First a quick PSA: Commenters on the last W&P column harangued me into buying and watching the movie Dredd, so if anyone wants to know what I thought of it, I’ve obediently done a very brief review of it in that comments thread. Such is the awesome power of the SF Signal commentariat.

On to today’s business. I’m a pretty hard sell when it comes to superhero comics. Much as the idea and the underlying tropes of them still appeal in theory, the actual material rarely grabs me as it once did. Not because it’s deteriorated — in significant ways, most superhero comics nowadays are better than the ones I enthusiastically devoured as a youth — but because what I value and enjoy in comics has changed as I’ve aged (boy, have I aged), and the price of comics these days makes me waaaay more impatient with anything that doesn’t provide what I’m after.

There are exceptions, though: bright little corners of the superhero universes that deliver the sort of craft, coherence and entertainment that I seek. Those qualities, when they’re present, more or less invariably arise from an uncomplicated source: talented writers and artists given enough freedom to produce tonally and narratively consistent stories that project their distinctive creative voices.

In evidence of which I offer two series, which just so happen to be written by a couple of guys I reckon to be amongst the best current writers of mainstream superhero comics, despite being wildly different in style and voice…

INDESTRUCTIBLE HULK Vol 1: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

written by Mark Waid, art by Leinil Francis Yu, published by Marvel

I’m one of those who like the idea and the iconography of the Hulk more than I like any Hulk comic I’ve actually read. This first volume of Indestructible Hulk doesn’t quite change that, but it certainly does enough to bring me back for future instalments, curious to see if it can complete the job.

Most of that’s to do with Mark Waid, the writer. A lot of what I’ve got to say about this comic, and his work in it, might sound like damning with faint praise. It’s absolutely not intended as such, because Waid’s consistent ability to turn out fairly straightforward but carefully crafted superhero comics puts him head and shoulders above many of his peers. This stuff, it turns out, is hard; he makes it look easy.

I think part of his success comes down to something simple: he thinks about these iconic characters, identifies core elements of their nature and appeal, and spins out of it ideas that aren’t always radical or revisionary but almost invariably feel right, and often even fresh.

In the case of Indestructible Hulk, he homes in on the core dichotomy of Banner vs. Hulk. Here, Banner finally gives up on trying to cure himself of the rampaging green destruction-machine that lurks within. (A neat touch, of the sort at which Waid excels, is thus embodied in the title: the Hulk is not only indestructible in the combat sense, but also from Banner’s point of view). Instead he goes to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., trading his (Hulk’s) WMD-like support of their enforcement operations for their support of his (Banner’s) scientific research.

Cue a comic that’s fast-paced, fun and in many ways, quite old-school. There’s a nascent supporting cast of non-superfolk, for one thing. Such assemblages are a less common feature in superhero comics than they once were, and I miss them. The stories are short and sharp, threaded through with slower-cooking sub-plots and themes, for another. Longer story arcs are the norm today, but not here.

Indestructible Hulk has its little foibles – the pacing, if anything, gets a little too frenetic towards the end of this volume; one or two of the Hulk’s opponents go down a little too easily to be really entertaining threats – but all in all the writing’s got a crisp wit to it, the momentum keeps you reading, and the art by Leinil Francis Yu is big and bold and kinetic enough to fit with the subject matter. Fun, like I said.

THOR: GOD OF THUNDER Vol 1: The God Butcher

written by Jason Aaron, art by Esad Ribic, published by Marvel

This might not be a perfect superhero comic, but at the moment I can’t really think of anything much to mark it down for. I find it ridiculously entertaining. Probably my favourite superhero comic at the moment.

Why? Well, since you ask, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Glorious art from Esad Ribic. Lovely stuff that doesn’t look quite like anything else in superherodom. It’s energetic when violence erupts, the figures have enormous substance, the faces are expressive, it manages to look simultaneously realistic, painterly, mythic (partly due to the tremendous coloring by Dean White and Ive Svorcina).
  • A nicely designed and conceptualised bad guy. Namely Gorr, the God Butcher. Even the postures he adopts betray an impressive attention to the detail of a character’s distinctive physicality. I liked, too, the fact that he’s quite lean and mean, rather than an over-muscled powerhouse. His over-the-top ambitions – the slaughter of every god, everywhere – are appropriately justified, and his pursuit of them is satisfyingly terrible and cruel in its consequences.
  • Humour. There’s a great, harmonious balance struck between Gorr’s savage violence, the epic scale and stakes of his struggle with Thor, and flashes of humour. Thor is funnily fixated on the consumption of ale, for example. A cosmic librarian he meets has a very nice line in dry, patronising wit.
  • Spectacle. This is Thor vs. Gorr across all time and space, with the lives of thousands of gods at stake. It’s big picture stuff, and Aaron and Ribic deliver all the spectacle, cool images and stirring story beats that requires. There’s an extended sequence in the first volume that’s just marvellous: Thor and Gorr engage in savage battle in the Russian sky, amidst slaughtered Slavic gods and their winged-horse mounts. It’s superbly, cinematically choreographed and reeks of the sensibilities of the best heroic fantasy fiction.
  • Jason Aaron. There’s no current writer in mainstream comics whose work I admire more (that’s code for ‘I’m seethingly jealous of his abilities’). He effortlessly switches between tones and genres, has a knack for character-based dialogue and possesses a truly formidable instinct for the form, structure and pacing of a story.

In proof of which last point, you need look no further than the structural underpinning of Thor: God of Thunder, which is simple but inspired, and absurdly successful in its execution. Aaron recounts Thor’s war with the God Butcher in three parallel strands, each set at a different point in Thor’s life. So we get to watch young, brash Thor, current superhero Thor and old, bitter Thor all fighting Gorr in their own ways, in their own times. (And, helpfully for sustaining reader engagement, all losing to Gorr, in at least some sense).

This one decision about story structure generates so many positives it counts as one of the smartest creative choices I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps the biggest positive is that it sets up the inevitable (this being comics) cross-time alliance between Thors, which is presaged at the end of this volume, and which I’m given to understand in future instalments delivers humour, grandiose spectacle and plenty of opportunity for fist-pumping cheerleading from the reader’s side of the page.

Thor: God of Thunder is an example of what’s possible when a gifted writer and artist are given the license to run with an idea and a vision within the context of corporate comics: a well-crafted, smart and entertaining tale that feels like it has the full commitment of its creators and that assumes, and rewards, the reader’s intelligent attention. Me like, very much indeed.

Indeed, I like it so much I regret only devoting half a column to it – it deserves more. Bad call, me, but the thing’s written now, so we take what we can get. I’ll just hammer the point home, though: this is the most fun I’m having with any superhero comic at the moment. It’s well worth your time.

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