Monday, September 14, 2009

Strange Tales #1

One of Marvel's most experimental and well-known titles, dating back to the era when the publisher was still known as Atlas Comics, Strange Tales has gone through more face lifts over the years than Joan Rivers. Depending on the arrival of new talent, the tides of the political climate or the whims of the present editorial team, the series has endured countless false starts, format changes and cancellations over the years. Before the EC Comics-inspired legislature of the mid 1950s, its focus was on graphic horror and gore. Later, Jack Kirby gave the series a string of well-received sci-fi monster stories. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Doctor Strange and traipsed around the abstract mystical countryside. Jim Steranko changed the game with a classic psychedelic espionage romp, dubbed Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And so on.

Today, thirty years removed from the cancellation of that original series (and with a decade's worth of distance from the latest attempt at a revival) Strange Tales is changing shape yet again. With a new vision, a radically different landscape and a willingness to try something completely off-the-wall at the front of their minds, the head honchos behind this series have, amazingly, corralled a high-powered squad of well-known independent creators and set them loose without restriction in the merry Marvel playground. The results are, at times, stunning. The sheer amount of variety and boundless creativity alone make this worth a peek: if you don't like what you're reading now, a completely different approach is never more than two or three pages away. Everyone from James Kochalka to The Perry Bible Fellowship chimes in this month, touching every genre from absurdist black comedy to surreal, wistful adventures through the subconscious.

My favorite segment in the premiere would have to be Peter Bagge's blunt, hilarious "Incorrigible Hulk," in which the renowned underground prodigy tackles every subject from second-hand smoke, uber-liberal apologists and the green goliath's historical wardrobe decisions. All this and a drunken rampage through the NYC streets in just six overstuffed pages. Alas, this also reveals one of the shortcomings of the format – as soon as you fall in love with something, it's over and done with a moment later. Fortunately, the Bagge tale (and one or two of its peers) concludes with a promise to continue the adventures next month.

The Hulk proves to be a favorite subject for many of the issue's contributors, further proof that they were given an unusual level of freedom for this project. The indie darlings are free to use whomever they like in whatever situation they want without fear of repercussions and, predictably, a select few go out of their way to push that leniency to its limits. The second brutally short one-page Perry Bible Fellowship strip is proof enough that Marvel was willing to let just about anything slip by, and the result is a punchline that had me genuinely laughing out loud.

Frankly, I'm stunned a major publisher could allow something so fresh and open-minded to hit the market. Strange Tales #1 continues the proud legacy of innovation established by its forefathers, refusing to follow the rules of what constitutes a mainstream comic and emerging with a real winner of a premiere issue as a direct result. Get out there and buy this, let Marvel know that this kind of experimentation is something you want to see more of. I can guarantee it's thirty times more interesting than anything you saw in Ultimatum.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.5

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