Friday, July 30, 2010

X-Men: Mutant Genesis

Review X-Men Mutant Genesis Chris Claremont Jim Lee John Byrne Scott Lobdell Cyclops Wolverine Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Chris Claremont, Jim Lee, John Byrne, and Scott Lobdell
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: X-Men #1-7 (1991-92)
Published: Marvel, 2006; $19.99

No matter what you think of comics in the 1990s, it’s impossible to deny the influence of Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men. The pair had been working together on the Uncanny X-Men series for several years already by 1991, but the launch of a second ongoing X-Men series was, in itself, something altogether revolutionary – as hard as that is to imagine today, with there being certainly no fewer than a dozen X-titles published each month. X-Men #1, with its five different covers (ooh, collectible!) and its darker take on everyone’s favorite team of mutant heroes, was in many ways the springboard for the franchise’s proliferation in the years that followed.

But as much as it was a time for new beginnings, the series also ushered in at least one significant ending. The ‘90s are often seen as a time in which comic book artists rallied to exert more control over the stories they were illustrating – and when they began to feel their efforts being proscribed by writers and editors, the most popular artists abandoned DC and Marvel to found their own companies. X-Men is a case in which the opposite happened, at least at first. That is, with artist Jim Lee increasingly doing whatever he wanted without consulting anyone else first, it was the writer, Chris Claremont, who left the franchise that he had been writing for the previous seventeen years.

It’s a shame, really, because the first three issues collected in X-Men: Mutant Genesis – the only ones written by Claremont – are by far the best in the book. These issues comprise a storyline in which Magneto declares Asteroid M a sovereign state and a haven for Earth’s mutants, sparking an international incident that brings with it the threat of global nuclear warfare. While it’s a long way from Claremont's best X-Men work, it still provides one of comics’ single most fascinating glimpses into the mind of Magneto. Although he’s an antagonist to the X-Men in the conventional sense, with Claremont writing him it’s difficult to view the character simply as a “villain.” In Mutant Genesis, Magneto is a deeply disturbed man who sees the course he has taken as the only way of bringing about peace between humans and mutantkind. It’s really a question of means rather than ends, since his goals are ultimately much the same as Professor Xavier’s.

But the story isn’t perfect. There’s a ridiculous subplot in which it’s revealed that Moira MacTaggert tampered with Magneto’s DNA to try to make him a “good guy,” which leads Magneto to question every decision he’s made in the years since he was in her care. (Of course, if he thought for even a second about his own actions, which include the sinking of a nuclear submarine along with its entire crew, he would realize that neither Moira nor anyone else has been even marginally successful at curbing his actions or mental state over the years.) In the end, Moira’s DNA-tampering / brainwashing process turns out to be little more than a plot device for turning some of the X-Men temporarily to Magneto’s side, leading to a predictable fight with the other half of the team.

Speaking of which, it’s probably worth mentioning who exactly the X-Men are at this point in their history. The first issue opens with the division of the team into two groups, the Blue Team and the Gold Team. Although both are involved in the first story, issues four through seven mainly feature the Blue Team: Beast, Cyclops, Gambit, Jubilee, Psylocke, Rogue, and Wolverine. (Shockingly enough, Wolverine was only an active member of one group of X-Men at this point!) If you ever watched the animated X-Men television show that ran throughout the ‘90s, then you essentially know these characters.

Forge and Banshee (two personal favorites of mine) also appear in supporting roles, although Banshee’s part is minimal after the third issue, in which Gambit breaks his jaw. It’s not too long before Gambit’s presence starts to get really annoying, actually; he’s a stupid character, pure and simple, and what I’ve found over the years is that most people who think otherwise are working from fond memories of the animated show. In the comics, the character is an unlikeable jerk, and I can’t say I would mind if I never saw him in the pages of a comic book again.

Fortunately, Gambit’s role is pretty minimal in the second half of Mutant Genesis, a Wolverine-centric story that pits the team against Omega Red – a multi-tentacled Soviet super-soldier who’s been in suspended animation ever since he fought with Wolverine thirty years earlier. These issues are plotted entirely by Jim Lee, with John Byrne and Scott Lobdell simply writing the scripts. The story and writing suffer as a result, although the comic never descends into anything near the depths of idiocy the entire X-Men franchise would be reduced to in just under four years’ time. I’m actually tempted to say that this is the franchise at its ‘90s peak, which is entirely true, but I’m afraid of that coming off as too much of a compliment; instead, let’s just say that things only went downhill from here.

In fact, you can already see things turning sour in the Omega Red story. In addition to the plot, which is fairly by-the-numbers (although it does introduce Maverick, a character I’ve always been strangely captivated by), the art too shows signs of slipping. Perhaps it’s just that Lee was more rushed for these issues, but his work seems less like his own and more like he’s trying to channel the influence of other popular artists from the time. As a result, you can expect about ten times as many popping neck veins and constipated-looking facial expressions.

The back of Mutant Genesis includes a cover gallery and some sketch pages by Lee, as well as some truly awful art by Jeff Matsuda that was commissioned to balance broken spreads in earlier printings of the trade. I can’t even imagine how jarring it would have been to see these pages in the middle of the story; Matsuda would go on to design characters for such animated shows as The Batman and Jackie Chan Adventures, which should give you a pretty good indication of how poorly his art style meshes with Lee’s.

A new hardcover edition of Mutant Genesis came out just this week, and its page count is slightly higher than that of the trade paperback. Since the issues collected are the same, though, I can’t imagine the differences amount to anything substantial – probably just a few pages of original pencil art and a couple of additional covers. Either way, you’re essentially getting the same product. And it’s a product worth looking into, if you’re interested in seeing the passing of the torch (or, to be more accurate, the dying of the flame) in regards to the X-Men franchise, or even if you just want a better idea of the slippery slope the comic book industry in general was treading in the early 1990s. But if you’re coming at it simply with the expectation of being entertained, rather than learning something about a period that was (like it or not) crucial in comic book history, I recommend approaching with caution.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Friday, July 23, 2010

Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four, Vol. 1: Family of Heroes

Review Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four Volume One Family of Heroes Jeff Parker Akira Yoshida Caylo Pagulayan Juan Santacruz Marvel Mr. Fantastic Invisible Woman Human Torch Thing Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Jeff Parker and Akira Yoshida
Artists: Carlo Pagulayan and Juan Santacruz
Collects: Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four #1-4 (2005)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $6.99

The first volume of Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four is fortunate enough to avoid the biggest pitfall of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man’s earliest issues – that is, it tells brand-new stories rather than simply rehashing old ones. Sadly, Jeff Parker doesn’t ever hit the same groove that he did in the one issue of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man that he wrote (which, by contrast, was a lot of fun), and parts of this book are actually pretty boring. The fact that Parker only co-writes the first two issues – with Akira Yoshida, whose writing typically falls somewhere between average and mediocre in quality – is probably a big part of the problem.

There are a few bright spots, though. Parker comes up with some pretty clever ways for the Fantastic Four (especially the Human Torch) to use their powers in the fourth issue, which is by far the best of this collection. But even so, the pacing is off and emotional development throughout is shallow at best. Most of the book consists of the team getting their butts kicked by whatever villain they happen to be fighting, and their means of ultimate triumph in each situation don’t seem very well thought out. In one of the stories, there are a couple of completely random panels where Dr. Strange comes out of nowhere to fix everything that’s gone wrong before disappearing just as quickly.

I might be able to look past the underdeveloped stories to some extent if the action scenes themselves were well-done, but they’re really not. The bad guys chosen for the book aren’t all that exciting – in the book’s four stories, we get Annihilus, Diablo, a group of mischievous Skrull kids, and a renegade Sentinel robot (on loan from the X-Men, apparently). There’s no Dr. Doom, no Sub-Mariner, no outer space or time travel adventure. If this had been my first Fantastic Four book as a kid, I doubt I could have summoned the interest to read the next book in this series.

The digest format doesn’t do the art any favors either. The pencils are fine, if nothing extraordinary, but the coloring is just awful. Everything looks incredibly dark, which is a serious problem when you’re trying to decipher art that’s already been greatly reduced in size. Making things worse, most of the stories take place inside dark, drab buildings, which isn’t in keeping at all with the bright, generally cheerful atmosphere I associate with the Fantastic Four. Overall, it makes for a pretty dull reading experience.

Although this book didn’t impress me, I’ll probably give the next one a chance the way I decided I would for Marvel Adventures Spider-Man. Future volumes in that series look to be a significant improvement on the first, and with Zeb Wells and Fred Van Lente eventually coming on as writers for this title, I still have some hope. Writing for children and adults at the same time is no easy task, and any series aiming to do so is bound to face some growing pains; my hope is that by the next time around, this series will have gotten past them.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years, Vol. 1

Review Tarzan The Jesse Marsh Years Volume One Robert P. Thompson Gaylord Dubois Dell Four Color Comic Dell Comics Dark Horse Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriters: Robert P. Thompson and Gaylord Dubois
Artist: Jesse Marsh
Collects: Dell Four Color Comic #134 & 161, Tarzan #1-4 (Dell Comics, 1947-48)
Published: Dark Horse, 2009; $49.95

Tarzan first appeared in print in the pages of All-Story Magazine in 1912, with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes following just two years later. The character proved to be so popular that he was already appearing in movies by 1918, which would continue to be released almost yearly through the 1960s. Tarzan made the leap to newspaper strips in 1929, but even then, almost two decades passed before he began starring in his very own original comic book stories, which were published by Dell Comics. Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years, Vol. 1 reprints the inaugural issues of Dell’s series, and the book is an extremely welcome addition to the ever-growing number of archival comics collections that a range of companies have been publishing over the last few years.

The reason I begin this review with a recounting of Tarzan’s history in popular culture is that his first comic book series is built heavily on the character’s various representations over the preceding decades. Furthermore, it could easily be argued that the comic draws more from the cinema than it does from its own medium. The plots are well-structured and progress more like short films than typical comic book stories from this period, and at around 40 pages each, they’re fairly long for their time. The dialogue is a bit wooden, but as Mario Hernandez writes in the book’s introduction, it works perfectly for the subject matter. Reading Tarzan, I constantly felt like I was watching an old B-movie or film serial – and I mean that as a compliment. As cheesy as some of those movies were, they were pretty darn entertaining, and they obviously had a pretty lasting effect on popular culture – how many people can you think of who have never heard of Tarzan?

Other cues are taken from the films as well. Most prominently, artist Jesse Marsh draws Tarzan as a hulking, barrel-chested, strikingly handsome man, a nod undoubtedly to Johnny Weissmuller, who was the actor most identified with Tarzan at the time. But a number of aspects are drawn from the books as well, including the character of D’Arnot, a French naval lieutenant who serves as an occasional companion to Tarzan. The writers, Robert P. Thompson and Gaylord Dubois, also make frequent use of words from the ape language invented by Burroughs; they even devote a few pages in each issue to an ongoing “Ape Dictionary,” which features intricately detailed artwork by Marsh.

It’s worth dwelling on Marsh for just another moment – after all, Dark Horse did see fit to put his name in the title of this collection. A veteran of both illustration and animation, Marsh depicts the jungle and its inhabitants with a lush detail that was simply unparalleled at the time. Lions crouch and pounce with sinewy leaps, apes swing from the trees and land into a lumbering gait, and the jungle’s dark foliage exudes an almost overwhelming sense of mystery and foreboding. Truly, the 1940s were a “golden age” not just for masked heroes, but for the portrayal of the strange and exotic in a way that was both fantastic and beautiful.

Although the stories are pretty well-structured for the most part, the one thing that did bother me about them is that Tarzan’s ultimate goal is almost always to save a white person being held captive by jungle savages – often referred to as “Go-Mangani,” or “blackmen.” In fact, at certain points it’s almost as if the character can’t be bothered to do much of anything if it doesn’t involve saving white people. In “Tarzan versus the Black Panther,” for example, Tarzan sets out to save a white woman from a slave trader; freeing the dozen or so black slaves the trader has captured seems to be little more than a secondary goal. It seems a bit peculiar that Tarzan, a man raised in complete isolation from the rest of the human race, seems to draw so many racial distinctions (subconsciously or not) among other human beings.

Still, I do give Tarzan some credit for its sympathetic portrayal of Muviro, Tarzan’s African ally who appears at some point in almost all of his adventures. And in case I’ve been making the comic sound worse than it actually is, I should point out that it’s never overtly or intentionally racist – as “products of their time,” some of the stories are just a bit ignorant. Actually, when you compare it to a good deal of other comics and even animated films that were being released at the same time, Tarzan seems like a regular civil rights manifesto.

Of course, Tarzan’s racial sensitivity, or occasional lack thereof, is more of a reflection on the particular writers of this collection than on the character himself (although Burroughs’ original novel espouses its fair share of troubling notions about race as well). Tarzan is really a lot like Conan or even the Hulk in that sense – his intelligence, as well as the extent of his physical capabilities, vary from story to story depending on how each writer interprets the character. This is no more apparent than in the last few stories in the book, in which Marsh and company change things up in a big way with the introduction of Tarzan’s wife Jane and their son Boy.

In these stories, Tarzan isn’t so much an uncivilized nomad as he is a family man concerned primarily with teaching his son how to survive the dangers of the African jungle. One story even features Boy as the protagonist, with Tarzan showing up as sort of a deus ex machina at the end to save Boy from the clutches of a strange tribe of pygmy warriors. I’m curious to see whether subsequent Tarzan comics from this era will continue to be as experimental in their plotting, or if this was just a one-time attempt to see if a different kind of story would still resonate with young readers.

It would certainly be fair to call Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years one of the better archival series being produced right now, and with five volumes already released in less than a year and a half (and a sixth one due next month), it’s clear that Dark Horse is committed to seeing the material through to its end, and in an extremely timely fashion to boot. So much the better for me, since I will certainly be reading the next volume, and possibly more after that – even if it’s more for Marsh’s brilliant artwork than for the stories themselves.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Monkey vs. Robot

Review Monkey Versus Robot James Kochalka Top Shelf Productions Cover original graphic novel ogn trade paperback tpbWriter: James Kochalka
Artist: James Kochalka
Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2000; $14.95

I’m not actually sure how or where I first heard of James Kochalka. It may have been from a short guest-penciling job he did in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, which was one of my favorite comic books about ten years ago. It may also have been from his four-page cartoon “Hulk vs. the Rain,” which appeared in an Incredible Hulk Annual around the same time. Either way, I’m fairly confident that my first exposure to his work was in some sort of superheroic venue, which is ironic considering Kochalka is one of the most well-regarded voices in the medium for reasons completely unrelated to mainstream comics. At the time, I had little idea that there were comics worth reading outside the worlds of Marvel and DC, so his unique style caught me off guard – in the best of ways.

I’m not sure Kochalka was the specific “gateway drug,” so to speak, that led me to first explore comics written and published outside the mainstream, but reading his work was certainly a stepping stone in that direction for me. So it was with a bit of a guilty conscience a few days ago that I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had read one of his books. It was only fitting that I go back to the beginning, I thought, and read one of his early graphic novels, Monkey vs. Robot.

The book is exactly what the title suggests: monkeys fighting robots. But it’s also much more than that. There are several different subtexts at play here, the most potent one being a condemnation of technology’s effect on the natural world. You see, the robots have set up a factory smack in the middle of the jungle, and the toxic sludge it produces is killing the monkeys. You can imagine why they might be a little upset.

The environmental theme pervades every aspect of the book, especially the monochromatic art (I hesitate to call it black and white, because the brushstrokes look more to me like a deep, dark jungle green). Of course, that’s out of necessity for the most part, since there are very few words in Monkey vs. Robot, aside from the occasional sound effect. The robots have a few lines (“Attack,” “Begin extermination,” etc.), but they really only serve to deepen their total lack of emotion. Their faces are fraught with metallic indifference, even in death – that is, if it’s possible for a nonliving thing to actually “die” – while the monkeys exude fear, anger, and hope without so much as a word.

The story works on another level too, one that I completely missed on my first read-through. Toward the end, one of the monkeys escapes into the robots’ factory and comes face to face with “the Mother,” a terrifyingly inhuman master computer of sorts that rants almost incoherently about “crystalline perfection” and “metal futurity.” The monkey stands transfixed for several pages, and the spell is only broken when he is discovered and mercilessly attacked by one of the robots.

For one brief moment, though, both the monkey and the reader are seduced by the apparent beauty of the Mother’s words. Then, in an instant of utter horror, Kochalka demonstrates the ease with which seemingly benign words like “progress” and “future” can also be synonyms for “death” and “extinction” – with the Mother’s message rejected by reader and monkey alike, the factory and the jungle both erupt into flame.

Even if Monkey vs. Robot lacks strong individual characters in the vein of some of Kochalka’s later work, the emotions it invokes are just as powerful. Reading this book, I felt despair as the final battle turned hopelessly against the monkeys, fear at the sight of fire burning uncontrollably against the night sky, and finally, joy at the cleansing, hopeful rain that brings the story to an end. In a word, this book made me feel, and if there is any higher praise I can give it than that, my only regret is that I can’t find the words to express it. On the other hand, though, as Kochalka so beautifully reveals in this book, perhaps words aren’t the answer to all our problems.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wolverine: Not Dead Yet

Review Wolverine Not Dead Yet Warren Ellis Leinil Francis Yu Cover Marvel Premiere Classic Hardcover hc trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Warren Ellis
Artist: Leinil Yu
Collects: Wolverine #119-122 (1997-98)
Published: Marvel, 2009; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

I have read more Wolverine comics than any other person alive.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – there are a ton of Wolverine stories, even a ton of Wolverine collected editions, that I haven’t read, but still, I feel like I must have read at least a few dozen of them over the years. It’s kind of weird, actually…Wolverine isn’t my favorite character in comics (see: the title of this blog), but he’s one of my favorite characters to read about, if that makes any sense. There are so many different facets to his personality, so many different roles he’s able to assume, and of course there’s that mysterious, mostly untold past of his. It all makes for a wide variety of story possibilities, some of which are really interesting while others are utterly forgettable.

Unfortunately, Wolverine: Not Dead Yet falls more into that second camp. Even though, as I’ve just said, there are tons of possibilities for Wolverine stories, there are certain angles that writers tend to take with the character over and over again, and if you’ve seen a story from that angle once, you’ve basically seen them all. It’s that sort of “been there, done that” feeling that leaves me a bit cold towards this particular collection, although it’s not without its merits.

The main draw of Not Dead Yet is that it features artwork by Leinil Yu, who has gone on to become a comic book superstar over the twelve years since this material was first published. His work here is strong, and I actually like it better than his current style. I think that has mostly to do with the fact that until recently, Yu did not ink his own work – here, he’s assisted by not one but two inkers, Edgar Tadeo and Gerry Alanguilan.

Even at this early point in his career, Yu’s work is sleek, yet detailed. It’s the little touches that make him stand out to me, from the dense texture of the hair on Wolverine’s arms to the slow, visceral way blood drips from the character’s claws (which are made of bone in this collection – Wolverine would get his adamantium skeleton back about a year after this story). This was a style that Yu would perfect a few years later in Superman: Birthright, and it’s interesting to see it in its infancy here.

As much as I like the art, though, I simply can’t bestow the same praise on Warren Ellis’s story. There really isn’t that much to say about it, to be honest: it follows Logan as he hunts down a man from his past who’s seemingly come back for revenge, which is pretty much as formulaic as you can get when it comes to stories about this character. The main plot is intercut with flashbacks to conversations Logan had with the man in Hong Kong ten years earlier, which are much more interesting than anything going on in the present. Ellis tries to create a sense of mystery as to whether the man is still alive or if it’s really someone else who’s after Wolverine, but a few badly executed twists too many in the final act bring that subplot to a pretty dissatisfying conclusion.

The story is only four issues long, with the last twenty or so pages of the collection consisting of a Leinil Yu cover gallery (he was a fairly regular cover artist on Wolverine both before and after Not Dead Yet). The art is pretty good, and it’s certainly better than Marvel including script pages, but it’s obviously just padding to boost the book’s cover price. I also found myself a bit annoyed by the book’s introduction, which was written by Ellis in 1998 for the first paperback edition of this collection. Couldn’t Marvel have commissioned something a little more recent from either Ellis or Yu?

The relative slimness of this book and the formulaic nature of its story combine to make Wolverine: Not Dead Yet a pretty tough sell, in my opinion. If you’re a Leinil Yu enthusiast interested in taking a closer look at his early work, I guess this isn’t the worst thing you can buy; as I’ve already mentioned, though, Superman: Birthright is a far superior choice in that vein. And as for Wolverine, there are countless other collections better than this one – many of which actually dare to do interesting and novel things with the character.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5