Archive for the ‘ Comics ’ Category

First (and Last) Look at Marvel NOW!

The “Marvel NOW!” initiative has been running for a few months now, with soft relaunches intended to satisfy both old and new readers. I’ve been reading several of new series, and after my recent cynicism about Marvel’s direction, I went into this honestly unsure of what to expect. There are a lot of good signs here, but it turns out that the negatives far outweigh anything else. This is the time when I should write about my “first looks” at the new titles, but there’s only one that I feel compelled to discuss:

cover to Avengers Arena #1

Avengers Arena

Avengers Arena

(Based on issues #1-4.)

It’s fairly common for DC and Marvel to jump on popular trends, and sometimes they find a way to make it work. But their continuity just isn’t set up to support a Hunger Games-like story about teens forced to kill each other. Superhero comics are unrealistic in many ways, but they work because of an established set of assumptions. For example, the heroes always have an alternative to killing, and a single accident is much more likely to injure or surprise someone than to actually kill them. Avengers Arena feels awkward from the start, as it tries to establish all its “because I said so” rules: The heroes have no way to escape, and no one can find them. Magic won’t work. The villain is satisfied just to mess around with these kids, even though his ability to create this status quo and hide the victims from the rest of the world’s heroes actually makes him incredibly powerful. And the camaraderie that should always make the heroes learn to work together disappears as soon as the villain tells them it should.

I’m not opposed to tragic hero deaths in principle, as long as they serve the story. I was one of the (apparently few) people who appreciated the recent ending to Amazing Spider-Man, because I felt that its events had been properly set up and was true to the characters. In fact, Runaways and Avengers Academy (which both contribute characters to this new title) were two of my favorite modern Marvel series. Both of those were known for stories in which characters changed or died frequently, but those changes were tied to the excellent character work. Avengers Arena author Dennis Hopeless writes these characters awkwardly, and so their out-of-character actions just feel like an insult to the fans. In fact, the first issue makes a point of picking up where Avengers Academy ended just to undo one of its happy moments. It’s manipulative, and it cheapens the work of the skilled creators who paved the way for this cash-in.

The art is better than the writing, but art isn’t the issue here. This is a cynical title focused on the shock value of good characters being hunted and killed by other “good” characters, and it’s too focused on that goal to let things like unfinished character arcs or established personalities get in its way. This is a serious problem, especially because its ramifications go beyond this single series. The point of ongoing superhero comics is that they are ongoing: The connection to the big picture makes each issue better, and I justify the price of individual issues by saying that I get more than just the pages of the current story. Obviously there will be unpleasant surprises from time to time, but the overall feeling needs to be that the stories are building on each other. Avengers Arena is an outright betrayal of some excellent past comics, and is obviously designed to take advantage of readers for having liked those. This can’t just be written off as Dennis Hopeless’ fault, because a heavily marketed slaughter-fest like this must have had heavy involvement from the editorial staff.

It’s possible that there are plans to explain or undo this further along. However, the four issues I’ve read have been clearly intended to accept at face value, and I can’t keep buying them. I can only conclude that the people steering Marvel have no respect for the value of their unfolding stories or the characters that drive them. There’s no reason for me to continue putting time and money into stories that are being guided by people willing to break the fundamental contract between publisher and reader. I’ve decided to stop buying Marvel superhero comics.

That’s how bad Avengers Arena is: It’s not just a bad idea and poorly-written, but it’s enough to kill all my interest in Marvel, period. I hope to someday see changes in their editorial direction that will let me trust the company again. In the meantime, though, I won’t regret ignoring them.

Grade: F

I could talk further about the other new series I tried, because on their own I had a generally positive opinion of them. But if I’m not willing to buy any Marvel titles because I no longer have faith that these ones will turn out well, there doesn’t seem to be any point in recommending them.

For now, I am continuing to follow only one Marvel series: Daredevil. I’ve never cared about this character or his supporting cast before, so I don’t have to be worried about what happens to them in the future. I’m just buying them because of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s excellent craft, and I don’t have to worry about building any sort of attachment that Marvel could take advantage of. It’s sad that I can only read one of their comics after making a calculated decision about my own lack of buy-in to it.

Jeff Smith – RASL (Comic Review)

cover to RASL #1


Jeff Smith is mostly known for his all-ages comic Bone, but he just devoted over four years to RASL, a science fiction adventure aimed at adults. It’s best feature is the great black-and-white art you would expect from him: Distinctive characters and strong, fluid line-work make for clear, visually-pleasing pages. For this story, he drew slightly grittier and more detailed pictures, which gets in the way of the fluid action that made Bone scan like a moving animation. It’s still a pleasure to see Smith’s artwork, of course. Despite that, this story never became that interesting.

The main character, who goes by the alias “RASL”, is introduced as a hedonistic art thief with a device that lets him travel between parallel universes. But a “lizard-faced man” is also jumping between worlds to hunt him, a wide-eyed mute girl appears and disappears mysteriously, and it turns out that RASL is actually an on-the-run scientist. After the first third of the series, that art-thief anti-hero is forgotten, and in his place is a man racing to stop short-sighted scientists from experiments that threaten the world. (The perfect example of this change in atmosphere is the effect that “drifting” between worlds has on RASL. At the start, it’s established that each drift takes such a toll on his mind and body that he needs to lose himself in a drunken, womanizing haze to recover. By the end, he and the villains are jumping between worlds every few minutes, and staying alert enough to trade punches immediately afterwards.)

RASL pageDespite a lot of strange mysteries on the periphery, the core story could be a by-the-numbers action movie, probably starring someone midway between Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis. The main qualification to be a “scientist” is the ability to handle yourself in a fight, and RASL’s big breakthrough had more to do with discovering Nikolai Tesla’s lost notes than with research or experiments. It’s all perfectly fun popcorn fare enhanced by occasional philosophical puzzles, but it would need a couple more explosions and car chases to qualify as a summer blockbuster.

In some ways, it’s like Smith bit off more than he could chew: All the extra bits made this confusing to follow while it was being serialized (with long delays between the two to four issues per year), but if you read it at one time, it’s difficult to reconcile the set-up of the early issues with the plot that takes over. Interesting, but never actually satisfying, this is a half-successful experiment from one of the great cartoonists of our time. It’s good to know that Smith isn’t going to be pigeonholed by the runaway success of Bone, but I hope he finds a better mix of elements for his next story.

Grade: C+


Comic Capsule Reviews: Recent Indie Miniseries

It’s been a while since I looked at small press comic miniseries, but I only have three completed ones to talk about. Between the economic downturn and the sudden rise of Image as the go-to place for indie talent, the tiny publishers are slowly getting squeezed out. There are still comics worth paying attention to, though.

(Note that, in the American comics industry, “small press” generally refers to anything that isn’t from one of the five “big” companies that occupy the front of the Previews catalog. This is actually a fairly strict definition, as some people will actually use terms like “indie” and “small press” for anything that doesn’t feature a DC or Marvel hero on the cover.)

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Belated Comics First Looks

It’s difficult to time my First Look comic reviews right. Ideally, I’ll discuss them after the first few issues, but by the time I can group several related ones into an article, they may be older. I now have several comics that are overdue for a First Look. The only thing tying these together is that they are non-superhero (and non-DC/Marvel) comics that are bucking the trend of indies coming out as miniseries. Also, they’re all close to a year old. Better late than never, right?

(The other difficulty with my First Looks is predicting which comics will last so long that I shouldn’t wait for the end. For example, my early review of Snarked! ended up being two-thirds of the way through the series. Rather than writing a new review, I just added final thoughts to that article. I’ve made guesses here, such as thinking that Dark Horse’s latest Conan title can wait until the end for a review. Time will tell.)

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Vertigo Comics Capsule Reviews

Karen Berger recently announced that she would step down as the editor of Vertigo, the comics imprint she has shepherded since its creation. At first, I wasn’t too concerned about this: Two decades is a long time to stay at one job, and she could have plenty of reasons to move on. We don’t know the story behind the scenes, though, and I find myself getting progressively more worried. With Hellblazer ending at issue #300, and shocking realization that that is the longest-running continually-numbered series being published by DC or Marvel today, it’s obvious that change is in the air for the big companies. Vertigo’s monthly sales numbers haven’t been healthy in a long time, and it has apparently justified its existence by finding the occasional hit that keeps selling in book format. But with superhero movies now bringing in more money than book sales could ever promise, and with TV and video game tie-ins defining more of the low-end market, Vertigo’s niche may no longer make sense to the executives.

No matter what happens, though, it’s clear that Berger’s legacy goes well beyond Vertigo. When the label started, intelligent adult comics seemed like an aberration. Now, titles like that are everywhere. In fact, the scene has grown so much that Vertigo’s specific style of literate fantasy now feels like just another niche.

While looking over the latest Vertigo series that I’ve read, I noticed some definite trends. These stories tend to be based around high concepts and rich settings, but the plots often feel like afterthoughts. Whether this is indicative of the imprint’s editorial leanings, or just a coincidence, I’m not entirely sure. Either way, though, there is still some very good stuff coming out from Vertigo. I hope that we don’t lose it.

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Webcomics: Scenes From A Multiverse

SFAM panelThough Scenes From A Multiverse started a few months too early for me to discuss on this blog, I probably don’t need to explain what it is: Jon Rosenberg of Goats ditched that comic’s convoluted story and just started writing new jokes in different settings (“destinations”) every day. From kitten holes to dungeon divers, his Mulitverse is full of fresh character designs and hilarious ideas. Rosenberg’s sense of humor can be offensive, as any reader of Goats knows, and he isn’t afraid to wade into political or religious topics, but as long as that doesn’t turn you away, SFAM is one of the best webcomics out there.

It’s almost a shame that Rosenberg jumps between topics so quickly, because every couple weeks he has an idea that would be worth a long-running daily strip. And that’s where SFAM’s original gimmick came in: The plan was for Rosenberg to post five strips each week, and over the weekend readers would vote on a “repeat destination” to visit again the following week. Any destination that won five times would be retired until there were enough winners to vote on one for a focused, week-long story. That brings me to the reason for this article, because last month Rosenberg announced that the weekly votes would end.

I can see why he did it. Almost every time, the latest winner would be chosen again, meaning that new winners could only appear every five weeks when there was no reigning incumbent. And since ending the voting and letting his own muse take control, Rosenberg has done some great work with those Dungeon Diver characters. On the other hand, I do miss the votes. The feeling of participation was a lot of fun (even if I almost always voted against the incumbent, and therefore lost regularly), and I enjoyed the unpredictability that came from Rosenberg coming up with follow-ups to something that had been planned a one-off joke. The quality of the comic has increased slightly in the past month, but my interest has decreased slightly.

And that brings me to my humble suggestion. As a board game player, I know that there are lots and lots of systems out there; The choice isn’t just between the previous voting system and none at all. Once we’ve identified the problem, we can find a solution. My preference would be to structure each week with three new destinations and two repeats. With two winners every week, it would be much easier for a good new idea to win a chance for a repeat, and the people who always vote for the incumbent would be divided and therefore weakened. There are so many good comics that having more repeats would feel like a fulfillment of potential, and I think it would actually be more fun to see additional ideas being developed over time. (It’s good that we don’t have a story as involved as Goats had, but a little more continuity won’t hurt anything here.)

Will this happen? Probably not. I should have brought this up this before Rosenberg made his choice, not afterwards. But this was a big change to one of the best webcomics out there, so I think it deserves some discussion.

The End of Amazing Spider-Man (Comic Review)

(Based on issues #674-700, along with the “Ends of the Earth” special and issues #679.1 and 699.1.)

cover to Amazing Spider-Man #700

Amazing Spider-Man

Like a moving target, serialized stories can be difficult to review. I wrote a draft review of recent Amazing Spider-Man issues a couple months ago, but never got around to finishing it. At the time, I was frustrated with the way Dan Slott’s run seemed to be slowly losing steam, and very disappointed by the recent “Ends of the Earth” event. But with issue #700, Amazing ended its fifty-year run with a much more conclusive story than most heroes ever get. Now that I have a finished story to look at, it feels much stronger.

This isn’t supposed to be a review of the entire “Big Time” era of Spider-Man (I looked at issues starting with #648 here, and the following “Spider-Island” event next), nor is it supposed to be a review just of the ending. However, due to the nature of long-running stories, both of those weigh heavily over the selection I actually am reviewing here. Dan Slott’s slightly-over-fifty-issue solo run (coming on the heels of “Brand New Day”, his hundred-issue collaboration) was written with the confidence that he would have time to plan out and develop a long-running story. In an era where most creative teams get shuffled around within a year, this is a rare thing. And while most of these comics were structured as two-to-six-issue arcs, in retrospect it’s easy to see one long story winding through them. The half of “Big Time” being looked at here is pretty clearly “cleaning up” many of the changes that Slott had implemented, but also sets up the final act of an epic Doctor Octopus story after which “nothing will ever be the same”.

This truly may be the rare case in which changes stick. Slott has always shown a strong appreciation of the things that made Spider-Man great, and he caps off the Amazing era with the same humanity, melodrama, and colorful supporting characters as ever. It’s an appropriate conclusion, and those last few issues were exciting (and a little scary) with the reader knowing only that something important was about to change.

(I do worry that the new status quo may be difficult to keep going for long, and if it falls apart it threatens to undo the solid closing of this story. However, I will refrain from reviewing comics that haven’t come out yet.)

That’s not to say that there weren’t missteps, though. I already mentioned that “Ends of the Earth” was a disappointment: Spider-Man is thrown in to a world-wide crisis with no buildup or sense of scale, so it never feels more important than his usual races across New York. He stays awake for days trying to keep up with the bad guys, but the story jumps so quickly that none of that sacrifice is seen. And despite its alleged significance, the resolution hinges on a few standard battles with his usual foes. The “Ends of the Earth Special” released alongside this is a mostly plot-free story of C-list heroes rushing into battle at his side, and usually dying without accomplishing anything. It’s depressing and cynical, especially since one plot point has Spider-Man threatening to torture a prisoner for information.  (He says afterwards he was bluffing, but Peter should know that threatening prisoners with torture is a form of psychological torture.)

Mostly, though, these were fun stories. Classic villains like the Vulture update themselves again, mind-controlling robots infest a space station, and so on. One of the strongest stories was “No Turning Back”, which brought a somewhat decisive (and tragic) conclusion to long-simmering plots about The Lizard and Morbius. Humberto Ramos pencilled as much of this as the bimonthly schedule would allow, and I’ve finally come to accept his slightly exaggerated style as appropriate to the action-packed soap opera that is Spider-Man. It’s the little character threads that developed throughout these mostly stand-alone stories that make Spider-Man work.

Spider-Man internal

After such a long time on the character, there were signs that Slott was slowing down. The past year was spent much more in wrap-up mode than presenting new ideas. (The only recent new character introduced recently, the super-powerful but irresponsible “Alpha”, was uninteresting. As with the lack of drama in “Ends of the Earth”, the comic simply told us that Alpha was powerful and important without ever demonstrating it believably.) However, this still closed on a very strong note: While juggling many plots smoothly, Slott ended with true surprises that slid under the media’s radar, and gave us all the impression that he was wrapping it up on his terms.

Grade: B


First Looks At DC’s New 52: The Third Wave

Finally, here are my First Looks at the new comics I started reading from DC’s “third wave” of recent releases. These launched in September, conveniently coinciding with DC’s month of 0-numbered issues, so they could provide a simple introduction right away. In fact, the month was structured that way at least in part to help promote these new comics, which seems like a lot of effort to go to for just four new series. Despite DC’s efforts, though, the rumors I’ve heard are that some of them are pretty much dead on arrival. There will be a couple successes from the new launches, but it seems that fans are only trying the ones tied to big-name characters or events. Those early days of the New 52, in which obscure characters and ideas actually had a shot, may be over.

After writing sixteen other comic reviews this week already, this article will be mercifully short. I have only been reading two of the four new series. Unless new titles deserving a First Look appear soon, I’ll probably wait about a year after this before I check back on the DC Universe.

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First Looks At DC’s New 52: The Second Wave

Earlier this week, I reviewed all the DC titles that I’ve been reading since the “New 52” launched last year. But as the company has cancelled some titles, they’ve started new replacements. Today, I’m reviewing the three “second wave” titles that I tried out, and tomorrow I’ll catch up on the third wave.

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Checking In With DC’s “New 52” (Part 2)

This is the conclusion to my reviews of the DC comics that started last year. Note that I’m not yet reviewing Animal Man, Swamp Thing, or Frankenstein, as I want to wait for them to finish their ongoing “Rotworld” epic.

Again, each comic title before the reviews links you back to the initial reviews I did at the six-month mark for the title.

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