Monday, June 27, 2005

Those New Marvels: A Complete Guide

Bird Brain or Ugly John - Which one's your favourite?

New Defenders
Half-hearted attempt to relaunch fading non-team by stuffing it with the least popular members of the original X-Men. Put out of its misery by the launch of X-Factor, but not before a fair proportion of its vast cast were turned into limestone. Regrettably, this included neither Angel or Iceman.

New Super Spider-Man With the Superheroes
Marvel UK folded failed X-Men vehicle "The Superheroes" into Spider-Man Comics Weekly, memorably edited by future Pet Shop Boy, "Nebulous" Neil Tennant. It was published in Titans format, which meant two American pages were fitted horizontally onto one side of A4. This gave UK readers the opportunity to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of the early works of Don Heck far out-stripping our US contemporaries. Sadly, the resultant eye-strain caused such damage that we were all forced to wear hideous black-rimmed spectacles which made pre-bite Peter Parker look like Flash Thompson. We didn't get many dates after that, but, hey, I'm not bitter.

New Mutants
Marvel's first regular X-Men spin-off. The early issues were undistinguished but promising. Then came its creative peak, when Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz creates some of best comic books of the eighties. Middle age rot began to spread. It had collapsed into senescence by issue #60 - it was in effect terminated by new writer Louise Simonson, who destroyed in two pages what Claremont had spent five years developing. If you don't believe me, just look at Bird Brain (above). Apparently Cable turned up near the end, but I was long gone by that point. We were promised they would be the next generation of X-Men, which didn't quite turn out to be the case. However, I am told that most of the cast are still at Xavier's, working in the Catering Department.

New Warriors
Youthful nineties super-group that didn't exactly soar. Vance Astro proved that being destined to become a mighty 27th century starship captain doesn't mean you can't spend your teenage years being a snivelling annoyance. Nova alarmingly entered the third decade of his adolescence, surely indicating the possibility of a hormonal disorder. And TV-cutie Firestar angsted endlessly about how using her microwave powers would make her infertile. Look on the bright side, Angelica, at least you can melt your own cheese on camping trips.

New X-Men
Utterly inconsistent Grant Morrison run. It ranged from the fabulous (Genosha destroyed), the scary (Cassandra Nova), the predictable (killing Jean Grey), the unexpected (Hank McCoy using Kitty Litter), the bizarre (Magneto acting like a tosser) and the risible (see Ugly John, above). A verdict has still not been returned on this one and perhaps it never will be.

New X-Men: Academy
Fourth generation Young-Mutants-In-Love book, introduced by Joe Quesada as part of his masterplan to streamline Marvel's X-books down to 259 per month. A welcome chance to see recycled old Generation X plots.

New Thunderbolts
Habitual serial killer Marvel Editorial Board takes a chance to rehabilitate itself by relaunching T-Bolts, brutally butchered in its prime. But will they reconsider when they cotton onto the fact that there's nothing new about this series? Fabian Nicieza sleeps uneasily at night, never knowing when the knife in the dark will come.

New Avengers
Bendis and Finch blotted their copybook by slaughtering various Z-list Avengers. In the eyes of many, the fact that this book is clever, funny and beautiful is outweighed by Hawkeye's unlikely (and, surely, temporary) demise. It may have a long-term effect of destabilising Amazing Spider-Man by moving Peter into Avengers Mansion. The sight of "I'm the best there is at what I do, bub" Wolverine has me considering whether to fly to New York and happy-slap Joe Quesada while yelling "Enough, I stopped buying Wolverine's book in an attempt to get away from the tedious, over-exposed little runt."

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Good luck, mate

Fantastic Four 527

In my fanboy dreams, Quesada sees the error of his ways and appoints me Chief Bendis of Marvel Comics. I immediately implement a hundred-day shock plan to improve the Marvel Universe. This includes

- Giving back Genis-Vell, Adam Warlock and Howard the Duck their own series
- Resurrecting Hawkeye
- Speeding Mary Jane Watson into her pre-destined role as ex-wife from hell
- Having Wolverine eviscerate himself by accidentally snikting himself wiping his arse after a particularly violent bowel movement

The problem with the Fantastic Four, is that I have absolutely no idea how I would move this series forward. Not one suggestion, despite three decades of reading it. The FF is that kind of series.

Part of it is their personalities. Johnny Storm is an irritating knobhead who behaves in a way no teenager has behaved since Herman's Hermits were in the charts. Reed Richards is a bendy physics teacher - bendy is fun but it doesn't stop him droning on about electrons. Sue Storm - well, the problem with Sue Storm is that I have a blonde elder sister called "Sue". No matter how attractive the likes of Chris Claremont tried to make her, thinking about Sue Storm in a sexual way gives me the same queasy, soiled feeling I get from reading Geoff Johns' Avengers run.

Which leaves the Thing. A long time ago, he was my favourite Marvel character. I was forced to revise this opinion after reading his catastrophically awful solo comic, when he became a professional wrestler. And anyway, his hostility towards Reed has long since mellowed, leaving him as a lovable, gruff uncle. Pleasant enough, but lacking the conflict which great characters always have. Past it, really.

The Waid years passed affably, Galactus and Doctor Doom duly trounced. There was a great internet kerfuffle when Wade got fired and rehired. Or perhaps he quit and got rehired - the details just don't stick in my mind.

Writers and editors come and go, but this book is in a glacial decline. It has an antiquated, cosy feel. If Earth has a major problem, Reed always fixes it by inventing a machine. From initial plans to prototype to working device in four panels. Sexless and thrill-less, this is a little bit of 1961 limping into the 21st Century. I wouldn't want to see it go, but the whole concept looks doomed, and I have no suggestion how to rectify matters. Is it at all possible for these characters to aspire to greatness again?

Which brings me to Michael Straczynski, newly installed as writer on the FF. I respect Straczynski, despite his responsibility for "Sins Past", a Spider-Man story which stank badly enough to rupture your nasal cavity. Judging from Fantastic Four #527, he's going to put some effort into this book. This was a warm-up episode, with little of consequence to report, but it happened in a well-structured and promising manner.

Give Straczynski a chance. He's got a tough job, but he may do it pretty well. I'll report back on this one in a few months.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The greatest story ever told?

Amazing Spider-Man 121 - 122

Is there anything more about Gwen Stacy's death to be said? I'm not sure, but what I'd like to do here is focus on one question. Was this story any good? Not what its ramifications were, not whether Gwen's death was necessary or desirable. Just whether it was handled well. Was it a classic?

Here is a plot synopsis of what happens, from someone who believes it was indeed a classic.

Review on

It has shock value. Spider-Man's girlfriend is killed by the Green Goblin, who then dies in turn. It is a story which defined the 1970s. At the time, most people hated it. I hate it still.

Part of what's wrong is that both deaths are botched. Gwen is thrown off the bridge, Peter snags her with his webbing, there is a "snap" sound effect. Gwen comes up, not saying anything. Peter says, "Hey, kid - what's wrong? Don't you understand? I saved you .. .you can't be. Don't be dead." And then Norman flies up saying "Romantic idiot! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone ... before they struck the ground." This is making clear that it was the fall which killed Gwen. I spent several years in my childhood wondering why, if this were true, freefall parachutists don't plummet to the ground, stone dead. I can't begin to understand why the Goblin's words weren't edited out - as they simply make no sense.

When the cause of death (broken neck) has to be clarified four issues later in a letters page, you can be certain that the death was poorly scripted.

The Goblin's death is almost as bad. From the end of 121, we're left certain of Peter's motives. "I'm going to get you, Goblin ... you killed the woman I love, and for that, you're going to die." Which, at the end of 122, turns out the case. The logic of what has happened (girlfriend murdered, a vow of revenge) can only be resolved well in two different ways. Peter can kill Norman (which certainly would be my preferred option) or he can relent at the last moment, and deliver the Goblin up to the police. Neither happens - Peter indeed relents, but the Goblin dies anyway, after he accidentally steers his Goblin-flyer into his own ribcage. A convenient ending which removes the Goblin, with his awkward knowledge of Peter's identity, without staining Peter's character by making him a killer. This is an ugly, cheap cop-out of a death.

Let's go back to the murderee. Gwen's last words, or rather, thoughts are "If only Peter would come back, we could talk about it, and maybe understand what went wrong in Harry's make him what he is." The goblin then appears. For fifty issues or so, we've been wondering what would happen when Gwen found out that Peter is Spider-Man. Now we have a chance to find out, but we don't. The Goblin kidnaps Gwen off-caption. Whatever words were said are lost. What a scene that could have been, with Spider-Man's worst enemy revealing the truth to his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the writer, Gerry Conway, lacked either the desire or the wit to write it.

The next time Gwen appears, she's unconscious. Why? We don't get to find out. "Gwen. Looks like she's in a state of shock. I'd better get her to a hospital. Have them give her a sedative of some kind," says Peter. Then Norman and Peter throw her around like a sack of potatoes till she ends up dead. From a story point of view, I can only conclude that this was because Conway had no idea how to write this if Gwen was able to say anything. He had absolutely no empathy with the character of Gwen, no feeling for a human being losing her life. Gwen was simply a plot device. Clumsily, she was being removed from Spider-Man in order to make way for Mary Jane Watson, who makes her first move at the end of 122.

Add in a ridiculous quote from Peter to the effect that he was guilty of Gwen's death ("She doesn't need an ambulance, officer, she's dead, and Spider-Man killed her), horrible, stilted prose ("Cursed interloper", "You're the creep who's going to pay"), an inability to know which bridge it was and you have a crass, badly written and emotionally manipulative storyline. Memorable? Momentous? I'll give it that. But classic? Not in any sense I would use the word.

What happened to Chris Claremont?

Uncanny X-Men 455 - 459

A long time ago, in a story called "An Age Undreamed Of" (Uncanny X-Men 190 - 191), a magical amulet transformed New York into a city ruled by a sorceror called Kulan Gath. All the city's heroes had mediaeval personae (though Captain America was, gratifyingly, still a pompous ass). Allying together, the transformed X-Men and Avengers defeated Kulan Gath and reversed the spell.

It was unquestionably a bad story, and what it memorable is that it was written by Chris Claremont, in the middle of a brilliant 100-issue spell which took us through the Hellfire Club, Dark Phoenix, the Brood saga, Lifedeath and the Mutant Massacre. The X-Men were transformed into the biggest comic book in the world thanks to the best prolonged spell of writing by any comic book writer, ever.

The lesson of Kulan Gath is that even great writers at their peak can write dross sometimes.

The problem with Chris Claremont is that he has written so many fantastic stories and created so many important characters that it seems almost, well, sacrilegious to criticise him. However, criticism is about judging people whose achievements far outstrip anything you might ever have done, so here goes.

The recently complete Hauk'ka story ran in UXM for five months. It involved a plane crash in Canada, a junior Wolverinette called X-23, previously unnoticed evolved dinosaurs, sorry Saurians, called Hauk'ka who took over Rachel Summers, using her telepathic powers to create a global hyper-storm. The X-Men allied with Brainchild and his Mutates, apparently "long-standing adversaries of the X-Men" and a group of nice Saurians fight the Hauk'ka in the Savage Land. In the end, everybody becomes best of friends.

Why is the savage land such a breeding ground for poorly written stories? The best thing that ever happened there was Gwen Stacy cavorting round the jungle in stilettos and a bikini, but even that wasn't exactly "Batman: the Dark Knight Returns."

The Hauk'ka saga was a Kulan Gath of a story. This being the era of graphic novels, it went on for five issues. Bad stories are nowadays stretched into bad sagas. Mutated dinosaurs? Why would temperature sensitive cold blooded creatures want to fool around with the weather anyway? Rachel's transformation into saurian was just a wee bit ridiculous. Does have X-23 have some hidden charisma? I'm also alarmed about Brainchild and his Mutates being long-standing X-adversaries. Either my memory is developing alarming blank spots, or Marvel now publishes so many mutant books that my knowledge isn't all that good anymore.

It's not just this story which is poor. Claremont is in a noticeable decline. I dropped X-Treme X-Men after a succession of substandard, long-winded stories (God Love Man Kills 2, Intifada, Storm: The Arena). That book didn't survive much longer anyway. The new Excalibur just never got going.

Claremont was outrageously thrown off UXM in the late 200s. We waited years for Claremont's return, but his second and third comings have been a big disappointment. The messiah has returned, but not only has he not saved mankind, but his sermons don't seem all that good any more.

Do I think Claremont should go? No. I'm a long-time Claremont fan and I think he's earned to right to expect our patience. I'm not sure that I have faith that it will all come good, but I still have hope.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

When great plans go right

X-Men: Age of Apocalypse

When something goes wrong, it's a good idea if you can understand what the authors were trying to do. For instance, many felt that the "Disassembled" storyline which took over Marvel last year was overblown, inconsistent and disappointing. Personally, I liked it, mostly. Many fear "House of M" or "Infinite Crisis" will turn out similarly.

Big crossovers are big revenue earners, and some see them purely as that - soulless money-making schemes with little or no artistic merit, distorting storylines and pointlessly chomping up months of comic books. I like to think that even in the worst crossovers, some attempt was being made to produce something valuable. To see what they might have been aiming at, read the "Age of Apocalypse".

AoA was a huge crossover "event" which swallowed up the summer of 1995. All the regular mutant books were suspended, and replaced by equivalents set in a dystopian future ruled by Apocalypse, who up to this point had a been a cardboard cut-out villain from X-Factor, but who emerged here as a monstrous tyrant, well on the way to conquering the world and annihilating homo sapiens. This alternative future had been set into motion by Legion, Charles Xavier's son, a high powered mutant who did not survive this story. AoA introduced a new hero, X-Man, whose series would survive AoA by several years, and included the usual range of one-off issues, alternative covers and other marketing blah. As AoA progressed, the various heroes who had survived attempted to defeat Apocalypse, whose minions included Hank McCoy gone very bad and vast numbers of copies of Jamie Madrox, the multiple man.

It was a great concept, carried out beautifully. Being an alternative world, regular heroes could be morally compromised or wiped out, and villains could be heroes. It was a dark, ugly world (typically 1990s in that respect) and getting darker.

In the end, the heroes won out, the alternative future ceased to be and things went back pretty much the way they were. My only fault with the series was the final issue, X-Men Prime, which set a jarringly miserable note on the return of the regular world. What should have been a celebration that things had been made better became a whinge about how horrible our world is. It made me want to subject the writers to a prolonged round of slaps.

But AoA was a triumph, and one of editorial power. The writers became mere scripters as a mega-plot unfolded across multiple titles. The editors, and in particular Bob Harras, who was in charge of the X-Men, have to be given a huge amount of credit for creating AoA. It was a clear demonstration of the standards which could be reached under this sort of editorial control.

I say this reluctantly, because in my opinion editors had, and probably have, far too much control over comics. Editorial vision always seems to be monumental - bigger, longer, more convoluted storylines. Subtlety and nuance get lost in a splatter of big ideas and violence.

Most of the comic books which I have enjoyed over the years have not been crossovers. AoA is the only crossover I have read which I could say was a classic. And after AoA, Marvel's editors were under pressure to reproduce what couldn't be reproduced. What we got was the Clone Saga, which resulted in long-lasting damage to Spider-Man, and Onslaught, which damaged pretty much everything else.

I have a natural tendency to think the best of the motives of comic book creators, but the return of the big crossovers is something which makes my heart sink. Joe Quesada has said that "Disassembled" and "House of M" are part of a bigger, mega-crossover which will finish in a year or two. And while I hope for something as impressive as AoA, I fear we will end up with Onslaught

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What makes the Thunderbolts so good

Thunderbolts 89 

It seems to me that many of the best comic books have simple themes. Spider-Man is about responsibility. Daredevil - justice. Most of the great stories featuring these characters are those which reflect on their underlying theme.

Which brings me to Thunderbolts, which is about redemption. The heroes in T-Bolts are reformed, or reforming criminals. The roster changes often, through personal whim, injury, death or federal pardon. You can guess that Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben will still be around in Fantastic Four 1000. If Thunderbolts get to 150, I wouldn't be surprised if none of the current characters are left. It's tapestry of a story, interlinked tales of morally compromised characters rising and falling. And it's Fabian Nicieza's masterpiece, the book he'll be remembered for.

I was shocked when they killed this series, or rather, I was shocked when they turned it into an awful version of "Fight Club", then killed it when they realised everyone had dropped it.

Give it a try - you'll need at least ten issues before you get a grasp of the group dynamics. Just don't get attached to any one character, cause they're all disposable.

Fantastic Four: Acts of Vengeance

Fantastic Four 334 - 336 

The best thing you could say about these issues is that they are mildly humorous.

The late 1980's were a bad time for non-Mutant Marvel titles. All the energy and creativitiy of the company was pumped into the X-Franchise, much to the detriment of Marvel's mainstay titles, like Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America and, well, Fantastic Four.

These three issues give a snapshot of that process. They were part of an uninspired crossover, Acts of Vengeance. In it, villains from one title would turn up in another. I don't remember (or perhaps don't care to remember) exactly why. Sometimes, the results could be good (the Mandarin turning up in Uncanny X-Men). Most often, it was an exercises in pure pointlessness.

Reading these, you feel that Walt Simonson, the writer, was demonstrating his utter contempt for Acts of Vengeance. At least a dozen minor criminals (such as the Beetle, the Vanisher and Thunderball) attack the FF, and are despatched with laughable ease. At one point Apocalypse, who would have given the FF a good fight, flies over Washington, but there is no interaction with the FF. Why he was there at all is a mystery.

What makes this whole story worse is that the whole story is set at a Congressional Inquiry, where they are deliberating whether or not to pass a bill which would make superpowered beings register with the government. This was a long and meandering storyline from the X-Men which promised little and delivered less. Why were the FF involved? No idea.

So poor Walt Simonson was left to write a Fantastic Four story involving two crossovers with no relevance to the FF. What resulted was three issues of clownish sub-villains and pointless mutant jabbering which outlived its welcome by, say, two issues and fifteen pages.

Why Mister Fish?

Luke Cage 29

You look like a green, aqueous monster, and have developed an inferiority complex about it. Ordinarily, a cause for pity. But if you're going to turn this into anger and become a crimelord, then get yourself a decent name. Call yourself Slipstream, or Waveform or Sargasso. Anything. But not Mister Fish.

Casual readers will be relieved to learn that Luke Cage survived this fishy onslaught, and went onto become a member of the New Avengers (who are like the old Avengers, only with more merchandising opportunities). Sadly, his old costume has not survived the decades.

Incidentally, if Mister Fish hadn't become my weblog's totem, then the villain from the previous issue, Cockroach, could have been in the running. Which may be a tribute to the creative mind of Bill Mantlo, who dreamt them both up.