Pulpy Thrills and Pathos With Aurora West

The Rise of Aurora West, by JT Petty, David Rubin, and Paul Pope

Considering how long it took Paul Pope to complete Battling Boy (my fuzzy recollection is that he worked on it for three or four years), I was surprised to hear that we were getting a second Battling Boy book this year. But when my local funnybook store (Nostalgia Newsstand, represent!) gave me a chance to check out an advance reader copy for review, I happily jumped at the chance.

Then I discovered that it’s not actually by Pope.

Rubin Aurora West

Sure, his name’s on the cover. And artist David Rubin does such a great Pope imitation on that cover that, if I don’t look at it carefully, I think it IS a Pope illustration. And inside, Pope’s credited as a co-writer behind JT Petty. But… It’s not the sort of singular, idiosyncratic work I’ve come to love from Pope, so…

“Well, hell,” I thought. “What’s the point?”

Seldom have I been happier to have my preconceiving head handed to me by a comic. Because The Rise of Aurora West is a great little all-ages book in its own right that, in some ways, I actually like better than the first one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Paul Pope’s Battling Boy came out last year, and it’s Pope’s answer to the lack of good comics for kids in today’s funnybook market. If you haven’t read it, it’s fun stuff, with a pretty great adventure set-up: a city beleaguered by monsters, its only protector killed in action, and now depending on an adolescent god sent down to prove himself.

This book’s a prequel to all that, starring the series’ other youthful hero: Aurora West, daughter of the monster-fighting juggernaut Haggard West, whose final battle was chronicled in the opening pages of the first Battling Boy book. Aurora’s story is about her training by Haggard, and about her coming of age as a hero in her own right, as she investigates the mystery of her mother’s murder.

It’s not Pope. It plays in his world, and so is lent some of his craziness. But it doesn’t feel much like a book he would write. JT Petty’s script is more conventional in many ways. But it’s also more coherent. Tighter. And, considering the subject matter, that’s probably a good trade-off. The story here is more complex than that of Battling Boy, so the tighter scripting serves it well.

The murder of Aurora’s mother adds a degree of pathos to Rise of Aurora West that was almost entirely absent from Battling Boy. That book had a light, “boy’s adventure” feel that didn’t have time for much in the way of depth and introspection. Here, though, emotional subtext abounds. While Aurora is hardly what I’d call a brooding character, the loss of her mother, and the affect it’s had on her father, looms large. I’m particularly fond of this page, about the three big conversations in Aurora’s young life:

Rubin Aurora West Conversations

It’s a nice summation of her time on Earth, but what really impresses me about it is that glare of sunlight over her mother’s face in the first panel. Aurora was very young when her mother died, and so doesn’t remember what she looked like very well. Though we see her face in other flashbacks later in the book, those aren’t from Aurora’s perspective the way that panel is, and it speaks volumes about the role her mother plays in the story.

(The fact that her name was Rosetta is kind of nice, too. ‘Cause if there’s a Rosetta Stone for the West family, it’s her.)

Aurora’s relationship with her father, on the other hand, should be slightly familiar ground for comics fans. Haggard West is sort of a cross between Batman and Doc Savage, and Aurora’s story isn’t dissimilar to that of Robin. Not the “orphaned circus performer” part, of course. But the training part, and the relationship-to-the-father-figure part, are bound to feel a trifle familiar. This isn’t a criticism, understand. There are enough differences that this isn’t just another “alternate Batman and Robin” story. And even if it were… honestly… it would be a pretty good one.

There’s a classic adventure fiction feel to the proceedings here. The book is thoroughly modern in its way, as I’ll get to in a minute, but also redolent of pulp (and not just because of the cheap paper this advance copy is printed on). The West family explores ancient ruins, trains in esoteric Eastern meditation, and dabbles in super-science. Haggard’s got a jet pack that Aurora’s dying to try. And their one-legged warrior woman retainer Ms. Grately echoes characters as diverse as Orphan Annie’s Punjab and the Asp, and Batman’s butler Alfred.

Ms. Grately is particularly important to Aurora’s path in this book, in fact, not only because she’s one of Our Hero’s combat trainers, but because of the way she wants to protect Haggard from Aurora’s investigation. Haggard was crushed, almost beyond redemption, by his wife’s death…

Rubin Aurora West Death

…and Grately believes that bringing up the spectre of it again might destroy him. So Aurora operates on the sly, applying the things her father teaches her both in the investigation, and in keeping that investigation a secret.

This is all accomplished with a sort of effortless, matter-of-fact feminism that I like a lot. Aurora’s gender never enters into the discussion of whether she’ll succeed or fail. That’s based solely on her youth and inexperience, and how well she can apply her training and native cunning. That’s a nice message to send to both girls and boys who might be reading this thing. And it’s not a bad thing for adults to see, either.

There’s more to discuss, but the book won’t be out til the end of September, so I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible. If I haven’t convinced Battling Boy fans to pick this one up, though, I’ll also say that it gives us some interesting insight into life in Arcopolis, and hints at the society and origins of the monsters, important background that the first book couldn’t slow down long enough to cover. But that’s all I’m going to say for now.

I do have a few things, however, to say about the art. That’s entirely the work of David Rubin, and it’s pretty terrific. He’s obviously been influenced by Pope, but with a cleaner line that lends slightly greater clarity to the action scenes.

Rubin Aurora West Training 1

Pope’s hardly the only influence here, though. I can see a bit of Rafael Grampa in it, as well, along with some manga dynamics, and maybe even a bit of Bruce Timm or J Bone here and there. Rubin’s one heck of a cartoonist in his own right, though, and rises above his influences to create something unique unto himself.

So! Pretty, engaging, mysterious, pulpy, and even just a little bit creepy… That’s The Rise of Aurora West, in a nutshell. Not the greatest funnybook ever made, but good kids’ comics that us poor benighted adults can enjoy, too. It’ll be out on September 30th, and I’d advise you to check it out.

Grade: B+


Today would have been Jack Kirby’s 97th birthday! And though that is, of course, a national holiday here on the nerd farm, we still couldn’t let the day pass without notice.

So HERE’S A LINK TO A NICE LITTLE PIECE ON THE DAY FROM NPR, who open with a tidbit of information that even hardcore funnybook fans seem to forget: Kirby created new move sensation Groot.

(Which, of course, is why I will not see Guardians of the Galaxy. No matter how well they’ve treated Bill Mantlo, creator of Rocket Raccoon, they still repeatedly went out of their way to screw over the man who created the furry bastard’s partner.)

But, hey! It’s the King’s birthday! So let’s not end this on a sour note. Instead, please enjoy this amazing machine-faced robot!

click to embig-- actually, no. Click to make KING-SIZED!!!

click to embig– actually, no.
Click to make KING-SIZED!!!


Happy Birthday, King! Wherever you are!

THE PURGE! Part the Fourth: Letting Go

It’s funny, but the deeper I get into the Great Funnybook Purge, the easier it’s becoming to let go. I may have mentioned last time that I was pricing out my Alan Moore Swamp Thing run. And, sure… I’ve got all those in book form (hardcovers, even). There’s no way in hell I’d be letting them go if that wasn’t an option. But, still…

I’m selling my Alan Moore Swamp Things.

The enormity of that is staggering. I was in eighth or ninth grade when those books came out, and they blew my freaking mind. They were exactly the sort of thing I needed at that point in my reading life: a more adult variation on the stuff I’d already been reading, with just enough punk attitude toward what had come before to appeal to my burgeoning adolescent belief that I freaking knew everything. But more importantly, they’re really good comics. Nasty-edged horror fiction with just the right kind of lovely-ugly artwork from the team of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.

Bissette Swamp Thing 2

I like them as much today as I did back in 1982. Maybe moreso, because I understand certain aspects of them better as an adult. They’re great, any way you slice it, and if I’m selling those…

Well, hell. I can sell anything.

That revelation caused me, this past week, to go back through the boxes of stuff I’d decided to keep, and jettison even more. Like Hellboy! I most certainly enjoyed reading that book, and consider it an all-time funnybook classic. But it’s available, every page of it, in book form if I ever decide I want to read it again. And the chances of that are, honestly… Not great.

This is not to knock the series, of course. Mike Mignola is the Jack Kirby of obscure myth, and–

Kirby - Satan's Six 2

No, wait! That’s Jack Kirby being the Jack Kirby of obscure myth! Hold on a sec…

Mignola Hellboy

Yeah! That’s more like it! Mignola draws on numerous Celtic, Sumerian, and Eastern European traditions to weave monster-fighting stories of great weird energy. They’re crazy fun. Or at least, the first few storylines are. Eventually (around the time of the movie), Mignola started introducing some pretty stereotypical angst into the book, something I’d always found it refreshingly free of. Suddenly the charming conceit of this uncomplicated demon hero was interfered with by some kind of bullshit Monster Racism, and I kind of lost interest. That doesn’t make the early stories worse, of course, but it does make me remember them less fondly. And, now that I’ve made this mental break, it makes them easy to let go of, too.

And that’s what this is really about, of course: letting go. As I’ve said to friends more than once since I started this weeding process… STUFF BAD. STORIES GOOD. More and more, I’m coming to appreciate the… compactness… of comics in book form, and appreciating my boxes of floppies less and less. Books are more attractive, easier to take care of, and make actually accessing the stories I’m still so enamored of far easier.

Take Matt Wagner’s Grendel, for example. I bought and read the original Comico series avidly back in the 1980s and 90s. Loved it. Loved its exploration of aggression, both on the intensely personal level and, as the series continued, on a larger cultural scale. I also loved the artwork, a riotous clash of styles from Wagner’s own smoothly cool art deco noir…

Wagner Grendel

…to the 80s-chic angularity of the Pander Brothers…

Pander Brothers Grendel

…and everything in-between.

Snyder Grendel Tim Sale Grendel

I consider it, along with Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Baron & Rude’s Nexus and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, one of the pillars of 1980s indie comics. I’ve thought back to it often over the years, and evangelized about it to numerous friends.

But I probably haven’t pulled the actual comics out of the box and looked at them in close to 20 years. I’d kind of forgotten how pretty they are, in fact, until I got my copies of the omnibus editions and flipped through them. Seeing it in that form, page after page after page of gorgeous funnybook art right there in my face, rekindled my love of the series, and made me realize that, if I’d had it on my shelf in easy reach, I might not have ever forgotten how very good it really was.

I’ve been talking like this a lot lately, which lead one friend to suggest that I’m going to “go digital” if I’m not careful. That is to say, buy my monthly comics digitally, and only get physical copies of the stuff that I think is extra special good. And he’s not wrong. That’s the pattern I follow for novels these days, and it makes even more sense for funnybooks. If I keep up my current buying habits, after all, I’m only going to be doing this same damn thing all over again in a few years. And, holy crap, I do NOT want to go through this shit again. So, yeah. It looks like digital-to-trade really is the way to go for me.


I love me some funnybooks. The actual, physical object still means something to me. Not in every case, of course. The vast majority of mainstream comics are ugly, generic things that I can (and will) happily give up in physical form. But then I pull out something like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale, with its beautiful white-bordered covers. Or Jonathan Hickman’s East of West and Manhattan Projects, with their sleek, eye-catching design. Or anything by JH Williams, whose incredible two-page spreads get lost in the gutters of square-bound books.

click to embiggen

Then there’s Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT, also known for some beautiful cover design experimentation:

Kindt Mind MGMT 24

Another weird thing about that book: it’s printed on the very kind of cheap-ass newsprint that made me start selling my collection off to begin with. I sometimes feel a little sinusy even just flipping through the brand new issues when they come out, so god knows how bad the allergic reaction to them will be once they start to decay.

But Mind MGMT‘s rough-at-the-edges “field report” design sense (every page is bordered by instructions to Mind Management agents on how to properly affix their reports to the page) makes it work. It gives the whole thing a “found document” feel, so it’s only right that such a thing should be on the cheapest paper imaginable. It takes something that would normally be a huge detriment to my enjoyment of the comic, and instead makes every issue into a minor work of art. Will I be able to comfortably read these works of art in ten years’ time? No. But I’d still hate not to experience it in that form.

I’m just stupid like that, I guess.

THE PURGE! Part the Third: Why I Hate Comics

So the Great Funnybook Purge continues here on the Nerd Farm, and it’s taking far far longer than I thought it would. For one thing, my plan of using a seven-year-old Overstreet guide and E-Bay in combination to figure out prices is turning out to be way more time-consuming than I thought it would be.

I can’t use the former, for instance, to find a realistic price for Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, and finding that long run on E-Bay proved so frustrating that I finally threw up my hands and made up arbitrary prices designed to move them out of my house. All but the “death” issue, of course.

(Though by that point, I was kinda wishing I could take Cap's place...)

(Though by that point, I was kinda wishing I could take Cap’s place…)

It doesn’t help that I’ve never liked the collecting side of funnybooks. I mean… I acknowledge it, and dutifully put all my books in bags. But I don’t really care so much about protecting them from… whatever it is that’s supposed to hurt them in the open air.

(Artist's Interpretation)

(Artist’s Interpretation)

With the slick paper most modern comics are printed on, I’m not sure how much that’s even an issue anymore. I do like to keep my stuff in good shape, though, and I find that bags help with that when you store your books in comic boxes. So bags make sense.

Of course, you don’t need a bag for every individual issue. That’s crazy talk. Depending on what size bags you get (I prefer Silver Age), you can get anywhere from four to six comics in a single bag without hurting them, so that’s what I do. I mean… if the covers on a book are particularly nice, I’ll only go two per bag, with the covers facing out so I can look at the pretty pictures. But if I’m selling the things… I kinda do need a bag for each individual issue. So I’m also having to bag stuff. LOTS OF STUFF.

So… tedious…

On top of that, I’m having to deal with the sometimes-perplexing thought processes of the people who buy and sell funnybooks on the internet.

(Worst. Simpsons Reference. Ever.)

(Worst. Simpsons Reference. Ever.)

I get, for instance, that the prices of the Eclipse printings of Miracleman are falling in the face of the on-going Marvel reprints. They should; the key to those books’ “value” was that the story was so hard to get, and now that it’s not… supply and demand kicks in. But the prices are falling ridiculously far (in some cases lower than the cover price of the reprints), and the issues Marvel hasn’t gotten around to yet are still going for high dollar. But why would you be willing to pay out thirty bucks for a comic that’ll be reprinted in a couple of months when you’re not willing to pay it for one that came out last week? I don’t know, but I’m thinking that I better get my Miracleman 15 up on the E-Bays soon if I wanna get in on the insanity…

Only 75 bucks! Cheap!

Only 75 bucks! Cheap!

Far more bothersome to me, though, is a trend of “wishful thinking” pricing. People are declaring previously-unremarkable books important for the slimmest of reasons. Take Swamp Thing 25, for instance:

Bissette Swamp Thing 25

A fine comic, early in Alan Moore’s redefining run on the book. If I remember correctly, it’s the beginning of that horrifying children’s home story with the white monkey demon thing.

Swamp Thing Spelling Monkey

It’s a fact!

Brr. One of my favorites. But it is not, I’m afraid, the first appearance of John Constantine. That’s issue 37. So why do I keep seeing it listed as “First Appearance John Constantine”? Apparently because of this:

Constantine Swamp Thing 25

Which, okay, sure. That certainly looks like Constantine. But it’s not. It’s Sting.



Here’s what happened, see… Series artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw Sting. So they did. That’s him mugging to the camera in the midst of a horrible tragedy on the streets of Houma, Louisiana. Then they suggested to Alan Moore that they have a recurring character in the series who looked like Sting, presumably so they could draw more pictures of Sting. Or maybe just because they thought it would be funny. I don’t know. Whatever their reasons, about a year later, Moore acquiesced and gave them a British street magician who looked like Sting:

(Though he was initially drawn by Rick Veitch.)

(Though he was initially drawn by Rick Veitch.)

That’s in Swamp Thing 37, however, and the guy in issue 25 is, as we’ve already established… Sting.

(Hello again!)

(Hello again!)

This is all an established part of funnybook history, a fun little story that can teach us all an important lesson about the interplay between writer and artist. Even a writer whose scripts are as notoriously detailed as Moore’s.


But this doesn’t stop the price-gouging scum– er… con artists– er… ever-prudent businessmen (yes, that’s it!) of Funnybook Interweb Sales from claiming that it IS Constantine’s first appearance, and charging exorbitant prices for the issue.




All of this kind of makes me hate comics. And that makes me mad, ’cause I love comics. So I can’t go more than a couple of hours before I have to open up one of the books I’m selling and read it. Then I love comics again, and everything’s alright. Of course… Then I also start having second thoughts about selling the book I read, and hem and haw over it, and…

Yeah. This is gonna take a lot longer than I thought it would…

THE PURGE! Inner Space Interlude

So here’s the problem with my big Funnybook Purge: all the time I would normally spend writing has been spent deciding what to keep, what to sell, what to sell cheap, and what to sell for real money. So the in-depth piece I was planning to do on the comics I’m keeping… just hasn’t materialized. So as not to leave the Nerd Farm completely unmanned in the interim, though… I thought maybe I should do something a little more… visual.

Golden Micronauts Ad

Micronauts was my favorite comic when I was ten. It was also based on my favorite toys, of course, which probably had a lot to do with why I loved it so much. But it was great funnybooks, too. Bill Mantlo’s story, steeped in metaphysics, body theft and political corruption, was by far the most grown-up thing I’d ever encountered. Sure, it cribs a lot from Star Wars. But with teaser ads like the one above, a villain as awesome as Baron Karza…

Golden Baron Karza

…psychedelia on the level of the Time Traveler…

Golden Micronauts Time Traveler

…fantastic vistas of space armadas…

Golden Micronauts 9

…sci-fi sword fights (with robots!)…

Golden Micronauts Acroyers Attack

…and Kirbyesque grandeur with the super hero WHO COULD BE YOU…

Golden Karza vs Universe

…I don’t really care. All that gorgeous Michael Golden artwork helped a lot, too, of course, and it’s really him we’re celebrating here.

Now, this book is so old that the paper’s gone well past the point where I can read it without setting off my allergies. So, by all the rules I’ve set for myself in weeding out my collection, I should have dumped this book without a second thought. It meant so much to me once upon a time, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. Maybe if there were trade collections, but as it is… Nope! Keeping that one close!

In fact, I might invest in some Benadryl and dive in for a re-read. The first I’ve done in at least 25 years…


THE PURGE! Part the First.

So last week was a great week for funnybooks. New stuff from David Lapham, Shaky Kane, Gillen & McKelvie, AND a new book from Bryan Lee O’Malley! I had a blast reading that shit over lunch on Wednesday. Good comics and a spicy chicken bowl! A little slice of funnybook heaven.

But that’s not what I’m gonna write about today. I tried, believe me. But my heart just wasn’t in it. Why? Well, because my funnybook brain is currently wrapped up in THE PURGE. Because I’ve hit that point in my comics-collecting career. That critical mass tipping point when I look at the short boxes piling up and think, “Great weeping Jesus, why do I have so much crap?!”

So it’s time. Time to pull the boxes out, open them up, and make some hard decisions. If I don’t think I’ll ever read a book again…

Andrews Hulk 38

Or if I’ve got a trade collection of it…

Jaime Whoa Nellie 3

Or if it’s gotten old enough that it’s gonna set off the unfortunate allergy I’ve developed to decaying newsprint…

Adventure Comics 347

…it’s gone. I’m selling. Cheap.

I’ve cleaned out the collection before, of course. I sold most anything I had of any great value back in the 90s, when everything was going for inflated prices. And I sold off a bunch of stuff to my Local Funnybook Emporium (Nostalgia Newsstand represent!) just a few years ago. But that was more of a weeding. Getting rid of the easy stuff. The stuff I’d outgrown. The stuff without any sentimental value. The utter crap I’d forgotten I had. But, now… Now I’ve just hit the point where I want the shit gone.

I’m shocking myself a bit with what I’m getting rid of. John Byrne’s Fantastic Four was thrown to the wolves without a second thought, and it’s probably the second-best run ever of my favorite spandex funnybook of all time (Lee and Kirby rule, of course, but Byrne’s a close second, especially in his first year). I kept Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, but didn’t pause a minute in dumping Black Kiss. And I kind of gave Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch a pass at first, then yanked it once I stopped and asked myself why.

It’s that question I want to talk about today: Why? Why am I keeping some books and getting rid of others? Let’s start, since we’re already talking about it, with Stormwatch.

Stormwatch 37

I automatically kept it on first pass because… Well, because it’s Warren Ellis, a writer whose work I think well of, and because it’s a fondly-remembered bit of spandex storytelling that looms large in the genre’s history. Or at least, it looms large in my personal vision of that history. I mean, everyone credits Ellis’ The Authority with reshaping super hero storytelling in the 21st Century, and that’s certainly true. The “widescreen action” and “decompressed storytelling” (both terms Ellis himself coined) were lifted wholesale for Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, and that book changed corporate spandex philosophies for a decade (and counting). But that’s the flash. The surface. Under the hood is a story of messy interpersonal relationships, political subtext in a quasi-military setting, and the idea of people as weapons. That’s the important stuff, the stuff that makes the first Ultimates series better than 99% of its imitators, and THAT is lifted less from Authority than it is from Stormwatch.

Ellis did a better job with the high concept stuff than Millar did, of course. The dehumanizing aspect of People of Mass Destruction is explored far better with the Stormwatch introduction of Apollo and the Midnighter than it is with any of the various Super Soldier projects seen in Ultimates, and Ellis also manages a better sense of wonder with stuff like Sliding Albion, the Bleed, and the trip through comics history that is the 100-year life story of Jenny Sparks.

Jenny Sparks Eisner

(Seen here: a rather pointed political commentary on the 1940s, in the style of Will Eisner.)

That last bit is also pretty important, I think. I don’t remember if it was in Stormwatch or Alan Moore & Rick Veitch’s Supreme that I first ran across the idea of making flashback stories look like old comic book pages from the appropriate era, but it’s a technique I like, and that I’ve seen put to good use elsewhere. Jim Rugg used it to great effect, for instance, in both Street Angel and Afrodesiac, and anything that went into making those two books as good as they are is something I’m behind 100%.

So, yeah. Stormwatch. Enjoyable, cutting-edge super heroes from (gasp) nearly 20 years ago. The template from which modern spandex funnybooks has (to varying degrees of success) been copied. Good comics, any way you slice it. So why am I getting rid of it?

Sigh. Fondly as I remember those books (and hard as I worked to find the earliest issues when I discovered it about a year into the run)… I just can’t see myself ever reading it again. I might enjoy it if I did, of course, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. There’s too many other books, and it’s not a work of such literary brilliance or sheer insane fun that I’m apt to revisit it. So it goes.

So does Matt Fraction’s Iron Man.

Iron Man 20

That was a book of considerable subtlety, I always thought (well… subtlety for a super hero comic, anyway. Let’s not get crazy here). Fraction wrote a complicated Tony Stark, a man of great ego, driven by uncontrollable urges and crushing guilt to do right by the world. If the threats weren’t always the most thrilling, that was okay, because the corporate espionage and drive for technological betterment was what the book was really about. But like a good many on-going series at the time, it sort of crashed on the rocks of the Fear Itself event, a story of horrible sacrifice and startling tragedy that reversed itself before it even ended. I know corporate spandex properties are all about creating the illusion of change rather than actual change, but my god… That book manifested its illusion and then rolled out the mirrors that created it before anyone even had a chance to applaud. The words “damp squib” come to mind. So do the words “wet blanket,” which is the affect it had on my enjoyment of Iron Man. There’s no way in hell I’m plowing through all that again, just to be disillusioned before it’s done. So I’m dumping it. Cheap.

It’s not all important books and interesting-but-ultimately-disappointing series I’m getting rid of, though. There’s also little gems in the mix, like all those Garth Ennis war comics I’ve got (entertaining to read once), Joe Casey and Nathan Fox’s gonzo spandex crime comic Zodiac (ditto), and a book I had completely forgotten about til I pulled it out of the box: Jason Aaron and Cam Stewart’s The Other Side.

Stewart Other Side 1

This was a little six-issue thing written early in Aaron’s career, looking at the Vietnam war from the perspective of two grunts, one American, the other a part of the Viet Cong. It’s searing stuff, the disillusionment of one soldier mirroring in reverse the increasing fanaticism of the other as they head toward inevitable confrontation. Aaron deftly captures both the ugliness of war, and the reasons men fight it, dealing simultaneously with the messy politics of that particular conflict. Cam Stewart’s also firing on all cylinders on this thing, turning in work that puts me a little in mind of ‘Nam-era Michael Golden. It might be my favorite Stewart art job, and I’ve liked pretty much everything the guy’s ever done.

So, yeah. It’s good stuff. But the re-read I did when I stumbled across it is probably the last one I’ll ever do. And if I change my mind, I think it’s still available in trade.

So’s the last comic I wanted to discuss today, but this one… man. This one’s tough. REAL tough. The true Heart of Darkness in this Funnybook Purge: Hellblazer.

McKean Hellblazer 1

I’ve written about this series before, but the basics bear repeating. In its 25 years of publication, this book was never actively bad. Some runs were certainly better than others, of course, but I never picked up an issue that I didn’t think was at least pretty good.

Think about that. Twenty-five years of continuous monthly publication? With annuals, specials, and mini-series along the way? And NONE of it was bad? That’s an amazing track record. I can’t think of another book that can match it, in fact, except maybe Cerebus. But that was written and drawn by the same incredibly talented, incredibly driven, incredibly maddening guy for its entire history. Hellblazer, as a corporate property, didn’t have that luxury. What it did have, evidently, was a persistence of editorial vision sufficient to hire good people and let them run wild.

Or at least, run wild within the established Modern Horror boundaries that were the series’ stock in trade. Demons, angels, monsters, ghosts, serial killers, investment bankers, the British royal family… You name a horrifying menace, and this book stared it down the gullet. It’s a milestone in comics history, one of the first and best examples of genre comics written for an adult audience (and that’s truly an adult audience, not just an adolescent one that likes blood and boobs). As a fan of good genre, the graphic novel, horror, and of comics history in general, I should own the shit out of this series.

And as of right now, I still do. I’ve got the first 80-some-odd issues (the runs by Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and Eddie Campbell), with stops along the way for the better stuff that came after, and any anniversary issues that came along, too. I’ve never bought it for my bookshelf, because there’s just so much of it. But I love these books, and even if I might only ever read them again once or twice ever… I can’t imagine letting them go. Except…

In my enthusiasm for the funnybook classic that is Hellblazer, I decided to re-read the first issue. And I was diggin’ it, man. I felt the dark atmosphere of Thatcher’s London slowly creeping back up on me, thrilling and evil and bad, and then… My eyes started to water. I coughed. I sneezed. Shit! The damn book was printed on cheap-ass paper, and a quarter-century in a plastic bag had rendered it un-fucking-readable. So off for sale it goes.

Looks like I might be investing in a few trades, after all…


Aaaaand… I think that’s it for now. Next time: books I’m actually keeping! And why!

Hope to see you then.


A Post-Script: As I was perusing back issues of Garth Ennis & Jim McCrea’s transgressive-mainstream crime comic Hitman (which I’m also dumping, by the way, even though it kinda breaks my heart not to own the series that gave the world Bueno Excellente)…

McCrea Bueno Excellente

…I ran across something that struck me funny (well, okay, funnier…). There’s been much celebrating in fan circles about Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. You know, the Jack-Kirby-created tree man who only says one thing:

I Am Groot

Which, yeah, sure, good joke. I laughed the first time I heard that about him. But the gag always sounded just a tiny bit familiar to me, and now I know why:

McCrea Baytor

Garth Ennis got to it first. Meet Groot’s comedy ancestor, the Demon King / Bartender (and Hitman supporting cast member) …BAYTOR!

I’m not sayin’ they ripped Ennis off here (you call it an homage if you’re smart)… But I am saying that Baytor’s way weirder, cooler, funnier, and more disgusting than Groot. Plus, he has all that lovely dental work…

Subtlety, Craft, and a Well-Intentioned Wrong Note: MIRACLEMANINREVIEWISGO!!!

So! After a rejuvenating, if unannounced, vacation, we’re back, and–

Ridgway Miracleman Wrong

Hold on there, big guy! Calm down! I know I’ve fallen behind a bit on my Miracleman retro reviews, but that’s no reason to shout. Because, hey! Look!

Miracleman 6-8, by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and Chuck Austen

I’m back on the case! We’ve had three issues of this book ship in two months, and I’m feeling like a slacker. Granted, double-shipping a five-dollar comic might not be the best idea financially. I already know plenty of people (well, okay, two or three) who are trade-waiting on this book because of that cover price, and putting two of the things out in a month isn’t going to make them any more likely to take the single-issue plunge. It nearly made me abandon the book, too, even though I’ve really been digging the re-read. Of course, when the first hardcover collection came out, and it was 30 bucks for four issues… The five-dollar singles didn’t look quite so bad.

(Of course, the fact that Amazon can sell the thing for half that does make one wonder if Marvel’s losing money there or price-gouging everywhere else…)

As long as I’m criticizing the hardcover, though… It’s not a very nice package. I mean, if I’m paying 30 bucks for 115 pages of story backed up with 60 pages of sketches and pin-ups, I’d at least like a dust jacket, which this book does not have. It does have an Alan Davis cover, but while Davis’ work is always nice to look at…

Miracleman Hardcover

…this piece is a bit generic. And while the monthly book has shown a nice knack for graphic design (a knack mostly cribbed from the 1980s Eclipse release, granted), the back cover of this thing is, frankly, kinda butt-ugly:

Miracleman Back Cover

But enough about the fershlugginer hardcover. I came here to talk about the three most recent issues, so let’s get to work on that.

More than anything, these issues represent a transitional period for the series. In them, we see the last of the original Warrior material, the first stories written for Eclipse, and the debut of the series’ most notorious artist, Chuck Austen. Austen’s history in comics is a rocky one, and he didn’t get off to a good start here. Following artists as talented as Garry Leach and Alan Davis would be tough for anyone, granted, but Austen was particularly not up to the task. His work on the book’s not awful, by any stretch, but it’s also not particularly good. There’s a nice clean line to it, but at times it’s too clean. This is never more apparent than in the death of Evelyn Cream:

Austen Miracleman Cream

Heh. That may be the cleanest decapitation I’ve ever seen. The guillotine didn’t sever heads with such pristine precision. Bottom line, Austen was a poor choice. His work is competent, but stiff. It never sings, and this is a story that kind of calls for singing. But he may have been the best Eclipse had at the time; I remember feeling at the time like he was sort of a rising star at the company. So the choice was no doubt well-intentioned, even if the results were wanting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Austen doesn’t show up til halfway through issue seven, and we’ve got quite a bit of story to cover before that. Which… Yes. The story. That’s as strong as ever, and continues to show both the strengths and weaknesses of the young Alan Moore. These issues focus mostly on the relationship (such as it is) between Miracleman and his mad scientist arch-enemy/creator, Dr. Emil Gargunza. John Ridgway pops in to illustrate a flashback chapter about a particularly outre fantasy Gargunza fed the sleeping Miracle Family when their advanced brains started to dream their way out from under his mind control software. Panicked, Gargunza runs a manual over-ride and ad-libs a dream sequence to get things back under control…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Heh. Interesting that he jumps to sex. Gargunza’s cold scientific detachment is concealing something rather more… heated, it seems. (Remember that. It’ll be important later.) But the reaction of Our Heroes is just as interesting. I’m especially impressed with how efficiently Moore’s developing Young Miracleman here. That “who wants to hit them?” line is a great throw-away gag, but it also establishes YM as a red-blooded example of British teen boyhood. (That’ll be important later, too.)

Maybe most interesting, though, is Miracleman’s reaction. I may have mined it for yucks earlier, but I really am kind of fascinated by it. He senses the trap, of course, but in the context of the rest of the series, you’ve gotta wonder how much he understands that the sexual content was just not right for the boy’s comic world he’s been living in. It doesn’t help, of course, that Gargunza’s own sexual fantasies are bleeding in here. It’s not all butterfly women and Indian princesses, after all. There’s a chick in a bondage mask sidling up to Miracleman, and… What the hell’s going on here?

Ridgway Miracleman Trilobites

Un. Wholesome. If Undead Trilobyte Woman doesn’t set off the alarm bells, I’m not sure what would.

(An aside: I love that Ridgway draws Kid Miracleman with dot eyes. That’s exactly how he was drawn in the old comics, and it’s a great detail for an artist with as realistic a style as Ridgway to have thrown in. It should be jarring, but it’s not, and that (once you notice it) makes for an even more surreal effect.)

Moving on from fantasy, we move into memory, as we get the Secret Origin of Dr. Gargunza. This is, for my money, Alan Davis’ finest moment on the strip. Called upon to illustrate something not just uncanny or godlike, but essentially un-Earthly, he delivers this pointillist masterpiece:

please, oh please... click to embiggen

please, oh please…
click to embiggen

This is the Qys ship that gives Gargunza the body-swapping technology he uses to create Our Heroes, and Davis’ rendering of it makes it seem both more and less real than everything around it, like an incursion perhaps from a higher dimensional plane, or at least something OTHER, something beyond human ken. When I talk about the art singing on this book, this is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about. In fact… I said this was Davis’ best moment on Miracleman. But honestly, I think it’s my favorite Alan Davis work, period. He’s a classic funnybook artist with a smooth line, rock-solid basics, and a talent for psychedelia that rivals even guys like Jim Starlin. But this is the only occasion I can think of when I look at a Davis page and genuinely feel like I’m looking at something from beyond. That’s the sort of artistic experience I most crave, and he delivers it here in spades.

The picture above is a reproduction of Davis’ original art, something that every issue of these reprints has had, but which I haven’t discussed much before now. That’s mostly because I haven’t felt like any of these pages was all that interesting. But here, that’s far from true. The color work (good as it may be) takes something away from this piece:

embiggen and compare!

embiggen and compare!

The delicacy of the pencil shading gets lost in the color, as does the way the fine dot-work defines the shape of the ship without solid lines. There’s just no comparison, for my money, and I wish colorist Steve Oliff had taken a far lighter hand with it. So, for once, I’m glad they gave us the page again in the back matter.

We see the inside of the ship next, and that’s another fine sequence that reinforces my feeling that the ship is something beyond:

also embiggen

also embiggen

HP Lovecraft’s influence on Alan Moore is obvious, and this alien other that induces seizure and nausea in humans feels right out of the Lovecraft playbook. But I’m seeing another big influence here that may strike a bit closer to home:

Quatermass and the Pit

British sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit. It’s a film about the discovery of an alien spacecraft in the earth beneath London, a spacecraft that induces strange reactions in the people who find it, and which houses a malevolent alien consciousness responsible for demonic legend. The Qys pilot isn’t quite the insectoid monster of that film, but his horned appearance certainly brings it to mind. And Moore, always a student of genre, couldn’t help but to have seen it. Not saying that it’s derivative, mind you. Just an interesting tip of the hat.

This origin, by the way, was absolutely mind-blowing when it came out. By the time I read it, I’d already seen Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing, so I was well on-board for the “everything you know is a lie” reboot. But this came first, and it’s marvelous stuff. It draws on the spirit of the character’s original origin story (vast pseudo-science rendered as near-magic), maintains the sense of wonder while injecting a nasty dose of reality, and draws a direct link between the hero and his arch-enemy that makes the whole thing more dramatically satisfying. It’s the blueprint for every character revamp since, up to and including the much-lauded Marvel Movie Universe.

Too many of its imitators have missed the “maintaining the wonder” aspects of the work, of course, and the “nasty realities” they inject too often do nothing to enhance the dramatic potential of the original. That’s how imitation always goes, of course. The surface gets copied, and the underlying quality does not. But the next time somebody asks you why Miracleman is better than, say, The New 52… That’s a good place to start.

But moving right along…

Miracleman’s inevitable confrontation with Gargunza is a nice play on the themes of godhood that Moore’s been exploring in the series. We’ve seen Our Hero slip increasingly into the Johnny Bates mode of staying in the miracle-body, his rage at his wife’s kidnapping sparking fear and unease, and that pays off in the ease with which he takes out Garguna’s men.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Then Moore turns that all on its head as Gargunza uses a post-hypnotic over-ride to turn the god back into the man, and sics Miracledog on him. I’ve always kind of liked Miracledog. He’s a perversely fun twist on the old “super-pet” idea: a monstrous dog with the same powers as Miracleman. Which, oh my god, would not be a good idea at ALL. Especially not if he’s loyal to your arch-enemy…

Anyway, Our Hero finds a solution to the problem as Mike Moran. This is a particularly interesting point in the story, if you’ve been following along: Moran is given a taste of what normal humans experience when they face him, and his response is bewilderment and terror. It’s Moran’s heroism and ingenuity that’s at the base of Miracleman’s, of course, so it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that he rises to the challenge. I’m not so sure that’s the lesson he takes from the experience, of course, but we’ll get there as the story continues.

Eventually, Moran turns back into Miracleman for the final confrontation. Chuck Austen has come onto the strip by this point, however, and it’s here that we really see the problem with his work: he strikes entirely the wrong tone. As you can see above, Alan Davis rendered Miracleman’s initial assault on Gargunza’s South American stronghold with a sort of cold fury, a godlike alien remove. But when Austen illustrates his second assault…

Austen Miracleman Gore

…well, that’s just creepy. It’s the smile. Our Hero’s been through some pretty savage shit in the jungle, granted, and the guys whose heads he’s pulping there are satisfyingly hateful Nazis (a far cry from the at least partially-sympathetic terrorists of issue one)… But, dude. DUDE. It just strikes the wrong tone. It makes Miracleman seem cruel, rather than righteously angry, and that’s an important balancing act the story’s pulling at this point. We need to be afraid that he’s going to turn out like Bates, but he doesn’t need to actually go there. And that expression, which he wears throughout this scene, pushes him over the line.

Granted, it’s pretty much exactly the same mistake many of the modern artists who’ve provided alternate covers for this reprint run have made. They go for the furrowed brow and malevolent grin, missing the character’s essential impassiveness completely. But it’s that godlike remove, that benevolent nobility inherent in him, that makes him hero and not anti-hero. It’s the difference between the Alan Moore school and the Frank Miller. I like both (at least, in the hands of the their originators), but you can’t cross them up. The results are, well… Wrong.

Does it ruin the story? Not really, no. Moore’s writing keeps it all together. And by the time Miracleman is kissing Gargunza goodbye in the stratosphere…

Austen Miracleman Kiss

…the story’s equilibrium has been reestablished.

Whew. Lots of ground covered here today, and I haven’t taken time for much overview. So let’s do a bit of that now. I’m not sure how many of the scripts here were written before Warrior went belly-up, and how many were written for Eclipse. But the heavy narration drops out of things almost entirely by issue eight. Not completely, mind you. There’s still a bit of it in the stuff with Miracledog, including an attempt at parallel narration in the confrontation between it and Moran that’s not entirely successful. Granted, that technique (where you have two different narrative threads running at the same time) seldom does work, unless the two play off each other pretty closely.

Moore gets a lot better at that later in his career; Watchmen is full of stuff like it, for instance, but that book’s obsession with crystalline structural technique is what honed Moore’s writing into the surgical instrument it often is today. Here, he’s not so hot at it. But, as we’ve noted before, even the Funnybook Shakespeare had to start somewhere. And reading Miracleman is a great way to see how he grew.

Grade: A-