I’m sure the creators will all insist that this is totally not a superhero book, that it’s much cooler and obscure and indy and retro and hand-crafted than that. But it’s a big DC Comics book with Superman in it, whose hero is a guy with a mysterious, technologically-advanced eyeball with unexpected and plot-convenient powers, who leads a team of people in jumpsuits and drives a weird vehicle with a silly name.
So, yeah, it’s absolutely a superhero book.
Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye was a twelve-issue series — I’m not sure, at this late date, if it was meant to be mini- or maxi- or ongoing, and frankly I don’t care — from 2016-2017, about the very minor DC character of the title, who had previously appeared in some forgettable ’60s stories and a few random crossovers. It was part of the “Young Animal” line, which was an attempt to recapture the sales magic of Vertigo without the benefits of time, a deep bench of British writing talent, a healthier market, and (most importantly) Karen Berger. And, as I understand it, the Animals Which Are Young was modestly successful, but has not been a long-term sustainable thing — not that very much in guys-in-tights-punching-each-other comics is “a long-term sustainable thing” this decade to begin with.
Cave’s adventures were written by Jon Rivera and Young Animal guru Gerard Way, and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming (whose work I haven’t seen regularly since Powers, but who is still quirky and organic, even if I think his psychedelic extravaganza fight scenes are hard to follow and not his best work). The twelve issues all make up one long story, in which Our Hero (renowned spelunker Cave Carson) and his spunky teenage daughter Chloe steal the original version of his tunneling machine, the Mighty Mole, to chase the evil spelunking team led by the eeeevil heads of the company Cave used to work for, because they are pursuing the eeeeeevil plan of an extradimensional EEEEEEEEVIL monster that intends to eat the multiverse, more or less.
Cave’s dead wife — every superhero has a dead wife or three in the fridge; it’s standard issue — turns out to have been the princess of a secret advanced subterranean race, because of course she was, and so Chloe is the heiress to Vast Powers and Responsibilities, including the only possible way to stop the aforementioned monster from snacking down on all of the worlds with Cave Carsons in them.
It gets weirder and more bizarre from there, in best Young Animal fashion, and there’s a large cast of characters mostly so Rivera and Way can kill off lots of them in ways that make readers struggle to remember who they were and why we should care. (Was that jump-suited person still on Team Evil, someone who defected once Team Evil’s evilness was clear, or an OG do-gooder? Does anyone care? Does anyone besides me find that several of them look distractingly like Ron from Kim Possible?) The large cast tunnels through the ground of Earth-DC (or maybe Earth-Young Animal?) and then through the contiguous grounds of several other alternate Earths, meeting a Cave Carson Jr. and eventually his father. Doc Magnus appears, and is even more of a dick than usual, while still not being particularly interesting as a character.
In the end, the multiverse is indeed saved from being eaten, as we all knew it would be. DC would not stop publishing umpty-zillion comics just because Cave fucking Carson couldn’t save its bread and butter, now would it?
This is a loud, flashy, silly, overstuffed comic with some good moments and a whole lot of confusing action. It is somewhat more serious than the standard punch-fest, or at least aspires to be. I did not take it seriously for one second, but I did enjoy pieces of it, and was engaged enough to request the second volume from the library when I hit the end of the first one. And I have enjoyed dunking on it here. So it is not without its pleasures, even if those are highly particular and goofy. Caveat emptor.
If you know anything about Saga, you know there’s a big change at the end of this book, and that the series is now on a longer hiatus than usual. If you know nothing about Saga, you might just have been living in a hole for the last seven years, and nearly anything I could say would be a spoiler for the first fifty-some issues and nine volumes.
But that’s always the issue with writing about a long-running media thing: there are the people who follow it passionately, who know everything you could possibly tell them, and the ones who have ignored it, who won’t get any of the backstory. What I try to do is write down the middle — for the people who know the thing exists but aren’t uberfans, who might be caught up or might not, since life is complicated and this media thing isn’t going to be everyone’s biggest priority.
That brings me to Saga, Vol. 9 today. It’s written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated — pencils, inks, colors, the whole deal — by Fiona Staples, as all of the issues to date have been and all of the issues to come are supposed to be. If you want to remind yourself of how we got here, you could check out what I wrote about the previous books: one
It’s a soft-SF epic, set in a a universe influenced by Star Wars but full of its own quirks and specifics. Two soldiers from opposite sides of a very long-running war — their people are set up to be opposites in as many ways as Vaughan could manage — met before the series began and fell in love. The first issue depicted the birth of their daughter Hazel; Saga is meant to be her story, and she’s been narrating the comic more and more as she’s gotten older. Now she’s somewhere in the middle of what we’d call her elementary-school years — maybe six, maybe eight. She and her parents, and various helpers, have been on the run her entire life, and have been chased by various others, on and off, the whole time. There are a lot of moments of peace, but the war is always in the background: both sides would very much like to capture and/or kill both parents, and do that or worse to Hazel.
Vaughan and Staples have been clear from the beginning that Saga is Hazel’s story, not that of Marco and Alana, her parents. But she was a baby for the first twenty or thirty issues, so that message wasn’t as clear as they might have thought. And, frankly, even now she’s not old enough to have a story really separate from her parents and keepers — the emphasis on Hazel in the interviews around the most recent issue and hiatus seem to me to be signposts to say “Saga is going to run for a lot of issues — well over a hundred,” given how long it’s taken to get Hazel to this age and how little agency she has had so far.
I don’t mind long stories, as long as they are stories. Saga has a lot of serial comics in its DNA, but I think it still has the bones of a single story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Saga come back after the hiatus with a time-jump, bumping Hazel up to an age when she really can affect events. Maybe not, though: maybe I’m just trying to hurry along something that will continue to go at its own pace.
Saga is still a very strong, humanistic work of SF, a story of people in danger and how they react to various stresses and demands and threats. Not all of them do what we’d hope they would, just like life. But they’re all real, and they’re what keep Saga worth reading.
Hey! The time-cops finally get named in this book! They’re called WATCH — we don’t know what that stands for, but baby steps, man, baby steps — and the old guy who runs them is Jahpo Thapa.
And our heroines learn more than his name, which I won’t spoil: they learn who he is and how he matters to them.
So, just maybe, Paper Girls Vol. 5 sees this series moving on from throwing out ideas at random and is now finally starting to knit them together into something coherent that can move towards an ending. I’m not holding my breath, but the signs are getting better.
As always, this story of a complicated (and not actually explained, even now) intergenerational time war focuses on four tween girls who were delivering newspapers early in the morning of November 1, 1988 when one piece of that war erupted into their home town of Cleveland. They’ve been to prehistory and several versions of the future — including the amazing world of Y2K! — but this time they’re in an actually futuristic future some fifty or sixty years up the line.
(Bad news for me: this locks down the stupid leet-speek future talk to that era, which is even more stupid than when I could pretend in my head that it changed over a few centuries. But it’s still Wicked Rad Kewl, which is the real point.)
So Erin, Mac, K.J., and Tiffany — plus the Y2K version of Tiff they picked up in the last volume — are stranded in dystopian future Cleveland, with a population in stylish jumpsuits and headgear and the occasional flying murderous police. But they head to the library, and actually piece together a few bits of the backstory in between fighting library golems, being shot at by the aforementioned flying cops, and interrogating senile old women.
They learn that they’re considered criminals, maybe because of the kid terrorist time-travelers we’ve seen before and maybe just because everybody is completely confused about the real origins of the time anomalies and war. That doesn’t help much, since they’re still a bunch of twelve-year-olds stranded in a city with no way home, among people who talk like particularly stupid members of the gang from Dark Knight Returns.
And, in the end, there’s another big problem for the four of them, and they’re all stranded in time again. I hope it won’t take another five volumes to learn what’s the vague deal of the junior combatants in the time war, but I’m not going to hold my breath. My sense is that Paper Girls, like any good serial comic, is going to spin out its central conceit for as long as the audience is willing to keep paying for it. Since I like time-war stories, I guess I’ll just keep giving it one volume at a time, and keep up with it as long as there’s still something new and interesting in each volume.
But I’d still rather have a real ending rather than endless recomplication.
Now, I know that I tend to focus on the negative, even when the positive is much larger and objectively more interesting. I usually blame that on “editor brain” — when you spend years pulling apart stories for a living, it forms a habit that you just can’t break.
So let me say up front that Finder is pretty damn awesome, a smart series of graphic novels with real character depth, a quirky and involving world, tricky plots, and sharp people-oriented art. But it’s got some elements in its SFnal setup that people like me obsess about and complain about more than they deserve.
I’ll try to keep those quibbles minor, since they are minor. This is a great world that basically hangs together; it just has a central flaw that’s very common, very understandable, and yet often very annoying (to people like me who can’t just let it go).
Finder is supposedly set a few thousand years in the future, on an Earth hugely depopulated, devoid of any obvious larger governments than pseudo-zaibatsu “clans,” with people either living crammed into domed cities or roaming the outside wastes as nomads very much modeled on the American Indian in ways that are deeply unlikely. It’s not clear if massive numbers of people left the planet in the meantime, if there was at least one apocalypse to kill billions, or if population just dwindled for a long time. (The current society seems to above replacement rate, and so growing, but maybe only slowly.) And popular culture is, as far as we see, primarily devoted to digging up ephemera of the 20th century.
So, yes, to tick off the obvious SF-geek issues: that feels like much too far in the future for the focus on modern pop-culture; there’s no clear path from here to get to this world; there doesn’t seem to be any infrastructure to feed those people, let alone provide them with industrial goods; and the lack of any structure to society outside/above/between the clans seems unlikely at best — how do clans resolve conflicts, living together in their tight little cities?
Let me stipulate all that: those are issues with the world-building, and maybe creator Carla Speed McNeiltackles them eventually. In the first three storylines of Finder, collected as the 2011 omnibus The Finder Library, Vol. 1, though, she doesn’t. This book has what was the first 22 issues of Finder the print comic — sometime later it turned into a webcomic — originally published between 1996 and 2001 and then collected into the first four trade paperbacks. (Sin-Eater, the first storyline, took up two books.)
Sin-Eater introduces the world through Jaeger, a roguish “finder” from one of the many tribal “Ascian” cultures that live nomadic lives in the Empty Lands between those domed cities. He has a lot of strangeness of his own, for a 20th century reader, but he’s an outsider in the city of Anvard, so he’s our viewpoint for the strangeness there.
Jaeger is the on-and-off lover of Emma Lockhart Grosvenor, a married woman in Anvard. That is to say: she lets him live with her when he’s in town, but he’s only in town randomly, at long intervals, and utterly without notice. McNeil does not show Jaeger having similar arrangements in other cities — and I think she finds him more appealing than I do — but I see no reason why a man like him wouldn’t have a semi-regular fuck-buddy in all of the places he wanders through.
Emma is part of a mixed marriage that went bad. She’s from the artistic, ultra-feminine Llaverac clan; her husband Brigham Grosvenor is from the military/police clan Medawar.  Brigham was a military leader who took his family to the frontier outpost where he was stationed (and where Jaeger was something like a native scout and Brigham’s aide/pet) and there descended into what Finder doesn’t actually call paranoid schizophrenia. Emma got away with her three “daughters” — all members of Llaverac are referred to by feminine pronouns and tend to present as female in public, even if they are biologically male — Rachel, Lynne (who is male), and Marcie (Marcella) with Jaeger’s aid a few years ago, and has been hiding from Brigham since then.
Sin-Eater is the story of how that hiding eventually falls apart, how Brig finds his family again, and how it affects all of them. Jaeger, in what I think is his usual style, is both too clever by half and has a a strong restless tropism to do stupid random things, so it’s all mostly his fault. It’s also the story that introduces the world and explains, as much as McNeil wanted, how it works and what these people do.
The second story here, King of the Cats, is more self-contained and focused more tightly on Jaeger. He’s worked his way to another city as an armed guard on a giant armored bus — the wilderness is quite dangerous, with all of those native tribes and no farmlands — carrying members of the Steinehan clan to an amusement-park city (unnamed, as far as I can find), and wants to get inside mostly because they won’t hire him or let him inside. Jaeger is motivated, as always, but spite and whim as much as anything else.
Camping nearby is a large group of Nyima, an intelligent non-human race with pretty serious sexual dimorphism — the females are lion-headed humanoids and the males a a big question mark. (We learn that most males are semi-intelligence quadrupedal lion-types, but each group has a King, whom all of the females are “married” to, and who has bipedalism and increased intelligence because of a specific intervention by the females. This seems unlikely to be stable or natural, but I can only shrug.) They have an onerous contract with the unseen owners of the amusement park, which they can’t fulfill without destroying their culture and becoming essentially slaves there for the rest of their lives, and which they can’t break without incurring massive financial penalties. (Again: this is a warlike group of nomads in a world with no apparent larger government. McNeil makes the dilemma plausible, but the heavily armed and well-positioned Nyima appear to have a much stronger hand than the weak, unarmed locals.)
Jaeger, in his meddling way, solves the Nyimas’ problem, answers his own curiosity, causes a larger amount of trouble than usual even for him, and leaves at the end, happy and ready for another opportunity to meddle somewhere else.
And last in Volume 1 is Talisman, which I read before a few years back
. This is Marcie’s story: she’s growing up from the little girl we saw in Sin-Eater, and I won’t repeat what I said then. (This post is long enough already.) The background details do make more sense if you come to Talisman in series order, though. Talisman is a story about the youth of an artist, which many artists are compelled to tell — McNeil does a good job of it, and her quirky world makes it specific and individual.
The most important thing for me to note at the end here is that I’m going to be actively seeking out Finder Library, Vol. 2. Some of the world-building might annoy me, but that always happens. McNeil’s people are real and have complicated flaws, her world is big and intricate and clearly is full of details she already knows that might never make it into a story, and her drawing is crisp and evocative and sophisticated. It’s good, real SF in comics form, which is rare, and it’s SF focused on people (often women) in a complex world, which is even rarer.
 How can there be a clan that specializes in “police” if there’s no government above them? They’d just be the street gang that runs the town, from their monopoly on violence. I’m hoping McNeil eventually explains the governance of this world, because so far I see nothing to keep one clan from eliminating another, or any mechanisms other than violence to solve inter-clan disputes.
In a serial medium, there’s always the need to make sure the audience keeps up. So each new installment needs to do some work to give backstory, either with the potted “who they are and how they came to be!” box or flashbacks or whatever.
And when the story is moving quickly, one of the ways to do that effectively can be to slip back in time slightly at the beginning of each new installment, so the end of Section X and the beginning of Section Y tell the same moment in time, and overlap.
Jeff Lemire does that for every single transition in Descender, Vol. 5: Rise of the Robots, which I’m taking as a sign that he’s stomping his foot down on the gas and charging towards an ending in the not-too-distant future.
(I might as well throw in links to my posts on the earlier books, for those of you who are lost or just want more details: one
If you haven’t read Descender before, it’s soft-ish medium-future SF (intelligent but not godlike AI, some kind of unexplained FTL, various alien species, a galactic scope) in which planetoid-sized robot “Harvesters” appeared mysteriously about a generation ago, killed a large proportion of the organic sentients in the galaxy, and then went away. Since then, the robots created by those sentients have mostly been hunted and destroyed, for understandable if not strictly logical reasons.
(It’s a second cousin of the Butlerian Jihad, I suppose.)
Our main characters are on the human/robot interface: one special robot boy who was in hibernation since the attacks, the man who was his human companion as a boy, the roboticist that created that robot boy. Plus, of course, a larger cast of soldiers and schemers and killers on all sides of the conflicts — what was a fairly unified, advanced multi-species civilization shattered into a dozen or more nastier shards in the aftermath of that attack.
And it’s all coming to a head now: the Harvesters may be coming back, the local robots have definitely organized and are ready for their own counter-pogrom, and more individual acts of violence are also happening quickly.
Descender is a strong, somewhat space-operatic comic, a little more conventional and action-oriented than I’d expect from Jeff Lemire — but, then again, I’ve never read his Big Two work. It shows every sign of having a real ending, and to be barreling at top speed towards that ending. It’s good stuff: if you like SF, you should check it out.
Comics has not been a terribly fertile ground for good science fiction. Oh, there’s been a lot of space opera, since comics are excellent at depicting coruscating beams of lambent force striking overwhelmed ray-screens and control panels exploding with showers of colorful sparks. But actual stories about people and their societies, in which the details of the future world are both carefully designed and important? That’s not something comics gets into all that often.
Nexus is one of the towering exceptions. It was one of the first wave of “ground-level” comics in the late ’70s and early ’80s, part of the flood that eventually became “independent comics.” And, like a lot of things in that wave, it clearly was derived from popular ideas in mainstream comics, taking a different look at the costumed superpowered hero as Elfquest and Cerebus did the same with the fantasy adventure.
Nexus was a first — the first comics work published by writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude, the first comic published by Capital Comics, the brand-new publishing arm of a growing regional comics distributor, maybe the first serious long-form SF in comics form. It came out first in black and white, for three large issues in 1981 and 1982, and then switched to color for a second volume in 1983 as the story continued without interruption. With the seventh color issue, in the spring of ’85, publication switched to the more established and stable First Comics (based in Chicago, and a reasonably close indy-comics neighbor to the Madison, Wisconsin base of Capital, Baron, and Rude).
First would publish Nexus, and a few spin-off series, through issue 80 in 1991. First then went under, and Nexus landed at Dark Horse for a series of one-shots and mini-series that were intended as a continuation of the main story from the First series. (And they were quietly co-numbered as issues 81, etc. to indicate that.) That petered out in 1997, but there have been some Nexus stories, here and there, since then.
Dark Horse has reprinted Nexus in a serious way twice: first with the Archive volumes, classy hardcovers in the Marvel/DC mode. Twelve volumes of those came out from 2005 to 2011, collecting the whole Capital/First run but ending there. And then they started again with the cheaper, fatter paperback Omnibus series, which collected the entire ’80s-’90s Nexus into eight volumes.
I personally started reading Nexus in the fall of 1986, when I went off to college, discovered the (then obligatory) good comics shop near college (Iron Vic’s, sadly missed) and got a bunch of interesting-looking indy comics. And I lost track of it at the end of the Dark Horse years, though I saw the Archives and Omnibus books coming out and vaguely planned to collect them to re-read. Eventually, I got the first nine Archives books, which collected up to First issue 57, and spent a lot of pleasant time in my late-August vacation reading them.
So what I can talk about today is about the first half of Nexus: most of the main continuous phase, and the bulk of the Baron-Rude days. Rude didn’t want to spend his entire life doing this one comic, and so this stretch has a number of issues with art by other people, and the end of the First run would be almost entirely drawn by other hands.
In a vaguely Legion of Super-Heroes way, Nexus is locked onto a pan-galactic multi-species future five hundred years ahead — the late twenty-fifth century. In most of the issues here, it’s not entirely clear what the year is or how much time is passing, but it’s clear time is passing, more quickly than usual for a monthly periodical comic. One year of Nexus comics is roughly equal to one year of time in Nexus‘s universe — people will grow and change, and the world will not stay the same at any point.
That seems like a small point, but it’s crucial: in 1981, comics really didn’t do that. Even by 1991, when the First Nexus series ended, continuity didn’t mean that anyone got older, just that old stories (or some of them, at least) counted. But Nexus was a place where time was real, death was real, people were individual and quirky and never blandly heroic or evil, and everything would get more complicated and difficult over time, just like the real world.
Nexus is a man: Horatio Hellpop. The rest of the universe does not know that name — they just know that he appears, as Nexus, to assassinate various people. (All humans, all mass murderers…but that may not be clear to everyone.) He harnesses vast energy powers, through fusion sources that are the subject of frenzied theorizing.
His base is an obscure, out-of-the-way moon called Ylum. (As in, and pronounced to match, asylum.) That world is filling up with refugees fleeing a thousand tyrannical regimes, people of all races and nationalities, with no real infrastructure and, as yet, no government other than the vague presence of Nexus himself.
As Nexus opens, Sundra Peale, a reporter from the Web — a large, mostly democratic and free polity centered on Earth and extending to its colonies across the solar system and elsewhere — has arrived on Ylum, to learn Nexus’s secrets and broadcast them to her audience. She has another, secret reason for chasing his secrets as well, and we’ll learn that quickly.
Many characters in Nexus have secret motivations, or just ones that they don’t clearly explain. Again, this was not common in comics in 1981 — and still isn’t as common as I would hope, even today — but it’s the basis of any kind of real literature. People are complex, and never do things just for simple, obvious reasons. Nexus is full of complex, often infuriating people, from Nexus and Sundra on down: they all do things that are what they need to do at that moment, even if they’re not what the audience wants, or what would be the obvious next step in a piece of genre fiction.
In between assassinations and other intrigues, Sundra learns Nexus’s truth, and becomes his lover. His father, Theodore, was the military governor of Vradic, one of the planets ruled by the Sov, a successor state to the Soviet Union. (We all though it would last forever, and expand into space, in 1981.) Theodore fled a coup with his wife and infant son, destroying all human life on Vradic as he went, following his orders as he saw them. They landed on Ylum, and found it empty. But the world had a huge network of livable spaces underground, with attractive plazas and rooms nearer the surface and endless caverns and utility networks further down, plus fascinating artifacts that hinted at an ancient alien presence there. They moved in; Horatio grew up.
He had two alien playmates, Alpha and Beta, who his parents never saw. His mother disappeared when he was young, only to be found, much later, dead in one of those endless lower levels. He had headaches that got worse and worse as he got older. Eventually, he started to dream of his father’s crimes. And he knew that the headaches would keep getting worse, that they would kill him, if he didn’t kill his father first. Nexus’s first assassination, his first time using that fusion power, was to kill Theodore, the only other living human on the planet.
That ended the dreams about Theodore. But there are many other mass murderers, and Nexus started to dream of them, one by one or in groups. And the situation was the same: use the fusion power to kill the murderers he dreams of, or die himself from the escalating pain those dreams cause.
(The first time we see Nexus perform an assassination, he says he kills out of self-defense. And this is absolutely true.)
That’s only the beginning, obviously. Many factions across the inhabited galaxy want to kill or co-opt Nexus, use him to accomplish their aims or exploit the vulnerable refugees of Ylum. We quickly learn that the fusion power Nexus exploits is not unknown, if stronger than usual: unscrupulous folks have discovered that decapitating sentients and putting the heads in life-support systems generates massive telekinetic powers, which can be harnessed to, among other things, pull fusion power from stars to create energy blasts like Nexus’s.
Nexus is on the side of the oppressed by instinct, but he’s not naturally a killer. One of the most important threads of Nexus is that Horatio only kills when he absolutely has to: he kills the people he’s forced to. His life, and that of Ylum, would be much simpler if he were less philosophical, more inclined to just destroy anything in his path.
Before long, we will learn the source of Nexus’s power. And Baron and Rude will continue to explore all of the implications of these ideas — of the kinds of scams and tricks that will arise if turning people into heads is a profitable business; of the government intrigues that will ripple out from spying on Nexus, and from ongoing issues with being able to deliver enough energy to a growing, technological population; of the politics of Ylum, a world filled with refugees from a thousand different worlds with no common tradition; and with what kind of a power a nation of Heads would be, and what they would want to do once free.
And, eventually, that Nexus is a title and a source of power. Horatio Hellpop is not the only person who can have that title and source of power, and he won’t be the only one. Even if he’s the best possible person for it, if he has a chance to give it up, he will — the pain, both physical and moral, is overwhelming.
I haven’t even talked about some of the other great characters: Dave, Nexus’s closest friend and advisor, a Thune with great pain in his past and a quietly stoic outlook on life; Dave’s long-separated son Judah the Hammer, a hero inspired by Nexus and using power similar to his, provided by vengeance-seeking Heads; Tyrone, the grumpy refugee first President of Ylum, sneakier than he seems and not as dismissive of politics as he appears; the seeming parody of a grasping merchant Keith Vooper, who is quirkier than that; the budding musical genius Mezz; Ursula Imada, a Web agent sent to seduce and control Nexus whose naked ambitions will drive many plots for many years; the three Loomis sister, who swear to destroy Nexus for assassinating their General father; the two Gucci assassins Kreed and Sinclair, both from the odd Quatro race; and many more.
Nexus is a big, smart, interesting SF series, full of fascinatingly real characters who bounce off each other in increasingly baroque ways and set in a complex universe with no easy answers and a lot of hard questions. Steve Rude, though he starts off a little shaky, very quickly draws like a dream, in a mode influenced by Toth and Kirby. The work Baron and Rude do together on this series is their very best work, and they’re both among the very best in comics.
If you haven’t taken a look at Nexus, and you have any interest in comics SF at all, you really need to try it.
Today’s story is about reading procrastination, or about good intentions, or maybe just how there’s more things we want to do in the world than there are things we have the time to do.
Fifteen years or so ago, Dark Horse was humming along with its Star Wars comics program — a few things tied to the prequel trilogy, which was about to wrap up, but mostly in the “Extended Universe,” in-continuity stories that stretched across comics and videogames and the novels Bantam and others published. Someone remembered that there was also an old series of Star Wars comics — the ones from Marvel that ran from 1977 through 1986 and were solidly out of continuity by that point — and decided to reprint them.
I guess they were pitched to the Science Fiction Book Club, where I worked at the time. I was the resident Star Wars guy then, reading and acquiring all of the novels and getting to go to a licensor showing of Phantom Menace a few years earlier.  I don’t think we did them, but I ended up with copies of the first two collections, Doomworld and Dark Encounters.
At the time, I thought I’d be doing a lot of reading on the nice comfortable couch in our dining room/kitchen/maybe a great room if you squint. So the two Star Wars books, along with some other stuff, migrated to an end table next to that couch, and sat there. Somewhere in the middle, before this blog started, I did read Doomworld.
But Dark Encounters lingered, and wandered around the house, in search of a reading spot where I actually would read it. Eventually, it ended up on a shelf, which would have been the sensible place to begin, and I finally got to it — forty years after the comics themselves and over fifteen since the book was published — as part of this Book-A-Day push.
These stories are not part of any continuity anymore. They only vaguely qualified when they came out, since it was only the dawn of the Era Of Continuity, and it’s clear whoever held the license issued occasional diktats to Marvel, asking them to tack over in this direction because the new movie was coming up, or to slim down the new additions and have the next big plotline be set on Tatooine again.
But even that vague, OK-maybe-it’s-sorta-canon sense of the original comics was firmly jettisoned first by the Extended Universe (which, as far as I can tell, is mostly called that in retrospect — at the time it was just a bunch of other Star Wars stories in different media) and then by whatever we’re calling the spiffed-up Nu Wars continuity where Han and Leia only had one mopey son rather than three odd kids. So these stories are doubly out of continuity — they’re not even part of the old one, that various sectors of the Internet are loudly proclaiming is obviously better than this new version with way too many icky girls and not enough boys playing with their lightsabers.
And, frankly, these are odd stories: very comic-booky, obviously done quickly to deadlines and trying to spin out what was a fairly thin thread from the first Star Wars movie. (At this point, it was still called Star Wars. Please remember that.) If none of the ideas from these comics — the giant gambling space station The Wheel, ray shields, the villainous and aristocratic Tagge family, cyborg bounty hunters, Imperial industrial planets, the idea of the Empire as a long-running thing with a family one could marry into, the winged Sky’tri people of Marat V, the Sacred Circle religious organization — turned out to have anything to do with George Lucas’s actual future Star Wars stories, well, how could any of us have known? (George didn’t know himself, despite all of the many “I meant to do that” retcons since then.)
Dark Encounters collects issues 21 to 38, and the first Annual, of that Marvel series. Those comics originally appeared from March 1979 through August 1980 — Empire was in production for most or all of that time, but how much of the details flowed out to the comics team is harder to say. These were the days before tight licensing integration, in a world where communications were slower and less ubiquitous than now. Stuff just happened.
The comics here are mostly written by Archie Goodwin, with Chris Claremont tackling the Annual. Carmine Infantino draws nearly all of the issues, inked by Bob Wiacek most of the time and Gene Day the rest. (Mike Vosburg and Steve Leialoha did the Annual with Claremont.) The very last issue here much have some kind of interesting story behind it: issue 37 proclaims that the next issue will start the Empire adaptation, but the actual issue 38 has a shorter story “written” by Goodwin but “plotted” by penciller Michael Golden, which smells like a last-minute rush job to me. The issue (inked by Terry Austin) is also very much a one-off fill-in, of the “hey! did we tell you this story? it happened a little while ago, in between other stories…” style. And then it, too, says the next issue will begin the Empire adaptation, which actually did happen.
Characters often look off-model here, particularly Chewbacca, who has a flesh-colored face for a lot of the book. Whether they act off-model is a more complicated question: you have to consider only the original Star Wars movie, and that doesn’t giver us a lot of guidance. But they’re all pretty recognizable as the people they kept being in the later movies — depth of characterization is not really a George Lucas core concern.
So these are weird, funky ’70s Star Wars stories, set in a universe that’s vaguely like the later Star Wars universes, but not all that much. Sadly, the giant green bunny Jaxom doesn’t show up in this book — I think he was in the first collection — but we do have a planet of blue-skinned flying people to compensate. (Frankly, a lot of this Star Wars feels more like the 1980 Flash Gordon than like what Star Wars turned into.) The core audience, obviously, is people who were there at the time, but there’s appeal to anyone who likes the oddball corners of space-operatic universes.
 True fact: I only got to go to two movie screenings because of the SFBC. One was Phantom Menace and the other was Batman and Robin. So, yeah, the glamor was real.
The romance of monkeys in tin cans continues to elude me. It was one of my pet peeves back when I was working at the SFBC — an endless stream of stories, all by men (it was always men) who imprinted on an Apollo launch early, with another piece of special pleading about how Man was Destined to Go To The Stars because it was His Destiny Goshdarnit and We Can’t Put All Our Eggs In One Basket and The Frontier Breeds Real Men and Man Must Go Ever Onward and similar piffle.
I thought I’d left that all behind a decade ago when I was cast out of paradise lost my SF job, and that was one of the few bright spots of the transition. 
But I still read SF, some of the time. And those same guys — mostly my generation, more’s the pity, so I can’t gratuitously insult their entire cohort — keep writing stories about how, this time, sending warm bodies into space is both really, really important and justified by some new piece of handwaving they’ve just discovered or invented.
It’s almost enough to make a man swear off near-future SF, I tell you.
And it somewhat infects the book I have to tell you about today. Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition collects two entirely separate SFnal graphic novels from the mid-aughts. Both are written by Warren Ellis; Ocean is drawn by Chris Sprouse and inked by Karl Story while Orbiter has art by Colleen Doran. There is also an afterword by Ellis, specifically about Orbiter, which is the full monkeys-in-cans hoo-hah with a side order of Columbia sadness. 
(I have another rah-rah monkeys-in-space book that I’m still reading; it will come up here eventually. Do not expect me to have my mind changed.)
Anyway, the two stories are completely separate: both near-future SF, yes, but one about a hundred years on and one a now-alternate day-before-yesterday. Not set at all in the same SFnal universe, and with entirely different artists. The one that’s not about the importance of monkeys in tin cans, unsurprisingly, is more successful.
Ocean originally appeared as a six-issue miniseries in 2004-2005. It’s the one a hundred years on, and is set mostly around Europa, where a UN research station has just discovered the usual impossible, dangerous alien artifact.
In this case, it’s a huge array of what seem to be cryopods, with billion-year-old humanoid sentients (99% human, of course) in them, floating deep in Europa’s ice-covered ocean. Sent to investigate is Nathan Kane, a special weapons inspector for the UN, since the alien humanoids have quite impressive and very deadly technology.
Also close by is a “Doors Corporation” (wink wink nudge nudge) station, because of course a computer company has a lot of research that can only be done in Jovian orbit. (I would have preferred a slightly more plausible evil corporation.) And they, being computer whizzes with better, newer tech than the government folks, have tapped into the official telemetry, figured out what’s going on, and (accidentally?) started the wake-up sequence for this billion-year-old alien army.
This is a mildly cyberpunky future, so Doors replaces the free will of its employees with its own software for the duration of their contracts, which makes their local manager (far from home and far overdue on his required software updates) less amenable or available for negotiation than he might be.
So it does not come down to negotation, as one would expect in a near-future SFnal comic about a weapons inspector. One must have weapons to inspect, right?
Sprouse and Story make this a crisp-looking tale, in a solid Big Two look. Ellis hits the expected story beats, but does it well, and doesn’t throw in the titillation that you might expect. I didn’t find Ocean particularly surprising, but it’s a solid, and mostly “hard,” SFnal story in comics form, and there are damn few of those.
Orbiter, on the other hand, has a softer, more people-centric visual look, driven by artist Colleen Doran. And it is very much the story of how we are Destined to go into space, and how an enigmatic event — yes, another one of those — pushes that to happen.
Ten years before the book begins, and a few years in the future from 2001 when it was written, the space shuttle Venture disappeared just after achieving orbit. Now, suddenly, it returns to land at a Kennedy Space Center overrun by what seem to be shanty-town refugees for no reason the story deigns to give us. (Well, obviously, everything in a society goes to shit when they turn their backs on manned spaceflight! Everyone knows that!)
Only one man, the commander, is on board, and he’s insane. The outside is covered with something that looks like the original covering, but is actually skin. And there’s all kinds of weird stuff inside.
A colorful group of ex-astronauts and other science-y types is quickly assembled to investigate, and they act colorful and throw out crazy theories for fifty pages or so. And then they all realize they they really really want to go to space, because that’s where monkeys belong, and the nice aliens have set everything up so they can.
(I may be exaggerating, but I’m not really joking.)
Of all the kinds of special pleading for monkeys in cans, the “super-powerful benevolent aliens will totally do all of the hard stuff for us!” is by far the most special.
I have a hard time taking anything in Orbiter seriously, though I have liked Doran’s work in the past. The story is too fond of itself, and too sure of its own righteousness, to need me or anyone to take it seriously, though. So I’ll just let it sit over there, in its smug self-satisfaction, dreaming of kids watching Apollo moonshots and growing up to have jobs in space themselves.
 Well, that and money. There’s hardly any jobs adjacent to print book editorial that don’t pay substantially better than it does.
 Yes, the Space Shuttle was a horrible design, as seen by the fact that two of them blew up in barely over a hundred missions. One of the main reasons it was horrible was because it had to take monkeys into space.
There are some comics that look like they should be broadly popular, but aren’t really. I don’t mean everyone’s favorite parlor game, Why My Favorites Should Be Everyone’s Favorites. I mean that there are comics that look like the kind of stories Americans love: broad, funny, with sturdy vaguely stereotypical characters, easy-to-follow plots, clean lines, and heart to spare. And those comics feel like they’re similar to the kinds of things Middle America likes in other media: movies about sports teams that win despite the odds, TV shows about a bunch of co-workers who make the world better, songs with way too much melisma and emotion to match, news stories about pets who cross continents to get back to their loving owners.
Those comics usually aren’t all that popular, because the broad Middle American audience isn’t the one reading comics, mostly. But they feel like they’re a popular thing, even when they’re not.
It collects a three-issue 1996 miniseries, Roswell, Little Green Man, and a four-part follow-up (“How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Ant Farm?”) that was a backup in Simpsons Comics soon afterward, all written and drawn by Morrison with colors by Nathan Kane and letters by Tim Harkins.
The main and title character is the guy on the cover, an alien journalist from the planet Zoot who got stuck on a spaceship to Earth by accident and then stranded here when that ship blew up at an inopportune moment. (This may make him sound particularly accident-prone, but neither of those things was his fault.) Oh, and his real name is *#@!!#, which — since this is a comic book — is a horrible swear-world on Earth.
Anyway, he ends up in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, and wacky hijinks ensue. In fact, the story starts with the wacky hijinks, and only later doubles back to explain Who He Is and How He Came To Be.
He’s chased by rednecks and befriended by a hot redheaded waitress (Julienne Fryes) who is also a world-class inventor, as well as the giant-rabbit-riding cowboy (Jasper Kudzu) who wants to get into the pants of that waitress — or would if he were less well-mannered and this were less of an all-ages comic. The Army wants to capture him, of course, and they have a particularly histrionic ex-Nazi mad scientist who will do fiendish experiments on Roswell if they do.
There is quite a lot of running about at top speed, as you might guess. It is all good-hearted, and Roswell has a clean, pleasant line in a Simpsons Comics/Disney/animation-inspired style. And it does all feel like the kind of things that Mr and Mrs Middle America would lap up if it were in a medium that they paid attention to.
It is nice and pleasant and good clean fun and not all that much my kind of thing. Your mileage may vary.
I wouldn’t say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading “comics are growing up” stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.
Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the ’80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.
Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a “bio-restorative formula” with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.
And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off “Loose Ends” from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, “The Anatomy Lesson,” where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing’s origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn’t be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)
Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing — the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before — grown the tag-line “Sophisticated Suspense,” and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.
(As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself — it’s a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)
That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing, reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you’re looking for those books individually, have some links: one
The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that — I mentioned Claremont up top, and he’s one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style — but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it’s one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it’s partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later — it’s now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven’t already — and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)
Book One leads off with #20, “Loose Ends” — not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of “The Anatomy Lesson” — and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby’s The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from “superhero story with horror villains” to “horror story with a muckmonster hero.”) The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy’s place in the “real” DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades — as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein — but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.
Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy’s greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I’m not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell — there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the ’70s, though mostly on the Marvel side — but Moore’s vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages — which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly’s Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC’s horror-anthology comics of the early ’70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short “Swamp Thing” comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the ’70s series.
Book Three is the bulk of the “American Gothic” storyline, introducing John Constantine — who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy’s — and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren’t particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.
Book Four finishes up “American Gothic,” which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing‘s own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards — the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which I coincidentally read recently — knew the whole “worlds will live, worlds will die” thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore’s largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea.So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story — even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:
Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can’t you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling…the feeling is different.”
One can admire Moore’s writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.
Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the “spiritual Crisis” through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy’s girlfriend Abby in Gotham City — and Swampy’s subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project — before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he’s catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.
And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he’d nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.
It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending — but popular comics didn’t end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.
Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run — though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late ’80s — but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.
But that’s all another story: a story not collected in the books I’m writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.
Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large — Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together — it’s not quite one story, but it’s a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional “weird hero” and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.
Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened — all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, among many others.
Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They’re all good words, deployed well and to strong effect — but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly ’80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we’re used to today.
All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are “older” before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort — frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that’s one of the main things that makes them strong.
You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you’re not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.