The Year in Tights

the best (and worst) superhero comics of 2006


#5: All-Star Batman & Robin.

I make no friends with this inclusion, have no doubt. If author Frank Miller has made one mistake — and a hundred thousand howling Bat-fans might insist that there’s more than a single mistake in this series — it’s that he is making a joke at the expense of his readers rather than including them in the gag he’s perpetuating.

The joke goes like this: Frank Miller says “Wow, seriously, do you people really like the idea of a leather-clad psychotic, decked out like a rubber ferret and threatening hobos and mental patients in dark alleys, adopting a boy ward and making him fight other psycho cases in fetish clothing? Seriously? Okay, here’s how I think it would really turn out, in that case ... ”

Fans are alternatively appalled and incensed by the portrayal of Batman as an immoral, foul-mouthed maniac, but I find it to be an intriguing alternative take on a character long reimagined to the point of incoherence. Surely the readers as a whole have seen Batman the tortured soul, Batman the awkward father figure, Batman the authoritarian and Batman the zillion-other-paternal character archetypes countless times before under the stewardship of a few dozen other authors; why not for a scant twelve issues have a book about a Batman who might just be what a control-obsessed, Kevlar-suited sadist would be like in real life — which is to say “distinctly unpleasant”? It’s unsavory, sure, but who buys Batman comics because he’s warm and cuddly?

#4: Dr. Strange: The Oath.

Deus Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man author Brain K. Vaughn can’t seem to step back from books with verifiable mouthfuls for titles, but at the very least, he rarely fails to please. With this Doctor Strange miniseries, he does something few writers have even attempted (to judge by more than forty years of perpetual publication of the character in assorted titles and formats: He makes Dr. Strange approachable.

Vaughn trades arrogance for pride and the fatal character flaw it inevitably must be, while giving the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth the closest thing to a sense of humor and camaraderie he’s displayed since his invention in the 1960s. Vaughn even accounts for himself well with Strange’s manservant (and uncomfortably subservient ethnic assistant) Wong, portraying convincingly — possibly for the first time ever — how Strange’s houseboy and Strange himself can be equals while still sharing a very Victorian master and servant relationship.

In the outing, Vaughn does manage to unfortunately wreck the air of efficiency and mystery surrounding Brian Michael Bendis' reimagining of Marvel's throwaway romantic/urban character-of-relevance, Night Nurse, but if value is determined in terms of overall profit, The Oath still cashes in firmly within the black.

#3: Daredevil & Captain America (if you’re reading one of these, you should be reading both).

Ed Brubaker faced the unenviable task of following Brian Michael Bendis’ standards-shattering run on Marvel’s also-ran Silver Age son. Having proven himself less a Man Without Fear than a Man Without Common Sense up through Bendis’ surgically precise and gloriously cataclysmic story arc, Daredevil has been well unpainted from his corner by Brubaker’s deliberate scripting and sent on some very personal missions around the world (effectively removing the scarlet swashbuckler from the complications of the inevitable and seemingly endless companywide spectacular events).

Be sure to tune in, at the very least, for Brubaker holding a symposium on how to use the Punisher as a supporting character during the early part of the year, and teasing the re-creation of no-impact DD villain the Matador with an elegant, almost erotic flourish of planned disappointment.

Meanwhile, over in Captain America, having already broken the half of the Marvel’s golden rule (There Are Two Dead Characters Who Must Stay Dead) by bringing Bucky back in the least expected manner possible, Brubaker continues to deftly navigate Cap around the negligible monuments of his generally anemic mythos. Perennial backburners Sister Sin and Crossbones re-emerge behind a Red Skull who wisely performs his dealings from the back seat of a stretch limo rather than before a fifteen foot tall Nazi banner, while even “Bio-Fanatic” Arnim Zola gets a big reveal in a scene which, if televised, would end with a taut and suspenseful string chord.

If nothing else, in both books — alternatively by avoiding the issue and by confronting it in the most sidereal manner possible — Brubaker is the one Marvel author making the most of the company’s current, catastrophic Civil War crossover event, an accomplishment well worth acclaim by itself.

#2: Nextwave.

Can a comedic take on bottom-of-the-invite-list superheroes prove to be one of the best series of 2006? Warren Ellis has a decisive say-so in the pages of Nextwave. “Subversive” is an unfortunately overused adjective in the comedic field, but Ellis well deserves it, crafting a story rich in both concrete yuks and abstract, forebrain-tickling challenges to preconception.

Ellis’ Nextwave is composed of throwaway heroes fighting an ersatz Nick Fury on a battlefield littered with the corpses of neglected and berated comic book absurdities from a million forgotten issues of Tales to Astonish and Journey Into Mystery. Here, a gelded Fin Fang Foom sticks lovely heroines in his pants, a corrupt beat cop becomes a Shogun Warrior at the drop of the hat, and illiterate do-gooders save the day despite lifetimes of humiliation.

Nextwave makes the leap from comedy to complexity by way of its closing chapters. Suddenly, the hapless and senseless heroes have evolved into something profound and sad, and Ellis has managed to cast into suspicious light all the merry Marvel mockeries of days long gone. That Nextwave won’t continue past its twelfth issue is as great a shame as the Marvel Universe has to bear, abandoning the skillful artwork of Stuart Immomen — who’s never been more abstract or accomplished than in these pages — being only part of it. The deliberate degradation of mythos heralded by Ellis could well be served to a continuity otherwise over-absorbed with its own relevance.

#1: All-Star Superman.

Heedless of the trail of dead and disabled Grant Morrison has left upon other books he’s approached — specifically, the new X-Men, which gained him the enmity of fans and former creators alike — he deservedly gains little but praise for his tackling of the Superman mythos as a whole.

Wisely embracing Superman as Superman, rather than reinterpreting him through some misguided topical lens of fleeting zeitgeist, Morrison manages to pen a thoroughly engaging series of seemingly stand-alone stories which nonetheless exist as individual charms upon the bracelet of a larger theme.

Superman is dying, and the readers are encouraged to follow him along the routes of his mythology on the path towards his fatality. Necessarily delivered on a delayed schedule owing to the artistic requirements of the deliberate and slow-paced Frank Quitely (whose work on the series may be the strongest and most confident since his previous collaboration with Morrison, Flex Mentallo), Morrison delivers the ultimate Superman tale; Lois is skeptical and cocksure, Clark bumbles, Perry blusters, Jimmy lives in a wondrous world of his own, and Superman is a beatific being who creates an imperishable hyper-reality merely by existing.

In ten or fifteen years, Morrison’s All-Star Superman is likely to stand as the all-embracing pivotal myth of the living Superman, even as Alan Moore penned the ultimate Götterdämmerung of Superman in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. ” The only possible frustration is that it will likely contend for best series of 2007 and 2008, at this pace ...


#5: Top Ten: The Final Precinct.

If anything presupposes the failure of Paul DiFillippo’s sequel to Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s limited series featuring all-too-human cops protecting a city of supermen, it’s that DeFillippo and his bosses reportedly took Moore’s silence on the qualifications of his successor as some sort of endorsement. The majesty of the original Top Ten story was that it told very small, human stories against a backdrop of inconceivable super-grandeur and, in the process, made the magical as mundane at racks of beige suits in a strip mall clearance showroom.

With DeFillippo at the helm, the world of Top Ten suddenly becomes one of cosmic import, dire destinies and Sixties-style storytelling in the worst possible tradition. Newcomers to the series may not know that Shock-Headed Peter, one of Top Ten’s regulars, has a prejudicial bias against robot life-forms, but oh goodness, will they know it within three pages of DeFillippo’s brazen-as-a-blindside script! And then they will know it again on the next page, and again on the next, as every character trait and plot point is hammered home with the flat side of a semi truck.

If Alan Moore didn’t offer an opinion on his successor’s futile effort, it might better be attributed to stunned silence than calm assurance. The only saving grace of the series is that is was so generally low-profile as to fly beneath most readers’ radar.

#4: The Defenders.

If Brian Vaughn brought new depth to Doctor Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, Keith Giffen — with collaborator J.M. DeMatteis — reduced him to the basest possible. Typically well-regarded for his humorous writing, Giffen’s Defenders was unfortunately little more than a note-for-note return to his (and DeMatteis') halcyon days at the helm of Justice League. Masterful expressions courtesy of (additionally ex-Justice League) collaborator Kevin Maguire did little to help disassociate the book from the trio’s earlier efforts, and in the end served to hurt the book more than Maguire’s otherwise underrated artistic skills helped it.

In the end, it’s a poor man’s reunion with the jokes — but not the depth, pathos or sincerity — of the mid-1980s Justice League series. With many of Giffen’s personal cadre of Leaguers dead or emotionally damaged (Ice, Elongated Man, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold), The Defenders may have been as close as we would get to a return to the glory days of the post-Crisis League. Unfortunately, we instead get the comic book equivalent of loathable nerds repeating quotes from Monty Python films verbatim for the hundredth time.

#3: Civil War.

Mark Millar’s Civil War is guilty of more than a few infractions of the rules of consistency, common sense and character development, but if it suffers one particular problem more than others, it is that it exposes by comparison the deeper problems of DC’s Infinite Crisis, and thereby its own.

Despite occupying a scale some millions of degrees less intense than those of its rival company’s major crossover event (a federal registration measure for superhumans vs. the potential destruction of thousands of inhabited universes), the fight scenes and body counts in Civil War are no less intense than in Infinite Crisis. It all still comes down to laser blasts and gloved punches in the streets and third-stringers dropping like poisoned flies, instead of legal documents and court hearings as it might in “reality.”

The Scottish Millar writes a stereotypically American story, where complex legal issues are best served by an unwavering punch thrown without moral uncertainty of any degree, but in doing so manages to write a parody of his own traditional themes more adroit than any dozen Harvey Kurtzmans could have done in their heyday.

Civil War still awaits its final chapter, delayed incessantly by Lord knows only what, as only an utter uncertainty as to how to end this damn thing could conceivably slow down what is slated to conclude in another pointless full-roster slugfest.

#2: Infinite Crisis.

I worry for the loved ones of Geoff Johns. If he has proven one thing in his acclaimed career, it’s that he reserves the most brutal acts of depravity and injury for the things he loves the most.

Thomas Jefferson once spoke, of men who married again after failed romances, that there was such a thing as “the triumph of hope over experience. “ So it is with any comic fan who thinks that a major companywide crossover will have anything to offer outside of the gory deaths of the most nameless and irrelevant inhabitants of its roster, or the most confusing cosmic-scale discord possible. Infinite Crisis may have been the worst possible offender of this genre, occurring as it did on the heels of a miniseries (fellow no-hoper Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis) from which it organically flowed — in theory, at least. And yet, IC failed to address or resolve so much as the most meager plot points originally addressed in its predecessor. Instead, we found ourselves at a veritable concentration camp for third-string characters, all of whom die in typical Johns manner — bloodily torn apart at the neck and knees alike, exploded, imploded, crushed; expiring in whatever the most gruesome method of the moment happens to be.

The villains of Infinite Crisis? None other than Superman — the pop-cultural model of decency and justly used might, in a doddering, near-senile older version — and his spastic, hateful teenage double from another dimension: American angels turned into self-righteous mass murderers and conspirators in catastrophes and high body counts.

It's all a service to mid-century comics detractor Frederic J. Wertham, proving nothing less than that he was right in the long run. The doctor in question once suggested that the salty, prurient nature of gory, exploitative comic books were inuring young generations against the subtleties of storytelling, that none could be expected to read a story of a young boy and girl sitting together without expecting the boy to hurl the girl from a top story window to her bloody death. No greater ally hath Wertham than Geoff Johns, and his editorial collaborators who happily approved for all spectators spandex-clad men and women torn from taut stem to rippling stern for little contextual value except a body count in the fans' assorted Wikis.

#1: Justice League (4th series).

The JLA is DC’s hands-down flagship team book, but this incarnation barely deserved a single story arc, much less a sudden renumbering from issue one.

The familiar trope of the super-team book is that the tension derives from story-driven conflicts between the team members. New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer chooses instead a ruddy-cheeked treehouse of hand-shaking super-chums facing nothing less than an abhorrently linear progression of their traditional foes, all too tritely working together on Generic Earth-Shattering Scheme #0313.

Furthermore, proving that Meltzer left his A-game at home and is instead relying on his dog-eared copy of Who’s Who: The Definitive Guide to the DC Univers, D-listers and top-shelf premium characters alike are name-dropped and cameoed into every scene like some a nightmarish, four-color fever dream inside the cavernous cranium of a super-hero-obsessed Dick Cavett.

Garish, bombastic, meandering and endlessly dreary, Meltzer’s Justice League trusts the reader with no less staggering a burden than developing deep emotional commitments with these characters on their own behalf. To that end, dialogue spouted by former test pilot and space policeman Green Lantern is effectively interchangeable with ghetto-born self-made Olympic champ and former Secretary of Education Black Lightning, and, for that matter, twenty-something recovering junkie Red Arrow. He’s simply not even trying, folks.

For extra fun, be sure to notice that Meltzer writes only two voices: reflective, self-involved forty-year-old white male and enthusiastic twentyish female fan club booster. In between the two, he astonishes; for a man who writes in terse, staccato sentences, he can sure fill a page with endless filler. If I should happen to say “Excelsior, ” I mean as in “flammable packing material.” If only a little Rhoda Penmark would come along and burn alive this Leroy Jessup of a book!