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

27 July 2006

Ratings (not the naval ones, the other kind)

All right, I got tired of letter grades, especially when I noted that all of my grades were falling in the C+ to B range. So here, never before seen by the American viewing public, is the new scale:

0: Horrible. This will rot your soul and cause us to lose the war.

1: Boring. You could be doing so much more with your life than reading this.

2: Mediocre. This is not a waste of shelf space, although it may be a waste of money.

3: Above average. This is enjoyable overall but with possible serious flaws or simply a guilty pleasure — much like your favorite childhood movies when viewed in the harsh light of the present day.

4: Excellent. If every book was this good, you wouldn’t need this site.

5: Sensational. A masterpiece of the genre / medium or the best story ever about a character or concept. If you don’t like this, you are a damn Communist who hates outstanding personal achievement.

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Showcase Presents Justice League of America, v. 1

Collects: The Brave and the Bold #28-30, Justice League of America #1-16, and Mystery in Space #75 (1960-2)

Released: December 2005 (DC)

Hey, look! A DC book! Now my life is complete.

Well, not really. But that won’t stop me from plowing through DC Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, v. 1.

JLA v. 1 is most interesting as a 500+-page black-and-white historical artifact. The Silver Age of superhero comics started with the first comic in this volume, The Brave and the Bold #28, in which the JLA fights a giant starfish from space. If you were part of the premiere superteam in the DC Universe, you’d probably choose a less laughable beginning, but this is what we’re given. Not an auspicious beginning, to be sure, but every great trend starts somewhere, and this is where the Silver Age began.

Whatever you can about the differences between DC and Marvel today, this book starkly highlights what was so different about those early Marvel comics. In the JLA, there is no bickering between characters, and there’s very little in the way of interesting interaction between the heroes at all. When they have to split up to fight a menace, they do so randomly or on the basis of working with someone they haven’t worked with before. The characters have no personal lives, and the stories are completely about the plot.

And the plots? Silver Age absurdity. Nitwits like Amos Fortune manipulating the heroes’ (and his own) good and bad luck glands. An alien delon (“equivalent to an Earth dictator”) imprisoning the JLA aboard a space galley, complete with oars. Three wizards conquering Camelot in big-finned Cadillacs. The Getaway Mastermind engineering a prison break with a balloon and matchbox he found … plus a shrinking ray he cobbled together in the prison machine shop. (I especially love the breathless scientific asides: “Scientific experiments by Dr. Burr at Yale University have proven that all living things are surrounded by an electrodynamic field of their own making!”)

I’m being a little harsh. There’s a lot of goofy, nonsensical stuff in early Marvel too. But Marvel doesn’t seem to have villains exploiting the heroes’ weakness in every adventure (kryptonite for Superman, the color yellow for Green Lantern, fire for Martian Manhunter), nor did they have their most popular characters, like Batman and Superman, show up for duty only occasionally. (With the New Avengers, I think Wolverine shows up when he wants to. Want to make something of it, bub?)

For the sake of full disclosure, I received this volume free from the DC booth at the annual American Library Association conference in New Orleans. Thanks, DC!

Overall, JLA v. 1 is dull and lacks the spark of Silver Age Marvel.

Rating: (2 of 5)

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16 July 2006

Essential Nova, v. 1

Collects: Nova #1-25, Amazing Spider-Man #171, and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3 (1976-9)

Released: March 2006 (Marvel)

The character of Nova has been described — or derided — as “Peter Parker as Green Lantern.” That’s not exactly fair: Nova actually does very little in outer space, as Green Lantern does, and he’s not as likeable as Peter Parker.

That being said, his origin is the Green Lantern’s, with an alien policeman giving high-school student Richard Rider his powers as he dies. And just like Peter Parker, Richard has to balance school, family, a social life, and his new heroic life as Nova. Unfortunately for Richard, he’s a dud at school, his family is mostly uninteresting (although nowhere near as annoying as Aunt May in early Spider-Man), his friends are weird, and his girlfriend is no Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane. (Or even Betty Brant, as far as that goes.)

Nova is typical Marvel ‘70s output — solid superhero stories. Although these feel right to me, many readers who do not get the warm fuzzies while contemplating post-Stan Lee and pre-Jim Shooter Marvel may find this book dull. Writer Marv Wolfman does all he can, twisting and turning the plot with as many behind-the-scenes masterminds as he thinks he can get away with: the Sphinx, the Corruptor and the Inner Circle, the Yellow Claw, Dr. Sun. The Sphinx is the only one that can be used without laughter or disgust today (although I like Dr. Sun, a villain of the brain-in-a-jar variety).

But it’s the other villains and heroes that Nova runs into that make this book for me. I have no idea why, but villains like Diamondhead and heroes like the Crimebuster, the Comet, and Powerhouse just seem right. They’re lightweights, sure, but they seem of the Marvel Universe without needing to intrude into other titles. You can well imagine a Crimebuster in Marvel New York without Spider-Man ever having run into him. I suppose what I’m saying is that Wolfman and his artists invented the perfect superpowered second stringers for what ended up as a dead-end book.

The switch from artist John Buscema to Carmen Infantino after #14 was disappointing. Buscema has a lighter pencil and a much cleaner line that works better than Infantino’s work in black and white. Also, the Buscema brothers’ work seems to exemplify ‘70s Marvel to me.

It’s also disappointing that Marvel couldn’t include Fantastic Four #206 and #208-9, an outer-space epic against the Skrulls that wrapped up the stories of Nova and the Sphinx. It’s understandable, given that there isn’t room for those stories; the book is already crammed full, with 26 regular-sized issues and an annual. However, given my druthers, I would rather have had a scaled-down Fantastic Four #206 that had the Nova-related story and #208-9. I’m not sure that would have fit, but it would have been a more satisfying inclusion than the Marvel Two-in-One Annual that featured Nova and the Thing fighting generic outer-space despots.

Overall, though, this was mostly fun, even if it is mediocre. Wolfman manages to wring a good deal of fun out of a character whose origins aren't the most creative.

Grade: C

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11 July 2006

Sentinel, v. 3: Past Imperfect

Collects: Sentinel (v. 2) #1-5 (2006)

Released: May 2006 (Marvel)

Sean McKeever gets the chance to finish the loose ends from his Sentinel series in this volume. This is probably the last of the series, which did poorly in sales as individual issues. But it was also part of Marvel’s digest line, which they heavily pushed at bookstores and contained many low-selling series, such as Runaways.

This does, for the most part, exactly what it’s supposed to: finish off Juston’s quest to find his mother. Juston’s search for his mother was the teaser at the end of Sentinel, v. 2: No Hero, a strange ending to a clearly cancelled series. Juston also becomes closer to his father and brother, finishing the transition from bratty teen at the beginning of the story to mature member of the family. He also makes his choices in his personal life, with his “girlfriend” Ashleigh Nichols getting what she deserves. That said, some of those choices seem arbitrary from his perspective, even if the reader knows they are the correct decisions.

Disappointingly, however, Past Imperfect leaves the moral questions about Juston’s use of the Sentinel unanswered. Yes, Juston does heroic acts with the Sentinel and promises to do more, but it doesn’t come to grips with his horribly selfish acts from No Hero. There is a parallel with Past Imperfect’s villains, Sen. Knudsen and Col. Hunt, who used the Sentinel to murder a man and use a newer model to try to destroy Juston and his Sentinel. Yes, their use of the Sentinel is unforgivable, while Juston is merely selfish; they continue to use the technology for evil, while Juston wants to use his for good. But being better than evil isn’t enough, in this situation.

Udon Studios, in the persons of Joe Vriens and Scott Hepburn, provide the art. Stereotypically, their manga-influenced style is perfect for big robots, and as always, they do an excellent job with the big robot. This time they get to draw a Sentinel vs. Sentinel fight and do a pretty good job with it. That’s a majority of the work, in this case, both in the sense that it’s the most important part of the art and seemingly the content of more than half the pages. The other characters are consistent with the previous two volumes; you may quibble with the manga-style designs, such as Jessie’s little hat and all the kids’ hair, but it’s now set as Sentinel’s style.

If you liked the first two volumes of the series, then you’re likely to enjoy Past Imperfect, even if it is flawed at times.

Grade: B-

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06 July 2006

Wolverine / Punisher, v. 1

Collects: Wolverine / Punisher #1-5 (2004)

Released: September 2004 (Marvel)

This one’s simple, even by Punisher standards: Wolverine and Punisher find a fabled jungle city where criminals hide from the Punisher. Death and small arms fire (not in that order) ensue.

But that’s overly simplistic. Wolverine / Punisher is a book that illustrates writer Peter Milligan’s oddball style. The jungle town is called Erewhon (“nowhere” spelled backwards — almost), which is taken from Samuel Butler’s satire of Victorian England as a utopia. The criminals aren’t exactly hardcases, like mobsters or gangbangers; they’re violently insane and choose names for themselves like “Napoleon,” “the Atheist,” “the Demon,” and “the Lady.” Erewhon was founded by Nazis, and it’s certainly hinted that Adolph was the founding Nazi. Milligan points out that to the Punisher, Wolverine is a “limp-wristed liberal” even though everyone else sees him as considerably less than enlightened.

This is more of a Punisher story than a Wolverine story, with the Punisher killing and killing and killing while Wolverine has trouble with a small group of thugs and fails in the only two tasks he attempts to achieve. Although the Punisher does get put in some jeopardy, he spends most of his time in workmanlike carnage while Wolverine gets to be a punching bag.

Which is the main problem. The villains put their plan into motion to lure the Punisher to Erewhon, and it works, except that it draws in Wolverine as well. For the most part, it’s the Punisher vs. the residents of Erewon after that, with Wolverine being drawn into a side plot and occupied chiefly by the Atheist. Milligan goes to great lengths to keep Wolverine out of the Punisher’s story, even having a crossbow bolt shot through Wolverine’s unbreakable adamantium skull. A great deal of the action is attributed to a deus ex bookkeeper named Books, who does as more to move the story along than Wolverine.

Lee Weeks’s pencils are an asset, depicting the carnage well, with sort of a Romita Jr. feel that manages to get across the bloodbath without descending into cartoonishness. His jungle is hot and claustrophobic, and the villains look tired and middle-aged — just as you’d expect criminals harried into fleeing into the godforsaken jungle to look.

This is a light book — well, as light as a Punisher story gets. If you like Milligan’s sense of humor, fine; otherwise, this probably isn’t for you. It certainly doesn’t measure up to his best Marvel work, such as X-Statix.

Grade: B-

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