Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones

Review Doctor Strange Dr. Strange The Flight of Bones Dan Jolley Tony Harris Ray Snyder Stephen Strange Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Dan Jolley, Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Kieron Gillen, Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever, Mike Carey
Artists: Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Paul Chadwick, Frazer Irving, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Frank Brunner, Ted McKeever, Marcos Martin
Collects: Doctor Strange (vol. 2) #1-4 (1999); Marvel: Shadows & Light #1-2 (1997-98); Marvel Double Shot #4 (2003); and The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1 (2010)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $24.99

My main interest in reading Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones, which collects Doctor Strange’s short-lived Marvel Knights series from just before the turn of the millennium, was in seeing a mid-Starman Tony Harris drawing one of my favorite low-profile Marvel characters of the time. (It would be another ten years before a Doctor Strange movie was even rumored, and almost ten more before that movie was actually released.) I had always assumed that Harris also wrote these comics, since I’d never seen any other name mentioned in relation to them. I wasn’t completely wrong – Harris does receive “story” credit, along with actual scripter Dan Jolley and inker Ray Snyder – but he’s actually gone by the series’ halfway point, replaced by Paul Chadwick of Concrete fame. One can only speculate on what could have happened behind the scenes to cause Harris to abandon a four-issue miniseries after drawing just two issues, but the result, at any rate, is that Jolley is left holding the bag with a story that never really comes together.

Jolley’s writing isn’t bad, but he mostly seems to be doing damage control for a series that’s clearly gone off the rails. There are so many out-of-left-field narrative choices, even before Harris’s departure, that it’s difficult to imagine the final version of Flight of Bones as being at all similar to the series originally proposed. One is the jarring introduction of a third-person narrator halfway through the first issue, which is all the more baffling given that we see Strange dictating his thoughts to a magical, self-recording diary just a few scenes later. Would interspersing the story with first-person diary excerpts not have been a more engaging way of granting the reader access to Strange’s thoughts – and a cleverer one, too, given the diary’s presence as a physical artifact in the story? I also wonder at the choice to fill out Strange’s supporting cast with an obscure character named Topaz, a young woman who apparently featured in the 1970s horror title Werewolf by Night and a handful of issues in Strange’s first two ongoing series.

But the biggest head-scratcher is the total abandonment of the religious motifs that arguably define the first half of the series. Harris frequently intercuts the action of his two issues with Christian imagery – crosses, stained-glass windows, gargoyles, and gothic spires – that juxtapose (in a quite novel way for a Doctor Strange comic) the character’s simultaneous devotion to the occult and his non-belief in a Christian God. At one point Topaz even asks Strange about his religious beliefs, and Strange equivocates in a way that’s clearly meant to be revisited later in the story. That never happens, though, and the second half reveals that the apparently religiously motivated crimes of the series’ first half were all the work of a mind-control plot by Strange’s perpetual nemesis Dormammu. Following the reveal is an extended fight sequence in which Strange and Dormammu spout uncharacteristic quips and one-liners, making it clear that Jolley and company are just vamping for page length at this point.

Could the series’ intended interrogation of Christian belief have seemed simply too controversial to the series’ editors, inspiring last-minute changes that drove Harris from the title? (It seems unlikely that Jolley, Harris, and Snyder would have had a change of heart about the subject matter, given their future work together on the even more explicitly religious-themed Obergeist.) If so, the situation would be in keeping with that of Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil – the very first story arc published under the Marvel Knights imprint, and one I’ve always suspected of editorial interference given its bizarre eleventh-hour plot turn, in which the apparent Second Coming of Christ is explained away as an illusion created by the Spider-Man villain Mysterio (who proceeds to commit suicide before any questions can be answered).

This collection is rounded out by a hodgepodge of Doctor Strange stories from various anthology titles, all by different creators, including such luminaries as Christopher Golden and Jim Starlin. The best one is probably the 2010 story by Kieron Gillen and Frazer Irving. Irving’s Doctor Strange was a welcome sight for me: his renderings of the character were by far the best part of his fill-in issues on Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men. Irving’s contribution aside, though, the art in these stories rarely compares to that of Flight of Bones’ first two issues; with its extreme detail, serpentine linework, and resolute portrayal of Strange as a dead ringer for Vincent Price(!), Harris’s work is certainly something to behold. It’s just a shame there’s so little of it to go around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: X-O Manowar: Retribution

Review X-O Manowar Jim Shooter Steve Englehart Bob Layton Barry Windsor-Smith Sal Velluto Mike Manley Aric Ken Clarkson Valiant Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, Bob Layton
Artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton, Sal Velluto, Mike Manley
Collects: X-O Manowar #1-4 (1992)
Published: Valiant, 1993; $9.95

I probably never would have read X-O Manowar: Retribution if not for the Omnibus Collector’s Comic Swap and Community, a group I follow on Facebook. At nearly 3,000 members the group supplies my newsfeed with a constant barrage of content, typically in one of three forms: (1) posts recommending or inquiring about upcoming collected editions; (2) posts chronicling the pursuit of hard-to-find books, known as “whales,” that can fetch hundreds of dollars on the secondary market; and (3) posts effusing over whatever series or high-ticket item has, for the moment, wended its way into the group’s zeitgeist. Posts of the latter variety make for remarkable spectacles in social-media groupthink, with the most frenzied members spending thousands of dollars on books they know little to nothing about and will likely never read. Luckily, I’m relatively immune to the group’s more costly vicissitudes: I have access to two excellent libraries and very rarely purchase expensive hardcovers these days.

My interest was piqued, though, by the group’s recent fixation on Valiant, a comics publisher that was resurrected in 2012 following over a decade of financial insolvency. The Facebook group’s primary interest was in the spate of new series that had been launched over the last five years – or, more specifically, in the limited-run hardcover editions collecting those series. Historicist that I am, I found myself more interested in learning about the rise, fall, and rebirth of this decades-old publisher, one that I had barely heard of just a few months earlier. I read a few primers on Valiant’s characters and on its shared superhero universe and, on learning that X-O Manowar was currently the publisher’s flagship title, tried requesting the hundred-dollar X-O Manowar Classic Omnibus, Vol. 1 – collecting the first thirty issues of the original 1992 series – via interlibrary loan. Had any lending libraries owned the book, I would probably be writing a review of it right now. But none did, unfortunately (nor did any own the 2008-issued X-O Manowar: Rebirth, reprinting the series’ first six issues), leaving me with one final option: X-O Manowar: Retribution, a 1993 trade paperback reprint of the series’ first four issues.

Some may wonder why my impulse was to seek out a print edition of the original series rather than a reprint of the (now widely acclaimed) 2012 series that the Omnibus Collector’s group had gravitated toward. I suppose the answer is that, as far as comics are concerned, I’ve always been less interested in the present moment than I am in how we arrived to that present. The current roster of Valiant comics, renowned as it is, wouldn’t hold as much interest for me if not for the unlikely story of its publisher’s tumultuous history. Nor for that matter would a current series featuring any character or franchise – whether from Valiant or any other publisher – signify, to me at least, without some understanding of that character’s creative origins. And perhaps what often draws me to comics of the early 1990s in particular is that, despite the adolescent quality of that decade’s purest exercises in creative ownership – Spawn, Youngblood, WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce – it was, nevertheless, the final era in which the dominance of corporate comics seemed truly vulnerable.

Ironically, the conflict between creator-owned and corporate comics was perhaps never more dramatically staged – at least, not in the 1990s – than in the case of Valiant, which former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had founded in 1989 only to be ousted from the company just as it became profitable (and after having created or co-created virtually all of the publisher’s major characters). The next several years would see Shooter defending himself in court from venture capitalists determined to dilute his Valiant shares to zero – just in time, conveniently enough, for Valiant’s investors to beat the mid-’90s collapse of the comics market and sell the company to video-game developer Acclaim for $65 million.

All of which is more than enough setup, probably, for a discussion of X-O Manowar itself. X-O was the second original title in Valiant’s superhero line, following Harbinger. (Both were preceded by rebooted versions of the former Gold Key properties Solar and Magnus, which had launched the previous year and were to occupy the same shared universe as Valiant’s new, original characters). Cover-dated February 1992, X-O Manowar #1 would have hit stands about six months before Shooter’s exit from the company in June. And unlike some of the early-’90s comics series mentioned above, X-O was actually, well…kind of good, at least in its opening issues. That’s because Valiant initially employed writers and artists known for their all-around storytelling abilities: in addition to Shooter, the company’s Marvel expatriates included former Captain America and Avengers writer Steve Englehart and popular artists Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith. All would have a hand in the first issues of X-O: Shooter, Englehart, and Layton as writers; Layton as intermittent inker; and Windsor-Smith as artist for the inaugural issue.

X-O’s main character, Aric, is basically Conan the Barbarian in an Iron Man suit – a conceit that adds up (creatively, at least) when you consider which characters Windsor-Smith and Layton in particular are most famous for having illustrated previously. But Aric lacks Conan’s occasional bouts of compassion and, unlike Iron Man, he kills without compunction. The character’s primary appeal is his fish-out-water quality: having spent thousands of years in alien captivity, the Visigoth warrior frequently misunderstands the most basic conventions of modern society. As a result, for all its rampant violence, X-O is a darkly funny book. After Ken Clarkson (an ordinary man who initially conspires with the aliens but later defects to Aric’s side) is non-fatally injured by an alien laser gun, Aric wonders: “He is my friend! Should I grant him the gift of a clean death?” After some thought, Aric concludes: “He is a wizard. Perhaps he can grow a new arm.”

For Aric, houses are “castles,” speeding bullets are “fire light,” and the X-O Manowar battle armor he liberates from the aliens is “a good skin.” There’s something oddly endearing about his naivete, which softens the brutal edge of nearly every interpersonal encounter he finds himself in. There’s something unconsciously prescient, too, about his and Ken’s eventual takeover of Orb Industries, the corporation established by the aliens as a front for their planned conquest of Earth. It’s fascinating to note that, just months before his own firing by Valiant’s corporate bosses, Shooter imagined a superhero universe in which corporations are evil – but only until the good guys are able to seize control and turn them into forces for good. Perhaps it was that sense of optimism that led Shooter to seek capital investments for the founding of two more comics publishers in the five years following his departure from Valiant. (Neither, sadly, would last more than a year.)

The revolving door of creative talent at Valiant meant that the art in X-O Manowar’s first four issues wasn’t very consistent, although it’s not bad either. Sal Velluto, who takes over from Windsor-Smith for issues two and three, has a style remarkably similar to the early Steve Dillon, while Mike Manley’s pencils in issue four lend a more whimsical tone to Aric’s New Orleans-set first encounters with villain Toyo Harada and the cast of Harbinger. Characters from the publisher’s various other series make quite a few appearances in X-O following the first two issues, reflecting Shooter’s directive (as he recounted to Michael David Thomas in a 2000 interview) to “put something in [the comics] that [meant] you’d have to buy all [of them] to make one complete thing.” These appearances don’t severely hamper the experience of reading X-O’s first four issues, although I can imagine this approach becoming fairly unmanageable for someone reading only this series before too long.

That being the case, maybe it’s for the best that I wasn’t able to get my hands on that Classic Omnibus collection of the first thirty issues; given the ramp-up in X-O’s interconnectedness with the larger Valiant universe in issues three and four alone, I’m sure I would have been out of my depth before even the collection’s halfway point. I would be happy to read other comics set in this universe if I can get my hands on them, though, and perhaps to return to X-O’s later issues (or even to the various series from Valiant’s 2012 relaunch) once I feel more firmly grounded in the histories of the universe, its characters, and the publisher itself.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman

Review Superman Volume One Son of Superman Peter J. Tomasi Patrick Gleason Doug Mahnke Jorge Jimenez Superman Clark Kent Superboy Jonathan Kent Lois Lane DC Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke, and Jorge Jimenez
Collects: Superman: Rebirth #1, Superman #1-6 (2016)
Published: DC, 2017; $16.99

In the months immediately preceding DC’s Rebirth initiative, the publisher decided to kill Superman – this time for good. The catch was that the Superman to be killed off was the version introduced as part of 2011’s New 52 relaunch, which had effectively pushed the reset button on the DC Universe and “permanently” replaced the characters readers had been following since 1986 (when Crisis on Infinite Earths had similarly restarted the DC Universe) with new, younger versions unburdened by decades’ worth of continuity. The New 52 Superman had never been as well-received as the post-Crisis version, though, and with Rebirth – which is basically an attempt to reinvigorate the New 52 Universe by infusing it with pre-New 52 concepts – the publisher has (again, “permanently”) replaced the New 52 Superman with the post-Crisis Superman.

Luckily, Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman doesn’t make this convoluted backstory too hard to understand, and writers Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason do a succinct job of explaining the post-Crisis Superman’s return. Having escaped from his own universe just before it was destroyed, he’s simply been hiding out in this one for the last ten years; now, with the New 52 Superman having died in battle, he’s decided to take up the mantle again because, as he puts it, “the world needs to see again that there’s a Superman looking out for them.”

Unlike the first appearances of the New 52 Superman back in 2011, Tomasi and Gleason’s Superman takes time to pay tribute to the status quo it’s upheaving. This first volume’s opening pages, collected from the Superman: Rebirth one-shot, feature the post-Crisis Clark Kent’s attempts to resurrect the New 52 Superman by the same means he was brought back to life following his own death in 1992’s The Death of Superman (an event beautifully recapped, in flashback, by artist Doug Mahnke). He fails, since the “regeneration matrix” device that revived him apparently doesn’t exist in this universe, although it’s hard to buy that this is actually the last we’ll see of the New 52 Superman (this being superhero comics, after all).

Superman #1 continues to look back at the pre-Rebirth status quo, with Clark paying his respects at the New 52 Superman’s grave, but the past quickly fades into the background in Tomasi and Gleason’s series. Instead they focus on what’s arguably the most novel aspect of the return of the post-Crisis Superman: the fact that this Superman is a family man, his longstanding relationship with Lois Lane (who has also made the trip to the New 52 Universe) having produced a roughly ten-year-old son. These concepts were actually introduced not in Tomasi and Gleason’s series, as I had assumed going into this book, but shortly before DC Rebirth, in Convergence and Superman: Lois and Clark. It’s a testament to how well-written Son of Superman is that, even without having read either of those series, I felt at home with these characters – especially the young Jonathan Kent, who officially becomes the new Superboy by the end of this volume – something I haven’t been able to say about contemporary DC comics in a very long time.

Clark Kent’s interactions with his wife and child – who both, refreshingly, are in on the secret of his superpowers and share in his mission to protect and serve the greater good – are as natural as they are original to this franchise. In fact, they humanize Superman in a way rarely seen since the introduction of the New 52 Superman. In that sense, it’s hard not to read the book’s main conflict – in which a new version of the Eradicator (a Kryptonian Robocop, basically) is trying to “purify” Jonathan by, um, “eradicating” the human half of his DNA – as a critique of the various series starring the New 52 Superman, which arguably emphasized the character’s less relatable Kryptonian side to the detriment of his more down-to-earth human alter ego. It’s a compelling metaphor, although it becomes increasingly strained after it’s revealed that the Eradicator’s body somehow contains the soul of every dead Kryptonian (and also, for some reason, the soul of Pa Kent…?). But for as much as the last few issues collected in Son of Superman may lose sight of that central metaphor, the book remains both readable and endearing throughout.

The book owes a lot of its consistency to artists Gleason, Mahnke, and Jorge Jimenez, who trade off between issues with some frequency due to the series’ twice-monthly shipping schedule. All three make effective use of shadows and panel layouts, and every issue ends with a splash page (or, in the case of one issue, a splash page with a single inset panel). Their renderings of Jonathan are also totally of a piece, which is to say the character doesn’t appear to fluctuate in age from issue to issue the way child characters in superhero comics often seem to do (Damian Wayne, anyone?). It goes a long way toward establishing Jonathan as a fully-fledged character in the DC Universe, which I found to be Son of Superman’s greatest achievement.

The DC Rebirth Superman series is off to a great start with this volume, and I hope DC doesn’t intend to back down from the character’s new, family-oriented status quo anytime soon; combined with the post-Crisis Superman’s status as an outsider in the New 52 Universe, it opens up a lot of familiar ground for productive reexamination. There’s Superman’s relationship with the Justice League, for example, which makes for a pretty big question mark at the end of this volume as Superman introduces Jonathan to Batman and Wonder Woman – not his Batman and Wonder Woman, remember, but the New 52 versions of those characters (who have just experienced the death of their Superman and the sudden appearance of a new, older Superman from another universe!). But most significantly – and most uniquely, for a contemporary superhero comic – Son of Superman sets out to explore how qualities like honesty, responsibility, and empathy are passed from one generation to the next. In a time when those qualities are so sorely lacking in people with power, books like this one remind us that there is, indeed, a Superman looking out for us. He resides in the better part of our natures, and his humanity, ironically, is a vital reminder of the strength we all possess.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition

Review DC Universe Rebirth The Deluxe Edition Geoff Johns Gary Frank Ethan Van Sciver Ivan Reis Phil Jimenez Superman Batman Wonder Woman Flash Barry Allen Green Lantern Dr. Manhattan Watchmen DC Comics hardcover comic book
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
Collects: DC Universe: Rebirth Special #1 (2016)
Published: DC, 2016; $17.99

The recent publication of DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition, an eighteen-dollar hardcover version of the three-dollar softcover special issue released in summer 2016 to spearhead the latest relaunch of DC’s superhero line, makes now seem as good a time as any for me to resume posting on this blog. And while I only wish that I could in good conscience make some ham-fisted analogy between the “rebirth” of DC’s publishing line and that of With Great Power, the fact is that I find the Rebirth special off-putting in quite a few respects.

I probably haven’t read as many DC comics as the average DC fan, but I’ve certainly read a lot more than the average person in general. I only mention that because this book left me scratching my head at least once every few pages, and I can’t see it faring much better with the average non-comics reader or even with more seasoned comics readers who may lack an intimate knowledge of DC history. Of course, it would seem that the book was never meant for those audiences. DC president Diane Nelson suggests as much in her introduction to the hardcover edition: “I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this deluxe edition of DC Universe: Rebirth has not yet read it in another form, be it print or digital,” she writes. And while it’s a little sobering to see a major publisher of corporate comics openly admit to repackaging the same material for the same small group of fans over and over again (be it conceptually, as in the intensely nostalgic bent of the entire Rebirth line, or literally, in terms of trade paperback and hardcover collections of single issues), it’s also a little surreal to see that fact so baldly acknowledged by the company’s president in the opening pages of the Rebirth initiative’s flagship book.

The main story of the Rebirth special, which concerns itself primarily with the characters, histories, and interpersonal relationships that were erased from DC continuity as a result of the publisher’s “New 52” relaunch in 2011, is easy enough to follow; it’s the interstitial scenes and cutaways that make the overall book something of a muddle. In between scenes depicting the pre-New 52 character Wally West as he encourages the major characters of the post-New 52 DC Universe to remember his existence, writer Geoff Johns and his team of artists (Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez) jump around in time and space to tell brief vignettes about various other characters. The trouble is that many of these vignettes come and go without contributing anything to the book’s main story, instead leaving the reader with a handful of apparent revelations that make little sense if you’re not familiar with what, say, Blue Beetle or the Atom have been up to since 2011 (and how that differs from what they were up to before that).

Even a lot of the reveals concerning DC’s more popular characters fall somewhat flat. Among them is Batman’s discovery that there have been three Jokers (rather than just one) running around Gotham City since 2011. This idea might have been interesting as the payoff to some larger ongoing mystery in Batman’s corner of the DC Universe, but instead it just sort of drops into the story with a dull, embarrassing thud: it feels less like a deliberate plot development than it does an officially-sanctioned No-Prize designed to make sense of five years’ worth of conflicting editorial decisions regarding Batman’s nemesis.

The reveal that the pre-New 52 version of Superman has been living in hiding for the last five years is a little more interesting, but like many other sequences in this book it’s undermined by the book’s poor page layout. Superman’s vignette is similar to most of the other vignettes in the Rebirth special in that it runs for two pages; rather than being organized as two-page spreads, though, many of these sequences are instead split in half by a page turn. Not only does this make for some really choppy reading at times, but it robs several of the more potentially impactful moments of their significance. Take the page on which Aquaman proposes to Mera, for example, which arguably would have resonated more strongly had it not been paired with a page depicting the mournful, cordoned-off scene of the New 52 Superman’s death. The page break in the middle of the pre-New 52 Superman’s story fosters something more than just thematic incongruity, though, and I had to flip back and forth between the story’s two pages just to figure out how a particular character could have suddenly appeared in the scene without Superman’s noticing.

In general, these short sequences inflict a sense of bewilderment similar to what one might experience in the final pages of a Marvel crossover event. But whereas a book like Marvel’s Civil War, which bombards the reader with a flurry of short sequences that essentially preview the series and story arcs that follow that series, arguably earns the right to show us where characters like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and the Punisher stand at the end of the story – that is, by virtue of having just portrayed these characters over the course of its seven issues – the Rebirth special offers no preceding context for the multiple previews it forces readers to endure.

But worst of all is the way the Rebirth special extends DC’s deeply immoral exploitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, by contending that the most fan-beloved aspects of DC history were erased by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. For one thing, this is yet another ad hominem attack by DC on Moore, who Johns effectively blames here for how poorly received the DC’s New 52 initiative was – for having “weakened” the DC Universe by instigating a “war between hope and despair,” “love and apathy,” “faith and disbelief.” What Johns seems to forget is that Moore and Gibbons’ series was in fact a deconstruction of how insipid mainstream superhero comics had become by the late 1980s, not a call for superhero comics to become more dark and cynical. The publisher learned all the wrong lessons from Watchmen, and to call the thirty-year-old series to the carpet for that is both mean-spirited and dumb.

That’s not even what’s most upsetting about this book, though; more importantly, the Rebirth special promises to introduce the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe for the first time. While this is not strictly illegal – the nature of Moore’s 1985 contract ensured that the rights to Watchmen would revert to him only once the series had gone out of print, and DC has assiduously reprinted it ever since – I have yet to see or hear a convincing argument that the decision is anything less than unethical. Both Moore and DC fully expected that the rights to Watchmen would revert to the authors – that’s how such arrangements had always worked out, and there was nothing unusual about this particular deal at the time – and it was only Watchmen’s tremendous success, ironically, that kept it permanently in print and forever out of Moore’s legal control. So while DC’s inclusion of Moore and Gibbons’ characters in the Rebirth special may be lawful in that regard, it violates the spirit of the initial agreement, which held that Moore and Gibbons were, at the end of the day, the rightful owners of Watchmen.

The widespread apathy of comic book readers toward this outrage has taken a range of disturbing forms, from criticisms of Moore’s physical appearance and religious beliefs to the absurd argument that a corporation such as DC cannot be expected to act against its own interests and should therefore be supported in the exploitative position it has taken against Moore (and other creators over the years). These same readers valorize characters, like Superman and Batman, that frequently act against their own personal interests for the betterment of society: who fight, among other things, corporate greed (e.g., Lex Luthor) and strive to improve the world by directing the profits of big business toward global welfare (e.g., Batman’s charitable Wayne Foundation).

That fact raises a significant question: while it’s true that most corporations don’t act for the common good, does that really mean that we can’t expect them to? In the cases of DC and Marvel, in particular – companies that generate billions of dollars on the backs of characters that espouse altruism, charity, and moral responsibility – should we not demand even the slightest emulation of the positive qualities they so relentlessly promote? Should we reward and celebrate these companies when, as in DC Universe: Rebirth, their actions represent not only a bullheaded unwillingness to redress past wrongdoing but also a concerted determination to persist in that wrongdoing? These are the moral questions, unwittingly, with which the publishers of contemporary superhero comics force us to contend.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 1: Revolution

Review Uncanny X-Men Volume One Revolution Brian Michael Bendis Chris Bachalo Frazer Irving Triage Tempus Emma Frost White Queen Cyclops Scott Summers Magneto Magik Bendis is off to a great start AR Augmented Reality Marvel cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Frazer Irving
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #1-5 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)

Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men exists at a strange remove from All-New X-Men, being at once a companion piece to the writer’s other flagship X-Men title and a series with a coherent raison d’etre of its own. The first collected volume, Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 1: Revolution, focuses on the shambles Cyclops and his cohort (Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik) find themselves in as they attempt to train a new generation of mutants. (It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Bendis’s “all-new” characters – Tempus, Triage, Fabio, and Benjamin – make their home in Uncanny, while the stars of All-New are the time-displaced “all-old” X-Men of the 1960s?)

Some of the most interesting and best-written moments in Revolution are actually ones previously seen in All-New X-Men, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, presented here with a focus on the character interactions we didn’t see in Bendis’s other X-book. When Cyclops & Friends show up at the Jean Grey School to recruit more mutants to their cause, for example, Bendis overlays the war of words between Cyclops, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde with a psychic showdown between Emma Frost and her former protégés, the Stepford Cuckoos. The girls feel betrayed by Emma’s apparent loss of her mutant abilities, casting a harsh light on Emma’s own sense of betrayal – one directed at herself on the one hand, but also at Cyclops, both for unintentionally breaking her mutant powers and for breaking her heart as well.

As fascinating as moments like these are in their own right, they also serve as consistent springboards to what gives Uncanny X-Men its own identity in relation to All-New X-Men: the “broken” nature of its cast’s mutant powers in the wake of Avengers vs. X-Men. If All-New is about inexperienced young mutants learning to utilize their talents to their fullest potential, then Uncanny is about experienced older mutants half-conscious of their new limitations but who try to do what they think is right anyway. Throughout Revolution the utter inability of Cyclops and his team becomes increasingly disconcerting, especially considering that half of them are completely untrained. While the team narrowly escapes potentially deadly encounters with Sentinel robots and the Avengers in this volume, it seems only a matter of time before Cyclops’s hubris will result in tragedy. Chris Bachalo’s artwork, fittingly, is as beautiful as it is unsettling, his frequently off-kilter panel layouts creating a near-constant sense of unease and impending danger.

The final issue collected in Revolution features painted artwork by the equally talented Frazer Irving, but unfortunately the story itself – about denizens of the demonic Limbo dimension coming after team member Magik – leaves much to be desired. As longtime readers of this blog might recall, I’ve never been too keen on demons serving as the antagonists of superhero comics (see also: my reviews of Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore, Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn, and Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes). At best such stories tend to read essentially as cardboard cut-outs of one another, offering up supernatural excuses for the main character(s) to fight endless hordes of generically ugly bad guys. At worst, though, they legitimize the use of sexually violent language and imagery as a plot device; just consider the number of stories we’ve all read and watched about death-cults sacrificing virginal young women to Satan (or some other demonic entity). Only adding to the unpleasantness is that these types of stories tend to wrap themselves in pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, adding yet another dimension of poor taste to the proceedings.

Review Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 Revolution Uncanny X-Men #5 Brian Michael Bendis Frazer Irving Magik Dormammu Limbo Mindless Ones and now you must be punished Marvel comic book issue

In Revolution we have the worst of all these worlds, with characters threatening to “damn” and “punish” each other and Magik in particular singled out as a “stupid mortal girl,” a “broken doll” who “must be punished.” Magik, for her own part, sprouts horns and hoofs and begins referring to herself as “the Darkchilde.” It’s pretty insufferable stuff. It never gets quite as perverse as some of the character’s earlier appearances – I’m thinking especially of Chris Claremont’s Magik (Illyana and Storm) and the hopefully never-to-be-reprinted Magik miniseries of 2000-2001 – many of which more explicitly evoked pedophilia and rape. But even so, one might hope that this character’s thirty-plus years of publication would be long enough for us to have moved past this brand of storytelling.

Revolution ends right in the middle of this dreadful story, leaving it to drag on for another two issues in the series’ next collected volume. I’ll say more about the story’s conclusion should I get around to writing about that book, but in the meantime it’s worth noting how irritating it is that both this volume and All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay end on cliffhangers. Since characters weave in and out between All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, this makes it impossible to read either series in trade without spoiling the other, even if you switch from one series to the other between individual collections. (And that’s to say nothing of how both series intertwine with Brian Wood’s X-Men, Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers and, eventually, Bendis’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man.)

In short, while the first four issues collected in Revolution represent some of the strongest work by both Bendis and Bachalo in recent years, the way this volume concludes sends up serious red flags. I’ve mostly enjoyed Bendis’s two X-Men titles so far, and I sincerely hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.