Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Three! Two! One!

2013 ends tonight. I'm not much one for New Year's resolutions, because I like to try and take stock of myself as often as possible and course correct whenever I feel it's necessary. Not that I am hyper-self-aware, but I think I'm pretty realistic about the good and bad in me, and always trying to do what I can to bolster the one while diminishing the other. Trying to assign a specific day for that process, and using that day to assess a full year and make plans for the entire next year, is impractical and forced and not a tradition I entirely understand.

That said, 2013 was my first full year of regular blogging, and inasmuch as we all seem to generally agree that a whole year is a significant amount of time, that's pretty cool. This year was also when I started writing for The Chemical Box, read/RANT, and PopMatters, so someday, looking back, this will no doubt feel like an important year in my amateur comicbook critic career (or whatever term is appropriate...is it a career if you never expect to make a single cent form it?)

So, as 2013 wraps up and I head into 2014, hopefully the second full year of blogging about comics in my life, there are a few things I know I'd like to accomplish in the next 365 days. I want to publish 200 or more posts on Comics Matter. I'm ending up with a frustratingly so-close-yet-so-far 179 for this year, but hitting 200 would only have meant another 2 posts per month, which I gotta believe I can do next year. I'd like to do another thing like Atari Force Month, but with some other title that has enough material that I could write about it every day for 30 days in a row. I'll probably aim to do that in June again, if the timing works out. I want to continue to branch out to other sites beyond this blog. Writing for them this year has led to some of the work of my own that I've enjoyed the most and am proudest of, so the more places that want to publish me the merrier, as far as I'm concerned. Finally, I want to get better at writing about comics comprehensively. I want to talk about the bad parts of series I like and the good parts of series I despise. I want to remember to credit all the artists, pay attention to editors, acknowledge good lettering more often, and pick up on every story detail no matter how small or incidental. It's probably impossible to never leave anything out, but at the very least that's what we should all be striving for, right? Even if we know we'll never get there.

These aren't resolutions, necessarily, because I'm not the least bit resolute about them. If I fail to accomplish any or all of the above goals, that's fine. If I hit them all, that'd be fantastic, but I'm not going to drive myself crazy about it. They're just stuff I'd like to see happen, things I'm already working toward and will continue to do so. 2013 was a success, blog-wise. I'm confident 2014 will be, too, with or without me checking those items off my list.

BTW, I totally dropped the ball on this month's Monthly Dose. It's my first time not doing it in 14 months, which is better than I would've expected, but also I hate to miss any deadline, even one I set for myself arbitrarily. My plan is just to do the December 2013 installment sometime in the first week of January, and then get back on track after that. I know you're all SUPER concerned about it, so I wanted to let everyone breathe easy.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Christmas is pretty much over. Here's how I spent mine:

I got two DNA tests so I can finally figure out what the hell mix of breeds my dogs are. We hosted dinner and got everything from Whole Foods, premade, and it was delicious and there's a ton of it left. My lady got me the best present of the year, All My Friends Are Dead, which is a super-silly and simple picture book about friendship and loneliness and mortality. I may do a longer blog post about it sometime, because it's pretty much comics. I mean...what's the difference between a comicbook and a picture book? Panels, I guess, right? Picture books have one image per page max and comicbooks can have as many as they damn well please. That's probably like a well-recognized and totally obvious distinction, but I am making it now for the first time. Merry Christmas.

I saw American Hustle. It was alright. Good performances all around, but not all that thrilling a plot, really. The story didn't grab me as much as the characters, and though it was superbly funny many times, a lot of the comedy felt unneeded. It could've used a bit more heft, especially Bradley Cooper's character, who was part of some of the funniest material but also ended up the weakest of the three leads. He was sort of too easy to figure out, too extreme in his characterization to hold my interest. I never got surprised by him, he wasn't as smart as he thought he was, and after more than two hours that grew old. If some of his lighter scenes had been used to flesh him out, I think that would've helped. Not a bad flick, some truly stellar acting, but probably not something I'll ever feel the need to watch again.

I read the eighth TPB of Ex Machina, "Dirty Tricks." I have read it a few times before. I've been meaning to do a Superb Heroes column on Ex Machina for a couple of months, but it's a decent number of issues to reread and other stuff keeps being more interesting or urgent. I'm almost done now though so probably soon I'll write about it. "Dirty Tricks" most likely won't be a big part of my discussion of the series, though, because I don't care for it very much and the themes that interest most in the book aren't really present in that particular arc. The antagonist of the storyline, Trouble, is the worst kind of crazy female character. She's hopelessly in love with a guy who literally doesn't know she exists, she's dressed in almost nothing, and almost all of her dialogue is romantic, sexual, or both. She's just a heart and a vagina walking around in a supervillain costume, and that's dull and uncomfortable and, at times, offensive.

The other thing about "Dirty Tricks" is that it marks the dividing line between trade paperbacks and single issues in my Ex Machina collection. And I hate that. It reminds me of my past weakness. I started reading Ex Machina in trades sometime around the end of the "Dirty Tricks" arc being published in monthly format. Eventually, I got caught up, just in time for the trade of that story to come out. So in one trip to the shop, I got that collected volume plus all the currently available (at that time) single issues that followed it, because I was totally unwilling and unable to wait for the rest of the title to be collected before I read it. Now I have this weird multi-format full run of the series. Same goes for the most recent volume of X-Factor and Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force. I'm impatient, what can I say? Just because I start a book in trades doesn't mean I'll have the willpower to continue reading it that way. Even if I know that, in the long run, I'll kind of wish I had.

There are so many cookies in my kitchen right now. I sort of have a headache. In one hour, it will no longer be Christmas Day where I am. And to all a goodnight.

Monday, December 23, 2013

I Borrowed Some Comics From Will

I went to college in Boston, moved to Austin for four years after graduation, and then moved back up to the Boston area about six months ago. Most of my college friends have dispersed by now, but lucky for me, my good pal and birthday twin Will is still around, so he and I have hung out a few times since I got back up here. One of those times, because Will's such a bookworm and I'm such a comicbook nerd, I scanned his bookshelves to see what he owned that I hadn't read. There were several things, but I didn't want to clean him out, so I grabbed the three that interested me most: the first trade paperback collection of Gotham Central, the X-men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, and House of M, an event I know all about by now but didn't actually follow when it was coming out. I have since read them all, and while none of them sparked a particularly passionate response from me worth devoting a full post to, it seemed silly to do all that reading without saying something about it. So what follows are my general thoughts on the three comics I happened to borrow from Will.

Gotham Central Book One: In the Line of Duty
Like too many Americans, I love cop procedurals, so this series is right up my alley. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker do a good job of making the concept of life as a cop in Gotham more than a one-trick pony. The most obvious route to go, and the heart of the first story arc, is that the GCPD have a difficult relationship with Batman because, while they often need his help, they don't want to need it. They'd much rather handle crime in Gotham themselves, as any police force would. This struggle gets addressed right away, and then advanced and complicated intelligently by Rucka and Brubaker in the stories that follow. By focusing on individual members the large, rich cast, making the stories personal dramas instead of formulaic crime mysteries, the writers keep things from growing stale. They build a lot of great characters quickly, each with his or her own attitude about or take on "the Bat," and that's the book's biggest strength. It would work without Batman ever showing up because the characters are so strong, but having him around, always in the background even when he's not directly involved, adds a nice twist to the familiar setting of a squad room.

I also appreciated how this first trade had ten issues. That's a lot, and there's a pretty clear dividing line between the first five and the second five, so it would've been easy to split them into two volumes. Thank goodness DC decided to be generous, though, because ten issues is a much more satisfying portion than five. Had this volume ended after issue #5, I'd be interested in reading more but not necessarily hooked. Now that I'm ten issues in, though, I'm itching to read the rest of this series, and will probably end up spending too much money too quickly on making that happen.

What I noticed most while reading Gotham Central, the thought that crossed my mind more often than any other, was that I wish Michael Lark's art still looked like this. I'm a fan of what he's been doing on Lazarus, emotive artwork with a dark and dreary mood, but his work here is considerably cleaner and more expressive, and I prefer it enormously over his more recent work. Maybe it's a matter of having different inkers and colorists on one series than the other, maybe he just developed a weird smudginess in his style between then and now, and most likely it's a combination of the two. But Gotham Central has all the visual energy and realism and impact Lazarus has, plus a clarity and crispness that makes it look much nicer overall. It's too bad, because Gotham Central made me a bigger fan of Lark's than I was before while contradictorily making me like him less right now.

I kind of can't wait to get my hands on the next volume of this book, and however many follow after that. And I'll probably have to get my own copy of this volume, too, because it has clear reread value, and I'm going to have to return this one to Will.

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
I had a vague awareness of this as a popular book, and it certainly has all the makings of a classic X-Men story. It's written by Chris Claremont, it's all about humans hating mutants irrationally, Magneto is temporarily a good guy—all the biggest hits. Of course, this is a story from 1982, so it gets to hit all these familiar notes since, at the time, they were less familiar. Not brand new, but newer than they are now by a lot. In other words, the lasting influence of this book is clear, not least of all because it introduces William Stryker. He's not exactly A-list, but he's shown up since this and been reinvented in the movies and stuff. He's around, is what I'm saying, and it makes sense when you read this why he'd be used again. Claremont writes a good fanatic, a man so wholly convinced by his own insane delusions that it's not even a surprise when he kills his most loyal supporter after she's revealed as a mutant. He leaves quite an impression, even though his hate-mongering is of the most simple-minded and least convincing kind. The dude killed his own son with like no hesitation and then called it a message from god. If you can get behind that, it's best we don't talk.

Anyway, by giving Stryker power and popularity, Claremont is able to take the story to some extreme places, with children being murdered (not just Stryker's baby, either) and ears bleeding and Professor Xavier being drugged and tortured to the point that he makes a half-earnest attempt to kill Cyclops and Storm. I say half-earnest because, of course, in the end it turns out that he resisted the villains just enough to not kill his loved ones even though he basically wanted to. It's a bit of a backpedal, but it's also as far as Claremont could ever have taken things, since killing off two such major X-Men as Storm and Cyclops in some random graphic novel would probably not have been possible.

So it's an intense story, taking the established anti-mutant sentiments of the X-Men's world to an extreme place and letting the ball roll from there. I liked that heightened atmosphere, though sometimes the urgency of the narrative meant that things were glossed over. Not that it was hard to understand, but the X-Men got some information with dubious methods that were questioned but never fully addressed, and there wasn't necessarily a lot for everyone on the team to do. Cyclops and Storm are kidnapped most of the time, but once they're freed he is more important to the story than she. He's basically the voice of reason and hope in this story, funny considering what he's like now. Kitty is pretty much the star, Magneto and Wolverine are their usual forces of personality, and Professor Xavier is the villain's primary target. But Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Illyana (not yet Magik here) get considerably less stage time. They're active and essential to what goes down, insofar as they use their superpowers to help win fights and save people. But they're support players, the story too fast and hot-tempered to give them any more room.

Brent Anderson provides the art, not someone I'm overly familiar with, though I've seen some of his Astro City stuff. This is a bit rougher than that, but you can see Anderson heading in that direction, able to ground superheroes aesthetically without taking any of the dazzle away. Nightcrawler's teleportation is an especially nice example of what I mean, simple clouds of thick smoke with a nice big BAMF! down the middle. It's contained and realistic, but still fantastical and uniquely comicbooky. The black-on-purple coloring of the BAMF!s by Steve Oliff is very nice, too, while I'm talking about them.

Anderson paces things very well, and is able to do a lot in a cramped space if needed, fitting many tiny but always clear panels on a single page to get more done. And his figures are just as distinct and well-proportioned when seen from a distance as they are up close, so Anderson can do wide action shots when called for, always a useful skill on a team book. He also captures a lot of emotion in his characters' faces without needing overly heavy detail. Simple changes in facial expression, just the positioning of the person's mouth or the tilt of their head, say an awful lot when Anderson draws them.

I liked this as much as I expected considering its reputation. It was a very solid X-Men story, a nice introduction, actually, to the whole idea of mutants and the X-Men, if I was ever in need of one to offer somebody. Nothing really blew my mind, because of how worn-in all the elements of this story are now, but it was a quick, good-looking, engaging read with an excellent bad guy.

House of M
Easily the worst of the three, which I guess I more or less anticipated. This has got to be the worst case of Brian Michael Bendis needlessly, frustratingly decompressing his story. I think what makes it so irksome, compared to his other writing, is that there's less of the usual Bendis back-and-forth banter. It's there, but it's not the main reason the narrative feels so stretched. Most of that is filling space with action that doesn't really go anywhere, big dumb splash pages, and a lot of very, very quiet scenes that could be shaved down or completely cut so easily it's baffling why they ended up like this. Colossus farming in Russia for a whole page, why? Because you owe us an explanation as to why he isn't going to be in this story? No, you don't. Lots of characters aren't in this story, and anyone who isn't, there's a pretty obvious explanation: the entire world is different so they're doing something else. Giving me the example of Colossus in Russia doesn't add my understanding of that, because there are plenty of other examples of characters in brand new situations that are legitimate parts of the story, and I'm not an idiot.

That's just the most annoying instance I can think of off the top of my head, but there's a lot of wasted space in this series. The two-page splash of what S.H.I.E.L.D. looks like in this new House-of-Magnus-run reality that is the terrible ending of issue #2 comes to mind, as do the three pages worth of newspaper articles explaining through multiple articles the same already-obvious fact that things are different in this world. I'm not going to dig through all eight issues again to find every time space was misused, but it seemed like a lot. The first issue barely even gets to the point where things change, meaning the advertised premise of the series doesn't kick off for real until its second issue. And from there, it takes another three or four issues until anything starts to get done about it. It's all Wolverine running around and learning what has changed before explaining to a bunch of other heroes how things have changed. Only then does anyone take action that actually progresses the narrative. And it all leads, of course, to Scarlet Witch uttering the now-famous line, "No more mutants," which, credit where it's due, I actually enjoyed the reasoning behind. Being Magneto's daughter meant spending her entire life in the shadow of the mutant cause, and that made her pretty crazy and ruined her repeatedly, so she lashes out against it. A nice moment that comes too late and is surrounded by too much padding.

Oliver Coipel is the artist, and while all-in-all he did an ok job, his style is not for me—everyone seems too rounded and, like, tightly packed in their clothes and bodies—and there were a few moments at the very end where some significant shit was going down and I had no idea what I was looking at. What does Magneto do to Quicksilver? At one point it looks like Pietro's head's been bashed in or maybe cut off, but I am not clear on exactly when or how that happens. The art, like the story, does have some strong beats (I really liked the design of the anti-human sentinels of the new reality), but House of M was a pretty weak series on the whole. Not that much really happens for how long it is, and some of what does happen is hard to make sense of, visually.

The end. Thanks, Will!

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Today I read the last of my new comics for the year. I actually got them from the shop a few days back, but didn't have a chance to read everything until this morning. So now here I am, another year of comicbook fandom officially behind me. I guess that means it's time to talk about the best series of this year, right?

But the thing is, I'm not wild about the idea of doing a best-of list. At best guess, I only read something like 40-60 titles this year, and many of those I dropped partway through. So to pick five or ten series out of that relatively limited group and call them the best comics published all year feels meaningless. It'd be a list based on such a small cross section of everything published this year, and honestly, most of the titles I'd choose are probably on a bunch of other lists all over the Internet. Why add a bucket of water to the deluge?

Instead, then, here are some of things I noticed popping up a lot this year and liked. A list not of my favorite comics, but my favorite comics trends:

1. Blended Genres: There were a handful of really great books that spliced elements of several genres quite nicely. Dream Thief was a magical crime mystery, Six-Gun Gorilla was a sci-fi western, Pretty Deadly is a fantasy/mythological western, Revival is a horror story wrapped in a small-town drama (or vice versa), Black Beetle: No Way Out was a superhero noir, etc. Some of these are more original mixes than others, and they all strike their own balance depending on the story being told. But I'm always in favor of this practice, because straight genre stories grow staler all the time, and a simple way to spice them up is often to smash them together. There was a good deal of that happening in comics this year, and I gobbled it up.

2. Strong Teen Characters: I highlighted this idea in my PopMatters piece on Young Avengers  and Harbinger, but there were a few other series that really nailed the voices of their young-but-not-that-young characters. Archer and Armstrong, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Afterlife with Archie are all on the list, and I'm sure I'm forgetting another example or two. Making teenagers sound real and natural, finding the right mix of genuine intelligence and complete stupidity, is a definite challenge. It's much easier to boil them down into one-note characters: the angry kid, the nerd, the bully, the shy one, etc. The teens I've been reading about this year, though, have been three-dimensional, hard to define, and believably juvenile without becoming obnoxious.

3. Accessible Weirdness: I read a bunch of stuff in 2013 that was bizarre and borderline experimental, yet still offered just enough of a clear narrative hook to pull me in quick and keep me around. Some of these are relatively new and still have time to disappoint me down the line, like Pretty Deadly and Drumhellar. Others, like Twelve Reasons to Die, are already not that great overall, but because of how strange and unique they are, I stay interested and entertained. And then there's stuff like FBP, which is basically a straightforward crime procedural that just happens to involve physics that are so far over my head I couldn't begin to tell you how real or made up all the scientific chatter in that title is. It's a combination of the overly familiar and the completely unknown, and I dig it big time. All these series were strange in their structure, hard to to predict, and artistically bananas. Though they have varying levels of quality, as a group they were a bright and beautiful reminder of how much fun comics can be, and what kinds of crazy shit they get to do that no other medium can.

4. Talking About Inequality: This isn't one from within the comicbooks themselves as much as it's something that's been going on in the creator-fan online community. The long-established lack of representation of female and minority characters, creators, and other professionals in the world of comics is getting called out and criticized more and more, and all that negative attention is exactly what it needs and deserves. Unless everyone can agree there's a problem, the solution is never going to come, and while the comics industry has been slower than many to acknowledge how unbalanced it is in this regard, there's a clear momentum in the right direction now that's exciting and will hopefully roll right into 2014 and beyond. It's going to be a slow, infuriating, uphill battle to be sure. But the first step has got to be talking about it, shining a light on the problems and refusing to turn it off until something's done, until the next steps are taken. I feel like that's where we are now, and though things are still awful, they're better than they used to be if only because the discussion is taking place. And loudly.

There it is, a brief summation of what I'll remember when I think of comics in 2013. It was a good year, as far as that goes. I'm not sure I put much stock in the idea that a specific 365 days is a timeframe that's worth anything, but that's a debate for another time and place.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


It was one of my more productive weeks outside of Comics Matter. I published two reviews on read/RANT: Kings Watch #3 and Mighty Avengers #4. The former was another excellent installment in a reliable series, and the latter was the dullest issue of its title yet, but still had some comedic merit and a few spots of nice characterization. Also, my new "1987 And All That" piece went up on The Chemical Box, the first of two planned posts about Uncanny X-Men from that year. This initial column is all about Storm, without her powers, having some interesting solo adventures. Finally, I wrote about Six Gun-Gorilla for PopMatters, focusing on its message the importance of people looking for and valuing good stories.

Something I Failed to Mention
Because I didn't really need to address it to make my point, and it's sort of a complicated place to explain, I never went into the details of the setting of Six-Gun Gorilla, referred to in the story as "The Blister." Right in the first issue we learn some of the more sci-fi-oriented facts about it, like that combustion and electricity don't work there for some unknown reason. This means no traditional bombs or explosives but, instead, clockwork and pneumatic weapons. That alone feels like enough to make the environment of the narrative interesting and distinct, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg. Every day at high noon, the sun gets so intense that it literally disintegrates any living thing exposed to its rays. There are strange, semi-intelligent plant creatures called tumblesquids living underground all across The Blister, and they sometimes pop up like sand-krakens to attack people and pull them under. All of these things are revealed pretty early on, but none of them are properly explained, because the human characters in the comic don't fully understand The Blister. They use it as a resource and a war ground, but haven't entirely grasped what it is or why it behaves the way it does. However, toward the end of the series, main character Blue finally cracks the code with a little help from his gorilla partner, though even then the answers are fairly vague. The Blister is some kind of blend of the real and the imagined, a place where people's thoughts or fantasies can be given physical form and interact with reality. Whenever new people arrive to continue the war effort, The Blister reacts, which is how things like tumblesquid attacks happen. Even the gorilla, a major player in this story and the book's title character, is just a creation of Blue's, at least to some extent. He's a character Blue read about in an old pulp comic and then inadvertently brought to life when he needed help and guidance. So The Blister was a really imaginative and cool location, and it added to the general sense of mystery that pervaded this series, as well as being an important part of the conclusion. Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely both put a ton of creative energy into this comic, as the complexity of the setting evidences.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Some Things That Stood Out in This Week's Comics

I got a whole bunch of new comicbooks this week, partly because nothing is being released on Christmas day so there's more earlier in the month, and partly just because it happened to be one of those weeks were a lot of stuff came out that I follow. I've written a couple of reviews of some of those issues already, but there were a handful of other more specific things that caught my eye or stuck in my mind from this week's reading, so below are the four that seemed most notable, in the order in which I read them. These aren't meant as full reviews, just some comments on the details that stood out to me.

Lazarus #5
We begin with the only negative case in the group. I'm not the world's biggest Lazarus fan, but it's a pretty solid series with a great central character, and this issue made her seem even greater through one or two key scenes. Overall, then, it was more good than bad, although there were a few pages that felt pretty wasted, most of all the whole first scene.

Whatever, the thing I really want to talk about is the inconsistency in the voice of the captions that identify the location and population of each new setting. Basically, in the world of Lazarus, there are three different classes: Family, meaning members of the five families who own all of America; Serf, meaning the middle class people who work for the families; and Waste, meaning the poor nobodys who make up most of the population but have the least power or importance in society. Every time a scene begins in a place we haven't seen before, the first panel includes a caption naming the location and breaking down how many members of each class live there. Kinda. Here's the first one from this issue:
So the "Population [Family]: 2 [1 permanent]" is there to express that while protagonist Forever lives at Compound Sequoia all the time, her father (the first speaker in the above panels) is only there for a temporary visit. Which is somewhat useful info for us to have, but it's also quickly reiterated by the dialogue. So the caption is extraneous, telling the reader something the story was already going to explain. On the other hand, there's nothing the least bit useful about "Population [Serf]: 32." That's a random number that gives only a vague sense of how big the mysterious compound might be, because only 2 of the 32 are seen in the issue. This would all be less irksome if every one of these captions had the exact same format, but they don't at all. Check these two non-consecutive examples:

The first one bothers me for several reasons. Number one, it begins with a summary of the entire population (or lack thereof) of the setting, not broken down by class, which I never remember seeing in this book before. Secondly, it fails to mention that, in addition to the 16 serfs currently deployed, Forever is there, too, meaning there's also 1 family member present. Lastly, the caption actually identifies who the 16 serfs are, which is more info than these captions pretty much ever provide. It doesn't give their names, but even calling them Dagger Team A is more than usual. And it's redundant anyway, since Forever asks for this team in the previous scene, so we already know who they are. I'm confused as to why this caption is so unlike the others, because it doesn't add anything to the scene it opens, and it totally distracted and confused me. When Forever was there without having been identified by the caption, I actually went back to the top of the page and read it again to see if I'd missed something. Why this didn't say, "Population [Family]: 1 (0 permanent)/Population [Serf]: 16 (0 permanent)" is beyond me. It would've told us everything it tells us anyway, but in a way that lined up with all the other captions of this type more logically.

The second of the two above examples bugs me pretty much because it has the opposite problem as the preceding one. It actually does point out that no family- or serf-level people are currently there, instead of just telling us the total waste-level population, which is all we actually need to know. If these captions were more reliable or uniform, then saying "Population [Waste]: 17" would've been enough. But because not mentioning one of the classes doesn't necessarily mean nobody from that class is present, and I guess Greg Rucka really wanted to drive home that it's all waste at Musselshell, we once again get too much data for no real reason.

I feel like these captions change arbitrarily based on...I don't even know what. Somebody's whims? I know it's a little silly to complain that these non-character captions don't have, like, a consistent personality, but I'd seriously prefer it if they did, dammit! I want them to be legitimately informative, helpful, what have you, rather than feeling like tacked-on stylistic flourishes that serve no practical storytelling purpose.

Unity #2
I rather enjoy Matt Kindt's approach to battle dialogue. In some ways, I guess that's a compliment for the entire issue, since pretty much all of Unity #2 is devoted to a single fight between Aric (X-O Manowar) and the rest of the cast. But I'm not going to get into all the ins and outs of what did and didn't work with that or any other scene in the comic. I just want to zero in on the way Kindt writes the in-fight smack talk as an intelligent tactical debate between the two sides of the battle. It's sort of a classic case of characters explaining what they are doing as they do it, but there's a certain aggressiveness and vocabulary Kindt gives to his characters that makes it better than usual.
It still hits a lot of the typical beats, like having Livewire explain out loud—well, technically it's telepathically, but whatever, it happens in the text is what matters—how her superpowers work and what she's using them for. But she has a real reason for it in this case because she's fighting Aric in his mind while the rest of her team battles him physically, so she needs to update her allies on her progress as a means of keeping them in the loop and encouraging them to keep up their end of the fight. Meanwhile, Aric is super cocky about the trap he's set, but the group he's fighting knows they're much smarter and more experienced than he is, so they explain with their own arrogance about how they're going to beat him. And I just love the way Kindt scripts all of that. Everyone is very logical even as they're crowing, and the very concept of barbed strategic arguments appeals to me unexpectedly. I guess because this isn't a bunch of people bragging about their powers or power levels, which is the more common thing to see in a superhero fight scene. This is slightly more elevated conversation, a heated discussion of technique and position and planning, with the ultimate point being that sheer power is never enough. Aric arguably has the most of that, even more than the others combined, but he isn't able to control it completely or use it in the best possible way, and his enemies can do that with their own abilities, so he loses definitively. It really worked for me, a minor adjustment to a genre trope that made a world of difference.

Batman Black and White #4
This is a quick one. The above panel, drawn by Kenneth Rocafort, is the best-looking Batman I've seen in a few years. And I tend to like Greg Capullo's tale on the character, not to mention Jock and Francavilla and Tomasi and so on. But Rocafort does an exceptional job all over, and that close-up image is the cream of the crop. From basic design elements like the length of the bat-ears to more subtle aspects like the blend of rigidity and mobility in the mask, it's a near-perfect rendition of the Dark Knight. Plus the look on Batman's face is a fantastic mix of curiosity, anger, and surprise. He's more expressive in this panel than many artists are able to make him in an entire issue. It's not all brooding, even when, like here, he is brooding. There's more nuance than that, because Batman is a smart and complicated dude with a lot going on in his over-active mind at any moment. You can see the mental wheels turning under the cowl in this panel. Finally, I like how Batman looks strong and intimidating without needing to do anything but look straight at me. There's no billowing cape or crouching in the shadows or any of the other theatrics the hero often employs. He's just so stern and confident and physically firm that I'm a little frightened of him when he's standing stone still in the middle of an open space.

Harbinger #19
Riley Rossmo returns for the second issue in a row to draw a few short dream sequences, and there are some stellar results. Between Rossmo's distinct style for the events in Peter's mind, and Barry Kitson's convincing made-up cartoon characters brought to life by newish character Monica, we end up with a few pages that are a bizarre mash-up of bright-and-shiny childlike visuals and grim-and-gritty horrors.

These images capture visually one of the major underlying themes of this book as a whole, the idea of superpowered kids trying to operate and fight at an adult level, but only half-succeeding at best because, like it or not, they're still children. So even though Monica's mental constructs prove quite helpful, they still stand out as ill-fitting in such a serious setting. Ditto Peter's mental world; he uses it to contact Monica so she can free him and the rest of his team, but its aesthetic is glaringly different than that of reality, displaying that Peter may not be all that down-to-Earth, despite his power level and budding leadership skills.

I also like how the total chaos of this issue's events are expressed so efficiently by having all these different art styles sharing page space. Often, having different artists on a single page, particularly when their work looks so different, is confusing or discomforting, if not downright ugly. Here, it's done sparingly and thoughtfully enough that it actively enhances the issue. And it only really happens at the beginning, and then Peter and Monica are both freed from captivity so the need for her cartoon friends and his dreamscape go away. They're well-used early on, but not held onto too tightly, intelligently abandoned once they've served their purpose.

So that's a summary of the bits and bobs that got me going this week. YAY comics!

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Last week, right after the holiday, my newest "1987 And All That" column went up at The Chemical Box. It's on a two-part Flash story that handled its villain interestingly but didn't do much else of note. This week, I did a review of the last issue of Reality Check on read/RANT that was none too positive, plus a piece on what makes a good second issue over at PopMatters. I feel like people talk a lot about first issues, and then beyond that it's more about "the rest of the series," but second chapters have as much or more riding on them as firsts, so I wanted to look at them more closely.

Something I Failed to Mention
In that second issues piece, I used Brain Boy #2 as an example of a second issue that didn't do as much as it could or should have. Also, a couple weeks ago, I reviewed the third issue and talked about how excited it made me for the future of the series. Turns out, as I learned for the first time during Fred Van Lente day, Brain Boy was actually a mini-series, meaning issue #3 was the last (for now). Obviously, that changes things. The second part of a three-part limited series doesn't necessarily need to do the same kinds of things as the second issue of an ongoing does, so it wasn't the strongest choice for my PopMatters post. To be fair, everything I said about the pacing of all three issues as a whole still stands—the first was great, the second dragged its heels, and the third got me excited again. But if all it was ever going to be was those three installments, that pattern is less aggravating than it would be as the opening arc of a longer project. Of course, it would still have been better if all three parts had been equally terrific, but I can live with two out of three if three is all I'm getting. I wish I'd realized earlier that Brain Boy wasn't continuing, at least not in the immediate future. It likely would've changed some of the things I've published recently, and also, I'm disappointed to lose a series I only just committed myself to as a fan. Hopefully, this first tiny run did well enough that Dark Horse will bring the character and creators back for more soon.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

I Got Two Things Way Wrong About Young Avengers

A little more than a week ago, I did a Dirty Dozen post on Young Avengers. Since then, issue #13 has come out and totally blown up two of the twelve things I said about it. Luckily, they were both good things to have been wrong about.

First, there's this longish complaint about Ultimate Nullifier's characterization in the series:

I hate this book's treatment of Ultimate Nullifier. He was the best character in Vengeance, which is one of my favorite Joe Casey superhero comics ever. In that title, UN was a ballsy young warrior and a bit of a visionary, leading a team of idealistic teen heroes who operated under the radar, more interested in saving the universe than getting any glory or even recognition for their do-gooding. Here, he's demoted to the role of whiny ex-boyfriend, so upset at having been rejected that he becomes a petty supervillain helping Mother attempt to destroy the universe. He completely reverses his entire worldview and overturns all of his priorities because the girl he likes doesn't like him back. It's a total misfire, so I choose to believe Gillen's UN is a different characters entirely than Casey's, since that's how they read.

Turns out, they ARE different characters entirely. Ultimate Nullifier is one small part of a massive lie Loki has been telling for the entire series. I suppose I should've given Gillen & McKelvie more credit, but there were a bunch of ex-lovers of the Young Avengers who all showed up at once, and Nullifier was the only one I had any previous experience with, so I had no real reason not to accept the others at face value. And Nullifier is a new and minor enough character that making huge changes to him would certainly be within the normal bounds of the genre. Still, this is a book where Loki is the main-est character, so if someone seemed to be acting strangely, it would've been a safe bet on my part to guess it was some sort of deception. Anyway, very glad to know the real Nullifier is still untainted and awesome.

Secondly, we have this bold prediction:

Wiccan's probably not going to make it out alive. That's been apparent from the get-go, and has only grown more likely with each new chapter.

This was me assuming that Wiccan was going to have to sacrifice himself, or at least some part of himself, in order to access the amount of power he'd need to finally defeat Mother. Turns out, the real solution was more logical and probably even more foreseeable: love. Hulking accepting his love for Wiccan and fully letting go of his fears and doubts is what defeats the villain in the end. Cornier, but more fitting than another "meaningful" superhero death like I anticipated. Again, I was under-appreciating the thought and care Gillen & McKelvie put into this title.

Back when it was a relatively new series, I was slower to warm on Young Avengers than many others. And now, even as a totally converted fan, I still find myself expecting less of it than it actually delivers. Young Avengers #13 wasn't the best issue of the series, and on the whole it was a pretty unthrilling climax to the enormous mega-arc that it's taken all thirteen of these issues to tell. The good guys win, everyone's happy, the day is saved...it's hardly the most groundbreaking conclusion to this kind of story. Still, it surprised me in a couple nice ways, so here's a tip of the hat for that and a brief but sincere apology for my previous underestimation.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Frustrations of Moving with Comics

I just moved into my new place. It's a nice, smallish, manageable house with a good yard for the dogs, and my lady picked some superb paint colors for every room, so props to her and yay for us both. This move is our second in six months, our fifth in five years, and something like eighth or ninth overall for me personally. I don't know where that puts me as far as average total moves for someone my age, but I do know that these days, more than ever before, moving my comicbooks is a hassle.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, they're heavy. Each sardine-packed longbox is several pounds, and the longest of them are kinda-sorta awkward to pick up and carry. They have handles, yes, but even so, I don't like having my arms spaced that way. Also, the boxes don't fit with other, more typical cardboard boxes. Packing a car or moving truck is often very Tetris-esque, and my comic boxes are the shitty pieces, the weirdly-shaped ones that always leave at least one square unfilled. This time, I ended up just bringing them all in my car at once, but that was pretty much one whole trip's worth of cargo, because there are a lot of them and they all take up a decent chunk of space.

Then I get to my new place, any new place, and immediately have to figure out where to store my comics once they're unloaded. Usually there's already a spot in mind, but the question then becomes, "will they really fit there?" In my house now, I barely squeezed everything into one of the closets, a deep but narrow space with some shelves that will someday be for clothes or linens or something like that, probably, and then the comics currently living there will need a new home. Eventually, they will either way, because even though I got them to fit in the closet, it's in such a way that they're barely accessible. Getting into the back of any box requires removing it from the space completely or at the very least moving several other boxes off of it, and that's just not something I want to do for the next X years of living here.

So someday soonish, I'm hoping to rethink the way I store my comics. Maybe get rid of boxes entirely in favor of shelving or drawers or something like that, something I can put together with instructions and/or human help that will fit neatly against a wall and give me easy, comfortable access to my whole collection. That's a dream to be hashed out in the future, though. For now, they just need to be out of the way of the rest of the move.

Because that's the other things about moving with comics: they can't always, or even ever, take top priority. We need a bed and dishes more than my comicbooks, because as much as I love reading the things, I love sleeping and eating more. That means that when deciding the order in which things both arrive at a new home and get unpacked there, the comics often come toward the end of the list. That wasn't as much of an issue in this most recent case, because everything got loaded and unloaded pretty rapidly, but the comics are now residing in an impermanent spot within the house, waiting for me to have time to figure out what the hell to do with them in the long term.

I've written before about how much I love single issues, and how I prefer owning physical comics instead of digital copies, and all the other things about comicbook collection that make moving even more complicated than it already always is. So I bring this all upon myself because of how I choose to indulge my hobby. And I'm not the first person to write about the challenge of moving, storing, or organizing their collection, comicbooks or otherwise. I may not even have added much to the conversation. But hey, this move has been pretty much my entire life for the past few days, so I'm talking about it.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: November 2013

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

100 Bullets #13: The difference between this issue and the last one is minimal. Dizzy and Branch hang out in Paris while he tells her a bunch of stuff that's either cryptic or downright inscrutable. Then she absolutely dominates in a fight that he makes happen, and the story ends. All of that also happened last time. It's not exactly the same of the previous chapter, but it's mighty close, moving things forward by inches rather than feet. Brian Azzarello makes the dialogue between Branch and Dizzy quite natural and human, because they've both already been introduced as full characters. Here, they just get to be casual together, and Azzarrello writes that well. Eduardo Risso always draws it quite skillfully, nailing each character's personal mix of mistrust, curiosity, and relaxation. And he makes Paris look like a rather cozy place, laid back in its pace and inviting in its atmosphere. That works well for this issue, where most of the action is just two characters socializing. Plus it makes the surprise street fight that Branch sets up to test Dizzy's skills even scarier and less expected. At the end of a lovely, easy-going day in a beautiful city, Dizzy is suddenly confronted with violence, coming out of shadows she didn't even know were there. Of course she more than handles herself in the situation, but it rattles her at first, simply because it's so far removed from everything else she experiences in the issue. That fight also confirms for Branch that Dizzy has martial arts training in many disciplines, in spite of her insisting that's not true. This is an interesting nugget to tease us with now, the idea that Dizzy is getting some kind of secret/hidden/subliminal education on top of the work she and Shepherd are doing that she's aware of. It adds mystery to the already uber-shadowy figure of Shepherd, and adding mystery is sort of the whole point of this arc. Branch provides Dizzy with a few sparse answers, but so far every one of them has only raised more questions about what's going on in this book, who Graves and Shepherd are, etc. Building the reader's curiosity is as valid a thing to do as any, and certainly it's done effectively here, so mission accomplished. I wanted to see a bit more actual plot advancement than is present in this issue because I always do, but I still enjoyed it, since everything that was here looked and sounded great.

Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. #1: I like Nick Fury a lot, because he manages to be badass and brilliant enough to run with all the superheroes without ever feeling wedged in or out of place. He doesn't always have a perfect plan, but he doesn't always need one, since he can assess and deal with any contingency. This series is about testing that aspect of the character, pushing it to its limits. When Fury discovers that his own team, people above and below him at S.H.I.E.L.D., are in some way doing something dishonest/illicit/evil, it's his biggest challenge ever, because the resources and allies he's used to relying on are suddenly made unavailable to him all at once. This issue, as the debut, is all about setting up this new status quo for Fury, and because it's a prestige format book, it gets to take its sweet time doing it. For the most part, Bob Harras writes a script that's exciting and fast enough to support the extended page count. It opens right in the middle a life-or-death mission inside the wrecked Helicarrier, and in that scene and every one that follows, some tiny piece of the puzzle is provided. We learn of several breaches in S.H.I.E.L.D. security, see or hear about a few instances of characters not acting like themselves, and get access to secret meetings of the S.H.I.E.L.D. board that indicate they are not what they seem to be at all. This all happens bit by bit, until Fury himself sees enough of it that he's forced to admit S.H.I.E.L.D. have become the enemy. This makes him a man on the run from the organization of super spies he used to be in charge of, meaning the people searching for him were also trained by him. He knows most of their tricks and they most of his, so now it's a matter of who has the most secrets, who's got the best cards left up their sleeves. That's a simple but fun spy-vs.-spy scenario, perfect for Fury because it plays to his strengths while at the same time being a new experience for him. Paul Neary is the penciler, with Kim DeMulder on inks and Bernie Jaye doing the colors. The artists all have a fittingly down-to-earth style, lifelike but not necessarily realistic. The sci-fi technology all looks natural and everyone seems pretty comfortable with it. The interiors of all the buildings have a futuristic (for the 80's) aesthetic that makes all the rest of the equipment feel like it belongs. And everyone's uniforms go along with that look, too. So there's a well-built and internally logical fictional world built up around the characters, meaning the people themselves can look fairly normal without the book really resembling our own world. Having the cast look more human helps remind us that, despite being a Marvel product, this is not a superhero comic. And Neary and DeMulder do pretty strong acting with the characters, Fury especially, made even more effective, I think, because nobody's features are exaggerated. This isn't the most gripping first issue I've ever read, but for forty-six pages of story it has a lot of energy, and it closes with even more drama and momentum than it has along the way. Definitely makes me eager for issue #2.

X-Force (vol. 1) #13: The most notable aspect of this issue is that it marks the first time Rob Liefeld's name has been missing from the credits. He hasn't been the artist for a few issues now, but he's always at least gotten a "plot" credit if nothing else. Here, he's absent entirely, and I'm fairly certain he never comes back. From now on, story-wise, it's Fabian Nicieza's show, so the question becomes, is he any better a writer when not saddled with Liefeld's art? The answer so far is, "Yes, but not by much." While Liefeld may not have directly had a hand in producing this issue, its content is still very much informed by/wrapped up in the plotlines he established. Weapon: PRIME attacks X-Force, as they've been promising and preparing to do for months, so it's not as if this is a daring new direction for the title or anything. It's a logical continuation of what the book's already been doing, but slightly tighter and more entertaining than usual. The fight is better paced and clearer than is typical, which of course has as much to do with Mark Pacella's art as Nicieza's writing. While Pacella is pretty clearly influenced by Liefeld's visual style, his characters are more in proportion and consistent. They're still musclebound and toothy, but they don't change shape as dramatically from one panel to the next. And Pacella does several nice splash pages that make the action feel more blockbuster-y and intense. It is a bit weird that Shatterstar and Warpath are topless for the whole fight, which I assume is just an excuse for Pacella to draw more muscles (something he clearly likes to do), but it doesn't ruin or detract from anything. It's just odd. Anyway, the battle makes up the bulk of the issue, with a brief scene in the middle checking in on Gideon while he runs torturous tests of some kind on Sunspot. As unusually good-looking and easy to follow as the combat is, it ends with a disappointing suddenness. Basically, X-Force just wins by winning. They outfight the members of Weapon: PRIME one by one without ever even really being on the ropes. So there's a lack of drama, since I guess Nicieza and Pacella thought a widespread action sequence would be enough excitement. That's a bummer for sure, but honestly, I'd rather have this fight be finished quickly then needlessly drawn out just so the heroes can find a more creative way to come out on top. Sometimes the good guys are just going to be better than their foes. This is one of those cases, and I can live with that. This issue has a painfully simple script with strong-but-not-astounding artwork, all of which is better than what's been seen in the past, but none of it makes for a particularly amazing comicbook. Still, even a slight step up is always nice to see, so hopefully this marks the beginning of a steady rise in the series' quality.

Friday, November 29, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Epilogue: Face Parade

Almost half of John Byrne's West Coast Avengers/Avengers West Coast issues open with full-page splashes of a single character's face on a blank background. If I include the close calls, like two faces on a blank background or one face with a few other details, then it's actually more than half. But as far as a simple portrait of one character from the chest up or closer in an empty space, it's seven out of sixteen. I give them to you now in order of publication:





Not a good or bad thing, just something I noticed.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Last year for Thanksgiving I threw up a list of comics-related stuff I was thankful for. That's a fine and fun sort of exercise, but I wanted to do something a little more focused for the holiday this year, yet at the same time a bit broader. Instead of talking about one or even several specific things in the world of comicbooks that fill me with gratitude, I'd like to express my thankfulness for comicbooks in general.

Because even after all this time, and in spite of all the negatives in the industry and all the shitty titles out there and the million other reasons to be discouraged, I still find myself as enchanted with this medium as ever. Maybe more than ever, if only for the very fact that comics maintain their shimmer and appeal in the face of all the nonsense.

Right now, the number of titles that excite and challenge me is a little stunning. And there's some awesome-looking stuff on the horizon, too. In addition to putting out a few of the best superhero comics currently on the shelves, Marvel has made some extra-enticing announcements lately, from Ms. Marvel to Silver Surfer and everything in between. Image continues to be the jam (especially when it comes to sci-fi), the reborn Valiant has proven itself a reliable source of good material, and Dark Horse and BOOM! each produced one of the single best series of 2013 (Dream Thief and Six-Gun Gorilla, respectively). My point is, there's awesome coming from all sides, with even the mostly disappointing DC making several solid contributions from their Vertigo imprint and out-of-continuity Batman books. Things are good, and they seem to be getting better.

And I'm thankful for that. As someone who spends so much time and energy thinking and writing about comicbooks, I'm endlessly grateful for the vast variety of grade-A titles available these days.

When they're at their best, comics are gorgeous art packaged with interesting stories, so that the words and pictures can be revisited repeatedly, together or individually, without running out of new things to offer. I'm seeing a lot of that lately, issues and entire runs that I'm eager to dive into a second time, or third or fourth or whatever it is. It's almost overwhelming, because new great shit comes out constantly, but the old great shit stays great forever, and begs to be reread, newly appreciated, explored and understood more deeply. Having too much to read is the best kind of problem, though. So thank you, comicbooks, for overfilling my life with quality.

Let's eat.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 6: Wanda's Heel Turn

Back in 1989-90, John Byrne had a 16-issue run as writer/penciler on The West Coast Avengers (renamed Avengers West Coast partway through his time on the title). I'm neither an Avengers nor a Byrne expert, but I'm aware that, at least in some circles, these comics don't have the best reputation. Screw that noise, because I quite like them, and I'm writing about them one arc at a time.

In his final two issues on this series, John Byrne doesn't get to wrap up everything, but he does finally pull the trigger on the Scarlet Witch going completely insane. After more than a year's worth of issues where nothing good ever happened to her, where everything she thought she knew about her husband and their kids was revealed to be a lie and she lost her entire family, she understandably breaks down. With some encouragement from her father, Magneto, she goes full-out villain, taking up the cause of mutant superiority an attacking her former Avengers teammates physically and psychologically. It's the logical culmination of everything else that's happened, and even though technically Byrne's run was cut short by his unexpected departure, these last two installments make it feel complete, the full tale of Wanda's gradual fall from grace.
     I like dramatic changes to a character like this if they're earned. While some of the things Wanda went through were sudden, the overall effect was a steady supply of hardship that makes her evil turn not only believable but right. She had been trying to keep it together for so long, it was time for her to snap, to react to the horrors the world dumped on her with some passion and purpose. I'm sure if Scarlet Witch was your favorite Avenger at the time, this would be more like the straw the broke the camel's back. It's the final insult added to all the injuries she's sustained while Byrne's been in charge. She doesn't just leave the team, she goes after them viciously. She kills Wonder Man and brings him back just so she can sexually assault him. She obliterates Human Torch with such finality it makes me wonder all over again why Byrne brought him back in the first place. Her former friends are left humiliated, betrayed, impotent, and terrified. It'd be the last thing you'd want to see if you were rooting for her to recover from her recent traumas, but for me it works perfectly as the nail on her coffin.
     I also like seeing a team of heroes get taken on by one of their own. It presents unique challenges for them, because they want to believe their ally will come back around. And it usually means getting totally dismantled, because the enemy already knows their secrets. That's all true here, plus with Scarlet Witch it's barely even a fight, since she's pretty much the most powerful Avenger around, and I enjoy watching the good guys get brought so low in such short order. There isn't even any time for them to bounce back before Byrne leaves the book. His legacy ends with Wanda walking away victorious and smug, the rest of the team watching helplessly. After so many issues of Wanda hitting a string of new lows, she gets to bring everybody else down to her level. It's tidy.
     The whole Tigra thread is left dangling. We find out here that she's escaped the glass box in which Pym was holding her in his lab, but where she goes is never revealed. That's the worst part of this run, sort of the opposite example of Wanda's story. Where Tigra never gets proper attention or any closure, Wanda is more or less the star of this book during Byrne's era, and her narrative gets to end. Of course, this is not the true end of either character's respective stories, since there've been more than twenty years of comics since then, including some pretty heavy stuff for Wanda. But within the tiny timeframe of Byrne writing and penciling this book, they could not have been handled more differently.
     It doesn't seem like you'd have a shortage of material to pull from if you were the creator(s) following Byrne on the comic. He leaves a lot of stuff open-ended, like Iron Man semi-forcing himself onto the team, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne being an official couple again, etc. Quicksilver even shows up at the very end, pretending to partner up with Magneto and the now-villainous Wanda, but clearly secretly working for the heroes in some capacity. I assume Byrne had his own plans for how that would play out, but whoever inherited the title from him had to resolve it one way or another. The point is, say what you want about whether or not he should have made the kinds of intense changes he did, Byrne definitely left the West Coast Avengers in an interesting and complicated place.
     I guess at this point I'm sort of just throwing out my remaining thoughts on these 16 issues as a unit. The last two don't have much room to focus on anything other than Wanda going bad, and since that is the conclusion to the largest and most important story thread in the run, it's hard to talk about these issues without looking back and those that preceded them.
     I will say this about them specifically: Byrne's redesign of Wanda's costume is unflattering, weird, a little too sexy for no reason, and ultimately pointless. It doesn't scream "evil Scarlet Witch" or anything, it just looks like a slight twist on her old look. It's a cosmetic change for the sake of it, an arbitrary visual cue that she's different on the inside, too. It's not a horrible costume, and the one it replaced wasn't all that great, either. But it was distinct and classic and memorable, and the one she switches into is different enough to notice but similar enough to be dismissible. So that's too bad, a disappointing but minor part of the otherwise enjoyable character shake-up.
     Byrne did some questionable things, made some choices that were provocative and damaging and hard to undo. I understand why that upset folks at the time and why it still does today, but I think the dude went bold with it, and that's always applaudable, even when it fails. He knew what he wanted to do, what he thought should be different about this team, and he went for it with everything he had. It was ambitious and confident to equally impressive degrees. That's what I dig about his issues, their unapologetic ballsiness, their unforgiving dedication to uprooting and overturning the status quo. Nobody in the cast makes it out quite the same as they were when Byrne first came aboard, and for such a large group of characters (to which he added several members) that's a lot of change in a relatively short period of time. Not that making things different is difficult in-and-of itself, but Byrne did it all while still telling standard superhero action stories, keeping his cast true to their core as he pulls the rug out from under them. Doing both things at once is a more admirable accomplishment.
     With the lineup not at all like it was when he started, and Wanda completely rearranged as a character, Byrne's time on West Coast Avengers comes to a close. It was brief, daring, fun, and crazy. And hard to forget, even if you don't like it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Young Avengers

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series*.

*I know that calling Young Avengers a "current ongoing series" is kinda-sorta a stretch considering it's going to end with issue #15, and the whole thing has basically been one long story. But I think it counts because its endpoint wasn't predetermined when the series began—the story dictated its own length to some extent, as opposed to this having always been planned and announced as "a fifteen-issue series."

1. Loki is the star, right? The story is centered on Wiccan and his relationship with Hulkling, yet Loki is still somehow the main character. He knows the most, he does the most, he's the funniest, the most likable, the least trustworthy, the best. I very much think of it as an ensemble cast, but he's the breakout character and also the anchor.

2. Love and sex are both handled very well. Hulking and Wiccan have a different kind of totally equal, two-way affection than Kate and Noh-Varr. They're both healthy relationships, sincere and therefore valid. But the two couples aren't looking for the same things, so what they offer one another differs, too.

3. Young Avengers does credits pages like nobody else.

4. All the endless hype Jamie McKelvie gets for his layouts/page designs is more than deserved. It's not just that he does something innovative almost every issue, he also keeps finding new ways to do it. The two-page spread of Noh-Varr fighting his way across a room with numbered movements creates an extremely different effect than the page showing more or less every teenaged superhero in the Marvel Universe connected through the world's most well-built social-media-based flow chart. McKelvie is a powerfully creative cat. That said, there is never any way of knowing how much credit goes to writer or artist, and Kieron Gillen's close collaborative partnership/friendship with McKelvie is well-documented, so the praise goes to both to some degree, I'm sure. When the thing that knocks me out is the actual physical structure of the page, though, I have to assume the artist gets a bigger nod. Also, of course, major kudos to Mike Norton, who inks and/or finishes McKelvie's art depending on the issue.

5. The mystery around Miss America Chavez's exact place in all of this needs to be cleared up posthaste.

6. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I quite like Gillen and McKelvie's approach of telling a single, finite, longform story in fifteen issues and then calling it quits. It's true that sometimes this has made individual issues seems slow or light, but ultimately this has been a rewarding narrative told well, and when it does hit its natural endpoint (which you can feel it getting rapidly closer to all the time) I much prefer to have the book end, even temporarily, than keep going just because the sales justify its continued existence. If you've told the story you set out to tell, then by all means, take a bow and get the hell off the stage.

7. The weird, itty-bitty subplot where Kate was worried that when she turned 21 she would count as an adult and therefore not be able to help fight Mother was sort of botched. It was only barely hinted at for a few issues, then suddenly Kate stated her fears out loud, had the rest of the team shoot them down in no uncertain terms, and blammo, the problem was resolved. I would've liked a bit more tension, or, even better, for this silly and inconsequential detail to have never been introduced in the first place. 

8. Young Avengers is classic and modern at once. There's a whole lot of social media, teen slang, pop culture references, etc. that make the comic feel very now. There's also an unthinkable, world-ending threat that a group of heroes band together to defeat, which creates a more old-school vibe. The book's prioritization of inventiveness and, more importantly, fun, feels like more of a throwback attitude, yet it can also be a powerfully dismal comic when it wants to be, grimming and gritting with the best of 'em. The mashing of retro and neo elements is one of the title's biggest draws.

9. I hate this book's treatment of Ultimate Nullifier. He was the best character in Vengeance, which is one of my favorite Joe Casey superhero comics ever. In that title, UN was a ballsy young warrior and a bit of a visionary, leading a team of idealistic teen heroes who operated under the radar, more interested in saving the universe than getting any glory or even recognition for their do-gooding. Here, he's demoted to the role of whiny ex-boyfriend, so upset at having been rejected that he becomes a petty supervillain helping Mother attempt to destroy the universe. He completely reverses his entire worldview and overturns all of his priorities because the girl he likes doesn't like him back. It's a total misfire, so I choose to believe Gillen's UN is a different characters entirely than Casey's, since that's how they read.

10. Wiccan's probably not going to make it out alive. That's been apparent from the get-go, and has only grown more likely with each new chapter. 

11. The idea that Prodigy not only retained all the skills and knowledge of a slew of other super-people, but also their sexual proclivities, intrigues me to no end. What about their tastes in food, entertainment, fashion, etc.? Does he find himself simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by basically everything he encounters? What about political views, prejudices, misconceptions, etc.? Even if he doesn't believe them all, does he KNOW what most of the rest of the Marvel U thinks about these topics? Trying to imagine what it's like in his head is the world's best thought experiment. Dear Marvel, please give the guy a mini-series, if not an ongoing, so this can explored!

12. No matter what happens in the final fifth, I will miss this volume of Young Avengers. It did stuff I liked reading, looking at, and thinking about.

Monday, November 25, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 5: Acts of Vengeance

Back in 1989-90, John Byrne had a 16-issue run as writer/penciler on The West Coast Avengers (renamed Avengers West Coast partway through his time on the title). I'm neither an Avengers nor a Byrne expert, but I'm aware that, at least in some circles, these comics don't have the best reputation. Screw that noise, because I quite like them, and I'm writing about them one arc at a time.

"Acts of Vengeance" was a crossover story where a whole bunch of villains, secretly being manipulated by Loki, attacked heroes they didn't usually fight. The idea was to give the good guys challenges they hadn't faced before and for which they would therefore be unprepared. Avengers West Coast was one of several titles telling the story, so the three issues involved are disconnected beats. Reading them without the other books provides a fragmented picture of the narrative, but the event is structured in such a way that consuming broken bits of it isn't confusing or unsatisfying. Each chapter highlights a single fight in the widespread, long-running conflict, so they're all self-contained adventures in addition to being small pieces of a larger whole.
     The West Coast Avengers, sometimes with the help of the main team, fight (in order) the U-Foes, Mole Man, and Loki. The first of these battles is the dullest, but it's meant as sort of a teaser of things to come. Its action is a bit low energy, because the Avengers need to be able to shut down the U-Foes quickly and without taking much damage themselves. This makes it easier to let the villains leave when one of them, Vector, shows up and exposes that the whole reason his teammates attacked the heroes in the first place was a lie. They'd been falsely led to believe that the Avengers had killed Vector in combat, so once they see him alive and well, they fall back. Pretty much as soon as they do, Mole Man's much more powerful, terrifying, and physically massive forces arrive and begin their own offensive. The Avengers deal with the bigger and more immediate threat, letting the U-Foes escape.
     Totally worth it for Byrne to do some huge panels of Mole Man's biggest minions. It makes me want to just read a Byrne-drawn comicbook where all the characters are dinosaurs, monsters, aliens, or some combination of those things. Several awesome fights take place, including Iron Man throwing a monster the size of a skyscraper into the ocean. The height of the drama comes when Wonder Man lets Mole Man blast him repeatedly with a staff to prove the Avengers didn't attack Mole Man earlier. Just like with the U-Foes, he's being deceived, which leads the Avengers to stand around and wonder who might be provoking a bunch of random villains to attack them. Luckily, they also discover that the East Coast Avengers are having similar problems, so everybody gets together to solve the mystery and defeat the foe behind the foes. But that assembling and mystery-solving actually happens in other titles, so that the epic finale to "Acts of Vengeance" can take place in Avengers West Coast.
     And as is only natural in a story that involves trickery and a gathering of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the villain ends up being Loki. That also means Thor gets most of the glory of the victory, which is too bad, since he's not technically part of the cast of this book. But Avengers from both coasts get moments to shine over the course of the final fight, so it's a nice sprawling slugfest for the story's conclusion.
     This arc is the least connected to the rest of what Byrne does, making its place so close to the end of his run a bit bothersome. It would've been nicer if he'd had more room to push things forward after this was wrapped up, but them's the breaks. With only two left issues before his departure over disagreements with editorial or some such, "Acts of Vengeance" is his last full arc on this book. And it's not even contained within this book alone, another detail I'm not wild about. I do like the concept of this crossover, because it feels kind of inevitable. Once there are enough villains and heroes established in the world, there's bound to be somebody who tries to use them all against each other. So many supervillains are large-scale schemers, it was only a matter of time. Plus Loki's the perfect choice, the only choice, maybe, to be the guy who out-schemes them all. Big-picture, it's a strong idea, but within the pages of this particular series, it's lukewarm.
     I will say that the awkward, forced, unnatural recaps of past events that old-school comics so often catch flack for were extremely helpful in this case. Reading just one part of an event that spans several titles means I needed to have some gaps filled in my memory of what happens elsewhere. When the information is actually useful, the expositional dialogue is welcome. It's brief enough not to drag things down, and it bulletpoints all the need-to-knows so nobody gets lost. This happens in almost every issue of West Coast Avengers, and sometimes it's annoying when you read them all in a row. But there's an obvious value in the practice of making sure everyone's on board, even if it means wasting a few panels of regular readers' time.
     Anyway, these are fun issues, each one a complete, easily-digestible superhero action story. It's classic bad-guys-pulls-some-shit-so-good-guys-respond-with-might storytelling, episodic but connected to create layers of entertainment. Byrne does some of his most impressive artwork with Mole Man's monsters and Thor fighting Loki, and his writing ain't half bad either, in that he constructs this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts narrative quite solidly. A decent arc, but not a favorite. That comes next.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


This week, I wrote a pretty quick and positive review of Brain Boy #3 over at read/RANT. Also, my latest piece went up on PopMatters, looking at Ultimate Spider-Man's most recent arc. I quite liked how Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez handled the story of Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man again after a year-long hiatus, in that they split their focus pretty equally between that story and the introductions of some new characters. Namely Cloak and Dagger, who I love always, and was happy to see in a new setting.

Something I Failed to Mention
Although I mentioned the character of Luisa in passing in my Brain Boy review, I didn't talk about her in her position as romantic interest for Matt Price (the Brain Boy of the book's title). And partly, that's because I'm not too wild about her in that role yet, but at the same time, the comic and the character are both so new that I don't want to jump to any conclusions. I guess I just wish Luisa had been developed a bit more. While of course Matt was going to get most of the spotlight, I thought Fred Van Lente did a pretty good job at making supporting cast members like Faraday and Georgina memorable and full in a relatively short space. Luisa, though, leaves less of an impression. She's so angry when we first meet her because her father has been unfairly imprisoned, but over the course of this opening arc, Matt manages to save her dad and protect him from further harm. That calms Luisa down and cheers her up considerably, which makes sense, but I've seen so little of her in that mindset thus far it's hard to know how I feel about her. That in turn makes Matt's obvious attraction to her a little harder to understand or support. So I'm still hopeful she'll be good for him, and good for the comic, and so far she certainly hasn't been a bad or weak or unlikable cast member in any way. But right at this moment, there's also an underlying apprehension about her and Matt's budding romance.

Friday, November 22, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 4: Human Torch, Iron Man, and Wanda's Kids

Back in 1989-90, John Byrne had a 16-issue run as writer/penciler on The West Coast Avengers (renamed Avengers West Coast partway through his time on the title). I'm neither an Avengers nor a Byrne expert, but I'm aware that, at least in some circles, these comics don't have the best reputation. Screw that noise, because I quite like them, and I'm writing about them one arc at a time.

I guess I could have split this into two arcs: 1. the 50th-issue return of the original Human Torch, and 2. the two-part story about Master Pandemonium and the true nature of Wanda's children that also includes Iron Man returning to the team. But because Iron Man's arrival technically happens on the last page of the Human Torch issue, and there is the common theme of people being added and subtracted to the West Coast Avengers' family through all three of these issues, I am counting them as a single arc. And we're off.
     I'm not sure what the motivation was behind making Human Torch part of this team. I'm going to guess Byrne just wanted to be able to draw him, and couldn't use the Fantastic Four version since, you know, he has to be on the Fantastic Four. So instead, Byrne went back to the original android, who is revived and made a West Coast Avenger rather quickly. It only takes one issue for the team to find his burial site, turn him back on, welcome him to the group, and move onto their next problem. And once he's part of the cast, the Torch doesn't really do anything special. I mean, he helps out, but not in a way that is specific to his powers or character. He's just an extra generic good guy, making the team bigger but not necessarily better. His contributions aren't connected to his abilities, which makes his hurried addition to the lineup even stranger. That being said, Byrne does draw an awfully nice Human Torch, with the fire looking very alive and in-motion. And even when the flames are off, he's a strapping, handsome dude. It's just too bad that, narratively, having this certain character isn't significant. He could be anybody, just another set of heroic helping hands.
     Iron Man's arrival is brushed aside in even less time. For a few pages, the other Avengers are skeptical of him, because they believe he's somebody new in the armor, not Tony Stark, due to a bunch of complicated stuff from Iron Man's own book. However, just moments after he shows up unannounced at West Coast Avengers HQ, a bunch of demons start attacking everybody, so it becomes an all hands on deck situation. By the time it's dealt with, Iron Man has pretty much proven himself in the field, and so he just sticks around afterwards and nobody questions him again. As for the demons, they're sent by Master Pandemonium as a distraction so he can steal Wanda's kids without interference. And it's after he does so that things gets really interesting and twisted.
     The real story here, the main attraction, as it were, is Pandemonium's plot. He's trying to reassemble the five pieces of his soul, which Mephisto (the Marvel Universe's Satan) claims to have stolen, broken apart, and hidden somewhere. So rather than find out where Mephisto put them, Pandemonium's plan is to use Wanda's kids' souls to replace two parts of his own. And he totally pulls it off, almost too easily. By the time the Avengers follow him back to his own realm, the children are already his, and Byrne gives us the terrifying image of Master Pandemonium laughing wickedly and hold his arms out victoriously with Wanda's sons where his hands should be. They look almost like puppets, except there's no division between where Pandemonium's body stops and theirs begin. The boys' mouths are wide with fear and pain, a stark contrast to Pandemonium's self-satisfaction.
     Having a villain take control of her children is a messed up enough thing to do to Wanda at this stage on its own. She already basically lost her husband, so having the rest of her family ripped away would doubtlessly be devastating. But Byrne isn't satisfied to leave it at that. He has Mephisto show up to explain that, in actuality, it was not Pandemonium's soul that was split into five pieces, but Mephisto's. Or, well, not his soul, exactly, but his "essence," pieces of himself that kept him from being at full power. What does that have to do with Wanda, you ask? Hang on, it takes some more information to get there.
     Agatha Harkness is able to suss out somehow that Wanda's sons with the Vision are not entirely real. She never truly became pregnant, but, in reality, suffered from a hysterical pregnancy. It's just that when you have the mutant ability to change reality, a hysterical pregnancy actually does lead to a birth. So the kids are not, in fact, kids, but merely creations of Wanda's superpowers, accidental side effects of her overwhelming desire to be a mother.
     Ok, so, now we have these two seemingly unrelated developments: Mephisto's essence is scattered in five parts, and Wanda created her kids by accident with her hex power. Where things get outright nuts is in the connection between them. Apparently, Wanda is not so powerful that she can just create life out of nothing. In order to make her children seem like the genuine article, she unknowingly reached out into the universe and grabbed two of the five pieces of Mephisto, using them as the foundation upon which her kids were constructed. So after Pandemonium gets his hands on them, Mephisto reabsorbs them into himself, and Wanda loses her children forever.
     It's pretty damn awful, the biggest and most destructive of the many trials Wanda goes through during Byrne's run. It's so terrible, actually, that Byrne has Harkness erase the children from Wanda's memory, partly to strike a blow against Mephisto—this kids are still connected to the spell Wanda used to make them originally, so destroying her memory weakens them and thus weakens Mephisto—but mostly to spare Wanda the pain of realizing how much she's lost. When you need one character to prevent another character from remembering the previous events of the comicbook, you've entered some pretty dark territory.
     I like Byrne's steadfast commitment to doing as much harm to Wanda as possible. He's never pretended to be doing anything else, and this arc is the peak of the madness and tragedy. The long-running plot point of Wanda's children mysteriously disappearing is explained (it happens when she isn't thinking about them), and she's pushed to her absolute limits as a character. This is her low point as a hero, and finally places her in a position where her eventual transition back to being a villain is not only believable when it finally happens, but feels almost inevitable. So as far as what they bring to the ongoing tale of Wanda's life falling apart, these are a good few issues.
     There's also some great art here. The Avengers battling Pandemonium's demons, both at their base and then especially when they're on his turf, always looks great. Byrne does monsters, I think, better than people, something that will be seen again in the next arc when the Mole Man gets involved. Mephisto is also spot on here, his tall and wiry frame dominating whatever space he's in. And of course there's the aforementioned visual of Master Pandemonium with the kids attached to his arms, which is how he looks for many pages, all of them equal parts disturbing and fascinating.
     Unfortunately, there are some obvious problems with this story, too. For one thing, the Avengers don't get to do a whole lot. They fight a bunch of demons, but that doesn't get them very far. It is Harkness who defeats Pandemonium and Mephisto both, her ancient knowledge and magic much more effective weapons against them than anything the superheroes can do. But her final battle against Mephisto happens off-panel, with the rest of the cast watching in terror and describing what's happening. I have to assume this is a case of Byrne actually drawing the fight, being told by editorial that is was too graphic or something, and deciding that if he couldn't do it the way he wanted, he'd just ruin the scene entirely. It's a full page of characters talking melodramatically about violence we can't see. Lame.
     So the broad strokes of what goes down here are pretty good, but some of the details of how everything's done are disappointing. By the end of these three issues, the West Coast Avengers' crew has gotten two members bigger, but also one of their number has been pretty much completely disabled by all the shit she's had to deal with. They get stronger and weaker at once, an interesting end result. It'd be nicer if they were more involved in or important to this outcome, but it's a decent outcome nonetheless.