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

27 May 2016

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man

Collects: Ant-Man #1-5 (2015)

Released: June 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785193876

What is this?: Ant-Man moves to Miami, following his ex-wife and daughter, and tries to set up his own security company.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer and artist Ramon Rosanas

I enjoyed writer Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which followed the adventures of the new Sinister Six, led by Boomerang. (To get an idea of the group’s competence level, the Sinister SIx had only five members for the entire book.) When Spencer started writing Ant-Man with what promised to be a similar tone, I was eager to try it.

Then I lost track of the book and didn’t pick up a trade until the title morphed into Astonishing Ant-Man. I totally missed that Ant-Man gained an adjective after the latest Secret Wars. Comics!

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man coverAnyway, after I realized my mistake, I went out and bought Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man. The reviews were correct: Spencer gives Ant-Man the same sort of cheerfully oblivious voice that he gave Boomerang; each protagonist knows he’s seen as a joke, but he keeps smiling, sure that things will work out. The main difference is that Ant-Man has people who he could disappoint, such as his daughter Cassie, which raises the stakes and makes the trade paperback feel like it has been soaked in Ant-Man’s flop sweat.

I mean, I want to like Ant-Man and this book. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite Ant-Man’s powers and accomplishments, he’s a more down-to-earth character than most Marvel heroes, with his teenage daughter helping to keep him grounded. But it’s hard to like someone with such low self-esteem; he agrees with others’ assessment so often that he doesn’t matter much that the reader begins to believe it.

Ant-Man buys into everyone’s narrative that he has been a failure, which seems like it’s taking modesty much too far. I understand the mockery — I mean, he’s Ant-Man, and not even the original (but he is the best) — but no one, including Scott, seems to remember his successes. He was a real, bona fide Avenger. Before that, he helped install Avengers Mansion’s security system. He was a member of the Fantastic Four a couple of times, and the Fantastic Four is still the most exclusive superteam in the Marvel Universe. He devised and executed a plan that defeated Dr. Doom by delving more deeply into the nature of Pym Particles than anyone else. Before that, he returned from the dead. (OK, he only appeared to be dead. Still!)

And Scott uses his powers well in Second-Chance — he beats Tony Stark’s security, he uses his powers to save rent by living in a toy house, he prevents his daughter from rejecting a transplant, and he defeats a Nazi robot. A Nazi robot, for Byrne’s sake! But whenever anyone heaps abuse onto Scott, he takes it, even implicitly agrees with their assessments. (He doesn’t call Stark on Stark’s accusation that Scott can’t stick with one team for very long; Scott thinks about how much team-hopping Tony’s been doing, but you get the feeling Scott’s inferiority complex would stop him from actually saying it.) It’s infuriating, and at times it’s difficult to read about this sad sack.

Everyone but Cassie takes the opportunity to dump on Ant-Man. That’s understandable for most characters, who have little interest in the man, but it’s difficult when his ex-wife, Peggy, does it. Peggy’s not cartoonishly bad in her interactions with Scott, but she’s still inconsiderate at best and often much worse. She decides to move to Miami with Cassie, and from the narration, it seems that if Scott hadn’t decided to visit the day she packed up, she wouldn’t have told him his daughter was moving more than a thousand miles away. She denigrates Scott for being a loser and a super-hero, which feels contradictory; she thinks Scott’s superheroics will cause Cassie to get wrapped up in the machinations of supervillains, but if he’s a loser, who’s going to pay attention to him? Peggy wants Scott to be “normal,” and no one gets to demand that of another human being, even if they share a child’s visitation rights.

Spencer brings some interesting villains into the book. Grizzly, a strong guy in a bear suit, attacks Scott, but Scott ends up hiring Grizzly for his new security firm. Scott also hires Machinesmith, a robot with the consciousness of a former Mr. Fear, to help his security firm. As you probably guessed from the book’s vibe, these two are pathetic; Grizzly attacked Scott, not knowing Scott wasn’t the Ant-Man who defeated him, and Machinesmith was working as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties after his parole from prison. Fortunately, Spencer brings in the new Beetle from Superior Foes of Spider-Man, and she doesn’t lack for self-confidence.

Scott having no confidence in his accomplishments doesn’t mean that Spencer’s not aware of what Scott’s career. Spencer brings two of Ant-Man’s old rivals into the book: Taskmaster, whom Scott has fought alongside other heroes, and Darren Cross, whose kidnapping of a cardiac surgeon inspired Scott to become Ant-Man in the first place. Taskmaster is a great villain, and his sneering at Scott feels earned: he is out of Scott’s league when Scott hasn’t had a chance to prepare, and Taskmaster’s noseless face is great for conveying contempt. I’m less sure about resurrecting Cross, who died in his first appearance, but I suppose Scott needs an adversary, and Cross’s son’s exuberant pride in his own supervillainy is hilarious.

Ramon Rosanas’s art is nice. It’s simple, but it remains evocative. Rosanas manages to convey a lot of emotion from a guy who spends most of book in an ant helmet, which is impressive. Rosanas is able to keep conversation scenes from getting boring, which is vital, given how many conversation scenes Spencer writes. Rosanas knows how to draw battle scenes — mostly, as I’m not sure how Ant-Man foils the assassination attempt — and his pages are filled with nice character touches.

Unfortunately, Rosanas art is marred by the lettering — specifically the lettering of the book’s dialogue. The font is … well, I want to say “ugly,” but “distracting” is probably fairer. It bears a resemblance to Comic Sans, and no one wants that in a font. Pick a new style next time, letterer Travis Lanham.

In the end, what the book needs is more scenes with actual superheroics, the stranger the better. The book’s high point was when Ant-Man defeated the Nazi robot that spewed molten gold, and Scott’s sangfroid during the battle suggests he could handle weirder villains. Actually, the book improved greatly when Scott was actually in action; the rest of the time, when people made fun of this character I was supposed to care about, was uncomfortable.

Rating: Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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20 May 2016

I Hate Fairyland,v. 1: Madly Ever After

Collects: I Hate Fairyland #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781632156853

What is this?: A young girl kidnapped by Fairyland tries to find her home for 27 years, trapped physically at the same age and growing increasingly violent.

The culprit: Skottie Young

I don’t know that I’m the right audience for I Hate Fairyland, v. 1: Madly Ever After.

I mean, I thought I was. I Hate Fairyland features Gertrude, a woman in her mid-30s who has been trapped in Fairyland in a child’s unaging body for almost three decades. Unable to find the way out of Fairyland and into her own world again, Gertrude gleefully takes out her frustrations on the pastel-and-spun-sugar world around her. Unremitting violence against all those fairy-tale clichés seemed like something I would enjoy.

I Hate Fairyland coverAs it turns out, the violence gets boring. Writer / artist Skottie Young doesn’t skimp on the blood, bone, or gore as Gertrude destroys anthropomorphic heavenly bodies, anthropomorphic animals, and anthropomorphic plants. (I think she has it in for things that look or act human-like but aren’t.) For variety, she also kills some giants. Gertrude’s violence on the page is mostly perpetrated against those who can’t fight back. Perhaps that’s why the mayhem’s appeal begins to pall after an issue or two. Most of the big fights — the ones against opponents who can fight back — happen between books or off-panel. Some bits of violence don’t grow old, though; I enjoyed Gertrude’s deadly attacks against the book’s narrators, especially once the narrators started to understand the peril they were in.

For many people, Young’s art is going to be the appeal. Young’s work is hyper-cartoony, with expressions and violence amped up to 11. Nothing is too small for him to exaggerate. (Young’s work in I Hate Fairyland is an amusing counterpoint to all his variant covers for Marvel, in which he draws cute versions of characters.) There’s no doubt Young is an outstanding visual storyteller; his art is clear, and he draws admirably clear battle scenes.

So I can’t fault Young as an artist at all. On the other hand, I’m more interested in the story and jokes.

Much like with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer, though, I have my doubts about Young as a writer. Given that I Hate Fairyland is labeled a mature book, I wish Young had done more with Gertrude’s emotional traumas. As written, Gertrude is a shallow character mostly concerned with vengeance against a world she feels wronged her. Shallow characters are fine, if the book is entertaining other ways, but I think developing Gertrude’s character would have served the book much better.

Other than her heartbreaking introduction in #1 and a moment in #2, when it’s revealed Gertrude has the sexual urges of a woman her actual age rather than her body’s apparent age, not much is done with her longings to be normal. (Later in the issue, Gertrude gives her sidekick, Larry, a long list of things she misses from her world, but that list reads as an indictment of Fairyland.) Gertrude’s story is tragic, and I think I Hate Fairyland would be much funnier if that were exploited more than the straight mayhem.

Another concern the book does not address is whether Gertrude can’t find her way home because she is incompetent or because of her attitude. There’s a great deal of difference about how we feel toward Gertrude depending on that answer. If it’s the latter, Gertrude is somewhat justified in her hatred of Fairyland. If she’s stuck in Fairyland because she can’t follow directions or figure out riddles — and that’s the way the text leans ever-so-slightly — then she’s just a violent boob, and her suffering is something she’s earned.

Certainly some of the page space could be repurposed to develop Gertrude more. A running subplot involves Queen Cloudia trying to get rid of Gertrude, who’s making a mess of her Fairyland; since Cloudia is a ho-hum villain, trimming some of those pages would improve the book. Also, Young spends eight pages on a gag where Larry lives an entire life — building a house, getting married, having kids, then getting divorced — while Gertrude is unconscious. It’s not a bad joke, but the amount of time that actually passes is unclear, and certain parts of the gag don’t land (why does Gertrude grow a beard while unconscious? why does Larry’s wife go from happy to angrily leaving him between panels?). I think those pages could have better been used elsewhere.

One joke that does not disappoint is the appearance of Happy, a girl Queen Cloudia brings to Fairyland in issue #4 to find the way out of Fairyland before Gertrude can. (Under the laws of Fairyland, this will allow Cloudia to attack Gertrude openly.) Happy is unremittingly cheerful, and her adventures show both the sickeningly sweet and childishly kind quests Gertrude is homicidally reacting against and also the way the quests should have been approached in the first place: with patience, compassion, and with childlike wonder.

After encountering Happy’s rainbows and cheerfulness, Gertrude decides she has to up her game, which is an argument that Happy (or another competent antagonist) should have appeared earlier in the book. This prompts Gertrude to approach one of the Seven Dooms and ask for his power to confront Happy. The tests he puts Gertrude through aren’t great, but what comes out of it is very satisfying.

Other than Happy and smashing the narrators, the book’s humor is hit and miss. Frequently, the characters substitute “cute” words for obscenities, but the results are more annoying than funny: “muffin-fluffer,” “hug off,” and “plush” are clunky rather than clever curse words. The violence stops amusing after the first issue or so. On the other hand, a few jokes, like Happy’s entire existence and a series of dialogue written as “blah blah blah” (she’s actually saying “blah blah blah,” not just running her mouth), are genuinely funny.

If you’re a fan of Young, you know you want this. If you are undecided about him, I’m torn over whether to recommend the book. On one hand, the plotting and pacing is mediocre, and the humor isn’t strong enough to make up for that. On the other, the book really picks up at the end, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. It’s possible Young is finding his groove, which means the next volume might be an improvement, and the experience of reading v. 1 could be improved by what comes after.

For the moment, though, I’m sticking with a dead-center, neither-approve-or-disapprove rating.

Rating: I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol (3 of 5)

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14 May 2016

Giant Days, v. 1

Collects: Giant Days #1-4 (2015)

Released: November 2015 (Boom! Box)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781608867899

What is this?: Esther, Susan, and Daisy deal with their first semester of college, and all its attendant problems: boys, the flu, boys, idiot university administrators, idiot boys, and girls.

The culprits: Written by John Allison and drawn by Lissa Treiman

I’ve followed John Allison’s web comics since the beginning of the century: through most of Bobbins, all of Scary Go Round, and everything to date of Bad Machinery. (Allison admits the weight of the comics he’s put out over 18 years is a bit daunting, so he wrote out a chronology / background of his universe of strips.) I’m a big fan of his strips, which have evolved away from strict joke-a-day comics and into more structured, long-term storylines that manage to combine humor, drama, and well-drawn characters. I can’t think of a webcomic writer I’ve followed as long as Allison.

I’m not trying to present myself as an uber-fan of Allison’s, although I admit to buying t-shirts and dish towels from Allison’s Topatco store, if that tells you something. I’m admitting all this to state my biases before I say Giant Days, v. 1, by Allison and Lissa Treiman is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve read in ages. It is consistently funny, occasionally touching, and always entertaining.

Giant Days, v. 1 coverIt’s not necessary to have read any of Allison’s work to understand what’s going on in Giant Days. Allison introduces the reader quickly and efficiently to Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooten, who have met as freshmen at a British university and have become fast friends. (Their earlier adventures, mentioned on page 2 of issue #1, were released as webcomics on Allison’s site, but they seem to have disappeared online. You can buy them at Allison’s Topatco store, though.) Daisy is home-schooled and naïve, quite fond of her grandmother; Susan is pre-med and determinedly practical. Esther, a featured character in Scary Go Round, is a pale Goth surrounded by a drama field.

I love all the characters in Giant Days. Do I like them so much because I’ve read them before? I dunno. Other than Esther, though, I haven’t read many stories featuring htem. I identify with the mousy Daisy and logical Susan; I can’t help being entranced by the spectacle that is Dark Esther, even if I’m still miffed she cheated on The Boy between Scary Go Round and Giant Days. I sympathize with McGraw, a former friend of Susan’s who rejected her romantic advances. I kinda sympathize with Ed Gemmell, who pines for Esther, but Esther is so out of Ed’s league his head would probably explode if she ever paid him the kind of attention he desires. (That’s not a slight on Ed; remember, Esther has that drama field around her.)

For those who have read Scary Go Round, Giant Days is much more grounded. SGR had plotlines that included bringing a cast member back from the dead, first as a zombie, then fully resurrected as a normal human; that cast member’s sister was transformed into a six-foot Amazon by spoiled off-brand Pepto-Bismol, then ensnared with a magic spell by a villainous headmaster and sent to hell by a different spell that wiped them both from everyone’s memory. Giant Days is a straightforward story of college life, although the stories are exaggerated in the way that all comedies are.

The biggest difference from Allison’s online work is that he isn’t providing the art. Instead, Treiman draws Allison’s creations, and the result is weird — an outstanding weird, but weird nonetheless. Treiman is a great artist, with a beautiful, fluid style and a great comic touch. Her art is vastly different than Allison’s, taking Allison’s character designs, then making the cast her own. She also has a great sense of when to exaggerate features and reactions, always going far enough but never so far that the characters seem to belong in a cartoon.

Allison’s work as a daily comic strip writer shows here. His later two webcomics have had long arcs while maintaining a steady stream of humor, and he adapts that approach to individual comic issues. Each issue is a complete story, with enough loose ends and character work to lead into the next issue, but Allison always remembers to be funny. The jokes are earned, never cheap jokes put into the mouth of a character who wouldn’t say it.

My only complaint is the ending of #3. Even by Giant Days’ / Allison-verse’s logic, I don’t think maternal displeasure has much effect on the kind of bros who objectify women. I admit, the bros’ comeuppance is welcome, but any sort of retribution they receive would be pleasing. Vengeance the protagonists participated in would have been even more satisfying.

My recommendation is to read / buy / steal / demand Giant Days. I feel remiss that I haven’t recommended it earlier, but, well — I blame my retailer, and he probably blames Diamond. I ordered it in January, and after four months of not getting the book, I took matters into my own hands and bought it from Amazon. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go get Giant Days now.

Rating: Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol (5 of 5)

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06 May 2016

Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man v. 4 #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9780785199427

What is this?: Parker Industries has offices around the world, and it looks like Peter’s finally a success. However, when PI is targeted by the Zodiac, the criminals seem to be one step ahead of Spider-Man …

The culprits: Writer Dan Slott and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli

I love the idea of Peter Parker finally succeeding. If he’s so smart — and he is, let’s face it: he invented web fluid and web shooters and electronic ankle bracelet monitors — eventually he has to achieve success in some way or die along the way. Unless you contrive an explanation for his lack of success, like a force of the universe being directed against him or him being a jerk, it makes no sense for a smart, moral person like Peter to be continuously a failure. For periods of time, yes, but not forever.

In Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1, Peter is the CEO of Parker Industries, which has become one of the premier technology companies in the world, with offices on three different continents. He’s working with SHIELD to keep the world safe, and he seems to have managed to keep his soul. This should be exactly what I want.

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1 coverThe problem is that I don’t know that Peter is such a success.

Parker Industries and SHIELD are under assault from Zodiac. Not only is Zodiac physically raiding Parker Industries and SHIELD facilities but they are also involved in a battle of wits with the heroes. Unfortunately, writer Dan Slott doesn’t give Spider-Man very many victories, as it seems the villains win every time. Spider-Man and SHIELD get only minor victories: foiling the robbery that starts the book, defeating an attack by Goblin Nation thugs in Africa, keeping some henchmen from completing employer-insisted suicide. Zodiac defeats Parker and SHIELD almost every time, making the heroes look, well, not very competent. Maybe Peter isn’t such a success after all …

It doesn’t help that Peter built his company during an eight-month gap after the end of the latest Secret Wars series. We don’t know how Peter built his company, what decisions he chose, what compromises he had to make, or why he’s working so closely with SHIELD. His success, then, feels unearned. And that, combined with his lack of success in Worldwide, v. 1, makes me think this version of Peter Parker will be going away sooner rather than later, which is a shame.

I do like some aspects of Worldwide. Bringing back Hobie Brown, the Prowler, to be Parker Industries’ head of security and a backup Spider-Man is a nice choice; Brown was an inventor as well as someone with a costumed identity. I’m not sure Brown is qualified for either job, but I believe it’s totally a choice Peter would make. (I can also see him hiring Rocket Racer as well. Fingers crossed!) Harry Osborn makes his return under an assumed name, but since he hasn’t changed his appearance — not even his hairstyle — I can’t see that working for long. A fellow student from Peter’s college days, Philip Chang, shows up in Parker Industries’ Shanghai office, and Clayton Cole, a low-level thug Spider-Man sent to Parker Industries in the previous volume of Amazing Spider-Man, is working in PI’s New York offices.

The subplots are intriguing as well. How did Dr. Octopus end up inside the Living Brain, and what’s his long-term plan? What will Norman Osborn — or someone posing as him — do after selling weapons in Africa? Who’s wandering around in a red suit, offering to return the loved ones of Spider-Man villains? I’m looking forward to seeing these subplots play out, and I’m betting it’s going to be a combination of Dr. Octopus and Norman who bring down Parker Industries after Zodiac weakens it. (I’d almost bet PI will be Marconi Industries by the end, headed by Doc Ock’s love interest, Anna Maria Marconi.)

I don’t like the introduction of Regent to the main Marvel Universe, though. Regent was the villain in the main Spider-Man mini in Secret Wars. He made an OK villain for a series in a universe that was going to be thrown away once the miniseries was over. In the main Marvel Universe, a villain that exists to drain minor villains and eventually become a powerful threat is a waste; why kill villains to power a supervillain who will be gone once the writers hit his climactic fight, then never return? (Of course, I thought writers would have the sense to never return to Morlun, but boy, was I wrong.)

But the subplots are mostly respites from the main plot. I don’t think Zodiac works well as a Spider-Man villain; the astrology-themed criminal organization generally take on teams, and Spider-Man is a poor team player. This brings up the question of why he’s working with SHIELD — it seems a poor fit, even if he has SHIELD’s worst impulses under control. The new Scorpio’s identity is supposed to be a big deal, but even though Scorpio has an important role outside his supervillain ID in the storyline, the actual reveal falls as flat as the naming of the female villain in Spider-Island. The Human Torch flips out too easily in #3; all it takes is the news that Parker Industries has moved into the Baxter Building to set him on a fiery rampage.

I’m indifferent to Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art. Something seems off about his faces; I think he has trouble with noses, or maybe it’s the space between the eyes. Mockingbird’s mask is awful; the Human Torch’s costume has been given a bustier outline for reasons I can’t possibly imagine. His Melinda May is hardly recognizable as Ming-Na Wen, and I’m only 30 percent sure that the guy I think is Agent Coulson actually is Coulson. Still, his action is fine, and even if his Spider-Man isn’t lithe or a contorted mess — both Hobie and Peter seem stockier than the usual Spidey — he’s still recognizable. (I really enjoy the old, stubby legged spider logo on Spider-Man’s back.)

I should like Worldwide. The premise is something I’ve wanted for years, and the story itself has many trappings I enjoy. But everything about the story seems slightly off. Do I really not want Peter to be a successful CEO? Or is it the execution itself that bothers me? I’ve made it clear I think it’s the execution, but I can’t shake the feeling I might be at fault.

I’m not going to let that doubt inflate the rating, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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