Friday, June 13, 2008

More Than Super-Heroes

I’m going to come clean with you right from the beginning: super-heroes are my favorite. I’ve been reading comic books and graphic novels since I was four-years-old. I’m much older than that now and I read these things professionally as well as for fun and, still, nothing speaks to me quite the way your average super-strong guy in a mask does. Why? Because they fight, of course. I don’t mean they just punch each other a lot (which is great), but rather that they are always struggling to make things better – or at least to keep things from getting worse. Read anything – humor, sports, adventure, biography – and I bet if you think about it, it’s the fight in a character (or real person) that makes him/her interesting or engaging.

So, if you know this, you can probably guess my favorite among the heroes has got to be Spider-Man. He’s the quintessential super-hero, see, because his whole life is about fight. He’s got some powers, naturally, but it’s always just a little too hard for him. The bad guy is a little too big, too strong, too fast, too mean. The situation is too dangerous, too scary, too sad. His whole story is about reaching down inside of himself and struggling to match up. Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1: Power and Responsibility (by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley) is an excellent example of this. You probably know the story: high school outcast gets bitten by super-spider, uses powers for personal gain until tragedy strikes, then resolves to own up to his responsibility (just like Uncle Ben said). Probably though, you haven’t seen it quite like this: written so you get into these people’s heads, drawn so the characters practically burst from the page as they’re kicking each other in the teeth. And a little bit sad in the end, too. You won’t remember this one just because it had good action.

Maybe Spider-Man isn’t your favorite. Practically every super-hero in the Marvel Universe appears in Civil War (by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven). Seems that some amateur super-heroes just blew up a small town by mistake and the government has had it. Now super-heroes have to register their secret identities and work for Uncle Sam or they are considered criminals (remember X-Men 3?). One group, led by Iron Man, understands the need for registration, another group led by Captain America thinks once you let one man (or one government) tell you who to beat up, you’re not really a super-hero anymore. Who’s right? Problem is, everyone’s right. And no fight is ever as fierce as when everyone knows they’re right. You will not believe the size of the action in this one, or some of the things that guys you thought were heroes are willing to do to each other to win.

It gets bigger still. Kingdom Come (by Mark Waid and Alex Ross) is about the heroes from the other company (DC – they do Superman, Batman, Flash, etc.). It’s years in the future and the heroes we know have retired. New heroes have taken their place, except they’re as bad as the so-called “criminals” they fight. When these guys leap to the rescue, as many innocent people die as are saved. Superman can’t take it anymore. Older, less certain of himself, he returns to try to set things right. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with his philosophy about what’s right. That includes old friends like Batman and Wonder Woman. Before you know it, pretty much everyone shows up and takes a side, including old time villains like Lex Luthor and the Joker, who work to manipulate things from behind the scenes.

Civil War
and Kingdom Come are Big Ones, pretty much the final word on gigantic super-hero action with an interesting question at their centers.

Tired of super-heroes? Fair enough, even I don’t read them all the time. The truth is, there’s so much great stuff out there that isn’t about super-heroes, it’s sort of hard to stick with the flying, swinging, punching types all the time anymore.

Take sports, for instance. Any really great sports story is also a human drama at the same time. For example, The Golem’s Mighty Swing (by James Sturm, also available in the collection James Sturm’s America, along with a bunch of other excellent stories not about baseball). Back in the 1920’s, various minority groups, including African-Americans, Jews and women (not actually a minority group, but still not seen playing baseball too much) formed various teams and swung the bat in small towns throughout the country. One such Jewish team was called the Stars of David, and times were getting tough for them (less interest = smaller audience = less money = trouble). What can you do? Well, the team’s manager/captain realizes the only way to lure in the audience is to play to the mystery that surrounded minority groups at the time, and he dredges up a monster from old Jewish myth, the Golem (sort of a Jewish Incredible Hulk) to play on the team.

In a completely different genre (humor), comes The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey (by Steve Sheinkin). Elk Spring, Colorado is an Old West town without a sheriff. And instead of your run of the mill, gun-slingin’ tough guy, they wind up with Rabbi Harvey, humble and soft-spoken, but smart as a whip and awfully funny. You think the only way to stop a marauding outlaw is to shoot the gun out of his hand? You think the only way to get the best of a greedy old biddy is to haul her into the clink? Turns out some old Jewish wisdom works pretty well, too. Sounds like a strange combination, I know, but there’s more laughs per minute in this thing than in your average Judd Apatow movie. Seriously. There’s a sequel, too (Rabbi Harvey Rides Again, also by this Sheinkin guy).

Finally, maybe have a look at Houdini: The Handcuff King (by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi). Houdini wasn’t exactly a super-hero, but he wasn’t exactly not a super-hero either. I mean, as far as real people go, he must have come about the closest. Catch him here as he prepares and conducts one of his greatest escapes: diving into the freezing cold Charles River, naked and handcuffed. Just seeing that stuff is pretty great, but seeing the little things that made Houdini the man he was makes this one the treasure it is.

Okay, so that’s a good beginning. Hopefully there are a couple reads here you haven’t seen or heard of yet. In the future, I’ll probably talk about just one or two books at a time, some newer, some older, plenty of super-heroes, but plenty of the other good stuff, too. Heck, I might even throw in something that isn’t a graphic novel here and there.

Thanks for stopping by and hope you enjoy.

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Kimberly/lectitans said...

Great post, Jesse! Superheroes are my favorite too. I can't wait to see what else you have to say about comic books.

Jesse Karp said...

Thanks very much, Kimberly. I hope I can keep it interesting for you.