On Things I’ve Been Reading

I have a stack of comics, some read, some not. Here are three that caught my attention the past few weeks.

Marvel Comics
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Cliff & Terese Nielsen

Fans of Star Trek fiction may recognize the artist for Ruins; yes, years before he did the Deep Space Nine novel covers, Cliff Nielsen did some comics work. Specifically, the dark reflection of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s MarvelsRuins.

During the comic explosion of the 90’s, Marvel Comics mostly passed me by. I’d pick up Marvel titles here and there — a particular favorite was the cyberpunk Ghost Rider 2099, actually — but the main franchises, like Spider-Man, the Avengers, and several others just didn’t appeal to me.

When Marvels came out, I was intrigued. A spectator’s view on the Marvel Universe. I bought all four issues, marveled at the artwork, and came to a realization. It never made sense to me that the citizenry of the Marvel Universe would fear the costumed heroes among them. Why the Spider-Man hatred? Can’t the public see that mutants are trying to save them? That never really clicked for me. But with Phil Sheldon, the protagonist of Marvels at the helm, I understood. The costumed heroes did scary, inscrutable things that fell outside the norms of human behavior and understanding. The shock felt by the public of Gwen Stacy’s death made sense, for instance.

To be honest, I preferred Marvels‘ spiritual successors, Kingdom Come and Astro City to Marvels. The former, Kingdom Come, because it was a more traditional superhero story (and, thinking about the fate of Captain Marvel now makes me sad). The latter, Astro City, because it was a whole new universe that Busiek could do anything with.

However, those (and the currently publishing Marvels: Eye of the Camera) weren’t Marvels‘ only successors. A few years later, in 1995, Marvel Comics followed it with a 2-issue series, Ruins, written by Warren Ellis.

To be honest, at the time, I did not much care for Ruins. The painted artwork was harsh, even incoherent. (And I won’t mention the final few pages of Ruins, where there’s a fill-in artist whose style completely clashes.) And while there was a story — Phil Sheldon tries to figure out where the Age of Marvels went wrong — didn’t resonnate with me. Basically, all the things that created the heroes of the Marvel Universe went wrong in the Ruins-verse, the things that gave the heroes powers instead mutated them horribly and killed them. And in the end… nothing. There’s no great revelation. There’s just… nothing.

Time passes.

Marvel Comics recently collected the 2-issue Ruins into a single volume. I was expecting something trade paperback-like. It’s not. It’s exactly like any other floppy on the racks, just thicker.

And reading it now, my perspective is completely different.

Partly, it’s that I’m a different person. Life experiences, a better grasp of the nature of narrative, even a better understanding of the Marvel Universe, all led me to some different conclusions.

The ending is not nothing. It’s darkly ironic. What I didn’t realize a decade ago is that Ruins, for all its bleakness, is actually a funny story, in a gallows humor sort of way. Phil Sheldon is a dying man; several people note this throughout the story. But he’s dying of the normal things. What finally kills him is the very thing he spends the issue hunting. There’s a fine line between heroic saviors and monstrous devils, and Ellis shows us a world that tipped toward the monstrous.

There are some fascinating touches to Ruins. I like the idea of a wrecked Galactus orbiting Mars like a third moon. There are stories about this world that could be told.

And, years later, Warren Ellis would.

See, here’s the secret. Ruins is like a rough draft of his Wildstorm series, Planetary. Much as Joss Whedon recycled his ideas from Alien Resurrection and created Firefly, Ellis took the idea of a man in search of answers to the question of superpowers, of Marvels, and turned that into Elijah Snow and the Planetary team.

The dystopian elements of Ruins may have turned audiences away a decade ago. At the time, it was a bit of a curiosity, as I recall; today this might warrant a 22-page What If? story at best, and Marvel never went wild for longer, Elseworlds-style epics. (Even something like Neil Gaiman’s 1602 was supposed to “fit.”)

In a way, it still is a curiosity, interesting more for its role in Ellis’ body of work and as a comparison to Cliff Nielsen’s later photomanip book covers than for a story on its own terms.

Amazing Spider-Man #583
Marvel Comics
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Barry Kitson

This is the infamous “Spidey Meets Barack Obama” issue, which I think is on something like its fourth or fifth printing. And like a lot of people, I bought it solely for that reason, to see Spider-Man meeting the new President.

Ironic, then, that I’ve yet to read the 5-page back-up story in which Spidey saves the Inauguration. 😆

The main story is about Betty Brant, a friend of Peter Parker’s. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea who Betty Brant is, but I see from Wikipedia that she is one of Peter’s oldest friends and they were romantically linked at one time.

In the course of the story, she and Peter hang out together in New York. She takes him speed dating. They visit with Aunt May. She tries to fix Peter up with a friend of hers, only Peter (because he’s Spider-Man) misses the “date,” and Peter later has to sober Betty up. Finally, it’s Betty’s birthday, and the party that Peter tried to organize for her…

Well, that would be giving things away.

It’s a one-and-done, a style of comics that seems to have gone out of style these days. And it was very well done. I loved the focus on Betty; she was a compelling narrator. (Of course, you have to wonder just how clueless Peter’s friends are that they don’t wonder what the guy is doing all the time.) And it certainly didn’t hurt that Barry Kitson drew her to look like a young Lis Sladen.

Even if you have no interest in Barack Obama meeting Spider-Man, the main story was a pleasant enough read. Fun stuff. 🙂

Robin #182
DC Comics
Written by Fabian Nicieza
Art by Freddie Williams III

The penultimate issue of Robin!

I remember, back in the dim mists of 1994, when Robin debuted as an ongoing series. So obvious, so overdue.

For the past five or six issues, Robin has been set post-Batman R.I.P. In that storyline, a criminal organization called the Black Glove broke Batman’s mind. At the end, Batman regained his sanity (through the coolest plan Batman ever came up with — create a back-up Batman personality) and confronted the head of the Black Glove, the mysterious Dr. Hurt. Was he just a criminal mastermind? Was he actually Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s long-deceased father? Was he the Devil incarnate? Who the fuck knows? (One thing with reading Grant Morrison; sometimes you have to wonder what drugs the man is on.)

For several months in Robin, readers knew roughly part of the outcome of Batman R.I.P., that in the aftermath, Batman would be gone from Gotham City. (Recent issues of Final Crisis show where Batman went.) With Batman gone, the third Robin, Tim Drake, has picked up the slack.

And in Gotham City, things have gone to hell. There’s a gang war. There’s an unstable element, a kid once known as The General, who has since adopted the identity of Anarky, one of Batman’s foes. And Tim is finding out how far he must go to restore order to a Gotham City that threatens to break apart.

As a storyline, “Search for a Hero” has been generally enjoyable. Fabian Nicieza’s Robin has been caustic and sarcastic, due to events spiralling out of his control. With Batman out of the picture, he’s been forced to gain allies where he can, while he’s also pushed those who might otherwise have been allies out of his way. Matters come to a head in Robin #182 as Robin has his final confrontation with Anarky and he sorts out the wreckage in Gotham.

In some ways, the story ends on an upbeat note, though it’s hard going getting there. Jason Todd, the second Robin, gets a second chance from Tim, while Stephanie Brown, the fourth Robin, elicits little sympathy from him. (Which prompted me to wonder — why must Tim be such a dick to his ex-girlfriend; she was only doing what Batman had told her to do, though it did have similar results to War Games.)

I’ll be sorry to see Robin depart next month; I enjoyed reading the series when it debuted (and stayed with it for about five years), and I started up with it again about a year ago due to Chuck Dixon’s return to the title (though that proved short-lived). Hopefully something will emerge from the wreckage of Batman: Battle for the Cowl.

Maybe I could pitch Dan Didio on my idea of a Jason Todd/Stephanie Brown book… 🙂

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

3 thoughts on “On Things I’ve Been Reading

  1. Would the fill-in artist be Terese Neilsen, or was the buik of the book them working together? Because yeah, her style would completely clash with what I’ve seen of Cliff’s behind the Photoshop filters.

  2. No, the fill-in artist was Chris Moeller, who does the final seventeen pages. There’s one panel of Reed Richards where I wonder if Moeller had any idea how the human face is put together.

    I don’t know how the artwork chores between the Nielsens worked, as they’re co-credited on the two issues, with Moeller also credited on the second issue. I wonder if Cliff did the rough prototyping, and then Terese painted on top of that.

  3. Oh, the thing with Moeller’s art. The Nielsens do fully-painted artwork that’s very Duncan Fegredo-like. (It reminds me of his work on Kid Eternity.) But Moeller’s artwork is simply pencil and ink. It’s a complete clash of styles.

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