Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

24 June 2012

Essential Defenders, v. 6

Collects: Defenders #107-25, Marvel Team-Up #119, and Avengers Annual #11 (1982-3)

Released: September 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 528 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785157540

What is this?: The Defenders spiral toward the non-team’s dissolution.

The culprits: Writers J.M. DeMatteis and artist Don Perlin

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Batman: The Court of Owls, a recent title that might be of interest to a general audience. Last week, it was Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories, which — since it reprints stories almost 30 years old — has a more limited appeal. This week I remain in the past, turning my back on relevance with Essential Defenders, v. 6, another set of early ‘80s stories from late in the title’s run.

Not that I think there’s anything wrong with looking at a random slice of issues from near the end of Defenders. Every title has troughs and crests in quality; Defenders certainly had high points well after issue #1 in ‘72. I liked parts of Essential Defenders, v. 5, even if the previous volume was a bit weak. There’s no reason why some of the greatest Defenders issues couldn’t have been released in the early ‘80s, between #107-25.

Essential Defenders, v. 6 coverBut are there great issues in there? No, not really. Could’ve been, though.

J.M. DeMatteis wrote all but one issue in this collection (Steven Grant wrote #119, a flashback issue that has all the hallmarks of an inventory story that had to be used before the title’s status quo changed). DeMatteis is best known — to me, at least — for writing psychological Spider-Man stories, like Kraven’s Last Hunt and The Child Within (Spectacular Spider-Man #178-84). Basically, if you wanted a story where a Spider-Man villain cries about a difficult / tragic childhood, DeMatteis was your man.

In v. 6 DeMatteis concentrates on the theme of identity, potentially an interesting idea on a non-team in which few members can define themselves in terms of the team. Valkyrie seems to die, but she returns in a new / old Asgardian body — her original, not the one she co-opted because of the Enchantress’s spell that brought her to Midgard in the first place. She looks the same — of course; it’s magic — but everyone talks about how different she seems emotionally. DeMatteis devotes a story to Devil Slayer’s issues — Devil Slayer, everyone’s favorite Marine / alcoholic / hitman / cultist / supernatural killer with a teleportation cloak. The story involves hallucinations and drinking and many, many manly tears. Hellcat goes on a journey to discover if she’s really the daughter of the devil; Nighthawk deals with mind control and implanted memories; Hellstrom finds a double has taken the life he abandoned at District University in Washington.

Some of these are interesting in concept, such as Valkyrie’s transformation or the glimpse of the supporting cast Hellstrom abandoned in Son of Satan (reprinted in Essential Marvel Horror, v. 1). But few are interesting in execution, with the low point being in #116, in which new character Overmind seems to be trying to make the lonely Dr. Strange more miserable by showing him couples in love (or struggling with love).

OvermindThe Overmind is symptomatic of the book’s biggest problem. It isn’t that the telepathic lug is little more than a vivid visual and a power set; many characters start that way and still go on to long lives. But he’s a big part of the book straying from its roots. The Defenders are a non-team, which causes a fluid membership. Characters come and go, yes, but most of the solid core remains: Dr. Strange, Hulk, Hellcat, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie. DeMatteis forcefully pushes most of those characters aside by the end of v. 6, but you can see them slowly being edged out before that. Beast, former X-Man and Avenger, is the instigator, pushing for more conformity and becoming “leader” of the team by #125. He makes the defenders into the de facto first X-Men spinoff by adding Angel and Iceman to the roster. By the end, only Beast and Gargoyle remain from #107; Valkyrie is with the team as well, but as mentioned above, it’s ostensibly a different Valkyrie.

To effect this changeover, DeMatteis wastes considerable pages over the final four issues on a vague prophecy that shuffles the Big 4 Defenders (Strange, Hulk, Namor, and Silver Surfer) off stage. To do this, he gives resolution to previous writer Steve Gerber‘s “Elf with a Gun” story. There was never any sense behind the “subplot” — Gerber wrote one-page vignettes of an Elf shooting people, apparently without any purpose behind it — but DeMatteis retroactively gives those bits of silliness meaning. It does not improve the previous installments, and tying the Elf to an attempt to write out long-term Defenders does no favors to DeMatteis’s story either.

Robbing that story of its whimsy is somewhat fitting for this volume; most of the strange, silly fun of the Defenders is missing inv. 6, replaced by DeMatteis’s heavy introspection. I don’t know whether the new direction DeMatteis wrenched the book toward was his or editorial’s, but it ill suits the book. It’s all a bit too obvious, too heavy handed for a freewheeling, fluid book like the Defenders.

Looking of the review so far, it sounds like this book is a completely failure, or nearly so. But there are some enjoyable moments. As I mentioned, Hellstrom finding someone has picked up his discarded life at District University is a neat idea and symbolically suggests the nature of a shared universe. Grant’s fill-in reminds readers of vintage Defenders — it’s set between #68 and 69, actually — and even if it is a bit tried and true, it does have Sal Buscema pencils, so I can forgive the story for not being the most innovative. DeMatteis obviously enjoys writing the Beast, and even if this isn’t my favorite interpretation of the character, he is still frequently amusing. The funniest issue is #115, in which Beast, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, and Namor are thrown into a faux-Seuss dimension; I wish Namor could have vented his frustration on the overly sweet homages, but sadly, it was a Code-approved comic.

Still, that’s not enough to let me recommend v. 6 — nowhere close, really. If you really like Beast or think previous volumes of the Essential Defenders were a touch too silly or weird, then this might be for you. Otherwise …

Or maybe if you’re a Don Perlin fan — I haven’t met any of those, but I think they’re probably out there. Perlin, who drew most of the issues in v. 6, is … fine: competent, dependable, not prone to drown in any stylistic excuses. His name probably sold few books in his time, but he was a Marvel mainstay for a reason, and you can see that reason throughout v. 6.

Given that #125 ifs the first issue of the New Defenders, you might think this (or the next volume) is a good jumping on point. Not so fast, Alphonse; you have to look at what you leap into. The New Defenders are not that fondly remembered — a 27-issue run that ended when Iceman, Beast, and Angel were needed for the launch of X-Factor, and the rest of the team was unceremoniously jettisoned into the Great Beyond. You could jump on there. Would you want to? And if you wanted to, why not do it in color with the New Defenders trade paperback, which reprints #122-31? Even I, completist that I am, have decided to end my Defenders collection with this volume. I don’t think it’s much of a decision, though, as there is little chance the New Defenders will get an Essential of its own.

Essential Defenders, v. 6, has little to recommend it beyond its value to completists. Pass on it unless you’re really into the non-team.

Rating: Defenders symbol Half Defenders symbol (1.5 of 5)

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15 June 2012

Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #160-7, Conan the Barbarian Annual #7 (1982, 1984-5)

Released: August 2011 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781595827043

What is this?: More Conan, although this time he starts adventuring with an old comrade long thought dead.

The culprits: Writers Michael Fleisher, Roy Thomas, and Larry Yakata and artists John Buscema

Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories coverI’m heading out on vacation, so I’m a little short on time this week. That’s fortunate, because there’s no reason to give a full-length review of Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories; most of what I said about v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories, holds true again. That being said:

John Buscema is still awesome, even if he still dresses Conan in a blue sleeveless T-shirt and a fur bikini.

— Giving Conan a sidekick — or partner — is a great idea by writer Michael Fleisher. Fafnir, left for dead in Conan the Barbarian #20, reappears in #161 without his left arm. His impetuousness frequently gives the stories an impetus they wouldn’t otherwise have, and he has a character arc — an obvious one, but at least it’s an arc, and it helps get rid of the aimless feeling Conan has had for quite a while.

— A character named “Gurneg” appears in three issues: Conan #160, 161, and 163. It’s a different character each time, and Gurneg always dies. What does Fleisher have against Gurneg? And why, after killing him three times, does he stop killing him?

— A fill-in issue (#164) is dropped into the middle of the Fafnir arc without explanation, which goes about as well as would be expected. Larry Yakata writes a surprisingly hard-hearted, battle-weary Conan that is more in line with creator Robert E. Howard’s barbarian than Marvel writer Roy Thomas’s Code-approved interpretation. Yakata’s Conan is just as stupid as Thomas’s, though.

Conan the Barbarian #164 cover— The most interesting part of the fill-in issue is trying to figure out the engineering of the woman on the cover’s top. It’s an exotic design I’ve never seen in the real world, and I’m at a loss for how it could work. At first, I was confused about where the two straps on each side went after crossing her bottom, but I see one strap on each side goes down a leg and presumably is tied around her foot or calf. But then I realized there should be something pulling her top up — looping behind her neck, perhaps? — but there’s no evidence of that. How does it work?

— Ending the book on a cliffhanger — two, actually — is an intriguing idea. It gives readers a reason to return for The Chronicles of Conan, v. 22: Reavers in the Borderland and Other Stories, and it helps distinguish v. 21 from all the other Chronicles of Conan volumes. I think I will know what will happen between Conan, Fafnir, and Noirelle in Conan #168, but I’m not sure.

— Well, I think there are two cliffhangers; Conan the Barbarian Annual #7 ends abruptly, without resolving the plot. There’s no indication of where Thomas’s adaption of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s novel Conan of the Isles will be continued. Based on Annual #7, the story probably shouldn’t be continued; the story has 33 pages, but it has only one moment of excitement and is notable only for Buscema’s best artwork in the book.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (2.5 of 5)

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08 June 2012

Batman, v. 1: The Court of Owls

Collects: Batman #1-7 (2011-2)

Released: May 2012 (DC)

Format: 176 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401235413

What is this?: Batman discovers and battles a secret cabal that has been ruling Gotham for centuries.

The culprits: Writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo

I’ve mostly stayed away from DC’s New 52 because reboots have nothing to offer me without revamping the underlying concepts into something different as well. Oh, I dabbled in the lineup’s new racial and genre diversity — Blue Beetle, Mr. Terrific, All-Star Western, Demon Knights — but mostly the idea of erasing all the old stories for a clean slate bores me. You want a clean slate? Come up with a new idea. Build it from the ground up.

That being said, there are some ways in which a clean slate is better. When I read the pre-reboot Batman: The Black Mirror, I spent an inordinate amount of time deciding whether James Gordon Jr. was a pre-existing character. If the commissioner of Gotham City Police Department had a psychopath for a son, that should be a big deal, one that should be frequently referenced, and it wasn’t. (Answer: Jimmy Junior existed, but not as an adult, and definitely not as a psychopath.) But with the mysterious Court of Owls in the New 52’s Batman, v. 1: The Court of Owls, I don’t have to worry about whether inserting a large-scale, Illuminati-like organization that has been controlling Gotham City for hundreds of years into the story makes any sense. I already know there’s nothing to contradict it in the New 52 continuity.

Batman, v. 1: The Court of Owls coverWriter Scott Snyder spends a great deal of time building the mythology of the Court into the fabric of his new Gotham. It’s the kind of thing that can be done effectively only with a new continuity; dropping yet another secret, powerful organization into the background of the Marvel Universe has been producing yawns since Stan Lee was still a writer, not an actor. And without some knowledge of the universe, the revelation of secrets and hidden powers can fall a little flat. So if you’re going to tell a story like this, the launch of the New 52 was the time to tell it.

Snyder is pitting legends against each other in Court. On one hand, you have Batman, who effectively rules Gotham’s night at the beginning of the story, with his enemies all in Arkham. Bruce Wayne is about to revitalize and rebuild Gotham. He’s pushing the envelope with his electronic toys, which lets him get even farther ahead of crime. He’s secure in who he is both as a leading citizen of Gotham and as a crimefighter. But he’s not exactly a secret or reclusive in either role, although there are allusions to Batman being regarded as a myth in the past. On the other side, Snyder presents the Court of Owls: reclusive, secret, hijacking Bruce’s great great grandfather’s building projects and making over Gotham for their own purposes. All the public knows about the Court is an old nursery rhyme (that doesn’t quite scan). They’re an urban legend, a nice inversion of the Batman legend.

That said, it’s unknown why the Court makes its move at the beginning of Court of Owls; this is a problem with making the Court of Owls the first storyline in Batman’s New 52 run. There’s no buildup or suspense; it has all the emotional setup of a fighting video game: Batman vs. Court of Owls — fight! Is it Bruce Wayne’s revitalization project that causes the Court to send their killer, the Talon, after Bruce? Or is it Batman’s success? Or both? The Court seems to have worked out who Batman and his associates really are, but it’s not spelled out. Snyder also tries to tie the Court into Nightwing’s backstory, which has the emotional impact of a feather duster over the head. Even Nightwing himself points out that he just doesn’t care about how the Court might have intersected his or his family’s long-ago, nebulous past. It doesn’t affect his present or future. If Dick doesn’t care, I don’t either, which makes this detail more annoying than intriguing (especially given how often this sort of thing is done in comics).

I do appreciate Snyder using Nightwing as someone who can talk to Batman, even if Batman doesn’t want to talk. Writers have that option with Alfred as well, but Alfred relates to Bruce, rather than Batman, and often as a father figure; Nightwing can relate to Bruce as a human being or Batman as a fellow crimefighter. I’m not sure what Snyder is saying by having Nightwing being on the correct side whenever the two argue — whether Batman is short sighted or a very flawed detective — or by having Batman backhand Nightwing during an argument (is he being a poor father? Are we supposed to see him as hopelessly violent? Or are we supposed to see Batman pushed to a breaking point?). It’s an unexpected, troubling dynamic between the men, and while some flaws might be good to humanize Batman, striking Nightwing goes a little far.

Snyder introduces a couple of new characters in Court. One is mayoral candidate Lincoln March, who is obviously supposed to be a mirror of Bruce Wayne; the two even look almost identical, although surprisingly March is taller. Like Bruce, March was orphaned at a young age and even has a memory of his mother’s jewelry at the site of her death. Unlike Bruce, though, March is self made. It’s easy to foresee a Two-Face or Black Mask turn for him, or maybe he’s in with the Court. I have no idea what to make of Harper, a bepierced character who aids Batman at a critical moment for a couple of pages. She has wiring and perhaps welding equipment in the back of her Tardis van, and she and Batman know each other. Other than that, she’s not mentioned, and I have no idea what her significance is.

Artist Greg Capullo does an excellent job designing the Court of Owls and its Talons. The Court’s featureless oval masks have just enough detail to suggest “owl” without sacrificing the creepy blankness. The Talons have an overwhelming similarity in color and shape to Batman’s costume, sans cape; they are instantly recognizeable, though, no matter how much they look like an Elsewords (or Earth-3) Batman. I also enjoyed the sequence in issue #5 that follows a disoriented Batman through the Court’s labyrinth; the layout switches to sideways before turning upside-down as things get worse and more confusing for Batman. On the other hand, I’m not sure of Capullo’s sense of scale; judging from the art, March must be twice as tall as Damian Wayne (possible, but barely) and 1.5 times as tall as Time Drake (implausible). And March looks too much like Bruce, no matter how similar they are supposed to be. That aside, I like Capullo’s work — simple without skimping on details and remaining expressive.

Still, I don’t know that I’m much interested in how the story plays out. Visuals aside, the Court of Owls doesn’t have the heft to interest me, and the Talon has — intentionally — little personality. I appreciate Snyder’s ambition in trying to build an organization that can rival the Bat Family. But one Talon — or even a flock of Talons — and their anonymous overlords don’t have that impact.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (2.5 of 5)

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01 June 2012

Essential Marvel Two-in-One, v. 4

Collects: Marvel Two-in-One # 78-98 and 100 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #6-7 (1981-3)

Released: January 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 608 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785162841

What is this?: The final collection of Marvel Two-in-One, where Ben Grimm does his Thing thing: moping, clobberin’, being a softie.

The culprits: Writers Tom DeFalco, David Kraft, and others and artists Ron Wilson and Alan Kupperberg

Books like Essential Marvel Two-in-One, v. 4, are essentially review proof. If you’ve read the first three volumes of this series collecting the Thing’s team-up book, you’re probably going to read v. 4. If you haven’t read the first three, there’s little reason to start with v. 4, which completes the Marvel Two-in-One run. You could start here, though; Marvel Two-in-One was not known for its heavy reliance on continuity.

So instead of a review, I was going to write a short note on every issue in this book. I actually did it, too. And you know what? That was boring. So very, very boring. It’s not because v. 4 is boring … well, that’s not true. It is sometimes. But it isn’t always. And it isn’t bad. But it’s always overshadowed by its contemporaries. It’s aimless, as team-up titles tend to be — it’s hard to maintain a storyline when a new co-star has to be introduced every issue. I think the book’s real difficulty, though, is that it tries to follow in the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby Fantastic Four mold without having the inventiveness of either creator.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One, v. 4 coverThis isn’t to denigrate Tom DeFalco, who wrote fifteen of the 24 issues, or Ron Wilson, who drew twenty issues. You can occasionally see Kirby’s influence on Wilson bleed through the page, something that’s more obvious in black and white than in the colored art. DeFalco has always been a throwback, but writing a 1981 story in which MODOK and AIM create “Virus X” underscores how far he’s always been from the bleeding edge of comics.

Unfortunately, neither the DeFalco / Wilson team nor the fill-in creators can come up with any concepts that are even a pale shadow of the Lee / Kirby. Despite appearances by MODOK, Ultron, and the Red Skull, Ben is forced to beat up on a succession of sadsacks and never-weres. Shanga the Star-Dancer (a modern dancer with the power cosmic), Gamal Hassan / Nephrus (an Egyptologist who wants to become a god), yet another sub-atomic world … I enjoyed the re-use of the obscure Xemnu the Titan in #78, and the Word (a villain who can make anyone believe what he says, even if he tells the paralyzed to walk) is an amusing villain from #89 by writer David Anthony Kraft and artist Alan Edward Kupperberg. But when the title page of Marvel Two-in-One Annual #6 proudly announces Wilson created American Eagle, an Native American stereotype — er, hero — it says something, and it isn’t “The House of Ideas is alive and well.”

That’s not to say there aren’t some excellent comics in here. Annual #7, which features the Elder of the Universe Champion challenging the Marvel Universe’s heavyweights in boxing matches, is very good. (It’s even better when you read Champion's dialogue in Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s voice; Savage voiced “Rasslor” in a loose-but-awesome adaptation of this story featured in a “Dial M for Monkey” segment on Dexter’s Laboratory.) The other two are linked issues with the Sandman; in #86, he and the Thing share a beer, and the Thing decides to give him a chance to get his life straight. In #96, with the Thing incapacitated after the beating Champion gave him, Sandman becomes the villain the Mad Thinker prophecies will break the cordon of heroes protecting the Thing — and instead of killing the hero, Sandman brings him beer and cigars.

Despite these standouts, the Marvel Two-in-One concept was beginning to show signs of running out of steam. After #100, it was relaunched as The Thing, a straight Thing solo title, which was for the best; in the last ten issues, there are two stories with Ben fighting in Egypt (#91 and #95), neither of which has anything to do with the other. Two video game stories understandably pop up in a similarly short time frame (#94 and #98), and Ben should know better than to appear in TV or movies when he gets suckered into two TV related traps (#78 and #97) in this issue — and that’s without remembering that Namor suckered the Fantastic Four with a death trap movie deal in Fantastic Four #9. Even #96 is an homage to Fantastic Four Annual #3, when heroes tried to prevent villains from ruining Reed and Sue’s wedding. The book ends with a dystopic sequel to Marvel Two-in-One #50 … so yeah, it was time to wrap up the series.

(Oh, if you’re wondering, the silhouette on the cover — which is the cover from #91 — is the Sphinx, a Nova / Fantastic Four / New Warriors villain. It isn’t Batman, no matter how much we might want it to be.)

So: if you’re going to read this anyway, there are worthwhile stories in here. If you aren’t planning on reading it, well, good on you — there’s nothing here to make you change your mind … unless Ben Grimm waltzing through a Renaissance Fair excites you.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (2 of 5)

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