Astro City – The first collection I picked up of this hard-to-find series (called Astro City: Family Values) is a collection of memorable short stories celebrating and exploring the fantastic world of Astro City itself – a place where the awe-inspiring lives side by side with the mundane. This theme is perfectly illustrated by the wonderful introductory story, which is told from the point of view of a parent who is moving to the city, so that we share his new experiences. I have to say I found this collection to be a breath of fresh air, with a much lighter tone than other superhero books. In fact I'd say it shows up their obsession with violence by its different focus on family and on the hopes and aspirations of the characters. From the lonely old man who commits ingenious crimes with his much-loved mechanical inventions, to the young super-powered daughter who wants to experience a normal life and play hopscotch, the stories make you smile and perhaps contemplate what it is that you find precious in life and would want to keep from losing.
She-Hulk – OK, I know what you're thinking. It's one of those superhero names that does not exactly inspire confidence. Seriously – She-hulk?? It brings the same sort of reaction that the name “Hellboy” does to someone who knows nothing about that tragic, gothic figure. Well, guess again. As far as I'm concerned, this is hands-down the best-written female Marvel superhero. Each episode tends to mix elements of a wacky romantic comedy with science-fiction, all wrapped up in a neat court-case plot and setting (although sometimes it's not.) Some stories are mysteries, such as a brilliant time trial case at the start of volume two, whereas some are more like Herculian challenges to She-Hulk's strength, resolve and intellect – such as the far-out space trial on a planet where the impossibly strong villain could only be arrested if beaten in battle, according to the planet's long-standing tradition. I love the fast-paced, hotch-potch mix of a hundred different concepts, and I love the humour and style of each episode. Sadly writer Dan Slott has now finished working on the book in the US and is not faring so well with more mainstream characters. But you should definitely grab a copy of the first volume of this recent series – it's bursting with unadulterated fun!
Neil Gaiman's Eternals – This epic tale is the weird fruit of mixing genres and influences ranging as far as ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, the prophetic biblical text of Revelation, sci-fi (specifically invasion fiction) and superhero comic books. In fact the plot of this collection of Eternals issues 1-7 leaves more questions than answers. For instance, I would love to know what is really going through the minds of the seemingly unknowable and god-like Celestials, the gigantic beings who created the Eternals and the Deviants and let them roam on the earth and influence humanity, instead of hearing about them through the unreliable characters in the story. I guess these sort of tantalising mysteries makes each issue so compelling. The Eternals themselves, who are beginning to awake after believing they were merely human for a time, have several different perspectives on life and humanity, and part of the fun is learning about how they respond to the knowledge of their powers and what they choose to do with them. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Gaiman in this series is to give a sense of incredible scope to the story in a Marvel universe already littered with epic battles with space aliens. I guess it's a more literate and less action-focused take on the catastrophic-threat-vs-hero conflict you usually see, while the fate of humanity once again lies in the balance.
The Origin of Venom – Amazing Spiderman was probably most amazing in the eighties. This was the decade that brought Mary Jane back into Peter Parker's life and introduced a horde of new villains from the devious crime-lords, the Rose and the Hobgoblin, to the clearly unhinged and obsessive. The latter category includes Venom – whose origin set him up as a character very much down on his luck and frustrated with the world. [His first full appearance from May 1984 is pictured here.] Hot on the heels of Peter David's exciting murder mystery in Sensational Spiderman (vol. 1) 107-110 (Who Killed Jean DeWolff?), Todd McFarlane and David Micheline teamed up to bring a new villain to Amazing Spiderman, one who readers could identify with and yet whose reason for existence was a hatred for Spiderman and Peter Parker. Although the appearance of Venom was surprisingly horrific for the time, he in fact expresses disgust on killing “innocents” in the early stories due to his Catholic upbringing. There is a whole lot more depth and excitement here than in recent Venom stories, which represent the character as more of a brainless psycopath. Let's not even mention the younger, hot-headed version of Eddie Brock/Venom that appeared in Spiderman 3 (which was otherwise a great film).
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel – This short volume collects a miniseriesthat centres on Luthor and explores his absolute hatred of the caped Kryptonian Superman. Basically it argues that this hatred is borne out of fear and distrust – after all, no-one could really spend so much of their time serving others and expect to gain nothing from it, could they? The evil genius narrates throughout and through this rather obvious mechanic his malevolent actions are seen for what they are: misguided attempts to better humanity. Luthor remains convinced that Superman's presence, instead of inspiring humanity, is making them lazy, as they let him fight their battles for them, and as a result he is a dangerous threat to the survival of the human race. It's an interesting, if brief, portrait of one of DC's best characters, and presents us with a view of human progress that is at once totally ruthless and yet places great (and I think unfounded) confidence in mankind's ability to advance his species and bring blessing to the world.
Next time I'm hoping to cover some of the cream of Marvel's current crop, perhaps Young Avengers, as well as looking at what Batman stories are worth you time (with the new film out and all) and my recent find: Starman (you won't believe just how good Starman is).