Busy this week, but mostly with boring things that are not really column-type fodder. What that boils down to is that I haven’t actually got a column this time out. What I have are a bunch of scattershot notes that I jotted down over the course of the week on things like the original Outsiders, best superhero-based prose novels, possibilities for Marvel Essentials, stuff like that; and I meant to develop at least one of them more fully, but somehow I never quite got round to it. So here they all are anyway, in the hopes that if I stitch all these column-start, first-thoughts fragments together the result will at least end up as a sort of column for you.
My wife is not nearly the comics fan I am, though she is more of one than she lets on (Julie has a real soft spot for the FF, for one thing, and she always drops whatever she might be doing to watch Justice League with me, for another) but what she loves are bargains. My bride is relentlessly, monomaniacally, thrifty.
Where this comes out in relation to comics is the quarter bins. Julie ADORES quarter bins. She will spend hours at a convention going through the most disorganized flea-market dealer’s boxes of crap, systematically and thoroughly, just on the off chance there might be something good in one of those longboxes full of dusty old junk books. The thing that is so endearing about this is that it’s almost never for herself. She asks me what it is I happen to be looking for at the moment. Or she extrapolates based on recent eBay purchases.
Well, we just did a convention, so Julie spent a lot of time doing her patented quarter-bin dumpster-dive. She knows I am very fond of the old Jim Aparo Batman stuff, and as a result one of her recent dives into the bargain box netted us essentially a pretty damn complete run of the first couple-three versions of The Outsiders… the original one by Barr and Aparo, that is, with Batman and Black Lightning and Halo and Katana and Metamorpho and Geo-Force and Looker; and then the 90’s one nobody remembers, also by Mike Barr, this time with Paul Pelletier on the art chores.
The original run, the one that started as Batman and the Outsiders and then morphed into just The Outsiders, was kind of a fun book. I didn’t really pay attention to it while it was running — at the time, it annoyed me too much that Batman wasn’t in the Justice League any more so he could head up this group of also-rans, especially since they’d canceled The Brave and the Bold to make room for the book.
Now, in fairness, it WAS a pretty nakedly greedy grab for the then-booming soap-opera team-book market turf opened up by X-Men and the New Teen Titans. The reason for the Outsiders’ existence always felt kind of contrived and trumped-up out of nowhere, and the lineup really didn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, I could see Batman recruiting a guy like Black Lightning, but… Metamorpho?
But if you ignore that, it was a pretty fair old-school superhero adventure book. I’d always liked Mike Barr’s version of Batman, and it was nice to see him get to flex his creative muscles a little bit on a regular book. And of course there was Jim Aparo and then later, Alan Davis. Fun stuff, and it ran about forty-some issues in all.
Barr’s second run at it? Not so much.
Honestly, these read more like Mike Barr trying to do what he thinks is popular in the 90’s than anything else. It’s almost a parody of grim ‘n’ gritty. Endless fights, plots that meander and then get forgotten, characters getting angry with each other for no reason, variant covers… the whole thing has the stink of desperation about it. Bringing in the Eradicator as the anchor character…. well, he’s no Batman. Or Black Lightning. Or even a Metamorpho. At a quarter each it was a ripoff. These are on the very short list of comics I have purchased in my lifetime that I did not bother to finish. Ugh. Bad, bad, bad. This run makes the Judd Winick Outsiders look like Watchmen. Finally after 24 issues it was canceled. Or perhaps a better term would be euthanized. Certainly it was a mercy killing.
But you can find the first run, the good one with Barr/Aparo and Barr/Davis, cheap, and it’s worth doing, I think. I spent another $5 on eBay and knocked off the few that Julie didn’t scrounge for me, and those have been solid, Saturday-matinee-style entertainment. Forty books or so for a total outlay of about twelve bucks. I don’t know that it’s worth MORE than that, but for twelve bucks, I think we did all right. Just be sure to avoid version 2.0.
Brian mentioned my reminiscing about the 70’s Marvel prose novels in his latest Urban Legends entry. I do have a soft spot for superheroes in prose, always have. I think it may be the flip side of the same old-wine-from-new-bottles vibe you get seeing your favorite comic being turned into a movie. It feels more immediate and real, at least to me, reading prose versions of these familiar characters and doing the visualizing myself, because my mind’s eye doesn’t see their comic-book, cartoony versions, it visualizes them as real people — but moving with the perfect, balletic grace that comics artists draw. Sort of the best of both worlds.
Some of the best superhero stories were original to prose, with no comics antecedents at all. My favorites of these were the Weird Heroes series by the late Byron Preiss; a lot of comics people worked on them, including Steve Englehart, Alex Nino, Steranko, Ralph Reese, Marv Wolfman, and others.
The first one was recently reprinted and it is highly recommended, especially “Stalker” by Archie Goodwin. That story was worth the price of admission all by itself. I’m hoping it did well enough that they’ll reprint Volume Two as well; in that one the showstopper was “SPV 166” by Elliott Maggin.
Speaking of Elliott Maggin, he wrote what I think is the single best superhero novel ever published: the Superman story Miracle Monday, which, as luck would have it, is available online here. Everyone that talks about “updating” Silver Age tropes for modern readers really should check this book out. It’s a textbook example of how to do it right, and just plain great fun. And you could check out the second-best one, too — Maggin’s Last Son of Krypton. Actually you should read Last Son of Krypton first, now that I think about it, because Miracle Monday builds on ideas established there. But you should read them in any case, if you haven’t already.
I’ve added a couple more Essentials to the library — in addition to Moon Knight, there’s now Essential Godzilla and Essential Nova. Since the bigger-name Marvel Essential volumes like Avengers and Daredevil are hitting the 70’s-era runs as well, I am one happy geek. I noticed the other day that the Essentials I have on the bookshelf cover very nearly everything I was buying from Marvel in the 70’s — Killraven, Dr. Strange, Defenders, Power Man, Tomb of Dracula, Howard the Duck, Iron Fist. With two exceptions: Man-Thing and Captain Marvel, meaning Mar-Vell. So what’s up with that, Marvel reprint people? I mean, if Nova rates an Essential, for crying out loud, Man-Thing certainly does. And I would really love to see the Starlin and Englehart runs on Mar-Vell again, because God knows they’re damn near impossible to find from back-issue dealers.
Also, I was delighted to see Godzilla, a LICENSED property, get an Essential. Good on you, Marvel, for shelling out. Now let’s get to the Essential John Carter, Warlord of Mars, okay? I bet you could work it out with the Dark Horse and Burroughs people. C’mon, I’m begging here.
There you have it. Three different sort of half-formed ideas for columns, none of them really finished out. Hopefully next week I’ll have a real one for you and not the patchwork shambling mockery of a column this one was. See you then.
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