A lot of people have noted that the Marvel and DC Comics universes tend to publish stories with similar themes at the same time, though they might diverge under the surface. Finding and discussing similarities and differences in stories we value is a diverting pastime, but it can also be a great way to discover new titles we’re already primed for. Instead of comparing Marvel and DC, however, I want to compare and contrast some creator-owned series that strike me as having interesting points in common. My selections begin with series that are finished (or near finished) and move to titles that still have no end in sight, perfect for readers who like a closed story or readers who want a new series.
Fatale by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Image Comics) and Veil by Greg Rucka & Toni Fejzula (Dark Horse Comics)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that writers Brubaker and Rucka co-wrote Gotham Central for DC Comics from 2002 to 2006. While that credit might indicate that they have similar interests, they are also remarkably different (and not just because you would never confuse the art of Phillips and Fejzula). Both series start with a femme fatale archetype. The plots are both set in motion by demonic rites and the practitioners who want to use said femme fatale. Beyond that, however, they diverge, more different than similar.
Fatale has a first person omniscient narrator. Veil doesn’t have a narrator at all. Fatale’s plot is revealed through a series of flashbacks, each arc detailing a different era. Thus far there has only been one arc of Veil, but it is entirely set in the present. The cults also have different motives that in turn emphasize where the titles thematically differ. In Fatale the cult is about sexual depravity, and in Veil it’s about ruthless capitalism. Both of the leading ladies are often naked, but only Fatale’s Jo is treated erotically. Phillips’s art tends to emphasize the sensuality of its world, befitting the fact that we are mostly seeing Jo through the eyes of the men who are interested in her. In an interview released shortly after Fatale wrapped up, Brubaker described his decision to have Jo’s past revealed through a cosmic sexual encounter with Nick:
“I had always had this idea of doing a section of the book that would show you what Jo’s powers feel like to Nick. I wanted the reader to be in the head of someone who was being seduced by her and just falling under her spell…So then I just decided, ‘Let’s do an all cosmic sex issue to reveal Jo’s darkest secrets.’ I’d been sitting on all these big secrets that have been driving her throughout the whole modern day part of the plot, and I knew I needed to reveal her real tragedy somewhere, and that would be the best place to do it. So much of the book is about sex and desire and the way men look at women. It’s such a vast landscape, but this does seem to be a book about desire and jealousy—these things that can get in your brain and fuck you up. That’s part of the femme fatale as an iconic thing. So if we were going to reveal her secrets, it should have been in an issue that was all about sex—just a huge mindfuck issue. ”
In Veil, Fejzula’s art is uniformly loud and isolating. In a discussion of Veil from when the title was announce Rucka told the interviewer :
“A lot of the panels that Toni is drawing are very calculated pieces. We’re working very hard to determine at what point we’re seeing a subjective view versus an objective view of what’s going on and of how we look at characters—how we see them. All of that feeds back into the word. What are you seeing through? How much of your vision is clear versus obstructed? And why is it obstructed?”
Whatever Veil is saying about the way men see, what they don’t see is as important as what they do.
Suicide Risk by Mike Carey, Elena Casagrande & various artists (Boom! Studios) and Leaving Megalopolis by Gail Simone & Jim Califiore (originally self published, later edition published by Dark Horse)
As I write this, Suicide Risk is wrapping up a 25-issue run. Leaving Megalopolis was released as a single, completed volume, rather than having individual issues. To the best of my knowledge, Carey and Simone have never co-written a comic together, though they both have worked on runs of Red Sonja for Dynamite Comics. Both series start out with worlds in which all superheroes turn villainous for mysterious cosmic reasons. By now, we know what has caused the changes in character in Suicide Risk; we know why the “heroes” changed, and have been swept along in its narrative. Within the first issue, our lead character goes from not having powers to having them. Even with a surprising change of protagonist about halfway through the series, Suicide Risk is about the super-powered minority.
Leaving Megalopolis sticks with non-superpowered protagonists. The main character is a woman named Mina who was a security officer in a mall up until the incident in which all the heroes went bad. Whatever led to this corruption, Leaving Megalopolis is more about escaping than investigating the rampaging ex-heroes. Ultimately, Suicide Risk is about worlds with super powered individuals and Leaving Megalopolis is about how we react to superhero stories. When it continues I expect it will have even less in common with Suicide Risk, despite their similar story catalysts.
Satellite Sam by Matt Fraction & Howard Chaykin (Image Comics) and The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Image Comics)
Brubaker was initially nervous about launching The Fade Out, concerned that it was conceptually too similar to the already-running Satellite Sam. But he ultimately decided that the settings — Satelite Sam is about producing a TV show set in New York City in the early 1950s, The Fade Out is about making movies set in Hollywood in the late 1940s—were different enough to avoid too much overlap. As with Rucka in the earlier comparison, Fraction shares a writing credit with Brubaker from their time on Marvel Comics’ Immortal Iron Fist, 2006-08. Satellite Sam and The Fade Out have some of the same superficial differences as Fatale and Veil: both of the Brubaker and Phillips titles read more sensuously. The Fade Out has a narrator (third-person omniscient) while Satellite Sam has none. While Satellite Sam is the less sexy of the two titles, it probably has more explicit sex scenes than The Fade Out, and the covers have much more cheesecake.
As for the art, Fraction’s love of Chaykin’s earlier work gives an indication of the art direction in Satellite Sam. Fraction writes about Chaykin’s notorious 1988 comic Black Kiss:
“With no fence to keep his id in check, Chaykin’s sexual iconography becomes so deliberately well worn by book’s end that even the naughtiest of naughty black negligees packs little more erotic punch than a janitor’s uniform. The final irony of BLACK KISS is that Chaykin holds his subject matter, medium, and (one presumes) his audience in such contempt that he wont even let them enjoy the fucking in this, his dirty little fuck book.”
Later, in a conversation with Chaykin found in the backmatter of the second trade paperback of Satellite Sam, Fraction says “I know that’s what I’m finding interesting about the the Whites — not so much the sex, as it’s so base and rote to be joyless—but the compulsion to catalogue, to collect.” Chaykin’s response includes “Some of my favorite erotic material on the web is so drenched in an all-too-intentional irony that whatever lubriciousness it might possess just disappears into self awareness.” The Fade Out doesn’t have a similar obsession with fetishization, but their similarities go beyond setting. Both have alcoholic, World War II veteran protagonists. The plots both begin with murders, but neither story is in any rush to solve them. The alcoholism, and an addictive personality mostly drive the action in Satellite Sam, but keep the protagonist of The Fade Out from being too active. While both are set in the entertainment industry, The Fade Out is set in a well-established system, while Satellite Sam is still setting up, and no one yet knows the rules.
Rachel Rising by Terry Moore (Abstract Studio) and Revival by Tim Seeley & Mike Norton (Image Comics)
Undead young women, isolated towns, murders, macabre and mysteries feature prominently in these titles. This is the only pairing on the list in which I feel comfortable saying that if you like one, you will probably like the other. That isn’t to say that they don’t have their differences. Rachel Rising focuses on the dead girl of the title while the lead of Revival is the sister of Dana, one many risen dead. The young women who are killed and resurrected in Rachel Rising are chosen for individual reasons, while the “Revivers” in Revival are all of disparate gender and ages. The towns the series take place in are also treated dramatically differently. In Rachel Rising, the title town’s history is the cause of most of the action, while in Revival the plot is more about the Revivers’ effect on the town. The event caused a quarantine, created new black markets, and threw a wrench into local politics. Though they start with the same premise and share a dark sense of humor, the differences in these series demonstrate the range available in the stories of even very similar women.
FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics by Simon Oliver, Robbi Rodriguez & Alberto Ponticelli (DC/Vertigo Comics) and Black Science (Image Comics) by Rick Remender & Matteo Scalera
These titles are both concerned with the possibility of multiple dimensions, with how little we understand the world around us and how capitalism corrupts everything. They both have very energetic art, though none of the three artists are likely to be confused for each other. While both series include flashbacks regularly in their storytelling, Black Science uses the broken time structure to create tension between scenes and ramp up the action. By contrast, FBP is more relaxed in its approach to time and storytelling. Flashbacks occur when characters want to explain themselves, not when there is a need to create tension for the reader.
Black Science is the only series on this list that I quit reading. It has garnered steady critical acclaim and a lot of people like it, but after reading the first trade paperback, I just didn’t want to read more of it. I hated the main narrator. I thought the decision to have him direct his narration to the wife he cheated on was manipulative, especially as she does not appear in the series. I also disliked the fact that his mistress is present, but mostly used to be suspicious or cause friction with his children. Even the twist at the end of the first volume didn’t convince me that I wouldn’t have similar frustrations with the story going forward.
Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder (Image Comics) and Effigy by Tim Seeley & Marley Zarcone (DC/Vertigo Comics)
I didn’t even think of these series as having much in common until issue #5 of Effigy, though artists Reeder and Zarcone both have Madame Xanadu on their résumés. While both plots involve child police officers, the kid-cops in Effigy are part of a TV series within the comic book (Star Cops) and the ones in Rocket Girl are the official police of an alternate timeline’s present day. Effigy #5 mostly takes place at a Star Cops convention and it includes the start of a lecture where a man starts describing the ideas of a science fiction writer, including why children should be the police force. After that, more themes that the titles share came into focus.
Both deal with nostalgia. Rocket Girl’s protagonist Dayoung Johansen gets sent back in time to the mid 1980s, and the series’s creators have discussed how the 2013 that Dayoung starts out in is inspired by the future projections in 1980s films more than anything in our current atmosphere. In Effigy, the fandom surrounding the cancelled Star Cops is the jump-off point for the plot. Both have young female police officer protagonists who are displaced persons in their current settings—Effigy’s Chondra Jackson was part of the Star Cops cast and has moved back to her home-town, Effigy Mound, Ohio where she is a police rookie. As the series starts, she neither belongs in Hollywood or in Effigy Mound. Perhaps the connections are loose, but I am looking forward to the deepening of their worlds and how these connections may be broken or strengthened as the stories progress.