Saturday, October 16, 2010
Comics! A Bad Day at Forbidden Planet!
You win some and you lose some when it comes to comics. I know this. Crap can come in all guises and colors - it can even be published by DC, although always in a comfortingly small percentage when compared with Marvel, which has been having a love affair with crap since it gave Herb Trimpe a regular paycheck. This increases the caution when buying Marvel comics, but still: all comics are mighty expensive these days, and some of them have won major science fiction awards usually reserved for works of un-illustrated prose, and it's widely acknowledged that the audience for these things is older - and presumably a bit more discriminating - than it's ever been. You'd like to think a new series about a super-powered football player or truck driver wouldn't even get past the conference stage, and that every artist who's allowed to work on one of these $4 comics would at the very least be doing more right than wrong.
So I bought a bunch of comics this week, and that bunch of comics kicked me in the teeth over and over and over again, and that's depressing. You win some and you lose some, I know, I know - but two things made me hope for better this time around: first, when I was reading these things (on a rainy Fung Wah trip back to Boston), I was really in need of a pick-me-up and consequently more vulnerable to disappointment. And second, I had the always-fun experience of buying that bunch of comics not at my usual haunt of Boston's Comicopia, and not even at new discoveries like JP Comics & Games, but instead at that dragon-horde of legendary comics shops, Broadway's Forbidden Planet. That also ups the expectations just a bit, as irrational as that is.
And Forbidden Planet wasn't the only one upping my expectations (actually, I doubt they give a crap about my expectations one way or the other, although the staff of hipster doofuses there is really quite a bit nicer than you'd expect, considering that New York City retail staffs and comic book staffs are two of the rudest sub-categories of human beings on Earth) - the subject matter here helps quite a bit too.
Take Thor, the focus of quite a few recent comics postings here. The second issue of the new Matt Fraction/Pascual Ferry run on that character's main title was one of the crappy comics I got in my stack of crappy comics - and for a new arc of a book featuring such a high degree of talent to stink on only its second issue is something of a new speed record.
The issue features painted pencils by Ferry that are duly gorgeous, but the minute you stop gawking and start reading (almost always a bad idea, when it comes to Marvel comics), all that fascinating stops cold. The characters here - aside from the I! Am! Freed! hyperventilating bad guys, that is - spend the issue acting like morons, and none more so than Thor. The little scene I liked from last time, the one in which Thor tells Jane Foster that he actually misses his evil half-brother Loki? Well, that scene is repeated in this issue, only now Thor's whining to Balder, and incredibly, one bit of that whining goes like this: "All this loss wouldn't be so bad to bear, were I granted someone to bear it with. Someone of my blood, of my flesh." Spoken to Balder, who was recently revealed to be a son of Odin and Thor's brother - a revelation Thor admitted to when questioned by Balder. Guess Matt Fraction didn't read that issue, or didn't like what he read.
Thor matter-of-factly tells Balder that he's going to 'bring Loki back' and then at the end of the issue flies off to do just that - with no explanation of how he's going to do that, let alone why. I finished the issue feeling absolutely certain that if you asked Matt Fraction how on Earth Thor can suddenly raise somebody from the dead, his answer would be "Because I say so." Always an encouraging thing, in a writer.
That particular burst of crap was disappointing because, as we've covered here, I like the character of Thor and have enjoyed some runs on his book more than any other Marvel titles I've ever read. And Marvel wasn't done with the pointed depression! Another title I really enjoyed from the House of Ideas was the Invaders, and I've always thought reviving the book would be a great idea. Granted, my thought was always to set it in World War II and give us more of the adventures the team had back then, but when happenstance and the work of a handful of writers brought back all the original Invaders in the present-day Marvel universe, I admit I started to think of a modern team-revival as well.
Wish I hadn't. Because as soaringly good as the Alex Ross covers for this mini-series are, the inside artwork by Caio Reis is a bitter disappointment and would be even if I were to discover that Reis is actually only 10 years old. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, and although it might prompt me to make diplomatic comments to his mother, if I were alone with the tyke himself, I'd say: you know, you could have tried a little harder here, and here, and here. The writing here, by Christos Gage, is fairly good, but for Pete's sake, Gage and Ross created the concept of the reunion and the story of this arc - would it really have been impossible for Ross to give a few pointers to this Reis person (or conduct a more extensive talent-search in the first place), to avoid saddling hapless readers with panels like this one:
Still, the Invaders is just a neat-o concept, not something to which I'm imaginatively wed. Too bad the same can't be said for that greatest of all Edgar Rice Burroughs creations, John Carter of Mars. Those are books I've read and re-read for the whole of their life on Earth, loving them, thrilling even to the hackneyed prose and the less-than-successful volumes in the series (if there's anybody alive who's read Thuvia Maid of Mars more often than I have, I'd like to meet him - hell, it's pretty clear from the book that even ERB didn't read it all the way through after he wrote it). Naturally, I've always yearned for it to be translated to the medium of comics. In 1977 I got that wish in spades when Marv Wolfman and the great Gil Kane started a wonderful series for Marvel - a series that really deserves its own Masterworks volume and that had distinct high-notes. But 1977 is a long time ago, so naturally I was thrilled that morning at Forbidden Planet to find a company called Dynamite bringing out the first issue of a series called "Warlord of Mars."
I should have taken as my first sign of trouble the cover by Joe Jusko, a crappy cartoon version of the iconic Frank Frazetta poster I've loved for decades. And the inside of the issue was even worse, being the first part of a "tale of two worlds" arc that follows the entirely human gold prospector John Carter and the giant Thark warrior Tars Tarkas as their separate adventures lead them, presumably in three or four issues, to meet on the plains of Mars. The pace is pokey, the artwork is stiff and mechanical, and the very title of the series - 'Warlord of Mars' - is, by my reckoning, about 30 issues away. Even at the $1 cover price, I was overcharged.
My love affair with the concept of John Carter of Mars made that piece of crap harder to bear - so just imagine how bad my reaction was to the latest issue of DC's Adventure Comics featuring my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion is my favorite DC creation and their richest piece of comics history, and this run on Adventure is being written by Paul Levitz, one of the greatest Legion writers of all time. To put it mildly, this is not where I expect to find crap.
And yet, crap I found. Not the story, mind you - it was good and fast-paced and multi-layered as are all Levitz productions. No, the problem here was the artwork by Eduardo Pansica, which featured Legionaires who looked like they're five years old - all his characters are gaunt, asymmetrically angular, and oddly posed, but that's not the worst of it. No, the worst thing was the faces, those endless horrible pre-pubescent faces all caught in the very moment of an orgasm they neither want nor understand. I don't know who DC's art editor is these days, but for grife's sake, Paul Levitz himself has worked with some of the best comics artists of the last four decades, and he had to have seen these pages before, for instance, I did. So he saw the indelible image of Ma Kent fondling a four-year-0ld Brainiac 5 into extremely premature ecstasy - and he thought it was OK? There's absolutely nothing OK about this image:
And yet I'll carry it with me to my cryo-chamber, now that my unfortunate eyes have beheld it.
You know the comic you're reading is crap when the back-up feature - starring the Atom, by all that's holy - is more entertaining than the main feature. I hear on the grapevine all sorts of fascinating things about my beloved Legion - that more titles are in the offing, that the current management at DC is slowly starting to realize what older teams have periodically had to relearn: the Legion has a huge number of insanely devoted fans who will turn almost any well-done Legion product into a solidly-selling item. I hope it's all true, but the success or failure of any Legion venture in this day and age hinges entirely on that 'well-done' part, and that can't happen with this Pansica guy doing the penciling. Nor should it have to happen that way, dammit! The Legion is a venerable property for DC - it should no more be a training ground (or dumping ground) for third-stringers than should Superman or Batman. In Adventure Comics, DC has given the Legion the exact right writer - an artist to match isn't too much to ask.
So, you win some and you lose some, and I can always hope for better next week. And in the meantime, I'll always have that iconic image to close out my little screed: