Friday, September 11, 2009
Comics! The week's highs and lows!
It's an odd thing, dealing with the creative output of a company like Marvel Comics. This is an outfit that's done more over the last 50 years to rejuvenate comics and update them for adults than any other force in the industry, and yet it's a company that so often has its collective head up its ass that you feel like you should get a complimentary bed-pan with every week's subsciptions.
That's as true today as it ever was, and it's the same old problems: convoluted continuity, creators who don't ever talk with each other, people writing flagship titles while deeply, deeply stoned, etc. You can find some of the same faults over at Marvel's long-time competitor DC Comics, but Marvel has a few besetting problems that are peculiar to itself. One is that they have an abiding affection for sprawling, multi-part multi-title mega-stories despite having almost no talent for pulling them off, and another is that they've got a yearning to be badass that's so overriding it's creepy. Both these problems have an understandable genesis: DC. DC Comics does the sprawling, multi-part multi-title mega-story thing with consummate skill (OK, even they can have misfires - nobody around here will be rushing out to buy Absolute Trinity, if they're crazy enough to make such a thing). And as far as badass goes, DC Comics has Batman. Nuff said.
Surprisingly, however, one of the sprawling multi-part multi-title mega-stories Marvel's currently doing is actually making for extremely compelling reading (the other involves lots and lots of zombies and typifies everything that's wrong with Marvel creatively). I'm talking about the whole "Dark Reign" storyline, in which the United States government, in the wake of a nearly successful alien invasion, has turned over its vast military/homeland security/superhero watchdog agencies to Norman Osborn, formerly the Spider-Man arch-villain Green Goblin and now a suit-wearing media-manipulating clandestine dictator. In the old days, this kind of plot would have been carried on for six issues of the Avengers and then resolved, and Marvel's genius this time around is to keep the whole thing going, to expand and explore its possibilities. Osborn has cynically created his own team of Avengers (after first banishing and now secretly hunting the leftovers of the original team, some of whom are holed up in a hiding place in Brooklyn) and his own team of X-Men (after the genuine items withdraw to an island in San Francisco Bay) and sold them to the American people as the real thing, despite the fact that several members of his teams are just super-criminals wearing hero costumes ('Hawkeye' is secretly lethal Daredevil villain Bullseye, Spider-Man is secretly monstrous Spidey-villain Venom, etc). A nice added touch is that Osborn leads the team himself, wearing super-powered armor and calling himself Iron Patriot.
The various titles and spin-offs of this whole 'Dark Reign' story have been almost without exception fascinating, showing our exiled heroes in some new lights - as overpressured underdogs in constant fear of incarceration - and every month, in "Dark Avengers," giving us a surprisingly entertaining foray into life inside a team composed of sociopaths who hate each other and are mostly kept in line by Osborn's dark charisma. Sad but true: the actual heroic Avengers often weren't written with this kind of wry intelligence.
One of the key details supporting the whole storyline is Norman Osborn's assemblage of raw physical power. If his hand-picked enforcers weren't able to smack down their scattered opposition, that opposition would simply re-take control. Preventing this took some skillful choosing on the part of "Dark Reign"s various writers, and they provided Osborn with a team that includes Wolverine's beclawed natural son, the aforementioned Bullseye, the super-powered psychiatrist Moonstone, the unstoppable but mentally unstable Sentry, and Ares, the Greek god of war. The idea is to make the scattered good guys inferior in every way - not just tactically and financially but physically as well - in a direct one-on-one fight with Osborn's Dark Avengers, they'd get their asses whupped and be locked up or worse. Readers are encouraged to think the same holds true for the X-Men, and that brings us to the mini-series Exodus, which wraps up this week with the one thing you'd think its writer, Matt Fraction, would go out of his way to avoid: the aforementioned direct one-on-one fight, this time between the X-Men and BOTH Osborn's teams, the Dark Avengers and the Dark X-Men.
Granted, this is the series' big finish, so maybe it's natural Fraction wanted to go for the gold. But there's a skill to writing - orchestrating - a big multi-part battle, and geez, how many times does Fraction have to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doesn't have that skill before he's forbidden to try it again?
So the big fight is a mess, in so many places I be here all day listing them. Fraction clearly had half a dozen little scenes in mind he thought would be 'cool,' and what happens outside of those scenes, well ... it's only a funny book, right? Yeesh.
So we have Norman Osborn blasting Cyclops two or three times with ray-beams at point-blank range, but Cyclops suffers no damage worse than ripped clothing. So we have Angel scooping up Hawkeye/Bullseye and depositing him across the bay in Marin County (rather than simply dropping him in the water, perhaps from 600 feet in the air), for no apparent reason. So we have Emma Frost entering the Sentry's troubled mind in order to release his inner demons and cause him to fly away from Earth in a blur (rather than simply render him unconscious). So we have Moonstar 'borrowing' powers from "Mistress Hela" sufficient to bring Ares to his knees, but without any explanation of what those powers are. So we see what looks like an evil version of Weapon Alpha get his kidneys and spine punctured by Wolverine
and still be up and fighting several panels later. And so - when it all ends in a truce and the Dark Avengers withdraw - we see Norman Osborn's team at a press conference: Sentry's back and seems none the worse for wear, Ares OK, Hawkeye/Bullseye just fine despite having last been seen fighting Angel to the death over in Marin County, evil Weapon Alpha guy OK, not a Band-aid in sight ... it's enough to make anybody who cares about panel-by-panel common sense throw up their hands in despair, or maybe just throw up.
Things aren't much better in the first issue of another "Dark Reign" spin-off series, "Avengers - the List." In this issue, the real Hawkeye, Clint Barton, one of those exiled Avengers hiding in Brooklyn, decides enough is enough: as long as Osborn is alive, the evil days onto which the whole Marvel Universe has fallen will continue. So Hawkeye decides he will arm himself, do some recon, break into Avengers Tower, and kill Osborn. His lame-ass teammates do some moral dickering with him (this dialogue is written by Brian Michael Bendis, who very often does very much better work - but then, I suppose one of the whole points of "Dark Reign" is that we aren't seeing our heroes at their best), and then he heads off. Artist Marko Djurdjevic provides a nice brooding two-page shot of Barton looking over the Brooklyn Bridge at his brightly-lit target
but what follows doesn't make any more sense logistically than Fraction's Exodus finale. Not only would Hawkeye's teammates never let him go off and attack Osborn's stronghold alone (if for no other reason than that his inevitable capture would jeopardize their own safety) - as it is, they just sit around lame-assedly saying "he's going to get killed" (not quite as catchy as "Avengers Assemble!" is it?), but Hawkeye himself wouldn't do it, for the simple reason that he'd know he had no chance of success.
So I suppose it's thrilling how close Bendis brings him to success (although what constitutes success here - breaking into Osborn's office and shooting him dead with a shotgun blast - raises a snotload of problems on its own, since it's what villains traditionally do). He handles Venom with ease, shoots the fake Hawkeye several times non-lethally, and gets as far as Osborn's office before he's beaten senseless by Ares. I'm guessing the next issue will feature a) Osborn torturing Hawkeye for information about his teammates, and b) those teammates attempting to rescue him from Osborn's clutches, but I'm hoping Bendis will also address the virus of stupidity that seems to be afflicting Marvel's heroes now that they're down and out - this is like the third storyline in which one of those heroes, alone, has tried to assault or infiltrate Osborn's tower, been unsuccessful, and barely escaped. Whatever happened to teamwork?
(Of course, I'm willing to endure all these little gripes if the whole "Dark Reign" concept is eventually going to lead to the mother of all superhero-revenge storylines ... the thing practically writes itself at this point, and it would be extremely satisfying, if done well ....)
Fortunately, writer Fred Van Lente over in "Spider-Man" lightens things up with the week's single best panel/bit of dialogue. In that title, Spidey-hating blowhard J. Jonah Jameson has become mayor of New York City and dedicated his every waking moment to hunting down his web-spinning arch-nemesis. At one point in this issue, when some of Jameson's jackbooted goons are shooting at him, Spider-Man yells, "How can you listen to him? I mean, look at his mustache! It's just like Hitler's!"
But it's over in DC Comics that we get the week's sweetest moment, courtesy of Geoff Johns in the second issue of "Adventure Comics." In that issue, Ma Kent cooks supper for Superboy as he has a delicate conversation with Wonder Girl about their relationship, and when the two young people finally kiss (in mid-air, naturally), a watching Ma Kent says to herself, "Good boy," and wistfully touches a photograph of herself and her dear dead husband, Pa Kent, in younger days. It's a well-done little grace note in a title that's very deliberately taking its time, so we'll end with that. But tune in next week when we take in another batch of funny books and see what makes them tick!