Saturday, December 29, 2012

Immortal Coil

So, we're still here. Mankind deserves to be ripped from the garden we've despoiled and chucked into frigid space, but we're still here. The ancient Mayans (and their modern day horde of capitalist proselytizers) were wrong. Whoops. Next year, when Bravo launches a program called Look What This Idiot Bought, many of us will vie for camera time to display our 2012 books, shirts, ornaments, statuettes, and probably fanny-packs. Not me, though. I paid tribute not by checking my brain at the temple door (nor by leaving vomit and glow-sticks on its steps), but by reading Red Hulk: Mayan Rule.

You're thinking, "Wait. Hold it. Slow your roll, poindexter. Red Hulk?" Bruce Banner, Marvel's scrawniest, angriest doctor, has been a gray or green monster, but never red. This feisty character is actually General Thunderbolt Ross, the man responsible for the gamma-bomb test that created Banner's duality. In this tale, written by superhero purist Jeff Parker and drawn by Canadian visionary Dale Eaglesham, Ross and his supporting crew tangle with the pantheon of Mayan gods.

Now, when I call Parker a purist, I compare him to the writers who followed Stan Lee at Marvel in the late 1960s and early 70s: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart. Parker's scripts worship their era of dense plots and challenging characterization. He fills his comics (such as Thunderbolts and Agents of Atlas) with missing artifacts, enchanted locals, boisterous team-ups- anything and everything to not only keep you reading, but then rereading later, for the propulsive thrill of it.

Having not perused Red Hulk in a few years, I enjoyed seeing such elements still in fluid motion. Former sidekick Rick Jones continues his turn as A-Bomb, a blue version of the Hulk villain Abomination. Also present is Alpha Flight (Canada's premier team of mutant heroes), Machine Man (a cybernetic Mr. Fantastic), and newcomer Annie (an android, whose public displays of affection for Ross bring weapons-grade Viagra to mind).

The deity-on-deity action begins when Rick Jones (in human form) investigates an all too permissive tour of a Mayan temple in the Yucatan. The guide brings his group inside the ancient structure, only to pull a knife and drip some of his own blood on a squat, tabular idol. Shafts of aquamarine light then engulf a pair of tourists. The goddess Ixchel appears and sucks the life from them, leaving Rick to gawp at the bony husks. "I knew this tour was going somewhere bad," he says before launching into battle, "but you didn't know this temple had an A-Bomb in it."

Only certain artists should be drawing a Hulk comic. Eaglesham, whose panels roll forward like superhero evolution in progress, is one of them. Ed McGuinness (Red Hulk's first artist) is another; both polish Jack Kirby's furious sense of weight. But Eaglesham also combines it with John Buscema's wondrous musculature.

In other words, his fight scenes are frackin' astounding. As the narrative leaps among holographic pyramids (and the continents hosting them), more of our heroes fall to the Mayans, who drain life-force to reignite their presence in the here-and-now. Eaglesham plays with the paneling, offering borders that zig-zag, crumble, or are actually chunks of carved stellae.

Parker (likely jazzed by Eaglesham's drop-in for these five issues) meets the visuals with fang-sharp dialogue. "I've screwed up," says Rick Jones to Ross, after returning from the Yucatan, "and unleashed something horrible on the world. Figured you'd know some things about that." Another scene sees the General comment on riots in Guatemala (and our own cabinet of war criminals): "Shock and awe. [The gods are] shaking up the populace, upsetting order. Then they'll provide their own order, and the people will accept it."

Most intriguing is the fact that the would-be Mayan rulers continuously refer to Ross and his companions as gods. It never occurs to Big Red that while tussling with lava giants, man-serpents and living tidal waves, he himself could be worshiped. In the end, as Annie echoes scribe Grant Morrison's idea that superheroes encompass modern creation myths, Ross quips, "I just now got used to being a Hulk." And I never should've stopped reading Parker's work. The New Year will see that corrected.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Coast With The Most

On the cover of the new Justice League there's some squawk about a "Bold New Era" beginning. Only fifteen issues in, DC surely doesn't mean to imply that they were faking it during the ostentatious New 52 relaunch, right? Well, not quite. But the first story arc, written by Geoff Johns (The Flash) and drawn by Jim Lee (X-Men) often felt like Superman, Batman, and the rest of DC's best were action figures, getting a perfunctory crash-together by bored toddlers.

It was entertaining, pretty- and little else, despite the appearance of alien dictator Darkseid. That said, the more I chomp on this phenomenon, the more I realize the initial Justice League outing was simplified for as large an audience a possible- especially kids and teens who'd seen the recent Batman and Green Lantern films.

But now, with the visual fireworks of artist Ivan Reis in play, this is indeed a different, more fan-friendly League. Reis helped relaunch Aquaman last year, dazzling fans with a Johns-scripted tale of undersea cannibals (that revitalized the hero like never before). Here, we begin a cross-over with that title in which fish are seen leaving the Atlantic Coast in droves. A great opening page, forbidding and atmospheric, that brings us to test missiles blasting off from an aircraft carrier ahead of schedule. They zoom to the bottom of the Atlantic, hitting the fabled spires of Atlantis.

Action, we expected. Next, however, come the Earth-bound displays of personality that make us root for heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman. "Right in this room," says Big Blue, "I thought about giving up Clark Kent completely. But I like being Clark Kent. I like who I am and who my parents were." And, about whether or not to wear a mask, like Batman, there's this incredible line: "I'd rather good people trust me than bad people fear me." This is essential Superman speaking, whom we'd thought lost as the New 52 proceeded apace with endless intergalactic hay-makers.

Not to worry, those of you uninterested in seeing Clark and Diana wear glasses, sip wine, and revel in their anonymity. Once Atlantis counterattacks, hitting Metropolis with a tidal wave (Reis is at his astonishing best here), our heroes zip to the city's defense. Also, the personal is layered throughout the widescreen, as reporter Lois Lane notices that Wonder Woman is awfully quick to Superman's side.

Even the minor scene where Batman chases and disarms the Scarecrow's thugs (in boats, under the Gotham Bridge) is beautiful. Reis, who years ago polished his muscular style on the brightly-lit Green Lantern, seems particularly thrilled to draw the Caped Crusader. Fighting for just a few panels, he's as acrobatic as he is unholy. Then Aquaman intervenes, and we overhear a few cops try to bring him into their squalid little locker room: "Oh, yeah, sure. He's got an Aqua-Signal that throws fifty pounds of fish food into the bay whenever a sailboat capsizes." Yet when his ravishing wife Mera arrives, they haven't much to say. "Speechless?" she inquires, "Or just a little wet, I guess."

This first issue of "Throne of Atlantis" leads directly into Aquaman, also out this week and welcoming new series artist Paul Pelletier (She-Hulk). We learn that Prince Arthur himself wrote up the plan of attack that his brother now uses against the entire East Coast. In Johns' hands this premise captivates, though it owes much to Mark Waid's 2000 JLA story "Tower of Babel." More than likely, the heavyweight scribe is well aware of this. He might even be teasing us, chumming the water so we sink our teeth in.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

If It's Brown, Drink It Down

Or in the case of Ken Garing's Image title Planetoid, devour it with your eyes. A bi-monthly that's just four issues in, this series captivates like a flaming streak across some dark expanse. It tells the tale of space pirate Silas, whose ship dies while passing a world that strongly bleeds electromagnetic radiation. Crashing, he finds the place a forbidding wasteland of technological ruin.

Garing, who writes, draws, colors and letters Planetoid, ensnares with an ambiance wholly unique to today's comic racks. Everywhere Silas travels, aided by computer program Ricter, he sees coal-black piles of jagged refuse. The sky is a mottled and muted canvas of swill-tones, while the air itself is tainted with heavy metals. Thankfully, Silas ejects from his ship with a trunk of survival gear, including a poncho, flares, medical kit, protein gel, filtration mask and a tent.

The first issue buries us deep in Planetoid's haunting desolation. After tiny but terrifying lizards assault Silas (the lone red SPLAT is remarkable), he heads off into skeletal drifts of metallic crap. Eventually he comes to a lake of rusty sludge. The next few pages see him facing a gigantic cybernetic leviathan, and it's for this masterful sequence that I took a chance on the comic.

After halting the slithering junk-heap with a slim hand cannon (stowed, unidentified, in his cache), Silas meets an old man named Mendel. He's a loner with a makeshift apartment among the shit-stained rubble. His history of the planetoid reveals that, "The colonial government ran a massive mining operation here," and, "Slave labor was used and supervised by an army of robotic constructs running a tyrannical A.I. program."

With these details, Garing beats his chest as a loud and proud survivor of the Golden Age of Man Cinema. I'm right there with him (obsessed with films like Aliens, T2 and Predator), envisioning Bruce Willis as Silas and Stan Winston on special effects.

During the next few issues, we meet other (mostly) human survivors living on the Slab. There, clean air and relative safety have allowed them to band together. We also get the murderous robot army in action, crushing turbaned heads and delivering warnings of trespass on behalf of the Ono Mao Republic. Garing by this point still coughs up the electrically filthy art that's three-quarters of his comic's appeal. But when Silas reaches the Slab, which mimics dusty canyon country, some pages feel all too flat. In itself, that can be a narrative strength. Aesthetically, however, his coarse people and simplistic exteriors don't anchor scenes for long. I find myself speeding through the story to reach the next sweeping pile of lovingly-rendered rubbish.

But this is a truly minor complaint. Silas' story, which soon becomes that of tough-girl Onica and the survivors, maintains the gruff appeal of an action blockbuster. After battling robots, preventing the wholesale slaughter of some tribesman, Silas is hailed as their leader (at which Conan gives a rare smile). He then goes about making the Slab more hospitable: he teaches the survivors how to use torches and weld modular housing units together (Ricter helps), and he establishes that everyone has useful knowledge, even the non-hunters who recommend algae tanks and mushroom farming.

Once people are enjoying a greater measure of safety and self-worth (and eating lizard-egg omelets), Silas notices kids lingering around a small trash-heap. In a few deft panels, he builds them a kite and we see Garing's sense of clean simplicity at its best.

A little research told me Planetoid will wrap this opening story with issue 5, then vanish for breather. I didn't want to wait to review it, and I won't spoil the penultimate chapter's thrilling developments. Naturally, Silas' hope of escaping the rock rises, only for chilly karma to sweep in. The fates of Mendel and Onica twist more firmly around his. And, unlike a title that's been rebooted four times in three years, Planetoid has a roaring pulse that's hard to resist. If the cape-and-mask set have you snoozing, by all means float by.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Quintessentialist II

Veteran comic creator Alan Davis, responsible for some of Marvel and DC's most endearing stories, does his best work when fully off the leash. And "the leash" refers of course to continuity, that pesky web of logic that binds a shared fictional universe (and can make or break a reading experience). Davis is a typhoon of ideas unto himself, and has written and drawn Superboy's Legion, Justice League: The Nail, and Fantastic Four: The End, mini-series that all take place outside the normal run of their characters' history.

This makes the tightly-knit brilliance of his Excalibur run, which salvaged four-years worth of scattered plot-threads, all the more savory. Last post, I mentioned the villain Necrom, an ancient sorcerer (and walking prune) who wants the cosmic Phoenix entity to serve his lust for power. The Phoenix, unfortunately, is hosted by Rachel Summers, and that's where Excalibur takes issue.

Now, other writers who needn't be mentioned had written this comic with a gruesome abundance of "wacky." Puerile at best, fifty shades of asinine at worst, Excalibur strained the patience of the most loyal X-Men fans. Here, Davis tweaks the book's tone- and the team's mechanics- to suit more mature audiences. First, he finds a flexible way to ratchet down Rachel's nigh-invincible Phoenix abilities.

Quite cleverly, it begins with the shape-shifter Meggan wanting to know what she actually looks like. Having involuntarily empathic powers has always caused her to become what those around her think she should look like (which, by the way, is a pointy-eared blonde bombshell). A trip with Rachel to Germany's Black Forest brings them into contact with a Neuri (think of Neil Young, in sasquatch form), and he strips away the top layer of reality to show them the Alshra. "A kaleidoscope of pulsating color," Davis narrates, "as the world's familiar spectrum of dull light gives birth to unseen horizons of shimmering life force."

During this scene, "Rachel sees the Phoenix force threaded through every cell of her mutant body." She realizes for the first time that active use of the force has kept her memories from healing properly- and that's a whole other post, in which she's stranded in our present after escaping a horrible future where she hunted other mutants for her human overlords. Anyway, she decides to put the Phoenix to sleep, and this powering-down lets a more organic (and more genuinely dramatic) story build up.

About halfway through his X opus (in issue 47), Davis allows waves of painstakingly-rendered insanity to crest. The Technet, a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries who'd been staying at Excalibur's lighthouse, are whisked off stage by yet another band of consummate weirdos (most of them last seen in Captain Britain). Their crackling arrival prompts Nightcrawler to say, "This is getting silly." Thug (who's basically a frog) then tells him that they're leaving for an alternate Earth because there's a 98% chance that [ours] will cease to exist in the next seventy-eight hours.

And, like cherries on top, there's Kylun and Cerise. Each of them arrive tempestuously out of thin air, separately and for different reasons. This is a testament both to Excalibur's lighthouse acting as an inter-dimensional G-Spot, and Davis' obsession with genre-bending controlled chaos. Removing her insectoid battle helmet, Cerise asks Nightcrawler, "Which is the dominant species of this world?" Humans, he answers. "Which of you conforms to this specification?" she asks. "Of all the varied life forms in this room," says Nightcrawler, "you look the most human."

Davis excels in crafting sprawling cosmic tales that harken back to their 1970s heyday. While the wizard Merlyn and his daughter Roma argue the finer points of an energy matrix, I can hear legendary Avengers scribe Roy Thomas (who always spun dense super-logic into narrative gold) banging away at his typewriter.

The multiversal stakes rise higher as we discover that an infinite number of Earths might be destroyed if Necrom wins, and that the members of Excalibur have been manipulated since their first adventure by Merlyn himself. It turns out that Necrom is his adversary of old, and Captain Britain and company have always been meant to thwart him. Rachel, however, must force a battle with the evil sorcerer by activating the Phoenix force. Their showdown, once it happens, literally breaks free of the comic's thin white borders. Davis' panels tilt and stretch to flaunt the operatic destruction of an entire solar system. With inker Mark Farmer's (and colorist Joe Rosas') pristine help, the crumbling of worlds has never looked so inspiring.

Davis' style today, over twenty years later, is nearly all slants and jagged panels. Back then, it served the story like any truly thrilling innovation should. The main draw to this run, however, is the sense of intense wonder stitched deeper than in any other comic of the time. Better not to trample the idea of "blog post" by going on at length about Widget's evolution, the lighthouse mirages and Rachel's meeting with Anti-Phoenix. We'd all miss lunch marveling at just how many floors comprise this towering eight issue story.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Quintessentialist

Longtime comic readers never forget the exact issues responsible for their obsession. They come to treasure and mythologize the circumstances in which they realized, "Comics are something weird, wonderful, and so different from other entertainment that I can't do without them." My circumstance was a drive to New Hampshire, for a weekend at the summer house of people I barely knew. While visiting a hobby shop, I followed the lead of two other kids I was with and picked out reading material for later.

In 1991, the comic racks bristled with variant covers to Jim Lee's first issue of X-Men. Not quite sure what I looked at (beyond Magneto and Wolverine's awesomeness), I grabbed two different copies of the same thing. Now, with no designs as a collector, this was a devastating rookie mistake. But I also happened to gravitate (for some arcane reason) toward the mild-mannered heroes posing on Excalibur 48.

I honestly can't remember even flipping through it before buying. Written and drawn by Alan Davis, this comic cost $1.75, which was twenty-five cents more than the already double-sized X-Men. If I had peeked inside, I'd have seen boundless energy and inventiveness on every page. I'd have seen impeccably clean art, with balanced anatomy and nothing overtly gory. To a ten-year-old at the time, these elements might have converged and registered as cool. But next to the rest of Marvel's gun-toting, stab-happy stable of characters, the chances of that were slim.
For those not in the know, Excalibur is a superhero team based in the United Kingdom, spun-off from the X-Men and imbued (forcefully, by original writer Chris Claremont) with British whimsy. Visually, this is a good thing, because the adventures of Captain Britain (the flying muscleman), Nightcrawler (the teleporting acrobat), Kitty Pryde (the intangible computer whiz), Phoenix (the host of an all-powerful cosmic being) and Meggan (the ingenue shape-shifter) are never dull. Tonally, however- let's say that scripting superheroes with the frantic panache of Noises Off is in nobody's best interest.

Then there's Alan Davis, who drew Captain Britain in the 80s. Not only is he one of the most breathtaking choreographers in the business (George Perez, of course, ranks first), but he's also an incredibly savvy writer. His Excalibur run discussed here (42-50) doesn't have art cramped with superfluous narration boxes, which are usually X-Tensions of a writer's ego (and signs that he doesn't trust the artist to tell the story). Instead, we get dialogue that prefigures the best work done today- controlled bursts of genuine character and cleverness that never undercut what we primarily paid to see- superhero action.

The first few issues of this run must reintroduce Excalibur's opposite number, the Technet. Described as loosely as possible, they're a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries. But such a phrase does nothing to prepare you for how startlingly weird they are. China Doll looks like a serpentine water sprite, with the ability to suspend and shrink any opponent. Body Bag is this bulbous insectoid creature that sprays preservatives before swallowing you whole. Ringtoss, Thug, Scatterbrain and Waxworks are equally surreal, which is probably what drew me in, back before I knew Muir Island from Madripoor.

I love narrative disorientation. I revel in the detective work of following a story from the halfway point, of needing to scan every detail interminably until all of the info's in hand. And this is required often in comics (to the dismay of their creators), especially those from the continuity-dense 90s. Eventually, I found the rest of the Excalibur issues written and drawn by Davis during this era, and I've come to adore them more with each read. Years later, I think of them as my touchstone to the comics' world.

Despite issue 42 being the start of this run, Davis drops us deep into a river delta of the bizarre. The Technet tries to destroy Excalibur by sabotaging one of their eggs. One of their breakfast eggs that is, with a chick who's primed to detonate. "Twied tew cook my goose," he chirps, as the clock on his forehead ticks down, "Pwepaih tew meet yaw doom!" Though some may cringe, Davis' comedic timing rivals any Loony Tunes short. Later, when Hard-Boiled Henry's attack fails, the Technet show up at our heroes' tower for a brawl that's as entertaining as it is impeccably drawn.

And that is likely Davis' overarching charm. Many artists draw infinitely expressive characters that are instantly recognizable as theirs. His, however, possess such friendliness that they can't help but invite you into the pages for a lengthy stay. Additionally, Captain Britain and Nightcrawler both flex a rugged nobility, while Kitty and Meggan resonate cheerful, elfin energy (like Kate Bush songs made flesh). Phoenix (the melancholy Rachel Summers) is regal, mature beyond her years, and undoubtedly the title's prime mover.

Her cosmic power, a devastating force if untamed, is coveted by lunatics of every stripe. The being Necrom, as we'll see in my next post, has set a great many conflicts in motion to harness it. The question, naturally, isn't whether Excalibur can protect her- it's how much swashbuckling delight we'll get out of watching. As a young photojournalist once said, "The journey is the destination."

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Which we've been awaiting for some time now. Writer Jonathan Hickman, who recently reinvented the Fantastic Four to spectacular effect, now writes Avengers, Marvel's flagship title. They are, at least according to Joss Whedon's film: Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Iron Man. While this newly relaunched comic begins with that team to orientate new readers, the threat of quick expansion is the Avengers stock in trade. Anyone, even a villain, can be one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

What's so thrilling about Hickman taking the reins from Brian Bendis (who, like an aging hair-metal god, has been writing just the one power-ballad over and over for twenty years) is that he's monstrously inventive. And he thrives with a huge canvas. And he's masterful in characterizing the icons. He wrote Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four not only as adventurers, but convincingly as parents too. He made Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm best friends with each other and with us.

As a big thinker (who'll go to the Negative Zone, Attilan and Latveria in one issue), Hickman deserves Marvel's boldest team. Illustrating his creative largesse is Jerome Opena, who's been redefining epic since his sublime work on Uncanny X-Force. Coloring Opena's magisterial rendering once more is Dean White, with his deep palette of marine hues (not to mention his nifty habit of adding white filigree to most surfaces).

Avengers has only two ads interrupting its creators' flow, which is a Christmas gift like no other. On the second page of story is a glyph comprised of nodes. The first ring of nodes symbolizes the team's core. The outer nodes are empty... for now. Then, in (somewhat) typical Hickman fashion, the narrative zooms among several heady snapshots, hinting at the sprawling tone of what's ahead. After having seen the cosmos begin, we get Hyperion (a Superman analogue from another dimension) struggling in a machine's clutches, an onrushing space armada, and dozens of ruined Iron Man suits.

Mercifully, things scale down from there, in a scene showing that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are actually friends (and this is key, because the supposed friction between Iron Man and Captain America is one of THE worst crutches an Avengers writer can use). Stark says his mind is afire with a new idea, and that, "The same exact thing happened the day we found you." Rogers asks, "You remember that?" A panel of old school Iron Man reflected in the ice block carrying his future teammate catches up new readers, tickles old ones. "I remember everything about that day. We started something that mattered. Because of you, the world changed. I changed."

This is beautiful character work, worthy of screens big and small; more importantly, this honors fifty years of Avengers storytelling. Chances are slim that another writer will have to mind-wipe either of them when Hickman's run ends.

The main villain, Ex Nihilo, is a devilish hybrid of Tim Curry in the film Legend and all-powerful Justice Society fiend Gog. That's he's terraformed Mars is a bad sign, though it sure looks exquisite. Our artists return with the otherworldly splendor they brought to Uncanny-Force, expertly combining murderous skies and prehistoric vegetation.

In slick, compressed narrative boxes, we're told that two bombs hit Earth and overwrote local biospheres to match the alien environment. Before disembarking their shuttle for battle on Mars, Iron Man asks, "Bruce you're better at this stuff than I am. Anything that needs to be said?" Stealing the scene, the man about to turn into a Hulk answers, "I think we're done talking."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fight between Ex Nihilo's creatures and our heroes is this comic's main weakness. A woman who controls shadows turns the Hulk against Thor. Iron Man is distracted and has his suit drained of power. Hawkeye and Black Widow are blasted in a single THHOOOM of energy. Finally, Captain America is pounded unconscious by a robot and then sent back to Earth as a warning. In other words, Hickman rushes through a battery of cliches, if only to revel in the last few panels of a determined Steve Rogers assembling more Avengers.

It's a first issue all right. Unfortunately, in the age of endless reboots, what should be intensely dramatic is quite a bit less so. The last page shows the roster glyph again, with nodes filled in for Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and a slew of others. Opposite is a stirring portrait of Captain America's call to arms (featuring some characters I don't honestly recognize). This story is called "Wake the World." Now that we're out of bed, I know you won't dare bore us, Mr. Hickman.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Speak the Language

Attaining immortality in the world of comics is like plucking an apple off a willing assistant's head. Whether using a batarang or an arrow, the creator must judge his distance, audience and objects correctly. Miscalculations result in over-the-top foolishness or the garishly mediocre. But when an artist/writer measures perfectly, taking aim, we see the apple cored. The assistant smiles, alive, and we clap, spellbound.

So it goes with Mike Grell's 1987 graphic novel Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Of the many comics DC created strictly for mature readers in the 80s (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Hawkworld), Grell's opus takes several unique risks, and stands as a gloriously pure work because of them.

Grell, who began his career in the 70s drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (and creating Warlord), reinvents the Justice League bowman with the street-level realism that made Frank Miller's Daredevil so entrancing. The setting is Seattle. Our star, the middle-aged Oliver Queen, hopes to settle down and start a family with crime-fighting girlfriend Dinah Lance (Black Canary). But, "It's in our blood," she tells him. "I wouldn't ask you to give it up... and you'd better not ask me."

Oliver acknowledges this while burying himself in nostalgia. His new home has faux medieval decor and a gigantic painting of Robin Hood. Dinah, a brunette, role-plays for him in the blonde wig and fishnets that, er, distracted costumed crooks in the Justice League's heyday. Post-coitus, they realize that continuing to fight evil (and satisfy adult readers in the 80s) means tackling the problems of urban decay: prostitution, drug addiction and serial murder.

Grell attacks this premise with every ounce of his formidable skill. Oliver and Dinah, as well as the killer's victims and assassin Shado, look back at us with startling soul. Portrait shots in chalk bring deeper emotional immediacy to the dialogue. Incredibly fine lines delineate Seattle by day and night, stitching up the plot for a showdown in the old-growth forest of Mount Ranier. The earthy coloring of Julia Lacquement enhances panels that tilt and cascade, speaking the language of violence.

And if The Longbow Hunters portrays anything more effectively than other comics of the era, it's violence. Here, Oliver doesn't use trick arrows that deliver gas or a knockout punch. His arrows stab people through the hand, chest and neck. A murderer leaves women gutted in alleys. Dinah, her hunt for villainy taking her to its very maw, is tied up and tortured by drug-runners. "You want a little of this while she's still got a face?" asks a man wielding a hunting knife to his partner, "After I'm done, she's gonna wanna make you puke."
Grell never tramples Green Arrow with mature themes- he elevates the character with narrative conviction. This is even more starkly true in hindsight, with the deeply exploitative 90s long gone. When published, The Longbow Hunters gave audiences what they craved- superheroes grounded like douglas firs in reality. Recently, Batman and his flashy technology have done the same for movie-goers in the age of terrorism and surveillance.

The easy argument here (though not one the new Arrow TV show will likely make) is that a man dressed as Robin Hood killing criminals seems more real than one dressed as a bat pummeling them. But of course Green Arrow's reinvention didn't stick. Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and other creators have since returned him to more colorful ranks alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. For this I'm thankful. Pierced throats get old much faster than giant starfish.