Comics Panel: May 30, 2008

In conjunction with the highly successful—and highly enjoyable—movie version of Iron Man, Marvel has released a flood of Iron Man titles lately. Among them: a second ongoing Iron Man series called Invincible Iron Man , written by Matt Fraction (The Order) and drawn by Salvador Larroca. The first issue sets the table for a series friendly to readers just wandering in from the movie theater; it re-introduces Tony Stark and his supporting cast, while setting up a plot that's familiar to longtime fans—Stark faces superior technology inspired by his own work—yet endlessly repeatable. There's no wheel-reinvention going on here, as with Fraction's co-writing run on Iron Fist, but it's off to a solid start. Fraction has promised the series will involve a reckoning spinning off from the power trip Stark has been on since Marvel's Civil War. That should be interesting, For now, the series gets a respectable… B

Deep-pocketed fans who want to get back to Stark's earliest days will want to shell out for the massive The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Vol. 1, which collects more than 700 pages of the metallic hero's earliest appearances. Past Marvel Omnibuses dedicated to Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and 1970s and early-'80s X-Men captured history being made with every panel. But Iron Man was a second-tier hero from the beginning, sharing the title Tales Of Suspense with his Avengers teammate Captain America, and not doing much groundbreaking himself. Stan Lee—who created Iron Man with his brother and co-writer Larry Lieber and artists Jack Kirby and Don Heck—says he drew inspiration for the tycoon superhero inventor from Howard Hughes. But where characters like Peter Parker arrived fully formed, it takes a while for Stark to develop a personality, Hughes-inspired or otherwise. Still, with Iron Man, Lee and his collaborators got a lot of mileage out of the sheer awesomeness of a metallic hero, and as the art duties shift from Heck's Kirby-inspired art to the illustration-like work of the great Gene Colan, readers can see the groundwork being laid for the next decade's comics… A-

Two cheaper hardback collections offer a sampling of Iron Man's defining run under the guidance of writer David Michelinie, co-writer/artist Bob Layton, and (sometimes) artist John Romita Jr. Iron Man: Demon In A Bottle collects the 1979 story arc that first addressed Stark's alcoholism. Though the team is less than subtle in dealing with the subject, it's deftly incorporated into a larger story of corporate espionage, and it gave Stark's character a depth he never had as simply Marvel's billionaire playboy. Once he became Marvel's tortured billionaire playboy, he offered far more possibilities… A-

Michelinie and Layton had two Iron Man runs, and both featured variations on the silly/inspired idea of dumping Iron Man and occasional archrival Dr. Doom into the middle of King Arthur's Camelot (or some variation thereof). Iron Man: Doomquest collects both storylines. The first pass, in which Stark and Doom switch between fighting and an uneasy truce a couple of times while teaming up with Arthur and Morgan LeFay, works better than the second, which tries the same story in a future London ruled by Arthur's reincarnation. Both, however, are a lot of fun. (Marvel is currently publishing a third Micheline and Layton Camelot story, Legacy Of Doom)… B+

Joining the Iron Manapalooza is Iron Man: War Machine, an early-'90s story written by Len Kaminski and largely drawn by Kevin Hopgood. In this arc, Stark seems to die and pass Iron Man duties (the Iron Mantle?) to longtime friend Jim Rhodes. It's a gripping read that introduces some new Iron Man armor—as Iron Man stories are wont to do—between dream sequences in which a comatose Stark revisits childhood trauma. The latter development owes a debt to Peter David's concurrent work on The Incredible Hulk, but given that David's psychologically complex writing was some of the best of the era, it's a debt worth incurring, and one that allowed Kaminski to trouble up Stark's psyche even more. Unlike his superhero alter ego, he's more powerful the more damage he takes… B

When Jaime Hernandez first started writing and drawing stories about Maggie and Hopey back in the early '80s, his heroines were in their early 20s, easing out of their punk-rock years by trying out different careers and lifestyles. Now they're pushing 40, settling into ruts, but still trying to figure out who they want to be. Over the past several years of Love & Rockets, Maggie has developed into a quasi-responsible woman, managing an apartment complex and juggling several long-term relationships. In the collection The Education Of Hopey Glass (Fantagraphics), Maggie's girlhood chum makes her own strides toward maturity, by taking a job as a kindergarten teacher's assistant and trying to ease away from her sometimes-crude and violent friends. Like Hernandez's recent Maggie-focused L&R; collection Ghost Of Hoppers, The Education Of Hopey Glass is about trying to start a new life while surrounded by reminders of the old one. Unlike Ghost Of Hoppers, the new book contains a lengthy section dedicated to another of Hernandez's recurring characters: Ray Dominguez, who's been through what Maggie and Hopey are dealing with, and has weakened in resolve and idealism. The Ray stories in Education are every bit as well-crafted as the Hopey stories, but they follow a storyline that doesn't really resolve. As rewarding as Hernandez's work is to his longtime fans, it wouldn't kill him—as a maturing middle-aged person himself—to think more about making his book collections more accessible to new readers. He's still creating some of the best comics in the history of the medium; it would be nice if more people were able to discover it on their own terms… A-

The 11th volume of Fantagraphics' anthology series Mome is the best in recent memory, featuring more honest-to-goodness storytelling—abstract though it is at times—and less incomprehensible scribbling passed off as avant-garde. Highlights include Dash Shaw's "The Galactic Funnels," a surreal story about the parasitic relationship between an artist and his lover/mentor, and Nate Neal's "The 5 Simple Cosmic Do Dats," a throwback to classic underground comix that weaves several seemingly unrelated single-page humor strips into a smartass riff on exploitation and revolution. But Mome 11's most unforgettable piece is Al Columbia's horrifying four-pager "5:45 AM," which records the eerie details of a crime scene, from the car keys on the kitchen table and the homey paintings on the wall to the bulging eyes and swollen tongue of the victim… B+

It's a tribute to the explosion of ideas at Marvel in the 1960s that even the characters who didn't get the full attention of the company's top creators have lasted over the years. It isn't easy making heroes, and no one's created a truly iconic superhero since the revamped X-Men in the 1970s. Not that they haven't tried: The writing team of Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, working with penciller N. Steven Harris, gave it their best with the mid-'90s series Aztek: The Ultimate Man (DC). Collected in its entirety in a new paperback, the series starred a mysterious protagonist who began the series without even a heroic name, much less a secret identity. Millar and Morrison wanted to let the mystery unfold over time, with subsequent issues revealing his ties to an apocalyptic Aztec myth and the shadowy Q Society. It was a good idea. Trouble is, it never caught on, and the series ended after only 10 issues. Brilliant but cancelled, or ahead of its time? Readers already familiar with Morrison's sometimes-skewed storytelling style are more likely to go with the second option, and at times, Aztek reads like an attempt to bring the hallucinatory strangeness of The Invisibles into the DC Universe proper, particularly some meta bits of dialogue. (Aztek to Green Lantern: "Now that we've passed the predictable fight superheroes are obliged to have when they first meet and established the fact that I'm not a villain, maybe we can get down to business here.") But the storytelling feels halfhearted, and the main character too unformed to elicit much interest. Developing his personality might have been part of a long-term plan. Who knows? Post-cancellation, Aztek joined Morrison's Justice League and met his death… C+

Does Eric Powell just like to draw big galoots, or do comic-book companies with stories of big galoots to tell seek him out? Powell rarely ventures from the pages of his great book The Goon, last turning up for a Hulk one-off a couple of years ago. Last year, he joined forces with co-writers Geoff Johns and Richard Donner for a three-issue Superman story starring Bizarro. Collected, along with a few Bizarro classics, in the hardcover Superman: Escape From Bizarro World (DC), the collaboration, like The Goon, mixes slapstick violence with unexpected pathos as it follows Superman to a backward planet ruled, unhappily, by Bizarro. It would be too easy to say we hated it when really we liked it. So let's say it am a fun, touching story, and leave it at that… B+

Mike Dawson's chunky autobiographical graphic novel Freddie & Me: A Coming-Of-Age Bohemian Rhapsody (Bloomsbury) could use more focus and more depth. Nominally about his lifelong relationship with Queen, it plays out in a series of loosely linked memories about growing up in England and moving with his family to the States when he was a child. But while it's clear that Dawson had a special emotional tie to the band—he wound up weeping in the nurse's office at school when Freddie Mercury died, he played Queen's "She Makes Me" during his wedding processional, and he goes through life totting up the people he feels he's brought into the Queen fold with his relentless boosterism—he never really addresses why he likes the music so much, or what it means to him. He often mentions the favorite bands of family and friends, as though that information is an important touchstone, but doesn't examine why such information is significant, or what it says about people. The few times Dawson does dig past the "and then this happened, and then this happened" surface of events, the results are fascinating—particularly his segment on the fickle, fascinating nature of memory. It's a rare piece of honesty for an autobiographer to acknowledge that he doesn't remember a lot of details, or how some stories ended, and it's smart and savvy of him to turn the holes in his reminisces into a thoughtful analysis of how memory works, and how his artist's memory holds onto some events only as frozen images. There are other fun things about Freddie & Me as well, particularly Dawson's telling childhood fantasy about being invited backstage after a concert to befriend the band, and overall, it's a solid piece of work. It'd just be nice if it went a little deeper… B

The children's-book parody Goodnight Bush (Little, Brown) looks like an impulse-buy gift book of the kind that'll be read once and forgotten, a French For Cats for the Bush-bashing set. But it's a little more complicated. A pitch-perfect parody of the kid classic Goodnight Moon, it bids goodbye to Dubya at the end of his eight-year rule, acknowledging the failures and flashpoints of his administration in black-humor cartoons and simple rhymes. ("Goodnight Constitution and goodnight evolution / Goodnight democracy and goodnight privacy.") It's cheap-shot, low-blow humor, but it's surprisingly well-done, with a lot of cute details in the artwork, which changes from page to page, becoming a wry, witty find-the-reference game. But the best part is the tight little essay at the back, explaining Goodnight Moon's relevancy to the Bush family, and the parody's relevance to present readers. It isn't often that an emotional pitch on behalf of a book makes it better, but in this case, it actually works. B

More Comics Panel