It goes without saying that the “Big Two” of Marvel and DC have pretty much cornered the market when it comes to superhero comics. Sure, there have been a number of successful outliers, like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy-centric universe, Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley’s Invincible, and Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross’ Astro City, but for the most part, the introduction of a brand new superhero universe in a shared line of comics can be a bit of a tough sell. Yet that’s exactly what indie publisher writer Josh Bayer and a host of talented artists are trying to do with All Time Comics, the new line of superhero comics by esteemed indie publisher Fantagraphics. It all starts with All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1, written, as all the All Time Comics are, by Josh Bayer with pencils by the late, great Herb Trimpe, inks by Benjamin Marra, colors by Matt Rota, and letters by Rick Parker. Is it good?
All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1 (Fantagraphics)
As I read All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something, or that I somehow wasn’t reading it properly. Its characters aren’t quite analogous enough to existing, classic Marvel and DC superheroes to be a direct homage (though it is firmly rooted in the storytelling and aesthetic of decades past, which I’ll get to later), and while it has a bit of an ironic sense of humor, its tongue isn’t far enough in its proverbial cheek to be a parody, either.
Could it be that Bayer, Trimpe, and Marra are playing it straight? Is this nothing more than an earnest tribute to classic superhero comics – specifically, it would seem, late Silver Age to Bronze Age Marvel?
There’s nothing necessarily inherently wrong with being inspired by something you love to do something similar in the same vein. The question is, though, “what new insight or ideas have you contributed?” To put it somewhat more harshly, “why purpose does your art serve?”
To reiterate: why does All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer exist?
Before I unpack this further, let’s address the obvious: this is, to the best of my knowledge, the last known comic book issue to feature Herb Trimpe’s artwork since his death in 2015, and it’s a tragedy that he was able to start this ambitious journey and not see it through to the end (Crime Destroyer #2 will be penciled and inked fully by Benjamin Marra, though it’s unclear at this point whether or not he will be the permanent ongoing artist of the series while also serving as the penciller for All Time Comics: Bullwhip).
I’m not merely being charitable when I say that Trimpe’s art is easily the best thing about this issue. It’s clear that he was chosen for his skill as an artist and his decades of experience in the superhero genre, not simply because he’s the “co-creator of Wolverine.” His work is dynamic, fluid, and exuberant, with plenty of Kirby dots for good measure. His layouts are clear and effective, with a few interesting surprises to mix things up without showing off. That’s what old-school superhero comic book art should be.
Plus, I had never noticed this before from reading books like Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T and American Blood where he does all of the work himself, but inking over Trimpe’s pencils proves that Benjamin Marra really is an excellent inker in his own right. He gives Trimpe’s art a sort of rawness and personality that may not have been possible with the classic Marvel house style, and while he never gets in Trimpes way, it’s clear for anyone who’s ever read Marra’s work that he has his hands all over this book.
Similarly, Matt Rota’s psychedelic and unconventional colors take the “these aren’t your father’s superheroes (or are they?)” vibe even further, while Rick Parker’s letters – which, given their inconsistency, I would assume were done by hand – provide a sort of punk rock, unrefined energy to the whole process.
It’s just too bad that the writing couldn’t live up to the promise of the art. There is a part of me that deeply respects Bayer’s desire and ability to earnestly do his best Stan Lee or Chris Claremont impression. It’s clear that this is something he’s wanted to do for a long time, and he’s having fun doing it. But the question remains: what does this have to offer readers who have already had their fill of classic “Marvel Age” comics and want a new take?
Well, for one, there is a novelty to this brand new world that All Time Comics Presents. Please understand that this is no insignificant thing. Even the best, most original stories set within the Marvel and DC universes still must work within the confines of the foundations of those universes. Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, for example, is a terrific character, yet part of the reason that she works so well is because for all of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s innovation, she just wouldn’t be the same if you couldn’t trace the origins of the fictional universe that she’s a part of all the way back to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 way back in 1961. I’d like to think that she’d be able to work just as well if she was created as part of her own universe, and lord knows that the world would be a poorer place without a perky teenage Muslim girl that loves fan fiction as much as she loves saving the world. Yet it wouldn’t be the same if she couldn’t team up with Wolverine or give Lockjaw a hug.
Crime Destroyer, as a character, could not exist in the Marvel universe, and not just because his fist-shaped shoulder pads are so goofy that Spider-Man would spend entire Avengers meetings mocking him for them. It’s because it would be like putting The Hulk into the DC universe – he just wasn’t built for it.
At the moment, there’s not much distinctive about CD. He’s a vigilante with no powers and plenty of gadgets, a veteran of an unspecified war whose shot at normalcy was destroyed…by crime. What remains to be seen, though, is not just how he will develop as a character, but how he will inform, and be informed by, the universe that surrounds him. At the moment, though, Bayer and company seem more concerned with world building and storytelling than characterization, as this issue finds Crime Destroyer on the hunt for a friend’s missing daughter. Of course, it ends with a violent, bizarre battle, and along the way we meet another superhero of the All Time Comics universe by the name of Atlas.
At this point, I should mention that Fantagraphics was kind enough to also provide a review copy of All Time Comics: Bullwhip #1, which stars a scantily clad female superheroine who fights vampires and misogyny. For the purposes of this review, I don’t want to talk to much about Bullwhip, but it was interesting to see how the two interact with each other. As with Silver Age Marvel, references to other comics within the universe are made, but by no means does one have to read one to understand the other.
(Speaking of a shared universe, it’s disappointing that this line is overseen entirely by white dudes. If you’re going to recreate the look and feel of older comics, you don’t have to recreate the “boys club” that dominated the industry for so long too. There’s not a single woman working on any of the four ATC titles, and choosing to make a character like Crime Destroyer a black man, without any apparent input from black creators throughout the line, is problematic.)
For all the good that CD does in terms of art, structure, and format, though, I’ve been dancing around its biggest problem: the writing just isn’t particularly interesting. It’s never as funny or bonkers as you want it to be, nor is it mature or sophisticated enough to have any real emotional or thematic weight.
Bayer needs to find a real hook for this series soon, because even if he were able to come close to replicating the magic that Stan Lee had with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and all those other wonderful artists of the era, the fact remains that stories like “If This Be My Destiny” and “The Galactus Trilogy” already exist. If you want to garner interest in a series like this in 2017, you’d better bring something new to the table.
Is It Good?
Look, I’m sure that Bayer and company are having fun, and seeing such a fantastic version of Herb Trimpe’s art makes this issue worth the price of admission alone. If you have an affection for superhero comics of a certain era, you may get a kick out of All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer, but if you like this kind of thing, you might be better off reading Jack Kirby’s Captain America run from the 1970’s first instead.