Posts from January 2016

January 16th, 2016

Comics! Secret Wars Concludes!

secret wars 9It’s been a long time, and a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge since Marvel’s latest mega-event “Secret Wars” mini-series began its nine-issue run back in 2007. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic launched the event – in which some kind of universe-killing singularity wipes out the entire continuity of the Marvel universe, leaving the super-villain Doctor Doom in possession of a godlike amount of power and a little world to shape and rule with it – with a great deal of enthusiasm, promising fans huge, re-shaping changes in all the favorite comic book characters. And now, the descendants of those fans have the final issue of the mini-series before them at last.

I always go into an event-series like this one with high hopes, which is nuts, I realize. In “Secret Wars,” Doctor Doom possesses the power to re-shape reality, and with a plot like that, the most tempting brass ring at the end of the run will be the possibility that when the dust settles, Marvel can use the mini-series to make fundamental changes to their monthly comics – that is, to give themselves a “do-over” when it comes to boneheaded plot-mistakes editors have allowed their writers to make over the last few years. Marvel has made an ample, almost embarrassing number of such mistakes recently, so such a series would have plenty of work to do.

And this issue’s cover – a hyper-kinetic masterpiece by Alex Ross – certainly got my hopes up. At the center of the cover, Doctor Doom and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four are grappling, and radiating outward from them are jagged shards showing iconic moment after iconic moment from the long history of Marvel Comics: we see the birth of Franklin Richards; we see the rebirth of Steve Rogers as Captain America; we see the death of Elektra; we see the first appearance of the sw2Phoenix; we see the fabled realm of Asgard. It all seems to bode well – it seems to hint that when the drama of the issue is over, Hickman and his editors will re-set Marvel’s continuity along the traditional lines that served the company so well for sixty years. Thor will no longer be a woman. Professor X and Jean Grey will no longer be dead. There will be only one team of Avengers. Steve Rogers will still be Captain America. There will only be one team of X-Men. And so on and so on.

The issue itself finds action in full-tilt. The Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner have accessed a source of near-infinite power themselves and are using it to battle Doctor Doom – until Hickman decides to shift the fight abruptly to a one-on-one fight between Reed and Doom, with the winner getting the power of a god.

Reed wins, and there’s a gigantic white flash, and then? Then I was hoping things would go back to normal.

But no. Instead, after all these years of waiting, the end result is an unmitigated mess. When the white light fades, we find Reed and his family calmly going about the business of using their godlike power to shape entire universes. They’ve got no plans to return to Earth – they appear to be living on the “Battleworld” planet Doom first created. We get a couple of glimpses of the “new” Marvel Universe, but since “Secret Wars” was originally intended to conclude back in early 2008, Marvel’s various comic books have been publishing in full spate since then, showing fans the changes this mini-series was supposed to be the first to reveal.

sw3Those changes are troubling. “Secret Wars” was the first Marvel mega-event ever that not only didn’t involve the X-Men but also scarcely mentioned mutants, for instance, and of course one of the biggest changes the mini-series brought about is the one I already alluded to: the Fantastic Four, the founding, flagship team of the Marvel renaissance, is no more. And in the larger, more money-driven world beyond Marvel’s comics, the company doesn’t own the cinematic rights to either the X-Men or the Fantastic Four – and in the wake of this reality-resetting mini-series, the X-Men have been reduced to one tiny splinter-group among many (with no iconic male Wolverine among their ranks), and the Fantastic Four has been eliminated altogether. The whole thing reeks not of a creative bullpen but of a corporate boardroom.

This particular issue had its strong points, as the entire mini-series has had: Hickman’s writing of these great, foundational Marvel characters crackles with life, and Esad Ribic’s artwork in these pages is the best stuff he’s ever done. But the plot makes little to no sense even by mega-event standards, and the end result is still a Marvel continuity in ass-over-tea kettle disarray. Maybe the next Secret Wars will have better luck.

January 7th, 2016

Comics! Obi-Wan & Anakin!

obi-wan1The onslaught of new Marvel Comics titles set in the world of Star Wars will now flow unabated, thanks to the grotesque, obscene box office success of the new Star Wars move, The Force Awakens (as of this writing, the movie has grossed over one trillion dollars and been officially inducted into the official liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church)(also, the planet Jupiter has been renamed “Poe Dameron”). And the latest of these is called Obi-Wan & Anakin and features, as that title might suggest, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his even-younger padawan apprentice Anakin Skywalker.

Star Wars fans have been given quite a lot of this curiously uninteresting duo. They were featured of course in the three big-budget travesties George Lucas made of his own original trilogy of movies, and they also starred in two excellent Clone Wars TV series. This new comic is set long before most obi-wan2of their adventures; Obi-Wan is a Jedi Master, a serenely powerful, grounded figure, and Anakin is a boy who appears to be on the doorstep of puberty (his height changes from panel to panel in this first issue, so it’s tough to tell), and they’re on a mission to the forbidding, ruined world of Carnelion IV in response to a strange distress call that seems to have come from a Jedi of some kind.

Young Anakin, already chaffing under the constraints of the Jedi Order, looks at the ruins on Carnelion and sharply wonders aloud to his master why the Jedi and the Senate had allowed the people of this world to destroy themselves, and Obi-Wan hands him the party line:

The Jedi Order is under the jurisdiction of the Senate. The same was true when this planet was destroyed. And even if we weren’t, there are only ten thousand of us to keep the light of peace alive in the galaxy. The Jedi can guide. We can teach. We can help people help themselves. But we are not an army. If a people are truly determined to write themselves out of existence, there is little we can do.

obi-wan3Naturally, the two immediately encounter adventures on Carnelion IV, and going into it, I was certain it would disappoint me, that it would feel derivative, and most of all that it would steadfastly avoid the mess of the whole subject of the master-padawan relationship in the Star Wars universe – what it is, why it so often goes so badly wrong (half the padawans mentioned in the movies turn evil and do so while their allegedly Force-sensitive masters sail blithely on, caught totally unawares)(and even this first issue features the ridiculous Lucas character Chancellor Palpatine, the Most Evil Person in the Universe who’s nonetheless somehow able to rub shoulders with dozens of Jedi Masters all day long without any of them suspecting a thing, when in every single such scene, a non-Jedi bus driver could easily see that this guy was curdled milk). And while that relationship gets no real attention in this first issue, boy oh boy it didn’t disappoint me! The writing by Charles Soule and the artwork by Marco Checchetto (with lovely coloring by Andres Mossa) combined to make a terrific first issue, my favorite of all Marvel’s new Star Wars comics so far.

November 21st, 2015

Comics: Yet More First Issues!

black knight 1For a solid fourth week of visits to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston, I’ve had first issues in my bag when I left. As I’ve mentioned here at Stevereads before, I remember when the appearance of a first issue was a big deal, fairly rare – finding one on the spinner rack of Trow’s Stationary was a rare and vaguely unsettling experience, a jostling of the universe’s settled order, and the troubling possibility, like a pregnancy, of introducing something dreadful into the world.

Of course, those were the days before the ridiculous speculator-boom hit the world of comics and turned every basement-dwelling, Doritos-scarfing, mouth-breathing virgin into a wheeler-dealer bagging every pristine new purchase in plastic, dreaming of reaping enormous profits when that copy of The Adventures of Razorback #1 squintuples in value. Nowadays, that mindset has taken firm root in the comics world, and as a result, comics companies – no fools them – have become quite liberal in their production of first issues.

Gone entirely is the even vague presumption that these first issues represent the optimistic beginnings of enterprises of great merit. Gone is even the pretense of hope for actual success. Nobody at Marvel, for example, expects to see a 100th-issue anniversary celebration of Karnak; it’s unlikely that the folks at DC see much potential for longevity in Bizarro. No, the most the various creators are probably hoping for in their new first issues is a long-enough run to fill up a couple of the graphic novels where the companies make their money anyway.

It can lead to some depressing reading experiences, but I’ve been mostly lucky this month,black knight2 and this week continued the streak. I bought, for instance, the first issue of Black Knight, in which writer Frank Tieri and artist Luca Pizzari find Dane Whitman, Marvel Comics’ Black Knight – a former member of the Avengers (including playing a major role in great Bob Harras/Steve Epting run on that title) – now the warlord of a weird planet in an alternate dimension, cut off from Earth but still visited regularly by the ghost of one of his illustrious Black Knight ancestors, who’s concerned that Dane Whitman is succumbing to the dark bloodlust embodied in his magic ebony sword.

It’s an interesting take on the character, and the issue ends with a nifty cliffhanger that will probably have me buying the second issue as well.

batman europa 1The week’s other first issue doesn’t quite count, since it only kicks off a mini-series, not an allegedly ongoing title (although since, as I mentioned, most new ongoing titles are such half-hearted affairs they fade into the woodwork fairly quickly anyway, there isn’t much of a difference between the two anymore): It’s DC’s Batman Europa #1, with script by Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello and artwork by Jim Lee, and it has a storyline that must have seemed like pure gold during some boozy pitch meeting: Batman finds himself infected with a mysterious, deadly virus, and the clues about it lead him to Berlin, where he finds the Joker menacing a young hacker who’s connected to the virus in some way. And in the course of the ensuing fisticuffs, it turns out that the Joker is likewise infected – and the two arch-enemies have to work together to hunt down a cure before they both die! Comic book gold, yes?

It doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny, of course. Not only is Joker’s involvement haphazardly mechanical (some guy finds him, tells him he’s been infected, and points him toward Berlin – Joker kills the guy without learning anything more from him than the presence somewhere in Berlin of the aforementioned young hacker – but no such guy makes a similar announcement to Batman; if he hadn’t used the super-sophisticated equipment of the Batcave, he’s simply have withered and died and been none the wiser), but the actual europa2script offers not one single believable reason why Batman would need to team up with a mass murderer in order to find the creator of the virus – the Joker brings nothing to the hunt. It’s a story that doesn’t manage to limp two paces outside that pitch meeting.

And yeesh, Cassali and Azzarello don’t exactly shine in the writing department this time around. Berlin itself is introduced with a chunk of dead prose, for instance:

For the dead, the defining city of the 20th century. War-tumbled into seclusion, then rolled into rage. But that pulse is now just an echo … through the Brandenburg Gate. The blood, though it’s still here … even at Checkpoint Charlie, now just a footnote of the past. That’s what Berlin has become – a bad dream that it wants to wake up from. Here, the Weimar Republic was burnt to the ground … and fifty years later, the Reichstag was built anew in glass and steel.

But the past … it may fade, but it doesn’t go away. The hill of the Berlin Planetarium is constructed from World War Two debris and rubble. When people gaze at the stars, their feet are firmly on a ground they can’t deny.

europa3And to add to these annoyances, there’s also the fact that this particular first issue, at $5, is roughly four pages long. The back half of the issue is entirely taken up with full-page in-house ads.

The only thing compensating all these drawbacks was something that actually took me a few pages to realize: this isn’t the “New 52” revamped Batman with the weird piping on his costume – it’s the normal Batman, and he’s dealing with a Joker clearly out of the established continuity of DC’s current lineup, a “classic” Joker dressed in green and purple. The story would need to get a whole lot better for me to return for another issue, but even so: it sure was nice to see DC trot out these iconic versions of their characters, even if it’s only for a mini-series.

November 11th, 2015

Comics! American Alien #1!

avengers1Today’s selection of new comics – reached at my beloved Comicopia through a miserable pining chilly mist – was typically broad and had plenty of interesting-looking new titles, including quite a few ever-optimistic first issues. In one of those, The All-New, All-Different Avengers (as with so much in the new, trendy, app-y Marvel Comics line, that title contains an in-joke you have to be sixty years old to get), the eventual roster of the Earth’s Mightiest Super-Team is apparently going to include three teenagers, but the first issue had a pretty Alex Ross cover.

The day’s new issues also included the next issue of Marvel’s “Secret Wars” squadronmini-series, the title that’s so good I always end up forgiving it for the brainless havoc it’s causing to a company and characters I’ve liked for decades. And there was the final issue of the “Secret Wars” spin-off mini-series Squadron Sinister, which featured fantastic artwork by Carlos Pacheco and a nifty little visual homage to an dkiconic DC Comics scene (this one from only thirty years ago … sigh …).

But the real standout for me this week will be fairly obvious to long-time readers of Stevereads: it was the first issue of a new DC mini-series called Superman: American Alien, written by Max Landis, who’ll be joined by a different artist every month.

One of the things I’ve always loved about the Superman mythos is the way it american alien1continually attracts re-envisionings like this. I think back to Superman: Birthright or Superman: Secret Identity or other mini-series that have brought me so much joy over the years by re-imagining the story of the Man of Steel according to each individual creator’s lights. Even when I don’t particularly like the re-imagining in question, I always, always like the passion.

And I loved this first issue, which focuses on the struggles young Clark Kent goes through in Smallville as his superpowers begin to manifest themselves. The boy is tormented by his desire to simply be normal, and his young parents are by turns terrified and american alien2exhilarated (“My baby can fly” Ma Kent says at one point, looking up in wonder), and it’s all done beautifully, both in Landis’ heartfelt script and the goofy, cartoonish artwork of Nick Dragotta. I came to the end of the issue with a bit smile on my face, eager to follow the next six installments.

The smile vanished the instant I saw the back-page author interview and made the connection with who this “Max Landis” is – son of schlock horror max landisdirector Joe Landis, and more importantly, independently and in his own right a monstrously egotistical, narcissistic, condescending asshole. By the time I was done choking down the interview (in which he insults his interviewer no fewer than six times) and looking at his smug asshole face, I was glad I’d only seen the feature after I read and loved the issue – If I’d made the Max Landis connection prior to visiting Comicopia, I’m pretty sure I would have skipped the issue. So I guess I’ll chalk it up to a good reminder: you shouldn’t hate the creation just because you hate the creator.

Unless the creator is Ezra Pound, of course.

November 5th, 2015

Comics: Hercules #1!

hercules1Yesterday’s comics featured – as they now tend to do on an almost alarmingly frequent basis – the first issue of a new series, in this case Hercules #1, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Luke Ross (the credits also include the rather hilarious line “Hercules created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby”). I bought it with fear and trembling, since the track record of Marvel Comics at re-envisioning their classic characters is spotty at best.

But I was pleasantly surprised: Abnett here gently updates the character about as well as such an update could be done. No violence is perpetrated upon the 60-year history Hercules has as a Marvel character (to put it mildly, this hasn’t always been the case: over the years, Hercules has been violated, de-powered, dumbed-down and conceptually neutered so many times you’d think he was every female superhero ever). True, he’s given a slight visual re-tweeking, but not only is it very slight (basically, he gets pants)(and a disastrous man-bun that looks every bit as ridiculous on him as it does on every 2015 douchebag who’s trying to make it popular), it’s also acknowledged: at one point, we see our current Hercules looking at a glass case containing his old traditional outfit, with its leather leg-lacings and odd ear-flaps.

This Hercules lives in Astoria and performs “labors” for fees, although his fees hercules2seem to take the form of “propitiations” – the two little boys who hire him in this issue to confront the disguised monster dating their older sister offer a Japanese trading card, for instance (there’s a wonderful little scene where we see him carefully add it to his collection).

While the boys are walking with him to their apartment, we get a good sample of the issue’s largely grounded dialogue (in a splash page that’s very well done by Ross, although considering the fact that this issue costs as much as a solid lunch, three splash panels in 15 pages might be a smidge too many):

“You’re really Hercules?”

“Yes, but that is just a name. I am also Herakles. Before that, I had other names.”

“What other names?”

“Old names. Names that were old by the time writing began. Names that were sung. I go by Hercules. I’ve become an adjective. Foolish to ignore that kind of recognition.”

And after he’s confronted and defeated the monster boyfriend, the boys ask him who taught him to be a hero, and he answers: “I picked it up as I went along. I labored at it. When I was becoming … what I am, there were no other heroes hercules3around to teach me.”

That idea – that Hercules was the first super-hero – is simple and winning, as is the issue’s underlying theme that Hercules is now willing to adapt to the modern world, using high-tech gear in combat in addition to swords and maces. And I’m hoping the presence in this issue of “The Forgotten One,” one of Marvel’s lamest characters despite the fact that he was an Avenger for about ten minutes, means there’ll be plenty of interaction here with the rest of the Marvel Universe.

So: a sigh of relief. A character-relaunch that succeeds on all counts. I won’t get too comfortable, mind you – this is still a company with its creative head mostly up its aesthetic ass – but I’ll buy the second issue.

October 16th, 2015

Comics: Good Old Lois & Clark!

lois & clark1Last week’s comics haul from my beloved Comicopia here in Boston yielded quite a bit of good stuff (including the third issue of Captain America: White and the first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America) and one item that was as confusing as it was heart-tugging for me: the first issue of what looks to be a regular ongoing series called Superman: Lois & Clark, written by Dan Jurgens and drawn with signature deftness by the great, unappreciated Lee Weeks.

In this first issue, we watch as Superman – not the popped-collar A-hole from DC’s “New 52” company-wide reboot, but the real Superman, built like a high school gym coach, wearing red underpants on the outside, sporting a spit-curl, standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way – watches the New 52 Justice League fight Darkseid in their first adventure together. He notes that these lois&clark2new kids are young and brash and full of themselves, but he doesn’t intervene – because this new world is “suspicious, doubting, edgy – without faith.”

Instead of helping out against Darkseid, my Superman flies back to a dilapidated farm house where my Lois Lane – the smart, world-class reporter who’s also the love of Superman’s life – is waiting with the little baby we saw born to the couple during one of those numerous and annoying “Convergence” spin-off titles (likewise drawn by Weeks) that we saw over the summer. In a touching scene, Lois & Clark decide that if this new world where they now find themselves doesn’t trust its own superheroes, it’s certainly not going to trust them, so Superman retires his iconic costume and they resolve to stay in hiding while they raise their child.

lois & clark 3Flash forward a few years, and the baby is a healthy normal boy who knows nothing of his father’s powers and abilities (although in a Marvel-style slip-up, the cover of this first issue reveals that he’s soon going to find out); Lois is a best-selling anonymous author, and Clark, wearing a variation of his old black post-Doomsday unitard, is secretly ‘helping out’ against natural disasters – and also keeping an eye out for the people who went on to become his supervillains back in his own reality. It’s a solid enough set-up, instantly possessing more humanity and believable pathos than all the New 52 re-inventions combined – and costume or no costume, it was joy to see the real Superman again. That was the heart-tugging part.

The confusing part came from wondering what in the Sam Hill was going on. I confess, I sort of drifted away from following the narrative train-wreck that was Convergence, so I didn’t catch how it ended. But is THIS how it ended? With all the pre-reboot versions of DC’s iconic characters alive and well in the New 52 reality? In this issue, Superman mentions that his versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, and Supergirl at least survived but decided to leave Earth for one reason or another, but what about everybody else? What about the pre-reboot Justice Society, or Batman, or a version of Wonder Woman who isn’t a thuggish, superpowered Conan the Barbarian in a corset?

And even if it is just Superman, isn’t that enough to royally screw around with the oh-so-carefully planned New 52 continuity? So the whole time we’re reading the adventures of the new Superman, we’ll now know there’s an older, more powerful, and quite simply better version of the character out there hiding someplace? Or are Jurgens and the DC powers that be going to integrate the black-clad version of the character into the new continuity? And if he can be integrated – if, say, he teaches his stupid New 52 comrades how to be aspirational superheroes instead of brooding dickwads – then wouldn’t he send up a flare to all the other reality-lois&clark4displaced pre-reboot characters, telling them to come back to the spotlight and reclaim their lives?

It seems like a crazily sloppy way to end an event like Convergence, a half-thought kink in the careful planning of DC’s new continuity. But as long as I get a Superman who loves Lois Lane, saves people, and stands for something, I’ll keep reading now matter how confusing it is. Now that DC has seen fit to give me some kind of ‘return of Superman,’ the only thing the company needs to do now in order to return entirely to my good graces is to give me the return of a certain 31st century super-team …

October 8th, 2015

Comics: Two Grand Old First Issues!

spider-man#1Among the spread of new comics on the wall at Comicopia this week were two first issues: Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and of course I bought them both. I liked the pairing in this case; back when I first started reading the adventures of these two characters, neither one had his own book, so seeing these two first issues together had an innate appeal.

This first new issue of Spider-Man is something of an anthology, with bits and snippets and teasers from upcoming Spider-Titles in what appears to be an enormous franchise. I think such expanded franchises are a very bad habit both Marvel and DC have picked up; I’m sure featuring their most popular characters in multiple monthly titles helps both companies to pay their bills, but I’ve virtually never seen the practice yield much in the way of quality storytelling. Multiple Batman titles have in the past served to water down the dramatic singularity of thespiderman character (he’s now the head of a large and loving family of costumed boys and girls, as absurd as that concept is and always has been); multiple X-Men titles brought about the terminal narrative congestion from which they still suffer today; neither I nor anybody else in the world could make any sense of the bewildering proliferation of Avengers titles and rosters that spread over half a dozen monthly comics. Who’s on the team? Who’s not? Who knows?

Luckily, this first issue does have a self-contained opening story that’s meant to introduce readers to this new iteration of the character. Gone is the awkward teenage web-slinger of years past, and gone is the lovable loser of later incarnations; instead, we get doctor strange #1a grown-up self-assured Peter Parker, wealthy CEO of Parker Industries, who has the world convinced that Spider-Man is his bodyguard. This Peter Parker is a philanthropist and model employer, but he also finds time to fight crime as Spider-Man (although he also employs a separate Spider-Man, or maybe more than one).

The issue won’t make much sense to readers who weren’t following the last three years of the character’s old title run, but it’ fairly entertaining even so. There’s a feeling of cautious, tepid re-invention to the whole industrialist-by-day crimefighter-by-night setup – a needlessly complicated setup, but who knows what some clever writers won’t be able to make out of it?strange

A very different situation obtains in the first issue of the new Doctor Strange: this is indeed a soup-to-nuts re-introduction for readers, and it works fantastically well, thanks in no small part to the incredible artwork of Chris Bachalo. We get Doctor Strange’s origin from way back in 1963 – a sturdy classic in no need of revamping – and we jump right into his mystical adventures in the present day. His look is unchanged (except that the grey hair at his temples has been colored in – after all, a fairly young man will be playing him in the Marvel movie next year) – the Eye of Agamatto, the Cloak of Levitation, the mustache, etc. By sticking to the basics and doing them with such infectious gusto, Marvel has put one of their flagship characters right back on the ‘must read’ list. Not a gimmicky gender-change in sight.

October 2nd, 2015

Comics: Paragons of Right!

cap white1This week’s comics presented a stark juxtaposition between old and new, tradition and innovation, and as much as I tend to hate the new and the innovative when it comes to superhero comics, my reactions this time around were tempered by quality, which is always a nice way to have your reactions tempered.

The ‘tradition’ side of the coin came in the form of the cap3second issue of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s mini-series “Captain America: White” (they have a color fixation, these two – thank Rao they didn’t use it with classic “Superman For All Seasons”), which is, as far as I can tell, a completely straightforward four-square adventure featuring Captain America and his sidekick Bucky during World War II, fighting alongside Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos. I read the first issue with a strange kind of wariness – a wariness born of the fact that Marvel Comics is currently in the midst of a veritable lumbar-spasm of pointless, frantic, lunging, caterwauling “innovation” that’s giving rise to new series after imbecile new series and laying waste to virtually every old or established title they’ve ever done. There’s virtually no solid ground to stand on anymore in the once-rich Marvel Universe, so when I saw that first issue of “Captain America: White” at my beloved Comicopia here in Boston, I cringed a little, reflexively wondering if some writer’s new take on Cap was going to be that he’s a coke head, or a white supremacist.

It turns out I needn’t have worried – this Loeb & Sale schtick is so commercially and artistically successful that they’re obviously allowed to do it in all weathers, regardless of the lunacy prevailing in the rest of the company. The story they’re cap white2telling is just a fairly simple paean to the friendship that’s taken root between Captain America and his sidekick – with a healthy dose of rapid-fire exchanges between superhumanly idealistic Cap and gruffer, more pragmatic Nick Fury, who in this second issue quips that he’s fighting Hitler alongside Little Orphan Annie.

Our heroes were shot out of the sky over a stretch of ocean at the end of the previous issue, and as this issue opens, Bucky must make a tough choice to lug the capt2drowning Cap to the surface: he has to cut loose Cap’s famous shield and let it float to the bottom. He expects Cap to be furious at losing his one-of-a-kind weapon (in the series’ only nod to the all-powerful Marvel movie franchise, Bucky comments on how Howard Stark invented it), but Jeph Loeb’s pitch-perfect characterization of Captain America makes such a reaction unthinkable: this Cap is every inch what he’s been for capt4Marvel Comics for so many decades: their paragon of right. When he later gets his shield returned to him in a nifty splash page featuring Tim Sale’s rendition of the Sub-Mariner, all is set aright (although the Sub-Mariner then apparently disappears, neither helping his comrade up the side of an enormous mountain nor sticking around to help fight what’s at the top of it – it’s literally Atlantean-ex-machina).

Despite their very different power-levels and background-stories, the Captain America equivalent over at DC Comics – in terms of being a paragon of right – has always been Superman. That characterization has taken some serious dings in the last few years during the company’s “New 52” continuity reboot (the “New 52” Superman could never in a supermanmillion years be suspected of standing for truth, justice, and the American way – more like arrogance, popped collars, and dating Wonder Woman), and those dings have only increased lately, since DC’s entire run of superhero comics is every bit as much of a flailing, screeching, foaming, raving pancreas-discharge of “innovation” as Marvel is, with virtually no characters or titles escaping radical and disastrously misconceived changes.

No one has been more affected by this than Superman, the company’s flagship character. At some editorial meeting somewhere, several writers who really should have known better obviously got together and said, “Let’s strip away everything ga1that makes Superman Superman” – and the ongoing “Truth” plot line unfolding across all of the character’sga2 monthly titles is the result: gone are the bulk of the superpowers; gone is the big red cape; gone is the ability to fly; gone is the secret identity of Clark Kent – Superman is outed to the world and is therefore forced, in this latest issue of Superman (with a variant cover by Kevin Nowlan in honor of the 75th anniversary of Green Lantern, showing the pre-reboot incarnations of both characters, to the melancholy pang of readers like me), to make an online video telling all his enemies that if they attack his friends and family, he’ll retaliate a thousandfold (the specific thing prompting the warning is that Perry White gets superman1shot by a man in retaliation for a crime he believes Superman committed, and this in turn prompts the issue’s best moment, when an angry, convalescing Perry White slaps the glasses off Clark Kent’s face – the John Romita Jr. artwork is typically brilliant)(although it competes throughout the issue with full-page ad after full-page ad for DC’s live-action TV series about Green Arrow, once again the superman3all-powerful cinematic franchise wagging the dog of the comics that made it possible in the first place). When Lois Lane desperately reminds him that “an eye for an eye isn’t how Superman is supposed to work,” this former paragon of right tells her, “Maybe not before.”

Which is sacrilege, of course, but while I was reading this issue, I was struck by just how well-done a version of sacrilege it is. Writer Gene Luen Yang in this issue – and the writers of Superman’s other titles – are busily telling a story that should never be told … the Clark Kent secret identity, the cape, the powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, these things aren’t obstacles to telling Superman stories, if you’re creative enough … but as I was reading this issue and thinking back to all the earlier issues of “Truth” I’ve read this summer, I couldn’t miss how good it all is. As a tale of Superman’s world tearing apart, it’s intelligently and dramatically done.

And it’s not like this version of the character is my version anyway. We saw the last of that version earlier this year – except for this quick issue-cover glimpse.

August 27th, 2015

Comics: Clinging to Art!

superman coverBoth the big superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, are currently in continuity turmoil that would be shocking if it weren’t so crucially boring. And it makes the weekly trip to my beloved Comicopia here in Boston a bit of a trial. Gone beyond reclamation – almost beyond recall – are the days when superhero storylines had a comforting sameness, when Thor was fighting Ulik the Troll and the Justice League was teaming up with the Justice Society. Gone, indeed, are the days when the basic givens of Thor – good guy, hell, even male – or the Justice League were, in fact, givens. Instead, what with Marvel’s Secret Wars and its upshot and DC’s Convergence, every given of previous decades seems to be up for grabs, and the ongoing monthly titles that will arise from both these events very likely won’t resemble anything old or be anything stable themselves. The Fantastic Four? Gone. The X-Men? Split. The Avengers? A quantum astrophysicist couldn’t figure out their current eighteen teams.

It’s lead to bizarre shocks for a stuffy old comics reader such as myself. I had such a shock a superman3few weeks ago when I stumbled into a Superman story that I initially took to be a dark, weird, alternate-reality take on the character: not just possessing, as near as I could tell, his original 1938 power set, but also having had his secret identity as Clark Kent exposed to the world. It turns out this isn’t an alternate-reality isolated story at all – the confusing thing is only that DC is unfolding the story in an odd (perhaps incompetent? I can’t imagine them wanting to roll it out ass-backwards like this) way, giving us the aftermath in Action Comics before giving us the big events themselves in Superman. In Action Comics, we see a bitter, buzz-cut Superman, secret identity already exposed, living an embattled hellboy in hellfugitive existence. In Superman, we see the more ‘traditional’ Superman, still fighting to save his secret identity from an anonymous blackmailer, still abundantly superpowered, etc. Reading these issues week-to-week is an oddly disjointed experience.

But one thing struck me today as I browsed the shelves at Comicopia: comic book artists have to eat. The best of them go where the money is, and their work is every bit as enjoyable as whether or not the stories they serve make much sense. And for a nice stretch of issues now, Superman has been drawn by one of the best comic book artists in the business: John Romita Jr. And hellboy1reading his latest issue – in which it’s Lois Lane herself who reveals Superman’s secret identity to the world, in order to free him from the grip of his blackmailers – was like listening to a comic book symphony … just fantastic work on every page. Fantastic enough, I was happy to discover, to allow me to ignore the nonsense of the story itself.

Of course, it’s nicer not to need to do that, and today’s comics gave me another art-driven opportunity: the great artist/writer Mike Mignola, who’s currently producing (veeery slowly, hellboy2but still) a series starring his signature character, Hellboy, called Hellboy in Hell. It’s a protracted and tangled story in which our demonic hero dies and goes to Hell for his latest series of adventures (once I’ve scrutinized the inevitable graphic novel, I’ll report back on the plot itself), and it features the best artwork Mignola has ever done.

Paging through Hellboy in Hell was in some ways a very different experience from paging through Superman – Mignola has mastered the now-outdated art of making his character consistently interesting while also keeping him consistently the same – but the two comics had that one big thing in common: giants doing the art. And in these chaotic latter days, that’ll have to be good enough.

August 6th, 2015

Comics: Civil War Returns!

civil war 1Among yesterday’s comics was a “Secret Wars” spin-off set in the world Marvel Comics readers first saw in 2006-07’s “Civil War” mini-series, with artwork by Leinil Francis Yu and very solid writing by Charles Soule, the first two issues made for some snappy comics – just like most of the original “Civil War” stories did, ten years ago.

The basic premise of those stories is summarized quite well by one of the characters in this new spin-off series:

Six hundred people died when some inexperienced heroes took on a group of bad guys who were out of their league. Six hundred dead. Sixty were children. Who was responsible? Whose fault was it? That’s where it started. It almost seems quaint now – even to me. The new law – the S.H.R.A. – drew a line in the sand. You want to operated as a super-powered person? You register. You take off your mask. You get trained. And then, but only then, can you fight.

Tony Stark spearheaded the whole thing, and I can see why it appealed to him. The order. The safety. But not everyone agreed with Stark. Steve Rogers, for one. He saw the S. H. R. A. as a violation of the inherent principles of liberty upon which the nation was founded. Iron Man’s people called it registration. Captain America called it enlistment. No, conscription. He called it wrong. And so the battle began.

And as should be immediately obvious from such a summary, this is one of those “big” Marvelcap & stark stories from which there should realistically come no happy ending (fan favorite writer Warren Ellis is especially good at thinking up these kinds of storylines, playing with them until he gets bored, and then dropping the whole steaming mess in some other writer’s lap). The US government would require super-powered vigilantes to be legally accountable for what they do; the US government would regulate the activities of individuals who can blow up whole city blocks without breaking a sweat; and, more to the point, registration and training would make the world a safer place – one of the key and overlooked points of the original “Civil War” stories was the fact that the government wasn’t just offering training and a weekly stipend to anybody, hero or villain, who signed up, it was also doing the heroes’ job more effectively than the heroes ever had: rounding up the super-powered bad guys and keeping them rounded up.

civil war2And the thing that would prevent a neat little happy ending is that once the US government started up things like Super Hero Registration and high-tech enforcers to capture super-powered dissenters, it wouldn’t just stop simply because Captain America and Iron Man somehow worked out their differences, shook hands, and went back to beating up super-villains. In this excellent spin-off series, Soule imagines a world extending onward from the original “Civil War” series, a world in which the two sides have hardened into two armed mini-kingdoms locked in a perpetual Cold War, and the world he’s come up with here is bleaker but a whole lot more plausible than the back-to-normal wrap-up the original series eventually got.

It’ll all become much more front-and-center relevant for comics fans in 2016 when Captain America: Civil War (the follow-up to Captain America: Winter Soldier, which has so far grossed about eleventy-billion dollars) brings a version of the story to the movie screen. I’ll be watching for the happy ending – and hoping I don’t get one.