Tales From the Longbox
Here’s a run-down of some of the comic-books I’ve been reading lately:
The New 52 — Back in September, I gave my comments on the big DC Comics’ series-wide re-launch. A few months later, with several more issues of a number of the DC titles under my belt, my thoughts remain pretty much the same. This relaunch has certainly prompted me to sample several DC series I wasn’t reading before (Green Lantern, Batgirl, Catwoman, Stormwatch), so in that respect the publisher’s goals have been accomplished. But right now I don’t imagine myself sticking with 3 of the 4 series I just mentioned, after their initial story-lines have concluded (the exception being Green Lantern, which I’m really enjoying and am considering continuing with), so the bump in my monthly DC readership might not last. I still have mixed feelings on the new Superman, the character that has been the most changed by the relaunch (at least amongst the DC series that I’m currently reading). The young, jeans-wearing Superman in Grant Morrison’s Action Comics is pretty unrecognizable, and while I’m enjoying this new take on the icon, I would imagine that two years from now these rough edges are going to be sanded off to return us closer to the character we all knew. That might not be a bad thing, as while I’m enjoying Action, it really doesn’t feel like Superman. It is better, though, then the bland, colorless five-years-later version of the character seen currently in Superman. Geroge Perez is giving 1980’s Chris Claremont a run for his money in the words-per-square-inch department, and with nowhere near the panache. As for Batman, the character least changed by the relaunch, I again have mixed feelings. I’m enjoying all four Batman titles right now, each in their own way, but all of these stories feel like they would have been entirely in place in the “old” continuity. There have been a couple of references to the five-year-old history of super-hero activity that we’ve been told exists in this new DC Universe, but I just ignore those references because they are totally ridiculous in these Bat-books that seem to have kept ALL pre-existing Batman history, including the existence of at least three Robins. There was even a reference in one of the Bat-books to Bruce Wayne’s year away (when he was “dead” following the events of Final Crisis). So that means that in only FOUR years of activity, Batman had at least THREE Robins? Ludicrous, and best ignored altogether. Hence my mixed feelings — these Batman comics are all entertaining, but that is totally unconnected to (and, indeed, I might even say in spite of) the relaunch’s new continuity.
Frank Miller’s Holy Terror — Good god was this nightmarishly bad. When writing about the new animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, I praised Frank Miller for his authorship of that comics masterpiece. There is no question that Frank Miller has written and drawn some of the very finest comic books ever made. In addition to Batman: Year One, there is The Dark Knight Returns, his lengthy run on Daredevil, 300, Sin City and all of the subsequent Sin City mini-series and one-shots, Ronin, Hard Boiled (with Geoff Darrow), Give Me Liberty (with Dave Gibbons), and so much more. The man is a genius, there is no question. And yet, I have to admit that it’s been many years since I can say I really feel like he’s been firing on all cylinders. The Sin City series petered out with the overly lengthy mini-series Hell and Back (published in 1999-2000). The Dark Knight Strikes Again is as The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather (that is to say: foolishly attempted and best forgotten), and I found the first issue of the Miller-authered All Star Batman to be so out-of-character and off-putting that I did not continue to follow subsequent issues. Holy Terror sounded fascinating to me when it was first announced quite a number of years back: it would be Mr. Miller’s return to Batman, and would deal with Batman combating the threat of Islamist extremism. But somewhere along the way the project ceased being a Batman story. As released, the series focuses on a super-hero called The Fixer (clearly originally intended to be Batman) and the slinky female thief with whom he has a love/hate relationship (clearly originally intended to be Catwoman). Without the Batman connection, the story’s title loses its cleverness, and in particular the first 25 pages lose all interest. Instead of watching a more transgressive version of rooftop interactions that we’ve often seen between Batman and Catwoman, we’re just watching two lame rip-offs fight and then have sex in the rain, in what almost seems like self-parody of all of Mr. Miller’s most-famous stylistic quirks: rain, rooftops, and curt, almost monosyllabic dialogue. Except that what felt revelatory twenty years ago in Sin City has now been pushed to such an extreme that it felt, to me at least, simplistic and silly. Things get worse when the terrorists blow up bombs in Gotham City (sorry, excuse me, Empire City). I had expected that the point of this story was to stretch the idea of super-heroes to see what would happen when a super-hero character was confronted with a larger, real-world issue that he/she couldn’t just punch out. (I enjoyed Alex Ross and Paul Dini’s attempts to do just that in the over-sized series of graphic novels they published a decade or so ago: Superman: Peace on Earth, Batman: War on Crime, etc.) But no, that didn’t happen at all. In this story, conveniently, all the evil masterminds behind this worldwide terrorist organization are holed up in a mosque just a few blocks away from Batman and Catwoman (sigh, OK, The Fixer and Natalie) so our heroes can go and punch them out (or, in this case, murder them with guns) and save the day, the end. Sigh.
The Avengers — I was really bummed to have disliked Fear Itself, Marvel’s big Avengers-focused crossover, but in the months since, Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers titles have gotten right back down to the business of telling fun super-hero yarns. I am well aware Mr. Bendis’ Avengers issues are not the sort of action-packed super-hero comics that some people are looking for, but I must say I like his comics best when very little happens! Case in point: the recent Avengers #19, gorgeously illustrated by Daniel Acuna, in which Captain America tries to figure out who will be on The Avengers. This is a familiar story that seems to happen in The Avengers every few years, something playfully acknowledged by the characters in the issue. But the comic’s pleasures aren’t that they promise a dramatic upheaval of the team’s membership: it’s in the fully-realized characterizations of all of these super-heroes, and the fun of the interactions between the different iconic (and less-than-iconic) characters. I’m also really digging Warren Ellis’ series of one-and-done issues in Secret Avengers, which epitomize everything that a great super-hero comic can and should be.
Ultimate Comics — The jury’s still out for me on the new incarnations of Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates, though for now I’m enjoying both titles. I was praising Brian Michael Bendis just now, when writing about The Avengers, and I will repeat what I have often written on this site: I think his work for the past well-over-a-decade on Ultimate Spider-Man represents one of the very best runs of a super-hero comic-book ever, and that series has consistently been one of my favorite reads, month in and month out, since the series began (back in October 2000, wow!). But I really disliked the recent story-line which, unbelievably, ended in the apparent death of Peter Parker. Setting aside my disbelief that this death will stick (what death in comics does?), it didn’t feel to me like an earned ending to the story of the character that I so loved. Peter Parker had been getting out of worse scrapes, it seems to me, since the series began, so that fact that this assemblage of villains was able to actually kill him seemed, to me, to be a lame, too-easy ending. (It also came far too soon after the even lamer fake-out death of Peter Parker story that came after Ultimatum.) That being said, I’m quite enjoying the relaunched version of the series, which features an entirely new cast of characters and setting. It reminds me of the fun of the early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, in which Mr. Bendis set up a fascinating, well-fleshed out world of high school kids who were fun and interesting and really felt like high school kids. I’m still on board for now, and interested to see where this goes. Same goes for Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates. I really dug his four-issue Hawkeye mini-series, which was stunningly illustrated by Rafa Sandoval (who did such a terrific job on the recent Ultimate Doom series) and featured the ultimate version of Xorn (which really made me laugh). I am intrigued by the apparently game-changing events of Mr. Hickman’s first several Ultimates issues (with the creation of a whole new super-powered nation-state and the seeming death of all the Asgardians) and am interested to see what happens next.
X-Men: Schism — I loved the first issue but felt that things really fell off from there. That first issue, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated with beauteous, jaw-dropping perfection by Carlos Pacheco, was terrific. I felt the characterizations of Cyclops and Wolverine were spot-on, and the warm scene between them in the UN building, right before Cyclops’ speech, was one of my very favorite interactions between the characters ever. The issue had tremendous energy from the first moment of trouble during the speech right through the escalating badness that followed, and I loved the return of classic X-Men antagonists the Sentinels and the Hellfire Club. But ultimately the series disappointed. I didn’t buy the reasons behind Wolverine and Cyclops’ eventual split, and the way their argument escalated from a verbal disagreement (which actually was a pretty tense, well-written scene in issue 4) to a physical fight — even when the ultimate Sentinel was actually attacking Utopia!! — was the worst kind of comic-book silliness. I also thought that the ultimate Sentinel threat was dealt with way, way, WAY too easily in the final issue. The whole build-up (especially in the Prelude to Schism mini-series, which was actually a nice mini-series but which heralded a destructive threat that never materialized, and also which did not in any way fit into the story of Schism — someone tell me where/when, exactly, the events of Prelude were supposed to have taken place in the Schism story??) was for nothing as this more-dangerous-than-anything-we’ve-ever-faced-before threat was defeated in just a few pages.
I’m also reading and enjoying: Dollhouse, B.P.R.D., Dark Horse Presents, and I can’t wait to read the latest issue of Jeff Smith’s RASL which just came out!