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

29 July 2011

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Collects: OGN

Released: April 2011 (Del Rey)

Format: 192 pages / black and white / $10.99 / ISBN: 9780345516565

What is this?: Teenage girl goes to high school for superheroes, feeling outclassed, while machinations go on in the background.

The culprits: Writer Naomi Novik and artist Yishan Li

I usually don’t review original graphic novels — not out of any prejudice but because so few of them are released by Marvel and DC. I don’t generally review books published by companies other than Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, or Image. And I almost never read manga, whether translated from the Japanese or originally in the English language.

So Will Supervillains Be on the Final? is an unusual choice for me. If I hadn't received a free copy from Suvudu,59 I wouldn’t have read the book. Oh, I’d heard of it, and I was slightly intrigued at the concept — new student in a superhero school — but my stylistic preferences (read: no manga, please) and being a bit of a Marvel zombie meant I wasn’t going to make the effort to read it. But then again, free book. So here we are.

Will Supervillains Be on the Final? coverThis original English language manga is written by Naomi Novik, the author behind the popular Temeraire books. I haven’t read any of that series, so I had no prejudices toward Novik coming into this — except for the usual fear of prose writers being unable to adapt to the graphic format. But that’s not a problem here. Novik has no trouble with the pacing for this book, the first in the Liberty Vocational series, and the dialogue and action feel as natural as if Novik had been in comics for a while. (Well, most of the dialogue; there are times when a lack of contractions makes the dialogue seem like it has been translated.)

Supervillains follows Leah Taymore, a girl who has just enrolled at a very young age in Liberty Vocational, a school for superheroes-in-training. Although quite powerful, she doesn’t have fine control of her matter transmutation powers, nor does she have the judgment to use them properly. Of course, this gets her into trouble, and it doesn’t help that someone is actively trying to get her to use her powers rashly. This being a book set in a high school, there are the requisite crushes, pining, and embarrassing emotional moments. Standard stuff, really; some of the humiliation Leah undergoes is imaginative, although the first incident hinges on circumstances that could easily have been unwittingly avoided.

There are other characters — the best friend, the crush, the strict teacher / principle / headmaster, etc. — that you’re going to find in any high school story, graphic or not, American or English or Japanese or, for all I know, Samoan or Malagasy. But the characters that stand out are Alexander Bane, a supervillain who is teaching at Liberty under the name Alexander Locke,60 and his secret son, Jeremy. In his backstory, Bane wasn’t very successful as a typical confrontational supervillain, but at Liberty, he’s excellent. With the help of his son, he engineers catastrophes, and on his own, he masterfully manipulates the emotions of his former archenemy (now Liberty councilor), Calvin Washington, and asks the headmaster on a date. He’s smooth, cheerful, and clearly up to something “for the greater good” — and he’s not averse to putting hundreds or thousands of people in harm’s way while doing it. Jeremy, as a typical teenager, is of course less than enthusiastic about some of the things he’s doing, but he’s effective at it.

(Paul, Leah’s romantic interest, has an interesting power, which seems to be producing completely mundane objects that are exactly what is needed for a certain situation: a ladder to get a cat out of a tree, plumber’s compound to stop a leak, a rowboat in a flood, etc. I’m not sure I’ve seen this power before, so I’m impressed by its inclusion. It’s a power I would want to have in real life, and how useful it is in superheroics would be interesting to see.)

Yuzana, Leah’s best friend, is an empath, and that power gives Novik (or the characters) all sort of problems. An empath reads the emotions of others but isn’t a telepath, which Yuzana helpfully exposits; however, Yuzana is accused of eavesdropping when she uses her powers casually (like a telepath is), and there are times when it seems she’s picking up on thoughts rather than emotions. Either Yuzana is extremely good at linking emotions to specific thoughts, or Novik isn’t quite getting across what empathy does in the world of Liberty Vocational.

The art is by Yishan Li. I really don’t have much to say about her art style, other than it is obviously in a manga style, complete with the frequent exaggerated, cartoony emotional moments that go with the style. Her line is a bit heavier than most manga I have seen, and I appreciate that; however, I don’t really like manga art, especially since my brain seems inadequate in picking up details that its occasionally minimal style is supposed to convey. For instance, the only difference I could see between Paul and Jeremy was their hair color, which isn’t always evident. On the other hand, I really liked the few scenes with Calvin Washington, whose dreadlock style somehow worked well.

But that’s just my preference; de gustibus non est disputandum, after all, and it does tell the story. More worrying, however, is the copyright to the art. The indicia attributes the art to Li but assigns the copyright for the art to “Temeraire LLC.” If you were paying attention, you remember that that was the name of Novik’s best-known series, and it’s improbable that Li has any ownership stake in Temeraire LLC. This makes Li’s work, most likely, work for hire. I don’t really blink about Marvel or DC owning almost all of what they publish because, well, it’s always been that way, and in a gigantic shared universe spanning more than half a century, it’s the easiest way to sort things out legally. But one creative type shafting another out of ownership … that doesn’t sit right with me.

There’s nothing offensive or egregiously wrong with Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Unfortunately, the compelling bits are a little thin as well. Alexander Bane is the one reason I would keep reading this series, and I don’t think that’s enough to get me to come back.

Unless someone wants to send me another free copy. Suvudu? Del Rey? Anyone?

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

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22 July 2011

Essential Silver Surfer, v. 2

Collects: Silver Surfer (v. 2) # 1 and (v. 3) #1-18, Silver Surfer Annual #1, Epic Illustrated #1, and Marvel Fanfare #51 (1980, 1982, 1987-8, 1990)

Released: June 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 600 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785127000

What is this?: The Silver Surfer slips the surly bonds of earth and gets involved in interstellar war.

The culprits: Writers Stan Lee and Steve Englehart and artists Marshall Rogers, Joe Staton, Ron Lim, and others

I’m not a fan of the Silver Surfer. It’s not that I dislike the character, it’s just that I have the same problem with him that many people have with Superman: he’s dull, nigh indestructible (without raising the stakes ridiculously high), and a bit too much of a goody two-shoes.58

So why did I buy Essential Silver Surfer, v. 2? Mostly because I picked it up for $3 or $4. But also partially because it was an unusual choice to be made into an Essential in the first place. It’s not a legendary run. The issues included aren’t from the Silver Age, nor are they some Bronze Age genre mashup or weirdness. It isn’t yet another volume of a title that started in the Silver Age. It doesn’t feature a female lead. And it doesn’t star mutants, which accounts for most of the more modern series. There just aren’t that many Essentials that don’t meet those standards: Punisher, Moon Knight, NovaPower Man, if you don’t consider Blaxploitation a genre, plus the reference books.

Essential Silver Surfer, v. 2 coverIs Silver Surfer something different, though? The Surfer is a Silver Age construct, and arguably by the mid-‘80s, he was the least changed from his Silver Age roots of any of Marvel’s major characters, given his inflexible personality and his status as the near-exclusive domain of Stan Lee.

Stan is the writer for the first two stories in this book. The first, a rather forgettable short from Epic Illustrated #1, has the Surfer confronting the concept that there are some answers beyond himself and his master, Galactus. The second, a 1982 one-shot drawn by John Byrne, pits the Silver Surfer against his incongruous archenemy, Mephisto — because what’s a more appropriate opposite for a cosmic-powered servitor of a planet predator than the Devil? It advances the Surfer’s story somewhat, but in the end, Lee puts all the pieces back where they started.

And then Steve Englehart takes over for the ongoing series, and everything changes. The Surfer is freed of Earth in a way that reads like Englehart wanted it done as quickly as possible so he and Marshall Rogers could go on to the space stuff. Then Shalla-Bal and Zenn-La are dealt with, zip zoom. Suddenly, Silver Surfer becomes Marvel’s first cosmic title in a long time, dealing with the Kree, the Skrulls, Galactus and his herald Nova, and the Elders of the Universe.

Once the book stops being about the Silver Surfer, it gets a lot more interesting. Or, I suppose I should say, it gets more interesting when the book stops being solely about the Silver Surfer and concentrates on the opportunities outer space gives the book. There is a large part of the Marvel Universe that can be settings for interesting stories, and whether that’s San Francisco, Sydney, or Kree-Lar, any book that can take advantage of those creative vacuums is worth supporting.

Englehart picks up several loose threads and characters, from the disintegration of the Skrull Empire and the loss of the Skrulls’ shapeshifting powers to what the various Elders of the Universe, Celestial Madonnas, and Soul Gems are up to. The machinations of the Kree and Skrulls in the new Kree-Skrull war are interesting, and the war is allowed to escalate in background scenes that are nice cutaways from the main plot. The Elders of the Universe’s plan to kill Galactus is what drives most of the book, and while I can’t say I’m greatly interested in the Elders, I can’t deny they are a great set of adversaries for the Silver Surfer and are an interesting part of the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe. (Such high-power characters do lead to a lot of “not really dead” moments, but that’s comics, I suppose.)

As for the Silver Surfer, he becomes a completely different person once Shalla-Bal is written out of his love life. In his previous quarter century, he had shown little desire for romantic attachments, but in the space of a few issues, he manages to pick up two “loves”: Mantis and Nova (Galactus’s herald, not Richard Ryder). It seems so alien for him to be portrayed as amorous — I suppose it’s Englehart trying to grow the character from the spotless, emotionless paragon he previously was, but the change is a little swift. The Surfer seems surprisingly weak, as well; he’s captured and helpless three times, and none of those captors are beings who should have the power to capture him. (I mean, Cap’n Reptyl? Honestly.)

The final issue in Essential Silver Surfer, v. 2, Marvel Fanfare #51, is not in continuity; it’s the original #1 for Silver Surfer v. 3, with beautiful art from v. 1 artist John Buscema. It’s an interesting look at what Englehart originally had planned for the character; the escape from Earth in Silver Surfer v. 3 #1 seems even more last-minute than I expected, and the interaction with Mantis makes more sense after we see Englehart’s original plans.

Art from this book comes mainly from Marshall Rogers, who drew #1-10 and #12. I’m more familiar with his art from his run on Detective Comics in the ‘70s, so it’s a little jarring seeing Rogers’ work here. (He collaborated with Englehart on that run as well.) His Surfer is more rounded and streamlined than most artists’, reminding me of Kevin Maguire’s Surfer in Defenders: Indefensible. I’m also not a fan of his design of some of the lesser-known Elders — there’s little distinctive about the Runner, and the Obliterator looks more mentally handicapped than murderous or alien. There are also a few storytelling lapses where it’s difficult to distinguish what’s happening. On the other hand, Rogers does have a flair for Marvel’s more established aliens — his Celestials are imposing, if not quite Kirby-esque (the same goes for some of the huge alien machines), and I like his Skrulls, as Rogers is able to both vary the Skrull template and show emotion on Skrull faces.

Joe Staton does a few issues as well, excelling when the action is on Cap’n Reptyl’s ship: Reptyl is intimidating, and the background aliens in his crew are suitably alien. Ron Lim, in some of his first Marvel work, drew #15-8; it looks like Ron Lim work — especially the Elder called the Possessor, who seems the most Lim character in the book, even before Lim starts drawing him — and you probably already know how you feel about Lim’s art.

I didn’t especially expect to enjoy Essential Silver Surfer, v. 2, but I was pleasantly surprised. If you’ve ever been interested in what was happening in outer space beyond those ‘80s Fantastic Four and Avengers stories you’ve probably read, then you really should read this book.

Rating: Silver Surfer head Silver Surfer head Silver Surfer head (3 of 5)

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