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Trouble with Comics

Daredevil - End of Days #1 (of 8)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack

Pencils: Klaus Janson

Finished Art & Paintings: Bill Sienkiewicz

Marvel Comics

Brian Michael Bendis has taken his share of knocks as a writer over the years. Those distinctive stylistic tics that marked him as fresh over a decade ago have settled into formula, some might say self-parody, not unlike other distinctive writers like Chris Claremont or Frank Miller. I’ve taken my shots, too, and honestly am looking forward to his departure from the Avengers books. But I think his Daredevil run, while flawed, like anything, is still a pretty impressive accomplishment. And as with Claremont’s return to X-Men books or Miller going back to Batman, there is incredible risk in returning to past triumphs. Do you really have something left to say, or can’t you really go home again? 

I was really worried with the first few pages here, an ugly fight between Bullseye and Daredevil that results in D.D.’s death, captured on cameraphone. It’s meant to be brutal, sure, but the combination of Janson and Sienkiewicz is surprisingly off-putting. As great an inker as Janson is, he’s often a stiff penciler, and finds in Sienkiewicz a finisher so eager to add pizzazz to the page that he ends up cluttering it with too many blood spatters and tendons and wrinkles and speed lines that it’s a mess. Try as he might, the opening splash page just doesn’t actually convey the feeling of a punch being thrown, because no matter how much he slops on or whites out, the angle of the pose is just wrong. Janson defeated him before he started.

On page 3, it’s a different story, a well-composed Janson page undone by excessive detail and shading that makes Matt Murdock look like he’s in blackface, not just bleeding and bruised. It’s not all bad, but there are several pages of fights in this issue, and Janson is hit-or-miss in dynamic action, and so, something like the last battle with the Kingpin, which leaves him dead and Daredevil disgraced, is actually anticlimactic and draggy.

I’m not really for superheroes killing, except in extreme circumstances, but I would have to admit that the final Daredevil story is one of those circumstances. And yet, Bendis does really set himself up for disappointment here, challenging the reader to recall the old, pure-hearted, non-murderous Daredevil to make us accept this new one. There are no scenes of that old Daredevil in the book, which I think was a mistake. We need to be reminded of what Daredevil was, so we can accept and understand what he becomes. As it is, storming into a restaurant and ordering the Kingpin to leave town forever or he’ll kill him, is unacceptable. That the Kingpin chooses to fight instead of run doesn’t justify Daredevil beating him to death with his billy club, and Daredevil shouting to the horrified onlookers that he’d “tried everything else” just feels hollow. He came there and made a death threat that he knew he would likely carry out.

What Bendis and Mack get right is Ben Urich. Ben had been the custodian of Matt Murdock’s secret identity as Daredevil, knew him as well as any man, and so is the only one to tell of his final days. And of course, it’s the last thing he wants to do, because it makes him feel even worse and he doesn’t want to engage with it. But J. Jonah Jameson is not going to see the end of print media by putting out a half-assed paper, and so he’s damn well sure the right writer is on the story. This is all good stuff, and Bendis/Mack write Urich as well as anyone has. It reminds me of their first Daredevil collaboration a decade ago, in that that story also found Urich as the protagonist, an investigative reporter hunting down leads. It seems the video shows Murdock uttering a mysterious name before he dies, and it’s not Bullseye’s real name or anyone we’ve ever heard of before. So that’s what we’re in for, a murder mystery—or is it? There’s some suggestion that maybe Daredevil is still alive somehow. 

Later in the issue, Janson and Sienkiewicz seem to get a little more in sync, though it’s still uneven, with some pages looking much more like Sienkiewicz and others mostly Janson. Again, both terrific artists, but very different styles. 

So is it any good? It has some parts I liked, some I didn’t like at all, but I’m interested in seeing it develop. When you review first issues, it’s hard to walk that line between condemnation and faith. The fact is, Bendis is an old pro and is good enough at his craft that there should be enough going right in a first issue for it to basically work. At the same time, when was the last time he wrote a gritty mystery that was light on conversation and absolutely absent of humor? There might be some rust there; for me, it’s most apparent in the fight scenes, where it feels like his brain kind of shuts off. There’s nothing in those scenes that’s unusual or containing important information; you get the idea those script pages are very basic, allowing the artist to figure out the staging. It’s in the Urich stuff where he feels engaged, and so far it’s not bad.

—Christopher Allen

Marvel What Now?

Entertainment Weekly has the exclusive news on Marvel Now!, the wave of relaunched series in the wake of Marvel Comics’ latest hit comics event, Avengers vs. X-Men. The facts as presented in the article: At least three new or relaunched books, including Avengers by Jonathan Hickman and Jerome Opena, Uncanny Avengers by Rick Remender and John Cassaday, and All-New X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen. Avengers will be twice-monthly. Avengers has the largest team, up to 18 characters for Hickman to work with, including what may be for some a surprising choice, Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Uncanny presents a Captain America-led team of Avengers that includes some mutants, as Cap realizes he didn’t do enough for them before. And All-New finds the original X-Men of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Marvel Girl Jean Grey plucked right out of their youthful, Xavier Academy days and plopped down in a future (our present) more horrible than their worst fears, and seeing adult versions of themselves they don’t want to become. The new titles will spell an end for Bendis on the Avengers franchise, an end for Hickman on his Fantastic Four and F.F. titles, and an upgraded status for Remender.

So what to make of all this? Well, the optimistic side of me that read nearly all of DC’s New 52 titles when they began has kind of gone back in his hole like a groundhog. Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso is quoted as saying he likes to take creators out of their comfort zone, but that seems a little disingenuous to me. He’s taking talent he’s familiar with, who have been writing team books for Marvel for years, and just playing some musical chairs. I sure didn’t see Alonso goosing Bendis out of his comfort zone during his much-too-long run on the various Avengers, taking a, “if it’s breaking but still sells, don’t fix it” approach. I still think he has his moments, but try to read New Avengers and tell me he isn’t just marking time. And as much as I like Stuart Immonen, I’d rather they put Bendis outside his comfort zone with a new artist he’s not that familiar with. I realize these two have sold a lot of books together, but at the same time, I think it’s harder to sell this as something “all-new” with the same Bendis/Immonen lineup. The premise for All-New X-Men is different, but I’m not sure I want to spend $24 on a first arc where Jean Grey & Co learn about the internet. It also begs the question of just how long ago they were supposed to be kids, for the world to have changed this much. 

I think Hickman is a good writer when he keeps characters in mind more than conspiracies and complicated history, so a huge cast for Avengers sounds like it could be troublesome. But I like Opena and have pretty high hopes for this one. As for Remender, I think he’s pretty good as well, though I’m a little surprised he has what is called in the article the flagship book. How is Uncanny Avengers and not Avengers the flagship Avengers book? I think the answer starts with John and ends with Cassaday, as it seems the talented artist wants to sequential art again after the last four years or so mainly provide covers for Dynamite Entertainment and others. Cassaday is always worth a look, and I like that he’s working with what I believe is a new writer for him. As far as the concept, with its mix of both Avengers and X-Men villains, including a rebooted Red Skull clone by Arnim Zola with his ’40s Nazi mindset, it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Remender is good at goofy, over-the-top stuff, and after eight years of mostly talky Avengers ribbing each other at the dinner table, I’m ready for some crazy stuff.

What does it mean for the rest of Marvel? I’m sure we’ll hear more soon, at SDCC and elsewhere. I would guess New Avengers is gone, replaced by the twice-monthly Avengers, and Secret Avengers (which Remender was writing) is probably gone as well, with some of those b-listers ending up in Avengers. Avengers Academy? Who knows? Hopefully if it goes, Cristos Gage will have other work lined up, as he’s done a good job on that book. What’s more interesting is what the effect is on solo Avengers books like Mighty Thor and Iron Man, and if there are changes coming to the X-Men books. How much or how little is Marvel architect Matt Fraction involved in Marvel Now? And depending on the outcome of AvX, there may be little reason to have Wolverine and Cyclops still at odds and with separate books. Finally, while Marvel still has a stronger talent pool than DC, they’ve taken a bit of a hit with Ed Brubaker now only writing one mostly stand-alone book, Winter Soldier, and folks like Bendis and Mark Millar who still sell books but who arguably were at their zenith several years ago, the question remains whether Marvel is going to keep bringing over fresh talent. Where’s the next Hickman? Is Cullen Bunn the next big guy, or will people unfavorably compare his Captain America to Brubaker’s?

—Christopher Allen

Floppy Drive-by

I’ve been reading books and some old comics, but had a chance this weekend to catch up on a chunk of recent stuff:

Batman and Robin #20 - Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason step in for a three issue arc in which Tomasi seems determined to misinterpret Damian Wayne as just another disrespectful young delinquent, using contractions, calling Commissioner Gordon “old man,” wisecracking about the dead. That’s just not the character Grant Morrison created. He’s a know-it-all, sure, but a very articulate one who takes his role seriously and knows when to let the grown-ups talk, for the most part. I also thought it was funny that just a month or two after Scott Snyder established that the Dick Grayson Batman wasn’t the type to disappear while Gordon was in the middle of a sentence, Tomasi has him do just that. I blame the editors for this small oversight, but as a creative choice I don’t get why Tomasi isn’t interested in writing Dick as a different kind of Batman, especially when the book opens up with an odd take on Bruce Wayne as the kind of Bat-patriarch who gathers all his boys together for movie night. I only remember the weird characterization; the plot escapes me. Gleason is very average.

Amazing Spider-Man #653, 654, 654.1 - Dan Slott, with some scripting help from Fred Van Lente, wraps up the Spider-Slayer storyline, which makes the younger Smythe into a convincing legacy villain with a new take on the Spider-Slayers: they’re now guys in buggy exosuits that mimic Spider-Man’s danger sense, which makes them hard for even the Avengers to hit. Smythe tries to take down all the Jameson clan for revenge, and succeeds in getting one of them, though I won’t spoil who if you haven’t read it. I will say it makes good dramatic sense and could open up at least one character to a fresh take. I wasn’t a fan of Stefano Caselli’s art, but Humberto Ramos comes back for the .1 issue, which presents legless Flash Thompson as a new, government-controlled Venom, the symbiote approximating his legs and whatever else is needed for missions that don’t take more than 48 hours, so that he can be out before the symbiote takes over his mind. With both stories, Slott proves himself at the very least to have a facile mind when it comes to remixing old intellectual property.

Soldier Zero #5 - Paul Cornell is now off this book, replaced by Abnett/Lanning. They follow through on his ideas well enough, but it’s still a pretty easy book to cut, which is probably what I’ll be doing.

Starborn #3 - Likewise this book. I am not exactly a fan of Khary Randolph’s art style, but I think it’s consistent and accomplished. The story isn’t bad, either, but I’ve seen it all before many times, and aside from the prospect of a race of warrior lion aliens, there isn’t much here that’s novel.

Black Panther: The Man Without Fear #515 - I’ve been liking this. I think David Liss understands that he’s not writing an ongoing Panther series and so he keeps his story tight: T’Challa sets himself up as Hell’s Kitchen’s new protector, and he’s got a new enemy to contend with, a nasty Romanian with family issues and a pretty cool superpower. Panther is going low-tech and solo to prove himself. Good Francavilla artwork that looks organic and sort of in Mazzucchelli territory. I love that Francavilla writes labels by hand, sloppily, rather than having the letterer do it perfectly but incongruously with his art. I’m amused that Luke Cage’s relatively brief time as an Avengers leader has now given him balls big enough to give T’Challa orders, but then this is a guy who went all the way to Latveria to collect a fee from deadbeat Doctor Doom.

New Avengers #9 - Another creative change as Mike Deodato moves from Secret Avengers to this title. Not a whole lot going on yet, and a largish part of the book was given to a flashback with Nick Fury hunting escaped Nazis in Cuba, 1959, drawn by Howard Chaykin. At the end, he’s approached about The Avengers Initiative. Not sure how they’ll make the timeline work. 

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 - Similarly, this team book also gives its opener to veteran George Perez, drawing a kind of recruitment speech/history of T.H.U.N.D.E.R., complete with a busy two-page spread. Perez still looks good, though Scott Koblish’s inks are heavier than I’d like. The rest of the book is mostly talky, leading to a nice surprise at the end. I like what Nick Spencer and Cafu have been doing on this series, which isn’t a book I was expecting to like, but I do wish there was more going on in each issue.

Heroes For Hire #3 - Abnett/Lanning/Brad Walker deliver the okays in this series, as mercenary Paladin delays helping Moon Knight on a mission, as he’s in the middle of surveilling those close to Misty Knight. He thinks she’s in trouble and he’s right. But Iron Fist doesn’t take kindly to being spied on and there’s a fight before known amoral, double-crossing Paladin rather uncharacteristically yells at Iron Fist that his avoiding Misty is a cop-out. When did Paladin get touchy-feely? If you like to see what second-and-thirdl-string Marvel characters do between miniseries and failed solo series, this book isn’t bad.

John Byrne’s Next Men #2, 3 - After a bumpy start, in which it looked like Byrne was working in older pages and taking too much time in set-up, we get two issues with much stronger, more consistent art. One probably has to be a big fan of the old series, though, because the characters are not really themselves yet, all dropped in different eras, or maybe that’s another illusion. It’s entertaining, though I do wish Byrne took his freedom with the series to do more than amp up the sex and torture, but then, that’s the fun in wishing.

—Christopher Allen

Daily Breakdowns 088 - 1s for the Team

Quick looks at a few first issues of team books from this week and last.

Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #1

Writer - Warren Ellis. Artist - Kaare Andrews. Marvel Comics.

There are a couple nice things going on in this miniseries. First, Ellis does a good job grounding the X-Men in our heartbreaking world, in this case dropping some depressing African recent history. At the same time, he brings the strange with the X-Men’s mission, which is to investigate a run of supposed mutant births in a small, fictional African country. The reports of some of the weird births set up that Andrews may have some cool things to draw next issue.

Where the book doesn’t work as well is, well, the choice of Andrews. Actually, put me down as undecided for now. Let’s just say that if Ellis is going to make any kind of statement on Africa, or poverty, or children with special needs or any serious issue that could spring up, then Andrews’ exaggerated, kinky style will really clash and undermine the story. If, now that the facts have been relayed, we’re heading into fairly typical superhero terrain, then sure, I’m down for all the innuendos about Scott being turned on by Emma’s fake British accent, Emma smashing her breasts on the table for Wolverine’s benefit, and whatever else Ellis and Andrews cook up. It’s a miniseries, go nuts.

Avengers (v4) #1

Writer - Brian Michael Bendis. Pencils - John Romita, Jr. Inks - Klaus Janson. Marvel Comics.

This relaunch succeeded and disappointed in ways I wasn’t expecting. Bendis is more admired for his dialogue than plotting, but I thought this was pretty flat. Aside from some characters like Hawkeye developing that Bendis stammer, no one is written out of character, per se, but there aren’t any juicy exchanges, either. Steve Rogers has decided that Tony Stark/Iron Man needs to be an Avenger again, and so he’s burying the hatchet, and leaving the day-to-day to Maria Hill. Two people he’s had major issues with in the recent past. Sure, it says something about Rogers’ character, but it also reduces the dramatic opportunities here. In fact, the issue really reeks of wanting to forget about the last few years and just get onto being a big superteam book again, with everyone working together. A change in tone and an attempt at a fresh start for new or returning readers are both sensible, but it still feels abrupt. Hawkeye is Hawkeye again, casting aside the Ronin guise as the gimmick it was with a self-conscious exchange with Spider-Man about the sudden shift. Speaking of Spider-Man, as Bendis has shown an affinity for writing him before, I confess I just don’t get why he chooses to just make him the comic relief here, with a really annoying compulsion to make a “humorous” comment every minute. I get that he’s not as powerful as some of the heroes here (though more powerful than Hawkeye, Rogers or Spider-Woman), but shouldn’t he instead be played as the never-give-up guy? Especially with Rogers stepping aside to run the Secret Avengers, Spidey should be the heart of this team. 

I really don’t tire of the combination of Romita, Jr. and Janson. Always good.

Legion of Super-Heroes (v6) #1

Writer - Paul Levitz. Penciler - Yildiray Cinar. Inker - Wayne Faucher. DC Comics.

The first LOSH story I read was Levitz and Giffen’s “Great Darkness Saga,” and I liked it, but over the years I’ve only been a sporadic reader and never lasted all that long. It’s kind of interesting after a big chunk of my comics-reading life to be considering Levitz as just another freelance writer rather than as the frustrating guy running DC Comics. 

While Cinar is serviceable, I really think this book needs someone more exciting and distinctive for it to have a chance, especially when Levitz’ writing is decidedly old school. That’s not such a bad thing, as he packs a lot of story in this double-sized issue, with nary a full-page spread, and he makes decent use of declasse’ thought balloons as well as the convenient little floating boxes that identify the various Legionnaires by codename, real name, home planet and superpower(s). At the same time, nobody stands out here but Saturn Girl, who was just settling in for a good tantrum over her jerk husband when her planet is attacked and twin sons kidnapped. You’d be a sympathetic character if either of these things happened to you. I can’t say there’s a whole lot to hook me here, but I may give it another issue or two.

—Christopher Allen