When Words Collide: The Best, The Worst, The Overrated - And Morrison's Batman

Mon, August 5th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
26

THE BEST, THE WORST, THE OVERRATED - AND GRANT MORRISON'S BATMAN

I have a few things to say about the state of superhero comics, circa the summer of 2013, and rather than rant about everything in a long essay, let me field some questions from faithful readers and rant by way of responding to what they're asking:

GLX asks, "What comics currently being published would you consider overrated?"

I never quite know what this question means, so I'm going to interpret it as, "What comics do other people seem to really like that you think are not very good at all?" Because I really don't know how folks are rating comics these days, in general, so going by the four-and-up star reviews and consistent high sales figures seems to be the best way to get a handle on what people like most.

And I guess this is my opportunity to throw a dart at those colorful balloons of joyfulness?

If you insist.

People seem to like that new Brian Wood "X-Men" comic quite a bit, and I don't see what they see, apparently. I read the first issue. I skimmed through the second. But based on the reaction I've seen online, folks-with-loud-voices seem to find the comic among the best periodicals published today. Andrew Wheeler at Comics Alliance pointed out some imperfections with the opening issues, but then went on to say [emphasis mine], "broadly this is an excellent example of superhero fiction." CBR's own Kelly Thomson gives it five out of five stars and says [again, emphasis mine], "Teeming with powerful, fascinating characters, enticing action, a smart villain, high stakes and stunning visuals, "X-Men" #1 is on the short list for best superhero book of the year."

Okay, but…what? Where are the powerful, fascinating characters? Is the fascination on display inside the comic itself, or based on previous stories involving these characters? Or…some promise of something good that's not actually on the page? I honestly don't know. The first issue doesn't present much of anything besides a team assembling around a threat that emerges.

I think Brian Wood has done smart, effective work in the past -- his "Northlanders" series remains a favorite of mine -- but I see typical X-Men comics 101 when I look at the launch of this new series. Characters who display little in the way of personality and then some external threat and some foreboding. The usual. I don't see exactly what in the comic makes people gush over it. I must be missing something.

I'm way behind on "Wolverine and the X-Men," but every issue of that series I've ever read has more personality and "enticing action" and "high stakes" than this new Wood-and-Coipel "X-Men" comic. So…what's the deal with all the praise? I don't see the amazingness.

The Geoff Johns "Justice League" comic (and its newer companion with "America" at the end) also consistently lands in the Top 10 for sales to comic shops, and reviewers like Joshua Yehl at IGN ranks issue #19 as "great" and says it's "a tense thriller that wastes no time sinking its teeth into the juicy story points you want to see explored," while Paste Magazine's Sean Edgar gushes about the newest issue: "Johns creates a delightful Silver-Age sampler rooted in so many different flavors — magic, mystery, hilarious big brother superhero teams — that half the fun will be seeing how they all converge. And with Ivan Reis channelling the fluid action of Neal Adams (Shazam's ecstatic facial expression after he knocks out Superman is priceless), Trinity War could be the morale boost DC needs to coax lapsed readers back into its arms."

Now while I don't think "Justice League" is offensively bad, it still has a kind of hollowness that no amount of action -- or quantity of characters in costume -- can drown out. The series feels more like the Geoff Johns who wrote that "Smallville" episode about the Justice Society than the Geoff Johns who wrote all those excellent "JSA" story arcs or the guy who made the build-up to the Sinestro Corps War into something verging on the epic.

But who cares if some people like comics that I think are not so great?

I don't really care, to be honest. But I do care about this: when mediocre comics are heralded as "best" or "great" or anything at that level -- and it happens consistently -- then the mediocrity continues. And that's just depressing. It's like we're wallowing, as a community of comic book readers, in the less-than-good because it's all we have. But it's not all we have. Not at all. But you wouldn't know it from checking out your average comic shop, loaded with copies of "X-Men" and "Justice League." Enjoy those comics. Have fun with them. But to say they're "great" or "the best"? That's just ridiculous. Tone it down, get some perspective, like what you like, but don't say that that ham sandwich from Subway is the GREATEST THING EVER!

This is an old complaint, and I should probably just walk away from it. But GLX asked, so I answered the call…to, um, answer.

Mario McKellop asks, "What is the most interesting ongoing superhero comic, and which is the least interesting?"

As I mentioned above, I like "Wolverine and the X-Men" when I read it, but I'm way behind. I also think "Hawkeye" is pretty interesting, though I like the first half-dozen issues more than the last half-dozen, and "FF" is the better of the Matt Fraction comics from Marvel. Michael Allred is legitimately one of the best comic book artists ever. That's not hyperbole. Look it up, it's a fact.

"Young Avengers" is good too. Different from anything else you'll see from Marvel and DC.

I think the Zero Year stuff in "Batman" is interesting, maybe even the most interesting story arc coming out from Marvel and DC now that Grant Morrison has finished up his "Batman Incorporated" run.

Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver's "Edison Rex" is worth your time, and Joe Casey and Tom Scioli have the "GØDLAND" finale coming out later this year, and if you consider that an ongoing superhero comic, which it is, even if it's ending soonish, then surely that must be one the most interesting comics available, superhero-centric or not.

And have you seen "Captain Marvel" lately? That's where Marvel throws its more interesting artists to unleash their talent. It's a good-looking book. I wish it had launched with Filipe Andrade, but it didn't. At least we get to see what kind of craziness he unleashes on the page in more recent issues.

And I still think "Jupiter's Legacy" is good superhero stuff, even if Matt Seneca is the only one who even vaguely agrees with me on that, and he probably doesn't really even agree with me at all.

But when it comes down to the final verdict, the most interesting ongoing superhero comic still goes to Michel Fiffe's "Copra." It's a tribute to comics of the past but it's the strongest authorial voice out of all the superhero comics out there, and when I read it, I appreciate it as an artifact, as a piece of comic book art, and then I appreciate it as a story that engages with the past while trying to embrace its own internal narrative logic. I'm excited to get each issue, and I don't feel that way about many other comics at all.

But what about the least interesting superhero comic? Surely I can't let all the positivity ruin what is a column full of whining and complaints!

Least interesting certainly isn't anything I mentioned in response to the first question this week. "Justice League" and "X-Men" are just fine for what they are. There are dozens of less interesting books. Hundreds of them, probably. I don't know. I don't read the ones that aren't interesting.

So I'll assume the question means something like "what's the least interesting superhero comic, out of the ones you actually read?" I'm going to call this one a tie between "Captain America" and "Astro City." I don't understand it either. I used to love "Astro City," but I think the Dark Age arc killed my interest in the series, because after reading these first two Vertigo installments I am just completely disengaged with the world Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson have built. It feels like a party guest -- one who was fun to hang out with for the first hour -- just droning on about some repairs being done around the house. It's like reading wallpaper with speeches written on it. And Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr.'s "Captain America" has all the ingredients that I would normally love to read in a superhero comic -- with a deep Kirby vibe -- and yet I just stare at the pages and why I thought I would care about a Captain America with a deep Kirby vibe that's neither written nor drawn by Jack Kirby. Turns out, I'm completely disinterested. Steve Rogers will have to carry on without me.

Chad Nevett asks, "Is Grant Morrison's Batman run his best superhero work or simply his longest (or both)?"

Four years ago (I know!), I wrote about The Best and Worst of Grant Morrison, and it was a pretty superhero-centric list, so rather than answer Chad's question directly, I thought I would revisit the ol' rankings and see how much my opinion on these comics has changed in the time it has taken for Morrison to wrap up his Batman run.

(I'm sure Chad is used to this kind of behavior from me, after years of Splash Page partnership.)

In 2008, I ranked the All-Time Morrison Top 10 like this:

1. Animal Man
2. Flex Mentallo
3. All-Star Superman
4. Zenith
5. Doom Patrol
6. Arkham Asylum
7. Marvel Boy
8. The Invisibles
9. Batman
10. Seaguy

In 2013, my official-and-now-sacred-revision of that list would look like this:

1. Flex Mentallo
2. Animal Man
3. Doom Patrol
4. All-Star Superman
5. Zenith
6. New X-Men
7. Seven Soldiers
8. Seaguy
9. The Filth
10. Batman

So, to answer Chad's question, no, it is not his best superhero work, but it is in his All-Time Top 10 best comic book runs in history, so Grant Morrison shouldn't hang his head in shame. Stay strong, Grant Morrison!

It is his longest superhero run and it's still pretty good. A double-threat!

I'm inclined to go back and reread the entire thing and see if it works as a massive narrative. I suspect it does, but I also suspect that much of the thrill I got out of reading it up through "Batman R.I.P." and "Final Crisis" and the beginning of "Batman and Robin" is diminished by the lack of a wait between issues. It was the space between the issues that made the series so exciting for a time, as Morrison was throwing out ideas and mysteries and implications and letting us all play along with the theoretical world-building. Once everything is explained, it kind of loses its thrill, doesn't it?

So I won't over-explain my new Top 10 Morrison Comics rankings, then. Just know that "Seven Soldiers" and "The Filth" and "New X-Men" have aged well. And I've outgrown "Arkham Asylum" and embraced my ambivalence toward "The Invisibles." "Marvel Boy" is just fine where it is now, out of the Top 10. Not totally forgotten, but lingering on the outskirts of memory. Like so many comics that used to seem to matter so much.

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.

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