Posts from January 2015

January 23rd, 2015

Comics: The Latter Days!

avengescoverI ventured to the comics shop again this week, lured by the prospect of interesting new graphic novel collections (there weren’t any that I could see), and I walked out with two new Marvel comics, Avengers #40, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Stefano Caselli, and Fantastic Four #642, written by James Robinson and drawn by Leonard Kirk. I bought the Avengers issue mainly because I bought the one before it, yet another chapter in Hickman’s years-long storyline about a massive series of ‘incursions’ in which whole realities are colliding with each other. In Hickman’s story, a small group of heroes – the ideological descendant of the original “Illuminati” concept I liked so much years ago, is working to save Earth and the whole of the Marvel universe from destruction, and they’re willing to work together despite considerable bad blood between themselves (particularly between Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Black Panther, whose African kingdom Namor flooded a couple of years ago during another protracted Marvel storyline.

In this issue, lots of these long-simmering plots come to a head – most certainly including the conflict between the Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner – and it all makes for very enjoyable reading if you’re a long-time Marvel reader who’s been following this run of Avengers and makes for utterly incomprehensible reading if you just happened to wander into the comics shop and buy this issue. This is a bit of a problem, and I’ll come back to it.

I bought the Fantastic Four issue because it’s the first chapter in a mini-arc called “The End is Fourever” – an arc that ends in the widely-publicized cancellation of Marvel’s foundational comic book title. As some of you will recall, I’m a long-time fan of the avengers1Fantastic Four and have followed their adventures through good creative times and bad, so there was an active element of nostalgia driving me to read this beginning of the end. And the issue was very satisfying: Leonard Kirk’s artwork is intensely good, and the story itself features a couple of moments that shine with the kind of open sentimentality The Fantastic Four has always done so well. I’ll definitely buy the rest of the installments in this arc, even though I know I’ll be saddened by the ultimate ending.

Or will I? It was only after reading these two issues that I became aware of the news stories that have been ff2circulating for a while now in the comics world – to the effect that Marvel Comics is planning to do a company-wide creative reboot of all its comics this summer, in an echo/craven imitation of DC’s “New 52” reboot from a couple of years ago. According to the news items I’ve read, Marvel’s various writers and artists have known about this plan for a while now, and that may account for the slightly ragged and very savage undertone to both these issues I bought on Wednesday, in which alleged heroes are at each other’s throats and everything feels very end-of-times.

I wasn’t a fan of DC’s “New 52,” needless to say, and the idea of Marvel = a company that’s always prided itself on its long and rich continuity, maintained with so much more scrupulous care than was ever exercised over at DC – well, the idea of ff1Marvel trying the same clean-slate reductivist nonsense doesn’t strike me any better. The irony is that in both these issues I bought the other day, the tremendous vitality of the Marvel system the way it is now was on abundant display. Here, with very few exceptions, we have characters dating from the original 1960s birth of the Marvel Universe sculpted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – and even earlier: one of the heroes duking it out with the Hulk in The Fantastic Four is the original Human Torch, the first superhero of Marvel’s parent company way back in 1939. The very fact that these issues can be starring recognizable – and very much dramatically viable – variations of characters like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans proves that those characters still have enormous amounts of potential that shouldn’t just be retconned out of existence in pursuit of the 18-25 buying demographic.

I made the same objection to the “New 52,” of course, and the event itself did virtually nothing to assure me that I was wrong. So these issues of such venerable titles as Avengers and Fantastic Four may be the last ones in my lifetime where I get to enjoy that long-storied history in all its complexity. I’ll keep buying them to the end, and then I’ll report on what happens after the end.

August 30th, 2014

Comics! The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver!

avengers 127Our story today is an oldie from the halcyon days of 1974, when a United States increasingly mired in the Watergate scandal got some much-needed distraction by turning to the pages of Marvel Comics for the comics event of the year (if you don’t count the first appearances of both the Punisher and Wolverine – but since they’re two of the dumbest, most boring comic book characters ever created, I’m not counting them): the wedding of Quicksilver and Crystal.

Well, OK, so ‘the United States’ in general didn’t get any much-needed distraction from that event; the United States in general was reading Jaws and pining all unknowingly for Internet porn. Nevertheless, the aforementioned wedding was the talk of comic book geeks! Quicksilver, the hot-tempered Avengers member capable of running at super speed (who made his big screen debut in this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past played by pack-a-day tobacco addict Evan Peters, and who’ll make very much bigger splash in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he’ll be played by five-pack-a-day tobacco addict Aaron Taylor Johnson), had been injured in a recent storyline left to recover in Attilan, the hidden Himalayan refuge of the Inhumans, a secret race of genetically-altered beings ruled by the silent, regal Black Bolt. In Attilan, Quicksilver was cared for and eventually fell in love with a young Inhuman named Crystal, who’d years before been a temporary member of Marvel’s inaugural super-group, the Fantastic Four, where she’d been in love with Johnny Storm, that group’s Human Torch.

Quicksilver’s sister, to whom he’d shown fanatical devotion over the course of fifty issues of The Avengers, lost that devotion when she fell in love with her fellow Avenger the Vision; Quicksilver hotly disowned his sister, telling her he wouldn’t speak with her as long as she professed to love a machine, and in Avengers issues immediately preceding the ones we’re eventually going to discuss, the Scarlet Witch had more pressing concerns than her brother’s bigotry – namely, a Vietnamese martial arts superhero named Mantis, who’d recently moved into stately Avengers Mansion as the Yoko Ono-style girlfriend of the Swordsman, who’d returned to join the team. Mantis turned out to be, you’ll forgive the term, just a touch predatory; she showed less and less interest in her loser boyfriend – and more and more interest in the Vision.

Patiently and intelligently, Avengers writer Steve Englehart developed this love-quadrangle into some of the most sophisticated romantic and cross-romantic relationships ever seen in superhero comics, and for most of that time, not a peep was heard about Quicksilver; he wasn’t in The Avengers anymore, and Crystal wasn’t in The Fantastic Four (although by a strange quirk, that team had recently taken on Crystal’s older sister and fellow Inhuman, Medusa, as a new member), and the Inhumans were still a few years away from having an ongoing title of their own – fans just assumed that brother and sister weren’t speaking.

Which brings us to the bombshell that opens Avengers #127, “Bride and Doom”: the Avengers – consisting of the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Mantis, gorgonthe Swordsman, plus Thor and Iron Man (as usual, the absence of Captain America from any Avengers story feels somehow wrong) – have just sat down to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner lovingly prepared by their butler Jarvis (even though the Scarlet Witch and the Swordsman still have their costume gloves on, and even though the Vision doesn’t eat food, and even though Iron Man still has his face-plate bolted on – and isn’t Mantis just insufferable enough to be a vegetarian? Guess Thor would have been doing most of the turkey-eating) when suddenly in a flash appears among them the gruff Inhuman Gorgon, alongside the enormous teleporting dog Lockjaw. Gorgon is easily provoked, and the stamp of his hooved feet cause mini-earthquakes, but at first he’s all smiles. “So, my friends, have I arrived too early, then?” he asks. “Why aren’t you prepared to depart for the wedding?”

When he tells them which wedding, the team is shocked (Sal Buscema does the fine artwork for this issue, beautifully inked by Joe Staton, with a wonderful, brooding coloring job by Englehart himself)(although a great many of the female faces have been quietly re-drawn by Marvel’s butt-insky art director, John Romita, Sr.) – and the fact that his errand has misfired enrages Gorgon: “You did not know! It was arranged for that arrogant, posturing fool to notify you, but you did not know!” Seismic foot-stamping follows, quickly pacified by Mantis, who soothes Gorgon by saying, “Your frustration may well be justified … yet you must not vent it upon our house!” (To which the Scarlet Witch immediately responds, “This is the Avengers’ house, Mantis. You’re here merely as a courtesy to the Swordsman! But let it pass” – the final bee-yotch being left unspoken)

And right at that point, this storyline should have ended. The Scarlet Witch should have said, “Well, Gorgon, neither I nor the Avengers will be attending this wedding, since the groom, though a former Avenger, hates both me and the Vision so much that, as you can see, he couldn’t bring himself to invite us.”

our 3 teamsBut instead, inexplicably, the Avengers decide to go, and from that moment on, one realization before all others begins to impress itself upon the reader about this issue: how little sense it makes. In what was then a very rare move in comics, Avengers #127 is continued not in Avengers #128 but in Fantastic Four #150 – but there’s no logistical help forthcoming in that issue, since it’s even more screwed up than its predecessor (the weird inconsistencies start even with the respective covers: the Avengers cover, drawn by Gil Kane, is a powerful, iconic classic, whereas the Fantastic Four cover, despite also being drawn by Gil Kane, is a dorky and confused mess).

The problems start right away. The Avengers are greeted upon their arrival in Attilan by the Inhumans (in a bit of dialogue no doubt inserted by continuity-freak editor Roy Thomas, Crystal tells the Scarlet Witch that it’s nice to meet her) and by the Fantastic Four, consisting of Reed Richards and his wife Susan, the Human Torch, the Thing, Medusa, and the Richards’ young son Franklin, whose in the care of his nanny, the ancient sorceress Agatha Harkness. Everybody’s all smiles, even though Quicksilver isn’t present (Crystal tells us that Gorgon ‘radioed’ to tell everybody in Attilan that the Avengers would be jetting in instead of teleporting – presumably he used the Avengers’ radio to do that, since he wasn’t carrying one himself), and while everybody’s moving to the banquet area, Mantis points out an enormous, garishly-costumed statue and asks about it. Medusa tells her it’s Omega – a machine created by Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus, a machine that was powered by the social guilt and bigotry the Inhuman royal family felt about their repression of the “Alpha Primitives,” a kind of Inhuman serf class. Omega, Medusa explains, had been fantastic four 150rendered inactive once the Inhumans decided to face their prejudices and initiate legislation making the Alpha Primitives full equals before the law. Immediately before this scene, we’d seen Maximus in his own quarters, ranting to somebody off-camera about how, together, they would wipe out the Inhumans; that mysterious stranger then blasts Maximus unconscious and declares an intention to act alone. We next see that mysterious figure – now cloaked – inciting a group of Alpha Primitives to rebellion.

The scene shifts to the banquet area, where our heroes are performing various feats of strength and skill for a cheering crowd as Black Bolt and Crystal (but still no Quicksilver) look on. Suddenly, Iron Man and Medusa begin attacking the Alpha Primitives in the crowd; they’re restrained by their teammates, whereupon they pass out – leaving some very angry Alpha Primitives, who rage, “Despite his ‘reforms,’ Black Bolt wants us dead, brothers!”

But they don’t actually do anything, and the scene shifts to nighttime, where at last we see Quicksilver, having an earnest conversation with Crystal about the fact that her sister and Iron Man went berserk a few hours ago and started attacking Alpha Primitives in a crowd of spectators – no, no … sorry, they’re not discussing that! Neither one of them seems to care about it – they’re talking about how Quicksilver still hasn’t reconciled with his sister. When the Scarlet Witch shows up, Crystal leaves them to talk in private and goes out walking – where she’s suddenly abducted by … a revived Omega! He grabs her and walks off – no guards in Attilan, I guess, and no onlookers to notice a thirty-foot-tall giant striding toward the imperial palace)(and no resistance at all from Crystal, despite the fact that she’s one of the most powerful Inhumans – and when our assembled heroes learn of it, they immediately suspect Maximus and troop off to his cell, where they find him unconscious.

When the Avengers confront the Alpha Primitives about whether or not they revived Omega, they’re met with instant denials and hostility: “We have had enough of Black Bolt’s repression!” Whereupon Quicksilver loses his temper: “You spew slogans while my fiancee’s life is threatened? You posturing fool – learn what it means to mock Quicksilver!” – and he starts slamming into them at super-speed. Maximus regains consciousness, grabs a laser-rifle, and starts firing on the Alpha Primitives himself, clearly under the same kind of mind control as Iron Man and Medusa (but not Quicksilver, who seems to attack the Alpha Primitives just because he’s a violent jerk).

omega & crystalThere erupts a violent fight that’s quickly interrupted by the re-appearance of Omega, who’s now emitting some kind of energy that gradually paralyzes all members of the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, and the Avengers (this happens without first making them insane, and there’s no sign of Crystal). Once all his enemies are motionless, Omega pulls off his face-mask and reveals himself as … Ultron-7! The vicious killer robot who, as Ultron-6, had recently been defeated and dismantled by the Avengers! Had that more innocent generation had the terminology, it would collectively have gasped “WTF???”

It’s a mess of an issue, yes, but hoo-boy, things get EVER so much worse in the conclusion, over in Fantastic Four #150! Here the writing is by Gerry Conway and the art is by Rich Buckler-doing-an-extended-Jack-Kirby-homage, and the scene opens right where we left off – kind of: the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans all stand paralyzed before Ultron-7, who explains that a) he used ‘the power of his computerized will’ to immobilize them (why this would work on, for instance, Thor, or right through Iron Man’s armor, isn’t explained – but hey, who knew anything about computers in 1974?) and b) he’s now releasing them from that control because he wants them to “experience” their destruction at his hands. He explains that Maximus used a tractor beam to retrieve his severed head from the rubble of his earlier defeat, ‘revive’ it, and attach it to the body ultron-7of Omega.

Once our heroes are released, they immediately try to fight Ultron-7 – at which point he unleashes even more of that computerized will, threatening to ‘strike to the depths of your souls – and drain the last vestige of your mentalities! Your skulls will be filled with psychic rubble … your bodies will be possessed by gibbering idiots … and there is nothing you can do to stop the process … Nothing you can do at all!”

But Ultron-7 reckoned without one little x-factor: Franklin Richards! As Conway’s narration tells us, “Franklin … who has lain in a coma these many months. Franklin, a mere child … whose brain contains power enough to consume an entire planet!” Franklin wakes up, zaps Ultron-7, re-unites with his overjoyed parents, and we cut straight to the big wedding.

As Benjamin J. Grimm would say, “Yeeesh.”

franklin strikesI remember loving the fact that this storyline jumped from one title I loved (this run of Avengers is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history) to another title I loved (this run of Fantastic Four is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history), but oh my, this two-parter doesn’t bear forty-year scrutiny well at all. As I re-read it, a thousand questions cropped up – questions neither Englehart nor Conway (or Roy Thomas, who was the editor of both these issues) even seem aware of, let alone able to answer.

Why would a mutant, an android, a Vietnamese Buddhist, and a Norse Freaking God even observe Thanksgiving?

Why would Gorgon make the trip with Lockjaw without asking his own cousin Crystal whether or not the Avengers had actually been invited?

Why would the Scarlet Witch decide to gate-crash her brother’s wedding without such an invitation? Just to be … well, something that rhymes with Scarlet Witch?

Why wouldn’t the Avengers return to Attilan with Gorgon and Lockjaw, as was clearly Gorgon’s intent?

If Maximus attached Ultron-7’s head to the body of Omega, how could Omega’s deactivated body still have its head when Mantis asked about it? franklin smilingSince Maximus is gunned down before the Avengers arrive, he’d have had no opportunity to make the switch.

Omega’s body is thirty feet tall – but Ultron-6’s head was normal human-sized. So how did it get to be gigantic? If Maximus did it, how could he lose control of a robot whose very brain he had to take apart and rebuild? And if Ultron-6 did it, then why would he have needed Maximus’s help at all?

Why would a disguised Ultron-7 try to create dissent among the Alpha Primitives? What would he care about internal Attilan politics at all, let alone enough to manipulate Medusa, Iron Man, and Maximus into attacking the Alpha Primitives and thereby inciting a riot?

Why would Ultron-7 disguise himself as Omega at all? And once he’d done that, why would he kidnap Crystal? And what the heck happened to Crystal? One minute he’s stalking off with her, and the next time we see her, she’s with Quicksilver at the altar – where was she during the big fight?

And speaking of the big fight: why didn’t Ultrons 1-6 display this ‘computerized’ ability to paralyze biological brains? For that matter, why didn’t any subsequent Ultrons display it either?

And why would Conway tell us Ultron-7’s electronic death-rays revived little Franklin from a coma when Englehart clearly showed us Franklin awake and smiling in the earlier chapter?

old girlfriendsTrue, Conway does give us a nice little moment where Thor and Iron Man, hesitating to join the wedding, each reflect on their romantic pasts – Thor mentioning both his mortal girlfriend Jane Foster and his immortal girlfriend Sif, Iron Man talking about his trusty friend Pepper (and musing, a bit disturbingly, “I’ve been searching for someone to replace her since”) – but for the most part, the issue reads as if he and Englehart never even talked about this joint venture they were undertaking … which, given the state of the Marvel command structure at the time, maythe wedding well have been the case.

Re-reading that joint venture was undeniably fun – these old issues hold so much emotional resonance for me, this period in which it sometimes seemed like Marvel could do no wrong (Reed and Sue getting divorced! Peter Parker acting like a real adult! A simmering love-quadrangle at the heart of the Avengers! The Infinity Saga over in Thor! The ongoing glory that was the company’s Conan titles at the time, etc.). But even so, this two-parter really underscored how much better at shared-title stories Marvel (and DC) have become. That improvement may have been entirely profit-driven (witness the sixteen “Original Sin” spin-offs and tie-ins currently proliferating around that summer event in Marvel’s current lineup), but it’s largely yielded stories with a LOT more internal consistency than this one.

Marvel fans will be encountering Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Ultron (and the Vision? Could he be the mysterious caped figure floating above the battle in the leaked poster?) in the next two-billion-dollar Joss Whedon movie, but I’m guessing Ultron will employ legions of killer robots in that movie, not the power of his computerized BRAIN

June 15th, 2012

Comics: Avengers Assemble!

This new ongoing Marvel title Avengers Assemble has a lot working against it. It’s written by Brian Michael Bendis, who’s stretching himself just a bit thin across 18 Avengers titles. It’s drawn by Mark Bagley, who even fans of YUltimate Spider-Man suspect of being a hack (the Don Heck of the 21st century, as it were). And worst of all, the book’s very conception – the assembled Avengers in question just happen to be the exact same line-up as the one featured in the squintillion-earning new Joss Whedon movie – shrieks of corporate-mandated cash-milking.

The first factor is hit or miss: no matter how much he writes, Bendis can still turn out some very interesting comics (and after all, nobody faulted Stan Lee for writing six comics a month). The second factor is, it turns out, ill-informed: whether it’s a new and more understanding inker or just a team-book bolt of inspiration, Avengers Assemble is by far the best artwork Bagley has ever done – it’s better than the artwork on any other Marvel team-book at the moment.

It’s the third factor that’s hard to shake. In the current Marvel universe, there are roughly 10 different Avengers teams (Mighty Avengers, Young Avengers, Secret Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers, Creamy Center Avengers, etc.) and well over 50 team-members, including a Red Hulk but not including the familiar Bruce Banner you-wouldn’t-like-me-when-I’m-angry Green Hulk of the popular TV show, two wretched movies, and all the best parts of new “Avengers” movie. On the business level, there’s little doubt that some corporate suit simply ordered Marvel’s editorial team to start producing a monthly comic mirroring the movie’s line-up. Which would be fine and happens all the time, except that somebody – my guess is Bendis himself – decided to make this movie-Avengers title a part of the current Marvel Universe continuity (rather than its own self-contained universe, like the comics versions of, say, the old WB Superman and Batman cartoons). Which is great for fans who want yet another Bendis Avengers to follow, but not so great for basic believability. Why would these six heroes – the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow – try to do anything without immediately calling in the help of their 50 teammates?

Still, if you can overlook that fairly sizeable problem, these issues are genuinely enjoyable. This first story-arc involves a new, more powerful Zodiac team of super-villains being sponsored by none other than Thanos, the mad death-obsessed titan who makes the world’s most enigmatic cameo appearance at the end of the Avengers movie. There’s breakneck pacing, snappy dialogue, and more of a sense of involvement than Bendis brings to the other 30 titles he’s writing. And as we all discovered while watching the movie, any team roster that features both Thor and the Hulk is going to be inherently interesting (it’s very odd that Stan Lee didn’t spot this potential fifty years ago when he created the Avengers – although the Hulk was an original member, Lee writes him out of the book almost immediately). And while it’s true that no long-term Avengers fan is going to prefer the ne’tw glowering leotard-and-sunglasses Hawkeye to the old purple-suited carnival showman, it’s always wonderful to see the Black Widow put right up front with the other Marvel heroes (she’s never had a run onThe Avengers that I didn’t enjoy).

I doubt this series will last – even Bendis isn’t clever enough to keep coming up with reasons why these six would go it alone every issue – but I’m unexpectedly enjoying it while it does.

April 18th, 2012

Comics! AvX and an ‘ah’ Moment!

Marvel’s latest crossover-crazy brou-ha-ha, “Avengers V.S. X-Men,” continues this week where it left off last time: the X-Men are holed up on their island off the coast of California, harboring a young woman named Hope, who’s very likely the focus of the vast and destructive Phoenix force that’s rapidly approaching Earth. The Avengers have come to take the girl into their own protective custody until they can figure out what to do about the situation, but the X-Men – led by eye-blasting mutant Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) refuse to give her up. Leading to the inevitable: a Marvel super-team fight!

This one is written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Romita Jr., and this latest issue is basically one big brawl. And reading the issue is about as entertaining as watching one big unscripted chaotic melodramatic brawl: not much. Aaron provides some enjoyably sharp narrative – this is by far the most adult-sounding superteam-fight-event Marvel’s ever produced – but he’s clearly taken not even five minutes to choreograph exactly what would happen if two well-populated super-teams squared off on a beach. The Red Hulk and Colossus start pounding on each other, but they seem far removed from everybody else; the Thing and Luke Cage fight the Sub-Mariner underwater and seem to be holding their own despite the fact that Namor can breathe in that environment and they can’t; Magneto and Emma Frost are fighting Iron Man one minute and Doctor Strange the next; Cyclops gets his face plastered by Captain America’s shield because he apparently likes firing his eye-beams at it instead of, say, using them to pulverize one of Cap’s feet and take him out of the fight, and then suddenly both teams are hurriedly converging on the X-Men compound to check on Hope, for all the world as if they hadn’t just been beating the stuffing out of each other.

To be fair to Aaron, brawls like this one are almost impossible to pull off (and this one would have been impossible, if the plotters behind the whole mini-series hadn’t contrived to have some of the Avengers’ most powerful members – including Thor – conveniently off-world when this rumble happens), so this one is probably done as effectively as possible. It’s less easy to be fair to fan-favorite artist Romita Jr in this case, since his artwork here is almost exclusively lazy, full of repetitive, lateral views (and some odd problems with scale), in many cases saved from being outright boring only by Laura Martin’s coloring job, which is once again superb.

Fortunately, fans of superhero comics art get a real treat elsewhere in this week’s offerings! The latest issue of Brian Michael Bendis’ “Avengers” title features a boring cover by Daniel Acuna, but the inside artwork is by none other than comics legend Walt Simonson, and although his ability to draw team-oriented action hasn’t improved any over the decades, fans won’t care about such details – like me, they’ll be looking for one thing only, and in a glorious full-page-and-then-some panel, they get it: the mighty Thor, drawn by the artist who gave readers the definitive run of the character’s own book! The moment is worth it, especially for nostalgic fans who might have missed a Thor who actually smiles, as Simonson’s Thor habitually does. The issue itself is fairly rote take-down-the-bad-guys stuff, but just seeing Simonson’s hopeful, square-jawed rendition of Thor was a classic ‘ah’ moment.

April 11th, 2012

Comics! The 22-year Witch!

Marvel Comics is fresh from the conclusion to its “Childrens Crusade” mini-series in which the mutant former Avenger Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, regains her memory after the traumatic events of another mini-series “The House of M,” in which she used her reality-altering ‘hex’ power to virtually eradicate her fellow mutants from the world. At one point in “Childrens Crusade” a character sarcastically asks what the X-Men and the Avengers are supposed to do with the revived and repentant Scarlet Witch – she proved more deadly to the good guys than any super-villain in their history, and now she just says she’s sorry and what? Rejoins a team to fight bank robbers on the weekends? The question is left hanging at the end of “Childrens Crusade,” which makes Marvel’s decision this week to offer its latest graphic novel, Darker Than Scarlet, downright odd.

Not odd from a business point of view, of course – after all, the Avengers are Marvel’s #1 hot property at the moment, with a hugely-hyped new movie set to open early next month … it makes sense that Marvel would keep up a very high Avengers visibility in the comic shops every week until that opening weekend.

But from a creative point of view, it’s an odd decision to remind Marvel readers just how often – how comically regularly, really – writers have used the easy device of the Scarlet Witch going crazy. In David Michelinie’s Wundagore Mountain storyline, she’s possessed by the supernatural being Ch’thon and attacks her teammates; in “House of M” she’s pushed over the edge by the apparent loss of her two children and attacks her teammates; and in between those two stories is this one from 1990’s “West Coast Avengers,” written and drawn by fan-favorite John Byrne, in which a distraught Scarlet Witch (who’s recently been brainwashed by a mutant-worshipping cult, to top things off) becomes outright malevolent and attacks her teammates. She’s encouraged by her father Magneto, long-time supervillain arch-nemesis of the X-Men, but for most of Byrne’s story, he’s actually restraining her blood-lust and calming her down. For her own sake, she gets a new hairdo, a new costume, some new lipstick, and a whole new interpretation of her powers. It’s a very common maneuver for Byrne – he did the same thing with Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, and of course he helped to do the same thing to Marvel Girl in the X-Men’s most popular story.

In order to do it here, he has to lay the groundwork for the Scarlet Witch to become something close to all-powerful. In the past, her mutant ‘hex’ power was basically the ability to point her hands and cause micro-bursts of random happenings – bad guys’ guns misfired, walls collapsed, that sort of thing. At one point in this “Avengers West Coast” arc, the Avengers’ resident scientist has her concentrate on a pristine titanium rod in order to document precisely what happens when her ‘hex’ shatters it, and the subsequent computer play-back seems to show that not only did her hex shatter the rod but it re-wove reality so that the rod was never pristine, so that it was in fact full of fractures to be exploited. The implications are staggering, even though we’re told “but that’s impossible! we know your powers don’t work that way!” It’s all classic Byrne: throw a monkey-wrench into some title’s continuity, deny that’s what you did, then move on to some other title. And despite all protestations to the contrary, some vague idea has remained in place that the Scarlet Witch’s powers distort the very nature of reality itself.

Marvel’s calling it the prelude to “House of M,” but that ignores the long-box of issues that came in between, the many ‘normal’ adventures the Scarlet Witch shared with the Avengers under the direction of many other Marvel writers. And it dramatically underscores the anticlimax of “Childrens Crusade,” where after yet more mucking around with reality, the Scarlet Witch is left … just fine, mentally balanced, decked out in her old costume, and ready to get back to super-heroing at Avengers Mansion. It leaves the door wide open to repeat the same old device the next time a writer (my money’s on Byrne) wants to do something big and very, very unoriginal.

But in the meantime, these are fun issues being reprinted! So there’s that.

June 30th, 2011

Comics! The End of the World Approaches!

Ordinarily, my comics post this week would center around the next amazing instalment of “Avengers: Children’s Crusade,” written by Allan Heinberg and drawn by the great Jim Cheung. The 6th of this mini-series’ projected 9 issues came out this week, following up on the last issue’s cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers: Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, back at Avengers Mansion with her memories and powers fully restored. Back in Marvel’s “House of M” storyline, a distraught Wanda said the simple words “No more mutants” and used her reality-altering powers to make that happen – only a handful of Marvel’s mutants retained their super-powers, and Marvel’s basic narrative was thereby radically altered. One of the biggest fan-questions about this mini-series has always been: is this the event during which we’ll finally see “The House of M” events reversed?

I don’t agree with the idea of that reversal, of course. I thought “House of M” was done extremely well – a very plausible, very sad story that should be allowed to stand. But this current issue of “Children’s Crusade” certainly looks to be the start of reversing things – at one point (after a touching scene in which Wanda finally hugs Thomas and William, her two pseudo-sons miraculously restored to reality) our assembled heroes meet up with the lame-ass super-group X-Factor, and one of its members, a de-powered mutant named Rictor, volunteers to see if the Scarlet Witch can restore his abilities (in that section of the issue, Cheung’s artwork makes clear what Heinberg’s writing doesn’t: that Wiccan and Hulkling aren’t the only gay-superhero couple in this story) – and when she does, everybody informs her that there are about a million other de-powered mutants out there waiting their turn. At the issue’s end, when Wanda says her goal is to make “more mutants” – with the pointed play on her original “House of M” pronouncement – the tension is pretty wonderful for the next issue. You’d think that’s all I’d want to talk about, comics-wise, this week.

But no. No, a very much bigger comics-topic has been looming on the horizon for weeks now, and it’s got me preoccupied. Many of you have already alerted me to this particular subject, and I’ve been reading up on it myself on lots of my favorite comics blogs. But this week the latest issue of the industry journal Previews came out with this particular topic splashed all over its front material, and now it’s all I can think about.

The unbelievable gist is this: in September, DC Comics is planning to scrap its entire continuity and start all over again with dozens of first issues – not only relaunching such secondary characters as Aquaman or Batgirl, but re-starting its most venerable flagship titles completely. September will see the first issues of such characters as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. September will see an Action Comics #1, a Superman and a Batman #1, a Wonder Woman #1, a Justice League #1, and so on down the line, from the more famous (the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Catwoman) to the most obscure (I, Vampire? Mr. Terrific?). The origin stories, costumes, powers, and entire continuity of most of these characters will be, it appears, entirely revamped from scratch, re-imagined in what I’m sure DC considers a viable grab for lots of new readers.

DC famously did something like this before. Back in 1985, the company followed it’s 12-issue mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” with a largely re-done continuity in which several traditional characters were given fresh starts and new creative teams. But what’s coming in September seems to be on a different scale altogether. Instead of a group of core characters going through a crisis that changes some of them and leaves others basically untouched, this time a far more thorough break with the past seems to be the point. Many of DC’s most respected writers are on board with the change, but a distressingly large part seems to be played by fan favorite artist Jim Lee – comics fans have learned to their great sorrow what kinds of crap-tastic disasters can result from letting artists have too much control of words and stuff. The main problem is that although Lee is a very talented comic book artist, he’s only about ten years old – it’s safe to say he has only a fractional awareness of the long history and imaginative legacy he’s been given permission to update here. I’ve been reading and loving DC comics for a very long time, and I shudder at the thought of some kid being allowed to re-design the costumes, origins, and personalities of such icons as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.

And it’s not just the whole tampering-with-tradition aspect that bugs me about this gigantic relaunch – it’s the fact that virtually all of the creators involved – artists and writers – have long track-records of picking up a title, telling fans that it’s always been a life-long dream of theirs to work on that title, working on that title for precisely four issues, then wandering off because somebody walked by their cubicle with a pretty ball of twine. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko launched an entire company’s new world of super-heroes, they took on the task for the crucial long haul of the early years, and it made all the difference in the world. If DC is really serious about these dozens of new first issues being the beginning of a new era for their iconic characters, they should be equally serious about making sure the whole thing doesn’t come frittering apart by Christmas. I mean, does anybody in the world seriously think Grant Morrison or Rags Morales or Scott McDaniel or Geoff Johns or most of these other people will still be turning out these titles in a year? Six months, even? And if not, what happens when the much-touted unifying vision of this brave new world gets bored and moves on?

I can tell you what, because like I said, comics fans went through it before: After “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” we suddenly had: a slower Flash, a weaker Superman, no Wonder Woman to speak of, no Superboy, no Supergirl, etc. Only a handful of these changes were well thought-out ahead of time, and none of them were any good – so for the next two decades, piecemeal and with agonizing slowness, they were undone by a series of writers who belatedly realized that a narrative foundation that had survived since the 1930s might just be the strongest one available. In other words, DC’s various creators – and DC as a company – eventually came to realize that its gigantic, company-wide revamp had been a big mistake – and eventually, Barry Allen returned as the super-fast Flash, Superman regained almost all of his former might, Supergirl and Superboy returned, etc. DC’s parent company just opened a multi-million-dollar “Green Lantern” movie featuring the central character Hal Jordan – whom they allowed some bored writer to kill off twenty years ago. They only grudgingly responded to the virginal outcry of fanboys everywhere to bring the character back to life, and I can’t look at this enormous new line-up of DC pillar titles without dreading another twenty years of clean-up.

I could be wrong about all of this, of course. This move could very well invigorate the entire DC Comics line (some of its older titles are only a few years away from Issue #1000, after all) – even a failure on this scale is bound to bring the company lots of curious new fans. I’ll certainly be reading quite a few of these new titles – of course starting with Superman. When the time comes, I’ll keep you all posted!

April 7th, 2011

Comics! Great Expectorations!

It’s Marvel Comics’ show this week at the comic shop, and the obvious reason is the launch of yet another sooper-dooper multi-crossover event, “Fear Itself.” If you’re thinking it’s been only a very short time since the end of the previous sooper-dooper multi-crossover, you’re entirely right, and what’s even odder is how similar “Fear Itself” is to its predecessor, “Siege,” in so many ways. In both cases, continuity-wide changes are promised that almost certainly won’t happen; in both cases, the central story revolves around Thor and his fellow Asgardians – and in both cases, the actual issue-by-issue execution of writing and art will in all likelihood be irresistible. The writer-artist team here is Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen, and the first issue is so good that even a reader as sceptical as I am will be entertained even while they’re muttering “but, but.”

Our story so far: the Asgardian god of fear, Skadi, has delusions of all-fatherhood and has seeded the human world with hammers that look bigger and sleeker than Thor’s famous Mjolnir, and Skadi is found by the daughter of Captain America’s old foe the Red Skull. As those two start to cook up eee-vil, a more domestic strife is brewing in the city of Asgard itself, which crashed into the Oklahoma plain at the end of “Siege.” Thor’s irascible father Odin, the original all-father of the gods, is irritated that Thor is joining with his mortal allies the Avengers to rebuild Asgard. Odin interrupts a feast his people are sharing with the Avengers in order to tell everybody that Asgard is returning to the stars, that he’s rebuilding Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge and taking all the Norse gods and godlings back home (the ominous Watcher shows up briefly to, um, watch – which enrages Odin still further, prompting him to shout “I am the father of all things! I am the fury and the extinction! The leader of souls! The commander of warrior gods!” It brought back many memories, for this long-time Thor fan).

He demands that Thor choose between his mortal and immortal loyalties, and when Thor chooses mankind, Odin slaps him around just for kicks and tells him he’s coming back to Asgard anyway. The all-father senses that Skadi has returned, and he’s obviously preparing for the battle that’s coming, in which the heroes of Asgard and Earth will face off against the god of fear and his hammer-wielding warriors. Fraction has very little in the way of character-based writing to do here (and far too many opportunities for social commentary, but what can you do?), it being basically a premise-setting issue, but Immonen’s artwork is yet another step forward in a progression that hasn’t slowed down since “Superman: Secret Identity.” Although even upward progressions can have nervous tics, I guess, and this issue certainly does: everybody spits. The good guys, the bad guys – there’s spittle everywhere. We can hope for dry mouths in future issues.

Marvel’s other ongoing ‘big event’ mini-series, “Avengers: The Children’s Crusade,” continues this week as well, with really good writing by Allan Heinberg and rip-snortingly fantastic artwork by Jim Cheung. In the last issue, the fat hit the fire when the impetuous Young Avengers went to Latveria in order to find the long-lost Scarlet Witch, who fled there and gave herself amnesia in the wake of the “House of M” storyline. We learned that she had fallen in love with Latveria’s king, Doctor Doom – and that he had fallen in love with her and very much didn’t want her to remember her own past, for her sake and humanity’s safety. The grown-up Avengers followed the Young Avengers, and Magneto (the Scarlet Witch’s father) followed as well, and a gigantic, predictable battle ensued that was momentarily interrupted by the return of Iron Lad, the teenager who would grow up to be Kang the Conqueror, and who in this issue helps the Young Avengers to spirit the Scarlet Witch back in time to an alternate time-line – only time-travel is very complex, and they don’t really know what they’re doing, and by issue’s end all they’ve succeeded in doing is restoring her memories and thereby putting the whole Marvel Universe at risk.

If that all sounds confusing, that’s because it is – but then, this issue is just the mid-point in the mini-series, so some amount of textual muddle is to be expected, Cheung’s artwork certainly makes the confusion easy to bear, including yet another eye-popping two-page splash panel like the one we commented on last time:

And Heinberg’s writing is very enjoyable too, including his ongoing and very refreshing characterization of Doctor Doom as a bit more complex than he’s usually portrayed. “She was happy here,” he tells the Avengers. “We were to be married.” And when Magneto says, “My daughter would never have married you. Not willingly. What have you done to her?” Doom’s response is chillingly correct:

I have been trying to save her. From You. From all of you … who sought to destroy her. And now, because of you, the most powerful force in the universe has been unleashed into the timestream, where she can rewrite the past or the future just as easily as she said the words “No more mutants.”

Two big event-titles, both firing on all cylinders, and yet the Marvel comic that pleased me most this week was a regular old ongoing title that hardly ever pleases me at all: “The Uncanny X-Men.” Marvel has been coming out with “Point 1″ issues of its books, billed as good jumping-on points for potential new readers who might be leery of picking up titles in the middle of long-running stories. This latest issue of “Uncanny X-Men” is one of those: 534.1 (that “534” seems utterly unbelievable to yours truly, but we’ll let that go), written by Kieron Gillen and pencilled by Carlos Pacheco. It has a straightforward, two-pronged plot: the X-Men (now basically comprising almost all the handful of mutants who were left on Earth after those three little words “No more mutants” – including both former villain Magneto and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, who, as the super-powered son of a human man and a woman from Atlantis, was Marvel’s first mutant long before anybody but Mendel had ever heard the word) race to stop an evil group of scientists from causing a major earthquake, and a media consultant tries to work with Magneto to improve his image with the public. I certainly wasn’t expecting the issue to please me more than those big-e events for which I admit I have a sweet-tooth, but it did: Gillen’s writing sparkles, and of course Pacheco’s artwork is always great. The highlight of the issue for me was Gillen’s characterization of Namor as a bit of a lout, not a sterling super-hero at all. When he’s confronting one of the evil scientists, for instance, he snarls, “Only Namor has the ability to make the earth move. And he reserves the privilege for one woman at a time. Unless they have experimental friends.” That’s a far cry from the ‘tortured hero’ conception of the character that held sway back in the ’70s, but I like it just the same.

Of course, there’s a couple of sooper-dooper crossover events brewing at DC Comics as well, but this week clearly belonged to Marvel. Maybe we’ll get to Superman and Doomsday next time!

January 19th, 2011

Comics! Avengers Assemble, volume 1!

Our book today is the great graphic novel collection Avengers Assemble,Volume 1, originally published in an oversized hardcover a decade ago and now at last re-issued in paperback. I owned and often re-read the hardcover (an indulgence I seldom make for graphic novels, but this one was well worth it), but alas, it failed to survive the ravages of my Summer of Homelessness, and since in the meantime the thing had never appeared in paperback, I assumed the worst and figured it never would.

But we live in the great age of comic book reprint collections, and so here it is – a burstingly colorful volume featuring the first nine issues of the title’s late-’90s relaunch, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn with mind-boggling mastery by George Perez.

This relaunch happens in the wake of Marvel’s disastrously poorly-conceived attempt to ‘coolify’ some of their most venerable titles by giving them entirely into the hands of a few fan-favorite artists and having a kind of company sack-race to see who could dump the most crap on the market in the shortest amount of time.

The Avengers and lots of other Marvel heroes (but not the X-Men) had voluntarily sacrificed themselves, you see, by leaping into some kinda void in order to defeat a boringly all-powerful bad guy named Onslaught. This gave Marvel a chance to do two things at the same time: 1) finally have a continuity that was mutants, mutants, and more mutants, and 2) launch a series of books set in a new continuity, where the origins of titles like the Avengers or Captain America could be entirely re-thought. It seemed like win-win. But even a win-win scenario will quickly head south if it involves boneheaded and blasphemously untalented fan favorite artist Rob Liefeld, and this one did. Liefeld is the most notoriously inept artist to get regular work since Herb Trimpe, and he’s not only inept but droolingly adolescent, so obsessed with his ability to draw huge boobs that he infamously even gave a pair to Captain America.

So this relaunch continuity quickly descended from crappy-but-bearable to unbearably crappy to so-crappy-we-want-our-old-crap-back, and Marvel learned once again that it had some fans of things other than its best-selling books (sadly, the company apparently needs to re-learn this lesson every decade or so – witness the lineup of the current Avengers, featuring Spider-Man, the Thing, four clones of Wolverine, President Obama, and some free tacos). An event was concocted – Heroes Return – and the divergent reality was scrapped in favor of re-starting a handful of flagship Marvel titles starring old favorite characters as fans remembered them, not as a comics convention full of overgrown drunken frat boys felt like making them.

Hence, this Avengers #1, written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez, and opening in a rare moment of complete peace and quiet for Marvel’s most powerful super-team. They’re back from their alternate-dimension adventures, yes, but they haven’t fully adjusted and aren’t even officially a team again – just a small group of friends sitting around talking in stately Avengers Mansion, wondering about the meaning behind the day’s outbreak of attacks on many Avengers past and present by various beings that seemed plucked from Norse mythology. Norse mythology, you say? Why, that sounds right up Thor’s ally – except Thor disappeared in the super-confusing lead-up to the switcheroo, and his own title didn’t get a relaunch with the others.

But he soon appears, looking ragged and telling a tale of having found himself alone in the ruins of Asgard. It turns out several of the city’s most powerful magical do-hickeys – including the Twilight Sword and the Norn Stones – had gone missing … only we learn they’re now in the hands of Morgan le Fay, the centuries-old sorceress and dedicated Avengers-hater. She uses those talismans – and the reality-altering powers of the Scarlet Witch – to create yet another new reality: this one a warped variation on the medieval times Morgan loves so much, in which a huge team of temporarily re-imagined Avengers serve as her brainwashed personal bodyguard. Seems like the perfect plan – since this IS reality now, there’s no chance of anybody opposing her.

It’s a daring move on Busiek’s part, re-launching the book with just the kind of alternate-reality storyline that raised fan ire and caused all the mess in the first place. But it’s an entirely justified gamble, since a) Busiek is a very strong comics-writer who generally doesn’t set challenges for himself that he can’t meet, and b) he’s joined here by the aforementioned legendary George Perez, whose artwork on this Avengers run (this first volume of “Avengers Assemble” and the two that will – hopefully quickly – follow it in paperback) is the best of his entire career. The result is a triumph of good old-fashioned superhero comic entertainment.

Morgan is eventually defeated (she’s fighting about forty Avengers, so she didn’t have that much of a chance), and the team eventually settles in back at Avengers Mansion to do that most quintessential of all Avengers activities: picking a new line-up. Busiek is a lover of comics essentials – a firm believer in the ‘if it ain’t broke’ school of writing that’s all but vanished from comics these days – so his new team has no Gilgamesh, no Doctor Druid, no Rom the Space Knight … instead, we get Avengers staples: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and the Vision, plus a wild card, Warbird, and two requisite new additions – Justice (who spends the entire run pumping his fists in excitement and generally tripping over himself) and his girlfriend Firestar (who spends the whole run, girlfriend-style, moping and criticizing him).

There follow some really fun issues full of Perez’s amazing artwork (with one fill-in annual by Carlos Pacheco) and Busiek’s spot-on characterizations – the highlight of which is certainly “The Court-Martial of Carol Danvers,” in which the Avengers are forced to deal with the fact that Warbird likes to drink while super-heroing.

My only quibble? Well, apart from the fact that a super-team that faces such world-class dangers as Kang or Ultron would never voluntarily saddle itself with a pair of dim bulb third-stringers like Justice and Firestar, I in fact do have a very small quibble with this first volume – really, with just a touch of Busiek’s dialogue. At one point when the extended team has gathered to discuss the threat of all those Asgardian attacks, somebody asks the Black Widow her opinion – and Busiek has her say “I’m not sure my record entitles me to speculate” – surely a reference to the string of issues where she lead the team back in the 1990s. Those issues were written by Bob Harras and drawn by Steve Epting, and in my opinion they remain the least-appreciated great arc in Avengers history – well deserving of a couple of nice graphic novels just like this one.

But those are pretty minor quibbles – the Black Widow is just one panel, after all, and the Avengers have always had dippy third-string members mixing with their A-listers. On the whole, this big volume does nothing but delight. Avengers fans should snap it up right away and then wait impatiently right along with me for the subsequent volumes.

January 8th, 2011

Comics! A Clash of Titans!

There’s something primordially satisfying about superheroes fighting other superheroes – it’s always far more compelling than superheroes fighting anybody else. I don’t know why that is, but I’ve been enjoying it for eons just the same. And some superhero fights are just undeniably more enjoyable than others – and that part I do indeed understand: it’s all about iconic value. If you take two superheroes with no iconic value and have them fight, absolutely nobody is going to care who wins (well, fanboys will care, but since nobody cares about them, we’re in the clear). Daredevil verus Power Man? A mere statistical blip. Captain America versus Wolverine? A classic waiting to happen (and I do mean waiting! despite the fact that these two should make a riveting rumble-epic – two perfect fighting machines, neither of whom gets tired, one armed with an unbreakable defensive weapon and one armed with unbreakable offensive weapons – they’ve never had a satisfying fight, despite having had a very satisfying Mike Zeck fight cover. Go figure).

And the greater the iconic value, the greater the power of the imagery involved, the better the fight – or so it used to be. In terms of power-specifics, no fight in the DC universe should be more enjoyable than Superman versus Wonder Woman, but although just such a fight was done very well a few years ago, DC can actually field an even more iconic confrontation: Superman versus Batman. Despite the fact that Batman has no super-powers and should therefore lose in about a tenth of a second, the staggering iconic weight of comics’ two most recognizable figures carries the day – as was perfectly illustrated (literally, in this case) at the climax of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, when a grizzled old Batman fights a stronger-than-ever Superman – and comics readers everywhere held their breath (it’s my hope that we’ll someday see a live-action special effects extravaganza version of that very scene – with Bruce Willis playing Batman, of course).

It’s trickier over at Marvel, since their most iconic character, Spider-Man, is also something so rare he has almost no parallel in comics: a totally non-aggressive hero. It just doesn’t feel right to have him showing up in the books of other characters, throwing punches at them – he’s a sweet-faced good-natured young guy who’d rather talk and joke than establish a alpha-male dominance. It’s true that Wolverine has quite a bit of iconic value nowadays too, and there were satisfying moments to that storyline a few years ago where he felt compelled to take on the entire Marvel lineup of heroes one by one.

But for me, the real Marvel kicker has always been Thor versus the Hulk. Not just because of the power involved, although it was always neat wondering what would happen if Marvel’s two most powerful characters duked it out (that’s the one thing that stopped fights between the Hulk and the Thing from being equally compelling – no matter how well-done the confrontation was, the reader always knew the Thing was going to lose), but also because the nature of the iconic value here was completely polarized: Thor was an intelligent, refined, quasi-Shakespeare-spouting god from a shining city, and the Hulk was a near-bestial pea-eyed creature of incoherent rage. That always added a zest to their rare confrontations.

Or at least, as mentioned, it used to. Nowadays, their confrontations aren’t rare anymore, and writers who were children in the 1970s are now comic creator’s united in one solid belief: that Thor is some ponce who’s totally dependent on his magic hammer to last even five seconds against the super-cool Hulk. Sigh.

A perfect case in point came out to comic stores this week: the third issue of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers,” the comics-companion to the new cartoon series on Disney. Don’t get me wrong: the issue is really well done, written with deceptive wit by Chris Yost and drawn with nifty vigor by Scott Wegener. In it, two celestial bad guys – the Stranger and the Collector – place a wager on who would win in a fight, Thor or the Hulk (most Marvel super-villains are in fact just this kind of barely-disguised fanboy). They brainwash Thor into attacking the Hulk, and the show is on.

Wegener does something that’s by now very familiar in such fights: he gives Thor a great opening out of the gate specifically because he knows Thor’s going to get his Asgardian ass handed to him in short order – and that’s just what happens here. Thor gets in precisely one good shot and then spends the rest of the abortive fight getting punched around by the Hulk. The Stranger and the Collector (I forget who bet on whom, but it doesn’t matter – they’re both windbags) keep commenting on how Thor, despite his power, is probably going to lose because, as the decades-old Marvel tagline goes, “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.” And if you fight an opponent who keeps getting stronger the more angry he gets, and you aren’t similarly blessed, you’re certainly going to lose eventually.

So Thor blasts the Hulk with a lightning-bolt smack from his mystic hammer (no explanation as to why it doesn’t seem to hurt the Hulk – writers hardly ever bother to explain that, although I’d really like to know), and then the Hulk starts knocking him around until the fight is interrupted by Thor coming to his senses. Inconclusive, you might say, and hardly unprecedented for being so. A few years ago, in issue #5 of Mark Millar’s epic first run on “Ultimates,” we get the same thing. In that story line, Thor is a seedy hippie with an enormous glowing hammer and the Hulk is a snarling gray-skinned cannibal with an attitude problem. Millar’s approach to this retooled Avengers fiddles with virtually every established tenet of that super-group – but he leaves the familiar Thor-Hulk rope-a-dope untouched: his Thor is given an impressive initial success against the Hulk specifically because it’s going to count for nothing – the Hulk’s going to shrug it off and knock Thor into the middle of next Tuesday. Millar’s Thor arrives on the scene in an impressive burst of lightning and smugly enumerates to the fallen Hulk specifically what damage has been done to his body (“you’ve got three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a shattered spine, an enlarged gall bladder,” etc.) – then the Hulk swats him across midtown Manhattan like last year’s graffiti. Sigh.

It all prompts me to recall the good old days, when ‘equal’ meant ‘equal’ and when, at Marvel anyway, house policy forbade iconic fights from having clear-cut winners. I specifically recall, of course, the halcyon summer of 1973 when Marvel ran its very first cross-title storyline, a six-issue event dreamed up by Roy Thomas and written by Steve Englehart, in which the company’s two most powerful super-teams at the time, the Avengers and the Defenders, were tricked into fighting each other. The plot involved Loki and Dormammu and a quest to assemble some sort of mystic do-hickey and enslave all of reality, but like most fans at the time, I didn’t care about the plot – I just loved the prospect of seeing so many superheroes square off against each other.

And square off they did! Some of the match-ups were interesting, and quite a few were absurd (and at least one turned out to be awkward, in light of Marvel’s later continuity: Captain America fought the Sub-Mariner, and neither acted like they knew each other or had been comrades during WWII – mainly because it would be a couple more years before Roy Thomas himself thought up the Invaders, the super-team to which Cap and the Sub-Mariner belonged, so in 1973 it didn’t exist yet) – the Silver Surfer fought the Vision, the sad-sack Swordsman fought the Valkyrie, Iron Man fought Hawkeye, Doctor Strange fought Mantis and the Black Panther (he just puts them to sleep, rather than turn them both into caterpillars), but all of that was mere prelude to the climax of the whole event: Defenders #10 – Thor versus the Hulk.

Oh, I can’t tell you how I lived for that issue! How my beagles and I trooped dutifully to the corner variety store to see if that longed-for delivery had come (this was in the days before the Internet, when corner stores allowed dogs inside and nobody had posted shipping schedules for comics). These two characters had only fought once before, in a maddeningly off-scene two-panel encounter years ago in the Avengers, nine long years before, but this issue promised a full-length showdown.

I wasn’t disappointed: with Englehart writing and the underappreciated Sal Buscema drawing, Thor and the Hulk square off in L.A. and duke it out for seven glorious pages … it had everything any fan could ever hope for – except a winner. Instead, after he’s had them trade blows for a while, Englehart has his two characters lock up in a straining match, each trying to move the other without success, until finally their two teams show up and convince them to stand down.

Defenders #10 was blissful for me, but looking back on my callow younger days, I realize that instead of being pleased I should have fired off an angry letter to Roy Thomas, taking him to task for placating mindless Hulk-fans with what amounted to a stalemate. Of course, back in 1973, I didn’t have access to the Good Book that now rules my life, the Holy Text that I now consult for guidance on every one of life’s most important questions.

I refer, of course, to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, expanded edition.

In that mighty tome, the facts are clearly laid out. Thor has ‘class 100′ strength, meaning he can lift (press) over 100 tons. The Hulk, the Handbook notes, also has ‘class 100′ strength – but only when he’s enraged. In his ‘normal’ state, he can only lift (press) about 70 tons. In other words, he needs to get mad and stay mad to approach Thor’s level of strength. And even when he’s there, he’s only there – where Thor is too. The Handbook is silent on how much more than 100 tons Thor can lift – it’s possible that the Hulk would be significantly weaker than Thor even after he himself reached the 100-ton range. If I were to write that irate letter to Roy Thomas today (much as it grieves me to say so, I don’t believe he’s a reader of Stevereads), the point I’d make would be very simple: if, when the fight starts, the Hulk is only two-thirds as strong as Thor, the fight would never last long enough for the Hulk to win. Added to which Thor’s vast centuries of combat experience fighting monsters just like the Hulk – there’s just no way things would result in a stalemate, let alone a loss for Thor.

And yet lose he does, time and again. Even if we don’t talk about the recent animated movie that features a Hulk-beating-Thor sequence so long and detailed it practically qualifies as S&M porn, there are still plenty of comic book fights between the two in which the Hulk wasn’t even inconvenienced – just take the nancy-boy’s croquet mallet away from him and slap him around like a Girl Scout until you get bored.

The moral of the story? Everything was better in 1973.

January 6th, 2011

Comics! A Grand Old Time!

As the new year begins, the dust settles in the company continuities of both Marvel and DC, and the editors of their super-hero comics evidently decide (or were ordered by their masters, now newly sensitized to the lure of Hollywood money?) to put away the dark backdrops of the past few years and embrace a somewhat simpler, somewhat brighter outlook.

Of course this will appeal to me, although I’m the first to admit some good stories came out of all that darkness. At DC, there were several back-to-back ‘dark’ events – most recently the “Darkest Night” mini-series that started with lots of superheroes getting violently killed but ended with lots of superheroes getting brought back to life. And at Marvel, the storyline in which villainous Norman Osborn gained political ascendancy in America and drove all the heroes into hiding (or into maximum security prison cells) led to some fantastic comics; I griped about it at the time, but the fact is, having evil win a big round led to a lot of great stories and great moments – and of course the ultimate pay-off, the story in which Osborn finally gets his comeuppance.

Both those story-arcs are over now (well, “Blackest Night” continues to limp forward as “Brightest Day,” but although it’s better than it seems, its ultimate worth remains to be seen – right now, its main purpose seems to be to re-introduce DC readers to the ‘classic’ Aquaman and invent a supporting cast of friends and enemies for him, perhaps as prelude to giving him a comic of his own again), and both companies are free to return to straight-up superhero stories, which is fine by me. A major beneficiary at Marvel is Spider-Man, whose comic is at a high point it hasn’t reached in years.

But like I said, I’m also a beneficiary! For instance, I’m back in time 50 years, back to getting Adventure Comics and Superboy every month. True, things have changed – the Legion of Super-Heroes I’m reading in Adventure Comics is now a group of adults, not perky teens, but writer Paul Levitz and artist Geraldo Borges are making it all great anyway (and DC’s got another Legion title for stories from the group’s youth, so I really can’t complain); and the Superboy I’m reading about isn’t Clark Kent when he was a teenager, it’s Connor Kent, a dreamy hunk-clone of Superman (with a little of Lex Luthor spliced in – yes, this Superboy has two daddies) – but I confess, despite the weird artwork (everybody has such eeensy-weeensy facial features)(but alas, Humberto Ramos can’t draw everything), this title is growing on me.

And DC is at least partially acknowledging their bright new day with a series of  covers designed to highlight the iconic nature of their characters, which is neat. Superboy’s cover features him flying straight at the reader, followed by his faithful companion Krypto the super-dog, and the cover of Adventure features the Legion logo (which bears a very encouraging resemblance to the logo of a certain literary magazine…) and five grim, anorexic stick-figures who, I guess, are supposed to represent several of the sexy women of the Legion. I mostly concentrated on that wonderful logo.

Over at Marvel, there’s considerably more darkness to overcome. It’s not just the year-long power-grab of Norman Osborn – that power-grab was only made possible by the events of Marvel’s ‘Civil War,’ in which Tony Stark/Iron Man spearheaded a government initiative to register every super-hero, pay them a government wage, and dictate what they do with their super-powers. Captain America died at the climax of that story, which is about as dark as dark gets, and eventually Osborn chased Tony Stark from power and took over himself – so once the ‘big three’ of Marvel’s super-team the Avengers, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man – were reunited, you’d expect lots of hard feelings all around.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis obviously decided the big three needed a private adventure in which they could heal their fractured relationship, and in the five-part mini-series “Avengers Prime” he cooked up a doozy, an epic story in which our heroes are suddenly transported to the mystic realm formerly occupied by Asgard, a mystic realm now in chaos and being taken over by Hela, the goddess of death. Our heroes are separated, and much sound and fury ensues, and eventually they come together and face off against the forces of Hela – artist Alan Davis has never done better work than in this series, and in this final issue he presents us with a truly wonderful two-page spread of what death’s army might look like if it were run through a Wagner-filter:

I admit, I pay much more attention to visuals than to writing in comics, but even so, this issue also has a perfect little moment of character-work. It comes at the end, when an abashed Tony Stark is trying to apologize to Captain America for everything – the superhero registration business, the ‘Civil War,’ all of it: “All of those things … all the things I said, and did …I’m … I’m so, so sorry. I know that’s not enough, but I hope you will allow me the chance to earn your friendship  back. I don’t deserve it … I just hope you let me. I’m not half as good at … at anything as I am when I’m doing it next to you.” It’s trite, but somehow it works – a line that effectively summarizes Bendis’ entire writing career.

And if the events of the “Civil War” cast a dark shadow on the future of Marvel Comics, that’s nothing compared to the events that sprang from the mini-series “House of M” (which I praised here despite the objections of Kevin the Noted Comic Book Snob!), in which the tormented hero Scarlet Witch used her reality-altering powers to wipe out nine-tenths of all the mutants in the Marvel Universe. In her agony to make everything simpler, she speaks three fateful words, “No more mutants” – and suddenly the Marvel continuity contains just a handful of mutants struggling to survive as a species. That was years ago, and again, many very good stories have come out of that premise – but there was always going to come some kind of reckoning, and it’s looking like Marvel’s fantastic mini-series “Children’s Crusade” will be that reckoning.

The series is written with acute sensitivity by Allan Heinberg and drawn with eye-popping virtuosity by the great Jim Cheung (in a perfect Steve-world, he would be drawing the teenaged-Legion every month, but I’ll take what I can get), and it tells the story of what would happen if two young heroes named Wiccan and Speed – a shy (and gay) sorcerer and a brash young super-speedster – became convinced that a) somehow the Scarlet Witch was their mother, and b) that she was alive somewhere and they should find her. This naturally aligns forces against them – mainly the Avengers, who don’t want these kids to blunder into a cataclysm – and forces in their favor, mainly their fellow teen allies on the Young Avengers, but also joined by Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch’s brother, and Magneto, the father of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Their search eventually takes them to Latveria and a confrontation with none other than Doctor Doom – a confrontation that prompts Cheung to give us a wonderful double-page spread of his own:

In this issue, part 4 of a 9-part story, this series finally comes into its own as the premiere slam-bang event of the entire Marvel line in 2011. The Scarlet Witch has no memory of the terrible things she did in her previous life – she believes she’s simple Latverian gypsy girl Wanda Maximoff, and Heinberg has added the perfect Stan Lee-style twist: Doctor Doom, the monarch of Latveria, has fallen in love with her (“Given my history,” he wryly tells Wiccan, “even I find it difficult to believe”). He thinks its sheer lunacy for Wiccan to want to revive her memories – and with them her devastating powers – but the decision might be taken out of his hands anyway, since shortly after Wiccan shows up to ‘rescue’ his ‘mother,’ both the Young Avengers (with Quicksilver and Magneto) show up and the Avengers, who are determined to prevent another ‘House of M’ style catastrophe.

This issue is full of great moments, but for my money, the best of them is the confrontation between Wolverine (who is, for reasons known only to the Marvel Accounting Department, now an Avenger) and poor befuddled Wanda. Wolverine has always had only one simple solution in mind for the whole problem of what the Scarlet Witch did to her fellow mutants: kill her before she can do anything worse – and in the longshot hope that her death will restore the reality she changed – and for one more reason: out of simple revenge for a nearly-successful genocide. Wiccan can’t understand such a mentality:

“What is wrong with you? You’re supposed to be one of the good guys.”

“So was she. Until she slaughtered her friends and wiped out an entire species with three little words … ‘no more mutants,’ right Wanda? Well, you got your wish, sweetheart. Thanks to you, there’s only a few of us left. And now, thanks to me, there’s about to be one less.”

Needless to say, he’s stopped from killing her, and the issue provides a cliffhanger ending, and the story keeps barreling along. I know I shouldn’t be allowing myself to enjoy it as much as I am – probably issue #9 will take a year to ship – but I can’t help it! If this series continues as it’s going, it’ll be the best thing Marvel’s done in years. I’ll keep you posted.