Trouble with Comics

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 

Guest Post: Kevin Pasquino Looks at Recent DC Comics Covers

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m a newcomer to the world of comic books. Sometimes I like to step back and try to look at the medium I love with new eyes. And whenever I do so I inevitably have to scratch my head and wonder if anyone who publishes comic books ever takes the time to examine what image they’re selling (and therefore sending) to the world.

And this becomes even more exasperating when DC Comics is publishing the adventures of a hero who is going to make his multi-million dollar debut on the big screen next year, because I would have thought that someone way high up the corporate ladder would say…

“Whoa, guys, are you really going to put out a cover that looks like that? How the hell are you expecting to sell that a year from now when the movie comes out? Don’t you want to have something on the shelf that people will enjoy reading and that they could share with other people? Y’know, like, maybe you guys could plan ahead and anticipate that there might be some interest in the character and the spin-offs and then maybe they could get interested in other books? I mean, is this really the best you guys can come up with? Seriously? Cuz has anyone looked at this crap?”

The character in question is Green Lantern.

Next summer he makes his big screen debut. And I’m sure that DC Comics and their corporate parent, the mega-corporation quaintly known as Warner Bros., are hoping that the film will be a huge hit and will inspire an amazing series of films and will perhaps boost the sales of the character’s adventures in mainstream bookstores. And if people enjoy Green Lantern then characters such as The Atom, Hawkman, Plastic Man and The Flash will begin to sound cool and interesting. And they will become major movie characters. And their success will inspire more movies. And so on. And so on.

Therefore I would think that it is important that Green Lantern be interesting, approachable and presentable. Corporately it would make sense because he’s going to be the poster boy for all of the great things that are to come. Because of the movie, Green Lantern becomes the flagship character for DC Comics in 2011.

This brings me to Exhibit A in The Case of Questionable Editorial Conduct: the cover to Green Lantern #57…

Carol Ferris, Green Lantern’s sometimes girl friend, is decked out in her Star Sapphire outfit and she appears to be the captive of some masked guy who is wearing some kind of shiny leather outfit. Background characters are also in chains, but none of them are at the feet of their captor and none of them have their basketball-sized breasts begging to fall out of their costume.

(I’m tempted to have my seven year old describe the cover. He’d probably say that the woman looks angry because she’s in chains and because she’s sitting on a cold floor wearing only a bathing suit and tall boots. I’d ask him if perhaps she looks both mad and excited. My son would then ask me how she could be both at the same time. I’d try to explain how sometimes people can be both angry and stimulated and there is a wonderful thing know as “make-up sex.”
I would then get in trouble with his mother for showing him the comic book.)

This isn’t to say that this is a horrible cover, but it certainly makes the series look like the tawdrier parts of a cheesy 1960s B-movie. It sort of looks like Barbarella but cheaper. It’s hardly the stuff of a modern, big budget summer action movie.

Moving on: just as CSI has its Miami and New York, and Law & Order has its SVU and LA, Green Lantern has its spin-offs as well. The most recent book to sprout under the Green Lantern umbrella is Emerald Warriors.

Once again, one would expect that a new spin-off would be very aware of the upcoming movie.  Interest in the main character should flow to the secondary books. All of these titles will be sitting side by side on a bookshelf display next summer.

This brings me to Exhibit B in The Mystery of Does Anyone Care What These Books Look Like: the cover to Emerald Warriors #2…

Guy Gardner, the man who could have been Green Lantern, now has his own series and the second issue has him pinned to the ground by some sort of super villain who is wearing tight leather. He seems to be doing his very best to push her away but he is being very, very, careful not to touch her breast as he’s doing so. She’s got a skeleton over her head. He looks angry. She is vomiting.

(Again, I imagine asking my son about the cover. He’d explain that he’s angry because he’s on the ground and it’s cold and she’s trying to choke him. He’d then ask me why she’s coughing up blood. I’d explain to him that she’s a Red Lantern. He’d ask if all of them puke blood. He’d ask why she has wings on her head. He’d ask why she’s wearing long boots. I wouldn’t have a good answer to any of his questions. I would then begin to explain the concept of “snowballing” and the education I got from watching Clerks but I would then think better of it and hold my tongue. Nevertheless, I still get in trouble with his mother.)

Like the first example, this isn’t an incredibly horrible cover because it at least gives some hint of conflict within the story. The blood-like vomit isn’t a great selling point, but there is the promise of some sort of sci-fi action contained within. But it would have been nice if the cover was something besides two characters wrestling. Perhaps some sense of cosmic adventure or a sci-fi setting would have been nice. Because, as is, this cover looks like it could take place in a very white gymnasium.

Which brings me to the final example: Exhibit C in The Secret of the Editors Who Don’t Care What It Looks Like Because Fanboys Will Buy It Anyway: the cover to Emerald Warriors #5…

To be blunt, this has simply got to be the worst superhero cover of the year. I look at it and wonder who would be enticed to purchase it. If someone has bought issues one through four, then I guess they’d buy it to ensure they haven’t missed an issue. But otherwise it’s worse than buying an issue of Playboy and reading it on a bus full of school children because at least then you could claim that you bought it for the articles and, look, there’s an interview with Philip Roth and short fiction by Tom Robbins. This cover, with the main character bleeding from his eyes and projectile vomiting towards something off-screen, is disgusting. It does not sell (or tell anything) about the comic. It is horrible beyond description.

(I imagine showing this book to my seven year old. He looks at me with confusion in his eyes. He starts crying. He has nightmares when he goes to bed. My wife asks what upset him, and, after I explain, she questions what sort of comic books I’m buying and then refuses to talk to me for a week.)

The only way I can possibly rationalize this cover is that it must have been some sort of dare. It’s as if all the editors where trying to see how far they could push it and were expecting for someone to step in and say, “You have got to be kidding. We can’t print this.” and they’d say “You’re right! April Fools! Here’s the real cover!” and someone would have to pay someone else five bucks because they lost the bet. It simply must be a joke that went too far.

Because if that’s not the case, with this issue of Emerald Warriors it’s obvious that DC simply does not care what is on any of their covers (let alone what’s on the cover of a book that will tie into a movie that will hopefully launch a mega-successful series of films and replace the soon-to-be disappearing Harry Potter series.)

And, to compare apples to apples, the covers for The Walking Dead -– a comic about zombies and the people threatened by them -– never feature zombies with their brains pouring out of their exploded skulls. There is a sense of humanity, menace and tragic loss in most of that series’ cover images. It’s as if the creators are aware that they have a zombie comic, but they don’t have to try to repulse their fans (and potential new readers) with lurid images.

It’s not that I expect comic books to be just for kids. But a comic book shouldn’t be something I’m embarrassed to be carrying. It shouldn’t make people cringe when they look at it. Or question what sort of person I am for reading it.

They say you can’t tell a book by its cover. But you can certainly tell whether a company has any interest in marketing to anyone other than a well-trained, whipped and obedient fanboy reader. DC obviously isn’t looking ahead to 2011 and the world-wide success of the Green Lantern movie. They are quite content playing in the disgusting little cesspool they’ve created.

Kevin Pasquino

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The Invincible Iron Man — from the big screen to a comic collection near you!

I confess to having a large zone of ignorance when it comes to some superhero comic books.  I have, if you will, a Phantom Zone of knowledge but a Negative Zone of ignorance.

Oh I know who Jason Blood, Kent Nelson and Chuck Taine are (they are The Demon, Doctor Fate and Bouncing Boy).

But like a Democrat (or Republican) who only looks at one party and does not care what the other side has to say, I have very little knowledge of the heroics of the Marvel Universe.  So when I say that I love comic books, I’m mostly a DC Comics kind of guy. 

Which is like saying I love ice cream when I really only eat Mint Chocolate Chip.

Or I love chocolate bars, but it’s really only Snickers or Kit Kats that I nibble upon.

Or I watch movies, but only comedies, and only if they’re comedies starring former cast members of Saturday Night Live.

Years ago I read Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil and Thor, but I dropped the latter two books when Frank Miller and Walt Simonson left, and I gave up on the X-Men once the spin-offs and multiple crossovers became overwhelming, overly complicated and over expensive.

So while I know that Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel tied the knot in Superboy #200 and their un-intentional offspring was The New X-Men, I am usually just a passing visitor in the Marvel Universe, a mere tourist in the land of Lee, Kirby and Ditko.

But just like a steak-lover might hear that some vegetables are quite tasty (I especially enjoy garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed mushrooms) I am not completely resistant to Marvel books.

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Daredevil have caught my interest.  And I had also heard that the work Brubaker did with Matt Fraction on Iron Fist was a lot of fun.  So with all of those books I took a deep, deep plunge and bought the big-ass doorstopper Omnibus Editions.  All I ask in exchange for my hard-earned money is that the book be self-contained and not make me feel as if I’m missing something because of my refusal to buy every Marvel comic book on the stands.

Which brings me to the nineteen issue, not quite Omnibus-length Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca.

As I said in my review of “Iron Man 2”, it’s the movies that have served as my main introduction to the characters.  I’ve never read the original Jack Kirby illustrated tales and, while I know of Tony Stark’s battle with alcohol, I don’t know any of the villains, supporting characters or their stories outside of what I learned from the films.

So, from the perspective of someone with slightly more Marvel knowledge than a tabula rasa-esque customer who wanders into a bookstore, how well does Fraction & Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man work?

To the series’ (and collection’s) credit, the first storyline in the book, “The Five Nightmares” does a fantastic job of dropping us into the middle of Tony’s world without forcing a lot of complicated exposition upon the reader.

The story opens as an unknown narrator describes how technology is now so prevalent and commonplace that people in an African city own more cell phones than they do landlines.  And after that fact is established we are then shown a new, horrific technology as terrorists destroy that same city.

The story then jumps to Tony Stark who is rich, good-looking and likes the ladies (and therefore very familiar to readers who only know him from the movies).  Stark is revealed to be the narrator of the story.

But he’s not just Tony Stark: rich industrialist and part-time superhero who makes all the girls swoon.  He is also the current director of a well-funded superspy government agency.

In one brilliant caption, Fraction tells the reader everything they need to know about the story: “My day job as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays hell on my sex life.”

And it’s within the first six pages of the story that all of the relevant information is delivered:  technology, terrorism, high-tech government agents and a narrator who fears his own flaws and the tools of destruction that he has given to the world.  Fraction manages to deliver everything a new reader might need in order to be up to speed, but does it in such a quick and efficient manner that regular readers would probably just brush over it without noticing that the creators are every so slightly pandering to the newbies. 

And, as I said, he does it all in the first six pages.

Fraction is more than ably assisted by artist Salvador Larroca.  His artwork is perfect for the book’s mechanical majesty.  The technological elements of the story are beautiful like an iPod:  smooth, sleek and coupled with a friendly sci-fi feel.  From the depiction of the world as Tony sees it while he’s wearing his armor to the malevolence of the terrorists, Larroca gives it a futuristic look that puts most movies to shame. 

Major credit for the artwork in the book also has to go the colorists, Stephane Peru (who passed away after doing work on the first two issues) and Frank D’Armata. The aerial views as Tony flies, the various battle scenes and even the Iron Man armor itself are vivid and spectacular.  If it’s Larroca’s visuals that give it the look of a science fiction film, it’s the colorist’s work that makes it all come to life.

The first seven chapters of the volume comprise the first story.  Tony has to track down a dead villain’s son (not that the father-son relationship is too important to the story) and stop him from using old Iron Man technology for terrorism.  The story is quick-paced and intense and, as Tony says, “Everything down there is changing.  And we’re up here, playing by the same rules.”  

The last section of the book has the storyline entitled “World’s Most Wanted”.  And because I expect a book like this to be at least somewhat self-contained, there a lot of problems with the last two-thirds of this volume.

Far from the sleek ‘gently nudge you into the deep end of the pool’ storytelling of the first story, the reader is given a jarring shove into the new story with a page that states “PREVIOUSLY: The shape-shifting aliens know as Skrulls infiltrated all aspects of human life and planted a destructive virus in Stark technology…”

Excuse me, but what the F&*K is all that about?

Alien invasion, Skrulls, Norman Osborn, Thunderbolts, H.A.M.M.E.R. – what the hell does this have to do with the story I just read?

Imagine reading a sentence about the incredible essential don’t dare miss it significance of !BLANK! and everything changes because of it:  it’s like an old-fashioned record that skips over a section of a song, or like when your cellphone suddenly drops service and you can’t help but wonder if the part you missed was really important or you can just move on without it.

To be brutally blunt, it is insulting to have seven chapters of a book dedicated to one story and then abruptly *tell* the reader that everything has changed but not bother to *show* them how it happened.

Fraction does his best with the abrupt change in storyline (and he may have even had a hand in the new direction of the book and the cosmic crossover that plays havoc with this book’s narrative) but the effect is incredibly jarring.  “The Five Nightmares” does a great job of establishing the world of Stark, S.H.I.E.LD. and the supporting characters, but all of that fine work is flushed away because of some alien crossover story that takes place completely off-stage.

The second story has Stark Industries in ruins and Tony on the run from Norman Osborn and the authority of  H.A.M.M.E.R.  Unlike “The Five Nightmares”, this story is populated with guest-appearances by other Marvel characters such as Madame Masque, The Controller, Captain America, Black Widow, Namor and Doctor Donald Blake (aka Thor).  Unfortunately it all reads as if each issue has to meet a quota in its number of guest stars.  And my biggest problem with all these heroes making an appearance is that if they know Tony is in trouble and that Osborn is a bad guy, why aren’t they helping rather than just standing on the sidelines?  If they’re too busy to help, shouldn’t they be too busy to just drop in?  And where were all these guys when things were getting blown up in “The Five Nightmares”?

The core of the story (with Tony having to erase and regain his memories in the same way that a computer’s hard drive is removed and restored) is a terrific premise, but because the story has Tony, Pepper and Maria Hill traveling all over the world, it lacks focus and intensity.  And after twelve chapters of Tony as a fugitive, getting his memory erased and just trying to stay alive – the whole thing ends with a whimper rather than a bang.  A huge “To Be Continued” banner should be printed on the final page of this collection.

It’s because the two stories in the collection are so disjointed that the entire volume reads like an anthology rather than an on-going saga.  And as satisfying as the first story is, the second story lacks the same intensity. “The Five Nightmares” established Tony’s power and his essential role in world security both as a hero and as a military leader. “World’s Most Wanted” is a total reboot of Stark’s status and it negates the power of the first story.  Mix that with the book’s ‘We need to get this out in time for the movie’ anti-climatic conclusion and the whole package is unsatisfying.

I can’t help but wonder how the book will read for people who enjoy the movie, wander into a store and grab the book because they are fascinated by the incredible first six pages of the story and its artwork. Will they be as tolerant as regular comic book readers?  Or will they read the book and be frustrated by its abrupt shift and the unresolved elements of the story? 

Because comic book readers are at times too tolerant and have a grudging, masochistic acceptance of these superhero events.  We’ve learned to endure comic book crossovers and the havoc they create as a regular book is forced to temporarily transform itself into a square peg that is then forced into the collective, corporately mandated square hole. 

Regular book readers aren’t used to the harsh demands of the superhero industry known as ‘Continuity’ and ‘The Company Wide Crossover’.  They expect a story to be complete and self-contained. And while Fraction and Larroca deliver a good book, it’s not crafted to stand on the shelf alone.

— Kevin Pasquino

It’s not the suit, it’s the man in the suit: Kevin Pasquino on Iron Man 2

It’s an interesting experience, watching a movie based on a comic book when the only thing you know about the comic book is what you’ve learned from the movie.

It was surprising for me to realize that given all my years of comic book collecting that the only “Iron Man” comic book I had read before seeing the first movie was the classic Demon in a Bottle storyline. And even that storyline I knew more for its historical context rather than actual story itself. It’s not like after reading that story I sought out other comics or collections with the character. As far as I was concerned Tony Stark was just a spoiled Batman with a somewhat cooler suit. But Batman had the much cooler villains, so as far as I was concerned Batman would kick Iron Man’s ass.

But the first Iron Man movie certainly made the character captivating. Here was an egomaniacal narcissistic playboy who re-invented himself as a hero. He assumed the role through necessity and there was the sense that he was just playing a game of dress-up and make believe when he pulled on the armor. It was his heroic voyage of discovery that made for a great movie.

And with great movies comes great responsibilities for great sequels.

Iron Man 2 manages to re-unite the main cast with the original director and also add a handful of new inevitable action figures – sorry, I mean “New Characters”. The story involves Tony Stark’s resistance to the American government’s request for the Iron Man technology, the arrival of a new villain and Tony dealing with the burden of being the world’s first unmasked super-hero.

Iron Man 2 is a very good sequel. It manages to continue some of the subtle themes of the first movie (What is the moral responsibility of the wealthy?  Can a modern industrialist ever be more than just a war monger?  Is it possible for a powerful man to redeem himself and become a better person?  And, is it ever okay for the boss to sleep with his secretary other than in “Mad Men”?). But the movie always remembers to deliver enough slam-bang action to keep most fans cheering.

The movie’s main hero and its secret weapon is actor Robert Downey, Jr. It is simply impossible to imagine another actor doing as good a job as he does with the title role. There is the sense that Downey has lived the character’s life, with all his real-life bad boy shenanigans and the lost years of productivity due to his debauchery, and in the same way that many people hoped that Downey (the actor) would overcome his failings, the audience hopes that Tony Stark (the character) will rise above his as well. We like, we are amused by and we perhaps even envy the swagger, the arrogance and the decadence of the character.  But Downey makes us hope that Tony Stark will mature a wee bit but at the same time still remain a bit of a cad.

For comic book fans the movie has knowing nods and clever winks to other Marvel characters and there is even a scene that was somewhat awkwardly borrows from the Superman movies as Tony experiences a Jor-El type moment. But the movie manages to remain subtle when inducing those moments of comic geekasms. Even the appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Avengers Project was established in the first film: comic fans will know what’s being foreshadowed; movie fans will just get a sense that there are more heroes to come.

The film’s only flaw, and it’s a problem that many comic book sequels have, is something I like to call The Star Wars Action Figure Expectation: Yeah, sure, it’s a great film, but where are the new toys? 

All too often the sequel to a big budget action movie has to populate itself with too many new characters in order to ensure there are enough new licensing opportunities. Batman and Robin had Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Batman, Robin and Batgirl. Spider-Man 3 had Venom, The Sandman, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, Eddie Brock and Spider-Man. That’s a whole lot of characters for your McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Iron Man 2 only slightly suffers from having too many cooks in the kitchen. But at least most of them manage to add some spice to the final presentation.

To this movie’s credit they never refer to Mickey Rourke’s character as the goofy sounding “Whiplash”, so it’s the muscular and angry (and villainously named) Ivan Vanko who forces Tony to re-examine his continued role as a weapons manufacturer and the legacy that his father has left for him. Rourke is adequately creepy and menacing in the role, but I’m not sure if the Russian scientist turned bad guy will make a very interesting action figure. 

The same thing can be said of Sam Rockwell’s depiction of military industrialist Justin Hammer: while he’s a great character (and almost manages to steal the movie until his character’s rather wimpy exit from the story), I can’t see any child fighting for the special limited edition three-piece suit exclusive ComicCon action figure.

But if those two characters are not perfect for the toy shelf, the next two are almost certainly designed for multiple packages.

James Rhodes returns in the sequel (with Don Cheadle assuming the role) and he manages to grab an Iron Man suit and make an action figure debut as War Machine (although, like “Whiplash”, the character is never referred to by the comic book character’s name). 

The movie has a (somewhat sadly predictable) showdown between Tony and Rhodey as they both armor up and bash the crap out of each other. While the filmmakers try to justify the reason for the two men to duke it out in super-heroic fashion, the battle sequence feels forced and heavy-handed.  It’s as if things were slowing down a bit in the story and someone f elt that it was probably a good time to squeeze in some action.

But at least their battle and Rhodey’s actions make some semblance of sense within the story. Scarlett Johansson’s role in the film serves no purpose at all. Her character is there largely as window dressing until The Big Reveal and quickly after that scene she is once again shuffled into the background. She is given one action scene in the movie, but it makes no sense in the context of the story other than ‘Wow, that looks cool.’ And in a movie that does its best to rise above comic book clichés, her appearance (in black skintight leather and with super-spy miniaturized weaponry) is an intrusion in a story that is surprisingly character driven.

Because in the movie we grow to like Tony Stark and we end up cheering for him. He defies the government and manages to stay patriotic at the same time.  He’s naughty but likeable, egotistical but flawed. The action sequences in the film and the Iron Man suit become secondary to his character.  Because it is a big budget summer action movie there have to be crashes and explosions and repulsor beams, but it’s Robert Downey Jr. who really keeps things moving.

And it’s because of the man in the suit rather than the suit itself that people will come back for another sequel. Because anyone can be Iron Man, but only Robert Downey, Jr. can play Tony Stark.

Oh, that and the fact that no one else can make eating a donut look so cool.

Farewell to The Boys

How long does it take most people to realize that a relationship is no longer working?

I mean a relationship that used to have some meaning — a relationship that shared laughs, thrills and wonder; a relationship that saw both parties grow and change and yet still respect and enjoy one another; a relationship that once had so much going for it.

How long does it take before someone shouts, “Damnit, get me the hell out of here!!”

Or, to put it in a perspective that we can all understand, how long does it take a comic collector to resist the compulsive and near-irresistible need to have a ‘complete set’ and stop collecting a series?

Well, for me it’s taken four years.

Or, to express it in comic book terms, it has been forty-one issues and two specials. Therefore it has taken me exactly forty-three issues in total before I called it quits.

That’s how long it’s taken me to realize that I’m finished with the superhero satire called The Boys.

And for me it’s particularly sad because writer Garth Ennis and I used to have such a wonderful relationship.

I first encountered Ennis via John Constantine. And then the relationship continued with The Demon, Hitman and Preacher.

When Ennis arrived on the North American comic scene he displayed an amazing ability to craft tales filled with wildly obscene ideas but still balance those elements with compassion and camaraderie between his characters.

Preacher would have Arseface and the in-bred descendent of Jesus Christ (the latter well before Dan Brown’s much prettier heroine in The DaVinci Code) balanced with the passion between Jesse and Tulip and their difficult, complicated friendship with the vampire Cassidy.

Hitman had the Ace of Killers, Baytor and zombie zoo animals balanced with Tommy’s relationship with Tiegel and all the guys at Noohan’s Bar.

And in Hellblazer Ennis wrote about the political evils of London, the demons of Hell and a cancer-ridden Constantine — complete with him giving Satan the finger — but balanced it all with the surprisingly poignant relationship between John and Kit.

It was his run on Hellblazer that displayed how masterful Ennis was in his ability to juggle various bizarre and violent storylines with characters who had strong friendships and romances. Before Ennis took over the series, Constantine oozed with swagger and attitude, but Ennis introduced a vulnerability to the character than hadn’t been seen previously. He was still a bastard and was perfectly described when he was told, “You’re a man who inspires the maximum loyalty for the minimum effort” and yet he was surrounded by people who, no matter how awful and dangerous he could be, would still call him a friend. And it was this theme of friendship and its rewards and challenges that would be constant throughout Ennis’ best work.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Ennis’ popularity is that he managed to gain mainstream recognition without writing a bestselling superhero comic book.  The whole notion of Infinite Invasions or a Secret Siege Crisis is alien to Ennis’ style of writing.  When Green Lantern or Batman made an appearance in Hitman it was as if the heroes were intruding on Tommy and his friends.  And when Superman guest-starred it was a tale told with a uniquely Ennis perspective (the two characters sat on a rooftop and chatted about what Superman means to America) and earned Ennis and artist John McCrea that year’s Eisner for Best Single Issue.

The cornerstone of many of Ennis’ stories consisted of characters simply chatting with each other. They would be funny, strange and wondrous in their conversations. Their stories could be macabre and disgusting, but the characters would be so interesting that it made for compelling reading.

It was an amazing high wire act that few other writers have been able to achieve, but with The Boys it seems like Ennis has lost his ability to balance these elements and has finally come crashing to the ground.

The Boys is (supposedly) a satire of superhero comic books and in the crooked mirror that Ennis is holding we see how twisted and deprived superheroes would be if they existed in the real world. And in the process Ennis gets to mock the X-Men, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes and other superhero groups and their clichés.

Because Ennis wrote some of my favorite books, I was initially enthusiastic about this project. His work at Marvel with The Punisher left me cold, but with this book I saw an opportunity for him to work without the restraints of a corporate editor. And when DC/Wildstorm let the book go to another publisher because of its controversial nature, it was an opportunity for Ennis to do whatever he wanted in the series.

And perhaps that is the book’s greatest problem: an unrestrained Ennis is not necessarily a good thing.

It was the mini-series Herogasm that was the first hint that things weren’t working in our relationship. It was a six issue series that had the world’s superheroes faking an interstellar crisis so they could all retreat to a hotel to do drugs and have tons and tons of sex. (And, wow, doesn’t the story sound crass and immature when it’s described that way?)

Issue two actually broke my comic collecting habit: it was early in the issue when two of the prostitutes who had been hired to service the superheroes are talking in a swimming pool. One points over to the other and informs her that she’s bleeding and it’s probably due to all the super-sexual pounding she has been forced to endure. The hooker quickly leaves the pool and does not make another appearance in the series.

I have to assume that the scene was supposed to be a comment on how cruel these so-called ‘heroes’ could be, but at that point I stopped reading the issue and didn’t even bother to buy the rest of the mini-series. I saw no reason to keep reading a story that was on the same level of sophistication as a community theatre production of Showgirls

But, because of the long relationship Ennis and I share, I persevered with the regular series. I hoped that Ennis had merely strayed off the path with the mini-series. Herogasm was crude and over the top, but I trusted that there would be a more steady hand in the on-going book.

Back at the regular series, the back story of the main characters was slowly unfolding. In comic book terms, he was telling their secret origins. And, after revealing how one of the characters earned his codename, it is then illustrated that to comfort himself he hires hookers and, after having sex, he pays them extra so he can suckle on their breasts — hence the character’s name, “Mother’s Milk”. And there, in living color, we get to watch a grown man nurse on the breast of a prostitute.

For me, after the disappointment of Herogasm, that was strike two.

The final straw occurred in issue #41. One of the heroes explains in graphic detail why he was kicked off his last superteam: he’s a shape-shifter, he wanted to have sex with the leader’s girl friend and so he impersonated him.

The character continues, “Trouble was, she’d never tried anal before. And she ended up liking it quite a bit. So the next time she’s in the sack with the real him, it’s ‘Oooh, do me like you did last night’… and… well. One thing led to another.”

The other character then sarcastically responds, “That’s a lovely story.”

And for me, that was it. Strike three. I’m done. I’m outta here.

Do I really need to read an anecdote about a character impersonating someone and then tricking someone else into having anal sex? Or see a grown man breastfeeding himself with a prostitute? Or read about two prostitutes as they about how insensitive and dangerous (super) johns can be?  

I realize that those three examples are little throwaway bits and are insignificant in the grand scheme of the story — but that is exactly what makes them so annoying.

Preacher is populated with a quirky cast of characters with twisted stories and fetishes (the ghost of John Wayne, the astronaut-wannabe who wrote “Fuck You” to the heavens, Odin Quincannon and his love of meat), but there is an overriding theme in the book that the three main characters were trying to find some good – good within themselves, in their friends, in the world. The appeal of that series, and perhaps Ennis’ greatest ability as a writer, is that no matter how weird, violent or fucked-up it all might get, there was always the possibility of acceptance, forgiveness and even redemption.

But I can see none of that in The Boys.

Perhaps by the end of the series (which Ennis says will probably run to sixty issues) there will be some payoff that will have made the journey worthwhile. But I can’t stick around for another twenty issues. Not when he’s asking me to wade through so much puerile and pointless trash.

It is strange to note how Hellblazer, Hitman and Preacher (now all more than ten years old) all read as if they were written by a more experienced writer when compared to his most current work. Ennis once used to push the envelope with his storytelling, but now his stories read like they were written by a self-indulgent frat boy who marvels at the crudeness he creates and can’t wait to show all his friends how naughty he has been. 

The Boys is the story of superheroes who are unrestrained in their hungers, ambitions and depravities. Their existence makes the world an ugly and dangerous place. They do unspeakable damage and must be stopped.

And with issue #41 that’s just want I am going to do.

Just stop.

— Kevin Pasquino

Buffy The Vampire Slayer #34 Reviewed by Kevin Pasquino

Writer - Brad Meltzer
Artist - Georges Jeanty
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Depicting sex in comic books can be tough.

It’s relatively easy when it’s the full-tilt boogie of a Tijuana Bible or the drawings of Milo Manara because then it can be explicit and explosive. There’s no need for subtlety because the images can leap off the page in all their pornographic glory.

But it’s much more difficult to illustrate sex when you can’t show everything. After all, isn’t one of the main strengths of a comic book the unleashed imagination of the writer and the illustrator? — When they are not allowed to show characters “doin’ it”, they have to be incredibly creative and crafty to make it work.

And that’s the problem with the latest issue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the story deals with (SPOILER ALERT!) Buffy and Angel getting it on, but the editorial restrictions on the book prevent the creators from showing the main characters actually having sex (as the titles sadly illustrates, they are in fact F#©%ing ) and the book never manages to overcome the challenges.

The story has to do with the cosmic fall-out when a vampire and a slayer have sex and how the earth/universe/omniverse (the story flip-flops between the three) will evolve. And change. And be forever altered!

And even though Buffy has had sex with the vampires Angel and Spike in the original TV series, it’s different this time because…  Because…  Okay, I’m not sure why it’s different.

But these two characters have sex! Lots of sex! And it’s all illustrated in large confusing panels!  Very, very confusing panels: Angel is told to lose the coat when he’s already taken it off. Buffy’s underwear changes color from page to page. Tree branches and fence rails conveniently cover up the naughty bits. And Buffy and Angel look like giants compared to everyone else in the story who just talk-talk-talk as the two main characters have the (supposed) sex of a lifetime.

Unfortunately there is a huge chasm between the rather mundane depiction of the actual sex and the overwhelmingly cosmic commentary that the secondary characters seem to be giving. There is such a huge disconnect between the two parts of the story that the book fumbles around like a college student trying to sound profound and insightful as he drunkenly attempts to undo the clasp of his girl friend’s bra.

Depicting sex in a comic book can be tough.  When it doesn’t work, it’s un-erotic and boring.  And maybe just a little bit silly.

And Buffy deserves better than that.

— Kevin Pasquino