck, I even bought into everything Image did when they debuted, much to my regret. Very few of those books turned out to have any longevity. I’m all in favor of creator owned works, but the reality was that many of the artists at that time could not craft a story. Rob Liefeld’s stories were abysmal, just like his art in my opinion. In the end, creations of his, like Supreme, did not get popular until people like Alan Moore took over the writing chores. Even Todd McFarlane came around to the idea of turning the scripting of Spawn over to better talented writers.

As time when on there was a gradual shift happening. I can’t say what really pushed me over the edge from Marvel to DC, but my increasing interest in Golden Age heroes was probably the driving force. Teams like Infinity Inc., the Justice Society of America, All-Star Squadron and Young All-Stars called to me more than the rough beast that the X-books had become. It was probably the Fallen Angels mini-series that finally made me drop them completely for a time.

Marvel is great for your “super-heroes in the real world,” but for the more fantastic and less gritty, stick with DC. More to the point though, it’s the mythology of the DC Universe that is so appealing. I was studying myths and folklore in school and it only served to deepen my understanding and affinity for iconic figures of Batman and Superman and the others. Marvel, on the other hand, has always worked better as a mirror to be held up to the real world, a fictional universe wherein metaphor can be used to reflect social and political issues.

I was a latecomer to Vertigo titles. The seed had already been planted with Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and from there to John Constantine, Hellblazer, but it took me a while to get away from my fascination with capes and appreciate horror and mystery titles. As such, I didn’t read Sandman until it was available in trades but enjoyed it thoroughly. I still find Vertigo titles to be hit or miss propositions. When they hit, like Preacher or Y, the Last Man, they hit big. When they miss, though, they can be awful.

In the past few years I’ve been growing more and more interested in Pulp Heroes. Works by Moore, Howard Chaykin and Warren Ellis have pushed me to research more about early heroes, creators and the history of comics. Rediscovering great characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow, G-8, The Phantom and Operator No. 5 is like finding a long box of comics your dad had hidden away in the corner of the basement, all but forgotten.

One of my favorites is a pulp hero from the 30’s called The Green Lama. He’s a mystery man from the Depression era that battles crime while being a practicing Buddhist.

Nowadays I’m pretty balanced between the Big Two and random independents here and there. Comics are at their best right now. In my opinion, there has never been a time with a greater amount of talented writers and artists in the industry. It’s hard not to buy everything because I feel like I’ll be missing that next great issue.

I’ve been so inspired that I’m trying my own hand at writing again. I’ve been working on some comic book scripts. I even hooked up with a group in my area called the Comicbook Artists Guild. We’re the L.A. chapter of CAG and just published an anthology that we were selling at the San Diego Comic Con. My story pitch was not selected for the book, but maybe next time.

Here are my answers to the Q and A:

Favorite Comic Book Writer(s)?

James Robinson – My favorite writer. There are many great stories and storytellers out there, but Robinson has consistently been outstanding throughout his career. I distinctly remember reading an issue of Firearm in which the main character Alec Swan describes his home town of Pasadena, California. I believe it was issue #10. The imagery was so dead-on and evocative that I had to flip back and see who the author was. I’ve followed everything he’s done since. His body of work contains most of my favorite arcs and characters: JSA, Starman, Leave it to Chance, The Golden Age.

There are certain writers that I will buy anything they write:

Warren Ellis – I think Planetary was the first title with which I became familiar with his name. I’d read books from him before, but never really paid attention to the author. Nowadays I’m completely enthralled by everything he does. He has yet to write a story I haven’t liked.

Alan Moore – The man’s a genius, plain and simple. The sheer density of thought that goes into his work is astounding. I can read and re-read his books ad nauseam and still find new layers and meaning.

Neil Gaiman – I have to admit that, aside from Sandman, I haven’t liked his comic work as much as his prose. American Gods is brilliant book, in my opinion. Still, I’m always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with each new project.

I have some old favorites that have a consistent “comic book” feel to their writing and have had some standout storylines:

Keith Giffen – I got hooked on his writing and art through the Legion of Super-Heroes. His sense of comic timing and obvious joy in what he does permeates his work. The Ambush Bug mini-series is still a standout and his work on Justice League with J.M. DeMatteis is pure fun.

Mark Waid – I respect his near encyclopedic knowledge of comics and specifically DC history. Kingdom Come was, of course, his magnum opus, but he also brings that love of the form and characters to all of his work.

Kurt Busiek – He has a good track record of stories, but it’s really his Astro City books that single him out for me. He was doing homage to existing Marvel and DC staples long before it became de rigueur.

And lastly, the relatively new kids on the block that are doing outstanding work:

Brian Micheal Bendis – Some people say he’s over-exposed and over-hyped, but I can’t get enough of his work. More than any other element of his style, it’s his naturalistic dialogue that makes the work so compelling.

Ed Brubaker – He has managed to take the staple characters that he has worked on so far and turn our expectations on their head. He has made me look at old, tired characters in a new way that makes them compelling and interesting reading. On top of that, his creator-owned works like Sleeper and Criminal are wonderful gritty, film noir crime dramas that are fun to read.

Mark Millar – He’s another guy who’s not afraid to mess with paradigms. If you haven’t read Wanted or The Ultimates Vol. 1 you should run right out and buy them.

Favorite Comic Book Artist(s)?

I like so many different styles of art that’s it’s really hard to pick. One thing I can’t stand is that generic “comic book” style, like Todd Grummet or Al Milgrom. Ugh.

With that in mind, here are some of my favorites:

Chris Sprouse - I love his clean, bright style and his work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong books.

Stuart Immonen - I got hooked on his use of light and dark in the Legion 5 Years Later run. His new work on Warren Ellis’ Nextwave shows that he’s stretching as and artist and moving towards a less realistic, more animated style while blending design elements.

Mike Mignola – His style is so distinctive and cinematic. The fact that you can compare sets, characters and costumes from the Hellboy movie directly to the comic is a testament to his capacity for visual storytelling. Again, the heavy use of blacks and design elements attracts me.

Alex Ross – What can I say about Alex Ross that you wouldn’t just nod in agreement with? His paintings are lush and heroic. He gives these characters weight and reality in a way that I don’t think any comic book painter has before.

John Cassaday – The element that I like the most about his work is that every character actually looks like a different person. Too often I’ll read a book and the only way to tell the characters apart is the fact that they are wearing different uniforms. He does facial expressions well, which reminds me I should add:

Kevin Maguire - He’s probably the best facial expression artist in comics. As I said above, many times artists fail to properly distinguish between individual characters on the page, relying instead on costume or clothes to make the delineation. Not with Maguire. It’s also the clean clear style that appeals to me. Giffen/DeMatteis’ Justice League is some of his work standout work.

Frank Quitely - I love the way he draws these squat, brutish people but uses a really fine line quality similar to Art Adams. It’s like everyone in his books is descended from Charlie-27. The work he is currently doing on All-Star Superman with Grant Morrison is breathtaking.

Chris Bachalo - Some of the densest, most stylized artwork I’ve ever seen. There’s no one who has a look like his. Steampunk, his X-Men runs and The Witching Hour are some of his books that are worth tracking down.

J.H. Williams III - Stumbled upon his work when he was doing Chase at DC and became hooked. There’s something about his art that looks so film noir. His work on Alan Moore’s Promethea and currently on Warren Ellis’ Desolation Jones is great. I spoke to him for quite a while at the San Diego Comic Con and he was very forthcoming about his influences like Art Deco and other artistic movements. He always restless and tries to move in new directions with every project he does.

Favorite Comic Book Publisher(s)?

DC, for all the reasons I mentioned above. I think it’s just a much more fun universe to play in with fantastic cities like Star City, Opal City, Gotham, Metropolis, Keystone, etc. Whenever Marvel throws a completely fictional city or country into their universe it always feels awkward and forced.

Favorite Male Comic Book Character(s)?

I have to sheepishly admit that some of my favorite characters stem from a childhood fascination with heroes that I could in some way relate to. If they were blond, like Aquaman, or had the same name as me, like Cyclops/Scott Summers, they immediately became my favorite. Many fell away or grew to have more substance to recommend them to my mind, but still others remain in the top tier to this day solely because of that reasoning.

Jack Knight, The Starman – He’s a reluctant hero and collectibles geek who runs a junk store. He never wanted the job, but had to live up to the fact that there was no one else who could take it. He doesn’t react like a typical superhero would in stressful situations. He’s a normal guy with a cosmic rod who rises to the occasion. I think he has a lot in common with the James Bond from the early Ian Fleming books. The character has feet of clay and is not invulnerable and infallible. James Bond gets the crap kicked out of him a lot in those books. So does Jack.

The Question – I got hooked when Denny O’Neil was writing his series in the 80’s. He is more like a modern day pulp hero. When he wrote the series, O’Neil filed the book with lots of Zen philosophy. These two things alone are enough to make him one of my favorites. I don’t think he has been handled as well as he was then. Typically, DC has now killed him off.

Batman – It’s hard to say anything about the Dark Knight that hasn't been said or written too many times before. He’s the pinnacle of human achievement. He doesn’t rely on powers or gadgets. Granted he has all of his “wonderful toys,” but they are all just tools to help him in his mission, not the source of his abilities.

Green Arrow – Oliver Queen is right up there with Starman as my favorite character of all time. He’s a blond-haired bleeding heart liberal sporting a goatee with a bow and arrow and is not afraid of Batman. What’s not to love? This character is single-handedly responsible for me taking up archery in middle school. I’ll also lump in Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow with Ollie.

Hawkeye – Really, I just like him for all the same reasons as Green Arrow: he’s a blond loudmouth with a bow and arrow that is not afraid to stand up to Captain America. I have a thing for cocksure bowmen, what can I say? The last mini-series (2003) that he had, before Bendis killed him off, was a good crime thriller that portrayed him as less of a goofball and more of a serious player. It’s worth a read.

Aquaman – Arthur Curry is a difficult character to make interesting and as a result, hardly ever gets written correctly. Kurt Busiek was doing something interesting in his current run until he left the book. The best Aquaman story I have ever read is the Time and Tide miniseries from 1986. My irrational attachment to him is as simple as this: I’m blond and he was the first blond superhero I had ever seen. I’ve never gotten over it.

Iron Fist – Blond again. Are you sensing a theme? I have always like the martial arts characters, like Danny Rand and Shang Chi, etc. Also, the relationship between Danny Rand and Luke Cage was entertaining to read, like a super-powered Odd Couple. The new series Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction is refreshing the character in an interesting way. It turns out he’s just one of many Iron Fists through the ages. It’s actually a mantle that is passed down from previous champions to those deemed worthy. It’s a pulp take on the character and a good read.

American Flagg – I’d never read anything quite like Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg when I was 13 years old. It was political and social critique all wrapped up in sex and violence. So much of that book and that character had me saying to friends, “Can you believe he did that?” Chaykin’s artwork was like nothing I’d seen before either. It’s still one of the most enjoyable runs to go back and read from when I was younger.

The Golden Age Atom – Well, he is only 5’1” tall. Me, I’m only 5’3”. Similar to Batman, he does not have any powers, just tenacity and dogged determination. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of myself and the way friends describe me. How can I not root for the pint-sized powerhouse?

Favorite Female Comic Book Character(s)?

Cameron Chase (Chase from DC) and Jessica Jones (Alias from Marvel) – Both are hard-as-nails private investigators with major character flaws. They have powers but no desire to use them. They drink, they smoke and they don’t put up with any crap. This “feet of clay” approach to their characters serves to make them more human and easier to relate to than your run of the mill top-heavy bombshell super heroine.

Manhunter – I’m referring to the newest person to wear the mantle from writer Marc Andreyko. Another flawed, realistic character, she’s a lawyer by day, struggling to quit smoking, divorced and a not-so-great mother, by her own admission. It’s really a good series and character. DC keeps trying to cancel it, but fan support is so intense that it keeps getting extensions.

Power Girl – There are two reasons why I like her. When she’s drawn correctly, she looks like a fitness instructor or even bodybuilder. Not the ripped, steroid kind, but more the kind that still looks like a woman only in shape with well-defined muscles. That’s the Kara that I like. To me, that’s the way any of these super-strong heroines, like Wonder Woman or Big Barda, should appear.

Catwoman – She’s the female Batman. She is an innately cool character due to the fact that she is just as intelligent and skilled as the Batman while at the same time being a Femme Fatale. The new Catwoman series is my favorite version of the character. Also, Catwoman: When in Rome by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale is worth a read.

Black Canary – She’s Marian to Green Arrow’s Robin Hood, but a Marian who can kick ass. I’ll admit it wasn’t until her characterization in the Birds of Prey series that she even registered on my radar as more than Ollie’s girlfriend. Although not a great fan of Gail Simone’s writing, she has done an excellent job of fleshing out the person that Dinah is and she has become an individual out of the shadow of her more well-known compatriots.

Promethea – She is such a cool Alan Moore concept: a character that is a living story. She can only appear when someone is actually channeling her artistically, through stories, poetry, picture, comics, etc. I also quite like the parallels with Captain Marvel and Moore’s early Miracle Man book in that the Promethea character manifests itself through a human avatar.

Favorite Comic Book Team(s)? [characters, not creators]

It’s all about the legacy, history and mythology of the team or universe for me. Naturally, nearly all of my favorite teams are from DC.

Legion of Super-Heroes – My first introduction to the LSH was Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1, Monster in a Little Girl’s Mind! which was the beginning of the Great Darkness Saga storyline. I was hooked. There is something about the sprawling mass of characters and the possibilities of the universe that they inhabit that I find enthralling. Unfortunately, because of their many revamps over the past few years, DC has never truly recaptured my interest in the group. Rather than let the characters mature and grow, it seems that they gotten it into their heads that the LSH is first and foremost a teen book and is written as such. The most recent re-imagining of the team reminds me of Smallville in that respect.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – LOEG is the culmination of all my interests: one of my favorite writers; characters with literary, mythological and historical basis; and dense visual and narrative storytelling. I spent hours poring over printouts of Jess Nevins’ LOEG companion, comparing it panel by panel with the comics, before I bought the Absolute edition of the book. It’s too bad the movie was such a tragic rendition of a great idea.

Justice League (including the animated JLA and JLU) – I like the JLA and collect and read their adventures, but the animated versions quickly became my favorite rendition of the team. JLU especially excited me. There were so many cameos and walk-ons by obscure and unrecognized characters that it became a super-hero Where’s Waldo every episode. Tapping current comic book writers to adapt existing comic book storylines or create their own only served to help the series.

Teen Titans – Although I still enjoy the book, it’s really the New Teen Titans from the Perez/Wolfman era that I’m referring to here. To see the strength of that team just look to the introduction of characters like Raven, Starfire and Cyborg that remain key figures in the DCU today. Also, the characterization was some of the best I’ve seen. Too many times a book will fall into flat cardboard cut-outs of categories; the leader, the token girl, the strong guy, etc. With Wolfman’s writing the reader got a real sense of each of the team members as individuals.

Birds of Prey – I was late coming to this series. I have not been overly impressed by Gail Simone’s writing on other series (Her Teen Titans story Legacy with Rob Liefeld and her JLA: Classified, The Hypothetical Woman storyline were terrible and her run on The All-New Atom has been abysmal). In spite of that, I have warmed to this series. Writing this all women cast is where she really shines. That fact as well as including most of my favorite female heroines either as main cast or walk-on parts has made me a loyal reader.

Justice Society of America – I’m a big fan of the Golden Age heroes. All-Star Squadron and Young All-Stars were two of my favorite books. The JSA represents what is best about the DCU. It has legacy, history, and huge cast of characters and, in my opinion, is more of the flagship team of the DCU than the Justice League.

Favorite Story Arcs?

Starman (Entire Series) – It’s my favorite writer teamed with one of my favorite artists, Tony Harris, telling the story of my favorite character. If you read the entire series, you can see how it was conceived as a long-term story with a definite end. It charts Jack’s life from normal guy to reluctant hero to embracing his father’s legacy and, finally, passing on the mantle on to settle down in retirement with his fiancĂ©. There are many twist and turns, some surprising, some not. I highly recommend it.

Astro City – If I had to pick one storyline out of the Astro City universe from Kurt Busiek, I guess I would go with the Local Heroes story arc. That series of stories has a Marvels feel to it. Each issue tells the story from the viewpoint of an “average Joe” looking in at and being affected by the gaudily dressed villains and vigilantes all around them. I’ve also been a big fan of Brent Anderson’s artwork since he did the 1986 series Strikeforce: Morituri.

Kingdom Come – This is Mark Waid’s magnum opus. It has everything in it. The series contains the generational aspect of DCU heroes, loss and rediscovery of the heroic ideal, alternate future/history (one of my favorite kinds of stories) and absolutely breath-taking artwork from Alex Ross. It really is a must-read for every comic fan.

Marvels – To start with, the artwork is also Alex Ross and he’s hitting homeruns here as well. I find the point of view very similar to Kingdom Come. In KC, Norman McKay represents average humanity as the observer/narrator whereas in Marvels, Phil Sheldon stands in that role. Retelling the Marvel Universe’s key moments through the lens of Sheldon was shifts the focus and restructures the reader’s understanding of the events. The design of the books themselves was inspired: Prestige format books with a wraparound acetate cover that had the series logo printed on it, allowing the Alex Ross artwork underneath to show through.

Promethea (Entire Series) – As with many of Alan Moore’s works, you can read and re-read this series and new layers of meaning. I’ll just quote liberally from Wikipedia here, as they say it much better than I could,”Promethea has been organized into five books. Books 1 and 2 mainly deal with Sophie Bangs becoming Promethea, while Books 3 and 4 show Promethea/Sophie working her way through all the Sephiroth of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, passing beyond death and the Immateria before returning to earth for a confrontation with Stacia. In Book 5, Promethea brought on the Apocalypse, the end of the world - or the entire ABC universe, to be precise - not by destroying it physically, but by tenderly introducing its inhabitants to a new world of imagination, wonder, beauty, belief, and acceptance.” If that sounds interesting, it is. In addition, J.H. Williams tried many new and different designs and layouts for the pages to underscore the intent of the text. This is another highly recommended book.

Watchmen – Yet, another Alan Moore book. From the brutal beginning to the slightly dystopian ending, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. It’s a brutal look at the morality, or lack thereof, of the super-hero set. Unlike some fans, I like the fact the Moore wasn’t able to use the old Fawcett characters as he wanted but instead had to create analogues of each. It allows the story to stand on its own two feet without any connection to the DCU.

Planetary (Entire Series) – I thought this series from writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday was intriguing when reading it bit by bit in individual issues. It was hard to see the over-arching concept because of the sporadic publishing schedule (only 27 issues from 1999 to today). However, when you sit down and read them from beginning to end, back to back, Ellis’ vision comes shining through. Many people have said that Studio 60 is Aaron Sorkin’s love letter to writing for TV. This series is a love letter to comic books and pop culture. Seriously, read it.

For traditional, in continuity story arcs, there are a few standouts:

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga – The first multiple part story I ever read in comics. I think it’s the apex of the Byrne/Claremont run on X-Men. Over the years the impact of the story has been diluted by the repeated alive/dead stories about Jean Grey, but at the time it was heart-wrenching.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Following so closely on the feet of the Dark Phoenix saga, DOFP had a lot to live up to. For that time, the glimpse we get into the future was a tantalizing suggestion of what the Marvel Universe could become. Many of our favorite heroes are dead, Wolverine has grey in his hair, Scott and Jean have a daughter and she’s dating Reed and Susan’s son Franklin, Kitty is all grown up and Sentinels have taken over the U.S. Once again, it is a great story that has suffered from spin-offs, retelling and revamping over the years.

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga – Just like the Dark Phoenix saga, this was one of the first multiple issue cliffhangers that I read. Unlike emotional and personal story of Dark Phoenix, the Great Darkness Saga was set on a grander stage with higher stakes for those involved. The story spanned galaxies and used the entire 15 plus member roster of the Legion as well as their allies; the Legion of Substitute Heroes, the Wanderers, the Heroes of Lallor and just about every other character in the Legion universe. As a neophyte Legion-fan I was floored by the expanse of the Legion universe shown in this arc. It is worth reading just for the moment when Darkseid moves Daxam from its orbit around a red sun to orbit a yellow sun and thus creates an entire planet of Supermen.

DC: The New Frontier – Written and penciled by Darwyn Cooke, this Eisner award-winning mini-series took the entire DC universe and set it in the 1950’s against the backdrop of the Korean War and the growing Cold War. Cooke was scrupulous about introducing each of the characters in the same order and time of their first publication. It covered the breadth of the DCU from war comics to science fiction and the rise of the Silver Age mask and cape set. The artwork itself is refreshing in its obvious throwback to early forties and fifties comic strip style.

JSA: The Liberty File – I’m a sucker for What If, Elseworlds and alternate history storylines. There is something about seeing our heroes in a setting completely different from their average continuity that makes them new and interesting. In the Liberty File, writers Dan Jolley and Tony Harris take JSA masked men and put them right in the thick of World War II as agents of the O.S.S. Their costumes are more reflective of the time and the spy codenames are just plain cool. Instead of Hourman, Batman and Doctor Mid-Nite, we get the Clock, the Bat and the Owl. They face off against Axis villains like Jack the Grin, in lieu of the Joker. The series has the feel of a Casablanca or Night Train to Munich. Tony Harris’ artwork is equal to the task of capturing settings from Gotham City to North Africa to Vichy Paris.

The Golden Age – This JSA Elseworlds story is the one that started my fascination for heroes of the 30s and 40s. If it wasn’t for my love of James Robinson’s writing, I would never have picked this book up. I fell in love with the Golden Age characters. Reading Golden Age was like someone opening up a door to all of these wonderful, unused characters from Charlton, Quality and Fawcett comics that DC had in their stable. Set in post-World War II United States, the story follows the masked men dealing with their uselessness after the war. It is similar in form to the sense of a loss of mission that a soldier returning home might experience. Of course there is a sinister plot at work that culminates in a grand operatic battle on the doorstep of the White House. It’s one of the books that I go back and reread at least once a year.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 – Although I love nearly everything that Alan Moore has done, LOEG is by far my favorite or his works. Every panel is so densely packed with literary and historical minutiae. I mentioned earlier going panel by panel with Jess Nevins’ Annotation of the League. That’s how much I love the series. It so fascinated me the way Moore could put the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe on the page together and make them seem seamless. Also, he even went so far as to make sure that all of the characters’ relative ages were correct in regards to their original publication dates or stated ages from the source material. This is the reason that Inspector Dupin is so aged in book one when Allan and Mina travel to Paris in search of Dr. Jekyll. Outside research on this series introduced me to the works of Philip JosĂ© Farmer and the Wold Newton family, Steampunk and a whole universe of pulp characters. When the series was coming out, I was watching a show on Sci-Fi Channel entitled The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne which had the same intentions, if not the same attention to detail as Moore. Although still a good read, I did not find Volume 2 as interesting as Volume 1. This is mostly due to the fact that it was more a retelling of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds than an original tale.

Here are a couple of others story arcs that deserve honorary mention:

Alias (Entire Series) - Not related to the TV series. It’s a mature-themed look at the Marvel Universe from the perspective of a female private investigator with connections to the superhero subculture. She’s messed up in the head, a drunk and promiscuous but by the end of the book, she gets her act together. Good Brian Bendis writing.

Dark Knight Returns – A seminal work in the history of comics and the oeuvre of Frank Miller. Though I still like the story, it didn’t stand up to a re-reading recently. Sadly, DK2 was not nearly the follow-up it should have been.

The Sandman – I truly believe that there would be no Vertigo imprint if not for this series. Though you can find the trades in most comic stores, I would recommend picking up the new series of Absolute collections that DC is putting out. They have re-colored the artwork and included quite a bit of additional information.

Rising Stars - Only the first book is worth it, in my opinion. I find most of the comic work of J.M. Stracyznski starts with a great concept, but the idea runs out long before he stops writing issues. The series should have ended after we find out the identity of the killer. Where it went was dull and tedious to get through as a reader.

That’s it. More fun to write than for you to read, I’m sure.