Archive for the ‘Marvel’ Category

Howard the Duck

November 23, 2014

Howard_the_Duck_Vol_1_12

I was two years old when the George Lucas–produced Howard the Duck film was released, and by the time I became a comics reader nearly ten years later, it was largely forgotten except as a cautionary tale. Though I’d heard of the character from time to time, I don’t think I ever encountered him in comics form either until Marvel published the Essential Howard the Duck collection in 2002, at which point I was a freshman in college. It was also my first prolonged exposure to Howard’s cocreator Steve Gerber, and the collection made me an instant fan.

As I wrote when Gerber died, I was immediately struck by how angry the writing in Howard is, a quality I would later find in other Gerber-written comics I read on the strength of my love for Howard. It’s right there in the tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made”: life is unfair and so much of the world’s suffering—suffering being a theme Gerber returned to again and again, notably in his final work, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery—is created by the callousness of forces beyond our control and people beyond accountability. A classic outsider, Howard has the insight to question elements of society that those who grew up within it take for granted and the lack of social graces to make those questions forceful. A classic outsider, much like Gerber himself in many ways.

Over the years I’d go on to read a lot more of Gerber’s work and learn more about his history with Marvel Comics, including his lengthy and hard-fought series of legal actions over Howard’s ownership and the suits filed against Marvel by Disney over an allegedly infringing similarity to Donald Duck. While Robert Stanley Martin assembled a very compelling case earlier this year that Gerber repeatedly affirmed his understanding that Howard was created in a work-for-hire environment and was unambiguously owned by Marvel (going so far as to promise never to sue over ownership), the case was still valuable in shedding light on how work-for-hire has been and is interpreted by the major publishers and the courts, and in spurring debate over the difference between a character’s legal ownership and its connection to its creator, who I believe can and should be said to “own” the character in a sense. That ownership is more meaningful to me than instruments like trademarks and copyrights, but as Gerber’s situation shows, the two can come into conflict, and the company’s rights to the character easily trump what since 1928 have been known as “moral rights.” (Correction: Disney’s actions regarding the Howard/Donald situation did not actually include a lawsuit. See Martin’s comment below for a better explanation.)

After all, the circumstances that led Gerber to attempt to claim ownership over Howard appear to have less to do with his ability to profit from Howard—he already licensed the character from Marvel for posters and buttons, which reportedly sold in great quantities—than with disagreements with Marvel stemming from his firing from the Howard comic book and strip, and Marvel’s acquiescence to Disney, in a settlement over the Donald Duck lawsuit, which allowed Disney to redesign Howard and enforce that design on Marvel and Gerber. (The Disney suit appears to have had more to do with overseas confusion in translation than concerns that Howard represented any threat to the Disney brand domestically, and the enforcement of the redesign, which mostly involved the shape of Howard’s head and a mandate that he wear pants, was lax to begin with, and abandoned after the failure of the Howard movie, until the last decade.)

Gerber’s attempts to win ownership of Howard has always seemed to me (and in case it’s not already clear, this essay is entirely my point of view not an objective declaration of how things are) something Gerber had to do because Howard meant so much to him personally. Gerber’s situation was not like the one faced by Jack Kirby, who had cocreated the bulk of the Marvel universe in a time of vaguer contracts and was repeatedly promised more than he received. Gerber appears to have completely understood the legal side of Howard’s ownership when creating the character, but the degree to which legal ownership allows businessmen with no investment in the character itself, only its earning potential, more say than the creator to whom that character is incredibly personal seems to be a grievance that built up over time, until he felt he had to take action. The case was ultimately settled out of court and nondisclosure agreements have kept the exact terms of the settlement private.

In the years since, Gerber has written the character a few more times, most memorably in an in-story smash-and-grab of the character in a crossover with the Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck (a character Gerber cocreated with Kirby to fund Gerber’s suit against Marvel) and later a mature-readers miniseries from Marvel’s MAX imprint, in which the Disney redesign was obviated by Howard’s transformation into a mouse, surely a move aimed at tweaking Disney, if the company still cared at that point. Howard has shown up in occasional miniseries by other writers, none of which I’ve read, with the exception of Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Zombies 5, which includes Howard as part of an ensemble. I’ve never had much interest in Howard not written by Gerber.

Gerber died in 2008, and in 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, placing ownership of Howard with the company that once claimed he infringed on its trademarks. This year Howard appeared in an after-the-credits sequence of Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know anything about the Howard part beyond the still frame below, but there he is, wearing pants, owned by the second largest media company in the world. Looking at that frame makes me feel, in the kind of reductionism comics readers like me sometimes fall prey to, like the bad guys have won.

HowardTheDuck

People remember Howard exists now, so naturally a new comics series has been announced. I like the work of both its writer and artist, and I wish them well with this series and their future endeavors, but I can’t feel anything but disappointment at this announcement. I don’t begrudge any writer or artist taking on a gig like this—for all I know they are huge fans of Gerber and Howard and intend to create this comic in his spirit—but I am saddened that the series will be published at all. There is already evidence that Marvel misunderstands Howard and Howard‘s value: in explaining who Howard is for readers unfamiliar with past stories, the word “everyman” has been thrown around. That’s incorrect. As mentioned up top, Howard isn’t an everyman; he’s an outsider. And more to point, in many ways he is Steve Gerber. Howard’s worldview, his anger, and his bouts of depression are Gerber’s. The series is full of things that interested and angered Gerber personally. Over the years, this has been remembered as general social satire, but it was explicitly satire from Gerber’s point of view.

It’s not that no one else can write angry, outsider work or skewer social mores that offend them personally, it’s that Howard is an alter ego of his creator, and the idea of someone other than the person to whom a character is an alter ego writing that character is uninteresting to me. I wouldn’t be able to care about someone other than John Updike writing Henry Bech, someone other than Kurt Vonnegut writing Kilgore Trout, someone other than Hunter S. Thompson writing Raoul Duke, or for that matter someone other than Woody Allen directing a film about Alvy Singer or someone other than Francois Truffaut directing a film about Antoine Doinel. And so on. I feel the same way about Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck. I’m confident that other creative teams, including probably this one, can create funny, clever Howard the Duck stories, but I read Howard the Duck for its look into Steve Gerber, and no one but Steve Gerber can provide that.

P. S. Earlier this year I sold my Essential Howard the Duck reprint and started assembling a collection of the original comics. It’s been a brand-new experience reading them in their original colors and with the letters columns and ads for the Howard for President buttons and so forth, and simply a pleasure rediscovering the work itself, which I hadn’t read for a few years. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released and word of the Howard cameo came out, I was worried this would boost the prices I was paying for the old comics, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The series is available digitally, and Marvel is reissuing the Howard the Duck Omnibus, so hopefully the newly curious will be able to find out how great the original material is without making my efforts too much more expensive. (I’ve put together about half the series so far, with the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition standing in for the severely underprinted #1, and including issue #13, which costs more than the rest for the irrelevant-to-me reason that it is KISS’s first full appearance in a comic.)

Forget it, Jake. It’s Comics.

August 15, 2011

It’s been a depressing time to care about comics. Between Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment fighting long and ugly to deny the heirs of Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel money they are legally entitled to, Disney and Marvel Entertainment (boy, not as many companies with “Comics” in their name as there used to be) fighting long and dishonest to deny the heirs of Marvel universe co-creator Jack Kirby the money and credit they are morally (and perhaps legally) entitled to, Marvel’s hypocrisy in the wake of Gene Colan’s death, and surely even more things I’m forgetting, I can’t remember a time it’s been this hard to feel enthusiasm for this field that I’ve loved since I was 11 and which I later chose as my profession.

I’ve often referred to the treatment of Siegel and artist Joe Shuster over their creation of Superman as comics’ original sin, and it fits the bill, in that it’s not just a terrible injustice, but one that has loomed over the field ever since and still, over 70 years later, occasionally rears its head to bring us all back to that time. This has been on my mind since the release of Action Comics #900, when I noticed a caption thanking me for my “support” of the series. While I’ve no doubt that this copy was thoughtlessly inserted by an editor or assistant editor to mark the anniversary, not a call for me to support DC and Warner Bros., Superman’s current owners, in their fight against his creators, it nonetheless got me thinking, coming as it did during the increasing acrimony in that fight, about what I was supporting, and that’s what matters. Because I can’t do it anymore.

Back when I wrote about that, I said that I didn’t think I could read Superman comics anymore, but I wasn’t sure if I was really the type to call a boycott. Fortunately, someone with greater moral conviction than myself has done just that on a related matter. Following the recent summary judgement for Marvel against the Kirby estate, Steve Bissette put out a call to boycott all Marvel products derived from the massive portion of its holdings derived from creations or co-creations of Jack Kirby.

Why now? DC has been denying the Siegels and Shusters their due for years, and Marvel has systematically diminished Jack Kirby’s role in the creation of its empire while refusing his family any royalties for nearly as long. What is different today? Nothing, really, but we’ve had a wake up call. These legal cases have been fought at the same time, with the latest decisions in each (allowing Warner to use stolen documents in its case against the Siegels’ lawyer, the summary judgement against the Kirby Estate) so close together, during the same summer that three movies based on Kirby characters have been so successful. We should have been angry all along, and many were, but this summer has been a perfect storm, so it should come as no surprise, really.

I’ve been deeply heartened to see Bissette receive a good deal of attention, at least within the comics world, for his call to arms. In an environment where fans denounce the creators of their favorite characters as greedy leeches for asking for a fraction of their due, and when even major comics websites ridicule Alan Moore for his legitimate distrust of DC (most recently when he rejected the publisher’s offer to return him his rights to Watchmen so long as he agreed to make those rights worthless by ceding his authority over whether sequels should be made to DC), I admit I was far from confident that Bissette would receive any better treatment. The boycott is far from being a movement, but it has picked up more momentum than this sort of thing usually does.

At the same time, I’ve been saddened by the intelligent, thoughtful, moral people I know who don’t seem particularly troubled. The people, not much older than me, who tell me that creative fields always work this way, that the talent always gets screwed, that this is the way of the world and not worth missing an issue of Iron Man over. They think it’s a damn shame, but what can anyone do about it? Essentially: “Forget it, Brendan. It’s comics.”

I’m 27. I feel it when I talk to people. I’m on that precipice, around 30, when half the people who don’t feel like I do insist that I’ll grow up and become jaded and get that this is just how it is, while the other half wonder why I haven’t already, how I can still be so naive as to think it can be any other way. Hopefully I’ll continue to disappoint them.

I’ve been thankful the last few weeks for the knowledgeable people who have helped me understand what the actual cases are about. I got that in the case of the Siegels and Shusters the law changed in the 1970s and this was why they could try to reclaim Superman now, but I didn’t really know what the nature of the change was. Here’s my understanding now: When the Copyright Act of 1909 was passed the term of copyright was 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. The reason it wasn’t simply a single term of 56 years was to allow, in the case of copyright transference, for the original owner to renegotiate the deal when it was time to renew. This was a protection for the original owner if the creation they sold turned out to be worth much more than either party realized. However, buyers of copyrights began to include an automatic right of copyright renewal without renegotiation into contracts, defeating the purpose of the renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 sought to correct this by making explicit the right to renegotiate or take back the copyright during the renewal period. That is what the Siegels filed for and won in court a few years ago. Warner Brothers and DC have spent the years since attempting to get around the fact that they no longer have any legal right to the Siegels’ half of the copyright to the original Superman stories and will soon lose the Shusters’ half as well. Their behavior has been disgraceful.

The Siegels won their initial case because Superman was not created as a work for hire. The original story was completed by Siegel and Shuster and then offered to several publishers. Eventually DC bought it for $10 a page and the copyright was transferred to the publisher. I get upset when people arguing DC’s side take the position that, “Well, some people are bad businessmen. That’s how it goes.” I confess that I don’t know much about Siegel and Shuster’s business acumen, but I don’t think that it matters very much, since that doesn’t come into play when all the power in a deal rests on one side. When the people sitting on one side of a desk have bills to pay and children to feed and the people sitting on the other side have access to the printing press, the deals tend to come out one-sided.

Unlike Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby co-created the majority of the Marvel characters that still dominate its publishing line without a contract, just a page rate and a series of verbal promises. He had no doubt seen what had happened to people like Siegel and Shuster, and he asked repeatedly for better credit and better compensation. The recent Kirby Estate lawsuit attempted to follow the Siegel strategy of filing for termination of copyright because there actually is a case to be made that he did not initially do the work in what we would recognize as a formal work-for-hire situation. None of the extra money or credit he was promised ever materialized, and when the Marvel lawyers realized in the 1970s that the characters weren’t protected by contract, they made signing retroactive work-for-hire contracts a condition of getting paid for work that had already been done. In Kirby’s case, the longstanding fight to reclaim his original artwork became a factor as well. He believed he was owed his artwork and he had a family to feed, and so he signed. It’s far from an open-and-shut case, and the verdict in Marvel’s favor probably didn’t surprise anyone, but Tom Spurgeon has put it best when he’s lamented the fact that it had to come to a lawsuit at all. Kirby and his family should have been properly compensated in the first place. Even if Marvel ultimately doesn’t have a legal obligation to do it, it is the right thing.

I get it. Capitalism is about profit, not the right thing. But companies are run by people, people in this case whom I hope care about comics and understand the debt that they owe to Jack Kirby, without whom they would not be in the position that they are. The company compensates Stan Lee with an honorific title and a sizable stipend (he’s surely due more, but it’s enough to provide the kind of comfort that makes fighting for more less appealing than simply enjoying being Stan Lee). True, he had to fight for that in court, but with that precedent in place, it would cause the company no pain to extend the same to the Kirby Estate.

And that’s why we’re where we are today. Because if DC made right by the Siegels and Shusters and Marvel made right by the Kirby Estate, they wouldn’t be quite as profitable as they possibly could, but it would be by such a relatively small degree for, let’s not forget, subsidiaries of the first and second largest media companies in the world, that their continued refusal to make good adds considerable insult to injury.

But that isn’t their instinct. Just as the artists with no power weren’t necessarily bad businessmen, the publishers with all the power weren’t necessarily good businessmen. When he bought the rights to Superman, Harry Donenfeld had no more idea than Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster that the character would go on to earn billions. He just had the instinct that many businessmen have of own everything, keep everything. Disney/Marvel isn’t denying Kirby credit and compensation because it would ruin their quarterly reports, Warner Bros./DC isn’t holding up justice for the Siegels because it would go out business. In both cases it’s that the corporate instinct to own everything, keep everything dies hard. They have to have another reason to change.

Which is the other reason we’re here. These companies will never do the right thing on their own. It will only happen if they suffer the right combination of bad press and the threat of a loss of profit large enough to make them blink. And that’s hard to accomplish, especially with a fandom that can’t imagine not buying the next issue of The Avengers or Superman, has never not bought the next issue, but it’s not impossible. It doesn’t have to be enormous. A movie doesn’t have to fail. It just needs to be the difference between a #1 weekend opening and a #2 weekend opening. What do we have to lose?

I don’t kid myself that there’s any bravery in not buying a comic book or not going to a movie. But something doesn’t have to be brave to matter. It just requires clear vision and a goal. If we want publishers to stop denying talent what they are owed, we need to make it clear that they have more to lose by doing the wrong thing than by doing the right thing. At any other time, I would be ecstatic that my favorite superhero writer, Grant Morrison, will be relaunching Superman, the character that he has spoken of having a vision for for years, and which he wrote in the greatest superhero comic of the last decade, All Star Superman. But with the current treatment of the Siegels and Shusters and after the bad taste left in my mouth by Action Comics #900 thanking me for my support, I would feel terrible if I bought that. I was looking forward to catching Captain America: The First Avenger and next year’s Avengers in the theater, but now I will be skipping both. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I went.

(I’m disappointed in Grant Morrison. He’s clearly an ethical writer and an ethical person, but I think he’s badly off the mark in his reaction to the current situation. I don’t know (who outside of DC can?) if part of the impetus behind the DC relaunch really is to diminish the Siegels and Shusters’ share of Superman by claiming the new iteration is a new, derivative character, but this is still an even more dubious time than usual to take over the property. When asked about the legal case over Superman, Morrison punted, getting into his theory that the character is older than most of us, and will probably outlive all of us, and so is bigger than a dispute between its creators and owners. I take Morrison at his word that he believes the character transcends and is not simply compromising himself for the chance to take his dream writing job. But his answer is wrongheaded enough and surprisingly callous enough that it’s another reason for me to have nothing to do with his take on the character. It will be the first series written by Morrison I’m skipping in over a decade.)

Will it make a difference? Probably not. I hope so. But I’m with Caleb Mozzocco. That’s not the only reason we do this. We hope others will join, and we hope it’s enough, but we have to live with ourselves, and we have to do what we believe is right. I’m in this for real now—I am done with Marvel superhero comics and movies, and despite DC’s much better track record with giving credit and compensation generally, their unconscionable treatment of the Siegels and Shusters means I am done with Superman as well. And despite my earlier hesitancy to do so, I am now joining the hopefully growing chorus to ask others to do the same. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I can tell you that not buying a comic book, not going to a movie is such a small sacrifice, so why not do it? More than any attempt to change the behavior of media companies, I am doing it because I wouldn’t like what it said about me if I didn’t do it. I hope that if you consider these issues you’ll come to the same conclusion.

As Steve Bissette suggests in the post that started this all, go to your comic book store and let them know what you are not buying and why, and buy something else instead. If they’ve ordered something for you and will lose money if you don’t buy it, go ahead—maybe you need a last goodbye issue—but after that choose something else and tell your retailer that you are buying it instead of a Marvel Kirby comic or a Superman comic, and that’s what you plan to do until things change. I’ve been picking up Kirby Genesis to get my superhero fix and am trying new creator-owned series like Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising instead of the comics that make me feel gross.

Will missing the next issue of X-Men really hurt that much?

The Kids(’ Comics) Are Alright and The Fantastic Four of Old – My Week in Comics September 19-25

October 1, 2010

This week: More on all-ages and kids’ comics, the most honest assessment of DC’s recent changes on the Internet, what the Fantastic Four looked like in the heady days of 2001, and What I Read.


ALL-AGES FOLLOW-UP

It was a weird process that produced last week’s piece on all-ages comics. I sat down to write about how I wish there were more of them, then started to think about my own reading history and how little it lined up with what I was writing about, then thought about what sold in bookstores and wondered if I was unfairly dismissing it because it wasn’t to my taste. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series sells in the millions, and if people want to think of them as comics, then I am happy to claim them, even though I’ve never read one and don’t really know what they’re like (something I will correct as soon as I can get the first book from the library). I hope comics stores stock Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, because it is so popular that its main character is being added to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a second movie is coming out early next year.

The whole thing made me feel as foolish as the people who complain that superhero comics aren’t aimed at kids anymore because they want their kids to read the same thing they read as kids (ignoring the fact that superhero comics are the way they are because those same readers didn’t want to change their reading habits as they grew up, making the whole argument somewhat hypocritical). Having written 1,500 words at that point, I didn’t want to scrap everything even though I now doubted my initial premise, so I reframed the whole thing in terms of my uncertainty as to what the problem was and if there even was a problem.

Still, it got some play on other sites (who oddly, all excerpted the same paragraph about sales, one of several contradictory points I was trying out over the course of the piece), and I was really pleased that several commenters mentioned Disney Adventures and its spinoff, Comic Zone. I’ve heard Disney Adventures mentioned elsewhere, but never noticed a copy in grocery stores or anywhere else while it was being published. However, it does sound like it was an excellent mix of corporate- and creator-owned material, which clearly kids liked. Landry Walker chimed in to note that Disney Adventures enjoyed something like a 25% sales bump when the phrase “Comic Zone” was added to the cover, which is wonderful. We all want comics stores to do well, but it is tempting to forget that the goal is to attract readers, whether it’s within the Direct Market or out of it and whether it’s through a publisher we think of as being within the industry or some other entity (though as the new corporate parent of Marvel, Disney could now easily be thought of as within the industry).

Monday also saw Skottie Young post about the kid-friendliness of his work, despite it lacking a classification as all-ages material. He also echoes my mention of Spawn as something not aimed primarily at kids that nonetheless appeals to them (or at least did in the ’90s), since kids like more grown-up material than they are generally given credit for. His post is worth a read, and I think he’s mostly right on, though I do think that there is plenty of room for comics aimed at kids in addition to ones that are simply appropriate for them.

Meantime, I’ll be tracking down the collections of Comic Zone, which each look very cool and several of which include work from cartoonists I enjoy.

WHAT DO ALL THESE CHANGES AT DC REALLY MEAN?

I don’t know.

THE LAST DAYS OF OLD MARVEL: A CASE STUDY

  • Fantastic Four Annual 2001 & #46–#49 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Jeph Loeb, Kevin Maguire et al.

As part of my ongoing efforts to better balance my budget, along with getting more comics from the library I’ve lately been more diligent about reading the unread comics I have lying around instead of buying more. This week I pulled these Fantastic Four issues out of a box, and sitting down with them found myself more interested in their place in Marvel history than in the (convoluted) story itself. These issues were published after Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas became the Editor in Chief and President of Marvel, respectively, but don’t yet show their imprint. Curious about how the transition between #49 and #60 went, and realizing I owned the issues in between, I dug out #50–#59 to reread as well.

By the time the first of these issues came out, the Ultimate Universe had been launched, Grant Morrison was writing New X-Men, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon had finished their Punisher maxi-series and starting an ongoing continuation, J. Michael Straczynski was writing Amazing Spider-Man, and Brian Michael Bendis was just about to take over Daredevil. I had forgotten that Fantastic Four was one of the last of Marvel’s major franchises to get the New Marvel “back to basics” treatment. FF finally got its New Marvel makeover with issue #60, the beginning of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s run on the series, which also inaugurated the New-Marvel-style taunting of DC, published with a nine-cent cover price a few months after DC released Batman: The 10-cent Adventure.

This then is the beginning of the end of the Old Marvel Fantastic Four, with this arc and the next tying up the loose plot threads and clearing the decks for a fresh start. By contrast with where the title would be a year later, these issues read very ’90s, with Image-influenced art, overdone coloring and lettering effects, and an absurdly complicated story that resolves, somehow, with a giant explosion that reverts everything to normal. Some of these comics have cover credits, some don’t—it was becoming standard at Marvel, but wasn’t quite there yet.

As the story opens, Ben can change into the Thing and back at will, Johnny wears a different uniform to help him control his powers, which he can’t do on his own, and Sue and Reed (or Sue and Doom; I’m not entirely clear) have an adult daughter who dresses like Doom. By issue #60, all of this will be gone. Interestingly, the fans don’t seem to have had time to entirely grasp the New Marvel aesthetic, as one fan letter requests an Ultimate Fantastic Four, the first choice for artist being Rob Liefeld. Pacheco’s art here isn’t unpleasant, though he’s since gotten a lot better, but it is overly busy compared with Kevin Maguire’s work on the Annual that begins the story, and the fill-ins every other issue don’t help.

The story involves a dead Galactus from another reality landing on Earth, and the death of the FF’s reality Galactus leaving Earth open to attack from the being that killed him. A variety of characters from other realities show up and do battle with the FF. Reed’s eventual plan involves finding the three pieces of the location of the Ultimate Nullifier hidden in the Johnny Storms of three other realities, so they can be beamed into their own Johnny’s head and he can return it. Why are the pieces of the location hidden in these other Johnnys? It’s not clear. Why are there three pieces? Because with Johnny on his way to the moon to collect the Nullifier, that leaves three members of the FF to look for them. The plot is on about that level. Which is not to say that there aren’t some pleasures in the strange different worlds the Four find themselves in, but it’s all pretty thin stuff, motivated by the needs of the plot rather than the characters.

As evidenced by the different realities in play, the plot is the kind of continuity mashup that scripter Jeph Loeb currently specializes in, though Loeb isn’t responsible for the plot here. These issues mark the end of Loeb’s tenure scripting over Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marín’s plots. Loeb famously wrote the book for one dollar, though his role seems to be limited to trying to make sense of the plots and turn the explanation into something approximating dialogue, a feat Karl Kesel would have slightly more success at in the next arc. Loeb’s more recent, nonsensical work for Marvel feels like a bit of a holdover from the pre-Quesada era, and I wonder if some of the habits he now frequently exhibits were learned on this run.

  • Fantastic Four #50 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Jeph Loeb, Tom Grummet et al.

Issue #50 is the epilogue to Pacheco, Marín and Loeb’s last storyline, but is pretty much wasted, thanks to its timing during the “’Nuff Said” gimmick, a month in which all Marvel comics contained stories without dialogue. Being an anniversary issue, there are also backups, which do have dialogue. They’re all fluff, but some have nice bits. The first is a painfully unfunny update of Lee and Kirby’s “This is a Plot?” from FF Annual #5. The only part of the humor backup I laughed at (a tiny bit) was the page making fun of the letterers, which highlights the early ’00s’ lettering excesses by giving each character a different font, though to be honest it’s not very different from the rest of the issue. I’ve always wondered what Johnny’s flaming word balloons are supposed to sound like. Tom Brevoort, who took over as editor midway through the previous arc, appears as a character, which is notable in that he has gone on to be a major player in New Marvel and was likely a prime mover in FF’s overhaul. The second story is a nice, retro pastiche from Fabian Nicieza and Steve Rude, and the third is a cute but thin story by Udon Studios about Ben and Johnny shopping for Reed and Sue’s anniversary.

  • Fantastic Four #51–#54 by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marín, Karl Kesel & Mark Bagley

These four issues are the actual conclusion of the Old Marvel FF, with Loeb replaced by Karl Kesel, and the interlocking Mike Wieringo covers point to where the series is going. Wieringo already has the characters down, drawing them essentially the same as he will when he takes over the interiors six months later. Like the issues themselves, the interior art of this run straddles the line between New and Old Marvel, as it is provided by Mark Bagley, a longtime Spider-Man artist who was also the debut artist on Ultimate Spider-Man. Bagley pulled double duty for the course of this arc, which began the same month as Ultimate Spider-Man #17, a few months before that series started shipping 18 times a year. The work looks pretty similar to Ultimate Spider-Man, with a similar emphasis on simple page layouts and frequent extreme closeups highlighting the character interaction.

Pacheco and Marín’s story continues a thread from the previous arc and another from an Inhumans miniseries they had written previously. I didn’t read that, but everything pertinent to this story is explained well enough. As for the continuation of this series, we pick up with Sue and Reed’s grown-up daughter gone and Sue is instead pregnant with the same daughter (it’s not worth going into how these things happened, but they mostly make sense). In the last issue, Doctor Doom arrives to deliver the baby and restore Johnny’s control over his powers. In return for saving the baby, he takes the right to name her and chooses Valeria. Their connection will be the most significant holdover from this era to make it into the Waid/Wieringo run. Otherwise, the story is very dense, but manages by the end to have simplified the status quo.

Issue #54 is a “100-Page Monster,” triple-sized anniversary issues containing few ads and many pages of classic reprints at only $1.25 extra. Considering the state of Old Marvel’s trade paperback program, these were probably really welcome. They’re obsolete these days, and the two issues included here, FF Annual #6, featuring the birth of Franklin Richards, and FF #176, have both been reprinted into trades since then, but I don’t know if either were available, at least in color, at the time.

  • Fantastic Four #55–#56 by Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish

The letter column insists that the next five issues aren’t “fill-ins,” but of course they are, keeping the schedule until the next ongoing creative team of Waid and Wieringo take over—not that there’s anything wrong with that. These five issues are my favorites of the ones included here. Kesel is the go-to FF fill-in writer, also writing two issues between the end of the Waid/Wieringo run and the beginning of the Straczynski run. Kesel has a good handle on the characters, and generally builds his stories around their personalities. These two are no exception, the first being a romp in which Ben and Johnny are sent on a wild goose chase to get them out of the Baxter building, and the second a character piece about Ben’s boyhood on Yancy Street. #56 might also be the first issue to make a big deal out of Ben being Jewish, if I remember correctly. The first story is a lot of fun, once one gets over the fact that the plot is instigated by the entire Baxter Building somehow having only one TV, and Immonen brings a lot of energy to Ben and Johnny’s subsequent run-in with the Skrull “Grand Acquisitioner.” Immonen also turns on a dime, bringing a much moodier look to the second story, which is darker and more emotional. If Kesel sometimes hits the psychoanalytical button a little too hard in both stories, his dialogue is still generally looser and more realistic than when he had to explain Pacheco and Marín’s complex plot machinations in the previous arc.

  • Fantastic Four #57–#59 by Adam Warren, Keron Grant & Derek Fridolfs

Man, the Thing has a lot of catchphrases. It’s something you notice when they’re turned into constant background noise, as happens here when they’re repeated ad nauseum by an army of semi-aware Thing clones. Not surprisingly, the Thing is the lead in this story, which is called “The Ever-Loving, Blue-Eyed End of the World,” and it ties up the last of the details of the run that doesn’t mesh with the classic Four, Ben’s ability to change back and forth into the Thing at will. Since it’s written by Adam Warren, this bit of tidying up is done in a very weird, self-aware and amusing way: clones of Ben’s rocky shell attack him because they’re tired of him being able to will his shell into nonexistence, which they find abhorrent, shouting, “Ya know what it’s like to suddenly not exist? And to somehow know that ya don’t exist?”

As befits an Adam Warren story, this one is full of crazy ideas, like a future projection TV that predicts probable futures in the form of a TV news broadcast, which Ben watches as he falls asleep, and which later keeps the story feeling urgent as it announces Ben’s impending death and the destruction his clones will wreak on earth once they defeat him. Along with Keron Grant’s pleasantly off-model, manga-ish artwork, the whole thing feels completely unlike the issues before and after it, but are funny and exciting. The only problems I had were that it’s a little overlong and Sue and Johnny play no role in the proceedings beyond telling each other how serious everything is. Overall, though, like the two issues before it, this story is a great breather between the continuity-heavy Old Marvel approach of the Pacheco/Marín issues and the back-to-basics New Marvel approach, giving a writer and artist with unique sensibilities three issues to go wild.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Almost Silent by Jason
    Of the books collected here, I had only previously read The Living and the Dead, which is okay, but I really loved how silly and funny the gag strips and love stories of the other three books are.

  • Batman: Streets of Gotham #11–#14 by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen, Derek Fridolfs, Marc Andreykoet al.
    These are perfectly fine Batman comics. While Grant Morrison does his own thing in Batman and Batman and Robin, this seems to be the repository for the long-term soap opera, and there’s a place for that. I’m also looking forward to reading more “House of Hush,” since Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen’s previous “Heart of Hush” from Detective Comics was one of my favorite trashy superhero stories of recent years. I mean, c’mon, Hush has plastic surgery to look just like Bruce Wayne so he can mess with him, plus steals Catwoman’s heart for good measure. It was crazy and hard not to love in how messed up it was.
  • Buffy Season 8: Riley by Jane Espenson & Karl Moline
  • Deadpool Team-Up #899 (from Deadpool Team-Up: Good Buddies) by Fred Van Lente & Dalibor Talajic´ (library)
    Grabbed this from the library just for the Hercules team-up. I doubt I’ll read the rest, because I don’t care. However, this issue was the most I’ve enjoyed a Deadpool comic, as Incredible Hercules co-writer Fred Van Lente comes up with a clever device that actually forces Deadpool to confront himself in an interesting way. Hercules’s inclusion works quite well, and in keeping with the way that Incredible Herc is structured, his motivation and challenge flows organically from mythology.
  • Doom Patrol #13–#14 by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, Ron Randall & John Livesay
    In a weird way, this is mirroring Morrison’s Batman run, bringing in every previous incarnation of Doom Patrol, notably Morrison’s, and fitting it all together. But more importantly, the recap page is in song form, presented by Ambush Bug.
  • Fantastic Four #583 by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
    The current model FF. I’m torn. After a first arc that I really enjoyed, virtually everything else has felt like issue after issue of setup. Now that everything’s in place that may change, but I was surprised how much this issue, the first of the long-hyped “Three” storyline felt like a traditional first issue of an arc, with all the setup that entails. Hasn’t there been enough? I’m going to see “Three” through and decide if I want to keep reading after that. Also, the recap page failed me, as it doesn’t really explain when or why Doom lost his intelligence. Even wikipedia didn’t make it clear to me if it was a part of Dark Reign or a part of Seige. I get that those big events need to have consequences, but it is jarring when following a series like FF and not the big events to learn that something like that has happened to a significant cast member in a completely different series.
  • Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1–#2 by Howard Chaykin & Michelle Madsen
    Great match of character and artist. Nice, trashy fun. Ostensibly a tie-in to The Rann/Thanagar War, but my knowing nothing about that series didn’t hurt at all. By the way, is this the first story ever to be narrated all the way through by G’Nort?

Images of Gorilla Gorilla © Disney. Images of WildC.A.T.S. and Batman: Streets of Gotham © DC Comics, Inc. Images of Fantastic Four © Marvel Characters, Inc.

Ennis’s Punisher MAX and Prose in Comics – My Week in Comics June 27–July 3

July 5, 2010

Longer column this time. But the first one I’m pretty happy with, so that’s something.

This week: Why Garth Ennis’s Punisher is not a force of nature . . . Why it’s hard to read prose sections in comic books . . . What I read, with notes on some.

Next week: Crime goes up in comics as it goes down in real life, and the best digital comics format.


GARTH ENNIS’S PUNISHER MAX: SCOURGE OF THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

A FEW MONTHS AGO I took a stack of single comics I’d bought collections of to Excalibur Comics and traded them for the Marvel Knights Punisher Omnibus by Garth Ennis. I hadn’t read past issue #12 or #13 or so, and took my time going through it all. The remainder of the series contains some very rich stories and some fairly shallow, over-the-top ones, but overall I enjoyed it a lot, and by the end I was ready to dive back into the Marvel MAX version. I read the hardcover collections of that as they came out, but fell behind with volume 4, and never read them close together.

Picking up first Born and From First to Last, the difference with the Marvel Knights series is startling. Not because the material is so much darker—the Marvel Knights material becomes darker as it progresses—but because it is thematically so much tighter. The Marvel Knights collection reads as a series of stories; the two collections of the MAX material outside of the main series already establish a complete worldview, with every story and character a logical extension of that world.

The Marvel Knights version of Frank Castle is a force of nature, but the MAX version isn’t; he is the inevitable consequence of a manmade world in which organized criminals think they can own a city and bankers, politicians, and defense contractors think they can own the world, the only difference between the two a matter of scale. This theme runs straight through Born and the three one-shots collected in From First to Last, culminating in “The End,” in which Frank confronts the captains of industry and politics who “pushed the world’s luck too far,” resulting in a nuclear war that only they were equipped to survive. They explain that they are likely the last living people on Earth, after which Frank kills them.

Ennis has a talent for engaging with such themes directly without it feeling too on the nose. They’re brought up again and again, but a little differently each time, and the larger thread connecting them is never made explicit. It’s clear that the Punisher is a response to the powerful having their way with the world, but it’s always framed in terms of the immediate crime. We understand that the ultimate causes of much of what Frank fights are the actions of respectable people carrying out their legally protected right to make the world a horrible place through war and corruption, but only the barest suggestion is necessary to make that point.

But the connections are there. In the first story arc of Punisher MAX proper, “In the Beginning,” the CIA attempts and fails to weaponize Frank, in their hubris thinking they can tame the beast that men like them created without him making the link between them. In “Mother Russia,” Nick Fury does the same, with Frank going along this time because only Fury shares his contempt for the games of the powerful. When Frank does as Fury expects and subverts the will of the generals both are working for, they hire someone to kill him in the next arc, “Up is Down and Black is White,” a title referring to the state of the world in the hands of men like the generals. This is what these men do; they attempt to use any and every thing they can to extend their own power and if something can’t be used, even if it is no immediate threat to them, as Frank isn’t, far more concerned with his own war, they must destroy it.

Another example of the thematic unity between stories is the intriguing possibility, suggested very subtly in “The Tyger,” that someone else could have become the Punisher. In Born, Ennis introduced a voice speaking to Frank, appealing to his taste for killing, offering to ensure that he survives Vietnam and can have a war that lasts forever, for a price. He ultimately accepts while defending Valley Forge base, the only survivor of a massive attack. It’s written so that it can be read as Death or the Devil talking to Frank, or his subconscious, or he could be losing his mind, or—a rare thing in comics, which as a visual medium encourages readers to take it literally—it could be simply metaphor. I choose to read it that way, and it’s not difficult to imagine this voice taking other forms, speaking to other characters.

In “The Tyger,” a ten-year-old Frank encounters a proto-Punisher in Sal Buvoli, the older brother of a friend of Frank’s who kills herself after being sexually assaulted. A Marine, like Frank will grow up to become, Buvoli commits the kind of violence against the rapist that Frank later subjects all manner of criminals to. Later, we learn that Buvoli is still a Marine during the Vietnam war, and seems to have become addicted as Frank later will, avoiding promotion out of the war zone and returning again and again. However, Buvoli is killed the first week that Frank is in-country, a few years before Frank’s reckoning at Valley Forge. At his key moment, did Buvoli not go all the way, making his bargain with the Devil, himself, whatever, that Frank did? Or did the arrival of Frank present a better figure to become the Punisher?

None of this is stated in the story, because it doesn’t have to be. I could just be reading some of this in, but the fact that that’s so easy to do is because the literary elements of Ennis’s Punisher series are so cohesive that they demand thematic connections of this kind. It may never be stated in the story, but the parallels between Frank and Buvoli are so clear, and Buvoli’s death so perfectly timed that it’s hard not to see a passing of the torch from one “Tyger” to the next.

I’ve focused on the writing to the exclusion of the art, which isn’t fair of me, since I consider Born to be artist Darick Robertson’s finest work, and the three artists in From First to Last, especially John Severin on “The Tyger,” bring so much mood and character to their stories. But Ennis is the virtuoso bringing them all together. There is so much thematic richness in these few short stories, and Ennis writes the interior world of Frank so well. The way that he integrates the William Blake poem in “The Tyger” is a highlight. So many writers would have quoted the poem’s opening lines as an epigram and left it at that. In most cases that would be wiser than drawing too much attention to it, but Ennis includes the entire poem and genuinely engages with it, making it fit into the world he’s created around the Punisher, using it as an angle of Frank and Buvoli and the power struggles that inform the world they live in, more than simply “Frank and/or Buvoli are the Tyger.”

I guess what I’m saying, between the completeness of this world and Ennis’s facility with writing the interiority of characters, plus the fact that, particularly in “The Tyger,” Ennis’s prose is (unlike many comics writers) actually really good, I would love to read a Garth Ennis novel. I’m very curious what he could do with that more interior, less literal form. Here’s hoping.

I CAN’T READ PROSE SECTIONS IN COMIC BOOKS

THE PROSE IN Punisher MAX is of course presented in the form of captions, but I’ve been noticing lately how differently I respond to prose when it’s separated from the story into an addendum. The other long series I’m currently reading in a more comprehensive way than before (this time due to publication history more than my falling behind) is James Robinson (and a legion of artists)’s Starman, and I had forgotten just how much prose is in there in the form of the Shade’s journal.

Each volume of the Omnibus series has concluded with several pages of journal and some have additional pages scattered throughout. After a few failed efforts, I quickly chose to simply skip those pages as they came up. I may be missing something by doing this, details that contribute greater novelistic detail to the history of Opal city and its inhabitants over the years (while not so monolithically focused on a few themes, even its principal theme of fathers and sons, as Punisher MAX, over the course of its run Starman enjoys a novelistic structure), but I just can’t do it. It’s a weird choice—are these parts separated from the story because they’re unimportant, or added because they matter a lot, even if they don’t quite fit? The question compels me to try to read text sections, but the slog generally overcomes the compulsion.

What strikes me as strange about it is that I am a reader. I only list the comics I’m reading in this column, but I’m always in the middle of a novel or short story collection as well. So it can’t be that. Part of it is probably that I simply don’t engage with the writing style attributed to the Shade, nor do I truly buy it as a journal. But since I’ve noticed this in other comics as well, I’m certain there’s more than that.

My inclination is to think of it as a matter of being in the mood. I pick up a comic, I’m in comics mode and prose isn’t on the menu. But I know when picking up Starman that the prose will be there, so it has to be something a little deeper than a mood, but I was having trouble coming up with what. However, while thinking it over this week, I came across an article by Jan Swafford on slate.com about why reading on electronic devices will never fully replace reading books, and connecting the topic to some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, particularly “the medium is the message.” This section jumped out at me (italics are Swafford’s):

TV is addictive, druglike, in a way that movies and print aren’t. Recall McLuhan’s most famous aphorism: “The medium is the message.” To a large extent, we respond to any medium as medium, quite apart from the content. I add that language reflects that: We “go to the movies”; we “watch TV”; we “read a book.” If you’re a book reader, you care more about reading itself than about any particular book.

Swafford’s point is that the iPad’s LCD screen is more like a television than a printed page, leading him to theorize that readers will bring to it many of the associations they have with TV and therefore read differently than if they were reading the same story in print. For my purposes, it’s a better way to say that when I pick up a comic, there’s a level of expectation inherent in the object as to what kind of experience I will have, and while I can read novels uninterrupted for hours, a few pages of prose in the midst of a comics-reading experience makes me tremendously impatient. Starman is a story my brain is telling me I want to read in comics, and additional chapters in prose just aren’t happening.

(This naturally opens up broader questions that I’ve long thought about but don’t have answers to. What is the connection I have to comics that makes me interested in stories and genres that I can’t imagine responding to in other media? I don’t read memoirs outside of comics, and I have a greater tolerance for empty-headed action in the form of superhero comics than I do in movies. I don’t think many of the things I read in comics form would appeal to me presented another way, but I don’t know why. Some may be better-suited to comics than to other media, but there are certainly some I can imagine as a novel or movie of more or less equivalent quality, but simply know that wouldn’t interest me. Perhaps it’s all just long-held associations, like how I find serialization natural in comics, but shy away from series of novels.)

It’s nice to find a rationalization. I don’t doubt that “comics is the message” is a big part of what’s making the Shade’s journal so difficult for me, but now I don’t have to feel dumb. Never made it through the prose sections of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen either, and there are a few in Watchmen that I’ve felt content to have read only once. For others I make the effort, but it’s never easy. I love Grant Morrison’s work, so I have forced my way through his prose Batman issue more than once, since it’s an essential chapter, though the change of medium does still cause it to stand oddly outside the overall story (perhaps this is part of the idea—the Joker is the subject of the issue, but is still saved for his unveiling in “Batman RIP”? Not sure). My current thinking is that the issues with the medium are enough to put me on the edge of skipping a prose section. Then all it takes is something like a style that doesn’t agree with me, and the section gets skipped.

Incidentally, I definitely recommend taking a look at Swafford’s article. It’s a good read, both for the broader media theory, and the particular approach to the e-book question.

READ THIS WEEK:

  • Avengers #2 by Brian Michael Bendis, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Jansen & Sean White
    This also has prose in the back. I read the “Oral History of the Avengers” feature in the back of Avengers #1 out of curiosity, but I haven’t gotten to the installment in this issue yet.

  • King City #9 by Brandon Graham
  • Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen
    If I had a graphic novel book club, this would definitely be on the list. So much detail only suggested rather than spelled out, in both the writing and the art, which complement each other beautifully in that respect. I tried to read below the surface, but this is clearly one that would benefit from discussion and further probing.

  • Private Beach: Fun and Peril in the Trudyverse by David Hahn
  • Punisher Max: Born by Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson & Tom Palmer
  • Punisher Max: From First to Last by Garth Ennis, John Severin, Lewis Larosa & Richard Corben
  • Punisher Max (oversized HCs) vols. 1 & 2 by Garth Ennis, Lewis Larosa, Leandro Fernandez & Dougie Braithwaite
  • Superman/Aliens 2: God War by Chuck Dixon, Jon Bogdanove & Kevin Nowlan
    In which Superman is just a beard for a New Gods/Aliens crossover. Now I can’t stop imagining what Kirby-drawn Aliens would be like.

Images of The Punisher © Marvel Characters, Inc. Images of Starman © DC Comics. Images of Moving Pictures © Kathryn & Stuart Immonen

Ultimate Spider-Man heads toward Ultimatum, away from Coherence

July 27, 2009

 

With Ultimatum #5 coming out this week, it seemed like an ideal time to do some thinking about something I noticed when reading the last Ultimate Spider-Man collection:

 

Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 21: War of the Symbiotes
By Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, and Wade Von Grawbadger
Marvel – paperback, $15.99

Ultimate Spider-Man had a pretty good run, didn’t it? Twenty (twenty!) volumes of user-friendly soap opera and superheroics (or ten if you’ve followed it in the annual hardcovers, my preference until volume ten inexplicably cost the same $40 as the very long volume nine, despite being the shortest volume to date*), with a good share of laughs and “oh shit” moments along the way, illustrated in a clear and appealing, if unexciting, style. This volume is where it starts to come crashing down, and it’s a shame, because it isn’t due to anything native to the book itself.

It’s not Stuart Immonen’s art—this is only the second Ultimate Spider-Man book I’ve read that was entirely drawn by Immonen, and it’s a very different look than Mark Bagley brought to USM’s first 111 issues, but it works for me. Immonen’s is a more frenetic, angular look, but the characters are recognizably the same, while still bearing his stamp, and he brings the same acting chops and storytelling clarity.

It’s not Brian Bendis’s story, which advances the soap opera satisfyingly, catching up with what’s become of Gwen Stacy’s clone while continuing to actually make me care about Venom and even Carnage. Bendis has managed, up through the 128th issue, which this volume ends with, to give nearly every storyline elements that make them personal for Peter Parker without making it seem as though the world revolves around him—while the emotional component is enhanced by the Venom organism’s connection to him, his presence isn’t unrealistically necessary for the threat to emerge. It makes for a compelling read, and feels like a genuine threat while moving the overall story forward in several ways.

So what’s the problem? (more…)

A Peek Inside Brian Bendis’ Thought Balloons

May 11, 2008

BEHIND MOST “OVERNIGHT SENSATIONS,” you’ll find years worth of work created outside of the spotlight. Brian Michael Bendis’ career has been one of these, as the writer and artist of crime fiction like Fire, Goldish and Jinx, as well as the true crime graphic novel, Torso. More recently, Bendis has distinguished himself as the founder of Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe and one of the architects of its main publishing line, maintaining a unique approach to scripting comics while anchoring some of Marvel’s biggest books, such as New Avengers and Secret Invasion. He’s kept his hand in creator-owned work with Powers, the crime fiction/superhero book he publishes through Mavel’s ICON line with artist Michael Avon Oeming. Bendis has also proven a sharp commentator on popular culture and a witty author of autobiography with books like Fortune & Glory, which was my first exposure to his work.

I caught up with Bendis at Portland’s Stumptown Comics Fest on April 27th, 2008, where we discussed experimentation in mainstream comics, writing video game adaptations of comics and comics adaptations of video games, the themes of his many series, various reactions to his work, and more. And, in two hours of talking, not one mention of Skrulls.


Wright Opinion: To start with, a lot of your pre-Marvel work was very experimental in the art and writing, and it seems that as a superhero writer you’ve brought that with you more than we often see. Do you consider yourself to be an experimental writer?

torsoBrian Michael Bendis: Yes in the sense that we want to try new things. I’m a fan of any kind of storytelling that’s just trying new stuff. Even if you try too hard and fall on your ass, I’d rather do that then not try anything, alright? You think of Howard Chaykin or Matt Wagner, who just has ideas that look almost too big for the page, or sees the page in different shapes than other people do. And that’s what I’ve been inspired by and want to see. And every once in awhile you come up with a real, “Aw, no one’s thought of that!”

And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s more clever just to tell the story more clearly. Sometimes in the exuberance of youth you try stuff where you’re subconsciously trying to cover up something you think is bullshit in the story When I was younger, and this is dating myself, but before computers, a lot of black and white artists used zipatone, which was a sticker that you would put on the art that had black and white patterns, that printed clearly as line art. And a lot of my friends––and maybe a little bit me, too, when I was younger––were using that because the drawing was bad, the drawing was inferior. So you put stickers all over it and it would look better.

And sometimes experimentation, if it doesn’t further the story or help the storytelling, it’s a failure. So I really try to think, “I have this great idea to make everything look like stick figures or tell the story backwards”––I do a lot of time jumps––and I go, “Okay, does that help the story, or am I just being clever to be clever?”

(more…)

The FF Visit Tom Beland

January 6, 2008
Fantastic Four: ¡Isla De La Muerte!
By Tom Beland and Juan Doe
Marvel Comics – saddle-stitched, $3.99

SUPERHERO WORK WRITTEN BY independent comics creators sometimes has a perfunctory feel, as if, even if they don’t feel it’s beneath them, it doesn’t really interest them, and writing superheroes is simply the price they pay to fund their more personal work. Not so True Story, Swear To God’s Tom Beland, who is a long-time hero fan and has even included a few panels featuring characters from the Fantastic Four in True Story. His new Marvel one-shot, Fantastic Four: ¡Isla De La Muerte!, exudes a feeling of affection for the FF and carries over Beland’s light touch and humor from True Story.

¡Isla De La Muerte! finds Beland in familiar territory, as he devises a logical and amusing conceit to get the FF to his home of Puerto Rico (you can even spot Tom in a crowd scene). They’re there to sate their curiosity (couched in the language of concern) over why Ben (The Thing) spends three days a year on the island. Once there, they find themselves drafted to deal with the local problem of deaths attributed to El Chupacabras, the goatsucking urban legend that was in the popular consciousness during the ’90s.

From his first scene between Ben and Johnny (The Human Torch), Beland nails the team’s family dynamic, and the banter between the two is fluid and funny. All four get a moment or two and a few good lines each, plus Beland comes up with some uses for their powers that I hadn’t seen before, such as Sue (The Invisible Woman) using her force field to envelop Johnny’s head, drowning out his incessant chatter, and Reed (Mister Fantastic) tightening his skin to prevent mosquitoes from biting him.

However, despite the presence of the whole team, it’s Ben that really takes center stage. The story opens up a new part of his life that hadn’t been touched on before and one of the themes is the irony that, though he is the team’s toughest and strongest member, and in some ways the (pardon the expression) rock that anchors the team, the others often treat him like he’s “made of glass.” My favorite relationship within the team has long been the one between Ben and Sue, and Beland includes two very strong scenes between them in which they discuss how he fits within the team, Ben feeling as described above and Sue seeing him as an “oasis” in a life filled with egomaniacs. It’s moments like this that elevate ¡Isla De La Muerte! from rote superhero outing to genuine labor of love FF story. The only real, if minor, misstep in the story is a small disconnect in the plot, which could have been resolved with an additional line of dialogue.

The art by Juan Doe (his real name?) also captures an appropriate sense of whimsy, with smooth textures, rounded shapes and black-dot eyes on many characters. The cartooniness is a great fit for the story and keeps it of a piece with True Story, though it’s somewhat less effective on the occasions when a few too many lines creep onto faces. The chupacabras are menacing enough, but, like Bone’s rat creatures, also appealing enough to be sympathetic as the story requires. Doe does an excellent job of evoking the locale with convincing settings and an eye for detail.

As there’s no credited colorist, I assume that Doe is responsible for the coloring himself. It’s an integral part of the artwork, with many of the lines colored in and a lot of the textures completed by the coloring. The simulated wood grain and pulp texture that’s used throughout is also a nice touch. The colors pop nicely in most of the book, though at times they run together into a muddy sameness. I also found it distracting when individual objects had a bit too much texture, like the popcorn when Reed and Sue are watching a movie, drawing too much attention to a fairly unimportant element of the picture. The art works most of the time and I look forward to seeing more from Doe, especially as he works out these kinks over time.

Coming away from Fantastic Four: ¡Isla De La Muerte!, my main impression was that Beland clearly loves the characters and has a good handle on their personalities and relationships. It didn’t make me rethink the franchise and it’s hardly a high mark of the series, but it’s a fun story told with charm and obvious affection. It’s also clear that True Story, Swear to God is not a fluke and Beland excels at telling a story with wit and emotion. If this is an FF tryout book like Dwayne McDuffie’s 2006 Fantastic Four Special, my vote is to see more from Beland, maybe even with some of his own art (assuming it doesn’t interfere with True Story, of course).

Related: My review of the first collection of True Story, Swear to God from Image.

Still Bendis’ Best Series

November 11, 2007
Powers vol. 10: Cosmic
By Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
Marvel Comics/Icon – softcover, $19.95

POWERS HAS ALWAYS WORN ITS THEMES ON ITS SLEEVE. There are the criticisms of our society’s superficial engagement with the world (while larger, more important and often more sinister things are going on), addressed through the use of superheroes as a metaphor for celebrity culture. There are the issues of friendship and trust that have come out through the relationship between Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. But most important is another theme, which was laid out explicitly back in Powers’ very first issue.

The scene is an apartment building. A man called Flinch has made some big mistakes, and is now barricaded inside with a jet pack, cops trying to get him to come out. Walker arrives, talks to Flinch for awhile and says this: “Any asshole can keep their shit together on the good days. But the shit day? That’s when you show your character. Today’s the day you show everyone what you’re really made of.” Powers has always dealt more in random tragedy than premeditated criminality––some of the deaths Walker and Pilgrim have investigated have turned out not to be murders at all, simply accidents, the result of psychosis, or natural events––and asks those who remain how they’ll deal with it.

In Cosmic, writer Brian Michael Bendis puts each member of his cast to this test after a much more serious Flinch-like incident leaves the world without its cosmic guardian. A pivotal moment comes when someone who, like Flinch, has made a serious mistake kills himself in his anguish and an FBI agent is considerably less understanding than Walker was back in Powers #1: “He fucked his life up and someone else’s, you can’t recover from that… Wish every other asshole we had to deal with had the courtesy… Take responsibility.”

That sentence is what Cosmic is about, taking responsibility. Bendis’ dialogue is funny as always (“One? A crime scene this big? I had more witnesses when I lost my virginity.”), but he shows great skill at balancing that humor with the book’s more serious moments. Earth’s member of the Millennium (think the Green Lantern Corps) is killed in a freak accident, which causes new character Heather (pictured, right) to reevaluate the world and her place in it. It also forces Walker take his own advice from Powers #1 and show, at this point in his life, after all that’s happened to him, what he’s made of and how he’ll step up. The chapter featuring his “alien abduction” is bizarre and unsettling, but emotionally satisfying when Walker is put on the spot and has to make his choice.

Meanwhile, Pilgrim is having to face what she’s made of her life. A few volumes ago, she developed destructive powers that allow her to kill easily and I was reminded of Death Note throughout Cosmic by when and how she decides to use and not use them. Bendis’ exploration of how a person with such a power could, over time, become too comfortable using it and also periodically reel back in horror at what they are capable of is expertly realized in its subtlety. It’s genuinely sad to see how far Pigrim’s gone and how incapable it makes her of confiding in Walker, who knows that she’s in trouble, but seems to have no idea of how much she’s going through.

Cosmic opens at Club Cinderella, where a man on a stage rants about the things that piss him off. This turns out to be a recurring structuring motif, a different speaker framing each chapter and indirectly commenting upon the action of that chapter, making up a sort of Greek Chorus. Seems the club provides a forum devoted to regular people telling autobiographical stories in public (if you’ve listened to much This American Life, you’ve probably heard stories that come from something like this).

What works brilliantly about this is the way that each person’s story is not only relevant to the chapter it bookends (for instance, the speaker in the chapter in which Pilgrim is questioned by Internal Affairs talks about how fascinated he is that, “No matter who you are… you could completely destroy your life in 45 minutes.”), but the entire premise is another place for Bendis to fit in the theme of how people face the minor and major complications that are thrown into their lives. The device even dovetails with the plot by the end, providing the answer to how a particular bystander to this volume’s events comes to terms with them in a healthy way. The downside to the Club Cinderella sequences is their length. A page at the beginning and end of each issue at most would get the point across as well without giving the feeling that precious story pages are being eaten by the framing device (Bendis has spoken in interviews of never feeling that he has enough pages).

Michael Avon Oeming’s art continues to grow in this volume. When holding Cosmic next to early volumes, the advancement in the art is impressive. Powers has always been a good-looking book, but using the Batman: The Animated Series look as a jumping off point, the art has gotten more and more individualized, and Oeming’s layouts are stronger than ever. Gone are the two-page layouts where reading order is unclear. Oeming does seem to have a bit of trouble with the Club Cinderella scenes, though, probably because of the need to keep them visually interesting when they’re a bit overlong. In a few instances, he lapses into facial expressions that feel too strong for the words they go with. The big fight in space is also a little hard to follow, but superhero action has never really been the focus of the book, so that isn’t a big problem. Generally, the art is very eye-catching, with beautiful uses of light and dark, and the characterization through facial expressions, and especially body language, is fantastic.

The biggest flaw in this book is the production values. The paper is nice and glossy and the colors pop, but there are a few problems. Putting aside the well-publicized typo on the spine (“Cosimic”), the lettering is pixelated throughout, with a few balloons lost in the fold between pages. There are some minor production errors, as when an FBI truck has clearly had digital “FBI” letters placed over hand-drawn letters without the hand-drawn ones being completely removed. Problems like this might not be an issue for every reader, but I found them a bit distracting. On the other hand, the extras are great, as is the norm in Powers trades. Once the story’s done, Bendis and Oeming treat readers to cover and sketch galleries and an illustrated script for the “alien abduction” issue.

Overall, Cosmic is an entertaining and very well structured installment in the ongoing Powers saga. Through all of the disparate plot threads, which see Walker and Pilgrim separated for most of the book as their arcs take them different places, the investigation of the Millennium’s death holds everything together and the Club Cinderella sequences provide a throughline even in the chapters that don’t mention the investigation at all. I don’t think I agree with the back cover copy that this volume represents a great jumping-on point for new readers, as too much depends on the consequences of past events, many of which are mentioned only obliquely. However, as a long-time reader, Cosmic is exactly the plot continuation and upping of the stakes that I was looking for after the one-year-plus wait for this volume.

Benefitting Bill Mantlo

October 22, 2007
Mantlo: A Life in Comics
By David Yurkovich and Michael Mantlo
Sleeping Giant Comics – saddle-stitched, $7.50

HOW MANY CLASSIC COMICS WRITERS OR ARTISTS can I admit to not knowing much about before I start to lose my limited comics reviewer cred? Before reading Mantlo: A Life in Comics, Bill Mantlo was a name I’d heard, but I couldn’t tell you about much that he’d written beyond the Spider-Man/Daredevil team-up in my copy of The Complete Frank Miller Spider-Man. However, after reading this magazine format tribute from cover to cover, I’m interested enough to start tracking down some of his stuff to read for myself.

A Life in Comics is meant both as a tribute to Bill Mantlo, featuring an in-depth biography, a few previously unpublished stories and analysis of some of his work, and as a benefit for Mantlo himself, who suffered brain damage after being hit by a car in 1992 and has been in assisted living ever since. David Yurkovich self-published the magazine and is donating all of the proceeds to Mantlo. Yurkovich, the author of Less Than Heroes and Death By Chocolate, among others, has consistently cited Mantlo as his biggest influence in comics, so, Yurkovich fan that I am, I wanted to get a taste of what he was talking about.

I’m glad I did. A Life in Comics is clearly a labor of love and, while by no means perfect, is the kind of lengthy career biography and work analysis of an individual creator that I would love to see a lot more of. It’s also a fascinating point of entry into the history of 1970s- and ‘80s-era Marvel, which I admit to not being well versed in. I enjoyed learning about Mantlo’s role in fleshing out the still-popular licensed comics of the day, like ROM and The Micronauts, his creation of characters like Cloak and Dagger (most recently seen in Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways – Vaughn is one of a handful of writers and artists briefly interviewed in A Life in Comics), and his very comics-specific role as “The Fill-In King.” In reading, I found myself equally involved in the themes of helping the defenseless throughout Mantlo’s work and in the life story of a man who believed in them so firmly that he went on to become a criminal defense attorney for the New York Legal Aid Society.

The included Mantlo stories are a welcome addition, too. Two of them center on men and women talking about relationships, one of them very attractively illustrated by Yurkovich, the other prose. The third story is a ghost story written for Mantlo’s daughter, and is cute and funny. Even with my limited experience of Mantlo’s work prior to reading A Life in Comics, I now feel like I’ve some idea of his tone and dialogue style, making the inclusion of these stories very useful. They’re likely also an especially nice treat for existing Mantlo fans.

The flip side of the project being a labor of love is that it was done for free in between other work and is therefore somewhat rough around the edges, with a few minor editing and design issues (though most of the design is eye-catching and integrates art well – there are just a few places where things like whether a differently colored column is a sidebar or a continuation of a chapter is unclear, as the same approach is sometime used for both). However, these are relatively minor and definitely forgivable given the circumstances of the book’s publication. In fact, with some more editing and perhaps the addition of several more longer interviews with Mantlo’s contemporaries and some more analysis, I could easily see A Life in Comics being expanded into a full-length book.

More information about Mantlo: A Life in Comics, including preview pages and ordering information, is available at Sleeping Giant Comics.

ON A RELATED NOTE, my local comic book shop, Floating World Comics, is doing its own Mantlo benefit as part of December’s First Thursday (a monthly event in Portland where art gallaries and stores hold open houses and host exhibitions – Floating World’s events are always a treat). Big-time ROM fan, Floating World owner and all-around good guy, Jason Leivian, is soliciting donations of ROM Spaceknight illustrations from comics artists and paying for digital prints out of his own pocket. The artwork will first show up in an exhibition on December’s First Thursday, which will be a fundraiser for the eventual benefit magazine that the artwork is being done for. More info from Steve Duin at The Oregonian.

DVD Review: Silver Sequel

October 14, 2007
F4: Rise of the Silver Surfer
The Power Cosmic Edition

Directed by Tim Story
20th Century Fox – MSRP: $34.98

I’M JUST GOING TO COME RIGHT OUT AND ADMIT that I liked both of the recent Fantastic Four movies. I harbor no illusions that either is a great film or as good an FF adaptation as could have been made, but they’ve been fun and have, especially in the sequel, nicely captured the feel of their comic book counterparts. By and large the sequels in each modern Marvel franchise have been better than the first tries, probably because, unlike the originals, they haven’t been in development for decades, and Rise of the Silver Surfer is no exception.

Rise makes several improvements over the first film. The action scenes are more exciting and benefit from giving the Four more to do than simply cleaning up their own messes, about all they did in the original. Mercifully absent this time are the Extreme Sports sequences, which seemed to be in the first film simply as an effort to increase the number of action scenes without having to figure out how they related to the plot. And, most importantly, the actors work better this time. In particular, Ioan Gruffud as Reed Richards and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm seem more comfortable in their roles on the second outing (Chris Evans’ Johnny and Michael Chiklis’ Ben already worked quite well in the first film). All four main actors have good chemistry with each other, really feeling like a family unit this time around. Alba and Evans especially have some nice scenes together, and the team of Evans and Chiklis is always fun to watch.

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