Bin There, Found That: John Ostrander

A column article, Bin There Found That by: Chris Wunderlich

 

What is a comic book worth? This sounds like a relatively easy question—there are plenty of places to find an issue’s current value. When determining value, we can look at plenty of factors: the print run and rarity; the age; the first appearance of a certain character; a defining or pivotal moment in the series. A quick search for issue 138 of The Amazing Spider-Man tells me that a mint copy sold for nearly $700 (and another, less mint copy, for around $150). This 1974 Gerry Conway/Ross Andru issue features the first appearance of a character called “The Mindworm.” I haven’t read said issue—in fact I chose it completely at random and have no idea if the story is any good. Knowing Ross Andru’s work I can guess that the art is solid, but is it an experience I need to pay over $100 for? If you own this issue, I want to know what it’s worth to you. Do you see it as a shining example of 1970s Marvel Comics that you wouldn’t part with, or is it simply a trading commodity that you plan to sell for some decent cash? The nature of collecting is a huge issue that will be explored further with each of these articles—but right now I want to look at the very loose connection between price and value.

I absolutely treasure the work of writer John Ostrander. I don’t know much about the man, so I won’t get into that here, but I do know his comics. If you’ve dirtied your fingers flipping through the bargain bins, you’ve probably seen his work. Firestorm, Eternal Warrior, Grimjack—these are all staples of the 25₵-$1 sections. Ever come across a random issue of Hawkworld? What about Martian Manhunter? Suicide Squad? All Ostrander, all tossed aside for spare change.

Suicide Squad 19 DC Comics John Ostrander

Suicide Squad #19

Written by John Ostrander, Pencilled by Luke McDonnell, Inked by Bob Lewis, Coloured by Carl Gafford

 

So what makes issue 19 of Suicide Squad worth 25₵? Being from the 1980s, there are probably plenty of copies lying around. There’s no huge first appearance, no A-list star and no noteworthy, universe defining moments. The issue was drawn by Luke McDonnell, a perfectly capable, often underrated artist whose name doesn’t mean much to collectors. Does that mean this issue isn’t valuable? Absolutely not! When someday I must decide the fate of my collections (more on that another time), this is a story I’ll be excited to see someone else read. I can say with confidence that I’ll be proud to put this book in the hands of any comic aficionado, eager to see their enjoyment. I know that in the future this book and other issues of Suicide Squad won’t pay for my retirement. The monetary value may even drop from the initial quarter I spent—but I guarantee you, the value of this book in my eyes will not wane.

Suicide Squad is a superb series, and though I make points that sound like I’d rather see this book fetch hundreds of dollars, I’m happy that it is readily available for what you can find between your couch cushions. The fact that this series is so easy to find (should you be lucky enough to have access to bargain bins) means that enjoying these stories won’t be a financial burden.

Issue 19 follows the same basic structure as issue 8 of the series. Both are labelled as “Personal Files” and give the reader just that—a series of updates and intimate looks at each character. This is a great place to see Ostrander work his magic as he takes one-note characters and breathes new life and relevance into them. Ever hear of Duchess, Briscoe, Nemesis or Nightshade? Shade the Changing Man? How about Dr. Light, Amanda Waller or Rick Flag? Surely there are a few recognizable names in there, but I guarantee you, after reading this comic you’ll want to get familiar with each and every one.

Suicide Squad 19 John Ostrander

The perfect sequence to re-introduce us to Nemesis, resident master of disguise.”

If you’ve ever babysat, had younger siblings or know what it’s like to look after someone else, you’ll be able to relate to this book. For those unaware of the plot, Suicide Squad mainly consists of criminals who cooperate with the government and Belle Reve prison for special incentives. Though characters like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang are in the Squad purely to avoid prison life, there’s also the non-criminal side of the squad with characters like Bronze Tiger and Black Orchid. These non-criminals all need something and by working with the Suicide Squad, they’re promised help. In charge of everyone is Amanda Waller, who moves from character to character, dealing with the insanity that is a super-powered team on a leash. This issue shows exactly why Ostrander is so great with characters. Waller’s dialogue is both superb and realistic. In a world where people can fly and hurl mountains at each other, it’s amazing to see a completely normal, practical character command such power. Collect more of this series and you’ll see Waller can hold her own against even Batman.

Suicide Squad 19 Doctor Light John Ostrander

I’d take pathetic Dr. Light over rapist Dr. Light any day—especially when he talks like this!”

And you’ll want to collect more, because this is just a taste of the Squad. What’s the deal with Rac Shade, the cop from another dimension with mysterious technology and an attitude to match? Is Duchess a lost Female Fury from Apokolips, or an amnesiac amazon? Is Rick Flag just as crazy as the criminals he’s working with? Will pressure from the government finally crack Amanda Waller? These are just a few things that sent me straight back to the bargain bin. I had to get every issue of Suicide Squad I could find, based on the value of this single issue.

If the above isn’t reason enough to pick up this issue, how about the great art from Luke McDonnell? Not only is each character brimming with expression (without being cartoony, mind you), but each sequence flows perfectly. I’m not used to laughing at a book with the word “suicide” in its title, but Ostrander’s script combined with McDonnell’s perfect timing make for a few decent chuckles. Still not sold? Then forget everything I’ve said and buy this book for the ads. Perhaps that book on “how to be cool” will do the trick.

Suicide Squad Do You Want to Be Cool

Don’t wait for the trade, you’ll miss out on the ads!”

 

Spectre 5 John Ostrander Tom Mandrake

The Spectre # 5

Written by John Ostrander, Art by Tom Mandrake, Coloured by Digital Chameleon

 

I’ve been fascinated with The Spectre since I was young. I first saw him in the Marvel vs. DC crossover where he was portrayed as the most powerful being in the DC Universe, essentially the Living Tribunal’s counterpart. I loved his white and green colour scheme, his simplistic design and most of all, his vague set of powers. I needed to know what made him so powerful, what he could do to his enemies and what super-powered villains could possibly challenge him. Diving into the bargain bin I found some issues from the Spectre’s 1980’s series. Unfortunately, that series did nothing to satisfy my hunger as most stories revolved around the Spectre being depowered. I eventually found his grisly 1970’s stories, but again felt disappointed when each tale went the “cops and robbers (and murders)” route. The Spectre got to show off some neat powers- turning bad guys into candles, feeding them into wood-chippers and chopping them up with great big scissors- but it all felt very small-scale. Finally, the bargain bins coughed up the Spectre series from the early 00’s with Hal Jordan in the titular role. Even with great creators at the helm (J.M. DeMatteis and Ryan Sook!) this series fell flat for me. Enter John Ostrander and my last hope to see the Spectre’s potential realized.

And realized it was. Ostrander’s series took everything I wanted to see from the Spectre—awesome, gruesome powers, huge-scale battles with the most powerful of enemies, explanations and answers—and somehow brought it down to earth. Once again we got tales of Jim Corrigan, formerly slain police officer, and his struggle with the all-powerful ghost within. This time, however, the real-world crimes Corrigan would encounter were matched with the Spectre fending off the forces of hell. Serial killers, kidnappers and hate crimes were often intertwined with larger-than-life cosmic baddies. At the heart of each story you’d find Corrigan dealing with the morality and judgement passed by the Spectre who possessed him. These stories weren’t simple superhero tales, but crime and horror stories driven by the mystery of the Spectre and what it means to be the embodiment of God’s judgment. Religion, ethics, AIDS—all of these subjects were dealt with in an extremely mature and respectful manner.

Spectre 5 John Ostrander Tom Mandrake

Huge-scale battles with larger than life foes? Check.”

One of the biggest draws for me, however, was the imagination behind it. Tom Mandrake, one of Ostrander’s most frequent and loyal collaborators, draws the heck out of every issue. Every punishment the Spectre deals is creative and thrilling. Every battle is epic in scope. Turning each page is an adventure. Mandrake’s scenes are often frightening, his villains always seemingly more evil than the last. Demons, fire, ghosts—the pages swirl with rich colours and deep blacks. Panels are laid out in terrifically imaginative ways, each with a dynamic sense of motion. You really couldn’t ask for a better artist to interpret Ostrander’s dark stories.

Spectre 5 John Ostrander Tom Mandrake

Creative use of the Spectre’s powers? Check.”

So what makes issue 5 so special? This particular issue hit hard. Deep fears are realized right from the first page. Right off the bat we see a very young, very sad little boy buried deep beneath the earth, trapped in a coffin crying for his mother as the rain pours above. In the very next scene the criminals responsible are killed, and the cops have no clue where to start looking for the boy. That is, until the Spectre goes to hell. What follows is a story that fulfils all my Spectre dreams. We see why the Spectre is one of the most powerful beings in comics, but he’s also given a challenge, and as the clock ticks both Corrigan and the Spectre must work in tandem to save the boy’s life. It’s scary, thrilling and disturbing. Here, Ostrander perfectly realizes the potential in a Spectre story, and makes sure we never forget it. That’s value in my books.

Spectre 5 John Ostrander Tom Mandrake

Sleep depriving? Check...”

 

Martian Manhunter 11 John Ostrander Bryan Hitch

Martian Manhunter #11

Written by John Ostrander, Pencilled by Bryan Hitch, Inked by Paul Neary, Coloured by Carla Feeny

 

Martian Manhunter has always been my favourite member of the Justice League. He’s got every power in the book, a great back story with lots of room to flesh out and expand and huge, untapped potential. Those, my friends, are the basic ingredients John Ostrander works best with.

I actually didn’t know Martian Manhunter had his own solo book until I came across it in the bargain bins. Give a quick search around the net for Ostrander praise and both Suicide Squad and Spectre are easy finds. For whatever reason, Martian Manhunter remains something of a hidden gem amongst Ostrander’s works. Most of the series is drawn by Tom Mandrake as well, and though his work isn’t as well-suited as it was in The Spectre, it is still very well done.

That being said, issue 11 is a bit of an oddball in the series. Whereas most of the series is drawn by Mandrake, this one has Bryan Hitch on interiors. Whereas most of the series follows MM as he deals with his Martian past, here we get a weird done-in-one tale told by aliens in the future. This issue can be read and understood on its own, but once you see what Ostrander can do with MM, you’ll want to dive into the rest of the series.

Martian Manhunter Bryan Hitch John Ostrander

Martian Manhunter—hero of the environment?”

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for this book. It starts on Mars, in the future, and centers on a conversation between three different species of alien. Each race had encountered MM, and each knew him as a different type of saviour. We get three stories from different perspectives and each one shines a different light on MM. Oh, and we get guest appearances from a space travelling Swamp Thing and the Legion of Super Heroes. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Martian Manhunter Bryan Hitch John Ostrander

Martian Manhunter—sensitive and pensive?”

For anyone who appreciates MM, this story will surely please. Casting MM as a saviour to alien races throughout time and space makes him a larger than life hero. For anyone who wants to see MM top Superman at the good-guy game, this is a great place to go. And did I mention Bryan Hitch draws this? Yes, it looks incredible. Incredible pictures matched to a great story, elevating a character who deserves more time in the spotlight and making us all want to read more, Ostrander has done his job. Value, value, value people!

Martian Manhunter Bryan Hitch John Ostrander

Martian Manhunter—brutal warlord? Heroes are what you make of them.”

If you plan on collecting comics for the monetary profit they may someday yield, this column is useless to you. Ignore the works of John Ostrander and go buy some Walking Dead back issues. If you find some Batman or Superman from the 1950s, be sure to snatch them up! But don’t bank on a gripping, character driven plot that takes your favourite B-listers and realizes their full potential in ways you had only hoped other books would. I imagine you can find some great reads that also happen to be worth lots of money, but if you want to bank on the value of a story, you can’t go wrong with an Ostrander book.

Martian Manhunter Swamp Thing Bryan Hitch John Ostrander

No joke—it’s the space travelling Swamp Thing.”

 

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