illustrated stories

I may be doomed.

For the first time I’m collecting a series of Superman comics.

This 12-part non-continuity series, published bi-monthly, is titled All-star Superman, and is written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. The Morrison/Quitely tag team have produced the goods in the past, most notably in the final volume of the The Invisibles, as well as for my favourite mini-series of last year: WE3 (it made me cry!).

I’ve never been a massive fan of the Man of Steel, or “the boy scout” as Batman refers to him. Sure, I’ve seen the movies, and I’ve started to watch the current series of Smallville–in the past I dropped in and out of the series. There is something rather vapid about Superman. I’ve never found his dilemmas that gripping. New types of krypton have to be invented to keep him down, or bigger and meaner enemies. Like a lot of superheros who have lived past their sell-by-date he’s been maimed, killed, and resurrected in order to sustain interest.

I’m reserving judgment on Morrison’s take on Earth’s best-known alien refugee until I’ve seen more of the series. Already Morrison has taken out his familiar box of toys and is asking a lot of big “what if” questions about a man who is practically invulnerable, has unlimited resources, a vaste alien technological advantage, and lots of super-pals. I’m not swayed yet, but I’ve had this reaction to Morrison’s work in the past, and often it hooks me in later.

For instance, when he launched his current 30-part “maxi-series” with the over-arching title of Seven Soldiers I found it somewhat over-laboured. Due to a number of time constraints I stopped reading the comics as I bought them, and allowed them to pile up. In a recent fever of comics reading I tore through the heap.

There are seven heroes explored, and each gets his/her own 4-part mini-series: The Shining Knight, The Manhattan Guardian, Klarion, Zatanna, Bulleteer, Mister Miracle, and Frankenstein. Reading a big chunk of the stories in one sitting has been more enjoyable, as it’s easier to spot how the storylines intersect and overlap. Morrison is strutting his stuff in these comics (which are drawn by a plethora of talent).

There is a malign and terrifying race (the Sheeda) that is bent on the domination of our world, and there are a range of other entities from a spread of dimensions who are either intervening on the behalf of the residents of Earth or have plans to stake their claim on our planet once it is subjugated. Humans and metahumans are caught in the middle of this war over Earth (I always wonder what’s so attractive about our planet? Surely there are better, bigger, and more complex planets with more advanced lifeforms on which to experiment?). Morrison draws on Celtic mythology and throws it into the blender with quantum physics, superheros, magic, nanotechnology and esoteric philosophy. As the seven heroes emerge from the tangle of plotlines they are set to do battle with villains that eat suns for breakfast.

So far I’ve enjoyed The Shining Knight, Klarion, and Zatanna the best. The biggest problem I have with superhero-style comics is the artwork. Usually it’s loaded with what I call “porn shots”: images of woman in tight clothes, whose breasts are in a constant struggle with gravity and their skimpy DD-cups, and who are always posed with arched backs and provocative stances that show off their assets at every opportunity.

Of the seven stories, Bulleteer, is the worst example of this. It’s appropriate that it’s the title that deals with superhero porn sites, costume fetishes, and a metahuman convention where our heroine is advised to show more cleavage to bag more fans. I’d like to say that it’s knowingly postmodern, but it isn’t. To me it looks silly and dumb. And people wonder why women don’t read comics… I note that everyone involved in Bulleteer is male.

Thank goodness for comics resources like Sequential Tart, which is a site written by intelligent women who read comics, and aren’t afraid to poke fun at artists who worship at the altar of blimp-like boobs.

One of the reasons I like The Shining Knight, for instance, is Simone Bianchi‘s stunning artwork, which is among my favourite of the seven series, followed by Frazer Irving on Klarion.

Seven Soldiers is a sprawling series that will be worth picking up when it is released as a set of graphic novels. The rumour mill grinds that Morrison will be writing a Batman line quite soon, so I expect to pick that up in the near future.

As an antidote to the brawny muscles and bright outfits I’m currently reading Fell by Warren Ellis. I’ve only read the first three issues in this series and I’m addicted. Set in the run-down Snowtown, the ghetto of a big city, Fell follows Detective Richard Fell as he gets used to his new home and beat. The gritty and evocative artwork by Ben Templesmith is entirely appropriate for this dark series of stories.

Ellis has a very cinematic style of writing, and knows when to give the artist leeway to allow the graphics speak for themselves, and when to include dialogue. I knew I was on to a winner when I laughed out loud on the first page of the first issue.

Generally I like work by Ellis, but sometimes he misfires for me. Like his recent series, Down. I read the first issue and had no interest in continuing with the story. I found the storyline tired: a hard-bitten female undercover cop who’s been abused in the past so now she’s a bad-ass who protects a woman in trouble, and of course there’s an obligatory scene where she shots off a man’s privates with a gun. “I fight,” she informs us after she does the deed. For me the message is too heavy-handed and obvious. I’ll stick to Fell.

Finally, to my embarrassment I will admit that I’ve only just read V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. It’s been on my “to-read” list for a long time, but a sale in my local comics book store encouraged me to purchase it. Since the movie will be out soon I figured I should read the original first. I enjoyed V, however I felt it lost its urgency towards the end. I’m interested in seeing if the film can adapt the series in an interesting fashion. Since both From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were both failed translations to the big screen I don’t hold out much hope. I should note that despite Moore’s claims that he would retire from the world of comics that a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen adventure, subtitled Black Dossier, is scheduled for an autumn release. We can only pray there isn’t a movie sequel in the works.

I love comics, and there is a lot of great work out there, but it’s an expensive habit. I no longer have patience for a series that doesn’t grip me on the first episode, and now I cull any title whose quality drops. I can’t afford, and won’t put up with, mediocrity.