Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hulk: Beauty and the Behemoth

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 “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

X-Men: Road Trippin’!

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

X-Men: The Origin of Generation X

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 is very logical, and although it’s only two issues long it definitely begins to drag towards the end. However, I do have to admit 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 would have you believe, the best way of reading up on Generation X.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5