Saturday, April 22, 2006

Patchwork Friday

Busy this week, but mostly with boring things that are not really column-type fodder. What that boils down to is that I haven't actually got a column this time out. What I have are a bunch of scattershot notes that I jotted down over the course of the week on things like the original Outsiders, best superhero-based prose novels, possibilities for Marvel Essentials, stuff like that; and I meant to develop at least one of them more fully, but somehow I never quite got round to it. So here they all are anyway, in the hopes that if I stitch all these column-start, first-thoughts fragments together the result will at least end up as a sort of column for you.


My wife is not nearly the comics fan I am, though she is more of one than she lets on (Julie has a real soft spot for the FF, for one thing, and she always drops whatever she might be doing to watch Justice League with me, for another) but what she loves are bargains. My bride is relentlessly, monomaniacally, thrifty.

Where this comes out in relation to comics is the quarter bins. Julie ADORES quarter bins. She will spend hours at a convention going through the most disorganized flea-market dealer's boxes of crap, systematically and thoroughly, just on the off chance there might be something good in one of those longboxes full of dusty old junk books. The thing that is so endearing about this is that it's almost never for herself. She asks me what it is I happen to be looking for at the moment. Or she extrapolates based on recent eBay purchases.

Well, we just did a convention, so Julie spent a lot of time doing her patented quarter-bin dumpster-dive. She knows I am very fond of the old Jim Aparo Batman stuff, and as a result one of her recent dives into the bargain box netted us essentially a pretty damn complete run of the first couple-three versions of The Outsiders... the original one by Barr and Aparo, that is, with Batman and Black Lightning and Halo and Katana and Metamorpho and Geo-Force and Looker; and then the 90's one nobody remembers, also by Mike Barr, this time with Paul Pelletier on the art chores.

The original run, the one that started as Batman and the Outsiders and then morphed into just The Outsiders, was kind of a fun book. I didn't really pay attention to it while it was running -- at the time, it annoyed me too much that Batman wasn't in the Justice League any more so he could head up this group of also-rans, especially since they'd canceled The Brave and the Bold to make room for the book.

Now, in fairness, it WAS a pretty nakedly greedy grab for the then-booming soap-opera team-book market turf opened up by X-Men and the New Teen Titans. The reason for the Outsiders' existence always felt kind of contrived and trumped-up out of nowhere, and the lineup really didn't make a lot of sense. I mean, I could see Batman recruiting a guy like Black Lightning, but... Metamorpho?

But if you ignore that, it was a pretty fair old-school superhero adventure book. I'd always liked Mike Barr's version of Batman, and it was nice to see him get to flex his creative muscles a little bit on a regular book. And of course there was Jim Aparo and then later, Alan Davis. Fun stuff, and it ran about forty-some issues in all.

Barr's second run at it? Not so much.

Honestly, these read more like Mike Barr trying to do what he thinks is popular in the 90's than anything else. It's almost a parody of grim 'n' gritty. Endless fights, plots that meander and then get forgotten, characters getting angry with each other for no reason, variant covers... the whole thing has the stink of desperation about it. Bringing in the Eradicator as the anchor character.... well, he's no Batman. Or Black Lightning. Or even a Metamorpho. At a quarter each it was a ripoff. These are on the very short list of comics I have purchased in my lifetime that I did not bother to finish. Ugh. Bad, bad, bad. This run makes the Judd Winick Outsiders look like Watchmen. Finally after 24 issues it was canceled. Or perhaps a better term would be euthanized. Certainly it was a mercy killing.

But you can find the first run, the good one with Barr/Aparo and Barr/Davis, cheap, and it's worth doing, I think. I spent another $5 on eBay and knocked off the few that Julie didn't scrounge for me, and those have been solid, Saturday-matinee-style entertainment. Forty books or so for a total outlay of about twelve bucks. I don't know that it's worth MORE than that, but for twelve bucks, I think we did all right. Just be sure to avoid version 2.0.


Brian mentioned my reminiscing about the 70's Marvel prose novels in his latest Urban Legends entry. I do have a soft spot for superheroes in prose, always have. I think it may be the flip side of the same old-wine-from-new-bottles vibe you get seeing your favorite comic being turned into a movie. It feels more immediate and real, at least to me, reading prose versions of these familiar characters and doing the visualizing myself, because my mind's eye doesn't see their comic-book, cartoony versions, it visualizes them as real people -- but moving with the perfect, balletic grace that comics artists draw. Sort of the best of both worlds.

Some of the best superhero stories were original to prose, with no comics antecedents at all. My favorites of these were the Weird Heroes series by the late Byron Preiss; a lot of comics people worked on them, including Steve Englehart, Alex Nino, Steranko, Ralph Reese, Marv Wolfman, and others.

The first one was recently reprinted and it is highly recommended, especially "Stalker" by Archie Goodwin. That story was worth the price of admission all by itself. I'm hoping it did well enough that they'll reprint Volume Two as well; in that one the showstopper was "SPV 166" by Elliott Maggin.

Speaking of Elliott Maggin, he wrote what I think is the single best superhero novel ever published: the Superman story Miracle Monday, which, as luck would have it, is available online here. Everyone that talks about "updating" Silver Age tropes for modern readers really should check this book out. It's a textbook example of how to do it right, and just plain great fun. And you could check out the second-best one, too -- Maggin's Last Son of Krypton. Actually you should read Last Son of Krypton first, now that I think about it, because Miracle Monday builds on ideas established there. But you should read them in any case, if you haven't already.


I've added a couple more Essentials to the library -- in addition to Moon Knight, there's now Essential Godzilla and Essential Nova. Since the bigger-name Marvel Essential volumes like Avengers and Daredevil are hitting the 70's-era runs as well, I am one happy geek. I noticed the other day that the Essentials I have on the bookshelf cover very nearly everything I was buying from Marvel in the 70's -- Killraven, Dr. Strange, Defenders, Power Man, Tomb of Dracula, Howard the Duck, Iron Fist. With two exceptions: Man-Thing and Captain Marvel, meaning Mar-Vell. So what's up with that, Marvel reprint people? I mean, if Nova rates an Essential, for crying out loud, Man-Thing certainly does. And I would really love to see the Starlin and Englehart runs on Mar-Vell again, because God knows they're damn near impossible to find from back-issue dealers.

Also, I was delighted to see Godzilla, a LICENSED property, get an Essential. Good on you, Marvel, for shelling out. Now let's get to the Essential John Carter, Warlord of Mars, okay? I bet you could work it out with the Dark Horse and Burroughs people. C'mon, I'm begging here.


There you have it. Three different sort of half-formed ideas for columns, none of them really finished out. Hopefully next week I'll have a real one for you and not the patchwork shambling mockery of a column this one was. See you then.

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Anonymous Steve Roman said...

Hey, Greg,

Unfortunately, odds are good you'll never see a second WEIRD HEROES reprint volume. Following Byron's death last year, both ibooks, inc. (his publishing division, which released that WH reprint) and Byron Preiss Visual Publications (his book packaging company) declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy this past February.

That means the company assets will be auctioned off at some point. WH would only see a revival if a new publisher bought the rights to the series--and considering how low sales were on the reprint (about 2500 copies), it's kinda doubtful.

How do I know all this? I was ibooks' Editor-in-Chief. As Starhawk in Guardians of the Galaxy used to say, "Take the word of One Who Knows." ;-)

4/22/2006 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

That's a damn shame, Steve.

As it happens, I already have all my Weird Heroes books from the first time around; a couple of the Fiction Illustrateds from that time as well. I just think MORE people should see those books, they were great. Two of your 2500 were bought by me and given as gifts.

I should have made note of this in the piece, but I was very sorry to hear of Mr. Preiss' passing. I didn't know him or anything, but I admired him. Lots of people bloviate about making comics better. Preiss spent decades actually DOING it, making projects happen that (I suspect) probably were never big box-office hits but were projects that broke new ground and struck a blow for comics-as-art. He never got the credit he should have for inventing the idea that hell, yes, you COULD sell comics paperback originals in bookstores, and remember this was back when all B. Dalton would carry were a couple of Peanuts Treasuries on the "Humor" shelf -- and Preiss didn't just talk about it to other fans, he went out and made it happen. He was a pioneer. We owed him a lot and I hope somebody expressed that to him while he was here.

4/22/2006 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger RAB said...

Let me second the glowing mention of "SPV 166" by Elliott Maggin -- three genius female ex-convicts recruited by the police to fight crime and travel around in their own private subway car, written in what Maggin calls a "gonzo" style inspired by Hunter S. Thompson that fits snugly in some weird juncture between prose, a comics script, and a movie screenplay. I reread this story every so often just to marvel at the writing and try to learn from it.

That second volume of Weird Heroes also had an adventure of Cordwainer Bird by Harlan Ellison, Doc Phoenix by Ted White (a cross between Doc Savage and the Sandman, the hero of which is a psychologist-pulp hero who enters people's dreams), and Viva by Steve Englehart (described as "hooker turned jungle queen" -- a perfect marriage for Englehart). This book was a huge deal to me, and it'd be wonderful if someone could figure out how to get it back into print.

For me, the standout in the first volume was "Guts - The Cosmic Greaser" by Preiss himself. This was an amazingly warm and human story Israeli time-traveller from the future who's been prepared for a trip to the 1950s, only to find himself unexpectedly in the 1970s, clinging to his anachronistic persona while trying to prevent a nuclear disaster in New York City. On the basis of this story alone, Preiss had stellar promise as a writer himself and it's a shame that promise never got fulfilled.

While I'm seconding things said above, those Maggin Superman novels totally rock. Maggin brought some of the ideas he introduced in them back to the comics -- especially the idea of Luthor as someone tragically misunderstood who ought to have been a great hero, had it not been for Kal-El meddling with his karma -- but the comics versions were watered down and insipid compared to the prose versions. A rare example of Superman being done better in another medium than he was in the comics!

4/22/2006 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Oooooh....I'm Greg Hatcher, I know how to do the 'Read More' thing on my own!"

Hehe...good column, Greg.

4/22/2006 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Put me down as another fan of the Maggin Superman novels. There was something weird and cool about his Superman that never quite came through in anyone else's take on him, and in a perfect world all of his stuff would be in trade collections and he would have written another dozen Superman novels.

4/22/2006 05:34:00 PM  
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