The Watchtower 12.31.03: Out With The Old…

Whenever the history of comics is looked back upon as a whole, 1963 will always be remembered as being particularly significant; it was the year that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others brought forth Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men and others, on the heels of creating The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and more in years prior, solidifying 1963 as truly the dawn of the Marvel age of comics. Forty years later, after decades of Marvel being at least one or two steps ahead, in the annals of history, 2003 may be known as the year DC finally struck back.

Led by the best-selling Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee one year Batman epic, “Hush,” and by new head honcho Dan DiDio, DC pounded out sell-out after sell-out, one critically acclaimed work after another. After Joe Quesada & Bill Jemas at Marvel had spent the past few years reinvigorating their company with innovations like the Ultimate universe and Origin and bold creative choices like Grant Morrison on New X-Men and J. Michael Straczynski on Amazing Spider-Man, the dynamic duo may have stretched themselves too thin in 2003, attempting to launch the Tsunami and Epic lines, taking a personal stake in titles like Marville, Ultimate Adventures & Namor, engaging in very public wars of words with creators like Peter David & Mark Waid, and perhaps going a little too far in their attempts to attract mainstream media attention with moves like relaunching Rawhide Kid as a homosexual cowboy. All the while, DiDio took a different tack; rather than trying to come up with the next Ultimate concept on his own, he simply worked at signing the best in the business to exclusive contracts at DC and then letting them do what they do best as he sat back and enjoyed.

Geoff Johns & Judd Winick were among the first to sign with DC, and not long after, they relaunched Teen Titans & The Outsiders, both to tremendous success; meanwhile, Johns also took The Flash in an exciting new direction as he continued strong on JSA & Hawkman while Winick took over Green Arrow and kept up the momentum Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer had established on that most unexpected of successful titles. Loeb followed soon after and launched Superman/Batman with artist Ed McGuinness, another commercial hit. Greg Rucka (who revitalized Wonder Woman), Gail Simone (who made Birds of Prey exciting again), Grant Morrison, Phil Jimenez, Devin Grayson, Mike McKone, Tom Raney, Ron Garney, Scott McDaniel and more all followed suit, signing exclusives with DC. Formerly Known As The Justice League became a most unexpected commercial hit while books like Gotham Central & Catwoman remained critical darlings. With books like Y: The Last Man, Fables & 100 Bullets, Vertigo entered a new era of prosperity, and Sleeper, The Authority & Wildcats Version 3.0 kick-started Wildstorm.

Of course, things weren’t all bad for Marvel. Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, J. Michael Stracynski and others made their commitment to the House of Ideas clear signing their own exclusive contracts. Bendis kept up the success on Ultimate Spider-Man while taking over Ultimate X-Men from Millar as the latter focused on Ultimates, and spreading his talent across the Marvel Knights and MAX imprints as well, with Daredevil and the conclusion of Alias. Morrison began winding down his New X-Men opus and Straczynski brought Amazing Spider-Man to the 500th issue of the series while launching one of the biggest Marvel hits of the year, his MAX re-imagining of the Squadron Supreme, Supreme Power. Neil Gaiman kicked off his long-awaited 1602 mini-series and despite behind-the-scenes wrangling, Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo made Fantastic Four the best it’s been in years. And of course Avi Arad and his collaborators at Marvel Studios didn’t slack off on the silver screen with commercial successes that met with critical mixed reactions like Daredevil and Hulk, and a little film that may just have been the greatest comic book movie of all time: X2.

And I didn’t even mention JLA/Avengers.

If you got scared by all those words and skipped the last four paragraphs, here’s the short form: 2003 was a big year for comics.

But enough about all that…let’s get to 2004 already.

Last week, Wizard released its 2004 preview issue, including a list of the ten biggest events to look out for in the year to come. It’s an exciting list; both Marvel and DC are looking to top themselves and some other companies are looking to throw their respective hats into the big leagues. As comic book fans and journalists, we are fortunate to live in these times; here’s my take on what the forecast says is ahead.

10. Conan Returns (Dark Horse)
“Call it ‘Ultimate Conan.’ After almost 20 years out of the spotlight, the iconic barbarian smashes his way back into comics and gets stripped down to his roots…Following the white-hot 25-cent prequel that sold over 100,000 copies in initial orders, the ongoing Conan series from writer Kurt Busiek (JLA/Avengers) and artist Cary Nord (Daredevil) will send the sword-slinging warrior on a series of adventures adapted from Robert E. Howard’s original novels. While staying true to the source material, Busiek and Nord chose to pick up their tale with a 16-year old Conan just weeks after he first leaves his home village of Cimmeria.”

First off, I need to comment: “almost 20 years out of the spotlight”? I’m only 21 and I can distinctly remember a time from when I was in, like, junior high at the earliest, and Conan still had a Marvel comic and a cartoon show, not to mention that I believe the Arnold movies came out post-1983; not that it really matters all that much, just a weird little lack of fact-checking by Wizard.

I’ve never been interested in Conan myself, as the sword and sorcery genre is one that rarely catches my attention, but this relaunch could be one to watch very closely. Consider the following factors:

1. Conan is an established character with a large fan following. The property was also one that was big at the same time as G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats and all the other 80’s franchises that have been revived with great success the last couple years.

2. There is a renewed interest in the genre thanks to Lord of the Rings (which I could write a column on how much I hate…but I won’t…unless you want me to).

3. This is a very good creative team. Not only is Busiek one of the best in comics, he’s also once again become the “hot name” he was when he did Marvels and the early part of his Avengers run, thanks to JLA/Avengers (Busiek himself felt he had lost this status when Ultimates launched in the same way the writers of the Spider and X titles at the time their respective Ultimate titles began were labeled over the hill at the time; that he’s been able to “lose” and regain this speaks volumes). I had almost forgotten about Nord after he left Daredevil years ago, but he did some stuff ahead of its time in terms of detail back then and his preview art for this series is tight.

Genre titles are always a risk, but given those three factors, I think Conan is going to be a hit; a fourth x-factor could also be that a lot of CrossGen fans are going to be looking for something to fill the void of cancelled titles. However, will it be good? Speaking fairly objectively, looking at the creative factors and having little attachment to the character itself, I think it will be. Busiek does not enter into a series he is launching from the first issue without a grand plan (see Astro City, Avengers, Thunderbolts & Power Company). This is the type of book that is going to benefit greatly from Busiek’s style of writing, one which is very similar to Geoff Johns at the top of his game: acknowledging the past of a long-running series and rejuvenating old concepts by combining them with new ones. It’s the same formula that has made Marvel’s Ultimate titles a success (though I could do without having to hear this referred to as “Ultimate Conan” ever again).

The time is right and all the factors are in place for this series to be good on a critical level and successful on a commercial level. The real question will be in the staying power of a property that’s success depends a great deal on the fickle interests of society as a whole.

9. Ultimates Vol. 2 (Marvel)
“Marvel’s top-selling Ultimates relaunches with a second volume by writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch, jam-packed with widescreen action and explosive surprises.”

I will make no secret of it: I do not like Ultimates, never have, and doubt I ever will.

A large part at first was simply that I am a very “old school” fan who does not want to see Captain America as a cocky jerk, Iron Man as an alcoholic pervert, or Hank Pym as a remorseless wife-beater. Some people call these “logical character updates,” I call them rehashing the shock value of old storylines without sticking around to face the consequences (Iron Man had to fess up to his responsibility and get sober or lose his company, Pym had to deal with the guilt over what he had done and is still facing the reality that he screwed up the best thing he had going in his life; those stories are as interesting to me as the “shocking” events that caused them).

But as the series has matured, my problems with Ultimates and its creative team have grown. It is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, there are a lot of cool elements about it, but is it a title which I think deserves to be called one of the best in the industry despite the delays between issues? No…and frankly, even with the delays, I see it as a decent book that I would never shell out money for on a regular basis, not one of the comic book world’s crown jewels.

I ran out of patience with Mark Millar about a year ago. To be fair, I haven’t read any of Mark’s non-Marvel work, so for all I know Wanted and the other “Millarworld” titles could be brilliant; he also is one of the most genuinely cool creators I’ve ever come across on the internet via his message boards and interviews, so I think he seems like a good person and I almost feel bad coming down on his work…almost. His last year of Ultimate X-Men was complete trash (after a promising first three arcs). I’ve made my main problems with him known in this space before: the fact that all his characters sound the same, the fact that everybody is so damn cocky I don’t care who wins because none of them are likeable, the fact that threats are built up to a ridiculous level and then defeated within an issue with relative ease (see Magneto). Ultimate War was the absolute nadir for me, with no character catching my interest, a sub-plot that crawled, and then when the main attraction, the big fight came along, all the good stuff (Thor vs Colossus, etc.) took place off-panel. Millar seemed to me to be becoming a lazy writer who would throw characters and plots in every few issues and capitalize more on the shock value of “ooh! It’s Ultimate Sebastian Shaw! He’s Ultimate” then do nothing with them rather than develop anything. It’s low attention span writing and I’ve got no use for it.

I mentioned in my initial assessment above how I feel that Millar has taken this low attention span style to the extreme on Ultimates. The ideas he has proposed for volume 2 (the Ultimate Defenders, Captain Britain, lesser known heroes forming super teams like teenagers would garage bands) all sound promising, but Millar lost my faith that he’ll do anything to make these any more than cool ideas that go nowhere.

Bryan Hitch is an excellent artist. The detail he puts into his work is evident and it produces beautiful results; he succeeds in creating a full world for his characters to live and fight in. I enjoy his work. Do I enjoy it more than Jim Lee, who took the lead time so we’d get an issue of Batman every month? No. Do I enjoy it more than George Perez, who did about eight times the amount of detail during his Avengers run and rarely missed a monthly issue? No. Do I enjoy it more than the work of Mark Bagley, Scott Kollins, Salvador Larocca, Todd Nauck or countless others who have had runs on regular titles where they almost never had a fill-in artist and still manage to get their books out on time? No. Let’s take Mark Bagley, who does absolutely gorgeous work on Ultimate Spider-Man; the man has now done over fifty issues without once having to have a fill-in artist and that book often comes out twice a month. Am I to believe that Bryan Hitch is so much better than Mark Bagley that if he does an Ultimates issue once every few months I should just figure he’s worth it and move on? I’m sorry, but that’s an insult to Mark Bagley and just about every other artist in the comic book industry; Hitch is good, but he’s not that good.

If Millar & Hitch really feel they need a new #1 to proclaim the start of a new era, good for them; I really don’t care anymore. These are decent creators and seemingly cool guys, but they ask for too much for a book that I think is no better than over a dozen titles I can read every month without having to wait.

8. Byrne/Claremont on JLA (DC)
“The single most anticipated reunion in the last 25 years. Legendary X-Men creators John Byrne and Chris Claremont re-team to put their stamp on DC’s own iconic superteam.”

I wrote some of my thoughts on this event a couple weeks ago; check them out here

I wasn’t born yet when Claremont & Byrne did their famous Uncanny X-Men run, but I’ve read the reprints and they live up to the hype. This is not just a great writer reuniting with a stellar artist, these are two guys who, like Marv Wolfman & George Perez on New Teen Titans, were a team in every sense of the word, overseeing all aspects of the story together. There was so much tension at the end of their partnership and in subsequent years that I was concerned when I first heard about this project and feared it might get gutted at the last minute, but since the work is in the can at this point, I guess there is nothing to worry about on that front.

Claremont hit one rough patch in 2003 with the atrocious (and seemingly forced) “God Loves, Man Kills II,” but otherwise, he’s been churning out some consistently good work on X-Treme X-Men with relatively little fanfare. He can be a very hit or miss writer, but I think he’s aware of how much spotlight is on him right now (unlike in, say, the JLA: Scary Monsters limited series) and he’ll bring his A-game. If Claremont can find the voice of even half the characters in the arc, it will be a joy to behold; Claremont writing characters he really gets is something special.

Byrne also had a resurgent 2003 with the generally well-received Generations III. Seeing the preview art for this arc, it blows anything Byrne has done in years out of the water (having Jerry Ordway as an inker surely cant hurt). Again, Byrne at his best is a treat, and this looks like it may be the evolved work from Byrne many critics have spent the last decade begging for (a major knock on Byrne has always been that he uses the same style he did in the 70s today, where artists like Perez have evolved with the times).

The premise of the story isn’t quite as important to me as seeing how Claremont/Byrne get a handle of the JLAers, but while a bit generic, it doesn’t sound bad. The villains are vampires, which immediately screams cliché, honestly…c’mon, vampires are cool.

I’ll be anxiously holding my breath on this one, but I’ll be rooting for it to be a memorable work worthy of the glory days of this collaboration (and I’ll bitch about rotating creative teams for JLA somewhere else).

7. Origin 2 (Marvel)
“The Origin team of writer Paul Jenkins and artist Andy Kubert returns to unlock even more mysteries about everyone’s favorite mutant badass…Keeping the early 20th century setting, Jenkins picks up shortly after the events of Origin left off. Crippled by the loss of his beloved Rose, James Howlett wanders into the Canadian wilderness, but as fans know, no matter where Wolverine goes, danger always heads him off at the pass…While the format of the series is a mystery, rumors swirl that Origin 2 could be anything from a series of minis to a full ongoing series.”

First off, let me say I absolutely love how Jenkins describes his take on this project: “All these stories are metaphors, so for him this is like getting older, doing drugs, meeting chicks—it’s that kind of thing. It’s him going out into the world and going, ‘Okay, I’ve got these great big f—ing claws and a bad attitude, lets see what happens.”

No joke, that quote to me nails exactly what Origin 2 needs to be and cements that if anybody still had any doubts that Jenkins is the right guy for the job when it comes to telling Wolverine’s back story, they shouldn’t.

I was as skeptical as anybody else when Origin came out; I wouldn’t even buy the actual comics, I read the dot.comics at, because I was sure it was going to suck. I think I was quite wrong and Origin was one of those rare pieces of work that lives up to impossible hype. It worked because Jenkins took the story in a different direction right from the start (the Victorian setting, the boy James is before becoming Logan, etc.), but in the end you still feel like the character that ends the story is the Wolverine we’ve known for thirty years. The coolest thing that Jenkins did was incorporate shock twists and unexpected turns into the story, but not have them overwhelm the core of the character. I shudder to think what would have happened had Millar or Morrison written Origin; we would have gotten a character so far off from the Wolverine that’s been around since the 70’s that I bet the series would have eventually been relegated to “What If” status not because these two aren’t talented, but because can’t help but show how clever they are when all they really need to do is tap and appreciate the core of a great character and see what can be done with what’s there without completely reinventing the wheel. This is what Jenkins did, and when you got done with it, Origin wasn’t just a groundbreaking and satisfying resolution to questions that had lingered for years, it was also just a great Wolverine story (you knew from the start what was going to happen to Rose, but that didn’t make it any less powerful because you know it’s just the start for Wolverine when it comes to losing women he loves, and you feel for him). But most importantly, Jenkins didn’t blow his entire wad on Origin; he left you wanting more.

Which brings us to Origin 2.

I think Marvel waited just the right amount of times to deliver this sequel. Had they done it sooner, it wouldn’t seem like anything special, but if they wait too long, they risk it being looked at merely as a nostalgia project and also of not being able to get the original creative team back (the latter happened with the sequel for Marvels currently on the table, and depending on the quality, the former may as well; I notice that project is not mentioned at all in this issue of Wizard). Andy Kubert is just about as important to this franchise as Jenkins is; as much as I miss seeing Andy on a regular title, he really has become a “special” artist who is at his best when he has plenty of time to prepare for a limited series. Throw in painter/colorist Richard Isanove and the art has that air of class to it that makes the project feel even more special.

Building off that last comment, the only thing I am weary of is the idea of Marvel making Origin a regular series; bad idea. I know Marvel is desperate for more big hits right now, but this franchise is one of their big guns and they don’t want to burn it out the way they did many of their popular characters in the 90s meltdown (Venom, Cable, etc.). The time is right for Jenkins & co. to go in, do another six issues dealing with the next phase of Logan’s genesis, then still leave room for a third book in a couple years; Origin 2 could very easily just be composed of telling how Logan traveled the world so much, his Japanese years and the rest, leaving the Weapon X story for the third part in what could be a classic trilogy somewhere down the line. Just remember Marvel: avoid too much too soon.

6. Spider-Man by Millar (Marvel)
“Trouble collaborators Mark Millar and Terry Dodson re-team for Spider-Man, a 12-issue story already being compared to Batman‘s ‘Hush’.”

I love that even Marvel acknowledges that this is a shameless rip-off of “Hush,” as the blurb notes that people inside the company are jokingly referring to the project as “Shush.” While I can see where the folks at DC might get a bit irked that the “House of Ideas” isn’t coming up with their own anymore, the fans could still come out winners here. Spidey has probably a more interesting Rogues gallery than Batman and all of them can benefit from updates and spotlights (Paul Jenkins has had great success with his Green Goblin, Venom & Dr. Octopus stories in Peter Parker, Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man), plus a story incorporating them all has great potential for being just neat. The mystery aspect behind the storyline seems much more of a Batman thing, and mysteries haven’t had much success in Spider-past (see: “The Clone Saga”), but if it’s fun and keeps me guessing, I’ll give it a shot. Then there’s Terry Dodson, an underrated talent who draws a great Spidey. All in all, it sounds like reading a “Hush” rip-off could work out great for fans in the long run.

But then there’s that Millar guy again (and I don’t mean Kevin).

Millar seems to be the one guy who does not realize this is a “Hush” knock-off as he describes the basic outline of the story in the Wizard blurb by basically giving the premise and structure behind “Hush,” without a hint of irony or sarcasm. I’m almost convinced he believes he came up with the idea of doing a one year storyline with all the classic villains being amped up and with a mystery looming in the background on his own…but I have to cling to that one last shred of belief in the man’s integrity.

Ok, y’know what, despite all the nasty things I’ve said about Mr. Millar, I’m still going to give this a shot. The premise sounds like a lot of fun, Dodson is aces, and as I have said, Millar does genuinely seem like a cool guy, even if I haven’t liked his stuff lately. He seems excited about this project and maybe he can knock one out of the park; I hope he does.

But if all the villains talk exactly the same, call Spidey “meatball” (as every other character in Ultimate X-Men seemed to have bizarre propensity for) and there is a seven issue buildup resolved within three pages of a guy telling the guy who tried to murder him and steal his girlfriend that he isn’t mad at him because that would just be petty…well, I’m going to ask for my money back on this run and buy a “Hush” hardcover.

5. Silvestri on New X-Men (Marvel)
“After years of running Top Cow Productions, artist Marc Silvestri steps back from his administrative duties to pencil the final, epic arc of writer Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run…Silvestri says that while most details of the story—set 150 years in the X-Men’s future—are top secret, the arc has been compared by some insiders to the classic “Days of Future Past” saga…Pitting an X-Men team of Wolverine, Cassandra Nova and the Stepford Cuckoos, among others, against the biblical “Beast of the Apocalypse,” Morrison says the story will bring to a close one of his major subplots in his 41 issue run—the Phoenix.”

Ok, Silvestri is a fine artist and his preview work looks very pretty, but let’s be honest: Silvestri returning to the X-Men is the icing on the cake here, Morrison winding up his opus is the main course.

I’ve gone back and forth many times during the last three years in my opinion of Grant Morrison on New X-Men. At first, I thought he was doing something really cool and exciting and new with “E For Extinction” through about “Imperial.” Here and there I would get annoyed that these didn’t seem like “my X-Men,” but some genuinely big and interesting stuff was going on, so no big deal. Around the time Fantomex was first introduced and Morrison began bringing in some of my favorite secondary characters like Cannonball, Siryn, etc. and butchering them (either through out-of-character dialogue or literally), I began losing interest, and by “Riot at Xavier’s” and “Assault On Weapon Plus,” I just thought the books were a mess. “Planet X” and the big reveal on Xorn/Magneto brought me back. The storyline was very uneven, but in the end I think there was more good than bad; you may disagree with Morrison basically deconstructing one of the classic comic book villains in Magneto, but it was a bold, gutsy move, the kind Morrison is known for, and I accept it more than, say, Multiple Man being written as a drunk, because it clearly plays a huge role in the very big statement about evolution that Morrison is trying to make.

So there has been good and bad in the Morrison NXM years, but with Morrison I think it is only fair to judge him by his final storyline on a title, because he is the type of writer who doesn’t mind letting the reader think he’s reading filler the first time around only to go back and enjoy the earlier issues with a renewed vigor when we finally see all the puzzles fall into place. Morrison has a daunting task before him: he must utilize every single page of this final story arc to make all those little nagging things that bothered anybody about New X-Men since his first issue not seem so annoying. A daunting task, but one he is certainly up for. I’m more excited to read this arc than I have been for anything X-related in a long time.

And yes, once again, Marc Silvestri rules and he draws pretty pictures.

4. Michael Turner Returns (DC/Aspen)
“At last, Michael Turner takes on mainstream superhero comics by tackling their greatest icons—Superman and Batman—before launching into a solid year of Aspen Comics releases…Turner’s DC schedule is packed as the artist pencils writer Jeph Loeb’s second six-issue Superman/Batman arc, five Flash covers for 2004 as well as four Superman covers that tie into studio mate Talent Caldwell’s six-issue weekly run on the Superman books (which Turner will also co-write with JLA scribe Joe Kelly)…According to Turner, March’s Superman/Batman #8 teams Supes, Bats and Wonder Woman against a foe powerful enough to destroy them all, as well as introduces a new Supergirl into DC continuity.”

As a “mainstream superhero comic” fan primarily, I’m not terribly familiar with Turner’s prior work, but I only needed to see the few solicitation images that have been released for his Flash covers for my jaw to drop. This guy is Jim Lee-level good and it’s going to be a pleasure to see his work on two titles I read in Flash and Superman/Batman.

The more dicey topic here is yet another new Supergirl being brought into the DCU.

For those of you keeping score at home, since the pre-Crisis Supergirl was killed off in Crisis itself, we’ve had the alien Matrix Supergirl, a retooled version of Matrix Supergirl that bonded with Earth girl Linda Danvers (the Earth secret identity of pre-Crisis Supergirl), something involving an “Earth Angel” that wore a white halter top (sorry, I wasn’t reading any comics, let alone Supergirl, at that point in time), then the Kara Supergirl introduced towards the end of the run of the last Supergirl, plus the extremely unpopular Cir-El character who has been around for the last year; by my count, that’s 3-5 Supergirls since Crisis.

The more pertinent figure is that this is the fourth version of the character to inhabit the DCU since an announcement was made that Supergirl was being cancelled. It seems like a very bizarre situation to keep going back to the well with a character that for all intents and purposes was deemed unprofitable enough to be sent to the proverbial glue factory a little over a year ago.

We all know the bottom line: DC screwed up and they know it.

The sales on Supergirl went up the minute Peter David brought in Kara; there was even a trade paperback of the Kara issues released after the title was cancelled. The sensible thing for DC to do would have been to renege on the cancellation; even if they got the numbers a bit late, they could have brought the series back after a few months hiatus, and I’m sure Steven Seagle’s run on Superman would have survived…or rather still have failed horribly. But for whatever reason, DC did not back down, Peter David’s fabulous year continued (one which saw Young Justice yanked from him as well and the general mistreatment of him and Captain Marvel over at Marvel continue) and the fans did not get what they wanted.

A year later, DC is trying to give it to them.

There is a great affection among fans for nostalgia, particularly from the 80s; G.I. Joe, Thundercats & Transformers all attest to this, as does Formerly Known As The Justice League. The Supergirl who was killed in Crisis was very much a nostalgia character, one that many fans grew up with. This new Supergirl seems to be more or less that character.

How do I feel about it? I disagree with it whole-heartedly. I like Jeph Loeb, I like Superman/Batman, but Crisis was the DC story of all time and the death of Supergirl was a big part of that. My copy of the trade paperback of “Flash: The Return of Barry Allen” is at school right now, but I wish I could quote Mark Waid on why he’d never bring back Barry Allen, who died so heroically in Crisis, because it applies the same here, even if it is technically a new character. Besides that, the post-Crisis Supergirl was a pretty cool character in her own right who built up years of history and a fan following; I don’t see this new Supergirl lighting the comic world on fire in such a way that character could not.

I’ll read the book, I’ll drool over the Michael Turner artwork (not literally…much), but I think DC is just being stubborn here in trying to appease the fans by doing everything but admit they were wrong to cancel Supergirl in the first place.

3. Superman by Jim Lee (DC)
“DC rekindles the magic of 2003’s Batman by putting the No. 1 artist of 2003on the No. 1 icon in comics. Plus, Lee’s reteaming with Brian Azzarello, the 100 Bullets writer who kept the Bat-train chugging after Jeph Loeb and Lee’s ‘Hush’ arc.”

In writing this list, I can better see just how definitive I believe “Hush” will come to be in the overall history of comics. While Marvel movies brought attention back to the comic genre as a whole, it was really “Hush” that made comics hot again, and with both Spider-Man and Superman getting their own versions of the story, you have to wonder what role the whole “12 issue story with as many villains as possible and one underlying theme connecting the smaller arcs” style is going to play in the near future of the industry. How many characters will get the same treatment before the concept gets burned out? Once a character has their “Hush” how does said character stay hot? Are creative teams that stay on a book for more than a year going to become more and more a thing of the past? Interesting questions that I think we’ll begin to see answered more in 2004 and 2005.

Superman is a bigger challenge for Jim Lee than Batman in terms of how many copies of the book he can sell; ditto for Brian Azzarello. While Superman may be the bigger icon, Batman is by far the more interesting and compelling character. Besides that, there isn’t the wide gallery of characters in the Superman mythos that fans will be waiting to see Lee draw as there was with Batman; in fact, Lee already pretty much drew every major Superman character during “Hush,” between Superman, Lois, Luthor and Perry. Azzarello’s story is going to have to be even more intriguing than “Hush” to keep readers interested, because as good as Jim Lee is, I don’t think his art alone can sell this book the way it probably could have with Batman even if “Hush” was complete trash.

That, however, is why Azzarello is a good choice for writer on this book. He is the last person you would expect, given how far apart Superman and 100 Bullets are, but that is what I think will ultimately work for him. He brings a very fresh perspective to the Man of Steel and it will be big hit or big miss whether or not it’s one the fans embrace.

I for one am perhaps even more intrigued by the upcoming Azzarello/Lee Bermejo mini-series Lex Luthor: Man of Steel; they sound like they’ve got a really cool take on the Supes/Luthor feud ready to go.

For more of my thoughts on the revamp of the Superman line, here you go.

2. Secret War (Marvel)
“Writer Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man) forgoes the Ultimate Universe for the mainstream Marvel U. along with Italian painting sensation Gabriele Dell’Otto to team Spider-Man, Wolverine and Captain America, among others…Featuring some of Marvel’s top-tier characters, as well as some personal favorites of Bendis, the quarterly shipping series aims at connecting all of Marvel’s techno-villains as well as raising the threat level for the Marvel Universe’s heroes…‘Literally, this is a new way to look at a Marvel Universe event. Nick Fury discovers a secret that connects all of Marvel’s technological villains in the Marvel Universe that scares the sh—out of him.’”

There is much in here that is potentially good and much that is potentially bad, so I’ll break it down:

Good: The first high profile event that incorporates the majority of the mainstream Marvel Universe’s characters in awhile (I’m not counting Infinity Abyss or Marvel: The End, though I liked both). Marvel’s greatest strength going back to the 60s and the reason it ever beat DC in the first place lies in its shared universe concept and how well that was executed.

Bad: Quarterly shipping? Ugh. I’m going to lose interest real quick in a book that comes out once every three months. Again, Marvel shows that it is desperate for a hit and it lacks the patience that has allowed DC to retake the top spot. DC held off on printing a single issue of Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow until they could be sure they had enough material in the can to release the series with monthly regularity; Marvel had to have Smith (who was one of the dumbest exclusive signings of all, based on his schedule) as quickly as possible, and they were rewarded with Spider-Man/Black Cat & Daredevil: The Target, two mini series that to this day have not had new issues in over a year and have yet to conclude. When artists are unable to meet deadlines, regardless of how good they are (Steve Sadowski on JSA comes to mind), DC releases them and finds somebody new; Marvel allows Bryan Hitch to take as long as he wants with Ultimates yet keeps on soliciting issues, screwing up scheduling and continuity for the entire rest of their Ultimate line. If Bendis & Dell’Otto need a year to put Secret War together, fine, give them a year, but release the damn thing all at once. You’re not going to go bankrupt (again) because you wait a little while to release something in its entirety, but you will if you continue to leave works unfinished or keep making fans wait because you have the attention span of a gnat, Marvel.

Good: Brian Michael Bendis is one of the best writers in comics. People criticize him for not being able to write action, but read Daredevil #50 or countless issues of Ultimate Spider-Man and you see that’s crap. Seeing him write so many of these characters for the first time and watching him write the dialogue as the interact will be a treat.

Bad: I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen of Gabriele Dell’Otto’s work. It seems very stiff and angular; more suited for trading cards or posters than a moving story.

Good: Nick Fury is a great point of view character, as seen in 1602.

Bad: There is no reason whatsoever to call this Secret War and then have no connection to the original except to cash in on name recognition for a story the powers-that-be at Marvel mock all the time. Not a huge deal, but I liked the original, and this just rubbed me the wrong way.

So it’s really a “wait and see” on this one. The only question is how long we’ll be waiting to see each issue…

1. Identity Crisis (DC)
“With the gritty realism of Watchmen, the scope of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the staying power of both, Identity Crisis promises to be the next great DC epic—a tragic murder mystery that promises many victims and a redefining of the entire DCU from top to bottom…Writer Brad Meltzer (Green Arrow) and artist Rags Morales (Hawkman) craft a shocking event that introduces a new element of danger into the lives of DC’s most recognizable heroes—with tragic results.”

“The realism of Watchmen”?! “The scope of Crisis on Infinite Earths”?!! Wow…and let me say it again…wow.

DC has set almost impossibly high expectation for this sucker, but at the same time, if they wanted to get people intrigued, well if that didn’t do it, I don’t know what will.

The powers that be at DC are staying fairly mum on Identity Crisis, but we do know it’s some sort of murder mystery, it involves the secret identities of the DCU folk and their supporting casts, and at least some of it takes place in the past. We also know that the “second-tier” Silver Age JLA (Green Arrow, Hawkman, The Atom, Elongated Man, Zatanna & Black Canary) will play major roles alongside the “A-level” heroes.

It’s hard to comment on something when you know so few details, but I’ll do my best.

First off, they certainly could not have picked a better creative team. Meltzer may be relatively inexperienced, but this is exactly the type of story he did so well on Green Arrow in “Archer’s Quest,” using past continuity and a wide range of characters (as a brief aside, let me say how awesome it is that titles featuring Green Arrow and Hawkman can now be springboards for getting to handle the entire DCU…try picturing that 10-20 years ago…it’s just awesome). He seems in the interviews he’s given to be both humbled by the idea of doing something so big and respective of the scope and the comparisons, but also confident that his best shot will be something to behold; good combination.

But perhaps more importantly, to me the big draw here is going to be getting the chance to see Rags Morales draw as much of the DCU as possible in the same way seeing George Perez do the same was a major draw for the original Crisis. For my money, Morales may be the most enjoyable artist to see work from out there today; this is his chance to be remembered with the Perezes and Lees of the world.

Any series that is going to draw on the richness of the DCU, which has the best character catalog out there, wins points with me. The second-tier JLA guys are the types Meltzer handles perfectly, but I hope we also get to see the big guns as well as obscure characters and other major players like the Teen Titans and Outsiders.

I feel like a kid on Christmas waiting for this one. You’ve got my hopes up big time DC, don’t blow it or I’m sending the ever-dangerous 411 staff after you…hell hath no fury like Matt Morrison if I tell him you’re letting Scott Kurtz write a new Starman series.

And, before you write, I don’t mind DC “exploiting” the Crisis name like I do with Marvel using the Secret Wars one because A)the name is more different and B)DC has always shown a lot more respect to Crisis than Marvel has to Secret Wars, so they’ve earned the right to get some more mileage out of it.

Hope you enjoyed this look back at 2003 and look ahead to 2004. I’ve certainly had a great 2003 here at 411, watching my silly dream of running a comic book web site (which I must at every opportunity mention that Widro originally rejected) become a reality that has gained actual recognition among both the “big” sites and in the industry itself (Peter David e-mailed me once, I rock!). Thank you so much to Daron, the entire staff and you guys for making my dream a reality. We’ve got some exciting stuff lined up for 2004 and think we’ve only just gotten started with this thing.

All of us here at 411Comics wish you and yours a safe and happy New Year; have fun and take care of yourselves and others.