As comic readers, we've been trained.
It's almost as if we're dogs--we've been taught to purchase certain books, certain flagship titles, and we're rewarded by the big events that go on in them. Over the years, we've learned--maybe even without realizing it--to only buy books that "matter". If a title isn't by a big-name creator, if it doesn't have a lasting impact on one of the company's biggest characters, if people aren't dying or engaging in massive events--we don't read the book. Some of us will, sure, but not enough to shoot the title up on the sales charts without some ridiculous promotional gimmick--and, frequently, not enough will read the book to even keep it alive.
There's much more to write about this--and I will, I'm going to try to write more in this blog than I have recently--but I just want to point out that, even though we, as readers, have been conditioned to only buy the very important titles, there are some hidden gems out there.
Recently, I've been very surprised by the sheer quality of the various anthology titles Marvel puts out. Occasionally they'll release--frequently branded by an event going on in either the Avengers of X-Men books--a one-shot or miniseries that deals with characters who aren't receiving an immediate spotlight in the main books of that event. Alternatively, we'll see more personal moments that may not fit into the direct narrative of a flagship title, but have merit all the same.
These are anthology titles with creative teams of great range in both prominence and talent, so of the many stories told in them, they're not all going to be gems. Some may be bad, and others may just be forgettable. But overall? I'm left with a generally strong impression of these stories.
To provide concrete examples, I'm going to discuss the two most recent anthology titles that Marvel has published--"I Am An Avenger" (tying into the post-Heroic Age, pre-Fear Itself Avengers line) and "X-Men: To Serve and Protect" (tying into the X-Men arc of the same name). I use the phrase "tying in" very loosely, here, because there's no real event going on in the Avengers titles at the moment, and the To Serve and Protect story arc in "X-Men" has nothing to do with the anthology miniseries published alongside it, other than that the X-Men are focusing more on superheroics again, rather than mutant politics. However, this provides the creators with a freedom to tell their own short stories without strong editorial direction, providing, in many cases, pleasant little gems.
As I mentioned before, there's a wide range of creators involved. On one hand, we have industry superstars like Greg Rucka, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Marc Guggenheim, and even Stuart Immonen. We have rising talents like Jim McCann, Kathryn Immonen, David Lafuente, Sara Pichelli, and Chris Samnee. There are the quirky indie talents like Colleen Coover and Jacob Chabot. Even relative unknowns like James Asmus, Simon Spurrier and Sheldon Vella.
Each miniseries has its own continuing story to hold the title together. "I Am An Avenger" has a Firestar and Justice story titled Closure, by Sean McKeever and Mike Mayhew. After years of back and forth in their relationship--from the young lovers in New Warriors to the engaged in Avengers to the feuding exes of recent titles--the two longtime characters finally get a chance to work through their relationship after being forced to confront versions of themselves from the past. It's a highly personal story with interesting ramifications on two characters that play a notable role in current titles (Avengers Academy for Justice, and Young Allies/Onslaught Unleashed for Firestar). For fans of New Warriors and Avengers, or even just fans of Sean McKeever and Mike Mayhew, this is absolutely a story worth reading, full of both superhero action and beautifully poignant moments, captured in beautiful photorealistic artwork.
"X-Men: To Serve and Protect" has a story filled with more humor. X-Dudes! stars Rockslide and Anole of New X-Men/Young X-Men fame, written by their New X-Men co-writer Chris Yost with quirky, yet appropriate, art by the talented Derec Donovan. Following up on their mildly antagonistic friendship, Chris Yost sends the two characters off to perform superheroic duties on their own. Not wanting to appear connected to the X-Men--they're not actually allowed to be going off and doing this--they don...disguises. I'll let the attached image speak for itself, but let's just say that more than a few characters make comments. With fun ending that actually advances the relationship between the two characters, as well as an unexpected supervillain, this story was a pleasant treat in each issue.
Despite the strength of both of those stories, however, they were not the true gems of each title. Far from it, actually. In every issue, at least one other vignette stood strong to capture my attention. I could rave on and on about most of them, but I'll just discuss a few of the best.
Duane Swierczynski and Jason Latour follow up on "Immortal Iron Fist" with their Iron Fist and Misty Knight story, The Books of the Iron Fist. In an incredibly personal moment, we deal with the pregnancy of Misty Knight in an unexpected manner that absolutely makes you feel for both characters, setting them up for their role in "Heroes for Hire". This is a heart-breaking sequel to one of Marvel's greatest books of the past decade (the aforementioned "Immortal Iron Fist"), and it alone makes the first issue of "I Am An Avenger" worth the price of admission.
We've all seen the adventures of Steve Rogers as Captain America, but in Post-Mortem by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano, we see him as a soldier, as a general, and as a man. In war, in combat, one must always make hard decisions, and frequently there are mistakes made--frequently, soldiers die, leaving behind grieving families and friends. Although it would be far too easy to think of Steve Rogers as a super-soldier, an Avenger, who is too busy dealing with intergalactic threats and terrorist attacks to grieve the loss of someone he never knew--Greg Rucka makes it clear that this is not the case. Steve Rogers knows the pain that war can cause, and in his new role as a commander, he makes it a point never to forget the sacrifices that others have made.
Quirky indie talent Katie Cook has a one-page Hulk story dealing with his expulsion from the Avengers, despite being a founding member. In eight adorable panels, Hulk goes through the five stages of grief. It's absolutely not a traditional portrayal of the Hulk, and yet with her childish artwork, Katie Cook absolutely sells it to us.
After two critically acclaimed runs on Hellcat, Kathryn Immonen returns to the character with her superstar husband Stuart to send Patsy Walker on a blind date...with Gambit...as arranged by Emma Frost. As a cruel practical joke. Every page is full of hysterical yet believable moments both expertly written and beautifully illustrated (and it's amazing that Stuart Immonen was able to fit even this short story into his heavy workload, moving from New Avengers monthly artist to the mega-event Fear Itself). Even simple scenes, like Patsy's complete inability to pronounce the name "Remy", make this story a pure delight to read. You don't need to know anything about either character (if that's even possible at this point)--their reputation is clearly presented, and even if both characters were brand new, you'd still believe this short story.
Somehow, though, an Immonen Hellcat story is not the best part of the fourth issue of "X-Men: To Serve and Protect"--that honor goes to a Dazzler story by complete unknowns (at least, as far as I know) Jed Mackay and Sheldon Vella. I know, I know--Shane picking a Dazzler story as the best. What a shock. But I couldn't stop laughing throughout this entire thing. Not only does the story star Dazzler--but it co-stars Daughters of the Dragon Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, going up against M.O.D.O.K.--I'm sorry, M.O.D.O.R.D., the Mental Organism Designed Only for Roller Derby--and the Grandmaster. The art is a beautiful mix of Paul Pope and other independent artists, with beautiful page design. The dialogue is hilarious and corny in the best way possible--a total love letter to Dazzler and the disco era. Featuring a hilarious cameo by Steve Gerber character Doctor Bong that made me laugh out loud, a hidden part of Misty and Colleen's past, and the formation of Dazzler and her Radical All-Girl Roller Death Squad ("Death!" "Squad!"), there is nothing I did not love about this story.
There are so many more stories to talk about--Colleen Coover's two-pager where Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman move past their recent pasts (as leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team and as a Skrull prisoner and hunter, respectively) to become Avengers again. Jacob Chabot sends oddball homeless Avenger D-Man against Valkyrie, Noh-Varr, and The Thing...in a pie eating contest. Ben Grimm has to decide between the Fantastic Four and the New Avengers in a story by Roberto-Aguirre Sacasa and Sara Pichelli. Fantomex acts as a, uh, "hero" against Batroc the Leaper in a story by Joshua Hale and James Harren. Chris Yost and Dalibor Talajic force Blink to confront her actions during Necrosha, setting her up to return to the X-Men in a big way. The list goes on--sure, there are a few lackluster stories, but they're made up for by so many good ones that I'm amazed these titles do not sell more.
Sure--nothing life-changing happened in any of these books. Kang didn't take over the world, Iron Man didn't die, Magneto didn't betray the X-Men, Earth wasn't held hostage, Spider-Man's secret identity wasn't revealed. But instead, we were given something better--stories that were actually good without relying on shock value. Stories that didn't need big events to matter.
Don't you miss that?