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

22 February 2013

NYX: Wannabe

Collects: Nyx #1-7 (2003-4)

Released: June 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 208 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785112433

What is this?: Teenage mutant runaways band together on the dangerous streets of New York.

The culprits: Writer Joe Quesada and artists Josh Middleton and Robert Teranishi

So, in 2003, the X-Men: Evolution cartoon introduced X-23, a character who was obviously a distaff Wolverine. She was mysterious, she was popular, and it was only a matter of time before she was introduced in the comics.75 But it was the end Bill Jemas / Joe Quesada era at Marvel, so in retrospect it seems inevitable that X-23’s first comics appearance would be in something like NYX: Wannabe.

NYX was published a decade ago, but it already feels like an artifact from a strange time, as off-kilter for a Marvel / DC comic as something from the Silver Age. NYX features all new characters, without a cameo from an X-Man, Avenger, or Spider-Man. Four of the new characters are mutants, and New York’s District X — the mutant neighborhood featured in several X-books at the time and the “NYX” of the title76 — is mentioned; ironic, since District X and new mutant characters were so forcefully jettisoned from Marvel during Quesada’s editorial reign that there’s still an X-shaped depression in the sidewalk outside the publisher’s office. X-23, NYX’s best known character, is recast as a near-mute child prostitute who isn’t even named in the story.

Nyx: Wannabe coverWhat Quesada wants to write is a response to or an updating of the Silver and Bronze Age tales of mutants discovering their powers. Kiden, a teenage club-rat, lives on the streets after her use of her new mutant powers leaves a teacher critically wounded. The teacher, Mrs. Palmer, joins Kiden after the shooting causes life-altering depression and PTSD. One of X-23’s johns commits hari-kari in front of her. Tatiana is hounded by a mob after her powers manifest — a “lynch mob chasing the new mutant” scene, a hallmark of the old days that we haven’t seen in a while — and she angsts about what her powers cause her to do. Together, they come together to bicker at each other and be hunted by X-23’s pimp, Zebra Daddy.

Quesada establishes these kids are on their own. Charles Xavier is not going to roll through that door offering them a new home and support group, so together, they form a community to protect one another. Unlike X-Men such as Beast, Angel, and Iceman, they aren’t exchanging a happy or stable family life for the Xavier School; for them, it’s a rough mutant life or no life. The runaways all seem to understand that only someone who has dealt with similar traumas can understand what they’ve been through.

Good so far. And Marvel does get points for giving new female characters a starring role in a miniseries and assigning a high-profile creator to the story. But that praise has to be tempered severely. The high-profile creator is Quesada, who is a great artist but not well known as a writer. More importantly, Quesada and artists Joshua Middleton and Robert Teranishi have looked at the line between “frank” and “exploitative” and said, “Hell, that doesn’t apply to us.” Kiden wears a bikini top and sucks on a pacifier on the cover of #1; inside the book, she’s shown sitting on the toilet with her shorts around her ankles and a pill in her hand. Middleton makes the brave choice to show her in a t-shirt and panties in the following pages. X-23 is dressed in lingerie and fishnets the entire series, occasionally donning a jacket to cover her nearly bare torso — inconspicuous clothes for a girl hiding on the street. There are prostitutes flaunting their wares everywhere. Tatiana, another teen, is the subject of a (non-revealing) upskirt illustration in another scene.

Perhaps I’m not qualified to judge. I am a (near) middle-aged man from a rural area. I know little about the subjects the book addresses: teenage runaways, prostitution (teenage and otherwise), the New York club scene, gangs, pimps. But NYX never convinces me Quesada and Marvel are treating these subjects with the respect they deserve.

Quesada is not an experienced writer at this point, and it shows in the plotting and the details. By an extreme coincidence, Kiden is given a chance to confront the man who killed her father, a police officer. Other than inertia, we’re never sure what motivates X-23 (again, she’s never given any name; her pimp doesn’t even know what to call her). Quesada mixes up names. None of the characters are compelling or likeable, although Kiden’s struggle from immature brat to responsible leader eventually makes her sympathetic. Tatiana is introduced halfway through the story, too late to feel like anything but an afterthought.

I’m not a fan of the art. Middleton tends toward the titillating, although not as much as he could, as shown in the cover ideas displayed in the back of NYX. His fine inked line and the washed-out colors give NYX an irresolute and depressing feel. Teranishi’s work has a stronger line but suffers from the same washed out colors while also looking less polished than Middleton.

NYX is both a daring idea and a spectacularly misguided one. The cast, except for X-23, does not seem to have been used again (except in the post-Decimation sequel, NYX: No Way Home), mitigating the goodwill from using new characters. Decimation also removed the ability for young mutants to create their own communities since there just aren’t enough of them any more. After removing all that, what remains is a weird, uncomfortable series that isn’t very good.

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

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15 February 2013

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 3

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #400-1, Web of Spider-Man #123-4, Spider-Man #57-8, Spectacular Spider-Man #222-4, Spider-Man Unlimited #9, Amazing Spider-Man Super Special, Web of Spider-Man Super Special, Spider-Man Super Special, Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special, Venom Super Special, and Spider-Man: The Clone Journal (1995)

Released: September 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 464 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785149545

What is this?: Peter Parker deals with a trio of his clones, the police, and a death in the family.

The culprits: Writers Howard Mackie, Tom DeFalco, Terry Kavanagh, J.M. DeMatteis, and David Michelinie and artists Mark Bagley, John Romita Jr., Sal Buscema, Tom Lyle, and Steven Butler

I expected Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 3, to be noticeably worse than Book 2. I was right; it isn’t very good, but fortunately, it’s not an irredeemable pile of crap or evidence the entire Clone Saga is unsalvageable.

Let me start with a positive, a strong positive: After reading Spider-Man: Identity Crisis, I’m struck by how much better the story-level editing is in Book 3; Danny Fingeroth keeps the stories from overlapping or contradicting themselves, even if I don’t care for the story being told. The stable of Spider-writers — Tom DeFalco on Spectacular Spider-Man, Terry Kavanagh on Web of Spider-Man, J.M. DeMatteis on Amazing Spider-Man, and Howard Mackie on Spider-Man — keep their characterizations consistent even as they struggle to move the plot along without revealing anything, because the Clone Saga has months to go yet. I mean, there’s a story here, but it doesn’t address the crossover’s big question: Is Ben or Peter the clone?

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 3 coverAll that lack of storytelling creates a lot of slow spots. “Players and Pawns,” which starts the collection, is stalling until Amazing Spider-Man #400, which falls in the middle of Book 3. In “Players and Pawns,” a third clone of Peter Parker is released into the wild, and he wanders around a bit, amnesiac; both Peter and Ben reject claims that he is the original Peter Parker. All this sounds important, but of course rejecting proof that could answer the Clone Saga’s central question doesn’t advance the story, and the third clone doesn’t become important until “Mark of Kaine,” which ends Book 3.

The five-part “Planet of the Symbiotes,” which follows “Players and Pawns,” is told in the year’s substitutes for annuals (“Super Specials” for each of the regular Spider-Man titles and Venom). The story, written by David Michelinie, is filler, divorced from continuity, that shouldn’t need five double-sized issues to complete. The story also is an ill fit in this book, part of the era of disposable summer crossovers in annuals. By themselves, the Super Specials might feel like a big event — although I doubt it — but contrasted with other stories in Book 3, which have a relatively grounded attempt at continuity, the story of a race of symbiotes taking over Earth is ridiculous, especially when it’s never mentioned again.

The only issue in Book 3 that’s not a part of a crossover is Amazing Spider-Man #400, and it’s no surprise it’s the highlight of the book; it’s also the only issue in Book 3 I’ll remember. In ASM #400, DeMatteis writes a surprisingly moving story about a death in Peter’s family, giving the characters a sense of closure, while ending the story with a development that opened new story possibilities. (It wasn’t a shock, as it had been teased for quite a while, but I was surprised how much it caught me off guard.) More amazingly, DeMatteis manages five pages without dialogue or narrative captions, which must be a record for him.

It’s a shame he’s teamed on the issue with Mark Bagley, who is miscast at this point in his career on an emotional, conversational issue. But that’s in keeping with the book overall, as the art in Book 3 is undistinguished, at best. The John Buscema (pencils) / Bill Sienkiewicz (inks) combo on Spectacular Spider-Man hurts the eyes; it pains me to say this, given how much I enjoy the work of both. Steven Butler draws pretty but plastic people in Web of Spider-Man; Tom Lyle and John Romita Jr. do unremarkable work on a Spider-Man issue each. The art on the Super Specials are vaguely Image-influenced, except for Darick Robertson’s strong work on the Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special.

The two-part “Aftershocks,” like “Players and Pawns,” plays a waiting game, but it’s a much more tolerable one; it gives everyone a chance to react to the genuinely important changes to the status quo from Amazing Spider-Man #400. Two issues seems about the right amount of time for that — even if it does waste too much time on cosmic-level busybody Judas Traveller and the Jackal chewing the scenery in the Ravencroft Institute.

Then the third clone steps front and center, making the five-part final crossover (“Mark of Kaine”) a chore to read. After the clone remembers who he is, he tries to claim Peter’s life and wife and gets all grabby with Mary Jane. Kaine, having had precognitive flashes of Mary Jane’s death, kidnaps her and plans to keep her stashed in the sewers until … until everything blows over, I guess, which should be when all the clones degenerate. Obviously not the greatest scheme, but no one has accused Kaine of being a great thinker. The hiding doesn’t work, there’s a big, confused brawl, and the newest clone turns out to be a super-secret agent of the Jackal (so secret even the clone didn’t know it) who hideously mutates into someone drawn by Buscema and inked by Sienkiewicz. (He’s supposed be transformed into a monstrosity, and he certainly looks it, but the collaboration between Buscema and Sienkiewicz uglifies everything, so it’s hard to tell how ugly he’s supposed to be.) The story has too many Peters and too little reason to exist; the third clone goes from amnesiac wanderer to paranoid loon to genetic weapon in less time than it takes to whip up a batch of web fluid, but he never finds a moment to be interesting. Peter comes across as short sighted and irritable; only Ben seems reasonable, which wouldn’t have been a good idea if the writers were planning for Peter to remain Spider-Man.

Lyle tries to salvage something in Part 5 of the crossover (Spider-Man Unlimited #9) by writing a story that has nothing to do with the rest of “Mark of Kaine”: the Sinister Six / Seven teams up to deal with Kaine, who has already killed Dr. Octopus and the most recent Kraven. It’s a good idea for a story, one that had to be addressed if the villains were going to keep their credibility. The villains bicker, and the plan isn’t very good — the Hobgoblin has neither the leadership or strategic abilities of Dr. Octopus, which is demonstrated by his giving Mysterio and Shocker (!) handguns — and the trap predictably goes awry. But I enjoyed Lyle’s turn as a writer.

Volume 3 isn’t a disaster; many parts are perfectly cromulent. ASM #400 is excellent, as befits an anniversary issue. But the book is weighed down by “Mark of Kaine” and “Planet of the Symbiotes,” neither of which has a reason to exist, story wise. There’s no reason Book 4 and 5 can’t be worth reading, but you should borrow someone else’s copy of ASM #400 instead of spending time on this.

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

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08 February 2013

Spider-Man: Spider-Island

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #666-73 and backups from #659-60 and 662-4, Venom #6-9, and Spider-Island: Deadly Foes #1 (2011-2)

Released: September 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 376 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785151050

What is this?: The Jackal gives spider powers to everyone in New York City.

The culprits: Writers Dan Slott and Rick Remender and artists Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli, Tom Fowler, and Giuseppe Camuncoli

Over the summer, I started reading all of the Spider-Man collections after the Brand New Day reboot, using a combination of bargain books and interlibrary loan. Overall, the stories were amusing, but I didn’t think it was worth the huge retcon it took to set it up.72 I finally caught up with the collections by reading Spider-Man: Spider-Island.73

When Spider-Island begins, Spider-Man is on top of the world, being part of two superteams, pursuing his solo career, basking in New York City’s adulation, dating police forensic scientist Carlie Cooper, working a dream job, and finishing his martial arts lessons with Shang Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Into this set up wanders Miles Warren, also known as the Jackal, and a Spider-clone …

Spider-Man: Spider-Island coverWait! Come back! This is not a saga, and the clone is incidental. The Jackal, however, is important; his plan this time involves giving everyone in New York spider powers that will turn them into monstrous arachnids, then controlling them after their transformation via a mysterious ally. From there, the infection should spread across the country and the world, leaving the Jackal to rule over a world of spider humans and superhumans, who are immune to the infection.

Overwriting DNA is part of the Jackal’s modus operandi — I think; it depends on what Warren’s Carrion Virus does this year and whether the Jackal can really clone people. I’m not fond of the Jackal, since the character’s stench is all over the Clone Saga and some other bad stories. He does have a “zany” sense of humor, though, which enlivens his expository scenes and panels with his mysterious benefactor / co-conspirator, but it makes divining his motivations or taking him seriously difficult.

The Jackal is better than his partner, though. She’s portrayed in shadow for most of the crossover, as if readers would recognize her instantly if she were seen clearly. Instead, she’s the Queen, a continuity implant Spider-Man and Captain America fought in Spectacular Spider-Man #15-20. 74 I’ve read that storyline, and I had completely forgotten her; it was not writer Paul Jenkins’s best Spider-work. I don’t mind writer Dan Slott using her, although she does take away from the central Spider-Man / Jackal rivalry. She latches onto the Jackal’s plans after he’s already set them in motion, showing how extraneous she is to the plot. What bothers me, though, is pretending such a minor character is a big deal; the character had not appeared outside of that storyline, yet Spider-Man and Captain America act as if she had been haunting their dreams. If Slott was going to use an overhyped 21st century Spider-villain, I would have preferred Shathra, really.

I have to congratulate the Spider offices on the mechanics of the crossover. It must be easier to coordinate a crossover when there are only two writers and titles (and a one-shot), but Spider-Island’s stories interlock as smoothly as two overlapping plots can. Slott and Venom writer Rick Remender frequently take a page’s worth of panels from the other’s story and use it to start their part of the story, and they manage to avoid contradicting each other. It may sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but I am impressed. Bravo!

Character and plot development is not curtailed in either book because of the crossover. In Amazing Spider-Man, Slott develops Peter and Carlie’s relationship, moves Aunt May and her new husband, Jay, to Boston, and has someone discover Spider-Man’s secret identity. (Weakening Spider-Man’s magical protection in this regard was long overdue, even if I think the actual mechanism used in Spider-Island was weak.) In Venom, Remender continues strengthening the bond between the Venom symbiote and its current host, Flash Thompson, and wraps up Flash’s tumultuous relationship with his father. Interweaving simmering subplots increases the verisimilitude of the stories; life goes on, even in a crisis, no matter how much you might want things to stand still.

Although the crossover’s villains are a disappointment, the supporting figures are wisely chosen. In a story about everyone in New York getting Spider powers, certain characters have to show up: Venom, Anti-Venom, Kaine (the first Spider clone), Alistair Smythe (the inventor of Spider slayers), the new Madame Web, Mary Jane … about the only relevant missing character is Spider-Girl, who gets only a cameo despite Slott’s fondness for the Young Allies. (I’m not fond of Madame Web and can’t understand why her mystical “Web of Life” powers aren’t as derided as JMS’s mystical turn for Spider-Man, but she needs to be in Spider Island.) Slott wisely spends considerable time with J. Jonah Jameson, who, in a development as entertaining as it sounds, gains spider powers.

In the crossover’s plotting is tightly coordinated, the same can’t be said for the art. Four different artists contribute at least one story to the collection. Humberto Ramos provides most of the Amazing Spider-Man art (#667-72). If you’ve been reading Amazing Spider-Man for a while, you know how you feel about his hyper-exaggerated style. I think it works better for comedy than it does for action and drama, but there’s no denying he’s become one of the go-to Spider-artists over the past decade. His work certainly sticks out among the more realistic styles of Stefano Caselli (#666 and 673 and Venom #9), Giuseppe Camuncoli (the main story from Spider-Island: Deadly Foes), and Tom Fowler (Venom #6-8). Of those, Fowler is my favorite, and I’d like to see his simple, retro-tinged style featured on its own. But the muddy coloring from John Rauch clutters and muddies his work. Caselli is fine, except when he gives Peter an emo / manga look very similar to how he draws Phil Urich. Camuncoli’s work is a bit sketchy and exaggerated for my taste, yet it still manages to look stiff occasionally.

I admire the execution of Spider-Island greatly. Unfortunately, that admiration can’t override a lot of what’s wrong in the crossover: the villains, Madame Web, clones ... It makes for a lot of conflicting feelings. The higher stakes hurt as well; Marvel isn’t going to wipe out the human population of New York, so of course the infection has to be completely eradicated. Perhaps if I connected more with Venom / Flash or with Peter’s new status quo, Spider-Island would have been more successful. Unfortunately, it comes across as a middle-of-the-road story.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol

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01 February 2013

Incredible Hulk: Pardoned

Collects: Incredible Hulk #269-85 (1982-3)

Released: April 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785162087

What is this?: The mind of scientist Bruce Banner gains control of the Hulk’s monstrous body.

The culprits: Writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema

Even though I had all the issues collected, I was looking forward to Incredible Hulk: Pardoned. The book collects one of the best writer / artist teams in Hulk’s history: writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema.

Mantlo isn’t the greatest Hulk writer; that honor belongs to Peter David, whose almost universally praised run on Incredible Hulk lasted for more than a decade. But some of Mantlo’s nearly seventy-issue run presaged and inspired David’s, and David never worked with an artist like Buscema. To me, Buscema will always be the Hulk artist, with his knack for imbuing brutes with human expression and humans with almost monstrous expressions.

Incredible Hulk: Pardoned coverIn Pardoned, Bruce Banner finally gets control of his Hulk persona after massive doses of gamma rays. (One might think Banner had futzed around with gamma rays so often that they wouldn’t have much effect, but that’s what Mantlo has chosen, so roll with it.) After that, Banner / the Hulk seeks a pardon and acceptance; with the help of the Avengers, he fights his old enemy, the Leader. The Hulk having the mind of Banner is interesting — and it’s hard to believe it two decades for Marvel to publish such a storyline — but it’s the implications, studded among the slugathons, that are the reward in this story.

You might think, as Banner does, that the fusion of brawn and brilliance will make life easy, especially after the pardon and support of the superhero community. But the change presents a new set of challenges. When longtime girlfriend Betty learns Banner wants to remain the Hulk, whom she hates, she rejects Banner. Former sidekick Rick Jones, who helped the scientist and his alter ego interface with humanity, feels useless now that the Hulk can function within society. Banner realizes the Hulk’s savage mind had an advantage to his more reasoning one: the Hulk was too stupid to fear danger, which made him furious and stronger. Banner also fares poorly under the media’s fawning attention. Fortunately, there is some compensation: the Avengers accept the new Hulk without reservation, and She-Hulk is happy her cousin is now, like her, in control of his gamma form.

So overall, it’s an action story with some exploration of how personal growth changes life. But this is also an early ‘80s comic story, and that means certain tropes that seem outdated appear. A couple of unnecessary fights break out because of miscommunication. Three alien Hulk foes appear, calling themselves “Hulk Hunters,” and wonder why the Hulk won’t go with them; alien insects devour a Canadian town’s wheat crop without a word of explanation, then blame the Hulk when he strikes back at them and ruins the boon they were going to give humanity. Of course, some hoary old story holes are eternal: the Leader refuses to kill the Hulk after defeating him, and the herald for the cosmic threat the Hulk Hunters want to Hulk to deal with is, of course, Hulk’s old foe, the Abomination.

(That last story ends with the Hulk punching a giant space mouth, though, so that makes it OK.)

Although Pardoned is a recognizable character arc, it obviously wasn’t written for the trade paperback form. Bereet, an alien filmmaker, plays an important role early on, but after a liaison70 with the Hulk about two-thirds the way through, she almost entirely disappears. 71 The pun-filled issue with funny animal Rocket Raccoon sticks out like a stalk of broccoli in a jelly bean jar. Rick Jones’s radiation poisoning is mostly pointless, and the fight vs. Galaxy Master and Abomination serves only to deliver an extra dose of gamma radiation to the Hulk — not much of a payoff for two issues. The Hulk fights a great deal of villains without much purpose, but as the stories in Pardoned were written around the Hulk’s 20th anniversary, that’s no bad thing. Besides, most of the villains are a threat — the Leader is the most important, but Pardoned also has Abomination, Wendigo, Zzzax, the U-Foes, and a cameo from the U.S. Army.

As I mentioned, I think Buscema is the greatest Hulk artist, based both on the quality of his work and his longevity (he came onto the title well before Mantlo and left a few issues before, with #309). Pardoned gives him a chance to do something few artists get to do: humanize Hulk. Buscema succeeds admirably, and he also keeps the savage Hulk in his back pocket for when he needs him. Writer and editor Mark Gruenwald is credited with the art on #279, and he does a fine job on an issue without action and full of crowd shots — an excellent job, really, for someone with no reputation as an artist.

Pardoned, at times, reads like Mantlo was plotting by the seat of his pants; the first three issues have little to do with the rest of the story, and they feel as if Mantlo was trying to figure out how to start the story. But Mantlo and Buscema combine for a story that is surprisingly nuanced and innovative. My enthusiasm for Pardoned was not misplaced … although it was dampened by those first three issues.

Rating: Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head (4 of 5)

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