Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones

Review Doctor Strange Dr. Strange The Flight of Bones Dan Jolley Tony Harris Ray Snyder Stephen Strange Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Dan Jolley, Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Kieron Gillen, Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever, Mike Carey
Artists: Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Paul Chadwick, Frazer Irving, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Frank Brunner, Ted McKeever, Marcos Martin
Collects: Doctor Strange (vol. 2) #1-4 (1999); Marvel: Shadows & Light #1-2 (1997-98); Marvel Double Shot #4 (2003); and The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1 (2010)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $24.99

My main interest in reading Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones, which collects Doctor Strange’s short-lived Marvel Knights series from just before the turn of the millennium, was in seeing a mid-Starman Tony Harris drawing one of my favorite low-profile Marvel characters of the time. (It would be another ten years before a Doctor Strange movie was even rumored, and almost ten more before that movie was actually released.) I had always assumed that Harris also wrote these comics, since I’d never seen any other name mentioned in relation to them. I wasn’t completely wrong – Harris does receive “story” credit, along with actual scripter Dan Jolley and inker Ray Snyder – but he’s actually gone by the series’ halfway point, replaced by Paul Chadwick of Concrete fame. One can only speculate on what could have happened behind the scenes to cause Harris to abandon a four-issue miniseries after drawing just two issues, but the result, at any rate, is that Jolley is left holding the bag with a story that never really comes together.

Jolley’s writing isn’t bad, but he mostly seems to be doing damage control for a series that’s clearly gone off the rails. There are so many out-of-left-field narrative choices, even before Harris’s departure, that it’s difficult to imagine the final version of Flight of Bones as being at all similar to the series originally proposed. One is the jarring introduction of a third-person narrator halfway through the first issue, which is all the more baffling given that we see Strange dictating his thoughts to a magical, self-recording diary just a few scenes later. Would interspersing the story with first-person diary excerpts not have been a more engaging way of granting the reader access to Strange’s thoughts – and a cleverer one, too, given the diary’s presence as a physical artifact in the story? I also wonder at the choice to fill out Strange’s supporting cast with an obscure character named Topaz, a young woman who apparently featured in the 1970s horror title Werewolf by Night and a handful of issues in Strange’s first two ongoing series.

But the biggest head-scratcher is the total abandonment of the religious motifs that arguably define the first half of the series. Harris frequently intercuts the action of his two issues with Christian imagery – crosses, stained-glass windows, gargoyles, and gothic spires – that juxtapose (in a quite novel way for a Doctor Strange comic) the character’s simultaneous devotion to the occult and his non-belief in a Christian God. At one point Topaz even asks Strange about his religious beliefs, and Strange equivocates in a way that’s clearly meant to be revisited later in the story. That never happens, though, and the second half reveals that the apparently religiously motivated crimes of the series’ first half were all the work of a mind-control plot by Strange’s perpetual nemesis Dormammu. Following the reveal is an extended fight sequence in which Strange and Dormammu spout uncharacteristic quips and one-liners, making it clear that Jolley and company are just vamping for page length at this point.

Could the series’ intended interrogation of Christian belief have seemed simply too controversial to the series’ editors, inspiring last-minute changes that drove Harris from the title? (It seems unlikely that Jolley, Harris, and Snyder would have had a change of heart about the subject matter, given their future work together on the even more explicitly religious-themed Obergeist.) If so, the situation would be in keeping with that of Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil – the very first story arc published under the Marvel Knights imprint, and one I’ve always suspected of editorial interference given its bizarre eleventh-hour plot turn, in which the apparent Second Coming of Christ is explained away as an illusion created by the Spider-Man villain Mysterio (who proceeds to commit suicide before any questions can be answered).

This collection is rounded out by a hodgepodge of Doctor Strange stories from various anthology titles, all by different creators, including such luminaries as Christopher Golden and Jim Starlin. The best one is probably the 2010 story by Kieron Gillen and Frazer Irving. Irving’s Doctor Strange was a welcome sight for me: his renderings of the character were by far the best part of his fill-in issues on Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men. Irving’s contribution aside, though, the art in these stories rarely compares to that of Flight of Bones’ first two issues; with its extreme detail, serpentine linework, and resolute portrayal of Strange as a dead ringer for Vincent Price(!), Harris’s work is certainly something to behold. It’s just a shame there’s so little of it to go around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: X-O Manowar: Retribution

Review X-O Manowar Jim Shooter Steve Englehart Bob Layton Barry Windsor-Smith Sal Velluto Mike Manley Aric Ken Clarkson Valiant Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, Bob Layton
Artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton, Sal Velluto, Mike Manley
Collects: X-O Manowar #1-4 (1992)
Published: Valiant, 1993; $9.95

I probably never would have read X-O Manowar: Retribution if not for the Omnibus Collector’s Comic Swap and Community, a group I follow on Facebook. At nearly 3,000 members the group supplies my newsfeed with a constant barrage of content, typically in one of three forms: (1) posts recommending or inquiring about upcoming collected editions; (2) posts chronicling the pursuit of hard-to-find books, known as “whales,” that can fetch hundreds of dollars on the secondary market; and (3) posts effusing over whatever series or high-ticket item has, for the moment, wended its way into the group’s zeitgeist. Posts of the latter variety make for remarkable spectacles in social-media groupthink, with the most frenzied members spending thousands of dollars on books they know little to nothing about and will likely never read. Luckily, I’m relatively immune to the group’s more costly vicissitudes: I have access to two excellent libraries and very rarely purchase expensive hardcovers these days.

My interest was piqued, though, by the group’s recent fixation on Valiant, a comics publisher that was resurrected in 2012 following over a decade of financial insolvency. The Facebook group’s primary interest was in the spate of new series that had been launched over the last five years – or, more specifically, in the limited-run hardcover editions collecting those series. Historicist that I am, I found myself more interested in learning about the rise, fall, and rebirth of this decades-old publisher, one that I had barely heard of just a few months earlier. I read a few primers on Valiant’s characters and on its shared superhero universe and, on learning that X-O Manowar was currently the publisher’s flagship title, tried requesting the hundred-dollar X-O Manowar Classic Omnibus, Vol. 1 – collecting the first thirty issues of the original 1992 series – via interlibrary loan. Had any lending libraries owned the book, I would probably be writing a review of it right now. But none did, unfortunately (nor did any own the 2008-issued X-O Manowar: Rebirth, reprinting the series’ first six issues), leaving me with one final option: X-O Manowar: Retribution, a 1993 trade paperback reprint of the series’ first four issues.

Some may wonder why my impulse was to seek out a print edition of the original series rather than a reprint of the (now widely acclaimed) 2012 series that the Omnibus Collector’s group had gravitated toward. I suppose the answer is that, as far as comics are concerned, I’ve always been less interested in the present moment than I am in how we arrived to that present. The current roster of Valiant comics, renowned as it is, wouldn’t hold as much interest for me if not for the unlikely story of its publisher’s tumultuous history. Nor for that matter would a current series featuring any character or franchise – whether from Valiant or any other publisher – signify, to me at least, without some understanding of that character’s creative origins. And perhaps what often draws me to comics of the early 1990s in particular is that, despite the adolescent quality of that decade’s purest exercises in creative ownership – Spawn, Youngblood, WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce – it was, nevertheless, the final era in which the dominance of corporate comics seemed truly vulnerable.

Ironically, the conflict between creator-owned and corporate comics was perhaps never more dramatically staged – at least, not in the 1990s – than in the case of Valiant, which former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had founded in 1989 only to be ousted from the company just as it became profitable (and after having created or co-created virtually all of the publisher’s major characters). The next several years would see Shooter defending himself in court from venture capitalists determined to dilute his Valiant shares to zero – just in time, conveniently enough, for Valiant’s investors to beat the mid-’90s collapse of the comics market and sell the company to video-game developer Acclaim for $65 million.

All of which is more than enough setup, probably, for a discussion of X-O Manowar itself. X-O was the second original title in Valiant’s superhero line, following Harbinger. (Both were preceded by rebooted versions of the former Gold Key properties Solar and Magnus, which had launched the previous year and were to occupy the same shared universe as Valiant’s new, original characters). Cover-dated February 1992, X-O Manowar #1 would have hit stands about six months before Shooter’s exit from the company in June. And unlike some of the early-’90s comics series mentioned above, X-O was actually, well…kind of good, at least in its opening issues. That’s because Valiant initially employed writers and artists known for their all-around storytelling abilities: in addition to Shooter, the company’s Marvel expatriates included former Captain America and Avengers writer Steve Englehart and popular artists Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith. All would have a hand in the first issues of X-O: Shooter, Englehart, and Layton as writers; Layton as intermittent inker; and Windsor-Smith as artist for the inaugural issue.

X-O’s main character, Aric, is basically Conan the Barbarian in an Iron Man suit – a conceit that adds up (creatively, at least) when you consider which characters Windsor-Smith and Layton in particular are most famous for having illustrated previously. But Aric lacks Conan’s occasional bouts of compassion and, unlike Iron Man, he kills without compunction. The character’s primary appeal is his fish-out-water quality: having spent thousands of years in alien captivity, the Visigoth warrior frequently misunderstands the most basic conventions of modern society. As a result, for all its rampant violence, X-O is a darkly funny book. After Ken Clarkson (an ordinary man who initially conspires with the aliens but later defects to Aric’s side) is non-fatally injured by an alien laser gun, Aric wonders: “He is my friend! Should I grant him the gift of a clean death?” After some thought, Aric concludes: “He is a wizard. Perhaps he can grow a new arm.”

For Aric, houses are “castles,” speeding bullets are “fire light,” and the X-O Manowar battle armor he liberates from the aliens is “a good skin.” There’s something oddly endearing about his naivete, which softens the brutal edge of nearly every interpersonal encounter he finds himself in. There’s something unconsciously prescient, too, about his and Ken’s eventual takeover of Orb Industries, the corporation established by the aliens as a front for their planned conquest of Earth. It’s fascinating to note that, just months before his own firing by Valiant’s corporate bosses, Shooter imagined a superhero universe in which corporations are evil – but only until the good guys are able to seize control and turn them into forces for good. Perhaps it was that sense of optimism that led Shooter to seek capital investments for the founding of two more comics publishers in the five years following his departure from Valiant. (Neither, sadly, would last more than a year.)

The revolving door of creative talent at Valiant meant that the art in X-O Manowar’s first four issues wasn’t very consistent, although it’s not bad either. Sal Velluto, who takes over from Windsor-Smith for issues two and three, has a style remarkably similar to the early Steve Dillon, while Mike Manley’s pencils in issue four lend a more whimsical tone to Aric’s New Orleans-set first encounters with villain Toyo Harada and the cast of Harbinger. Characters from the publisher’s various other series make quite a few appearances in X-O following the first two issues, reflecting Shooter’s directive (as he recounted to Michael David Thomas in a 2000 interview) to “put something in [the comics] that [meant] you’d have to buy all [of them] to make one complete thing.” These appearances don’t severely hamper the experience of reading X-O’s first four issues, although I can imagine this approach becoming fairly unmanageable for someone reading only this series before too long.

That being the case, maybe it’s for the best that I wasn’t able to get my hands on that Classic Omnibus collection of the first thirty issues; given the ramp-up in X-O’s interconnectedness with the larger Valiant universe in issues three and four alone, I’m sure I would have been out of my depth before even the collection’s halfway point. I would be happy to read other comics set in this universe if I can get my hands on them, though, and perhaps to return to X-O’s later issues (or even to the various series from Valiant’s 2012 relaunch) once I feel more firmly grounded in the histories of the universe, its characters, and the publisher itself.