The Bronze Age Cometh! The Amazing Adventures of Killraven

Amazing Adventures #18-39

Marvel Comics, 20-30 cents, 1973-76

#18-20

Hot on the heels of a fury of fantasy heroes such as Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, Roy Thomas looked for further ways to expand this non-powered concept of heroes. Taking H.G. Wells’s noted novel War of the Worlds and morphing it into a post apocalyptic action series based on the Martians second visit to earth, they’ve totally subjugated mankind, made them slaves, as well as use humans in genetic experimentation to further their goals of dominance.

In the introduction, he creates Killraven, a spectacularly successful arena fighter who’s a rebel with a secret even he doesn’t know. He gives the adventure proceedings a new coat of paint as it were, unique from its fellow fantasy comics brethren.

The first issue, written by Thomas, has some good establishing art by Neal Adams. Good with depicting action and distinct likenesses, Adams immediately gives the series an oomph that would have been difficult for a lesser artist. He makes the first story very successful, establishing the cast and world in a visually exciting manner. Sadly, Adams isn’t available afterwards, but Howie Chaykin steps in admirably. While he isn’t the draftsman Adams is, his forte with fantasy based themes, as well as exotic costuming make this a still interesting read. Continuing in this schizophrenic creative vein, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman step in for scripting chores on the next two issues, keeping the action going from what I assume is Thomas skeleton for the series. Regardless, the proceedings are still on track, probably saying more about the method of Marvel comics production and its in-house talent pool at the time than anything else. Don McGregor takes over as the series regular writer next issue.

#21-24

The next four issues feature new regular artist Herb Trimpe. While McGregor’s prose displays an inspired attack, the strip goes more into irony and commentary on the human condition. Whether it’s deadlines, or budget(?), Trimpe’s art gets more and more rushed from the first issue, and by the last two, story content is reduced to 15 pages per issue, with golden age monster reprints filling the book(ugh!). While he’s not able to get past flat, stereotypical characters, the divorce from Marvel reality helps enormously, and the series becomes more a treatise on mankind according to McGregor’s philosophy. The mere 20 cent cover price makes it a bargain compared to the majority of Marvel’s output of super schmucks. Hope the new to comics Rich Buckler’s art next issue can elevate it…ooh, Klaus Jansen inks, too!

#25-28

Well, after the totally underwhelming run of Herb Trimpe on art, newcomer Rich Buckler does a fill in on issue 25, and the possibilities of the book begin to show a bit as it starts to evolve. While Buckler’s figure work is a bit wonky, his emulation of both Kirby and Neal Adams add an excitement to the proceedings that wasn’t there before. The next issue is another fill in by Gene Colan, of all people; he gives this episode a dark melancholy that helps demonstrate McGregor’s story emphasis. This schizophrenic approach to visuals,-(hey, who’s got time to do a Killraven issue?), and the continued use of a mere 15 pages to tell a one off, really hurt McGregor’s strengths in trying to make his point. On one hand, he’s got bigger fish to fry, but can’t do it in 15 pages AND perform the dynamics that Marvel comics demand (editorially, I assume).

Then in issue 27, Craig Russell arrives. Two things happen that make this story work so much better than than the entire previous run. One, Russell’s art is fully ensconced in the romantic and social depths that McGregor’s writing has desperately needed a visual partner for, and Russell’s chops are up to the task. Second, he is able to turn this into a two parter, utilizing 30 pages to tell the entire story, and give it the space and length it needs to be convincing. Killraven’s band here is also given the room necessary to develop their one dimensional depiction so far, and begins turning them into genuine people. The best story of the bunch thus far, both in writing and in physical depiction.

#29-34

McGregor and Russell totally fooled me here. While last issue provided a satisfactory end to the Death Birth Citadel story, this next issue picks up mere minutes from the end of the last, making this project not one of several short stories, but evolving into a continuing narrative, really without a concrete end from issue to issue. I notice as well that Russell not only does pencils and inks, but has been doing the coloring for the last two issues as well. If creators were trying to transform this into quite possibly the most ambitious workload as possible, this comic is able demonstration of it.

Russell’s art complements McGregor’s prose perfectly. While it can be argued McGregor bites off more than he can chew in his socially conscientious narrative, Russell’s art is equal to the task, providing the needed checks and balances, elevating a mere post apocalyptic tale into what can be said is as close to a work of art as Marvel could ever publish.

But commercial publication schedules will have their way, and this one provides more casualties than just McGregor and Russell, as issue 30 provides a frickin reprint of the Herb Trimpe story we just read a few issues ago, Killraven not an old enough property to have enough history of reprints to choose from, so this one is bookended by some character pages by Russell along with a couple of pages of the main villain reiterating what we pretty much knew. Whoop, wait, the character pages provide a couple of tidbits fleshing out some facts hereto unknown about the characters. But otherwise, ugh, pass.

Issues 31 and 32 get things going again, solidifying the continuous narrative McGregor is pursuing, with little advancement in plot, but it doesn’t seem to matter. At this point, Killraven’s story with his crew isn’t about the quest, but more about McGregor’s disillusionment with humanity and its self destructive path. One that the Martians have not only finished, but provide a inevitable exclamation point for. #32 emphasizes this, putting Killraven and his buds into a prewar amusement park that caters to the dreams of the freemen, showing in its conclusion the futility of man’s selfish goals in the first place. These nihilistic threads are balanced by Russell’s exquisite art, giving hope in the form of beautiful fantasies for the freemen. By this issue, he has mercifully given up coloring and handed over inks to the excellent Dan Adkins.

Of course, after two mere issues of overwhelming craft, we fall victim to another fill in. This one written not by McGregor, but Bill Mantlo and drawn by the ever present Herb Trimpe. This issue stands out as a sore thumb scheduled as a fill in, the editor knowing by now this will be the norm. However, astute readers will notice this one should have appeared after next issue. The story itself? Well, let’s just say this. While it was originally published in ‘75, it lands with a thud as perhaps the most graceless way to offer a sliver of continuity with a writer that had little idea of the narrative McGregor is working toward here. Also, even in 1975, this had to come off as fairly racist in its idea and execution. Now it seems little more than a horrible embarrassment in the annals of comic publishing history.

While #33 is pretty jarring in its near complete train wrecking of the series flow, with #34, our intrepid duo manage to right the ship again with perhaps the end(?) of the current storyline, and their ultimate battle with the toughest villain of the series. McGregor provides dramatic sacrifice for his characters, and Russell gives the proceedings a convincing display of an epic finish. War of the Worlds comes full circle here, transforming its narrative of basic action comic into something mainstream comics hadn’t seen before.

#35-39

And here you have it. The final five issues of Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven complete his saga, in a more or less satisfactory manner. The deadlines for the book have at this point convinced McGregor and Russell to limit themselves to more modest, single issue stories, or perhaps McGregor has decided that format suits his needs better. The aim of each issue seems better off for it, primarily since this was a bimonthly comic.

#35 features Jack Abel inks, perhaps the best work I’ve seen by him, no doubt guided by the tight pencil work of Russell. Sonny Trinidad embellishes #36, and #37 has Abel back again, all to satisfactory ends. Each issue’s themes work very well in the 18 page chunks, suggesting McGregor has a bit more of a handle on how to approach his stories. There’s also a nice balance between attempting to tell a story, with the metaphorical flourishes still there, just reigned in somewhat by conventional story standards, and perhaps the better for it. At last, the series, while not as ambitious now, has started to gel somewhat.

#38, being one of those shoehorned in fill ins, features for some strange reason another script by Bill Mantlo, I guess because he did the first fill in. While not as offensive as the first, retreads a theme McGregor has already covered, and is clunkily drawn by Keith Giffen (in his first published work?), whose Kirby influences only hurt his cause, both in terms of the utterly graceless figure drawing, and some pretty insufferable page layouts. Once again, you can pass on this one.

#39, the final issue, has McGregor and Russell depicting what they seem to know would be their last; they made sure they got it done in time for publication, with Russell inking his own work, but in a more simple, flowing style, showcasing what would later become his signature traits. McGregor, for his part, realizes there’s absolutely no way to tie up or finish his plot threads, and avoids them entirely. While visually looking a bit rushed, it’s nice they were at least able to go out on their own terms.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable this series wouldn’t make it commercially, as I can’t imagine the young male audience (for the most part, I presume), having the patience for the all over the place storytelling, and the artistic level set up by the creators here far too labor intensive and prose heavy to keep it them entertained, as well as on schedule. While Killraven never quite grabs you on a personal level (its characters being pretty much vehicles for McGregor’s main interests), the series remains a piece of Marvel Comics history that shows an experiment, that while never standing a chance under the systems it inhabited, at least a demonstration of what could be in commercial comic books.

A smoother read of this series would be pretty much the first couple of issues for set up (#18 & #19), skipping to #25 & #26, the semi successful fill ins, #27 is where Russell comes on board, skip 30 with the reprint, read #31 & #32, skipping the abominable issue #33 fill in, picking it up again at #34-37, skipping the sad issue #38 fill in, and end with the somber finish of #39. This order of experience will give you an uninterrupted, more pleasing read of the series, unencumbered by the commercial necessities of deadlines and interruption of mainstream hack work.

Star Wars: Thrawn #4 (July 2018)

Star Wars: Thrawn #4

All of a sudden, Thrawn is about Thrawn again. The issue covers a few years, sometimes emphasizing some of Thrawn’s achievements, sometimes just hopping ahead. It’s just really nice to have Thrawn and sidekick Vanto back. They’re so fun together.

There’s also the analytical stuff, which is what makes Thrawn engaging. Not the action or intrigue–the issue even determines Thrawn’s no good for intrigue–but the plotting and the contemplation. Well, the contemplation when Thrawn gets to quiz Vanto about it.

It’s such a nice return to form, it barely matters the issue doesn’t really go anywhere, just does a bunch of summary to set up the next issue. It’d be even nicer if writer Houser had employed a similar tactic on the previous issue, which lost its leads to world build.

Good art from Ross. He’s able to mix in some silly composition choices–floating heads talking across an action panel–to reasonable success. Thrawn isn’t strict; Ross uses its fluidity to good result here.

So. Perfectly fine stuff. Especially for a licensed tie-in novel adaptation.

CREDITS

Writers, Timothy Zahn and Jody Houser; artist, Luke Ross; colorist, Nolan Woodard; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Heather Antos; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Wars: Thrawn #3 (June 2018)

Star Wars: Thrawn #3

Thrawn really isn’t important this issue of Thrawn. Instead, it tracks the adventures of a young woman from the Outer Sim who ends up on the Imperial homeworld and discovers corruption and manipulation in politics. But she sees an opportunity for advancement, and calls on Thrawn to help her.

For a while, it’s a decent issue. It seems like Houser is building to something. He might be–the issue has a hard cliffhanger–but he’s immediately overdue on it. An indulgence issue. Maybe it’s to the eventual trade paces out well. But in floppy? It’s a little much.

Especially since it’s so confusing. There’s so much dialogue, so much exposition. But then an event will occur and it won’t seem like anything previous discussed. And you reread the previous discussions and it certainly doesn’t seem like they’re talking about planning the immediately occurring events. The issue’s lead–the new woman–keeps a lot to herself.

The book is getting to be a bummer. But Ross’s art is awesome this issue.

CREDITS

Writers, Timothy Zahn and Jody Houser; artist, Luke Ross; colorist, Nolan Woodard; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Heather Antos; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Wars: Thrawn #2 (May 2018)

One of the amusing franchise realties for Star Wars is Imperial officers aren’t bright. The movies established early on only Darth Vader had any brains. Darth Vader, then the Emperor. Otherwise, the Imperials were twits.

So Thrawn, which has a genius alien ascending the ranks of the racist Imperial Navy, has a somewhat peculiar problem. How can writer Houser show Thrawn’s ability to excel amid a group of twits. Even allowing for some intelligence, they’re still a bunch of racist twits. It’s kind of an interesting thing. Houser doesn’t really explore it because you don’t get to acknowledge a problem with a franchise in a licensed title. Well, whatever Star Wars is to Marvel.

It’s a successful issue. Maybe a little less impressive than the first; Houser thinks the big reveal is a lot more dramatic than it turns out to be. Thrawn is still all about Thrawn and his human flunky, Ensign Eli. Eli’s supposedly Thrawn’s handler (and is his assigned aide), but Thrawn’s really two steps ahead. Or ten steps. Whichever. Eli’s not too bright.

Decent art from Ross. Little too much with the computer shading, but decent art. He doesn’t do the action well. Like when there are fistfights and prison breaks and whatever. Those scenes, which are rushed in the script, are confusing on the page. Too little information and not the best panel subjects.

But a fine enough, sci-fi comic. It’s a little Star Wars, but not a lot Star Wars. It’s just the right amount.

CREDITS

Writers, Timothy Zahn and Jody Houser; artist, Luke Ross; colorist, Nolan Woodard; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Heather Antos; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Punisher: The Platoon #6 (April 2018)

Punisher: The Platoon #6

Here’s the thing about Garth Ennis. His story arcs might read well in trade. His limited series might read great in a sitting. But he writes comic books. He paces comic books. And Punisher: The Platoon #6 is one hell of a comic book.

Ennis goes an unexpected route resolving the previous issue’s cliffhanger. He uses the frame a lot, revealing the frame isn’t a frame so much as a perch. It’s the reader point of view, whether they know it or not. Ennis has his epical story arc and juxtaposing and it flows nicely, but these things aren’t the most important thing. The most important thing is how the comic has read and reads.

Because Ennis delivers. He confirms he made a promise earlier in the series–one entirely without verbalization–and he delivers on it. He shows he can do this comic and do a war comic and also do a Punisher comic and then he moves past proving he and Parlov’s abilities to someplace else.

Or maybe Ennis just wanted to make a bunch of grown men cry. With the added bonus it’s a Punisher comic making them cry. It’s one hell of a comic.

Parlov’s art is on, of course. There are a lot of talking heads moments cut into the big action–with the narration and the talking heads so strong the big action flashback panels are almost intrusive. They don’t break the pacing because they’re supposed to be intrusive. Ennis is sort of doing the Wizard of Oz reveal on how the comic works and he needs to get the reader alert.

Damn.

What a comic. The issue and the series. Ennis and Parlov.

Damn.

CREDITS

6: Happy Childhoods; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Nick Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Wars: Thrawn #1 (April 2018)

Star Wars: Thrawn #1

Even through Thrawn gets a fair number of close-ups in Thrawn #1, I finished the issue feeling like he didn’t. Thrawn is a Star Wars comic–one of the new official ones so all those old official ones from Dark Horse starring Thrawn are out of continuity. Though, since they’re all based on Timothy Zahn novels, there’s got to be crossover.

This issue deals with how blue super-intelligent alien Thrawn gets into the Imperial Academy. There’s even a cameo by the Emperor (which is maybe the comic’s only draggy scene). Otherwise, it just moves and moves.

Some of the brevity is thanks to the narrator. It’s not Thrawn, but some Imperial cadet who gets stuck translating and babysitting him. The cadet’s not a jerk, but he’s completely disinterested in his assignment. Writer Jody Houser uses the cadet as the reader’s vantage point, but the cadet’s got more information than he’s sharing in narration. Got to keep it dramatically compelling.

And Houser and artist Luke Ross are able to keep it compelling. Even when the comic hits a second or fourth talking heads sequence. There’s sporadic action, but most of it is just seeing how Thrawn reacts to this new world around him. There’s Star Wars minutiae but the better, not-created-by-George-Lucas minutiae (i.e. the Galactic language being called Basic–it’s immediately self-explanatory).

It’s an exceedingly competent comic book. Good art, good scripting.

CREDITS

Writers, Timothy Zahn and Jody Houser; artist, Luke Ross; colorist, Nolan Woodard; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Heather Antos; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Punisher: The Platoon #5 (March 2018)

The Punisher: Platoon #5.

One issue to go. Why am I so surprised Ennis is bringing the two plotlines together–Frank and his platoon, the Viet Cong and the female soldier. But he handles it in a way it can surprise, even after a whole issue of visual reminders the two subplots are very, very close to intersecting.

Ennis and Parlov do it on the last page. They completely change what Platoon might be about. They introduce all sorts of new potential in the penultimate issue. In the last page. Because Ennis has been so careful at advancing the Viet Cong plot line. He never neglects it.

The Frank plot line has the platoon on a body reclamation mission. Ennis gets some history and some commentary out of that subject. Parlov gets to do some gorgeous green landscapes. Those Jordie Bellaire colors. Then, little by little, Frank and the platoon lose the sky. It’s not night, they’re just going deeper and deeper into the jungle. It’s incredibly claustrophobic.

And it’s all a distraction so Ennis can bring out the proverbial big gun. He foreshadows it a little and builds expectation, but it’s still a surprise; the foreshadowing is nonspecific, ditto the expectation. Parlov and Ennis pace this issue deftly, confidently guiding the reader to the cliffhanger.

Next issue’s going to be something.

CREDITS

5: Deadfall; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Nick Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

X-Men: Grand Design #2 (March 2018)

X-Men: Grand Design #2

Piskor is into the original Uncanny X-Men series proper now with Grand Design. He summarizes about sixty-five issues. He covers costume changes–without fanfare, though often with humor–he covers all the weird sixties villains. The space aliens. The coming Phoenix force.

There aren’t any asides. The closest is when Jean Grey goes off to college, but she’s not there for long. A couple pages. But there’s no intense focus on any on character or part of the history Piskor covers here. He’s just getting it out on the page, efficiently, with the right mix of foreshadowing, brevity, and humor. Piskor rarely goes for anything approaching a laugh, but when he does a sight gag, it’s great. When he does a written gag, it’s great too.

The voice of Grand Design–so the Watcher’s voice, as the Watcher is still narrating–keeps the comic calm. It’s still very active, it just doesn’t have overarching intensity. Scenes and sequences can have intensity, but it’s history. Removing the intensity is why Grand Design can get away cataloging all the dumb ideas in X-Men comics and make them great.

Piskor’s art is fantastic. Again, he doesn’t really take any time out on any one thing this issue so there aren’t any art focuses. But it’s fantastic cartooning even without a special topic.

Grand Design continues to amaze.

CREDITS

Cartoonist, Ed Piskor; editor, Chris Robinson; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Punisher: The Platoon #4 (February 2018)

Punisher: The Platoon #4

The tragedy of Punisher: The Platoon is almost unbearable. Ennis juxtaposes the Americans and the Viet Cong. The female Viet Cong Frank Castle, the Frank Castle Frank Castle. The one with a dark shadow over him, even though only the reader can see it. It’s not in the bookend narration. The vets sitting around being interviewed? They don’t acknowledge the tragedy of Frank. It’s the saddest thing in the world… an earnest Frank Castle.

And something I suppose you wouldn’t get if you weren’t entirely versed in the character. Or at least in Ennis’s Punisher MAX. Or some of it, anyway. It’s freaking intense. Nothing happens this issue; violent-wise, I mean. The two times things could go violent? They don’t. Ennis and his war comics realism.

Frank’s marines are on R and R. Drinking and whoring. Ennis loves writing the old men jovially recalling those days. It’s actually kind of cute, as very little else in Platoon ever gets to be cute. Frank’s Viet Cong alter ego’s mentor is sort of cute. But he’s also a brutal commander so it’s a problematic cute.

There’s a conversation scene with Frank and one of his men. Just talking about their lives. Frank Castle talks about his personal philosophy. The other guy offers him advice. It’s extremely affecting as it continues because it’s so foreign from Punisher comics. Freaking Ennis. So good.

Parlov’s art is awesome. No action, lots of talking heads, just beautifully paced visuals. Parlov’s really got this one down.

CREDITS

4: Absolute Consequences; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Kathleen Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

X-Men: Grand Design #1 (February 2018)

X-Men: Grand Design #1

Ed Piskor is credited as “cartoonist” in X-Men: Grand Design. I’m even sure, with the Internet, you can easily find out the last time someone got credited as a cartoonist in a Marvel book. Marvel is the antithesis of cartoonist books. Yet here we are.

With an X-Men comic no less. I should just get this statement out of the way. I can’t stand X-Men comics. Never have I ever. Because there’s always something wrong with the way the story’s being told (i.e. why has the third movie got better symbolism than anything else ever did but it still is crap). So. I’m going into this book not liking X-Men.

It’s unclear if the title’s going to be ironic. Grand Design is a comic book history of X-Men, the comic book. Piskor opens the book in “safe” Marvel territory with the Watcher. He’s telling his Iron Man-looking recorder android thing he needs to relate some history. It starts back in the forties with the Human Torch and Namor, which is pretty traditional Marvel Universe history stuff. It was in Marvels, right?

But then there are these Golden Age heroes tracking down Namor, which seems a little strange for a Golden Age story. Turns out it involves Professor X’s dad. Then there’s Captain America and Logan. And young Magneto. Only that scene never happened in a comic, it happened on a cartoon episode. Piskor’s taking all these terrible retcons and making them into what they never were, a grand design.

Wokka wokka. Or maybe Grand Design is just going to be Marvel’s branding for Piskor doing a history of The Avengers and then Spider-Man. Hint hint. Because Grand Design is something else. It’s making X-Men comics–their dumb continuity, stupid aliens, Professor X bickering with young Juggernaut, Jean Grey killing some dudes, whatever–it’s making X-Men literary. Through an amazing “cartoonist.” Piskor’s able to get about a scene a page. Professor X gets more, but they’re long sequences setting him up. Because if it’s the story of the X-Men, it’s the story of Professor X.

Only not really, because, it’s history. It’s a comic history of comics. And holy shit, it’s amazing.

Piskor’s sense of visual pacing for getting information across is unreal. He’ll go from broad summary to intense close-up–because he’s got a lot to cover. There’s Professor X, Bobby Drake, Magneto, Magneto’s kids, Jean a little, Scott, Hank. And it’s the “regular” origin and then, all of a sudden, it’s got these obvious retcons. Sometimes terrible details, but Piskor just fits them in. The storytelling style, how Piskor’s exposition reads–sorry, the Watcher’s–it’s dry, but with sympathy.

It’s a beautiful comic. Wonderful. I can’t wait until the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And then the hardcover. Because even if X-Men is goofy and often terrible, it can also be good. I think? I can’t remember. It’s pop culture now. X-Men has transcended enough. It’s just pop culture.

I can’t wait to see Piskor expertly, beautifully retell some lame X-Men comics. Wolverine and Scott are going to meet. There’s going to be Dazzler. Then there’s all that Morrison stuff I never got around to reading. And whatever the hell they’ve done since.

Holy shit.

What if Piskor makes me enjoy reading a Deadpool comic.

I can’t wait.

Punisher: The Platoon 3 (January 2018)

Punisher: The Platoon #3

This issue of Platoon is Ennis looking at the quiet time for Frank Castle and his unit. Most of the issue has to do with Frank trying to get better rifles for his men. There’s some stuff with the Viet Cong, there’s the framing sequences, but really, it’s just an issue about Frank trying to get better rifles for his men. It’s very, very strange.

The comic itself is phenomenal. Ennis’s dialogue, his narration, the plotting, it’s all great. Parlov’s art’s great, but playing more for… humor. There’s some absurdity of war stuff going on and Ennis tries to find the humanity in the characters’ reactions to it. He also nicely echoes sentiments from the past to the future with the modern day framing stuff. It feels very whole.

But it’s strange. It’s not really a bridging issue, not unless everything hinges on Frank going to the black market for better rifles. It seems like an aside. A texture issue in a limited series. Does Ennis have time to do it?

Of course he does. Because it’s Ennis and Punisher. He never lets Frank down.

CREDITS

3: The Black Rifles; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Kathleen Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Punisher: The Platoon 2 (December 2017)

Punisher MAX: The Platoon #2

I think three times this issue there are full page panels with the credit “Ennis/Parlov.” I’m not sure if they’ve got their first names on it. They’re heavy panels. Ennis is doing a Vietnam story. He’s got the vets, he’s got the author, he’s got Frank. The vets get most of the time, whether telling the author their story or just in flashback. The author opens it, introduces some details and some unexpected reality (a former Viet Cong officer being a happy old man visiting the U.S. frequently).

Ennis saves Frank. He and Parlov do a lot with the violence, starting with the Viet Cong launching an attack and the Americans having to go to bayonets. But then they go farther. They go so far you’re scared to see Frank again.

No one but Ennis could take what should be a Punisher cash grab and deliver The Platoon. Anyone else would be foolish to try, but with Ennis, his ability to plot this thing… it’s unreal. Reading it, the world off the page goes silent.

CREDITS

2: Ma Deuce; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Kathleen Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Stewart the Rat (November 1980)

Stewart the ratStewart the Rat is a depressing book to think about. Writer Steve Gerber had just been fired by Marvel from his masterpiece Howard the Duck, and his career was in a time of transition. Fans of the duck could look to this book as a supplemental substitution, though they would have had to know about it specifically to place a special order with their direct market comics shop – neither this nor anything else by independent publisher Eclipse Enterprises would be showing up on the newsstand next to the latest Rom the Space Knight or Master of Kung Fu. Non-fans of the duck were still forewarned by the front cover, in horror film red-on-black Courier font, that this was “By the creator of HOWARD THE DUCK.” Even if you’d never heard of Howard, you’d know this book was something off-brand. Something that should not be. An aberration from a proven success, born either out of necessity or sheer desperation.

Eclipse Enterprises was, at least according to Wikipedia, the first publisher of graphic novels although that term hadn’t yet been coined. Stewart the Rat is only 44 pages but with its magazine-sized European “comic album” dimensions and stiffer, heavier paper stock it feels a little more important, but still takes no longer to read than an issue-and-a-half of classic Howard. The higher quality paper is actually a nuisance. The pages don’t turn as easily as a normal comic and feel as though they could be bent irreparably if you held them too carelessly. The spine cracks like gingerbread every time you open it. The prestige format makes you feel burdened if all you want is some more Howard the Duck adventures by your pals Steve Gerber and Gene Colan.

Gene Colan’s art, with assistance by Tom Palmer, is typically masterful but suffers from being in black and white compared to the lush coloring his work was receiving at Marvel, except for the de-evolution of Howard into a black and white magazine after Gerber’s firing – but that magazine’s art had better rendering as well as more pages per issue than Stewart.

The most exciting experimentation Gerber uses with the larger, more ostentatious format is getting textual as well as meta-textual, by opening with a lengthy prologue explaining Stewart’s origin story from the perspective of Stewart himself. This part is so well written it actually overshadows the rest of the experience, leaving you wondering what a full length novel by could have been. Echoing the mutation of Gerber’s funny animal id from duck to rat, Stewart begins his existence as Stewart Dropp, a human being (and dead ringer for the author) who unexpectedly dies a grim death (the text is his murder-suicide note) and leaves behind a giant rat who can walk and talk thanks to an infusion of the human Stewart’s own genetic material. In a strange way this prefigures Alan Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing as a pure swamp-creature born of human influence, rather than of human origin. Disappointingly, the details of Stewart the Rat’s creation never come back to play any role in the overall story, its just Gerber flexing other creative muscles to set the narrative in motion. Stewart may as well have stayed Of Unknown Origin.

The titular rat’s adventure is, unsurprisingly, a Howard the Duck type of adventure. He winds up in Los Angeles, rather than Howard’s usual Marvel Comics haunt of New York, where he meets a Beverly Switzler surrogate, Sonja Lake, being menaced by a Doctor Bong surrogate named Wayne Fossick. Gerber himself had gone Hollywood irl, working on Thundarr the Barbarian for television, and makes many informed jibes at Los Angeleno culture. The villain Fossick is the best part of the book, possibly the best villain Gerber ever wrote – the ultimate purveyor of New Age claptrap, L. Ron Hubbard by way of Charles Manson. His made up self-help jargon and speeches are both hilarious in their parodies of Werner Erhard platitudes, and dizzying in their hip, banal nihilism. It could have been a great arc for a couple issues of the duck; Beverly goes to LA and Howard has to save her from this megalomaniac. Instead we have these surrogates who barely have enough pages to be characterized before the action starts. In emulating but not distinguishing this creation from his similar, previous comic hero, Stewart can’t help but constantly remind the reader of Howard, especially with the Colan art. There are swears, and tiddies, but Howard the Duck never needed either to be great and Stewart doesn’t gain anything from them either.

Gerber would embrace the absence of Howard and comment on it directly a couple years after Stewart with Destroyer Duck, before sneaking Howard into his run on Sensational She-Hulk some years later and eventually getting to make the denouement on his creation with a Howard the Duck MAX mini-series in 2002 – where he was, incidentally, transformed into a mouse as a commentary on Disney’s lawsuit against Marvel claiming that Howard’s design copied Donald. Ironically, this scandal preceded Stewart. It’s not polite to speak for the dead but I’d like to think if Gerber ever saw what Chip Zdarsky has done with the character recently, he’d kick his smug hipster teeth in.

Stewart the Rat is easily recommendable to any dedicated Steve Gerber fan, but Howard fans may find the experience slightly melancholy. The world conjured up for this relatively slim volume is a hollow one, existing only under because of the author’s frustration over not being able to tell the story using his preferred cast of characters. Stewart was ignominiously born, briefly lived, and quickly abandoned by his creator, who always preferred the company of waterfowl to rodents.

CREDITS

Stewart the Rat; writer, Steve Gerber; artists, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer; letterer, Tom Orzechowski; publisher, Eclipse Enterprises.

Punisher: The Platoon 1 (December 2017)

Punisher: The Platoon #1

Punisher: The Platoon is Garth Ennis doing a Vietnam war comic with Frank Castle. Young Frank Castle. Green Frank Castle. An author has tracked down Castle’s first platoon to interview them for a book; the author is never seen. Is it Ennis? Peter Parker? Maybe we’ll find out by issue six.

The Vietnam stuff is excellent. Castle’s just become a second lieutenant, it’s his first ever command, his first ever time in a war zone. Platoon is a colorful story, almost jarring the reader from Goran Parlov’s art. It’s precise and tranquil. There’s no violence until Castle arrives.

Ennis is using a couple different points of view devices for the flashback. Subjective narration, presumably objective events. It’s interesting. Art’s great. Seems like Ennis found something else to say about Big Frank. And, if not, hopefully he can get a new car from the Marvel bucks.

CREDITS

1: Crack the Sky and Shake the Earth; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Goran Parlov; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Rob Steen; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Kathleen Lowe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Spirits of Vengeance 1 (December 2017)

Spirits of Vengeance #1

The world is coming to an end and only this ragtag team of Marvel supernatural characters can stop it. Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider. Blade the Vampire Hunter. Damian Hellstrom the Hellstrom. Satana Hellstrom the scantily clad.

Sadly, Spirits of Vengeance does not read like a tawdry seventies comic (and looks less like one). Instead, it’s just a by-the-numbers setup issue with Johnny searching down Hellstrom. David Baldeon’s art is so slick it’s like he’s doing marketing materials for a Disneyland ride, not an end-of-the-world horror comic.

Writer Victor Gischler keeps it moving–a little too fast, the end is hurried–and tries to get in occasional personality moments. But, in the end, it’s just another bland modern Marvel comic; wish they knew what to do with their supernatural characters. There’s got to be something better than this Vengeance.

CREDITS

War at the Gates of Hell, Part One; writer, Victor Gischler; artist, David Baldeón; colorist, Andres Mossa; letterer, Cory Petit; editor, Chris Robinson; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda (2016)

Mockingbirdv2

Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda, the trade, contains five issues. Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda, the storyline, is three issues. The last two issues are filler because the series got cancelled because comic book readers are awful. Before those last two issues is an afterword on the series from writer Chelsea Cain. Why would anyone want to read filler after finding out this wonderful comic is now gone. Especially since it’s nothing like Cain and artist Kate Niemczyk’s Mockingbird.

So what is Bobbi doing in My Feminist Agenda? Playing some Dungeons & Dragons, doing some light cosplay, taking a cruise, fretting over ex-husband Hawkeye’s murder trial. Oh, and she’s embroiled in a noirish mystery where she’s the detective and the beefcake spy partner Lance Hunter is Ursula Andrews. It’s awesome.

As usual, Cain paces it all out beautifully. The first issue isn’t just Bobbi getting on the boat, but it’s also the entirety of her purpose for getting on the boat. A mysterious Brony has information to help Clint Barton. There’s lots of intrigue, lots of humor, but also quite a bit of melancholy. Times are weighing heavy on Bobbi, regardless of her ludicrous setting or that Lance Hunter is onboard not as a super-spy, but because he’s at a Corgi convention. Not the toy cars, the adorable dogs.

Bobbi starts her getaway trip with Hawkeye on her mind. Or Lance just looks like a brunette Clint.

That first issue gets a lot done, especially for readers coming in without any idea what’s going on with Hawkeye in the greater Marvel Universe. The absurd situation–Hawkeye kills the Hulk–gets positively melancholic by the end of the second issue. The rest of the second issue is a fairly serious, albeit with humorous asides, procedural. Bobbi is investigating a crime with onboard the ship of the cosplay damned. Oh, and there’s a Bermuda Triangle connection. Mostly for fun, though occasionally to let Cain get away with some stuff. Mockingbird is exceptionally precise. Niemczyk is carefully presenting all this information, which includes her own guest appearance as a convention goer and possible suspect.

Cain doesn’t draw any attention to it, it’s just fun detail. Turns out My Feminist Agenda is going to get a little heavier in the final issue of the story arc than Cain forecasted. It also stays fun, because the whole point of Mockingbird is Bobbi Morse’s awesome. Cain and Niemczyk are constantly making absurdities work out. No spoilers, but the tone changes from page to page in the last issue, with Bobbi juggling a lot while still fulfilling her duties as cruise ship detective. Mockingbird presents this fantastic protagonist, who’s sympathetic and relatable, but who’s also smarter than the reader and the story itself. Cain writes My Feminist Agenda, at least as far as how it works as a mystery, with Bobbi as a somewhat unreliable narrator. Some things the reader should be paying more attention about. Other things Cain’s keeping facedown to play later.

Mockingbird and the New Avengers. And corgi-enthusiast Lance Hunter.

And it all wraps up beautifully. Equal parts sweet, spicy, and surreal. Then comes Cain’s afterword–her farewell to Mockingbird and she and Niemczyk’s Bobbi Morse. So thank goodness for the trades, because Cain and Niemczyk’s Mockingbird is one of those cancelled too soon superhero books to be mentioned in hushed reverence.

CREDITS

Writer, Chelsea Cain; penciller, Kate Niemczyk; inker, Sean P. Parsons; colorist, Rachelle Rosenberg; letterer, Joe Caramagna; editors, Christinia Harrington and Katie Kubert; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Jessica Jones 4 (March 2017)

Jessica Jones #4

Someone’s killing capes. It’s good to see Bendis is as original as always. Besides an annoying talking heads sequence with Captain Marvel, this issue is probably the best one so far. Well, except the scene with Misty and Luke Cage talking about Jessica, that one was just cheap. I guess the last scene is okay. You know, wait–the more I think about the comic, the worse it seems.

CREDITS

Writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Michael Gaydos; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Hawkeye 1 (February 2017)

Hawkeye #1

Hawkeye tries way too hard. Thompson’s characterization of Kate is busy but bland. Romero’s art is all right–the detail’s excellent even though everything moves way too fast with way too little actual content. Kate’s cocky and immature, which might fit the other Hawkeye’s comic, but not this one.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Thompson; artist, Leonardo Romero; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Joe Sabino; editor, Charles Beacham and Sana Amanat; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Jessica Jones 3 (February 2017)

Jessica Jones #3

It’s another non-starter for Jones. No “case” either, which makes the promotional materials referring to each issue as a case more annoying. Lots of boring talking heads with occasional PG–13 curse words. Bendis’s big reveal is weak, the art is boring (not Gaydos’s fault though).

CREDITS

Writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Michael Gaydos; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Mockingbird: I Can Explain (2015-2016)

Mockingbird: I Can Explain

Mockingbird: I Can Explain collects the first five issues of Chelsea Cain’s run as writer, along with a special, which was Cain’s first work on the character. That special comes at the end of the collection, introducing Cain’s approach to the character. It’s kind of like a dessert in the collection, however, since it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot line of I Can Explain. It’s good dessert and it does make sense to have it as addendum, as the rest of the collection is very intricately plotted. So much so, I can’t imagine how it’d read in separate sittings.

In other words, I’ll get to the special, which was published first, last.

The first issue is structured around Bobbi (aka Mockingbird) going to the doctor at S.H.I.E.L.D. Cain gets in a lot of good jokes regarding healthcare and has some fantastic cameos. There’s a lot of visual information in the backgrounds, usually for smiles, always for texture. Artist Kate Niemczyk does an excellent job with the various kinds of visual material. There’s even some “clues” for later reveals. And some direct sight gags. Bobbi goes to the doctor four times; Cain starts with a present-day prologue, jumps back into one flashback, jumps forward into another flashback, then another, then another. I think. There’s a lot of careful structuring in Mockingbird and the setup of the flashbacks in the first issue is the most obvious.

Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

It’s a good first issue. It’s fun. It’s not great. It’s good. Cain writes Bobbi really well and establishes some excellent pacing with all the layers.

So, of course, the rest of the comic is nothing like that first issue. The second issue takes place right before the second flashback in the first issue. You know because of Bobbi’s outfit. The first issue has her going through five different outfits, usually Mockingbird standards of some kind–or, at least, female superhero standards–then it turns out Cain and Niemczyk are going to fill in the information about those outfits over the next three issues. Wait, I counted one flashback too many. It’s four outfits, because issue four directly feeds into issue one. Sorry. One flashback too many.

Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

But the outfit thing–even the very subtle introduction of a subplot important in issues four and five–is just part of Mockingbird’s texture. It’s not even the content of the book, which is entirely different starting with the second issue. The second issue’s an all action comic, with Bobbi rescuing scantily clad partner Lance Hunter from the Hellfire Club. What’s strangest about the comic, which makes a lot of jokes at the Club’s expense, is how sex positive the whole thing gets. Lance’s a himbo, but a well-meaning one who Bobbi can’t resist. It’s downright fun and naughty without ever getting too naughty. Cain keeps everything–from the double entendres to the easy jokes–in line. It’s a completely different comic than the first issue implies.

And the third issue is even more different. It’s the standout of the collection, just because Cain gets kind of super dark while still trying to be sensitive to the issue. Not the issue issue, but the subject of the issue issue–a sixth grade girl who has developed superpowers. It’s a fantastic commentary on misogyny and sexist media, but Cain never lets that commentary get beyond Bobbi’s head and mouth or the situation itself. All hail the verisimilitude, because Cain is still doing an action comic after all. Frankly, the third issue reminds me of eighties mainstream DC Alan Moore. Nothing wrong with reminding of that.

True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

The fourth issue brings in Hawkeye and Cain’s take on the character and he and Bobbi’s relationship. It’s kind of like dessert too. It’s similar in structure and scantily clad men to the second issue, but Niemczyk goes for it a lot more this time around with Clint’s little purple undies. She and Cain aren’t afraid of cheap, but very situational funny jokes. Of course, it all ties into the first issue–and the fifth–so there’s potential heaviness going on, but the flirting distracts.

Ibrahim Moustafa does the art on the fifth issue, which is somewhat disconcerting. Mockingbird is Niemczyk’s. At multiple times throughout the issue, even though Moustafa does a fine job, I wished I was getting to see Niemczyk handle the scenes. It’s more action, with Howard the Duck (a wonderful characterization from Cain on him too) and Miles Morales Spider-Man (did Cain mean to highlight the charge Ultimate Miles has the same personality as Ultimate Peter, because she does). There are also zombies. And a lot of laughs. It’s a good issue; Cain perfectly balances action, humor, and serious commentary.

Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.
Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.

Then there’s the special, the dessert. Fine Joëlle Jones art. It’s a mystery. Funny. Dessert.

Mockingbird: I Can Explain starts strong enough, then Cain and Niemczyk blast through expectations. It’s a fantastic comic book.

CREDITS

Writer, Chelsea Cain; pencillers, Kate Niemczyk, Ibrahim Moustafa, and Jöelle Jones; inkers, Niemczyk, Sean Parsons, Moustafa, and Jones; colorist, Rachelle Rosenberg; letterer, Joe Caramagna; editors, Alanna Smith, Christina Harrington, Jon Moisan, and Katie Kubert; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Jessica Jones 2 (January 2017)

Jessica Jones #2

It’s an entertaining issue, with some rather good Gaydos artwork, but Bendis is covering a lot of the ground situation as revelations to cover up for the narrative failings. Jessica Jones doesn’t have its own tone. Alias: The Sequel it’s not, but it’s nothing else yet either.

CREDITS

Writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Michael Gaydos; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Jessica Jones 1 (December 2016)

Jessica Jones #1

I loved Alias, I really did. I can’t even bring myself to read the trades again. I even have the hardcovers. Loved that comic. I didn’t realize Jessica Jones was going to be Bendis and Gaydos, I thought just Bendis. Jessica Jones is like a remake of Alias, only without the shock value, without the intrigue, with some superhero soap opera thrown in. Reading it, I had to remind myself the comic doesn’t do done-in-ones, so not to expect too much.

Overall, it’s better than expected, but Bendis is treating Jessica like the subject of the comic not the protagonist. He’s got cameos from Misty Knight and Jessica Drew and the latest crop of New York heroes. Because New York is back–Gaydos’s New York from the regular people’s perspective, that amazing thing he does with it. And it’s cool. It’d be better if Jessica were a stronger character, it’d be better if the mystery were actually engaging, it’d be better if it didn’t rely so heavily on Jessica’s post-Alias backstory. I can’t believe Bendis expects the reader to keep up with it all.

Will Jessica Jones get to Alias-levels of quality? Nope. Will it get better if Bendis has enough time to get through setting up his elaborately deceptive ground situation? Probably. It’ll have Gaydos art and the art is almost worth the price of admission alone.

CREDITS

Writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Michael Gaydos; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Spidey Zine (2016)

Spidey Zine

Spidey Zine, a fan made “little comic collection” from Hannah Blumenreich, is wonderful. Some of the strips run a couple pages, some run longer. Blumenreich identifies the adorable and the admirable in Peter Parker. Reading Spidey Zine, you totally understand why Betty Brant went for him back in Amazing #7.

Yeah, a bit of warning–Spidey Zine makes you proud of all your Spider-Man knowledge, whether you’re happy to have it or not. Blumenreich even makes some fundamentally uncool things like the Ben Reilly Scarlet Spider costume design wonderful.

But Blumenreich isn’t as interested in Spider-Man as the superhero as she is in Peter Parker, the awkward teenager who puts on a costume and defends Queens. There’s a poignancy to the comic, an fundamental understanding of not just what makes the character tick, but what makes the character so beloved. The idealism.

While Spidey Zine does focus on exploring Peter Parker as Spider-Man, there is still quite a bit looking at how Spider-Man exists in the world. For Peter, for May, for the people Spider-Man helps. Blumenreich perfectly balances everything in these strips. How much verisimilitude, how much danger, how much humor.

Basically, Marvel should start throwing money at Blumenreich.

You can read Spidey Zine for free. If you read Spider-Man, if you watched “Amazing Friends”, if you know what the “Clone Saga” means, if you just like good comic strips–Blumenreich’s style feels like a long-form comic strip….

Spidey Zine is spectacularly amazing.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Hannah Blumenreich.

Freely available, https://gumroad.com/hannahblmnrch/.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 5 (April 2016)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #5

Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl vs. Dr. Doom, which feels like the longest absurd battle of all time. It just seemed like it was going to go on forever. This issue makes it all worth it, this issue has North bringing all the elements together–and there are a lot of them and he creates more problems to solve here–and presenting them to the reader. There’s so much time travel stuff. North is thoughtful about it but not overly serious about it. It’s a great time travel storyline. In Squirrel Girl. Involving Dr. Doom.

Henderson has a lot of different stuff to draw, but she’s got to keep up an insane pace. North is hurrying the reader. He’s not in a hurry, he’s intentionally hurrying the reader to control expectation. It requires Henderson to convey a lot of information without taking up room, both on the page and in the reader’s imagination.

I really like this comic. It started pretty strong and North and Henderson just work to make it better and better. Even with a silly villain like Dr. Doom, they’re able to turn in some excellent mainstream work.

CREDITS

Writer, Ryan North; artist, Erica Henderson; colorist, Rico Renzi; letterer, Travis Lanham; editors, Chris Robinson and Wil Moss; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 4 (March 2016)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4

I’m only going to complain a little but I am going to complain. North really can’t handle this arc; I mean, this issue isn’t a bridging issue, it isn’t an anything issue. It’s too much a part of the story arc–Squirrel Girl back in time trying to stop Dr. Doom from taking over the future–so nothing else really builds. There’s also not much to do build in the past. Or at least North isn’t going that route.

Instead, he’s got a lot of talking heads. Lots of planning, lots of Doom ranting. Just lots of talking. There’s some good art–Henderson can keep up with the talking, but she also gets to do a bit of variety–future Doom-world, 1960s New York. Henderson is really pushing things here, which is good. The book needs energy from somewhere.

Some of the issue might just be Dr. Doom saturation. He’s such a “fun” villain, but he’s got limited character possibilities. While North gets to a good cliffhanger with Doom this issue, he takes forever to get there.

CREDITS

Writer, Ryan North; artist, Erica Henderson; colorist, Rico Renzi; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editors, Chris Robinson and Wil Moss; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Punisher 1 (July 2016)

The Punisher #1

What a lousy comic. I mean, I didn’t even care about Steve Dillon’s artwork. His lines get thick during action sequences and lose all fluidity. Dillon’s precise line work always implies movement, entropy, never static. He looks like he’s doing pin-ups this issue. Punisher pin-ups. Is it 1993 or something?

I can’t figure out who Marvel is targeting with this Punisher variation. Let’s go through all the pieces of the pie. First, Steve Dillon’s back. He hasn’t been on the book for a while, right? And he was on the book during multiple good new (or post-Angelic) Punisher titles. So Dillon alone might be a sale. Except now you need a writer–Marvel should’ve just gotten Dillon a ghostwriter for the book, it couldn’t have been any worse and probably would’ve been better–but it’s 2016 and Marvel has a diversity problem. So get Becky Cloonan to write the book. Name female creator. It’s almost an event comic.

Only bad Punisher comics aren’t events, they’re the standard. Cloonan and Dillon turn in a lame issue. Cloonan writes Frank with less personality than a slasher movie villain, only Dillon draws him very superhero, very compensation Frank. Cloonan’s got these moron DEA agents who would have been lousy cop characters in the early eighties, much less now. Her dialogue’s thoughtfully written but it meanders in exposition land. Or she just has terrible editors.

Finally, this Punisher is the first series since regular people started caring about the Punisher, thanks to the “Daredevil” TV show. Shock of shocks, a “Punisher” show got announced just a few days before this issue came out. It’s buzzy. It’s Disney (and if Disney just means nostalgia-based brand synergy, so be it). Anyway, buzzy says it needs to be accessible as well as notable. Cloonan’s there for her buzz cred, not because she has some great Punisher story to tell.

Or maybe she does and it really is just another Lethal Weapon riff with war buddies selling dope and one of them having to stop it. But I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Marvel apparently thinks they need it to have mass appeal, which is admirable but impossible. **The Punisher** is pulp, it’s exploitation. For it to succeed, it’s got to have an edge–it can’t be bland. And this book couldn’t be blander.

CREDITS

TITLE; writer, Becky Cloonan; artist, Steve Dillon; colorist, Frank Martin; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Kathleen Wisneski and Jake Thomas; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt (October-November 1987)

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I remember when Kraven’s Last Hunt came out. I was eight or nine. Marvel advertised it something fantastic. I was a regular Spider-Man reader, but mostly from collections and it wasn’t like there were a lot of collections in the late eighties. Almost thirty years later and I still can’t think of a better Spider-Man story, not an eighties or later one.

J.M. DeMatteis writes Hunt for new and regular readers, which is in itself a little strange. When I think about eighties comics, Marvel and DC alike, it was always very hard to jump on. But in Hunt, Spider-Man had just gone through a lot of unusual publicity–he’d gotten married–and the story immediately follows the wedding. It was also a cross-over between the three Spider-Man books, which might have been a new thing? I can’t remember.

So, in other words, DeMatteis is working a lot on character. He’s introducing not just the guest stars–Vermin and Kraven–he’s also introducing the regular cast, as he needs them for this story. Peter and Mary Jane are going to have a very rough six issues and DeMatteis forecasts it. When it seems like he’s hit the limit on foreshadowing, he pushes further because he’s trying to make sure the reader knows what’s coming.

And the relationship with the reader is important. DeMatteis wants a lot of trust–he wants to jump around in place, he wants to use a whole bunch of narration–Kraven, Spider-Man, Mary Jane, Vermin–Last Hunt is ambitious. For an eighties Marvel comic, it’s through the roof ambitious, but it’s ambitious in general because DeMatteis is treating Spider-Man as the icon.

Even in the black costume, he’s an icon. I think he was just still wearing the black costume (and might eighty-six it as a direct result of this storyline), but DeMatteis uses it to establish what makes the character. It’s not hard to do a good Spider-Man story and it’s sometimes not even hard to do a better than good one, but it is hard to do an ambitious one.

DeMatteis succeeds in no small part thanks to Mike Zeck’s art. Last Hunt isn’t fantastical, it’s realistic, it’s depressing, it’s scary. DeMatteis and Zeck have a story about four people who are afraid, all the time, all to varying degrees. They’re afraid of themselves, of each other, of the world. It’s awesome.

I haven’t read the comic in ages; it holds up really well.

CREDITS

Writer, J.M. DeMatteis; penciller, Mike Zeck; inker, Bob McLeod; colorist, Janet Jackson; letterer, Rick Palmer; editors, Jim Salicrup and Tom DeFalco; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 3 (February 2016)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #3

There’s something so great about Dr. Doom as buffoon. Maybe because Dr. Doom as loquacious villain gets boring fast. But does anyone actually use him as anything but a buffoon anymore? Squirrel Girl marks the second thing I’ve read from Marvel in the last year featuring Doom–and I’m pretty sure I’ve only read three Marvel series–so he appears, as comic relief, in two-thirds of the Marvel comics I read.

And they’re better for it.

The thing about North is he loves his characters. He loves Doreen, he loves Nancy, he loves Tippy. He loses track of himself with the characters, even when he has this rather complex time travel story with Doom. It’s not present Doom, it’s past Doom, going into even further past, pre-Marvel Age era. I’m not even sure I get it all. But it’s cool North has this much thought for his time travel paradox. It’s care. Squirrel Girl is made with care.

Henderson’s art does a great job with the flashback setting. She initially conveys the era just through clothing (before opening up to exteriors for the fight scene) and it’s awesome.

Squirrel Girl is a good comic.

CREDITS

Writer, Ryan North; artist, Erica Henderson; colorist, Rico Renzi; letterer, Travis Lanham; editors, Chris Robinson and Wil Moss; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 2 (January 2016)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #2

I’m not an expert on time travel stories. I like them, with all their in-jokes and so on, but I don’t really care. They’re a special event and should be rare ones. So I wasn’t expecting Ryan North to write the best time travel story, in terms of in-jokes, references and so on, since Back to the Future. Doreen and Tippy get sent back in time to just before the dawn of the Marvel Age. Maybe by Dr. Doom. Doesn’t matter; the details are never going to be as awesome as North’s execution.

Henderson’s art is essential–the mood and pace of the time travel tropes North acknowledges, utilizes, and ignores get conveyed more in how Henderson breaks out the page than in how North scripts the scene. It’s action-packed talking heads.

But North also has Nancy in the present trying to find her. Amid the great time travel story, there’s this neat (not as exceptional, but really neat) look at how technology has changed since the Internet. Squirrel Girl is a comic with real constraint–it’s about Squirrel Girl–but North and Henderson do deliver a very modern “retro” comic. It’s sixties Marvel done for the Twitter age.

It’s quite good.

CREDITS

Writer, Ryan North; artist, Erica Henderson; colorist, Rico Renzi; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editors, Chris Robinson and Wil Moss; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham 4 (January 2016)

Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham #4

Here’s the concept for the issue (Gaiman loves his concepts)–Miracleman sells his sperm. Women without children can get the sperm and have star children. Saves the trouble of monoliths and killer computers. You can get a star child real easy.

Some of the issue is about this woman who has a star child and she has a boyfriend who has a regular child. If there’s some deeper message in Buckingham drawing the lady and star child as white and boyfriend and boyfriend’s son as black….

I mean, Gaiman’s Miracleman is on the nose. For what should be an indie comic book, it’s really on the nose. But I can’t believe it’s so desperately on the nose. And, if the comic didn’t go terribly bad at the end, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the interracial romance aspect as far as Gaiman’s protracted symbolism goes. There’s so much of it elsewhere in the issue, one can only look for so much.

Most of the issue is this “in-world” storybook (with really lame interludes of the lady reading it to the two kids–the star child being, you know, a little flying god) about Miracleman’s baby’s journey across the universe. It’s kind of fun. The storybook aspect. Gaiman does a lot better at writing a pseudo-storybook than he does doing a pseudo-Moore.

Then the reveal. The dude is leaving the lady and her star child told her because her star child has superpowers. It’s all about how this woman thought having a baby would make her life whole and it hasn’t because she had a Miracleman-brand star child.

It’s offensively dumb. When Gaiman was just doing lame characterizations to get to the storybook insert, it was fine. But when he’s doing that storybook to kill pages and take a load of Buckingham and he’s really got some message? One he tries to get through with inept manipulation. At least competent would’ve been interesting to experience. Inept just makes it annoying.

I might be done with Miracleman by Gaiman & Buckingham.

CREDITS

Book Four: The Golden Age; writer, Neil Gaiman; artist, Mark Buckingham; colorist, D’Israeli; letterer, Todd Klein; editor, Cory Sedlmeier; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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