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

20 January 2012

Strange Tales, v. 1

Collects: Megolamaniacal Spider-Man # 1 and Strange Tales #1-3 (2002, 2009-10)

Released: August 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785128021

What is this?: A collection of indy comics creators playing in the Marvel sandbox with short, mainly humorous tales.

The culprits: More than two dozen creators, including Peter Bagge, Stan Sakai, Becky Cloonan, Paul Pope, and Michael Kupperman

Strange Tales looks like an odd choice for Marvel, a company that won’t give up on its continuity and sticks more to its mainstream superheroes than the newly revamped DC. Strange Tales features the works of “indy” creators — although veteran creators such as Stan Sakai, Jonathan Hickman, and Paul Pope hardly belong in that classification — telling mostly humorous stories of the non-canonical parts of the Marvel Universe.

By virtue of the creators’ reputations, Strange Tales should be edgy, hip, different. But there’s a contradiction here: most of those creators gained their reputations by not working for the Big Two. Marvel wanted to gain some of what those creators have. But by giving these jokes and parodies its imprimatur, Marvel has removed the edginess, hipness, newness. And it’s not different because Marvel parodies are a dime a terabyte these days — I believe Marvel parodies are the third reason the Internet was invented, after porn and LOLcats.

Strange Tales coverStill, in Strange Tales, Marvel and its readers do get an outsider’s perspective of the characters, even if that perspective does look at Marvel as a source of humor. Fortunately for Marvel, most of the stories are funny, and their mockery is gentle, even affectionate.

Since the material comes from so many creators, it’s hard to formulate a cohesive conclusion about a collection of such disparate stories. They’re mostly two- or four-page jokes, with a wide variety of comedic approaches. Strange Tales includes style parodies (which look like intentionally nonsensical versions of ‘70s comics), MODOKery, redialogued Silver Age comics, Horatian satire, children’s slapstick humor, gag pages with one panel jokes based on a single concept (“Marvel’s Most Embarrassing Moments”), and full-on absurdity. I found the absurdist sketches the funniest; Tony Millionaire’s story has a Silver / Bronze Age look and features Iron Man battling Baloney Head, Liver-Wurst Face, and the Communist Dwight D. Eisenhower; it’s even weirder than it sounds. My favorite is Michael Kupperman’s “Marvex the Super Robot,” which has nothing to do with Marvel and reads like something out of his Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

Some of these could actually fit as a back-up or in an anthology title. In Jacob Chabot’s “Lookin’ Good, Mr. Grimm!,” the Thing gets a chia moustache; it’s silly, but the art and the plot could be a backup in an issue of Fantastic Four. A series of four posters tries to recruit new workers into the service of Galactus, although allowing Terrax to speak — and giving potential recruits the recipe for Five-Finger Kabobs — might have been a mistake.

A few stories don’t seem to fit; either the creators didn’t the memo about humor being a theme or they decided to go their own way. This leads to a few different approaches: action sequences (“The Punisher,” with the hero redesigned as a kung-fu fighter, by Jonathan Jay Lee), trying to evoke real pathos (“Nightcrawler Meets the Molecule Man” by Paul Hornschemeier), or plain incomprehensibility (“Cupcake!” by Chris Chua). Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai turns Bruce Banner into a cowardly Shogunate retainer transformed into a Hulk-like oni by a vengeful ghost. “La Querelle des Monstres” by Jay Stephens features a Beast / Morbius battle with a typical Bronze Age downer ending fitting for two characters in their ‘70s incarnations.

The final two stories in the collection, both by Peter Bagge, are the longest: “The Incorrigible Hulk” and “The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man,” each of which originally were single issues and are about 20 pages long. The latter is about Peter Parker, whose life takes an Ayn-Rand turn before Gwen is killed, and his fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of his alter ego; the former is about the dual-natured Bruce Banner, who attracts two vastly different ladies as a mild-mannered scientist and as a monster. “Hulk” is definitely the better of the two, as there’s a limit to the humor in abuse of power and Randian philosophy, even in satire. Bagge’s characters are distinctively exaggerated, seemingly designed for humor comics, with their bandy limbs and gaping, distorted mouths, but after 40 pages it begins to grate.

This is a funny collection — not hilarious, but funny. On the other hand, this is $25 for 160 pages; at that ratio, it needs to be better than just funny. That’s a good price for a high-quality collection, one that’s at the level of the best work in Strange Tales. But it’s too high for the average level of humor, which consistenly inspires grins but not enough laughter.

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

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