Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Iron Man: Extremis

Review Iron Man Extremis Warren Ellis Adi Granov Marvel Cover Premiere Hardcover hc comic bookWriter: Warren Ellis
Artist: Adi Granov
Collects: Iron Man (vol. 4) #1-6 (2005-06)
Published: Marvel, 2007; $24.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

Re-launched in the wake of Marvel’s Avengers Disassembled crossover, Iron Man’s third ongoing series proved to be somewhat of a misfire, at least from a publishing standpoint. While Captain America’s new series, which began in the same month under the pen of Ed Brubaker, burst from the gates at full speed and never looked back, Iron Man was destined for a much more plodding and intermittent publication history. In fact, Captain America had reached its sixteenth issue by the time all of Iron Man’s first six issues, collected in Iron Man: Extremis, had finally seen print.

As is most often the case with long delays in the comics industry, the art was the holdup. Of course, this isn’t such a problem when you’re reading the issues in collected form. However, in cases like these it’s hard not to wonder – would the delays have been worth it for people reading the comic at that time? Is the art really that good? In this case, the answer defies a simple yes or no answer, falling more into the category of “yeah…sometimes.”

It’s easy enough to see why Adi Granov was chosen for the job – his background in graphic design shines through in his work, especially his covers. Prior to Extremis, he was the primary cover artist for the second ongoing Iron Man series (and for the completists, all of his previous covers are collected in the back of this book). Afterward, he went on to design the suit for the first Iron Man movie. Extremis was one of his first – and, to date, one of relatively few – efforts at sequential art on Granov’s part, and he brings the same level of production value to his interiors as he does to the rest of his work.

His painted artwork is meticulously well-rendered, and his version of the Iron Man suit is definitely one of my favorites. Like the movies, Extremis gives the sense that the suit isn’t so much a superhero costume as it is a potential weapon of mass destruction. Gone are the oversized weapons and other bulky accessories Iron Man has sported in the past – Granov’s more streamlined version looks fast and sleek, which serves the story well.

If I have one complaint with Granov’s art, it’s that there are times when it seems somewhat lacking in dynamism. Maybe it stems from the fact that before Extremis he spent most of his time in comics painting covers, but panels that should convey movement sometimes look like elaborate, still poses instead. A prime example comes near the end of the book, when the art is clearly supposed to represent Iron Man in the process of knocking his foe to the ground with a repulsor blast from his hand. Instead, it looks like the guy is lying motionless at the bottom of a small crater as Iron Man gives him an energy bath. While scenes like this don’t occur too often, when they do come up it can make for a pretty jarring experience.

Review Iron Man Extremis Warren Ellis Adi Granov Splash Page Tom Cruise Tony Stark Helmet Marvel Cover Premiere Hardcover hc comic bookAs for the story, Extremis is essentially an attempt to redefine Iron Man’s role in the world while also bringing him back to his roots. The story opens with Tony Stark consumed by depression and self-loathing after the events of Avengers Disassembled, but by the end of the book the character has new powers, a new Iron Man suit, and a new, more positive outlook on life. This is the story that served as primary inspiration for the first movie, not so much in terms of plot as in spirit: both deal with Tony trying to put his past behind him even as he realizes he can’t escape the consequences of his own mistakes. In the case of Extremis, this involves a woman from his past whose research has led to the unleashing of a bio-weapon capable of endowing the average person with enough strength to rival Iron Man’s.

Despite all the praise constantly being heaped on this story, though, I have to say that it’s not one of my favorite stories by Warren Ellis, a writer whose work I normally enjoy quite a bit. There are certainly some good parts, like Tony’s meeting with a half-crazed old mentor, a man reminiscent of Michael Caine’s character in Children of Men. This serves as the root of Tony’s depiction in Extremis (and ever since) as a futurist and an eccentric, which is an angle I’ve enjoyed for the most part. I also like the idea behind the new powers Tony gains in this book, the full scope of which aren’t revealed here; in a smart move, Ellis leaves that to future writers.

It’s that kind of minimalist approach that both sets Extremis apart and at the same time causes some problems. Tony seems to have an uncanny knowledge of what he can do with his new powers from the moment he discovers that he has them, an almost Silver Age-like method to storytelling that doesn’t quite mesh with Granov’s decidedly post-modern approach to the artwork. Stretches of silence at other points in the story draw attention to the fact that Granov occasionally reuses certain panels, often several times over, something that tends to annoy me a bit even when the art is really good.

My main problem with Extremis, however, is the way it revises Iron Man’s origin in a series of flashbacks towards the end of the book. Here I find it useful to draw a comparison with the first Iron Man movie, which I think does a far superior job of updating the story than Extremis does. In the movie, as in the character’s first appearance in 1963, Professor Yinsen helps Tony build his first Iron Man suit and then gives his own life to buy Tony enough time to power up the suit and escape.

Review Iron Man Extremis Warren Ellis Adi Granov Splash Page Armor Marvel Cover Premiere Hardcover hc comic bookThis element of the origin is completely lost in Extremis. Instead, the two men are able to power up the suit without any difficulty, and a flamethrower-equipped Tony proceeds to go on a violent rampage through the terrorist compound. Although Yinsen’s death isn’t seen, it can be assumed that he was killed in the chaos. This version has the twofold effect of taking the heroism and sacrifice out of Yinsen’s actions and turning Iron Man into a mass-murderer, neither of which are true to the spirit of the character’s beginnings. I also don’t like the fact that Ellis changes the place of Tony’s captivity from Vietnam to Afghanistan – the change worked in the movie, in part because the terrorists were established as an ongoing threat for Iron Man to deal with later, but in Extremis the change is little more than cosmetic.

Even with those caveats, though, Extremis nonetheless strikes me as a book that anyone interested in Iron Man should read. It was a guiding force in developing the character into an excellent movie franchise, and for that alone it has cemented an undeniable cultural significance for itself. It’s also worth reading for a better understanding of the core concepts that have driven the character for the past few years. On top of that, it looks great (for the most part), and serves as probably the best starting point for reading about the character’s more recent adventures.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: Batman: Cacophony

Review Batman Cacophony Kevin Smith Walt Flanagan Sandra Hope DC Comics Cover hardcover hc trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Kevin Smith
Artist: Walt Flanagan
Collects: Batman: Cacophony #1-3 (2009)
Published: DC, 2009; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

Kevin Smith would probably be the first to tell you that his comics are just as controversial and divisive as his movies. Well, maybe not the comics themselves – more like the pace at which he writes them (if, indeed, he bothers to finish writing them at all; his first issue of Daredevil: The Target, published in late 2002, remains the only issue of that miniseries published to date). Before Batman: Cacophony, Smith hadn’t written a comic book for either Marvel or DC in three or four years, having been effectively booed out of the industry by impatient and hyper-critical fanboys. He asked for that kind of reaction, though, and he owns up to it in the introduction to Cacophony. I respect him for that, personally, although I can’t help but wonder if his words will fall on deaf ears. The naysayers seem to have already made up their minds on Smith’s comics work, and I doubt many of them are exactly clamoring to read anything new by him.

Walt Flanagan, on the other hand, is a virtual unknown in the comics industry (although fans of Kevin Smith’s movies may be more familiar with him, by way of his incredibly fast dog). The two are longtime friends; Smith credits Flanagan with introducing him to comics in the first place, and the two actually run a New Jersey comic book store together. Smith makes no secret of the fact that Flanagan got the job because of their friendship, and that he wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of working with anyone else. I doubt statements like that are going to get him back into comic fandom’s good graces anytime soon, but again, I appreciate the honesty.

I start by writing about the personalities behind Cacophony, rather than diving straight into the actual meat of the comic, because it’s obvious that Smith expects the reader to go into the book with all of these things in mind. In fact, I’d argue it’s the mentality he wants you to have as you read the book. Why else would he ruminate on his shortcomings in the book’s introduction? Why else would he preface his story by explaining that it’s not the best Batman story he can write, nor the best one that Flanagan can draw – that the series they’re currently working on together, Batman: The Widening Gyre, will be their definitive work on the character?

To my mind, there can be only one answer: by going out of his way to dampen the reader’s expectations before the story has even begun, Smith is challenging the reader to proceed with an extremely close and discriminating eye. In doing so, however, he seems confident that his story will hold up to that discrimination and surpass the reader’s expectations. Maybe I’m simply giving him too much credit, but intentionally or not, Smith’s belittling of himself and the story is a rhetorical device that clearly works: I enjoyed Cacophony quite a bit, despite going into it fairly confident that I would hate it.

So, with all of that said…I imagine it’s well past time to talk about the comic itself. Cacophony is a Joker story in the same sense that The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs are Joker stories – it explores the relationship between Batman and the Joker from an angle that’s just different enough from previous stories to make it something unique and interesting. Of course, Kevin Smith “unique” is different than, say, Alan Moore “unique,” and as anyone who’s seen one of Smith’s movies might expect, a lot of emphasis in Cacophony is placed on humorous dialogue and frequent references to pop culture. There are times when Smith takes his signature potty humor a bit too far, especially in the first issue, but for the most part he reigns in his nastier side and does a pretty amusing job.

Review Batman Cacophony Kevin Smith Walt Flanagan Sandra Hope Onomatopoeia versus Deadshot Splash Page DC Comics hardcover hc trade paperback tpb comic bookThe overall arc of the story is fairly by-the-numbers, at least until the end. The Joker wants revenge on Maxie Zeus, a fellow criminal who has synthesized Joker Venom into a drug called “chuckles” – revenge, of course, being a euphemism for causing widespread death and destruction throughout Gotham City. Amidst the chaos appears Onomatopoeia, a villain who first appeared in Smith’s early-2000s run on Green Arrow and whose shtick is that he verbally imitates the sounds that occur around him (“Boom,” “Kapow,” etc.). The premise behind the character is probably less interesting than it initially sounds, but it’s fairly effective at its purpose: establishing him as a complete lunatic. Also working in the book’s favor are several integral appearances by Deadshot, a character I’ve had a soft spot for ever since I first read him in Steve Englehart’s Batman: Strange Apparitions. Less effective is an early encounter between Batman and Zsasz, a villain I’ve never much cared for and whose presence here doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the story other than a few good-looking action pages.

To briefly segue into the art, then, I have to say that I found it to be a pleasant surprise. For someone who’s drawn only a handful of comic books before, none of them involving major superheroes, Flanagan is quite good. He’s not perfect by any means – he has occasional problems drawing Batman’s mouth, and I’m not sure he ever quite settles on the size of the Joker’s chin – but he really does improve as the book goes on, and by the end his faces tell the story perhaps even better than Smith’s words do.

By far the most interesting part of Cacophony is the ending, when Batman and the Joker manage to have an actual, rational conversation with each other. This is made possible by the fact that the Joker has just awoken in the hospital from a five-month coma; accordingly, he’s been restrained and pumped full of anti-psychotics. While I can take or leave certain elements of Cacophony (like the aforementioned fight with Zsasz), this scene pushes the comic into “must-read” territory for me. Without spoiling too much, the crux of their conversation is essentially that the Joker doesn’t hate Batman because he’s crazy – he’s crazy because he hates Batman. This of course takes us back to an argument I’ve gotten rather sick of hearing over the last few years: that Batman’s very existence is what causes such a prolific number of freaks to terrorize Gotham, as opposed to Batman simply being the intercessor between them and the realization of their villainous plots. But Smith addresses the issue in a truly engaging way, one that I’ve never seen before, and in doing so I think he’s finally brought it to something of a peaceful rest.

I’ve read reviews of Cacophony on a variety of other sites which criticize Smith for being “out of touch,” primarily because his (admittedly old-school) portrayal of the Joker contradicts with how Grant Morrison was writing the character in other Batman comics at the time. This is a positively ludicrous argument, in my opinion, and represents exactly the kind of slavish devotion to plot minutiae (as opposed to good story-telling) that I think drove Smith away from mainstream comics in the first place. Cacophony makes no effort to tie itself down to a specific time in DC continuity, and as such it seems unfair to judge it not on its own merits, but on whether it adheres to the arbitrary expectations imposed on it by nitpickers and continuity junkies. This story is timeless, to use a rather clichéd term, in the sense that it’s accessible to just about anyone – fans of Batman, fans of the Joker, even fans of Kevin Smith. It breaks free of the most commonly held expectations of comic book fanboys, and I think that’s a big part of why I like it so much.

The collected edition of Cacophony is padded out with a cover gallery and the original script for the final issue. The script doesn’t really add any new insight to the story or even the creative process itself, so I don’t see much reason for its inclusion (other than DC wanting to boost the page count and, therefore, the price of the book). Furthermore, the script isn’t even actually complete; Smith writes that there was originally a page in which the Joker’s dialogue was so off-color, it wasn’t fit for print. Personally, I would have liked to see just that one page as opposed to what basically amounts to a text-only reprint of the last third of the book. I don’t like it when publishers attempt to artificially lengthen collections – it strikes me as a tacky money-grab, and if not for that, I probably would have rated Cacophony half a point higher. But even so I think it’s well worth reading, especially for people interested in a slightly different take on the Batman/Joker relationship.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, Vol. 1: The Sinister Six

Review Marvel Adventures Spider-Man Volume One The Sinister Six Kitty Fross Erica David Jeff Parker Patrick Sherberger Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Kitty Fross, Erica David, and Jeff Parker
Artist: Patrick Scherberger
Collects: Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #1-4 (2005)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $6.99

In 2003, Marvel Comics launched “Marvel Age,” a line of comic books aimed at younger readers that retold classic stories in modern-day settings and with contemporary artwork. The comics were collected relatively quickly into small, digest-sized books, presumably to capitalize on the growing market for similar-looking manga publications in the United States. Bound to remain completely faithful to the original stories they were based on, there wasn’t much room for creative flexibility with Marvel Age and the comics simply weren’t too impressive.

The company took steps to improve that situation in 2005, when they canceled the Marvel Age line and revamped it as “Marvel Adventures.” The Adventures books are also suited for all ages, but their purpose is less narrowly defined; unlike Marvel Age, they often tell brand-new stories with the only mandate being that the stories can be enjoyed without an extensive knowledge of Marvel chronology. Since its launch, Marvel Adventures Spider-Man has gone on to become one of Marvel’s best-selling titles.

Unfortunately, the series gets off to a pretty rough start in this opening volume. Children’s author Kitty Fross writes the first issue, which concerns itself with retelling Spider-Man’s origin for the umpteenth time. I’ve probably read more than a dozen versions of this story, and none of them (with the possible exception of Brian Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man) has ever held a candle to the original. This particular version falls somewhere in the bottom half of all the ones I’ve read, since it lacks so much as a trace of the pathos that makes Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 so powerful.

The emotional impact of the original story comes from the death of Uncle Ben, an effect that’s completely absent here. There’s a half-hearted attempt to make it seem as though Peter took Ben for granted while he was alive (Ben wants to play cards at one point; Peter says he has to study instead), but there isn’t enough interaction between them to make Ben’s death sufficiently traumatic for the story’s purposes. I’ve read Amazing Fantasy #15 more times than I’ve read any other story in comics, and it still gets to me on a basic emotional level. This version, despite being derived from the same plot, does absolutely nothing for me.

The second and third issues, written by Erica David, are basically a stripped-down, drawn-out retelling of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1964), the first appearance of the Sinister Six. The plot is about as bare-bones as they come – Doctor Octopus & Friends break out of their jail cells, terrorize New York City, and do their best to get rid of “that pestilent pest” Spider-Man once and for all (and yes, Doctor Octopus actually says that). The villains’ characterizations are incredibly weak, and the subtleties that Stan Lee was able to give them nearly 50 years ago are nowhere to be found. Instead they scowl, shake their fists, and boast to one another about which of them is ultimately going to “destroy Spider-Man.”

You might think that with so many villains in one story there would at least be some fun action sequences, but that’s not really the case either. Their methods for attempting to defeat Spider-Man are uninspired, at best: Electro shoots electricity; Mysterio creates illusions of himself; Doc Ock, Sandman, and the Vulture try to pummel Spidey with their fists (mechanical or otherwise); and Kraven tries to capture Spider-Man with a handful of traps so lame they would make Macaulay Culkin blush. The story isn’t quite stupid enough to be offensive, but it is pretty boring.

If there’s any redeeming quality to this collection, it’s the fourth and final story. Written by Jeff Parker, this is the only issue to feature a completely original story – by this point, a godsend in and of itself. It deals with Spidey and the Human Torch teaming up to do battle with two little-known villains: Street, who is literally a living chunk of NYC asphalt, and Goom, a gigantic alien whose only knowledge of Earth comes from having watched way too much MTV.

I would be remiss not to mention the art of Patrick Sherberger in this volume, which is much more consistent than the writing. While he hasn’t fully developed his own style by the end of the book (he seems to be aping Humberto Ramos’ style most of the time), it’s still above average. But even so, consistent artwork and one good story out of four don’t make up for the fact that the majority of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, Vol. 1: The Sinister Six is a derivative bore. The series continues with all original stories from here on out, though, and if they’re anywhere near as entertaining as the final story was in this volume, they could be worth a look.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5