Posts from June 2015
June 18th, 2015
Comics this week were a mixed bag as always. I bought issue # 18 of the Superman/Wonder Woman ongoing series mainly based on the stark drama of the cover, on which two young men in Superman and Wonder Woman costumes are regarding each other with grim expressions. On the inside, it turns out the issue takes place in some kind of radical alternate continuity in which a) Superman has no cape and can’t fly (indeed, seems to have largely his 1930s power-set), b) Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent has been revealed to the entire world, and c) not only has some super-villain stolen the old Kent Family farm house from Smallville, that same somebody has also stolen the buried corpses of Ma and Pa Kent. It’s a wacky what-if story writer Peter Tomasi has concocted (with good but very grim artwork by by Doug Mahnke, depicting Superman as a no-nonsense mid-30s tobacco addict European runway model), and I’ll probably buy the next issue just to see how the whole mess comes out.
The usual arrogant-asshole “New 52” Superman was front and center in the plot of the first issue of Justice League of America, written and drawn by fan-favorite artist Bryan Hitch. The bit of plot revealed in this issue is boringly familiar from the Bryan Hitch/Warren Ellis school of Impossibly Enormous Evil Threats Dreamt Up While High – some evil thing is stalking its way through parallel dimensions wiping them out/enslaving them/popping all their eyeballs, and that evil thing is on its way to our Earth, and only the good guys stand in its way, yadda yadda yadda. How’s Hitch put it this time around? Ah right:
I can tell you that the whole future is going to end. Whatever is coming is going to change everything. The future, the present, and the past. It’s already happening. We are already part of it. Your death is tied up in this, like a fixed beacon in time, across all time. A universal extinction level event and the shockwave reaches back to the beginning of time.
It’s entirely possible that Hitch is the only person left in the comics world who doesn’t realize that you can’t really keep doing this kind of End of Everything EverEverEver thing more than once without it becoming comical. And the gimmick is undercut right in this issue, since some unrelated bad guys spring the old Superman villain the Parasite (he absorbs energies and superpowers on contact) on the Justice League – and he proceeds to mop the floor with them. Just the one Superman villain nearly dismantles the team without really trying – which doesn’t really speak well to the team’s ability to handle a universal extinction level event going back to the beginning of time.
The only Marvel comic I bought this week was a spin-off of the company’s new “Battleworld” continuity-revamping mini-series event. It’s called Thors and features a script by Jason Aaron and artwork by the great Chris Sprouse – and the gimmick is that in this alternate continuity (I think it’s alternate – who can really tell anymore?) all the various versions of the comic book character Thor that have appeared in Marvel comics over the years. I soaked up the great artwork, but I couldn’t help noticing that one variation of Thor was entirely missing from the issue: the blond, clean-shaven heroic version who starred in Thor comics for fifty years. The Thor I’ve chronicled here at Stevereads for years now. I’d have loved to see Chris Sprouse draw that iconic character – maybe next time.
June 5th, 2015
This last week turned out to be a sharply sad one for me, in the realm of comics. I was reading a spattering of the latest “Convergence” spin-off issues from DC, all of them set in the various fractured sideline-realities and featuring DC characters from various titles and imprints over the decades before the company’s “New 52” continuity-reboot. It’s been fun seeing these old characters again – Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, for instance, or the normal, traditional Superman who’s hopelessly in love with Lois Lane, or Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, or the WWII-era Justice Society of America, the first super-team of them all. But as these isolated two-issue stories have started wrapping up, it’s finally dawned on me that these things are every bit the wistful – and final – good-byes they seem to be on the surface. And that’s made reading them unexpectedly hard to do.
Take two issues as examples. In the wrap-up to the “Shazam!” storyline, written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Evan Shaner, once all the teaming up and fighting are over, our heroes – Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Bulletman, and Bulletgirl (and a talking tiger in a war plane – a long story) – are flying into the sunset when Captain Marvel says: “There’s never really a happy ending … or even an ending. All we have are the moments, and this one is pretty special to me … in the sky again, with my best friends. With my family!”
And things are even more explicitly valedictory in the wrap-up to “The Justice Society of America” two-parter, in which our heroes – Hawkman, Doctor Fate, the original Green Lantern, and the original Flash – use a one-time-only spell to recapture their lost youth and powers so they can defeat a killer robot attacking the city. The issue – written by Dan Abnett, drawn wonderfully by Tom Derenick, and actually called “One Last Time” – largely consists of that battle, during which our heroes realize that doing this, using their powers to champion the cause of right, has been the joy of their lives:
I share my friends’ frank appraisal. They speak of the wonder of being super-men. The sheer, glorious, thank-god-I’m-alive, this-never-gets-old, unbelievable, astonishing sensation of being members of the Justice Society. It kept ups going through the toughest moments. The compensation of feeling blessed. We thanked fate and fortune and the stars every day that we were getting to do the things we were doing. We were lucky we ever got to do them at all. Just once would have been an utter privilege. We were damn lucky we got to spend our whole lives doing them. Now we’re getting to be those people again, one last time. And we’re going to savor every second of it.
But when the fight is over, they revert to old men again and shuffle off to get some coffee. And reading that scene, it really dawned on me: DC is saying one last good-bye to these characters before shifting their main focus back to the militarized, joyless main line they created a few years ago. Here’s hoping some of the sunlight and optimism of the concepts they’re shutting down this month leaks into that main line, even if these great old characters don’t.
May 30th, 2015
Our book today is a good oldie reprinted for crass opportunistic motives: it’s the latest “Epic Collection” from Marvel Comics, The Avengers: Behold … The Vision, and the crass part isn’t far to seek: the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron is still in theaters worldwide and has already grossed north of $500 million with no end in sight, and that no doubt motivated the choice of reprint material in this volume.
Four major characters are introduced to movegoers in Age of Ultron: Ultron, the title bad guy, a grinning near-indestructible robot bent on world domination, the Vision, a red-skinned yellow-caped android created by Ultron but possessing, against all odds, a heroic nature, Quicksilver, a young Eastern European mutant gifted with super-speed, and his sister, the Scarlet Witch, a mutant with the ability to hurl reality-warping “hexes.” Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have a long history in Marvel comics, but Ultron and the Vision were introduced together, in the classic 1968 Avengers issue #57, in which the Vision, capable of altering his body’s density from wraithlike intangibility to diamond-hard compactness, is sent by Ultron to destroy the Avengers.
The core team at the time consisted of Captain America, the Black Panther, Giant-Man, and the Wasp … and the Vision very nearly defeats them all, until his heroic nature violently reasserts itself and he dares to rebel against his master:
“Well, do not simply stand there … like some lifeless mannequin! I gave you a tongue to speak … let me hear your report!”
“Yes … you created me … gave me life! But you meant me to be nothing but a nameless, soulless imitation of a human being! Release the Avengers … or face him whom they have named … the Vision!”
The team quickly inducts the Vision into their ranks (in the classic issue “Even an Android Can Cry”), and the rest of this Epic Collection features the Vision’s first dozen adventures with the team. The volume reprints some of writer Roy Thomas’s best issues on the title and has artwork by John Buscema, his brother Sal, and the great Gene Colan, here somewhat out of his element (there are also a couple of issues drawn by BarryWindsor Smith, doing a very ham-handed Jack Kirby pastiche). Characters are added – in addition to the Vision, the Black Knight returns (the volume also includes his 1968 solo adventure from Marvel Super-Heroes #17, an unexpected treat), the archer Hawkeye takes on the role of Giant-Man, and, coming back to Age of Ultron, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch briefly return to the team.
The Avengers experience in these fantastic issues is even better than the admittedly fantastic one those theatergoers all over the world are getting with Age of Ultron; it’s even more melodramatic, yes, but it’s also much more satisfyingly adult. Thomas knows exactly what he’s doing in this run, giving us well-rounded characters who just happen to be super-heroes, and pitting those characters against corporate greed and societal racism just as often as he pits them against Kang the Conqueror. We see Hawkeye tormented by his shady past, the Vision tormented by his weird tabula rasa existence … and a few times we see ranting old Ultron in various incarnations, although the simple truth is that he’s one of the Avengers’ least interesting villains – just an evil robot bent on world domination.
Marvel has reprinted some of these issues many times in the past (there’s a new reprint of their Masterworks series that very nearly duplicates the contents of this volume, for instance), but with Age of Ultron currently generating obscene amounts of profit, they’re not about to let Ultron-related back issues languish in limbo. And since those issues are often drawn from high points in the comic’s history, it’s win-win for long-time Avengers fans.
April 22nd, 2015
DC’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 Metropolis – 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.
The 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 explanation 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 several 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
The 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.
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 Lobdell (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.
DC 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.
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”:
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
Our 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 Lee 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 Strange 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, 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 and 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 and 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
I 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 Fantastic 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 circulating 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 Marvel 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
Last 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 quite 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 cinema 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. Jason 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
Our 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 window 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!”
But 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 minute 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
On 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 Franco 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 light 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 brooding 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!