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.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wing-Head and the Dude

The first nickname refers to Captain America, the World War II super-soldier rescued and thawed from ice by the world famous Avengers. The second belongs to Steve Rude, a perfectionist illustrator already celebrated by this blog for his remarkable series The Mighty Thor: Godstorm. In 2003, Rude and Cap teamed with writer Bruce Jones for the weekly comic What Price Glory?

In four dense issues, this story showcases the Dude's meticulous, detail-heavy pencils much like Godstorm did- in homage to visionary artist Jack Kirby, designer of most of the Marvel Universe throughout the 1960s. Steve Rogers (Cap's civilian identity) is a lantern-jawed gent, whose clean-cut aura of naivete starts nearly as many brawls as his acrobatics finish. He drinks Mr. Pibb whenever possible, and always has an ear free for the half-dozen damsels orbiting him. Bikers and gangsters never fail to mistake him for a gift-wrapped milquetoast, attacking with the mindless fury of arena bulls.

While costumed (as a star-spangled dynamo), Rude's Captain America has the Kirby playbook memorized in every muscle. His kicks, somersaults and shield tosses rocket the narrative forward (though I often read the fight scenes circuitously, trapped in beautiful loops). Motion lines, intrusive when attempted by some artists, superbly accent Rude's action. It's also worth remembering that most "street level" heroes fight with a helpful gimmick: Spider-Man uses his spider-sense, Batman uses the shadows, Wolverine stabs people, etc. Captain America, more than any other fighter, is concentrating.

You or I might find that difficult, trapped in a world of Bruce Jones' fetishes. Making his name in the 70s horror scene, Jones found renewed fame writing The Incredible Hulk in the early 2000s. Now, I'd never read him before the Hulk. Under his guidance, it's a great thriller, reminiscent of the 70s TV show, with lots of momentum and intricate twists. But his endless portrayals of women as conniving she-devils become tough to ignore after, say, the fifth one.

What Price Glory? begins with a view into the bathroom of a blonde bombshell as she showers. A man named Sal enters in his wheelchair, and she says, "Letch," while posing with a towel. Nothing but innocent role-playing here, as we find that Sal (a Desert Storm veteran) and Kate are married, and it's his birthday. She kisses him, repeats enthusiastically that he's a letcher, and he replies, "Yeah... if only in spirit, right?"

Ah, what gateways to the magical comic books are! Only here can the action of a summer blockbuster meet the scintillating drama that Cinemax might show at 2AM. Soon, when Steve Rogers visits with some cake, Sal privately says to him, "You my friend, Steve? My buddy? You do anything for me? Then give me a real birthday present... make love to my wife!"

Steve passes, on that offer and another to go dancing. But Kate does give him the address of a dive across town. After some gleeful brawling that barely interrupts Steve's soda break, our hero's picked up outside by the limo of the shady Charles Frizini (whom Rude draws as Dennis Franz). This meeting leads to the larger adventure of rescuing Frizini's daughter Pasha from a Las Vegas gangster named Spano.

Though the Dude illustrates Brooklyn and its architecture beautifully, the more colorful venue of Vegas kicks this tale up a notch. Approaching the city, Steve spies outside his plane window the gigantic face of the Red Skull, his Nazi nemesis. Perhaps too cutely (though perfectly in touch with the Kirby motif), this occurs because a Captain America theme park is under construction. So we're treated to some cleverly surreal moments within Vegas' palatial trappings. One involves a fight between Spano's goons and construction workers. After a life-size statue of Cap is trashed, we hear, "Hey, Angelo... didn't we just knock that statue down?" The real Cap stands on the platform a moment before springing to action.

Pasha, meanwhile, is introduced alongside a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Tina, who's there to back Steve up in various secret capacities. Both women, naturally, are stunning, and require of Steve the utmost stoicism. This is an ubiquitous comic trope, whether the hero wears a flag or not. Unique to Bruce Jones' work, however, is that these women (Kate included) each lie to and manipulate the astoundingly upright star in service to a smutty, convoluted plot.

Rude's hyper-talent, thankfully, steals back the spotlight from Jones on every page. What we end up with in What Price Glory? may just be what everyone involved intended- Captain America lightly mixed with James Bond. It comes from an era at Marvel that produced many daring stories, Wolverine's Origin and Daredevil's Father among them. It also contains a telling final page that indicates how slowly Rude creates four glorious comics. When Tina and Steve go to the top of the Empire State building, he says, "There you go. Beautiful, huh?" She thinks he speaks of planes. He actually refers to the haunted space once occupied by the World Trade Towers.

Most comics addressing 9/11 came out within a year of the tragedy. What Price Glory? was a weekly release in May of 2003. To me, ending a romp fueled by poker chips and bikinis with ghostly towers seems rather expensive.