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.
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.