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

17 April 2006

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up, v. 1 (and only, hopefully)

Collects: Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1-2, Super-Villain Team-Up#1-14 and #16-17, Avengers #154-155, Champions #16, and Astonishing Tales #1-8 (1970-80)

Released: September 2004 (Marvel)

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up is a book filled with more misnomers than any Marvel TPB. The eight issues of Astonishing Tales are not so astonishing; Super-Villain Team-Up is generally Dr. Doom trying to figure out what to do with Namor the Sub-Mariner, who at that point wasn’t really a villain, super or otherwise; the Avengers don’t really avenge anything; and the Champions would be lucky to win a co-ed softball league. And really, only one of the two issues of Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up is all that large, and that’s because they made the reprints in it too intrinsic to remove easily. The only thing “essential” about it is if you want to read about Dr. Doom’s first, unsuccessful attempt to take over the world with a contaminant in the atmosphere. (He’s successful in the graphic novel Emperor Doom.)

For the most part, this is a Namor / Dr. Doom team-up / death battle book. But it’s difficult to get around the thought that this essential is a thrown-together pile of Bronze Age detritus. Part of that reason is because Supervillain Team-Up went through so many changes — artists and writers came and went more often than trains at the station. Five different writers and eight different pencillers. Jim Shooter even wrote and penciled this book — although not on the same issue — before he became Il Duce of Marvel. None of them hit on a successful concept for the title. Trust me, it’s nigh impossible to base a comic book on the chemistry between Dr. Doom and Namor. Are they allies? Friends? Enemies? No one knows, or perhaps given the number of writers Super-Villain Team-Up had, it’s more accurate to say everyone knew but no one agreed. There’s no sexual tension, and you get the feeling both of them were there only for the paycheck. They just micro-communicatored their performances in.

The most interesting part of the book is Doom’s statecraft, so obviously that one is jettisoned fairly quickly. If you were of a particularly Byrnesian turn of mind, you might proclaim the lead in this essential to be a Doombot, and I can’t blame you. Although he does manage a notable coup by getting Henry Kissinger to agree to American non-interference in Latveria, that’s only going to go scare away the law-abiding American superheroes. The X-Men, for example, would probably tell Kissinger to smooch their H. superior asses.

But Doom has two major problems he never overcomes: he has succumbed to the Fallacy of the Unbounded Middle, and he can’t keep control of Latveria after he steps over his borders. On the first count, Doom seems to believe that Latveria (or occasionally Latveria / Atlantis) is a large enough base to conquer the world. Did he learn nothing from other insane despots of the century? You conquer by diplomacy first. Find Latverian enclaves in neighboring states and annex them. Say you only want one more tottering Central European monarchy, and the U.N. will believe you, just like everyone believes the glutton who only wants “one more chip,” who then inhales the entire bag into his esophagus.

And my God, they must hate him in Latveria. Every time Doom leaves the country or takes a nap, Crown Prince Rudolpho and his followers — and these are enough followers to overcome Doom’s robots — take the castle. Or maybe it’ll be the Red Skull ruling Latveria this time when Doom comes home. Or the Doomsman / Andro, a robot Doom himself created. That’s how screwed up this Doom is: he doesn’t have enough people trying to take over his powerbase, so he essentially creates another rebelling group to make it more challenging.

Namor mainly is trying to wrap up plot threads that survived his first book, which ended in September 1974 with #72. When Super-Villain Team-Up began a year later, Namor was in a different costume — a much better one, mind you — because his gills are inoperable (Sub-Mariner #67). Namor’s hanging out on Hydrobase, with human scientists mutated into Amphibians by *ahem* Dr. Hydro (Sub-Mariner #62). When Namor’s not on Hydrobase or arguing with Doom in Latveria, he’s in Atlantis, mooning over the Atlanteans, who are all in suspended animation (Sub-Mariner #67-8) after having nerve gas explode in their faces. You can applaud the diligence with which these subplots are pursued — especially since in a decade, Chris Claremont would be crapping out X-Men danglers like a slot machine spits out quarters after a jackpot — but unfortunately, all these subplots are boring. The Amphibians are boring and interchangeable, Hydrobase is just another place in the Marvel Universe, and Namor’s gill deficiencies are resolved with a single Doom potion. The suspended animation of the Atlanteans gives Namor a motivation, but it’s dull too. One might think that this is because Namor himself is dull, but I would never say that. Imperious Rex!

This is only the second time I’ve missed color in an essential. (Ditko’s Strange Tales landscapes in the first Essential Dr. Strange truly needs color, even if you have to Crayola it in yourself.) Namor’s costume looks so sharp on the cover, it seems a shame not to see it in its full glory. The Amphibians and Tamara, last of a red-skinned race, lose some of their weirdness in black and white. (And with Tamara, that’s dangerous; she’s wearing a costume that you might expect from a down-in-the-heels exotic dancer with a cowgirl theme, complete with stars over her breasts, a belt of silver dollars, and an extremely short skirt. Forget her real skin color, give her a cap pistol and a cowboy hat, and you’re all set with the “riding bareback” jokes.)

You don’t often find a comic-book title with three hyphens, but here we have Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up. And that’s really the nicest thing you can say about it, unless you were clamoring for reprints of Sub-Mariner #20 and Marvel Super-Heroes #20. No? I’m not surprised. This book also features the introduction and origin of the Shroud, who is quite possibly Marvel’s second most popular blind superhero. He’s also just as affected by his blindness as Daredevil is, so unless you’ve seen his origin and learned his eyes were burned out with a branding iron, it’s very easy to forget he’s blind. There’s a reason why he’s forgotten in a world when even the Cobalt Man has fans.

And that’s the rub, really. This book has more Doom than you can shake a fist at, but it’s filled with second-rate stories and third-rate characters — the Circus of Crime appears, but their big scheme is don’t upset Doom, for heaven’s sake. They even shoehorn a Deathlok plot point into issue #4 and never reference it again. It’s full of whiplash characterization and one-damn-thing-after-another plots. In some series, in some contexts, that’s not bad; it gives the story a sense of movement and changeability. For instance, I’ve always admired that in the best aimless “Hulk smash!” stories in the early #200s. But here, it’s just painful. Super-Villain Team-Up was forgettable, in the end. Fortunately, this essential does collect all of Super-Villain Team-Up (even the final two issues, a surprisingly good Red Skull / Hatemonger two parter, published a year and a half after the rest of the series), so you don’t have to worry about whether it gets better in the issues not collected.

Super-Villain Team-Up never gets better. In a world where Namor has had three series, where Iron Fist cries out for revival every few years, and where someone expects Silver Surfer to be good this time, no one has dredged Super-Villain Team-Up from the depths. Thank goodness.

Grade: D-

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15 April 2006

Black Panther, v. 2: Enemy of the State

Collects: Black Panther (v. 3) #6-12 (1999)

Released: April 2002 (Marvel)

If Kurt Busiek’s writing style can be called dense, Christopher Priest’s Black Panther is a neutron star. This is the first thing you’ll notice about Black Panther, the unremitting pace at which Priest will throw plot development, characters, and unfamiliar terms at the reader. The plot rockets from the Wakandan government, Russian mobsters, the secret police of a fictional Latin American country, and elements within the U.S. government. It can be daunting, to say the least.

But it’s worth it, especially for the narration of Everett K. Ross, the Black Panther’s “handler” from Office of the Chief of Protocol. In actuality, Ross handles nothing, and ends up being baggage as the Black Panther does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it. Ross’s wry, socially conscious narration is a highlight of the series, even though his in media res style of telling the story adds more confusion.

An example of this is Enemy of the State’s open, which is Black Panther fighting Kraven in a restaurant kitchen with Ross huddled nearby. The fight is wordless and contextless, and rather than explain the fight, Ross immediately starts talking about a White House reception for the Black Panther, which is studded with flashbacks of its own by other characters. Kraven doesn’t appear again until the end of the issue, which is his chronologically first appearance in the story. While the fight gives the book immediate action, it is outweighed by the confusion it may cause.

The one thing that can’t be denied is Priest’s interest in and facility with the character. Although Priest was initially hesitant about writing the Black Panther, the book certainly feels like he threw himself into the book full force. Although I might complain about the dense plot and the occasional acronym that seems to come out of nowhere, Priest shows us the Black Panther’s world, a world where statesmanship and superheroics have to stand side by side. He fleshes out Wakanda and makes it seem real, rather than a bunch of stereotypical African tribesmen in bones and beads with supercomputers.

The characters are more fleshed out than almost any other Marvel Universe comic I’ve read in the last ten years. Monica Lynne, whose whole purpose is to be the Black Panther’s girlfriend, develops more of a personality and role, finally realizing being the girl hostage might not be worth the trouble. Achebe, the man who usurps the Black Panther’s crown, is a driven lunatic — or he might be feigning his lunacy. The rest of the cast — Ross, Nikki, Nakia, the White Wolf, etc. — feel like at any time they could take over the story and be immensely entertaining.

Pencils are provided by a host of artists, including Joe Jusko (#6-8), Mike Manley (#9-10), and Mark Bright (#11-12). Jusko’s textured, realistic art is a fabulous fit for the title, and Bright, one of Priest’s frequent collaborators, turns in excellent, if slightly more standard comic book, pencils of his own. Manley-in-the-Middle is a bit of a problem; his style is more cartoony, with square jaws for all the men and less realism in a gritty story more about international intrigue than superheroes punching one another.

At the time the comics were published, the big revelation from the book was that the Black Panther had joined the Avengers to spy on them. Although not all fans were convinced this was a good decision, and it does raise issues of T’Challa’s behavior toward his friends, it did fit the conception of the character that Priest was trying to bring across: a planner, a plotter, and someone who above all else wants to protect Wakanda. (After all, this is a guy who invited the Fantastic Four to his country in Fantastic Four #51 in order to test them, then invited them to a huge feast in their honor when he finds out what he wants.)

Priest also took flack for having Thor stunned when a stray bullet hits him in the forehead. Even though it doesn’t harm the Thunder God, it doesn’t seem a wise idea; it puts a dent in the majesty of Thor, and it doesn’t do much for the story. It would have been more fun to see the blue-eyed, blond-haired Thunder God interact with the African-Americans fleeing in panic around him.

The book has a strong theme of parenthood and legacy, between what T’Chaka, the Black Panther’s father, has left for his son to Ramonda, T’Chaka’s second wife, who served as a mother to both the Black Panther and the White Wolf. Priest sets up an excellent parallel between Kraven, a man who never knew and was never acknowledged by his powerful, obsessed father, and the White Wolf, an outcast who never felt accepted in his adopted father’s kingdom. Both want to force a measure of acceptance for themselves from the Black Panther, either as a spiritual or actual successor to their fathers, but they both want to be accepted only as they are.

There is one small, final sour note: for some reason, Marvel has deleted some of the footnotes that refer to events in Black Panther, v. 1: The Client. I have no idea why. It’s not like not providing an explanation is going to make the events any more coherent.

If you are interested in the Black Panther, you should start with Black Panther, v. 1: The Client. And both titles are either out of print or somewhat difficult to find. But both are well worth the effort.

Grade: A

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13 April 2006

Runaways, v. 5: Escape to New York

Collects: Runaways (v. 2) #7-12 (2005-6)

Released: September 2005 (Marvel)

Runaways is one of the best titles Marvel is publishing today, the story of six LA teenagers who find their parents are all supervillains. (As the characters continually ask, “Aren’t all parents?”) The series is reprinted in the digest format, which is considerably smaller than the comics it reprints and considerably cheaper as well.

Escape to New York has two storylines in it: the two-part “Star-Crossed” and the four-part “East Coast / West Coast.” Takeshi Miyazawa provides the art for the first storyline; it’s technically well done, but it’s a bit more cartoony than I like in a comic about a group of orphans who live in near poverty. It’s also jarring to see the characters drawn in a different style than regular series artist Adrian Alphona, who has been drawing the series since issue #1. Miyazawa, who filled in for two issues of the first volume, makes the characters look more generic; it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between Chase and Victor, and Gert, who’s supposed to be at least a little overweight, looks just as impossible svelte as the other characters. Alphona is excellent as always, although shrinking down the artwork for digest size muddies it a bit. I especially like his Pusher Man, a pimpin’ drug dealer with oversized techno gauntlets.

The trip to New York in the second storyline allows writer Brian K. Vaughan to get snarky about the rest of the Marvel Universe, sometimes almost directly so. (At one point, when asked if the team is new, resident witch Nico says, “New York, New Wave, New Avengers … ‘new’ is just another way of saying old.”) It’s very funny, although sometimes it takes the reader out of the story. Vaughan also writes Spider-Man’s dialogue ten times better than J. Michael Straczynski.

Vaughan’s characters are almost always witty, although they usually come across as teenagers rather than small adults. As in any series with adolescent protagonists, the angst-filled love triangles and unrequited feelings erupt everywhere; hormones are so thick you’re almost surprised when Alphona doesn’t pencil them into the art. Additionally, Molly, the pre-teen, feels more like a child than the others.

Still, for some reason, “East Coast / West Coast” is an unsatisfying storyline, in which New York superhero Cloak asks the kids for help proving he didn’t attack his partner, Dagger, and leave her in a coma. I didn’t particularly care for the Cloak & Dagger elements, which is strange, considering how big a Cloak & Dagger fan I am. Cloak forces them into helping him, and given the rocky relationship the kids have had with him, I’m surprised they didn’t put up more resistance to the idea. Also, interacting with the Avengers seems like a fun idea on paper, but Vaughan seemed mainly to use them as punching bags and to reject them. The latter is a good idea, but the Avengers don’t get to make much of a case.

“Star-Crossed” is also unsatisfying, partially for the art and partially because the teens — particularly Karolina — seem to offer as much resistance to the alien visitor’s ideas as they do to Cloak. Their fight is lackluster at best. Perhaps this, coupled with their lack of a fight against Cloak, is Vaughan showing the kids wearing down after all their time on their own, but I’m not sure. Because of the lack of conflict, the team dynamics are almost teen soap opera — not that it’s not enjoyable, but it’s more enjoyable in the midst of a more engaging conflict. Also, despite Chase’s barbs, newcomer Victor seems to be fully integrated into the team, taking away some of the intrateam conflict.

Still, I’m excited to read the next digest; the teaser at the end, showing the new Pride plotting the teenagers’ downfall, makes me eager to see them fully revealed, and I’m itching to see whether Vaughan ties up some of the loose ends he left in Escape to New York or if he lets them dangle.

In the end, even a slightly unsatisfying digest of Runaways like this one is better than most of the rest of Marvel’s product.

Grade: A-

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Avengers / Thunderbolts, v. 1: The Nefaria Protocols

Collects: Avengers (v. 3) #31-4, Thunderbolts #42-44 (2000)

Released: March 2004 (Marvel)

When Count Luchino Nefaria begins a plot to change the world, who’re you gonna call?

The Avengers! And the Thunderbolts!

The 2000 crossover between the two titles was tied to ionic powers, which are … well, you see, their bodies … it alters the … Hmm. Ionic energy makes people glow odd colors, seem to have a corona and leak energy from the eyes, and allows them to be superstrong and fly (eventually) and come back from the dead (also eventually). Possibly there are other powers in there as well.

Now in the X-Books, that alone would be enough for a 12-part crossover. But that’s not enough for Avengers writer Kurt Busiek and Thunderbolts writer Fabian Nicieza. So not only does Avenger Wonder Man and Thunderbolt Atlas have ionic powers like Nefaria, Nefaria’s daughter, Madame Masque, was a former lover of Iron Man, one of the Avengers. Add in Nefaria and Masque’s ties to the Maggia, an organized crime syndicate, plus the Grim Reaper, brother of Wonder Man and the Vision (kinda), who’s working for the Maggia … well, you’ve got seven issues jammed full of plot.

That’s not to say there aren’t fun moments or characterization. Seven issues is more than enough time to allow the characters to act like themselves, have fun little moments (like Vision asking teammate Warbird out to dinner, while his ex-wife the Scarlet Witch watches), and otherwise act as if this another chapter in the characters’ lives, rather than “event.”

For the most part, The Nefaria Protocols is a fun ride, although it is occasionally extremely dense to the point of requiring decryption. The difficult part to read is the Thunderbolts issues. While the Avengers issues are wonderfully self-contained — except for following Dr. Pym’s swashbuckling alter ego as he runs around, starting bar fights with science nerds — the Thunderbolts issues are knee-deep in their own subplots. On one level, this is admirable, both from Nicieza and Marvel; Nicieza rewards readers of Thunderbolts and does a wonderful job of avoiding forcing his readers into buying the entire crossover, and it wasn’t long ago Marvel would quash subplots during crossovers (Peter David quit X-Factor for just that reason). However, I’m on a different level: that of someone reading the trade out of sequence of the rest of the series.

It’s easy to see the contrast in styles between Busiek and Nicieza in The Nefaria Protocols. Both will mine deep in past continuity and refine it for storylines. Busiek will occasionally sacrifice pacing for comprehension, although I don’t think he does in The Nefaria Protocols. Sometimes, however, Busiek’s stories read as if their primary purpose was to wrap up loose ends (Avengers Forever, for example). I’m not sure whether it’s laudable or condemnable in artistic sense. I enjoy those types of stories, especially when they seem well researched and heavily footnoted, but it does make the stories difficult to read sometimes. In this TPB, Avengers #33 seems the strongest example of this: assembling all the threads of Madame Masque’s life and tying off the loose ones.

Nicieza will skip the detailed explanations and draw out the suspense, so we see several plotlines running in the background: the Scourge, who Techno has in the tubes, what Andrea Sterman is going on about, what’s eating Moonstone, etc. I don’t know if Nicieza planned these as trailers for Avengers readers who were crossing over, but they read like spare cogs and wheels bouncing around inside the engine block in the trade. (Not that I want them taken out; when I buy a reprint, I want all the story reprinted.) Nicieza seems occasionally use obscure characters and plot points because he enjoys obscure characters and plot points. I mean, he resurrected a Humus Sapien, a character that won a Marvel contest but never even saw print, in Thunderbolts #55.

Art is provided by George Perez on the Avengers issues and Mark Bagley on the Thunderbolts. Both are accomplished superhero artists, able to tell a story with a great deal of action, and Perez, the veteran, shines in his Avengers finale. Normally, I enjoy Bagley’s work, but he clearly comes off in second place here. Thunderbolts #43, for example, has the characters standing around a great deal, which doesn’t exactly play to his strengths. All his females have the same exaggerated curvaceousness — a staple of the superhero genre, to be sure, but with so many women in spandex, it becomes monotonous and distracting, especially when you see how Perez draws them. Some might say there’s a bit of sameness in his faces as well. Still, it’s much more than competent, so there’s little real room to complain.

Unfortunately, this book appears to be out of print or on the shadowy edges of OOP that Marvel’s printing policies creates. Still, copies are available on E-Bay, and it’s well worth your time hunting it down.

Grade: A-

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11 April 2006

Chronicles of Conan, v. 10: When Giants Walk the Earth and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #72-7 and 79-81 (1977)

Released: March 2006 (Dark Horse)

The Chronicles of Conan are one of the unexpected pleasures of life. Usually, when comic books center around licensed properties, it’s impossible to get them reprinted years later. For instance, the latest Essential Spider-Man had to skip Giant-Sized Spider-Man #3 because it guest starred Doc Savage, who is owned by Conde Nast. The Essential Marvel Two-in-One omitted Marvel Two-in-One #21 for the same reason.

Marvel no longer has the license to publish Conan from Conan Properties, but Dark Horse does. So in addition to publishing a new Conan series, Dark Horse publishes reprints of the classic Conan stories from Marvel. They’ve given readers ten volumes so far, which is wonderful. As a bonus, each volume has writer Roy Thomas’s memories of the issues, revealing behind-the-scenes information and the source of names and plots.

There are slight snags, however. Dark Horse doesn’t have the rights to Red Sonja, a character created by Conan-creator Robert E. Howard in a Crusader story and shoehorned into Conan’s world by Thomas. He was like that; Thomas loved to take Howard’s non-Conan stories, throw them into his Conan-O-Tronic blender with a small pinch of Conan Dust, and make them into Conan comics. In any event, Dynamic Forces holds that license, and they are following Dark Horse’s example by publishing a new series and the original Marvel series. Dynamic Forces is on their second volume of reprints. #78 is left out of v. 10 because the issue itself was a reprint of Savage Sword of Conan #1, a Conan / Red Sonja team up.

Conan the Barbarian #73 cover The other snag is that Dark Horse can’t reprint the original Marvel covers. For the most part, I haven’t missed them. But this week I was selling the odd comics that were duplicated by the trades I have, and I saw a few of the original covers. I didn’t realize how much the trades of Conan missed the covers until I looked at the original individual issues. There’s something dynamic and exciting about those covers that makes you want to buy them off the rack. I mean, they’re not necessary, but after knowing what they looked like, I definitely felt their absence.

And this volume could have used some appeal. I admit, I am not a fan of the type of story in v. 10; Belit, Conan’s lover and pirate Queen of the Black Coast, goes to the heart of her enemy’s empire to rescue her father, deposed king of a small city-state. But after nine issues, Conan and Belit seem only halfway to their goal, with Conan and Belit being forced to sort out the murderous politics of another city-state. Then Conan gets sent on a pointless errand for that city-state and ends up in a time-lost city founded by Alexander the Great … Thomas’s focus is weak at best here; either he was bored or just had so many ideas at the time he couldn’t wait to insert them. Art is by John Buscema and Howard Chaykin. Those of you who have seen Buscema’s art know whether you like him. Buscema, one of the stalwarts of Marvel (as is his brother, Sal), has a strong, detailed style that fits Conan well, especially with his proclivity to make all the men muscled monstrosities and the women scantily clad. Chaykin’s art was inked to make it look like Buscema’s, so there is little to distinguish the two artists (particularly under Dark Horse’s recoloring of the stories). Dark Horse also gets demerits for not getting the contents right. On both the back cover and on the title page verso, they list #82 as part of the collection. It isn’t. Not only is that deceptive, it's also sloppy quality control. Still, it does little long-term harm ... this time.

If you choose Chronicles of Conan titles to buy on a book-by-book basis, I would recommend skipping this one. I doubt that is the case, though, with most readers getting all of them. Despite the meandering plot, this one is fairly inoffensive.

Grade: C+

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03 April 2006

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, v. 1

Collects: Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (v. 1) #1-15 (1983-4)

Released: January 2006 (Marvel)

Have you ever wondered what were the names of Peter Parker’s parents? (Richard and Mary Parker.) Or what Mystique’s real name is? (Raven Darkholme.) How about why Elektra is running around, alive, after Bullseye made her imitate a shish kebab? (Ninjas with magic powers, which are possibly the coolest things in the world.) Or what an Avengers ID card looks like? (It looks easily forged, is what it looks like.)

The answer to these questions (and many others) can be found in The Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. A black-and-white reprint of the original OHotMU, which was published in the early ’80s, this Essential is packed, crammed, and stuffed with information on Marvel heroes and villains who were active at the time of publication. You can’t really grasp the level of detail compiled by Mark Gruenwald and his team until you page through it; the book is saturated with histories and descriptions of the powers of the denizens of the Marvel Universe. And not only the heroes and villains: each issue had a section on the aliens that have been seen, and most issues had an appendix which listed cross references and a sentence or two report on the truly minor characters.

Yes, if you’re interested in what happened after 1984, this book is not for you. The Deluxe Edition of the Handbook (abbreviated OHotMUDE) came out a few years later, and to be truthful, is a better organized version of the same information. And the OHotMUDE will be released in black-and-white Essentials in a few months — in three volumes. For a quick reference, this is much nicer. For the fanatical devotee in you, the Essential OHotMUDE v. 1-3 might be better, but for the casual fan, this is better.

The entries contained several sections, most of which were of the brief, fill-in-the-blank variety: Name, occupation, identity (secret or not), legal status (alien, criminal records, etc.), aliases, place of birth, marital status, known relatives, group affilations, base of operations, height / weight / hair / eyes, and first appearance in comics. Two major sections are history and powers. Early descriptions get bogged down on the minutiae of the characters’ powers, straining to make the pseudoscience involved relatively plausible. (The best ones often admit there is no explanation of how the power works.) As the series went along, however, the history section of each entry grows, especially for characters that have no or few superpowers. Depending on your engineering interests, the diagrams of equipment (Spider-Man’s webshooters, Sentinels, Iron Man’s armor, etc.) might also be fascinating. I tended to skip these, but then again, I’m not a technical kind of guy.

The comics inside are more than 20 years out of date, but on the other hand, this is Marvel — there haven’t been any Crises or Zero Hours to worry about, so while it may be out of date, none of the information has been erased from continuity. The text layouts of the original weren’t as professional as the reader might like, with many entries crammed into 6-point type so it will all fit on one page. Lines are occasionally repeated or dropped entirely, leaving the reader bewildered trying to make sense of it all. The black and white illustrations obviously can’t convey skin or costume colors, although with certain skin tones, that’s probably for the best. There are a very few pages where the lack of color makes the illustration useless; the examples of SHIELD’s uniforms for different ranks is useless because all that differentiate the uniforms are the color schemes. These are rare, however.

There is a special treat for those who remember the original issues. The OHotMU (and the OHotMUDE, for that matter) featured wraparound covers with many / most of the characters within the issues rushing off toward the right. (I have no idea why.) These are reprinted on facing pages so you can see the full image at once. But the fun thing was that you could see certain features continued on the previous / next issues, like Mr. Fantastic’s stretched limbs. In the back of the Essential OHotMU, the first 12 covers are laid out as they were originally drawn, in rows of three stacked upon each other. (For instance, parts of Galactus appear on #4 and #7.) For the first time, you can see how it all fits together without getting all the issues and laying them out on the floor; characters are fill every available space that isn’t needed for the masthead. It’s remarkable. And the covers for #13 and #14, which covers the dead and inactive characters, fit together to form another image, with all the characters floating above a giant death’s head. (An additional neat touch is the dead characters all have their hands folded over their chests on the cover, and inactive / retired characters have their hands at their sides.) The cover for #15 is the also used as the book’s cover.

Overall, this Essential is an excellent buy. For the obsessive, wait for the Essential OHotMUDE. For the rest, this is a remarkable accomplishment.

Grade: B+

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Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, v. 2

Collects: Spectacular Spider-Man (v. 1) #32-53, Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #1-2, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #13, Fantastic Four #218 (1979-81)

Released: February 2006 (Marvel)

There was a time when things were simpler, and comic books had longer names. The Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man takes you back to that time.

The Essential reprints, in glorious black and white, issues #32-53 and the first two annuals of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (the title was shortened to Spectacular Spider-Man in 1988), along with a couple of associated stories. If you’ve seen the Essential format before, you know whether you think $16.95 for more than 500 monochrome reprint pages is worth it. If you haven’t seen Essentials before, I’ll tell you it’s worth it ... if the stories are any good.

Are they? Well, the majority are written by Bill Mantlo, who did a lot of Spider-Man at the time and did it pretty well. There are a few odd stories in this volume, but it’s absolutely nothing like Lightmaster or Razorback in the first volume, so if your tolerance for men in giant pig hats is low, then this one’s safe. And Roger Stern, who did an exellent job on Amazing Spider-Man in the ’80s, does a few stories as well, including the introduction of the man who would eventually become the first Hobgoblin. So it’s got that going for it. The art comes from a wide range of creators, including John Byrne, John Romita Jr., Jim Mooney, and Mike Zeck — good stuff, for the most part, from creators who have done a lot of Spider-Man.

But really all you need to know is that this is quintessential ’70s Spider-Man: you have classic villains, goofy villains, and newer villains trying to make classic status. That, along with money trouble and the constant sacrifice of his personal life, is all Spider-Man truly needs. (Are you listening, Straczynski?) Dr. Octopus, Vulture, and the Lizard — the Mindworm and Swarm — Belladonna, Morbius, and the Tinkerer. Not to mention (yet another) Lizard knockoff, the Iguana, and the Spider-Lizard. But hey, it’s all in good fun, even if Peter Parker isn’t having fun.

There are two oddities about this volume that have nothing to do with supervillains and deathtraps. The first is that the Essential actually contains one more issue than is listed on the front cover: Fantastic Four #218, the second part of a two-part Frightful Four story. (This time the Frightful Four says nuts to girls and chooses Electro as its final member. The next time they show up, they’ve decided Electro isn’t the answer but a woman of another humanoid species might be, adding Llyra.) So you get an extra issue for your money.

The other is a downside: three issues (#40, #43, Annual #2) have atrocious reproduction, so instead of the tight line that marks most of the volume (and most of the Essentials series), the art is blotchy, muddied, and overall difficult to make sense of. Marvel must have made the reproduction from a different kind of source on those three issues — or perhaps it was just a printer’s mistake, one that might show up only in my copy.

Even with those problems, this is another of the quality reprints Marvel has been producing in the last decade. It’s well worth your time — as are the other Spider-Man Essentials (Essential Spider-Man #1-7, Essential Peter Parker ... #1, and Essential Marvel Team-Up #1). I’m just looking forward to the next volume in all three series.

Grade: A

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02 April 2006

Essential Dr. Strange, v. 2

Collects: Doctor Strange v. 1 #169-178 and 180-183, Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22, Marvel Feature #1, Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Premiere #3-14 (1968-74)

Released: March 2005 (Marvel)

We are blessed to live in a time when Marvel reprints so much of its material, from both its current output and its back catalog. The Essential program is especially impressive, reprinting:

  1. The A-List Talent. Seven volumes of the Amazing Spider-Man, for instance, and five volumes of Fantastic Four, as well as five Essential Avengers and … well, I could go on.
  2. The Second Stringers. Those who can sustain several series for a little bit or one for a long time. Power Man, who’s getting a second volume soon, or the Defenders, who are due.
  3. The No Hopers. Or classic runs, if you prefer. (I don’t prefer.) These guys can’t hold down a book to save their lives: Killraven, Iron Fist, Monster of Frankenstein, Ant Man.

Dr. Strange fits firmly in the second list. The Sorcerer Supreme of Marvel Earth, battling magicians, extradimensional horrors, and gods, he’s been around since the Silver Age, had several series (and had several series cancelled), and is an integral part of the Marvel Universe. But how did he achieve that status? Other than being created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, of course.

The Essential Doctor Strange, v. 2, keeps Strange’s status as a Marvel mainstay a mystery.

Volume 2, logically enough, picks up where volume 1 left off: Strange Tales morphs into the first volume of the eponymous Dr. Strange comic. Volume 2 contains Dr. Strange #169-178 and 180-3 (#179 was a reprint), Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22, part of Marvel Feature #1, Incredible Hulk #126, and Marvel Premiere #3-14. There are two things that scream a warning in this listing: one, that there are so many guest appearances / crossovers included, and two, that Dr. Strange headlined Marvel Premiere. No good can come from either.

The first volume was the first Essential that I missed the color: the trippy Steve Ditko art missed something without the psychedelics, but it was still very enjoyable. I still believe Dr. Strange needs color like Ringo needs John, Paul, and George, but I didn’t miss it as much in v. 2 because the stories themselves were so lifeless and difficult to struggle through.

The Essential can be divided into three parts: The Dr. Strange beginnings, the run-up to the creation of the Defenders in the middle, and the Marvel Premiere at the end. The Dr. Strange issues are unremarkable, with Strange fighting the same cosmic entities (Dormammu, Nightmare, even the obscure Tiboro) and new crappy mages (Lord Nekron, the Sons of Satannish) as he did in Strange Tales, and without Ditko’s outstanding and inimitable art, there’s no spark. Gene Colans atmospheric pencils should be perfect for Strange, but for some reason, they dont quite seem to click; perhaps the title needs someone who can pull out the Ditko acid trips every once and a while as showstoppers, and Colan doesnt do that here. The only positive is that Clea, Strange’s future lover and student, is rescued from extradimensional exile and finally brought into the regular cast. Even that isn’t an unqualified success; Clea and Strange’s attraction seems forced and acted out by rote, and the attempt at a love triangle with an Englishwoman who is attracted to Strange goes nowhere.

The middle segment is the only one that’s very good, although unlike the Essential Defenders, the creation of the Defenders isn’t the focus of those issues — they merely cover what happened while Strange was not headlining a book. The Sub-Mariner issue leads out of the last Dr. Strange issue, Hulk #126 takes over from Sub-Mariner, and the back-up from Marvel Feature #1 leads into the Marvel Premiere (ugh) issues.

Marvel Premiere … ugh. #11-4 are entertaining, with Strange going back in time to fight Baron Mordo and finding a magician greater than either of them. But #3-10 are a listless Lovecraft pastiche that is gutted to be suitable for kiddies and turns into a horrible mess. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” becomes #4-6, the very Lovecraftian name “Shuma-Gorath” is the extradimensional being (read: Elder God) who is manipulating everything, and the cosmic horror Strange fights seems incredibly mundane. “The Living Buddha” even shows up as a villain, and that’s a high point.

The book plummets to a nadir at Marvel Premiere #4-6, the three-part Lovecraftian storyline. (The credits claim to feature “concepts created by Robert E. Howard,” which is bizarre, given Howard got the concepts from Lovecraft.) The issues feature writing from Gardner Fox, not at his best, and art by three different pencillers — Barry Windsor-Smith, Irv Wesley, and Frank Brunner (with help from Sal Buscema). To say the art is inconsistent is a severe understatement; going from Windsor-Smith, a legend (also not at his best, though), to the serviceable Wesley is like hitting a brick wall at 100 mph.

Most jarring is the depiction of the people of Starkesboro; they are described as having the Starkesboro look, which is supposed to inspire unease or revulsion in spectators. Windsor-Smith chooses to give the residents a scaly look that makes them appear part reptile, while Wesley chooses to make them look half-Muppet.

Marvel Premiere must be among the worst Marvel Universe comics of all time. It starts out with two issues of Adam Warlock and goes only downhill from there. Twelve mostly subpar issues with Dr. Strange are followed by 11 painful Iron Fist issues. Then it features a bunch of mostly single-issue heroes that will almost certainly never be reprinted. Looking over a summary of the issues, the only interesting bits seem to be #51-3 — the finale of a Black Panther storyline that stretches over four years and three different titles — and #50, an Alice Cooper story.

(Admittedly, I’ve never read anything other than the Iron Fist / Dr. Strange issues. And if you’re a sci-fi fan, there might be something in the Dr. Who, Weirdworld, Star-Lord, and Seeker 3000 stories. But if the quality of those 23 issues are anything to judge by, the series has more value in the recycle bin than in a long box.)

Anyway, back on task: There’s nothing in the Essential Dr. Strange v. 2 for anyone — except for completists, the curious, and Dr. Strange fanatics (you know who you are, all three of you). Otherwise, give this a miss. It’s not the worst Essential I’ve read — that would be Essential Super-Villain Team-Up — but it’s a chore to read. Grade: D+

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