Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Maximum Fantastic Four

Review Maximum Fantastic Four #1 Issue One Stan Lee Jack Kirby Walter Mosley Mark Evanier Marvel Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Stan Lee, Walter Mosley, and Mark Evanier
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Fantastic Four #1 (1961)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $49.99

There’s probably little to say about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four that hasn’t already been said by people more knowledgeable and more eloquent than me. Still, I feel like I’m constantly reading comments from people who have never read a single page of their work, and I find that terribly saddening. If you’re one of the many people who haven’t experienced this seminal run at least in part, I encourage you to pick up the first Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four trade paperback, which collects the first ten issues of the comic. For those already initiated, though, Maximum Fantastic Four is a truly amazing presentation of the series’ first issue, one that fully lives up to its name.

Conceived by the novelist Walter Mosley as a “visual exegesis” of Fantastic Four #1, the book provides perhaps the most innovative reproduction of a single comic book that I’ve ever seen. Nearly every panel is blown up to extraordinary size and devoted its own entire page, with some of the pages folding out to give certain panels an even more dramatic flair. Segments of dialogue and narration are occasionally pushed off the page in order to give more room to the artwork, placing the emphasis on the utter spectacle of Kirby’s artwork rather than the plot itself.

That being the case, Maximum Fantastic Four certainly isn’t the way to read this issue if you’ve never read it before. But if (like me) you’ve already read it several times or more, the presentation here is more than a breath of fresh air; it’s a release, a chance to marvel at the sight of super-powered men (and one super-powered woman) doing the spectacular things that we only wish we could do. Indeed, this book suggests a way of reading comics completely different from that which many readers today are accustomed to – one in which each and every panel is a work of art unto itself, and worthy of individual attention.

It’s a way of reading that I’ve embraced (without even realizing it) ever since I started reading comics by Lee and Kirby as a kid. Over the years, I’ve often puzzled over why I seem to take longer to read my comics than a lot of people do. The answer, it’s clear to me now, is that while I often pause to admire an artist’s work, many readers simply let their eyes fly across the page without taking the time to truly absorb what they’ve experienced visually. In many cases, especially when the artwork is average or subpar, there’s not much fault to be found in that; but, as Mosley reminds us with this book, the rewards for taking our time with artists like Kirby are nearly limitless.

The main content is supplemented with wonderful essays by Mosley and Mark Evanier (author of Kirby: King of Comics). In addition to explaining Mosley’s reasons for creating the book, the two writers also contextualize the comic within its time and provide the reader with a deeper understanding of its enduring influence on American popular culture. If you don’t already believe that it was pure magic flowing from Lee’s typewriter and Kirby’s pen when they created the Fantastic Four, these pieces, in combination with the unique presentation of the material itself, will likely change your mind. In the end, Maximum Fantastic Four is truly an affirmation of the genius of two creators at an artistic peak, one of the many peaks that each would experience throughout his long career in comics. And even more importantly, it’s an affirmation of why we read comics – of that sense of exhilaration and wonder that draws us back again and again to the medium we love.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Rawhide Kid, Vol. 1

Review Marvel Masterworks Rawhid Kid Volume One Stan Lee Jack Kirby Marvel Cover MMW hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Rawhide Kid #17-25 (1960-61)
Published: Marvel, 2006; $49.99 (HC), $24.99 (TPB)

Rawhide Kid was one of the earliest Silver Age collaborations between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but for whatever reason it’s also one of the least talked about. Beginning just one month before the premiere issue of Fantastic Four, the Lee/Kirby version of the Rawhide Kid was actually what we might call a “relaunch” or a “reboot” today. Sixteen issues of the series, written by Lee and illustrated mostly by Bob Brown and Dick Ayers, had been published from 1955 to 1957, when it was cancelled. It wasn’t until 1961, four years after Kirby had rejoined the ranks of Marvel, that a 17th issue finally saw print. It might as well have been the first issue of a completely different series.

Much like Atlas’s short-lived Black Knight series in the 1950s, Rawhide Kid is surprising in its resemblance to Marvel’s early superhero comics. Like Spider-Man and the Hulk (and unlike the traditional heroes of Silver Age western comics), the Kid is a hopelessly misunderstood, even hated, figure. Branded a murderer and hunted by the law, he’s actually a good-hearted young man who does his best to help out in whatever town he happens to find himself in, no matter how untrusting the locals may be. Some of the best issues in this collection end with the Kid actually playing into his bad reputation to save the day – a gesture that both ingratiates him to the townspeople and necessitates his swift departure at the end of the story.

Lee’s success at shaping the Kid into such a tragic figure (and in so few pages, too) is pretty impressive, especially given that there’s not much of a supporting cast for him to play off of. The lack of recurring characters is the book’s only real weakness, since it leads Lee and Kirby to constantly fill space with scenarios that get somewhat repetitive after a while. In the stock story that grows most tiresome, a generic desperado challenges the Kid to a shoot-out in the hopes of proving himself the fastest gun in the West, only to be shown up by the Kid’s dazzling speed and accuracy with a pair of Colts. This being a mostly bloodless era in comic book history, the Kid’s enemies are always defeated the same way, with their guns harmlessly shot out of their hands.

It’s this basic formula, however, that makes the more unique stories really shine. One of my favorites, in which the Kid vows never to use his weapons again, reminded me of the excellent Bruce Lee film The Big Boss – a fitting connection, since Stan Lee was a professed fan of the martial arts actor (but also an interesting one, in that the comic came out ten years before the movie). Kirby’s artwork here is excellent, and for whatever reason, it’s actually significantly better, from a technical standpoint, than the first few issues of Fantastic Four. The reasons for this difference aren’t clear, but perhaps Kirby felt a simpler style was more befitting of a comic about superheroes (a genre which he hadn’t drawn regularly for a number of years at this point), while a more detailed one was better for westerns.

Either way, Kirby made the right decision; Rawhide Kid legitimately evokes the feel of a classic Hollywood western, and the characters of Fantastic Four stand out, as superheroes arguably should, in colorful, iconic, pop art style. But more on the Fantastic Four next time. For now, Rawhide Kid is a great example of a Lee/Kirby work that straddles two eras of comics – one in which storytellers still clung to the familiar tropes of the Golden Age, and another in which they pushed comics to a place the medium had never gone before. It was a time of emerging self-awareness, playful experimentation, and reluctant ambition. It was a time when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stood on the edge of greatness.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Knight/Yellow Claw, Vol. 1

Review Marvel Masterworks Atlan Era Black Knight Yellow Claw Volume One Stan Lee Jack Kirby Al Feldstein Joe Maneely Fred Kida John Romita Sr. Syd Shores Werner Roth George Roussos Marvel Cover MMW hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Al Feldstein
Artists: Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby, Fred Kida, John Romita Sr., Syd Shores, Werner Roth, George Roussos
Collects: Black Knight #1-5, Yellow Claw #1-4 (1955-57)
Published: Marvel, 2009; $59.99

One of the more unusual releases in Marvel’s long-running hardcover series, Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Knight/Yellow Claw is both a peculiar mash-up of two very different series and a true gem of 1950s comic book storytelling. Make no mistake, there is absolutely no connection between Black Knight and Yellow Claw – one is medieval in setting, while the other is a contemporary spy thriller – aside from their both being short-lived series with art by Joe Maneely. But it’s a nice way of packaging the two titles nonetheless, since neither is long enough to have warranted an individual release.

I went into the book expecting Black Knight to be a little dull, to be honest; Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood aside, I’m not that interested in the 1940s and ‘50s Hollywood version of the Middle Ages, from which this comic very obviously takes its cues. After only a few pages, though, it became clear that writer Stan Lee was also influenced by, of all things, Golden Age superhero comics. In fact, there’s a lot more to the Black Knight than the average medieval protagonist. Although he spends most of his time as King Arthur’s mild-mannered nephew, that’s really just his secret identity; whenever the king’s life is in peril, he pretends cowardice and steals away to become the Black Knight. In his daily life he’s despised by the court, especially by the woman he loves – who, in the typical fashion of superhero stories, is infatuated with his mysterious alter ego. The formula isn’t at all unlike the one used in the early appearances of characters like Superman, Captain America, and Spider-Man, but seeing it transposed into medieval times gives it a unique spin.

Yellow Claw is a fascinating read as well, albeit for completely different reasons. Although the first issue, like the majority of Black Knight, is drawn by the excellent Joe Maneely, the writing leaves a little to be desired. Penned by Al Feldstein (the former head writer for EC Comics, which had closed shop for good two years earlier), the Yellow Claw character is essentially just a clone of Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese mystic bent on world domination. Despite the formulaic structures of this first batch of short stories, Feldstein does do an admirable job of dodging the racist undertones that have plagued most literary works featuring Fu Manchu and characters modeled after him – and he does so in large part by giving the stories an Asian-American protagonist, in the form of FBI agent Jimmy Woo.

Interestingly, though, Yellow Claw is less remembered for the positive (and progressive) portrayal of its Asian-American hero than it is for the fact that it heralded Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel Comics after several years working for the competition. Kirby picked up the book’s reigns starting with the second issue, from which point he both wrote and drew the comic for three full issues before its cancellation. This was the first work Kirby had done at Marvel since his departure from the company in 1941, and the energy he brings to the page is pretty exciting, even if the stories themselves are too short to leave much of an impact. Still, with its off-kilter plots and bizarre-looking bad guys, it’s a weird and wonderful comic in that special way that just screams “Kirby.”

As good as Kirby’s work is, it’s also worth pointing out what a brilliant and imaginative artist Maneely was as well. His work on Black Knight made me feel I’d been thrown into some early MGM Technicolor spectacular, and his one issue of Yellow Claw is notable for the sheer breadth of convincing facial expressions throughout. Sadly, Maneely was killed in a car accident (at the age of only 32) just three years before the beginning of Marvel’s 1960s superhero revival. It’s fascinating to think of how much different the comics industry might have been if he had lived to contribute ideas to the Marvel Universe, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him in Michael Vassallo’s upcoming biography (which is essentially previewed in a lengthy essay by Vassallo at the end of this volume).

As wildly different as Black Knight and Yellow Claw are, this book turned out to be a really great read. This is a fun book for continuity buffs, too – Jimmy Woo continues to run around with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Agents of Atlas today, and it was revealed at one point that the modern Black Knight is directly descended from the medieval one depicted here. Between the quality of the stories and the fact that it features the work of two truly excellent artists, it’s an incredibly nicely done package.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby

Review Marvel Visionaries Jack Kirby Stan Lee Jack Kirby Captain America Thing Marvel Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Red Raven Comics #1, Marvel Mystery Comics #13, Captain America Comics #1, Yellow Claw #3, Rawhide Kid #17, Amazing Adventures #1, Strange Tales #94, Hulk #3, Amazing Spider-Man #8, Avengers #4, Sgt. Fury #6, Fantastic Four #48-51 & Annual #5, Thor #134-136, Amazing Adventures (vol. 2) #1-2, Captain America #200, Eternals #7, What If? #11 (1940-1978)
Published: Marvel, 2004; $29.99

Much like the Stan Lee volume of the Visionaries series, Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby takes an approach to the career of one of Marvel’s greatest creators that’s more befitting of the term “catch-all” than “greatest hits.” But while that worked well for Lee, I’m not sure it works as well for Kirby, whose work at certain points (especially during his third prolonged stint at Marvel, during the 1970s) occasionally misses the mark. Thankfully, most of the comics in this volume are great reads, with only a few falling into the “subpar” category.

There are more Golden Age stories in this book than in Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, and it’s especially nice to see a story reprinted from Red Raven Comics – a series that lasted only one issue before its cancellation in 1940, and which fans have been patiently waiting to have collected in its entirety for several years now. In a rather nice touch, this collection also includes a Captain America story from every era that Kirby worked on the character. Unfortunately, though, Cap’s Golden Age origin story suffers from a pretty bad restoration job. It’s readable, but having seen much better reproductions of the same issue in other collections, it’s hard for me to look at this one for more than a few moments at a time. Kirby’s latest Captain America story (from 1976) is underwhelming too, but for different reasons; while the artwork is great, the hamfisted plot and dialogue both fall flat.

I found the three issues of Thor collected here to be a little disappointing too, although I think that has more to do with personal taste than the comics’ objective quality. Kirby’s linework is somewhat hindered by Vince Colletta’s inking job, to be sure, but the trouble for me had everything to do with the story. It features the first appearance of the Knights of Wundagore, a group of super-evolved animals that behave like the Knights of the Round Table – suits of armor, broadswords, the whole bit. The simple fact is that I’ve never liked them, and I probably never will. But if the concept sounds it’s like your cup of tea, then I imagine you’ll find the story perfectly satisfying.

Review Marvel Visionaries Jack Kirby Fantastic Four #49 Stan Lee Jack Kirby Galactus Silver Surfer Mr. Fantastic Invisible Girl Human Torch Thing Marvel Cover comic book issue
The early to mid-1960s are my favorite period in Kirby’s career, and the one in which I think he first began to reach truly exceptional artistic heights. It’s the one most represented here, and the centerpiece of the collection is made up of four stand-out issues of Fantastic Four from 1966. The first three issues detail the coming of the world-eating alien Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer. On the most basic level, they’re not that different from most alien invaders you’re likely to see in comics from this time: viewing the human race as completely insignificant, their aim is nothing short of the total destruction of Earth. The difference between this and most invasion stories, however, is that Lee’s writing and Kirby’s artwork combine to instill such otherworldly gravitas to both Galactus and the Surfer that, much like the Fantastic Four themselves, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the cosmic goings-on in each and every panel. This is Lee and Kirby firing on all cylinders, and it’s truly something to behold.

If the three-part Galactus story is the archetypal Lee/Kirby superhero masterwork (and trust me, it is!), then the fourth issue is absolute Silver Age perfection. To describe it in any detail would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but suffice it to say that this issue has no less than four entire pages which remain, to this day, among the most recognizable and iconic in the history of superhero comics. I honestly can’t find the words to articulate how much I love this comic and the three issues that precede it, other than to say that they’re some of the most emotionally affecting and beautifully illustrated stories I’ve ever encountered in this medium. Stories like these are what make me want to read comics.

There’s plenty else to discover in Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby, but telling you any more at this point would just be spoiling the surprise. Although it’s not as well-rounded overall as the Stan Lee volume, a handful of the stories are superior to anything else collected in either book. In fact, the Fantastic Four issues are absolutely four of the best comic books of the Silver Age, and they number among my personal all-time favorites as well. They’re worth the price of admission alone – not that they’re the only enjoyable comics in this collection, by any means.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee

Review Marvel Visionaries Stan Lee Gil Kane Jack Kirby Spider-Man Fantastic Four Mr. Fantastic Invisible Girl Human Torch Thing Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Stan Lee
Artists: Jack Kirby, Al Avison, Joe Maneely, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Marie Severin, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Barry Windsor-Smith, Darick Robertson
Collects: Captain America Comics #3 & 16, Suspense #29, Amazing Adult Fantasy #11, Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #11 & Annual #3, Daredevil #7 & 47, Silver Surfer #5, Thor #179-181, Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 & Annual #5, Marvel Premiere #3, Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special 1995 (1941-1995)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $29.99

When Marvel launched its creator-focused line of oversized Visionaries hardcovers in late 2004, it only made sense to start with the two most prominent figures in Marvel history: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. For both books, the process of selecting which issues to include couldn’t have been an easy one. Perhaps it’s wise, then, that instead of trying to create “best of” collections for either, Marvel opted to create volumes that simply give the reader a feel for the sheer range of these creators’ talents. Indeed, Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee excludes a fair number of stories I would have numbered among the writer’s “greatest,” but that’s quite all right – after all, you would need multiple books to collect all of those stories, and the ones they did choose do just as good a job of demonstrating the sheer diversity of Lee’s talent.

The book opens with a great biographical introduction to Lee, written by longtime Marvel writer Roy Thomas (who was himself the subject of his own Visionaries collection); it’s a great crash-course on the writer’s history at Marvel, especially if you haven’t read anything else by or about him. Lee’s first-ever published work, from the pages of Captain America Comics, occupies the first few pages. While it’s fairly primitive in comparison to Lee’s later work, the stories are still interesting to see – and hey, you have to start somewhere, right?

The years between Lee’s first work in the Golden Age and the debut of the Fantastic Four in 1961 make up the most underrepresented time period in this collection, with only a few short stories from the mid-1950s. They’re nothing to write home about, really, although “The Raving Maniac,” a commentary on the public outcry against comic books going on at the time, is kind of amusing. The real meat of this collection comes in the form of Lee’s Silver Age superhero work, and this book delivers a great variety of characters and artists. It would have been easy for Marvel to include a ton of origin stories in this book, but luckily, they only include one – Spider-Man’s, which is arguably Lee’s best.

From here, the superhero stories range from an early issue of Daredevil – featuring an unlikely fight between the title character and the Sub-Mariner – to some of Lee’s final work as a regular writer at Marvel, including a Bronze Age Dr. Strange comic drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. Along the way, the book showcases Lee’s ability to tell short, self-contained stories (such as a quick FF tale answering some of readers’ most frequently asked questions), in addition to well-developed, multi-issue arcs.

The first arc in the collection is a three-part Thor story in which Loki tricks the thunder god into switching bodies with him. Unaware of Loki’s evildoing, Odin banishes Thor (in Loki’s body) to Mephisto’s realm, while the actual Loki runs rampant in Midgard. The story is actually more notable for its art than its writing – it features Jack Kirby’s final work on Thor, and some of Neal Adams’ first at Marvel – but it’s a good example of the overblown, faux-Shakespearean style Lee was fond of using in comics dealing with gods and god-like characters.

Review Amazing Spider-Man #98 Green Goblin Norman Osborn Gwen Stacy Stan Lee Gil Kane Frank Giacoia Marvel Cover comic book issue
Taken by itself, the Thor story might lead someone new to Lee’s writing to believe that he’s simply a cheesy writer. However, the book follows this story with an extremely well-grounded story arc from Amazing Spider-Man, which features Harry Osborn’s battle with drug abuse and the return of the Green Goblin. The drug subplot is a notable one in comics history, as it made Amazing Spider-Man one of the first mainstream comic books to be published without the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval. Lee had actually been personally asked to do a story dealing with substance abuse by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the backlash resulting from the Code’s refusal to approve it led to a loosening of its restrictions and a more progressive era in comics in the years that followed. But the thing that’s most impressive about the story is how subtly it gets its message across and how intricately Lee weaves it into what otherwise simply would have been a tale about the return of one of Spider-Man’s old enemies.

The book ends by reprinting a number of vintage pages containing Lee’s famous “Stan’s Soapbox” column, and these are a real treat. The column was his way of connecting with readers on a regular basis and letting them know what was going on behind the scenes at Marvel (remember, these were the days before Twitter!). They make me eager for a complete collection of these pages; and yes, it’s true that the Hero Initiative published a book with just the text of the columns themselves, but I’d love to see a book consisting of scans of the pages in their entirety.

Whether you’re a new or old fan of Stan Lee, this book is a great read. It represents a huge variety of his work, some of which is a far cry from the sort of thing we’re used to seeing reprinted again and again in these types of collections. There are relatively few duds, too, the only real one being a short Spider-Man story (reflecting on the 1995 death of Aunt May) that Lee wrote long after he had stopped working in comics on a regular basis. Even despite its relative weakness in comparison to his other work, though, it contributes to the collection’s goal of showing that Lee is a writer unafraid to tackle any kind of story – not to mention one who almost always delivers a fun and entertaining experience in the process.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: Kirby: King of Comics

Review Kirby King of Comics Jack Kirby Biography Mark Evanier Hulk Asgard Rainbow Bridge WAAAM Abrams Cover hardcover hc comic books nonfiction
Writer: Mark Evanier
Artist: Jack Kirby
Published: Abrams, 2008; $40.00

Kirby: King of Comics was a pretty big deal when it came out a couple of years ago. It had been nearly fifteen years since the death of Jack Kirby, and finally, it seemed, the definitive biography of one of the best (if not the best) artists in comic book history had arrived. And although there are certain parts of it that could have been improved, I’m happy to say that for the most part, it delivers on expectations.

Writer Mark Evanier is really the perfect fit for a biography of Jack Kirby – having worked as Kirby’s personal assistant starting in the late 1960s, and having written hundreds of comics and TV show episodes himself (including every episode of Garfield and Friends), he not only understands the craft involved in telling a story, but he also probably knew Kirby better on a personal level than most people did. He certainly knew Kirby better than anyone on an artistic level, having witnessed firsthand the many ways in which Kirby’s style evolved over the years.

Evanier begins the story of Kirby’s life with the artist’s rough-and-tumble childhood. Raised in New York City during the Great Depression, Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) spent much of his youth getting into trouble with a gang of neighborhood kids – a group that would serve as the archetype for a number of Kirby’s creations, including the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, and, much later, the Yancy Street Gang, with whom the Thing has a comedic ongoing rivalry in Fantastic Four. From the start, Evanier does an excellent job of demonstrating the ways in which Kirby portrays various aspects of his youth in his work.

As we follow Kirby throughout his early career, we come to see him as a young man dedicated to the art of comics but struggling to land assignments that would stick. By providing information and artwork for every major Kirby creation (and plenty of lesser-known ones, too), Evanier paints a nuanced picture of Kirby’s personality, values, and work ethic, as well as his love for the medium. He also makes it clear that Kirby’s career was defined in a big way by two major partnerships: one with Joe Simon that lasted from 1940 to 1955, and the other with Stan Lee from the late ‘50s to the end of the following decade. Both partnerships took Kirby’s work to increasingly greater heights over the years, setting him up for an eventual explosion of creativity (on his own, at DC) that would propel him through the rest of his career.

One of the biggest draws of this book is the sheer amount of original artwork presented, much of it never before seen, and the fact that the pages are so large is a huge plus. There are covers, preliminary and finished interior artwork, sketches and commissions, you name it. My favorite thing reproduced in the book, though, has to be a letter that Kirby sent to his wife Roz during his stint in the Army during World War II. Not only do the words border on absolute poetry, but the bottom of the page contains a beautiful depiction of faceless, trenchcoat-laden soldiers running through the night – not in panic, you can tell, but in patriotic duty and brotherhood. It’s pure Kirby, and in the best way possible.

I only have a few complaints with the book, and although they’re largely eclipsed by everything it does right, they’re still worth mentioning. One is that Evanier devotes barely any attention to the various inkers who worked with Kirby. In particular, it would have been interesting to know more about what Kirby thought of Vince Colletta, who has come under heavy fire in recent years for the many alterations he made to Kirby’s linework during his inking process. Evanier does devote a few pages to Joe Sinnott, who in my opinion was the best inker Kirby ever had, but it would have been nice to hear about some of his more controversial artistic collaborators as well.

My other main problem with the book is that it’s simply too one-sided at times. In the past, Stan Lee has been depicted as a villain in respect to his role in Kirby’s late-‘60s departure from Marvel. Evanier doesn’t take that exact approach but he doesn’t do much better either, arguing that Stan was little more than a corporate stooge who was “jockeying for his own place” in the company at Kirby’s expense. But as Evanier himself admits earlier in the book, Kirby was never a very apt businessman; in the early days, it was Joe Simon who did all the heavy lifting as far as getting assignments and ensuring that he and Kirby were always able to put food on the table. I think the likelier scenario here is that Kirby wasn’t as business-savvy as he should have been, and he simply paid the price for it. Evanier also sort of takes for granted that Kirby was the best comic book artist who ever lived, and while I’m certainly tempted to agree with him, I think that many people who don’t will feel that certain parts of the book (especially towards the end) border on hagiography.

However, the issues I have with Kirby: King of Comics aren’t so major that anyone with a love of Kirby or comic book art in general should avoid reading it. It’s essentially a biography and an art book rolled into one, packed with astounding images and written by the person who’s undoubtedly most qualified for the job. It’s easily the kind of thing I see myself pulling off the shelf again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee

Review Excelsior The Amazing Life of Stan Lee Biography Autobiography George Mair Fireside Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic books nonfiction
Writers: Stan Lee and George Mair
Published: Fireside, 2002; $14.00

The general outline of Stan Lee’s career in comics is well-known to many of his fans. Starting out in the early 1940s as a gofer for his uncle Martin Goodman’s publishing company, Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics), young Stanley Lieber quickly finagled his way into more and more writing assignments on titles like Captain America Comics, Mystic Comics, and USA Comics. After the departure of Jack Kirby and his partner Joe Simon in 1941, Lieber (under the pen name “Stan Lee,” and only 19 years old at the time) was made temporary editor-in-the-chief – a position that Goodman apparently wasn’t in any hurry to fill, as Lee would hold onto it for the next thirty years. During that time, he would modernize, humanize, and revolutionize the way that superhero stories were told.

In Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, the writer relates all of this information (and much more) in his own inimitable style. Along the way, we learn about Lee’s personal life – his childhood and initial (usually hilarious) attempts at finding a job, his brief stint in the Army during World War II, how he met his wife, and the creative processes behind some of his most beloved stories and creations. The stories about how he came up with heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four will be familiar to many fans, but it’s nice to see them all in one place and with new details, along with Stan’s always thoughtful and amusing commentary sprinkled throughout. This is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and definitive record we’re likely to ever get from Lee himself on just how the Marvel Universe began.

You might expect Lee’s autobiography to be somewhat one-sided, but I was surprised at how honest he was, especially when it came to his relationships with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – both of whom ended their association with Lee (and Marvel Comics in general) with considerably hard feelings. He’s very fair to both artists, fully acknowledging their tremendous contributions to the field of comics and admitting that he wishes things hadn’t ended so unpleasantly. He claims not to know the full reasons for either one leaving, and I believe him; neither artist was ever very good at expressing frustration in a constructive manner, and Lee has never been the kind to ruffle people’s feathers on purpose. He does go into some detail about the problems he was aware of (Kirby was upset that Lee got more attention in the press for Marvel’s success than he did, for example), and about the lengths he went to in order to try to amend them.

Less familiar to fans, I expect, is the story of what Lee did after he resigned as Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 1972, and this was actually the most interesting part of the book for me. As a matter of fact, he was still working for Marvel as much as ever, but in a completely different capacity – first as a public speaker on the college circuit (where Marvel Comics had become incredibly popular), and later as Marvel’s head honcho in Hollywood. One area I would have liked to see discussed in more detail is the Stan Lee Media catastrophe of the late 1990s, which involved Lee’s declaring bankruptcy and the arrest of his business partner for stock manipulation. Lee makes the whole thing seem pretty cut-and-dry, and perhaps he’s to be admired for that (I’m sure the finer details are more convoluted than I could possibly comprehend), but it just seems a bit glossed over. Still, if I had a choice between more on Stan Lee Media or having as much information as he included on his early life and the creation of the Marvel heroes, I would take the latter. The book doesn’t contain any information on the last ten years, since it was published in 2002, but perhaps someday soon Fireside will reissue the book with an additional chapter or two at the end. It would be especially interesting to get Lee’s thoughts on the current ongoing legal battle between Marvel and Jack Kirby’s heirs.

Excelsior! is a fairly quick read, partly because of its unusually large font size, but mostly because it reads in the same narrative voice that Lee spent years cultivating in his comics and in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column – a voice beloved to his many fans, and one that new readers, I’m sure, will find just as captivating. And that’s ultimately what makes it so worth the read: as much as you may think you know about the history of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, absolutely nothing compares to hearing it straight from “The Man” himself.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, July 1, 2011

Welcome to Stan & Jack Month!

Stan Lee Black and White B&W Photograph Marvel Comics
Some readers may remember me mentioning a while back that I wanted to take a month during the summer and focus my reviews on a specific creator or creative team. Well, that month is upon us, and I’m excited to announce that this July is “Stan & Jack Month” at With Great Power! This month I’ll be reviewing a number of books that spotlight the talents of Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, who together made up one of the greatest and most innovative duos in the history of comics. You can expect old favorites and lesser known titles alike to show up throughout the month, as I take a look at classic superhero epics, unique genre tales, and even some of the biographical material that has been published on both creators.

Jack Kirby Black and White B&W Photograph Marvel Comics
But why a whole month on Lee and Kirby, you ask? Well, first and foremost, they’re two of my favorite comic book creators of all time! To this day, the words of no other comics writer have touched me as deeply as Stan’s, and the raw energy of Kirby’s pencils has in many ways never been surpassed. Both were foundational to the medium in a way that few other individuals have been, and their work (both separately and together) is continues to be highly influential while entertaining in its own right. On top of that, both Lee and Kirby tried their hands at telling so many different types of stories over the years that you can find something for just about everyone in their work.

The fun begins tomorrow, as we kick off the first week of the month with a biography of Stan Lee – written by none other than “The Man” himself! And after a look at Kirby’s recent definitive biography (written by his longtime assistant, Mark Evanier), we’ll get right into the heart of their work with a look at some of their finest contributions to Marvel Comics. As for what’s in store after that, you’ll just have to see – and I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Hulk: Beauty and the Behemoth

Review Hulk Beauty and the Behemoth Incredible Hulk Stan Lee Steve Englehart John Byrne Peter David Jack Kirby Herb Trimpe Todd McFarlane Dale Keown Adam Kubert Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, John Byrne, Peter David
Artists: Jack Kirby, Herb Trimpe, John Byrne, Todd McFarlane, Dale Keown, Adam Kubert
Collects: Incredible Hulk #1, 169, 319, 344, 372, 377, 466 (1962-1998)
Published: Marvel, 1998; $19.95

Much like X-Men: Road Trippin’!, the trade I reviewed last week, Hulk: Beauty and the Behemoth was one of Marvel’s earliest modern collected editions. However, the two books lie at very different ends of the same spectrum: whereas there’s very little tying the stories collected in the X-Men trade to one another, the contents of Beauty and the Behemoth were obviously chosen to push a very specific agenda forward. In short, Marvel wanted readers to accept both the recent death of Betty Ross (Bruce Banner’s longtime girlfriend, and later his wife) and the sudden departure of writer Peter David, who had been writing the series for over a decade.

The death is featured in the final issue of the collection, which was published just a month before the trade came out. It’s obvious from Marvel’s haste to release the collection that they wanted to give the story as much weight among readers as possible – if the story appeared in something as seemingly “permanent” as a trade paperback, the editors must have thought, readers would be more likely to accept such a radical change to the status quo. It’s really hard to take the rest of the trade seriously, in this light, since it’s obvious that it was just slapped together to have something to fill up space before the death issue.

Some of these preceding stories are, admittedly, pretty good. I actually haven’t read much of Peter David’s long run on the series, so it was nice to see a few of his better issues collected here. The issue featuring a therapy session involving Doc Samson, Bruce Banner, and the two versions of the Hulk (Green and Gray) that make up Bruce’s subconscious is an especially good one. There are a few decent non-David issues too, including the John Byrne story in which Bruce and Betty are finally married. Only one story doesn’t seem to fit the theme of Bruce and Betty’s relationship – a bizarre 1973 issue by Steve Englehart and Herb Trimpe, in which Betty has been transformed into a giant green harpy.

As for the death story itself, it’s fairly absurd. Betty becomes sick on the first page (presumably from some sort of radiation poisoning, although it’s never really explained), and by the last page she is dead. The main story has Bruce and Thunderbolt Ross (Betty’s father) watching over her in the hospital, and this is interspersed with flashbacks as the wife of longtime Hulk sidekick Rick Jones reads Betty’s recently published autobiography. Unfortunately, it all reeks heavily of ridiculousness and sentimentality, proof that such major shake-ups in comics need to be earned over a period of time, not simply dumped into readers’ laps in a single issue.

It’s obvious from David’s comments in the introduction and afterword that he was not at all happy with the decision to kill off Betty, one that was made by his editor. In fact, after having written nearly 150 consecutive issues of the series, the one after Betty’s death was his last, and the writer doesn’t shy away from saying that his departure had to do with “creative differences.” The whole situation reminds me of the Spider-Man: One More Day controversy a few years ago, when J. Michael Straczynski was forced by Marvel editorial to write a story dissolving Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson. Like David, he had been writing the same title for quite a few years, and he was quick to leave it for good when the decision was forced on him. It just goes to show, I guess, that the more things seem to change over the years, the more they really do stay the same.

So while there are a few good stories in this trade, the fact is that Marvel’s agenda behind releasing it was a pretty disagreeable one; even if Betty’s death has since been undone in the actual comics, the fact remains that this trade is little more than a testament to an act of blatant disrespect for one of the company’s best and most popular writers. Instead of reading it, then, I would suggest simply picking up an early volume of the Hulk Visionaries: Peter David series. After reading several worthwhile stories from his run in this book, that’s certainly what I’ll be doing.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: X-Men: Road Trippin’!

Review X-Men Road Tripping Gary Frank Cam Smith Liquid! Scott Lobdell Chris Claremont John Francis Moore Larry Hama Mary Jo Duffy Chris Bachalo Marc Silvestri Rob Liefeld Bryan Hitch Adam Pollina Adam Kubert John Byrne Ken Landgraf Uncanny X-Men Generation X X-Force Wolverine Marvel Treasury Jubilee Jubilation Lee Boom-Boom Tabitha Smith Synch Everett Thomas Storm Ororo Munroe Dani Moonstar red convertible car Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Scott Lobdell, Chris Claremont, John Francis Moore, Larry Hama, Mary Jo Duffy
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Bryan Hitch, Adam Pollina, Adam Kubert, John Byrne, Ken Landgraf
Collects: Generation X #5, X-Force #71 & 75, Wolverine #78, Marvel Treasury #26, Uncanny X-Men #138, 244-245 & 323 (1980-1998)
Published: Marvel, 1999; $24.95

Published in 1999, X-Men: Road Trippin’! was one of Marvel’s earliest efforts in what would eventually become a fairly comprehensive collected editions program. Like a number of Marvel’s other “greatest hits”-style trades from around this time, though, it suffers from a complete and utter lack of focus. The only thing supposedly linking the issues collected in this trade is that they all involve X-Men characters “hitting the road,” taking some time off, that sort of thing. I say “supposedly” because that’s only the case for a couple of these stories – really, this trade is just a cobbling-together of random issues that span the range of Marvel history from Chris Claremont’s celebrated run in the 1970s to the time of this book’s publication in the late 1990s. Furthermore, only half of the issues are actually about the X-Men; the others feature either Wolverine going solo or ancillary X-teams like Generation X and X-Force.

The first issue collected is Generation X #4, the first issue of the series to be published after the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover that swept through the X-titles in 1996. It’s not necessarily a bad story, but nothing of much consequence happens: Jubilee, Skin, and Synch head to New York City, fight some random mutant, and then the issue ends on a cliffhanger. (Oh, and Chamber broods in his room while Husk gets drunk by herself at the X-Mansion, for some reason.) It’s clear that this issue was only included because someone at Marvel thought the NYC aspect made the story fit the “road trip” bill, but seeing as the characters barely interact with the city itself (not to mention the fact that Generation X is already based in New York to begin with), the connection is a tenuous one at best. No context is given for the story either, making it all the more frustrating. In fact, even though I recently read the first three issues of the series in Generation X Classic, Vol. 1, I still felt sort of lost here.

The Generation X story is followed by two late-‘80s issues of Uncanny X-Men, both written by Chris Claremont but drawn by different artists. The first one, penciled by Marc Silvestri, focuses solely on the team’s female members – Storm, Psylocke, Dazzler, and Rogue (well, Ms. Marvel possessing Rogue’s body, technically…but that’s a long story). The ladies decide, on Dazzler’s suggestion, to relieve some stress by hitting up the mall. Again, I’m not exactly sure how going to the mall qualifies as a “road trip,” but that’s the least of this story’s problems. The women transform into materialistic airheads the second they arrive, and Dazzler in particular is almost unbearably annoying at times. They also run into Jubilee (in her first appearance) and fight the M Squad, a group of bumbling mutant-hunters who serve as a thinly-veiled Ghostbusters parody. Their “hijinks,” unfortunately, aren’t all that amusing; although perhaps I was too distracted by the fact that Dazzler, who in every other appearance she has ever made has been Caucasian, appears to be African-American throughout this story.

The second issue of Uncanny X-Men seems to aim for humor as well, but again, Claremont’s writing simply falls flat. The story revolves around a group of moronic aliens who try to take over the world but are put to a stop by the male members of the X-Men, who are all drunk after going to a bar. Rob Liefeld handles the art, and while it’s not as bad as some of his later work, there are some truly cringe-worthy moments as he tries to sneak characters like Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and Alf into the alien invaders’ ranks. A Wolverine/Chewbacca throw-down would actually have been pretty cool, now that I think of it, but alas, all we have is this lame waste of paper instead. (I would be remiss not to point out that this issue also shamelessly sets up Wolverine/Havok: Meltdown, a 1988 miniseries which is a far better story if you’re looking to read a comic featuring those characters.)

The next story, taken from a 1995 issue of Uncanny X-Men, has little to do with the trade’s supposed theme either. As far as I can tell, it was included because it contains five pages of Iceman and Rogue talking as they drive cross-country (where they’re going is never fully explained). The rest of the issue isn’t bad, and the art by Bryan Hitch is fairly impressive, but taken out of context from what was going on in Uncanny X-Men at the time, the story has little real impact.

Next come two issues of X-Force (issues 71 and 75), and to be honest, these were the stories I was least looking forward to reading. I’ve never read much of New Mutants (the series that became X-Force in the early ‘90s) or of X-Force itself, so naturally I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Much to my surprise, though, these issues ended up blowing me away. They are by far the best thing about this trade, and might even be reason enough alone to pick it up. The first issue follows the team as they hitchhike across the country in the wake of having left the X-Mansion for good. By the second issue, they’ve made their way to a Woodstock-esque desert festival, which ends up giving way to unexpected romantic developments and a fight with a mysterious enemy. The character development in these issues is so fantastic that, despite my previous unfamiliarity with the series, I felt entirely invested in what was happening to the cast by the end. If Marvel ever sees fit to collect this creative run again (call the series X-Force Visionaries: John Francis Moore, perhaps?), I’ll be first in line to pick up the trades.

The X-Force issues are arguably the most in keeping with the “road trip” theme, but the final two issues – one a 1994 Wolverine story, the other an issue of Uncanny X-Men from 1980 – really don’t fit at all. The Wolverine issue sees the title character being chased by the vampire known as Bloodscream across the snowy wastes of Canada, while the X-Men issue is simply one long flashback retelling of the team’s history up to that point, ending with Cyclops informing Professor X that he’s leaving. In other words, there’s no “road trip” to be found anywhere in these stories at all! And then, of course, there’s a ridiculous six-page story about Wolverine and Hercules fighting each other in a barroom brawl…but honestly, it’s probably best if I don’t go into any more details on that one.

Although most of the stories don’t fit with the theme of the trade, the X-Force issues are so good that it’s hard to write the entire thing off. That being said, you might be better off just buying those issues separately – they can’t be more than a dollar apiece these days. Heck, you could probably buy John Francis Moore’s entire run on the title for less than the cost of this trade. Come to think of it, why not just do that, and leave X-Men: Road Trippin’! in the discount bin where it belongs?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: X-Men: The Origin of Generation X

Review X-Men The Origin of Generation X Uncanny X-Men X-Factor X-Force Excalibur Wolverine Cable Scott Lobdell Chris Bachalo Fabian Nicieza Todd DeZago Larry Hama Joe Madureira Andy Kubert Jan Duursema Roger Cruz Tony Daniel Ken Lashley Steve Epting Adam Kubert Steve Skroce M Monet St. Croix Banshee Synch Jubilee Penance Skin Husk Chamber White Queen Emma Frost Tales of the Phalanx Covenant Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Todd DeZago, Larry Hama
Artists: Joe Madureira, Andy Kubert, Jan Duursema, Roger Cruz, Tony Daniel, Ken Lashley, Steve Epting, Adam Kubert, Steve Skroce, Chris Bachalo
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #316-317, X-Men #36-37, X-Factor #106, X-Force #38, Excalibur #82, Wolverine #85, Cable #16, Generation X #1 (1994)
Published: Marvel, 2001; $24.95

As I mentioned in my review of Generation X Classic, Vol. 1, “The Phalanx Covenant” was a mid-’90s X-Men crossover consisting of three smaller parts. The first, and the most important in terms of overall Marvel continuity, was “Generation Next,” which followed Banshee and Emma Frost in their attempt to free the future members of Generation X from the clutches of the techno-organic alien race known as the Phalanx.

This story was recently collected in the first volume of Generation X Classic, but left out were the other two parts of the crossover. The entire crossover (along with the first issue of Generation X) has only ever been collected once, in the trade paperback X-Men: The Origin of Generation X. The book is subtitled “Tales of the Phalanx Covenant,” and to be honest that’s probably what the trade should have been officially called, since half of it has absolutely nothing to do with Generation X at all. Inaccurate branding aside, though, it’s a pretty good crossover for the most part, and the trade is worth seeking out if you’re interested in getting the entire story.

“Generation Next” is certainly the best of the three parts (and I’ll avoid talking too much about it here, since I discussed it at length in my last review), but “Life Signs,” featuring X-Factor, X-Force, and Excalibur, is a solid read as well. Considering there are three mutant teams involved, the writers do a pretty good job of giving each character a purpose and at least a little bit of face time. For the most part, though, the story focuses on Cannonball, Wolfsbane, Forge, and the mysterious Douglock as they take the fight to the Phalanx’s home base.

Douglock is a particularly interesting character – having first appeared just a few months earlier (in the pages of Excalibur), he’s a sort of combined reincarnation of Doug Ramsey and Warlock, two X-Men characters who had been killed off some years earlier. Through him we learn a great deal about the nature of the Phalanx: as it turns out, they were artificially engineered from DNA harvested from Warlock’s ashes after he died. Techno-organic in nature himself, Douglock imbues the Phalanx with a level of humanity not seen in the other parts of the crossover.

“Final Sanction,” the third and final part of “The Phalanx Covenant,” is far less subtle and much more action-oriented than the others. In fact, “dumb” might not be an inaccurate way to describe it. Reading it, I felt like I was watching a Michael Bay movie; there’s simply so much going on in each panel that I was left constantly wondering about what exactly I was looking at. I usually enjoy Adam Kubert’s artwork, but here I just felt as though he was trying to do too much in too little space.

The story in “Final Sanction” is the most straightforward of any part of the crossover. It mostly revolves around Wolverine, Cable, Cyclops, and Jean Grey blowing things up because, for some reason I never happened to catch, doing so is integral to saving the rest of the X-Men (who have been captured by the Phalanx). None of it makes much sense, and although it’s only two issues long it definitely begins to drag towards the end. However, I must admit to being intrigued by the intense hostility between Wolverine and Cable in these issues, which is something I don’t remember ever seeing in more recent comics featuring the two characters. The origins of their feud aren’t explained here, but I would be interested to read more about it at some point.

The trade ends with the first issue of Generation X which, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite comic book series of the 1990s; it’s definitely worth reading in some format, whether it’s in this book or in Generation X Classic. Which trade is “better” is really just a matter of preference: are you more interested in the characters from Generation X, or in reading “The Phalanx Covenant” in its entirety? If it’s the former, then you’re better off with Generation X Classic – which, on top of including an additional issue of Uncanny X-Men, also has better paper quality and better presentation overall.

The Origin of Generation X, on the other hand, in the style of most Marvel trades from the early 2000s, uses an inferior dot-based coloring method and relegates issue covers to the back of the book. Since it’s the only trade to ever collect “Life Signs,” though, it’s not a bad purchase if you can find it at a good discount. It’s entirely possible that Marvel will eventually release a new collection of “The Phalanx Covenant,” perhaps in a nice oversized hardcover (as it has for other early-‘90s crossovers like X-Tinction Agenda and X-Cutioner’s Song), but for now, The Origin of Generation X is a suitable enough way to read it. It’s just not, as the title might have you believe, the best way of reading up on Generation X.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review: Generation X Classic, Vol. 1

Review Generation X Classic Volume One Scott Lobdell Chris Bachalo Penance Jubilee Skin Synch Chamber Banshee White Queen Emma Frost M Monet St. Croix Cover Marvel trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza
Artists: Joe Madureira, Andy Kubert, Roger Cruz, Chris Bachalo
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #316-318, X-Men #36-37, Generation X #1-4, Generation X Ashcan Edition (1994-95)
Published: Marvel, 2010; $24.99

“The Phalanx Covenant” was the first modern comic book story I ever owned in its entirety. I still remember, at some point in the late ’90s, randomly stumbling across the issues (along with some of the earliest issues of the Clone Saga) buried amidst a stack of other books in the back corner of a KB Toys. The store gave them to me at some insane discount since the comics didn’t have a price tag, and I was instantly hooked. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the crossover was my gateway drug into superhero comics – not long after reading it, I went to the local comic store and started my first monthly pull list.

For that reason, as you can probably imagine, “The Phalanx Covenant” holds a special place in my heart. So does Generation X, the series that spun out of the crossover (which, not coincidentally, was also the first series I ever actively sought out in back issue form). So when Marvel announced the first volume of a Generation X Classic trade series, I was a lot more excited than I imagine the news really warranted. Still, I was a bit apprehensive about revisiting these stories – we can all come up things we enjoyed when we were younger that don’t exactly withstand the test of time (The Goonies, I’m looking at you!), and I didn’t want this to be another one.

For the most part, though, my fears were unwarranted. The issues of “The Phalanx Covenant” collected here actually hold up really well, and while they’re not perfect, they’re worlds better than most early to mid-’90s X-Men comics. For those unfamiliar with the story, it was unlike most other line-wide X-Men crossovers at the time in that it didn’t require you to read every single tie-in issue – in fact, “The Phalanx Covenant” was really a grouping of three separate but interrelated mini-crossovers, all of which address different (but related) events that happen to take place at the same time.

Review Generation X Classic Vol. 1 Uncanny X-Men #316 Phalanx Covenant Scott Lobdell Joe Madureira Banshee Sean Cassidy Rogue Sabretooth Marvel trade paperback tpb comic book issue
Just one of these three mini-crossovers, “Generation Next,” is collected in Generation X Classic, Vol. 1, which I think is actually a pretty smart decision on Marvel’s part, since it’s the only part of “The Phalanx Covenant” that really has any relevance to the beginning of Generation X. (All three parts do appear in the out-of-print trade X-Men: The Origin of Generation X, which I’ll be looking at in much more detail soon.) The four-part story, taking place across two issues each of X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, features the sonic-screaming Irish mutant Banshee and former X-villain Emma Frost in their attempt to track down a group of kidnapped teenage mutants. They’re also joined by Jubilee and Sabretooth – the latter of which, perhaps because he isn’t one of the story’s main focuses, actually doesn’t annoy me here.

The young mutants’ captors are the Phalanx, a group of techno-organic beings that share a collective consciousness and a hatred for all purely organic forms of life, especially mutants. Their motivation in this part of “The Phalanx Covenant” is to experiment on young mutants in order to determine why the Phalanx are unable to absorb people with mutant DNA into their hive-mind, the way they can with normal humans. Artists Joe Madureira and Andy Kubert draw a number of great fight sequences, but the story isn’t wall-to-wall action and that’s what I really like about it. Since the majority of the X-Men are out of the picture (they’ve also been kidnapped by the Phalanx, but their rescue is detailed in a different “Phalanx Covenant” mini-crossover), there’s plenty of time to be spent developing Banshee, Emma, and all of the newly introduced young mutants. The story ends on a heart-breaking but hopeful note, setting the stage for the new mutants to form the team Generation X, with Banshee and Emma serving as their mentors.

Immediately after “Generation Next,” we get a never-before-collected issue of Uncanny X-Men that serves as a bridge from “The Phalanx Covenant” to the first issue of Generation X. It’s the kind of rare “quiet” issue that I tend to enjoy quite a bit in team books, with characters just talking to one another and trying to come to emotional grips with recent events in their lives. In this case, the story focuses mostly on Jubilee as she prepares to leave the X-Men behind to join up with Generation X. Although it probably would have been more moving had Wolverine been present, given his role as a mentor to Jubilee over the years, the issue is still a fitting coda to her time with the team and a welcome inclusion in this trade.

Review Generation X Classic Vol. 1 Scott Lobdell Chris Bachalo M Monet St. Croix White Queen Emma Frost Banshee Skin Chamber Jubilee Synch Marvel trade paperback tpb comic book
Next, we finally enter into the Generation X series proper. By this point, we’ve already been introduced to the main cast of characters: Husk, a Southern girl with the power to shed her skin; Synch, who has the ability to emulate the powers of those around him; M, a super-strong girl with a big brain and an even bigger ego; Skin, an angry Mexican-American with a shady past who can, fittingly, stretch his skin (sort of like a less versatile Mr. Fantastic); and Jubilee, the former mall rat who can emit biokinetic fireworks.

Over the course of the first few issues, the team is also rounded out with Chamber, a moody British telepath who has been horribly disfigured by his near-uncontrollable energy powers, and Penance, a mute girl with razor-sharp red skin. (Mondo, another young mutant who joins Generation X fairly early on, appears only fleetingly in this volume.) The team even gains an archnemesis right off the bat in the form of Emplate, a genuinely menacing villain with a penchant for draining the life from young mutants, and who seems to have a mysterious connection to several of the main characters.

Before the first issue is even halfway through, the essence of each character’s personality has already been incredibly well defined. In fact, I doubt it’s possible to make it through the first half of this book without having already chosen a new favorite character or two. For me, it wasn’t actually one of the kids on the team (though I like them well enough), but Banshee, who takes up the role of headmaster at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Lobdell has a great handle on the many different aspects of the character, portraying him on the one hand as a sort of father figure to Generation X, and on the other as a man unsure of his abilities as a mentor and role model.

Review Generation X Classic Vol. 1 Scott Lobdell Chris Bachalo Jubilee and Husk Jubilation Lee Paige Guthrie splash page Marvel trade paperback tpb comic book
In terms of production value, Generation X Classic is by far the nicest presentation I’ve ever seen for this material. The paper stock is less glossy than the old Origin of Generation X trade, and as a result the colors are softer, warmer, and more true to the look of the original issues. Marvel seems almost to have tailored the book to emphasize how truly amazing Chris Bachalo’s artwork is in Generation X; whereas the “Phalanx Covenant” art is certainly better than average for its time, Bachalo’s attention to facial details (I can’t remember a time, before or since, when Jubilee has appeared so emotive) and his innovative panel layouts clearly place him several years ahead of that time.

There are some great extra features at the end of the book too, including the Generation X Ashcan Edition, a preview comic for the series featuring character sketches and black-and-white pencils for a number of scenes from the first issue. Also included are a series of character timelines that were published as fold-out mini-posters in the original “Phalanx Covenant” issues, and while they’re not reprinted at full size, it’s still great to see them here.

Overall, Generation X is both one of the best comics that Marvel published in the 1990s and a great addition to Marvel’s “Classic” line. This volume ends at the perfect point, since the series was taken over by the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover for several months after the fourth issue. With any luck, Marvel will publish a second volume collecting more of the main series from the fifth issue onwards – heck, I’ll probably be the first in line to buy it if they do!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Blade: Black & White

Review Blade Black and White B&W Blade the Vampire-Slayer Vampire Tales Gene Colan Marv Wolfman Chris Claremont Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, James Felder, Christopher Golden
Artists: Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Gene Colan, Ladronn
Collects: Vampire Tales #8-9, Marvel Preview #3 & 6, Marvel: Shadows & Light #1, and Blade: Crescent City Blues #1 (1974-76, 1997, 1998)
Published: Marvel, 2004; $15.99

For fans of the Blade movies or the character’s other recent depictions in various animated series, video games, and even a short-lived live-action TV show, Blade: Black & White is likely to be a bit baffling. Collecting a rather strange hodgepodge of issues from throughout the decades, this book sticks with stories that portray a more “classic” version of the character than most people are probably used to seeing these days. Unlike the movie and TV versions, the original version of Blade was an afro-sporting, goggle-wearing, occasionally jive-talking black British vampire hunter. In other words, Wesley Snipes in a trench coat and sunglasses this character is not.

And while I’m sure I could appreciate such a “far out” character under the right circumstances (in fact, I do enjoy Blade’s 1970s appearances in Tomb of Dracula), the stories in this volume just didn’t really do it for me. One of the biggest problems, in my opinion, is that the writers don’t play up Blade’s inherent wackiness nearly as much as they should. Especially in the first few issues (a multi-part story that takes up the first half of the book), written at first by Marv Wolfman but then taken over by Chris Claremont, the mood is simply too gloomy for its own good. Blade’s first solo outing after a handful of guest appearances in Tomb of Dracula (a title which Wolfman was also writing at the time), the tale follows Blade’s adventures in London as a coven of vampires attempt to take over the city.

Here we see Blade’s origin recounted for the first time, albeit so confusingly that I didn’t even realize (until I had done some research) that this story wasn’t simply recapping some other comic that I hadn’t read. The story drags on for much too long, pulling in a variety of useless characters, including Blade’s exotic dancer girlfriend Safron and a barely-clothed female cop, who serve as little more than vampire food and/or hostages for Blade to rescue. It’s unbearably formulaic at times, with each fight between Blade and the vampires playing out in almost exactly the same way. Even the vampires apparently realize this partway through the story and, deciding that it would be too much trouble to keep trying to kill Blade, they settle on framing him for a child murder instead. (At least it’s original, anyway.)

The worst part, though, is that the reproduction for this first storyline is simply awful. As the title makes clear, this trade is a collection of black and white comics, and in this case the stories come from several issues of Marvel’s ongoing B&W horror magazine Vampire Tales. (A big chunk of the story also comes from an issue of Marvel Preview; I suspect these chapters were shunted out of Vampire Tales when someone at editorial realized how extraordinarily dull they were.) The standard practice for black and white collections like this one is for the company to reproduce the art from the original pencils and/or inks, but here it looks like Marvel has decided that poorly xeroxed copies of the original magazine pages will do instead. The linework is so washed out in places, in fact, that the action becomes utterly incomprehensible.

The second half of Blade: Black & White fares a bit better than the first. Immediately following the Wolfman/Claremont issues is a Wolfman-written issue of Marvel Preview with absolutely beautiful art by Gene Colan, who has been called the master of depicting shadow and light in comics, and not without good reason. Freed from Claremont’s penchant for overwriting and melodrama, Wolfman delivers a pretty interesting story here in which Blade comes face to face with a group of child vampires; sadly, the story is only six pages long.

The next story, a 12-page inventory piece published in the 1997 one-shot Marvels: Shadows & Light, is another success. James Felder’s plot follows Blade as he teams up with a local priest to infiltrate Dracula’s castle to finish off his archfoe once and for all. Although Ladronn’s style is much more akin to the likes of Mike Allred than Gene Colan, he manages to pull off an incredibly atmospheric feeling nonetheless. The setting is regal and spooky at the same time, and reminded me in a lot of ways of Castlevania (which just so happens to be my favorite video game series!). Strangely enough, the story ends on a horrifying cliffhanger, one that I don’t believe has ever been addressed since.

Colan returns on art duties for the trade’s final issue, a 1998 one-shot entitled Blade: Crescent City Blues which finds Blade and his old friend Hannibal King pitted against their old enemy Deacon Frost. The vampire directly responsible for the death of Blade’s mother, Frost is now leading his undead legions in an attempt to take over organized crime in New Orleans. (I can’t remember exactly what the rationale behind his plot was, but whatever it was, it didn’t strike me as particularly compelling.) Colan’s artwork, while not bad by any means, unfortunately isn’t as well-done as his earlier story; that, plus the fact that the story requires a bit of outside knowledge regarding some of Marvel’s lesser-known supernatural characters (including King, Frost and Doctor Voodoo), placed this one in the slightly-below-average category for me.

So, in the end, there were only 16 pages of Blade: Black & White (out of 144) that I legitimately enjoyed. But although I can’t recommend it at full price, it may be worth noting that I frequently see the book listed online for about the same price as a standard comic book issue. If you do come across it for that price, it’s probably worth considering – after all, if you end up liking Crescent City Blues more than I did (and really, I didn’t think it was too bad), that’s another 40 pages of potential enjoyment. If melodramatic Marvel vampire comics don’t sound like your bag, though, I’d have to say skip it.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Sabretooth: Back to Nature

Review Sabretooth Back to Nature Jorge Gonzalez Frank Teran Victor Creed Wild Child X-Factor Marvel Cover original graphic novel ogn one-shot trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Jorge Gonzalez
Artist: Frank Teran
Published: Marvel, 1998; $5.99

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’m not the biggest fan of villains who are psychopathic killers, or ones who are just straight-up evil. I’m much more interested in the complexities of a character like Magneto, who sincerely believes that he’s doing the right thing even when people are dying as the result of his actions. Characters like these give us the opportunity to reassess the heroes – to ask what reasons the “good guys” have for fighting, and thus to either affirm their actions as truly “heroic” or to recognize them as being more flawed than perhaps we initially thought.

Not so for a character like Sabretooth. Here is an individual who relishes in murder and depravity, for no other reason than that some people seem to think that makes him a good foil for Wolverine. And while I suppose he does occasionally work on that level – that is, as an external manifestation of the “man vs. beast” conflict constantly being played out in Wolverine’s mind – as his own character, Sabretooth is one-note and, quite frankly, boring. (One exception is Frank Tieri’s depiction of Sabretooth in the short-lived ongoing Weapon X series, in which the character takes a supporting role and is depicted as being slightly dynamic. Not coincidentally, this is one of the few comics where I find Sabretooth tolerable for more than a few pages.)

I’m the kind of person who’s always open to reevaluating these kinds of things, though, and I thought an original graphic novel starring Sabretooth might be just the thing to change my mind. However, Sabretooth: Back to Nature is every bit as dull as I’ve made the character out to be in the preceding paragraph. In the end, the book is really just a vehicle for a plot point that will later play itself out in X-Factor (more on that later). It’s a story that should have been told in a normal comic book – like X-Factor itself, for example – rather than thrown between two cardstock covers and slapped with a higher price tag.

Anyhow, the book begins with Sabretooth attempting to escape from a restraining collar designed to control his homicidal impulses. The collar is the handiwork of X-Factor, which at this point was basically a government-sponsored branch of the X-Men. At this point in Marvel history, Sabretooth was essentially the team’s captive, and he was regularly brought on missions with them. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the X-Men had attempted such a plan to “reform” Sabretooth, and it wouldn’t be the last either. Needless to say, it has yet to work out.

Review Sabretooth Back to Nature Jorge Gonzalez Frank Teran Victor Creed Wild Child X-Factor Marvel original graphic novel ogn one-shot trade paperback tpb comic bookUnable to break free of the collar, Sabretooth resigns himself to tagging along with X-Factor member Wild Child on the latter’s quest to find the serial killer who murdered his ex-girlfriend. This might have been a more engaging set-up if Wild Child had at any point ever been an even slightly compelling character, but alas. This leads to the first of many instances in which Sabretooth possesses far more knowledge than he possibly could given the immediate situation. The killer, we learn, likes to chop his victims up into little bits, and from just this one shred of information, Sabretooth intuits that the killer is none other than his old (previously unheard of) foe, the moronically named “Chop Chop.” I’m fairly certain that more than one serial killer in human history has used a similar modus operandi, so how Sabretooth is so confident is a mystery. So is the full psychological workup of Chop Chop that Sabretooth rattles off on the following page, sounding more like a psychologist than the homicidal nutjob he is.

The story from here on out is almost too predictable to even go into details: the characters go after the killer, they all fight, and (shockingly) Sabretooth kills Chop Chop and his brother Yuri. There’s a subplot involving Wild Child’s inner struggle over whether it’s acceptable to kill people, but it’s rendered fairly impotent by the fact that the bad guys in this story are hardly portrayed as human beings at all. As I said, though, the main point of the story is to plant a seed that will later play itself out in X-Factor, and that happens when Sabretooth figures out a way to overcome his restraining collar in order to kill the bad guys.

So how does he do it? He steals some painkillers from Chop Chop and Yuri, then downs a few fistfuls of them so he can’t feel the electric shocks administered by the collar. Now, let’s think about this for a moment. According to writer Jorge Gonzalez, X-Factor has equipped Sabretooth with a collar that inhibits both his mutant powers and his killing instinct…but not the effects of painkillers? Seriously? Somehow, I think he could have come up with a better explanation for returning Sabretooth to his mass-murdering status quo.

I was going to describe how bad the art is in Back to Nature as well, but I think at this point I’ve already made my case against the book (rest assured, though, the art is pretty awful). Instead, I’ll just say that even though I was able to get this book for a mere fraction of its already low cover price, it wasn’t even slightly worth it. You may appreciate it a bit more if, unlike me, you actually enjoy reading about Sabretooth as a solo character – but, to be perfectly honest, I really doubt it.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Anniversary, True Believers!

Marvel Trade Paperback Timeline TPB Marvel Comics #1 Issue One Martin Goodman Frank Paul Carl Burgos Human Torch Jim Hammond Phineas Horton Cover October 1939 comic bookI can hardly believe that it’s already been a year since I started this blog! If the timestamps are to be believed, though, it was indeed one year ago today that I posted my first review, in which I spotlighted one of my favorite collected editions, The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus, Vol. 1. Since then I’ve written and posted an additional 40 reviews, begun an annotated timeline of Marvel’s collected editions (more on that in a minute!), and made some great friends in the online comic book community. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to this blog in some way over the last year, whether you’ve read a review, left a comment, or browsed the timeline. I never imagined that I would accomplish so much at With Great Power in only a year, and I owe it to you guys.

But enough with the sappy stuff. It wouldn’t be an anniversary if we didn’t celebrate somehow, right? So in honor of the occasion, I’ve made the biggest update to the Marvel TPB Timeline ever. The timeline now begins with the first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939 and goes all the way up to the start of the Secret Invasion crossover in 2008. I’ve done my best to make the information provided on big storylines like House of M and Civil War as understandable as possible, so I hope you enjoy those sections. (On the other hand, if you think I could do better, feel free to let me know – I’m always looking for new ways to improve the timeline!)

I didn’t ignore the period of time (1970-2005) that had already been covered, though. It’s been overhauled with new and more accurate annotations for many books, information on a variety of out-of-print collected editions (including the original Onslaught and Kurt Busiek Avengers trades), and books from Marvel’s most recent batch of solicitations. In other words, pretty much everything published in Marvel’s first 70 years is on the timeline! Of course, that doesn’t mean my work is even close to being done – the next step is to get the timeline totally caught up to the present day, and beyond that, I have a few other cool ideas. They’re a little too far off to talk about in much detail yet, but I’m pretty sure you’ll like ’em!

So that’s what you can expect in the immediate future in regards to the timeline, and it’s exciting stuff, to be sure. What about reviews, though? As you’ve probably noticed, those have been a bit less frequent in recent months than they used to be. The simple reason for that is that I’ve been so busy lately that it’s been hard to find the time to read, much less review, very many comics. For the next month, at least, the reviews will probably continue at a rate of about one every other week, although I may occasionally be able to post a review on off-weeks. In May, though, I hope to really get back into the reviewing groove and to make up for lost time with extra reviews on top of the planned weekly ones. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be doing a creator-focused month during the summer, which I think will be a lot of fun. Who will the creator (or creators) be, you ask? That’s still a secret… although I can tell you that the books have already been picked out!

That’s about it for now. Thanks again for stopping by, and as always, if you have comments, questions, or feedback of any kind, you can either leave a comment here, email me at marveltimeline@gmail.com, or follow me on Twitter (@Dief88)!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some Thoughts on Collecting Venom

Venom #1 Issue One Ongoing Series Rick Remender Tony Moore Marvel Cover comic book issueWhile I haven’t been an avid buyer of individual comic issues for a few years now (other than Amazing Spider-Man, which I still follow religiously), today I decided to pick up the first issue of Marvel’s new Venom series, written by Rick Remender and penciled by Tony Moore. It’s a pretty decent comic, as it turns out, although I don’t know that I’ll continue to buy it in single issue form. But this post won’t be too concerned with the actual content of that comic – instead, I’d like to talk about something interesting I noticed on the letters page, which for this first issue is simply a column written by the book’s editor, Stephen Wacker.

He begins by discussing a bit of Venom’s publishing history, emphasizing that Venom #1 is the 90th issue to star everyone’s favorite brain-munching alien symbiote. (In other words, you can expect the book to change its numbering for a “100th issue extravaganza” in just under a year!) Then – and this is what I find most interesting – he recommends several collected editions for readers who would like to learn more about the character:

Amazing Spider-Man Letters Page Steve Wacker Venom Collected Editions Spider-Man vs. Venom Spider-Man Birth of Venom Spider-Man Venom Returns Venom Lethal Protector Venom Dark Origin Venom vs. Carnage Venome/Carnage Unleashed trade paperbacks tpbs comic book
What’s so interesting about this, you might ask? Well, of the seven trades Wacker recommends, four of them are actually out of print – and I don’t mean recently out of print, but for more than ten years in some cases! Let’s take a look at each of the trades in Wacker’s list, starting with the first one; throughout, I’ll discuss some of the list’s problems and end with a few suggestions on how Marvel might address them.

Spider-Man vs. Venom All the David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane Venom stories collected in one volume Cover Marvel trade paperback tpb comic bookSpider-Man vs. Venom was an extremely popular trade in the nineties. Originally published in 1990 and collecting a handful of issues written by David Michelinie and penciled by Todd McFarlane, it went through at least six printings and was even named one of Wizard Magazine’s top 100 trade paperbacks in 2006. It was out of print by the early 2000s, though, and in 2007, Marvel collected the full contents of Spider-Man vs. Venom (along with the contents of the out-of-print trade Spider-Man: The Saga of the Alien Costume) in Spider-Man: Birth of Venom, a trade which is still in print today. Although Birth of Venom is a little expensive, I would still recommend it – although that’s mostly for the Saga of the Alien Costume issues, which come from one of my favorite eras in Spider-Man history. But since Spider-Man vs. Venom is included in full in Birth of Venom, Wacker is essentially repeating himself by listing both.

Spider-Man: Venom Returns collects the next two storylines to feature Venom, written again by Michelinie and penciled this time by Erik Larsen. Published in 1993, this trade is also out of print, but unlike Spider-Man vs. Venom, its contents have never been re-collected. Priced originally at $11.95, a new copy of this trade will run you over $30 today, if not even more; one Amazon seller is currently charging $115. That makes Venom Returns pretty much the opposite of “accessible” for people interested in reading up on Venom’s history.

Venom: Lethal Protector #1 Issue One David Michelinie Mark Bagley Spider-Man miniseries Marvel Cover comic bookVenom: Lethal Protector collects the 1994 miniseries of the same name, written by Michelinie with art by Mark Bagley and Ron Lim. This trade is out of print too, and even less affordable than Venom Returns. I had to do a double-take when I saw it mentioned, to be honest, because this trade is known for being notoriously difficult to find at a reasonable price, even used. Amazon has used copies ranging from $25 to over $150, and one new copy for sale at $85. Why such high prices? I imagine it’s because the trade had a fairly low print run (collected editions weren’t always as popular as they are today, remember), plus it collects what is undoubtedly the best Venom miniseries from the nineties. It’s worth reading if you can get your hands on it affordably, but it’s definitely not worth the exorbitant price that many sellers are currently charging.

The next two trades that Wacker mentions, Venom vs. Carnage and Venom: Dark Origin, are collections of fairly recent miniseries and are still in print. I wouldn’t expect Venom vs. Carnage to be easily available for much longer, though, being the older of the two and having been released at a fairly low price point. I could very easily see Marvel re-releasing it as a Marvel Premiere hardcover for twice the trade’s price in a year or two.

Venom: Carnage Unleashed #3 Issue Three Eddie Brock Symbiote Larry Hama Andrew Wildman Art Nichols Venom vs. Carnage versus miniseries Marvel Cover comic bookThis brings us to the final trade on Wacker’s list, Venom: Carnage Unleashed (which Wacker mis-identifies as “Venom/Carnage: Unleashed”). Written by Larry Hama and penciled by Andrew Wildman and Art Nichols, this is one of the better Venom miniseries to come out of the nineties, but it’s still a bit on the mediocre side. It’s also the second-most difficult trade on the list to find, behind Lethal Protector. The lowest price currently listed on Amazon for a used copy is just under $20, with other used copies at closer to $100; the only new copy listed is priced at $60.

As we can see, then, Wacker’s list of Venom trade recommendations is pretty problematic, not because of the quality of the books themselves, but because most of them haven’t been available at a reasonable price for years. That isn’t Wacker’s fault, though, and I certainly don’t mean to seem like I’m attacking him. The fact that this is the best list he could come up with actually speaks more to a failure on the part of Marvel’s collected editions department than anything else. You would think, with a brand-new series coming out starring a character as popular as Venom, that Marvel might take a bit more initiative in making sure that more than two or three trades starring that character were readily available.

Amazing Spider-Man Issue 300 Spider-Man Black Costume Symbiote Venom David Michelinie Todd McFarlane Marvel Cover comic bookI do have to give the trade department some credit, though. Just this month, Marvel released Venom by Daniel Way Ultimate Collection, which collects the entirety of Way’s eighteen-issue ongoing Venom series from the early 2000s. It was also announced last month that Marvel would publish an Omnibus edition collecting the entire Michelinie/McFarlane run on Amazing Spider-Man (during which Venom made his first appearance, in the issue pictured at right). Strangely, though, neither of these books appears on Wacker’s list; nor does Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage, an important Venom-related story which, unlike many of his recommendations, is actually in print.

With the exception of the Daniel Way trade, all of the books I just mentioned collect Spider-Man comics in which Venom happened to appear. But what about the 89 comic books starring Venom that Wacker talks about in his column? Much like what’s happened with the Clone Saga over the last few years, I think a good deal of nostalgia for these comics has built up lately and that there’s a viable market for reprints of these issues. I, for one, would certainly be interested in buying a series of Venom Classic trades collecting the character’s various series from the mid-nineties. After all, if Gambit, War Machine, and the Danny Ketch version of Ghost Rider are worthy of Marvel’s “Classic” line, why not Venom?

So what do you think? Has Marvel really done a poor job of collecting Venom over the years, or am I giving them the short shrift? And while we’re at it, what are your favorite Venom storylines, and which ones would you like to see collected (or re-collected)? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at marveltimeline@gmail.com with your thoughts!