Posts from March 2017

March 22nd, 2017

Comics! Big Guys in Red Capes!


Both DC and Marvel Comics have always had their flagship Big Guy in a Red Cape – with DC it’s of course been Superman, the strongest and most powerful of all the DC superheroes, and with Marvel it’s been the thunder god Thor, the Asgardian warrior-god sojourning on Earth and adventuring with Earth’s superheroes. And in this week’s latest comics offerings, both these Big Guys in Red Capes undergo remarkably similar adventures – but with disappointingly different outcomes.

action976In Action Comics #976, the “Superman Reborn” storyline comes to a high-flying if very nearly incomprehensible conclusion, written by Dan Jurgens and drawn with real energy by Doug Mahnke. The story seems to have been conceived in order to address some of the roughly 1 million problems created by DC’s “New 52” company-wide reboot from years ago, a reboot that took the traditional iteration of Superman – a fairly square, intensely human superbeing who fights for what’s right and is in love with Lois Lane – and transformed him into a shallow, omnipotent jerkwad with a pipped uniform, popped collars, and no romantic interest in any puny weakling human woman (instead, he falls in lust with Wonder Woman because she has an impressive dead-lift). This substitute Superman was, of course, intensely unsatisfying as a dramatic character, and as fan clamoring over the years grew louder on that point, DC finally decided to wipe out that new Superman and restore the old one, complete with his beloved wife Lois Lane and – in a new and actionspreadwonderful twist – they have a young son named Jon.

In this latest issue’s whirlwind conclusion, those two Supermen merge somehow, for some unknown reason, and Mahnke illustrates the outcome with a two-page spread that’s clearly meant to establish at single visual stroke the new, smoothed-over past and present of this Man of Steel, and Jurgens provides the appropriate narration:

“This changes everything. A new, existence-wide, single reality, rebuilt from two. A timeline and history both familiar … and new. With lives realigned. Consistent with the memories and experiences of all. Everything solidified. Locked in … so it all fits.”

unworthy thor5There’s a very similar narrative arc coming to its conclusion over in Marvel’s five-issue mini-series The Unworthy Thor, which likewise deals with the fallout of an ill-conceived earlier comics “event” storyline. In that earlier event, the mighty Thor lost ownership of his mystic hammer … which then came into the possession of a human woman who assumed both the powers and – bewilderingly, irritatingly – the very name of Thor, leaving our original character saddled with the lackluster name “Odinson.” It was all completely ridiculous, a puling sop tossed to some addled idea of “inclusivity” – and at a stroke it both created a watered-down ersatz echo of Thor and set adrift the original Thor, who we find in The Unworthy Thor striving to come to terms with crippling self-doubt and regain possession of a mystic hammer.

When he finally comes to grip that hammer, writer Jason Aaron and artist Olivier Coipel presentthorspreaduse a wonderfully uplifting moment, the moment when Thor regains his nobility and seems poised to regain his mantle. “I am Thor,” he says, overlaid on a two-page spread showing the character’s history in Marvel Comics. “I am the mighty Thor. The god of thunder.”

But he doesn’t take up the hammer. He stays the hammerless Odinson. So although I was pleased by the ending of “Superman Reborn” because it at least partially restored my favorite DC superhero to his natural state (not quite all the way, but at least partially), I got no such satisfaction when it came to my favorite Marvel superhero. So next month I’ll have the adventures of something very much like “my” Superman … but no Thor in sight, alas.

May 19th, 2016

Comics! Civil War II!

civilwarIIIt would surely have dumbfounded the Steve from 10 years ago, but nevertheless: I’ve largely succeeded in weening myself from buying weekly comics. It’s not quite the impressive act of will that it might sound, mainly because my two age-old superhero comic book companies, Marvel and DC, have done their part recently by putting out such sloping piles of putrescent garbage that actually buying the issues every week would have required the act of will.

There’ve been glimmers of hope, of course – issues and runs on titles from both companies in recent years that were quite good. But these glimmers were never alluring enough to bring me entirely back to buying small piles of overpriced single-issue comics ever Wednesday at Comicopia here in Boston. The one thing that’s tended to be an exception over the years has been the big “event” miniseries both companies roll out once a year – not because the general work tends to be any better, but because they plots tend to be so much fun.

10 years ago, one of the most entertaining of those “event” miniseries was Marvel’s “Civil War,” in which a deadly explosion and the death of innocents during a superhero/supervillain fight in Connecticut prompts the US government to impose legal controls on the super-beings in their midst: register with the authorities, undergo training and indoctrination, draw a stipend – or face prosecution and imprisonment. It cw2was a nice big idea, written by Mark Millar, and it was fun to watch it unfold, even though it had two major problems: first, there was no conceivable reason why all of the good guys – and, hell, plenty of the bad guys – would have objected to the plan, and second, no matter who joined which side and no matter how it all ended, there was no realistic way Marvel continuity would ever be able to go back to the way it had been before.

And yet, blithely, both those things happened. Sides formed, there were lots of nifty battles, Captain America was briefly inconvenienced by being assassinated, and eventually everybody ended up being friends – and free, unregistered agents – again. It was all utterly impossible – friends who turn against each other and imprison each other in gulags don’t forgive each other and go back to fighting agents of Hydra like nothing cw3had happened. A civil war in the ranks of Marvel’s superheroes is a humdinger of an idea … but it’s the last Marvel story, not just one in a duck-row of stories.

And if it that story was implausible the first time, how much more implausible is it a second time? This summer, the Marvel Comics “event” miniseries is “Civil War II,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by David Marquez, in which battle lines are drawn again. This week Marvel came out with “Civil War II” #0, a kind of prequel issue tracing some of the tensions that presumably will lead to the outbreak of the Civil War next month. It’s written by Bendis and drawn exquisitely by Olivier Coipel (such a shame that he won’t be doing the mini-series himself), and it’s a busy issue – many little plot-snippets, from two college students being abruptly mutated to a second-string superhero named War Machine being groomed by the US President to enter high politics. There’s a wonderful bit with the She-Hulk, a gamma-irradiated cousin of the Hulk and also a lawyer, is in court defending a C-grade villain who’s on trial basically because his kind can’t be trusted. His subsequent death in prison is clearly a moving moment for She-Hulk, but we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out.

But the central plot-snippet involves long-time Marvel military character Carol Danvers, a vaguely super-powered Captain Marvel, who’s on the leading edge of response-teams tasked with handling sudden eruptions of super-violence. In her scene, she’s visited by Doc Samson, a kind of super-psychologist, who gently questions her about the massive responsibilities of her job.

She talks emphatically about how she feels like she’s “fighting the weather” in constantly cw4fire-spotting trouble as soon as it happens. She gropingly wants something better:

Captain Marvel: “I just … with all that we know … with all that we have seen and experienced … I just wish there was that thing, that one thing, that would …”

Doc Samson: “Protect us from all comers?”

Captain Marvel: “ Yes.”

Doc Samson: “But maybe we’re it. Maybe that’s why we are … the way we are … and why we are who we are.”

Captain Marvel: “And what if one day we’re just not enough?”

Doc Samson: “So far, so good.”

It seems clear to me that this conversation will end up being crucial to “Civil War II,” although I’m not sure how. I’m also not sure how this will be much of a war; one of Marvel’s in-house ads shows a rough summary of the two sides, one led by Captain Marvel and the other by Iron Man, and even in the ad it’s glaringly obvious how lopsided those sides are. Captain Marvel has Captain America, Spider-Man, the Vision … and Iron Man’s has the Hulk, Man-Bun Hercules, and Thor.

That should be no contest. Maybe I’ll buy just the first issue.

July 27th, 2011

Comics! Palliative, Schmalliative!

This agonizing mental split continues: ordinarily, I’d be so pleased with the monthly hijinks over at Marvel Comics these days that they would almost certainly command whole comics entries to themselves. There’s a great prelude to what promises to be a really interesting story-line, “Spider-Island” over in Spider-Man, and there’s the continuation of that fantastic Kree/Inhumans story in FF, and there’s a gritty, involving new story in Captain America featuring a lavishly re-imagined telling of Cap’s first partnership with young Bucky Barnes, and there’s the second issue of X-Men: Schism, which is every bit as neatly written as the first one was … that’s a lot of good stuff, and there’s one thing towering over all the rest: the continuation of “The Galactus Seed” in Thor, with charismatic, evocative scripting by Matt Fraction and vivid, powerful artwork by Olivier Coipel (including an absolutely amazing sequence in which Fraction demonstrates again that he considers Thor to be the single most powerful character in the Marvel universe – in this case, he pounds the Silver Surfer into the dusty soil of Mars, stands over him, and says “You want to die on Mars? I have no problem killing you on Mars …”)

Like I said, at any other time, such delectable comics moments would be more than enough to satisfy me. But all of this good stuff takes place in the shadow of the coming DC apocalypse, when the company will scrap not only all of its ongoing titles but all the rich, 80-year back-story of those titles, in favor a “New 52″ reboot that will entirely change the face of some of the most recognizable superheroes the industry has ever known. And as if a change of that magnitude weren’t bad enough – as if it didn’t already constitute a fairly serious insult to those of us fans who’ve been reading and enjoying those superheroes for a chunk of that 80 years, DC is recently going one better: they’re coming out with special “RetroActive” issues of all their flagship characters.

The issues feature a new main story set in earlier creative eras of characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (written and drawn by some of the biggest names from decades ago – including quite a few creators I’d have assumed were dead by now), and each new story is backed up by a reprint of a story actually written and drawn in that era. The Superman issue, for instance, features a new story by Martin Pasko (with artwork by Eduardo Barreto) and a backup reprint by Cary S. Bates and the legendary Curt Swan.

I understand why DC is doing this – it’s actually quite canny on their part. Not only are they cashing in on the long and storied heritages of these characters one last time before they run a company-wide reboot they’re apparently taking very seriously, but in doing so, they get a perfect chance to make their case for that reboot by implication. “Look at these past eras of all your favorite characters,” they’re saying. “You can see how drastically things have changed from then to now, and yet the characters survived, and good stories were written – so change isn’t necessarily bad.” That’s a very smart move, and to an extent it even worked on me – but the ultimate validity of it is entirely based on two things: relative overall continuity, which usually carried from one incarnation of these characters to the next and which this upcoming apocalypse is abandoning entirely, and the staying power of the quality of those various incarnations – which is completely up for grabs in “the New 52.” Yes, some of the initial creative teams for some of the new titles are the best in the business … but they’re also the most fickle. Who’s to say how well all these new titles will be done once their famous starting line-ups have wandered off to other projects?

I’ll hope for the best, but if I were Eduardo Barreto, I’d stay by the phone.

February 5th, 2010

Comics! Siege 2

A bunch of comics came out this week, but in the superhero world, only one of them mattered much, and it would matter even if it didn’t matter, if you know what I mean – because the writing features Brian Michael Bendis doing his choppy, impressionistic, weirdly beguiling thing with dialogue (he’s the best of the current bunch of ‘no exposition’ comics writers), and because it features the stunning, mind-warpingly great artwork of Olivier Coipel. These two could make Scrooge McDuck matter.

The series of course is “Siege” from Marvel, and naturally it matters for reasons other than its creative team, although it should be stressed that said team has seldom been in stronger form. No, this four-issue mini-series matters because it’s the culmination and climax of the company-wide “Dark Reign” story that’s been playing out in Marvel’s comics for the last few years. Some of you will already be familiar with that scenario (from previous Stevereads entries, if nothing else – just follow the tags!): Norman Osborn, the ersatz Green Goblin, has wormed his way into the country’s good graces and taken command of H.A.M.M.E.R., a gigantic paramilitary force of stormtroopers. And when he’s wearing his super-powered armor and going under the code-name Iron Patriot, he also commands his own team of Avengers, composed of villains dressed in hero costumes – plus the Sentry (think: Superman only biddable and psychotic) and Ares, the Greek god of war.

In the lead-up to “Siege,” as we’ve seen, Norman Osborn, manipulated by the evil norse god Loki (and drunk on power the old-fashioned way), has declared war on Asgard, the home city of the norse gods, which is currently floating above Oklahoma. Osborn talks about how the city forms a real and present threat to America just by being there, and in the first issue of “Siege” he gathers his troops and invades.

So “Siege” #2 starts off in the chaos of general battle, with Osborn’s troops and Avengers fighting a city full of enraged and not all that out-gunned Asgardians (swords and spears are pretty damn effective if you’re super-strong, which every single Asgardian is). Coipel’s pencils are magnificent – he’s able to convey the huge sweep of what’s going on without taking any drama away from the one-on-one encounters throughout the book, the first of which is key to this issue: the Asgardian warriors Balder and Heimdall convince Ares that he’s been duped, that Osborn is really his enemy.

There’s other stuff going on in this issue, but that’s the core story: Ares turns on Osborn, knocks him out of the sky, and is about to cut his head off when the Sentry intervenes, beats the stuffing out of Ares, and then, well … takes him out of the fight entirely, let’s say. The issue ends with Osborn unleashing the Sentry on Thor, Asgard’s greatest warrior and resident super-hero – and with Osborn himself coming under attack by none other than Captain America, alive again and fighting mad, leading his own group of reinforcements into battle. It’s a great cliffhanger ending to a great issue, but it leaves me wondering two things:

First: if Bendis is going to portray the Sentry as so powerful – able to dispatch the god of war with relative ease, likely to pound the stuffing out of Thor in the next issue – then why would Osborn need this mysterious reserve operative he’s been darkly hinting about for the last year? We don’t know who that mysterious operative is (although if you follow the aforementioned tags, you’ll see where I made my own prediction, months and months ago – a prediction I’m sticking with), but he hardly seems Needed, if this is what Osborn’s pet psycho can do all by himself.

Second: Even at the breakneck pace this thing is developing, how can it possibly wrap up in only two issues? Captain America re-entering the fray; Thor fighting the Sentry, this mysterious operative entering the fray, Iron Man presumably showing up at some point … not to mention the fact that if long-term grudge-matches are going to be honored here, Spider-Man (currently just a background member of Cap’s reinforcements) should surely take pride of place, no? Osborn killed his beloved Gwen Stacey, after all! How Bendis can possibly resolve all this in only 50 more pages is beyond me.

But I’ll certainly be along for the ride. This issue erases all my slight misgivings about the first issue of this series: this is epic-style Marvel done just right.

January 8th, 2010

Comics! Siege begins!

This week sees the first installment of Marvel Comics’ next Big Thing: a four-part series called Siege. The back story will be familiar to those of you who’ve been paying attention here at Stevereads – Norman Osborn, the murderous ersatz Green Goblin, has professed to be a changed man, wormed his way into the President’s good graces, and been placed in charge of the super paramilitary organization known as H.A.M.M.E.R. He’s recruited his own team of ‘dark’ Avengers, and for several months now readers have been treated to a surprisingly entertaining dystopian version of the usual Marvel continuity … the bad guys have been in charge, hunting down, torturing, and even killing the good guys.

It’s yielded some good stories, and one of the things that made those stories good was the background current of tension that’s been building the whole time. Norman Osborn has been written consistently as a smarmy psychopath with only a tenuous hold on his own sanity, and his team of Avengers have for the most part been written as unabashed scumbags. Readers like me have been both fascinated and appalled, and every month the prospect of Osborn’s fall from power – and the face-stomping his team of storm troopers so richly deserves – has grown just a little more delicious in the aniticpating.

Marvel’s in-house ads hint pretty strongly that Siege is the story of that downfall – that the core trio of the real Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, will reunite to bring about the return of the so-called Heroic Age Marvel’s been touting lately. We’ll see if that turns out to be true, but in the meantime, this issue opens with a bang.

Bang as in explosion. Osborn and the evil Norse god Loki conspire to orchestrate an catastrophic incident involving a bunch of energy-wielding bad guys and one Volstagg, a warrior who’s left the fabled city of Asgard (which now floats ten feet above some empty scrubland in Oklahoma, as seen in last year’s new run of Thor’s own comic) in search of adventure. The catastrophic incident involves a crowded football stadium, and Osborn uses its aftermath to justify launching a full-scale invasion of Asgard, spearheaded by his own super-powered shock troops. That invasion is launched in this first issue, which is written by Brian Michael Bendis in his usual spastic way and gloriously illustrated by Olivier Coipel.

Osborn’s surveillance intelligence tells him Thor is not in Asgard at the moment (readers of Thor’s own book will recall that, for the millionth time, he’s been exiled from his hometown), so his hopes of success are high. His ‘dark’ Avengers move in with Air Force fighter jets and catch the Asgardians by surprise, and the fighting is in full fury when Thor does indeed show up – only to get rather unceremoniously knocked around by the bad guys. The issue ends with things looking fairly bleak for Asgard.

The two main problems that usually afflict comic book Big Things are a) inconsistent characterization of the major players, or b) incoherent plotting, and Bendis avoids both those pitfalls in this first issue, and he does quite a bit right besides. The elements are in place here for a tremendously satisfying story – not only the prospect of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man reuniting but also the classic overreaching Osborn has been doing all along, culminating in this issue when he angrily delegates to an assistant the task of telling the President that he’s going to invade Asgard (“I’m done talking to that man,” he snarls, and a later scene in the White House makes it clear the President feels the same about him). And certainly attacking an entire city full of warrior gods can be classified as overreaching.

So: a fine strong premise-issue (marred only by the inclusion of some script-pages for a fairly pivotal scene in which Osborn explains his decision to his Avengers – no explanation is given as to why Coipel didn’t draw these pages, like he did the rest of the issue), and the ball is Bendis’ to fumble. My fingers are crossed that he doesn’t.