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

25 January 2013

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis

Collects: Sensational Spider-Man #25-6, Amazing Spider-Man #432-3, Peter Parker: Spider-Man #88-9, and Spectacular Spider-Man #254-5 (1998)

Released: May 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 200 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785159704

What is this?: Spider-Man assumes four new identities as he tries to avoid arrest and a bounty on his head.

The culprits: Writers Todd DeZago, Howard Mackie, Tom DeFalco, and J.M. DeMatteis and artists Luke Ross, Todd Wieringo, John Romita Jr., and Joe Bennett

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis is Marvel’s follow up to Spider-Hunt — and by “follow up to,” I mean “Part 2 of,” as Identity Crisis is a continuation of the previous storyline, with an added gimmick.

As Identity Crisis begins, Spider-Man still has a $5 million bounty on his head and is still wanted for murder. To avoid arrest, he takes on four new identities: Hornet (in Sensational Spider-Man), Ricochet (in Amazing Spider-Man), Dusk (in Peter Parker: Spider-Man), and Prodigy (in Spectacular Spider-Man). To aid in the deception, Peter tries to put on different personalities for each costume, with mixed results. Prodigy and Hornet are straitlaced heroes, although Hornet is more inexperienced (and Peter’s slips quickly revealed Hornet is Spider-Man). Ricochet is the closest to the Spider-Man persona, quipping and jumping around like a 5-year-old who has mainlined Pixie Stix, but he is willing to work with criminals. Dusk, a man of mystery, is even shadier, openly consorting with the Trapster.

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis coverThe multiple-identity idea has merit. I’ve always thought Peter should have a road uniform, an identity he dons outside New York to keep people from linking his travel patterns with Spider-Man’s.68 But no matter how good the idea is, two issues per identity and two months overall isn’t enough to explore Peter’s “identity crisis,” and it was never going to last more than the two months. God forbid Peter use the Dusk or Ricochet identities to infiltrate the criminal underworld or Marvel devote one of the Spider titles to Peter donning different identities.69 In any event, Peter blows the Hornet identity and compromises the rest, and in less than a year, the costumes and identities went to new characters who starred in the short-lived Slingers.

Marvel’s inability to capitalize on the gimmick is frustrating — and no matter what writer Todd DeZago says in the included promotional material, Identity Crisis is a gimmick, as Peter never seriously considers exploring the other identities. The bounty / murder investigation plot is largely ignored, and Identity Crisis feels like two months of waiting for everything to wrap up. Spider-Man should use his new identities to avoid bounty hunters and clear his name, but mainly he uses them to tweak Osborn and go about his regular business. As Hornet, he fights the Looter and the Vulture. Ricochet goes after the Black Tarantula’s goons, Bloodscream and Roughhouse. Prodigy rescues a foreign diplomat’s daughter from Jack o’ Lantern and Conundrum, an illusionist. Only as Dusk does Peter do anything related to his current problems: protecting the life of the Trapster, the man who framed him, and trying to tape record a confession. That doesn’t work, but off panel, he convinces Trapster to admit in public what he’s done and clear Spider-Man. Ta-da! That’s heroism!

I don’t really blame the writers — DeZago in Sensational, Tom DeFalco in Amazing, Howard Mackie in Peter Parker, and J.M.DeMatteis in Spectacular — for this lack of narrative drive. Editor Ralph Macchio has to take a good deal of the blame; the books would have improved with a firmer editorial hand or steadier eye. In a minor and yet annoyingly distracting mistake, Mackie and artist John Romita Jr. show Peter accidentally donning pieces of all his different costumes in Peter Parker #91; in Amazing #435, DeFalco and Joe Bennett use essentially the same unfunny gag, mixing and matching the Spider-Man costume with his Ricochet costume. More seriously, Macchio allows each writer to advance subplots, which range from the Scriers, Alison Mongrain, and Kaine’s Grecian holiday in Amazing to Aunt Anna’s secret origins in Spectacular. The former is important to the “Gathering of Five / Final Chapter” storylines that relaunched the Spider-titles six months later, but it made the rest of the subplots irrelevant. Letting subplots continue during an event was a step forward for Marvel, which tried to minimize or excise them from the big X-crossovers of the early ‘90s.

The relaunch was a bit of a relief, though, as it made this book’s difficult continuity irrelevant. Identity Crisis reprints the issues in order of publication, but the story doesn’t make sense in that order — Spectacular #254, for instance, leads directly into #255, but it’s near impossible to order the other issues around them. The editors weren’t considering reprints at the time, but it must have been aggravating to read in 1998.

Macchio also could have mandated a consistent portrayal of Peter’s wife, Mary Jane. Identity Crisis falls between the Clone Saga, the first real salvo in the war vs. Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage, and The Next Chapter, the first time the marriage was done away with, so it’s interesting to see how Mary Jane is characterized. The portrayal varies; Mary Jane ranges from a co-conspirator in the costumed chicanery to a borderline shrew. It’s no surprise the former is more appealing. She designs the costumes (except for the Dusk outfit) and endorses the four-identity plot, but she also complains about the idea and nags her husband about his feelings of responsibility. DeZago plays her as supporting but worried when appropriate; DeFalco’s Mary Jane turns from enthusiastic to nagging on a dime; Mackie goes for nagging first, then to support; DeMatteis’s MJ is a callback to previous times, slightly resenting Peter’s duty but loving him anyway. Part of the various characterizations are because of different contexts, but DeFalco and Mackie seem convinced Mary Jane is a stumbling block for Peter to overcome. (Given what Mackie does to Mary Jane in The Next Chapter, that’s not surprising.)

A Spider-Man crossover in the ‘90s means at least four artists. Mike Wieringo’s work on Sensational is extremely pretty and expressive, easily the best in the collection. Romita’s work on Peter Parker is weak, even by my low expectations for his ‘90s work; for instance, if Norman Osborn didn’t have cornrows, he would be identical to Trapster, according to Romita. Spectacular’s Luke Ross does some nice design work with Conundrum, but he has trouble with subtle expressions (especially during Peter and Anna's talk in #257). Amazing’s Bennett turns in fine work, especially in the Buscema-ish touches on Roughhouse.

The book does have a couple of bewildering visual touches, though. Again, I think Macchio needed to step in and ask a few questions. Delilah, the Rose’s henchwoman, occasionally has a more ornate, larger font within her word balloons, and the font varies in both size and color. The dialogue stands out, but not in a good way; I have no idea what Amazing letterers Kiff Scholl and Richard Starkings are trying to communicate with the font. (Bold text or slightly larger text means a louder volume or emphasis, but this goes well beyond that.) The same goes for the Conundrum’s puzzle-shaped speech boxes in Spectacular; they are visually interesting, but what are Scholl and Starkings saying? I don’t need to be told they’re Conundrum’s dialogue, and I have no idea what a puzzle piece sounds like. The colorist on Amazing, Bob Sharen, makes an odd but Comics-Code inspired choice when the villain Bloodscream makes Delilah “bleed … through her skin!” From the colors, I’d say she bleeds milk from her eyes and A-1 Sauce from her nose.

I’m glad I read Identity Crisis. It completed Spider-Hunt, and it bridged part of a gap in Spider history I wasn’t familiar with. However, it was a stunt, and the actual story is fluff, with no long-lasting consequences or outstanding moments of characterization. Unless you’re a big Spider-fan, you should read the summaries on Yes, DeFalco sets up plots that lead to the relaunch, but these are plots involve the Scriers and Alison Mongrain, which are better summarized than endured.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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18 January 2013

Chronicles of Conan, v. 22: Reavers in the Borderland and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian Annual #8-9 and Conan the Barbarian #168-73 (1983-4, 1985)

Released: June 2012 (Dark Horse)

Format: 224 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781595828125

What is this?: Conan joylessly wenches and kills his way through more of the Hyborian Age.

The culprits: Writers Michael Fleisher and Jim Owsley and artists John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Val Mayerik

Writer Michael Fleisher’s work in Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories left me optimistic the quality of the Chronicles of Conan would improve from its consistently forgettable levels. And then The Chronicles of Conan, v. 22: Reavers in the Borderland and Other Stories jammed a broadsword through that optimism.

I wasn’t expecting a return to Roy Thomas levels of quality but something memorable about the stories in Reavers in the Borderland — about any story in Reavers, actually. Introducing Fafnir, a sidekick / partner for the title barbarian, distinguished Blood of the Titan from other books in the series. The rivalry and friendship of the two added a new dimension to Conan’s character, and for once, there was a character in Conan (other than Conan) I gave a damn about.

 cover But Fafnir is dropped from the stories in Reavers, and the series returns to random hack-and-slash action, full of gaudily colored thugs, wizards, and bravos trying to cut Conan down. Fleisher, who wrapped up his two-year run with #171, writes largely forgettable pieces, studded with violence and lady flesh. Fleisher’s stories show little wit and feature no memorable characters. The images parade in front of the eyes and then vanish, leaving as much of an impression upon Conan as they do the reader — that is, none.

In Reavers, Conan saves an old ally from a carnival (?!) sideshow. Conan protects a wench from some of his old enemies, only to find she is more than she seems. A wizard needs help with a demon and a cursed sword; that takes two issues to resolve. Conan appears to die; the reader yawns, not particularly caring how he survives. (Poison coma, if you’re interested. You shouldn’t be, though.)

I almost called Fleisher’s stories continuity-free, but that’s not true; he reuses characters from his run in two of his stories. In #168, Conan chances across Alhambra, the winged woman from #153-4 (The Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories), and saves her from the sideshow and her old enemies, the Batmen of Ur-Xanarrh. (He almost burns her and everyone in the carnival to death first, though.) In #171, he fails to protect a girl from the Brotherhood of the Falcon, which he fought in #162 (Blood of the Titan). But Alhambra is just a pretty face (and pair of wings) who doesn’t stick around, and despite “killing” Conan, the Brotherhood of the Falcon is just another group of faceless goons, with little to distinguish them from a random wizard’s henchmen or a corrupt duke’s soldiers. Fafnir, the saving grace of the last volume, does come back briefly in #170, although it’s only to say goodbye.

What Conan needs is a supporting cast, people who stay with him. They don’t have to stay forever; three or four issues would be fine. But Conan needs a contrast in the story, someone to express himself to (even if it’s by not saying anything), or else the book becomes the story of a guy with a sword killing random stuff, with as much character as a video game avatar. Not becomes, I guess — became, and that happened a long time ago.

Jim Owsley (known today as Christopher Priest) starts with #172, and things change for the better. The remaining two stories are to parts of a larger storyline set in the Pictish wilderness. Conan gains a sidekick, a pretty girl — giving artist John Buscema just what he needs: even more opportunities to draw pretty girls — and still has a hapless victim to protect. Owsley writes a more brutish Conan than Fleisher, who has Conan give his horse to a woman who just tried to steal his sword. Owsley’s Conan is plainspeaking and rude, saying hurtful things to people who might not deserve it. It’s a refreshing change; Conan should have some teeth. Issues #182-3 augur well for the future, and many people really like Owsley’s work on Conan.

But I’ve been burned before. The potentially explosive cliffhangers in Blood resolve as damp squibs in Reavers. I thought I had a handle on how the story in #167 would be resolved. I was wrong; I didn’t expect Fleisher to make the bold choice of ignoring the dangling plot altogether. The cliffhanger in Annual #7 seems similarly forgotten, although it was resolved eventually. Not in Conan the Barbarian or a Conan Annual or even Savage Sword of Conan, but in the Conan of the Isles graphic novel, which came out six years after Annual #7. I’m not going to change my rating of Blood, but the lack of payoff in Reavers does devalue the story in Blood.

There are many roles I rarely discuss in my reviews: colorists, editors, letterers … Reavers made me consider the reprint editor, which in this case is Chris Warner. Unfortunately, my attention is not to his benefit. Warner leads off the book with two Conan the Barbarian Annuals (#8 and 9). They were published before the Conan the Barbarian issues in this collection, but since I was looking forward to the continuation of Fafnir’s story, the beginning of this book seemed a poor place to put the annuals. (The wait also made the weak payoff even more disappointing.) Between Fleisher’s and Owsley’s runs would have been a better place, and it’s not like anyone was paying attention to Conan’s chronology at this point.

As for art: Buscema’s in fine form. His work looks better with inks from Bob Camp (#169-70, 172-3) than from Armando Gil (#171) or Buscema himself (#168), though. The final two issues are especially superb and sharp, even if I wish Bucema would get rid of Conan’s blue-sleeveless-tee-and-fur-underwear combo. Ernie Chan draws an action-packed Annual #9, although he can’t quite measure up to Buscema. Val Mayerik supplies the art for Annual #8, and I was too distracted by his tentative inking to say anything about his pencils. (This book is a warning against self-inking, really.)

Maybe my optimism isn’t dead; maybe it will survive the bloody attack that is Reavers in the Borderland. But even if it can survive this crummy book, you should skip Reavers. Reavers has little to recommend it, other than Buscema’s art, and Buscema’s work is in so many better Chronicles. Oh, there might be something to the Owsley run, and if there is, it’s going to annoying to miss the first two issues. Still: do not be tempted to buy this waste of time. It’s not worth it.

Rating: Half Conan symbol (0.5 of 5)

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11 January 2013

Birds of Prey, v. 8: Club Kids

Collects: Birds of Prey #109-12, 118 (2007-8)

Released: January 2009 (DC)

Format: 128 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401221751

What is this?: The Birds of Prey adapt to a new writer and developments in the DC universe.

The culprits: Writer Tony Bedard and artists Nicola Scott, Jason Orfalas, and David Cole

I had avoided Birds of Prey, v. 8: Club Kids for quite a while, afraid new writer Tony Bedard would turn the title and its characters into a flavorless waste of time. Happily, I found that was not the case.

Club Kids has little overall plot, as Bedard eschews an overarching story for the beginning of his run. Instead, he favors character pieces that deal with developments outside the title. Bedard deals with Black Canary choosing to marry Green Arrow and an assassin attacking the New Gods in #109 and #112. He also uses past continuity to his advantage in two other stories: the aftermath of Oracle destroying her clocktower base in 2004-5’s War Games crossover facilitates a face-to-face confrontation between Calculator and Oracle in #111, and Misfit’s origins are looked at in #118.

Birds of Prey: Club Kids coverNone of these stories are award winners. On the other hand, most of them are solid comics in the old-school mold. Huntress foils mad bombers, who turn out to be less “mad” and more naïve. Black Alice and Misfit are put into a superhero gladiatorial ring, a plot straight out of New Mutants. Lady Blackhawk honors a fallen comrade. Oracle and Calculator scrap over data. Simple stories, and all the characters are true to the personalities previous writer Gail Simone gave them. I would not say Bedard is as good with the characters as Simone was — although they easily coexist with Simone’s conceptions, they lack a certain je ne sais quoi. But Simone had several years to mold the characters; Club Kids contains Bedard’s first five issues on the title.

However, letting other titles dictate stories occasionally robs Birds of Prey‘s stories of their impact. All of #109 is dedicated to either reacting to a development outside the title or adding heat to a subplot running through the DCU. Although Oracle arguing with Black Canary over her boyfriend’s fidelity issues is long overdue, the discussion was engendered by Green Arrow’s marriage proposal in another title (Green Arrow). Developing another title’s dangling plots does no favors to Birds of Prey‘s narrative flow, especially since Black Canary wasn’t a character at this point — she left the title in #100. The issue still might have worked, however, if the assassination of the New Gods story hadn’t been shoehorned into the same issue. Bedard tries to give Knockout a fitting last moment, but her part of the story feels rushed. And the death Lady Blackhawk memorializes in #112, that of a prominent supporting character, seemingly comes from nowhere (the Death of the New Gods miniseries); #112 starts with a half page of her memorial service before getting on with the action. Brevity is laudable, but it feels as if the dead character is being cheated of the respect she is due.

(Although not as cheated as Manhunter is; I know she barely appears in Club Kids, but her head shot in the intro / recap section of the book is actually a picture of Scandal Savage, a villain, from #109.)

Why couldn’t Simone have worked with artists like Bedard gets? Nicola Scott draws #109, 110, and 118 and does an excellent job — action-packed, expressive, exceedingly pretty, with a tight line I admire. She even puts Huntress in a more modest costume than the Jim Lee monstrosity (thank God), although Big Barda’s red bikini costume is awful. (I don’t think Scott designed it, but it’s still awful.) Jason Orfalas does a good job on the quieter #111, and David Cole‘s slightly cartoony, looser style is perfect for the free-spirited Lady Blackhawk’s story.

Club Kids is the perfect book for a title that is coming off a big storyline and a change of writers; Bedard uses the characters respectfully, putting them in appropriate situations, and reacts to what DC editorial sends him. But that’s Club Kids’s shortcoming, as well: it’s reactive, and Birds of Prey loses all its momentum from Simone’s run without establishing any clear new direction. Over the long run, that’s death for a title, but for one collection, it can be enjoyable — and in this case, it is.

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo DC logo (4 of 5)

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04 January 2013


Collects: Daytripper #1-10 (2010)

Released: February 2011 (DC / Vertigo)

Format: 256 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN:

What is this?: A Brazilian man faces the pivotal days of his life — and dies every time.

The culprits: Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

I do not often read comics like Daytripper — that is, comics that aren’t superhero-based or heavily based on some sci-fi / fantasy concept. If I were a more reflective man, Daytripper’s status as the best trade paperback I read in 2012 might cause me to re-examine my reading choices. (It won’t, though.)

Still, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Vertigo book is the most engrossing comic I’ve read in years. Daytripper chronicles the life of obituary writer Brás de Olivias Dominguez as he struggles to become a novelist, like his famous father. Moon and Bá show one important event in Brás’s life per issue; at the end of each, Brás dies.

Daytripper coverAnd in the next issue, it’s another day, either in Brás’s future or past, and he lives again.

Each death gives Bá and Moon a chance to show how Brás’s life would have been perceived had he died at that moment, through the medium of an obituary. Success, failure, artist, pretender — all those labels depend on flukes, accidents of time and place. Each story examines life and death with charming narration of surprising depth, and Brás’s deaths are never mined for cheap pathos or laughs. Despite the constant presence of death and the evaluation of a life, Daytripper isn’t depressing; in the end, the book is uplifting, hopeful.

Part of the reason Daytripper isn’t just a maundering journey through one man’s frequently interrupted life is the ending, a surprisingly sweet one. But a larger part of the reason is that Brás is always moving forward. Each issue features a pivotal moment for Brás, and when he hits that pivot, he’s always moving, never frozen by fear or lack of desire. Brás is easy to like because of his hope and desires; he may not be an unstoppable force or mighty hero, but he’s not a modern protagonists filled with angst and ambivalence, like one of novelist Charles Yu’s characters.

I don’t know who did the art; the book gives no specific credits to either Moon or Bá. Whoever held the pencils and pens, the art is wonderful — evocative, as capable of telling the story as the words (sometimes, more so). The characters’ expressions are detailed and subtle. The style is representative without being slavishly literal. The color palette is well chosen for each issue. Although I don’t necessarily want to read more comics in this literary vein, I need to seek out more of this art … although even this art won’t aid stories it isn’t suited for or I don’t care for (such as Casanova).

I can’t fully express how much I liked this book. The simplicity of its concept, explored through an almost lyrical pairing of art and words, make Daytripper an outstanding comic. I’m disappointed it took me two years to find Daytripper, even though I knew about the title from a review of #1 on House to Astonish. However, I’m happy I have read it.

Rating: Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol Vertigo symbol (5 of 5)

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