Category Archives: Comic Reviews

12 Essential Superhero Comic Books

Marvel and DC (along with many other smaller or independent publishers) put out hundreds of different comic books issues and collected editions each year. There’s so many titles on the market, that unless readers make the effort to research what’s coming out, many of them would be completely lost. Often, individual characters like Spiderman  even have multiples series starring them being released simultaneously. Today, I thought I’d ask myself: “If I could only read one book or series starring each of my favourite characters, what would I choose?” And so today I present to you, ‘12 Essential Superhero Comic Books‘or ‘The only books you’ll ever need.‘All these books are avaible in some form in collected print editions or digitally over on Comixology.co.uk.

Starting in no particular order…

Batman - The Long Halloween

Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

13 Issues – First Published 1996-1997

The first and still the best Batman story I’ve ever read. The story takes place in Batman’s early years and features the rise and fall of district attorney Harvey Dent and his relationship with Batman and Commissioner Gordon as they take on the Corleone crime family. A deftly crafted murder mystery story taking place over a year-long time period, The Long Halloween incorporates nearly every facet of Batman lore, including the best of his expansive rogues’ gallery. Though it may not have as much cultural significance as Frank Miller’s work on the character, The Long Halloween is Batman and co. at what they do best, trying to make Gotham City a better place, even if the road is paved with dark deeds along the way. The Long Halloween has been published in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Superman - All Star Superman

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

12 Issues – First Published 2005-2008

An alternate world story about Superman having to come to grips with his own mortality, All-Star Superman is a masterwork in stirring, emotional storytelling, while still having a mythic level sense of scale and significance in the world. Morrison and Quitely may be one of the most in-tune author/artist pairings to ever grace the pages of a comic book and every possible ounce of quality is eked out these pages. A fitting tribute to the world’s original superhero. All Star Superman has been collected in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Aquaman - The Trench

Aquaman: The Trench, The Others and Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis

20 Issues – First Published 2011-2013

Johns and Reis wipe away every possible doubt that Aquaman is a dull, uninteresting character in this seminal 17 (technically 20) issue run (though it runs across multiple books, each book is a part of the ongoing story with the writer and artist remaining the same). As the gorgeously rendered and fantastically badass heir to the throne of Atlantis, Arthur Curry (Aquaman) has to contend with political machinations, assassination plots and an undiscovered race of deadly sea creatures that threaten both his worlds in the ocean and on land. If you ever had any interest in seeing the true nature of Aquaman, then this run is a must read. Geoff John’s run on Aquaman has been collected in three short paperback editions.

Iron Man - Extremis

Iron Man: Extremis by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov

6 Issues – First Published 2005-2006

Artist Adi Granov usually only sticks to illustrating covers for other series, but his brief, 6 issue stint into doing all the art for this story makes it worth reading on that single fact alone. But not only that, Extremis is arguably the quintessential 21st century Iron Man story, telling you pretty much everything you ever needed to know about the titular genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. When terrorists manage to get hold of an experimental bio-weapon that turns normal men into flaming death machines, Tony Stark must find a way to stop them, while also considering the place of the weapons he’s built in the name of world peace. Extremis has been collected in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Hulk - Planet HulkPlanet Hulk by Greg Pack, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti

16 Issues – First Published 2006-2007

Bruce Banner and the Hulk have both appeared in thousands of stories over the past 54 years since he debuted, not just in his own series, but in the pages of the many Avengers titles along with many other series. This 16 issue story arc, is the best of them all. Bar none. With a group of other heroes having finally decided he’s too much of a threat to remain on Earth, the Hulk is tricked into being fired into deep space. However, through a series of events he winds up stranded on a world with a tyrannical ruler and is forced to fight in the arena as a gladiator. A legendary tale of titans on both an epic and incredibly personal scale, Planet Hulk is the cosmic odyssey of a man and a beast who learns that there is more to himself than just anger and hate. Planet Hulk has been published in its entirety as a single paperback edition.

Inhumans - InhumansInhumans by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee

12 Issues – First Published 1998-1999

The Inhumans have been appearing in the pages of Fantastic Four since the mid-60s, but larger audiences finally started to take notice with this gorgeous miniseries published in the late 90s. Taking place shortly after the Inhumans have revealed themselves to the world, this focuses on the efforts of their self-willed mute king, Black Bolt, and the rest of the royal family, to keep the people of the city of Attilan safe from threats both inside and outside their walls. This series serves not only as a great story in its own right, but is a fascinating exploration of the culture and power structure of the Inhuman race, and is essential for any fan not just of comics but science fiction in general. Inhumans has been collected in its entirety as a single hardback edition.

Hawkeye - Hawkeye

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja

22 Issues – First Published 2012-2014

Adopting a dog, being the landlord of an apartment building, causing trouble with the Russian mob. Just a day in the life of Clint Barton, long time Avenger and the world’s greatest marksman. And with his headstrong protégé Kate Bishop along for the ride, what could possibly go wrong next in Hawkeye’s anything-but-average time off from flying robots and falling cities. Fraction and Aja bring Hawkeye down to earth in a seemingly endless number of creative, sharp, hilarious and endearing ways. Famous for having an issue written primarily in sign language, one from the perspective of Clint’s canine companion and even an animal themed Christmas TV special, Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is the funniest, most lovable, most heartfelt comic to come out in years. Hawkeye has been collected in four short paperback editions, two oversized hardback editions, and a single hardback omnibus edition.

Spiderman - Ultimate Spiderman

Ultimate Spiderman by Brian Michael Bendis

200+ Issues – First Published 2000-2015

The Ultimate Universe was a project Marvel began in 2000, intended to introduce new readers with a fresh start, a new universe running alongside the regular Marvel Comics universe, but without 40 years of convoluted continuity. Ultimate Spiderman was the premiere title of this initiative. Featuring a teenage Peter Parker, this series retold many old stories with new energy and fresh, modern art, while also introducing many new story elements such as Kitty Pryde (one of my favourite characters in all of comics) as Peter’s love interest and Miles Morales as the black Spiderman. The most easy-to-enjoy Spiderman series since the character’s beginnings, Ultimate Spiderman is one of the big reasons both me, and a whole generation of readers fell in love with comics. Ultimate Spiderman has been collected in over thirty short paperback editions as well as several longer paperback editions and partially in a long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

Avengers - The Ultimates

The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

26 Issues – First Published 2002-2007

What Bendis did for Spiderman, author Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch did for the Avengers, with their Ultimate Universe counterpart, ‘The Ultimates’. Edgier, bigger and bolder than any other superhero book being released at the time, it featured a line-up consisting of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and several other key players, with a Sam Jackson looking Nick Fury behind the wheel. This book served as the key inspiration for Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is blockbuster comic writing at its absolute best. It’s perhaps the most entertaining comic I’ve ever read, if you can buy into its ridiculousness. Note: listening to the music of Tool while reading may induce seizures due to the sheer widescreen awesomeness coming into your eyes and ears. Caution is advised. I’ve also ceremoniously dubbed ‘Vicarious’ as the main theme of this book. The Ultimates has been collected in four short paperback editions and two larger paperback editions as ‘The Ultimates’ and ‘The Ultimates 2’, and as a single long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

X-Men - New X-Men

New X-Men by Grant Morrison

42 Issues – First Published 2001-2004

Beginning just after the mutants first hit it big at the box office, Morrison redefined the landscape of Marvel’s X-Men titles by turning the Xavier Institute into a proper educational academy, establishing the Weapon X program as including more than just Wolverine, bringing secondary mutations into the fold, and most notably of all, the killing over 15 million mutants within the first story arc. Mature, weird, wonderful, and utterly enthralling are all words I’d use to describe this epic 42 issue narrative, which sets the stage for practically every post 2000s X-Men story, including the glorious Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, which immediately follows on from this book. It’s up for contention whether New X-Men is the best run on the franchise ever written, but in every manner possible, it’s got my vote. New X-Men is collected in either seven short paperback editions, three larger paperback editions and in a single hardback omnibus edition that will be reprinted in November 2016.

Annihilation

Annihilation 

29 Issues – First Published 2006-2007

2006 saw the release of Civil War, the big event that set the comic’s world on fire with its insane popularity. However, while Civil War was flying off store shelves, a talented group of writers and artists at Marvel where quietly revamping and reintroducing the Cosmic line-up. Hero’s like Nova and the Silver Surfer, joined by former villains like Drax, Gamora, Super-Skrull and Ronan the Accuser, all came together to combat the universal threat that was Annihilus, whose insect drones spewed across the cosmos from the Negative zone. Throw the mad titan Thanos, the enigmatic Peter Quill and the world eater Galactus himself into the mix, and you have a science fiction epic worthy of the gods. Presented as a group of concurrently occurring miniseries before the big finale event, Annihilation set the stage for writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s beloved tenure as the lead authors of Marvel’s Cosmic comics for the next 5 years. All in all, Annihilation was and still is considered to be one of if not the best event comics in Marvel’s history. Annihilation has been collected in three paperback and hardback collections and as a long out-of-print hardback omnibus edition.

Green Lantern - The Sinestro Corps War

Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War by Geoff Johns

11 Issues – First Published 2007-2008

I admit I may have been cheating a little, since the last few entries have been longer stories on titles by the same author, but believe me, they’re worth everything they ask of you. This final entry though,  is worth even more. From 2004 to 2013, Geoff Johns changed practically everything readers thought they knew about Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps. The ring wielding space cops found new worlds to save, new challenges to overcome, and of course, new foes to battle, with Geoff John’s writing have a true sense of mythic proportions. The inarguable high point of this journey was the Sinestro Corps War, as Jordan’s long-time nemesis Sinestro formed his own army of fear to do battle with the might of the Green Lanterns. A story of loss, hope, horror and redemption, this is superhero comics at their most spectacular. John’s entire run on Green Lantern is collected in three hardback omnibus editions, with the first containing the beginning of his work up until the end of the Sinestro Corps War. I personally recommend starting from Green Lantern: Rebirth, the miniseries that opens the first omnibus, and Johns first work on the character.

Adapting the DC Universe: Part 2(a)…

Note: beware of possible spoilers below…

*After last’s week big bowl of negativity, I want to talk about something a little more enthusiastically. I was originally only going to discuss Young Justice this week, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about the history of some of the history of DC adaptations from the modern age of comics onward before getting down to the meat of things. Unfortunately this means little mention of any adaptation pre 1980s. Sorry Adam West fans. Due to the sheer amount of things I want to discuss, this particular article will be split into two parts. I just couldn’t leave things out.

*All the emboldened adaptations I discuss are ones I consider personally important and will also have watch recommendations written with them…

11 years after Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) proved that superheroes were a highly profitable big screen venture, Tim Burton’s infamous Batman (1989) changed the face of not only the superhero genre, but also the blockbuster industry as a whole. Copious amounts violence and disturbing imagery, a gorgeously gothic style and an iconic score combined to make a movie that audiences the world over flocked to in droves. But of personal interest to me is the thing that came afterwards. I’ve always found DC to have more critical success with their animated adaptations rather than their live-action versions, but in-fact many of these critical successes in that format come down to coherent, effective writing and presentation. Let’s begin then with a big one.

Batman: The Animated Series

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On 6th September 1992, “On Leather Wings”, the first episode of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series aired on television. It introduced us to an animated version of Batman that was more in line with the version seen in Burton’s film and Bob Kane’s original comic than anything seen before it (I’m looking at you 1960s Batman). Utilising influences of art deco, noir and some of the gothic visual cues found in the 1989 film, as well as 1980s Batman comics, like (surprise, surprise) The Dark Knight Returns, the show presented viewers with a rich, beautifully haunting look into Gotham city and its inhabitants. Batman became a symbol of fear for criminals, Bruce Wayne transforming into a businessman of great wit and assertiveness compared to previous renditions. This series introduced the world to Harley Quinn, Mark Hamill’s quintessential Joker, Kevin Conroy’s Batman and countless other memorable characters and performances, all clearly expressing a keen love for the source material they originated in while placing unique new twists on them.

For many, including some of the most dedicated comic enthusiasts, Batman: The Animated Series remains the definitive, most well-realised interpretation of the Dark Knight to appear in any format, page or screen. Its stories, though still airing on children’s television, hardly shied away from mature aspects of the character like fear, complex personal tragedy, mental illness, addiction, sexuality, corruption, and violence, but never became outlandish, keeping individual stories tightly contained into one or two twenty-minute episodes with sharp, often darkly witty writing that seemed more skewed towards adult audiences then children. Batman: The Animated Series also established the DC Animated Universe, something that will prop up again later on in this article.

Why the series, and so many of its individual stories, succeed as adaptations is because they take the audience’s established knowledge of what is a not just a character, but a pop-culture icon, and build on it, creating a universe full of dastardly rogues, shady criminals, and downright monsters, that remain to this day iconic. It added to Batman lore, with Harley Quinn later being added to the comics. It modernised Dick Grayson’s Robin for general audiences, paved the way for other DC adaptations and brought in strong female heroes and villains like Batgirl and Catwoman that had serious roles. It even spawned a plethora of spin-off series and films. To this day, Batman: The Animated Series remains, to me at least, not only one of the most important and greatest animated series ever to air on television, but one of the greatest TV series of all time.

The show is mostly episodic, so can be enjoyed in almost any order, so several episodes that everyone should see before they die include:

  • “On Leather Wings”: A glorious, compelling introduction to the Dark Knight of Gotham and the Man-Bat.
  • “Two-Face”: the introduction of one Batman’s most tragic villains is starkly harrowing and undeniably gripping.
  • “Almost Got ‘Im”: An exemplary masterpiece of clever writing and construction, this iconic episode features interactions between many major villains over a game of poker, each with a story of how they almost caught the Batman.

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There are many more I could name, but these are just a few of the best. Remember before how I mentioned the DC Animated Universe? Well this was a project of Bruce Timm, one of Batman: The Animated Series creators, to expand this style of adaptation to other heroes, most notably, Superman, whose own Superman: The Animated Series began airing in 1996. This is another classic that gave a stark, more grounded depiction of the character and garnered similar critical success, even bringing in other major DC characters like the Flash and Green Lantern in some team-up episodes. The series also crossed over with Batman: The Animated Series, as they were both part of the same fictional universe. Speaking of which…

Batman Beyond

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This show takes the concept of ‘putting a new spin on things’ to a whole other level. Set many years after Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, follows Terry McGinnis, a teenager who is taken under the wing of an elderly Bruce Wayne to be the new Batman in a future Gotham City. Channelling everything about the first Bruce Timm Batman series and dashing in healthy doses of dystopian sci-fi and Blade Runner homages, this series epitomises the use of adapting a comic in a completely unique way. Batman Beyond is an original concept that sprung from the minds of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini and was incredibly dark for a children’s show, further building on the themes established in the earlier series while adding its own, such as cyberpunk culture and the social conflicts involved in technological advancement.

*Moment of unprofessionalism. If you haven’t seen Batman Beyond before, watch the show’s intro and tell me you’re not interested. Go on! I dare you! Moment of unprofessionalism over.*

This is the series that I watched as much as I could growing up. I mean, it’s Batman in the future. How is that not automatically the coolest thing ever? But having revisited it years later, I began to truly appreciate its complexity and maturity. The series showed audiences a very different kind of Batman, one new to the responsibilities and risks of crime fighting and the effects it can have on the people in someone’s life, as well as the person themselves. It was a bold show that took many creative risks, especially since it began airing at a time when competing Marvel animated series were becoming more light-hearted in contrast to their relative maturity throughout the 90s (see X-Men, the classic 1992 series). Batman Beyond’s stories stood out more than any other animated series airing at the time and even if not all of them were as memorable as others, they still demonstrated a tremendous amount of style.

Like its predecessor, Batman Beyond is mostly episodic, but at least watch the first season in order as there is an ongoing story in those episodes. They’re also all worth watching as well, though the show’s highlights for me are easy:

  • “Rebirth”: Featuring tragedy, obsession and gripping writing, these episodes not only give us great origins to the main cast of the series, but also introduce a fantastic new villain to the DC mythos.
  • “Dead Man’s Hand”: Many members of the series’ cast are teenagers and this episode perfectly captures the effects the Batman lifestyle has on Terry’s social life in a meaningful and heartfelt way. He meets ‘someone new’, but ends up getting a little more than he bargained for.
  • “The Call”: This two-parter is great because it features a very aged version of the Justice League, as Terry is inducted into its ranks. A true treat for DC fans.”

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Batman Beyond also features a punchy, atmospheric soundtrack that blends incredibly well into its setting and the series eventually spawned one of my favourite DC superhero films, The Return of the Joker, which as you would guess, features the return of the classic villain to haunt Bruce and Terry in 2039. It was the first Warner Brothers. Family Entertainment film to be rated PG-13 and had to heavily censored for its original TV broadcast, proving how DC could still find both critical and commercial success with mature, intelligent and stylised narratives.

Next week I’ll get to my favourite DC adaptations and touch on some of the live-action works like Superman Returns, Green Lantern and Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse…

Adapting the DC Universe: Part 1…

Note: beware of possible spoilers below…

I love superheroes. I love comic books. I love stories that take my favourite characters in brand new directions. But I really don’t like Dawn of Justice. I just can’t get behind it at all, even though the film is heavily inspired by two of my favourite graphic novels of all time, The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman. The characters, in many cases, are poorly brought into the DC cinematic universe and to put it plainly, are not yet fully rounded individuals. Over the next three weeks I will be discussing adaptations of DC’s heroes, so to get the trash out of the way first, this first article will focus on the failures of Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in establishing the characters of this universe. Next week will focus on what I consider to be the best adaptation of a DC property, the animated, fan-favourite TV series Young Justice and why that was so critically successful. Finally, my third article will focus on the comic book storylines I’d like to see turned into live action films or series, somewhere down the line in DC’s cinematic history.

So it finally seems like the uproar left in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s release has finally begun to subside. I’ve no doubt even those living under rocks have heard at least taste of the appalling critical reception it got so let’s jump past that quickly. In my opinion, it’s a great film about Batman’s quest to destroy Superman, trapped inside the suffocated husk of another film designed solely to capitalise on existing IPs and rush DC’s cinematic universe to an inevitably even more incomprehensible Justice League. It’s an unfortunate 4 or 5/10 at most, though at least the soundtrack is beastly.

batman-v-superman-dual-character-poster

Anyway, perhaps the film’s greatest failing is its treatment of the DC ‘Trinity’, its three most iconic characters: Superman (Clark Kent), Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Wonder Woman (Diana Prince). It’s admirable that Snyder and the writing team have tried to take these characters in engaging new directions, but they’re attempting to walk in the footsteps of significantly superior writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who have not only created beloved renditions of many comic book characters, but have also been able to subvert existing interpretations in exciting ways (see Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns for a prime example). From everything we’ve seen so far, Snyder and the people at Warner Bros. are simply not up to the task, especially at the accelerated rate they’re introducing new characters. They’ve failed to create a cast of fully rounded characters with believable personalities and motivations, and even have some that have zero purpose whatsoever.

Superman:

Let’s begin with the big one, the ‘Man of Steel’ himself, Superman. This version of Superman we have, especially in Dawn of Justice has a compelling debate in theory. The world is reeling from Superman’s wrecking of Metropolis in Man of Steel and Superman’s place on the Earth is being debated; is he a saviour or a bringer of doom. The best complements I can give to this idea is that Superman is fundamentally both. He is a being of godlike power, capable of saving it or destroying if he chooses. Humanity both reveres and is terrified by this being because he holds their lives in his hands.

Yet in response to the compelling nature of this debate, this Superman displays very little response, outside of a few key scenes. In many regards this version of Superman is unfit for his position, quick to anger and displaying very little mercy to anyone who crosses him. This Superman is different from his comic and pop culture variants, yet not in the good way. In every manner he deserves his negative reputation, and as pointed out by Bruce Wayne, he is a hypocrite, and an unequivocally dull one at that.

It almost all falls down to poor execution and presentation. A Superman that destroys the drone which is very understandably sent to track him, and that openly threatens to break the limbs of people who harm him is not a protector of the Earth and certainly not the leader of the Justice League, at least not any League that I remember. Even in the comics and other adaptations, though Superman is not always right, that doesn’t mean that without extreme justification he should resort to murder.  Snyder’s Superman is not only a Superman that is unlikable, but also a character that doesn’t (yet – I shall hold out hope) deserve the admiration he should based upon his glaring personality flaws. Also, this Superman will never have a tense moment again because some idiot decided to show him essentially resurrecting in the final seconds. Whoever thought that was a good idea wants sacking, right now if they haven’t been already.

Wonder Woman:

I’m interested to see the movie critics who were absolutely loving Wonder Woman were watching, because it certainly was not Dawn of Justice, where the Amazon warrior has about 5 minutes of screen time, if that, zero motivation and no purpose in the movie other than to attract an extra demographic.

I’m not displeased in the little bit of personality we see from her, easily the most uplifting of the three main heroes, yet what we’ve seen barely constitutes a character, especially not one I can get attached to yet. This is Wonder Woman we’ve never seen before, one already fully integrated into modern society, having spent the last hundred years among us and I’m interested in seeing the opinions she voices about normal humans, having lived among them instead of being divided by her heritage. Yet despite the promise her character shows, I simply haven’t seen enough of it to make a decent judgement call, which ultimately, is the fault of Batman v Superman being a franchise movie.

Batman

I’ll admit it, Batfleck turned out to be incredible and I couldn’t be more excited by the upcoming solo movie supposedly being written by Affleck and the great Geoff Johns. There are only really two things I will say about Batman that urk me about his presentation in this film, the first being his apparent willingness to not only use firearms but also to kill many of his foes outright without any attempt at a use of nonlethal force, and the second being his sudden change of attitude to Superman when he realises they have mothers with the same name.

The first point is ‘somewhat’ understandably glossed over for the most part, besides a single conversation with Alfred early on in the film. Bruce Wayne is understandably enraged and angry, seemingly frustrated with his inability to contend against Superman, and that for all his efforts to defeat crime in Gotham, not only in 20 years has he not been able to do so (even costing the possible death of Robin) but now he is nearly powerless to contend against threats from the stars. He has turned ‘cold’ as Alfred says in his age. The debate about the morality of Bruce Wayne’s more brutal tactics at this point is a large point of contention in The Dark Knight Returns, and would probably take up a very large amount of screen time in an already crowded and long film. All I can say for now is that it is hopefully covered in a future movie, for it definitely needs to be addressed.

The second point, about Batman’s sudden change of heart, is just sloppy writing and the less said about it, the better. Perhaps if Bruce had looked into Luther more, he might have seen he was being manipulated, but there’s nothing we can do about it now without pulling a Days of Future Past style retcon.

Dawn of Justice has many more issues to do with its writing alone, not to mention some of the other aspects, but there’s been enough negativity in one article by now so I’ll not mention them here. It’s a deeply flawed, yet important film that I urge everyone to go see at least once if they haven’t already. The potential to create an enthralling DC cinematic universe is still alive, at least if the first Justice League film turns out to be better. Adaptation that is both very accessible and yet satisfying for existing fans is extremely difficult, especially with a pantheon of characters like DC has, but next week we’ll look at an adaptation that has managed to pull off this gargantuan task marvellously.

Until then, prepare for Darkseid…