Thursday, October 26, 2006

Random Reading: Young Avengers & Runaways #3

A few weeks back, I skipped picking up the second issue of this series because I didn't know anything about these characters--or cared. But, the pickings were slim at the bookstore and it features Noh-Varr from Marvel Boy, so I wanted to see how they've butchered him.

The intro/recap page is shit. There are fourteen characters that we are told about, except we're not told anything of any actual interest. Oh, we know their names now, good, but who cares? For the Runaways, we're told who each one is a kid of; for example, Chase Stein is the "Son of Mad Scientists." Great. Now, what the fuck does that mean? Does he have some cool mad scientist technology? He is a mad scientist himself, but in a good way? The only character that makes sense is Old Lace, who is a genitically engineered dinosaur. I understand what that means.

For the Young Avengers, we get their codenames and then their real names, which, again, tells me nothing. I can make guesses, but I don't know any of their details really. This group's example: Hulkling. I'm guessing he's like a teenage version of the Hulk (the retarded name tipped me off--seriously, he's called Hulkling?), but how exactly? He's green and looks maybe strong? Is he a rage freak too? A mindless destroyer? What?

The actual story recap: it's the whole Superhuman Registration Act thing again and apparently both groups chose no. So, the Young Avengers find out the Runaways need help and are all like "They're teens too! We have to save them!" Except, there's a misunderstanding and both groups are all like "I hate you!" But before they can kill each other, Noh-Varr shows up all mind-controlled by the warden of a superhuman prison called the Cube (where Marvel Boy left him--but I will discuss that shortly--oh I will discuss that shortly) and he's going to fucking kick their asses.

So, we jump into the story and what happens? Noh-Varr kicks their asses.

The opening sequence is rather cool and well done. Writer, Daniel Wells, brings back a concept Morrison introduced where Noh-Varr is able to go into a mental state where he's basically on automatic and everything around him is white, so he can focus on the activity he's doing. In Marvel Boy, it was running. Here, it's kicking ass. In the first two pages, we see Nov-Varr in various action poses totally alone in the white. On the next two pages, we get the externals filled in in exact duplications of what we already saw.

The rest of the issue is just fighting as Noh-Varr overcomes every attempt to injure or stop him and these kids realise they're fucked. Interspaced are random shots of the evil warden who is overweight and balding and just looks evil--which helps the reader know he's evil, of course.

What we don't get is any more of a clue who these kids are. But, that kind of works for the issue--at least, it did in my case because I was hopin Noh-Varr would kill the whole lot of them. And I'm pretty sure the only reason he doesn't most of the time is the standard "We can't kill off these characters!" argument.

As for Noh-Varr himself, I'm going to have to call bullshit on the whole thing. Not his actual fighting abilities as that seems right, but the whole brainwashed by the evil warden shit. It makes for a nice story where you get an unstoppable killing machine already created, but, um, how did this warden manage to accomplish brainwashing Noh-Varr exactly? It was mad very, very clear in the Marvel Boy mini series that Noh-Varr is much, much, MUCH more advanced than humans. He's millenia above us, mentally and physically. As Morrison ended the series, he would be running that place within six months.

But, I have to admit that thinking that is limited only to myself and anyone else who read that series. A fan of Runaways or Young Avengers or the average reader may not know that stuff and won't have their reading experience affected negatively as a result.

Mine was, though. And I guess I'm showing my fanboy colours, but, seriously, it's bullshit. This evil warden is basically a bad Midas rip-off (complete with the love of dissecting aliens and superpeople) and Noh-Varr defeated Midas, but gets broken by this greasy fat guy with a bad haircut? Seriously: bullshit.

At the end of the issue, the evil warden has taken some prisoners, picked up Noh-Varr (who has Vision's arm stuck in his chest and doesn't care--seriously, he has a robot's arm phased into him and doesn't notice, but was broken by lame villain guy?), and the remaining teen heroes are all like "We're gonna get our buddies back and kick ass against that organization who has the weird alien guy who we were lucky to survive a fight with! We're not at all morons! Joss Whedon is writing some of us soon and Allen Heinberg said he's doing more Young Avengers, so you know we're gonna survive somehow! We rule!" Actually, the exact speech, said by the son of the mad scientists, is (begin cringing now, by the way) "After Gert I never wanted to see another one of my friends die. I would have given anything to say out of this silly 'Civil War.' We tried to run away from it, because we thought it was just between the adults. But they never asked us what side we were on . . . they just attacked. And took our friends. Now we're in it. Like it or not. The time to be runaways is over . . . it's time to do some avenging." Yikes. Horribly melodramatic speech in the best Stan Lee tradition--complete with the final shot of all of the characters standing shoulder-to-shoulder as if they weren't all just standing around like regular people would two seconds previous.

The art in the issue is well done--although I'm not a fan of that digital inking/straight to colours style that's used here. For all the chaos, it never gets confusing as to what's going on and, basically, you could understand what happens without reading a single word. Despite that final shot of the characters--no doubt in the script--Stefono Caselli does a great job.

Fans of the two teen hero series will possibly like this--I can't say since I know nothing about them beyond some basics. People who don't know anything about either group will probably wonder who the fuck they are. Fans of Marvel Boy will throw the book across the room in frustration.

Surprisingly, I think I'm going to get the next issue just to see where things are left with Noh-Varr--because I'm a glutton for punishment.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Random Reading: Superman 656

I've been in Windsor for well over a month and today was my first time visiting the closest comic shop to me. It's a nice little place called Rogues Gallery Comics and the owner was very friendly, offering me help almost immediately (even though, I pretty much look like the archetypal comic fan). Will definitely stop in there this year when I can.

I only got a few things, some back issues of Adventures of Superman from Joe Casey's run on the book, WildCats #1 and Superman #656, which I got for the purpose of this random reading.

My first thought is: who says comics don't teach kids anything? You want to teach your kid what deus ex machina is, hand them a copy of this comic. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Superman is in Serbia, fighting some weird looking creature called Subjekt-17 that is giving him a good fight. He's in Serbia as Clark Kent because an old friend asked him to come or something (why, I don't know--to do a story, maybe?), and his friend is in some burning military base, hunting for the details on this Subjekt-17.

Here, writer Kurt Busiek does something slightly interesting, almost Planetaryesque (yes, I just invented that word), with Subjekt-17's origin. You see, in 1949, a spaceship crashed somewhere in Russia. The pilot was dead, but further inside the ship was a pregnant female alien. She died on the operating table, but the child lived and was subjected to all sorts of nasty experiments over the years.

The interesting part is how it's described. Supes' friend tells him, "But in Earth's atmosphere, under our sun, her skin was growing harder, her musculature more dense . . . The infant began developing super-powers as well. But slowly, perhaps due to his youth." Sound familiar?

However, Busiek ruins it by having Superman narrate, "My heart goes out to him -- and I know that had my spaceship landed in the wrong place so many years ago, had been found by the wrong people--" Because subtle, allusive storytelling is somehow worse than being downright obvious about it. In fact, most of Superman's narration is obvious, overwrought and unnecessary. It helps set the stage at the beginning and recap the story, but after, it reminds me of old comics where the narration described what the character was doing in the panel. Busiek should know better, especially when he has someone as skilled as Carlos Pacheco providing the art (which is nothing but gorgeous throughout).

The story itself gets interesting as Subjekt-17's intelligence grows and he becomes angry at Superman for being an alien like him, but helping the humans that spent decades torturing him. And not only that, Subjekt-17's powers are growing and it's looking more and more like the only way to stop him will be to kill him--that is, until some weird time-traveller shows up and ends the fight on the second-last page.

Sorry, I spoiled the totally unanticipated ending that I didn't think Busiek capable of producing. It's hack work. He had a compelling, interesting story and ruined it with a deus ex machina in the form of someone named Arion of Atlantis, who says he's here to help Superman prevent a living hell created by Superman's "own ignorant hand." Okay, I'll admit this is interesting, but was it worth ruining the other story? Couldn't there have been some way for the Subjekt-17 story to be resolved and THEN have Arion show up and tell Superman he's an idiot (which he outright does)?

I would like to see Subjekt-17 return, because it's an interesting twist on Superman's own origin and could make for a great recurring villain. But, who's to tell, because Arion sent him somewhere and there's no telling what that means.

Overall, the story was interesting, the narration irritating, and the ending a fucking joke, but the art was fantastic. I'm actually tempted to pick up the next issue because I'm on board with any story that's about how Superman is stupid and fucks up the world. But, damn, Busiek, that ending? Come on, man, you're better than that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not-So-Random Reading: Identity Crisis

Picked up the trade edition of Identity Crisis today and figured it would be a good book to discuss here. I knew last week I would get it today. I was actually going to pick it up last week, but since the bookstore had both volumes if Authority: Revolution, I didn't want to take my chances that both volumes would still be there this week.

I read Identity Crisis when it first came out since my dad was buying it. Can't say that it impressed me at the time. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it either. Mostly, it made me just sort of shrug in apathy--except for the Batman mindwipe thing, which annoyed me a lot (but I'll discuss that in a few moments). But, reading a story like this when it comes out in serial form isn't the same as reading it in one sitting. It was obviously designed to be read in a single sitting (or something approximating one, similar to a novel--not spread over seven months--if it came out on time, which I can't remember if it did the entire way through).

I will say this: the first issue really got me this time. It is engaging on both a plot/story level and an emotional one. You feel for Ralph. It's obvious what's coming--and Meltzer is self-conscious about it in Ralph's narration--but even so, he puts it in a solid emotional context.

The only downside, really, of that first issue is the art because Rags Morales draws the dumbest-looking eyes I've ever seen. Throughout the entire book, I was constantly distracted by goofy, way too big eyes. Goddamn, I hate them.

I don't know where the story lost me, but it was somewhere in issue two or three. Probably when the focus shifted to the villains. Took me right out of the story. In the larger structure of the story, I can see why Meltzer did it, but I don't think it works. In a story about family and superheroes, giving the other side a voice like that kills the point. It doesn't matter if you're trying to show that they have the same concerns (as in the Captain Boomerang subplot) because, as is pointed out several times, the villains would use the heroes' families to hurt them, while the heroes wouldn't do that.

The narration throughout, actually, posed a problem for me. The only real constant voice we get is Green Arrow's plus whichever voice is convenient to the story. Here's a quick breakdown of narrators:

Issue one: Ralph, Superman, Nightwing, Green Arrow, Bolt, Sue, Robin, Black Lightning, and the Atom. Plus, the omniscient voice that tells us the where, when and who of the scene.

Issue two: the Atom, Green Arrow, Merlyn, Dr. Mid-Nite, and the omniscient voice.

Issue three: Green Arrow, Robin, and the omniscient voice.

Issue four: the Atom, Green Arrow, Batman, Lois Lane, and the omniscient voice.

Issue five: Green Arrow, the Atom, either Captain Boomerang or his son (it isn't clear as there are only two captions with this voice, and either could be thinking it), Robin, and the omniscient voice.

Issue six: Batman, Green Arrow, and the omniscient voice.

Issue seven: the Atom, Green Arrow, Superman, and the omniscient voice.

As a whole story, it comes across as fragmented and uneven. Perhaps, as individual issues, it isn't as jarring--I certainly didn't notice it when I read it as a serial. This time, though, it was painfully obvious. As the list shows, certain narrators showed up a lot, especially Green Arrow. In fact, Green Arrow's narration is the only one that rarely lasted for more than a page or two. Most shifts in narration only lasted for a page or two (or, in the case of the Captain Boomerang/his son, one panel).

This problem stems from the fact that Meltzer tries too hard to make it a universal, affecting everyone story when it isn't that kind of story. Okay, it is in the sense that it does affect everyone, but those viewpoints are often showed through Green Arrow's narration--so why bother with the others? Meltzer seems to realise this after the first Dr. Mid-Nite narration where he begins the autopsy, because the next time we see him, Mr. Terrific is there so there's someone he can talk to instead of using first-person narration. I'm certain most of the other excess narrators could have been excised, focusing the story more and giving it a consistent voice.

While I'm on stuff that bothered me: how did the heroes not check the Dibnys' phone records? Mister Miracle says, after Jean (Atom's ex-wife) is "attacked," that there are seventeen ways to get past the defences these houses have and I'm certain he knows the phone is one. Shit, how many episodes of Law & Order include checking phone records? Um, like all of them (probably not all, but a very large majority). "Shit, she got a call from the Atom's ex-wife right before dying. Maybe we shoul check that out."

Actually, while checking on the murder just now, I'm confused how it actually happened. In the first issue, Sue is talking to Alfred (Batman's butler) on the phone, hangs up, hears a noise elsewhere in the house and then later we see her attacked and burned--and had apparently called for help using the JLA signalling device. And then, in the final issue, we see that Jean got into Sue's brain through the phone (so what was the noise Sue heard in the house?), causing a blockage--which, strangely enough, still gives Sue enough time to signal for help somehow. That, and the fact that the various showings of the murder have conflicting ideas. First, she's seemingly thrown onto a table, but then it's because her brain is all fucked up (with the phone on the table exactly as she left it in the first issue), but then she's on her knees convulsing because her brain is all fucked up (right after she answered the phone and let Jean into her brain, which apparently fucks her up immediately--so how did she place the phone down calmly on the table?).

Maybe it works, but I'm not seeing it.

Now, for the Batman problem. When I first read the series, I didn't believe Batman would give a fuck about Dr. Lite and the League messing with his brain. To me, Batman has one line: murder. He won't kill a bad guy, but he'll do anything and everything else. But, Green Arrow says something that I missed before (and a friend I debated the issue with hinted at, but I dismissed--so I was wrong): "Bruce would never stand for it. Not without his say-so." A good line that invalidates my argument. Batman doesn't care, he's just an asshole control freak. Fair enough.

For the most part, the story was good. I especially enjoyed the fight with Deathstroke in issue three (although, why didn't Green Arrow just stab Deathstroke in his working eye and, you know, get rid of a villain/assassin--I know, because that would be like killing him off, in a way, and you can't do that--except to minor, supporting characters like Sue Dibny and Jack Drake). The mystery was compelling and did make sense, with a few lines and panels early on that seem more ominous if you know Jean is the killer already.

But, shit, the narration (which, even though I don't like the technique Meltzer uses, is always well-written), goofy eyes and the murder itself bugged the fuck out of me. Definitely enjoyed it more than the first time I read it, though, and would recommend picking it up.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Random Reading -- Blade #1

Here's a funny thing about the bookstore at the University of Windsor: they stock a lot of small press graphic novels, some manga and a lot of DC published (including Vertigo, Wildstorm) graphic novels, but only stock Marvel, Dark Horse and Bongo singles. No Marvel trades, no DC singles. How odd.

Anyway, this week, I grabbed a copy of Blade #1. I've never read a Blade comic before, never seen the movies or TV show and have generally had no interest whatsoever in the character. Not since I was, maybe, nine have I had any interest in vampires either. Not my thing. Although, judging from writer Marc Guggenheim's intro/letter column editorial, that is what he wants from a reader (or, an ass in the seat as it were).

Holy shit! Spider-Man's a vampire! And . . . what's the point? We get two pages of a barely seen fight and that's it. Blade shoots him in the kneecaps and suddenly, Spider-Vampire poses no threat, but don't worry because Dracula is here to start some shit, except he's killed right away, too. I guess the point is that Blade is the fucking Man.

And the rest of the issue supports that. All of the threats he encounters are shown briefly (if at all) before he eliminates them. It would be wrong to call this book an action comic, because there's little actual action here. Most of what you would like to see if off-panel. Teenage vampires? They're established as existing, but then nothing. S.H.I.E.L.D. taken over by vampires? Two or three panels and they're taken out. It's like Guggenheim gives the reader a handjob, but always stops before ejaculation. And then begins tugging on the dick again, but oh no, so sorry, no cumming for you!

There's also brief flashes back to Blade's birth and him as a kid. These are the only parts of the issue that work because, well, they don't need to be complete. The rest of the issue lacks a completeness. Guggenheim says he wants to tell two stories per issue, but he only tells one of them well. Wanting a complete story is fine, as is compression, but there has to be a payoff at some point. And, here, there never is.

As well, Howard Chaykin's art is good most of the time, but looks really stiff in some scenes, especially when Blade falls in on the vampire S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Actually, his Blade is the worst-looking character in the book. Everyone else looks fine, but Blade looks off. Maybe he just hasn't gotten a handle on him yet.

I won't be picking up any future issues. Maybe if I hear Guggenheim's worked out some of his problems, I'll flip through an issue in the shop.