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

05 February 2016

Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted?

Collects: Edge of Spider-Verse #2, Spider-Gwen #1-5 (2014, 2015)

Released: December 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785197737

What is this?: In a world in which the radioactive spider bit Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker, Peter is dead from his own stupidity and Gwen is Spider-Woman.

The culprits: Writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez

When Gwen Stacy first appeared as Spider-Woman in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, I admit I had trouble seeing the appeal. Like the rest of Spider-Verse, a series that traded more on novelty and combinatorix than ideas, Spider-Gwen seemed like a product of trying endless combinations of characters and shades of Peter Parker to see which fit roughly in the ol’ Spider-Shaped Hole.

After a little thought, I did understand why Spider-Gwen might have caught on. Gwen Stacy has been dead so long she feels like a new character; a Gwen designed for the 21st century is far different than the hip / mod woman who died more than 40 years before. She is also the most prominent girlfriend killed to create a plot point or give character development to her boyfriend; flipping the script, so that she is the hero in a world where Peter Parker has died because of Gwen’s heroic identity, is novel, if not the most complex idea. Also, the Gwen Stacy in Spider-Verse wasn’t sexualized in any way. She was a hero who happened to be female — refreshing and sadly unusual.

Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted? coverSo despite my skepticism, I decided to give Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted? a try. My specific reservations may have been misplaced, but I wasn’t wrong to be uncertain about the ongoing title.

Still, the book delivers on distinguishing itself from most mainstream comics. The cast is more gender diverse than most Marvel (or DC) comics; that should be a given in a female-led book, but I suppose nothing’s a given when it comes to women in comics. The book has more racial diversity than most, although Glory Grant, Hobie Brown, and Randy Robertson don’t have many lines. The book also returns other long-dead characters from the grave: Gwen’s father, George Stacy, plus Det. Jean DeWolff and Ben Parker.

The Spectacular Spider-Ham also shows up, as a hallucination offering Gwen advice after a concussion. It’s is a nice callback to the Spider-Verse crossover, but I didn’t particularly care for that storyline. More objectively, although Spider-Ham is amusing, his silliness is completely at odds with the rest of the story and with the seriousness a traumatic brain injury.

The art, though … I may be in the extreme minority on this, but the art makes this book hard to read. Much of this can be traced to the color palette, courtesy of colorist Rico Renzi Pinks and purples and greens and yellows don’t go together, and they give entire pages a nauseating / bruised look. Is the goal to make readers unsettled all the time? The narration doesn’t support this. Plus, green and purple are Marvel’s go-to villain colors. Are we supposed to interpret Spider-Gwen’s dimension as a villainous or anomalous timeline?

Spider-Woman carries some of that purple / pinkish in her costume, which artist Robbi Rodriguez seems to have designed by picking up design elements other heroes have been mocked for, then adding boat shoes. Her hoodie isn’t any better today than Ben Reilly’s was when he was mocked for it during the Clone Saga two decades ago. (Still, you can buy Gwen’s hoodie if you want. I’m not saying you should … and for those who object, saying Ben’s costume had a sleeveless hoodie, well, you can buy a sleeveless Gwen hoodie at the same site.) A character who swings through the night shouldn’t wear white, and Gwen’s choice of that color is just as ridiculous as Moon Knight’s is. Plus, those pink / purple highlights are worse, in their way. I refuse to believe any hero should wear slip-on shoes. The bustier outline on her chest adds a feminine touch to a costume without feminine signifiers, but why would Gwen want to do that? It seems a strange addition to an otherwise progressive title.

But maybe my evaluation of Gwen’s fashion decision-making process is wrong. If so, it’s from lack of evidence: Writer Jason Latour doesn’t give readers much information about Gwen when she’s not wearing her costume. Her father mentions in passing that she’s in college in Edge of Spider-Verse, but we never see that. Most of her free time seems to be taken up not playing drums for Mary Jane Watson’s band, agonizing about being able to be a hero and a drummer at the same time. What does she do with the rest of her time? She visits Ben and May Parker in #4, but it’s clear she hasn’t done that in a while. Does she spend all her time as Spider-Woman? If so, why isn’t she burnt out?

It’s a shame so much time is spent on having Spider-Woman fight all the time; the best part of the book is Gwen relating to the Parkers, who obviously have a great deal of affection for Gwen. May explaining her feelings about Spider-Woman and Ben acting jollily paternal while Gwen wrestles with her guilt is a nuanced moment the book could use a more of. But Gwen doesn’t interact with her supporting cast much — the occasional discussion with Glory and Mary Jane about whether she’s in the band, a conversation or two with her father about her superheroics.

I’m not sure Rodriguez’s art fits the new Spider-Woman. It’s a great fit for rock drummer Gwen Stacy: slightly loose and jangly, slightly disheveled. The rough edges work for the violent police scenes as well. But it doesn’t seem to fit a superheroic story the same way, especially one so brightly (gaudily) colored. Also, Rodriguez’s art sometimes doesn’t quite convey all the information it should. On the nitpicky end, when Spider-Woman fights the Vulture in a hallucinogenic fog during #4, Latour’s dialogue indicates she sees three Vultures, but only two show up on the page. More concerningly, Rodriguez makes all blondes look similar: Gwen, her mother (in pictures), a female graffiti artist. And I’m still not sure what happens to Felicia Hardy at the end of #5; Spider-Woman knocked her out, but did the ninjas who had been attacking her take advantage of that? If they didn’t, why not?

I will admit I thought making the Bodega Bandit, a common thief, look like Hamburgler was amusing without distracting from the story.

Latour leaves most of the background of Gwen’s dimension undetailed, which leaves readers with questions. However, not all the questions are mysteries readers should expect to be patient about; the questions that come to my mind are ones that assume Latour hasn’t thought of the implications of his choices. For instance, in a world without Daredevil and the Fantastic Four (or maybe just without a Thing — Ben Grimm’s a cop), why isn’t a flying guy spewing hallucinogenic gas a bigger deal? What is the connection between Felicia Hardy and the women in the Mary Janes? It doesn’t seem like a French thief / beggar should come into contact with a group of girls from Forest Hills. Why does Spider-Woman think the Vulture believed he is “owed” and “entitled”? His dialogue indicates he wanted respect, although after being ripped off and stepped on by Norman Osborn for years, he is probably entitled to recognition, money, and a fair amount of retribution on Osborn.

And why do Latour and Rodriguez insult Steve Ditko? When Gwen runs across a thinly veiled Ditko’s Mr. A comic in the Vulture’s apartment, she uses graffiti to tell the Vulture, “You read turrible comics.” Why insult another creator’s works — especially when that creator co-created the character you’re writing? It seems incredibly petty. I can see having criticisms of Mr. A’s ideology, but many of Ditko’s creations have lasted more than a half century and might last a half century more. Will Spider-Gwen last that long? Will any of Latour or Rodriguez’s creations? Maybe … but I wouldn’t put a great deal of money on it.

Since part of my criticisms of Spider-Gwen is based on not learning enough about Gwen’s world and character, I’ll give her another chance, partially because popular and critical opinion runs so strongly against me. Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power will be out in May, and I’ve pre-ordered it. I can’t guarantee an open mind, though; that color scheme has an unsettling effect on my brain.

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

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29 January 2016

Luke Cage: Second Chances, v. 1

Collects: Cage #1-12, story from Marvel Comic Presents #82 (1992-3)

Released: September 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 320 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785192985

What is this?: Luke Cage takes his solo Hero for Hire business to the Windy City, where he allows a newspaper access to his cases.

The culprits: Writer Marcus McLaurin and penciler Dwayne Turner

Luke Cage, v. 1: Second Chances, v. 1 is 320 pages long, but it easily feels double that length. Reading each page is the equivalent of watching the minute hand on the clock in algebra class: You know you’re getting closer to the end, but you swear to Yeenoghu that you saw that hand move backwards at least once.

Cage, which premiered in 1992, returned Luke Cage to circulation for the first time since Power Man & Iron Fist ended in 1986. That absence is a crime; Luke Cage is too good a character to languish for more than half a decade, and returning Cage to the Marvel Universe is by far Cage’s greatest achievement.

Luke Cage: Second Chances, v. 1 coverWriter Marcus McLaurin and artist Dwayne Turner decided to update Cage for the ‘90s, which is a good idea. Turner’s modifications are largely successful. Turner gets rid of the afro, yellow shirt, tiara, and chain belt; the new Cage has close-cropped hair, no headgear of any sort, a tucked-in jacket that’s open in a deep V across the chest, and a large metal belt. It’s a good look overall, although the belt looks a lot like an upscaled version of Cage’s old tiara, hung around his waist. But McLaurin’s changes are just as dated today as Cage’s original trappings. The exclamation “Sweet Christmas!” is gone, although other characters use the not-at-all stupid minced oath “Dag!” Cage confronts evil rappers and street gangs, has an “attitude,” and uses ‘90s slang. The book is peppered with random references to mutants. In the end, the book could not be more ‘90s if it tried.

Another part of Cage’s ‘70s past that is jettisoned is his sleazy Times Square environs. Cage is primarily set in Chicago, which should make me like the book more. I’m a sucker for Marvel stories set somewhere other than New York; that’s one reason I enjoy Hulk stories. But as cartoonish as Luke Cage sometimes was in previous series, his setting was important and had an effect on the character. Cage, on the other hand, might as well be set in Minneapolis or Salt Lake City or Portland or any city with a few large buildings downtown. Chicago is a non-entity in this book, and neither the writing nor the art gives any indication Cage has set up shop in the US’s third-largest city.

During Second Chances, Cage is repeatedly harassed by Hardcore, a new villain created by Turner and McLaurin for this series. Unfortunately, Hardcore is an inadequate foil for Cage. He is, essentially, a middle manager, hampered by his boss’s restrictions and his underlings’ incompetence. Hardcore’s only offensive capability — a taser chain — is no threat to Cage. His personality, encapsulated by the occasional familiar quotation he flings at his adversaries and a Southern accent he often forgets to use, is not worth discussing.

Who is Hardcore working for? I’m going to spoil it for you, because it doesn’t matter: Cruz Bushmaster, son of Cage’s old enemy, Bushmaster. Why doesn’t it matter? Cruz appears only in #12, when his plan comes to fruition. He gains Cage’s powers, only to have them sucked dry by his apparently reborn father, who himself seems to die a few pages later in a fight with Cage and Iron Fist. It’s a pointless ending: second-rate villains disposed of in a second-rate story.

Turner and McLaurin made the excellent choice to use Dakota North, a private investigator who had made only a few appearances previous to Cage. Cage has no formal investigatory experience and no time for subtlety, so a character who can actually figure things out is a welcome addition to the cast. However, most of North’s investigations are about Cage himself and his family; she doesn’t help Cage much, and her investigations have little to do with the overall plot. Unfortunately, Turner draws her as an anatomical freak: impssibly thin but busty, long-legged, and wearing tight clothing. I realize that’s sadly not unusual for comics, but Turner also draws her clothes as dark, tight, and otherwise boring. Given that North was once a fashion model, she should never wear boring clothes.

The rest of the supporting cast is dull. Jeryn Hogarth, Heroes for Hire’s attorney, pops up but does nothing interesting. Analisa Medina, editor of the newspaper that follows Cage, is a nonentity. Mickey Hamilton, a photographer, follows Cage around, drops hints about Cage’s father, and serves as someone for Cage to rescue. We learn nothing about Mickey’s personal life or why he makes the choices he does. Troop, an orphan Cage takes in, has a character arc, but it’s a predictable one: he depends on Cage, Cage fails him, and then he joins a gang to get revenge on Cage. Given how much sympathy the book has for Troop, you can probably guess what he does when the gang sets a trap for Cage.

Even characters making guest appearances are dull. Cage’s last interesting client is in #2. The last interesting villain (Kickback) is in #4, and he’s not that interesting; his ability to time travel three minutes into the past or future allows for some interesting causal loops, but Kickback himself gets a complete character change between issues #3 and #4. Many innocents are subjected to the Power Man process, which eventually kills them, but they come and go like mayflies while Hardcase lingers on …

Some of the blame must fall on how Cage himself acts. He makes no strong attachments, other than Troop, pushing everyone else away. When Troop leaves, Cage is alone, with only his brash attitude and surliness for companionship despite living in the metropolis of Chicago. Despite having little trouble romantically in his previous series, he doesn’t date, and his only flirtation is with Medina. (That relationship goes nowhere.) Cage even bristles at the presence of Iron Fist, showing no interest in teaming up — or even being friendly to him.

I had planned on buying Second Chances, v. 2, but now I fear that book’s release. I realize Marvel wants more material featuring Cage out before his Netflix series is released, but it would be better to bury this series. Reading Second Chances, v. 1 is like being afflicted with a cold that won’t go away, one that doesn’t even give you entertaining fever dreams.

Rating: 0.5 of 5

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13 November 2015

Nova Classic, v. 3

Collects: Nova #20-25 and Fantastic Four #204-6 and 208-14 (1978-80)

Released: June 2014 (Marvel)

Format: 304 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785185529

What is this?: The last storyline of Nova’s solo title is diverted into a Fantastic Four plot, then forgotten in favor of something more interesting.

The culprits: Writer Marv Wolfman and artists Carmine Infantino, Keith Pollard, and John Byrne

One of the first superhero comic books I can remember reading is Fantastic Four #208. It was the early ‘80s, and a relative on my mother’s side gave me a stripped copy, without the cover.

The issue didn’t make me a Fantastic Four fan, although years later I was surprised to find the issue was penciled by Sal Buscema, which might account for my affection for his art. What the comic really introduced me to was the Marvel style of story: if you pick up a random issue, you’re likely to be dropped into the middle of an ongoing story that picks up threads from the previous issue and leaves others to be wrapped up by later issues.

Nova Classic, v. 3 coverFantastic Four #208 left me with so many questions. First, who the hell were these people who weren’t the Fantastic Four? Will they save Xandar from the Skrulls? Will the Fantastic Four survive their execution by old age? Can they stop the Sphinx? Is Dr. Sun as awesome as he appears?

So I bought Nova Classic, v. 3, to find the answer to those questions. (I would say that last one deserves a definite “yes,” although I needed to consult Tomb of Dracula to answer it.) Despite the name, Nova Classic, v. 3, is not a Nova book, not really; the last five issues of Nova introduce this trade, but Nova (and his supporting cast) appear in only one of the ten issues of Fantastic Four that close out the book.

To back up a bit: Nova is Richard Rider, a character introduced in his own short-lived ‘70s series (collected in the Essential Nova, one of my earliest reviews). He was created by Marv Wolfman and John Buscema (Sal’s brother) as a Spider-Man / Green Lantern hybrid: a teenager, with real teenage problems, who becomes a superhero by getting the powers of a dying space cop. The series lasted 25 issues and was cancelled mid-storyline in 1979. Fortunately, Wolfman, who was still the writer and editor of Nova, was also the writer and editor of Fantastic Four, so he inserted Nova and his cast in the middle of the then-current Fantastic Four storyline — #208, to bring this review back to the beginning.

In #204 through #206, the Fantastic Four had gone to Xandar to help defend it from the Fantastic Four’s old enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls. The Sphinx, the villain who gathered Nova and his allies and enemies together for a space trip, wanted to use the computers of Xandar to help him end his immortality. Unfortunately, the Xandarian computers showed him how to gain immense power instead, so he headed to Earth to gain vengeance on his home planet. The Fantastic Four switched adversaries with Nova and his allies.

So Nova Classic, v. 3, is split into two halves, which touch in #208. The Nova plotline sputters out after that. Nova disappears from the book, and the story of the Champions of Xandar, as Nova and his allies are called, defending Xandar is taken over in Rom the Spaceknight (#24). Since Rom is a licensed character, that story has never been reprinted, although IDW recently acquired the comics rights to the character and probably nothing will happen in the reprint realm but we can hope?

Nova itself was not a very good series, and #20-25 are representative in that regard. The issues included have Nova outing himself to his family, which is a nice touch — Richard can’t hide it any more, and we see a brief scene of him dealing with his family’s reactions. But after that, he’s quickly roped into the Sphinx’s shenanigans, and then he’s back to fighting forgettable villains, just like the issues preceding this book. (You don’t see Nova villains other than Sphinx very often, and there’s a reason for that. Marvel also killed the rest of the Champions of Xandar — and Xandar — off panel in Avengers #260.) The only interesting bits in Nova other than Richard and his family dealing with his costumed identity are Dr. Sun facing off against the Sphinx, but that’s a brief scene without a real resolution.

The other half of Nova Classic, v. 3, on the other hand, is a decent-to-good Fantastic Four story. The Fantastic Four are called to aid the Xandarians against the Skrulls. This time, the Skrulls gain the upper hand, and three members of the Fantastic Four are captured and executed — in a sense. The Skrulls subject them to an aging ray, which will kill them in three days. It’s a needlessly cruel way to kill, but it fits the Skrulls and their hatred of the Fantastic Four. The executed heroes then escape and meet up with the Champions of Xandar on Xandar.

Once the Fantastic Four starts pursuing the Sphinx, the storyline gets a little flabby; #209 reads like a well-chosen, well-written fill-in, with the team rounding up escaped space convicts in a spaceship graveyard. It has little to do with the ongoing plot, and it introduces Reed’s idiotic robot HERBIE into the comics. After the Fantastic Four reaches Galactus and tries to convince him to fight the Sphinx, Galactus makes them spend an issue fetching him a herald, which should give the Sphinx time to destroy the Earth a few times over. Still, the individual issues are exciting, and they ramp up the tension nicely. (Except for #209.)

The ending of the storyline is a little weak. Galactus uses an ability I’ve never heard of him using to battle the Sphinx, and the solution to solving Reed, Sue, and Ben’s aging problem is to have Reed solve it after Reed has been declared too weak to do anything. The story does introduce Terrax, though, and it also has a nice Terrax-vs.-the-old-FF fight.

The art improves markedly throughout, going from Carmine Infantino’s scratchy, static drawing to the smooth lines of Keith Pollard (#204-6) and the first Fantastic Four issues drawn by John Byrne (#209-14). (Byrne and Pollard match up pretty well, in fact.) Pollard’s a little weak on the chaotic, hand-to-hand battle royales between the Fantastic Four and the Skrulls, but Byrne shows why he would be associated with Fantastic Four for years; his old versions of the team actually look like they are elderly (albeit elderly people with superpowers), and the Sphinx looks like a credible threat to Galactus. Their fight lacks any cosmic touches, but that’s OK, I suppose.

I think the best way to look at Nova Classic, v. 3, is as a Fantastic Four trade paperback with six issues of Nova bolted on. Unfortunately, $35 for a reprint of a bunch of ‘70s Fantastic Four issues is a bit steep, even if those issues do reprint the first appearance of Terrax and some nice Byrne work.

(And the book is even missing a Fantastic Four issue! In #207, Johnny Storm enrolls in New York’s dumbest college — appropriate, given that Johnny’s pretty dumb himself — and is used by the Monocle, the college’s dean who has used his advanced degree to come up with an imbecilic name, to steal Mr. Fantastic’s inventions. With all that stupidity in evidence, it’s Spider-Man who handily saves the day.)

Despite my affection for Nova Classic, v. 3, I really can’t recommend it unless you’re hunting for a Fantastic Four story that you haven’t read. In that case, it’s going to be a pleasant surprise.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Half Fantastic Four symbol (2.5 of 5)

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06 November 2015

A Referral Post to Remind You I'm Alive

I know I haven’t posted much on this site in the last six months. I hope to rectify that soon, but until I post again, here are two posts that are about comics (but not trade paperbacks) on another of my blogs.


14 August 2015

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z, Book 1

Collects: Captain America v. 8 #1-5 (2013)

Released: June 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $24.99 (hardcover) / ISBN: 9780785168263

What is this?: In Dimension Z, which is ruled by Arnim Zola, Captain America fights Zola’s mutates and raises Zola’s infant son.

The culprits: Writer Rick Remender and penciler John Romita Jr.

I’ve never read much by writer Rick Remender before. Unfortunately, reading Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z, Book 1, didn’t encourage me to read anything else by him.

In Castaway, Captain America is snatched away from Earth on a magic subway car and brought to Dimension Z. There, Arnim Zola, a villain who engages in genetic modification of humanoids, implants a television with Zola’s face into Captain America’s chest and steals his blood to give Zola’s kids the Super Soldier serum. Captain America escapes, of course, and as he runs, he kidnaps Zola’s infant son, whom he names Ian after his grandfather.

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z, Book 1 coverRemender tries to cram too much into this arc. The emotional component of the story is Captain America raising Ian as his son and inculcating him with Captain America’s values while remembering his own difficult youth. Meanwhile, Captain America is dealing with the television infection and effecting regime change among the locals. Remender also tries to sell Zola’s plan, which is raising superchildren of his own while dabbling in horror science, as something we should be concerned about. Remender also has the difficulty of making Dimension Z anything other than a generic otherdimensional world.

Setting the story in Dimension Z is a mistake, I think. Dimension Z is uninteresting, in and of itself, a tortured landscape that doesn’t distinguish itself from other tortured landscapes. (A few indigenous lifeforms liven up events, but they account for only a few pages.) Twelve years pass in Dimension Z, which is a bit of a cheat; it’s easy to say more than a decade passes, but little seems to change. Having Captain America fight for Dimension Z lowers the stakes considerably, since readers don’t care about it or its inhabitants or whether Zola conquers it. What happens in Dimension Z doesn’t matter to Earth, and Zola has conquered almost all of the dimension any way. Captain America isn’t going to stop the conquest or lead a revolution.

I can honestly say the first few throwaway pages, in which Captain America defeats the Green Skull, an ecological terrorist, in San Francisco, interested me far more than anything that followed it.

In an editorial that ran in place of the letter column in #1, reprinted in this volume, Remender traces the origins of his attraction to Zola. It shows; every scene with Zola raised my interest levels to detectable levels. Zola’s villainous patter, whether it’s about the qualities of revenge or his lack of bio-ethics, has a bit more verve than the platitudes about hope mumbled by Captain America amidst the hellscape that is Dimension Z.

Captain America, in an unfamiliar landscape and surrounded by unrecognizable life forms, will of course act like Captain America. He will stand up for the little guy, make the moral choices, and help against dictators. When a race of humanoids called the Phrox take him in, he incites his host into standing up to the tribe’s leader, calling him a tyrant. The tyrant kills Captain America’s host, causing Cap to pummel and exile the tyrant. Thankfully, the next eleven years pass uneventfully, because what possible complications could overthrowing a dictator-for-life cause for a community? None that I could think of.

On the other hand, Captain America lacks intelligence or foresight; he tolerates his Zola infection for more than a decade, but as a dramatic moment at the end of the book, he just cuts it out without little difficulty and no consequences. Why didn’t he do that a few issues before? He claims to Ian that the infection has been trying to take over his consciousness, but we see little evidence of this. Perhaps he just wasn’t annoyed with it enough yet. Eleven years of the thing, sure, but twelve ...? Not a moment more!

Ian fights a Captain of Zolandia.The art is provided by John Romita, Jr.. I am not a fan of Romita; his faces used to have lines in them where few human faces have lines in them. That’s not relevant here, though some of his panels are difficult to parse …

Romita is asked to draw a lot of monsters, which make up Zola’s army and the Phrox. Most of them seem like generic blocky humanoids, unremarkable enough that at times I was unable to tell which were friendly and which weren’t. Only the Captains of Zolandia, monochrome mockeries of Captain America, stand out, and they appear in only a few panels. (They stand out not only visually; the battle cry of three of the Captains is, “War!” “Injustice!” “And slavery for all!”)

The reliance on these monstrous humanoids is a problem, though. The mutates and Captains of Zolandia (modified mutates, probably) serve Zola; presumably they were warped by Zola from the genetic stock of the Phrox or a similar race. Unfortunately, both are so alien it is difficult to be truly horrified at what the mutates have become. The mutates behavior is evil, of course, but that would have happened if Zola had merely stolen Phrox children and raised them as his army. The mutates’ and Captains’ appearance don’t have the visual impact of the flashback panel in which Zola’s servant has been combined with a Doberman; the woman’s humanity gives the reader something to understand, be horrified about and empathize with. The Phrox and mutates … well, they’re both weird. Who’s to say which is weirder?

Jet Zola makes her dramatic entrance.Romita also seems to have trouble drawing children, but he’s a successful artist who has most likely seen a child. I don’t often give artists enough credit for what they are trying to do, so I have to ask myself what Romita is hoping to accomplish. Why does Ian appear to be about 5 or 7 a year after Captain America stole the infant? Probably the wastelands Ian was raised in toughened the child. In that case, though, why does Ian appear to be about 12 or 13 eleven years after that? I’m baffled. When Captain America takes Ian, his sister, Jet, seems to be 5 or fewer years old; twelve years later, she’s given a straps-and-bikini costume … She’s pretty young. Try not to sexualize her, John.

Flashback of young Steve Rogers and a young girl.Ian has a huge noggin, as do all the Depression-era children in Captain America’s flashbacks. Is Romita trying to say that despite their tiny bodies, they have to take on adult responsibilities? Unlikely, given that even the ones without obvious burdens are macrocephalic. Some sort of distorting lens of memory? But there should be more distortions if that were true. Are those giant craniums full of dreams for the future? It’s the Depression, so that’s unlikely. Are there contaminants in New York City, causing massive structural defects in its youth? That’s as likely — more likely — than anything else, but it’s not germane to the story.

The Castaway in Dimension Z storyline doesn’t end here. It’s continued in Book 2, and it’s possible that some of the things I have complained about here pay off in that book. But if Remender hadn’t tried to fit so much into Book 1, we wouldn’t have to wait.

Rating: Avengers symbol  symbol (1.5 of 5)

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13 March 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 1: Cosmic Avengers

Collects: Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1 and 1-3 and Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers #1 (2013)

Released: April 2014 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785166078

What is this?: The opening arc of Bendis’s run on Guardians of the Galaxy, in which the Guardians have to deal with aliens wanting to interfere with Earth.

The culprits: Writer Brian Michael Bendis and pencilers Steve McNiven and Sara Pichelli

I enjoyed the second volume of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, so I was worried when I heard Brian Michael Bendis was going to write the third volume.

Bendis’s style is vastly different from Abnett and Lanning’s. Abnett and Lanning rely on humor and action-filled plots, while Bendis is known for using naturalistic dialogue to fill his more leisurely paced stories. Unfortunately, Bendis’s dialogue causes many of his characters to sound alike, regardless of how they sounded before he started writing them. When Bendis writes solo titles, the singular Bendis voice is not a big problem, but it’s one of many concerns readers have raised on Bendis’s team books.

For some reason, despite no one particularly caring for Bendis’s work on team books, those books are still immensely popular. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, if anyone has the patience to unravel it.

Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 1: Cosmic Avengers coverBut I kept an open mind when I read Guardians of the Galaxy, v 1: Cosmic Avengers. In Cosmic Avengers, Bendis has chosen to make the central conflict between J’Son (occasionally spelled J-Son), the ruler of the alien Spartax, and his son, Peter Quill, who leads the Guardians under the name Star-Lord. J’Son wants Quill to quit adventuring with his scruffy friends and take his place as crown prince; Quill wants J’Son to butt the hell out of his life. J’Son also maneuvers members of the Galactic Council into putting Earth into quarantine, meaning J’Son is forbidding his son to go back to his home planet. Presumably, this is meant to pressure Quill to take J’Son’s offer.

The Badoon immediately take the quarantine of Earth as an invitation to invade the planet, hoping to conquer it before the other races can react and then presenting the conquest to the others as a fait accompli. (I think; it’s never spelled out why this new galactic policy on Earth makes the planet more vulnerable. The story does not say the Galactic Council has withdrawn longstanding protection of Earth or anything similar.) The Guardians — whose lineup mirrors that of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie: Quill, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, and Drax the Destroyer — and Iron Man react, and when the battle is over, the Guardians are the ones who are in trouble.

So Cosmic Avengers has a great deal of action, but it does not have much plot. Each of the three issues from Guardians of the Galaxy collected in the book has two threads: J’Son lecturing someone (Quill or the Galactic Council) and the Guardians fighting someone. In life as well as comics, lectures are generally boring, and Bendis’s trademark dialogue doesn’t help; the action sequences look pretty, but they are uncomplicated: the Guardians see evil, attack evil, quickly win.

Well, the art is pretty, but it’s sometimes confusing. I’m not sure Steve McNiven and Bendis were on the same wavelength at times. Iron Man is introduced in #1 floating in space, in front of a planet that looks like Mars while musing that it’s good that he decided to “go out into the universe.” Mars isn’t far out into the universe, but that’s where Iron Man must be, since he sees the Badoon show up to attack Earth. Mars isn’t always that close to Earth — 140 million miles, on average, 34 million at their closest approach, and 250 million miles away on their farthest — but perhaps it is much closer in the Marvel Universe.

The Guardians arrive soon after. How do the Guardians decide to launch a boarding raid on the Badoon ship? By floating through the vacuum. That suggests neither ship is going very fast, and it gives McNiven a chance to show off their stupid spacesuits, which consists of helmets for Quill and Gamora in addition to normal costumes. During the battle, Rocket laughs at something Groot does … but what is it? McNiven shows Groot tearing through Badoon, but that’s not remarkable. After the Badoon activiate the self-destruct button, Drax rushes back into the ship to rescue Gamora, but the next panel with the two of them show them aboard the Guardians’ ship, without even a suggestion that either was in danger. The disintegrating Badoon ship is then shown almost at Earth — which, again, isn’t that close to Mars.

(As an aside: More worrying is a scene in the next collection, Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 2: Angela. Quill refers to a distressing event that happened while the Guardians were “chasing Badoon,” a lightning-like flash that momentarily disoriented Drax but messed with Quill’s thinking. But Quill experiences nothing like that in any Guardians issue; however, Drax does seem off his game for a moment in #2 after an explosion that seems to be caused by a laser. Was this the incident Quill refers to? Quill doesn’t seem to notice the flash of light then. Or did it come in a crossover appearance?)

Bendis’s dialogue is also problematic. Iron Man, who joins up with the Guardians after the Badoon attack, sounds like a typical Bendis character, and Quill also speaks in that style. Quill is, on the face of it, someone who shouldn’t speak in a naturalistic style; as a charismatic leader of a bunch of ragtag rebels, he should be smooth and quick witted — more Indiana Jones than Woody Allen. Rocket doesn’t sound like a Bendis character, but he does try to make a truly awful catchphrase — “Blam! Murdered you!” — work, and it takes a while before his teammates object to its psychopathic tone.

Sometimes people say something completely out of character. Iron Man has no call to slag on Captain Britain, but when the Badoon attack London, Iron Man says he’s “not really” any good. If anyone should be suspicious of humanity’s potential to screw up the universe, it would be the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree, who awakened the supremely powerful “Destiny force” from Rick Jones, Captain America’s sidekick, during the Kree-Skrull War and Avengers Forever. However, the Supreme Intelligence says J’Son is “overstating [humanity’s] abilities and importance.” Another member of the Galactic Council would be a better choice to say this, unless the Supreme Intelligence is dissembling. Which he might be, although I don’t have enough faith in Bendis to believe that.

(As a second aside: The Galactic Council includes J’Son, the Supreme Intelligence, Emperor Gladiator of the Shi’ar, a Badoon, Freyja the All-Mother of Asgard, Annihilus … and the Brood. The Brood? As a galactic power? I know this lineup was set by Jonathan Hickman in Avengers, but the Marvel Universe must hold a more important race than the Brood. The remnants of the Skrulls? The Galadorians? And Rocket describes the Badoon as a “minor race” in Guardians v. 2 #7. What’s changed since then?)

However, I will say Bendis writes Groot’s dialogue properly. He and Black Bolt might be the only two characters Bendis can’t make sound like the rest of his characters. Bendis does give Groot the ridiculous regeneration ability, as he grows from a sprout to his normal, giant self over just a few pages in #3. I don’t know that it should be remarkable that Groot should return from almost complete dissolution so quickly, but it rankled.

The price of this book is outrageous. Cosmic Avengers is not worth $20. Three issues of the regular series is barely a taste of what’s to come, and the rest of the book is filler. Although it’s possible Bendis might follow up on some of the threads in the four short tales from Guardians of the Galaxy: Tomorrow’s Avengers — he did write them — I wouldn’t bet on it. Star-Lord’s origin in #0.1 is a revamped version of Marvel Preview #4 from 1976, but Bendis’s story covers far less of Quill’s life, smoothing out the improbable elements of his birth while glossing over everything between his mother’s murder and the present in a couple of speech bubbles. The new version does have coherence on its side, but other than a brief scene showing Quill defending a bullied girl, the story could have been summed up by Quill in a few lines: “A space prince knocked up my mom, then Badoon killed her ten years after I was born.”

Done. I’ll take the prorated price of the book from anyone who wants to give it to me.

Price aside, though, Cosmic Avengers is a book for die-hards — Bendis fans, or those who must know what is happening to their favorite Guardians. If you don’t fit into either category, skip this book … and the next one too, since the only important event in that book is the appearance of Angela, which is hardly a universe-shaking happening, no matter what the Watcher tries to tell us.

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

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28 February 2015

Bandette, v. 1: Presto!

Collects: Bandette #1-5 ()

Released: November 2013 (Dark Horse/ original comics from Monkeybrain)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781616552794

What is this?: With the help of her gang of urchins, Bandette, a young woman in sorta-France, is the world’s greatest thief — or just about.

The culprits: Written by Paul Tobin and drawn by Colleen Coover

The word to remember for Bandette, v. 1: Presto!, is “charming.”

The protagonist, a young woman whose nom du crime is Bandette, is charming. The stilted dialogue, which suggests a not-quite-fluid translation from French, is charming. The plots, which don’t take themselves seriously, are charming. Her moral standing — a master thief who sometimes aids the side of good but is not above helping herself to other people’s loot — is charming. Bandette’s personal credo — “Presto!” — is charming in its simplicity. Colleen Coover’s art, which tells the story admirably without worrying overly much about realism, is charming.

Bandette, v. 1: Presto! coverAt this stage in the review, you’ll know if this book is for you. Many people will have already written off Bandette as sickly sweet. That is not the case, though. Coover and writer Paul Tobin skirt that pitfall as deftly as is possible, keeping Bandette carefree and lighthearted without being cloying; the protagonist is confident and sure of her abilities in a way that allows her to remain unconcerned yet exhilarated in the face of assassins and bank robbers.

Bandette lives in a world that resembles but is not quite our own. It is a European world, full of dashing, daring thieves and international crime gangs and signs in French. Bandette makes allusions to European comics: the Chocobolik candy bar is a reference to Diabolik, the anti-hero thief from Italian comics; Inspector Belgique looks like he could have stepped out of Tintin; and at one point Bandette is pursued by the villainous motorcycle riders from the “Take on Me” video (by the Norwegian band A-ha). It’s likely I’m missing other references. Still, there are jarring notes; French urchins would hardly be likely to play baseball on the streets of any French city, for example.

Coover’s art is excellent, conveying the book’s light-hearted tone as well as the dialogue and plot does. Coover’s Bandette is acrobatic and graceful, almost always in motion, and unmistakably youthful. Although the style looks cartoony, Coover manages subtlety throughout the book — in the backgrounds, in the details, and even right in front of the readers’ eyes. (In two different scenes, Bandette and her chief rival, Monsieur, pick the other’s pocket; the thefts are obvious because that is what we expect stylish thieves do to one another, but Coover actually draws both thefts — details I missed on my first reading.)

The only criticism I have of Presto! is that the volume feels slight. When I stop to consider whether it is, I realize Presto! is a good value: a $15 hardback, 144 pages in color, collecting five (online) issues. No, the amount of content is fine; the amount of story is the problem. In Presto!, Bandette rights a wrong by stealing stolen artwork, stops a bank robbery, is targeted by an international crime syndicate, and agrees to “the great thieving race” with her greatest larcenous rival. That summary contains a great deal of action, but Presto! doesn’t leave the reader with that impression. The international crime syndicate makes one attempt on Bandette’s life, although future attempts are promised. The robbery and the larcenous justice are brief episodes meant to show Bandette’s character, supporting cast, and world. The volume ends as soon as the great thieving race is agreed to.

Perhaps, though, the story is cut at that point to leave the reader wanting more. I know it worked with me. I hope the second volume, Stealers Keepers!, will provide more of a complete story, although for another $15 for the other part of a single story, Bandette looks like less of a bargain.

The final 40-plus pages in Presto! fall into the category of “extras.” Tobin’s eight “Urchin Stories,” showing Bandette’s allies, are illustrated by as many different artists; Steve Lieber’s art for the Inspector Belgique story stands out by being reminiscent of Coover’s work without being a slavish imitation. After the eight short illustrated stories is Tobin’s prose piece featuring Daniel, one of Bandette’s urchins. This is the best of the extras; the story tells how Daniel met Bandette, fell in love with her (although he’d never admit it), and aided her on another adventure. The extras are rounded out by pages detailing the process of creating Bandette; Coover’s explanation of how she creates the art is much longer than Tobin’s script pages.

Presto!, then, is a charming, airy pastry rather than a substantial meal. But that is nothing to be ashamed of; we all need filling meals, but we still crave those pastries. In fact, we can never get enough.

Rating: Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol (4 of 5)

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20 February 2015

The Worst Marvel Crossover of the '90s

Last year, I finished reading The Complete Ben Reilly Epic, Book 6, which meant I had read, from beginning to end, all three of the Unholy Trinity of Bad Marvel ‘90s Crossovers:

• The Clone Saga
• Onslaught
• The Crossing

All three are terrible, terrible stories, produced at about the same time: around 1995 and 1996. That is, all three were churned out after the speculator boom of the early ‘90s and just as Marvel was heading into bankruptcy. (In fact, the Clone Saga ended with issues cover dated December 1996, the month Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection.)

All three of these crossovers are terrible. Whether they were commercially driven abominations or horrendously misguided attempts to overhaul a line, or both, each had confused storylines and a deleterious effect on a line.

Which, though, was the worst? This is a question that people will argue about; I have a feeling most fans’ answers would depend on which abused character they like the most. Still, I think some characters received a considerably shorter end of the stick than the others. (The Fantastic Four avoided the worst of this, although it should be noted that Atlantis Rising won’t be confused for Shakespeare any time soon.)


Onslaught is the least offensive of these mega-crossovers. For those of you who don’t know, Onslaught was a psionic entity created in Professor Xavier’s mind after he wiped Magneto’s mind. After ominous foreshadowing and the resolution of the long-dangling X-Traitor plot, Onslaught burst forth, took over New York with the help of Sentinels, and … didn’t do much. There was muttering of conquest, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Length: Relatively short. The actual crossover itself is contained in four trade paperbacks, and one of those doesn’t even have any X-Men titles in it. However, if you throw in the lead-up to the actual crossover, you have to include another three trades. The lead up and crossover ate up about fifteen months; the crossover itself blew over in a summer.

Spillover: The actual crossover (and some of its foreshadowing) pulled in quite a few titles, including the Clone Saga (see below). Incredible Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Thor all got caught up in the crossover, which is a shame, given that all those series (except Hulk ended when Onslaught did.

Creepy dude moment: When Jean Grey explored Professor Xavier’s thoughts in X-Men #53 and discovered a repressed memory (a flashback to Uncanny X-Men #3) that Xavier had a crush on Jean from the beginning. Not standing so close to him isn’t going to help when he can telepathically crush on her wherever she is.

Damage: To the X-characters, not much. Professor Xavier was shuffled off the page — you know, because of his crimes against humanity and whatnot. The character itself wasn’t damaged too much as what Onslaught did can be considered separate from Xavier. Mutants were hated even more, although that’s par for the course.

The rest of the Marvel Universe was remade by Onslaught (at least for a year). The Avengers and its subsidiary titles were all canceled, as was Fantastic Four; Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s well-received Captain America run was axed in favor of a commercial stunt. FF, Iron Man, Avengers, and Captain America were all leased to Image creators for a year. Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios got the latter two, while Jim Lee’s Wildstorm got FF and Iron Man. The titles were rebooted, with almost 35 years of continuity being tossed out for a year. Also: Liefeld drew the weirdest Captain America.

Mitigation: Sales rose on those old titles; all of them, except perhaps Captain America, needed the added attention and sales. More importantly, Onslaught wiped out the damage The Crossing caused, and that’s almost a blessing.

The Clone Saga

Now we’re getting into the heavy hitters. In the Clone Saga — a sequel to a ‘70s story that had to be confusingly retitled The Original Clone Saga — a clone of Peter Parker returns to New York to confront Peter. The clone, who calls himself Ben Reilly, is followed by Kaine, another clone who hates Ben, and the Jackal, who created those two clones plus others … Ben and Peter argue about who’s the clone, Peter steps down as Spider-Man when he loses his powers and has a baby on the way, and then a figure from the past comes to take credit for everything that’s happened in Peter’s life.

Length: Interminable. The crossover ate up two years of the four Spider-titles plus ancillary titles like Spider-Man Unlimited and Spider-Man Team-Up. More than 100 issues were thrown at this story! The creators backtracked, laid false trails, changed their minds (OK, so it was mostly editors and the business people who changed their minds), and generally squandered months and months of Spider-Man stories. The fruit of their labors filled eleven trade paperbacks.

It’s hard to get across how much ink and paper was wasted on the Clone Saga. Spider-Man has always been a character who can support the one-issue story, but combined with many throwaway stories were the idiocy of the Jackal and Spidercide, Gaunt and Seward Trainer, Scrier and Judas Traveler and hosts of other villains who had no purpose other than to look mysterious and prevent any resolution to the story.

And when they went to wrap it up, all it took was a four-issue story. Just one month! Why couldn’t they have done that a year earlier?

Spillover: Relatively little. Spider-Man’s troubles didn’t affect other titles much. The clone, going by the alias of Scarlet Spider, kinda joined the New Warriors, and he appeared as Spider-Man in an issue of Daredevil. The Clone Saga also brushed up against the status quos of Punisher, Green Goblin, and Venom, but no one cared about the Phil Urich Green Goblin at the time, and the Punisher and Venom series are both best forgotten. I mean, the Punisher had a ponytail, and no one wants to acknowledge that.

Really, despite the crossover allegedly being so popular, no one else wanted to touch it.

Creepy dude moment: When Peter smacked his wife. It was portrayed as an accident, Peter lashing out randomly after learning he was a clone, but it happened. One moment of frustration and insanity labeled Ant-Man a wifebeater forever, but the same standard wasn’t applied to Peter hitting Mary Jane. This is for two reasons: a) The storyline in which Ant-Man hit the Wasp was good and not best forgotten, like the Clone Saga, and b) People actually like Spider-Man.

Later, Peter tried to kill Mary Jane, but he was being mind controlled, which is understandable and normal behavior for superheroes.

Damage: After two years, the creators realized how badly the entire idea was, and they tried to put everything back where it was while providing a satisfying conclusion. What they did satisfied few, except in the sense that it allowed everyone to put the clone nonsense behind them and forget about it.

The Clone Saga, in its blind grasping for sense and sensation, committed several sins that should be unforgivable. It brought Norman Osborn back from the dead as the architect of the Clone Saga. It killed Ben despite his potential because he was a loose end and a reminder of the Clone Saga’s sins. It caused Mary Jane and Peter’s daughter to be stillborn, then held out hope that the child was merely kidnapped. It made Peter do bad things to Mary Jane.

It made Peter Parker into a clone for a while, which was stupid. It told us, “Everything you know is wrong.” Everything we knew was published by Marvel Comics, which should have been a tipoff that Marvel’s output was not the most reliable source.

Mitigation: The crossover had many ideas that were worth exploring. Peter having a child and moving on isn’t a bad idea, but there’s no reason he had to be labeled the clone for the idea to work. Kaine wasn’t interesting at the time, but he has been used well in the last few years. Getting rid of Aunt May was long overdue; it allowed Peter to grow some. I even have some sympathy for using Kaine to get rid of some of Spider-Man’s older adversaries, although the new Doctor Octopus didn’t pan out.

Most impressive is Ben Reilly. Seeing a different Peter, one who had been lost for years and coming back to a different Peter who had grown but had also gotten a bit lost, presented the reader with an interesting contrast. (Ben wouldn’t have cut a deal to allow for uneasy coexistence with Venom, but he also might not have given Sandman a chance to reform.) Ben’s existence was wasted, of course — except in the M2 Universe, which picked up on some of these threads in Spider-Girl.

Avengers: The Crossing

Iron Man kills a few women to hide a secret: he’s been working with Kang for years to help Kang, Mantis, and their Chrononauts invade Earth and conquer it using his time-travel powers. Kang does manage to erase Vietnam from almost everyone’s memories, but that’s about as far as his conquest goes.

Length: A little longer than the core Onslaught crossover but much shorter than Onslaught’s foreshadowing. The Crossing took place over half a year, and its contents — a mere 25 issues — were reprinted in a single oversized omnibus. (You can pick up the omnibus for about $30 on Amazon, although two insane people gave the book three-star reviews. Three stars! Why not give the book a whole constellation?)

Spillover: None, as far as I can see. The number of titles involved was admirably restrained: only Avengers, Force Works (formerly Avengers West Coast), Iron Man, and War Machine were involved in the story. Thor and Captain America stayed the hell away from The Crossing, which shows excellent sense.

Creepy dude moment: Everything Iron Man does in this book. In addition to killing three unarmed women (and no men), he blasts Wasp so hard the measures taken to save her life turn her into a wasp-human hybrid. (She seemed fine with that, though.) He kidnaps a couple of other women close to him. I suppose you could make a case that this is the flipside to the charmingly predatory nature of Tony’s normal persona — he uses and seduces women — but this turn has the subtlety of an atom bomb lobbed through a store window.

Damage: Holy God, did this do a number on Iron Man. Iron Man had been corrupted by Kang and was working for him for pretty much the entire Marvel Age of Heroes, although the story gives him no motivation to do so. To protect his secret, Tony declared war on women. And this is the guy upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built about a decade later!

Because a series starring a traitorous murderer would have been a problem, Marvel killed off old Tony and replaced him with a teenage version from a different timeline. Teen Tony couldn’t be too different, though, so the fight that introduces him to the main Marvel Universe ends with him suffering heart damage.

The art is inconsistent and usually awful. Instead of giving the secondary titles a sales boost, The Crossing failed War Machine and Force Works so thoroughly they were cancelled two months later. Obscure, best-forgotten continuity is crucial to the story, and readers are expected to remember things like who Yellowjacket II and Gilgamesh are. The story has tons of forgotten and unimportant characters wandering through it; sometimes we’re even supposed to care about them. (The death of Gilgamesh is supposed to be momentous, and the story can’t get that across.) Mantis wanting revenge on the Avengers makes no sense, and Kurt Busiek retconned her (and most of Kang’s soldiers) into Space Phantoms in Avengers Forever. Adult versions of Luna (Quicksilver and Crystal’s daughter) and the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s kids run rampant throughout the story, working for Kang, and no one can figure out who they are. War Machine has a horrifically ugly suit of armor. (I wonder what happened to it …?)

Mitigation: Onslaught / Heroes Reborn and Avengers Forever cleaned up so much of the mess from this crossover that we don’t have to remember it any more. Otherwise, this book had no redeeming features.


The Crossing is the worst of these; it’s so bad, the omnibus should be marked as hazardous waste. Still, it doesn’t have much of an effect on modern Marvel continuity. The Clone Saga gave us the returned Green Goblin and Kaine; Onslaught briefly ended decades of continuity in tangentially related titles and really launched the “Professor Xavier is a monster” idea into the wild. Again: The Crossing was published in 1995. Iron Man came out in 2008. In 13 years, the worst storyline in Marvel history was wiped from the timeline as thoroughly as Kang wanted to wipe out the resistance to him.

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14 February 2015

Jack Kirby and creator credit

Last fall, the heirs of Jack Kirby reached a settlement with Marvel Comics. The terms of the settlement haven’t been announced, at least not that I have seen; it’s probable the settlement included cash for the family and increased recognition for Kirby in the comics and other media in which his co-creations are used.

The recognition is welcome news; the threat of legal action might have been part of the reason Marvel did not include Kirby’s name in many places it should have before. (Another part of the reason — and you can decide what proportion this makes up — is Marvel being stubborn and / or stupid.) The money is also good news for Kirby’s family; Jack Kirby is no longer around to be rewarded, but his family would have benefited if he had received in life the kind of monetary recompense his reputation suggests he deserves, so it makes sense they should receive some reward now.

I have been thinking about my feelings about the case for some time now — probably too long, as the case is passing below the public’s horizon. I admit I was somewhat ambivalent to the Kirby case. I have no idea what his heirs were legally entitled to, and in truth, it seems no one else does either. Decades of copyright decisions suggest the Kirby family would have lost, but given the Supreme Court’s interest, the outcome might — might — have been different this time. I often wondered why I followed the case at all; I have no affection for Kirby’s art, and none of the heirs created anything, making the legal battle one between a corporation fighting for profits vs. a family fighting for a ghost — an imaginary person fighting for money vs. real people fighting for a former person. Neither side appealed to my emotions.

(As an aside: While I don’t care for Kirby’s art, I do respect his place in comic history, and he remains one of the premier — perhaps the premier — imaginations to have ever worked in the comics industry.)

I should be sympathetic to the creative side of any argument, but the heirs’ contention that Kirby co-created Spider-Man, even though the evidence of this is thin at best and evanescent at worst, distressed me. Building the case for Kirby’s greatness shouldn’t mean diluting the credit given to others. Worse, it was Steve Ditko’s creation they tried to horn in on, and Ditko’s legacy is already dimmed by the shadow Kirby cast on Marvel’s Silver Age. I understand this contention was a bargaining chip; when you set out your demands, you always stake out ground as far forward as you can so you can give up some ground and still get what you want. Still, it rankled.

But this did make me wonder if too much stock is placed in the original creators and too little in subsequent creators. We moan and complain when Kirby isn’t acknowledged as a co-creator of certain characters, but when X-Men 2 broadly (but recognizably) adapted parts of Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s God Loves, Man Kills and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X stories, we let that go by. It is enough if Kirby and Stan Lee are recognized as creators of the X-Men. But which comic creators had a greater effect on that movie? I would argue the Claremont, Anderson, and Windsor-Smith did far more to make X-Men 2 the outstanding movie it was than the men who created the X-Men and wrote the title for about two years.

Or to take an example entirely within the realms of comics, we can look at Iron Man. Iron Man was officially created by Kirby, Lee, Larry Lieber (who wrote Iron Man’s first appearance, Tales of Suspense #39), and Don Heck (who drew ToS #39). Lee claimed to have come up with the idea — he always claimed that, even when it might not be true — and according to Heck, Kirby designed the Iron Man armor, while Heck created the look of the other characters, including Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. But the original bulbous Iron Man armor was quickly done away with, and the more streamlined red-and-yellow armor we associate with Iron Man was designed by Ditko in ToS #48. So what did Kirby contribute that made a meaningful impact on the character? Little to none in the art department, it appears, but Ditko’s iconic design doesn’t get any consistent acknowledgement.

Of course, it’s possible Kirby contributed to the idea of Iron Man in the early stages; Kirby’s supporters often point out Lee’s bolts of inspiration were rarely as purely Lee’s as Lee claimed. Also, Kirby isn’t around to say what he did or didn’t do. Given that Kirby was a great idea man, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his thoughts were incorporated into Iron Man’s origin.

But that brings me back to what I was wondering before. We remember his long run on Fantastic Four (more than 100 issues) and, but Kirby didn’t stick around some of the Silver Age titles he created for very long: only six issues on Hulk, three of the first five issues on Iron Man, seventeen issues on X-Men. Seventeen issues isn’t nothing, but it’s important to note that X-Men was, until the late ‘70s, the biggest failure of Marvel’s Silver Age explosion. The title was cancelled in 1970 and turned into a bi-monthly reprint title until 1975, when Chris Claremont and a long string of talented artists made it into Marvel’s #1 title. How much credit — not in the sense of “created by” but in the sense of making something a success — do Lee and Kirby deserve for pursuing an idea for seventeen issues (21 for Lee) that the market essentially rejected?

Lee and Kirby deserve some credit, yes. But the person who should get the largest thank you at the end of an X-Men movie is Chris Claremont. Even if he didn’t create most of the characters, he’s the person who made many of them — Wolverine, Magneto, Storm — interesting. Without him and his co-creators, no one would want to watch an X-Men movie, let alone five of them.

This brings me to an idea I considered for some time. Since the versions of these characters that are best known are the movie versions, I thought about looking at who created what in the movies. At one point, I thought about trying to find the creator who was most valuable in the sense of box office receipts, but that would involve some arcane breakdowns of credit — what percentage of credit should be given to Wolverine for the X-Men movies’ success vs. Mystique or Magneto? — that was unprofitable.

(Besides, the answer for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe would almost certainly be Stan Lee.)

Without Jack Kirby, it is somewhere between possible and likely that Marvel wouldn’t have survived the early ‘60s. The characters we know would be greatly different or wouldn’t exist at all. But it’s been 45 years since Kirby left Marvel the first time, which means dozens of other creators have altered, edited, and recreated what the characters and concepts he created. His influence can still be seen in Marvel’s output, both on page and screen, and some of what they publish hasn’t changed much since Kirby put aside his pens.

One of the greatest literary talents of the early 20th century was Thomas Wolfe, who wrote sprawling novels with beautiful prose. I mean really sprawling — the original manuscript of his first novel was more than 1,100. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, cut Look Homeward, Angel considerably and helped make it a success. Does it harm Wolfe’s literary reputation to acknowledge that Perkins’s considerable work made Wolfe’s better? And if acknowledging that sort of collaboration improved a novel, supposedly a solitary effort, how does acknowledging the contributions of others harm the original creators in comics, which often relies on collaboration?

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06 February 2015

Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #215-23 (1989)

Released: November 2014 (Dark Horse)

Format: 220 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616553746

What is this?: Conan becomes a implacable, unbeatable killing machine as he works his way toward Turan.

The culprits: Charles Santino (writer) and Val Semeiks (co-plotter / artist), with help from Larry Hama, Don Perlin, Michael Fleisher, and Gary Kwapisz

So far this year, I’ve read the first volume of Batman ‘66, Astro City: Life in the Big City, most of Mark Waid’s Daredevil run, the first book of Waid’s Indestructible Hulk, Umbrella Academy, v. 1: Apocalypse Suite, and Fantastic Four, v. 2: Road Trip. So of course the book that I’m going to write about is Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories coverWhat interests me about Blood and Ice is writer Charles Santino’s run, which stretches from #215 to 220. Santino took over for James Owsley (today known as Christopher Priest), who improved the title immeasurably by giving Conan a supporting cast; if Conan was a static character in the Marvel Comics — and he was — Owsley’s supporting cast was allow to grow, to act in surprising ways, and to die.

It was a welcome change. Before that, Conan had been stuck in endless retreads of one- and two-issue stories where Conan had battled some uncanny threat, been involved in some way with a comely lass, and then moved on to the next uncanny threat / comely lass. It was boring and short sighted.

With Conan having jettisoned the last of his supporting cast at the end of the Owsley run, Santino and co-plotter / artist Val Semeiks embarked on a series of stories unique in the Conan canon: a series of brutal one-issue fights as Conan makes his way to the eastern nation of Turan. Never in the original Robert E. Howard stories, the movies, or Conan the Barbarian has Conan seemed so much of a ‘90s superhero.

The break beginning of this volume is well chosen, although my guess is that it was a fortunate accident. In #214, which is in the previous volume (Chronicles of Conan, v. 27: Sands upon the Earth and Other Stories), Conan is trapped in a mirage city. It’s a story indistinguishable from dozens of others in the Marvel series; a seemingly inescapable trap, a few monsters to bash, a scantily clad maiden hanging around the periphery of the story.

But in #215, the start of Blood and Ice, the story direction changes. Gone are the pretty girls; magic is violently shoved from the plots. In the first story, Conan is captured by Turanians at a desert outpost. Well, “captured” — the soldiers are able to move him along but not subdue him in an attempt to enslave him to work the giant water wheel beneath the outpost. Conan, unbowed, not only kills Turanian soldiers but destroys the water wheel and breaks the Turanian’s slavery. It seems as if most of the slaves die in the carnage as well, but that’s a small matter.

In “Death Pit” — the simple title is a taste of things to come — Conan can’t be beaten, can’t be stopped. He is a force of nature, destroying the works of true villains. The Turanian soldiers — agents of an encroaching imperialistic nation turned slavers to make the machinery of daily life turn fluidly — are more effective as villains than any number of black wizards or monsters; they represent a commonplace sort of injustice, and Conan will not let himself submit to that injustice. In the end, he smashes not only the soldiers but everything they have brought to the outpost.

The following issues show Conan against armies of men who not only cannot defeat him but also cannot bloody him. He destroys a large army of cultists in #216, invading their temple and bulling through their attempts to subdue him; the only beautiful woman is sacrificed by the cult early in the story, and Conan can’t save her. In #217, he’s back to battling a magical guardian in a deserted city, but he’s trapped on a small island in #218 and has to kill a homicidal band of tribesmen to gain their boat and escape. He fights through a Turanian army in #219, escaping by stealing superior horseflesh. Santino finishes his run by showing Conan pursuing a band of gold thieves; they stole what he had his eye on, and so he relentlessly follows them through the snow until they are all finished.

Santino’s Conan shows no cunning and very little guile, which is far from the character that Robert E. Howard created. Santino’s Conan is the greatest swordsman ever, it seems, indomitable and undefeatable — the very epitome of a superhero, except for his massive body count. Santino’s issues are bloody little fables about an unstoppable force, with Conan destroying all who tries to slow him. I’m not sure if these stories are good, but they are fascinating; why had no one done this with Conan before? Was it because this level of violence wasn’t permitted before the late ‘80s? Or was it because even the most mediocre of writers who had written Conan the Barbarian before this understood that that was not truly who Conan was?

Although I’m attributing most of this interpretation of Conan to Santino, Semeiks is listed as co-plotter as well as artist. Semeiks had graduated to co-plotter with Owsley, whose issues were greatly different in tone; unless Semeiks was able to exert considerably more influence on Santino than he was on Owsley, it’s unlikely the new direction was his. Semeiks continued to supply very good art during this time, fluid and action-filled, but it lacks the visceral brutality and blood to back up this version of Conan. It’s probable that editorial prevented Semeiks from drawing that level of brutality, though.

After Santino and Semeiks depart the title, the rest of the volume becomes much more like Conans past. Larry Hama’s #221 is an eerie little story that would not have been out of place in a ‘50s horror comic. Hama writes the story in verse, and his versification detracts from the story’s impact; a story with minimal dialogue / narration would’ve made the story truly memorable instead of an intriguing curio. Don Perlin shows Conan pursued by and confronting his own revenge squad; unsurprisingly, with all the men Conan has hacked to pieces over the years, Conan remembers none of them. The poignant revelation of their pointless attempt at revenge against a man who never hated them and didn’t even recall maiming them is balanced by Conan’s incompetence against a bunch of crippled buffoons. The volume ends with a story by Michael Fleisher, whose Conan is as different from Santino’s as possible: Fleisher’s Conan displays almost preternatural foresight while helping a comely lass recover a religious icon.

I don’t think I can recommend Blood and Ice for Conan fans. Santino’s interpretation of the character is too far off model to be convincing. On the other hand, his protagonist is a force of nature, compelling and readable because of his direct, brutal nature. I think even for a fan of sword-and-sorcery fiction, it is too simplistic, and six issues of it is altogether too much. However, if you can read #215 by itself, give it a try; I found myself reacting more emotionally to Conan’s struggles in that story than I had in total to the 100 issues before it.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol (2 of 5)

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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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