Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1

Review Marvel Masterworks Daredevil Volume One Stan Lee Bill Everett Joe Orlando Wally Wood Yellow Costume Marvel Cover MMW trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Stan Lee
Artists: Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood
Collects: Daredevil #1-11 (1964-65)
Published: Marvel, 2003; $49.99 (HC), $24.99 (TPB)

A lot changed at Marvel Comics in the first half of the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade, the company was still mostly publishing science fiction, horror, war, and romance comics in the incredibly tame post-Comics Code vein. In 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted the Fantastic Four, and within three years, Lee and his various collaborators’ new creations were selling comics in numbers unseen for decades. Daredevil, who premiered in 1964, was among the last of Stan Lee’s major Silver Age co-creations. And yet, at many points in Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1 – which collects the character’s first eleven appearances – the series feels like it could just as well have been among the first.

Some aspects of the character’s early issues feel downright proto-Marvel. The first issue, in which teenager Matt Murdock’s other senses are enhanced after a chemical accident leaves him blind, reads like a 1950s Jack Kirby crime comic. Matt’s childhood may be the sedentary one of a boy committed to his studies (his father wants him to “become a lawyer, or a doctor” – anything other than a prizefighter, like him), but the outside world we glimpse every so often is one populated by boy gangs, petty thugs, and organized crime – the same trappings that adorned so many of Kirby’s comics throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

How strange it is, then, that Kirby’s name appears not once in this collection; oddly, Daredevil was one of the few early Marvel characters he was never associated with. (A caveat: Mark Evanier has recently asserted that Kirby designed Daredevil’s original costume, but this remains unverified.) Instead, the artists here include Bill Everett, whose work had been appearing in Marvel publications since the company’s first comic book in 1939, and former EC artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood – two comics veterans with styles uniquely their own. This is pretty remarkable for a Marvel comic published in 1964, since by this point the majority of the company’s output was drawn either by Kirby or, as in the cases of Sol Brodsky and the early Gil Kane, by a close imitator of Kirby’s style. (The major exception, of course, was Steve Ditko, but he rarely strayed from the pages of Dr. Strange and Amazing Spider-Man in these days.) The result is a comic that often looks as though it could have been published in the 1950s.

Art aside, the plots themselves often hearken to the conventions of the previous decade’s most popular genres. While other Marvel series of the mid- ’60s pitted their heroes against alien invaders, roguish demigods, and planet-devouring cosmic entities, Daredevil’s nemeses were run-of-the-mill thugs who, when struck by what little ingenuity they possessed, donned garish costumes to commit largely bloodless crimes. There is one notable exception in this volume: Daredevil #7, illustrated by Wood and often considered amongst the best of Lee’s writing. (It was even included in the anthology Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, a book I reviewed some years ago.) This issue implements what would become the signature plot formula of Silver Age Marvel comics – the superhero crossover battle – but here the guest-star, Namor the Sub-Mariner, is such an outlandish inclusion, and the story ends in such definitive stalemate (Lee was adamant that no character should ever achieve complete victory over another in these battles), that it stands as one of the formula’s great exemplars.

While Daredevil’s earliest issues may feel a bit anachronistic when compared to the likes of mid-’60s Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, the series is no less interesting for it. If anything, its reiteration of some of the previous decade’s most popular themes and iconography – the latter enhanced, no doubt, by the presence of ’50s mainstays like Everett, Wood, and Orlando – may actually complicate our understanding of comics’ Silver Age: for as much as the work of contemporary writers may evince nostalgia for this period, Daredevil is concrete proof that the 1960s were an age just as invested in the history of the medium.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Fantastic Four: Season One

Fantastic Four Season One Julian Totino Tedesco Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa David Marquez Mr. Fantastic Invisible Girl Human Torch Thing Marvel Cover hardcover hc original graphic novel ogn comic book
Writers: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Jonathan Hickman
Artists: David Marquez, Dale Eaglesham
Collects: OGN (2012); Fantastic Four #570 (2009)
Published: Marvel, 2012; $24.99

As much as Marvel’s “Season One” graphic novel initiative may seem a shameless attempt to emulate the success of DC’s “Earth One” graphic novels, the first book in the series, Fantastic Four: Season One, also happens to be a surprisingly well put together comic. Designed with both new and older readers in mind, the book tells an updated version of the Fantastic Four’s origin story – probably the most thematically coherent one, in fact, since the Lee/Kirby original.

One of the main differences between “Earth One” and “Season One” is that the marketing for the latter has focused much more on the characters than on the creators involved. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is no stranger to Marvel’s original team of superheroes, though, having written a handful of issues of the main series and its short-lived Marvel Knights spin-off back in the mid-2000s. Here he does probably the best work he’s done with the characters since Marvel Knights’ earliest issues, wrapping some of the most established plot devices from Fantastic Four history – cosmic rays in outer space, giant monsters attacking New York City, the Thing temporarily reverting to human form (only to choose to become the Thing again, to save his teammates) – into a fairly cohesive narrative.

It helps that Aguirre-Sacasa hits just the right notes with several of the characters – the Human Torch and the Thing, in particular – to give the story a fittingly light-hearted tone. This sense is greatly enhanced by the art of David Marquez, who takes clear inspiration from the work of Kevin Maguire, especially in the realm of amusing facial expressions. The book is saturated with light blues and greens, provided by colorist Guru eFX, with most of the action taking place in broad daylight. It’s a nice diversion from the darker color palettes used in so many superhero comics these days.

But the book isn’t without problems. The reason given for the team’s doomed space flight is that Reed Richards wants to fly “the first privately-owned, privately-financed, privately-designed, privately-launched, utterly rogue rocket ship.” Although Reed insists that “proving himself” in this way is a means to an end – space tourism, he argues, will eventually subsidize the rest of his scientific work – such a hubristic display of power doesn’t really square with Aguirre-Sacasa’s otherwise unfailingly humanitarian portrayal of the character. Reed plays the role of absent-minded professor here; his ego doesn’t even approach the level at which it’s been portrayed over the last several years in other Marvel comics. Reed the businessman has been done, and done more convincingly, by Aguirre-Sacasa himself – especially at the beginning of the Marvel Knights series (in which the Fantastic Four go bankrupt).

The book shifts focus in a major way about halfway through. Having gained their powers and defeated the Mole Man in the first half, the team goes on to face Namor the Sub-Mariner in an updated version of the events of Fantastic Four #4. The book ends without completely resolving this subplot (Namor is captured and held prisoner in the team’s headquarters), leading me to wonder whether this was originally meant to be an ongoing series or miniseries, rather than a standalone graphic novel. Aguirre-Sacasa also introduces a new female character, Reed’s lab assistant Alyssa, who serves both as the manager of the team and as a secondary potential love interest for Reed. Her inclusion is to the author’s credit – his Susan Storm lacks much of a presence, and Alyssa provides a surprisingly multidimensional feminine voice. It’s a shame that her only appearance is in this book.

It’s unclear whether Fantastic Four: Season One is intended to be the characters’ “official” origin story from here on out, or if it’s just meant to be another version among the many others already out there. The fact that Marvel pads out the book’s length by reprinting the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the main (i.e., canonical) Fantastic Four series makes me lean toward the former, although it doesn’t really matter either way – Season One is a book that, in spite of its flaws, works as a standalone retelling of a familiar story.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: Batman: Gates of Gotham

Review Batman Gates of Gotham Scott Snyder Kyle Higgins Trevor McCarthy Graham Nolan Nicholas Gate Bradley Gate Architect Dillon May DC Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins, and Ryan Parrott
Artists: Trevor McCarthy, Graham Nolan, and Dustin Nguyen
Collects: Batman: Gates of Gotham #1-5, Detective Comics Annual #12 (2011)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99

Batman: Gates of Gotham, originally published by DC Comics as a five-issue miniseries in 2011, may be the most flagrant attack on creator rights that I have ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic. From beginning to end, its cast of characters enacts a corporate-fantasy version of the struggles over creative ownership that have rocked the comic book industry in recent years, with creators and their supporters effectively condemned, in the end, as mentally unstable individuals whose actions are tantamount to ideological terrorism.

Gates’ story is partially told through flashbacks to the 19th century narrated via the diary of Nicholas Gate, an architect who, along with his brother Bradley, designed and built much of Gotham City. The story of the Gate brothers bears striking resemblance to the well-known partnership of comic book writer-artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who together created Captain America), as well as to that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Not only are the Gates, like those real-life writer-artists, the impoverished sons of immigrants, but their initial place of work, with its crowded artists hunched over drawing boards, visually recalls the Eisner-Iger comic book studio in which Simon and Kirby began their careers. Furthermore, just as Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster saw their creations come to life through the financial backing of Timely Comics and National Comics, respectively, so the Gates aspire to work for the individual whose wealth will facilitate the achievement of their artistic vision: “we approached Mr. Wayne with several drawings – drawings for our Gotham. Which we proposed to make his Gotham,” Nicholas says.

Also like Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster, Nicholas Gate eventually has a falling out with the men who have thus far commissioned his work. The difference is that, in Gate’s case, this falling out occurs not over an employer’s refusal to return original artwork or to give financial compensation where creative credit is due, but over the mysterious death of his brother, which Nicholas believes to have been murder. He accuses one of his wealthy patrons, Cameron Kane, of being behind Bradley’s death, and as a result he loses the financial support of his employers. Gate’s suspicions are never confirmed and are therefore cast into permanent doubt – unlike in Kirby’s case, for example, in which Marvel's refusal to return original artwork was admitted openly by the company.

If Nicholas Gate at first seems to represent the archetypal “wronged creator,” though, then the second half of Gates of Gotham is a character assassination of that archetype. Following his brother’s death, Gate is portrayed first as hopelessly naive when he tries to convince Alan Wayne that foul play is involved, and later as a madman when he attempts to murder Cameron Kane in revenge; he ends up killing Kane’s son Robert instead. At the end of the story it is revealed that Nicholas was subsequently locked away at Arkham Asylum. Thus, for questioning the way he is treated by his employers and expressing his anger towards them, the book declares him insane.

There is metonymic significance, too, in the names of Gate’s antagonists. Although it may be tempting to dismiss the naming of one character after Batman “creator” Bob Kane as merely an in-joke, in view of the rest of the book’s position toward comic book creators it can hardly be overlooked. Nicholas’s murder of Gates’ Robert Kane is the act that “proves” the book’s argument: that creators who retaliate against their employers do so carelessly, vindictively, and without legitimate basis. That argument is made even more troubling by its invoking of the real-life Bob Kane – a man who continues to receive sole credit for Batman’s creation, despite the fact that the most familiar elements of the Batman mythos (apart from the name) were created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. In Gates’ corporate-fantasy characterization of comic book creators, the murder of Robert Kane marks an “end of the innocence” not unlike that which took place after the death of the real-life Bob Kane: in the years since the truth of Batman’s creative origins became common knowledge, moral and legal questions about the way publishers treat creators have become significantly more complicated. It is not hard to imagine the leadership at a company like DC yearning for simpler times, but the way that sentiment is transcoded in Gates of Gotham, whether intentionally or not, is deeply troubling.

The same themes pervade Gates’ present, in which a terrorist calling himself the Architect is attacking bridges and skyscrapers built by the Gate brothers and owned by the prominent families that had supported their work. The Architect wears a steampunk-influenced diving suit, which Batman discovers had been worn by the Gate brothers and their employees during the underwater construction of their largest bridges. Based on this connection, it requires no great leap to understand the Architect’s actions as “revenge” for the wrongs perpetrated against Nicholas Gate over a century earlier. The Architect’s rhetoric is filled with hatred for Gotham and its wealthiest citizens, who he calls “liars and thieves,” and he accuses Batman of being a “traitor” even as he tries to blow up Gotham’s bridges with Semtex. If, as I have argued, Nicholas represents the archetypal “wronged creator” reimagined as an angry lunatic, then the Architect is the struggle for creator rights reimagined as literal terrorism.

The story’s only real mysteries are who the Architect is and whether Bradley Gate was actually murdered. While the latter question is never answered, the Architect is revealed to be a character named Dillon May. May is identified at first simply as a “collector” (what he “collects” is never explained), but in the final issue he is also exposed as a descendant of Nicholas Gate. With this move, Gates effectively conflates the two groups most prominently involved in the struggle for creator rights – longtime comic book readers (“collectors”) and the families/heirs of those creators – into an undifferentiated, self-deluded mass. The fact that Batman declares he will defeat the Architect “by proving everything he believes is a lie” underscores the book’s argument and positions its protagonist as an obvious stand-in for companies like DC and Marvel, which have made it their mission to refute even the smallest allegations of wrongdoing made by former employees and their heirs.

But Gates does not stop there, giving Batman these lines at its conclusion: “There are reasons and there are excuses. If it wasn’t his family, he would have found something else to rage over.” There is merit, certainly, to the argument that the most dedicated of comic book fanboys will always be angry about something, but to equate the arbitrary whims of fanboys with the dedicated positions of those who advocate fair terms for writers and artists is insulting. If anything, supporters of creator rights are defined by qualities that directly oppose those of most fanboys: the questions they ask are not “would this or that superhero win in a fight,” but “have Marvel and DC adequately compensated their writers and artists for the fruits of their creations? If not, what is to be done about it?” Batman: Gates of Gotham is little more than an ad hominem attack on the people who would ask these questions, made with as much mean-spirited “rage” as the antagonist it so doggedly seeks to vilify.