Riding Shotgun: Funny Books, the Return

So far, 2005 sucks my ass. It has been cold and wet and I have been sick for most of its duration. Numerous are the times I have sat down with my computer on my lap ready to hammer out a vicious diatribe on politics …

So far, 2005 sucks my ass. It has been cold and wet and I have been sick for most of its duration. Numerous are the times I have sat down with my computer on my lap ready to hammer out a vicious diatribe on politics or sex or the plight of the spotted owl, only to discover that it is cold and wet and to decide that the spotted owl can go fly itself into high tension wires. I’m tired and I want a nap.

That’s right; I’m blaming my laziness on 2005. It’s still young. It can’t defend itself.

I thought at the very least I should write a response to the outcome of November. The last time Riding Shotgun appeared here, it was on the eve of the election urging you to go out and vote. Which you did. Thanks. Good for you, you syphilitic twits.

But every time I try and ruminate on it, to expound, to write my way into comprehension, my thoughts collapse under the weight of my own profanity. There are only so many “fucks” you can cram into a paragraph before your sentence structure collapses like a flan left to sit.

So, I’m letting the whole brouhaha go for a while. I’ve got four more — sweet, holy Christ — years to delve into it, so I’m going to take my time. Let it sit. Let some stuff settle and work out. As I would to a fine bottle of wine, I’ll get to it when I feel it’s ready. Then I’ll smash it over someone’s head and do something really nasty with the broken pieces.

That said, let’s talk comic books.

I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. Maybe it’s the appeal of a world where, if your leader is a callow fool, he’s probably being mind-controlled by the Red Skull. I dunno.

A bastard child, the comic book has only been embraced by mainstream culture as legitimate reading material for adults in the last few years. Oh, the form still gets no respect, but it’s inarguable that it’s been recognized as a source of characters, stories and talent to be tapped by the entertainment industry at large.

Of course, not everyone is expected to trudge down to their local comic shop and rub shoulders with the untouchables every month. That, dear friends, is what graphic novels are for. Graphic novels are sizable hardcovers or trade paperbacks and collect four, six, 12 or more issues of a comic book, binding together entire storylines because you are all impatient bastards.

So, here’s a look at what’s hit the bookshelves in the last two years, caught the eye of the connoisseur, and might be a good inroad for the funny-book virgin.

Sales-wise, Marvel has been beating DC like an ugly, red-headed stepchild that nobody wants. And there’s a one-word reason why: Ultimate. When Marvel announced the Ultimate line a few years ago, it was received with a collective groan from longtime comic enthusiasts. A “reimagining” of classic Marvel characters, it was generally expected to be a watered-down version of old stories to try to make a buck with the puberty-challenged crowd.

Instead, Marvel piled on their best writers and artists and created an alternate universe where Marvel’s greatest characters have been rebooted and updated for the modern era. The results are some of the most engaging, hippest new stories with the best “new” characters free of the burden of 40 years of backstory. The line has even won over the continuity nitpickers who dreaded the idea of tinkering with the classics.

The Ultimates, the first 13-issue volume of which is available in two softcover graphic novels or a single hardcover, reworks the classic team of the Avengers for the 21st century, transforming them into a government-sponsored strike force designed to beat down America’s superpowered enemies — Dick Cheney’s wet dream painted in the superb detail of artist Bryan Hitch.

Interwoven with the epic battles are nitty-gritty personal tales targeted at adults: Giant Man’s physical abuse of his wife; Thor’s borderline madness; a Captain America who, having been frozen for 60 years, is struggling to deal with a country he barely recognizes. You know you’re not reading a title meant for children when, in an issue titled “Persons of Mass Destruction,” Captain America orders a bound and screaming Bruce Banner dropped out of a helicopter. In the made-for-TV movie that killed off the classic television Lou Ferrigno Hulk, a fall from a helicopter ridiculously kills off the green goliath. In The Ultimates, the Hulk emerges from the crater and starts ripping people in half. Tasty.

Ultimate Spider-Man, the first and longest-running of the Ultimate titles, takes Marvel’s unlikely hero back to high school. Too young even for a driver’s license, this Peter Parker has to deal with the incredible pressures and responsibilities of being a costumed super hero as well as the day-to-day dilemmas of being a teenager. In the original comic, Peter Parker is a high school student for all of about one issue before being thrust out into the adult world. In this series, writer Brian Michael Bendis is savoring every bit of adolescent angst, from the strain it puts on his relationships with his aunt and girlfriend to his guilt over bringing violence into his friends’ lives.

The story’s appeal spans all age groups, and it might be the superhero book for people who don’t like superheroes. The series to date has been collected in five of the Ultimate-sized hardcovers.

The Ultimate line is probably the second-best thing to happen to Marvel Comics in recent memory, the first being the appointment of Joe Quesada as the company’s editor-in-chief. The gregarious, connection-making artist has made it his mission to attract great, unlikely talent.

Fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Jonesing for your Joss Whedon fix? Quesada has recruited the former TV writer/creator to pen The Astonishing X-Men. Whedon makes a smooth transition to the form, bringing his unique ear for machine-gun wit and love of pop culture plugs to Marvel’s merry tale of misfit mutants.

Whedon managed in his first six-issue storyline not only to put the team back in the classic costumes without making them look like spandex fetishists, but also to drop a surprise bombshell on readers that somehow made it to the racks without being leaked. It’s such a beautiful moment; I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone who picks up the first six issues bound together under the title “Gifted.”

Neil Gaiman — best known for his comic Sandman, which set new benchmarks in the 90s for intelligent, adult storylines — took Quesada’s offer and signed on with Marvel for two mini-series projects. The second is still a secret. The first, 1602, has recently become available in graphic novel format.

A “What If…?” tale, 1602 imagines the heroes of the Marvel Universe if they had come about at the dawn of the 17th century. Magneto is hidden among the priests of the Inquisition; Dr. Strange is physician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth; and mutants are considered to be spawned of the devil. Paralleling the tensions and prejudices between Catholics and Protestants that came to a head at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the beginning of James I, 1602 is smart and fun and a good choice for those who choose dry wit over blood and gore.

Speaking of gore, one of the most surprising and successful comic books of the last couple of years came from outside the mainstream. 30 Days of Nights nearly single-handedly resurrected the horror subgenre in comics. Writer Steve Niles and the sketchy, charcoal minimalist style of Ben Templesmith tell the tale of Barrow, Alaska — a tiny town that is plunged into perennial darkness for the winter and besieged by a host of vampires drawn to a sun-free buffet. The mini-series spawned a sequel and a legion of spin-offs, but the original tale published by IDW Press is still the best and a good read for just about anybody who likes a high body count.

As for DC Comics, Marvel’s heavy-hitter competitor, the list of recommendations is nearly nonexistent. The company has plenty of good titles, but few outstanding storylines worth picking up in graphic novel form. At least currently.

The past year, however, saw one of the best stories to ever come out of DC — a universe-spanning murder mystery titled Identity Crisis. A hero’s wife is brutally slaughtered, igniting a firestorm of suspicion and revelation that — if the publisher goes with the flow — will seriously change the squeaky-clean image of the DC universe. Written by novelist Greg Rucka, the first issue is one of the best 22 pages of comic I’ve ever read. Hopefully DC can pick up some momentum from its success, and the graphic novel, which comes out later this year, should be a big success.

There’s more, but my mind is numb with slush and sleet. It’s been snowing for 13 hours straight now. I don’t know if it’s possible for humans to hibernate, but I’m willing to give it a try.

Wake me up in May. Or 2008. Whichever’s less dreary.

Article © 2005 by Steve Spotswood