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Trouble with Comics

Daily Breakdowns 082 - Abbrev.

I hope you’ve been enjoying Guest Reviewer Month, which has obviously extended on into May due to some delays on our part here and there, plus our general no-post-on-the-weekend rule. We actually have a few guest reviews still to go, so check those next week and then we’ll be well and truly done.

Working on some bigger books for next time, so just a few short takes this time out.

Amazing Spider-Man #630

Writer - Zeb Wells

Artist - Chris Bachalo

Marvel Comics. 

I haven’t seen any Bachalo art for a while, so this was kind of coming full circle for me. Not full circle as in I was as excited by it as I was forever ago when he was making a name for himself on Generation X, but I found I still like his style and he kept himself controlled enough not to let any excess derail the storytelling. I’ve largely enjoyed the rotating creative teams and weekly schedule, but this storyline (the first of a four-parter called “Shed”) probably won’t be one of my favorites. It’s not badly written—Wells finds an interesting voice for the lizard brain part of Dr. Curt Connors, while Harry Osborn gives Peter some much-needed advice to stop being a jerk and just ask out the cute cop who’s really a good match for him. But whereas the prior stories have been exploring either new versions of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery or finding new layers to the original members, this seems to just be the same “Connors loses control and becomes the Lizard” story. And to be honest, I kind of just want the guy to get a handle on it and just raise his on and just be Peter’s occasional science consultant or something. Let somebody else be The Lizard. But if you want a more violent, gruesome Lizard story, with Bachalo lovingly drawing every shiny scale, here you go.

Brightest Day #1

Writers - Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi

Artists - Lots

DC Comics

I ripped the entire Blackest Night mini a couple weeks back, but I don’t see the point in going on and on in the same vein here. Suffice to say, I realize it’s really my fault for thinking that calling something Brightest Day meant the grisly doings of Blackest Night would give way to something more hopeful, a miniseries that was in some way about rebuilding, even if there was a requisite menace to face. But no, this seems to be more of the same, with stabbings, throat slashings, a dead squid, a dead shark eating a guy, a trident puncture would, strangulation and attempted child rape. None of the heroes smile or seem like they enjoy being around each other. None even seem happy that some of there heroic friends are back from the dead. Even Deadman seems miserable not to be dead anymore. Two positives, though: 1) Despite multiple artists, the book looks a bit more consistent (if less indulgent) than Blackest Night, and 2) there’s a panel where a pissed-off Sinestro is going to throw a yellow ring facsimile of a police car on top of some cops, and he has the pride? lunacy? brand consciousness? to put his Yellow Lantern symbol on the car’s door. I think I’d prefer that kind of superhero stupidity to the deadly serious grind going on in the rest of the book.

I, Zombie #1

Writer - Chris Roberson

Artist - Mike Allred

Vertigo Comics

Cool twentysomething chick who happens to be a zombie, in a hip town that also has vampires and other monsters. She’s got a ghost girlfriend who likes to hit the town with her. A were-terrier has a puppy crush on her but she’s not into him. She eats brains to keep non-shambling and irreverent. She works as a gravedigger, giving her access to the cemetery after hours.

Roberson seems to be writing this under the impression that the reader won’t be able to figure out the girl, Gwen, is a zombie until he reveals it at the end. Dude, the book is called I, Zombie, she’s the lead character and the cover shows her with a half-rotten face. Also, she has a lavender skin tone throughout the book that gives away that she’s not normal. Allred’s always fun to look at, but aside from lots of different supernatural types I’m not seeing much originality here yet. 

—Christopher Allen

Daily Breakdowns 073 - Blackest Night

Blackest Night #1-8

Writer - Geoff Johns

Penciler - Ivan Reis

Inkers - Oclair Albert & Joe Prado

Publisher - DC Comics

A few months back, I posted something about my preview of the review of this series being that, “it’s awful.” That was written when I had only read the first three issues. Honestly, I was put off somewhat by the killing of some DCU characters, but moreso by how other innocent, dead DCU stalwarts were turned into essentially dirty jokes, a zombiefied Elongated Man with a morbid parody of his mystery-sniffing ability being one example. It seemed to me that Johns was following in Identity Crisis writer Brad Meltzer’s footsteps and presenting another creepy, sordid take on old DCU characters that, however dated and dull, had remained essentially harmless throughout my lifetime. 

It took a while to kind of get past this, but by the end of the series I found I enjoyed it, mildly, and as long as I didn’t have to think much about it. On a superficial level, it’s nice that second string characters like Flash and Green Lantern (as well as Atom and the decidedly third string Mera) held much of the spotlight while Superman and Wonder Woman were cameos at best and Batman utterly absent. And there were flickers within me of the 10 year old Chris Allen who dug seeing the multicolored Lanterns, and though overly busy and over-rendered, Reis has some basic, Alan Davis-inspired skills that hold up well enough over the course of the series, especially when he has to draw crowded scenes of all the DCU heroes and heroines involved, diluted and basically inert as they may be.

It occurs to me that that was a pretty backhanded compliment to Reis, but really, we’re talking about Johns here. I can’t fault his work ethic—he tries really hard to turn what seems obviously to be an idea born on the commercial side (multicolored Lanterns, different rings and insignia, plus superheroes mashed up with the currently popular subgenre of zombie horror comics) into something that seems momentous and meaningful and with moments for his favorite characters. He fails in a number of ways.

First, good intentions aside, and granting that I haven’t read any of the spinoff miniseries or tie-in books, Johns is not very good at characterization. He gives these Silver Age heroes much creeper-than-usual villains to face, so their straitlaced speeches are more comforting than ever, but one never gets into any of their heads. There’s no difference between Flash and Atom, for example, and Hal Jordan is only slightly different than those two because of a slightly more casual form of speech. Johns threw me off a few times with pop culture references that were no doubt appropriate to a lot of the people reading the series, and yet they felt odd coming from the mouths of some of the characters. I guess we were all young once, yet after years of adventures against real (in the DCU) menaces, I found it strange that Guy Gardner would make a Skeletor reference to Nekron. There’s false bravado and laughing in the face of death, and then there’s making a reference to a bad ’80s cartoon while you face an enemy with billions of undead souls in his thrall. Seemed pretty lazy.

Aside from the attention paid to Aquaman’s widow, Mera, who is just really pissed off, Johns has nothing in mind for any of the female characters. He’s content to instruct Reis to place a couple dozen of them in the various double page spreads throughout the book, but there are no subplots for them aside from a tiny, easily resolved one about whether Wonder Woman goes to the side of the dark or the light. 

If I’m being honest, the idea of different colored Lanterns with each representing a different emotion is a pretty good one. That said, Johns doesn’t do much with it. The Red (rage) Lanterns are assholes, the Orange (Avarice) ones are greedy, etc. Maybe it’s unfair, but I kept thinking, “Man, Alan Moore could really do something mind-blowing with this idea.” Johns is content to use it for some jokes when it comes to the negative emotions, and corniness when it comes to the loftier ones like love and hope.

It has to be said that despite eight issues with basically a pretty simple plotline and a handful of major characters, a lot of necessary information is conveyed in the tie-in and spinoff books. The forming of the different Lantern factions, and some important background information such as Hal Jordan’s antipathy towards Sinestro or that his ex-girlfriend is now in the Pink Lanterns (I think), isn’t explained, and newcomers have to glean what they can. 

Some choices probably seemed a lot better on paper. The Flash becoming a Blue Lantern because he inspires hope makes sense, but once he’s blue he doesn’t look like the Flash much anymore, and becomes unimportant. Lex Luthor as an Orange Lantern in glowing orange armor looks silly—I can’t recall any imposing villain in orange, ever. Wonder Woman in pink because she loves Earth so much just doesn’t look much like Wonder Woman. And really, what’s with this goofy idea that as soon as these heroes choose sides, their costumes automatically change color, or the dead ones’ costumes change with this Black Hand/Nekron Black Lantern rebranding? It’s stupid. 

It’s worse that instead of embracing the action-figure-driven stupidity, Johns tries to float a theory or two to show he’s serious about the endeavor. Nekron isn’t just a dead(ish?) creep, he’s actually sentient dark matter. Or something. Black Hand isn’t just a second rate villain in a Bullseye suit turned into Nekron’s toady, he’s a long-simmering avatar of evil according to the Johns-scripted backup journal entries each issue. 

Aside from several heroes getting punctured through the chest, or pulling long, greasy tongues out of evil mouths, there isn’t very much action in this series. Lots of characters get lines, and then then all pose together, but there’s not much fighting. It’s so overly populated it’s like Lollapalooza or something—lots of good acts but none of them have the time to really work up any momentum. 

I found a couple examples where it really felt there was no editor on hand to question Johns on what he was doing. Repeatedly throughout the series, there are captions referring to power levels at a certain percentage, or stiff, computer-like declarations about an emotional tether being established or severed, and while this all relates to Nekron and his plan to take over the universe and snuff out all life, it’s never explained why it all has to be so robotic. Nekron isn’t a robot, and we never see any technology employed on his behalf; it’s magic if anything. 

The other example, and I’ll allow that this could have been editorially-approved and perhaps even driven, is that at the end of the series, several dead heroes and a few villains are resurrected. Now, we’ve already had Hal Jordan and Barry Allen brought back from the dead in the past few years. One can make a case for Hal, and not as much for Barry, but fine. They’re here. But why we need the original Hawk back, or Professor Zoom, or the original Captain Boomerang, especially as his son has taken his place, is beyond me. Worst of all is bringing back Boston Brand from the dead. Brand is only interesting as Deadman, a kind of ghost who can possess other people as he rights wrongs and pursues justice. As a regular, living guy, what’s the point?

All in all, I get it. Johns came up with a way to make the Green Lantern Corps seem important and not just a dilution of one decent character, ironically by diluting them much further. He tied a boring enemy into them and made him important by his ability to resurrect dead heroes for his bidding. He brought back Barry Allen from the dead, because there wasn’t a perfectly good Flash he had spent many years establishing. And it was all good, as long as you were thinking towards the ultimate goals of lots of action figures and maybe an animated movie or videogame. As a story, it makes your headache and it’s hard to find much creative justification for it.

—Christopher Allen

Daily Breakdowns 072 - The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures

Writer/Artist - Dave Stevens

Publisher - IDW Publishing

Do you remember the La’s? “There She Goes.” I thought about them as I read this collection. You can substitute your own favorites, maybe Jim Morrison or Nick Drake or Jim Morrison but the idea is an artist or band creating this small but great body of work and then basically shutting it down or being shut down, leaving a wake of pre-Internet fans scrabbling for any tidbit, any small bit of output or unseen/unheard art.

Like the songwriter for the La’s, Dave Stevens was clearly a perfectionist, but that’s probably where the comparison ends. Stevens’ limited output after the five-part first adventure and three issue follow-up was due in large part to the leukemia that eventually beat him. The important thing is just to enjoy the work that is there, not bemoan the fact that there isn’t more.

The Rocketeer is modest in its ambitions as story. We’ve got a callow, impetuous youth in Cliff Secord (a name not that unlike Dave Stevens) who lives for thrills but finds something more important in a girl, Betty. And then a gift falls into his lap, a gift that could make him a hero. The problem is that he’s too rash and immature. That works okay in one way—the rocket pack he finds requires its wearer to be either incredibly brave or foolhardy—but it doesn’t help him hang onto his girl or understand what she really wants from him. The great shame here is that the work completed presents a perfectly reasonable amount of time for Cliff to be a jerk, but Stevens was never able to complete the stories that would show his maturation and develop his relationship with Betty. Still, it’s tightly plotted and there’s a thrill on every page.

Stevens brings an obvious love for the textures, machinery, fashion and vernacular of the ’30s. It’s a pulp sensibility, with crack pilots and pin-up girls, enemy agents and diners, bomber jackets and jodhpurs, and American ingenuity capped with a sock on the jaw. It’s hard not to get fully absorbed in this world, even as one can feel the pages flying by signaling that time is running out. There are only so many shots of the Rocketeer, only so many of Betty’s poses. Like a great little pop album, it gives up its pleasures easily and without great study, but continues to entertain every time you give it another spin. Stevens is a great draftsman, and the coloring by Laura Martin is amazingly warm and sensitive. Right down to the Art Deco page dividers, the IDW edition is done exceedingly well, the only drawback being not much on Stevens himself, or his creative process. 

Back when I first read some of this material, in The Rocketeer graphic novel collecting the first serial, I didn’t know who Alex Raymond or Hal Foster were. But I knew that somehow Stevens’ work was connecting back to something, not just a certain style of art but certain storytelling values. It was pure and even though my eyes ate it up and pushed me from panel to panel, at the same time I was always aware just how much effort went into it, how much care. And joy. And I knew that this was work I would hold dear and that would stand the test of time. And while there have been some wonderful artists since then, it really does hold up quite well. It’s a shame Stevens’ career was cut so short, but enjoy what’s here.

—Christopher Allen

Daily Breakdowns 071 - Done Canny

Uncanny X-Men #521-522

Writer - Matt Fraction

Pencilers - Greg Land, Whilce Portacio, Phil Jimenez

Inkers - Jay Leisten, Ed Tadeo, Andy Lanning

Publisher - Marvel Comics

I’ve been reading a fair amount of superhero comics lately, in their serialized monthly form. I’d gotten out of the habit, buying mostly hardcovers and trades of creators I knew and liked, plus the occasional book I’d heard good things about. I haven’t convinced myself that isn’t the most sensible approach, but what my goal has been more sense than sensibility these days; i.e., I want to make sense of what’s going on in the Marvel and DC universes, storywise and talentwise. 

I’ve read a bit of Matt Fraction, and liked some and didn’t like some. I’ve yet to read his acclaimed run of Invincible Iron Man but was curious about Uncanny X-Men, both because I used to read a lot of X-books and because for whatever reason I hadn’t heard much praise for his Uncanny. I won’t pretend that this two issue sampling is a comprehensive or even entirely fair appraisal. It’s just what I had available. It does make me stop and think: I cared most about this book over 300 issues ago.

Let’s talk about art first. While there are a couple confusing storytelling moments, Greg Land’s art was my favorite of the three pencilers here. He really favors large breasts on the females, but other than that the characters are well-proportioned, and the layouts are clean and clear if maybe a bit too television influenced. I like his Magneto, don’t like his Cyclops, who looks too cocky, especially in the second issue where Fraction has Emma Frost telling Magneto that Cyclops has to work so hard for the authority that comes naturally to Magneto. Colorist Justin Ponsor favors lots of pinks and purples in the lighting, which works great with any scenes featuring Magneto or Psylocke. I was a little confused by the use of the little dots of light forming circles, whether they were visible or part of Magneto’s shielding or what. 

Whilce Portacio is a sturdy enough artist. Never a favorite but nothing wrong with what he does here. He just seems to favor certain textures and that can get a big distracting. Do Cyclops’ gauntlets have to be that shiny? Is Angel rocking feathers again, or are they pieces of metal? It’s hard to tell. 

As far as covers go, I liked both the regular “lotus position Magneto” cover for #521, and the variant with Deadpool added is amusing, but the main cover for #522 with a grinning Kitty Pryde riding a much smaller version of the giant “bullet” from one of the storylines, a la Dr. Strangelove, is tonally wrong, inaccurate, and one of the most overused sources of parody there is. 

Phil Jimenez does a fine job on a bonus story in #522, a vignette set in a world on the verge of doom from the aforementioned hurtling bullet, actually housing Kitty Pryde, who through sheer force of will she keeps in an unyielding phase condition so as to cause no harm, at least not to anyone else.

It’s nice that Fraction’s given the opportunity to flesh out this plotline with a bit more emotion, but it also points out the difficulties in writing a monthly superhero book, namely the turnover in artists. A quick bit of research tells me Land switches off story arc duties with Terry Dodson, and yet #522 concludes this story and no Land. Things happen, but it’s always a shame to have to conclude a story with a different artist. Even if that artist is better, there’s a loss in consistency.

The other stories here involve Magneto, up on Mt. Tamalpais in a kind of exertion of mutant energy that comes off more like a spirit quest. Fraction gets in a little bit of characterization about Magneto memorizing the metallic taste of the being inside the bullet, but…doesn’t he know what Kitty tastes like by now (I’m not trying to make a joke—am I missing something?)? Cyclops and Emma mainly wait around for Magneto to do something, Cyclops really intent on saving this mass murderer for reasons unclear to me as a lapsed reader. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison creation Fantomex leads Psylocke, Colossus and Wolverine against the Predators, a rather dull group who have managed to recreate some of the X-Men’s best powers but having no actual personalities of their own. In a Mark David Chapman conundrum, they first seem to be admirers, but then just want to replace the X-Men. Why their leader calls the X-Men mutant monsters is unclear—isn’t it more monstrous to change yourself into a monster than just to be born one? 

The action stuff with the Predators wasn’t too fun, partly because one seemed to be invisible and only a second reading told me those weren’t dismembered limbs flying through the air. And the resolution to the Magneto/Kitty Bullet story was also sort of confusing—I guess he plucked her out and delivered her safely to the ground, but I’m not sure where the ship went, nor why if she’s stuck in phase mode she has to be locked in some sort of containment chamber. Who could she hurt? What chamber would work to keep her from falling through it in her sleep? There was also a thin plot snippet about Namor’s underwater kingdom getting visitors, and I gather that “Marvel’s first mutant” is at least a part-time citizen of this Nation X island in the Pacific, but that’s all I got. I don’t want to be a stick in the mud about how every comic is someone’s first, but there were enough pages devoted to this storyline that it shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out. Heck, there’s a summary on the first page of every issue and it doesn’t even mention it. 

I was fine with Fraction’s plotting for the most part—the phase bullet thing was kind of a neat idea, and I’m all for more time with Fantomex. Where I was disappointed was in the dialogue. Sure, there’s some funny stuff here—the little exchange of “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral” with Wolverine considering beer a vegetable is a treat. But often it seemed that flippancy was the default mode when Fraction didn’t know what to do. Cyclops calling Magneto “the old man” felt wrong, and undermined the world-on-his-shoulders take on Cyclops Fraction invests in at the conclusion of the story. It’s one thing to want to take a character in a different direction, but it’s another to want to take them there some of the time but then take them back to familiar territory when it’s more suitable. Likewise, Fraction plays a bit with whether Fantomex is really French or a fraud, but Fantomex’s “Yeah, about that…” bit of non-Francophone sarcasm feels less like a giveaway and more just Fraction writing with himself playing the part. 

—Christopher Allen

On ADD on Santoro on Chaykin on Blitzen..

I have to agree with ADD on this one. Nothing against Frank, as his musings are clearly out of admiration and fondness for Chaykin, Simonson et al. But you know, those musings are really just another form of nostalgia, right? And I use nostalgia neutrally, or ambivalently—it can be good and wholesome and charming and add a golden luster to how one sees the modern world, and it can have a deleterious effect as well, blinding one to the way things are. And I say that while at the same time believing there is no single reality, and hey, as far as nostalgia goes, instead of doing another review I’ve been reading old Roy Thomas/Dan Adkins Doctor Stranges, so who am I to judge?

But back to the musings, for whatever potential one might have seen in Chaykin based on Time2, or Kaluta, or Simonson in, I dunno, Star Slammers, well, maybe they reached their potential as far as long-form storytellers. I get uncomfortable when people try to put their own expectations and projections on someone’s career and complain when the results come up short. It’s only short based on their expectations, not necessarily the artist’s himself. As ADD pointed out, no one is beating down a Walt Simonson’s door. I like Simonson’s art and occasionally his writing. As best I can tell, he’s doing mostly covers and I think a comics adaptation of World of Warcraft these days. It’s probably accurate that those aren’t dream jobs for him, and it’s a pretty good indication he’s not in high demand, whatever we may think of his skills. If he wanted some career advice, I’d say do a John Byrne and try to be a bigger fish at a smaller publisher like Boom!, Dynamite or IDW with short miniseries. I seem to recall Simonson being a candidate for the second phase of the Dark Horse “Legend” imprint back in the early ’90s, and he decided to go to Malibu/Bravura instead, did a handful of issues of Star Slammers, his own creation on which one supposes he may have had his greatest creative freedom, and it didn’t come out on time or set the charts on fire, and obviously that’s going to have a ripple as far as subsequent opportunities.

Chaykin is quite a different story in that he went and had a Hollywood career away from comics and came back, not so much a beaten man as so many who toil for Marvel or DC are by his age at the time, but maybe more of a pragmatic, focused artist, satisfied to tell a series of action adventure stories, always in his distinctive voice and with his distinctive quirks and fetishes, political viewpoint, and often in the ’30s-’50s periods he favors. Occasionally he’ll draw some superheroes, not because he likes them, but one supposes because it keeps his name and style in front of people who buy lots of comics. I read Chaykin’s recent Dominic Fortune and, while I didn’t think it was great, I gave credit to Chaykin for working to modernize his art to keep in touch with the times, and also, for better or worse, the story was pure Chaykin, with Nazis and blowjobs and bun hairstyles and fishnet stockings and the like. That it came out as four issues rather than a graphic novel seems to be just Marvel’s general publishing strategy—when was the last time they did an OGN? To me, Dominic Fortune is a reasonable extension and refinement of a lot of the ideas and tone of American Flagg!, by which I don’t mean it’s as good but just that you can understand how the guy who did this kitchen sink, young man’s book in the ’80s could grow and refine through every project until he comes to this point. I don’t know that Chaykin has ever done anything so either deeply, nakedly personal or so labyrinthine and layered in story that it really required a “longform” book. Don’t most artists arrive at a less-is-more philosophy eventually?

I guess rather than lamenting Chaykin, Simonson and Kaluta never getting around to their own respective Great American Graphic Novels, I’d just be happy that they’re getting work. Kaluta is another guy who kind of went away from comics for a while, and now he’s back revisiting Starstruck for IDW and did a nice run on Madame Xanadu for Vertigo, both of which seemed fairly challenging projects and neither calling on him to change his style to fit any sort of house model or idea of what’s hip right now. That’s an accomplishment, just as it’s an accomplishment that Chaykin, a somewhat influential but never terribly commercial writer or artist, could go away from comics and come back and still be very busy into his 50s.

—Christopher Allen