You know, I haven’t written about comic books on this blog for more than 2 years now. Why, absolutely nobody might ask? There are several reasons, but I’ll point the finger at DCs’s New 52 reboot. I generally read comics to get superhero stories. I know that is not all that comics have to offer, even excluding the vast expanse of manga there is quite the variety of genres to choose from. But superheroes one can largely only get from comics. When it comes to superheroes, I am a DC guy. It’s not that I don’t like Marvel, but I tend to prefer DC’s stable of characters. I’ll take the Justice League over the Avengers every day of the week and Superman over any of Marvel’s characters. DC’s superheroes tend to be more idealized, Marvel’s more nuanced. Since I tend to like the more mythological aspects of superheroes, the idealized version is just more my style.
Unfortunately, there was the whole NEW 52 reboot for DC. If anyone read my take on that almost three years ago they would remember that I bought into that ill-fated venture. There were warts apparent even from the beginning, but there was still potential for the reboot. When DC did it back in the 80’s with Crisis on Infinite Earths, it led to some of the company’s best output. The same thing when Marvel did a similar thing with Spider-Man, though the story that got them there was an all-time awful one. So I tried out all of the new series (I got a good deal on a bundle of the #1s), finding the good, at least initially, to outweigh the bad. It soon became clear, though, that whoever was supposed to steering the ship was asleep at the wheel. Numerous boneheaded editorial and creative decisions soon made DC the target of widespread internet derision. Nearly all of it was deserved. Creators walked or were forced off books with startling regularity, and subpar writers and artists got more, and high profile, work. The whole thing kind of made reading comics a whole lot less pleasurable. So I stopped. There were still quite a few books I was enjoying, like Wonder Woman and Green Arrow, but it didn’t feel worth it to me. So about eight months ago I stopped entirely.
Last week I happened to stop by a Vintage Stock and couldn’t resist picking up the first issue of Justice League United, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Mike McKone. I soon found out that despite it being issue #1, it was actually the second issue. There was a #0 that was apparently the real start of the book. No matter, it was still largely a good read. There was a thing with Hawkman getting his arm cut off, an act that is pathetically common in the new DC Universe, but otherwise it was aces. The best moments were between Stargirl and Martian Manhunter. They work together well as a team, but her enthusiasm leaves him somewhat befuddled. There is a great moment after the enemy is seemingly defeated that she hugs him and he has no idea how to deal with that display of affection. Reading it really reminded me how much I like the character Stargirl, and the series that she debuted in. Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.
Stars and STRIPE was written by DC mainstay Geoff Johns and draw by Mike Moder. I’m a big fan of Geoff Johns’. He’s written a lot of DC’s biggest characters in acclaimed stints on their titles. Sure, he does have an unfortunate tendency to go overboard with gore, but for the most part his stuff is good. Stars and STRIPE was one of Johns’ earliest works and it is different than just about anything else he wrote. Unfortunately it was before Johns rose to “superstar” status, so it only lasted about a year. Still, what a good year that was. I’ve got both volumes of it in paperback. It is some good stuff.
It starts with Courtney Whitmore, soon to be The Star Spangled Kid and eventually Stargirl, moving into her new home in Blue Valley with her Mom and Step-Dad. Unsurprisingly, she is not happy with this, not with the move or the new stepdad. At school she meets the whole roster of stock high school characters: a friend, a rival, a love interest, a bully etc. She also faces some unusual challenges as well, like the overbearing principal who chugs motor oil and green suited guys who try to kidnap students at a dance. When she gets home, she finds a box belonging to her stepdad in with her stuff. Inside is a collection of stuff belonging to the dead superhero The Star Spangled Kid. And his sidekick, Stripesy, was her stepdad Pat. In an effort to tweak him because he agreed to chaperone the dance that night, she dresses in the Kid’s costume to go, including his cosmic powered belt. At the dance, there is an attack. She fights back, and Pat shows his new project, a robot suit he pilots to fight crime, called STRIPE. Together, they fight off the villains, though they do significant damage to the school
It’s not the most auspicious start to a superhero career. In fact, she is far from a hero at the start. She fights with Pat, she showboats and uses her powers for petty things. When push comes to shove, she does manage to do the right thing. Over the first few issues they fight an art teacher intent on stealing the color, and life from his students and a giant mosquito who escaped from his mad scientist creator. They team up with the Marvel family to fight Solomon Grundy, then with Young Justice to fight alien invaders. What is shown is that all of the bad things attacking Blue Valley are the cause of a shadowy figure and Cindy, her rival from school, is connected to them. It is also the reason Pat has moved his new family to the town, having received a distress signal from one of his former teammates, the Seven Soldiers of Victory. It all culminates with Cindy’s first appearance as the villainess Shiv as she and Courtney have a showdown at the school.
The last issue in the first collection has Courtney fighting solo against the Nebula Man, a being of almost supreme cosmic power. He is a big enough threat that Pat calls in every superhero he knows to help, the JLA, the JSA, the Teen Titans and Young Justice. However, with a little luck and some ingenuity, Courtney manages to defeat him all by herself. She shows that by standing alone against a supposedly unbeatable foe she shows that she is well on her way to being a hero. It ends with her and Pat arriving home to find Pat’s son there.
Much of the comic is the usual high school superheroics. She tries to balance her school life and her hero life. It is nothing that hasn’t been seen before; it is the Spider-Man formula executed not quite as well as his story but still not badly done at all. But it is also a glimpse into a much more appealing DC Universe than the one that the company is currently peddling. This is a world with a history, a mostly coherent history because it is built on stories that actually exist, rather than being cobbled together from half-mangled stories and the desires of a few tone-deaf editors. There is a two issue Young Justice appearance, a team that is almost entirely the same as the current Teen Titans but from a time when young superheroes were allowed to fun and light hearted. There is not a single thing more appealing about the current Teen Titans than the old Young Justice team. They are simple so much better. Then there is the Marvel Family. There are few characters that DC has mangled more effectively over the last few years than the Marvel Family. The new version actually isn’t bad, though they haven’t had enough stories to tell for sure. Seeing them here in their classic set up is just refreshing.
Stars and STRIPE is just a pleasant, classic series. The stakes tend to be low, but it does a very good job of letting its characters grow. It is the kind of comic I wish DC was putting out now, but they don’t. This is not the tone of New DC Universe. And DC’s output is all the worse for it. This did remind me of my plan to do a close reading of Johns’ and Goyer’s JSA series from about the same time as this. I posted the first part here on the blog and wrote the next two, but then the New 52 happened and it kind of killed my interest. Now, I want to do it again. I don’t know when I’ll get around to it, but I fully intend to finish that up. I’d like to have a significant part of it done before I start posting again.