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

26 April 2013

Prophet, v. 1: Remission

Collects: Prophet #21-6 (2012)

Released: August 2012 (Image)

Format: 136 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607066118

What is this?: In the far future, a warrior reawakes on a mission to reignite the old Earth Empire.

The culprits: Written by Brandon Graham and drawn by Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Graham, and Giannis Milonogiannis

I picked up both Hawkeye and Prophet, v. 1: Remission on the recommendation of House to Astonish. I was prepared for Hawkeye, but Prophet … I’m not sure what to make of Prophet.

Prophet gives the reader a feeling of being dropped into a world that has already been partially developed. Part of that is because Remission reprints #21-6; obviously, twenty issues came before Remission. What relationship they have to Remission is unknown, though, and when those original issues were published is unstated. (Mostly 1993-6, with one issue in 2000.) I presumed those 20th-century issues related to the stories in Remission, but a glance around Wikipedia shows the link is tenuous.

Prophet, v. 1: Remission coverRemission is set in the far future. Earth is vastly different, the landscapes altered and overrun by alien animals and sentients. John Prophet is belched forth onto this Earth by an armored digging machine that has been buried for an untold number of years. The newly awakened Prophet is sent on a mission — to go to a satellite and send out a beacon to the remnants of the old Earth Empire — that has been prepared so long ago a city has been born and thrived at one of the rendezvous points along his route.

Prophet’s quest is excellent sci-fi. The aliens are varied in custom and appearance, and Prophet drifts through their settlements. The technology is a combination of advanced and dilapidated, with animals frequently used for power. The fractured Earth society is stagnant, not creating or innovating. Humans are not seen anywhere — unless, as one alien intimates, the ape-like creatures that are farmed for meat are human.

Writer Brandon Graham doesn’t give Prophet much character — for good reason, as it turns out, since Graham moves on to other stories after #3’s big twist ending. Prophet is an enigma, a grunting action hero one can easily see being portrayed on screen by a mop-topped, early ‘80s Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no explanation of his past, no examination of his motives: he is born into this strange world, and his only reason for birth is his mission. He is as reflective as a brick wall, and he does not question the elaborate preparations that bespeak a long-term plan; he only acknowledges their usefulness.

Artist Simon Roy is perfect for this arc. Roy, who is also co-credited for the story, draws a world that has only tinges of the familiar. His aliens are weird, the landscapes forbiddingly strange. His Prophet is brutish and stoic. Roy’s style also has a tinge of the doodles in a high schooler’s notebook — appropriate for such an imaginative and epic work.

For the rest of Remission, Graham tells one-issue stories from elsewhere in the universe. The stories presumably arise from the events at the end of #23, but only #25 explicitly says so. Each individual story is good, but their episodic nature saps the momentum of that great first arc. The lack of continuation and continuity throws the readers’ assumptions about the series’ nature into question. What is this series about? Who specifically is it about? Will any of these stories mesh, or are they vignettes to give the flavor of Prophet’s universe? I believe they are related, and people or places in #24-6 will be important. But that’s a belief, with no real evidence to support it.

Still, they are enjoyable stories, if lacking in back story. Issue #24 features a shorter quest, in many ways echoing Prophet’s in #21-3. The best of the latter three stories is #25, which follows a robot wakened by Prophet's signal; Jaxson is a automaton veteran of the Earth Empire’s wars who now is stoically getting ready for another. The final issue is less effective, without much struggle and without any pathos. But it does introduce the Old Man, who was mentioned in #25. The art for the three issues — by Farel Dalrymple, Graham, and Giannis Milonogiannis, respectively90 — is very good, but they lack some spark that Roy’s art possesses. Emma Rios contributes a five-page story that is opaque, both in art and story, to the point of nonsensicalness.

I enjoyed Remission, but I wonder, what is it about? Is there a larger story here? I feel there has to be, given the hints laid down during #21-3, but I cannot guess its shape or color. I am tempted to pick up Prophet, v. 2: Brothers, but as good as Remission is, I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy it as a long-form story.

Rating: Image symbol Image symbol Image symbol Image symbol (4 of 5)

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19 April 2013

Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death

Collects: Scarlet Spider v. 2 #1-6 and story from Point One #1 (2012)

Released: February 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785163107

What is this?: An amoral clone of Spider-Man gets a new lease on life in Houston.

The culprits: Writer Chris Yost and artists Ryan Stegman and Neil Edwards

Going into Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death, I thought all the circumstances were against writer Chris Yost and artist Ryan Stegman.

Life after Death’s setup is not conducive to a long run. Kaine, Spider-Man’s original clone, is its star, so Scarlet Spider has the ‘90s / Clone Saga stench wafting from it. Kaine spends the entire book insisting he’s not a superhero and trying to avoid doing good. The book is set in Houston, far away from the center of the Marvel Universe. Yost is forced to create a supporting cast from scratch. Half the villains in the book are either Ana Kravenoff or the Assassins Guild (talk about an awful smell from the ‘90s), both of whom have long since worn out their welcome.

Scarlet Spider, v. 1: Life after Death coverWell, at least the book isn’t out of continuity. That would have been the death knell.

But Yost manages to make something from this not-blank-enough slate. Houston, rather than just being New York with fewer skyscrapers, has its own feel. The supporting cast is mostly sharp, and the Assassin’s Guild turns out to be an excellent adversary for Kaine. Most importantly, though, Kaine turns out to be an interesting protagonist.

Kaine, whose genesis was in the ‘90s, is still a ‘90s character, with some of the rough (and “kewl”) edges sanded off. Kaine is interested in getting away from the violent life of the superpowered, insisting he has no interest in fighting or committing crime. As if to emphasize his lack of interest in superheroing, he’s extremely cavalier with his secret identity; at least four supporting cast members learn it, and several villains do or could figure it out. His mindset is violent and his morality gray, leading to pragmatic but immoral contemplations of killing villains to simplify his life. Kaine doesn’t kill, but he has no compunction about breaking bones, and he regrets his past as an assassin. Unsure if he wants to give in to these impulses or be a better man, Kaine vacillates. His hesitation over whether he wants to be a hero drives the book and provides more tension than a dustup with a supervillain ever could.

That being said, there’s a limit to how much suspense Kaine’s moral choices hold. Kaine’s redemption seems inevitable; he’s the star, and few characters (other than Punisher and Deadpool) can headline a book while being a killer. Certainly it would be difficult to do that with a clone of Spider-Man. Also, it’s disappointing that Kaine’s reform seems to involve a turn to Catholicism in #6; even though the imagery, ritual, and tradition of Catholicism make it attractive for writers and artists, the continual equation of Catholicism and Christianity is a cliché, simplistic, and not representative of Christian diversity in America or (especially) Texas.87

Since Scarlet Spider is set in the Marvel Universe, Kaine does more than consider moral questions. The book has plenty of action sequences, with a corresponding amount of property of damage. (It’s surprising Houstonians don’t resent the destruction more.88) Kaine’s battle with the Assassin’s Guild in #4 is a standout, and it’s really the only point in the book I warmed to Stegman’s work. His designs for the four assassins, especially the little girl, are very good, and the action is clear and exciting. It helps that Yost’s solution for how the battle ends is more imaginative than “punch them until they stay down.”

Stegman’s art isn’t always clear, though. Kaine’s battle in #1 with the Salamander — whom Yost doesn’t name until his appearance in an epilogue in #6 — is muddled by panels dominated with fire, and his depiction of how Kaine captured Salamander is a little opaque. It’s also unclear whether the spiders between panels at the beginning of #1 have any significance, given Kaine’s later-revealed power to communicate with spiders, or are merely decorative. I have no idea where the fence Kaine flees toward in issue #2 is; I believe it’s supposed to represent Kaine’s desire to flee to Mexico, but Houston is more than 300 miles from a land border with Mexico, too far to hitchhike round trip during one night. I’m unsure how the assassin in #3 recognizes Kaine, as Kaine lacks the distinctive scarring, shaggy hair, and beard he had when he previously met the assassin. (To be fair, this is probably Yost’s fault; Stegman portrayed the character accurately.) I also didn’t realize the purple-haired woman on stage in #6 was supposed to be Annabelle, a prominent supporting character. Stegman’s depiction of the Mark of Kaine, Kaine’s signature disfigurement of his victims during his assassin days, makes it look like Kaine turned his victims into Atlanteans.

These are small complaints, but these glitches do interfere with the book’s flow. Otherwise, Stegman is a decent artist, even if I’m not wild about his version of Kaine. (His face doesn’t remind me of Peter Parker’s.) I prefer the work of Neil Edwards, who drew #5; his style is more realistic, and his action scenes are clearer. (Although not perfect; in a scene in which Kaine confronts a gunman, Kaine’s relative position seems to shift, and it’s difficult to understand why Kaine couldn’t have disarmed him.)

That isn’t the only part of #5 that’s flawed. In #5, a racist group plants a nuclear bomb in Houston, and the plot’s danger level is out of proportion with the rest of the series. The previous issue has Kaine fighting the Assassins Guild, and the following issue shows Kaine battling Ana Kravinoff; #5 has a panel with the president being told a major American city will be destroyed. One of those is not tonally like the others. Yost does show how Kaine would react to the threat — selfishly, but also pragmatically — but there’s no setup to justify the escalated peril. Kaine also demonstrates his ability to communicate with spiders in #5, a power that is both random and dumb.89

The book assumes a level of familiarity with Kaine the average reader does not have. Kaine’s history as a clone is explained in issue #1, but readers don’t get a clear idea of his non-spider powers or why he thinks the heroes would be pursuing him in Point One #1. (I read Spider-Island, and I don’t understand why he would believe that.) Yost also doesn’t let the reader know who the “Louise” Kaine mentions at the end of #4 is; a footnote would have been useful.

Kaine’s powers were reset in Spider-Island, so even readers who are familiar with Kaine can’t assume anything about them. In #1, we see his organic webbing and general spider powers. Kaine removes his beard and trims his hair with a touch of his hand in the same issue. Is this his “Mark of Kaine” power? (Or is it an art flub?) Kaine’s suit has a cloaking device, but Kaine uses it rarely. Why? In #5, Kaine mentions his strength, quickness, web shooting, and … an ability to talk to spiders. Revealing such a silly power so late in the book makes it seem like Yost decided on the spur of the moment to give him the power, which is doubly bad — a bad time to introduce it, and a bad power to introduce.

Scarlet Spider is a book that’s flawed but interesting. Other books may be more polished, but Kaine’s growth will be entertaining to watch — and given that he doesn’t have hundreds of previous appearances, readers believe he can change. I’m more than willing to give Yost and Stegman time to work out the flaws if Kaine remains as interesting.

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

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12 April 2013

Hawkeye, v. 1: My Life as a Weapon

Collects: Hawkeye #1-5 and Young Avengers Presents #6 (2008, 2012-3)

Released: March 2013 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785165620

What is this?: Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Kate Bishop (Hawkeye) team up to fight crime.

The culprits: Writer Matt Fraction and artists David Aja, Javier Pulido, and Alan Davis

Sometimes you want a break from big, event-driven comics. Something fun, lighthearted, with a lot of action. Hawkeye, v. 1: My Life as a Weapon fits that bill.

In Hawkeye, once and future Hawkeye Clint Barton enlists Kate Bishop, a teenage archer who also goes by Hawkeye, to fight crime. Clint is an amiable, normal guy, except for his facility with arrows: no super-strength, no super-intelligence, no powers, getting into scrapes partially by accident and partially through investigation. Clint’s lack of superpowers and seat-of-the-pants, haphazard superheroic style makes him more human and likeable than many superheroes.

Hawkeye, v. 1: My Life as a Weapon coverWriter Matt Fraction‘s Clint has a great many similarities to the Iron Fist Fraction wrote in the The Immortal Iron Fist. Both are normal humans who have succeeded by extreme dedication to a martial art; both are rich; both are driven by a goofy dedication to morality but not the law; both lead with their chins rather than putting a great deal of thought into planning. Common enough characteristics in comics, I suppose, but somewhat worryingly, the characters have a similar internal voice as well: self-deprecating and humorous, as if to say superheroics aren’t as serious as others make it out to be.

Despite the frequent violence, Fraction maintains a lighthearted tone throughout. Clint’s mockery his own lack of planning and mistakes is a regular feature of his narration. Kate, of course, mocks the older Hawkeye. Rather than provide translation of non-English or garbled dialogue, Fraction fills the speech bubble with Clint’s guesses as to what the language is or what he hears instead of words. Instead of blacking out obscenities or using typographical chicken tracks instead, Fraction substitutes descriptive phrases such as “derogatory patriarchal epithet” and “slang for male genitalia.”

Fraction is not a writer who helps the reader decipher the plot. He’s more concerned with hooking readers with action and intrigue than making the story read smoothly. Present and past are frequently intercut, and Fraction begins the first three issues in media res. (Issues #4 and 5 are told linearly, though, and the result is much more comprehensible.) Fraction does not bother to explain the status quo: why Clint has a boatload of money, why Kate is no longer with the Young Avengers or romantically with former teammate Eli Bradley, whether the injuries Clint suffers at the beginning of #1 are a reference to another story. As to the latter, probably not, but that makes it confusing; why does Fraction bother to inflict such injuries without connecting them or Clint’s recovery to anything else? Footnotes, which might have answered some of these questions, are nonexistent.

Perhaps Fraction will explain these danglers later. If so, they are only a few of the many ideas Fraction teases as being important. Hobo code, an acolyte of Clint’s former teacher, and a mysterious redhead are among the plot points Fraction picks up and puts down again almost as quickly. Admittedly, the redhead is in an entire issue, but she’s enigmatic, around long enough as a character only for a quick hookup — random sex that portrays Clint as dangerous? unpredictable? sexually desirable? And then there’s the weird, squicky sexual tension between Kate and Clint that I hope Fraction drops immediately and never acknowledges again.

David Aja’s art on the first three issues is one of the book’s big draws. Whereas Fraction’s writing sometimes left me scratching my head, Aja’s art is almost always clear. (Sometimes too clear: the book makes a big deal of Avengers not killing, but that’s hard to reconcile with the injuries Kate’s arrows inflict and the havoc Clint’s shots cause.) Aja’s art isn’t the sharp, larger-than-life style that gets a great deal of attention, but it’s great for telling the story and setting the tone. My favorite trick was a series of small headshots of Kate, each with one letter of dialogue beneath it, framing panels of Clint shooting three arrows at once; it shows how quickly Clint can take a difficult — improbable — shot. On a sillier note, I laughed at the drawing of Hawkeye’s face with his traditional headgear (not worn in My Life) Aja uses to conceal Clint’s naked crotch instead of a black dot or blur during a fight scene.

Javier Pulido’s art on #4 and 5 isn’t as evocative or distinctive as Aja’s, but it’s still very good. Pulido’s work is frequently reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s, but it also contains elements Darwyn Cooke’s art as well. Pulido is not as clear as Aja, but he does action scenes well, and his style is well suited for the crime story at the heart of his two issues. Pulido doesn’t make much of the exotic Madripoor setting, but that’s partially because Fraction sets most of the issues indoor.

Young Avengers Presents #6, which is tonally and visually discordant with the rest of the book, is included as the last issue in the collection. The issue is drawn by Alan Davis, and his work looks nothing like Aja’s or Pulido’s: his work is slick, fluid, with characters’ expressions and bodies occasionally exaggerated. Fraction writes the story, but the characters’ roles are completely different: Clint is “dressing like a ninja,” and Kate is trying to determine what she wants her relationship with Eli Bradley to be. The plot doesn’t connect to the rest of the book in any way except to establish the two Hawkeyes know each other. In fact, it raises questions about Kate and Patriot’s relationship and her team affiliation the book does not answer. Perhaps it’s for the best; the final issue in the collection would have been a rotten place to establish the status quo, anyway.

Despite the book’s problems — and there are problems, however much this book has been lavished with praise — it’s inherent likeability makes it worth reading. I’m willing to give Hawkeye a second look, and I’ll be reading Little Hits when it comes out.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol  symbol (3.5 of 5)

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05 April 2013

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, v. 5

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #405-6, Spectacular Spider-Man #228-9, Web of Spider-Man #128-9, Spider-Man #62-3, Spider-Man Unlimited #10, New Warriors #62-4, Spider-Man Team-Up #1, and backups from Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Venom, and Web of Spider-Man Super Specials (1995)

Released: January 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 472 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785150091

What is this?: The Clone Saga is wrapped up — ha! — Ben and Peter figure out what to do with their lives.

The culprits: Writers Tom DeFalco, Terry Kavanagh, J.M. DeMatteis, Todd DeZago, Howard Mackie, and Evan Skolnick and artists Patrick Zircher, Sal Buscema, Steven Butler, Gil Kane, and others

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 5 isn’t great, but I can praise some elements of the book without reservation. More importantly, little in Book 5 inspires the deep loathing the abysmal Book 4 did.

The high point of Book 5 is the five-part story that ran alongside “Planet of the Symbiotes” (reprinted in Book 3) in the Super Specials. Written by Terry Kavanagh, the tale introduces a new hero, Strongarm, who is created by a scientist’s reworking of Dr. Curtis Connors’s research. Strongarm’s story, which — of course — culminates in a battle with the Lizard, Connors’s alter ego, is forgettable, but Strongarm himself has a certain uncomplicated, Boy Scout charm about him. More interesting, though, is the attempt of Spider-clone Ben Reilly to assemble a life: a job, a love interest, a supporting cast. Heck, he even shows a hint of jealousy, and even though jealousy is a negative emotion, any emotion not connected to Peter Parker or clones is welcome. Chronologically, this story should probably have been included before Amazing Spider-Man #400 — it’s hard to believe Ben could get hired for a job without anyone remarking upon his resemblance to a front-page murder suspect — but it’s good to see the Spider-office spend some time on the man who will be Spider-Man for the next year.

Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 5 cover I also like the New Warriors issues in Book 5. The three issues have nothing to do with Spider-Man, and most have little to do with the Scarlet Spider (Ben’s alter ego), but they are a nice, clone-free palate cleanser. Writer Evan Skolnick shows a different side to Ben, who relates to a team — something Spider-Man had not done up to this point — and even takes charge when necessary. The issues also have some intriguing subplots, which — again — have nothing to do with Spiders or clones … unfortunately, this makes it sound as if I’m tired of reading about Spider-Man or the Clone Saga.

Perhaps I am; the other three storylines in Book 5 don’t generate any interest in the clones. In quality, they range from dull (“Exiled” and most of “Greatest Responsibility”) to awful (“Time Bomb”).

The four-part “Exiled” crossover is mystifying, as the four issues have three unrelated stories in them. They are tied together by a subplot: Ben’s decision to leave New York, which he reverses almost immediately. The main stories are random. Web of Spider-Man #128 is a D’Spayre story — a D’Spayre story, for Odin’s sake! D’Spayre feeds on people’s, well, despair, and he’s always beaten when one of his victims overcomes that emotion. Web #128 is no exception. Amazing Spider-Man #405 and Spider-Man #62 shows Ben fighting a new adversary to protect his friend, Dr. Seward Trainer, and Trainer’s data; the B-plot shows some of Ben and Seward’s back story, which might be interesting except for the Clone Saga taint lingering over Seward. And Spider-Man Unlimited #10, the last part of “Exiled,” is a forgettable Vulture story that also has Ben helping Uncle Ben’s friend put his kid into college. Sure, why not?

The first two parts of the three-issue “Greatest Responsibility” are similarly forgettable. The new Dr. Octopus, who is also Trainer’s daughter, is revealed as the mystery villain from the middle of “Exiled,” to the collective yawn of the audience. Her conflict with her father and the Spider-Men features ‘90s conceptions of virtual reality, Trainer in an X-Men-style uniform, and one of the odder father-daughter relationships in comics. These issues aren’t awful, but the plot developments feel forced, and the plot and art are dated.

The final issue of “Greatest Responsibility,” Spectacular Spider-Man #229, is cut above the rest of the crossover, as creator Tom DeFalco, Sal Buscema, and Bill Sienkiewicz step up on what is ostensibly Peter’s last issue as Spider-Man before he is replaced forever. The plot is reminiscent of Amazing Spider-Man #33; since Amazing #33 is one of Spider-Man’s greatest moments, and echoing it to give Peter a sendoff is an excellent idea. Both issues have a battle vs. Dr. Octopus in an underwater base, Spider-Man trapped under broken machinery, and a loved one waiting for Spider-Man to return with medicine. Spider-Man’s escape is appropriately different from Amazing #33, and Spider-Man needing Ben’s assistance can be interpreted many ways. The execution on Spectacular #229 doesn’t do justice to the earlier issue, but the idea is so far ahead of the rest of the book I don’t mind.

Curiously, reprint editor Mike O’Sullivan inserted Spider-Man Team-Up #1 between the second and third chapters of “Greatest Responsibility.” In SMTU #1, Scarlet Spider and the X-Men ally to battle Shinobi Shaw’s Hellfire Club, and like Shinobi Shaw, the issue slips from the memory as soon as it’s out of sight. I don't see the logic of inserting the issue into the middle of a storyline, but I’m of two minds about including the issue at all; I like getting more stories, but SMTU #1 is of such negligible importance to Scarlet Spider and the Clone Saga that it feels like filler.

“Time Bomb” is a two-part story that, like Book 4, seems published solely to tear down Peter Parker. Premonitions in previous books showed Mary Jane, Peter’s wife, being killed by a mysterious assailant; writers DeFalco and Todd DeZago resolve the plot by making Peter, under the Jackal’s post-hypnotic, post-mortem control, the assassin. Scarlet Spider and the New Warriors attempt to stop him, but Mary Jane helps Peter break the Jackal’s control with the power of love — a clichéd ending that makes everyone other than Mary Jane look stupid.

The art suffers this time from a complete lack of the excellent Mark Bagley, although the inclusion of Patrick Zircher’s clean, clear, and exciting art on New Warriors helps make up the deficiency. Buscema and Sienkiewicz continue to contribute their not-so-excellent work on Spectacular Spider-Man, although through Stockholm Syndrome, I’m growing accustomed to them. (Buscema’s finishes of Tod Smith’s work on the Spider-Man Super Special are quite pleasing, reminiscent of Buscema’s earlier work.) Steven Butler’s work is sharp but entirely too over-the-top for me; the first image in Web of Spider-Man #128 is the Black Cat in a pin-up pose, her considerable chest thrust out, in the middle of swinging between buildings, which automatically discredits the artist in my eyes. The remaining pencilers range from good to serviceable in a ‘90s way, with no one so good you wonder what happened to them.

Book 5 is a significant improvement on Book 4, but that’s a backhanded compliment. If Marvel had drawn a line under the Clone Saga after this book and moved on, there would be something good to take away from Book 5 and some optimism for the future. But the Clone Saga will be back, as will Peter Parker, so everything will get churned up again. I can’t rate the mediocre Book 5 lower because of my dread of the future … but I want to.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol
(2 of 5)

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