Caffeine and Capes: revisiting Top Cow’s Common Grounds

I finally managed to get rid of a whole bunch of the comic books that were cluttering up the apartment.  While I was digging through my long boxes, figuring out what to sell and what to keep, I came across a number of things that I liked which I hadn’t read in a while.  Time to revisit some old favorites, I thought.  And among these was Common Grounds.

Common Grounds 1 cover

Published by the Top Cow imprint of Image Comics in 2004, Common Grounds was a six issue miniseries written by Troy Hickman, with contributions from a number of extremely talented artists.  It initially began life as a mini comic titled Holey Crullers that Hickman had worked on with Jerry Smith a few years before.  Common Grounds was set around a nationwide chain of coffee shops that were frequented by costumed heroes & villains, a sort of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for super-humans.  The various Common Grounds stores serve as “neutral territory” where both crime-fighters and criminals can gather peaceably to enjoy a cup of joe and some doughnuts.

Hickman and his artistic collaborators introduce a cast who, on the surface, are expies for famous DC and Marvel characters.  Hickman utilizes these to both pay homage to and deconstruct various storytelling structures and devices of the superhero genre.  What I like about how Hickman goes about this is that he does so with a surprising lack of sarcasm or mockery.  All of his jibes are of the good-natured sort, and he takes equal aim at the implausible silliness of the early Silver Age and the grim & gritty trappings of more recent decades.  Common Grounds is simultaneously extremely funny and very poignant & serious.

Common Grounds 1 pg 11

In the past, it has sometimes been observed that superhero stories are really not effective vehicles for addressing legitimate social or political concerns, because in the end the demands of the genre require some sort of antagonist that the hero can punch out.  In reality, though, violence is not an ideal, long-term solution to resolving governmental corruption, poverty, racism, or pollution.  And this ties in precisely with the themes of Hickman’s stories.

As we find out, the whole chain of Common Grounds stores were established by Michael O’Brien, aka Big Money, a retired superhero-turned-billionaire.  His son, who sought to follow in his footsteps, ended up accidentally getting killed in a fight with another costumed vigilante that was caused by a misunderstanding.  O’Brien felt that if he could create a place where people with superpowers could safely sit down and talk things over, maybe those sorts of tragedies would occur less often, and more constructive resolutions to disagreements might emerge.

Indeed, that is the theme throughout the vignettes presented in these six issues.  Various superhumans, be they long-time allies, arch-enemies, or complete strangers, end up learning a great deal about each other, what it is that drives them, and just how similar they actually are.  Hickman does superb work introducing & fleshing out these individuals within a few short pages.  At the end of each story, I really wanted to see more of these characters.

By the way, one of my favorite moments from Common Grounds was when Hickman did a play on the famous genre trope Cut Lex Luthor a Check which notes that the pre-Crisis mad scientist Luthor, if he had really been smart about getting rich, instead of building all sorts of crazy giant robots or death rays to rob banks, should have just sold them to the military or some big corporation for a fortune.

(Of course, the post-Crisis Luthor is a billionaire industrialist who made most of his money legitimately, and he was even more evil & twisted than his old incarnation.  This just goes to show that someone with an anti-social or sociopathic personality isn’t likely to play by society’s rules even if it is the most logical thing to do, simply because they find it too enjoyable to screw up other people’s lives & defy authority.)

Hickman reveals in issue #6 that Big Money once saved the entire universe simply by paying Baron Existence a whopping twenty-seven million dollars not to detonate his reality-destroying Anti-Matter Bomb.  In an ironic twist, though, the Baron then spent the next two decades being harassed by the IRS.

Common Grounds 6 pg 13

I mentioned that Common Grounds had an impressive array of artists.  Each issue has a story penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Al Vey.  I’ve been a fan of Jurgens’ work since he was writing & penciling Booster Gold and Superman at DC.  He does good, solid work, and Vey’s inks are a good fit.  Among the other illustrators whose work appeared in this miniseries are George Perez, Michael Avon Oeming, Chris Bachalo, Sam Kieth, and Carlos Pacheco.

Illustrating the cover for Common Grounds #1 is J. Scott Campbell.  I’m not the biggest fan of his work, but I definitely agree it is a really nice piece.  The other five issues are topped by beautiful covers by Argentine artist Rodolfo Migliari.  This is some of his earliest professional work, and since then he’s done quite a bit at Image, Dark Horse, DC, and Marvel.  One of his pieces for this series, the cover to #4, is a homage to the famous Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks.”

Common Grounds 4 cover

I initially picked up Common Grounds back in 2004 because, well, I drink a lot of coffee, probably much too much.  I like to take my comic books to the coffee shop and read them there.  For instance, I re-read Common Grounds yesterday at Norma’s Café in Queens.  Good place.  Y’know, if I lived in a fictional superhero universe, I’d probably end up being exposed to radioactive coffee beans and turning into Captain Caffeine, or some such nonsense.  Anyway, my copious coffee consumption has caused me to pick up quite a few pages of original comic book artwork that feature characters drinking caffeinated beverages.  So, when Common Grounds originally came out, I decided it was required reading.  And, yes, I did eventually acquire artwork from the series, specifically a Jurgens & Vey page from issue #5 that I purchased from The Artist’s Choice.

It’s been nearly a decade since Common Grounds was released.  It was a great read with superb art.  I definitely hope that one of these days Troy Hickman has the opportunity to write another series.  And, y’know, the folks at Top Cow could always throw in some background appearances by the Common Grounds stores in their other books.  It’d be the perfect place for Sara Pezzini to pick up her morning java.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Caffeine and Capes: revisiting Top Cow’s Common Grounds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s