The 10 best comics maxi-series (part 3 of 3)
3. Avengers Forever
With Rick Jones dying of some unknown malady, the Avengers take him to the Moon to consult with the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who’s been taken prisoner. Little do they know this will be the first act in a drama where a war across time rages between Immortus and his masters and Kang the Conquerer. Avengers from the past, present, and future have to work together, and as they battle through time they have to avoid battling self-doubt, and each other.
Avengers Forever is fun as hell, and a love letter to the legacy of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Delivered by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Carlos Pacheco, with a plotting assist from veteran Avengers scribe Roger Stern, the creative team gives us a fun ride through the history of the Avengers and the Marvel Universe itself as our heroes try to keep it together long enough to take down the bad guys. This was really a fantastic time for the Avengers franchise, with back-to-back runs from Busiek and Geoff Johns, and with Avengers Forever coming out at the end of the decade and JLA/Avengers arriving in 2003-04. Of course, that was when things went to hell when Chuck Austen took over, writing the series as if he’d never read a Marvel comic before. His disastrous run presaged the Age of Bendis, but for Avengers nerds, it was truly a golden time.
Avengers Forever celebrates the long history of the Avengers franchise through a wonderful story, giving us a glimpse at familiar heroes when they were, well, someone else. We have a Captain America uncertain of his place in the world after the events of his run in with the Secret Empire, Hawkeye following his run as Giant Man, and Hank Pym from two different eras. There are heroes from the future as well: Captain Marvel (ver. Genis-Vell) and Songbird, who had been with the Thunderbolts and seems now destined to become an Avenger in the future. Sadly, I don’t think either character is ever going to become an Avenger now, based on what’s happened since, but hey, it’s time travel and future writers always had an “out” as to why these two never got to officially adopt the “A” brand. All the same, it was fun to see these two in these roles, if only for a brief time. The team was led by Janet Van Dyne AKA Wasp, one of the best leaders of the team.
Kurt does a credible job of fleshing out Kang. Between this and the epic story in the pages of Avengers when the time traveling conqueror invades our present, it seemed ol’ Blue Face is a favorite of Kurt’s. We get some great insight into the character from both series; on the one hand, we see Kang’s desire to establish his legacy, and at the other his fear regarding his ultimate fate in becoming Immortus.
Carlos Pacheco’s art is masterful, dynamic, and energetic, and I love his character designs. And in an age where many artists seem reluctant to draw women with curves, looking at the man’s work is a breath of fresh air. Is there a bit of fanservice involved? Without a doubt. Is it not for everyone? I freely concede that. But speaking as an open-minded man, I was able to tolerate the overabundance of shirtless Clint Barton. Seriously, setting aside what might be considered a shortcoming for some, I feel he provides a fantastic series of action set pieces.
In the finale, we get some tremendous mash-ups, such as Kree Giant Man, a Loki-fied Thor, and Black Were-Panther. There’s even a cameo from Rob Liefield’s version of Captain America standing beside the Adaptoid. I know the word “cinematic” might be overused—I’m sure I’ve used it on more than one occasion in my comic book reviews—but I feel that’s the proper adjective in this context. Only the final scenes in Avengers: Endgame come close to what Pacheco gives us. That, and also JLA/Avengers, which would come out a few short years later. I wonder if George Perez read Avengers Forever and realized that he might have to step up his game? In a situation like this, we all win.
2. All-Star Superman
Lex Luthor, coming to the realization that Superman is likely going to outlive him, decides it’s high time to murder the Man of Steel. He contrives of a way to super-charge Superman’s cells with solar energy, and now that which gives Superman his power is now killing him. Now Superman must complete a series of tasks before he dies, all while Luthor’s dark accomplice awaits the time when Superman is at his weakest to strike.
In part two of this series of articles, I talked about how Garth Ennis seemed to hate the superhero genre, which is weird, because he’s largely made his living at it. While a little goes a long way (e.g. his work on Punisher), it can get a touch repetitive, and anyone who’s read his series The Boys might know what I mean. But if there’s anyone you could say is the “anti-Ennis” (Or “anti-Millar”, come to think of it), it would be Grant Morrison. Where Ennis mocks superheroes, Morrison celebrates them, embracing the bizarre and the fantastic and the weird, and let’s be honest, the silliness of the genre. Morrison is able to dial the crazy up past eleven on titles like Doom Patrol, pull it back a bit on his Justice League America run, and even get gritty with his work on the Batman franchise. But for me, I think his greatest work is All-Star Superman.
Like Krueger and Ross on Justice, Morrison hearkens back to Silver Age goodness as he gives us a clumsy and uncertain Clark Kent. For someone who didn’t like Superman Returns very much because I had moved far beyond that interpretation, I didn’t really mind this all that much; possibly because Morrison was having so much fun with it.
In issue #5, Clark has to repeatedly rescue Lex Luthor without revealing his secret identity, faking blindness from tear gas as he runs into a gun wielding inmate, unplugging a live cord that would have electrocuted Lex, and fighting a Parasite gone beserk, drunk on Kryptonian power. Grant’s Lois Lane is a bit of a brat, but again, this is classic Silver Age stuff. And maybe I’m just being a Morrison apologist here, but she comes across as much less annoying than in other comics. Jimmy Olsen is played largely as comic relief, but he gets his own story, and frankly it’s pretty touching. Morrison’s Lex is awesomely arrogant and petty, but at the same time comes across as having a gravitas that actors like Jon Cryer and Jesse Eisenberg just don’t get. Only Clancy Brown has come close to capturing what Lex Luthor is really all about.
As for Morrison’s creation, Dr. Leo Quintum, under less skilled hands this character could have overshadowed the more established ones. But Leo is handled pretty well, and shown to be a highly intelligent scientist, and perhaps Lex’s opposite number in intelligence, though lacking Luthor’s merciless drive. It’s even speculated that Quintum is in fact Lex Luthor from the future, reformed and come to the past. It’s an interesting theory and possibly why he’s never appeared in any Superman comic since. Frankly, I’m glad; I think most writers would horribly botch the character.
Frank Quitely’s art is an acquired taste, perhaps. I remember first coming across it in the pages of The Authority, when Ellis and Hitch had left that series and he came on board with Mark Millar. So I suppose I had associated Quitely’s work with Millar’s writing, and not being a fan of Mark at all, I was a touch biased. But I found myself quickly won over by Quitely’s style when he collaborated with Morrison on the Earth-2 one shot, pitting the Justice League against the Crime Syndicate of America. Quitely is a dude who certainly draws to the beat of his own drum, that’s for sure. And I welcome his unique style. He’s able to create some stunning imagery, especially when Superman takes Lois on a tour of the Fortress of Solitude. His character designs are great, giving us a truly inhuman Parasite. And he gives us a fantastic rendition of Lex Luthor and his dark ally.
Just a note: this might be my favorite Lex Luthor costume of all time. I feel as if I could talk about this comic all day. Just go out and buy it. Now. Buy it, love it, and re-read it. In closing, let me note that the late, great Dwayne McDuffie wrote the animated adaptation of All-Star Superman, and while it’s quality stuff, sadly, it doesn’t quite capture the magic. It’s a Cliff’s Notes version of the story, sometimes ignoring entire issues due to time constraints. Still, for all its faults, it’s worth a watch because the animation is stellar and the voice acting is pretty good, and I feel those involved were making a true effort to capture the spirit of the source material. You can’t always make that claim when it comes to adaptations.
I have a confession to make: I was tempted to not have Watchmen as my number one pick to subvert everyone’s expect—Oh, wait, I’ve used that joke already. At least once. But yeah, honestly, when I was compiling this list (and simplifying it by adding the twelve-issue stipulation) I really thought I’d come across another series I thought would be better than Watchmen. I mean, the series came out in 1986, and there have been a great many comics published since then; surely someone should have come along to dethrone these twelve issues of awesomeness. And to be fair, All-Star Superman did come close. But nope, Watchmen is so good, and so perfect in every way that it’s simply unbeatable.
It’s hard to try and come up with anything new to say about this series that hasn’t already been discussed a million times before by writers better educated and/or possessing greater insight than myself. Watchmen is just pure literary gold, and a perfect melding of words and pictures. And okay, let’s discuss the visual side first, before diving into the genius that is that hairy madman Alan Moore. I will say this: I can’t imagine any other artist that was better suited to this project than Dave Gibbons. Gibbons’ style is not as flashy as, say, Pacheco or Quitely, and it’s not as “super-heroic” as the likes of George Perez. That being said, Gibbons has a far better grasp of the human form than other artists, and he’s able to balance the super-physiques of some with the less than stellar forms of others. When I look at the cast of Watchmen—and when I say “cast”, I mean everyone from Dan Dreiberg to the two Bernards—they feel distinctive and real in a way other comic book artists are incapable of. Not that I think there is anything wrong with that; the medium is largely meant to be unrealistic. But in the case of this series, Gibbons was perfect, because virtually every character is a normal person, and he’s so good at making each of them look distinct and honestly unglamorous. This allows characters like Dr. Manhattan to stand out.
When I look at how the pages are laid out, I shudder to think of just how many pages of notes Moore was sending to Gibbons, describing each and every panel in meticulous detail. Gibbons is able to tackle the grittiness of Rorschach’s sad and brutal world while at the same time is able to illustrate the stark wonder of Dr. Manhattan’s. He illustrates horrors both mundane and fantastic with a seeming lack of effort.
Alan Moore didn’t invent superhero deconstruction; you could claim Stan Lee did that when he created working class hero Spider-Man. Then a decade later, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams gave us Green Lantern/Green Arrow where they dealt with real world issues like Oliver Queen’s sidekick becoming a drug addict. And then there was Tony Stark’s alcoholism. Over the decades, you had many writers moving the goal posts, and making heroes more grounded. But Alan Moore turned deconstruction into an art form, first on his series Marvelman (called Miracleman in the states) where the idea of a hero gaining powers via a sorcerer giving him a magic word is revealed to really be the product of hijacked alien technology and shady government scientists, and then with this twelve-issue masterpiece where our heroes are a mass of mental hangups who ultimately lose.
The series works in large part because while these characters were inspired by the Charlton Comics characters, they are ciphers, unknowns with no preconceptory (no, that’s not a word, but it should be) baggage. This, I feel, is one of the reasons books like Civil War have left a bad taste in my mouth even many years later, because to create that story a hack like Mark Millar had to basically take heroes we’ve known and loved for decades and turn them into either idiots or complete bastards. So I can look back at Watchmen far more fondly, because Moore created his own protagonists instead of pissing all over the legacy of established ones. At the same time, Moore masterfully makes his characters likable. You actually feel sorry for lovable nerd Nite Owl, and Rorschach, the man who never had a chance to have a normal life. And for those who think Rorschach is racist, I don’t see it. Reactionary? Oh yes, most definitely. But Rorschach doesn’t discriminate; he hates everyone equally. And yet somewhere in there is a man trying not to; you can see it in the way he takes Nite Owl’s hand. Rorschach doesn’t like what he is.
The added material in the back of each issue was a stroke of genius, allowing Moore to flesh out his and Gibbons’ world without bogging things down. With the series coming out monthly, a reader had plenty of time to sit down and read chapters from Nite Owl’s autobiography or the book written about Dr. Manhattan. Frankly, all of it is fascinating stuff. I’m tempted to go more into the story, but I’m afraid there’s some teenager out there who has yet to get his hands on this work, and I honestly don’t want to spoil it for them. If you haven’t read Watchmen, do so. Please.
Anything else? Well, I haven’t see the HBO series so I can’t comment on it. In all fairness to it, I think when people talk about racist Rorschach, I’m thinking that maybe this is how others who don’t know the character see him? Is it so hard to imagine people perverting his likeness for their own ends? But that’s for people who have seen the show to discuss.
Doomsday Clock #12 comes out this week and… I’ll just be glad it’s over, and in retrospect, I wish I never picked it up. And you can blame part of that feeling on the ridiculous production schedule. Unlike Camelot 3000, it wasn’t worth the wait. When all is said and done, the series was mostly a curiosity, and it didn’t add anything to the Watchmen legacy. The Before Watchmen series came across as shameless cash grabs, and I didn’t read a single one. And the movie? It… didn’t suck? That’s about as much as I can say about it. I was entertained, though I thought the opening credits were the best part. But I feel that after 300, Zack Snyder really hasn’t done a truly good film. Sorry, Sucker Punch fans.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this list. I also hope it inspired you to go out and read some of these titles. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.