Reading Pile: Superman: The Secret Years; Time Masters; Green Wake

I have a long list of comics that I’ve acquired over the years that I fully intended on reading shortly after I bought them, but this and that happened, and I never got around to it. Until now. Recently, I finished reading two mini-series and the first arc of short-lived series. Here are my thoughts on Superman: The Secret Years, Time Masters: Vanishing Point, and Green Wake.


Superman: The Secret Years by Bob H. Rozakis (writer), Curt Swan (penciller), Kurt Schaffenberger (inker), Tom Ziuko (colorist), John Costanza (letterer), and covers by Frank Miller

 

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I remember reading some backup stories in Superman comics (I forget which title specifically) called “The In-Between Years” chronicling Superman’s life between Smallville and living and working in Metropolis. This series is an extrapolation on this premise, focusing on Clark’s years at Metropolis University. The series is mostly these short done-in-one stories, with a few plot threads going through most of the issues. One common thread is Clark’s anxiety about being powerless to save everyone: his parents, his friends. This was back before the Crisis and the Kents (much like in the New 52 version) are dead before Clark fully became Superman. One of Clark’s roommates ends up drinking and driving and becomes paralyzed. And another Metropolis U student, Billy Cramer ends up dead as well.

There are some highlights. The love affair with Lori Lemaris is expanded on…slightly, but it’s still nice to see someone vying for Clark’s affections, and this story was always a favorite of mine from the original telling (“The Girl in Superman’s Past”). Clark decides to reveal his secret identity to Billy in issue two because he needs someone he can confide in, and why not a hometown boy? And there’s the progression of showing Clark/Superman maturing in the art. In issue one he is clearly more on the Superboy side than Superman, but by the end of the series, he is a young Superman for sure. I think that Kurt Schaffenberger had more to do with that than Curt Swan. I may anger some readers, but I think Swan only knew how to draw Superman as one particular age. Speaking of the art, what about Frank Miller on the covers?! This was before The Dark Knight Returns. Given the classic Swan art interiors, what a bizarre pairing.


Time Masters: Vanishing Point by Dan Jurgens (writer/layouts), Norm Rapmund (inker), Hi-Fi Colour Design (colors), Travis Lanham (letterer), and covers by Jurgens, Rapmund, & Hi-Fi Colour.

 

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I got this series because I thought I would get some of the missing pieces between Final Crisis and The Return of Bruce Wayne. I did not. This series is mostly an exercise in filling time before Flashpoint happened. In fact, the final issue ends with us being told to read an issue of Booster Gold and Flashpoint #1 if we want to find out the answers to the mystery presented on the last page! I found that very frustrating. Also, the first issue’s cover implied that we would “find” the lost-in-the-time-stream Batman, and I guess that “promise” was fulfilled, but it one panel in the final issue and sort of told in flashback. And what good was there in having Superman, Green Lantern, and Booster Gold around, other than to help punch things on a few pages? For most of the series, they are superfluous to the story.

What I did enjoy were the glimpses into Rip Hunter’s childhood and his interactions with his father, the future Booster Gold. In fact, Daddy Hunter shows up in the guise of Supernova (whom I last saw in 52), a character that I’ve always enjoyed seeing in DC Comics.


Green Wake by Kurtis J Wiebe (writer), Riley Rossmo (artist/covers), and Kelly Tindall (letterer).

 

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What a cool series. I have vague recollections that this was a mini-series, but then it was announced as an ongoing series, and then it was cancelled after issue 10. I read the first arc, issues 1-5, and now I think I need to go get the other five issues. The story is about a murderous spirit who is being pursued by two men in a place called Green Wake, which appears to be a kind of Purgatory (though one character likens the place to Hell). In fact, this series reminded me of certain aspects in Dark City and What Dreams May Come, with a dash of Seven thrown in. The Rossmo art fits the mood and setting perfectly, and Wiebe throws the right amount of introspection and pathos our way to make for an engaging story. The ending gets a little confusing, but I also like that you can interpret it a couple ways–that makes it a better story to me. Unlike the other two series described above, I do recommend picking this one up if you can find the back issues or trades.

Avengers Assemble!

I mentioned on Twitter that I had picked up a bunch of comics because my LCS is selling its overstock issues for a buck, and most of the comics were Marvel’s Avengers titles: Avengers, New Avengers, and Secret Avengers. After Civil War was done, I was actually going to get Avengers, but money at that time was a little tight, plus, I really don’t care for John Romita Jr.’s artwork, so I passed on it, but was still curious. I knew of the other two titles, but thought, how many Avengers books do you really need?

Apparently, at least three.

Avengers, written by Brian Michael Bendis with pencils by J.R. Jr. and inks by Klaus Janson, was ok. It’s nice seeing the band back together after what happened during Civil War, especially as written by Bendis. The whole Kang arc (1-6) was somewhat interesting because it turned out not to be your typical oh, look what your kids end up doing in the future time travel story, but just barely. I’d give this title a B-.

New Avengers, on the other hand, was a lot more fun, and I only read three issues! The Stuart Immonen and Wade Von Grawbadger art is oh so much better than J.R. Jr.’s work to me, and I think I just love the characters on this Avengers team much better for some reason. If you would have told me 20 years ago that I would absolutely love Luke Cage as an Avenger, let alone leading a team, I would have said, No way, True Believer! I loved the part where Tony Stark asks Luke for a dollar, and then sells Avengers mansion to Luke. And then, when Steve Rogers asks Luke who he wants on the team, but then immediately follows with, “You can’t have Thor or Iron Man,” I laughed! I wish I had picked up this book from the get-go. The only thing that would make this book better is if Spider-Woman was in it instead of in Avengers. I think I need to go get the back issues and get caught up on this. I’d give this title an A-.

Secret Avengers 1-4, written by Ed Brubaker with art by Mike Deodato, had an interesting plot involving Mars and Nova, whom I love. But the rest of the group? Don’t really care for them as a team. Deodato’s art is ok enough, but doesn’t excite me (though I like it better than J.R. Jr.–I need to stop complaining!) I’d give this title a C.

Retro Review: DC Comics Presents #36

Welcome to the final part of my look at DC Comics Presents #27-29 & 36.

DCCP36

There are a couple things to love about this issue for me. First, this is a sequel to the Mongul story from issues 27 & 28. Second, there’s Starman.

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I first encountered this character from an issue of Adventure Comics (though I do not recall which one, but I do vaguely recall it was drawn by Steve Ditko), but I don’t think it was the issue shown above (man, there are times I kick myself for getting rid of some comics over the years–I will never, ever do that again). For some reason, I took a liking to the character (even the hokey costume design) and tried to find his other appearances, though I think I was pretty unsuccessful at this attempt. That is, until DCCP #36. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised when I saw Starman on that cover, and in a really cool blue costume!

DC Comics Presents #36 features Superman and Starman in a story titled “Whatever Happened to Starman?” Unlike the previous DC Comics Presents issues I’ve been looking at that were written by Len Wein, the story for this issue was coplotted by Paul Levitz and Jim Starlin. I love this cover. As with the cover of issue #27, I really like the juxtaposed colors. Then you have Mongul’s ugly mug colored the same as the Kirby crackled background. Finally, there’s the mass of blue that are Superman and Starman. Starlin definitely updated Starman’s costume for the better, and he looks even cooler with the white, fur cape inside the issue (this Starman is a prince).

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The art in this issue is just fantastic. Starlin inks himself, and that really pays off. Also of note is dark backgrounds. Much of the action takes place in space, and either Starlin or colorist Gene D’Angelo (or both) decided to use blacks for the backgrounds. Sometimes the star-dotted black backgrounds swallow the foreground objects, but it makes the images look more real to me.

The first four pages of this issue serves as an introduction to the character as well as showing what happened after Starman last appeared in Adventure Comics. Starman, aka Prince Gavyn, has ascended to the throne of a far distant empire after the murder of the previous ruler, his sister. He attends her funeral and we get over a page explaining how he became Starman and then emperor. When Starman returns to his Throneworld he finds it ransacked and his betrothed kidnapped by a “monstrous being”. Despite this likely being a trap, Starman heads into space to save his wife-to-be and avenge the murder of his sister (because it must the same being he reasons).

There are two pages that involve Starman’s discussion with his dead mentor, Mn’torr (my, how subtle Starman’s creators were). During that talk, Starman learns that the empire will not survive and that he will receive help from beyond the known worlds. Starman continues his quest and does find his fiancée, as well as confronting her kidnapper: Mongul! There’s a brief fight where Mongul surrounds himself with some sort of energy field and hits Starman once, knocking the would-be hero out. Now, why didn’t Mongul use this power against J’onn J’onzz before the events of issue #27? :)

Starman awakens later to find himself in the familiar-to-us cube that held Superman’s friends in issue #27. So, what is it with Mongul and these size-reducing prisons? Is he such a petulant creature he must humiliate his prisoners by reducing them in size inside a clear, floating box? Or maybe it’s merely a matter of convenience? Regardless, Mongul leaves Starman in his prison with the threat of murder to force Starman’s fiancée to marry Mongul and “legitimately” become ruler of the empire. Some time later Starman is freed by Superman. This is on page 12: Superman doesn’t show up in his own book until page 12! I am amazed that this was allowed to happen. I can just imagine someone at DC responding, What? The star of the book doesn’t even appear until half-way through the story?! How did Starlin ever convince Julius Schwartz to go along with this? (I’d love to know this issue’s secret origin. Was Starlin behind it and Levitz was given to Starlin to help? Or, given that Starman was co-created by Levitz, maybe it was Levitz’s idea?)

Starman explains to Superman that Mongul plans to take control of the Imperial Crown, which can destroy planets with but a thought. At least Mongul is consistent in his desire for conquest by usurping power/weapons that can destroy worlds. The two heroes devise a plan to stop Mongul and head off to do that.

Back on Throneworld, Mongul is now emperor and about to stretch his near omnipotent control over the planets. Superman shows up to challenge Mongul to a knock-down, drag out, mano y mano.

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Meanwhile, Starman is in the planetary system’s sun to dismantle or destroy the Imperial Crown’s power source. Once he sees the machine, he knows why he has the powers he does and who made the machine that made his bloodline emperors for generations. Back on Throneworld, Superman is succeeding in his bid to distract Mongul in a three-page fight scene that is drawn wonderfully. But Mongul proves to be more than a physical match for Superman and Mongul walks away from the fight. Ok, again I come back to what we know from issue #27, and how Mongul needed Superman to defeat J’onn J’onzz. Based on the fight we see here, that makes no sense whatsoever. In fact, Superman spells it out for us:

DCCP36_03

With Superman on ice, Mongul swaggers into a control room to contact his empire and decree that the empire shall marshal it’s forces to to strike against Mongul’s homeworld (remember that he was deposed by a religious fanatic) and then rule the universe! Poor Mongul. You would think he would start to develop an inferiority complex since even this plan fails. When he attempts to blow up one planet who refuses his will, his empire flies away. Literally!

DCCP36_04(Wow, someone sure liked the idea of engines large enough to move planets.
We get it here and with Warworld previously.)

Just then, Superman and Starman show up for round two. Luckily for them, Mongul just wants to go back to wherever he calls home now and lick his wounded ego. He teleports away, and the heroes collapse to the floor, exhausted. Later, Starman explains to Superman that the doomsday machine was built by Mn’Torr’s people, something that Mn’Torr apparently wanted to correct (and which got him killed). At the end, Starman reunites with his fiancée, and Superman flies out into space, heading home.

Given the focus that was on Starman, I can’t help but think that Starlin wanted to do a revival of the character (and perhaps Mongul would be Starman’s recurring nemesis?), so DC editorial used this as a testing ground to gauge fan interest. I certainly would have bought a new series starring (heh) Starman. In fact, I still would, if Starlin was working on it. If you want to know more about what happened to Starman after his adventure in this comic, check out the Wikipedia article on him (now I want to go read those comics).

Finally, getting back to the character thread that held my interest in this story for so long, we have a Superman who is not full of himself, even if he does rely a little too much on his fists instead of his brain. It shows a certain character development arc with Superman that I never expected in a team-up book, though this examination is inconsistent, as was demonstrated if you compare the first and third parts of this story with the second and fourth parts. Still, overall a pretty entertaining story.

Retro Review: DC Comics Presents #29

Welcome to part three of my look at DC Comics Presents #27-29 & 36.

DCCP29

DC Comics Presents #29 featured Superman and the Spectre in a story titled “Where No Superman Has Gone Before”. Len Wein is still the writer, and Jim Starlin draws with Romeo Tanghal providing the inks again. I’m not sure what happened here because this issue is a lot cleaner and leaner with the inks as compared to the previous issue. Maybe Tanghal had more time, or he felt more in tune with Starlin’s pencils, or maybe he was told to dial it back, but whatever the reason, this issue is better looking overall. We get another great Starlin cover, though there’s that weird pose for Superman–Starlin likes these odd bent knee poses. Also, I wonder how that background was created?

Of the three issues so far, this has to be my least favorite. There’s a lot of expository dialog, somewhat meaningless self-examination, and not a lot of anything else. The first three pages are setting up the plot of the issue (find Supergirl), reexamining in one page what’s gone on before, and then Superman figuring out what to do next. I really feel for the writers at times. When publishers (or maybe it is just certain editors?) feel they need to get readers up to speed on the previous issue’s events, the writers try to do it in a way that isn’t just stupid, but sometimes you paint yourself into a corner. Here, Superman admits to himself (and us) that everything that’s happened in the last two issues happened “so fast”, and he’s trying to “make some sense” of the events. But he’s Superman, with that superbrain that can do this:

DCCP29_01

(Is that math even real?)

Yet he needs to narratively explain events to himself to make sense of them? Ok, I’ll grant that an examination of events can help clarify the situation at times, but then why go all the way back to events from issue 27? I know, I’m grousing too much here, so let’s move on.

Superman speeds off into the cosmos after his cousin, moving so fast that he shatters “the confining barriers of space and time as if they were so much fragile tissue”. Hmm, and yet Mongul can zap him and escape? Ok. Anyway, Superman pours on the speed and

DCCP29_02

(Apparently John Wallis was right.)

Nice hyperbole, Mr. Wein. :) But he does find Supergirl, and just when he’s about to reach her, the Spectre shows up. I always found this interesting because the Spectre was an Earth-2 character at that time. Yet, he’s shown here to be beyond the confines of one reality. Earth-2 characters would often team up with Earth-1 characters, sure, but it usually involved some dual universe-spanning dilemma. Here, though, the situation is a bit different, and much more believable, considering what Superman is about to find out.

Spectre tells Superman he cannot pursue Supergirl into the realm she has entered, but Superman will hear none of it and proceeds to threaten Spectre. In fact, when Spectre refuses to stand down, Superman does what he apparently does best.

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Granted, Superman is highly emotional, but we seem to get a return of the “I’m Superman, I can do anything” mentality that we started with in issue #27. Of course, if the Spectre were more direct, he could have avoided the confrontation altogether. But that would make for a much shorter story, right? Since Superman refuses to listen to reason, Spectre decides to take him on a “journey of revelation”. First stop: Krypton, where we get a quick five-panel retelling of Superman’s origin. And here’s where things get silly. Superman has apparently lost it so much that when shown an image of Krypton that’s about to explode, he treats it as if it’s the real Krypton and hugs the dying world as if he could contain the explosion. So much for that superbrain. Next, Spectre subjects the Man of Steel to more psychological torture by showing Jonathan Kent being hacked down by the classic image of the Grim Reaper, Superman powerless to stop it. As Spectre says, “Even your much vaunted powers has limits.” Superman concedes this, but Spectre doesn’t buy it, so he sics a doppelgänger on Superman: “he is the dark side of your own spirit!”

Finally, Superman gets it. He realizes that he has been “thinking with my heart instead of my head”. Hmm, your only surviving member of your family goes missing and a demigod is sent to teach you a lesson in using your brain instead of getting overly emotional. Huh? Oh, and for good measure, God shows up.

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Finally, Spectre explains that Supergirl went into a realm of death, which is why he couldn’t allow Superman to continue his pursuit–because someone who consciously entered that realm would die, but since Kara was unconscious, she was ok. Huh? Anyway, Superman asks God for help, and Spectre retrieves Supergirl (she materializes in Spectre’s arms, still sleeping). Spectre tells Superman that all he ever had to do was ask. That Spectre, what an prick! :) Superman then relates the moral of tale before he and Supergirl head home: “Power is meaningless … until it is tempered with conscience”. I would have said wisdom. Superman is nothing but conscientious (to a fault perhaps), but he was acting foolishly and full of himself when first dealing with Mongul and then with Spectre.

Thus ends the three-part story. Like I’ve said, I really enjoyed this multipart story for the strong ties to each previous issue, and for the psychological journey that Superman travels. Considering that most of this series was done-in-ones, I am amazed that Len Wein and Jim Starlin were allowed to tell this story over three issues. But wait! There is, in my mind, a sequel of sorts that we’ll look at next time.

Retro Review: DC Comics Presents #28

Welcome to the part two of my look at DC Comics Presents #27-29 & 36.

DC Comics Presents #28 features Superman and Supergirl in a story titled “Warworld!”, where they face off against Mongul from last issue. I love this cover. Jim Starlin did a great job with this, although the way Superman’s legs are shown looks really awkward and is something that Starlin does a lot. But it does what a comic cover should do: entice someone to buy it. It’s too bad Starlin didn’t ink himself on the interior art as well.

Speaking of inking, the opening splash page shows Superman and Supergirl flying through space. Here you can really see the difference in how an inker can transform the same penciler’s work. For this issue, the inker is Romeo Tanghal (and again we get a New Teen Titans reference: Mr. Tanghal inked several issues of that series), and the way Superman looks compared to last issue is quite obvious. Tanghal’s Mongul, too, is a bit different looking, with a lot more, shall we say, definition to Mongul’s face.

The second page gives a pretty succinct synopsis of the previous issue (just in case the reader hadn’t picked up the previous issue–ahh, comics back then…), told from Supergirl’s point of view, though, since Superman obviously told her the story, why would she then regurgitate that information back to her cousin? Wouldn’t it have made better sense for Superman to relate the story to Kara? I do take issue with one image that is shown. In referencing the fight near the end of last issue between J’onn J’onzz, Superman, and Mongul, they imply that Mongul hit Superman after J’onn has been defeated. That’s not at all what happened. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to reference Mongul teleporting away as he actually did? Oh, and how are the superfolks talking in space? I know, I know, there goes that logical part of my brain again. They are Superman and Supergirl after all, right? :)

So, the duo arrive where Warworld was supposed to be, but of course it’s gone, but Supergirl comes up with an idea to track the exhaust of Warworld’s massive nuclear engines. In fact, now that I think about it, Len Wein must have really liked Kara, because he showed her coming up with a couple good ideas in this story, as well as being the more observant of the two. I really liked that aspect, and point it out because usually it’s the star of the book that is usually shown to come up with all the good plans.

Oh, and just so you get how big Warworld is, Wein and Starlin provide this as a reference:

The next few pages depict Kal-El and Kara as Super Peeping Toms as they find Warworld and then spy around the place looking for Mongul. And here’s where Kara’s observant quality comes into play:

Of course, this takes up precious time and allows Mongul to take control of Warworld. Way to go, Supes! Mongul takes control and then reminisces about why he seeks this all-powerful weapon. You see, Mongul was just your down on his luck tyrannical ruler who was deposed by a religious fanatic, and he only seeks to restore order in the universe (“I’ll show them!”). Mongul: poster child for misunderstood dictators.

Then Mongul attacks by sending one huge-ass missile at Superman. And again we get a shot of just how big these weapons are:

Curious: the missile doesn’t appear to be guided, yet Superman just stands there waiting for it. And why is Superman standing on that piece of rock? He’s in space! Notice Superman’s thoughts in those panels. He’s actually worried. No more of that bravado from last issue. Superman appears to have learned his lesson of humility. I also like how Starlin used some simple hand and arm movements in those panels to convey certain things. First, Superman stands hands on hips in the classic pose. But as the missile gets closer, and Superman’s thoughts turn to doubt, one hand comes away from his body and outstretches, but just before impact, Superman’s hand clenches into a fist: he may have doubts as to the outcome, but he is Superman, after all, and will do what must be done. I like that a lot.

The missile explodes, and of course Superman survives, though he claims just barely (again, to show us just how potent Warworld is). Funny, if the explosion was enough to almost kill Superman, then why wasn’t his costume affected in any way? Mongul sends more missiles and “macro-lasers” at the superduo, and it’s during this exercise in dodging that Superman comes up with the plan to defeat Mongul. You see, earlier on, Superman saw a graveyard on Warworld and he deduces that the builders of Warworld died off because their bodies couldn’t handle controlling the massive Warworld: “One by one they died–victims of massive cerebral hemorhage” (sic). As they talk of this, Starlin shows Mongul staggering away from the controls and then collapsing to the floor. Wait. Superman figures out what happened to the previous owners of this planet-sized weapon, and then engineers a hasty repetition of that event with Mongul. Did Superman murder Mongul? Sure, it’s not like Superman held a gun to Mongul’s head and pulled the trigger, but if not murder, then Superman certainly played a direct role in the death of another being. Wow. For the Bronze Age, this is pretty wild, especially for Superman.

Anyway, now the Kryptonians can dismantle Warworld–wait! Kara saves Superman’s bacon by shoving him out of the way of a macro-laser beam. It seems that once the controls are activated, the satellite maintains the defensive capabilities, so Superman comes up with a plan. Oh, and here on page 14 we finally find out just how the superfolks have been communicating in the vacuum of space: super-ventriloquism. Uh huh.

What is Superman’s plan? Well, he’ll keep the planet’s defenses busy while Supergirl flies “a galaxy away” (man, the pre-Crisis superduo sure were powerful!) and then flies back to Warworld, exceeding the speed of light, moving too fast for the defenses to detect her, and take out the computer core in the middle of the planet (“like a bullet through a snowball”). Kara succeeds, and allows Superman enough time to reprogram the weapons systems to turn on themselves and destroy Warworld once and for all. Good thing the pre-Crisis Superman has that super brain of his and could read and understand the alien language, as well as the computer programming code, of the former owners of Warworld. Superman is then left to ponder if J’onn J’onzz will be able to forgive him some day. Oh, and what happened to Supergirl? Well, find out next time on Retro Review, where I’ll examine DC Comics Presents #29, where Superman doesn’t exactly team up with the Spectre.