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Trouble with Comics

The New DC 51 - Five Comics, Only One Pony

After the huge disappointment of Detective Comics I felt as if I was in the middle of a cruel and disappointing joke: here I am desperately searching through a huge pile of manure because I know that there has got to be a pony in there somewhere.

It couldn’t get worse after Detective Comics, could it?  Could it??  The alphabetical journey of Week One continues…

The aged, liberal-leaning, slightly cynical and more than a little caustic Oliver Queen is replaced by a younger, richer industrialist who fights crime as he travels the world in Green Arrow #1.  This new Oliver Queen is so good at what he does that he actually phones into business meetings while he hunts for bad guys.  Chew gum and walk at the same time? – Hell no, Oliver Queen can make multi-billion dollar business deals as he fights crime and shoots his trick arrows.  As he says, “Multitasking is my speciaity.”

On top of all that, he also has a pair of operatives who assist him, there’s a hint of some kind of mysterious past that haunts our hero, and it looks like he’s going to fight a whole ton of villains in the next issue. 

After reading the story it is apparent that this new improved Green Arrow is an amalgamation of the TV version of Oliver Queen from Smallville and the movie version of Tony Stark from Iron Man: an ultra-rich, somewhat arrogant ladies man who still finds time to do the right thing as he makes his millions.

But does it make any sense for Green Arrow to be battling a gang of super-villains?  The final splash page has ten super-villains looking very pissed and out for some payback.

As I came to that final splash page, the little part of my brain that I usually turn off when reading comic books flicked back on and said, “Hey, shouldn’t those villains be taking on the Justice League and not just poor Green Arrow? – There’s no way he can avoid getting his ass kicked.  There are ten of them!”  And in no way, shape or form was this my brain squealing in anticipation of next issue.  This was my brain saying, “This doesn’t make any sense.  I give up.  Can we move on to something better?”

And I have to say that sometimes it feels good to listen to my brain.

One more thing: either give Green Arrow a beard of or give him a shave.  The chin scruff looks stupid.  The front cover makes it look like he’s about to transform into a werewolf.

Hawk &Dove #1 spends almost a third of the issue explaining who the title characters are, how they got their powers, and what their relationship is.  And then it wraps it all up with a final page that is so poorly illustrated and darkly colored that I couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be one of the heroes or it was someone completely different.  I ended up having to flip back a bunch of pages to try to figure out what was going on.

The issue also has Dove flying through the city as she has a long chat with Deadman.  But after all of the time that the story takes to explain the origin and relationship between Hank, deceased brother Don and replacement Dawn, there is not a single mention of who the bizarre guy is with the red suit and the big ‘D’.  And that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if so much of the issue hadn’t been dedicated to explaining Every Little Detail about the main characters.  So on the one hand the issue rehashes everything needed to know about Hawk & Dove, but  on the other hand it figures that every reader will either know or not care about this Deadman fella.

And they were right, because at the end I didn’t care about any of it.

Justice League International #1 would probably make more sense if readers had a better concept of what the true status of superheroes and the Justice League is in the new DCU.  Unfortunately the issues released up to this point have Justice League #1 set in the past, Action Comics #1 set in the past, and Detective Comics #1 seeming to conflict with Batgirl andBatwing in their portrayals of Batman’s status.

This comic starts with a splash page of DC heroes on a huge monitor (including Frankenstein, The Creeper and Congorilla?!?) as a secret U.N. council votes to put together its own Justice League.  Everyone gets to both vote and veto potential members for the league.  The Russians are pleased that Red Rocket is part of the group, England gets a member, China is represented, etc. etc.  But India, the Middle East, France, Mexico, Germany:  none of these countries or regions had representatives at this clandestine gathering so they don’t have any heroes in the JLI.  (I guess it’s too bad that DC didn’t’ have any pre-existing heroes from those areas that could be pigeon-holed into the group.)

Who the members of this U.N. council are, how they were chosen to vote for the League members and how they have the authority to draft all these heroes is never explained.  The whole thing is like an updated version of the Global Guardians concept but it never feels all that updated.  The comic itself, with its Saturday morning cartoon cast of characters, seems both unnecessary and blatantly concocted:  “What do you mean?  How the hell can we only have 51 books?!?  We need 52! – Okay, how about dusting off the Super Friends concept, filling it with minor characters but making sure they’re from all over the world and then slapping the “Justice League” label on the cover.  That’ll work.”

Oh, and Batman also joins the League for no apparent reason other than it never hurts to have Batman on the cover of a team book.  Once again illustrating that DC doesn’t know what Batman’s role is in this new universe.

With regards to Men of War #1:  I tried.  I really, really tried.  I even read the whole book.  Made my way through the whole thing.

But the constant footnotes (S.AW. = squad automatic weapon, GOOSE = Carl Gustav recoilless rifle) which explain every bit of military jargon got on my nerves, the cliché about a “young soldier refusing his destiny” bugged my ass, and the pages and pages and pages of explosions  became wearisome.

But the book’s biggest fault is that it is set in the new DCU which means that while the main characters are human, non-powered soldiers they are fighting in a combat zone that is being destroyed by a crazed, unknown super-villain.  The book is supposed to capture the drama of soldiers as they go into battle, but it turns out that a super-villain is doing all the damage.  How are normal soldiers supposed to fight a villain who can fly, appears indestructible and has “done more damage in five minutes than a year of armed men could do.”   This juxtaposition of reality and superheroics doesn’t work and the whole thing collapses due to the absurdity of the concept.

And the $3.99 price tag for a war comic? – I’d like to have someone explain the logic behind that one for me.  It’s almost as if DC wanted to say there was more than just superhero comics in their re-launch, but they then purposely priced the books to fail.

And finally a comic I enjoyed.    

OMAC  #1 is an entire issue of Keith Giffen channeling Jack Kirby.  And that is a very, very good and entertaining thing.

There are pages and pages of OMAC battling bad guys, ripping things apart and huge sound effects like “FFRRAATZZ,” “PA-THOOM” and “BASSSH” to accompany the destruction.  Everything is big and chunky and huge and glorious. 

My only complaint with the books (and it’s a surprisingly minor one)is that I wish that someone other than Dan DiDio was co-writing it.  DiDio has an annoying habit of shoving redundant descriptive boxes into panels and pages where the finished art has already done the work.  For example there’s a terrific double page splash where OMAC is ripping apart a building with a terrific “FRRZTTTZKKK-RRAAACK” and Didio feels the need to insert “In an unimaginable display of raw strength and power, OMAC tears through the final obstacles in his way.”

Yes the book is a pastiche of the classic Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tales, but just because Smilin’ Stan used to shove stuff like that into a comic doesn’t mean that it’s right.  I hate to sound incredibly harsh, but I can’t help but wonder what a real writer (rather than DC’s co-publisher) would have brought to the tale.

(Speaking of The King, for some reason the credit “OMAC created by Jack Kirby” isn’t in the book.  I trust that was merely an oversight and will be quickly corrected.)

I confess that with OMAC  I finally found something worth savoring after seven comics of varying degrees of disappointment.  It’s loud and silly and beautiful to look at.  It succeeds because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and isn’t a re-boot attempting to deliver something cool and modern.  It actually reads like a good idea rather than just another book to get the count up to 52.

I would love for this book to exist in its own Kirby-verse but it seems unlikely after seeing how superheroes were forced into Men of War.  Nevertheless I’m hoping that Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Justice League never make an appearance in the book.  I know that probably won’t be the case, but I can hope.

—Kevin Pasquino

The New DC 51 - B is for a better Bat?

Continuing the alphabetical tour of Week One of the new DC, the next three books happen to be in the Dark Knight’s corner of the universe.

Batgirl #1 showcases the return of Barbara Gordon, now out of the wheelchair where she’s been since The Killing Joke, back in costume and ready to fight crime in Gotham City.

A small confession: I really don’t care who Batgirl is.  I haven’t followed the various Batgirl incarnations throughout the years and I haven’t read the various Birds of Prey books that had Barbara Gordon as their leader.

Having said that, I liked the character of Oracle and I think her absence leaves a void in the superhero world (and, yes, I can’t help but wonder how all of this effects Batman Inc.).  I’m hoping that someone has plans for an Oracle-type character.  But if Barbara Gordon is the new-old – or is that the ‘old-new’? – Batgirl, that’s okay by me.

Oh and for those who were concerned about the sudden improvement in Barbara’s condition:  yes, she was shot by The Joker.  Fortunately this Barbara Gordon did not suffer a permanent injury.  She recovered.  She may have even been Oracle.  But she’s all better now.  (Writer Gail Simone deftly takes care of that bit of business in a couple of panels, so I hope that I’m not spoiling anything for anyone.)

There.  Now that those bits of business are taken care of…

The new-old Barbara has an interesting combination of cockiness and uncertainty as she resumes her career as Batgirl.  Simone manages to capture the swagger of someone who has experience with bad guys, but manages to balance that with someone who has been on the sidelines for three years.  It makes for a captivating character and allows her inner-dialogue to give us insight into the character rather than just act as a way of delivering exposition.

Unfortunately too much of the issue is spent establishing a new villain, having Barbara say goodbye to a much-younger-than-we-are used-to Commissioner Gordon, search for a new apartment and then getting a new roommate.  There’s a lot going on in this issue and much of it is good, but a couple less balls being juggled might have made for a more captivating comic.

I am somewhat curious to see what the story holds for Barbara and where Simone takes the character, but I’m not feeling completely hooked on the book.

Batwing #1 focuses on a new character, the so-called “Batman of Africa”.  There’s even a reference to Batman Inc. (and there’s me again worrying how the new 52 effects Grant Morrison’s best book) and how the new character was recruited by Batman to fight crime.

Let me start off by saying that the artwork in Batwing by Ben Oliver is lush, creative and a pleasure to look at.

But the story…

The thing is this:  writer Judd Winnick has been given a blank slate to create a brand new Batman-type character.  Go crazy, Judd!  Go wild!  The world is your oyster!  Let your imagination soar!

But instead of creating something amazing, fresh and new, we get this:  the new character is a cop in a corrupt police force.  But he’s idealistic.  He’s going to change the force from the inside.  But difference is this… he’s in Africa!!!

The young Batwing also has an older Alfred-type assistant and of course there’s a beautiful young cop on the force who is both a romantic interest and is also the only other honest police officer on the force.  Add to all of that a group of formerly unheard of old heroes who are introduced as if they’ve always been around but it turns out they all disappeared under mysterious circumstances!  Even Batman was unaware of their existence, and he’s the goddamn Batman!

Everything in this book has been done before, been done better and been done to death.  Yes, it’s pretty to look at.  Otherwise it is a massively wasted opportunity.

Detective Comics #1 is the first full-issue appearance of Batman in the new DCU and after reading the book I have two major problems:

The first is that I can’t make sense if this Batman is like the Superman of Action Comics and the story takes place before all of the other books that are being published.

Having read three Bat-books in a row, I simply cannot get a sense of Batman’s role in this new DCU.  In Batwing we hear mention of Batman supplying computers and equipment to his African protégé.  In Batgirl Barbara Gordon has a poster of Batman on her door, confirming the aspect of her origin that had her inspired by his heroics years ago.  And the first page of Detective Comics has Batman stating that The Joker has been responsible for “one-hundred fourteen murders over the past six years.”  So I have to think that the story takes place ‘now’ in the new DCU.

And yet later in the issue the police force are screaming for Batman’s arrest and blowing things up as they attempt to capture him. 

So Batman is literally the poster boy who inspired Batgirl and his reputation as a hero is powerful enough that he’s recruited a hero in Africa.  But in Gotham City, the police are hunting him and Commissioner Gordon is his only ally? All of this going on while the cover of the soon to be alphabetically read Justice League International has Batman swinging into action with a bunch of other heroes?

I acknowledge and accept the conceit that the various Batman books exist in their own little corner of the world where Gotham City is its own dark, dangerous place.  I’ve always approached the books as if these stories take place in a more gloomy, more serious Bizarro Bob Haney mini-universe, and when Batman appears in Justice League he’s a different character in a different alternate world.

But shouldn’t there have been more thought given to how Batman operates and is perceived within the various Bat-books?  He’s been a heroic inspiration for years in one book, he’s a financial provider in another, but a hunted menace in his own Detective Comics?  I’m not demanding iron-clad and inflexible continuity in the first week of the line’s re-launch, but a tiny bit of consistency wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

The story itself is serviceable and Tony Daniel certainly has some good-looking drawings to accompany his fairly-good words.  I’d even go as far to say that the book, while over the top and incredibly self-important in its seriousness, is good until the story’s final pages.  But those final pages plunge the issue into a grand guignol of gruesomeness.

And that’s my other major problem with the book:  why would an editor allow a book this grotesque to be one of the cornerstones of the entire company’s re-launch?  I have to wonder what was going through editor Mike Marts’ corporately-mandated head.   

At the book’s conclusion it becomes obvious that the main character in the book is not Batman, it’s The Joker.  And instead of Detective Comics being a book for the 21st Century, it’s a book transplanted from the heyday of the Image Comics-inspired Dark Age.  It reads as if the worst aspects of Watchmen were its inspiration and Tony Daniel was instructed to top the shock (and shlock?) value of that that classic story.

The final pages of this issue are something out of Silence of the Lambs or its more lurid sequel, Hannibal.  It is impossible to reconcile this book’s conclusion with the action in Batgirl.  I don’t even know how both books can exist in the same universe.

Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics was at times macabre and over the top, but there was always the underlying sense that light was struggling against darkness and that there was always hope that evil could be defeated.

This new re-launch of Detective Comics merely wallows in its own gloom.  And because of that, it’s a giant step backwards for this shiny new universe.

—Kevin Pasquino

The New DC 51 - Action to Animal

So with the new 52 DC reboot/restart/re-imagining and with the joyful enthusiasm of “Hey it worked for Casino Royale and Batman Begins so it can work for us!!”,  the big question became this…

What to buy, what to buy, what to buy?  52 re-launches with a bunch of new creators.  What to buy?

Fortunately my local comic shop (the legendary and fabulous The Beguiling) was kind enough, like many shops, to lure people like me who were sitting on the fence into making a complete commitment: for one low price I would be able to purchase all 52 issues and save myself the hassle of making a decision.

So I figured “What the heck, why not?”  After all, enough of the books interested me that I may as well just kill that annoying curious cat and get them all.

And, yes, that means when faced with making a decision or making a commitment, I went for the non-decision commitment.  Oh if only ice cream and women were that uncomplicated.

My critical measuring stick for the 52 books is therefore not equally balanced: there are those books I would have bought, the ones I was somewhat curious about, and the ones I would not have touched even if someone had offered me free chocolate as an almost -irresistible incentive.

To be completely transparent, of this week’s 13 new releases I would have bought 3 of them, flipped through 4 of them, and the rest would not have earned a glance even if Rosario Dawson was giving complimentary foot massages with each purchase:

Would have bought: Action Comics, Swamp Thing and Animal Man.

Would have flipped through:  Detective Comics, OMAC, Stormwatch and Static Shock.

Not even with chocolate or Rosario Dawson: Batgirl, Batwing, Man of War, JLI, Green Arrow and Hawk & Dove.

Okay, but now that I have committed to all of them, how to sample them?  Do I read my anticipated favorites first, or inverse it and do the more mature and responsible equivalent of eating all my vegetables before I get dessert? (And as I think about vegetables, it’s ironic to note that the is the cover of Swamp Thing (looking very Bissette & Totleben) is right in front of me.)

Well, nothing says random reading quite like ‘alphabetical order’ and so that was how I decided to approach Week One.  Which means we start with…

Action Comics #1.  Right from the first page and its bottom panel it is very apparent that this is a different kind of Superman.

“I’m your worst nightmare” is a most un-Superman-like statement.  Batman, Freddy Krueger or Kim Kardashian might say something like that, but for the Man of Steel to utter those words… well, it certainly indicates that this is a very different take on the hero.

Writer Grant Morrison created the great and now classic All-Star Superman with Frank Quitely, but anyone expecting that kind of homage to The Silver Age is in for a rude surprise.  This Superman is younger, angrier and a lot less certain of his place in the world.  Reading like a “Year One” take on the character, the traditional majesty and nobility that were synonymous with Superman have been pushed aside for a more working class, “willing to get his hands dirty” kind of hero.  And while that’s all well and good, I don’t know how far Morrison and other creators can stray from those classic, defining characteristics and still have him remain “Superman”.

Or to put it another way:  I enjoyed the Superman in Grant Morrison’s Superman Beyond from Final Crisis much more than I did this Superman.  I would rather have Superman as a leader and a beacon of nobility than yet another angry superhero.

A strange aspect of the story is revealed part way through the issue when one of the characters says that this new “Super-man” has been around for six months and yet he still remains a figure of mysterious menace (very much like the early appearances of Batman in Gotham City).  But I couldn’t help but think that six months in today’s world is the equivalent of several lifetimes in the days of old media  scrutiny, so I’m amazed that hero hasn’t been You Tube’d, Facebook’d and Google’d to the point that all the mystique is gone.

It’s my understanding that this story takes place several years before the rest of the books in the new DCU (with Justice League being another exception) and maybe that’s why it’s been six months since he first appeared, but it makes me wonder how necessary it was to introduce Superman outside of the current timeline of the other books.  It’s often been expressed that Superman should be the first hero, but if it’s this Superman who is the first hero, it’s difficult to imagine him inspiring a lot of other heroes to follow in his footsteps.

The book’s major downfall is the fact that there aren’t any brilliant ideas or terrific new insights into any of the characters.  Instead, there’s just a lot of anger, red-glowing eyes and a fairly goofy-looking Jimmy Olsen.  And after Geoff Johns’ recent Secret Origins and Straczyski’s Superman Earth One, the launch of this book had to be something spectacular.  And it’s not. Action Comics #1  reads like an early issue of Ultimate Spider-Man albeit better-paced and with less of a focus on the hero’s  origin.

The bottom line is that I expected Morrison to deliver something more mind-blowing than merely a slightly better Bendis.  Having said that, I’ll stick around in the hope that Morrison brings his A-game for the upcoming issues.  But if I didn’t have such faith in Morrison, I’m not sure if I’d buy #2.

Animal Man #1.  Oh cruel, cruel alphabet: making me move from a slightly disappointing Grant Morrison debut to a book that once had him at his very, very best.

Writer Jeff Lemire certainly has huge shoes to fill with this comic because although Morrison’s take on Animal Man is more than 20 years old, it was his 26 issue run on the series that rescued the minor DC hero from complete obscurity, it remains the definitive take on the character and it also launched Morrison’s own career in North America.  So not only does Lemire have to do Animal Man and his family justice, he gets do so as he works in the shadow of Morrison’s classic, creative genius.

Lemire dances the fine line (as do all of the #1’s creators) of introducing the character as if he were completely new but at the same time not completely ignoring the past and risk alienating all of the nostalgic fans of the original series.  And he manages the creative dance quite well, establishing (and to some extent perhaps even over-establishing) the fact that Buddy Baker and his family are the main focus of the story and all of the superhero shenanagins are incidental.  

The first part of the book reads like something from Pixar’s The Incredibles (although Morrison’s Animal Man predates the movie) with Buddy and his wife debating the challenges and financial insecurities of being a superhero, their daughter screaming for their attention and their son being mildly annoying.

But then Buddy has to do his Animal Man duty and spring into action. 

And that is when the weirdness begins to intrude on their lives.  While things may have been quite domestic and common at the beginning, it all starts to unravel.   And when things go bad, it is terrifying and grotesque and quite brilliant to behold.

I’m not overly familiar with Travel Foreman’s artwork but it is knockout friggin’ gorgeous.  There is a black & white sequence at the end of the issue that is glorious.  Unfortunately there is also a full page splash early in the story of Buddy in flight that looked like it was Warren Worthington III (aka Angel) from the X-Men circa 1980s John Byrne that simply did not belong in the rest of this beautiful book.  While I know Animal Man’s costume is supposed to look less than inspiring because of his low status on the superhero totem pole, I’m hoping the costume design is merely Jim Lee’s bad idea and will get pushed aside very quickly.

Lemire and Foreman do not disappoint with this issue.  Well-written and beautifully illustrated, I hope they get a chance to work together for a long time.  Because there might be greatness to come.

—Kevin Pasquino 


IDW’s Star Trek (Ongoing) #1

IDW is continuing the adventures of the young crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise introduced in director J.J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek film, and the first issue is just about everything I could have hoped for.

I wrote about my lifelong appreciation for Star Trek a few days ago, on the 45th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of the original series. With that anniversary in mind, now’s a great time for IDW to launch a new ongoing series, and I am pleased that the first issue reflects the same quality and attention to detail that we’ve seen in the publisher’s other Trek offerings. From Countdown, a canonical prequel to the 2009 movie, to the movie adaptation itself, and sidelights like Nero and Spock: Reflections (both of which expanded on and enhanced the events of the 2009 movie), IDW’s creators and editors show that they get what Star Trek is about, and what a comics adaptation of it requires, more than any publisher in the history of the series. IDW’s Star Trek comics are exciting where DC’s were dull. They feel grounded in the world of Trek, unlike Marvel’s quasi-superhero tone; they make sense and the characters look and feel like the same characters we’ve seen on TV and in the movies, unlike Gold Key’s bizarre, atrocious Star Trek comics.

This new Star Trek #1 features a retelling of the second pilot from the original series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” That was the first episode produced that featured William Shatner as Captain Kirk, and the story centered on Kirk dealing with a longtime friend and crew member, Gary Mitchell, accidentally acquiring the powers of a god in an accident at the very edge of the universe.

This new comic is and isn’t that story. It’s a perfect evocation of what I want from the new Star Trek from here on out, touching on the events of the “Prime” universe of the original Shatner/Nimoy episodes while exploring the very real consequences of the fact that history has been changed and anything can happen, now. I’m not saying every movie, comic and TV episode (if that ever happens) produced from here on out has to be based on an old story, but what I am saying is that, when appropriate, and when it can be done in a thoughtful and interesting way (as it is here), those old stories should be used as one part of the foundation of exploring the new Trek universe. Yes, new stories can and should be told, independent of all the old baggage, but the opportunity is there to have fun with a lot of the old mythology, and that’s what happens in Star Trek #1

See, in a new universe like this, branching off from an older reality because of a change in history due to time travel, some things will be exactly the same. And here, they are. Some events proceed exactly like they did in the 1966 TV episode. But some events diverge. Doctor McCoy was not yet aboard in the original episode, the ship’s doctor was a different actor. And as a result of that literally trivial fact, the Gary Mitchell story plays out differently. One key character from the episode is not present, because McCoy’s presence changes things.

Writer Mike Johnson and creative consultant (and 2009 movie co-writer) Roberto Orci introduce this idea organically and for anyone versed in Star Trek history, the result is a delightful divergence from what we know, and an indicator that we’re all coming to this new chapter in Trek history on pretty equal footing. No matter what we think we know, there are surprises ahead, and that feels pretty good. Factor in artist Stephen Molnar’s careful balance of attractive, dynamic artwork with a fidelity to the appearance of the actors who play the characters, and I really can’t imagine anyone who likes Star Trek, new or old, not loving this comic book.

Alan David Doane

A copy of this issue was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. 

Justice League #1 (2011)

Justice League #1
Writer – Geoff Johns
Penciler – Jim Lee
Inker – Scott Williams
Publisher – DC Comics. $3.99 (print)/$4.99 (print/digital combo)

The New 52 starts here, with the flagship title. This is the one that’s the easiest sell: The biggest superheroes DC has, on a team, starting from scratch, as written and drawn by two of their best-loved talents. I am fairly certain there has not been a positive review of a Johns-written comics on this blog, and it would be pretty easy to rip this one, but it isn’t really that bad. We meet Batman in action, hounded by police, and Lee draws him well, with noticeable but unobtrusive extra seams in his costume as a kind of nod to the Christopher Nolan movies, or perhaps just an ingrained artistic fussiness. And he meets Green Lantern, who performs his shtick to any new readers, though not as impressively as he should, since it looks like too much precious space was used on Batman close-ups. There is a menace of sorts in what appears to be an Apokoliptian parademon, setting off a bomb on behalf of Darkseid, and the mystery of this is the engine that gets GL to abscond with Batman to find the other superhumans that are starting to make the papers, like that guy in Metropolis, who ends up being a little more prone to punching first and asking questions later than we might expect of Superman. And we get a glimpse of young high school quarterback phenom Vic Stone, who has a dad who neglects him. And that’s your twenty-two pages.

Johns does fine with Batman firmly in the arrogant, brilliant loner mold which has defined the character half my lifetime. The Hal Jordan Green Lantern as a cocky hothead is fine, and presumably Superman will be revealed as more thoughtful once introductions are made. There is a chuckle or two in the Batman/GL meeting, but I don’t think many people think of Johns as a really witty writer. It’s a utilitarian effort, and while it makes sense to write a lot of action and big panels for Lee, it also means there isn’t a lot of story here, and nothing we haven’t seen before. For his part, Lee is Lee, with maybe some Neal Adams panel angles in his bag of tricks now, but nothing surprising or ambitious. I get it: this is meant to be DCs most accessible book, so no one is going to experiment in anything but little decorative details, like giving Supermans costume a little collar. I mean, the JL could be in much worse hands than this, and has, many times. That doesn’t mean this is anything to get very excited about.

—Christopher Allen

Asterix and the Black Gold

Writer/Artist – Albert Uderzo

1981.

This is my first exposure to the venerable series about the shrewd little Gaulish warrior and his dimwitted oaf buddy, Obelix. I understand it’s the second album (#26 in the series) to be both written and drawn by Uderzo after the death of co-creator/writer Rene Goscinny. I also understand that many prefer the ones where Goscinny was writing.

In this one, the two friends travel to the Middle East to find more “rock oil” (petroleum), as their village druid Getafix has run out and needs it for his various potions. They’re joined this once by Roman secret agent Dubbelosix, who is drawn like late ‘70s Sean Connery and has all manner of steampunk gadgets like a folding chariot. They have many hardships, dangers and all manner of confusion in their search for the oil, though nothing too serious. The copy I was loaned still shows a 1981 copyright and $9.95 pricetag, so maybe later editions have better printing and coloring, but I found it indifferent here, though I can tell Uderzo has a pretty supple line and the art style of bulbous noses, big feet and exaggerated postures works just fine for the humorous set-ups, while here and there he does stop to draw some very nice establishing shots of Arab architecture.

As far as the gags, I was a little surprised, given how successful the volumes are worldwide, that so much of the humor is verbal rather than visual/physical. I like puns better than most, and the idea of using the Gaulish –ix or Roman –ius suffixes afford a few opportunities for at least a smile, with names like Surreptitius, Dubbelosix and such, though Uderzo stretches the idea a bit far with on-the-nose mouthfuls like “Ekonomikrisis”. Uderzo also has pretty low standards for some of these jokes: what’s so funny about a tired camel thinking, “Being humped about really gives me the hump?” What does that even mean? Maybe it’s the translation. There are some witty James Bond bits and an ironic running gag about the nastiness and useless of “rock oil” that contrasts with the modern reliance on petroleum. Reading more about the book, it’s clear Uderzo worked pretty hard, including lots of then-current references and even using a character modeled on Goscinny as a kind of tribute, so no doubt longtime fans, or those still familiar with the current events of 1980, will get more out of it than me. I liked it but aside from a mild interest in reading one written by Goscinny to see if it’s funnier, I don’t feel a great urge to return.

—Christopher Allen

August 10, 2011

The Mighty Thor Omnibus

Writers - Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein

Pencilers - Jack Kirby, Al Hartley, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck

Inkers - Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, Al Hartley, George Roussos, Paul Reinman, Chic STone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia

Publisher - Marvel Comics. $99.99 USD

It’s appropriate that Thor finally gets the Omnibus treatment, as this book weighs as much as a sledgehammer. The Mjolnir-wielding Norse god made his first appearance in Marvel’s anthology series, Journey Into Mystery #83, starting a long, unbroken run that first had him in just half the book, but within a year or so the main Thor adventure was backed by the beloved Tales of Asgard. All the Thor material from #83-#120 and Annual (“Special”) #1 are here.

Jack Kirby had done a version of Thor in one DC comic before this, but the basic set-up of having Thor sort of sharing the body of lame (in both definitions) Dr. Donald Blake seems like more of a Stan Lee “hero with feet of clay” device, perhaps inspired by the Fawcett Captain Marvel/Billy Batson idea (and which would inspire Marvel’s own Captain Marvel/Rick Jones set-up). Blake finds a cane through improbable means and when he strikes it, he turns into the God of Thunder, aware of what happened while he was Donald Blake and yet not sharing or at least not interested in Blake’s knowledge; ie you wouldn’t ask Thor to perform surgery on you. 

There’s the added gimmick that Thor cannot be separated from his hammer for more than 60 seconds (Asgardians measure time the same as us, even if they are immortal), or he turns back into Blake. Lee handled a lot of Marvel books back then, so he only plots many of these stories, letting brother Larry or Robert Bernstein script them, and of course it’s difficult to determine how much Kirby himself added. Even at his angriest, most anti-Marvel/Lee period, Kirby probably wouldn’t want to take a lot of credit for the first year or so of Journey Into Mystery’s stories, as most were pretty poor. Blake’s medical practice was left vague enough that one day he could be performing surgery in a hospital, while another day he could be working at a clinic, or as a kind of proto-Doctor Without Borders in a banana republic. Whatever happened, he would have some reason to become Thor, who so excites his beloved nurse, Jane Foster, but she is always kept at arm’s length due to misunderstanding or a desire to keep her safe from his dangerous double life.

This romantic thread is often irritating, and invariably gets in the way of what should have been a grand, mythological adventure book from the start, though I suppose something can be said for Lee’s ability to make even godlike characters relatable with dating woes, or Thor’s difficult relationship with his dad, Odin. Odin is basically a bigot: he loves his son, but can’t understand why he wastes his affection on Jane Foster, a human woman, and thus beneath him. There is something charming about Thor pining away and moaning in public over his girl trouble. And of course, Loki is a classic villain, the evil stepbrother who might have been better if he had been the favorite son…but probably not.

It takes quite a while for the series to get going. Aside from Loki, who appears constantly, Thor’s rogues gallery is pathetic, with losers like “Sandu the Supernatural” and “The Carbon-Copy Man.” Even decent villains such as The Radioactive Man, The Executioner, The Enchantress, The Cobra and Mr. Hyde aren’t all that interesting in their first appearances. Lee really misses an opportunity to draw parallels between Thor and The Executioner, both saps for love. It has to be said, though, that unlike, say, the Superman books of this period, Lee/Kirby & Co evolved the series beyond its confining status quo. Little by little, the Tales of Asgard become not just abbreviated versions of myths, but original adventures themselves, and also the main series draws more inspiration from the wonders of Asgard, making room for characters like Balder the Brave and Heimdall to play more of a part in Thor’s life. 

—Christopher Allen

Fear Itself Tie-Ins

With the fourth of seven issues of the main Fear Itself miniseries published, we’re at the halfway point of Marvel’s latest event. I’ve actually been pretty impressed with how most of the ongoing series have been able to incorporate the storyline into their own series without completely losing their own plot threads or identity, while for the most part the tie-in miniseries, while not “necessary”, are pretty good, too.

Thunderbolts #160 by Jeff Parker/Declan Shalvey.

As The Raft supervillain prison island is rocked by the impact of one of the Seven Hammers and upgrade/escape of Juggernaut, I like the T-Bolts B Team biding their time for  when they attempt their own escape. It’s much smarter than usual supervillain behavior, and well in keeping with Thunderbolts tradition. I’m also really digging Shalvey’s art, which is somehow cartoonish, fragile, humorous and horrific at the same time. Bright future for that guy, maybe. I’ve always said that for a second-tier superteam book to work, you need not only a good writer but a distinctive artist. If I had any complaints about this issue or the recent issues of this series, it’s only that Luke Cage has dropped out of being the lead, but it’s really fine, as Parker has found good handles on Moonstone, Songbird, Ghost and the others. I even like Satana.

Heroes For Hire #9 by Dan Abnett/ & Andy Lanning/Kyle Hotz.

This one also takes place at and around The Raft, with a new monster created from a chemical spill and Killgrave the Purple Man using his powers to control a bunch of unnamed villains to protect him from capture. As is usual for the book, Misty Knight coordinates and seems not to understand when Paladin cannot fight and talk to her at the same time. The premise for the book is the same: Paladin joined by Marvel B-and-C-listers, in this case Gargoyle, Shroud, and used-to-be-somebody Elektra. An assassin like her is a bad fit for this rotating team, and Abnett/Lanning know this, having her receive twice her regular rate not to kill anybody. Not a great idea, and it leads me to think some of these characters are forced on the writers by editorial. Hotz isn’t an artist I’ve really liked much, as I find his exaggerated musclemen and pixieish women often don’t fit the tone of the material (a la Bret Blevins), but since there’s a big monster angle here, it works okay. Although DnA have done a nice job making Paladin interesting, the series is still struggling to stand out, and the lack of a consistent art team doesn’t help.

Uncanny X-Men #540 by Kieron Gillen/Greg Land.

What’s with all the Juggernaught love?? I get that he’s a good villain and the costume redesign is pretty cool (how do the six eyeholes work with a two-eyed guy again?), but it seems like some of the other “Worthy” are not getting as much attention. As Cyclops, who clearly should be relying on Warren or someone else to speak to civilians due to his lack of tact, tries to reassure the mayor that San Francisco’s safety while other major cities burn is not due to the X-Men making some sort of deal with the Norse menaces, Juggy shows up, turns a nobody into his herald, and threatens the decadent SF with destruction. I like the idea of the X-Men having to protect the city from a homophobic threat, but I think Gillen should have saved it for another day, as human sexuality seems well beneath the notice of these old Norse gods.

Fear Itself: The Home Front #1-3 (of 7) by Christos Gage/Mike Mayhew/Peter Milligan/Elia Bonetti/Howard Chaykin/Various.

Having a separate miniseries with short stories spotlighting non-essential characters affected by the main event is a solid idea, and one Marvel has done in the past. I think they get the most out of it here, with a fine Gage/Mayhew serial story that finds Speedball trying to make some sort of amends for the Stamford tragedy by working for the woman whose son he indirectly killed, at first in disguise and then openly once they come to terms. Good take on a character who has long been misused; he’s actually better here than in Gage’s own Avengers Academy. Still, Juggernaut again?! Milligan writes a decent Agents of Atlas adventure as they try to discern what the Red Skull and the Thule Society were doing by torturing Atlanteans in WWII. Jimmy Woo is cracking up due to fear and his relationship with Namora is not only out in the open but falling apart. Both stories take up most of the issue and present compelling emotional conflicts, unlike a lot of your typical tie-in nonsense that usually just fleshes out plot points that didn’t need it. Chaykin is given one or two pages per issue to tell curious little anecdotes that should shed light on the human side of Fear Itself but unfortunately are really forgettable and barely coherent. The final slot in each issue is given to a short by a different creative team. The third issue has an interesting, really downbeat Cardiac story by Ben McCool and Mike DelMundo. Not fantastic work from either, but good enough that it should hopefully lead to other opportunities.

Fear Itself: Fearsome Four #1 (of 4) by Brandon Montclare/Michael Wm. Kaluta/Ryan Bodunheim/Simon Bisley.

First, I’m happy for this relatively unknown Montclare guy that he gets to work with a couple big names in Kaluta and Bisley, even if neither are exactly going all-out on their artwork. I don’t really get why you have three artists with totally different styles on a linear, non-modular series, either, as the results are always jarring. The story is fairly ludicrous and another example of throwing some lesser heroes together for trademark servicing. Man-Thing is going nuts due to all the fear in the air, so his old buddy Howard the Duck recruits She-Hulk to help stop him. And then Nighthawk shows up, written as a grinning, psycho Batman, and then they see Frankenstein’s Monster, who does nothing but say, “leave me alone” as he punts Howard off the page. Other than having a decent take on the Howard/Man-Thing relationship, I’m not sure what Montclare is going for here, and none of the characters shine. Howard is deadly serious, which to me robs the character of much of his interest, and She-Hulk has no personality at all. I didn’t care for Bodunheim’s depiction, which is basically the movie version of Howard. Kaluta does fine, but drawing Nighthawk beating up thugs seems like a waste of his talents. Bisley shows up at the end, briefly drawing a classic Howard before reality warps and the entire tossed-together team is all buff and monstrous. Not a bad call to have Bisley draw this, but if they’re going to stay like this for long, the series will be in even worse shape than it started here.

—Christopher Allen


ADD Reviews Approximate Continuum Comics

Lewis Trondheim is one of the few comics creators whose work appeals to me despite carrying large doses of whimsy. Can I be honest with you? I hate whimsy. I hate anything whimsical. But the autobiographical comics of Lewis Trondheim, these I love.

Trondheim’s autobio comics both feel very close to reality to me — I love other autobio creators like James Kochalka, Harvey Pekar and Jason Marcy — but all their work feels translated into comics in a way that Trondheim’s autobio comics do not. Trondheim seems to be living his actual life right there on the pages of the comics he creates. If that makes sense to you, then you’ll enjoy and appreciate Trondheim’s new collection from Fantagraphics, Approximate Continuum Comics.

Of a piece with Trondheim’s excellent NBM series Little Nothings, this new book features Trondheim reflecting on cartooning, life, friendship and the many squabbling sides of his own personality. Trondheim can go many dark places in his ponderings, but the darkness is always relieved by other facets of himself arguing, observing, and sometimes beating the crap out of each other. He can puff himself up all he wants, but within a few panels another side will emerge to deflate his ego and put things into better perspective.

Throughout all these goings-on, we see glimpses of Trondheim’s home life, his work and friendships with his fellow cartoonists (given equal time in the back pages to respond to what you’ve just read), and the search for a new home for his family. If you’re not familiar with Trondheim’s cartooning (and hoo-boy, you should be), he blends funny-animal body-types with breezily convincing cityscapes to create an eminently readable and visually gorgeous narrative. Trondheim is one of the easiest cartoonists to read, and one of the most satisfying to experience. Approximate Continuum Comics wanders far and wide among topics and settings, but the whole book also tells one long tale about a period in its creator’s life, and by the time you’re done with it you feel you’ve spent some very worthwhile time with a great storyteller. Because you have.

Alan David Doane

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Buy Approximate Continuum Comics from Amazon.com.

Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth

Writers - Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell
Publisher - IDW Publishing $49.99 USD

I get a little uneasy calling anyone a genius, but since many folks I respect got there to slap that sobriquet on Alexander Toth way before me, I can live with it. There are really only a handful of true eccentrics and iconoclasts in the history of the comics medium. In recent years, publishers have gotten around to collecting most of the great comic strips from Herrimann, Schulz, Caniff, King and great comic book work from big names like Kirby, Eisner, Tezuka. Even more recently, reprint projects have begun focusing on early and lesser-known Steve Ditko work than his years at Marvel Comics, and now we get another game changer, this first of a lush, three-volume biography/retrospective on Toth.

As a comics  legend, Toth falls somewhere between Ditko and Wallace Wood. Like Ditko, Toth became reclusive in later years without ever retiring. Like Wood, Toth made some rash decisions that would have negative consequences on his career. This volume covers Toth as a promising young artist learning under mentors like Frank Robbins, finding work fairly quickly and becoming quite a competent, even inventive stylist early on. Even the late ’40s material represented here, while often providing rather mundane, formulaic scripts for Toth, still made me a little frustrated not to be able to read every story through to completion, just to see how he put it all together. Fortunately, there are many complete stories in this volume, such as an early career highlight, 1950’s “Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion,” a brave and successful experiment in unusual p.o.v. and silhouette that works magnificently and was almost certainly an influence on B. Krigstein’s better-known “Master Race” art. 

The ’50s started well enough for Toth, with regular work at National (DC), where he handled Westerns, Science Fiction, Romance and Superheroes with grace and increasing mastery of light, shade and depth, but a fabled conflict with editor Julius Schwartz caused an angry, humiliated Toth to leave DC for a time. In the short run, it was a win for Toth, who did some terrific work at Standard, often inked by his favorite embellisher, Mike Peppe, but in retrospect Toth hasn’t been as influential on succeeding generations of comic artists because much of his work has been hard to find. Every now and then, one sees echoes of Toth in an artist like Mike Mignola, Steve Rude or Michael Lark, but there has never been a wave of minimalism and chiaroscuro in comics. Maybe that’s a good thing, I dunno; you appreciate those folks more when you find them.

Mullaney and Canwell make excellent choices in presentation, sometimes presenting the work as it was printed, sometimes offering original pages to contrast Toth’s pencils with the finished product. As mentioned, even the pap is generally quite entertaining because of Toth’s efforts, his relentless pursuit of fresh perspectives and real-life faces and body language, but there are also some real gems, such as “The Crushed Gardenia,” one of the few Toth stories I was already familiar with from a crime anthology. It’s as stunning a portrait of a psychopath today as it must have been in 1953. “Grip of Life” and “Murder Mansion” are as good as most of the horror stories of the EC Comics heyday, and the complete “Jon Fury,” a crime serial Toth produced while stationed in post-war Japan, proves that Toth had some nascent writing talent he unfortunately didn’t pursue further. The lone Zorro story here is dynamite, and in the preferred black-and-white with the graytones Toth added in the late ’80s for collection.

As this volume closes, Toth has made some inroads into animation, with work on the cult series Clutch Cargo as well as the unproduced Space Angel, on a third failing marriage with a few kids from it, working hard to be a breadwinner while seething with every compromise he had to make. It’s an unalloyed but balanced account, leavened with comments from his children, who found him hard to live with while still feeling his love. Genius or no, Toth walked a rocky path for his art, experiencing great pains in the pursuit of the purest, most impactful arrangements of lines. The work presented is of an artist who could be called a genius, if genius means having a strong vision and the will to push oneself to realize it, while the biography presents the contrast, a man of flaws like any other, trying to be happy and fulfilled and trying to bringing the same to others, while often failing at both. 

—Christopher Allen

Buy Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth from Amazon.com.