Posts from April 2015

April 22nd, 2015

Comics! Bottom’s Up in the Legion!

superboy and the legion 1DC’s company-wide event “Convergence” continues, in which long-abandoned incarnations of their super-characters are temporarily given current issues again, in a kind of multi-part gift to the company’s older, more nostalgic readers. As a result, today’s trip to Boston’s wonderful Comicopia seemed like a flashback to visiting the same twenty or thirty years ago.

Longer than that, actually, in this case, at least for me – because of course the reason I showed up at the comics shop at all was because among this week’s “Convergence” titles was the first issue of something called “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.”

The issue’s set-up is the same as all the other “Convergence” titles: the city of diaper 1Metropolis – in this case in the 30th century – has been cut off from the outside world for a year by a mysterious dome, and all the super-powered beings inside the dome have been rendered powerless, most certainly including the 30th century’s foremost super-team, the Legion of Super-Heroes. The team’s living inspiration, Superboy, was visiting them from the 20th century when the dome went up and trapped him in the future, and as this issue opens, he’s giving televised pep-talks to the people of Metropolis, but he himself is feeling miserable, missing his home back in time, missing his parents, even, in the issue’s best line (the one that had my comics friends emailing me taunts as soon as they read it) missing his dog.

diaper 2The team’s resident genius, 12th-level intellect Brainiac 5, has been working feverishly for a year to break through the dome, without success, and the rest of the team is coping as best they can with the loss of their powers – and the loss of their teammate Wildfire, who’s disappeared. As Superboy puts it, “As a being of pure energy, [he] was nothing but powers – so he just dissipated into thin air.”

This kind of thing bugs me, of course, and always has. The reason Wildfire dissipated was because there was no way to separate him from his super-powers, sure – but it always bugs me when writers (in this case, Stuart Moore) ignore the fact that lots of super-heroes are inseparable from their super-powers. Superboy may be powered by Earth’s sun and therefore powerless after a year cut off from it, but plenty of Legionnaires – Shrinking Violet, Triplicate Girl, Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, etc. – are born with their special abilities. There’s no more diaper4explanation in this issue as to how the big bad villain of “Convergence” could somehow delete those abilities than there is how he could put a dome over not just every super-hero in the multiverse but every super-hero at every time-period of every multiverse. If a bad guy is that powerful, why bother telling the story at all? And oops i crapped my pantsseveral times in this issue, Brainiac 5 complains about the limitations of his teammates’ lesser intellects – but his super-power IS his 12th-level brain – so shouldn’t it be deleted as well?

But I overlooked such quibbles in order to bask again in reading an adventure of Superboy and the Legion. Not a clone Superboy, not a retro-stupid Legion, but just the real thing – the flight rings, the Legion Clubhouse, the old familiar characters of the team. For some inexplicable reason, issue artist Gus Storms decided to draw many of those characters wearing what looks for all the world like the old Saturday Night Live spoof-product Oops I Crapped My Pants, but Stuart Moore does a fine job capturing what the Legion means to Superboy:

This whole place – the Legion – it used to be like a dream, a fantasy world. I could come here and fly around with kids just like me, then close my eyes and wake up back in Smallville, with Krypto barking at the chickens and the sun coming up, blood red over the haystacks.

And naturally, reading this issue – and considering the fact that when this limited run ends, I’ll likely never read another new comic book featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes – my memory was filled with all the times I’ve read about this team, in all its incarnations, from the first time I encountered them on the spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary. Those memories made this issue, flaws and all, one big smile for me to read – so I guess I’m one of those nostalgic older DC readers who’s getting regular weekly gifts from “Convergence.” I’ll take them while they last.

April 12th, 2015

Comics: Convergence #1!

convergence 1The latest big crossover event in DC Comics has now well and truly begun, although I’m predictably late getting around to writing about it here at Stevereads. It’s called “Convergence,” and part of the reason I’m late writing about it is that I’m still not entirely clear on what it IS.

DC’s previous really big event was the birth of “The New 52” a few years ago, in which the company underwent a full-spectrum reboot, tearing down decades of continuity and starting all its marquee characters – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest – with brand-new first issues and entirely re-conceived origin stories. I think the company honchos viewed it as a way to clear out lots of tangled and confusing backstory and re-invent these classic characters in order to attract a wider audience of new readers (and if it simultaneously gave a whole bullpen of creators – writers and artists both – a chance to feel really invigorated about their storytelling, so much the better).

I was enormously skeptical about “The New 52,” as probably goes without saying. And my doubts weren’t exactly allayed by the initial roll-out of first issues and the changes they contained. Everything seemed to skewed for attracting new fans alright – provided all of those new fans were horny 13-year-old boys. Male characters were all grimmer and more humorless than ever (personality-wise, they were all Batman); female characters were all huge-breasted anorexics with self-esteem issues; story lines were bigger and louder but also dumber. It’s true that my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes got two ongoing titles and both those titles were very good – but both were among the first New 52 titles to get cancelled, and all of my other favorites faired little better. Wonder Woman became a one-dimensional “What ho, fellow warriors!”-type sword-slinging lunkhead (sort of like a Conan the Barbarian with even bigger boobies); Superman became first a workboot-wearing football team bully-jock and then a levitating, emotionless Visiting Alien in a Nehru collar; the Justice League became a loose collection of preening egomaniacs, none of whom trusted each other. It’s true that Aquaman got one hell of a good reboot, and of course no reconception can really dim the sheer workability of the Batman titles – but for the most part, I thought “The New 52” was a classic example of fixing something that hadn’t been broken.

Things got better. The reboot was an enormous success with fans; the story lines steadily improved; the creative teams started doing some truly excellent work. Even the Superman titles, for which I’d held out little hope, started becoming really good. Titles came and went, but over all there was a feeling of bubbling creativity that I gradually came to like quite a bit.

Now all of that is up for grabs again; “Convergence” is specifically designed to shake things up, and like I said, I’m not exactly sure why. One veteran comics-watcher snidely pointed out to me that the company can’t exactly go on calling something “new” that’s now a few years old, but that can’t have been much of a reason, since it would sure be easier to simply remove “The New 52” logo from all DC’s issue-covers than to scrap their entire publishing line for two months and foist “Convergence” and all its spin-offs on their readers.

convergence-dc-comics

Whatever the reason, after an initial “Issue 0” last week, the whole megilla kicked off officially this week with “Convergence” #1 and a smattering of spinoff issues. The premise, as outline in that first issue, is disarmingly simple: a super-being named Telos has plucked cities from dozens of different eras and continuity-lines in DC’s long publishing history and installed them on a barren planet Telos totally controls. He deprived the super-beings of those worlds of their superpowers that whole time (no explanation as to how he does any of this, of course), but now he wants to try something different: he’ll restore their super-powers and make them fight it out. The victorious reality will get to live, and all the others will be wiped out.

Disarmingly simple, like I said, and also droolingly dumb. Not only do a great many DC superheroes have superpowers you couldn’t just switch off without killing them, but also, if you’ve got a bad guy who’s so powerful he can at any moment idly play games with all of the good guys, what’s the point of telling superhero stories at all? The various DC continuities include wizards, aliens, immortals, and at least one agent of the Christian God Himself – the fact that “Convergence” doesn’t explain how any of these beings, let alone all of them, could become simple playthings for some random super-bad guy is certainly a big, distracting mark against it.

This #1 issue has all kinds of other marks against it. It’s written by Jeff King and Scott converge1Lobdell (and drawn by Carlo Pagulayan), and AS a first issue, it stinks. The action opens in mid-scene, almost in mid-sentence, on some alternate Earth in the middle of some plot that quite obviously culminated in some other comic book. Alternate-world versions of Batman, the Flash, Superman and others are facing off against yet a different version of Superman, this one obviously evil. There’s not so much as a paragraph of exposition to explain any of this, not so much as a sentence of synopsis about whatever the hell preceded this opening page – instead, newcomers are I guess expected to just sink or swim.

There’s a volcanic eruption, a giant stone hand, a red-haired woman who jumps out of the ground (where apparently she’d been eavesdropping without needing to breathe?) and kisses somebody – none of it makes any sense to the newcomer, and then our heroes (at least I think they’re our heroes) are rudely transported to the world Telos has set up in order to pit all his various captured cities against each other. Our heroes are told they won’t be allowed to make common cause with any of the other heroes – instead, it’ll be a multi-part fight-to-the-death, with all of reality as the prize. What you see on the cover of the issue – our heroes preparing to fight Telos – never even comes close to happening inside.

convergence superman 1DC put out a few spin-off comics this same week, all of them set in various alternate timelines and continuities, and with a great deal of trepidation, I bought “Convergence: Superman” #1 – mainly on the strength of the cover, which shows Superman kissing Lois Lane as the four-color comics gods intended (not Wonder Woman, his “New 52” love interest, although they don’t seem to know or like each other at all in regular New 52 comics).

The issue is firmly set in the world of “Convergence.” The pre-New 52 Superman (with enormous restraint, I’ll refrain from calling him the real Superman) has been trapped in Gotham City, of all places, with a very pregnant Lois Lane (a nod to the idea that time hasn’t been standing still in any of these continuities while we’ve all been reading the one featured in “The New 52”). His superpowers are gone, but his nature is still the same, so he’s been going out to fight crime dressed in head-to-toe black, with Lois offering commentary via an earpiece. As the issue begins, Clark is trying to foil a drug-running operation when two things happen: first, everybody hears a booming, disembodied voice (it’s Telos, announcing his tournament), and second, one of the bad guys blasts Clark with a flamethrower. Lois, not knowing that Telos’s announcement means he’s magically restored everybody’s powers, is momentarily terrified that her only-human husband has been burned to a crisp.

And when the flames clear, I got a panel I’ve been waiting years for, waiting for ever since “The New 52” began: Superman, the pre-reboot Superman, standing there with his spitcurl and his smile and his bright circus-acrobat costume.

superman lee weeks1

He takes care of the criminals in short order and returns to Lois, and before he heads out to investigate the mysterious booming voice, he and Lois indulge in a little gentle, teasing chat, and it’s exactly the kind of lovely little moment that virtually never happens in “The New 52”:

superman lee weeks2

The issue is written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by a favorite of mine, Lee Weeks, and it ends of a cliffhanger, so I know I get at least one more adventure of this Superman. And a glance at some of the upcoming “Convergence” titles gives me hope that there’ll be other gems I can savor before the whole thing comes to whatever its conclusion will be.

I’m still unclear on the nature of that conclusion, but I think I can tell two things for sure: a) the continuity that results from this event won’t in fact be one single winner of the contest Telos has set up but a blending of elements from several of them, and therefore b) no matter how I might have irrationally hoped for it once upon a time, that new continuity won’t simply be a return to what I consider “normal.” And it took the prospect of seeing all these different continuities jumbling together to make me realize I maybe don’t even hope for that anymore. Against my own expectations, I enjoyed a lot of what “The New 52” offered me. I’m willing to bet I’ll enjoy a lot of whatever arises from “Convergence” as well. I’ll read a bunch next week with that hope in mind.

February 28th, 2015

Comics: To Wake the Mangog!

thor epic collectionOur book today goes by a title Stevereads has already anointed as alluring: To Wake the Mangog! (I added the exclamation point that the book’s own packagers shamefully omitted) – it’s a thick volume in Marvel Comics’ ongoing “Epic Collection” series of color reprints from the archives.

This is the fourth “Epic Collection” of Thor comics, and those four inadvertently serve as a pretty good illustration of how weird this whole reprint line is. Volume One was called The God of Thunder and featured the first twenty-five issues of Thor’s appearance in Journey into Mystery; Volume Two was called A Kingdom Lost and featured a slew of utterly undistinguished 1980s issues written boringly by Mark Gruenwald and drawn boringly by Keith Pollard; and Volume Three was called War of the Pantheons, a great collection of issues from the 1990s written by Tom DeFalco and drawn lovingly by Ron Frenz in full Kirby-homage mode. And because the “Epic Collections” are supposed to be pieces in an enormous ongoing tapestry, the first Thor volume might be #1, but the second is listed as #11 and the third was #16. To Wake the Mangog is still #4, but it’s damn odd. My only hope is that it betokens Marvel’s intention to reprint not only the whole run of Thor but also the whole run of their entire back catalogue. The completeness of it would be nice, even though any collection that features Keith Pollard (or, Odin help us, Larry Leiber) can hardly call itself “epic.”

Actually, that same unevenness is a bit on display even in To Wake the Mangog! (sorry – but it’s Stan thor 1Lee at his full throttle – it needs an exclamation point!) The collection starts with the great four-issue storyline that all but defines “epic” in the Thor line, in which the titular creature, the Mangog, a being of incalculable physical power (the strength of a billion billion beings!), assaults Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. And almost missing a step (there’s a reprint issue – remember those? – of Thor’s first appearance in Journey into Mystery), the collection moves on to a somewhat disjointed story that finds Thor caught between the world-devouring Galactus and the sentient planet Ego – certainly doesn’t get much more “epic” than that (except maybe for the great two-part Doctor Strange story in which the Earth is destroyed and then reconstituted, with only the Doctor remembering it – but we’ll get to the fantastic Gene Colan Doctor thor2Strange again in good time here at Stevereads).

He and his Asgardian allies fight Pluto, the Greek god of death, and then there’s an odd interlude-story where the super-powered artificial being called Him decides that he wants to lose his virginity to … Thor’s immortal girlfriend, the goddess Sif. Not even the febrile imagination of Stan Lee attempts to come up with an actual reason for this – he just steams ahead, having Him abduct Sif and spirit her away. It incenses Thor – actually drives him to what Lee calls “The Warrior’s Madness” (oddly, Lee avoids calling it by its actual Viking term of berserker-fury). Even though Sif herself keeps assuring Thor that Him hasn’t harmed her,thor3 that Him is just a misunderstood man-child, but it doesn’t matter: Thor is lost in rage:

Speak not to Thor of madness! Speak only of revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Revenge! Such as none who live have ever known! If Balder call me mad, so be it! Of what use is sanity, when naught but power will prevail? And in all the world – save for regal Odin – there be no power to equal mine!

Him manages to escape, and when Thor calms down, he has to face the music for succumbing to the Warrior’s Madness – and the punishment Odin imposes is equally epic: he’s to seek out Galactus again and learn the world-devourer’s origins and intentions. And what Lee serves up is intentionally off-kilter: Thor and Galactus don’t fight – they sit and talk.

But the rest of the collection falters, and not just because Kirby’s artwork is gradually growing weirder thor4and more disassociated but because Lee’s writing is gradually growing a bit phoned-in. The volume limps to a finish with Thor fighting killer robots andlucy reading up on thor mortal bad guys and only barely manages to finish up with a win by presenting some of Jack Kirby’s original pencil-layouts for some of the pages reprinted earlier.

Even so, it’s by far the best “Epic Collection” of Thor that’s appeared so far, and it brought me a couple of hours of very warm re-reading. I of course eagerly bought all these individual issues as they first appeared, parting with 12 cents each time and flipping through their pages while my beagles snored all around me, and it quite apart from enjoying the stories all over again, it was nice to be reminded of those days.

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.

January 20th, 2015

Comics – The Marvel Star Wars!

star wars coverLast week I naturally succumbed to the hoopla and bought the first issue of Marvel Comics’ new “Star Wars” comic book (my comics-related posts here on Stevereads really do need to be closer to Wednesday – which, for all you non-virgins out there, is New Comics Day here in Boston – and I’ll work on that, but in the meantime), written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Cassaday. And as I went to the register paid my $15 (or whatever a single issue of a comic book costs these days) to the rail-thin four-pack-a-day hipster with the abdomen-length unwashed beard, I couldn’t help but think back fondly to 1977 – fondly not just because that rancid, pretentious, borderline-illiterate tobacco addict hipster undergraduate hadn’t yet been born, but also because that was when I encountered the first Marvel Comics adaptation of Star Wars and liked it very much.

Way back then, I bought that first issue because it was drawn by the great, insane Howard Chaykin (although I also got original star wars coverquite a kick out of the little upper-left-corner issue logo, which showed a picture of heroic Luke Skywalker drawn by John Romita, Sr.)(what can I say? It’s the little things in life), and that was good enough for me even though I knew next to nothing about the actual contents (and even though those first few issues had far too much creeping Carmine Infantino touches for my liking).

Of course, everything has changed here in 2015. In the intervening quarter-century, Star Wars has gone from one fairly enjoyable movie to a franchise of galactic proportions and a cultural reach exceeding that of most religions – complete with a Second Coming in the form of the upcoming new movie in which, for the first time, the whole magilla’s pinch-voiced megalomaniacal creator, George Lucas, has no say.

In fact, Star Wars has now achieved such an absurdly revered status that it’s considered anathema to point out the obvious: that it largely stinks. The reason it stinks isn’t hard to figure out: this shoddy, half-baked little concept is exactly the sort of thing that should have been road-tested as a weekly network TV show long before it ever reached the big screen. Not only would that have served to spotlight its continuity weaknesses (and they are legion) and iron out some of them, but it would also have allowed the strengths of Lucas’s original concepts (few though they are) to be fleshed out by some hired writers of actual talent. This is the sort of piecemeal genesis that worked for Star Trek and – much later and much more critically successfully – for Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars didn’t get it.

As a result, we have a protracted, mostly embarrassing mess that can’t ever be identified as such, for the simple reason that it constitutes the personal religion of the people who would otherwise do the identifying. Those people will tell you – with little to no provocation – that the three ‘prequel’ movies pinch-voiced megalomaniacal George Lucas made in the early 2000s were terrible, that they were travesties, that they were abominations. But the bedrock article of faith implied in their condemnations of the second trilogy of movies is that the first trilogy of movies was great. Oh sure, they might queasily half-joke about the Ewoks, but by and large, they’ll rank the movie now called “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi” as milestones not just in leiacinema but in their own lives.

I once had one of these acolytes look me straight in the face and tell me in all seriousness that “The Empire Strikes Back” was the single greatest science fiction movie ever made. And when I burst out laughing, his face became taut and palely serious.

The original movie – Star Wars to me, A New Hope to the faithful – has a small handful of genuinely good bits. Lightsabers. “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.” The trash compactor scene. Of course, Darth Vader – and that’s it. The rest is an almost-hopeless mish-mash of cliches, bad acting, and bad writing, and no matter what vantage point you look at it all from, no matter how close or distant your focus, none of it makes any sense. But at least, unlike the following five movies, it was enjoyable – and the folks at Marvel must realize that on some level, because this first issue of their new comics series is set immediately in and around the ending of that first movie.

So the Empire is still fully in control of things. Darth Vader is still a fantastic villain rather than anybody’s father, padawan, lover, or crybaby. Han Solo and Princess Leia are still verbal sparring partners rather than sappy lovers. Our scrappy band of heroes is still very much outgunned and outnumbered – in other words, they’re still rebels, facing a vast and seemingly unbeatable tyranny.

That’s very promising material for lots of comic book adventures, and this first issue gives me hope – one might even say a new hope – for the issues to follow. vaderJason Aaron does a pretty good job capturing the admittedly skeletal “characters” of that first movie, and although John Cassaday’s artwork is too often hampered by the need to make his characters look like the actors who portrayed them 30 years ago (it’s surprising how few talented comic book artists are also talented caricaturists, but there you have it), his straightforward sense of visual excitement never abandons him – it’s easily possible to ‘read’ this issue without looking at the words at all and still get everything Aaron means to convey.

I won’t be hurrying to see the new “Star Wars” movie in the theaters; its brainless director has already savaged the sci-fi franchise I actually care about, so I have no desire to watch the also-rans get pillaged. But after reading and re-reading this first Marvel Star Wars issue a couple of times, I must admit: it’s nice to see these characters again in the setting that suits them best. I’ll stick around for a few issues.

November 10th, 2014

Comics! If Asgard Falls …

giant size thor 1Our story today is a corker from 1968: “If Asgard Falls …” from Thor Annual #2, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby (with customarily perfect inks by Vince Colletta), the kind of fine hammy high fantasy that always best suits this strangest of all the original crop of Marvel superheroes Lee & Kirby dreamed up, a clean-shaven version of the Norse god Thor, incarnated in the present day as a crime-fighter and Avenger. Don’t get me wrong: Lee & Kirby were such a genius team that they could – and did – create believable scenes where Thor foils bank robbers and mad dictators. But it’s these epic fantasy stories that really allow both writer and artist to cut loose. Here at Stevereads, of course, we’ve looked lovingly at some of those epic fantasy stories, here, here, and here, for instance.

“If Asgard Falls …” is a prime specimen of both how juicy this kind of story can be and how frustrating it can be. The story opens in the fantasy realm of Asgard, home of the Norse gods, where the Tournament of Titans is about to take place, a grand tourney of mock-combat among all the warriors of the extended realms of Asgard, with the winner getting a golden suit of armor. In a charming, quintessentially Stan Lee moment, Thor is standing at attention in his father Odin’s chamber, trying to ignore the whispered calls of his friends outside the thor destroyer 2window while the old man rants and rants and rants:

Yet, well do I remember those hallowed days of yore … when the bludgeoning blade of Odin did strike with the fury of a thousand storms! ‘Twas then the summer of my life … when tall and straight as an oak stood Odin! And now, though minstrels still sing of Odin’s feats … while campfires flicker … thy father hat reached the twilight of his years … ’tis for the young to seize the torch of gallantry and hold it high! Thus has it ever been! Thus shall it ever be! Even the aging lion must one day allow the eager cub to lead the hunt!

“What is this?” Odin finally says, “The attention of the thunder god doth seem to falter!” (Well yes, you old windbag – just about anybody’s attention would) Instead of banishing Thor from Asgard forever in response to this minor infraction – as he’s done countless times in the past and will do countless times in the future – Odin waves off his impetuosity and lets him hurry to the Tournament.

Where foul practice is brewing! In parallel plot-lines, we see Thor and his comrades being thwarted by illegal sorcery in the Tournament even while Thor’s distant, banished brother Loki is sending his spirit-form to Earth in search of a great villain from an earlier Thor storyline: a giant indestructible suit of armor called the Destroyer (those who know the Marvel version of Thor mostly from the movies will recognize the Destroyer from the first of those “Thor” movies) that needs a guest spirit animating it in order to move – enter Loki, who wants to use the Destroyer’s enormous powers in order to take his revenge on Odin and Asgard. Why Odin left the Destroyer’s empty hulk lying around in the ruins of an Asian temple is never answered, but then, “If Asgard Falls …” has more unanswered questions than even Stan Lee usually comes up with.

Starting with the origin of the Destroyer itself. In this issue, Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard’s rainbow bridge, exclaims, “‘Tis the living engine of destruction … created ages ago by Odin himself in the long-forgotten past to guard the planet Earth from ultimate disaster!” And only one page later, Odin himself says, “He was designed to serve Asgard … to be the weapon supreme in an hour of need! Hence, it did please me to make him indestructible!”

thor destroyer 3But regardless of why the Destroyer was created, Loki’s plan at first looks to be going like gangbusters: he’s plowing his way through the warriors assembled for the Tournament, pressing on straight to Odin’s dais, intent on using the Destroyer’s energy powers to bump off the old man. Here at Stevereads, we’ve seen Odin menaced by the Destroyer in other storylines, and in “If Asgard Falls …” (no explanation for the title, either – whether or not Loki succeeds, Asgard’s not endangered, just Odin) the very idea fills Thor with horror. He springs to confront the Destroyer, and in an absolutely professional panel sequence, Kirby shows us Thor’s blitzkrieg attack, culminating with a temporary downing of the Destroyer (“Asgard be praised!” Thor says, “I have achieved the impossible!”).

But the only real way to defeat the construct is to defeat its animating spirit, and when Balder the Brave shows up at the last lucy reading thorminute and tells Odin where he can find distant, exiled Loki, the key is clear – but, Balder wonders, is there time for Odin’s power to reach Loki and shut down his mind? To which Odin answers, “Banish thy fears! Am I not eternal Odin? Though the Destroyer be ready to hurl his bolt of death … ’tis I who possess the power to tear the very fabric of eternity! Thus at my command … let time stand still!”

And time duly does so. Why on Earth – or in Asgard, for that matter – the old goat didn’t just freeze time as soon as the Destroyer showed up (let alone why he was whining on about being old and feeble earlier on), we’re never told. Instead, he fires off a beam of energy that reaches Loki and puts him to sleep, thus causing the Destroyer to topple like a puppet with its strings cut. Then Odin, feeling uncharacteristically magnanimous, grants everybody a golden suit of armor for the day.

It’s a nifty, re-readable little story, one that sold well in 1968 and then sold even better when it was reprinted again in “Giant-Size Thor” #1 in 1975, this time sporting a classic Gil Kane cover that doesn’t even mention the Destroyer. And of course it’s been reprinted two more times, in the “Essential” series of black-and-white reprints and in the “Marvel Masterworks” series of color reprints. It stands as a classic example of the perennial problem of giving Thor a strong enough opponent to keep him busy.

November 8th, 2014

Comics: Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

mignola dracula 6On 8 November we honor the birthday of Bram Stoker, the author of the immortal 1897 novel Dracula, which brought Dracula and humanity-stalking vampires to the popular imagination and lodged them there so firmly that “Dracula” and “vampire” have become easy synonyms.

Dracula has of course been packaged and re-packaged a million times, adapted for the screen and for the stage, pastiched to a fare-thee-well, transplanted to manga and comic books (including a long run as the property of Marvel Comics in Tomb of Dracula, an eminently satisfying 1970s title written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by the great Gene Colan), and right now on Bram Stoker Day, I’m thinking of one outstanding comics adaptation: the four-issue 1993 mini-series written by Roy Thomas and drawn by “Hellboy” creator (and clear Colan successor when it comes to using darkness and shadows in his work) Mike Mignola, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

As you can perhaps tell from the title, this mini-series was an adaptation of an adaptation: it tells in comic book form the version of Stoker’s story that we get in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie from that same year, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The movie is intensely weird. It’s visually fascinating from start to finish, self-consciously hammy in a style often reminiscent of mignola dracula 5Franco Zeffirelli’s opera productions for the Met; for journeys, we get superimposed maps, for supernatural surveillance we get superimposed eyes – that sort of thing. I think it’s easily the most interesting visual representation of Dracula ever done (although to judge from the critical drubbing it’s received, I’m alone in also ranking Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold – in theaters now, but don’t dawdle – near the top of that list), and Gary Oldman is superb as the title character.

Unfortunately, the movie’s casting almost completely falls apart once we step outside of Oldman’s dressing room (Kim Newman wrote a mighty enjoyable might-have-been story about what Coppola’s movie might have been like if it had had uniformly excellent casting). Keanu Reeves is dreadful (and not in the spine-tingling sense) as Jonathan Harker, and for once in his career, he’s not the worst actor in a movie: that dubious distinction here goes to an utterly embarrassing Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. Hopkins quite visibly has no idea what movie he’s in, and since he’s in virtually the whole of it, that steadily distracts from the undeniable directorial flair Coppola was trying to impart.

Luckily, no bad acting can mar a comic book adaptation. True, Roy Thomas is forced to re-tell the peculiar quasi-hysterical, quasi-pornographic version of Dracula that Coppola did (the comics are heavily linked to the movie’s production budget, with trading cards and ‘backstage’ backup features), but it’s amazing what a difference his mignola dracula 2light but skillful touch can make to some of the more silly or banal parts of Coppola’s script (which was based on a screeenplay by James Hart, who did the brilliant screenplay for 2002’s movie adaptation of Tuck Everlasting).

And then there’s the artwork! I consider Mike Mignola to be one of the best comics creators alive today, someone who can virtually do no wrong at a drawing board. He saturates his four issues here with silky darknesses and perfectly-placed slants of light, and as in all his work (this Dracula work clearly presages some of the signature stuff he’d do on Hellboy very shortly afterwards), he exercises a very adept handling of pace: he’s a master of offsetting busy expositional sequences with a single mignola dracula 3brooding snapshot that often manages to convey more than all the preceeding words did. He does front and back covers and all the internal artwork for these four issues.

My own copies of these four issues are slowly falling apart, and unlike with, say old issues of The Avengers or The Justice League, I don’t hold out much hope of ever seeing them in a more durable format. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was made by Columbia Pictures, which has no more interest in the property, and it was adapted for comics by Topps Comics, which is defunct – it would probably take until Stoker’s 200th birthday just to chase down who actually owns these issues (if it were Mignola himself, surely he’d have long since convinced his current paymasters at Dark Horse Comics to reprint them? After all, Hellboy has been a bit of a hit, both in comics and at the movies).

 

But until their paper stock disintegrates, I can still enjoy re-reading this little gem – say, every year on the 8th of November!

 

September 11th, 2014

Comics! Superboy and … who?

future's end superboyOn the one hand, I’ve trained myself over the last two years to hold virtually the entire run of DC Comics at arm’s length, since the comics company I’ve loved for so long is still in the throes of “The New 52,” a top-to-bottom revision of their superhero continuity, a revision almost entirely for the worse in terms of color, personality, and idealism.

But on the other hand, like any sensible person I’m attracted to bright shiny things, and DC Comics this week all bear matching pretty holographic covers for their new “Future’s End” storyline (in which we take a peek at all of our familiar characters in stories set five years in their future). So I picked one almost at random – I veered away from Batman or Action Comics, from Birds of Prey or Aquaman or the Phantom Stranger and instead plopped for Superboy. I’m not sure I could tell you why – granted, Superboy was perhaps my favorite old-time DC character, but in “The New 52,” he’s a mean-spirited laboratory experiment gone awry. I think perhaps it was just the striking simplicity of the cover’s holograph.

I ended up liking the issue, primarily for the very vivid artwork by Ben Caldwell, but I was just about to make the sour summing-legion2up that the issue’s most enjoyable thing was the cover – until I got to the two-page house ad at the back.

And then the angels sang – for I was once more looking upon my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes.

DC’s “New 52″ version of the Legion was cancelled a while ago, and this is the first time they’ve made an appearance since then. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team had been split in two – but this team serenely, gloriously flying past in that house ad is united again. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team was fractured, dispirited, and haggard – but this team is full and confident … and traditional: there’s Mon-el front and center, there’s Shadow Lass beside him, there are classic characters like Sun Boy and Dream Girl and Ultra Boy, and there are great more recent characters like Tellus and Dawnstar and an ice-armed Polar Boy. It was like a gift.

Apparently, the team will be appearing in a comic called Justice League United in October for an entire story-arc. It’s not exactly a re-launch of their own title, which it bloody well should be, but it’s more than I have now, so I’ll take it. Talk about a bright shiny thing.

 

 

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 26th, 2014

Comics: Shopping for Art!

savage hulkcoverIt’s always a thing I feel a little bit ashamed to admit, but there it is: I go to comic books mainly for their artwork. I know all about the brilliance of today’s comics writing – I hear about it all the time from comics aficionados, that today’s industry writers are smarter and more literate than they’ve ever been. They have greater scope than in the past, since the mainstream superhero comics have shifted to a pacing that’s always got one eye on the graphic novel collection down the line. This can make buying individual monthly issues pretty frustrating – more than ever, they’re now just chapters in a future book, with little internal urge to be dramatic pound-by-pound (and since the individual issues are now $5 apiece, Marvel and DC have left ordinary regular comic-shop customers precious little reason not to wait for the graphic novels and forego buying any comic books at all).

Even so, I’m a sucker for picking individual issues from the comics racks! And my choices are always guided by artwork – as, for instance, this week: I bought the first issue of a new Marvel series called Savage Hulk, written and drawn by the great Alan Davis, which would almost always be plenty reason enough to buy. It’s an odd thing, but unlike such earlier Davis masterpieces as The Nail and Superboy’s Legion, it appears to be set firmly in normal continuity, not a what-if kind of story. It’s set in Marvel’s past and takes hulk1as its jumping-off point from issue #66 of the old first run of The X-Men in which the team of teenage mutants take on the Hulk in Las Vegas and only manage to defeat him temporarily thanks to the telepathic powers of their teammate Marvel Girl.

The fight is re-hashed in this issue, and a new one is clearly in the offing for future issues, which raises awkward logistical problem of the fact that as super-teams go, the old X-Men stand less of a chance against a rampaging Hulk than virtually any other. Cyclops’s optic energy beams bounce off him; Iceman’s projected ice is easily shattered by him; Beast, the team’s strongman, can lift 2 tons as opposed to the Hulk’s 100; the broad-winged Angel is a bystander – and even the team’s later additions, Polaris with her magnetic powers and Havok with his energy-blasts, would be all but useless. In fact, only Marvel Girl’s telepathic powers would stand a chance of working, and then only to calm the Hulk down into his human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, not to beat him.

hulkinterior1Even so, this issue was really good – a delightful retro thing, featuring the old-fashioned Hulk, the one who occasionally rampages and only wants to be left alone (there’s a wonderful sequence in which Davis shows him sitting in the middle of the desert at night, reaching up for the beauty of the stars). I haven’t read anything about this series, but I very much liked the first issue.

And if I was drawn to buy it because of Alan Davis, how much more so must that have been true for John Romita Jr., one of my favorite working comics artists (and, incidentally, a heck of a guy), especially if he’s drawing Superman, my favorite superhero character.

It’s been much, much harder to be a Superman fan in these last three years, during the regime of “The New 52,” in which the character of Superman took on such an ominous and offputting new spin. This Superman is an alien super-being, floating one foot off the ground, dating Wonder Woman, entirely distanced from normal humanity, utterly humorless – and the basics of that characterization aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, since they were the basis of the latest Superman movie, which has so far made almost a billion dollars. This Superman barely even thinks about protecting the innocent and wouldn’t bother to foil a bank robberysuperman front1 even if every little old lady with a savings account begged him to, so he’s a bit of a trial to read – in fact, I usually haven’t been buying Superman on the comics stands (that bizarre absence, plus the still-mourned lack of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, feels utterly unreal).

But for Jr Jr, I at least sprang for Superman #32, the start of a new storyline in which a boring ponytailed new super-character named Ulysses enters the DC universe, introducing himself to Superman by helping our hero defeat a fairly nondescript new villain. There are rare-enough personal moments – we see Clark Kent at the Daily Planet offices, and, more interestingly, we see him at home in his superman panel1apartment, unsuccessfully trying to have phone conversations with first Wonder Woman and then Batman, and then paging through a photo album, patently lonely. These are exactly the kind of details that have been missing from this comic since it was re-invented, and they were refreshing to see, even though they certainly aren’t going to last.

The artwork sure was nice, however: Romita’s panel-work is so unapologetically muscular and elemental, in some ways just perfect for this new bludgeoning version of the character. This artist will sacrifice almost anything for dramatics (at one point Superman uses his heat vision on the bad guy, and one beam lands a full foot wide of the other – which isn’t of course, how vision, heat or otherwise, works). But somehow it all works (less so with the issue’s curiously static cover, which has a fine age-old principle but boring execution); I ended up enjoying the issue, and I’ll probably follow the whole of Romita’s run – which won’t be very long, of course! Even in this issue, in an interview, he’s already enthusing about the other DC characters he’d like to draw … always a bad sign – Doomsday, as it were.