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

29 October 2006

Essential Marvel Team-Up, v. 2

Collects: Marvel Team-Up #25-51, Marvel Two-in-One #17 (1974-6)

Released: July 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 528 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 0785121633

Marvel Team-Up is a title that doesn’t get much respect. It’s noted more for being a de facto second Spider-Man title — the first Marvel character to get a second solo title — rather than for being a medium for quality stories. Most of what passed through Marvel Team-Up is seen as either forgettable or silly, and the stories in Essential Marvel Team-Up, v. 2 is no exception.

But that’s not to say the stories aren’t enjoyable, even if they didn’t have a long-term effect on the Spider-mythos. (Three of the 27 stories in this volume are expressly forgotten by the protagonists at the end.) There is often a forgotten charm in these ‘70s stories, when Spidey was still in his salad days and some team-ups still hadn’t been tried.

These stories aren’t — or perhaps can’t — be told in the 21st century, but there’s no reason not to enjoy them here. The stories told by Gerry Conway and Len Wein at the beginning of Essential Marvel Team-Up tend toward the silly, with the silliest (or most mythic, if you’re charitable) being #28, in which Hercules tows the stolen island of Manhattan (roughly) back to its correct place. This story is rightly hooted at by modern fans, but it was a product of its times. That doesn’t make the stories good, but it does explain a few things.

The writing improves greatly when Bill Mantlo takes over. Mantlo is a writer who was the backbone of the marvel Universe in the ‘70s and ‘80s — he wrote nearly every character Marvel has at one time or another. Some of his work is reviled (his Alpha Flight comes to mind, and there may come a time when his name is much more associated with “Cloak and Dagger created by”), but you don’t write so many titles unless you have something on the ball. Mantlo certainly did.

After taking over this title, Mantlo wrote a series of connected storylines — difficult to do when Spidey’s supposed to have a new guest star every month. But Mantlo pulled it off, most impressively with a six-part time travel story that takes Spider-Man and a host of associates back to the witch trials at Salem. By the end, the team-up concept is showing its weaknesses (Moondragon? Really?), but overall, the story works — and it has Doom!, which can never be a bad thing. His two-part Big Man / Crimemaster story is surprisingly effective, if a little convenient. A later four-part storyline that introduces the Wraith and Jean DeWolff dispenses with adding guest stars, keeping Iron Man as the featured guest for three issues.

If Mantlo was the backbone of Marvel writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Sal Buscema is the apex of Marvel art between the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Image Age. In Essential Marvel Team-Up, he was frequently aided by Mike Esposito, but the result is still classic Buscema: excellent storytelling and a style that is nearly invisible until a few signature moments.8 Buscema’s work adapts to the black-and-white format of the Essential as well as any artist I’ve seen.

All right: despite my deep admiration for the work of Buscema and Mantlo, this is Marvel Team-Up. Even at its best, it was the “other” Spider-Man title — until Spectacular Spider-Man came along, when it became the third title. Nothing groundbreaking happens here, no chances in Peter Parker’s life and no world-shattering villains. The mandate for Marvel Team-Up seemed to be to tell entertaining stories that didn’t rock the boat. And that’s just what happens in Essential Marvel Team-Up, v. 2.

Rating: (3 of 5)

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12 October 2006

Essential Captain America, v. 1

Collects: Tales of Suspense #59-99 (covers and Captain America stories only), Captain America #100-2 (1964-8)

Released: 2000? (Marvel)

Format: pages / black and white / $16.99 ($14.95 when originally released) / ISBN: 0785107401

The Essential Captain America, v. 1, was not a book I was particularly looking for. Captain America’s never been one of my favorite characters, and in this volume, Cap is mainly relegated to the back-up stories (he rarely got the cover) of the magazine he shared with Iron Man, Tales of Suspense. But I got a good deal on the book, and well, Captain America is one of the foundations of the Marvel Universe, no matter what my feelings are. So …

Essential Captain America I cover There’s a lot of action here, with Captain America plowing through dozens of peons per page. But when it comes down to it, he always ends up defeating a Nazi with his mind rather than brawn; the Nazi, usually the Red Skull, always seems to die. Strangely, the Skull is awfully honorable for a genocidal maniac, and he doesn’t realize a bullet to Cap’s skull would solve all his problems. That would end the stories of course, and writer / editor / delegator Stan Lee knows how to keep things going, even if he can’t always get them to make sense.

(Of course, the Red Skull’s horribly convoluted plans suggest a man who is a complete stranger to linear thinking; at one point, he trades almost destroying New York for 24 hours of humiliating Captain America and an atomic submarine. Atomic submarines are neat and all, and heaven knows grinding the untermensch’s nose into the ground is rewarding. But given that he could have also gone on to destroy cities other than New York if he hadn’t made the deal, it seems like a bad trade.)

These tales of Captain America haven’t aged very well. Some of the early issues of Tales of Suspense feature Captain America and Bucky in World War II; although fans of Invaders wouldn’t agree, these just as entertaining as the more modern adventures. Of course, Cap goes through most of his career fighting Nazi plots, so even in the ‘60s, he was battling anachronisms. This doesn’t help his relevancy – isn’t it strange the living embodiment of America in the Marvel Universe doesn’t fight many Cold War villains during the Cold War? – but that’s more of a complaint about the character than Essential Captain America.

The best issues involve Captain American battling AIM, who man not have the best costumes but make for reat opponents. An orgainztion of super scientists, they create all kind of supergadgets – the Cosmic Cube, the Super Adaptoid, MODOK – and like most fictional scientists, they can control their creations no more than a baby can control its bowels. Captain America gets to act like a super spy fighting AIM, allowing him to team up with Agent 13.

Ah, Agent 13, the woman who passes for Cap’s personal life. Now, dealing with 10 page action shorts doesn’t allow much room to build on Cap’s alter ego, but it was done for some other characters (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Human Torch). But Cap is limited to chastely longing for Agent 13, their obligations to “duty” keeping them from having a relationship.

Art is provided by Jack Kirby, which is a sore point for me. Kirby is an innovator, a trailblazer, a man with a superabundance of imagination, a man who is hailed as “King,” to whom obeisance must be given. However, I don’t hink his work has aged well. For instance, his characters are ugly. That’s all there is to it; they range from homely to hideous, but there’s not a good looker in the bunch. For some reason, his superheroes look like they’re wearing partially filled adult diapers beneath their uniforms. In Essential Captain America I, his much vaunted dynamic art usually translates into people flying through the air with their legs spread. On the other hand, Gil Kane’s art seems plain after Kirby’s. (On a side note, why does Stan nickname Gil “Sugar Lips” in some of the credits? A pun on the last name? Personal experience?)

My position on Kirby is considered heretical; if you enjoy Kirby, add a point or two to the rating. I don’t understand it, but there are probably a lot of artists I like that are awful.7 And I have to admit, any man who can create the visual for MODOK deserves some sort of honors.

I would like to say I was pleasantly surprised by this book, but I wasn’t — I wasn’t surprised at all. Essential Captain America, v. 1, is what it is: Captain America beating the crap out of flunkies and henchmen so he can fight some Nazis. There’s a place for that in comics, even today, I think; but it’s not a place I enjoy visiting. If you’re only here for the Kirby, though, you’ll enjoy this much more than I did.

Rating: Captain America’s shield Captain America’s shield (2 of 5)

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09 October 2006

Fables, v. 7: Arabian Days (and Nights)

Collects: Fables #42-7 (2005-6)

Released: June 2006 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 1401210007

Having revealed the identity of the mastermind villain in the sixth volume of Fables, writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham take a step to the side in Fables, v. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days). Instead of dealing with the Adversary, the Fables have their first contact with the fables of another culture.

The Arabian Fables show up in the form of Sinbad and his retinue, and as one might expect, certain characteristics of the American / Iraqi relationship appear. And that’s where Arabian Nights falls down.

Sinbad’s retinue contains two sore spots for the Fables: slaves, for the obvious reasons, and a djinn, because it is an incredibly destructive weapon (and of course, the back cover of the TPB compares the djinn to a WMD). Both of these problems are dealt with ridiculously easily, and the resulting conflict is swept under the flying carpet much too easily. Imprisonment, torture, and nation building are shuffled off the stage as quickly as they occur. Perhaps it will be dealt with in future issues; Willingham has left the probability it will.

It doesn’t matter whether Willingham’s story is critical of the failures or supportive of the successes that have occurred in Iraq. It’s just that the story calls up these echoes of the present conflict, then dismisses them without saying anything.

The volume ends with a long story of Rodney and June, wooden soldiers who wish to become human to express their love. The wooden-creatures-wanting-to-be-human story doesn’t resonate with me, and although it is well done, there is no deep message or twist ending to redeem the story for me.

That aside, the established characters do continue to grow and change. Mayor Prince Charming shows his true colors and gets a pair of dressings down for it; Old King Cole gets to show why he was mayor for so long; Red Riding Hood begins to develop a personality; and Beauty and the Best start to slip out from under their predecessors’ shadows. Snow’s cubs continue to grow, and Frau Totenkinder shows why you don’t mess with Frau Totenkinder.

Something I take for granted is Buckingham’s art. Not only is the art pretty to look at, with a smooth line that can exaggerate when need be, but there are also small touches that make it enjoyable: small cartoons at the top of each page and background art along the margins. The art has life; it is vivid. The story of Rodney and June, on the other hand, is by Jim Fern, and although it’s competent, it just seems bland and stiff (appropriate, that latter characteristic) compared to Buckingham’s work.

This is probably my least favorite volume of Fables. If you’re reading the series already, though, you’re going to read Arabian Nights anyway. And if you’re not, you definitely are not going to start here.

Rating: Vertigo logo Vertigo logo Half vertigo logo (2.5 of 5)

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08 October 2006

Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules

Collects: Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1-4 (2003)

Released: June 2003 (Marvel)

Format: 128 pages / color / $13.99 / ISBN: 0785111123

Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules is not the sort of thing Marvel Comics publishes very often — well, not without a theme month, anyway.

Unstable Molecules writer James Sturm tells a story with four protagonists, each very similar to a character from the Fantastic Four. Reed Richards is a physicist, Ben Grimm’s a lovable, gruff boxing trainer, Johnny Sturm is a teenager with an obsession with cars, and Sue Sturm, his sister, is Reed’s fiancée. Sturm the writer uses these characters to tell a straightfaced story about what he claims, in the prologue and endnotes, is the real Fantastic Four. These characters, slightly altered from the first family of Marvel we know, are set in the 1950s, passions boiling against a sleepy Eisenhower-era backdrop.

As you might expect from that set-up, Sue is the focus of the story. She’s also the only character with a story relationship with the other three: Johnny’s sister and guardian, Reed’s “love,” Ben’s flirting friend. Sue feels trapped by the expectations of her neighbors and Reed, unable to carve or discover a role for herself that isn’t defined by traditional female roles. The disappointments of her life lead her to grab for whatever happiness those around her will allow, no matter how disastrous the consequences.

The others aren’t neglected by the plot; they aren’t happy, either. Johnny feels as confined by his hometown as Sue and is dealing with a confusing sexual awakening that veers between inadvertent incestuous desires and hints of homosexuality. (He still loves those cars, though.) Been lives a sleazy life and throws away chances for love because he can’t have Sue, his perfect woman. Reed, whom Sue accuses of treating her as if she’s invisible, seems invisible himself, reserved when he’s on the page but off it for most of the book. Still, in the end, he feels the dagger of Sue’s betrayal.

Kind of depressing, really.

Since this is the ‘50s, there are certain conventions to be observed. There must be beatniks, for instance, and Cold War concerns. Also inserted because they fit the timeframe is a faux proto-Marvel Bullpen; their appearance is worthwhile despite their tangential importance to the plot for no other reason than seeing Ben Grimm verbally dominate a conversation with Stan Lee. (It’s not very likely, but it’s still amusing.) If you like that last one, you’ll like Sturm’s other cute touches: a disgruntled Eastern European former lab assistant of Reed’s named Victor Dunne, a fat, bespectacled friend of Johnny’s who may be the model for the Mole Man, and a list of scholarly notes at the end that takes this fictional story very seriously.

Guy Davis’s art is perfect for this book, a little grubby and having no glamour. Everybody has a weak chin; no one shines. R. Sikoryak provides art for a faux ‘50s comic called Vapor Girl, which is inserted into the story occasionally; Vapor Girl is read by Johnny, who uses it to escape from his humdrum hometown, and is published by Marvel (the artist in the story bases Vapor Girl’s appearance on Sue). The book’s muted coloring by Michel Vrana is perfect — drab colors (without stinting on the palette) for drab ‘50s people.

There is a bit that confuses me, though. Sturm claims the members of the Fantastic Four are real — the four characters featured in Unstable Molecules. That’s fine; Stan, Jack, and the rest of the Bullpenners meet the four characters, and it makes sense that when it came time to create Marvel’s first team superhero book, Stan would pull on their personalities and Jack on their appearances. But Sturm also implies Sue et al. are superheroes or at least that they went up in Reed’s rocket. These four average people going into space in a rocket is absurd — yet that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

That’s a minor flaw, the least of a few small problems; Unstable Molecules is depressing, in that suffocating ‘50s way that so many equate with innocence. It lacks real closure, given that we know the turmoil at the end isn’t he last of the characters. Sturm claims there are plans for sequels, but Sturm also claims Sue Sturm met Betty Friedan.

Still, if the sequels came out (Sturm says part two, The Mad Thinkers, is due next year), I’d probably buy them.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (4 of 5)

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