Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Comics! Manflesh, Manhug, Mangog!

A varied and astoundingly good haul of comics this week, from "Book of the Skull," the prologue to Marvel's upcoming "Fear Itself" crossover event (the prologue has some great gritty moments and also boasts the week's best cover) to some fantastic scripting on "Thunderbolts" and "Spider-Man" and especially "Avengers Academy" to the artwork of the always-amazing Alan Davis on "Young Avengers." But even with such an outstanding batch of comics, every reader will have his, er, preoccupations (there's a less kind word that's often used with comics fans, but we need not sling it around here) - certainly I found that to be true.

Naturally, I found myself concentrating on the Legion, for instance. Not the ongoing "Legion of Super-Heroes," but the concurrent ongoing "Adventure Comics," which also features the Legion (those of you who are now rolling your eyes can instead count your blessings - as often as I've written how overjoyed I am that the Legion is appearing in two monthly titles, I've spoken about it far, far more often, to those poor unfortunate souls close enough to hear me - you're getting it easy, here at Stevereads).

This current run in "Adventure Comics" is written by the great Paul Levitz and features the Legion Academy, where brash new potential recruits are taught the basics of being super-heroes in the 31st century. Artist Phil Jimenez gives us some finely-detailed panels of these youngsters in action - getting their overly-ambitious tails kicked in a very satisfactory manner by an amped-up bad guy only Legion fans will remember.

But the part of the issue I found most interesting (Levitz always has many balls in the air, except when he's writing one of his firing-on-all-cylinders mega-epics, which he most definitely has my permission to do sometime soon) was one scene taking place back at the Academy on Montauk Point, where Cosmic Boy and Duplicate Girl are talking with four potential recruits - Lamprey, Nightwind, Crystal Kid, and Power Boy (the latter being both purple and, in classic Jimenez fashion, easy on the eyes; the Legion should always have a purple member on principle, so he gets my vote) - about what happens when the selection process is over. "You've got options," Duplicate Girl tells them. "We've prepared you well, so after the finals, you might get the opportunity to try out for the Legion, or join the Science Police, or even go solo on an outerworld." Cosmic Boy makes it even plainer: "Don't lock in too much on Legion membership. It's not for everyone. The risks are high, the tension incredible, and even if you don't get killed, you have to give up your life to the team." I submit that only a Legion writer as experienced as Levitz (Keith Giffen, say, or the mighty Jim Shooter) could have given one of the team's founding members such a sharp, knowing assessment to make. Although even I'm just a little confused: these kids spend years in Legion Academy for the chance to try out for the team? Isn't that like spending a whole hitch at West Point for the chance to graduate?

Even more iconic goings-on over in "Superman," a title that's been ailing in the excitement department for quite some time now - despite writer J. Michael Straczynski pursuing a potentially great story-line: in the wake of losing an entire planet-full of Kryptonians, Superman, feeling mighty depressed, decides to forego his iconic flying and walk across America. What could have been a really good device for looking inside the character's head turned rather quickly into an entire comic book about the kind of douchey guy who constantly talks on his cellphone while he's walking down the street.

I would have avoided the latest issue of this run, #709, completely, but my attention was drawn by the nifty John Cassaday cover (the genius stroke of having it set against a starry night instead of bright daylight is the thing that does it for me), so I read it. The main plot is just about the dumbest thing I've ever seen this writer come up with - and that's saying something - but the interstitial moments in and around that plot were worth the cover price. At one point, in order to stop a Flash who's running out of control, Superman super-hugs him, which was funny (one can only speculate how much more ... intense ... Jiminez would have made the payoff panel), and at another point Superman tells the Flash a story of his boyhood in Smallville, a story in which a young Clark Kent shares detention with a young Lex Luthor - only Straczynski never has Superman identify Lex to the Flash, making me wonder if in this present state of DC continuity the other heroes don't know that the world's greatest hero and the world's greatest villain went to high school together. I'll have to remember to toodle on over to the relevant Wikipedia pages and see what I can learn about that.

My final, um, preoccupation this time around was the fourth issue of the five-issue "Thunderstrike" mini-series, in which Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz wonderfully revisit their signature joint creation, the Thor-knockoff character Thunderstrike. Only it's not Eric Masterson, who was their original Thunderstrike and died, but rather his teenage son, who's now trying to wield his father's enchanted hammer and perhaps become a superhero in his own right. DeFalco and Frenz have quite pointedly made this series both dramatic and funny - there are quick quips in every issue worthy of Stan Lee himself (in this latest issue, the funniest ones involve some clueless motorists who mistake the series villain for Iron Man, until he starts ranting about killing people, at which point we get: "You know, I don't think that is Iron Man" ... hee). The 'dramatic' part is taken one enchanted hammer too far, however, in this issue, in which the old Thor super-villain Mangog returns, swiftly (and rather unhygienically) deals with the series villain, and then goes on his own rampage into the heart of New York City, looking for Thor.

Thor fans (of which I count myself among the foremost, alas) will recognize Mangog as the H-bomb of Thor villains - not Thor's defining villain (that would be Loki, his evil half-brother), but his ultimate villain, the Galactus to his Fantastic Four, the Morlun to his Spider-Man, the Destiny to his Doctor Strange. Mangog is an artificial creation imbued with - as he himself was originally fond of saying every ten seconds - the strength of a billion billion beings: i.e. physically unstoppable, even physically unchallengeable. When Stan Lee introduced him back in the late '60s, Mangog was meant to represent a foe Thor had no chance whatsoever of defeating.

So hauling him onstage to validate the revamping of a new teen hero is probably a bad idea. DeFalco doesn't usually have bad ideas, so I'm willing to wait and see how the fifth and final issue of the mini-series plays out, but this issue's concluding two-page spread, in which Punkerstrike - or Kid Thor, if you will - shows up with the Avengers and makes some bad-ass comment designed to raise expectations for a massive fight in the next instalment - doesn't exactly make me hopeful. If this is the real Mangog, he once trashed the entire realm of Asgard - including Thor - without breaking a sweat. This current team of Avengers are pretty much pantywaists (I don't even see Iron Man in that two-page spread) and should be smeared like tapioca on Page 1 of the next issue. I'm hoping it ends up not being the real Mangog - or that some Ultimate Nullifier is pulled out of a hat on the last page.

No matter what, I'll be reading! Comics this good will always get me to come back.

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