Thursday, January 06, 2011

Comics! A Grand Old Time!

As the new year begins, the dust settles in the company continuities of both Marvel and DC, and the editors of their super-hero comics evidently decide (or were ordered by their masters, now newly sensitized to the lure of Hollywood money?) to put away the dark backdrops of the past few years and embrace a somewhat simpler, somewhat brighter outlook.

Of course this will appeal to me, although I'm the first to admit some good stories came out of all that darkness. At DC, there were several back-to-back 'dark' events - most recently the "Darkest Night" mini-series that started with lots of superheroes getting violently killed but ended with lots of superheroes getting brought back to life. And at Marvel, the storyline in which villainous Norman Osborn gained political ascendancy in America and drove all the heroes into hiding (or into maximum security prison cells) led to some fantastic comics; I griped about it at the time, but the fact is, having evil win a big round led to a lot of great stories and great moments - and of course the ultimate pay-off, the story in which Osborn finally gets his comeuppance.

Both those story-arcs are over now (well, "Blackest Night" continues to limp forward as "Brightest Day," but although it's better than it seems, its ultimate worth remains to be seen - right now, its main purpose seems to be to re-introduce DC readers to the 'classic' Aquaman and invent a supporting cast of friends and enemies for him, perhaps as prelude to giving him a comic of his own again), and both companies are free to return to straight-up superhero stories, which is fine by me. A major beneficiary at Marvel is Spider-Man, whose comic is at a high point it hasn't reached in years.

But like I said, I'm also a beneficiary! For instance, I'm back in time 50 years, back to getting Adventure Comics and Superboy every month. True, things have changed - the Legion of Super-Heroes I'm reading in Adventure Comics is now a group of adults, not perky teens, but writer Paul Levitz and artist Geraldo Borges are making it all great anyway (and DC's got another Legion title for stories from the group's youth, so I really can't complain); and the Superboy I'm reading about isn't Clark Kent when he was a teenager, it's Connor Kent, a dreamy hunk-clone of Superman (with a little of Lex Luthor spliced in - yes, this Superboy has two daddies) - but I confess, despite the weird artwork (everybody has such eeensy-weeensy facial features)(but alas, Humberto Ramos can't draw everything), this title is growing on me.

And DC is at least partially acknowledging their bright new day with a series of  covers designed to highlight the iconic nature of their characters, which is neat. Superboy's cover features him flying straight at the reader, followed by his faithful companion Krypto the super-dog, and the cover of Adventure features the Legion logo (which bears a very encouraging resemblance to the logo of a certain literary magazine...) and five grim, anorexic stick-figures who, I guess, are supposed to represent several of the sexy women of the Legion. I mostly concentrated on that wonderful logo.

Over at Marvel, there's considerably more darkness to overcome. It's not just the year-long power-grab of Norman Osborn - that power-grab was only made possible by the events of Marvel's 'Civil War,' in which Tony Stark/Iron Man spearheaded a government initiative to register every super-hero, pay them a government wage, and dictate what they do with their super-powers. Captain America died at the climax of that story, which is about as dark as dark gets, and eventually Osborn chased Tony Stark from power and took over himself - so once the 'big three' of Marvel's super-team the Avengers, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man - were reunited, you'd expect lots of hard feelings all around.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis obviously decided the big three needed a private adventure in which they could heal their fractured relationship, and in the five-part mini-series "Avengers Prime" he cooked up a doozy, an epic story in which our heroes are suddenly transported to the mystic realm formerly occupied by Asgard, a mystic realm now in chaos and being taken over by Hela, the goddess of death. Our heroes are separated, and much sound and fury ensues, and eventually they come together and face off against the forces of Hela - artist Alan Davis has never done better work than in this series, and in this final issue he presents us with a truly wonderful two-page spread of what death's army might look like if it were run through a Wagner-filter:

I admit, I pay much more attention to visuals than to writing in comics, but even so, this issue also has a perfect little moment of character-work. It comes at the end, when an abashed Tony Stark is trying to apologize to Captain America for everything - the superhero registration business, the 'Civil War,' all of it: "All of those things ... all the things I said, and did ...I'm ... I'm so, so sorry. I know that's not enough, but I hope you will allow me the chance to earn your friendship  back. I don't deserve it ... I just hope you let me. I'm not half as good at ... at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you." It's trite, but somehow it works - a line that effectively summarizes Bendis' entire writing career.

And if the events of the "Civil War" cast a dark shadow on the future of Marvel Comics, that's nothing compared to the events that sprang from the mini-series "House of M" (which I praised here despite the objections of Kevin the Noted Comic Book Snob!), in which the tormented hero Scarlet Witch used her reality-altering powers to wipe out nine-tenths of all the mutants in the Marvel Universe. In her agony to make everything simpler, she speaks three fateful words, "No more mutants" - and suddenly the Marvel continuity contains just a handful of mutants struggling to survive as a species. That was years ago, and again, many very good stories have come out of that premise - but there was always going to come some kind of reckoning, and it's looking like Marvel's fantastic mini-series "Children's Crusade" will be that reckoning.

The series is written with acute sensitivity by Allan Heinberg and drawn with eye-popping virtuosity by the great Jim Cheung (in a perfect Steve-world, he would be drawing the teenaged-Legion every month, but I'll take what I can get), and it tells the story of what would happen if two young heroes named Wiccan and Speed - a shy (and gay) sorcerer and a brash young super-speedster - became convinced that a) somehow the Scarlet Witch was their mother, and b) that she was alive somewhere and they should find her. This naturally aligns forces against them - mainly the Avengers, who don't want these kids to blunder into a cataclysm - and forces in their favor, mainly their fellow teen allies on the Young Avengers, but also joined by Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch's brother, and Magneto, the father of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Their search eventually takes them to Latveria and a confrontation with none other than Doctor Doom - a confrontation that prompts Cheung to give us a wonderful double-page spread of his own:

In this issue, part 4 of a 9-part story, this series finally comes into its own as the premiere slam-bang event of the entire Marvel line in 2011. The Scarlet Witch has no memory of the terrible things she did in her previous life - she believes she's simple Latverian gypsy girl Wanda Maximoff, and Heinberg has added the perfect Stan Lee-style twist: Doctor Doom, the monarch of Latveria, has fallen in love with her ("Given my history," he wryly tells Wiccan, "even I find it difficult to believe"). He thinks its sheer lunacy for Wiccan to want to revive her memories - and with them her devastating powers - but the decision might be taken out of his hands anyway, since shortly after Wiccan shows up to 'rescue' his 'mother,' both the Young Avengers (with Quicksilver and Magneto) show up and the Avengers, who are determined to prevent another 'House of M' style catastrophe.

This issue is full of great moments, but for my money, the best of them is the confrontation between Wolverine (who is, for reasons known only to the Marvel Accounting Department, now an Avenger) and poor befuddled Wanda. Wolverine has always had only one simple solution in mind for the whole problem of what the Scarlet Witch did to her fellow mutants: kill her before she can do anything worse - and in the longshot hope that her death will restore the reality she changed - and for one more reason: out of simple revenge for a nearly-successful genocide. Wiccan can't understand such a mentality:
"What is wrong with you? You're supposed to be one of the good guys."

"So was she. Until she slaughtered her friends and wiped out an entire species with three little words ... 'no more mutants,' right Wanda? Well, you got your wish, sweetheart. Thanks to you, there's only a few of us left. And now, thanks to me, there's about to be one less."

Needless to say, he's stopped from killing her, and the issue provides a cliffhanger ending, and the story keeps barreling along. I know I shouldn't be allowing myself to enjoy it as much as I am - probably issue #9 will take a year to ship - but I can't help it! If this series continues as it's going, it'll be the best thing Marvel's done in years. I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I too love the 'logo-covers' - if DC could really crank up the heat and turn all of those major books into must-reads, remind us of why those characters are so iconic, they could give Marvel a run for their money.

And I love the idea of Doom falling for Wanda - that makes total sense! Is it possible no one's thought of that before? I love how it implies a sort of merger between the two most important villains in the Marvel Universe (unless I'm forgetting somebody).

Jim Cheung and Alan Davis are almost irritatingly good.

See, lookit, your Friendly Neighborhood Comics Snob can say positive stuff, too!
And if one prefers Kevin the Comics Curmudgeon, you've even provided a link to me at my crankiest! Man, I musta drank a lot of coffee that day...