Friday, December 2, 2011

Tales From the Long Box: What Might Have Been

Every week Seth goes into his back issue bins, picks out a single issue, story arc, or creative run, pours through it and then writes about it. He calls it Tales from the Long Box. Though old and now either retconned out of existence or made irrelevant by the latest event, these books still share something in common... they're bagged, boarded, and a part of comics history.
This will be different from the usual issue-centric format I've been following. Lately I've been wrapping myself in the comfortable folds of nostalgia and digging into old trade paperbacks I own. Stuff like Gotham Central and old issues of Bendis' Daredevil run. It's reminded me of why I follow some of my favorite creators so devoutly. I guess in some ways I hope they'll recapture some of the magic of their early work.

Sure, guys like Geoff Johns and Ed Brubaker are still writing superhero comics but something isn't the same. Maybe it's just that I'm becoming a grumpy old fan but Justice League (as good as it is) and the new Captain America series (good as it is) are lacking in something that made the early days of their creators work so special. Titles like Johns' Flash or JSA and Brubaker's Catwoman or Gotham Central were great not just because they were competently written.

There was an energy in their creators that disappeared once they didn't have to strive to get their name out there. Sure, it's comics, and in a way they'll always have to struggle for recognition but the prove-yourself mentality that surfaces in many comic personalities goes away once they have to quit... well, proving themselves.

Anyway, the point of this weeks TftLB isn't to talk about established creators losing their spark. It's for me to reminisce about the work that those creators might have turned out if they hadn't moved on to other projects or companies.

Remember when Jeph Loeb was at DC? This was back before his move to Marvel head of television-shows-that'll-never-get-made development. Before he tarnished his own name with Ultimates 3 or Ultimatum. In my opinion the Loeb that was writing for DC was one of the best mainstream superhero comics writers around. His Superman/Batman run is great fun, and features a slew of amazing artists. Sure it could be considered the point where he started writing solely for the "wow" moments but something about that title just worked so well. Of course DC is where Loeb also created (with Tim Sale) two of the best Batman stories in decades; Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Having just recently bought the Absolute Long Halloween, I was reminded of how good Loeb is at creating a compelling, character-driven story.

Seeing Jeph Loeb creating stuff like Ultimatum just makes me wonder what might have been if he'd kept on writing Superman/Batman stories. His final arc on that title was a bizarre, Alan Moore-esque blend of high concepts and big action and though it didn't work quite as well as it could have, it was nice to see Loeb flexing his writing muscles a little and trying something new. Likewise, his Supergirl title. If I remember correctly, he bailed on that title to head for Marvel only six issues into it's run. As the writer who introduced the new Kara Zor' El it was a shame to see him jump ship so quickly into the title's run and it made me wonder if the title's eventual slow fade into obscurity might have ended otherwise had Loeb stayed at DC.

Of course it works both ways. When David Finch hopped over to the DC side of the fence I was ecstatic. His pencils on Moon Knight and New Avengers were exciting. Like 90's era Image but... better. Then, at DC he started pumping out dull, painted covers. I chalked up my distaste for his Brightest Day covers to the art style he was choosing but then his Dark Knight title started up and I quickly realized something about the move to DC had seemingly stifled his output. Sure he did a gorgeous Batman one-shot with Grant Morrison and the first couple issues of DK were all right but by the time the new 52 launched and we were getting our first look at a Finch-drawn hulked out Joker I it was obvious something hadn't gelled.

I began to wish Finch had stayed onboard at Marvel. Maybe drawn another arc on Avengers or been the penciller on the Johnathan Hickman-penned Ultimates series. Maybe he could have done an arc on Brubaker's new Captain America. Whatever the titles he'd have done at Marvel there's little doubt they'd have faired better than his work at DC of late.

Speaking of Brubaker, I may be the only person alive who isn't impressed with most of his Marvel output. When he left DC he was working on gritty little titles like Gotham Central and Catwoman. I loved those books so so much. His Gotham Central run has gone on to some recognition and acclaim but I never felt like his work with Selina got the shout-out from the comics journalism crowd that it should have. Over at Marvel his early work on Captain America is systematically brilliant. A clever mixture of spy thriller and straight up superhero comic. But elsewhere he floundered. The Marvels Project bored the heck out of me, and his X-Men run was saved only by the arrival of Matt Fraction. Fraction could probably get most of the credit for Iron Fist's success as well. His Daredevil run is pretty good but never reaches the heights of his similar crime-driven titles and could even, arguably, be the title that drove to the wall in terms of darkness.

I believe Brubaker is a good fit at DC. Particularly within the confines of the Batman universe. I'd have adored a return by the writer to a Batman title. Can you imagine if, while Morrison and Scott Snyder were writing Batman titles you had Ed Brubaker on a third. Possibly the Detective Comics title with Tony Daniels on art? In other corners of the DCU, Brubaker would have made a great fit on something like the relaunched Suicide Squad.

One thing about Brubaker that I've noticed is he seems to work really well with a co-writer. His Gotham Central with Rucka is one of the greats and as already mentioned, X-Men and Iron Fist were both benefited by the aid of Matt Fraction on writing duties. Back in 2005 I got the chance to talk to Greg Rucka at a con in LA. I asked him about the fate of Gotham Central. At that point in time, the title's future was unsure. Sales were low, but reviews were good and a couple of the recent issues had tied into larger events within the Batman universe and sales seemed to be on the uptick. Rucka seemed hopeful, even going so far as to tell me that he had long-term plans for the title. He was excited about it.

Within a year, word came out that Michael Lark was exiting the title and heading to Marvel. Lark had been the series' main penciller since it's inception and his loss was something that neither Brubaker or Lark seemed comfortable with. The book went for a few arcs past Lark's departure, during which time both Brubaker and Rucka jumped the DC ship. Brubaker signed on exclusively with Marvel and Rucka headed off to write novels and do some creator owned work. Gotham Central died, as did the Rucka-penned Checkmate series. Later Rucka returned to DC to write Batwoman, and he would write a few Question-themed minis but the days of long, drawn out stories (the type that Rucka excels at) had disappeared.

I always wondered what might have happened with the Gotham Central title if Rucka and Brubaker hadn't left. The loss of Michael Lark was a big one, to be sure, but there were, and are, plenty of high-quality artists at DC who would have been perfectly suited to that book. I'd have loved to see a J.H. Williams drawn arc of Gotham Central... or a Darwyn Cooke one...

It should be noted none of these creators I've mentioned are doing poor work now. I'm merely pondering what might have been if they'd stayed on with the titles they were so entrenched in. Other than Loeb's Superman/Batman I don't feel like any of these creators had reached a natural end for their runs. It's possible to reach a satisfying conclusion might have taken only one or two issues but for the most part a lot of these characters had more stories in them under the pen of these writers.

I mentioned Johns and Bendis at the front of my column. It's true that today they're more popular than ever. Both writers are handling the biggest characters at the "big two". However, it'd be hard to argue that either writer is any where near as fun to read as they once were on titles like Daredevil, Alias, Flash or JSA. Would they have been better served staying on with the smaller, character driven stories that defined their early careers? Probably not... It's hard not to wonder though, what might have been if Johns was still writing a Wally West Flash book or Bendis was penning a smaller, crime-ridden second tier Marvel hero.
I guess this really serves as a reminder to enjoy the great runs while they're still taking place. Some times we don't realize until they're long over just how special these stories are...


  1. Wow, what a great article! I definitely know what you mean, Johns is still one of my favorites and I have extremely high hopes for JLA, but just taking a look at Brightest Day, you can see some of that excitement and energy gone... To be honest, I think I felt that energy more in his recent Flash series again, he was obviously very psyched about bringing Barry Allen back in to the DCU. Love it while it lasts!

  2. See, I never got that sense from the last Flash series. I don't know if it's because it was such a short run or what but it just didn't have that classic Johns feel to me. The closest Johns has come to the old Flash/JSA vibe for me was on the first issues of the new GL and Aquaman and even that petered out a little after the first issues.

    I still love the guy but there's just something lacking...

  3. This article is so true *nods head*... now give me my free stuff!