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

30 April 2016

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6

Collects: Detective Comics #408-26 and Batman #229-44 (1971-2)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401251536

What is this?: A chunk of early ‘70s Batman stories, mixing the first appearance of Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins with forgettable stories.

The culprits: Writers Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, and others and pencilers Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others

When I reviewed Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5, I said the Bat-titles were on the brink of something exciting. Batman and Detective Comics had shaken off the lingering funk of the Silver Age and was heading toward something much greater. So I was eager to read DC Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 — well, as eager as a person can get for a book after four years when you thought the book line was cancelled.

And — good news! — v. 6 is better than v. 5. But it’s only an incremental improvement, and the Bat-titles reprinted in this volume still feel like they are poised to become something different, something greater. They just aren’t quite there yet.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 coverYes, the Ra's al Ghul / Legion of Assassins story is sprinkled throughout the volume, but few other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery appear in the thirty-plus issues. Man-Bat and Two-Face each appear in one issue — with Two-Face beautifully drawn by Neal Adams — but each gets only as many issues as the embarrassing Ten-Eyed Man. Instead, most of the stories are single-issue mysteries, often with a supernatural tinge, that go nowhere.

Those mysteries, whether they have a supernatural element or not, are v. 6’s biggest problem. Some of them (mostly those with occult touches) are set in exotic locations, like Waynemoor Castle in northern England; some of them are set in the gritty streets of Gotham. Unfortunately, whether Batman is taking on circus freaks, hicks, or Shakespearean actors in Gotham or elsewhere, these stories become monotonous. Despite being solidly constructed mysteries, their flaws become more readily apparent than their virtues after the third or fourth in a row. All the ghosts and haunted castles Batman investigates have as much real supernatural content as the average Scooby-Doo episode, which takes some of the suspense out of the story. Issues that try to be socially relevant, dealing with youth gangs and urban crime, devolve into over-the-top action sequences, like when a group of teenagers threaten to blow up an apartment tower to get their demands listened to.

As a side note, O’Neil’s frequent asides asking readers whether they picked up on whatever clues Batman used to solve the crime annoyed me — not because of the device itself but because the clues are so rarely available to the reader. If your mysteries aren’t fair play, you don’t get to taunt readers that they aren’t as smart as the detective.

That being said, the Ra's al Ghul stories are classics for a reason. Beautifully drawn by Adams and full of menace, Ra's is the one villain who seems to worry Batman, the only adversary who requires the World’s Greatest Detective to have long-term plans. Adding a new dimension to the stories is Talia al-Ghul, Ra's’s daughter, a love interest who presents a puzzle Batman can’t solve; despite his undeniable attraction to her, she is the daughter of the Demon as well as being ruthless and a remorseless killer herself. Additionally, these stories knock the Batman canon of this era out of its unmoving, unchanging placidity. Although the League of Assassins stories don’t affect the continuity of the rest of the book, the storyline’s progression gives the book a sense of passing time that it doesn’t have otherwise.

Of course, it would be helpful if the cliffhangers in the League of Assassins storyline were followed immediately by their conclusions, but those issues are usually followed by unrelated issues from the other Batman title. I understand chronological order is important, but in a book like this, story coherence is more vital.

The art in v. 6 is outstanding. Adams provides covers for almost all the issues, and he draws about a quarter of the stories. This is Adams’s work at its finest: perhaps not as explosive as his work on X-Men a few years earlier, but each panel is beautiful, fully adapted to Batman’s world of shadows. The concessions he makes to Batman’s more grounded world makes his artwork tighter, more focused. Most of the remaining issues are drawn by Bob Brown and Irv Novick, both of whom worked with Adams on the previous volume. Neither is Adams’s equal, but both are solid artists with outstanding storytelling and an ability to fit the story into a many panel layout.

Scattered among the work by Adams, Brown, and Novick, the three issues drawn by writer Frank Robbins stand out, and not in a good way. Robbins is a good artist for a writer, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. (Robbins was primarily an artist in his career, but he splits the writing chores in v. 6 with O’Neil.) His style has a thick line and lacks the fluidity of the rest of the artists; even if he were a better artist, his work wouldn’t fit in v. 6.

One warning about this book: although it says it contains sixteen issues of Batman, that’s misleading. Two of the issues, #233 and #238, have only the cover reprinted because their contents are reprints. The covers of other issues of Batman and Detective promise back-up stories featuring Batgirl, Robin, or some other hero, but those aren’t included even though at least some of them are original stories.

On average, v. 6’s quality is only incrementally greater than v. 5. However, it contains so many iconic and important moments that it feels a great deal better at times. Nothing in v. 5 compares to shirtless Batman dueling Ra's al-Ghul, the first appearances of Ra's and his daughter, the first time Ra's is resurrected by the Lazarus Pit. I’ve read these issues before, in color, in Batman: Tales of the Demon, which was superior to v. 6 — and not just because Tales of the Demon was in color. Learning the context in which those Ra's stories initially appeared makes them more impressive, since the League of Assassins stories are nothing like the rest of the era. But actually reading those non-Assassin stories makes reading v. 6 feel like a chore at times, a bit of self-education that is unnecessary.

Still: shirtless Batman vs. Ra's al-Ghul. That fight was pretty awesome.

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

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22 April 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #7-11 (2015)

Released: March 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785191674

What is this?: Rocket and Groot survive a frozen planet with poison wolves, then get a glimpse of the future; Rocket searches for the Halfworld Bible.

The culprits: Writer Skottie Young and artists Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade

You can expect a drop-off in quality when a popular artist stops drawing a title. It’s probably going to be even worse when that artist remains as writer.

Such is the case with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer. I have no idea how long Skottie Young planned to remain as writer / artist for the title — and I’m too lazy / disinterested to look it up — but after Rocket Raccoon #4, he gave up the artist part of his job to Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer coverThe result is a book that is significantly less interesting than what readers expected when they read Young’s Rocket Raccoon #1. The book is competently written — everything makes sense — but the story lacks the extra oomph that Young’s art supplies. The star is not playing to his strengths.

Young is not a polished writer. The plots are serviceable but unremarkable. The dialogue is not crisp or memorable, and I think we can all agree Rocket should never say “stupid fresh,” even if the expression is better than the “murdered you” he was using for a catchphrase. His Rocket makes a lot of references to Earth TV (including the season 6 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies for a space raccoon.

Young has three stories in the five issues of Storytailer: Rocket and Groot surviving on an ice planet for two issues, a glimpse of a possible future where Groot goes crazy, and a two-parter where Rocket finally gets to the bottom of his origins. The future story is pointless, and even Rocket remarks on the clichéd ending. The ice planet story is fine but very forgettable; introducing poisonous dire wolves as a threat to Groot’s survival is a nice complication, but Young is the one who decided Groot would be so hard to kill in the first place, so he doesn’t get any points from me on that score.

Storytailer’s ending is problematic, though. In the final two issues, Rocket gets a lead on the Halfworld Bible (called “Gideon’s Bible” in the original Rocket Raccoon limited series). He finds the bible, and with the help of another uplifted raccoon from Halfworld, he deciphers and reads his own backstory. (Again: why has he forgotten it? A footnote would be nice — I’m looking at you, assistant editors Charles Beacham and Devin Lewis.) Rocket then walks away from all of it — the explanation of his history, Halfworld, his fellow raccoon — because he feels it’s stupid. Which it is, but since I’ve read that story, I know it’s stupid in a daffily charming way. Denigrating the original Rocket Raccoon LS is a needlessly insulting; that story, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Mike Mignola, hangs together as a memorable four-issue story, which is more than I can say for Young’s run. And if Young was going to make a callback to the original limited series, why didn’t he use a character from that story to help Rocket find the Halfworld Bible? Why invent a new character for Rocket to reject?

As I said in my review of A Chasing Tale, Young’s art is a secondary draw for me, but I felt its absence in Storytailer. Part of the problem with Young’s writing is that he’s writing for artists who aren’t named Skottie Young. Andrade is not up for drawing scenes with all the white figures and backgrounds in #7 and 8, which is a problem since those two issues take place on an ice planet. Andrade’s storytelling gets muddled at times, and it is especially difficult to distinguish what’s going on with all that white. (Or maybe colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu is at fault, although Beaulieu did a fine job in the other issues.) Sometimes Young’s dialogue has to help Andrade out — like when Andrade is supposed to show eggs as big as Volkswagens, but nothing in the art hints at the eggs’ size.

I enjoyed Parker’s Rocket in issues #9-11, and his future Rocket in #9 is nice (although the scar over the eye and small bits missing from the ears is not the most original way to show “grizzled warrior”). But other elements of his art are lacking. A couple of times he’s supposed to depict amazing transforming machines, and the results are underwhelming. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high, but I think this could be traced back to Young — Young, the writer, probably thought those transforming scenes would allow Parker to cut loose and draw something astounding, maybe even Kirby-esque. But Parker is a more intimate artist who excels at characters and expressions, and while his machinery is fine, that’s all it is: fine. The same goes for the scene in which Rocket is fighting his way to a teleporter in #10; this is supposed to be a big set piece, Rocket battling through all the obstacles in his way so he can get to the truth of his existence, and it boils down to a few scattered bodies as the actual moments of violence mostly happen off-page.

Storytailer is worse than A Chasing Tale, although not by much. (Your mileage will vary if Young’s artwork is a major draw for you.) Young trades Tale’s dismissal of women for a dismissal of Rocket’s origins; the former is more troubling in a societal sense, but since Young is working in a larger framework of the Marvel Universe, the latter bothers me more. Take that as you will; I suppose I’m inured to casual sexism in comics. The entire series is disappointing and slightly overblown, and I’m kinda glad Secret Wars ended it.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Half Rocket Raccoon symbol (1.5 of 5)

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15 April 2016

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5 (2013-4)

Released: March 2014 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607069454

What is this?: The mercenaries of Palisade are targeted for death, and four female adventurers — the eponymous Rat Queens — search for answers.

The culprits: Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch

I like fantasy settings, as everyone who has read my Conan the Barbarian reviews has guessed. (Why else would I keep reviewing them?) I like humor comics, or even comics that think they’re funny. But I am a bit of a Marvel zombie, which explains why it took me two years to read Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery.

To be fair, I wouldn’t have bought the book had I not needed something to get free shipping on an Amazon order with a birthday gift for my mother. But the price point was right, it sounded like fun, and I hate paying for shipping, so here we are.

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery coverRat Queens is set in a low-fantasy world, and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are not interested in extensive, Tolkien-like worldbuilding. The characters and institutions are given names that wouldn’t be remarkable in our world. The world is restricted to the city of Palisade and its environs, with a few hints of the world beyond: a magical college that Hannah, an Elven wizard, attended, and … well, wherever Dee, the priest, grew up. We see four civilized races — humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Smidgens, the Halflings / Kender / Gnomes of the world — but we don’t see what makes these races different from each other. (Dwarven females can grow beards, which … OK, is not that unusual.) The non-civilized races are generics: goblins, orcs, and trolls.

The entire book feels like an RPG that the players aren’t taking seriously. The protagonists are named Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty; other adventuring groups are named “the Four Daves” (the members are all named Dave), “the Peaches” (they all dress in peach-colored clothing), and “the Brother Ponies” (four guys with ponytails). The humor is usually sophomoric — no complex wordplay here — and the characters concentrate on (mostly) sanctioned killings, booze, drugs, cursing, and sex. If someone had told me Rat Queens was based on a real Forgotten Realms campaign — set in a city, like Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep — I would believe it.

The humor is largely successful, even if it is unsophisticated. Being funny will make people forgive a lot of faults — just look at the women who date unattractive comedians — and that’s what happens here. Rat Queens is very self aware, knowing its fantasy RPG tropes and amping them up: gleeful carnage with grisly injuries, showing frustration rather than fear when confronted by unnecessary battles, not looking very hard at the shaky mechanics of divine spells. When the reader is laughing, it doesn’t matter that the setting looks like D&D splashed with whitewash or that adversaries are as deep as an oil slick but without the breadth. The book rarely takes itself seriously, and the jokes proceed at a healthy pace — because Anubis knows if they didn’t, readers would start looking around and wondering about the story.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the plot, but Old Lady Bernadette does point out a large flaw: the Rat Queens (and other mercenaries) get away with too much on their violent sprees. Readers customarily identify with the protagonists, but it’s hard to disagree with Bernadette. We see them inflicting major property damage without much punishment, and we’re left to infer that they don’t pay restitution; one of the Rat Queens tries to impersonate the head of the city guard and gets a few hours in jail, while another of the Queens robs the Merchants’ Guild and gets away with it. No wonder someone’s trying to kill them, since death is the only punishment that will stick, and it will actually make Palisade safer.

Wiebe doesn’t neglect giving the protagonists depth and backstory. We get a sense of each character: Hannah, the Elven mage and Rat Queens’ leader, is vengeful and powerful; Dee is a priest who doesn’t believe in the squid god who gives her spells; Violet, a Dwarven warrior, lacks repartee skills despite her preoccupation with what’s cool; and Betty, the Smidgen thief, is an amoral mushroom addict whose real problem, according to the woman she wants to date, is her awful friends. The characterizations fit well in a world that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Occasionally, however, the story will snap to a halt for a serious character moment — Violet’s conflict with her twin brother, Dee leaving her home and faith behind — before the plot’s gears grind, and the humor slowly ramps up again. (Hannah’s more serious moments with the captain of the guard, her ex, and Betty’s attempts at romance work much better, perhaps because they aren’t taken quite so seriously.) Some characterizations are unexplained (or perhaps unexplainable). Dee, the atheist priest, somehow develops a crippling, unexplained social anxiety between the book’s beginning, when she brawls and drinks in bars, and issue #5, in which the Rat Queens host a party. Betty is extremely perceptive but still wears an awful shirt. Hannah is described as “rockabilly” on the back cover. As she has no connection to music, and she seems neither a rocker nor a hillbilly, I have no idea what this can possibly mean. (Perhaps it’s a reference to her pompadour-like hairdo? I doubt many rockabilly musicians were heavily tattooed and wore corsets, though.)

Upchurch’s battles are a mixed bag. On one hand, he never skips on the violence and blood; these battles are savage and dangerous, and his art always communicates that. However, his battle choreography is frequently confused, as it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or to other landmarks.

Perhaps more contentious is his depictions of the Rat Queens. Blurbs on the back contain praise for the protagonists’ looks from the Mary Sue and CBR column / tag Comics for Girls. Each admires Upchurch’s ability to make the protagonists look like real women. I’m not sure of that; they look more like real people than the women in most superhero comics do, yes, but they are still abnormally attractive females, and they wear impractical, sexualized clothes — Hannah wears thigh-high boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier into battle (and the rest of the time, but it’s not quite as impractical in day-to-day life), while Dee always wears a loincloth that exposes most of her legs. Betty wears a top more suited to clubbing than adventuring. Even Violet, the practical one, has what appears to be boob armor from certain angles. Additionally, the characters are introduced in Sass and Sorcery in a series of pin-up poses. There’s nothing wrong with the way these women look, but it’s strange that Upchurch is being praised drawing characters who always wear the same sexy clothes, regardless of the situation. Agency solves the problems the humor doesn’t, I suppose.

I enjoyed Sass and Sorcery, enjoyed it enough to read the next volume. It’s fun! It’s as deep as a mud puddle and nowhere near as reflective, but even if that doesn’t change in future volumes, the series is still worth reading.

Rating: Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens half symbol (3.5 of 5)

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08 April 2016

Avengers West Coast: The Death of Mockingbird

Collects: Avengers West Coast #92-100, 102, Spider-Woman #1-4, and selections from Marvel Comics Presents #143-4 (1993-4)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 384 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785196891

What is this?: The Avengers West Coast fight Dr. Demonicus, the Lethal Legion, and the Power Platoon before disbanding; Spider-Woman learns the machinations behind her acquisition of powers.

The culprits: Writers Roy and Dann Thomas and artists David Ross, Andrew Currie, John Czop, Steven Ellis, and others

The first thing you need to know about Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird is that the title is a lie, a total lie, and Marvel knows it. Heck, by now, everyone knows it.

I suppose you can pull the Obi Wan route and say it’s true, from a certain point of view. But people who say that are, generally speaking, liars or weasels. It wasn’t Bobbi Morse, whom the Marvel Universe knew as Mockingbird, who died in Avengers West Coast #100; it was a Skrull taking her place. (As revealed years later, Bobbi was replaced during Avengers West Coast #91, which is reprinted in the Avengers: Ultron Unbound collection.)

Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird coverAnyway, that’s for the best, because Mockingbird’s death is unsatisfying. A long-time Marvel character who was getting back together with Hawkeye, her husband, Mockingbird was killed saving him from a stray spitball from Mephisto. The death seems random, something in the “kill someone for shock value” line of superhero deaths — it was an anniversary issue, after all. Mockingbird had just saved Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, but her death seems more random than heroic; Mephisto didn’t have any specific hatred for her, didn’t even seem to be aiming at her. Anyone could have died. It just turned out to be Mockingbird.

The whole book has a feeling of randomness — no, “unsettled” is a better way of putting it. The Death begins with U.S. Agent and Hawkeye (calling himself Goliath at the time — just another bit of evidence that something is off) squabbling among the ruins of their headquarters; Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman each go off to find less destroyed housing, and the Living Lightning leaves the team. The AWC doesn’t even have a quinjet, having to beg one from Stark Industries a few issues later. Everything feels like it is falling apart; ten issues later, the West Coast HQ is still rubble, and team has been officially ended.

The stories in Death don’t help; they’re not very good, first off, and the team never seems to regroup. The Demonicus storyline takes a previous story, in which the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Dr. Demonicus created an island nation in the Pacific, and removes any sense of complexity from it. Demonicus and his super-followers are mind controlled by the demon Raksasa, start acting evil, import a population of foreign criminals, and even hijack a plane while waiting for Raksasa to enter the world. If they hadn’t drawn attention to themselves with the hijacking or breaking Klaw out of jail, they might have gotten away with it, but instead Demonica is sunk. Literally.

The Spider-Woman issues are standard for a mid-’90s limited series: inconsequential and forgettable. It lasts only four issues, and one of those issues is devoted to retconning her origin story. The villains (Deathweb) are forgettable, even if they shouldn’t be, and the story combines ‘50s monster movie science with post-Watergate antigovernment paranoia in predictable ways.

In #98-100, Avengers West Coast reaches a nadir. The team is opposed by the Lethal Legion, four evil souls brought back from the dead to kill them. The AWC lose every time, which is bad enough, but the worst part is that writer Roy Thomas makes the members of the Lethal Legion real people — not based on real people, but actual historical personages. Axe of Violence, a woman with an axe for a hand, is Lizzie Borden; Cyana, who emits poison, is Lucretia Borgia; Coldsteel, a giant powerhouse all in steel, is Josef Stalin; and Zyklon, who flies in a suit of armor and emits poison, is Heinrich Himmler.

Yes, that’s right: the Avengers fight a real Nazi, named after the gas the Nazis used to kill a million people during the Holocaust. Making Stalin, a man who killed millions of his own countrymen, into a comic-book villain is questionable, although I admit comics do this with Hitler all the time. “Zyklon,” a name that evokes the Holocaust, goes over the line. Also, linking Stalin and Himmler with Borgia, who probably played politics a bit hard but probably didn’t engage in mass poisonings, and Borden, who may not have killed anyone and killed two people at most, is a tone-deaf mismatch.

That unsettled feeling that saturates Death was planned, I think. In a narrative sense, it leads to the main Avengers team trying to get rid of the West Coast branch. The East Coast branch’s dissatisfaction with the West Coasters isn’t foreshadowed at all, so the decision comes out of nowhere, but it is a natural consequence of the poor planning and shoddy superheroics that led up to it. In a corporate sense, Marvel used it as part of their push to cancel Avengers West Coast and replace it with Force Works. Unfortunately, Force Works was a downgrade, and about a year later, that title was still drawn into The Crossing, Marvel’s worst storyline ever. The title never recovered, sputtering to a halt a couple of issues later.

Death does have a few positive attributes. I enjoyed the Power Platoon, a group of solar-powered aliens who can’t speak any Earth language. They show up during the Infinity Crusade, when most of the team is off dealing with that crossover’s foolishness, and battle Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and War Machine. The eight members of the Power Platoon look similar, but each has a different power; their alien language allows them communication the heroes can’t understand, and their teamwork is excellent. The story ends with a sputter — the Power Platoon achieves its goal and then wanders off, while the Avengers decline to pursue — but it’s an enjoyable issue up until then.

RaksasaI also like the art of David Ross, who drew #93-5, 98-100, and 102. He shows excellent attention to detail, and action scenes are easy to follow. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his females aren’t gratuitous sex objects. Most impressively, he draws excellent demons; his Mephisto is nice, his Satannish is intimidating, and Raksasa — the only one of the three he designed — is truly impressive. In an era when Marvel’s demons tended toward Technicolor goblins of varying sizes, Raksasa is an alien, frightening, insectoid presence. With this facility for monsters, Ross would have been great on Conan, the other Roy Thomas title. (He would have been wasted there, but he was wasted on AWC as well.)

The rest of the art — well, the less said, the better. You remember the ‘90s, and while none of this is as bad as the decade got, most of what is in Death looks like artists who aren’t quite ready for a big title. (To be fair, those artists drew a second-tier limited series, Marvel Comics Presents, backups, and fill-ins. I’m sure they all did better work, in comics or out, and I’ll let it go at that.

Why reprint these issues? For completists. For those who want to see how a title that started so well finally ended, curling up on itself in a corner and dying. For those who like Ross’s art. But the resurrection of Mockingbird put an end to whatever emotional impact this book might have had, and it’s not recommended for non-Avengers fans.

And for Heimdall’s sake, don’t pick up the Force Works book. Death is the nadir of Avengers West Coast, but Force Works is even worse — and then it leads to The Crossing, which is the worst. Stop now. I beg you …

… although I admit if the price for a used copy drops low enough, I’ll eventually pick up Force Works. I know my weaknesses.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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01 April 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #233-40 (1990-1)

Released: December 2015 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616555894

What is this?: The adventures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Conan, his first girlfriend, and his best friend as they are stalked by a sorceress who wants to avert a prophecy.

The culprits: Writer Michael Higgins and pencilers Ron Lim, Gary Hartle, and Rodney Ramos

A collection with a name like Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories demands an impressive story. The Death of Conan demands a struggle against something huge, perhaps insurmountable — against an unbeatable monster, an undefeatable army, or even a struggle against the greatest enemy of all: fate itself. Ideally, The Death of Conan would feature an older Conan, one who has the maturity to see the stakes of his struggle, perhaps even doubting himself, if only for a moment. In other words, The Death of Conan should be more than just a shock to the reader; it should be a summation or at least an examination of the character.

None of this is true, of course. Chronicles of Conan, v. 30 gets its name from a single story in the collection (issue #238); the other seven issues are the “other stories.” Conan’s brief death is set in motion by a queen who is gone almost as soon as she proclaims Conan is a regicide. Although Conan heroically resists torture before his death, he has no agency beyond gritting his teeth at the lash. Perhaps worst of all, the story does not present an older Conan, whose death might have been presented as an event that will stick.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories coverNo, it’s only teenage Conan. Oh, yeah — these issues are all wasted. In fact, Death shows Conan’s first adventures, an origin story for a character who doesn’t need an origin story. Who’s going to believe a character is going to die in his origin story?

Even when the deceptive “Death” in the title is forgotten, the storyline is problematic. No one ever wanted the stories of Conan’s youth before “The Tower of the Elephant,” a Robert E. Howard short story set when Conan was a young thief. (That story was adapted in Conan the Barbarian #4.) Writer Michael Higgins does incorporate a story Howard alluded to into Death: the raid on Venarium. In Howard’s version, Conan is a young but fearsome warrior, leading the charge over the fortress’s walls. In Higgins’s version, he’s a young warrior who manages to convince a party of older raiders into waiting until his friend opens the gates from the inside. It’s a small difference, but it weakens Conan; why weaken Conan to build up his friend?

We all know Jorrma, Conan’s first friend, and his first love, Melanie (a Hyborean name if I ever heard one), are going to die. If Higgins is going to waste time with them, he has to go all out: he has to make sure they are as important as they should be, given that Conan never mentions them in the previous 230 issues. But Higgins doesn’t. His characterization is scant, at best. Melanie could be any bar wench, as she’s blandly accepting of Conan’s demand that she take third place behind his plundering career and Jorrma. Late in the storyline, Higgins hints she might fancy Jorrma instead of Conan, but that hint goes nowhere. Jorrma is used as a tool by Acegra, a witch who has manipulated his and Conan’s families for generations and who killed both their parents. Jorrma fears harming his best friend, and he’s jealous of Conan’s relationship with Melanie. He falls in love —— love at first sight, a love that requires some psychic manipulation — while a captive in Venarium; his love is killed opening the fortress’s gates, and then she is mostly forgotten, as is his mental tampering.

Even Conan doesn’t seem so impressed by Jorrma and Melanie. Conan isn’t broken up by the death of either. By the story’s climax, he’s fed up with Jorrma’s incompetence, which gets them captured more than once, and his betrayals. Perhaps by the end, he realizes he was better off without Jorrma, and top-heavy bar maidens like Melanie are not that uncommon. Or maybe he stoically kept his grief over Melanie to himself, seeking out a succession of bland wenches over the years because they remind him of Melanie.

The one-issue prelude to this storyline, #232, was collected in Chronicles of Conan, v. 29: The Shape in the Shadow. In that story, Conan’s grandfather had a lifelong rivalry with the ancestor of Conan’s future best friend; this eventually deadly rivalry was provoked by Acegra, a Ron Lim-designed sorceress. (I’m a fan of Lim, but if you know his art, you know exactly how this woman looked, and you’ll know it’s a bad fit for Conan.) Acegra drives most of the action in this book, creating pawns to kill Conan and his family. Despite her power, she gets involved in combat only once, and that was to kill Conan’s mother. If she had only killed Conan when he was a baby, then she would have been victorious.

But there was a prophecy. There’s always a prophecy, I suppose; in this case, Acegra and her brother, who is possessed by a demon, have a vision of a 30-year-old Conan standing over their dead bodies. But none of that comes to pass; Conan’s victory comes much earlier and looks nothing like what it did in the vision. Conan doesn’t kill them, either: it’s their catspaw, Jorrma, who slays them.

But that’s just one of the sloppy storytelling problems in Death. Higgins keeps lobbing goons into the story, random soldiers Acegra has implanted with a grudge against Conan and Jorrma. These are supposed to be people Conan and Jorrma have a friendly history with, but readers never see any of them before they begin their grudge matches … I think. It’s hard to tell. Using characters we’ve seen before would make their attacks on Conan more significant. In fact, Higgins could have re-used Dryden, a Cimmerian rival to Conan, or Balthus, a guard who blamed Jorrma for the fall of Venarium. The reappearance of either would have meant something. Instead, all the other non-Conans in the book mean nothing — we have nothing invested in them, and they fail to elicit the slightest emotion for their successes and failures.

The artists are somewhat at fault for my confusion about whether villains have reappeared, although I suppose the number of ways sweaty, disheveled thugs can be drawn is somewhat limited. Lim (#233-5) is a poor match for Conan, with his smooth lines and streamlined designs; the grime and grit of the Hyborean Age can’t stick to his characters. Gary Hartle (#237-40) and Rodney Ramos (#236) are much better matches with the source material, but neither of them are standouts. I can imagine either having a successful run on the title, but being saddled with Higgins’s run is a recipe for forgettability. (Hartle continues with Roy Thomas, who will write Conan until its cancellation, after this arc.)

In #240, the story mercifully ends, with Justin Arthur (Thomas’s pseudonym) wrapping up the story with a climactic battle. Thomas also provides a framing sequence in which King Conan and his wife discuss how much of the story Conan, who was telling the tale to his son, was exaggerating or just lying about. Less obvious ways for a writer to denigrate his predecessor’s work exist, but given how bad Higgins’s run is, I can’t blame Thomas for telling readers to forget about it. I wish I could too.

Rating: Half Conan symbol (0.5 of 5)

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25 March 2016

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places

Collects: Secret Six v. 3 #1-6 and DC Sneak Peek: Secret Six #1 (2014-5)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401254858

What is this?: A new Secret Six! Five criminals and a PI are hunted by the mysterious Mockingbird, who wants some information from him. Who is he, and what does he want?

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and artists Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, and Tom Derenick

It has to be natural to make comparisons when you’re reading a title that has been recently rebooted, like Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places.

I’ve read most of writer Gail Simone’s run on Secret Six — the final volume, Caution to the Wind, will come out next month — and it’s hard not to compare Friends to that run. Frankly, it was hard for me not to mix-up the two different versions of the team. I’m not sure whether the source of that disorientation is the reboot or the book itself — but I’m leaning toward Friends.

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places coverIn Friends, four villains (Catman; the newest Ventriloquist; Strix, a Talon from the Court of Owls; and new character Porcelain), a superpowered teenager (Black Alice), and a private investigator (Big Shot) are tormented and hunted by Mockingbird. Why? Mockingbird is coy about the reason, imprisoning them and asking, “What is the Secret?” They escape (without answering) and form a team of sorts.

Mockingbird claims to be an arch-criminal, but his plans are haphazard at best. He’s looking for a stolen diamond, but he doesn’t ask about the gem. He’s trying to protect his identity, sure, but he’s dealing with criminals, a teenager, and a private investigator; he’s asking for “the Secret,” yet it’s hard to imagine a more secretive yet stubborn group. Everything is a secret with them. Mockingbird sends a team, led by Scandal Savage, to track and fight the new Six, although it’s unclear what he hopes to achieve. He and Scandal hope the Six will be re-imprisoned, but Mockingbird has a mole in the group, which he uses almost immediately after the fight to draw the team into a … trap, of sorts. (The trap is he threatens to blow everybody up, including his putative fiancée and himself, if he doesn’t get what he wants. I’m not sure why it’s effective.)

It doesn’t help that Scandal’s team doesn’t seem interested in fighting the Six, despite Mockingbird threatening to use hostages against the Scandal. Nor does it help that the team — Scandal, Silver Banshee, and Ragdoll — were all members of the pre-reboot incarnation of the Secret Six. During the entire fight, part of me was bothered that those three were fighting against Catman.

The fight scenes don’t raise the stakes; instead, they seem to lower them. The scrap between the Six and Scandal’s team is frequently amusing, but no one’s heart seems to be in it, and Scandal unilaterally ends the fight by walking away. (She also doesn’t seem interested in the obvious next move of joining forces against Mockingbird.) The final fight between the Six and Mockingbird’s forces is desultory at best; Strix takes out Mockingbird’s men in a few panels, and the rest of the fight is the team reluctantly turning on Mockingbird’s mole despite having more effective options other than fighting among themselves. Perhaps this is intentional; the Six have no tactician, and they’re mostly people whose first and last recourse is fighting. It doesn’t make the book entertaining to read, though.

The art doesn’t help the fight scenes. Ken Lashley’s work on the Six’s escape from Mockingbird in the second issue is a few chaotic panels followed by a declaration of victory, while Tom Derenick’s art for the final fight lacks dynamism. Derenick tries to give a demonstration of Strix’s fighting style on a single page, but the horizontal layout makes the fight into a sidescroller, with that old video-game logic: antagonists come out of nowhere, they could possibly spawn forever, a character might not be something you can fight, and the fight ends arbitrarily. The battle in #3, which takes place in Big Shot’s suburban home, is much better, but it’s played for laughs, and there’s always a sense everything is being held back.

In the first two issues we should ideally be meeting the team and seeing how the members relate to one another. However, those issues feel disorganized; the first issue is mostly about Catman, how he was captured by Mockingbird and how poorly he fares in captivity. (His actions when he meets the rest of the Six in #1 have little to do with how he relates to them later on.) Issue #2 has many flashbacks to Catman’s captivity — no, not this captivity, but the captivity before that, the one we didn’t know had occurred. The double captivity is confusing, and the lack of issue labels doesn’t help; since the book includes a “Sneak Peek” issue, and I assumed one of the first two issues was that issue — something loosely connected to the regular series but that might not match up well to its continuity. Getting captured twice by Mockingbird makes Catman look like a chump, but the focus on Catman in these issues gives the impression Secret Six will be Catman and the Kitties Five, something the rest of Friends doesn’t dispel.

The book does have a lot of things going for it. Simone’s sense of humor is still appealing, and with a few less faults, that humor might have won me over. The other characters are types, but entertaining ones. Big Shot is the straitlaced suburbanite, unwilling to curse (or to have others curse) around ladies. The Ventriloquist is a Norma Desmond-type, believing the spotlight will find her and her dummy, the seemingly sentient Ferdie. Strix is silent, phonetically writing all her communications on a pad of paper and completely unable to guess what is socially acceptable. The “writing on paper” gag becomes impractical many times — who would let her write during combat? — but I’m willing to accept it for now. More concerning is that Strix is identified as a Talon for the Court of Owls, but neither “Talon” nor “Court of Owls” is explained. I know what they are, but a footnote would have been nice. I don’t think DC does footnotes any more, though.

Big Shot’s relationship toward Black Alice quickly becomes paternal. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Scandal Savage and Bane in the previous volume of Secret Six, but that’s all it is: an echo, a parallel, an allusion. The relationship differs in many important ways: Big Shot and Alice are relatively nice people, which Scandal and Bane were not; Alice is young enough and Big Shot not so controlling that the relationship doesn’t have any creepy overtones; and most importantly, Alice enjoys Big Shot’s protectiveness. Their scenes together are sweet.

Porcelain is an afterthought. We learn the character’s basic powers — making hard matter brittle — and we’re told the character is trans to some degree, shifting from presenting a female to male persona to the world. We never discover if that’s a normal, real-world transition or if it is something in Porcelain’s powers. It hardly matters, since we see Porcelain as male only for a brief moment in issue #3. Unlike the others, we learn little of Porcelain’s personality. In the big fight scene, Porcelain is knocked out between issues #5 and 6, as if either Simone or Derenick had forgotten Porcelain was unaccounted for at the end of #5 but didn’t want to spend the necessary time showing what happened.

As revealed by my comments above, I’m not enamored of the art. Lashley draws the first two issues plus a few pages of the third. His work is atmospheric, but it lacks the detail needed to plant long-term hints; it’s hard to tell, for instance, that the singer on the first page of #1 is the same character who hits Catman with a taser a few pages later. Derenick (parts of #3 and #5, and #6) and Dale Eaglesham (Sneak Peek, #4, and part of #5) have much clearer styles. Their work is complementary, similar enough that I sometimes miss the handoff between them. I enjoy the clear lines and clear action both of them supply, but as I noted before, their fight scenes lack a certain vitality. I can’t decide whether that’s because the fights are written as pro forma, or if the art is the reason the fights seem so lackluster.

Friends is a disappointing book, but it’s not without promise. I’ll probably pick up the next volume, but I may not pre-order it. (I’m assuming the DC Universe didn’t re-reboot before the next six issues were released.)

Rating: Secret Six skull symbol Secret Six skull symbol (2 of 5)

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18 March 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #1-6 (2014-5)

Released: October 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785190455

What is this?: Rocket Raccoon of the Guardians of the Galaxy endures space jail and an army of ex-girlfriends while trying to discover what happened to “his people.”

The culprits: Skottie Young, with artist Jake Parker (#5-6)

Since Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer will be released next week, I thought I’d look back at Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale. Relevance!

For most readers, the book’s appeal lies in Skottie Young’s artwork. Young, who drew #1-4 and wrote the entire book, certainly gives readers hyper-cartoony action and violence, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Not that Young’s style looks anything like old Warner Brothers animation, but it does have the expressiveness, flexibility, and humor of those cartoons.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 1: A Chasing Tale coverYoung’s art often lives up to its reputation for imaginativeness. The prison escape montage is excellent. The sea-creature visuals surrounding Rocket’s accomplice Macho are creative and cohesive; I especially like the fish-like creature who swallows Macho’s ship, then spits it out at the other end of a hyperspace warp. Young sneaks in a few funny Easter eggs as well, like a box marked “John Woo props” in the middle of a gunfight.

Sometimes the art fails to live up to that standard, though. The aliens all look like humanoids, blobs, or animals; I’m not sure what else they can look like (clouds? Mechanical items?), but I feel confident Young could come up with something more unusual if he tried. (The strangest alien in Chasing Tale is Xemnu the Titan, a long-time Hulk villain Young uses in #2.) The ship designs are a bit boring as well. The sound effects Young adds are not as funny as the ones in Hercules — or as funny as Young thinks.

But I am not interested in Rocket Raccoon because of Young’s art. It’s nice to look at, but I’m a fan of the character Rocket — both Bill Mantlo’s original creation, with his anthropomorphic animal friends and stupid Beatles puns, and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s sardonic, violent space warrior. The latter is in Chasing Tale, but the more I learn about him, the less I like him.

Young’s Rocket has a habit of swindling and leaving women he has bedded. He uses the idiotic catchphrase “Murdered you” that Bendis came up with in the new Guardians of the Galaxy series. (It’s possible Young might be using the phrase ironically; that doesn’t make it better.) Rocket learns no lessons from his bad behavior. What’s worse, he spends time angsting about his origins …

Once upon a time, Rocket’s origins were simple. He was an uplifted raccoon, meant to amuse the inmates on Halfworld, a mental asylum planet. When the psychiatric professionals left, Rocket and his animal pals were elevated to caretakers of the Loonies. Halfworld had a lot of uplifted animals, but none of them seemed to be of the same species; given that Rocket (then known as “Rocky”) was in charge of Halfworld, he would have known whether any other raccoons existed. But in Chasing Tale, he’s looking for others like himself (one of whom seems to exist) and Gideon’s Bible, the legendary artifact of Halfworld. What happened to Rocket’s memories of Halfworld? Why doesn’t Rocket know where any his old friends or the Loonies are? Why doesn’t Rocket know why Blackjack O’Hare hates him? (And why does Blackjack say it was over an employment dispute, since the two frequently fought on Halfworld?) Would it have killed editor Sana Amanat — or assistant editor Devin Lewis, who signed the lone footnote in the book — to give us a damn footnote explaining some of this?

The villains in Chasing Tale are all weak or problematic. The women Rocket wronged are both. They are all portrayed as unhinged, as jokes. Their leader tells Rocket that women’s pain isn’t treated as seriously as men’s; she’s right, but saying that doesn’t mitigate Young making light of their pain in Chasing Tale. (I mean, look at that pun in the title!) Rocket ruined their lives, and his only punishment is a few punches that he takes without complaint (and community service). That’s not enough; Rocket not only seduced and left the women, but he took their money, which caused them to lose their social status. Rocket manages to pummel an army of exes, despite their armaments and large ships, and still have something left over for Blackjack.

Every other villain is merely a speedbump for Rocket on the way to the end of the story. Without a clear view of continuity, Blackjack is only an opportunity for Young to draw a murderous bunny, not an opportunity to explore an existing relationship. The rest of Rocket’s antagonists are done away quickly and as a joke — huge person (with or without a gun) threatens Rocket, Rocket thrashes huge person. Ha! Ha?

Groot’s haphazard evolution as a character continues here, with the Guardians of the Galaxy movie providing the impetus for his new directions. In Chasing Tale, Groot can regrow from a splinter. Repeatedly. In a few hours. This ability reduces the stakes to nothing when Groot is in danger. And since when can Rocket (and the other Guardians) understand Groot? I think it’s a poor choice; Rocket’s responses to “I am Groot” aren’t funny enough to justify the change. Groot’s impenetrability was an aspect of his character I appreciated. Issue #5, in which Groot tells a bunch of kids a story, illustrates the superior comedic potential of not being able to understand Groot. The kids’ mystification is great, and the story’s entire dialogue consisting of repeated “I am Groot” communicates that confusion to the reader while the art tells the story.

Young is trying for a lighthearted tone in Chasing Tale, and despite the missteps I mentioned above, often he succeeds. Rocket quoting Earth movies to the space police during an interrogation at the beginning of #2 is amusing, although Young undercuts the joke by explaining it on the next page. The entirety of #5 is hilarious, and I especially enjoyed the Deadpool cameo. The payoff in #6 is a nice touch as well. But sometimes the violence and humor sit uneasily next to each other, especially when Young doesn’t quite nail the joke.

Jake Parker drew #5 and 6, and I prefer his work to Young’s, actually. His work on Groot’s tale in #5 does a better job telling the story than all but a few of the wordless ‘Nuff Said issues Marvel did in 2002. Parker’s art seems more in line with the funny animal aesthetic that covers Rocket’s backstory and the ideas Young’s story undercuts. Parker’s work isn’t as dynamic as Young’s, and it’s not as exaggerated; in fact, Parker looks like he’s strongly influenced by Bill Watterston, who wrote and drew Calvin and Hobbes. This gives Parker’s issues a touch of innocence that works well with Groot’s story in #5 and with Cosmo’s scenes in #6.

Chasing Tale has a lot of energy and a decent amount of humor going for it; if it was a story about a new character, I’d probably enjoy it more. Readers familiar with Rocket from the last few years or only the movie might love it, although that won’t get them past how Young treats Rocket’s exes. Storytailer might make this book better in retrospect by explaining Rocket’s history, but no matter what happens, I can be sure of this: I don’t care if Rocket is the last of his kind.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Rocket Raccoon symbol (2 of 5)

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11 March 2016

Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: The Return of the Sinister Six

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #334-50 and Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth GN (1990-1)

Released: February 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 504 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785196914

What is this?: Spider-Man fights the Sinister Six, Chameleon, Dr. Doom, Venom, the Black Tarantula, Boomerang, Rhino, and Scorpion.

The culprits: Writer David Michelinie and artist Erik Larson

Although I would not say Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: Return of the Sinister Six collects a classic run, I enjoyed reading it a great deal. I liked the book for simple reasons: the stories were relatively well told, from an era before the ‘90s comic-book madness shattered the way comics stories were told, and they were (mostly) new to me.

These stories seem custom-made to kindle the flame of nostalgia within the reader’s breast. Writer David Michelinie cozies up to the past over these issues; almost all the villains he uses are ones who have faced Spider-Man before, in one form or another. He reunites the Sinister Six for the first time since 1964, and he uses a parade of familiar Spidey foes: Chameleon, Scorpion, Rhino, Boomerang, the Black Tarantula … Even Mary Jane’s stalker has stalked her before.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection, v. 21: Return of the Sinister Six coverErik Larsen’s art will make or break the book for most readers. Larsen’s style is reminiscent of Todd McFarlane’s, whom Larsen succeeded on Amazing Spider-Man. Larsen draws similar spaghetti-strand webbing and contorted-yet-graceful poses for Spider-Man. (Well, they contrive to be graceful, but in many of them, Spider-Man is folded up in ways that can’t be comfortable.) He doesn’t quite have McFarlane’s immense capes, although that’s mainly because Spider-Man doesn’t have a cape, and neither do most of his villains. (Dr. Doom has a voluminous cape, but it doesn’t figure into many panels, and besides, it’s Dr. Doom, who can get away with huge capes.)

Larsen’s style is often cartoonish. As I said, his Spider-Man is often contorted in his postures, but other characters get distorted for effect as well. Dr. Octopus’s arms seem to stretch for miles, the equal of Spider-Man’s web lines, although the arms get more tangled. The cartoonishness is a virtue when it comes to Venom, a character who was created by McFarlane to be frightening, not realistic; the strange proportions and distended jaws increase Venom’s alien, fearsome qualities. Usually, Larsen’s exaggerations are a visual quirk, something readers get used to in time. However, it’s always distracting with women, especially Mary Jane. She is a caricature of femininity: perpetually pouty lips, large breasts in tight dresses and tops, long legs in short skirts that accentuate her callipygian form. Making Mary Jane into a super pin-up accentuates the problem that so many editors and readers made about Spider-Man having a supermodel for a wife: If Peter has married a woman so attractive, then he’s less the everyman.

Larsen’s style is not an unusual look for women in comics, but his art emphasizes the negative aspects of the practice. Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, is Mary Jane’s silver-haired twin, although her lips aren’t so pouty. Since the Black Cat has powers and is a superhero (of sorts), it’s arguable that she should be drawn on a larger-than-life scale — I don’t like the argument, in this case, since most of those exaggerated characteristics are large breasts, big hair, and a shapely lower half, but it is a line of thought. But women other than Mary Jane and Felicia — the Chameleon’s arm candy, Mary Jane’s co-stars on the soap opera she acts in — are drawn similarly, which makes them more dull than titillating.

The plots themselves are simple superhero stories told satisfyingly, for the most part. I don’t fault Michelinie for unoriginality; when he gets his most original, with Dr. Octopus’s ultimate goal for getting the Sinister Six back together, the logic can become tenuous. (Lacing the atmosphere with a cure for cocaine addiction, then expecting addicts to pay to get addicted again? I dunno, man — why not just deal cocaine?) Michelinie seems to pull out the stops for Venom’s two-issue battle with Spider-Man (#346-7), with a fight that has actual tension that’s lacking in the rest of the book. Michelinie always shines with Venom, creating an adversary for Spider-Man who displays an extra level of viciousness and is more than a credible threat for the hero.

The lack of originality in the rest of the book is acceptable, given how badly originality can go awry. (See “Saga, Clone.”) Spider-Man — all superhero comics, really — have succeeded by using and reusing tried and true antagonists, and the villains in this collection are all used in serviceable ways — goons, mostly, giving Spider-Man credible sparring partners while he works out the larger moral implications or plots. There’s nothing earthshattering about these fights; they’re comfort food for a Spider-Man nostalgist.

The Sinister Six’s reunion unfortunately is underwhelming. I can hardly believe no writer had reunited the group since Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, way back in 1964. (Given how often groups “sinister” groups have formed since 1990, the Sinister Six should have gotten together at least once in the quarter century between Annual #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #337.) The story should have been more momentous; instead, Dr. Octopus spends half the six-issue storyline gathering the team, then another issue prepping for his grand plan. The Six is in action together for only one issue before Dr. Octopus betrays them, and they all go in their separate directions.

Larsen and Michelinie aren’t entirely using old ideas. Cletus Kassidy, the serial killer who becomes Carnage, makes his first appearance here, and the symbiote’s later appearance is teased. Cardiac, a vigilante doctor with a grudge against a chemical company, also debuts in this book. After Michelinie left the book, he gets forgotten, and it’s not hard to see why. His costume and energy blast effect, with their cool blue color schemes and jagged lines reminiscent of a heart monitor, are nice bits of design, and his alter ego as a doctor has some potential. But it doesn’t come together into anything intriguing, here or anywhere else.

I mentioned that even Mary Jane’s stalker was reused, but giving Mary Jane an antagonist she faces by herself is remarkable. Spider-Man’s core supporting cast — Mary Jane; Aunt May and her fiancée, Nathan; Flash and his girlfriend, the Black Cat — each have things to do separate from Spider-Man himself. Michelinie can be faulted for paring down the supporting cast to those characters and those he works with in his grad student lab (those characters aren’t given much room to grow), but at least he doesn’t neglect the important characters.

Michelinie’s Mary Jane is a delight, especially when compared to the problems later writers had with her characterization. She gets her own battles to fight, she has her own career, and she is a supporting spouse to Peter. She argues with him when she thinks he’s wrong, but she’s not petulant about it. Perhaps she too easily gives in to Peter’s rationalizations, but it’s better than creating pointless drama by having her object to everything Peter does.

Charles Vess contributes an original graphic novel to this collection: Spirits of the Earth, which I didn't even know existed before this collection came out. After reading it, I can understand why; the story is slight, and Vess’s art, as pretty as it is at times, can’t compensate. It reads like story written to justify a vacation: an exotic location (the Scottish Highlands) that Spider-Man fits into badly and should blow his secret identity. (In actuality, Vess had visited Scotland frequently.) Tying the story into the wider Marvel Universe by placing the Hellfire Club behind the evil plot mitigates the incongruity of Spider-Man in the Highlands somewhat, but the small concession to the shared MU can’t compensate for the incongruous yet forgettable story.

Return of the Sinister Six is a book for fans of Spider-Man and Erik Larsen. But even general fans of other superhero comics will find parts of the book to enjoy. I doubt anyone would fall in love with Spider-Man or any other member of his cast from this book, but it’s good enough to spend a diverting few hours with.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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04 March 2016

Star Wars: Lando

Collects: Lando #1-5 (2015)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785193197

What is this?: Before The Empire Strikes Back, Lando Calrissian and a small crew steal a ship — and get much more than they bargain for.

The culprits: Writer Charles Soule and artist Alex Maleev

I’m not a fan of continuing a movie or TV series in a print medium, but I made an exception to buy / read Star Wars: Lando.

I have two reasons for picking up Lando: one, I’m a big fan of Lando Calrissian, Star Wars’s other loveable rogue, and b), I’ve enjoyed writer Charles Soule’s work before. But I discovered neither of those reasons were the book’s biggest attraction. Instead, my lasting impression of this book was an admiration for the art of Alex Maleev.

Star Wars: Lando coverMaleev’s work inhabits the Star Wars Universe without becoming subsumed in it. The characters are all recognizably his, drawn in a realistic yet somewhat scratchy technique that synthesizes two styles: Maleev’s and Star Wars. Despite the characters’ and trappings’ recognizability, Maleev’s work never looks like it’s copied or traced. Thankfully, Maleev contributes more than just a “look”; his storytelling and action scenes are graceful and clear.

Maleev’s art is not helped by the coloring, though. Colorist Paul Mounts’s attempts to show scenes lit by red light washes out many panels. The features of Pavol and Aleksin, two cat-like aliens with black fur / clothes, are always difficult to discern because their black coloring of their faces washes out the details, except for their eyes. Actually, no character fares well with the parade of dark backgrounds, and with red or purple backgrounds — neither of which are uncommon — Aleksin and Pavol (and Imperial Guards) almost disappear.

I was satisfied but not overwhelmed by Soule’s story. Lando is set some (undetermined) time before The Empire Strikes Back. Like Han Solo, Lando is a down-on-his-luck scoundrel, owing a lot of money to a scary person (Papa Toren). When a big theft doesn’t pay off his debt, Lando is forced to do one final job for Toren: steal a ship. Lando can have anything on board; Toren wants only the ship.

So it’s to be a heist, it seems: Lando, his buddy Lobot, hired muscle Aleksin and Pavol, and antiquities expert Korin Pers go to a shipyard to swipe the ship. Which goes off without a hitch, really: just a couple of pages, and they’re gone. The problem comes when the reader learns the ship was owned by Emperor Palpatine.

The title character is the Lando you remember from Empire: he’s got an angle, he’s smooth, he’s got a way with the ladies, he’s clever … but nothing seems to work quite right for him. Setting Lando as a prequel takes away some of the drama; Lando isn’t going to die regardless of whether the story is set before or after the original trilogy, but given that we know where he (and Lobot) are going to end up, bodily whole and otherwise intact, it takes away much of the tension. Besides, do we really want prequels?

The conflict Soule exploits for most of the series is between the conspirators, the conflicts they brought with them and what is unlocked by what they find on the ship. Unfortunately, large chunks of issue #2 are concerned with Lando and his new ship outmaneuvering Imperial star destroyers and giving a push to elite bounty hunter Chanath Cha. Neither of these things are important; if all of #2 except for the final page was excised from the collection, not much would be missing.

And that’s a problem for Lando, because it has only five issues (instead of the standard six for a miniseries). Soule has dropped a lot into the series: the five conspirators and their interactions, Chanath Cha pursuing them, the ship’s dangerous cargo. Cha has a history with Lando and Lobot, which promises some interesting interactions, but the fights on board ship and Cha’s pursuit take up most of the book; Cha speaks with them only in the final issue.

Maybe it just seems like the final three issues are too full. Looking back through the book, not much that happens. I mean, things do happen — the book has a plot — but if I explained the events, it wouldn’t take very long. The plot of the last three issues is something Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would have knocked out in a single story, with room left over for a couple of comic digressions; Roger Stern and his contemporaries may have taken two. I understand the Lee / Ditko issues often valued brevity over storytelling and that the rules of comic plots have changed over the years. But I can’t help but feel this story should have more to it.

On the other hand, that might be because of the story’s successes: I want more because I like what I’ve seen so much. If you’ve ever wondered who Lobot, that cyborg / droid looking dude behind Lando in Empire, was, Lando tells you. And it’s interesting: he’s Lando’s friend who has been mentally augmented by hardware, and he has to fight to prevent the implants from taking control of him. If he loses to the implants, he will most likely never regain control, so that fight is at the forefront of Lobot’s scenes. We get tantalizing glimpses at other characters, like Chanath Cha; I want to know about her past with Lando and Lobot. Aleksin, Pavol, and Korin Pers have just the right mix of backstory and intrigue. I’m even interested in Imperial Governor Ssaria, whom Lando is romancing in the cold open.

So is Lando’s only crime (other than the coloring) that it’s too interesting? No. I still believe Soule could have used his page count more efficiently, and Lando has a bit too much fat where it could have used a great deal of lean. But it’s still a worthwhile book for the Star Wars / Lando Calrissian fan.

Rating: 3 of 5

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26 February 2016

Avengers: Quicksilver

Collects: Quicksilver #1-13, Heroes for Hire #15-6, and Heroes for Hire / Quicksilver Annual ‘98 (1997-8)

Released: March 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 440 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785192930

What is this?: With the Avengers gone, Quicksilver becomes leader of the Knights of Wundagore. Sure, why not?

The culprits: Writers Tom Peyer, Jon Ostrander, and Joe Edkin and pencilers Derec Aucoin, Paschal Ferry, Ivan Reis, Casey Jones, and others

I wouldn’t say Quicksilver is one of Marvel’s most fascinating characters, but he does have several facets that are worth examining. Pietro Maximoff is the biological son of Magneto, the mutant rights crusader / supremacist / messiah; how does he deal with the implications and obligations of that? How does who his father is affect his relationship with his daughter, Luna? He’s married to Crystal, a member of the Inhuman royal family; how does he get along with his in-laws? Why does he have occasional bouts of insanity, and does he want to do anything about it? How does he feel about the various groups he’s been with, like X-Factor, the Avengers, and the Brotherhood of Mutants? Is he truly a hero, given his heel turns? And what’s his relationship with his sister like?

Well, in 1997, with the Avengers (including his wife and sister) trapped in a different universe after Onslaught, Marvel decided to give Quicksilver his own series, which has been reprinted in Avengers: Quicksilver. As you no doubt have not guessed, the focus of the series was on Pietro and his leadership of the Knights of Wundagore.

Avengers: Quicksilver coverYes, the Knights of Wundagore, a bunch of animals who have been uplifted by the High Evolutionary to be human-like and taught to treasure the values of chivalry. Why wouldn’t you want a series about them?

Perhaps because you don’t like being bored. That’s the reason I would’ve voted against making them the primary supporting characters of the series. Quicksilver’s connection to the Knights is that another of the High Evolutionary’s creations, Bova, was midwife to his and his sister’s birth. Bova then gave them both to a gypsy couple because the Evolutionary told Bova he sure as hell wasn’t raising them.

With no team to join, Pietro has retreated with his daughter to Wundagore, which quickly falls to an assault by the Acolytes, a mutant band who worships Magneto. The High Evolutionary leaves and puts Pietro in charge of the Knights, which is a bad idea. Quicksilver’s personality is mercurial (ha!), and he rarely sticks with anything for long. Perhaps as someone who has been abandoned, Quicksilver might be expected to cleave to the Knights, but instead he wanders off, doing other things. It’s not so much that Pietro is a bad leader; it’s that he’s rarely around to lead. Most of the Knights are captured by the Brotherhood of Mutants for three issues before Pietro notices. When the main character of a series can’t be bothered to show any interest in the plot, the series is in definite trouble.

Initial writer Tom Peyer introduced a large cast: Pietro, the Knights, the Acolytes. The Knights’ personalities — except for White Tiger, who appears mainly in Heroes for Hire — are too human, too archetypal. They are loyal servants of the High Evolutionary, loyal brothers and sisters to each other, and little distinguishes them from one another. A couple are brainy, a couple are earthy, but only their animalian appearances make them stand out. Sometimes, not even that makes them seem any different: when the Knights visit New York, the crowds’ reactions are little different than when the X-Men, with their image inducers on, take in a Broadway show. As for the villains, none of the Acolytes develops a distinct personality except for Exodus (zealous madman) and Amelia Voght (underling whose heart might not be in the cause). The rest don’t even rate an archetype.

Peyer also includes a few issues with the Inhuman royal family after Crystal returns from Heroes Reborn. Thematically, he hits the right notes in this story: Pietro feels like an outsider among the Inhumans, and he feels they are suspicious of him because of his previous poor choices in their kingdom. It’s also the only place in the book we see Quicksilver’s impatience with the slow pace of human (or Inhuman) life. Maximus, the evil member of the royal family, takes advantage of Pietro’s reputation and impetuousness, but the Inhumans who jailed him for what he did under Maximus’s control get off too lightly — especially given how Maximus exploited them as well. (There’s also the matter of the Inhumans’ slave race, but that’s not really relevant.)

Peyer leaves after #6, after the dust-up with the Inhumans is over. The new writers, Jon Ostrander and Joe Edkin, write Crystal out immediately. The separation between Pietro and Crystal happens not because she doesn’t like the Knights (she doesn’t, but they barely enter into the story at this point) or because of her family’s distrust of Pietro; it’s because he acts like a controlling, jealous husband whenever the man Crystal had an affair with, the Black Knight, is around. It’s not hard to understand why Pietro would act that way, but it’s an additional complication that isn’t necessary.

Ostrander and Edkin turn the book into a Knights vs. Acolytes story, with Exodus using the Brotherhood of Mutants as patsies. This story meanders from upstate New York to the Savage Land and back before heading to Wundagore Mountain. None of the action leading up to the series-ending crossover, Siege of Wundagore, makes much of an impression. The High Evolutionary is having trouble with his form and mind, but the story would drift toward the same conclusion with or without him. The death of one of the Knights makes a brief ripple in the story’s aimlessness, but the Knights aren’t that bothered themselves about it.

It’s a shame, really. During these issues, it becomes obvious who Sir Anon, a Knight who hides his identity, is. The Knights’ blind loyalty to the High Evolutionary and their brotherhood keeps them from seeing it, however. Sir Anon should be important during these issues, but he’s playing the waiting game; rather than nudging the pieces into the right places, Sir Anon waits for them to drift together, then acts during the Siege of Wundagore crossover.

The Heroes for Hire seem tacked onto the Siege of Wundagore, a crossover that tried to revive interest in two titles lurching toward cancellation. Only White Tiger was needed, since she’s one of the Knights, created by the High Evolutionary to fight his wayward creation, the Man-Beast. Another Hero might be interesting; White Tiger loves Iron Fist, and Black Knight’s history with Pietro might complicate matters. But those three plus Luke Cage and Ant-Man bog down the story, and their fight for their humanity after the High Evolutionary “evolves” them never gets the space it needs to be interesting.

So: the bottom line is that the entire book is too overcrowded with characters that never get developed, with faces indistinguishable from the crowd. Quicksilver’s involvement in the Live Kree or Die crossover (#10, part 3 of 4) with various Avenger-related titles makes matters even worse, and that’s not even considering the After-School Special tone of the issue.

None of this helps the book’s many artists any. Derec Aucoin, who penciled #4-6, 8, 10, and parts of 11 and 12, tries his best, but it’s all forgettable. He and the other artists, who include Pascal Ferry (Heroes for Hire and the annual), Ivan Reis (#7 and 9), Casey Jones (parts of #1-3), blend into a flavorless mélange of ‘90s art. (Mark Bagley makes an incongruous but recognizable appearance in #3.) None of them are incompetent, although their rendering of the female form might be criticized. Their action sequences are largely understandable. Their body language makes sense, usually. It’s just … it was the ‘90s, man, and a second- or third-tier title at that. Expectations weren’t high, but they were met, and possibly slightly exceeded.

Avengers: Quicksilver was almost certainly published in anticipation of Quicksilver’s appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I can’t imagine this book did the character any favors, and like the original series, it’s publication is a lost opportunity to do something more interesting.

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

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19 February 2016

Silk, v. 0: The Life and Times of Cindy Moon

Collects: Silk #1-7 (2015)

Released: October 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785197041

What is this?: Cindy Moon, recently freed from ten years in a bunker, tries to find her missing family while maintaining the semblance of a personal life (mostly for appearance’s sake, it appears).

The culprits: Writer Robbie Thompson and penciller Stacey Lee

I like Silk, v. 0: The Life and Times of Cindy Moon, but I admit I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why. It’s only when I compare Silk (alter ego: Cindy Moon) to Spider-Gwen that everything I like is illuminated, and I realize it’s a lot of little elements that add up to an enjoyable book.

Unlike Gwen Stacy in Spider-Gwen, readers get a good idea of who Cindy Moon is and what she does when she’s not a hero. Cindy is confused and angry after spending a decade in isolation. She was bitten by the same radioactive spider as Peter Parker, but she was convinced by Ezekiel Sims, the Amazing Spider-Retcon, to hide herself away to avoid attracting the attention of Morlun, one of the jerks the assembled Spiders-Heroes eventually defeated in Spider-Verse. Ezekiel is gone, killed by Morlun. Cindy resents the sacrifice Ezekiel convinced her to make, and as much as she wishes she could punish him, she needs the information that only he seemed to know: where he hid her family.

Silk, v. 0: The Life and Times of Cindy Moon coverSo despite her cultural knowledge being a decade out of date, Cindy interns at the Fact Channel so she can use its resources to search for her parents. When she isn’t fighting crime or looking for her parents and brother, she spends time with a couple of friends, Rafferty and Lola. She gets guidance from Spider-Man. She finds an archenemy, the Black Cat, and a frequent sparring partner, Dragonclaw, whom she manages to engage as a human being. She even goes on a date with Johnny Storm.

All this makes Silk a well-rounded book, and I suppose that’s what I like about it.

“Well-rounded” sounds like a low bar to hurdle, but it’s not. Likeable protagonists who fight opponents who are both engaging and powerful are difficult to find, but writer Robbie Thompson manages that. (Looking back, I’ve reviewed six straight books that weren’t able to meet that standard.) Given her past, the Black Cat isn’t a black-and-white villain, and she tries to dissuade Silk from opposing her before launching a vendetta against the hero. The Black Cat has become a crimelord, which gives her the resources to be a real challenge to Silk even when Silk has allies. But while the Black Cat schemes, Thompson works in another villain, one who has connections to the Black Cat and to the mystery of Silk’s family. It neatly combines the story threads, and the battle with him is a pleasing way to end the first storyline.

Going back to comparisons with Spider-Gwen: Silk’s costume is immeasurably better. The colors are subdued without being drab, spider-related without being a copy of Spider-Man’s. The subtle spider legs above and below the web pattern on her chest is a great touch. I don’t care for the “S” in the middle of the webs; it looks carelessly written, and it isn’t big enough to be featured in the middle of the costume, but fortunately the “S” rarely shows up in the art. I like the mask that covers the bottom part of her face, which allows artist Stacey Lee to communicate a great deal of emotion through Silk’s eyes.

The mask was already a part of Silk’s costume, so an artist who can draw expressive eyes is a must. Lee, who drew five of the seven issues in Life and Times, is that artist. I’m not usually impressed by manga-influenced artists in superhero books, but Lee is excellent with conversational scenes, and her action work is clear and dynamic. Her Cindy in flashbacks is the picture of wide-eyed innocence and adolescent angst; in the modern day, Cindy retains some of that, but she has gained an angry edge and occasional maturity both in and out of costume.

Besides giving Cindy a couple of friends her own age, Thompson uses J. Jonah Jameson as not only comic relief but as a solid character in his own right. The former mayor works as a talking head at the Fact Channel and still has a hatred for Spider-Man, which somehow doesn’t extend to Silk. (Since Jameson’s hatred has always been irrational, that’s OK.) But in addition to be an angry man who gives Cindy the nickname of “Analog,” he shows he’s a decent human being; when he learns Cindy’s predicament, he offers to help, showing himself to be the stand-up guy he is often said to be as but rarely gets a chance to be.

Silk isn’t a perfect book. No book is, of course, but Thompson never explains the book’s most important question: Why does Cindy dress as Silk and fight crime? Peter Parker has the lesson taught by Uncle Ben, Spider-Gwen has the respect for law and justice that her detective father taught her … but why is Cindy doing this? The flashbacks don’t give any idea that she has a thirst for justice, and being a superhero doesn’t help her find her family.

Thompson is vague about Silk’s previous appearances and powers. Thompson not reminding the reader what she’s done since Peter let her out of the bunker is fine, although I feel like I’m missing some piece of continuity that will make sense of my complaints. As for her powers, she can create her own webs, she has a spider-sense — Silk sense — and can spin clothes out her silk. She has the standard spider-strength and agility, so I guess we’re supposed to guess she has all Spider-Man’s powers with a few more added in. Additionally, she somehow knows Lola is attracted to Rafferty, although that could be because she’s observant instead of being able to detect pheromones.

Some of my complaints are niggling. Cindy’s lack of cultural knowledge is grating and sometimes nonsensical — how does she research at the Fact Channel if she doesn’t know what Google is? The Fantastic Four’s appearance seems gratuitous, and spending an entire issue on it is a waste of time. Her anger when Peter tries to get her help seems out of proportion to the sin. Thompson also doesn’t delineate what Peter and Cindy’s relationship is. He wisely deprecates the creepiest part of Cindy’s origin: that because she and Peter Parker were bitten by the same radioactive spider, each has an almost uncontrollable sexual attraction toward the other. It’s amusing for a few pages, maybe — maybe — but it’s problematic in a larger sense. Peter Parker and Spider-Man are present in Life and Times, but the implication is that their relationship is more mentor / newcomer than sexual or romantic. On the other hand, one or two scenes leave the idea that the two of them could be (or are) more than just similarly themed superheroes.

The book ends with the end of the world in #7, which isn’t a surprise for readers who know Silk and the rest of the Marvel line was interrupted by the Secret Wars crossover that ended the Marvel Universe (briefly). In #7, Silk runs through the city on its final day, trying to reach a destination, but she keeps getting delayed by people who need to be saved. The art from Tana Ford has trouble selling the urgency and action, but despite that, I couldn't guess whether Silk would reach her destination until the last couple of pages. Cindy gets a major win as the world ends; I’m going to be very upset if she’s not allowed to keep that victory when the regular Marvel Universe returns.

I enjoyed Life and Times. I’m looking forward to the next volume, Sinister, which comes out in May. The groundwork laid down in Life and Times will likely make clear which of my complaints are unimportant and what I’m supposed to be paying attention to. On the other hand, Sinister will take place in an all-new, slightly different Marvel Universe, so who knows what the ground rules are?

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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12 February 2016

Skull the Slayer

Collects: Skull the Slayer #1-8 and Marvel Two-in-One #35-6 (1975-6, 1978)

Released: April 2015 (Marvel)

Format: pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785193975

What is this?: After surviving a plane crash in the Bermuda triangle, a Vietnam vet, a physicist, his assistant, and a wealthy white teenager encounter a weird world with dinosaurs and aliens.

The culprits: Writers Marv Wolfman, Steve Engelhart, and Bill Mantlo and artists Steve Gan, Sal Buscema, and Ernie Chan

In 1975, Marv Wolfman finally persuaded Marvel to publish a series that he’d had simmering in his mind for years, a series with a bold premise: readers would hate every character, but to distract them, the artist would include dinosaurs.

That wasn’t really the premise. Wolfman’s idea has a former soldier leading a group of plane-crash survivors around a mysterious island in the Bermuda Triangle, where they have to deal with dinosaurs, aliens, and all manner of strange mysteries. But the characters’ unlikeability will remain my lasting memory of Skull the Slayer, a mid-’70s Marvel series with more ambition than continuity or ability, long after I forget everything else but the dinosaurs.

Skull the Slayer coverThe unlikeable roll call starts with Vietnam vet Jim “Skull” Scully. He’s had a hard time of it: years spent in a POW camp, where his jailors tortured him for information he didn’t have, followed by a sour homecoming where he found his wife shacked up with another man, his parents dead from their worry about him, and his brother strung out. Almost immediately, his brother attacks Scull with a knife, and in the scuffle, his brother is killed. Scully goes on the run, and his arrest in Bermuda leads to him being on the plane that crashes in the Bermuda Triangle.

All that should build a lot of sympathy for Scully, but as soon as he meets the other survivors of the crash, his arrogance comes to the fore. He’s always scuffling with Dr. Raymond Corey, the physicist, over dominance in the group. He scorns the peacemaking of Ann Reynolds, Corey’s assistant, and Jeff Turner, the son of a wealthy Ohio senator. He won’t compromise; all his dialogue is bluster, convinced the entire world, down its smallest molecule, is against him. This is the Marvel template: a hero with ability (Scully kills a dinosaur in #1) but brashness that drives everyone away. In the Marvel style, the hero eventually comes to an understanding with (most of) his supporting cast, toning down his rough edges, but before that happens, he abandons Corey, Reynolds, and Turner to their deaths in #4.

Since Scully is the protagonist, the other characters are supposed to irritate Scully and the readers, by extension. The supporting cast mainly gets broad-stroke characterization, and the writers aren’t afraid to lean on stereotypes when they have to. Corey is highly educated and scorns Scully as a murderer; he’s also African-American, and he admits his frustration with racism that has held him back. Corey’s bitterness drips from every word of dialogue, but he lacks any empathy or vulnerability. Sexism has held back Ann Reynolds, but she often assumes female stereotypes — an obsession for clothes, an injury while running that prevents the others from escaping, etc. Turner is a load with a bad haircut.

Wolfman left the series after #3, so it’s possible he could have planned to soften the characters some. Steve Engelhart, however, took over for #4, and he torpedoed any chance Scully had for likeability by having him abandon his comrades during an escape attempt. This was part of a plan to dump Scully’s supporting cast for a more in-depth investigation of the world Scully found himself in, but #4 was Engelhart’s only issue. Bill Mantlo, who guided the series to its limping end, wrenched the series back in the direction Wolfman had aimed it in by resurrecting and reinstating the supporting cast the next issue. Oops!

Knowing someone abandoned you in the hour of your direst need, and that you actually died because of what they did, would put a crimp in any relationship. Reynolds, Corey, and Turner forgive Scully unimaginably quickly, although they do spend #5 trying to kill him.

Given the characters’ lack of charisma, Skull needed intriguing plots and / or great art to succeed. Skull had a very strong similarity to the TV series Lost: in each, the survivors of a mysterious plane crash find themselves on a weird island with little chance of rescue. (I would pay cash money for a sequel to Skull, with Scully tearfully crying, “We have to go back to the island!”) After the plane crash, the mysteries Skull and his crew uncover on the island include:
  • Dinosaurs (#1)?
  • Why are there prehistoric men (#2)? They didn’t exist at the same time as dinosaurs.
  • Where did that dead alien come from (#2)?
  • And why did he have a magic power belt (#2)?
  • Why were all those human and alien pilots (now skeletons) tied to stakes in one place (#3)?
  • What’s the deal with the tower that has different time periods on each level (#3), all populated with robots?

Those are Wolfman’s plots, with Marv piling weird stuff into the pages without seeming to have an idea of how to resolve them or what the survivors should be doing, other than not being eaten by dinosaurs. Perhaps three issues is too little time to be seeing movement in those areas, although the lack of a plan shows why Scully should not have been the group’s leader.

Engelhart wraps up the last plot in that list — aliens built the tower as part of a plot to conquer Earth at all time periods simultaneously — but then Mantlo ends that plot in #6 with the destruction of the tower. It’s unclear whether the aliens are responsible for the non-tower weirdness on the island — why do aliens care about dinosaurs? — but Mantlo moves on to a faux-Aztec society, another pilot from our world, and societal civil war. Wolfman returns to wrap up everything in two issues of Marvel Two-in-One, but it’s clear he’s sweeping up the pieces in case another writer sees something he likes. Most of those pieces ended up in the trash, though. Wolfman didn’t even bother to salvage (or mention) the pilot from our world that Mantlo introduced.

For readers who like drawings of dinosaurs, though, Skull might be something to investigate. (Evidently not enough of those existed in the mid-’70s.) Steve Gan gets the bulk of the dinosaur duty, drawing #1-3 and #6. His dinosaurs are massive, powerful creatures. Sal Buscema’s arc (#4-8) concentrates on different eras of human history; his work is harmed by the bright colors, but his design for the alien Slitherogue is satisfyingly sinister. (Sure, Slitherogue looks like he’s a Yellow Peril villain, but he’s purple, and from outer space, so it’s OK, right?) Buscema’s less-detailed style suffers compared to Gan’s work; Gan’s linework, especially with its emphasis on the hair and sinew of the figures he draws, is more in keeping with the dirty, more animalistic world the book inhabits. Gan’s Scully is a more vicious, feral man than Buscema’s version, giving the impression that Scully might be a man who fits the island better than he does modern society. Ernie Chan draws the MTiO issues like they are, well, MTiO issues, and the more superheroic look is jarring. The rushed plot does Chan no favors, though.

The series is a brief flash of muddled creativity that never clicks. Readers can probably find bits and pieces that entertain them or that they’d love to see repurposed in something more coherent, and the series’ failure shows how difficult it must have been to keep the mélange of character and mystery plotlines going for so long on Lost. Skull the Slayer is an artifact of the fecund ‘70s, but like a lot of the high-concept ideas that came out of that time, its execution means it isn’t worth reading.

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

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