Sunday, March 11, 2007

Comics! The King is dead, and all that!


The thing you have to understand about today's comics, the thing that trumps everything else, is how goddam GOOD they are, almost universally across the board. And by 'good' we here at Stevereads mean 'written for adults' - in the very best way that can be meant. Not 'adult fanboys,' but actual card-carrying adults. Dramatic storytelling. Expert pacing. On-spot characterization. And artwork that's better than it ever has been.

The latest batch of comics Elmo stole from my archnemesis Pepito illustrates this fact handily enough. Every title in the pile, each individual one, is pound for pound better than most of the issues in each title's history.

Even devil's advocate - Brad Meltzer's current incarnation of the Justice League is undoubtedly a failure; the pacing is all wrong, the narrative flow is an unmitigated disaster; you'd need an abacus to count all the missed chances, dramatically speaking.

This should be everything, keep in mind: a newly-intelligent Solomon Grundy manipulating Amazo to destroy a fledgling Justice League - that's grade-A stuff, mythic stuff. And even in devil's advocate, even on a title that's a failure, there's a degree of intelligence and energy in the storytelling that if nothing else give hope of better days ahead.

(Even so, we had to laugh at the scene where an enraged Vixen dive-bombs Amazo from high overhead, accelerating to 217 miles per hour; right before impact, she whispers 'triceratops,' so I guess we're supposed to think she's manifesting the weight and power of a triceratops in order to hit Amazo that much harder ... and she does, oh-so-coolly ripping him in two. Somebody should get a memo to Meltzer right away on what would REALLY happen if she hit a solid target at 217 mph with 9000 pounds of mass behind her. We won't spoil the surprise here at Stevereads, but you should all be thinking not of lame-ass third-tier superheroes but of Seaworld ... where the first three rows WILL GET WET!)

But devil's advocate isn't necessary for most of this batch. Jeff Smith, for instance, is always a delight, and the second issue of his Shazam! mini-series is full of good stuff - from a Doctor Sivana unabashedly modelled on Dick Cheney to a version of talking-tiger Mr. Tawny that actually manages to be cool (of course, if anybody can make a talking cat cool, it's Jeff Smith). The only qualm-causing aspect of the issue is Smith's revamp of Mary Marvel - getting her powers as per usual, but staying a little five-year-old girl. To say the least, the effect is creepy - so we're earnestly hoping the powers that be at DC don't take it into their heads to make Smith's mini-series in any way part of normal continuity.

Still, Smith's artwork and writing are so clean, so much fun - we earnestly wish he'd consider doing a comic book version of Lil' Abner. He'd be perfect for it.

Then there's the latest issue of Detective Comics, featuring quick, intelligent writing by Stuart Moore and highly detailed artwork by Andy Clarke, artwork that takes a little while to catch up to you. There's nothing remotely earth-shaking in the issue - standard Batman-and-Robin-vs-bad guy stuff, but considering how many titles at Marvel and DC are in the midst of reality-redefining catastrophies, that's something of a blessing.

Did somebody mention reality-redefining catastrophies? Well of course that's the heart and soul of DC's '52,' and after a sucky issue last week, this week rebounds incredibly, packing all the pathos, drama, and ass-kicking of an old-fashioned Lee/Kirby multi-issue epic into a mere 25 pages. We here at Stevereads have in previous entries praised the creation of heavy-hitting new characters like Isis and Osiris - well, we should have spared ourselves the trouble, since they both get offed in this issue (she's napalmed and he's EATEN ... hee). But we're not complaining, because in the process the powers that be at DC are transforming Black Adam into something remarkable. We thank whatever gods may be that he (and Renee Montoya) are turning out to be the real stars of '52,' not the much-hyped and thoroughly ridiculous lesbian Batwoman (and where's the press attention for the latest issue of Outsiders, which featured lesbian action so graphically depicted I wanted to shield Elmo's eyes?).

Discerning eyes will have noticed that all the successes so far are from DC, and there's a good reason for that: Marvel is currently experiencing a downward-spiral of suckitude unseen since the launch of the New Universe, many moons ago, and nothing seems to be able to stop the tailspin.

Not even something as well-done and sweet at the 45th anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four, which did have its moments (like the charming tone of Ben Grimm's dealings with little Franklin and Val, or Sue matter-of-factly referring to Ben as the heart and soul of the team, or Doctor Doom - of all people - pointing out the evils Reed Richards committed during the Civil War). But nothing write Dwayne McDuffie can do gets around the fact that the FF split up and fought AGAINST each other in Civil War (a point worth repeating, no? During the climactic battle of Civil War #7, Reed Richards is there to beat and LOCK UP his wife and her brother). The issue's main story ends with Reed and Sue leaving the team to 'work on their marriage,' but it can only turn a blind eye toward all the open cans of worms left over from Civil War.

The main one of these is the fact that Civil War tore Marvel's community of superheroes in half, and it LEFT things that way - sign up or get locked up in the Phantom Zone, period. Not a dream. Not a hoax. Not an imaginary story. The basic state of affairs now in Marvel Comcics is a fascist dictatorship - that kinda makes it hard to go back to telling ordinary superhero stories about Mole Man attacking Manhattan.

Which makes the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis' 'the Initiative' launch of the Avengers all the more ironic, since in it, Mole Man DOES attack Manhattan, and a newly-minted team of Avengers spring into action to fight the menace.

You can't help but trip over problems, right from the first page, when the Wasp asks 'Am I to assume a training exercise to see how we work together is completely out of the question?'

She gets a smug response, and a very large amount of property damage ensues - exactly the kind of thing the Registration Act was designed to prevent.

The battle itself isn't all that interesting, except for the fantastic artwork of Frank Cho. No, the issue's only real point of interest is the sequence of scenes in which Tony Stark and Carol Danvers, standing before a cool wall-display of every 'right-thinking' superhero currently in play. Like a couple of mouth-breathing virginal fanboys (pause here while Hippolyta deadpans 'is there any other kind?'), they set out to assemble 'the greatest roster ever.'

Cue the irony here, since the roster arrived at is the single worst one since the dark days of the Forgotten One and Doctor Druid.

Iron Man, of course, and the Wasp, and the always-pleasing presence of the Black Widow (the Steve Epting-pencilled stretch where she led the team stands as one of the best runs on the title). But after that, things start to fall apart - Ms. Marvel is OK, but the perennially-boring Wonder Man is here straight out of the 80s, right down to the inability to fly and the Reagan-era tracksuit. Add to that the only superhero in the Marvel lineup MORE boring than Wonder Man - the Sentry, as dumb and derivative a character as anybody's dreamt up in quite some time. Super-strength, vague energy-powers ... whatever! Yech. And that pales beside the final member, the Greek god Ares, who for the last 30 years has been one of Thor's super-villains. He cares nothing for mortal life, and he carries an enormous axe - but hey, at least he registered.

Still, the discussions are interesting. Carol Danvers asks the question Avengers (indeed, super-team) fans have always asked: why not just assemble a team of powerhouses? At one point Carol declares that the Wasp was the best Avenger, and at another point Stark says the same of Thor. Neither nominates Captain America, and the reader can't help but notice the reason why: because Carol and Stark are both victorious Nazis, and Cap is off in a gulag somewhere. It couldn't matter less whether or not our team stops Mole Man: it's bad guy v.s. bad guy.

The whole thing is made all the more depressing by Bendis' comments in the letters page (you almost expect disagreeable parts of each letter in the future to be blacked out). He promises a big surge of super-villains in upcoming weeks, and he writes "Now that we know who the heroes are, we will set up for the villains."

Some of us - especially those of us who maintain that there's no second, subversive meaning behind all this Civil War nonsense - aren't quite so certain we now 'know' who the heroes are, but it's instructive to know that Bendis doesn't have that problem.

But then, none of this touches on the week's comic that everybody's most likely to have heard about, right? Talk about press attention: in the latest issue of Captain America, a handcuffed Steve Rogers is heart-shot by a hypnotized Sharon Carter. See the news on your local evening broadcast.

There are at least eight different ways this could be reversed, but we here at Stevereads think not. Given the current fascistic atmosphere at Marvel, we think the Steve Rogers Captain America might very well be dead, the identity to be replaced by ... well, what the Hell difference does it make WHAT replaces him? The whole foundation of the Marvel universe is now rotten beyond recall, except by some kind of total rewrite. Which would be - will be - boring and time-consuming and utterly manipulative.

It's a sad state of affairs, but at least we still have DC, surfing an almost unprecedented high.

25 comments:

Gianni said...

I actually LIKED Mighty Avengers, for what it lacked in good action it made up for with clever dialogue and good characters. The scene where Ms. Marvel and Iron Man "say hello" to a construction-working Ares is very well done, especially when Iron Man offers to match Ares' pay to join the team and Ares responds "You know I made 44 dollars an hour here, right?" Ares has a mortal son, and he's a completely believable character... for a Greek god, anyway. Black Widow, Wasp and the others work out well (long live the Sentry!), but the only disappointment for me was that the whole Ultron cliffhanger was ripped straight from the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica, with the Tricia Helfer look-alike in full nude with the smoke covering the naughty bits... not that I'm complaining about that, mind you. As for who the good guys are... It may be the road to hell, but Iron Man and the others only had the best intentions picking the side they did. Hopefully Captain America won't be so easily pushed aside, he'll be brought back a-la Hawkeye sometime next year.

Elmo said...

I think Marvel and DC are actively trying to be each other's antithesis. DC's crisis event was meant to clean the violent slate of the 90's, and Marvel is so embarassed of their last decade of galloping, sunlit spandex that they're running screaming in the opposite direction. Personally, I'm treasuring early 90's runs like New Warriors and West Coast Avengers, cause dorky though they be, they sparkle and were done with heart.

elmo said...

And I award Justice League #6 this month's Most Overthought/written/drawn award. I hope issue 7 is from the Batcave's point of view, with running updates on everyone's calorie intake!

steve said...

no, no, no, NO! No, Gianni, with all due respect, I must point out that two alleged 'heroes' finding an ages-old super-villain at a construction site and simply offering to PAY him to fight for them is ... well, in addition to being logically fallible to a criminal degree, it's also antithetical to EVERY incarnation of the Avengers. That Ares would promptly declare himself a) a card-carrying misogynist and b) somebody fundamentally uninterested in teamwork only underscores the point.

Any A-hole with money can assemble a workforce. Prior to this first issue, the Avengers used to be about more than that.

Kevin Caron said...

Hey! Some of us actually liked the New Universe, mister!

Now seems as good a time as any to unveil my big, comics related news...

Coming soon (this summer?) to a comics-shop near you, from IDW: an all new Badger series! And why should you care? Because the book will be written by creator Mike Baron, and drawn by some guy by the name of - Kevin Caron!

Now keep that under your hats, True Stevereaders - I'm not entirely sure if I'm allowed to announce stuff like that.

I'll update ya'll with more when we get closer to it.

Nuff Said.

Jeff E. said...

Zowie! I just read the Badger page on wikipedia and that thing sounds pretty cool.

locke said...

"it's also antithetical to EVERY incarnation of the Avengers. ...Prior to this first issue, the Avengers used to be about more than that."

Gee, that would seem to point to the notion that the writer is DELIBERATELY setting up the "Mighty" Avengers as a cynical, morally compromised MISTAKE of a team.

locke said...

"The main one of these is the fact that Civil War tore Marvel's community of superheroes in half, and it LEFT things that way - sign up or get locked up in the Phantom Zone, period. Not a dream. Not a hoax. Not an imaginary story. The basic state of affairs now in Marvel Comcics is a fascist dictatorship - that kinda makes it hard to go back to telling ordinary superhero stories about Mole Man attacking Manhattan."

um, unless that's the POINT of it all. to SHOW what sort of fascist dictatorship you END UP WITH if you let the government legislate out of fear and paranoia.

"You can't help but trip over problems, right from the first page, when the Wasp asks 'Am I to assume a training exercise to see how we work together is completely out of the question?'

She gets a smug response, and a very large amount of property damage ensues - exactly the kind of thing the Registration Act was designed to prevent."

which would you prefer, Steve? A hearty "well, DUH!" or a snarky "Ya THINK?!?"?

Oh wait, I forgot -- it's just IMPOSSIBLE that Bendis is writing this Mighty Initiative Avengers team as a clusterfuck -- morally, legally, ethically, and organizationally -- from the get-go...

"No, the issue's only real point of interest is the sequence of scenes in which Tony Stark and Carol Danvers, standing before a cool wall-display of every 'right-thinking' superhero currently in play. Like a couple of mouth-breathing virginal fanboys,... they set out to assemble 'the greatest roster ever.'

Cue the irony here, since the roster arrived at is the single worst one since the dark days of the Forgotten One and Doctor Druid."

huh. really. So Tony Stark sets out to remake the Avengers (and the entire Marvel LEGAL superhero world) and in doing so, right off the bat, he ends up with a mis-matched, lackluster, mostly second-rate team. But again, there's just NO WAY this could be INTENTIONAL on the part of Bendis, Quesada, and the Marvel editorial staff.

"the Greek god Ares, who for the last 30 years has been one of Thor's super-villains. He cares nothing for mortal life, and he carries an enormous axe - but hey, at least he registered."

Exactly! Oops, sorry...

"Neither nominates Captain America, and the reader can't help but notice the reason why: because Carol and Stark are both victorious Nazis, and Cap is off in a gulag somewhere. It couldn't matter less whether or not our team stops Mole Man: it's bad guy v.s. bad guy."

yes again! oh, sorry again...

"Some of us - especially those of us who maintain that there's no second, subversive meaning behind all this Civil War nonsense - aren't quite so certain we now 'know' who the heroes are, but it's instructive to know that Bendis doesn't have that problem."

Yep, it's just highly unlikely that a writer as savvy and aware and insightful as Bendis would be approaching Stark's "heroes" ironically...

Steve, either you are being intentionally obtuse in order to provoke response (NO, not YOU) or you really are as incapable of seeing any sort of layered meaning in a medium that you often insist MUST NOT have layers or complexity to it...

locke said...

oh, and congrats, Kevin!

(my growing rage at Steve's obtuse stance temporarily blinded me to reading further down the page to your news)

Kevin Caron said...

Since its blatantly obvious that the Civil War ending is meant to be a 'bad guys win, to be continued' type of ending, let's just treat Steve's inability to see this/deliberate goading the way we do 'Stone Cold Super Hottie' updates - scratch our heads, raise one eyebrow, and move on. Steve works in mysterious ways.

He is right about one thing, tho - Sentry is a terrible character.

beepy said...

I think I'll be buying my first comic book sometime in the near future (summer, maybe?)

Congratulations, Kevin. Very exciting news. Keep Stevereads updated.

Laura said...

Since its blatantly obvious that the Civil War ending is meant to be a 'bad guys win, to be continued' type of ending,

People keep saying this... but there's no actual evidence of it. In particular, they've manipulated world rules to indicate that the anti-regs were wrong. They manage to kill 47 civilians, despite being underpowered, yet the pro-regs blow holes through buildings with abandon and we hear no word of casualties.

To me, it's clear that Marvel really does mean it -- this is their happy ending.

Kevin Caron said...

Hmm.

Maybe I'm crazy, then? I don't know - granted, I've only skimmed the books, but it seems pretty clear that while the story is designed to be all political and button pushing, they never really counted on folks rooting for both sides (not once the gulag was created, anyway). The only Pro-Iron Man confederate known for his/hear 'heart' as a character (Iron Man's heart problems nonwithstanding)was Spidey, and he's joined the rebellion.

I have to say that tidbits like the 47 dead civilians are just red herrings, meant to keep the thing from being completely transparent.

Sam said...

Kevin! That's fantastic! Many congratulations.

Now, what are all the rest of you going on about?

Kevin Caron said...

Thanks Sam, Locke, Jeff, Beepy!

beepy said...

"let's just treat Steve's inability to see this/deliberate goading the way we do 'Stone Cold Super Hottie' updates - scratch our heads, raise one eyebrow, and move on."

Kevin, I'm confused. Are you saying that Steve is NOT a stone-cold-super-hottie? Because he promised to take me to my junior prom and I want all the other girls to be wicked jealous.

Kevin Caron said...

Well, I guess it depends - some weeks, he appears to be legitimately hot, and on others, he looks like a sweaty, stoned hobbit in a cheerleader outfit. Go figure.

Jeff E. said...

It's true that wasn't a very good hair day for Our Hero.

Kevin, I noticed that one of the touted features of the old Badger comic was the street-by-street "on location" rendering of Madison, WI. Is it too premature to ask you to divulge secrets about the new incarnation's setting? Did you work from pictures, Google Earth, set it in Boulder, or did you just go with "Fuck that"?

steve said...

Yes, Kevin - a belated but awesomely official congrats from Stevereads! The Badger! Why, only Nexus himself would be a bigger feather in your cap (although your in with Baron might, maybe, possibly, yield some authoritative gossip on the future of that character? Or the past, in the form of consistent, quality trades?)

The Badger! Fond memories! Madison Wisconsin! MORE fond memories (Locke will know the name Matt Devine ... the rest of you, not so much)!

You'll have to practice drawing guys with their tongues sticking out! And don't forget the famous people (and one famous dog, sadly now passed) cluttering up the background!

Kevin Caron said...

Nexus number 99 is going to be out in the near future, along with subsequent issues, published by Steve 'the Dude' Rude himself. I've seen copies of the Dude's pages, and it looks, as you might suspect, terrific. Not sure what the status of the old stuff being collected in trades is.

As far as capturing Milwaulkee/Wisconsin acurately - Dilligent Google image searches for references helps quite a bit.

Speaking of dogs - you'll love to hate Pavlov, the villain of the piece. I can say no more.

Kevin Caron said...

Badger back-issues, on the other hand, will be collected in trades by none other than IDW. That's the plan, anyway.

IDW may be revealing some of this at this weekend's WizardWorld Convention...

steve said...

I've got a certain basset hound who's yours to immortalize as you see fit ... Gawd knows, she's good for NOTHING else ....

Jeff E. said...

Steve, a friend of mine (one I'm sure you've told me you had good reason to hate sight unseen) recently had this to say about basset hounds:

"Got to walk Flash, Rod and Mel's bassett hound. What bassett hound yet is incapable of fostering immediate human good will, I do not know. They have been formed, by their own design and by thousands of years of human genetic interference, into a Platonic form of the interesting and engaging. Ungainly, squat, soft, and friendly. The people who came up with Hello Kitty could do no better."

Kevin Caron said...

I sure do miss 'Beast', the basset hound we had growing up.

My favorite dog, tho, was Ben, our big ol' Black Lab/Newfoundland mix.

steve said...

'thousands of years' is a bit of an overstatement, but I'm sure there's nothing Platonic about the basset hound in question. Techtonic, maybe.