Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: Original Sin

As far as formats go, Marvel's Original Sin series had what must be among the strangest of any of their crossover/event stories to date. It was an eight-issue miniseries with two preludes (part of Point One #1 and Original Sin #0, both by different creative teams and neither of which were the creators of the miniseries). It was accompanied by an anthology series telling side-stories as most of Marvel's crossover stories ever since Civil War have been, this one given the the frustratingly confusing title of Original Sins. And, of course, there were tie-ins.

But it also contained two miniseries that apparently take place between issues of Original Sin, and are strictly labeled as such. So, for example, in addition to Original Sin #0-8, there's also Original Sin #3.1-3.4, telling a side-story involving The Hulk and Iron Man, and Original Sin #5.1-#5.5, dealing with Thor and the Asgardians.

It's interesting to look at the way Marvel ultimately collects these stories, as it will let a reader know that which of them Marvel actually considers part of the story. So the hardcover I borrowed from the library, entitled Original Sin contains the following, listed like so in the table of contents:

•"Point One #1" by writer Ed Bruaker and artist Javier Pulido

•"Original Sin #0" by writer Mark Waid, pencil artists Jim Cheung and Paco Medina and five inkers (one of whom is Cheung)

•"Original Sin #1-8" by writer Jason Aaron and artist Mike Deodato

•"Original Sin: Secret Avengers Infinite Comic #1-2" by writer Ales Kot, "storyboard artists" (???) "Mast & Geoffo" (???) and artist Ryan Kelley...this one is actually listed out of order, as it comes after the next thing listed in the table of contents

•"Original Sins #1-5" by a whole bunch of folks

That other stuff, the issues of the miniseries that Marvel decided to market as part of the actual series using decimal points? That's not here, either because it takes up too much space, or because it's not that important...which would be weird, given that the two prequels included aren't at all important either, and one of the stories in Original Sins is a two-page story about Lockjaw suddenly remembering where he buried a bone.

In fact, all of the stuff in here that isn't the eight-issue core series by Aaron and Deodato, while some of it is actually quite good, seems to take away from the actual story of Original Sin which, with one major exception, is pretty self-contained, and would read perfectlly well if it began with the fist panel of Original Sin #1 and ended with the last panel of Original Sin #8.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, in part simply because I find it interesting how byzantine this particular crossover was in terms of its format compared to previous, similar stories (Fear Itself for example, also used decimal-pointed issues, but only at the end, as Fear Itself was followed by three epilogues, each labeled with a decimal point). Original Sin could really use a big chart to define what order to read which books in, with maybe some sort of color coding to inform readers how relevant or, conversely, how optional some parts of the stories are (Hey, Marvel does have Jonathan Hickman writing for them now; I wonder why they don't have complicated chart checklists now...?).

It becomes more complicated for trade-readers, as such a theoretical chart would have to designate which parts of which books to read and in what order. Like, should I have stopped reading this trade after I hit the chapter that collects Original Sin #4 and sought out and read Original Sin: Hulk Vs. Iron Man, which apparently collects the issues that were originally serially released as Original Sin #3.1-3.4....?

The other reason is because I'm somewhat stymied by how to proceed writing about the book. My first instinct is to review this book as a whole, as that's how Marvel is selling it, but after I reached the first story collected after the collection of Original Sin's conclusion, a five-part Young Avengers story by Ryan North and Ramon Villalobos, I realized that a) It was really good, and deserved a post of its own reviewing it, and, b) it had almost nothing at all to do with Original Sin, and was just this side of a "red sky" story.

So I'm just going to focus on the first 230-ish pages or so.

We can dispense with the prequels pretty quickly; these are basically just there to remind who The Watcher is and what he does, exactly...or to explain that to new readers, I suppose. The Watcher, Uatu, is one of the many elements foundational to the Marvel Universe that were created, designed and defined by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in their Fantastic Four run.

A giant bald guy with an oversized head who rocked a toga and cape, The Wathcer watched stuff. He usually did so from his house on the moon, but for the really important stuff, he'd put in a personal appearance: If you've read pretty much any Marvel event series, you've seen him appear in the sky. His ancient alien race swore non-interference, but Uatu has been known to make an exception to that rule, most famously in having given the FF a hand in saving Earth from Galactus.

The Brubaker/Pulido ten-pager, culled from a Marvel anthology comic consisting mainly of promos and teasers to upcoming series and storylines, features a pair of thieve essentially casing The Watcher's joint while he's in the fugue state that Watchers fall into for exactly forty-two minutes every three years, during which time they apparently transmit their memories to the other Watchers. The thieves are wearing cool, Kirby-esque space suits that completely mask who they are; one calls the other "Andrew" and they both seem to work for something called "The Unseen" and, honestly, once The Unseen is defined during the course of Original Sin, this story seems to make little sense, as it ends with one of the mysterious intruders telling the other, "So now, when the time comes...The Unseen will be able to kill the Watcher... and all his secrets will be ours."

While that seems to suggest a spoiler in a prelude to the actual story—The Unseen does kill The Watcher, and Original Sin was sold as a murder mystery to unlock the identity of The Watcher's killer—The Unseen doesn't actually want to kill The Watcher, and does so only reluctantly. So I'm not sure if some wires got crossed in putting this crossover together, or if I just missed something.

This is the only part of this particular Point One special that's reprinted here of course, and I imagine it was the first of the shorts in that series, and that it would work quite well in that regard, as a Watcher story is a good way to set up any sort of Marvel anthology, as watching what's going on in various parts of the Marvel Universe at any given time is pretty much his whole deal.

The #0 issue by Waid, Cheung and what I'm assuming is a deadline-minded squadron of inkers is actually a Nova story that has The Watcher in it. After eight pages of set-up, in which we learn about who (this) Nova is and watch him fight a giant robot, he learns a little bit about The Watcher during an awkward conversation with Iron Man and Captain America, and decides to head to the moon in an attempt to get to know and maybe even befriend Uatu...in addition to getting a vital piece of information out of him.

Nova tours Uatu's house, sees his armory and gets a few glimpses of just what The Watcher watches, including what I imagine is a semi-secret part of Watcher history, and the many windows into different realities/issues of What If...?.

It's as much a "Who Is Nova?" story as it is a "Who Is The Watcher?" story (the latter of which is emblazoned on the cover), and it's pretty effective as both. No one's ever accused Mark Waid of not knowing how to write a comic book. (Have they? If so, they are wrong and dumb. Mark Waid knows how to write a comic book).

And then that brings us to Original Sin proper, Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato's big, crazy story in the semi-Silver Age zany spirit of so much of Aaron's Marvel writing, only given a grittier more grounded tone by all the murders and killing...not to mention Deodato's art.

In the process, we learn something new about Marvel history, one of those "Everything you thought you knew was wrong!" moments that, while a retcon, is kinda sorta a big deal akin to that proposed by Mark Millar at the end of his Marvel Knight Spider-Man run...but only if other writers and editors care to honor it, as they don't seem to have done with Millar's retcon.

It also kills off a couple of characters—a relatively young villain of Grant Morrison's creation, in addition to the one whose corpse is on all the covers—and rather radically, perhaps forever alters three other characters, one Z-list villain, the others espionage types whose presence and prominence in the Marvel Universe waxes and wanes (Both of 'em have been mostly off the table for somewhere between years and decades before). I'm curious to what degree the changes in one of those characters will be honored, as I know he's popped up a few times since this series concluded, and didn't seem too terribly changed by his new mission in life. He's also got his own ongoing monthly series at the moment, but I'm not sure if that's devoted to his new status quo or his previous one.

So. Captain America Steve Rogers, Wolverine, The Black Widow and former SHIELD Director Nick Fury are all enjoying a steak dinner on "meat night," when the call comes in: The body of Uatu, The Watcher has been discovered on the mooon with a huge bullet hole in the middle of his head, and both of his eyes carved out and taken.

Who could have committed this heinous crime? Who on earth has the resources to travel to the moon, confront The Watcher, and take him out, and why would anyone want to, exactly...? (Well, he's seen everything, so if you've committed a pretty terrible crime, you'd want to take eliminate him as a witness, although I can't imagine him getting called to testify in court cases too often, even in the Marvel Universe, and, apparently, he stores what he sees in his eyes, so, like, everything that has ever happened is in his eyeballs, some how...?)

The Meat Night supper club put on silly-looking space-suits of some kind—just a few chunks of white armor here and there—and join Avengers Iron Man and Thor on the moon to being the investigation. The Avengers start working the case immediately, following such clues as Mindless Ones developing sentience and tearing shit up in New York. Meanwhile, a mysterious man who looks like he's probably Nick Fury—Spoiler: It's totally Nick Fury—contacts The Black Panther and has the Panther put together one of the more random assemblages of Marvel heroes you could think of.

Panther's team consists of Dr. Strange, The Punisher, Emma Frost, Moon Knight, Gamora, Ant-Man II Scott Lang and The Winter Soldier. Following leads Fury provides them, they split up into smaller teams, each uncovering a clue to some sort of cosmic-level crime—a mass grave for giant monsters at the center of the earth, a dead Living Planet orbited by shell-casings, a Lovecraftian corpse in one of those Ditko-verses Dr. Strange always visits—all of which point to the fact that The Watcher may only be the latest in a string of similar killings.

Now, despite the marketing, and even the cover copy of various issues, "Who Shot The Watcher?" isn't really all that mysterious. There are a total of four suspects. Three of them are villains, all working together: Dr. Midas and Oubliette (both from Morrison and J.G. Jones' 2000 miniseries Marvel Boy) and The Orb (an old Ghost Rider villain created by Len Wein and Ross Andru, with a pretty amazing design; Aaron previously used him in his Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine miniseries).
The other suspect is, of course, Fury himself and, it will come to no surprise of anyone reading the book, it turns out to be Fury who killed The Watcher and stole one of his eyes; all four of the characters have some complicity though, and it's Midas and his accomplices who have one of the eyes (Fury's killing of The Watcher is revealed a little more than halfway through the story; it's not really the major focus, then).

The Avengers corner the villains pretty quickly—by the second issue, in fact—and mid-way through the third The Orb uses his Watcher eye as a sort of "secret bomb," that reveals secrets to those affected by it. In the pages of Original Sins, this basically just means there's a panel in which a few superheroes mutter lines to themselves before they go off to deal with those secrets in their own tie-in issues or spin-off miniseries.
(Remember part of Marvel's marketing for this series was a series of house ads featuring various characters and the words "Everyone has one;" I assumed by "one" they meant "an original sin," given the title, but they were apparently actually referring to "a secret.")

This apparently takes a lot of the characters off the board for the rest of the book, and that's fine—they're not really necessary anyway. The real action is Panther's team following the trail of clues back to Fury, and finding out his shocking secret history.

Firstly, he's not the fit, middle-aged man he appears to be. He's actually an old man, and has been using Life Model Decoys of himself for years! How did he manage to fool Wolverine's super-senses and Dr. Strange's magic and whatever for all these years? They are really good Life Model Decoys, he explains. Like, better than the other ones SHIELD is always using.

Secondly, he's been waging a one-man war on alien invaders and cosmic conquest since the 1950s or so, which mainly involved him assassinating various aliens and space-monsters with super-guns and exotic weaponry built by Iron Man's dad. Fury tumbled upon a dude who died saving Earth from an alien invasion, and thus he took on that man's role as The Unseen, the more dramatic if less accurate title for The Person Who Shoots Space-Monsters To Death.

This may seem problematic to a Marvel reader, who will immediately remember that Earth is imperiled by such forces somewhere between 5-65 times a month in Marvel Comics, and the superheroes save the day, usually without having to fill any mass graves or act as super-snipers. Fury hears you, but for every giant monster of Mole Man's you saw The Fantastic Four capture, there were ten more you didn't see that Fury had to kill the hell out of. So there.

Fury has been, we're told, a sort of cosmic-level version of The Punisher for about sixty-decades, his role as The Unseen being something of a hobby he engaged in instead of golf while not busy with his day job as agent and/or director of SHIELD.

Is your mind blown yet, or what?

He's getting old now though, and he needs a replacement, which is why he assembled the dream team of The Black Panther, The Punisher, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Emma Frost, Moon Knight, Gamora and The Winter Soldier. It will be up to one of them to take his place, and they were all carefully selected by him because he saw in them the potential to the job of secret space-assassin. (If some of those names seem not to belong, like, say, Ant-Man, Fury does address that; if some more likely candidates, like, say, Black Widow, weren't included, Fury addresses that as well).

None of them seem too keen on that particular job, and so they fight Fury. Eventually, Captain Ameica and The Avengers figure out what's going on too, and they fight Fury as well. The climax, then, is a big battle in space, between Old Man Fury and an army of young robot Furies versus most of the characters who have appeared in Marvel Studios movies, or have films in development. Also, Midas and his gang are there. So there's a lot of fighting all around.
Fury, not Cable.
Some of it's pretty funny, like when Wolverine claws up Fury's big-ass gun, saying "You even violated the sanctity of "Meat Night," you sonuva..." or like when Thor attacks Fury, who now looks like Cable's grandpa, and Fury takes him down by saying this:
Never forget that it wasn't a punch that took you down. That despite all your strength, in the end when you were beaten...All it took was a whisper.
And then Fury whispers through his space helmet into Thor's ear, and Thor's all, "What didst thou say?" and then he drops his hammer and loses all his power, which is why there's a girl Thor in Thor now, I guess.

And, when it's all over, we get to the other big changes:

1.) Dr. Midas is dead, as is the fate of all Grant Morrison creations in the Marvel Universe.

2.) The Orb has The Watcher's eye fused to his chest, and now wanders around looking at stuff, like the world's most horrifying voyeur:

3.) Bucky Barnes volunteered to take over for Fury extraterrestrial assassin extraordinaire:

4.) Nick Fury is now The Watcher, which is interesting in a poetic justice kind of way, but might not make a whole hell of a lot of sense, like, logistically:

On its face, this isn't a bad comic book story at all. Aaron has some big, cool, stupid ideas, and he executes them with admirable bombast. There's a lot of good action, a few genuinely surprising surprises (like when Bucky first figures out what Fury is up to and retaliates, at a point where he knows more than the readers do) and Aaron never loses his sense of humor while writing super-comics, even when writing a more "serious" story like this.

While I might have preferred someone like Ed McGuinness or Nick Bradshaw drawing this, Deodato's very inappropriateness for the book really helped sell it; the clash in tone between his often overly-realistic style (He's not above just straight dropping a photo into the background of a panel instead of, like, drawing a background) clashes violently with things like a guy who has an eyeball for a head gives the whole story a jittery energy. He does a weird thing with the panel lay-outs though, setting grids atop the images, some of the "panels" that result not actually serving as panel-panels, but as artistic flourishes that...well, I don't know that it adds anything, but it looks different than the last few big Marvel storylines I read, so hey, that's something (He also tilts the grid during dramatic scenes, which is why that scan of Bucky up there looks like a bad scan; the page is actually laid out that way).

I don't think the story holds up if one gives it much thought, however. Fury seems to have been doing these preemptive alien assassinations or whatever in complete secrecy for pretty much forever, so he obviously thinks that's the best way to defend the Earth, but, at the same time, we've got scores of superheroes saving the day from the very same threats constantly. If there's an argument to be made that what it takes to keep Earth safe is someone willing to break the rules, to commit atrocities to do so, it never actually gets made, and it's hard to imagine a lone gunmean—even one with access to jet-packs and high-tech guns and interdimensional portals or whatever—is really bettter suited to protecting Earth than, say, The Avengers (who have, like, 30 guys on their team now), or The Fantastic Four and The X-Men and all those other guys, you know?

Hell, now there's even a whole parallel agency to SHIELD specifically devoted to doing the very thing Fury was trying to do on his own in SWORD.

Aaron may have wanted readers to weigh moral issues with this story, maybe even apply them to the real world—Fury as a drone strike vs. The Avengers as a boots-on-the-ground, Geneva Conventions-cognizant army—but it doesn't actually happen in the book. What we get instead is an old crazy man saying it's better to murder your enemies in secret by yourself, even if you're best friends with a guy who runs a superhero army and have the home phone numbers of Reed Richards, Tony Stark and all the other smartest men in the world.

That he would persist in this belief, up to and including duking it out with Captain America and Thor rather than just asking The Black Panther and friends to help him come up with a more efficient way of defending Earth, well...it strains credulity.

All of which is a long way of saying "It's a good superhero comic, as long as you don't think about it," which is all fine and good...save for the fact that there are compelling, even important, ideas hinted at. It's frustrating to read such a comic and to repeatedly find yourself being asked to think less and less as you do.

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My favorite part of this entire series is he last panel on the fourth-to-last page. The Panther team is flying home from the moon on their space-plane, and, in the foreground, we see Thor still struggling to lift Mjolnir, which he dropped when Fury whispered at him, two issues ago:
I hope Thor's got an Avengers communicator in his belt, or that someone eventually remembers where they saw him last, otherwise he's going to be up there on the moon for a pretty long time if he can't lift Mjolnir to fly him home.

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One thing I noticed in this event series that seemed to be less true in others is how the characters on the covers didn't necessarily match those in the comics themselves.

The cover used for this collection, the one at the top of this post, is that of Original Sin #1, and while all of those characters do appear in that particular issue, The Thing and Spider-Man are not with the others at the scene of the crime, and only appear in about a half-dozen pages in New York, fighting a Mindless One. They cameo in crowd scenes in the next two issues, and Spidey appears briefly near the climax, but that's about it for those two (The Thing appears prominently on the cover of #6 as well).

The second issue features a bunch of floating heads, none of whom do anything more than cameo in the crowd scenes. Not one of the characters on the cover of the fifth issue—completely devoted to Fury telling his story via flashback to his group of successors—appear within the book. The eight issue has on its cover a random assemblage of Marvel characters, including some who don't appear in the issue at all (Captain Marvel, Daredevil) and some I don't recall even seeing so much as a cameo of throughout the entire series (Iron Fist, Mr. Fantastic).

That would have really irritated me were I a teenager, buying this crossover because I expected Spider-Man to be prominently featured, given how many cover appearances he has.

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This storyline also seemed noticeably light on female participation. Not among those crafting the comic, although the creative team was all-male, but among the characters featured. Gamora and Emma are among the group of characters Fury assigns to track him down, Black Widow gets a little panel-time and a few lines of dialogue near the beginning before slowly fading into the background, and Oubliette's role as henchwoman gives her a share of spotlight, but, beyond those small roles, most of the important stuff in the book is done by the men-folk, to the point where it's downright weird that they bother to use characters like, say, Storm and Captain Marvel, but only to have them stand silently in a group shot full of super-people.

I wonder if Gamora and Widow would have even appeared at all, were it not for their recent film roles elevating them to being among the more recognized female characters in the Marvel Universe stable of characters.

2 comments:

SallyP said...

Urgh. There is nothing more that I appreciate than being told that characters that I have enjoyed for the past 40 years or so...are not those characters, and that is was all a lie.

Gosh, what fun!

Saint Godard said...

THE STATUS QUO IS CHANGED FOREVER

(or at least until we realize Hal makes a lousy Spectre)

Thor's sister is the only interesting idea in all that mush...