Saturday, June 27, 2015

Secret Wars Journal #1 is not very good

"Fuck this comic!" my friend said of Secret Wars Journal #1 shortly after reading the first half of it last month. (That was also her review of Convergence: Superman #1, but she only read the first page of that one before making that declaration; also, she threw the Superman comic while saying it.)

She pointed out the two factors she hated most about Secret Wars Journal, and I asked to borrow it, to read and review for my blog later. My friends is, by the way, my number one–and, um, only source of Secret Wars comics at the moment. I'm extremely interested in the whole thing, but not $4-per-20-pages interested.

I suppose we should back up a bit, though. When Marvel began its new era of line-wide crossover event stories with Civil War in 2006, it also launched a companion, anthology series, Civil War: Frontline. That series compiled stories from various points-of-view around the Marvel Universe, while the main series focused on the events of the story itself: Frontline is where one could find out what the average man on the street of the Marvel Universe might think of the goings-on, or where one could find out how a minor character was affected by the Civil War storyline proper.

It was a good idea, really; it capitalized on interest in the main storyline, it gave a whole bunch of creators a great showcase for their work and it helped flesh out the importance of the event, as it wasn't just something affecting the characters with their own books, but all of the characters in the Marvel Universe (or, at least a lot of them).

Such companion series, generally street-level in focus, have accompanied most of Marvel's event series since, and it's been amusing to watch what a hard time Marvel has apparently had in coming up with titles for such series, and in distinguishing them from the series they're meant to be companions to.

My favorite was AVX: Vs, the logo of which appeared to be "Avengers Vs. X-Men," which was the title of the book it was tying into; the "v" in AVX stood for "Vs.," of course, too. By that point, they gave up on trying to think of different angles for the companion series, however, and treated that one as the comic book equivalent of deleted scenes from a DVD, as the comic didn't contain stories, just extended versions of fight scenes that appeared in Avengers Vs. X-Men.

Can you tell at a glance which of these is the main series Avengers Vs. X-Men and which is the tie-in, AVX: Vs...?

Well, Marvel's latest event series is so big it gets two companion series: Secret Wars Journal and Secret Wars: Battleworld.

Do note that the word "Battleworld" appears prominently on both, so much so that the titles actually look an awful lot like Battleworld: Secret Wars Journal and Secret Wars: Battleworld.

It doesn't really matter much; they both seem to perform the same function. The premise of Secret Wars, as the 52-word introduction on each credits page declares, is that "The Multiverse was destroyed!" and that all that remains is "A massive, patchwork planet composed of the fragments of worlds that no longer exist."

In practice, this appears to mean that Marvel told all of its editors to "go nuts" while Jonathan Hickman is writing Secret Wars, and they in turn told their various creative teams to "go nuts," and so we have all kinds of pretty nutty temporary titles.

Secret Wars Journal operates in the same fashion: Totally random stories set on "Battleworld" (i.e. the Marvel Universe gone mad), only there are two short ones per issue by various creators, and they should be able to nuttier than many of the other titles, as they only have to sustain a 10-page narrative, rather than the 20-pages of the handful of Secret Wars-related one-shots, or the 120-pages or so of the longer miniseries.

So we're up to speed then?

Okay, so Battleworld Secret Wars Journal #1 has a lovely Kevin Wada cover of an old time-y Kate Bishop in a typically pretty Kevin Wada dress, aiming her bow and arrow while Hulkling and Wiccan pose in the fog behind her.

The cover story is called "The Arrowhead," and it is written by Pru Shen and drawn by Ramon Bachs. In the first panel, we're told that the setting here is "King James' England," and a caravan is talking about The Arrowhead, who is basically Robin Hood. And is also secretly aristocrat Lady Kate of Bishop (who really should wear a mask or something when doing her thieving). She rides with a never named blonde guy and a magician named William.

Marvel fans will, of course, recognize the trio as Hawkeye Kate Bishop, Wiccan Billy Kaplan and Hulkling Teddy Altman from Young Avengers (although Kate might be more familiar to many current comic readers as the other Hawkeye, the one who appeared in every other issue of Matt Fraction, David Aja, Annie Wu and company's Hawkeye comic).

So we get an info dump: Kate is Arrowhead, who robs from the rich and she and her men are going to steal a magic orb of some kind from "The Punisher Sheriff" (Frank Castle is the Sheriff of Nottingham...?), but a trap is set for them and then the "story" suddenly ends, Shen having run out of panels, I guess, with a "See more of Lady Kate in Siege #1!"

So yeah, fuck that comic book. If you went in expecting a comic book about Kate Bishop as Robin Hood in a dress, that's gotta be pretty disappointing; me, I knew there were two stories in the issue, and it still seemed extremely abrupt and fact, even using the word "ending" to describe it is pretty generous. It's basically just a preview for a comic book that may or may not even exist yet (I don't really know what Siege is going to entail, but I hope it ends up being better than the comic it takes its name from). Honestly, about 75% of those eight-page previews that DC published in May to hype their "DCYou" initiative offered fuller, more complete and more compelling narratives than "Arrowhead."

The second half is a complete story, albeit a rather weird one. Set in "Egyptia," this one is called "We Worship What We Don't Understand" and is written by Matthew Rosenberg and drawn by Luca Pizzari. I'm not familiar with the setting, if it's one imported from somewhere familiar in the Marvel Multiverse, but it appears to be basically the Egypt of the book of Exodus, with the Israelites swapped out for mutants? The Ten Commandments or even Prince of Egypt, but with the X-Men sounds like the best idea ever, and really one that needs more than ten pages to fulfill ("Let my people go, bub").

The mutants are oppressed by the god Khonshu (the made-up Egpytian deity from Marvel's various Moon Knight comics*) and her worshippers. On this particular night, Wolverine is going to lead Shadowcat, Colossus and Nightcrawler to the goddess, so they can kill her. Wolverine's contact is a Moon Knight named Spector, but things don't go as expected, as Spector and other Moon Knights transform into Werewolf By Night-looking werewolves and fight the ancient Eyptian-ized X-Men in eighteen silent panels of brutal, dynamic action and violence running across a three-tiered, two-page spread.

There's a bit of shrugging philosophy from Khonshu, and an ironic, twist ending of the sort one might expect from an anthology comic. In that regard, while this is no longer than "Arrowhead," it at least tells a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end, has at least a few ideas to it, and is structured satisfyingly.

It's additionally a nice showcase for Pizzari. Bachs does a decent job in "The Arrowhead," but doesn't get much to do. Pizzari, on the other hand, gets to redesign, like, all of the X-Men, as well as draw lots of characters in action. Of those designs, some are just details glimpsed in passing, but they're fun ones: Bishop with an ankh tattoo over his eye rather than his traditional "M," Emma Frost still barely covering her breasts, even though now she's got mummy-like wrappings and a cape an,d, best of all, Cable's big, Moses-y beard. (Although in the X-Men version of the Book of Exodus, lets call it The Book of X-odus**, I still insist that Wolverine should play Moses.)

I remember "Egpytia" appearing on one the Battleworld maps I saw online or in the comic shop (which it might have been nice to see in these comics, actually), so I assume this isn't the only glimpse of that "domain" we'll see in the course of Secret Wars, but the ending for all of these characters seems, so I don't know if we'll see ancient Egptian (or Egyptia-ian) X-Men again or not.

Despite the various pleasures of the second story, it is still only a good story in relation to the first; I mean, there's nothing wrong with or bad about it, it's just a competently-written, well-drawn story. It is, in other words, the least we should be able to expect from a comic book from Marvel Entertainment in the year 2015. And it follows a weird-ass stealth advertainment piece for Siege. For four goddam dollars.

So, had I paid for this, I think I would have to agree: Fuck this comic.

*Please note: I am corrected in the comments section, as I so often am.

**I would also accept The Book of X-Men-odus.


Jer said...

That sounds pretty terrible. Even the X-men story with a beginning, middle and end sounds like it's not very good.

As an aside - to my knowledge Khonsu isn't a made up god. My copy of "The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses" from 1996 by Clive Barrett lists Khonsu as a moon god and protector against evil spirts. A quick search shows MA Murray lists Khonsu as a moon god and "expeller of demons" in her 1920 "Legends of Ancient Egypt" and there are a few other sources at gutenberg that predate the internet as well. (I try to go back to pre-Wikipedia sources for stuff like this because research has become so goddamn lazy that authors will use Wikipedia without citing it, and then their book will end up in the references section of the wikipedia page).

Marvel's Khonshu is just an alternate spelling, but the god is no more made up than Marvel's Thor or Hercules are. (Of course, that's a good question I suppose).

Adam said...

Werewolf by Moonknight!

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I enjoyed the CIVIL WAR Frontline. Is Sally Floyd still working at the Daily Bugle? I tried the one for SECRET INVASION and it was horrible and I never went past #1. I never intended to pick up the one from SECRET WARS, so thanks. I won't even pick it up in the dollar bin later this year.

Brian said...

• "In practice, this appears to mean that Marvel told all of its editors to "go nuts" while Jonathan Hickman is writing Secret Wars, and they in turn told their various creative teams to "go nuts," and so we have all kinds of pretty nutty temporary titles."

I feel for Hickman, whose plotting is certainly wheels-within-wheels...while everyone around him is likely all "DAY OFF FROM SCHOOL!" Even the best of stories coming from the sideline of SECRET WARS has a chance of destabilizing what Hickman is setting up, thanks to the usual editorial "this is cool, let's pull it entirely to the forefront and let everyone build off of it!"

• @Jer – regarding the Khonsu/Khonshu issue, I don't see a matter on the spelling, rather one of transcription (there's a vast difference in script involved) as well as pronunciation of phonemes. You have a name bouncing between three different language families and a few thousand years of drift, as well as three distinct styles of script in translation to what we see – a s/sh shift in how to render in English is perfectly understandable. I'll accept Murray's Khonsu and Moon Knight's Khonshu as our discussing same.

• @Caleb – It's funny to see how these types of minis have morphed from the initial "Frontline" and such, where they had a specific character set (usually the journalists following the story from the street) to the same street-level but event-specific protagonists (still constant within the event – think of Speedball anchoring the FEAR ITSELF mini's main story). VS. went weird, but that was by definition a gimmick mini and never sold itself as anything but, but the event tag-along minis since then have oddly followed that pattern of "one-shot half-stories under the same cover" – it's really what used to be the backups to the main story of the events minis in many ways, but without the anchor story. In the SECRET WARS minis, I'm somewhat surprised (and somewhat not) that there isn't a Doctor Strange story in the lead, say, as he goes from zone to zone keeping the peace – that's the sort of thing that would be the tale (especially if he had a retinue or if Secret Wars Wong followed him and narrated it in a sense of only partially knowing what was going on) being told in the 2005-2010 period of these type of books.

BTW, whenever you talk about not buying titles (the price point is totally legitimate) and waiting for the trades to come to the library, I'm reminded of my own "late reader" status. I'm always six months behind since I read Marvel on its Digital Unlimited app, which I honestly think has gotten to the point where it's actually really worth it (a lot of folks looked at it in 2013 when it came out, but I got it in 2014 after they started adding all the back catalog) – if you're a trade-waiter but don't buy them to collect, and like to take out older 70's-80's trades a lot to read, it might be worth taking a look at the current state of the app's collection (they also just added the entirety of Dark Horse's old STAR WARS collection onto the app to read for subscribers). With books being $4 per head nowadays, I have no have qualms with doing the $79/year, reading everything that comes out during that year (albeit a few months late), and then killing time when I'm bored by Netflix-styling years' worth of old books (I reread the whole Englehart and Stern runs of the Avengers this week during bouts of insomnia)...

SallyP said...

Urgh. I'm doing my best to avoid all the Secret Wars/Battleworld stuff. I'm hoping the writers get this whole Elseworld's mishmash out of their systems soon, so that we can go back to the REAL comics.