Hi everyone!  After some scheduling difficulties, Watchtower is back on track and aims to stay that way. All jokes aside, as a fan and/or follower of many things myself, I hate long delays or being stalled/fed re-treads in the meantime. So, my apologies and thanks to those who have hung in there and stuck around. Now let’s get back to dissecting that comic & pop culture universe!…

As collectors, we all have favourite creators. Pencillers may get a little more glory, as it’s their visuals bringing a story to life or attracting you to that issue. For those more familiar with the genre, you also grow to appreciate the work of specific writers over others; recognizing a certain consistency of style and quality you enjoy. Then, you have talents ambitious enough to try and wear both hats, with mixed results. The debate can begin here but examples that come to mind are excellent work from Miller, Simonson and Mignola, with McFarlane somewhere in between, and Liefeld and later Byrne not so much. But what gets looked at today, fellow geeks, is the magic that happens when two creators get together and produce something that is almost mythical, becoming either a legend or a legend-in the making. Whether it’s a finite series or an open run on a title, you enjoy it while you can, because you know it won’t last forever.  Time moves on and two different minds have their eyes on other projects and challenges; maybe the ugly spectre of “creative differences” rears its’ ugly head. But for their time spent together, two or more people find that chemistry and get into a groove where they can do no wrong with seemingly everything they touch both reading and looking great.

When one thinks of famous creative teams in comics, it's hard to not think of Stan and Jack on FF!

When one thinks of famous creative teams in comics, it’s hard to not think of Stan and Jack on FF!

Some will argue that the writer produced something that forced the artist to up their game and match it; others claiming that a particular artist being discussed is capable of making even the most mundane story look fantastic. But who cares?  The reader wins, holding comic gold in their hands! Golden age fans might want to give a tip of the hat to Siegel and Shuster for the creation of Superman, or have nostalgia for the patriotic WWII offerings of Simon and Kirby, most notably the introduction of Captain America. However, the gold standard of legacies left by creative teams came almost twenty years later when the same Jack Kirby paired with Stan Lee to kick off what would become known as the Marvel Age of comics.  Two middle-aged gents who had already been in the biz for a while turned the perception and expectations of comics on its’ ear with the intro of a whole slew of heroes that have become synonymous with that company. Other creators had a hand in some major contributions (i.e. such as Ditko on the Amazing Spider-Man; sadly, too short a run-once again, see creative differences), but it’s Lee & Kirby who were responsible for the bulk of the formative versions of many heroes known and loved today. Yes, for those deeper into behind-the-scenes comic history, the true division of labour and proper credit between them stays debatable (made even more complicated by Marvel’s then “house style” of the writer giving a plot to the artist and then scripting dialogue around the returned finished pencils), with Kirby no longer with us to definitively clarify his side of the story. But if you’re able to collectively take a look at Fantastic Four #’s 1-102, along with all accompanying annuals (available in many affordable reprint formats), you’ll forget all that and appreciate what a special run they had. Even the alleged “low points” of that time are more original and entertaining than the best offerings of some of today’s creators. Every month seemed to introduce new classic heroes and villains in storylines that became firmament in the rest of the Marvel Universe (just off the top of my head, try Dr. Doom, the return of the Sub-Mariner, the Skrulls, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and the Black Panther on for size!). Consistently incredible stuff; it’s what established the FF as Marvel’s “first family”, putting them at heights even the best creative successors haven’t been able to match. Fans during that era didn’t realize they were spoiled until one day, the taking for granted of “more to come” next month came to an end when that great partnership dissolved and Kirby took his talents elsewhere.

The team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez on one of their wacky adventures.

The team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez on one of their wacky adventures.

Two revered duos of the modern area are Chris Claremont & John Byrne for their run on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men and Marv Wolfman & George Perez for their work on DC’s The New Teen Titans.  Each pair took a mediocre franchise (taking advantage of being low enough on the priority radar to push creative boundaries) and turned them into critical and commercial hits, firmly re-establishing their casts back in the center of their respective universes. The ever-important sales these titles generated gave their teams more artistic control and the support of their editorial teams to take a hand in the direction of other titles and the kick-off of new projects. Some will claim this fosters a “victim of your own success” syndrome and bodes the beginning of the end of a good run. A limited run doesn’t peter out like that with full knowledge on how many issues to expect up front. While it was only twelve issues, Moore & Gibbons Watchmen is regarded by many as the comic series, still topping “must read” compilation lists today. Jeph Loeb & Jim Lee’s classic Hush storyline in Batman played out as a series within the series with a follow-up by the same team never coming to fruition (lending weight to the “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” credo).  Jeph Loeb also pulled off the rare feat of having more than one story with the same character achieve “classic” status, as The Long Halloween took a glimpse into Batman’s early career, with Tim Sale on pencils. This collaboration was successful enough that it spun off a sequel and inspired multiple similar series at Marvel, allowing Loeb and Sale to put their stamp on the early years of iconic heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil and the Hulk.

Loeb’s association with success on Batman can be paralleled with Ed Brubaker and Captain America. Praise for Brubaker’s tenure, highlighted by the return of Bucky Barnes (and his development as the Winter Soldier), and the death/return of Cap himself, have been praised at this site multiple times. The success of the latest film which translates Brubaker’s story to the big screen seems to show that most of the world tends to agree. Steve Epting has been the primary artist on this Cap material, but there’s another Brubaker collaboration that deserves any true comic fan’s attention, and that’s with Sean Philips. They both already had a decent body of work under their belt, but once they started working together it’s like it was always meant to be. Any regular reader of this Watchtower column knows I enjoy and like to recommend reads a little off the beaten path to go along with my usual hero fixes.  The Brubaker/Philips machine has delivered in spades, piling up a ton of awards while finding a faithful niche readership that has grown too large in popularity to simply be categorized as a cult following.

untitled-1-1301521434

We’ll go a little out of chronological order here as we group themes. The Criminal series, published under Marvel’s Icon imprint, was a collection of stories set in a fictional burg called Center City over a timeline ranging from the late 50’s to the present, all-surprise!-dealing with various criminal endeavours and those who perpetrated them. While not all completely related, there is a sense of a contained universe if you read more than one arc; as we see some recurring characters take their turn in both the foreground and background, and certain family names mentioned on a regular basis if not directly involved with a story. Now collected in six trades: Coward, Lawless, Bad Night, The Dead & the Dying, Sinners and The Last of the Innocent, the latter is my favourite and is straight up one of the best comic stories I have had the pleasure to enjoy. Period. Without spoiling the actual story for you, I’ll tell you it’s a bang-on dark satire of a certain Riverdale clan from another comics group, showing a dark underbelly to their world that their own comics never, ever would…

Sleeper (Wildstorm) and Incognito (Icon) are two variations on a theme, telling the story of two criminals trying to survive under pressured circumstances. Sleeper’s protagonist, Holden Carver, is actually a super-powered plant in a criminal mastermind’s organization.  The problem is, he’s out in the cold and on his own as his handler, the only person who knows and can vouch that Holden’s really one of the good guys, is injured and in a coma. With Incognito, Zack Overkill was a super-powered high operative for the biggest criminal in his world, until he turned state’s evidence, was de-powered and placed in witness protection. Zack’s cover is blown when he finds out new drug habits are negating his suppression meds and he can’t resist becoming active again. Now Zack needs to play off both sides who want him to further their own agendas while trying to stay alive. Both initial offerings were successful enough to warrant sequel series: Sleeper: Season Two and Incognito: Bad Influences.

 Finally, with Fatale, Brubaker and Philips tell the tale of Josephine, the femme of the title, a woman who hasn’t aged since the 1930’s, the latest in a centuries-old line that seem to have an ability to coerce absolute devotion out of any man they meet whether it’s wanted to or not (usually eventually resulting in their death). Story arcs so far have shown encounters taking place during WWII, the 1950’s, 70’s & 90’s, as Jo is drawn into seemingly ongoing conflict with a group that worships and is visited/led by creatures straight out of Lovecraft, resembling Cthulu himself.  This formula of combining gritty realism with the fantastic continues to work for Brubaker and Philips, as this still ongoing series has been earning them more accolades and acclaim than ever. In their work, I see a sense of noir matched in comics maybe only by Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of books in Richard Stark’s (a.k.a Donald E. Westlake) Parker series, but those were crime novels to begin with. In my opinion, what makes their work so distinct is nobody else is blending that noir into the fantasy world of comics like they do. Right now, they are so prolific and seem so in sync that it’s hard to imagine anyone else other than Philips depicting Brubaker’s words or vice-versa to those words giving a voice to that art. They’ve nailed it, inadvertently making themselves the kings of this pseudo-genre. But as good as it is, I advise you to try it out while the gettin’s good; because while these guys are on a huge roll and it doesn’t look like it will ever end, we’ve learned that it inevitably has to, due to any number of circumstances. So instead of discovering another great team post break-up, get on board and say you knew them when…

If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!!

Even with one issue left to come out, Fatale is easily the masterpiece of the Brubaker/Phillips Partnership.

Even with one issue left to come out, Fatale is easily the masterpiece of the Brubaker/Phillips Partnership.