Posts Tagged ‘ Marvel ’

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.

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


Checking In With Marvel

The last time I reviewed the Marvel titles I was reading, I was concerned to see them raising prices and swapping artists around to squeeze out releases faster than once a month. Well, eight months later, with about twelve more issues for each series available, it’s obvious that this is the new trend. It’s disappointing to see a dominant comics publisher treat the medium like an assembly line instead of a collaborator between artist and writer. My Marvel purchases had already dwindled down to just a few favorite series, though, so it’s not enough of a problem to get me to drop those yet. I guess that makes my purchases a (questionable) victory for Marvel, though I have to imagine that the people who have been buying two or three times as much as me are being forced to cut back.

In fact, I’ve only been reading five comics set in the Marvel universe lately. Here are my reviews, with the rest of the discussion about Marvel news afterwards.

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The Avengers (Movie Review)

The Avengers movie posterBy now, it’s a little late for me to tell you to go see The Avengers. You probably already have, unless you decided to ignore a month’s worth of great reviews. But I finally saw it, and I loved it. (This was not a foregone conclusion. Of the various movies that set up the premise for this one, I had only seen Iron Man. I found it to be okay, even though most people loved it. That hadn’t left me inclined to watch all the others that people said weren’t as good as Iron Man.)

There are definitely problems: Captain America looks less like a believable character than someone in a Halloween costume. The Hulk changes from a malevolent monster to a warrior with self-control, and the movie makes little effort to bridge the gap between those extremes. “Street-level” heroes without superpowers contribute to the fights as well as Thor and Iron Man. And Samuel L. Jackson seems to be phoning it in the first half of the movie, despite the character of Nick Fury being written to his strengths. (He does improve a lot in his less frequent, but more vital, scenes late in the movie. When called on to deliver a “mutherfucking snakes” line, Jackson is up to it.)

These problems hardly matter, though, because the movie makes everything work. It also helps a lot that, like Jackson’s performance, everything gets better as time goes on. Each succeeding action scene is more thrilling, the characters become better established, and the momentum picks up. This is managed largely because the movie had a huge budget to match the sheer audacity of its plans: The disparate heroes and cosmic villains require a lot more suspension of disbelief than (successful) superhero movies usually aim for, but Marvel had the money to make the special effects work. It also succeeds because it’s written by Joss Whedon.

To many people, Whedon is mainly a source of quirky dialog, and some of that pops up here. Unlike comic writers such as Brian Bendis, though, he is able to control his tics and take on other styles. This was a big-budget action movie first, a spiritual sequel to several different movies second, a Whedon movie last. His version of Tony Stark was completely true to the prior movies, and I can only assume that the other characters, who were written very differently, fit the movies I didn’t see.

Whedon’s real talent is respecting established characters. He’s usually done this with characters he created, but comics like Astonishing X-Men have proven that he can do it just as well with other peoples’ stories. He not only rewards the fans who are familiar with the characters, but shows newcomers why the fanbase exists. This made Whedon a perfect choice for this movie, which needed to handle a wide variety of heroes without making their coexistence seem ridiculous. Honestly, as much as I loved The Avengers and would now line up to see any other superhero movie Whedon writes, this still didn’t sell me on the Marvel movies in general. It would be too easy for lesser hands to mess up a premise that involves a dramatic god, a gee-whiz science fiction hero, a monster driven by rage, and more all in one plot. The only character here who I am really interested in beyond this one movie is the Black Widow, played flawlessly by Scarlett Johansson. (Whedon’s reputation as the only mainstream writer who reliably includes strong female characters is now firmly established.)

I feel a little silly making such a big deal out of a summer action movie, but The Avengers really was excellent. With a satisfying plot, time for every character, and big-budget action that really felt exciting, this is a rare achievement. But this wasn’t “just” a well-executed movie; The Avengers may be an important step for superhero movies as a whole.

In the past, I’ve had a general rule that superhero movies succeed to the extent that they make their stories simple and streamlined for a wide audience. Everyone in the X-Men movies gets their powers from mutations, because also throwing in magic and cosmic forces would stretch belief. Spider-Man’s web-shooters are organic, because it’s difficult to accept that he’d also be the sort of genius who could invent such a thing on his own. And so on. I think that’s a big part of the reason that we’ve never had a superhero series stay good for three movies. By that third one, the writers have gotten lazy, and so an alien creature falls to Earth directly onto Peter Parker’s bicycle, because the plot needs to start some way.

The Avengers, as I already mentioned, is an audacious movie. It opens with a scene that draws from Marvel’s stable of cosmic powers. It throws together heroes of magic, science fiction, and good old human toughness. And the result is something that even I, as a comics fan, would have considered accessible only to the hardcore fans. But instead, this is now mainstream entertainment! The credit is split among the huge budget, Whedon’s attention to all the characters, and to the earlier movies that laid the groundwork, but the fact remains that this is a sea change in the way that modern superhero movies work. We now have millions of people who are paying money to follow a convoluted world spread across multiple movie series, and the geekiest features of comic book plots appear prominently. It could even be argued that, because this follows up so much on Iron Man 2, this is a successful third movie in that series!

The Avengers is a fun movie. The Avengers is an important part of a series of stories that will probably be coming out for years. And yes, The Avengers is actually a bold change to the way that movies like this work. It may have all those flaws I listed at the beginning, but this is a huge success however you measure it.

Grade: A-

Marvel Comics Capsule Reviews (And A Rant!)

After last month’s flurry of new DC reviews, it’s time to check in with Marvel comics. (Don’t worry: I plan to get to titles from other publishers in April.) In addition to the reviews, I also have some commentary at the bottom about the company’s apparent direction.

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Marvel Comics Capsule Reviews

Here are some reviews of new and notable Marvel comics from the past few months. (Well, “new and notable” in the sense that I bought them. This is likely not a representative sample of all the Marvel comics that have launched recently.)

By the way, look for reviews of the new DC series to start in January. I’ve been giving them some time to establish themselves, but that is nearly up.

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Spider-Man: Spider-Island (Comic Review)

(This review covers Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, along with several other titles that tied into the storyline.)

Amazing Spider-Man #670 coverA few months ago, I praised Dan Slott’s current work on Amazing Spider-Man as one of the comic’s definitive runs. It has its ups and downs, of course, but the overall feel is perfect for the character, and the release schedule (twice per month) allows it to fit large, satisfying plots into a short timeframe.

Of course, all long-running comics have their ups and downs, and usually the big “events” are some of the most notable disappointments. The “Spider-Island” storyline that just ran through Amazing is arguably its biggest event in years – at least, it’s the only to feature so many related mini-series and tie-in comics – and surprisingly, it managed to maintain the quality of the series leading up to it. This may not have been one of the series’ highlights, but it was fun and felt true to both the ongoing series and the hyped “event”, and that’s a rare success.

The “Spider Island” of this story is Manhattan. A supervillain infects the borough with a virus that gives everyone the same powers as Spider-Man. At first, this is just about the chaos that results from people having “all of the power and none of the responsibility”, with a look at how it impacts Peter and his supporting characters. But as the virus continues to progress, the victims fall under the control of the villainous “Spider Queen” and the true threat becomes apparent.

As usual, Slott juggles several sub-plots, this time also tying in with several other spin-off titles and cross-overs. Since most of the Marvel community revolves around New York, this effects a lot of the heroes. At times, the story suffers a little for having to remain coherent and interesting whether or not the reader is getting the tie-ins, but is generally succeeds. Most importantly, all of the side titles feel like legitimate stories in their own right – There are no cliffhangers that say “Be sure to read comic ____ for the exciting conclusion!” as some events do. I read most, but not all, of these supporting comics, and they are a part of the overall grade I’m giving this storyline.

The art is by Humerto Ramos, who has become one of the major Spidey artists in recent years. I have mixed feelings about his work: He’s a skilled and dynamic artist. However, his people look incredibly cartoony, with inconsistent proportions and exaggerated body language. It isn’t necessarily less realistic than some of the trends that have dominated comic art at times, but it is different enough to seem out of place in a Marvel book. Even after seeing his work in Amazing Spider-Man for a few years now, it sometimes strikes me as distracting and off-model. I have to admit, though, that if I read through quickly and let his art flow by, those exaggerations create action scenes that feel natural and varied. Ramos’ style is definitely rooted in an understanding of the human form.

Spider-Man stories are a continuous soap opera, for the hero and the ordinary people around him. The ongoing stories continue to progress, with yet another plot-line that started over 100 issues ago (that of the characters Venom and “Anti-Venom”) coming to a close. This remains the only modern comic series that can manage that sort of long-form storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not bothered by occasional annoyances in the short run. In the long run, this is always excellent. (There were a couple of those annoyances in this storyline. The sight-seeing Madame Web is one of the most frustrating characters out there, just popping in from time to time to drop intentionally vague hints that don’t help anyone. Also, after recent issues that celebrated Spider-Man’s refusal to kill, the workaround at the end of this story felt cheap.) It is unfortunately that most of the changes that came up at the conclusion to this were actually returning things to a previous status quo, but even there, the changes came up organically and didn’t feel like the editorial fiat that normally dominates high-profile events.

Panel from Spider-Island

“Spider-Island” is far from perfect, and it’s definitely not the place a new reader should start. However, I can say that it is the only event comic I can think of in recent years that I actually enjoyed and would recommend to others. Most events seem focused on “Get from point A to B, introduce these arbitrary changes the corporate office asked for, and be sure to sell all the cross-over issues!” Storytelling isn’t a priority, so they mask it by repeating over and over how important everything is. This comic, on the other hand, still put the story and characters first. The “importance” all flowed naturally from that.

Grade: B-

Though they were factored into the above grade, here is a brief discussion of the other comics that were a part of this event:

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Spider-Man: Big Time (Comic Review)

Spider-Man’s recent direction is still controversial in a lot of people’s minds: 2007’s “One More Day” storyline, which arbitrarily undid years’ worth of stories, was very poorly done. However, the intention of that disappointing event was to undo the damage done by all the other poorly-planned changes Marvel had sent Spider-Man through. In that respect, Marvel finally made the right choice: “Brand New Day” kicked off in 2008, with thrice-monthly issues and a small cabal of writers dedicated to stories about Spider-Man’s responsibility and Peter Parker’s friends. It was a stunning success, and it felt like Spider-Man again.

The “Brand New Day” status quo shifted to “Big Time” last November, though it wasn’t nearly as significant a change. Dan Slott, part of the team in “Brand New Day”, became the chief writer, and Amazing Spider-Man switched to two issues per month. Within the comic, “Big Time” represented the idea that maybe things can go right for Peter sometimes. He gets a fun new girlfriend, a job that uses his science skills, and once again finds respect from the hero community. It’s a really nice change of pace from most modern comics, in which the superhero is repeatedly ground down to show the strength of his resolve and the danger of his enemies.

This is a review of issues #648-#665 of Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure if Marvel considers the “Big Time” era over now, but the next issue begins the major “Spider Island” event, followed by the launch of a new Spidey title, so it seems like the right place to examine this run.

Skimming through these issues again to write this review was surprisingly fun, as Slott’s deft touch and master plan are more obvious when reading the stories for a second time. His strengths lie in the way he can balance his love for the characters with the need for a good story, as well as spacing a longer story throughout interesting single issues. The comics touch on every era of Spider-Man’s history, but they manage to move the plot forward without just being safe retread of past hits. Doctor Octopus is changing into something more desperate and sinister. Jonah Jameson continues with some of his first real character development in history. And Peter actually loses his “spider-sense”, leading to twists in the challenges he faces and the ways he has to fight. This feels natural, unlike the costume changes and tacked-on gimmicks that Marvel used to try out on Spider-Man. (Admittedly, Peter does make a few new costumes with the resources his new job gives him. These provide new abilities that make up for his loss of spider-sense. In the short run, it’s a nice change. In the long run, though, it does feel arbitrary for Peter to keep inventing ways out of his current problem. This spider-sense change is an enjoyable diversion, but I hope it’s a temporary one.)

Near the end of this run, Spider-Man’s defeats (for now) Mr. Negative, one of the new villains from the “Brand New Day” era. However, “new” is a relative term when a comic is coming out two to three times a month: It’s actually been more than 100 issues since Mr. Negative was introduced in 2008, and having his story planned and executed over such a long timeframe is an impressive feat. Very few writers ever get to stick with one character long enough to pull off a trick like that.

While it is good to see the hero win throughout “Big Time”, don’t expect it to come without struggle. In particular, one long-time supporting character dies in this run. Rather than feeling like a grab for attention, this is actually moving. The tribute issue that follows, with extended silent scenes demonstrating the holes the death leaves in others’ lives, was one of the best single comics of the year.


On many of the later issues, Slott is joined by writer Fred Van Lente, who takes care of the actual dialog. This is the perfect combination: Slott does a great job handling the plots, but Van Lente is better at the quintessential Spider-Man dialog (both snappy and dramatic without ever feeling overdone). The art is a little less even, unfortunately. No one artist can keep up with a twice-monthly schedule, so the comic rotated through several. None are bad, and some are very good, but as you can see above, the styles are not consistent from one to the next.

In a recent review, I called Batman Incorporated “exactly what a superhero comic should be”. At the time, I was still so impressed by that comic’s early issues that I hadn’t really considered that the later ones were harder to follow and only decent in quality. I’d like to correct that statement: Dan Slott’s run on Amazing Spider-Man is, in fact, exactly what a superhero comic should be. Fun, usually uplifting issues that focus on both the hero and the people around him, and that make use of a rich backstory without getting bogged down in it. It may still be controversial, but I’m confident that we are witnessing one of the classic eras of Spider-Man comics.

Grade: A-