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

28 December 2012

Alpha Flight: The Complete Series by Pak and Van Lente

Collects: Alpha Flight #0.1, 1-8 (2011-2)

Released: May 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 208 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785162834

What is this?: The original Alpha Flight team is back, battling a government seemingly gone mad and a traitor from within.

The culprits: Writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente and artists Dale Eaglesham and Ben Oliver

I wanted to like Alpha Flight: The Complete Series. I like Alpha Flight, as a team. The writers, Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, have produced books I’ve liked, such as their Incredible Hercules run. And in this series, Pak and Van Lente reunite Alpha Flight’s classic lineup in its own book for the first time since the John Byrne run.

But it’s tough to recreate greatness a quarter century on. The characters, creators, and readership have all changed. The title changed a great deal after Byrne left, with writers such as Bill Mantlo, James Hudnall, and Simon Furman guiding Alpha Flight for more than 100 issues. After the original series ended, Alpha Flight was relaunched twice: a Steven Seagle / Duncan Rouleau conspiracy story and a critically lambasted Scott Lobdell run. What “Alpha Flight” means changed, so much so we forget the original lineup existed for single issue. Characters have been killed, brought back to life, and killed again. In fact, the last time I checked, everyone starring in this book was dead. Marrina had been dead for decades, killed in Avengers in 1986. Northstar was killed by Wolverine as cheap carnage in 2005’s Enemy of the State. The rest died between panels because Brian Bendis said so.

Alpha Flight: The Complete Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente Series coverUnfortunately, there’s no explanation of how Guardian, Vindicator, Sasquatch, Shaman, or Marrina came back to life. (Puck says he escaped from Hell, which at least acknowledges that he died.) Maybe it has something to do with the Fear Itself crossover, which manifests itself in this book as people running around with anime-sized hammers. A little research reveals the Chaos War storyline allowed the team to return, but The Complete Series doesn’t explain the link or mention either crossover. And even invoking Chaos War doesn’t explain how dead liaison / traitor Gary Cody had time to build a political career. And hey — did you know Guardian and Vindicator had a kid? It’s true! And they lost custody to Heather’s cousin? Also — apparently — true. Is it too much to ask for footnotes so I know Pak and Van Lente have created and what they have been saddled with? I don’t think so. Footnotes are your friend. They’re everyone’s friend, and I missed them very much in The Complete Series.

Pak and Van Lente mix the old with the new, which sounds like a good idea but is troublesome in practice. Alpha Flight’s arbitrariness is the main problem with the series. The characters seem to return from the dead for no reason, their personalities plucked from someplace in their histories. The writers have brought some characters back to their roots, regressing them. Sasquatch flirts with Aurora, who still battles her multiple personalities. Despite years with Alpha Flight and time with the X-Men, Northstar is still not a joiner. Puck is still exuberant, although he’s a bit mad now. Snowbird is still slightly imperious and slightly distant, and Shaman is still Shaman. But Marrina is recast into a violent, moody teenager coming to grips with her alien nature. Sasquatch loses his powers, and when he reacquires them, he has a Hulk-like personality. The Purple Girl has grown into the Purple Woman, taken fashion cues from Carmen Sandiego, and become a terrorist.

This mix of progression and regression is bothersome. Aurora, Northstar, and Sasquatch have lost years of development by returning to their factory-new states. It feels like the writers are casting around for a hook for these characters and settling on what’s been done before. Marrina’s new personality is a distraction. As a new character, she might have been entertaining; however, the contrast with who she was is jarring, especially since readers did not see the transition between personalities. And Shaman and Snowbird are both characters who should have something to say to Guardian about the loss of a child, but neither do; this seems less a lost opportunity and more of Van Lente and Pak casting aside or forgetting who Shaman and Snowbird are.

The villains’ plot — which involves mind control — does not help matters, especially given how extreme some of the actions Vindicator takes while controlled are. Aurora, switching between personalities and loyalties on a whim, exemplifies the lack of a core these characters have. Even the familiar characters feel off. Characters can only be remolded so much before they lose the shapes we liked, and I think that’s the case here.

The plot, which involves a Canadian government being controlled by the Master of the World, doesn’t feel like an Alpha Flight plot. Or — to be more accurate — if feels like a generic superhero plot that was roughly customized for Alpha Flight. The government takeover feels too over the top, with mass arrests of the opposition party and the press stretching credibility. The Master is an excellent choice for a foe, but he rarely feels engaged with the heroes, and his end goal — creating a race of humans who will conquer the universe — is power mad but delightfully without a point. Why conquer the universe? You might as well ask why he’s using a Wendigo as an operative. Because it’s something to do, I suppose; it’s always tough to keep busy when you’re immortal.

I enjoyed Dale Eaglesham’s art. It is attractive, and the characters are expressive without comically mugging. His illustration of the Master’s origins, drawn in a child’s style to convey that it is being told to Vindicator and Guardian’s daughter, is especially endearing. I’m not wild about Marrina’s new and occasionally mutating costume, but it’s not like her old costume — a one-piece swimsuit — was worth saving. I’m less enamored of Ben Oliver’s work on #0.1, although that may be the colorist’s fault — the painted-style colors makes everything look flat.

It’s ironic that Pak and Van Lente’s back-to-basics approach gives Alpha Flight an unsettling unfamiliarity. But the writers’ blithe attempts to take the team back to its beginnings leaves me at a loss; are these the characters I’ve enjoyed reading about? By the end I have to say no, even if they have the same names and appearances.

Rating: Alpha Flight symbol Half Alpha Flight symbol (1.5 of 5)

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21 December 2012

Batman: Detective Comics, v. 1: Faces of Death

Collects: Detective Comics #1-7 (2011-2)

Released: June 2012 (DC)

Format: 176 pages / color / $22.99 / ISBN: 9781401234669

What is this?: The Joker makes his New 52 debut, Batman battles the Dollmaker, and a Gotham heist shockingly has twists and double crosses.

The culprits: Tony S. Daniel

Continuing my brief tour through the New 52 is Batman: Detective Comics, v. 1: Faces of Death. Faces of Death contains two stories, both written and penciled by Tony S. Daniel: four-issue story featuring Joker and the Dollmaker, who cuts up and stitches together pieces of people to make masks and augment thugs, and a three-issue tale involving the Penguin, Batman’s girlfriend (or one of them), and a pair of lovers trying to make the criminal big time.

Of the two, the latter is superior. It’s a heist plot, not overly complicated; the Penguin opens his Iceberg Casino on the same night he cajoles new Gotham villains to deposit their money in his impenetrable vaults, and of course someone tries to rob that vault. As a crime tale, the story works well and has many elements that give it a noir shading without seeming clichéd: desperate criminal lovers in over their heads, a colorful cast, and a villainous plan that makes sense on its first read-through but fits together even better on a second read-through. It’s admirably short — three issues — and although I think it could have been wrapped up in two, the extra issue did allow Daniel to insert subplots and introduce other characters who may be important later.

Batman: Detective Comics, v. 1: Faces of Death coverOn the other hand, the story has extra complications that water down the story, all of them connected with Bruce’s girlfriend, television reporter Charlotte Rivers. Bruce says, “I like this one” in issue #1, which is intended to convey to readers that Charlotte is special but translates as “She’s my girlfriend in this storyline” to anyone who has read more than a handful of Batman stories. And of course liking her didn’t stop him from having sex with Catwoman on a rooftop in Catwoman #1. By the end of #6, though, Batman is willing to jeopardize his secret identity by crying out her name in front of a villain after she has been stabbed. Do I believe Batman cares so much about a woman he has been dating for a short time that he loses his professionalism and jeopardizes his mission? No. No, I don’t.

Some characters are overcomplicated by details that don’t add any emotional weight to the story. Charlotte and one of the robbers are twins who were separated at birth, their father is Gotham’s mayor, and the sisters have a covert but long-running stand-off. It doesn’t add anything to Charlotte or the robber twin’s characters. If Charlotte had discovered the heist because she’s good at her job and hungry for a scoop, she would seem a more impressive reporter; Daniel could have added depth to the robber’s character by giving her some other reason not to kill Charlotte. Their parentage could have been worked into other spots in the story — certainly Bruce Wayne dating the daughter of the mayor is big news, or someone might think it would be a big story if the public knew (it’s not stated whether Mayor Hady’s paternity has been acknowledged). Instead, readers get a complication they’ve seen frequently before.

One odd touch to the villainous twin’s crime spree is the mutilation of one of the victims. All the ones murdered are marked in a signature way, but one in particular is chopped into pieces and stuffed into a trunk full of ice. It seems out of character for such a professional villain, but it does echo the gore seen in the first story …

Which starts as a Joker vs. Batman story but morphs into a horror story, one rather less successful than the heist tale. In issue #1, Batman pursues and ends the Joker’s murder spree, one owing more than a little to The Dark Knight. The issue ends with a new villain, Dollmaker, cutting off the Joker’s face and spiriting him out of Arkham, the implication being that the Joker is either dead (ha!) or has a new face. In #2-4, Batman tracks down the Dollmaker, who cuts people and bodies apart, then puts them back in different configurations. He also has a sideline as an organ harvester.

The problem with the story is that it seems a bit too derivative. Following the Joker’s terrorism in #1, the story has a dead cop used as a decoy, sloppy police work that places cops in the villain’s trap, and corrupt officers. The villain catches Batman but declines to kill him, claiming the villains he is selling Batman to need to see him in action. Jim Gordon is captured, used as bait, and also is not killed, even though there’s no reason to keep him alive. Tried and true tropes, yes, but not exactly a way to distinguish Batman in the New 52. (Daniel does have Batman shrug off an anesthetic’s effect without an antidote or comment — that’s new, but it’s not good.)

From what I can tell, Daniel is writing a slightly different Batman than the other New 52 titles I’ve read. Daniel’s Batman is a humorless dick who is isolated from everyone except Alfred and Gordon. (He’s mostly humorless in Batman and Batman and Robin, but his interactions make him more human.) His dialogue is flat and forgettable. A little violence is necessary when it comes to Batman stories, but Daniel’s Batman seems to relish it a more than other versions: he thrashes one of Dollmaker’s thugs he has captured, trying to beat information out of him, and as a threat, he claims he has “broken” men. He gives Raju, the Penguin’s underling, a swirly, which seems less like a high school prank and more of an unhygienic waterboarding. This Batman is very violent; he may be a torturer. He’s also a two-timer, as I said before, making time with Catwoman as Batman (in other titles) and Charlotte as Bruce. Not very admirable, and I think less of this Batman than other versions.

One of Daniel’s successes is setting up subplots that actually feel like subplots rather than loose ends. Hugh Marder, owner of a tech company Bruce is buying, will eventually be important. Charlotte Rivers obviously has more of a story. Olivia Carr, a girl abducted by / collaborating with the Dollmaker, should show up again, although she might be dropped. Batman learns someone is stealing Wayne technology in the first story, and even though he doesn’t investigate that mystery in the second, it does feel important. An interesting enough backup, drawn by Szymon Kudranski, introduces Hugo Strange and his son in a story about a Catwoman heist. This certainly isn’t the old style of simmering subplots, but it is better than a lot of modern comics.

Daniel’s pencils are a mixed bag. It’s strong in Jim Lee-fu, pretty and bold and big. On the other hand, sometimes it misses on the details: for instance, Raju adds 50 pounds of fat between appearances, Hugh Marder loses 50 pounds of muscle, and a character whom Batman claims has had his tongue removed is shown, mouth open, with his tongue visible. Raju I recognized because he’s the only brown person of note in the story, but I didn’t figure out who Hugh was until the second read-through. (I’m sure the tongue was supposed to be a stump, but it doesn’t come across in the art. Since Daniel is the writer and penciler, it’s not like there’s miscommunication.) There are other strange artistic moments — Alfred’s eyes opening wider than the lifeless, staring eyes of the corpse two panels before, for instance — but you get the point. His designs need work. He never settles on a theme for Dollmaker’s henchmen — Jack in the Box and the monkey with cymbals suggest a toy motif, the naughty nurse for a doctor theme, and the mismatched flesh golems suggest a mad scientist. His new villain designs in the second story are amusing but not that original (except Mr. Combustible, who has a light bulb for a head), but they are probably meant to be throwaways.

Oh, someone should tell colorist Tomeu Morey that not everyone's nose is always a different color than the rest of his or her face.

While Faces of Death is competent and — in the second story, at least — occasionally more, it feels like a joyless exercise in putting out more Batman every month. And I’m not interested in that.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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14 December 2012

Spider-Girl, v. 1: Family Values

Collects: Spider-Girl v. 2 #1-8, back-up from Amazing Spider-Man #648 (2011)

Released: August 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 208 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785146940

What is this?: Anya Corazon embraces the name Spider-Girl and begins her own adventures.

The culprits: Writer Paul Tobin and artists Clayton Henry and Matthew Southworth

I’ve complained at length about the difficulty of establishing and selling new characters in mainstream comics. But as hard as it is, the task should be a high priority for Marvel and DC, given that both are owned by huge entertainment corporations that need new concepts constantly. Warner Brothers and Disney want new characters — ones created some time after the Vietnam War, preferably — that can be sold to a new generation of consumers, and a lot of ideas can still be generated and tested in a short time in comics.

Although commercial appeal should not be artists’ main concern, it is the main concern of the companies that employ those artists. I’m not sure why Warner Brothers and Disney don’t encourage, by threat or incentive, their subsidiaries to devote more resources and patience to new characters; the Marvel movie universe should show how lucrative one sustained burst of creativity, lasting just a few years, can be.

Spider-Girl: Family Values coverUntil then, we get newer characters in dribs and drabs. Take Spider-Girl, for instance. Originally, Anya Corazon was Araña, a character whose most prominent selling point was her ethnicity. Predictably, that went over badly. When her original series was cancelled, she was separated from her mystic origin and put into the Young Allies. That series lasted as long as you would expect a team book with Firestar as its most recognizable character to last.

But Marvel didn’t give up on Anya, and good for them. The concept has the seeds of a good, marketable idea: spunky, young female protagonist who adds a little ethnic diversity to the Marvel Universe and who can be linked to Spider-Man. The “Grim Hunt” storyline in Amazing Spider-Man strengthened Anya’s ties to Spider-Man; change her code name, and viola! The result is Spider-Girl, v. 1: Family Values. Volume 1 is the totality of the series, though — the series was cancelled after eight issues. But is there anything here to salvage going forward? Maybe.

Writer Paul Tobin has decided that since Anya is a teenager in the ‘10s, she should be on Twitter … as Spider-Girl. I applaud Tobin for trying to find something new and unique for the character, something that fits her character. Spider-Girl’s tweets aren’t as intrusive as you might suspect, since they fill the same niche as text boxes with characters’ thoughts (which themselves replaced thought bubbles). This approach works as long as the reader doesn’t think too much about it; however, there’s no place for a phone on her skin-tight costume, and as another character reveals, her tweets reveal too much about Spider-Girl’s real name. We’re probably supposed to believe Anya is tweeting after she returns to her civilian ID, but given the detail and number of her tweets, I’d think another form of social networking — Reddit? a blog? — would be a better choice. Harder to make work on the comics page, though.

Tobin also tries to integrate Spider-Girl into the wider Marvel Universe. This is also a great idea, but the execution is lacking. Spider-Man is a natural fit for Spider-Girl, especially after Grim Hunt. The first story in Family Values, the back-up from Amazing Spider-Man #648, shows that working relationship: Spider-Girl intimidated but competent, with Spider-Girl not at the level of an Avenger but still an effective street-level hero. And that’s who Spider-Girl should be meeting: street-level heroes such as Daredevil, Heroes for Hire, Moon Knight, etc. Chuck a brick out the window in Marvel New York, and you hit a street-level hero.

But in #1, Anya is palling around with the Invisible Woman and the rest of the Fantastic Four, which feels wrong. I’m not sure if Tobin created the connection between Gil Corazon and the Fantastic Four, but the Fantastic Four is the first family of Marvel, and the connection draws Anya toward the middle of the Marvel Universe; writing Spider-Girl as important to the Fantastic Four and the Spider-Man makes Tobin seem like he’s trying too hard to push Spider-Girl, although the attempt is not as egregious Tamora Pierce and Timothy Liebe’s effort in White Tiger. By the end of the story, Spider-Girl is showing up Spider-Man and taunting the Red Hulk when she should be teaming up with young heroes like Bucky, her friend and classmate from Young Allies, or complementing more experienced heroes.

Anya could be a simple character with a simple, if well-worn, hook: a high-school girl with a connection to Spider-Man, balancing fighting street-level crime and a personal life centered around school and friends. But Anya was already a convoluted character before this series. Her original series made her the super-powered operative of the Spider Society, which fought the Sisterhood of the Wasp in a mystical war. During Civil War, she hobnobbed with famous heroes, such as Ms. Marvel and Wonder Man. There’s a cryptic mention in Family Values of her learning advanced computer skills from SHIELD, but I have no idea where that comes from. None of this backstory is mentioned in Family Values — the extremely brief recap page from Spider-Girl #1 is entirely insufficient. But whether Tobin is hiding these complications, trying to push across a slightly rolled-back version of Anya before pushing her back into the MU, or deprecating her complications because they aren’t relevant, it’s for the best: none of those stories make her more interesting.

Tobin nicely balances Spider-Girl’s heroism with Anya’s personal life. Anya and her father move, giving Tobin a chance to introduce a new supporting cast. In theory, that’s good, allowing the book to distance itself from Araña. However, Tobin goes too far. Her friendship with Bucky, both in and out of costume, was one of the strengths of Young Allies, but Bucky is barely in Family Values, and she’s never in costume. Worse, Tobin kills Anya’s father in the first issue. (That’s hardly a spoiler; it’s on the back cover.) Beyond the complicated questions of grief that should grip the book, it leaves the question of how a high-school student would be allowed to live without a guardian. (She could be 18, but I never had that impression.) It also removes a character who should have had a strong supporting role in favor of cheap pathos; Gil Corazon had much more potential as a father than as a corpse. Rocky, who becomes Anya’s best friend and roommate, never quite becomes interesting enough to fill in the gap. I’m sure the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s First Family, is supposed to serve as a surrogate family, but that feels forced.

Tobin does an excellent job of choosing adversaries for Spider-Girl. Screwball (a parkour-using publicity hound) and Ana Kravinoff (Kraven the Hunter’s daughter) are thematically excellent choices, although since Spider-Man has had some trouble with both of them, Spider-Girl’s victories over both does make Spider-Man look weak next to a unpowered teenager. Hobgoblin is a bit out of her league, but Spider-Man gets involved with their fight, making the heroes’ victory more believable. The Red Hulk is a mistake — not just in this book, but as a character. But the assorted muggers and thus, of course, are exactly what is needed.

Family Values also introduces Raven, a secret organization with scientists and augmented operatives in the same vein as the Secret Empire, the Corporation, AIM, etc. Raven plans to blackmail or suborn Spider-Girl into becoming its agent; it’s cute that one of its operatives thinks having Spider-Girl on Raven’s side is going to make a big difference — cute, and totally believable in the tunnel-vision way of mad planners. I’m assuming Tobin had plans to make this slow-burning plot last longer; the resolution, which takes up all of #7 and 8, feels rushed and has all the hurried hallmarks of a plot that has to be wrapped up before cancellation. There’s nothing unique about Raven that required it to be a new group — there are dozens of similar groups in Marvel history waiting for resurrection — but perhaps Tobin had something specific in mind that didn’t fit other groups.

Family Values has two pencilers on its main stories: Matthew Southworth, who drew #4 and 5 (the fight vs. Ana Kravinoff), and Clayton Henry, who drew the rest. Henry provides most of the pencils. His work is clear and pleasant, although occasionally the characters come across as a little plastic. Southworth has the more unusual style, reminiscent of Michael Lark — a good comparison when you’re dealing with two people of normal power levels kicking and punching each other. Dean Haspiel’s cartoony art is an excellent complement to Tobin’s amusing backup in #1, in which a young Anya meets the Fantastic Four for the first time. Chris Sotomayor, the colorist, has trouble finding a consistent skin tone for Anya. Her skin runs the gamut from light to dark, and she switches between being a brunette and a redhead.

So is there much to salvage from Family Values? The character of Anya, perhaps, but she was in better shape at the end of Young Allies. The stories and art are solid but not spectacular, so reading Family Values is not time wasted. But by trying to add too many new connections to the hero, Tobin’s restart doesn’t add much to the character; it serves as a detriment, actually, making the character less relatable and taking away Anya’s father. The story with Raven and the Red Hulk is wrapped up with a neat bow at the end, so the story’s main plot has few-to-no loose ends. (The exception is that another civilian knows her secret identity.) Family Values gives writers the opportunity to team Anya with the Fantastic Four. I’m not sure that’s a positive, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (2.5 of 5)

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