Sunday, May 22, 2011

Generation X Classic, Vol. 1

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.

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.

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.

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

Blade: Black & White

Writers: 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, May 8, 2011

Wait, it’s been HOW long??

Apparently, time flies when you’re incredibly busy. I just realized that it’s been almost a month since I last posted, which means it’s more than high time for me to pop in with an update. First of all, I apologize for not having had the time to post more than one review last month. I should have a lot more time for reading and writing reviews very soon, though, so I hope to be back in form within a couple of weeks.

Second, as you may have already noticed, I’ve completely changed the look of the blog. I had felt for some time that the old layout was boring and pretty hopelessly dated, so it feels good to have finally done something to change it up. That said, feel free to let me know if you hate it, or if you think it’s taking too long to load. I’m not married to the background picture by any means – if it’s too large a file or it’s just too distracting, I can replace it with another one or even just with a solid color. What I’m most happy about is the change to what I think is a more easily readable font, which I think should come in especially handy for browsing the timeline.

That’s about it for now – I just wanted to check in and let you know that I’m still breathing, and I’m still very much devoted to this blog. See you back here soon!