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

31 May 2011

Essential Sub-Mariner, v. 1

Collects: Tales to Astonish (Namor stories only) #70-101, Daredevil #7, Tales of Suspense #80, Iron Man & Sub-Mariner (Namor story only) #1, and Sub-Mariner #1 (1965-8)

Released: September 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 504 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785130758

What is this?: Prince Namor deals with love and challenges to his oft-neglected throne. Imperious Rex!

The culprits: Writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and others and artists Gene Colan, Bill Everett, and others

I picked up Essential Sub-Mariner, v. 1 because I had a big old Namor-shaped hole in the middle of the heart of my Silver Age library, and I was excited to fill it. Turns out, I would have been better off having open-Silver Age surgery.

Namor the Sub-Mariner, prince of Atlantis, is not a Silver Age creation of Stan Lee and his talented group of co-creators; Namor was created in the Golden Age, back in 1939 by Bill Everett. Lee, never one to let a good idea go fallow, picked up Namor in Fantastic Four #4 (not reprinted here) and plopped him into the new Marvel Universe as a major player, giving him his own kingdom (Atlantis) and an unrequited romance with Sue Storm. Both Namor’s desires to conquer the surface world and / or bed Sue Storm were both pushed to the side after a few years, about the time Namor got his own feature in Tales to Astonish.

Essential Namor, v. 1 coverWhat Essential Sub-Mariner collects is the Namor stories from Tales to Astonish; the title had formerly been an anthology series and had been converted, like Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense, into superhero comics featuring two different heroes in their own tales. Namor shared Astonish with another headstrong brute, the Hulk, but the two never met in the title they cohabited. If they had, they would have made Tales to Astonish the most redundant title of redundancy.

Hulk and Namor are surprisingly similar characters. Namor might not be a green, gamma-irradiated brute, but he is a hot-headed thug whose answer to most problems of statecraft is to punch something. This is not a problem — Sir Punch-a-Lot is a character note that a lot of superheroes have carried off gracefully — but it doesn’t do a lot of favors to the character either, since it doesn’t set him apart from the pack.

What is interesting and unique about Namor? The Atlantean setting is the only unique part of Namor stories, although he shares the weight-of-leadership character note with Black Panther. To me, the latter is the more interesting, as “Atlantean” is generally portrayed as “fighting sharks and submarine monsters,” and Namor also has the burden of being a half-blood prince. He is half human, half Atlantean, and it would be understandable if many of his subjects found a prince of “impure” blood unacceptable.

But that’s not goes on Sub-Mariner; instead, Namor is nominally the ruler of Atlantis, while he spends almost as much time on dry land as he does in Atlantis. He is overthrown by Warlord Krang and Byrrah; he is challenged by the barbarian leader Attuma. He turns into a tyrant on one of the occasions he is returned to the throne. Does he have to politick? Do the people have any say about who rules them? (Well, they do when Byrrah takes over, and Namor’s lack of empathy with his people is brought out.) But mostly Atlantis is a waterlogged Banana Republic, with revolutions and counter-revolutions happening almost daily. It’s almost enough to make one’s head spin.

One gets the feeling that Lee is plotting by the seat of his pants and not doing as well as he usually did. The twelve-page stories don’t help, but the stories switch between multi-part stories (as in Namor’s pursuit of Krang and his estranged love, Dorma) and throwaway stories — insults from the surface world, another challenger for his kingdom, etc. Without a prolonged emphasis on what makes Namor different, it all runs together. Roy Thomas’s attempt to build some interest in Namor by exploring his origin, which serves as a cliffhanger for the book, isn’t enough to to hook me. (So to speak.)

The art is an interesting mix, although none of them get across the underwater element of Atlantis very well. Bill Everett, who created Namor in the Golden Age, drew several issues, and his art, although updated, resembles comics from World War II more than those of his younger colleagues. An issue or two from Jack Kirby, king of the Silver Age (and, to some, all comics), shows a contemporary look for the prince of Atlantis. About half the issues are drawn by Gene Colan, though, and that’s a welcome sight. Colan isn’t the artist he would be later in his career when he drew Daredevil and Tomb of Dracula with such a shadowy flair, but he’s very good, and and his work here is a harbinger of the Bronze Age to come. Whether it’s right for Namor is another question, but by the end of Essential Sub-Mariner, it’s certainly very pretty to look at.

The timing of the Essential Sub-Mariner’s release is almost assuredly a sign it is regarded by Marvel as a book for completists. While the almost all the other prominent Silver Age titles (with the exception of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and Howling Commandos have at least one volume out and usually many more, Namor is bringing up the rear — trailing behind the Human Torch and Ant-Man, for Heaven’s sake. The forgettable contents of Essential Sub-Mariner do nothing to dispel that impression.

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

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26 May 2011

Marvel August 2011 solicitations (collected editions)

Sorry this is up a little late — I was serving my time in Canada earlier this month, and I’m just now getting caught up. Here are Marvel’s books for August 2011:

Will buy:

Shock of shocks — I’m not definitely going to buy any Marvel books in August. Is this my failing, or is something wrong with the House of Ideas? You decide!

Might buy eventually:

  • Avengers Academy: Arcade: Death Game: The first TPB isn’t out yet; that will determine whether I pick up this second book. On the other hand, this is an odd collection: an issue of Marvel Team-Up from the late ‘70s, a Spider-Man from the early ‘90s, and Avengers Academy Giant-Size #1. Actually, this looks more like an Arcade collection than Avengers Academy. ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785156307)
  • Spider-Girl: Family Values: On one hand, the early issues got good reviews. On the other hand, this is Anya Corazon, who starred in the badly received Arana. Ah, well, at least it’s complete in one volume. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785146940)
Might buy if the price is right:

  • FF by Jonathan Hickman, v. 1 (hardcover): This isn’t the first time the team has lost one of the founding members to death, but it is the first time they’ve changed the team name and costumes because of it. So that’s something, I guess. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785151449)
  • Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green: I am interested in this title; I heard good things about Green Goblin back in the ‘90s when it originally came out. Am I $40 interested? Hell, no, I am not. I can get the original issues for less than half that and then have them bound together in hardcover. ($39.99; ISBN: 9780785157571)

  • Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age All-Winners, v. 4 (hardcover): They were golden, and they were all winners. Even the Silver Loser. ($64.99; ISBN: 9780785133599)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, v. 13 (hardcover): I had no idea the Masterworks were so far into the post-Lee / Kirby era of Fantastic Four; this reprints #129141, which I don’t remember as very good despite John Buscema’s work. ($59.99; ISBN: 9780785150404)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Sub-Mariner, v. 1: I just read the Essential, and I don’t think color’s going to help this one. ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785150688)
Already have or read:

  • Essential Web of Spider-Man, v. 1: An interesting choice for an Essential — the third-tier Spider-title — but we all knew we’d get here sooner or later. It is curious Web begins before the title it replaced, Marvel Team-Up, is finished. It would be like the Essential Thing coming out before Essential Marvel Two-in-One finished. Ha, I kid! Marvel Two-in-One is never going to finish. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785157564)
  • Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus, v. 1 (hardcover): Always worth reading. ($125; ISBN: 9780785158240)
  • Fantastic Four by Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo Ultimate Collection, Book 2: Have it on the GIT Corp. DVD-Rom, which I heartily recommend. ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785156581)
  • Hulk Visionaries: Peter David, v. 8: Volume 8 gets us about halfway through David’s run. I don’t know what is more astonishing: that it will take at least 16 volumes to get through the entirety of Hulk Visionaries: Peter David or that we might actually get all those volumes. ($29.99; ISBN: 9780785156031)
  • New X-Men by Grant Morrison, Book 4 ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785155324)
  • X-Force: Assault on Graymalkin (hardcover): Not really a run of X-Force I would choose to collect, but, you know, whatever. It does have the benefit of coming during X-Force’s first non-Cable period. As a side note, this contains the first non-crossover X-Force issues that I ever read. ($29.99; ISBN: 9780785158998)
  • X-Statix Omnibus (hardcover): Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s classic work, in one gigantic volume. The same price as the John Byrne Omnibus, but it has 116 more pages. (Total: 1,200 pages.) Bonus! ($125; ISBN: 9780785158448)
Licensed books:

  • Formic Wars: Burning Earth (hardcover): Burn, Earth, burn! ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785136095)
  • Marvelman Classic, v. 3 (hardcover): No, this isn’t the Moore / Davis / Gaiman stuff. Quit asking. ($34.99; ISBN: 9780785157236)
  • Oz: Ozma of Oz (hardcover): Eric Shanower’s Oz is well regarded, but I personally have no interest Oz. ($29.99; ISBN: 9780785142478)
  • The Stand, v. 1: Captain Trips: Horrible line from the solicitation: “For when Captain Trips works its way across the land, it is time to make a stand.” First, “Captain Trips” is the superflu, and making a stand against a virus is likely to be a futile effort. Second, way to awkwardly shoehorn the name of the series and volume into the book while making it sound like you haven’t read the source material or the book solicited. ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785135210)
The Rest:

  • Annihilators (hardcover): Although I have all of Guardians of the Galaxy and have read Annihilation, I don’t have any interest in this. Weird. ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785160403)
  • Black Widow: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider (hardcover): I don’t think I’ve seen any artist draw the Black Widow in a way that could be described as “itsy-bitsy.” ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785158271)
  • Captain America: Prisoner of War (hardcover): The solicit doesn’t say what war Cap is a prisoner of, so I’m going to choose my favorite: The War of Spanish Succession. ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785151210)
  • Carnage: Family Feud (hardcover): In which Carnage kills Richard Dawson, Ray Combs (again), Louie Anderson, Richard Karn, John O’Hurley, and Steve Harvey. That’s why it’s five issues long! ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785151128)
  • Daken: Dark Wolverine: Empire ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785147060)
  • Deadpool / Amazing Spider-Man / Hulk: Identity Wars (hardcover): I’ll take random team-ups for $800, Alex. Although I suppose it’s not as random as it could be, given that both Spider-Man and Deadpool have been featured in team-up books. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785155683)
  • Incredible Hulks: Dark Son: So, in this book, the Hulk has three kids, and his cousin, wife (?), and best pal are all Hulk critters as well. There has to be a reset button in there somewhere. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785150015)
  • Invincible Iron Man, v. 6: Stark Resilient, Book 2 ($15.99; ISBN: 9780785148357)
  • Invincible Iron Man, v. 8: The Unfixable (hardcover): Hmm, the hardcover and TPBs are two apart now. That’s probably not good, although I’m too lazy to look up whether ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785153221)
  • Marvel Adventures Spider-Man: Friendly Neighborhood (digest): I remember when digests cost $7. (I’m not old; I’m just surly.) ($9.99; ISBN: 9780785152576)
  • The Marvel Art of John Romita Jr. (hardcover) ($49.99; ISBN: 9780785155355)
  • Marvel Zombies: Christmas Carol (hardcover): Nothing says “Christmas” like a zombie collection released in August. Ho ho ho! ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785157724)
  • Namor: The First Mutant, v. 2: Namor Goes to Hell: It’s rare for any publisher to put such a bald statement of quality on the cover. Bravo, Marvel! ($16.99; ISBN: 9780785151760)
  • New Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis, v. 2 (hardcover) ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785148746)
  • Shadowland: Lots of Shadowland this month! Are you excited? (No, you’re probably not, and that’s not uncommon.) ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785147633)
  • Shadowland: Daredevil: Wait — shouldn’t this be Daredevil: Shadowland? Does the crossover really deserve top billing over Daredevil? ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785145226)
  • Shadowland: Street Heroes: When you can’t bother to come up with a better name than “Street Heroes” for a crossover that was almost entirely about street-level crimefighting, then you may have a problem. Also: Bullseye (featured in the Shadowland: Bullseye one shot) is not a hero. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785148883)
  • Shadowland: Thunderbolts ($15.99; ISBN: 9780785152194)
  • Silver Surfer: Devolution ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785156659)
  • Spider-Man: The Fantastic Spider-Man (hardcover): Might pick this up in paperback, but I have no real desire to even look at it in hardcover. Especially if it’s shrinkwrapped. ($24.99; ISBN: 9780785151067)
  • Spider-Man: The Next Chapter, v. 1: Do you want to see Howard Mackie and John Byrne screw up a Spider-Man relaunch? And by “screw up,” I mean spectacularly. (Tired of the stupid plot twists and characters from the previous titles? Then you’ll love this relaunch, which immediately brings back those same tired characters and plots!) It’s fourteen issues of Spider-mediocrity for $40! ($39.99; ISBN: 9780785157595)
  • Thunderbolts by Warren Ellis & Mike Deodato Ultimate Collection: Really: “ultimate.” The only thing ultimate about this collection is that it’s the final one. Of course, if you really like Mike Deodato or Warren Ellis, your opinion might vary, but I don’t think anyone is going to say this is their best work. ($29.99; ISBN: 9780785158493)
  • Vampire Tales, v. 3: The solicit for this is all messed up. The information has nothing to do with vampires; instead, it’s the description for New Mutants Classic. Since I have a soft spot for Marvel’s older horror properties, I might reconsider once I have better details. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785156048)
  • Wolverine / Hercules: Myths, Monsters & Mutants ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785141105)
  • Wolverine: Wolverine Goes to Hell: See Namor: The First Mutant. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785147855)
  • X-Men Legacy: Collision ($14.99; ISBN: 9780785146698)
  • X-Men: Curse of the Mutants: Of course the X-Men fight vampires. Because once you lose your central metaphor for half a decade, it’s natural to flounder for a new direction. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785148470)
  • X-Men: Curse of the Mutants: Mutants vs. Vampires: I’d only read this if Wolverine gutted Edward Cullen. Or vampire married him, either one. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785152293)
  • X-Men: Prelude to Schism (hardcover): Watch as Wolverine travels to Avignon and declares himself the antipope. ($19.99; ISBN: 9780785156895)

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10 May 2011

Addendum to my few notes on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, A-Z

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, A-Z, v. 1 coverOne thing I forgot to mention as I went through the first volume of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, A-Z: What this book really needs is references. Citations, if you will. It would help to know if the actions being described happened in the ‘70s (making them a long established part of the character’s lore) or whether it was something that happened in the last decade (making them more easily forgotten or more likely to be retconned). I don’t care if these citations are in footnotes or in parentheses; ideally, they would have the comic title, issue number, and the year, but I can do without the year. There isn’t much room for citations, I admit, but if Marvel got rid of those idiotic power bars, which ranks the character on a scale of 1 to 7 in six categories, then they’d have room for the citations, especially if they footnoted them in small type.

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06 May 2011

Reader quiz for Showcase Presents the Justice League of America, v. 1

After reading Showcase Presents Justice League of America, v. 1, I decided to to something different. Here is a quick quiz about the early days of the JLA. If you aren’t familiar with the stories, don’t worry; it isn’t necessary to guess, if you have any familiarity with the Silver Age.

1) The Justice League has been called into action! But where is Superman?

a) The Bottle City of Kandor.

b) Journeying through time.

c) He’s too popular to be seen with the doofuses who make up the JLA.

d) The villain doesn’t have Kryptonite, so the writer has no idea how to make the plot challenging for Superman.

2) Hey! Batman isn’t here either! Why?

a) Stuck in Gotham traffic

b) The Dark Knight refuses day missions.

c) Batman’s much too popular too. He’s hanging out with Superman.

d) The villain has superpowers, so the writer has no idea how to make Batman effective.

3) The villain has set three plots into motions simultaneously. What should the JLA do?

a) Split into teams that complement each other in power level, temperament, and intelligence.

b) Split into teams randomly because, hey, what’s the worst that can happen?

c) Well, if Superman had showed up, the rest of the team could let him take care of all three plots and knock off early for the day.

d) Screw this, I’m tired of doing triple the work for no pay. Let the Avengers handle it.

4) Martian Manhunter: What’s the first power you use?

a) Martian supervision.

b) Super blow.

c) Super suck.

d) Someone flicked their Bic two counties over, and fire robs me of my powers!

5) Aquaman! Summon your:

a) “Finny friends”

b) “Brothers of the sea”

c) “Filthy fetishes”

d) “Aquatic slave labor force”

6) Flash: use your powers to the fullest by:

a) Vibrating your legs to fly.

b) Vibrating your body to match the dimensional vibration of … something something something. Has to do with molecules, I think.

c) Vibrate your arms to blow something away, because the pilot light in a house two miles away has robbed Martian Manhunter of his super blow powers.

d) Vibrate your body to use your amazing plot-convenience powers.

7) Green Lantern! Why aren’t you attacking?

a) The villain is dressed in yellow.

b) The villain is attacking with a yellow beam.

c) The villain is curious (yellow).

d) Hal just ate yellow snow.

8) What will Wonder Woman do?

a) (HINT: It doesn’t matter.)

9) Why was Green Arrow appointed as the first new recruit?

a) Meritorious service as a solo hero.

b) Substitute Batman, so the team would have a useless member when Batman decided he was too popular to show up.

c) Neat accessories, such as the Arrow Plane, Arrow Car, and Arrow Collar.

d) Bows to peer pressure very easily and is also rich.

10) Oh no! It’s Doctor Light! What will he do?

a) Blind you with a flashlight.

b) Make you “taste the rainbow,” if you know what I mean.

c) Knock you silly with hard light, even though “hard light” is impossible.

d) Rape Steve Trevor and kill Carol Ferris.

11) Superman showed up, but he’s been captured! How?

a) Magic.

b) Also magic.

c) Kryptonite.

d) Magic Kryptonite.

e) Yo momma.

12) The villain has captured the JLA! What will happen to them?

a) They’ll be turned to vapor and displayed in bottles.

b) They’ll be sold at an auction, dressed in all-too-revealing French maid costumes. (NOTE: this will require Wonder Woman to wear more clothing.)

c) They’ll be executed gangland style (except Superman, who will be forced to swallow a Kryptonite pill).

d) They’ll be forced to sing in a public venue and be openly mocked by Simon Cowell.

13) Why is “Snapper” Carr always snapping his fingers?

a) It’s how he expresses approval.

b) It’s how he dissipates his immense sexual mojo.

c) It’s an advanced form of echolocation; exposure to radioactive Kryptonite meant for Superman has left him blind.

d) A better question is why Batman hasn’t ripped off his fingers yet.

14) Why is Snapper allowed to hang out with the JLA, anyway?

a) That damn woman libber Wonder Woman refuses to vacuum more than once a week, so someone has to do the housework.

b) Let’s just say he has … interesting pictures of Superman and Martian Manhunter in the JLA locker room.

c) Government quotas — they were forced to take in at least one talentless dork.

d) Batman wanted a new punching bag, and Snapper’s cheaper than Everlast.

Answers will be revealed, in the Latin tradition, on the Greek calends. Until then, you can score your answers yourselves!

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03 May 2011

Dark Horse, IDW, and Image July 2011 solicitations (collected editions)

Hey, Image’s solicits are on time this month! In honor of its timeliness, let’s get the show on the road:

Will buy:

Nothing this month. Sorry, independents! Might buy eventually:

  • Chew, v. 4: Flambé: I’ve read v. 1, and I frequently consider picking the series back up. I haven’t done so yet, but with this price point, it’s only a matter of time. ($12.99; Image)
  • Scud, the Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang!: This is a series I’ve heard about almost since it first came out in the mid-‘90s. With the whole series in one volume, I might have to give it a look. ($29.99; Image)
Might buy if the price is right:

  • Green River Killer: A True Detective Story (hardcover): I am a sucker for true crime, and I’m familiar with the Green River Killer, having read Anne Rule’s Green River, Running Red. I might be interested enough to pick this up to get another perspective on the serial killer. ($24.99; Dark Horse)
  • Parker: The Martini Edition (hardcover): Darwyn Cooke writing and drawing a noir adaptation is always worth a look. Not worth $75, but it is two of Cooke’s Parker tales in one volume. ($75, ISBN: 978-1-60010-980-5; IDW)
The Rest:

  • Angel Omnibus, v. 2 ($24.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-968-3; IDW)
  • Angel: The Covers (hardcover): No. ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-969-0; IDW)
  • Archie: Americana, v. 2: The ’50s (hardcover): The gradual evolution of Archie Comics’s art style continues; the jokes remain the same. ($24.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-945-4; IDW)
  • Bomb Queen: Gang Bang: Tasteful, as Bomb Queen always is. ($14.99; Image)
  • 'Breed, v. 2: The Book of Ecclesiastes ($17.99; Image)
  • Chimichanga (hardcover): One of two Dark Horse collected editions this month. This one, written and drawn by The Goon’s Eric Powell, is about a bearded girl at a circus who trades for an egg that hatches the Chimichanga. Despite the rumors, the book is not going to be a free giveaway at Taco Bell. ($14.99; Dark Horse)
  • Classic G.I. Joe, v. 12 ($24.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-972-0; IDW)
  • Classic Next Men, v. 1: IDW started John Byrne’s new Next Men last month, and they reprinted the original #1 last ($24.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-971-3; IDW)
  • Dave Stevens: The Complete Sketchbook Collection (hardcover): If you like your girls pretty but fictional, Stevens is the man for you. Or at least one of the men for you. ($50; ISBN: 978-1-61377-037-5; IDW)
  • Death Valley ($17.99; ISBN: 978-1-60010-973-7; IDW)
  • Doctor Who II, v. 1: The Ripper: I watch the Doctor Who TV series, but I have no interest in original comic book stories, no matter what the plot. When the TV show is generally outrageous anyway, what’s the incentive to read a story in a spin-off medium? ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-974-4; IDW)
  • Edge of Doom ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-927-0; IDW)
  • Elephantmen, v. 2: Fatal Diseases – Revised Edition: I have heard good things about this book, but this solicitation — full of pachyderm puns — makes it seem intolerable. ($24.99; Image)
  • Fallen Angel: Return of the Son: Despite what you might think, this has nothing to do with the Whedon vampire Angel. ($17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-975-1; IDW)
  • From Bloom County to Mars: The Imagination of Berkeley Breathed ($20, ISBN: 978-1-61377-008-5; IDW)
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, v. 2 ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-941-6; IDW)
  • Haunt: The Immortal Edition, v. 1 (hardcover; $34.99; Image)
  • Infestation, v. 1: You can hire Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning to write this, but it doesn’t make a zombie crossover involving Star Trek, G.I. Joe, and Ghostbusters any less silly. ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-977-5; IDW)
  • Iron Siege: Nazis and monsters — but I repeat myself — are two horrible tastes that do absolutely nothing for me when put together. ($17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-979-9; IDW)
  • Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows: Joe Hill, the writer of this series, is Stephen King’s son. I didn’t know that until last night. How could I not have know that? ($19.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-953-9; IDW)
  • Marineman: A Matter of Life and Depth ($17.99; Image)
  • Meta 4: The Complete Series (digest): The story is full of symbols, but the title goes for a cheap, text-speak pun. The contradiction is obvious. ($14.99; Image)
  • Rip Kirby, v. 4 (hardcover): The final volume in IDW’s collection of a comic strip I’ve never heard of. Comic historians, this one’s for you. ($49.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-989-8; IDW)
  • Spawn: New Beginnings: A new Spawn! I … I don’t care. And I’m sure my personal yawn is echoed by most comics fans. ($14.99; Image)
  • Spinecrawler ($17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60010-987-4; IDW)
  • Strange Girl Omnibus (hardcover; $59.99; Image)
  • The Darkness Compendium, v. 2 (hardcover): There are people out there who will pay $100 for a Darkness collection. Well, I assume there are. I haven’t met them. ($99.99; Image)
  • Transformers, v. 3 ($19.99; ISBN: 978-1-60010-981-2; IDW)
  • Turf (hardcover): BBC presenter Jonathan Ross’s story of Prohibition-era gangsters, vampires, and aliens. Reports I have heard ranged from fun romp to confusing mishmash. ($39.99; Image)
  • Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies ($18.99; Image)
  • Walter Simonson’s Thor: Artist’s Edition (hardcover): I do not share the general enthusiasm for Simonson’s Thor, but for people who do, this might be a fascinating look at the run. Or it might be an overpriced coffee table book. Who knows? ($75, ISBN: 978-1-61377-038-2; IDW)
  • Witchblade: Redemption, v. 3: It is 2011, and Witchblade is still being published. Hooray! ($19.99; Image)

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02 May 2011

Essential Defenders, v. 5

Collects: Defenders #92-106,Marvel Team-Up #101, 111, and 116, and Captain America #268 (1981-2)

Released: July 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 448 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785145370

What is this?: The Defenders fight a war with the Six-Fingered Hand and deal with other challenges.

The culprits: Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Don Perlin (and others)

The last Essential I went over, Essential Avengers, v. 6, was unusual in that it was mostly devoted to one extended storyline. Similarly, more than a third of Essential Defenders, v. 5, is devoted to the Defenders’ battle against the Six-Fingered Hand, a band of six demons whose union has made them more than the sum of their parts.

Even more interesting, the entire book is written by J.M. DeMatteis — not only does he write all fifteen Defenders issues, he also writes the included Marvel Team-Up and Captain America issues. Other than a throwaway MTU issue, this allows for a narrative continuity not always seen in the later volumes of Essential titles. Creators of characters or teams may stick around for long runs, but later writers? Not so often. (DeMatteis stuck around until #131, missing only #119.) Is this continuity a good thing?

Essential Defenders, v. 5, coverThe fights with the Six-Fingered Hand make up a traditionally structured comic-book battle; for five consecutive issues, they battle a different member of the Hand. In the sixth, they fight the Hand all together, with the battle spilling into the double-sized issue #100. It is a landmark storyline, in the sense that you can use it to remember where you are in the continuity of the series. During this storyline, they pick up a new member in the person of Gargoyle, whom they allow to join them for reasons never completely elucidated. By the time you can really decide to question his presence, he’s been around for too long to easily boot off.

The other major storyline involves a group of telepaths created by a shadowy agency that claimed ties to the federal government; Nighthawk’s former girlfriend Mindy is part of that group. This is also a standard, unexceptional but unobjectionable storyline, crossing over near the end with Captain America. It simmers in the background throughout the entire volume, and it is so low-key at one point that it seems as if Dr. Strange and Clea forget the existence of members who are captured in #104 until Dr. Strange gets a telepathic summons in #106 (with the Captain America part of the crossover falling just before #106). It does make for a heck of a cliffhanger, in which you may actually believe a member of the non-team has been killed in a moment of self-sacrifice.

And that self-sacrifice makes sense — not just in the general heroic sense but in the development of that character. That’s where DeMatteis’s work shines. Most of the lesser characters — those without their own books — get a nice moment in the sun. Hellcat has to deal with tragedy in her life and with potential lies about her paternity. Nighthawk is paralyzed by a mysterious affliction after coming to grips with what he perceives as his own non-heroic nature. We see Gargoyle’s background, even if we can’t see why he’s part of the Defenders. The Son of Satan deals with his demonic side in a way that was inevitable but previous issues feared to deal with. Even Devil-Slayer gets some personal development, despite his ludicrous career path (Marine turned alcoholic turned mob hitman turned cultist turned demon hunter). While the plot is nothing to grab readers, the characters are at least entertaining in their own right.

As those who have read DeMatteis’s work on Spider-titles in the ‘90s would expect, this book features characters in mental institutions and characters with daddy issues. The Son of Satan fills the latter role, obviously, and DeMatteis works in the rare female character with mommy issues, as Hellcat deals with the idea that her domineering and disapproving mother tried to barter Hellcat’s soul for a longer life. Nighthawk also has to institutionalize an insane ex-girlfriend, who switches between love and hate for Kyle.

In a way, it’s surprising what DeMatteis (and Marvel) are getting away with here. These issues came out in the early ‘80s, not very temporally distant from the era in which Dungeons & Dragons was getting excoriated by parental groups for its demonic ties. Beyond the Six-Fingered Hand, one character of the heroes is the Son of Satan, and another one is Devil Slayer — even if he’s against devils and demons, you know they are going to figure prominently into his adventures. The Son of Satan has an extended storyline in which his father (You-Know-Who) tries to purge his human half. On the other hand, Marvel had a line-wide crossover featuring demons at the other end of the ‘80s (Inferno), so demons in comics obviously weren’t as important to pop-culture watchdogs as demons in role-playing games.

Essential Defenders, v. 5, feels a bit thin, and it is. It’s a rare Essential that doesn’t top 500 pages, but v. 5 doesn’t come close to that mark. On first glance, this is surprising, given that there are many more Defenders issues to reprint — the series lasted for 152 issues. However, the classic Defenders team — one that included Dr. Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer, or Namor — ended with #125, and the rest of the run was the New Defenders, which had a lineup almost half made up of the original X-Men (Beast, who is introduced as a Defender in this volume, and Iceman and Angel). My guess is that Marvel wanted to have another Essentials volume of the classic Defenders, and this smaller volume leaves eighteen issues to put in that volume plus whatever they can squeeze out of other titles at the time. Still, a smaller volume should be accompanied by a smaller price tag — $17.99 or $16.99 for a slimmer Essential would be appropriate.

I appreciate wanting a unified v. 6 — those New Defenders would be quite a clash with the Defenders — but it does cause the quality and value of v. 5 to suffer. The volume includes three issues of Marvel Team-Up and a single issue of Captain America to help pad out the volume. Captain America #268 is necessary, as it’s a direct crossover with Defenders #106. Marvel Team-Up #101 also explains what the deal is with Kyle’s ex-girlfriend Mindy and why she’s in a mental institution; given how much she appears in the volume, that’s an important issue to include as well. But MTU #111 and #116 are included because they peripherally include Defenders: #111 has Valkyrie being possessed and attacking Spider-Man, and #116 has a very brief appearance by the Defenders at the end of the issue. Both end up raising more questions than they answer; in #111, Spider-Man smashes Valkyrie’s sword, Dragonfang, to end her possession, and its reforging is handled off panel, while #116 ends with Dr. Strange’s solemn pronouncement that Spider-Man may die before the day ends. In some Essentials, this sort of flotsam would hardly be remarkable, but given the rather tight storylines in v. 5, it’s quite noticeable.

The art is nearly as unified as the writing, as Don Perlin pencils all of the Defenders issues in this book. He’s a solid artist, much in the Marvel house style of the time, who has a good narrative sense and can convey a decent amount of emotion in a three-row layout. Really, you can’t ask for much more from an artist; flashiness and innovation is nice, but the art should be all about storytelling, and Perlin — whose name you don’t hear much any more — is a good storyteller. Jerry Bingham contributed one issue of MTU and the ever-reliable Herb Trimpe two; Mike Zeck penciled the Captain America issue.

Essential Defenders, v. 5 is a low-key Essential — good but unspectacular art, consistent writing, interesting characterization moments, and unspectacular plots. The book should have “steady” on its cover copy somewhere; if you’re looking for a slice of Bronze Age Marvel or are a fan of the Defenders, it’s worth a look.

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

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