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Trouble with Comics

Face it, John Byrne never got better than this. The only thing that could have improved it would be if Terry Austin had inked it.

Face it, John Byrne never got better than this. The only thing that could have improved it would be if Terry Austin had inked it.

IDW′s Elder Gods, Young Pups and Old Fogies

Eternal Descent Vol. 2 #1

My first thought looking at the cover, which features a long-haired rocker holding a glowing red guitar, was that this book was going to be stupid, and might very well have been written by a musician. Sometimes my instincts are right. With a childishly breathless pace, our rocker hero is carried off by a magical guitar to another dimension, where a demon and his bustier-clad demoness pose and sneer while apparently the whole multiverse is in jeopardy from something. It takes two writers, two pencilers, three inkers and two colorists to produce this unreadable mess. I wondered how it even got made, and the secret might be that it′s just a cynical promotional deal, as co-writer Llexi Leon is a guitarist, with ads in the back of the comic featuring him plugging Ovation guitars and DiMarzio pickups. There′s an ad for a guitar pedal on the back, featuring Lyra artwork (I think she′s the slutty demoness but doesn’t have horns on her head here), with tones programmed by Leon. Industrious guy, just not a writer. This all may make a bit more sense to those who read Vol. 1, but there is no attempt to help a new reader out.

Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes #1

Chris Roberson and Jeffrey & Philip Moy offer up a meeting of two beloved franchises, and it really should have worked better than it does. Ive read decent work from Roberson, and IDW has done a great job overall with their Star Trek comics, but this one falls flat. Part of it is underwhelming art, especially after the terrific job on Star Trek #1, and part of it is that the entire issue goes by and the two teams haven’t met. Roberson instead is more interested in cutting between both teams being ordinary until they both find themselves on an alternate 33rd Century Earth. Its delivered as a big cliffhanger, a big surprise to both, but any reader would pretty much expect it would take an alternate timeline or some other typical contrivance to get these characters together. The fun part had to be how these characters relate to each other. Spock to Brainiac-5, Kirk to Cosmic Boy and so on. Me, I want the fun part to start in the first issue.

H.P. Lovecrafts The Dunwich Horror #1

Horror runs in the blood of IDW, so it’s a no-brainer that eventually they would start doing some Lovecraft adaptations. I normally like Joe R. Lansdale, though I haven’t read a lot of him, but its fair to say his style is closer to contemporary, good ol ′boy Stephen King than the Gothic stylings of Lovecraft. And indeed, Lansdale dispenses with Lovecraft′s text entirely, offering an adaptation relying heavily on the common speech dialogue of a group of four occult thrill seekers and the visuals of Peter Bergting to convey the horror of rural New England. I don’t have a problem with iPhones in a Lovecraft story, really, but Bergting is just not up to the task. A 40 foot high mound of desiccated animals should look scarier than this. In fact, Bergting curiously deemphasizes the thing, first showing it far away, then in a small panel, and then only the base of it, always in the background while the characters blather and look only mildly unsettled if they have an expression at all. He draws a nice barn, though.

Robert Weinberg and artist menton3 then begin an adaptation of ″The Hound″ with heavily Photoshopped single page images and white cursive text overlaid. Weinberg keeps chunks of Lovecraft′s narration but the static images fail to excite. It just doesn’t feel like comics, you know?

30 Days of Night #1

Steve Niles has now made his popular series-of-miniseries-and-specials into an ongoing monthly. This should be a special event for fans, but it′s only special in the sense that Niles decides to spend only a little time with the human element, vampire investigator Alice Blood, instead focusing on the infighting of  a group of vampires, which I found much less interesting. Not helping matters at all are the chicken scratch letters of Neil Uyetake, with periods and commas so small they′′re almost invisible and the speckled background coloring effect by Jay Fotos that, along with the washed out palette, really dampens the energy of the book. In fact, my first take on Sam Kieth′′s art was that it was some of his laziest ever, but that was after reading the book at night. In daylight, I see that aside from a few flat, needlessly cartoony characters, he does some nice work here, especially on Alice, a trademark Kieth oddball chick. I was pretty underwhelmed by this one, and to be fair, there is so much vampire material around now than when Niles first started the original 30 Days, so the bar has been set higher to do something really different and compelling. Hopefully it will get there.

Cold War #1

Subtitled The Damocles Contract and further subtitled The Michael Swann Dossier, its clear that John Byrne wants to step into the ring with the likes of Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Robert Ludlum with his own take on a tough, Cold War spy. We meet Michael Swann in East Berlin as he ruthlessly kills a high-ranking Communist and then is chased by soldiers, before he escapes through the checkpoint into democratic Berlin. 

Byrne starts piling on the James Bond similarities from this point, as the recuperating Swann finds time to have sex with an appreciative nurse, and his handlers are of course stuffed shirts. Swann quits, blaming his superiors for leaks leading to his capture and near-death at the hands of his captors. Two years later (it′s never clear exactly what year this takes place in, but probably early 60s), Swann listens to a little exposition from a pretty agent about his next assignment (is he on his own now, still with MI-6, the CIA? Who knows), getting to a rocket scientist before he defects to the Soviets. It′s also not clear if hes supposed to neutralize the guy, secure his secrets or talk him out of it, maybe because Byrne thinks it′s better to end the page with the clear suggestion Swann is eating the agent out. My favorite exchange (this is pre-cunnilingus):

Miss Thorogoode: Subject: Professor Rupert Kemp. 

            Top man down at the QM Rocket Group in Sussex.

            Considered by some to be the most brilliant mind in his field.

Swann:            His field being rockets and missiles. I′ve heard of him, of course.

Dude, she just said he′s the top man at the QM Rocket Group. We can figure out that he′s in charge of rockets and missiles and not changing the watercooler bottles.

All kidding aside, it’s a lovely book to look at. An engaged Byrne can still deliver, with solid storytelling and a good variety of faces, and Ronda Pattison colors it subtly, maybe a little on the cool side but that could be a thematic decision for cold war, or just to emphasize that this is serious, adult Byrne material. Byrne does seem to be enjoying himself, as is usually the case during his IDW tenure, but I do think the book has some flaws. The sex and violence can′t cover up that every scene is something you’ve seen or read before. And as a lead, Swann is very much a cipher, a cold, amoral killer in line with Fleming′s Bond but lacking the charm the character gained in the films. It’s a handsome book, but so far kind of empty. 

—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

Christopher Allen Reviews John Byrne’s Next Men #1

John Byrne’s Next Men #1
Writer/Artist - John Byrne
Publisher - IDW Publishing. $3.99 USD

I’ll give John Byrne some credit here: to return to a famously unfinished series after 15 plus years is pretty ballsy. Those who never liked it or have come to not like Byrne or his work in that time are going to be very difficult to win over, while many of those who liked the series may have built up their own endings or high expectations. I suppose I fall into the the category of a fan of the series when it came out, and I enjoyed rereading the first IDW collection of it, though hadn’t gotten around to reading the rest. 

What I found here, then, as an old fan who had partially revisited the material already, is a first issue that shows heavy tinkering, but with too much of an emphasis on bringing the reader up to speed with every event in the previous 28 issues, as well as too many misdirections. We meet the Next Men, unplugged from their virtual reality of The Greenery as well as the reality that had them as escapees from Project: Next Men into a life of fugitive, costumed heroes. Only Jasmine has doubts about this new reality, not to mention the readers, as her long flashback leads into a creepy rape dream sequence, and finally into her being trapped in dinosaur times with Nathan. Is she still telling a story? I don’t know.

Although his stock of poses and angles is very familiar by now, Byrne does deliver some good art here…and some not so good art. It’s one of the most uneven books of his I’ve seen, with a wide variation in style that leads one to suspect some of these pages date back to the ’90s, before he’d decided to cancel the book. The rape pages seem to be in his most current style, but then it’s hard to place some of the earlier pages where he draws Danny as if he has Bell’s Palsy. Maybe things will even out as we get into for-sure all new territory.

What I was more disappointed in were the ideas here. And maybe this isn’t fair—for the early ’90s, this was a fairly sophisticated superhero book. Or was it? I’m trying to nail down just what makes this different from any other superhero team book. They all deal with alternate realities, conspiracies and increasingly bloody violence. Having sex be the catalyst for the emergence of superpowers is still a bit unusual, but it’s hard to say that Byrne has done much with the idea, and to a large extent, it’s hard to say he shows the capability of doing so. He deals in broad, obvious signifiers: Aldus Hilltop is a bad guy because Byrne draws him with a sneer and a gold bracelet. A decent, honorable man has no need of such ornamentation. 

The recap was unfortunate in that it reminded me of times in the series where Byrne took the path well-traveled. The Next Men eventually got costumes and codenames. They fought a foreign team much like them who were led by someone at one time involved in Project: Next Men. Very typical stuff here, even reminiscent of Byrne’s X-Men and Alpha Flight work. And unfortunately, as of this issue, I’m not getting much to grab onto to feel like there’s a huge, amazing story to come, nor do I feel like I have a handle on these characters yet. At one point, this was Byrne’s baby, and the possibilities were only limited to his own imagination. Here’s hoping he can come up with some stories that live up to that potential.

— Christopher Allen