Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Novel Idea—The Last Days of Krypton

Superman turns 70 years old next year. Take a moment and wrap your head around that. The Legend of Superman is something that’s known far and wide—from Boise to Beijing—and most people know at least the basics about the Last Son of Krypton.

A strange visitor from a dying planet, Superman was rocketed to Earth as a baby. As he grew, he became faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The creation of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman would become shorthand for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Yet after all these years, not much is known about the Planet Krypton. It’s famous for blowing up shortly delivering its last son to Earth but the story of Krypton itself has always been fertile yet woefully under-explored storytelling territory.

Thinking back, FanBoyWonder can recall only one example where Superman’s homeworld received a serious and in-depth examination—John Byrne’s World of Krypton four-issue mini-series from 1988.

That is about to change as Krypton will live again this fall in the pages of a new novel by Kevin J. Anderson—The Last Days of Krypton.

Here’s the Upshot from HarperCollins: Everyone knows how Kal-El—Superman—was sent to Earth just before his planet exploded. But what led to such a disaster? Now, in The Last Days of Krypton, Kevin J. Anderson presents a sweeping tale of the pomp and grandeur, the intrigue and passion, and the politics and betrayals of a doomed world filled with brave heroes and cruel traitors.

Against the spectacular backdrop of Krypton's waning halcyon days, there is the courtship and marriage of Kal-El's parents, the brilliant scientist Jor-El and his historian wife, Lara. Together they fight to convince a stagnant, disbelieving society that their world is about to end. Jor-El's brother, Zor-El, leader of the fabled Argo City, joins the struggle not only to save the planet but also to fight against
the menace of the ruthless and cunning General Zod.

The diabolical Zod, future archenemy of Superman, avails himself of a golden opportunity to seize power when the android Brainiac captures the capital city of Kandor. As Zod's grip on the populace tightens and his power grows, he too is blind to all the signs that point to the death of the very civilization he is trying to rule.

Through all of this, Jor-El and Lara's love for each other, their history, and their son allows for Krypton to live on even as the planet is torn apart around them. For in the escape of their baby lies Krypton's greatest gift—and Earth's greatest hero.

The Last Days of Krypton is a timeless, ground-breaking exploration of a world that has never been fully defined, and reveals the extraordinary origins of a legend that has never ceased to amaze and astound generation after generation.

The novel has been described as reminiscent of The Last Days of Pompeii in style in that it will tell the story of the lost civilization of Krypton in epic form. It’s worth a look.

The Last Days of Krypton, 432 pages, $25.95. On sale, Oct. 23.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

War & Remembrance—The Very Best Of Captain America

We’ve had this posting on the brain for many weeks now but as we look at the calendar, today makes it quite apropos to blog about the Star Spangled Avenger Captain America.

On this day in 1945, The Empire of Japan formally surrendered in ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri, officially ending World War II. Germany had previously surrendered on May 8, following Adolf Hitler’s suicide on April 30.

If this is news to you—if you were unaware that the Allies fought a belligerent nation other than the Nazis to prevent world domination or if you are incapable of naming the years during which the Second World War occurred—put down the video game and go do your nearest public library.

With that said, we call to your attention to the recent re-release of the Trade Paperback (TPB) of Captain America: War and Remembrance from Marvel Comics.

The Upshot from Marvel Comics: Captain America's endless war on crime and tyranny sets him against new enemies and old, from an army of robot replicas to the black deeds of Baron Blood! Plus: Cap for president? Guest-starring the Avengers; S.H.I.E.L.D.; and the late, great Union Jack! Featuring Cobra, Mister Hyde and Batroc the Leaper! The complete Stern/Byrne run, culminating with the standard-setting version of Cap's awe-inspiring origin! Collecting Captain America #247-255.

As regular FanBoyWonder readers know, we are not much into Marvel Comics, at least much of what Marvel puts out these days—with the notable exception of Spider-Girl. Not that DC has much to write home about lately but the Marvel Universe is a place that we scarcely recognize anymore but for the costumes.

The recent “death” of Captain America following Marvel’s Civil War—a story with an interesting premise but a flawed, one-sided execution from what we could follow reading (off the rack but not buying)—just seemed to signal all that’s gone wrong with comic book storytelling these days.

The only good thing to come out of the Captain America’s “Fallen Son” story line has been Marvel’s re-issue of the trade paperback (TPB) of Captain America: War & Remembrance.

It’s not often in anything where you can point to something as being THE best of something but this TPB comprising the nine-issue run of writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne represent the Very Best of Captain America EVER.

FanBoyWonder was but 10-years-old when we collected (most) of these issues off the comic book rack.

For those of you readers too young to remember (or not yet alive) let Grandpa FBW take you back to that world of yesterday in 1980-81—the country was in the midst of an energy crisis, that big bad Bear known as the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War (at least that's what it felt like), an inept and ineffectual president was rounding out his term with subterranean approval ratings and Iran was giving us the finger even as we were helpless do anything militarily about it. Wow! The more things change, ……etc.

What’s So Special?????

What’s so special about these nine issues? The storytelling AND the visuals were in perfect alignment for each and every issue. One could argue that there may have been or would be better Captain America writers or better Captain America artists but not both working together consistently.

This period is often called the “Stern & Byrne” era because of the former was the writer and the latter was the penciler and both were co-plotters but the unsung and little recognized hero during this period was inker Joe Rubenstein.

Quite simply, Byrne’s art—certainly not his Captain America—has NEVER been quite looked as good as the days when Rubenstein was providing inks to his pencils and in some cases finishing the art from Byrne's breakdowns.

Inkers more often than not fail to get their proper due in comic book storytelling and FanBoyWonder is as guilty as anyone for this sin of omission but quite simply, Rubenstein’s contribution complemented Byrne’s visuals and made Cap shine in such a way that Byrne has never quite been able to replicate since.

But don’t take our word for—in the back of the trade paperback are the unfinished and unpublished pages of what would have been Stern & Byrne’s 10th issue. It is colored but only penciled by Byrne minus Rubenstein’s inks.

Byrne’s pencils alone aren’t bad—to the contrary it’s quite good…but there’s that little something that’s missing. These two artists brought out the best in each other.

Although we had heard of and read Captain America before—either previous issues of his own book or in the Avengers—our first Stern & Byrne issue was mid-way through their run with Captain America #251.

To us to this day, when one say’s “Captain America” and in our mind’s eye we picture Cap as he’s drawn on that first page of issue 251—Cap on rooftop overlooking the New York City skyline at sunset—powerful, confident and inspiring.

This was before the Stern & Byrne era but it was from Cap that we first learned about the Holocaust as a kid when during a flashback story in Captain America #237 (1979) we saw Cap liberate a concentration/death camp and free the emaciated Jewish prisoners. We can still see Cap crashing through the camp gates on his motorcycle declaring “Murderers, these people will be free!” then kicking some Nazi ass.

At 9 years old, we were totally ignorant of World War II or any history that preceded the previous year’s grade but to this day we recall thinking that camps like that had to be totally made up, like the Red Skull or some other world-domination plot—“concentration camps” for people who weren’t criminals and hadn’t done anything wrong couldn’t happen in real life—right???

By the time Stern and Byrne took over Captain America a year later, they took the already established life of Steve Rogers commercial artist, Brooklyn Heights resident and a man still in mourning over the death of his love Sharon Carter and built upon that foundation.

In a 2002 interview with, Roger Stern explained how he wanted to really do something with Cap’s long-neglected Steve Rogers secret identity, as well as to define Captain America’s place in the modern world.

Cap’s the classic ‘man out of his time’ super-hero. Here’s a guy who—even then—was physically younger than me but [was] part of my father’s generation. He was a child of the depression and man of the Second World War,” Stern told Newsarma. “Those two events had a profound effect on the world. They created the America that we live in. And he’s Captain America—it would be criminal to ignore his past.”

Cap #247—the first issue of the nine issue Stern and Byrne run—“By Day’s Early Light” cleared up some of the then inconsistencies of Cap’s origin by revealing that back during the War, the Army hypnotized Cap (with his consent), giving him a set of false memories in case he were captured and brainwashed by the enemy—these false memories got blurred with his real memories following his decades on ice in suspended animation.

It was a clever way of plausibly explaining away previous plot and story errors and it symbolized a time when continuity not only still mattered in comic book story telling but continuity was king. Ah....those were the days.

Cap for President???

Issue #250 was the instant classic “Cap for President” story where an independent third party attempted to draft Captain America as their candidate for President of the United States.

As rumors of a Cap presidential run hit the media, much of the issue consisted of the general public and Marvel Universe’s reaction and serious consideration of a Super Solider President, even as Cap himself is bewildered that people—including his fellow Avengers—are even taking the notion seriously.

At the end of the issue, Cap addresses a crowd of supporters and explains why he can’t be a candidate—we repeat it below in its entirety:

“I have given much thought…to those stories…and to the public discussion they inspired. I have had to face the question of whether or not I should be a candidate for President of the United States.

“I gave this much thought…and I have come to my decision.

“The Presidency is one of the most important jobs in the world. The holder of that office must represent the best interests of an entire nation.

“…I have worked and fought all my life for the growth and advancement of the American Dream. And I believe that my duty to the
DREAM would severely limit any abilities I might have to preserve the reality.

We must all live in the real world…and sometimes that world can be pretty grim. But it is the dream…the hope…that makes the reality worth living.

“In the early 1940s, I made a personal pledge to uphold the dream…and as long as the dream remains even partially unfulfilled, I cannot abandon it.

“And so I hope you can understand….that in all fairness, I cannot be your candidate.

“You need to look within yourselves to find the people you need to keep this nation strong…and God willing, to help make the dream come true.”

More than 25 years later, those words mean so much more now, especially as we look up into the “real world” and observe (already) the food fight that would determine who is to be our next president.

The only thing we can say to that is (and with apologies to Simon & Garfunkel)”:

Where have you gone Captain America?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
Ooo ooo ooo.

“What’s that you say, Mr. Quesada?
Cap has left and gone away’
Hey hey hey, hey hey hey”

Batroc, Killing the Undead, Origin Re-Told

Issues 248-249, had Cap deal with the android Dragon Man and the android creator Machinesmith. Issues 251-252, Cap takes on Batroc the Leaper and Mr. Hyde as they tried (and of course failed) hold New York City to ransom.

Issues 253-254, brought Cap back to England at the request of the original Union Jack, British hero of World War II and ally against the Nazi menace to face the threat of the vampire Baron Blood.

In a touching scene, we see a still young (thanks to suspended animation) Steve Rogers reunite with Jackie Falsworth, the former Spitfire—during the War she had been a teenaged speedster hero who fought beside Cap as part of the Invaders but now she’s a middle-aged widow and very conscious much aware of the passage of time.

The two-part story concludes with Cap in pitched battle with the much more powerful vampire. Byrne’s visuals tell the story perfectly as Cap is forced to conclude that lethal force is the only way to stop Baron Blood—whereupon Cap uses his shield to decapitate Baron Blood.

Byrne doesn’t show the deed itself but rather engages in a tasteful use of shadow superimposed with Union Jack’s expression as he witnesses the beheading. Ok, Blood was an undead vampire so Cap didn’t technically kill someone not really alive but the fact that Cap found it distasteful marked the true measure of a hero for us.

Issue #255, Stern and Byrne’s last issue—“Living Legend”—retold Cap’s origin in celebration of Captain America’s 40th anniversary. Unfortunately it would be their last issue as “creative differences” with editorial management prompted the team to quit while they were ahead.

Of course, Stern & Byrne didn’t know they had closed the chapter on a classic—you don’t set out to create a classic and that’s how classics are made.

Yet these stories from over 25 years ago stand up quite well to anything put out today. Better yet, the reader doesn’t need a PhD in circa 1980 Marvel Universe continuity to keep up thanks to the precision use of “editor’s notes” and good old fashioned plot re-caps. Two words: Reader Friendly.

If you want to see what’s gone wrong with comic book storytelling today, read War & Remembrance and compare then with now. Back then, kids were still the primary audience of comic books, yet the storytellers never, not once talked down to the reader.

Respect for the reader and telling a story rather than making a “statement”. Not exactly a secret formula.

“’Nuff Said.”

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