Damning Evidence

The Fall of the House of Usher #2
Art and Writing by Richard Corben
Adapted from the Short Story by Edgar Allen Poe
Published by Dark Horse

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Amazing that Corben’s desolation, limited to one house and four people, is far more powerful than any featured in Age of Ultron. Where that superhero series used apocalyptic horror as pretext for the same trite crossover theatrics, and a heap of class warfare thrown in for good measure, Corben uses Poe’s excellent sense for the macabre to make compelling drama. The Usher family, as depicted here, reflects not just Puritanical, American patriarchy–brother Roderick claiming ownership of sister Madelaine (“She’s mine!” he exclaims) and objectifying her (a painting subplot borrowed from another Poe story, “The Oval Portrait”)–but also Islamic fundamentalism (Roderick becomes incensed at Allan, his guest, looking upon Madelaine’s portrait). That both should be represented in Roderick, whose house crumbles similarly to the World Trade Center, highlights the human toll exacted by a ruling class, regardless of era, nation, race, or creed. Even Allan, the voice of reason, cannot hope to quell such corruption, only survive it. This bests the callousness of Brian Bendis and his Age of Ultron artists. They deploy 9/11 imagery, piling ruined buildings atop one another, to justify brutality masked as heroism (a War on Terror fable). Corben instead shows there can be no justification for such behavior, no matter the cause.

Superman #123
Art by Ron Frenz and Joe Rubinstein
Writing by Dan Jurgens
Published by DC

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Known for debuting Superman’s electric blue costume. For the theoretical Person Who Does Not Know But Cares Even A Little Bit: this design was explained in the story by Superman switching to unstable, electricity-based powers requiring a containment suit following an accident–a plot device lifted from Christopher Priest and Mark Brooks’ buddy-cop/superhero comic Quantum and Woody, and would later see appearances in some Marvel comics in the ’00s (in the form of Asian characters with radiation-based powers, because Marvel is smooth)–but that’s all to justify what DC saw as great marketing move for Superman, after previously killing him off, bringing him back, and then marrying him to Lois Lane. Notably, the only one of these ideas DC stuck with for their New 52 reboot of the comic character was a costume change.

None of this is important information, save as context for what this is: an efficient, mostly competent piece of mercenary storytelling. While the lion’s share of credit is due to the seamless transition between Joe Rubinstein’s dense (but never cluttered) pages and those of Ron Frenz (more concise and action-oriented), there’s also the unsung contributors who put the comic together. Specifically, I’m talking about those in charge of ad placement. Such a trivial thing in a comic book, but if you pick up any modern Marvel/DC title, it’s easy to spot how often it goes awry: ads placed in the middle of talking head scenes or right before a climactic moment. Traditionally, ads in punch-’em-up comics should function the way commercials do for TV shows: a moment’s respite to take in shock, and delay finding out what happens next. Here, ads get specifically placed after the script’s most tense moments (a monster about to punch Superman, doctors racing to save Superman from dispersing into pure energy, Superman racing to save civilians, etc.). Even at its clunkiest, like Dan Jurgens’ attempts at working class dialogue (suggesting he’s never listened to conversation), Superman flying to Smallville immediately despite a monster on the loose in Metropolis (who turns out to be misunderstood), or Rubinstein switching the locations of two scientists from one panel to the next for dramatic effect, “Superman…Reborn” is remarkably human in pace. Highs are allowed to linger in the brain, lows allowed to play themselves out, and two-page spreads are reserved for images of wonder rather than violence or banality (in this case, Electric Superman taking flight in his costume for the first time). Jim Lee isn’t observant enough to wish he were this good.

Fantastic Four #9
Art by Mark Bagley
Writing by Matt Fraction
Published by Marvel

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On the one hand: a safe, non-offensive retcon of Dr. Doom’s origin. The Thing (taking a break from being portrayed by Tobias Fünke) has revealed that in college, he sabotaged the experiment that would result in Doom’s disfigurement, leading to the man wearing a green hood and ruling over an Eastern European country with an iron fist. Of course, Mr. Fantastic (who also attended college with Doom) points out all of Doom’s tragic history–a montage that proves to be one of maybe two pages where Bagley’s visuals aren’t flat–is what really created his psychotic narcissism. And he’s proven right, giving this comic a Father Knows Best vibe. Where Fraction’s other Four book, FF, is a lot messier from wading into grief and adopted family (and sports much better art from Mike and Laura Allred), this is downright squeaky clean.

On the other hand: in the letters column, there is a fan who was upset Marvel changed John Byrne’s depiction of Mr. Fantastic meeting Invisible Woman when he was a college student, and she a 12-year old girl (who, to quote the fan, “spent years waiting to be old enough for him to notice her”). And, no, John Byrne (the creator of said issue) didn’t treat it as a fucked-up, Lolita-level transgression, but romantic. Just to reiterate: the fan is angry about a retcon to a scene (which itself was a retcon of Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four) that changed a detail of two characters’ shared history that came across like an endorsement for pedophilia. I would say this is damning evidence against comic book geeks in general, except that would be ignoring that brief, dark period in American history where it seemed guys everywhere were drooling with anticipation of the Olsen twins’ eighteenth birthday.

Now, I don’t really want to support either side in this debate. However, if it came down to a decision between a mediocre superhero comic that “disrespects continuity” or a mediocre one which adheres to it like a tick, the decision will always come down to whichever one doesn’t see statutory rape as a plus.

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