Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Comics: Several Blasts from the Past!


It was like stepping into a time machine last week at the comic shop (and not just any comic shop - the great Comicopia in Boston, which sports not one but two stunning rarities for comic shops: the owner is a comics-biz nerd who's actually interesting to talk to, and the staff is largely comprised of really smart, really funny young women who are all also gorgeous)(if you're in the neighborhood, feel free to stop in, chat, and ogle!)(and buy something, of course...): everything old is new again.

Well, not everything - the Legion of Super-Heroes is still frelled up. But at least three things are!

First: the New Mutants. This one harks back to the early 80s, when Chris Claremont and excruciatingly static artist Bob McCleod created a weirdly-sized, oddly-bound oddity called a graphic novel (it was like the third one every published - who knew it would catch on?) starring a younger generation of mutants, some 'gifted youngsters' to fill out the ranks of Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters mutant training-facility. At the time, of course, I intensely disliked this idea (as indeed I intensely disliked Claremont's all-new all-different additions to the core X-Men team shortly before this): at the time, I wanted everything Marvel comics to remain entirely static in terms of time - no babies for the Fantastic Four, no high school graduation for Peter Parker, and likewise no graduation for the original X-Men. But Claremont envisioned a comic about a group of freshly-recruited young mutants who Xavier never intends to forge into a crime-fighting super-team; they're only at Xavier's to learn how to control their powers.

The new team had one thing in common with the old team: both were seriously weak-ass in the super-powers department. There was Cannonball, who could blast off like a rocket but couldn't control his flight path; there was Sunspot, who could absorb sunlight to increase his physical strength - for about five minutes, then he fainted; there was Wolfsbane, who could turn into a wolf (not a werewolf, just a big dog); there was Mirage, who could create images of people's worst fears (but since they could see that's what she was doing, welllll...); and there was Karma, who could possess the mind of another person (but only one person at a time, and she herself is just standing there like an archery target the whole time). Clearly, Claremont drew these limitations intentionally, to enhance the drama - but it mainly ended up enhancing the boredom, and within the first year of the resulting series two things happened: the kids' powers were slightly increased, and new members were added. There was Doug Ramsey, who could instantly translate any language (and whose floppy hair and combat inefficiency translated into "gay" about ten years before any other mutant came out of the closet); there was Warlock, a annoying techno-organic lifeform from space; there was Magma, a girl from a hidden ancient Roman civilization (...) who could kinda-sorta channel molten magma into molten magma-blasts, and there was Magik, who could teleport and act creepy.


Distinctly underwhelming adventures followed, and eventually other writers broke up the team and messed around with the characters (Cannonball gained control of his flight, Wolfsbane learned to turn into a bad-ass werewolf, Mirage got adopted by some Norse Valkyries .... you know, normal comics stuff). And now, after twenty five years (yeesh), Marvel brings the original band of characters back together in the new first issue of New Mutants.

And it's still underwhelming! Writer Zeb Wells does a solid enough job, gets in a few good lines, but there's nothing arresting here, and he's certainly not done any favors by the artwork - it's distinctly journeyman stuff, even though the artist - Diogenes Neyes - has the single coolest artist name imaginable.

The problem here is the same one that plagues the entire X-Men continuity: too much damn water has gone under the damn bridge. If this were a re-telling of the team's original adventures, a good writer could mine all the potential Claremont studiously ignored, but an almost un-synopsizable amount of stuff has happened to each of these characters in the intervening quarter-century, and this book tries to have it both ways, giving us a simple team-reunion ... but with the adult versions of all the characters. Either one of those things might work separately, but they can't possibly work together. Fortunately, this wasn't Marvel's only recent attempt at delving its own past! There was also:


Tales from Asgard - no doubt spurred by the recent sales success of the relaunched Thor (just follow the tags, everybody! that's why they're there!), Marvel here reprints the one-shot "Tales of Asgard" collection from 1964 - but oh! what a reprint job! The colors and textures of Jack Kirby's original artwork have been incredibly revivified - amplified, so that this is one reprint that's actually visually superior to its original material. I don't know how Marvel did it, but I'd sure as Hell like to see everything they've ever published revamped in this way.


The tales themselves are stirring, stupid stuff - basically Stan Lee retelling some of the greatest hits from Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Asgard and throwing in a little Lord Dunsany along the way. There's humor, pathos, derring-do, and plenty of mythological mumbo-jumbo of the kind that had those of us who gave a crap forty years ago wondering why a Norse god of thunder would ever even bother to hang out with mortal heroes like the Avengers. No, it's the visual remastering that's the star of the show here, and it has that in common with our last item:

Nexus! We're back in the early '80s again for this one, a 'remastered' version of a remastered revamping of a character's stand-alone origin issue, which itself was issued a decade after the character's first appearance .... yes, a bit confusing - as is pretty much everything about Mike Baron and Steve Rude's signature and beguiling creation, Nexus, executioner of mass murderers.


This is Nexus' origin story, and it was originally issued in 1992 on good-quality paper with high-definition color (the collaborating creators even go so far as to use the front cover of that issue as the back cover of this issue), which started me wondering why it would need to be re-re-issued in 2009. Granted, it has a new cover (although not that new - it's a mirror-reverse image of a Nexus comic book cover from way before 1992)(go figure) and a few digital brush-strokes of new color or definition on the inside artwork ... but hardly enough to justify this issue, which means something else must be justifying this issue.


Aside from its convenience as a tie-in to the ongoing (and somewhat pricey) series of hardcover Nexus reprints, it's not hard to see what that justification is: Mike Baron and Steve Rude must on some level realize that they're not two strapping lads from Madison, Wisconsin anymore, and that Nexus and the wonderfully fertile mythology they built up around him ("Great Goulessarian!") are almost certainly their claim to comics immortality. That both of them see this is reflected in this constant returning to and fussing with their epic creation; that both of them resist it is reflected in the consistency with which they refuse to simply buckle down and regularly produce new Nexus material (for obvious reasons, we'll call this the Mike Mignola Syndrome).

In any case, though, it's a treat to revisit this great story about a man who's given tormenting dreams of mass murderers - and who's given the vast cosmic power necessary to bring them to final justice. And since Steve Rude's artwork is some the best in all comics history, even a marginal improvement in what was already top-notch color reproduction is sufficient excuse to pour over every electrifying page.

All trips down comic book memory lane should be so much fun! Atari Force, anyone?

18 comments:

Kevin said...

New Mutants was a great book at the time (you old grouch). The limitations of the team's powers allowed Claremont to weave more interesting stories than your average cosmically-powered superhero slapdown. Once Bill Sienkiewicz took over, through to Jackson Guise & Kyle Baker's run (with the occasional delightful Rick Leonardi fill in), that book was one of the best things coming out at the time (unless the fact that I was a teenage mutant myself during said run has tainted my perception of it). And, for the record, Wolfsbane has ALWAYS been able to turn into a werewolf - she does it like six times in the first 'graphic novel' alone...

As far as the Thor reprint goes, I think it's about time we see some legitimately recolored Kirby pages. Why use computers to recreate the far more limited pre-computer palette? Kirby's stuff certainly deserves the effort.

steve said...

No,no! She could always turn into some weird pedophiliac furry-girl who's mainly good at panicking! By 'werewolf' I meant the culturally-expected BIG HAIRY POWERFUL creature, which Sienkiewicz started and other writer just further exaggerated.

And I agree that the concept of a small team of insecure wimp-assed teenagers would have made a great framework for 'more interesting stories' ... if Claremont had any writing ability. As it is, it was like reading the minutes of the Indiana Ladies Auxiliary Home Committee.

I have higher hopes for this new incarnation, but I know that's INSANE when it comes to anything related to the X-Men ... I never learn ...

Kevin said...

Come on, you had to at least have loved the Art Adams 'New Mutants in Asgard' Special Edition?

Believe it or not, I've been enjoying the whole 'Legion of 3 Worlds' thing - it seems to be pointing toward a new, probably closer to Levitz continuity Legion... One can only hope...

I certainly agree on the whole 'current state of X-books' subject, tho. Thank goodness we at least had the Whedon-Cassiday run.

steve said...

I did indeed like the Art Adams Asgard-stories - but only his artwork! Claremont has seldom been more chokingly chatty and embarrassingly fake than in those stories. But yes, YES! We have the Whedon/Cassidy run, with its BEAUTIFUL conclusion ... showing what a good, careful, sensitive writer can do even when saddled with 100 years of tangled continuity...

I won't be joining you in your guarded enthusiasm about Legion of Three Worlds, I'm afraid. There've been just too many crappy Legion-reboots in the last five years - I'm burned out! If I'm pleasantly surprised, it'll be just that - a surprise.

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