Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Comics! the end of the world as we know it!
A banner week in comics! Everything from little tidbits to continuity-shaking mega-events was on hand at the Android's Dungeon. The mouth-breathing virgins at that venerable establishment were all a-twitter over it, in much the same way the rest of us start heart-afluttering when Hippolyta strides into the room (we suspect Hippolyta herself would never under any circumstances stride into the Android's Dungeon, so we'll never see the two worlds meet, alas).
Starting out on the tidbit side would be the latest issue of Conan, a rollicking good time with magnificent artwork and a glowering Cimmerian who's always perfectly in character. Robert E. Howard would very likely have been irked beyond measure by the legendary rendition of his character made by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, but he'd have flat-out LOVED this new run, which bids fair to being the best adaptation of the character yet done in any medium (things are equally good over in Red Sonja, in case anybody's interested).
Also on the tidbitty side is the first issue of 'Legion of Monsters' - we here at Stevereads know nothing about this thing, having encountered it by chance, but half of this particular issue deals with the retro Marvel horror character Werewolf by Night.
Only this is a Werewolf by Night for the Midnighter generation - he's no longer a victim as he was in the '70s. No, he not only controls his transformations but revels in them. In this issue (drawn by Gred Land, whose weirdly photographic work we confess we're liking more and more), our hero saves a comely young female werewolf from her superstitious townspeople, and even though it's only eight pages or so, you want more when it ends. Half the issue is taken up with a rather by-the-numbers Frankenstein's monster story, but we here at Stevereads call for a monthly Werewolf by Night title, drawn by Land and while we're at it, written by this issue's scribe Mike Carey.
Moving out of tidbit range, we find the lastest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, written with unusual delicacy by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn with career-high skill by Ron Garney.
The story so far: Spider-Man has broken from Iron Man's fascistic ranks and taken his wife Mary Jane and his Aunt May into Motel 6 hiding while he figures things out. Of course since his identity is public his movements have been tracked - although in this case rather improbably only by the incarcerated Kingpin (not the government, which presumably can afford more tracking gadgets than are available at the prison commissary). Kingpin has put out a hit on Peter and is family, so half the issue shows Mary Jane and Aunt May in an assassin's crosshairs.
In the meantime, Straczynski is presented with the unenviable task of needing to tell his story without revealing any of the dramatic revelations over in the concluding issue of Civil War.
He pulls it off wonderfully. Nothing in this issue feels forced or avoiding, especially the Daily Bugle newsroom scene that should have been the weakest in the issue. The neglected central figure in this whole Civil War storyline is J. Jonah Jameson, and he doesn't get the moment he deserves in this issue, but the sequence is very strong anyway, as is the rest of the issue.
'The rest of the issue' boils down to one thing and one thing only: when Peter Parker gets back to his Motel 6 to comfort Mary Jane and Aunt May, his spider-sense tells him something is wrong. He lunges to save Mary Jane and succeeds, only to realize that Aunt May has been shot.
This is a watered-down version of what should have happened - clearly, the whole Civil War storyline SHOULD have huge personal consequences for everyone involved. Identities are known; dependents are known - it shouldn't just be the Kingpin who's making hay off all this.
Nevertheless, it's Aunt May who gets shot this time around. That specific thing has never happened to the venerable lady before, and although Spider-Man #200 upped the ante for Aunt May peril, this is the logical extension of that.
This issue ends with Aunt May gutshot - if she's to live, she'll need extensive immediate medical attention. The writers of Civil War have made it completely impossible for Peter Parker to GET her that aid, without being promptly hauled off to jail. We'll see how - or if - they resolve it in the next issue.
Fortunately, all is not lost at Marvel. As will almost certainly be the pattern for the next few years, Marvel gets to tell its GOOD stories only in alternate places - in the Ultimate continuity, or, in the case of the 'Illuminati' mini-series, the past.
The second issue of 'Illuminati' is a potent little delight. The premise, as all of you will no doubt remember, is this: the movers and the shakers of the Marvel universe (minus the Black Panther, Doctor Doom, and Magneto, much to the detriment of the idea) get together regularly as a sort of Ex-Com board meeting. Our cast is Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man of the Avengers, Prince Namor of Atlantis, Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans. Namor is the closest we come to any kind of partisan bickering, although writer Brian Michael Bendis does a wonderful job of it (a wonderful job that SHOULD be ongoing in monthly titles for HALF of these characters ... how shameful is it for Marvel that they have no ongoing title for the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, OR the Inhumans? DC is thinking about giving an ongoing title to Ibis the Frickin Invincible, but Prince Namor goes a-begging?).
In this issue Reed Richards shares with his fellow Ex-Com members his quest to find all the gems of power that outfit the Infinity Gauntlet, the better to make sure they never fall into the wrong hands. Bendis does a curiously un-subtle job of making the point that ANYBODY'S hands would be the wrong ones for that amount of power, and that's not his only failing so far - true, his Reed Richards and his Iron Man are note-perfect, but he clearly has no idea what to do with either Doctor Strange or Black Bolt (about whom it's not even made clear the question of language - without Black Bolt's interpreter present, has any roster of hand-gestures been agreed upon? Does anybody know what he's trying to say, ever?), and his Professor X is a curiously tentative figure.
Still, Jim Cheung's artwork is fantastic as always, and apart from the Doctor Strange mini-series currently underway, this is the best book Marvel's currently publishing.
Over at DC, the sheer number of really, really good titles is, well, a little embarrassing. Those of us who've been reading comics a long time remember vividly an extended stretch - a very extended stretch - in which Marvel comics were almost uniformly good and DC comics were almost uniformly bad. Times change, it seems.
There's the first issue of the 'Brave and Bold' relaunch, for instance, featuring the positively last appearance of that perennial retiree, George Perez. His artwork here is as legendarily, even weirdly detailed as always, illuminating this inaugural team-up between Hal Jordan and Batman.
Alas, Mark Waid's writing ain't quite so legendary. The main problem with an otherwise nifty issue is that (excepting one wonderful scene with our two heroes gambling in Vegas) everybody in it SOUNDS exactly the same, most certainly including scrappy working-poor test pilot Hal Jordan and aristocratic Bruce Wayne. But the artwork is the selling point here in any case, and Perez as usual doesn't disappoint.
Also from DC is the latest issue of Wonder Woman, written by Allen Heinberg and drawn with superb artistry by Terry Dodson. After three issues of Diana Prince-style futzing around, this is the issue where the one true Wonder Woman finally returns, and for all his tendency to nod and wander, Heinberg handles the moment wonderfully. Oh, don't mistake: this still isn't good enough, not by a long mark. The whole premise of '52' and like titles is that for an entire year the DC universe went without the three titans at its top: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The journeys each of these three underwent in that year should by rights be the stuff of comics legend, and yet they've been uniformly botched, leached of the epic significance they might have had. But at least as of the next issue of Wonder Woman, the whole question will be behind us, and we'll be free to concentrate on the traditional character again.
And speaking of traditional characters, the current run on Green Arrow continues to be the gold standard by which the character will be measured. Writer Judd Winick and epochal artist Scott McDaniel continue to give us the best rendition of Green Arrow yet made.
The current issue guest-stars Batman, which is both enjoyable and taunting (as some of you may know, we here at Stevereads stand by our conviction that McDaniel could be the greatest Batman artist of all time), and the dialogue is winningly sharp - the villains who draw our two heroes into separate conflicts refreshingly admit outright that they never expected to actually WIN against two of DC's A-list heavyweights. This is definitive work.
As is the current run on Robin, surely the best that character has ever received (apart, that is, from his occasional appearances in the old Scott McDaniel run on Nightwing). In this latest issue, all Tim Drake wants to do is successfully go out on a date with a beautiful girl, and his evening keeps getting interrupted by Batman and the super-villain of the week. It's funny stuff, rendered just so by Adam Beechen's expert writing. This 50-year-old character has never been in better hands.
But none of this really matters, not this week, not in the shadow of the most important - in every neutral reading of that word - comic of the year. No, Marvel's Civil War #7 must command any comic-book discussion this week, no matter what our mighty Hippolyta says.
And true to form, it's an unmitigated disaster. The entirety of Marvel's Civil War storyline has been one long exercise of poor judgement, a What If story cranked up on black market steroids. Any hope that the fascists-v.s.-freedom fighters plotline could be resolved with any degree of coherence, let alone satisfaction, has been dwindling for months, to the point where the main motivation for reading issue #7 was to see just how big a frickin train wreck it would be.
The answer? Pretty damn big. The bulk of the issue is devoted to the gigantic battle between Captain America's forces and the fascist, gulag-operating forces of Iron Man. This battle rages back and forth - Hercules uses the fake Thor's fake hammer to crush the fake' Thor's fake head, Prince Namor and a bunch of Atlantean warriors join the fray on Cap's side for absolutely no reason whatsoever, the Vision disrupts Iron Man's armor (a trick he must have picked up from Kitty Pryde, but nevermind), and just when it looks like Captain America's side might be winning, a group of oridary working joes tackles him for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This causes Cap, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, to SURRENDER and order his troops to stand down. The issue ends with him in jail, the gulag in full operation, and Tony Stark in charge.
In other words, the bad guys win.
Somewhere out there, Stan Lee is spinning in his grave.
And the worst part of it all is that this isn't the Ultimate continuity ... it ISN'T some What If hypothetical. This IS the Marvel Universe now. A universe in which the government not only controls the superheroes (doling out assignments, hiring and firing, cutting a weekly paycheck) but jails anybody who doesn't play along. A universe in which Venom and Bullseye work for he government and Captain America is in jail.
Howls of contempt for this conclusion have echoed from one end of the Stevereads intern-pool to the other, and rightly so. The combination of how terrible this whole Civil War storyline was handled and how title-by-title strong DC currently is has actually created the temptation to ignore Marvel comics altogether. We'll see what next week brings.