Friday, October 23, 2009

The Other Wolverine

Comics Collections:

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine Macalastaire Volume 1 by William Messner-Loebs and Nadine Messner-Loebs (c. 1982-84; collected 2008): Journey was one the great and now unjustly neglected independent comic books of the 1980's. It's a picaresque romp through early 19th-century frontier America (mostly in the Michigan-Ohio area), focusing on the adventures of trapper/hunter/guide/deliveryman/frontiersman Joshua "Wolverine" Macalastaire against the backdrop of the Indian uprising centered on Tecumseh. IDW has collected the entire run of Journey in two B&W trade paperbacks. My only complaint is that the covers aren't collected along with the interior work, but god bless IDW for its ongoing work reprinting some of the best independent comics of the 1980's and 1990's in new editions.

Messner-Loebs is one of the drollest writer-artists the comics medium has ever seen, with a flair for finding genuine humour amidst the darker elements of his story. Journey is also splendidly flexible in its tone, with suspense, horror, humour, adventure and social commentary all working within the tale. Messner-Loebs's art is equally flexible, combining the cartoony with more commonly representational art in a manner that somehow suggests both Will Eisner and, I swear, a strange echo of Bugs Bunny cartoons in some of the character design and staging.

Messner-Loebs is also a deft hand at characterization. Wolverine emerges fairly quickly as a fully rounded, fallible but competent character, but so, too, do the other characters both major and minor, with a particular favourite being Edwin Allyn Craft, Messner-Loebs's fish-out-of-water homage to both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. On the frontier. Craft initially seems like some sort of one-off bit of comic relief, but he really grows on you, as do all the other native Americans, soldiers, couriers de bois, wolves, frogs, bears, ghosts, Sasquatches and assorted other human, animal and supernatural beings that populate this world.

As artful as Journey is, it remains a piece of fast-paced and thoughtful entertainment as well, as gripping and humourous as any comic book I can think of. And it's also the relatively rare comic book that people who don't read (superhero) comic books might actually enjoy. Highly recommended.

Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume 1 (1953-1962) by Jack Miller, Joe Certa, Joe Samachson, Edmond Hamilton and others: One of DC Comics's most venerable second-string super-heroes, the Martian Manhunter was also one of the first new super-heroes of what would come to be known as The Silver Age. Until he joined the Justice League in the early 1960's, all of the Manhunter's appearances were in short (6 to 12 page) back-up stories in the Batman-fronted Detective Comics. Most of these adventures were written by Jack Miller and drawn by Joe Certa, both competent but unspectacular comic-book professionals.

Reading these stories for the first time, I was struck by how ill-served the Martian Manhunter has been by later rewrites and re-rewrites and reimaginings of his origin and powers. When MM -- real name J'onn J'onnz, secret identity name Detective John Jones -- is first accidentally pulled to Earth by an experimenting professor who immediately drops dead, stranding J'onn on Earth, the Martian Manhunter's powers resemble Superman's with some key differences. J'onn is telepathic, can change shape and can turn invisible. Strength-wise, he's obviously not as strong as Superman, while writer Miller never seems to be sure whether or not J'onn can fly -- on a number of occasions J'onn jumps, propels himself with super-breath, flaps his arms (!) or moves his arms like propellers (!!).

For the first four years or so, MM fought crime without revealing himself to the world, a situation pretty much unique in superhero circles. Only well into his career would the Martian Manhunter act more like a regular superhero, visible to all. Subsequent writers would rework J'onn's powers and origins until, by the 21st century, he was a physical match for Superman with extra powers whose real form looked like a cross between Gumby and the adult alien from the movie Alien. His original weakness -- fire depowered him -- would be explained as a psychological ailment common to all Martians.

There's a real and mostly lost comic-book craft to writing and drawing a long series of short stories that don't continue from issue to issue and in which the hero remains (mostly) unchanged. Miller and Certa make the Manhunter a pretty interesting fellow, though it's interesting to see how his appearance gradually alters. In his first appearance, J'onn looks like a green, bald human being with a jutting, almost Neanderthal brow. That brow gradually disappears, though later artists would add it in to foreground J'onn's alienness prior to the whole Gumby thing really foregrounding his alienness. All in all, an interesting read.

Worlds of Tomorrow edited by August Derleth (c. 1954): This relatively short paperback science-fiction anthology from the 1950's has some decent stories (the satiric "Null-P" by William Tenn perhaps being chief and snarkiest among them) and some interesting curiosities. Frank Belknap Long's 1933 far-future dystopia "The Great Cold" is the weirdest of the latter category, detailing as it does a future humanity that's been enslaved by giant, intelligent barnacles. Yes, barnacles. Humanity was getting enslaved a lot by intelligent versions of bees, ants and other creatures throughout the 1930's, so I guess someone had to go the barnacle route. If you read one story about intelligent barnacles this year, it should be this one because I can't recall ever reading another one.

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