Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nick Spencer & the Poorly-Paced Mystery (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 of this column can be found 4 entries below, or jumped to here.

When Morning Glories starts out, it seems like it's going to be an awesome supernatural mystery. But it provides too few clues, and slowly at that, so it becomes overbearing with its questions as time goes on. In some ways, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Ultimate Comics X-Men suffer from the opposite problem. What appear at first to be pretty standard superhero adventure series quickly overwhelm their readers with too much new information too often. Any time an interesting thread is introduced, it is then quickly set aside in favor of some fresh character or concept, and so nothing gets explored or explained satisfactorily. Unlike Morning Glories, Spencer actually manages to complete some of the narratives he begins in these other two titles, but often in ways that undermine whatever made the stories interesting in the first place.
     In T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the problem is primarily one of trust. Double-double-crosses, sides we didn't even know existed, dead characters who aren't really dead...pretty much every single issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents contains at least one reveal that undoes or contradicts something previously (and sometimes only recently) established as true. The twists never stop, and you begin to expect them, not due to any well-placed hints, but merely because the plot relies on them to move forward. It's one thing to have a book that keeps its audience guessing, but when you give the readers nothing to hold on to, nothing we know to be definitively true, right down to which characters we are supposed to be rooting for...what are we even reading? Why are we reading? Again, I wouldn't mind as much if it didn't happen so damn often, but we never get to catch our breath between gasp moments, and the overall effect is less having the rug pulled out from under us and more lying on the rug and rolling around aimlessly.
     Then in the final two issues, Spencer undoes the entire concept behind T.H.U.N.D.E.R.: that its agents give their lives in exchange for their powers. And, again, why does he do this? What purpose does it serve other than to make one more thing into a lie? Toby and Dunn are still dead, and those are the characters we actually got to know, aside from Colleen. Having Dynamo and Lightning living under assumed aliases does nothing for me, except cheapen the promise I was given when this title started that these men were going to sacrifice themselves for a cause.
     The possible exceptions to this rule of a steady stream of misinformation are the four issues that tell the Iron Maiden story, but they have a pacing-related problem all their own. Which is that, basically, they should be combined into one well-written issue, rather than stretched needlessly over four. None of the five-page back-up stories give us any information we didn't already have, nor do they paint a particularly vivid or compelling image of the original Dynamo or Iron Maiden. And the main narrative could lose pages upon pages of uninteresting fight scenes, chase scenes, and vegetable chopping scenes. Not even sure anything in issue #7 is all that important. So while there may not be a lot of big reveals in those issues, it's mostly because there's just not a lot of anything there.
     Ultimate Comics X-Men lies somewhere in the middle of the Morning Glories-T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents spectrum. There is definitely an overarching mystery that is taking a frustratingly long time to develop (MG's), having to do with all these supposedly dead characters (TA) returning and doling out pseudo-religious missions. We've seen three of them now---Stryker, Xavier, Magneto---but still have no sense of what they are, what they want, who controls them, how, or why (MG's). But what's even more annoying is that rather than stretch out that mystery only, Spencer switches his focus to entirely new casts and locations (TA), so that there have now been three consecutive issues which, as far as I can tell, don't touch on this mystery whatsoever. So in addition to having to remember all the dead people stuff that came before, there's this whole Camp Angel business as well as Jean Grey/Karen Grant's totally unclear role and motive in Tian. Man, that Karen Grant issue (#8) is an example of Ultimate Comics X-Men swinging way over to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. side of things. Seriously, what am I meant to believe about her and what should I think is a lie? Because I don't know, and Spencer hasn't brought it up since. And the man only has two issues left before a new writer takes the helm, so my hopes are not high to have all the threads tied up before his term on the title ends.
     Most disappointing is that it took a while for Ultimate Comics X-Men to really fall victim to Spencer's pacing and lack of focus. By the time Professor X took up the entire last page of #6, though, things had really started to slip, and it's only gotten messier.
     What all three series have in common is this: at the end of the day, I'm just not sure what they are about. Ultimate Comics X-Men seems to be about a whole new thing as often as it feels like. Sure, there's the idea that mutants are a government mistake that has more or less been holding things together, but there's no emotional core or even protagonist, yet, and if you can't find that in ten issues then why would you expect it to ever develop? T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents definitely tells a complete story by the end, putting all the characters thorough their own personalized trials and changes, but it sort of feels like it ended up being about Toby, Colleen, and the Menthor helmet. Which I don't know how I feel about, since Colleen is a big fat liar, Toby's dead, and the Menthor helmet is one of the most ridiculous and vague concepts I've ever had the pleasure of trying to understand. Then there's Morning Glories which, in one more issue than the entirety of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, has yet be about anything other than a weird school with weird people doing random strange and violent shit for unknown reasons.
     Nick Spencer is not a bad writer. His characters are usually quite rich, his dialogue full of humanity and humor, and his ideas are often bold and big and bright. But he can't seem to get the reins on them, for one reason or another, and his writing is worse for it. If he could see the difference between having readers be confused and surprised and having them be genuinely interested in or impressed by a story, I think his work might greatly improve. But of course, he already has my money, and the money of so many others, so there can't be much incentive to change.
     Then again, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents has ended, Spencer is soon departing Ultimate Comics X-Men, and Morning Glories concludes its current arc next issue. Perhaps there's never been a better time to give up Nick Spencer for good...

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