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

09 September 2011

X-Men: Onslaught: The Complete Epic, v. 3

Collects: X-Men #55, Uncanny X-Men #336, Cable #35, X-Force #58, X-Man #19, Incredible Hulk #445, Iron Man #332, Avengers #402, Thor #502, Wolverine #105 (1996)

Released: August 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 248 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785128250

What is this?: The penultimate volume of the Onslaught story, a “Mutants Gone Wild” cautionary tale.

The culprits: Too many to name, not enough to blame

Completism is a hell of a drug.

It’s one nearly every comic-book fan has felt the pull of. There are steps, gradations, but they’re all rationalizations and symptoms that don’t lead to an understanding of why completism has such a firm hold on our souls. It’s common to all sorts of collecting, and when you cross collecting with serial literature … well, like I said: a hell of a drug, although not without its highs.

We live in a Golden Age for completists, a time when we can go out and buy trade paperbacks of storylines that would be too Godawful or tedious to collect issue by issue but are relatively painless to swallow in one gulp — as long as we hold our noses. For us Gen Xers, it’s truly wonderful, with Marvel releasing compilations of ‘90s stories that seemed too horrible to contemplate at the beginning of the decade; the House of Ideas has released the hell out of the Clone Saga and has kept the Onslaught “Saga” in print, so all that remains is for someone at Marvel to find the unmitigated gall (or suffer the crushing brain damage) to complete the trifecta of crap by releasing a collection of The Crossing.

X-Men: Onslaught: The Complete Epic, v. 3 cover*ahem* Anyway. X-Men: Onslaught: The Complete Epic, Book 3, is indisputably part of the Onslaught crossover, which is indisputably an X-Men story. Well, you could dispute that, since it did end v. 1 of Fantastic Four, Avengers, Thor, and Iron Man (the last issues of the latter three are collected here), but the number of ancillary X-titles is convincing. What is disputable is whether anyone should buy it.

Despite the reputation of the Onslaught crossover, I’m not saying this book is bad. No, far from it; there’s nothing of the offensive stench of, say, Ghost Rider: Danny Ketch Classic, v. 1, or Captain America & the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas. The skill involved in the individual issues is even better than Gambit Classic, although admittedly that’s setting the bar low.

Still, I’d advise reading any of those books before Onslaught, v. 3. Why? Because they are interesting in their awfulness. Nothing happens in the 248 pages of Onslaught, v. 3. Well, nothing happens except Onslaught loses Professor X as a prisoner and gains X-Man, which is more of a rearrangement of Scrabble tiles than a plot development. Oh, and Teen Tony Iron Man makes very ‘90s headpieces out of vibranium. But that’s really it, unless you like crowd control, attacks that achieve nothing but also lose nothing, illusory telepathic landscapes, and mutant mutant angst angst. And I suppose if you like catchphrases, Onslaught screams, “Behold my mighty hand!” several times, but as a catchphrase that ranks just below “Around the survivors a perimeter create.”

The blame for this doughnut hole of a collection has to be placed on the editors — four different editors, according to the title page: Mark Gruenwald (Iron Man and Avengers), Bobbie Chase (Hulk and Thor), Mark Powers (Cable), and Jaye Gardner (X-Man). Interestingly, Bob Harras — Marvel’s editor in chief and chief X-titles editor at the time — is listed in the credits of the remaining titles’ individual issues, but he isn’t credited on the title page. Which is a shame, because the buck has to stop with him, as both a book editor and editor in chief … I mean, who else can you blame for this an entire collection devoted to marking time, waiting for something or other — Iron Man and his party hats, I guess.

But much as I’m loathe to do it, maybe Gruenwald has to share some of the blame. While he has Terry Kavanagh and Joe Bennett actually contributing to the plot in Iron Man, Mark Waid and Mike Deodato are filling space in Avengers #402 — the last issue of Avengers, v. 1 — with a pointless fight. It’s bad enough the Avengers are going to bite it in an X-Men one-shot (fifteen-year-old spoilers!), but there’s nothing here that hints at the momentousness of the plot or the title’s history. This was when renumbering meant something! Marvel was licensing the Avenger titles to non-Marvel creators! There had to be a better way for the title to go out.

To be fair, Bill Messner-Loebs and Deodato do better with Thor. It’s cute they think there’s a purpose to continuing their subplots, like the Enchantress’s amnesia and captivity and Odin’s loss of his divinity and mind, and insisting Red Norvell is important. But there’s a sense of the title’s history included in the final issue. Thor runs into Jane Foster, Don Blake’s first love, and he remembers his history and an early adventure with his foster brother; the frogs from Thor’s days as the Frog of Thunder stop by. Messner-Loebs even has Hela, in a truly ridiculous Asgardian outfit, offer to make Thor her king if he wishes to avoid his death the following day. It gives the issue import and a sense of doom as it rolls into the inevitable, and I appreciate that. I think it could have been done better, by laying on the prophecy and references to Ragnarok, but the effort is there, and it’s more than we see in the other two dying Avengers titles.

I’m not going to single out any other individual writing or art, except to say that I have always disliked Angel Medina’s overly cartoony and grotesque work on Hulk There’s just too little to say about these issues; they fit together, I can see the skill there, but they’re not saying anything. Instead, I’m going to make two points that probably would be better in a footnote:

  • First, it would be a rarity to see all those high issue numbers in a trade paperback collecting comics from the last decade. Sure, Marvel’s big on reinstalling the old numbering, but Marvel switches to new #1s so often it’s uncommon to have many comics with their original numbering at the same time.
  • Secondly, there is some confusion on the Internet as to what is collected in Onslaught, v. 3. The Amazon listing includes Punisher (v. God knows what) #11, (Peter Parker:) Spider-Man #72, Fantastic Four #416, and Green Goblin #12; it leaves out the issues of X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, Cable, X-Force, and Thor. Even the impressive Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators has it wrong; it makes the same mistake as the Amazon listing plus it adds Amazing Spider-Man #415.
In any event: This is one boring book. The plot goes nowhere. Art from Joe Madureira, Andy Kubert, and Deodato is not going to change that at all. I think you’d be better off jumping from the awful Onslaught, v. 1, to v. 4. You’re not going to miss anything important. But that’s not why people buy this book — they buy it because the drug that is completism has them in its claws.

In this case, though, completism is very much like a sleeping pill.

Rating: Zzz … (You can read that as either I was too bored by this book to rate it or that I graded it Triple-Z. Either one is fine by me.)

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02 September 2011

Omega the Unknown

Collects: Omega the Unknown v. 2 #1-10 (2008)
Released: September 2008 (Marvel)
Format: 256 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785130529
What is this?: A remake of the ‘70s series, complete with the same mysterious robot-fighting alien, orphan boy raised by robots, and weird images.
The culprits: Writers Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak and artist Farel Dalrymple

I have no idea what to make of Omega the Unknown. I really don’t.

The original Omega the Unknown from the ‘70s lasted for ten issues. The concept was co-created by Steve Gerber, and Gerber in the ‘70s was one of the more manic and impressive idea men comics had to offer. Really, when it came to creativity, Gerber picked up where Jack Kirby left off. Both men, when they were at their peak, were wildly inventive; unfortunately for Gerber, his ideas never caught on the way Kirby’s did.

Omega the Unknown coverHoward the Duck is of course Gerber’s most famous creation, but Omega is probably (a distant) second to Howard and his supporting cast. Omega is known for being a riddle, a series with a lot of intriguing mysteries and clues but no resolution; the story was completed by another writer in the pages of the Defenders, and man, I don’t know any more disappointing way for a story to fizzle out. In short, there was a mute alien who fought crime on earth while wearing an omega-shaped headband and firing blasts that left omega-shaped scars on his hands; he had some undefined connection to a young boy, also able to fire blasts from his hands, who had been homeschooled by his robot parents until they died while taking him to live in the city. Looking back on my review of the original series, Gerber and co-writer Mary Skrenes (and artist Jim Mooney) created a series that combined Gerber’s stark, bleak worldview with the Marvel Universe. Jonathan Lethem, writer of the newer Omega, says in an afterword that Gerber’s Omega was a “metatextual self-deconstruction of the super-hero genre,” a sort of precursor to Watchmen. Perhaps so, but the Marvel Universe intrusions shot the effect Gerber was aiming for to hell and gone.

In Lethem and co-writer Karl Rusnak’s Omega, the story begins much the same; Lethem admits to “slavishly” following some elements of the first issue, such as the scene with the young protagonist (renamed “Alex”) talking to the head of his robot mother after the car crash. In fact, other than substituting a corrupt, publicity-seeking “hero” called the Mink for the Marvel Universe trappings, the first three or so issues don’t significantly change Gerber and Skrenes’s story. When things start deviating from the 30-year-old tale, it’s to make Omega into a story about villainous nanotechnology vs. dysfunctional heroes. It’s hard to see how Omega and Alex are supposed to stop this robotic conspiracy, although of course they are successful. They just don’t seem to put in as much work on it as the villains do.

Omega distinguishes itself from its predecessor by its odd touches: the amputated hand that grows legs and becomes human sized, sneaking around the city; Omega’s gustatory predilection for birds, be they chickens or eagles; the Mink’s entire persona, corrupt and cowardly and vainglorious and amoral; Verth the Overthinker, a cut-rate Watcher. There are dozens of these ideas, and most of them deserve better than serving as ornaments for a rehash of an interesting but terrifically flawed Bronze Age series. They could have been intriguing parts of a new series. Instead, they’re bolted onto a remake that is part ‘70s Gerber, part 21st century Lethem. They’re both modernist takes on superheroics, but they’re miles apart on the details, and when the stories are put together like this, it’s like watching a half Ford Taurus, half Mercedes M class drive down the road. Both are popular cars, but no one wants a Forcedes Maurus.

The modern Omega is a better story because it is allowed to be its own story; it doesn’t have cameos by the Hulk or Electro, and it won’t be finished up years later in the Defenders by another writer. That said, what made the original Omega an interesting — and occasionally maddeningly fascinating — story was the newness and originality of the ideas. Remaking Omega to give coherence to the entire story is like unto remaking the TV series Lost just because you didn’t like the last two seasons. It’s not like the new Omega gives all the answers either: neither Alex’s robotic parents nor Omega’s power outages are ever explained, and Omega gives his origin in a wordless, crudely drawn comic that leaves considerable latitude for interpretation. The story is left open at the end as well; whereas the original Omegas, young and old, were killed in the Defenders, this story ends with them out of the conflict, while the nano-robots haven’t stopped. The struggle continues, with the heroes seemingly disinterested or unable to help humanity.

Art comes from Farel Dalrymple, whose style is more indy than Marvel or DC. Dalrymple eschews the slick look of modern comics (or even Silver or Bronze Age comics) art for a sketchy style that homes in on the necessary details. Despite the art’s lack of polish, Dalrymple is a better storyteller than most, and he does a better job with facial expressions than many artists who will be considered for Amazing Spider-Man or Superman. He shows some range, too: the crude comic Omega draws to show his own origin is a different style than the Silver-Agey Mink comic Omega is forced to read or the rest of the book.

Should you read this? I really don’t know. I think most comics readers should read an Omega story, and I feel bad recommending Gerber and Skrenes’s messy, discombobulated, all-mystery-and-no-resulution Omega to Lethem and Rusnak’s streamlined and coherent Omega. But creation is a messy process, and with all its flaws, the original is still a more remarkable accomplishment.

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

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