Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Weekly Haul: May 21st

Amazing Spider-Man #559-#560 (Marvel Comics) Marvel and Spider-Man editor Stephen Wacker lined up some pretty incredible talents to work on their continuity re-booted, tri-weekly scheduled Amazing Spider-Man, including Dan Slott, one of the Marvel writers best-suited for Spidey-scripting, and a passel of great artists and other decent-to-pretty damn good writers.

This is the first time that they’ve assembled a writer whom I’ll always at least try something by, Slott, with an artist I’ll buy anything he draws (Marcos Martin, the brilliant artist responsible for 2003’s Batgirl: Year One, last year’s Doctor Strange: The Oath, and the otherwise forgettable 2005 series Breach). I therefore couldn’t resist at least trying these issues, despite the terrible taste for the Marvel Universe Spider-Man franchise that “One More Day” left in my mouth (And with Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, and the Avengers books, it’s not like decent Spider-Man comics are hard to come by).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s damn good Spider-Man comics. Slott introduces not one but two new female villains, parkour-running Screwball* and creepy, 2-D Paper Doll; his Spider-Man banter is as quality as it always is, he pushes forward all of the little soap opera sub-plots involving a large cast of supporting characters (all of which were presumably begun by the ASM “brain trust”), and the idea of photographer Peter Parker becoming a paparazzi is pretty inspired (in #560, there’s a neat sequence in which Parker trash-talks a celeb he’s stalking the same way Spidey would The Rhino or The Vulture or whoever).

Martin’s work is just incredible. He’s the kind of artist whose every line is worthwhile; it’s easy to get lost drinking them in, but only if you pull yourself away from the story they’re in service of, which they push forward effortlessly. But there are a few panels that ask you to come back and do just that with. In #559 alone, there’s page four’s second panel, featuring the multiple Screwball images in sequence; page seven’s stroll down the side of a two-story building; page 15’s similar multi-image sequence of an acrobatic Parker versus some bouncers. Man, I hope the brighter spotlight of ASM manages to confer about Martin the super-star status he deserves. I would love to be able to see art of this quality on a superhero book every month.

As someone trying out this “Brand New Day” for the first time, what I found especially striking about it was how the continuity reboot has nothing to do with what made this an interesting comic book. There’s no reason Marvel couldn’t have a three-times-a-month ASM featuring rotating creators telling more soap operatic stories with new villains and a wide array of supporting characters and several sub-plots without rebooting things. There’s just a panel or two in these two issues that couldn’t have been told with Parker and MJ still married (and none that couldn’t have been told if they were merely divorced instead of magically having been never married at all). And that panel or two? They weren’t even among the good ones.

Now I have a very important question. The cup of coffee Spidey’s sipping on in that scene on page 13 in #560? What does he do with it when he swings into action? Does he just web it to the side of the building? Because it would be cold by the time the webbing wore off. Man, that’s going to bug me forever.

Avengers: The Initiative #13 (Marvel) Co-writer Christos N. Gage goes solo this issue, teaming with artist Steve Uy for a remarkable done-in-one story that mirrors the first issue of the series, and riffs on a half-dozen military training movie clichés in the process.

Gage introduces a new crop of recruits, all of whom are so minor they seem made-up, are actually all apparently pre-existent. Save for the protagonist of the issue, Boulder/Butterball, a fat guy who is completely indestructible but, as a consequence of his powers, is very clumsy, very weak, can’t fight, can’t learn to fight and can’t ever lose weight. He’s also a superhero fanboy, and gets on everyone else’s nerves. (I suppose there could be some meta-commentary going on here, but I didn’t think too deeply about it).

Gage pretty deftly juggles comedy and drama, manages to shoehorn in at least one fight, and spotlights some of the most obscure Marvels he can think of—in other words, he does everything Dan Slott did to make this book so winning back when he was writing it solo.

Batman and The Outsiders #7 (DC Comics) Nothing of interest occurs in this comic book.

The Brave and the Bold #13 (DC) Mark Waid, I know I probably don’t say this as often as I should, but I just want you to know that I love you. Your first twelve issues on this criminally underrated title tried to make each single issue a team-up between at least two heroes that functioned as a story of its own as well as part of a greater whole. They didn’t all work perfectly, but many of them did. Now you’re taking the more traditional Brave and the Bold approach: Two heroes, one of ‘em Batman, meeting for a one-issue team-up. And you could have gone with one of the traditional team-ups, having Batman hang with Green Arrow or Deadman or Phantom Stranger or Hal Jordan or Wildcat, but you went and picked two of the last characters anyone would ever think to pair up, Batman and Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash. Hell does anyone ever team that Flash up with anyone, except maybe the other Flash or one of his old man super-friends?

And yet not only do you make the team-up work, you make it work perfectly, finding something the pair of heroes have in common (beyond both being superheroes, of course), and exploring that while telling a briskly-paced one issue superhero story that’s all fighting, banter and superpower showing off. The results were tremendously exciting: Here’s the kind of story we don’t see every Wednesday and, after reading it, it’s a bit unclear why we don’t. Because Batman and Jay Garrick work great together.

Also, you probably didn’t make it up, but I’ve got to say, I love the word “Samuroid.” Bravo.

Fall of Cthulhu #11-#12 (Boom! Studios) Like a lot of comics fans, I’m pretty fascinated by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and have spent plenty of time reading and rereading his highly imaginative (and often kind of boring, predictable and occasionally even dumb) stories. Despite my affection for Lovecraft’s oeuvre, I tend to wrinkle my nose at comics (and movies and short stories) that seek to adapt, extend or otherwise riff on them in a serious (i.e. non-parodic) way. There’s just so much of the stuff, and there’s so little of it that ends up being worthwhile.

So I’ve managed to resist Boom’s ongoing Cthulhu title thus far, but I heard that the current story arc, “The Gray Man,” was supposed to be a good jumping on point, so I thought it was time to try jumping on. Hell, if it lasted 11 issues, it can’t be that bad, can it?

Now having missed the first ten issues, surely I’m not up on the back story, but if you’ve read any Lovecraft—or anything derived from his work—you’ll be on solid footing. Horrors beyond mortal understanding, ancient cults, professors who learned terrible knowledge they were better off not knowing, et cetera.

This story is set in modern day Arkham, where Sherrif Dirk is the third in a line of Arkham sherrifs (his grand-father would have been around for some of the stuff in Lovecraft’s stories, I believe) who has managed to keep the peace for a while. Things have apparently gotten less peaceful of late, and in this arc they seem to be getting even more less-peaceful.

A young Brazillian runaway who insists on being called Lucifer (Her real name is Luci Jennifer, you see) is arrested for breaking and entering, but has bigger problems than the local lawmen can give her—she’s pursued by a supernatural agent she eventually explains is kind of like the patron saint of human sacrifice, and he wants a relic her now-deceased friend stole.

Writer Michael Alan Nelson does a pretty admirable job of marrying Lovecraft’s mythology to a more mundane supernatural murder mystery type of story, with the former offering a sort of vague sense of threat underlying the more familiar elements of the plot. The occasional namedrops to Lovecraft inventions, as well as the very name of the series, reveal enough to readers to make us feel like we know something more than the characters, but not what will happen next, or how they’ll deal with it.

Artist Mateus Santolouco (assisted on inks by Andre in #11) presents the action in a straightforward, easily accessible manner. There are no real attempts to create a Lovecraftian mood through the imagery, which could perhaps be read as a weakness, or could perhaps be read as intentional ratcheting up of the contrast between this crazy world of horror beyond mortal ken and the everyday world of sunlight, newspapers, police officers, cars, coffee and the otherwise familiar.

Santolouco isn’t given an opportunity to draw any tentacles or space god-monsters in these two issues, so its hard to judge his fitness to Lovecraftian horror against other artists mining that vein, like Mike Mignola, Troy Nixey or Kelley Jones. There’s a brief scene at the climax of #12 where our hero leaves this plane and meets an…entity of some sort, and while the scenery is imaginative, its in keeping more with Marvel Comics’ versions of the astral plane and different dimensions than something non-Euclidean and mind-blowing. But, like I said, it’s just a brief scene.

I’m certainly interested in what happens in #13, and that’s generally the very best way to measure the success of a serial pop comic like this.

The Incredible Hercules #117 (Marvel) Have you ever wondered what the sound of one Canadian superhero punching another Canadian superhero into the side of a cliff is? It’s “KNADAGHH!”, of course.

There are plenty more cool sound effects—almost enough to put Doug Moench to shame—in the first part of new story arc “Sacred Invasion.” While his superhero peers deal with the invading Skrulls, Hercules finds himself reluctantly leading a “god squad” of divinely graced champions to have at the Skrull gods, whom Earth’s pantheons fear will replace them if the Skrulls take over earth.

See, the Skrulls invading earth are waging a holy war, so how better to stop them then to prove earth’s gods are bigger than theirs? Seems logical. Writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente set things up with a nice homage to the cheesy sci-fi B-movies of yesteryear that have at least in part informed Brian Michael Bendis’ Secret Invasion plot, and then plunge into a whirlwind of introductions of various Marvel deities and their champions.

The final line up is Herc, Snowbird of Alpha Flight, an Eternal, Amatsu-Mikaboshi from the Ares mini and the god-eater who appeared in the recent Hulk vs. Hercules one-shot.

Justice League of America #21 (DC) Could it be? Another issue of JLoA with both a decent script and good artwork in it? That’s two in a row! Writer Dwayne McDuffie still isn’t writing the book so much as fleshing out editorially mandates and picking up after previous writer Brad Meltzer—the first half of the book is a call-back to Meltzer’s Trinity-around-the-table scenes, dealing with Meltzer introduced conflicts like Vixen’s powers, and the second half is a Final Crisis prologue—but at least McDuffie can write comic book scripts better than Meltzer, and the crossover in question is at least a promising one.

McDuffie’s paired with the too-slow-for-a-monthly-but-perfect-for-one-off-fill-ins art team of Carlos Pacheco and Jose Merino, and this is by far the best artwork to grace the pages of JLoA since the relaunch, even besting Gene Ha and Ethan Van Sciver’s fill-ins.

McDuffie writes fantastic dialogue for the Trinity, with quick, sharp exchanges that reveal more about the characters and their relationships than the writer’s fondness for them. The scene is nine pages of the three characters just talking, but it never gets tedious. I could read a four-part story arc of them chatting, if the dialogue were this crisp.

The rest of the book is devoted to The Human Flame, who fights Hawkgirl and Red Arrow before getting picked up by Libra, circling back to that scene in DC Universe 0, in which the latter offers villains their fondest desires. The Flame’s is the death of Martian Manhunter, so things aren’t looking any better for J’onn next month when Final Crisis begins in earnest.

None of these Flame/Libra scenes seems too terribly important, all of the information contained in them are the kind of things Final Crisis writer Grant Morrison would generally handle in a few sentences of dialogue, but McDuffie’s writing is sharp enough that even if it is just filigree, it seems worthwhile.

If he were always paired with an artist who could really draw and really tell a story—preferably the same one every month—McDuffie would probably be turning out a must-read superhero team book. As is, issue’s like this and #20 are aberrations, and Ed Benes returns next month, to move JLoA back into the must-avoid category.

Justice Society of America #15 (DC) This is a fight issue of JSoA, in which the fifty-six members of the JSA all pile on a version of Kingdom Come bad guy Magog for most of 22-pages. It’s extremely well-drawn by Dale Eaglesham and Prentis Rollins, writer Geoff Johns throws in a few interesting demonstrations of his characters’ powers, and there’s at least one funny panel, and a nice use of a double-paged spread as an exclamation point at the end of the book, but it all seems to go buy too fast and prove particularly unsatisfying after so long a wait (Going by the DC Nation column in the back, this book is a month late).

Marvel Adventures Avengers #24 (Marvel) No lie: If you’re only going to spend $2.99 on comics this week, make sure you spend it on “Don’t Be Hatin’,” the done-in-one masterpiece of Marvel merriment and mockery that is this issue of MA Avengers.

What’s so great about this issue? You mean aside from the cover of Giant-Girl about to squish Spider-Man who’s about to squish Ant-Man? Well, how about the return of Karl, the AIM henchman you may remember form the greatest Avengers story of all time? How about Bruce Banner staying out of the fight because he just bought a new suit he doesn’t want to rip? Or Captain America proclaiming, “That’s the way we ate our lunch back in the war! We rolled it first!”? Or the debut of Marvel Adventures Bi-Beast? Or the all-new, all-different Hatemonger, with a mind-blowing new secret identity? (Hint: It’s not Hitler).

If you couldn’t tell, Jeff Parker has returned to scripting the best Avengers comic on the stands, and he’s simply outdone himself this time. There’s literally something golden on every single page of this thing, and he manages to get off all these jokes while still working in the daily minimum requirement of superhero fights, tell a few wildly inappropriate jokes that kids won’t even get unless they’re actually grown-ups and delivering a moral today’s youth are sure to take to heart: “Your first mistake was having an idea. Your second was acting on that idea.”

The Mighty Avengers #14 (Marvel) Secret Invasion mastermind Brian Michael Bendis doles out another bit piece in his overarching plot, which he seems to be telling in jigsaw puzzle fashion, with each of the ancillary titles he writes made up of a collection of flashbacks that inform the main series. I think.

This issue deals with The Sentry, whose backstory and relationship with the Marvel Universe I’ve never quite understood, and was thus amused to see a cadre of sleeper agent Skrulls expressing their confusion over how to deal with the guy, since they don’t get him either.

The most notable thing in this issue, however, is probably how gracelessly and tastelessly Bendis hammers home the Skrulls-as-Islamic-terrorists point he’s been trying to make. In a flashback, we’re treated to a scene of Skrulls feverishly praying as one of them tries to fly their spaceship straight into the Baxter Building (Luckily, Sentry was on hand to save the day).

I didn’t understand page 17 at all; was I supposed to, or is that one of those confusing sequences that will make sense in a year or two, like Baby Cage opening its eyes really wide in that one panel of New Avengers from forever ago?

Robin #174 (DC) (Note: This review will feature Spoiler-related spoilers, so if you don’t want spoiled regarding the true identity of the Spoiler, feel free to skip ahead to the next one).

As I’ve said before, I’m no fan of the character Stephanie “Spoiler” Brown, the Robin supporting character killed off in one of the worst Batman stories I’ve ever read, and both somewhat bemused and bewildered by why having Batman and Robin properly memoralize her in the Batcave has become something of a cause among a lot of comics fans (Although I fully understand why readers would object to having a villain torture a teenage girl to death).

So the current Robin story arc, in which Spoiler-creator Chuck Dixon returned to the title he launched for a typically bland but competent story heavily hinting at Spoiler’s return, has been extremely fascinating. In this final chapter, which wastes waaayyy too much time on generic Bat-violence of the sort that can be found in any comic book before getting to the stuff people actually care about, Dixon makes it all official: Spoiler is back in the land of the living, and Batman utters the line, “Now you know why there’s no memorial in the cave.”

This entire story, then, has been a sop to a very loyal, very vocal and, I imagine, rather small** sub-set of fans. The method Dixon used to have Spoiler not-be-dead is one I’ve actually read suggested online a few times before, and is the easiest solution (One that also gets Dr. Leslie Thompkins off the hook for being a child-killer; now the only problem with “War Crimes” is it makes Batman look like an idiot).

Whatever you think of Spoiler or the Bat-books in general—or even if you don’t think of them at all—I think the story behind this particular comics story is pretty interesting for the simple fact that Dixon and DC essentially wrote a story arc dictated by fan fiat. The fans who were advocating for Spoiler’s return or a memorial case in the Batcave will no doubt be quite happy about this; me, I find it a little scary to think that DC’s readership is so small that one of its titles can be so drastically effected by a small group of readers.

Certainly it speaks to the power of those fans, but it also speaks to the weakness of DC and/or the direct market it co-dominates.

As a Batman reader, however, I welcome this turn of events; not so much because I care if I ever read another Spoiler story again, but simply because having Dr. Leslie Thompkins kill her was among the stupidest things I’ve ever read in a Batman comic. Now if they could just undo Jason Todd’s return and Batgirl II’s nonsensical turn to the dark side…

Salem: Queen of Thorns #0-#1 (Boom!) The bulk of Boom’s output consists of miniseries that read like movies. That’s not an ideal attribute for a comic book—I’m of the opinion that the very best examples of any medium are the ones that could only exist in that particular medium—but being filmic isn’t always a negative thing. After all, some movies are good, and some movies are bad, thus comics that read like movies can read like good ones or bad ones.

Unfortunately, Salem is one of those comics that reads like a bad movie. A really, really bad one. The series kicked off with a zero issue a few months back, and begins in earnest this week with a #1.

The premise is this. Imagine if, through the magic of relying on pencil and ink art instead of Hollywood casting agents, you could somehow cast a young Clint Eastwood in the role of Van Helsing from that awful Hugh Jackman movie, and then transplant your Eastwood-as-Jackman-playing-Van Helsing into the Salem witch trials, ignoring the actual history or tenets of the Catholic faith for something more Hollywood.

So witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins (once played by Vincent Price) is a zealous, scarred leader of a secret order of warrior priests, most of whom dress like Crusaders, who cynically, knowingly exterminate the innocents they smear as witches in order to line their pockets, all while ignoring “The True Witch,” a tree monster birthed of God’s anger at Jesus’ crucifixion, a monser that leads an army of spider men in loincloths. The only one who opposes her is our hero, renegade Grand Inquisitor Elias Hooke, the Eastwood-as-Jackman-playing-Van Helsing character.

This is the work of creator/writers Chris Morgan (the screenwriter responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) and Kevin Walsh, and its pretty shoddy work, a concept that’s a Frankenstein’s monster of clichés borrowed from sources of questionable quality and then represented in a more original fashion. The plot is problematic, being needlessly convoluted and ignorant of its purported subject matter, and because so much of the script is devoted to unpacking that plot, there’s little space left for Morgan and Walsh to redeem themselves through its execution.

Wilfredo Torres provides the art, and its quite serviceable, which probably sounds like more of a backhanded compliment than it’s supposed to. Torres’ storytelling is solid and he's fluent in the visual language of comics, but his work isn’t so remarkable that it makes putting up with a pretty dumb script worth the time spent doing so.

When this series was first announced, it ruffled a few feathers for its presumed subject matter—witch-hunting—given the fact that witchcraft is a religion some folks actually practice here in the real world, and the Internet makes it easy for one person to transmit their offenses far and wide quite quickly. As it turns out, the witches aren't really vilified. It’s the church, the tree demon, the spider-men in loin clothes and, to a lesser extent, God whom are the real bad guys here. The so-called witches are mostly innocent victims. So too are the readers.

Tiny Titans #4 (DC) Wildebeest, one of the “Little Tiny Titans,” is so cute I just want to eat this comic book.

*Does the fact that Marvel now has a supervillain based around it mean that parkour is now officially uncool, or does it have to show up in an Archie comic first?

**According to The Beat’s analysis updated for February of 2008, Robin has been selling between 25K and 32K for years, excepting freak bumps for crossovers like “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul.” Since the entire pool of Robin readers is that small, obviously any sub-sets of them are going to be pretty small too, no matter how large the actual sub-set is. If that makes sense.


J Ray said...

the fact that spoiler is back and batman's comment that "now you know why there's no memorial" is especially confusing because there are at least two RECENT occurrences in what I would assume are in-continuity books where there IS a memorial to stephanie: Batman #673 and Action Comics #859.

admittedly, the first is something of a dream sequence (Batman seeing things as he wants them to be?) and the second is in the 31st century...

you can find scans of them here:

first Batman, then
Action Comics (read November 21 and 22) with more

So does she still die anyways? Were both Grant Morrison AND Geoff Johns wrong? Is Chuck off his rocker? I don't know, but I guess we'll find out...

snell said...

"Gage introduces a new crop of recruits, all of whom are so minor they seem made-up..."

Uhh, Caleb, I'm not sure how to break this to you...they're ALL made up. There is no real Spider-Man, no real Iron Man. Sorry.

"And with Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, and the Avengers books, it’s not like decent Spider-Man comics are hard to come by."

Wait a think the Avengers books are decent? Really?

Sea_of_Green said...

Mark Waid! Hear, hear! :-)

Tony said...

>Since the entire pool of Robin readers is that small, obviously any sub-sets of them are going to be pretty small too, no matter how large the actual sub-set is.

They might still be a large percentage of the overall fan base. If you turn off 5 percent of the readers of a marginal book, that's pretty significant.

SallyP said...

I have to agree with you, that the Brave & the Bold was sensational. Jay is my favorite Flash anyway, and it was just SO nice to see him working with Batman. It was ALSO nice that Batman wasn't the best all the time, and that it was Jay who had to pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

Justice League was also a pleasant read, not having Benes on the art, may have had a lot to do with that, plus McDuffie is actually a good writer, and he's finally apparently getting a chance to show that now on this book.

Come to think of it, it HAS seemed like an awfully long time since Justice Society came out. I liked it, because both Sandy and Obsidian actually had speaking parts and DID things.

I'm trying to avoid the whole Skrull thingie.

Mike Lorah said...

My only thought on Spoiler's return is: I still believe that comic book writers shouldn't write stories with even a stray thought to online bitchfests.

Caleb said...

Uhh, Caleb, I'm not sure how to break this to you...they're ALL made up. There is no real Spider-Man, no real Iron Man. Sorry.

I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

Okay, actually I meant made up by Gage particularly for that story.

Don't challenge my belief in the reality of Spider-Man and Iron Man though. It's all I got!

Wait a think the Avengers books are decent? Really?

I think they're better than bad. The Spider-Man bits are usually pretty good, even if they're only, like, one panel per issue, so they're not bad for a Spidey fix if you're, like, jonesing. When the Avengers actually appear anyway; lately, that's not often the case.

Derek said...

"Batman and The Outsiders #7 (DC Comics) Nothing of interest occurs in this comic book."

Yeah, pretty much.

I've been picking this up on an issue-by-issue basis; it's never quite good enough for me to add it to my pull list. But this issue I could have skipped entirely and not have missed a thing.

What happened? Rex got ejected from the station and Batman called in Nightwing, each of which should have taken a page (two tops) to happen. Everything else was just a continuation of the status of last issue.

This is a clear illustration of what's wrong with decompressed storytelling.

Kevin Huxford said...

Caleb & Mike: Isn't it entirely possible that bringing Spoiler back like this was the plan from jump street? :) Therefore, no fan fiat or online bitchfest influenced this move?