Thursday, January 25, 2007

Comics! The highs and lows of Pepito!

Plenty of highs and lows in our most recent batch of comics, certainly enough UNcertainty to justify the periodic swearing-off that even die-hard comics fans have been known to do. There's a handful of really good titles being published every month, but they're surrounded every week by such vibrating piles of poop that even the faithful find themselves doubting.

It's always been so, of course. Here at Stevreads we have a rather sadly OLD intern - he's an oddity at whom the others point and sneer - who remembers a time DECADES ago when the only good monthly titles being published were John Buscema's run on Conan and Mike Golden's run on Micronauts. But knowing ahead of time the tedious features of the landscape doesn't make it any easier to pass them on the road.

Part of the problem, as you're all guessing by now, is my archnemesis Pepito. When he's not seeding the globe with robotic duplicates of himself (unfortunately they're EXACT duplicates, meaning they don't get up until 2 in the afternoon and they're constantly forgetting where they left their keys, so the whole world-domination thing is likely still a ways off), he's out there routinely buying equal weights crap and good stuff.

For crap, take the latest issue of Wolverine. Actually, take the whole IDEA of a Wolverine comic, but this issue certainly isn't helping any. It features some very spiffy art by Simone Bianchi and a howlingly (no pun intended) ridiculous plot by Jeph Loeb.

The plot involves yet another re-imagining of the relationship between Wolverine and Sabertooth, this one looking to feature, disasterously, some pre-historic tribe of wolf-people called the Lupine (no need to follow up on it, since we won't be dumb enough to read the next issue).

But as if that weren't bad enough, the issue starts with Wolverine using one of his claws to pick his way into Professor Xavier's mansion (no explanation of WHY he does this, since presumably he has a key or pass-card, but hey). Rogue is standing there when he walks in (she points out the key business too, but hey), and our hero right off tells her: "This is between me and him, Rogue. You wanna make it about you and me, pick a different night."

Then Rogue says, "Well gosh, sugah, it sure looks to me like you came here to coldly, premeditatedly kill one of my teammates, so I'm gonna hafta use my super-strength, super-speed, and life-absorbing powers to slap you down like a daddy-longlegs." There follows a thirty-second battle, and afterwards, when Wolverine wakes up, she and him spend the rest of the issue debating the pros and cons of vigilante justice.
Oooops. That's how the issue went in its first draft, before Loeb hoovered up a saucerful of coke. In the issue before us, Rogue says "You could've knocked" and frickin WALKS AWAY, after which Wolverine tries his hardest to cold-bloodedly murder her teammate.


Luckily, for every sweaty-adolescent power-fantasy in the batch, we've got a comic written for actual thinkng adults, like for instance the penultimate installment of 'Doctor Strange - The Oath,' which is hands-down the best Marvel book currently being published. If there were any justice in the comics world, this mature, intelligent, funny version of Stephen Strange would become the new definitive version and run for 50 issues - when this storyline is collected in a graphic novel, it will be that rarest of rarities: a book you can hand to anybody, confident they'll like it. Our sources tell us that this mini-series isn't selling out every month - which means it should be possible for you-all to toddle on down to the Android's Dungeon and catch up on all four extant issues. Hint hint.

Alas, our little pile of comics doesn't stop there. Up next is the first issue of another Marvel mini-series, "Silent War," written by David Hine and drawn by Frazer Irving.

We're all in favor of the concept of the mini-series, here at Stevereads. Open-ended comic titles are almost always deficient in plot; their soap-opera nature prevents them from delivering the climax and payoff that close-ended short-runs can (this applies even to mini-series that are gargantuan in their scope, like 'Cerebus' or 'Bone,' since they were - at least according to their creators - plotted out ahead of time).

Yep, we like mini-series. Except when they suck. Which brings us to 'Silent War.'

First, a little background: the Inhumans are a reclusive super-race who gain their powers by entering a chamber full of genetic-code-altering Terrigan Mists. Inhumans go through the Mists as a cultural event, and no two end up with the same powers. In a recent storyline, the US government came into possession of the Terrigan Mists, and when the country refused to return them, Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans, declared war on the United States.

So far so good, mainly because so far 'Silent War' hasn't started yet.

Once it does, major and minor annoyances start piling up pretty quick. What is the plan of the Inhumans, you wonder? Looks like it's this: they send four of their number (Gorgon, whose hoof-stamps trigger mini-earthquakes, Jolen, who controls all plant-life, Kurani, who can cast lifelike illusions, and Nahrees, who seems to have electrical powers) to America, where they commandeer the stage during a black-tie Shakespeare performance and issue a declaration of war on live TV.

Problem #1: as we covered at the beginning of class, Black Bolt has already declared war. Problem #2: Manhattan is, like, CRAWLING with super-heroes.

Then the plan goes awry: instead of merely restraining the audience (as Gorgon tells us repeatedly their king ordered him to do), Jolen decides to have his plants start KILLING them. Gorgon puts a quick stop to this, but not before dozens have been killed.

The four of them leave the theater and return to their hotel, where they're confronted by the Fantastic Four (meaning, I guess, that this mini-series falls into the very, very narrow gap between the events of 'House of M' and 'Civil War'). When Gorgon asks how they were detected, Ben Grimm supplies this answer: "Four visitors from Eastern Europe fly halfway around the world to sit in a crummy hotel room for a week. First time they go out, there's a terrorist attack on a theater half dozen blocks away."

Okaaaay. Problem #3: Why did the Inhumans reserve a hotel room at all, when they could have had any one of their people's teleporters wisk them in and out? Problem #4: Even assuming they take a hotel room, why not have their cover-illusion be that of a wholesome American family (or, Hell, one person and three pieces of luggage)? Problem #5: why wait a week, increasing the likelihood of detection? Why not strike some venue right away? And Problem #6: we're told a hotel clerk called Homeland Security AFTER the attack, having become suspicious beforehand. But Gorgon and crew walk straight from the theater to their hotel ... where the Fantastic Four are already waiting. That kind of split-second timing just begs to be laughed at.

Except that it's nothing compared to what follows. The next few pages are take up with one of the all-time suckiest comic-book battles we here at Stevereads have ever seen. Despite the fact that the powers of each Inhuman are formidable in their own right (and despite the fact that Gorgon himself has fought the team better all by his lonesome), the Fantastic Four wins without breaking a sweat. And depite the fact that one of the Inhumans present is an illusion-caster, and despite the fact that Black Bolt's evil brother is a mind-controller, and despite the fact that the Fantastic Four and the Inhumans have been friends and allies and practically family forever, the Fantastic Four then hand them over to face-masked rifle-toting government agents without hesitation.

What follows reads like a cheap knock-off of 'Civil War' (which, as Elmo has pointed out, itself reads like a cheap knock-off): Gorgon is stripped (eww), interrogated, declared an 'enemy combatant' with no right whatsoever, and then EXPERIMENTED upon, all in the space of seven quick and easy pages. Not by Maximus the Mad or by Kang the Conqueror or by Doctor Doom, but by the U.S. government, which, in the current grossly cynical Marvel universe, has apparently replaced the Nazis as the go-to villain for sadistic torture-sequences. Yeesh.

Ironic, then, that our final highlight from this batch of comics also features the Fantastic Four. In the latest issue of their own book (writer Dwayne McDuffie's first), one of the things that's bugged us most about the whole
'Civil War' storyline is finally addressed: why the hell would Reed Richards support the Registration Act?

The issue begins with Reed agreeing to meet Johnny Storm in a coffee shop so Johnny can pose that very question to him. Reed prevaricates in all the ways we've seen before - that it's the law, that it's a good law, etc. - and when Johnny asks him if he's sure he's right about that, Reed tells him 'to a mathematical certainty.'

And then, for the first time, we see him doubt that certainty.

He does what any super-genius would do: he enlists another super-genius to check his math. The super-genius in question is the Mad Thinker, here wonderfully characterized. Reed takes him back to the Baxter Building, where construction teams are assessing the costs of repairing the damage Sue Richards did last issue (there's a delicious bit of political commentary here, when the head of damage control thanks Reed for his patronage, noting that Halliburton's been getting all the work lately. Reed's response? "But they always go substantially over estimate" Hee ... that would have been grimly funny even before they went some 20,000 'over estimate' ...).

Reed shows him the equations he's been using, the equations that have prompted him to believe supporting the Registration Act is the only way to stave off unspecified future disasters. The Mad Thinker examines the work with nicely understated envy ("No wonder I never beat you. I was a caveman, bragging about fire, and you were splitting the atom") and then reveals that Sue has been with them all along, invisible and listening. Once she hears the real explanation for Reed's actions, she storms off.

The issue is wonderfully done, but hey - it wouldn't be a Stevereads write-up without a few bricks being hurled, now would it?

For instance, when - and more importantly why - did Sue contact the Mad Thinker? Was she with him as they entered the Baxter Building, where presumably there'd be security sensors to detect her? And what, Reed can predict 'societal trends' to a high degree of accuracy, but he can't anticipate the actions of his own wife? (actually, those of you out there who are married might give him a pass on that, come to think of it)

And most of all: why is everybody in the issue so fat? I mean, it's the Fantastic Four: I expect the Thing to be fat, and certainly the Red Ghost looks like he's had a few too many blinis. But for some reason artist Mike McKone is drawing EVERYBODY as shapeless and doughy. What, our heroes haven't ever heard of 'You on a Diet' or 'The JuiceMan Cometh'?

Either way, a singularly uneven batch of comics this time around - but hey, what can you expect, when dealing with megalomaniacal euro-trash such as Pepito? Maybe we'll have better luck next time ...


lockep said...

Before we get to Fantastic Four (I've been waiting all week to hear what SteveReads had to say about us finally learning, at least in a vague sense, WHAT is behind the Civil War), let's talk about Jeph Loeb.

Okay, I don't have THAT much to say about him, other than I remember really, really liking his and Tim Sale's stuff way back when, on those now-classic Batman Halloween specials and mini-series.

But last year I found myself throwing his stuff on my pull-list advance orders and then, months later, getting the issues (of Superman and Batman, of icky, icky Supergirl) home and going "gah."

There are two reasons for this, I think -- and no, neither of them have anything to do with Steve's usual knee-jerk dismissal that all comic writers under 60 other than Geoff Johns are coke-fiend Hollywood wannabes. Okay, yeah, Leob actually WAS a Hollywood writer, but still, he always seemed very poised and considered as a comic writer, not some loose, vulgar cannon like, as Steve would say, Bendis or Ennis or Ellis or Morrison or Millar or Azzerello or Vaughn or name your favorite gritty, cynical, irreverent writer infant terrible of the moment. And no, I don't think of any of those guys that way -- I happen to love them all... well, Ennis and Azzerello SOME of the time -- I'm just saying that's what STEVE thinks of them. When he isn't praising them, that is.

In fact, it's because Leob is NOT one of those "bad boy" "anarchy" types, that I think I eventually tired of him. The same thing happened with me and Geoff Johns a few years ago (though I'm pleased to admit I'm being slowly re-seduced by the JSA relaunch), and to a lesser extent with Kurt Buisiek, is starting to happen with Dan Slott, and I fear might soon happen with Darwyn Cooke. Their reverent, respectful, even-handed approach to telling "Old School" stories, adhering to careful, graceful storytelling craft is WONDERFUL. But it's like listening to some newcomer sing old torch standards -- it's beautiful and such a nice respite and refuge from the chaos, but after a while, well, you hope that a new Nirvana comes along and starts smashing up instruments.

Steady, retro-tinged writers like Leob and Johns and Cooke and their ilk (I don't yet want to throw Buisiek in there, because I still think Astro City is wonderful and shows every sign of becoming more and more wonderful for years to come) have a nice place on the shelf. But it's usually unlikely that, after a year or so, they're going to show you anything new. They're probably not going learn any new tricks, or turn your expectations upside down, or surprise you, or, honestly, fuck up horribly. That's where Steve and I tend to differ on almost ALL aesthetics -- I'm no punk rock kid, but I do like a little edge and innovation and originality and unpredicability to my pop culture, including comic books, even if that means that sometimes the writer's going step deep into it. Hell, I'm the one guy who LIKED a lot of things about Morrison's X-men run.

So after a while I lost interest in Loeb.

But that's probably not the whole story -- Leob DID lose his teenage son about a year or so ago and frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the drop in the quality of his work runs pretty much parallel to that tragedy.

lockep said...

As for Wolverine and Sabertooth, when are they gonna drop the act and just fall into each other's arms, lost in the embrace?

Anonymous said...

That healing factor could make for some rough sex!