Blah blah blah comics blah (1/21/08)

Blah blah blah comics blah (1/21/08)

Jan 20

An ungodly heaping mess of reviews, for titles and trades that aren’t even that new anymore, but whatever.

Inside: Brave and the Bold, Detective Comics, Punisher War Journal, Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte, Northlanders, Mighty Avengers, Teen Titans: The Lost Annual, and all the bitching and whining you’ve come to expect–nay, demand–from internet comics reviews.

It’s easy for a certain type of fan to oversell Mark Waid, but shit, if The Brave and the Bold #9 doesn’t demonstrate in one classy package what makes him so damn wonderful, nothing’s going to help you. We are talking about a single 22-page comic book that brings together the Blackhawks, the Boy Commandos, the Metal Men, Dial H for Hero, Hawkman, the new Atom, and the Challengers of the Unknown. It takes all that awesomeness and actually delivers not just one, but THREE short stories, each tying back into the overall villain of the series. The pacing is immaculate; the art by George Perez is dynamic as hell and full of clever page layouts; the characterizations are spot-on. This is like some kind of platonic ideal of the perfect superhero comic book.

Detective Comics #840 presents an interesting conundrum, and I can’t tell if I’m being Bitchy Fanboy by even mentioning it, but whatever: Would Batman really think it was cool to kick Ra’s Al Ghul out the window of a skyscraper? Granted, I’m not totally up on every chapter in the decades-long Batman vs. Ra’s saga, but I do seem to recall Batman’s whole “I don’t kill” thing, and given that the Joker racks up body counts in the hundreds within twenty-two pages of story, and Batman has no problem carting him to Arkham without a second thought, this same Batman effectively killing Ra’s with the aforementioned skyscraper window kick rings…false? Stupid? Ill-conceived?

It’s weird, because there’s something sorta dumb about the whole issue, but I was willing to cut Dini some breaks, since it’s got Ra’s and Bats playing a wacky round of supergenius oneupsmanship. It appealed to the necessary sense of absurd inherent in superhero comics, something that’s become a bit of a theme for Dini’s run on the title.

Then the kicking, and the news that Batman’s sneaking into Arkham to inject Ra’s with some kind of crazy debilitating drug, and it’s like…really? Seriously? Would Batman really do this? Should Batman really do this? And at the end of the day, did Ra’s get brought back to life just so that one issue later Batman could effectively trap him indefinitely in Arkham? Wouldn’t the point of bringing a dead villain back to life be to then use that dead villain in stories?

Ugh. A great run piddled away by piss-poor writing.

It seems like there’s been a number of very fun, very worthwhile single-issue offerings of late, and I find myself a sucker for a thick standalone package of damn fine comics. Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte is in that vein, a one-off story that follows Benjamin Grimm down to Puerto Rico for an encounter with the famed bloodsucking monster Chupacabra. There’s an element of travelogue to the adventure, hitting on some of the country’s finer points even as the FF deal with the typical family turmoil and a return appearance by the Mole Man. Writer Tom Beland absolutely nails the dynamic between the family of the Four, and Puerto Rican artist Juan Doe contributes a jagged, cartoony style that suits the story well. For four bucks, this is indeed some damn fine comics.

Everyone who’s written about Mighty Avengers #7 has already complained about the title’s lateness, and how its intertwining storyline with New Avengers has suffered as a result. They’re all right, of course, so let me reiterate: This book’s been late, a lot, and it sucks. Not only are there the simple story beats to contend with, happening wildly out of order when a more precise rhythm would have helped greatly, but the book’s tone is such a great counterpoint to New Avengers that the Avengers titles have felt a lot poorer with the absence of Mighty Avengers. I really like the idea of the ragtag band of fugitives in one book and the registered golden children fighting extinction-level threats in the other, and that rhythm’s been missing without MA.

Anyway, taken on its merits as a comic book and not as part of a larger corporate publishing strategy, this is a pretty good book. Bendis does Bendis, and does it well as per usual. Mark Bagley’s pencils seem way overinked to me, to the point where there’s some jarringly “off” moments in a few close-up panels where I was like, “Wow, that’s not quite as…good…as I expected it should be.”

At this point, I’m sorta waiting out the Venom storyline since I believe the Avengers That Are Mighty will next face off against Doctor Doom, and that could be some fine shit right there.

Apparently, Vikings liked to say “fuck” a lot, and they also liked to actually do what the word suggests a lot, which is a tonal strategy that can go either way for Northlanders #2. Removing the language and behavior trappings of Viking culture as we know it from modern media helps the reader cut to the story’s chase; at the same time, you’re kind of like, “Really, Wood? That Viking seriously just dropped an f-bomb?”

At the end of the day, I think the real question with Northlanders isn’t whether or not it should be read–Brian Wood’s enough of a talent that the first arc of any title he tries is worth checking out, and even if you don’t like it, that probably says more about your tastes than his abilities. He’s just that good.

No, the real question is whether or not to trade-wait the series, since you know that’s where Northlanders will live on, and where Vertigo has set its sights. I think the single issues have enough legs here that it’s worth reading in floppy form, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have plans to eBay the first arc and switch to trades myself.

What I love most about Brian Wood’s writing is its humanity, the way in which his characters just exude a natural sense of self. Never contrived, never unnatural, these people–whether Vikings or wandering twentysomething females in modern America–always feel so REAL. It makes for an instantly captivating storytelling style, one that feels casual but is clearly the result of much hard work.

Punisher War Journal Vol. 1: Civil War is a surprisingly skimpy trade–I assumed I was getting the first six issues of the title, but instead I get the first four issues, plus an exact black-and-white duplicate of the first issue. It feels even more thin because it amounts to a massive crossover trade with Civil War; I understand the sales logic behind launching new books during massive universe-wide events, but from a storytelling perspective, it’s a horseshit concept. The identity of the book is forever entwined with the value (or lack thereof) in the larger crossover story.

Matt Fraction makes the most of it, and fortunately Civil War provided a pretty ideal launching pad for the return of Frank Castle to the Marvel Universe proper. Fraction seems to have somehow ingested every word of overwrought narration written for the Punisher since the late seventies and has woven in an actual personality, tweaking expectations constantly with oddball one-liners. The supporting cast is refreshingly surreal, which seems to underline what makes Fraction’s take on this character so appealing: Instead of totally buying into the reality of a gun-toting psycho who kills criminals, he first embraces the idea’s absurdity, and then layers on some reality as almost an afterthought.

Which brings me to issue 4 of the title, a stand-alone that is almost worth the price of the trade all by itself–a second-class supervillain wake, bringing together the dregs of Marvel’s bad guys to celebrate the life of Stilt-Man. The situation is mined for all its humor potential–the malfunctioning Doombot was my favorite bit–but there’s a layer of pathos and critique that at first reads like any other hipster fanboy complaining about all the doom and gloom in modern comics.

Until the final few pages, where Fraction lets the story take a very dark turn that forces you to wonder if he was trying to espouse his views on superhero comics all along, or just tweaking expectations yet again before literally burning them to the ground.

In a universe full of oddballs who usually don’t realize just how odd they are, Fraction’s Punisher is the High King of the Oddballs, and in taking that direction, the writer gives us a new, irreverent take on the character and his world. Good stuff.

Teen Titans: The Lost Annual is another great standalone comic, though at $5, it’s not a great value, especially since there’s just one story and a few sketch pages. But what a story it is. You probably know at least the elevator pitch by now–the Titans circa the sixties must save President Kennedy from alien kidnappers–and if you’re up on your blogosphereoverse, then you also know it’s by Bob Haney, one of the godfathers of DC’s batshit crazy Silver Age.

I’ll be honest here; I often find it hard to read older comics, because while I understand their importance as cultural and comics history, and they are often fun, they are also a bit of a tough slog for me. I’m just more accustomed to modern superhero comics and the way they tell stories–I know, it makes me some kind of sad and twisted comics fan, almost pathetic in his lack of appreciation for the greatness of Infantino Flash and Mort Weisinger Superman–let’s just say I do appreciate them, but when I curl up to read for ten minutes before I fall asleep every night, that’s not what I’m looking for.

All of that is preface to the fact that I actually enjoyed this Haneyverse concoction quite a bit, maybe because removed from its era and all the attendant baggage, it’s a kooky little story with some fun dialogue quirks and a great use of language. I’m enough of a writer geek to enjoy words put together well, which is why I take a much kinder view to Jack Kirby’s writing than others, and there’s some of that appreciation going on here as well–the opening page of the story, with its recurring “Wither Goest Thou???” repeated phrasing, is probably not everyone’s cuppa tea, but I eat it up as the verbal carnival it is, almost irrespective of meaning and/or tone.

On the art side, godDAMN is this a great looking book. Jay Stephens pencils and Mike Allred inks, and again, we’re talking another Platonic ideal of modern, retro comics art. Page layouts are just plain brilliant in spots, and Laura Allred’s colors are awash in bright tones without beating the reader over the head with, “Hey, look! It’s poppy! It’s campy! BAM! ZIP! POW!”

It woulda been nice if they’d included some kind of bonus material aside from the Nick Cardy sketchbook, although a fine sketchbook it is. But for your $5 admission, you get quite a ride from Mr. Haney, and it’s a fitting final work from the quirky comics creator.

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