Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Old Characters New Stories

One of the neat things about the comic book genre is that different writers are able to write the stories for existing characters. Over the years, hundreds of different comic book writers have written for Superman, Batman, The X-Men, Spiderman, just in the course of comic book companies' routine production. But other times, established comic writers are given the opportunity to take creative license with an existing character or group of existing characters. The best examples of these new stories elucidate our culture's relationships with these characters, and deepen the characters by placing them in atypical environments. Here are three of the best examples of new stories for old characters. (And all three are just great comic books anyway.)

The benchmark for the revisited character is Frank Miller's, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Batman is one of the most, if not the most, interpreted characters in American comics and Miller's take is one of the most sophisticated and revealing. An aging Bruce Wayne, unable to quiet his compulsion to fight crime, puts the Batman suit back on and finds a new Robin (a young girl) to confront a new challenge to peace and order in Gotham. The Joker is reborn as well in the return of the Bat and Batman must confront the changes the world has gone through since he last donned the cape. Miller, author of the Sin City series, takes a dark, cynical approach to the relationship between order and vigilantism and presents a compelling character study of one of modern America's most important mythologies.

Multiple award winner and author of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman imagines characters from the Marvel Universe in 1602, dealing with Elizabethan intrigue and the conquest of the New World. Dozens of Marvel characters appear; Nick Fury, Spiderman, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, and the Fantastic Four to name a few. (Naming all of them would give away a few cool surprises.) What I liked most about 1602 is that I find most of its characters, generally uninteresting and yet Gaiman managed to make all of them fascinating and entertaining.

The Death of Captain America by Eisner Award Winner Ed Brubaker was featured on NPR as one of the top super-hero comics of 2008. Brubaker, author of the Criminal series, is already one of my favorite contemporary comics writers and The Death of Captain America is one of the best graphic novels of 2008. Told as part of the massive Marvel-wide Civil War story arc, which you don't need to have read, The Death of Captain America starts off with just that and explores the effect Captain America's death has on the public. There is a fascinating exploration of the politics of order and authority but the real power from the story comes from the personal struggles of the other characters. The emotions of coping with the loss of Steve Rogers turns an icon back into a character. While the nation mourns the loss of an American symbol, the other characters mourn the loss of a friend, and the differences between those methods of mourning provide a powerful lesson about the nature of national tragedies.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading The Watchmen now - it's way more psychological than I expected!

Josh said...

The Watchmen is an excellent book, regardless of the genre. For a lot of people, it was the comic book that first showed them what comic books were really capable of.

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