I just finished reading three trade paperback comics my wife bought me for Christmas, from Joe Straczynski's run on "Amazing Spider-man." At this point, I've declared open season on anything he's written and am preparing to admit that I might have misjudged "Babylon 5." His comics take a little while to get going, but when they take off, they're nothing short of incredible.
In the first ASM trade, Straczynski basically reinvents Spider-man's origins by suggesting it wasn't the radiation that gave Peter Parker his power, but the spider itself. From there he ventures into a story that explores the totemic nature not only of Spider-man but of a number of heroes and their villains. (That's why Captain America, a hero emblematic of America, has for an arch-enemy the Red Skull, who embodies Nazism, and so on.)
From there he goes on to reinvent the entire Spider-man mythos, in an entirely believable way. He revisits the guilt that drives the hero, completely alters his relationship with his aunt, and then gives the unassuming Peter Parker a long overdue measure of heroism, by having him become an inner-city high school science teacher.
That last part is one of the things I really enjoy about Straczynski's writing. In addition to his creativity in exploring the mythic aspects of his subject -- and changing Spider-man from a purely juvenile adventure comic to a more adult one -- he doesn't shy away from some of the more unpleasant parts of city life. Superhero comics all too often earn the rep as kiddie comics because they're fighting a different supervillain each month, dressed in costumes as silly as the ones the heroes themselves wear, and usually with some melodramatic and obviously evil goal, like conquering the world.
In Straczynski's comic, Parker is faced with serious issues like students coming to school with guns, with drug addiction and homelessness, and with society's indifference to those problems.
A few months ago I read another comic Straczynski wrote, called "Midnight Nation." It's published by Top Cow Comics (a division of Image) under the imprint Joe's Comics. It follows the experiences of an L.A. cop named David Grey after his soul is stolen by the Devil and he walks across the nation to New York (naturally) to get it back.
The only people Grey can see, and the only things he can use, are whatever has been abandoned. And there are plenty of people he meets: families with children, downsized manufacturing workers, runaways, ex-cons, and others of society's cast-offs.
I found the comic deeply moving on a spiritual level, particularly at the end, when the protagonist comes face to face with the Devil, hears the Devil's argument about why the rebellion against heaven is needed -- rather nicely, the Devil's argument is one based on compassion, that he can't stand the misery contained in God's creation -- and Grey has to decide whether he still wants his soul and which side of the war he wants to be on. It's not wholly biblical, as Christian orthodoxy holds that Satan's rebellion predates the Fall and the coming of death and misery into the world, but it is an excellent read, and you've got to give Straczynski kudos for dealing with these questions so honestly, even if the exact storyline he uses to raise them are debatable.