Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Weekly Haul: April 23rd

Batman #675 (DC Comics) Ever since the first story arc and the disappearance of his collaborator Andy Kubert, Grant Morrison’s Batman title has suffered from visual consistency, clarity and, occasionally, competence. Reading it every month, I can’t help but feel sad and disappointed. Morrison’s clearly thought a lot about Batman comics and Batman as a character and a symbol, and he’s been quite clever about rescuing bits of his history and reintegrating them into the character’s modern story.

Morrison seems to be pursuing the same strategy with Batman that he is with Superman in All-Star Superman, with the added bonus that his Batman work “counts” as effecting the fictional universe and thus the future direction of the Batman character and his book(s). He’s now poised to bring it all together with “Batman R.I.P.,” which the next issue blurb in the last panel informs us is “the 6-part story that will change the legend of the Dark Knight forever…”

Now, next issue blurbs—like house ads, cover blurbs, and interviewed editors and creators—are always issuing these sorts of nothing will be the same sorts of proclamations, but, based on what Morrison has said about the character and the storyline, I’m inclined to think this will be more than idle hype. (That is, if the actual comic story are as smart and insightful as his interviews about Batman, then this could be a Batman: Year One-level redefinition of the character).

And that’s where the depression come in, because the art on Batman has just been awful. It’s not just that I don’t care for Tony Daniel’s style (although I don’t), but that he’s awful at telling a story. Characters and places are rarely properly introduced (for example, how many people are in a given room and where are they in relation to each other), they’re drawn inconsistently, there’s often an odd disconnect between the words and the pictures (the script often explains the action better than the images) and it looks lazy, with pages reserved for detailed splash images hosting bland convention sketch-style poses over a background-less field of color.

Now, Daniel didn’t draw this issue, entitled “The Fiend With Nine Eyes,” penciller Ryan Benjamin and inker Saleem Crawford did. But it’s just as bad, if not worse, than Daniel’s, and for exactly the same reasons.

The lay-outs themselves are occasionally nice. I like the pages that open with a long, horizontal splash spreading across both pages, with a second strip consisting of tight, vertical panels below.

But that’s about the end of the nice things I can’t think to say about the images of the issues. Bruce Wayne has dinner with this girlfriend Slut Cessna Whore Helicopter Jezebel Jet in what looks like a restaurant they have all to themselves save waiters. A few panels later, there are other strange figures shown.

Jet is essentially breaking up with Bruce, but his expressions are completely unreadable. He closes his eyes, grimaces and extends a few fingers towards his face.

It’s not until the dialogue of the next panel, in which Jet admonishes him that, “This is serious!" that it becomes apparent he was supposed to be laughing or smirking at her.

They’re attacked by a new version of the Ten-Eyed Man, and there are some figures in suits in the background. Waiters, diners, henchmen? In one panel, hands reach out from off-panel to grab Wayne’s shoulders. Who are these people? Are they with the villain? A few scenes later it becomes apparent that there were both bodyguards (for Jet and Bruce, presumably) and henchmen (for the villain) present, that information comes form the dialogue and guessing, not the art.

As bad as his storytelling is, Benjamin’s character design is even worse. Bruce Wayne, Nightwing, Robin and Damian all look the exact same. Obviously, they’re all black-haired men, but their ages range form pre-teen to middle-aged; they shouldn’t all look like the same 40-year-old man.

As hard as it is to understand the art, it’s even harder to understand why it’s on this book at this point. DC’s not above putting sub-par storytellers on big books if those artists are hot, or suspected of being hot (see Ed Benes and Joe Benitez on JLoA, or the apparent popularity of Ian Churchill and former cover artist Michael Turner, for example).

But are Daniel and Benjamin popular? (And even if they were, would you need them on a book that already boasts Batman and Morrison?) It boggles the mind that DC can’t find a mediocre—let alone good—artist to draw Batman with Grant Morrison for them. I’ve been reading way too many Batman comics since the early ‘90s, and I can’t recall a time when there was worse art on one of the major Bat-books. Even the artists whom I didn’t care for as much as others (Like Staz Johnson, Barry Kitson, Tom Grindberg, Jim Aparo [I was young and foolish; I’ve come around!]) were head, shoulders and waist above this. I can’t recall ever reading a Batman comic and having to reread pages over and over again to figure out where a scene was set or who was doing what in a particular panel.

Batman and the Outsiders #6 (DC) On the subject of poor Batman art, look at Batman and the Outsiders. This book is basically just Justice League Elite with Batman talking on the phone to the characters for a few panels every few issues. And yet it’s much better looking and more competently told than Batman, thanks to artists Carlos Rodriguez and Bit. So, like Detective, Nightwing, Robin, Birds of Prey, Catwoman and some arcs of Batman Confidential, it’s a vastly superior visual product to Batman, the flagship Bat-title written by one of DC’s few superstar writers, currently hosting a major storyline that “will change the legend of the Dark Knight forever.”

Hulk vs. Hercules: When Titans Clash #1 (Marvel Comics) I was a little skeptical of this issue, one of those new-story-up-front, old-story-in-the-back style books Marvel occasionally puts out, on account as how badly ripped off I felt the Hulk vs. Fin Fang Foom one was (It was $3.99 for a new 22-page story and a short reprint of a story I’d already had), not to mention those “One More Day” issues which pulled a similar trick.

This time, the new story is actually oversized, justifying a price hike (I’m not sure where they got the “64pgs!” blurb for the cover though, unless they’re counting ads).

The story is written by The Incredible Hercules team of Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, and fits snugly between their first story arc, and their second, which just kicked off last issue. Boy genius Amadeus Cho, disguised goddess Athena and demigod Hercules are on the road, and have stopped at a bar. While Herc stalks off for a beer, Athena tells Amadeus and, of course, us a story of this one time The Hulk and Hercules fought.

It’s getting kind of tough to review Pak and Van Lente’s Herc comics because they do the same great thing every time, melding classic Greek myth with old school Marvel Comics pseudo-myth to come up with something that elevates the latter and doesn’t completely dismiss the former. And they do it with a sly sense of humor, one that’s both character -based and dependent on over-the-top superhero action.

Anyway, after a typically great recap page (“Mortals wouldst do well to peruse the tome of The Incredible Hercules afore admiring yon text”) and the set-up, Athena repositions The Hulk as a son of Gaea akin to The Titans and, when the Green Goliath finds himself in Olympus (thanks to a spell from Dr. Strange in an old story I’ve never read), he indeed allies himself with a few Titans.

After Ares provokes the Hulk, he’s set to smash the Olympians—until Herc steps in. This is where that amusing over-the-top action I mentioned came in. Hercules suplexes (or is that a pile-driver? I’m not good with wrestling moves?) off a balcony, and then punches him in the face twenty-six times in a single panel, with each blow getting its own “WOK!” “TWIK!” or “PUNCH!” sound effect.


And that’s before the bit with the pillar, Cronus’ invading army of Titans, Demogorge the God-Eater and Herc blowing a chance to make friends with the Hulk.

Look, you’re probably getting sick of hearing me say this, because I know I’m getting sick of saying it, but, seriously: You need to be reading The Incredible Hercules. If not now then, at least in trade.

The back-up is a short story by Stane Lee, Jack Kirby and Bill Everett. It features a pretty decent fight between the two heroes, and the line, “By the Zesty Zither of Zeus!”

Justice League of America #20 (DC) I had re-dropped JLoA around issue #16, because I had no interest in miniseries Salvation Run, which Dwayne McDuffie’s seven-issue run on the book has been one, long, extended tie-in to, and once you’ve seen one issue of Ed Benes’ art, you’ve seen them all.

This particular issue had no obvious tie-in to Salvation Run or Tangent: Superman’s Reign, nor was it was partially written by Alan Burnett, so it seemed like it might actually be an honest-to-God issue of JLoA written by Dwayne McDuffie, rather than by DC editorial. And instead of regular pencil artist Ed Benes or even worse fill-in artist Joe Benitez, this issue was illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, an excellent—if too slow for a regular gig on a monthly anymore—all-around artist.

And guess what? It’s actually quite good. In truth, it reads a bit more like an issue of The Flash or The Brave and the Bold than an issue of JLoA, as it is essentially a team-up between Flash and Wonder Woman (with Black Lightning checking in over the phone for a few panels).

McDuffie gives us a nice day-in-the-life type of stories about the Flash, narrated by the Flash himself (allowing for a few “My name is Wally West…” riffs), in which Wonder Woman stops by to talk to him about why he hasn’t been more active with the League lately.

McDuffie has the Flash using his speed powers in some interesting ways, talking through their effects using lots of science (or maybe it’s pseudo-science; I don’t know jack about physics), and gives both characters distinct voices.

Van Sciver’s art isn’t quite universally beloved, and I can kind of see why it leaves some readers cold (there’s a certain stiffness to some of his poses). I’ve always loved it, even when he was working much faster and looser (on books like Impulse), and this is an extremely solidly illustrated issue. The big splash revealing a fire is packed with well thought out little details, like Flash’s speed-line hopping over a fallen telephone pole, and he is constantly thinking up new ways to show the Flash in motion.

Van Sciver also manages to draw varying expressions on his characters’ faces, which is, you know, something anyone who draws comics should be able to do, but regular artist Benes only seems to be capable of drawing the expressions “lustful” and “mildly perturbed.”

He scrimps on backgrounds quite a bit, and there’s a whole page where the Flash and Wonder Woman are show in silhouette which looks like a time-saving measure more than a stylistic choice, but it still looks nice, and doesn’t detract from the story, in the ways that Benes’ and Benitez’s rush-work has done in the past.

The bar is, obviously, set extremely low these days, but this is easily the best issue of JLoA since the 2006 relaunch.

Now, to revisit the question I asked when I first saw this cover, of a honey-slathered Queen Bee sucking her finger…

What is up with all the sexy bug-ladies at DC these days?

Red Bee II, from Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters*

Queen Belthera, from Countdown

Forager II, from Countdown (ganked from here)

The Insect Queen, from Superman

Anyway, next issue, McDuffie is back to writing tie-ins to other comics, but at least this one is a tie-in to a promising sounding book (Morrison’s Final Crisis), and will also be drawn by a quality artist (Carlos Pacheco). And then Ed Benes comes back and we can all stop reading again, I guess.

The Mighty Avengers #12 (Marvel) Sometimes I think Marvel should cancel all of Brian Michael Bendis mainstream Marvel Universe projects and replace them with a Brian Michael Bendis Comics Weekly. The name’s not as catchy as anything with the word “Avengers” in the title, but it would be a little more honest. After all, the stories he tells in his two Avengers books and sundry spin-offs, annuals and line-wide crossovers don’t really have much of anything at all to do with the characters whose names are on the books, but rather the plot. What exactly determines whether a particular chapter of that plot—which has apparently been a slow-building Skrull invasion plot, only occasionally interrupted by crossovers like Civil War—should appear in New Avengers or Mighty Avengers or New Avengers: The Illuminati or whatever? No logical pattern has been discernable thus far.

To distinguish the cast of The Mighty Avengers from that of The New Avengers,’s Hannibal Tabu tends to call The Mighty Avengers “The Republican Avengers” or the “The Conservative Avengers” (a habit I seem to have picked up) and Savage Critic Abhay Khosla calls them “The Badly Written Avengers”.

These are Iron Man’s Avengers, consisting of bigger, more colorful, more powerful (and less popular) superheroes than those currently appearing in New Avengers. The first 11 issues of this series have consisted of one big, long, breathless storyline with a broken timeline, in which they run around and get in fights, the upshot of which has apparently been just to get Dr. Doom into prison in time for the break out in Secret Invasion #1.

Anyway, those Avengers? They’re not in this issue. None of ‘em. Not a one. The art isn’t of the big, bold, bright, colorful style of past artists Cho and Mark Bagley, but the sketchy, gritty, more cinematic Alex Maleev. It’s also a complete digression from that run-around-and-punch-with-thought-bubbles 11-issue plot; it’s a one-off set in the past akin to that issue of New Avengers in which Hawkeye went to find and sex-up Scarlet Witch or whatever.

Instead, this is a Nick Fury story. Remember him? He’s been missing since the climax of Bendis’ 5-issue, 20-month-long miniseries Secret War, which wrapped up back in ’06 (Most notable for the depressingly long delay between the last two issues, and the hilarious use of repeated images that dominated most of that last issue).

The first few pages of this recap the climax of that series from Fury’s point-of-view (although if you haven’t read Secret War, it’s probably not going to make a whole lot of sense), and then we see him go into hiding, have sex with his girlfriend (who turns out to be a green-skinned, pointy-eared, wrinkly-chinned alien. How did this alien invasion story begin? With Nick Fury totally putting his penis into an alien vagina.) Then Fury breaks into Maria Hill’s bedroom, and we get to see her in her underwear. Then he has a conversation with Spider-Woman. And then he let’s us know that he’s been in hiding for the past few years (our time) while he gets to the bottom of the Skrull invasion, which involves looking at glossies of Marvel heroes and villains.

If you’re really excited about the mystery of this storyline, which I don’t think has been presented in a terribly mysterious fashion (Secret Invasion #1 and that last issue of New Avengers demonstrated that rather than certain characters having been Skrulls for long periods of time, they could also just turn into Marvel heroes for, like, five minutes), then this will probably have some juice. What do blue circles mean vs. red circles, for example? Did Fury circle the Inhumans’ pet dog because he suspects him of being a Skrull, or because he’s positive he’s not a Skrull?

Only time and the purchase of many, many more Marvel Comics will tell.

Wolverine First Class #2 (Marvel) I don’t see it on my calendar, but apparently today is Be Impressed By Fred Van Lente Day, as, in addition to co-writing an incredible Hercules story, he also manages a Wolverine story which is among the most fun Wolvie stories I’ve ever read.

Apparently, the character is at his very best when a teenaged girl is giving him grief.

It’s sometime back during the Claremont/Byrne years, and Kitty Pryde needs someone to drive her and her friends to the Dazzler concert in Professor Xavier’s limo. Chuck’s out of town, Storm and Colussus don’t have their licenses, Angel says no and Nighcrawler looks like a fuzzy blue demon. That leaves the title character, who says no.

To butter him up, Kitty organizes a surprise party, complete with a table for two for Logan and Mariko at a ninja-themed Japanese restaurant (Yes!). Unbeknowest to Kitty, Wolverine has his own way of celebrating his birthday—meeting Sabretooth alone in the wild for a fight.

Hilarity ensues. And I do mean hilarity. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled while reading a comic about Wolverine, let alone laughed, but Van Lente and artist Andrea Di Vito have created an irresistible Wolverine story, one that accomplishes the same thing as Jeff Parker’s superior X-Men First Class—reminding readers that the X-Men as a franchise don’t have to be dour, tedious and confusing. They can actually be, you know, a lot of fun.

Ultimate Spider-Man #121 (Marvel) I tend to be awfully critical of a lot of Brian Michael Bendis’ Marvel output, and I think he tends to get a lot of grief from a lot of critics and comics bloggers for much of his work. I think a great deal of that has to do with disappointment; people tend to slam his work not because he’s not a good writer, but because he is such a great super-comic writer. He proves in month in and month out on this title, so whenever he turns in a mediocre issue of one of his half-dozen Avengers books, the gulf in quality is highlighted.

This, for example, is a perfect little done-in-one story about Peter Parker, Spider-Man juggling being a superhero, a high school student and holding down a job at Daily Bugle.

Cleverly told as a report about that baby project he was assigned a few storylines ago, we see just how his doll was destroyed, when Omega Red attacks J. Jonah Jameson. Funny Spidey quips, lots of superhero action, a cruel Jameson dressing-down an employee and teen dramedy.

And wow, has Stuart Immonen ever come into his own on this title! His first few issues didn’t seem quite right, but at this point? The guy seems to be doing the work of his career. Every panel is perfect.

*Please note, occasional EDILW guest The Red Bee says he doesn’t even have a niece, and has no connection to the young woman claiming to be his relative and the new Red Bee. He also wanted me to let any DC writers and editors in the reading audience know that he is both available and interested in starring in any future DC comics in which they need a character named the Red Bee.


Tracer Bullet said...

I read "Secret War" in one night (sitting in a Borders because that hardcover was expensive) and I'm still not sure what the hell happened or why. I can't imagine a brief recap will help anyone at all.

On another note, I'm curious about just how many aliens, mutants, cyborgs and general freaks Fury has nailed. He's like Captain Kirk and Wilt Chamberlain and he does it all with only one eye. Truly, he is first among us.

SallyP said...

It's amazing how bad art can derail a good story. I agree with your amazement that they can't assign a good artist to Grant Morrison, or Dwayne McDuffie.

The new Justice League WAS good, which was a pleasant change. And it's nice to have Nick Fury back, I suppose. I have to admit that this whole Skrull thing looks as though it is going to drag on and on and ON.

chris said...

Nice commentary on the Batman artist problem. There really is no excuse for failing to assign a top-notch storyteller to complement your most innovative writer on your most popular character's book.

I like Fred Van Lente. I like Greg Pak. I would probably enjoy The Incredible Hercules. Unfortunately, I hate the direction Marvel as a whole has gone in and I cannot support the overall editorial policy. The only mainline Marvel I read is Nova, because it is 99% detached from the never-ending Civil War storyline. Civil War has ruined the Marvel Universe. Relations between the characters are required to be filtered through the "whose side are you on" lens and there is no end in sight, plus I'm not sure HOW they can end all this without a serious, Crisis-style reboot of the entire Marvel line.

So, as much as I enjoyed Planet Hulk from Pak and various Van Lente material, I will not support the mainline Marvel comics until the Civil War problem is solved.

Siskoid said...

You've taken the words right out of my head Re: Batman (and JLA for that matter).

It is ABSURD to me that not only is DC editorial not putting someone of calibre on each of their flagship titles, but that these top-tier artists aren't actually VOLUNTEERING to work on Batman with Morrison.

Blows my mind.

Not since the 90s speculation/Image-style explosion have I seen such terrible art on mainstream books.

Scott said...

"Relations between the characters are required to be filtered through the "whose side are you on" lens and there is no end in sight, plus I'm not sure HOW they can end all this without a serious, Crisis-style reboot of the entire Marvel line."

Really? Marvel, the company that insisted that two heroes must always fight the first time they meet?

Spidey and Human Torch fought all through the sixties, half of Marvel's heroes started out as villians(or vice-versa), and even heroes have always thrown punches with other heroes. It seems like Marvel may have been more DC-like for a while there where everyone was getting along and having Avengers parties and stuff, but the "Civil War" drama seems to be a logical extension of Marvel's founding premise that heroes have problems.

Lucas said...

re: Batman's Art- I totally agree, m'man. It's the same curse Morrison had on X-Men, though; tons of art teams, including a couple VERY bad ones (Kordey just had no business doing X-men when his fantasy art is so damn good). Why? Perhaps it's the same as the Cubs- it still sells.
Morrison's comics will sell just cause he's on them; they don't necessarily need a great artist as well.
The Cubs constantly sell out Wrigley Field, no matter how bad the team is- they have for years. There's no incentive for the owners or management to spend more money to get better players that can win them a Series.