This article originally appeared on JHU Online in January 2009.
Of 2008's slate of superhero movies, there were some definite hits (Iron Man, The Dark Knight) and some definite misses (Punisher: War Zone, The Spirit).
I know when these films came out, folks were asking for the adaptations
of the movies, but neither Marvel or DC have put out adaptations for
their recent films. However, we can direct you to some excellent
collected editions that may have provided the inspiration for the films,
or make excellent companions.
summer's Iron Man movie is widely regarded as one of the better
superhero movies ever released. The film-makers did not choose a
specific storyline from Iron Man's past, but chose instead to take
elements from past stories, and the essence of who Tony Stark is, and
crafted a fun, political, action packed sci-fi thriller. A good
companion for the movie for those who may not have read much Iron Man is
definitely this year's new Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca, now available in hardcover (coincidentally, on my best-of list for 2008).
new Iron Man series has been a smash hit with both critics and fans
alike, and for many good reasons. Until recently, a B-List character who
shines more in team books, Iron Man has become the lynch-pin of the
Marvel Universe: His side came out victorious in the superhero civil
war, he is the leader of the Avengers and the director of SHIELD, and
the world depends on the technology his multi-billion dollar company
makes. But instead of jumping into the mire of Tony Stark's place within
the Marvel Universe, Fraction wisely tells a story a bit more close to
home for Iron Man. The story follows Stark as he tries to defend his
company, his life, and the lives of millions from the son of an old
enemy with a serious bone to pick. The book, with stunning art by
Larroca, is the best solo Iron Man book put out in years, and is packed
with action, humor, cool surprises, and nifty little moments (I got a
kick out of the casual game of chess with Reed Richards and the quiet
moments between Tony and the ever loyal Pepper Potts). This book
provides an excellent introduction to the character for those unfamiliar
with him, and primes the reader for the changes to come in Tony's life
as a result of Marvel's big Secret Invasion event. Fraction and Larroca's Invincible Iron Man is the new solo it-book for the Marvel Universe and one of the best superhero books on the stands.
Like Iron Man, this summer's smash-hit masterpiece The Dark Knight doesn't have any single influence, but many.
One of the easiest to find is certainly the highly regarded The Long Halloween by the noted team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. The focus of Long Halloween
is a murder mystery - someone is killing mobsters, and it is up to
Batman to find out and stop it. At the same time, district attorney
Harvey Dent is struggling to prosecute both the murders and the
mobsters, despite the corruption all around him. The Dark Knight uses the essence of Long Halloween's
depiction of Harvey Dent's journey from savior to fallen hero quite
effectively, and mirrors the story's greater focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman
as an active, skilled detective.
Of course the main focus of The Dark Knight is the Joker, and a good example of who the Joker is and just how far he will go can be found in the seminal Batman story The Killing Joke
by comics master Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. While accross nearly 70
years, many great stories have been told of the Joker's twisted actions
and his even more twisted relationship with the Caped Crusader, The Killing Joke
is widely regarded as one of the best - and one of the best single
comics ever made. In one issue, we see Joker go farther than he has
before with his enemies in the police department in terms of sheer
brutality and psychological violence, (what may be) Joker's origin, and
we see in just a few pages the essence of the relationship between two
troubled men in costume, inexorably tied to each other for the rest of
their lives. DC recently re-released The Killing Joke as a deluxe hardcover, and for anyone interested in reading the definitive Joker story, this is the book to get.
There have been several notorious attempts to bring the Punisher to the big screen, and last month's Punisher: War Zone
excited fans with obvious intentions to finally "get it right."
Apparently, to the producers, getting it right meant seeking out the
source material, specifically Garth Ennis's defining run with the
character in Punisher from Marvel's MAX Comics mature-readers line of books. Punisher War Zone, like Punisher
MAX, is a brutally violent work. But unlike Ennis's Punsiher, it is a
profoundly stupid one. It has all of the brutality of Punisher MAX, with
none of the context.
Let me explain... In Punisher War Zone,
Frank Castle wages war against the worst criminals alive, and what is
presented is brutal, gory, and completely without context. The violence is glorified.
Certainly the level of violence in Punisher MAX is at levels almost
unseen in superhero comics, but in Ennis's books, it is presented simply
as is. There are certainly cool looking moments, but it is not glorified.
The brutality presented, is simply what used to be off-panel or hinted
at in previous incarnations - if Frank Castle really did what he set out
to do, this is what it looks like. The reader sees these images, and
must come to a moral conclusion about what he or she is seeing within the context of the story. In Punisher
MAX, characters within the story argue and debate the merits of what
Punsiher is doing, the effect on society his actions have. You question
the nature of vigilante justice - not just the nature of what Frank
Castle is doing, but the nature of what all vigilantes do. The reader
never loses sight of the fact that the Punisher is a murderer, not a
superhero, that he kills people in cold blood, bad people. And that his
war on crime, and the wars of his past, have left him a deeply scarred
person. Castle's tragic past - his experiences in Vietnam, the loss of
his family - is never used as
an excuse by himself or others... again, it is simply presented as is:
this is what happened, here is where he is now, you the reader must
decide whether or not this is right, just, moral.
If you were as
frustrated by the recent Punisher movie as I was and want some Punisher
stories with depth as well as the violence expected from someone like
him, then Garth Ennis's Punisher
MAX is the title to read. Ennis has had a long and storied association
with the character, who he redefined in the several fun series from
Marvel Knights (indeed, Marvel recently released a nifty Omnibus
collecting all of Ennis's pre-MAX Punisher work). Under the MAX banner,
Ennis, along with several different talented artists, took Frank Castle
out of the world of capes and superheroes and into our own. His enemies
are frequently involved in organized crime and the simply corrupt.
Castle encounters the full gamut of the worst that humanity can inflict
on its own, and he metes out the appropriate punishment to those who
would kill, maim, enslave. He goes from the streets of New York to take
out gangsters, to the barren tundra of Siberia to save a life and stop a
plague from getting into the wrong hands, to Miami to eliminate corrupt
businessmen. The ten volumes comprising Ennis's Punisher are largely
self-contained individually, though I would read them in order. As the
series progresses, the levels that his targets will go to defend
themselves increase - as does the response from law enforcement to
capture the Punisher at all costs, and there is a loose overall arc the
whole series follows. Part espionage thriller, part mystery, part brutal
exploration of the nature of vigilante justice, this series has it all,
including a surprising and moving climax in the final volume.
Will Eisner's seminal work, The Spirit,
was turned into a feature film directed by Frank Miller. The version of
the Spirit presented by Miller is nothing at all like any version of
the Spirit ever put into print - Denny Colt, Eisner's masked crime
fighter, has no superpowers, and the overall vision Miller put forth is
more similar to Miller's own works, and bears almost zero resemblance to
Eisner's masterworks. Hopefully, by now, this is known by most comic
fans... but, if you are unfamiliar with The Spirit, where to start?
best place, of course, is Eisner's original works. Enough cannot be
said about Will Eisner's importance to the comic medium. He is widely
regarded as inventing, or at least popularizing the graphic novel (yes,
there were antecedents, but it was Eisner who had the earliest critical
and commercial success with the form). But just as important is his
contributions to the language of graphic storytelling in his Spirit strips. Created as a seven page newspaper insert in the summer of 1940, The Spirit would re-invent how stories are told in comics. Previously, comics stuck to a pretty rigid panel/grid structure... Eisner's Spirit radically
broke free from these constraints, with images that burst out of the
panels and spread across entire pages. The construction of the images
allowed the manipulation of both the perception and pacing of the story,
and allowed a much greater artistry. Everything we take for granted
about the construction of the comic form that allows for a depth in
storytelling that prose or film simply cannot achieve were created by
Eisner in these strips. There are so few truly revolutionary
reinventions of the form in comic's history, and Eisner's The Spirit represents one of those important, influential changes.
But what about the stories? Not only does Eisner experiment with language of comics, but he also used The Spirit
to play with different genres, going from noir (one of the first
examples of comic noir in graphic fiction) to crime dramas to love
stories and horror and comedy and, of course, mystery, or some inventive
combination thereof, all keeping the humanity of his wide and colorful
supporting cast front and center. All of Eisner's work on the Spirit has
been collected by DC in a series of wonderful hardcover archive
editions, and just like DC's archive series, the stories are presented
with vibrantly reconstructed colors on archive-quality paper. The Eisner Archive series also collects the work of other contemporary artists on who worked on The Spirit while Eisner was serving in World War 2, including Jack Cole, Jules Feiffer, Joe Kubert, Lou Fine, Wally Wood and more.
Eisner published The Spirit
between 1940 and 1952. Eisner put out a handful of new Spirit stories
in the 1960s and 1970s. Starting in 1996, many notable comics creators
tried their hand at the Spirit including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Paul
Chadwick, Paul Pope, Neil Gaiman and more. Eisner's final work on the
character appeared in The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #6. After Eisner's passing, DC put out the wonderful new Spirit series written and illustrated by the modern master, Darwyn Cooke.
Cooke's take on the Spirit brought him into the modern world without
changing the feel of the original, with Cooke's specific style perfectly
suited to the colorful cast of characters inhabiting Eisner's world of
noir crime-fighting and mystery. Cooke's work has been collected in two
hardcovers, and the current Spirit series continues, written by Mark
Evanier and Sergio Aragones.
For anyone looking to get into The Spirit, either
the Eisner archives or the current Cooke collections are a perfect
place to start. DC also recently released a couple of trade-paperback
collections containing some of Eisner's best work, in The Best of The Spirit, and The Spirit: Femme Fatales.
c) 2009, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson