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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 3: That Which Endures

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.

This is probably the low point of Byrne's run, just in terms of how interesting the story is. It's sort of a cool high concept, but it's not executed very well here, and I'm not sure it belongs in this book to begin with. The long and short of the story is that an entity calling itself "That Which Endures" has existed inside of all living things since the beginning of time, determining what species get to live and which ones die out. It's a sentient organism, basically, and when That Which Endures decides that a certain group has run its course, it kills off all the members to make way for the next dominant species. This is what got rid of the dinosaurs, claims the story, and now That Which Endures has a new plan to eliminate humanity so mutants can take over. Not a new goal in the Marvel Universe, not by a long shot, but this time it's a weird microscopic intelligence instead of some group of mutant extremists who are behind the plot.
     So That Which Endures kidnaps Scarlet Witch to assimilate her as the first step toward total mutant domination. It's not perfectly clear why, if That Which Endures is in everyone already, it still needs to trick and capture people in order to bend them to its will, but that is what happens. Wanda is seen by That Which Endures as powerful enough to be useful but still malleable enough to be controlled, apparently a fair assessment, as her mind is quite quickly taken over, just in time to for her to be used against Captain America and She-Hulk when they try to save her. That Which Endures takes over She-Hulk, too, and disables Cap, and none of the other East or West Coast Avengers know anyone is in danger. That leaves Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and the Great Lakes Avengers left to show up and save the day, which they do with gusto. It's actually Mr. Immortal who makes the final blow against That Which Endures, disabling its "assimilator" and thus freeing everyone from its control. With the villain defeated, the Avengers are left to wonder if That Which Endures really does live inside every living thing, making the final call about what survives and what dies off. A strange sort of existential question that is awkwardly debated for a page before the story closes.
     Meanwhile, back at HQ, Wonder Man finally says out loud that he is in love with Wanda, and Pym shrinks Tigra in self-defense after she pounces on him. The Wonder Man thing had been heavily implied before, so getting it out in the open now is the right move, as opposed to dragging it out further. And it gives Wasp and Wonder Man a few nice scenes together as friends and teammates. The Tigra bit is basically the worst of all the Tigra material, because Pym shrinking her makes it that much easier for Byrne to shuffle her offstage indefinitely. She gets stashed in a lab in her tiny form and forgotten about, by cast and creator, for a long while after this.
     What makes That Which Endures such an uninteresting opponent for this team is that, through its mind control abilities, it's able to operate in disguise as an entire college campus full of people who seem to be acting normally. There's no obvious threat there, which means it takes almost all three issues of this arc to get to any decent action. Where something more exciting might normally go, in this narrative we get That Which Endures describing itself or its plans. Or things like She-Hulk punching a wall, Wanda being assimilated (by getting covered in black goo), Cap and She-Hulk getting a tour of the fake campus facilities, and other similarly low-action scenes. Even the big battle at the end is just Avengers whomping on college kids for a few pages, plus Big Bertha trading blows with She-Hulk (easily the best part of the arc). That Which Endures is too large a problem overcome too early in its schemes to be a very entertaining supervillain. Show me a full-on war between an army of superpowered and regular folks who That Which Endures is controlling and the handful of Avengers who are somehow able to resist, and maybe you've got something. But the GLA stumbling upon a solution after being initially alerted to the danger by a faint Quinjet emergency signal just isn't as gripping.
     I do love the pages where Byrne actually draws the beginning of time and the lives of microscopic organisms. Also, later, the dinosaur panels all look great, and have some interesting and occasionally beautiful writing, too. It makes me wonder if maybe this would have been better if it was Byrne doing an original book, outside of the Marvel U, centered on the concept of That Which Endures and therefore able to more deeply explore how it thinks, feels, and accomplishes its goals. I feel like he's scratching the surface of something here in only three issues, using That Which Endures as just one more thing to throw at Wanda instead of a full-fledged idea in its own right. It could have been anything bad, as long as it happened to her, and pushed her that much closer to the breakdown she's headed for. That seems a misuse of the concept.
     The Great Lakes Avengers as the ultimate victors is a nice piece of payoff, but this is it as far as their time in Byrne's run, which is a shame. They come and go so quickly, yet show tremendous potential as heroes in their world and compelling characters in ours. No sooner do they prove their worth than the series abandons them, so while I love what they get to do in this story, it's a bummer to know this is their last hurrah. Tigra is sort of in the same boat. In addition to attacking Pym toward the end of this narrative, Tigra's first move is to go after U.S. Agent, first with violence and then romantically. Aggressively hitting on the world's biggest tightwad makes for some decent if brief comedy, and is Tigra's most human, interesting, amusing scene. It's also the last thing she does while Byrne is in charge of the book that isn't full-on animal behavior. Really, it's the last thing she does other than jumping on Pym, being trapped in a box, and then escaping from that box, the last of which happens off-panel. As I've been saying all along, she gets shafted in this run, but it's during this storyline that she has her strongest moment.
     This arc is important because it places Vision and Scarlet Witch (her especially) firmly in the starring roles of the series. The rest of the cast are tangential characters for these three issues, not even as important to the A-plot as two members of the East Coast team (a.k.a. the "main Avengers") or the entire lineup of the half-legitimate-at-best Great Lakes squad. While "Vision Quest" could have remained an isolated incident with plenty of its own fallout, through That Which Endures—not in quotes because it's not actually the name of the story, just the bad guy—Byrne is making it clear that he's not finished fucking with Wanda. It's the completion of a mission statement started in the opening narrative. For that, I like it, and I like that this is by far the least messed up thing Wanda goes through. Her journey starts out rough, goes to something hard but less permanently damaging here, and then launches full steam ahead into darkness and misery after this.

I Want to Talk About TV

I know, I know, this is a supposed to be comicbook blog, but all this week I've had some television-related stuff bouncing around my brain, so I want to get it out here.

Last week, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia wrapped up it's ninth season, and I thought it was a particularly strong year for the show. Not every episode was comedy gold, but overall this year was better than most. A big part of the season's success was a thematic connection between most if not all of the episodes. This was a year of Always Sunny going a bit meta, examining itself and its cast through its scripts. The most obvious example was also the highlight of the year, "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award." It was (in varying degrees of subtlety) a discussion of why the series never gets nominated for an Emmy (or any notable awards, really), done through a story about the characters trying to get their bar Paddy's to win best bar of the year. The number of parallels drawn between the bar and the show is impressive and hilarious, with my favorite being a super-brief conversation about how the problem can't be Paddy's location, because a new bar just moved in down the street and has been winning a ton of awards. This is clearly a reference to the much-acclaimed Louie, a show that originated on FX just like Always Sunny (which is technically now on FXX, instead). It was a smart, quick nod to their neighbor, and it demonstrates the episode's thoroughness. Every possible explanation for why Paddy's never wins is brought up and rejected, until in the end, the group is forced to recognize that they are the problem, that their nastiness and negativity is not what the people behind the award are looking for. It's an open admission of the cast's central horridness, and a reaffirmation for fans that things aren't going to change. Plus it's seriously funny all the way through.

There are other, equally obvious examples of the show's self-assessment this season, and some that are not so apparent but still count, at least to my mind. Episodes like "The Gang Broke Dee," "Mac Day," and "Flowers for Charlie" are all about boiling down the essence of a single character, seeing what makes them work and why the rest of the cast needs them. "The Gang Saves the Day" is little more than a psychological profile of all five main characters, each of them imagining themselves as the hero/star of the same emergency situation. "The Gang Gets Quarantined" seems to be a more typical sitcom story most of the way through, but in its final minutes becomes about the cast recognizing the severity of their own alcoholism and deciding collectively not to do anything about. Like the award episode, it's an acknowledgement of their flaws that simultaneously endorses them. "Gun Fever Too: Still Hot" and "The Gang Makes Lethal Weapon 6" are both essentially sequels to episodes from previous years. Similarly, season finale "The Gang Squashes Their Beefs" involves characters and storylines from the show's entire history. Though each week employed a slightly different method, every episode of Always Sunny season nine was in some way a part of this year-long discussion of what the show wants to be, what it is, and what it will be moving forward. In most cases, those things line up with one another, and lead to excellent comedic material.

Speaking of FXX, in addition to a few original programs like Aways Sunny, the channel plays a lot of really great syndicated stuff, like Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation. And every now and then, there will be two back-to-back episode of Aaron Sorkin's short-lived show Sports Night, a comedy-ish thing about the behind-the-scenes lives of a fictional sports news program. Back when it was originally on (for two whole seasons), my dad and I were big Sports Night fans, and I have continued to watch any rerun I can find in the years since its cancellation. Comedy Central played it a little some years back, but it has definitely been a while since it was on the air. After finding it on FXX, I've tried to make a point of watching it as often as possible, a few times even scheduling my afternoons around being free when it's on. It does suffer sometimes from being overly Sorkin-esque, switching from longwinded monologues to equally long strings of rapid-fire quips. Because it's a half-hour sitcom, though—complete with a sparse and distracting laugh track in the first season—those obnoxious moments are shorter, and interrupted always by bits of sheer goofiness, which makes everything a lot more fun, even the melodramatic speeches. There's some very human, heartfelt stuff between the characters that makes the comedy funnier, and also the show-within-a-show has an intentionally corny sense of humor that keeps things from getting too serious for too long.

What I've noticed most, and been most pleasantly surprised by, is how familiar I am with the episodes even after all this time. Some of them, like the pilot, I haven't seen in who knows how many years, yet there were plotlines, scenes, and even individual jokes that I remembered. It speaks to how much I used to love this show, how careful I was to absorb every minute of it when it originally aired. It never had great ratings, so even as a kid I was aware that it might get shut down, and I tried to value what was there. And rewatching now, I've got to say, it holds up like crazy. How much of that is nostalgia? I can't say for certain. But even the parts I don't remember or see coming tend to amuse and delight me, so I'm going to say Sports Night is just as good now as I thought it was fifteen years ago. I'm extremely grateful to have it on TV again.

Those two shows on that one network are what I've been thinking about lately, but now I've let it out, so I guess this digressive post is done. Comics again soon, probably tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 2: Great Lakes Avengers

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 go gaga for the Great Lakes Avengers. They're such an indulgently goofy team, with their overly simplistic names and blatantly ripped off character designs. They've got heart, and they're all so earnest about the heroism thing. It's true they're not all three-dimensional characters (Flatman especially, but that's got to be on purpose, right?) but as a group it's hard not to find them at least amusing if not endearing. Plus as far as superpowers go, they've got some cool stuff going on. Big Bertha's secret identity being a model is fantastic, making her more powerful and effective self the one that goes counter to the classic hyper-fit female superhero form. Mr. Immortal's inability to die is awesome because of how brazen and fun-loving it makes him. Apparently discovering his immortality was an immensely freeing moment, because he's straight up wacky about throwing himself into dangerous situations. And though he has the weakest alias of all time, Doorman is an extremely useful guy to have around. He's a walking element of surprise and, if needed, escape route. Pretty great.
     I also really like how Byrne kicks the story off with the GLA already put together and in action. We get the full force of their introduction, experiencing the same surprise at their sudden existence as Hawkeye and Mockingbird go through a little later in the issue. It also makes for an opening that is equal parts hilarious and mysterious. Mr. Immortal has got great mid-fight dialogue from the beginning, so it's fun to watch him work, but at the same time, there's the question of why we're seeing this team of misfit heroes instead of the book's usual cast. That mix of immediately accessible action-comedy and curiosity-piquing new characters is great, and carries the rest of the issue.
     Speaking of which, it's smart of Byrne to only give these guys a single issue for now (#46), just to set them up so they're ready when he needs them down the line. As entertaining as they are, if this initial GLA story was spread out over two issues, even with other West Coast Avengers plotlines mixed in, I suspect it would grow annoying. The GLA are too silly to spend very much time with unless you plan on spending all your time with them, so you can flesh them out and give the silliness legs. But for the purpose of a one-off story to establish the idea of the team, they strike the perfect balance between ludicrous, likable, and interesting.
     The one-issue format does make Mockingbird and Hawkeye's decision to coach the ragtag squad of unsanctioned knock-off Avengers feel rushed and perhaps a tad unbelievable. Then again, Hawkeye's totally the kind of guy to let the momentum of his quitting a real Avengers team propel him into signing up with a fake one. And Mockingbird's last line in the issue is actually anti-GLA, scolding them for using the Avengers name without permission, so her reasons for sticking around are less clear, to say the least. She shows up to try and reconnect with Hawkeye and save their marriage, so I guess it's safe to assume that's why she stays with him when he chooses to mentor the new kids. Whatever the case, it all happens pretty quickly, which is annoying, but I still think it was the right call to make this a single issue thing. Byrne's mistake, I think, is feeling obligated to check in on other members of the Weast Coast Avengers. U.S. Agent and Tigra have a three-page scene that never really leads anywhere in Byrne's entire run (part of the bungling of the larger Tigra storyline I mentioned last time), and then the final page is devoted to Wanda...getting a letter! GASP! Super lame way to close, but apparently Byrne or someone thought it absolutely necessary to tease the next issue at the end of this one no matter how unrelated they were. Had those four pages been given to the GLA narrative that the other eighteen were focused on, I reckon Hawkeye and Mockingbird's change of heart could've been much more natural.
     I nodded to this before, but three of the five members of the GLA have their designs overtly stolen from existing characters—Flatman is Mr. Fantastic, Doorman is Spider-Man in the symbiote suit, and Big Bertha is the Blob. Admittedly, that's a weird trio of characters to use in the same place, but that isn't enough to distract from how obvious it is. I don't mind; it adds to the big joke that is this whole team. And Byrne makes them look good as a unit, able to fit them into panels together in different combinations from various angles without messing with anyone's proportions. Mr. Immortal's unhinged personality is the art's biggest and most important contribution this time out, though. It's a smaller, more intense version of his team's general dysfunction. They're not really ready for prime time superheroics, but they're trying their hardest, throwing themselves into it with everything they've got. That's all Mr. Immortal is doing when he flies off the handle, too, just to a more extreme extent. The art's low point, by the by, is Clint and Bobbi's hair before they are in costume. So hideously 80's.
     It's dumb that the only person on the GLA I haven't named yet is Dinah Soar, because her name is the best by far. She flies and she resembles a dinosaur. Brilliant. So now that's out of the way. Phew.
     Not sure how much else I have to say about this one. It's worth noting that West Coast Avengers #46 was the last issue to bear that name before the series made the switch to Avengers West Coast. I prefer the former, but I can see why you'd want "Avengers" to be the first word in any Avengers book. Makes sense from a branding standpoint. Still, the fact that the GLA issue is the last one with the original title seems fitting. It's an intentional diversion, a break from most of the main characters and their stories, so it works nicely as a transition point between the two names.

Monday, November 11, 2013

John Byrne's West Coast Avengers Part 1: Vision Quest (or is it VisionQuest?)

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.

John Byrne's Vision is the first Vision I ever met. This arc wasn't my introduction to him, because I didn't read Byrne's run in order as a kid (I found random issues of it amongst my dad's collection). I don't remember the exact story or scene, but I still recall the powerful impression left on me by this strange, pale, caped figure passing through a wall and being very serious. At first I thought he was a ghost, but when I found out that, no, he was a robot, it floored me, because even the simple smashing together of ghost and robot elements broke new ground for me at that age. I didn't mind his emotionless personality, because that was just a natural piece of the robot side of his character. And I certainly didn't have a problem with the all-white coloring, because that was the whole appeal—he had to physically resemble a ghost if he was going to act like a robot. His powers came from both worlds, and that was also perfect. When I did eventually learn that this take on the character came after Byrne had literally and figuratively dismantled the then-current version, that, too, just screamed "Ghost!" to me. He'd died and come back, but different, less accessible to humans. Because he's a ghost now on top of already being a robot! Awesome.
     All of this is to say that, I understand entirely why people who were fans of The Vision before this story, who liked his marriage to and family with Scarlet Witch and wanted them to be a happy, stable couple forever...I get why people in that position think John Byrne ruined the character. It really is a whole new thing, and it happens very suddenly, and once it's done, Byrne goes way out of his way to make extra sure that everybody in the comic and out understands that this is a permanent, unfixable change that nobody in ALL THE MARVEL UNIVERSE can possibly undo. He even crams in that Vision's entire origin story is a lie, which is blurted out by Hank Pym in a single panel on the second-to-last page of the final issue of this four-part arc. An arc that basically opens with a longwinded retelling of that same origin, by the way.
     The point is, yes, "Vision Quest" has its flaws, some of them large. But for me, at least, the re-creation of Vision as a monotonous, monochromatic stick-in-the-mud isn't one of them, because that's what I think of when I think of him at all.
     Also, the story's shortcomings are worth it for its high points. The two-page spread of Vision laid out on an examination table, stripped of his skin and with every tiny piece of his complex robotic body dismantled and on display, is a jarring, gut-wrenching moment because of the meticulous detail of Byrne's art. The same goes for the anger that radiates off of Hawkeye in the scenes leading up to his quitting the team, the agony both Wanda and Wonder Man go through during this story, and the excitement of all the action. Byrne does melodramatic conversation and/or contemplation just as well as he does superhero fight scenes. Since this series, and this arc especially, is basically just a back-and-forth between those two things, it all looks great. Also, Byrne is smart about when and where to place his big moments. He opens each issue on a beat of high tension, charging into the drama of his stories headfirst. Even the beginning of this first arc is Wanda waking up distressed and unable to find her husband, a fitting opening considering the rest of the narrative is pretty much just the universe shitting all over Wanda. That will be a running theme throughout Byrne's time on the book (more on that will come in later posts). For now, I'm just pointing out that "Vision Quest" is well-told visually, and that Byrne times its dramatic peaks perfectly. If only he'd taken the same care with the valleys, I think it might've been a really great beginning to his run.
     Without question, the weakest bits are when Byrne slides into over-exposition mode. He'll devote several pages to filling us in on a character's backstory, or over-inflate a few dialogue balloons in a row to remind us what happened last issue. And there are other classic 80's storytelling tactics, like characters explaining their powers to each other every time they're in a fight, or monologuing extensively about their emotions for no one's sake but the reader's. Having too many of these things tacked on can weigh the story down, and there are some rough patches in this arc for sure. Because it is Byrne's opening gambit, and he immediately rearranges the Vision's status quo, he seems to find it necessary to explain himself through his characters as often as possible. It slows things down, sometimes when they should be speeding up instead.
     Aside from its main goal of transforming Vision from loving husband to detached synthezoid jerk, "Vision Quest" sees Tigra start to succumb to her more animalistic impulses, U.S. Agent forcibly added to the team, Hawkeye quitting (basically because of U.S. Agent), and an off-panel reigniting of the romance between Janet Van Dyne and Hank Pym. Plus, of course, the early stages of Wanda's mental breakdown, and the first hints that something strange is going on with her children (again, more on that later). That's an awful lot of change in a very short space, which is ambitious on Byrne's part, but perhaps overly so. His time at the helm of this series would ultimately be cut short, and so things like Tigra's transformation were left dangling. And that thread in particular is mismanaged by Byrne from start to finish, never given the attention or consideration it deserves by anyone in the cast. It's more an excuse to leave Tigra out of the action than it is an actual plotline to be followed. One too many wrenches thrown into the works at the beginning.
     Ok, I'm skewing a bit negative here, and that's ok because these issues deserve it, but my original intention was to talk about why I like Byrne's run, so let me close on an upswing. For all its faults, this arc is nothing if not sure of itself. Byrne knows exactly what he wants to do, and even if he hasn't perfected how he's going to do it, he jumps in with great force right away. He puts faith in himself and his cast and lets the chips fall where they may after blowing up the lives of several major players. Many disagree with the results, and even I think a few of them are questionable or worse, but he gets points for his gusto and the height of his aims. Also, bringing the entire team to a collective low point right off the bat is not at all a bad way to kick off a run. It makes for a difficult uphill climb for cast and creator alike, but done well, that can be the most compelling type of fiction.
     And seriously, that two-page spread of Vision in pieces? And the full-page splash of just his face in the same condition that opens the following issue? Chilling. That Byrne would go to such trouble artistically to underline the severity of Vision's loss of self speaks to its permanence and completeness.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Since the last time I did one of these posts, I've had a couple things go up on PopMatters: a pretty lengthy piece on the latest arc of Hawkeye from two weeks back, and a shorter column this week examining what being a comicbook fan can teach us about loss. This week also saw the publication of my newest "1987 And All That" about Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils, as well as two reviews over at read/RANT on Batman Black and White #3 and Catalyst Comix #5.

UPDATE: I just got an e-mail from Max over at The Longbox Project letting me know that they put up a piece I wrote for them about the importance of Sensational Spider-Man #0 in my personal history as a collector. TLP is a very cool idea, and Max is a super nice guy (and easily the strongest writer on the site), so I am honored to have been invited by him to submit something. I'm definitely planning on contributing to them again in the future.

Something I Failed to Mention
Because I talked about each section of Catalyst Comix #5 individually, I didn't really delve into this, but there is a general sexism in that title I find troubling. Yet at the same time, it seems a less offensive or overt sort of sexism than is often found in superhero comicbooks, so it may actually be a step in the right direction. I nodded to this problem in the read/RANT review when I discussed Frank Wells' female villains always trying to bed him. That's just one instance of what Im talking about. Amazing Grace is the most intelligent, interesting, competent character in the series, and her costume choices go practical over sexy every time. That's all great. But her story is all about an alien who's powers make it irresistible to human women trying to hit on her for the purpose of mating. Less great. It makes the fact that she's a woman central to the story in a way that, for example, Frank Wells' gender doesn't factor into his narrative. Make Frank a woman and not a lot else has to change. Not true with Grace, where you'd have to also reverse the gender of basically every other character, too, in order to tell the same story with the hero as a man. All of the Agents of Change have histories they dislike, but Ruby's is the only one that involves selling her skills for sex. In some way, her prostitution days are connected to her powers of inflicting pain with her touch. It makes her an ideal dominatrix, to be sure. On the other hand, it feels easy and even lazy to have the one girl on the team have a background in the sex trade, while the men come from things like reality TV shows and just plain bumming around. Basically, I think the problem is that none of the sexism in any individual one of the three stories in Catalyst Comix would bother me. Taken all together, though, they send a message that the roles for women in fiction are either to be the objects of sexual desire or the desirers themselves. There really aren'y very many other depictions of them in the comic, which is irresponsible at best, and actively damaging at worst.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dearly Departed: Ex Sanguine

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

I'm not really much of a vampire guy, nor am I passionately anti-vampire. Vampire stories are a subgenre of horror (duh), and I adore good horror, so a well-done vampire tale appeals to me as much as the next guy. But I'm not naturally drawn to vampires like I am, say, superheroes. The concept of blood-drinking undead immortals doesn't do much for me in-and-of itself. Similarly, romantic comedies are not what I would call, "my bag." Speaking broadly, I prefer comedy to drama most of the time, because I like to study it, to dig into a given joke or string of jokes and see what makes them work or fail. Romantic comedies, however, are often hair-pullingly formulaic, or they have one-note characters, or both. So rather than being interesting subjects of observation and analysis, they're commonly predictable to the point of their third acts feeling unnecessary.
     Tim Seeley and Joshua Scott Emmons' Ex Sanguine is 100% a vampire romantic comedy, or at any rate that's how I'd describe it, yet it is nevertheless a comicbook series that I enjoy immensely. It keeps me guessing while it has me laughing, takes a few truly dark and disturbing turns, and ends with its central couple mutually agreeing to go their separate ways, rather than winding up happily ever after in one another's arms. That conclusion isn't the only way in which it bucks trends. Seeley's design for his star vampire Saul is unorthodox, veering toward werewolf aesthetics, with giant canine teeth rather than the more humble fangs typically seen. Saul's co-star/romantic interest, Ashley, is more classic in her appearance—busty blonde diner waitress to a T—but she's also a serial killer, which gives her a twisted sense of humor and an unapologetic arrogance that are less common traits for the leads of love stories, especially women. The two make a bizarre but intriguing couple, attracted to each other mostly through their shared bloodlust, Saul's coming from an actual physical need and Ashley's more of an overwhelming compulsion. Though they're not very nice or good people, their romance is fascinating, and it makes them relatable enough to cheer for despite their murderous activities.
     Saul and Ashley meet because he's a daily visitor to the diner where she works. Another regular customer is killed, and the F.B.I. suspect Saul, which understandably upsets him. As a vampire tying to hide his identity, having federal agents knocking on his door is perhaps the worst thing that could happen. Though he's innocent of this particular murder, he still doesn't want anyone digging into his life and finding out what he is. Shortly after his run-in with the feds, Saul discovers that Ashley is the real murderer. Well...she decides to reveal herself to him, is a more accurate way of describing it. It's not like Saul sets off to clear his name and uncovers Ashley's secret. On the contrary, she catches him showing his true face to a man he's about to devour, and decides that since he's a literal monster, it's safe to tell him about the monster she has inside. At first, Saul gets mad at Ashley for all the attention she's brought his way, and threatens to do something about it if she doesn't find a new hunting ground. But Ashley never takes Saul's posturing seriously, realizing right away that they'll both be happier if they work together instead of against each other. When Saul gets arrested for one of Ashley's kills, she's brazen enough to alibi him, and thus begins their relationship.
     What I find so interesting about the two of them, and a big part of what attracts them to one another, is how casual they are about killing. When they invade a man's home and murder him together, it's a fun, flirty date, full of getting-to-know-you conversation and ending in blood-soaked sex. They can talk about murder like they'd talk about the weather, and when they do argue, it's over the relative morality of Saul's motives (hunger and survival) vs. Ashley's (sport and personal gain). But beyond this particular hobby, there's not a great deal they have in common, which causes friction between them as a couple. Saul is low-energy, logical, and detached. Having already lived several lives over innumerable years, he doesn't let himself get overly invested in the concerns of the world. What he's interested in is self-preservation, and he has no real ambition beyond that. Ashley is young and active and passionate. She's on a mission to leave behind a legacy, to be remembered forever as the prolific killer she is. She loves to take risks, he prefers to play it safe. She's flashy when she kills, and he tries to stay discreet. They're opposites in many ways, which, again, may be part of what brings them together, but is also what ultimately drives them apart.
     Ashley and Saul split up amicably after killing the two F.B.I. agents who've been hunting her down (and have never stopped suspecting Saul). Those agents have their own thread within this series, because one of them, Agent Quinn, has a history with vampires, having been kidnapped and tortured by one a few years ago. Or so she believes. Her partner, Agent Franks, eventually explains to her that it was just a regular human being who kept her captive, and that the stress of the situation has transformed him into a monster in her memory. Which leads to a grimly funny twist at the end of the series, when only minutes after Quinn learns that the vampire from her past wasn't real, an actual vampire is involved in her death. At the same time, Quinn's former trauma is the aspect of this book I struggle with the most, because it's hard to believe that someone so completely convinced that she'd been the victim of a vampire would be allowed back in the field by the F.B.I. Aren't there like psych evaluations and other such processes for that kind of thing? Not that this is a strictly realistic comic, but Franks and Quinn are certainly the most grounded characters, so I'm not sure why she gets to be an active agent when she so clearly hasn't recovered yet. Franks keeps a pretty close eye on her, and is a talented, thoughtful, capable, accomplished agent, so I guess the idea is that with him at her side she'll be ok. But Quinn has a totally inappropriate freakout during their first visit to Saul's apartment, and gets gradually worse from that point until she kills someone herself in an attempt to frame Saul. So she's definitely not fit for duty, and it not only gets her killed but Franks as well.
     As the only truly innocent member of the cast (by which I mean he never murders anybody) Franks is arguably the hero of this story, but the reader isn't necessarily supposed to be on his side. Saul is our point-of-view character and narrator, so the man who's out to get him isn't shown in an especially positive light. That's another aspect of this title I like: there's no one to love and no one to hate. Saul and Ashley are despicable people, but their romance is the heart of the narrative, so the audience naturally warms to them as they warm to one another. Franks and Quinn, meanwhile, are admirably trying to bring a serial killer to justice, but between Franks' cold professionalism and Quinn's obvious instability, it's hard to see either one of them as all that likable. Also, they get considerably less stage time than Ashley or Saul. My point is, the protagonists are morally abhorrent, and their opponents are federal agents trying to do their jobs, so there's really no one to fully support or root against. It's just a good story, able to make us see the good in heartless killers and the bad in earnest cops.
     There are several other things Seeley and Emmons do in this story (they write the scripts together, with Seeley also handling the art) that set it apart, but the one that sticks out most is how they approach the introductions/explorations of Saul's magical abilities. Rather than having Saul tell the reader directly what he can do, or even lay it all out for Ashley once they get together, his powers are introduced a little bit at a time as the story calls for it. Sometimes he does explain something to Ashley, like how metal taints blood so he can't feed off of it, but only when necessary for her understanding. It's never wedged into his dialogue where it doesn't belong for the reader's sake, and there are plenty of examples of Saul doing something uniquely vampiric without any explanation at all. He can change his appearance (which is how he hides his mouthful of terrifying teeth), teleport, block bullets with some kind of black energy, and a handful of other tricks that, while we know they're all powered by blood, we don't get an in-depth breakdown of how they work or even what they are. Saul is what he is, already so old and established by the time this narrative begins that he's effortlessly comfortable and talented with his various skills. He doesn't talk about them, because what's the point, he just uses them as needed, and the audience is given enough credit from the creators to figure out what's happening on our own.
     Seeley's art is wonderful, very full of life even in a story so riddled with death. All of his characters are fiercely expressive, able to display a full range of emotions without losing the core of their character. Ashley is always fun-loving and cocky, even when she's scared. Saul's always stern and brooding, Quinn nervous and driven, Franks worrisome and focused. No matter what they're doing, these fundamental traits shine through in everyone's facial expressions and body language, so that the cast is visually and emotionally consistent throughout the story.
     There's a lot of blood in Ex Sanguine (surprise surprise) and Seeley doesn't hold back, but he doesn't let it overpower his panels, either. There's an excess of gore because there's an excess of violence, but in any given scene the volume of blood spilt is reasonable. The violence itself is also right down the middle, intense and fast-moving enough to always be gripping, but never unrealistically graphic. Even Saul isn't pulling any ridiculous action stunts, despite his superhuman talents, because that's not the kind of book this is. Fights are swift and brutal, with severe consequences for all involved, even the victors. When people are wounded, they don't recover all of a sudden and strike back. Usually they die soon after, but even when they survive, their injuries are felt profoundly. Having such realistic violence and pain adds to the horror of the narrative, while Saul and Ashly's callousness about the damage they inflict heightens the comedy. So both sides of the equation get a bump from how Seeley draws violence.
     I'm leaving out a boatload of plot details in favor of more general descriptions of the cast's personalities and the creators' storytelling methods, and also to avoid spoiling everything, but believe me when I tell you there's a lot more going on than I'm going to touch on in this column. Ashley's endgame and how it relates to her father, Saul's past lives that he can barely remember, the plot-thickening surprise of the final two pages, and many other odds and ends have been excluded here. Seeley and Emmons are doing a lot, maybe even a bit too much in places, but on the whole these are a tightly-packed five issues. It's a vampire story that never reminds me of any other vampire stories, and a romance story that's just as unique. For two such overplayed genres as those, being able to seamlessly combine them and do something new with each is impressive as hell.