Welcome My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends

Walt and Skeezix is an absolute joy of a book. A project of publishers Drawn and Quarterly and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan), the idea is to put the complete Gasoline Alley strip, from its very beginnings onwards, back into print and restore this forgotten masterpiece to the reading world. Creator Frank O. King started the strip in 1919 and originally intended for the daily newspaper strip to be about the inhabitants of the alley and their fixation on a certain newly created invention, the motorcar. But on February the 14th 1921 the whole idea took a new twist with the introduction of Skeezix, the baby boy left abandoned on avowed bachelor Walt’s doorstep. From then on Walt and Skeezix become an inseparable team, with Walt growing more and more comfortable in the role of fatherhood.

Walt and Skeezix panel 1

Walt and Skeezix © Frank King

Walt and Skeezix panel 2

Walt and Skeezix © Frank King

King’s art and comedic writing is both rural and vast, in his depictions of small town America and the majesty of nature. He was one of the first writers to tell the American public about the pleasures of camping in the wild, and on both cars and humans with all their similar their foibles. But what makes Walt and Skeezix an even more pleasurable reading experience is that Gasoline Alley was one of the few strips to actually grow with its characters- it was a daily strip so the characters grew older day by day. Readers watched Skeezix grow up, serve in WWII and have a family of his own, for Walt to also find love and marriage, but also to grow old and die (something still carried on now. In the current strip Skeezix is in his 80’s). The start of the strip is very much of its time, flappers abound and the roaring Twenties are in their infancy. All of King’s characters are fully fleshed out and rounded with their own personalities, even Rachel, the black nurse. No Mammy caricature is she, though the language King gives her sails close.

Walt and Skeezix are on a par with Fantagraphics reprinting of the Complete Peanuts, and I will say that it does beat that pillar of American establishment for its warmth and humour (Schultz was a depressive). Beautifully presented, it needs to be on the shelf of anyone interested in the history of the comic strip.

Crisis panel 1

Crisis © D.C Comics

DC and Marvel both went back to the multi-crossover in 2005. A staple of the 80’s and 90’s it had fallen into disrepute after way too many of them were announced as- “WILL CHANGE THE FACE OF THE DC/MARVEL UNIVERSE FOREVER!!!!!”

They invariably did no such thing and everything was back to the status quo within a few months, reader dissatisfaction with this and the fact that you had to buy a lot of other in-house titles to complete the story led to falling sales and the idea was dropped. Marvel’s saga started with Avengers Disassembled story (12/01/2005), and continued into The House of M. It continued the saga of Wanda Maximoff as both her father and Charles Xavier tried to cure of her madness. When this fails, her brother Pietro discovers that both the X-Men and the Avengers are on the way to kill her. Pietro persuades Wanda to use her reality-changing powers to alter their whole universe and make what he considers to be a better one.

Of course it all goes wrong with various heroes regaining their former memories and trying to put a stop to Wanda. In the midst of the usual super-hero battle Wanda decides that her whole life has been a misery because she is a mutant. She then uses her powers again to put back everything as it was but with the exception that a planet that had a mutant population in the millions now has one in the thousands. The whole point of the tale was to help streamline the Marvel mutant universe and setup the next big event for 2006, Civil War. On the whole House of M was a good tale, with good writing (if so-so art) that did what it was promised (some big hitters lost their powers), and crossed over into other titles with the minimum of wear on your wallet.

Crisis panel 2

Crisis © D.C Comics

Crisis on Infinite Earths was DC’s attempt to streamline it own universe. With a history like DC’s that first began publishing in the 1930’s many characters were different to ones that readers recognized in the 1980’s. Hundreds of stories over the years had complicated continuity (which Superman was correct? Was the Golden Age one the same as the one being read in the 80’s? Ditto for the Bat-Man and Wonder Woman, etc.). The DC Universe was also split into different dimensions and planets: – Earth 1 for what readers were then reading. Earth 2 where the Silver age heroes resided, Earth S for the Shazam family, Earth 4 for the Charlton heroes, hundreds of Earths where events and stories happened differently. You get the picture that trying to keep some sense of it all was nightmare. So, in 1985 Marv Wolfman and George Perez set about changing all that until there was one earth, with one history and all the heroes in their proper time and places, and that was Crisis on Infinite Earths, now reprinted in an absolute edition. Wolfman and Perez partly succeeded in their aims. Their villain managed to destroy thousands of dimensions and earths, along with all their superheroes until it was all merged into the DC Universe we know today. Big stars like the Golden Age Superman, the Silver Age Superboy and Supergirl were killed off, as was the Silver Age Flash, in one of the best deaths ever in comics.

But Wolfman’s suggestion to DC that they also restarted again in renumbering their titles from #1 was turned down. A lot of characters also remembered what had happened during the Crisis and paradoxes still abounded (Hawkman). Added to which this was the period of Miller and Moore when comics took a decidedly darker and downbeat turn. Nothing wrong with that, a more mature feel was what the industry needed, but it led to a phase in which a lot of artists and writers felt that mature meant doubt and insecurity, along with a good dose of self-flagellation and lashings of sex. The loss of innocence and fun that comics can also mean, even those two esteemed writers now regret.

The Absolute Edition of Crisis explains it beginnings from start to finish. It includes a comprehensive list of all Earths and their super-heroes plus the reasons why Superboy, Supergirl and the Flash were written out of continuity. Concept art and sketches and the full listing of crossover comics needed to round out the story. Wolfman and Perez’s main tale still manages to take on a cast of hundreds and come out clear and concise. It’s not for everyone though; a good knowledge of DC’s history helps greatly, but the same can be said if you set out read the whole Potter saga, you don’t expect to start with Goblet or Phoenix and the same goes for Crisis.

Now, skip forward to 2005. Writers like Brad Meltzer, Geoff Johns and Judd Wineck feel that the DC Universe has gotten too dark, with very little difference between the heroes and the villains. So started something that only comics can do, to relate a saga that has been two years in preparation, with little hints across the whole of the DC Universe and which has culminated into something that fans didn’t expect- a direct sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths. Only the revival of Dr.Who has matched the excitement felt in fandom at what DC are doing and it’s well deserved.

The OMAC Project panel 1

The OMAC Project © D.C Comics

Starting with Identity Crisis (12/01/05), the saga details the fall of the superheroes into doubt and paranoia and the revenge of the villains has they discover what has been done to their minds. The most startling revelation came in Countdown with the death of the Blue Beetle at the hands of Max Lord (now Black King of Checkmate) as he plots to destroy the whole superhero community and return power (as he sees it, back to the common man). To aid him in this he has taken control of the Bat-Man’s personal watchman on the superheroes, the computer satellite Brother Eye. When Lord is killed at Wonder Woman’s own hands Brother Eye sets into motion its contingency plans by releasing thousands of its own soldiers, OMAC’s (nothing so far to do with Jack Kirby’s version of OMAC and Brother Eye), to hunt and destroy both the amazons and make the general populace of the world fear and distrust metahumans. The OMAC Project is storytelling with sharp twists and turns, full of surprises and the hopelessness felt when something you created turns upon you.

Day of Vengeance panel

Day of Vengeance © D.C Comics

Day of Vengeance deals with the magical side of the events occurring in Infinite Crisis. With the Spectre now detached from a human host, the Spirit of Vengeance falls prey to the insane whisperings of Eclipso (inhabiting the body of Jean Loring, the murderer from Identity Crisis) who makes him believe that all of the Earth’s problems are down to magic. Thus corrupted, the Spectre sets out to destroy all those who use magic and demolish the various mystical artefacts that litter the DC Universe. This pits him against some very powerful opponents like the wizard Shazam and Dr.Fate, but his initial defeat comes from a ragtag band of magical heroes called the Shadowpact and Shazam’s protégé Captain Marvel. It is a quest they ultimately fail at, though they do succeed in stopping Eclipso.

Day of Vengeance panel 2

Day of Vengeance © D.C Comics

By the end of the series, the Spectre attacks and kills the wizard Shazam and with his death the Rock of Eternity is destroyed, scattering and freeing many magical forces and threats, including the Seven Deadly Sins and the Blue Beetle Scarab. Day of Vengeance goes a long way in explaining how important, and returning, magic to the DC Universe is (a lot of the situations and characters had been siphoned off into the Vertigo line).

The Rann/Thanagar War panel 1

The Rann/Thanagar War © D.C Comics

The Rann/Thanagar War at first glance seems to be the odd one out in the pre-Crisis books. A story featuring a lot of DC’s space-faring heroes and villains plus interplanetary war between Rann (second home to the Earthman Adam Strange) and Thanagar (home of the Hawkmen), it’s not until the very end of the tale that the Crisis intrudes upon it. A blood and thunder tale of war and how others get drawn into it, Rann/Thanagar looks like it has very little to do with Infinite Crisis, but with the events now occurring in the main series it has become very important indeed.

The Rann/Thanagar War panel 2

The Rann/Thanagar War © D.C Comics

Villains United details what is happening amongst the criminal fraternity since they discovered that all their minds had been altered by members of the JLA, making them less dangerous. The story focuses on the new Secret Society of Supervillains, led by Lex Luthor, and his attempts to bring all the villains around to his way of thinking. Not all the villains agree with this though and a group of renegade villains are brought together by a mysterious benefactor called Mockingbird and called the Secret Six. The Six fail to bring down the Society and it’s revealed that Mockingbird is in fact the real Lex Luthor whilst the Society’s is an alternate version with his own plans for the heroes.

In all DC has gotten off to a flying start with its Event storyline. I’ve not mentioned much about what is occurring in the main Infinite Crisis book as I’ll leave that till it’s been finished and reprinted in book form, but both DC and Marvel have returned to the Event style saga with a flourish and again proven that the only place to get this sort of vast, epic storyline is in the comic book world.

Spider-Man cover 1

Spider-Man © Marvel Comics

Spider-Man panel

Spider-Man © Marvel Comics

Meanwhile the Ultimate Universe goes from strength to strength. Main writers Mark Millar and Brian Bendis have kept the writing and scenarios both familiar and different in equal measure. Whilst Bendis has slowly been taking over the whole of the regular Marvel Universe his work on Ultimate Spider-Man hasn’t suffered. With the sudden death of fan favourite Gwen Stacy at the hands of Carnage, Bendis has upped the emotional content of the book. Peter has split from long-time love Mary-Jane feeling that he can no longer protect her and started dating Kitty Pride of the X-Men. He feels that his superhero life just isn’t worth the hassle but cannot quite let go of it. Nick Fury is working behind the scenes to remove Peter’s powers without his knowledge and the debacle with the Sinister Six has left Peter feeling isolated and cut off from the superhero community more than usual. Bendis shows his usual aplomb with dialogue that reads well and feels real, characters have depth and motivation and you get a sense of empathy with them.

Ultimate Fantastic Four panel 1

Ultimate Fantastic Four © Marvel Comics

Ultimate Fantastic Four cover

Ultimate Fantastic Four © Marvel Comics

Mark Millar has always been the Jerry Bruckheimer of the Ultimate Universe. High concept married to fascinating ideas. The bombast of The Ultimates and its current story of a superpower arms race prove this most eloquently, but as said, Millar can throw ideas around like confetti. One issue of The Ultimates or his current run on Ultimate FF can contain many ideas that are worth following up. It’s to Millar’s credit that he doesn’t let himself get sidetracked by this and maintain a tight grip on his story and plotlines. The pleasure of seeing familiar characters in a new light is done best by Millar, with a new take on the Inhumans and Namor in Ultimate FF and Loki in The Ultimates. Best bit of 2005 from Millar? Call me chauvinist if you like but it was the sight of Sue Storm’s rather hot mother, depicted by artist Greg Land, thirty foot tall in her underwear.

Ultimate Nightmare cover 1

Ultimate Nightmare © Marvel Comics

Ultimate Nightmare panel 1

Ultimate Nightmare © Marvel Comics

The saga started in Ultimate Nightmare with the introduction of the Vision as an early warning system heralding the approach of Gah-Lak-Tus. His warning comes a hundred years too late and the Anti-Life is now upon the UU’s doorstep. Ultimate Secret brings Avengers favourite Captain Marvel and the Kree race to the UU. Here the Kree look and feel like aliens instead of the blue-skinned humanoids in the regular Marvel Universe, Mahr Vehl has had radical surgery performed upon him to make him pass as a human and the Kree’s reasoning for just sitting back and watching Gah-Lak-Tus destroy Earth is truly alien. Ellis gives weight and a point to his plots, his dialogue is punchy and funny that follows Bendis’ line of making it feel like it would be said the same in the real world. The science also has depth, feels right and plausible with the right sense of gravitas. In just a few panels, Ellis manages to put across just how serious and final the threat of Gah-Lak-Tus is, Stan and Jack’s depiction of Galactus is fun and full youthful innocence, but you never get a sense of threat. With Ellis it is total; Reed Richard’s 3d schematic to the Gah-Lak-Tus S.H.I.E.L.D. team of what will happen once it arrives is chilling.

With all these sagas, comics have proved again that they are the only form that can tell huge epic stories with consistency, excitement, humour and drama. Some commentators have moaned about how the length of the tales could have been shorter or explained in a single issue, ignore these ignoramuses. They are of the console, txt generation who want everything told fast and with the least bit of exposition. They believe that they can tell stories better and if only some ignorant editor would look at their scribbles on lined paper they would be proved the greatest writers ever. Tales like the Gah-Lak-Tus Saga need space to breathe, with interesting ideas and premise that can take characters to the centre of the universe and back to Earth whilst making the reader feel like SOMETHING has happened.

Walt and Skeezix is by Frank O. King and published by Drawn and Quarterly, priced £19.99

House of M is due to be published by Marvel in March 2006

Crisis on Infinite Earths Absolute Edition is by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, published by DC Comics and priced £75.00

The Omac Project is by Greg Rucka and various, published by DC Comics and priced £8.50

Villains United is by Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham, published by DC Comics and priced £8.50

Rann-Thanagar War is by Dave Gibbons and Ivan Reis, published by DC Comics and priced £8.50

Day of Vengeance is by Bill Willingham and various, published by DC Comcs and priced £8.50

Ultimate Annuals is by Various, published by Marvel Comics and priced £8.99

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol 6 is by Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley, published by Marvel Comics and priced £19.99

Ultimate Nightmare is by Warren Ellis and Trevor Hairsine, published by Marvel Comics and priced £7.99

Ultimate Secret is by Warren Ellis and Steve McNiven, published Marvel Comics and priced £7.99

Ultimate Extinction is by now published by Marvel Comics

Available from all good comic book shops now.