Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Two Collections of Miscellaneous Neil Gaiman Stories from DC

There's a vast gulf between the big earners and the rest. Not artistically, necessarily -- many of the big earners, in whatever field you want to mention, are meat-and-potatoes types -- but in availability and marketing enthusiasm and sheer flow of product.

So, when you have a creator like Neil Gaiman, who was first a really popular and successful writer of comic books (because of The Sandman in the '90s, primarily) and then either leveled up or transferred to being an equally popular and successful writer of mostly novel-shaped things since then, you find that nearly everything he's touched keeps coming back into print.

(The big counterexample, of course, is Miracleman: The Silver Age, but we all know that entire property is cursed, right?)

But, at least in the old, days, when people started out in comics, they did little things first -- backup stories, fill-in issues, one-shots. So that means someone like Gaiman has a lot of loose ends and short bits of string and pieces of stories and tidbits. And, therefore, the people who want to keep making some Neil Gaiman money from their ownership of all that random stuff need to figure out ways to package those stories that looks more purposeful and reasoned -- and, they hope, to put it into a form that can keep selling for years without having to keep worrying about it.

I have two such examples, from the same company, in front of me right now. So that company had enough stories to make two books, and had to figure out how to divide them. What DC did, more or less, was to take the mostly earlier, mostly horror-themed stories, put them in a volume called Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, and publish it under the Vertigo imprint. And then what was left were the mostly later, mostly superhero stories, which became The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman, from the main parent company.

Now, it's not an entirely clean division. Midnight Days was originally published in 1999, collecting stories from 1989 through 1998 and one old script newly drawn at that time. DC Universe was originally published in 2016, and collected stories from as far back as 1988 but only as recent as 2009 -- and its newly-drawn-from-an-old-script project came out in floppy-comics form back in 2000. But, generally, Midnight Days is the one with stories about Swamp Thing and John Constantine and people concerned with dreams, while DC Universe has the stories about Batman and Superman.

Midnight Days is odder and more miscellaneous, maybe because Vertigo was an odder imprint to begin with. It collects Gaiman's great single-issue Hellblazer story "Hold Me," drawn by Dave McKean, and his pretty good Swamp Thing annual re-introducing Brother Power the Geek, drawn mostly by Richard Piers Rayner. And the long, atmospheric Sandman Midnight Theatre one-shot, co-written with Matt Wagner -- and mostly featuring Wagner's characters --  and drawn perfectly by Teddy Kristiansen. But there's also a silly little framing story from a reprint collection of House of Mystery stories from the 1970s, drawn by Sergio Aragones, and that minor Swamp Thing story drawn a decade late by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, and a nice back-up drawn by Mike Mignola from that same Swamp Thing Annnual that was to serve as a teaser for the Gaiman Swamp Thing plotline he never got to write, after the DC Powers That Be freaked out and fired Rick Veitch over his Jesus issue.

Again: it's a miscellany. Both books are. And maybe "sort-of horror" has a less distinct, specific tone than "modern superheroes" does.

DC Universe is bigger and flashier, with an on-the-nose Brian Bolland cover instead of the moody Dave McKean package of Midnight Days. And it starts out with a story that could have been in Midnight Days -- Gaiman alludes to it, archly, in that book, and to the DC continuity reasons why it didn't make it in there -- in a story from Secret Origins (remember that?) about Poison Ivy that was more Swamp Thing than Batman. There's also a full Batman-themed Secret Origins Special orchestrated by Gaiman, with a frame story (drawn by Mike Hoffman and Kevin Nowlan) and a Riddler story drawn excellently and quirkily by Bernie Mireault. (And also two other stories, from the teams of Alan Grant and Sam Kieth on the one hand and Mark Verheiden, Pat Broderick, and Dick Giordano on the other, telling stories about Penguin and Two-Face.)

There's an amusing short metafiction, drawn in deep sketchy blacks, by Simon Bisley, of Batman and the Joker bantering in the Green Room as they wait to go on-panel -- this is perhaps the most Gaimanesque story in the book, the one that no one else would have told.

And then the lost-and-refound story, a Batman/Green Lantern team-up that was originally planned to be the wrap-up issue of the failed weekly version of Action Comics but was finally drawn by an all-star cast (Eddie Campbell, Michael Allred, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, and Jason Little) for an out-of-continuity one-shot years later. By that point, Gaiman was famous enough that the DC editors were happy to do his stories even if they were out of continuity. This one is a full -- too full, frankly -- superhero romp, more an exercise in getting from Point A to Point B than something really impressive in its own right.

But there's a great, short, poignant Deadman story next, drawn by Teddy Kristiansen (him again!) to follow. And a deliberate throw-back story about Metamorpho, originally published broadsheet size in the twelve issues of Wednesday Comics and somewhat diminished in size and scope when republished here.

And last, most recent and probably most central, is Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?," his stab at the canonical dead-Batman story. Andy Kubert does a virtuoso job of drawing every art style Gaiman throws at him -- which is a lot of them -- and I found the story more affecting this time around than the first time I read it. It's still yet another Gaiman story-about-stories, joining the long line, and it more than faintly echoes Gaiman's stronger finale to the Sandman series, The Wake. But, as corporate comics go, it's pretty darn good.

That could stand as a judgment on both of these books, actually: it's all stuff created to fill a hole in a monthly publishing schedule and to exploit certain properties that DC Comics owns, but Gaiman takes it all seriously and does good work, as do his collaborators. (I'm afraid I've never warmed up to Kevin Nowlan's work, but I'm pretty sure he's good at what he does. And I pretty much like everything else here.)

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