Sunday, April 30, 2006

Comics' magna opera: Part Two - the auteurs

Buckle in - it's a long one!

Before we begin, I want to direct you to this post, at which Peter clarifies a bit of the difference between magnum opus (which I use just because I'm a snotty Latin scholar) and a masterpiece. He does a very nice job. I'm still going to use them interchangeably, because it's less boring than using magnum opus all the time, but that post is a nice way to separate the two.

Anyway, in my last post I spoke of what I called "quasi-masterpieces" because I'm not sure if we can call stories written for corporate comic book characters, which by definition will continue to exist as long as they're profitable for the company, as actual masterpieces. The arc of their lives cannot be fulfilled, because they must always have an "out" so that the company can continue to publish them. Gorjus made an excellent point that many creator-owned comics were not the creators' masterpieces, even though I defined "masterpiece" as something that is personal. That part of my definition seems to argue even further against corporate comics as being capable of achieving greatness, but that's not necessarily so. Many people who have worked on established characters do feel a connection to those characters, and do put their personality into them. The characters that already exist are often archetypes, so anyone can relate to them. Why do you think every single freaking writer of Batman has to do a Joker story or a Penguin story or a Two-Face story? Those could be masterpieces, even if they are using slightly hackneyed characters. Of course, if you create the characters, you might feel more of a connection, but that's not the only prerequisite for writing a magnum opus.

Now that we got that out of the way, I do want to look at what I would call auteurs, simply because I'm snooty. These are masterpieces that are largely the work of one creative force who either created the characters he worked on (sad that I can't think of a single woman to put on this list, although I welcome nominations!) or was given complete carte blanche to use existing characters no one cared about. Some of these were mentioned in the comments of the last post, and some I decided on my own. As always, discussion is encouraged.

Jim Starlin's magnum opus: Dreadstar issues #1-40, November 1982-January 1989. You thought I'd forget about Starlin, didn't you? Ha! Nobody does space opera like Starlin, and with Dreadstar, he got his chance to go nuts. This is somewhat of a forgotten classic, as it bounced from Marvel (Epic) to First, and then when First went under it did for a long time. Delays in publishing (40 issues in six years?) also hurt it. The issues after #40 are pretty damned good, too, but Peter David was writing it, so these issues form Starlin's masterpiece. Dreadstar is, well, it's not exactly a fun book, but it's certainly less "deep" than most of the works on this list. Vanth and his crew are simply rebels fighting against a tyrannical galactic empire, and that's what they do. You know, blow shit up, beat people up, run away, that sort of thing. What makes this a masterpiece is that Starlin is concerned with politics and he tries to show how nobody can ever stay clean, even when they're doing something as noble as fighting a tyrant. Dreadstar and company have to cut deals, they have to watch out for traitors, they have to make hard choices that sometimes lead to the deaths of those they care about, and they can't let their emotions get in the way of saving the galaxy. It's a fascinating look at a rebellion, and more impressively, Vanth and his gang actually win.

This leads to a more interesting coda to the main part of the series, in which Starlin looks at what happens when something you're fighting for your entire lives goes away. Dreadstar is in a coma for a long time (a year, maybe? two?) and when he wakes up, all his friends have jobs with the new regime, but they're not necessarily happy, because their swashbuckling days are over. Dreadstar and Company are not unlike the Starjammers, but whereas Marvel couldn't allow doubt to enter the minds of Corsair and his buddies after Lilandra recaptured her throne, Dreadstar sees that the new boss is not really that different from the old boss. He probably should have listened to The Who more often! Starlin is making an interesting comment about heroes in general - what do you do when you have nothing left to fight? These people are not built to shuffle off into retirement, and Dreadstar cannot deal with being part of a bureaucracy, and he quickly butts heads with the new government just as he did with the old. Is a hero still a hero when he appears to be making trouble just for the sake of it? When does a hero of the old revolution become a terrorist in the new state? Starlin struggles to address these concerns, and although he doesn't satisfy us with easy answers (or really, any answers), it's an interesting question to pose.

Unfortunately, Dreadstar had the misfortune of landing with a financially strapped publisher, and it died in March 1991 despite David writing some excellent stories. Starlin still owns the rights, presumably, because David wrote a mini-series some years later for Bravura and Starlin's name was above the title. Its fate remains unknown. Perhaps Cronin, with his disturbing encyclopedic knowledge of all things comic-related, can discover what, if anything, is going on with it. But don't look to me!

Alan Moore's magnum opus: Watchmen issues #1-12, September 1986-October 1987. This may be a bit controversial, as Moore is the best comic book writer ever and a lot of what he's written has changed the way we look at comics, which is one of my criteria, and this is not his most personal work, another of my criteria. It's not even my favorite Alan Moore work. So why do I say it's his masterpiece?

First, it's the most famous, which doesn't necessarily make it a masterpiece, but it doesn't hurt. The discussion of how good Moore is begins with Watchmen and then moves to his other work. Secondly, it did quite a bit to change our perception of superheroes and it remains remarkably influential today, more so than his other work. Again, that doesn't necessarily speak to the quality of the work, but again, it doesn't hurt, and there will be people who argue that Watchmen isn't that good anyway (blasphemers!).

What pushes Watchmen to the fore is the way Moore took the ideas he toyed with on Marvelman, V for Vendetta, and Swamp Thing (all pre-Watchmen works, although the first two weren't completed until afterward) and crystallized them into a 12-issue story that remains about as well plotted a book as we're going to see in comics. In Marvelman, he showed us a superhero who does the logical thing: takes over the world. That isn't it masterpiece because it was plagued by sloppy art and spotty plotting through the early issues. In V for Vendetta (which I like better than Watchmen), he wants to show us a lone individual fighting against the system in a less than legal way, which is what Adrian Veidt is doing, in his own way. In Swamp Thing, he showed an all-powerful being abandoning his "responsibilities" to the planet because it's just all too much for him, and he used this motif again with Dr. Manhattan. Watchmen was a true murder mystery, something we rarely see in comics, and it was the ultimate deconstruction of superheroes and why they do what they do. Moore also took some of the things he experimented with in his prior works - lack of sound effects, for one - and made us all not miss them in the least. He told two parallel stories - the "real" story of the Comedian's murder and the pirate story - each equally gripping and each reflecting themes in the other. Gibbons' art, while not as flashy as some, is perfectly suited for the way the story is structured. Watchmen is Moore's masterpiece not because, as I mentioned, it's his absolute best work, but because it is an almost perfect comic book. It does what comics are best at - pictures juxtaposed with words that don't necessarily describe what we're seeing, for one example - and does it better than almost anything ever published. After Watchmen, we could never look at superheroes the same way again, and we can't blame Moore if people are grumpy that our heroes aren't so heroic anymore. Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach are heroic in their own way. Just because Dan and Laurie don't expose Adrian doesn't make them less heroic. Moore's heroes work in the world he created, and they don't necessarily work in the regular DC and Marvel worlds. Don't blame Moore for that.

As I mentioned, Moore's work is made up of works of staggering genius, to coin a phrase. One reason is that he became a star so early in his career and unlike, say, Grant Morrison, he had no interest in writing Justice League. He rejected the comics corporate culture, which allowed him to concentrate on writing whatever the hell he wanted. All the green Hollywood kept throwing at him didn't hurt, either. I want to call From Hell his magnum opus, because I like it more than Watchmen, but I think it becomes too much of a historical essay at times, which bogs it down. Personally, I think the 20-page (or however the hell long it is) conversation about the occult history of London is fascinating, but the story grinds to a complete halt during it, something that happens far too often. Many people might say Promethea is his masterpiece, but while I like the title, it smacks far too much of Moore rambling about things he finds interesting. Sure, they're interesting, but it often comes at the detriment of the story (I haven't finished it, because I buy it in trades, so it could come around). Yes, it's probably his most personal work, but just because something is personal doesn't make it a masterpiece, as I and others have mentioned. I have a feeling that if it had been completed, Big Numbers would have been his masterpiece. Sigh.

Matt Wagner's magnum opus: Grendel, Devil by the Deed and issues #1-40, March 1983-February 1984; October 1986-February 1990. After a career of, what, 25 years, Wagner is still ridiculously underrated, especially as a writer, which is weird, because he writes a lot more than he draws, it seems. His art is gorgeous, but his writing is really interesting, probably more interesting than his pictures. He can write a magnificent Batman, for instance, as we have seen from the recent Batman & the Monster Men and his old arc with Two-Face in Legends of the Dark Knight. Again, on both those stories people focus on the art, but the stories - especially the Two-Face one (just go look for it in the trade, people!) - show a marked fascination with the wayward and the weird in society. He's also interested in the power of myth, which is where Grendel comes in.

I'm sure that some people will mention Mage, which is Wagner's other creator-owned title and the one that is probably more closely associated with him (Kevin Matchstick is supposed to age with Wagner, but I'm not sure if that's gone by the boards). However, Mage never really coalesced as a complete opus, although it's a decent enough book. Grendel is a much more complete work, and although it's not as personal as Mage, it's a personal work in that it expresses Wagner's interest in myth and how myth impacts on life. Grendel began as a story of Hunter Rose, a top assassin who adopts a young girl, Stacy Palumbo, and eventually becomes the ruler of New York's underworld. He's also a critically acclaimed and terribly successful novelist, the darling of the New York literary set. Grendel comes to the attention of Argent, a centuries-old intelligent wolf-like creature who works with the New York police department, and the two fight it out, with Stacy's love in the balance (Argent also takes a paternal interest in her). In Devil by the Deed, the first three issues of the series from 1983-84, Hunter Rose dies, and interestingly enough, Wagner is not that concerned with his "hero" dying. That's because he is much more concerned with what made Hunter Rose, an intelligent, talented, good-looking, and rich person, turn into an assassin and criminal. When Comico decided to publish an ongoing series a few years later, Wagner didn't bring Rose back from the dead, deciding instead to go in a radical direction that took the story from an interesting concept and made it a masterpiece.

Wagner moved the story forward into the future a bit and gave us Christine Spar, who is Stacy Palumbo's daughter. She is researching a book on Hunter Rose, because once his dual life became known, his legend really took off. Christine leaves her son at home one night, and he is kidnapped by ... a Japanese vampire! Bear with me. The vampire is a Kabuki artist named Tujiro XIV who tours the world kidnapping small children - it's the perfect cover! Wagner said he wanted to do vampires but not the Western kind, and his vampire is truly terrifying. In order to get her kid back, Christine steals Hunter Rose's mask (the iconic Grendel mask, one of the best masks in comic book history) and his main weapon, a "fork," which is a two-pronged blade on the end of a long stick. She goes after her son, but draws the attention of Argent, who is still around and still raging with hatred. We're not sure why, since he killed his adversary, but as we follow Christine's saga (wonderfully drawn by the Pander Bros.), we come to realize that Grendel is a force that inhabits certain people, and is particularly malevolent. Christine slips further and further into the Grendel persona, especially after she finds out that her son is dead. Her lover, Brian Li Sung, cannot bring her back from the edge, and she eventually fights Argent, a fight in which they kill each other.

Following this, Brian Li Sung becomes Grendel, in an attempt to kill Captain Wiggins, who was tracking Christine. Brian is a particularly bad assassin, and Wiggins kills him. Apparently, the artist on these issues, Bernie Mireault, asked Wagner if Grendel could "possess" a crowd. This led Wagner to take his creepy possession story and re-imagine it as a world-changing event. Later issues showed the Grendel force wreaking havoc in politics and culture, as people began to worship it, which led to societal breakdown and a nuclear war. The story resumes in the 26th century, a world in which religion has once again become the dominant force. The Pope, Innocent XLII (who was really the vampire Tujiro) was planning to block out the sun so that vampires could take over the world, but he was stopped by wealthy aristocrat Orion Assante and a crazed vigilante dressed as Grendel. Once Assante stopped the Pope, he created an army of "Grendels" and became the ruler of the world, calling himself the Grendel-Khan. Wagner's malevolent entity had taken over the world.

This is a remarkable piece of comics literature. Wagner wanted to examine what makes people commit evil acts even though they themselves might not be evil, and as he did that, he came to realize (with Mireault's push) that he could look at why the world has become an evil place if people themselves are basically good. I'm always wary of ascribing supernatural motives to a person's evil deeds, but the point is that this evil is a part of these people, and they struggle to overcome it, but the Grendel entity simply brings it out. Orion Assante uses it to bring a world back together and create peace and stability. He might be succumbing to the evil inside him, but he uses it creatively. Similarly, Christine Spar succumbs, but both Tujiro XIV (who escapes her) and Argent (who doesn't) are evil forces, despite Argent's work with the police force. They have become twisted by other forces beside the Grendel-force. Who is to say that Grendel is worse than they are?

Wagner also links Grendel to a fear of abandonment. In Beowulf, after all, Grendel's mother is abandoned and becomes crazed with rage, and Wagner looks at how these people are left behind and how it affects them. In the original story, Stacy Palumbo is abandoned by Hunter Rose too often, and she turns to Argent. Years later, Diana Schutz wrote a two-part story about Stacy after Hunter Rose's death, and how his abandonment of her basically ruined her life. The police abandon Christine Spar and force her into the role of Grendel, and as she loses herself in the persona, she leaves behind Brian Li Sung, who is driven mad after her death. Over and over, we see the person who has become Grendel reacting to abandonment or abandoning someone else, usually with disastrous results. Even Orion cannot escape - his sisters, with whom he has an incestuous relationship, are killed while he is fighting against Pope Innocent, and later, his lover dies of cancer while he is welding together his worldwide empire. Wagner wants to look at human relationships throughout the series, and how they are changed when we give in to the nastier aspects of our personalities.

This is truly a wonderful and powerful read, and takes us to places we could not have anticipated. Wagner came back to write a 10-issue coda to the series, Grendel: War Child, which is part of the canon but less impressive and not as emotionally powerful, although it's worthwhile. After that, Wagner turned his creation over to other writers with Grendel Tales, some of which are excellent and some of which are just adequate. He later wrote two Batman/Grendel crossovers and two four-issue mini-series, Grendel: Black, White, and Red and Grendel: Red, White, and Black, which told stories of Hunter Rose and featured some of the best artists in the industry. Wagner has continued to do excellent work in the field (including Sandman Mystery Theatre, a wonderful series), but this remains his magnum opus.

J. M. DeMatteis' magnum opus: Dr. Fate mini-series issues #1-4 and #1-24 of the ongoing series, July-October 1987; November 1988-January 1991. A few people in the comments to the last post mentioned the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, and I certainly considered it, but I am trying to keep this at one book per creator (a problem with Alan Moore and some others that I'll discuss below), and I knew I was going to look at Dr. Fate when DeMatteis wrote it. It's interesting that for a guy who has written serious stuff for most of his career, and written it well, DeMatteis may be best remembered for the "Bwah-ha-ha" days of the JLI. However, that series, as good as it is, paid the bills and allowed him to do other, more thought-provoking work. He wrote Moonshadow for Epic in the mid-1980s, and that was obviously a very personal work, plus it was creator-owned, so why isn't that his masterpiece? Despite its quality, it's somewhat juvenile in places (and not in the places he wants it to be - it's a "fairy tale for adults," after all), and doesn't hold together as well as this book. The fact that this is a DC property and therefore I should disqualify it doesn't deter me, either, as nobody cared about Doctor Fate before DeMatteis got his hands on him and nobody cared about him after DeMatteis was finished. He's a guest star in the DCU, and therefore DeMatteis was given free rein to do whatever he wanted.

And what he wanted was no less a meditation on love and spirituality. DeMatteis has always been interested in God and religion, and with Dr. Fate, he found a perfect vehicle for his thoughts. Unlike some of his other work (Moonshadow, Blood: A Tale, and Seekers into the Mystery, for example, although there are others, too), in which he relied a bit too heavily on authorial omniscience, in Dr. Fate he allowed the characters to expound about their issues, and allowed them to discover things on their own, and the result is a masterpiece. In the mini-series, he destroys the Kent Nelson Dr. Fate and creates a new one, formed by Linda Strauss and her stepson Eric, who merge to form a new Fate. In the ongoing, we learn that Linda and Eric are soulmates, and have been linked throughout history, so that even when Eric dies and Linda must struggle on without him, she is never truly alone. Eric's soul, meanwhile, has to find a new body and link back up with Linda. It's a spiritual journey that illuminates the power of love and how we are all, ultimately, connected. DeMatteis also explores the nature of religion and how we can find meaning in our lives through a spiritual connection to God - whatever form that God takes. It's an unbelievably beautiful experience reading this book, and although it's a thought-provoking comic book, it's also very funny and has plenty of action. At the end, DeMatteis brings back Inza Nelson from the dead, but it doesn't feel like a cheap ploy, because he has set up his whole story based on the idea of souls returning and reincarnating. This is a story of the power of love and faith, and DeMatteis tells it wonderfully. He's aided by Shawn McManus, whose work has never looked better. McManus has always been a bit cartoony, but in this book it works, because he is called upon to draw a lot of people smiling, something he's very good at. Even Darkseid smiles, which isn't as terrifying as you might think. This is DeMatteis' masterpiece because he takes a Z-list character and makes it his own, while telling a story that is intensely personal. He tried it with stuff that he owned, but didn't achieve what he did here. It's really an exceptional book.

Neil Gaiman's magnum opus: Sandman issues #1-75, January 1989-March 1996. I'm not sure if there is much I can say about this. It's really his only long-term comic book work, so if he has a masterpiece, this is it. What Sandman did was give us all a look at the expanded possibilities of the medium - others had toyed with it, of course, but Gaiman starts out with horror (can anyone really ever be comfortable with Rachel naked on the bed desiccated from his magic sand, or the "24 Hours" story?) and moves quickly beyond it, giving us historical fiction, religious allegory, gender crises, road trips, mythology (Greek and otherwise), intensely personal stories and grand epic stories, and family drama. Many people wiser than I am have both lauded this series and mercilessly criticized it, but I don't think we can argue that it's a masterpiece. Gaiman wanted to examine the power dreams have in our lives, and he used all kinds of dreams to examine the human condition - the good and the bad. You can argue with the quality of the stories, and the interminable final story arc (well, "The Wake" was the real final story arc, but you know what I mean!), but you can't argue that this changed the way a lot of people viewed comics. If Alan Moore deconstructed superheroes, Gaiman deconstructed comics themselves, making us aware that you can just as easily tell stories about cat-myths as you can about a guy who runs really fast. He wasn't the first to do this, of course, but he did it more boldly and more eclectically than had been done before. Once Gaiman wrote "The Sound of Her Wings," which was the first story that was not really horror and also not concerned with superheroes (I still love Morpheus' appearance to the Justice League, but it was incongruous with what Gaiman later did), the possibilities for comics opened up even further than before. The road was always there, but Gaiman had to point it out. For that, he deserves praise, whether or not you like the series or even if you think that after Dr. Dee killed everyone the series turned wussy and you lost interest.

Peter Milligan's (and, to a lesser extent, Chris Bachalo's) magnum opus: Shade, the Changing Man issues #1-70, July 1990-April 1996. Again, I doubt if anyone will argue with this, even though Milligan has done some very strong work since this book (Enigma, Human Target, and X-Force/X-Statix to name the three best). Shade is Milligan's masterpiece because he is able to take the ideas he explored in those other books (and in other things he's written) and distill a brilliant narrative from them and sublimate them to that narrative. As much as I enjoyed X-Force, subtlety was not its strong suit. As much as I enjoyed Human Target (which had a chance to surpass Shade if, you know, anyone had bought it), its identity crises became a bit much. In Shade, strangely enough, both the elements that made X-Force and Human Target good but flawed are present but muted. In the first year and a half of the title, he tackled Americana and what it means to be a celebrity in this country, among other things. As the series evolved and Lenny became a more integral part of the cast, he began to deal with sexual politics much more. Milligan has always enjoyed the weirdness of sex a lot (go read The Extremist if you don't believe me), and the Shade/Kathy/Lenny love triangle is fascinating to read and always confounds our expectations. Milligan throws our three principals into various situations for which they are not ready, and although the series seems to meander at times (especially right before and right after Kathy's death), it remains fascinating because none of the three leads is particularly likeable all the time - very often they act reprehensibly toward each other, whether through intent or because they fear the rawness of their emotions. These are fully realized characters, and as we watch them evolve, it's not always pretty, but it's very compelling.

Milligan made a huge mistake when he killed Kathy, simply because the dynamic among the three was what drove the book. I agree that their relationship was growing stale, but killing Kathy was a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Over the last twenty issues of the book, Milligan struggled to find the verve of the first 30 issues, but although he never quite recaptured what made the book great in the first place, he did write some great stories about the people that Shade and Lenny and the rest of the cast (forgive me, I'm forgetting their names) and how they struggle to exist with each other. Shade's son (Fred?) ages at a rapid rate, so he has very little time to get to know his father, and he doesn't really want to anyway. Lenny's daughter (Lily?) is a typical rebellious teen, not unlike Lenny was at that age, and Lenny must reconcile her past with her desire to be a normal mom. These were stories that weren't as flashy as the ones prior to Kathy's death, but were important for the evolution of the character nevertheless. The end of the series, when Shade travels back in time to re-unite with Kathy and basically wipe the slate clean, might seem like a cop-out to some, but it's a beautiful moment at the end when we understand that Shade has learned from his experiences and is ready to grow up. Maybe he gets to have his cake and eat it too in a particularly "comic-booky" way, but we have taken a long journey with Milligan and we're willing to follow it through.

Milligan does a lot with sexual politics, but like his work in Human Target, he does a lot with identity, too. Shade initially possesses the body of the killer of Kathy's parents, so when he comes to life, she is understandably horrified to see him. He spends a good part of the book searching for his identity, especially once he learns that he can never return to Meta. Kathy and Lenny are also searching for their identities, and Milligan never lets them off the hook. The early hook of the book, that madness is infecting America, ties in with this search for identity - if we are mad, can we ever really know who we are? Is it better to be insane because then you are allowed to lose your identity and all the pain that goes along with it? It is only at the end of the book that Shade finds an identity, which is another reason why the hokey ending shouldn't bug us.

In many ways, this is Chris Bachalo's masterpiece as well. Bachalo's art evolved so nicely throughout his run on the book, and when he left, he had not yet turned into the painfully cramped and weirdly disjointed artist he can be too often today. I think his early work on Generation X, coming soon after this, might be his finest work, but on Shade he was challenged much more and was up to it. His version of the American Scream is terrifying, and as Milligan became more experimental with his storytelling, Bachalo kept up and became more experimental with his, but never to the detriment of actually telling the story (which has hindered him recently). The quieter tales in the Hotel Shade are where Bachalo really flexes his muscles, and those stories, despite a softening of the madness that Milligan threw at us in the first few years of the book, are gorgeous to look at (the presence of good guest artists like Philip Bond didn't hurt, either).

Milligan hasn't done anything that has come close to Shade, despite fine work in the fifteen years since he began it. Does anyone want to argue?

John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake's magnum opus: The Spectre, issues #1-62 (including the zero issue), December 1992-February 1998. Ostrander is a writer who doesn't get enough credit, even though he has written three of the best comics of the past 25 years - GrimJack, Suicide Squad, and The Spectre. Plus, he revamped Firestorm and made him an interesting force of nature, something DC has conveniently forgotten. A few people mentioned GrimJack as Ostrander's masterpiece, and I'm inclined to agree, but I haven't read the whole epic and I think The Spectre might trump his work there, even though John Gaunt is his own creation and Jim Corrigan is not. Others might point to Suicide Squad, but as much as I love that series, The Spectre is simply better. So there!

Ostrander, like DeMatteis, took a character nobody had had much success with (despite some fondness for the earlier series and back-up stories, they weren't successful) and made it his own. This was a Vertigo book that took place in the DC Universe, which was interesting because it was definitely for adults but could use superheroes. Ostrander, like DeMatteis, used his book to examine religion. Why the hell not? The Spectre is the freakin' Wrath of God, after all! In a different way than DeMatteis, whose spirituality is much more touchy-feely, Ostrander wants to figure out why the Spectre is such a meanie and why Jim Corrigan is such a jerk. Bringing in Father Richard Craemer from his work on Suicide Squad is a stroke of genius, too, as Craemer is able to ground Corrigan as his spiritual advisor and also guide him through his afterlife and his search for meaning. Why is Corrigan tied to the Spectre? What exactly is the Spectre, anyway? Ostrander tries to reconcile the crazed vengeance-wreaking Spectre with the way Moore portrayed him in Swamp Thing, and he also ties him more into Christian and Old Testament mythology than writers before him did. His portrayal of Jim Corrigan as a 1930s cop with all the prejudices that entails is at the heart of the book. Corrigan has a great deal to learn about life, and throughout the series he confronts his prejudices and tries to overcome them. Sure, it's liberal crap (gays are people too!) but Ostrander also tackles how to make America great again and why Christianity is a good thing. It's a complex series that doesn't pull any punches - it's one man's search for his soul, but one who possesses almost the power of God.

As usual with an Ostrander title, the characters anchor this book. Amy Bieterman, the focus of the first year of the title, is a perfect example. She contracts AIDS, and Corrigan must overcome his revulsion at touching her. A maniac is stalking women who have AIDS, and Corrigan, despite his fear of her disease, promises to protect her. Craemer scolds him for his prejudices, but Corrigan can't overcome them. Amy is killed, and as she is dying, she pleads with Corrigan to stay with her and ease the pain of her death. All Corrigan knows is vengeance, however, and he changes into the Spectre and goes after the killer instead of comforting Amy. This story sets the tone for the entire series - Corrigan needs to learn how to let go of his prejudices, his hatred, and his anger. Amy acts as a beacon for him, a shining example of how to transcend his base emotions and become something better.

Mandrake's art perfectly complements Ostrander's stories. He didn't draw every issue of the series, and the guest artists do a marvelous job, but Mandrake's vision makes Ostrander's powerful scripts come to life. He brings a majesty to the epic scenes, the ones with the Spectre in Heaven or fighting monsters, but he is very good at drawing the nasty, creepy stuff that tugs at the corners of Ostrander's work. There is a great deal that is scary about this book, and Mandrake brings the horror to life. Mandrake is a good artist in any case, but on this book, he combines his usual flair with more subtle scenes and makes this a truly beautiful book.

DC has resurrected the Spectre not once, but twice, since Ostrander's series ended, but as it is the Wrath of God, that's not the worst thing in the world. Ostrander's series is really about Jim Corrigan, and his story has been told. I assume we found out what the hell was going on with the guy with the same name in Gotham Central, but it's not the Spectre, I'll tell you that much. Ostrander's touching ending to the series, with Corrigan finally letting go and joining Amy in Heaven, is the way he should have gone out. Screw Gotham Central!

James Robinson's magnum opus: Starman issues #0-80 (including a One Million issue), October 1994-August 2001. Another DC property that no one cared about until James Robinson, with his love of the Golden Age and his ability to craft a multi-leveled family drama, came along. Starman is a love letter to nostalgia, which should make it old and creaky, but what Robinson manages to do is show us that nostalgia necessarily informs the present but it doesn't have to define the present. For all his obsession with old oddities, Jack Knight is not someone who can't move forward, it's just that he wants to bring everything with him. The series balances on this razor edge for its entire run - is Robinson simply celebrating the past or is he using DC's rich history to tell stories that move the characters forward? For the most part, the latter, and that's why this is a masterpiece. Very few writers have integrated the history of the DCU so much into their books, but Robinson is able to do that and bring it back to a very personal drama of a father who has lost one son and thinks he has lost another, only to discover that he really hasn't lost either.

Many people have objected to a couple of things in this series: Rag Doll's change into a maniac, and the murder of the JLE. Well, the first I understand, although anyone who dresses like Raggedy Andy can't be too sane in the first place. The death of the Justice League is a brilliant move, because Robinson shows us what very few writers ever do - a threat to the heroes of the DCU. Too often, the villains of both DC and Marvel are perfectly able to kill off hoards of "normal" folk but are woefully inadequate at killing the heroes. The Mist is different - sure, Blue Devil and the Crimson Fox aren't anyone's idea of A-list heroes, but taking them down still requires skill, stones, and sneakiness. The only reason you can object to the issue is if you're so in love with the characters you can't imagine your world without them, and if the sales of Blue Devil's solo series were any indication, not a lot of people felt that way.

Other than that, once Tony Harris left the book and Jack went into outer space, a lot of people (me included) felt the book began to drag. However, I re-read the issues once they were done (this series demands trade paperbacks or reading big chunks of it in one sitting), they coalesce into a fascinating journey through the grand space opera of the DCU, and Jack is constantly learning what it means to be a hero and what it means to be a son. Without his journey into space, he could not reconcile with his father at the end of the series and could not accept that Ted needs to sacrifice himself to save Opal City. Yes, the space journey drags, but like all good fiction, it does something the series needs, and therefore is integral to it. While still retaining the link to the past, it points the way to the future - not because it's science fiction, but because Jack cannot forge a life with Sadie unless he makes this odyssey to find out what happened to her brother. Once he returns from space, he must first save Opal and then come full circle, giving up the Starman mantle to become a father himself.

Robinson certainly wanted to bring this series back around to the responsibilities of adulthood and the transition from adolescence to adulthood, something David never achieved because he died and something Jack resists for a long time. Although Robinson is obsessed with the past, he's really more obsessed with the continuity that family gives us and how we can live up to that family name while still making a mark ourselves. Jack, ironically, wants to reject his own family's past while wallowing in the kitsch of an earlier era, but he comes to realize that growing up means accepting your family's history and moving beyond it. Superheroes, after all, are the ultimate Peter Pan fantasy, and by accepting his role but then giving it up, Jack shows that he is ready to become an adult. In this way, he's more mature than, say, Bruce Wayne, who is stuck in an arrested adolescence.

This is a beautiful series to read and digest, as I mentioned, in a short time. The series takes on a feeling of a tapestry of DC history and DC present and even the future. Robinson is in command of his characters and allows them to outgrow even the confines of the book. It is unquestionably his masterpiece.

Kurt Busiek's magnum opus: Astro City mini-series issues #1-6, August 1995-January 1996; ongoing series issues #1-22 (with a #1/2 issue), September 1996-August 2000; "Local Heroes" mini-series issues #1-5, April 2003-February 2004; "The Dark Age Book One" mini-series #1-4, August-December 2005. A few people mentioned that Busiek and Perez on Avengers is a magnum opus, and I might agree if I had read more than just the Ultron story, which is really good. But I would consider Busiek's Astro City his masterpiece, not just because he wants it to be, but because he takes an idea he used for Marvels and turns it into a rich superhero universe all by himself, and gives us stories that now, when others do it, seem clichéd, but when Busiek does it, they have a freshness and glee that lifts them up over the norm. Yes, I said glee - even when things are at their darkest in Astro City, the good citizens know that their heroes will come and save them. Even when a vampire becomes a superhero and the townspeople turn against him, they come to understand their faults and repent. Astro City is a masterpiece because Busiek understands the heroic ideal and never allows his characters to forget it, despite acts that are un-heroic. Therefore, Charles and Royal in the Dark Age do things that might seem un-heroic, but they are trying their best to make the lives of the people they care about better. Crackerjack is a huge ham and publicity hound, but he is trying to make the city better, despite his arrogance and obliviousness. Busiek wants to explore why we worship these heroes, why we turn against them, and why we take them back, and he does this by not only viewing the heroes through the lens of "normal" people, but by allowing the heroes to view each other without filters. In the Marvel and DC worlds, too often the writers take shortcuts to "character development" by simply having the heroes argue with each other. Busiek knows that heroes will argue, but he also knows that they will also attempt to work together, act like heroes, become friends, hook up and then break up, and all the other things people do. They are heroes not only because of their powers, but because they have real emotions but they don't allow those emotions to stop them from doing the right thing.

Astro City, obviously, is not over yet, so it may be premature to call it Busiek's magnum opus. I can't think of anything he could ever write, however, that would be more real, more powerful, and more personal than this. So I don't think I'm off base. But, you know, I could be.

Garth Ennis' and Steve Dillon's magnum opus: Preacher issues #1-66, April 1995-October 2000. Boy, I had a hard time with this. Of all the writers I can think of, I doubt if there's one like Garth Ennis, who was writing two magnificent long-running titles at almost exactly the same time, both of which could be considered a masterpiece. Others have done good work at the same time, but to have two books of this quality and resonance concurrently is tough. I finally decided on Preacher as Ennis' magnum opus, but I should say a few things about the other title.

I like Hitman better than Preacher. There, I said it. Why? Well, without getting into things too much, it's more fun, it's more gut-wrenching, it features the single greatest depiction of Superman ever (I really don't think that's up for argument), it doesn't preach (like, say, Preacher) and it ends logically. Yes, Preacher does not end the way it should. I'll get back to that.

So why Preacher? Well, I still like the book (although I did stop buying it for a while, after All-Father fell out of the helicopter onto the Messiah in issue #25), but more than that, I think this is Ennis trying to explain the world to us. I have said that just because it's personal to the writer doesn't make it a masterpiece, but it helps, and in this, I just think Ennis is more invested in Preacher, and it wants to make more of a statement than Hitman. He has a great deal he wants to get off his chest, so we find out his views on religion (obviously), America, parenting, relationships, loyalty, and history. In Preacher, Jesse and Cassidy are just as likely to spend the whole issue talking as they are stomping Herr Starr's face in. In Hitman, a zombie penguin is likely to show up and add some levity.

Ennis obviously has a lot on his mind, and he uses Preacher to try to understand this wacky world we live in. He might not like the world, but he likes the people in it (for the most part) and he believes in sticking by your friends and standing up for what you believe is right. That's why Cassidy is such a villain in the latter half of the book. He and Tulip become the moral fulcrum of the book - Jesse is off having adventures, and while nothing makes me more interested than a sick old man having sex with a large sculpture made out of meat, Cassidy and Tulip trying to adjust to Jesse's "death" is what spurs the book on. When Tulip finally understands what she has become, Cassidy can't accept it and lashes out at her, betraying not only her but the memory of one of the few people who was decent to him. He repents, of course, and this is where Ennis' views on religion are interesting. Ennis loathes organized religion, obviously, but he wants to reconcile the good things about religion - forgiveness for sins, most notably - with the corruption he sees throughout organized religion. One way he does this is with Jesse, who is a "bad" preacher in that he doesn't toe the company line. He's a "good" preacher in Ennis' view because he's an iconoclast who cares more about the virtues of Christianity than the façade of the Church. Therefore, he is able to accept people for what they are instead of what he wants them to be, but he holds them to a high moral standard - his own. Cassidy fails in that regard, but, in true Christian fashion, he is given a second chance because he repents. The repentance is necessary, of course. It's no surprise that Cassidy is Irish and therefore probably Catholic. Even lapsed Catholics (and Cassidy is probably the ultimate example of one) can't wash the dogma completely out of them, and Cassidy understands that he has become Judas to Jesse's Jesus and must repent. Ennis wants us to consider that morality is real, but not necessarily what we are taught. And loyalty is valued most of all.

What hurts Preacher is also what makes it a masterpiece - Ennis' convictions bleeding through onto the page. The idea of loyalty is present throughout Hitman, too, but it isn't imbued with the same quasi-mystical gravitas that it is in Preacher. Ennis has other ideas he wants to expound upon in the pages of Preacher, and too often the narrative comes to a screeching halt while he puts his words into Jesse's mouth and, well, preaches to us. This doesn't ruin the work, but it does make us react, sometimes negatively, to what Ennis is doing. It's not that we disagree with what Jesse is saying (we certainly can disagree, but that's not why we react negatively), it's that we don't like such blatant moralizing. That's why Cassidy and Tulip's arc is so much more emotionally powerful - we're watching Cassidy degenerate before our eyes into someone that Jesse - who doesn't betray a friend - would not respect, and it's devastating, because we always wanted Cassidy to be better. It's a mark of Ennis' talent that we are so wrecked by Cassidy's betrayal.

And then there's the ending. Nobody dies. That's where Hitman packs more emotional punch - the last page of Hitman is unbelievably powerful, even though we know it's coming. I don't mean to be bloodthirsty, but Cassidy or Jesse has to die at the end of Preacher (not Tulip, though). I understand that the power of repentance is at work here, and therefore everyone gets a second chance, but it feels a little too much like Ennis loved his three characters so much that he just couldn't let any one of them go. Intellectually, I understand the decision, but emotionally, it feels fake. It could be just me.

Ennis cut his teeth on a gut-wrenching run on Hellblazer, and these two titles are the culmination of a lot of what he tried out there. He's now writing the further adventures of Frank Castle for Marvel, something I'll consider in my next post (yes, I have another one on this topic!). You could actually flip a coin to determine which one of these two titles is his masterpiece. I wouldn't argue with either one.

Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's magnum opus: Transmetropolitan issues #1-60, September 1997-November 2002. This was a tough call, because I like Planetary better, but it's not finished, and I think when all is said and done, it will not rise above its pulp roots and become a true timeless masterpiece. I'll probably go to my grave telling everyone how brilliant it is, but I think it just doesn't pass muster.

Transmetropolitan, on the other hand, does. It's a fine book on its own merits (which a masterpiece should be, after all), but it also becomes Ellis' vehicle for his own kind of propaganda, one in which he becomes Spider Jerusalem and, more importantly, lives the arc of Spider's life. I don't know Warren Ellis at all, but unless his on-line persona is miles away from his off-line persona, Spider Jerusalem is obviously what he wants to be. He craves the fame of Spider, but he also craves the influence that Spider wields. Again, I could be reading this all wrong, but I doubt it. There's nothing wrong with it, either - I wouldn't mind having Spider's fame and influence.

Ellis loves this kind of character, and with Spider, he achieves its apotheosis. Unfortunately for his reading public, he keeps trying to recreate this character, with varying degrees of success. One of the reasons why Planetary works is because Ellis does not have this kind of character - some traits are there, of course, but not in such measure nor even in the same character. Spider Jerusalem is a magnificent creation because he's an utter bastard, and his shell never really cracks in public, but we get to see the human being underneath. His scenes with Channon when he tells her that her boyfriend doesn't love her are devastating, not only because Spider is being a bastard but because he's trying not to be one. The issue where he visits the alien cultures is fascinating, and Mary's story is simply beautiful. Throughout this all, Ellis never allows Spider to become sappy, and his soft core is only visible briefly and the series never becomes a series of transformations from Spider the Bastard to Spider the Sap. He cares about "his" people, but he prefers to treat them like shit. Even at the end.

The journalistic angle is brilliant, because it allows Ellis to delve into politics and culture, two things that obviously obsess him. His political ideas become a bit of a screed by the end of the book, but they're always consistent with the character and always moving toward something. He doesn't change his tone just for the hell of it - this is the vision of one mind, and it always keeps that vision in mind, even when Ellis goes off on tangents. His thoughts on culture are always interesting to read, and the fact that this takes place in the future allows him to indulge his other obsession - new technology and how it will have an impact on humanity. Ellis is a science fiction writer first and foremost, and Transmetropolitan fits his style perfectly. It's his magnum opus for that reason - it's his most intensely personal work, but it also remains a scathing critique of our society without sacrificing the overall narrative. Yes, it bogs down occasionally, much like Preacher does. It's not perfect. Unlike books that are simply work-for-hire assembly-line products, however, we're more willing to go along, because we understand that this is a work that comes directly from Ellis' gut, and if we stick with it, we will be rewarded. Much like most masterpieces, this reads much better all at once. When we sit and read all sixty issues in a relatively short time, the minor setbacks become simply inconveniences, and we are allowed to watch the City sprawl before us and really take it all in, which almost overwhelms us. That's the point - the City should overwhelm us, because it overwhelms everyone, Spider included. He is there to guide us home, just like Ellis wants to guide us home. The metaphor is never forced, but the City is our world, and the implication is that we need a guide who will show us the path and then kick us in the ass. The fact that we keep returning to that guide - whether it's our parents, government, or God - is what Ellis is trying to wean us from. But he's as culpable as we are, because whenever Spider wants to quit, he is drawn back in - through his own sense of righteousness. He continually needs to save the citizens of the City from themselves. It's a complicated idea to put forward, and Ellis might reject it, but Spider can only gain freedom when he realizes that he can't force others to follow him. He claims he wants the citizens to think for themselves, but whenever they do, he gets angry because they're not making the "right" decisions. Do we sense Ellis behind all of this, telling us to make our own decisions but then ranting when we don't do what he thinks is right?

Transmetropolitan challenges us, like a good masterpiece should. It's not an easy book to digest, but that's okay, because it's more rewarding than something that goes down smoothly. Ellis has continued to explore the dark side of human nature, but the reason none of his recent or current work is as resonant as Transmetropolitan is because that's the only thing he's exploring. Fell has potential, but mean 'n' nasty 24-7 just doesn't work, Warren. The reason we love Spider is not only because he was mean 'n' nasty, but because he was the kind of guy who would appreciate it when Yelena writes his column for him, and expresses his appreciation. That's the Ellis we like. It would be nice to read him again.

I realize this has been a monster post, but there are a few elephants in the room I haven't discussed. One is Frank Miller. The other is The God Of All Comics. What's Frank Miller's magnum opus? In the comments of the previous post, someone mentioned his work on Daredevil. I thought about that, but I haven't read all of the issues and I also wonder if it's true. I have read plenty of stuff by Frank Miller that is better and deeper than Daredevil, even though I enjoy that work too. One thing I have never read is Sin City, and I'm inclined to name that as his masterpiece. Creator-controlled, personal, all the themes he has toyed with in various other things - sounds good! But I haven't read it. Thoughts?

And then there's Morrison. If you pinned me down, I would say Doom Patrol #19-63 immediately. I have said it before, but I'll say it again - to me, it is the finest run on a comic book EVER. A few months before that, though, he began writing Animal Man, which remains a classic. These two books were so early in his career, however, that I'm wary of them (the same reason I'm hesitant about Daredevil). Does that mean that everything Morrison has written since 1993 has been a step down? His work on JLA was excellent, he reinvented (for a time) the X-Men, and he has done too much other stuff to mention. I would suspect that when he started writing Invisibles he thought it would be his masterpiece, but it's just not that good (and to be fair, I've only read it once, so maybe I just don't appreciate the subtlety, but it was, frankly, boring). Doom Patrol remains Morrison's most human work - yes, it's full of craziness, but the characters drive the story, and it seems sometimes Morrison forgets that. It's a beautiful examination of what makes us different and what, ultimately, brings us together. And I challenge anyone to read the whole thing and not get choked up when they read the last issue. A CHALLENGE! So I would still say Doom Patrol, but I'm open to suggestions. Morrison is a very versatile writer and he flits around a bit, so he has more of a bibliography than some of these other writers. Robinson, for instance, has The Golden Age (too short) and Leave It To Chance (ditto).

I'm not sure if Bendis has one yet. Some people mentioned Daredevil, which is where I would go, but Powers might yet supplant it. I happen to think Jinx is a classic, but I could be in the minority.

Finally, there's Dave Sim. I have never read a word of Cerebus, but I doubt if anyone would argue that it's his magnum opus.

A few interesting suggestions in the previous post's comments that I either forgot or haven't read and, I think, count as these kinds of masterpieces and not the corporate-comics kind I went over last time:

Michael pointed out Mike Grell's Warlord series. I haven't read it.

"Anonymous" mentioned Kingdom Come by Waid and Ross. I'm not sure - it doesn't fit my definition, but that doesn't matter, and I'm willing to give some love to Waid and Ross, because despite some critical bashing, I liked the series. Is it Waid's masterpiece? Tough call.

"Anonymous" (a different one?) name checks Groo the Wanderer by Evanier and Aragones. I would probably agree, if I had read it.

Gorjus, who had some interesting thoughts about my definition of "masterpiece," brings up Palomar and/or Locas by the Hernandez Bros. More than likely. I haven't read them. Yes, I suck.

Mike Loughlin mentions The Maxx by Sam Kieth. I just started getting the trade paperbacks. I may agree by the time I'm done.
Rob Spalding brings up Judge Dredd by John Wagner. Again, I haven't read them. He also points out Jeff Smith's Bone, which I've heard nothing but good things about. I should get that monster edition collecting the whole thing.

"Anonymous" (they're all over!) mentions Concrete by Paul Chadwick. Another good choice that I haven't read.

I apologize for the length of this post. I'm sure I lost many of you a long time ago. But I think it's an interesting idea to look at what makes a comic book a masterpiece and how we can define them and why one book is a creator's masterpiece and not another. Any comments on my obvious lack of knowledge, questions about why these particular books are masterpieces, and of course, your own contributions are welcome. Next time (yes, I have one more post in me, but it will be shorter) I want to consider what happens after someone writes his masterpiece, based on what their output has been since.

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Blogger AFKAP of Darkness said...

wow... right off the top, i have to give you props for undertaking a post of this magnitude.

now i'll get down to reading it!

4/30/2006 06:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Did I miss the memo that warned us Greg was going insane?

I'm gonna print this out and study it, Greg. Not just impressive, but thought-provoking. Why do you thought-provoke me, Greg? DO YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME!??! Just you wait, I'm gonna respond with something equally impressive, maybe in a series of haikus.

4/30/2006 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Hensel said...

First off, I was completely amazed when I saw DeMatteis' Dr Fate as his best run. I would completely agree with you (not having finished it, though) but I thought I was the only person who read it. It gets a little DeMatteis styled preachy, which means it rambles at times, but it's his most human, religous, and spiritual work, and I generally find his work interesting, but I did not expect that run to be highlighted so early.

One more comment, I'd be inclined to say Captain Marvel is Starlin's most personal work, following oneman throughout his prime of life and his death, but I haven't read Starlin in years, much less the complete run of Warlock and Dreadstar. I'd nominate Dreadstar, though, becuase that's Jim Starlin's msot iconic character associated with him. He even designed a new costume.

About Morrion's Magnum Opus- I would say Seven Soldiers, but that did have sloppy art and issue structure throughout Mister Miracle (#3 was an amazing turn of events, though) and the poorly executed Shining Knight and Zatanna. Seven Soldiers certainly stands up for deep literary analysis with constant repetition of motifs, recurring themes throughout seven soldier's struggles, and it imbued self transformation and spiritual fulfillment in a corporate superhero setting with Zam-Bow superhero action. Although its inconsistency hurt it alot, I will be reading Seven Soldiers 20 years from now, but I could see why it wouldn't be his magnum opus (the least reason is its incompletion)

ANd another note before I go on the posts as a whole, I was conflicted by the post's conflicting dichotomy. When I started reading the post, I felt like you were commenting on the state of masterpieces (or magnum opuses) in comics and their emergance in the past 25 years with significance, etc., but soon it talked about a series of runs in depth. I don't know, it seems like two different pieces joined into one, and kind of makes the posts less timeless if you add more runs and talk about their status as a magnum opus regarding the creator's otehr works. A little lacking in focus, but great job again on dissecting runs quickly and capturing their essence. I want to go reread Starlin and Ennis and DeMatteis now. GOod job!

4/30/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Anonymous SteveNS said...

Fantastic post!

And while I don't know if Morrison's Doom Patrol was the best run by anyone, ever, it's certainly in the running.

I can say without reservation that his last issue on the title, "The Empire of Chairs", is in my personal Top 10 Comics of All Time. As deeply affecting as anything I've read.

"There is a better world. There has to be." Just awesome. The ending still gets to me.

But DeMatteis' magnum opus isn't Moonshadow? Hmmm, dunno about that.

4/30/2006 09:11:00 PM  
Blogger Evan Waters said...

It took me a long time to get around to reading WATCHMEN. There weren't any copies at local libraries, and I didn't want to pay for the trade without being sure I'd like it. It was praised and all, but it also theoretically started the "dark superheroes" thing that I blamed for various recent comics developments.

So I'm in the university bookstore, there's a chair near where they keep the graphic novels, I decide I'll sit and read a bit of it. By the time I got to the second or third chapter/issue I got up and bought it right there.

What doesn't get mentioned often enough is just how beautiful the thing is, visually and structurally and in its often very delicate emotional manipulation. If anything it's brighter than the stories it's inspired, because it makes sure to give the reader a proper catharsis.

And ironically, the ending to the Nite Owl's story is a lot more appropriate than what happened to the character he was based on.

4/30/2006 09:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin said...

Miller's best work is Daredevil: Born Again. After that TDKR and Batman: Year One.

4/30/2006 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

Great post. I loved this and Part One.

4/30/2006 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous JR said...

I've not read a whole lot of his run on Dr. Fate, but my favorite run of series by J.M. Demattis has long been his stint on the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider title (he ended the book). Though alot of his work and themes there could be something of a precurser to his Dr. Fate run.

Morrison's alot harder to peg. Most of the other opinions I've read on it site Invisibles, but I've not read it yet. You're one the first (that I can recall) I've seen not to list it as his masterpiece. Animal Man and Doom Patrol tend to go back and forth as being my personal favorites of his longer runs on a title. I think of the two I'd list Doom Patrol as being the better of the two simply because it's less straight-forward and hence more "Morrison-y" of the two works.

5/01/2006 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger leagueofnowhere said...

Great post. And a really pleasant surprise to see Shade listed. Back in the day, when I was working comics retail, I was always trying to push it on the Sandman fans. All that talk about the Endless and I secretly knew they were missing out on a better book. Now THERE'S some heresy! Then again, I like The Third Man more than Citizen Kane. I know which one is more important culturally, but I know which one is a better MOVIE.

Also, I loved Animal Man and I loved the Invisibles. LOVED THEM. But in the end I think it may just be possible that Doom Patrol IS the best run ever. Especially if the Flex Mentallo mini gets included.

A great, great post.

5/01/2006 12:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, what a great post.

But hmmm ... dunno that I can agree about Doom Patrol. And before we go any further here, let me emphasize how much I love, really love, Doom Patrol. If I had to pick my favorite run of any comic of all time — or bestow the title (as Greg inherently challenges us to do) of Best Run By Anyone, Ever — well hell, I'd probably pick DP. And my only hesitation would be in considering Animal Man instead. Which is quite a dilemma, actually. Both moved me profoundly.

But if I get Greg's criteria here — that one of the requirements of the magnum opus is the auteur's personal investment — then I don't know how you can not pick Animal Man when you think of Morrison.

(I suppose The Invisibles is in the running here too, though I didn't love that series so much as I admired it. Still, Morrison asked his readers to whack off on Thanksgiving to save the series, and we did, and it worked. That's some personal investment he had, which he cultivated in us. After that, he fucking wrote a torturous near-death experience for one of his heroes, King Mob, which he then experienced himself. That's a pretty tight connection between autuer and art. I'm just sayin'.)

But Animal Man — while full of Morrisonian craziness (if not quite so surreal and Dada-esque as DP — is obviously so connected to the man's heart and soul. (And I'm not just saying that because of who turns up in #26, his final issue.) (Umm, it's probably too hard to talk about these runs without spoiling them, but I'll try, only because I'd hate it if even one Animal Man virgin had the experience lessened by reading about it here first.)

I mean, Buddy becoming a champion for animals and for the environment — he's a proxy for Grant himself, of course, but never a mere proxy. And most of all: The grief Grant moves through, and helps to heal, by writing this series — how much more personal can you get than that?

So, is Animal Man his best series ever? Maybe, but Doom Patrol could certainly challenge the notion. If you ask, is Animal Man his most personal work? I'd say it must be.

5/01/2006 01:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

I would question whether the term "auteur" - which is meant to suggest a single, unified vision - can even apply to most of these creators, most of whom are writers doing half the work on the book (Starlin, Miller, Wagner, Sim and the other writer/artists are obvious exceptions). In the midst of the cult of the writer that's built up in comic book fandom, we forget that comics are a visual medium. Transmet's Spider Jerusalem is undoubtedly Warren Ellis's creation, but what would The City be without Darick Robertson? The man filled hundreds of pages with wonderfully bizarre visuals and brilliantly obscene sight gags; it simply wouldn't be the same work with a different artist, any more than Watchmen would've been without Dave Gibbons.

For what it's worth, I think "The Filth" is Morrison's best and most human project, although "Seaguy" is his most enjoyable.

5/01/2006 01:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Rebis said...

First off, what a great post.

But hmmm ... dunno that I can agree about Doom Patrol. And before we go any further here, let me emphasize how much I love, really love, Doom Patrol. If I had to pick my favorite run of any comic of all time — or bestow the title (as Greg inherently challenges us to do) of Best Run By Anyone, Ever — well hell, I'd probably pick DP. My only hesitation would be in considering Animal Man instead. Which is quite a dilemma, actually. Both moved me profoundly.

But isn't one of the criteria here the magnum opus requires the auteur's personal investment? Then I don't know how you can not pick Animal Man when you think of Morrison.

(I suppose The Invisibles is in the running here too, though I didn't love that series so much as I admired it. Still, Morrison asked his readers to whack off on Thanksgiving to save the series, and we did, and it worked. That's some personal investment he had, which he cultivated in us. After that, he fucking wrote a torturous near-death experience for one of his heroes, King Mob, which he then experienced himself. That's a pretty tight connection between autuer and art. Just sayin'.)

But Animal Man, while full of Morrisonian craziness (if not quite so surreal and Dada-esque as DP), is obviously deeply connected to the man's heart and soul. And I'm not just saying that because of who turns up in #26, his final issue. (Umm, it's probably too hard to talk about these runs without spoiling them, but I'll try, only because I'd hate it if even one Animal Man virgin had the experience lessened by reading about it here first.)

I mean, Buddy becoming a champion for animals and for the environment — he's a proxy for Grant himself, of course, but never a mere proxy. And most of all: The grief Grant moves through, and helps to heal, by writing this series — how much more personal can you get than that?

So the semantics of magnum opus matter. Is Animal Man his best series ever? Or Doom Patrol? Hard to answer that. Yet if you ask, is Animal Man his most personal work? I'd say it must be.

5/01/2006 01:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

The reason why Morrison's magnum opus isn't The Invisibles, of course, is because The Invisibles is thoroughly terrible. But in your heart of hearts you all know that anyway.

5/01/2006 01:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Rebis said...

D'oh! Sorry for that double post. The second one's better. Editing's funny like that.

Since I've seized the talking stick again ... let us not neglect the contributions of Chaz Truog and Richard Case. Neither of them superstars, but I believe their art was well matched to the story at hand. (Though Kelley Jones did a sweet fill-in on DP, as I recall.)

5/01/2006 01:35:00 AM  
Blogger William O'Brien said...

I think you could go with Alias as the Bendis masterpiece. Jessica Jones has gotten a little annoying since, but in those 28 issues there is a ton of fun, good plotting, and great character.

Powers is also very good, though I think it doesn't always seem to have a clear sense of where it is going.

I don't think Miller was ever as innovative as he was on Daredevil. 181, 191, and Born Again are about as good as superhero books get.

Mark Gruenwald's masterpiece is Squadron Supreme. DC is still trying to cover ground with the JL that Squad did 20 years ago.

Not sure if you've read them, but Lucifer and Fables probably both fit the bill as well.

5/01/2006 01:36:00 AM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

Wow. That was cool.

I haven't read a buncha this stuff: Wasn't paying much attention to comics between '85 and '95. I'll definitely track down Doctor Fate and Shade the Changing Man... Sometime.

My nominations for most Magnum of Magnum Opuses, ever at least as I define it:

(A) Personal commitment on the part of the creator

(B) Sense of SCOPE in the work,

and (C) Multi-leveled...

\are (First) Kim Deitch's Waldo stories

(Second) Gilbert Hernandez' Palomar.

(Third) Cerebus.

(' An Fourth) Kirby's Thor, Fourth World, and Eternals. (Kirby's said that the Gods of Thor were the Old Gods who died so the New Gods could be born...)

I'd probably call Dark Knight Returns Miller's Magnum Opus, even if it is short. That was the first time it felt like Miller was doing a Frank Miller story instead of, like, integrating Eisner into current comics. (If that makes any sense.)

And I'd pick the Filth or We3 for Morrison. The Invisibles wins for scope, mind, but there's whole swaths of it that I just don't understand what the hell dude was doin'. (I really didn't like the art in the first few volumes of Doom Patrol.)

And VERY nice write-up of Transmet. Probably the best I've ever seen the series reviewed.

5/01/2006 03:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Diz said...

I would pick Hitman as Ennis' magnus opus over Preacher for at least the reason you list. I also felt that Hitman had less Ennisms, where he would derail the story to make his character rant on some popculture thing or band or so that he liked or disliked. Hitman felt more ..pure I guess.

5/01/2006 06:54:00 AM  
Blogger chainboy said...

Lovely, thought-provoking stuff. I've been away from the super-hero stuff pretty much since the late 80's, so I had no idea just how long Peter David wrote the Hulk!

Just to throw in 2c on the "auteur" thing... I have to say, generally I like auteur's non-auteur work better - there's something so liberating and loose about tossing off work-for-hire every month and just seeing what you can do with it. Which is why Promethea isn't as good as Swamp Thing - or Moore's Green Lantern Corps backups, for that matter.

I can't believe Steve Englehart's mid-70's Justice League of America run has been ignored! I mean, all he did was create the linchpin of the entire DCU... Which he then went and re-mined for his superfun Green Lantern Corps.

Howard Chaykin's original run on American Flagg! is everything you will ever need to know about Chaykin's work. He just hasn't done anything before or since that AF! didn't do.

I'll throw out some love to Ann Nocenti for her & John Romita Jr.'s Daredevil. Mannered and sometimes overblown, sure, but she followed Miller without imitating him - and I just loved Daredevil being a neighbourhood guy with other neighbourhood guys buying him beers.

Steve Skeates & Jim Aparo on Aquaman. Has the King of the Seven Seas ever been better?

Now, are we talking about the best magnum operas ever? Or just the best of different creators? F'rinstance, I don't know if Perez' Wonder Woman is the best comic ever, but I certainly don't think Perez has topped himself since...

And then of course there's the One That Got Away: Rick Veith's Swamp Thing.

5/01/2006 07:53:00 AM  
Anonymous jacob munford said...

No mention of Flex Mentallo as Morrison's magnum opus? I don't think I've ever read anything by Morrison that was as good and encapsulated the gamut of Morrison's ideas as effectively.

5/01/2006 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous tenzil said...

Since I love both Animal Man and Doom Patrol, may I suggest that they are essentially different works?

Without spoilers:

Animal Man: A fairly straightforward superhero book (there are many references to DC Continuity and DC Heroes) with two strong philosophical underpinnings: man's relationship to nature/animal rights and an author's relationship with his audience and his characters. Without blowing the ending- IT'S A COMIC BOOK.

Doom Patrol: Surrealist literature in comic book form. Very, very few references to other DC elements outside the history of the Doom Patrol itself. Difficult to unserstand many issues on a first reading. Has a lot to say about family and friendship and living in the world. Uses language and art as a jumping off point for philosophy in general. Without blowing the ending: IT'S NOT REAL.

In a no-hold-barred cage match, Doom Patrol by TKO.

5/01/2006 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Excellent comments, everyone - especially the fun Doom Patrol/Animal Man debates. Debates are gud.

I would definitely put Alias up there as Bendis' best work. Forgive me - it was late and I was tired. I'm not sure why I skipped it.

One of the reasons I didn't consider shorter works (Dark Knight Returns, We3, Flex Mentallo, et al.) is for the same reason, back in the day, that I thought it was easier for someone to write for a title like Solo than for a regular title. I have always believed it's easier to write a four-issue mini-series than a long-running serial. I could be wrong, but it seems that if Morrison has an idea like "Animals used as weapons escape," the resulting mini-series pretty much writes itself. That's not to say it is THAT easy, but it's one simple idea, and from it we get a short series. With something like Doom Patrol, he had to have several themes running through it and continually reassess where he was in the narrative, which seems to me more challenging. So although I love some of these creators' shorter work, I don't consider them magna opera because of the scope.

The ones people are mentioning I probably haven't read yet. I haven't read American Flagg! (aren't the damned trades coming out anytime soon?), I haven't read Englehart on JLA, I've only read a few Nocenti Daredevils (although what I have read I liked) - again, I have plenty of gaps in my comic book reading (don't we all) and appreciate people pointing out stuff I probably should hunt down.

Sorry for the subterfuge, Peter - I will probably look at the concept of masterpiece a bit more in my final post on the topic.

And you're right, Lungfish - the art is crucial to some of these, and I didn't mean to give it short shrift. I didn't concentrate on it for a couple of reasons - I'm not an artist, and therefore can only speak knowledgeably about it on the most basic of levels (it's KEWL!) and I didn't have the issues in front of me, as I was doing this from memory, so I couldn't study the art too closely. You're right, though - Robertson on Transmet, Dillon on Preacher especially, McCrea on Hitman, Case on DP, McManus on Dr. Fate, Truog on Animal Man, McKean's covers of Sandman, the Pander Bros. on Grendel - all contributed a great deal to the greatness of these books.

5/01/2006 10:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fables is terrific work, but Willingham's Magnum Opus would have to be Elementals. It's a more personal work, and he's exploring broader themes of death and life there. Unfortunately, the art is extremely erratic and some of the issues are flat-out awful because of it. (I'm guessing some people will further discount it for the Sex Specials...)

Can a writer or artist qualify if they've basically only done one work?

5/01/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger drphunk said...

Zenith would probably be a contendor for the best work of Grant Morrison. Sadly it's out of print and difficult to get hold of.

Sin City is good but 300, The Dark Night Returns and Ronin are better. I don't think those books would fit into your definition.

Other great works could include Charlie's War by Pat Mills and the Blueberry books by Moebius (although he is better known for sci-fi stuff). Judge Dredd is a must read.


5/01/2006 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I was going to mention Blueberry, but I haven't read them. Weren't they supposed to be out in new editions?

Willingham's will probably end up being Fables, simply because Elementals never really lived up to its promise. The first five issues are dynamite, and the next few are very good, but the art was so very awful occasionally, and it really lost a lot of momentum. I wouldn't discount it because of the Sex Specials, because they are actually a vital part of the ideas that Willingham was toying with.

If a writer or artist has only done one thing, of course they can qualify - depending on the quality of the work. Dave Sim leaps to mind. It still has be good, but it can certainly be a magnum opus even if it's the only thing that person has done. is anyone going to argue that To Kill a Mockingbird isn't a masterpiece?

5/01/2006 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Dweeze said...

Two things: First, whole hearted agreement with anyone putting American Flagg out there, at least the first 24 issues or so. Second, Moonshadow is, quite frankly, the great miniseries everyone wants Watchmen to be. It's perfectly done, filled with heart and intelligence and kick. I can't see anyway to dismiss it in favor of Dr. Fate.

5/01/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

I've read one thing in this post. Yes, Watchmen. I've also read V for Vendetta and two of the Doom Patrol trades and a couple issues of Hitman I downloaded once, and maybe half an issue of Preacher. I hated Preacher. But anyway.

I have lots of work to do. If only all this stuff was available in convenient book-like objects.

Also, Simonson's most popular work may be Thor, but Orion is his masterpiece. It's 25 brilliant issues, which, though I may blaspheme, are probably better than Kirby.

5/01/2006 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike Loughlin said...

DeMatteis' Brooklyn Dreams is even more personal and "DeMatteis-y" than Moonshadow. I'd call that his Magnum Opus.

Great write up on all counts, Greg. Preacher gets a nod over Hitman because it a) put Ennis on the map, b) practically saved Vertigo once Sandman was gone, c) did most of the things Hitman did (e.g. comic violence, stand-by-your-buddies ethos) (did I use the word "ethos" right? If not, feel free to substitute your own word) first. That said, I liked Hitman's last dozen issues better than Preacher's.

DD: Born Again & the 300 are my favorite Miller works, but Sin City is probably his Magnum Opus. He created an entire world of his own, and does with it as he will. When I think "Frank Miller," Sin City comes to my head first.

5/01/2006 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For Mark Waid I'd put down "The Return of Barry Allen" from his Flash run. It's not strictly by the rules as a pick, it's only part of a long run, but the quality is high. Also, there are a few things in the letters page of issue #79 that make me think of it as Mark Waid's magnum opus. It's obvious Waid was a Flash fan growing up and there's also something of his personal career mentioned in a tiny detail. He says that every single fan at conventions used to approach him as to "When's Barry coming back?" Waid had been on the book for maybe a year, Wally had been the Flash for the better part of a decade and nothing anybody'd done had made a dent. It was still "when's Barry coming back?" So Waid bit the bullet and wrote what is probably the best story of his career. FLASH #75-79.

5/01/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Hensel said...

BIll Reed- I completely agree with you about Orion. I'm rediscovering it myself adn writing about it on my blog. I wouldn't say that its better than Kirby's, because Kirby created an entire mythology, and that's where most of the heart for the series is, but Simonson's stories are better than Kirby's.

Greg- There's no subterfuge, I was jarred a little by the transition. Write whatever you like. It's great so far.

And Doom Patrol is so much better because of the ending. Animal Man may be mroe personal, but Doom Patrol has such an amazing ending that blows Animal Man's out of the water.

5/01/2006 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Brady said...

You mentioned that there aren't any women on the list; one to look at might be Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil. I've only read the first collection, but it was pretty good, and she seemed to be going in some really interesting directions in terms of relationships and studies of humanity. Has anybody read the whole thing?

5/01/2006 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I'd go so far as to argue that Waid's Flash run through #100 should be considered as a magnum opus -- it's a very personal piece of work that's got a thematic throughline in terms of Wally's struggling with Barry's legacy and it really captures that feeling of standing on the cusp of adulthood and holding your breath while you wait to find out what happens to you next.

5/01/2006 06:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Okay, I accept your challenge, sir! (Was there a challenge? There should have been. I felt challenged after reading it.) I'll try to be short-winded, but after all the thought and time you put into it, I want to at least give a deserving response.

Starlin, Dreadstar - I love Starlin, what little I've read of him, and sadly haven't read Dreadstar. But I can, by process of elimination and inference, say that I like it as his masterpiece selection. His Captain Marvel and Warlock were extraordinary, but they lacked in coherence and clarity, especially his Warlock, the kind of trippy-for-the-sake-of-being-trippy stuff Morrison will sometimes fall into. But his Thanos brings up a question: Is there such a thing as a master"character"? At least up until Warlock and the Infinity Watch, Thanos was one of the most complex characters in Marvel or DC. Thanos Quest is practically the culmination of the entire Marvel Silver Age, and despite the more cartoonish Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos really hits an amazing peak. Even today, despite Starlin's recent WTF? stories and Waid jobbing with Ka-Zar, Thanos is still right up there with Spider-Man, pre-omnipresent Wolverine, Magneto, and Dr. Doom as Marvel's most compelling characters. All because of Starlin.

Moore, Watchmen - I don't know how you read my mind, or what could possibly possess you to enter such a cesspool, but I agree with almost every word you wrote here. What especially strikes me is your reasoning behind picking this over From Hell, which despite my picking it before as his masterwork, is absolutely true. I see From Hell as Moore's more personal work (he spent a hell of a long time researching it), and he both improved upon his Watchmen techniques and was more confident (and less experimental) in their use, but inna final analysis, Watchmen is the better story. Swamp Thing is Moore at his most atmospheric, V at his most social conscious and political, Miracleman at his most deconstructive, Captain Britain at his most epic, From Hell at his most scholastic, Promethea at his most fantastic, Top 10 at his most inventive, LoEG at his most literate, and "Whatever Happened To..." at his most heroic, but Watchmen is Moore at his most complete.

Wagner, Grendel - Never read Grendel, either (I'd go buy it right now, but someone has me looking for Dreadstar instead). But to comment on his underappreciation, I think it's the simple fact that his best work has been non-DC/Marvel, while his most mainstream pieces have either been short works (such as LotDK) or mature, retro-noir (Sandman Mystery Theatre) that isn't particularly mass-marketable. Even Batman and the Mystery Men, despite having good buzz and "Batman" in the title, is too Vertigo British. Hell, if it wasn't for his amazing and popular cover painting, I doubt DC or Marvel would even take his calls anymore. Not because he's bad, but because he hasn't produced either that one overwhelming medium-changing story (i.e. Gaiman's Sandman, Moore's Watchmen) or taken his skills straight into the mainstream (Morrison's JLA), without which those creators would probably be in the same boat. Something like Cooke's New Frontier or Robinson's Golden Age would be perfect.

DeMatteis, Doctor Fate - I'm surprised you didn't go with Moonshadow, but I applaud your verve and contrarianism! I didn't even know DeMatteis had done a Dr. Fate. Sounds great, if probably one of those things I'll get around to finding when pigs fly. Howzabout we send this whole shebang off to the various publishers and see if we can convince them to collect some of this? Dr. Fate, in particular, would fit quite nicely next to Robinson's Golden Age and Starman, Wagner/Seagle's Sandman Mystery Theatre, and Robinson/Goyer/Johns' JSA trades on my bookshelf.

Gaiman, Sandman - What I think makes Sandman unique is that its impact is/will be felt beyond comics. It is quite possibly the best fantasy story in any medium in at least 20 years, shifting the genre away from the Tolkien-based mega-epics. It revitalized the fantasy of the pre-Tolkienites like Dunsany and Eddison, and kick-started the popularity of modern fabulists like Susanna Clarke and the Datlow/Windling anthologees. And it is definitely the most approachable of the major comic book masterpieces; I would even go so far as to say that it's a major reason for the continued popularity of the Vertigo Brits even after 20 years, because of all the new readers who get Sandman at Barnes & Noble, then move on to Moore and Morrison, keeping their fanbases fresh (which makes me wonder why DC let so much of Morrison's TPB catalog go out of print). I love Sandman like a wet dream, so I'm trying not to be hyperbolic, but I think its importance reaches far beyond its artistry.

Soapbox Time: I'm glad to see a review of Sandman that doesn't digress into a critique of goth or the gay/lesbian themes. Yes, those are present, but not omnipresent. Gaiman spends far more time on stories like "Seasons of Mist," "Ramadan," Hob Gadling, Shakespeare, Merv Pumpkinhead, Matthew, and Fiddler's Green. Sometimes I get the feeling that people read "The Doll's House" and "A Game of You" and fall in love with Death, then form their entire impression of the series around them, practically ignoring or dismissing everything else. Also, I actually liked "The Kindly Ones." Yeah, it meandered, but Gaiman's best stories had very little to do with the main plot anyway.

So this short-winded thing is going well. I'm going to have to do this in segments. Stay tuned for Part Two, wherein I continue to lament how I haven't read half of these pieces, try not to go all Spider Jerusalem on Ellis, wax poetic about that bastard Proinsias Cassidy, and tell of my never-ending battle with Starman.

5/01/2006 06:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Jesse said...

Howzabout Bryan Talbot’s “Heart of Empire”? I’m actually not that familiar with the full range of Talbot’s stuff – I own but haven’t yet read the collected “Adventures of Luther Arkwright.” And “The Tale of One Bad Rat” is too short by Greg’s criteria. But “Heart of Empire” is masterful both as a piece of “alternate history” and as comics per se.

DeMatteis seems to be garnering a lot of discussion. I have generally really disliked his “personal” material (that which I’ve read). I find it too sentimental and too (as Greg puts it) didactic. I know he wants to get across his spiritual point of view, but in a narrative, that’s best depicted in terms of a spiritual struggle (with interesting visual correlates, since this is comics) into which readers can project themselves. Too often DeMatteis violates the “show, don’t tell” dictum and simply verbally announces the realizations one presumably reaches at the end of such a struggle (which never really ends, anyway – it’s not like people who achieve nirvana typically stay there from then on). Alternatively, he depicts the struggle using symbols that are too obvious (hence didactic) or not universal enough (I seem to recall that the early issues of DeMatteis’s Spectre, before I dropped it, featured some spiritual avatars in Indian/Middle Eastern garb who must have meant a lot to DeMatteis.) In short, DeMatteis comes across in such stories as, if not smug, then somewhat self-centered. YMMV.

For me DeMatteis works better when he’s constrained by genre restrictions and pre-established characters (though see my Spectre comment above). I quite loved DeMatteis’s Captain America run - at least up to the final, Paul Neary-drawn issues, before Mark Gruenwald took over; Mike Zeck’s work on the stories before that was wonderful. My appreciation wasn’t hurt by DeMatteis’s moving Steve Rogers to the neighborhood I grew up in, Brooklyn Heights. Those final issues, or at least the very last, also were hurt by editorial intervention. [A long time ago I met DeMatteis at a convention and he offered to send me his original script for his last issue of Cap – but he eventually sent me a nice, apologetic note saying that he couldn’t find it but telling me I should be on the lookout for his upcoming, more personal work (probably Moonshadow), which he thought was much better.] I don’t think I’d call DeMatteis’s Cap a masterpiece, though, just good comics.

Some writers, however, are better in their more personal, or at least non-mainstream, work. Mike Baron’s work on Nexus, with the stellar artistic (and, I’d guess, story) contribution of Steve Rude, is his best. I think of it as a vast, sprawling, and still incomplete novel. And Bill Messner-Loebs’s Journey is simply one of my favorite comics series of all time, and definitely his masterpiece. It’s not in any sense about Messner-Loebs, but to me it’s “personal” in all the best ways, deeply reflecting the author’s uniqueness – his interests, perspective, and character.

5/01/2006 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

Kingdom Come, Waid's masterpiece? Ross's, sure. That I could buy. But any discussion of Waid and the phrases 'masterpiece' or 'magnum opus' pretty much has to include Flash #53-100. MAYBE through 120 (the end of 'Presidential Race'-IMO Waid's last great Flash story). It was transformative (in a positive way) for the character and the DCU as a whole, in my opinion. And on the preachiness of Preacher, I think what utterly killed the book for me was the angel's ranting about how horrible God must be, to give humans free will out of an arrogant desire to be loved, and thus allow them to do all the terrible things they do. Until that point, the concept of the Christian God as a villain didn't bother me--I thought it was pretty cool. But at that point, it felt like Ennis was taking a shit on the entire concept of the religion and I had been reading an angry screed for several years without noticing. I don't object to a work of fiction having a point of view, but I'm not interested in spending money to be told that anything except that point of view is scornworthy. I still finished the book since by that point I knew there was only one more volume (I bought it in TPBs), but it completely killed the momentum for me.

5/01/2006 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger scott h said...

mike grell, jon sable freelance.

5/02/2006 12:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Weird as it may seem, I think Waid's magnum opus might actually be Impulse. There's a kinetic energy going on there that just makes his other work seem...bored, by comparison. Almost as though getting in touch with his inner futuristic-VR-trained-ADD-speedy teenager was his great catharsis. Food for thought, anyway.

5/02/2006 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

"One of the reasons I didn't consider shorter works (Dark Knight Returns, We3, Flex Mentallo, et al.) is for the same reason, back in the day, that I thought it was easier for someone to write for a title like Solo than for a regular title. I have always believed it's easier to write a four-issue mini-series than a long-running serial."

I gotta ask...

Have you, personally, tried to write both long and short fiction?

Two Reasons I ask:

(1) I'm really interested in the process of making art. So I read a lot of interviews with musicians, visual artists and (relevantly) authors and comic writers.

And I don't remember EVER hearing ANYONE claim that short-form fiction was easier to write than long-form fiction.

And my dabbling experience with both bears this out.

Writing a novel TAKES longer, and you gotta think your work through and really understand your content.

But short fiction, man, you gotta be knife-blade sharp. You. Can't. Fuck. Around. Every single word's gotta mean something and gotta tie back to the thematic core of the piece. Whereas in a novel or a long string of comics you can digress from the narrative arc and write about Shakespeare or Element Girl or Oscare Wilde or Shilo Norman if you want to. You don't have to maintain that laser-like focus on making the story - every letter, every frickin' COMMA - serve, like, three purposes at once; Plot, subtext, and character development.

Also ENDING short stories is a hell of a lot harder. You have to deliver some kind of shock of revelation, but you don't have time for serious build-up.

Actually (And this is just in the realm of personal opinion with no proof, same as you)

I'd argue that the short story writer has to have a better understanding of the craft of narrative than the novelist.

Nah. Maybe that's a little strong.

But on a personal level I'm paying a hell of a lot more attention to the elements of craft when I'm trying to write short stories as opposed to writing longer works.

"I could be wrong, but it seems that if Morrison has an idea like "Animals used as weapons escape," the resulting mini-series pretty much writes itself."

Well, yeah, you could be. Y'know? We're pretty much completely in the realm of total speculation here.

There was definitely a hell of a lot of thought in the way the material was presented... You remember those fight scenes with the weird, sliding panel or the teeny-tine inset panels? I've never seen that particular technique used in a comic before, 'an I'd wager that that kind of innovation doesn't come straight from the script-in-a-day comic writer's id.

But, again, who knows?

5/02/2006 02:09:00 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

grant morrison? the Filth!
eddie campbell? Alec!
warren ellis? Hellblazer!

5/02/2006 06:36:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

Fantastic post, Greg, and not because I picked a lot of the same runs :)

Btw, is this post your magnum opus? :)

I agree with a lot of the comments on some things (Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One are superb, for example) but am amazed at the startling omission by them (and you):


Don't get me started on how underrated this is; it is a masterpiece and a magnum opus and it is still going and it is still great. Respect is due!

5/02/2006 10:02:00 AM  
Anonymous James said...

On the DeMatteis tip - he also wrote Spectacular Spider-Man for a short time, and contributed some outstanding work, which outshone the other three SM titles of the time, easily. The major chord he struck throughout his tenure was envisioning various, well-established Spider-Man villains as complicated people in sometimes desperate situations (most notably, a strong three-part story of the Vulture dying of cancer, and Harry Osborne's struggles with his father's legacy). My only major complaint was that DeMatteis' scripts were sometimes too humorless and arid (although he did acknolwedge this, somewhat, by tossing in a one-issue light comic tale among multi-issue arcs).

If I remember correctly, DeMatteis was scripting SSM at the same time (roughly) as Todd McFarlane's relaunched Spider-Man, with all of the notorious hype for that book. Even as a not-always-discerning kid I thought that McFarlane's writing was pretenious and failed to reach the depth and quality that Matteis' stories had, and there was no (or not much) hype for the latter's Spider-Man work, that I can remember.

5/02/2006 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Mark: All your points are certainly valid about the difference between writing short and long fiction, and personally, I prefer long fiction for the very reasonsyou cite. However, when I write short fiction, I only have to have that one kernel of an idea, and the characters don't have to be as well-developed or the setting as established as in longer fiction. You can get away with a cool idea in short fiction much more easily than in long fiction. I tend not to write genre fiction (sci-fi, horror, that sort of thing), so I like the freedom long fiction gives me, but if you're bent toward that sort of fiction (and it seems many comic book writers are), I would argue it's easier to do short stuff. If you write longer fiction based on, say, science fiction, it allows a lot more time to break down your idea and point out where they're wrong. In short fiction, you're in, you're out, you're done. I do not and cannot have the crazy ideas that a Morrison or an Ellis or any other good comic book writer has, because I'm not wired that way. But I do know that Stephen King, for instance, writes some devastatingly good short fiction (or he used to), while his novels often become ponderous messes.

But that's just me. Like I said, it's easier for me to write novels, and it requires more discipline to write short fiction, but I also know that I can leave a lot hanging in short fiction and get away with it.

I haven't read Usagi Yojimbo. Yes, I know I suck. And I think The Filth fails for the same reason a lot of Morrison fails to reach the heights he is capable of - lack of real emotion. It's basically a series about how much wackiness you can fit in a comic book. Interesting, but I don't think it achieves greatness.

5/02/2006 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff R. said...

It might be interesting to devote a part in this series to failed magna opera. (Big Numbers, Tyrant, Hepcats, to name a few examples.)

Oh, and why the heck isn't "Zot!" in this part, anyhow?

5/02/2006 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger gorjus said...

In a first for me, I'm going to comment before I read all of this post--there's just so much here, and so much that's wonderful.

Briefly, the distinction between Preacher & Hitman is dead-on; the gut-wrenching loss of "our boys" at the end of Hitman puts it in a class all its own.

The Doom Patrol made me believe that comics could be an art form (again, after King Kirby) and Animal Man changed my life. I'm looking forward to reading this excellent post and all its comments tonite (and Greg, you've GOT to read Palomar and Locas!! You'll love 'em!).

Note: my printer just told me that I'm printing out 53 (!!!) pages !!

5/02/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger tomthedog said...

Great post, Greg. I agree with a lot that's in here (including your Peter David Hulk shout-out in part 1 -- although your omission of Todd McFarlane's name as part of David's early success with the title was a little odd)... BUT.

I can understand why, if you haven't read all of Ostrander's GrimJack, you might think The Spectre was his greatest work. However, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, my friend. Possibly you've only been exposed to GrimJack through the recent paperback reprints, but I guarantee, once you get a hold of the entire run, you will change your tune. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. Like David with the Hulk, Ostrander wasn't afraid of shaking up the status quo on this series; sometimes this led to missteps, but sometimes it led to jaw-dropping, mind-blowing greatness. I only wish I lived next door to you so I could loan you the complete run (plus the graphic novel, Demon Knight). Check it out if at all possible, and see if you don't agree.

5/02/2006 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Tom - I started buying the issues a few years ago, but then IDW started with the trades, so I have the first four of those. The fifth was solicited but I haven't seen it yet. The first four GrimJack trades are excellent, as was last year's mini-series, so I'm guessing I'll change my tune once I read the whole thing. Now if only IDW would get those trades out!

I'll read them, Gorjus, I promise. I know Palomar is collected, so that will be easy to pick up.

5/02/2006 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Hensel said...

Locas is collected, too, and $10 more.

5/02/2006 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger timothy said...

Excellent post. From your post:

"sad that I can't think of a single woman to put on this list, although I welcome nominations!"

Just a thought: What about Wendy Pini. Technically, Elfquest was co-written by her and her husband, Richard. But I think he just did dialogue and she did plot and all of the art. Even if you hate elf shit - and i kinda hate elf shit at this point - Elfquest was eight volumes of well written and beautifully drawn comics greatness.

5/03/2006 03:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Have you, personally, tried to write both long and short fiction?

I'm gonna jump in here, because I like being nosy and answering questions that weren't addressed to me, and just mention that there's a difference between something like long-form novels and long-form serials.

With the exception of OGNs, comics pretty much have to be written as a series of short fiction. Sandman may be one long piece, but Gaiman had to write each of the 76 issues as a self-contained 22 pages (or more, for the specials). Even the arcs like "The Kindly Ones" were done in parts. When those of us who talk about comics speak of "self-contained," it is a relative term within the medium, not a literary absolute. Each issue of every comic has to have a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, even those written by Bendis. There are two big reasons for this: 1) a comic that just ends at 22 pages because "Oops! Time's up! To be continued..." probably won't have return readers for issue #2, and 2) the long wait for illustrating a written script and the intricacies of periodical publishing can sabotage, for good or ill, the original intent of a fixed story with the fluid creativity of the writer--in other words, what the writer thought was a final draft at the first approval of issue #1's script, he might decide to change years later before issue #46's publication, perhaps nullifying issue #1 completely (for instance, how Gaiman's early Sandman issues within DCU cosmology don't jive with later issues within his own cosmology, or how Moore changed V for Vendetta over the course of its stuttered publishing). A measure of self-containment allows the writer some wriggle room later on. Novels, however, are fixed once printed and published, therefore a novelist usually takes the time to make damn sure everything is complete and as he wants it.

Probably the most obvious example when comparing within the prose world would be Charles Dickens, who wrote serial shorts for magazine publication that doubled as novel chapters. Or the early genre sci-fi/fantasy writers who split novellas into manageable pieces for Weird Tales. But even these don't exactly compare to comics, because the prose writer has the opportunity to finish a complete piece, then go back and tweak it for easy serialization; collaboration between the creators in comics makes this much more difficult.

Which I guess all boils down to: the writer of a comics magnum opus is a short story writer, just with all the short stories telling the same tale.

5/03/2006 03:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Magnus Opus comments, part 2!

Milligan, Shade, the Changing Man - Milligan's an interesting bloke. In my mind, he's the prototypical Vertigo Brit, melding Morrison and Gaiman with a stronger indie sensibility. The strike against him, however, is that he can't seem to write a mass-appeal story to save his life. Everything he does has an anti-mainstream bent, as though he is so determined to make his own personal mark that he can't help but exclude the uninitiated (except his Detective Comics run, which is sadly under-read). Human Target was perhaps his best shot at gaining a wider audience, but it was only a mini. Don't get me wrong, I think Milligan is awesome, but like Wagner, he has yet to pull a Morrison and use his own style in a conventional genre. Which is all fine and good, I'm happy to enjoy stuff like Enigma, X-Statix, and Dead Girl. I just wish he'd quit wasting his talent with the paint-by-numbers Elektra or X-Men. (Did you see how I sneakily avoided talking about Shade? There's only so much I'm willing to admit I'm ignorant of.)

Ostrander, The Spectre - That place I'm saving for a Dr. Fate trade on my bookshelf would feel a whole lot more redeemed and at-one-with-God with six or seven Spectre trades wreaking vengeance beside it. I have the lone Ostrander Spectre trade, along with five or six issues in the mid-50's, so I can't comment much on the opusness (opiate?) of it, besides to say that Ostrander doesn't get any more awesome than this. Suicide Squad rightfully gets the attention because of its importance to the DCU as a whole (that, and the most pie-in-the-face-iest mystery ever half-baked), but The Spectre is like an angel with the God-given mission to enlighten those of us worthy enough to have wandered into its cathedral (whoa...). And really, why isn't it more popular? Sandman-meets-Sandman Mystery Theatre-meets-Swamp Thing-meets-Preacher-meets-Starman? Maybe if John Ostrander changed his name to Neil Wagmoorennison, or Tom Mandrake became Tina Chicksnatch.

Robinson, Starman - I've tried, really tried, to read all of this. I own all the trades, a few of the uncollected issues (stupid DC), and an issue of The Shade. Yet they sit there, unfinished. It's not like I don't see what Robinson's going for with Jack and Ted and Opal City, or that I don't appreciate the merits. It's just that after about twenty or so issues, I stop caring. I have no idea why. I like Robinson's other stuff (especially his other JSA-related stuff), I dig the modern takes on the Golden Age heroes, I have no problem with Silver Age-y oddness, and I can't pass up a good father/son story. Robinson's The Shade is a revelation. Tony Harris is solid (though I don't think he's as awesome as others do). Yet thrice I've determined to read the whole thing, and thrice I've failed. Anyone else have this problem? I have an idea it gets better as it goes on, yet all I ever hear is that it gets worse.

Busiek, Astro City - I've grown less fond of it as the years have gone by. When it first came out, epecially during the "Confessor" arc, it was the shiznit. It's still great, but the novelty has worn off. I'm more easily drawn to his Marvel work these days. He's sort of like Morrison in that his heart belongs to the Marvel and DC Universes, while the more experimental, explorative side is shunted to creator-owned works as though he's afraid to piss in someone else's oatmeal. Which creates the strange situation of his opus being definitely Astro City (it's got Kurt Busiek's in the title, so it would really suck if it weren't), yet his masterpiece would be Superman: Secret Identity or Marvels.

Ennis, Preacher - Strangely enough, probably the most "normal" work on the list. That's one of the things that make it so great: you can strip away all the Word and vampires and Arseface and penis-headed maniacs and it's still an amazing story of love, friendship, war, Texas, addiction, family, America, John Wayne, and the Saint of Killers (he's real, dammit! I saw him chuggin' a slurpee at the 7-11!). It's all so damn powerful! There may be greater works out there, but only From Hell leaves me as exhausted, and nothing leaves me as emotionally drained. If Hitman is anything close to this, I guess I better drag those trades out of the garage and start crackin'.

One thing that confounds me is how Preacher seems to have faded away a bit since it ended. Of the three major Vertigo works, only Sandman and Watchmen still populate the comic shops and Borders bookshelves. No one really talks about Preacher anymore, not in the same way that the others pop up all the time. And Ennis himself is rarely noticed, as though his War Stories and Punisher weren't even happening. It's almost as though we as a collective community are ashamed of it, which IMO instead we should be lauding it.

I wasn't as big a fan of the Cassidy/Tulip issues as you were, Greg. I think Ennis did such a wonderful job setting Cassidy up as being on the road to redemption that I couldn't get my head around what Cassidy was doing and not doing with Tulip. It makes sense in-character, but it comes so out-of-left-field in the story that it feels almost like a dream sequence. Perhaps that's why the ending didn't seem like a cop-out to me, because I felt Ennis had copped-out on Cassidy/Tulip to set up the emotional Alamo showdown, not the other way around. But you've convinced me that there's another way to read it, just another reason why Preacher deserves to be on this list.

Ellis, Transmetropolitan - In accordance with my earlier pledge to take it easy on Ellis, I'm just going to say that yes Transmet is Ellis's masterpiece based on what I know of it, and no I have not--nor I the desire to--actually read it. I do not doubt that there is artistry within (Ellis does have talent), or even that there is an idea or two that would probably blow me away. But I just can't bring myself to wade through 60 issues of 100% Pure Ellis. But still, GO PLANETARY!

5/03/2006 03:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Last part, Greg, I promise!

Just wanted to add three things about your "undecided" list. First, as I said before, I don't think any of Morrison's works are opus material, because Morrison's writing seems to defy the criteria required for it (which makes sense if Morrison is the dadaist of comics--dada isn't very fond of the "masterpiece" mentality). I actually think we're still waiting for Morrison's greatest work. Or as I said about Busiek, maybe Morrison's feelings for the DCU are so strong that we'll see a split between an Invisibles-type self-created opus and a JLA or All-Star Superman mainstream superhero masterpiece. Second, add me to the list of people who think Alias is Bendis's opus. And third, Bonemay very well be the greatest opus of all, or at least the most opus of the opuses (except, of course, for Opus).

Finally, I want to personally beat your head in with a rusty pomegranate (ah, imagery!) for causing me to spend a total of 7 hours concocting these blithe and self-aggrandizing comments! If it weren't for you, I'd be out having a normal life with the rest of the air-breathing carnivores, not blinding myself before a too-bright monitor and trying to think of excuses for not reading Hitman!

Honestly...wonderful and erudite work, man. You made my blog-week.

5/03/2006 04:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike Loughlin said...

I'll second Jon Sable: Freelance as Grell's magnum opus, and repeat my assertion that Tomb of Dracula is both Marv Wolfman' and Gene Colan's magnum opus. Oh, and Jinx is my choice for Bendis' magnum opus

The graphic novels that have provoked the biggest emotional reaction from me are: Palomar (read it! It's no hype to say that book will change how you view them medium, and the untapped possibilities of graphic storytelling), Kabuki: Metamorphosis (surely David Mack's magnum opus, another book in which the author transcends all previous work and creates a new style all his own), and Craig Thompson's Blankets. The last has been both praised and derided elsewhere; either you get into Thompson's story and characters or you don't.
I loved it unreservedly.

5/03/2006 08:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never posted before and I am by no means a pro at this. But Tim Trumans "Scout" I think is the very definition of an incredibly underrated Writer/Artists opus. Even moreso considering he did the entire thing himself.

5/03/2006 02:20:00 PM  
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