Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Jim Lee Aquaman Green Lantern DC Comics cover hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Mort Weisinger, Joe Samachson, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Robert Bernstein, Steve Skeates, Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, David Michelinie, J.M. DeMatteis, Neal Pozner, Peter David, Rick Veitch, Will Pfeifer, Geoff Johns, and Cullen Bunn
Artists: Paul Norris, Louis Cazeneuve, Ramona Fradon, Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano, Chuck Patton, Craig Hamilton, Martin Egeland, Jim Calafiore, Yvel Guichet, Joshua Hood, Patrick Gleason, Ivan Reis, and Trevor McCarthy
Collects: More Fun Comics #73 & 89; Adventure Comics #120, 174, 220, 260, 266, 269, 444, 452, & 475; Aquaman (vol. 1) #1, 18, & 40; Justice League of America Annual #2; Aquaman (vol. 2) #3; Aquaman (vol. 4) #2 & 34; Aquaman (vol. 5) #4 & 17; Aquaman (vol. 6) #1 & 43
Published: DC, 2016; $39.99

Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years is the thirteenth hardcover DC has released under its “Celebration of 75 Years” banner, and while the series has been generally well put together as far as these types of entry-point anthologies go, this is the first one to mark a truly historic publishing event. That’s because Aquaman has been so sparsely collected over the years that a history-based anthology featuring the character was essentially bound to include material never collected before (if only to live up to the “75 Years” part of its moniker). Sure enough, in fact, this book does an exceptional job of curating a range of previously uncollected material from across the character’s entire publication history.

Prior to this collection’s release, reprints of Golden Age Aquaman stories were especially few and far between. The character first appeared in 1941, in More Fun Comics #73 (which also, interestingly, featured the first appearances of Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy, in a different story). More Fun being an anthology series, Aquaman appeared as a 7- to 10-page feature until #107 in 1945, at which point Aquaman and the other superhero features were moved to Adventure Comics starting with 1946’s Adventure #103. The first and only entry in DC’s Aquaman Archives hardcover series begins with 1959's Adventure Comics #260, meaning that until now, nearly eighteen years’ worth of Golden Age Aquaman stories have gone completely uncollected. (Aquaman was one of the few superheroes – along with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – to be published continuously throughout the 1940s and ’50s.)

Naturally, Aquaman’s first appearance from More Fun #73 is also the first story of this collection; it's been collected a handful of times before, though not in quite a few years and never previously with the same quality of restoration. My own exposure to Aquaman has been mostly with the brooding incarnations of recent years, so I was surprised by how cheerful and quippy this early version of the character was by comparison: “See the sea, my friend!” he quips in his very first line, kicking a Nazi soldier over the railing of a submarine deck.

Even more interesting are the newly reprinted stories from More Fun #89 and Adventure Comics #120, #174, and #220. They're all of the 7- to 10-page variety, and they’re each a lot of fun. Perhaps the best of these is “Aquaman Goes to College” (1947), which sees Aquaman headed to school for formal training on the creatures he lords over as self-appointed “sovereign of the sea.”

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Adventure Comics #120 Joe Samachson Louis Cazeneuve DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

However, he quickly dismisses his studies when he hears that the school will lose its funding if the swimming team doesn’t win its next competition. When the coach marvels at Aquaman’s ability to hold his breath for fifteen minutes underwater, the hero is amusingly frank: “The explanation is simple, coach…you see, I’m Aquaman! But, I’m a bonafide student, so I’m eligible for the team!”

Throughout the Golden Age stories, Aquaman is so cavalier about his superhero identity that I can’t help but wonder if the writers were intentionally parodying characters like Batman and Superman – both of whom, in the Golden and Silver Ages, went to absurdly complicated lengths to maintain their secret identities. One way or the other, the particular stories selected for this volume draw attention to the general ambivalence of Aquaman’s early writers toward the character’s origins. In his first appearance, the character explains in a three-panel flashback that both of his parents were human: his father, a “famous undersea explorer,” taught him to “live under the ocean” by scientific means. But the comically abrupt end to his tale (“That’s all of the story,” he says, running off) suggests countless unanswered questions that Aquaman’s writers would spend the next 75 years trying to address.

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years More Fun Comics #73 Mort Weisinger Paul Norris DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

The first major revision comes in 1959’s “How Aquaman Got His Powers,” in which the backstory has changed: Aquaman is now the son of a human “lighthouse-keeper” and an Atlantean woman who abandoned her underwater homeland to see the “upper world.” In the next few stories we learn more about Atlantis, a still-thriving city of beings descended from humans who have biologically adapted to living under the sea. Genetic anomalies are sent to the ocean’s surface in Baby Moses-style floating baskets, in order to be found and raised by land-dwellers; this is how Aquaman gains his child sidekick Aqualad (whose deathly fear of fish results in his expulsion from the great underwater city) in 1960’s “The Kid from Atlantis.”

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Adventure Comics #269 Robert Bernstein Ramona Fradon DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

Most of the early Silver Age comics collected here are illustrated by Ramona Fradon, a rare female comics artist whose work I was unfamiliar with before reading this book. It more than measures up to that of any other artist who was drawing for DC at the time, and it’s a shame that Aquaman lost her talents upon finally receiving his own series in 1962. The stories themselves take a dip in quality at this point as well. Of the previous Golden and Silver Age tales collected here, only one (1943’s “The Streamlined Buccaneers”) features a villain in the traditional sense; in the others, Aquaman contends with more conventional threats to marine life and delves into the mysteries of Atlantis. But starting with the inaugural issue of his self-titled series, Aquaman faces off against more traditional science-fiction and fantasy foes: a triumvirate of giant insects, water fairies, and fire trolls in Aquaman #1 alone.

Things do improve over the 1960s and 1970s, though, which are a bit of a whirlwind: Aquaman marries the sorceress Mera, has a baby (named, um… Aquababy), and becomes the democratically elected ruler of Atlantis, all of which infuse the comics with a unique combination of domestic strife and palace intrigue. The solo stories became fewer after Aquaman’s cancellation in 1971 (the series was briefly resuscitated, for eight issues, from 1977-78), and Celebration of 75 Years fills the gap with a quite engaging 1984 story from the Justice League’s so-called “Detroit Era.” (I’ll have to read more of Gerry Conway’s run on that title when the hardcover Justice League: The Detroit Era Omnibus is released next year.)

This collection’s last half-dozen or so stories are a little more difficult to write about, since they’re mostly pulled from the middle of longer ongoing storylines. While it’s definitely nice to see DC taking steps to reprint parts of Neal Pozner’s four-issue revival from 1986 and Peter David’s nearly 50-issue run from the 1990s, the particular stories selected left me feeling a little out of sorts. (David’s Aquaman #2, in which Aquaman’s left hand is devoured by piranhas, is also somewhat off-putting for its Liefeldian artwork and frankly unnecessary bloodiness.) It doesn’t help that some of this collection’s later issues feature prominent rogues whose early appearances aren’t included, making it hard for an Aquaman-newcomer like me to fully grasp what’s at stake for our hero when they appear.

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Aquaman #2 Peter David Martin Egeland DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

Perhaps unintentionally, the book’s contents underline just how little of Aquaman’s history has been previously collected in comparison to that of characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow. In fact, we get a sense of those other characters’ preferred status at DC in the choice of cover image for this collection. The image itself, illustrated by DC co-publisher Jim Lee, features Green Lantern almost as prominently as Aquaman. That’s easy to miss when viewing the cover in thumbnail or from a distance, since the book’s cover dress is plastered over the prostrate Hal Jordan; you can still see his limbs awkwardly framing the title, though. Was DC just so married to the idea of using an image by Lee (who has never drawn Aquaman in the character’s own series, and whose work doesn’t appear inside this book) that it couldn’t be bothered to choose something more fitting for a collection focused on Aquaman’s history?

It’s a strange choice, for sure, but it doesn’t take away from the commendable effort put into compiling this volume. I came to it a relative novice in regards to Aquaman but feel I’m walking away with a solid grasp on the character’s history, having now sampled a number of prominent creative runs spanning the better part of a century. Although the early stories provide the book’s most interesting and significant contents, the amount of newly-collected material from all eras makes Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years a very welcome primer indeed.

*Special thanks to Jesse Schedeen for his help with the images that appear in this review.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: Black Widow: Web of Intrigue

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Gerry Conway Bob Layton Luke McDonnell Paul Gulacy George Freeman Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Ralph Macchio, George Pérez, Gerry Conway
Artists: George Pérez, Bob Layton, Luke McDonnell, Paul Gulacy, George Freeman
Collects: Marvel Fanfare #10-13 (1983-84), Bizarre Adventures #25 (1981), Black Widow: The Coldest War OGN (1990)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $24.99

In the last few years, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has repeatedly insisted that making movies about female superheroes is an important priority for him. The claim is rather shocking given that Feige has produced more than thirty superhero movies over the last two decades, only one of which (2005’s Elektra) has featured a female character in the lead. While Russian super-spy Black Widow has long been considered the most obvious female candidate for a solo superhero movie at Marvel (given Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the character across five movies since 2010, with at least two more Avengers movies in the works), plans for any such film have yet to materialize. In fact, the first female-led Marvel Studios film will apparently be 2019’s Captain Marvel – not the most obvious choice, since the character has yet to appear in a Marvel film. It’s also disappointing in that both Captain Marvel’s world and her superhuman abilities are generally in keeping with the kind of superhero movies we’ve seen time and again, whereas Black Widow’s milieu is more in line with the likes of James Bond or The Avengers (the 1960s British television series, not Marvel’s superhero franchise).

I mention all of this because I’d hoped that Black Widow: Web of Intrigue might establish a worthy blueprint for the argument that stories about female superheroes – and the character Black Widow in particular – have just as much potential for mainstream appeal as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and other white male superheroes. Of course, any number of more recently published female superhero comics (not to mention last week’s Wonder Woman feature film) could be marshaled to that argument – including, yes, a number starring Captain Marvel. But what might have made Web of Intrigue a more worthy proving ground is the ubiquity of its main attraction, a four-issue run on the 1980s series Marvel Fanfare by writer Ralph Macchio and artist George Pérez. It’s been reprinted several times, including in magazine form in 1999 and in a 2010 hardcover as part of Marvel’s Premiere Classics line. In the comics world, that sort of longevity – as in the cases of The Dark Phoenix Saga, The Death of Gwen Stacy, and God Loves, Man Kills, stories from the 1970s and 1980s that have been (or soon will be) adapted as feature films – tends to be its own kind of pedigree, at least in Hollywood’s eyes.

Unfortunately, Web of Intrigue is a profound disappointment in terms of how it represents its female protagonist, and I can only hope that stories like this one won’t ever be used as a model for superhero films starring women. The story sheds consistent doubt on Black Widow’s professional competence and emotional fitness for the job, linking those qualities explicitly to her gender: “If it came down to a showdown,” she wonders, “would Natasha Romanoff, the woman, allow Black Widow, the spy, to perform her duty? I had no answer.” The story also defines the character almost exclusively in relation to men. Her mission – to track down the father figure who raised her, who has possibly defected to the Soviet Union – is further complicated by the feelings she develops for a Soviet-employed American scientist she seduces while working undercover. Her top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossier, as recounted by Nick Fury for a panel of the international spy organization’s all-male leadership, lists not her achievements in the field but rather which male superheroes she’s dated.

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Marvel Fanfare 10 Marvel Fanfare #10 Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Daredevil Matt Murdock Champions Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze motorcycle Angel Warren Worthington III Iceman Bobby Drake Hercules Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

It doesn’t help that Web of Intrigue is painfully overwritten by Macchio, who is rightly better known for his various editorial roles at Marvel than as a writer. In action scenes, especially, he refuses to let Pérez’s artwork speak for itself. When Pérez draws Black Widow performing a (perfectly visually comprehensible) midair twist to take out two goons who are shooting at her, for instance, Macchio can’t resist scripting this clunker of a thought bubble: “I heard others scrambling about on the roof while I was inside…must twist as I fall to fire at them.” But worse is Macchio’s dialogue for Fury, who reads like a stereotypical Southern hick straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard: “Awright, Sam, I got all this info you wuz askin’ fer. But, in the future, howzabout lettin’ me give the orders around here. I wuzn’t hired to be no blasted errand boy, y’know.”

It’s actually pretty astonishing just how many offensive stereotypes Web of Intrigue manages to include in just four issues. A multiethnic team of assassins dispatched to capture Black Widow comprises a mostly naked sumo wrestler and an (even more naked) spear-chucking warrior who Black Widow refers to as “the African.” The book’s protagonist unreflexively calls Chinese-American S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo an “Oriental,” despite the term having fallen out of fashion nearly ten years before these comics were published. And it all ends with a masterclass in the objectification of the female body, with the contrivance of this excuse for Black Widow to run around in her underwear for the story’s last ten or fifteen pages:

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Marvel Fanfare 13 Marvel Fanfare #13 Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova bow and arrow underwear Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

The trade paperback edition of Web of Intrigue includes another two stories beyond the four-issue Marvel Fanfare storyline. The first is a fairly incoherent black-and-white tale that seems mostly an excuse for artist Paul Gulacy to draw the story’s characters as various Hollywood celebrities of years gone by. It ends, inexplicably, with two pages of Macchio’s purple prose recited by a Humphrey Bogart stand-in.

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Bizarre Adventures 25 Bizarre Adventures #25 Ralph Macchio Paul Gulacy Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Humphrey Bogart Rick Blaine Casablanca 1942 black and white b&w Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

This book’s second “bonus” is the 60-page graphic novel Black Widow: The Coldest War, by writer Gerry Conway and artist George Freeman. Published in 1990, it follows up on the story of Black Widow’s first husband: Red Guardian, the Soviets’ answer to Captain America. It’s the best part of this collection, but that isn’t saying much; like the previous stories, it’s still uncomfortably concerned with positioning Black Widow’s professional capabilities in relation to her gender and sexuality. Characters’ names are spelled inconsistently throughout the story and text is sometimes hard to read against the background colors, signs of how cursory the editing and production design for Marvel’s early-1990s graphic novels often were.

As much as I wanted to be able to advocate for this book, I’m afraid I can’t see much that’s positive in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue. It’s precisely the sort of female-led superhero comic that today’s films and comics should strive not to emulate. That doesn’t mean that film studios and comic book publishers shouldn’t strive for parity in their representations of women, though; it simply suggests that, in telling future stories about women superheroes, we might all be better served by looking to the cultural attitudes of our own time rather than seeking creative inspiration from the past.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: The Lies

Review Wonder Woman Volume One The Lies Greg Rucka Liam Sharp Matthew Clark Princess Diana of Themyscira Steve Trevor Cheetah Barbara Ann Minerva DC Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Liam Sharp, Matthew Clark
Collects: Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1; Wonder Woman #1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 (2016)
Published: DC, 2017; $16.99

As part of its 2016 Rebirth initiative, DC simultaneously pared down the overall size of its publishing line and doubled down on its most popular characters by shipping two issues of titles like Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Wonder Woman per month. For the likes of Action and Detective, this strategy resulted in well-received initial storylines that wrapped in three months or less and were collected into trade paperbacks almost as quickly. But with Wonder Woman, DC took a more long-form approach: although the series would ship twice per month like the others, issues would alternate between a retelling of the character’s origin and another story set in the present. Each would have a different artist but both would be penned by Greg Rucka, whose return to the character after a ten-year absence was highly anticipated by readers.

Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: The Lies collects the series’ first six odd-numbered issues (and the prefatory Wonder Woman: Rebirth one-shot), which tell the present-day story. I’m not sure why DC chose to publish The Lies as Vol. 1 and the origin storyline, Year One, as Vol. 2, but it’s a testament to Rucka’s talent and sense of nuance that Wonder Woman’s present-day adventures never invoke the feeling of having missed something by not having read the even-numbered issues. This is especially impressive given how emotionally freighted Diana’s relationships are with the two other major characters of The Lies: estranged ex-lover and special-ops soldier Steve Trevor, and best-friend-turned-nemesis Barbara Ann Minerva, alias the Cheetah. That Rucka is able to clearly convey the varying shades of betrayal each of these characters feels toward one another, all despite the deferred recounting of their shared history until Vol. 2, is pretty remarkable.

Indeed, betrayal is the dominant theme of The Lies. The main thrust is that the many different versions of Wonder Woman’s origin that have been told over the years are all hovering at the edges of the character’s memory. She remembers myriad conflicting things she knows can’t be true; she has been “deceived,” she learns by wrapping herself in her own Lasso of Truth, but by whom and for what reason are a mystery. Her relationship with Steve is similarly characterized by years of avoiding the truth, of hurt feelings and self-denial. While Rucka avoids directly criticizing the various creative runs that emerged from DC’s last universe-wide reboot in 2011, Wonder Woman’s rueful explanation of the time she’s spent as Superman’s girlfriend – it was “easy” and “uncomplicated,” she admits – is a telling indictment of just how wrong the last six years of Wonder Woman comics have gotten the character.

The Cheetah’s history is compellingly reimagined as well, although no previous knowledge of the character is necessary to appreciate the contemporary social relevance of her plight. In The Lies, she is the victim of what Steve explicitly refers to as “toxic” masculinity: that is, as the victim of a pagan god’s jealous curse against her for having had relationships with other men before marrying him. (This is a much more meaningful take than the one presented in the 2011-launched New 52 Justice League series, in which Barbara Ann is a one-note career criminal who willingly becomes the Cheetah to better advance her illicit ends.) Her relationship with Diana transcends any tedious “but we were friends!!”-type handwringing in this volume, as the two work together to restore Barbara Ann’s humanity in their communal search for answers about the past.

Artist Liam Sharp deserves a great deal of credit for the emotional resonance of The Lies. Sharp has come a long way since the early issues of Spider-Man’s Clone Saga (where I first encountered his work), having turned in recent years more toward illustration, painting, and the fantasy genre. He brings those eclectic influences with him in his return to mainstream superhero comics: his Wonder Woman is powerful and beautiful without the uncomfortable hint of exoticism; his bearded Steve Trevor, although intensely handsome, clearly carries himself under the weight of years of physical and emotional tribulation; his Cheetah, lithe and feral, would have made Frank Frazetta proud. The nearly wordless rapprochement between Diana and Steve, their silhouettes black against the setting sun, is one of the most movingly honest and beautifully rendered scenes I’ve read in some time.

DC and its fans were right to herald Rucka’s return to Wonder Woman as perhaps Rebirth’s greatest creative coup: he and Sharp are currently turning out what may well be the publisher’s best series at the moment. I can’t wait to take the trip back to Year One in the series’ next volume, and to see how Wonder Woman’s even-numbered issues complement the story told in The Lies. And I look forward to Sharp’s return in the upcoming third volume as well, in which his vivid artwork and Rucka’s clear-eyed writing are sure to illuminate the path on Wonder Woman’s epic search for truth.