Comic Picks #47: Interesting Failures

January 27, 2010

"Astonishing X-Men:  Ghost Box" and "Astral Project:"  Two titles that had interesting ideas, but didn't successfully execute them.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Ultimate Spider Man vol. 22: Ultimatum

January 21, 2010

For some reason Marvel would have you believe that this is the last volume of “Ultimate Spider-Man.” It says as much on the back of the book, and there’s a credits page at the end acknowledging all of the people who have worked on the series since its inception. I can only assume that Marvel thinks it’ll get more sales out of doing it this way, but now that “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” is up to issue six I don’t think that anyone is going to believe that. That said, if this really were the last volume of USM then it would be a mostly successful wrap-up to a series that has been, for me, “the only Spider-Man comic you need to read.” I say “mostly” because for all that it does right, Marvel essentially kneecaps it in the end by not reprinting the series’ actual ending.

Things start off on a high note with “USM Annual #3” which marks the debut of “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” (don’t know why they felt the need to add “Comics” to the title, but there you go…) penciller David LaFuente. LaFuente has an appealingly cartoony style that has more than a little manga influence to it, mostly in the eyes and the excited facial expressions, and a real knack for knowing how to showcase action and movement, as seen when Spider-Man has to stop a speeding getaway car. His style is much different than that of previous pencillers Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen, but I really like what I see of it here and I’m looking forward to seeing him on the new series (once it arrives in softcover, sigh…).

As for the story, it takes an idea that could be “fingernails-on-the-blackboard-painful” and then proceeds to treat it with enough intelligence that it winds up being pretty interesting and offers additional insight into the minds of these characters. Said idea is whether or not Peter and MJ should “go all the way.” This leads to some friction between the two as Peter tries to figure out why MJ would start avoiding him after she brought the idea up. Ultimate Mysterio is also introduced and it’s a refreshing change to see the police working with Spider-Man to stop a super villain. Too bad that writer Brian Michael Bendis backpedals on that when Aunt May is arrested in the next story, but the Mysterio case also provides the impetus for the two leads to start talking to each other again. All in all, it’s easily one of the better stories that series writer Brian Michael Bendis has done on the series and further proof that no one knows the character (no matter his age) better than him.

That knowledge is put to great use in the title story, “Ultimatum.” Now this storyline was a tie-in to the “Ultimatum” mini-series that was going on at the time that was promising to shake the Ultimate universe to its very core! The core premise essentially involved the return of Magneto to wreak havoc on the world for the deaths of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, which he does by reversing the Earth’s magnetic poles. I’d go into more detail, but I haven’t read the series which by all reports was said to be utterly abominable.

Things start out on a fun note with Johnny Storm begging Peter’s help to get him out of a date with an airheaded starlet, and then he winds up running into both the Vulture and Spider-Woman. Peter’s female clone is instantly classified as “girlfriend material” by Johnny. Then as Peter, MJ, Gwen, Kitty Pryde and Kong head out for a night on the town, Aunt May is arrested and a giant tidal wave hits New York. With millions dead from the tsunami and almost as many still at risk, Peter swings off into the city to save as many as he can.

It’s in this crisis that Bendis cuts to the core of Spider-Man as a character. Yes, he’s got those fancy spider-related super powers, but he’s really just a kid who is forever compelled to do the right thing because when he didn’t, the person who mattered the most to him was killed. That compulsion to do the right thing often leads him to places and events where he’s not fully equipped to deal with what’s happening, and that’s the case here. Bendis wrings lots of great drama from showing Peter’s desperate efforts to save as many people as he can from the flood, and his silent anguish when he realizes that he’s too late to save them all.

While Bendis’ understanding of Spider-Man is the core of the story, its best moment stems from him showing us an event that he’d probably never be allowed to get away with in the regular Marvel universe. That event being J. Jonah Jameson’s admission that he was wrong about the wall-crawler. Despondent after escaping from the chaos with the rest of the Daily Bugle crew he talks about how as he saw the world ending and Spider-Man jumping into the fray to save whoever he could about the chaos. Dare I say that it’s a powerful scene as Bendis’ words and Immonen’s images capture the anguish of a man who believes he is right in just about everything finally admitting that he was wrong about something and then taking the steps to address that. Yes, I realize that JJJ could return to being the iconic spider-hating newsman that everybody knows him for (and sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did…) but it’s a scene like this that really justifies the existence of the Ultimate universe and I hope Bendis follows through on what he does with JJJ’s character in this scene.

Into this mix, Bendis also throws the Hulk and the demon that Peter tangled with in his adventure at Dr. Strange’s place way back in vol. 12. Said demon isn’t that interesting by itself, but it does bring back all of Spider-Man’s greatest foes to knock him around for a bit, which makes for some good visuals from Immonen. While it’s interesting to see Peter try to reason with the Hulk, with mostly successful results, and there are some great scenes showing MJ’s reaction to all of this, the last two issues are pretty much one big superhero fight fest. Granted, it’s a superhero fight fest drawn by Stuart Immonen who, as he has done with this entire storyline, brings an effortless sense of energy and excitement to the proceedings. He’s a great superhero artist and his work here shows what he’s capable of when turned loose on both widescreen carnage and human drama.

Still, even Immonen’s work can’t save the end which fails entirely at giving a sense of closure to the proceedings. Bendis’ decision to go with a “silent” final issue doesn’t entirely ruin things, but there’s just too much going on to allow the characters to not have any say in things. The real kicker is that we’re left with a “Spider-Man is dead,” ending which no one would’ve found believable even if they hadn’t started the new series a few months later. I can only assume that Bendis was trying to add a poetic, “he died using his powers to save people” to Spider-Man’s life, but it just doesn’t work.

BUT IT GETS BETTER! Because this really isn’t the actual end of USM!

After the last issue, Marvel published a two-part mini-series called “Ultimatum: Spider-Man – Requiem” written by Bendis with art from both current artist Immonen and original artist Mark Bagley. These issues were meant to provide a capstone to USM and show the final fate of Peter Parker – and how he escaped death in “Ultimatum.” This sounds like the ending we should’ve received in this volume, so why the hell aren’t they reprinted here?

That’d be because “Requiem” issues were also published for “Ultimate Fantastic Four” and “Ultimate X-Men,” and since their final volumes had already been published, the only way Marvel would be able to reprint them is if they were all collected together in one volume. Which they were, and since I have no interest in reading capstone issues of series I’ve stopped reading, I’m left with the option of tracking down these issues from other sources. So expect a review of these once I decide to root through “Things From Another World’s” nick and dent section and add them to my order.

So what could’ve been a truly spectacular wrap up to this volume of Ultimate Spider-Man’s adventures winds up being only a pretty good one. Even though I’m frustrated by the lack of the series’ actual ending, there’s enough good stuff here to make me recommend this to everyone who has been following the series so far. It also looks to be in good hands artistically with new artist David LaFuente, and I’ll still be getting my Immonen fix since he’s moved over to be the new artist on Bendis’ “New Avengers.” Huh, now that I think about things, it might be time to start re-reading everything for a future podcast…

Comic Picks #46: Best of ‘09 (that weren’t “Blade of the Immortal”)

January 13, 2010

The ten best (and then some) of last year.

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What I’ve Been Reading: 1/6/09

January 6, 2010

First post of the new year… and I’m still waiting for the first comics of the new year to show up. I was expecting to have the new Vertigo Crime GN, “The Chill” by Jason Starr, and the first volume of “The Unwritten” by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, but Amazon doesn’t have them shipping until next week. That’s still better than the fact that they don’t have a shipping date for “The Walking Dead vol. 11: Fear the Hunters,” which means that they’re likely sold out of it until further notice. That said, I’ve still got PLENTY of stuff to talk about from the previous year…

Irredeemable vol. 1: Or, “What would happen if Superman finally snapped and became a bad guy.” Except that it’s not “Superman,” but the “Plutonian” who for reasons that will eventually become clear has turned on his fellow supermen and decided to explore the idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely. This first volume gets things off to a good start as we get some novel takes on traditional superhero events such as what happens when one reveals his identity to his longtime girlfriend (and it’s utterly believable). It’s also fun seeing writer/creator Mark Waid create his own superhero universe and using it to do stuff he couldn’t get away with while working for the big two. Granted, this universe will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has read a Marvel or DC comic, but the biggest issue with the series so far is artist Peter Krause. While Krause is a capable storyteller, his art doesn’t conjure the awe and grandeur that’s needed to sell us on the appeal of this new world. Still, a good first volume overall and I’m looking forward to seeing where Waid goes with this from here.

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture vol. 1: For now, this is the only Del Rey manga title that I’m reading – at least until the omnibus edition of the last three volumes of “Mushi-Shi” ships in July. Based on this first volume, well… I’d like to say that the pre-release buzz I heard about it was justified, except it’s not really. The series gets points for its unique setup as it’s not only one of the few titles I’ve read that takes place at a college, but it’s the only one that takes place at an agricultural college. However, the real hook for this series is that the main character, Tadayasu, has this ability to see all the bacteria around him (and they’ve been anthropomorphed into very cute -- and therefore marketable -- forms). As far as slice-of-life stories go, it’s not bad and I liked all of the insight into the details of life at an agricultural college that mangaka Masayuki Ishikawa packs into the volume. The only problem is that this series seems to have no greater aim than to show off Ishikawa’s knowledge of biology and really disgusting yet edible foodstuffs. It doesn’t help that the characters are either too thinly depicted to be interesting (Masayuki), too cartoonish to be taken seriously (Masayuki’s oddball professor) or taken straight from the “stock manga characters” drawer (the professor’s strict and overbearing assistant Haruka). Overall it’s alright, and I’m willing to give it another volume or two to see if it develops into something better, but I was expecting more from this one.

The Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign: Or, “volume four” since the series took over from the “Incredible Hulk.” As with all of Marvel’s series that have the “Dark Reign” title to them, this volume involves the cast coming into conflict with Norman Osborne’s agenda and the fighting that ensues as a result. It’s handled in a more interesting manner here as Osborne isn’t out to get the main cast (Hercules, boy genius Amadeus Cho, and goddess of wisdom Athena), but rather Hera and the rest of the Greek Gods she has under her command as CEO of the Olympus Corporation, who is out to get the main cast (for every indignity she’s suffered because of them in Greek mythology). So in order to survive her wrath, Hercules and Amadeus are sent to the underworld to bring back Zeus (he died a few years back in the “Ares” mini-series) only to find that Pluto, lord of the underworld, is planning to put the king of the gods on trial for his multitude of crimes. This is an easy book to review because all I have to say is that if you’ve liked the previous volumes then you’re going to like this one as well. The series wit and knack for skillfully blending Greek mythology with the rest of the Marvel Universe is on fine form here and the end sets up the next volume quite well.

Jormungand vol. 1: This, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. It reads like mangaka Keitaro Takahashi wanted to create a rip-roaring action yarn in the vein of “Black Lagoon” only set in the world of arms dealers, while nicking the “child soldier as protagonist” idea from “Full Metal Panic” as well. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the skill to pull it off. We’re introduced to Jonah, the child soldier, as he joins up with arms dealer Koko Hekmatyar and the rest of her motley crew as they go about their business of making sure that their deals go through with a minimum of fuss and government interference. Naturally a lot of shooting is involved. While exploring the demands of being an arms dealer in today’s world is a topic rife with storytelling potential, but Takahashi doesn’t seem to be interested in it beyond using it as an excuse to set up action scenes – which are very confusingly choreographed for the most part. Focusing the series on arms dealers also creates another problem as their profession doesn’t really make me want to like or see these people succeed at all. While it’s possible to base a series around people who morally dubious things (see the above-mentioned “Black Lagoon”), said people need to be interesting enough to make us see past their occupation. That’s not the case here as Takahashi falls back on silly comedic elements that feel out of place and some token arguments about how the characters are acting in a moral gray area that we’ve all heard before. My only hope for this series’ future is that Takahashi starts digging deeper into his premise to offer more insight into why these characters are in the business of dealing arms, and to find ways to make the characters themselves more compelling.

Gravel vol. 2: The Major Seven: The first volume of Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer’s ongoing series about combat magician William Gravel was a fast-paced and entertaining action story that involved the title character killing his way through seven other magicians (of varying degrees of bastardry) for an item of immense occult power. Upon finishing off the last of these “Minor Seven,” Gravel found himself invited to join the ranks of the “Major Seven,” the ruling magicians of Britain. Now he has two tasks: to reform the “Minor Seven” and to find out who killed Avalon Lake, the member of the “Major Seven” he’s replacing. I was looking forward to this volume a lot after reading a favorable review of the issues at Comic Book Resources and having a friend of mine wax enthusiastic about how this volume was about more than just Gravel killing a bunch of bastards. Long story short: I was disappointed. While it was a nice change of pace to have the title character do more talking than shooting and to see him begin recruiting members for the “Minor Seven,” there’s not enough change to make this volume seem like a more flaccid version of the previous one. The ending comes off as particularly redundant after the events of the first volume. That said, I’m hoping to see that the next volume will let us see more of Gravel trying to build something in this life rather than trying to tear it down.