Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In Review Of: The Immortal Iron Fist by Brubaker, Faction and Aja

The wonderful thing about the retcon is that when it happens, it can happen spectacularly well, or spectacularly badly, since, unlike a regular launch, there is the character and a whole drawer full of baggage to deal with. Sometimes it all works out well, and sometimes it’s a huge truckload full of asbestos overturning on the freeway near a nursery school and massive evacuations. The standard that we’re shooting for here is Moore on Swamp Thing, and while I doubt we’ll ever get it, still a comics fan can dream. Happily, the Immortal Iron Fist relaunch and retcon is enjoyable, well done, and a damn fun read.

Hail Hydra! Oops, sorry, that slipped out. I bring up the Moore/Swamp Thing connection since there is an element there that is echoed in the Iron Fist collection: that of not dumping the past wholesale, as many of the relaunches do, but bringing up that the history we know is only the tip of the iceberg, and so including all the prior elements into the new backstory. Don’t throw those old Marvel Premieres out yet folks.

Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker do a solid job of bringing us along to the present day of Danny Rand, which is fine, since I doubt that I know what dojo the character has been hiding in for the last 20 years, but take a couple issues to move the story from the average retcon into something special. David Aja does a nice job with the art, stylish but not completely reliant on photoref to the point where the art stands still. His design sense is his greatest strength, one that takes him out of the jae lee school of “how much splatter can I get away with”. Yes, Jae, we know, you weren’t fooling anyone. There was a time or two on the double page splashes that I got lost in reading across on some panels but not on others. A small knitpick, but man, I should never get lost on the reading flow. Seriously.

Cut off one limb and… oops sorry. Immortal Iron Fist is, once again, a triumph of the trades I have to say. The book collects the first 6 issues and I finally found myself really caught up in the story by the last two issues. The dialog breakdown is fairly typical Brubaker, after following Criminal religiously, its not hard to see his patterns. I do always wonder where the seam is on two writers working on the same book. What does Ed do, and what does Matt do?

The series, while being a decidedly current superhero comic is also chock full of chewy Marvel goodness. Do I really want a postmodern angsty Hydra? No, not really, although its good some comic relief. The Hydra I want is the evil criminal organization that sends 10 million green jumpsuited bad guys to kill my hero with a bunch of badass guns. I want a tough mofo Luke Cage to come in and kick some butt as well. I want a Marvel Comic that reads like a Marvel Comic. And here, without making Lost Girls or Persepolis or Maus or Love and Rockets or Criminal or Sandman, is a fun read. If you like kung fu with superheroes, evil organizations, extradimensional dragons and Chi that looks like a great special effect not from the ‘70’s that is.

To Arachnid or Not To Arachnid: Spidey in Spanish and Married

Spider-Man may not have had a lot of luck with the ladies, I doubt that you think that with this great collection of mexican Spider-man covers over at Brian's blog "Again With The Comics". Its damn funny to see the creative cutting and pasting that they did for those covers. Mostly, I think, Romita and Esposito with their slight Ditko hats on. Or is it Ross Andru? In any case, lots of great Gwen Stacy cheesecake. Honestly, while we were suffering through the amazing Spider Vehicle here in the states and the botched Clone Saga, we would have been far better off with a lot of long legged Gwen.

What I think that I love more than anything about this cover
is that Gwen's clothing looks like something designed by Kirby for the Fourth World Series, or the Contessa's outfit in Steranko's Nick Fury. She should be standing next Mr. Miracle and Barda.

I don't think that, in the 1970's, Spidey was in the position of actually being about right for the cultural zeitgeist. That and Conway's stories were slightly off the mark when it comes to really capturing who the character was/is. And really it points out Joe Q's problem: If the character is to stay popular, then they have to change to reflect the times. Batman is probably the best known example. The grim vigilante pulp-derived hero of the late '30's was so wrong for the uptight '50's that a major shift was needed. Kane and the editorial folks at DC proved very capable to molding the character. Spidey was very much a part of the 1960's with his loser on campus persona, but Conway was stuck in the unenviable position of not really being allowed to move the character forward, even as he was allowed to add to the Canon. I didn't enjoy the stories in Spider-Man's book as much as the ones in Marvel Team-Up sometimes, since they were so throwaway, you didn't have to have as much of the soap opera. That, that, that appeal to the kid in me.

I've stayed away on the subject but i may as well put something down on paper here. So my official position on One More Day is this: you want Spider-Man single, fine, but it could have been done in such a better way. And isn't this why you have the Ultimate Spider-Man anyway?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

In Review Of: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon and Gary Gianni

I found myself explaining to my 7 year old daughter, after watching Pirates of the Caribean again, that there was a time that movies like this, adventure movies with animated corpses, ghost ships and pirate curses, didn’t get Johnny Depp and GeoffreyRush, they got Harry Hamlin. We, lovers of comics be they high superhero adventure, or low brow funny animal, live in a time when our preferred mode of entertainment has become worldwide currency on the movie screen, in the book world, in DVDs and video games.

And now we have exhibit A, Gentlemen of the Road, that rare bird, a serialized pulp novel written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, illustrated in classic style by Gary Gianni. Jews With Swords is what Michael originally wanted to name the book, and he’s not far off, however offputting that would have been on the spine. The book is lean, sparse, so devoid of literary fat that it feels as if Chabon has been on the Pritkin Diet for the entire writing of it. The writing feels as if it has been edited to the level that not even a single extraneous word has made it onto the page. There are no florid descriptions of either character or place, just inventive and incisive writing that while circling its prey, whether person or thing, makes sharp, exacting cuts into the heart of the matter like a surgeon. It is not, however, lacking meat for all that. Our main characters, Amram and Zelikman, by the end of the book, are fully fleshed out, real people that overcome their pulp origins with aplomb.

And it is Robert E. Howard and the cast from the old Fiction mags that should be looking at Chabon as their illegitimate son, except that he’s not getting paid by the word, so when Filaq and Amram gather an army together to regain Filaq’s throne, we don’t need another 10,000 words of digression on the soldiers and what their names are and how they march. In true story compression style, our mind’s eye pans over the assembled hordes and returns quickly to the principles: we have a tale to tell, and we’re not getting sidetracked here.

The Jews with Swords comment comes from a final chapter in the book, post adventure, that is part apology, part mission statement, mostly manifesto by the writer himself, and I found it fascinating. While other writers might have taken Gentlemen of the Road as slumming, instead Chabon makes his point: I love this stuff and I love that I can write the sort of stories that I love to read. There are patently overt Jewish references, never oblique in the book, starting with the name of the character Hannukah, and continuing further into the political situation where the northern Jews of the country are spare the attacks from the north, yet the Muslims from the south are not. It is valid socio-political stage setting that Howard could never have engaged in, and yet takes nothing away from the story. Zelikman is the classic Woody Allen Jew (“Even the non-observent Jew knows exactly what it is that he doesn’t believe in.”) in places, and yet is so much more as a character that it takes much of the story for us to fully get him.

Despite my love of Cavilier and Clay, this book slipped entirely beneath my notice on its release, until it has given to me by my loving wife as a present. It has been a wonderful little read, an excellent addition to my bookshelf. Hail Zelikman and Amram.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

In Review Of: Local #8 by Woods and Kelly

Been catching up on some of the comics that slipped a little under the radar, and I'm working my way through the issues of Local that my LCS has on hand. I know that I'm only getting part of the picture, but that is also part of the fun here as well.

Digression here: does anyone remember coming into a series in progress, in my case the 1970's Avengers and Defenders, and hearing the characters talk about past adventures and finding my imagination racing as I would think about those stories, stories that i haven't read and, back then, would likely never read since the back issue market was decidedly underdeveloped for 7 year olds. Invariably, when I did read them, much later in some cases, some of them were not nearly as good as I had imagined, but some were better than I had thought as well.

Brian Wood has his stories to consider, and here, after last issues digression into her family, we catch up with Megan working as a waitress, but more importantly, working on her relationships with men. Whether getting banged in the backroom of the restaurant, or in a rich man's apartment, she's learning that sex isn't actually the goal here. Love is. Its not a novel story, nor is it a novel ending, which makes it all that much harder to make the damn story work.

Wood and Kelly make the thing work because they're so damn sincere about it, and pull no punches when it comes to showing us Megan's search for love, sex and/or an interesting mixture of the two. Is this not what our 20's end up being? Sometimes a scary mix of relationships that we want to remember and bad decisions that we are more than happy to forget. Megan epitomizes just about everything that I can remember and wish to forget.

From getting screwed on a futon surrounded by empty beer bottles to every roommate that she's run out on, Megan is a mess, but she's a realistic mess. And in the final panels of the issue she makes choices, choices that are less about right and wrong and more about who she is. And isn't that what its all about?

I'd be remiss not to mention how much I enjoy the economy of story that Woods is using to give us single issue stories. Read the whole series and we get to see the macro story arc, but far more important is getting a great 22 page story in a single issue. Very few people are doing that, and it bears mentioning and supporting the beauty sometimes of that single short story. Well done.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

In Review Of: Annihilation Book Three

This is, without a doubt, the best cosmic saga of its kind. Period. How to approach reviewing a book/series that covers so much ground? The Annihilation series takes the Marvel cosmic mythos and took it far further than any other series in comic book history. The changed more of the status quo, killed, updated and advanced more characters in these three volumes than I would have thought possible.

The overriding answer to the question: is it worth it? is yes, this is a true universe changing event, and considering all the different balls that they had up in the air: Galactus, the Nova Corps, Annihilus, Thanos, the Kyln, Moondragon, the Kree, the Skrulls, Phyla-Vell, Quasar, Drax the Destroyer and all the heralds of Galactus, they actually make everything work. And I really didn't think that was possible.

I went on for a while while reviewing the second collection of Annihilation about the shift in the Silver Surfer, and how this giant cosmic comic book story was working on both macro and micro character arcs. How else is it supposed to be? There are quiet moments here (Ronan the Accuser being so impressed with Nova that he extends the ultimate compliment: that if Richard Rider were Kree, that he would call him brother. And he doesn't even call him a "pink". I still doubt that he would have extended the same courtesy to Mar-Vell.) to balance out the large ones: Galactus being toppled by Aegis and Tenebrous, imprisoned to Annihilus, and his subsequent rage when he is freed.

Importantly, we find out here just why Thanos of Titan allies himself with Annihilus, and what he finally decides to do when it is time for him to act. As important as the Surfer returning to Galactus' service, is the culmination of Drax's vengence. Fulfilling Chronos' destiny for him, on the quest since 1972, Drax finally slays Thanos. It is a monumental moment in the Marvel Universe.

Thanos, as a villian, always was the most dangerous that Marvel had: as powerful, cunning and ruthless as Darksied, his were always the grander plans, whether with the Cosmic Cube, the Infinity Gauntlet, or disrupting the 5000 year rule of the Magus. Here, however, he is outfoxed, and when he finally decides to act we are thrown for a loop. Instead of ingaging Annihilus directly, he acts to free Galactus, and leaves himself vulnerable to the Destroyer. A battle between Annihilus and Thanos would have been, lets face, would be a fanboy's cosmic dream. But instead Drax achieves his vengence at the cost of almost losing us the war against the Annihilus. Thanos' weakness is during his moment of doing good, releasing Galactus to save our universe. It is a story moment worthy of the Greek Myths, worthy of Starlin himself.

As with any opera staged on such a big tableau, there are a ton of loose ends, and therein lie all the next stories, but we leave the book at the right moment: we know that Ronan has taken control of the Kree Empire, that Nova, for all his losses in the war, will stay out in space, sole possessor of the Xandarian Nova Force, we know which heralds of Galactus have lived, which have died, we know that Phyla-Vell has become the new possessor of the Quantum Bands and, thus, the new Quasar. We have seen the old universal order vastly changed.

And, best of all, there is no dreaded "reset" button, and so, we are satisfied. A mammoth story, well told, and with no cheats, no easy outs for any of our characters. And as I said in my review of the first book, I never understood the notion that "science fiction doesn't sell" in comics. This is exactly the sort of star-spanning saga that comics do amazingly well. Well done, well done. Considering all the ancient and incidental characters that they dug up just to prove that they'd done their homework (Paibok, the Space Parasite, the Space Knights, Blastaar, Talos the Untamed, Tana Nile) one wonders just who didn't make the cut during the brainstorming sessions: Jack of Hearts anyone? I mean, come on, Tana Nile? Wow.

This is, without a doubt, the best cosmic saga of its kind. Period.