Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: Spidey, Vol. 1: First Day

Review Spidey Volume One First Day Robbie Thompson Nick Bradshaw Spider-Man Peter Parker Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Robbie Thompson
Artists: Nick Bradshaw, André Lima Araújo
Collects: Spidey #1-6 (2016)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $17.99

When Spidey was first announced in 2015, it was pitched as “an all-new ongoing series of done-in-one, in-continuity tales set during Peter’s teenage years.” I was excited when the news broke. It had been a long time since a series like Untold Tales of Spider-Man had focused on the early years of the main-Marvel-universe Peter Parker; in fact, it had been a long time since Marvel published a really good creator-driven Spider-Man series not immediately tied to present-day continuity in general. What I expected of Spidey, based on the initial press, was a continuity-lite version of Untold Tales or maybe even something in line with the better issues of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man: a series with recognizably classic versions of the characters we’re familiar with, but without too much historical baggage. Instead, now having read Spidey, I find myself disappointed with a series that deviates significantly from what was promised and, on top of that, seems unable to decide exactly what kind of comic it wants to be.

First of all, Spidey is definitely not set in any kind of established continuity. In this book Peter Parker is being tutored by his high school crush Gwen Stacy (who doesn’t appear in Marvel’s main universe until Peter is in college). He fights a variety of Lee/Ditko-era villains that include the Sandman, the Lizard, and the Vulture, all of whom he’s seemingly met before in this universe; and yet, he hasn’t met J. Jonah Jameson (who first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #1) or sold a single photograph of Spider-Man by the time the series begins. Instead, apparently, he’s some kind of Internet sensation: “My last Spidey selfie got six zillion likes on Insta,” he proclaims in the second issue. And while being divorced from main-universe continuity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, there are already plenty of high-school Spider-Men across a range of media: Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man in the comics, Sam Raimi’s and Marc Webb’s versions in the movies, and television shows like The Spectacular Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man (the latter being completely unrelated to Bendis’s comic book, sadly). But what’s most important about that statement is that all of those comics, movies, and television shows are a lot better than Spidey.

Even the two Amazing Spider-Man movies – the latter of which is probably the worst superhero movie I have ever seen – do a superior job of establishing believable characters than Spidey. Each issue (except for #5) begins with the same full-page illustration depicting the character’s origin, but with slightly different text overlaid in each instance. Often, this text establishes the general theme or conflict for the issue. These themes tend to be expressed in the form of some maxim conveyed by Peter’s Aunt May or Uncle Ben. But rather than ever exploring Uncle Ben’s most important shred of wisdom, the one that arguably defines the Spider-Man franchise – “with great power there must also come great responsibility” – the series harps on such banalities as “be yourself,” “never give up,” and “don’t fall down.” Almost every issue ends with Peter cryptically repeating the day’s lesson to Aunt May, who always seems to be either doing the dishes or making dinner. It’s a shockingly regressive portrayal of the character, especially in light of her far less domestic role as a humanitarian aid worker in recent issues of Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man.

Much of the painful simplicity of Spidey’s stories can be forgiven if we read it as simply being geared toward very young children. I’m hesitant to do so, however, mainly because of how thoughtlessly it approaches the subject of Peter’s bullying at school. Throughout the first six issues, Peter is tormented relentlessly by his peers: he is physically attacked, shoved, and spit on. His head is held underwater in a public toilet, and he takes the beatings administered by school jock Flash Thompson in dutiful silence. “I could crush Flash and all his buddies,” he thinks. “But if I do that? I lose the balance Uncle Ben always talked about. I’ll lose it and fall. No more secret identity. Which would break Aunt May’s heart.”

This line of thinking is a downright pathological extrapolation from Stan Lee’s portrayal of the character, in which Peter’s “bullying” mostly took the form of verbal barbs from girls he awkwardly asked on dates. By not using his powers in those cases, Peter was not merely protecting his secret identity; he was also choosing not to use his powers for personal gain or in the service of spite and pettiness. In Spidey, his tacit acceptance of extreme physical bullying represents an uncomfortable refusal to stand up for his own basic dignity as a human being. It doesn’t take superpowers to ask an adult for help or to speak up against the people who make your life a living hell, and Spidey’s failure to recognize that is deeply troubling.

All of that said, Nick Bradshaw’s artwork for the series’ first three issues is genuinely lovely. It’s filled with the kinds of fun details and Easter eggs you might expect of an artist like Mark Buckingham or a Generation X-era Chris Bachalo. The Sandman’s amorphous limbs transcend panel borders, emphasizing the character’s physical uncontainability, and when the Lizard’s minions invade New York City, dozens of tiny reptiles skitter around the panel borders. Bradshaw’s artwork does suffer from an overabundance of two-page spreads, though, which I suspect were designed for (and therefore probably read better in) digital formats; there’s just too much gutter loss in the trade paperback for me to believe that these pages were laid out with a traditional print book in mind.

André Lima Araújo’s artwork in issues 4 through 6 conveys the story well enough, but you can really feel Bradshaw’s absence in these issues, especially since writer Robbie Thompson still seems to be writing for an artist who’s going to supplement a sparse script with tons of visual detail. Araújo just isn’t that kind of artist, unfortunately, and his tendency to draw tiny figures inside huge panels results in a comic that often looks and feels cavernously empty.

In the end, I’m just not sure what this book wants or even is trying to be. If it’s intended to appeal to longtime Spider-Man fans, then why does it tell such juvenile stories in a totally unremarkable new continuity? If it’s trying to convey wholesome lessons for children, then why doesn’t it try harder to establish Peter as a good role model with at least some modicum of self-worth? If it was designed purely as a vehicle for Bradshaw to unleash his artistic talent, then why is Bradshaw gone after the first three issues? And why, ultimately, was this series promoted as something that it so completely is not? Perhaps what’s most frustrating about Spidey is that it seems so blissfully ignorant of these questions in the first place.

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.