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Trouble with Comics

Christopher Allen Reviews First X-Men, Hawkeye and Peter Parker 156.1

Marvel dropped three books this week that are all examples of their constant, never-ending and yet often contradictory mandate to keep coming up with fresh takes on characters at least 40 years old, while keeping these fresh takes from alienating the existing, aging readership.

First X-Men #1 (of 6)

Writers: Neal Adams & Christos Gage

Artist: Neal Adams

For those George Lucas types out there who think that there’s nothing cooler than filling in backstory on favorite characters, even if that backstory undoes a lot of what made them interesting in the first place, here’s…this.

So we have beloved comics legend, crusader and kook Adams apparently being shepherded by young, solid, within-the-lines writer Gage on one more retcon fiesta that noone was really asking for, and that has a subtitle, “Children of the Atom,” that at least one other retcon fiesta already bore. Here, we have Wolverine/Logan, as yet not part of Project X but still running with his bro, Sabretooth, kind of like in that Wolverine movie and Origin, but he’s not conflicted because he doesn’t seem to be an assassin. He has a friend and agrees to help find the friend’s kid, who is a mutant like himself. He enlists Sabretooth, who here is just a slightly rougher big brother and not really evil, and then the rest of the issue continues the putting-together-the-team formula. As one might expect, there are some new players, just like in that Wolverine movie, because of course they’re going to die and be forgotten and not have to be tied into modern continuity. We’ve got Holo, a teenage girl who makes people see what they want to see, and the fourth would-be member is young Charles Xavier, though he sees the murder in Logan and Victor’s hearts and won’t join them. At the end, we see the future Magneto, Erik Lensherr.

It’s all familiar, unnecessary and at best, just competent. Gage working with someone else means a professional but less personal job, and to be honest, I would have preferred Adams given more rope to hang himself than doing a mini nobody needed. Adams can still draw, with some great depth and forced perspective and his typical fetish for overly rendered hair, as well as the more recent fetish for drawing bodies torn apart by weapons, but his trademark for triangular, jagged panels has become a little stilted. 

Peter Parker, Spider-Man #156.1

Writer: Roger Stern

Artist: Roberto De La Torre

As he admits in the Afterword, Marvel asks Stern to write a Spider-Man story once or twice a decade now. Stern had a very solid run in the early ’80s with John Romita, Jr., including a terrific issue with the Juggernaut that illustrates the never say die quality of Spider-Man to a T, and a whole bunch of issues about the corrupt Brand Corporation. That provides the connective tissue to this, a .1 issue for a series that no longer exists, which finds Daily Bugle reporter Norah Winters enlisting Peter Parker to take some photos while she investigates what’s going on at the abandoned Acme Warehouse. Brand is going down the tubes with litigation and wants to get the tech that’s locked up in their labs at the warehouse. Norah doesn’t know this is the same place where the killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben was found, which has him bummed out most of the issue. 

Stern has a great collaborator in De La Torre, who has a kind of Alex Maleev-like photoreference thing going on but draws faces and figures seemingly mostly from his imagination. A lot of Matt Hollingsworth filters keep things from looking too grainy and grey. The art, and Stern’s way of writing Peter Parker capably, focusing on his core of responsibility and guilt rather than nonstop wisecracks, make this one work despite not adding up to a whole lot other than beating up some average thugs and calling back to not a classic villain but a vaguely defined corporation that was notable thirty years ago. Not to mention that Parker hasn’t been a photographer for some time now, and, past favor aside, could still be nice guy Peter and tell Norah politely that he’s got a great job he should be working at and to go find some other guy to dig around a dusty warehouse full of bad memories. It’s a nice enough book, I’m glad Stern got a gig, and you can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, by making these issues adjuncts to defunct rather than existing Spider-Man titles (there’s a two-part Sensational Spider-Man story next), Marvel’s underlying message is to leave it.

Hawkeye #1

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: David Aja

The thing about being a critic is that sometimes you can enjoy something the first time you experience it, and then the second time the flaws reveal themselves. To be sure, Fraction is one of Marvel’s bright lights, and any chance to see him work with his Immortal Iron Fist collaborator again is a good thing, and a smartass like Hawkeye is more in line with his strengths than Thor. This is pretty much a guarantee to be at least a decent superhero comic, and so it is, well-drawn and with some good bits in the first-person narration that paint Hawkeye as a likable, almost blue collar kind of superhero.

Unfortunately, while the choice to set uncostumed Hawkeye in an urban environment, just a regular guy who goes to work, pays his rent, and enjoys barbecues on the roof with his neighbors is a sound one, the execution is off on nearly every story beat. 

After falling several stories onto a car, regular guy Hawkeye breaks a bunch of bones like you or I would (if we didn’t die), but do we see him suffer? Do we see him go through physical therapy? No. We see him leave when he feels like it, all better, and dumping his wheelchair in an intersection to be destroyed and cause traffic delays, with a spoiled celebrity’s solution of, “Bill me for it.” And then we see him handle his Russian landlord’s raising of the rent to exorbitant levels (though legal) with a spoiled superhero’s solution of intimidation and then, failing that, a spoiled rich guy’s solution of taking out his checkbook and overpaying for the building by 50%. With Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, that kind of thing can be very funny, but if you’re trying to establish that this is a blue collar type of superhero, a guy who came from nothing, has no powers, but somehow has the character and tenacity to stand as an equal with gods, mutants and living legends, then you need to come up with a better way than just throwing money at a problem. Maybe Fraction is going to explore this in future issues, like maybe now that the tenants know he’s rich and their new landlord, it will change their relationship with him, and what he thought he had in this low-key setup is gone. We’ll see, but for now, it kind of leaves a bad taste.

—Christopher Allen

Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali

Writers - Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil

Artist - Neal Adams

DC Comics. $19.99 USD / $39.99 USD (Tabloid Facsimile)

One thing I like about Neal Adams is how much pride he takes in his work. And I don’t just mean that his hard work is evident, but that he publicly takes pride in it. The Introduction to this hardcover reprint makes that clear—he thinks this is a great book that shows everyone how great comics are. You know what? He’s right on both counts.

Although I have no doubt Denny O’Neil made an important contribution to the plotting of this titanic team-up, it’s probably to the better that Adams ended up writing the thing—a superstar depicting the meeting of two superstars. Adams gets Superman fine, but he really understands Ali, because Adams is also a “it’s not bragging if you can do it” kind of guy. Adams takes pleasure in depicting a man who is not only at the top of his game, physically, but who also has a philosophy behind what he does. Adams was never just a showy artist; he served a story, and was constantly trying to move the art form forward.

I don’t mean to just lather up Adams here, but I was honestly really pleased to find how well this book holds up over thirty years later. I remember it coming out and reading my cousin’s copy, but I never had my own. It turns out it’s very well-plotted, with a number of interesting twists and developments, not to mention a great depiction of a respective union of two talented characters of integrity. It’s also a great distillation of Muhammad Ali, a knowing primer on some of the intricacies of boxing, and a celebration of American ingenuity and resilience, and it can’t have been the easiest book to put together, given that it featured a living icon and had to be approved by his religious guru. Somehow, Adams leaps the hurdles, and delivers a fun but well-thought-out story with not just the stuff above, but some pretty good fights, aliens, robots, spaceships and celebrity onlookers.

Adams is pretty corny at times, but that’s the only minor complaint. There’s so much more going on here than most specials of the past couple decades, with their full-page spreads and extended battles. Adams rightly found the common denominator of dignity between Ali and Superman, and even gives some to some of the alien enemies, which raises the tale up a couple notches from your average alien invasion story. And the art, forget about it. Adams is not only inked by his most complementary embellisher, the late Dick Giordano, but a young (but recognizable) Terry Austin inks the backgrounds. It’s great stuff, and unlike some of the Adams reprints of recent years, the recoloring is for the most part an improvement, though noticeably different from the original book. Really one of the most enjoyable single issues of a superhero comic you’ll ever read.

—Christopher Allen

Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger

Writers - Mike Friedrich, France Herron, Robert Kanigher, Gerry Conway, Len Wein

Artists - Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuniga

Publisher - DC Comics. $16.99 USD.

500 pages of comics for $17 can be a great value, but it really depends on what those comics are. Almost two years ago, my daughter had a hamster that died. Still sitting in a big bag in my bathroom cabinet are a few pounds of litter for the hamster cage. At the time, it was a good value, because it was chopped wood put in service of a living thing. That’s what’s different about this Showcase volume—it’s a bunch of chopped wood in service of something that’s never been close to alive: The Phantom Stranger. I don’t just mean because he’s a ghost or whatever, because ghosts were alive at one point. From the moment of conception by John Broome or whoever came up with him, The Phantom Stranger was a dead thing, a character who defies some fairly talented writers here to imbue him with some spark of life, some reason to exist. And across this span of work from 1969-1972, they all fail.

A big problem is the format. Initially intended to reuse or burn off some old ’50s Phanton Stranger and Doctor Thirteen yawners, the writers for these 1969-1972 issues created some framing sequences, so there’s some tonal dissonance here, as well as neither the new or old stuff being very good. After this, Kanigher comes on as writer. He’s joined for one issue by Neal Adams, who not only contributes a suitably spooky mood but also punches up Phantom Stranger’s character design, giving him the strange cloak/turtleneck/white glove combo he still wears today, as well as making his eyes glow white from the shadows cast by his fedora. Adams’ quick departure is felt even more keenly due his staying on to provide some very good covers for the series.

Kanigher, for his part, tries to pander to the teens in the typical clubfooted DC ‘60s-‘70s way, having Phantom Stranger always showing up to help four hippie kids with names like Wild Rose and Mister Square out of supernatural jams. They’re sort of like a really ineffectual Scooby Gang, and Kanigher spends almost no time developing their characters except that one of the boys has a crush on Wild Rose. Kanigher understands one thing about teenagers and that’s that they’re horny. Unfortunately, not much else is done with this teen gang and it’s not clear why PS keeps showing up. It may also have been a kind of marriage of convenience to include Doctor Thirteen in most of these stories (he also gets some solo backups), it quickly becomes annoying. Doctor Thirteen is completely pathetic in his zeal to prove that the Phantom Stranger is a fraud and performs his magic and disappearing by tricks. He seems to have no other interests, somehow makes a living as a famous “ghost breaker,” and manages to hang onto a girlfriend despite frequently bringing her along to witness his failure to debunk Phantom Stranger. I really hated this guy.

What would have been interesting is if Thirteen really went on the offensive, digging up clues about Phantom Stranger’s past that may or may not have supported his contention PS was a fraud. Thirteen would be more compelling, AND we would learn more about PS, who, under Kanigher and subsequent writer Gerry Conway, is just a deus ex machina cipher. He doesn’t have the fun spellcasting of Zatanna or Dr. Strange, he doesn’t make household items big and deadly like Spectre—his act is really dull. There are attempts by both writers at giving him a supernatural foe/femme fatale in Tala, who’s some sort of witch or demoness. She shows up every now and then to try to ruin someone’s life, Stranger stops her, and she tries to kiss and corrupt him. If he ever showed a glimmer of temptation, that would have been nice, too. Or maybe Doctor Thirteen’s life depends on the Phantom Stranger saving him with magic? Call me, DC, I got ideas. So far, two more than this entire book. 

The series grinds on in its suffocating format for about 300 pages, with the dumb teens and weak lead semi-superhero character stepping all over horror tales so tame they make House of Mystery seem pants-crappingly terrifying. It’s amazing to me that DC put out carcinogens like this and still treated a visionary like Jack Kirby like he didn’t belong in the club.

Eventually, things pick up a little with Len Wein taking over most of the scripting, with art by Jim Aparo and then Tony DeZuniga. Aparo at this time had not picked up much on Adams’ style, so both his and DeZuniga’s work is instead heavily rendered, with lots of thin crosshatches and an abundance of Craftint. Wein drops the teens and opens up the settings to anywhere in the world, including an African ghost story, but doesn’t get much into the development of the Phantom Stranger beyond some hints that his is a lonely existence. Kanigher continues on with Doctor Thirteen backups, channeling his hatred of youth culture into tales like “Satan’s Sextet,” where dirty hippie pied pipers lead moneyed grown-ups to their doom. All in all, it’s a dispiriting collection, no pun intended, with decent art, one unformed lead character in Phantom Stranger and a malformed second lead in Doctor Thirteen, and not one memorable story in its 500 pages.

—Christopher Allen

Buy Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger Volume 1 from Amazon.com.

Daily Breakdowns 096 - Back Seat of My Car

Before I get to the reviews, I just wanted to say that I’m saddened by the passing of Harvey Pekar. I remember Harv going all the way back to his infamous Letterman appearances. Although I was attracted to Letterman at my young age for his irreverence, it was Harvey who ended up impressing me then with how his irreverence wasn’t an act that could be channeled and packaged. He said what he wanted to, and damn the consequences, and that was instructive to me.

I didn’t really connect him then with comics, and it wasn’t until maybe 15 years ago that I started reading any of them, a couple of the big anthologies being the best representation of his work, his ability to convey a lifetime of frustration and compassion in one sharply observed moment after another. 

I’m not the biggest Pekar fan. Most of his work this decade didn’t quite work for me, from The Quitter to most of his Vertigo stories and the various more biographical or journalistic efforts he scripted to make a living. Even when I didn’t care for it, there was no feeling that his was a talent that would dissipate. There was always the next story to look forward to. And now there isn’t, and that’s a shame. But there’s an excellent body of work left behind to read again, and again.

Batman: Odyssey #1 (of 6)

Writer/Artist - Neal Adams

Publisher - DC Comics

For years, thousands of fanboys have wanted Neal Adams to return to the drawing board for another Batman adventure. Conceivably, a couple dozen of them wanted Adams to write the script as well, and, narrowing it down further, maybe a few wanted it to involve gun control. 

Sporting dialogue only slightly more naturalistic than Jack Kirby’s, Adams begins this journey in the early days of Batman, back when he used to wield dual chrome-plated .45s. With a stunning fight scene on top of a speeding European train and less stunning Man-Bat hijinx setting up a plot thread, Adams brings his heavily-rendered best to make something of beauty and meaning, setting in motion a “year one” story not just about Batman acquiring skills but about Bruce Wayne realizing that as much as he’s motivated by his parents’ murders, he’s not a killer. And you know, even though it’s a bit clunky, I give him a lot of credit for the effort instead of phoning it in.

Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper #1 (of 3)

Story - Rober Bloch

Scripters - Joe R. Lansdale, John L. Lansdale

Artist - Kevin Colden

Publisher - IDW Publishing

I like Bloch’s writing. I like Lansdale’s writing, too. Having Joe and what I’m guessing is his brother adapt a classic Bloch story seems like a natural. However, it just doesn’t work. It could be that a three issue format is too restrictive. It could be that John L. is doing the lion’s share of the writing and isn’t as good as his brother. Either or both of those could explain the flat scripting, where pages go by with no punch on the last panel, no music to the dialogue, no investment in any of the characters and no feeling of anything at stake. Sure, it’s a period story and it’s not like I’m worried about an aged, demonic, reptilian Jack the Ripper checking if my front door is unlocked. Still, if Colden could draw an appropriately scary Ripper and use his gray tones, bloody reds and copious Zipatone in ways that tell the story dramatically rather than distract from it, I might be on board. As it is, I can admire this or that panel’s Saul Bassian composition while still being left really cold. I already liked Joe Lansdale, and Bloch, and Colden has some skills. But they’re just not meshing together here. 

X-Men (vol. 3) #1

Writer - Victor Gischler

Penciler - Paco Medina

Inker - Juan Vlasco

Publisher - Marvel Comics

I’ve been enjoying Gischler’s writing on Deadpool: Merc With A Mouth, which, although lightweight, usually has some good jokes and decent action setpieces. Here, he gets a little more serious. I guess that’s necessary, though it makes it difficult to get what makes Gischler anything other than a run-of-the-mill X-Men writer. 

Here, we meet old friend Jubilee, who lost her powers at some point. The Second Coming storyline has just wrapped up and so, in contrived fashion, Cyclops sends Pixie to check in on Jubilee, and their outdoor coffee date is broken up by a vampire martyr who exposes himself to sunlight and explodes his bloodsucking virus all over everyone, including Jubilee. For now, she’s resisting, but the same can’t be said for the other patrons, who answer the call of the Master like leather-clad lemmings. Wolverine, Angel and Pixie investigate, with Storm being left behind because of her past involvement with Dracula. As readers of the Death of Dracula one-shot a couple weeks ago already know, there’s a new Lord of Vampires in town, and he’s got some fresh new recruiting tactics. 

This was pretty okay, both art and story. Nothing really exciting but aside from a weakish X-Men team (Gischler will have his hands full trying to make me care about Jubilee, Angel and Pixie), it works well enough and at least the pacing is brisk, with a lot more happening here than any individual chapter of Second Coming.

—Christopher Allen