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

28 April 2009

Black Panther by Jack Kirby, v. 2

Collects: Black Panther #8-13 (1978-9)

Released: July 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785120698

What is this?: Black Panther (and his royal cousins) subdue a mutated Wakandan before he destroys the world and fight Kiber the Cruel.

The culprits: Jack Kirby, with a one-issue wrap up by Jim Shooter, Ed Hannigan, and Jerry Bingham

I have a confession to make: I don’t like Jack Kirby’s art. I’ve probably said it elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating for this review: I just don’t like his style. People are ugly, even the pretty ones. He has wacky perspectives I just don’t get, and often the way he draws eyes makes his characters look somewhere between manic and insane. In some of his action scenes, his figures look posed in the most uncomfortable positions. The “Kirby Krackle” and his intricate machines have never really done anything for me.

Now, I admit his art was innovative — or at least I’ve been told that so many times that I have to accept it. His art in 1961 is quite different than what you see from artists in the ‘50s, but so is Steve Ditko’s and others’; I just have to take on faith that the innovation flows from and through him. I do admire Kirby’s imagination, though, both in his art and his writing — especially his writing. Kirby, along with Steve Gerber, were underappreciated writers in the ‘70s, and their ideas are strange and wonderful even today.

Black Panther by Jack Kirby, v. 2 coverBut that imagination is not much in evidence in Black Panther by Jack Kirby, v. 2. The volume collects two Kirby storylines: one with a standard monster story, albeit one set in Wakanda and featuring Black Panther’s royal cousins, and a story with a villain who converts captives to energy for fuel. These don’t rival the flights of fancy from v. 1, where Kirby presented King Solomon’s Frogs, time travel, Abner Little, and a hidden city of samurai who guard the water of eternal life.

The most imaginative parts of Panther, v. 2, is the Wakandan royal family — a financier, a doctor, a race-car driver, and a “female grown too fat,” all successful in their fields — trying to capture the mutated Jakarra, who got too close to the outer-space metal vibranium. Such things will happen when you dabble in outer-space metal. I don’t buy the royal cousins’ heroics, but they are all well drawn individuals, and they are often fun to watch. It’s too bad Black Panther doesn’t really need relatives; in fact, they’re a hindrance to later and earlier stories told about royal intrigue, since they almost never pop up again. The only other interesting part of the book is the revelation of Kiber the Cruel’s true form, but that’s written in the final issue by Jim Shooter and Ed Hannigan, with art by Jerry Bingham, and there’s no telling how much input Kirby had on that issue. That Kiber can invade Wakanda’s self-imposed isolation is interesting, but not much is done with that; Black Panther’s newly gained psychic abilities in the final storyline are something different but wildly out of keeping with the character’s strengths. In any event, the new powers are gone fairly quickly after the story.

Really, Panther is standard ‘70s stuff, and standard ‘70s stuff at Marvel is usually a mediocre attempt to recreate the ‘60s at Marvel without all the interesting risks and weirdness.

Panther features art by Kirby. If you like it — and you know if you do or not — then here it is. It’s some of his later art, so it isn’t as exciting as his early work; frankly, Jerry Bingham, whom I had never heard of before, is a welcome relief on the last issue, and it’s one of his images (a villain warped and fused to the floor) and not Kirby’s that sticks with me. Despite his characters being occasionally overposed and stiff, Bingham is a solid artist, representing a generation influenced by (and overtaking) Kirby.

Panther sells for almost $20, which is a little expensive for six issues in paperback. I realize Kirby’s name has cachet for those who collect and read these old issues, but it’s just not worth the money for unspectacular Kirby. And it doesn’t even end v. 1 of Black Panther; two more non-Kirby issues remain uncollected.

Rating: Black Panther symbol Half a Panther symbol (1.5 of 5)

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27 April 2009

New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List, April 18

The New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List for the week of April 18 contains few surprises.

DC has a lock on the hardcover list again. Watchmen moves up two slots to the top spot, while Batman: RIP slips to second. Batman: The Killing Joke and Joker move up one spot apiece to #3 and #4. Batman: Heart of Hush drops three spots to #5. All-Star Superman, v. 2 drops two slots to #9. The Saga of Swamp Thing keeps the #10 slot. Superman: Brainiac falls out of the top 10.

Marvel manages to get two titles into the hardcover list: Marvel Zombies 3 and Civil War at #7 and 8, respectively. Good for them. Maybe they’ll set their sights on the top five next time. Random House’s lone representative, The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle, moves up three spots to #6. IDW’s Angel: After the Fall, v. 3, drops out of the top 10.

Much more instability on the trade paperback list, with five new titles. This time, there’s only four DC titles on the list: Watchmen hanging on to #1, V for Vendetta slipping two slots to #5, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns slipping one to #7. Batman: The Long Halloween enters the chart at #9. The first volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Y: The Last Man drop from the list. For Marvel, Wolverine: Origin drops to #4 from #2, but they also get Barry Windsor-Smith’s Wolverine: Weapon X in at #10. Hooray, Wolverine movie!

Among other publishers, the big winner is IDW, which puts Star Trek: Countdown, nominally by J.J. Abrams and others, in at #2. Image’s Walking Dead, v. 9, moves up one to #6, but v. 1 drops off the list. Rounding out the list is Drawn & Quarterly’s A Drifting Life (an interesting qualifier — “this 840-page memoir chronicles family troubles and the evolution of manga from 1945 to 1960”) and Oni’s latest Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe. Falling off the list are The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, v. 3.

Naruto takes the top 6 manga spots and seven of the top 10; the only mystery, really, is why v. 31 makes the list when the other Narutos are v. 39-44.

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July 2009 Solicitations

Better late than never, they say. Of course, that’s debatable. Here are the July 2009 solicitations from the big four comic companies, minus IDW and plus Dark Horse (I kid Dark Horse, but really, it and Image fell behind IDW in sales).

From Marvel:

  • Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign (hardcover): Can Jeff Parker bring back what everyone liked in the original (poorly selling) mini? $24.99
  • X-Men: Wolverine / Gambit (hardcover): Reprinting the forgettable Wolverine / Gambit: Victims miniseries from the mid-’90s. The mini was published to capitalize on Gambit’s popularity, and it’s most likely reissued because of the movie. I mean, what other reason can there be to reprint this? (Yes, I know, Loeb / Sale. That doesn’t cover up that it isn’t much good.) $19.99
  • Mephisto vs. (hardcover): The ‘80s miniseries that tried to cover up that it was a miniseries at all by having each issue have a different title! $19.99
  • Spider-Girl, v. 11: Marked for Death (digest): Yes, they really are charging $13 for seven issues of a digest. That’s ridiculous and must stop now. $12.99
  • New Warriors Classic, v. 1: It’s about time. It seems odd it would take so long for a cult favorite like New Warriors to get on the schedule, but the Classic line has been a little slow, so I suppose it makes sense. $24.99
  • X-Men: The Shattering: Rumored on Amazon for a while, this one comes in at a whopping $35. Yes, it has eleven issues plus an annual, but that’s $3 an issue. And three of those reprinted issues are the Astonishing X-Men series, and I’m very reluctant to pay for those. $34.99
  • The Essentials (now $20! Geez, there’s a recession on, Marvel!) are Essential Marvel Two-in-One, v .3, and Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, v. 4. Both are excellent choices, especially Spectacular, which will reprint the Owl / Octopus War and its aftermath, the Black Cat / Spidey romance, and a Fred Hembeck penciled issue. $19.99 each

From DC, who believe in giving you value for your money (and really is eating Marvel’s lunch on that score):

  • Gotham Central, v. 2: Jokers and Madmen (hardcover): I didn’t see v. 1, but it’s good that Gotham Central is getting a hardcover reprint that includes all the issues, not just the greatest hits. The missing issues really upset me in the TPBs. Reasonable price for 12 issues in hardback, and I bet it will have better stories than the comparably sized but more expensive paperback X-Men: The Shattering. $29.99
  • Secret Six: Unhinged: Gail Simone writes another series with second-tier characters. That’s usually enjoyable, and the price is right as well. $14.99
  • Tom Strong: Deluxe Edition, v. 1 (hardcover): I haven’t read Tom Strong, but the other ABC titles were all excellent, and I doubt this will be different. It is $40 for twelve issues, though, so you might hunt down older, cheaper reprints. $39.99
  • Fables, v. 12: The Dark Ages: The Adversary’s gone, but the story goes on. $17.99
  • The Showcases (still a reassuring $17) are Showcase Presents Eclipso and Showcase Presents The Flash, v. 3. I have to admit, DC is much more daring with its Showcase selections than Marvel is with Essentials; on the other hand, I have a real distaste for a lot of Silver Age DC, so it doesn’t do much for me. If you’re less wedded to Marvel or another company, though, you have to love DC. $16.99 $9.99 for Eclipso and $16.99 for Flash
  • Not TPBs, but DC is reprinting the #1s for Green Lantern: Rebirth, Y: The Last Man, Tom Strong, and All-Star Superman and Batman #608 for $1 each. Neat, although I wonder why the first issue of Batman: Hush is being reprinted.

From Image:

  • Back to Brooklyn: Garth Ennis does a violent organized crime story. This is for a certain demographic, and you know if you are in that demographic if you have the entire Ennis run on Punisher. $14.99

From Dark Horse, which is always a little unusual compared to the other three:

  • Noir (hardcover): An interesting black-and-white book. It’s a collection of noir stories, with an impressive list of creators, including comics’ noir leaders, Ed Brubaker and Brian Azzarello. $24.95
  • Pictures that Tick: Dave McKean’s short comics stories from the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Probably worth reading, even if you don’t buy it — McKean is always interesting. $19.95
  • I would mention The Umbrella Academy, v. 2: Dallas (hardcover), but it’s a limited-run $80 edition. No thanks. The TPB will be out in October.

Anyone else got any bright ideas?

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24 April 2009

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist, v. 2

Collects: Power Man & Iron Fist #76-100 and Daredevil #178 (1981-3)

Released: March 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 624 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785130727

What is this?: A two-year slice of early ‘80s street-level Marvel superheroing, featuring the Heroes for Hire: Power Man and Iron Fist.

The culprits: Writers Mary Jo Duffy, Denny O’Neil, and Kurt Busiek and pencilers Denys Cowan, Ernie Chan, and Kerry Gammill, with many other writers and artists

When people get nostalgic for the early ‘80s, Jim Shooter-era Marvel, they don’t often wax nostalgic about Power Man & Iron Fist. (Not in my experience, anyway. I’m sure there are corners of the Internet where that is exactly what happens.) But in many ways, Essential Power Man & Iron Fist, v. 2, is part of the bedrock of that time.

Power Man & Iron Fist has its flaws, but it was a second-tier book that kept chugging along, month after month. Once past Cage’s “Sweet Christmas!” (not much in evidence here) and jive, there’s not much laughable about the title, unlike Dazzler or U.S. 1. Every month is a solid story — well short of unforgettable, usually, but rarely disappointing. There was a consistent supporting cast, well used. The villains … OK, these were mostly second-tier, and even with Sabretooth, you know no one had figured out quite what to do with him yet, other than use him as an Iron Fist villain. But these villains were appropriate to the heroes, they had a score to settle, and they frequently had an interesting hook or visual.

Essential Power Man & Iron Fist, v. 2 cover The writers all have solid credentials in similar low-powered superheroes, although Kurt Busiek found his success a little later than Denny O’Neil and Mary Jo Duffy’s best-known writing is probably Power Man & Iron Fist. The artists are nothing to sneer at either, although Ernie Chan is better known as the inker for Conan than a penciler and neither Kerry Gammill nor Denys Cowan are current superstars or objects of nostalgic veneration.

There is no overarching plot for the volume, of course; there never is in an Essential. So let’s talk about the writers. Duffy uses humor well, rarely letting it get in the way of the plot (except for #79, which is essentially a Doctor Who story, with a cut-rate non-licensed Doctor Who). Unsurprisingly, she’s also the most deft with the largely female supporting cast. O’Neil, who takes over with #85, does away with Duffy’s last shocking change — the scarring of Harmony, a fashion model and Cage’s girlfriend, as soon as it is safe — and … well, I’m not sure what to say about his run, which lasted until #89, except that it’s mainly forgettable: a couple of adventures outside New York, a rescue of Moon Knight, an anti-drugs story. Very ‘80s, in its way, I suppose.

Busiek takes it the rest of the way (except for #91, written by Steven Grant), but this isn’t the Busiek we know from Marvels or Astro City. He’s unpolished here, indulging in legacy characters by bringing back the ID and gimmick of Chemistro and picking up on hints from the O’Neil run that Luke might not be looked upon kindly by his Times Square neighbors. That’s an interesting idea, but he conflates the scum of Times Square, who might want to kick a hero out of their midst, with the African-Americans who think Cage is too white. (The word “Oreo” is used a lot.) Both those groups are wrapped up in the newest Chemistro, who is black and promises to keep the area safe for criminals — not like that Cage, who works with the po-lice. There’s a good story about the heroes escorting Hammerhead to a different prison (although why do they have to ride on the top of a truck to do it?), and Busiek does manage to keep a group of subplots moving forward quite ably, wrapping them up in the double-sized #100.

Gammill supplies the best art in the volume. His pencils are sharp, vivid, and kinetic, and for readers, it’s a shame he only stays on for only for only three issues, #77-9. In many ways, this style of art is underappreciated: without enough tics or exaggerations to be memorable, it has to settle for an understated excellence. Cowan’s style suffers from the black-and-white reproduction and a series of inkers; I remember his work being much better in color in the original issues. The inking of Carl Potts, who finished almost half Cowan’s work on the title (#80-4, 86-90, and 92-3), does him no favors, and that and the lack of color sometimes makes it difficult to make out details with his scratchy style. Chan works #94-100; his art starts off stiff, but it improves greatly when he stops inking his own pencils.

Some call it mediocrity, others consistency. But most of us who enjoy comics from that era can’t quite put our fingers on what to call it; we only recognize it has a familiar feel, comforting without being exciting. This isn’t probably the best way to spend your $20 — and don’t think I haven’t noticed that price increase, Marvel; you’re on notice — but most readers won’t regret the time or money spent with this volume.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (3 of 5)

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22 April 2009

New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller List, April 11

The list is here.

Naruto’s domination is nothing new and certainly no surprise; you get the feeling it can take six of the top ten manga slots without a sweat. DC’s domination on the hardback and paperback lists is a bit of a surprise, though; Watchmen’s presence on both lists is unsurprising, but eight of the top 10 hardbacks? That’s dominance, although the titles on the list do make me a bit suspicious. (Superman: Brainiac is #8? Really? And The Joker #5? Hrmm.)

The paperback book list is also dominated by DC (five of the top 10) but makes more sense. You’ve got evergreen classics in Watchmen (#1), V for Vendetta (#3), and The Dark Knight Returns (#6); the first volumes of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Brian Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man are at the bottom of the list. The only Marvel title is Wolverine: Origin (#2), mostly likely pushed there by publicity for the movie. (Which is a shame, as there are much better Wolverine books.) Marvel has to be a little embarrassed; only one book on the two lists, while Dark Horse places two on the paperback list (#4 and #5). Image also puts two on the list with v. 1 and 9 of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead.

Of course, as I admit, I’m a Marvel kind of guy. My bias is probably showing. It would be interesting to see how DC’s dominance of this mainstream list compensates for Marvel’s (lesser) control of the direct / hobby market.

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21 April 2009

RASL, v. 1: The Drift

Collects: RASL #1-3 (2008)

Released: January 2009 (Cartoon Books)

Format: 112 pages / black and white / $13 / ISBN: 9781888963205

What is this?: An oversized collection of Jeff Smith’s follow up to Bone, in which an extradimensional art thief is tracked by an assassin.

The culprits: Writer / artist Jeff Smith

I was at a loss for what to review today; fortunately, on Saturday at my local game shop, I ran across RASL, v. 1: The Drift, which is Jeff Smith’s follow up to the epic Bone.

RASL stands out, and not just because it’s taller and wider than the average collection or comic book. Its plot is somewhat similar to Casanova, but Smith’s writing is nothing like Matt Fraction’s. Both series deal with ne’er do wells who jump across parallel realities, but while Fraction’s Casanova is an unlikeable jerk in a world of moral grays, RASL’s hero — called RASL or Robert — is more human, more grounded, and more sympathetic. RASL is a thief who jumps from dimension to dimension to steal works of art, then tags the site of the theft with “RASL” and returns to his world with the help of a device of his own creation. This leaves him in pain; to recover, he boozes, smokes, and womanizes. Then, after one theft, he returns not to his own world but to a world where Bob Dylan kept his real name, and there’s a lizard-man assassin after him …

RASL coverRASL’s plot is slower than Casanova’s. While Fraction bounces from idea to idea with the mad, aggravating energy of a five-year-old mainlining pixie sticks, Smith chooses a more leisurely look at RASL — who he was, who he is, his pains, his solaces. There are more than enough strange and weird ideas to keep readers interested, though. Smith sows superscience, alien creatures, large-scale conspiracy, and noir thriller at the reader, and he doesn’t come close to exhausting the ideas. RASL does feel a little thin because its dimensions are so much greater than its thickness and because of its leisurely pace.

And that pace fits his art. While Gabriel Ba was forced to keep up with Fraction’s frenetic ideas in Casanova’s first collection, Smith’s detailed, distinctive art is meant to be appreciated at a slower pace. It’s the same brushwork that made Bone so distinctive, and the larger format gives readers a better chance to enjoy the details. However, this isn’t an all-ages comic; some readers might be surprised to find those brushes drawing prostitutes and scantily clad strippers. The black-and-white printing also helps here; I can’t imagine how color would improve upon the detailed monochrome Smith uses.

When I read RASL, I didn’t actively compare it to Casanova, and I didn’t want to use this space to slam that series. RASL is fun and exciting and full of depth; to get that across, it isn’t necessary to compare it to a similar non-Marvel / DC series. RASL stands by itself as a series to wait for — and readers could wait a while. While issue #4 is due out April 29, #5 isn’t due until the summer. And the rest of the series? (If there is a rest?) Who knows?

Rating: Cartoon Books symbol Cartoon Books symbol Cartoon Books symbol Cartoon Books symbol (4 of 5)

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18 April 2009

Now I Am Sad

Chris Giarrusso will be doing no more Mini-Marvels, as he states in this interview with Comic Book Resources.

Marvel wants to make sure no one confuses Mini-Marvels with Super Hero Squad. Given that Mini-Marvels are funny, I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened. And I suppose selling out of a digest collection is something to avoid again. In any event, it makes me more eager for Giarrusso’s G-Man collection. You can see some his G-Man stuff at the interview; it looks as funny as his Mini-Marvels work.

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17 April 2009

X-Factor, v. 5: The Only Game in Town

Collects: X-Factor #28-32 and X-Factor: The Quick and the Dead (2008)

Released: February 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785128632

What is this?: X-Factor deals with losing Layla and Rahne as Mutant Town becomes the Middle East Side.

The culprits: Writer Peter David and pencilers Pablo Raimondi and Valentine de Landro

See, this is more like it.

I said in the previous review I generally like writer Peter David’s work, and then I proceeded to point to more negative than positive reviews. But X-Factor, v. 5: The Only Game in Town shows the form I enjoyed from David.

Despite David’s conflicts with editorial in his first X-Factor run, he plays well with continuity. When Marvel gives him a lemon of a storyline like M-Day — the number of mutants is reduced to 198, and no more are being born — David takes the idea and does something with it while other writers decide, you know, that’s not a very interesting idea.

X-Factor, v. 5: The Only Game in Town coverBut there is an interesting idea there, and David, who set X-Factor in the heart of the mutant population explosion, is ideally positioned to explore it. As the team tries to figure out how to get Layla back and Rahne is sent to X-Force by editorial (she leaves without explaining, both because X-Force is supposed to be secret and her joining is probably not a logical idea), the characters are forced to accept that the Grant Morrison-era “mutants are everywhere” stories are over, and Mutant Town dissolves into the Middle East Side. As everything falls apart, the team pulls together and battles … um, Arcade, which shows David still has a subtle touch with the absurd.

There’s humor aplenty, even as things get serious; I particularly enjoyed M’s remark about Three’s Company as a way to defuse an obvious misunderstanding between Siryn and Madrox. It never gets too silly, even with Arcade as a villain; the danger feels real throughout — and even at the end. The characters are sharp, well defined, and never confused with each other. There’s little decompression, and there’s enough action to keep the story from being a five-minute dash through talking heads. The subplots move forward and are dealt with as necessary; no one is forgotten, not even the dead.

Really, it’s pretty much what you want from a superhero comic. No, you’re not going to forget Alan Moore, but it’s good enough to inspire touchiness when someone says the phrase “just a superhero story.”

Two minor quibbles: First, I don’t like the cover for this one at all; M is almost unrecognizable, and Strong Guy looks like Zombie Guy. And two, the Quick and the Dead issue feels … not inconsequential, not padded — well, maybe padded or maybe oddly paced. After I read it, it seemed like a ten-page backup story, but re-reading it and counting the pages, it’s clearly a full-length story. An important one, as well, as Quicksilver’s story comes full circle.

Pablo Raimondi and Valentine de Landro each provide about half the art: Raimondi pencils and inks #28, 31, and Quick and the Dead, while de Landro pencils the rest. I slightly prefer Raimondi, but both are good despite the occasional shortcomings. Raimondi has a bit of stiffness to his figures that hampers the action scenes, but that’s not a major problem, and de Landro has a few twisted limbs and overexaggerated features in his art as well. I have to give editors Aubrey Sitterson and Will Panzo credit for teaming two artists whose work, while not exact duplicates, are similar enough not to clash in the collection.

Game holds the excitement of continuity handled well. (Perhaps that’s the problem with his run on She-Hulk; it’s largely separated from most of the Marvel Universe.) At the end, David seems to have freed himself of the baggage Marvel editorial has saddled him with, and the decks are mainly clear. But even if they aren’t, I’m sure David will be able to make fun new X-Factor stories. And I look forward to them.

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

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14 April 2009

She-Hulk, v. 7: Here Today ...

Collects: She-Hulk #28-30, She-Hulk: Cosmic Collision (2008-9)

Released: March 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785129660

What is this?: She-Hulk finally tracks down her tormentor from Peter David’s first arc and reveals why she was disbarred.

The culprits: Written by Peter David and Pencils by Val Semeiks and Mahmud Asrar

I like writer Peter David usually. His X-Factor was great in the ‘90s, as was his Incredible Hulk. Madrox and its current follow-up, X-Factor, v. 3, are excellent. Really, David is one of my favorite comics writers, great with characters and humor, and I consistently look forward to his work.

But there are times … there are times he seems to misfire. Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, v. 1: Derailed was one of those times. I wasn’t wild about David’s first She-Hulk volume, She-Hulk, v. 6: Jaded, either. Unfortunately, She-Hulk, v. 7: Here Today... seems to be another misstep.

She-Hulk, v. 7: Here Today … coverIn Here Today, David finally lets slip why She-Hulk was disbarred before Jaded: she was goaded into attacking a client and revealing his guilt. On the surface, it makes sense; however, any criminal defense lawyer knows they will occasionally defend a guilty client and might even get them acquitted. None of her explanations — her “savage” nature getting loose or wanting to punish herself — are entirely convincing. Mind control might be convincing, but it’s not offered as a solution.

There seems a bit of laziness in the plotting, and because of that, the story in #28-30 mostly fails to engage. There’s a shadowy conspiracy behind She-Hulk’s torments; sure, there is. Why? I don’t know, and not only do I not care, I can’t summon the energy to tell you how little I care. She-Hulk goes back to the casual sex, this time with a passing Hercules, who happens to know how to take out the villain of the story most easily. (Who really doesn’t do much, despite being used as a plot device for a half-dozen issues.) And there are still jokes about Juggernaut, which should have been retired at the end of Dan Slott’s run.

(And a personal objection: I’m not sure there’s anyone who knows the Cleveland Browns were 4-12 in 2007 and doesn’t know about the Dog Pound and the loyalty of Browns fans, unless Jen is some secret fantasy football freak. I had no idea what Cleveland’s record was in any year, frankly, but Cleveland football fandom is easily remembered. It’s like knowing Oliver Twist was first published as a serial from 1837 to 1839 but never having heard of Fagin.)

Overall, I like the art from Val Semeiks, who pencils #28-30. There are the usual distortions of She-Hulk — one extremely peculiar one in which the reclining She-Hulk’s butt and shoulders seem to keep her waist about a foot from her cot — but his straightforward style fits the story and character. There’s some strange shift in style during #30 — a change in inkers, perhaps — that is less enjoyable, one that makes the Skrull Jazinda look like a half-plant creature when she transforms.

The last part issue of the collection, Cosmic Collision, comes out of nowhere. At the end of #30, Jazinda has a sudden flash about “the Talisman,” whatever that is, and then she and Jennifer are off. Then Collision skips to the pair tracking a minor superhuman in Milwaukee before they are whisked off by the Collector to battle the avatar of a cosmic force. I get the feeling this issue was shoehorned into the collection to make the collection book length; Collision was released several months after the other issues in Here Today and doesn’t seem to dovetail well in terms of continuity.

As for the content of Collision, I appreciate David’s attempt at humor, giving a light touch to Marvel’s space characters who could easily be taken too seriously, but the plot doesn’t engage me: gather together a bunch of heroes solely on the basis of being female, despite their differing shticks and temperaments. (It’s the only way you can stick Storm and Thundra on the same team, really.) Cosmic avatars bore me, especially when they rampage blindly and are nearly all powerful. The art, supplied by Mahmud Asrar, is compellingly simple while avoiding cartooniness and still telling the story; his faces are a little dodgy occasionally. However, I wonder whether he was in on the joke of giving the unfeminine female killing force, Unum, a stereotypical “sexy” costume, given some of his angles on She-Hulk, and the art on the “friendly fire” incident makes Quasar look like an idiot or malicious.

The disinterest inspired by Here Today essentially quashes any curiosity I had about the rest of David’s She-Hulk run, which goes for two more volumes. I can hold out hope that it improves, but since the title’s been cancelled, the apathy is overwhelming. Even if he does turn it around and develop something interesting, why should I care? She-Hulk, as I know it, is over.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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10 April 2009

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, v. 1: My Father Bleeds History

Collects: Maus stories from Raw #1-8 (1980-6)

Released: August 1986 (Pantheon)

Format: 160 pages / black and white / $14.95 / ISBN: 9780394747231

What is this?: Art Spiegelman uses not-so-funny funny animals to tell the story of his father, a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Along with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Maus is one of the three pillars of the “greatest comic-book story” argument, the one comic book fans trot out to meet the argument that all comic books are are superhero stories. It is a story of the Holocaust and one family’s struggle to stay alive. In 1992, Maus won a special Pulitzer; it and author Art Spiegelman have drawn very high praise from Alan Moore. There is no doubting Maus is a formidable work.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, v. 1: My Father Bleeds History coverSo then: Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History is the first of two volumes of Maus. Spiegelman weaves two threads together: his father’s retelling of his family’s life in Poland in the late ‘30s / early ‘40s and Speigelman’s relationship to his father. The Spiegelmans’ story is a thoroughly crushing one; anyone who knows any history knows that no matter how bad Vladek and Anja Spiegelman have it, it will get worse. (Even if you don’t know history, the title of v. 2, And Here My Troubles Began, will give you a hint.) No hope is offered; the story is told in the voice of Vladek, Spiegelman’s father, a pessimistic old Jew who knows the depths his story will sink to even better than we do. Vladek doesn’t seem to understand or value the heroism he exhibits to keep himself and his wife alive. The reader must watch Vladek sell more and more possessions, take more and more chances, watch friends and family get captured and sent away, until the inevitable happens.

To break up this long march into atrocity, Spiegelman includes interludes with his adult self and his father. Their conflict begins as seemingly the standard generational struggle, amplified by the hardships Vladek endured, while Spiegelman has grown up in a relatively stable and secure environment. But as the story goes on, there is more; the reader begins to suspect there is something beyond Vladek’s stereotypical kvetching, parsimonious Jewish exterior, and Spiegelman reveals some of his true difficulties with his father. It is completely different type of story than Vladek’s Holocaust memoir, but since the Holocaust helped form Vladek’s relationship with his son, the two stories dovetail well.

All the characters, past and present, are depicted as anthropomorphic animals, with each race being a different species — Jews are mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs (although cartoony pigs, not dirty farmyard swine). Spiegelman made this decision because the Germans referred to the Jews as “vermin” and the Poles as “swine”; the art shows the absurdity of the claim. When Vladek or another Jew attempts to pass himself off as a Pole, Spiegelman ties a simple pig mask around their face. The artifice is simple yet effective. The story is so human that the reader quickly forgets it is being told through animals; the symbol of the animals is understood while the inner humanity is remembered.

As I read v. 1, I always felt as if I were missing something. My mind kept going between two extremes: Maus is an absorbing tale told well, but haven’t I seen this somewhere before? It made me doubt my own maturity, and in the end, I felt Spiegelman’s style had thrown me. Whereas complexity and richness have made Watchmen one of the greatest comic-book stories, Maus excels with a story that is spare and bleak. There is no color — an artistic as well as a financial concern, certainly. Seeing simplicity, I searched for complexity in the wrong places: the story, the characters of Vladek and Anja. That’s not where the richness and reward are; they’re in the style, the artifice, and the fact that the story was told at all.

Rating: (5 of 5)

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09 April 2009

2009 Eisner Award Nominees

Via the Comics Reporter, here are the nominees for the Eisner Award. The awards, which are named after the late comics legend Will Eisner, will be given at the San Diego Comic Con, which takes place in late July. This will be the 21st year for the award; the Eisners were first awarded in 1988 as one of two replacements for the Jack Kirby Awards, but there were no awards given in 1990. (The other successor to the Kirbys were the Harveys, named for Harvey Kurtzman.)

Previous winners can be found at the the Eisner Wikipedia site.

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08 April 2009

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City

Collects: Original content

Released: November 2007 (Pocket Books)

Format: 256 pages / black and white / $13 / ISBN: 9781416531418

What is this?: A travel guide to Marvel’s fictional New York and the places in real New York that fictional Marvel characters have traveled

The culprits: Writer Peter Sanderson

And now for something slightly different.

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City is not a comic book or trade paperback. It is, as the title implies, a guide to the New York City inhabited by Marvel’s villains and supervillains, written by Peter Sanderson.

Comics fans who have read Marvel’s and DC’s own reference materials will recognize the name. Sanderson, a long-time historian of Marvel and DC stories, uses his knowledge to take readers on a whirlwind tour of the Big Apple, although it mostly features Manhattan. Each real site, be it a building, street, or neighborhood, is described with information an out-of towner might not know; the descriptions are followed a few events highlighting the locale’s Marvel history. Fictional sites are placed within the context of the city before their history is explored.

Marvel Comics Guide to New York City coverSanderson has the unenviable task of mapping fictional structures to real-life buildings — such as Yancy Street with Delancy Street or Avengers Mansion with the Frick Museum — and trying to shoehorn the fictional places into New York real estate. Despite the carelessness of some of Marvel’s creators, Sanderson does this admirably, and as anyone who’s read his work might imagine, he’s meticulous about his references. But he also manages to avoid being pedantic. He lays out the conundrums before the reader with a shrug, as if to say, “What can you do?” As Marvel readers might guess, New York beyond Manhattan is given short shrift — Spider-Man was born in Queens; what else has happened outside Manhattan? — but the other four boroughs plus Long Island, Westchester, and upstate New York are mentioned.

Sanderson generally sticks to the comics, but there are several references to the Spider-Man movies. Sanderson mentions shooting locations as well as the places those locales were meant to stand in for. Sanderson walks a fine line here — the comics have a long history, and shoving them aside for the Johnny-come-lately movies could alienate comic fans, but given the movies’ larger overall audience, cutting the references to them would be dangerous. In the end, Sanderson manages to balance the two continuities well enough to satisfy both camps.

The book could have benefited from more pictures — or, failing that, color pictures. It isn’t bereft of illustrations, so that isn’t a total loss. But fictional locales are frequently unillustrated, even though they have to have been drawn in some Marvel comic; usually, an unhelpful cover image is substituted. More importantly, though, a map would have been extremely helpful, and the cartographic absence is a major mark against the book.

Despite my interest in Marvel history, this book failed to grab me. New York doesn’t interest me, and differentiating the places within the Big Apple enough for me to care is a challenge this book isn’t up to. A map is absolutely essential for keeping everything in context for people unfamiliar with New York, and the book misses that. Still, finding out about the fictional places and the real places that inspired Stan Lee and other Marvel creators does make for some interesting moments.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (2.5 of 5)

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03 April 2009

Spider-Girl, v. 10: Season of the Serpent

Collects: Spider-Girl #52-9 (2002-3)

Released: January 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 184 pages / color digest / $9.99 / ISBN: 9780785132134

What is this?: May makes a romantic choice, goes to an alternate universe, and fights a villain far more powerful than she is.

The culprits: Writers Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz and pencilers Pat Olliffe and Ron Frenz

Some series you keep buying because of momentum. It hooked you in the beginning — characters, plot, writing, art, something — and you still want to find out how it ends. But you’re not excited any more. If you took a deep look at your buying habits, you’d probably be better off not spending the money on that series any more. Not that you’d want to admit that.

I have to admit, the Spider-Girl digest series was getting that way with me. It hadn’t found its way into that category yet, but if I was being honest with myself, it was only a matter of time. And then along came Spider-Girl, v. 10: Season of the Serpent, and I don’t have to worry about momentum being the only thing making me buy this series.

Spider-Girl, v. 10: Season of the Serpent coverFinally, May makes a decision about her love life, instead of endlessly vacillating. Mary Jane’s pregnancy finally — finally — ends. May comes closer to making her peace with Kaine, Alison Mongrain, and Felicity Hardy. We finally see Blackie Drago again. In short, the background plots seem like they are moving for once, and that injects some interest into the story. It felt as if writer Tom DeFalco was going to let some of them simmer forever.

The main plot is above average, but it doesn’t generate as much interest as the side plots. The Sons of the Serpent, a hate group, are back, and this time they are backed by Seth, an Egyptian serpent god. Of course this means May is vastly overmatched, which makes the story a bit more entertaining, and it allows her to experience her own trapped-underwater / mother-figure-needs-medicine / won’t-give-up moment that Spider-Man gave us in Amazing Spider-Man #33. The Serpents and their hate-group activities get short shrift; they’re there simply as a bunch of goons you can safely hope get beaten up. Whatever time it might take to make them interesting is given over to an alternate universe story that takes up most of two issues. While those issues do provide some characterization, it seems mostly a vehicle to bring Captain America to the M2 universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just seems to sap the narrative flow a bit.

The art is good, if not spectacular, once again. Pat Olliffe provides most of the pencils, with Ron Frenz, who co-wrote the issues he penciled, chipping in at the beginning and end of the volume. The two artists’ styles blend remarkably well, something that doesn’t seem to happen all that often. I have to give Frenz extra points for drawing May in a slightly different style of clothing while she was considering giving up the superheroing life.

The contents of Serpent takes some of the sting out of the new $9.99 digest price; for the first time I can remember, one of Marvel’s digests has more than six issues. In this case, it’s eight, and that seems like a fair deal for $10. The rumors have the next volume allegedly containing seven issues, which is not as good but doesn’t feel like Marvel’s trying to cheat me — unless the $12.99 price is also correct, and then I’m getting ripped off.

Still, even if I’m not looking forward to that price, Serpent has me looking forward to the next digest.

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

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