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

26 August 2011

Essential Killraven, v. 1

Collects: Amazing Adventures #18-39, Marvel Team-Up #45, Marvel Graphic Novel #7, and Killraven #1 (1973-6, 1983, 2001)

Released: July 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 504 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785117773

What is this?: A former gladiator and his companions fight against the Martians who have enslaved Earth.

The culprits: Writer Don McGregor and others and artists P. Craig Russell, Herb Trimpe, and others

The setup for Killraven is one of those sci-fi concepts Marvel came up with in the ‘70s that didn’t survive beyond the Bronze Age. Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Neal Adams, it has a simple hook: the Martians, after losing the original War of the Worlds, won the rematch in 2001 and subjugated humanity, and only an ex-gladiator named Killraven and his band of Freemen oppose them.

If you’ve ever seen Thundarr the Barbarian — and if you haven’t, I pity you — Essential Killraven, v. 1, might be a little familiar. Killraven fights the Martians (wizards for Thundarr) and lots of monsters. He visits American cities that, despite being ruins, have one distinguishing feature from the pre-war days. Humans have been shaped into weird forms and given superpowers. And then there are the aliens who eat babies …

Essential Killraven, v. 1 coverWait. That last one wasn’t on TV. And that’s where writer Don McGregor, who took over with Amazing Adventures #21, makes Killraven something other than a needless continuation of a sci-fi classic. His stories have babies eaten as delicacies, forced breeding, and humans tortured, warped, and killed for no real reason. Yes, the casualty rate for Killraven’s band of Freemen is absurdly low, but even they are touched by loss, and why are you complaining? This was a comic book meant for kids, and they’re talking about eating babies because they’re yummy.

The major flaw in Killraven is that the setup lends itself to a lot of repetition. The Freemen head to a new town, fight the weird menace, and then find themselves in a new place at the beginning of the next issue. McGregor does his best to play with that, especially at the end, when he has Freeman Old Skull tell the others his origin story (#37) or has the group run into a fairy-like creature named Mourning Prey in a butterfly-filled Florida swamp (#39), an issue that has the slight tinge of a fever dream about it. But he can’t disguise that repetition, and his comic-booky “man who lives for only one day and must mate” plot (#35) certainly gives that issue the feel of just another Marvel book, despite its trappings. (Bill Mantlo’s fill-in on #33 and his Marvel Team-Up Killraven story only compound the feeling.) Still, McGregor is good for some surprises; when Carmilla Frost joins the Freemen, for instance, it’s Killraven’s friend M’Shulla, not Killraven, who gets the girl.

Additionally, there’s something completely endearing about a comic in which the hero gets so lost that while heading to Yellowstone National Park to find his brother that he travels instead from Indianapolis to Michigan to Chicago to Tennessee to Georgia to Florida. Killraven has no sense of direction, and it appears his cohorts have no desire (or ability) to correct him. To be fair to Killraven, he can’t exactly ask the mutants, collaborators, monsters, and Martians directions on the way, and everyone else they meet is even more clueless than they are. Even more entertaining is that Yellowstone is obviously a trap, and the Martians get so impatient they move the trap to where Killraven is wandering (Cape Canaveral) and don’t bother to disguise it at all. The amusing cherry on top of it all is that Killraven doesn’t question meeting his brother thousands of miles from where each is supposed to be at all. “My brother’s supposed to be in Yellowstone and just runs into me in Florida? Sure, why not?”

That happens in Marvel Graphic Novel #7, and without that issue, this wouldn’t be half as good a book. Without the MGN, Killraven is a meandering story in which McGregor takes his heroes across the eastern U.S. Sure, that gets better as the book goes on, but the story just sort of peters out in Amazing Adventures #39 when the Freemen encounter Mourning Prey. But MGN #7 puts paid to the big motivation for the Freemen’s journey: finding Killraven’s brother. It doesn’t go very well for the characters, but it does end the plot, something that needed to be done.

The obvious way to end the series in MGN #7 would have been with Killraven and the Freemen fighting back against the Martians, leading a revolution. Unfortunately, while that might be a definitive ending, that sort of ending is rarely satisfying: not enough buildup, too many characters, too improbable a plot, or a hundred other problems. Instead, McGregor and artist P. Craig Russell give the readers one reveal, but they do so in a plot much like previous stories. Oh, their ally for the story is more developed and relatable than most of those in the Amazing Adventures run, but it tonally fits with the rest of the story. McGregor even develops Carmilla and M’Shulla’s relationship, as if he expected to write more stories Killraven. (According to McGregor in this interview with Richard Arndt, 50 or so pages of Killraven: Final Lies, Final Truths, Final Battles was written in the late ‘80s, but it was scuttled when Russell couldn’t get assurances it would be published in Marvel’s best format.)

And the art …

Much like Bill Sienkiewicz and Moon Knight, Russell’s art is the biggest selling point for Killraven, and the MGN is where Russell gets the opportunity to show off the most. It’s unfortunate that the size of the art had to be reduced for the Essential’s page dimensions, and for some reason the art isn’t reproduced in the pure black-and-white pencils and inks the rest of the book features. But even the slight muddying can’t hide Russell’s skill or maturation; he was excellent in issues #27-32 and 34-9, but in the years between Amazing Adventures and MGN #7, he’s become something else. The art is polished, fluid, and expressive. His figures all have a litheness about them — even some who shouldn’t, like Old Skull — but his monsters are bizarre, horrific, and most important alien.

Russell wasn’t the first artist on the title. Adams did the first half of the first issue and was followed by one and a half issue by Howard Chaykin; both do good, if brief, work, but we have Adams to blame for the horrible, horrible costume designs. (What the hell did they think the future would be like back then? This is one Essential I was glad had no color, fearing that a ‘70s palette on those ridiculous costumes would sear my eyes.) Although a mismatch of genres, Gene Colan did his usual atmospheric work on one issue (#26). Herb Trimpe (#20-4 and 33) and Rich Buckler (#25) round out the art duties, both doing solid work. Trimpe’s work is similar to the art he produced for the Hulk; Buckler’s work is interesting, more subtle and clear than the other artists.

The book concludes with the Killraven one-shot written and drawn by Joe Lindsor. To call it missable is an understatement of grand proportions; if I had paid for the single issue when it came out in 2001, I would have wanted my money back. There’s nothing in the issue for Killraven fans, except that it advances the timeline without incident by a half year or so. The actual plot, in which Killraven counsels a hippy chick who woke from a cryogenic tube and then promptly wants to go back to sleep when she sees what a hellhole 2020 is, is so light I was afraid it might blow off the page. It was included to fill out the page count, I imagine, but 20 blank pages might have been a better choice.

Essential Killraven is often silly (it is a product of the ‘70s), frequently repetitive, and occasionally stupid (as when McGregor tries to convince us “mud brother” is a term of endearment that Killraven has given M’Shulla instead of the racial slur it so obviously seems to be). But Killraven is worth a glance for some of the details and the P. Craig Russell art.

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

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19 August 2011

Spider-Man: The Clone Saga Epic, Book 2

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #395-9, Spectacular Spider-Man #218-21, Spider-Man #54-6, Web of Spider-Man #120-2, Spider-Man: Funeral for an Octopus #1-3, Spider-Man Unlimited #8 (1994-5)

Released: May 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 480 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785143512

What is this?: The Clone Saga’s second installment, in which the story of a Spider-Boy and his clone begins to ramp up.

The culprits: Writers J.M. DeMatteis, Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, Tom Brevoort, Todd DeZago, and others and artists Mark Bagley, Sal Buscema, Tom Lyle, Steven Butler, Stewart Johnson, and others

When I reviewed Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 1, I found it occasionally dull but not as dire as the Clone Saga’s reputation would have me believe. Evidently, this is the kind of evaluation that gets me to pick up subsequent volumes of a series.

So … Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 2. We all know the Clone Saga gets bad, eventually … but when? It’s not in Book 2, which is a surprisingly fun read.

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, v. 2 coverYes, I said “fun.” It’s not a classic, and if you were looking for a Spider-Man story, there are a couple dozen others I would recommend first. But I can’t deny I found the book interesting and sometimes exciting, despite the plot being spoiled long ago.

In Book 2, you can almost see the writers ticking off the boxes as they complete the tasks editors set for them. Wrap up unresolved plots, with Mary Jane and her family and Peter finally defeating his stubborn case of asshattery. Establish Kaine as a bad mamajamma, even if they have to kill some established villains to do so. Show that Peter and Ben Reilly, his clone, can exist in the same storytelling universe with unique roles. Prepare readers that this time, yes, May might actually die. Most importantly, start to lay groundwork for new plots, such as the proliferation and identity of clones and Mary Jane’s medical condition. And yeah, if you can get across a new, non-clone villain like Stunner, good on you.

And the writers — J.M. DeMatteis for Amazing, Tom DeFalco (with some help from Todd DeZago) on Spectacular, Howard Mackie for Spider-Man, and Terry Kavanagh, DeMatteis, and DeZago on Web — do just that. The stories aren’t perfect, but they hit the important points of the overall plot without boring readers too much. And even if some plots drag on too long — Peter trying to beat the Vulture’s poison, DeMatteis trying to end Peter’s idiotic “The Spider” personality by drowning the page in captions — it’s important to remember how collaborative the issues in this book are. Book 2 has 19 issues, and all but four — Spider-Man Unlimited and Funeral for an Octopus #1-3 — are linked in four crossovers (“Web of Death,” “Web of Life,” “Smoke and Mirrors,” and “Back from the Edge”). Think about it: this represents about a quarter of a year’s issues for some titles, and none of their writers get to complete a story without sending it through another writer first. It’s a miracle anyone was able to complete a decent story at all. Spider-title editor Danny Fingeroth deserves a lot of credit for keeping things under control.

The stories get better as the farther the book gets from “The Spider” and DeMatteis’s deconstruction of Peter’s mind at the time (it’s a plot that seems tailor-made for DeMatteis, except that it’s not very good). Peter gets poisoned, which touches off all sorts of wacky hijinks: teaming up with the “new” Daredevil, going to Heaven, having Dr. Octopus aid him. I’m not sure the latter was a good development — Otto’s reasoning is a little clichéd — but at least it’s a different take on the character, one that couldn’t be done now.

My favorite story was Funeral for an Octopus, a miniseries that hearkens back to the Fingeroth-written Deadly Foes of Spider-Man and Lethal Foes of Spider-Man minis from the early ‘90s. Those comics concentrated on Spidey vs. a large number of foes, each of whom had his own motivations for taking part; Funeral, written by Tom Brevoort, has a similar plot. Yes, it’s used to get across how tough the mysterious (and horribly costumed) Kaine is, but on the other hand, one of the Sinister Six does outwit the thug, so that’s something. Plus, at this stage, I don’t mind Kaine getting a push as long as the body count doesn’t get too ridiculous; in Book 2, the death toll is confined to a throwaway villain who really never got started and a major villain (no extra points for guessing who).

The final crossover, though, shows some of the cracks that would eventually cause the whole “epic saga” to crumble. In “Smoke and Mirrors,” Spider-Man and the Scarlet Spider fight the Jackal, who has been resurrected via cloning. The Jackal is served by two of Peter’s altered clones, who strangely look nothing like Peter. For the second and third issues of the three-part crossover, all the Jackal does is hint and lie and tell the two Spiders that each is a clone — or maybe the other is a clone? neither? — while Scrier and Kaine watch. (Somehow, I don’t think Spider-baiting is a spectator sport that will ever catch on, regardless of the crowd it drew this time.) The Jackal does show them what happens to clones in the end (they degenerate into dust quickly), and he puts on a Goth leather trench coat with enough chains to satisfy Ghost Rider, but three issues is a little too much for this. Given that the Clone Saga’s mind-numbing number of clones and the claim that Peter was the clone were major reasons fans soured on this storyline, the Jackal’s wild claims and the hint that there is another clone in the offing (and the presence of Scrier) have to be considered major missteps.

Since Book 2 collects five different Spider-titles, you can take your pick on what flavor of artist you like. Mark Bagley, who drew Amazing at the time, is probably the best-known today; his lithe, athletic Spider-Man is outstanding, although his women tend to be overendowed (staying just short of cheesecake) and his facial expressions uniform. Sal Buscema, the regular artist for Spectacular, is my favorite, but this isn’t his best work; it’s near the end of his career, and his art lacks the tightness it once had (especially when inked by Bill Sienkiewicz). His Kaine looks especially stupid as well, although that’s partially because Kaine’s costume is stupid to begin with. Tom Lyle, the regular Spider-Man artist, is excellent: he’s the best in Book 2 at conveying emotion (and faces in general), although his action shots aren’t as lively as Bagley’s. Stephen Butler (Web) and Stewart Johnson (Funeral) do similarly good work without much of the ‘90s excesses.

I enjoyed Book 2 quite a bit. I mean that statement without qualifications or temporization. That being said, I think this book is probably the high point for the “epic saga.”

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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05 August 2011

Chronicles of King Conan, v. 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories

Collects: King Conan #1-5 (1980-1)

Released: August 2010 (Dark Horse)

Format: 192 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781593074777

What is this?: Conan the barbarian is now the older Conan the king.

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema

As we grow older, we learn things about ourselves. That we have an unexpected talent for cooking, perhaps, or that we’re never going to make it as a major-league shortstop, or if nothing else, that our abilities peak at some point during our youth, and only hard work will keep them from deteriorating in an alarming fashion. It’s a hard lesson to learn but a necessary one as we make the transition from youth to maturity.

In The Chronicles of King Conan, v. 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories, however, writer Roy Thomas informs us that Conan never has to learn that lesson. He will always be at the top of his game, and he never truly reaches that mental maturity. Readers have been following Conan for 80 years — about 50 by the time the issues collected in King Conan came out — and in that time, the barbarian hero has changed little. You might expect that becoming king, with the responsibilities that entails, would change mighty Conan.

Chronicles of King Conan, v. 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories coverYou would be wrong. Conan the King is the exact same character as Conan the Barbarian. True, Conan has an army behind him, and he has a son, but it has remarkably little effect on his behavior. And Thomas should know; forty years after Conan the Barbarian #1, v. 1, and Thomas is still the definitive Conan comic book writer.

King Conan begins with Conan’s son, Prince Conn, being kidnapped by a Hyperborean witch; King Conan decides to rescue his son alone. Fine; I understand that. But after the rescue and a battle in Zingara, Conan decides to take the fight and his army to Stygia, where Thoth-Amon, the architect of the kidnapping and unrest in Zingara, is hiding. That makes a modicum of sense, although Conan has always shown that a lone hero is better than an army when it comes to defeating wizards and monsters.

But Conan goes himself, and he takes along his heir, Conn. This, of course, is idiotic, as a non-dynastic king like Conan should return home to find his throne occupied and his wife (at best) exiled. Instead, Conan follows Thoth-Amon to the ends of the earth, heading farther and farther from his kingdom, each mile being one more he’ll have to travel on the way back. This is the way of the American action hero, I realize, to take care of such things by himself, but it’s not one of that archetype’s more endearing attributes. There is no cunning to this Conan, and less intelligence. He has no real plan, blundering farther and farther south and endangering his son and his men. I think the idea is that Conan is a pre-historic Alexander, putting the world under his boot, but there’s nothing to support that idea other than Conan’s continuing but illogical success and an inexhaustible supply of willing soldiers.

Conan, as a king, should be confronted with different problems than when he was an adventurer. But there’s no statecraft here or even large-scale battles, no intrigues or imperial entanglements. For some reason, no one engages his army or presents any challenge to them other than their intended adversaries; the countries he invades to fight these wizards don’t protest at all. Why should they? It’s Conan! There are a surfeit of wizards to kill, strange places to visit, usurpers to depose, and monsters to fight — just like before. Such a static world for a character like Conan.

Part of the problem is Thomas’s mania for adapting stories. Issues #1-4 are adapted from stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter: “The Witch of the Mists,” “The Black Sphinx of Nebthu,” “Red Moon of Zembabwei,” and “Shadows in the Skull,” which were originally published in the ‘70s and collected in Conan of Aquilonia. Issue #5 starts retelling 1957’s Conan the Avenger, by Björn Nyberg and de Camp, in flashback. It seems odd that Thomas would let other authors choose his opening arc, especially an arc so problematic as those in Conan the Aquilonia. That’s not to say Thomas slavishly followed the original stories or that adapting stories is a bad idea; for instance, Thomas’s creation of Red Sonja was a result of adapting a non-Conan story by Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture.” And I understand that those four stories had the setup that Thomas wanted to start with. But I think using those stories at a later point would have been a better idea.

There are two redeeming points to King Conan. One is the book shows the maturation of Conn. His father is an impossible role model to live up to, but he tries anyway. He kills his first man in this book, and he gets a glimpse of true evil in Thoth-Amon. If Conan had sent Conn on a military campaign while Conan stayed at home, to get the boy some seasoning, this might have been a fascinating story, although it would have made it into Conan: The Next Generation. (Not that I would have minded.) The idea of telling the story of this prince maturing into a man is a good one; it’s just not what the book is about.

The second highlight is John Buscema’s art. Thomas is Conan’s definitive writer, and Buscema is one of the two most celebrated Conan artists. His Conan is much the same as it was in Conan the Barbarian — he has crow’s feet, and his hair is grayer, but he’s still strong as ever. His Conn is more realistic, strong for a teenager but obviously not Conan. Since the material is much the same as Conan the Barbarian, he gets to draw monsters and wizards and … well, not many scantily clad women, but there are some. Fans of Buscema’s Conan work will likely not be disappointed.

But they won’t be surprised, either. And that’s the problem with King Conan. Despite the change in premise, there is little to discover that you can’t find in Dark Horse’s Chronicles of Conan series.

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

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02 August 2011

Tradepaperbacking in the '90s

Re-reading Deadpool #26 (March 1999), I noticed a footnote by editor Matt Idelson referring to the previous arc: “A somewhat condensed retelling of issues 23-25, to be trade paperbacked in ten years.”

Which wasn’t quite true. It took almost twelve years before Deadpool Classic, v. 4 reprinted those issues. I wonder what the delay was?

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