By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Dec. 28, 2010 -- Graphic novels and reprint collections came in an avalanche at the end of 2010, capping the best year in history for comics you can put on your bookshelf. That’s worth a column in itself, but who’s got time to do industry analysis when there’s so much great stuff to review?
Great stuff, for example, like Boy Commandos Volume One ($59.99) from DC Comics. Commandos came from the creators of Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the two marquee names in comics in the 1940s and ‘50s – names so big that Titan Books is in the middle of publishing a library of their work.
One reason they were so big was their tendency to create genres, like “kid gang” comics, of which Boy Commandos is an example. But you won’t see this strip in the Titan series on Simon & Kirby, because it’s owned lock, stock and trademark by DC. The only way you can see it is in this reprint series.
Which is no burden – Boy Commandos is worth savoring on its own.
Commandos features four kids from countries at war with the Axis – boys from Holland, France, England and Brooklyn, the latter boy based on Kirby himself – who were led into combat by a generic (and usually absent) adult named Rip Kirby Carter. Why these children are allowed to go into combat is never addressed – but neither is the physics of Superman flying, and we all accept that. In other words: Suspend your disbelief. Just enjoy the stories, because they are far better than they have any right to be.
Perhaps I’m just surprised to see an early 1940s series that didn’t rely on formula. But each story shines on its own, unique within the overall structure. Some stories were mostly comedy, some allegory, some downright grim, and some only peripheral to the main concept – sort of like “The Spirit,” only with kids in fatigues instead of a detective in a mask.
The art, of course, is the best of its era. As all comics fans know, “King” Kirby virtually invented the visual language of comics. He was not only miles ahead of his 1940s contemporaries, he is still the Jedi Master to many of today’s padawans.
Speaking of comics masters being awarded their own libraries, the second volume of Blake Bell’s series on Steve Ditko has arrived. While the first volume focused on Ditko’s work before the disastrous Comics Code of 1954, Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 ($39.99) picks up immediately after, with a representative selection from the artist’s prodigious output in 1954-55 (with occasional commentary by Bell).
While there is no question that Ditko is a unique artist who expanded the frontiers of what is possible in comics, you won’t see much of that here. In fact, it’s kinda repetitive and boring. That’s not Ditko’s fault, of course – it’s the fault of the aforementioned Code, which reduced comics to pap virtually overnight. All 1950s comics creators spent years trying to figure out how to tell interesting stories despite the chains, ball-gag and blindfold of the Code. Suffice to say, Ditko hadn’t figured it out yet in 1954-55, and these short “suspense” and SF stories are as bland a period as this artistic giant ever had.
I don’t have a clever segue into Brightest Day Volume One ($34.99, DC Comics), but this book is clever enough to provide its own. Brightest Day is a 26-issue, twice-monthly series that has spun off the successful “Blackest Night” superhero horror story, but has little to do with that. It’s not even all the “bright” – in places, it’s a pretty dark story on its own.
What Brightest Day is really about is second chances. Or maybe third, fourth or fifth chances. Specifically, it’s about 12 characters who were deceased, but have returned to life for mysterious reasons they slowly discover. Metatextually, it’s about second-banana characters who have failed repeatedly to hold their own titles, given yet another chance to gain reader interest and loyalty.
Can characters like Aquaman, Firestorm, Hawkman and Martian Manhunter ever succeed creatively and financially? So far, Brightest Day is proving they can. I’m enjoying the nostalgic vibe of these characters, whose greatest successes were in the past, but I’m also interested in how writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi are developing them for the 21st century.
Good for them – and good for us!
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.