Friday, December 24, 2010

Review: Marvel Holiday Special

Review Marvel Holiday Special 2004 2005 Marvel Team-Up Uncanny X-Men Tom DeFalco Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa Shaenon Garrity Jeff Parker Mike Carey Roy Thomas Chris Claremont Takeshi Miyazawa Roger Cruz Duncan Roleau Roger Langridge Reilly Brown Mike Perkins Ross Andru John Byrne Spider-Man Fantastic Four Mr. Fantastic Invisible Girl Human Torch Thing Christmas Tree Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb digest comic bookWriters: Tom DeFalco, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Shaenon Garrity, Jeff Parker, Mike Carey, Roy Thomas, and Chris Claremont
Artists: Takeshi Miyazawa, Roger Cruz, Duncan Roleau, Roger Langridge, Reilly Brown, Mike Perkins, Ross Andru, and John Byrne
Collects: Marvel Holiday Special 2004 & 2005, Marvel Team-Up #1, and Uncanny X-Men #143 (1971, 1980, 2004-05)
Published: Marvel, 2006; $7.99

Every year, both DC and Marvel typically release some sort of special holiday-themed one-shot, usually at some ridiculously high price point. The stories in these issues, at least in my experience, are usually of middling to slightly-above-average quality, mainly featuring younger or lesser-known writers and artists. Perhaps needless to say, events in the holiday specials are for the most part light-hearted and largely inconsequential as far as “main” continuity goes. That said, I almost always bought Marvel’s holiday one-shots back when I still actually purchased single issues, simply because they provided a nice opportunity to get away from the doom and gloom of whatever other stories were being told in the characters’ main series.

A few years ago, Marvel did something sort of interesting by packaging a few of their holiday one-shots into an inexpensive, digest-sized trade paperback, titled simply Marvel Holiday Special. The trade collects the 2004 and 2005 one-shots, along with a few classic tales from years past, for only $7.99 – a few cents short of the combined cover price of the two one-shots, making the book a pretty good deal. (If you shop around, you can find it even cheaper…I actually paid just $2.50 for my copy!)

Of the modern stories, the best is probably “Jonah’s Holiday Carol,” a re-telling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with the curmudgeonly J. Jonah Jameson stepping in for Ebenezer Scrooge. As you might imagine, the “ghosts” that help him see the true meaning of the holidays are all prominent figures in the Marvel Universe, although I won’t spoil the fun by going through who all of them. Another solid story involves a New Avengers Christmas party that gets broken up by Santron, an Ultron robot reprogrammed to eat cookies and deliver toys to good little boys and girls – and to kill the Avengers, of course! This story also features Gravity, my absolute favorite lesser-known Marvel character, which automatically boosts its appeal for me.

Also decent, if not exceptional, are a pair of Fantastic Four stories – one starring Reed and Sue’s son Franklin as he tries to figure out the meaning of Christmas, and the other about the team’s efforts to determine why the Mole Man’s henchmen have been kidnapping shopping-mall Santas. The latter has art by Roger Langridge (writer/artist of The Muppet Show), whose cartoonish style, for lack of a better word, lends the story a lot of humor.

There’s also a Fantastic Four story written by Mike Carey and drawn by Mike Perkins (probably the two most well-known creators to contribute to these one-shots), which is told in the form of a poem. The art is a departure from Perkins’ usual style – in fact, it looks like he read a little too much Perry Bible Fellowship before setting to work on it – and the rhyming aspect of the narration and dialogue can get a little hokey, although it does have the advantage of making the story stand out a bit from the others.

Less interesting is a story about Cyclops, Emma Frost, and Wither (a young mutant whose “power” is that everything he touches dies – good thing he’s not on the bad guys’ side, right?). It’s basically just about the two X-Men trying to cheer Wither up, since he doesn’t have a family to go home to over the school’s winter break. There’s nothing wrong with the story, but it’s not all that interesting either, especially for people (like me) who have never even heard of Wither before.

The two one-shots are followed first by the 1971 debut issue of Marvel Team-Up, in which Spider-Man and the Human Torch track the Sandman throughout New Jersey and New York City on Christmas Eve. This issue has been collected in a few different trades over the years (and will be collected once again in the much-anticipated first Marvel Team-Up Masterworks edition in just a few months), but this is undoubtedly the most affordable way to read the story in color. Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru, this issue is a fun classic with a nice mix of action and introspection from Spider-Man, the Torch, and even Sandman.

The final issue collected in this trade is a 1980 issue of Uncanny X-Men, written by Chris Claremont and penciled by John Byrne. It follows the team’s newest recruit, Kitty Pryde, as she’s chased around the X-Mansion by a horrifying demon (clearly inspired by the creature from Alien), again on Christmas Eve. I’ve commented before on Claremont’s unfortunate inclination towards stories featuring “strong” female leads, but this one is actually pretty good – probably due in large part to the fact that Kitty is simply a more interesting character than Claremont’s usual subjects.

Overall, Marvel Holiday Special is a pretty solid mix of new and old holiday-themed superhero stories – even if none of them can really be considered truly outstanding. Sometimes “not outstanding” is perfectly acceptable, though, especially when those stories are so far removed from the norm (and as cheaply collected!) as these ones.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore

Review Superman Kryptonite Nevermore Dennis O'Neil Denny O'Neil Curt Swan Neal Adams Bronze Age DC Comics Classics Library Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriter: Dennis O’Neil
Artist: Curt Swan
Collects: Superman #232-238, 240-242 (1971)
Published: DC, 2009; $39.99

The year was 1971, and things at DC Comics were changing. Longtime Superman editor Mort Weisinger had retired and been replaced by Julius Schwartz, the man who had revamped Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, among other characters, for a new, more modern age. What Schwartz found upon taking up his new position was that Superman had somehow resisted the changes that the rest of the comic book industry had undergone over the previous decade. While other superheroes (Batman, especially) had all but completely shed the sillier, less realistic trappings of the Silver Age, Superman was still flying around with an entourage of Super-Pets and coming up against every color of Kryptonite in the rainbow – each of which seemed to possess some increasingly ridiculous physical property and/or influence over Superman.

To top it off, Superman had become so ridiculously overpowered by this point that, as writer Dennis O’Neil once put it, he “could destroy a galaxy by listening hard.” That being the case, it only makes sense that writers were coming up with so many different kinds of Kryptonite; it was the only thing that could pose an actual threat to Superman anymore. Kryptonite had become a story-telling crutch, the only means by which writers could inject Superman’s comics with any real sense of conflict.

Review Superman Kryptonite Nevermore Dennis O'Neil Denny O'Neil Curt Swan Neal Adams Bronze Age DC Comics Classics Library Cover hardcover hc comic bookSchwartz brought on O’Neil as the new writer of Superman, and the two came up with a solution that was fairly radical for the time: get rid of Kryptonite altogether. Fittingly enough, the cover of the first issue in O’Neil’s run (and the first issue collected in Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore) shows Superman literally breaking free from chains made of Kryptonite. It’s not just for show, either: within the first three pages, O’Neil has rendered every last bit of Kryptonite on Earth harmless to Superman, by means of a science experiment gone awry. From here on out, the story focuses relatively little on Kryptonite at all – although it does lead to some rather funny moments in which criminals attempt to use Kryptonite against Superman, only to have Superman basically laugh in their faces (see right).

But as is the case with most radioactive tests in superhero comics, the outcome is hardly a bed of roses for the main character. The experiment also brings into existence a strange duplicate of Superman – one that can’t think or feel, but which possesses all of Superman’s powers. When the two are close to one another, the duplicate saps Superman’s strength and becomes more powerful itself; and if the two were to come into physical contact, we learn, the Earth would be completely destroyed. O’Neil wisely uses this as a means to permanently weaken the main character, eschewing the problematic, “all-powerful” depiction of Superman that had reigned supreme over the two previous decades.

The duplicate isn’t necessarily evil – it’s just mysteriously drawn to Superman, and it seems to follow him everywhere. As a result, Superman often loses his powers at the most inopportune times, forcing him to use his head in situations where he might otherwise have used his fists. The resolution to this plot at the end of the collection is a satisfying one, complete with a nice fake-out of an ending by O’Neil in which it appears that Superman and his duplicate have destroyed the world in their final battle.

The reduction in Superman’s powers is just one of a number of changes O’Neil imposes on the character. The biggest is undoubtedly Clark Kent’s shift from newspaper reporter to television news anchor, a peculiar switch demanded by new Daily Planet owner Morgan Edge – a man who, as we see in a few scattered interludes, is secretly working for the villainous Darkseid. (That subplot doesn’t come to fruition in this collection, though, and for the most part it’s incidental to the main story.) Superman soon finds that being on TV is much different than writing for a newspaper, since he now has to be careful to keep his identity a secret from millions of viewers in addition to the people he works with at the Planet. Equipped with a “portable television transmitter” (a television camera that, conveniently enough, doesn’t require a cameraman), Clark travels all over the world for his new job. Curiously, though, no one ever seems to ask how he gets around so quickly without ever catching a plane.

For the most part, I found the stories in this collection to be very entertaining, and a nice change of pace from the more traditional Superman formula. The character still faces some hilariously ridiculous, Silver-Age-style threats (a pair of giant ants, for instance), but these are mixed with more contemporary villains, like a group of “bandits” – terrorists, really – who kidnap Lois in the South American jungle.

Review Superman Kryptonite Nevermore Dennis O'Neil Denny O'Neil Curt Swan Neal Adams Bronze Age DC Comics Classics Library Cover hardcover hc comic bookThere’s only one legitimately bad story here, involving a group of angels who convince Superman that he’s gone to Hell. As it turns out, the “angels” are actually just fugitive aliens who happen to look the way that people on Earth imagine angels. (How convenient!) If nothing else, this story reminded me of how much more prevalent Christian imagery used to be in comic books, and in popular culture in general, than it is today. I wasn’t bothered by it on any level other than the plot itself being a mediocre one, but I can’t imagine a story like this one being met without some controversy today. Of course, I might just be overestimating the sensitivity of comic book readers; people seem to be wholly accepting of rape and murder in their superhero comics these days, so who knows, maybe DC could get away with this too.

Speaking of controversy, though, DC has made an extremely controversial choice in its coloring for this book. Rather than re-coloring the original artwork the way Marvel and DC usually do for their “classic” collections, the art here seems to replicate what the original comics must have actually looked like. That is to say, the colors are faded and washed-out, and often have something of a yellowish hue to them. Some will almost certainly hate the book for this reason alone, but personally, I love it. The coloring made me feel as though I was reading the original comic books – a feeling helped, no doubt, by the fact that the art is handled by longtime Superman artist Curt Swan – and I think the decision to refrain from “cleaning up” the color is a bold decision on DC’s part.

It’s interesting to read stories like these, in which it’s clear that the writers and editors at DC are beginning to try to retool the aspects of their characters that just don’t work anymore. In fact, as sort of a revisionist take on the character, the stories collected in Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore can be seen as something of a precursor to comics like Crisis on Infinite Earths, which would shake up and modernize the characters of the DC Universe in a much more blatant and lasting fashion. Even in its own right, though, this book provides an entertaining glimpse at a largely-forgotten era of Superman comics, especially for those who can appreciate the quality of the reproduction.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: 9/11 Heartbreaker

Review 9/11 Heartbreaker Craig Staufenberg September 11 Comic Book Cover self-published original graphic novel ognWriter/Artist: Craig Staufenberg
Published: 2010; $4.99 (print), or $2.99 (digital)

I think September 11 meant something different to my generation than it did to others. That isn’t to say that how some people feel about it is more valid, or more consequential, than what anyone else feels – just that, among the different ways it affected people, many of those differences seem to play themselves out along generational boundaries. Looking back, I often feel like I’m in the peculiar position of being one of the youngest people to remember – to really remember, I mean, with some burgeoning sense of maturity and of how the world really works – the difference between what it was like before and after that day.

Everyone has their own story, their own memories, about September 11. For me, it was the year before I started high school. My history class watched in horror as the second plane hit on live television. We were afraid – not for our own safety, as some of the younger students were, but because I think a part of us knew there was no going back. We were getting older, and had all but left our childhoods behind. The past had been slipping away from us for years, but we didn’t realize it until a huge piece of it was literally destroyed before our eyes on TV.

It may sound self-centered to frame national tragedy in terms of the everyday, adolescent struggle of coming to grips with the world. But in the end, I think that’s exactly how it affected a lot of people; after all, we were young, and we were self-centered, and that’s how young, self-centered people tend to think. Perhaps ours was a special case, too – we grew up believing that our world was one kind of place, and in an instant it forever became an entirely different one. It was the ultimate bait-and-switch. For many people my age, September 11 was an “end-of-the-innocence,” “coming-of-age” experience.

What I’ve just discussed is my own truth, and it’s different from my father’s and my grandfather’s truths, even though it lies rooted in the same factual events. Our sense of understanding is subjective like that, and so is memory. So perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Craig Staufenberg, author of the original graphic novel 9/11 Heartbreaker, titles his personal website “Memory is Fiction.” And perhaps it’s also fitting that Staufenberg, who began the book as a means of exploring our generation’s memories and feelings about September 11, has created one of the most poignant and thought-provoking reactions to the events of that day that I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in any form of media.

At just 28 pages, 9/11 Heartbreaker is a fairly short book. But it’s packed with meaning, and with an entire generation’s own subjective truth. For people like me who were around high-school age at the time of September 11, it will ring perfectly true; for those who weren’t, I imagine it will offer a fascinating alternative perspective on that day.

The story follows a young woman who in the first few pages meets Peter, a man who records young people’s memories of September 11. The stories our unnamed main character encounters through Peter’s website (which were culled from real-life stories collected by Staufenberg) are so gripping that they incite her to action. Realizing how important it is to remember our history – the various subjective truths of everyday people, if you will – she set out to record them in her own way, just as Peter has.

There’s no plot twist, no loopy postmodern narrative techniques; it’s all about the mental journey the main character goes through as a result of hearing these stories about an event which, until now, she hadn’t thought of so intensely. The artwork is fairly uncomplicated, and it brings to mind the simple beauty of artists like graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff (Slow Storm and Refresh, Refresh). The story is more heavily driven by its prose – as it should be, since much of the book is made up of personal testimonies about September 11.

What I like most about 9/11 Heartbreaker is that it works not just as a means of preserving one specific perspective on one isolated event; it also shows us how we might learn from it, and more generally how we might strive to record and remember the things that are important to us. We can do that in any number of ways, from taking pictures to writing down our thoughts about the world to simply learning about our cultural heritage. After all, if something happened that no one remembers, then in a way isn’t it almost like that thing never happened at all?

In many ways, I feel as though the effects spiraling out from the main character’s meeting with Peter run parallel to the effect this book had on me. Much like her, I hadn’t given much thought prior to reading the book to the unique effect September 11 had on people of my own age group. Maybe five or ten years from now, I’ll look back on some of the conclusions I’ve drawn here and scoff at my own ignorance for thinking that I’ve sort of figured things out. But if I’ve taken anything away from this book, it’s that the very act of recording your thoughts is an important process, and perhaps looking back on these ones again will lead me to reach even more definitive conclusions one day when the time comes.

I think that’s what this book is about, in the end: the importance of being able to accept our own subjective truths as well as those of others, and of doing our best to preserve them. Those truths can be about September 11, a first love, even our own reflections on a book that makes us think about our world in a new way. If memory is indeed fiction, then it’s important for us to try to remember as much as we can, as best we can, in order for us to learn and move forward from those memories. As long as we keep doing that, I don’t think we can ever truly forget about the things that are most important to us.

[9/11 Heartbreaker is available for purchase in either print or digital form. For the time being, people who order the print version can receive a digital version for free by contacting Craig Staufenberg personally. For more information on the book, including other reviews and interviews, feel free to visit his website, Memory is Fiction.]

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Huge Marvel TPB Timeline Update!

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars Omnibus Alex Ross Mike Zeck Jim Shooter Spider-Man Human Torch Thing Colossus She-Hulk Hawkeye Wolverine Captain America Wasp Cyclops Rogue Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau Nightcrawler Iron Man Hulk Marvel Cover hardcover hc comic bookI have some good news and some bad news today. First, the bad news – I won’t be posting a new review this week. But the reason why is actually the good news! This week I used the time I normally would have spent on a new review working on the Marvel Trade Paperback Timeline, which has now been updated to cover everything – and I do mean everything (so far as I can tell, at least) – that Marvel published from 1984 to 2004. In terms of Marvel continuity, that’s everything from the original Secret Wars to Avengers Disassembled! I also added a Table of Contents to the top of the page for easier navigation.

As always, any and all feedback is welcome. If you think I’ve made a mistake somewhere (which is more than likely, given the number of books now on the timeline), please let me know! Feel free either to leave a comment on this post or to send me an email at marveltimeline@gmail.com. Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: Creepshow

Review Creepshow George A. Romero Stephen King Creepshow Creep Warner Bros. Movie Poster Film DVD Blu-rayDirector: George A. Romero
Screenplay: Stephen King
Released: Warner Bros., 1982
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix Instant Watch

I thought I would do something a little different this week and talk about a film that doesn’t typically come up on lists of great comic book movies, but which deserves the attention of comic fans nonetheless. I imagine the reason that Creepshow is so often overlooked is that it isn’t an adaptation of a specific comic book, but rather an homage to EC’s line of horror comics from the 1950s. As a huge fan of EC Comics myself, I found a lot to love in this movie.

The movie begins with a father scolding his son for reading a horror comic book called Creepshow, and then throwing it in the trash. A thunderstorm is approaching, and as the wind and rain pick up, blowing the comic open, we get our first look into its pages. Much like Tales From the Crypt, it’s a horror anthology hosted by a strange, supernatural character – the Creepshow Creep in this case, rather than the Crypt-Keeper – with all the trappings of a classic EC comic (even the letters pages look the same!). From this point onward, the movie itself follows the same format, presenting the viewer with five distinct, unrelated horror tales.

The stories are vintage EC for the most part, featuring off-kilter characters and shocking, yet satisfying, endings. The violence and language are considerably rougher than anything EC ever published, of course, but the overall tone is the same in its subtle mix of horror and comedy. The screenplay is by Stephen King, who had already made a name for himself despite having published only seven novels at this point (he had written several others as well, but under pseudonyms). He based several of the stories on short fiction of his own, while others were written specifically for the movie. King even appears in a starring role in one segment, playing a farmer who is transformed into a plant-like creature by a radioactive meteor.

It’s hard to describe the stories without giving too much away, but I’ll give it my best shot. The first segment, “Father’s Day,” follows a group of rich, snobbish people as they gather for their annual celebration of the murder that resulted in their inheritance; it also features an early performance by Ed Harris. The second story (mentioned above) stars Stephen King, who plays the part of an over-the-top southern hick surprisingly well. The next segment, “Something to Tide You Over,” stars Leslie Nielsen as a psychotic husband who sets out to revenge himself upon his wife and her lover by burying them up to their necks on the beach just before the tide comes in. By far the best story, in my opinion, is “The Crate,” in which a college professor (played by Hal Holbrook) uses the appearance of a mysterious monster as a means of getting rid of his emotionally abusive, alcoholic wife. This is followed by the weakest (and also definitely the most disgusting) story of the group, “They’re Creeping Up On You,” in which an evil man receives his just desserts when swarms of insects invade his apartment.

Between each story, we’re treated to bits of the comic book’s artwork as well as brief glimpses of the Creep himself, who is rendered in smooth-looking, traditional animation. The comic book pages are really quite beautiful, and I often found myself pausing the movie to take a closer look or to read some of the text and word balloons that I would have missed otherwise. In a nice touch, the art is by Jack Kamen, one of EC’s top illustrators.

The special effects in Creepshow, created by Tom Savini, are quite good for the time the movie was made. The way the undead are depicted here shows a remarkable technical improvement over Savini’s efforts in the 1975 horror classic Dawn of the Dead – not that there’s anything wrong with the zombies in that movie, but they simply weren’t as impressive in their individual goriness as the dead are in this movie. (In fact, it seems to me that it was only in the decade after Dawn of the Dead that the cinematic portrayal of zombies began to shift from pale, vacant-eyed, but otherwise fairly normal-looking people, to the sort of brain-munching, maggot-filled corpses we’re used to seeing today.) Even the less believable aspects of Creepshow, like the monster in “The Crate,” simply lend to the movie’s horror-comedy tone with how hokey they look.

Of course, the true responsibility for Creepshow’s success lies with director George A. Romero. In fact, the reason I was enticed to watch this movie recently is that I’ve been catching up on some of the director’s movies that I hadn’t already seen (others I’ve watched in the past few weeks include The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead). I’ve found it interesting to watch Romero refine his directorial skills over the course of these films, and I would certainly place Creepshow among his best work.

If you’re interested in EC Comics but don’t have the disposable income to spend on the original issues or on Gemstone’s EC Archive collections, Creepshow is a pretty good way to sample just what it was like to read an EC horror comic book. The Tales From the Crypt television series is excellent as well, since most of the stories on that show were taken directly from the comics, although obviously the anthology format is lost. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that a 64-page graphic novella version of Creepshow was published around the time the movie came out. I haven’t been able to procure a copy yet, but I’ll certainly be on the lookout for one, and I’ll let you know what I think of it when I get the chance.

So until next time... Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: The EC Archives: Tales From the Crypt, Vol. 1

Review Tales from the Crypt Archives Volume One Crypt of Terror Bill Gaines Al Feldstein Johnny Craig Graham Ingels Harvey Kurtzman Wally Wood Jack Kamen George Roussos Crypt-Keeper EC Comics Gemstone Publishing Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriters: Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Artists: Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Jack Kamen, and George Roussos
Collects: The Crypt of Terror #17-19 and Tales From the Crypt #20-22 (EC Comics, 1950-51)
Published: Gemstone Publishing, 2006; $49.95

Hard as it may be to believe today, there was a time in comic book history when horror reigned supreme. That time was the first half of the 1950s, when EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines and his top editor, Al Feldstein, set out to create a completely different kind of comic. With what was surely the most talented stable of artists working in the comics industry, and with almost every story written by Feldstein (with Gaines’s frequent input), EC’s bimonthly horror anthology Tales From the Crypt quickly became one of the best and most consistently beautiful-looking comics being published at the time. This first volume in Gemstone’s series of Tales from the Crypt archives collects the comic’s first six issues, which contain some of the greatest and most influential horror stories ever conceived.

The history of EC Comics is so intertwined with the actual content of its comic books that it’s worth dwelling on, at least for a moment more. Gaines was more than just an idea man; he was also a shrewd businessman. He inherited the company (then called Educational Comics) from his father, who had published a range of wholesome, but utterly bland, comic books, including Picture Stories from the Bible. Within three years of his father’s death, Gaines had transformed the newly-christened “Entertaining Comics” – EC, for short – into something altogether different, not to mention exponentially more successful. Originally called The Crypt of Terror, the company’s flagship title (along with Weird Science, a science-fiction comic) began with issue 17, inheriting its numbering from another EC title, Crime Patrol. At the time, it would have cost an additional fee to start a new comic magazine with a new first issue, although ironically, the U.S. Post Office grew wise to EC’s scheme and made the company pay the fee anyway. With its fourth issue, the series changed its name again, this time to Tales From the Crypt, the title it would retain until its untimely end in 1955.

Each issue contains four stories, which are typically six to eight pages in length apiece. The first story (and sometimes the second) is narrated by the Crypt Keeper, who basically acts as the comic’s “host.” The Crypt Keeper is a creepy old man whose exaggerated dialogue is filled with morbid puns that are so ridiculously campy it’s hard not to chuckle along with him. The actual stories take themselves a bit more seriously. What’s really interesting is that, at least in the early issues, the stories rarely delve into supernatural territory. While some of the characters do seem to encounter ghosts and werewolves and what not, the strange things they see are usually explained as being the manifestations of their inner guilt rather than actual paranormal activity.

This has a great deal to do with one of the defining traits not just of Tales From the Crypt, but of EC’s comic book line in general. In fact, a better way of describing the company’s comics, rather than calling them horror or science-fiction comics, might be to call them morality tale anthologies with a horror or science-fiction twist. Most stories, in the end, involve the meting out of karmic justice, while even those that don’t still achieve their rhetorical effect from the very absence of that justice. Each story also ends with a twist of some kind. Sometimes the twists are obvious and can be seen a mile away; other times, they come totally out of left field. Even in the former case, though, the stories for the most part end satisfyingly and leave you excited for the next one.

So exactly what kinds of stories can you expect to see in this volume? First of all, there are graves and dead bodies – lots of them. In “The Hungry Grave,” for example, a case of mistaken identity leads a man to bury his mistress alive, rather than her husband; in another story, a graveyard prank by a group of rich, spoiled, and bored students leads to tragedy. And then there’s the excellent “The Thing from the Grave” – the ending, in which a dead man seemingly pulls his killer with him into the grave, is pictured on this collection’s cover.

In several stories, men kill their closest friends in order to steal their wives, only to meet horrible and fitting ends themselves. Others are more unique – in “Terror Ride,” a couple of newlyweds find themselves on a death-filled Tunnel of Love ride. That’s not the only story to feature an amusement park, either; in “Death’s Turn,” two greedy amusement park owners cut corners while building the fastest roller coaster ever, leading to predictably ghastly results. Many of the stories reach backward in time to play on common folklore and urban legend, while others lay the groundwork for horror classics that would come many years later. One of my favorite stories in the book, “The Maestro’s Hand,” anticipates Sam Raimi’s brilliant Evil Dead 2 (one of my favorite horror movies) in its depiction of a disembodied hand that skitters about almost comically before achieving its chilling, murderous end.

There is one major problem with this collection, one that, admittedly, may not bother other people as much as it bothers me – every story in this collection has been re-colored using modern technology. In general, the argument for re-coloring older comics is that the original creators simply weren’t able to produce the range and quality of colors they wanted due to technical or budgetary limitations at the time. On the final page of this collection, Gemstone publisher Russ Cochran tries to justify the re-coloring process by arguing that coloring in comic books prior to 1950 was primitive and generally handled by non-artists. The problem with this argument, though, is that Tales From the Crypt was published after 1950, and was in fact colored by Marie Severin, one of the single best colorists in the industry’s history. The new coloring does a huge disservice to the original artists, whose beautiful linework looks strange and unnatural at times in this book.

Another minor complaint is that this book is interspersed with advertisements for other books published by Gemstone, including other EC Archive editions. This comes off as a pretty tacky move, especially for a book that costs as much as this one does. I find it unlikely that most people who buy this book would be unaware that other EC Archives exist, and even in that case, it’s not a problem that a one-page list of other Archives at the end of the book wouldn’t solve.

While the presentation isn’t ideal, the fact still remains that this is the only way to see these stories in print without buying the original issues, which can be quite expensive these days. Perhaps one day another company will gain access to this material and present it in a better format – I certainly hope so. But until then, if you’re a fan of horror stories or even of great storytelling in general, this collection of Tales From the Crypt is, even despite its flaws, a must-read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Melvin Monster, Vol. 1

Review Melvin Monster Volume One Crunch John Stanley Library Dell Comics Drawn and Quarterly Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriter/Artist: John Stanley
Collects: Melvin Monster #1-3 (Dell Comics, 1965-66)
Published: Drawn and Quarterly, 2009; $19.95

John Stanley will almost certainly be forever celebrated as one of the greatest and most prolific creators in the history of children’s comics. He’s best known for Little Lulu (one of my favorite comic book series from the 1950s), but he created comics based on a wide range of other well-known characters too, including Alvin and the Chipmunks, Krazy Kat, Nancy, and Woody Woodpecker. One of his most original efforts, Melvin Monster was a short-lived series – ten issues long, the last issue being a reprint of the first – but also one of the creator’s most critically-acclaimed. This first installment in Drawn and Quarterly’s “John Stanley Library” collects the series’ first three issues, reprinted on nice, thick paper from high-quality scans of the original comics.

The concept of the series is essentially that Melvin is a little boy monster who looks and acts like a cross between Frankenstein’s Monster and Tubby from Little Lulu. He lives in Monsterville with his parents “Mummy” and “Baddy,” whose physical appearances (as you might imagine, since this is a fairly humorous children’s comic) are reflective of their names. The overall tone is in keeping with the comically inverted moral sensibility of shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters – both of which were popular at the time Melvin Monster was being published – in which behavior that we would think of as “good” or “normal” is considered strange and unnatural by the characters. As a result, Melvin’s parents encourage him to play hooky, throw rocks at windows, and generally cause mischief whenever and wherever possible.

Melvin is an interesting case, though, in that he would rather go to school and be nice to people than get into trouble. He doesn’t have quite the same sense of moral uprightness as a character like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but he’s just as charming in his naiveté. This comes through most clearly when he’s transported, on several different occasions, to our own world (which is alternately called “Human Being Land” and “Humanbeanville”). Despite the best of intentions, Melvin manages to annoy quite a few people through such peculiar activities as running across the middle of a busy street and eating a man’s shoe right off his foot. When the people he’s offended attempt to do him harm (one man actually tries to run him over with a car), the always-innocent Melvin believes they know he is a young monster and that they’re simply trying their best to make him feel at home.

The first two issues each tell a full story from start to finish. The first sees Melvin unintentionally blowing up the monster schoolhouse, getting lost in the human world, and being captured by a duplicitous old man for display in a zoo; the second has Melvin discovering that a door in his parents’ basement leads into a subway tunnel, leading him into even more misadventures in the human world. The plots unfold much like they do in Little Lulu, beginning with a fairly straightforward situation (Melvin wanting to go to school in the first issue, for example) which quickly spirals into ridiculous (and hilarious) territory. The third and final issue is the weakest of the group, being composed of a series of shorter stories of about three to five pages each. It does have some of the most hilariously bizarre imagery in the book, though, including a corpulent French mouse armed with a meat cleaver.

Aside from Melvin and his parents, other recurring characters include Damon the Demon (Melvin’s useless and negligent “guardian demon”) and the family’s pet crocodile Cleopatra, who mirrors the frenzy of the crocodile in Peter Pan in her constant attempts to eat Melvin. The main character’s utter obliviousness to the fact that everyone else seems to have it in for him is a near-constant source of humor – at one point, for instance, a witch feeds him an entire barrel of poisoned apples, to no avail – although if you read enough in one stretch, his stupidity can get a bit tiring. That small disclaimer aside, Melvin Monster is pretty enjoyable reading.

I do have a fairly significant complaint about the actual collected edition itself, though, which is that it lacks any kind of introduction or afterword explaining the material’s significance or context. In archival volumes like these (see anything published by Fantagraphics, or under IDW’s “Library of American Comics” banner), it’s become customary for book editors to present at least some information about a comic and its author(s). Books like this one present the opportunity for seriously investigating the cultural and historical significance of comics, and it’s sad to see that squandered in this case.

That’s not necessarily a reason to avoid Melvin Monster, but for those approaching it in the hopes of learning more about John Stanley and his work, it’s something to keep in mind. If you’re really interested in Stanley, or in children’s comics from this era in general, Little Lulu is a much better bet; but if you’ve already familiarized yourself with Lulu and her pals, or you’re simply looking for classic comics more in the Halloween spirit, this isn’t a bad book to look into either.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Review: Torso

Torso A True Crime Graphic Novel Jinx Torso Killer Brian Michael Bendis Marc Andreyko Eliot Ness Cleveland Ohio Red Skull Image Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko
Artist: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Jinx: Torso #1-6 (1998-99)
Published: Image, 2000; $24.95

Torso is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. It seemed like a perfect fit for me since I find a lot of Brian Michael Bendis’s early work pretty enjoyable, and since the story is tangentially related to one of my favorite movies, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The movie follows federal agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) in his efforts to bring down the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, and ends with Capone being convicted of tax evasion, the only charge Ness and his team could get to stick. Torso is based on the actual story of what Ness did afterward, which was to take over as Safety Director for the city of Cleveland. Before long, though, the city is struck by a series of bizarre murders committed by a serial killer known as the “Torso Killer.”

The real-life story here is pretty fascinating, and it’s clear that Bendis and co-writer Marc Andreyko did a lot of research for the book. Unfortunately, an interesting concept and solid research don’t necessarily make for good writing or artwork, neither of which are to be found with any consistency in Torso. The story follows not just Ness, but two detectives who have been assigned to the Torso Killer case. None of the characters are very easy to sympathize with – the detectives are interchangeable and bland, and Ness comes off most of the time as little more than an arrogant jerk. The writing is pure Bendis, and if you’re at all familiar with his recent work then you know exactly what I mean: the book is full of ridiculously talkative characters who ask and answer far too many rhetorical questions in as choppy and stilted a fashion as humanly possible.

But what kills the book more than anything else is the art, which is quite possibly the laziest I have ever seen in a comic book. Each character has no more than five different facial expressions, which Bendis simply copies and pastes for every single panel, changing their sizes and their positions in relation to each other as the situation warrants. Think of it like trying to tell a story with an industrial-sized box of the same five stickers. Perhaps in an effort to make the book “dark and gritty,” almost every expression in Bendis’s limited repertoire is heavily shadowed, even when the characters appear in settings that should be considerably brighter. For scenes in which something other than an extreme close-up is needed, the characters usually appear simply in silhouette. It’s worth noting too that text at the beginning of each of the book’s six chapters claims that Torso was “created and written” by Bendis and Andreyko, and “executed” by Bendis. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a pun; if it is, I’m not laughing.

If the book were only 30 or 50 pages, I probably wouldn’t have minded the repetition in the art so much – but at nearly 300 pages, I was sick of even looking at Torso about a third of the way into it. In fact, I think it was around that point that I realized I would rather have just read the actual script than the comic itself. It’s not just that the art is boring; it’s that it actively works against the story. The ending in particular is an incomprehensible mess, due mostly to the fact that everything and everyone in the last few pages looks exactly the same. I honestly have no idea what happens in the final scenes, although I’ve determined that it involves multiple decapitations (with one character somehow being decapitated twice, as far as I can tell) and at least one character being alive for some reason after having died in a fire just minutes earlier. Does that sound confusing? It should, because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. In fact, in the process of writing it down I very well may have actually made it sound more coherent than it really is.

As I’ve already mentioned, the true story that Torso is based on is undoubtedly an interesting one. Don’t let that fool you into reading this disappointing comic, though – it will only frustrate you and leave you with more questions than you had before you started. If you’re really that interested in the subject matter, picking up a history book seems to me like it would be a much better bet.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2

Review Deadpool Classic Volume Two Joe Kelly Ed McGuinness Hulk Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Joe Kelly
Artists: Ed McGuinness, Kevin Lau, Aaron Lopresti, Bernard Chang, Shannon Denton, and John Fang
Collects: Deadpool #2-8 and #-1, and Daredevil/Deadpool Annual 1997
Published: Marvel, 2009; $29.99

Now this is more like it. While the first trade in the Deadpool Classic series was an odd hodgepodge of some of the title character’s earliest appearances, the second one, thankfully, is a much more cohesive package. It begins where the first volume left off, with the second issue of Deadpool’s 1997 ongoing series – and while I still think not including the first issue in this book is a cheap ploy on Marvel’s part to sucker readers into spending more money on these trades than they reasonably should, it’s hard to fault the actual stories for what’s clearly a boneheaded decision on Marvel’s part.

The issues collected in Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2 are all written by Joe Kelly, whose Deadpool run I had heard a great deal about but never encountered personally until I read this book. Many people consider his work with the character to be better than anyone else’s by far, and even having only read these early issues, I’m inclined to agree. Tonally, Kelly strikes the perfect chord: Deadpool’s dialogue and the situations he finds himself in are often funny, but at the same time Kelly presents the character (and the reader) with moral dilemmas that one simply won’t find in the majority of superhero comics. My favorite moments in this book came when Deadpool’s sense of humor fell completely away and we were able to see something of the man behind the mask – a deeply disturbed man whose actions and worldview heart-wrenchingly reveal to us the real depths of human existence.

In the book’s first story arc, we learn from Killbrew, the scientist who essentially “created” Deadpool (and who I could have sworn was referred to as “Killebrew” in the first trade), that Deadpool is dying. The search for a cure leads our main character to team up with on-again/off-again love interest Siryn, come face-to-face for the first time with future rivals T-Ray and Taskmaster, tear things up in a surprisingly brutal fight with the Hulk, and even work reluctantly with Killbrew, the one man he despises above all else. Seeing as Deadpool is still around today, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he doesn’t actually die in this story, although Kelly does take the opportunity to permanently weaken the character – in the years since his initial appearance, he had grown to be ridiculously powerful and virtually un-killable.

Rather than a life-and-death struggle, then, Deadpool is faced with one of those poignant existential dilemmas I mentioned above: does Killbrew really deserve to die, and even if he does, is Deadpool the man who should kill him? Siryn, acting as the proverbial angel on his shoulder, doesn’t think so – but then again, can she ever truly understand someone like Deadpool? The ending to this story is one of the best endings I’ve read in a superhero comic in quite a while, as it really makes the reader think about who the main character is and why he does the things he does. It also sets the record straight (well, straighter) on Deadpool’s relationship with Siryn, who quickly grew on me as a character over the course of these issues. She doesn’t feature much in the trade’s second half, unfortunately, but I definitely hope to see more of her in future volumes.

The first story arc is followed by a “Minus One” issue starring Zoe Culloden, a woman last seen at the end of the first Deadpool Classic trade, who has been monitoring the mercenary Wade Wilson as a potential recruit for some sort of mysterious program. The story takes place long before Wade ever became Deadpool, and in fact we barely even see him at all; Kelly focuses instead on the character’s then-girlfriend, who Zoe befriends in an effort to learn more about him. It’s an adequate story, and I’m sure its events will play an important role as the series goes on, but its serious tone feels a little removed from the quirky nature of most of the rest of the book.

The book’s second big story arc has Deadpool taking on two new jobs: one being to break a woman out of a mental asylum, and the other being to kill her. Making things even more confusing, the two jobs were ordered by the same person – the mental patient herself, who turns out to be Typhoid Mary. All of this leads directly into the extra-sized Daredevil/Deadpool Annual 1997, which ends up being little more than an excuse to throw those two characters into the same comic while retconning some details from Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear miniseries, in order to tie the origins of Daredevil and Typhoid Mary more closely together.

I wasn’t too hot on these issues, to be honest. It’s not that they’re poorly written or anything, they just didn’t draw me in like the first few issues did. Typhoid Mary just isn’t one of my favorite villains – I’m much more interested in characters like Magneto and Dr. Doom, who are often misguided but firmly believe that their actions will ultimately benefit the world in some way. Straightforward psychopaths like Mary (and, to a lesser extent, Bullseye) who simply kill people for the sake of killing just aren’t as compelling to me, since there’s no bigger moral, social, or political issue at stake in their actions.

But while the final part of Deadpool Classic, Vol. 2 isn’t much to write home about, the trade’s strong first half more than makes up for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the story that begins in the final issue of the first Deadpool Classic trade and continues into the first four issues of this collection is one of the best Deadpool stories I’ve ever read. If you even think you might be a Deadpool fan, this is a book well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, October 1, 2010

Streams of Consciousness – 9/30/2010

Sandman Neil Gaiman Sam Kieth Preludes and Nocturnes Neat Doctor Destiny DC Comics comic bookHey everyone, just a few things to share with you today. First of all, I’ve done quite a bit of work on the Marvel Trade Paperback Timeline over the last couple of weeks. When I first posted it, the reading order covered the years 1998 through 2001. It now covers 1998 through 2004 – or, in terms of Marvel continuity, from Heroes Return through Avengers Disassembled. Furthermore, from what I can tell the timeline is totally complete for those years, even including a number of trades that haven’t been solicited yet. But if you think I’m missing something or that I need to shuffle anything around, please let me know! And if you have any other feedback at all, feel free to leave a comment or email me at marveltimeline@gmail.com. (And speaking of reading orders, Ian at Trade Reading Order is back to working on his site after a brief hiatus, so head over there and leave him a comment!)

That aside, this blog reached two other milestones recently. The first is that Gambit Classic, Vol. 1 marked the blog’s 25th review, and while I’m not sure the honor should have gone to such a terrible book, I’m really happy to have been able to keep this going for so long. And that brings me to the second milestone, which is that yesterday marked the blog’s six-month anniversary! So thanks to everyone who’s been following the blog, either in terms of commenting, being an actual “follower” on Blogger, or even just reading my ramblings every week; your comments and feedback are what keep this enjoyable for me.

So I think that’s about it for now. There should be a new review either Friday or Saturday – see you then!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: Channel Zero

Review Channel Zero Brian Wood Image AiT Planet Lar Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter/Artist: Brian Wood
Collects: Channel Zero #1-5 (Image, 1998)
Published: AiT/Planet Lar, 2000; $12.95

Before Demo, DMZ, Northlanders, and a handful of other wonderful comics being written today by Brian Wood, there was Channel Zero. If you didn’t know better, though, you might be hard-pressed to pick out Wood’s first graphic novel as having come out so long before what he’s done recently; it fits in that well, stylistically and thematically, with the rest of his body of work. Although he actually created it as part of a final project for graduation from design school, it shows the same depth and polish as his comics today, proving that Wood is an artist whose intimate understanding of his craft extends all the way back to his beginnings.

Channel Zero is set in an alternate near-future in which America is controlled by government corporations and freedom of expression has been all but completely suppressed. The media has been taken over by the government as well, due to Congress’s passage of the “Clean Act.” Wood writes that the law was spearheaded by the extreme right and that most of the population went along with the change, being “either in support of it, or too lazy to do anything about it.”

Enter Jennie 2.5, a young, self-described “uber-geek” whose dream to be an investigative journalist met an early death in the wake of the Clean Act. She’s an angry, rebellious young woman, as evidenced by her heavily tattooed body and penchant for hacking into various government-controlled computer systems. You can think of her as sort of a cross between Aeon Flux and Neo from The Matrix, except without that’s movie’s rampant slow-motion effects or its crash-course approach to college freshman philosophy.

Jennie is one of the few people actively seeking to bring the Clean Act down, and she sets out to do it by broadcasting her own pirate television program. Over the course of the book we see her rise from techno-punk revolutionary to widespread cultural phenomenon, both from her perspective and from the perspectives of everyday people living in New York City. This is actually one area where the book falters a bit, in that it spends a little too much time (in its second half, especially) focusing on the lives of people other than Jennie. One section, for example, tells the story of a “cleaner” whose job is to eliminate people who speak out against the government, even if their crimes are as minor as posting anti-government flyers. While it’s effective in building on the backstory of the world in which Channel Zero takes place, it does fairly little to advance Jennie’s story, which I think is by far the most crucial aspect of the book.

The art has a strong graphic design element to it, which makes sense given Wood’s background – although he worked in comics off and on for a few years around the time of Channel Zero, he was actually a graphic designer first and foremost until 2003. You’ve probably seen a good deal of his pre-comics work without even realizing it; he designed the box art for a number of video games, including Grand Theft Auto III and Max Payne. Elements of that style are definitely apparent in Channel Zero, with its mix of photorealistic and sketch-like art, all in stark black and white.

Wood’s background in design also shines through in the form of fake propaganda posters which frequently intercut the main story, almost like advertisements in a traditional comic book. Taking the propaganda theme even further, Wood often hides the catch-phrases and buzzwords from these posters (e.g., “evolve and revolve,” or “make them understand”) in the artwork of actual story pages, effectively creating mock subliminal messaging. Some parts of the book are even more overt in satirizing the media – for instance, one lengthy scene actually has an ongoing ticker tape running along the bottom of the pages. The end result is a comic that ridicules the media for using certain techniques as tools for social manipulation, even as it reappropriates those very techniques for its own purposes. It’s a neat effect, and one I’ve never seen attempted in this medium before.

As you can probably tell from everything I’ve said about this book so far, Wood’s politics in Channel Zero aren’t exactly subtle. It would have been predictable and easy for him to end the story with Jennie leading the people to some glorious, government-toppling revolution, in which case I think I still could have called this book a good, if not great, first graphic novel. But its ending is actually quite unique, in that it paints a realistic picture of one person’s inability to change society, no matter how popularly known that person is. Jennie isn’t devoid of the same flaws and selfish desires that any other person possesses, nor does she have the power to command social influence by force of will alone.

Wood’s purpose, I think, is to show that in order to oppose a system, one first has to acknowledge its existence; and that in the very act of acknowledging it, one enters into dialogue with and therefore becomes a part of it. In Channel Zero, Jennie does just that. Although she wants to be a “woman of the people,” she also wants to be a celebrity, in her own way, and unfortunately for her it’s impossible to be both in her world. By becoming a part of the “mainstream,” Jennie also becomes a cog in the wheel, another tool to be manipulated by the powers that be. In the very act of rebelling, she has played into the oppressor’s hand.

Some have suggested that Channel Zero is a traditional “government vs. the people” story set in a hyperbolic extension of Giuliani’s New York. If that were the case, the book would be little more than an angry political statement by an up-and-coming comics creator; but it’s more than that. Jennie’s recognition of her failure as a revolutionary and activist seems to represent the author’s own frustrations: Wood clearly yearns for social change, but at the end of the day the best he can do about it is to write and illustrate a comic book story – and aren’t comics themselves just a part of the mass media system that Wood so despises?

Like Jennie 2.5, it would seem that Wood too has become a part of the system. By the same token, though, I think he also shares in her optimism and in her hope for the future – a hope that the next generation will learn from the mistakes and limitations of this one, and that their world will be a better one than ours as a result. And what can we do to ensure that this better world comes into being? If we believe Brian Wood, it all starts with turning off the television.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: Gambit Classic, Vol. 1

Review Gambit Classic Volume One Chris Claremont Howard Mackie Bill Jaaska Mike Collins Jim Lee Lee Weeks Uncanny X-Men Storm Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Chris Claremont and Howard Mackie
Artists: Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins, Jim Lee, and Lee Weeks
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #265-267 (1991) and Gambit #1-4 (1993-94)
Published: Marvel, 2009; $24.99

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, I think Gambit is an incredibly stupid character. It’s become strangely fashionable lately for comic book creators to claim there are no bad characters in comics, just bad stories – but that’s a lie and everyone knows it, especially if they’ve ever read a comic featuring Gambit in any capacity whatsoever. So why, of all things, do I now find myself reading and reviewing a book called Gambit Classic, Vol. 1? I don’t know, to be honest. Maybe I was hoping to be proven wrong. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment – and punished, I truly was.

The story begins with Storm (who has for some reason regressed mentally and physically to childhood) robbing criminals in Cairo, Illinois. Since the character originally hails from Cairo, Egypt, I guess this is supposed to be ironic or something. I’ve never found Storm particularly interesting as a solo character, and the amnesiac child angle in these issues is exceptionally boring. The story is written by Chris Claremont, who has always seemed to think (incorrectly, most of the time) that he excels at writing strong female lead characters. He also has an unfortunate tendency to reuse certain villains to the point that they’re no longer the least bit menacing – in this case, Nanny and the Orphan-Maker, two characters who are about as dumb as you might guess based on their names.

At this point, you may be wondering: where exactly does Gambit fit into all of this? The short answer is that he doesn’t, really. He just happens to show up as Storm is getting a beat-down courtesy of the minions of the Shadow King (another incredibly lame character), and he helps her escape. He doesn’t speak too much, other than to exert his “Cajun charm” to try and persuade the Shadow King and his mind-slaves to let him and Storm go. Aside from that, he mostly just chain-smokes and occasionally blows things up. At the end of the third issue, he and Storm (who is no longer amnesiac, but still a child) head off to join the X-Men.

Now, here’s where Gambit Classic becomes really frustrating. Instead of reprinting the issues where Gambit becomes a member of the X-Men and we actually get to know something about his character, there’s a page of text explaining his activities over the next few years before the book skips ahead to the four-issue Gambit miniseries from 1993. I suspect the reason that his appearances in X-Men and Uncanny X-Men were omitted is that many of them have been reprinted elsewhere (namely, in the out-of-print trade paperback X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee), whereas the ones with amnesiac-child Storm have not. But while I understand Marvel’s desire not to collect the same material a hundred times over, this book is still the first volume in a series called “Gambit Classic.” To my mind, that means it should collect the character’s early appearances rather than being some sort of career-spanning “greatest hits” compilation.

This leads me to the same fundamental problem I had with Deadpool Classic, Vol. 1. In both that book and this one, so many of the character’s early issues are omitted that I felt out-of-the-loop by the time I got to the later stories. That’s an even bigger problem with Gambit Classic, since the 1993 miniseries is basically a sequel to a crossover story that took place in two issues of X-Men and another two issues of Ghost Rider – none of which, of course, are collected here. (Interestingly, those issues were collected in a trade called X-Men & Ghost Rider: Brood Trouble in the Big Easy – a book which has been out of print for nearly twenty years.)

Even if those issues had been included, though, I doubt they could have salvaged my lack of enjoyment for the miniseries. The story is so mundane, it’s barely even worth summarizing; all you really need to know is that the Assassins’ Guild and the Thieves’ Guild are at war in New Orleans, and Gambit is the cause of it (sort of). The Thieves’ Guild apparently has some deal with a perpetually half-naked immortal French woman named Candra, who supplies them with an elixir each year that gives them longer life. But now the Assassins want the elixir, and so does Gambit, and so do some other people, etc. – you get the picture.

The story isn’t so much bad as it is astoundingly boring. I suppose that’s sort of a compliment when you’re talking about anything written by Howard Mackie, but I’d like to think my taste in comics is exponentially better than even Mackie’s least offensive work. The miniseries’ only (slightly) redeeming quality is that it’s drawn by Lee Weeks, an artist whose work I normally like very much. Even that doesn’t save it from mediocrity, though, since Weeks’ art is only occasionally good in this series; most of the time, it’s mired in over-the-top, vein-popping ’90s ridiculousness.

It’s worth noting that even by 1993, it’s clear that no one really has any idea of how to write Gambit. Half the time he sounds like he’s auditioning for Hamlet, and the rest of the time like he has some sort of speech impediment; the animated X-Men show was the only time I think anyone has ever gotten his accent quite right. It’s also fairly obvious that Gambit’s “mysterious” past is just a cover for the fact that the writers have no idea where he came from or what to do with him. Readers at the time were apparently eating him up, though, so I guess it’s hard to blame them for trying to capitalize on that.

In short, don’t be like me – don’t read this book, for any reason. I can’t even think of a single nice thing to say about it, honestly. I just hope that Marvel never releases a second volume, if only because of the remote chance that my curiosity may get the better of me again.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Green Lantern: No Fear

Review Green Lantern No Fear Geoff Johns Darwyn Cooke Carlos Pacheco Ethan Van Sciver Simone Bianchi Secret Files and Origins DC Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Geoff Johns and Darwyn Cooke
Artists: Darwyn Cooke, Carlos Pacheco, Ethan Van Sciver, and Simone Bianchi
Collects: Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins 2005 #1, Green Lantern #1-6 (2005)
Published: DC, 2008; $12.99

This first volume collecting Green Lantern’s most recent ongoing series, Green Lantern: No Fear, picks up soon after the events of Green Lantern: Rebirth, beginning with a story from the Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins one-shot. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, this issue is by far the best part of the book. It’s essentially a series of flashbacks framed by a present-day sequence in which Hal Jordan begins to forge a friendship with Kyle Rayner, the man who served as Green Lantern in his stead for several years. In the flashbacks, Cooke explores the complex emotional history of Hal’s relationship with long-time love interest Carol Ferris; it’s a really touching story, and the beautiful colors in these scenes evoke some of Tim Sale’s best work (Superman for All Seasons and Spider-Man: Blue, in particular).

Geoff Johns writes the book from this point forward, and he begins by reworking bits and pieces of Hal’s past in a story set firmly in the post-Rebirth universe. Before long, Hal has rejoined the Air Force as a fighter pilot (restoring one of the character’s Silver Age trappings) and begins fighting the Manhunters, a group of robots constructed in the ancient past by the Guardians of the Universe, before they created the Green Lantern Corps. The new plot elements all feel so natural that I didn’t even realize some of them were new until after I had done a bit of research. Carlos Pacheco’s pencils, in combination with the bright, vivid colors of W. Moose Baumann, are effective at capturing Hal’s joy at being back both as Green Lantern and as a pilot.

Johns follows this story with several issues revolving around the classic Green Lantern villains Shark (a mutated tiger shark who can walk on land) and Hector Hammond (a giant-headed telepath with no physical control of his own body). These issues are drawn by Ethan Van Sciver, whose style marks a drastic change from Pacheco’s. He’s certainly a proficient artist, and his talents are put to use just as well here as they were in Rebirth; but to be quite honest, I’m beginning to feel that the way his work is typically colored is just too dark for the Green Lantern franchise. The character has always been more about “brightest day” than “blackest night” for me, which I understand probably puts me somewhat in the minority given the recent success of DC’s Blackest Night crossover. Even with that being the case, there’s still no denying that the artistic differences between the stories by Pacheco and Van Sciver are pretty difficult to reconcile.

No Fear comes to a grinding halt in the final story, an issue penciled and inked by Simone Bianchi. His artwork tends to be either hit or miss for me, often, ironically, within the same comic – in Wolverine: Evolution, for instance, his characters look stunning on one page, and like amorphous blobs on the next. His character renderings are actually fairly consistent here, but the problem is that he doesn’t seem to have any concept of lighting. Characters and objects are often lit from two or three intense light sources in a single panel, and then from two or three entirely different sources in the next. The art is so disorienting, and the characters’ physical actions match the dialogue so rarely, that it actually makes the story itself seem pretty disjointed at times.

Colorist Nathan Eyring is partly to blame as well, as his tendency towards plain white backgrounds gives the issue an incredibly unfinished feel. This change is probably the most jarring aspect of the story, especially in comparison to the rich blues and blacks, respectively, which serve as a backdrop to the Pacheco and Van Sciver issues. It strikes me as I write this that I’ve talked quite a bit about color in this review, more than I think I ever have previously. I suspect that has to do with the fact that the best superhero comics today strive to maintain at least some sense of visual continuity, even if its various parts are drawn by different artists. Captain America, for example, was drawn until about a year ago primarily by Mike Perkins and Steve Epting, and their styles were largely unified by the consistency of Frank D’Armata’s colors. Even New X-Men, with its infamously huge roster of artists, maintained a fairly consistent color palette until the end, when the story and art both took a darker turn.

So when I read a book like Green Lantern – a comic that people consistently praise as one of the best on the market – and it contains such wildly different-looking art from issue to issue, some of it quite bad, I can’t help but stand up and take notice. It just seems to me that a book that garners as much attention and sells as well as it does would have some level of artistic consistency in common with something like Captain America (again, just as an example), a book that does similarly well in terms of sales and critical response. There are other factors that contribute to how people respond to a comic book, of course, but I think it remains an interesting observation.

Aside from its inconsistent visuals and terrible final issue, I found No Fear disappointing in one other respect: it barely addresses the events of Rebirth – aside from that series’ most overt implication for the franchise, of course, which is that Hal Jordan is back in the role of Green Lantern. I understand that Johns wanted to get away from the damage DC had done to the character over the preceding years as quickly as possible, but I’m not sure ignoring the past completely is the best way of accomplishing that. I’m not terribly interested in seeing writers rehash the same one-dimensional characterizations that have been around since the 1950s, and by the end of this book, I feel like Johns is dangerously close to falling into that trap.

First of all, there are plot details like the fighter pilot plot device which, while interesting for a little while, don’t add anything to the story in the long run aside from the nostalgia factor. Much more troubling, though, is Hal’s flat characterization, which similarly hearkens back to the character’s earliest adventures. There’s a point at which having “no fear,” as the book’s title puts it, simply makes a character un-relatable and uninteresting, and too often while reading this book I felt that Hal was simply stoic to the point of arrogance. Johns seems to have used Rebirth as a vehicle not just for resetting the character’s status quo to one more in line with the character’s Silver Age origins, but for imposing on Hal a more simplistic and less dynamic personality – one that gives him the ability to conveniently ignore the moral quandaries which he should by all rights be dealing with in the wake of what’s happened to him.

Johns’ version of Green Lantern isn’t lacking in so much depth that you should necessarily avoid the series – not yet, at least, and I hope the writer doesn’t allow future stories to reach that point. So while the overall package is somewhat of a mixed bag, I think No Fear is still worthy of a mild recommendation, if mostly for the strength of its first half and the excellent Darwyn Cooke issue, which is a definite must-read for any fan of the character.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Avengers: Supreme Justice

Review Avengers Supreme Justice Kurt Busiek Len Kaminski Mark Waid John Ostrander Joe Edkin George Pérez George Perez Sean Chen Andy Kubert Derec Aucoin Carlos Pacheco Squadron Supreme Iron Man Captain America Quicksilver Thor Scarlet Witch Live Kree or Die Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Kurt Busiek, Len Kaminski, Mark Waid, John Ostrander, and Joe Edkin
Artists: George Pérez, Sean Chen, Andy Kubert, Derec Aucoin, and Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Avengers #5-7, Avengers/Squadron Supreme ’98, Iron Man #7, Captain America #8, and Quicksilver #10 (1998)
Published: Marvel, 2001; $17.95

“Live Kree or Die” is a storyline that’s been collected rather confusingly over the years. As a result, I’ve sort of tiptoed around it in my reviews of Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1 and Iron Man: Deadly Solutions, since neither of those books actually include the story in full. As of this writing, Avengers: Supreme Justice is the only book in which the middle two parts of the story, originally published in issues of Captain America and Quicksilver, have been collected.

Before I continue, though, there’s something fairly significant I should mention: I took another look on Amazon this week at the new softcover edition of Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1 coming out at the end of the year, and it appears that unlike the hardcover, it actually will include “Live Kree or Die” in its entirety. Although that makes this review a bit less significant than I originally thought it would be, it doesn’t make it irrelevant in the least. Even with the extra issues in the softcover, the hardcover still has a significant edge, simply for the fact that it has bigger pages. When you’re talking about the artwork of someone as talented as George Pérez, page size would be a huge factor even if the missing issues were of pretty decent quality. As we’ll see a little further along in this review, though, that just isn’t the case here.

The vast majority of what’s collected in Supreme Justice is also collected in Avengers Assemble, although interestingly, the issues are placed in a different (and better) reading order in the former. In Avengers Assemble, the Avengers/Squadron Supreme Annual comes directly after Avengers #5 and #6, the issues in which the team does battle with the Squadron Supreme and tensions begin to rise between Warbird (Carol Danvers, also known as Ms. Marvel) and her teammates.

Since the Annual features the Squadron as well, it’s clear that the book’s editors wanted to group all of the issues featuring those characters together, which I suppose makes sense on some level. But here’s the problem: the Annual takes place after Warbird has left the team and Justice and Firestar have become active members, which means that it must take place after the final part of “Live Kree or Die” in Avengers #7. The Annual doesn’t refer to specific plot points or even mention Carol by name, so it’s not exactly debilitating to the overall story; however, it certainly wouldn’t be unwarranted for someone reading Avengers Assemble to be confused at Warbird’s sudden absence or the appearance of two new team members without any explanation.

Supreme Justice, on the other hand, places the Annual where it belongs, after the events of “Live Kree or Die.” What I find most fascinating here is that this book was actually published before Avengers Assemble; that is, Marvel got the reading order right the first time around but then screwed it up in later collections. As far as the new softcover version of Avengers Assemble goes, it’s impossible to say at this point whether Marvel will reprint the stories in their proper order or not. There’s nothing stopping you from simply reading the issues of the book in any order, of course, so perhaps I’m making a bigger deal of this than I should. Still, it’s a bit annoying to see such a major continuity error in a book which is otherwise quite excellent.

The “Live Kree or Die” crossover begins with Iron Man #7, is also collected in Iron Man: Deadly Solutions. I discussed it a fair amount in my review of that book already, but just to recap, it’s a pretty solid issue, and it does a good job of propelling the plot of Iron Man’s own series forward while still contributing to a larger story involving the rest of the Avengers. The highlight of the issue comes when Iron Man confronts Warbird about her alcoholism, which she tries to explain away throughout a series of flashbacks that give the reader a great understanding of the character’s history, as well as the sense of loss that defines her personality.

When Tony gets into a bit of a sticky situation afterward, Warbird makes things even worse by bursting onto the scene completely drunk. In the process, she inadvertently exposes a splinter cell of Kree extremists, who have resolved to turn the entire human race into fellow members of their own blue-skinned species. Due to her connection to the deceased Captain Marvel (who himself was half-Kree), Carol is for some reason an integral part of the Kree warriors’ plan. As a result they try to lure her into their clutches, which proves none too difficult in her inebriated state.

It’s a rather convoluted set-up, but it gets the job done, I guess. The second part of the story, from Captain America #8, is kind of similar in that it’s just Warbird and one other hero fighting against the Kree. The issue takes place shortly after Captain America: To Serve and Protect, and it deals with some plot threads from that story in a brief scene at the beginning. With art by Andy Kubert, it’s a very good-looking twenty-odd pages. But in the end, the plot is nothing we haven’t already seen, with Captain America standing around looking incredulous while Carol generally acts like a drunken moron.

Review Avengers Supreme Justice Quicksilver #10 Issue Ten Joe Edkin John Ostrander Derec Aucoin Rich Faber Pietro Maximoff Wanda Maximoff Scarlet Witch Iron Man Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers Captain America Live Kree or Die Marvel trade paperback tpbThe story continues into Quicksilver #10, which is by all accounts an absolutely terrible comic book. First of all, the fact that Quicksilver ever had an ongoing series of his own is astounding to me, since I’ve never seen him portrayed as anything more than an unlikeable jerk. That aside, the actual script, by John Ostrander and Joe Edkin, is stilted and emotionless (and conspicuously devoid of contractions). See the picture at right for an especially painful moment, in which the Scarlet Witch robotically summarizes what’s been happening in the story so far.

I could go on and on about how awful this issue is, but in the interest of time I’ll give you just one example. There’s a positively ridiculous scene about halfway through in which a weakened Carol comes across a random vat of liquid in the Kree’s secret moon base and, somehow sensing its alcoholic nature, guzzles it down and regains her powers. It makes no sense at all: first, why would the Kree leave a huge, open container of alcohol just lying around? Second, how would Carol even know it was alcohol (or, for that matter, that Kree alcohol wouldn’t be poisonous to a human being)? And third, why would drinking it suddenly give her back the super powers she had lost? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s now how alcoholism works. Bizarre leaps of logic like this one are just one more reason why this issue rubs me the wrong way.

The final part of “Live Kree or Die,” from Avengers #7, is the only issue from the entire crossover that you actually need to read; the others just give it a bit more context, is all. It summarizes everything as competently as it can (given how ludicrously bad the Quicksilver issue is), neatly wraps up the Kree plot threads, and sees the expulsion of Carol from the team. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel quite as tragic as it probably should – it’s hard not to want Carol gone after all the stupid things she’s done over the preceding issues.

In short, then, the two issues that are exclusive to Supreme JusticeCaptain America #8 and Quicksilver #10 – aren’t at all worth the price of this book, even if you can find it at a significant discount. They’re not a good reason to choose the softcover version of Avengers Assemble either, which I would only recommend if you can’t find the hardcover for a good price. Everything you need to know about “Live Kree or Die” is already present in that book, and it’s not as if it’s a wonderful story (even in concept) anyway. So, to be even shorter this time: just avoid this book.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1

Avengers Assemble Volume One Kurt Busiek George Pérez George Perez Hank Pym Giant-Man Machine Man X-51 Thor Wasp Stingray Rick Jones Scarlet Witch Magdalene Hawkeye Sandman Captain America U.S. Agent Sersi Beast Iron Man Marvel Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriters: Kurt Busiek, Len Kaminski
Artists: George Pérez, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Avengers #1-11, Avengers/Squadron Supreme ’98 (1998)
Published: Marvel, 2004; $29.99 (HC), $34.99 (TPB)

Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1 collects the first eleven issues of the series’ 1998 reboot, which began the same month as the Iron Man reboot and the month after Captain America’s. Writer Kurt Busiek had been working in comics for over a decade at this point, but had really only gained wider recognition in 1994 with the epic miniseries Marvels, illustrated by Alex Ross. Still, he was fairly untested when it came to the ins and outs of writing a major monthly series, and it was on Avengers that he got his first shot. (While it’s true that Busiek was writing Thunderbolts at this time as well, I would argue that it hadn’t yet exploded into the hugely popular series it would later become.)

The other major creative force behind the relaunch was George Pérez, one of the true modern masters of comic book art. Pérez is probably best known for his work on the 1984 DC miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which he famously rendered almost every single one of the company’s enormous pantheon of characters. Whereas most artists would likely balk at the thought of drawing so many different characters in a single issue, Pérez does so with enthusiasm and aplomb. In Avengers, it’s not at all uncommon for him to cram dozens of characters into as many as twenty panels on one page, and in a way that, amazingly enough, keeps the action flowing smoothly and at breathtaking speed. His artwork is so dense, in fact, that a single page of his can look incredibly daunting when viewed as a whole – but taken piece by piece, each panel becomes a totally comprehensible, self-contained work of art in its own right.

The first three issues see the reformation of the Avengers, who had disbanded while most of the team was trapped in the alternate Heroes Reborn universe. As always, they unite to face a common threat – this time it’s the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who captures the Scarlet Witch and uses her magic-based powers to remakes reality as a medieval society under her own rule. This gives Pérez the chance to do what he does best, drawing tons of characters and designing brand-new, medieval-themed costumes for each of them.

Review Avengers Assemble Vol. 1 Kurt Busiek George Pérez George Perez Thor Scarlet Witch Captain America Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau Hank Pym Ant-Man Giant-Man Hawkeye Beast Sersi Starfox Spider-Woman Quasar Swordsman Magdalene Darkhawk U.S. Agent Black Widow Sandman Tigra Moonstone Binary Carol Danvers Justice Firestar Hercules Sandman Machine Man X-51 Stingray Black Knight Vision Iron Man Quicksilver Crystal Falcon She-Hulk Living Lightning Firebird Namor the Sub-Mariner D-Man Demolition Man Marvel hardcover hc comic bookWhat I like most about this storyline is that it takes something which has always been somewhat of a sticking point between me and the Avengers – the fact that it’s a team whose ranks include an overwhelming number of no-name characters – and it turns that into something fun and almost self-effacing by throwing every single person who’s ever been an Avenger into one big adventure. The emphasis is kept on the most prominent team members (Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor), but even the parts without them are so well-written that despite not knowing anything about characters like Living Lightning or the Swordsman, I felt completely up-to-speed whenever they showed up. It’s a set-up that could never work for the long haul, though, and the third issue ends, fittingly enough, with Morgan Le Fay defeated and the Beast asking the one question that’s sure to be at the front of the reader’s mind: “What are we gonna do with 39 Avengers?”

The team is whittled down to a permanent – and, in the long term, much more manageable – roster in the next issue. The team consists of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, Warbird (Carol Danvers, also known as Ms. Marvel and Binary), reserve members Justice and Firestar of the teenage New Warriors, and the Vision (whose android body has been destroyed, so he exists only as a sentient hologram in the mansion). From the beginning, the character drama takes precedence over the Avengers’ actual exploits as a team, and Busiek executes this side of the story perfectly.

Most of the melodrama revolves around the team’s lesser characters – after all, the “Big Three” each have their own ongoing series already. The most important subplot is the Scarlet Witch’s inner conflict over her sudden ability to resurrect Wonder Man from the dead in times of need. Since the Vision’s thought patterns and personality are actually based on Wonder Man’s, an interesting conflict arises as Wanda develops romantic feelings for the dead Avenger: Vision is alive and in love with her, but he can’t touch her, while Wonder Man is dead and he can. (I think it’s worth mentioning that the Scarlet Witch has incredibly strange taste in men: her first husband was a robot who somehow conceived children with her, and here she’s in love with a dead man made out of pure energy. And then there’s the borderline-incestuous relationship some writers have portrayed between her and Quicksilver, her brother...but let’s not even go there.)

Ms. Marvel (sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to call her “Warbird”) is a huge source of drama too, at least for the book’s first half. Over the first few issues, it becomes increasingly apparent that something is really wrong with her; the cosmic-oriented powers she possessed as Binary have suddenly stopped working, and she almost always seems to be drinking. This leads into the “Live Kree or Die” crossover discussed in last week’s review of Iron Man: Deadly Solutions. While that book collects only the first issue of that story, Avengers Assemble collects just the last one. This isn’t nearly as detrimental as it might sound, since Busiek does a great job of summarizing what has happened in the other three parts, although reading the fourth part by itself, you still certainly feel as though you’re missing some of the story. There’s more to be said about “Live Kree or Die,” but I’ll save that for my review later this week of Avengers: Supreme Justice, the only trade in which parts two and three have ever been collected.

Review Avengers Assemble Vol. 1 Kurt Busiek George Pérez George Perez Vision Marvel hardcover hc comic bookThe other intra-team conflicts are fairly conventional, but Busiek pulls them off well. Hawkeye is miffed at no longer being a team leader, paving the way for him to leave the Avengers and take command of the Thunderbolts. Justice and Firestar, who are comparatively younger than the rest of the team, are the obligatory rookies – Justice the overeager one who’s dreamed of being an Avenger his entire life, and Firestar the more reluctant one who isn’t sure whether she even wants to be a superhero at all. They don’t join the cast on a full-time basis until after Ms. Marvel is booted off the team in “Live Kree or Die,” but their presence helps to lessen the occasional sense of erudition which, for better or worse, has come to be associated with the Avengers over the years.

The final issues bring some closure to Wanda’s mysterious ability to resurrect Wonder Man while at the same time telling a story very much like Blackest Night, in a thematic sense at least, only it does so much more succinctly and coherently. I won’t spoil how it ends, but it does bring about some pretty big changes which I look forward to seeing play out in the next volume.

Also included in the first Avengers Assemble collection is the 1998 Avengers/Squadron Supreme Annual, which is co-scripted by Busiek and Len Kaminski. This done-in-one story builds off of the two issues just prior to “Live Kree or Die,” in which the Avengers and the Squadron Supreme duke it out when the Squadron manages (for what must be the hundredth time) to get itself mind-controlled by a totally inconsequential villain. The two teams actually work together in the Annual, which is a welcome change, since by this point I was fairly tired of seeing them fight for no good reason. Aside from Mark Gruenwald’s miniseries in the 1980s and J.M. Straczynski’s reimagining of the team in the 2000s, I’ve never been a big fan of the Squadron, and the average quality to this story didn’t do much to change my mind. The art is by Carlos Pacheco, an excellent artist in his own right who nevertheless pales in comparison to Pérez. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad story at all; it just doesn’t match the same level of excellence as the rest of the book.

Avengers Assemble was originally published as an oversized hardcover, and although it’s out of print now, it’s still pretty easy to find online. On the other hand, if you’d prefer to wait and pay a bit less for it, Marvel is printing a new softcover version in just a few months. The pages won’t be oversized like they are in the hardcover, which is unfortunate, but I’m sure Pérez’s artwork will still look amazing even at standard size. Either way, as the start of what can easily be called the definitive Avengers run of the last two decades, the first volume of Avengers Assemble is a book wholly deserving of a place on your bookshelf.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5