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

29 July 2008

Essential Ms. Marvel, v. 1

Collects: Ms. Marvel #1-23, Avengers Annual #10, Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-1 (1977-9, 1981, 1992)

Released: January 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 512 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785124993

There’s not much of a way to sugarcoat it; the Essential Ms. Marvel, v. 1 is a collection of ‘70s mediocrity.

I mean that in the best way, of course; it’s not bad enough to offend, nor is it good enough to truly entice. It falls in the same category as the Essential Iron Fist or Essential Nova. The former collection is an apt comparison in more than one way; although Ms. Marvel was created by other hands, Ms. Marvel is the work of Chris Claremont. Like Iron Fist, Claremont rode Ms. Marvel to cancellation at the same time he was making X-Men a sales juggernaut. In fact, his work with Ms. Marvel begins at about the time Iron Fist ends.

Essential Ms. Marvel, v. 1 cover Early Claremont is the main draw here. With eight pencillers in 23 issues, there are frequent changes in art styles, although Jim Mooney provided art for ten issues over a couple of stints. The few guest stars are second tier, and although the established villains in the book are occasionally better than average (MODOK, AIM, Scorpion), there is plenty of dead weight in the form of Grotesk, Tiger Shark, and the Faceless One.9 Just as Ms. Marvel was wrapped up in an Avengers Annual and an issue of X-Men, Claremont wraps up a storyline from the even more obscure Supernatural Thrillers #10-15. (Why, I don’t know.) The new villains are mostly crap: Destructor, the reptilian People, two unidentified aliens. Except …

Except Deathbird and Mystique. Deathbird is an alien cypher working for MODOK, but Mystique is a big player with a mad-on for Ms. Marvel. (Claremont’s predilection for long-dangling plotlines don’t tell us why during Ms. Marvel; in the Marvel Super Heroes Magazine reprinted after the Ms. Marvel issues, Destiny reveals she’s predicted Ms. Marvel will harm Rogue, Mystique’s stepdaughter.) For fans of Mystique, it is interesting to see her humble and obscure beginnings.

Also interesting are the two issues of Marvel Super Heroes Magazine. #10 would have been Ms. Marvel #24; the completed cover for #24 is included. #11 is a condensation of Claremont’s plans for Ms. Marvel’s non-Avengers career before Rogue steals her powers, including scraps with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Hellfire Club. It’s too condensed to be enjoyable, but it’s good to see Claremont’s intentions, and I appreciate Marvel reprinting the two relatively obscure ‘90s anthology issues. (It has some quintessentially ‘90s art that is a jarring shift, though.) Also included is Avengers Annual #10, famous for Rogue’s debut but included here because it shows Carol dealing with her lost powers and memories and excoriating the Avengers for letting her be mind controlled and abducted by the son of Immortus in Avengers #200 (not included in Essential Ms. Marvel, presumably because of page constraints).

This is Claremont, through and through. A powerful female character, some verbal tics and a great deal of unnecessary verbiage, and several mind control plots. For those who love the Claremont of the ‘70s, this book is well worth your time. For the rest of the world, it’s a bit more missable.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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25 July 2008

She-Hulk, v. 4: Laws of Attraction

Collects: She-Hulk #6-13 (2007)

Released: February 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 192 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785122180

I’m not sure what there is to say about that I haven’t said before about writer Dan Slott’s She-Hulk work.

In v. 4, She-Hulk finds herself wrapped up in Civil War, and once again, Slott uses a great deal of continuity — but he uses it to give the stories richness and color rather than adding useless confusion. These unfamiliar with the ins and outs of of She-Hulk continuity — and that includes nearly everyone, really — or Civil War will have little trouble following the story. Slott makes sure the reader knows the backstory and adds the details with humor so informed readers aren’t bored. I consistently Marvel that Slott can tell stories in his lighthearted tone in Marvel’s grimmer and more political universe without a clash of styles, even poking fun at Marvel while doing it. (And getting the Spider-Man job to boot.

She-Hulk, v. 4: Laws of Attraction cover If there’s anything bad to say about this book, it’s the art — well, the number of different artists, at least. Any one style could have served the book, and two could have been tolerated. But perhaps to commemorate v. 4 of She-Hulk, there are four different pencilers in the space of seven issues: Will Conrad, Paul Smith, Ron Frenz (breakdowns, with finishes by Sal Buscema), and Rick Burchett. The Frenz / Buscema collaboration is my favorite — it appeals to my Buscema nostalgia — but Smith and Burchett fit the series quite well, being slightly reminiscent of Juan Bobillo. There’s nothing wrong with Conrads’s work, but it has a fiddly “realistic” look that I’ve never cared for. I will say I’m not fond of Greg Horn’s covers for this series, even if he’s lowered his cheesecake / port ratio for the series by quite a bit.

Well — what are you waiting for? Buy this book. If you’ve already got it, buy it again.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (4.5 of 5)

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22 July 2008

Chronicles of Conan, v. 11: The Dance of the Skull and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #82-90 (1978)

Released: February 2007 (Dark Horse)

Format: 168 pages / color / $16.95 / ISBN: 9781593076368

Dark Horse’s reprints of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian keeps marching on with v. 11, The The Dance of the Skull and Other Stories.

Like the previous 10 volumes, v. 11 is written by Roy Thomas. The art is by John Buscema (five issues) and Howard Chaykin (three issues), but the strong finishes by Ernie Chan makes guest artist’s Chaykin’s work strongly resembles Buscema’s. Both the writing and art have a certain sameness compared with the previous volumes of Dark Horse’s Conan, and like many reprints of old comic material, the divisions between volumes are somewhat arbitrary. This is a bit of a problem since it prevents the book from having an identity. Why buy this volume over others? I’m not sure I can say.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 11: The Dance of the Skull and Other Stories cover Worse, the story in v. 11 begins in the middle of a storyline — and the storyline is a seemingly interminable pause in the quest of Belit, pirate queen and Conan’s lover, to discover the fate of her father. Conan is sent on several side quests, allowing Thomas to adapt several non-Conan works by Robert E. Howard and giving Conan an opportunity to pick up a sidekick. Well, Zula is more a partner than sidekick, but it’s still Conan’s book.

But it’s good to see another recurring character introduced. This is both because Belit’s subplot is quickly disposed of once Conan catches up to her and because Conan has precious few recurring characters. Zula is not a great character — he’s the last of a tribe of Blacks with a striking Mohawk — but he’s another voice, someone to contradict Conan without being evil, stupid, or petulant. Conan continually fighting mystic threats and winning through luck or bullheadedness needs some breaks.

But the plot’s the difficulty — meandering and unfocussed despite a specific goal, and no amount of princesses in slavery, Zula, or Thoth-Amon will fix that. It’s all very forgettable.

(Oh, and I still miss the original Marvel covers.)

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol (2 of 5)

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18 July 2008

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 2

Collects: Detective Comics #343-58 and Batman #175-88 (1965-6)

Released: May 2007 (DC)

Format: 512 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781401213626

Silver Age DC … I’m not sure why I bother. It’s so bizarre, so nonsensical, it’s as if the writers fed hallucinogens to mentally handicapped kids, then used their ramblings as springboards to write stories.

Actually, that’s not right; that makes the stories seem too interesting. The stories careen between boring and bad pseudoscience, then takes a left turn into camp with Batman #179 and Detective Comics #349, when the “go-go checks” begin. There are two extremes: crappy hoods with weak gimmicks and ludicrous sci-fi gimmicks that detract from the relatively grounded nature of Batman. None of it is particularly interesting.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 2 cover Few of the iconic Bat villains show up Showcase Presents: Batman, v. 2. In nearly 30 issues, the Joker and Riddler show up once apiece. Poison Ivy makes her debut, with two appearances; the back cover also trumpets Blockbuster’s first appearance as well, which should give you some of the star power involved. A villain called the Outsider, who lurked in the shadows of v. 1, steps into the light and turns Robin into a coffin. Batman defeats him because the Outsider makes his machines too simple.

All the good parts of v. 1 are missing. The Outsider makes only a couple appearances before his secret identity is revealed. The Mystery Analysts of Gotham make only one appearance, which — sadly — is the high point of v. 2, outside of the Poison Ivy stories. Alfred returns from the dead in a spectacularly stupid way.

As I said, maybe it’s just that I don’t get Silver Age DC. They seem to be targeting a younger age than Marvel was going after at the same time, and it shows decades later. But the stories don’t seem to have any spark — except for the exotic temptress Poison Ivy, it’s just a dreary succession of people who Batman and Robin beat up. Without much continuity, the stories are just one damn thing after another.

I can’t recommend the book, and I doubt v. 3’s going to be much better. But it’s Batman — I might still buy it.

Rating: Batman symbol (1 of 5)

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15 July 2008

Irredeemable Ant-Man, v. 1: Low Life

Collects: Irredeemable Ant-Man #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: June 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color digest / $9.99 / ISBN: 9780785119623

Ant-Man has always been a bit of a loser. The original Ant-Man went from a founder of the Avengers and the Marvel Universe to wife-beating wreck, heading through several identities and mental illnesses along the way. The second, working from that base, was a punchline for jokes about obscure heroes. (Now, thanks to Avengers Disassembled, he’s a punchline for jokes about obscure dead heroes.)

In The Irredeemable Ant-Man, v. 1: Low Life, Eric O’Grady becomes the third Ant-Man. Somehow, he manages to disgrace even the undistinguished name of Ant-Man.

Irredeemable Ant-Man cover In short, Eric is an awful hero — he would probably deny being a hero, but there is a legacy that comes with the name. He’s an even worse human being. He lies to his best friend’s girlfriend, telling her her boyfriend has a girl on the side. He steals the Ant-Man suit from his friend’s dead body, then puts the moves on the girlfriend, leading to a one-night stand and a pregnancy. He uses his new-found powers to spy on naked women. He even invites a woman he saves from a mugger out to an expensive restaurant, then sticks her with the check.

If writer Robert Kirkman is going for thoroughly unlikable, then he has nailed it perfectly. Now, you can get away with this approach; making the bastard a victim of physical comedy or insults or comeuppance is the most common way. Making Eric charismatic or witty could also work, but Eric has neither charisma or wit. At times, reading about Eric is uncomfortable. Eric deserves some sort of comeuppance for being so awful, but he doesn’t really get it. His friend dies, but from Eric’s actions, he doesn’t seem too broken up about it. Eric goes through life causing misery and pain to those closes to him, and he gets away with it. It is unsatisfying to say the least.

Artist Phil Hester does a good job, although the reduction in size to digest doesn’t really do his artwork any favors. (Does it help anyone, I wonder? I suppose John Byrne’s clean pencils in the slightly larger Avengers: Nights of Wundagore were fine, but I can’t remember anyone else doing extremely well.) Hester’s storytelling is strong, and the characters — despite most of them being in identical SHIELD uniforms — are easily identifiable. But good artwork can’t save a story as unlikable as this one.

Frankly, there’s little to recommend the Irredeemable Ant-Man. It’s painful to read about such a horrible person who stars in a story with no moral grounding. Kirkman hits what he’s aiming for, but that’s not a story worth reading.

Rating: Marvel symbol (1 of 5)

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11 July 2008

Adventures of Red Sonja, v. 2

Collects: Red Sonja #1-7 (1977)

Released: September 2006 (Dynamite Entertainment)

Format: 176 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781933305127

Red Sonja should be a simple enough concept. A little skin, a little weird fantasy, a little peril, and a lot of action … Bam. Knock off early, do a little golfing (or drinking, depending on your predilections) in the afternoon, and watch the checks roll in. Better yet, get a hotshot artist who can draw monsters — Mike Mignola maybe — and you’re set for a decade.

But Marvel couldn’t quiet put that together for their Red Sonja series in the ‘70s. Despite the long-term success of Conan the Barbarian — the book Sonja was sput off — Sonja’s solo title ran only 15 issues after a short stint in Marvel Feature.

Adventures of Red Sonja, v. 2 cover Well, the first thing I noticed when reading The Adventures of Red Sonja, v. 2 was not a buxom warrior woman in a chain mail bikini. One would think that would not be possible, especially given most comic-book artists’ attempts to pioneer the art of making breasts 3-D objects through a combination of will and vivid imagination.

No, the first thing I noticed was the words.

In boxes, balloons, and bubbles. The pages are fairly choked with balloons describing what the art of Gary Thorne shows competently enough. It’s tempting to blame novice comics writer (and film editor / writer) Clair Noto for this. But Roy Thomas, who wrote Conan, was her editor and co-writer and should have known better. Then again, things get no better when Wendy Pini takes over for Noto on #6, ,so perhaps Thomas is totally to blame for the profusion of flowery prose that crowds out the art on every page.

The plots are good enough, I suppose, although none of them stand out. All of them are weird fantasy in garish colors, which should be enough for this series. Better plots might have saved the book, but I doubt it.

I’m not sure Throne is a good choice for the art. His Sonja seems too cartoony to be sexy and a little too wide-eyed and willowy to be a warrior. The latter may be a concession in an attempt to increase the cheesecake factor, but Thorne doesn’t come close to exploiting the possibilities, so I’m not sure what he was aiming at. Not that I endorse cheesecake or necessarily want it — but if you aren’t going to go that way, then why not give her some clothes? Or even some decent armor, for Erlik’s sake?

One positive: Thomas’s afterword, discussing the series’ genesis, is interesting, and unlike Dark Horse’s Chronicles of Conan, the original covers are included.

It’s not enough, of course. I won’t be looking for v. 1 or 3.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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10 July 2008

Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, v. 3

Collects: Spectacular Spider-Man #54-74 and Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3 (1981-4)

Released: February 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 536 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785125013

There’s not much to say about the Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, v. 3. Well, I suppose there is, but it’s mostly repeating how much I like the Essential Spectacular Spider-Man.

In v. 3, Spider-Man swings into his ‘80s heyday, with stories by two of the best Spider-writers from that time: Roger Stern (#54-61) and Bill Mantlo (#62-74). Stern has received a great deal of praise for his Spider-work, and although this isn’t the equal of his long run on Amazing Spider-Man, it has a lot of fun stuff with B-villains like the Jack o’ Lantern, Nitro, Will o’ the Wisp, the Ringer, and the Gibbon. He also throws in stories with three future Thunderbolts: the Beetle, Moonstone, and the Smuggler (Atlas / Goliath).

Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, v. 3 cover Mantlo’s run is more distinguished, creating Cloak and Dagger and introducing the Owl / Octopus War. Mantlo concentrated on “classic” villains — Electro, the Molten Man, Doc Ock — and brought back older villains with strong connections to Spider-Man: the aforementioned Molten Man, Robot Master, Silvermane. He treated the Kingpin as he had been treated in Daredevil: a force within the city who could be reluctantly used but had his own agenda. He also gave Kraven his mania for “honor” that would lead to his destruction.

Words can’t express how much fun these stories are. Few — Cloak and Dagger being the exception — are groundbreaking, but they’re solid superhero stories. There are some disappointments — the weak resolution to the Deb Whitman story stands out there — but overall, it’s a lot of fun.

The art isn’t going to make anyone forget Steve Ditko or John Romita, Sr., but there are echoes of both throughout. Pencillers and inkers come and go with regularity — editor-in-chief Jim Shooter did the layouts for three issues — but it’s all high-quality work that surprisingly works despite the number of different contributors. Jim Mooney and Ed Hannigan did the lion’s share of the work, with Luke McDonnell, Bob Hall, and Al Milgrom making significant contributions. Many others, like John Byrne and Rick Leonardi, pitch in an issue or two.

These issues represent a high level of quality and nostalgia for many collectors. They stand up well to time, and they don’t disappoint, a quarter century later.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (4 of 5)

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09 July 2008


Sorry I'm a day behind. New review up tonight, and Friday's should be right on time.

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04 July 2008

X-Factor, v. 1: The Longest Night

Collects: X-Factor #1-6 (2006)

Released: February 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785118176

The germ of the latest X-Factor series was the Madrox miniseries, in which Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, ran a detective agency using the skills gained through his many duplicates.

But X-Factor, v. 1: The Longest Night is a different beast altogether. Between Madrox and X-Factor was the Decimation, reducing mutant numbers to about 200, and X-Factor picks up the plot — the only title to do so, really. Former mutants are angry and afraid; anti-mutant bigots come into Mutant Town to kick some of the mutant butt. Rictor, a former member of X-Force and the New Mutants, contemplates suicide before Madrox and his colleagues take him in.

 coverThe core of this X-Factor is from Peter David’s run on the original X-Factor: Madrox, Wolfsbane, and Strong Guy. Also part of the team are M, of Generation X, former X-Forcers Siryn and Rictor, and Layla Miller, a kid who “knows things.” They are opposed by the mysterious and well-heeled Singularity Investigations.

David’s plots are grim, with riots, savage beatings, and murders, although the most horrifying thing might be Layla constantly wandering around saying she knows things. David keeps things from getting too grim, using his customary wisecracking dialogue. And that’s the appeal of any David comic: the dialogue and the characters. He picks up Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, and Madrox as if his X-Factor run was only a few months ago rather than 15 years ago. M’s arrogance comes across well, although it cracks a bit too often for the first storyline; Rictor mainly mopes along. I’m not fond of Siryn’s new persuasion powers, and I’m not convinced by David’s handling of the character. Layla is annoying, but I’m sure she’s supposed to be.

I’m not a big fan of the art, supplied by Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero. They use a heavy line for outlines but are often sketchy with the details. This gives the characters a somewhat blank look, which with all the violence, death, and weirdness is not the right approach. I also don’t like their take on Wolfsbane, who looks more bestial than previously. There’s also a social worker who has a wide-eyed, unfocused look about her that makes her appear as if she took a big gulp of the joy juice.

Despite the art — and its not that bad, not really — this is much better than the previous book by David that I read. It’s well worth your time.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol 4 of 5

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01 July 2008

The Lost Colony, v. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy

Collects: OGN

Released: May 2006 (1st Second)

Format: 118 pages / color / $14.95 / ISBN: 9781596430976

I convinced myself to buy The Last Colony, v. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy by accident. The last time I was at the Green Valley Book Fair, I saw The Last Colony on the shelves, and something about it seemed familiar. I convinced myself I had read positive reviews about the book on the Internet, so I decided to give it a chance. It was only when I got home that I realized that faint familiarity had come from seeing The Last Colony on the shelves the previous time I had been to the Book Fair.


The Lost Colony, v. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy coverGrady Klein has constructed an odd story, one with several convergent threads. It’s set in the pre-Civil War South on a “secret” island where people of several different races — white, Black, American Indian, Chinese — live together in one community. But when a slave trader form the mainland wanders onto the island, it sets several plots in motion. The governor’s daughter wants a slave to do his chores; the governor, Snodgrass, and Chinese doctor / herbalist, Pepe Wong, want to get the slave trader off the island while keeping him from returning, both of them working at cross purposes. The blacks and Indians are afraid slaves will be brought to the island along with the evils of slavery.

That doesn’t sound very complicated, but when you add in magical potions, an addleminded servant, a “mechanical slave” (a robot), strange rock creatures, a wealthy plantation owner, a ferryman who’s bad at keeping secrets as he is at playing the violin, it gets more confusing. And Klein’s cartoony, simplified art style doesn’t help in this regard; I found it difficult to tell the difference between several male characters, especially one who was seen in a flashback before he’s introduced in the story. Combine this with the unpredictable effects of Pepe Wong’s potions, and it can be near impossible to tell what the hell’s going on.

Despite the occasionally bizarre trappings, I found The Snodgrass Conspiracy unengaging. There seems to be no real tension, just a series of weird incidents. The main conflicts about keeping the island secret, but seeing how awful the island’s inhabitants seem to be at maintaining that secret, it’s hard to take that plot seriously. Most of the time, the plot’s too silly for me to care about the many characters, but it’s not funny or coherent enough for me to care about the plot. When your big villain is named “Puffhead” and the story is resolved through the combination of chewing gum, magic drinks, and an exploding robot, you’ve either got a mess or a big pile of high-concept awesomeness.

The Snodgrass Conspiracy is a bit of a mess.

Rating: First Second symbol (1 of 5)

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