From the Archives: DC Comics Classics Library

DC Comics Classics LibraryThe Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro LadJim Shooter (script)Curt Swan (art)Superman: Kryptonite NevermoreDenny O'Neil (script)Curt Swan (art)DC Comics, 2009The most common misconception about comic books is that they’re an entirely static medium – the same heroes keep fighting the same villains, Batman foils the Joker time after time, and nothing fundamentally changes.Like most misconceptions, this is almost completely true – but the ‘almost’ contains a world of possibilities! In the seventy years they’ve been around, American superhero comics have attracted a small army of intensely creative people, and many of them have butted their heads against the conformity (fans would say mythology) of the industry. And there’ve been victories, some more lasting than others: the vast backstory that grew up over forty years around the character of Superman, for instance, although drastically simplified in the 1980s, has managed to regrow, whereas the 1970s transformation of Batman from a happy-go-lucky crime-buster to the grim avenger of his original conception is now permanently enshrined.The point is: writers, artists, enthusiasts achieved those changes and many more like them, and the artistic urge they felt to do so is every bit as legitimate as the one felt by Picasso or Bergman. Well-known comic characters like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man are owned by comic companies, so the question is never ‘can a writer effect a permanent change?’ but rather ‘how creatively does the writer explore the temporary change he creates?’DC Comics recently began a series of hardcover reprints under the collective name of DC Comics Classics Library, to honor the best of these temporary creative runs. It’s an excellent and long-overdue concept, and it’s gratifying that DC has decided to make the books’ physical quality match the high caliber of the issues they reprint. These are slim, sturdy hardcovers with excellent bindings and a much less excitable paper-stock than, for instance, that used in DC’s Archives editions (the pages no longer blindingly reflect any light shone upon them, for instance – always a helpful feature in a book).In The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad, which collects Adventure Comics #346, 347, 352-355, and 357 (from 1966 and 1967), we are treated once again to the story cooked up by a 13-year-old Jim Shooter, of a masked young hero, Ferro Lad, who joins the 31st Century super-team of the title, shares a few adventures with them, and then sacrifices his life to save the galaxy from a threat even the Legion couldn’t defeat. In the death-and-more-death aftermath of the Marvel Comics ‘80s, this may seem like a slight distinction – but in the ‘60s it had never been done before. Fans were stunned, and the entire comics genre was given a new benchmark of realism.Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore collects issues 233-238 and 240-242 of that character’s title, written in 1971 by Denny O’Neil, who was openly impatient with Superman’s near-omnipotence and the dramatic limitations placed on any character who could, as O’Neil put it, “destroy a galaxy by listening hard.” He set out to lessen the Man of Steel’s power – ironically, by first eliminating one of the character’s only weaknesses: a rogue chemical reaction de-toxifies every piece of kryptonite on Earth (in a classic sequence draw by stalwart Curt Swan, Superman demonstrates his new invulnerability in a merrily direct way).These Classics Library editions are something different from DC Coimics’ ongoing Archives project: they jump around in the titles and issue numbers they reprint, in order to highlight currents of outstanding creativity in what is, after all, a deadline-driven business. It’s a great new series, and future volumes are anticipated with glee. Steve Donoghue

From the Archives: Buffalo in the House

A Buffalo in the House, The Extraordinary story of Charlie and His FamilyR. D. RosenRandom House, 2007Now out in paperback is R.D. Rosen’s entertaining and enormously moving A Buffalo in the House, the story of how Veryl Goodnight and her husband Roger Brooks adopted a buffalo calf, named him Charlie, and made him a member of their bustling Santa Fe home. Charlie grows up (very quickly – two pounds a day!) to display a quiet good humor that is neither human nor canine nor feline but distinctly his own, and Rosen captures perfectly all the ways animals insinuate themselves into our hearts, as in a wrenching scene in which Charlie takes sick:

It was beginning to feel as if there was a glass partition between them [Charlie and Roger], the way there is between the healthy and the sick. Though the ill remain like us in every way but their illness, they inhabit a different world, fragile and unreliable, separated from others by the immediacy of their pain and fear. To dissipate some of the strangeness, humans can acknowledge it in words. Roger and Charlie seemed to have reached the limits of their extraordinary intimacy. Moreover, Charlie wouldn’t touch his food, which meant Roger couldn’t give him the antibiotics Dr. Callan had prescribed. In his stall, Charlie lowered his head and started eating dirt. It broke Roger’s heart.

The story of how one amazing family adapts to this one-ton orphan in their midst is just one strand of this entirely satisfying book. Veryl Goodnight is a descendant of Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, who a century earlier had fought to preserve the last of the buffalo from extinction, and Rosen therefore spends a good amount of time studying not only the history of mankind’s interaction with buffalo in America but also the ongoing attempts at buffalo conservation – attempts Roger joins in, after Charlie’s death:

As he watched the proceedings on the other side of the river [buffalo, across the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park], Roger felt a brief surge of relief. The sight of the buffalo, the progeny of those few animals who had escaped through the cracks of a nightmare 130 years before, delivered him a moment from his mourning. Charlie had walked into his life, told his story, and then disappeared, but the story, and these buffalo, were still alive, and the gift was still in motion.

Those of you who missed Buffalo in the House when it was published last year should investigate it today; it’s an urgently memorable reading experience.