Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: July 2014

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

100 Bullets #21: What I like most about this issue is that Jack's past as a deadbeat, coked-out security guard looks appealing when compared to his present state as a homeless heroin junkie. By starting in the present and then moving backward, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso manage to make his former life seem like the good old days. As a character, Jack's a nice study in contrasts. He's enormous but insignificant, and has a sort of soft, naive simpleness about him, but also an aura of danger and rage. He's like a sleeping lion, except when he's like a pouncing lion. Jack's story is not especially interesting, which is too bad since he's such a strong lead. His problems are all too familiar, and his apathy toward them doesn't help. He's a fun, strange guy to watch, but the things he does and the people who populate his world don't do much to get my attention. The most captivating detail was that we never saw Graves on-panel, just heard Jack reference an old man who gave him a gun and bullets, then saw the attaché in flashback, but only after Jack had taken it and Graves had presumably departed. It's smart of Azzarello not to waste time having Graves actually explain himself again. The constant reintroductions begin to wear over time. Besides, at this point, with the larger story starting to poke through and a full twenty issues in, it seems reasonable to expect the audience to know who the "old man" is, and if they don't, well...that's just one more thing that makes Jack's nameless junkie friend such a good point-of-view character. He wants to know what happened to Jack, what he did with his gun and how he ended up where he is now, just as much as we do. The mysterious old man is what Jack uses to draw his friend in to the story initially, and it does the same for the reader, whether they know who Graves is or not. So there's some stuff that really clicks, and Jack is a great addition to the ever-expanding world of this series, but the narrative in which he stars is, thus far, nothing special.

Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #3: Somehow, M.D. Bright is back on pencils, even though Keith Giffen still gets credit for the breakdowns and Romeo Tanghal is still on inks. The creative team continues to grow, but instead of making Emerald Dawn choppy like you might expect, it gets stronger with every issue and maintains a steady narrative momentum. What puts this issue above the first two is that Hal Jordan finally became fully likable and even a tad heroic. After Legion—the giant metal space robot who hunts Green Lanterns—destroys the hospital where Hal's friend Andy was staying and also destroys all of Ferris Air, Hal realizes how in over his head he is, and seeks some help/knowledge, at the source of his power. This leads him to find his power battery, which in turn helps him discover that his ring can talk to and educate him. He sees, via a transmission from his ring's memory banks, Abin Sur's death at Legion's hands, right before Legion shows up to try and kill Hal. There's a chase throughout Abin's crashed ship, because the Green Lantern powers don't work against the color yellow, so Hal can't fight Legion directly. Eventually, his ring leads him to the engines when he wishes half-jokingly for a nuclear option, and when Legion catches up, Hal sets off the nuke, the issue closing on a full-page splash of a mushroom cloud. Colorist Anthony Tollin does an especially nice job on that last page, the cloud done in soft pink hues that aren't nearly as predominant in the rest of the issue. It adds to the suddenness of Hal's decision and the shock of how effective it is. It's also a wonderful halfway mark for the series, the hero and villain trapped together in an enormous explosion after the villain has already caused massive destruction, motivating the hero to more fully step into his role. The conflict between them escalated quite a bit in this issue, but there was still room for Hal to grow as a character and superhero. It's possible Emerald Dawn has fully found its footing now, and certainly this chapter was an excellent action-packed comicbook adventure.

X-Force (vol. 1) #21: Greg Capullo continues to do a great job drawing a whole bunch of characters in panels of various sizes, each of them doing all sorts of jumping and running and fighting and other physical activities. He's in his sweet spot in this issue, with the hulking War Machine and Nick Fury fighting almost the entire X-Force team on a space station. Wide open spaces, cool backgrounds, things to blow up, lots of large-bodied combatants—it's Capullo's bread and butter, so his quality work comes as no surprise. To be fair, there's a sprinkling of scenes with no action, as Fabian Nicieza continues to build on and add new subplots, and Capullo does a good job with those, too. He and Nicieza both seem very comfortable in this issue, jumping from the main story of X-Force vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. to the various side stories intelligently, and getting the B- and C-plot portions knocked out quickly so the A-plot is never out of sight for long. Just like Emerald Dawn #3 above, X-Force #21 involves its stars getting better at their heroism, and then concludes in a devastating explosion. Cannonball and Sunspot learn how to make the most of Professor, the computer system Cable built to run Graymalkin (the space station on which the story takes place). Cannonball and Sunspot have Professor send the weapons and other important cargo from Graymalkin back to their base of operations on Earth, planning for their future rather than rashly reacting to their present like they usually do (and do at the beginning of this issue, even as Cannonball verbally acknowledges that, "X-Force only seems to know ONE WAY ta do things!") It's nice to see Cannonball being a good, thoughtful, strategic leader, rather than being leader just because he has the most forceful personality and Cable liked him best. Too bad for him, though, his growth may come too late, because Graymalkin can't handle all the destructive violence and ejecting of cargo for long, and Professor spazzes out and sounds an urgent alert before the whole place suddenly blows up. It's not quite as thrilling a blow-up as the one in Emerald Dawn, but it's a solid cliffhanger at the end of a tight, well-done, all-systems-go issue.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I Question My Own Opinion of Space: Punisher

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Avengers Undercover Won Me Over(cover)

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014


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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Ultimate Universe Repeats Itself On Me

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