Posts from October 2015

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.

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.

May 3rd, 2012

Comics: AvX Chapter 3!

Marvel’s “Avengers vs X-Men” mini-series trundles on, although for the non-comics world, the clock is definitely ticking toward the moment when nobody even remembers the X-Men – the “Avengers” movie, already praised by every critic in in the world, is about to hit movie theaters and become the biggest geek-fest since the Third Lateran Council (rumors that a certain X-Men – not to mention a certain web-slinger – make lightning-quick cameo appearances in said movie will just have to wait a day for confirmation or dismissal). Thinking about those big-screen incarnations of these grand old comics titles really underscores what an outmoded system Hollywood uses by relying on actual physical actors for their special effects extravaganzas … if the movie-going public were as well-acclimated to entirely animated characters like gamers find in their video games, not only would that technology itself now be vastly more advanced, but something like a big-screen “Avengers vs X-Men” movie would be entirely possible – only with digitally reproduced likenesses opening the casting doors wide! Imagine Errol Flynn as Tony Stark! A young Arnold Schwarzenegger as Thor! A young James Dean as the tortured Cyclops! Robert Redford, of course, as Captain America … and best of all, a young, dynamic James Cagney as Wolverine! And all of them displaying not some very expensive rough approximation of their comic-book superpowers but a glorious exact translation of them! But instead, Hollywood is yoked to ‘real people,’ whose personal schedules, rampant greed, and various drug addictions are almost impossible to line up into one movie, let alone ten … maddening.

In the meantime, we have comic book mini-series like “AvX”! As you may recall, the story is fairly simple (at least as far as comics stories go): the Phoenix Force, a gigantically destructive alien energy being (in the form of an enormous bird – one can only imagine the destructive capacity of the Basset Force), is headed for Earth intent on using a human being as a host-body and wreaking incalculable damage. The hostess mostest likely is a young mutant super-hero named Hope, and that makes her the football in a grudge-match between the X-Men, who hope she might be able to harness the Phoenix energies to restore the ravaged ranks of mutantkind, and the Avengers, who want to take the girl into protective custody until they can figure out a way to defeat the Phoenix Force. This grudge-match naturally makes life difficult for the eighteen or nineteen super-powered Marvel characters who’ve at one point or another been both X-Men and Avengers … all except Wolverine, who alone has no conflict about what has to be done: he just wants to kill Hope, seeing that as the only solution to the coming problem (he had the same stabby solution in mind when the Scarlet Witch went rogue – what can we say? He’s Canadian).

In this latest issue, the fact that he wants to solve his problems with cold-blooded homicide brings him into conflict with Captain America, and there’s a quick little fight in the back of an Avengers aircraft, with Cap getting in some solid punches and Wolverine trying to gut the hero of WWII. It’s fairly well done stuff by artist John Romita Jr., although it raises a question I’ve been asking about Wolverine for some thirty years now: why the Hell wouldn’t the rest of Marvel’s super-heroes just take a second and pot this guy? Is there even a single character in the Marvel line-up who hasn’t been slashed, stabbed, or gutted by Wolverine – and never when he’s possessed or anything like that, just because he thought it was the right thing to do at the time? Why doesn’t the Human Torch simply blast all the flesh off his bones and call it a maiming averted? There’s not a court in the land that would convict him.

Be that as it may, the Avengers don’t pot him – they just dump him out of the plane and go on their way … an incredibly contrived way writer Ed Brubaker has thought up to split both teams into more manageable groups for hero-fighting purposes (ala “The Avengers vs The Defenders,” from long, long ago). Those match-ups will likely happen next issue, if they don’t happen off-stage in one of the “AvX” spin-off titles. We’ll see next time.

April 18th, 2012

Comics! AvX and an ‘ah’ Moment!

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

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

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

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

April 4th, 2012

Comics: Avengers vs X-Men!

As we’ve noted many times before in this space, the two major superhero comics companies, DC and Marvel, very much love their multi-issue multi-title mega ‘events.’ I used to say Marvel liked these events more than DC, but since the launch of ‘the new 52,’ all of DC has become one big ongoing mega-event gimmick … so we’re left with Marvel, which has outdone itself in the last ten years with these things. We’ve had House of M, Civil War, Siege, and a few others, and all have had their wowing moments.

This summer’s Marvel event is brutally childish in its winning simplicity: Avengers vs X-Men! The plot, such as it is, breaks down like this: the destructive alien energy-being known as the Phoenix is on its way to Earth, and the likely speculation is that it’s headed for Hope, the time-displaced potential ‘savior’ of the tiny handful of mutants left after the events in “House of M.” Marvel’s assembled mutant super-heroes, the X-Men, are determined to keep custody of Hope until they figure out what to do about the returning Phoenix-force; the Avengers, badly spooked by their experiences with their own mutant member the Scarlet Witch, want to take Hope into their own custody. After a brief discussion of the salient pros and cons, Cyclops, the leader of the X-Men, has a tactful little disagreement with Captain America, the leader of the Avengers:

And we’re off to the races! This first issue is written, of course, by the ubiquitous Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by the resplendent John Romita Jr (with some very good coloring by Laura Martin), and it manages to be both a block of exposition and pretty darn thrilling too. Each team has some heavyweight characters (in this and in many other things, it’s reminiscent – accidentally, no doubt – of the ‘Avengers vs Defenders’ story from the 1970s, Marvel’s very first mega-event) to keep the match-ups interesting: the Avengers have Thor, the Red Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and the Thing (who’s an Avenger and a member of the Fantastic Four – which might just be dumb enough to be Bendis’ own idea), and the X-Men have Cyclops, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, Colossus, and Magneto … and there are some interesting conflicts of loyalties, since Wolverine, the Beast, and Storm, despite being mutants and X-Men, have all recently been Avengers.

In short, if Marvel doesn’t screw things up, this latest mega-event could be a very nice distraction from the summer’s non-stop, record-breaking heat and humidity.

And yet, despite the pyrotechnics involved in the launch of “AVX,” my favorite moment in Marvel comics this week came from a title I customarily ignore, “Wolverine and the X-Men,” written by Jason Aaron and drawn with quirky brilliance by the great Chris Bachalo. Lord only knows what the larger ongoing plotlines in this thing are, but this latest issue features an utterly winning sequence in which X-Men founding member Hank McCoy, aka The Beast, is fighting the savage villain Sabretooth. Fighting and losing, which is what long-time original X-Men fans such as myself have come to expect: the original team-members will always get their mutant anatomies handed to them by the various oh-so-cool heroes and villains who’ve sprung up in the pages of Marvel comics since. The Beast is a blue-furred fast-healing super-strong super-nimble scientific genius and experienced fighter … if you remove the ‘cool’ factor that’s attached to Sabretooth for the past twenty years, you come to one quick conclusion: in a no-holds-barred fight, the Beast should handily dispose of Sabretooth.

And yet in this issue he’s losing badly, and the irony is that Aaron puts my own thoughts into Sabretooth’s dialogue: “You use big words to remind everybody how smart you are. You run from that darkness. And that’s what holds you back. God knows you’re smarter than Wolverine. Stronger too. And deep down, just as much of an animal, if not more. You could put him to shame as a fighter in every way, if you ever wanted to.”

But then at the last minute, Aaron has the apparently-defeated Beast pull out a fantastic long-shot win, and the way Aaron does it had me smiling. Moments this good featuring the original X-Men are rare enough; I’m happy to savor this one for a while.