I wanted to do something big for my swan song, and being an all-splash page issue, Thor #380 fit the bill! Plus this gave me an excuse to lavish more praise on Walt Simonson’ Thor (which I’ve previously covered here at Longbox Graveyard in parts one and two). Please visit StashMyComics.com for my review of Thor’s larger-than-life battle with the Midgaard Serpent!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my Dollar Box work this past year. I’ve elected to bring the column to a close as part of a general desire to reduce outside commitments (and more about that in a couple weeks in my two-year anniversary Longbox Soapbox). It is with some regret that I step away as it has been a great experience writing for StashMyComics.com.
Thanks to StashMyComics.com for hosting The Dollar Box this past year! While this concludes my regular posting for SMC I hope you’ll mouse over there and check them out — they’re good guys and they’ve been great friends to Longbox Graveyard!
- First Theatrical Poster Released For ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (comicsalliance.com)
- Thor Dark World UK Trailer (gadgetreview.com)
- Longbox Graveyard Podcast: “Marvel Comics – A Space Odyssey” (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Joe Kubert. Walt Simonson. The senses-shattering origin of Dr. Fate. BE THERE. – 1st Issue Special #9 (blogintomystery.com)
- Get Ready For Thor: The Dark World, Trailer Drops (hot937.cbslocal.com)
- Thor (fight 3 of 4) (gradingfightscenes.com)
- Thor and Apocalypse Bro Down with Vikings in Uncanny Avengers #6 (barelytomson.wordpress.com)
The end of the year is coming into view and with it comes the happy duty of buying gifts for friends, loved ones, bosses, and even arch-enemies. Fear not — the Longbox Graveyard Holiday Comic Book Gift Guide is here!
My selections are idiosyncratic and make no attempt to be comprehensive. Items listed below are things I like and write about here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you like this blog, then chances are you will like them too. In the unlikely event that you have wandered here from some Google search looking for comic book Christmas gifts, then you can get an idea of my ethos by reading this blog’s first entry … or just trust that I know what I am talking about, and that I will point you in the right direction when it comes to comic book gifts, particularly for someone who loves older comics from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
(And if you want a more comprehensive and contemporary gift-giving guide, you won’t go far wrong with Tom Spurgeon’s exhaustive survey over at The Comics Reporter).
I don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice — if you’re a comics fan, you’re bound to be happy finding any of these items beneath your tree (or the non-denominational holiday avatar of your choosing).
Longbox Graveyard is mostly about superheroes, and here are some of my favorite collections.
Simonson’s take on Thor from the 1980s remains my favorite interpretation of one of my favorite characters. In his fifty-odd issue run, Walt took all the classic elements of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Thor mythos — Asgard, the gods, Loki, the Destroyer, Thor’s battles with his father, romance, the whole shooting match — and made everything old seem new again. These books are fast-paced, adventurous, sometimes funny, and always full of heart. (You can read my review of the first part of Simonson’s run in two parts, here and here). Simonson’s work has been collected in the Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus, a beautiful volume that includes the entire run, including the seminal Beta Ray Bill storyline, and the Malekith the Dark Elf arc, which appears to be at the center of 2013’s Thor movie sequel.
Spider-Man is fifty years old but I think the character’s initial Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run has never been bettered (and you can find out why I feel this way, here). The entire Lee/Ditko run is collected in a hard-to-find Omnibus, and you can also get at least part of the saga in a more readily-available Masterwork edition.
It has been awhile since I blogged about Conan’s earliest comics appearances, his romances, and his mishandling in film, but I am still a devoted fan of the Cimmerian, and very fond of the Dark Horse Comics reprints of the Marvel Conan books of the 1970s. The entire Marvel run is available — along with reprints of Savage Sword of Conan and King Conan too, if you are a completest — but I can most recommend the Barry Windsor-Smith reprints in volumes 1-4 of the series, and the following Roy Thomas/John Buscema run that is reprinted up through volume 14. The clarity and color of those reprints is a sight to behold — in many cases it’s like seeing the art for the very first time.
File this one under new classics — while the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby tales are collected in an omnibus of their own, author Ed Brubaker’s take on Cap from 2004-2012 is my favorite interpretation of my favorite character. Mr. Brubaker has wrapped up his run but his tales are collected in several volumes, beginning with his Captain America Omnibus Volume 1, and continuing with the Death of Captain America, and others. A bit of these tales were mined for 2011’s Captain America movie, and Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc is reported to be the basis of 2014’s movie sequel.
And since we’re talking about movies … if you want a look ahead to future Marvel movies, you could do worse than to read the recent Infinity Gauntlet collection. This mini-series by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim tells of the tale of the mad Death God of Titan taking on the entire Marvel Universe and (almost) killing them all. It is a cosmic fist opera of the first order (and you can read my review here), but it’s most worth reading to give yourself a crash course in the series’ central villain, Thanos — otherwise known as that mysterious purple guy from the end credits of The Avengers, who promises to loom large in the Marvel movies to come.
There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to superhero movies, and you don’t need me to tell you that Avengers and Dark Knight Rises should be on your shopping list. But don’t overlook the charms of superhero animation, which tell a broader range of stories and introduce more obscure, weird, and wonderful characters than you will ever see in a live action move.
My favorite comic-that-isn’t-a-comic got a full review here, and with Cartoon Network yanking this title off the air without warning, the best way to watch it now is through these DVD sets. Young Justice is a serious, straight-ahead superhero series about insecure young heroes facing a monstrous super-conspiracy, full of action, surprises, and some sophisticated characterization that lends punch to a couple genuinely surprising cliffhanger twists. There’s a good chance this is the best superhero series you’ve never seen, and I’d put it up against some of the second-tier live action superhero films of recent years in terms of entertainment value. These DVDs are an inexpensive and very cool gift for comics fans.
A distinct departure from the grim-and-gritty screen Batman of today, Batman: Brave & The Bold is a throwback to the silly Silver Age Batman of the 1960s, and will also be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the Adam West television show of that era. Taking its name from Batman’s legendary team-up book, the series sees Batman paired with a different DC hero each week. It is a breathlessly inventive show, with musical episodes, surrealistic dream episodes, and the BEST depiction of Aquaman, anywhere (yes, Aquaman). This series will connect with hipster adults (who don’t need to be mind-altered to enjoy it) and kids alike, and it’s a great series for adults to watch with their children, truly a show with something for everyone.
BOOKS ABOUT COMICS
The perfect gift for the comics fan who has everything may not be comics but instead book about comics — tomes that provide insight on the history and development of the comic book form. Here are a few of the essential volumes you’ll find on my shelf, which I think any devoted fan would enjoy.
Sean Howe’s unauthorized history of the most important company in comics is a terrific read — and I enthused about it at length here. Far from a fawning fan history, this book is for those who want to see how the sausage is made, and for anyone who wants to know more about the larger-than-life personalities in Marvel’s creative “bullpen” (spoiler: some of these people aren’t very nice). This was my favorite book of 2012 and I recommend it even to non-comics fans for its look at a unique business, and for its chronicle of how Marvel rose from bankruptcy to become one of the most powerful companies in modern media.
Scott McCloud’s book isn’t a history of comics so much as a guide to understanding what makes comics a unique storytelling form, revealing the unexpectedly complicated wheels-within-wheels that make a comic tick. The book is scholarly but very approachable thanks to being a comic book itself, and it’s a good choice for convincing your on-the-fence friends that there may be more to these funny books than meets the eye. Confirmed comics fans will also enjoy McCloud’s insights on how the form of comics has changed through the years, and will also be exposed to greater breadths in the medium than we sometimes perceive when we’re locked into the monthly adventures of Captain Whatsisname.
Will Eisner’s instruction manual on his singular way of telling a tale in words and pictures is intended for artists but still contains insights for fans and laymen. I go back to it every couple years just to remind myself how angry I am that I can’t draw a lick — Eisner lays out a grammar for comics that definitely favors the role of the artist/writer, but everyone will enjoy looking at the way Eisner breaks down a page, conveys emotion, and (most famously) depicts the passage of time. A master work from a master creator that modern comics authors and artists would do well to read.
I do read contemporary comics, even if I don’t blog about them here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you want stories from the present century I can offer some guidance. For the most part these collections have the same storytelling values as those older books that I cherish, but they are dressed up for a modern sensibility. Some are revisionist takes on classic superheroes while others are new tales for a new age. Most of them will even stand up to critical scrutiny, meaning you can leave them out on your coffee table with only (minimal) fear of derision and embarrassment!
Robert Kirkman’s harrowing tale of our inevitable zombie-haunted future is both a television and publishing phenomenon, and my review of the first fifty-odd issues of this series headlined my Halloween column here at Longbox Graveyard. These books are well-written and approachable — a little slow at times, but taken together make for a terrific (and sometimes difficult) long read. Nearly every issue printed to date have been collected in Walking Dead Compendium One and the newly-released Walking Dead Compendium Two. For fans of a less literary bent, box set collections of seasons one, two, and three are also good viewing, but even fans intimately familiar with the television series are likely to enjoy the original graphic novels, which provide more in-depth characterization and also offer some twists and turns not (entirely) in line with how the show has developed.
A little over a year ago, DC Comics hit the “reset” button on their superhero comics line, with the intent of making their comic book universe more inviting for new and lapsed readers. The “New 52” is DC’s line of 52 monthly comic books covering everything from Superman to Frankenstein, fitting everything into a (more-or-less) editorially cohesive whole.
Now that DC is several months into their reboot, the first issues of the New 52 are appearing as trade paperback collections, and I’ve liked most of the few that I’ve read. You can’t go far wrong with any of these titles (except the Rob Liefeld ones!), and if you have a lapsed Superman reader on your shopping list, or know a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy, then grab one of the many titles featuring those characters and you are good to go. If you’d like something a little further afield, then I recommend the New 52 collections of Aquaman (yes, Aquaman!) and Supergirl, as well as the continuing story of Batwoman (though new readers would be wise to begin with her pre-New 52 adventures).
I also enjoyed the medieval superhero adventures of the Demon Knights, the secret undead war of I, Vampire, and the gonzo monster-fighting exploits of Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.(since sadly cancelled, so this first collection might be the only stories we’ll get). Wonder Woman, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing all come highly-recommended, too, but I haven’t yet read them myself, so maybe thumb them in the store before buying.
Ed Brubaker’s Crime Stories
I’ve already enthused about Ed Brubaker’s take on Captain America, but his original crime stories are also well worth reading. There are echoes of Pulp Fiction in the multiple, interweaving narratives of Brubaker’s Criminal, a gritty look at street-level crime without a cape in sight. If you want a little more superheroics in your Brubaker crime drama, his Incognito is worth a look, about the trials of an irredeemable supervillian in the witness protection program. And even though they feature mainstream superheroes, Brubaker’s take on Daredevil and Catwoman owe more to crime books than they do capes and masks, so give them a look, too.
If the best gift is something a person would love while never buying it for themselves, then a year’s subscription of Marvel’s library of digital comics may be the best option on this list. The service has its strengths and weaknesses, but the content is without peer, particularly for fans of older Marvel books. Recent titles run about a year behind their street publication but the back catalog is impressive and growing every week. This was the gift my family gave me last year and a renewed subscription is printed in bold crayon in my own letter to Santa this season.
Finally we have Saga, the “it” book of 2012. This Image Comics space fantasy from Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples is just getting started, and the recently-released first trade collection is a great place to jump into a difficult-to-summarize story that features a rocketship forest, TV-headed spacefaring noblemen, bounty hunters with complicated moral compasses, Lying Cat, a breastfeeding narrator, and … well, just go with it. Saga is a fast-paced, inventive, and surprising story and you can get in on the fun before most people even know it exists (or before the wheels come off of this ambitious tale). Plus, as a special bonus, reading this story will give you instant comics shop credibility, and may be the key to winning a date with that mousy comics girl behind the register who only reads cool stuff you’ve never heard about. Check it out!
So there you have it … a sack so stuffed full of comic book goodness that even Ben Grimm in a Santa suit would have a hard time carrying it through the door. I hope you’ve found a book or two for someone on your list (even if that someone is you), and if you do purchase something based on my recommendation, I hope you will write and let me know how it turned out. I also welcome your holiday gift suggestions in my comments, below.
Happy Holidays from Longbox Graveyard!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #78 Longbox Soapbox
- Longbox Graveyard Podcast: “The Curse of the Marvel Value Stamp” (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Longbox Graveyard Podcast: “Form Follows Function” (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #71 Guide To Comic Books On Instagram (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #67 Guide To Comic Books On Pinterest (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #69 Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Super Tuesday: Direct Currents (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #70 Reopening The Tomb of Dracula (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #72 The Walking Dead (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Super Tuesday: Marvel Horror Triple Feature (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Freakout Friday! (longboxgraveyard.com)
Continuing my appreciation of Walt Simonson’s seminal run on Thor …
Two weeks ago I looked at the way Walt Simonson handled Thor’s mythological background and supporting cast. This week I’ll dig in directly on the first part of Simonson’s celebrated era with a look at issues #337-353 of Thor.
There were a lot of parts scattered on the floor when Simonson took over this book. Thor has been many things through the years — cosmic hero, earthly doctor, Avenger, thunder god, and good old fashioned superhero. Unlike Jim Starlin, who would reinvent his cosmic heroes by sending them off into a corner of space he could make his own, Simonson roots his Thor in the Marvel Universe, giving him a stake in mortal affairs and having him turn to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to fashion a new civilian identity — Thor even absurdly calls into work to explain his absence when he was distracted by saving the universe.
At the same time, Simonson expanded Thor’s canvas, by teaming him with Beta Ray Bill to battle an alien invasion from the heart of the galaxy, and putting Thor on the front lines of a fire demon invasion of Asgard. It is this juxtaposition of the infinite and the mundane that gives Thor its unique strength — and as I enthused in part one of this review, Simonson was unequaled in the way he handled this aspect of the series.
I won’t cover Simonson’s storyline in detail — Chris Sims already did a great job of hitting the highlights of this run over at Comics Alliance — and I don’t want to spoil the tale should you choose to read one of the many reprints that are presently available. But to paint in broad strokes, this first part of Simonson’s run sees Thor called to defend earth and Asgard, first against a mysterious alien spaceship, then later against a “wild hunt” invasion led by dark elves, and finally a last stand of the gods against Surtur, the fire demon fated to destroy the universe (a DOOM-driven subplot Simonson developed, one page at a time, for the better part of a year before bringing events to their climax).
Along the way we see Thor gain a new civilian identity and attend to the prayers of “the last Viking,” and we’re also treated to rich subplots revolving around Sif, Baldur, and Odin. The run examines themes of duty, destiny, depression, and obsession, but mostly it is a broad and fast-moving adventure story told with style, humor, and joy.
It started with a bang.
Simonson literally blew up Thor when he took over the book with issue #337, with his signature creation — the “alien Thor,” Beta Ray Bill — shattering the old Thor logo on cover. But Simonson wasn’t kicking over the card table, however it seemed at the time — when Beta Ray Bill does the impossible, and lifts Thor’s hammer, it reminds us of Thor’s original virtues, and serves to deepen our appreciation for Thor when we see his noble reaction to being replaced, however briefly, by an alien interloper.
It’s a clever storytelling judo-flip, and it wouldn’t be the first time Simonson took the book in unexpected directions. But even when Thor turns into a frog (!), the book remained on the rails, thanks to Simonson’s life-long study of the series. Simonson grew up on Marvel comics — in the letters column of issue #347, Simonson reveals how his life was touched when Stan Lee sent him a missing Thor back-issue when he was a teen — and by building respectfully on the foundation established by Kirby & Lee that he absorbed as a youth, Simonson restored a book that had foundered for several years to the top of Marvel’s line with expansive pencils and deft scripting that made everything old seem new again.
One of the things that makes this series sing is that it is a tale that can be told only in comics. This isn’t a novel masquerading as a comic — the action is relentlessly visual, and while Simonson isn’t afraid to write thought balloons or have his characters speak aloud their inner monologues, neither does he descend into long dialogue sequences at the expense of action. Likewise, this book isn’t auditioning to be a movie — the action is cheerfully compressed, without regard for cinematic conventions, and we crazily jump between storylines in the best tradition of serial adventure comic books. With dozens of speaking roles, and action that sprawls across time and space, Simonson’s epic would require three movies and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to the screen — and that film would still be inferior to this comic book form, where we effortlessly change focus and dip in and out of multiple characters’ minds in a fashion that comics, of all forms of fiction, still does best.
This is a big story, drawn with bold lines — Simonson’s landscapes are wide and clean, with the night sky above Asgard swarming with rainbow rays and Kirby Dots. Those landscapes are peopled by heroes with heart — tormented champions like Baldur and Beta Ray Bill, wise Odin, and steadfast Thor — but Simonson’s epic vision is leavened with the absurd, such as when Simonson cheerfully hangs a lampshade on the impossibility of Thor masquerading behind a simple pair of glasses … by having Thor bump into Clark Kent himself!
(for those who don’t obsess over the differences between DC and Marvel comics, this was an entirely unauthorized two-publisher cross-over)
The run is not flawless. Some of Simonson’s solutions smack of fiat — such as that possibly-too-cute-for-it’s-own-good secret identity bit with Clark Kent; or an ancient Casket of Winters, seemingly shattered beyond repair, but put back together by a determined old veteran with a tube full of superglue.
The story also expands as it goes along, and the series gets away from Simonson a bit. Compared to the brisk Beta Ray Bill stories that opened the run, the conclusion of the Surtur saga feels a little bloated. With so many supporting characters competing for spotlight time, there’s an entire issue (#352) where Thor does not appear at all — he’s knocked cold while Odin battles Surtur at the gates of Asgard — and Beta Ray Bill, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the gods of Asgard wrestle with demons all across the earth.
But these are quibbles. Long time readers of Longbox Graveyard may remember my reply when this blog was invaded by Mars last July, when I wrote Simonson’s run was “… in some ways is a bridge (a rainbow bridge?) between the Bronze Age and what was to follow.” A dozen “issues” later, I stand by those words. Simonson’s Thor really is a bridge between the Bronze and Modern comics ages — a modern take on Silver and Bronze age comics tropes, fast-paced like the comics of old, with the big moment sensibility and epic visual scale of modern books.
This is how you reinvigorate a series. Simonson didn’t kill Thor, and he didn’t blow up Asgard. There was no rebooting, re-chewing, or renumbering. Just solid, fundamental storytelling, brilliantly drawn and scripted, respectful of the past but freshly framed and unafraid to adorn the mythos with new characters and legends. Simonson caught lightning with this classic run, giving us the finest Thor stories ever told and leaving the title better than he found it.
If you haven’t read these books, read them now. And if you’re already read them, then read them again.
And again …
- Title: Thor
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1966-present
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #337-353, October 1983-March 1985
- Your Opera & Chrome Overblown Big Hair Rock Soundtrack: Live Killers — Queen
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: A+
NEXT WEEK: #16 Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters