Writer Top Five: John Ostrander

Suicide Squad #1

This collection of ‘Writer Top Five’ posts is about the writers who have the most comics in my collection and my favourite books of theirs. John Ostrander has written a lot of comic books, but I don’t have all of them by any stretch: it’s down to a few runs on a small selection of comic books that earn him a place on the list.

Ostrander studied theology and was an actor, but started writing comic books in 1983, co-creating Grimjack for First Comics with Timothy Truman. (I have to confess: I’ve never read any Grimjack, despite being an Ostrander fan.) He would start working at DC in 1986, plotting the Legend mini-series and writing Fury of Firestorm. But it would be the series he started writing in 1987 that would put Ostrander on the map and leave his mark on comic book history – Suicide Squad was a reboot of a short-lived title from The Brave and The Bold from 1959, but this new series was something else, and is the reason why there will be a Suicide Squad film next year.

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Writer Top Five: Peter Milligan

Continuing with the theme of my favourite works by a writer I enjoy: today is the turn of Peter Milligan. The man, the mystery, the enigma (deliberate reference – see later); Milligan is an unusual writer who revels in his unusualness and intelligence and literary passions. His website is called Ineluctable Modality, which comes from a quote from Ulysses by James Joyce, meaning approximately ‘A particular form of sensory perception or mode in which something is experienced or expressed that is inescapable or unable to be avoided’. If that doesn’t give you a sense of who Milligan is and what is writing is about, then you should read some of the stories I mention.

Milligan first came to prominence, like many British comic book writers, at 2000 AD – in the mid-1980s, he started to write Time Twisters (the traditional route for new writers) but soon found acclaim with his first ongoing strip, Bad Company, a sci-fi-set war comic with art by the late Brett Ewins; this led to other strips, such as Hewligan’s Haircut with Jamie Hewlett, and Bix Barton with Jim McCarthy, but he also wrote his first work for DC in 1989 – Skreemer, a six-issue mini-series with art by Ewins that was a mix of gangster films and Finnegan’s Wake. Despite not doing as well as it deserved, Milligan was given more work at DC, as well as continuing to work in the UK in 2000 AD, Revolver (the Rogan Gosh strip, later collected by DC) and Deadline (the Johnny Nemo strip).

His DC work included writing some Batman stories and a short run on Animal Man after Grant Morrison’s acclaimed run, but it was his reinvention of Shade, The Changing Man that would put Milligan in the firmament of British comic book writers who rose to fame in the 1990s. It was completely different from Steve Ditko’s original version and stood out for its weirdness, maturity, adult themes and singular voice. Perhaps due to this success, a publisher was found for Skin, the story of a young thalidomide skinhead in 1970s London, with art by long-time collaborator Brendan MacCarthy, a powerful and disturbing book that was to feature in Crisis but the publishers were afraid to print.

Shade, The Changing Man would become one of the books that started the Vertigo imprint at DC, and it is arguable that Milligan’s best work was done for Vertigo. Enigma, the eight-issue series with art by Duncan Fegredo, is a marvellous book about identity and sexuality; there was also The Extremist (art by Ted McKeever), Face (with Fegredo), Egypt (with Glyn Dillon), Girl (with Fegredo), The Eaters (with Dean Ormiston), The Minx (with Sean Phillips), The Human Target, and Vertigo Pop London (with Philip Bond).

However, during this time, he also wrote for Marvel, doing an X-Men mini-series (The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Jean Grey) and, even more bizarrely, launching an ongoing series for Elektra, with art by Mike Deodato Jr. This would lead to his best work at Marvel, taking over X-Force with issue 116 in 2001 and, with art by Mike Allred, completely changing the team and the concept to that of a satire of modern celebrity, eventually becoming X-Statix a year later. He would go on to write various mini-series there, including a Wolverine/Punisher story and a Dead Girl/Doctor Strange mini-series, as well as a three-year run on X-Men, before recommencing work with DC at the same time. He has mostly stayed there, doing various things (The Programme, Infinity Inc.) in addition to various Marvel mini-series (5 Ronin), with only Greek Street and a long and well-received run on Hellblazer sticking out in his resume. Recently, he was part of the DC Nu52 reboot, launching Justice League Dark (featuring the rebooted versions of Shade and John Constantine) and Red Lanterns, and subsequently taking over Stormwatch; in addition, he’s been working with Valiant on some of their titles (Shadowman, Eternal Warrior, Bloodshot), as well as a Doop mini-series at Marvel, keeping all his options open but keeping in the superhero camp instead of the interesting, absurdist, literary work for which he is known. This is the edited highlights – he has written many, many more comic books of different characters for different companies – so trying to pin down Milligan is hard, something I think he enjoys.

My five favourite Milligan works:

5. Hewligan’s Haircut
Hewligan cuts his hair because he is leaving a lunatic asylum, only for it to form an impossible hole in the middle that you can see from any angle. And so begins a surreal odyssey in which Milligan and Hewlett (before Tank Girl and Gorillaz) show off, have fun, and enjoy themselves in an entertaining fashion. It shows that Milligan has a sense of humour and that you can mix the silly with the literary in a comic book with great results.

4. X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl
It has Dead Girl in the title, but it’s basically a team-up with Doctor Strange, and Milligan is the perfect writer for Doctor Strange, so this was probably the only way he could get his hands on the character. A villain is bringing back Marvel characters from the dead so he can be revived himself, and only Doctor Strange and Dead Girl can stop him, in a lively (pardon the pun) story with nice pop art from Nick Dragotta.

3. Bad Company
This story was where I first discovered Milligan, back in 1986 in the pages of 2000 AD, so will always have a place in my heart. A future war story on the planet Ararat where humanity fights the alien Krool, it is about Danny Franks, a new soldier, who is saved by the misfit Bad Company led by Kano, and then joins them in their fight against the Krool, if he can survive … The story was about the craziness of war with a literary bent (Danny keeps a diary) and the violence and its effects on the people who fight them. A really great 2000 AD story.

2. Enigma
A marvellous examination of sex, love, death, superheroes, and lizards, with beautiful expressive art from Fegredo and powerful writing from Milligan in a story about Michael Smith, an ordinary bloke who has forgotten about his imaginary childhood friend, the Enigma, who used to have his own comic books, until a serial killer strikes near to home and Michael investigates, only to find the Enigma in the real world. The reality and character of this book linger long after reading, and it’s a moving story of two people finding each other. A great series from the Vertigo heyday.

1. Shade, The Changing Man
Was there ever a better distillation of Milligan than in the pages of Shade, The Changing Man? Admittedly, he had more time to explore interests in an ongoing series, but it’s a book that grips you from the start: Shade, a ‘madness agent’ from the planet Meta, has taken over the body of the psychopath at the moment of his execution in order to stop the American Scream, and has to use the help of Kathy George, the woman who lost her parents and boyfriend to the killer, to do it. And then it gets really weird … The plots aren’t the main thing about this book, and Milligan was more interested in the madness and the characters, and he had Chris Bachalo developing into a talented comic book artist to help him. There is some argument that it should have stopped at issue 50 instead of 75, but it was always interesting and different, and that’s something that’s hard to achieve.

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Writer Top Five: James Robinson

I started the ‘Writer Top Five’, with the first one on Greg Rucka back in 2012, with the idea of it being a regular series. As usual with me, it never happened quite the way I envisaged, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eventually persuade myself to revisit an idea and try to revive it.

The idea was to talk about the writers whose work I enjoy (as detailed in a listing, now out of date, of the creators with the most comic books in my collection) and try to give it some perspective and to celebrate the work that meant the most to me. James Robinson was just outside the top ten (and probably still is, because the only real additions have been The Shade maxi-series and the Starman Black Lantern tie-in, although I’m giving The Saviors a try) but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the books I purchased.

A brief career overview: Robinson started out in 1989 with London’s Dark, an original graphic novel with art from Paul Johnson. He produced work for Dark Horse (The Terminator: One Shot had great art from Matt Wagner and a great pop-up page, and the six-issue Grendel Tales: Four Devils, One Hell had lovely art from Teddy Kristiansen) and did some Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, before the 1993 Elseworlds mini-series, The Golden Age, which would prove to be a primer for his Starman series. There was also the Malibu series, Firearm, in the same year, but it would be 1994 that things took off for Robinson, with the beginning of Starman (he would also find time to write some WildC.A.T.S. issues with lovely Travis Charest art). During this time, he would also write more Batman: Legend Of The Dark Knight, the Vigilante mini-series, a spin-off mini-series for the Shade, the delightful Leave It To Chance at Image, and even a Batman/Hellboy/Starman crossover. After Starman finished in 2001, Robinson drifted into screenwriting, writing and directing Comic Book Villains (2002), and famously scripting 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which I shall refrain from discussing further. He would return to DC in the mid-2000s, writing Batman and Superman and the Justice League of America (and the infamous Justice League: Cry For Justice), before returning to The Shade with the 12-issue maxi-series in 2011 and Earth-2 in 2012. However, Robinson left DC and will be working for Marvel on the Fantastic Four and an Invaders series, plus his own series at Image, The Saviors. Now, on to the books I enjoyed the most:

5. The Shade (12 issues, 2011)
Let’s start with the most recent. Perhaps this should be included with Starman (see later), but I think it warrants its own entry. Ten years after the end of the Starman series, Robinson returned for an adventure for the breakout villain character, the immortal and morally ambiguous Shade, in a story about family and origins, with a fantastic roster of artists (Cully Hamner, Darwyn Cooke, Javier Pulido, Jill Thompson, Frazer Irving, Gene Ha). The stylised language of the Shade, the globetrotting style, the introduction of great new characters – it all made for a very enjoyable return to the world of Starman.

4. The Golden Age (4 issues, 1993)
I grew up with Marvel superhero comic books, so the history of DC comics meant nothing to me. Until The Golden Age, an Elseworlds tale that detailed the adventures of DC superheroes after the second world war, and the return of a supervillain leading to a battle in Washington, DC. It had fantastic art from Paul Smith (who would team up with Robinson for another entry on this list) and a rich collection of characters and the heritage of the DC universe – I was so absorbed by the story that I wanted to read the annotations that the internet kindly provided. Robinson’s love for the rich history of the DC comic books shone through and made me understand why he loved it.

3. Firearm (18 issues, 1993–1995)
I think it was the old rec.arts.comics. forums that put me onto this, and I was very grateful. Firearm was about Alec Swan, a former British covert agent for The Lodge with the codename of ‘Firearm’, who left to become a private investigator, ending up in Pasadena, California. His cases tend to end up involving ‘ultras’, the Malibu equivalent of super-powered individuals, which would provide plenty of excuses for John Woo-style balletic bloodshed (I had recently discovered John Woo’s films). Swan even got his own Moriarty in the personage of Rafferty, a killer of ultras. The series was a great mix of the PI and crime action films, with some lovely art from Cully Hamner, with a nice romance storyline between Swan and an ultra called Ellen, and it had one of my favourite Robinson lines: ‘He was a Touchstone guy in a Walt Disney world’.

2. Leave It To Chance (13 issues, 1996–1999, 2002)
Thirteen issues of this comic book weren’t enough, especially as the last issue set things up for more stories that never happened. Leave It To Chance was an absolute delight: beautiful art from Paul Smith telling the story of Chance Falconer, who is the 14-year-old daughter of Lucas Falconer, and her pet dragon St George (Smith always drew a great Lockheed in his Uncanny X-Men days). Her father is the famous paranormal investigator and ‘protector’ of Devil’s Echo, a city full of supernatural elements (magic, fairies, goblins, ghosts, demons); it is a family heritage but Lucas thinks it is too dangerous for Chance and won’t teach her (because he lost his wife to those dangerous elements) but Chance refuses to acknowledge this and winds up having adventures of her own. It was utterly charming and rightfully deserved the Eisner awards for Best New Series and Best Title for Younger Readers, and is exactly the sort of comic people talk about when they want to give something to their daughters to read.

1. Starman (1994–2001)
What more needs to be said about Starman? The 1990s were a tumultuous decade for the comic book industry, and the material tended to be grim’n’gritty. But not Starman. It was one of the gems that shone. Along with Mark Waid’s run on The Flash, it was the book that explored the idea of heritage heroes in the DC universe. It was part of the DC universe but seemed to exist in its own little pocket, in the fictional Opal City, which Robinson made into a character in its own right. Jack Knight was the classic reluctant hero, who didn’t wear a costume, who was more concerned about collectibles for his shop than fighting villains, and had a complicated relationship with his father, Ted Knight, the original Starman. Tony Harris’s art, with all its little extra curly lines on faces, the fantastic sense of design and a unique style, was a great palliative to the flashier style of the ascending Image books. It may have not have been great to the end of the run (the book was co-written with David Goyer for the last third), but it was a great series that saw Robinson become a ‘name’, the creation of a character who was allowed a retirement, the reclaiming of the villain, Shade, into something much richer (‘the shadowy, shadowy man’), and the poignancy of the Talking With David issues (David Knight was Jack’s older brother, who was killed on his first night as the new Starman and from whom Jack took over the role). Even though it was many years later, issue #81 (a tie-in to the Blackest Night crossover) still had that Starman magic. A wonderful series.

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Writer Top Five: Greg Rucka

I’m not sure where I stole this idea from but it seemed a nice adjunct to my posts about comic book artists I like, so I thought I’d go through the list of writers who have the most comics in my collection (from this post), starting with writers who were just outside of the Top Ten, giving a list of my favourite Top Five works by that writer. First up: Greg Rucka.

It was the Eisner award-winning Whiteout that brought Rucka to the attention of the comic book industry (although he was a successful novelist before that). Since then, Rucka has been a name to trust for the quality of his writing and research, and for his approach to story and character, known for his strong female characters in a male-dominated medium.

Before my Top Five, a few mentions of other work by Rucka that I also like: there is Felon, his Image book, which started out as an ongoing series but unfortunately ended up a four-issue mini-series. His current run on The Punisher is the best thing he’s done at Marvel. His first run on Detective Comics, where he introduced Sasha Bordeaux as bodyguard for Bruce Wayne, was great stuff, as was his mini-series Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood. His run on Checkmate (which used Sasha again) was a great bit of superhero espionage politics, and his Wonder Woman run was a great take on the character (described as ‘superhero West Wing’) until it got derailed by Infinite Crisis. Stumptown is a great private detective series, which has the potential to get on this list (it’s only had the first storyline in four issues so far). I’m also enjoying his webcomic with Rick Burchett (Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether), which you should be checking out. As always, this is a list fixed in time – who’s to know whether his new project, the co-creator-owned Lazarus (with Michael Lark) at Image, which was just announced at San Diego, will end up on a revised list?

5. Atticus Kodiak novels
Atticus Kodiak is a professional bodyguard; the stories are the jobs that don’t run smoothly. Rucka writes lean prose that reeks of authenticity and puts you in the middle of everything; most other thrillers I’ve read subsequently seem flimsy and badly written in comparison (I’ve read a Jack Reacher story and it has nothing on Rucka). What’s even better is that the story of the character has progressed: Rucka could have kept the series as just bodyguard adventures, but he evolved the nature of Kodiak and the stories he tells with him. Highly recommended.

4. 52
This is my list, so I get to define the rules. Yes, Rucka is a co-writer on this year-long weekly series (along with Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Geoff Johns), but I enjoyed the whole thing (albeit in trade paperback form) and particularly Rucka’s storyline centred on Renee Montoya and her development as the new Question. Rucka has often stated his love and admiration for Denny O’Neill’s The Question, and he was instrumental in the development of Montoya’s character, and these two factors come together here perfectly.

3. Detective Comics #854–863
This was Rucka’s second run on Detective Comics but this would have the greater impact: for these issues, Batman was no longer the star of his own book, because it was the official introduction of Kate Kane as Batwoman, the former soldier who quit because of her honour and her homosexuality. The story is more critically praised for the unbelievably phenomenal art from JH Williams, who was doing amazing things with panel transitions and page design and different styles for Kate Kane and Batwoman, but it wouldn’t have had the impact without the writing of Rucka and his great characterisation of the Kate. In addition, there were the back-up stories drawn by Cully Hamner about the further adventures of Renee Montoya as the Question, also written by Rucka, which make for a complete package of great comic books.

2. Gotham Central
Another co-writing credit, but I don’t care: Rucka and Ed Brubaker wrote some fantastic stories with the brilliant premise of focussing on the police who work in the shadow of Batman and his insane rogues’ gallery. I love these stories, perfectly meshing the police procedural with superheroes (who are more on the periphery), with great art from Michael Lark on a critically praised but low-selling title. It was on this title that Rucka would first develop Renee Montoya, which continued on through to The Question: Five Books of Blood.

1. Queen & Country
Inspired by the British TV series The Sandbaggers, Queen & Country was a great comic book that has all the hallmarks of a Rucka book: a strong female protagonist, realism, well-researched storylines, great characterisation and with something to say. An independent (it was published at Oni Press), black and white comic book that started in 2001, it was about Tara Chace, an operative of the Special Operations Section of the Secret Intelligence Service, it was about the politics and bureaucracy of being an agent, with some hard-hitting spy action thrown in. Smart, exciting, engaging and emotional, it lasted for 32 issues (each arc drawn by a different artist), with several mini-series and three novels of great writing from Rucka; whenever I think of Rucka, the first visual is always Queen & Country.

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