My Top Three Recommended Graphic Novel Reads for Week Ending April 21
by Christopher Peruzzi
Some things don't happen - at least not in the conventional sense.
Both DC and Marvel Comics like to work with a concept called "Elseworlds" or "What If". These stories either take a common milestone in the history of a character (or characters) and add a wrinkle to it. DC would do a story like "The Nail" which is a throw back to the Grimm's Fairy Tale or poem "For Want of a Nail". In that story, John and Martha Kent run over a nail on the way back to their farm and get a flat. Their flat kept them from discovering the rocket ship with the infant, Kal-El (Superman), in it. As Superman's personality was shaped by the Kents, this story shows what would happen to the world without a Superman in the Justice League.
It's a good story.
Marvel used to have a title called "What If". Each month a story was introduced by Uatu the Watcher (pictured right) who would tell the reader how things happened in this dimension. However, it is his job to watch all alternate histories as well. So the title of each issue would begin "What if (fill in the blank)?". One of my favorite issues was "What if Thor had met Conan the Barbarian?" It could have happened.
It's a good story.
Recently, both DC and Marvel have been making alternate histories within their titles. Marvel introduced their "Ultimate" universe. Joe Quesada thought it was a good idea to introduce traditional characters to younger readers who don't know the entire back story of each character. And he updated them with a bit of new generation coolness to boot. DC did something similar with the invention of "52" - where there were not an "infinite" number of alternate earths but fifty two of them (Who's going to count, anyway?). This allows them to do an occasional one-shot story where things aren't quite normal.
This week's reviews are on "alternate" graphic novels.
M2 Universe - Last Hero Standing
Before I go on, I have a long standing debate with a friend of mine regarding the usefulness of non-powered superheroes - or "heroes". They don't have powers so they are not technically "super" heroes. That being said, we have characters like Batman, Captain America, The Falcon, The Black Panther, Green Arrow, and Hawkeye. All of these characters do not have any extraordinary abilities other than what they've honed through hard work and strength. I believe that these are the real heroes as they require extra commitment as well as extra bravery when facing off against an opponent who is stronger than they are.
Others disagree. I don't care.
The story, by the awesome Tom DeFalco and illustrated by Pat Olliffe, Last Hero Standing, takes place in the M2 Universe. This alternate timeline takes place about fifteen years in the future and evolved after the character "Spider-girl" was introduced. Spider-girl is the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. She has half of her father's powers and needs to concentrate when she walks up walls.
What this universe shows is how some of the younger characters have grown and have taken the mantles of their mentors and parents. For example, Franklin Richards, the son of Mister Fantastic and The Invisible Woman, is now an adult and member of The Fantastic Five. The world moves on.
The plot of Last Hero Standing is that many of the older heroes have gone missing. Spider-girl and the latest version of the Avengers (with Captain America) have gone in search of them. This leads to an encounter with a major league bad guy who has been manipulating all of the major players for a final show down.
What this story focuses on is the concept of age and usefulness. We find that even Captain America can't go on forever and that retirement for a hero is a luxury that few get to enjoy.
I found this story enjoyable and it gives the just desserts to both hero and villain alike. It is also a lesson to some of the new comers that courage is a commodity that is in short supplies these days.
Elseworlds - Son of Superman
This is an elseworlds story.
Normally, familiar heroes are taken from their normal backgrounds and placed in different circumstances. This actually has the flavor of a "What if", though. What if Superman disappeared for a bunch of years and had a son he didn't know about? What happens when he comes back?
Jonathan Kent is a normal human twenty-something year old who finds himself suddenly in possession of super-strength, speed, and flight (plus many of the super powers that Superman normally possesses). His mother, Lois Lane Kent, has been hiding the truth that Superman is his father. The country has changed from the one we know. Lex Luthor is in charge and is running the members of the Justice League sans Superman. On the surface things seem relatively normal... except...
Well, I don't want to spoil things.
What I can tell you is that I was expecting something quite lame similar to the Bob Haney run of the World's Finest Super Sons storyline run of the 70's. If you haven't read that, consider yourself lucky. If you have... well, you have my sympathies. This story deals with a rebellion of ideas from the establishment to doing what's right. We learn the difference between a "Son of Krypton" to "A Strange Visitor from Another Planet". Much like Last Hero Standing, Son of Superman is about youth versus experience and how a fresh set of eyes is can be better than the established status quo.
Marvel Ultimate Fantastic Four - The Fantastic (Vol. 1)
Without the Ultimate Marvel Universe, Samuel L. Jackson would never be Nick Fury.
The Marvel Ultimate Universe is a good idea. I really like the new take on some of the traditional superheroes. My favorite was their version of Spider-man before they killed him off (Sorry, I hope I didn't upset anyone.). This line gave us The Ultimates (The Avengers) and new incarnations of Captain America, Giant-man, The Hulk, and Thor. With that, we had to have a new Fantastic Four - incidentally, it's pretty much the same - except Reed is not out of his teens and instead of the "space race", Reed is committed to exploring extra dimensional realms.
I have a real weakness and I can't resist the dialogue of Brian Michael Bendis combined with the plots of Mark Milliar. This story is dead on. Instead of a driven scientist we see a bunch of brain trust kids who are out to explore the limits of reality and find that not everything goes to plan. A nod is given to the original writing team of Lee and Kirby as the first villain they face is The Mole Man.
If you read any of the Ultimate storylines, you won't be disappointed with this incarnation of the Fantastic Four.
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Alternate storylines are fun.
I'm certain that every comic book writer wants to write about wrong turns or what if's as much as them speculating about what the future holds for certain characters. These stories are no exception.
While I'm a fan of the traditional classic versions of many of these characters, I really enjoy seeing what new minds can come up with for old characters. For example, the space race is over and the threat of atomic warfare is not what it used to be in the 1960's. What we do have is modern day terrorists who are using low tech or attacks from cyberspace. We know that today's youth has taken to the internet and total instant gratification like a fish to water and with that change comes the opportunity to see things differently.
We can also see that there is a struggle with the old established guard and the up and coming new thinkers. This is an eternal struggle - especially between father and son. Many of the better graphic novels use this theme - and they use it successfully when you think of stories like Kingdom Come or the Dark Knight Returns. The scene in the latter story that sticks in my mind is when Batman at fifty-five decides that he's going to fight the much younger and stronger head of the mutant gang. Batman fails to take into account that if you are going to fight a younger person, you should not fight the fight of a younger man. The rematch is a fight made for a seasoned veteran who should be using his head instead of his braun.
The mark of a good story is not only its endurance, but the speculation of how the story might have ended if things had gone slightly different. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.