This gallery contains 21 photos.
Did it! Also — Made It! Got It! and … you get the idea
I’ve made few pains to hide my biases here at Longbox Graveyard. Readers who have stuck with me for the last hundred-odd weeks won’t be surprised when I say I favor the Silver and Bronze Age of comics to contemporary books, or that I prefer four-color superheroes to the grim vigilantes of the current age. I am stuck in the past, and happily so.
There are exceptions. One of my earliest reviews at Longbox Graveyard — and one of my highest grades — went to Ed Brubaker’s 2004-12 run on Captain America. I gave high marks to The Walking Dead and have favorably reviewed digital initiatives like Condito Comics’ Operation Ajax, or DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight. I named Saga my best book of the year for 2012. In my “Few 52″ Podcast last I even admitted affection for DC’s controversial reboot of their superhero line. My reading isn’t entirely confined to comics of the past.
Spend any time reading contemporary comics and you’re going to encounter Brian Michael Bendis. After starting his career at Caliber and Image Comics, Bendis has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s Ultimate line, and becoming a mainstay on Marvel event books and Avengers titles. But it was Bendis’ lengthy run on Daredevil that first got my attention, and really got me to thinking about comics as a storytelling form.
Alex Maleev’s Daredevil does a mean Buscema Slouch!
Starting in 2001, and working primarily with artist Alex Maleev, Bendis crafted a spectacular fifty-odd issue Daredevil run that ranks among the best for a character that has seen signature work from some of the field’s top talents. Bendis’ take is grim, realistic, and street-level. With his identity revealed, Matt Murdoch is pressed to the breaking point and beyond, crossing the line from vigilante to criminal in his fight for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a sophisticated and emotionally-mature work that offers an in-depth look at identity and ethics through the lens of a comic book. It is less about costumes than it is a gritty crime drama that would be perfectly at home on film or as an HBO drama.
I thought it was a great story.
I also thought it was a very poor comic book story.
It’s going to seem like I’m picking on Bendis here but that is not my intent. I quite like his stories — I read and enjoyed this entire Daredevil run, and I like what I’ve seen of his other Marvel titles. He’s committed to his craft; seems like a genuinely nice guy; and runs a great Tumblr blog that I shamelessly plunder for my Instagram feed. Bendis is hugely successful in his field — he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement, and criticism at Longbox Graveyard isn’t going to bring him to his knees.
I’ve selected Bendis only because his style bends the comics form until it breaks.
Consider the image below, which is typical of Bendis’ work. To my mind, this is not a comic book. This is an explosion in the word balloon factory.
Of course, it is a comic book. It is a story told with words and pictures and the only limitations imposed on the form are those created by artists and writers (and bloviating bloggers). What I’m getting at is that this is far from an ideal use of the form. It is not a story that takes advantage of the things that comics do well (and in some cases, do better an any other form of storytelling). This story feels like a teleplay or a radio drama force-fitted into comic book form where the characters are reduced to visual anchors for Bendis’ (generally quite good) dialogue and characterization.
This style of storytelling reminds me more of a fumetti or photonovel than anything else.
(And fotonovels can be artistic in their own right, but this seems rarely the case).
Many fans and critics will not see a problem here. Bendis has a shelf-full of Eisner Awards, so what do I know? But I still see this run as a missed opportunity. It told a great story of a very dark period of Matt Murdoch’s life but it did so in spite of being a comic, not because of it. Very little about the comic book form was used to good effect. Save for the (occasional) appearance of men in costume beating the crap out of each other, you might not recognize it as a superhero comic book at all.
If I’ve called out this Daredevil run as being especially ill-suited to comics, it’s only fair that I provide a counterexample that more fully explores the dimensions of the form.
Comparing apples to oranges, here’s a two-page spread from the recent vintage of Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera.
Not every page of every comic is going to be like this (just like not every page of Bendis’ work swarms with word balloons), but this does serve to make a point. There’s so much to unpack in this panel — and much of what happens here can happen only in comics. Unique to the form is a single master shot that in still form depicts both time and motion with multiple portrayals of our principle characters — Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. In this single image we see two worlds at the same time — the mundane world that Foggy perceives (watch out for that doggy doo, Councillor!) and the world revealed by Matt’s enhanced senses. Matt’s world is a mosaic of smells, vibrations, and overheard conversations brilliantly displayed with inset panels emphasizing tiny details inside this same master shot. Add to this a balance between words and art — which lets us admire Rivera’s scene-setting draftsmanship, while at the same time wonderfully framing Waid’s dialogue that advances the story and illuminates character — and we lose ourselves in a story that fully embraces (rather than fights) everything that comics do well.
While any kind of story can be told in comics, I am most interested in those that can only or best be told in comics form — where words AND pictures are used to best effect. To be fair, many of the comics I laud here at Longbox Graveyard do not fit this description — for all that I cherish Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories, they don’t always take best advantage of the form. At the same time, these classic stories weren’t trying to be anything other than comic books. They might not always have been great comics, but they weren’t trying to be film or television (for the most part), and when Steranko or Paul Gulacy adopted cinematic techniques in their comics art, it was as a means of revolutionizing or revitalizing the comic book form, rather than imitating another type of media.
But there is very little competition for the heart of an old-time comic book reader such as myself. If you want those kinds of stories, there’s really only one place to get them — old comics.
Master of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug Moench
My problem with the Bendis approach is that by electing not to play to the particular strength of comics, Bendis can’t help but compete with other forms of media which do these kinds of tales as well or better. With all this character-driven dialogue (which Bendis does very well), I can’t help but feel I’m reading a television script. Rather than read Bendis’ Daredevil, a part of me would rather re-watch The Wire or The Sopranos. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing both, but I come to comics with a set of expectations, and one of those expectations is that they are going to give me a story that I can’t get anywhere else, whether it is a cosmic Jack Kirby space epic, or the unique exploration of the printed page demonstrated by Will Eisner. When a comic tale puts aside so many of its tools and techniques in favor of dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue (however clever), I can’t help but feel some fundamental aspect of the form has gone missing.
Bendis wears me out with his dialogue-heavy style, but I do like his stories, so I thought I’d search for his work in other forms.
I thought I’d struck paydirt with the motion comics version of SpiderWoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. After all, I kept thinking of Bendis’ work as a television script. What could be better than a comic book animatic?
Unfortunately, this form wasn’t much better than a Bendis comic. Without all those word balloons it looked cleaner, but the story was still too talky and static. Practically the entire first episode was two characters talking on a bus. Even Sandra Bullock and a satchel full of TNT would have a hard time livening up this scene. Maybe it gets better in later episodes, but I couldn’t be bothered.
More recently, though, I have found that the man and the hour have met at last in Bendis’ relaunch of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, not the best-selling comic. I’m talking about the “Infinite Comics” prequel stories that have been made available for free in the run-up to the new series.
This format is still clearly a comic. There’s no distracting audio, and the reader controls the pace of the presentation. Transitions and scenes are presented in conventional comic book style. But the ability to re-use space finally gives Bendis’ dialogue has the physical word-space it needs to breathe, and the minimal change of art from panel-to-panel doesn’t feel as much the cheat here that it does on the printed page.
It may not look like a lot here in still images, but through the “Infinite” format, with balloons transitioning in and out … it works! These are essentially the same kind of minimally-changing images that annoyed me in Bendis’ Daredevil, but only seeing one panel a time makes Bendis’ wall-of-words less intimidating, and the transitions help denote passage of time and make it easier to notice and enjoy story and dialogue beats. These are lightweight little stories — especially when compared with Bendis’ heavy Daredevil run — but they’re fun and they do show a promising evolution of the comic book form. The effect is much easier to judge by experiencing it for yourself, and the books are free at Comixology, so check them out.
In the end it comes down to personal preference, and I’m willing to admit my tastes are idiosyncratic. What do you think? Am I being too narrow with the way I define the best use of the comics form? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #97 Top Ten Captain America Foes
This gallery contains 21 photos.
Did it! Also — Made It! Got It! and … you get the idea
Comic book heroes are usually rendered in an impossible physical ideal, but today’s superheroes go beyond Olympian physiques and into some crazy realm where even their muscles have muscles. Trying to pick the fittest and strongest amongst them is a mug’s game. Even Forbush Man looks like he’s been working out!
Manliness is something else entirely. You need a lot more than a square jaw and chiseled abs to join this particular club — you need a manly attitude, too. And since we’re talking comic books, we’re looking for exaggerated manliness, while stopping short of being — ahem — too manly. Stubbly chins, stogies, and gravelly voices all count for a lot. So does pimp style, womanizing, and a tendency to think with their fists.
It also helps to be kinda sorta a regular guy, or at least as regular as you can get while infused with gamma radiation, cosmic rays, or a super-soldier serum.
Who is the manliest superhero of them all? Joining me for today’s oh-so-serious nerd debate are Tom Mason, comic book scholar extraordinaire (and when he isn’t doing more important things, you can find him over at Comix 411). Also here is Chris Ulm, last seen at Longbox Graveyard as a part of my WonderCon panel, and also my co-host for the blog I did on Deathlok several weeks ago (and it occurs to me that Deathlok is pretty damn manly, too, but dead men are excluded from consideration).
(Both of these gentlemen will join me at my upcoming Comic-Con panel, so if you don’t like their choices below, c’mon by our panel and throw rotten fruit at them).
Our goal is to come up with a list of the ten manliest superheroes, but knowing these guys, it’s going to be a chore to stay on target …
PAUL: Who gets an honorable mention before we get to the list?
ULM: Aquaman might get my vote — the fact that he has the sheer swinging stones to show up riding a seahorse and spends his time talking to sea-spiders says a lot about his confidence — he obviously doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks — not even Batman.
PAUL: Not Aquaman, no — not since he went sitcom on us. Plus he let his wife push him around during that family RV vacation. No one can be hectored by his spouse and make the list. That’s the reason Spider-Man doesn’t make it — Gwen Stacy, MJ, and Black Cat are the holy trinity of comic book girlfriends but Peter’s a mommas boy and he’s whipped.
TOM: Everyone knows Flash and Atom are whipped.
PAUL: Flash is SO whipped! I spent half a review column on Iris bugging Barry about being late and not the man Flash is and blah blah blah. It goes beyond the Lois Lane trope into some kind of power exchange fetish play.
TOM: Flash has never appealed to me because of this weird henpecked way they wrote him in the Silver Age. I like strong female characters, but they made Iris some kind of naggy harpy and turned Flash into a guy who was constantly fretting about getting in trouble. The whole recurring “Barry’s late again” with Iris standing in a doorway checking her watch is just too much. All those 60s DC editors, especially Weisinger and Schwartz, always put out comics with these bizarre male-female dynamics that seem mean-spirited and misogynistic and out of touch with reality.
And the Atom, the Ray Palmer one, is another weird 1960s domestic drama, with a guy who has the powers of a man but’s just six inches tall. I’m not buying it and no one else is.
ULM: Speaking of little guys, Ant Man has to go to bars explaining that he’s … Ant Man. And he STILL nailed the winsome Wasp. That’s MANLY. If he had manned up and just stayed Ant Man, he’d definitely get my vote. After all, he did create Ultron in his spare time. But since Henry Pym keeps changing his name like a giant pussy (“Oooh, check me out: I’m YELLOWJACKET! I’m GIANT-MAN now!”) he’s off my list.
plus, being a dick does NOT make you manly!
TOM: How about a lady’s man like The Spirit?
PAUL: The Spirit is interesting. Because of the femme fatales?
TOM: I think yeah because of the femme fatales. He’s got chicks falling all over him – most of them are evil and trying to kill him and he doesn’t catch on until it’s almost too late, but they keep a’coming. And he likes it. After fifteen beautiful women have tried to kill you, you might get suspicious of #16, but The Spirit welcomes her with open arms. That’s a special kind of guts, or the biggest lack of self-awareness for at least seven pages of every eight page story.
PAUL: By that criteria we’d have to include Daredevil. He notched up Black Widow, Electra, and pre-crackwhore Karen Page. Plus he holds his own with crap powers, and wears a costume only a blind guy would think is cool (and pulls it off).
TOM: What about Green Arrow? No powers, but he took stupid equipment and made it work. He’s got some manliness/sexist issues that often threaten to overwhelm him, but for awhile he had a love arrow for Black Canary.
PAUL: Good one, it crossed my mind, I suppose every case I make for Daredevil would apply here too.
TOM: Exactly. Plus, Green Arrow has very strong opinions about a lot of life issues and isn’t afraid to point his finger into anyone’s chest for emphasis. It takes a special kind of man to make an arrow with a boxing glove on it. Oliver Queen is always ready for a fight.
PAUL: All right, I’ll put The Spirit, Daredevil, and Green Arrow on the list at number ten. It’s my list and I can break the rules!
10) The Spirit, Daredevil, Green Arrow (half-mad chick magnets)
If stupid gear is going to score manly points, how about Guy Gardner? Moe haircut. Bad attitude. Jerkwad. But no way is anyone manly enough to pull of a Green Lantern costume.
TOM: Fawcett’s Capt. Marvel is like the Tim Tebow of super-heroes. He gets the job done, but he’s not going to clear out the biker bar in the middle of the night.
PAUL: How about that other big boy scout — Superman?
ULM: Superman technically should get credit for being manly because one can only imagine the damage a swarm of super-sperms could do to Metropolis. That alone should give him high standing in the manly sweepstakes. However, as an alien, technically he’s not a man, so forget it.
PAUL: Superman’s seemed a little limp to me since that Brandon Routh picture. I don’t much like Zack Snyder but if anyone is going to give Superman a testosterone injection, he’s the guy. Though I expect he’ll go all 300 and make Superman just a little … too manly.
TOM: Superman’s now this wistful nostalgic character content to sit atop tall buildings, smell flowers and pick out shapes in the clouds. He’s like Dr. Manhattan in the early parts of Watchmen. He’s like Xanax in a cape now. At least in the old days, Jimmy would turn himself into a giant turtle or Lois would throw herself out the window to make his life interesting.
ULM: Since you mention Jimmy …
PAUL: We didn’t. C’mon, I need someone for number nine.
TOM: How about Lobo?
PAUL: Never read Lobo. Whaddya think?
TOM: Lobo is technically some kind of alien freak biker badass. He doesn’t take crap from anyone and doesn’t fight fair. He’s manly in the same way that a Hell’s Angel is manly at 2am Sunday. He would totally own Burning Man and those people would follow him anywhere.
PAUL: I’d put him on the list but Ulm’s already disqualified Superman for being an alien. And if a motorcycle was enough to get you in I’d pick Ghost Rider. With that flaming skull head, he’s like a living tattoo on the back of a mass-murderer’s neck. Leather. Hotline to Satan. Charter member of the Legion of Monsters. Problem is that Nick Cage has played him twice and he’s also a charter member of the Champions, the lamest superhero team of all time.
TOM: How about Wildcat? My understanding is that he is/was a boxer. He’s got no super powers except brute strength and a mean right hook, so he’s a little like Batman in that regard (but without any gadgets). I’d say it’s manly for a guy to put on a cat costume to fight crime. That’s the nine lives of brass balls.
PAUL: Plus I think in one of DC’s innumerable reboots, Wildcat is the guy who taught Batman how to fight. OK, I don’t know if he belongs or not, but we’re not making a lot of headway so he goes on the list.
9) Wildcat (are YOU going to tell him he’s NOT manly?)
Wildcat seems like a regular guy, too. Like Ben Grimm. Ben’s got the stogie and you could drink beer with him and he’d pay. He’s got the New York street kid gang thing going on. Test pilot. He’s approachable but too much like your uncle to make the list.
ULM: The manliest super-hero is Thundra. You know she has penis, but maybe you’d still date her for the story …
PAUL: Sorry, you need to have a Y chromosome to make the list.
Thundra is NOT amused!
OK, since this is going nowhere fast I’m going to just start putting names on the list. Like … Black Panther. So, so cool. African king. Many wives. Pimp style and for awhile he was a hip hop guy (maybe still is). Downside: Token Avenger.
8) T’Challa (but you can call him Black Panther)
If pimp style counts, then we have to consider Sub-Mariner. Goes to work in his underwear (and when he doesn’t he wears the Pimp Suit and pulls it off). Perpetually pissed off. Royal blood. Has a giant octopus for his wingman. Fought Nazis AND the Japanese. Attacked New York a bunch of times. Downsides — Shares many of Aquaman’s negatives, he’s a Pretty Boy, plus couldn’t steal Sue Storm from Rubberman and he’s a fish. And if being a fish or an animal knocks you out, then there goes Howard the Duck, who has a stogie and no pants, but there was definitely something happening with Bev.
And it’s apropos of nothing, but I think we have to include Thor. Divine hammer. Muscles out to here. Can drink the whole mead hall under the table, got the whole viking thing going on. Downside: Cute little wings on the helmet and talks funny. Pretty. But I thought the movie last year did a decent job of making Thor seem like a regular guy, that he wouldn’t cockblock you or make you feel like a sidekick. He’s got those Warriors Three always hanging around and they don’t seem any worse for it.
7) Thor (long hair, thees and thous, but still manly)
I guess Gods are in, while aliens are out. Any other edge cases I’m forgetting?
ULM: What about Black Bolt? He is the ultimate version of the tall silent type. Apart from the occasional tear slowly crawling down his cheek, he keeps his lips zipped and only opens his mouth to destroy ancient Kree cities.
PAUL: Not sure I’d pick him over someone like Orion of the New Gods. He’s heir to the throne of a deathgod. Bad dad issues. Messed-up face and wants to fight everyone. But all the New Gods are kind of sissified — not as bad as Seraphim, but still …
How about someone more down-to-earth. Like Luke Cage! First, he’s Luke Cage! Should have been played by Samuel L. Jackson, but now he’s too old. Defends the ghetto and has a steel chain for a belt. Curses by saying “Christmas!” Downside: Curses by saying Christmas!
6) Luke Cage (Christmas!)
Who am I missing?
TOM: Judge Dredd?
PAUL: Dredd definitely, completely forgot about him. He’d in the running for #1 if he had even one lady on his dance card. His one-dimensionality holds him back, if you consider being the fifth manliest superhero being held back. He wears that helmet to bed, you know. Not sure if that helps or hinders his case.
5) Judge Dredd (he is the Law … which means no time for the ladies)
And if ladies are part of the equation, then you have to give it up for … Iron Man. Fought the Commies, and he’s a merchant of death.
ULM: Iron Man. Heart condition. Drinks. Smokes. Womanizes. Builds cool shit in his garage. Drives fast cars. Hangs out with thunder gods, super-soldiers and Nick Fury. Most importantly, Tony Stark has man-servants like Happy Hogan to do his taxes and drive him around to bang super-models. C’mon — is this really a contest? Think about what Bruce Wayne does in his spare time — obsess about crime and train young men to be his “ward.” NO CONTEST.
PAUL: Yeah, but there are some drawbacks, especially as he compares to Batman. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are a push on the millionaire playboy thing, but Batman scores points for working without a net. How manly do you have to be to take on bad guys in what is essentially the battlesuit version of an F-15? Plus, Batman has the stubble while Tony has that pencil-thin mustache. And he can’t hold his booze.
4) Iron Man (manly enough for this room)
But technology only gets you so far. Guts counts for more than gears, and Wolverine gets points for the stogie, the hair, the tortured past, and the chip on his shoulder — more than enough to make up for the showtunes thing.
3) Wolverine (despite the Hugh Jackman thing)
Keep the stubble and the attitude, remove the Canadian thing, and add a whole bunch more women and you get …
2) Batman (despite the Val Kilmer thing)
Man points up for the gravelly voice and stubble (when Jim Lee draws him at least). Major playa with disposable starlets and supervillainesses like Cat Woman. Put a bun in the oven with Talia al Ghul, and probably Talia Shire too. No real powers. Loses points for hanging out with Robin.
ULM: Really, all this stuff is just throwing you off the track. The real manliest man is JIMMY OLSEN. Yes, the alter ego of multiple super-heroes through the years including (but probably not limited to) Mr. Action, Giant Turtle Boy, Elastic Lad, Flamebird, Speed Demon, Insect Guy, Morbidly Obese guy, Gorilla, Viking guy, etc.
When not solving crimes in one of these guises, Jimmy has to always be on call and kowtow to a his “best friend,” a homoerotic alien fixated on a crazy woman desperately climbing the office ladder of a two-bit newspaper. Non-stop drama with no escape in sight. The fact that Jimmy Olsen is not swinging over a drain makes him, by far, the manliest super-hero in any universe.
PAUL: Sorry, Ulm, I’m not buying it. Maybe you could squeeze Jimmy in at number ten with that kind of logic but you missed your chance. We’re talking about numero uno now, and that means just one person …
1) Nick Fury (Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
He’s number one and it’s not even close. Eye patch. Stubble. Stogie. Actually IS played by Samuel L. Jackson. No super powers but he’s still The Boss. Pretty sure he nailed Madame Hydra and he had that tragic lost love in the old Sgt. Fury comics.
played by Samuel L. Jackson AND the Hoff? THAT’S Manly!
TOM: Also, Nick fury has the Infinity Formula so he will live forever.
Nick’s got a special kind of manliness. He fought Hitler, founded a secret agency, built a secret base that hovers in the air, he gets to boss around the superheroes despite having no actual powers, and he carries a gun, even when he’s on his giant secret hovercraft base. I’ll say it again: He bosses around the Avengers, and they like it.
PAUL: Damn right they like it. And you know why? Because Nick is MANLY, that’s why, manlier even than Giant-Sized Man Thing!
And that’s the list! Thanks to Tom and Ulm for their wise contributions (notwithstanding the whole Jimmy Olsen bit).
Agree, disagree …? Sound off in the comments, below!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #55 — The Amazing Spider-Man
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