Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Super-children of the 1990's

Judgment Day: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Rob Liefeld, Gil Kane, and others (1997/Collected 2003): One of those Alan 'Watchmen' Moore-penned volumes from the 1990's that always seem vaguely anomalous, coming as they do from Moore's time writing for Rob Liefeld's 'wing' of Image Comics that would spin off into its own separate publishing company during Moore's time writing for a couple of the Image 'wings.' This one involves Liefeld's superhero team Youngblood, there from the beginning of Image Comics in 1992. Moore's job seems to be to give the whole thing a veneer of artsiness unknown to Liefeld's output. Well, if not artsiness than at least metafictionality. 

The best parts of this series, which see a member of Youngblood put on trial for murder, involve flashbacks drawn by various artists. Most of the flashbacks are pastiches, often satiric in tone and content, of decades of comic-book titles and characters, from Old West heroes to Conan the Barbarian adaptations. And the whole plot revolves around a magical book that seems to prefigure Moore's really metafictional work in his own later title, Promethea. Moore was winning writing awards for his work on Liefeld's Superman homage Supreme at the same time, and Supreme shows up here as well. 

The whole thing goes down pretty smoothly, with some nice artwork -- especially that of Grandmaster Gil Kane on a couple of sections. This volume is both a curiosity and a harbinger of Moore work to come. Exaggerated claims of Watchmen-level relevance in the publisher's foreword  do seem both forced and gormless -- superheroes have been put on trial in one way or another prior to Judgment Day, from Batman in the 1940's to the Justice Society of America in the 1980's. Liefeld's art contributions are unusually awful and off-model at certain points -- his version of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon is especially off, but the book is rife with characters with weird, up-turned nostrils and tiny, tiny feet. Recommended.

Spawn: Origins Volume 1: written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane (1992/ Collected 2009): Canadian writer-artist Todd McFarlane left Marvel Comics in 1992 along with five other creators to create creator-owned comic company Image. McFarlane, a popular Marvel artist on Spider-man and Hulk, soon launched Spawn. It rapidly became Image's best-selling title. Moreover, it became the best-selling superhero comic in North America for a few years, helping break the hold DC and Marvel had on the comic-book-buying public.

If you want to see what the fuss was about, these relatively recently released Spawn: Origins volumes are the way to go if you can find them remaindered. And boy, have I seen them remaindered for up to 80% off cover-price. They're certainly enjoyable in a pulpy way. McFarlane's greatest strength as an artist lies in full-page and double-page spreads; his weakness lies in panel-to-panel continuity, which sometimes degenerates to incomprehensibility. But the spreads are great. So too Spawn's cape and chains, which are less costume elements than they are design elements on a page. 

McFarlane isn't much of a writer, but it's at least competent superhero schlock. Spawn is basically a Marvel hero whose reasons to be angsty have been turned up to 11. A former heroic CIA Black Ops soldier, Al Simmons was killed by one of his own compatriots on the job under orders from his superior. Now he's back from the dead. Well, sort of. Really, he's still dead. He's just ambulatory and has super-powers. But he's also partially amnesiac. He's been gone for five years. And he owes Hell... something. Oh, and under his costume (which is actually a living supernatural symbiote), he looks like a mummy who stayed in the oven too long. Good times! And his widow married his best friend! And both Heaven and Hell keep trying to kill him! And he lives with a bunch of homeless people in New York's Bowery! Oh, Spawn. Spawn Agonistes! Recommended.

Spawn: Origins Volume 2: written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane with writing by Alan Moore and Frank Miller (1992-93/ Collected 2009): Todd McFarlane started to bring in guest writers with the issues collected in this second volume. Two issues that chronologically should appear herein but don't also included guest writers -- Neil Gaiman on one issue that would lead to more than a decade of legal battles between Gaiman and McFarlane, and Dave Sim on a metafictional odyssey co-starring his talking aardvark Cerebus. 

We do get Alan Moore and Frank Miller riffing on Spawn in issues that are much better written than McFarlane's efforts. So it goes. The whole volume entertains, McFarlane's art is very strong, and we get a storyline continued from the previous volume featuring antagonist Overtkill, one of the two or three most stupidly named super-characters of that baroque early 1990's age of super-powered characters with increasingly stupid names and increasingly cluttered costumes. Recommended.

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