Monday, September 27, 2010

Heroic Age: 1 Month 2 Live #1

The city streets of Marvel's major metropolitan areas are getting a bit crowded. Particularly in New York City where the vast majority of the publisher's superhero population has set up shop, it's seriously out of hand. I suspect the superheroes must outnumber the regular Joes by now, so it's hardly surprising that more stories aren't told from the common man's perspective. Usually Marvel is good for one or two a year, though, and 1 Month 2 Live fits that mold.

We've got our designated everyman in Dennis Sykes, a banker who hates his job but lacks the gumption to do anything about it. After a delivering a particularly tough loan rejection, the impetus to change his life finds Sykes instead. Playing the good Samaritan, he interrupts a heist only to take a beating and swallow a force-fed mouthful of bio waste. In keeping with the "hero on every corner" motif, Ben Grimm happens to be close enough to save our man from a more fatal situation, but the worst damage had already been done. Sykes has developed a mutated form of cancer that's going to finish the job within a month. But there is some good news: he's been blessed with a few super powers to enjoy during those last days on Earth.

The story's not a perfect fit for the throwback to more innocent storytelling that is Heroic Age's MO, although its basic premise is a direct product of that concept. Rick Remender's tale of the little man who's finally taken too much crap and goes over the brink is straightforward and matter-of-fact, even when the plot is completely outlandish and ridiculous. The lead's origin is right in line with radioactive spiders, out-of-control dump trucks filled with toxic waste and waves of gamma radiation, which is to say it's utterly insane upon close inspection. Where those excesses were easy to swallow in the Silver Age, when gaudy outfits and a tendency to state the obvious made a fine match for the lunacy of each hero's origin, 1 Month 2 Live's story seems even crazier paired with a quiet, pedestrian home life and a cabinet full of bottled frustrations. It's a story of halves: half passerby and half center of attention, half hero and half villain, half cheeseball origin and half downtrodden realism.

Andrea Mutti provides serviceable, if not spectacular, visuals for this chapter. His somewhat grounded style is out of place on the few pages featuring big-name cameos (his rendition of Grimm, in particular, is genuinely terrible) but it's much more fitting in the issue's subdued civilian scenes. Sykes never dons a spandex wardrobe – not in the first issue, anyway – and pairing that with Mutti's nondescript, everyday style makes for a good fit with the mood and message of this story. I wouldn't expect to see him working on Spider-Man any time soon, but maybe the next edition of Front Line isn't totally out of the question.

Sometimes looks can be deceiving, but other times they're right on the money. This is a pretty good representation of the latter. What seems like a fairly nondescript mini-series with fleeting ties to the rest of the Marvel U on the cover is, in action, pretty much precisely that. Its heart is in the right place and it asks a few pressing questions about morality and the very slight differences between a man and a monster, but at the end of the day it's not exactly forging new territory. A solid enough read, but not something I'll be back to pore over in the future. Flip through it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4

Scarlet #2

As evidence of one of Marvel's most prolific ongoing partnerships, the release of a new project from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev is quickly becoming something of an event. With a landmark run on Daredevil and subsequent pairings on Spider-Woman, Mighty Avengers and Halo: Uprising already on their joint resumé, the duo have recently branched out with a fully creator-owned series, Scarlet.

This series marks a noticeable departure from the relatively comfortable terrain of the duo's previous partnerships. Casting aside the security blanket offered by superheroics, no matter far from the norm their take may have been, with Scarlet these two are investigating terrain that's much more in line with some of Bendis's earlier works: Goldfish, Fire and Jinx. It's filthy and grimy, street-level justice achieved by asking guilty people the questions they don't want to hear and discerning the truth from the meat of their lies. Rather than painting the enemy as a dark-souled oppressor that can be punched, thwarted or intimidated, Scarlet's outlook is much more bleak: everyone's responsible and you don't know the first thing about getting even.

Bendis catches a lot of flack for his dialog, particularly in his mainstream work. Without a pressing directive at the front of his mind, he'll often opt for character-building small talk that's whimsical if not always pertinent. Admittedly, he does frequently overdo it in that regard: it's just not as exciting to watch the Avengers stand around their HQ and talk about their pet peeves as it is to join them in staring down Doctor Doom. When he's going somewhere significant with it, however, there's really nobody in the industry who can script dialog like him. A decade's worth of disregard hasn't dulled that axe one bit: diving into a seedy underworld like the one at the center of Scarlet, Bendis slips back into his old form like a comfortable sweater, rescued from the closet on the first cold day of winter. Which isn't to say this is packed with wall-to-wall ward balloons: in fact, it's actually a remarkable show of restraint. The words are thick and character-soaked when applicable, but completely absent when they aren't essential. It's an astoundingly mature work, leaping from a lengthy monologue to page after page of stark, tense silence. Bendis has struck a careful balance in that respect, and the results are magnificently successful. It's a far cry from Ultimate Spider-Man, and the change is entirely welcome.

But while Bendis's storytelling is a departure from his recent work, it's really Maleev who displays the biggest change in character. Free from the restraints of a sharp deadline and a set of rules and guidelines dictating what is and isn't acceptable in a mainstream comic, Alex's artwork is an explosion of creativity, experimentation and personal exploration. He ventures from David Mack-influenced sketchbook watercolors to richly layered noir-inspired shadow paintings to full-on pop art, all while maintaining a deep, rewarding connection to the central narrative. Despite these dalliances into uncharted territory, Maleev never loses sight of himself. Each panel might be trying something different, reaching and stretching in unexpected new ways, but at its heart there's never any question who's behind the pencil. He maintains his identity without question through every transformation. If this is a sign of what's on the horizon, Maleev may be on the cusp of something gigantic. It's breathtaking.

Listen, this series is not for everyone. I get that. If you don't have a soft spot for grime and grit, for revenge drenched with blood, this will not be your cup of tea. It's not for grandparents, nor for your children. It's also too bold for Marvel's main line, which makes its relationship with their creator-owned subsidiary, Icon Comics, a sensible one. But if you're looking for a smart series, spoiled characters making bad decisions in stressful environments and dealing with the repercussions when (and if) they should arise, if you're after amazing artwork, tremendous dialog and a twisting, turning plot… well, then by all means buy it. You won't be alone.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9

Thor: First Thunder #1

As if the title didn't make it patently obvious, First Thunder is, simply enough, a retelling of the origins of the mighty Thor. With a plot pulled nearly action-for-action from the character's original appearance in 1962's Journey Into Mystery #83, dedicated fans shouldn't expect many surprises in this mini-series, just a few modernizations and minor alterations.

Artist Tan Eng Huat is the first thing you'll notice – his inspired work fills the issue with richly detailed environments and strangely proportioned characters, an unusual blend of Leinil Yu and Aeon Flux's Peter Chung. First Thunder's small cast universally exhibits bulging cheeks, bent bones and awkward poses, but they do so against a sharp backdrop and smart, well-timed storyboards. Though his work does seem too cartoonish and exaggerated during the scenes featuring Thor himself, Huat feels right at home with the god of thunder's human host, Donald Blake. An early chase scene between Blake and an unidentified monstrous pursuer, in fact, serves as immediate proof that Huat knows what he's doing. His clever storytelling does such a good job of leading us through the action that the numerous accompanying narration boxes quickly start to feel like overkill.

And that's where the issue's charm wears off. Bryan J.L. Glass's writing never even approaches the level of its paired artwork. Not a single page is left to speak for itself without the invasion of a hackneyed narrative box or bland thought bubble. Blake's ongoing internal monologues dwell too long on the presence of unseen gods and their effect on his situation. When he falls into a lake in the darkness, it's because the gods put it there. Swimming in a random direction, he finds land because the gods have shown mercy upon him. I'd assume the idea is to present him as a spiritual man, perhaps an expert in Norse mythology or general theological studies, but instead it just gives the impression that he's mentally unstable. Fred Phelps doesn't think about god's personal agenda this often.

When he isn't rambling on about the almighty, Blake is obsessing over his daddy issues, which seem to be a vital ingredient in something like 85% of all superheroes' origin tales. As it turns out, it's this fixation that unites doctor and thunder god, ensuring that no matter which consciousness is at the head of the issue's action, they're almost certainly going to be whining about something. When Blake makes his first transformation into Thor, the action immediately picks up and the dialog goes straight off the deep end. Not just from Thor himself, whose long-winded, lore-steeped monologues remain as frequent as ever, but from his enemies and their civilian observers. In true throwback fashion, everyone on the page suddenly becomes obsessed with explaining their thoughts and actions aloud.

While I'm sure the original feels out of touch and dated, the decision to retell this story in a modern setting is a curious one. It brings very little to the table in the way of fresh ideas or new revelations, and actually serves to make the characters less interesting and appreciable than they were before. The writing is heavy handed and clumsy, and while the artwork has some real moments of power, it's not without its own shortcomings. Big fans will want to skim over this, but the rest of us can skip it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3

Thunderbolts #148

As it turns out, Luke Cage is good buddies with Daredevil. So, naturally, when the blind attorney ninja finds himself at the center of his publisher's latest event, Shadowland, every series touched by that character or any of his supporting cast is immediately sucked in, like so much driftwood along the outer edges of a short-lived whirlpool. Such is the predicament with Thunderbolts this month, as Cage realizes that he can use his squad of convicts and ragamuffins to confront his old friend in a brazen show of force.

Writer Jeff Parker does manage to preserve a lot of the book's individuality, though, which is key to maintaining the interest of his regular readers in spite of the diversion. While it's technically a tie-in to the big crossover that's looming above Daredevil at the moment, this issue is primarily a story about the Thunderbolts and how the action in Hell's Kitchen is affecting both the team and their leader. The story splits its focus between Luke's street-level view of Daredevil's dark kingdom and the rest of the team's exploits in prison, biding time while they wait for the squad's designated leader to return with a new mission. Both provide plenty of opportunities for character development, and Parker doesn't disappoint. It's no easy task to turn such a vile cluster of villains into a team worth rooting for, but he manages via playful, entertaining back-and-forths and a few not-so-subtle outbursts in the prison mess hall. The spirit of this team remains unlike that of their squeaky clean counterparts, and that's responsible for a great deal of its allure.

On the visual side, I loved what I saw from Declan Shalvey this month. His quick, concise artwork cuts to the core of each character, telling more with less, and isn't above trying a few new techniques here and there. Shalvey's limited linework results in a page that's easy to navigate, but still crams in plenty of atmosphere, perspective and individuality. He's not unlike a young Chris Bachalo, still trying to find precisely where his niche actually is, but definitely on the scent of something big. He gives the issue a light tone that's in sync with the witty, casual banter of the team on a mission, with both flashing hints of a more sinister true character.

Too often an issue like this one tries to stretch itself in two different directions, directly continuing the story of the main crossover while introducing the unique perspective of its own series. It almost never works. Followers of the big event skip out on it as an inessential chapter, while dedicated followers of the series itself feel betrayed by the sudden unannounced change in focus. Where other writers often feel compelled to please everyone, though, Jeff Parker isn't afraid to make a choice and stick with it: this might be listed in the checklist of Shadowland tie-ins, but it's not just another chapter. Regular Thunderbolts readers shouldn't feel like their series has been taken captive. Those less familiar with the team but interested in the event will find enough forward momentum to make it worth a purchase, along with more than one reason to keep up with the series after its involvement with Daredevil comes to a close. It's a rarity. Buy it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Curse of the Mutants: Blade (one shot)

After a few months out of the limelight, Marvel's resident vampire hunter, Blade, is back in the game, this time playing a supporting role in the latest X-Men crossover. With the recent appearance of daywalking vampires and the assassination of bloodsucking kingpin Dracula, it's been a time of sudden revelation for this sword-wielding half-breed. Hunting vamps has suddenly become twice as dangerous and unpredictable, with a recent rash of dead hunters only serving to reinforce that fact.

With a setup like that one and a looming tie-in to one of the publisher's premiere titles, the stage would seem to be set for some serious fireworks in this one-shot. Or rather, one might think it would be. In practice, this issue serves little purpose beyond reintroducing the audience to the rules of Blade's world, sharing a few graphic slayings and giving the lead a reason to take his show to San Francisco in search of Scott Summers and friends. Even as someone who's never been all that familiar with this character's adventures, I noticed several moments where it felt like the information I was getting was more than a little redundant.

Duane Swierczynski's writing is a strange concoction, blending a grizzled noir detective's narration with a hardass action hero's behavior. The idea was to give Blade some extra depth, to prove there's more to him than stakes, bad hair and machismo, but in practice it just feels like the narrative is spoken from another player's perspective. Blade pulls the trigger, postures and fires off terse one-liners, then Humphrey Bogart comes in for a scene-shifting voiceover or to describe a new character. As the page count begins to add up, Swierczynski tries to cover for his issue's deliberate pace with a few gory pages of action and brutality, but it doesn't work particularly well. When the dust clears, the plot has gone almost nowhere and the dead are relegated to the handful of disposable no-names we'd met just a few pages earlier.

Tim Green's loose, light artistic touch is an awkward match for the mood Swierczynski is trying to set in the plot – while the story's trying to provide a tense, horror-tinted atmosphere, the artwork never feels entirely serious. Green's visuals are quirky and energetic from start to finish, and they do show some signs of rush in the final pages. I actually enjoyed the majority of his compositions, but it's a terrible choice for this kind of story, which would have been better suited for the deep, dark, somewhat dated style provided by Dave Wilkins on the cover. It's like Darrick Robertson teaming up with Neil Gaiman, though neither Blade contributor deserves that comparison: two creators headed in such precisely opposite directions that they directly cancel each other out. A mismatch at best, a disaster at worst.

Blade's edition of Curse of the Mutants spends more time treading water than it does in the thick of things, avoiding the meat of the subject so that the bigger books have more to chew on when they finally get around to it. It's far from essential reading, especially considering the entire thing is summed up in a few word balloons when Blade finally arrives in San Francisco within X-Men #2. Skip it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 2

Superman: Secret Origin #6

Coming into this final chapter of the Man of Steel's latest origin respin, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank have a whole fistload of plot threads left to wrangle. First and foremost, Superman is still an unknown variable to the common man, a curiosity with great power but uncertain motives. General Lane and Lex Luthor have already seen enough to make up their minds about him, though, and have set out to incapacitate the man in blue at all costs – even if they have to tear Metropolis down around them in the process. With Lane's troops sweeping into the Daily Planet bullpen and Luthor's Kryptonite-powered Metallo suit crashing down on Superman's back, all signs point to this being an action-packed climax. It doesn't waste any time.

While I'm still not sold on the necessity of this series, there's no denying the kind of care Geoff Johns has delivered between its covers. This is more than just a retelling, it's an homage to the core of the character, however naïve and dated it might seem in the present setting. It's also an apt reminder of what comics used to be all about. Underneath the modernizations, the gaudy wardrobe, the convoluted master plans, there's a genuine sweetness, a passion to do the right thing despite the high cost of doing so. It's straightforward, innocent, perhaps a sign of the times in which this basic story was first told, but it's still there and it's still pertinent.

Of course, you have to dig pretty deep to find that, because on the surface this is more than a little bland. Though he may be dealing primarily with the enormous issue of basic human nature, (and all the ignorance, xenophobia, disbelief and outrage that it encompasses) Johns's insights fall well short of revelation. In fact, many such lessons, which seem obvious at first glance, are hammered home so bluntly, so repeatedly, that they lose any power they might have carried in the first place. Johns is capable of subtlety – I've seen him flex that muscle repeatedly in his other works – but it's a skill he brazenly neglects in Secret Origin #6.

The issue's fight scenes are a strong point, as Johns invents no shortage of giant-sized splash pages for Gary Frank to knock out of the park, but even these aren't free from the writer's dalliances. At one point, Superman pauses right in the middle of his tank-crunching brawl with Metallo to share a full page of redundant conversation with Lois. What was the enemy doing while that was going on? Chatting up a few nearby troops. I guess they called a twenty second time-out or something.

Frank's artwork goes a long way toward smoothing over the story's rough spots, adding more depth and character with his pencils than the narrative could deliver with a thousand captions. Fortunately, that's an observation Johns seems to have made over the course of the series as well. In earlier issues, the artist's compositions were difficult to appreciate beneath the stacks of layered word balloons. In this climactic issue, though, that dialog is much more concise and restrained, allowing the stunning artwork to bear the bulk of the load. It blossoms given the opportunity, a show stealer in every way.

This issue is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, it's a masterful demonstration of who Superman is, who he was and what he stands for. It enjoys tremendous artwork, a stunning fight scene and a firm, appropriate climax. On the other hand, for all its attempts to modernize the setting, the actual story remains incredibly outdated and narrow sighted. Its dialog is clumsy and unnatural, its narration redundant and heavy-handed, and its conclusion boldly unsurprising. It's a paint-by-the-numbers story, and no matter how good a job Johns and Frank may have done with staying inside the lines, it'll never be more than that. Flip through it and enjoy its merits, but don't linger too long for fear of its shortcomings.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 5