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

30 July 2010

Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #127-34, Conan Annual #6 (1981-2)

Released: April 2009 (Dark Horse)

Format: 240 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781595821775

What is this?: Conan wanders through a world filled with magic, evil men, and scantily clad women.

The culprits: Writers J.M. DeMatteis, Bruce Jones, and Roy Thomas and penciler Gil Kane

The Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories is significant in a negative way: it’s the first volume of the Chronicles of Conan series without an issue of Conan the Barbarian written by Roy Thomas or dawn by either Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema.

Instead, we get J.M. DeMatteis wrapping up his run, which started in v. 15 , Bruce Jones starting his run, which lasts until v. 19, and art by Gil Kane.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories coverThis lineup does not exactly inspire confidence. DeMatteis’s introduction, in which he says, “I finally realized … the kinds of stories I wanted to tell were best suited to other venues,” doesn’t help matters either, nor does his admission that he was unable to deliver stories that pleased Buscema — they didn’t meet Buscema’s ideal of what Conan stories should have in them. Now, Buscema is just one man, and he didn't own the character, but I think he does have a pretty good handle on what makes Conan tick.

Although he doesn’t contribute to this issue, Buscema’s indictment of DeMatteis’s Conan writing seem to be borne out here. The first issue, #127, feels like a half-baked reversal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (adapted in Conan the Barbarian #16); a magic spell animates snow and ice into a magical totem for a village, but the spell has human form, forgets it’s a spell, and escapes to find love with Conan. And it has the dumb name of Xean. I admit, the reversal is nice — the cold woman of snow flees from her protectors and toward Conan — but the idea of the sentient, amnesiac spell is never developed, buried beneath action sequences: Conan fighting a polar bear! Conan fighting Vanirmen (as he did in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)! Conan fighting Vanirmen again! And then it ends, with a priest telling Conan why the story ends, not that either he or we could have figured it out.

DeMatteis does try a more traditional Conan story in #128-130, a quest story in which Conan must pay an old friend’s ransom with treasures stolen from around the world. It’s a bit lackluster, however; the old friend’s wife teleports Conan into and out of danger, removing a good deal of tension, and the resolution of the story is a superhero cliché transported into Hyboria for the amusement of the locals. The end revelation that the friend, his wife, and their kid are essentially gods doesn’t help either, although it does give Conan a chance to repudiate his friend’s power creep: “I find … I have unleashed yet another god upon a world that has seen too many gods already. … I will long remember what you were — and try to forget what it is you’ve become!” It seems a rare true and original character note for Conan in DeMatteis’s work in this volume that he would distrust a friend, even a childhood one, once he learns the friend is more than human — because he is above the simple pleasures of mankind.

Jones’s work, on the other hand, is in keeping with the spirit of Conan; Buscema would later work with Jones on Conan. Issue #131 is a smart adventure story with a cursed ring, and even though the ending is contrived, it does signal a return back to direct stories with a sharper edge. The next issue’s setup isn’t exactly in keeping with Conan’s usual endeavors — he competes in deadly Olympic-style events to win a valuable sword — but even though Conan doesn’t really think much during the story, it does give him a chance to show his sense of fair play and his appetite for drink. The final two Jones issues are CSI: Hyboria, in which Conan solves the mystery of who cursed the princess, the gypsy’s true identity, and how to save an innocent woman from a death trap. In the latter, Conan’s helped by a bit of deus ex serpentia, but it is Hyboria: gods do occasionally pop out of the woodwork to help. Although you shouldn’t be able to have lunch with them.

When I said Roy Thomas doesn’t write any issues of Conan the Barbarian for this volume, that’s only technically true: Thomas does contribute Conan Annual #6. It’s Thomas nearing the end of his Conan stories, with a padded story that shows it was probably for the best he stopped writing Conan for most of the ‘80s. The story has a normal-length, single-issue kernel at its center: a man thinks he’s a conqueror reincarnated, and megalomania ensues. Thomas adds in giant spiders (who disappear early), a mistress and a wife (not as exciting as they sound), and Technicolor demons, but they all fall flat. With an artist like Buscema or Windsor-Smith going nuts on the art, perhaps it could have been something; instead, the art is drawn and inked by Gil Kane.

Kane was a very good artist who did a lot of superhero work for Marvel and DC; he even did a few fill-ins on Conan the Barbarian for Buscema and Windsor-Smith. Unfortunately, Kane is not Buscema or Windsor-Smith. That’s not a crime on most titles, especially on superhero titles that change artists regularly. But this is Conan; the title had, for more than a decade, been drawn with attention to detail and dynamic characters. Kane falls short on both of these counts. He inks himself on the DeMatteis issues and the annuals and comes across as an unfinished imitation of Windsor-Smith; when inked by others, there’s a marked improvement, although there’s still something lacking. Issue #134 was his last Conan for a while, and I think that was for the best. Like DeMatteis, his best work — which is pretty good — is elsewhere.

I have to give Dark Horse a great deal of credit: they’ve made a reprint series run for twenty volumes (Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories, which amusingly features Conan riding a giant dragonfly on the cover, is due out October 13). They don’t skip bad issues; they reprint all the issues they have the rights to without prejudice. The completists in me loves that, but in a practical sense, that means there are the occasional volumes like The Creation Quest. Buscema is back for v. 18 (Isle of the Dead and Other Stories), so anyone reading this volume can write it off as lackluster and buy the next one with optimism.

But for anyone but completists or Bruce Jones fans: skip this volume.

Rating: Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (1.5 of 5)

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14 July 2010

The Pulse, v. 2: Secret War

Collects: Pulse #6-9 (2005)

Released: Marvel (July 2005)

Format: 96 pages / color / $11.99 / ISBN: 9780785114789

What is this?: Luke Cage is injured and missing, and his girlfriend, Jessica Jones, looks for him.

The culprits: Writer Brian Michael Bendis and pencilers Brent Anderson and Michael Lark

I enjoyed writer Brian Michael Bendis’s work for a long time, although looking back on my reviews of his work, it sure as hell hasn’t seemed like it.

Still, the last Bendis book I reviewed, Daredevil, v. 13: The Murdock Papers, was a definite step up from some of his other work. Plus, I had read the first volume of The Pulse and enjoyed it enough to keep an eye out for it. So when I saw the book cheap at Edward R. Hamilton, I decided to pick up The Pulse, v. 2: Secret War.

Pulse, v. 2: Secret War coverThis is what is known, in technical terms, as a big f@&$& mistake. Secret War is a four-issue deluxe decompression crapfest.

The Pulse was Bendis’s successor title to Alias. In Alias, former superhero Jessica Jones worked as a private investigator. It was a great concept with an engaging character and strong plots. In The Pulse, Jessica works the superhero beat for The Daily Bugle — a sensible plot idea, but what is the actual plot?

Jessica and Luke are blown up, then taken to the hospital. Luke is kidnapped? Maybe. Jessica looks for him, gets kidnapped by Hydra … why? Who knows. The Bugle’s crack staff is nearly useless. Nick Fury is to blame, because he’s done bad things. What kind of bad things? Bendis won’t tell us. Wolverine cries like an automated mutated crying machine to a woman he doesn’t know. Evidently it’s all gotten to be too much for him, what with starring in five or six books rather than the three he headlined in the ‘90s. Iron Fist is a bit of an ass to Jessica because … because he doesn’t keep in contact with Luke Cage? That’s what he says, but that sounds half witted, and Misty Knight later tells him so.

I’m sure this would make more sense if I had read Bendis’s five-issue Secret War miniseries, which started before the issues in this volume were published but ended after this TPB came out. The story involves a covert, unapproved invasion of superheroes into Latveria, led by Nick Fury; Fury wipes the memories of the heroes involved. This volume describes part of the Latverian counterattack. Not having read Secret War, I can’t say why an invasion of Latveria is a big deal; the Fantastic Four used to do it every week in the Silver Age (twice a week in months in which oysters were unsafe to eat). The Avengers invaded Latveria. Cloak and Dagger, for God’s sake, invaded Latveria. And there have always been counterattacks by villains for what the heroes do, but until Bendis started plotting Marvel’s books, it was an accepted fact. I can’t get worked up by it, even though Bendis asks me to do so without telling me why I should get worked up.

I can get worked up by his dialogue, which seems, for most of the book to be expressly designed not to actually reveal information. It’s all false starts and stammers and ostensibly witty comments that fall as flat as the page they’re printed on. Information comes out in dribs and drabs, with actual communication between human beings seeming like an accident rather than the way the story is designed. For instance, it takes three pages to deliver the information that Nick Fury and SHIELD can quash any story in any newspaper, like the Bugle. Keeping in mind that Jameson continually knuckling under to that sort of pressure is asinine, that’s still a lot of time required to get across a simple piece of information. (Also: in the exchange, Robbie Robertson sounds less like a veteran newsman of a previous generation and more like Brian Michael Bendis.) This is not uncommon from Bendis, of course; in fact, it’s the hallmark of his worst work.

Art is supplied by Brent Anderson (#6-7) and Michael Lark (#8-9). I like Lark’s work, although I don’t think it’s his best; it’s gritty, its rough look is appropriate for a book in which people are supposed to be hitting the streets and investigating crimes, and it’s reminiscent of the work of Michael Gaydos, who was the artist on Alias. His combat scenes — especially the SHIELD agents rappelling into the Hydra base — are a bit stiff, though. Anderson … I don’t have anything to say about Anderson, really, except that in a few panels he reminded me of Sal Buscema, and that made me smile.

The art is the best thing about this book, but to be fair, any art better than Bart Sears on Captain America and the Falcon was going to be better than the writing. The plot is weak and wandering, the dialogue is straight from Unbearable Bendis Book #3, and people are mysterious about things for no apparent reason. I paid $5 for this, and I think I paid about $6 too much.

Rating: Half Marvel symbol (0.5 of 5)

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09 July 2010

Essential Moon Knight, v. 1

Collects: Werewolf by Night #32-3, Marvel Spotlight #28-9, Spectacular Spider-Man #22-3, Marvel Two-in-One #52, stories from Hulk! Magazine #11-5, 17-8, and 20, Marvel Preview #21, Moon Knight #1-10 (1975-6, 1978-81)

Released: February 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 560 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 0785120920

What is this?: Moon Knight, a former mercenary, becomes a superhero with the worst secret identities ever.

The culprits: Writer Doug Moench, penciler Bill Sienkiewicz, and others

Two Essentials in two weeks — this time it’s Essential Moon Knight, v. 1.

I mentioned that Essential Daredevil, v. 4, fell between “classic” runs that people have actually read. There is, however, no real classic run of Moon Knight — unless you’re talking about the issues graced by Bill Sienkiewicz’s art.

Essential Moon Knight, v. 1 coverBut before I talk about the Sienkiewicz’s art, which is the highlight of v. 1, let’s go over what Moon Knight is. Moon Knight is yet another New York based vigilante. His two twists are that he wears all white — an odd choice for a man who fights crime in the dark — and that he has three different secret identities: a rich socialite, a cab driver, and a mercenary. The latter is the role he fulfilled before becoming Moon Knight, but none of the identities seem more natural than any of the others. In fact, both Moon Knight and his girlfriend, Marlene, believe the different roles are causing him mental problems. There are no real indications of that in the story, but it does lead to the least concealed secret IDs in Marvel history; it’s hard to believe any villains would have trouble unraveling the whole thing, and indeed, several villains (and a few normal New Yorkers) discover his secret.

Sienkiewicz didn’t co-create the character with writer Doug Moench — that honor belongs to Don Perlin — but he is identified with the character because he penciled 35 of the next 40 Moon Knight stories after he teamed up with Moench on Hulk! Magazine #13. It was his first comics work, and even though his work isn’t immediately polished, when he takes over the drawing of Moon Knight about a third of the way through this volume, the stories suddenly get a little jolt to them. It isn’t the more impressionistic work that I adored in his New Mutants run, but by the time Moon Knight gets his own title, Sienkiewicz’s command of action scenes is outstanding, and his draftsmanship is excellent — impressive superheroic art, in short. There are hints of more inspired work to come; his drawings of Marlene on hallucinogenic drugs in Moon Knight #7-8, for instance, are creepy and affecting without overly distorting her into a monster.

I’m not a big fan of Moench’s writing, but what I dislike isn’t unlike his contemporaries. There are a lot of over-the-top captions and thought bubbles — they’re at early Claremont levels, at times — but although they grate on my nerves, they were de rigueur at the time. Like many novice heroes, Moench does face the problem of establishing credible villains for Moon Knight. His nemesis, Raoul Bushman, is a black man who has no powers but does have a white death’s mask tattooed on his face; the only other recurring villain is a glorified thief. A lot of the villains come from Moon Knight’s past: Bushman, Moon Knight’s brother, CIA cohorts, etc. (In one case, it’s a sidekick’s abandoned son.) There are a couple of serial killers with specific kinds of targets — bums or nurses or what have you. It doesn’t, unfortunately, lead to memorable stories.

The identity angle is Moon Knight’s strongest idea, but it doesn’t quite work in v. 1. While readers are supposed to be watching Moon Knight’s core identity break down, Moench never quite shows what that core identity is. Is he more the mercenary he was before he became Moon Knight? Is the socialite readers (and Marlene) wish he was? Or is he the cabbie he seems most comfortable as? It’s not a question that’s answered, and Moench was probably keeping it open to further his plots. But that means Moon Knight is the dominant aspect of the book, and that’s not a good sign — Moon Knight is a bland hero, not that different from dozens of other Marvel heroes at the time. He fights crime, he has girlfriend and a supporting cast, he has mistakes in his past — or actually, he doesn’t; it’s the mercenary who has the latter.

The mercenary is most interesting aspect of his personality, one that raises questions that weren’t often raised by Marvel in the Silver and Bronze ages: was he as bad as the mercenaries and spies he associated with? Does he still have that killing streak? Was his transformation to hero as simple as a pretty girl, an Egyptian statue, and a sudden desire to stop killing senselessly? By the end of the book, Moench has wisely inserted a supernatural element to the story, making Moon Knight wonder whether the Egyptian god Khonshu is truly looking out for him or using him or whether Khonshu is just a story his mind has latched onto. That’s a hook for the character’s mental illness that is interesting; hopefully Essential Moon Knight, v. 2, follows up on this.

There have been three Essential volumes of Moon Knight — that’s more than there are for the Sub-Mariner (1), Nick Fury (0 — neither a SHIELD nor Howlin’ Commandos volume), Captain Marvel (1), Silver Surfer (2), or Power Man & Iron Fist (2).46 It’s as many Essentials as X-Factor, Ghost Rider, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, or the Punisher have received. This is bizarre, given that it is a forgettable superhero book from the early ‘80s. So why are there three volumes? Either it’s nostalgia for a very strong creative period or Marvel, or the reprint editors at Marvel think Bill Sienkiewicz is as awesome as I do.

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

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02 July 2010

Essential Daredevil, v. 5

Collects: Daredevil #102-25, Marvel Two-in-One #3 (1973-5)

Released: February 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 496 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785144540

What is this?: Daredevil loves and loses the Black Widow and battles Hydra, Thanos’s goons, Mandrill, and a few others

The culprits: Writers Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Tony Isabella, and Marv Wolfman; pencilers Don Heck, Bob Brown, and Gene Colan, with some others

Essential Daredevil, v. 5, comes from a sort of forgotten era in Daredevil’s career. Daredevil has a lot of forgotten eras; everything between Stan Lee’s last Silver Age issue of Daredevil and Frank Miller’s first issue is generally unremembered, as is most of what falls between Ann Nocenti’s “Typhoid Mary” storyline and the Kevin Smith late ‘90s reboot. For the most part, forgetting is the best course of action for those issues.

However, that’s not true of v. 5 — this stuff deserves to be remembered. That may, in part, be because there’s more continuity of creators than usual for an early Bronze Age Essential. The book has a long run from writer Steve Gerber and penciler Bob Brown, and writer Tony Isabella and penciler / inker Don Heck have shorter runs.

Essential Daredevil 5 coverAs you might expect from Gerber’s involvement, this isn’t Daredevil’s usual kind of stories, resembling neither what came before or after. He’s in San Francisco, playing Marvel Team-Up with the Black Widow; both changes were set up by Gerry Conway in the previous Essential Daredevil. But Gerber takes that and runs with it, having Daredevil battle large crises by himself. Daredevil fights the minions of Thanos, and Gerber puts Moondragon (who introduces herself as “Madame MacEvil”) and Angar the Screamer to good use. He uses two of my favorite characters, Mandrill and Nekra — they’re both goofy and menacing, especially Mandrill’s telepathic control of women. Gerber’s not afraid to have Daredevil lose fights, as the Beetle beats him and Kraven the Hunter defeats both him and the Black Widow. He shows an occasional flair for the Black Widow’s dialogue, especially when she snarks with society ladies in #104. And there’s something charming about having the Owl try to steal Daredevil’s brain.

Although some of the pieces of Gerber’s run are fascinating, the overall picture feels warped. There’s no denying that Thanos, Captain Marvel, and Moondragon are poor fits for Daredevil, and Mandrill’s nationwide revolution doesn’t quite work as a Daredevil story. Shanna the She-Devil and her story don’t exactly feel at home either, and meeting Man-Thing in his swamp really feels like something Spider-Man or the Thing would do rather than Daredevil. Perhaps most damningly, Gerber draws a hamfisted line under Black Widow and Daredevil’s relationship — Moondragon as a romantic foil for the Black Widow? Really? — as well as the entire San Francisco experiment.

Isabella’s five-issue run is more tightly focused, and it holds together much better. It involves Daredevil, the Black Widow, and SHIELD vs. Hydra, with the life of Foggy Nelson at stake. I’m a sucker for a good Hydra story, and this one is just that — a good Hydra story, rather than a great one. It has Silvermane and his son trying to guide the Hydra to a new resurgence, backed by several second-string villains — El Jaguar, Man-Killer, Mentallo, Blackwing. It’s a good idea, with the ousted Maggia leader presumably having the organizational capability to mold a splinter of Hydra into something more, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that sort of plot again.45

The art is especially solid for the Bronze Age but not spectacular, except for isolated issues. Heck doesn’t get as much respect as some of his Silver Age contemporaries at Marvel. But he does an excellent job here in his five issues as penciler (he also inked some issues); he’s outstanding in the non-action scenes, with extremely expressive faces. His action scenes can be a little stiff, however. Brown is the real surprise. I’d never heard of him before — or maybe I didn’t remember him. His action scenes are a real step up from Heck, and even if he isn’t quite the equal of Sal Buscema (who drew the Marvel Two-in-One issue included) or Gene Colan (who did a couple of Daredevil issues), he’s still pretty impressive. He can get across emotion through the faces and bodies of the characters as well as Heck, although sometimes his conceptions of the characters — especially Black Widow — seem a little off compared to Heck. Then again, Heck did co-create the Black Widow, so he’s got a slight advantage here.

There are more than a few things that aren’t quite right about Essential Daredevil, v. 5. But that’s what happens when a writer tries hard to do different things with a title — big things, in the case of Gerber. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. It’s different from just about everything else with Daredevil in it, which isn’t nothing.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol

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