World’s Funnest (April 2016)

 worldsfunnestMr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite are arguably DC’s greatest creations. As respective foils to Superman and Batman they’re perfect critiques of the characters: Mxy the childish trickster-god to a godlike man, and Bat-Mite a child playing god with the man he worships…who is still a child inside, at least emotionally. They’re both insanely powerful and also stand-ins for any precocious young comics readers, trying to imagine the most impossible situations to challenge these men who can do virtually anything. Bat-Mite’s version of the routine underscores the irony with an ill-fitting fan costume – he’s the original comicon cosplayer. World’s Funnest collects Evan Dorkin’s one-shot of the same name from 2000 along with the imps’ first Golden Age appearances and several other quality stories, and it’s a nearly perfect greatest-hits showcase for these uniquely irreverent characters.

The titular story alone is worth the price of admission. With a stunning list of guest artists doing either parodies of their own style (Frank Miller re-creating The Dark Knight Returns) or perfect imitations of classic styles from DC history (David Mazzucchelli doing Jack Kirby’s New Gods), Evan Dorkin sends Mxyzptlk on an apocalyptic death hunt for Bat-Mite across the DC Universe, offhandedly obliterating continuities and timelines with all the slapstick ferocity of Milk and Cheese filtered through an Eltingville Club level of inside-joke comics geekery. Arguably the only flaw is how some of his best jokes rely on the reader’s familiarity with obscure DC references like Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, but Dorkin goofs on so many other, better known targets like Superfriends and Kingdom Come that there’s something for everyone Like Eltingville Club, this is Dorkin spinning his fanboy self-hatred into comedy gold, subversively under the official DC banner – Batman and Superman are literally murdered within the first few pages, and then murdered several more times before the story is finished, as the Brian Bolland cover promises. It’s a breathtakingly hysterical, once-in-a-corporate-lifetime event that seems even more audacious sixteen years later.

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Note the early alternate spelling

This is followed up by the first appearances, with Siegel and Shuster’s “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” from 1944 and “Batman Meets Bat-Mite” from 1959, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. These stories have been reprinted a lot over the years but are obviously essential to an official Bat-Mite and Mxy compendium. Joe Shuster’s original design for Mxy is the most adorable he ever looked, as if a 1920s newspaper comic strip character came to visit Superman’s (slightly) more realistically-rendered world. Bat-Mite skirts the uncanny valley a little closer, resembling a midget in a Batman costume rather than a child – which is technically correct, since as he points out, he’s not an elf but comes from a dimension where all men are his size. This explanation is preceded by one of the greatest panels in comic book history:

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HI!

Their debuts are followed by another oft-reprinted but essential landmark: Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s first crossover story together from a 1960 issue of World’s Finest with art by Batman luminary Dick Sprang, by which point Mxyzptlk was redesigned to be an uglier imp, something more akin to Coiley the Spring Sprite. The story by Jerry Coleman is an inconsequential spectacle, but established the dynamic between the two pests for every subsequent meetup: Bat-Mite as the annoying goody-two-shoes to the more malevolent Mxy. Sightings of either character were pretty scarce afterwards, as the collection’s next story is plucked from nearly 20 years later – an odd six page back-up story from a 1979 Detective Comics entitled Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure! In what’s basically just an excuse for some DC staff to put themselves in a comic, Bat-Mite poofs into the offices of, yes, DC Comics and cajoles the vintage 1979 nerds (not a one without glasses, several with sideburns) to put him in Detective Comics. Which is the comic you just read. Get it? While the joke fails to have a punchline, at least the art by Michael Golden features a disgustingly cute version of Bat-Mite. And to give credit writer Rob Rozakis, while his story fails to be funny it may be the first to realize the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking possibilities of Bat-Mite as a fifth dimensional imp, and by corollary Mr. Mxyzptlk.

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Michael Golden’s Bat-Mite is just too adorbs

DC wasn’t yet ready to full dive into post-modernism, however, as Bat-Mite’s sole appearance in the 80s was a one-page cameo in a 1983 anniversary issue of The Brave and the Bold. Just as in his prior outing, he demands recognition from the corporate overlords (this time breaking the fourth wall outright by addressing the reader) only to be erased by a giant pencil a la Duck Amuck. The art is by Stephen DeStefano, although it’s such early work in his career that his personal style isn’t yet recognizable – unlike the page he contributed 16 years later to Dorkin’s World’s Funnest. While not quite a hidden gem, the inclusion of this forgotten rarity is definitely the kind of bonus indicating the volume’s organizers relished their task. The next two stories are Mxyzptlk tales from the late 80s era of Superman, first with writer/artist John Byrne’s re-introduction of the character and then a later appearance by writers Roger Stern and Tom Peyer, with art by Paris Cullins. Byrne’s story is as exemplary of high quality mainstream superhero comics as anything else he was doing during the 80s, while Stern & Peyer pit a fun novelty matchup of Mxy against Lex Luthor for a change. Cullins, whose art I wasn’t previously familiar with, has a style similar to John Byrne’s only more unhinged – he gets some wild expressions into his human characters, while Mxyzptlk often looks like a demonic gremlin. In other words, cool stuff.

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The gloriously gross 80s: Paris Cullins’ Mxyzptlk

The second best comic in the collection after Dorkin’s is Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s post-Crisis reintroduction of Bat-Mite from 1992, Legend of the Dark Mite, which I cajoled Andrew into reading and reviewing here. Surprisingly, generously also included is Grant & O’Neill’s perennially unpopular follow-up from 1995, Mitefall (it’s great, but shops are still trying to get it out of their discount bins to this day) which continues the adventures of Bob Overdog and Bat-Mite in order to take the piss out of Knightfall storyline. Between this and Dorkin’s story, Bat-Mite really achieves his full potential as an avatar for writers seeking to mock DC from within. Sandwiched between these tales is a more sedate 1999 World’s Finest meeting of Bat-Mite and Mxy, which actually isn’t out of order thanks to an opening caption declaring it to take place “five years earlier” so the continuity commissars can’t complain. The Imp-Possible Dream has a humdrum plot but a surprisingly wry and snarky script by Karl Kesel – only Mxy could really get away with a Batman/Robin gay joke, right? Artist Peter Doherty’s versions of the imps kind of resemble Sylvester P. Smythe of Cracked magazine, while his human figures and faces are unfortunately stiff by comparison. Overall, it’s okay. Really, the book’s sole offensive inclusion is the concluding two-parter from 2008, Lil’ Leaguers, from the series Superman/Batman. In what Mxyzptlk admits to be a sales-generating gimmick (the most crass use of fourth wall breaking), superdeformed chibi versions of the DCU invade Batman and Superman’s world to run around being cuter, more marketable versions of them. Bat-Mite shows up for two pages at the conclusion to explain his collusion in the prank. It’s not a Mxy story, it’s not a Bat-Mite story and there’s a creepy lolicon vibe when lil’ Catwoman jumps on regular-size Batman. While not a bad comic – Rafael Albuquerque’s art is certainly appealing – it feels like unnecessary filler.

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Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s Legend of the Dark Mite: comics in the 90s assumed you’d read the classics

Born of the era in comics when superheroes excelled at flights of fancy, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s history is almost as long as Superman and Batman’s. In 1986, the year of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns when superheroes were being put to bed, Alan Moore’s revelation of a malignant Mxy as Superman’s ultimate nemesis in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow spoke slyly to the genre’s sea change; that powerful forces once joyful and innocent were degenerating into something sinister. Bat-Mite has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years, with media such as the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold employing him as a post-modern mouthpiece for multiple generations of Bat-fans, with the inspired casting of Paul Reubens. As superheroes are ultimately creatures of the comics medium no matter how many movies and cartoons are shoveled out for the illiterate masses, Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk are creatures representing the medium’s unlimited possibilities for pure anarchic imagination. The talents who contributed to this book are many of the greatest in the industry. World’s Funnest  both the Evan Dorkin story and now the expanded collection bearing the same name, is an absolute must-have.

CREDITS

World’s Funnest; writers, Evan Dorkin, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Jerry Coleman, Bob Rozakis, Stephen DeStefano, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Tom Peyer, Alan Grant, Karl Kesel, Michael Green, Mike Johnson; artists, Mike Allred, Frank Cho, Stephen DeStefano, Dave Gibbons, Jaime Hernandez, Stuart Immonen, Phil Jimenez, Doug Mahnke, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Glen Murakami, Alex Ross, Scott Shaw, Jay Stephens, Ty Templeton, Jim Woodring, Joe Shuster, Dick Sprang, Michael Golden, John Byrne, Paris Cullins, Kevin O’Neill, Peter Doherty, Rafael Albuquerque; collection editor, Robin Wildman; publisher, DC Comics.

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Judge Dredd’s Crime File 1 (August 1985)

Judge Dredd's Crime File #1

Judge Dredd’s Crime File has three stories in this first issue, all written by John Wagner. They all have good art–John Byrne, Ron Smith, Colin Wilson–they all have slightly different art. Wilson’s future landscape is more stylish than Byrne’s, for example. Ron Smith is the most rounded for what Wagner’s trying to do with the differing stories.

The most significant thing about these stories in relation to Judge Dredd is the lack of Dredd. The second story, with the Smith art, has the most Dredd–it’s about these alien plants people are growing but the plants turn into little alien monsters. Dredd is investigating. But in the first story, the one with the Byrne art, Wagner goes way more into the game of the future than Dredd’s quelling of a footballer-like riot.

The third story–Wilson’s–has some guy going crazy and shooting up civilians. It’s about urban plight in the future. It’s not Dredd’s story (even though the guy ends up gunning for Dredd in a very cheap action movie revenge manner).

For the unfamiliar Dredd reader, Crime File might seem an odd collection of stories but it’s actually some of Wagner’s best work.

CREDITS

Writer, John Wagner; artists, John Byrne, Ron Smith and Colin Wilson; colorist, John M. Burns; letterer, Tom Frame; editor, Nick Landau; publisher, Eagle Comics.

The Sensational She-Hulk 1 (May 1989)

The Sensational She-Hulk #1

John Byrne finds a nice approach for Sensational She-Hulk–it’s a gag. He doesn’t just go for humor, he finds the right balance between humor for the characters and the reader. It’s entertaining, which is the point, but very expertly executed in how he delivers that entertainment.

He never lets She-Hulk be a joke or her comics history–in fact, some of Byrne’s handling of crowd (this issue mostly takes place at a circus) reminds of Silver Age Marvel. But there’s also the Byrne art. He gives himself a cast of peculiar characters to illustrate and does well with them. The final reveal takes it a little far, but the whole circus setting is fantastic.

It’s not a deep comic and there’s not much character development, but it’s a lot of fun and the art’s good. Byrne’s attitudes–both to his narrative and to his protagonist–are strong.

B 

CREDITS

Second Chance; writer and penciller, John Byrne; inker, Bob Wiacek; colorist, Glynis Oliver; letterer, John Workman; editor, Bobbi Chase; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Batman 400 (October 1986)

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I hate this comic. I hate how DC used it, I hate how Moench writes it, even if it was an editorial decision.

There are nods to Moench’s run, but only so far as he gets to give each of his characters a page to sort of say goodbye. There’s no closure on any of the story lines, not a single one.

There’s also a lot of crappy art. It’s an anniversary issue with a lot of big names drawing either poorly or against their style. Rick Leonardi and Arthur Adams are some of the worst offenders, but not even Brian Bolland does particularly well. Ken Steacy is the only decent one.

Moench’s writing for a different audience than usual, the casual Batman reader, not the regular. Apparently he thinks the casual readers like endless exposition and incredible stupidity. It’s a distressing, long read; a terrible capstone to Moench’s run.

D- 

CREDITS

Resurrection Night!; writer, Doug Moench; pencillers, John Byrne, Steve Lightle, George Perez, Paris Cullins, Bill Sienkiewicz, Art Adams, Tom Sutton, Steve Leialoha, Joe Kubert, Ken Steacy, Rick Leonardi and Brian Bolland; inkers, Byrne, Bruce Patterson, Perez, Larry Mahlstedt, Sienkiewicz, Terry Austin, Ricardo Villagran, Leialoha, Kubert, Steacy, Karl Kesel and Bolland; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterers, John Costanza and Andy Kubert; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Doomsday + 1 3 (November 1975)

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Joe Gill sure doesn’t have many ideas. Worse, the lack of them cuts into what Byrne gets to draw. For example, this issue has visuals out of the first issue–the space stuff–and the second issue–the robots. Gill gives it a different context (these robots are intergalactic peacekeepers investigating the destruction of Earth) but Byrne doesn’t really do anything new.

He still has some great panel compositions and has some wonderful layouts. Thanks to Gill’s writing inadequacies, Doomsday doesn’t have enough to offer without engaging artwork. There are maybe three character moments in the whole issue and all of them are dumb. Intentionally or not, Ken is completely unlikable–he nukes the aliens as a first resort–and Gill basically just has the women around for a love triangle (or quartet).

Doomsday should be a no-brainer to pull off, especially with Byrne, but Gill totally fumbles it.

CREDITS

The Peace Keepers; writers, John Byrne and Joe Gill; artist and letterer, Byrne; editor, George Wildman; publisher, Charlton Comics.

Doomsday + 1 2 (September 1975)

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So Barbie is falling in love with the thawed cave man. I doubt Gill will be able to sell it, though it does give his characters something interesting. There’s nothing otherwise. The Ken guy gets kidnapped by an evil Soviet cyborg and it’s all painfully boring.

Gill only continues the ravaged world exploration thing for a couple pages. Mostly he’s just got armies of robots attacking the survivors and then they hop a fighter jet to Mother Russia. There, they have another lengthy fight scene. There’s some talking, but it’s Ken and the cyborg. Very boring.

Byrne does have some wonderful composition this issue, however. Even though his details on people aren’t particularly special–he rushes on the people–the rest of his art makes up for it. Doomsday + 1 almost has a good setting; instead of developing it, Gill fills it with action.

Byrne’s art deserves much better storytelling.

CREDITS

A Faceless Foe; writer, Joe Gill; artist and letterer, John Byrne; editor, George Wildman; publisher, Charlton Comics.

Doomsday + 1 1 (July 1975)

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It’s the end of the world as we know it… and John Byrne’s drawing it. I’m not sure what the series’s title, Doomsday + 1, has to do with the content. The premise is simple–three astronauts return to Earth after a nuclear war. Writer Joe Gill doesn’t know much about nuclear warheads, because the radiation’s dissipating real fast. Not so fast the astronauts just get to come back, but fast enough Gill can move the story along.

There are two Ken and Barbie astronauts and then the Japanese woman. She’s in love with Ken; she doesn’t know why, probably because of his Aryan superiority. It doesn’t matter much–Gill abandons all the subplots pretty quick to get into the action. The ice cap got hit and prehistoric beasts are thawing out.

It’s a nice enough mix of apocalyptic and lost world stuff. Byrne’s got some beautifully composed panels in here.

CREDITS

They Live Again; writer, Joe Gill; artist and letterer, John Byrne; editor, George Wildman; publisher, Charlton Comics.

The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones 2 (February 1983)

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Denny O’Neil takes over scripting from Byrne, who sticks around to pencil, and adds xenophobia and misogyny. Not to mention Indy talking for the first half of the issue in expository paragraphs.

Ever wanted to see Indiana Jones gleefully kill members of a bronze age tribe? Here’s your comic. Or to see him buddy up with Nazi sailors? Again, this comic’s the one for you.

O’Neil seems entirely ignorant of archeology, so ignorant it’s as though he didn’t even see Raiders of the Lost Ark, which isn’t exactly real archeology but it’s better than what O’Neil writes about here.

He also seems disinterested in the time period. His writing read like a resentful employee’s contractual obligation.

Bryne’s panel compositions are interesting. He goes for cinematic. It doesn’t always work, but at least he’s trying.

Also interesting is Indy’s face. Everyone else has Byrne face; not Indy. Maybe Austin drew it.

CREDITS

22-Karat Doom!; writer, Denny O’Neil; pencillers, John Byrne and Terry Austin; inker, Austin; colorist, Bob Sharen; letterer, Janice Chiang; editor, Louise Jones; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones 1 (January 1983)

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There are a lot of unexpected things in this first issue of The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones. For example, writer and penciller John Byrne doesn’t work at making Indiana Jones likable. He’s a bit of a jerk, really, and definitely irresponsible.

I also wasn’t expecting Indy to be mooning over the absent Marion; Byrne uses the lines for character, not to call back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s deft. Not deft is repeating the kidnapping sequence from that film. It’s not predicable either. One would think they would come up with something original.

The villain’s original (and cringeworthy). He’s a big fat black guy named Black. Maybe Byrne was trying to be funny.

The comic does work though. Byrne and Terry Austin’s art is fine, better than most licensed stuff, and the story moves.

Byrne also comes up with an excellent, serial-inspired cliffhanger.

It’s okay enough.

CREDITS

Writer, John Byrne; pencillers, Byrne and Terry Austin; inker, Austin; colorist, Bob Sharen; letterer, Joe Rosen; editor, Louise Jones; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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