Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Comics of 2014 No. 12 (tie) Astro City and Sensation Comics

Continuing our countdown of 2014's best, I'm padding the count a bit with a double header.
Both these books are takes on the 1960s -1980s superhero model. Often called The Silver Age, this is a period in comics history when writing began to improve, continuity came into play in a larger way, and there was still a spirit of optimism in comics, in tandem with the increased "realism" of early Marvel heroes. My love for this age is not just because these were the comics of my youth, but because they offered a more confident, positive world view.
Cover art for most recent issue
The first of these, Astro City, is now a Vertigo book. Given that Vertigo was begun as an experimental/horror line, this is mildly amusing. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City is a place of real superheroes. Begun in the early 1990s, the book has retained both its quality and its popularity over the years. The book deals in fairly common themes- legacy heroes, intergalactic threats, the nature of villainy, possibilities of redemption. There's also a tantalizing back story building in the current arc involving a character named The Broken Man that promises to explode any issue now.
Fans read this book for its in-jokes and references as much as for its superb, exciting stories. A character in issue 15 attends Oksner College, a reference to DC artist Bob Oksner. The character Samaritan is an obvious Superman (or throw in your favorite ubermensch superhero) parallel. It goes on and on, but not knowing all the inside stuff doesn't interfere with enjoyment of the stories.
But the strongest aspect of the series is its humanity. Many of the stories concern themselves with the common citizen's relation to super beings. It's sort of a cross between Hitchcock's ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances and a Capra-esque everyman sensibility.
Even when the beings are paranormal, there's a sense of human frailty. Issue 17, a story titled "Wish I May", deals with a tormented genius cum mad scientist and his high school protector, who naturally becomes his superhero adversary. In an act of self-sacrifice, the hero Starbright dies, allowing the villain, one Simon Says, to come to terms with being a transgendered woman. After completing the transformation, of course she assumes the mantle of Starbright. It's nice to read a story about a transgendered individual that isn't a farce or a tragedy.
The second half of today's tie is even more traditional. Many wags have dubbed 2014 "the year of the woman" in comics, largely due to the excellent work on DC's Batgirl and Marvel's Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel books. Those books didn't make this list simply because I haven't read them consistently enough to give a solid opinion.

However, in a painful bit of irony, the character that arguably paved the way for all super-powered females, Wonder Woman, has been going through a series of stories that both disappoint and frustrate. The bastard child of Zeus? The Goddess of War? Please.
Despite this, DC has done us all a great service. Available in both online and hard-copy formats, the anthology title Sensation Comics gives us Wonder Woman die-hards hope. I've only been reading the hard copy version, so I'm not sure how one translates into the other. In the floppy version, there are three or four stories per issue, each being a short Wonder Woman tale. In issue 1, there's a nicely done story of Diana taking on Batman's rogue's gallery in Gotham. Issue 2 has a nearly book-length story featuring Dr. Psycho and Cheetah, with strong, graceful art by Marcus Cho.
However, the book shines in the lead story of # 3. Beginning with the final number of a concert by Wonder Woman's band Bullets and Bracelets (which is actually a pretty good name for a band), the story takes in a meeting with two young female fans, which is followed by a conflict with an adolescent male bent on proving his own juvenility. The art in this story, by Margeruite Sauvage, is spot on for theme and tone. It should be noted that the creative chores in Sensation Comics seem fairly evenly divided between males and females!
Strangely, the story in #3 and #4 that everyone else seemed to adore, the Gilbert Hernandez story, left me cold. I'm a great admirer of the work of Los Brothers Hernandez, but this one just didn't work for me.
The aforementioned adolescent jerk from the concert story
Well, there you have it. At least transitory proof that optimism isn't dead, and that you can tell a smart, exciting story and still not be so Godawful grim about everything!
Tomorrow: Best of No. 12 rocks out!

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