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Actually, we can have nice things, thanks to Gail Simone & Allan Heinberg!

July 13, 2010

Clockwise: Birds of Prey, Welcome to Tranquility, Secret Six, Avengers: Children's Crusade.

In the midst of saying to ourselves, “this is why we can’t have nice things”, it’s hard to remember that every now and then someone comes along to prove us wrong. Or, even more complexly, that we can have nice things and not have nice things all at the same time. Take comic books for example. I have been in an on-again, off-again relationship with comics since I was around 4 or 5 years old and started reading Wonder Woman comics as a result of watching the much beloved TV show. But Wonder Woman was just my gateway drug to a whole world of super-hero comics and soon I was hooked like as filthy junkie. And, unlike some folks, I was never able to decide if I was a Marvel or if I was a DC – both companies had a lot to offer to satisfy my jones for super-powered action and adventure mixed with engaging story lines and complex character development.  And satisfy it they did.

But there were dark times in my romance with comics. Times like the mid-to-late 90s, where comics seemed to just be filled with empty adventure stories, total lack of character development crossovers. Oh, the crossovers! It seemed as if I couldn’t pick up my books at my local shop without realizing some storyline was afoot in which I’d have to buy all sorts of issues of all sorts of books that I was not interested in at all. (Seriously, though, Marvel, never ever do anything that makes me have to buy even a single issue of Thor!) So I took a break. A rather long one, actually. But slowly I came back into the waiting twin arms of Marvel and DC and began collecting on a regular basis again.

But lately, that dark cloud of past disenchantment has started to settle over my comic consumption once again. Issue after issue seemed packed with action and very little else. Crossovers were so crossoverly complex that going to the store to fill out my pull sheet each month started to induce the same kind of anxiety that I had as a kid when my Mom would leave me in the cereal aisle and ask me to pick out just one box that I wanted. AGH!!!!! And I found myself wondering if it was time for me to break up with comics again. But then, the spark of infatuation was lit once again by the very capable hands of writers Gail Simone and Allan Heinberg.

Gail Simone is one of my favorite current comic book writers and is responsible for three books that are currently keeping the comic love light shining in my heart. One of the comics that made me fall in love again before my recent doubts was Birds of Prey, a sort of female, buddy, action book focusing around Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon, formerly the original Batgirl), Black Canary, The Huntress, Lady Blackhawk and a host of other female heroes popping up from various corners of the DC universe. BoP was a fantastic mixture of drama, action, humor and all around lady bad-assery. Sadly, Simone left her original run on the book and it was canceled not long afterward in Feburary 2009. And I was seriously, majorly bummed. But then! It came back! In the spring of this year, Birds of Prey came back with Gail Simone at the helm again! And it’s as if the book never went away – Simone’s back in top form with a riveting storyline and the voice of each key character is as strong and familiar as ever. I’m always a bit cringe-y about second comings of anything I once loved, but there was no need to cringe on this one. I am as smitten with the Birds as ever.

But lest you think Gail Simone was resting on her laurels after her work on BoP, nary was she! Aside from a laudable stint at the helm of the Wonder Woman series (wherein she did not mandate any cruddy costume changes or alternate timeline hoobajoo), Gail was busy cranking out another one of the few books that gets me psyched for that Wednesday trip to the funny book shop: Secret Six. Secret Six is a book about a team of mercenary “villains” who are just as often trying to not be killed by their many adversaries as they are trying to kill someone they’ve been hired to off. If that sounds like a weird book for a super-hero lovin’ fag like me to be swept away by, it kind of is. But it also isn’t. I love flawed characters and not-so-black-and-white heroes and villains. The book is darkly comic, totally compelling and more than a little twisted and violent. It’s a totally refreshing take on moral ambiguity and the magic that happens when a well-written set of characters can win a reader’s heart, even if they aren’t exactly virtuous or good. If nothing more, it’s worth reading for all of Rag Doll’s funny/creepy/so-wrong-it’s-right dialog. And it’s worth getting the back issues in trade paperback form to witness one of my favorite queer comic relationship:  the love between Scandal Savage and the now sadly deceased Knockout. Simone always gets extra points from me for frequently weaving queer characters into her narrative without turning them into cartoonish stereotypes or, in the case of female couplings, mere titillation.

And if that isn’t enough, Simone is also bringing back another beloved-and-then-lamented-when-canceled title, Welcome To Tranquility. I discovered WTT just as it was about to be canceled after only 12 issues. Which truly galled me, because the series is fucking brilliant. It’s an original series created by Simone and artist Neil Googe and it’s set in the town of Tranquility, a picturesque California town where superheroes and super villains go to raise their families and retire. The humor scale is high on this book but Simone delivers large doses of mystery and genuine creepiness as she reveals the secrets lurking behind the facade of this idyllic super-town. I’ve read and re-read the additional 12 issues so much and find little gems and moments to cherish in them each time. And since Simone has already proved that lightning can strike twice, I am more than thrilled to know that Welcome To Tranquility will be back for a 6 issue mini-series as of next week! It seems silly to be all twitterpated over a comic book but seriously, go buy the original two trade paperbacks and you will see why; Sheriff Thomasina Lindo and the other denizens of Tranquility will totally steal your heart.

But DC is not alone in having a writer who is both reviving a title and reviving my love for comic books. Allan Heinberg, primarily a TV writer and producer, created one of my favorite new series and one I lamented the canceling of with much vexation, Young Avengers. YA revolves around a group of young super heroes who pattern themselves after various members of the original Avengers. Among the team are two characters I can’t help but adore madly: Hulking, the super-strong, shape-shifter and Wiccan, the spell-casting mystic, both of whom also happen to be boyfriends. That’s right, gentle readers, boyfriends. Now, that is not the only thing that made YA such a great read – the team was made up of a compelling cast of characters and the book was loaded with witty dialogue and top-notch action. But Heinberg’s fantastic handling of two gay characters is definitely a part of what won my heart. Being gay himself is maybe why he steers so deftly away from tired cliches and familiar tropes that befall gay characters. But after a short 12 issues, Young Avengers was canceled and the characters only cropped up in various spin-offs and Avengers-related books. Thankfully, Wiccan, Hulking and the whole Young Avengers team are back for Avengers: The Children’s Crusade, an 8 issue mini-series in which the kids race against other Marve heroes to find Scarlet Witch, the murderous, mutant depowering, loony-tunes, former Avenger that Wiccan believes is he and teammate (and possible twin brother) Speed‘s mother. It’s only one issue in but I am already totally re-enthralled by the team and touched by the way Heinberg let’s Hulking and Wiccan’s relationship form so much of the central emotional pull of the story. (And if Marvel would let him let them actually kiss instead of hug each other meaningfully that would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath. This is moreso due to their youth, because dudes have totally kissed in other Marvel books.)

So, much thanks to Mademoiselle Simone and Monsieur Heinberg for giving me something to love about comics again. It’s not that I’m beyond ever taking an extended break like I did in the past. But despite my advancing age, comics still feed my mind and soul in a special way that nothing else does. So having a few that keep me coming back for more is definitely a sign that, sometimes, we can have nice things.

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