Sunday, August 31, 2008

A New Player Has Arrived

By Thomm aka Red Dog

Don't get excited if you think I'm going to add to Gwen's realm of game playing. That's not my thing. No, I'm just a new voice in this already voiciferous bunch. Some of you may have noticed me chiming in on comments from time to time, sans nickname. As I'll mostly be writing about comics related topics, I'll limit my background info here to a list of my top comics reads, with a little as to why on each. I'm mostly a followers of authors rather than artists, so that's really the core of each of these selections, unless otherwise noted. In most of my selections, if the art doesn't distract or detract from the flow of the story, that's good enough for me.

1. Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It's not the first book I read, but it's the first I ever read that felt like literature. Some of the other things below I'd read first, but this took it to a whole different level. The cultural references, the depth of the plotting and the scope of the vision. Even the little side stories that didn't have any bearing on the overall story were so well told that they could have their own spots on this list, though that would make it even longer than it already is.

2. Fables by Bill Willingham. A lot like Sandman in the literary quality of the writing. Similar, too, in the size of the cast, but without the single central character to tie it all together, though Snow White and Bigbe come pretty close. Better still, this one's still going strong.

3. Sin City by Frank Miller. All of them. This one's the exception to the rule. This one's more about the art than the stories. Not that the stories aren't good, but the use of black and white to such effect is a phenomenon unto itself. Not for the squeamish or easily offended.

4. Miracleman by Alan Moore. Even less for the squeamish. Wholesale slaughter in central London is only one of the events that grab your attention. This was particularly interesting to me because I went into it without much knowledge of the Captain Marvel stories upon which the original English Marvelman, later Miracleman, was based. Moore took the book from being a rip off of an American title aimed at a young audience and turned it into a philosophical exploration of the effect of near absolute power in the hands of a few, slapped into the "real world". It was certainly no Clark Kent experience. Pretty much the foundation for all the alternate views of superheroes today.

5. Watchmen, another Alan Moore entry. Like Miracleman, it went into a darker place at a time when most superhero books still were not. Unlike a lot of later imitators, it was fresh, well written, explored its characters in depth and with sympathy. It also took a character with absolute power into a different direction than Miracleman. The darkest character turned out to be not the guy with the most power but the guy with the most brains, though both were entirely removed from their own humanity, while the man most in touch with humanity was also insane.

6. Swamp Thing, again by Alan Moore. A bit of a trend here. I had a bit of bad luck on this one, as I had started with the first dozen or so issues of this re-launch of the title, but dropped it and didn't find out about Moore's work until a couple years later. What can I say? It was a pre-internet time and I didn't spend a lot of time reading industry publications. Plus, I hadn't heard of Moore at that point. Once again, Moore took a known concept and took it in a different direction. While this had its dark moments, it was more spiritual in its environmentalism. It also retained a high level of quality after Moore left, under the excellent writing of Rick Veitch, Doug Wheeler, Nancy A Collins, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. It's low point during that run was DC's failure to stand by its writer in a story involving the crucifixtion of Jesus. But, that helped lead to Vertigo, so I guess it wasn't all bad.

7. Scout by Tim Truman. Funny enough, I had started reading this book while I was in college and Truman lived in the area. He guest lectured an English class that a friend was taking, so I sat in. Not only an excellent writer, but an engaging speaker, too. And his birthday is the same day as mine. Anyway, a post apocolyptic tale of an Apache kid forced into Army service and trained at the old Carlisle Indian School was interesting enough. Incorporating the Apache origin myth into the initial arc only added to its appeal. As a part time student of religion who believes in none of them, particularly while I was in college taking various religion courses, I had a great time wtih this. It's held up over the years, too.

8. The Question by Dennis O'Neil. Like Batman, stories involving guys going around as superheroes but not having any actual powers is a great appeal to me. Better yet, this was the first Zen superhero. And, in this case, the art was a great element in advancing the story in and of itself. I was glad to see the charachter back in 52, even if it was to hand over the role to a new person. I like the new Question, too, but this one was a different direction that stuck with me. Too brief a run, though.

9. Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. The only autobiographical tale you'll find in here. Here the art made it easy to tell the ethnicities of the different characters, but it was the story that carried the day. Of course, when your source material is your family's own story, the drama isn't hard to find, but conveying it so well is not easy. The banality of evil hidden in funny animal art. Well deserved in its recognition as a landmark.

10. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Ok, there's more on this list where the art is a factor than I expected. Of course, two of them are Frank Miller books. This was not only a great story of the exit of Bruce Wayne as Batman, at the top of his game rather than on the orders of the government, but also was Everyman's dream of the average guy kicking the strongest guy on the block and knocking him down but good. Besides, it did what Jim has advocated for some time and handed the baton from the original to a new player or, in this case, players.

11. The Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont. Not the more recent stuff. The stuff back in the '70s. I got on board late with this one too, but it was still going strong at 122 when I started and kept going until Claremont left. I've tried to get back on board with the X-Men at various times since, but it hasn't been the same. Convoluted mess comes to mind. Anyway, Claremont took a second rate, little read superhero team and turned them into the most popular Marvel team out there. It's still riding on the coat tails of those glory years.

12. Sandman Mystery Theatre by Matt Wagner & Steven T Seagle. I loved the feel of this book as much as the actual stories. Noir meets nebbish. Neither the lead nor his sidekick and girlfriend were svelte or muscular. They didn't have any super powers, either. But they got the job done in style and with unwavering loyalty to each other. I'd put a cover shot up, but I told myself the top 10 was enough. Still, the covers on this series were tough to beat, too.

13. Promethea by Alan Moore. Heeee's back. This was an entirely different direction. It made my head hurt trying to read it sometimes, particularly the spiral presentation of the levels of heaven, but no one else has ever presented a gnostic outlook in a comic book. Hell, almost no one knows who the gnostics were at this point, but they were an important voice in early Christianity that was pushed aside, pushed down and more or less forgotten after the first couple centuries. If not for the discovery of some ancient texts, and the sort of gnostic trappings of such groups as the Free Masons, they'd have been forgotten altogether. Moore's story lays out much of the philosophical underpinnings of gnostic thought in a quasi-superhero tale. The traditional superheroics get forgotten pretty early on, though.

14. The Mighty Thor by Walt Simonson. Like Tim Truman's use of Apache myth in Scout, the run of Thor under the pen of Simonson hued closer to Norse myth than the book had before. It was somewhat limited by its superhero mileu, but it really brought Norse myth in as much as possible. It seems to be a guiding element in the current incarnation of Thor, too. And it's hard not to like a character called Beta Ray Bill whose not even from this planet or Asgard.

15. Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz. This book didn't have a long enough run to really explore its topic, but I rank it highly nonetheless. It had reprintings as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, too, that I believe were in color, as the original was black and white. A post apocolyptic story of humans and dinosaurs co-existing, though nowhere near in harmony. No fossil fuels in this one, which I suppose might be a harbinger of things to come. Excellent character development and the shapings of a world that could have been explored for years.

16. Omaha the Cat Dancer by Kate Worley and Reed Waller. Something I've never seen before or since. Graphic sex, in any medium, with characters and a plot that would be worth staying around for even without the sex. In other words, porn with a brain. It had too short a run, too, and ended up with the final plot thread just dangling. I've seen some indication that it might be concluded, though Kate Worley has since died, but I'll believe it when I see it.

17. Concrete by Paul Chadwick. The third black and white in a row. This went through a number of tellings, much like BPRD is doing now, as a series of mini-series or one shots. Mostly it was excellent work, telling the story of a geek speech writer kidnapped by aliens, whose brain is placed in an artificial body that is best described as humanoid concrete. No other super sorts in sight in this one. More of a science fiction tale, actually. He's under governmental authority after he escapes the aliens, leaving a similarly situated friend behind, but has independence to appear in public, collect art and lust after one of his keepers. The only time it went off the rails, in my opinion, was in celebrating Earth Day. Too preachy.

18. The 'Nam by Doug Murray. I originally had this higher, but it kept falling as I went through other titles. It broke ground in telling its story in real time, in that each month between issues was also a month during the war. It told the stories from the POV of the soldiers and didn't get into the politics behind the war. One of the best issues was based on a compilation of several real people who were Kit Carson Scouts, or former Viet Cong who changed sides to fight with the US forces. Talk about backing the wrong horse. Hopefully the real Kit Carson Scouts were ferried out in '75 or earlier.

19. Wonder Woman by George Perez. This had both art and story. Like the Simonson Thor and Truman's Scout, it used the myths its character derived from to good advantage. More of the Greek myths were brought into the stories, though Wonder Woman's cast of villians from her earlier incarnations were not abandoned. Kind of ran out of gas after the first 50 issues, but that's a damn fine run. From all I've seen, no one's been able to bring the character back to anything approaching this level since.

20. Captain Confederacy by Will Shetterly and Vince Stone. This was an alternate Earth setting where the CSA won the war and the breakaway states stayed independent. It also lead to independence among some of the Western territories, so that California and Utah, among others, were their own sovereign nations. Sort of a Balkanization of North America, though I think one of my favorite little details is that Cuba is a CSA state and Castro a minor threat easily disposed. Told in black and white, and featuring some fairly weak art, it had great background details and a lot of intrigue amongst the superheroes from the various North American nations, but primarily focused on the story of its eponymous hero. Though slavery is gone, the CSA still maintains a strict class system. Superheroes and supervillians have been created by the CSA for the pursose of propaganda stories, with the blonde male and female reprsenatives of the CSA fighting black villians. Both of the super blondes end up abandoning the CSA cause and fighting alongside the black "villians". A sequel involving a black female Captain Confederacy, who had been the lover of the original in the first tale, left a lot to be desired.

All right. That's 20. I could go on, and I do give honorable mention to The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Proof by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo, Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, Invincible by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Scalped by Jason Aaron, and Animal Man by Grant Morrison. Most of these are too new to move up higher yet, while The New Teen Titans and Animal Man were just victims of an arbitrary number.

I've committed to Jim to contribute on a monthly basis, but I'm going to try to get something in every Sunday. Don't tell Jim, though.


  1. Nice post - Welcome Thomm.

  2. Hi. Welcome aboard. I look forward to deciding if I like you or not. :)

  3. I hate arguing with a fellow team member but come on!... Cap'n Conferacy??? You're kidding right?

    The other spots can be argued higher-lower but the Cap'n and The Nam shouldn't be on any best of list.

    Wait, The Nam makes best war book list.

  4. At least Sandman was your #1. Even though I'm not sure what that gaming comment was hinting at =P

  5. Hey, it's my personal taste, so nyah, nyah, nyah...

    Don't forget that I make the writing the main basis of my choices. The art was pretty bad on Confederacy, and nearly pulls it out of my list because it can be distracting, but the concept was good enough to keep it in.

    What's not to like about the 'Nam? No soldiers as superheroes like the Sgt Rock and Huanted Tank stories I'd always seen before. The art was a bit incongruous for such a reality based story, but it wasn't a distraction.