Saturday, September 29, 2012

Charmed, I'm Sure

"I recently lost my I.D.," says Doctor Donald Blake, "and it took a long time, but I finally got it back." The good doctor, who carries a cane for a limp that might just be for show, is the human host of the Mighty Thor. He speaks with Beth Sooner, the owner of a boarding house in small-town Oklahoma. She replies, "Oh, well. That's good. I just hate it when that happens."

So do comic readers. The Asgardian and his hammer Mjolnir have led an oft mucked-with career at Marvel. Though Nordic gents such as Eric Masterson and Sigurd Jarlson have been Thor's connection to Midgard (Earth) during defining eras, Blake is the original whom Stan Lee and Jack Kirby trapped in a cave with an inscribed mallet back in 1962 (it said, "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor"). In 2007, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Olivier Coipel revived Thor after the mythical apocalypse Ragnarok wiped the Asgardians from existence.

Their run on Thor, the first six issues of which I mention here, is an embarrassment of iconic riches. The opening sequence gives us high fantasy done right, as Thor's essence delivers a cosmic elegy: "I have dreamed such dreams. I was a man dreaming I was a god. I was a god dreaming I was a man." Coipel's art, sharpened to cinematic luster by Mark Morales (the best inker working today), features huge panels that showcase Thor's allies the Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg), and his love, Lady Sif.

Thor's narration, in a medieval font that elegantly complements the material, continues: "I have known the stars... I have known war. And the end of all things. And then I... And then we- went to sleep. And were no more." Communion with Blake in limbo follows. The dual identities discuss oneness, truth, and possible futures. Straczynski, already encamped firmly on that charmed middle-ground whereupon a master storyteller entertains both adults and children, then writes, "It is not for the gods to decide whether or not man exists- it is for man to decide whether or not the gods exist. And because you are important, because you are needed, your time is not yet over."

Now for some action. Thor fights barehanded through a horde of under-dwellers fresh from Cthulhu's waiting room. The prize, should he reach it, is Mjolnir. The tension Coipel invests in each panel is on par with Kirby's peak work from Journey Into Mystery. After the hammer's gripped and lightning cooks the monsters, our hero restates his desire to live, breathe and fight again.

The very next page features Blake walking along rolling green hills and an empty highway, somewhere in America. In picking up an old stick (that feels right in his hand), the doc gives a subtle impression of having just then materialized (which he did). With a wonderfully patient writing hand, Straczynski doesn't always show off. Instead, he frequently blurs his scene changes to draw readers further in.

And he does brilliantly in Thor what he did for years in Amazing Spider-Man: he makes the supporting cast real. Their meaningful exchanges with the hero are more rewarding than some hyper-quest that only serves to thump the writer's own chest. Beth Sooner, pudgy and with coke-bottle glasses, accompanies short-order cook Bill Junior and most of the rest of an entire small town in welcoming Thor back.

At first, it's a lonely return. Thor conjures a monstrous thunderstorm, out of which Asgard itself manifests. Roaming its majestic stone halls, he encounters ghosts and his own troubled mind. Then, Oklahoma police arrive, saying, "We don't want any trouble, but you can't just go putting... this... down wherever you want." Quietly, Thor acknowledges the idea of private property. Then he causes Asgard to hover above the ground. Later, when the landowner nonchalantly offers to let our hero buy the land, Thor leads him to a treasure vault. To a friend, the man replies, "Tom... back up the truck!"

A lone aspect of this story arc glares, requiring some foreknowledge of recent Marvel comics. When Thor heads out into the world, he visits the recently battered New Orleans. That no heroes stopped Hurricane Katrina from leveling the home of so many innocents galls him. Then, Iron Man shows up. He shows up to tell Thor that in his absence, a super-human civil war happened. The winners must sign up and strap on with the government. Otherwise, it's off to a mega-gulag in the Negative Zone.

The exquisitely drawn fight that ensues isn't simply because Tony Stark, Iron Man, comes off as a goose-stepping prick. It's because, in Thor's absence, he and Mr. Fantastic created a cyborg replica of the Asgardian. Which murdered a few people. And was an awful, poorly executed idea, that everyone would rather forget. Straczynski addresses it though, and reminds us that the civil war wouldn't have happened if the real Thor had been around.

This encounter between titans is awe-inspiring, regardless of context. It also puts Thor in place to find the first of many hosts for his Asgardian brethren. On a bridge in New Orleans is a broken man who's lost almost everything. He says to Thor, "...this is our town, it's our pain, it's our life, and you don't get to use it like it was some kinda movie set so you can look like a big guy!" Into this man Thor compels the essence of Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge that once connected Earth to the gods' home.

The return of the Warriors Three soon follows, as Blake visits Africa with Doctors Without Borders. There, he encounters a trio of soldiers from around the world who've become inseparable. When ethnic warfare breaks out, with bullets strafing the medical area, Blake pounds his staff and becomes Thor. After smiting the gun-toting savages, he finds that the name of the village, Umeme Mungu, means "lightning god." A few revolutions of the Uru hammer later, and Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg stand in our midst once more.

But the fateful encounters quickly take a dire turn. Odin (Thor's father), Loki (his evil half-brother), and Lady Sif all need recovering... or do they? Some sagas are best reignited without the element that caused such pain the first time. Thor makes some tough choices, but not before his old enemy the Destroyer takes him by surprise.
I hate sports metaphors, but Straczynski hits the first issue out of the park, and then dances the bases to home plate. That his reign in Asgard was cut short to fold Thor into the Siege event is bittersweet, since it's one of Marvel's best epics, despite being loud and dumb. In a different time and place, Straczynski's slower, more savory narrative style might return in force. Then again, as Loki says: "In the end, the darkness must always overwhelm and hurl back the light."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Green Globs and Popped Claws

For decades, Marvel has spun enough comics out of the X-Men concept to wallpaper Charles Xavier's Westchester mansion, several times over. This includes student teams like Generation X, and alternate takes like X-Factor. At the moment however, five titles are actually called some variation of X-Men, and feature overlapping combinations of characters. As a reader with limited time and money, this should enrage me. But darn it if more than half of these comics aren't addictive, solid reads.

Marvel's only problem now is a balanced schedule. The week of September 26, 2012 sees Wolverine and the X-Men, X-Men Legacy, Astonishing X-Men and plain old X-Men hit the stands. I'm frankly obsessed with writer Jason Aaron's Wolverine-led book, so I'll focus my full-frontal nerdity on his work.

I can't meet this comic with enough gleeful anticipation, and definitely should have discussed it by now. Aaron, like kindred spirit Grant Morrison before him, has packed every cupboard and cranny of Xavier's with personality. Except now, the mansion is called the "Jean Grey School for Higher Learning," with Wolverine and Kitty Pryde running the show. On art detail, the writer's been joined by walking legend Chris Bachalo, who helped establish that the school's grounds are a living (and ferociously toothy) landscape known as Krakoa.

There's also the hyper-talented Nick Bradshaw, who I'd say is possessed by the ghost of Arthur Adams- if the classic X-Men artist weren't still alive. He brings a passion for riotous detail to Aaron's table, and is by far the best interpreter of the writer's freewheeling imagination. The motley batch of students aren't easily forgotten, springing from every page in their bratty multitude: Broo (a young member of the vicious alien species the Brood), Quentin Quire (authority-hating hipster doofus), Kid Gladiator and Warbird (alien Shi-ar youths, restless for battle), and Idie (ingenue hauled in to make Kitty feel old).

Today's issue is guest-drawn by Madman creator Mike Allred. It also stars Doop, the floating green glob that Allred conceived with Peter Milligan for the 2001 relaunch of X-Force. This creature's gimmick (to not mince words) is that we can't understand its hieroglyphic speech, and psychotropic mayhem follows in its wake. Since the start of this series, Doop's been found staring creepily from behind a reception desk in the school's lobby. At the insistence of murderous cyborg/philosopher Deathlock (Aaron's kitchen sink, as it were), Wolverine explains that the pudgy green floater isn't useless (despite being smeared at its station like a frat pledge), but utterly essential to the school's success.

A series of flashbacks prove that Doop is quite the multifaceted...whatever it is. In trying to ditch Wolverine, who won't stop asking for a commitment to the X-Men, Doop takes Canada's hairiest export diving in icy water. Then they make headcheese, or {ahem} meat jelly, from the head of a pig. Tag team Mexican wrestling and an Andy Warhol film marathon follow. Still, Wolverine won't quit the big green bean. What finally gets Doop to join the school is, well... I'd feel dirty typing it.

The issue, brightly colored by Allred's wife Laura, is well worth your four bucks. Especially the fight against the League of Nazi Bowlers, the sexual bribing of school board members, and the charge with Howard the Duck against Robo-Barbarians. To be kept firmly in mind, however, is that this is a fill-in issue. Elsewhere in the series, when Kitty and the Phoenix-empowered Colossus have a "hot-date", Aaron proves his heart is bigger than his brain. Someday, this run will stand alongside the early 80s work of Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, who made "Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters" feel like a favorite fall sweater. Like a transporting comfort that might just be yours alone.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Future I Signed Up For

To plug and paraphrase my recent Open Letters Monthly article, comic books kick most movies and television to the back of the creative classroom. What an artist transfers from his brain to the Bristol board can be tamed by no budget. A writer need only feed her mind omnivorously, and her next daydream (or nightmare) could become a groundbreaking new series.

That said, the noise I make today celebrates the successful relaunch of a title from the holo-foil dungeon that was the 90s. If you were a teen collector back then (or an adult reader, patiently awaiting some awful trends to die), the word Prophet might mean something. The character burst, locked and loaded, from the the mind of Rob Liefeld, co-founder of Image Comics. Like most of Liefeld's tortured creations, John Prophet was a time-traveler, muscled like a brontosaur, and easily bored when not shooting or impaling something. A typical issue (drawn by talented flame-out Stephen Platt) had more lines than there are neurons in the brain.

Anyway. I come not to bemoan the past, but to extol the wonderfully weird future set forth by creators Brandon Graham and Simon Roy. As Prophet's new helmsmen, they scratch the science-fiction itch that Ridley Scott's film Prometheus failed to last summer. And by that, I mean that this comic is more challenging, engaging, and fantastically repulsive than just about anything outside of the Alien universe.

The setting is Earth. Only fossilized machinery reminds that humanity once ruled. Prophet tunnels up from below ground, and out of stasis, in a spiky Hyber Pod. He then vomits up a capsule of "Ampa Micakane", which he injects into his arm to "stimulate his nervous system and activate his implants."

Prophet then takes a moment to enjoy barren, orange scenery evocative of New Mexico. Within seconds, a four-legged animal he calls a tulnaka creeps up. His killing and eating of the thing entertains, but isn't the whole picture. Like most of the animals he encounters- reptiles, mammals and fish alike- the tulnaka's evolved jaws that open on every side, like a voracious flower. Unexamined by the narrative, this is the sort of brain candy I love. Did the animals radiate from a common ancestor? Did they mutate because of chemicals or the environment? That the storytellers thought to include this treat is enough for me. And this comic is full of similarly inspiring oddities- a simple listing of them would be a class in creative storytelling.

Alas, structure counts for something. Let's follow our hero as he descends upon Jell City, an organic spaceship that landed and began rotting that its denizens might subsist on the mold grown at its base. While sleeping in a gourd-like protuberance, he dreams the clues that will further his (as yet) undeclared mission. In the bowels of Jell City, Prophet meets with another Hyber Pod that delivers some tools. One is the so-brilliant-I'm-jealous DolMantle, a glowing blue slug, worn across the shoulders, that adapts to help the imperiled wearer. On different occasions, it stops a bullet, acts as a breathing apparatus, and helps Prophet obtain a new arm.

The rest of the graphic novel Remission is just as innovative. The visual narrative, in fact, is almost clearer than the text. This is supposedly the tale of John Prophet as he scales the towers of Thauilu Vah to awaken the Earth Empire. Alright. Most of that is evident. Generally, Simon Roy, and later Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, and Graham himself, focus on sights that border on the insane. These other artists are also credited alongside Graham for the story, which hints at the text being secondary.

Legendary artist Jack Kirby used to work with Stan Lee in the same manner. Notes and sketches went back and forth until the material shaped-up into a solid story. If Prophet was produced in a similar manner, how can I complain? The title's publisher, Image, celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. I wish them twenty more, the weirder the better.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Collision Courses

Planets, perceptions and pipsqueaks go BOOM in my batch of comics for September 19, 2012. The planet is none other than Krypton, true birthplace of the Smallville, Kansas-raised Superman. But this telling of the alien world's demise happens in the 0 issue of Supergirl, as told by writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson. Artist Mahmud Asrar and colorist Dave McCaig's reliably stunning teamwork is on hand, too.

"Krypton will die," says rogue scientist Zor-El, as he contemplates sharing his conclusion with the rest of his people. He stands before his daughter Kara as she floats unconscious in a tank of fluid. At his remote lab, far from the eyes of distinguished scientists like Jor-El (Superman's father), he prepares her for a journey she doesn't know she's about to take. "Krypton will die. My daughter will not."

The planet's weather towers have been compromised (as seen last week in Superboy 0), and tremors wrack Argo City's spiraling citadels. As Kara and Zor-El travel among them, they glide in an elegant machine that's surely solar-powered. Or, maybe I just think so because McCaig sets most scenes with incredibly warm amber washes. This allows the rich red and blue costumes of the Kryptonians to pop. Asrar dresses them in a futuristic combination of royal cloaks and armor, reminiscent of Marvel's Asgardians (Kara's mother especially, who could pass for a female Thor in her winged helmet).

By the end, Kara and her father reach yet another strange chamber, this one housing an egg-like pod. Surprising her, Zor-El lets her try on a House of El uniform that's off limits to those who've yet to "pass the trials." She does so ecstatically, then grows too weak to resist being carried to the pod. As it launches, Kara escapes the bright green apocalypse that's made our planet such an interesting place for the last seventy years.

Over in Daredevil, a much more Earth-bound title, blind attorney Matt Murdock finds himself unable to trust the super-senses that carry him over rooftops and into trouble. This issue, almost two years into writer Mark Waid's run, offers yet another stellar dose of cleverness and intrigue. Chris Samnee's art, though more than half of it features conversation, is beautifully buoyant as ever.

Lawyer Foggy Nelson, recently split from his unpredictable partner Murdock, meets a man whose sister is in trouble. She's the nurse and physical therapist for gangster Victor Hierra. Upon finding his body completely drained of blood (between one second and the next), she ends up complicit in an impossible crime. Coupled with the aquatic drab of colorist of Javier Rodriguez, Samnee makes a fascinating premise an irresistibly consumable read. The world they create is dangerous but fun, and will merit frequent revisits once the run ends.

As for Daredevil himself, we don't immediately see him with a switch of the scenery. We're first treated to Murdock returning from a date with Assistant District Attorney Kirsten McDuffie. He's forced to close his apartment door in her face, smoochless but certain that he can hear a familiar heartbeat within. That he finds former wife Milla, blind like him and last seen in a mental institution, is a credit to Waid's willingness to connect his work with that of other writers. Milla is a vestige of hipster scribe Brian Bendis' six grim years on Daredevil, an era that Waid has sought to eclipse with his swashbuckling approach to the character.

Here, Milla's appearance helps throw ole' Horn Head into work. Foggy calls him, asking for help investigating the Hierra situation. During an always welcome penthouse melee with clueless goons, Daredevil sees a drug lord named Salazar run for the elevator. He then "hears" the man fall through an empty shaft with his radar sense. Once the elevator opens, however, the floor's intact and Salazar is nowhere. Combine this oddity with Foggy's in-person confirmation that Milla is still in a padded room, and you've got an unmissable next issue.

Back down the hall, Geoff John's new Justice League is an unmissable issue in its own right, as we finally see the result of multiple back-up stories starring the incorrigible Billy Batson. Gary Frank has been drawing the orphan's adventures with the darkly-rendered realism he brings to everything (most recently Batman: Earth One). The boy thinks his foster parents are imbeciles and his "siblings" idiots. But he does occasionally feed a tiger named Tawny at the zoo, so there's hope...

While running from the Bryer clan, teen bullies that pick on his disabled brother, Billy helps himself onto a train car. An apparently magical train car, that delivers him to the doors of the Rock of Eternity. This fortress of mystical relics is also the home of the heroic entity Shazam, and the prison of The Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Sloth, Envy, etc.). Here, Billy speaks at length with  a scraggly old man, who is, "the last of the council of the wizards and the keeper of the Rock of Eternity."

After the keeper expresses doubt about Billy, he says,"Of course he's not the one I seek... Why is the magic wasting my time with these flawed people? The Dark One has been released." Bratty Bill is stunned that the keeper could hope for a perfect person. He replies, "People are horrible. They disappoint you. They let you down. I've spent my life learning that... Good people get swallowed up. They get taken advantage of. They disappear."

This heart-felt railing against the injustice of life is vintage Johns. It comes across as the world-weariness of someone with a chip on his shoulder, and the writer will slowly raise the character from this lowly state to someone we can root for.

The keeper, after this talk, sees that Billy has great potential for good, and invests him with the power of Shazam anyway. This means that, upon speaking the word "SHAZAM" with honest intent, the boy takes a lightning strike, no matter where he stands. He then transforms into a larger, less refined version of Superman (or so it seems from the outside).

But the first thing Billy does with his awesome new power is cripple a mugger and ask the victim for a cash reward. His foster brother Freddie says, "We're gonna be rich!" Not {ahem} if the Justice League have anything to say about it. This is their comic, after all, and the BOOM of a Shazam/Superman fight can't hit soon enough.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Brand Warfare

Roughly between 1982-1997, X indisputably marked the spot for Marvel Comics. The publisher spun-off as many titles as possible from the core brilliance that was writer Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men. The formula, resulting in New Mutants, X-Factor, X-Men, X-Force and Generation X (to name the most successful), went like this: mutants, feared and hated worldwide for their incredible powers, came into existence wherever teens hit pubescence (meaning everywhere). Professor Charles Xavier, aided by his "rescue and response team" of X-Men, tracked the kids and brought them to his School for Gifted Youngsters, where they received shelter and understanding... oh, and paramilitary training in the use of their powers.

Market saturation takes its toll, however. Star talents fade. The last decade hasn't been as fruitful for Brand X as it's been for the Avengers, Marvel's shinier, happier heroes. Still, recent sprouts in the garden are Grant Morrison's New X-Men and Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men. They're noteworthy because, with mutants now all up in Hollywood, these titles are easily handed to someone new to comics; these titles create new fans.

Uncanny X-Force, for all its dystopian excellence, does not. It sits better alongside M. John Harrison's Viriconium novels, and Michael Moorcock's Elric saga- lyrical sword and sorcery masterworks from the 80s- than it does other comics. Scribe Rick Remender honors these brutal and defiantly macabre realms by sending X-Force to assassinate Apocalypse- an evil mutant several thousand years old and recently reborn into a fresh body.

Alright, but what the hell is X-Force? Like the name implies, they're a proactively stabby branch of the X-Men who remove other extremist elements from the playing field. The current team includes the always hairy and marketable Wolverine, the wisecracking Deadpool (who's basically an undead Spider-Man with swords instead of webs), the telepathic ninja Psylocke and the winged Archangel (lovers and lesser known X-Men, despite being some of the most visually striking), and lastly, Fantomex, a character Grant Morrison created, who- wait for it- has the power to "misdirect people." He also pilots a UFO called E.V.A. that happens to be his nervous system.

They're a balanced bunch, with Deadpool bringing the inane humor ("Down! Down! Down dives our hero into the menacing green mist!"), and Fantomex the philosophy ("A man can only go so long without his poison"). Wolverine, his berserker rage always a few degrees from boiling, is the unflinching leader. Archangel, the deadly persona of billionaire Warren Worthington III, is kept in check by the telepathic ministrations of Psylocke, the team's conscience. The upset comes once they reach Apocalypse and find him reborn as a child.

Remender's premise, a take on the historical koan that wonders whether Hitler's death as a boy would've prevented World War II, requires more than a perusal of X-Lore. It requires familiarity with Apocalypse's dark, Darwinian mission to eradicate humanity, allowing mutants to reign over a broken, cleansed planet. It helps to have read the Age of Apocalypse storyline from the mid 90s (an alternate reality where he achieves his goal), and to know that this villain who's feared but seldom seen is responsible for the once dreamy Angel becoming the broody, unstable Archangel.

Remender's character-heavy dialogue hardly ever acclimates the uninitiated: "Gotta tell ya, Flyboy," says Wolverine to Archangel, "when you give bad news you don't mess about." When Fantomex mocks their mission's dour tone, Psylocke replies, "You wouldn't be so flippant if you knew what he did to Warren."

One panel hints at the 1986 story Mutant Massacre, where Angel lost his original wings. But for dedicated X-Men fans, Uncanny X-Force is an adult, atmospheric read full of rewarding short-hand. Most of the heavy lifting comes from artist Jerome Opena and colorist Dean White. Opena is the kind of detail-oriented creator whose attention to body types and scale feels boundless. His citadels and plazas induce vertigo. His textured costumes and exceptional facial expressions invoke the legendary Neal Adams. Add to this White's nuanced array of limes, lavenders and midnights, and the reader goes spelunking in narrative caverns razor-wired off from the rest of the Marvel Universe

This series also boasts some intensely gorgeous painted covers by Esad Ribic. An amazing sequential artist in his own right, Ribic does for decadent anti-heroes what Frank Frazetta did for barbarians decades ago.

Uncanny X-Force's success has vaulted its creators onto Marvel's A-List. In October, when the publisher relaunches the core universe, Ribic draws Thor, Opena draws Avengers, and Remender writes Uncanny Avengers. These assignments, I trust, have the trio's creative juices running high. Ounce for ounce, there's none stronger.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

For the week of September 12, 2012, I've plucked two comics from an enormous batch that, month after month, prove themselves priority reads. First up is Batman, by the endlessly inventive team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. With this being another issue 0 origin story, you might point out that Batman: Year One covered the beat flawlessly back in 1986. Or that Batman: Earth One polished the well-trod material just last Spring.

But history doesn't stop Snyder and Capullo from delivering the best of DC's New 52, and what often feels like the best comic currently published anywhere. History, in fact, greatly enables Snyder, who loves strengthening Batman's ties to Gotham city. "What was once old," says a bank manager on the opening page, "will be new again." He no sooner slices into a cake sculpted like his bank than the Red Hood Gang charges in for a hold-up.

The Red Hood was actually the Joker's first criminal guise, according to a tale from the 50s. This character, grinning from under a shiny red helmet, orders one of his men to "put down" the banker. The thug pistol-whips the man instead of shooting him. Within a few tense panels, the Red Hood becomes sure of an imposter in the ranks, and says, "You're going to blow your brains out. Right here, right now." Unmasked, with a gun in his mouth, the imposter hesitates. "Come on already, will you? This is getting old!" A young Bruce Wayne, daringly disguised, says, "Then let me make it new for you."

Our hero's escape from the bank, through the sewer, showcases Capullo's masterful cinematography. His shadows are deep and his tech is thrillingly employed. The rest of the issue, an extensive chat between Bruce and Jim Gordon, shows that both are subtly younger, this tale being a flashback, and a neat bit with one of the first batarangs reveals creative minds never at rest.

Meanwhile, across the publishing pond at Marvel, a loud and all-consuming Summer crossover is finally about to croak. The penultimate issue of Avengers vs. X-Men is here, but don't worry- I won't spoil it like a certain New York newspaper did. The series itself needs summarizing, and I'll be struggling words-wise to meet the sheer majesty of Olivier Coipel's art.

Conceived and delivered by five of the company's best writers, this mega-brawl sees humans and mutants alike staring down the Phoenix, a cosmic force that manifests though (and typically corrupts) a super-powered host. The first and best time around, the Phoenix took over X-Man Jean Grey. She went insane with power, killing billions and eventually herself. This time, the Phoenix force is shared (ironically) among five heroic mutants: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus and Magik.

To spite the all-powerful Phoenix cabal's fascist correcting of worldly ills like hunger and war, the Avengers have confronted them repeatedly. The rest of the mutant X-Men, pawns of the cabal, have battled Captain America and Iron Man's team to a stand still each time. Nevertheless, members of the cabal have fallen, as the Phoenix force flees a weakened host to reside in a stronger one.

Which brings us to today's issue. Cyclops and Emma are the last two hosts. Scribe Brian Bendis keeps his woefully rambling dialogue fairly sharp as they contemplate turning on each other. "We have the power to remake the world the way it was always supposed to be," Emma says. "If not us, who? This is how things like this are done."

Even when focused, Bendis pads his writing like a couch fort. But visionary artist Coipel tells more of this story than any writer could anyway. Inker Mark Morales and colorist Laura Martin help, buffing his already electrifying layouts into pop magnificence. Not since Jack Kirby, John Buscema and other 60s greats invented what superpowers in action should look like has comic art been so satisfying to behold.

An early shot of the Avengers and X-Men embracing is a tarot card of sorts. Then again, the result of this series is already being advertised relentlessly. The two headlining teams, once they merge to defeat Cyclops' Dark Phoenix persona, will stay together, like the Avengers themselves did after battling Loki decades ago. Politics in the Marvel Universe might change, with mutants gaining a bit more legitimacy. That, or the Avengers could be branded public enemies. Realistically, a wonderful third option awaits readers, because they'll jump off just about any cliff at the House of Ideas. We don't dare look away.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Spandex Is So Three Days Ago

But don't fret. It'll be back once I finish gushing over The Supernaturalist, a graphic novel adaptation of Eoin Colfer's young adult novel of the same name. Here, the Artemis Fowl author is joined by scribe Andrew Donkin and Italian artist Giovanni Rigano, whose future-shock art caught my eye in New England Comics weeks ago.

That said (and with zero knowledge of Artemis Fowl), I read this expecting nothing special plot-wise. Flipping through the world of Satellite City, its sloe-eyed ragamuffins and bejeweled filth are reminiscent of the anime classic Akira. Rigano's penciling, as seen in this half-sized hardcover, conveys endless detail with a manic line quality. It's gorgeously exotic, dropping you into a more fully-rendered realm than is offered by most monthly comics.

Then you meet Colfer's surprisingly deft concepts, one after another, and they whip eye-candy into a tasty find indeed. The term Supernaturalist refers to someone who's had a near death experience, and comes back able to see the bright blue parasites infesting Satellite City- "a supercity of twenty-five million people with everything the body wants and nothing the soul needs." Our hero Cosmo Hill, while escaping from the Clarissa Frayne Institute for Parentally Challenged Boys, eats 10,000 volts from a utility wire before hitting a rooftop. In and out of consciousness, he sees globular blue beings surround him.

Enter Mona, Stefan and Ditto- hunters of the supernatural. They zap the parasites sucking the life from Cosmo's chest and bring him to their squalid HQ on Abracadabra Street. They fix his fractured skull with Robotix plates (from an armored tank), and render him, certainly as far as heroes go, hideous. By way of explaining the parasites, they really don't. Stefan, the group's leader, says their origin is unknown, and they appear whenever someone's injured or in danger, ostensibly to drain that person's life-force.

This scene also sees the Akira similarities pile up, as we discover that Ditto, who's the size of a child, is actually an adult bred for ESP talents. Mona, with a DNA tattoo on her cheek, is part of a gang who customize their own street racers (and have parasites perpetually hovering near them, in a great commentary on the fast life).

Colfer achieves these moments of homage perfectly. The colors of Paolo Lamanna, however, are garishly cinematic, and you often forget the The Supernaturalist is original art, not film stills comprising a cheesy ani-manga book (Miyazaki movies typically suffer this fate). Much of his palette relies on sickly green and gold washes, peppered with the blinking neon that evokes video arcades and pool halls. I might call Lamanna a showoff, but why quibble when the story he's helped visualize bounces with creative energy.

My only true complaint is that Rigano's art is clearly meant for a larger page. Staring at length into his panels, trying to see everything, is akin to hearing excited children babble. Hopefully, publishing partners Disney and Hyperion will issue a paperback of somewhat epic proportions- this tale deserves it.

While some of Colfer's best ideas are intellectual parsley, including the "lawyers" who act as corporate storm troopers, rushing to the scene of a disaster with battle gear, the blue parasites are his star concept. They aren't what they seem, and neither is this incredible all-ages story. To wrap up, I'll quote biologist J.B.S. Haldane: "The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Statements of Purpose

Tackling controversy in comics doesn't always make a writer great, but great writers sure do love it, as shown in my September 5, 2012 batch of comics. Geoff Johns, who just last week wrote a kiss between Superman and Wonder Woman, this week gives us a newly minted Green Lantern, seen here brandishing a handgun. Yes, your eyes are working. That's a Green Lantern, whose magic ring allows him to create anything from pure willpower, exercising his 2nd Amendment right.

Johns' indictment of this miserable fact of American life couldn't be harsher. That is until you read the new Green Lantern's origin in this special issue. Simon Baz is his name. He's an Arab American, from Dearborn, Michigan, raised in the Post 9/11 World. Typical scenes from his youth include: washing graffiti from the walls of an Islamic Center, standing up for his sister against bigots, and patiently awaiting security to clear his passage.

Artist Doug Mahnke, whose monstrously fertile mind usually fills this comic with bizarre creatures, has only terrestrial terrors to illustrate here. A few pages in, we find Baz driving a truck with a bomb in it. As a car thief, he didn't know about the armed device, but Johns once again leans as heavily as possible on this hot button. Later, a trip to an island prison for hooded "interrogation" seems to finally clear the deck of scathing commentary.

Baz is rescued from a water-boarding by a glowing green ring that bursts through the ceiling. "Simon Baz of Earth," it says, in standard greeting to a new bearer, "you have the {ERROR} ability to overcome great fear." The error is new, but what it means is probably a twist for later. Another war is brewing in the four Green Lantern titles, and as I've said before, if Johns himself wouldn't love to read it, he doesn't write it.

The same is easily said of Dan Slott, who writes Amazing Spider-Man with the maniacal pride of a circus ringleader. Evidently a careful student of comics for decades, Slott fearlessly spins the many plates that keep readers obsessed: a flawed, sympathetic hero, a great supporting cast, and agile, in-character dialogue. Mary Jane's assertion that, "You're not who you are because your Uncle Ben died. You're who you are because your Uncle Ben lived," is brilliant regardless of story or context.

Slott also happens to out-plot the rest of Marvel's entire writing stable (sorry, Jonathan Hickman). His latest opus sees scientist Peter Parker inadvertently invest high school student Andy Maguire, whose class visits Horizon Labs, with Great Power. Next must come Great Responsibility, or so hope the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, because Andy's now possessed of super-speed, super-strength, and capable of shooting energy/creating a force-field. Character-wise, he's an unknown quantity, and all the other heroes insist that Peter wrap the lad in some fatherly webs.

The poignancy of Spider-Man getting a sidekick for his 50th Anniversary would be a story for the ages. This isn't that story. Andy, as the hero Alpha, is a solid-gold asshole. When not endorsing gadgets, tongue-wrestling chippies, and getting himself kidnapped (and cloned, WHEEE) by the Jackal, he finds time to call Spider-Man his sidekick. In this portrayal, Slott eviscerates our modern up-from-the-dumpster celebrities, who routinely perform career-destroying acts of idiocy and then bow.

Humberto Ramos, one of the first (and hardest working) manga-influenced artists of the 90s, is deep in his A-Game this month. He excels in drawing emotion, both exaggerated and subtle, and this being a less cluttered story than last year's Spider-Island, we get the full brunt of his talent on every page. Peter appears grim indeed after deciding, "His power is my responsibility. That gives me all the say I need. And I say- Alpha: No More."

But dire sentiments need not taint this entire review (for two paragraphs, at least). Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, by the Eisner-Deserving team of Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner, is a spectacle of light, color, and one man's dong (on page 18). Yes sir, this is a comic that takes full advantage of its counterculture backdrop. The first quarter features our heroine, previously seen in the 1986 graphic novel Watchmen, tripping at a love-in and talking to the skeleton of her beloved bird Lamb.

The whole is exquisitely drawn by Conner (and psychedelically colored by Paul Mounts), who along with Becky Cloonan and Nicola Scott, is one of the best artists working today who happens to be female. Most of this comic sticks to the nine panel layout artist Dave Gibbons laid down in Watchmen, and is more cinematic for it. This is especially true when Cooke gives us two dialogue-free pages of the mercenary Comedian visiting the Spectre as she sleeps. She doesn't know it, but the vile man's her father. He drops a note on her dresser, pets her cat, and then leaves grinning. She's taken after him, naturally enough, kicking open doors and heads for the greater good.

Despite a slap-happy tone, however, this comic is unabashedly cynical. It gives us a drug lord, modeled on Frank Sinatra, who preys on those desperate for enlightenment. Elsewhere, a doctor tells Silk Spectre, "You kids had better take it easy on those acid parties," smoking with his nurse, "they could be detrimental to your health." In recent memory, the TV show Mad Men has also raked the Boomers over the coals for that one. Cooke, who wrote an awe-inspiring tribute to the early 60s with New Frontier, surely has more to say on the decade's second half. Here I hold my breath, awaiting the education.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hottest Mess II

Continued from last weekend, here's the fallout from The Legion of Superheroes 50 (1988), in which a foursome led by Brainiac confronted the Time Trapper at the very end of existence. During said conflict, the Legion were savagely drubbed by the being embodying entropy itself; Duo Damsel's second persona died, and the nigh-invincible Mon El took a roasting by the cosmic energies in play. But before the Trapper could maim Brainiac and Saturn Girl, the super-intelligent Coluan unleashed the Infinite Man, a secret weapon in the form of a hero who embodied a circuitous universe.

"Thank you," said the Infinite Man to Brainiac, while destroying the Trapper's time barrier. "For this, I forgive you for my birth and damnation... farewell..."  But "The Trial of Brainiac Five" has nothing to do with the Trapper's defeat. It deals instead with the supposed murder of Jaxon Rugarth, the comatose professor in whose body the Infinite Man dwelt.

With most of the Legion members watching on monitors throughout headquarters, Brek Banin, the sanctimonious Polar Boy, accuses Brainiac of violating the team's constitution by needlessly sacrificing a life. In objection, Saturn Girl says, "I helped write that clause... don't preach it to me. Your interpretation is extreme." She goes on to state that Rugarth wasn't a sentient being, and so couldn't have been murdered. Blok and Quislet, non-human members of the Legion, are duly impressed by the unfolding argument.

Artist Keith Giffen, throughout most of this Legion run, included a specific close-up panel on ninety percent of his pages. It's a slanted shot of the speaker's mouth, nose and eye, with maximal emotion conveyed. He typically reserved it for the best dialogue on the page, allowing us to peer straight into a character's soul. Occasionally, when Giffen sketches the layout for another artist, these panels are his thumbprint (1988's Justice League, drawn by Kevin Maguire, is a good example).

This late 80s Legion is also remarkable for ditching the narration boxes that writers lean on for tone, pacing and exposition. Paul Levitz uses them only to set new scenes. Everything else comes through dialogue that is flirty, feisty and engagingly adult. To Polar Boy's contention that a cure for Rugarth's vegetative state might have some day been found, Brainiac spouts a page-long diatribe that reads like prime-time television scripting: "Fellow Legionnaires, I offer no defense against the charge of murder... not because I choose to plead guilty. But because this trial itself is irrelevant."

Polar Boy thinks he's insane, and Saturn Girl wants to throttle him. Still, Brainiac continues, "This is a simple matter of morality. I believe that what I did to Professor Jaxon Rugarth was within the bounds of the course he himself would have chosen for his life, if he could." That readers saw the Infinite Man thank Brainiac doesn't matter. Whether we agree with him doesn't matter. The compelling aspect here is that, as a twelfth-level intellect from Colu, Brainiac knows himself to be indispensable to the Legion. His moral high-ground is a luxury. His behavior both serves as a bright example and sets a dangerous precedent to others who might see their constitution as just a piece of paper. Or so it seems.

A quick note further about the art, before I flit away: a friend once called Carl Gafford's sublime coloring of this Legion run "lollipops." I can't really improve that description, except to say that most 80s comics, from the purchase date onward, were hideously washed out and black ink smeared. Giffen's emphasis on broad panels and open, youthful faces, allows for heavy blocks of color. These issues, printed on superior Baxter paper, have never been cleaned up and collected into a trade. The original care in producing them, however, helps sustain a corner of comics that's its own pastel wonderland.

But candy alone can't bring asses back to the same seats, year in, year out. The protein here comes when the almost thirty-strong Legion votes Brainiac innocent. Soul-weary from the endless arguing about what their constitution does or doesn't mean, he responds by quitting. On his way out, he gives Luornu Durgo (the former Duo Damsel, who lost half of herself to the Time Trapper) his force-field belt. He then leaves the team to their childish bickering, disappointed in their lack of moral autonomy from a document they themselves created. Your blogger, living in today's United States, could not applaud him more.