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

30 September 2008

Deadpool Classic, v. 1

Collects: New Mutants #98, Deadpool: The Circle Chase #1-4, Deadpool v. 1 #1-4, Deadpool v. 1 #1 (1991, 1993, 1994, 1997)

Released: April 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 264 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785131243

Deadpool Classic, v. 1, is a different kind of collection, one of those character-centric books that don’t have a single storyline (or like the last two books, two related stories). Deadpool has two complete miniseries plus two stories that aren’t related to anything else in the book. This gives the book the appearance of being suited for those obsessed with Deadpool or continuity. But is that true?

Deadpool Classic, v. 1 coverWell, it is more than slightly disjointed. One story doesn’t really flow into another; Deadpool lurks around the fringes of X-Force between his first appearance and his first mini. The two miniseries are marginally connected, though, and there doesn’t really seem to be any missing information between the two stories. But writer Joe Kelly doesn’t feel obligated to tack the Deadpool ongoing directly onto anything that came before. So it’s a mixed bag in that aspect. They are all representative stories, though, each embodying the insane loudmouth who likes to hurt people for money. (Or as Marvel says, “Merc with a Mouth.”)

The issue of New Mutants is mostly a New Mutants story, with Deadpool showing up to harass the heroes for less than half an issue. It’s really an inauspicious debut for a character who became as important as Deadpool did; he fails in his mission, is used by Cannonball for training purposes, and is completely humiliated by Cable. Scripter Fabian Nicieza and plotter / artist Rob Liefeld had Cable punk an awful lot of people, so it wasn’t that unusual.

The first miniseries, The Circle Chase, was written by co-creator Nicieza, with art by ’90s hot artist Joe Madureira. While you might think having a writer so familiar with Deadpool would be a plus, it actually acts as a detriment at points. Yes, Nicieza gets the dialogue right, and his Deadpool is true to the original mercenary, villainous Deadpool, but the book gets bogged down with X-Force continuity. The grudge between Kane and Deadpool, Copycat’s past, Black Tom’s affliction and connection to Deadpool, Tolliver’s death, and the very existence of Weasel and Courier are uncommented upon and unfootnoted. Given that Deadpool helped deliver Black Tom to his horrible fate, it would make sense that the book would make some note of it, but no — and since Black Tom doesn’t seem too worked up in the first mini, maybe that’s OK. But the continuity, Nicieza’s love for MacGuffins, and a convoluted plot — what purpose do the assassins sent after Deadpool serve? — make this little miniseries a bit more complicated than necessary.

Mark Waid wrote the second miniseries, Sins of the Past, with art from Ian Churchill, Lee Weeks, and Ken Lashley. Waid built upon the heroic possibilities from Circle Chase and downplays the character’s violent, sociopathic tendencies. He also links Sins more strongly to the most profitable franchise of the day, X-Men, by adding mutants Banshee and Siryn to the cast. Waid, despite some distaste for the character, manages to write convincing dialogue even as he takes a little of the edge off the character. The plot works more smoothly than Circle Chase; it’s simpler, although eliminating treacherous Interpol agent Peyer would have improved the story even more. I’m also not sure about the malfunctioning healing factor he gave Deadpool for the story, since Wolverine was going through a similar trial at the same time.

The gem of the volume is the double-sized first issue of Deadpool’s first ongoing series. Kelly and artist Ed McGuinness defined Deadpool, and although their run was low selling, it was extremely critically well received. Kelly unites the “Merc with a Mouth” personality with “Deadpool as a reluctant hero” in a way that is both more satisfying and convincing than either Waid or Nicieza (who arguably wasn’t trying for reluctant hero). He even gives Deadpool a new status quo that simultaneously humanizes and distances him from the reader. Kelly quickly established himself as the master of Deadpool’s dialogue with this (and subsequent) issues, joining a pop-culture sensibility with insanity, bad jokes, and murderous tendencies. Interestingly, Deadpool doesn’t have a monopoly on the funny lines, with the unsuspecting and befuddled characters who interact with him occasionally being more funny than the title character.

McGuiness also is the best of the Deadpool artists in my opinion, with art that is kinetic and slightly exaggerated when necessary to get the action or a joke across. He’s able to go quickly from comedy to action and back to comedy again. Although his heavy lines aren’t as graceful as the other artists, it’s arguably more appropriate: given Deadpool’s penchant for gunfire and loud explosions, he needs a more emphatic line.

I’ve never cared much for the exaggerated style of Madureira, whose art essentially screams “’90s!” over and over again. It certainly seems a bit dated today. On the other hand, it is appropriate for extended limbs Slayback and Black Tom, and his storytelling abilities are still very good. The art team for Sins — Churchill, Lashley, and Weeks — are similarly dated as a ‘90s look, but they avoid the obvious distortions featured by Madureira. Their battle scenes are often a bit confusing, though, which is a problem: the book seems to be one running fight scene. I will admit to liking the flashback scene at the beginning of #2 quite a bit, however.

The work of Liefeld calls out for many jokes, but I’ll restrict myself to one: he made an interesting choice in drawing Deadpool as a pinheaded woman with giant breasts on the cover the book.

There is a slight reproduction problem in my copy. It’s nothing major; it’s just that the Kelly / McGuinness issue and some of the Sins miniseries look a bit off — like it’s been photocopied rather than printed. It’s not a major problem, as those parts of the book are just as readable as the rest of the book, but once you notice that the quality doesn’t quite match the rest, it’s a little distracting.

I’m looking forward to Deadpool Classic, v. 2, although in a practical sense, I’m not sure it will ever be released. I have most of the issues that would be collected, but the Kelly / McGuinness run that would be collected next is excellent, easily the character’s creative high point. And I don’t have the Deadpool / Daredevil Annual ’97, and given its price, I would just as soon have it collected with other Deadpool stories in one nice, neat trade paperback.

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

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28 September 2008

Rob Liefeld Creation Week

Because October, the month of Halloweeen, begins this week, I decided to put the scariest thing I could on display: Rob Liefeld creations. Yes, that’s right: even though the frightening proportions and hidden feet of Liefeld won't be on display, two of his enduring contributions will. First up is Deadpool Classic, v. 1, which actually has only one issue of Liefeld’s immortal art. Then it’s on to X-Men vs. Apocalypse: The Twelve, v. 1. Apocalypse isn’t a product of Liefeld’s mind, but Cable, the man who had been fighting him for most of his time in our time period is, and frankly, buying this book doubled the number of issues of Cable I have lying around, so I feel this is a Cable book. So see you next week!

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26 September 2008

X-Factor, v. 4: Heart of Ice

Collects: X-Factor #18-24 (2007)

Released: March 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785123606

X-Factor gives me hope for the future of She-Hulk.

Peter David writes both titles, and although there’s a great deal of difference between the two — solo book vs. team, title that’s new to David vs. a return to an old critical triumph — X-Factor is yet another example of what David is capable of. X-Factor, v. 4: Heart of Ice shows off the wit, plotting, and long-term thought that made David’s decade-long run on Incredible Hulk so enjoyable.

X-Factor, v. 4: Heart of Ice coverThe first part of Heart of Ice is top-notch stuff. Spinning out of the virtually ignored consequences of House of M / Decimation, a group of depowered mutants called X-Cell are using terrorism to get answers, revenge, and power. Jamie Madrox’s X-Factor, self-proclaimed guardians of New York’s Mutant Town, set out to stop X-Cell. Not only does David shape a plot that logically flows from ideas other Marvel writers created but were unwilling to touch, but he manages to further his own plots and characterizations with it. The banter is sharp, especially between arch teammates M and Siryn. The reaction of Layla Miller, whose only power is to “know stuff,” upon discovering something she doesn’t know is hilarious, and it makes the year and a half suffering through the smug character worthwhile. Rahne wars with her instinctual wolfen side, and Richter deals with another beating he could have prevented if he had his powers and a romantic subplot that is almost 20 years old (just after X-Tinction Agenda, although if you don’t know about that loose end, it won’t affect your enjoyment of the scene).

The main plot for #21-4 is less successful, revolving around Huber, a man who can hear the thoughts of all mutants and has all their powers. When there were thousands, the cacophany of thoughts in his head drove him mad. Now that there are fewer than 200 mutants, his plan is to draw them all together and eliminate them all, ending his torment. Although his plan is interesting, I never warmed to the character — it seems like a cheat for a character as afflicted and powerful as Huber to pop up out of nowhere, and his design is somewhat lackluster. In the end, Huber seems like a distraction for more interesting things: the essential wrap up of Quicksilver’s and Layla’s stories, a pregnancy scare, a pair of anti-mutant child vocalists called the Purity Singers, and a child-custody investigation. The dialogue is good, the action keeps the story moving, and the revelations keep coming, but in the end, Huber seems too much deus ex machina and too little personality or wit to carry the story.

I’m not sure what to make of Siryn getting shot, making this at least the third time she’s been severely injured since X-Factor’s relaunch (and the second time in this volume). I don’t know what David has against her, although if you were to pick a target to hurt repeatedly, you’d have to choose between her and Wolfsbane (Richter is human and thus too fragile, Madrox’s duplicates do get killed frequently, Layla’s a child, and M and Guido are too resistant to small-arms fire).

Art duties are split between Koi Pham, who pencils #18-20, and Pablo Raimondi, who draws #19-23. (It’s unclear who’s responsible for #24; it looks like Raimondi but the credits say “art assists” were given by Valentine de Landro and Drew Hennessy.) Both do good work, and although their styles are distinct, they mesh well enough Heart of Ice avoids the usual penciller-switch whiplash. Pham’s style is rougher and not as detailed, but his flabby, depowered Blob is especially memorable. Raimondi has a smoother style that takes advantage of shadow with excellent effect, although at times the shadow seems a little too pronounced. As I mentioned above, I think he could have established a more striking visual for Huber; Colossus with a cloak and one of Cyclops’s eyes doesn’t seem as quite as interesting as it could be.

I enjoyed this volume, and though I’m looking forward to more X-Factor, I know it won’t be this team; Messiah CompleX put an end to that. But I’m sure it will still be entertaining.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (3 of 5)

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23 September 2008

She-Hulk, v. 6: Jaded

Collects: She-Hulk #22-7 (2007-8)

Released: August 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785125631

I getting a bit weary and leery of direction changes on titles I enjoy.

I’ve made no secret of how much I enjoyed Dan Slott’s run on She-Hulk, and although I’m happy he has a high-profile job on Amazing Spider-Man, I have no interest in following him to a step backwards into Spider-Man’s development.

She-Hulk, v. 6: Jaded coverSo for She-Hulk, v. 6: Jaded, the new writer is Peter David. David has a good track record, especially with titles that he can play tongue in cheek, and She-Hulk hasn’t been played straight for quite a while.

David introduces a new status quo, in which She-Hulk has been disbarred and is now working as a bounty hunter for a company affiliated with her old law firm. She’s teamed up with Jazinda, a Skrull bounty hunter on the run from her own race. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a fan of storylines that jump ahead weeks or months from the previous, leaving the reader to guess what happened, and Jaded doesn’t change my mind. David seems to be setting up the story of those missing events for another time, but that doesn’t help now.

All right — so that’s what I don’t like about the setup. Putting that aside — since some readers won’t be bothered at all — what about the actual story?

There’s two storylines. The first is a two-issue story setting up the new status quo. She-Hulk fights the Absorbing Man and the tiny Titania for two issues while Jazinda captures their quarry, the Absorbing Man’s cousin, and then they go back to their camper park home. It works well enough, setting aside my reservations; those who are willing to forget about Jen’s time at the law firm will probably find it entertaining in the usual Peter-David way. Jazinda’s characterization is definitely not human; even her daddy issues are alien.

The second half of Jaded (#25-7) holds the real meat of the argument. In #24, a man blows up a bar simply to annoy or ingratiate himself with She-Hulk, so she and Jazinda set out to Cleveland to bring him to justice. Or get revenge; She-Hulk has eschewed heroism, so it’s open to interpretation. Near Allentown, Pa., their camper is hit by a spaceship, which is piloted by a fugitive on the run from a Badoon bounty hunter. (I approve; you can never have enough Badoon.)

Without context, a lot of the story rings false. It’s hard to believe long-time Avenger / lawyer She-Hulk would be callous enough not to help someone on the run and begging for help or not at least be curious about a bounty hunter’s credentials. I also have trouble believing She-Hulk would be as cynical as she is portrayed about heroism, especially after saving people from the rubble of a demolished building earlier in the book. Jazinda is also a tough nut to crack, but I can accept her contradictions (pleas for mercy at the beginning turning to cold-blooded murder) as characterization rather than arbitrariness.

And the final issue is a legal battle. With She-Hulk handcuffed (metaphorically), she has to turn to old frenemies17 to get an innocent bystander in the fugitive / Badoon fight out of legal trouble. It connects to the previous two issues strongly, and it also it teases the story of the changes in She-Hulk’s life. The cameos are quick and effective, although with the appearance of one of She-Hulk’s legal colleagues, it seems to draw a line under the fact that the legal part of She-Hulk’s character won’t be seen much in the future.

I don’t have much to say on the art, although that shouldn’t be taken as a slight to the artists involved. Kevin Moll pencils the bulk of the book and does a good job. He seems to have a good handle on the character, cheesecake and all, and he can do action scenes, humor, and distortion well. Val Semeiks takes the final issue and also does a good job, although it’s distracting how much different his Jen Walters (She-Hulk’s human alter ego) looks compared with Moll’s.

The book is filled with typical Peter David humor, filled with banter and wordplay. That’s really the strength; if you’ve wanted to see David do another Hulk-ish story, you should be on this like green on gamma-radiation poisoning. If not … well, I plan to give David’s She-Hulk another chance and give him a chance to hook me once the more expository parts of the run are over.

But I’m generally a fan of David. Your mileage may vary, and I can’t say Jaded grabbed me enough to anticipate the next leg of She-Hulk’s journey.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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19 September 2008


Collects: Watchmen #1-12 (1985-6)

Released: September 1987 (DC)

Format: 416 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 978-0930289232

Much more than Zot!, Watchmen is critically bulletproof. Its greatness as a work of comic art is relatively uncontested, even in the contentious world of online comic fandom. It is one of the three titles frequently nominated for the position of greatest comic story ever told (The Dark Knight Returns and Maus being the other two).

I don’t know if Watchmen is the best; I haven’t read Maus or dozens of other stories that might qualify. I know it isn’t my favorite comic story of all time. But I can’t think of a comic that’s better.

Watchmen coverWatchmen, for those of you who haven’t read it, is set in a world with real costumed heroes. However, most of the costumed heroes, masked vigilantes who lack superpowers, are outlawed; only the ultraviolent Comedian and the detached Doctor Manhattan, who work for the government, are allowed to operate legally. The story begins with the death of the Comedian. Rorschach, a right-wing, unbalanced vigilante who ignores the ban, thinks the Comedian’s death is part of a conspiracy to kill heroes. The other former heroes generally disagree, but Rorschach continues his investigation.

This synopsis does not do Watchmen justice, of course. Writer Alan Moore created a deeply detailed alternate 1985. Electric cars and non-polluting airships are the norm. Doctor Manhattan — who has vast reality manipulation powers and is the only person to have an actual superpower — has given America a vast strategic advantage on the world stage, since the Soviets have no counter for an actual superman. America won the Vietnam War when Manhattan took a hand in the fighting, and Nixon’s still president. Pirate stories dominate comic books, since real costumed heroes made people less likely to find superheroes escapist. Still, most people seem as miserable as they are in our world, despite that world’s advantages.

Much has been said about Alan Moore’s genius, and it’s on full display here. Moore not only invents a fully realized world, he creates characters with more depth and emotions than most comic-book writers could instill in five years of writing. To me, that’s the real strength of Watchmen — not the plotting, not the conspiracy story (although I like conspiracy stories, and this is an excellent one), and not the art (although Dave Gibbons does a great job). Rorschach is crazy, violent, morally uncompromising, and a thoroughly unpleasant person, but Moore makes him exciting and interesting despite all this. So exciting and interesting that he and his laser-focused world viewpoint are many readers’ favorite part of the book. But there’s also the violent cynicism of the Comedian, a brute who nevertheless has deep insight into humanity’s failings and steals most of the scenes he’s in — despite being dead before Watchmen begins. Doctor Manhattan’s amoral reserve flows logically from the detached, easily manipulated watchmaker-cum-physicist he was before he became a superhero. And the villain … I’m not sure there’s another master planner in comics that I hate so much. Even minor characters, such as the psychologist who treats Rorschach and a newsvendor, also have indelible personalities.

Most writers would give their eyeteeth to have created a Rorschach or Comedian; Moore created both, out of whole cloth, then let the world of Watchmen go. There were no spinoffs, no TV series, no Watchmen Babies15 — and that has made the story strong. There is nothing to water it down, unlike The Dark Knight Returns or any of the longstanding major comic-book characters’ stories. The characters and the world of Watchmen exist only in twelve issues, one trade paperback. And that’s it. Completeness, which is something we never get … ironically, it’s also the point of Doctor Manhattan’s final comment to former vigilante Ozymandius.

There’s also a lightness of touch, avoiding the black-and-white viewpoint common to comics. The villain’s evil deeds at times seem almost secondary in importance to the extreme moral bind he puts the heroes in. Moore has little sympathy, I believe, for Rorschach and his right-wing conspiracies (and his absolutisms), but he and his fellow extreme conservative the Comedian find and understand more of the truth than anyone else. Ozymandius, whose politics are probably much closer to Moore’s own, is blithely unconcerned with the conspiracy’s underpinnings. The ending is steeped in moral compromise. No one is a complete hero; the world won’t allow it.

Moore and Gibbons work together well, almost seamlessly at times. Between them, they cram details into panels that would make modern artists blanch. Despite working in smaller panels than most of today’s artists, Gibbons doesn’t flinch at detail, at expressions, at backgrounds. There’s a wealth of detail in almost every panel. That isn’t a luxury, however: Moore’s writing seems to demand it, rather than being background jokes as Gene Ha16 provides in his collaboration with Moore, Top 10.

I praised the characters, but what really elevates Watchmen to the status of high art rather than just an outstanding story are the themes. They repeat throughout the story, amplify, touch or transfer to other characters. Rorschach’s blots, the radioactivity symbol, clockwork — they appear in unexpected places, surprising the reader with their connections. Moore makes apt allusions to everything from the Bible to classical literature to Bob Dylan. It is Moore at the height of his powers, with an artist capable of keeping up with him.

The only real complaint I have are the garish colors; Watchmen is filled with oranges, greens, and purples. At times, it’s putrescent and hard to read. I understand why, I think: this is a world that is sick but doesn’t and can’t acknowledge it, even as the decay is working its way to the surface. Also, surrounding heroes of the night with ugly, eye-catching colors instead of the blackness they prefer is a perfect symbol of the garishness of costumed heroism — it attracts attention rather than efficiently blending into the shadows.

But that’s a minor grievance; others have put more vitriol and thought into the matter. Some complain about the pirate story read at the newsstand by a young man, which Moore intercuts frequently with the main story. I think it’s woven into the story brilliantly, its themes (if not its images) fitting into the main story like a key in a lock. Also, the story is, itself, brilliant. Others find the text pieces at the end of each issue distracting, but they fill in the corners of the Watchmen universe, particularly excerpts from Under the Hood, a tell-all biography from one of the first generation of heroes.

Others complain about not believing the ending, that the grand conspiracy would not accomplish its goal. That’s OK; Moore doesn’t think that state will last long, and it’s possible nothing is resolved in the end.

It is, admittedly, old fashioned. It was written in the year it was set, 1985, and it reflects many of the tropes and ideas comics had accumulated up to that point. There are few, if any, splash pages, and Gibbons lays out pages in 3x3 grids. Occasionally, a panel will fill an entire row or column, but 3x3 rules the day. The roles and some of the designs of the heroes are based on characters from the Golden or Silver Age; famously, Rorschach was based on Steve Ditko creations the Question and Mr. A, while Nite Owl was influenced by Blue Beetle and Batman. The heroes themselves fill archetypes: genius, detective, polymath genius, alien, token girl.

Moore’s goals for Watchmen seem to be to take elements of past — to revel in those elements — and forge something new, something that hadn’t been seen before, something to build on for the future. In the story, this is seen in Ozymandius deciding to end his successful line of Nostalgia perfume and replace it with Millenium, followed by a forward-looking advertising campaign. Like Ozymandius, Moore tried to close out the old, successful model and introduce a new model, and even if few followed his lead, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Well, maybe not his own.

Rating: Watchmen smiley face Watchmen smiley face Watchmen smiley face Watchmen smiley face Watchmen smiley face (5 of 5)

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16 September 2008

December Marvel Solicits

Speaking of Marvel’s December solicitations, here are the books I’m thinking of getting, which means that these books will probably be reviewed on the site:

  • The aforementioned Runaways, v. 8: Dead End Kids, although they don’t call it v. 8. How long has it been since v. 7? Forever? (Actually since April 2007. Somehow it took more than a year and a half to publish six issues.) I suppose getting Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was worth some of that wait, but geez, Whedon — have you heard of a deadline, or is that something that only the other Marvel writers have to deal with?
  • X-Factor, v. 5: The Only Game in Town. Peter David is doing quite well with this title, and I’m eager for another volume. My review of v. 4 is coming up in a few weeks. I’m a little peeved there seems to be no plan to reprint X-Factor #25-7 — or if there is, I don’t know what it is. [EDITED: I see now it’s part of the X-Men: Messiah CompleX TPB. I thought TPB was entirely made of backup stories, but I see now I was thinking of Endangered Species.] Once there was a time when it would have been unthinkable that I would have been so out of touch with the status quo of the X-Books, but now, there’s nothing strange about it at all.
  • Amazing Spider-Girl, v. 4: Brand New May. I keep buying the TPBs from the Amazing Spider-Girl, but I can’t read them until I catch up on the original Spider Girl series, so there won’t be a review for quite a while. Marvel hasn’t published a digest in a year. They will have published three of Amazing TPBs in that time. From June 2006 to October 2007, they published four Spider-Girl digests. Don’t leave me hanging, Marvel!
  • Powers, v. 12: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time. Another volume of Powers. I’m assuming this one will be published as scheduled; other collections from this series keep getting delayed because Oeming and Bendis can’t be bothered.

What about you readers out there in the Sub-Etha Network? What will you buy? Do you have recommendations for reviews? I can’t promise I’ll actually buy them, but I might find a way to get the books to review it (interlibrary loan is a wonderful tool).

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Agents of Atlas

Collects: Agents of Atlas #1-6, Yellow Claw #1, Menace #11, Venus #1, Marvel Mystery Comics #82, Marvel Boy #1, Men’s Adventures #26, What If? (v. 1) #9 (1947, 1948, 1950, 1954, 1956, 1978, 2006)

Released: June 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 256 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785127123

In the previous post, I said some reviews were easy, some were hard. This is one of the hard ones.

I really wanted to like Agents of Atlas. Really, I did. I’d picked up issue #1 from a quarter bin, and I’d enjoyed it. I’d heard good things about writer Jeff Parker, mainly about his all ages work in the Marvel Adventures line and X-Men: First Class, and his Spider-Man / Wolverine story was the best part of a recent What If? TPB. I wasn’t familiar with artist Leonard Kirk, other than a somewhat forgettable Hulk story from that same What If? TPB. But the art looked excellent.

Agents of Atlas coverBut I’m not entirely sold on the actual product. Agents takes six rarely used, pre-Silver Age Marvel heroes (Jimmy Woo, Ken Hale the Gorilla Man, M-11 the Human Robot, Venus, Marvel Boy, and Namora) who were teamed for one issue of What If? and puts them together again. On one hand, it takes a rarely used area of the Marvel Universe — the Golden (ne Yellow) Claw and his Fu Man Chu-lite machinations — and gives them an explanation beyond mere vaulting ambition or power madness. It also takes his original adversary, FBI agent Jimmy Woo, and elevates him the job of stopping the Golden Claw.

There is an interesting and entertaining conspiracy story here, although I’m not sure about the payoff measures up to the mystery’s setup. Parker and Kirk obviously have great fun playing with these vintage, barely used toys. Ken Hale is obviously the most entertaining, getting all the good lines, and Woo, a man out of time after a death and resurrection, is compelling: he’s occasionally baffled by our bright new present, but investigating and stopping the Golden Claw is more important, keeping him from seeming like a baffled newcomer the entire book. Kirk, more than Parker, does an excellent job of making Marvel Boy, who lived for years on Uranus, look and feel alien. Kirk’s Venus is suitably beautiful, and M-11 is appropriately retro — in fact, there’s a retro vibe throughout the entire book, even in Hale’s clothing. In fact, the art is uniformly well done, with excellent storytelling and design.

But the action is sparse and the plot slow. It takes more than four issues simply to gather the team, and they had four of the six together at the beginning. This seems like wasted space, shifting time and attention away from the investigation and action. What should have been big action scenes, where the team rolls up several arms of the evil Atlas Foundation, is a disappointing montage — the most disappointing is a fight against the children from The Village of the Damned, with a page of set-up ending with the kids beating the snot out of the team, but a narration box explains Marvel Boy regained enough telepathic control to defeat them. The limited time really doesn’t allow Parker to develop the characters past their new origins, which is a shame; they’re largely unexplored, and it would be nice to get something of an arc for more than Woo and Venus.

To an extent, Parker’s story is obsessed with the past, which would be fine for an ongoing but merely complicates things in a miniseries. Namora must be resurrected. Marvel Boy’s presence must be explained, given his apparent death in a Fantastic Four #165. The contradictions in Venus’s appearances in the Marvel Universe must be explained by complicating / changing her origin. Even M-11 is altered, with the final pages of the series substantially changing his original origin story, which readers can read for themselves in the volume. The Yellow Claw sheds his horrible, racist name, which is frankly welcome. Still, that much retconning is never a good idea, and only Hale is left uncomplicated — which is perhaps why he’s the most fun part of the book.

Regardless of what Amazon says, this book is available only as one of Marvel’s Premiere hardcovers, so I put off buying it for a year, hoping there will be a paperback. (There won’t be.) There are extras in a hardcover that wouldn’t be in a paperback: reprints of the agents’ first appearances from the ‘40s and ‘50s and the team’s first appearance in What If? #9. The reprints are mainly interesting from a historical standpoint; the reasons superhero comics weren’t popular in the ‘50s go beyond cultural zeitgeist. The non-superhero comics — Menace #11, featuring the creation of the Human Robot, and Men’s Adventures #26, Gorilla Man’s first appearance — are the best, although I’m not sure they are the best of their genres for the decade. The issue of What If? is pretty good, though, with writer Don Glut having fun with a relatively inconsequential idea from Roy Thomas.

Also included in the Premiere version is a lot of promotional interviews and concept sketches detailing the creation of Agents. Sometimes this is interesting; it is always promotional material, though. A condensed version hitting the highlights would have been welcome. I’ve already bought the damn book; you don’t have to sell it to me again.

This book should be fun, given the creators’ enthusiasm and ability, but it isn’t most of the time. It’s tough to recommend this book, then; as a complete story, it falls short. The proposed ongoing series written by Parker might change that: as an opening arc, exploring these characters and moving them beyond their new status quos might be more entertaining and make this more palatable as a setup.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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Ooops (Part 1)

Review of Agents of Atlas coming later today, but here's something I came across while reading Marvel’s December solicitations. The entry for Runaways, v. 8: Dead End Kids includes this:

The kids start running in a different direction. Superstar JOSS WHEDON (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ASTONISHING X-MEN) and rising star MICHAEL RYAN (NEW EXCALIBUR, NEW X-MEN) take the Runaways to the Big Apple. While there, they make surprising allies and even more surprising enemies. This is the cannot-miss book of 2007!

The emphasis is mine, of course.

That makes it such a shame that this book is released in 2008. Also, ironic that the book itself missed 2007 entirely. But, hey! Excitement! By the time I get this book, it'll probably be two years past its prime!

(Crossposted from my personal blog Jenny Saqua)

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12 September 2008

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 22: Tomoe's Story

Collects: Usagi Yojimbo #90-3, Usagi Yojimbo Color Special #1-3 (1989, 1991-2, 2006)

Released: July 2008 (Dark Horse)

Format: 182 pages / black and white / $15.95 / ISBN: 9781593079475

Some reviews are difficult. Some are easy. This is one of the latter.

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo has been published for the last two decades, amassing about 170 issues, a few specials, and a spinoff (Space Usagi!) among three publishers (Fantagraphics, Mirage, and Dark Horse). Sakai’s story about a masterless samurai rabbit in a world of anthropomorphic animals has often been funny or moving, is consistently entertaining, and is always beautifully drawn.

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 22: Tomoe’s Story coverUsagi Yojimbo, v. 22: Tomoe’s Story is no exception.

In the Usagi Yojimbo issues, Usagi visits the Geishu lands, the closest thing to a home the ronin has. He spends most of his time with Tomoe, the most trusted Geishu retainer and the woman Usagi probably loves but cannot express his feelings for, both because of his society’s and his own emotional reserve. Sakai takes readers from the supernatural to the mundane. There are ghosts, trickster foxes, and magic paint sets; to balance them, there are trade negotiations, the obligations and realities for female samurai in 16th-century Japan, and a truly moving issue featuring nothing more than a Japanese tea ceremony, with little dialogue or action.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there are three issues reprinted from the late ‘80s / early ‘90s. These are the color specials, and as you might guess, they lose more than a little when reprinted in black and white, as they are here. (Actually, Color Special #1 has been completely redrawn by Sakai for this volume.) I have all three of those issues and didn’t need them here, so in a sense, they were wasted on me, but I imagine I’m in a distinct minority. It is a bit jarring to see the older issues that weren’t redrawn — Sakai’s style almost two decades ago was not quite as rounded or sparse as it became, but I can’t deny that since they feature Tomoe prominently, they fit the rest of the issues well.

Sakai nudges relatively static characters forward in the new stories, giving long-time readers a payoff … of sorts. New readers will probably pick up on what I’m talking about, although they won’t be as emotionally involved. Still, an excellent volume for new and old readers.

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

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09 September 2008

Zot!, 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection

Collects: Zot! #11-36 (Eclipse)

Released: July 2008 (Harper)

Format: 576 pages / black and white / $24.95 / ISBN: 9780061537271

Scott McCloud’s Zot! is one of those titles that had a high regard-to-access ratio. That is, the title was critically well regarded, but most people weren’t going to track down the back issues from an ‘80s black-and-white comic from a smaller publisher.

Now that Harper has published Zot!, 1987-1991: The Complete Black and White Collection, readers don’t have to work hard to track down the adventures of McCloud’s eponymous protagonist, an optimistic superhero from the far-flung fabulous future of 1965, and Jenny, a normal girl from our world. But is it worth it?

Zot! coverLike Watchmen, going against the critical wisdom will make you look foolish, dense, or contrarian. I can certainly see some of what critics like so much about this book. McCloud’s art, for instance, is outstanding, as clear and open as Zot himself. In his commentaries on the issues, McCloud often mentions how his perfectionistic tendencies put him behind frequently, and I can believe it; obviously a lot of attention has gone into each page, each panel, each line. For those whose impression of McCloud comes from his avatar in Understanding Comics , this is likely to be a bit of a shock — a pleasant one, but a shock nonetheless.

The commentaries on each storyline are also interesting. McCloud comments on how the plots were influenced by his life, newly married and living hand-to-mouth occasionally (his realization that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were making a mint off products like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles macaroni and cheese, then realizing he has to settle for regular, cheaper mac and cheese is priceless). He gives a great deal of access to his thoughts and theories, showing how a man who started with an offbeat but not worldshattering superhero comic ended up writing the seminal Understanding Comics after transforming what his comic was about.

But I didn’t particularly enjoy that shift. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Zot! is trapped in our world, and after his world — full of optimism, technology, and supervillains — he has trouble dealing with the mundanity of this world. (Or so Jenny thinks.) His optimism remains, but the book evolves into a teenage drama book, albeit one with a superhero hanging around. To be fair, I think the teenage drama is better done, if only because Zot! seems too invincible in his native environment. (Yes, I know heroes are invincible, and I know Zot loses occasionally, but he isn’t really challenged enough.) The story in which he is challenged the most, “Getting to 99” (#19-20), is presented only in McCloud’s rough, unpublished layouts that served as a script for fill-in artist Chuck Austen. Even when he’s challenged for Jenny’s affection, his rival backs down in an eminently reasonable manner.

So the best stories are in the teenage drama; the absolute best, in which one of the characters realizes her homosexuality, can stand against much of the best stories of that era, regardless of genre. Zot is perfect for that story: a visitor from a world where people are free to be what they are and what they want to be, realizing what this character has suffered by denying her nature, is beautiful. There are other stories dealing with traditional coming-of-age themes like teenage sex and parental divorce, and by and large, they hold up.

Unfortunately, as a vehicle for these stories, he uses Jenny’s circle of friends. Most of these character have had little more than cameos for the first two-thirds of the book, and McCloud expects us to care about them like we do for Zot and Jenny, and that’s just not happening; Ronnie, in particular, comes across as slightly creepy, and Spike feels like a random element thrown into stories just to fill space, not be a character or move the plot.

To a degree, though, I’m selling McCloud short; the real center of this book is Jenny, not Zot. She met Zot in the first ten color issues (not included here), and in this book, we see Zot’s world through her eyes. It’s a lot better than our world — cleaner, safer, happier — and Jenny becomes convinced only there can she find happiness. The world’s stagnation doesn’t bother her because she’s looking for stability as her parents move toward divorce. The book ends only when she’s forced to accept that Zot’s world is only an escape, not a permanent refuge. Jenny’s story is interesting, but she never quite gains the personality that draws the reader to her — she’s pleasant, but somewhat less than magnetic.

I received this book for free from the Harper table at the American Library Association annual meeting. (As a side note: I usually have difficulty finding a link to the cover of a volume — one that’s the actual cover, straight on, and of the size I generally use. I had no trouble this time. This is the difference between something pushed by the Marvel / DC / Diamond forces and a more conventional force like Harper.) I even got it signed by Mr. McCloud, even though his hand was in a brace; he seemed very pleasant. Because of that, I wish I enjoyed this slightly more than I did, but even though I see the quality, I feel this might be more appropriate and more moving for younger people (to be fair, they were the ones buying comics back then) or people who are more in touch with their high school days.

Rating: Zot! cover, except smaller Zot! cover, except smaller Half the Zot! cover, except smaller(2.5 of 5)

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05 September 2008

Essential Defenders, v. 4

Collects: Defenders #61-91 (1978-81)

Released: July 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785130611

It’s probably safe to say that the Essential Defenders, v. 4 is not the Defenders you remember.

There’s none of the inspired Steve Gerber madness, the stuff that made Gerber and the comics he worked on intensely interesting and occasionally baffling in the ‘70s. It never has the Big 4 — Silver Surfer, Namor, Dr. Strange, and the Hulk — together at once, although it does have the latter three a few times. But Namor shows up only reluctantly, it seems, and Dr. Strange appears in less than half the book. Heck, his apprentice / lover Clea seems to be around as much. And it’s not quite what it would become, with a full cast of B-level heroes (Son of Satan, Gargoyle, Demon Slayer, Beast, etc.).

Essential Defenders 4 coverSo for the most part, you have Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat, and the Hulk. These are great characters,although the modern Marvel Universe seems to do just fine without them. (The Hulk in this era of The Defenders — simple, touchy, and bean-loving — is not the current incarnation of the Jade Giant.) But they are all seemingly supporting characters, none of whom can support a title. I mean, the Hulk had his own comic, so he could obviously drive a plot, but when he goes, he goes alone. There’s no one stable on this non-team, perhaps by desire, and there’s no one for the team to rally around or be the leader in tough times. (Nighthawk pointedly shoves that obligation away repeatedly.) There’s a reason the X-Men have almost always had either Cyclops or Colossus, despite both of them being as dull as Point Barrow in January.

Writers Ed Hannigan and David Anthony Kraft hatch some good ideas here — excellent ideas, actually. The Mandrill storyline is the best, stretching throughout the volume. Mandrill, the mutant man-ape who can control any female who breathes his pheromones, is a creepy villain who is underplayed (and underused); I can’t tell whether this is because going all out with his powers would be too unsettling for kids (or adults, really) or would have violated the Comics Code. In any event, it’s fascinating to watch Valkyrie’s struggle against a villain simple biology has made an easy target for male heroes but near impossible for her to defeat. Her rage and frustration are nicely played.

A confrontation between Black Panther and Namor is interesting, for no other reason than I don’t think the two rulers had ever clashed before, but the near war between their two nations gets overlooked in the Marvel Universe proper because it happened in Defenders. The “Defenders for a Day” story, in which hanger-on Dollar Bill throws open Defenders membership to anyone, starts off with the chaos of a dozen or two unaffiliated superheroes showing up at Defenders HQ but disappointingly ends with an ineffectual fight against supervillains and petulant heroes.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ideas that fall flat. I don’t care about the Defenders battling the Unnameable, although I am interested in what Hannigan has against — or for — Houghton-Mifflin. (He uses the company’s name, written backwards, as a foreign language.) When Lunatik went from some weird vigilante to fragments of an interstellar pirate prince, I stopped caring. Foolkiller just doesn’t quite work in the Defenders framework — should a guy with a ray gun really be such a challenge? — and although I’m sure Omega the Unknown’s story deserved to be finished, I wish it hadn’t been dragged into Defenders, even if Ruby Thursday was used to help finish it up. Nighthawk’s millionaire playboy identity is investigated by federal agents, but that story has already been done in Defenders. I don’t care about Valkyrie’s duties in Valhalla; although her interactions with our world are interesting, I don’t care about the war among the Asgardians, especially since it seems to be between Hela (the good guy!) and some upstart. A war in Asgard without Thor or Odin or Loki is pointless.

And there’s only so much of Hellcat’s “golly-whillikers-gee-whiz-shucks” dialogue I can take before I just pray someone beats the cornball right out of her.

The art comes mainly from Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin. Trimpe’s art is good, and as one of the definitive Hulk artists, he’s a good fit for the title. However, his run is marred by multiple inkers and is a good study in the effect different inkers can have on the same penciller. Perlin is a solid ‘70s / ‘80s artist, although perhaps not quite the equal of Trimpe. There’s also a few issues by Sal Buscema, and any chance to see him draw the Hulk is always a bonus.

I want to recommend this book, but I feel it’s missing something. It feels ragged, sometimes; the transitions between status quos aren’t quite as smooth as they should be. It also feels like it’s still having a bit of a hangover from Gerber’s days. It has big ideas that it can’t quite deliver on. To be fair, however, this book was quite forward thinking for its day, featuring strong, independent female leads in the ‘70s. (Not quite as strong as Chris Claremont women — there is such a thing as going too far, after all.)

Still, it falls short of being excellent.

Rating: Defenders symbol Defenders symbol (2 of 5)

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04 September 2008

Update best written with antacid

Two things:

The Moloid in its native habitat 1) As you’ve probably noticed, I missed this week’s Tuesday update. Sorry. The Labor Day weekend is traditionally the time I set aside for descending into the bowels of the Earth and subduing the Moloids for another year by defeating their leaders in a no-hold-barred, to-the-death chili cookoff. Every year, I spare their leaders’ lives; every year, when I return, they behave as if my act of mercy didn’t happen. This may be because of their cruel, tyrannical natures, or it could be that Moloids have the memory span of goldfish. Or that their generations last less than a year. It’s difficult to say, and between this blog and preparing for the annual cookoff, I have no time to research the subject. If any readers have the answer, I would love to hear it, because I don’t think it’s going to be long before Worcestershire sauce and tarragon won’t be enough to stave off tangy flavor of defeat.

That being said, here is the schedule for reviews:

  • This week (or tomorrow, for practical purposes): Essential Defenders, v. 4
  • Next week: Black and White Week, featuring Zot! and Usagi Yojimbo, v. 22: Tomoe’s Story.
  • The week after that: Golden Oldies Week, with Watchmen and Agents of Atlas (it qualifies, since it reprints some comics from the ‘50s)

2) Hello to those who came to this site (specifically the review of Avengers West Coast: Darker than Scarlet) from When Fangirls Attack. It was startling, when looking at my Google Analytics account, to see the scale of the number of daily visitors change by nearly an order of magnitude. Welcome, hope to see you again, and this message has been posted after you’ve all left so I’m talking to myself.

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