Ranked – Comics

Supergirl: Wings by J. M. DeMatteis (writer), Jamie Tolagson (artist), Ken Lopez (letterer), Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh (colorist); Published by DC Comics, 2001

I never had an interest in Supergirl. In fact, any derivative of Superman was a turn off.  Early versions of Superman were so ridiculously powerful and yet so ridiculously humbled by a green (originally red) rock. So why read an expansion on that theme? Well, let’s be fair. Superman has changed. Science fiction and fantasy writing has often succeeded in creating characters that are not human, yet are equally or even more human (exhibiting the best/worst of human traits) in their actions, thoughts and feelings. Comics have trended this way over the decades and even Superman has become more Watson than the other worldly Sherlock.

But none of that was part of the calculus when selecting this comic. It came down to two things. It was in the preowned dollar bin and it had a really cool cover. The cover let me know that this comic was about more and less. More depth. The angel with a closed form is breaking the fourth wall by staring at me, the reader, with burning hatred and disgust. And yet, she is a creature of light. Counter that with the darkness, the sin, that consumes the vulnerable woman in the background. The commanding devil is also looking our way and if you peer closely, you’ll see the woman in red is too, from the corners of her eyes. Surely this comic would provide more layers of thought on our existence and supernatural forces around us. But I also theorized it was about less. There couldn’t be a lot of punching, kicking, KAPOW!-ing around in this title. So I expected less of the action and snarky comments that became a hallmark of many superhero comics.

Now, this comic is weird. It’s part of the Elseworlds collection in which “heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places.” There is some action and quite a few DC regulars are sprinkled throughout, though not in their typical form. All of that with a deep subtext we are to take seriously seems like a train wreck if not done with exceeding care and love for the work.

When I opened to the first page, I was immediately disappointed. There are nine constricting horizontal panels on this page which force a lot of focus and perseverance to read and piece out what is going on. But I did and it was well worth it. After turning the page, I found a single piece of art that opens over the next two pages. The artwork following the cramped panels, makes for an incredible motion. A spring. You move your eyes down the first page, building tension, finding yourself at the very bottom of the page, only to turn the page and explode upwards into a starry sky.

But that’s only the first three pages. What about the rest? Well, this book is deserving of multiple reads and I’ve only done two, so far. Two was enough to realize the parts I felt were unnecessary on first reading were found to be critical on the second. Whether that’s my own deficiency or the consequence of layered art is unimportant. What is important is that Supergirl: Wings is worthy of diligence. I would enjoy this comic with or without the DC branding. This is not just a DC Comics fan pleaser. It’s a great story with many sometimes subtle, sometimes overt tributes to the DC pantheon. Score: 823

Conan the Barbarian #4 “The Tower of the Elephant!” (1971) is an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933). In the story, Howard strikes a wonderful balance between mystery and excitement in his story. And it’s all here in this comic including the varied deaths of men and beasts. Sal Buscema’s bold ink style works well but issue #4 takes no chances. It’s simply a faithful, though compressed, rendition of a great story, a comic that will feel like a bit more than the 20 pages it encompasses. Score: 669

The Last Heroes is a comic book compilation of issues #1 – 4 of Edge by Steven Grant and Gil Kane. The first three issues were released by Malibu Comics in the mid-1990s. Issue #4 was not released until this compilation in 2004. It’s a gritty, dark story with a slick, bright art style. Steven Grant writes in the Afterword, “Despite the earnest trappings, I always viewed The Last Heroes as a comedy.” Sometimes contradictions like these work but not in this case. There is adequate vision for the project (superheroes originate in a lab but the chance of creating any new superheroes is destroyed) however the execution is lacking. First of all, nearly every superhero has a cosmetic change (hair and/or costume) in a four issue series. Not cool. I am repeatedly confused as to who is doing what. Even in the last panel. Second, in a sea of fantastic super powers, the guy taking out super heroes is doing so by shooting tiny needles from his wrist. He never once uses the laser pistol or short sword that hang at his side. He just uses the needles again and again from the first issue to the last, until someone eventually comes up with a brilliant plan to put on a suit of armor the needles can’t pierce. Lame. Finally, the story simply falls flat even when the art succeeds. The speech given at the end the series is a prime example. Mr. Ultimate looks impassioned with fist clenched, mouth wide and eyes filled with madness, but it doesn’t match his ending words, “We accept nothing short of victory, but true victory requires help. We want the best for everyone. Trust us.” No crescendo. Time to move on. Score: 386