Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Luckily, Sandy Jarrell draws the remaining 16 pages, and Jarrell is also a pretty great artist, especially skilled at the drawing of pretty girls (click here, if you don't believe; he also does great Golden Age DC heroes). He also seems to be following Sauvage's lead and making every guy in Riverdale a total hunk. It was surprising enough to see Jughead looking hunky, but in this issue, Dilton Doiley briefly enters the narrative, and even he's dreamy now!
Matt Herms, who colors the Jarrell-drawn pages, matches the colors on Sauvage's pages so well that the art blends pretty perfectly. Before writing this, I actually had to go back and count the pages to see when Jarrell took over, because the transition was somewhat subtle when I originally read the comic. (Although the credit page says who drew which page, I see now; I skipped that page the first, um, two times I read the book, I guess.)
As for Spencer's story, Jughead continues his investigation into what's up with the Mantles, the police continue their investigation into Jughead and the Mantles and Betty and Veronica continue their investigation into who on Earth Archie might actually be dating. They never suspect Sabrina, but do inadvertently discover a very unexpected infidelity (Hopefully that's not the end of that plot point, though, as it seems to be a rather big deal, even if it's not apparently tied to the main story line).
The series launched with the character's co-creator Tony Isabella writing and Eddy Newell drawing, but their run lasted just eight of the 13 issues; with issue #9, David DeVries took over as writer (co-writing that issue with Lane Shiro, then going solo for the remaining four issues) and the art started to get messier and messier, as more and more artists got involved. Newell was still drawing parts of many of those issues, but by this point, the unified look and feel of the book that Newell's early issues established was lost.
Despite some affection for the character, I sat this series out. The only issues of the series I had previously read were the first and fifth, which I had snagged from back-issue bins, attracted by Newell's striking covers (his cover for the first issue was recolored and then re-purposed for the collection cover above; the fifth one is below). Re-reading it in 2019, I rather regret not reading it previously.
I guess there were clues throughout. There's mention of a lake, and Brick City being a midwestern town free from costumed heroes and supervillains, and late in the book there's mention of a fancy club for rich and powerful men; it's called The Buckeye Club. I understand the appeal of "fake" cities in superhero narratives, both as a reader and as a writer, but I think I'd recommend to any and all future writers that they just go ahead and use real cities. It certainly helps sell certain comics, or at least generate general interest stories in local media and/or on social media. I still get excited when I see a Columbus location show up in a comic book, like Civil War II or in that JSA book where Geoff Johns had super-Nazis attack a park in Franklin County. Didn't the Internet tell me somewhere that the "Art" sign at the Columbus College of Art and Design was destroyed in a super-comic recently...? Maybe a Bendis-written Superman book...?
Speaking of Bendis, now I really, really, reeeaaaalllllly want DC to launch a new Black Lightning comic, with Bendis, one of Cleveland's most famous comic book writers (even though he has since moved to the Pacific Northwest) writing it. I'd settle for Bryan K. Vaughan, but Bendis seems like an easier "get," since he's already writing for DC Comics, and can apparently handle anywhere between three and a dozen books a month.
Anyway, I'm way off topic, aren't I...?
Newell's work on this series is quite incredible, and really makes the book. He has a very distinct, realistic, line-filled style that gives a real weight, texture and grit to what he draws. It's perfect for the brick walls, concrete streets and rough fabrics of the world created in these pages. As Isabella notes in his foreword, Newell excels at drawing different characters as different people, rather than resorting to stock "types" of characters--I honestly don't think any two characters look a like in his pages--and the result is a superhero comic that feels more real and lived-in than most, even once you take into account the fact that the lead character generates a field of electricity around him.
And Newell's version of that character is probably the best version; at least the best since Tevor Von Eeden and company were drawing him during his original comic, but that character's costume was...well, it sure didn't age well, did it...?
Newell's Black Lightning doesn't wear a mask attached to an afro wig and disco-looking superhero duds, nor does he wear body paint-tight spandex and goggles spirit-gummed to his face. Rather, he costume is basically a big, leather jacket with a lightning motif, pants, boots and a belt. Aside from the jacket design, it looks like something you could buy off the rack, and wouldn't need a super-butler with an unlimited budget to put together for you.
I was a little surprised by the presence of the red in the costume, honestly, as blue has been has been the traditional Black Lightning color for all but this period in the character's history--usually mixed with white, yellow and black in varying degrees and places--but it works really well. It certainly signaled a break with the "old" Black Lightning and, now, differentiates him from the later Black Lightnings. I particularly appreciated the fact that a black lightning bolt is so prominently featured in the costume. That is one of the weird bugaboos about Black Lightning that has bothered me endlessly (the other is the color of the electricity he generates; as I've said before, I really think that at this point it should either be colored black, retroactively justifying his name now that we're so far away from the 1970s, or at least purplish, like the color generated by a black light).
He doesn't wear a mask, but he doesn't need too. As Newell draws him, his eyes are always illuminated by electricity, giving him a sort of built-in energy mask. He also usually has a visible halo of electricity crackling around him, which one imagines would further disguise him if one were to look at him "in comic"; it's also just a really cool visual effect, and one that explains things like how he can take bullets or stop a speeding car that runs into him. I like that this Black Lightning doesn't just shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers, but is constantly generating electricity.
Isabella's storytelling is pretty strong here, and I was hooked on this a lot faster than I was on the recent Cold Dead Hands miniseries, which I only read the first issue of, but plan to try again in trade after having read this trade. He has Jefferson Pierce come to the Brick City and start working as a teacher in an inner city school plagued with gang problems (you know, like in the movies), while fighting street-level crime with threats, fists and electricity.
Isabella immediately establishes a wide supporting cast, including a sympathetic police detective, a practically omniscient informant, a corrupt mayor (oh, I guess that's a reason not to use real cities in your comics...!), a new love interest, Jefferson's ex-wife, a good kid mixed up in gang trouble who crosses paths with both Black Lightning and Jefferson Pierce and a charismatic gang leader with a terrible haircut, that is still noteworthy for its thematic terribleness.
The first half of the Isabella/Newell run is devoted to introducing all of these characters and their various conflicts, as Black Lightning inserts himself in a gang war and witnesses the price of drug and gun violence way too closely for comfort; this arc climaxes with the fifth issue, "Requiem," in which Jefferson Pierce recovers from his wounds in a hospital...and Newell switches back and forth from black and white art to colored art. Newell's work looks amazing in black and white (After reading this and spending some time on his Facebook page, I started wishing DC would have him do a black-and-white Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. Because of course whenever I think of black-and-white art, I think of the TMNT).
After that, there are three issues or so devoted to a gang summit in the Brick City, lead by a reformed gang-leader that Metropolis vigilante Gangbuster wants to kill, leading to the usual justice vs. vengeance conflict between vigilantes (this story features a couple of shape-shifters in it near the climax, making it a more superhero-y than the previous arc, which did have a metahuman enforcer hired by one of the gangs, but, like Black Lightning, his powers were relatively low-level in the world of DC superheroes).
After Isabella leaves, DeVries keeps the cast, most of the sub-plots and new characters, and the street-level focus. In addition to fighting gang violence, Black Lightning faces a serial killer who preys on prostitutes named "Sick Nick" while he himself is pursued by the police for crimes he didn't commit. In the final issue, which ties up most of the remaining loose ends, Batman shows up to basically cheerlead for Jefferson. A holiday special by Isabella and Newell, told all in black and white, finishes up the collection.
All in all, it was a pretty satisfying read, and one I fairly flew through. The character is currently appearing in the new latest version of Batman and The Outsiders, and I do hope the creators take in this trade paperback collection for a fine template for how to depict Black Lightning. And if he gets his own book again any time soon, I hope Newell's drawing it, and Jeff wears this costume, or something similar.
this post, if you're interested--rebooting the characters and concept of the 1987 cartoon series for a new, "PG-13" take. At least, that was what creator, original cartoon series producer and writer of this series Michael Uslan says he was going for in his prose introduction, which ran in the first issue and is re-run here.
I had read the first two of these in singles before losing track of the series--that's easy to do with Lion Forge comics, I've found. Like, I'm not even sure if this was meant to be a miniseries or an ongoing; if the former, it's certainly open-ended and intended to produce a sequel. Read in one sitting, there's a rushed, not-quite-there feel to the book. While Uslan writes all five issues, the art gets pretty inconsistent about halfway through. Andrew Pepoy, who is credited as "illustrator," is the primary artist, but by the third issue pencillers Javier Saltares, Gordon Purcell and "Moy R" show up, as do three inkers, in addition to Moy R, who is also credited as an inker. There's even a different letterer for the third issue than for the other four issues.
Normally, such credits would suggest an unforseen time crunch, and a need to beat the deadline in order to get a particular issue published by a particular point, but ideally such crunches shouldn't occur almost immediately into the run of a new comic. Dinosaucers fans waited over 20 years for a Dinosaucers comic; surely they could have waited a few more months until Lion Forge and the creators had all their duckbills in a row in order to get each issue out on time and in a consistent style.
This early in a run, consistent art and design is pretty much imperative, especially here, where the cast is quite large and visually unusual; not only are all of the characters radically redesigned from their appearance in the cartoon, but they are now more human-like than dinosaurian, and their designs are more up-to-date with paleontologist's views of what dinosaurs probably looked like. So more proto-feathers, then. Beyond the inconsistency of the look of the later chapters with the first ones, the action at the climax lacks clarity. The Tyrannos are somewhat easily defeated after being goaded into a conflict, and the manner in which they are defeated revolves around an element of their suits, which isn't clear in the way their suits are drawn or in the action supposedly showing the manipulation of them.
The basic Dinosaucers concept is intact, and the mixture of aliens and dinosaurs is just as engaging as it ever was. The emphasis on climate change as an apocalyptic threat that has doomed the Dinosaucers' home planet of Reptilon and now threatens Earth with the same fate is noble, and pretty effectively communicated while tied to dinosaur-humans as symbols of extinction.
It's really just the execution that is wanting.
I'd read a second volume, though, and the set-up for such a potential secondvolume is intriguing, offering something that I don't think was ever really shown on the show. Or, if it was, I don't remember it, but then, as I mentioned in my review of the first issue, Dinosaucers wasn't a show I watched regularly, which was part of the reason I found it so appealing.
There's some powerful imagery in here, as when Cy-Kill picks up a handful of naked in humans in his huge metal hands and tries to force them to transform and combine into a bigger, gestalt form--it's a giant, evil toy playing with humanity in the same way a human child might have played with a Go-bot, and it's scary stuff. If anything, this series has made Cy-Kill seem some hundred thousand times scarier than Megatron has ever been.
There's some strange mysticism that echoes that in Tom Scioli's own Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe, as Leader-1 has visions, including a revelation of a combining, gestalt Go-Bot, a mythical "laser lance" weapon capable of killing the Renegads' monstrous, wheeled dragon Zod and a climactic battle in which the "dragon" is slain by our hero, who loses his life in the process.
Leader-1 isn't the only one to die--or "die"--here. Spay-C doesn't survive the issue, either, and Turbo refers to him as, well, him rather than her. I could have sworn Spay-C was a female Go-Bot, but man, it's been a long time since I've watched and forgotten Challenge of The Go-Bots, and I don't want to re-subject myself to it again any time soon (I'm currently struggling with The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, in order to better appreciate the latest original Scooby-Doo movie, The Curse of the 13th Ghost, and it is rough going). Also, Spay-C's size seems quite flexible, as does that of several of the other Go-Bots (Like, scooters and motorcycles are significantly smaller than race cars, jet planes and helicopters, but, in their robot forms, everyone is generally the same size here; last issue, Spay-C fit all four astronauts in his/her body, but here she/he is only about ten times as big as one of them).
As with the first three issues of the series, Go-Bots #4 is pretty insane...and insanely good.
Exploring plot points raised in the previous arc, this issue finds Luthor visiting J'onn on Mars, where the latter tries to explain the time when their childhoods overlapped, something that both of them had wiped from their memories in different ways, and which J'onn just learned of. They also deal with some hostile local martian fauna, which whoever writes the dumb cover blurbs was super-excited about. That gives them something action-y to do between conversation and flashbacks, but it certainly isn't the focus of the issue that it is made out to be.
As per usual, Snyder crafts a pretty great story, weaving invented Martian cultural elements into the story in such a way to provide it a structure and make the emotional beats feel more effective.
I remain a little confused about how J'onn's powers are meant to work now. Luthor seems to block his ability to telepathically enter his mind via technology in this issue, but that also renders J'onn powerless, although it's not explained why or how. My guess is that Snyder is implying that J'onn's powers are all tied into his psychic abilities, and that therefore by blocking that, J'onn can no longer control his many other abilities, like super-strength, flight, his density, Martian vision, et cetera. I'm just no-prizing here, and it seems to be a break from what's come before.
Of course, this never-previously-revealed meeting between the two characters when they were children also upends what we might think of as J'onn's history, as post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint, the Chase and Martian Manhunter series showed us a J'onn who was active on earth in different identities before baby Kal-El arrived on Earth in his baby rocket, fighting crime as The Bronze Wraith with the Justice Experience, teaming up with Hal Jordan's Green Lantern Corps predecessor Abin Sur, and watching over Clark Kent as his Kryptonian powers began to emerge (in fact, that last bit was just referenced in a typically allusion-buttressed Steve Orlando contribution to DC's Nuclear Winter Special, although that was meant to be a story within a story, and is therefore probably ranked below Justice League in terms of authority). In other words, J'onn should be much, much, much older than Lex Luthor. Or, at least, he was prior to Flashpoint; now anything goes.
I liked the manner in which J'onn carried Jarro in this story. But then, I'm rather enamored of all things Jarro.
The sequence leads to cameo appearances by lots of DC characters, like Arion, George Perez's design of Ares, Morgan La Faye (and Jason Blood, I think?), Ra's al Ghul, The Ultra-Humanite and The Turtle.
There's also a panel in which Lionel Luthor appears to be dissecting a rather large White martian, and there's a gorilla just kinda hanging out in the room with him, apparently acting as a high-tech lab assistant of some kind. I don't know who this gorilla is supposed to be, but it's definitely not Grodd--we've already seen him and Ferry draws this gorilla quite differently. Any guesses as to who this gorilla is supposed to be? Or is it just some random gorilla we've never met, which, if so, would be kind of lame and kind of awesome at the same time. I do love the fact that this DC comic has not one, not two, but three super-gorillas in it by the twelfth page.
The other bit I like is that Ferry dresses The Cheetah, who is usually completely naked, adopts some kind of futuristic white lab coat, since she's doing some science stuff to support the Brainiac/Luthor mind-meld. After all, if she weren't wearing a lab coat, how would we even know she was doing science...?
Man-Eaters is the new collaboration by prose author Chelsea Cain and artist Kate Niemczyk, the creative team responsible for Marvel's short-lived Mockingbird which, for a few months anyway, was either Marvel's best comic or one of their best comics. It's hard not to read this and not at least suspect it of being a reaction to Internet trolls' months-long freak out regarding Mockingbird, which, as far as I remember, mostly centered around the protagonist wearing a t shirt with a feminist slogan* on one cover, but it's quite possible I missed any of the outrage regarding previous issues--assholes on Twitter tend to get pissed off about weird things, like women writing comics, women drawing comics and female characters starring in comics.
After all, the very first panels feature the teenage protagonist playing with a couple of tampons, imagining one as a villain named Mr. Misogyny, and the other as a superhero named Tampon Woman. The premise is that a mutant form of Toxoplasmosis has, for mysterious reasons, started transforming menstruating adolescent women into killer were-cat monsters. To combat the threat, the government started putting hormones in the water supply that stops menstruation...and thus stops adolescent girls from turning into killer cats. To keep young men free of all those lady hormones, they have their own special water supply (I'm not quite sure how they allow for human reproduction in this scenario, but there's only been three story issues so far, and it hasn't come up yet).
But because that system isn't perfect, there are still Strategic Cat Apprehension Teams, which of course acronyms into--sigh--"S.C.A.T." The back cover announces the series as "part Cat People, part The Handmaid's Tale, and all feminist agenda." That is certainly a promising ambition, but I suppose it's worth noting that some of the parody is as broad as the acronym gag, applying a clown hammer where a razor blade might have been better.
It is sharp though. Cain grabs parallel threads by the handful--girls' fears of their own changing bodies as they enter womanhood, men's insecurities about women's bodies in general and menses and puberty in particular, feminimity as power rather than weakness, the separate and rarely equal way girls and boys are treated in school, the cultural association between women and cats from time immemorial right up until now-President Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tape--and weaves them into a compelling tapestry. The first three issues of Man-Eaters is smart, potent world-building, and the beginning of what could be a great story.
But we'll have to wait a trade before it really gets going, I guess. The first three issues are sprinkled with faux PSAs and ads that further the world-building, like those for Estro Pure bottled water "for boys," or Estro Clean, "The anti-estrogen spray specially designed to protect what matters most: BOYS!" Using what appears to be stock photos and public domain advertising imagery as raw material, these can be pretty funny as well as adding some texture. But if they work in small doses, the fourth issue proves they don't work so hot in gigantic doses.
After three issues of world-building and the introduction of our protagonist, a 12-year-old girl on the verge of becoming a woman and/or killer cat monster whose divorced parents are a homicide detective and a member of the local S.C.A.T., the fourth issue is just fake ads and fluffy fake articles. Sold as a comic book, it's really just a 27-page impression of Cat Fight, a magazine from the world of Man-Eaters. Some of the contents are amusing, but none of them are comics, and the gag magazine concept isn't strong enough to, like, exist on its own.
Like I said, I knew this was coming, and I was still taken aback by how soon it arrived in the trade--that is, just as Cain's story seemed to really be getting started--and how long it was. This a $12.99 trade paperback containing just 58 pages of comics. That's...not a great value. Which is unfortunate, because what little story there is in this volume certainly appears to be valuable.
I guess the titling does reflect the reality that Marvel publishes certain books too fast for almost any modern comics artist to keep up with, and thus while Spencer does write every bit of the comics contained within these pages, Ottley doesn't pencil and/or ink them all; Humberto Ramos and Victor Olazaba pencil and ink a portion of the first issue of the new ASM book, which this trade collects the first five issues of (plus the Spider-Man story from Free Comic Book Day Special 2018 as a sort of prologue).
It's still unfortunate.
Anyway, this comic book is pretty great. I'm not exactly a Spider-Man fan, nor a reader--I tried keeping up for a while, but the "One More Day" nonsense reboot left a bad taste in my mouth, and then Marvel jacked-up the prices, and then I fell so far behind so fast that I felt too lost to even attempt to catch back up. For example, the inside front and back covers of this volume suggest 14 trade paperback collections to read before this one, including two each of Vols. 1-5. This book, with a new creative team and a new start and a promising sub-title, seemed like a good place to check back in.
And it mostly is.
The chaos of recent-ish Spider-Man continuity isn't ignored. In fact, some of it is foregrounded by Spencer, as certain events propel those in this volume--like, for example, the fact that Peter Parker is stripped of a job and a degree when a paper he wrote was discovered to be plagiarized (At the time, Otto Octavius' mind was occupying his body, but hell, try explaining that without revealing your secret identity!). Even still, in the best superhero comic tradition, Spencer manages to build on past comics without being completely dependent on them, or insisting that readers know them inside and out.
So Peter Parker is at another low-point, as his existence as the lead in a popular superhero serial narrative mandates he keeps returning to, with no job, no girlfriend, nowhere to live, and with everyone in his life suspicious of him--this includes not only the entire superhero community, who all appear to fight off an alien invasion at one point, and even good old Aunt May.
Spencer has Spidey slowly putting his life back together, but in ways that introduce a new status quo with new story possibilities, although much of that which is "new" is simply setting up new encounters with old characters and old conflicts (Mysterio, Kingpin and The Lizard play substantial roles in these comics; The Rhino and Kraven put in cameos, as do quite a few minor Spider-Man villains). By the end of the first volume, Peter's living with two roommates, Randy Robertson (son of the Bugle's Cliff Robertson) and Fred Myers, the secret identity of The Boomerang (who was the star of Spencer and Steve Lieber's awesome and under-appreciated The Superior Foes of Spider-Man; the Beetle also appears briefly, and Spencer favorites Taskmaster and Black Ant also put in appearances).
He's considering taking classes with Doctor Curt Connors, which would allow him to get his lost degree back fair and square. And--good news!--he and MJ get back together, so hopefully we can semi-pretend "One More Day"/"Brand New Day" never really happened.
Spencer is pretty much a perfect writer for a Spider-Man ongoing, as he is quite adept at balancing humorous superhero writing with serious superhero writing, and that's basically Spider-Man's whole schtick. This isn't an out-and-out comedy comic, and it's not a serious one played completely straight either, but it almost immediately finds a perfect balance, so that the mode is mostly serious, but filled with characters capable of generating their own comedy, not just in Spidey's fight patter, but in Boomerang's shitty behavior, MJ's sarcastic remarks, the Taksmaster/Black Ant team's interplay with one another and the world around him.
As for the plotting, in addition to a Mysterio attack on New York--and his subsequent trial--that is used to illustrate what everyone thinks about Spider-Man and/or Peter Parker at the moment and move forward what appears to be a spooky-themed ongoing plot featuring a character I've never seen or heard of before--much of this volume concerns the character Silvermane, who considers himself Spider-Man's greatest foe (I am mostly familiar with him from Spider-Man cartoons; I never liked him, nor did I understand why so much screen time was being devoted to him given how big, wide, deep and awesome Spider-Man's rogues gallery is), a/the Tri-Sentinel, which appeared in the very first Spider-Man comic I ever read (and one of the first comics I ever read, period, years before I got hooked on them) and the reappearance of the device that kinda sorta created Spider-Man...or at least invested him with his spider powers.
Basically, Spider-Man and Peter Parker are separated from one another into two distinct individuals, and hilarity--as well as action and adventure--ensues.
Ottley would not have been my first choice for the primary artist for the primary Spider-Man title, but he does a fairly amazing job here. His designs for all of the characters look just right, while also looking like his in several respects, particularly his Peter Parker. He's equally adept at the humor and the action, and drawing people in civilian clothes doing regular people stuff and super-people in costumes doing superheroic stuff. Also, giant robots and the monster guy with the giant centipede.
Anyway, these aren't, like, the greatest comics in the world or anything, but they are extremely solid super-comics from some talented folks who are experts in the genre. I would have happily bought this and/or future volumes, but it arrived in my local public library before I could decided if I wanted to buy it or not, which is the main reason this is in the "Borrowed" section rather than the "Bought" one.
Here. So this is not as good as The Fox, but I liked it far better than the Black Hood comics I read, and far, far more than the 2015 Shield, which I could barely make it through the first issue of. I think I preferred Ian Flynn's previous Crusaders book, The New Crusaders, which had a better premise, even though this is technically a continuation of that one. The last pages are certainly intriguing, though, and they make me curious as to where this might all go in the future.
More than anything though, it made me wish that DC's old Impact comics starring these characters were available in trade format. Or that there were cheap reprints of their Golden Age adventures. Actually, what I really wish existed were black and white, phone book-sized reprints, in the style of Marvel's defunct Essential line or DC's equally defunct Showcase Presents line featuring all of the Crusaders/Red Circle comics in chronological order, from the 1960s, '80s, the '90s Impact stuff DC did and even the brief DC revival I completely ignored, due to how awful it looked.
Anyway! This was pretty okay, and the first non-Fox Dark Circle comic I was at all interested in seeing more of.
Here. This 350+-page brick collects the first chunk of Peanuts comics produced for comic books, rather than the funnies pages, from 1957 to 1963. There's some rare Charles Schulz stuff in here, mostly covers, but the majority of the contents are from people who are not Schulz, and I'm always fascinated by how people who are not the creators of a particular strip or character or group of characters closely associated with that creator handle the material. And is there any comic more closely associated with its creator than Peanuts?
If you're someone who reads comics blogs from comics bloggers who have been writing comics blogs for a very long time--and something tells me that you might be--then you may have previously heard about these comics the same place I did: Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin. If that is the case, please be aware that this volume contains the blanket-pooping robot, but not the hungry hobo. The latter would presumably appear in a later volume, if they publish one, which I imagine would feature even weirder comics than those in here, as these tend to drift progressively farther from Schulz's comic strip the longer they go on.
Here. Sometimes I even write about real, non-genre comics for grown-ups, too!
Here. I know what you're thinking. Wait, didn't you write like a billion tedious words on this book already, Caleb? Yes, I did, although I'm not sure I'd use the word "tedious." That rambling review (or, perhaps, "review" would be more accurate) was for EDILW, however, and this is an official, professional review. You see the difference? No? Well, maybe if you re-read what I wrote on Young Justice in the previous installment of this column and then read what I wrote for Good Comics For Kids you will.
*Fun fact: Every single Marvel superhero is a feminist. Even the ones who are total dicks, like Namor.
Thursday, March 14, 2019
On the existence of a Captain Marvel movie in general, and some of my thoughts on it in particular (Spoilers, obviously)
|Brie Larson, Super Saiyan|
I honestly didn't think it would ever happen, and it was really one of those instances where I had to be in the theater, actually watching the movie unfold before my eyes, to be convinced it was happening. There were a variety of reasons for this, one of which I outlined in a post five years ago, a post that I just went back to re-read and laugh at my own lack of imagination and all-around wrongness*.
If memory serves, online discussion regarding when Marvel was going to get around to a female-starring movie began almost immediately upon the surprise success of 2008's Iron Man, as what would become the now ten-year-old "Marvel Cinematic Universe" was just beginning to coalesce. The difficulty of that became immediately apparent.
Unlike DC Comics, Marvel Comics didn't have a Wonder Woman just waiting around to have a movie made about her. Introduced in 1941, Wonder Woman wasn't just one of the greatest and best-known superheroes of time--one of the three whose comics have been in continuous publication since her debut--with decades of TV shows, cartoons and merchandise keeping her within pop consciousness, she was also one of the relatively few female characters whose existence wasn't defined or even related to a male superhero, nor part of a package deal with a team consisting of male heroes.
All of Marvel's best and best-known female superheroes circa the '00s were X-Men, and Marvel Studios lacked access to that pool of characters (they also couldn't do any movies featuring any of the many Spider-Women or Spider-Girls, or a Sue Storm solo movie...if those were actually movies they wanted to make). The remaining prominent-ish female Marvel heroes had the unfortunate aspect of being distaff, spin-off versions of male heroes. Why greenlight a She-Hulk movie instead of a Hulk movie, for example, and even if you did make a movie entitled She-Hulk and made the jade giantess the protagonist of the film, wouldn't your Cinematic Universe's more-popular, already-established Hulk character need to at least appear in it?
Founding Avenger The Wasp seemed like a good bet, but her origin and powers were tied to those of Ant-Man Hank Pym; could the studio introduce a Wasp before an Ant-Man, especially if they were planning on making an Ant-Man movie...? (Well, yeah, they could have, but they decided not to, obviously).
The presence of Black Widow in the first Avengers film as the sole female character on the roster seemed an odd choice, and seemed to owe something to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's reinvention of the franchise in their 2002-launched Ultimates miniseries than her being one of the publisher's more prominent characters or one long-associated with The Avengers team (Wasp and Widow were the only females on the original Ultimates line-up, and then a Scarlet Witch got added). It was probably also a matter of the character fitting in better with the MCU's more grounded, more realistic (than the comics, anyway) approach to superheroes, and the military/espionage tone of the films. And, of course, there weren't many other options.
Looking at a list of Avengers over the team's history, the list Marvel had to seek out characters to give movies to features a lot of relatively minor characters**. (And, keep in mind, while Iron Man, Thor and Captain America are all A-List Avengers characters, they were all also decidedly C-List characters in the overall Marvel Universe at the time of their first films; you only do an Iron Man movie when someone else has started doing X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Punisher and Ghost Rider movies, you know?)
After The Wasp, you had Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Mantis (who appeared in Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2), Moondragon, Hellcat (who appeared in Jessica Jones and was just beginning to develop cat powers in the last episodes of the final season), Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers, Tigra, She-Hulk, Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, Mockingbird (who appeared on TV's Agents of SHIELD), Firebird (I had to look her up), Sersi (ditto), Spider-Woman, Crystal (who appeared in TV's Inhumans), Firestar (ironically, one of the better known female Avengers, even though she was originally created for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends), Silverclaw and Captain Britain Kelsey Leigh Shorr (Actually, I could see a Captain Britain movie working pretty easily).
And then, after "Avengers: Disassembled," the nature of the team became less that of a stable institution, and characters would come and go from various iterations or factions of the teams, some of which were on different sides of the law at various points. Anyway, in the years between "Disassembled" and the first Avengers movie in 2012, characters added to the team/s included Ronin/Echo, Jocasta, Valkyrie (who appeared in Thor: Ragnarok) and Jessica Jones (who had her own TV series).
Looking at that list, there's not a ton of promise, and few of those characters were ever able to even support their own ongoing comic book title--just Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, Hellcat, Jessica Jones, Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers, She-Hulk and Spider-Woman, several of whom had the whole female-version-of-male-characters problem--so maybe Carol Danvers was the best option a careful film studio had.
After The Wasp and Scarlet Witch, and the already-established but tenuously connected to the team Black Widow, it gets a bit difficult to connect some of these characters to The Avengers franchise. (Honestly, any of them could support a film of some kind, but it's hard to imagine a Tigra movie, for example, turning out to be something everyone would be happy with; then again, who on Earth would have predicted a fucking Guardians of The Galaxy movie, or that Rocket Raccoon would play a bigger role in a Marvel Cinematic Universe than, say, She-Hulk?).
Even once you get to Carol Danvers as your best bet, there's the problem of her origins (she was tied to the male Captain Marvel in much the same way that She-Hulk is tied to The Hulk) and her convoluted history (which includes a handful of different, terrible code names). All superheroes have convoluted histories, as they temporarily change their costumes or powers or relationships or geography or status quos, but many of them return to a sort of baseline, original version of the character between. That is, big, resilient characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Fantastic Four and so on have a sort of elasticity--companies and creators can pull them pretty far into different directions, but they will snap back. Carol Danvers, as a more recent creation and one who has gone through many changes as a supporting character in other characters' books for much of that time, lacks a place to snap back to. Or lacked, I should say.
And that is what I found most remarkable about the Captain Marvel film. Between 2012, when anything other than a Black Widow and maybe a The Wasp movie seemed like a real challenge for Marvel Studios, the folks at Marvel Comics, particularly writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, seemed to just do the work to make Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel and one of the biggest, most powerful and most influential characters in the Marvel Comics Universe, essentially market-testing the character's ability to support a solo film as the title character and protagonist.
|Ugh, Wonder Man.|
Since the time that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow helped the guys fight off a big screen alien invasion, we've seen Carol Danvers in her new red, blue and gold suit as Captain Marvel in the pages of DeConnick, Dexter Soy and company's 2012 Captain Marvel (and its rather random 2014 and 2016 relaunches), ten issues or so of the short-lived 2012-2013 Avengers Assemble (written by DeConnick and Bendis), Bendis' Guardians of The Galaxy, the 2015 miniseries Captain Marvel and The Carol Corps (DeConnick again, with co-writer Kelly Thompson), A-Force (the 2015 miniseries, written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett), A-Force (the short-lived 2016 ongoing series by Wilson and Thompson), writer Al Ewing and company's 2016 The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2, the Bendis-written 2016 Civil War II and its scores of tie-ins, the 2017-launched The Mighty Captain Marvel, Margaret Stohl and Carlos Pacheco's 2018 miniseries The Life of Captain Marvel and Jason Aaron and company's current title The Avengers.
Now, I've read probably less than half, maybe a third of the comics mentioned above, in part due to my profound disinterest in the character Carol Danvers, regardless of her ever-changing code name and status quo. (Is this due to some unconscious sexism on my part...? It's possible. I hope not. There are plenty of male Marvel heroes I am similarly completely uninterested in, including Wonder Man, The Vision***, Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, seven-out-of-ten X-Men...) Many of those that I did read were somewhere between not very good and actually kind of terrible. But that's not the point; the point is that Marvel and a couple of creators in particular worked on that character to the point where she seems to have starred in more comics than Wolverine in the last half-dozen years or so (Although, I guess Wolverine has been kinda sorta dead for a portion of that time, so maybe that is actually a terrible example...)
It's unclear to me how much of this was the folks at Marvel Comics attempting to make Carol Danvers a character capable of carrying a "Phase Three" film and becoming the publisher's answer to Wonder Woman. Given the Marvel Comics business-people's inability to think beyond the very short term, it's hard to imagine their launching an ambitious seven-year plan to secure Carol Danvers a movie and help sell it by priming their core, direct market audience to agree she's awesome, although it's pretty clear some of those most recent comics exist to make sure the movie star is ready and waiting in trade collections and new issues should film-goers seek out comics starring her. It seems more likely that individual creators like DeConnick, Bendis and Thompson just really liked the character, saw potential in her, and went about pulling her into the spotlight, and then turning up the intensity of that spotlight over the years.
This is a long, tedious way of saying that I am still a little shocked that they made a Captain Marvel movie. And that I am shocked that it is good and that I liked it. And that it's worth noting that, whatever success the film might attain, however much the performances of Brie Larson, Sam Jackson and others' might contribute to that success, and how skilled directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and their various co-writers are, that film almost certainly wouldn't have gotten made were it not for DeConnick and company's comics work over the last few years.
Anyway, let's talk a bit about the movie, huh?
Here Is Some Stuff That I Liked About The Movie
•That was quite an elegant decoupling if Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel from Mar-Vell's Captain Marvel, I thought. One solution to this would have been to just excise Mar-Vell from the narrative completely, and have Carol taking his role, being Captain Marvel from the start and having never gone through a Ms. Marvel phase. They come up with an even better solution, though, so that Carol is still a human being from Earth gifted with super-powers from a Kree named Mar-Vell during an explosion...it's just not a male character with the superhero name "Captain Marvel". The film keeps the essentials of her origin, simplifying and improving on it in a way that works quite well within the context of the film and the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe.
|That gown is 1,000 times a better, more practical superhero costume than about half of Carol Danvers' costumes were.|
DeConnick's not writing the current Captain Marvel book, The Mighty Captain Marvel. Instead she's writing Aquaman, the current comic book series featuring the Distinguished Competition's latest movie star, whose film was also a somewhat surprise (to me) box office success. (UPDATE: Oh, wait, make that the three people I am happiest for right now, so we can include DeConnick's mom.)
•It was nice to see so much Sam Jackson in this movie. It seems like he has at least a cameo in, like, all of these movies, but he's usually crowded out by all the superheroes. For much of this film, he's in a sort of buddy cop relationship to Larson's Vers/Carol. Similarly, I would hope that Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill gets this amount of screen time in some MCU movie eventually.
•By the way, the origin of Carol Danvers' Kree name, "Vers", made me laugh.
•The Stan Lee stuff was all pretty great. The bit with the studio logo at the very beginning got me feeling a little verklempt, and elicited some applause from the opening night audience I saw it with. His cameo in this film was particularly good too, I thought. This being set in the 1990s, he literally played himself, in the act of rehearsing for a film in which he would also play himself; 1995's Mallrats. Kevin Smith's second film sure was ahead of the curve when it came to putting Stan Lee in movies, huh? Oddly, that was perhaps his best and juiciest role, despite the fact that he would go on to appear in somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 superhero movies in the years that followed.
•They included Monica Rambeau in an interesting way. For some reason, I thought Lashana Lynch had been cast as Monica Rambeau, and I kept thinking that even after she was repeatedly referred to as Maria Rambeau (Her pilot nickname, written on the side of her plane? "Photon"). It wasn't until her daughter Monica is called by name that I realized she is the character who will grow up to be Captain Marvel...or more likely Photon, Pulsar, Spectrum or whatever in some future MCU movie. Maybe Captain Marvel 2 or 3 or, in a perfect world, Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. At any rate, in the "present" she will be, what, in her late 30s? Early '40s? Old enough to be a superhero, anyway.
•That was a pretty great role for Annette Benning. It's nice, if a little fucked up, that this year we've seen women of a certain age getting fun, fantastic roles in big, tent-pole superhero movies. Like, Nicole Kidman has made, what, 3,000 movies in her lifetime, and the most successful one she's ever been apart of is the one where she played Aquaman's mom...? (That said, I'm not sure that was the best way to show The Supreme Intelligence. Like, giant fat head with tentacle hair floating in a tube isn't that great either, but I wonder if they could have compromised between Annette Benning in her other role and the source material's depiction of the Supreme Intelligence).
•The Carol-standing-up sequence, which the trailers made much of, was still pretty effective, despite having seen it out-of-context in those trailers so many times. I got the sense the directors were shooting for the equivalent of Wonder Woman-in-No Man's Land sequence, and while it wasn't that good, it is certainly a great scene, one that immediately imprints on the mind and memory and is sure to be a classic moment among the many, many Marvel movies.
Here Is Some Stuff That I Did Not Like About The Movie So Much
•I thought the first 15-to-20 minutes--all the outer space shit, really--was kind of tiresome and dull. It was pretty generic and unimaginative-looking, something that was perhaps predetermined by the fact Marvel's outer space was previously designed and defined for the filmmakers in the two Guardians movies, and it struck me as very, very dark. Like, Solo dark. And I'm referring to the lighting, not the content. The friend I saw it with said it was more the fault of the theater we saw it in than the film itself, but I guess there's no way for me to test that without, like, seeing it a second time somewhere else.
•I didn't much care for the computer gimmickry employeed to make Jackson and Clark Gregg look 20-years-younger. Jackson bothered me less, probably because I am so used to seeing him at that age in movies, but Gregg's young Agent Coulson looked much more...off to me. It wasn't as weird and disturbing as, say, CGI Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One but it was a little weird.
On the other hand, I guess it was cool for Gregg to get to be in a Marvel movie again, given that he was around for so much of the groundwork-laying of the earliest Marvel movies, and then got killed off when the MCU really started to take off as a perpetual blockbuster machine.
•I didn't care for the on-screen appearances of The Skrulls on, like, any level. The shape-changing was a bit laborious, they looked a bit too much like "modern" Skrulls rather than original Skrulls for my own personal tastes, and their make-up jobs looked kind of cheap, like something more a appropriate for a TV show than a big budget movie. In fact, when the Main Skrull appears in Rambeau's house, sipping out of a straw, it hit me that there was something very Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel about their appearance. And I don't mean that as a compliment. (Similarly, Ronan and his Accuser bro looked less good than he did in Guardians of The Galaxy. Did they sink most of the budget into young-ifying Jackson and Gregg, and making Brie Larson light-up...?)
•I may have audibly sighed when the tesseract showed up as minor plot point. I really thought we were done with infinity stones/gems/gemstones. In fact, after years of trying to keep straight where each of the stones were and where they went from movie to movie, after Avengers: Infinity War I purged my mind and memory of all knowledge of the stones, assuming I would never need to know anything about them ever again. And now Captain Marvel asks me to ponder how Annette Benning got her hands on it, and where it went after it was inside a cat for a portion of this movie.
•I realize they made a very conscious decision to not play up Carol Danvers/Brie Larson's sex appeal or invite the male gaze to her body at any point in the film, which immediately differentiated it from every prior film starring a female comic book superhero, up to and including Wonder Woman, but it occurred to me later that Marvel Studios movies almost always feature their male heroes shirtless at some point, even if only for a second, and even if it seems somewhat forced or completely incidental to the plot (Remember Chris Hemsworth taking off his clothes to splash around in a pool to commune with Asgard or whatever in Age of Ultron?).
I know, if I was Brie Larson, and I had spent months working out for this role, pushing Jeeps and shit, I would at least one a second or two of me in a tank top or athletic bra to show off my arms and abs, you know?
•I was kind of disappointed that SHIELD Agent Director Peggy Carter didn't put in an appearance at all, or even get mentioned. Remember when Hayley Atwell showed up in old lady make-up in Ant-Man, in a flashback sequence set in, was that the 1980s...? It would have been nice to see her here, and not just because it's always nice to see Hayley Atwell. Having Marvel's first female hero sharing a scene with their first headlining hero would have seemed appropriate, as, in some ways, Carol Danvers is probably the realization of some of Carter's dreams, and it would likewise be nice to see the woman who worked with Marvel's "first" Captain there to pass the torch on to the new one.
At the very least, when Fury mentioned his boss being mad at him, I don't think it would have killed them to add a "Director Carter" after the word "boss." The whole point of Marvel Cinematic Universe period pieces should be to get more Peggy Carter on screen, really.
Ah well. I still hope for a Secret Avengers film set somewhere between the late 1950s and 1980s, with Atwell's Carter, Tony Stark's dad and Hank Pym forming SHIELD and Carter helping lead a team of behind-the-scene superheroes like the original Ant-Man and The Wasp on a daring adventure.
Things That Was Neither Good Nor Bad About The Movie
•There was something very DC Comics about Captain Marvel at the climax of the film, I thought. Like, a hero flying at super-speeds, punching space-ships, scaring off an alien invasion and hovering dramatically above the Earth before plunging down towards it? That's all very Superman, although other DC superheroes do that kind of thing too, like Green Lantern, Supergirl, Martian Manhunter and so on. Outside of Thor and a few analogue versions of Superman, Marvel's biggest stars don't generally operate at the same power-levels that DC's super-people do, so it felt a little off-brand to see Carol making like Superman at the end here. On the other hand, if Warner Brothers isn't going to do that kind of shit, I guess Marvel can have Captain Marvel fill that void too.
•I was fairly certain there was going to be a moment in the film where Captain Marvel rescues a Pakistani-American couple from a falling beam or chunk of rubble or something, a couple that would end up being Yusuf Khan and Muneeba Khan, as a little Easter egg teasing the existence of Kamala Khan, the future Ms. Marvel, in the film...not unlike the way Spider-Man: Homecoming suggested there is totally a Miles Morales in the MCU, ready to take over as Spider-Man in 15-20 years when Tom Holland ages out of the role. Originally, when the movie was first announced, I thought they might have a baby Kamala and her family being rescued, laying the groundwork for a future Ms. Marvel movie, but since Kamala's supposed to be a teenager, she wouldn't have been born in the '90s. I guess maybe that's something we'll see in Captain Marvel 2.
*In my own defense, I did hedge in that post, ending it with this:
But then, I assumed Fin Fang Foom would have been the first Lee/Kirby monster to appear in a major motion picture, but Groot was part of the Guardians of The Galaxy ensemble and is now a fucking household name, so hey, what do I know...?So I guess I could always have been more wrong.
**Not that they had to stick with Avengers, of course. Doctor Strange and The Guardians of The Galaxy weren't Avengers-related. There was nothing stopping Marvel from doing, say, Elsa Bloodstone or Spitfire.
***I really like Paul Bettany as an actor though, so I'd probably be fairly excited to see a Vision movie at this particular point in history. But had they announced a Vision movie before Age of Ultron? Not so much. Ooh, unless it was Golden Age Vision.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
While I appreciate the artist's takes on the girls, I'm still getting used to the idea of Archie and Jughead as hunks--I guess that's because I don't watch Riverdale, so the very idea of Archie or Jughead being attractive to anyone is still kind of bizarre to me? Riverdale does seem to be informing Spencer's Archie though, as there are crimes and secrets going on in this issue, which ends with one of those rooms full of clues and red string that serial killers, people chasing serial killers and intelligence agents set-up.
Let's hope not. At the very least, Parker and Moreci provide a potential hook for a sequel, when Betty Cooper mentions that her great aunt lives in Gotham City, and she should really visit her some time soon. Her aunt's name? Harriet Cooper. As in--you guessed it--Aunt Harriet.
As expected, The Scarecrow does not get the last word on what makes Batman tick, and how Batman has impacted Gotham City and the world--well, actually, it was Batman's own psyche's conjuring of The Scarecrow, and not The Scarecrow himself, given that Jonathan Crane wasn't privy to whatever "breakthrough" Batman had last issue--no matter how convincing his argument was in Kings of Fear #5. After Batman shot his massively muscled thighs with syringes full of adrenaline last issue, The Dark Knight breaks from The Scarecrow's spell and punches him out. But he's still stuck thinking about the harm he does to himself, his city and those around him.
As he returns Crane to Arkham Asylum and then himself to his cave, a series of other characters provide counter-arguments, attesting to the good that Batman does. Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth make the expected arguments, with Alfred's being the last and most convincing word on the matter, but it's a doctor he bumps into at Arkahm who makes the most unexpected and interesting argument. She thanks Batman not only for saving her life in an alley one night a long time ago, but also for scaring her husband straight back when he wasn't yet her husband, and was a criminal just starting to dabble in henching for a super-villain.
|How terrifying is Batman? Well, that's what he looks like just causally rounding the corner of a hallway.|
"You didn't know that, did you?" she asks Batman. "I had a feeling you might not. Especially since you deal with the inmates here. I know how they can...sort of dominate your thinking, skew your point of view." Hey, good point! Batman's archenemies might continue to commit spectacular crimes every chance they get, and maybe, like The Scarecrow said in the previous issues, Batman even encourages it to an extent by paying so much attention to them, but those are, ultimately, just like 12 different criminals, and remember, they are criminally insane. The other criminals in Gotham City? Those who don't wear costumes and deal in poison gases, deadly trick umbrellas and mind-controlling top hats? They are all subject to Batman's brand of fear.
So look, given my affection for Jones' art, I'm sure any skeptics reading this will assume I am biased to like this, and they would be right. But I can honestly say that, thanks to Peterson's scripting, this was one of the most engaging comics about they psychology of Batman that I've read in a long, long time, certainly more interesting and convincing than Tom King's ongoing attempts to convince that Batman is being driven mad by heartbreak (Although the last chapter of "Cold Days," reviewed below in the "Borrowed" section of this post, featured a very eloquent passage in which Bruce Wayne explains how overwhelming fear can make those suffering from it do anything, which I unfortunately related to more than I wished I had, thanks to my own issues with anxiety).
If you missed this, do check out the trade paperback collection when it's available.
The bulk of these comics are written by Jim Starlin, with an issue from James Owsley (who we now know better as Christopher Priest), and the annual by Mike Baron and Robert Greenberger. Jim Aparo, a if not the definitive Batman artist, is the primary pencil artist, but Ross Andru, Dick Giordano and others also draw passages (there's even a little bit of Norm Breyfogle, in the form of the Robin back-up story he drew that has been collected elsewhere).
The cover repurposes the one that Todd McFarlane drew for Batman #423, although McFarlane only contributes a cover to the contents of the book. (While his drawing of the woman leaves a lot to be desired, that's a pretty good take on Batman, particularly as the living shadow or living cape version of the character. I've always particularly liked the fact that McFarlane drew Batman's right hand on the woman's shoulder, the only part of Batman that appears to be human in that image, because the fact that you can see his hand there means it is not holding his cape aloft in the action of wrapping around her. That is, the cape seems to be moving like wings without any manipulation, making Batman seem even weirder and less human. I always considered McFarlane a less-skilled practicioner of the sort of exaggerated style Breyfogle perfected on his Batman comics, and always wondered to what extent McFarlane was influenced by Breyfogle, or, perhaps more likely, which artists they must have both gained inspiration from, given how similar their art can be in some regards.)
An even better cover in here is that for the Owsley-written Batman #431, a George Pratt image that has been somewhere in the back of my skull ever since I first saw it:
The collection kicks off with the four-part "Ten Nights of The Beast," which introduced The KGBeast, back when he had two-hands, an astronomical body-count and no pants. It was pretty interesting revisiting the character's initial story arc after seeing his return in the last few years, first in Scott Snyder's All-Star Batman and, more recently, in Tom King's Batman run (again, see below), where he seems to have quite purposely echoed Starlin's ending to the storyline, in which Batman can't be bothered to care overmuch about whether the Beast lives or dies. The story is also interesting in the way that it demonstrates how unafraid 1980s comics were about grounding their superhero stories in the real world and referencing real politics; I mean, Ronald Reagan appears in this story, as the ultimate target of the Beast.
Also interesting? He's the last "supervillain" in this collection. One could argue whether or not he even qualifies as a supervillain, I suppose, but he has a costume, a code name and something in the neighborhood of powers (he's cybernetically enahnced). After that, it's all real-world criminals, including a serial rapist and killer, a sniper and lots of muggers, stick-up men and gangsters.
Batman and Robin tackle that serial rapist/killer--actually, a pair of them--for two issues, only to see justice dished out in a way the Caped Crusader doesn't necessarily agree with, continuing the volume-length meditation on whether or not it's right to kill killers (which I suppose climaxes with Batman's attempt to kill The Joker as "A Death In The Family" concludes).
In the Baron-written, Ross Andru-penciled annual, Bruce Wayne and a date attend a weird murder mystery party only to find the murder is real (and super-weird), while Jason Todd fights after school crime being committed by his school's AV geeks in the Greenberger-written, Breyfogle-drawn back-up. Dave Cockrum guest-pencils a night in the life story demonstrating all the good Batman does, in stories that a few Gotham police officers tell about their encounters with the Dark Knight. There's a two-issue storyline penciled by M.D. Bright demonstrating Jason's desire for tougher justice than Batman is comfortable with, in which the Boy Wonder may or may not have thrown a murderer off a balcony to his death, which concludes with that junkyard-set issue that apparently made Chris Sims a lifelong Batman fan.
Then, after "Death In The Family," there are two done-in-ones. The first features Batman tackling a sniper, and recalling the time Thomas Wayne slapped him...which I was surprised to read in a canonical (or maybe "once canonical" is more like it) Batman story, and the second, the Owsley/Priest-written issue, has Batman fighting ninjas while trying to crack a very difficult murder case involving one of his old teachers.
Rounding out the collection are some "Who's Who" pages, notable for containing a David Mazzuchelli-drawn Commissioner Gordon and a Kyle Baker-drawn Joker and Batman.
So, for example, the 1970s volume is sub-titled The Legion of Monsters and the 1990s volume is The Mutant X-plosion. The first half-dozen seem particularly well-chosen, and I confess some curiosity about the final two volumes, those focused on "the '00s" and "the '10s", as they are sub-titled Hitting The Headlines and Legends and Legacies; those sub-titles are suggestive but rather vague compared to the others, and I'd have to get the books in my hands to see what Marvel filled them with. I imagine those were the hardest two to curate, as the closer we are to the decade in question, the harder it is to see it objectively.
The reverse, of course, is true, and that might explain why they knocked the first volume out of the park. There are four issues of Marvel Mystery Comics and four issues of Human Torch Comics included here, from, and these add up to four real stories or story arcs/cycles. Although Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and, to a lesser extent, Steve Ditko are thought of as the creators of what would become known as the Marvel Universe, none of them are involved in these comics, despite the fact that Kirby and Lee were already active in the field at the time. Rather, the bulk of these stories are written and drawn by Bill Everett and Carl Burgos, creators of Namor and The Human Torch respectively, with contributions coming from writer John H. Compton and about a half-dozen other artists, who drew parts of Human Torch Comics #10. Alex Schomburg, who was responsible for so many of the more busy and dynamic Golden Age super-comics covers, draws all of those collected here; they are all particularly spectacular.
|This is one of the covers included, but, sadly, the incredible-looking Angel story isn't reprinted within, so we can only wonder what the fuck is going on there.|
One has to imagine these stories left an impression on Lee and Kirby, too. After all, if the Marvel Universe officially began during their Fantastic Four run, they did re-purpose The Human Torch's name and powers for one of the four heroes on that team, and introduced Namor into the narrative by the fourth issue of that seminal series.
The first of the three story cycles is a pretty straightforward battle between the two heroes. It opens with that fantastic 10-page sequence of Namor being a dick and seemingly fighting all of New York City. He calls the police "stupid" and "nitwits"; he chucks a tourist out of a window of the Statue of Liberty; he slaps the mayor; he tears down an elevated train and then goes after famous landmarks. This is the comic that was reprinted in the 1965 Bonanza Books edition of Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes that I kind of freaked out about when I first saw it. Namor basically only relents because the lady cop he digs, Betty Dean, tells him to knock it off.
That's followed by a neat section in which Namor continues to go around town wrecking stuff, and The Human Torch tries to track him by his trail of destruction, but it's slow going as he stops to repair all of the damage Namor is doing. They finally face off in the final pages. That's followed by a 22-page fight scene--"The Battle of The Comic Century! Fire Vs. Water!"--that ultimately ends in a stalemate, with Namor able to capture the Torch, but unable to take his eyes off him. Ultimately, Betty again defuses the situation, promising Namor that if he just goes away, the Torch will leave him alone.
And he does...until the next storyline!
That storyline is completely fuckbonkers, and sprawls across sixty pages. How fuckbonkers is it? Well, here's the cover--
The title page features The Human Torch swooping towards the modern Four Horseman of the Apocalpse: Death, Hitler, Mussolini and...Namor?! It's true. Namor sees the destruction that World War II has wrought, littering the once peaceful ocean floor with sunken ships and human skulls and bones. He decides the best way to bring about world peace is to just conquer the world himself, so he calls together all the underwater kingdoms under his command and, egged on by a sexy Shape of Water version of Lady Macbeth, he goes to work with the fantastical weapons of Atlantis.
He interrupts a battle between the Nazis and Soviets in the Ukraine with a giant whirlpool generator that washes them all away. When The Human Torch and Toro try to talk some sense into Namor, who is already imagining himself in Napoleon's hat and coat, succeeding where that would-be conqueror failed, Torch flames on, and Namor washes them both away.
After a rematch, Namor drugs the Torch and makes him his slave, setting him against the allies. The Torch flies to the North Pole and sends gigantic glaciers racing towards Russia and the U.S. (coming to his senses in time to stop them). Meanwhile, Namor floods Berlin and attacks it with his battleships, which are disguised as whales, as well as his man-eating sharks and giant killer octopuses. Just look at this insanity!
In the first of these, the two heroes--and Toro--are faced with a common foe, a serpentine supervillain called The Python, who is in league with Hitler. The Nazis spring him from Alcatraz in an elaborate attack that the heroes fight on in different fronts, and before things are over, The Python has turned the Human Torch into a Monster Torch under his control, and turned the FBI against Namor, Toro and Professor Horton, the man who created the Torch. After a bunch of fighting, everything gets settled--and Namor strangles The Python to death with his bare hands. These were the days before creators saw much value in recurring villains, I guess.
Finally, there's another tale of Namor and The Torch as frenemies. Namor decides to go undercover on a Nazi submarine and, later, breaks up a spy ring. Given his triangular head, permanently arched eye-brows, elf ears and the little wings on his heels, one wouldn't think Namor was too terribly suited for counter-espionage, but no one seems to see through his many unconvincing disguises. Because he was playing Nazi, Toro and The Torch think Namor has really allied himself with the Axis, and so they are at war with one another again...at least until the climax, where they team up to sink an invading Nazi fleet.
These comics are a blast. Marvel could probably decide to publish nothing but Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and reprints of their 1940s Namor and Human Torch comics, and I'd be A-OK with that publishing plan. There's a one-page prose introduction, about two paragraphs of which seem devoted to the Decades series in general, and the rest to discussing these comics and characters, and how they fit into the larger Marvel Universe story, from the perspective of...someone at Marvel. If the book is lacking something, I think it is probably in this area. Don't get me wrong, the presence of the introduction is great, and I was glad to get some context; I just would have liked more context still, and maybe to know who I was hearing it from.
Inside the Go-Bot space shuttle--named "Spay-C," with all the imagination and poetic flair that always made the Go-Bots feel like the cheap Transformers knock-offs they are--the crew is awakened from their cryogenic slumber by the sentient space shuttle when it finds itself orbiting an obviously inhabited world. The inhabitants of this world--which looks like the big metal apple core of the Go-Bot home planet...ummmm...just let me plug that in the search bar here...Gobotron--appear to be the more monstrous Gobots, including the giant, wheel-bound dragon Zod. Also on this planet is the transforming Gobot command center, which I actually completely forgot existed, until I saw it in its playset form and had an incredibly weird feeling of recalled nostalgia, as the comic jogged forgotten memories of my childhood.
Despite the dumb name, Spay-C is a pretty intriguing character who, like some of the Guardian characters in the first two issues, seems to be torn between serving humanity and being a self-actualized sentient robot, and her design is actually pretty cool as rendered by Scioli; it's difficult to tell from just the cover image, but the nosecone that her face peers out of in robot form is rendered a bit like an enormous afro.
For all the cool stuff in this issue, I have to confess that the bit that stuck with me is the gag about the combination lock on Spay-C's cell, which will look familiar:
that Michel Fiffe G.I. Joe series, and for more auteur '80s toy comics from IDW in general, though).
I...never do that, but that's just how insufferable those complaining about this comic book's existence was, and how infuriatingly transparent their hypocrisy was (The Big Two have been extremely welcoming to prose writers, filmmakers, TV writers, cartoon producers, comedians, professional wrestlers and musicians who hadn't spent years working their way up through the ranks of comics writers in order to get plum gigs, and sometimes those projects go very, very poorly, but a poet is where these "fans" were going to draw the line? And it's definitely the poetry, not anything else about this particular writer that was so enraging them?).
Anyway, this was really good, so yeah, fuck all those guys. Despite being a second issue, it was still incredibly accessible, and I got a good feel for the main character, her major conflicts, what her powers and status quo were and how they differed from that of Iron Man and even a sense of her wider supporting cast. This issue adhered quite well to Stan Lee's supposed maxim that every issue is someone's first (Fittingly, this issue is also one of those honoring Lee's passing, as you can see from the cover), and I found myself interested in what happened next.
I did not order issue #3 out of irritation with online assholes dragging on the writer and the book for spurious reasons, but I will catch-up on it in trade, as I had always intended to.
The art by Luciano Vecchio is quite strong. The individual character designs are varied and distinct from one another, and while I wasn't crazy about the Ironheart costume when I first saw it--I thought there was just one color too many and one heart too many on the armor--it worked quite fine in the context of an actual comic book (as opposed to the cover or three I had seen previously), and I was used to it, if not completely fond of it, by the time I reached the end of the issue.
The plot is fairly simple. Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern John Stewart and Hawkgirl fight Shayera, "The Savage Hawkman" and some Hawkpeople for like a panel before they escape (For some reason, J'onn uses psychic subterfuge, when he could really take down a planet of Hawks solo, and with a Green Lantern fighting alongside him, he could do it without breaking a sweat, but then, J'onn is traditionally written to be as weak as he needs to be in order to fulfill his role in the story in question). They break into the vaults of Thanagar Prime, where J'onn talks to "The Martian Keep," the other last Green Martian who is colored white for some reason (and she's been that color for multiple issues now, so I'm assuming they are doing it on purpose), while they fight Shayera and company some more. Then Kilowog and a handful of other Green Lanterns show up to tell the Justice Leaguers to knock it off.
There's one weird point early in the issue where J'onn mentions his ability to "alter" a room, and Hawkgirl tells him to "save the illusions" as we see the three of them resuming their normal appearance after their Hawk disguises melt away. It's a weird moment because it seems to suggest that J'onn can change the shape of other things, rather than just himself (he can't), and it's compounded later when J'onn again puts disguises atop himself and Hawkgirl, but John builds one around himself using his ring.
I assumed originally that J'onn was just hijacking the minds of their antagonists, rewiring their senses so they would see what he wanted them to see, but I don't know if that is a glitch in the dialogue, or a result of how pencil artist Segovia decided to draw the dropping of their disguises, or a combination of two slightly awkward things suggesting something wrong in the way one of J'onn's most basic superpowers works.
As for the stuff on Earth, Starman-from-the-'80s awakes screaming and the Trinity manages to subdue him with Wonder Woman's lasso, at which point he reveals the name of the cosmic creator goddess that Luthor had previously learned: Perpetua.
It didn't strike me until just now that "Perpetua" isn't just a name that sounds like "perpetual" and thus seems to fit with a cosmic character in a superhero comic. It's also the name of a third century martyr and Catholic saint. She's a common enough hero of Christianity that I have to assume that's what Snyder named the character that on purpose, but so far, I don't see the reason why. We don't know her story here--a story that hasn't been told in billions of years," Starman says, "a story that could destroy the universe itself"--but so far this Perpetua would seem to share next-to-nothing with the saint.
Apparently, J'onn was abducted by Earthlings when he was a little boy, and this has something to do with how he survived the psychic fire plague that caused the Martian extinction. The cover of this issue features Lex Luthor prominently, and within the folds of J'onn's cape, Cheung has drawn two children; one of them is apparently J'onn, as that is how Cheung draws young J'onn inside, and the other is a red-haired little boy who could very well be young Lex Luthor. Beneath the image is the tag "Who Are The Children of Mars?" Why Luthor is on the cover--he doesn't appear within the pages of this issue at all--and why he might be tied to J'onn in some manner is't clear. I suppose we might find that out in the next issue, which also has the two of them on the cover.
Later, all of the characters are "trapped" within a vault, although I have no idea why J'onn and/or any of the Lanterns couldn't force their way out, or, if force wouldn't work, why J'onn couldn't just pass through the walls or the Lanterns create portals. It's only an issue for a few panels, as Eighties Starman opens a star-shaped portal that allows him and the Trinity to arrive inside the vault and take everyone out through the same portal, so it's...just kind of odd, really.
Establishing sets of rules for the shared characters and shared universe and then abiding by them is part of what makes superhero comics work, and it is especially important in a team book like this, which unites characters from throughout DC Comics' publishing line and history. It's fine to introduce never before revealed secrets about characters' pasts--as is the case with J'onn's childhood in this issue--or even new applications for established super-powers, but there's a pretty important distinction between innovation and improvisation, and too much of this arc has felt like the latter, as I was occasionally thrown out of the narrative to question things that I should be pretty solid on.
The last panel has a weary and haggard-looking Starman telling Hawkgirl that "It's time to fix The Source Wall," which would address an event that kicked off Scott Snyder and Tynion's run on Justice League. That is slated to happen not in the next issue, but Justice League Annual #1.
Speaking of which...
I confess to getting a nostalgic thrill on the first page, wherein artists Daniel Sampere and Juan Albarran draw the interior of a Javelin featuring much of the current Justice League line-up and some of their hangers-on standing around and among them is Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, back in his original costume after years of changing trying out different ones. Seeing that GL in that costume sharing a panel with Superman, Batman and (a) The Flash reminded me fondly of Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell and company's JLA, which remains one of my favorite super-comics of all time.
Tynion writes the characters with even greater distance from the reader here, to the point that they aren't characters so much as toys being moved about. With the exception of Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter, there's little characterization at all in this particular issue. Not only are many of the characters completely interchangeable with one another, but some don't even have much in the way of dialogue to contribute.
Wonder Woman, for example, gets one line of dialogue ("Wait...you can't just leave..."). Mera, now apparently taking her fake dead husband Aquaman's spot on the team after the events of "Drowned Earth", also gets one ("My God...is that it?"). The Flash gets two, noting the change in the "vibrational quality" of the Multiverse. Those characters do even less than they say, to the extent one wonders why they didn't just get left at the Hall on monitor duty.
So this is a very plot-heavy issue, with guest-stars galore, with most of those guest-stars appearing in brief cameos, establishing the universal--or multiversal--importance of the events.
The League plans to repair The Source Wall broken at the climax of Dark Nights: Metal and the launch of Snyder's Justice League run, and the plan involves affixing the various Omega Titans from No Justice to the wall as a patch, with Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders filling in for the dead Titan. The whole universe seems to get together to pull this off. In addition to the League and some guests (Miss Martian, Kyle Rayner, Starman Will Payton), The New Gods of New Genesis, Ganthet and The Green Lantern Corps and Sayera Hol and the Thanagarians are all there.
And then things go wrong, as the Legion of Doom's new recruit Brainiac attacks with an armada of ships, the cosmic creator of an existence that pre-dates the current creation is awakened and the entire Source Wall ultimately goes KRAKADOOM, leaving the universe to drift, no longer contained by the shell that had previously surrounded it. The characters themselves all seem a little confused as to what exactly this means ("How can the multiverse be moving?" Miss Martian asks her uncle, "What's it moving in? What's it moving toward?"). But it's bad: "The Multiverse will die in a matter of months," Ganthet tells Wonder Woman before he and the GLC fuck off back to Oa.
In essence, things are basically where they were at the start of the series, but the stakes have gotten much higher, and some pains have been taken to show how momentous this will be, with a page devoted to skipping around locations of the DC Universe having various characters react, apparently setting up plotlines that will be explored in books like Justice League Odyssey (Adam Strange notices that New Genesis and Apokolips have suddenly disappeared, the Odyssey-redesigned Darkseid in The Ghost Zone telling himself "Now we can begin") and Dark ("All of nature is screaming", bearded Swamp Thing tells Detective Chimp) and who knows where else (There's a panel of a/The Spectre and another featuring the league of heroes from Multiversity's Hall of Heroes).
All of which is long way of saying that this comic is almost certainly an important one, but it's also a somewhat mediocre one. I am glad so much Justice League got published this month, however, as these cosmic secret elements of the storyline are starting to drag a bit, so getting them out of the way all at once is definitely preferable than having had these 80-some pages see publication over four months or so.
My favorite part of this issue, aside from that panel reminding me of what reading Justice League comics in 1998 or so felt like, was a later panel in which Brainiac disses Luthor's intelligence and calls humans a "base species," but the line comes from off-panel, and the focus is on super-gorilla Grodd and pink, elf-eared alien Sinestro grinning to themselves at someone making fun of humans.
In this issue of one of DC's best super-comics, Scooby and the gang meet Mister Miracle, Big Barda, Oberon and Shilo Norman backstage after one of Scott's shows, when suddenly Apokalyptian warriors pour out of a boom tube to take Barda back to Granny Goodness (along with Daphne and Velma). The guys pile into the Mystery Machine and drive through a Boom Tube to Darkseid's home world, where they battle The Female Furies before Scott ultimately allows himself to be tossed into a death trap in exchange for the release of Barda.
He, naturally, escapes, and Darkseid's court all take a pratfall.
The sight of Daphne and Velma transformed into Female Furies is another thing I never thought I would see, but it seemed a lot more likely than the Mystery Machine on Apokolips. I mean, type "Daphne" or "Velma" and almost any other word into Google and your going to gets lots of weird fan art.
Sadly, I was a little disappointed by their Fury fashions:
Anyway, this is yet another of Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela's great introductions into a particular corner of the DC Universe. If their Scooby-Do Team-Up isn't the ultimate gateway into DC Comics, I don't know what is.
That was what drew me to IDW's Transformers: Historia, which summarizes the publisher's thirteen-years long saga, which I have read next to nothing of because my God did they not make it easy to jump on. Rather than a single Transformers series, they were constantly relaunching the book under slightly different titles and publishing many different miniseries, and it only seemed to get more complicated as the titles and issues stacked up, as IDW eventually launched some sort of Hasbroverse shared universe that also included G.I. Joe, Micronauts, M.A.S.K., Rom and even the fucking Visionaries.
So this looked like something that might be up my alley. And it is...sort of. It is in the form of a regular comic book with staples rather than a spine, and consists mostly of a 42-page prose history of the IDW's Transformers as summarized by Chris McFeely, heavily illustrated by context-free, uncredited images from covers and panels of the comics (all of the artists, colorists and writers these images were created by and the prose summarizes are credited collectively on a very full title page). It reads an awful lot like a Wikipedia entry, albeit one that takes the subject matter seriously and is more thorough than one could hope from Wikipedia.
The final pages of the book is a pretty detailed flow chart of Transformers trade paperbacks from IDW. "Want to know more?" the text reads, "Catch up on the entire story, on sale now!" This is the kind of thing I wanted--and want for IDW's G.I. Joe offerings too--but I still can't entirely make sense of it, as there's just so much of it. There were bits of prose in the Historia summarizing what sounded like cool comics I would like to read, but then I couldn't tell from this chart which books those stories were published in. I guess maybe I would have preferred footnotes or endnotes...? That would have been more useful to me as a potential reader than Windblade and/or Optimus' profiles.
The cover by Ernie Chan isn't terribly representative of the interior art, which is drawn by John Buscema and finished by Chan. While Conan is in it, and does hold a sword in it, and there is a lady in it, she doesn't appear to be that lady, shown writhing in a pile of bones. Conan is shown warming a throne for a little prince who is destined for it, while he and a few confederates attempt to protect the boy from usurpers. To do this, they attempt to recruit a few good men, including one named "Kaleb", who is almost nothing at all like me (I did have blonde hair like him, though, back when I still had hair!). And the boy needs protection, as a creepy group of pupil-less old men in robes and golden crowns of thrones are resurrecting a scary demon monster thing called "THE DEVOURER OF SOULS!!!!" and a large group of remarkably easy to kill assassins come for the boy and his protectors.
Also unusual about this issue? It doesn't contain a complete story in the same way that the most of the other reprints below do.
Our hero wades through a small army of palace guards in the city of Pah-Dishah, a collection of exotic, borderline offensive middle eastern and "oriental" stereotypes in the shape of a setting, where he is honor bound to deliver a message to the king, an overweight dandy lounging on a throne-like bean bag chair, surrounded by a harem full of ladies that dis Conan (When the king asks if Conan is really a barbarian, one of them makes a tee hee gesture and says "He needs a barber, at least... That much is certain.")
Conan then rides away to resume his adventures, unaware that a foe from a previous story and/or comic has hired the assassin The Vulture to deliver him Conan's head. The Vulture is a very good swordsman, and he has a tiny pair of fake wings on his back, in order to look as silly as possible. In fact, he looks slightly more ridiculous than Spider-Man villain The Vulture does, and, this being a Marvel comic, I can't help but wonder if this guy is perhaps the Hyborean age ancestor of Adrian Toomes...?
It's not The Vulture or even the great Smith art that likely got this particular issue of Conan reprinted though; instead it's probably that this issue is the introduction of a certain red-haired she-devil more beautiful than the flames of hell:
Though the girl's "savage cutting and slashing stirs Conan's blood--beyond all reason!", Sonja shoots the barbarian down immediately--so harshly that a dog laughs at him about it. She does rescue him later on and strangle some guys while he chops off The Vulture's head, though, so it's not like she hates him or anything.
This is the first, 1970 issue, by writer Roy Thomas, artist Barry Smith and "embellisher" Dan Adkins, but it is Stan Lee's editor credit that comes first.
Conan has hired himself out as a mercenary and is fighting some dudes in some very Jack Kirby-esque fight scenes, which are remarkably bloodless and tame--more tackling and stiff-arming than stabbing and chopping--when some weird demonic figures enter the fight. You can tell this is an old school Marvel comic because of the weird shorts the demons wear to hide their modesty; they seem to be from the same collection as those worn by Fin Fang Foom, Dragon Man, et al.
Conan is approached by a comely woman, there is a sorcerer and a magical jewel, and everyone trips balls together for a while until the end, at which point everyone's dead except Conan, who peaces out for more adventure.
It is a dollar not just well spent, but perfectly spent.
Juma is a black man. This is evident not just in the way Adams draws him and G. Wein colors him, but because the narrator and character never shut up about it. He introduces himself as "Juma The Black," saying to Conan, "We're all brothers, aren't we... ...under the skin?" Thomas' narration refers to him as "the giant black" twice. Conan calls him "black man" (or sometimes "Kushite") instead of by his name, and refers to his "ebon hide." The bad guy similarly calls Juma only "black man." Juma refers to himself as black repeatedly, of course, he calls Conan pale and others "lily-white", and he even makes a morbid joke about a carnivorous monster that chases them preferring "dark meat." Given that this comic is an all white-dude production, adapting prose stories featuring characters and settings that weren't exactly racially enlightened in the first place, it all comes across as quite cringey. So much so that I'm a little surprised Marvel chose this particular issue to reprint, given how embarrassing it likely is to Thomas in particular, but aside from that--provided you can see around it, of course--it's a pretty good story, featuring a unique curse, a battle, a nearly naked princess, a "unicorn", giant lizards, a titanic flesh and gold-eating slug, another evil sorcerer, a fantastic form of early elevator technology and a big baboon monster in a loin cloth.
After Fafnir chokes it out, the trio travel to a modern art castle where she used to be goddess, and instead of fighting all the dark-skinned people within, the lady arranges for Conan to fight the usurper's champion, an empty, magical suit of armor he controls with his mind. But then the sun gets in the bad guy's eyes, so he loses his concentration and the fight.
Oh, and Conan gets in a sword fight with a shark at one point, and the shark looks awfully confused.
While at sea, they are attacked by the pirate queen Belit, whose
Conan kills him. That turns Belit on. She dances around seductively, asks Conan to be her king, and then the comic ends when they start kissing.
Like so much from the world of Conan, aspects of this comic are...problematic. It's not just the phrase "giant black," which gets tossed about in this script too, but the implication that the
In this story, Conan fights some giants and Hyborean Age pollution, has sex with a lady and then bye Felicias her in about as cold a fashion as one could imagine. Starlin and Milgrom's art is among the best that we've seen in these reprints, which is saying something, considering all the talent involved. The black-and-white format, which spares it from the coloring practices of the day, helps immensely.
It's also curious how much this story resembles that of the first issue. There's another sorcerer, another magical gem and another sequence of characters tripping balls, as they come into contact with cosmic truths too big for the faux-historic sword-and-sorcery world they live in. Howard's plot is pretty remarkable, really; all of the elements seem pretty standard-issue now, but his story was originally published in 1933. The well-guarded tower and its guardians seem like the stuff of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the strange alien Conan meets atop the tower that just so happens to resemble a being once worshiped as a god on Earth gets into the territory of ancient astronauts and fictive, reverse-engineered explanations for religion that are, again, commonplace nowadays, but would have been far rarer in the pre-TV, pre-superhero comic book pop culture of my grandfather's young adulthood.
This issue kind of made me want to dig up the Busiek/Nord comics from their long boxes, to better compare and contrast. I'm assuming Thomas did a lot more work with words in the narration than Busiek had to, given that the Dark Horse adaptation was three times as long as the Marvel one.
Is it worth noting that the exact scene on the cover, featuring a helpless, scantily-clad woman laying among the treasures at Conan's feet, doesn't appear within the story itself? This is just the second of these I've read, following the reprint of Conan #1, and already I see the beginnings of a pattern. Both feature a sexy lady at Conan's feet, which suggests one reason the comic was so popular at the time, or at least one way in which Marvel was attempting to sell it. At least there was a woman in Conan #1. The story within this doesn't even have the benefit of its insides matching its outsides in that regard.
Roy Thomas writes, and John Buscema and Ernie Chan share an "illustrators" credit. The pair provide particularly excellent artwork. It's finely detailed, and both the the scenes set in the Hyborean Age and in Twentieth Century New York City look representational and lived-in, but also contrast sharply. The coloring, on the other hand, is, well, it's very much of it's day, I guess would be one way to say it; Conan's pink skin looks sunburned throughout the story.
As per usual with What If?, Uatu The Watcher narrates, and he, oddly enough, sounds a lot like Roy Thomas doing a Robert E. Howard pastiche in his narration; go figure. Under the pencils and pens of Buscema and Chan, Uatu is depicted in his dumpy, overweight middle-aged guy iteration, rather than his giant baby or huge-headed alien depictions. A full eight pages is spent getting Conan to modern times--and these were eight 1970s pages, not modern pages, meaning there were at least four-to-six panels per page--and these recount your rather typical Conan adventure: Drinking with a scantily-clad lady, getting konked on the head and taken to a temple, confronted by a sorcerer, mind-bending visions, etc.
This sorcerer is apparently a time-traveler from the future, who sacrifices people to a time well in order to get weapons and treasures from the future. Through the magic well, Conan falls into downtown Manhattan on July 13 of 1977, just in time to kinda sorta maybe cause the great blackout--the exact ins and outs aren't explained, but there is definitely some time travel lightning involved in the blackout.
Conan then basically just wanders around yelling "Crom!" at everyone and everything, being weirdly mistaken for Sylvester Stallone repeatedly, swinging his broadsword at cars, and being gawked at by Peter Parker, Mary Jane and some random Japanese business man who remarks that things like Conan are the reason the yen is gaining on the dollar. I guess you had to be there. In 1979.
If they ever make another Conan movie, and I assume they will, I hope this comic book is used as the template. More than anything else, I'd rather see Jason Momoa or whoever in a loin cloth wandering around New York City with a sword fighting cars and freaking out about everything he sees. Hell, they could probably just improvise the whole thing and use hidden cameras.
Anyway, Conan meets a scantily-clad cab driver when trying to kill her taxi, and she naturally takes him home, tells him how lonely she is and how much she misses her dad and then they do it. Then Conan beats up a bunch of looters. Then he stops a heist at the Guggenheim and magic lightning strikes his upraised sword and he's gone and the greatest Conan comic Marvel has ever published ends.
This is the one Jason Aaron and all the guys tackling new Conan comics for Marvel have to beat. I don't envy them their task.
In truth, I didn't always like it as much as I wanted to, and some of David's plot-points seemed off to me, and certainly some of his jokes fell flat; he is the type of fun writer who seems to be trying really hard to be funny most of the time, and sometimes the effort that goes into the jokes is apparent enough that it drains the humor. Even still, I never stopped reading the book, never dropped it, and was incredibly disappointed when DC decided to cancel both Young Justice and The Titans, relaunching them as Teen Titans and The Outsiders respectively, under new (and, in my opinion, inferior) creative teams.
I missed David's trying-too-hard-jokes almost immediately, as Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns took the popular members of the YJ cast and started pounding those square pegs into the round holes of how he thought they should be--their origins, their personalities, their relationships--and the book grew progressively darker and less joyous.
On the other hand, Teen Titans is a much better name than Young Justice for a team of DC super-teens. I am 90% sure that the main reason DC went with something other than Teen Titans was that Dan Jurgens' book by that name hadn't quite yet been cancelled (and also, perhaps, that Marv Wolfman and George Perez so owned the "Titans" brand after their long and influential run that it didn't seem to "fit" when applied to characters other than theirs; pretty much ever since shortly after Wolfman's association with the title ended with the post-Zero Hour team, the book has been relaunched with new line-ups and directions with sometimes alarming frequency. Johns' run was probably the last "stable" run after Wolfman's years-long one).
Because of that, I didn't really expect to see another Young Justice title--when DC lost its damn mind and decided to reboot the DCU into a faux-Ultimate Marvel New 52-iverse, they applied the "Teen Titans" title to the Young Justice line-up, remember--or, if I did, I expected something set in or related to the popular TV show, which is just now returning (I personally find it kinda weird that Batman Beyond survives to this day as a comic book, but the comic based on the Young Justice cartoon only lasted about two years; I mean, that series had a huge cast and thus endless story potential, compared to Batman Beyond...).
Maybe the fact that the show is returning was enough of a push to get DC to greenlight a new Young Justice book. Or maybe writer Brian Michael Bendis, who is writing the title and using it to launch a suite of teen hero-starring books being published under the sub-imprint/"pop-up label" of "Wonder Comics", is just a huge fan of David and Nauck's series and really wanted to bring it back. Or maybe Bendis, DC editors and plenty of fans, like me, just missed seeing Superboy, Impulse and recognizable versions of Wonder Girl and Tim Drake.
Whatever it was that lead to this relaunch, though, well, I'll let Bart say it:
Well, it's early. And Bendis is writing this, so it's very early. This is an over-sized issue, with 30-story pages, so Bendis is able to feature all seven members of the new line-up in at least one panel of the story. (The book is $4.99, so we're paying for those 10 extra pages, of course; lately both Marvel and DC have decided to launch new series with over-sized, more-expensive-than-usual first issues, which makes some business sense, since #1s tend to get ordered more heavily than #2s and #3s, but it also seems counter-intuitive in terms of trying to get people to try out new books. Wouldn't ten free "bonus" pages been a bigger draw?)
It's a very Marvel-feeling issue and, in fact, felt a bit like the first issue of a new Avengers comic--not a New Avengers comic, mind you, but a new Avengers comic. The plot, for this issue anyway, is basically this: Aliens invade a city known for boasting a high superhero population, and a bunch of characters who happen to be there unite to fight off the invaders. That's almost exactly how Jason Aaron kicked off the current Avengers book.
Tim Drake, last seen driving away from Wayne Manor with Stephanie Brown at the end of James Tynion IV's Detective Comics run, bumps into first Cassie Sandsmark and then one Jinny Hex in the streets of Metropolis. And then powerful warriors from Gemworld attack, demanding Superman show himself. Joining the three young heroes in battle are Impulse, who seems to pop out of nowhere--and this is Impulse, in his costume and going by that name, not a Kid Flash--as well as a giant, green energy construct. A voice within the construct introduces itself as "Teen Lantern;" you can see her on the cover there, but not inside the comic itself. She's not the de-aged Alan Scott from the "Sins of Youth" event series, obviously.
What exactly is going on isn't clear. Tim and Cassie recognize one another, but barely get a chance to talk, and the latter apparently has some secret that she's trying to keep from him and/or the world. Impulse and Superboy both seem to have popped out of various points in the fucked-up DC timeline/multiverse/continuity, although it's hard for me to tell, as I haven't really seen either of them since before Flashpoint (The New 52 Teen Titans looked so abysmal I couldn't even try to read it).
The title of the story arc is "Seven Crises," and it opens with a mysterious man telling another mysterious man the following:
One imagines Bendis will name the seven during the course of the story, which is exciting...even though Bendis is not the writer I would want untangling and defining DC's meta-continuity, as he seems less well-equipped to the task than the folks who wrote many of the above-mentioned crises (Wolfman, Jurgens, Johns and Morrison). I remember Marvel fans griping about his poor command of Marvel continuity when he moved from the Ultimate Universe he helped created to the "616" universe but, having only started reading Marvel Comics around the same time Bendis started writing for the publisher, I never noticed.
In terms of the writing, the bit after the mention of the crises is generic enough that it's hard to judge. He writes Impulse like Spider-Man, but then, that's one of the most regular criticisms of Bendis, that too many of his characters sound too similar. I was glad the other common criticisms of the writer--the slow pace of his storytelling and the wordiness of his scripts--weren't apparent in this issue. Honestly, if DC had published this book without credits and marketing, I wouldn't have even known Bendis wrote it just by reading it (That's a compliment in that it means it's free of some of the writer's particular ticks, but something of a criticism in how generic it is--on the other hand, it's obviously the first chapter of a story arc, and so much matters on the payoff, not the set-up).
If we can't really judge where this is going--obviously, much will depend on how Bendis answers the questions he raises about the seven crises and how exactly he makes sense of Superboy, Impulse and Amethyst at this point (I didn't read the New52 Amethyst comic either, but she and Gemworld have been introduced since Flashpoint). The general idea that the worlds connected to DC's Earth get rejiggered and fucked up by all the continuity maintenance might be getting sick and tired of it and want to finally put a stop to it is interesting, though; one imagines the Gemworldians could find willing allies in Hawkman, Donna Troy and The Legion of Super-Heroes.
Visually, the book is great-looking, but then, of course it is--Patrick Gleason is drawing it, with Alejandro Sanchez coloring it. I've already noted that Superboy and Impulse look to be "classic" in their design, with only some minor, story-specific alterations in the case of the former (Impulse even looks to be the same age he was in the last volume of Young Justice, whereas Tim at least seems to be on the other end of puberty).
His cape is scalloped and Batman-like, as was his post-Infinite Crisis/52 "One Year Later" cape, his pants seem something akin to footie pajamas, with the boots featuring toes that evoke those of his original boots, and his color scheme now has far more black than green in it. It's an improvement over his Detective costume, that's for sure, and infinitely better than his New 52 Teen Titans aesthetic atrocity, but I don't know...it's not quite there. I know his original doesn't look right anymore, and while this is awfully close to that without looking quite as '90s, it still seems to bear a little too much bulky armor plating in it. Tim's got shoulder pads, knee-pads and elbow-pads. He looks like he might be playing some kinda super-dangerous fictional sport in a movie set in the future.
I hope Gleason keeps refining it, and basically just keeps slimming it down and streamlining. If he lost the gauntlets and armor-plating, I think this would be one of Tim's better looking costumes.
Anyway, good start. I now kinda regret not ordering the next few issues, even though I'm trying to read most comics in trade collections now. This is one I was excited enough about to want to get a looksee before waiting until the first volume is published. It's gonna be a long wait, but that's a good thing.
Batman #50, with its rather stock and, frankly, juvenile premise that Batman can only batman if he's romantically and/or sexually frustrated, coupled with the characters' completely arbitrary differentiation between being married and living together. The first issue following that wedding fake-out jam issue, where it became clear that Batman would be channeling his sadness into violent, brutal rage and that King was going to continue building on the poor foundation of #50 was when I decided I could certainly wait for the (library-borrowed) trade. Although I did come back for that Matt Wagner-drawn issue, because c'mon, what discerning Batman comic fan is going to pass on an issue of Batman drawn by Matt Wagner...?
This volume includes the three-issue title story, drawn by Lee Weeks, the Wagner-drawn issue, and two issues drawn by Tony S. Daniel.
Each have their problems, but of the three stories, "Cold Days" is probably the most emblematic of the curious nature of King's Batman writing. He's very enamored of the formal aspects of the comic book script, and puts a lot of energy into creative and, yes, showy structures for his comics, sometimes to the detriment of the overall package--King does not appear to be the sort of writer to just get out of the way and let the artists do their thing, nor the sort of writer who disappears into the story. Chances are you know you're reading a King-written issue of Batman as you're reading it, whether you've noticed the credits or not.
On these formal aspects, King's comics tend to be quite good. Where he fails is in the more important stuff that lies beneath the structure, the plotting and the character and causal elements--the guts of the stories. The reasons why the characters make the decisions they make, how they interact with one another and, more often than not, just some basic bits of logic. It's not merely a manner of King-doesn't-write-Batman-the-way-I-want-him-to or of King having some sort of ignorance of continuity, the sorts of things that can so often irritate super-comics readers. Rather, many of his stories just don't stand up to, like, a few seconds worth of questioning.
Here, for example, Bruce Wayne is serving jury duty, and the case before him and his fellow jurors is a murder trial for the recently paroled (Okay, we'll let that slide for now) Mister Freeze, who is accused of killing three women by lowering the temperature in their brains so slightly that no one even expected their deaths were actually murders. All of the evidence comes from Batman: Batman conducted a freelance autopsy, Batman captured Freeze and then Batman beat a confession out of him, which Freeze later recanted. All of the jurors are basically "Fuck Mister Freeze, that dude's a serial killer and a terrorist and a supervillain with a long body count who is constantly trying to murder everyone in the city and Batman's a superhero who is constantly saving everyone in the city." All of the jurors, that is, except Bruce Wayne. Twist!
The most immediate problem with the story, the fact that Wayne would even be seated on a jury for such a Batman-centric case considering Bruce Wayne funds Batman--which everyone in Gotham knows, even if they don't know Wayne is Batman--is addressed eventually, on one of the last pages of the third and final issue (You have to suspend your disbelief for about 60 pages on this point...and for months, if you read the series serially).
There's also the bit about the character. Batman has, essentially, gone fucking insane over the fact that Catwoman ghosted him so he could be a better Batman, and he is responding by being a worse Batman, which here means beating the living shit out of Freeze and forcing him to confess to a crime he may or may not have committed. King is basically writing Batman as the character was written after the death of Jason Todd in the late 1980s. Only here he's mad about being dumped. Whatever.
That never makes sense, and it appears to be a core problem of King's run from #50 on. Beyond that, though, the court case set-up just sort of falls apart upon scrutiny. Bruce Wayne argues that Batman was sloppy enough here that they can't be positive that Mister Freeze committed the crimes, not beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore they can't find Freeze guilty of these three murders. Fair enough, but the reader never finds out for sure whether or not Freeze did commit them. Batman essentially went after Mister Freeze because "cold" was involved, which makes a certain amount of sense, but it's not like every time someone steals an umbrella in Gotham City it's definitely The Penguin behind it. But if we are to entertain the alternate theories Bruce Wayne introduces to the other members of the jury, we have to have another suspect, right? Or, at the very least, one would expect King to, at some point in the story, let us know that Freeze is guilty, but Bruce is advocating finding him not guilty here to punish Batman for fucking it up. But that's left unresolved.
Ultimately, though, it's a weird, academic matter of a trial, because Freeze is already guilty of so many murders and so many other spectacular crimes that three more deaths in one direction or another doesn't matter to anyone at all. If he didn't kill these three ladies, he was going to spend the rest of his life in a special cold cell in Arkham Asylum, having been given a life sentence of being held in an easily escapable prison for the criminally insane, which he will escape from about 4-6 times a year, and if he did kill those three ladies, well, same.
Lee Weeks' art is great, as it has been in his previous collaborations with King, and his skill with Wayne, the jurors, Commissioner Gordon and all the law enforcement stuff made me repeatedly yearn for a Weeks-drawn Gotham Central relaunch. While "Cold Days" is a discrete story arc, it contains the emotional fall-out of Batman's dumb mental breakdown over Catwoman's dumb-ass decision to dump him for crime-fighting related reasons, and sets up the fact that Batman is starting to go a little nuts again, and that Dick Grasyon is worried for him. He also ditches his new-ish "Rebirth" costume for a previous one he hasn't yet worn post-Flashpoint (it's basically his "No Man's Land" one), because he just can't stand to wear the one he was wearing when Catwoman broke his heart.
That arc is immediately followed by the one-issue, Matt Wagner-drawn "The Better Man," in which Nightwing pretty much just forces his companionship upon Batman for a night of crime-fighting, throughout which we continually flashback to how Bruce (and Alfred) were there for Dick right after the Graysons died (Again, King seems to be making a bit too much of the break-up, as the juxtaposition here seems to suggest that getting dumped is parallel to having your parents murdered before your eyes as a child, but that might be reading too much into the juxtaposition).
Aside from the great art, the story is noteworthy for one of the clearest cut examples of the post-Flashpoint/New 52-iverse's continuity having been undone to a great degree--not only is Dick back to being a little boy upon the time of his parents' death rather than a teenager, but he's wearing his original Robin costume on the cover, which was expunged from the universe during the events of Flashpoint.
Oh, and this is another issue in which King displays his fondness for Batman's odder, less-seen villains, including Crazy Quilt and The Condiment King, the latter of whom now has a body count, because of course he does.
Finally, the collection ends with the three-part "Beasts of Burden," drawn by Tony S. Daniel--yes, there's a real roller coaster of styles in this one volume. Batman and Nightwing are still hanging out, fighting crime together--in the first chapter, we meet The Phantom Pharaoh, who I think is King's first contribution to Batman's rogue's gallery (do correct me if I'm wrong in the comments, though). Meanwhile, The KGBeast, recently-ish re-introduced in Scott Snyder and John Romita JR's "My Own Worst Enemy" arc of All-Star Batman, has arrived in Gotham City and, at the end of the issue, he totally shoots Nightwing in the head with a bullet fired from a sniper rifle! Now that's something to go a little crazy about, Batman, even if all the other Robins you've seen die before all come back to life okay (We never learn Dick's fate in this story, by the way, but as Nightwing was never cancelled, I assume he's okay).
In the next chapter, Batman begins hunting for The Beast--a hunt that includes a brief team-up with The Bronze Tiger and an appearance by Kanto, back in his floppy hat and looking just like his creator Jack Kirby intended him too, rather than how he looked in "Darkseid War"--while the Beast retreats to some frozen patch of Russia to drink with his father and totally kill him.
And, finally, Batman arrives at the cabin and he and The Beast--who has yet to put on his costume or use any of his weaponry aside from rather mundane firearms--brutally fight one another for almost an entire issue, exchanging only grunts and yells, while their fight is occasionally interrupted by a page drawn by Mark Buckingham and Andrew Pepoy retelling a Russian folktale about beasts trapped in a pit.
Batman ends the fight by desperately breaking The Beast's neck--he fires his grappling gun at his face just as the Beast is about to finish him off--and, when his now paralyzed foe asks Batman to get him help in exchange for the name of the man who hired him to kill Nightwing (Bane, one imagines), Batman walks away, seemingly leaving him to die of exposure in the cold and snow with the words "You can get your own damn help."
This, of course, echoes the climax of the first time in which Batman met The KGBeast, in 1988's "Ten Nights of The Beast," by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo. There, Batman entombed the Beast in the sewers and left him for dead--this was, I recall, repeatedly mentioned as one of the examples that Batman had gone too far after the death of Jason Todd, and was beginning to compromise his own morality (In a later story, Batman said he called the police after leaving the Beast trapped and, of course, he survived to return repeatedly until James Robinson randomly killed him off with a bunch of other minor Batman characters in "Face The Face").
That ending might have been a decent place for Rosenberg to end his Punisher story, actually, as it leaves the what-happens-next to a reader's imagination. But instead Rosenberg tells us what happens, and it illustrates some of the fundamental problems of a character like The Punisher existing in a shared universe setting (the fact that Garth Ennis' Max version of The Punisher was divorced from the Marvel Universe is one of the reasons it was so creatively successful for so long).
If The Punisher is only hunting and killing regular, real-word criminals and villains, he's fine, but once he turns his attention to super-villains, then he can't actually succeed, as he starts cutting into Marvel's character catalog. So, for example, his first stop in this volume is The Bar With No Name, the super-villain drinking hole, and he kills everyone there, although none of them are "name" villains. Artist Stefano Landinijust draws the sorts of guys you might see at a normal bar, plus one or two guys with animal heads. When The Punisher asks the bartender where "the big guys" are, he's directed to a back room where some villains who might conceivably show up in future movies some day, or at least TV shows and cartoon series, are playing poker: Bullseye, Rhino and Grizzly. They all flee, but before The Punisher can catch them, he's attacked by Captain Marvel.
This, of course, is the other problem with The Punisher in the Marvel Universe: He's essentially the world's most successful serial killer, and even if he only murders "bad" guys, he should be Public Enemy Number One, and no superhero should rest until they've caught him and put him behind bars (It's funny Tony Stark and "The Illuminati" packed The Hulk into a space rocket and shot him off to an inhabitable planet as the set-up for "Planet Hulk," given that The Hulk never actually killed anyone, where as Castle has killed hundreds, if not thousands. Why didn't they pack him into a rocket? Where's our "Planet Frank" series, dammit?). But, if the heroes do capture Castle, well, that's the end of his story--until he breaks out, at which point they have to try to catch him again. And if they fail, well, the superheroes fail? Is Frank Castle really the only villain The Avengers can never stop?
And so whenever a writer does do a heroes-try-to-capture-The Punisher story, they essentially have to just forget about it in the next story arc, and have the heroes all move on to other things (Not that those stories aren't fun to read! Ennis and John McCrea's "A Confederacy of Dunces" was great, and I did enjoy that Marvel Knights collection I just wrote about last month, in which Daredevil assembles a super-team specifically to bust Frank).
So there's a tension to this story, as Frank's not just being pursued by Daredevil and other street-level or neighborhood Marvel heroes. He has the cosmic-powered Captain Marvel leading a small army of heavy-hitters like Hercules, The Thing, Luke Cage, and even, eventually, Iron Man... How long is that tenable?
Not long at all! The heroes are more motivated than usual here because The Punisher's not just gunning people down in the streets, he's doing so while wearing the super-armor of Carol's late ex-boyfriend and one of their allies. They are also pissed, we're told, because Castle joined Hydra during the events of Secret Empire--a story with its own drastic but extremely temporary status quo that I therefore assumed everyone was just going to ignore once it ended--and so there's that too.
So Punisher goes after villains, is stopped by superheroes for a battle, he flees. When Fury tells him why they're chasing him with so much vigor, Punisher goes after Hydra and the name villains working with Baron Zemo, and then superheroes arrive to stop him again for another battle. Despite a twist or two--including a couple of the heroes who are semi-sympathetic to Frank rescuing him and joining him as he goes after Zemo--the weight of the heroes eventually gets too much, and he ultimately surrenders the armor to...original War Machine James Rhodes, who I guess is no longer dead...? This was literally the first I had heard of it, so it was a real out-of-left-field moment. When the book began, Stark and Rhodes were both dead--or, in Stark's case, dead-ish--but were alive and well by the climax of this volume without any indication within the book that their resurrections might be a factor.
Castle surrendering one of the best weapons that's ever been in his arsenal to a fellow military man--and his superior officer--who he knows it "belongs" to is a pretty elegant way to change the temporary status quo back to its default setting, but if you're not following along with the Marvel universe meta-narrative, it just reads like pretty poor deus ex machina (I am assuming Rhodes' resurrection occurred in an Iron Man book, at the end of Brian Michael Bendis' run on that character, but I'm not entirely sure where; Marvel went to such lengths to make Bendis' Iron Man run hard to follow that I eventually just gave up on trying to keep it straight.)
here. I was pretty curious about the source material, particularly the story that this comic takes its name from, and I'll likely return to the book in a post about that story on the blog in the near-ish future.
*"Rosebud" turns out to be the name of his childhood sled...that transforms into a robot.