Is It Wednesday Yet?
22 January 2008
22 January 2008 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always the comics you're about to read about won't be released until tomorrow (23 January 2008), so these reviews are free of spoilers and should help inform your purchases on new comic book day.
Our grading scale is simple:
Buy: An excellent comic book.
Borrow: A good comic, but save yourself some money by reading a friend's copy.
Flip Through: Give it a once-over at the comic shop.
Skip: This doesn't need to be explained.
Iron Man #25
Writer: Daniel and Charles Knauf
Artist: Rob de la Torre
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: Gerald Parel
When two adolescent heroes are killed in service of the Initiative, the sheer guilt drives Iron Man to continue the pair's investigation into an apparently small-scale missing persons case in the Great Plains. Naturally, nothing is nearly as low-key as it seems. The case has a strong hidden tie to the development and deployment of the Extremis virus, the latest evil scheme of the Mandarin, and Tony's stepped right into the middle of it.
The Knaufs have developed a strong story here, one that's complicated enough to lend depth, but not so detailed as to lose its readers' interest. They work with a moderately-sized cast of characters, which seems to be without a single weak link. Everyone has a reason to be, a distinct personality and motivation that gives them a purpose within the story.
As Stark's constant foil, the Mandarin is a sneaky bastard, and that's much of his appeal. He's working undercover at the moment, as the benevolent owner of the laboratory that's developing the Extremis virus, and he'd actually be quite charming if his goal wasn't the immediate, irreversible infection of the entire world population. In the opening scenes of this issue, as he's smoothly manipulating one member of his staff, I was simultaneously loathing and respecting him. His machinations are plain as day to the reader, but it's still understandable that a character without knowledge of his devious past would buy into his rhetoric. That's the mark of good writing, not to mention strong characterization, and it pays off when his identity is revealed midway through the story.
Rob de la Torre's artwork is in keeping with the more mature, serious nature of Marvel's recent style. Dark and gritty, with an emphasis on facial details and reactions, it reminds me of what Alex Maleev, Sean Philips and Steve Epting have established elsewhere in the upper echelons of the publisher's roster. When he's working with civilians, regardless of the setting, his work is outstanding. When they appear, costumed heroes (or, in this case, men in robotic suits of armor) look a bit out of place alongside such realistic surroundings, but not so much as to take you out of the story. If anything, I think that disconnect between our reality and that of a comic book is partially bridged by this style. It was becoming a bit too commonplace to see a man in tights sailing through the skies above New York City, and the direction taken by the art both here and in a few other select spots within the Marvel Universe is restoring a little bit of that sense of wonder, of disbelief.
It's been ages since I read Iron Man, but this issue was a pleasant surprise. Although it's extremely detailed, with lots of twists and turns, I was able to come into the current story at the midway point, and it still captured my imagination. The writers have carefully developed a situation that's come to a head at just the right moment, keeping new readers in the loop without alienating those that have been there since the beginning. The artwork is topnotch, both explaining and elaborating upon the storytelling. This should be mentioned in the same breath as Captain America and Daredevil, because it's told in a very similar style, with an equal success rate. Buy this if you're into the direction Marvel's been taking lately. It's quality.
Marvel Zombies 2 #4
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: June Chung
Letterer: VC's Rus Wooton
Cover: Arthur Suydam
Review: Dan Toland
The early 90s saw a surfeit of gloomy, angry, depressive music. Countless bands, many of them from the Pacific Northwest, fell over each other trying to express the misery and pain their world was. This was, of course, wildly popular, and for several years the radio was filled with anthem after anthem of bleakness and despair. Don't get me wrong; I myself was a fan of a lot of this stuff, but the "whiny college rock" tag was not undeserved.
(Don't worry; there is a point coming.)
Then, all of a sudden, in 1995, the Presidents of the United States of America came out with their first album. It was lightweight and goofy, filled with two-chord rock in easily digestible three-minute chunks. In an age of gloom and total despair, a CD filled with songs about peaches (with a video that was made of awesome, in which the band fought ninjas), candy and spiders who ride dune buggies really seemed refreshing, and became a staggering bestseller in no time at all.
(Honestly, this will be relevant in a second.)
Less than a year later, their second album was released, and immediately felt like a joke that had been told once too often, and was therefore kind of a pointless waste of everyone's time.
(See, kids? It's a metaphor.)
After years of civil wars and crises and the transformation of Tony Stark into a total douchebag, comics have been looking darker and more intense than they have in a while. There's more variety than there used to be, but there's plenty of grim 'n' gritty to be had. (Not a complaint, just an observation.) Out of all this the first Marvel Zombies series came virtually out of nowhere, and it was hilarious. After months and years of Nick Fury doing increasingly skeevy things in the name of national security, it was fun to see Colonel America get half his head taken off and still want to run around eating people. And the Hostess Meat Pies one-page is pure, insane brilliance.
Now they're back, and... whatever.
What we're dealing with here is Civil War, only with zombies. I'd summarize the issue more than that, but I honestly don't see any real point. Something like this is almost totally review-proof; either you're into the zombie thing, in which case you already have the first three issues and have this one on your pull list (because you're still not full from the sheer metric tonnage of zombie crap getting printed every month). Or you're not, and this isn't going to make you change your mind, although you may consider looking at the trade in a few months time.
I don't want to say that this book doesn't have its moments, because it does. Iron Man (who I will label the "Mach 5" of this extended PotUSoA metaphor, making him the best part of an otherwise kind of underwhelming experience) is practically twirling his mustache with pure diabolical glee. And I would have enjoyed sitting in on the meeting where it was decided what should finally happen with Hawkeye's severed head. But there's realistically only so long you can go over the top before it just gets to be too much.
The art is great, though. Phillips has a way of underplaying the intrinsic gore and making it comical, rather than, well, gross. I also have to give him big ups for his use of scale regarding Giant-Man, which is something that a lot of artists have a hard time with; many, many artists have made the mistake of either making him about a head taller than everyone else, or going the Apache Chief route and making him a hundred feet tall. At roughly 12'-15' tall (his Jack Kirby, Silver Age size), Phillips' Giant-Man is physically imposing, but he's not swatting down any helicopters with the palm of his hand.
Basically, this comes down to your views on zombies. Marvel is taking something that became inexplicably popular, and is driving it into the ground as we speak. As they do. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but if you're not a diehard zombie fan, you would do well to flip though this one. Maybe something will grab you.
(Seriously, though, go listen to the Presidents' first album.)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Goran Parlov
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Tim Bradstreet
While I've heard a lot of talk about Garth Ennis's work with The Punisher tapering off lately, I don't think I could disagree more. In fact, I've enjoyed his work with the MAX imprint more consistently than anything he's written since Preacher. It seems that the writer is prone to boredom and sloppiness when his hands are bound by a more mainstream archetype, as evidenced by his terrible run at the end of the Marvel Knights Punisher series. When he's really allowed to cut loose and tell a story without restraint, though, he writes some absolutely incredible material. That was the case with Vertigo and Preacher, and that's the case here with Marvel MAX and newer issues of Punisher.
He really pushes those limits in the current arc, too, featuring what's shaped up to be the penultimate battle between Frank and the Barracuda. As the conclusion of that arc, this issue is downright brutal — a bloody, gory, balls to the wall action fest. After just the third page, you're treated to one of the most grotesque moments you'll ever see in a Marvel comic. If there's one thing this writer does best, it's following through on the promise of a gigantic conclusion, and that page of Punisher #54 is all the proof you'll need of that. Of course, it's easy to write something that's horribly violent, although it does take someone exceptionally twisted to imagine something so creatively disgusting. But what makes that excruciating moment so amazing is the way Ennis has set it up.
This fight is downright nasty, but it makes sense. The Punisher and 'Cuda were destined to reach this moment of critical mass from the moment they first met, and while it's been a bumpy ride to get here, it feels like there's really nowhere else for them to go now. Ennis has built to the moment long enough — added enough personal assaults — that both men feel like they have no alternative but to go all-out in their quest to destroy the other. Thing is, they're both such war-hardened, never-say-die sons of bitches that it would be a catastrophic disappointment if they went out with a whimper, rather than a bang. Before the issue opened the stakes were already astronomical, and they do nothing but skyrocket as the story unfolds. Garth Ennis takes these guys to hell, and then he sends them somewhere even worse.
I couldn't have handpicked a better artist to accompany this story than Goran Parlov, the man who brought Barracuda to life in each of his previous appearances. He has a mildly comedic edge to his work that matches the book's gallows humor, but can really bring the heat when the fur starts flying and the action picks up. His style of rendering is strangely reminiscent of John Romita, Jr.: clean enough to let the readers see what's going on, but tightly detailed at the same time. If I'm skimming over his contribution it's because Ennis' story is so clearly the star of the show, but the writing simply wouldn't have reached that level without Parlov's aid. He's as much a perfect counterpart to this writer as Steve Dillon was in the late 90s. It's an outstanding pairing, and I'll mourn the end of their collaboration.
The current arc of Punisher has been one of my favorites, and in my opinion one of the character's best. It captures everything there is to this man: his intelligence, his drive, his motivations, his emotional detachment, his impossible dedication — and it's highlighted them all against the backdrop of what has to be the character's toughest battle. This may be one of the most shocking, incredible conclusions I've ever read. I think I breathlessly mouthed, "Oh, holy shit," six times in this issue. It's unbelievable. If you have even the slightest interest in the Punisher, his nemesis or action stories in general, you need to buy this. Freaking awesome!
Writer: Peter David
Penciler: Shawn Moll, Adriana Melo and Val Semeiks
Inker: Victor Olazaba, Mariah Benes and Dave Meikis
Colorist: Avalon's Rob Ro and Chris Sotomayor
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover: Shawn Moll and Rainier Beredo
Reviewed: Dan Toland
Dan: You know, Mike, the other reviews I wrote this week were pretty long. Can I just say, "This book sucks, don't buy it," and be done with it?
Dan: Ugh. Okay...
The story so far: Jen Walters is no longer a lawyer or superhero. She's become a bounty hunter, along with her partner, Jazinda, a Skrull who has a healing factor and a personality, something that, admittedly, we don't generally get to see in a Skrull. Anyway, they're on a road trip trying to track down Bran, someone who chatted up Jen in a bar, and then blew it up. So, there you go. On with the 48-page spectacular!
The main story is "The Whole Hero Thing", which is 32 pages of Jen in a snit, and Jazinda keeps harping on her about how she's in a snit. In the meantime, we get to see a married couple on the outs as they go on a camping trip. Also, an alien crash-lands in the forest, followed by another alien chasing him. You'll be surprised by who the bad guy turns out to be, but only if you've never read a comic book before. Shawn Moll's artwork in this story is not going to win him any awards; his anatomy is weird, his action scenes are stiff and his facial expressions are awful. It's terrible. There's a very strong 90s vibe to this art, and that is not good.
This is followed by "Beasts of the Field", a six-pager in which a lame-assed former villain (kinda) meets with an Indian priestess in Africa who turns him into a Hebrew demon. I don't know, either. The art's not bad, though.
Then, we have "What the Hell is Going On With Her Comic Book?" which is a painfully unfunny four-page story where Jen knocks down the doors at Marvel Comics to complain about the way she's portrayed in the book. This is the sort of thing that was vaguely amusing the first time it happened 20 years ago, but this is just pointless.
Next comes the four-page "Official Handbook" write up, giving us Jen's full history. Normally, I would decry this as filler, but under the circumstances, all I can say is thank Christ we aren't being subjected to another actual story.
My ire even spreads to the letters page. I'm always happy to see the return of the letters page in comics, but not when it's being hosted by what appears to be a brain damaged child with far too much sugar in his system. Assistant Editor Tom Brennan is trying way too hard to be wacky. He needs to calm way down.
Peter David is so much better than this. Please skip this. Don't even make eye contact with it. Wash your hands immediately if it gets on you.
X-Men: First Class #8
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Eric Nguyen
Colorist: Eric Nguyen
Letterer: Blambot's Nate Piekos
Cover: Eric Nguyen
Reviewed: Dan Toland
In brief, Professor X takes his students to the Florida Everglades to visit Curt Connors after witnessing a strange energy in the area while they shot the previous villain into space. (Charles don't play.) This leads them to a brief, fairly one-sided fight with the Man-Thing, who sends the mutants on a fairly trippy date with the Nexus of All Realities. What starts with a fight with Nazis and dragons turns into a trip though various alternate universes and fairly unpleasant possible futures. This is done-in-one, and as a result it's a fast-paced story that crams a lot of stuff into its 32 pages and doesn't overstay its welcome.
I'm not, by nature, a big stickler for continuity. I'm not going to lie awake tonight trying to figure out when exactly the story takes place based on the updated uniforms or anything like that. There was one thing, though, that stuck out as a pretty glaring mistake: when they talk to Curt Connors, he's holding a test tube in one hand, and stirring it with his other hand. What other hand, you may be asking yourself? I know I did.
There's another continuity issue, but not in the fanboy type of way; this is an error from one panel to the next, and is something the editor really should have caught: Nguyen will draw a character as being unmasked, and then that character will be wearing their mask in the next panel, and then a couple of pages later the reverse will happen. Jean alone must have taken off her mask and put it back on five times... mid-fight. Nguyen's art was decent for the most part (he draws Beast much too thin for my liking, but that's a nitpick; his Man-Thing, on the other hand, was very good, as that's a character that tends to look pretty goofy if not done correctly), if a little chaotic at times, but the deal with the masks was distracting as hell.
As a rule, I'm not a big X-Men fan. I loved reading the Claremont and Byrne stuff when I was in high school (via Classic X-Men), and my school notebooks from that part of my life will attest to this; all my science labs and history notes had pictures of Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine scribbled in the margins. (No, I didn't date much. Thanks for asking.) But for the most part, the X-books have historically not really done anything for me.
The exception to this was the original team. A big part of why I liked this era more than the rest (besides the fact that the characters were kinda cool, and Iceman was an "amazing friend" fer chrissake) is because this was the purest team book Marvel has ever produced. There's not a single character there that could carry his / her own title. They were five kids with relatively unimpressive powers individually (I don't pretend to have read every Marvel comic, but I feel safe in assuming that there was never a story where Iron Man said, "Oh, noes! It's the Angel! I gotta hide!"), who, unlike the later X-Men (or the Avengers, Defenders or even the Fantastic Four to a certain extent), needed to be on this team to work together to get the job done.
So my whole life, anything I could find that reprinted stories from that era I snapped right up. I loved Children of the Atom, whenever they could get around to printing it. I even tried to like The Hidden Years. I know, right?
That was a very convoluted and longwinded way of getting to this point: X-Men: First Class absolutely nails the feeling of the original Silver Age X-Men in a way that a lot of flashback series don't. These are five teens who:
01. are experiencing something truly bizarre together.
02. are not terribly experienced.
03. don't always know what to do, and are very, very close as a result.
That's the X-Men I love. And luckily, that's the X-Men Parker seems to be interested in giving us. Buy it, and they'll throw in a Big Mo' ad for your trouble.
Young Avengers Presents #1
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Paco Medina
Inker: Juan Vlasco
Colorist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Jim Cheung
As the first of what I can only presume will be several issues to delve deeper into the individual stories of the team of Young Avengers, this premiere is a very solid introduction. Eli Bradley (Patriot), the team's leader, is the first to enjoy the spotlight, and allows a telling glimpse into his psyche. As a standalone chapter of Young Avengers, I don't think this would've worked — it's far too individually focused, with the rest of the team appearing as accessories at best. In the format of a specialty title, though, it does the job nicely.
Ed Brubaker takes the opportunity to elaborate upon the character and runs with it, as would be expected. In his hands, Patriot is an interesting individual, much more so than I'd given him credit for in the past. His grandfather, Isaiah Bradley, was the "black Captain America" from the series Truth: Red, White & Black. Isaiah's treatment as an unknown, overlooked, uncredited cult figure has shaped the boy's personality. He overcompensates in an attempt to right the wrongs committed against his bloodline, and he's extremely hot-blooded and emotional when questioned. He sees conspiracy in everything, sometimes with good reason, others not so much, and he comes off as a guy who's paranoid and constantly spoiling for a new cause to fight for.
Paco Medina's artwork in this issue is beautiful, like a blend between Chris Bachalo and Steve McNiven. It's crisp, dynamic and energetic, whether he's flashing back to Isaiah's battle against the Nazis in World War II or relating Eli's speech to his high school English class. His artwork has depth and substance, he brings atmosphere when it's needed and focus when it isn't. While his characters all seem to be fairly short and stocky, it's easy to tell them apart and his visuals are never lacking in texture or appeal. He also knows how to visually separate a teen from an adult, which is crucial in a story that focuses on an adolescent character. Eli and his classmates look like kids in high school (although one of them has a goatee, and I don't think I saw even an inkling of facial hair throughout my schooling), but they don't lose any credibility for it. They aren't adults, but they aren't little kids, either — and that's something that's easier said than sketched.
This issue provides a fine introduction for readers who may not be familiar with the character, and a nice elaboration for those who are. It's not a theme that I could see lasting an incredibly long time, but as an infrequent opportunity to explore the individuals that comprise the team, it's a nice break. It's nothing overly groundbreaking, and the story is largely internal monologs, but it's well crafted and entertaining. If the following issues are as solid as this one, Young Avengers might get a mild influx of new readers. Fine writing, quality artwork, good characterization — it all leads me to want to explore the YA mythos a bit more thoroughly. And that, ultimately, should be the goal here. Borrow it if you can; it's a good book, but I can't imagine anyone reading it over and over again.