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AICN COMICS: The TalkBack League Of @$$HOLES Premieres!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

These guys have taken matters into their own hands.

God have mercy on your souls.

Hello friends, we are THE TALKBACK LEAGUE OF @$$HOLES (also know in some circles as The Screaming Retinas). We’ve come to give you the kind of thought provoking, prolific reviews comic book reviews you’d expect at AICN. Reviews that poignantly and passionately express our feelings about the medium we all love, COMIC BOOKS. Ah, who am I kidding, we’re really just a bunch of four color junkies who love the shoot the shit in the Talkbacks. You all know me as The Comedian. My associates Cormorant, Buzz Maverik, and Ambush Bug along with myself have written these reviews for your consumption. Cormorant has also put together some news snippets for you as well. So I’ll pass it off to him and then onto the reviews.

Cormorant here with some quick snippets of no-nonsense comic book news, culled largely from the fine reporting at Newsarama and other online sites:

*On June 24th, Kevin Smith will appear on The Tonight Show exclusively to promote his upcoming SPIDER-MAN/BLACK CAT miniseries for Marvel.

*The new TRANSFORMERS comic book was the number one selling comic for the month of April, beating out the likes of X-Men, Batman, and every other major title. A second printing is in the works.

*Fans of the lighthearted, satirical 80’s hit, JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, will be pleased to know that the entire creative team will be reuniting for a six-issue miniseries called FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE. The series will hit sometime later this year.

*A second G.I. JOE title will be launching from Image under the title, G.I. JOE: FRONT LINE. It’ll feature rotating creative teams as each story concludes, and original G.I. JOE scribe Larry Hama is slated to participate.

*Jim Lee will be teaming with Jeff Loeb as the new creative team on BATMAN when current writer Ed Brubaker makes the move to DETECTIVE.

*Controversial creator and former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter was slated to return to the company to write an AVENGERS miniseries, but that players didn’t get along and the deal has fallen through.

*DC’s latest attempt to revive the SUICIDE SQUAD has been cancelled as of issue twelve.

*The Sci-Fi Channel has signed on to help promote the nationwide Free Comic Book Day that’s occurring on May 4th, marking one of the rare instances of comics receiving televised promotion.

Now here go some reviews.

Startling Stories; The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man

Written & Drawn by Peter Bagge

Published By Marvel Comics

Reviewed by The Comedian

One of the more popular movements in the Comic Book industry of late has been the mainstream’s willingness to experiment with Icons and the new love affair with indie creators that has flourished in the wake of this trend. Image Comics virtually reinvented and reinvigorated itself with a shot in the arm of edgy indie talent. DC has done projects like last years Real Worlds, World’s Funniest and best of all last year’s the sleeper hit Bizzaro Comics (BIZZARO COMICS AM STOOPID!) The “New” Marvel has jumped on the bandwagon with their love it or hate it, big tittied, three headed monster, X-Force. And now it seems, the gang over at the hit or miss, foot-in-mouth disease clinic that currently moonlights as the House of Ideas these days must have taken a peek at Bizzaro Comics and attempted to trump their “distinguished competition” by getting a well known indie creator to do an irreverent comedic take on one of their Icons. Of course I’m talking about Peter Bagge’s THE MEGALOMONIACAL SPIDER-MAN. Which turns out to be a funny and nearly successful one-shot that delivers laughs but doesn’t quite hit it’s mark. Especially if you’re not familiar with Bagge’s brand of humor and his Cult Classic, HATE. I was into Buddy & Lisa when I was 19 so it was like visiting an old friend.

In Bagge’s take on the webhead we are first introduced to the classic Lee/Ditko angst ridden every man-worry wart and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy circa 1968. Peter comes to her in distress (as always) because he’s just found out the awful truth about his Uncle Ben’s death. Turn’s out Uncle Ben was actually a shady gambler who was killed by a bookie looking to collect on a debt. Realizing that the image of his uncle he’s always held up is a fraud. He questions his reasons for being a “selfless hero” and Gwen tells him that he should reconsider his “Black & White” view of the world and recommends that he should read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. Then we are treated to a montage of Spidey against various silver age villains doing his trademark wise-ass quips but secretly contemplating how ridiculous the whole superhero life is. {While fighting Craven, the Hunter} “This guys got Leopards with him! I don’t get paid enough for this crap! In fact I don’t get paid at all!” He eventually decides to quit the superhero life altogether and “look out for #1”. As we flash forward to the 80’s Peter has become a belligerent, egomaniacal jerk whose Spider-Man Inc. corporation had bought out the Daily Bugle. He despises Aunt May, who he’s set up with a condo in Florida. He treats his secretary Betty Brant like shit. Gwen Stacy, having never died at the hands of the Green Goblin is his 5th Ave shop-aholic fiancée and funniest of all; he’s turned J.Jonah Jameson into his personal whipping boy. After a comical twist of fate involving an assassination attempt on President Reagan, Spider-Man is put out of commission for good. We then flash forward to 1999 and find Peter, a bald recluse living in a slummy Apt. somewhere in Queens with Gwen. A young reporter from The (Robbie Robertson’s grandson) comes to interview him about the 15th anniversary of the death of Spider-Man. Peter reflects on his life and his mistakes and hands Robbie’s grandson a his 100 page manifesto to read. The younger Robinson leaves the Apt and throws out the manifesto saying, “This doesn’t make a stitch of sense! And it goes on forever!” The book ends with Peter and Gwen broke but happy to be with each other. “Just imagine if you continued down that road, we probably wouldn’t be together right now”.

Now like I said, this story has a lot of funny moment but ultimately it doesn’t quite hit its target. Is it suppose to be a straight up parody, an inside joke on Steve Ditko or merely a marvelized Buddy Bradley yarn? It’s kind of a mix of the three but I just feel if Bagge had maybe given his script another once over he could have done something even better. Comedy wise he scores best with the parody of the late sixties era spider-angst. The nods to Ditko’s objectivism work too but Peter Parker isn’t consistent with it. In the 80’s he’s supposed to be this jerk who turned into the man he most hated (JJJ) but the way it’s characterized just comes off as half baked. The funniest character by far is Gwen Stacy because for most of the story she still doesn’t know that Peter is Spiderman so she thinks he’s gay. “Hmm, I wonder if Peter and Spider-Man are lovers.”Comedic gold. Overall, I’d say if you’re a fan of Hate than you’ll love this book because he has more or less turn Peter & Gwen into Buddy & Lisa. The rest may just laugh at other things like the shaky Reagan or JJJ spraying webbing in Peter’s face. Of course there will also be those of you complaining that Marvel shouldn’t waste their time tarnishing the image of your precious Spidey. And you guys really need to get laid.


Written by Alan Moore.

Art by Rick Veitch, John Totleben and Alfredo Alcala.

Reviewed by Buzz Maverik

Before THE WATCHMEN, before THE KILLING JOKE, before FROM HELL, Alan Moore was the writer of DCs THE SWAMP THING. This is the book that really made Moore's rep in the States (the rep having already been established in the U.K. with MARVELMAN and CAPTAIN BRITAIN). Vertigo/DC has finally seen fit to republish these stories in a series of TPBs. This is the fourth in the series, and I would advise you to pick up the others: THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING; LOVE & DEATH; and A MURDER OF CROWS.

Swamp Thing's origin is essentially the same as all other comic book swamp creatures, like Marvel's MAN-THING, which was created almost simultaneously with Swampie, and which are all inspired by a character from the 40s and 50s, THE HEAP. Scientist Alec Holland is conducting experiments in a swamp. There's your standard accident, and Alec's formulas combine with mystic forces to turn our hero into a human compost pile. That's where Alan Moore came in. He revealed that the Swamp Thing was a plant elemental, essentially a god in a long series of swamp gods, and gave our hero new and ever greater powers. S.T. is no mute, mindless monster. He is elequoent, sensitive and even has a romantic relationship with a human woman. That relationship is the cause of the trouble in this volume.

A tabloid photographer has snapped a pic of Abbie Cable frolicking with her monster lover. The photo is published while S.T. is on a mission for John Constantine (in one of his earliest appearances)in the netherworld to save all of existence. Abbie is arrested for immoral acts, jumps bail and heads to Gotham City where she is apprehended again. S.T. returns to Earth and heads to her rescue. During the course of his visit to Gotham, he visits Arkham Asylum and of course runs up against the Batman, all before ending up on a distant world.

This is some of Moore's best writing. All his humor, maturity and depth are here. The characters talk like real people (and not the Stan Lee talking like real people, which means not like any people you've ever met).

The trio of artists -- Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala and John Totleben – grace us with beautiful, clear, detailed work. They are true master storytellers. The art is realistic, yet dynamic and whimsical at times.


Buzz "Ho Chi" Maverik

Title: Rising Stars #18

Publisher: Joe’s Comics, Top Cow, Image

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski

Artist: Brent Anderson

Reviewer: Ambush Bug

I consider myself a DC/Marvel collector. Sure there are various other titles that I pick up that are not published by the big two, but I have found that, for the most part, collecting independent comics is just plain frustrating. Either the title in question mysteriously stops publishing in the middle of the run or the creators quickly get bored with the series at hand and move on to other half assed projects. The biggest reason I collect so few independent comics is the fact that time schedules are often thrown out the window and you never know when the next issue will appear. Monthly books turn into bi-monthly books, which evolve into quarterly books. By the time I get the next issue, I have totally forgotten the premise, the characters, and why the hell I gave a fig about the book in the first place. Say what you will about Marvel and DC, but aside from a few exceptions (*ahem*DK2*ahem*), you can follow a title and not have to wait until your next dental appointment to read the next one.

Which brings me to the dental appointment book called Rising Stars. This series was the stuff that coolness is made of when it first hit the stands. Babylon 5’s writer J. Michael Straczynski has been weaving an intricate and engaging tale of real world super heroes. The premise was simple (and not all too original since it is basically a rip off of Marvel’s failed New Universe endeavor from the mid-eighties): A meteor strikes the town of Peterson, IL in the late sixties and gave all 113 of the unborn children of the town super powers. Since then, the children have grown up, fought and killed each other, whittled their number down to under 60, and banded together to use their powers to help change the world and make it a better place.

So how do I know this? I read it from the Previously… blurb on the inside cover of issue #18. I honestly do not remember when the last issue of Rising Stars came out, but I believe it was sometime late last year. Well, it’s April now and I have read a lot of comics since then. I appreciate the blurb on the inside cover explaining the basic premise, but when I saw this comic on the racks at my local comic establishment, I debated whether I should buy it or not. I can’t recite one character’s name from this title and I have collected it from the beginning. Sure I know that one character’s name is Poet and another’s is Ravenshadow, but the characters in this book call each other by their real names and don’t wear costumes, so this knowledge is usually useless.

Rising Stars is released as a Trade Paperback about every four or five issues. This is a good way, for those of us who may have missed an issue, to catch up with what is going on and enjoy an entire story. That’s great. That’s hunky dorey. I am glad that the stories are available, but why not just cut out the middle man and publish a yearly Trade Paperback size graphic novel depicting an entire story arc of the regular series? The damn book comes out tri-annually any way. Those of us who have been collecting what was supposed to be a two year series have been left hanging for over three years now.

I wouldn’t be ranting about this if Rising Stars was a crap comic. It is not. I love the way JMS can tell an intricate and personal tale and still tie it into the flow of the larger storyline. Each issue is building upon itself and revealing just enough to snag the reader for the next installment. JMS is doing the same thing over in his other dental appointment book, Midnight Nation. Both of these books are building to an explosive climax and I can’t wait to read them. I just hope I am still alive and kicking when the final issues hit the stands.

This issue deals with Jerry Montrose, AKA Pyre. He basically has the powers of the Human Torch, but none of the confidence. Fulfilling his duty to change the world with his powers, Jerry destroys all of the drug fields in South America and returns to his job at a Vegas casino. After meeting with his boss, Jerry finds out that he has missed a rival mob boss’ drug field and is sent back to South America on a clean up mission.

The dialog is right on. Not clichéd or over the top. At one point in the story, Jerry tries his hand at witty banter, but it just doesn’t work for him and that reveals a lot about the evolution this character has gone through. Jerry’s lack of confidence has been prominent throughout the series, but his recent success in destroying the drug trade has given him a little backbone. The result is an ominous look at things to come. Bad things are on the horizon and I can’t wait to see it unfold.

Brent Anderson scratches out some wonderful images for this issue. His style might be described as the bastard son of Barry Windsor Smith and Gil Kane with a little DNA from Klaus Janson thrown in for good measure. The images are powerful and fitting for the real world type of storyline that is unfolding.

If you don’t regularly collect this series, wait for the trade paperback. If you are impatient like me and do get this series, pick this issue up. Rising Stars #18 tells an extremely strong, yet simple story and cleverly expands an already fleshed out world that these heroes are trying to survive in. I hope JMS gets this series back out on a regular basis and tries to make it at least bi-monthly again. The extended spaces between issues really hamper one’s ability to appreciate the clever intricacies and delicate threads JMS takes the time to add to this series. My teeth are thanking Mr. Straczynski for keeping them sparkly fresh because every issue reminds me of my next cleaning, but at the same time they are chomping at the bit in anticipation for a regularly distributed next issue.

Titans # 40

DC Comics

Writer: Jay Faerber

Artist: Barry Kitson

Reviewer: Ambush Bug

Whatever happened to the Titans? There was a time when the adventures of DC’s grown up sidekicks were interesting and exciting. Sure, it’s been quite a while since Marv Wolfman and George Perez dazzled us with the stories of Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Speedy, Changeling, Raven, and Cyborg, but one would think some of that magic would carry over into the current series. Well, that ain’t happening folks.

The Titans are basically the second tier of DC’s stable of heroes formerly known as the Teen Titans. All one needs to know is that the team is lead by Nightwing (the grown up Robin) and its membership includes Troia (Donna Troy AKA the former Wonder Girl), Tempest (the grown up Aqualad), Arsenal (the grown up Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick), Jesse Quick (filling the shoes of Kid Flash), and Argent (the team’s youngest member and leftover from the last failed Titans series).

Since the beginning of this newest incarnation of the Titans, we have been beaten about the head and neck with the Titans tome of “We’re not like the other super teams, we are fam-i-leee!” Okay we get it. These guys have grown up together and since their mentors were the type of dysfunctional wrecks that liked to drag pre-teens into battle, they needed each other to survive. Great. Dandy. Quit holding hands and singing koom-bay-ah and start super-heroing for crying out loud.

Devin Grayson’s attempt to revamp the Titans was hit and miss. Some of the early issues had many nice quiet moments, but very little major comic book conflicts that make the nice quiet moments welcome. Here we are, forty issue into the new series, Grayson is gone, Jay Faerber is in as writer, and not very much else has happened.

One of the main problems with the title is that it hasn’t been about the Titans for a very long time. In Faerber’s first story arc, we were introduced to a set of super powered kids who broke into the Titans tower in search of refuge. This “oh so clever” plot device was first seen on TV’s Brady Bunch with that annoying miniature-Bob Denver-look-a-like kid and perfected on Diff’rent Strokes when they brought on that creepy red-haired kid when Gary Coleman got too old to be cute. When the series is in trouble, bring in a new cute kid and that will make the crowd happy. Nope. Sorry, I hated that red-haired kid and I hate those uninteresting super powered brats even more. At the end of issue #39, the kids were sent off to a government sponsored super powered orphanage, and I said “Good riddance. Maybe now we can focus on some of the Titans.” Well, I didn’t really say that, but I thought it.

So here comes issue #40 and is it about the Titans? Not really. We are introduced to a new group of heroes called the Favored who are even less interesting than those annoying kids. This issue sets the stage for a new story arc concerning a rich fanatic building himself a cult of super heroes. I am sure we will get to know some of these Favored throughout this arc, but it looks like Faerber is making the same mistake that he did with those damn kids. Faerber doesn’t really seem interested in the Titans themselves and that’s too bad. These are some interesting characters.

Nightwing is one of the most popular characters in the DCU, but he is in about ten total panels of this issue, and does nothing interesting in any of them. What a waste. Each of these heroes has a rich history of their own to work with, but those behind the series would rather churn out a new super team to focus on each month than delve into any of that history.

The team lacks conflict. If this team is supposed to be any type of family, why are they all getting along so well? Why isn’t Tempest pissed that no one is helping him find his missing foster father (Aquaman)? Sure, Arsenal is portrayed as cocky, but the seeds are there for some really juicy sibling rivalry between him and Nightwing, the only two non-powered members of the team. A hint of conflict was hinted at between Donna Troy and Jesse Quick in this issue, so maybe some interesting grudges will soon appear.

There are some good moments in this issue. Arsenal’s interrogation scene was pretty funny, but Faerber throws this little nugget of joy in between lackluster action sequences. A mistake held over from Grayson’s run. And just when you thought things may be going in the right direction, those damn super powered kids are back towards the end of the issue.

The one good thing going for the title is Barry Kitson’s art. He is one of the best classic-type super hero artists around today. His art is clean and crisp, focusing on facial expressions and little details that one might overlook in a quick read.

The title definitely needs to be refocused. We now have two teams of heroes running around in this issue and that isn’t even including the Titans. Kill the kids, pass on the Favored, and concentrate on the team whose name is on the cover of the book, please. I can’t really recommend this issue. It isn’t a good jumping on point for those who don’t know about the team. If you’ve been following the title, you know it has seen better days. If you are not getting this title, you aren’t missing much besides Kitson’s art. A new creative team is coming on board with issue #42. Hopefully, this new team will remember the Titans and give them something interesting to do in between those nice quiet human moments.


Published by Marvel Comics

Written by Greg Rucka

Illustrated by Igor Kordey

Reviewed by Cormorant

We must surely be living in some kind of whacked-out, mixed-up, topsy-turvy world, because I just realized that BLACK WIDOW -- with its tale of a beautiful Russian super-spy investigating the seamy Moscow bondage scene -- stands as the most mature title of Marvel’s entire MAX line. How effin’ scary is that, kids? It’s god’s truth, though, and anyone who’s followed Greg Rucka’s previous comics really shouldn’t be surprised to hear it. He may be dabbling in some lurid material, but this is a guy who knows how to handle “adult” without lapsing into “gratuitous.”

Ironically, I had no plans to try out BLACK WIDOW originally. I’ve got much respect for Rucka, but here’s the curveball: this isn’t a story about the original Black Widow. This ain’t the red-headed beauty I know -- Natasha Romanov -- sometime agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., occasional lover for Daredevil and Hawkeye, and, yes, former member of the ultra-lame superhero team, The Champions. This is basically “some other chick that I don’t know who just happens to be called Black Widow, and why would I want a cut-rate version of an already minor character?” Or so I mentally characterized her when I dismissed the previous two Black Widow miniseries that Rucka wrote.

Stupid me.

I didn’t know who Rucka even was back then, or I might’ve given those miniseries the benefit of the doubt. Turns out the “new” Black Widow is one Yelena Belova, a Russian operative specifically groomed to take the place of the original Black Widow after her allegiances shifted to the West lo those many years ago. There’s more to her backstory from Rucka’s previous minis, but all you really need to know is that she’s the original Black Widow’s replacement, she’s actually loyal to Mother Russia, and her only clear weakness is that she’s constantly struggling to live up to her predecessor’s amazing rep. It’s simple, it’s logical, and it has nothing to do with ousting the “old school” Black Widow from the Marvel Universe as I’d once guessed. Join me, then, in throwing foolish preconceptions out the window and let’s see what this little story has to offer.

The hook is straightforward and seamily compelling: one of Yelena’s instructors, a Russian Colonel she describes as being “like a father” to her, has been found in the dungeon of an upscale bondage club -- with a bullet in his head. That’s one shock to her system. The second is that he was apparently a regular patron of the club, shattering the clean, paternal image he projected. The third, that he may have been selling information on *her* activities in particular. Black Widow is assigned to investigate and discover precisely how much information on her has been leaked, and to borrow a cheap cop-movie phrase, “This time it’s personal.”

What I like about my first exposure to this new Black Widow is that she’s so far from perfect. In her opening scene, she’s berating herself for scoring lower on a stress test than the original Black Widow. She’s also an emotional creature, and she nearly comes unglued when she’s forced to take charge during the autopsy of her former mentor. She’s no hapless little girl, though, this Black Widow. When the senior detective conducting the autopsy challenges her authority, he gets a vicious kick to the pelvis for his efforts. Sounds like one of those generic crowd-pleaser scenes, right, in the tradition of Bonnie Bedelia clocking the smarmy reporter at the end of DIE HARD? Not quite. This is just some poor schmuck of a detective who had the misfortune to question an emotionally unstable lady who could probably go a few rounds with Batman.

The latter half of the book is where things get a little more titillating, as Yelena takes her investigation to the otherworldly locale of the bondage club itself, lovingly rendered by the talented Igor Kordey (amusing side note: Yelena infiltrates the club while actually wearing her Black Widow costume – after all, who’s gonna question a black bodysuit in the land of tight corsets and zipper-masks?) . Kordey’s no newcomer to the industry, but this is definitely the year he’s become a breakout talent with his work on NEW X-MEN, the revamped CABLE, and even Marvel’s 9-11 tribute, HEROES. HEROES is where I first took note of him, as he drew what I considered the most emotionally affecting image in the entire magazine: an imagining of the passenger uprising on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Kordey is one of those artists who seems to be able to draw just about anything with authority. He leans towards a gritty style, but what could be better for portraying the harshness of Russia and the enticing sleaze of a bondage club?

All things considered, this is a pretty ideal first issue. It’s no barnburner, but it’s got a strong lead, terrific art, and some enjoyably sleazy sequences that strike just the right balance between restraint and titillation. There’s no nudity, no graphic violence, and the “swear count” clocks in at only two or three, avoiding the excesses of other MAX titles. It’s also got a snazzy little cliffhanger of an ending. If I have one complaint, it’s that the almost-cheesecake painted cover by Greg Horn sends a misleading message about the interior contents. It might end up tricking a few horny kids into stumbling across a comic that’s genuinely good, but I’d rather see something classier, maybe along the lines of the sophisticated Dave Johnson covers for 100 BULLETS. It’s a minor gripe for an otherwise very noteworthy debut.

Score: 4 out of 5


Published by Marvel Comics

Written by Larry Hama (with two weaker issues by Herb Trimpe and Steven Grant)

Illustrated by Herb Trimpe with Don Perlin and Mike Vosburg

Reviewed by Cormorant

I’m a little embarrassed to admit my enthusiasm for the original G.I. JOE comics of the 80’s, which, along with AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and UNCANNY X-MEN, marked my earliest enthusiasm for the medium of sequential art. And yet…as I re-read these stories written almost exclusively by Larry Hama (for over *ten* years, no less!), I’m reminded that the 80’s were actually a time when creativity and marketing weren’t mutually exclusive in the funnybook world. Yeah, I know, we’re not talking about bold strides on the order of Miller’s DAREDEVIL or Moore’s SWAMP THING, but titles like MICRONAUTS, ROM, and G.I. JOE were actually written with some enthusiasm and craft, and dammit, they deserve their due.

The hook of the series is that it managed to combine the over-the-top military action of a Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. comic with the more realistic tone of SGT. ROCK comics and EC’s classic war comics. This is military adventure, make no mistake, but lest the series become too silly, Hama grounded it with real military tactics, missions staged in real-world hotspots, and the occasional look at the moral ambiguity of being a soldier for a living. He also staged some kick-ass action scenes and brought into play the kind of cutting-edge technology that Michael Crichton was probably writing about at the same time. Above all else, though, Hama was simply a solid, professional storyteller whose work was informed by his broad life experiences. It’s a stark contrast to Image’s disappointing G.I. JOE relaunch, which smacks of amateurish writing and only the most superficial understanding of plotting, pacing, and characterization. Hama, perhaps because he *wasn’t* so intimately attached to the material, actually shaped it with far greater craftsmanship. The current series is selling nostalgia, but the original series actually had some stories to tell. Let’s look at a few of the highlights:

Issue #1 was is “Operation: Lady Doomsday” – a hilariously pulpy title if ever there was one. The “lady” in question is Dr. Adhele Burkhart, a nuclear physicist whose outspoken criticisms of how her work has been applied to amping the U.S./Soviet arms race has made her a political liability. When she’s captured by the terrorist organization, Cobra, it’s up to the Joes to free her from their fortified island before they can learn her secrets. Of course, it’s also an excuse to showcase all the major vehicles and characters of the initial wave of G.I. Joe toys, but it still makes for a good introductory action story, and Burkhart herself is something of a complex character for this type of comic. Hama portrays her pacifism as somewhat naïve, yet also hints that she’s to be admired for having the courage of her convictions. It’s a level of characterization that will become surprisingly common for this title that too many might dismiss as jingoistic escapism.

This first story is also the nicest-looking of those reprinted. The artist is the series’ semi-regular penciller, Herb Trimpe, a workmanlike storyteller perhaps best known for 1970’s work on THE HULK, SHOGUN WARRIORS, and GODZILLA. He rarely draws more than the script requires, but his basics are admirable and this first story stands out for the more detailed look that Bob McLeod’s inking adds to his pencils.

Issue #2, “Panic at the North Pole”, is one of my favorites of the series. It involves the Joes investigating the mysterious destruction of an Arctic research base and going toe-to-toe with a charismatic Eskimo mercenary named Kwinn (just like the song, no joke). What’s interesting is that Kwinn is made out to be the superior of the Joes at almost every turn, constantly outwitting them, yet always being portrayed as a man of honor. Hama must have known he was onto a good thing, because Kwinn would became a semi-recurring character in the book for the next two years or so. The ending of the issue is particularly memorable, reminding me of the kind of warrior-bonding that’s seen in testosterone-drenched Schwarzenegger flicks like CONAN and PREDATOR. It’s over the top, but if you’re a manly man, you damn well better recognize its coolness!

The second best story of the bunch is a two-parter staged in Afghanistan, in which the Joes are in a race to retrieve a downed, experimental Russian plane before their Soviet counterparts, the October Guard, can get it back. Coming as no surprise considering the era this was written in, the Afghan rebels are actual allies with the G.I. Joe team, and there are some well-staged scenes between the Joes’ mission leader, Stalker, and Ahmed, the tribal chief of the rebels. At one point, Stalker promises to try and hook Ahmed up with some anti-tank guns and ground-to-air missiles when he returns to the States. The Joes’ CIA liaison provides the cynical counterpoint, leading to this exchange:

CIA man: Stalker’s just a two-bit line infantryman…he can’t promise you anything!”

Ahmed: He is a fighting man!

CIA man: So?

Ahmed: I knew you wouldn’t understand!

Is Hama over-glorifying the supposed code of the soldier? Absolutely. But as the series progressed, it became clear that if any member of the team was meant to exemplify the ideal soldier -- disciplined but compassionate -- it was Stalker. The enigmatic and mute Snake-Eyes got the popular vote among kids, which was understandable because he combined the fighting skill of Batman and the cool look and mysterious past of Boba Fett, but looking back as an adult, Stalker is the character to beat. In general the characterizations are fairly flat, with characters tending to be defined by their military specialty and maybe, just maybe, a personality quirk or two. Breaker’s the communications expert who chews gum constantly; Clutch is the driver who combines a tough-guy Jersey attitude with comic relief pining for Scarlett, the lone woman on the team; and Scarlett herself is little more than the smart, red-headed chick who totes around a cool crossbow and seems to have a past with Snake-Eyes. The shallow characterizations aren’t a complaint, really. That kind of short-cutting can work really well for ensemble military stories (think ALIENS, for instance), and so it does here.

The remaining stories have a few misses, as the series veers once or twice a little too close to sci-fi/Nick Fury territory, but the trade wraps on a high note as the memorable villain, Dr. Venom, is introduced, and we get our first glimpse of the town of Springfield, a seemingly quaint slice of suburbia that just happens to have been completely subsumed by Cobra terrorists. The Springfield storyline provides the first hints of how the Cobra terrorist organization rose to power, and sets the stage for its importance in later stories.

Lest this review come across as a paid endorsement for the series, I should mention that Hama’s dialogue can be corny at times, that the art is mostly just passable and sometimes outright ugly, and that the trade is overpriced at $25 for a mere ten issues. I was also disappointed that the cover artist was DANGER GIRL’s J. Scott Campbell, after Marvel had promoted the book as having a new Michael Golden cover. Campbell’s alright, but Golden drew some amazing covers for the original series and I was really looking forward to some new work from him. Lastly, I’m annoyed at Marvel for excluding the back-up feature from the original first issue of G.I. JOE, a gritty little story of three Joes trying to smuggle a tape out of the Middle East with a horde of Muslim extremists on their tail. Granted, it’s maybe not the most sensitive story to break out in these skittish times, but dammit, it had some great moments. Jemas and Quesada should be ashamed for excluding it, especially after taking DC to task for some of their restraint in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. So, yes, this is a no-frills trade, and it even excludes no-brainers like the bonus pin-ups that also ran in that first issue, and the cutaway schematic of the Joes’ underground base, The Pit. Not too cool, Marvel, not too cool.

Missed opportunities aside, I still recommend this collection to anyone with nostalgia for those old G.I. Joe stories, but also broadly to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a war comic or an issue of NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Hama’s stories are brimming with clever ideas, good action, and fun character interplay, and my only real regret is that the series didn’t acquire any really slick artists until its third or fourth year. If you can’t handle non-flashy art (think Don Heck or Sal Buscema), then you’re going to have a problem with the series, but if you can appreciate good storytelling even when it’s stripped of style, give this stuff a try. It’s better than you think, and it’s also about the only place where you can find good military adventure these days.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Hey, wait a minute... that wasn’t so bad. In fact, that was pretty damn good. I hope the League becomes a frequent contributor to AICN COMICS. I certainly dug this first go-round.

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"Moriarty" out.

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