Sunday, May 22, 2016

These are some graphic novels that I read recently:

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1: Everybody Loves Team-Ups (Marvel Entertainment)

This is the second collection of Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas Ant-Man series, which Marvel has helpfully given a new title and then went ahead and printed a "1" on the spine. Consider this Exhibit K that Marvel is much more interested in whatever little short-term advantage there is to re-naming and re-numbering titles as often as possible, presumably in order to retain their direct market advantage over traditional rivals DC Comics, as opposed to making it easy to get copies of their comics and trades into the hands of casual readers.

This one is a little more galling than other books, too, because much of this particular 145-page collection consists of specials published under the pre-Secret Wars title Ant-Man, rather than the post-Secret Wars title of Astonishing Ant-Man. There's Ant-Man Annual #1, Ant-Man Last Days: #1 and then the first four issues of the relaunched, retitled Astonishing Ant-Man. Despite that numeral 1 on the spines, this picks up right where Ant-Man Vol. 1: Second Chance Man left off.

In the annual, current Ant-Man Scott Lang teams up with original Ant-Man Hank Pym (going by Giant-Man at that point, I think) to take on Egghead in a flashback of sorts, while in the present Lang learns of Pym's ambiguous fate from Rage of Ultron (I think?), where Pym is apparently presumed dead...ish. The Wasp appears, and a new Giant-Man gets introduced.

The Last Days special, like all of those Marvel comics branded with that title, focuses on how the title character spends the eve of the (temporary) apocalypse of Secret Wars; for Lang, that means making a surprising discovery about the financial backer of Ant-Man Security Solutions and the many senior citizens of her very special retirement home.

And when the title becomes Astonishing, about half-way through this collection, several familiar guest-stars and villains start appearing. Current Captain America Sam Wilson (formerly The Falcon) recruits Ant-Man's help in a fun little team-up that allows the two to riff on the difficulties of legacy (with Wilson having much bigger boots to fill that Lang), the new Beetle from Spencer's sadly canceled Superior Foes of Spider-Man shows up to hook up with Lang (repeatedly, and to her own embarrassment) and Ant-Man Security Solutions gets hired to provide security for Lang's ex-girlfriend (and ex-Fantastic Four teammate) Darla Deering, aka "Miss Thing").

Aside from all the inter-personal conflict, some of which is of the yell-at-the-character-for-making-such-obviously-poor-decisions variety, Spencer finds an over-arching conflict in the form of "Hench," a sort of Uber for supervillains, which allows crimeboss types to hire villains like Whirlwind to attack superheroes for them.

It's a fittingly fun threat for Ant-Man, and for Spencer and Rosanas' Ant-Man/Astonishing Ant-Man, which makes use of the deep catalog of Marvel characters for straight-faced, often deadpan comedy. While Spencer's gags, all effectively told and sold by Rosanas and their other artistic collaborators, achieve a pleasant base-line of an entertaining read, they occasionally spike even higher. Like, for example, when one villain pays off another with a briefcase full of cash and notes, "And you can keep the briefcase! Nobody ever mentions that."

Or, as in maybe my favorite panel, when new legacy villain The Magician throws weaponized playing cards at Ant-Man and Darla, and our hero exclaims, "Gah! HE's a Gambit knockoff!"

"It's a playing card!" The Magician replies, "He didn't invent those things, you know!"

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1 is just as solid a superhero comic book as Ant-Man Vol. 1 was; good luck finding and following the story!

Cage of Eden Vol. 20 (Kodansha Comics)

The latest volume of Cage of Eden, Yoshinobu Yamada's fan-service filled drama about a plane full of Japanese high school students who crash-land on a mysterious island populated by long-extinct prehistoric beasts, is dominated by the kids' investigation of the mystery behind the island. Having something of a respite from life-and-death battles against the local wild-life and any more sinister, adult crash survivors, and having found a fourth large, man-made structure on the island, our hero Akira Sengoku and a team of nine others investigate what appears to have been some sort of headquarters or living quarters for the people who made the island and grew re-created the animals.

That means scores of pages of the cast walking around ruined hallways, finding clues and theorizing out loud about what they all might mean. Another character seemingly loses their life in particularly dramatic fashion, and the clues the group uncovers are pointing in a rather unexpected direction. I don't know if it's really going in the direction the new clues all seem to indicate, particularly during the frustratingly melodramatic conclusion (complete with a cliffhanger in which Sengoku freaks out at the site of a photo that the reader can't see), or if this is simply an example of Yamada manipulating readers into thinking he's heading in that direction but, well, I got a sinking feeling that maybe some amount of time-travel was involved after all, and it's not of the sort that a reader might have expected in the earlier volumes.

This 200-page chunk of Yamada's epic is sadly devoid of beasts, save for a sketch of a Paraceratherium, "The largest terrestrial mammal in history...", which will almost certainly be arriving in the near future, but it seems like it may be drawing near a conclusion or, at the very last, an explanation. If so, that should provide something of a relief, as these sorts of super long-form mysteries always run the danger of going on too long, and then not being able to deliver a satisfying resolution given the amount of time invested in seeking that resolution.

If I understand the Wikipedia entry correctly, then I believe this may be the penultimate volume, which, if that is the case, may prove to be a blessing–provided Yamada can resolve the mystery and wrap up so many sub-plots in just another 200 pages or so...

Captain America & The Falcon by Christoper Priest: The Complete Collection (Marvel)

I'd like to believe that the existence of this 330-page collection of the entire 14-issue, 2004-2005 Captain America & The Falcon series owes its existence to a sudden resurgence of interest in the excellent (and awfully underrated) writer Christopher Preist, or perhaps in response to high sales and high praise of the Black Panther by Christopher Priest collections. I'd like to believe that, but I suspect it might have more to do with the recent release of the third Captain America movie, which rather prominently features The Falcon character.

As for the series' relatively short life, I would attribute it in large part to the timing of its release. It launched during a time of transition for Captain America, The Avengers and Marvel. Captain America & The Falcon launched as the 32-issue Marvel Knights Captain America was coming to an end, and was shipping its last issues as the influential Ed Brubaker-written run was starting up. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis was changing the direction of the Avengers franchise with his "Avengers Disassembled" story arc and the first issues of his New Avengers (In fact, the second of this title's four story arcs is called "Avengers Disassembled" and is a kinda sorta tie-in to the events of the Avengers book).

The fairly terrible, occasionally unintelligible artwork surely didn't help at all, either.

Admirably, Priest's 14 issues are devoted to telling one big story, with few deviations–the "Disassembled" business makes little sense in the context of this book, and the ending feels off, as if Priest didn't get much warning that the book was cancelled, and had to wrap everything up in too few pages. The subject matter and tone of the scripting seems very much in line with that of Brubaker's and even the Marvel Knights books, the focus pretty squarely on a symbolic superhero trying to navigate post-9/11 realpolitik while engaged in espionage missions and trying mightily not to ever compromise his own rigid moral code. Reading it today, it felt very much a product of the era of the Bush Administration.

The first story arc, entitled "Two Americas," features a pretty complicated plot set in Miami and Cuba, involving The Falcon, a Daily Bugle investigative reporter of his acquaintance, a bio-weapon, a drug cartel, SHIELD (still run by Nick Fury back then), Naval intelligence, Captain America and another, second Captain America created by a Navy admiral who would become the main antagonist for the book.

Bart Sears, sometimes inked by Rob Hunter and sometimes inking himself, draws this story arc, and as much as I liked Sears art back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it felt extremely wrong for this story. His Captains America (or is the plural "Captain Americas"...?) and Falcon are all mountains of muscles, his few women are Barbie dolls, and everyone else seems like an after thought.

Sears has a weird visual art tick in this arc in which just about every single page features a huge figure, or maybe just part of a figure, that is not part of the grid of panels, but stands off to the side or over it. You sometimes see this in manga, when a character is being introduced for the first time especially, but here it's on like every single page, and it makes the already occasionally messy art harder still to read.

He and colorist Mike Atiyeh cheat with the reveal of the second Cap, as for much of the first issue we're meant to believe that the Cap in action is "our" Cap, while it's not revealed until later there's a second one in the mix. But Sears draws them identically, and Atiyeh colors them the same, right up until the point where we learn there are two, after which the other Cap, who is repeatedly referred to as "The Anti-Cap", sees a random coloring change, wherein the blue of his costume is suddenly black.

Back in the United States, life gets pretty hard for our heroes. They've captured Anti-Cap, but don't want to return him to the Navy, as that would be a death sentence for the character, who was created to fight terrorists in the same way that the original was created to fight Nazis (he first decides to enlist after the Oklahoma City bombing, and becomes active after 9/11). So Cap is holding a prisoner illegally, SHIELD and the Navy want the prisoner back and, since you can't very well arrest Captain America for anything, they go after The Falcon because, well, for the obvious reasons.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to the two characters trying to navigate this terrain, which only gets more complicated once the nature of that bio-weapon is revealed. Falcon gets a new costume, courtesy of an off-panel Black Panther–Black Panther supporting character Omoro makes frequent appearances–and a gradual personality re-write, as he becomes more and more hardcore, apparently reverting to his old "Snap" persona for...reasons.

During the "Disassembled" arc that reason seems to be The Scarlet Witch inadvertently fucking with everyone around her–Cap has weird nightmares with residual, real-world effects, and even hallucinates a romantic entaglement with Wanda–but what was really going on in Avengers/House of M isn't explained here; had I not read those comics a decade ago, I would have had no idea what was going on here, and all that sits rather uncomfortably amid the ongoing plot.

Aside from which, Sam never really seems to recover, and, as I mentioned earlier, his story arc seems to go unresolved in this book, as he eventually teams up with Anti-Cap to help fight off the villains behind all of their troubles, and then switch allegiances from Cap to Anti-Cap before ditching his costume during the equivocal ending.

As a graphic novel, it's not entirely satisfying, but Priest's plotting is top-notch, his characterization is great and he really seems to have found hooks for his two lead characters that made them feel quite relevant for that particular time-period (I also enjoyed his two pages or so of Luke Cage; Scarlet Witch, The Hulk, Yellowjacket/Hank Pym, Iron Man and J. Jonah Jameson all appear at various points as well, plus a classic but surprise Marvel villain).

The artwork improves after Sears' issues, but it changes frequently, with the last two, Dan Jurgens-penciled issues probably being the best looking. Joe Bennet, Andrea Di Vito and Greg Tocchini also all contribute pencils, and there are at least as many inkers. That's a whole lot of artists for just 14 issues.

Motorcycle Samurai Vol. 1: A Fiery Demise (Top Shelf Productions)

I didn't really care for this. The work of cartoonist Chris Sheridan, Motorcycle Samurai is basically a Western that replaces horses with motorcycles, six-guns with swords and...well, that's about it, really. The milieu contains a pastiche of elements more strongly associated with other genres. There's a professional wrestling match, a jet pack, a laser gun and a hot air balloon. But "a Western with a few alterations" pretty much covers Sheridan's world-building.

The probably title character is The White Bolt, a sword-wielding, motorcycle-riding bounty hunter who is returning a mute Happy Parker to the small town of Trouble. She wears a motorcycle helmet mask decorated with a white skull that covers her entire head, and only tips it up high enough to get a bottle to her lips.

Once in Trouble, she meets a cast of colorful characters who all circle one another warily for the bulk of the book, before ultimately forming two sides that go to battle with one another in a city-shattering showdown. While there's a degree of closure to the conflict, it feels as if the book beings and ends in medias res.

Every single one of Sheridan's many characters speak in an irritatingly affected, portentous manner that I tired of pretty quickly. It's an across-the-board habit of the cast, which lead me to wonder if Sheridan was perhaps parodying certain filmic melodramas, but even if that is the case, it's an explanation for the punishing verbosity, not an excuse for it. There's an awful lot of action here, but it's eclipsed by all the talking.

I did like Sheridan's artwork quite a bit. His character designs all feature long limbs and necks, and their joints seem to have a certain amount of rubber in them, allowing them to move in particularly fluid and dramatic fashion. His male character's have big, distinct faces with a ton of character, many of them resembling a Cartoon Network adaptation of a Jeff Lemire character. The White Bolt is, appropriately, the most intersting design, her helmet apparently absorbing her head, and giving her a misshapen, almost jaunty quadrilateral head. Permanently cocked, all of her expressions comes from her big eyes, visible through the big eye-holes of her helmet mask, and her body language.

There's a lot to like about Sheridan's comic, particularly if you look close at particular aspects, but over all I personally found it pretty dull and derivative. Less than the sum of its parts, really, which I found terribly disappointing given how good it looked and the amount of praise heaped on it from other quarters.

The Oven (AdHouse Books)

Sophie Goldstein's relationship drama set in a fucked-up, dystopian future not too different from ours follows a young, idealistic couple who escape that world of the future–suggested in a handful of panels showing their commuter rocket ship leaving a bubble-enclosed city and dropping them off in a harsh and dusty, sun-lit world where they're picked up by a surly driver in a hover pick-up truck.

As is gradually revealed economically in classic, show-don't-tell fashion, they have decided to move into a sort of iconoclastic, live-off-the-land commune so that they can have a child; such things were tightly regulated in the city, and they weren't eligible to breed with one another.

In the future hippie commune, in which families live in trailers and make-shift homes built around bits of space ships and landing pods, they discover just how hard such a life is, with Eric having to help farm and Syd learning semi-lost domestic arts like sewing, cooking, preserving and child-rearing. The new lifestyle isn't what either one of them expected, and it quickly shoves a wedge in their relationship.

The book is labeled "science fiction/life," but despite a few trappings and references to technological advances and cultural shifts, it's not science fiction so much as just fiction; with just a few alterations, this same story could be told with Syd and Eric escaping the big city to try living an off-the-grid life of subsistence farming.

Goldstein tells her tale in deceptively simple artwork, the highly cartoony figures rendered down to fairly simply but devastatingly effective emotion-conveying designs. The limited black, white and orange palette gives the proceedings a distinct look that helps to divorce them further from the here and now. It's a very slight, very quick read, but that's in large part because there's nothing wasted: There's no page, no panel, no line of a drawing and no line of dialogue that doesn't absolutely have to be there to tell the story.

Read The Oven, and pay attention to Goldstein.

X-Men '92 Vol. 0: Warzones! (Marvel)

Co-writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims take on 1990s comics using the most popular characters of the era as their vehicle: The Jim Lee-generated X-Men who starred in the shoddily-animated, all-around-poorly-made 1992-1997 animated TV show.* For a generation of fans at least, these are probably still the X-Men. They were certainly my first and most thorough introduction and indoctrination into the characters (the very first time I met the X-Men was on that one episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, although was just for like 20-minutes or so).

Bowers and Sims walk a very fine line between parodying and celebrating these iterations of the characters and their particular context, and if they occasionally wobble, they never put a foot down on either side of that line. The story arc, which ran through the four-issue X-Men '92 mini-series, is played pretty much straight. This could be a comic from the early 1990s, for the most part, albeit more competently-drawn and more self-aware than any X-comics of that era ever seemed to manage.

The TV team line-up–Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Gambit, Rogue, Storm and Jubilee–investigate a somewhat sketchy-seeming Clear Mountain Project, where Director Cassandra Nova is rehabilitating evil mutants to make them productive members of society.

Nova is, naturally, up to no good, as the X-Men discover too late–after they've been strapped into chairs that send them into Nova's "Mind Field," where she attacks them psychically, sorting them in order to form her own "New X-Men," complete with white, formal outfits with Frank Quitely-like Xs on their jackets.

If Quitely and Grant Morrison's millennial Cassandra Nova from the pages of their New X-Men seems like an odd choice of villain for a comic based on a cartoon from a decade previous, it's worth noting that Bowers and Sims '92-ize her, so that rather than Professor X's twin, she is no an Apocalypse-created clone of Xavier, fused with The Shadow King. And the contrast between the '90s team and the Morrison-lead break with them in the early '00s is quite intentional.

"The world that's coming deserves a better class of mutant," Nova tells the captured X-Men at the conclusion of the first issue. "One that isn't burdened by all those pouches filled with aggression and inner turmoil."

Their ultimate victory over Nova would seem to serve as a refutation of the millennial New X-Men, if one is inclined to read the story that way, but that doesn't really seem to be Bowers and Sims' intent; if they play with meta-context, it seems to be just that: Playing, rather than making some sort of bold statement about how X-Men comics should be. The real conflict that they seem to be looking at is the tension between the more "adult" X-Men of the comic books and the sanitized, kid-friendly versions that appeared in the cartoon for children. It's no coincidence that Nova works for the Bureau of Super-Powers, which shares the same acronym as Broadcasting Standards and Practices. Nova and her set-up are, in part, in-story representations of Fox Kids' efforts to de-claw Wolverine, de-sex Rogue and Gambit and generally keep the X-Men's adventures PG rather than PG-13.

Most of the gags come courtesy of artist Scott Koblish, and they are visual in nature, as when Wolverine does some shopping at the mall and visits a store called Rugged, which only sells the jackets, flannel shirts and pants that were his "street clothes" on the cartoon, or in the simple background image of one of Baron Kelly's robot dogs sitting like a human, or the outrageously gigantic guns that Cable and Bishop tote around.

There are a few jokes regarding points where the comic is deemed inappropriate for children, and red lettering, notes and arrows or simple rejection stamps marked "BSP" appear over dialogue or implied gore. These fall a bit flat, given the change in media, though, and the particular (and unfortunate) context of the miniseries.

That is, this is a Secret Wars tie-in.

Set in the domain of Westchester, ruled by Baron Kelly, its references to the rules of Secret Wars' "Battleworld" setting are few and far between...but just enough to prove potentially alienating to someone on board for a comic based on the X-Men cartoon, but not necessarily interested in Secret Wars.

That is, I assume, something that will be rectified in future collections, which this was clearly created with a mind towards; at the end of this issue, the team's line-up is undergoing a minor shake-up (as Xavier and the X-Men adopt an aspect of Morrison's New X-Men run; namely, turning Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters into an actual school for young mutants, rather than simply a front for a mutant paramilitary organization), and we see villains waiting in the wings for future issues.

Sure, it's not perfect, but Bowers and Sims have ideas at play here, and that's more than can be said for a lot of the Secret Wars tie-ins. The faithful re-creations of elements of the cartoon show coupled with a critique of many of its elements make this the X-Men comic book I wished existed in 1992.

Better late than never.

*That theme song kicked ass, though. The Hollywood composers who have worked on the seven live-action released so far–I'm writing this before the eighth, X-Men: Apocalypse, sees release–have yet to come up with something so distinct, let alone catchy.

No comments: