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

25 August 2006

Spider-Girl, v. 6: Too Many Spiders!

Collects: Spider-Girl #28-33 (2001)

Released: June 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color (digest size) / $7.99 / ISBN: 0785121560

Spider-Girl is Marvel’s little title that could. Based on an issue of What If? (v. 2), Spider-Girl is the last survivor of a doomed comic line (M2) that focused on characters about a generation later than the current Marvel Universe. This continuity is dominated by the offspring of current heroes, and Spider-Girl is May Parker, daughter of Spider-Man.

The series lasted 100 issues and will be relaunched as Amazing Spider-Girl in October. Part of its longevity comes from the sale of cheap digest reprints to the bookstore market. Spider-Girl, v. 6: Too Many Spiders! is the latest of these volumes.

Writer Tom DeFalco and artist Pat Olliffe tell old-school stories, stories that hearken back to the early days of Amazing Spider-Man. That’s good, in many ways; there aren’t many books that consistently give readers simple, straightforward superhero stories. It’s strange, but it’s true.

On the other hand, DeFalco (and Olliffe, who’s listed as co-plotter) retell / mine / copy old Spider-man stories. In this volume, May deals with losing her powers, which her father has done more than a few times, and then she regains them, as he always does. Other choices seem a little iffy. A new Spider-Man comes to New York, a probable link to the Clone Saga — now there’s a plot graveyard no one wants exhumed. The Steel Spider is a joke, and even 20 years after his last appearance, the joke’s wearing a little thin. Perhaps most bizarre, DeFalco choose George Washington Bridge — a former associate of the outlaw mutant Cable, a former high-ranking member of SHIELD, and a character I don’t think he’s ever had much contact with — as president of the United States. Weird.

This volume feels very missable. May lost her powers at the end of the previous volume, and in Too Many Spiders, she has to deal with it. She’s spunky, and she grows as a character, realizing she has responsibilities whether or not she has powers. But the powers unsurprisingly come back by the end of the volume, and the issues collected seem to be waiting around for that to happen. Nothing happens in May’s love life. There’s an issue with the Steel Spider, and a few taken up with Raptor and the Buzz, none of which are too exciting. Neither one of them is a villain now; in fact, the world seems to be taking it easy on May while she’s lost her powers.

The fights lack oomph; May battles the Avengers, Tony Stark’s superpowered lackey, the reformed Raptor, and the new Spider-Man. None of these are villains. The characters of Normie Osborn, Raptor, and the Buzz are softened so that they don’t / can’t provide any opposition to May, and even Mary Jane and Peter aren’t able to effectively butt into May’s life like they want. The lack of a good villain, the lack of a menace or even a challenge adds to the feeling of missability.

The storylines with Raptor, Normie, and the Buzz moving toward the right side of the law also interesting, but they lack a little something; May has no doubt of their sincerity, so she has no qualms about defending them against her pals in the Avengers. The reader knows May is right as well, so there’s no tension. Unless this is a set up for stories down the line about at least one reformed villain, the part fails to live up to its intrigue. Besides, May isn’t exactly awash in catch villains. She can’t really afford to give them up.

Because of the circularity of the powerlessness plot, Too Many Spiders seems like a cul-de-sac. It’s not an essential volume; on the other hand, its strengths lie in the strengths that have been infused into the Spider-Girl title: the setting, the old-school style, and the smoother continuity.

Rating: (2 of 5)

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11 August 2006

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 20: Glimpses of Death

Collects: Usagi Yojimbo #76-82 (2004-5)

Released: July 2006 (Dark Horse)

Format: 192 pages / black and white / $15.95 / ISBN: 9781593075491

Probably no one would have thought the comic book adventures of an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai would last 20 years when Usagi Yojimbo debuted in Albedo #2 in November 1984.

Yet here, in 2006, writer / artist / creator Stan Sakai is still going strong, with the series Usagi Yojimbo (literally “rabbit bodyguard”) on its third publisher and nearing its 150th issue. (And that’s not counting the three miniseries starring Sakai’s sci-fi version of the character, Space Usagi.)

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 20: Glimpses of Death continues Usagi’s adventures. No longer traveling with his biological son, Jotaro, Usagi’s adventures are less personal: delivering a token of a faith he doesn’t share, helping an inventor deal with bullies, being bullied by an old woman who feels abandoned by her family, seeing justice done as a vendetta draws to a close. All of Sakai’s Usagi stores are rich in wonderful period and cultural detail, and the trade paperback also includes Sakai’s notes on the sources for his stories.

The final story, which wraps up the saga of Koyama Matabei’s search for his father’s killers, is the only one of the stories that has much of an emotional punch. Koyama and his vendetta first appeared in Usagi Yojimbo #53 (v. 17: Duel at Kitanoji) But this story is an excellent tale of atonement, justice, and vengeance that more than balances the more lightweight tales.

But readers looking for stories about the rabbit may be disappointed. About half the book features stories on other characters who have touched the life of Usagi. In another book, this would appear to be marking time, but since Sakai is the only creator who works on Usagi and he controls Usagi’s schedule, what point is there to waiting around?

Casual readers may not recognize their significance, but long-time readers will be rewarded with looks into the lives of other characters. The most chilling story is that of demon-haunted Inazuma, who breaks free of the control of the demon Jei long enough only to get a dim view of the horror he has put her in. Bounty hunters Gen and Stray Dog renew their rivalry in the pursuit of Inazuma; thankfully, they don’t catch her, but the pursuit isn’t the point. Tomoe deals with a sycophant seeking to replace her in the affections of their lord.

Two other tales involve Sanshobo, a priest, and Inspector Ishida, a detective. Both are enjoyable in and of themselves, which is fortunate, because unlike Tomoe, Gen, and Inazuma, their stories are unlikely to affect Usagi’s. Sanshobo tries to help a troubled priest on the eve of his vows and finds him haunted by an old love; Ishida tries to bring in a troublesome thief but finds himself clearing the thief of a murder he is being made a scapegoat for. The former story is steeped in folklore, the latter in urban legends of a real-life daring Tokyo thief. Both are perfect examples of Sakai’s use of Japanese history and mythology to flesh out his stories, giving them the appearance of being distinctly Japanese and completely original at the same time.

This is another excellent Usagi collection. Although the lack of the title character may put off some, it doesn’t interfere with a great set of stories of feudal Japan (albeit a feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphic animals).

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

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10 August 2006

100 Bullets v. 9: Strychnine Lives

Collects: 100 Bullets #59-67 (2005-6)

Released: April 2006 (DC / Vertigo)

Format: 224 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 1401209289

100 Bullets is a series by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso that is filled with sex and violence and desperation and violence and subterfuge and very, very violent violence.

The series was originally about a gun and 100 bullets handed out by the mysterious Agent Graves, who gave a wronged party evidence of who was responsible for their heartache or ruination and told that they wouldn’t be punished for whatever they did with the gun and bullets. Since then, the story has moved on to Graves, the shadowy, world-controlling Trust he used to work for, and the cadre of elite killers he used command, the Minutemen.

But it’s the sex and violence that dominate. Is it gratuitous? Well, it depends. When the story is about the Trust, Graves, and the Minutemen, the answer is no. With control of the world at stake, no one’s going to scruple about a few dozen bodies scattered around the world. But when it comes to the background stories of misery, of people whose lives were destroyed in their quests for sex, money, or drugs, the mayhem seems much less necessary.

In Strychnine Lives, for instance, Spain, a felon, and his dog and lawyer get mixed up with bellboy named Tito. By the time their story is over, not only are they all dead (except for the lawyer, who is arrested for doing something vile while high on PCP), but a drug gang is also wiped out. The events have only a tangential relationship with the other stories in Strychnine Lives. The stories happening at the same time have great meaning for the overall plot but are talky; it’s as if Azzarello thinks the readers will get bored unless there’s constant blood and gunfire.

The real meat of Strychnine Lives is the story of three factions: the Trust, focused on the House of Medici, which is headed by Augustus and his son Benito; the resurrected Minutemen, who are under the control of Graves; and a third faction, led by violent renegade Minuteman Lono. Graves and Lono both parley with Augustus; each are involved with double and triple crosses. It’s impossible to tell what Graves’s plan is or if Lono is as blood simple as he appears.

It’s these stories that are the most fascinating part of 100 Bullets, changing the relationships between factions and characters while revealing a past that makes the reader reexamine what he thought he knew. Key players get removed from the board, and new ones step up from obscurity.

Azzarello creates a fascinating world with a secret history, bloodsoaked and dangerous, even if he goes overboard with offing his background characters. On the other hand, sometimes those stories work, if they’re integrated into the plot: the first story in Strychnine Lives has a Minuteman being drawn into the plot, and he walks out of the love triangle he had been the middle of, with tragic results for the other two vertices. On the other hand, a character he created in the first arc of 100 Bullets, Dizzy, entrances and draws men to her to an almost ridiculous degree. In the final story, three key players in the 100 Bullets follow her to Mexico, not deterred by bullets or the presence of the other two. Her allure doesn’t ring true — she’s no seductress, she’s a former gangbanger who barely notices the men who get swept up behind her — but I hope Azzarello can justify his fascination with the character.

Risso’s art in 100 Bullets has to be mentioned. An excellent noir artist, all his women are femme fatales and all his men are dirty, to some extent or another, even when they’re decked out in custom-made suits. His world is filled with stark, all-encompassing shadows, silhouettes, and red, red blood. There is little shading or subtlety about it. Without that art, the world of 100 Bullets would be a vastly different — and probably lesser — place.

Strychnine Lives is not an introduction to 100 Bullets; it is an engrossing part of the story already begun. When it is good, it’s very good, but its excesses drag it down a little.

Rating: (4 of 5)

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01 August 2006

Champions Classic, v. 1

Collects: Champions #1-11 (1975-7)

Released: June 2006 (Marvel)

Because you didn’t demand it, Marvel released the Champions in the 1970s. It was sort of the rock supergroup concept applied to superheroes: recognizeable heroes at loose ends tossed together to see what happens.

Just like with supergroups, the musicians aren’t usually the best, but they are credible. So in Champions Classic, v. 1, we get the Angel and Iceman at loose ends (they don’t like the All-New, All-Different X-Men all that much), occasional active Avengers Black Widow and Hercules, and relatively new hero Ghost Rider. I know what you’re saying to yourself: They put those people on a team? Yes. Yes, they did, and it worked about as well as you might expect.

The character concepts are almost completely incompatible, and all the characters have in common is that they are in Los Angeles. Ghost Rider fits with supernatural tales, Angel and Iceman to mutant rights, the Widow to espionage, and Hercules … well, he’s just larger than life. Despite the writers’ attempts, only Hercules strengths come across. The Widow doesn’t get to spy much, nor does she lead well; Angel doesn’t seem a very good business and is unable to keep the team focused on the raison d’etre he established; Ghost Rider is about as otherworldly as a club to the face; and Iceman doesn’t do much but complain that he’s leaving (until a pretty face comes along).

These problems aren’t insurmountable; they can be used as excellent plot devices. But by the time you get to #11, it’s difficult to think these are plots rather than just inherent difficulties with the team.

Just look at the cover: Herc in his gaudy leather and loincloth ensemble, Angel in his gaudy and Godawful costume, Iceman in his ice form, Ghost Rider in his leathers and motorcycle, and the Black Widow in her slinky black stealth suit. You can find two of these heroes that visually go together with no problem, but linking three is difficult, and five is impossible.

Tony Isabella and Bill Mantlo try their best, heaven knows. They give each hero a plot suited to their expertise: an Olympian plot for Herc in #1-3, a businessman goes bad in #5-6, a Russian four-parter for the Widow and her handler / trainer / sidekick Ivan in #7-10, and Wild West action vs. shadows for Ghost Rider in #11. But the rest of the Champions seem out of place in Herc’s and the Widow’s stories, and no one shines in the other two. It just doesn’t work.

The best storyline is that of Rampage, a genius inventor whose business is about to go bankrupt. The inventor dons the Rampage armor and tries to steal the money to get his business out of hock: sort of an evil Tony Stark. The team works well, the villain has a simple motivation and a reason for fighting the team as a whole, and his arc comes to an end satisfactorily. But there’s little satisfaction to be found elsewhere.

The writing seems to get a spark when Mantlo takes over for Isabella in #8. There seems to be an energy and a plan that had been absent in the first issues, but that could be just because I don’t see what’s coming up. Don Heck draws the first six issues, but it’s not his best work — too scratchy and shadowed for the brightly lit tales, and his line looks a little ragged compared to his best work. That could be the inker’s fault, and in any event Heck is still strong in storytelling and action, but it was a slight relief to my line when George Tuska (#7) and Bob Hall (#8-10). John Byrne, at the top of his game, is a treat in #11.

I’m not sure it’s the artists’ faults, but the costumes are pure ‘70s. The Olympian gods seem colorblind. The Black Widow wears a purple checked skirt over her suit in #1, an ensemble I have never seen before and hope never to see again. And then there’s the Angel’s monstrosity; Rampage destroys it in #8, earning my gratitude. (Also, there’s a scene where Hercules runs through the defense of UCLA’s football team, colored by someone who has never seen their uniforms.)

Now, I have to admit: If there’s a second volume, I will probably pick it up. The final page of v. 1 has the Stilt-Man announcing he’s about to become the Master of the World. If that ain’t a hook, I don’t know what is. (Besides, the team falls apart in v. 2, and that’s believable.)

Rating: (2 of 5)

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