Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

12 April 2014

End of the Essentials

After months of decreasing output (much like this blog!), Marvel’s Essentials line has been declared officially dead, more or less. It’s kinda sad; I’ve got dozens of the thick black-and-white volumes, and they were the backbone of my comics library for years. The Essentials served two important purposes for me: it allowed me to get all the important, core stories I needed and hadn't read for characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, and the X-Men, and it also let me know whether lesser-known series I otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with were any good (Nova: No, Tomb of Dracula: Yes, She-Hulk: No, Spider-Woman: Sometimes). In both cases, the Essentials fulfilled their purpose without breaking my bank, which was important.

Marvel has mined all the core stories from its canon for the Essential books, though. The Essentials now reprint pretty inessential material for its core characters. (Essential Wolverine, v. 7, reprints Wolverine #129-48, which is about as inessential as comic book stories get.) The core continuity for Marvel’s major titles has been out in Essential form for years — fifteen years, for the first few Spider-Man, Wolverine, and X-Men volumes — and I certainly have all of those I want. I even divested myself of Essentials I didn't want any more after I picked up the DVD-ROM reprints of Fantastic Four, Captain America, Avengers, Iron Man, X-Men, and Spider-Man about five to ten years ago.

The Epic line has replaced the Essentials. I haven’t bought any yet, mostly because I’m not interested in most of the lines (because I have the DVD-ROMs), and they are expensive ($35-40 a pop). Eventually, I’ll buy a Spider-Man collection (I haven’t yet because I own physical copies of the issues in Ghosts of the Past and Cosmic Adventures) and … wait a minute — Daredevil / Elektra: Fall from Grace is an epic collection? I feel a bit worse for pre-ordering it now, since it’s slimmer and / or more expensive than other Epics. Still, it’s good to see the line expanding into Daredevil.

With a replacement already here and most of the good stuff already reprinted, I’m not really sorry to see the Essentials go. It was simply time. Still, I’m disappointed that some volumes didn’t get printed:

  • Essential Daredevil, v. 7. This would have finished off the pre-Frank Miller issues. I feel lucky we got v. 6, though, and if Marvel is adding Daredevil to the titles in the Epic collection, we might get #147-157 reprinted eventually.
  • Essential Defenders, v. 8. I own v. 7, and even though I haven’t read it yet, I suspect publishing it was one volume too many. Still, it would have been nice to finish off the series with #140-152.
  • Essential Dr. Strange, v. 5. This is the one I really wanted; it would have finished off the second Dr. Strange series (the one that didn’t continue Strange Tales’ numbering), printing #57-81. Hmm … that would have been a bit long, with 25 issues included.
  • Essential Power Man & Iron Fist, v. 3. Another one that would have had to stretch to make it to the end, v. 3 could have reprinted PM&IF #101-125.
Still, I should celebrate the successes of the Essential line, not bury it with my disappointments. We received full runs of Killraven, Tomb of Dracula, Marvel Two-in-One, the OHotMUDE, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider, Dazzler (Dazzler!), Spider-Woman, and Ms. Marvel. This is remarkable, and really, some of those lines deserved black-and-white reprints, either because the Essentials’ black-and-white reproduction enhanced the art and stories’ atmosphere (Moon Knight and ToD) or because the original stories deserved only a cheap reprint (Dazzler). And I should have read more: I should have picked up and Essential Rawhide Kid, just to see what they were like, but I did not. (I might still pick up Rawhide Kid, which is still in print and cheap to buy used. But Black Panther is going for $60 secondhand on Amazon, which is much too much.)

RIP, Essentials. You were the product of a long-ago, mostly TPB-bereft time. We loved you for your reassuring heft, and because you were cheap, but the world has moved on, and you’re just not needed any more.

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18 October 2013

Top 10 Occupations from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, A to Z, v. 2

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, A to Z, v. 2 coverThey should have this book in guidance offices in high schools across the country instead of … whatever it is that guidance counselors use to inform kids about their choices. This volume is so full of great careers even “vampire hunter” (Blade) and “monster hunter” (Elsa Bloodstone) don’t make the list.

10. Kalorian (Count Abyss). “Kalorian” is term some writer made up. It has something to do with being in a symbiotic relationship with a very powerful alien. Exactly what it has to do with being a symbiote is left unexplained. It’s probably unpleasant, but I left it on the list because it would certainly allow you to write your own job responsibilities. What does a Kalorian do? Whatever I say.

Still, being a Kalorian is probably better than being an “avatar of Agamotto” (Cadaver). It’s never good when a high muckamuck magical being is telling you what to do.

9. Protector of the Universe (Captain Marvel). The hours are awful, and there’s no retirement plan. But you do get to see, well, everything.

8. Cultist (Betty Brant). I suppose it does take up all your time, but room and board is usually provided. Those perks are what sets “cultist” apart from Panther Cult acolyte (Kasper Cole), because Black Panther is not shelling out money for your extras. You can lift yourself up by finding your own heart-shaped herb (and hoping it doesn’t kill you).

7. Self-declared ruler of the Negative Zone (Blastaar). I think I’m going to list this as my occupation on my 1040 next year. It’s not a perfect job; it requires more responsibility than “self-proclaimed savior of Earth” (Centurius), and it’s harder to establish yourself as a ruler than savior. (Generally, saviors only have die to prove their bona fides, and we all do that.) On the other hand, all you have to do is say you’re either one, and you’re set.

6. Competitor (Champion). Now you’re talking. He’s a competitor! All broadcasters of all sports ever love him. He doesn’t even have to win! Imagine going up to people and challenging them to competition all the time. Because you’re a competitor! That’s what it’s like to be Champion!

On second thought, that sounds depressing.

5. Investigator of reality (Contemplator). Think of the comically large magnifying glass you’d get with this job! Plus, you can confidently say that most things are, in fact, real. You’d rarely be wrong. It’s a better job than “reality traveler” (Blink); I travel through reality every time I walk to the bathroom. I suppose I could start investigating reality too, but that seems like too much of a bother unless I were going to make a career of it.

4. Demonic pawn (Copperhead). This has a retirement plan that is worse than protector of the universe, and your boss calls you into work all the time — weekends, late nights, apocalypses. But supervisors are very clear about what they want, and it’s one of those jobs you go into knowing exactly what you’re in store for. Recommended for those who aren’t self-starters but are good negotiators.

3. Scavenger (Caliban). You do get to set your own hours, and you’re your own boss. You aren’t trapped behind a desk all day, either. However, you do risk someone sticking a knife between your ribs. It’s a little better than “drifter” (Cammi), since being a scavenger implies a little more ambition.

2. Wealthy recluse (Moira Brandon). This is the job for those of us who are lazy but are too inept in social situations to shift blame or work onto co-workers. Wealthy recluse narrowly edges “heiress” (Crimson Cowl), since there’s a touch of entitlement to heiress that raises resentment in others; people usually believe wealthy recluses have done something to earn the wealth that allows them to recluse.

1. Insane menace (Bloodwraith). Insanity has a low bar for qualification; all of us are psychologically abnormal in some way or another. The “menace” part is what gets you the respect similar professions — such as “megalomaniac” (Brothers Grimm [Nathan Dolly]) — are denied.

Additionally, Bloodwraith was a squire before he was an insane menace. It’s a strange career progression that takes you from knight’s assistant to crazy threat to everyone.

Dishonorable mention: Would-be conqueror (Bain, Count Nefaria). Keep trying, guys. Let me know when you accomplish something.

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12 October 2013

Spider-Man: The World's Greatest Super Hero

Collects: Peter Parker: Spider-Man #156.1, Sensational Spider-Man #33.1-33.2, and Web of Spider-Man #129.1-129.2 (2012)

Released: November 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785165729

What is this?: Anniversary cash-in for Spider-Man’s fiftieth anniversary.

The culprits: Writers Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, and Stuart Moore and artists Roberto de la Torre, Carlo Barberi, and Damion Scott

Is it a shameless cash grab, or is it an inconsequential, harmless story?

That’s the question I ask when I see a prominent hero headlining a limited series or trade paperback that is not part of the hero’s regular series. Is this something I might enjoy, albeit in a continuity-light manner, or is it something designed to sucker in the completists and unobservant?

I don’t think Spider-Man: The World's Greatest Super Hero is a cash grab. The numbering of the issues in the collection — continuing cancelled Spider-series with decimals — suggests Marvel wants people who don’t understand what “anniversary story” means to think of these tales as a continuation, as somehow important. Still, I can’t see anyone falling for that trap. I mean, decimals? That screams desperation.

Spider-Man: The World’s Greatest Super Hero coverThe stories in World’s Greatest are helpfully arranged in order of quality, so if you’d like, you can read the first story, then toss the book aside or resell it. (Note the “re” in “resell”; do not sell this book if you have not legally obtained the book through purchase or barter or as a gift. You will likely be disappointed in the results anyway.) The first story, “Old Haunts,” is written by highly regarded former Spider-Man writer Roger Stern. The second, the first of two two-parters, is “Monsters,” written by veteran Spider-Man writer Tom DeFalco. The second two-parter, “The Brooklyn Avengers,” is written by Stuart Moore, who has written a few miscellaneous Spider-stories.

Stern’s story revisits the old Acme Warehouse, which is where Spider-Man confronted the man who killed Uncle Ben. Reporter Norah Winters asks Peter to accompany her while she pokes around the old place; Peter senses something fishy and pushes Norah to give up her questioning before he investigates the place as Spider-Man. The criminals are tied to the Brand Corporation, Spider-Man rescues innocents while punishing those who try to cover up the illegal operation with explosives, Norah learns a lesson; it lacks a bit of heft, but not in a bad way. Spider-Man gets to be a hero, an old Stern-era baddie shows up to remind us about how bad it is, and life goes on. There are many worse ways to mark an anniversary …

And one of those ways is telling a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the anniversary. DeFalco’s “Monsters” is another modern Spider-tale, set in the period before Peter Parker’s fall from grace as a photog and the beginning of his romantic relationship with Carlie Cooper. (“Old Haunts” probably falls into the same time period.) “Monsters” makes no reference to the past, evokes none of Spider-Man’s dominant themes, and is as much a Carlie Cooper story as it is a Spider-Man story. That last is the most damning, given this collection’s goal.

Of the three stories in World’s Greatest, I can most easily see “Monsters” fitting into the regular series; it seems just about perfect for a Web of Spider-Man v. 1 two-parter, although ironically it was published in Sensational #33.1 and 33.2. The story is terribly earnest about human trafficking, which is better than being flip about it, but Carlie seems to be randomly chosen to be the one who cares so much. The title refers to the parallels DeFalco makes between mobster Balik Vorski, a corrupt FBI agent, and the physically mutated Vulture. If Vorski deals in human trafficking, and the FBI agent shields him from the law, then who is the real monster? The answer is all of them, of course.

“The Brooklyn Avengers,” however, is the worst kind of anniversary story: the continuity implant. The Brooklyn Avengers aren’t one of the countless current Avengers teams; they are a group of no-hopers, worse than the Great Lakes Avengers at their worst. The GLA would probably laugh at the Brooklyn Avengers, especially as one Brooklyn Avenger’s power is to generate paintballs. Spider-Man allegedly joined up with the BA early in his career and dropped them after a few missions proved they weren’t at his power or competence level; in “The Brooklyn Avengers,” a couple of members have died, and Spider-Man reunites with them to investigate their old foes.

Unfortunately, the BA don’t rise above one-note jokes, never quite gaining the humanity necessary for me to care whether they live or die. Given the team’s reactions at the end of the story, the survivors aren’t too broken up over the deaths either, even though one member had a sibling die. By the end, like Spider-Man, I don’t wish the Brooklyn Avengers ill. I just want them to go away.

The quality of the art matches the quality of writing. Roberto de la Torre gives “Old Haunts” an atmospheric look vaguely reminiscent of Michael Gaydos or Michael Lark, although de la Torre’s work is not as polished or detailed. Still, it’s exactly what a story about a fight under a warehouse calls for. Carlo Barberi’s work on “Monsters” is pretty to look at, and I like how he draws the new Vulture, but his Peter Parker is a pretty boy who looks nothing like other artists’ Peter, and I’m not sold on his portrayal of characters’ emotions. I’ll admit Damion Scott’s extremely cartoony work for “Brooklyn Avengers” fits the humorous tone Moore was going for, but I don't enjoy looking at it. The characters have cramped torsos and faces and distended limbs; something about the vivid colors and exaggerated proportions puts me in mind of graffiti, but not in a good way.

World’s Greatest is missable. If you read it, you might get a few moments enjoyment. Most likely you’ll forget it almost immediately, as even the best story rises slightly above the sea of mediocre. Save yourself the time: skip it in the first place.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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14 September 2013

FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux

Collects: FF v. 2 #4-8 (2013)

Released: July 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785166634

What is this?: Four heroes with ties to the Fantastic Four fill in as guardians for the Future Foundation kids while the famous quartet is away.

The culprits: Writer Matt Fraction and artist Mike Allred (with help from Joe Quinones)

A book written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Mike Allred should be fun. I mean, I’m not the only one making that assumption, right? Fraction’s ideas and Allred’s expressive and cartoony art should combine into something that should put a smile on my face. And for the most part, that’s true of FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux, but there’s darkness lurking in the background that I wasn’t prepared for.

On the surface, FF is a comedy book. The Fantastic Four has left Earth to go exploring, and they have left a team of second-string heroes (She-Hulk, Medusa, Ant Man II, and Ms. Thing) to look over the wacky cast of kids that the Fantastic Four’s Future Foundation is educating. I mean, the student body includes Moloids, fish people, and Artie and Leech. How could that not lead to craziness?

FF, v. 1: Fantastic Faux coverFraction uses his cast to great effect, and #4 — the first issue in this collection — is an almost perfect issue. She-Hulk has dinner with her ex-boyfriend, Wyatt Wingfoot, while the Moloids who have a crush on her enlist the help of fellow student Bentley-23 to ruin their date. Bentley’s plots, however, have the opposite effect, and the night out turns into an enchanted evening for the couple. The issue is funny, heartfelt, and touching, accented by Allred’s simple yet effective art. I don’t usually associate “heartfelt” or “touching” with Fraction, but he pulls it off here.

Fraction maintains the humor throughout, letting all the characters get into the absurdity of multi-purposed HERBIES, an erudite Dragon Man teaching, Darla using “Thing rings” to turn into Ms. Thing, and postman Willie Lumpkin teaching the kids about the birds and bees. As “absurdity” is a specialty of Allred’s, his art is outstanding, of course. Whatever Fraction gives him to draw, Allred doesn’t flinch at, whether it’s Ms. Thing in weird headgear or the FF kids attacking Bentley and Medusa’s son with Home Alone traps. Allred also gets to draw fish creatures, Inhumans, and monsters from the deep, and he excels at all of them. He doesn’t draw the entire volume, but Joe Quinones does a great job filling in on #6, drawing in a very Allred style.

Fraction is obviously having fun with the title, even beyond the whimsical elements of the story and cast. The issue titles are ludicrous — “That Was the Worst Field Trip Ever!” and “Spooky Kids or, Merrily into the Eight Arms of Durga the Invincible We All Go” — or inexplicable (there is no Durga in #5, and I can’t figure out why #6 is titled “Save the Tiger,” as it has no relationship to either real tigers or the ‘70s Jack Lemmon movie). Fraction shows a predilection for continuity that I also didn’t know he had; he resurrects the Thing suit that Ben Grimm used when he lost his powers in the ‘70s, the Thing rings from the 1979 Thing animated series, and a variety of headgear from the series.

But throughout Fantastic Faux, Fraction is weaving some dark threads among the Moloids discovering gender and HERBIEs dressed up as Dr. Doom. Mind control is a standard superhero plot device, but there’s something more sinister about an old abuser returning to a former victim, as happens in this volume. Scott still has trouble dealing with the death of his daughter, Cassie, and being in charge of a whole school of children only exacerbates a dangerous situation for him. Dr. Doom is more vicious, eschewing grand plans and going for the gut to get what he wants. John Storm, returned from the future, is suffering from PTSD and has lost an eye. The grimmer elements sit uneasily next to the comedic bits … or maybe Fraction’s more serious plot developments should make me feel uneasy; violence, death, and sinister plots shouldn’t be comfortable, perhaps, despite what a half-century of Marvel Comics have taught us. I can’t be sure.

Allred is one of my favorite artists, and I hate to complain. But … at some points in the story, neither the art nor words explain what is going on. Fraction has never been a writer who overexplained matters, and that’s certainly true in Fantastic Faux. Some of the information either isn’t important or can be gleaned from the text, like why the Fantastic Four started teaching these kids in the first place or what exactly Bentley-23 does to make Blastaar disappear. Some information, like who Darla Deering is, could have been communicated to the reader with a better introductory page, and that’s not Fraction’s fault. And being behind in Marvel continuity, I was just mystified by things like Black Bolt’s return from the dead and the Inhumans’ return from space.94 That being said, the first volume of a series should explain things more fully, not leave readers wondering if they missed a previous volume.95 A footnote or two would go a long way, for Odin’s sake.

And it’s not like a general audience is going to recognize this cast. She-Hulk, probably; Medusa, likely. But Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man, maaayyyyybe, although I’m not sure the words “Ant-Man” was ever used in the book, and he never gets near an ant. But no one knows who Darla Deering is, and the Thing costume she wears is an obscure bit of continuity. Among the students, some people will remember Leech and Artie, but that’s it. Aiming a book at established Marvel audiences limits your readership.

Some would say Fraction respects his audience’s intelligence, but there’s a limit to how much I need to be respected. Fraction’s unanswered questions make it hard to gauge what he intends in other parts of the book. The villainy of Fraction’s Doom does not seem to match previous depictions of the despot; in this book, his villainy is ignoble, resorting to stratagems a man of honor (as Doom frequently claims to be) would never use. But I don’t know whether Fraction intends this to be a different aspect of Doom’s character, an evolution for the Fantastic Four’s old foe, or whether this is a clue that Doom isn’t Doom.

Despite feeling like I entered the story in the middle, I enjoyed Fantastic Faux. Sometimes I had to fight to enjoy it, but the fight was worth it. Given how many loose ends the story had, though, I’m concerned about continuing with FF, since Fraction has announced he’s leaving with #11. Will the stories pay off? Will FF retain its sense of lunacy? Neither question affects Fantastic Faux’s grade, but it does affect whether I would recommend anyone start reading the series.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (4 of 5)

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30 August 2013

Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green

Collects: Green Goblin #1-13, Web of Spider-Man #125, Spectacular Spider-Man #225, and Amazing Scarlet Spider #2 (1995-6)

Released: August 2011 (Marvel)

Format: pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785157571

What is this?: Daily Bugle intern Phil Urich runs across some Green Goblin equipment and tries to decide whether to help himself or others.

The culprits: Writer Tom DeFalco and Terry Kavanagh and artists Scott McDaniel, Joshua Hood, and others

Marvel’s decision to reprint the 1995-6 Green Goblin series in Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green was a curious one. Theoretically, with the Green Goblin being Spider-Man’s archnemesis, a Green Goblin series should have been important. It wasn’t, though; it was a mid-‘90s series about a newspaper intern, Phil Urich, who stumbles across the Osborn Goblin gear. Green Goblin wrapped up just before Onslaught gave Marvel the freedom to do some excellent work with new or lesser-known concepts (Thunderbolts, Deadpool). Neither the writer, Tom DeFalco, nor the main artist, Scott McDaniel, are “hot” or “new” or “critic’s darlings.” As a final nail in the commercial coffin, the character crossed over with the ‘90s Clone Saga.

I suppose Phil becoming the latest Hobgoblin, a recurring villain in Amazing Spider-Man, at the end of 2010 was the impetus for the reprint. Still, that’s a slender thread on which to hang a $40 reprint of a little-remembered, unlamented series like Green Goblin.

Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green coverGreen Goblin is a series that relies heavily its protagonist narrating his thoughts, which is a problem: Phil is a teenager, and when middle-aged white guys write “hip” teenagers, the results always lack verisimilitude. DeFalco seems to have picked up all his teenager dialogue from bad TV shows that were also written by middle-aged white guys. Although Phil does have a distinctive voice, I don’t believe anyone has ever spoken like him in the history of mankind — unless, by chance, some grunting caveman or cavewoman accidentally strung together the same syllables Phil used. I was a teenager in the ‘90s, and I can guarantee none of my friends ever used phrases like “Scarlet really ups the gear” or “she’s mint, sexy, and all that!” I didn’t either — or at least I don’t remember sounding like that. Might explain my social life if I did say those sorts of things. Slammin’!

A second problem with Phil’s narration is that Phil is not an intrinsically likeable person. Phil is one of those slackers DeFalco had heard so much about, a college dropout working as an intern for his uncle, Ben Urich, at the Daily Bugle. Having dropped out of college, Phil doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life, and when he gets the Green Goblin equipment, he’s not sure how he wants to use it. He doesn’t instinctually aid others, but he usually ends up being helpful. He has vague ideas of gaining fame, acclaim, money, and women, but his plots are badly thought out, and they lack ambition. Also, Phil’s a bit skeevy about the women; he notes when Lynn, the girl he has a crush on, “jiggles into view” and thinks about “all the butter [he] wanted to spread on Lynn.” It’s no surprise that when he gets some money, he spends it on a suit and flowers and expects Lynn to fall into his arms, despite his lack of charm and her general lack of interest in him as anything but a co-worker and source of info.92

DeFalco does a good job choosing sparring partners for Phil to fight, mixing established villains with new ones. Hobgoblin is a no-brainer, considering he was, at the time, the only other living link to the Goblin legacy. Arcade is always a good choice for a beginning hero. Yes, it stretches credibility that Phil would be able to defeat the Rhino early in his career, but in issue #2, the hero needs a victory, and in a battle between two lunkheads, I can buy that the first person with a good idea would win. The new villains are a mixed bag; Angel Face is the most competent and has a real reason to keep after the Green Goblin, and the Steel Slammer has a nice design. Purge, a generic assassin, and Jonathan Gatesworth, a “virtual reality” creator, are forgettable.93

Even beyond DeFalco’s failed attempts to emulate the youth slang of the day, Green Goblin is marked pretty solidly as a ‘90s comic by DeFalco working current events of the comic-book industry into the background. At one point, recurring villain Angel Face robs a tycoon named “Berinutter,” which sounds like DeFalco’s way tweaking the nose of or taking his frustrations out on Isaac Perlmutter, who was chairman at the board at Marvel at the time. DeFalco also makes “Larson Toddsmith” and “Marc Portaccio” the unscrupulous heads of Compuboot, a game company; the names are obvious references to Image Comics founders Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio.

Marvel’s financial situation was worsening at the time, and DeFalco has some opinions on how business and creative pursuits should intersect; in #9, he puts these words into a villain’s mouth: “[We] would be in Chapter 11 if not for [our] financial wizardry and … marketing magic! Creativity is fine … in its place … but the business people transform vague ideas into profits!” Later in the issue, he puts the opposite view into Phil’s mousy potential love interest, Meredith Campbell: “Corporations don’t think like us regular folks! No matter how much profit they generate … it’s never enough!” The joke was on DeFalco, though, as Marvel filed for Chapter 11 in December 1996, a few months after Green Goblin was cancelled.

The book includes three Spider-issues. The best is a crossover between Amazing Scarlet Spider #2 and Green Goblin #3, which is part of the Great Game storyline. Phil gets a crush on the amoral Joystick, who fights in the Great Game, an international gladiatorial contest. Joystick is in town to fight the Scarlet Spider, but her plans are loused up by one of her previous victims, El Toro Negro. DeFalco had an excellent chance to contrast the attitudes of the thrill-seeking Joystick and responsible Scarlet Spider, especially since the Scarlet Spider doesn’t have Spider-Man’s cachet as a moral center of the superhuman community. Instead, DeFalco treads too lightly on the question, having Phil reject Spider-Man’s ethos without seeing his own similarities to Joystick.

Web of Spider-Man #125 and Spectacular Spider-Man #225, which immediately follow Green Goblin #1 in this volume, seem like the traditional attempts to boost a new character’s profile with an appearance in a Spider-book. Unfortunately, the two issues serve as poor attempts at promotion, since the Green Goblin in those books little resembled the one who starred in his own book. Web #125, written by Terry Kavanagh, is the worst offender, as Phil’s motivations for being in the Clone-Saga story are weak at best and nonsensical at worst. Spectacular #225 is written by DeFalco, but Phil’s reasons for being out in costume are not in line with his development in his own series; Phil sees himself on a “grim mission” when he hunts down a man setting fire to homeless people, which is quite heroic for someone who hasn’t decided what to do with his new powers. His inexperience does show in his battles with the villain and Spider-Man, though.

DeFalco keeps bringing up Phil’s struggles with his identity: is he a hero or someone who merely exploits his abilities for personal gain? An ambitious man or slacker? Ladies man or creep? Although Phil arrives at the place you expect him to by the series’ end, it is sometimes hard to follow his developmental path. He eventually overcomes his fear of the neighborhood thug, Ricko the Sicko, but he still fears the Hobgoblin’s wrath. He rejects Lynn not because he finds a woman whom he is more compatible with but because he realizes Lynn isn’t that interested in him. His heroism is motivated as much by a desire to impress Lynn as his nascent conscience, despite advice from Daredevil and Scarlet Spider. Only the Onslaught crisis forces him to answer the questions, and then the series ends.

The primary artist for Green Goblin, Scott McDaniel, has a blocky, exaggerated style that works best in the ‘90s. The Green Goblin costume and mask lends itself to exaggerated touches, and I like the Steel Slammer design, but he has a little trouble with Phil’s quieter moments. (McDaniel’s Pittsburgh youth shows up when he has Phil wear a Steelers jacket, even though Phil’s a fan of the New York Smashers.) McDaniel penciled #1-4, 6-7, and 9-10, leaving a lot of space for fill-in artists. Most of these are unremarkable, with the occasional glitch; for example, Keven Kobasic draws Judge Tomb as a tall, powerful young man with single tufts of blond hair on his head and chin in #5, while McDaniel goes the more clichéd route, depicting Tomb as a small, old man with a fringe of white hair on his head in #6.

Hood Green Goblin imageJoshua Hood drew the last three issues. Hood’s distorted, elongated faces are off-putting, making the characters look almost deformed. He draws Angel Face’s scars as far more disgusting than McDaniel did, robbing her of some of her humanity (which DeFalco’s writing doesn’t compensate for). In #12, though, his Sentinels aren’t bad, and the final image from that issue is impressive.

Green Goblin grades out as mediocre — not groundbreaking or very memorable, but it’s not offensive either. Poking around these forgotten corners of the Marvel Universe is always its own reward, but on the other hand, it’s not a reward worth paying $40 for (or $30 new at Amazon). If you are an archaeologist of Marvel or ‘90s pop culture, Green Goblin might be worth it if you can find it at a reasonable price. Otherwise, let it go.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (2 of 5)

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23 August 2013

Spider-Man: The Next Chapter, v. 3

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man v. 2 #13-9, Peter Parker: Spider-Man v. 2 #13-9, Spider-Woman v. 3 #9, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2000 (2000)

Released: August 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785159773

What is this?: Spider-Man loses everything — everything — so he can return to the status quo.

The culprits: Writer Howard Mackie, writer / artist John Byrne, and artists John Romita Jr., Graham Nolan, and others

This is how bad the Clone Saga and its aftermath were: about two years after the Clone Saga ended, Marvel decided the solution to the relative disinterest in Spider-Man was to chop the number of Spider-titles in half, relaunch the survivors (Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man, volumes two), and have Howard Mackie write both.

To the modern reader, safely more than a decade away from that decision, having Howard Mackie writing two Spider-Man books seems insane, as incomprehensible as AOL buying Time-Warner or the Internet bubble on Wall Street. Three years after the 1998 relaunch, Mackie was done with his Spider-Man run — and done at Marvel. His alternate-reality X-title, Mutant X, ended in June 2001, a month after Amazing #29, his final Spider-Man issue. (He was replaced on Peter Parker by Paul Jenkins with #20.) After that: nothing, unless you believe he was X, the anonymous writer of The Brotherhood, which ended in March 2002. The only work Mackie has done for Marvel in the last decade is Spider-Man: The Real Clone Saga, which retold the Clone Saga as Mackie and Tom DeFalco intended. Thank God; that was a story that was screaming to be told. Or maybe the screaming was coming from somewhere else. From me, maybe.

Spider-Man: The Next Chapter, v. 3 coverBut evidently we couldn’t see Mackie’s shortcomings back then: his shoddy characterizations, his inability to see a plot or subplot through, his frequently nonsensical plots. Mackie rose to prominence with the 1990s Ghost Rider relaunch, where the fresh take on Ghost Rider, Image-era art, and grim-and-gritty characters overrode those deficiencies. I can’t speak to the exact quality of his previous Spider-Man work, but his X-Factor run (#115-49) charged headlong into incomprehensibility before everyone agreed the best remaining idea for the title was to throw Havok, the X-Factor’s team leader, into an alternate reality and follow the alternate reality Mackie hadn’t yet messed up.

I chose to start with the third volume of The Next Chapter because I already had the single issues that made up v. 1 and 2. But the choice was serendipitous, as v. 3 begins Marvel’s second, slightly more successful attempt to roll back Spider-Man to his early ‘80s settings. The calamitous Clone Saga had taught Marvel, rightly or wrongly, that Peter could not be replaced, so Marvel tried writing Mary Jane out of the comics instead. In Amazing #13, the first issue of The Next Chapter, v. 3, the passenger jet Mary Jane is traveling on explodes in mid-air.

The decision to kill Spider-Man’s wife was both bold and crassly commercial, which is probably why it appealed to those who signed off on it. It is not so appealing in execution. However, Mackie and Amazing plotter / co-writer John Byrne choose to make Peter not believe Mary Jane is dead, and that’s more interesting than weeping and moaning. His friends see it as denial, but in Spider-Man’s world, the choice is backed by some logic. Aunt May returned from the dead, as did Norman Osborn; Gwen Stacy and the Jackal were cloned. Mary Jane’s survival was possible — and in fact, she was alive, reuniting with Peter in Amazing Spider-Man v. 2 #29, a few months after The Next Chapter, v. 3, ends.

The enjoyability of The Next Chapter, v. 3, is elevated above the material itself because it contains the entire storyline, from the violent act to Peter’s eventual acceptance. Rarely do readers get a complete story when Marvel reprints a consecutive, non-storyline based section of continuity. I doubt Marvel planned the reprints that way, but I’m glad it turned out that way — especially since everything else about the story is abysmal.

Peter claims to want Mary Jane back, but he is ineffectual in his attempts to find her. I know Spider-Man isn’t the world’s greatest detective, but he doesn’t investigate Mary Jane’s alleged death or find any clues. He doesn’t try to find any of her previous stalkers, such as Venom, who might have had a grudge. He doesn’t look into the explosion. His only real investigation into her death is following up on an anonymous tip that MJ was being held in Latveria, where her plane was bound. (Why would anyone have a modeling shoot in Latveria, of all places?) He doesn’t try to find who gave him the Latverian tip or MJ’s crooked manager, who embezzled money from his client and disappeared.

It’s almost as if the reader is supposed to think Peter knows how irrational he’s being but doesn’t want any evidence to prove it. Unfortunately, nothing in the text backs up that reading — except that when Spider-Man is haunted by the deceased Harry Osborn in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2000, he finds Harry’s return patently ridiculous, despite Harry having been dosed with the same Goblin formula that returned Norman Osborn from the dead.

A big part of the storyline’s failure is that the plot requires us to accept whatever Mackie and Byrne dish out to keep things moving or to stop them from moving. Peter’s costume and spider-shooters are stolen after he is kicked out of a flophouse, but why doesn’t Peter take better care of his Spider-equipment? Is he an idiot? (Probably, since he could have stayed with May or one of his friends, and he has no problem accepting money from her or Robbie Robertson.) Why doesn’t he work harder to find the manager who ruined his life? Why did someone want Peter to investigate in Latveria? Why re-introduce the mystery of the fifth Green Goblin, then pointedly not resolve it? In Annual 2000, why do Scrier Jr.’s gauntlets explode when they touch? What is the point of the gratuitous Marvel: The Lost Generation crossover in Amazing #16, other than to boost one of Byrne’s more forgettable ideas? Why does Venom’s bite have such an effect on Sandman, when Sandman loses mass all the time without any consequences and Venom’s bite never was so toxic before? What could possibly be in the box the airline returns to Peter and May, which convinces them of Mary Jane’s death? The answer to all these questions is You shut up.

Even when Mackie and Byrne have good ideas, their inability to commit to the idea undermines their accomplishments. In Peter Parker #16, Spider-Man runs across a half-dozen new, off-brand villains. The interaction between the villains and Spider-Man promises some laughs, with a subplot thrown into the mix; unfortunately, in less than three pages, they are gone, and Spider-Man thinks, “I feel like I’ve stepped into a Reader’s Digest version of a bad day in the life of Spider-Man.” (In contrast, a new Rocket Racer is given a big build-up, making his ignominious and off-hand defeat worth the time spent on him.) Having someone hunt down the Sinister Six, member by member, is an interesting idea, but we never get a good reason why the culprit decides to do so, or why he interrupts his vendetta halfway through to try to court his ex-wife. The ex-wife’s despair is convincing, but not enough time is invested in her thoughts to make her final fate seem believable. Sandman’s disintegration fuels some interesting stories down the line, but Mackie and Byrne are more interested in teasing a Silver-Age villain’s death than in following up on the implications.

Strangely, part of Mackie’s problem is that he can’t let go of the past. Part of the relaunch’s remit was to quietly forget the stories leading up to it. Mackie couldn’t, of course. In v. 3, he’s still dredging up stories from v. 1 of both titles. The awful crossover with Spider-Woman is saturated by references to the Gathering of Five crossover, which immediately preceded the relaunch. (To be fair, the new Spider-Woman was empowered by the crossover, but the stupid solution to defeating the villain revolves around the Gathering of the Five.) More damning, though, is his inclusion of the fifth Green Goblin, who impersonated the villain after the Clone Saga to clear Norman Osborn’s name. That Green Goblin could have been easily forgotten, but Mackie brings him up without resolving his identity, then offs the poor sap. Peter shakes his head and goes on with his life, rather than caring. In the Annual, Mackie brings up Scrier, a Clone Saga hanger-on, and the deceased Harry Osborn.

The reason why these thoughts and stories are half-formed is to give Mackie and Byrne room to tear Peter Parker’s life down. Mary Jane and her earning power are blown up, putting Spider-Man in the poorhouse. He’s single again, earning basically nothing as a dishwasher, and he has to move in with Randy Robertson to make ends meet. Strangely, the writers and Peter refuse to wallow in the protagonist’s misery. Peter is … not cheerful, but he’s not downbeat either. Partially, that is because he refuses to believe in his wife’s death; part of it is because the stories don’t spend much time on the misery of minimum-wage labor and homelessness.

Not everything is bad. Mackie and Byrne use the supporting cast; even when the supporting characters are at their most cardboard, the writers acknowledge the amount of people who care about Peter and May, which is something other writers have trouble with. Cletus Kasady’s escape from the insane asylum without his symbiote underscores that even without Carnage, Kasady is dangerous. J. Jonah Jameson getting his hands on Peter’s Spider-equipment and stopping the Bugle’s Spider-Man vendetta is interesting, although the former isn’t original. Flash’s gloriously self-aggrandizing pep talk to Peter in Peter Parker #18 is wonderful.

Cadaverous Aunt MayMore importantly, the art is very good. John Byrne, who penciled Amazing #13-8, is not at his peak, but he is more than solid throughout. John Romita Jr.’s work on Peter Parker #14-7 and 19 is very good — and considering that I generally don’t like Romita Jr.’s work, that’s saying something. His Hulk in #14 is hulking and brutish without devolving into cartoonishness, which would have been all wrong for a serious issue about Peter dealing with Mary Jane’s absence. Klaus Janson (Annual) and Lee Weeks (PP #13) are excellent on their single issues as well, with Weeks’s realistic style being an excellent choice for an issue focusing on the depowered Carnage and Janson’s slightly dated look complementing a script that concentrates on characters from Spider-Man’s recent past. On the down side, Erik Larsen’s pencils in Amazing #19 look rushed, with May’s face looking less “old” and more “cadaverous.”

This is the end of Mackie’s stranglehold on Spider-Man. Byrne bowed out with Amazing #18, and Mackie was replaced on Peter Parker after these issues. A new era was coming, and few readers looked back on Next Chapter’s false starts with any fondness. To be fair, in v. 3, the stories (and writers) did exactly what Marvel wanted them to: reboot Peter Parker to his good old days. I don’t think anyone wanted to see it done this badly, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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10 August 2013

Chronicles of Conan, v. 23: Well of Souls and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #174-81 and Conan the Barbarian Annual #10 (1985-6)

Released: March 2013 (Dark Horse)

Format: 232 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781616550523

What is this?: Conan, along with a Zingaran captain and a teenage girl, continues looking for a fabulous treasure, but he finds more than he’s looking for.

The culprits: Writer Jim Owsley and artists John Buscema and Ernie Chan

In previous reviews of the Chronicles of Conan series, I have complained about a great many things. The most important, to me, was the series’ lack of supporting characters and ongoing narrative. Every issue was the same: Conan steps into a new situation, starts stabbing people, and walks out the end, often as the only survivor. That narrative doesn’t provide much tension: He has to survive, since he’s the main character.

With Chronicles of Conan, v. 23: Well of Souls and Other Stories, writer Jim Owsley (the future Christopher Priest) has changed that. Conan has a partner, Zingaran captain Delmurio, and a sidekick, Tetra, a lovestruck teenage girl who Conan has taught to be a fearsome warrior. They are on a quest to find treasure — simple enough, but one rarely used for long-form Conan stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 23: Well of Souls and Other Stories coverWell of Souls isn’t going to convince a reader with no interest in Conan to start reading the series. However, it might lure readers who are interested in the character or concept back to the series by giving them reasons to invest in the title rather than an individual story. The supporting cast is vivid enough to make readers care about them. Delmurio and Tetra have personalities, and readers will most likely have an opinion about them; when they leave Conan’s side, the barbarian picks up a new companion, who will presumably also make readers like or hate him. The extended plot pays off in a not completely unexpected fashion after seven issues (two in the previous volume, Reavers in the Borderland), and a new plotline begins.

It’s a solid foundation for a series. It’s only a baseline, but it saddens me how badly previous volumes miss that mark.

The individual issues are on the whole mildly interesting, elevated by the structure but showing only flashes of excellence. Issue #175, with its war-haunted river town and mysterious boatman, is the most atmospheric and probably the best issue in the collection. Even the less interesting issues have elements that momentarily pique interest; the opening story, which largely revolves around a mob of uninteresting war orphans, has some surprisingly vicious moments and ruminations about the ethics of keeping occupied populations in line that redeems the fleeting romances and undifferentiated crowds.

Despite my faint praise for the individual issues, Owsley has a better handle on Conan’s world than the writers who preceded him. The settings are filled with casual violence and superstitious people who cannot recognize false prophets or true prophecy when it is shouted at them. People die soon after they appear, and they die when it seems like they are going to join the ongoing cast. Owsley gives the protagonist more dimensions than he usually possesses in Marvel comics; the Conan in Well is as brooding, angry, and violent as usual, but the presence of Tetra restrains his lustful side. The narration says he is affected by her resemblance to lost lovers Red Sonja and Bêlit, but it’s clear Conan sees her adoration and reacts to it. Given her youth, he can’t return her affection, and he doesn’t want to reject her outright, so he doesn’t flaunt his sexual preference of other women to her. When her eyes are no longer on the barbarian, Conan goes back to his lecherous ways almost immediately.

Well of Souls has plenty of areas where it could be improved; better choices by editor Larry Hama might have prevented colorist George Roussos from assaulting readers’ eyes with a technicolor Hyborian Age or convinced artist John Buscema to cast aside the teenage Tetra’s furry bikini and loincloth ensemble, even if it is accessorized with green furry boots. (What animal could those boots have come from?) Making the spelling of man-monster Keiv (not “Kiev”) consistent would have helped. Having Owsley restate the overarching plot — on a quest to find treasure, based on a map Conan and Delmurio each have half of — would have been useful as well, since the reader often knows only that the trio are going to some destination. Hama also makes a mistake in issue #176, referring to Conan’s adventure with ex-mercenary Redondo as being in Annual #9 instead of #10. Since Annual #10 is included in Well, that’s not a big problem, but collection editor Chris Warner might have given the story in #176 greater impact by putting Annual #10 before #176. On the other hand, the continuing narrative doesn’t give much room for the annual, so it might not have been feasible.

The ever-reliable John Buscema drew all the issues of the regular series. Buscema was getting near 60 when these issues came out, but his art is as strong and vivid as ever. Owsley’s intense Conan would not work half so well with another artist, as Buscema’s work on the barbarian hero conveys a hardness that has nothing to do with his musculature. Buscema’s penchant for cheesecake — de rigueur for fantasy, I know — gets a little out of hand, as no woman in Well conceals her navel, and Tetra’s outfit is, as described, gratuitous. Frequent Conan inker Ernie Chan penciled the annual and does a good job of it.

The immediate future looks good for the title. The overarcing plot is controlled by a new adversary, not Conan, but the villain looks like he has a plan and is putting it into place. With Owsley remaining on Conan until #213 (another four volumes or so), the stories should retain their barbarousness, and Conan should remain well rounded.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (3.5 of 5)

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02 August 2013

Captain Marvel, v. 1: In Pursuit of Flight

Collects: Captain Marvel #1-6 (2012)

Released: January 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785165491

What is this?: Carol Danvers takes a new codename, gets a new haircut and costume, and becomes unstuck in time.

The culprits: Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artists Dexter Soy and Emma Rios

I really wanted to like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new Captain Marvel series, but unfortunately, Captain Marvel, v. 1: In Pursuit of Flight underwhelmed me.

Flight starts with Carol Danvers selecting a bland new direction for her career: she adopts a more flattering costume and a less flattering haircut, and she lets Captain America push her into choosing the Captain Marvel name over her previous nom de costume, “Ms. Marvel.” Her great pleasure / motivation now is flight, which makes sense for an ex-USAF officer. But trying to instill wonder in the most mundane of superhero powers is a difficult sell.

Captain Marvel, v. 1: In Pursuit of Flight coverWith that setup, of course the action in Flight revolves around a random time-travel plot. To be fair, DeConnick ties time travel into the flight theme by using Captain Marvel’s aviatrix hero’s airplane as a time machine, but the time displacement still comes out of nowhere.

Captain Marvel ends up in Peru in 1943, fighting alongside women pilots without planes vs. the Japanese, who are flying Kree ships. The women have been in South America longer than Captain Marvel, but they are as confused as she is about how they got there. And even thought they haven’t traveled in time, why shouldn’t they be confused? They are fighting the Japanese, who are flying Kree ships, in Peru. The reader doesn’t learn until issue #4 that the women of Banshee Squadron were flying a non-combat mission from California to Hawaii before they randomly appeared in Peru. Peru makes some sense, as Captain Marvel’s hero flew her plane there on a famous flight. But other than being female flyers, the Banshee Squadron has nothing to do with Captain Marvel or her plane. World War II has nothing to do with Captain Marvel either. But it all makes sense when the reason for the random time travel is revealed as …

Carol’s hero, Helen Cobb, using a piece of the Kree psyche-magnetron, the “wishing machine” that gave Carol her powers.

Hunh. Well, it explains the Kree ships. The rest still feels as if it were assembled using darts and a blindfold. However, the last two issues proceed more sensibly, as Captain Marvel finds herself alongside Helen at NASA, training for the space program along with other women.

The scattershot plot elements do the book no favors. The supporting characters aren’t helpful either. Helen’s all brass, without any attributes to recommend her to the reader. Carol checks in on Tracy Burke, a cancer patient who used to work for Carol at Woman Magazine, but their current relationship is unexplored, and Tracy is prickly at best. The women of Banshee Squadron are better, but they fall into archetypes: the tough leader, the gung-ho fighter, the innocent … their gender is novel, though. I suppose that’s the point: they are soldiers first, or humans. A few more pages devoted to the characters would have been nice; the seven-page fight sequence at the beginning feels like an indulgence.

The art does not help Flight at all. It’s not often I say, “Thank God for the Emma Rios art” — in fact, before Flight I had said it never times — but I was overjoyed when she took over for #5 and 6. Not that I enjoy her wispy-thin line, spindly figures, and generally manga-influenced art — I don’t — but compared to Dexter Soy, she’s wonderful. Soy, who drew #1-4, gives the reader a muddled world filled with blocky, stiff characters. His line is so thick I wouldn't be surprised if he used a paint brush to ink himself. The muddy palette used by the colorist — not explicitly named but by implication Soy — does not make anything more attractive or recognizable. (Jordie Bellaw, the colorist for #5-6, lightens the colors slightly but still favors browns and dark colors.) Soy doesn’t do himself any favors with the Banshee Squadron; one is drawn firing an enormous machine gun that would knock Sgt. Fury on his keister, and another has blonde pigtails and wears her uniform to expose her midriff and cleavage.

So: plot, characters, protagonist, and art are all lacking. None are awful — well, Soy’s art is. But the entire package is, as I said, underwhelming. Skip this Flight.

Rating: Avengers symbol  symbol (1.5 of 5)

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06 July 2013

X-Men Forever, v. 3: Come to Mother ... Russia! and v. 4: Devil in a White Dress

Collects: X-Men Forever #11-5 (v. 3) and 16-20 and X-Men Forever Annual #1 (v. 4) (2010)

Released: May 2010 (v. 3) and August 2010 (v. 4) (Marvel)

Format: 120 and 152 pages respectively / color / $16.99 each / ISBN: 9780785136811 and 9780785144359

What is this?: Chris Claremont continues to play with his X-Men action figures in his own private sandbox, thank you very much.

The culprits: Writer Chris Claremont and artists Tom Grummett, Graham Nolan, Sana Takeda, and Peter Vale

X-Men Forever, v. 3: Come to Mother … Russia! cover I thought about writing separate reviews for
X-Men Forever, v. 3: Come to Mother...Russia! and X-Men Forever, v. 4: Devil in a White Dress, but I just couldn’t do it. The two books resolved into an undifferentiated mush into my mind, and I didn’t have the patience to repeat my criticisms. The books are largely the same in quality, so instead, I’ll tell you what I liked about Russia and Devil:
  • Colossus and Black Widow have joined the Winter Guard, the Russian national superhero force, in Russia. Since the Soviet Union is not the Evil Empire any more, it makes sense that Russian heroes would return to the Motherland occasionally, and an out-of-continuity series like X-Men Forever is a perfect place to explore that.

  • … hmm …
  • It amuses me that the Amazon listing says Nightcrawler and Rogue head to New Orleans, not Jackson. One Southern city is pretty much like another, right? To be fair, Graham Nolan’s Jackson and Mississippi resembles New Orleans and Louisiana. Also, Amazon listings also have George Lucas’s credits in Chris Claremont’s author biography.
  • Grudgingly, I will admit I liked the idea of the Summerses acting like a real family. I found the execution off, but the idea is good.

X-Men Forever, v. 4: Devil in a White Dress coverAnd what I disliked about Russia and Devil:
  • Claremont dialogue. Good grief. It’s the same phrases and rhythms Claremont has been using for decades. Don’t the X-Men ever use an original turn of phrase? I would speak far less often if I sounded like a Claremont character. I’d be too embarrassed to say much.
  • That cover for Come to Mother … Russia. Who is the Black Widow trying to sex with that pose? Is she trying to seduce me? Am I an enemy agent, whom she will mate with and kill? Oh my god … I am, aren’t I? I knew it! This is the greatest / worst day of my life!
  • Reuse of tired plots. Claremont sends Magik to Limbo again, but this time her journey to the Dark Side is completed — so of course that means “teenaged female in scanty costume.” (Thank Odin it’s not bondage gear.) Rogue and Nightcrawler switch powers, just like Psylocke and Jean Grey did at the beginning of Claremont’s return in X-Men #100. SHIELD once again has to deal with a group of traitors in their ranks.
  • On-the-nose codenames: Black Magik? Firecat? Perfect Storm? Ye gods.
  • Dredging up past “romances.” Kitty and Colossus were done a long time ago — they broke up in Uncanny #183, almost 100 issues before the end of Claremont’s run — and bringing it up again to shoot it down again is pointless. (Besides, their romance was never especially convincing; Kitty was extreme jail bait during their relationship, and the thought that an older, wiser Kitty would want to resume that relationship is a little disturbing.) Black Panther and Storm rekindling their romance is no more believable in X-Men Forever than it was in the X-books’ regular continuity, but thankfully it is over quite a bit more quickly.
  • Stupidity. A relationship between Jean and Beast begins with little warning; after all those years together on the X-Men and X-Factor, it seems like the platonic coating on their relationship should be too thick to penetrate. (Perhaps her attraction to him is based on his body hair: he’s the only one who can compare in that department to the dead Wolverine.) Nightcrawler and Rogue run into a trap in Jackson, not questioning why jetsetting stewardess Amanda Sefton would be in the capital of Mississippi long enough to investigate before blundering in.

So, in short, unless you’re looking for Claremont nostalgia accompanied by art that ranges from *ugh* to uh-cceptable, then don’t waste your time with these books. Discounts on the TPBs drew me into X-Men Forever, but I don’t think I’d read the rest of the series even if the books were free.

Rating: Russia: X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol (1.5 of 5 )

Devil: X-Men symbol (1 of 5)

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29 June 2013

Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap

Collects: Demon Knights #0 and 8-12 (2012)

Released: May 2013 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401240394

What is this?: Medieval heroes head to Camelot. Camelot? Camelot? Camelot! (It’s only an alternate version.)

The culprits: Writer Paul Cornell and artists Diogenes Neves and Bernard Chang

Following the fantasy protagonists’ defeat of an army in Demon Knights, v. 1: Seven against the Dark, the book’s seven heroes head to Alba Sarum to receive their reward in Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap. Well, “reward”: it’s not so much compensation or perquisites as it is another mission. This time, the group is sent to Avalon to rescue the spirit of Merlin, who has been murdered in Alba Sarum.

So: fantasy quest. Writer Paul Cornell gives us Fantasy Quest #28b, the one with a crumbling castle, a trap, and a double cross; the “b” denotes the variant where the characters are given their fondest desires, but it come with a price. In truth, the quest is not as cookie cutter as I’m making it seem, but it does lack heft. The trap is set by the obvious culprit, and the trap itself lacks any subtlety or hint that it is anything but what it is. The double-cross comes from the person Cornell has already told readers is a double-crosser.

Demon Knights, v. 2: The Avalon Trap coverThe plot’s predictability isn’t Avalon Trap’s only weakness, however, and it isn’t even the plot’s only weakness. It story is also slow, with the quest creeping through a landscape filled with giant, distorted animals that are eventually shown to have little relevance to the villain's plan. And then there’s the question of Camelot and King Arthur …

Three of Demon Knights’s protagonists were at Camelot when it fell: Jason Blood (who shares his body with Etrigan the Demon), Madame Xanadu, and Shining Knight. Jason and Xanadu were sweethearts, but they and Shining Knight have no knowledge of each other. To rectify that apparent contradiction, Cornell posits a multiplicity of Camelots and Arthurs. It solves the problem with the Shining Knight neatly, but it robs the fall of Camelot and the death of Arthur — the heart of the Arthurian legend — of some of its narrative heft. What does it matter that those characters’ Camelot fell? Camelot is always falling, Arthur is always dying and returning. Camelot is significant to the world of Demon Knights, but Camelot’s devastation and Arthur’s transformation in issues #9-12 aren’t a tragedy or even especially sad; each fallen Camelot is just a set with different dressing, starring a different actor as Arthur with a slightly different costume.

The ensemble approach to character development Cornell used in Seven Against the Dark is put aside in Avalon Trap in favor of an emphasis on Xanadu and Etrigan. Issue #8 goes into the history of their love triangle with Jason Blood, and #0 follows Etrigan’s rise through the demonic ranks. Given the large cast, concentrating on a few characters seems wise; Xanadu and Jason Blood / Etrigan are the book’s most recognizable characters, so starting with them makes sense. The other characters get only a few chances to shine; Al Jabr is distrustful of Vandal Savage, who gets the best lines (“I will not die so a woman with no face can gain different genitalia!”), and Shining Knight displays some impressive swordwork. Those moments do not dispel the “Etrigan, Madame Xanadu, and Friends” vibe Avalon Trap has, though.

A few notes strike me as false, even after suspending my disbelief. First, the characters use the British insult “swivers” a few times; the word is roughly from the right time, dating back to at least 1440, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It means “someone given to sexual indulgence.” That doesn’t seem like much of an insult to characters like Etrigan or Vandal Savage, and the term looks self-consciously strange to Americans. Secondly, Alba Sarum is ruled by a pair of princesses who hope to marry each other. While royal lesbians surely existed, by the laws of averages at the very least, the medieval protagonists’ and townsfolk’s acceptance is strange. Stranger still is Xanadu’s thinly veiled plug for gay marriage.

Diogenes Neves provides most of the art, although on more than half his five issues he has to have an assist. Neves differentiates the characters well, and his storytelling is good. He draws some excellent monsters as well. However, the extent of the characters’ transformations in #11 is a bit unclear. Bernard Chang draws #0 and does a very good job as well. If only Marvel had demons as fearsome as the ones Chang draws!

The visuals aren’t enough to save Avalon Trap, though. The setting is disposable, the plot is slight, and most of the cast is underused. The promise of Demon Knight has faded; I don’t know if I’m going to pick up v. 3.

Rating: DC logo DC logo (2 of 5)

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21 June 2013

Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5

Collects: Avengers Academy #29-33 (2012)

Released: March 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785165811

What is this?: While the Avengers and X-Men squabble over the Phoenix Force, Wolverine places his students with Avengers Academy.

The culprits: Writer Christos Gage and artists Tom Grummett and Timothy Green II

In Second Semester, v. 4 of Avengers Academy, I complained of an overly large cast and a lack of action. Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5, does nothing to remedy that.

Avengers Academy’s contribution to the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover is to pit Avengers Academy vs. Cyclops’s students in Avengers Academy #29-31. Well, “vs.” is putting it strongly; the two sides pose and gesture at each other, but just as in Second Semester, calmer heads prevail before things get out of hand … or even before they threaten to get out of hand. Thank Odin! If there had been a fight, something might have happened to the dozen or so new Academy or X-students I don’t care about.

Avengers vs. X-Men: Avengers Academy, v. 5 coverThe main antagonist is Sebastian Shaw, who has lost his memory of his villainous history. He battles his way through the Academy’s teachers and adult guests, taking out Tigra, Madison Jeffries, and a powered-down Hercules. Even that momentary excitement fizzles after a decent start.

Writer Christos Gage and artist Tom Grummett make a few nods to the original Dark Phoenix Saga, which is appropriate since Avengers vs. X-Men was kicked off by the return of the Phoenix Force, and Shaw had a pivotal role in the Dark Phoenix Saga. But after putting Shaw into a sewer, a la Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men #132 — Grummett does a nice homage to the final panel in #132 with a full page-illustration in Academy #29 — there aren’t many other parallels. Shaw does fight his way to the surface, as Wolverine fought his way to where his teammates are held, but it’s a different kind of fight, with Shaw having the guile and subtlety of a rock thrown through a window.

The payoff for the story is supposed to be X-23 making a difficult moral decision and not believing what authority figures tell her, which his fine as far as it goes. But X-23 has not been a part of the cast long enough for her epiphany to be a satisfying payoff for Avengers Academy readers, and her pronouncement is part of the book’s overwhelming and frustrating aura of reasonableness. Gage seems determined to undermine the idea that moral conflicts in comics are thrashed out with fists, segueing conflict from nominal battles to discussions / lectures that avoid violence at all costs.

The final two issues pursue a far more interesting idea than X-Men students throwing angry words at Avengers affiliates. Emma Frost, empowered by a fraction of the Phoenix Force, arrives at the Academy compound to destroy Juston Seyfert’s Sentinel. That’s a plot thread that needed to be explored; when Juston was in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, his pet Sentinel can function as a faux-Iron Giant, but when they interact with the rest of the MU, which views Sentinels as weapons of genocide, madmen, and governments, the Sentinel seems far less innocent.

Gage tries to frame the Sentinel as a loyal pet, and the effort is partly successful. Juston’s grief at the beating the Sentinel takes is affecting, but Hank Pym’s amazement over the Sentinel overcoming its prime directive — he says it should be impossible — comes across as hollow, considering how often the impossible happens in the Marvel Universe. (Also, if that’s impossible, how did Ultron become what he is? What did Pym make its prime directive?) The Sentinel itself is still the most problematic part of the story; given its still extant anti-mutant programming, the Sentinel at best is a dangerous dog that has been leashed. Sooner or later, that leash won’t be enough, and there will be a tragedy. As clichéd as that sort of story is, the tragedy of the Sentinel attacking mutants might have been a better way to resolve the Sentinel plot, especially given the number of mutants wandering around at the end of Avengers vs. X-Men.

The two stories leave little for the original cast to do. Finesse talks to Quicksilver; one of the X-students’ powers allows Mettle to surf on dry land, making Hazmat, his girlfriend, happy. Whee. As usual, the guest stars get the best lines, and Emma Frost is no exception. Hercules’s dialogue also stands out, making him seem at times both a buffoon and an actual hero.

The price is outrageous: $25 for five issues? In paperback? That’s an insult to the buyer. I could buy the single issues and pay a professional bindery to make them into a hardback book for about the same amount of money. This is probably a cash grab based on the Avengers vs. X-Men name, since the price for Second Semester, the previous volume, was $20 for eight issues, and the next (and final) volume, Final Exams, has six issues and sells for $20.

The artists for this backwater of the crossover don’t interest me much. Grummett does a solid, if unexciting, job. I appreciate his Dark Phoenix reference, but something about his style feels hesitant, as if he doesn’t want to cut loose. Timothy Green II, who draws the two-issue Sentinel story, draws in an exaggerated, manga-influenced style that clashes with the prevailing art style of the series, but I suppose it is appropriate for a giant-robot-vs.-cosmic-powerhouse fight. Not my cup of tea, but it’s fine.

Gage manages some nice jokes with the guest stars, but that’s not enough. Avengers Academy needs more plot, more conflict than Avengers vs. X-Men and Second Semester give. After these last two volumes, it’s hard to argue with Marvel’s decision to cancel the series with Final Exams. Hell, it’s hard to argue Marvel should have given Gage and Co. another arc after Avengers vs. X-Men.

Rating: Avengers symbol  symbol (1.5 of 5)

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03 May 2013

Avengers Academy, v. 4: Second Semester

Collects: Avengers Academy #21-8 (2012)

Released: November 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 176 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785152033

What is this?: The Avengers Academy takes on new students, and the new student body has to deal with the X-Men, a Dire Wraith, the Runaways, and former young Initiative members.

The culprits: Writer Christos Gage and artists Sean Chen, Tom Raney, Tom Grummett, and Karl Moline

The first three volumes of Avengers Academy focused on a tight group of six students whom the Avengers suspected might become supervillains because Norman Osborn tortured them. Occasionally an issue’s focus drifted toward the students’ teachers, most notably longtime Avenger Hank Pym, and that was OK too; readers cared about the teachers because of their relationships to these fresh, young characters.

In Avengers Academy, v. 4: Second Semester, the school founded by Hank Pym opened its doors to new students. In theory, introducing new characters to the cast is a good idea, especially after one of the original six students left during Fear Itself: Avengers Academy. However, writer Christos Gage has included every young Marvel character created in the last fifteen years who wasn’t claimed by another book.

Avengers Academy, v. 4: Second Semester coverWell, it seems that way. The new students include Juston Seyfert and his Sentinel, the new Thundra, Ricochet, Whiz Kid, Spider-Girl, Machine Teen, the old Penance, the new Power Man, Butterball, Rocket Racer, even Batwing from Untold Tales of Spider-Man. I’m not sure what character could show “bottom of the barrel” more comprehensively than Batwing, who appeared in four issues of Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales series, which was set in early Silver Age continuity, and an issue of Avengers: Initiative. We never learn why these characters are at the Academy or anything about them; they exist to fill out the background art.

However, despite the apparent cast of thousands, Gage focuses on three new characters: Lightspeed (Julie Power of Power Pack), X-23 (the female clone of Wolverine), and the newest White Tiger, Ava Ayala (not the old White Tiger, Hector Ayala, or the not old, not new White Tiger, Angela del Toro). Gage has a solid role for Lightspeed (teacher’s assistant), and X-23 is at the Academy to further her socialization. White Tiger, on the other hand, seems to have arrived to hassle Reptil, an original Academy student, about not being active in the Hispanic community.

Ideally, new characters should find a place to nestle in the cast, establishing their own niche or insinuating themselves inside pre-existing relationships to shake things up. Lightspeed is a great addition to the cast, a former team player, and Gage uses her sexual identity to allow her to relate to one of the established students. X-23 doesn’t get much time to show who she is, but Gage allows her and Mettle to discuss what it’s like to be a killer, and she’s tossed unwillingly into a love triangle. White Tiger does get a lot of time on the page, but Gage is less successful with her; she has a tragic origin and a Hispanic identity, but she’s not much more than that — we don’t even learn how she got her mystic amulet from her niece, Angela del Toro.

The team-vs.-team fights don’t help matters. Marvel Comics have had a template embedded into their DNA since Stan Lee crapped out the first superheroes after the Fantastic Four: heroes meet, fight, and then team up vs. the villain. Unfortunately, there are no villains to fight. The students in Second Semester fight the Avengers, X-Men, and Runaways, and somehow they avoid fighting former Initiative recruits when they show up. But there are no villains for them to team up and fight. The brief battles with other heroes wind down with a discussion by calmer heads, but discussions about the reasonableness of the other side’s point of view is not why I read comics. The lack of villains makes the heroes’ squabbles seem inconsequential.

Second Semester has only one fight with a villain. The entire student body battles a Dire Wraith hybrid; with the Wraith’s mind control, it’s a good fight, but one issue with a villain (two, if you count an issue of barely restrained scheming) out of eight is not enough. Gage tries to get the reader interested in the schemes of the future versions of the Academy’s original six students, but I’m not buying it. The future students are trying to bring about their nefarious (or not nefarious) future for mysterious reasons, but I have no criteria to judge that future on. Admittedly, one of the future versions tries to get Avengers Academy students killed, but that’s because the Wraith killed a lot of students in his timeline.

Gage is more successful with character development and humor. The guest stars get most of the good lines, but fortunately, he hasn’t lost his touch with his old characters. Hazmat and Mettle’s relationship progresses along expected lines, but they are sweet together, and the characters’ reasonableness means stupid misunderstandings are stumbling blocks rather than relationship breakers. Striker makes a big revelation, and even though I can see what Gage is aiming at, I’m not convinced previous characterization backs it up. Finesse and Reptil’s relationship is explored in the future but not much in the present, and Finesse finally meets Magneto, the man whose methods she wanted Quicksilver to teach her.

Second Semester has a ridiculous four pencilers for eight issues: Sean Chen (#21-2), Tom Raney (#23), Tom Grummett (#24-6), and Karl Moline (#27-8). I enjoy Chen’s clear, clean art, but Grummett’s is excellent as well; he has to do the bulk of the close-ups on the background characters, and he manages to differentiate them. Moline’s art has a loose, exaggerated style that looks nothing like the others’, and its incongruity makes it look worse than it actually is.

Although I still like the characters, Second Semester has to be considered a step down in quality. The book has too many characters without enough to do, and the plot puts too little external pressure on the characters to make them react in interesting ways. I hope the title will rebound, but since the extra students aren’t going anywhere, I have my doubts.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (2 of 5)

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26 April 2013

Prophet, v. 1: Remission

Collects: Prophet #21-6 (2012)

Released: August 2012 (Image)

Format: 136 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607066118

What is this?: In the far future, a warrior reawakes on a mission to reignite the old Earth Empire.

The culprits: Written by Brandon Graham and drawn by Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Graham, and Giannis Milonogiannis

I picked up both Hawkeye and Prophet, v. 1: Remission on the recommendation of House to Astonish. I was prepared for Hawkeye, but Prophet … I’m not sure what to make of Prophet.

Prophet gives the reader a feeling of being dropped into a world that has already been partially developed. Part of that is because Remission reprints #21-6; obviously, twenty issues came before Remission. What relationship they have to Remission is unknown, though, and when those original issues were published is unstated. (Mostly 1993-6, with one issue in 2000.) I presumed those 20th-century issues related to the stories in Remission, but a glance around Wikipedia shows the link is tenuous.

Prophet, v. 1: Remission coverRemission is set in the far future. Earth is vastly different, the landscapes altered and overrun by alien animals and sentients. John Prophet is belched forth onto this Earth by an armored digging machine that has been buried for an untold number of years. The newly awakened Prophet is sent on a mission — to go to a satellite and send out a beacon to the remnants of the old Earth Empire — that has been prepared so long ago a city has been born and thrived at one of the rendezvous points along his route.

Prophet’s quest is excellent sci-fi. The aliens are varied in custom and appearance, and Prophet drifts through their settlements. The technology is a combination of advanced and dilapidated, with animals frequently used for power. The fractured Earth society is stagnant, not creating or innovating. Humans are not seen anywhere — unless, as one alien intimates, the ape-like creatures that are farmed for meat are human.

Writer Brandon Graham doesn’t give Prophet much character — for good reason, as it turns out, since Graham moves on to other stories after #3’s big twist ending. Prophet is an enigma, a grunting action hero one can easily see being portrayed on screen by a mop-topped, early ‘80s Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no explanation of his past, no examination of his motives: he is born into this strange world, and his only reason for birth is his mission. He is as reflective as a brick wall, and he does not question the elaborate preparations that bespeak a long-term plan; he only acknowledges their usefulness.

Artist Simon Roy is perfect for this arc. Roy, who is also co-credited for the story, draws a world that has only tinges of the familiar. His aliens are weird, the landscapes forbiddingly strange. His Prophet is brutish and stoic. Roy’s style also has a tinge of the doodles in a high schooler’s notebook — appropriate for such an imaginative and epic work.

For the rest of Remission, Graham tells one-issue stories from elsewhere in the universe. The stories presumably arise from the events at the end of #23, but only #25 explicitly says so. Each individual story is good, but their episodic nature saps the momentum of that great first arc. The lack of continuation and continuity throws the readers’ assumptions about the series’ nature into question. What is this series about? Who specifically is it about? Will any of these stories mesh, or are they vignettes to give the flavor of Prophet’s universe? I believe they are related, and people or places in #24-6 will be important. But that’s a belief, with no real evidence to support it.

Still, they are enjoyable stories, if lacking in back story. Issue #24 features a shorter quest, in many ways echoing Prophet’s in #21-3. The best of the latter three stories is #25, which follows a robot wakened by Prophet's signal; Jaxson is a automaton veteran of the Earth Empire’s wars who now is stoically getting ready for another. The final issue is less effective, without much struggle and without any pathos. But it does introduce the Old Man, who was mentioned in #25. The art for the three issues — by Farel Dalrymple, Graham, and Giannis Milonogiannis, respectively90 — is very good, but they lack some spark that Roy’s art possesses. Emma Rios contributes a five-page story that is opaque, both in art and story, to the point of nonsensicalness.

I enjoyed Remission, but I wonder, what is it about? Is there a larger story here? I feel there has to be, given the hints laid down during #21-3, but I cannot guess its shape or color. I am tempted to pick up Prophet, v. 2: Brothers, but as good as Remission is, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy it as a long-form story.

Rating: Image symbol Image symbol Image symbol Image symbol (4 of 5)

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