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

30 September 2016

Conan the Barbarian, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #250-8 (1991-2)

Released: July 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 240 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558666

What is this?: After losing the princess, Conan is tormented by

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and penciler Mike Docherty

In retrospect, it’s obvious Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories collects stories from a title heading for its end.

Even more than the previous volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories, Second Coming uses continuity to give stories more weight and more interest than they would usually have. In fact, Thomas is so invested in using previous Conan stories — usually stories that he himself wrote — that in Conan the Barbarian #254 he completes a Savage Sword of Conan story he wrote in 1979 that never got an ending.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories coverThe continuity Thomas is calling on should be in service of the main story, in which Conan travels back to his home village in Cimmeria to see if it has been destroyed, as he has seen it destroyed in his dreams. Unfortunately, the continuity is of dubious value.

Thomas scatters footnotes throughout the book. Almost every Conan story has some reference to Conan continuity, which, before Thomas took over this time, was rare. But as I said, this is the sign of a title that’s about to wrap things up: As he retraces his path back to Cimmeria, Conan revisits the signposts he encountered when he first journeyed to civilized lands. And that’s a good idea! If the story were more focused, if the overall structure of the Second Coming storyline fit together better, it might work. But it’s hard to see, for instance, how #253 does anything but divert Conan’s journey home momentarily; yes, it reintroduces the wizard Kulan Gath, whom Conan and Elric of Melnibone killed in Conan #15, but surely Thomas could have integrated Gath into the storyline more elegantly, rather than having Conan encounter him while visiting old friends. And why resurrect Kulan Gath at all? He’s not an iconic villain; rather, he’s a magical speedbump in Conan’s early career.

Sometimes these callbacks are necessary; for instance, a brief flashback in #252 to Savage Sword of Conan #2 is used to explain why Conan is no longer a general and secret consort to Yasmela, whom he had been serving since #246. (Both Savage Sword #2 and #248-9 are adaptations of the Robert E. Howard story “Black Colossus,” with SSoC continuing a little farther forward in time.) I’m thankful for the footnotes, even though I’m not sure half these references and flashbacks serve any purpose other than Thomas shouting, “Hey hey hey — these stories are important!” But they aren’t. The purple plague in #255-6 is a distraction easily disposed of, a fillip meant to disguise that the story’s only purpose is to revisit the Lost City of Lanjau from Conan #8. A stopover in Numalia gives Thomas a chance to mention a few characters and places from Conan #7. An old lover (from Conan #48) rescues Conan from the snow and the walking dead in #258; their dead son, who grew to an accelerated adulthood after Conan sired him with an uncanny northern woman, is mentioned, even though he appeared in a non-Thomas story (#145). All these old stories add up to a bunch of distractions bolted onto a plot that needed to be leaner to succeed.

It’s a shame, because the storyline has some entertaining — even chilling — parts. Queen Vammatar of the Hyperboreans, who opposes Conan’s return to Cimmeria, commands the dead and men’s loins; in many ways, she’s the standard sorcerous femme fatale, but Thomas and artist Mike Docherty sell her resurrection power as something truly dangerous and chilling. The creators don’t make the dead as powerful a threat as well as the best zombie tales do, but they can’t, given the Code-approved nature of a serial book. The design of Vammatar’s servitors, the Witchmen of Hyperborea, is almost effective, as their featureless white masks are unnerving, but they seem to be wearing black bodystockings, which makes them look like semi-villainous Mummenschanz.

Cona’s lieutenants, Zula and Red Sonja, exit this story early, having had enough of Conan’s love affairs and desiring more exciting work now that the peace has been won. Thomas evidently agrees with me that Conan works better with a sidekick, though, so he assigns Conan a new one: Hobb of Anuphar, a fat sybarite whose cowardice is supposed to work as comic relief. It doesn’t work, since Hobb’s competence is marginal and his one-note bumbling grows tired quickly. By the end of the story, we don’t know much about Hobb other than he’s Volstagg the Voluminous, except without the charisma or strength.

And we don’t even get the second coming in the title! That doesn’t happen until the next volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 33: The Mountain Where Crom Dwells and Other Stories. (To be fair, #252-8 are the first seven parts of the Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath storyline.)

Docherty’s art, other than the disappointment of the Witchmen design and the too cartoony skeletal warriors in #255-6, is solid as always. His work looks strongly influenced by John Buscema, although that might be traced to the finishes by long-time Conan inker Ernie Chan. His art is detailed enough to show the rough edges and grime of a time undreamed-of, but it’s never so fussy or confusing that it’s hard to follow. I have gained an appreciation for artists who can draw a clear battle scene, which is a must for Conan; Docherty does a great job with action, and I never have to ask how a character gets from point A to B. If I had to find a flaw with Docherty, other than the occasional design misstep, it would be that his art doesn’t inspire ecstatic praise; he’s solid, not transcendent.

Hoover's cute horrorDale Hoover fills in on #253, and although I’d admire his clean, unfussy work on a number of other titles, it just doesn’t fit with the dirty, blood-stained world of Conan. The depiction of the mutilation of a prince whose life-force was drained, turning his extremities to bone, suffers from being too clean and too neat; the panels have little chance of communicating the horror of seeing someone’s hands and feet reduced to bone. Also, I’m not a fan of the cheesecake design and poses of Imojen, a Kothian rebel leader. Still, his cartoony flashback drawing of the Dweller in the Dark is adorable.

I enjoyed this volume, even if I can see the flaws — the irrelevant fill-in flashback in #251, the Thomas-ian obsession with resurrecting stories and characters that no one finds as interesting as Thomas himself does. But Second Coming does feel like it has a direction and a point, even if that point is to get closer to the end of this series.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Conan symbol (3 of 5)

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23 September 2016

Weirdworld, v. 1: Where Lost Things Go

Collects: Weirdworld v. 2 #1-6 (2016)

Released: July 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900434

What is this?: Becca, a teenager from Miami, survives a plane crash in Weirdworld, a magical realm separate from Earth; with the help of a transformed wizard and a wizard slayer, she looks for a way home.

The culprits: Writer Sam Humphries and artist Mike del Mundo

Weirdworld is a Marvel ‘70s concept, of course. It started in Marvel Super Action #1 (1976) as a fantasy world unconnected to the Marvel Universe. The Weirdworld stories, which were published between ’76 and ’82, starred a couple of Elves with a Dwarf sidekick on a quest. There were wizards and dragons, magic and Evil; the land masses took the shapes of stars and dragons and skulls. That’s the kind of place Weirdworld was. You can find the ten or so issues that featured Weirdworld in Weirdworld: Warriors of the Shadow Realm.

Those stories have nothing to do with the book I’m reviewing.

Weirdworld coverIn 2015, Marvel resurrected the name for one of the worlds in the Secret Wars catalog. That Weirdworld gathered together some of Marvel’s fantasy / magic characters, like Arkon, sorceress Jennifer Kale, and Morgan le Fay, along with some leftovers from weird books, like Skull the Slayer and Man-Thing. That five-issue series was collected in Weirdworld, v. 0: Warzones!

I’m not going to be talking about that book either.

Following Secret Wars, Marvel decided to make Weirdworld an ongoing book, with a new writer, Sam Humphries, assigned to the book. (Mike del Mundo remained the artist.) The first collection — and the only collection, since the book was stealth canceled after six issues — is Weirdworld, v. 1: Where Lost Things Go.

Lost Things owes much more to books like Marvel’s glorious failure Skull the Slayer than the original Weirdworld stories. Teenager Becca is the lone survivor of a plane crash on Weirdworld; the airplane was heading from Miami to Mexico, but the wizard Ogeode was able to pull the passenger jet into Weirdworld using his magic MacGuffin, the Wuxian Seed. To survive, Becca falls in with wizard slayer Goleta just after she kills Ogeode. Like Skull, Becca is mystified by this strange world she finds herself in, part fantasy and part remnants from Earth, and she just wants to get home. Unlike Skull, however, Becca has no survival skills, relying on Goleta and other companions to survive.

I don’t know if that should be a problem, but I think it is. Despite not being able to fight her way out of a wet paper bag, Becca is not useless — she usually rises to the occasion, whatever the occasion is, in her bumbling way, although I have trouble remembering her contributions. She’s lacking as a protagonist, generally playing the part of a mopey teenager or screaming bystander with a weird haircut. The only time I felt any real resonance with Becca was when she thought about her mother, who committed suicide and whose ashes Becca was transporting to Mexico. Becca’s struggle to forgive and love her mother, coming to grips with her decision to commit suicide, is by far the strongest part of Lost Things. Becca’s grief, in all its expressions, feels real, and exploration of suicide’s effects on survivors is rare in comics.

My ambivalence over Becca is a result on Weirdworld’s lack of focus on its viewpoint character. That’s emblematic of the series as a whole; Humphries is concentrating on world building in the early issues, mentioning a lot of details that might have become important in the long run. Given the limited amount of time the book had, though, his time would have been better spent elsewhere. In six issues, Lost Things has subplots including a war between Morgan le Fay and Jennifer Kale (of all people), a Grand Mechanic (who has a past with Morgan and perhaps Goleta), Wild Men (who are wizards), all sorts of Earth tech and culture that has bled into Weird World, a random Watcher, and Morgan’s attempts to heal her sick best friend. That’s added to the quest Goleta, Becca, and Ogeode (resurrected in a flying cat body) are on, the importance of the Wuxian Seed (which is an Infinity Stone with — oh, yeah, forgot to mention — a dragon trapped inside), Becca’s desire to leave Weirdworld, and Goleta’s obsession with killing wizards. I have a feeling I’m missing something by not having read the Secret Wars version of Weirdworld — it too featured a war between Morgan le Fay and Kale’s Man-Thing army, and Skull shows up in both — but the text itself doesn’t give any indication of whether that’s the case.

Humphries seems to have had a long-term plan for Weirdworld, but now that that plan will never see the light at Marvel, it makes Lost Things look incohesive. Humphries is now a DC-exclusive writer, so it’s unlikely the book’s loose threads will be picked up in another title, like Skull the Slayer was finished in Marvel Two-in-One or Nova was finished in Fantastic Four. So despite it being the most intriguing part of Lost Things, it’s unlikely we’ll see the implications of Ogeode declaring Becca a wizard at the end of the book. (Is that a thing wizards can do — just declare other people wizards? Maybe only under certain circumstances? I would have figured being a wizard requires study or a special aptitude, but what do I know?) Having Becca learn about her sorcerous potential earlier might have made her (and the book) more compelling.

I found the amount of Earth culture that had bled into Weirdworld to be a distraction rather than enhancing the setting. Goleta, for instance, drives a turbo-charged muscle car, albeit one powered by emerald fuel injectors. She has stickers on her mirrors that say “Keep Calm and Kill Wizards” and “N.W.A.” (“No Wizards Alive,” in this case). Goleta fists bumps Becca in approval, seeming to know the gesture without Becca’s help. Kale’s army has airplanes, although they don’t seem to be using them for anything. Perhaps most distractingly, Goleta uses a Tribe Called Quest lyric as her battle cry at one point. How would Goleta have heard of A Tribe Called Quest? Humphries might have been trying to add a disconcerting touch of dissonance to the story with these modern details, but instead, they removed me from the story.

“Weird” and “disconcerting” are adjectives that cover Lost Thing’s color scheme: pinks and purples and yellows and greens. Frankly, given the retina-searing hues of Weirdworld, I feared for Becca’s eyes. Why did del Mundo and co-colorist Marco d’Alfonso choose these colors? Is it to give the impression that Weirdworld is different? That it’s injured, out-of-phase, wrong? Or is it just to link the book somehow to Spider-Gwen?

I can’t decide what to think about del Mundo’s art. He exhibits a great deal of imagination in his designs, although he does seem to rely on horns, spikes, and other projections to spice up his character designs. His character work is very good, especially when the characters are experiencing grief; del Mundo makes the already affecting scenes between Becca and her mother even stronger. However, his fight scenes are frequently unclear or underwhelming; I imagine the garish colors and the watercolor-like effect they frequently impart limits the amount of detail he can communicate. Goleta and Becca’s battle with sand sharks and the war scenes are unimpressive, given what they could have been.

To Weirdworld’s credit, it’s rare to have an adventure or fantasy book in which all the important humanoid characters — even its Watcher — are female. All of those lead characters have unique designs, and none of them — not even Morgan le Fay, the evil queen — relies on sex appeal in any way. For many readers, this may be enough to make Weirdworld a success; for almost every comics reader, this might be the weirdest part of Weirdworld. I’m a little surprised that Humphries chose to cast Goleta, the strong, large warrior woman, as a lesbian (or bisexual); it seems a bit stereotypical. On the other hand, if he wanted sexual diversity among the cast, Goleta or Becca were his best choices, since they were leads.

Lost Things had potential, and for those readers who enjoy books that have potential but may not reach it, this book is worth reading. I found the book’s lack of focus and inability to connect on anything but Becca’s grief too disappointing, though.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol

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11 September 2016

The Eltingville Club

Collects: Stories from Instant Piano #1 and 3, Dork #3-4, 6, and 9-10, Wizard #99, Dark Horse Presents v. 2 #12, and Eltingville Club #1-2 (1994-2015)

Released: February 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 144 pages / mostly black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616554156

What is this?: Four devoted, terrible fanboys form a club —probably because no one else will associate with them, as they are horrible human beings.

The culprits: Evan Dorkin

The Eltingville Club is another book I’m reviewing months after it came out — to be clear, many months after it came out, not a few months, as is my custom — because Diamond evidently hates the comic shop I patronize. After giving up on Diamond, I bought Eltingville online.

The Eltingville Club follows the four members of the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club. Bill, Josh, Tony, and Jerry (well, maybe not Jerry) give fandom a bad name. They are thoroughly repugnant people — again, excepting Jerry — who are violent, foul-mouthed, unempathetic, misogynistic, selfish, and probably a few other reprehensible things I can’t think of at the moment. Readers who have spent any time around fandom, online or in person, will find something uncomfortably familiar here.

The Eltingville Club coverIn many ways, the Eltingville stories, which began in the mid-’90s, anticipated the Internet trolls and Internet / fan controversies of the 21st century, and I’m not sure whether that adds an intriguing element to the collection or if it’s just depressing.

Writer / artist Evan Dorkin is a true fan; the depth and breadth of the references made by his characters proves that. But he hasn’t mythologized any of the aspects of fanaticism. Dorkin is unflinching in his examination of all the stupid things fans do: obsess about minutiae, exclude others (especially “cultural immigrants,” as Bill calls them), buy all manner of collectibles, and waste tons of money. It takes a fan to recognize and out such cankers on the face of fandom, and Dorkin finds every hyperconservative flaw and brings them out for examination.

Although the Eltingville Club’s interests largely intersect with those of the book’s readers, we do not sympathize with these jerks, nor are we supposed to. Dorkin does not give us any reason we should like the club members, no redeeming features whatsoever; as a character implies in the final story, it’s hard to believe they even like each other. The more time we spend with them, the more we are sure they are irredeemable. Dorkin’s art — usually black and white, although one story (“They’re Dead, They’re All Messed Up” from Wizard #99) is colored by Dorkin’s wife and collaborator, Sarah Dyer — does not spare the characters either. At times, they seem to be made up entirely of flaws: they are sweaty, pimpled, fat, squinty-eyed, have unruly hair … The simple panels in the book’s first half are dominated by oppressively dark backgrounds. Later, the art lightens up a little, but the overwhelming feeling of darkness remains.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the book is the truly trivial things the club members collect: fast-food toys (and associated licensed soda cups), trading cards sold in Wonder Bread bags, licensed canned food, QVC tchotchkes, crappy toys that can only be acquired with upmty-ump mailed-in UPCs from packaged foods … These aren’t even primary collectibles. They are secondary merchandise, issued by corporations who don’t care about the characters or source material, created only to get people to buy other stuff they don’t need. Yet the Eltingville Club eats it up — literally, in Josh’s case.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are funny; if they weren’t, Eltingville would be insufferable. Fortunately, the characters’ loathsomeness means the physical comedy (usually in the form of assaults) is even funnier than it would be if readers liked the club members. That each character deserves the humiliation and insults they endure gives a pleasing edge of schadenfreude to the cutting remarks, and Bill, Pete, Jerry, and Josh deserve the consequences of their actions: the hallucinations that result when they take Josh’s mother’s medication to stay up to watch the entire Twilight Zone marathon, the destruction of a 12-inch mint-in-package Boba Fett at the end of “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett,” Josh’s arrest after ripping open bread wrappers to find the Batman Forever card he wants, etc. Sometimes the fat jokes directed at Josh get a little uncomfortable (albeit not as uncomfortable as the casual misogyny), but they are realistic.

As I said, Dorkin is a fan, and Eltingville is filled with nods and references to everything the club follows. The trivia contest in the second story, “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett,” is filled with a dizzying amount of obscure info, and the characters make frequent (and impressive, to be honest) references to the hobbies they love. The stories themselves echo classic comics; in “This Fan … This Monster,” the first full-page panel of the story copies the first page of Fantastic Four #51, from which the story takes its name. Later in the story, Dorkin’s homage to Amazing Spider-Man #33, complete with Ditko fingers when Bill finally escapes from under a bunch of comics longboxes, is a thing of beauty.

Strangely, the overall storyline is satisfying, and the longer pieces, the ones that are allowed to go beyond a single joke or theme, are the best, going beyond mere jokes and unpleasantness. In those issues, Dorkin piles on more and more awfulness, taking the characters and events beyond reality into a kind of fannish hyperreality. The stories have some continuity, and in keeping with the comics the club enjoys so much, it has a sliding time scale (the kids are teens in stories from 1994 and 2014). The epilogue — appropriately titled “Lo, There Shall Be an Epilogue” — wraps up Eltingville, showing how each turned out as an adult, ten years after the group dissolved. Encouragingly, being in the Eltingville Club does not sentence its members to lifelong misogyny or misanthropy, and some of its members become functional adults. On the other hand, the epilogue shows how hard it is to wash the stink of being such an asshole off; you have to work at it.

And for those of you who wondered what the deal was with the Welcome to Eltingville pilot that aired on Adult Swim: Dorkin has an afterword that gives the entire story.

I thoroughly recommend The Eltingville Club, but some readers might find it less enjoyable than I did — it can be rough reading about such awful people, especially if you have run into them during your trip through fandom. And it’s even worse if you realize you have something in common with them.

Rating: Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Eltingville symbol Half Eltingville symbol (4.5 of 5)

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