Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary Special #1

If you're struggling with the math--or, like me, marveling at how fast time seems to pass once you reach 40--it should perhaps be noted that DC Comics is celebrating the 25 years that have passed since Harley Quinn's first appearance on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. She wouldn't actually debut in comics until 1993, in an issue of cartoon tie-in comic Batman Adventures, and she wouldn't join the DC Comics Universe proper until 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn special. Perhaps because of the character's non-standard path--originating in a cartoon adaptation of the comics, then gradually working her way into the comics--it's appropriate that the Harley Quinn 25th Anniversary Special tackles various versions of the character.

I'm actually a little surprised at how slim a package it is though, given the character's seemingly exponentially growing popularity. It's just a $4.99 floppy, with four short stories totaling 32 story pages and six pin-ups. In terms of size and number of high-profile contributors, it's not much bigger than any of the many Harley Quinn one-shots and special issues DC put out when it was clear that they had a hit on their hands with the post-Flashpoint, second volume of Harley Quinn (Because DC relaunched all their titles during their "Rebirth" initiative, however, we are now on our third volume of a Harley Quinn ongoing series, although the creators and direction have remained the seam between the second and the third).

Of those pin-ups, my favorite is definitely the one contributed by Babs Tarr, who draws her own hybrid Harley with her old Gotham City Sirens co-stars Catwoman and Poison Ivy.
Tarr's an amazing talent, and particularly good at drawing sexy ladies. The issue is almost worth five bucks for her pin-up alone. The others are by Annie Wu (whose image prominently features Harley's pet hyenas, engaged in helping her wreck a psychiatrist's office), Bengal, Dustin Nguyen and Greg Tocchini, Kamome Shirahama (Looking at these reminded me of the old Gallery one-shots that DC used to publish, but have long since abandoned; I imagine with the price of comics now being what it is, it would be harder to make those seem like they were worth whatever the publisher sold them for, but I used to really enjoy seeing so many different artists' takes on particular characters in 1992's The Batman Gallery, 1994's The Sandman: A Gallery of Dreams and A Death Gallery, 1997's JLA Gallery and so forth).

The first of the four stories is set firmly in current continuity, and is by the regular Harley Quinn writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, with Conner also drawing it, something that happens far too infrequently (although, truth be told, the Harley Quinn monthly and its spin-offs have all generally had pretty good art, certainly better than that of your average DC Comic).

I had a hard time getting through this story, having skipped it the first time through the book and having to try two more times before I read it. As much as I like Conner's art, when it comes to Conmiotti's Harley comics, I am not a fan. This one has their character Red Tool--pronounce it "Deadpool," but with an "R" instead of a "D"--right there in the first panel, and when I see him my eyes roll so hard it makes reading comics somewhat difficult for a while afterwards. He is in a two-page framing sequence with Harley, between which is a "lost scene" from their 2015 Harley Quinn Road Trip Special co-starring Poison Ivy and Catwoman, probably most notable for all the great artists who contributed to it (like Moritat and the too-rarely-seen-at-DC-these-days Bret Blevins and Mike Manley).

Killing time before killing some dudes, Harley tells Deadpool Red Tool about how Vegas casino owner Yosemite Sam offered the three of them an ell-expenses paid stay in one of his hotels, and they got thrown out of it.

Harley's co-creator Paul Dini scripts the next story, "Birthday Blues," which seems to be set in The Animated Series continuity, or at least adjacent to it. Rather than being paired with Bruce Timm, the noticeably absent other creator of the character, Dini is working with regular Harley Quinn artist Chad Hardin. It's a pretty fun little story with the meta angle of Harley celebrating her 25th birthday, and how The Joker and Poison Ivy are involved in said celebration. There's a twist within a twist at the end, and as short as it is, those twists serve to pretty perfectly define all three characters and their relationships.

As great as it would have been to see Timm or someone who worked on Batman Adventures draw this, it was actually really interesting to see Hardin drawing the costumes from the TV cartoon, adapting the designs into his own style, which is very different than that of Timm (And, if you've spent as many hours of your life as I have on that show, it's fun picking out which designs from which season Hardin chooses, and to what extent; his Catwoman, for example, is wearing a costume that looks like a compromise between that of the first season and her more recent Darwyn Cooke-designed comic book cat suit. The Joker has the hairstyle and pointy-nose of TAS's redesigned Joker, but not the weird eyes; Killer Croc looks as he did on the cartoon, but with spikes. And so on.)

The most surprising stories are the two that follow. The first of these is by writer Daniel Kibblesmith and artist David Lafuente (a great artist who I really wish I could see more of, preferably on a regular, ongoing basis). Entitled "Harley Quinn & Friends In...Somewhere That's Green!", it is perhaps a little too timely in its reference to a deadly hurricane bearing down on the city (New York here, not Gotham).

Gal pals Harley and Ivy are in a grocery store to get supplies, when Swamp Thing grows out of the produce stand. He needs Ivy's help because of her connection to The Green, and Harley basically invites herself along. The Swamp Thing/Harley Quinn rapport was interesting enough that I kind of wish DC hadn't cancelled Harley's Little Black Book, as I wonder if it was fun watching those two interact because the short space here meant Kibblesmith could squeeze in all the potential good bits, or if the characters really could have the chemistry to carry a whole over-sized comic story.

If nothing else, Kibblesmith gets Swamp Thing in a raincoat and rain hat for a few panels; that's awesome.

As I mentioned, I really liked Lafuente's art, but it was especially good in this story, which had enough of a comedic tone that he could fill the backgrounds with loose, cartoony, caricature-like drawings, and go pretty wild with Swamp Thing. (Colorist John Rauch deserves some props here too, particuarly given his way with Harley's hair.

The final story was probably my favorite, and it came from the unlikely team of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones, who are more Marvel guys than DC guys at this point (much to DC's detriment, if you ask me!). Entitled "Bird Psychology," this is the first story in the book to involve Batman, and, of course, Robin.

It's set somewhere...unclear-ish. Harley's look here is unique to this story, not lining up with that of TAS, The New 52, or the Margot Robie-in-Suicide Squad inspired "Rebirth" redesign. There's a Robin heavily involved, but the costume doesn't really give us any clues; it looks closer to Tim Drake's original than any other design, but then, the TAS Dick Grayson's suit looked a lot like Tim's comics costume, and the post-Flashpoint Dick also wore a more Tim-like costume...this one has some of the weird elements of Dick's New 52 Robin get-up but, like Harley's costume, is unique to this story (Based on the dialogue, in which Harley intuits that he's an orphan, it is probably meant to be Dick). The Joker and Batman both look like their TAS selves or their post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint selves, but neither of them is too terribly easy placed in any particular milieu by their duds alone. All that said, the red skies, the black buildings and the particular designs and costuming of Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya all definitely suggest that this is supposed to be a Quinones-ized TAS story.

This is, in broad strokes, a Batman and Robin vs. The Joker and Harley Quinn story, in which the superhero and his archvillain do battle, assigning their sidekick and moll to fight. The Joker underestimates Harley as per usual, and she ends up choosing to do good and play hero on the sly, because as crazy a bad girl as she might be, she's not, like, evil. Harley, and, to a lesser extent, Robin, are the focus of the story.

As well constructed as Zdarsky's plot is, it was the little elements that I really dug; he does a fine job of making The Joker seem like a completely insane criminal without having to, like, dwell on his homicidal tendencies. The story just cuts from The Joker at his work bench, plotting, to his plot already in progress, where Batman and Robin are fighting goons in adult pajamas, The Joker is wearing an old timey night shirt and night cap with sheep oven mitts on his hands, and there's a giant, angry Batman Tsum Tsum with a mouth full of striped missiles...? The creators do a pretty good job of nailing '90s Joker, particularly TAS-style Joker, where he could be menacing, scary and completely insane, without also having to be, like, Freddy Krueger or whatever.

Quinones is a fine artist, and this particular script allows him to pack in all sorts of great details; every available space of The Joker's hideout has an Easter Egg to some previous Joker story from some previous medium in it.

So while I didn't love all of this, the good in it definitely outweighed the bad, and it's certainly a reliable purchase for the casual Harley Quinn fan.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Some Batman-related trades I've recently read:

Batgirl: Stephanie Brown Vol.1

It's unclear if DC is going to continue collecting the 73-issue, 2000-2006 volume of Batgirl after the third collection of Batgirl: Cassandra Cain (which ended the run by the original creators, and would be a fairly natural stopping point). The release of Batgirl: Stephanie Brown Vol. 1 at this point would seem to argue against it, though.

This collection includes the first 12 issues of the 24-issue, 2009-20011 Batgirl series, the one starring former Spoiler, former Robin Stephanie Brown as the new, third Batgirl. So yeah, with this collection released, the entire series is already half-collected; smart money says DC will definitely get around to collecting all of the issues of this particular volume of Batgirl.

This was actually kind of a fun read for me, as I skipped them the first time around, so it was all new to me.

As to the why, well DC basically "broke" Batgirl in a series of poorly considered moves starting with the "One Year Later" arc of Robin, and subsequent attempts to fix the damage they did there in comics like Teen Titans and a Batgirl miniseries. That Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, had essentially become so narratively toxic that she barely appears in this series; the moment in which she hands over her costume and her codename to her friend Stephanie Brown consists of her basically just stripping off her costume and then peacing out, disappearing into the Gotham night (in her underwear, I guess).

I additionally kind of hated the new costume, a purple, black and gold affair that had an Utlimate Marvel-like quality of "realism" to it, looking like something that might appear in a live-action movie starring Batgirl, rather than a tolerable costume design (the even gave her a utility garter belt, to echo the one she had in earlier Spoiler costumes). Of course, on the other side of The New 52, wherein everybody had terrible new costumes, this one doesn't look so bad at all.

Finally, the book just kind of looked poorly-drawn. That's one of the detrimental factors that repelled me from the monthly, serially published that time has not healed. Just looking at the credit page of this collection, there are 15 credited artists. That is a lot of artists for a 12-issue series. Lee Garbett and Trevor Scott are the "regular" penciler and inker, respectively, but by my count Garbett pencils seven issues solo, with four other of the other issues involving him splitting pencilling duties with another artist. Scott inks just four issues solo, two others with another inker, one with two other inkers, and then others ink the rest. While the book looks mediocre at best for these first 12 issues, the constant fluctuations of style and ability that comes with so many artists trying to draw a single book over the course of just one year certainly don't help matters at all.

It's really a shame, because writer Bryan Q. Miller seems to be on fairly solid footing here, once old Batgirl Cassandra Cain is waved off the stage. Stephanie Brown is about to start her freshman year in college, and just about everything has changed for her and the rest of the Bat-family of late. Batman dying will do that.

It took me a bit to orient myself exactly, but at this point in Bat-history Bruce Wayne was temporarily dead, Tim Drake had taken the name Red Robin and left Gotham City, Dick Grayson had assumed the role of Batman and was fighting alongside the new Robin Damian Wayne, Alfred apparently left town to lead The Outsiders (???) and, as previously noted, Batgirl randomly decides to quit being Batgirl, handing Steph her costume with a series of short, cryptic declarative sentences: "I fought for him. But no more. Now, the fight is yours..."

So Steph continues to scratch her vigilante crime-fighting itch as the new Batgirl, until original Batgirl Barbara Gordon busts her. Like everyone else, Babs doesn't really think Stephanie has the chops for this, and wants her to stop immediately. That's one charming difference between this Batgirl and the previous ones. She's not a genius like Barbara, and she's not an invincible, natural-born fighting machine like Cassandra: She's basically just got a good heart, a lot of pluck and the experience that comes with years of trying to run with the bats, screwing up and falling short, but getting back up again. In Batman comics, Stephanie Brown is the epitome of dusting yourself off and trying again.

Miller gets that, accentuates it and makes it integral to her characterization and the premise of the series. Like Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson did on the previous Batgirl series, he pairs Stephanie with Barbara Gordon as a mother/mentor figure, giving Babs co-star status, but Miller's series takes it a step further. While the previous Batgirl starred a teenage vigilante who was torn between to "parents" with different ideas about who she should be in Barbara Gordon and Batman, this series essentially posits Batgirl as a collaboration between Stephanie Brown and Barbara Gordon, who supplies her with a new suit, Batman-level tech and weapons and constant Oracle-ing.

Within a matter of issues, it's Barbara Gordon and Stephanie Brown against the world. Meanwhile, Babs takes a job teaching at Stephanie's school, she develops a crush on a cute classmate whose father is tied to organized crime, and new Gotham City police detective Nick Gage is posited as the center of a potential love triangle involving the ladies of Team Batgirl. Gradually, Wendy Harris is introduced to the book and becomes a greater and greater part of the cast, eventually becoming another protegee of Oracle's; Wendy, if you have forgotten, blocked it out of your mind or were lucky enough to never read it, was the DCU version of the Superfriends character, who was paralyzed by a monster version of Wonder Dog, who killed and ate her brother Marvin. It was a stupid, stupid time at DC Comics; this follows not only the events of that series, but I'm assuming something that must have happened in Birds of Prey too, as Barbara apparently has history with Wendy and The Calculator, Wendy and Marvin's father.

Because of the particular make-up of the Batman line at the time, we get to see Oracle and the new Batgirl working with (and/or against) the Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne version of the Dynamic Duo. Damian and Stephanie play off one another delightfully, as Damian is 1000-times more forceful in his condemnation of Steph than Tim or even Batman ever were, and it was actually kind of fun to see the restoration of the old Batgirl/Robin dynamic, where in Robin looked down on Batgirl and she resented the fact that he and Batman didn't accept her as a full partner. It's also fun to see Dick-as-Batman having disagreements about how to train and manage kids in capes with Barbara instead of Bruce-as-Batman, given Dick and Babs' long, occasionally romantic history, and, of course, the fact that they themselves used to be Robin and Batgirl.

Despite the relatively poor and rather inconsistent art (particularly when compared to that of the Batgirl: Cassandra Cain collections), I rather enjoyed this, and especially appreciated how these first 12 issues of the series all read like single graphic novel in one sitting. There are multiple story arcs within, but they read like chapters in one big story arc. It is also particularly effective as the culmination of Stephanie Brown's life story, whereas after years of trying to work as Robin's partner, or Batgirl's sidekick, or as Robin, or solo, she's finally found where she truly belongs.

So of course DC would cancel the book 12 issues later and reboot the whole universe, so that Stephanie Browns' years-long mega-story arc never actually happened, and we would eventually get a weird, bowdlerized version of the character that lacked the history, relationships and personality traits that made the pre-Flashpoint version of the character appealing in the first place.

DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics: Batman Vs. Predator

The official title is a bit of a mouthful, but this $35*, 370-page trade paperback is a pretty great collection, including all three Batman/Predator miniseries: 1991's Batman Vs. Predator, 1995's Batman Vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch and 1997's Batman Vs. Predator III: Blood Ties. As is so often the case with sequels, each consecutive miniseries was less good than the one that preceded it, but all three are head-and-shoulders above the comics featuring Batman's last two encounters with the Predator species of alien hunters, 2001's JLA Vs. Predator and 2007's Superman and Batman Vs. Alien and Predator.

I read the first of these in single issues as they were released, but this time was my first time re-reading that story in a very long time. Bloodmatch I only read for the first time rather recently and I am fairly certain this was the first time I read the third series (or, if I had read it before, I had somehow managed to completely forget ever having done so).

That first was written by Davie Gibbons and featured art by the Kubert brothers, with Andy penciling, Adam inking (and lettering) and Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh coloring. I recall it having been a rather big deal at the time, being one of the relatively early inter-company crossovers of its kind. I liked it a lot back then, and it holds up remarkably well.

Gibbons wrote what was basically a Batman story featuring a Predator alien, as the Dark Knight uses his detective skills, fighting prowess and technological achievement to solve a series of spectacularly brutal murders that are eventually attributed to a so-called "See Through Slasher."

The Predator, this one bearing the one from Predator II's massive arsenal of sci-fi weaponry, arrives in Gotham City, finds a hiding spot, and then proceeds to watch the news to look for the city's best fighters and all-around tough guys, starting with a pair of championship boxers, and then their gangster patrons, ultimately going after crime-fighters like Commissioner Gordon and, of course, the Batman himself. The final fight involved Batman suiting up in a special costume of the sort a Batman action figure line might include, and ultimately beating on his foe with a baseball bat.

It's very much the work of a writer-writer, rather than a fan writer, as Gibbons is pretty intent on telling a complete standalone story--albeit it one set within Batman continuity--instead of what one might expect from a more modern writer who grew up on such comics. Like, I'd certainly want to see Predator take on Batman's rogues gallery, although that would necessarily have to be an Elseworlds kinda comic. Gotham City is, after all, something of a game preserve stocked with the worst killers in the world.

I remembered really liking the Kubert's art back then--when this would have been among the first comics I had read--and I'm genuinely surprised at how well that holds up. There's a touch of the '90s about it, aesthetically, but it more closely resembles, say, Jim Lee inked by Joe Kubert than the art of either Kubert brother today, one of whom has since drawn a fairly healthy number of comics featuring Batman since his collaboration with Grant Morrison on "Batman and Son."

The coloring of their art is pretty stylized, with an almost Vertigo-esque palate. It looks more like a Dark Horse Predator comic of that era, rather than a Batman comic of that era, alternating between dim and dark, with the most colorful pages being somewhat washed out in their look. The brightest color in the whole comic is the red of the blood.

Bloodmatch was written by Doug Moench and featured pencil art by Paul Gulacy and inks by Terry Austin. In that one, a rogue Predator makes a surprise comeback to Gotham--the end of the first crossover implied that Batman had hoped by proving how dangerous he was to hunt, he would have scared future visits from more of that particular kind of alien--and The Huntress, who was at that point a very unwelcome presence in Gotham City, trying to fight crime there using more violent methods that Batman was willing to condone.

Moench's plot is a lot more busy than Gibbons', but it still works as both a Predator narrative and a Batman one, and Gulacy's art is always a treat. There's a real weirdness to his character designs and acting that I find enormously appealing.

Finally, there's Blood Ties. This one feels so much like a regular Batman comic that it actually could have run in the pages of Batman or Detective Comics. Maybe that has something to do with the presence of writer Chuck Dixon, who was writing like at least half of all Batman comics during any given month back then. Batman and Robin Tim Drake are dealing with Mister Freeze and his gang, when two visitors appear to join the hunt (There's a neat moment where Mister Freeze's lack of discernable body temperature renders him invisible to the Predators, who can only seen heat-signatures).

Batman tries to keep Robin completely out of the loop, as he thinks the Predators are far too dangerous for his teenage sidekick, but that ultimately proves impossible, as it turns out these two Predators are a father and son pair, and each has chosen one of the Dynamic Duo as their quarry. Batman sets a trap for them, in which he wears another special Preadtor-fighting costume--this one with a Robocop-like visor that echoes the one worn by the special alien-hunters in Bloodmatch, while Robin and Alfred face off against the younger one in the Batcave.

Among the innovations of Dixon's script, drawn by pencil artist Rodolfo Damaggio and inker Robert Campanella, is a fleshing out of something implied in the Predator II film, that these Predators have been visiting Earth for a very, very long time, and we see flashback-like scenes where they encounter human foes in centuries past and acquire trophies for them (which suggests another DC Comics/Predator story, in which Predators visit various historical heroes like Jonah Hex and Enemy Ace and the Crimson Avenger and Sgt. Rock and The Sandman Wesley Dodds, although perhaps there aren't any such heroes with enough name recognition to justify ever publishing such a series. It would be more interesting than anything like Superman and Batman Versus Aliens and Predator, though!).

There are plenty of goodies beyond the comics themselves in here too. There's what appears to be a Dave Gibbons foreword to the original collection of the original series, and afterwords from co-editors Diana Schutz and Denny O'Neil. That last one is particularly interesting, as in it O'Neil admits he had next to nothing to do with the actual editing of the series, and his main contribution was deciding whether or not Predator and Batman belonged in the same comic, given their diverse milieus, and the justification he came up with (While there's an aura of the sci-fi about the Predator aliens, the way they are always presented, in film as well as in the comics, is so mysterious that they are essentially just strange, monstrous killers whose origins are secondary, and thus there's little difference between Batman fighting one of them and Batman fighting, say, a vampire or werewolf or suchlike).

That justification was even needed and considered shows how unusual the crossover was in 1991 and 1992, and how much more vigilantly Batman was policed for internal, aesthetic consistencies back then.

That's followed by what's called a "Pinup and Cover Gallery," although I could swear most of those pin-ups come from what Schutz refers to as the "fershlugginer trading cards." So in addition to covers by Christopher Warner, Arthur Suydam, Simon Bisley (artist for Batman Vs. Judge Dredd, another very early inter-company crossover), DaMaggio and Gibbons, there's a fairly fantastic gallery of images of Batman fighting Predator, many of them from artists who would go on to do some pretty damn notable Batman work in the future: Arthur Adams, John Byrne, Jackson Guice, John Higgins, Adam Hughes, Michael W. Kaluta, Sam Kieth, Joe Kubert, Mike Mignola (that's a re-colored version of his image that graces the cover of this collection), Steve Rude, Tim Sale, Walt Simonson (Damn, look at those Batman ears! We often talk about Batman ear-length, but Batman ear-width gets considerably less attention), Matt Wagner and Tom Yeats.

The Wagner image is a particular favorite, and one I quite clearly remember from first seeing it some 25 years ago. It featured Batman stalking through the sewers, a black blade in each hand, one of which is shaped like a bat, while what must be a 12-foot Predator looms behind him, the dripping water short-circuiting its light-bending camouflage technology, and its face hidden in shadow save for pupil-less red eyes and white teeth.

I'm in no hurry to read another, modern Batman/Predator comic, although I can think of at least two reasons why I'd love to see one. First, I'd like to see more of Matt Wagner's version of the Predator (and Wagner's a hell of a Batman writer as well, handling a memorable Legends of the Dark Knight arc entitled "Faces," a pretty great Batman crossover with his Grendel character and, more recently, a suite of "Year One" era miniseries) and, second, I haven't seen Kelley Jones draw a Predator yet.

So maybe if DC and Dark Horse hired Wagner to write and draw a Long Halloween/Dark Victory-style and -sized series, with Kelley Jones on covers, that would be pretty alright with me.

Robin Vol. 4: Turning Point

This latest collection of the early-nineties launched, Chuck Dixon-scripted Robin ongoing series contains eight issues of Robin, plus the lead stories from two issues of Showcase '94. The interesting thing about the collection, which isn't a very good read, is that every single issue in it is part of a crossover of one kind or another, and, with the exception of the Robin/Showcase '94 crossover, none of those crossover stories can be collected here in their entirety, given their size. They have been collected elsewhere, but after the first sixty pages or so, the rest of the book is devoted to the Robin chapters of "KnightQuest," "KnightsEnd," "Prodigal" (chapters 4, 8 and the conclusion) and Zero Hour (the tie-in as well as Robin #0, both of which I just recently re-read in the Batman: Zero Hour collection).

Given the apparent remit of the series of collections, there's no other way around this, really, but it makes for a particularly off-putting reading experience. I mean, I managed just fine, but then I read almost all of these comics once before, and I also read the missing chapters of stories like "KnightsEnd" and "Prodigal" and so on. Picking this up today and reading these stories for the first time might be difficult, although I guess most readers would be able to figure out what else they need to read to make sense of what's going on.

The one complete story in the volume is entitled "Benedictions," and it features pencil art by Phil Jimenez (who actually draws a fair amount of this collection) and inks from three different inkers, one per issue. A sequel of sorts to Dixon's third pre-monthly miniseries, Robin III: Cry of The Huntress (which had some downright goofy special covers), it re-teams Robin with the mafia-hunting black sheep of Gotham City vigilantes.

Like so many of Dixon's scripts, the basic plot was somewhat generic, and could have been used for just about any superhero character: An unlikely mob boss moves to seize control of organized crime in the city, and an even more unlikely deadly vigilante attempts to stop her, with Robin and Huntress caught in the middle. That said, I always dug--and still dig--the chemistry between Dixon's version of Tim Drake and The Huntress.

Whenever Batman and Huntress teamed up (like in Batman Vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch, above), there was a predictable, even tedious dynamic between the two, with the stern Batman lecturing her on her use of force, her lack of training and the fact that Gotham was his city and he was therefore boss of everyone wearing a cape in it (His objections to her brutality always felt a little off too, as it's not like she ever actually killed anyone, or hurt her criminal prey any worse than he did, you know? If you're arguing whether shooting someone in the leg with a crossbow bolt is crueler than beating them into unconsciousness with your bare hands or giving them concussions with pointy metal projectiles well, at that point it's getting pretty academic).

Robin, being a teenager, was more of an irritating little brother to her. Judging her and always rubbing in the fact that he had Batman's sanction and knew everything about her, while she knew next to nothing about the Dynamic Duo.

That's followed by the Tom Grummett-drawn conclusion to "KnightQuest," in which Jack Drake and Bruce Wayne both return to Gotham City and Bruce sees what Jean-Paul Valley has been up to in his absence. Then there are two issues of "KnightsEnd" tie-ins, in which Grummett and inker Ray Kryssing get to draw Nightwing, Lady Shiva and both Batmen. Then there are the two Zero Hour-related issues, also by Grumett, and three chapters of "Prodigal," two-and-a-half of which are penciled by Jimenez (the final issue is divided between a tense talk between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in the Batcave, as the former is ready to reclaim his mantle from the latter's stewardship, which is drawn by Jimenez, and Tim's battle against Steeljacket, penciled by a John Cleary).

It was nice to see such relatively early Jimenez art, which proved what a really great artist he was. His work is super-detailed, resulting in figures that were as close to photo-realistic as you were likely to get in those days (something achieved by hand, rather than with a computer), and his characters all had a George Perez-like range in their acting.

He draws a handful of great cityscapes that look like he must have labored over them forever, and I really liked the detail work he brought to the characters, the way his Tim looks like a 15-year-old kid, or his Azrael Batman's intricate costume looked realistic rather than the work of an overly fussy Jim Lee clone and, especially, the way he drew Dick Grayson Batman's  "shoulder spikes," so that they are a part of the costume, and not merely an artistic flourish.

That last issue is actually pretty great, because it contrasts the work of Jimenez with Cleary, whose work I am not familiar with, but draws here like a mix between a then-popular Todd MacFarlane/Rob Liefeld style artist and a Batman Adventures contributor, resulting in images that are ridiculously overblown but also kind of cartoony. (As I was writing this paragraph, I paused to send cellphone photos of his Renee Montoya to my friend Meredith, who likes Gotham Central's Montoya a lot; Cleary poses her in various crazy ways, my favorite panel probably being the one where she's posed at the bottom of a flight of stairs, her left foot on the floor, her right foot on the sixth step up. She looks like a giantess climbing the stairs sideways, like a crab.)

I also quite clearly remembered the end of the Grayson/Wayne conversation, which actually brought a tear to my eye.

The cliffhanger ending has Robin returning to the Batcave to find Dick back in his Nightwing costume, as Bruce Wayne was ready to go back to being Batman. Jimenez's final splash, shows Tim and Dick reacting to Batman's new costume, which is drawn so that all we can see is the whites of his eyes and the yellow of his bat-symbol and utility belt.

If you were reading back then, this was teasing the debut of his new all-black costume, which would be prominently featured on the covers for the next issues of Batman, Detective, Shadow of The Bat and Robin, including on embossed black covers.

I liked the Kelley Jones covers best. Here's the regular cover, which was awesome...
And here's the embossed one, which, um, obviously didn't photograph well, being all-black and all...

*Considerably less on Amazon, but you shouldn't buy comics from Amazon. You should totally support your local comic shop.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: September 13th

Dark Nights: Metal #2 (DC Comics) If I had to boil the feelings I experienced while reading this issue down to a single word, it would probably be this one: Glee. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and company's Metal storyline fills me with the kind of overwhelming, imagination-firing glee I used to feel when reading Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell's JLA run in the late '90s, a feeling I've rarely gotten from comics since (Morrison's JLA: Classified arc, elements of 52, maybe Wednesday Comics and a few bits of Mutiversity).

Feelings aside, there is some commonality between Snyder's scripts here and Morrison's during his JLA days, including the focus on DC's flagship icon characters, the palpable sense of unfolding apocalypse and, most appealingly, the sense of synthesis that comes from reorganizing a decades-old shared universe in new and original ways that nevertheless feels right.

The indication very early on in the story, from the two-part prelude, was that the title referred to Nth Metal. As it turns out, Nth is just one of five metals that Batman has been slowly being anointed with since Snyder's first story arc on the New 52 Batman. In this issue, he is touched with the fifth and final metal, which is given a name that is hilariously awesome. It is the sort of thing that Morrison's DCU writing excelled at, presenting something that is Silver Age silly, with the straight face of modern, more realistic, "darker" storytelling, so that it is ridiculous yet cool, a hyper-ventilating kind of craziness that is best achieved in superhero comics. (You've likely already heard talk of what I'm referring to, if you haven't read it yourself. Nevertheless, I'll not spoil it directly, but I will point out that Wonder Woman's bracelets used to be made out of Amazonium, and there's a fantastic Captain Marvel story in which the metals Sivanium, Shazamium and Marvelium are all invented*).

While that particular panel announcing the new metal was probably my favorite for its audaciousness, there's a lot to like in this issue. My next favorite was probably Capullo's close-up of Robin Damian Wayne driving a huge truck, where the steering wheel looks like the size of an old-time sailing ship's wheel compared to his tiny frame. I also really like Aquaman's current look, and the way Snyder and Capullo make him look bad-ass, and one of the World's Greatest Heroes, not by dwelling on and trumpeting his awesomness, but just by having him do kinda awesome stuff in the background, like here standing atop a giant river catfish in the Amazon, and taking out (a) Batman with a casual throw of his trident.

The plot for this issue has the Justice League, leading the superhero community in general, on a desperate hunt for Batman, who has absconded with a terrible weapon just as the world seems to be ending....and sprouting bat-symbols. The League finds Damian and a team of decoy Batmen in the Amazon where they throw down.

Superman and Wonder Woman eventually find and confront Batman in an Egyptian tomb, where he threatens the with an adorable but devastating weapon. Both Batman and Kendra Saunders (and a "legion" of immortals) have strategies for staving off the coming of Barbatos, but they seem very desperate, and perhaps ultimately moot, as the issue ends with Batman turning into a gate for eight evil Elseworlds characters, all of whom look like Batman crossed with a Leaguer or a villain, and one of whom looks like he's either a Batman/Spectre, or perhaps Barbados himself.

It's a lot of fun, obviously, and let me say once again: Snyder and Capullo for Justice League. This is, after all, essentially just a Justice League story, although one that is highly-focused on Batman and also has import for the DC Universe in general. Imagine 20-pages of this a month for years, and DC's comic starring a collection of its greatest heroes once more being its best (and best-selling) title.

I will, nevertheless, complain some. Okay, first of all there are just 22-story pages in this $3.99 comic. I am guessing the extra buck is because they know they can get away with it, but I don't know that metallic ink on the cover justifies that price to me. And a two-page spread devoted simply to the credits? Well, maybe that was okay for the first issue, but on the second, it's kind of annoying, and will get increasingly more annoying with each passing issue (those two pages aren't among the 22 I mentioned, as they credits don't appear over anything, just snippets of imagery from the previous issue in a dark red collage.

Also, and this isn't a complaint so much as something weird, but when Batman tries to explain to Superman and Wonder Woman what's going on and why he's going to do what he's going to do to stop it, it becomes clear that this story is a follow-up of sorts to Morrison's Final Crisis, Batman RIP and The Return of Bruce Wayne stories: It was while he was Omega Sanction-ed out of time and then had to fight his way through reincarnations to bring himself back to life that Batman came to the attention of the bat-demon Barbatos, and his plan is to get re-Omega Sanction-ed on a one-way trip to put a stop to this current apocalypse, which has been custom crafted in his image.

Now, the passages from Golden Age Hawkman Carter Hall's journals discuss the origins of the multiverse (and the familiar hand of Kronos imagery), but also make a point of saying that there are different versions of the story of where the multiverse (and, one assumes, the dark multiverse) come from. Still, it is maybe worth pausing and thinking about the fact that this storyline, a retroactive climax of sorts to Snyder's half-decade or so writing in the New 52 continuity, is premised in part on the events of Final Crisis and its aftermath. Not only should Final Crisis not have happened any more--at least, not so that any of the characters should remember, except maybe this Superman, who is the pre-Flashpoint Superman now, I guess--but it can't have happened in anything even approaching the way it did. Hell, right from the start, it's impetus was the long-dead Flash Barry Allen returning from the dead through time and being received by The Flash Wally West and, well, Barry Allen never died anymore, did he?

I don't know that I can parse the ways in which DC's various continuity altering crises relate to one another anymore--Parallax, Superman, Supergirl I and others going back in time to prevent the climax of Crisis on Infinite Earths at the end of Convergence is the point at which I become hopelessly lost--but I found it interesting that so much of Metal refers back to something so out of continuity now.

This is likely another example of Snyder mostly ignoring the changes wrought by Flashpoint--for the most part, in his Batman writing the only real evidence of the change has registered via guest-appearances by Tim Drake, dressed in a dumb-ass costume, or Batgirl Barbara Gordon, or Red Hood Jason Todd being on the inside of "The Family."

At some point--maybe by the end of Metal, maybe in Doomsday Clock--DC is going to have to clean everything up, pick a continuity and, hopefully, stick with it for a quarter century or so, but I guess we'll see. This storyline, like whatever Johns introduced in DC Universe: Rebirth and will hopefully conclude in Doomsday Clock, has introduced some complications to the post-Flashpoint/New 52 narrative, including the apparent existence of a forgotten Golden Age, and other pre-Superman heroes.

Detective Comics #964 (DC) Writer James Tynion continues his apparent quest to find the deepest of 1990s Batman comics deep cuts. In this issue, which prominently features a rebooted (and badly mangled) version of Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Anarky character fighting Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle's Spoiler character, ends with a reference to "The Moneyspider Protocol." So if you've been reading Batman comics for like 25 years now, you will recall, that is the name original Anarky Lonnie Manchin used during a brief phase when he turned to Robin Hood-style computer hacking, which, if I recall correctly (and it's been 25 years!), as his first encounter with not-yet-Robin Tim Drake, although their battle took place online (UPDATE: The Internet tells me that the "Moneyspider" name reappeared more recently attached to Manchin, during Fabian Nicieza's run near the end of Robin in 2008, long, long after I quit reading the title, due to its not-very-good-ness).

As with the first half of this two-part storyline, I kind of hated this issue, in spite of--or perhaps because of--its liberal usage of characters I like created long ago by writers and artists I like. Something about using relatively minor characters like Anarky, who didn't really "belong" to Grant and Breyfogle but, with few exceptions, were only ever used by them, feels distasteful to me, and it feels worse to be doing so on the otherside of a major reboot like Flashpoint/The New 52, wherein a reader would assume that the character is new and original to this story, the creation of Tynion and his collaborators (here again the script is co-written by Christopher Sebela and drawn by Carmen Carnero). Why would you not? The original Anarky story isn't available in collection yet--although I remain hopeful that DC will eventually publish more volumes of Legends of The Dark Knight: Norm Breyfogle, and I suppose a Batman: Arkham--Anarky collection is possible, given that they're going to publish a Joker's Daughter collection--and with pre-New 52 continuity meant to have been wiped out, there's no reason for a newer, younger reader to suspect that obscure characters appearing for the first time (well, second time; in the New 52, Lonnie Manchin is apparently the second Anarky, for some dumb reason) are new.

I don't know; the whole thing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The plotting on this storyline is rather confusing, in large part because Tynion and Sebela have split the focus between the Anarky plot and a dramatic moment in Tynion's ongoing Clayface redemption plotline. Anarky has been working off-panel with Spoiler since the end of "The Victim Syndicate," building an underground "utopia" beneath the ruins of the Gotham neighborhood ravaged by the events of "Night of The Monster Men." Even Leslie Thompkins and Harper Row are hanging out down there!

Batman arrives to put the kibosh on Anarky's participation, because he has learned Lonnie has received funding for his endeavor from The First Victim, a mysterious character from "The Victim Syndicate" storyline...and that character is still up to...something (that's who says the words "The Moneyspider Protocol" out loud). Spoiler and Batman fight Anarky in an extremely confusing action scene that is ridiculously hard to parse, and just generally poorly written, with paragraphs of dialogue coming between blows that are exchanged (in that respect, it's a little like ancient comics where there would be, say, a picture of Captain America in mid-air, executing a move that would take a split-second, while spouting some three very full dialogue bubbles).

Equal attention is paid to Clayface, though, and there's a relatively long scene in which he visits Mudface, another member of the Syndicate, in Arkham Asylum, where the First Victim is also being held. I think the story might have been better had it played out as two done-in-one arcs, one devoted to the Clayface storyline and the other to the Anarky one. Oh well, no one asks me for my advice.

Carnero's rendering is fine, but doesn't quite match up with the script when it comes to the action scenes, and the layout on at least one spread--Detective features a lot of instances of the tiers of panels going straight across both, facing pages horizontally, rather than across and down one page, and then across and down the next page--looks slightly broken. Comics are so collaborative though, it's hard to tell whose "fault" glitches in the storytelling are, as it's usually not the the script writer or the artist, per se, but something getting lost between them.

Lumberjanes #42 (Boom Studios) I imagine one of the more difficult things to depict in a comic book story is the sudden stopping of the passage of time, or, more specific to the current storyline in Lumberjanes, the stopping of of time in a specific area for specific characters, while other characters remain unaffected. After all, what is a comic book, but the composition of a narrative through images depicting frozen moments of time meant to imply movement and the overall passage of time...?

I haven't been particularly enamored of the style of current Lumberjanes artist Ayme Sotuyo, but the demands of this particular script--by Shannon Watters and Kat Leyh--reveal some previously unseen weaknesses. When, for, example, the 'Janes walk into an area where time has stopped, and Mal walks into a squirrel frozen in mid-scamper (and falls backwards, rather than forwards, as one would expect to do when walking into an object), it takes a while to figure out what the hell happened, and it is mostly accomplished via the addition of a movement line and the word "zoom" written behind the squirrel when it becomes un-frozen. Were Leyh's character designs not themselves so abstract, it might be easier for her to depict time stopping, but, at the very least, more than a single panel of "stopped" time would be needed to demonstrate it, since, after all, every panel in a comic book depicts the stoppage of time to a degree. The same page has the 'Janes regarding a quartet of their fellow campers frozen in time, and to depict that, "sound effects" are used even more bluntly--the word "FROZEN" literally appears over the frozen characters' heads.

Later, another adverse effect of time going crazy registers, and it is that a supporting character is suddenly transformed into a very young child, I think,but because Sotuyo's character designs are all so similar, and everyone looks to be about the same age, I'm not entirely sure what happened; a character is just suddenly very short.

Wonder Woman #30 (DC) This concludes writer Shea Fontana's five-issue fill-in arc on Wonder Woman, which does indeed end up feeling a lot like a fill-in arc. While Wonder Woman is wrestling with whether or not she should allow the scientist of Man's World to have blood samples to study in an attempt to work out cures for various diseases, the decision is made infinitely easier when she learns that the scientist in charge will get to the disease curing eventually, but first wants to start by manufacturing super-soldiers fueled by her blood.

Overall, the arc was well-written, if maybe overly long; to me, at least, it seemed like DC asked Fontana to stretch her pitch out to fill a certain number of issues, rather than her story naturally being a five-issue long one. Somewhat unfortunately, the artists changed enough that it never felt like she had a real partner on the arc, either.

Ah well. The next issue launches the next fill-in arc, this one a follow-up to last year's pre-"Rebirth" "Darkseid War" storyline from Justice League. Remind me to cancel my pull before then...

*So if Doc Magnus placed responsometers into sufficiently large samples of metals like Amazonium, Shazamium, Marvelium, Nth Metal and this new metal from Metal, he could created a team of Super-Metal Men, right?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Monsters Unleashed: Battleground

Writer Cullen Bunn and company's between-events event series Monsters Unleashed had far fewer tie-ins than Civil War II. In fact, it had so few tie-ins--just eight--that they could all fit in a single trade paperback collection and that, in fact, is exactly what Monsters Unleashed: Battleground is. Rather than taking over issues of the ongoing monthlies starring particular characters, Marvel decided to publish specially, weirdly numbered issues of those series in which to put the Monsters Unleashed tie-in stories, separating them from whatever the ongoing storylines in those titles might be. So, for example, instead of taking over an issue of the Mark Waid-written Avengers, Marvel published Avengers #1.MU. This was their strategy for the Age of Ultron event's tie-ins as well.

I'm not sure if it's all that great a strategy in terms of sales, as it demarcates these issues as ones readers of participating titles like Avengers need not read if they are not also reading Monsters Unleashed. Particularly since the creative teams are different. These days, the artists changing every arc or so might not be that big a deal, but, for example, Avengers #1.MU isn't written by Waid, nor is Champions #1.MU. In fact, none of these seem to be the work of the regular titles' writers.

I think this strategy likely runs counter to the traditional conventional wisdom regarding crossover events--part of the point of them is to get readers who are interested in the event to check out books they don't already read and might not otherwise have tried--but the mainstream comics market seems so broken, or at least so changed since the days when crossover events still seemed like events, that maybe the publisher has decided it's better for the health of the ongoings not to risk associating them with crossovers, and perhaps prompting readers to jump off...?

While I can't speak to that aspect of the comics, I can speak to the quality of them, and so I will.

It should be noted that the cover is kind of terrible (the cover from the Avengers issue, featuring a bunch of recognizable-ish characters asi t does, or from Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU, featuring two very marketable characters and a solid gag, might have been preferable). Ron Lim's drawing of said cover is fine, I suppose, and it does feature Marvel's flagship character alongside some monsters, but the monsters are pretty poorly chosen. They are The Blip, Devil Dinosaur, Orrgo and Tim Boom Ba (I'm just guessing on that last one, but it looks an awful lot like TBB).

Of the four monsters, only Orrgo appears in the comics collected under the cover at all, and Orrgo's appearance is limited to a one-panel cameo. The monsters that the various heroes--The Avengers, The (All-New) X-Men, The Champions, The Inhumans, The Guardians of The Galaxy and Deadpool, Doctor Strange and The (Totally Awesome) Hulk--are engaged in battle with throughout this collection are The Leviathons, the alien monsters invading Earth. Of the Marvel monsters, only Googam and Xemnu have roles within these stories, and you'll note a distinct lack of either Googam or Xemnu on that cover.

Avengers #1.MU by writer Jim Zub, artist Sean Izaaske and colorist Frank D'Armata

Something I hadn't noted until just now that may have been another reason Marvel decided to publish these tie-ins as standalone issues rather than part of the regular series? They apparently upped the price by a whole dollar, so that each of these things ran you $4.99, instead of the customary $3.99. Of course, they are longer than the standard issue--this story is 29 pages--but man, that's a lot of money when one considers how inconsequential the story is (and a good argument for trade-waiting; this thing costs $29.99, but the individual issues would have cost you $39.92...plus tax, probably!).

Writer Jim Zub basically takes a scene from the first issue of Monsters Unleashed, re-presents it so that he and artist Sean Izaaske can essentially do a cover version of it, and than adds in a bunch of filler as a way of delaying the tie-in. It's really an awful lot of padding.

Amazing Spider-Man Peter Parker gets a tip about a mob meeting in Boston, something that he himself notes isn't really the kind of thing he spends too much time on these days ("Nowadays, I usually leave street level stuff to my younger protegee, but for the sake of nostalgia..."), and as he has a flight to catch in eight short hours, he's not sure he has time to deal with it. So he calls in the then-current adjective-less Avengers roster--Captain America Sam Wilson, The Vision, The Wasp Nadia Pym, Hercules and Thor--to help him. They too spend a few panels discussing whether or not this is worthy of The Avengers' time. So while Zub's dialogue might be snappy and clever, it's probably problematic when the superheroes themselves are second-guessing the plot contrivance.

Luckily, there's a supervillain involved, to justify the involvement of a half-dozen Avengers, two of them with god-like powers, and they have to fight The Controller for a few pages. Right where what reads just like a fill-in issue of Avengers should end, a Leviathon attacks. And then another. This passage of the issue--a full 14-pages--is right out of Monsters Unleashed. It's the same scene: Same dialogue, same action, same everything, just staged and drawn differently, and with a few extra panels between the ones it is essentially just recreating from Monsters Unleashed.

Looked at one way, I suppose that's actually kind of interesting, given that Izaaske obviously didn't have time to see what Monsters Unleashed #1 artist Steve McNiven drew, and so one curious about process could look at the issues side by side and compare and contrast how Izaaske and McNiven both approached identical elements in overlapping scripts, but man, I don't know. I read both in trades I borrowed from the library, and basically just felt a sort of deja vu that turned to mild irritation when I realized what Zub was doing; if I paid for the comics, I'd be downright pissed that I was essentially paying for filler plus a repeat.

There's a last page original to this comic, in which Spider-Man suddenly disappears before the others' eyes. It's a very weird sort of tie-in, and while it's fine looking and well-written on a mechanical level, it was basically just a huge disappointment. Given all the "toys" Monsters Unleashed offered, the Avengers tie-in eschewed them all. It is thus unsurprising that the issue isn't much fun.

Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU by writer Joshua Corin, artist Tigh Walker and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg

Despite occurring after the opening of Monsters Unleashed, in which monsters are literally falling from the sky, this issue is similar to the Avengers tie-in in that it sets up what reads like it might have been a normal Spider-Man/Deadpool story, only to throw in a Leviathon. After two in a row, I began to wonder if that was an intentional choice, to speak in some meta way about how crossovers are unwelcome invasions of ongoing narratives, as the Leviathons come hurtling from above into stories already in progress and then derail them as the heroes have to rather suddenly change focus (this will be even more apparent in the next issue in the collection). Of course, if that is in intent, then the format--standalone, weirdly-numbered one-shots rather than issues of the regular series--would have helped sell it even better.

Spider-Man has been plucked from the last page of Avengers #1.MU and deposited into Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU because a coven of private girls school witches outside of Toronto had captured Deadpool and cast a spell to summon his "heartmate" (they were aiming for his demon wife, but got Spidey instead). The plan was to put the spirit of their dead headmistress into said demon wife, but they have to settle for Spider-Man. While the pair are trying to sort things out, a Leviathon crashlands and starts heading towards downtown Toronto.

Spider-Man fights it from the outside, while trying to stave off his possession by the witch, who is slowly taking him over, while Deadpool tries to fight it from the outside, after he is swallowed whole by it. Eventually, and with some unexpected help, they kill it.

Given the characters, it is appropriate that Corin's script is a little sillier and a lot funnier than the previous tie-in or Monsters Unleashed itself, and given that I haven't yet read a collection of Spider-Man/Deadpool, I enjoyed the chemistry between the two...in large part because it's unusual to see Spider-Man play the straight man, as whenever he's around other super-people he's generally portrayed as the irritating, joke-cracking character.

Tigh Walker's art was nice too. Not only does he do a good job of getting his leads to emote, despite being handicapped by their full face-masks, and distinguishing them rather sharply despite their similar costumes, his monster is cool-looking and his art in general has a slightly quirky look and appealing energy to it.

All-New X-Men #1.MU by writer Jeremy Whitley, pencilers Carolos Barberi and Ron Lim, inkers Walden Wong and Terry Pallot and colorist artist Cris Peter

The "All-New" X-Men team is the one that would become the stars of current book X-Men: Blue. Though this is only a single crossover event back, its team status quo is already dated, as it was an entire X-Men franchise reconfiguration and relaunch ago. The team here consists of the time-lost original X-Men, minus Cyclops and Jean and plus All-New Wolverine Laura Kinney, Oya (although Idie Okonkwo pretty much never, ever uses her mutant name, does she?) and Genesis. They are visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Whitley basically approaches the story as a Laura team-up with Gambit, in which the rest of the team play the dual roles of supporting characters and time-wasters/space-fillers.

Like her namesake, Wolvie is more interested in going off on her own for a side mission than any sort of tourism or team socializing, and she and Gambit team-up for a swamp adventure. In perhaps the best, most deliberate example of Monsters Unleashed-preempting-a-story, Whitley doesn't even bother to get his story off the ground. The villain who Gambit and Wolverine are tracking, one Doctor Chimera, is in the middle of explaining his plan when a Leviathon crashlands and, within three panels, devours Doctor Chimera, putting an end to that plot (as for how Whitley fills his 31-pages, much of it involves the X-Men who aren't Gambit and Laura running around New Orleans doing fun stuff, until the Leviathon enters and they must all team-up to destroy it. They do.

The Champions #1.MU by writer Jeremy Whitley, artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt and colorist Frank D'Armata

In keeping with The Champions ongoing's focus on fictionalized versions of real-world conflicts, Whitley has our young, activist heroes showing up at the site of a riot-in-the-making that echoes the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (although here Roxxon is involved, making the already fairly black-and-white real world issues even starker black-and-white, given that Roxxon is basically Evil Incarnate in the Marvel Universe). The company has hired a team of young super-people with incredibly dumb names--Crush, Hotness, Might, Panic, Cursed Cass--to provide "security." These mercenaries, who collectively call themselves The Freelancers, are actually there to put down the protests, but, when The Champions get there, they provide someone for the heroes to fight.

In the venerable Marvel tradition, the conflict stops when they are faced with a bigger, more pressing threat: A couple of Leviathons. The first of these looks a little like a gigantic, spider-esque creature made out of lava, and the second is a more traditional giant lizard thing, with acid spit. Some of the more useful/less evil Freelancers help the Champions put down the Leviathons and rescue the many, many civilians who were there.

Whitely's dialogue is mostly pretty sharp, with an emphasis on zingers. The Freelancers are all pretty lame, but in at least a few cases they seem to be lame on purpose. Whitley has Ms. Marvel embiggen to kaiju wrestling-size, which was a nice application of her powers, and ends the tie-in with the team rushing off to L.A. to fight the giant eyeball Leviathon they tangled with in the pages of Monsters Unleashed proper (So props to Whitley for handling his tie-in better than Zub handled the Avengers one).

Doctor Strange #1.MU by writer Chip Zdarsky, artist Julian Lopez, inker Scott Hanna and colorist Frank D'Armata

This is the strongest of the tie-ins, as it abandons the format of the previous ones--a regular adventure followed by pages of Leviathon fighting--and ties into the most appealing part of the crossover series proper, and Monsters Unleashed's mostly unfulfilled promise. It opens in the midst of the big battle outside of San Diego, in which the Marvel heroes and the Marvel monsters fought alongside each other against the invading army of Leviathons.

Our hero is also our narrator, and Doctor Strange is in way over his head, reduced to using magical weapons and items, having been greatly de-powered at the start of his new series (Remember that Monsters Unleashed had five art teams, and Doctor Strange is one of the characters who suffered the most from the various art teams not all being on the same page; his costume design goes back and forth from his current one, his old one and back to his current one. Watch for the change in the color of his cape throughout. Similarly, Star-Lord's costume changes, depending on the artist).

This is the only story in this collection in which the monsters from the Prelude play any role whatsover. Fin Fang Foom and the previously mentioned Orrgo have cameos, and Goom and Googam both have speaking parts, with Googam actually playing a part in Zdarsky's story, which is basically a Strange/Googam team-up.

Googam is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that his dad intervenes to save him from a Leviathon at one point, and when Googam resums his battle against it, Doctor Strange hits it with an arrow that teleports it away, either saving Googam's life or robbing the Son of Goom from his victory, depending on whose take you wish to rely on (that is, either your own eyes or Googam's word). A few days later, Googam strides down New York City streets in a an old school Ben Grimm-style "disguise" of a trench coat and wide brimmed hat--which naturally looks tiny atop his enormous head--and goes to confront Strange.

Rather than fighting him, Strange recruits him for a mission to regain his honor: Helping him track down and put down the Leviathon he had teleported to a random location. Hijinks ensue.

Spider-Man Peter Parker has a few small but key scenes, and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the strategies Strange employs against this Leviathon is the same one that Deadpool and Spidey used against theirs in Toronto a few tie-ins back. Here it is much more effective, however. I'm not sure if it was in the back of Zdarsky's head when he was scripting this or not, but it echoes the way in which Googam was killed at the end of his first appearance.

Artist Julian Lopez does a pretty superb job here. The monsters and super-characters all look appropriately monstrous and super, but Lopez really manages to sell the absurdity of the clash between, say, Googam and a city street, and to he does a fine job of wringing emotion out of the bulbous-headed monster. The funniest part of the last page isn't what happens, although given the player it happens to, it is pretty funny, but the look on Googam's face as he reacts to it.

Uncanny Inhumans #1.MU by writer Paul Allor, artist Brian Level and colorist Jordan Boyd

Huh. So I think this is the first Inhumans comic I've ever read. I mean, I have obviously read comics in which The Inhumans appear--how could one not, these days?--but this is the first one with the word Inhumans right there in the title.

What's a little weird about it is that the thing people are always saying about how Marvel is trying to make the Inhumans into the X-Men? That is basically what this reads like: An X-Men comic without the X-Men.

The lead character is someone named Swain, who wears a fancy costume that, these being the Inhumans, I can't tell is meant to be a hip fashion statement, or if that's just how pilots for the Inhumans dress. But she's a pilot who has the mutant Inhuman power to touch the minds of others around her; she leaves the superheroing to the other (Medusa, Crystal, Karnak, Triton, not-really-an-Inhuman Johnny Storm and the seemingly identically powered Inferno).

While they are fighting a Leviathon in Italy (as seen in the pages of Monsters Unleashed), Swain is flying civilians out of harm's way in a space ship, but ends up having to try to lead them to safety on foot, pursued by a particularly scary-looking Leviathon. Forced to fight with her powers in a way she never has before, she has to sacrifice a piece of her self to save the others.

It's...fine. I can't say it endeared the characters to me, and I remain mostly baffled by Marvel's insistence on putting them front and center in the hopes that they will someday, somehow catch on. It didn't quite answer the lingering question I have about the Inhumans, which is why they are so front and center in public at the moment, and why they have become what at leas here feels like a traditional superhero team, complete with a member of the Fantastic Four on their "roster."

The art by Brian Level is among the strongest and most distinct in this collection. I mentioned the design of the one Leviathon, but everything here has an interesting energy and a sense of herky-jerky movement to it. I liked the look of it a lot.

Guardians of The Galaxy #1.MU by writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, artist David Baldeon and colorist Marcio Menyz

The Guardians story somehow manages to spend all 30 pages around one of their fight scenes from Monsters Unleashed, as the team tangles with a Leviathon at a naval base in San Diego. Well, I shouldn't say "somehow," as I know how. To help fill those pages, Bowers and Sims reveal a connection between Groot and the particular Leviathon, explored in a flashback set on Groot's homeworld when he looked a bit more like he did in the latest Guardians of The Galaxy movie, as opposed to his design here, which is one I'm not terribly fond of (It's the same he had in Civil War II, with the green "hair", and the vines acting as connective tissues around his wooden limbs.

The Guardians' status quo at the time of this one-shot was pretty fraught. From what I understand, they were kinda sorta broken up at this point, and all stuck on Earth doing their own things. They are together in this issue mainly because Marvel decided to publish a Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in issue to Monsters Unleashed, as far as I can tell.

Bowers and Sims do okay with what they have here, but they don't really manage to keep from the readers how artificial the premise is.

Totally Awesome Hulk #1.MU by writers Bryan Edward Hill and Leah Williams, artists Ty Templeton and Jahnoy Lindsay and colorists Mat Lopes and Esther Sanz

The final book in the collection fills its over-sized space in a way unlike any of the previous issues. It is split into two stories, both with their own creative teams, and connected so that one leads into the other. The first story is by Hill and Templeton (whose artwork I didn't even recognize; that guy has a pretty tremendous range of styles, and his work looks good in all of them). Set in Seoul, South Korea, it features Amadeus Cho being called before Korean superhero and apparently government agent White Fox, who asks for his help in finding and stopping a monster. The monster looks like Godzilla wearing bits of armor, and no sooner has Cho beat it up that he realizes that something is wrong, and this whole story must be a dream...which it is!

The second story, by Williams and Lindsay, features Hulk waking from that dream to find its cause: Xemnu, The Hulk Titan. A Marvel monster dating from the same era as Orrgo, Googam and company, Xemnu was left out of the Prelude for some reason...and if he appeared at all in Monsters Unleashed, I have already forgotten it. Like his fellow Marvel monsters, Xemnu is trying to save the world from the invading Leviathons...but he's trying to do it by conquering the world. He has put everyone in Seoul in a trance, feeding them pleasant dreams, until Cho managed to shake it off. The art on this story is particularly good, and there are a few pretty bananas-looking transformation sequences, in which Lindsay is able to illustrate, say, Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk in a single image, varying the sizes of the Hulk's body parts to show him growing.

Then that's followed by...wait, that's three stories, with three distinct art styles. But the credits only list two stories by two artists...

Okay, wait, wait, wait. According to Comics.org, Hill and Templeton did indeed create that first story. The second one is also written by Hill, but drawn by the uncredited (in the collection) Ricardo López Ortiz. That's who did the great art in the Xemnu sequence (Each of the stories has it's own title, by the way; this second story isn't included in the table of contents at all). Then there is a third story; that's the one by Leah Williams and Jahnoy Lindsay. It features Amadeus' younger sister and fellow super-genius Maddy using her genius to track down galactic monster-hunting expert Lady Hellbender and then Oracle-ing her through a dangerous facility in exchange for useful monster intel.

Man. I can't believe Marvel fucked up the table of contents for this book so badly...

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: Monsters Unleashed: Monster-Size Hard Cover

Marvel was not kidding around when they named this collection of the five-issue Monsters Unleashed "Monster-Size." It's 14 by 21.6-inches, which might be hard to picture exactly, but, for context, your average trade paperback or comic book is just 6.6-by-10.1. This massive hardcover dwarfs those Street Angel one-shots Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca have been publishing with Image, which are 8.8-by-12.2, or those Alex Ross/Paul Dini one-shots like Superman: Peace on Earth and Batman: War on Crime, which were 9.8-by-13.2.

It is a big comic book. I'm fairly certain it is the biggest comic I've ever read, with Lauren Weinstein's Goddess of War coming the closest (and that was only 10-by-14.9 inches, and remains the most annoying comic I own, as I have no idea where to properly store it). It's a coffee table book, but only in the sense that it is big enough to be a coffee table. As I am typing this, it is sitting on my kitchen table next to me, and it takes up almost half of the table.

Does that massive size matter? Yes, in this particular case, I believe it does. That's because it made the act of reading Monsters Unleashed, a between-events event series that seemed mainly an exercise in maintaining the publisher's ownership of the title of their early 1970s horror anthology, into an experience in and of itself. I may forget plot particulars and which characters or artists participated in the future, but I likely won't forget lugging the huge, heavy tome home from the library, dropping it with a room-shaking thud on my living room floor and reading its poster-sized pages, with some panels the size of some other comics' splash pages.

The story is written by Cullen Bunn, and he works with a different artists on each of the five issues: Steve McNiven and Jay Leisten, Greg Land, Leinil Francis Yu with Gerry Alanguilan and Michael Jason Paz, Salvador Larroca and Adam Kubert. None of these are artists that I would have necessarily picked as an ideal artist for a story involving Marvel's heroes fighting the old Jack Kirby and Stan Lee-created monsters from the pre-Fantastic Four Marvel comics (I probably would have tried to get Nick Bradshaw, whose hyper-detailed style is so similar to that of Art Adams, one of comics' finest monster artists). In fact, there are at least two artists on that list whose work I actively dislike.

Regardless, these huge pages are an incredible showcase for an artist's work; these pages are slightly larger than the size in which most Marvel comics artists used to draw, before the art was reduced to fit into a comic book. That gives a reader an unusually close look at their work, when suddenly no detail is too small that it can't be pored over, and its component shapes and lines scrutinized. I must confess that Land and Larroca, two reference-heavy artists whose work I dislike and, in the case of the former, actively keeps me from reading books he draws, look better-than-ever here. Even if they are drawing over photo reference (and I don't know that's what they do, I just know that's what it looks like), it's difficult to notice on such a big canvas as that offered here.

Additionally, the format infuses all of the pages with import, as almost no panel is smaller than a splash page. And when Bunn does script a splash page, or, heaven forfend, a two-page splash, well it's like one is reading posters rather than comics.

It is therefore a little unfortunate how little there is to Bunn's story. The premise I described above, suggesting Spider-Man and the Marvel heroes battling Fin Fang Foom and the Atlas/Marvel monsters, sounds a simple one, and that simplicity was actually a selling point, particularly since the series was immediately following Civil War II and the crossover series before that was the complex, DC "crisis" style Secret Wars. Despite the covers and the the virtual promise of that premise as seen in the Monsters Unleashed Prelude collection, that wasn't quite the idea of Monsters Unleashed.

Rather, there are three groups of monsters, and the Kirby/Lee creations are but one of them and, honestly, they play a very small part in the proceedings. Giant monsters that we will eventually be told are called "Leviathons" begin raining down on Earth in the form of huge, blazing meteors. Immediately upon landfall, they arise and attack the nearest city, keeping all of Marvel's participating heroes fairly busy. The Atlas/Marvel monsters eventually ally themselves with the superheroes to fight off the alien Leviathons, the idea being that if any giant monster is going to conquer Earth, it's going to be one of them. And, finally, the day is saved by a half-dozen brand new giant monsters, who aren't introduced until the fifth and final issue (and who would go on to star in the ongoing Monsters Unleashed monthly series, which was announced before this event series even wrapped up and, I believe, demonstrating Marvel's willingness to greenlight just about anything, regardless of what the market might be interested in and/or able to support).

Bunn perhaps wisely introduces Marvel's many heroes by the team, with each assembling to battle a Leviathon, and having their names announced in little text boxes next to them: The Avengers (the ones from the Mark Waid/Michael del Mundo series; the Unity Squad and the U.S.Avengers are MIA), The Champions, The X-Men and The Guardians of The Galaxy are introduced as monster-fighting squads in the first issue, with Captain Marvel and Alpha Flight appearing at the beginning of the second. A few solo players are also involved, including Black Panther and, relevant to the story, Elsa Bloodstone and Moon Girl from Moon Girl and Devi Dinosaur.

Also introduced is a mysterious little boy obsessed with monsters, who has some sort of connection to the Marvel monsters like Fin Fang Foom, Gorgilla and company. As the Leviathon shower gets stronger and stronger, Foom and his forces eventually join the fray--Vandoom tries to earlier, but gets mistaken for a "bad" monster and slapped away--and hold the line, while the heroes figure out what's what.

What's what is this: The boy, Kei Kawade, is an Inhuman with the ability to summon, transport and apparently command (to a degree) any monster he draws. Medusa and Karnak show up at Parker Industries to explain some legend of an Inhuman with similar powers who fought off the Leviathon hordes in the ancient past. So, like Civil War II, the very next Marvel crossover event series to follow it was centered on a new Inhuman (I couldn't help but think of former Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada's explanation as to why he wanted to do the whole "No More Mutant" thing; that he felt "because they're a mutant" had become too easy a catch-all origin for any emerging super-character in the Marvel Universe. Here, then, is a pretty concrete example of how Inhumans are the new mutants).

With the help of Moon Girl, who has created a machine to translate the Leviathons' roars, Kei eventually decides to create his own monsters, but, again, these don't appear until the very last issue. When they do, they fight the leader of the Leviathons, they lose for a while and then they win. And...that's the whole story.

There are some fun moments to it all--how could there not be?--but it was really rather surprising what little story there is. What surprised me most was how little the Marvel monsters had to do, to the point that few of them are even named, and only a handful get any lines at all, with those that speak generally only getting a token line or two (FFF gets the most dialogue, but even then his total number of lines could probably be counted on a single hand). Also weird was the fact that the Marvel heroes all acted like they couldn't tell the Marvel monsters from the invaders; granted, many of these characters are relatively new faces, but I'm pretty sure everyone fights Fin Fang Foom eventually (I know both The All-New Wolverine and The Totally Awesome Hulk already have, within the first few issues of their solo titles) and hell, Orrgo was just on the SHIELD payroll as recently as The Howling Commandos of SHIELD and played a part in the "Standoff" storyline.

Some of the new monsters look potentially interesting, but then their weak entrance and similarly small roles in the story mean they are really nothing more than names and designs at this point, so it's actually kind of weird that Marvel green-lit an ongoing in which they star along Kid Kaiju, the superhero name that Spider-Man Miles Morales gives to Kei.

Were this not the biggest comic book I had ever read, and not filled with gigantic, immersive splash pages, it would be a more-or-less completely forgettable story. While I have no idea who it was at Marvel that suggested collecting it in a $50, raft-sized format, it was a pretty good suggestion.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

On Monsters Unleashed: Prelude

This 264-page collection is billed as a prelude to Marvel's 2016 between-events event Monsters Unleashed, but it's a bit of a retroactive prelude. That is, these are a whole bunch of comics, the majority of them by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and published decades before the first modern Marvel event series...Hell, they predate the Marvel Universe itself, some seeing publication long before 1961's Fantastic Four #1.

These classic monster comics are 13 in number, and come from the pages of Strange Tales, Tales To Astonish and Tales of Suspense. There doesn't seem to be too much in the way of rhyme or reason to them, with the exception of a pair featuring monsters that have been recurring characters in Marvel's superhero line of late--"I Challenged Groot, The Monster from Planet X!" and "Orrgo...The Unconquerable!"--so it's probably safe to assume that these stories were chosen because these 13 monsters will be among those in the pages of Monsters Unleashed. So the first 150 pages are so are devoted to introducing us to Grottu, Monstrom, Gorgilla, Groot, The Abominable Snowman, The Blip, Vandoom, Goom, Googam (Son of Goom), Rommbu, The Green Thing, Moomba, Bruttu and Orrgo.

These 13 short stories all read like mid-century monster movies, with incredibly crazy monster designs (thanks to Kirby) and all the boring parts of such schlocky sci-fi films cut out of them, as there isn't much room for character development or pseudo-science or extraneous exposition or any of that nonsense in such short stories.

After Orrgo's strange tale, the collection jumps to 2013's Fearless Defenders #8, followed by 2015's Marvel Zobmies #1 (that's the Secret Wars tie-in series) and then the first issue of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and the second and third issues of Totally Awesome Hulk.

Why those particular comics? Well, Fearless Defenders by Monsters Unleashed writer Cullenn Bunn and artist Will Sliney features monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone teaming up with the characters of that short-lived series (a sort of answer to DC's Birds of Prey), and Elsa is also the star of that particular Marvel Zombies miniseries. Though the stories aren't entirely complete, I suppose they give one the basics about Elsa: She hunts monsters, she's British, her father was the famous monster-hunter Ulysses Bloodstone (and an asshole) and she's kind of mean.

Devil Dinosaur is another Kirby-created monster, although he came along a decade or so after the others in this book, and Kirby created him without any input from Stan Lee. Rather than publishing Devil Dinosaur #1, however, Marvel chose the first issue of the ongoing series written by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder and drawn by Natacha Bustos. Makes sense. Not only is that a very good and tragically under-read comic that could only benefit from a trade like this pushing readers towards it, but introduces both the original conception of DD and his current status quo, in which he is living in modern New York City and is aligned with a middle-school super-genius.

Those issues of Totally Awesome Hulk are similarly good, and that is a series that was similarly under-read. That particular Hulk is Amadeus Cho, who literally took the mantle from Bruce Banner in order to save his one-time hero's life--I never figured out how this book fit with Civil War II--and his first story arc was dominated by monster-fighting.

It features Fin Fang Foom, whose first appearance is notably absent from the first chunk of the book, and the new character Lady Hellbender, who is traveling the universe "collecting" monsters like FFF and the two-headed turtle that Cho fights in the first issue of the series and so on.

Given that they chose to include this story instead of an earlier Fin Fang Foom story, like his first one, which would have fit in better with the first section of the book, I have to assume that Lady Hellbender plays a role in Monsters Unleashed, and obviously The Hulk does...at least to some extent.

I guess one would have to first read Monsters Unleashed to be able to judge how well-chosen the stories in Monsters Unleashed: Prelude actually are. So maybe I can back to you on that later...?

But these are all pretty okay; the Defenders story is kind of generic and features at least one panel of downright terrible artwork, and the Marvel Zombies issue is kind of out of left-field, given that it's 1/4th of a tie-in to Marvel's most sprawling event ever, but everything is well worth a read.

Especially those first 150 pages, which we should probably spend some more time more closely reading...


First up, it's Grottu in "Grottu, King of The Insects!" He's a giant ant, who appears a golden yellow on the cover, but is a grayish black within. He's also said to be as big as an elephant, but is clearly much larger. Our hero here is blonde, lantern-jawed, chain-smoking reporter Frank, who receives an urgent telegram from a museum curator friend of his to got to Africa in search of the monster. I never received such telegrams when I was reporter. Perhaps I wasn't working at the right kind of newspaper. Wait, come to think of it, I never received any telegrams when I was reporter!

Grottu was apparently granted his gigantic size and incredible intelligence as a side-effect of testing by "white men from behind what white men call 'iron curtain' country." "Communists, no doubt!" In addition to being big, Grottu serves as a sort of giant super-general, commanding hordes of millions of ants as they raze villages. His unstoppable army of army ants makes its way to a port city, where the plan is to board various ships and then spread out all over the world, conquering it. There could be some subtle metaphor here, but I doubt it! The monster is killed when the white men dump a bunch of sugar on it, and the little ants swarm all over it, apparently crushing him under their weight?

Just six pages and 36 panels; Kirby, Lee and their collaborators didn't screw around!

That's followed by Monstrom in "I Found Monstrom! The Dweller in the Black Swamp!" Aside from the catchy name, Monstrom appears to be your then-typical, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen swamp monster from the cover. There he's depicted as a humanoid of giant statue, rising out of the water covered in a viscous, dripping mud...hell, he could be made of mud!

Now, I didn't know this until I read TwoMorrows' Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, but apparently the lineage of comic book swamp monsters can be traced pretty directly back to writer Theodore Sturgeon's prose fiction story "It!", published in a 1940 issue of Unknown (The Heap would first appear two years later, and he was the trunk of the comic book swamp monster family tree).
Monstrom is pretty immediately distinguished by all other monsters that rise from the swamps by the bizarre appearance Kirby gave him, revealed on an opening splash page: The unwieldy-looking creature appears to be almost as wide as he is tall when crouching, and has orange, wrinkly skin suggestive of an elephant. Where its face should be is only a single-staring eye, and a crown of horn-like projections adorn its conical head. It also has a tail, and like most of these Kirby kreatures, its size varies depending on the panel; on one page it's only as tall as five or six men high, on the next page it's that tall at the waist, and its foot is bigger than the speeding car it tries to stomp on.

The hero in this story is also a handsome, square-jawed, pipe-smoking blond writer--this time a novelist, rather than a reporter--who has rented a cabin in the titular swamp to work on his latest novel. His It's his son who first meets Monstrom, and the city slickers flee, inadvertently leading the monster into town.

A lucky bolt of lightning strikes a telephone pole, setting it ablaze, and making Monstrom say "ARRGG--" Realizing he's afraid of fire, the townsfolk get torches and chase the monster back into the swamp, and it seems to shrink smaller and smaller the closer it gets to the swamp.
While the hicks whoop it up about having defeated the monster, the story ends with an extremely wordy panel, in which a tiny drawing of the monster resting alongside a very Silver Age-looking rocket ship is sandwiched between two slabs of narration, which reads like so (Please imagine it in Stan Lee's voice):
An alien with enormous intelligence, who has waited patiently for the time when Earthlings might understand him...fort he time when Earthlings would be advanced enough to help him rebuild his damaged spaceship! But that time has not yet come! We are still too ignorant--too barbaric! Perhaps one day it will be otherwise, but not yet...

Not yet...
To which I say, fuck you space man. You're the one who was so terrified of a lightning bolt and a half-dozen tiny Earthlings shouting and bearing torches. If you're so smart that you can build a rocket ship and fly across the stars, how come you act like Boris Karloff's Frankenstein when you see fire? I don't think your enormous intelligence is quite as enormous as Stan Lee seems to think it is.

(You know, I keep saying "Stan Lee," but it's possible Larry Lieber wrote this. Lieber and Lee are both credited as writers for these 13 old-school monster comics. Similarly, while Kirby handled the pencils, the inking was done by either Dick Ayers and Steve Ditko. Marvel just credits them all on the table of contents page, rather than distinguishing who wrote what and who inked what. All we know from sure from the credits Marvel gives us is that Kirby drew everything.)

That's followed by the charmingly named Gorgilla starring in "I Discovered Gorgilla! The Monster of Midnight Mountain!" This seven-pager was apparently dashed off shortly after someone rewatched King Kong. Aside from the gorilla-esque name, Kirby's design certainly doesn't make the monster look all that much like Kong. Humanoid in shape, the monster has a long mane of gray hair and a short beard, a long hairy tail and just four digits on its hands, each of which end with a blunt, square claw.

The title creature is discovered in Borneo. The local head-hunters worship him as a god, and he's kept behind some sort of wall. The explorers traverse a bridge that looks a bit like the tree bridge on Skull Island, and, at a later point, Gorigilla menaces them with a tree in a panel that looks not unlike a still image from Kong. To top it off, the climax comes when Gorgilla is challenged by a Tyrannosaur, which he wrestles to death. The cover also lifts from Kong, as the explorers realize that what at first resembles a huge hole in the ground is actually a huge footprint.
The human hero of this story is yet another handsome, blonde, pipe-smoking guy---this time an archeologist. He believes he's found the final resting place of "The Missing Link," and so he and a band of his fellow archeologists are off to find a creature "to bridge the wide gap between man and ape...a life-form that was half-ape and half-man!" This is, of course, pretty dubious science, but what's actually kind of hilarious is that when they lay eyes on Gorgilla, they become convinced that somehow this dinosaur-sized, tail-bearing, four-fingered, two-toed creature is the missing link between man and ape.
Like, I'm no scientist, but even if we ignore the alien extremities, I'm pretty sure we can rule anything bigger than a house out as a relative of any anthropoid apes, let alone our direct ancestor.

The next monster story introduces Groot, the breakout star of the Kirby/Lee monster stories, the one who made it to the silver screen before even Fin Fang Foom! It is, of course, "I Challenged Groot! The Monster From Planet X!", recently reprinted by Marvel as part of their True Believers line. The human star of the piece is a biologist named Leslie, who apparently isn't as rugged or manly as his wife Alice would like him to be.

In the very first panel, he narrates that they were returning home from a party, "and she was on her usual subject." Her dialogue reads, in part, "Honestly, that George Carter is a wonderful guy! He's so manly--so rugged! If only you more like that, Leslie!"

Sounds like a happy marriage! I wonder if Leslie will get the chance to prove himself the alpha male before this story is over?

The couple see some kind of luminous object land behind the treeline on their drive home, and put it out of their minds, until something weird happens: A pair of trees goes missing from their yard. When Leslie does investigate, he finds "a wooden giant" who is somehow able to draw wooden objects of all kinds to himself, absorb them and thus grow even larger.

Even with Leslie's warning, local law enforcement is powerless to stop Groot, as bullets don't penetrate his wooden hide deep enough to strike any vital organs. He delivers his most famous line--"I am Groot"--but he does so couched in a whole bunch of verbiage:
Earthlings--hear me!! I am Groot, Monarch of Planet X! I come to take an Earth village--your village, back to my planet! We want to study you, to experiment on you!
Groot talks a lot, and as he does so, we see this striking, strange imagery, in which we see the how of Groot's plan to abduct the village via trees.
There's another panel on the following page too, in which the trees become animate, their roots like legs and their branches like arms:
The great thing about these images, about the story in general, isn't just how different this ur-Groot is from the current movie star Groot--dig those branch-like antlers and the log-like ends of his fingers!--but the way in which it reflects the very simple, very basic, very innocent comic book story generation of the "good old days." That is, you just know that Lee or Kirby happened by a tree one day, and since, at this point, they were always thinking of monsters for comics, they basically just cast a tree as the heavy in a monster story and extrapolated from there.

This is basically where every Golden Age superhero of the boom period came from: Artist sees a bird swooping, and bam!, there's Hawkman. Artist sees a bee, and there are a handful of insect-themed heroes, none of whom really stick. In the same way a guy thinking about making new superheroes all the time applies just about anything that crosses his field of vision into a superhero narrative, you can sort of see the sources of inspiration for so many of these stories, in either their casting everyday objects as monsters, or what seem like they must have been inspired by particular movies or news articles or whatever.

The next story seems like it may have been something from an article or maybe a movie. The monster isn't an original creation, but The Abominable Snowman, and he is the title character in "I Found The Abominable Snowman!" The human hero here is another blonde smoker, but he's not a thinker or a professional. Rather he's a rough-looking customer named "Big Carl" Hanson, "a guy who will do anything for a buck!"
When he sees a photo of the legendary beast--strikingly designed with a bizarre beard that starts at the bridge of his nose--that a guy in a bar is bragging about selling, Carl clobbers the guy and takes the photo for himself. His plan isn't to sell the photo, but to capture the Snowman in the photo and sell it for even bigger bucks.

His method of searching is pretty awesome as he basically journeys to the foot of the Himalayas and starts threatening and roughing up people, insisting they tell him where the Abominable Snowman is. Think of Batman or Daredevil knocking heads in Gotham or Hell's Kitchen, trying to strongarm the location of a particular criminal out of the local underworld. Only here it's an amateur cryptozoologist looking for a cryptid.

The story has one of the better, more satisfying of the twist endings in the collection, which I won't spoil (UPDATE: I will note that the Snowman does indeed show up in Monsters Unleashed, and he's perplexingly off-model, being giant in size rather than just slightly larger than your average man. His role, like that of all the old Marvel monsters, is decidedly small, and mostly consists of Deadpool talking to him about his smell in the middle of a battle against the newer monsters).

The next monster has a name that will be familiar to any fan of Marvel's comics, even if they have never read this story: Vandoom. Like Xemnu, The Hulk (who is perhaps surprisingly MIA here, but did share the previously mentioned issue of True Believers with Groot), this is one of those examples of Kirby and Lee semi-plagiarizing themselves, or at least coming back to something that appealed to them previously while working on their later superhero comics. This Vandoom, star of "Vandoom, The Man Who Made a Creature!", also lives in Europe (Transylvania, to be exact), but rather than the metal-plated villain, he is a humble proprietor of a wax museum devoted to monsters (As with Frankenstein, whose monster actually appears in the first panel of this story after its title page, the name of the creator gets transposed onto the monster).

With tourists no longer interested in his wax replicas of the Universal monsters, he and his wife are destitute. And so he embarks on a seemingly mad task to create a monster of his own invention, one that will be the largest wax figure in the world. It is so large that its head sticks out of the top of his building, in fact.

During a dramatic storm, a bolt of lightning strikes the wax monstrosity's head and somehow brings it to life. Kinda like Frankenstein, although here it doesn't even make sense by the laws of theoretical fiction or monster movie science. The villagers take up torches and pitchforks and chase the monster around for a while, as is villagers' wont, until a cool, cruel-looking rocket ship with a scary face sculpted into it (like a space-age Viking ship, I guess) arrives and disgorges some horn-headed Martians, bent on conquering the world, as if their wont. The monster fights them off until they flee, deciding Earth is just too heavily defended, and then, exhausted, it dies.
"Now we know why fate gave life to my monster!" Vandoom declares, after he rebuilds his museum and its new titanic wax star. That's right, God brought his monster to life to save Earth from Martians. That all checks out.

Next we meet one of the more familiar of this era of Marvel monsters, due both to a memorable name--Goom--and another great design by Kirby, this one featuring a spherical-headed, Muppet-mouthed, vestigial-winked monster wearing shorts the same color as his skin. Like Groot, apparently, Goom hails from Planet X, as this story is entitled, "Goom! The Thing From Planet X!"

This story stars Mark, another blond scientist--a polymath who is "a good astronomer and a terrific psychologist"--whose bearded, pipe-smoking peers all mock him for his belief that there are unknown planets in the solar system, saying that his "latest notion...is fantastic enough to be in a comic book!" Indeed it is! Why, it's fantastic enough to be in a comic book like, say, 1961's Tales of Suspense #15 by Lee, Lieber, Kirby and Ayers!

After he puts in a whole two days of work at the observatory, Mark discovers a massive planet just beyond Jupiter, and begins beaming radio waves towards it, not unlike the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) initiative, which would have been in an infancy when this comic was published. Mark gets a reply in the form of Goom, he boards a huge space ship with a scary face design not unlike the one the Martians flew into Transylvania a few pages previously, and immediately starts showing off his awesome technology and powers. These include a gun capable of disintegrating a mountain, a suspiciously human-sized glass box able to turn adult human beings into babies and back again (suspicious because Goom said he thought Earth was uninhabited) and, finally, the ability to lift an entire city into the upper atmosphere with just his mind.

Realizing they are hopelessly outmatched, Earth surrenders. Everyone save Mark, who beams Earth's location back to Planet X on the gamble that "any race as advanced as Goom's must be too civilized to be evil." What made him think this? "I knew because of my training as a psychologist!" Okay Mark. Stephen Hawking might disagree, but Mark's gamble paid off because a trio of much better-dressed Planet X-lings appear and arrest Goom.

I guess Earth need never worry about invasion from Planet X again, right?

Wrong! For the very next story stars "Googam, Son of Goom" in "Beware of Googam, Son of Goom!!" The scion of Goom, starring in the collection's very first sequel (and the first nod toward anything approaching "continuity," as Groot's hailing from Planet X is of course not mentioned in the story of Goom), looks a lot like his dad, save he's much smaller, much redder and his mouth is devoid of square, gravestone-shaped tusks, making it a yawning, black hole that gives him an even stranger and more unsettling countenance than his dad.
Mark, who has now taken up smoking like any respectable mid-century man of science in pop culture, recounts the story of Goom and tells us that his son had just returned from military school. Billy, Son of Mark meets the infant Goom, who Googam had apparently stashed in a cave between panels in the previous story, is captured. Googam then holes up in the family's house, keeping them all prisoner while he grows and matures to the point where he can take over the world.

This section of the story is actually something of a psychological thriller, and has an unusual set-up compared to all these other monster stories, as Googam is basically just hiding out and keeping the family prisoner in their own homes, as if he were laying low from the law or something.

Billy is able to dispatch the monster all by himself eventually, with no help from his dad or the ruling class of Planet X.

The next story is called simply "Rommbu!", and it features the monster known as, um, Rommbu. In both the creature's design and plot, this story echoes that of Goom and Orrgo (or I guess it pre-echoes that of Orrgo). Once again the monster is a giant-sized humanoid of red-ish complexion, and he has the blank, staring eyes of Orrgo (though smaller) and the gaping, wide mouth of Goom and Son (though bigger). He also sports a pair of shorts, although these seem to be some rather tight-fitting briefs, with some space-age ribbing around the hips.

Our human protagonist is a career criminal named John, who has been handed a life sentence. The train he's riding to prison, accompanied by police officers, comes to a SCREEECH!-ing halt when a huge flying saucer lands on the tracks in front of it. Out strides the giant Rommbu, telling the random train passengers that his people are on their way from the Fourth Galaxy to conquer Earth, and he's come to accept their surrender. To demonstrate his power, he whips out a huge pistol and fires it on some bystanders, who...shrink. After reading a bunch of these stories where the space monsters don't kill anyone, I'm guessing this is yet another intentional effort on the creators' part to keep the death tolls more-or-less non-existent, with generally only one (1) monster dying per story. It's not as dramatic a fate as Goom's box that turns people into babies though, as he's already a giant. Shrinking puny earthlings to quite a few times more puny just seems kind of redundant.

While Rommbu is conversing with the Earthlings, John sneaks aboard his ship in an effort to escape, and ends up Rommbu's captive. If he can only destroy Rommbu, he'll have saved all of Earth, atoning for his crimes. Can he do it?

Yes. Yes he can.

Next up is The Green Thing in "The Green Thing!" I guess Lee and/or Lieber had just plain given up on titles, at this point? The Green Thing is fairly lazy in terms of monster names, and though he' a monstrous humanoid plant, under Kirby's pencils, he doesn't look a whole lot like any other monstrous humanoid plants you may have read about in other comics.

This comic's hero is once again a scientist with a crazy dream. His is to prove that plants have intelligence, and, to prove it, he wants to develop a serum that can increase plant intelligence. Once he things he has it, he flies to a small island off the cost of Australia, where grows "the highest known specimen of plant life," Ignatius Rex. Unable to find this plant, he just injects the serum into an ordinary weed, which immediately grows, gains intelligence, and begins talking and walking.

It takes a few panels to get used to that last bit.
Once he learns to walk and throw boulders, he figures he's ready to conquer the world, and so he commands our hero to take him to the mainland and use the serum to create an army of plant monsters. Then it fights a shark. The day isn't saved until a specimen of Ignatius Rex is found, gets a dose of serum, and then this smarter, more noble living plant kills The Green Thing, which turned out to be a real dick. Why, one could even say it was a dickweed.

Sadly, when the Ignatius Rex springs to life and goes on the attack, it does not shout, "Ignatius Rex!"

The next monster in the menagerie is named Moomba, and he stars in a story entitled "The Unbelievable Menace of Moomba." I kind of love the cover to the issue he appeared in, Tales To Astonish #23, as it announces "Moomba Is Here!", as if people were awaiting Moomba's arrival, or not sure which comics magazine to purchase in order to read about Moomba. He's another variation on the huge, orange/red humanoid in shorts design Kirby was so enamored with, although Moomba's variation on the theme included short, stubby arms that seemed to hand from its shoulders (at least in the interiors; on the cover he was proportioned a bit more like an ape), and a gigantic face that covered much of his chest.

In Africa, big game hunter Frank is disappointed that people on the other six continents (well, five anyway) aren't interested in animals anymore, but are only interested in African sculpture. I have no idea if there really was a huge demand for such sculpture at the time, but for the sake of reading these 13-pages, let's assume that was indeed the case.
Almost immediately Frank encounters a comically attired witch doctor who is busy trying to cast the evil spirits out of the same sorts of wooden figures Frank is collecting. He of course thinks this is a bunch of poppycock, and goes on his way until he comes face to face with what looks like a huge carving that "must be at least twenty feet tall," although it's clearly no more than two, maybe three times taller than Frank himself (who is not, I should note, 8-10-feet tall).

This is, of course, Moomba, who wastes no time in telling Frank that he is from a planet where "all life is made of wood, even as yours is made of flesh and blood!" His people have infiltrated Earth, posing as African statues, and are simply awaiting Moomba's signal to attack.

That is...well, it's actually kind of awesome.

While his evil plot is akin to that of Grottu and The Green Thing, who sought to lead armies of ants and super-plants respectively, it seems a lot less likely to succeed, as while there may be a lot of wooden statues of African origins all over the world, there can't possibly be enough to overwhelm mankind the way an army of insects or plants might.
Anyway, Moomba and his wooden army kick all sorts of ass, and have conquered the world, until the witch doctor casts a spell on Moomba, turning him into an immobile, unthinking wooden statue...threatening to let the spell take hold unless Moomba agreed to leave the planet and never return. So Moomba, a wooden creature of his word, summons all of his fellow wooden warriors, they jump up into the air, form the shape of a giant rocket ship and then fly away into outer space (!!!!).

Frank has learned a valuable lesson:
I will never again ridicule the practices of a native witch doctor, fore there is just a chance--a slim chance--that it was an unheralded, unknown witch doctor, who saved all of mankind from the thing called--Moomba.
Yeah, sew that onto a throw pillow.

Just two more to go. The penultimate monster is Bruttu, and he appears in "Beware of...Bruttu." (What, no exclamation mark?) In this story, Lee and company make use of the extended page-count to offer a more psychological story than some of the others. Bruttu is actually a comic book monster within the pages of the comic book story. Our hero is a short, skinny scientist named Howard who has a short-temper and won't brook any insult, fighting anyone who makes fun of him...and losing the fight.

This is explained during three panels set on a college campus, and continued into three panels set at the lab where he works as an adult scientist. There are several tall, handsome, "husky" (in Howard's words) guys who are always making plays for the beautiful lab technician, Anne Benson. There's this one great exchange where Howard is in the background, fiddling with some science props and, in the foreground, one of those big, handsome scientists is pouring one test tube into an another, and makes a crack about Howard ("Howard ought to work on vitamin pills! He might discover one that'll help him grow into a man!"). A scientist next to him, of the balding, pipe-smoking variety, responds, "Careful, he's liable to hear you! Then he'll start another fight and you'll have to beat him up again!"

I would just like to pausefor a moment and appreciate the insanity of a science lab stocked with scientists who are all great-looking physical specimens, and where fist fights occasionally break out. Not to stereotype scientists or anything, but they're not exactly the sort of professionals one associates with big, strong, virile, handsome men, nor juvenile, schoolyard insults, nor regular bouts of physical violence. But maybe things were different in the 1960s...? I don't know. I wish I could tell what kind of scientists they were, exactly. The equipment suggests some kind of chemists, but the most important piece of equipment there is "a new type of atomic machine," one so powerful "no one can be sure how it will affect atoms at maximum power."

Meanwhile, after a date with Anne, who Howard is convinced only goes out with him because she feels sorry for him, he regards a magazine featuring a kaiju-sized fuzzy giant in underpants in a comic book. "Bruttu! Good name for a monster as big as that!" (I assume Lee wrote this script, based on the fact that the script itself compliments an element of the writing of the script.)

Howard is still thinking about how cool it would be to be a gigantic, three-fingered, hairy orange giant so no one could push him around when he accidentally turns on the machine, and guess what happens?

That's right, he has been transformed into Bruttu! Because his vocal chords have changed as well, all he can do by way of explaining himself is growl, gurgle and roar, and, not really wanting to squash humans, he begins running around the city, striking shock and fear in all passersby, and being fired upon by police. He runs through a series of monster movie set-pieces--rail car, wax museum, Ferris wheel-having carnival--before he writes a message to Anne in the ground with a stick, and she accidentally reveals to "Bruttu" that she truly loves Howard ("Howard disappeard when you arrived! You were first seen coming out of his laboratory! That's it! You killed Howard! You killed the man I loved!")

It ends happily, with Howard returning to the lab, thinking of his old self while the machine is on, and thus he returns to normal, and he and Anne live happily ever after, probably (He must have learned his lesson too, because he didn't imagine himself as his old self but, like, a foot taller or anything.)

This is another story that seems to prefigure elements of Lee and/or Kirby's later comics work for what would become the Marvel Universe proper, with Howard's school life recalling that of Puny Peter Parker's, and the puny scientist-who-accidentally-turns-into-a-hulking-misunderstood-monster aspect reading like a rough draft for The Incredible Hulk. Hell, Howard even seems to have the same sorts of pants that Dr. Bruce Banner would wear, as when he transforms into Bruttu, they tear at the knees, but otherwise continue to fit him at the waist and thigh!

And finally, it's time to meet Orrgo, also known as "Orrgo...The Unconquerable!."

I have to confess, I kind of love these opening four panels:
Everyday Earth life seems horrible. At least the women, who are doing their household chores, seem to be happy with their lot in life, as the woman singing "Dum...Dee Dee Dum" to herself seems really into polishing that vase. Look at he poor men, though, complete with a foreman yelling at them to go about their mindless task faster. They look like they can't wait for a weird-looking monster from outer space to end it all.

And that transition to the explosion in the fourth panel? Magnificent!

The particulars of the story all seem to be borrowed from earlier stories in this very collection, although the pace, as well as the level, of the weirdness in this one is remarkable. A group of large, weird-looking aliens regard Earth from their home planet, two billion miles away, and they decide to conquer it. They are so powerful, one of them, Orrgo, says it shouldn't take more than one of them to conquer the planet, and so he sets about it.

He has some vague, mental "do anything" powers, which allow him to transport himself to Earth via thought alone--"Faster than sound...faster than light...as fast as imagination itself"--and within panels of appearing in the center ring of a circus, he starts demonstrating those powers and conquering the world. He tells circus-goers that all of the worlds' governments must submit to him, and goes about levitating cars, bringing trees to life like Groot, melting artillery cannons, turning jet planes into bird plane hybrids and their missiles into eggs, even lifting an entire city high into orbit like Goom did.

Eventually he mentally enslaves all of man kind, and then, having conquered the world, takes a nap. At which point he's killed by a gorilla. That's our Orrgo!


Remember when I said I can get back to you later on how well chosen the stories in Monsters Unleashed Prelude were? Well, I've since read Monsters Unleashed, and it is now later.

I think I'm going to go with "poorly." As an excuse for re-publishing a ton of old Kirby/Lee monster comics in a cheaper, more affordable format, it is totally a worthwhile endeavor, but if a reader picked it up for background or context into the Monsters Unleashed miniseries, they are going to be rather disappointed.

Of that portion of the book, I think almost all of the monsters appear, at least in terms of cameos...with the exception of that particular version of Groot, who isn't in the series at all (though he does appear on the most misleading cover of the series). Few of them have what one might call "roles" to play in the story, however, with only a handful of them getting speaking lines, or even getting named in the series. Appearing in the middle section of the six-issue miniseries, they are but one of three groups of giant monsters involved, and basically are there as a nameless mob of Earth monsters siding with the heroes to battle alien invaders (which, as you'll see have found in the Prelude, most of them are as well).

Oddly, a few of the Marvel monsters who get the most panel-time and/or a line of dialogue do not appear in this collection at all, so even having read it first, there were a handful of monsters that were unknown to me.

Elsa Bloodstone does play a sizable role in the series, although I don't know that the two stories featuring her are necessarily the best ones; I would probably have preferred a first appearance, in keeping with the theme of the book, or perhaps an issue of Nextwave: Agents of HATE, as that's where this particular design and take on the character came from (Also, she and her fellow Agents battled Fin Fang Foom and Devil Dinosaur in that series).

The Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur comic is well-chosen, as Moon Girl is probably the hero who gets the most and most important panel-time in the series, and that issue was her first appearance, if not Devil's (although, as I mentioned, it introduced Devil's original status quo as well as his current one).

Interplanetary monster hunter Lady Hellbender from Totally Awesome Hulk does not appear in the Monsters Unleashed at all, so apparently those 40-pages were included as a Fin Fang Foom story instead of a Hellbender story (She does briefly appear in Monsters Unleashed: Battleground, which collects all the tie-ins to Monsters Unleashed).

That's actually kind of weird, though, as one of the eyebrow-arching elements of Monsters Unleashed is that the heroes all profess confusion regarding the identities and intentions of the Marvel monsters, but Cho had just met/fought Foom. I think they may have been better served by using those 40 pages of space for more Kirby/Lee stories (like the first appearance of Fin Fang Foom), or maybe a few issues of Nextwave or some other Elsa Bloodstone arc.