The comics blogosphere has been talking about mediocre superhero comics for a little while now, and I suppose I should be grateful that “mediocre” and “superhero” haven’t become entirely redundant. While he doesn’t appear to have picked up directly from the “mediocrity” discussion, I’d still like to thank Tucker Stone for giving us this week’s topic:
There aren’t a lot of very strong canons for super-hero comics out there…. Most of the serious comic canons that show up don’t deal with super-hero comics anyway, and if they do, it’s usually the standard names checked: Kirby! Watchmen! Something Frank Miller wrote! That’s indicative of a lot of variables — a portion could probably be attributed to snobbery, sure, but at least part of it will have to deal with the nature of creators who didn’t really care that much about the subject, a lack of ethnic and sexual diversity, and all the inherent mechanics involved with stories that, by their very nature, can never reach true conclusions….
Still, while a super-hero canon that isn’t beholden to a bunch of message board noise and voting may not be a current, actual product, it’s one that would certainly be an interesting little jack-in-the-box to take a look at…. Canons aren’t, for the most part, the purview of the fan … but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth trying out, even from the fan side.
Well, for good or ill, I have picked up this little gauntlet, and will probably return to it in the weeks to come.
There are at least a couple of ways to start assembling a comic-book superhero canon. One approach would be to list the genre’s most influential stories. This seems pretty easy to me, since off the top of my head it would involve many first appearances by the genre’s most influential characters. It would also include pivotal points in the development of the medium: for example, the deaths of significant characters, the starts of “definitive” creative teams, obscurities which led later to epics, and other structurally-important events.
However, that strikes me as more of a timeline than a list; and I don’t think it would be very helpful if what we really want is to set standards. Therefore, I’m going to focus on the works which I believe represent the best of the genre. Clearly these works do not constitute the entire list, and they’re not ranked according to relative merit. Instead, by discussing what I have gotten out of these stories, I hope the appropriate standards will emerge.
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This week let’s look at “Beware My Power,” the 13-page lead story in Green Lantern vol. 2 #87 (December 1971-January 1972). It was written by Denny O’Neil, pencilled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Jack Adler (?), and edited by Julius Schwartz.
The basic Green Lantern concept is superheroics unadulterated: one receives an extraordinary gift, and one must then decide how to use it. The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, had a magical power ring which he used according to his own moral code. The idea of an intergalactic Green Lantern Corps expanded that concept literally a thousandfold; but for a long time the various extraterrestrial Green Lanterns shared the same righteous commitment to their duties (and to their omniscient, immortal bosses) as Earth’s square-jawed Hal Jordan. Although GL vol. 2 #76 saw Hal start to question the rightness of his actions, it wasn’t until issue #87 that the series demonstrated the concept’s true potential.
In issue #87, Hal is forced to take on a new “deputy,” a socially-conscious African-American architect named John Stewart. After John (fresh from Hal’s GL training) deliberately embarrasses the racist Senator Jeremiah Clutcher, Hal assigns him to guard Clutcher. When a black man later attempts to assassinate Clutcher, John ignores him in favor of tracking another suspect. Hal sees this as evidence of John’s own racism; but John proves that both gunmen were working for Clutcher, trying to incite a race riot which would help Clutcher’s career. “Beware My Power” therefore reads essentially as a buddy movie. The experienced Hal complains that the new recruit doesn’t have the right attitude for the job; but naturally, that attitude provides the perspective which ends up saving the day.
My colleague Lisa Fortuner has explored John’s first appearance in depth, and has noted specifically how John is not afraid to stand up to unreasonable authority figures — namely, a policeman hassling John’s neighbors. Seeing this firsthand, Hal immediately disapproves of the Guardians’ choice, telling the Guardian with him that John has a “chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.” (In fact, towards the end of the story, John saves a white policeman’s life.)
Keep in mind, though, that the hallmark of the O’Neil/Adams run to this point (and it’s almost over) has been Hal’s newfound willingness to disagree with the Guardians. This not only sets up the buddy-cop dynamic between Hal and John, it turns Hal’s questioning of the Guardians inside-out. Now Hal is in the position of claiming that the Guardians have chosen someone who won’t automatically follow orders — in other words, someone like Hal himself.
This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, as Lisa has noted, it was not the norm for the Guardians themselves to choose a Green Lantern. A power ring’s artificial intelligence identified both Hal and his first deputy, Guy Gardner; but chose Hal because he was closer. Second, because the Guardians specifically identify John, Hal gets to frame their choice as another unreasonable imposition, when in fact it may indicate that the Guardians have been paying attention to his mini-rebellions. (It also lets the Guardians mess with Hal’s head, although neither Hal nor the Guardians acknowledges this.)
Still, this is more John’s story, because it shows how someone with a different perspective would use the power ring. As we might have expected, John is a natural. He takes well to flying, and has enough talent to save a runaway oil tanker in such a way that it sprays the black stuff all over Sen. Clutcher’s face. Thus, John appears to give into his impulses much like a reader might — and the Adams/Giordano art gives John a wide range of expressions throughout, from anger to mirth to contentment — while Hal sees only that John’s exuberance must be contained. (From Hal’s point of view, John had already called him “Whitey” and noted his approval for the “beware” portion of the GL oath. Unlike future stories, here John is the hothead and Guy, in his brief appearance, is fairly sedate.)
The story suffers because its main twist — that John had earlier spotted the fake gunman in the Senator’s entourage — isn’t supported by the pictures or, arguably, by its internal logic. (One’s reaction to the latter may depend on whether one would have thought it odd in 1971 for an African-American to be working for an unrepentant racist.) The point, though, is that John’s experiences had trained him to see the world differently; and he becomes the hero of the story because of those experiences. In the end, the two are reconciled. Hal admits to John that “your style turned me off,” but John demurs: “Style isn’t important … any more than color!”
“Beware My Power” works on a number of levels. It represents the payoff for issue #76′s famous “what have you done for the black skins?” speech; it shows that questioning authority doesn’t disqualify one from becoming a Green Lantern; and it allows its headliner to be portrayed unsympathetically. I believe that these elements, in combination, make “Beware My Power” one of the strongest stories of the O’Neil/Adams run. Rather than fighting thinly-veiled allegories for overpopulation, totalitarianism, or capitalism run amok, here Hal has to cede some of his own authority — the authority he’s been working hard to redirect since issue #76, remember — to the Guardians’ untested, uncontrollable, and perhaps outright unwise selection. The story puts all of Hal’s consciousness-expansion to the test, not in a “would you want your daughter to marry one?” sense, but by asking what may be an even more personal question: “would you give one a power ring?”
The basic superhero story asks its protagonist what s/he would do with extraordinary abilities. By showing that John Stewart’s use of the ring is just as valid as Hal’s, it opens up the world of Green Lanterning (and, by extension, superheroics generally) to all those whose are honest and fearless, not just those who toe Hal’s ostensibly-enlightened establishment line.
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Now, we all love lists, and we all love debating lists, so let’s be clear: by talking about “Beware My Power” first, I am not necessarily ranking it ahead of any other superhero story. Instead, I am saying that it is an excellent example of the genre. Again, if the point is to establish a list which collectively sets certain standards, I think “Beware My Power” deserves to be placed there.
What else is on my list so far? Glad you asked.
In order of their publication:
“Flash Of Two Worlds” from The Flash vol. 1 #123 (September 1961); written by Gardner Fox, pencilled by Carmine Infantino, and inked by Joe Giella.
“The Kingdom of the Damned,” serialized in The Forever People vol. 1 #s 4-5 (August-September 1971 and October-November 1971); written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Vince Colletta.
“Night of the Reaper” from Batman #237 (December 1971); written by Denny O’Neil (from an idea by Berni Wrightson and an assist from Harlan Ellison), pencilled by Neal Adams, and inked by Dick Giordano.
“The Glory Boat” from New Gods vol. 1 #6 (December 1971-January 1972); written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Mike Royer.
“The Pact” from New Gods vol. 1 #7 (February-March 1972); written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, and inked by Mike Royer.
Manhunter, serialized in Detective Comics #s 437-443 (October-November 1973 to October-November 1974); written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Walt Simonson.
“The Origin Of The Justice League — Minus One!” from Justice League of America vol. 1 #144 (July 1977); written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Dick Dillin, and inked by Frank McLaughlin.
“The Deadshot Ricochet” from Detective Comics #474 (December 1977); written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, and inked by Terry Austin.
“Crossroads” from The New Teen Titans vol. 1 #39 (February 1984); written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Pérez.
“The Anatomy Lesson” from Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (February 1984); written by Alan Moore, pencilled by Stephen Bissette, and inked by John Totleben.
“‘Mazing Man,” the untitled lead story in ’Mazing Man #1 (January 1986); written by Bob Rozakis, pencilled by Stephen DeStefano, and inked by Karl Kesel.
“Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” serialized in Superman vol. 1 #423 and Action Comics #583 (September 1986); written by Alan Moore, pencilled by Curt Swan, and inked by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger.
“The Coyote Gospel” from Animal Man #5 (Winter 1988); written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Chas Truog, and inked by Doug Hazlewood.
“The Painting That Ate Paris,” serialized in Doom Patrol #s 26-29 (September 1989-January 1990); written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Richard Case, and inked by John Nyberg.
“Nobody Dies” from Flash vol. 2 #54 (September 1991); written by William Messner-Loebs, pencilled by Greg LaRocque, and inked by José Marzan Jr.
“The Nearness Of You” from Kurt Busiek’s Astro City #1/2 (January 1998); written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Brent Anderson, and inked by Will Blyberg.
“It,” serialized in JLA #s 22-23 (September-October 1998); written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Howard Porter, and inked by John Dell.
“Maybe I’m Amazo” from Hourman #21 (December 2000); written by Tom Peyer, pencilled by Rags Morales, and inked by David Meikis and Mark Propst.
JLA/Avengers, serialized over four issues (September 2003-March 2004); written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Pérez.
“Soft Targets,” serialized in Gotham Central #s 12-15 (December 2003-March 2004); written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, pencilled by Michael Lark, and inked by Stefano Gaudiano.
Superman: Secret Identity, serialized over four issues (January-April 2004); written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Stuart Immonen.
DC: The New Frontier, serialized over six issues (March-November 2004); by Darwyn Cooke.
“The Gospel According To Lex Luthor” from All Star Superman #5 (September 2006); written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely.
“Architecture & Mortality,” serialized in Tales of the Unexpected vol. 2 #s 1-8 (December 2006-July 2007); written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang.
“Castling,” serialized in Checkmate vol. 2 #s 23-25 (April-June 2008); written by Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann, pencilled by Joe Bennett, and inked by Jack Jadson.
This list is hardly comprehensive, as you can see from the concentration of Engleharts and Moores and Morrisons (not to mention the Batmans and Supermans and JLAs). When my list is done, it will most likely include Watchmen and something from Frank Miller, plus stories from Wonder Woman, the Peter David Supergirl, Robert L. Washington, Dwayne McDuffie, and John Paul Leon’s Static, Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s Nextwave, and a selection of Marvel stories you can probably guess at yourselves. The Big List above contains DC stories because this is nominally a DC column, and I hope to talk about many of them in this space.
To cover the other publishers I naturally reached out to my Blog@ colleagues. Chris Mautner, Tim O’Shea, JK Parkin, and I all seem to like Amazing Spider-Man #33 (the end of the “Master Planner” story, famous for the “heavy lifting” scene), the original Galactus story, “The Painting That Ate Paris,” and Animal Man #26 (where Buddy can “see” the reader).
Chris also suggests James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Unstable Molecules, Scott McCloud’s Destroy! and Zot!, “that Fletcher Hanks Stardust story where the villains turn off Earth’s gravity and everyone goes spinning off into space,” anything with Herbie The Fat Fury, Flex Mentallo, Will Eisner’s “Ten Minutes,” Sleeper, Miracleman, and something from Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.
Tim adds Avengers vol. 1 #4 (the return of Captain America), “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Walt Simonson’s Thor, the merger of personalities in Incredible Hulk #378, the exploration of Ben Grimm’s Jewish roots in Fantastic Four vol. 3 #56, and the original Dark Phoenix storyline; but he’s on the fence about “Even An Android Can Cry.”
JK agrees about Simonson’s Thor (either issue #337, “where Beta Ray Bill comes to Earth and hands Thor his ass,” or “the Ragnarok and Roll storyline. BOOM!”), Miller’s Daredevil (especially the last issue, with Daredevil and Bullseye playing Russian Roulette), “Dark Phoenix” (and perhaps “Days Of Future Past”), and adds Steve Gerber’s Defenders, the original Squadron Supreme miniseries, and Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s A Bird…. Both Tim and JK like John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, although JK likes Simonson’s Reed/Doom time-travel issue “just because of [its] odd structure.” Also in terms of story structure, JK mentions “How Things Work Out,” an Alan Moore/Rick Veitch Grey Shirt story from Tomorrow Stories #2 showing a few decades in the life of an apartment building.
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Thus, this is very much a work in progress. It’s the beginning of a discussion. (Just because “Beware My Power” is in the post title doesn’t mean that I have any illusions of influence.) When it’s all done, I hope we’ll have some consensus on a good number of “ideal” superhero stories. From that, maybe we can start to see what makes a good superhero story; and from there, I hope we’ll have more good stories than we can handle.