Monday, July 28, 2014

I Question My Own Opinion of Space: Punisher

Space: Punisher is campy, violent, and narratively blunt, but that's pretty much what I expected out of it. What I wanted out of it, even. It would've been great, yes, if it had managed to bring some intelligence to the proceedings along with all the pulp sci-fi blood-and-guts action, but it's simple-mindedness isn't necessarily a negative. Writer Frank Tieri isn't shooting for great literature; he's moving as quickly as he can from one fight scene to the next, so he can fit as many reimagined Marvel characters into this story as possible. And even with the lush painted artwork, Mark Texeira doesn't seem to be overly concerned with elevating this comic. He, too, goes heaviest on the violence and the character designs, having a lot of fun with rebuilding the Marvel Universe, with no loftier goals than to continuing having that fun through the end.
     A brief synopsis: In the world of Space: Punisher, Frank Castle's family was killed by an intergalactic mafia known as the Six-Fingered Hand (6FH). So Castle is determined to get revenge on the organization, despite how powerful and difficult to find they are. By the time we join him, he's already located one of their number, the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen, as well as the rest of her colony, which is a fairly badass combination of classic X-Men villain the Brood and classic Spider-Man villain the Venom symbiote. Castle steals information of the Sym-Brood-Ants about the other members of 6FH, then destroys their planet with a bomb that creates a black hole, and heads off to complete his revenge. Over the course of the next three issues, he kills the other five capos of 6FH: Doctor Octopus as a sort of alien octopus centaur with a man top half and tentacles for legs; The Green Goblin as an actual green-skinned, purple-winged space monster; Magneto, who is still just an old dude with magnetism powers but now dresses in semi-futuristic-looking robes; the Red Skull as a gaunt alien who looks kind of the same as always; and Ultron, who is also a skinny space creature, all-gray and with some nasty fangs/tusks sticking up from his lower mandible. Once these enemies have been eliminated, Castle learns that the power behind them is a group of six Watchers, so he confronts them, too. While they're too powerful for Castle to fight himself, they're evidently no match for this reality's version of The Hulk, a four-armed behemoth who flies through space freely and destroys everything in his path. Castle finds a way to call The Hulk to the Watchers' home base, where he promptly tears through them all like gore-filled tissue paper. Castle is satisfied, even as chaos begins to run rampant through a now unsupervised universe. The End.
     It's a narrow-minded tale about a narrow-minded guy, not interested in the ramifications of his actions because he's so intently focused on vengeance. Which, based on what I've seen of the character elsewhere, is exactly what The Punisher should be. Then again, that's why I tend to avoid Punisher stories. I don't mind having flawed, angry heroes, but something about Frank Castle's particular blend of arrogance and rage has always turned me off. Similarly, I'm not a big Hulk guy, because his emotional range is too limited by his fury-based superpowers. I know some writers have done some deeper stuff with both of these guys, and someday I'd like to check that out—Peter David's Hulk run in particular—but my early experiences with them always made them seem two-dimensional at best and I haven't taken the time to find books that will change my mind.
     Then again, in Space: Punisher, those two characters are boiled down to their simplest versions and tossed into outer-space, and somehow it works for me. Or at any rate, it doesn't grate on my nerves like these heroes often do. And in the last issue, when Bruce Banner's head comes out of The Hulk's chest and begs for Castle to kill him...it's the closest thing to a truly powerful, meaningful moment in the whole series. It comes as a surprise, so close to the end, at it maybe even feels out of place, though definitely not insincere. Texeira alone packs a lot of heart into that scene, which proves that he and Tieri can create something with depth, but maybe didn't have that on that agenda with this project. Neither did I as a reader. I was looking for some easy-to-digest space opera melodrama and action, and that's what I got.
     But is it a good example of that kind of story? Just because it's as uncomplicated as I imagined it would be, does that make it a success? There are some obvious problems with it. For one thing, even with all the deep-space versions of familiar Marvel characters floating around, none of them are women. I guess arguably the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen counts, and on the second-to-last page of the final issue we see, along with several other redesigned Avengers, The Wasp and The Scarlet Witch. But they don't get lines or even anything to do other than stand next to their teammates for a single panel while Iron Man's dialogue brings things to a close. The Punisher's ship, which has some semblance of a personality, is named Marie after his murdered wife, so that's the closest thing to a fully-realized female character this book has to offer. It's a drag, because Tieri pulls characters from all corners of the traditional Marvel Universe to incorporate into this new one, so you'd think one of them could've been a woman, no sweat.
     Also, beyond giving them a slightly new look, new setting, and new alliances with each other, this series doesn't really do much with its takes on these characters. Sabretooth in space is still a violent savage, Rhino is still a thug, the Watchers are still arrogant schmucks. Being in space is not inherently cool or interesting enough of a change if nothing else interesting comes of it, and with one or two exceptions, Tieri doesn't bother to get too inventive. Even Punisher is still just a guy with a grudge against criminals and a bunch of big weapons. It all raises the questions like What's the point of this book? and Is this series actually saying anything about these people? Ultimately, I'm not convinced it is. It's more like Tieri and Texeira are kids playing with their favorite action figures, putting the heroes and villains they like most into a sci-fi environment for no other reason than wouldn't that be cool? And it is pretty cool, but is that enough?
     I find myself enjoying the hell out of Space: Punisher as I read it, but not giving a shit about it when it's done. It's memorable but not worth taking the time to remember. Mindless fun has its place, has value. It appeals to the kid in me who also played with action figures and created his own realities. But it's hard to locate just where on the mindless-fun spectrum this series resides. Here's the moment that I think most exemplifies what I mean, and everything I love-hate about the comic:

As a final thought, the colon in the title Space: Punisher is super dumb. I know that the original plan was for this to be the first in a line of books, all set in the same universe, each starring a different character. So down the line there'd be Space: Daredevil and Space: Cloak & Dagger and Space: Hit Monkey (those are not real examples, just the imagined books I'd most like to see) but not only did that not happen, it was a bad idea to start. Just call it Space Punisher and do the same with the other books. People will be able to tell they're connected even if the "Space" part isn't separated from the rest of the title by punctuation.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Avengers Undercover Won Me Over(cover)

I haven't read either of the predecessor titles to Avengers Undercover, those being Avengers Academy and Avengers Arena. I realize Academy is less of an official predecessor, but it was the main Marvel title for teen superheroes in its day, and I believe at least a few characters from that series carried over into both Arena and Undercover. There's no denying that Arena is directly tied to Undercover, though. Same creators, same cast, and the first arc of Undercover is based entirely on the events of Arena. Indeed, the core concept of Undercover was made possible only through the execution of the core concept of Arena, so they're arguably just one long series that happened to change its name partway through. At least, that's the impression I get from reading Undercover without having read a single page of Arena.
     Why did I bother to read Avengers Undercover if it is so closely connected to a series I didn't follow? Mostly because Avengers Arena got far more good buzz than bad, and I have a special interest in comicbooks about teenagers struggling with what it means to have superpowers. When done well, those stories are the best examinations of the troubling morality and responsibility that would necessarily accompany extra-human abilities. And the pitch for Avengers Undercover was teen superheroes pretending to be villains so they could bring the villains down from the inside, a concept that sounded rife with potential to hit all the beats I like best. I knew I might be lost in the beginning, but I figured I'd give it a peek and see what all the Arena fuss was about.
     At first, I thought I'd made a mistake. It wasn't a bad comic, but it started off immediately by looking at the aftermath of what happened in Arena, and all the characters seemed so powerfully affected by what they went through in that book, it felt like I was coming in too far behind to catch up. It wasn't exactly what you want in a #1 issue. There were established relationships and team dynamics and personal histories that I knew nothing about, and that excluded me from some of the subtext and nuance in both Dennis Hopeless' script and Kev Walker's art. Without going back and reading Arena all the way through, I worried Undercover wouldn't ever make as much sense or have as powerful an impact on me as it could and/or should.
     That worry only lasted in any form for three issues, and began to dissipate even earlier, somewhere around the middle of issue #2. Dennis Hopeless wrote the cast naturally enough that each kid came into focus as a distinct and interesting character in short order. By the time Hazmat blasted Arcade into nothingness at the end of issue #3, I found myself surprisingly moved by the event, despite my only superficial knowledge of the kids' history with Arcade. Because I cared a great deal about the cast already, the shock and catharsis of the moment hit me with equal force, and I realized that Avengers Undercover had gone from seeming like a mistake to being a book I eagerly looked forward to in only three issues. And because of its twice-a-month schedule, the comic has been able to keep me hooked and get me more and more enthusiastic about it in only a few months.
     What turned me around more than anything was the mix of intelligence and idiocy everyone in the cast displays, a perfect blend for people their age who've had their experiences. They have unique, varied, and equally understandable attitudes about what to do with their lives and their powers now. When they argue, it can get heated and personal and otherwise off the rails pretty quickly, but everyone's underlying motivations are apparent. They're good at vocalizing at least part of what they really feel before flipping out, and once they do get too angry to be articulate, these kids are anything but passive, so their actions speak for them at the top of their metaphorical lungs. Things progress at an intense pace; the stakes skyrocket right away and have not yet peaked. All the while, everything revolves around the kids (along with their new just-as-juvenile allies in semi-fake villainy) and it all gets filtered through their perspectives, making Avengers Undercover one of the most elaborate discussions of the state of the modern Marvel superhuman around.
     I only recently learned (and it may have only recently been announced) that Avengers Undercover is ending in three issues. There will be a three-month time jump in the next issue, which kicks off the closing arc. Ten issues is far too few when in so many ways it felt like this book was just getting started. But I did come in eighteen issues behind, technically, since that's the length of Avengers Arena, so maybe that's my problem. I'm late to the table and upset I missed the first few courses.
     Either way, I suspect deep down I was already committed to going back and reading all of Arena eventually, so the cancellation of Undercover just gives me a reason to do it sooner. If the current series can maintain its awesomeness through the end, and its predecessor does the same, then I'd like to write something more in-depth about them once I've gone through it tip to tail. I can't remember the last time my feelings about a book changed from bad to good so quickly—usually it's the other way around—so it's probably even better than I realize yet, still basking in the afterglow of having been so totally won over.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Merried

A week-and-a-half ago (July 11, 2014) I got married to the best woman on the planet. Sorry everyone else, she's been locked down. It was a fantastic wedding, and all of the celebrations leading up to and surrounding it were fantastic as well. I saw so many people I'd been missing dearly for too many years, and got to meet many others about whom I'd only heard stories from my now-wife beforehand. The wedding planning and celebrating has obviously taken up my mind, time, and energy lately, as I've mentioned before when explaining my lack of activity on the blog. Now that the big, beautiful day has finally happened, and I'm here on the other side happy and intact, I do hope to pick the pace back up. Not immediately, because there'll need to be a little bit of build-up as I get back into the swing, but by this time next month I'd like to be fully back on track. I'm finally caught up on all the comics I currently follow, so there should be at least some decent fodder in there for future posts. Also, my awesome friend and professional sports blogger Michael Clair got me a bunch of hilarious-looking comics as a wedding present, and while one of them is definitely going to be the subject of an upcoming "1987 And All That" post, the rest will probably be discussed in some fashion here on Comics Matter. So there's some stuff loosely in the works, is what I'm saying. I know this is like the third or fourth time I've written something like this claiming that I was going to do more writing soon, so grains of salt all around. But I figure if I post my intentions online then at the very least I'll have a public, permanent reminder of the fact that I'm supposed to be getting my ass in gear. Here's hoping.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Ultimate Universe Repeats Itself On Me

A few years ago, Marvel rebooted the Ultimate Universe. This wasn't the first time they'd done so, I don't think, but it caught my attention this time because they were paring the whole thing down and only releasing three titles in the line: Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate X-Men. At the time, I had never read any Ultimate comics at all. When Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe, I wasn't paying very close attention to comics, and when I got back into them again the idea of keeping track of two different continuities from a single publisher was more than I wanted to take on. It was hard enough figuring out what I'd missed in the primary Marvel and DC Universes without adding a third convoluted history to the mix. By the time the three-title-only relaunch took place, though, I was all caught up, and actually eager for a good entry point to the Ultimate books. Three titles wasn't much of a commitment, so I started following all three books from the start, and for at least a few months, I was really impressed.
     Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic did some badass high-stakes superhero storytelling right out the gate on Ultimates. Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli did equally strong work but on a more slow-moving and personal level in Ultimate Spider-Man. And while Nick Spencer's narrative for Ultimate X-Men never gripped me as tightly as the other two books, there were some interesting ideas that had the potential for great payoff, and a cool twist on what it means to be a mutant in the Ultimate world in the first issue that kept me coming back for a while. It was a surprisingly varied yet unified trio of comics, and it stayed that way for a decent stretch. X-Men was the first book to bore me, but that's what almost everything I've ever read by Spencer does---pulls me in with some cool concepts and then spins its wheels until I bail. That's exactly what happened this time, and then Spencer got replaced as writer anyway, so I lost interest completely. Ultimates stayed fantastic for its first arc, by far the best of the Ultimate line, but then the creative team suddenly changed there, too, and all the awesome work being done was thrown out the window for something far less brave or worthwhile. It didn't happen overnight, but in short order two-thirds of the Ultimate Universe lost all its steam. Ultimate Spider-Man was the only thing left.
     I'm not a very big Bends guy, but something about his work with Miles Morales was exceptionally appealing to me. And when Pichelli left, the just-as-talented-at-the-time-and-even-better-now David Marquez was brought in, so the art never slipped or shifted too dramatically. Ultimate Spider-Man was the only consistent comic in the group, and eventually it was the only one left on my pull list. And it stayed good for a long time. There were some low points, but nothing truly godawful, and even when I wasn't into the story it always looked great. Then in a final moment of glory, the series introduced Ultimate versions of Cloak and Dagger, and they were exactly as cool as I wanted them to be.
     Right around that time, when Cloak and Dagger were showing up and Ultimate Spider-Man was generally back at the top of its game, Marvel rebooted the Ultimate Universe again. First came Cataclysm, which I didn't read all of because the stuff I did read was fairly junky. In the aftermath of that event, though, came three new titles, and they all excited me.
     Firstly, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man was just a continuation of the Ultimate Spider-Man I was already enthusiastically reading. Bendis and Marquez stayed on, and the narrative essentially continued from where it had left off before Cataclysm took over. Then there was All-New Ultimates, which also featured Miles Morales, along with the aforementioned Cloak and Dagger, some other great members of the Ultimate Spider-Man supporting cast, and Kitty Pryde, who was the best character from the issues of Ultimate X-Men I'd read. So based on the cast alone, I was excited, and I'd heard only amazing things about writer Michael Fiffe. Finally, Ultimate FF, written by the reliably inventive Joshua Hale Fialkov and starring, among others, Sue Storm and Machine Man, an old and new favorite of mine, respectively. I don't know their Ultimate iterations all that well, but I wanted to get to know them. So as before, I decided to pick up all three books in the line, to give the entirety of the Ultimate Universe another shot at getting me on board.
     It took considerably less time this time around for the Spider-Man book to stand out as the only one of the three I care to stick with. Ultimate FF was just a frustrating mess. It was visually muddy, and the story mostly revolved around arrogant, violent men ignoring Sue Storm's pleas for peace and reason. I gave it three issues, and in that space it offered only one likable character, and she was given the worst treatment, so I walked. All-New Ultimates was better, but Fiffe seems to focus more on the teenage elements than the superhero ones, and I always prefer a more balanced, interdependent blend. Also, the Miles Morales in that books doesn't feel like the same on that's in Miles Morales, and since it s Bendis' take on the character I've been following from the beginning, that's the one I naturally favor. So after four issues of All-New, I dropped that as well, leaving me once again with only a single Ultimate Universe series on my list. And it's the same one as always, for all intents and purposes.
     I support the idea of containing an entire universe in just three books, but the Ultimate Universe has stung me twice now by not using the small size of its lineup as an opportunity to produce higher-quality material. Even the Miles Morales stuff is exceptionally good but not especially original young superhero fare. The cast and art both hooked me early and have continued to get better, but the stories rarely knock my socks off. I'm sure the event-reboot cycle will happen again, but next time, I'm bound to be warier of reading anything that isn't centered on Morales, written by Bendis, and drawn by Marquez. At this point, that book is the Ultimate Universe for me, and should it ever go away, I might return to a state of fully ignoring that particular alternate reality.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: June 2014

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #20: After all the slow setup and constant misdirection up to now, 100 Bullets takes a minute to more openly and officially than ever declare that there is a larger narrative behind everything we're seeing. That had become fairly obvious, but it's nice to see this kind of acknowledgement and enhancement of it, even though there are probably more questions at the end of this issue than the beginning about what the hell is going on. Shepherd and a new character named Benito have a cryptic conversation about Agent Graves, beginning with the fact that he was supposed to be dead, moving onto speculation about his agenda, and ending on Shepherd steadfastly sticking to a wait-and-see strategy for now. Benito seems like he'd prefer to be more active about it, but he also is apparently there only as a representative of his father, whoever that may be (this is where the questions start to pile up). The details of Benito's life don't matter so much as the fact that he and Shepherd mention Chicago (where Dizzy's story took place back in the first arc), Cole Burns, Lono, and the Trust, all of which are things the audience has seen before. It's the biggest number of callbacks in the shortest space for this series so far by a long shot, which is what makes this issue such a clear announcement of the series' long-term plans. By which I guess i mean Brian Azzarello's long-term plans, since he is the architect behind this monstrous narrative. Eduardo Risso is the star of this issue, though, because he does such a great job balancing the Shepherd-Benito visuals with the activities in the rest of the park, especially local drug dealer Boppa and his friends as they get involved in a turf war with another group. Azzarello balances the two stories well himself, but Risso's work is more important and impressive in that regard. He brings the whole environment and everyone in it to life, and follows the movements of character major and minor with carefully so there is a cohesion to the timeline. He also does a lot of cutting away from Benito and Shepherd to show us something more exciting than two men sitting on a park bench barely looking at each other, because their dialogue takes up most of the issue, and needs to, but it's easy to follow without having to stare at them the whole time. So Risso uses that to his advantage and fills in their surroundings. It's maybe the fullest this book has ever felt, in the art and, now that things are coming together, the script as well.


Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #2: The creative team changes as Keith Giffen comes in for plotting and breakdowns, Gerard Jones handles the script, and Romeo Tanghal does the finished inks. It's a pretty seamless transition from the first issue, picking up exactly where the story left off last time, with Hal Jordan face down on the ground after flying through a billboard. After a freaky dream, he wakes up distraught but also excited about his new abilities, hoping they will be able to make up for his past mistakes. He pretty quickly comes to terms with the fact that the ring, while amazing, is not all-powerful, and so, in maybe his first moment of true likability, Hal turns himself in for driving drunk and causing an accident that severely injured his friends. He resolves to serve his time and only then figure out how the ring works, but on his first day in jail, a giant yellow space robot who seems a little unstable and is definitely extremely violent breaks through the wall. We see this villain earlier in the issue, hunting Abin Sur, the dead alien who gave the ring to Hal in the first place. Discovering Abin's corpse pisses off the space robot, and it is determined to kill the new Green Lantern ASAP, hence it breaking into the jail. As far as first supervillains go, I can't imagine very many things that sound more fun than a short-fused psychopathic space bot, so I'm definitely on board with that and eager to see how the fight unfolds next time (if there even is a fight, since Hal seems pretty much already beat when the issue closes). And I was glad to see Hal own up to his screw-ups, not matter how hard it was to do and how tempting it must have been to just fly away from his problems in a glorious green blur. It makes me root for him as a hero more than I was before, and so does the pure, indulgent evil of the bad guy, so all told I'm much more committed to Hal's corner than last month. The good guy is getting better, the stakes are getting higher, and the superpowers are really kicking in now, so it's safe to say I'm feeling pretty stoked for the rest of this series.


X-Force (vol. 1) #20: I've got to say, I found this issue a tad disappointing. On its own, it is a pretty solid, standard piece of '90s Marvel superhero radness. But after last month's declaration of independence from the titular team, it seemed a shame for their next adventure to be all about them fighting for control over Cable's old space fortress, Graymalkin. He's dead (or so they believe) and they've officially struck out on their own, yet they insist on continuing to live in his shadow anyway. At first, we see them building their own home, so things are still headed in the right direction, but what with Bridge, Gideon, Domino, and Grizzly all making comeback appearances, this felt like a weird kind of throwback issue. It was more Liefeldian than anything the Nicieza-Capullo team has produced thus far, I guess is what I'm driving at, and it was some HIGH quality Liefeldian material, much better than the man himself would produce, just still not quite what I was hoping for. Capullo does great crowded action sequences, though, and both he and Nicieza manage to do several very quick, tight scenes of catching up on side characters so that the main story could have lots of room to develop. Sadly, it does not resolve as of yet, ending with X-Force staring down a pissed off Iron Man (James Rhodes variety). It is a banging final panel, though, just a full-page landscape shot of the War Machine suit in full ready-to-kick-ass mode, so I admit, it got me excited for the fight coming next issue, even if it's likely going to be pretty much more of the same thing I saw this time out. That's basically fine by me, because even though it feels like there's some wasted potential for more interesting or original stories, Nicieza and Capullo doing a fun spandex action piece is a more entertaining and better looking than loads of stuff in that genre from any era. So bring it on for now, until it can blossom into something more complicated.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Elsewhere

As is now the norm, I've published one piece each on CSBG and PopMatters in the last two weeks. First there was the "1987 And All That" on Gumby's Summer Fun Special, which was a superbly unexpected good time to read and then again to analyze. More recently, I wrote an Iconographies column about Kings Watch and how funny it manages to be without veering off course.

Something I Failed to Mention
Both of the two comics above had powerful senses of humor, but extremely different styles of it. Gumby was absurd and whacky, funny for its unpredictability as much as anything else, while Kings Watch gets its laughs from more understated character work. It's not always easy to express effective comedy through a comicbook, because things like timing and delivery are always partially based on the reader instead of the creators. So reading two books that were so distinctly hilarious was a refreshing exercise. I don't necessarily have a bigger point or comparison to make than that, but I also don't feel like I forgot to talk about anything I wanted to in the original columns. The main thing jumps out at me when thinking back on reading and writing about these titles is how they both won me over with their humor above all else, even though their approaches were wildly different.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Monthly Dose: May 2014 (SUPER Belated)

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

I actually read these comics back in May like I was supposed to, but have not had the opportunity and/or energy to review them up until now. Luckily, they were all pretty good and memorable.

100 Bullets #19: After telling several disconnected stories with the only apparent throughline being Agent Graves, 100 Bullets begins here to hint more heavily than ever at a larger overarching narrative/plan. Lono catches up with the young couple who stole his money several issues back, who also happen to be Loop's cousin and his girlfriend. So Loop and Lono collide, which leads to Lono figuring out that Loop is Mr. Hughes' son, an apparently significant piece of information, at least as far as Lono is concerned. We know already that Hughes and Graves had some kind of history, so it's not a huge surprise that Lono would know Hughes, too, but seeing his reaction to the name is still a surprising and important moment in the issue. It quite possibly saves Loop's life, which also implies that we may see more of Loop in the future. Why include this epilogue-style chapter in Loop's story where he butts heads with a character we saw a while back unless both Loop and Lono will appear again? And more importantly than that, what if Graves' plan from the very beginning was to bring Loop and Lono together? It was Graves who arranged for Lono to get robbed by Loop's cousin, so it's more than likely that the Loop-Lono meeting was his goal, which broadens the scope of Graves' influence, intelligence, and ambition. Brian Azzarello has done a great job up to this point of telling self-contained tales, but after 18 issues of that, it's very nice to see something bigger begin to develop. Even if it is a slow build, at least it's getting there now. The only thing that bugs me about this issue is the skin-crawling heartlessness Lono displays while sexually abusing Loop's cousin's girlfriend (I can't recall the names of her or Loop's cousin right now and don't have the issue handy, sorry). Obviously the idea is to paint Lono as the downright bastard he is, and it works, but it's still a little hard to read. Eduardo Risso, at least, is incredibly tasteful about what he chooses to show us, and even Azzarello is good enough not to have the actual rape ever happen on-panel. All the same, Lono does and says some deeply despicable shit that turns my stomach whether I have to look directly at it or not. Beyond that discomfort, though, this is a solid issue, and an important brick in the foundation of what will eventually be the massive structure of 100 Bullets as a series.


Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #1: So what's the right way to credit Christopher Priest when discussing things he wrote back when he was still James Owsley? Like...Owsley is the name on the comic, but Priest is what he goes by now, so I'm not clear on what the protocol is. I guess I'll refer to him as Owsley since that's technically who he was when he wrote this. Agreed? As far as retelling an established origin story goes, Emerald Dawn is exemplary. There is absolutely no assumption on Owsley's part that the reader has any knowledge of Green Lantern/Hal Jordan coming in, so the story is told from the ground up. It begins with Hal watching his father die on a test flight, and ends with him in full Green Lantern gear but not committed to the role yet. In between, we get to see who Hal grew into in light of his dad's death, and truth be told, he's not all that likable a guy. He never does anything horrible or idiotic, but only because he doesn't really do anything of much note. He's sad about being a bad pilot, he's sad about Carol Ferris breaking up with him, and he's still apparently pretty torn up over his father's accident, too. He's mopey, childish, and depressed, which doesn't make him unsympathetic but also doesn't make him particularly endearing. He's no fun, and therefore no fun to follow as a reader, but the comic still keeps from ever being boring. A big part of that is M.D. Bright's artwork, which is so rich and realistic that the issue works quite well as a simple, straightforward human drama piece for the entire first two acts. It isn't until the very end that any superhero stuff goes down, and even that is just Hal being pulled to the crashed alien vessel and given his ring and power battery. There's no fighting, no villains, none of the typical trappings of a superhero story, but that's ok for this opening issue. Its goal is to build the cast first before bothering to throw a wrench in the works, and then when the time comes it's a pretty enormous wrench. Far from making Hal's life instantly better or even making him happier, becoming Green Lantern only worsens his situation. Carol gets pissed at him for disappearing and "stealing" the test plane he was in when he got forcefully transported to the site of the crashed spaceship, and he's saddled with a bunch of power he doesn't understand for reasons that were never explained to him. His powers are not viewed as a gift bestowed but a burden forced upon him, which makes sense considering his generally pessimistic outlook during the earlier parts of the issue. Hal may not have won me over yet, but he hasn't turned me off, either, and Owsley and Bright both do solid, well-structured work that makes Emerald Dawn #1 as a comic far more captivating than its main character. A very solid first beat that makes a lot of smart decisions from cover to cover.


X-Force (vol. 1) #19: Since the end of the Liefeld era, this comic has gotten extremely good at telling meta stories which act as both fictional narratives and real-world pronouncements of the series' intent. This issue is the most obvious and well-executed example of that so far, with the members of X-Force explicitly stating that they don't want to be like the traditional good guy mutants or obad guy mutants, but to carve their own path with their own sense of morality. Basically, it's Fabian Nicieza saying, "No more Liefeld plots, no more crossover bullshit, I am taking the wheel on this comicbook now," which is awesome. Since Greg Capullo came aboard as artist, he and Nicieza have made X-Force a title of progressively higher quality with each issue, even in the shadow of dangling Liefeld-spun threads and the "X-Cutioner's Song" event. Now that they've taken an issue to officially break away from all that and go somewhere brand new, there's a great sense of anything-can-happennes to this book that energizes it as a series and me as a reader. Also, the arguments made by Nicieza (through Cannonball) as to why this team should be allowed to journey off on their own are sound, reasonable, and delivered articulately. I was convinced, which makes it easier to believe it when Professor X also comes around. Yes, X-Force is a squad of relatively young, inexperienced mutants, but they've been through enough as a group now to make their own decisions and make their own way. They're bound to screw up sometimes, but so is everybody. Capullo also gives fresh costumes to everyone (through Boom-Boom), and with the possible exception of Feral, they are all major improvements. Gone are the bulky Liefeld clothes (Warpath even has a line about being able to move better without shoulder pads) and everything is made much more stylish and practical. Feral's costume I point out as the exception mostly just because it is so revealing that I question whether or not she even needs it. She's covered in fur, so clothing seems optional, and if she's going to wear something so barely there, what's the point? But Capullo doesn't overtly sexualize the character in her new duds. If anything, he underplays the sexiness in the one panel where we see the team in their new costumes, with Feral crouched down and off to the side, almost small enough compared to everyone else that you could miss her. So all told, X-Force is looking better than ever before, and all set to embark on a bold new independent direction, so the future's pretty bright for this title right now.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Elsewhere

I recently switched from a once-a-week schedule on PopMatters to an every-other-week one, the same as I have always had with the "1987 And All That" columns, meaning from now on each week I will either be publishing on PopMatters or CSBG but not both. So these Elsewhere posts will probably be bi-weekly for the time being, and include one link to each of those sites.

Two weeks back, I wrote on CSBG about The X-Men vs. the Avengers, a four-issue mini that had its final issue written and drawn by creators not involved in the initial three, making for a bizarre and ill-fitting ending to an otherwise enjoyable story. This week, my PopMatters piece was on Afterlife With Archie, specifically looking at some familiar/clich├ęd elements and how they are used quite effectively in the context of that title.

Something I Failed to Mention
In discussing Afterlife With Archie, I pretty much consistently talked about writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla as a team, as opposed to looking at their individual contributions to the book. As is pretty much always the case when Francavilla's involved, though, the art of Afterlife deserves its own examination and praise. What I personally find myself most often impressed with in that series is how few colors Francavilla will use on a given page. Often it is just two, with red/black and orange/black being the most common combinations. Black is always heavily involved, because it's an uber-dark tale and the visuals match. Francavilla has long favored a limited palette, but in this series it feel like he takes it to a new level, almost producing a black-and-white comic yet at the same time using such vibrant, brash, almost invasive hues that it's the furthest thing from black-and-white imaginable. The colors pop, nay, explode on every page, and add a lot of life and detail to the scenes, even though there are never more than, like, four or five different colors at any time, usually fewer. Francavilla's evolution as an artist continues to impress; he was already one of my absolute favorites, and this may be the best of his work that I've ever seen.