GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "S" PAGE 4

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The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl  2016 (SC TPB) 208 pgs.

coverWritten by Paul Kupperberg. Pencils by Carmine Infantino. Inks by Bob Oksner.
Colours: Tom Ziuko. Letters: various. Editor: Julius Schwartz.

Reprinting: The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #1-12 (1983-1984 - minus back up Lois Lane stories)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

It can be interesting to wonder why certain comics get reprinted and when. Case in point is this recent collection of the first 12 issues of the early 1980s Supergirl comic -- some three decades later. But I suspect part of the impetus was the current well-regarded TV version of the character leading DC editors to look for an appropriate tie-in to release. And Paul Kupperberg's run might have seemed like a decent choice as it features Kara Zor-El/Linda Danvers, Superman's cousin, just like the TV version (whereas for a long time starting in the mid-1980s Supergirl was reinvented with a slightly different origin -- not sure how she stands in continuity today, though). And with just enough of an Old School vibe to match the TV series' slightly family friendly tilt, without being too old fashioned and childish for modern readers.

And, interestingly enough, I think the comic was itself originally greenlit to tie into a live action version -- in that case, the movie starring Helen Slater. (Not that Supergirl hadn't been a more-or-less consistently published property since the early 1970s -- just in a succession of different comics, from Adventure, to her first self-titled series, to Superman Family, and here again in a self-titled monthly).

Anyway...

I'll confess to a certain affection for this series. Part of which, I suppose, might be attributable to the fact that, some years after it was first published, I came upon almost the entire run in nice condition in the cheap boxes of a comic shop (call me shallow, but often my enjoyment of a comic is inversely proportional to how much I paid for it!)

Oh, it's not perhaps great, or a milestone in sequential art, but it's a likeable series -- not the least because Supergirl herself is likeable heroine. She's smart and canny -- not the guileless "girl-child" some revisionist writers have tried to make the Silver Age version out to be in later years, either to make the later version seem more sophisticated in contrast...or simply as a result of sexism (Batgirl, likewise, has often retroactively been dumbed down a bit over the years) -- but Linda's also good-natured and sympathetic.

The comic begins with a suitable jumping on point as it opens with Supergirl moving to Chicago and re-enrolling in University, so the milieu and supporting cast are all newly minted for this run. It may be a bit cloying and cutesy, but Kupperberg has fun settling her into a boarding house and introducing eccentric friends to flesh out her civilian life. While for the high flying action he avoids the crutch (so common today) of simply recycling old foes for grudge matches. Instead he mostly trots out new foes and menaces, quickly introducing a recurring (albeit genric) all-purpose sinister conclave known as The Committee who can pull the strings behind a few different foes. Indeed, Kupperberg only really succumbs to trotting out old characters when he guest stars The "New" Doom Patrol for a couple of issues -- a team he had created (or revised) and clearly wasn't prepared to let drop (it would still be a few more years before DC would eventually let him loose on their own series).

One thing I liked about the series is its sense of place -- Kupperberg's decision to relocate it to Chicago reflecting, I assume, his own interest in the city, its streets and landmarks giving the fantasy-action a sense of grounding in reality. Tossing in a potential love intererest for Linda in a concert conductor also gives the stories a slightly "grown up" feel -- classical musician not necessarily a commonly referenced profession in super hero comics! Though the comic is perhaps dated a bit, reflecting how mores have changed in the last few decades. One of Linda's friends is a lecherous ladykiller who's always making uninvited come-ons to Linda. At the time it was supposed to be amusing -- today we might feel it borders on sexual harassment.

As I say: there's not too much here that's High Art. The plots can feel a bit simplistic, running to protracted fight scenes, and the villains not always given to nuanced motives (often the Committee is at the back of it). Still, there is some effort to indulge in a few bad guys who are a little more complicated than simple black hats, or having quirky plot complications (in one story a friend of Linda's who is moonlighting as a courier is targeted by villains who think he stole their money -- but he simply got distracted by another job and forgot to deliver it). Plus Kupperberg knows that stories with SuperFamily characters often work best if the dilemmas aren't just about hitting bad guys, so there are problems caused by Supergirl hallucinating and thinking people can see through her disguise, or suffering from radiation sickness. Granted, I would argue the most memorable story of this series comes just after the issues collected here -- when Supergirl takes on neo-Nazis -- but anyway...

The entire run is drawn by Carmine Infantino, inked by Bob Oksner, and I'll admit that's perhaps the series' biggest weakness. It isn't that Infantino can't do nice work (I mean, he is one of the defining artists of DC's Silver Age) but he can be uneven, perhaps depending on whether the property interests him, or at least plays to his strengths (especially landscapes and composition). But for the most part there's nothing that exciting about how he presents scenes, and the action scenes can actually be a bit confusing. I'm not a big fan in general (though have liked him) what with his angular, sometimes squat figures, but Infantino benefits from a strong, firm inker -- his pencil work, I assume, often a bit sketchy and rushed, so requiring less an inker than an embellisher (ala his ideal pairing with Murphy Anderson). But Oksner -- a solid penciller in his own right (and who drew the Lois Lane back up strip not reprinted in this collection) -- is maybe too faithful to Infantino's pencils, resulting in a sometimes rough look. (Frankly, I might have preferred Oksner just handle the pencils as well -- Oskner even having drawn Supergirl in the 1970s).

With that said, Infantino tells the scenes well enough, and does offer up a few interesting and moodily composed scenes here and there. Though Infantino's fashion choices for Linda, though certainly seeming as though he put the effort into thinking about her clothes, do make her seem a bit over-dressed for a twentysomething university student (lots of dresses and ruffled collars).

This run of issues doesn't tell a story arc per se -- on-going threads (from character stuff to the Committee ) still dangling. But neither does it end on a cliff hanger, the closing story resolving in these pages. Presumably the plan is, if sales warrant, the rest of the series will be released in subsequent TPBs.

So, as I say: nothing extraordinary, and it could have benefitted from better art (or at least an artist better suited to the character) but equally it's a reasonably fun, engaging era of the Maid of Might. Indeed, this was arguably Supegirl's best -- or at least most tonally consistent -- pre-Crisis series.

This review is based on the original comics.

Cover price: $__ USA.


Supergirl  1998 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

cover by Gary FrankWritten by Peter David. Pencils by Gary Frank (and Terry Dodson). Inks by Cam Smith (and Karl Story)
Colours: Gene D'Angelo, Megan McDowell. Letters: Pat Prentice, Albert DeGuzman. Editor: Chris Duffy, Frank Pittarese.

Reprinting: Supergirl (4th series) #1-9, with covers, plus a 10 page story from Showcase '96 #12 (1996-1997)

Additional notes: : introduction detailing Supergirl's immediate history (cleverly "written" by Supergirl).

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

The first story arc detailing Supergirl's adjustment to living the newly acquired life of Linda Danvers.

This nicely -- and surprisingly -- satisfies the criteria of a graphic novel. It is comprised of a bunch of self-contained one and two-issue stories, but there's an overall story arc and character progression that comes to a head in the final two issues. It can be read both as a collection of independent adventures, and as an interlocked epic.

This chronicles how the (then) incarnation of Supergirl, an artificial being feeling cut-off from humanity, merges her psyche with that of the murdered Linda Danvers, instantly gaining Linda's memories, friends, family. Linda was a troubled girl and Supergirl begins to unravel the unsavory secrets behind her new persona amid various adventures battling otherworldly demons and conventional super villains like Gorilla Grodd (uh, did I really say "conventional"?). Lurking in the background is Buzz, who seems to be involved, in one capacity or another, with much of the deviltry at work in the town of Leesburg.

Writer Peter David is a fan-favourite, and this nudges me closer to his corner. There's clever dialogue, but more restrained than David's been elsewhere where his penchant for one-liners and puns can turn the proceedings into a cloying sitcom. There's wit, yes, but not so much that it undermines the human drama. Though an otherwise dark story involving an otherworldly demon gets a bit tongue-in-cheek when the nature of the demon is revealed. While a sub-plot of Linda's mom trying to set her up on a blind date is meant to cheekily homage the early Spider-Man comics when his aunt was trying to set him up with the (unseen) Mary Jane Watson.

Still, David tells briskly-paced tales, without the thing degenerating into one lengthy brawl after another. After reading a few comics recently where "plot" and "ten page fight scene" were treated as synonymous, this was refreshing. Heck, there's one issue that is entirely about a dinner date -- with tension and menace lurking underneath...and it works.

I'd use the word "intelligent" if that didn't threaten to obscure the fact that this is a fun, entertaining read. I'd say it was fun, but that ignores the attempts at sophisticated discourse, flirtations with big ideas, believable dialogue and subtly handled characterization. Of course, like many modern writers, David's adventure-of-the-month plotting is little more than workman-like. No one story really distinguishes itself as a "story" per se -- the closest being "Trust Fund" (#6) (which, coincidentally, guest stars Superman). And the saga's finale, involving both Supergirl and Buzz facing life-altering decisions, kind of comes out of nowhere, character-wise -- even though Buzz self-reflectively describes their conflict over these nine issues in terms of a literary narrative coming to its denouement.

The art by Gary Frank (inked by Cam Smith) is striking. No manga-styled cartooniness, no Image-influenced distortions, just cleanly rendered figures and emotion-conveying faces, evocative backgrounds, and a nice eye for telling a story through pictures. All nicely coloured by Gene D'Angelo. The opening 10 page story (from Showcase '96) is drawn by Terry Dodson and Karl Story, and is also attractive-looking.

David and Frank re-evoke the original Supergirl, who -- at that point -- had been eliminated from DC's mythos in The Crisis on Infinite Earths. Stripping away some of the then-current Supergirl's abilities (like shape shifting!) while making her the alter-ego of Linda Danvers, she now looks and acts like her predecessor -- which isn't such a strange idea. Despite claims that the original Supergirl was an unsuccessful character, she remained a headliner (in runs of Adventure Comics, Superman Family, and two versions of a self-titled comic) in a largely unbroken run for a decade and a half -- most comics characters dream of that kind of "unsuccessfulness" (and, yes, many years later she was returned to continuity...and this Supegirl benched). What kept her from really emerging as her own character was that every creative team kind of jettisoned what the previous team had done by changing her setting, her supporting cast, her job (kind of like what David does here). But as such, this is particularly appealing for older readers. There's even an overt homage in that, before the original Supergirl was adopted by the Danvers, her name was Linda Lee, and the town in these stories is Leesburg.

Despite some darkness (some stories deal with cults and blood rituals) and grown up ideas, they manage to evoke Kara Zor-El (the original Supergirl) more than, ironically, some modern Superman or Wonder Woman writers evoke those characters' earlier versions...this despite the fact that the modern Superman and Wonder Woman are, technically, much more similar to their earlier interpretations.

Though they have added a peculiar quirk that is probably unique in comicdom...when Linda becomes Supergirl, her breasts get bigger. Oy! (Which may reflect artist Frank's preoccupation, as that line is in an issue on which he receives a co-story credit...and Frank does have a slight tendency toward pulchritude; at one point Linda is having dinner with her old fashioned parents and her date...while wearing clothes that would seem a bit revealing even at a gym!)

David tackles "ideas" and it's bracing. It's not often that you see characters in comics (or movies or TV shows) discuss ideas -- I mean, real ideas, like reaal people do everyday. When characters do try to confront weighty ideas in comics (Kingdom Come, The Watchmen) they often tend to be ideas that relate to the parochial world of superheroes, or cut-and-dried issues ("just say no to drugs", etc.). Here David threads the dicey theme of religion throughout his stories, exploring ideas of faith and the like. But such ambition also becomes frustrating because religion as a theme, as an allegory, is fine. Religion as a narrative crutch is another thing. Early on we can recognize the symbolism of the angelic Supergirl vs. the demonic Buzz, but when David tries to literalize things, it become awkward. As well, David falls back on what can only be described as Divine Intervention in a couple of the stories. That may wow 'em in Sunday school, but it's weak as storytelling where we expect at least a token "logical" explanation.

Theologically, David seems to be of the new breed of religious thinkers. Dissatisfied with oppressive dogma, he's willing to criticize and satirize organized religion (think Kevin Smith's movie "Dogma"), even as he views out-and-out atheism in a negative light. Buzz, the series' villain, advocates atheism in one scene -- David seeming to equate faithlessness with villainy. Though it's easy to be wowed, thinking, "I can't believe characters are having these kind of adult, and controversial, discussions in a mainstream superhero comic," more secular readers (like myself) are still going to find it a bit superficial in spots. Still, as I say, it gives these issues an aura of being more audacious than simply a four-colour dust up, and with its obvious Christian metaphors of fallen angels, and suffering for other's sins, can seem like a more refined, and more thoughtful, version of the superhero-as-religious-allegory theme first broached in the original Warlock stories.

Religion isn't the only two-edged sword. Though this works better than many TPBs in that it can be read cold by inexperienced readers (with a handy text intro acquainting us with Supergirl's recent history) there's a two-part story where the world is plunged into darkness as part of one of those cross-title "events" DC Comics likes to do. But nowhere is that explained! Of course the darkness is just a backdrop to the real story, which has villain Gorilla Grodd arriving in town...but now the reader is faced with a talking gorilla, but given little explanation as to who or what he is!

There are other flaws. As mentioned earlier, the individual issue or two plots, though well-paced to fill the pages, are rarely in themselves that memorable -- enjoyable, just not memorable. And after nine issues...as a series it can still feel as though it's barely establishing itself. I'm not sure if we ever know what Linda does in her civilan life (a job? school?) Supporting characters are introduced...but little is done with them. Mattie is supposed to be her best friend...but they barely hang out. And when it's mentioned that a recurring, light-hearted reporter character knows Linda...you have to struggle to remember in what scenes they interacted!

All of which maybe goes some way to explaining my subsequent reaction to the series. As I say: it's briskly-paced and enjoyable as a kind of "graphic novel", introducing a new direction for the character, a new setting, supporting cast, and builds to a suitable climax after 9 issues. It boast some smart writing, humour, and tackling some unusual themes for a comic (religion), with striking art; fun and ambitious. But as much as I liked it, and remembered it fondly...it actually has taken me probably a decade to drag it down off my shelf for a second reading! And I never really found myself pursuing the series in general, picking up only a few subsequent issues, as well as a much later TPB (reviewed below). Ironically -- I have more comics featuring the original, pre-Crisis Supergirl!

Still, as someone who often harps on the idea of comics -- and TPBs -- that can be read for themselves, there's a great appeal to a collection like this that, in its mix of origin story and adventure, stand alone issues with an overall arc, can sit nicely on your shelf for itself and itself alone. A good read -- what more can you want from your super-folks?

Cover price: $20.95 CDN./$14.95 USA.


Supergirl: Many Happy Returns 2003 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by Ed BenesWritten by Peter David. Pencils by Ed Benes. Inks by Alex Lei.
Colours: Brad Anderson, Digital Chameleon. Letters: Comicraft. Editor: Mike McAvennie, Lysa Hawkins.

Reprinting: Supergirl #75-80 (2002-2003)

Additional notes: intro by Peter David; covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

This review was written mainly in the context of its first publication, when the original Supergirl was still a character of the past, having been written out of continuity -- but subsequently, after an editorial shake up or two, I think the original Supergirl, Kara Zor-El, was returned to continuity.

Decades ago, Supergirl was Superman's cousin. Though now often regarded as an unsuccessful character, she remained pretty prominent for years, featured either in comics like Action, Adventure, Superman Family, or a couple of different versions of her own self-titled comic. When DC re-invented its "universe" with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, they decided to kill her off and, what's more, in order to streamline Superman's mythos, they had it be she never existed in the first place.

And then they created a new Supergirl!

No one quite seemed to know what to do with her as she flitted about as a guest star and appeared in the occasional special or mini-series, until Peter David featured her in her own series, changing her about, establishing her own mythos. The TPB collecting the first few issues of her series I really liked. But though the new Supergirl kept going for years, sales ultimately dwindled, cancelation was threatened -- so David needed a big story gimmick that would woo the readers back. And that idea was to do a story arc bringing back the original, pre-Crisis Supergirl -- Kara Zor-El (yeah, they spend years telling us what an also ran she was -- even David in the introduction to this TPB -- then when they need a sales boost, they bring her back!) Supposedly, sales did improve. Unfortunately (according to David) the DC brass didn't get the numbers in time and ordered the entire series cancelled -- making this the final story arc.

The saga begins with the modern Supetgirl returning to Leesburg after spending months on the road, apparently getting involved in all sorts of cosmic weirdness, and undergoing some sort of transformation. Her homecoming is interrupted by a rocket ship crashing, out of which springs a perky teenage girl in Superman-inspired costume (the modern Supergirl had long since switched over to a white, bare-midriff affair). This girl claims she's Superman's cousin. (To avoid confusion, hencefourth the modern Supergirl we'll call Linda, the other one we'll call Kara). Linda is a bit suspicious of Kara, but also becomes kind of fond of her guileless innocence, and her goofy, comicbooky understanding of things like physics.

Eventually some of the truth comes out. Kara is who she says, but she shouldn't be in this time or dimension, and her presence threatens the universe since she is fated to die in her own reality in the aforementioned Crisis on Infinite Earths -- so says the modern Spectre (who guest stars occasionally). There's also a villain who's intent on killing Supergirls throughout the dimensions, and cameoes by Superman, and more.

And at the end of the day, it's all moderately diverting...but not much more. To be fair, David was faced with imminent cancellation and based on some of the ideas he speculates about in his introduction, the finished story may not have been what he had originally intended to write. But it can kind of veer about with ideas thrown in, but not fully integrated, or gelling into "plots" -- like a recurring adversary who even the characters define as simply a diversion. Or at one point Supergirl confronts a villain, demanding to know the point of "this exercise in futility" and "emotional manipulation". All of which is ironic given a recurring subtext is contrasting goofy, simple Silver Age comics with supposedly the smart, sophisticated plotting of modern writers...like David.

The ending is surprisingly downbeat, for both Supergirls, and unsatisfying. David's penchant for humour and silliness doesn't really seem to lay the groundwork for the conclusion, and it's unclear how and why some of the things that happen, do. Perhaps David's bitterness over having his series cancelled infused his writing, but it seemed a poor way to treat his longtime fans. I'm being vague, I realize, but I don't want to give away too much. And when I say "downbeat", I'm not just talking about the fate of Kara (DC had done stories before teasing fan expectations by "re-introducing" a beloved classic character, only to then tweak the fans' noses by having it be a con, or killing off the character again, or something). But Linda, too, seems oddly treated in the end. No, she doesn't die or anything, it's more a psychological thing.

Some of the basic conceits to the story are iffy. David wanted to have fun contrasting the old fashioned innocence of Kara with the modern wordliness of Linda, not just as people, but literally as representatives of comicbook eras. I'll confess, I've never been that big on the obsessive trend of a lot of modern comicbook writers for wanting to "deal" with the medium itself. It just seems too self-reflective to me (imagine if TV's "Law & Order" was constantly taking digs at "Dragnet"). After the umpteenth gag here, you want to say: "Okay, Peter, we get it -- old comics could be implausible." Besides, it's a kind of debatable conceit. Yes, early comics tended to be silly and goofy -- but more so than modern comics? It seems you can't turn around without encountering a serial killer in modern comics (like this story arc's villain who's killing multi-dimensional Supergirls) but serial killers really aren't that prevalent in the real world -- nor, um, multi-dimensions. The pre-Crisis Supergirl confronted robbers, street gangs and neo-Nazis (just to selectively choose a few) while the modern Supergirl has, apparently, just come off an epic story arc where she battled demons, dealt with a "chaos stream", somehow separated into different entities... Uh, sorry -- which was the more "realistic" reality again?

Of course, given David's Supergirl series was deliberately rife with religious subtext and metaphor (reiterated here with The Spectre as the Hand of God) perhaps he takes that demon and chaos stuff seriously and wouldn't see any anaology to Silver Age pseudo-science.

I may be being unfair. David maybe intends it as contrasting the goofy, unrealistic, Silver Age, with the gritty, but equally unrealistic, modern age -- a contrast of styles, more than an asssigning of values. Indeed, in his introduction he almost makes it seem as though he longs for those halcyon days -- but then why make the main story, ultimately, emotionally dark?

And in order to make his point, his Kara seems a lot more innocent, a lot more childish, a lot dimmer, than I ever recall Kara being. In other words, David kind of has to reinvent the character to justify his thesis. And Linda seems a lot more juvenile than I remembered her being in the first TPB, speaking in the hip patois of "so, like, way cool, man." I just didn't get that much sense of the contrast of her maturity with Kara's immaturity.

There are some cute and imaginative scenes, particularly when Linda starts living a life on an alternate earth (the "pink kryptonite" gag is funny, though maybe out of place). The book does have David's usual quips and one- liners -- some which work, some which don't. One can infer the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Linda as Buffy, Kara as Dawn, and menacing villains who make wry quips. But I just didn't think it worked as well as Buffy. One also can speculate about the classic Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever", which David has gone on record as really digging...and this story arc borrows a similar idea of a character faced with the dilemma whereby an innocent must be sacrificed to save the universe.

I really enjoyed Ed Benes' art on Birds of Prey, though this, slightly earlier work, maybe shows a little less control, with the early issues inparticular a little too busy with background detail, where the key elements of the scene aren't necessarily brought out fully. But it improves over the run (or else I just got used to it). His style is vaguely manga-influenced, with lots of big eyed women that, I'll admit, is a bit cartoony and robs some of the realism necessary to involving us emotionally. But Benes' real talent is for Good Girl Art -- drawing sexy gals in tight clothes and cut-off shorts. Whooo-oooh! I've got nothing against that, in the right context in the right series. Buuuuut...is Supergirl the place for it? Particularly when David's script is supposed to be emphasizing Kara, in particular, as a naive innocent, and Benes is drawing her all long legs, tight bottom, and perky breasts? In one scene Linda's friend Mattie is hosting a table during the high school "career day" expo while wearing a see-thru top over a black bra...I suspect the teachers would take a dim view of that apparel! And Benes is one of those artists with very limited character types -- all the women basically look the same, with the same measurements.

It reminded me a bit of Supreme: The Story of the Year, where a writer's nostalgic script clashed with the very modern art styles of his artist.

I really liked the first Supergirl TPB but, since I didn't really follow the comic regularly, I guess I'm guilty of being partly responsible for the low sales that led to the series' cancellation. But maybe David has to accept some of the responsibility, too. As I say: I liked the original TPB for itself...but it never really fired my enthusiasm to pursue the series itself. I picked up the occasional later issue, including a three parter (#27-29) in which Supergirl battles minions of Apocalypse -- it was a briskly paced romp, with some clever action and cute quips...but as a story kind of seemed a bit vague, as it was clearly drawing upon things from previous issues and didn't resolve much in terms of the characters, presumably to leave it open for a later story. And I say that as a guy generally familiar with Apocalypse and the Female Furies! Now, this is true of a lot of modern comics, so it's not David's fault alone, but if the series was having trouble winning readers, maybe it's because he wrote too many stories that didn't really satisfy...as stories!

This is certainly an O.K. page turner, but as a return of Kara Zor-El, and as a close to the modern Supergirl series, it's a bit disappointing.

And, funnily, I still tend to feel a greater emotional connection to old Supergirl stories -- a greater sense of her being a person. Maybe it's because there was a greater grounding in those old stories, a greater sense of her being a real person in a real world, rather than dealing with Chaos Streams and Hands of God.

(Of course, a couple of years later they returned Kara full time -- I think. And she's now starring in the current run of Supergirl comics.)

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.95 USA


Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 2009 (SC TPB) 192 pages

coverWriters/artists: various. Edited by Greg Sadowski.

Reprinting: various Golden Age stories.

Additional notes: intro by Jonathan Lethen; afterward detaling the creators and publishing history; covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Fantagraphics Books

Comic book history is littered with the colourfully garbed bodies of heroes who arose in the medium's various boom and bust cycles, maybe even attaining temporary stardom, but nonetheless have fallen into obscurity for all but aficianados and nostalgists. Every now and then, though, publishers come along and shine a little light on these forgotten heroes and their creators. The latest example is Supermen! from Fantagraphics Books which assembles old comic book stories from the first wave, when it seemed like every publisher -- and would be publisher -- was leaping into the new art form of comic books, offering up an array of masked heroes and adventurers to their public.

(Part of the impetus for this collection may have been recent comic book series like Dynamite's Project Superpowers and Marvel's The Twelve, which both resurrected obscure 1940s heroes for modern adventures.)

The obstacle to previous types of these collections has often been the copyright restrictions, making it hard to present an assemblage that includes anything but also rans. Not only do Marvel and DC retain the rights to their old characters, but DC inparticular has, over the years, bought up the rights to various other publishers' heroes. Nonetheless, Supermen! does manage to mix in a few less obscure characters like The Flame, the original Daredevil, the Comet, as well as characters that might be familiar now simply because of the Project Superpowers resurrection (The Face) with others that are pretty obscure, including a few spaceman adventure strips that owe more to Buck Rogers than to Superman. Likewise, the creators included remain well known names (even if this marks their early work), with Simon & Kirby, Jack Cole, Bill Everett, Will Eisner, Gardner Fox, Bill Wolverton, Lou Fine and others all on display.

But this remains a mixed effort.

When I was a kid, a local library contained a book about the Golden Age of comics that was a mixture of non-fiction commentary, and reproduced stories (covering everyone, including Marvel, DC, Fawcett, etc.). Although some stories were reprinted in their entirety, often the writer synopsized old tales, punctuated with a few panels lifted from the story. The result was that a lot could be crammed in (a picture isn't always worth a thousand words) and the synopsizing of the old stories probably made them sound better than they were. As an adult I've never managed to track down that book, or even recall what it was called (books I thought might be it, turned out not to be) and, sure, it might not be half as good as I remembered. But as such, you can understand why a guy like me born in the late 1960s, nonetheless, feels nostalgic affection for 1940s comic book heroes.

But the truth is, a lot of these comics aren't very good, though the art is often quite attractive. Simple by today's standards, there's a clean, classical elegance to the art of people like Lou Fine, Fred Guardineer, Michael Blake and others, a stylistic panache to Bill Wolverton, an energetic verve to Jack Cole and Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby...well, even back then, Kirby had an energy and dynamism, and a more expressive use of panels, that was setting him on the road to being dubbed the "king" of comics (in fact, though you can see echoes of his later style, it's also somewhat different).

It's in the writing the weakness are most pronounced. As a new art form, aimed primarily at kids, and with stories often only six or eight pages, and with creators churning them out for little pay and often between day jobs, the stories aren't just thin without deep characterization...they often aren't even logical, the exposition just there to bridge the action scenes rather than to tell a coherent story. What's funny is that they remind me of the sort of stories I wrote and drew as a kid (and I don't mean that in a good way)!

And I'm not sure I can entirely blame the period, as I've read other comics from this time which boasted slightly more coherent stories, and even witty dialogue.

Some of the better pieces are toward the end of the book (the stories presented chronologically), which maybe reflects the evolution of comics, and the creators now in command of their new medium. The best is Jack Cole's "The Claw Battles Daredevil" which pits the original Daredevil against the giant, monstrous Claw (an attempt by the publisher to create a series around a villain). And maybe because it's the longest piece here (16 pages) actually boasts some build up to the story, with "domestic" scenes of Bart Hill (Daredevil) out of costume, even uttering a few philosophical musings. Sure the action is only vaguely logical, but nonetheless it tells a fast paced adventure, helped by Cole's sense of wit and humour...even peppering it with a few pop cultural references. (And Cole's earlier Comet story is also among one of the more memorable -- the Comet fired lethal eye beams from a visor and may well have served as a visual inspiration for the X-Men's Cyclops).

What's most disappointing about this collection (when contrasted with that long ago volume I got from the library) is the lack of editorializing context. There is some, but most of the text material is devoted to the creators, the publishing history. All well and good and interesting. But it doesn't place the stories or the characters in any context. This is particularly awkward because, despite being billed as containing "twenty full-length stories", a few of the reprinted pieces are merely episodes in a serialized story arc, so it would've been nice to include more of a "what went before/after" introduction.

And even with the behind-the-scenes comments, there isn't much effort given to placing these figures in their creative milieus. For instance with Marvelo, The Monarch of Magicians, the text piece alludes to DC's Zatara...but doesn't point out how they were both obviously inspired by the newspaper strip, Mandrake the Magician. Nor is there any mention of just where the hero Silver Streak fits in to the pantheon of 1940s speedster heroes like The Flash and the Whizzer.

Obviously a collection like this is hobbled by the lingering copyright restrictions, but still, within the context of that, and their specific time frame, it does a credible job of sprinkling some "names" among the curios. But without some better text pieces explaining the characters and their adventures, the stories are left to stand on their own...and other than as a nostalgic glimpse at long ago, few really hold up that well. The book bills itself as covering 1936-1941 -- which might mean they were thinking of releasing later volumes which, given my suggesting the stories are better toward the end of this book, might mean a collection covering, say, 1941-1946 would be even better.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.99 USA


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