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

29 March 2013

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 4

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #402-4, Spectacular Spider-Man #225-7, Spider-Man #59-61, Web of Spider-Man #125-7, New Warriors #61, Spider-Man: The Jackal Files, and Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Alpha and Omega (1995)

Released: November 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 480 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785149552

What is this?: The Clone Saga rushes toward its nadir.

The culprits: So much blame to hand out, so little time.

The Clone Saga, in which Spider-Man’s “clone” returns to his life, has a horrible reputation. Most comic book readers take this as an article of faith. I have read the first three volumes of the Clone Saga, and each were passable, if not always enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised by this competence, but each competent volume only delayed the pain the Clone Saga’s reputation promised.

Now my waiting is over: Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 4 is the awful sludge at the bottom of the cloning vat.

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 4 coverThe Clone Saga could go wrong in so many ways, and Book 4 finds a surprising number of them. The most important mistake is undermining Peter Parker, and Book 4 does that as often as possible. Peter is revealed to be the clone, not Ben Reilly, as was assumed. Peter does little to clear his name while Ben sits in prison for him. He hits his wife.81 He runs out on his responsibilities and joins up with the Jackal, a mass murderer and the man responsible for the chaos of the Clone Saga. And he doesn’t join the Jackal while in a fugue or amnesiac state: he buys the Jackal’s idiotic lies and watches, without intervening, as the Jackal does evil things.

I think the most disappointing part is that when the Jackal claims the role of Peter’s father, Peter doesn’t tell the Jackal he had a father, and his name was Ben Parker. But that’s because Peter sees “clone” as meaning “outsider” and “other” and “worthless”; he doesn’t see the past he shares with Ben Reilly as his, he sees no future for himself, and he sees his present as valueless, despite the love of his pregnant wife. And so he becomes a supervillain’s henchman.

Our hero, everyone! It makes you want to shake him and scream, “GREAT POWER / GREAT RESPONSIBILITY, YOU @#*($ING TWIT.”

Since the Jackal was the villain of the original story featuring Peter’s clone, he is appropriately the Clone Saga’s main villain. Unfortunately, this means the Spider-writers have made “clones” a theme of the mega-crossover, and nothing devalues the uniqueness of a character like a clone. Four major versions of Peter Parker wander through Book 4: Peter, Ben, the original clone, Kaine, and a third clone. The third clone was introduced in Book 3 as an amnesiac Peter; the writers tried to fake out the readers and convince them this clone might be the original, but he turned out to be the Jackal’s super-secret mind-controlled agent who had complete control over every atom of his body. Ben called him “Freak Face,” but in Book 4 Jackal renames him “Spidercide,” a name so awful even the Jackal later disavows it. The Jackal also releases a hundred half-baked clones to stop Ben, which he and Kaine defeat easily, and the Jackal keeps mini-servitors, dressed in Jackal costumes, that he claims are clones of Peter.

By the end of Book 4, you wonder who isn’t a clone of Peter Parker. Perhaps it’s Spider-Man who is the superhero who could be you, literally — because one of you is the clone of the other.

The Jackal gets his biggest moments in Book 4. The problem with the Jackal — other than his incessant cloning — is a failing consistent with many villains with mysterious, overreaching goals: he keeps his goals secret whenever he can, and when he can’t, he lies. But most of his peers have some core value they cling to; Mr. Sinister has his obsession with Summers DNA, for instance. But the Jackal doesn’t have an honest bone in his body.82 He says he wants to replace everyone in the world with genetically perfected clones, but he’s going to get distracted the first time he gets thwarted by Ben or Peter or distracted by a shiny object. Then his long-term plot will be something else, and the previous plot will be revealed as a lie, along with anything else he said.

The only positive is the Jackal makes other villains in the Clone Saga look better by comparison. The usually cryptic Judas Traveller seems forthright, and his assistant, Scrier, is merely annoyingly enigmatic.83 Helix, a mindless, rampaging superpowered man created by the Jackal’s Carrion Virus, is pointless but harmless. The identity of the newest Green Goblin is a happy diversion, rather than a frustrating non sequitur, when reader realizes the pages given to him could have been given to the Jackal instead. The Punisher, in a gratuitous cameo, becomes the greatest hero ever: he shoots the Jackal in the chest.84

The art helps the story a little. To say it is inconsistent is an understatement, though. Mark Bagley’s kinetic, graceful work is a beautiful oasis, but Sal Buscema, inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, pencils as many ugly, scratchy pages as Bagley does pretty ones. Ron Lim’s work on Spider-Man Unlimited is a nice change from the rest of the artists in the book, whose work is, on average, good but a bit too Todd McFarlane / Image influenced for me.

Not everything is awful, but typing that makes me grit my teeth. The idea of putting Spider-Man on trial, with Kaine as his defense attorney and the inmates of Ravenscroft Institution as the jury, has some possibilities, but it’s ended quickly in favor of the asinine criminal trial of Peter Parker.85 In a backup story, Ben Urich interviews Peter’s friends and family for a human-interest story on the man accused of a shocking murder; that’s a better idea for a full-length story than anything actually used for a full issue in Book 4. Readers finally get some closure when Kaine is revealed as Peter’s first clone. The best part, though? The relief of finishing the book.

Book 4 is everything fans objected to (except for the aimlessness and length) in the Clone Saga. There’s more to complain about than what I have listed; I didn't even get into how cavalierly the Spider-Men treat the presence of a Gwen Stacy clone or how little Det. Raven does to see justice is done or … or any number of things. The Complete Clone Saga, Book 4, is a black spot on Spider-Man’s half-century history.

Rating: Half Spider-Man symbol (0.5 of 5)

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26 March 2013

Wonder Granny!

If you’re wondering what Richard Howell’s Wonder Granny looks like, here’s a panel from Vision and the Scarlet Witch (v. 2) #2:

Wonder Granny

Now get off her damn lawn.

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23 March 2013

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties

Collects: West Coast Avengers v. 2 #1-9 and Vision and the Scarlet Witch v. 2 #1-2 (1985-6)

Released: July 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 296 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785162162

What is this?: The West Coast Avengers, led by Hawkeye, establish themselves and try to fill out their roster.

The culprits: Writer Steve Englehart and artists Allen Milgrom and Richard Howell

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties is very much a book of its time. It’s a soapy team book, with rivalries and romance sandwiched between slugathons with supervillains. For someone like me who was introduced to comics via X-Men in the ‘90s, the character conflict and long-term plot development has a pleasantly nostalgic feel, especially since it is not accompanied by all that mutant angst.

Characterization is (mostly) a strength for writer Steve Englehart. He adds depths to some one-dimensional characters, such as robot supervillain Ultron and human supervillain Grim Reaper. Ultron (Mark XII) tries to reconcile with his “father,” Hank Pym; although the execution of Mark XII’s story is rushed and Ultron’s upgrades mean this plot probably won’t be referenced again, Ultron’s growth is a great idea with a good payoff. The Grim Reaper’s obsession with his brother, Wonder Man, is the only aspect of his character readers previously saw, but Engelhart gives him another character note: he’s a racist, although he excepts his girlfriend from his prejudice.

West Coast Avengers: Family Ties coverEnglehart also takes up the challenge of making the book’s two married couples interesting, and he succeeds. (Given how difficult many creators find writing husbands and wives, that’s no mean accomplishment.) The Vision and Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye and Mockingbird have two different sorts of relationships; Vision and Scarlet Witch are stable, determined, and about to have a family, while Hawkeye and Mockingbird are high spirited, passionate, and always bickering. It’s no wonder Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s marriage didn’t work out.79

But Englehart is not so successful with Tigra. Englehart spends a lot of time with Tigra, but his character arc for her is decidedly not modern. Tigra is a human who also has a cat soul inside her, which gives her not only a feline shape and superpowers but also feline characteristics — personality elements her human side wants to get rid of. So far, so good; it’s similar to a werewolf story, and Englehart even brings in Morbius the (ex-) Living Vampire and Werewolf by Night to drive home the monster angle. But Tigra’s internal conflicts come from her newfound fear of water, mercurialness, and promiscuity. A male character would not be given promiscuity as a character flaw, then or now, nor would fickleness be considered a sufficient challenge to overcome. I appreciate the lengths Englehart shows Tigra is willing to go to rid herself of her catlike flaws, but there are better cat characteristics he could have used: cruelty, aloofness (definite problem on a team), independence (ditto). Focusing on a female’s character’s sexuality is a cliché; silly fears and a proclivity to change her mind only make the stereotyping worse.

Exploring the problems of Tigra’s powers necessitates devoting several pages to Cat People continuity, which is not worth rehashing. But it’s just one example of Englehart’s reliance on continuity in Family Ties. Sometimes it works, as when he brings back Tigra’s old opponent Kraven for a rematch, but often it falls flat. The Cat People are an odd fit with a superhero story and not very exciting. The Grim Reaper / Wonder Man / Vision story works OK, but Simon's embezzlement — referred to in his origin story — is as exciting as accountancy plotlines tend to be. Englehart’s biggest success is using Secret Wars to explain why there are two Ultrons with differing personalities; the flashbacks with Ultron’s head controlling people are fun and creepy.

Englehart’s continuity mining limits his choice of villains, but fortunately, those villains are heavy hitters: Grim Reaper, Ultron, Kraven. Other villains are offbeat but enjoyable; I have a soft spot for Nekra, Black Talon and his zombies, and the Rangers. But the main villain in Family Ties, one who grows in importance in succeeding volumes, is Master Pandemonium, and he’s … oh, he’s not very good.

Master Pandemonium is just one of a type: the guy who makes a deal with the devil that goes horribly awry. Unlike Johnny Blaze / Ghost Rider, Master Pandemonium becomes evil when Mephisto gives him an opportunity to regain his soul. Until he reclaims his soul, he’s the amazing Fall-Apart Man, who has demons for limbs; they separate from him and fight his enemies, leaving him a floating torso. He can also summon demons from the great sucking star-shaped wound in his chest. Why he doesn’t summon demons rather than lose his limbs isn’t clear. But Master Pandemonium is utterly generic and utterly forgettable were it not for his role in future stories that helped victimize the Scarlet Witch.

Artist Allen Milgrom doesn’t shine on Master Pandemonium either. Milgrom gives Master Pandemonium a sinister, almost Yellow Peril look that clashes with his Anglo ethnicity. The forked Fu Man Chu resembles a stereotypical Asian villain’s facial hair, howevermuch it is supposed to evoke a pentagram, and his robes and cape certainly call to mind the Mandarin. Milgrom also draws standard Marvel Technicolor demons, which I’ve always been bored by. There’s little about them that differentiate them, artistically, from a host of generic monstrous humanoids.

Milgrom’s art is standard for the ‘80s, solid without being flashy. Milgrom tells the story without unnecessary flourishes; I especially like the slightly wall-eyed panels from the view of Ultron’s disembodied head. In #6, Milgrom’s rough pencils are inked by Kyle Baker, whose wider, softer faces works well on Tigra and the Cat People. Most of the rest of the issues are inked by Joe Sinnot, who contributes to the book’s traditional look.

Richard Howell draws the two issues of Vision and the Scarlet Witch included in Family Ties; overall, his work is more detailed and features more close-up shots of characters than Milgrom’s. His Nekra is wonderful, and he seems to enjoy drawing the Scarlet Witch. But there is a certain stiffness to many panels, his zombies aren’t frightening (the colorist's decision to make them dark gray has something to do with this), and his Wonder Man is awful, looking more like Wonder Granny.80

Family Ties has too many continuity-filled soft spots to be great; Tigra’s short-sighted characterization may make it difficult for some readers to enjoy. But Family Ties does hit a nostalgic sweet spot at times, and between Englehart’s high spots and Milgrom’s solid art, Family Ties has a lot to offer, especially to those who wish they were still 10 and buying comics in 1986.

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

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15 March 2013

X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David, v. 1

Collects: X-Factor v. 1 #71-5 (1991-2)

Released: November 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785118725

What is this?: The U.S. government forms a new mutant team: X-Factor.

The culprits: Writer Peter David and artist Larry Stroman

Peter David’s run on X-Factor is much beloved, and in X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David, v. 1, Marvel’s first trade paperback reprinting David’s run, it’s easy to see why. It isn’t a masterpiece, as some would have it; however, it’s a very good example of a comedy / superheroic mashup.

Before David took over X-Factor with #70, the book had concentrated on the adventures of the original five X-Men, who had distanced themselves from the team after team founder Professor Xavier left for space and the X-Men welcomed former archvillain Magneto into their ranks. When Xavier returned, Magneto fell out of the picture, and longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont was ousted from the book, the line was reorganized. New Mutants had already become X-Force; the members of X-Factor returned to Uncanny X-Men, which spun off the adjectiveless X-Men title to handle all the mutants. Wolverine remained Wolverine. That left only X-Factor to be dealt with.77 To his great credit, editor Bob Harras turned the title over to David, who made it a humor title.

 coverDespite David’s success on Incredible Hulk, David’s direction on the higher-selling X-Factor must have felt like a terrible risk. Not only did David take the mickey out of the X-books’ traditional heavy-handed angst, he did it with a lineup of second stringers: a pair of B-list X-Men (Havok and Polaris), a former New Mutant (Wolfsbane), a B-list Avenger (Quicksilver), a guy who had been hanging around the fringes of the X-books for almost two decades (Madrox the Multiple Man), and a guy who was a bodyguard to C-lister Lila Cheney (Guido, who gets his “Strong Guy” name here). You can get less star power in a team book published by Marvel or DC, but I can’t figure out how, exactly.

But David’s humor is top notch. The breadth of David’s humor is incredible78: wordplay, throwaway references to pop culture (liaison Val Cooper mentions her FBI agent brother, Dale — Dale Cooper being the protagonist of the then-current Twin Peaks), running gags, physical humor, funny dialogue … he even uses puns in a way that won’t make you want to strangle him. Every issue is funny, and every character is funny in his or her own way.

That’s not to say there aren’t serious moments; David’s run would not have been so fondly remembered if it had only been an outlet for David’s particular brand of humor. Characters face their own traumas and hang-ups, overcome their crises. When a reporter mentions mutants keep returning from the dead, Wolfsbane retorts that her “first love” is in the grave. Over several incidents, Madrox is forced to admit the duplicates he makes of himself aren’t just cannon fodder to be discarded whenever he wants. Although it’s early days for the title, David gives warning that he is willing to put his character though the wringer and examine their heads afterwards — all while maintaining that sense of humor.

I have few quibbles about the writing. David begins the gathering of the team already in progress in #71, and I don’t think that works very well; it feels as if something’s missing or being taken for granted. Professor Xavier’s insistence that Havok take the job as X-Factor’s leader for political and public-relations reasons is laughable, given how poorly he and the X-Men have always fared on that front. (No matter what Havok does, he can’t make a shovelful of difference in the hole the X-Men have dug fur themselves.) The Nasty Boys and their political backer are extremely forgettable villains for the first arc, especially given how little X-Factor does on their government jobs in five issues.

For real objections, though, I have to turn to the art. X-Factor’s pencils are by Larry Stroman, and he’s … he’s not my favorite artist, to say the least. I had hoped Stroman’s art would grow on me like Bill Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants work did, transforming my opinion from “horrid” to “acceptable” to “fantastic.” But it was not to be: I can’t stand his exaggerated style with lumpy heads and Muppet mouths and bulbous bodies. His fight scenes — which David gives him few of, admittedly — are weak, at best. At times I find it tough to look at his pencils.

And if I have one more protest — one not related to the content — it’s the price. Sixteen dollars for 144 pages? That’s a dime a page, more than double what the original issues went for. Five issues for $16 comes out to more than $3 per issue, triple the original price, although #75 is a double issue. You can pick up used copies of Peter David, v. 1, cheaply, but still: that’s a steep asking price.

Peter David, v. 1, isn’t perfect; no book is. But despite its flaws, it should be part of every X-fan’s library.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol

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02 March 2013

Everyday papal excuse

I missed putting up a review today. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:

For the first time this year, I did not post a review on Friday. I apologize. The reason is quite jejune; I was doing some last-minute campaigning before the upcoming papal conclave . I'm not Catholic, but it’s a cushy job, and I figure nothing ventured, nothing gained; also, I've always been a fan of Cardinals (as long as they were from St. Louis).

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