COMICS AND ME
Ever since I stumbled upon Dave Shevlin’s Twitter, and his concept of “Comfort Food Comics”, I’ve been wracking my brains trying to figure out what my comfort food comics are. What are the books I can go back to time and time again, the single issues and arcs that make me feel like I’m home?
Now, I could delve into the minutiae of the concept, and talk about my love of 52, the weekly series that spanned the gap between Infinite Crisis and One Year Later, or I could do a deep dive into why Global Frequency is a seminal piece of work that broadened my horizons more so than any book prior, but I thought… that’s not where I should start. Instead, I want to talk about a specific period in time that I draw comfort from.
“What period of time is that?” I hear you ask. I’m talking about July 1986 to August 2011, from the publication of The Man of Steel #1 through to Batman: Gates of Gotham #5. This is where I find comfort in comics, and today I’m going to talk about why.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOST CONVOLUTED PUBLISHING INITIATIVE OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Most of us know the story by now, but just in case you don’t, it’s time for a history lesson. I’ll try to keep it short! DC Comics had a multiverse problem. Ever since The Flash #123, from September 1961, there had existed alternate versions of Earth, and what started with a split between Earth-1– where the current DC line was set– and Earth-2– where the 1940s heroes known as the Justice Society existed– went from multiple Earths to infinite.
Some started as story mandated alternate realities! August 1964’s Justice League of America #29 introduced Earth-3, where the Justice League’s doppelgangers, the Crime Syndicate, ruled their planet with an iron fist and an altruistic Lex Luthor was the sole hero! Some were dictated by DC’s purchase of other comic book companies, such as Earth-S for Fawcett Comics’ characters– or as you may know them, the originators of Shazam!, aka the original Captain Marvel– and Earth-X for the Quality Comics characters, who ended up on an Earth where the Nazis won the war.
As the concept of the multiverse expanded, and characters bounced from one world to the next, it all became too much for the Powers-That-Be in DC’s editorial team, and eventually, they said enough was enough.
With that came the decision to streamline their line. The mega-event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, reduced infinite Earths into a singular, reset the publishing line’s internal history, and everything was fixed forever and ever, the end*.
*The multiverse came back multiple times after this, namely in 1994’s Zero Hour, 1999’s The Kingdom and 2006’s 52, and we have also had occurrences of a Multi-Multiverse, a Megaverse, a Metaverse, and a Dark Multiverse. Comics, everybody!
What next? That’s where the fun begins. I consider my comfort food comics to begin with John Byrne’s seminal miniseries, The Man of Steel, the story of Superman’s origins for this new timeline. It all started there. Everything that came next was borne from this six-issue event, and it’s the kind of story you still feel the effects of to the present day.
This is the kind of seminal story that informs writers to this very day. Look at Henry Cavill’s tenure as Superman. What was his first film called? The Man of Steel is so important, so vital, that you still see echoes of it throughout the work of writers decades later. Where would the character be in 2020 without this six-parter that hit the newsstands in 1986?
Personally, this is not one of my favourite stories, but it sets the stage for what I consider the best. I’ve found that I can pick up any issue from this period forward and enjoy it because this is the “continuity” I grew up with.
I have vivid memories of reading the collected editions of 1993’s World Without Superman which covered the aftermath of Superman’s “death” at the hands of Doomsday (a death that didn’t stick) and Knightfall, Part 2: Who Rules The Night, which takes place after Bane breaks Batman’s back and the fanatical Azrael assumes the mantle of the Dark Knight (god, I love comics). I don’t know what it was about coming into those stories in the middle part of their individual trilogies, but hey, that’s how it happened for me. Those two stories wouldn’t exist without the foundation of The Man of Steel, so it’s important we use it as the starting point.
But yes, the main reason The Man of Steel is so important is that it sets the stage. For me, history is important when it comes to comics. As I was growing up, every story I was reading was built on the backs of ones that came prior; it’s a straight shoot from The Man of Steel, which came out before I was born, to the first issue of Batman I read as a pre-teen.
From 1986 onwards, every story continued from the last, because every book took place in the same continuity. When Batman’s back was broken, you didn’t see him running around in Justice League (you did see him with an awesome tricked out wheelchair in two issues of Justice League Task Force though, don’t @ me). When Superman died, the arc Funeral For A Friend showed how other heroes dealt with his passing, and when four replacement Supermen debuted soon after– Superboy, Steel, Cyborg-Superman and the Last Son of Krypton– you saw them pop up in other books too! Everything mattered, and that made everything feel important.
Moving away from Superman, throughout the nineties and into the noughties, Batman’s circle of trust expanded to include multiple Robins, Batgirls and other adjacent characters. Barbara Gordon went from the dynamic Batgirl to the information broker Oracle, after being paralysed at the hands of the Joker. We never forgot what got these characters to that point, and I think that’s so important. Character matters. History matters. Without their experiences, who are they? And if we follow a character for over twenty years, see their struggles and triumphs, and then suddenly all that’s wiped away, why did we bother investing so much time in them?
Cassandra Cain, who recently appeared– somewhat altered from the source material– in 2020’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), started as a mute homeless girl with a mysterious past, became Batgirl with the encouragement of Barbara Gordon, later went through some stuff we don’t talk about at the hands of a terrible writer, and eventually ended up becoming her own heroine, Black Bat, in the latter part of the Post Crisis era. We saw her grow up. We saw her change. Her eventual best friend, Stephanie Brown, went from being the daughter of a supervillain (Cluemaster, but we don’t talk about that), to the vigilante Spoiler, to becoming Robin for a hot minute, then being dead, to being alive again and eventually becoming Batgirl at the end of it all.
And then Flashpoint happened, and everything I grew up loving was wiped away.
Batman: Gates of Gotham might not sound like an important story, and to be fair, it wasn’t. The creative team, which included future Batman Hall of Fame writer Scott Snyder and eventual writer of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers comics series, Kyle Higgins, joined by artists Trevor McCarthy, who has worked on numerous titles for both DC and Marvel, and Graham Nolan, who was behind the art for some of the greatest Batman stories of the nineties, wove a story that connected the past of Gotham City and the present and showcased various characters that had reached their own personal Everests.
The story itself wasn’t important in the grand story-telling scheme of things, but what it was, and what people tend to forget, is that it was the final story published in the Post-Crisis continuity I’ve been rambling about. That makes it important, even if nobody has really paid attention to it.
It featured Tim Drake, who started as a Robin that Bruce Wayne didn’t want and ended up as his adopted son, had gone through his own evolution, from Robin to Batman to Red Robin (yes, he became Batman for three issues, when everyone thought Bruce Wayne was dead). In that time, he’d faced off against some of the greatest villains in the Bat-pantheon, including eco-terrorist and Taken-cosplayer Ra’s Al Ghul, and the nigh unbeatable assassin Lady Shiva– and he came out on top. He was the only member of the Bat-family to believe that Bruce Wayne was still alive, and he was right– of course, Bruce wasn’t dead, he’d only been sent back in time by Darkseid, the God of Evil, and his Omega Sanction! Of course. Of course… of course.
I’d read Tim’s first appearance, and I’d seen him go through hell to end up where he was now. I remember the first time he faced off against the Joker. When he was caught between Bane and Killer Croc in the sewers beneath Gotham. I was there when his father was murdered by Captain Boomerang (don’t start) and I was there when Bruce asked him if he would accept being adopted. I’d been through it all. This was my guy. This was my hero.
And after Gates of Gotham, and the universe resetting event known as Flashpoint, Tim wasn’t the Tim I knew anymore. Cassie wasn’t Black Bat (she didn’t exist yet) and Stephanie Brown wasn’t Batgirl (she didn’t exist yet). Thus, my era of comfort food comics ended. Enter The New 52. Enter the modern dark age of DC Comics.
I found comfort in the existence of the Justice Society of America, heroes who banded together in World War 2, who stepped away from public life in the 1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee demanded they unmask. I found comfort in the fact that most of them lived happily ever after, had kids, and due to various plot contrivances, stayed relatively fit into the 21st century. Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, had two children who ceased to exist when Flashpoint happened. His son, Todd, was the hero Obsidian and went on to be one of the few out gay characters in DC comics. With Flashpoint, he ceased to exist.
Without the JSA and their Post-Crisis continuity, I wouldn’t have experienced my all-time favourite series, Starman. That book is worth an essay unto itself. Everything that happened from The Man of Steel through to Batman: Gates of Gotham, mattered to me because I’d lived a life with these characters. I’d seen them grow and change. It sounds ridiculous to be this invested in a fictional character’s existence, but that’s what I am. Everything that came after that period in time has felt lifeless, and those aforementioned Powers-That-Be in DC editorial knew it. They’ve spent nine years– nine years— course-correcting the decision to remove decades of continuity from their titles.
They replaced their brooding, alienated Superman with the Post-Crisis version. Suddenly, you had a Superman who was married, who had a kid, who experienced everything that I grew up reading. It was amazing. Wally West, the Flash that I read when I was a teenager, returned after nearly a decade’s absence, bringing with him the promise of better days (that didn’t exactly happen, but I don’t want to get into that mess today).
You see, DC realised that what people loved about these characters wasn’t their tone– the majority of The New 52 line was directed at the teen audience, so things were darker, more violent– Superman’s parents died when he was a kid, Wonder Woman carried a sword (and wore a choker!) and everyone was unlucky in love and pined for somebody they couldn’t have. Superman even ended up dating Wonder Woman, who was also the God of War. Batman was fine though. Batman is always fine.
Comics are about growth. Not growth for plot’s sake, but growth for characters’ sakes. Clark Kent was raised by Ma and Pa Kent to be a man of the world, not an insular, distrustful alien. Wonder Woman was raised as the paragon of peace, not as someone who throws herself into a fight sword-first (and choker second). The sudden lack of depth of all these characters had when Flashpoint occurred left me feeling empty. There was no longer the emotional resonance I had when I was reading the characters a mere month before.
I’m hopeful for the future of DC Comics, but I scour the internet for comics from the 25 year period between The Man of Steel #6 and Batman: Gates of Gotham #5. And if you want to read some of the best stories from that time, here are some quick recommendations, without much comment, that maybe one day Dave will allow me to talk about in further detail.
Batman #664-665 – Grant Morrison is the greatest comic book writer ever. There, I said it. In this early arc from his seven-year opus on Batman, Bruce faces off against an alpha male doppelganger engineered to elicit his greatest fears. And he beats him by rubbing himself up with dirty laundry. And it works.
Green Lantern #132-136 – Title character Kyle Rayner embodies the Post Crisis era of DC Comics, a character built on change and legacy. He became the last Green Lantern, was unlike any character who wore the ring before and became the best of them. This arc is an early one from Judd Winnick, whose distinct voice took the character into the latest stage of his evolution with distinction and verve.
Starman #12-16 – This was how I got into the title, through repeated readings of the copy I repeatedly took out from the library. “Sins of the Child” is one of the best, scariest, tensest superhero stories you’ll ever read, from a character I had no clue about going in, but whose story is vital to my own fandom.
Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia – A special one-shot graphic novel by two of the hottest talents around– Greg Ruck and JG Jones– that pits Wonder Woman against Batman and shows the latter why the former is the boss. I mean, just look at that cover. Rucka goes on to write two runs on Wonder Woman that are next level, but this is the tops.
I could keep going, but I’ve already gone on for far too long. What are your comfort food comics?