Saturday, December 29, 2012

Immortal Coil

So, we're still here. Mankind deserves to be ripped from the garden we've despoiled and chucked into frigid space, but we're still here. The ancient Mayans (and their modern day horde of capitalist proselytizers) were wrong. Whoops. Next year, when Bravo launches a program called Look What This Idiot Bought, many of us will vie for camera time to display our 2012 books, shirts, ornaments, statuettes, and probably fanny-packs. Not me, though. I paid tribute not by checking my brain at the temple door (nor by leaving vomit and glow-sticks on its steps), but by reading Red Hulk: Mayan Rule.

You're thinking, "Wait. Hold it. Slow your roll, poindexter. Red Hulk?" Bruce Banner, Marvel's scrawniest, angriest doctor, has been a gray or green monster, but never red. This feisty character is actually General Thunderbolt Ross, the man responsible for the gamma-bomb test that created Banner's duality. In this tale, written by superhero purist Jeff Parker and drawn by Canadian visionary Dale Eaglesham, Ross and his supporting crew tangle with the pantheon of Mayan gods.

Now, when I call Parker a purist, I compare him to the writers who followed Stan Lee at Marvel in the late 1960s and early 70s: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart. Parker's scripts worship their era of dense plots and challenging characterization. He fills his comics (such as Thunderbolts and Agents of Atlas) with missing artifacts, enchanted locals, boisterous team-ups- anything and everything to not only keep you reading, but then rereading later, for the propulsive thrill of it.

Having not perused Red Hulk in a few years, I enjoyed seeing such elements still in fluid motion. Former sidekick Rick Jones continues his turn as A-Bomb, a blue version of the Hulk villain Abomination. Also present is Alpha Flight (Canada's premier team of mutant heroes), Machine Man (a cybernetic Mr. Fantastic), and newcomer Annie (an android, whose public displays of affection for Ross bring weapons-grade Viagra to mind).

The deity-on-deity action begins when Rick Jones (in human form) investigates an all too permissive tour of a Mayan temple in the Yucatan. The guide brings his group inside the ancient structure, only to pull a knife and drip some of his own blood on a squat, tabular idol. Shafts of aquamarine light then engulf a pair of tourists. The goddess Ixchel appears and sucks the life from them, leaving Rick to gawp at the bony husks. "I knew this tour was going somewhere bad," he says before launching into battle, "but you didn't know this temple had an A-Bomb in it."

Only certain artists should be drawing a Hulk comic. Eaglesham, whose panels roll forward like superhero evolution in progress, is one of them. Ed McGuinness (Red Hulk's first artist) is another; both polish Jack Kirby's furious sense of weight. But Eaglesham also combines it with John Buscema's wondrous musculature.

In other words, his fight scenes are frackin' astounding. As the narrative leaps among holographic pyramids (and the continents hosting them), more of our heroes fall to the Mayans, who drain life-force to reignite their presence in the here-and-now. Eaglesham plays with the paneling, offering borders that zig-zag, crumble, or are actually chunks of carved stellae.

Parker (likely jazzed by Eaglesham's drop-in for these five issues) meets the visuals with fang-sharp dialogue. "I've screwed up," says Rick Jones to Ross, after returning from the Yucatan, "and unleashed something horrible on the world. Figured you'd know some things about that." Another scene sees the General comment on riots in Guatemala (and our own cabinet of war criminals): "Shock and awe. [The gods are] shaking up the populace, upsetting order. Then they'll provide their own order, and the people will accept it."

Most intriguing is the fact that the would-be Mayan rulers continuously refer to Ross and his companions as gods. It never occurs to Big Red that while tussling with lava giants, man-serpents and living tidal waves, he himself could be worshiped. In the end, as Annie echoes scribe Grant Morrison's idea that superheroes encompass modern creation myths, Ross quips, "I just now got used to being a Hulk." And I never should've stopped reading Parker's work. The New Year will see that corrected.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Coast With The Most

On the cover of the new Justice League there's some squawk about a "Bold New Era" beginning. Only fifteen issues in, DC surely doesn't mean to imply that they were faking it during the ostentatious New 52 relaunch, right? Well, not quite. But the first story arc, written by Geoff Johns (The Flash) and drawn by Jim Lee (X-Men) often felt like Superman, Batman, and the rest of DC's best were action figures, getting a perfunctory crash-together by bored toddlers.

It was entertaining, pretty- and little else, despite the appearance of alien dictator Darkseid. That said, the more I chomp on this phenomenon, the more I realize the initial Justice League outing was simplified for as large an audience a possible- especially kids and teens who'd seen the recent Batman and Green Lantern films.

But now, with the visual fireworks of artist Ivan Reis in play, this is indeed a different, more fan-friendly League. Reis helped relaunch Aquaman last year, dazzling fans with a Johns-scripted tale of undersea cannibals (that revitalized the hero like never before). Here, we begin a cross-over with that title in which fish are seen leaving the Atlantic Coast in droves. A great opening page, forbidding and atmospheric, that brings us to test missiles blasting off from an aircraft carrier ahead of schedule. They zoom to the bottom of the Atlantic, hitting the fabled spires of Atlantis.

Action, we expected. Next, however, come the Earth-bound displays of personality that make us root for heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman. "Right in this room," says Big Blue, "I thought about giving up Clark Kent completely. But I like being Clark Kent. I like who I am and who my parents were." And, about whether or not to wear a mask, like Batman, there's this incredible line: "I'd rather good people trust me than bad people fear me." This is essential Superman speaking, whom we'd thought lost as the New 52 proceeded apace with endless intergalactic hay-makers.

Not to worry, those of you uninterested in seeing Clark and Diana wear glasses, sip wine, and revel in their anonymity. Once Atlantis counterattacks, hitting Metropolis with a tidal wave (Reis is at his astonishing best here), our heroes zip to the city's defense. Also, the personal is layered throughout the widescreen, as reporter Lois Lane notices that Wonder Woman is awfully quick to Superman's side.

Even the minor scene where Batman chases and disarms the Scarecrow's thugs (in boats, under the Gotham Bridge) is beautiful. Reis, who years ago polished his muscular style on the brightly-lit Green Lantern, seems particularly thrilled to draw the Caped Crusader. Fighting for just a few panels, he's as acrobatic as he is unholy. Then Aquaman intervenes, and we overhear a few cops try to bring him into their squalid little locker room: "Oh, yeah, sure. He's got an Aqua-Signal that throws fifty pounds of fish food into the bay whenever a sailboat capsizes." Yet when his ravishing wife Mera arrives, they haven't much to say. "Speechless?" she inquires, "Or just a little wet, I guess."

This first issue of "Throne of Atlantis" leads directly into Aquaman, also out this week and welcoming new series artist Paul Pelletier (She-Hulk). We learn that Prince Arthur himself wrote up the plan of attack that his brother now uses against the entire East Coast. In Johns' hands this premise captivates, though it owes much to Mark Waid's 2000 JLA story "Tower of Babel." More than likely, the heavyweight scribe is well aware of this. He might even be teasing us, chumming the water so we sink our teeth in.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

If It's Brown, Drink It Down

Or in the case of Ken Garing's Image title Planetoid, devour it with your eyes. A bi-monthly that's just four issues in, this series captivates like a flaming streak across some dark expanse. It tells the tale of space pirate Silas, whose ship dies while passing a world that strongly bleeds electromagnetic radiation. Crashing, he finds the place a forbidding wasteland of technological ruin.

Garing, who writes, draws, colors and letters Planetoid, ensnares with an ambiance wholly unique to today's comic racks. Everywhere Silas travels, aided by computer program Ricter, he sees coal-black piles of jagged refuse. The sky is a mottled and muted canvas of swill-tones, while the air itself is tainted with heavy metals. Thankfully, Silas ejects from his ship with a trunk of survival gear, including a poncho, flares, medical kit, protein gel, filtration mask and a tent.

The first issue buries us deep in Planetoid's haunting desolation. After tiny but terrifying lizards assault Silas (the lone red SPLAT is remarkable), he heads off into skeletal drifts of metallic crap. Eventually he comes to a lake of rusty sludge. The next few pages see him facing a gigantic cybernetic leviathan, and it's for this masterful sequence that I took a chance on the comic.

After halting the slithering junk-heap with a slim hand cannon (stowed, unidentified, in his cache), Silas meets an old man named Mendel. He's a loner with a makeshift apartment among the shit-stained rubble. His history of the planetoid reveals that, "The colonial government ran a massive mining operation here," and, "Slave labor was used and supervised by an army of robotic constructs running a tyrannical A.I. program."

With these details, Garing beats his chest as a loud and proud survivor of the Golden Age of Man Cinema. I'm right there with him (obsessed with films like Aliens, T2 and Predator), envisioning Bruce Willis as Silas and Stan Winston on special effects.

During the next few issues, we meet other (mostly) human survivors living on the Slab. There, clean air and relative safety have allowed them to band together. We also get the murderous robot army in action, crushing turbaned heads and delivering warnings of trespass on behalf of the Ono Mao Republic. Garing by this point still coughs up the electrically filthy art that's three-quarters of his comic's appeal. But when Silas reaches the Slab, which mimics dusty canyon country, some pages feel all too flat. In itself, that can be a narrative strength. Aesthetically, however, his coarse people and simplistic exteriors don't anchor scenes for long. I find myself speeding through the story to reach the next sweeping pile of lovingly-rendered rubbish.

But this is a truly minor complaint. Silas' story, which soon becomes that of tough-girl Onica and the survivors, maintains the gruff appeal of an action blockbuster. After battling robots, preventing the wholesale slaughter of some tribesman, Silas is hailed as their leader (at which Conan gives a rare smile). He then goes about making the Slab more hospitable: he teaches the survivors how to use torches and weld modular housing units together (Ricter helps), and he establishes that everyone has useful knowledge, even the non-hunters who recommend algae tanks and mushroom farming.

Once people are enjoying a greater measure of safety and self-worth (and eating lizard-egg omelets), Silas notices kids lingering around a small trash-heap. In a few deft panels, he builds them a kite and we see Garing's sense of clean simplicity at its best.

A little research told me Planetoid will wrap this opening story with issue 5, then vanish for breather. I didn't want to wait to review it, and I won't spoil the penultimate chapter's thrilling developments. Naturally, Silas' hope of escaping the rock rises, only for chilly karma to sweep in. The fates of Mendel and Onica twist more firmly around his. And, unlike a title that's been rebooted four times in three years, Planetoid has a roaring pulse that's hard to resist. If the cape-and-mask set have you snoozing, by all means float by.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Quintessentialist II

Veteran comic creator Alan Davis, responsible for some of Marvel and DC's most endearing stories, does his best work when fully off the leash. And "the leash" refers of course to continuity, that pesky web of logic that binds a shared fictional universe (and can make or break a reading experience). Davis is a typhoon of ideas unto himself, and has written and drawn Superboy's Legion, Justice League: The Nail, and Fantastic Four: The End, mini-series that all take place outside the normal run of their characters' history.

This makes the tightly-knit brilliance of his Excalibur run, which salvaged four-years worth of scattered plot-threads, all the more savory. Last post, I mentioned the villain Necrom, an ancient sorcerer (and walking prune) who wants the cosmic Phoenix entity to serve his lust for power. The Phoenix, unfortunately, is hosted by Rachel Summers, and that's where Excalibur takes issue.

Now, other writers who needn't be mentioned had written this comic with a gruesome abundance of "wacky." Puerile at best, fifty shades of asinine at worst, Excalibur strained the patience of the most loyal X-Men fans. Here, Davis tweaks the book's tone- and the team's mechanics- to suit more mature audiences. First, he finds a flexible way to ratchet down Rachel's nigh-invincible Phoenix abilities.

Quite cleverly, it begins with the shape-shifter Meggan wanting to know what she actually looks like. Having involuntarily empathic powers has always caused her to become what those around her think she should look like (which, by the way, is a pointy-eared blonde bombshell). A trip with Rachel to Germany's Black Forest brings them into contact with a Neuri (think of Neil Young, in sasquatch form), and he strips away the top layer of reality to show them the Alshra. "A kaleidoscope of pulsating color," Davis narrates, "as the world's familiar spectrum of dull light gives birth to unseen horizons of shimmering life force."

During this scene, "Rachel sees the Phoenix force threaded through every cell of her mutant body." She realizes for the first time that active use of the force has kept her memories from healing properly- and that's a whole other post, in which she's stranded in our present after escaping a horrible future where she hunted other mutants for her human overlords. Anyway, she decides to put the Phoenix to sleep, and this powering-down lets a more organic (and more genuinely dramatic) story build up.

About halfway through his X opus (in issue 47), Davis allows waves of painstakingly-rendered insanity to crest. The Technet, a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries who'd been staying at Excalibur's lighthouse, are whisked off stage by yet another band of consummate weirdos (most of them last seen in Captain Britain). Their crackling arrival prompts Nightcrawler to say, "This is getting silly." Thug (who's basically a frog) then tells him that they're leaving for an alternate Earth because there's a 98% chance that [ours] will cease to exist in the next seventy-eight hours.

And, like cherries on top, there's Kylun and Cerise. Each of them arrive tempestuously out of thin air, separately and for different reasons. This is a testament both to Excalibur's lighthouse acting as an inter-dimensional G-Spot, and Davis' obsession with genre-bending controlled chaos. Removing her insectoid battle helmet, Cerise asks Nightcrawler, "Which is the dominant species of this world?" Humans, he answers. "Which of you conforms to this specification?" she asks. "Of all the varied life forms in this room," says Nightcrawler, "you look the most human."

Davis excels in crafting sprawling cosmic tales that harken back to their 1970s heyday. While the wizard Merlyn and his daughter Roma argue the finer points of an energy matrix, I can hear legendary Avengers scribe Roy Thomas (who always spun dense super-logic into narrative gold) banging away at his typewriter.

The multiversal stakes rise higher as we discover that an infinite number of Earths might be destroyed if Necrom wins, and that the members of Excalibur have been manipulated since their first adventure by Merlyn himself. It turns out that Necrom is his adversary of old, and Captain Britain and company have always been meant to thwart him. Rachel, however, must force a battle with the evil sorcerer by activating the Phoenix force. Their showdown, once it happens, literally breaks free of the comic's thin white borders. Davis' panels tilt and stretch to flaunt the operatic destruction of an entire solar system. With inker Mark Farmer's (and colorist Joe Rosas') pristine help, the crumbling of worlds has never looked so inspiring.

Davis' style today, over twenty years later, is nearly all slants and jagged panels. Back then, it served the story like any truly thrilling innovation should. The main draw to this run, however, is the sense of intense wonder stitched deeper than in any other comic of the time. Better not to trample the idea of "blog post" by going on at length about Widget's evolution, the lighthouse mirages and Rachel's meeting with Anti-Phoenix. We'd all miss lunch marveling at just how many floors comprise this towering eight issue story.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Quintessentialist

Longtime comic readers never forget the exact issues responsible for their obsession. They come to treasure and mythologize the circumstances in which they realized, "Comics are something weird, wonderful, and so different from other entertainment that I can't do without them." My circumstance was a drive to New Hampshire, for a weekend at the summer house of people I barely knew. While visiting a hobby shop, I followed the lead of two other kids I was with and picked out reading material for later.

In 1991, the comic racks bristled with variant covers to Jim Lee's first issue of X-Men. Not quite sure what I looked at (beyond Magneto and Wolverine's awesomeness), I grabbed two different copies of the same thing. Now, with no designs as a collector, this was a devastating rookie mistake. But I also happened to gravitate (for some arcane reason) toward the mild-mannered heroes posing on Excalibur 48.

I honestly can't remember even flipping through it before buying. Written and drawn by Alan Davis, this comic cost $1.75, which was twenty-five cents more than the already double-sized X-Men. If I had peeked inside, I'd have seen boundless energy and inventiveness on every page. I'd have seen impeccably clean art, with balanced anatomy and nothing overtly gory. To a ten-year-old at the time, these elements might have converged and registered as cool. But next to the rest of Marvel's gun-toting, stab-happy stable of characters, the chances of that were slim.
For those not in the know, Excalibur is a superhero team based in the United Kingdom, spun-off from the X-Men and imbued (forcefully, by original writer Chris Claremont) with British whimsy. Visually, this is a good thing, because the adventures of Captain Britain (the flying muscleman), Nightcrawler (the teleporting acrobat), Kitty Pryde (the intangible computer whiz), Phoenix (the host of an all-powerful cosmic being) and Meggan (the ingenue shape-shifter) are never dull. Tonally, however- let's say that scripting superheroes with the frantic panache of Noises Off is in nobody's best interest.

Then there's Alan Davis, who drew Captain Britain in the 80s. Not only is he one of the most breathtaking choreographers in the business (George Perez, of course, ranks first), but he's also an incredibly savvy writer. His Excalibur run discussed here (42-50) doesn't have art cramped with superfluous narration boxes, which are usually X-Tensions of a writer's ego (and signs that he doesn't trust the artist to tell the story). Instead, we get dialogue that prefigures the best work done today- controlled bursts of genuine character and cleverness that never undercut what we primarily paid to see- superhero action.

The first few issues of this run must reintroduce Excalibur's opposite number, the Technet. Described as loosely as possible, they're a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries. But such a phrase does nothing to prepare you for how startlingly weird they are. China Doll looks like a serpentine water sprite, with the ability to suspend and shrink any opponent. Body Bag is this bulbous insectoid creature that sprays preservatives before swallowing you whole. Ringtoss, Thug, Scatterbrain and Waxworks are equally surreal, which is probably what drew me in, back before I knew Muir Island from Madripoor.

I love narrative disorientation. I revel in the detective work of following a story from the halfway point, of needing to scan every detail interminably until all of the info's in hand. And this is required often in comics (to the dismay of their creators), especially those from the continuity-dense 90s. Eventually, I found the rest of the Excalibur issues written and drawn by Davis during this era, and I've come to adore them more with each read. Years later, I think of them as my touchstone to the comics' world.

Despite issue 42 being the start of this run, Davis drops us deep into a river delta of the bizarre. The Technet tries to destroy Excalibur by sabotaging one of their eggs. One of their breakfast eggs that is, with a chick who's primed to detonate. "Twied tew cook my goose," he chirps, as the clock on his forehead ticks down, "Pwepaih tew meet yaw doom!" Though some may cringe, Davis' comedic timing rivals any Loony Tunes short. Later, when Hard-Boiled Henry's attack fails, the Technet show up at our heroes' tower for a brawl that's as entertaining as it is impeccably drawn.

And that is likely Davis' overarching charm. Many artists draw infinitely expressive characters that are instantly recognizable as theirs. His, however, possess such friendliness that they can't help but invite you into the pages for a lengthy stay. Additionally, Captain Britain and Nightcrawler both flex a rugged nobility, while Kitty and Meggan resonate cheerful, elfin energy (like Kate Bush songs made flesh). Phoenix (the melancholy Rachel Summers) is regal, mature beyond her years, and undoubtedly the title's prime mover.

Her cosmic power, a devastating force if untamed, is coveted by lunatics of every stripe. The being Necrom, as we'll see in my next post, has set a great many conflicts in motion to harness it. The question, naturally, isn't whether Excalibur can protect her- it's how much swashbuckling delight we'll get out of watching. As a young photojournalist once said, "The journey is the destination."

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Which we've been awaiting for some time now. Writer Jonathan Hickman, who recently reinvented the Fantastic Four to spectacular effect, now writes Avengers, Marvel's flagship title. They are, at least according to Joss Whedon's film: Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Iron Man. While this newly relaunched comic begins with that team to orientate new readers, the threat of quick expansion is the Avengers stock in trade. Anyone, even a villain, can be one of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

What's so thrilling about Hickman taking the reins from Brian Bendis (who, like an aging hair-metal god, has been writing just the one power-ballad over and over for twenty years) is that he's monstrously inventive. And he thrives with a huge canvas. And he's masterful in characterizing the icons. He wrote Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four not only as adventurers, but convincingly as parents too. He made Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm best friends with each other and with us.

As a big thinker (who'll go to the Negative Zone, Attilan and Latveria in one issue), Hickman deserves Marvel's boldest team. Illustrating his creative largesse is Jerome Opena, who's been redefining epic since his sublime work on Uncanny X-Force. Coloring Opena's magisterial rendering once more is Dean White, with his deep palette of marine hues (not to mention his nifty habit of adding white filigree to most surfaces).

Avengers has only two ads interrupting its creators' flow, which is a Christmas gift like no other. On the second page of story is a glyph comprised of nodes. The first ring of nodes symbolizes the team's core. The outer nodes are empty... for now. Then, in (somewhat) typical Hickman fashion, the narrative zooms among several heady snapshots, hinting at the sprawling tone of what's ahead. After having seen the cosmos begin, we get Hyperion (a Superman analogue from another dimension) struggling in a machine's clutches, an onrushing space armada, and dozens of ruined Iron Man suits.

Mercifully, things scale down from there, in a scene showing that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are actually friends (and this is key, because the supposed friction between Iron Man and Captain America is one of THE worst crutches an Avengers writer can use). Stark says his mind is afire with a new idea, and that, "The same exact thing happened the day we found you." Rogers asks, "You remember that?" A panel of old school Iron Man reflected in the ice block carrying his future teammate catches up new readers, tickles old ones. "I remember everything about that day. We started something that mattered. Because of you, the world changed. I changed."

This is beautiful character work, worthy of screens big and small; more importantly, this honors fifty years of Avengers storytelling. Chances are slim that another writer will have to mind-wipe either of them when Hickman's run ends.

The main villain, Ex Nihilo, is a devilish hybrid of Tim Curry in the film Legend and all-powerful Justice Society fiend Gog. That's he's terraformed Mars is a bad sign, though it sure looks exquisite. Our artists return with the otherworldly splendor they brought to Uncanny-Force, expertly combining murderous skies and prehistoric vegetation.

In slick, compressed narrative boxes, we're told that two bombs hit Earth and overwrote local biospheres to match the alien environment. Before disembarking their shuttle for battle on Mars, Iron Man asks, "Bruce you're better at this stuff than I am. Anything that needs to be said?" Stealing the scene, the man about to turn into a Hulk answers, "I think we're done talking."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fight between Ex Nihilo's creatures and our heroes is this comic's main weakness. A woman who controls shadows turns the Hulk against Thor. Iron Man is distracted and has his suit drained of power. Hawkeye and Black Widow are blasted in a single THHOOOM of energy. Finally, Captain America is pounded unconscious by a robot and then sent back to Earth as a warning. In other words, Hickman rushes through a battery of cliches, if only to revel in the last few panels of a determined Steve Rogers assembling more Avengers.

It's a first issue all right. Unfortunately, in the age of endless reboots, what should be intensely dramatic is quite a bit less so. The last page shows the roster glyph again, with nodes filled in for Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and a slew of others. Opposite is a stirring portrait of Captain America's call to arms (featuring some characters I don't honestly recognize). This story is called "Wake the World." Now that we're out of bed, I know you won't dare bore us, Mr. Hickman.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Speak the Language

Attaining immortality in the world of comics is like plucking an apple off a willing assistant's head. Whether using a batarang or an arrow, the creator must judge his distance, audience and objects correctly. Miscalculations result in over-the-top foolishness or the garishly mediocre. But when an artist/writer measures perfectly, taking aim, we see the apple cored. The assistant smiles, alive, and we clap, spellbound.

So it goes with Mike Grell's 1987 graphic novel Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Of the many comics DC created strictly for mature readers in the 80s (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Hawkworld), Grell's opus takes several unique risks, and stands as a gloriously pure work because of them.

Grell, who began his career in the 70s drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (and creating Warlord), reinvents the Justice League bowman with the street-level realism that made Frank Miller's Daredevil so entrancing. The setting is Seattle. Our star, the middle-aged Oliver Queen, hopes to settle down and start a family with crime-fighting girlfriend Dinah Lance (Black Canary). But, "It's in our blood," she tells him. "I wouldn't ask you to give it up... and you'd better not ask me."

Oliver acknowledges this while burying himself in nostalgia. His new home has faux medieval decor and a gigantic painting of Robin Hood. Dinah, a brunette, role-plays for him in the blonde wig and fishnets that, er, distracted costumed crooks in the Justice League's heyday. Post-coitus, they realize that continuing to fight evil (and satisfy adult readers in the 80s) means tackling the problems of urban decay: prostitution, drug addiction and serial murder.

Grell attacks this premise with every ounce of his formidable skill. Oliver and Dinah, as well as the killer's victims and assassin Shado, look back at us with startling soul. Portrait shots in chalk bring deeper emotional immediacy to the dialogue. Incredibly fine lines delineate Seattle by day and night, stitching up the plot for a showdown in the old-growth forest of Mount Ranier. The earthy coloring of Julia Lacquement enhances panels that tilt and cascade, speaking the language of violence.

And if The Longbow Hunters portrays anything more effectively than other comics of the era, it's violence. Here, Oliver doesn't use trick arrows that deliver gas or a knockout punch. His arrows stab people through the hand, chest and neck. A murderer leaves women gutted in alleys. Dinah, her hunt for villainy taking her to its very maw, is tied up and tortured by drug-runners. "You want a little of this while she's still got a face?" asks a man wielding a hunting knife to his partner, "After I'm done, she's gonna wanna make you puke."
Grell never tramples Green Arrow with mature themes- he elevates the character with narrative conviction. This is even more starkly true in hindsight, with the deeply exploitative 90s long gone. When published, The Longbow Hunters gave audiences what they craved- superheroes grounded like douglas firs in reality. Recently, Batman and his flashy technology have done the same for movie-goers in the age of terrorism and surveillance.

The easy argument here (though not one the new Arrow TV show will likely make) is that a man dressed as Robin Hood killing criminals seems more real than one dressed as a bat pummeling them. But of course Green Arrow's reinvention didn't stick. Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and other creators have since returned him to more colorful ranks alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. For this I'm thankful. Pierced throats get old much faster than giant starfish.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Several of the Marvel NOW! titles have already released second issues in as many weeks. This doesn't surprise, considering DC's New 52 line-wide relaunch has helped them lead the industry in sales for much of 2012. As the year ends, the House of Ideas no doubt wants to catch up, and if that means I get new Stuart Immonen (who's drawn, and can draw, everything) comics this frequently, I've little to complain about.

Immonen illustrates All-New X-Men, a deceptive title for a comic featuring teen heroes from decades ago. While there are new mutants popping up across the world, they're in the background. Instead, writer Brian Bendis tickles (or is that tortures?) us with the presence of the original five X-Men assembled by Charles Xavier in the 60s: Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Beast, Angel and Ice Man. Genius/blue furball Hank McCoy is responsible, hoping to bring young, idealistic Scott Summers face-to-face with his militant older self and avert Mutant Armageddon.

But in a premise such as this, learned fans will focus on Wolverine seeing Marvel Girl again. Also known as Jean Grey, original host for the destructive Phoenix force, she's dead in current continuity. Married to upright Summers most of her life, she could never return Wolverine's love.

The emotional weight of the meeting is heady stuff, and Immonen, today's most versatile comic artist, is the perfect person to deliver it. His style, more than any other, is a balanced mix of the super-heroic and soap-operatic. He lets characters speak through the penciling in sharply calibrated poses, facial expressions, and power displays.

When the flower children arrive in the present, Wolverine is teaching a class (at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning) on fighting ninjas. Then he smells them. His first instinct is to attack, assuming they're imposters. Young Jean uses her telekinesis to pause him in mid-air. Cyclops and Ice Man settle him down with kid gloves. Later, Wolvie takes the insanity in stride and plays the dutiful warder (which he does endlessly in Wolverine and the X-Men). When the X-Brats escape with a stolen Blackbird jet, we get what the entire issue's been counting down to. "It was her," he says, "It was really her. Jeannie..."

Wonderful stuff, handled well. Companion title X-Men Legacy skews quite a bit stranger. Since the early 2000s, this had been the comic where writer Mike Carey (Unwritten) shored up some of the X-Men's recent crazy, strengthening the narrative ties. His lengthy run, focusing first on Xavier and then Rogue, feels like a gift to fans who came of age in the 90s (for it features lots of Magneto's Acolytes and Mr. Sinister). This latest incarnation of the title is all about Legion, Xavier's schizophrenic son.

Writer Simon Spurrier (Silver Surfer: In They Name) and artist Tan Eng Huat have the somewhat unenviable task of floating an entire story on an infinitely powerful mutant with multiple personalities (sounds like a Vertigo comic, actually). Not that it can't be (or hasn't been) done, but for this concept to last it needs a muscular hook. Luckily, they've got one, in the form of a mental prison full of weirdos called the Qortex. Legion himself is the jailor, keeping each personality (possessed of its own mutant power) under control.

Huat's an impeccable choice to illustrate this anything-can-happen comic. Recently, his art has suffered a bit by being colored minus an inker. The result, in titles like The Punisher and Ghost Rider, is subtly blurry. He's memorable otherwise for his solid panels and directly iconic style that reminds me of Carlos Pacheco (Avengers Forever) and early Scott McDaniel (Nightwing). Here, with inker Craig Yeung, he gives Spurrier's zaniness brilliant life; on the run from Chinese authorities, Legion sees a mountain goat shot to pieces. A disembodied character then inhabits the animal's corpse, quickly refashioning the bones, organs and fur into something more... bipedal. "Horrific," he says, as the gristle settles. Indeed.

Sadly, one of these titles is too clever to last. The other will probably lead to Marvel's next epic throw-down within a year or two. Worse, I'm fairly jaded by both outcomes. I read comics, loving the characters and stories, for the few moments they're alive in my head. Real continuity, that says Spider-Man can't physically have adventures with four different teams and still hold a job, is long dead. Alive, however, is the thrill of the aggressively New. If and when it burns itself out, there will really be something to cry about.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The World is a Vampire

And Elric, albino emperor of the kingdom of Melnibone, feels every bite. He sits atop the Ruby Throne, gaunt but striking, suffering the mediocre entertainments of his court. The ravishing Cymoril, his lover and cousin, is never far from his side. They rule from a palace in Imrryr, the Deaming City, capital of the Dragon Isle. A few hundred years ago, the Melniboneans owned the world. Now, an upstart race called humanity (broken itself into squabbling kingdoms) threatens to overtake all like a piratical fungus.

Legendary fantasy writer Michael Moorcock gave us this formidable premise in the 1960s and 70s. Elric, around whom the series of novels and short stories revolve, is so sickly that he lives, "Thanks to sorcery alone, his strength sustained by every art known to the sorcerer kings [who preceded him]." He also lives thanks to some wonderful comics produced in the early 80s by Roy Thomas (The Avengers), P. Craig Russell (Sandman) and Michael T. Gilbert.

Short-lived independent publisher Pacific Comics released their adaptation of Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone between 1983-84. I'd had the first of six issues for years, never bothering to track down the rest. Finally doing so put me in touch with a comic just as tortured as its sword-and-sorcery antihero.

Richly colored, ecstatically composed, the first issue is a treasure. Scripter Thomas (who's adaptations, from Conan to Dracula, are always great) fluffs and folds Moorcock's writing impressively: "Without both magic and his daily intake of drugs, this albino whose skin is the color of a bleached skull would barely be able to raise his arms from his side. His is a grim but natural lassitude-"

Cymoril's conniving brother Yyrkoon knows this too well. He wants to wrest from Elric both the Ruby Throne and his sister's physical affection (shudder). The opening scene establishing this dynamic among the characters is a tightly paneled marvel. Later, when the lovers journey through the countryside toward the ocean, the layout blooms to comprise ever wider panels, allowing us to thrill at Russell and Gilbert's elegant art.

Elegant, yet weirdly symbiotic. Initially, Russell (the more gifted of the pair) sketched out the panels. Then Gilbert did the actual drawing of figures and landscapes. Afterward, Russell inked the work, giving it his rococo sharpness. The result is a strange compression of Russell's artistic delivery (extravagantly present in his Jungle Book adaptations of this era).

The second issue, featuring a sea battle (and Elric in his signature bat-winged helm), is on better paper. But the colors aren't as rosily warm this time. Seemingly a mix of marker and watercolor paint, they struggle against too white pages. The overall work is still exceedingly beautiful, which can't be said of the third and fourth issues. They've got, quite possibly, the most hideously intrusive colors I've ever seen in a comic. Pale pink skies and orange flesh exist alongside muddy green word balloons. Entire panels vanish beneath flat blocks of blue.

The saving grace is that Russel and Gilbert hit their stride envisioning Moorcock's landmark realm of sorcery. Elric is aided by wood and water elementals, and the Chaos Lord Arioch, in his quest to confront Yyrkoon, who's taken Cymoril (and cities of Oin and Yu) captive. Thomas' absorbing abridgement of the tale is just as entrancing as the original: "For a goodly space of time the rune-chanting goes on, the Melnibonean high speech mingling with the sound of the fiercely beating rain."

Issues five and six see Elric enter the Shade Gate in search of two mystical swords- Stormbringer and Mournblade. Otherworldly purples and grays service this shadowy dimension well, and no longer imply an epic tussle between creators and printing technology. Thank heavens, because the showdown between Elric (like a giant insect in his black armor) and Yyrkoon (like a raving derelict in his checkered robe) is orchestrated masterfully. Russel and Gilbert's lithe figures, each brandishing one of the swords, clash with vibrant force. Color-wise, the solids, washes and gradations are finally perfect; like characters unto themselves, they tell a share of the story important as any other.

And, I may be a biased child of the 90s, but I detect a strong line of descent racing from Russell to Yoshitako Amano and his work on the Final Fantasy video games. Both are capable of startling delicacy in their designs, whether it's clothing or architecture. Both have worked on Sandman with Neil Gaiman. Both melt reality, painting miraculous alternatives with the runoff.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

And Then This Happened

I forgot to buy the new first issue of Deadpool (part of the Marvel NOW! blitzkrieg) last Wednesday, probably because some copies had a special cover that was {ahem} actually blank. This rip-snorting gimmick, I suppose, is for comic conventioneers who want an Original Artist Sketch. But days ago I finally saw the lovely Geoff Darrow (Shaolin Cowboy) cover in which a lizard monster is either ingesting or barfing cats and dogs (I honestly can't tell). Deadpool's there too.

Also known as the Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool's the sturdiest creation of industry punching bag Rob Liefeld. Usually, enjoying him requires a high tolerance for puerile puns and gratuitous everything (though he does gain mileage when teamed-up with X-Force or Spider-Man). In this most recent perfunctory relaunch, Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn, two writers I don't know from Luke Cage, have been tasked with bringing the funny.

Wait. I do know one of them. Posehn is the gentle behemoth seen in Mr. Show and The Sarah Silverman Program. He absolutely stamps "can't miss" all over this comic! Partnered with the other guy, Posehn steals a page from Peter Milligan's book of Straight Up Blasphemy by resurrecting all of the dead U.S. presidents.

Artist Tony Moore (The Walking Dead) helps, in it up to his sideburns while establishing who and what Deadpool is. "Hey, freak!" says an irate New Yorker to our hero, "You can't just leave this here." DP, having seconds ago cut himself and Thor free from a giant lizard's stomach, replies, "Just roll Deadzilla to the curb. A hobo will eat it." Yup.

Soon, powered by a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agent's voodoo, zombie Franklin Delano Roosevelt rolls up from said curb. Deadpool mistakes him for Stephen Hawking. FDR then throws a taxi at him, to which he yells, "Who says you can't catch a cab in New York?" As the fight spills into the subway, where the inevitable stabbing and electrocution happen, we're further treated to, "You have nothing to fear- except me!" not to mention, "Here's a new deal- DIE!"

Had enough yet? Want to know what's written on zombie Reagan's forehead? Moore's manic facial expressions and flair for B-movie wackiness make it all fairly entertaining (though his work is scratchier here than in Fear Agent or FrankenCastle). On the whole, the new Deadpool rests comfortably in the "thank-god-I'm-getting-my-subcriber-discount" category. More importantly, he's the exhaust pipe out of which Marvel's pumps all the meta-idiocy that would ruin other characters. Without his brain-donor charms to call upon, Spider-Man would be stuck half-naked in a nightmare about high school, fighting the Hyno-Hustler...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sparrows Are Beautiful Too

Marvel and DC, locked in eternal battle like T-Rex and Spinosaurus, can be wearying to follow. Events, cross-overs, tie-ins, reboots- hardly a year goes by without monumental changes that Shake The Very Foundation of Everything. To be less facetious, I now scorn the phrase "End of an Era" for, as of late, eras aren't six or seven years worth of dedicated work by a pair of creators, but maybe thirty issues of any given title (featuring ten different artists). Alas, this post isn't where I splash an industry that gives me weekly joy with fish guts.

This post is about the sparrows of the comic rack. They're new to the scene, nearly invisible, and star flickering shadows intentionally reminiscent of more famous characters. The best example of this was the 1999 book The Authority, which had a first year so exhilarating that Marvel spent the next decade copying it. The lean and mean treatment of Superman, Batman and the rest of the Justice League (there named Apollo, Midnighter, etc.) was exactly what readers had been craving for years.

Danger Club is the latest title to riff elaborately on the major motifs we know and love. Publisher Image has just collected the first four issues, but I've been taking a chance on it from the beginning (which was in April, making this comic quarterly). The schtick presented by writer Landry Walker and artist Eric Jones is that all the adult heroes have been killed in space, leaving their teen sidekicks to protect the Earth.

Naturally, Teen Titans explored a similar premise years ago. But what makes Danger Club such atrocious fun is that the creators approach their characters and the material as if all is a clear spring day, and nothing of the past or future matters. What results is a blood-drenched microcosm brimming with sidekick survivalists. Some are more vaguely familiar than others; the Superboy analogue is actually called Apollo (in honor or both franchises?), Robin's clone is called Kid Vigilante, and Nick Fury (of all people) is dropped to pint-size in Jack Fearless. Lesser DC deities like Mr. Terrific and Zatanna see a strange merging in The Magician, while tiny, technologically-superior Yoshimi reminds us of the Avengers Wasp and Iron Man.

The story itself dashes on its feet, dropping us in where Apollo has declared himself ruler of a city left to chaotic spasms. A clique of altruistic sidekicks (mentioned above) disagree, and crash the sports arena where dozens of other teens battle for rank in the new regime. Artist Jones is a gory perfectionist, who can draw bright-eyed youths just as incredibly as he does the blows that cripple them. Innocent faces convey raw idealism pages before becoming Tyler Durden Approved burger.

But I can't dwell long on the similarities between Danger Club and the asinine comics that launched Image in the early 90s (Youngblood, Bloodstrike, Brigade). Few titles today jettison writing as flagrantly as they did, and Landry and Jones' creation is a smart, sharply-plotted ride that I only wish came out faster. With each issue's release, there is a visceral appeal that's undeniable (aided immensely by Michael Drake's dazzling colors), making for great nostalgic reading. Still, to enjoy the finer twists and turns of character betrayals and looming master villains, you must reread them as a collection.

And of course I'm willing to, for as long as Danger Club lasts. It's a scrappy yet fragile world, where death and destruction actually have weight. Johnny Storm, the Fantastic Four's Human Torch, will always have an audience to demand his return from the land of ghosts and wind. Kid Vigilante, whether his head explodes or his playground gets cancelled, won't.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Found Objects

As 2012 closes, and feathered serpent Quezacotl prepares to down mankind like a handful of stale cashews, we're seeing the last of this year's extra-sized annuals. My batch this week included two, the first of which is Avenging Spider-Man, written by Robbie Williams and drawn by Brad Walker. The latter, who's rubbery faces and agile layouts have evolved incredibly during runs on Secret Six and Guardians of the Galaxy, is always a welcome sight.

Here he draws the relentlessly goofy tale of schmoes Frankie and Spags, brothers who use a metal detector in Central Park, hoping to find battlefield treasure. That's right. They want junk left in the wake of super-fights involving the Avengers, Hulk, alien Skrulls, godly Asgardians, and many more, so they can get rich (or become super-villains, whichever happens first). Across town, meanwhile, Peter Parker stumbles through a typical day in which he regrets waking up. A pair of butchies, finding that he heads for The Daily Bugle's publishing offices, squeeze him off a train with, "Ha! Print media's obsolete, pal!" and, "Digital is the future of information delivery!" as well as, "It's just a matter of time until all tablet devices incorporate a homogenized system for payment and distribution, dork!"

Later, Frankie and Spags find an alien box that makes everyone around them violently disagreeable. Peter's suited up as Spider-Man and already on the Thing's radar. As the orange-bricked quarter of the Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm is usually a gentle soul. In fact, he's babysitting Franklin and Valeria Richards when he's reminded that Spider-Man owes him poker money. With Frankie and Spags crossing Manhattan in a stolen taxi, the rest writes itself.

Avenging Spider-Man, with rotating creators and guest-stars, is a lighthearted title where Marvel's heroes take a breath from life and death struggles. Month after month, it proves that Spidey, despite his introverted alter-ego, is an extrovert; he's at his best around other heroes. Occasionally, he and they share some "Slobberin' Time," which, after dropping five bucks, you can enjoy without my help.

But if you do crave your heroes on the brink, the Action Comics annual is a solid chapter in the newly established Superman mythos. We're treated to the return of the Kryptonite Man (a vengeful lunatic named Ramsay), who's infused with radiation from crystals that came to Earth in the infant Kal El's rocket. Sholly Fisch's script and pacing are refreshingly straightforward compared with the last year of uneven, tempestuous Grant Morrison stories.

Cheery art by Cully Hamner serves us a classic Metropolis team-up, as Superman visits John Henry Irons, the reluctant hero Steel, in his lab. The Justice League heavy wonders if he can trust Irons, since the doctor was present when the army tested his alien strength in a torture session. This leads to a great moment where Irons can only laugh at the idea of Superman feeling threatened by him. "Come on," he offers, "I'll buy you a coffee."

What follows, once K-Man's empowered, is pure Man of Steel: a construction crane endangers its operator and civilians, Big Blue steps in heroically and poses for Jimmy Olsen's camera, Lois Lane stands enamored, and then the villain shows up to make dog food of the whole scene. Throughout, light dialogue allows Hamner maximum space for iconic shots. We also see Christopher Reeve's likeness in this Superman (mainly the nose), an homage artist Gary Frank started years ago.

But my favorite thing about this jumbo Action Comics is the backup story by writer Max Landis (Chronicle) and artist Ryan Sook. It's got no words to mar Sook's exquisite compositions, and begins with a man thrown explosively from an atomic submarine. Washing ashore (on what seems to be an island), he's attacked by a leopard while guarding his cachet of gathered fruit. He shouts in fear only to blast the big cat with a purple ray, incinerating it. After some further hunting and exploring, the now bearded castaway remembers his former life. A beautiful (and murdered) wife in a shallow grave surface in his mind as the flesh on his face deteriorates. Pulling it off, he's left with a glowing purple skull.

If screenwriter Landis can bring this taut magnificence to a regular scripting job, I'd love to see him tackle any of DC's major characters. But it is Superman, with a revamped film on the way, who's most in need of a gripping and accessible run of comics that new fans will read. Older fans too, might like some more pitch perfect Action Comics. We'll still be here if Zack Snyder's Man of Steel stinks, and Quezacotl misses his appointment.