Friday, July 29, 2005

Must we burn Rob Liefeld?

Avengers Vol 2 #1

I'm very much of a belief that one person's comic book opinion has the same worth as anyone else's. We pay the same money, so it's difficult to think why any one individual's opinion could possibly rise much higher than the remainder, and that includes my own. We should live and let live, not get into bitchy internet slagging matches and always remember to respect our neighbours' opinions.

But at the same time, I can't help thinking (purely hypothetically, of course) that if a hypothetical individual was to hypothetically post that they couldn't wait for David Finch to leave New Avengers because he makes everyone's face look the same, then I would hypothetically find it difficult to contain my rage. Is it so unreasonable that our individual should have their eyelids sewn open and be forced to read the Collected Works of Don Perlin on looped video till they bellow for mercy? That they should follow up this firm-but-fair treatment with a tough love sentence sweeping up the Finchmeister's pencil shavings for, say, ten years, eight with good behaviour?

As I say, it's all hypothetical.

There's nothing theoretical about people's hatred of Rob Liefeld. The internet is a hive of Liefeldophobes, complaining endlessly about badly proportioned torsoes, extraneously added digits and squinty eyes. And yet I look at Avengers #1, and think, "Well, that looks all right to me". I mean, I can see that his style is idiosyncratic, and not necessarily to everyone's tastes. If this were a life-drawing class, you'd probably conclude that he had a tendency to exaggerate male musculature, and women's breasts seem rather more orblike than nature permits. Now I lack the in-depth knowledge necessary to be an art critic, but Liefeld's work seems to me to be stylized, but displaying a good degree of competence. Isn't the musculature meant to be symbolic of a character's power and presence, rather than a literal interpretation?

If Liefeld's art irritates, what about Humberto Ramos? Some of his pencils on Spectacular Spider-Man gave the appearance of wax grotesques accidentally left too near a grill. Why does Liefeld get it in the neck, while Ramos is left untouched? What about that artist who accompanied Peter Milligan on X-Force, Mike Allred? Dare I suggest his technical skills appear somewhat deficient?

And if Liefeld's art is so bad, how come everyone bought X-Force when it came out? Why was Cable briefly so huge? And he was - even I bought a few issues of Cable, and I always, always hated the glowing-eyed big-gunned buffoon. Conventional wisdom says that the early 1990s boom was caused by seventeen over-optimistic investors who bought X-Men #1 in all sixty-eight thousand different covers. Could this be wrong? Might it have been that we all went out and bought sub-standard mutant books by the skip-load, and are now a wee bit embarrassed about it? That Liefeld, the great symbol of an era (in the way Don Johnson, with his rolled up Miami Vice sleeves, had been a few years earlier), makes us uncomfortable because he reminds us of the failure of our own critical faculties?

If you're thinking of buying this issue out of anything other than historical interest, I'd advise you not to do it. It was part of the not especially fantastic "Heroes Reborn" relaunch, which was nevertheless important because it was the first time Marvel started showing an interest in resuscitating its core, non-Mutant titles. If you want to know how bad it had got, let me just say "Teen Tony". Liefeld got removed from the Avengers halfway through this run, something the Liefeld-haters remember with fetishistic glee.

I've just checked. I bought a total of eight issues of Cable, six of which were crossovers. That's not so bad, is it? Just don't ask how long I stuck with X-Factor. That is truly embarrassing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I'll have what he's having, and make it a double

Iron Man 182

It was David Michelinie who started it all, by turning Tony Stark into an alcoholic. Already a rich, arrogant, former arms manufacturing womaniser, Stark took to the bottle like a natural, before being redeemed by the love of a good woman. (Who prompty upped and went back to her previously unheard of husband, but that's comics for you.) This first alcoholic storyline was unsettling and shocking. The only criticism which I would have made was that it was too short. Stark descended into, and recovered from, alcoholism in a few issues, and the only effect on Iron Man was the occasional erratic flight.

This issue is the climax of the much longer second bout of alcoholism, which carried on for over a year, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Luke McDonnell. I should state that I have my problems with O'Neil, who wrote the only comic book which has ever made me truly angry. I promise to review it if I can bring myself to reread the wretched thing, which miraculously avoided being left out for the binmen. Anyway, O'Neil has a reputation as a good-to-great writer, which I think is based on work he did at DC in the 1970's. I haven't read them, but reputations are usually merited.

The second alcohol issues took matters much further than the first. Stark lost his company and ended up a New York wino. Recognising he was no longer capable of being Iron Man, he turned the keys (or whatever you use to turn the armour on) over to his pilot, James Rhodes (Rhodey). This was pure excitement: it looked like they were going to replace an original Stan Lee character. The fact that Rhodey was black heightened the drama.

Now I'm not party to Marvel's thought processes, but I imagine that the hope was that Stark would be replaced by Rhodey, but that, if reader reaction was too negative, there would be a fallback position of Stark recovering and returning as Iron Man. In a rehearsal for the farcical Spider-Man Clone Saga, they hesitated far too long. Stark wandered around wrecked for months with Rhodey in the armour, but not truly Iron Man.

Alcoholism is a serious, life-wrecking disease, but it's not one that makes you empathise with the sufferer. The loquacious drunk, spinning entertaining anecdotes in a pub to a circle of admiring listeners is simply a myth. What's more likely to happen is you'll be cornered by a monotonal piss-artist, boor as well as bore, who'll spout stream-of-consciousness piffle while invading your personal space and spitting flecks of dry roast peanuts in your face. Getting drunk scrambles your brain and interrupts your speech processes. It's simply not heroic. If Jean Grey or Genis goes insane and sandwich toasts the Shi'ar high command, it's going to be a fun story. If Tony Stark goes insane and starts alternating dry-heaving with swigging from a bottle of meths, it's not just him that will feel sick.

Which is not to say that what happened to Stark wasn't touching - it was. It's just unpleasant, and should have been kept to a minimum. Michelinie had been correct after all.

By issue #182, Stark is on the streets in a snowstorm, having just pawned his coat for a bottle, and with a friend in a highly pregnant (but not by him - I think) woman, Gretl. Having given the book a fantastic, dramatic cover, the creative team absolutely ruined the suspense by naming the story "Deliverance". Why not go the whole hog and call it "It's OK, people, he's not going to die"? Anyway, Tony and Gretl shelter from the storm, Gretl gives birth, Tony covers the baby and waits for sunrise. In the morning, Gretl is dead, the baby is alive, and Tony is in hospital. Having decided to save the baby, he's also decided to save himself. From this point on, Rhodey's days as Iron Man are numbered. Stark will be back in armour and this story will slip into history.

It's a good story, but a bit corny. Would an alcoholic like Gretl really decide not to drink during childbirth because she doesn't want the baby to be born drunk? Having seen a couple of children being born, it seems to me that after a few contractions most women would happily drink furniture polish if they thought it could provide pain relief. And would Stark really have been unable to find help? If he could walk to the liquor store, couldn't he have walked to a phone box and made a reverse-charges call to Avengers Mansion? The childbirth scene is mercifully underplayed.

(expecting parents might want to look away now)

Rather than being a life-affirming, holistic, new agey celebration, childbirth is actually a gore fest, a combination of Janet Leigh's shower scene in Psycho and John Hurt's indigestion in Alien which makes your average Warren Ellis story look like "Miss Congeniality". How I miss the days when Sue Richards would be wheeled into the delivery room while Reed paced with Ben in the corridor outside, before being (very briefly) presented with a newborn, and celebrating with a big, fat cigar.

Could Rhodey have replaced Stark? I think it would have needed better writing. In all these issues, Rhodey still appears as a sidekick, in the shadow of Stark's alcoholism and not the main event. Rhodey didn't appear to have many supporting characters lined up. I'd like to claim I was a big Rhodey fan, but in truth I wanted Stark back. Having seen the next two decades of Iron Man, I think I was wrong. Rhodey could have become a great Iron Man, and this issue, with Tony Stark freezing to death, would have become one of the most notable comic books of all.

If Stark had died and Iron Man's popularity had survived, it would have changed the course of Marvel's history. Ben Reilly probably would have stayed as Spider-Man, Thunderstrike would have become Thor, and perhaps Steve Rogers would have been shuffled into retirement. Perhaps the lesson is that, if you want to make huge changes to an important character, you need to put both your best writers and artists on the book, in order to draw in new readers to replace the ones who will inevitably drop it. These issues were not of a high enough quality to achieve that.

A missed opportunity.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Bendis like Beckham

New Avengers 4

"The Avengers fight Electro in the street", was how one disillusioned reader summed up this episode. Which had me running back to reread what I had thought was one of the funniest and best-written Avengers I have seen. It has to be said that they have a point. There isn't much action in this episode. The Avengers are trying to trace the perpetrators of a prison raid which had freed dozens of supercriminals. They identify Electro, a minor Spider-Man villain, as a prime suspect. They track him to Boston and capture him easily. They then find from existing prisoners who Electro was working for, and set off for the Savage Land. That's it.

I think what we have here is a religious divide between different types of comic book readers. Those that are action oriented like to see use of superpowers and fighting, which come out particularly well visually. Colossus fastballing into Blob's stomach is always going to look better than the two of them discussing their differences over a cup of Lapsang Souchong. If I were an artist, I would love drawing these scenes. But there are serious drawback to fight scenes, not least the fact that there have been tens of thousands of them over the years. Add to this overfamiliarity the almost certain fact that the hero is going to win in the end, then you have a plot device which is formulaic, cliched and with a predetermined end. Avengers' writer Brian Michael Bendis claims to love fight scenes, but he clearly recognises their inherent limitations. The alternative, interaction oriented writing, marginalises the physical aspects of the heroes, while concentrating on the problems, compatibility and conflicts of different characters. Which is what virtually every other form of writing does as a matter of course.

Bendis' style has been called "decompressed", but that seems like a misnomer. It's not that he's stretching out stories (stories by most other writers are also stretched out these days), it's that he relegates fighting to a smaller role than we have been used to.

So what do I love about this issue? Firstly, the humour:

Cage: Hey, when you used to fight him, how'd you do it?
Spider-Man: Well, I'd web my hands into mitts and pound the crap out of him.
Cage: Do me up. Open the bubble.
(Electro faints)
Cage: He was just supposed to blurt out a name, not faint like a wuss. Get these off.
Spider-Man: They don't come off.
Cage: What?
Spider-Man: About an hour.
Cage: WHAT?
Spider-Man: You said web your hands.

Captain America: Then you can verify for yourself that I have full Champion license.
Spider-Man: Oh no, I am not joining the Champions.
Captain America: It means, my friend, that I have the authority to assemble any team I see fit to go on any mission I see fit.
Spider-Man: Yeah? I have clones.

Cage: Spider-Man, Spider-Woman--you guys related?
Spider-Man: No.
Cage: You give her her powers or something?
Spider-Man: No she's totally unrelated to me in any way
Cage: So she ripped off your name?
Spider-Man: Exactly.
Spider-Woman: Hey! You said it was Okay.
Spider-Man: I didn't say you could lend it out. There's, like, ten of you now.
Spider-Woman: There's three. And they are ripping me off.
Spider-Man: And I'm not seeing a dime.
Spider-Woman: A dime of what?
Spider-Man: Just sayin'.
Spider-Woman: I can't tell if you're joking.
Spider-Man: You're not the first woman to say that to me.

Cage: So, in this land that time forgot somewhere in Antarctica, what've we got to look forward to?
Spider-Man: All kinds of mutates and dinosaurs and big cheetahs and a surprising amount of acceptable nudity.
Cage: Are you #$%$ing me?
Spider-Man: No. But it doesn't matter. We probably won't survive the crash.
Cage: What crash?
Spider-Man: You don't go to the Savage Land without crashing.

If ever there was a writer absolutely loving doing his work, it's Bendis here, affectionately making jokes at Marvel's expense. He's funny enough to write the aspect of Spider-Man that so often gets ignored: his sense of humour. Bendis has the entire team as the stright man to Spider-Man's comedian. And Cage, who's tough but can also be funny, is a perfect comedic foil. I expect we'll see plenty more of this double act. Repartee like this is tough to write - these scenes took hours of polishing, yet they read like they're spontaneous.

Then there Bendis' ability to make me like characters I've either never liked or stop caring about, like Spider-Woman and Cage. Take Spider-Woman in the penitentiary, talking to the cell block in an attempt to find out who Electro's accomplice is

Spider-Woman: All I need is a name.
Spider-Woman: Yeah, figured, Honor among $%^#ers.
Spider-Woman: Anyway, tonight, for dinner, you will be having a meatloaf-esque main course and a pureed potato substance, much like you will be having every day for the rest of your lives.
Spider-Woman: This is a fresh box of apple crumb cake Entenmann's donuts. They are awesome. I bought them for myself, but now that I'm back in the tights this is a big no no. So, to the first person that tells me who Electro took...
Entire cell block: Karl Lykos.

This, which Bendis claims was a vain attempt to get a box of free doughnuts, establishes Spider-Woman as intelligent, confident, tough and mildly neurotic about her weight. And, incidentally, sexy, but I think David Finch may be primarily responsible for that.

And finally, just because I love it, here's Spider-Man's incoherent description of Lykos' powers

Spider-Man: He's a mutant. I've had the honor of being smacked around by him. He can suck energy or...or suck out your powers or something. Something with sucking. And when he overdoes it, he turns into this giant green ol' Jurassic Park thing. Like a dinosaur. A vampire dinosaur. Vampire or dinosaur would have been enough. but this guy is both. Which, really, is just showing off. What does he call himself? Sagey..or Saggy...
Captain America and Spider-Woman: Sauron.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Make a drama out of a crisis

Countdown to Infinite Crisis
The OMAC project
Villains United
Day of Vengeance
Rann-Thanagar War

I approach the DC Universe as a wavering believer might come to the temple of a rival cult - with curiosity, hope, and the sinking feeling that I may be committing grotesque blasphemy. And I notice idiosyncracies which I presume you just get used to:

Why have all the heroes got abstract symbols on their chests?
Why does Flash (or is it "The Flash"?) have funny things on his ears?
Why are there (step forward Captain Boomerang and Brainiac, but you're by no means alone) so many truly awful names?
And why are there so many irritating teenage versions of the major heroes and heroines?

Reviewing any DC book is going to be a problem for me, since I have barely a clue what's going on. I've only been reading DC for about a year, and most of this was spent following one stupendously long Superman arc.

For the new reader, crossovers are a royal pain in the arse. I don't want major DCU-changing events, as I'm finding it difficult enough to understand it as it is. And since I have limited finances, if I buy mini-series, then I have to stop buying regular monthly comics. So, to make way for the four mini-series which followed Prelude to Infinite Crisis, I had to drop Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes, Flash and Adventures of Superman. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, DC Marketing department.

I loved Countdown to Infinite Crisis. It had clearly been written with the less-than-dedicated reader in mind, since it told a story with deep roots in the past without getting entangled in them. We were presented with a hero down-on-his-luck (Blue Beetle) being ignored by his former friends and up against a wonderfully sinister enemy, Max Lord, who has a hatred of superpowers generally, and who ends up murdering Blue Beetle after Blue Beetle refuses to join him. Lovingly sinister, Max is exactly the type of enemy every hero needs to have: clever, brutal and seemingly unstoppable. This story continues in the OMAC project.

Having accused Marvel of unoriginality in choosing to make House of M an alternate-reality series, it's only fair to note here that Countdown to Infinite Crisis is remarkably unoriginal. Consider Max Lord:

Castle in Switzerland
Hundreds of minions
Unstoppable robots
Computer system which can see everything
Murderer of minor characters
Likes chaining beautiful women up in dungeons
Has mental control of the main hero (Superman)
Confused baddy motives (has mental powers but hates superpowers - does that make any sense?)

I submit that this is the kind of behaviour you would expect from a villain in a 1966 episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.. To all intents and purposes, Lord is actually Doctor Evil, and will probably shortly be presenting the US Government with a demand for "one million dollars". He's a cliche, but I love him. Incidentally, modern incarceration techniques mean it is no longer considered desirable to chain people to walls with their arms above their heads, not least cause of the health risks when they start soiling themselves. You can't help but feel that just maybe the writers were indulging in a bit of fantasising here. Just my guess, you understand.

There were a few questions to ask. Would the JLA be quite so off-hand with Blue Beetle? They appear to be acting like idiots, not heroes. And why didn't Kord sue his bank when all these funds were withdrawn from his account without his approval? And, for future reference, if someone points a gun at your head and says, "Join me", the correct answer is, "What do you want me to do first, boss?". It's OK to lie under duress. Saying "sod off" and getting shot is just foolish. Much later, you can always sneak off and hide behind Wonder Woman's bustier till the fighting's over.

The OMAC project is the only one of the four I'm still buying, although I'm hesitating over Villains United. This is written by Gail Simone, a big plus in my book. One drawback is that it involves two lots of villains fighting each other, and I can't bring myself to support the ones we're supposed to. The second is the name, which sounds like a soubriquet for Don Revie's thuggish Leeds teams in the early 1970s. I didn't much enjoy the prolonged torture scene either, and I have a strict limit on the number of times I want to see a needle pushed into someone's eyeball.

I can see people loving Day of Vengeance, in which the Spectre displays that winning combination of righteousness and butchery which makes for a truly chilling villains. But I'm just not big on this whole magic business - I keep hoping Hermione Granger is going to turn up and take him out with a well-aimed wand.

As for Rann-Thanagar War, I haven't got a clue what this is all about. It's like being parachuted into the middle of a three hour lecture on the causes of the 1912-1914 Balkan Wars. The whole thing is buried so deep in past events that us newbies haven't got a chance.

In conclusion, what we have is an Austen Powers plot, a gang war, a ghost story and a space opera. All well-written, I think, but it's not yet clear whether they add up to more than the sum of their parts. They could all easily be standalone stories, which makes you wonder whether they can be satisfactorily tied up together - 2004's Avengers Disassembled certainly didn't manage it. Maybe when it's all over, I'll be able to go back to Legion of Superheroes - that'd be fun.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Take me out to the ball game

Peter Parker Spider-Man 33

While we're on the subject of nostalgia, let's look a great example of how to do it properly. Paul Jenkins' story of Peter Parker and Uncle Ben's annual visits to New York Mets to watch their team get thrashed.

Each year, Peter and Uncle Ben would head down to Shea Stadium, eat unhealthy looking food and watch their team, who would contrive a way to lose while Peter and Ben did some male bonding. One year Peter got smacked in the face by a baseball and had the wits scared out of him by a concerned team mascot with a huge round head. Peter grew into a stroppy teenager who had to be dragged along. Finally, the Mets won. Ben was killed three days later. It's affectionate, touching and monstrously over-sweet. I really should hate this issue, but I don't.

What's bizarre is that Paul Jenkins is English, and it's a rare Englishman who has the slighest interest in baseball. Perhaps this is just an indication of how pervasive American culture has become. Even here we know about the Mets being losers, the Yankees graceless winners, Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Brooklyn Dodgers, "Say it ain't so, Joe" and that bloody awful Kevin Costner film. Or the song "Take me out to the ball game", which I know without ever having heard. I imagine it sounds a bit like Yankee Doodle Dandy, but in my wilder moments I think how wonderful it would be if it was more like "Stavanger Toestub" by Half Man Half Biscuit.

Last year, during a noctural bout of gastro-enteritis, I watched a baseball game, and found it slow, simplistic and manned by strange men in pyjamas who were attempting the world speed-gum chewing record. And I'm not anti-American sports, as I love American Football, though I fear being a Cleveland Browns fan involves the kind of suffering a Mets fan might identify with. I will admit to liking cricket, which on any evidence is actually much worse than baseball (it goes on for five days, and still can be a draw - what sort of idiot would invent a game like that?), but I'm afraid baseball's charm escapes me.

(Nostalgic interlude - My Dad couldn't be arsed to take me to football games when I was a lad, so the first time I went was with my mates as a teenager, and it was like being dropped in a testosterone cauldron. There was a stink of urine, beer, cigarettes and violence. The first football song I ever sang was "You're going to get your fucking heads kicked in", a threat I had not the least intention of carrying out. The constabulary were constantly carrying out over-excited away fans, while we sang "You've come all this way and you're nicked". Every so often there be the high-pitched whizz of a two pence coin being lobbed over our coin barrier - the only one in Europe, boasted our fans - and at the away goalkeeper, who responded by spending half the match standing a good thirty metres away from his goal. We continually taunted him about the faithfulness of his wife, despite him being the goalkeeper of the England team and pretty much a national icon. Now call me an old cynic, but I'm going to have to have a brain aneurysm before I start thinking of my first ball game in a waxy, nostalgic way.)

Perhaps what's special about baseball is not that it's a good game, but that it has a melancholic air. Made for fiction rather than television.

Anyway, Peter Parker 33 is a sloppy sentimental comic book. For all I know it might look completely ridiculous to an American or it might have them dreamily remembering childhood days. It's good, but you'll finish it feeling you've been smeared in syrup.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Bad comic book ideas of the 20th Century

Marvel Premiere 30 featuring the Liberty Legion

Nostalgia gets us right in the gizzards. Ordinarily sensible human beings turn to mush at the sight of simply ridiculous ideas from childhood, like Space Hoppers or the Two Ronnies or Showaddywaddy. We need to stand up, tell ourselves we're adults, and then admit that some things are simply crap. There, it feels good, doesn't it?

My generation, who were called Thatcher's generation (though as a rule we hated her as malicious and vile), then Generation X (which was strange, as it meant nothing and was also a rubbish punk band liked by our elder siblings) are now forty or so and starting to have power. Which is why garbage ideas like bringing the Champions back get serious consideration. They were awful, I'm afraid. Go and read them. I'll review one, I promise. Werewolf by Night? Tosh. And don't get me started on Bloodstone or the Human Fly. They were not worth bringing back, and for the sake of those younger than ourselves we must not succumb to temptation.

Which brings me to the nostalgic indiscretions of an older generation. The Invaders, and particularly, the Liberty Legion. The generation who were writing and editing in the 1970s were those who had grown up during the Second World War, at the birth of comic books. These comic books, now prized possessions worth thousands, were junk. Read one of them. They're badly written, mass marketed crap. Now you're going to say, "Ah but look, different times, don't judge etc etc". Which is another way of saying, "Yes they are crap, but people liked crap in those days". Somewhere amongst it, little companies were producing comic books to make soldiers feel just a little bit better about the hideousness they faced. And that was OK. But out of the context they were produced, these books were awful. And when the Invaders were revived in the 1970s, set in the War and with the same style, it felt badly wrong.

What's awkward about the Invaders is that it was set in the most vile, destructive conflagration in the history of mankind. Tens of millions died. In bombing raids which wiped out whole cities. They starved or frozen or were nuked. They were shoved into gas chambers. No superhero came to help them. Ordinance faced ordinance, and the greater mass of weaponry won. Namor and Captain America did nothing, cause they didn't exist. If they had, shouldn't they have gone and killed Hitler? Why didn't the Invaders destroy the train lines going to Auschwitz? Or the gas chambers? Or knocked out the V2 rocket bases? Mixing real genocide and imaginary superheroes is plain bad taste.

The Liberty Legion was an attempt to produce a spin-off from the Invaders. The Invaders generally fought in Europe, which was as would expect, since that's where the war was going on. But the Liberty Legion were going to fight Hitler in ... New York. To quote Captain America "And if I can judge that heaping round of applause correctly, I'm betting they'll be glad to have the Invaders bearing down on the Axis hordes in Europe, and the Liberty Legion protecting the home front for the duration". Yes, America was going to have its own superteam to protect it from a non-existent threat, while hundreds of thousands of its soldiers were being sent abroad to face injury and death. Just bad, bad, bad. Now I've no problem with people in wartime staying at home, especially if they're taking part in the war effort, but these people are supposed to be fighters, for god's sake. So go where the fighting is. I kept half-expecting Bucky to say, "Hey Cap, I've had a word with Blue Diamond, and he's agreed to switch teams. He's going to take part in that parachute drop into occupied Byelorussia, while I'm going to stay in Manhattan scoffing bagels, doing the Jitterbug and listening to Charlie Parker."

Oh yes, and I'm pretty sure women in the early 1940s didn't wear skirts as short as Miss America's. What would have happened to the war effort if they had?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Scarlet faces all round

Web of Scarlet Spider 1-4
Amazing Scarlet Spider 1-2
Scarlet Spider 1-2
Spectacular Scarlet Spider 1-2
Scarlet Spider Unlimited 1

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly (Macbeth)

For all the wrong reasons, the Clone Saga is a fascinating part of Comic Book History. Marvel had identified a problem: the greatest Spider-Man stories were those which had taken place when Peter Parker was a young, swinging, bachelor, but he was no longer. Since his marriage to Mary Jane, they had become a whingy, snappy couple who were hurtling towards middle age, spending their free time in furniture stores and worrying about the cost of life insurance policies. Their way to solve this was to wipe out several years of Spider-Man's life. Which is roughly twenty years our time. Peter Parker would turn out to a clone, while the real Peter Parker, young, hip Ben Reilly would come from the shadows to replace him. To help the process along, they character-assassinated Peter, having him swing about town yelling things like "Parker is dead, long live the Spider". Then they had him backhand Mary Jane. Charming.

Anyway, they delayed and delayed the switchover from Peter to Ben, giving everyone enough time to get really angry. Then the editorial team got cold feet, and made Peter the real Spider-Man after all, killing Reilly off. They also had to undo some of the changes they had made to Peter ie removing his newborn daughter (May), and resurrecting Aunt May, whose death had been the highlight of a barren period. It took two years for the Clone Saga to wind itself up, taking place at a time when the early 1990s boom was becoming a horrible bust, causing untold damage to Spider-Man, Marvel, and the digestive systems of its remaining readers.

This is all recounted at unbelievable length by Glenn Greenberg in The Life of Reilly. It's painfully long, mind, and by concentrating too much on the ins and outs of the plot, sometimes misses the point that the interesting story is really Marvel, not Ben Reilly. And since Greenberg was an editor and writer of Spider-Man at the time, it shouldn't necessarily be taken as unbiassed. Personally, I think it lets the editorial staff off lightly, and understates both the poor quality of many of the books that were produced, and the damage caused.

These issues are an important turning point. Peter Parker, at this point the clone, has been shuffled off the scene. Leaving Ben Reilly as Spider-Man? No, that would be too easy. Ben is still the Scarlet Spider, a temporary name Marvel came up with for Ben to use in the interim before he became Spider-Man. All regular Spider-Man comics were suspended, and these put out in their place. "Scarlet Spider" was supposed to be a temporary name, but here they are plastering it all over some of the most high profile comics in the industry. At the end of Spectacular Scarlet Spider #2, Ben abandons "Scarlet Spider", and becomes "Spider-Man". And then Web of Scarlet Spider continues on for another two issues, containing Ben-as-Spider-Man in them. You couldn't make it up. Greenberg blames Marketing for these issues, which could well be true. Although you do wonder which marketing professional would advocate bigging up a brand (Scarlet Spider) which you have no intention of continuing with, and are indeed about to destroy. At one point, Reilly goes on about how much he hates the name "Scarlet Spider". If even the owner hates it so much, what is it doing on the front of the comic? Why didn't the editors give Ben a name they liked?

It seems that everyone had lost control.

It shows in these issues. You get the impression everybody involved feels they have better things to do with their time. The art looks hurried and homogenised. You have difficulty telling different artists' work apart, since they are all drawing in the same ugly manner. I don't think the mighty Bill Sienkiewicz has ever looked so bad. The stories are cliched and garbled, the dialogue poor verging on facile. The colours are garish - which I suspect may be to do with colourists not having yet adjusted from changing from matt to shiny pages. Even the lettering looks shockingly rushed. All the stories are cross-overs ("Virtual mortality", "Cyberwar", "Nightmare in Scarlet") but none have such worth that you would want to make a cross-over out of them. Designed by committee, they are rendered incomprehensible by mismatches between each individual writer's idea of what they're supposed to be doing.

They're also museum pieces in their attitude to technology. In the early nineties, there was this idea that technology would develop to the point where we would become immersed in computer environments, all bytestreams and moody sunglasses and digital images, like in the Matrix. In the end, of course, the future turned out to be stuffing genetically modified Deep Crust pizza down our fat throats while playing fifteen consecutive hours of Doom 12 and maxing out our credit cards at The writers have a startling lack of knowledge about technology. Howard Mackie at one point appears not to know the difference between a chip and a virus. Consequently, the characters talk like gibbering idiots. It's that bad.

These issues are worthwhile for two things only. Reilly finally becoming Spider-Man, after putting it off a ridiculous number of times. And there's Scarlet Spider Unlimited 1, where Greenberg undoes the work of Gerry Conway, who had previously retconned the original clone saga. Greenberg props up the retcon of a retcon by retconning a different retcon of the retcon. Complex and yet worthless, it's a sign of how desperate Marvel had become to shore up this farce. It's like discovering that a dungpile stinks and trying to rectify it by unloading a palette of shit on top.

Can we salvage anything out of this? Ben Reilly doesn't come out too bad. The little clips of his private life show that some thought was going into developing a new, desperately needed Spider-Man cast. Reilly still has some fans, and I can just about see why. Not to worry, as I'm sure they'll bring him back eventually. Probably as a member of the Champions.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

House of pain

House of M 1 - 2

It had a good start, House of M. The X-Men and the Avengers have a big conference where they decide whether or not to execute Wanda, whose rather extreme powers are threatening reality. The best way to develop this would be for them to go ahead and kill her. This would be utterly morally unacceptable to characters like Spider-Man and Kitty Pryde, their teams would be split wide open, and Pietro would want to exact a ghastly revenge. All in all, a great big bunfight, and you'd have to try pretty hard not to make it a fantastic story.

And then they spoil it all by have Wanda's powers go and change reality. We're back to the Age of Apocalypse or something similar. AoA was a classic, which is exactly why they should exert extreme caution before ever doing anything like it again. If it has to measure up to the highest standards, House of M is likely to fall short. And if they don't return to this "Should we kill Wanda" question, then House of M #1 was an entertaining waste of paper. House of M #2 was just a scene-setter.

I'm not one to dwell too much on continuity, but when did Wanda get so powerful? She used to get a fit of the vapours if she tried to cast a third hex, now she alters reality in her sleep. I'm glad I haven't ever cared about her, otherwise I'd be having a good old rant about what they've done to her. She's now simply a plot device, there to change the Marvel Universe in whatever ways Uncle Joe is planning.

Damn this internet for spoiling the surprise - I've read they're bringing Hawkeye back. But it's an alternate reality story, so that's not really a resurrection, is it? Unless they're thinking on keeping Scott and Emma in suburbia, Kitty as a high school teacher and have an ongoing plan to use Colossus as a replacement tractor engine, you have to feel none of this is permanent. Much as I'd love to have Uncle Ben back with us, obviously.

So the initial signs aren't exactly encouraging, but it's probably best to reserve judgment. Maybe this'll turn great in this end. I should also review "Countdown to Infinite Crisis", except I'm new to the DC Universe, and I'm not sure I understand what's going on.

And I'm left with the conundrum of whether to buy House of M: Spider-Man. I'm tempted, since it's got Gwen Stacy in it, and it's always good to see the old girl. But Sins Past was so bad I shudder to think what they might do with Gwen in an alternative reality. Writers often get over-excited in this type of story. Free from forty years of continuity, they contrive to have the character act as unlike their template as possible. Hank McCoy becomes an evil biologist with a penchant for live experimentation, while Sabretooth is a dapper gentleman who helps old ladies cross busy roads. Since Gwen's reputation has already been trampled into the mud by a herd of frenetic wildebeeste, what might they come up with next? Can I suggest she

- tongues Mary Jane
- becomes the Pink Goblin
- freebases cocaine
- does the big leggy with Uncle Ben

While we're at it, how about Ben Grimm as a ballet dancer? Blackbolt as a street mime? Or Aunt May as an Amsterdam whorehouse madame? You can have fun with this alternative reality lark. So much easier than consistent character development.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with?

Daredevil 11

Some couples are believable, some aren't. Alex Summers and Lorna Dane, for instance, were together for several decades without ever giving the impression they could stand each other's company. Reed and Sue Richards, on the other hand, are so obviously destined to be together that it seemed simply absurd when they were split up. Which happened, for those who are interested, somewhere around 1975.

That incompatibility should exist is curious, because they are all fictional characters. A good writer should be able to make any two characters into a couple, because that's what good writers do - they entertain, and they make things believable. Somehow, though, it doesn't work like that. Could anyone make Ororo and Ben Grimm look good? Thor and Betty Leeds? Captain America and Aunt May?

Looking at the procession of creative teams who had a crack at Alex and Lorna, you would have thought at least one or two of them would have made them seem like a loving couple. I can only think of two explanations: either none of the writers could be bothered with such a dull couple, or we have a set of preconceived ideas about which people are suitable for each other. Certain personalities go together, and if two people have unmatched personalities, then no writing in the world is going to convince us they should be together. But if they are compatible, the results can be wonderful.

Which brings us to Daredevil #11, with the meeting of a couple who fit perfectly. This issue is all about falling in love, a brief period of time characterised by excessive happiness, rampaging pheromones and obsessional behaviour. It usually ends around the time he discovers she puts labels on every item in the fridge, and she finds out he makes a contented grunt every time he farts.

Our two lovers are: Matt Murdock, blind, and fresh from the Accident and Emergency Ward after a heavier than average kicking; Maya Lopez, a dancer, Native American, deaf, and a protege of the Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. She is also Echo, with the ability to mimic the fighting manoeuvres of anyone she sees. This being a comic book, she has an obsessive hatred of Daredevil, who she believes, erroneously, to be the murderer of her father.

The plot is simple - they meet and go on a date. They have a nightmare trying to understand a movie (blind man and deaf woman in the cinema?), ending with a bucket of popcorn tipped on their heads. They eat bloodied popcorn, after a laughing Matt bursts his stitches. They sit in a cafe. Interspersed are scenes of Maya training at home, watching a video of Daredevil fighting Bullseye, copying their moves. At the end, Daredevil and Echo fight, Echo not realising Daredevil is Matt. By the end, Matt is on the floor, with Maya sticking a pistol in the back of his head.

There's a great letter in this issue

"I can see the brainstorming session: Let's make the villain a girl who can copy any physical movement. But that's already been done! Not like this, we'll make her deaf, and the Kingpin's daughter! Isn't that great!!. No guys, it's not. This isn't worth waiting two months for an issue. As of now, I am out of collecting Daredevil." (Reed Little)

And he has a point (other than the just-plain-wrong Kingpin's daughter comment). It has been done before. I may be mistaken here, but I have a feeling that Matt and Maya's relationship is very similar to one between Batman and Catwoman in one of those old Adam West shows. But it hasn't often been done this well, or this tenderly.

Why do I like this issue so much? David Mack weaves formal narrative and informal speech beautifully together. Joe Quesada draws it all in a light, happy style, far removed from the noir which we usually see in Daredevil. It's different, and it's sweet. It makes me smile.

Sadly it doesn't last. Matt goes on to marry Milla Donovan. Which is odd, as they act as if they're allergic to one another. Maya, who you'll gather I'm rather smitten by, does return in an arc written by David Mack. But the affair is dead. Perhaps in the long-run the logistical problems of combining a blind man with a deaf woman make this pairing unviable. But if I was Quesada, I'd want Mack on Daredevil after Bendis goes. I guess it's unlikely Joe could find the time to draw it himself, given how much time he must spend organising year-spanning meta-crossovers. And if Mack ever wants to write an Echo mini-series, I'll be first in line.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The third coming of Jean Grey

Avengers 263
Fantastic Four 286
X-Factor 1

There was a time when Jean Grey was truly dead. The first death of Marvel's habitual lazarus saw Marvel Girl, personality-free good girl and all-round heartthrob, reborn as Phoenix. This at first was little more than an excellent costume change and a power upgrade for Jean, whose remarkable ability to move small objects a bit was making her a bit of a liability in the superhero arms race of the late seventies. As the months progressed, she got more powerful, until...well, if you don't know, I suggest you stop reading right now and get hold of the TPB of Uncanny X-Men 129-137. It is an absolute must-read for, for pretty much everyone, actually.

The thing about well written deaths is that they hold a promise of finality. This death was the best written death in Marvel's history. No, the second best death, after "The Death of Captain Marvel". If they've killed the character off in slapdash way (ie Hawkeye), then no-one is going to be at all surprised when they turn up again. But if the death was so well enacted, then not only will a resurrection cheapen and damage the original story, but the reborn character will be weakened as well.

Pulling in the other direction is that an exciting death enhances a character's popularity. Having provided so much entertainment in dying, people naturally want to see more. Following her elevation to Dark Phoenix, her annihilation of an entire planet and her suicide, Jean Grey was an important, albeit deceased, figure.

There is a story that John Byrne, the artist, had wanted Dark Phoenix's powers to be removed from Jean Grey at the end of #137, leaving Jean back as Marvel Girl. This was apparently vetoed on the justified grounds that Jean had killed several billion people, and it would be morally outrageous if she could have gone back to normal after that. Chris Claremont had his way, and Jean was gone.

A couple of issues later so was John Byrne, and rumours of ill-feeling between him and Claremont flew around for years.

Which brings us to Jean's resurrection, spread over individual issues of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Factor. In Avengers 263, the Avengers find a cocoon at the bottom of the sea. A group called the Enclave get involved; they had a previous history of creating characters in cocoons (Adam Warlock). This turns out to a pointless red herring, presumably to pad the story out. The cocoon is fished out of the bay, and delivered to the Fantastic Four. In FF #286, the cocoon is opened to reveal Jean Grey. Wearing, for those with sharp eyes and long memories, the tattered remains of the dress she wore before her first death. She's back. But not Phoenix. In a monster retcon, it transpires that Jean, when dying the first time, did not use the Phoenix power to save herself. Rather, the Phoenix was an alien creature which offered to help Jean. It wrapped her up in the cocoon, where she would stay for a long time. Meanwhile the Phoenix took Jean's place, believing it was Jean, and it was this which committed suicide in #137. The Jean Grey from #98 to #137 was an imposter.

If bringing back Jean Grey was so important, then you have to admire Byrne's footwork. Jean is back as Marvel Girl and exonerated on the charge of genocide. If you were someone who thought the Dark Phoenix stories some of the best ever written, admiration probably wasn't uppermost in your mind.

What was Jean going to do now? Marvel had decided to bring back the original X-Men, though for the life of me I can't understand why - the lacklustre original members had been sidelined by others for good reasons. The Defenders, which had been canned to make way for X-Factor, had three of the original team (Angel, Iceman and Beast), and had hardly flourished because of them.

And Marvel had come up with a new mutant concept: X-Factor. X-Factor was to be these X-Men dressing up like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, pretending to be mutant-hunters. They would present themselves as an anti-mutant organisation, take out problem mutants, get them home and then tutor them, Xavier-style. It just didn't make sense. Why do you need to pretend to be mutant hunters in order to find them, stoking up anti-mutant hatred? Surely the people with the biggest awareness of a mutant problem are those who are mutants themselves, and they're not going to volunteer themselves to mutant hunters. Couldn't you just publicise yourself as an organisation which helps mutants?

Having Jean contact the other three wasn't difficult, but that left Scott, Jean's fiance. Or rather her ex-fiance, since he had married Madelyne Pryor in the years after her death. Or rather not even her ex-fiance, since we now knew he had been engaged to an imposter. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Scott was living in Alaska with Madelyne and their son (Cable, but let's not get into that). In a simply despicable act, Scott is told Jean is alive, and walks out on his marriage and his son. And this is from the most responsible of all the X-Men.

And with Scott in, we're hot to trot. The five meet up, decide to form X-Factor and rescue Rusty Collins from an unfortunate first sexual encounter. No-one thinks to phone up the X-Men as say, "Good news, Jean's back and she's not Dark Phoenix". That reunion is going to take a good while longer, and it's going to be contrived. X-Factor is off and running. "Off and limping" might be more accurate.

Rushed and confused, this is above all a transitionary story. There no real attempt to make it entertaining, just an urgent need to get from where we were (Jean dead, Scott married) to where we apparently want to be (original X-Men reunited as X-Factor).

One common interpretation of these stories is that it was all John Byrne's fault. He had wanted Marvel Girl back, and that's what happened. This whole mess could be seen as Byrne sticking two fingers up at Claremont, wilfully destroying the legacy of Uncanny X-Men #137, which Byrne himself had helped create. There was a rumour that Byrne had it in his contract that he could do whatever he wanted in the Fantastic Four, and Marvel couldn't stop him. I doubt this is true. There are three different writers involved in this story - Roger Stern, John Byrne and Bob Layton, plus three editors, Mark Gruenwald, Michael Carlin and Michael Higgins and Jim Shooter, editor in chief. The long term beneficiaries of this story were Bob Layton and Jackson Guice, the creators of X-Factor, and not John Byrne, who to my knowledge never against wrote another story about Jean Grey. How could Byrne, without editorial help, have forced Stern (on the big assumption that Stern didn't think this was all a mistake) to write something he didn't want? And Shooter must have given the go ahead for X-Factor. No, I think this story is a bad collaborative effort, not an act of individual malice by Byrne.

Compared with the Dark Phoenix stories, this story is terrible. We end up with three damaged characters - Jean, the treacherous Scott, and Madelyne, an excellent character whose long decline starts here. The X-Factor conceit doesn't last long before its illogic becomes clear and the originals are replaced by others. Jean's continual resurrections make her a symbol of Marvel's inability to let the dead stay dead. Even the X-Men don't believe it when she dies. Scott's reputation undeservedly recovers, eventually. Though I can't be the only one who failed to celebrate when Scott and Jean married a few years later (X-Men #30).

We might also add a fourth damaged character - John Byrne. Whether or not he was to blame for this mess, it caused lasting resentment against him.

Friday, July 08, 2005

A picture is not worth a thousand words

Marvel 'Nuff Said month, 2002

Right in the middle of 'Nuff Said month, I stopped buying comic books altogether.

So I can have a guess at how your comic book collecting career is going to end. Your interest in comics will slowly decline. You'll buy less and less. You'll stop reading the ones you do buy. You just won't enjoy them anymore. You won't send an indignant letter to Stan ("How could you betray me so?") or put an aggrieved posting on a bulletin board. One evening, you'll look at the horizontal rain slashing outside, think of the ever-more-youthful people in the comic shop, and decide not to go this week. And that'll be it.

'Nuff Said month must have sounded great in the editorial meeting where it was formulated. As Marvel put it:

"Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada hatched a test for the Mighty Marvel Maestros: since you are the best artists and writers in the biz, we challenge you to tell a story using visuals only. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a comic book filled with images only would be worth... well, more words than the Collector could count!"

Perhaps this idea could catch on in hospitals - "We've got the best medical teams in the country, so for one month only our surgeons are going to be operating without anaesthetics".

What we got, then, was a month's worth of Marvel comics with no words. Or would have, if the writers hadn't kept cheating and included words anyway (see above). But they were bland. I picked them up, flicked through them and put them down again. Not a single one was memorable. I was pretty much off comics at the time, but 'Nuff Said month made it so easy to give them up.

I'm not arrogant enough to think that just because I'm the customer, I must be right - some customers are simply fools, and maybe I'm one of them. I can see what Marvel were trying to do, but it left me horribly cold. I didn't get angry about 'Nuff Said month, I just sighed apathetically.

The problem with 'Nuff Said month is that it only works if you accept the primacy of image over word. Most comic book fans, if they had to choose between art and writing, would probably choose art. Not me. I'll keep buying a well-written, badly drawn book, but I'll drop a badly written well-drawn one like dry-roast excrement. Quesada's logic was that fans would be intrigued by, might even find they loved, this experiment. I just found ten or fifteen identical products, sucked of what makes them distinctive, sitting in a pile, unloved and unreadable.

I can see the argument that writers were still involved in plotting, but that's to miss the point. A plot is a product of words, but it's not words themselves. Words written down are powerful. Should be powerful. Without them, comic books are fatally diminished.

I'm frustrated that narrative captions have all but disappeared from modern comic books. One of the CBR commentators (sorry, can't remember which one) said recently he had problems with captions, that they were old-fashioned. Who exactly decided that, then? Why has narration, mainstay of literature since its infancy, suddenly become outmoded? Sure, used badly, narration is overbearing (Roy Thomasesque - "and the man known only as Giant-Man returns to the shadows"), but then think of how bad you find the work of your least favourite artist, whoever that might be. The ridiculous pneumatic breasts which grew on characters like Rogue in the early 1990s were vastly more embarrassing than poor narration.

Obviously, I eventually started buying comics again, but my point stands. Hand on heart, I would choose one beautifully crafted sentence from Don McGregor over the complete output of 'Nuff Said month.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Crap Avengers

Disillusioned by the New Avengers? These ones were much, much worse.

Strangely hued barefooted woman with insect feelers sticking out of her head, brought up in a Vietnamese monastery. Always talked about herself in the third person ("This one finds your android arse pleasantly shapely, Vision"), so possibly marginally mentally disturbed. Eventually became the "Cosmic Madonna" which, despite its name, didn't involve dancing aggressively, stripping naked for a coffee table book or singing about being a virgin. Her dead boyfriend the Swordsman got resurrected by plant-people from the Zorf Galaxy.

One of many desultory attempts to bump up the ethnic minority quotient, Rage's progress was sadly held back by the fact that he chose to wear the kind of facemask more commonly associated with people who get given mandatory life sentences. Despite being built like a steroid-pumped Bulgarian weightlifter, turned out to be only twelve years old.

Otherwise known as the Nameless One, he managed to live six thousand years without developing any personality. Got hit by a meteorite or something after creator Walt Simonson was dropped for John Byrne. Miasmically dull, he is memorable only for being replaced by Sersi, who was slightly unhinged but fabulously sexy. Sample quote:

"I have had many names. I woke when the world was new and slew dragons. Enkidu was my brother; Achilles my friend. I helped Aeneas set his standard upon the Palatine Hill ... and strove beside David in the mountains of Judah."

I wouldn't fancy getting stuck next to him on a long-haul flight.

And how come he was mates with both Achilles and Aeneas, who were mutual enemies in the Trojan War?

Captain Britain
Created by Chuck Austen, a female version of the so-so Marvel UK character. Her personal tragedy was being unable to talk to her children without them dying horrifically - until Bendis started writing her, at which point she simply buggered off back to them. Either I missed the explanation, or Bendis just couldn't be bothered to tie it all up, and who could blame him?

Member of lunatic fringe religious cult and winner of the 2000 Marvel Comics Bad Costume Award. Fond of saying things like "What's a poor kid from the Bronx like me doing fighting alongside medieval knights and gods?" Which was fair enough, because it's well known that suburban teenagers find it much easier hanging out with deities.

Exactly like the Vision, only female. Don't they have a sub-editor who checks for duplicate characters?

Jack of Hearts
Bill Mantlo creation who used to follow Iron Man round like a big slobbery dog before Stark told him to piss off. As J. Jonah Jameson might say, "Someone called Jack Hart who looks like the Jack of Hearts, what are the odds?" Recently blown up, he took Scott Lang with him, who should probably also be included except I can't remember a thing about him.

Captain America
Sanctimonious dullard whose solo book has had more launches than the Cunard Fleet. Bored Nazis into submission by dribbling on about liberty and freedom and then thumping them with a shield. Tediously guilt-ridden about the death of his sidekick, Bucky, who died a mere sixty years ago. Get over it, Grandad. Suffered an unfortunate refrigeration accident which meant he missed the McCarthy era, when he would surely have felt completely at home. His mortal enemy is a blushing Keith Richards lookalike. Improbably, other Avengers look up to him, while dreading his motivational speeches.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Think of me then as God

Captain Marvel 51 - 54 ("Crazy like a fox")

"Read it, you fools, or else they'll cancel it and then you'll ... er I'll ... be sorry."

You know what it's like. You've got a comic book you absolutely love, but you weep when you reach the circulation figures. Each month you wait for the axe to fall, hoping that the assembled mass of comic book readers might wake up. Almost certainly, they won't.

Peter David's Captain Marvel is gone now. It struggled on till issue #60. By this arc, there were about 30000 of us. Perhaps we right and you were all wrong, or maybe you spotted something we missed.

The major theme of these later issues is the insanity of the eponymous hero. Genis (Captain Marvel) is a cosmic level hero who has been simply unable to deal with this level of power. He responds in increasingly bizarre fashion, telling everyone he is god. Most horribly (I can't bear to reread this arc), he gives a psychopathic mass murder a healthy dollop of power.

At the start of issue #51, Genis instructs veteran sidekick Rick Jones, with whom he is molecularly bonded, to commit suicide. Rick jumps out of the nearest window, and dies. Genis then goes on a rampage, blowing up spaceships and killing various aliens he believes will one day conquer the galaxy. Genis' family, the Titans, turn up in an attempt to stop Genis. They include Elysius, Genis' mother, a minor character who was killed for no good reason years ago. Feeling lonely, Genis resurrects Rick. Another Captain Marvel, Phyla, fights Genis. Phyla is Genis' sister, despite Genis having no sister - two different universes appear to have merged. They end up in limbo, where Genis eventually claims to have been cured of his insanity. The Titans let him go. In the final frame, we are left not knowing whether or not Genis is insane or not.

I'm of two minds about this whole storyline. If you respect a writer, and Peter David is the only reason I would ever contemplate buying a "Hulk" comic, then you have to want to go where they take you. Having an uber-powerful and insane lead character is a novel idea which deserves exploration. On the other hand, I like my heroes to be heroes. I despise vigilantes like the Punisher. I don't read Batman and Wolverine, a passionate devotee of knife crime, deserves a long spell in chokey. I quit Elektra when I figured out she was just a sociopath with expensive lingerie. I suspect that Genis' insanity may have destabilised the audience of what was already a marginal book. In these issues, we have a resolution which allows Genis either to continue being (covertly) insane, or cured - an advantage for the writer, but I felt short-changed.

The strange limbo world had an awful lot of similarities to Jim Starlin's work - it could have been taken straight from the "10000 Clowns" issue of Warlock. Nevertheless, it's not every day you see a Marvel character fired into a pile of elephant dung, so we'll forgive him. And there were some good jokes

Mentor: "I am Mentor, leader of the Titans"
Rick: "I thought Robin was leader of the Titans"

Elysius: "I should never have let her start monitoring earth television."
Eros: "Don't be that way. Besides, you've been monitoring it as well, and it hasn't affected you."
Elysius : "Oh, fine. Whatever"

It seems to me that runs by even the best of writers start to deteriorate somewhere around 50 issues. Perhaps the insanity episodes show the decline had begun, but it would have been good to have the opportunity to find out. Give Peter David a couple of years to recharge his batteries, and a relaunched Captain Marvel would be top of my pull list. Hopefully without the insanity.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I'm Not Negative, I'm Angry

Howard The Duck 25 - 27

Howard is Marvel's unhealed, festering sore. Briefly a major force in the mid-1970's, Howard's fall was swift and brutal after the mother of all falling-outs between the company and Howard's creator, Steve Gerber. Morally, Gerber owns this character. Legally, it's Marvel's, and they have proved incapable in the last thirty years of doing anything with it.

Not that there haven't been attempts - the (not as bad as it's remembered) film, the (worse than you'd care to remember) black and white magazine, and a Marvel Max mini-series a couple of years ago, written by Gerber himself. At the time I was unaware that even existed, so I haven't read it.

Describing Howard to those who haven't read him is a problem. By turns thoughtful, angry, comic and tragic, Howard was Gerber's commentary on an incomprehensible world. There was a breathless exploration of different ideas which makes it seem as if it ran much longer than the twenty-eight Gerber scripted. The most popular were the first ten issues, where the the jokes were longer, the tone lighter and the absurdity was greater.

Yet the story I remember best was this one, the darkest of the lot. It is one of the few which uses established Marvel villains, in this case the Ringmaster and his Carnival of Crime. You don't see them too much these days, principally because they were a bit rubbish. The standard plot would be - Ringmaster hypnotises hero, hero helps Ringmaster nick some stuff, hero recovers from hypnotism, hero smacks entire Carnival of Crime around the Big Top. Difficult to believe, but they were Thor villains once.

Gerber takes this weakness and uses it to show them for what they are, petty criminals using tricks to rob the innocent, demonstrating just how much damage they cause to their victims. Ignatz Hubley, robbed of his last funds, gets drunk and decides to commit a robbery. Hit by the car of an irresponsible socialite, Hubley shoots Paul Same, a cast member. Simultaneously, another cast member, Winda, is hospitalised after a late-night assault by a drunk. Without the restrictions of the Comics Code, the assault would undoubtedly have been a rape.

There are light sides to this story - like when one of the Cannonballs has an emotional chat with a kidnapped Howard. "Heck, we're not even good at it. Next to a Dr Doom or a Red Skull, we're ludicrous. Every time we run up against Spider-Man or Davedevil or the Hulk, we get the living spit beat out of us." Howard is shown thinking "I hate it when they go sincere on you." And the art is fantastic - I love Gene Colan's work.

Bad points? Well, the portrayal of Winda's speech impediment, which I recall seeming cute at the time, looks to modern eyes like mocking the afflicted. The printing must have been done by a babboon, and the comic appears to have been printed on toilet paper. If dark negativity isn't your thing, you'd probably hate this arc.

This troubled, gloomy story ends weakly, as a furious Howard goes after the Ringmaster. And with that, Gerber's glorious run was more-or-less over. I was too young at the time to really understand Howard, but I still miss it terribly.

Monday, July 04, 2005

A Multitude of Sins

Amazing Spider-Man 509 - 514 ("Sins Past")

It's not my way to refuse praise where it's due, so lets start there. Mike Deodato's pencilling, with its combination of beauty and realism, is fantastic. This is a golden age of comic book art, and he's one of the best around. His portrayal of Gwen Stacy is superb. The dialogue in these issues sparkles - Straczynski has a great ear for each individual he is writing. For four of these six issues, ASM was first on my monthly reading list, and provided one of those rare times where you simply can't wait to get the next issue.

In a poll on CBR, this arc got a fair few votes as the worst Spider-Man story ever. When you consider that this includes stories such as Peter's robot parents, "I am the Spider", the Clone Saga, Aunt May's resurrection and the horrible Byrne / Mackie relaunch, this is quite a condemnation. So what gives?

It's the story. Peter receives a newly-posted and incomplete letter from his long-dead girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. At her graveside, he, as Peter, is attacked by two hooded figures, from whom he barely escapes. One raises his hood, which shows his face to be very similar to Peter's. Forensic analysis allows the second page of the letter to be deciphered, showing that Gwen had become pregnant without Peter's knowledge and secretly given birth to twins, Gabriel and Sarah. In unmasking Sarah, Peter finds she is the spitting image of Gwen. Mary Jane admits to Peter that she knew about the twins all along, but had sworn to Gwen not to say anything. She tells Peter who the father was - Norman Osborn. The Green Goblin, Spider-Man's greatest enemy and murderer of Gwen Stacy.

In a rapidly collapsing storyline, we discover that the children are prematurely aging, and wish to kill Peter because Osborn has told them that he (Peter) is their father, and who deserted them. It all ends on a big showdown on Brooklyn Bridge, with Sarah taking the now obligatory plunge off the bridge. Peter, for only the 1296th time, saves a falling woman, once more remembering not to snap her neck. Gabriel, bad to the bone, discovers an underground lab, injects himself with Goblin formula and becomes (cue for drumroll) the new GREY GOBLIN. Peter saves Sarah with a timely blood transfusion. The end.

I think we can dispense with any analysis of early issues of Spider-Man to see if this fits in continuity. Of course it doesn't. And if it did, wouldn't you notice your girlfriend's belly ballooning to watermelon size? The weaknesses in the plot are startling. Here's a few

Gwen goes to Paris to give birth - she did once indeed visit Europe, to London. I have a mental image of Stracyzinski thinking of Europe being a small town, perhaps the size of Roadkill, North Dakota, where pregnant women regularly pop to different countries to give birth.

The twins are rapidly aging - yet Norman's goblin formula gives you rapid healing. Degeneration and regeneration are not the same thing.

If Osborn wanted Gabriel and Sarah to become his heirs, why didn't he tell them the truth, that he was their father. They would have still wanted to kill Spider-Man, as their mother's murderer. What does this charade gain?

For that matter, why didn't he tell them Peter is Spider-Man?

Why, in all these years, did Osborn never mock Peter by telling him he had taken Peter's first love's virginity?

If Peter's so keen on preserving Gwen's legacy by helping Sarah, why has he never tried to help Gwen's clone, containing the memories of Gwen's life, and at risk of degeneration at any time?

If Peter is no relation to Gabriel, why is there such a remarkable physical similarity?

Why exactly did Gwen sleep with Norman, when all portrayals of her had been of someone very much in love with Peter? The reason given was "I felt so badly for him, but at the same time, under it all, there was this strength, this magnetism, as though there was the person I know on the outside and deep inside, this other person, so powerful, yet so mysterious..." So that's all right then.

Why does Sarah wear a hair band underneath a mask which covers her entire head, and how come it stays in place when Peter snatches the hood off? Surely it couldn't just be a contrived way of getting us to look at the above cover and concluding that Gwen was returning?

Why does Norman keep nicking Peter's family and whisking them off to Europe - Aunt May, baby May, Gabriel and Sarah. Does he rent an apartment block for them?

And while we're at it, where did Gwen keep the babies? She gave birth to them in Europe, but confronted Osborn in New York. If they were in the USA, who was looking after them and how did Osborn get hold of them after he killed Gwen? Why didn't Peter notice them when he went to the airport to meet Gwen when she returned? Why didn't he notice that Gwen's apartment was piled full of nappies, covered in hideous plastic toys and stank of baby vomit? Newborns need feeding every two to four hours, twenty-four hours a day. How did she have any time to see her friends if she had newborn twins to look after? How did she continue studying? If the babies were still in Paris, then with whom? Why did Gwen leave them there if she was so intent on caring for them? Was she going to return for them, or can you post babies in the mail? And, again, how did Osborn get hold of them?

It's just a horrible, car-crash of a plot. The reason it's created such animosity is that many of us have a long-standing attachment to Gwen, and an equal long-standing dislike of Mary Jane. We simply refuse to like Mary Jane, despite a jaw-dropping number of attempts to retcon her character (originally vacuous, self-loving, amoral and casually cruel) into something lovable. Having Gwen's clone bouncing around purposelessly for thirty years was bad enough. Now Gwen has become a promiscuous trollop with a poor grasp of contraception who would betray Peter for his best friend's father just because he was "powerful, yet so mysterious." Pathetic.

Being part of "the cult of Gwen" doesn't mean much more these days than disliking MJ. I certainly wouldn't advocate bringing Gwen back, but I do object to poorly-planned storylines like this which traduce a dead character without logic or feeling. And before you accuse me of being a sad fanboy who's emotionally involved with a fictional character, just consider that every work of literature since the "Epic of Gilgamesh" has attempted to get an emotional response from its audience. If you don't get emotional when reading fiction, then you might as well be reading computer training manuals.

As an inveterate and disillusioned Gwen Stacy fan, can I make a suggestion? Stop writing garbage stories about her. Just let her go.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Excalibur - the Pete Wisdom years

Excalibur was one of those inoccuous titles. It chundered on for years, not rank like early X-Factor, but never soaring.

It was second-string X-Book. All the popular mutants like Wolverine or Storm were in Uncanny X-Men or X-Men, which meant that it, like its soulmates X-Force and X-Factor, was populated with past-it or never-were X-Men. At this point, that meant luminaries like Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler and Amanda Sefton. Excalibur was supposed to be set in Britain, but, as a general principle, US authors have absolutely no idea how to write British characters. They simply don't have the exposure to foreign culture that, Kingdom of Bhutan excepted, almost every country has to American culture. Confused ideas about politics, people and accents make British characters a painful part of Marvel's output. Accent, particularly. American writers seem to think Dick Van Dyke's chimney-sweep is a template to be copied, rather than a weird, laughable embarrassment. Coupled with a pre-occupation with aristocracy, an inability to distinguished Scottish from Irish (witness Banshee in Generation X), a belief that the middle ages hang on in the English countryside and simple ignorance of the existence of Wales.

All of which perhaps explains why there were so few British characters in Excalibur. The writers didn't know how to do them, so they didn't bother.

And then came Warren Ellis.

Ellis' speciality is horror. His complex tales of secret government organisations, alien experiments and violent disembowelment were a little different to the superhero fare which Excalibur readers were used to. Ellis carried it off with a deft touch, despite numerous problems - particularly inconsistent art and a stifling number of crossover events. One, Age of Apocalypse, starts half-way through a plane flight. Readers who weren't interested in other X-books would have been baffled. Another, Onslaught is spuriously linked with a climactic story which ended in issue #100.

Above all, Ellis' Excalibur run is a love story. Kitty Pryde, the teenage goody-goody had been failing to live up to her initial promise. Her chaste affair with Colossus had been more off than on for years, and Colossus at this point had deteriorated into a simple minded, discredited fool who would soon be despatched alongside the Legacy virus, an AIDS storyline which had also run its course.

Her new boyfriend, Pete Wisdom, was a bad-tempered, cursing, smoking former secret agent. A mouthpiece for Ellis' views, he could be over-the-top, but Wisdom gave a freshness to Excalibur which the X-books had long since lost. Pryde and Wisdom was "The African Queen" in comic book form, with Wisdom's Bogart giving new life to Pryde's Hepburn, while being, to some extent, civilised himself.

Pete Wisdom was English, but not the lazy, inaccurate form beloved of Americans. Wisdom's England was that of six pints of lager, a chicken vindaloo and a fight in the car park. He developed a mortal enmity to Lockheed, Kitty's pet dragon, who not only developed a London accent, but embarked on a campaign of harassment against Wisdom, at one point threatening to incinerate his clothes. Wisdom, regularly calling Xavier baldy, had an obvious contempt for the pomposity of the X-Men, who spent much of the nineties spouting on about Xavier's dream, which as far as I can tell involves giving a press conference every three years and smacking other mutants the rest of the time. And a school where young mutants hone their peacekeeping skills in something called the "Danger Room."

Wisdom also had a love-hate relationship with Moira MacTaggart, playing up English-Scottish rivalry. This didn't work so well, partly because Ellis didn't have quite the same feel for a Scottish character as an English one.

With horror, romance and comedy, this was just about as good as it gets.

And then Ellis left. Ben Raab took over, Wisdom started speaking like Dick Van Dyke, Kitty and Pete split up. Ellis, and Wisdom would reemerge at X-Force for a few issues, but it wasn't quite the same. Within twenty issues, Excalibur was cancelled. And that's what a change of writer can do.