Monday, September 11, 2017
Review: Monsters Unleashed: Monster-Size Hard Cover
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.