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

24 December 2009

Belated and Early Excuse

I missed putting up a review last week, and I’ll probably miss this week as well. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:

The only thing worse than Filthy Flagellum or the Evil Robot James Buchanan is when Filthy and his gang team up with ERJB. It’s a catastrophe, badly managed, and there’s always the potential of an apocalypse in Kansas. (But usually an entertaining apocalypse in Kansas — not like Jericho.)

Anyway, this time, Filthy and ERJB have teamed up to create a chronovirus, and lucky me — I got to be the guinea pig. They infected me last week, and there’s no telling how (or when) it will end. The good news is it appears to be a 24-hour virus. Unfortunately, the bad news is that those 24 hours could be any time in history. This is the 23rd hour, and it’s take me this long to land in an era with the Internet. So, if you are a researcher in experimental immunology or radical virology, please contact me before the virus sends me to 12th century Cairo or AD 1 in North America or Moscow in 1966 (again — so cold …). Time’s short, so it’s imperative —

Out of time. Ah, sh—

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12 December 2009

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, v. 1

Collects: DC Comics Presents #52, 59, and 81, Supergirl #16, Action Comics #560, 563, and 565, Ambush Bug #1-4, Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer #1, Son of Ambush Bug #1-6, Secret Origins #48, Ambush Bug Nothing Special #1 (1982-6, 1990, 1992)

Released: February 2009 (DC)

Format: 480 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781401221805

What is this?: The adventures of Ambush Bug, a continuity and fourth-panel busting vehicle for humor in the DC universe.

The culprits: Keith Giffen, scripter Robert Loren Fleming, and others

You have to be prepared for Ambush Bug before reading Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, v. 1, I think. God knows DC tries, on the cover copy, to let you know this isn’t going to be a normal superhero story.

But readers can be forgiven if they don’t see exactly what it will become in the first half-dozen or so stories. These are Ambush Bug’s formative days, guest starring in Superman family stories; he starts as a slightly outlandish villain, then suddenly becomes an annoying hero. A decent enough start — one that would, with a considerably different scale and higher body count, be echoed by Deadpool — but nothing that would inspire a long-lasting following.

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, v. 1 coverAnd then comes the limited series and specials.

Plotted (and penciled) by Keith Giffen and scripted by Robert Loren Fleming, Ambush Bug eschews plot and embraces wackiness. At its best, this results in solid parodying of the superhero genre and the medium of comic books. The standout issue is Ambush Bug #3, “The Continuity Game,” which relentlessly mocks DC’s lip service to continuity and its more bizarre stories. There is a good deal to laugh about in this part of the book, although the humor dissipates as the book goes on. It’s almost as if Giffen and Fleming are running out of funny ideas — and in the final issue, Ambush Bug Nothing Special #1, the creators joke about getting drunk while trying to pitch ideas to one another. (Nothing Special is a good deal funnier than the second limited series; the time off seemed to help.)

But in that second limited series, Son of Ambush Bug, the ideas get thinner. “The Interferer” is introduced to justify the complete abandonment of plot, but that’s not necessary, and pointing out the lack of plot only serves to make it an annoyance. The jokes start falling flat; the sentient, malevolent sock Argh!yle, the Interferer, and Ambush Bug’s confinements in prison and Hell fall flat as jokes and have no plot to fall back on for usefulness. It would have been better if Son had been the four-issue mini and the original Ambush Bug six, but the issue counts were reversed.

Giffen’s art is superb at getting the jokes across, which should be no surprise to those who have followed his career. His ability to copy other styles when necessary is also excellent; I wished he would have done more stylistic jokes. For some reason, Ambush Bug’s noseless face is occasionally difficult to read in black and white; perhaps it’s the double dose of missing features (nose and color). The few childlike drawings, ostensibly by Giffen’s son Kyle, are charming.

Humor is a dangerous business; even if you make an audience laugh for twenty minutes, you can be perceived as unfunny after one joke bombs spectacularly. There are no bombs, spectacular or otherwise, in Ambush Bug, and the worst that can be said is that it drags occasionally. At its best, it reaches hilarity for a few pages at a time. But without a real plot for a reader to hang his interest on, those dragging moments seem to stretch on and on …

Rating: Ambush Bug head Ambush Bug head Ambush Bug head (3 of 5)


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05 December 2009

Sentry: The Age of the Sentry

Collects: Age of Sentry #1-6 (2008-9)

Released: June 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785135203

What is this?: The faux Silver Age adventures of the Sentry, Marvel’s most powerful psychotic retcon.

The culprits: Writers Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin and artist Nick Dragotta (and others)

The Sentry is problematic in the Marvel Universe. He was created by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee as a vehicle for a single, excellent story that played off the established Marvel world but left little role for the character. But then followed another limited series, and then the Sentry became part of the New Avengers …

Not what the Sentry was intended for, and fans have debated how well the character can fill the role. The Sentry was intended to be a supremely powerful character — an analogue of Superman — but one who was mentally ill, creating his own destructive nemesis, the Void. That’s not as bad for an ongoing character as Siena Blaze, a supervillain who was so powerful she risked destroying the world each time she used her powers (Spoiler: the world was not destroyed), but it’s close.

Sentry: Age of the Sentry coverSentry: The Age of the Sentry avoids all those problems neatly. Seeing a Superman analogue in the Marvel Universe, writers Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin gleefully write sendups of DC’s Silver Age stories, those over-the-top and often bizarre tales that defied logic and consequence. The villains in these stories include the wonderfully absurd Cranio, the Man with the Tri-Level Mind (he actually has three brains in a transparent dome); Ursus, the Ultra-Bear (a giant bear); and the Mountain Man, a superpowerful hillbilly (and yes, they don’t shy away from calling them hillbillies). The Guardians of the Galaxy are remade as Legion of Superheroes analogues, and Ms. Marvel is recast as the Sentress, complete with Lolly, a sidekick who more than causally resembles Wonder Woman’s friend Etta Candy. There’s even an Earth-1 / Earth-2 team-up.

Parker and Tobin don’t neglect Marvel’s Silver Age; the Sentry fights the Mad Thinker and the Tinkerer, although the story’s trappings are more DC than Marvel. Millie the Model co-stars in one adventure, and Tyrannus and the Moloids are the villains for another. A story involving early Marvel characters celebrating the Sentry’s birthday could have been right out of any anthology title of the early ‘60s. The framing sequences for the stories involve Sue and Reed Richards telling Franklin bedtime stories about the Sentry, and each story has a cover to a fake Marvel comic and its own letter column.

It’s not just that the stories ape the goofiness of the Silver Age; the stories are genuinely — and knowingly — funny. At one point, the Sentry tells a villain, “My life is wacky — but a very specific kind of wacky.” Trying to excuse Reed’s inability to keep telling Sentry stories, Sue says Reed has been working to reverse global warming, only to change it to working on a cure for the Thing when she realizes the Thing is listening in. The Earth-1 Sentry beats up beatniks and uses a Colt .45 to fight crime, which disturbs his Earth-2 counterpart. There are also weird bits with Harrison Oogar, the caveman of Wall Street, and Truman Capote as a villain. This is perhaps the most hilarious book I’ve reviewed this year (in a close race with Tales Designed to Thrizzle).

There is a serious side to the stories as well. The stories gradually mature, just as comic book stories did. Parker and Tobin don’t shy away from the Sentry’s insanity, working it into the stories without disturbing the flow. The effect is jarring — a joke one panel, the Sentry snapping into a delusion the next — but somehow it works.

The art is top notch as well. Nick Dragotta draws a story in each issue (usually the lead story), with other artists, such as Ramon Rosanas and Colleen Coover drawing the second story. Dragotta is especially impressive, shifting styles from slightly cartoony to more serious. Each artist seems to take the goofiness and run with it, drawing weirder and weirder stuff (Dragotta sets the bar high in the first issue with the Men-Bot, a robot with two heads: one is Jerry Lewis and the other Dean Martin). When the story calls for a shift to a more serious tone, the artists are up to the challenge as well. The styles even sync up pretty well, which is an incredible achievement; although Coover stands out as different, she’s drawing a Millie the Model story, which is a completely different genre, so that makes sense.

For some reason, this book is not available online at Borders, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Overstock, or Amazon. I have no idea why this is, but it annoys the heck out of me.

When this came out, I was skeptical about it, but I’m glad the reviews (and covers) won me over. Sentry may not be “the new apex of the art form,” as the blurb from Chris’s Invincible Super-Blog calls it, but it is outstanding fun.

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

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