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

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

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.

Verdict

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 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0785163239/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0785163239&linkCode=as2&tag=jensaq-20 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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