When Words Collide: Hickman's "Avengers," "Morrison's "Action" & More Questions Answered

Mon, April 1st, 2013 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: April 22nd, 2013 at 1:11pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

QUESTIONS: HICKMAN'S AVENGERS, MORRISON'S ACTION COMICS, THE STRENGTH OF THE WRITER/ARTIST TEAM, AND WHAT'S WORTH READING?

I haven't done one of these in a long time, and since I'm not quite ready to tackle the next entry in "The Helix Files" and the creator interview that's in the works won't be ready until next week and the highlight of last week's comics haul was seeing the few Aaron Kuder pages in the newest issue of "Superman" (and that's not quite enough to write about, though Kuder's Orion looks spectacular, and if he sticks around on "Superman" it will be one of the best-looking superhero comics available this year), then it must be time for me to answer questions from devoted readers. Or from random strangers. Or from people who live in my house.

Anyway, it's a good way to prompt me to talk about some comics! So here we go!

"What do you think of Hickman's Avengers?" asks Mario McKellop

I think I really like his "Avengers" series and just sort of tolerate his "New Avengers."

Both series have their similarities -- cosmic, multi-dimensional threats (that, knowing Hickman, will tie together like yarn-and-pushpins-on-the-conspiracy-board) -- and I like the scope of both, but with "New Avengers," it's the worst tendencies of Brian Michael Bendis's Illuminati conceit wrapped up in the Jonathan Hickman storytelling mathematics and talking-head-speechifyin' that sometimes bogged down "Secret Warriors" and his "Fantastic Four" run. The power plays inherent within the Illuminati group -- from Reed Richards to Tony Stark to Dr. Strange to Namor and beyond -- seem like great fodder for Hickman to play with. It a straight-ahead version of the maniac geniuses in "Manhatten Project," in a way. And any appearance by Terrax and Galactus is worthy of my attention.

But it just all feels too much like what Hickman's "S.H.I.E.L.D." series ultimately became, and though that series is supposedly still alive in some potential future, it collapsed under its own plodding machinations early in its run.

But "Avengers"? Hickman's up to something interesting there. It seemed like, at first, that the series was going to be a cycle of epic event, punctuated by an ellipsis, repeat. Anticlimax after anticlimax, with a dose of deus ex machina to help weaken each finale. And while it's true that such a cycle has continued, sort of, up through issue "Avengers" #8, the larger shape of the story has now revealed itself. The end of the first arc wasn't really the end of the first arc, it turns out. Things are bigger and more vast than we yet understand, and so this pattern of the stories folding in on themselves has actually launched them down through a narrative wormhole and back out again. Maybe that's a terrible explanation. But it's the best I have right now, and I like how Hickman is using a vast array of Avengers (even if they are mere set dressing) to explore concepts about storytelling and the creative force and parallel worlds and variations on Jim Shooter's New Universe.

The whole thing is like a metaphor for Marvel's struggle with its distant-and-relatively-recent attempts to launch something genuinely new, while being self-aware that what you're reading is nothing new at all, but instead the same cycle repeated once again, with new trappings.

I respect that. And I also respect that it's full of colorful characters smashing things.

"What's your preferred reading order of Grant Morrison's "Action Comics" issues?" asks Chad Nevett

I know why my good friend Chad Nevett asked me this question. He had asked me via email when he was about to sit down and reread Morrison's "Action Comics" run and I had sent him a reply that got hung up in my outgoing mail box because my phone doesn't like to send emails all of a sudden. So he asked me again, to get my response on the official record, since he has now already reread Morrison's run and probably doesn't plan to do it again anytime soon.

So here's my answer: my preferred reading order of Grant Morrison's "Action Comics" is to read them in order. Issues #1-18. Simple. You can skip issue #0 entirely. But if you insist on reading it, throw it in its order of publication, which would be issues #1-12, 0, 13-18.

The reason he even asked in the first place is because Morrison reportedly rearranged some of the early issues -- #5 and #6, specifically, which featured a time-displaced story -- to provide some additional time for the regular art team to get caught up on the main storyline.

But I will always insist on reading things in the order of publication, and in the case of Morrison's "Action Comics," the whole thing is specifically time-fragmented anyway. The series is about a villain who is attacking Superman in the past, present, and future and events are smashed into one another, temporally-speaking. So while you could rearrange issues #5-6 and place them elsewhere, there's no benefit to doing so, as they would interrupt the main story no matter what and the chronological jarring that occurs because of their appearance immediately after issue #4 actually works in the overall benefit of the larger story, foreshadowing the time-trouble and the climax still to come.

So yeah, read it in the order it was released. Read everything in the order it was released. Unless it's something like "Secret Invasion" or something. Then you need some kind of obsessive fan-slash-Bendis-scholar to point out the appropriate order of that monstrosity.

GLX asks, "Is the concept of a writer/artist team undervalued by publishers and readers alike?"

Probably not, but I guess it depends on what you mean by "writer/artist team." I think you mean a writer and artist working together in close collaboration for a significant duration, maybe symbiotically, or at least working so well together that their combined efforts are consistently better than what either of them tend to do when they are apart.

In current comics, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis have been a pretty consistent team for the past half-decade, but they are just about the only duo working together with any regularity at DC. (Though the Grant Morrison/Chris Burnham team proved to be pretty excellent, and if they had worked together longer -- or earlier on the Batman run -- it might have been something bordering on super-excellent.) Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso have been a consistently good team for over a decade now, and I can only imagine that we'll see more from that pair.

Over at Marvel you have Matt Fraction and David Aja doing their thing together, reunited from the Iron Fist days to make "Hawkeye" one of the better comics from the superhero corner of the world. And as good as Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie can be on other comics, nothing quite compares to their collaborative mojo and "Young Avengers" is a sample of that right now.

Brian Michael Bendis seems to like working with Mark Bagley. Readers tend to get mad when I point out that Mark Bagley is mostly terrible at making comics look good. But the Bendis/Bagley tandem is certainly a writer/artist team with substantial credentials.

So I guess my point is that true writer/artist teams are uncommon, and great ones are even more rare, but that's not because they're undervalued. It's just that there are other factors in play, like how a writer can work with many artists but if an artist is drawing a regular series they are kind of tied up with that one thing. And it's often in their best interest not to stick around too long, because one of the things that helps drive sales is the announcement of a new creative team on a comic, even if that means you're just looking at two dudes who were on comic A and one of them moves to comic B and the other moves to comic C.

It is nice to see collaborators working well together, and the best comics come to life in that situation, but I don't know that it's only an established "team" that can pull it off. And I don't know that anyone undervalues the teams that make it work so well.

"What do you think is the most overlooked comic by both readers and critics of the last decade?" asks Randy Homier

Oh man, this is a tough one. If it were a majorly overlooked comic, I probably would have written about it at some point in the past few years just to say, "Hey, this is really great and you fools have overlooked it!"

When I started reading/rereading all the Helix comics, I was partly convinced that there was a hidden masterpiece among the releases from that two-year failed imprint, but the more I read of those comics, the less likely that seems to be. Plus, that was over a decade ago, and wouldn't make the cut according to this question.

So, from 2003 to 2013, what's the most overlooked comic?

I'm going to have to go with a handful of titles that would fall into the category of "not many people wrote about these comics, or talked about them much, but they were really quite good." So here's my list, with a very brief explanation of why these are worth tracking down in the discount bins: (1) "Human Target," by Peter Milligan and Javier Pulido and Cliff Chiang and Cameron Stewart, because the art is consistently excellent and the stories explore post-9/11 America better than almost any other work of fiction has even attempted, (2) "H-E-R-O," by Will Pfeifer and a bunch of artists, because it balanced short-term story arcs with a master plot and commented on the superhero genre while still making everything seem dangerous and uncertain, (3) Robert Kirkman's "Marvel Team-Up" series, another comic that had an overarching plot with short little arcs and was pure superhero fun, and a sense of peril, in a way that was lacking from most Marvel and DC comics of the time (or since), (4) Paul Cornell and Trevor Hairsine's "Wisdom," which was Cornell's American debut comic and remains the best, most compressed example of his approach to larger-than-life characters, and (5) "Shadowpact," by Bill Willingham and friends, which is basically just a team book featuring supernatural characters, but it's a team book featuring supernatural characters that does all the things you'd want from a team book -- big conflicts, interpersonal melodrama -- and doesn't try for anything fancier than a good story, well told.

I don't know if any of these comics are, or were, overlooked, but I do know that I enjoyed all five of those series quite a bit, and I should probably write something more substantial about all of them someday.

Finally, my 12-year-old son asks, "What do you have that I can read? Anything funny? Or just good? Or whatever?"

Well, he asked me that last night, looking for something to read before he went to sleep. I've mentioned this before -- though not for a while -- but he started off his comic book reading life with masterpieces like the entirety of "Calvin and Hobbes," and "Bone," and the first decade of "Peanuts," and moved on to read "Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka" and "Death Note" and "20th Century Boys" and "Bakuman" and "All-Star Superman" and pretty much everything by James Kochalka and "Herbie: The Fat Fury" and the first two Archive editions of "Mad" and the Carl Barks "Uncle Scrooge."

More recently, he saw some X-Men comics laying around and asked about them, and ended up reading all of the Brian Michael Bendis/Stuart Immonen/David Marquez "All-New X-Men" series. He said, "they're good."

And he really liked volumes #1-2 of the Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim "Dungeon" series, which he read last week. He asked for more like that -- other comics of that sort -- and my collection is sorely lacking in humor comics.

So I kick the question back to you, oh readers of taste and insight. What should a kid with his background in comics read next? What's funny? What's worth checking out? Because as much as I love "Ambush Bug," he's not really into it.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, jonathan hickman, avengers, grant morrison, action comics, superman

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