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

18 November 2016

Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther's Rage

Collects: Fantastic Four #52-3 and Jungle Action #6-24 (1966, 1973-6)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9781302901905

What is this?: The Black Panther, ruler of the African nation of Wakanda, deals with Erik Killmonger’s rebellion, then goes to America and fights the Ku Klux Klan

The culprits: Writer Don McGregor and artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham, with help from Jack Kirby and Gil Kane

The ‘70s Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther’s Rage was the Black Panther’s first chance to step into the spotlight alone, and the result is simultaneously ahead of its time and firmly of its time period.

Panther’s Rage is ahead of its time because the Jungle Action run is one long story, in which the Black Panther has to deal with a rebellion in Wakanda led by Erik Killmonger, plus the beginning of another. Such long-form stories were uncommon in the ‘70s, although they weren’t unheard of. Also, having the entire cast be people of color was almost unprecedented in a mainstream comic. On the other hand, writer Don McGregor’s narration is very much like some of his more ambitious ‘70s contemporaries: verbose, contemplative, philosophical, and very, very purple.

Black Panther Epic Collection, v. 1: Panther’s Rage coverMost contemporary readers are likely to be struck by the latter rather than the former. When characters can talk to one another, breaking the monotony of a single voice, McGregor’s insistence on making abstract arguments is bearable, even interesting. But when the Panther is on his own, fighting Killmonger’s lieutenants single-handedly, the page is crowded with narrative boxes, making the book a chore to read. Even dialogue doesn’t always help; by the end, McGregor gives newspaper reporter Kevin Trublood long monologues about America and haranguing lectures about racism that drag on and on without advancing the story or McGregor’s theses.

McGregor gives the reader passages like this:
Cruelty. It’s a word you understand like the word pain … You give it a vague definition and file it away, hoping you never have to learn what the word really means. He wishes the torture weren’t so mindless, that it had a point, a reason that would justify such inhumanity. But reasons are scarce … more for fiction than life.” — Jungle Action #15 (p. 205)
That’s two panels on a five-panel page, and it’s a good example of the verbiage that crowds the page. It’s not badly written, and we can argue about how original its insights are; it’s definitely dense, though, and I find it overwritten. (And who bolded “vague definition”? Those are the least interesting words in the quote.) McGregor isn’t interested in subtlety, but when he does opt for that route, it can be effective; for instance, the death of a bird trapped in a substance Killmonger uses to capture dinosaurs is among the most moving moments in the book, even though the bird is in only three panels with minimal narration.

With other writers, this sort of narration might be a sign of the writer’s lack of confidence in the artist, but I think McGregor works well with Rich Buckler and Billy Graham. I think McGregor lacks confidence in art in general, though. (And in Black Panther himself: I’ve never seen Black Panther get defeated as often as he does in this book. I mean, a cop pistol whips Panther in a supermarket, for Priest’s sake.) McGregor wants adjectives and adverbs, intensifiers and modifiers, that the art just can’t provide. Plus, no artist can draw an interior monologue with narrative philosophical digressions, and that’s what McGregor ladles onto the page.

McGregor needed someone to edit his work, to rein in his excesses and focus his story onto more interesting areas. But editor Roy Thomas was not that person, and it wasn’t Marvel’s style at the time to put limits on the writers of its fringe titles.
Among Marvel’s ‘70s output, this sort of writing was the norm, with writers like Steve Gerber and Thomas himself contributing ornate prose and socially relevant scripts. At worst, this crop of writers came across as Stan Lee knockoffs who tried to prop up weak superhero stories with grabs at social relevance that didn’t go far enough or were obvious at the time. At best, they become critical darlings, but it isn’t their prose alone that achieves that reputation; some experimentation in character or format was necessary to set the book or writer apart.

Does the long-form storytelling qualify Panther’s Rage as experimental enough to overcome the similarity to other Marvel writing at the time? I don’t think so. The Panther’s Rage storyline lasts from #6 to #18, more than two years of publishing time. (Jungle Action was bimonthly at the time.) Black Panther often loses sight of the overall picture, so the linked stories feel like more of an attempt to line up new adversaries for Panther rather than constructing a coherent story; Panther battles Killmonger’s lieutenants from #8 to #10 and #12 to 16 rather than addressing the leader of the rebellion or the people’s discontent. Nothing links these henchmen — who have names like Venomm, Malice, Baron Macabre, Karnaj, Sombre, and Salamander K’ruel — to the overall struggle. In only three issues does Black Panther seem willing to engage Killmonger’s forces with resources beyond his own brawn and muscle. In the end, McGregor’s run suffers in comparison to Ta-Nahisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s current Black Panther, which covers similar ground with more coherence and focus.

On the other hand, I can’t deny McGregor is writing a story with a Black protagonist and a nearly completely Black supporting cast, both allies and villains. These supporting characters aren’t just hanging around; McGregor does an excellent job juggling their subplots and developing these new characters. Monica Lynne, the Panther’s African-American girlfriend, has to deal with a culture in which people look like her but she is still an outsider. Taku, the Panther’s communication officer, is a kind soul who even befriends Venomm, reforming the captured villain (to an extent). Two of Killmonger’s henchmen, Tayete and Kazibe, are used for comic relief throughout Panther’s Rage; the humor is not in keeping with the book’s tone, but it is a welcome change of pace. (Also: their scenes have a welcome thinning of narrative boxes.) McGregor also gives us a long (and distracting) subplot in which the head of Panther’s palace security, W’Kabi, and his wife drift apart, which makes me suspect McGregor himself was going through a breakup or he was watching someone close go through one.

The issues between the end of the Panther’s Rage story and the book’s cancellation are as mixed as the rest of the book. The Black Panther vs. the Ku Klux Klan is an intriguing idea, and the mystery over who killed Monica’s sister should drive the book forward. But in its final five issues, the mystery goes nowhere, McGregor adds in a non-Klan group to muddy matters, and an inordinate number of pages are used up by the speechifying Trublood and irrelevancies. On the other hand, watching Panther in a small Southern town has promise, and the issue in which Monica mentally inserts Panther into a Reconstruction-era lynching story is an excellent illustration of what it means to have a hero of color.

The art, provided by Buckler (#6-8) and Graham (#10-22, 24), is solid throughout. I prefer Buckler from an aesthetic viewpoint; his layouts are cleaner and larger, easier to follow, and his linework is much easier on the eyes. (Gil Kane does a fill-in on #9, and his work meshes with Buckler’s much better than his successor’s.) However, Buckler’s work does have its flaws. I can’t help but be distracted by how far apart Buckler draws people’s feet in action shots — their groins must be in constant agony, given how widely their legs are spread. More concerningly, he creates a Wakanda that is much more tribal than is shown later at Marvel. The whole of Wakanda is made up of thatched huts, Black Panther’s palace, and a hospital; no one but the Panther and a few supervillains wear pants, with most of other characters having grass fringes around their legs or waists somewhere. I understand the Wakandans are supposed to be isolated, but some of them have probably heard of trousers and wooden houses and would be curious.

Graham doesn’t have much choice but to follow Buckler’s lead on costuming and setting, unfortunately, and when some sci-fi trappings could be integrated into the art, he mostly misses the chance. Also unfortunate is his propensity for denser, more crowded layouts; McGregor’s words need room, and his art constricts their space. Fortunately, he has more of a chance to show the fantastic (mostly unexplored and undeveloped) areas of Wakanda. The frigid peaks and sultry jungles look good, although incorporating a Lost-World area with dinosaurs is a boring choice. Oh, sure: The Wakandans have no idea dinosaurs are living in their backyard. (That was probably McGregor’s decision, but incorporating dinosaurs into a comic is usually blamed on the artist.) Graham often works issue titles or words into the art; sometimes this works (such as on opening splash pages), and sometimes it’s baffling, like when “Epilogue” appears as a cloud in the closing panels in the final issue of Panther’s Rage.

The bonus material is more interesting than usual for a large collection like this. In addition to the standard unfinished art and previous versions of covers and pages already collected in the book, Panther’s Rage also includes five rough pages of the never-finished Jungle Action #25. McGregor supplied pictures of himself (and one of himself and Graham), which adds an unusually humanizing touch to the work. McGregor also provided pictures of the envelopes he stored material related to each issue in; the exterior of each envelope had notes to himself, including themes, ideas for other stories, and possible dialogue. Collection editor Cory Sedlmeier deserves a great deal of credit for compiling this unusually entertaining package.

On the other hand, I would have preferred a reprint of Avengers #62 (reprinted in Jungle Action #5 and featuring Man-Ape), Daredevil #69 (reprinted in Jungle Action #23), or any of Monica Lynne’s previous appearances. Room for one of those could have been made by dropping the standard sketches and a few other things while keeping most of the material I noted above.

Jungle Action was cancelled to make way for the Jack Kirby version of Black Panther, which could not be more different — Kirby’s version of the character was a cheery, enthusiastic king who went on goofy sci-fi adventures. I much prefer McGregor’s version, even when his prose is at its most turgid.

Panther’s Rage is all over the place — as is this longer-than-usual review, I suppose. For readers who have a high tolerance for ‘70s prose-dense comics, I heartily recommend his book. For those who would like to hear the characters and actions speak louder than the narrator, look elsewhere.

Rating: Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol Black Panther symbol (3 of 5)

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04 November 2016

Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales

Collects: Spider-Man v. 2 #1-5 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785199618

What is this?: Miles Morales, the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe, has to adjust to being a Spider-Man in the regular universe with new villains — in addition to all the problems of being a normal teenage superhero.

The culprits: Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli

I’m not very familiar with writer Brian Michael Bendis’s magnum opus, Ultimate Spider-Man. I read a few of the early trades, killing time when I was bored, but I didn’t fall in love with the character or the universe.

That means I haven’t read any stories featuring the second Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales. I’ve certainly heard of Miles, but other than Fox News-types screaming about “Black Spider-Man,” I didn’t have any information on him going into Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales, which covers Miles’s first series in the main Marvel Universe.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales, v. 1 coverBendis throws the reader into the story immediately, starting with an in media res fight with the demon Blackheart, who has already defeated the Avengers. Before resolving that fight, Bendis then backtracks to a day in the life of Miles Morales, a high-school student who is the new Spider-Man. (He returns to the fight with Blackheart by the end of the issue.) Although the book has no lengthy infodumps, and the recap page is scanty at best, Bendis gradually introduces the information readers need to understand what is going on throughout v. 1. Occasionally, a bit of information will be shoehorned in as if Bendis couldn’t find a way to elegantly introduce it, but overall, the story flows well and didn’t leave me scratching my head.

(As a side note: As well as Bendis does this, I wonder how much my own familiarity with the Marvel Universe and how these stories are supposed to go allows me to follow along with Miles’s story so easily.)

While I am unfamiliar with Miles, I am quite familiar with Bendis. It occurs to me that Bendis is becoming the new Chris Claremont, albeit one who doesn’t let his bondage fantasies play out on comics pages. Like Claremont, Bendis has an authorial voice and narrative tics (danglers and mind control for Claremont, extreme decompression and a fondness for giving favorite — or just single — characters a push in group situations) that may drive off readers who have grown tired of them. (I dropped Powers years ago when I couldn’t take any more of Bendis’s stammered dialogue.) Fortunately, Bendis keeps those problems in check in v. 1; yes, the book sounds like Bendis, and the plot is a little slower than I would like, but the plot moves along and things happen. Bendis does, however, bring in Goldballs, a mutant character Bendis created during his X-Men work; Goldballs is inexplicably popular and immediately finds himself in the thick of the book without working for it.

As I said, v. 1 has action, but I’m not sure I buy it. It’s not the fault of artist Sara Pichelli; her fight scenes are a treat to read, clear and filled with movement. Bendis’s choices, however, don’t make for a compelling whole. The book’s big action piece is Miles’s fight against Blackheart, who has already taken out the Avengers. Without knowing anything about Blackheart, Miles battles the huge demon, even picking up Captain America’s shield during the fight. Symbolically, we know that’s supposed to be important, but Miles does almost nothing with Cap’s shield — he bops Blackheart’s face with the shield a couple of times. Blackheart, for his part, is no match for Miles; he grabs Miles once, but after Miles uses his venom blast, he never touches the teenager again.

What’s the venom blast? Well, with a touch, Miles can make humans feel like they’re having a heart attack. It has an even stronger effect on Blackheart. Miles also appears to become invisible at some point, although he never mentions the power and only uses again it to attempt to fool heat-seeking missiles. Still: Those are some impressive powers that allow Miles to defeat a near-cosmic level threat by himself.

However, Hammerhead and his goons take out Miles by firing a few missiles. Why was Hammerhead after Miles? Because the Black Cat hired him to do so. Why does she want to go after Miles, even though he’s battling Avenger-type threats rather than street-level criminals throughout this book? *shrug* After Miles has been captured, she says she has an instinctual aversion to Spider-Man, any Spider-Man, but seeking out a fight against a superhero isn’t the act of a rational crime boss, which is what Black Cat seeks to be (and is, in Silk).

And then Miles escapes from Hammer head and Black Cat by using some unspecified (and unnamed) power to shatter / repel the chains that bind him. It all feels so … arbitrary. I mean, I know all narrative fiction is arbitrary, and superhero stories even more so, but this seems even more arbitrary than usual.

Other than those unconvincing fights, the main conflicts come between Miles and his grandmother, who is convinced he is on the drugs after his grades slip, and between Miles and his best friend, Ganke, who reveals Miles’s secret identity to Goldballs, on the theory that heroes should share these things. The former is an excellent idea; family is an excellent shaft to mine for teenage hero drama, and grounding someone who can literally punch through walls is a nice irony. Miles’s grandmother toes the lines between an irritating, over-the-top, cartoonish, and out-of-touch old and amusing foil for both Miles and his parents. More often than not, she manages to stay on the right side of that line, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable. (Pichelli draws her as surprisingly young and fashionable granny — too young to have a teenage grandson, unless teen pregnancies run in the family. Which they could!)

Ganke spilling the beans to Goldball is an idiotic betrayal of Miles’s trust. Ganke rationalizes it by saying he wanted to impress a superhero he identified with (both are heavyset or overweight), but it feels contrived — and yes, arbitrary — that Ganke would immediately give up the secret. After trying and failing to connect with Goldballs? Sure, that could make sense. As an opening gambit? No. Is Bendis trying to say Ganke is a horrible friend? Nothing else suggests that. He may be trying to make a point about identity politics and representation, but if he is, it’s simultaneously ham-handed and muddled.

Those sort of representation issues are brought up more ably after Miles’s costume is torn during his fight with Blackheart, revealing that he is a person of color. A vlogger he and Ganke watch is ecstatic about learning the new Spider-Man isn’t another white guy, but Miles rejects her label of the “Black Spider-Man.” First of all, that label doesn’t match his personal identity; he’s only half African-American. Secondly, though, he wants to be known as just plain Spider-Man, which — let’s face it — is an unrealistic expectation as long as Peter Parker is walking around. Maybe there’s more to Miles’s rejection than that, as he stubbornly refuses to see the significance of a Spider-Man who is a person of color. But we don’t see any other components of his reaction in v. 1. I have to wonder, though, how differently this scene would have been written if it had been written by someone whose skin isn’t white.

Pichelli’s art is excellent, and I enjoyed reading her work. Her approach is heavy on double-paged spreads, and although she’s better at alerting the reader to continue from one side of the book to the other than most artists, it still disturbs the reading experience, especially in a book as heavy in conversation scenes as a Bendis comic. Still, Pichelli makes those conversations interesting to look at; she doesn’t reuse headshots over and over. People are moving in those scenes, and their movements feel real. Miles’s face is always in motion as well, although none of his expressions are subtle. Then again, teenagers aren’t subtle, are they?

I am really on the fence about v. 1. I have a feeling Bendis wrote this book as a continuation of his Ultimate Spider-Man book, and if I kept reading the series, then I would get into the rhythm and narrative feel of the book. But reading Bendis has made me leery of putting too much faith into him, so I’m not sure I’m going to pick up the next volume.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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