Well, hello there. I’m Ambush Bug and this is AICN COMICS! Some of you might be wondering what’s up with our new header. Well, waaaay back May of 2002, a select group of Talkbackers decided to join forces and write comic book reviews for the good of humanity. Gathered from different parts of the globe by Ali Knievel (known back then as The Comedian), this band of do-gooders and do-not-so-gooders set out to give praise, shout criticisms, and spout wanton jack@$$ery at the comic book world. We’re on our third year here at AICN (hence the Volume 3) and we’re still going strong. This is our 25th column since May of this year, so let’s call it issue #25. And for the most part, all of our comics were shipped, bought, read, and criticized by us on the week of November 3, 2004. So that’s that.
Keeping with the theme of a team, we’re reviewing a Kingpin-sized buttload of team books this week, plus some other goodies. Enjoy!
(Click title to go directly to the review)
JLA: CLASSIFIED #1
SAVAGE HENRY: PUPPET TRAP
EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES #1
BOOK OF BALLADS HC
THE INTIMATES #1
JLA: CLASSIFIED #1
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Ed McGuinness
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewed by Dave Farabee
“…it's pretty much set in some kind of current continuity but I’m afraid it's not the gloomy 'adult' world of Sue Dibny's shredded lycra pants so keep well away if it's attempted rape you crave. Cannibalism, yes, rape, no. My DCU is a day-glo, non-stop funhouse, where the world is threatened every five minutes and godlike beings clash in the skies like fireworks.” – Grant Morrison, interviewed about JLA: CLASSIFIED
“I have a feeling things are about to get strange.” – Batman, JLA: CLASSIFIED #1
Grant Morrison might just be my personal superhero savior at the moment. Here I am, looking at “event” storylines like BATMAN: WARGAMES, IDENTITY CRISIS, and AVENGERS: DISASSEMBLED, and it’s all about as spirited as a fucking mass grave. Maybe it’s representative of a new zeitgeist for a cynical era, emphasizing the ineffectiveness of heroes over their accomplishments, or maybe a few writers just happened to decide, “Needs more gloom” simultaneously. Whatever the case, this superhero fan’s been positively suffocating under the surplus of artfully written death and torture stories, just waiting for someone superstar iconoclast to come along and give the finger to realism, to death, to decompression, and to all that mind-numbingly, hand-wringingly, pants-crappingly overwrought gravitas.
That finger, my friends, belongs to Grant Morrison.
Hell, he’s so iconoclastic he launches a JLA sister book without even featuring the JLA themselves! I’m sure DC would’ve balked at such a proposal from anyone else, but Grant’s the guy wholly responsible for returning the JLA to superstardom some years ago – he gets justifiable leeway.
Instead of the JLA, the first issue of this three-part story focuses on the obscure super team, The International Ultramarine Corps, with the notable JLA tie-in being several pages featuring Batman acting wonderfully out-of-character. I liked that the cover, whose copy reads “WHERE IS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE?”, actually leads directly into the first panel featuring Warmaker One of the Ultramarines:
“The JLA is AWOL.”
“These terrorists are, quite literally, animals.”
“Wanna bet the International Ultramarine Corps can wrap this little insurrection up in…what? Let’s give it ten minutes.”
“Who needs the Justice League?”
“Shock and awe, gentlemen.”
It’s Grant’s classic, clipped, in-your-face style, no doubt about it. One page set-up and suddenly the team’s in the thick of an all-out firefight with jet packed gorillas terrorizing the African city of Kinshasa. Naturally, the Big Bad is everyone’s favorite super-intelligent, mind-controlling, dictatorial simian, Gorilla Grodd (or “Super-Gorilla Grodd” as he’s called here – a knowingly cornball Silver Age throwback). I love Morrison’s animalistic interpretation of Grodd. It’s devoid perhaps of the nuances Geoff Johns has given him, but charming in its ridiculously over-the-top villainy:
“And I suppose you’re wondering what happened to the hostages?”
“I ate them all!
“And now I’m going to eat you!”
It’s almost like Morrison’s going out of his way to dismiss the common post-9/11 wisdom that even fictional violence must be treated with utmost portentousness. I don’t care what it says about me: I’m ecstatic to see innocent bystanders returned to their rightful status as cannon fodder in the great battles between icons of good and evil. Yes, yes, there’s room too for stories that do seriously examine death, but in a pop genre like superheroes, can you blame me for enjoying a little throwaway slaughter that serves no purpose other than to make Grodd mean and, yes, quite the badass? Besides, Morrison hardly focuses on the grisliness of Grodd’s apparent act – the dialogue alone is enough to establish his hyperbolic menace, and it’s countered anyway by the sly banter of the Ultramarines themselves.
Don’t know who the Ultramarines are? Me neither. They appeared in Morrison’s JLA run, a few members have Golden and Silver age ties, and, well, it really doesn’t matter anyway. Even the characters themselves can’t be bothered with too much exposition, giving rise to a quintessentially Morrisonian moment when Knight, the so-called “English Batman,” uses a Microwave Gun to induce vomiting in Grodd. He begins to explain how it worked on him, then cuts himself off as if in a moment of self-awareness: “See, they have this vulnerable area in the brain called…oh, never mind…”
Lotsa fun, and just one of dozens of memorable exchanges. Knight spars with Irish-born teammate, Jack O’Lantern; Goraiko, a massive, humanoid Japanese protoplasm wreaks havoc while speaking something between haiku and mathematical formulas; and Knight’s rather silly-looking girl sidekick, Squire, tries to keep everything together as the team’s communications expert. Best of luck, girl, ‘cause they’re cannon fodder, too, but damn entertaining cannon fodder.
And they look great – designed and cartooned by Ed McGuinness, best known for his immaculate “puffy” art on books like SUPERMAN/BATMAN. It’s all very “pop”, very fitting for the manic action of Morrison’s storyline, and the battle flies along at Mach speeds. Expect to be stunned with one cool or silly vignette after another, scene cuts happening so fast that you may get the impression that a few panels have dropped out from sheer velocity. It’s almost too much on occasion, and those with more delicate constitutions may experience mild nausea - but that’s what roller coasters will do. I still recommend the experience, even if it takes a second reading to put everything straight.
The battle and its aftermath takes up most of this first issue, but Grodd’s guile turns out to be too much for the Ultramarines. At which point the story provides a mild breather for a few pages as escapee, Squire, turns to Batman for help. Batman’s the only Leaguer currently not trapped in the infant universe of Qwewq (Hunh? Wha? Oh, just read it…), and what follows when he teams up with Squire to spring the JLA is likely to inspire SCANNERS-style head-popping among hardcore fans of Bat-continuity. In some ways, this is still clearly the uber-planner Batman that Morrison wrote in JLA years ago, but Morrison’s tempered his grim sarcasm with a dose of silliness and, more terrifying still, set him up for some truly loopy sci-fi adventuring. Brace yourself for “Boom Tube” gauntlets, a Bat-customized UFO, and what can only be described as a “Neo Silver Age” vibe to the whole affair.
I absolutely loved it. Took me back to when I was a kid and I hadn’t yet erected those mental barriers as to what was and wasn’t acceptable in interpreting an icon like Batman. He could be the silly guy with the gadgets I saw on reruns of the ‘60s show, he could be the square-jawed hero fighting aliens on another planet on SUPERFRIENDS, and yes, he could be the Dark Knight Detective of the comics. But nothing was excluded and I just knew he was cool.
It’s all very liberating, and I think that if you put yourself in the right mindset (that mindset being: “Unclench, tight-ass!”), you’ll have as much fun as I did with JLA: CLASSIFIED. Now can we just get Morrison on a Superman book or what?
SAVAGE HENRY: PUPPET TRAP
by Matt Howarth
Published by Aeon
Reviewed by Buzz Maverik
A couple of weeks back, I posted a review of NOTHING, one of the finest damned comic books I've never read. Apparently, the fact that I didn't buy any comics that week upset some of you enough to, in the case of one guy, e-mail me and make sexual threats against my dog. I immediately e-mailed the guy back and told him that, knowing my dog, he'd be totally into it. I also explained that I don't just have a dog; I have three pit bulls -- Hewwo, Milius! Hewwo, Schrader! Hewwo, Hill! Daddy's gonna get ooo some action, yes he is! Yes, he is! -- but they all shared the same proclivities and I suggested a meeting place. Still haven't heard back from the guy.
I knew I couldn't let down my fans again. I had to find something cool on the shelves of Comicnist Propaganda, my favorite comic book shop. Or I had to at least find something that looked cool but would turn out to suck that I could trash.
Luckily, I spotted SAVAGE HENRY: PUPPET TRAP. Stoned looking cover. Hunter S. Thompson-esque duo driving a rocket/convertible through another dimensionscape called Lysurgia. Yeah, this was the book for me! And for you too, if you're cool! If you're not cool, get out of here, you can't read my reviews!
Savage Henry and his pal Boche are an electronic music duo called Bulldaggers. They're headed for an electronic music festival in Lysurgia. I've just used the phrase "electronic music" in three consecutive sentences. They are pursued by hallucinatory bats and an anti-creativity cult called the WHACOS. WHACOS hate Savage Henry, his music, this column, and my reviews. Okay, the last two things weren't in the comic but if you object, you're a WHACO.
Clearly, writer/artist Matt Howarth must be an advocate of screenwriting guru Robert McKee's book STORY because the next thing you know, Henry and Boche are up against a vampiress who has turned people into hand puppets. I know we've all seen this a million times, but somehow Howarth makes it all fresh and new.
Evidently, Howarth and I share a contempt for the non-creative and a love for gonzo duos and electronic music. Well, I don't really have a love for electronic music. More of an interest. Not actually an interest. More of an indifference. Indifference might be too strong a word. Dislike, I think is more...
Anyway, SAVAGE HENRY: PUPPET TRAP!
And I was just kidding about people having sex with my dogs. My dogs would rip you to shreds.
THE ORIGINALS HC
by Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC / Vertigo
Reviewed by: Lizzybeth
You should know Dave Gibbons. You should know him as the artist for Green Lantern, Captain America, and Superman. You should know “For the Man Who Has Everything”. You should certainly know WATCHMEN. And GIVE ME LIBERTY, and all the MARTHA WASHINGTON books to follow. You should also know him as a writer, as on WORLD’S FINEST, and BATMAN VS. PREDATOR. You should know that he created the Oni Comics logo. But you should really know that for some time now, Dave Gibbons has been hard at work on his own OGN, a 160-page mod-era epic hardcover called THE ORIGINALS.
Hotly anticipated by many comics fans, THE ORIGINALS is not likely to disappoint. Clearly, Gibbons has put a lot of work into the look and feel of this book, and the result is not quite like anything else out there. The colorless artwork showcases Gibbons’ masterful line work and attractive, Futuristic-Mod designs. Starting with the checker-black cover reminiscent of a Specials album from the year 2020, every aspect of the book is stylish, bold, and forward-looking. This is the future of comics, here.
Yet, the story is retro in its own way, looking back on Gibbons’ real youthful escapades, in a time when leather punks were clashing with vinyl posers for supremacy of the streets. Of course, I have a slightly different point of view than he does, being American and young enough to see these fashions coming around for second and third stabs at relevancy. I’ve never thrown in with the cool kids myself. THE ORIGINALS in a straight-faced but not entirely unknowing fashion both glorifies and satirizes the effort.
The Originals themselves are a gang of well-dressed hoodlums with shiny hoverbikes and rock-star attitudes, elevated to such a level of cool that even I want to join them. I mean, hoverbikes! Come on! Uh.. ahem. Yes, and our protagonists, Lel and Bok, will do whatever it takes to stay in the gang, including maintaining an escalating war with the Dirt (the Leather gang mentioned earlier). The other element is Warren, a hanger-on who wants nothing more than to be accepted by cool kids Lel and Bok, and who will gladly make himself over into whatever they will think is cool. Warren’s increasing desperation for their approval will turn a relatively peaceable situation into a dangerous street war. Caught in the middle is Viv, Lel’s new girl, who is the only person to call these cool cats for what they really are: a bunch of kids. Of course the situation blows up into tragedy for our two friends, and one could accuse the book of being less than, well, original. But the name of the book sort of gives the game away, doesn’t it? No teenage rebel is an original, because nearly all teenagers rebel in the very same ways.
THE ORIGINALS cuts no corners when it comes to detail, does not blanche at violence, and does not cheat in its conclusions. It’s a mature work on immature characters, that both recaptures the intoxicating thrill of youth and endless nights on the town, and hits you with the hangover of the morning after, when your friends are in the hospital, your car is wrecked, and you can’t remember what you were on about all night. I can’t say enough about the design of this book, but the writing is just as good. I hope this is only the beginning of Dave Gibbon’s career as a writer/artist on his own projects. It was worth the wait.
EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES #1
Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Scott Kolins
Earth’s Mightiest Reviewer: Ambush Bug
Have you ever rented or purchased a DVD and seen that there was all of this bonus material such as deleted scenes, commentaries from the people behind it all, and so on, and so forth? These extras seem impressive when you’re looking at the box. 52 deleted scenes! Holy shit! That’s gotta be cool! Then you go home, pop the DVD in the player, and watch three second snippets of people getting in and out of cars, people walking, unnecessary conversations that make what happens later redundant. You know, stuff that was deleted from the movie for good reason. Well, EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES is kind of like that.
This series depicts the earliest days of Marvel’s premiere super team. When they are not being slaughtered carelessly and made utterly ineffectual by over-hyped writers, the Avengers can be a pretty interesting concept for a book, gathering the heavyweights together to battle menaces that no one hero can overcome. This team has been through more roster changes than one can count, but there has to be a first and this book highlights that premiere batch of Avengers. Iron Man, Wasp, Ant Man, Thor, the Hulk--they’re all here. Like UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN before it, this series gives the readers a look at what happens in between the panels of the earlier works. In UNTOLD, Kurt Busiek held those early issues of AMAZING FANTASY and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in the highest regard, making sure that everything he wrote fit in between the adventures Spidey was having in his early years. Busiek’s commitment to honoring what had come before and building upon that is what made UNTOLD one of the best Spidey series in recent memory. Busiek respected what was going on and made the in-between bits just as exciting as the stories that appeared in those early issues. Well, EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES doesn’t really do that.
Sure, writer Joe Casey has all of the major players here, but he doesn’t really do anything interesting with them. Unlike UNTOLD, which filled the in-betweens with action and adventure, EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES is filled with a whole lot of the “blah, blah, blah.” You don’t see the Avengers battling Loki, but you do see them sitting around a big table and discussing Avengers charters and bylaws. You get one splash page of the Avengers battling the Hulk, and for that one splash of action, you get 20 pages of flapping jaws. Apparently, the in-between scenes in those early Avengers issues were not very eventful. Any and all action is told in news clips or referred to off panel. Only the boring bits remain.
Another beef I have with this book is the fact that such a large span of time passes in this single first issue. In the right hands, this book could go on forever. There are loads of potential stories to be told with this batch of heroes. Instead, in this single issue, the Hulk quits, Ant Man turns to Giant Man and already begins to show signs of violence towards the Wasp, Hawkeye is introduced, and in the last panel, Iron Man and the crew are about to stumble across Captain America. Why cover so much time in one issue? Why rush to get Cap and Hawkeye on the roster? There are plenty of stories that can be told without skipping to these events which happened later in Avengers history. Why not play around with the idea that this first incarnation was not the most perfect--that it needed a symbol like Cap to make them more accessible to the wary public for a few issues instead of rushing to the solution of this problem? Why skip over all of the potential trouble the Hulk would cause in a group such as this? This issue is filled with wasted story potential by ignoring the potential a not-so-perfect team of Avengers can have. Clearly, writer Joe Casey sees Hawkeye and Cap as the most interesting of the group because he’s rushing to get them on stage as soon as possible.
It’s really too bad. I’ve read comics for years, but I really don’t know much about these early adventures of the Avengers. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Hell, by the end of the issue, Iron Man is out of the golden tin can and into the red and gold armor with nary a mention as to how or why. It’s just too rushed. And not only that, it’s rushed with the exciting parts skipped over. In the end, this book is the equivalent of a deleted scene that deserved to be deleted. It adds nothing to the story and is truly irrelevant to the bigger picture.
THE BOOK OF BALLADS HC
Writers: Charles Vess and friends
Artist: Charles Vess
Reviewed by Dave Farabee
Ah, now here’s a treat! A comic collection to be read year-round, but truly ideal for the crisp winter nights that’re just coming into season. I read most of the stories reprinted here when Charles Vess first self-published them in the mid-‘90s, but there was no passing up a lush, dust-jacketed hardcover of ‘em. Better still, this collected edition includes four stories that never appeared in the comic - two from more obscure sources, two that are wholly original.
Now Vess, the artist, should be familiar to most of you, if only as a frequent partner-in-crime with Neil Gaiman (who also contributes to THE BOOK OF BALLADS). Vess’s trademark ethereal, fantasy-themed art was surely a strong factor in SANDMAN #19 (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) winning the World Fantasy Award, and he also painted Gaiman’s prose fairy tale, STARDUST. There’s quite a bit of variety to be found within Vess’s style, including lyrical, minimalist cartooning and Aubrey Beardsley-esque decorative motifs, but he rarely goes long without breaking out the textured, densely-hatched work that’s his most distinctive trademark. And you’ll find every element of his black-and-white style in THE BOOK OF BALLADS, making this one of the lushest releases of the entire year.
So that’s Vess the artist, but it’s the very concept behind THE BOOK OF BALLADS that’s the most remarkable quality of this undertaking. This is something rare, something truly unique: sequential art adaptations of the great folk ballads of Ireland, Scotland, and England. And when I say “ballad”, folks, try and remove the modern connotations (“Isn’t that the crap Celine Dion sings over movie credits?”) and cast your mind back to earthier times, to the oftentimes tragic and haunting ballads that were sung by commoners and pub-goers. These are spirited tales of highwaymen and haunted groves, seductions and murders, terrifying bargains and demon lovers.
It really doesn’t matter if you do or don’t know much about classic ballads going into something like this (I pretty much knew jack squat). For one thing, the extensive introduction by Terri Windling is actually a fantastic overview of the artform and all the variety within it. And for another, these stories are tales we can all relate to on some level. At the close of the intro, Windling quotes a folk scholar on the evolution of these songs for modern audiences:
“You do sometimes have to kick the buggers into life, find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them – except for not singing them.”
Vess’s adaptations, then, become just another means of “singing” these songs, with collaborators like Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Charles de Lint, and Jane Yolen helping to “kick the buggers into life” alongside him. Together they adapt 13 different ballads – some quite closely, some with notable liberties taken – but no matter how the comic adaptation plays out, the original ballad is reprinted in its entirety afterward for comparison. It’s so simple but it’s such a stroke of genius, giving the reader a real glimpse into how simple ballads can be open to interpretation. As noted in the introduction, ballads tend to play out as plots without motivations, so writers have a lot of wiggle room in choosing what stories to build around them.
Something else to enjoy: the surprising level of darkness in these tales. Even those with somewhat happy endings are pretty twisted, like Gaiman’s opener, “The False Knight on the Road.” It chronicles the eerie meeting between a child heading to school, and (at least as Vess visualizes the “false knight”), a spectral horseman who might’ve cantered right out of THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. The two exchange verses, almost dueling verbally, with the knight an overwhelmingly threatening presence but the kid standing his ground, matching him verse for verse. Gaiman’s framing device is an opening with the boy’s mother warning him to stay away from a well – haunting weirdness implied – but otherwise it’s a quite literal adaptation of the song, right down to the final verse that in the comic dispels the false knight (though without instilling much comfort) :
“I wish you were in yonder well,”
Quoth the false knight upon the road.
“And you that deep in hell,”
Quoth the wee boy, and still he stood.”
Let’s see Celine do justice to that particular ballad!
Other notables include Jeff Smith’s lighthearted entry, “The Galtee Farmer,” Jane Yolen on the disturbingly “King Henry” (creepy sex with giant hag-woman), and Charles de Lint’s fascinating modern-times vignette based around a ballad about…err…two ravens eating a corpse (“Twa Corbies”). Those are among my personal favorites, but there’re all compelling, all evocative, and all drawn in such detail that I suspect artistically-inclined types will end up inspired to break out the ol’ sketchbook.
This one’s a keeper, my friends. Enlightening, earthy reading meets a lyrical framework and the fantasy themes Vess draws so well, and there’s even an extensive discography in the back for those interested in tracking down some CDs to actually hear these ballads sung. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to such stuff, but I can at least see that compiler Ken Roseman has included both traditional a cappella performers and more progressive interpreters utilizing varying degrees of musical arrangements. Impressively non-snobbish!
This one I’m recommending to SANDMAN fans, to fantasy and folklore junkies in general, to Charles Vess art-lovers in particular, and to guys looking to impress literate chicks while simultaneously leading them into the dark recesses of the comic book den of iniquity. It’s a good Christmas present, too, and you can pick it up here if your local comic shop can’t order it.
Writer: Judd Winick
Artist: Carlos D’Anda
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewer: Sleazy G
This issue of OUTSIDERS has a picture of John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” on the cover. Since the story is about a ring of kidnappers who steal children and sell them as sex slaves, I suppose it makes some kind of sense for Walsh to be involved. In the October 17th edition of the New York Times, Walsh was quoted as saying “It’s going to try to teach kids about the people who exploit them and that anyone can be a victim. The second thing it’s going to stress is that people can help.”
In light of the rather serious nature of the subject matter and its message, it seems the only fair way to judge this book is on how well it can achieve its intended goal. Unfortunately, my guess is that it won’t accomplish much at all, short of annoying me to no end.
The stated intention is to try to “teach kids.” I find this interesting—and disturbing. I did a quick count after reading the issue through the first time. There were nine published swear words, at least three of which were “goddamn”—a word that isn’t even allowed in prime time on the major networks. Additionally, we’ve got another four that were severe enough they had to be printed as “#@$&!”, which means we can safely extrapolate based on context that they were “shit” or “fuck.” I’m not bothering to count phrases like “butt monkey,” by the way, as they pale in comparison. This is before we address the blatant references to drug use and sexual activity among our team of heroes. Why does any of this matter? Quite simply, because this issue is now useless when it comes time to “teach kids.” It cannot be safely distributed in classrooms by teachers or used by people in the counseling community due to the content of this “Very Special Issue of OUTSIDERS.” Spare copies won’t be turning up in any public or school libraries, either. No child actually in the described situation will ever see this book, but more importantly, neither will any kids with responsible teachers or parents. By simply taking an all-ages audience into account, Winick could have crafted a story that could safely be used as a tool to “teach kids,” but he took the low road instead.
It gets much worse than that, though. There’s an exchange which occurs in this issue which is not just completely out of character, it’s also truly depressing thanks to the dismal image of our “heroes” it portrays. Here we go:
Grace: “This scumbag rents children to people so they can rape them! You’re going to tell me we shouldn’t stop that?!?”
Jade: “It’s not what we do.”
WHAT?!? I’m sorry…WHAT?!? Jade? Daughter of the first Green Lantern? Ex-girlfriend of Kyle Rayner, who had a girlfriend stuffed in a fridge? Jade, whose own brother, Obsidian, became corrupted and went bad? Jade, friend to Terry, the gay character Judd created in GREEN LANTERN and who later suffered a severe beating because of his lifestyle? Jade, who absolutely knows how heavy a personal cost the heroic lifestyle can have, and the importance of dealing with your past to overcome it and achieve some sense of closure? This is the hero we have to look to as team leader? This is the woman who has decided that an entire ring of kidnappers who sell children into sexual slavery is beneath her notice? So much for a story that teaches kids that “people can help”—if the superheroes don’t want to deal with it and can’t figure out how without calling a guy who works on TV, what on earth can a regular person possibly do? Way to disempower fictional heroes and real people in one fell swoop, man.
It’s a cheap attempt to stir up more unnecessary team melodrama, and it had no place in this story. The bickering could have been avoided by simply having the team debate how to attack the problem, not if they should attack it at all. It doesn’t fit the character or the story one bit. Once again, Winick has decided to have the characters change to fit the story instead of writing a story that successfully integrates the characters into it. I have no doubt there were other ways to address the issues and bring John Walsh in to the story without making everybody look bad in the process. I shouldn’t have walked away from the issue feeling dirty because of the actions of the heroes and not the villains. It’s truly disheartening.
First we had an issue Winick scripted of GREEN ARROW which garnered publicity in the mainstream press for featuring a character who’s HIV positive, despite an issue of MONOLITH getting ignored that addressed the same issue and came out only weeks before. Now we have a storyline in OUTSIDERS getting attention from the NYT just a few months after a similar, and coincidentally far more mature, storyline in the pages of HUMAN TARGET. So why do better, more mature stories keep getting ignored while Winick’s schlock keeps grabbing the spotlight? Perhaps it’s due to the time Winick spent on “The Real World,” I don’t know. What I do know is Winick seems to actively court this kind of mainstream attention where other writers either don’t know they can do it or don’t have enough support. It’s just too bad that when these stories grab the attention of the mainstream media it never seems to be a better written, more responsible take on the issues. Any non-comics readers who get sucked in by this “event” issue are bound to be turned off and then turn their backs on the industry at whole. Another opportunity squandered. The idea held a lot of potential, but the issue manages to fail completely at following through on it.
Brian Michael Bendis: Writer
David Finch, Oliver Coipel: Artists
Marvel Comics: Publisher
Vroom Socko: Figment of Your Imagination
Here it is, the fourth and final issue of AVENGERS as written by Bendis, and my fourth and final review of the title. I’ve been following these characters for over half my life, and as you’ve seen in my past reviews I’m not altogether comfortable with the current direction they’re heading. This was the make or break issue for me. How did it fare?
Well, that’s a long story, and it’s full of spoilers. I recommend you finish reading the rest of this column first, maybe take a bathroom break, and then come back here for what I’m calling…
So the secret’s out. The person responsible for all the trauma the Avengers have faced is the Scarlet Witch, who has gone insane with power. Just how insane she is, and for how long, remains unexplained. What we do know is that a careless mention from the Wasp allowed Wanda to remember that she once had twins. She blames her teammates for their “death,” and has been exacting her revenge upon them.
So what happens in this issue, you ask? Well, there’s a flashback, then the Avengers stand around for a couple of pages. Then another flashback followed by some more pages of the team standing around. Then there are four pages of Dr. Strange lecturing the team like he’s John Kerry on the stump. Finally, the whole of the Avengers confront Wanda and her reconstituted twins by standing around while Dr. Strange wipes her mind clean. It’s kinda like what happened ten years ago in the X-men’s Fatal Attractions storyline, when Professor X destroyed the mind of Magneto. This is especially interesting, since as soon as Wanda’s mind is gone, Magneto shows up out of nowhere only to disappear with his daughter. And then, finally, we get three pages of Wanda’s first appearance in Avengers from the Lee/Kirby era, cut and pasted out of context in an attempt at drawing out a deeper meaning and sense of loss or something.
To call this finale wretched is an understatement. And yes, don’t buy the hype that Avengers Finale is the actual end. I’ve read it already, and while it’s worth buying for the amazing guest artwork it really doesn’t provide any more closure than this issue. In any case, much of what happens here is absurd in the extreme. I find it hard to believe that Wanda would attempt to destroy the family she’s formed with the Avengers for the sake of a family that doesn’t exist. But more on that later.
The real initial misstep is in the resolution of the whole mess. Having the title characters essentially do nothing while a guest star (and a Defender at that) saves the day is a violation of one of the first rules in superhero comics. Well actually, to paraphrase a particularly nasty pirate, they’re more like “guidelines” than actual rules. In any case, having a non-Avenger take out Wanda robs the story of its pathos. If it had been Captain America who had done the deed with something akin to the device Forge used on Storm way back when, or Yellowjacket or Iron Man cobbling together something similar, it would have added a weight and drama to the scene. As it stands now the ending feels like a hollow exercise, one made worse by the use of Magneto.
Oh my lord, Magneto. He literally just pops in, Cap hands him Wanda’s body, and he vanishes. The first thing I thought when I saw this was “why is this happening?” The last any of the Avengers heard, Mags had destroyed Manhattan and killed Jean Grey. For them to just hand her over defies all common sense. There’s also the matter of Magneto’s characterization. His dialogue makes him sound like Claremont’s compassionate militant, only more emotional. Yet his costume and presence make him look more like Morrison’s power-mad junkie. Could he be a third Magneto? It’s already been announced that the big Bendis project to follow SECRET WAR is called THE HOUSE OF M. Perhaps this story will reveal that Magneto, like Kang before him, has an entire council of alternate versions of himself.
But the real problem with this issue, and the entire run to this point, lies in four lines of dialogue. These four lines, four story elements to be exact, are the basis of the entire plot. All four lines are, unfortunately, erroneous. And as one of the other rul- err, guidelines of superhero comics says, if you’re going to tell a story that’s dependent on continuity, make sure that continuity is accurate. Let’s take a look at these four moments, going from least to most objectionable, shall we?
First is the statement from Dr. Strange that “there is no such thing as chaos magic,” in reference to the source of Wanda’s powers. This is a strange statement indeed, since the good Doctor has used chaos previously. The most recent account of this was in a Warren Ellis story from the 90’s. Not only that, but the being who manipulated Wanda’s mutant powers is Chthon, the chaos demon who created the Darkhold, the book of dark magic currently in the possession of Dr. Strange. But wait, it gets worse.
Next is the claim that Wanda “doesn’t remember what happened to her children.” The problem with this is that her memory was restored in an AVENGERS WEST COAST ANNUAL, number seven, I believe. So the trigger for these events, Wanda learning about her children, makes no sense. It has been suggested elsewhere that Agatha Harkness, whose corpse is shown at the end of this issue, never restored those memories because Wanda’s insanity was the reason Agatha had returned from her initial death in the first place. Unfortunately, this only serves to make this into a bigger mess. After all, that would not only mean that Wanda was keeping a corpse, PSYCHO- style, of a woman who’d been burned at the stake and had her ashes scattered, but that one figment of Wanda’s imagination had destroyed her memories of another pair of figments. It also calls into question why the Wasp would act so guilty about bringing up a subject she thinks Wanda is in the know about. Just typing all that out has me reaching for the Tylenol. But these problems are minor, and would have been forgivable, if not for the next two.
It’s the statement about Wanda’s twins, that they were “conjured into existence…they didn’t really exist,” that shows just why this story doesn’t work. You see, Wanda didn’t create her children from nothingness. They were, in fact, manifestations of Mephisto made real through her magic. It was for this reason that their existence was initially removed from Wanda’s memory, and why later it became safe for her to learn of their loss again. It’s this omission that is the most telling, and leads into the biggest objection of them all.
It’s all wrapped up in the Strange statement that Wanda “has control over reality.” This quite simply isn’t the case. The Scarlet Witch’s powers involve the ability to control chaos magic and affect probability fields. (That’s not just me saying that, by the way; that line is a direct quote from Marvel’s own website.) This is why the previous error is so important. Wanda can affect the probability of her giving birth to twins formed from the splintered psyche of Satan, but she isn’t able to create two human beings out of nothingness. She can’t alter reality, even on a subconscious level, to suit her whims. If she did, why didn’t she do so many times before? Right after her twins were lost, she was routinely hallucinating that her husband, The Vision, (who, by the way, was Marvel’s best outsider/Stranger in a Strange Land character, and always more than the libelous “just a robot,”) was restored to the form he had before being taken apart by the government. If she really had such power, why didn’t her fantasies become reality? I’m also baffled at Dr. Strange’s insistence that this may have been averted if he’d been able to train Wanda. She was a student of Agatha Harkness, after all, who also trained the FF’s Franklin Richards, a mutant who actually DOES have the ability to alter reality with a thought.
I know, and accept, that there are literally thousands of people out there who are reading Avengers for the first time just because Bendis is writing it. Most of this stuff probably means less than nothing to them. However, it means a lot to me. It means a lot to anyone who’s been following these characters for a span of decades. After all, if the very premise of the story is a non sequitur to any longtime fan, how can they possibly be expected to enjoy it?
By Laini Taylor–Di Bartolo, Jim Di Bartalo
Publisher: Image Comics
Reviewed by: Lizzybeth
A good spooky story ought to keep you guessing, and that’s just what THE DROWNED does best. You start out watching a madman escape from a lunatic asylum with a sharp sickle in 1800-ish France, and you figure: FROM HELL, in French! But no. Theophile is only going home to Breton, encountering a creepy coven of ugly ladies (witches!), his dead sister (ghosts!), and her gypsy lover (magic!). All not quite where the story is going. Theophile returns to the house of his mother, who’s even more crazy than he, and finds all of his sisters fled, probably all from the memory of the drowned sister, the one who was killed by her own father and the village religious nuts for her tryst with the gypsy. The dead-but-not-as-dead-as-she-should-be Ylene, despite her unfortunate demise, seems more and more to be responsible for Theophile’s imprisonment, and perhaps his madness as well. She appears to Theophile with a task for him. Compelled by either her will or his own curiosity Theophile steals a box from the church reliquary (hacking up a few church elders along the way), a box that may free her from her condition. But giving this box to his Ylene may be the last mistake Theophile will ever make. It’s hard to tell exactly who the good guy should be in this story, but in a France still haunted by the specter of the Guillotine, there may be no good guy, only bad and worse.
So goes THE DROWNED, another Original Graphic Novel from Image Comics, produced by husband and wife team Laini and Jim Di Bartolo. The back material claims the artwork to be good enough to eat, and it’s not kidding – these black and white watercolor paintings are a moody, rich feast. This is a team who knows horror comics, and that almost noone short of Alan Moore can plot them. So they plotted a mystery, and drew a horror story. It’s there in the nastily expressive faces, each twisted in their own way, and the dreamy painted backgrounds, and the convincing visual details of the occult forces at work. This is a tremendously creepy comic with outstanding artwork that deserves a space on your shelf.
THE INTIMATES #1
Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Giuseppe Camuncoli w/guest assist by some guy named “Lee”
Reviewer: Sleazy G
The WildStorm universe has been home to several team books since its exception. Some have failed to capture much attention at all (THE MONARCHY, for example) while others remain cult hits or end up being reborn in an entirely new format (WILDCATS). THE INTIMATES is the latest entry to take a swing at things. It also represents a distinct break from the kinds of team books that came before it. The style of the book, the types of characters and the storytelling approach are nothing like the other WildStorm titles I’ve read, and for that reason alone I felt it was worth checking out.
The premise is a little familiar, but it takes the story in several directions I haven’t seen before. It’s set at a school called The Seminary whose mission is to train the next generation of the best and bright…well, okay, not exactly. These kids aren’t necessarily the ones who would be anybody’s first choice to turn into heroes. They’re all flawed—they’re annoying or dumb or self-involved or have some other problem that’s actually a fairly realistic take on teenagers. Like real teenagers, they daydream during classes and ignore their teachers and blow off their responsibilities. Still, it seems like if there were to be this many powered kids out there, *somebody* would have to teach them, and that’s what this school is there for.
As for the school itself, other than its reason for existing, it bears very little resemblance to other Schools for the Differently Powered, like that one the bald guy in the wheelchair founded. Any time I see Xavier’s School depicted, it seems a little…old-fashioned. I’ve never really noticed much of a curriculum at Xavier’s, other than Gym (The Danger Room) and Ethics. The Seminary stands in sharp contrast to this, and feels like a natural extension of the actual high school experience as a result. There’s a homeroom class, Secret Identity 101, Morality 101, a class on interdimensional and microscale physics, and so on. It feels more like an actual curriculum has been developed, just like we all had when we were in school. The Seminary is also bleeding-edge when it comes to tech, e-communication, holograms, etc. It all makes sense, really—when dealing with science heroes and villains and mutations that may require alternative environments or containment fields, a school needs to be prepared for anything that enrolls.
So what, exactly, makes this book so unique, so unlike most of the other team titles (or teen titles, for that matter)? Good question. I don’t know if there’s been a formal term assigned yet. Many of today’s books are described, rightly or wrongly, as being “decompressed” or “cinematic”. This book is exactly the opposite. If I were to pick a word, I guess it might be “hypercompressed”. There’s so much information crammed into every page of this book that it takes a while to read through, and I feel like I’ll need to re-read it because I’m pretty sure I missed something in there. Hypercompression means that there’s so much data thrown at you it feels a little overwhelming at first, but not in a bad way. If there were any point of comparison, it would be sort of like watching that really old TV show “Pop Up Video” from like five years ago or whatever, where you’re watching a music video or TV show, and while you’re trying to watch it little factoids keep popping up all over the place. A little distracting sometimes, sure, but it was a delivery system that allowed you to transmit both the product and a wealth of background data about it simultaneously. While reading the title, you get the kind of story and dialogue you get from any comic book. The panels have information overlaid; however, that fills you in on the clothes the characters are wearing, biographical information, and so on. There are also times in the middle of a scene when you’ll suddenly get a “Special Origin Flashback!” and then land right where you were a few panels ago, or where you’ll get an extreme close-up of something important in the frame, or you’ll find yourself reading somebody’s email message. It’s a book that is clearly designed for a generation born with a remote control in their hands: a generation more used to MTV-style quick cuts, rapid-fire changes in subject matter, and a constant influx of consumer-targeted information. It’s much more keyed in to the pace of modern life in America than most books on the shelves today.
I know, I know—I still haven’t told you if it’s any good or not. It’s hard to say at this point. It’ll take a little longer to see if Casey settles into a groove and whether he’s able to keep up this incredibly dense and layered level of storytelling in the long term. I definitely enjoyed this first issue, though. There are some funny moments, and some intriguing setups for what’s to come. Casey introduces a bunch of characters who are twists on the themes and ideas we’ve seen in comics for years. None of them is a blatant rip-off, though, like…oh, I dunno…that red and white archer guy who was a total rip-off of Hawkeye, for example. It’s more like each of them will be used to deliver a commentary on comics, or as if they’re using a familiar starting point so that we’re more surprised by the direction things take a few issues down the road.
I really have only one complaint about the book and it’s a matter of design. The bottom of each page is set up like those tickers that run along the bottom of the screen on CNN or MSNBC. They’re full of supplemental blurbs about the characters, school, parenting, statistics about teens, and so on. Unfortunately, a yellow background was selected. This is fine when the text is red or black. Much of the time, however, the text is white. White on yellow is a headache waiting to happen, and it did by the end of the issue. Other than that, though, I was pretty happy with the issue. We’ve got a new approach to teaching kids gifted with powers, some bizarre and comical twists on those powers, and a hypercompressed storytelling style that crams more ideas into a single issue than some titles manage in a six-issue arc. I’d rather read a title that gets a little overambitious and doesn’t quite hit the mark than one that trudges through the same old superhero doldrums any day of the week. Casey is definitely trying to do something different with the medium here, and I think it’s an intriguing enough concept to stick with.
Cheap Shots!B.P.R.D.: THE DEAD #1 (of 5) - Man, that last BPRD mini by Mignola and Guy Davis was so damn good it actually revitalized by interest in Hellboy after seeing the movie! That’s right, I was able to bury my memories of the schlocky love story and Hellboy the kitten-lover (WTF?), so you know this is powerful good stuff. This new outing comes courtesy of the same team (with John Arcudi assisting on writing), is a direct follow-up, and is every bit as good. I know we're all a little ticked that Mignola's coasting on doing writing and not art, but sheeeiiiit, when you've got a team like Guy Davis and Dave "Best Colorist in the Biz" Stewart....kids, you best hush up with that complainin'. As the story picks up, Hellboy's still gone, a new team leader has been assigned in his stead (guy happens to be a former corpse), and the frog-creatures of the previous mini are fast becoming an epidemic across the U.S. Meanwhile, eyes bleed, Roger the homunculus refuses to wear pants, and Abe Sapiens continues to delve into his origins. Freaked-out action/horror doesn't come any better. -Dave
PUNISHER #13 - I must be the most optimistic guy on the planet to still have hopes that this will be the arc that Ennis knocks the ball out of the park with the Punisher. After a truly grim, but well done intro to this new MAX series, Ennis followed it up with a ridiculous arc featuring his go-to story of violence among the Irish starring every kooky character Ennis could think of with a less-than-supporting role assigned to the title character. In this issue, Nick Fury recruits the Punisher for a top secret government mission. There’s some great back-and-forthings between Nick and Frank here. Ennis nails Fury’s character a lot better than he did in his god-awful FURY series. It looks as if Frank’s going to Mother Russia for his next mission. Let’s hope that Ennis doesn’t drown out Frank in this one with his usual cadre of quirky characters which are quickly becoming less interesting and more tiresome as we go along. – Ambush Bug
THIEVES & KINGS #45 - The amount of depth that goes into this oft-overlooked fantasy comic is astonishing. I promise to write it up in full someday soon, but the fact that this latest issue is a big ol' talky outing reminded me of one of its chief virtues: energetic, naturalistic, emotive dialogue. You know how most fantasy comics are written in boring-as-dirt "Thor talk," or, just as common, with the cornball conventions of heroic fantasy from anime? Well THIEVES & KINGS features the fantasy equivalent of Bendis-talk – Bendis at his best, mind you - and every time I read it it's like a breath of fresh air. Occasional illustrated, Cerebus-style text pages fill out the rich storyline, but I think it's the scenes of extended dialogue in the sequential pages that'll really win over readers. You just don’t think of the fantasy genre as home to great dialogue, to characters you just want to hear talk all day long, and that’s precisely why you need to be reading this book – innovation deserves to be seen! Four trades are currently available, so you know this is no flash in the pan self-publishing outing. And a fifth on the way! - Dave
THE QUESTION #1 - Never read any Question stories. Never really knew what made the guy tick. Like Adam Strange, I always liked the design of the guy, but I never really had a chance to get into any of his stories. I don’t know if writer Rick Veitch is slaughtering the character in this new mini-series, but at least he’s doing a better job at telling an entertaining tale than he did with his AQUAMAN stint. This Question has the ability to “read” a city. You see, every city has a language, a personality, and the Question seems to understand all of that. It’s an interesting concept; one ripe with potential given the fact that the DCU is filled with fabricated cities to explore. I especially like the mish-mash poetry that the Question spouts throughout the entire issue. I didn’t understand half of it, mind you, but the juxtaposition of peculiar words and phrases kept me intrigued. I guess this first issue had me asking a lot of…well…questions and becoming interested in the answers, which is exactly what a first issue should do. Pick this one up and see if it has the same effect on you. – Ambush Bug
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #68 - Now this is more like it. With this series of two-parters, Bendis is writing the best comics he's put out so far this year. This story featuring the Human Torch attempting to finish High School in relative normality at Peter's school is the perfect light and fun story to counterpoint the heavy Carnage arc. At the same time, these stories are still moving Peter forward as a character and hero. Character being the operative word: this story is being driven by who and what these people are, not an epic "event" mentality. This is more than good writing, this is masterful writing. And that Bagley fellow ain't no slouch either. -- Vroom Socko
HAWAIIAN DICK: THE LAST RESORT #2 (of 4) - This is one of my favorite lightweight books at the moment, and I use the term "lightweight" endearingly. It's not that HAWAIIAN DICK doesn't have a real crime story a'brewin' - a mob war between rival hotels - but the story plays out with the very easygoing-ness of the '50s island setting in which it takes place. And that's pretty...swanky. The crux of this latest issue, for instance, is our hero, Detective Byrd, attempting to drink an Irish mob heavy under the table to pump him for some information. Nice break from the usual violent conventions of the genre, eh? And the new artist lives up stunningly to the high standard set by Steve Griffin (who still provides the series' rich coloring). Recommended readin'. - Dave
RISING STARS #22 - I was truly surprised to see RISING STARS on the shelf last week. It has been so long since the last issue, I had forgotten all about it. And that’s too bad, because JMS writes one hell of a super heroic political conspiracy tale. This series had the potential of being as good as THE WATCHMEN at one time. It was in fact that damn good, but because there is such an ungodly long wait between issues, only the truly dedicated have stuck with this series. With two issues left, all of the forces are coming together for one final showdown and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. A Special has become president of the United States and those who really make the decisions in the government are pissed. This is a smart, fascinating, and extremely entertaining take on what would happen if super powers surfaced in a real world setting. This series could have been ground-breaking if it were on some kind of set schedule. Now, because I barely remember who’s who or why I even cared in the first place, it is simply a good read. I’d recommend it, but I think it is better at this point to just wait for the trade for this one. Who the hell knows when the next issue will be out. Frustrating, really it is. – Ambush Bug
FIREBIRDS #1 - I don't know whether FIREBIRDS by writer Jay Faeber (creator of the superlative NOBLE CAUSES) and artist Andres Ponce is a graphic novel, a one-shot, or a first issue. I do know that the art is beautiful, starting with Ponce's cover. Faeber does his usual fine job with the story of a super heroine, Firebird (not the Marvel character who was one of the less necessary WEST COAST AVENGERS) who must reveal her secret identity to her teenage daughter, who is starting to exhibit her own super powers. If NOBLE CAUSES is DALLAS or DYNASTY (or THE O.C.) with superheroes, this could be THE GILMORE GIRLS with superheroes. I can't tell you for sure because I've never seen THE GILMORE GIRLS, although the Mom is cute. I can tell you that it beats ULTRA, the SEX IN THE CITY with superheroes by the Luna Bros., because in FIREBIRDS things actually happen. I recommend it. – Buzz Maverik
ASTONISHING X-MEN #6 - This is the only X-book out there (not counting MADROX) that is worth buying. This book exemplifies how to make the X-Men interesting. Writer Joss Whedon is a fan first and a writer second. This would usually scare me, but Whedon has proven to me that he has what it takes to do an exceptional job at inclu