Trouble with Comics

Spurge Interviews Ed Brubaker

We’re huge fans of both individuals here at TWC, and it’s always great when Tom Spurgeon chats with perennial ace writer Brubaker, which they’ve been doing for years now. This one is maybe just a little more special, because in addition to more familiar territory like discussing the latest work (Fatale, including great insights into the strengths of longtime Brubaker collaborator Sean Phillips), we also get the not-terribly-surprising news that Brubaker is ending his almost eight-year run on Captain America to focus on more creator-owned work. He’s still keeping his hand in with Winter Soldier). That’s great, because it’s easily the best of his Marvel books the past year. It did feel like he was running out of juice on Captain America, and by his own admission here, his short run on Secret Avengers was, quote, “…so not in his wheelhouse”. We also get a well-reasoned perspective on the Before Watchmen controversy (and don’t let any sycophantic critics or online ‘journalists’ tell you it’s not a controversy anymore) and its differences with the Jack Kirby heirs’ lawsuit with Marvel. Some appropriate, if coolly worded scorn for JMS, as well.

I also really loved this quote from him, which is emblematic of a real artist, versus just a scribbler giving people what they expect every time:

"Some of my favorite books that other people have done I think the writers and artists would consider well-intentioned failure. So I figured it was smarter to do something I’m unsure of and fail as opposed to coasting on what I know I can do."

Continued good wishes for Brubaker, and a hearty recommendation for his current horror-noir epic, Fatale, as good a comic as you’ll find on the stands (or in its first trade collection out today).

Christopher Allen

Captain America (2011)

Marvel continues to grow their film version of the Marvel Universe with this period adventure, which of course tells the tale of scrawny young patriot Steve Rogers, who becomes the burly, superpowered Captain America, WWII hero who is eventually thawed out by the end with the promise of modern era adventures as one of the mighty Avengers.

Director Joe (The Rocketeer) Johnston knows from period adventure, and he also knows how to create believable, likable characters. Although star Chris Evans isn’t the most nuanced or even charismatic of actors, he knows how to deliver his lines effectively, and fortunately Johnston gives him plenty to work with. Rogers isn’t just a hero but a good friend, shy with women, and filled with compassion for the little guy, because he’s just a little guy at heart. That’s what ultimately sells the movie, though the action sequences and old fashioned romance at the heart of it are pretty good, too.

As far as the rest of the cast, Tommy Lee Jones walks through his role, but his walking through is better than most actors, and Haley Atwell is a comely, fierce Peggy Carter, probably a stronger character than she has been portrayed in most of her comics appearances. Steve’s friend and eventual sidekick Bucky isn’t given as much to do as comics fans would probably wish for, nor are Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos much more than winking Easter eggs, but still, they’re fine. Hugo Weaving is a terrific Red Skull, and I only wished we caught a glimpse of Arnim Zola in his Kirby-designed, face-in-chest version, but maybe next time. Dominic Cooper as Tony’s dad, Howard Stark, has real presence, and is very enjoyable as essentially a more focused version of his son. I can’t imagine many comics fans objecting to the change in continuity here to closely tie Stark with the origin of Cap, since it’s done so well. Also look out for the nod to Phineas Horton and the Human Torch, but no Namor. A solid effort that even my mom, never a superhero fan, thought was good, old-fashioned fun. As always with the Marvel films, stay through the credits (a terrific title sequence) for a sneak peek at the next film, in this case Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Do not bother with the 3D version—the film wasn’t shot in 3D and almost no shots take advantage of it. 

—Christopher Allen

Recappin’ America

It’s been a busy 70th anniversary for Steve Rogers, the once and future Captain America. Between his titular series, every Avengers book, and the new Fear Itself, there’s not a week that goes by where once doesn’t see the star-jumpsuited soldier judging, counseling or beating someone for the good of Earth or the U S of A.

Captain America: Allies and Enemies

Writers - Rob Williams, Kathryn Immonen, William Harms, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue Deconnick

Artists - Rebekah Isaacs, Ramon Perez, Declan Shalvey, Renato Arlem, Greg Tocchini

I’m referring to the hardcover collection coming out May 18th, but these were the five Captain America and… one-shots Marvel published the past couple months. There’s no strong theme uniting them other than whoever is in the title besides Cap is actually the star of the book. This is especially true with Captain America and the Falcon, which wastes several pages on the tail-end of an Avengers/Lethal Legion fight just to get Cap in the book. The rest is Falcon, Sam Wilson, going back to Harlem to try to help one of his old prostitutes from his pimp days get her son out of the gang life and back into a promising college football career. It’s a shame that no one can write a Sam Wilson story that isn’t about his criminal past or his feelings of being overshadowed by Captain America, but this one isn’t too bad. At least it doesn’t have the expected happy ending, though again, it might have been better with more space devoted to Sam’s story rather than the labored Avengers stuff, especially if Williams could have used that time to flesh out the complexity’s of the mother character, who’s concerned but mercenary at the same time. I also liked how the little bit about the redwing falcon’s resilience in NYC mirrored The Falcon’s. 

Captain America and the First Thirteen fleshes out a little of the Cap/Peggy Carter romance during a mission she’s leading for the French Resistance. It’s fast-paced and nicely wistful at the end, but while it features Cap more prominently than the other one-shots, that ends up being a negative. Immonen writes him as a violent, gung-ho horndog unlike most of the takes we’ve seen of the character over the past six decades. It’s a shame, because she can be a witty writer and some of that is present in how the other characters are written here, but it’s almost like she has an axe to grind here. It seems like where others have written of Peggy as Steve Rogers’ first love, for Immonen she’s just this nervy chick he liked to fuck during the War, until he didn’t. It really wasn’t necessary to tear Cap down to make Peggy and her female Resistance friend look better.

Captain America and Crossbones by Harms/Shalvey is the best of the lot, a dark espionage mission for the unrepentant killer Crossbones involving trying to clean up a government virus experiment gone awry on a small Balkan island. Shalvey captures a Crossbones who’s badass but thoroughly human in proportion, Harms making him an almost completely bad egg with just a glimmer of compassion that expresses itself in a darkly comic ending. Add Captain America and Batroc, an amusing and surprisingly effective character piece by Gillen and Arlem on the type a man a villain would have to be to keep going up against Captain America with no hope of success, and you’ve got the only two essential one-shots of the five. 

Captain America and The Secret Avengers is the weakest effort, so it’s too bad it’s the last one. It feels a lot like an old Solo Avengers story of some inventory piece for Marvel Fanfare or Marvel Comics Presents, so it’s kind of funny that the one-shot is padded with an old MCP story starring Black Widow and Silver Sable, with art by a young, not-as-bad Rob Liefeld (others have featured Lee/Kirby Cap stories). Greg Tocchini handles the art, and it’s kind of like the series of interlocking covers he did for all the one-shots in that there are some nice moments between some very awkward poses and ugly faces (the women on the covers look stoned to the gills). Deconnick comes up with a serviceable reason to get Black Widow and Agent 13 together on a mission: to save young Russian agent Tatiana from taking revenge on a corrupt girls finishing school that’s really a front for assassin training for various dictators and warlords, called L.A.S.S.E.S. (don’t ask). It struck me during the leader, Lady Ashley’s (that’s the L and A in the name, since you went ahead and asked), speech to the gathered bad dudes at the fundraiser, that Deconnick is willing at any opportunity to sacrifice logic and plausibility for jokes and would-be bright lines. Lady Ashley praises the throng for being, among other things, “soulless,” but as anyone who watches the news can see, every Mubarak and Ghadafi can rationalize their bloody acts as being for the ultimate good of their people. Perhaps unintentionally, this one-shot bookends the Falcon one and they’re both about trying to help a young person from making a terrible mistake with dire consequences, but here Deconnick does go for the pat ending after a suspense-free climax. The lasting memory of this one is the running joke about Sharon Carter being called Natasha’s mom. If you think about it too much, the real joke is why anyone thinks former Avenger Natasha can still do undercover work.

Secret Avengers #11

Writer - Ed Brubaker. Artist - Will Conrad 

"Absolutely not, Gary!" It’s not enough that Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead in an arc that made him a brainwashed Russian assassin to the newest Captain America, as well as getting Steve Rogers to hang up the shield and start a team of black ops Avengers, but to finally introduce a character into the Marvel Universe named Gary, never mind one who gets Hank McCoy pissed about something non-mutanty, is really something. Bravo, Bru. In the non-MU, most of us don’t know a lot of John Steeles and Natashas and Hanks (and I’ve had a longstanding rule never to trust anyone named Steve that’s 99% effective). But we all know a Gary, and he’s often a stout, stammering fellow like this one. Whether he’s also a scientist with technology that can show a subject’s memories on a monitor with non-POV camera angles is irrelevant.

As far as the other, Garyless stuff in the issue, it’s the first of a two-parter that will wrap up Brubaker’s uneven run on the series. It’s mainly a WWII flashback story with Cap and Steele against not just Nazis but kinda-sorta zombies and maybe even a Lovecraftian tentacled monster, so there’s that. Conrad’s art is fine but unexceptional, and is in keeping with the general stylistic range of past Cap/SA artists like Deodato, Epting, Perkins et al. 

What’s more interesting about this issue is that it really doesn’t fit the general remit of Secret Avengers, and counting next issue and #6, that’s 25% of the series thus far that’s not really about black ops, Defendery team book adventures. It kind of felt from early on that Brubaker’s heart wasn’t really into the concept of the book, and it didn’t seem like he had any real plans in mind for the team members like Ant-Man, Beast or Valkyrie who aren’t currently being served in their own or others’ books the way Rogers, Black Widow and Agent 13 still pretty much are in Captain America, and I think Moon Knight still has a series, right? I think it’s notable that Nova and Shang-Chi amounted to little more than guest stars, and both were there to serve stories about secret societies, a recurring theme of Brubaker’s. Another recurring theme is reclamation projects and redeeming the damaged or brainwashed (Bucky, Sharon, the ’50s Cap, Zack Overkill from Incognito), with the latest project being John Steele. Brubaker explores these themes well, don’t get me wrong; I just think it’s interesting how a creator’s prime directive will take over despite the purported premise of the book. Which leads me to…

Captain America #616

Writers - Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn, Frank Tieri, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson

Artists - Mike Deodato, Ed McGuinness, Jason Latour, Howard Chaykin, Paul Grist, Travis Charest, Paul Azaceta

It’s the 70th Anniversary issue, clocking in at over 90 pages of comics. Don’t get too excited by seeing Charest’s name there, as he just does a one-page distillation of the basic Cap origin/rebirth for Brubaker, but it looks good. Late greats Jim Aparo and Curt Swan have a couple late career Cap commission pieces in here as well. A big chunk of the book is by Brubaker, though. First is the beginning of “Gulag,” a story taking Bucky to a Russian prison for crimes committed while he was the Winter Soldier and for which he was already tried and convicted in absentia. We’ve already seen Bucky in jail in “The Trial of Captain America,” and prison stories are another recurring motif for Brubaker, but this begins ably enough. Although Steve Rogers’ position in the current administration could ensure better treatment of Bucky by the Russians, that wouldn’t be as dramatic as having him face a former Crimson Dynamo who wants to kill him, or having him battle Ursa Major, possibly to the death, would it? Deodato puts in more effort into rendering an angry bear-man than anyone has a right to expect. 

Brubaker accomplishes a couple things in the next story, first taking us through Steve Rogers’ feelings of frustration at not being able to help Bucky at this time, and also setting up the coming Captain America and Bucky series he’s going to write with Marc Andreyko, as the story is largely a flashback Invaders adventure that gives McGuinness a chance to draw some classic Golden Age characters. Some have said it shows that McGuinness is capable of drawing with less bombast, but to me, a story with the Invaders and the Red Skull could have used more of it. Not bad, though, and it will be interesting to see Brubaker explore moral ambiguity and secret societies during the Greatest Generation/Four Color Comics era. 

The rest of the stories are all about Steve Rogers’ Cap during various times, by various creators, most of whom have little experience with writing or drawing him. The Bunn/Latour “Spin” is an interesting story about a farming town so devastated by the economy that they agree to let AIM set up underground weapons facilities there, while Howard Chaykin uses a fanciful premise of a Norman Rockwell painting of Cap and a young woman as the backdrop for a nice story of romance lost, times passed, and oh yeah, there’s Nazis. 

There’s a goofy WWII Baron Blood/Invaders story where Cap briefly becomes a vampire. It’s funny that Grist does the art, because he already covered so much of this material in his own Jack Staff, which is basically his own Union Jack, who has a nemesis very similar to Baron Blood. It’s nice to see him go right to the source here, but Jack Staff is much better.

I wouldn’t call the Tieri/Azaceta story the worst piece here, as the art is nice, and the Union Jack tale never gets going at all, but it does still leave kind of a bad taste. The idea is that there have been several clones made of Hitler over the years, and almost all have been tracked down and destroyed, but Steve Rogers finds one right in Manhattan, an art gallery curator and artist named Edmund Heidler, who apparently doesn’t know who he really is. Tieri has Sharon Carter, a seasoned spy who has seen many weird things and many good people committing horrible acts (like Winter Soldier), go nuts at this news and want to turn the car around and do some sort of drive-by on Heidler, forcing Steve to practically punch her to get her to cut it out. Tieri’s idea is not a bad one, that Heidler is innocent because he has none of Hitler’s memories and is not himself guilty of any crimes. But the execution stinks, with a risible shock ending where Heidler can’t help this urge to paint the swastika into everything, including a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. He’s also named his cat Eva. Oy vey.

Christopher Allen

Daily Breakdowns 094 - They Got Mixed Up

Wonder Woman #600

Writers - Gail Simone, J. Michael Straczynski, Amanda Conner, Louise Simonson, Geoff Johns

Artists - George Perez, Don Kramer, Amanda Conner, Eduardo Pansica

Publisher - DC Comics

I’ve sampled Wonder Woman precious few times in my 30+ years of comics reading, and often not “representative” runs. I mean, I’ve never read George Perez’ or Greg Rucka’s runs, but I’ve read John Byrne’s and the Denny O’Neil/Mike Sekowsky “mod” period. I’m no Wonder Woman expert, nor am I beholden to a specific characterization or focus for the character. Emphasize her mythological roots and Paradise Island conflicts, or go single woman alone in the city, whatever. Just give me a good story.

Gail Simone gets to conclude her run with a short story that finds Wonder Woman leading a huge group of female superheroes into battle. They talk about her, as a way for Simone to establish Diana’s status as the most esteemed herone in the DCU. Then, Diana cuts things short in order to attend the graduation of Cassandra, a young woman I seem to recall from Byrne’s run, who was turned into a winged creature as well as feeling abandoned by Diana (probably because successive writers didn’t want to deal with Diana as surrogate mother). George Perez pencils it, and it’s nice, though inker Scott Koblish mutes some of the more recognizable aspects of Perez’ style. I guess I should give the story a pass as it seems to be a sincere attempt to wrap up some old continuity with emotion. Still, there’s not much going on in the story. I was also a bit confused to see some unfamiliar characters like “Miss Martian.” Is there a female version of every DC male?

Amanda Conner’s team-up with Diana and Power Girl is cute, and closer to what a Wonder Woman book targeted for girl readers should be, although Conner leans hard on a joke about Egg Fu (now called Chang Tsu) looking like a “manga monster.” I suppose even if she wanted to, DC wouldn’t let her use the word, “hentai,” but that’s really the origin of the joke. 

Louise Simonson and Eduardo Pansica follow with an inoffensive team-up with Superman, and then Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins offer what appears to be an attempt to provide a bridge between the past run and Straczynski’s new take on the character: more urban, confused, on the run, and wearing a controversial new costume. I’m curious why Straczynski didn’t write the bridging story himself, but then, it actually serves to undercut the shock of his changes by giving the impression Diana just ended up down a continuity rabbit hole and things might get back to normal really soon.

Straczynski’s story itself is intriguing enough, but it would be hard not to be when you take a handful of pages to show that a 70 year old character’s whole history has now changed. The proof of the pudding will be whether readers like what Straczynski choose to replace that history. Although Don Kramer’s art is resolutely DC house style—bland faces, thin lines, overrendered—there’s nothing really wrong with it. I’m more concerned with Straczynski and his need to make a splash—was “Couture Shock” the best title anyone could come up with? It puts too much emphasis on the costume change than the events of the story, and believe me, you don’t want readers thinking about that garish, busy, uniconic costume any more than necessary. 

The rest of the issue is padded out with a background feature on the costume design, a pleasant Introduction by Lynda Carter, from the late ’70s Wonder Woman TV show, and lots of pinups of Diana in her classic costume. Some nice work there, though in between Adam Hughes, Perez and the like it would have been nice to see some less typical artists chosen.

Captain America: The 1940s Newspaper Strips #1 (of 3)

Writer/Artist - Karl Kesel

Publisher - Marvel Comics

This doesn’t work for me at all. The premise for a faux, old-time Cap strip with simple, patriotic wartime tales is fine, but simple shouldn’t be so boring. Rather than Cap and Bucky in intriguing, globe-spanning adventures a la Terry and the Pirates, Kesel seems to think readers want to see more of Private Steve Rogers peeling potatoes at Camp Lehigh instead of taking out Nazis. It doesn’t even look like ’40s strip work in any way, from the un-newspaperlike “two on two” panel layouts for the “dailies” (the “Sunday” strip is a full comics page, to the sophisticated coloring, to the contemporary, if lighthearted, drawing style. Thankfully, unlike real newspaper adventure strips, Kesel doesn’t waste one of those four precious panels on a recap of what happened the day earlier, but even with covering more storytelling ground than the average ’40s serial would in the same length of time, it really misses the mark.

Sea Bear & Grizzly Shark

Writer/Artists - Jason Howard & Ryan Ottley

Publisher - Image Comics

When creative people get together, especially during conventions, fun ideas often happen. It’s just that once everyone gets back to their normal, paying work, sometimes those fun ideas never come to fruition, or sometimes they do and the results just don’t live up to that can’t-miss premise.

It’s amusing that Robert Kirkman, Howard’s and Ottley’s writer on The Astounding Wolfman and Invincible, respectively, offers to write the explanation behind the switcheroos for these two animals, Kirkman does best finding fresh takes on well-worn genres like superheroes and zombies, rather than coming up with killer premises himself, and in fact the origin in his Introduction is labored and unnecessary.

Howard’s “Sea Bear” is the better of the two efforts here. Though rough, his artwork is sturdier, and the mix of revenge story with secret society story works pretty well, although he tends to try to overcome any problems with the story by turning the volume up with lots of gratuitous gore. He draws it very well, but I would have preferred if he trusted in his weird ideas and fleshed them out a bit more.

Ottley’s “Grizzly Shark” is played even more for laughs, and while that makes the more cartoonish style he uses here more appropriate than what he uses in Invincible, I didn’t care for how it looked. I didn’t find it funny, either. It would have been better at about half the size, and maybe in comic strip form. In fact, while the book is harmless enough, at $4.99 it’s a bit expensive for 48 pages of black-and-white self-indulgence. 

Bart Simpson #54

Writers/Artists - Peter Kuper, Carol Lay, Evan Dorkin, Sergio Aragones

Publisher - Bongo Comics

This issue features a talented group of professional cartoonists being, well…professional. The creators here mold their typical concerns into stories suitable for the world of The Simpsons and hopefully get a couple laughs out of them. Kuper (cofounder and coeditor of World War 3 Illustrated) explores his fears of our noisy, selfish, consumerist culture in a tale where a firecracker mishap leaves Bart looking like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, with a visual nod to Modern Times. Credit Kuper for bringing a point of view, though it’s out of character for Bart to recoil from this world. I also found Kuper’s cameo gratuitous, but I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I had the chance.

Evan Dorkin is more on point with his Bart story, probably because Dorkin’s work has always shown he still connects to his nerdy, pop culture obsessed youth. Here, Bart and Milhouse purchase a long-awaited video game only to end up destroying it when they can’t open the packaging. Not top drawer Dorkin, but I wished there was more than just the couple pages.

Aragones manages to just do his thing, a silent one-pager about Maggie’s daydream in a sandbox, and it’s cute, off-model and totally Sergio. And Lay’s story, a prank Bart plays on Lisa at a carnival, is about as gentle and whimsical as Aragones’ but with more pages feels flabbier.

—Christopher Allen