Archive for the ‘Marvel’ Category

Helter Skelter

June 7, 2012

So, it’s now official: I’ve “joined” the Manson family. I have my own bio as a “contributing writer” and everything. Oh, the unspeakable horrors of their initiation rites, how horrible and unspeakable and initiatory they were, what with the rites and the initiations and the horrors, and oh, speak about unspeakable!

Naturally, I’m sworn to secrecy about the exact nature of those rites, but let’s just say the phrase “Now that your Mom’s gone, you have to be the chihuahua” will be forever burned into my memory, as well as my — well, like I said, sworn to secrecy.

Of course, this means I’ll have to step up my douchebaggery to a whole new level. On the CID-Scale (Comics-Internet-Douchebag Scale), writing at HU (even irregularly) ranks only just below posting comments about fuck-Kirby’s-family-what-did-they-ever-create or male-superheroes-are-objectified-too, so it’s time for me to troll up and flame on.

***

Did somebody say troll up and fuck Kirby’s family?

You may have noticed a lot of chatter lately about comic creators getting screwed. It’s just one of those crazy little things that come up every now and then, you know how people love to complain on the internet. Anyhoo, Tom Spurgeon’s been making this kind of point a bit, and I just wanted to elaborate on it a little.

So, consider this. The guy who drove the van that delivered the catering to the site for secondary photography during the postproduction process of the future DVD making-of feature of the popular movie The Walt Disney Company’s Marvel Entertainment’s The Avengers probably made a lot more money out of The Avengers than Jack Kirby ever did.

And that’s no slam on that guy — he probably did a really good job driving that van; if you were in that van you’d probably be all like whoa dude you took that corner so smoothly it was like being tongue-kissed by a lace doily knitted by God Himself. (Ladies, gents, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about). Or even if that guy wasn’t, you know, a veritable William Blake of the catering delivery industry, even if he was just basically what you’d expect — some dude driving a catering van — he probably did an okay job, and he deserves to be fairly recompensed. Let’s send him a nice royalty cheque.

But, you know what?

Let’s send Jack Kirby a much fucking bigger one while we’re at it.

I don’t know, is it partly an American thing? I mean, there are arseholes the world over, but it seems to me, at least in this late stage of capitalism, to be a distinctively American kind of arsehole who will defend to the death the right of Goliath to beat the shit out of David as long as there’s a buck in it and no laws are broken and besides he’s got a goddamn sling why doesn’t he defend himself for Yahweh’s sake?

It makes me wonder: in the world of The Simpsons are there bloggers who pride themselves on being all hard-headed and tough-minded and realistic, able to cut through all the the namby-pamby, sheltered-workshop hand-wringing of the Lennys and Carls of the world? Guys who write long blog posts and message-board comments about how of course it’s perfectly morally acceptable for Mr Burns to build a giant shield to block the sun from falling on Springfield ever again, or to flay the cute widdle puppies of Santa’s Little Helper so he can make a vest out of their skins?

No one put a gun to your head and made you live under Mr Burns’ giant sun-shield. You knew what you were getting yourself in for when you were born in Springfield

Do they write paragraph after paragraph justifying Mr Burns’ decision to dump extremely hazardous toxic waste in the grounds of Springfield Elementary on the rationale that, hey, he’s the one who’s undertaken all the risk of actually putting the waste into barrels and having it driven to the school, so he’s morally entitled to a fair return on his investment? Why do Lenny and Carl hate America? Class warfare! Job-creators! Work-for-hire! Sign the back of this cheque to get paid and thereby validate our legally dubious claims of ownership!

Who am I kidding? Of course there would be people like that.

In the world of The Simpsons, however, the plebs sometimes riot in the face of injustice. Actually, they’ll riot at the drop of a hat, but sometimes it happens to be a hat of injustice, and so they’re kind of rioting in the face of injustice, a face made of hats. Hm, I kind of lost a grip on my metaphors there, but you get my point.

It’s time for a motherfucking riot.

Incognito v. Detroit Metal City

May 24, 2010

Incognito. Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Icon, 2009. $18.99, 176 pages.

Shorter review: Oh wait you guys I think I already read this when it was called Sleeper

Longer review: Narrative artists recycle tropes, motifs, characters, settings, moods, plots, even dialogue, and they do it all the time. It’s called schtick or, if you prefer, style. As is well known, Warren Ellis has exactly one protagonist, on which he has written a hundred variations. Garth Ennis basically writes the same story over and over again. And that’s just to pick the two most obvious examples from “mainstream” comics; if we broadened our focus to consider the alt-comix crowd, the list would grow even longer  (Ware, Crumb, et al.) Sometimes this repetition bothers the reader;  sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had my lifetime quota for Ellis protagonists, but can still handle Ennis–de gustibus non disputandum est, I guess.

So I can’t really account for why Incognito‘s trip back to the well rubbed me the wrong way, but there you go. Brubaker and Phillips already did this comic a few years ago, this mash-up of noir and off-brand supervillainy, and they did it better the first time. The only addition is a dash of Fight Club-esque satire of white collar disaffection, but even that seemed more half-arsed than anything.

I generally like Ed Brubaker well enough, but I couldn’t tell whether Incognito was the product of mercenary cynicism or just a mediocre vision. I’m not sure which is worse but at any rate it’s not a dilemma that speaks well of the book.

Recommended? No.

Detroit Metal City Vol. 1. Kiminori Wakasugi. Viz Media, 2009. $12.99, 200 pages.

This, on the other hand, was excellent, a mad, silly comedy about the Japanese death metal scene. The basic set-up is farce genius: protagonist Soichi Negishi is a sweet-natured nice guy whose main wish in life is to be loved for his gentle, twee acoustic pop songs. Sample lyric: “When I wake up in the morning/You’re there making cheese tarts.” The text doesn’t use the phrase, but it seems pretty clear to me that Negishi is, or wants to be, a shibuya artist (the shout-out to Pizzicato Five helps cement this impression).

The only problem is that Negishi only finds (unwanted) success as Krauser II, the deranged front man for up-and-coming death metal band Detroit Metal City. And try as he might, Negishi can’t escape the scabrous, profane and occasionally dangerous lifestyle of his alter ego. Comedy ensues.

And does it ensue. The comedy here has basically two sources: (1) the contrast between Negishi’s gentle, “true” self (in a telling detail, his favourite film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet quirk-fest Amélie) and the over-the-top shocks of his alter ego; and (2) the inherent ridiculousness of death metal. Both sources are richly and adeptly mined; honestly, this is the funniest manga — and I’m talking laugh-out-loud-funny — I’ve read since (the lamentably unfinished in English) Octopus Girl. Which means, yes, this is funnier than Sgt. Frog (which, it must be said, I never really warmed to); more notably, it’s even funnier than Jones favourites  Cromartie and Yakitate!! Japan. Special mention to the Tetrapot Melon Tea gags; that shit is gold.

It helps that the stories here, at around 15 pages each, are shorter than the manga standard of around 20, so they never outstay their welcome. The one caution I would sound about the series is a doubt whether the premise is fertile enough to justify multiple volumes. To judge from the first volume, it’s not yet clear whether DMC is a one-trick pony. But in any case, this first volume is as close to perfect comedy as anything I’ve read in a long time.

Recommended? The highest possible recommendation, although it should be noted: this manga is most definitely not for the easily offended.

A few thoughts on The Essential Hulk Vol. 1

July 15, 2009

The Essential Hulk, Volume 1. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko et al. Marvel, 1999. $14.95, 528 pages.

One of the minor pleasures in this golden age of reprints is seeing how uncertain things were at the start. The Essential Hulk Vol 1. offers that pleasure in two ways. First, the book itself — the copy I’m (re)reading is an old one, from 1999 and it’s interesting to see how Marvel’s reprinting strategy has changed since then. For one thing, the covers of those early Essentials featured new cover art; the cover to my copy of The Essential Hulk is by Bruce Timm. For another, the big drawcard of the volume, to judge from the cover, is its inclusion of OVER 30 ISSUES OF CONTINUITY!

In other words, these early Essential volumes weren’t sold on the strength of their art by Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko — likewise, the early editions of Essential Avengers, Fantastic Four et al. featured new cover art by various artists. What was being sold was valuable continuity, essential reading for the True Believers.

Since then Marvel — and DC, for that matter — have figured out that Kirby has just as much as allure as their decades-old continuity (if not more). The covers of newer editions of the Essentials generally feature original art from the interior; while DC includes the great man’s name itself in the title of its reprints: Jack Kirby’s The Losers, Jack Kirby’s OMAC, Jack Kirby’s The Demon.

So this old reprint volume as a reprint volume shows a degree of uncertainty in those distant early days of Marvel’s reprinting program. And then there’s what’s inside the volume. There, you can practically see the gears turning as Kirby and Lee try a dozen — all right, three or four — different frameworks for the Hulk.

Which is surprising, really. You’d have thought the basic concept solid enough to require little revision: it’s Jekyll and Hyde meets Frankenstein. What more do you need?

Well, to judge by the first couple of issues, you need more — and it’s one thing or another. In issue 1, Bruce Banner turns into a savage Hulk whenever it’s night. By issue 3, he’s no longer bound to the diurnal cycle but now he’s under the hypnotic control of Rick Jones. By issue 4, Jones has lost his control and the Hulk, while still brutish, retains Banner’s intellect. Three issues later, we finally get the set-up familiar from later comics, not to mention the film and TV adaptations: Banner turns into the Hulk whenever he gets too stressed. Except that even then, it’s still not quite the familiar set-up — Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s stressed, sure, but it goes the other way too. That’s right, whenever the Hulk gets too stressed, he turns back into “the weak, powerless Bruce Banner”. Kind of puts a dampener on big fight scenes; in practice, all it means is that the Hulk turns back into Banner at the convenience of the plot.

This state of flux is echoed by the art. We start out with Jack Kirby, in a typical early 60s Kirby mode. That means doughy figures, and little to none of the baroque machinery, architecture or costumery that would flourish in his work a few years later. Then we get one issue of Ditko over Kirby’s pencils — although, let’s face it, with those inks they might as well be Ditko’s pencils. Then another couple of issues of Kirby, then Ditko for a couple of issues, then a few more of Kirby, then Kirby on layouts only and a cast of thousands on pencils.

It’s the switch to Ditko that has the greatest impact. He’s the one who sets up the (more or less) familiar status quo of the stress-induced-transformation. More importantly, he amps up the soap opera and turns the strip into a cliffhanger-based serial. He also introduces two parallel nemeses with high foreheads, widow’s peaks and pencil moustaches: Major Glenn Talbot and the Leader. Yet, although parallel in appearance, they cut contrasting figures. For Talbot is nemesis to the intellectual Banner, beset by anxiety; thus he is an upright instance of masculine militarism. Whereas the Leader is nemesis to the brutish Hulk, and so he represents Brains to the Hulk’s Brawn. At any rate, it’s a nice bit of doubling, subtly done.

That said, no one would mistake the material in here for the best of the Kirby-Lee or Ditko-Lee collaborations. Kirby stopped pencilling well before he could build up any real momentum, and Ditko left after a mere hundred pages or so. Still, afficionados of either artist will find this volume interesting for its first half, where Kirby’s and Ditko’s pencils appear. It’s a rare opportunity to see Ditko and Kirby working on the same character for any sustained period  — Machine Man in the 70s is the only other example I can think of.

Recommended? For Kirby/Ditko die-hards only.

A few thoughts on The Essential Thor vol. 4

June 29, 2009

The Essential Thor, Volume 4. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema et al. Marvel, 2008.  $19.99, 600 pages.

Of all their collaborations, it’s the Kirby-Lee Thor that is my favourite. Yes, that means I like it more than their Fantastic Four. Not that I don’t like their Fantastic Four, but when Kirby cuts loose in Thor, he really cuts loose. There’s a savage, primal energy to the best of Kirby’s work on Thor that seems only fitting for a series about a Norse god with a really big hammer and a penchant for talking smack — ye olde schoole style.

Kirby’s pencils on Thor are so strong that they can even, for the most part, overcome inks by Vincent Colletta, surely Kirby’s least popular inker. Colletta’s inks actually work fine over Kirby’s romance comics — he softens the sharper edges and smooths out faces into something more conventionally attractive — but they are catastrophically ill-suited for the gotterdammerung of Thor. Colletta’s line is too feathery, too scratchy for the bombast-turned-up-to-eleven that fills the pages of Thor. (And that’s without even getting into Colletta’s overzealousness with the eraser)

So it should come as some relief to find that many of the Kirby-pencilled tales in Volume 4 of The Essential Thor are inked by Bill Everett. It should, but it doesn’t. While there are some nice panels here and there, Everett’s inks are, overall, too crude to do Kirby justice. Everett may have had considerable cartoonist chops himself, but he doesn’t acquit himself too well here.

Or maybe some of the blame for crude rendering should go to the great man himself. Kirby certainly seems to have run out of enthusiasm for the character in his last year and a half (collected here). He recycles characters and plots from earlier issues and, when he does create new characters, the results are, uncharacteristically, visually dull. It’s dispiriting stuff, really, much in the way that his last year and a half on Fantastic Four (reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 5) is dispiriting. It all smacks of someone who was just going through the motions. Granted, Kirby going through the motions is still better than anything else Marvel was probably printing at the time, but it’s a long way from the feverish pitch of earlier issues. Unlike those earlier issues, these ones don’t shimmer with invention, or that mad headlong rush into new territory that we associate with Kirby’s best work.

But that’s only the first half of the stories in this volume. As for the rest of them, they’re fairly typical of the sort of thing that filled Marvel’s books once Kirby and Ditko left. Neal Adams turns in a very restrained two issues, with nothing much to recommend them; he’s followed by John Buscema who does yeoman but unremarkable work.

In all, it’s a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent body of work.

Recommended? Kirby completists will still want it, caveats and all. Others should stick to the earlier, better volumes — particularly volumes 2 and 3.

I read some comics, and then I had some thoughts

October 12, 2008

These are those thoughts.

Black Jack Volume 1. Osamu Tezuka. Vertical, 2008. $16.95, 288 pages.

English-speaking fans of Osamu Tezuka have been hanging out for this series for a long time, our appetites only whetted by an abortive two-volume attempt from Viz some years ago. To live up to our expectations, Black Jack would have to cure cancer, solve world hunger and get you laid. It doesn’t quite do any of these, but it’s still pretty good. There are some bravura cartooning sequences, even if it does take the reader a while to readjust from the long-form Phoenix and Buddha to the distinctly episodic structure here. There are no great themes on display, other than Tezuka’s usual humanism and his inclusive, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink view of life. But these are reward enough, once you get back into the Astro Boy-like groove of short, unconnected stories.

The biggest misstep comes from the title character’s sidekick, named Pinoko, who makes Poochie look like the sensational character find of 1997. Someone at Vertical decided to translate her dialogue as baby-talk; presumably it’s to mirror some analogous feature in the original Japanese, but it made me want to go out and shtwangle shome widdle toddlers. I’m not sure I can take another umpteen thousand pages of that. Otherwise, it’s easy to look forward to another sixteen volumes of this.

Recommended? It’s Tezuka. Of course it’s recommended.

***

Cat-Eyed Boy Volumes 1 & 2. Kazuo Umezu. Viz, 2008.  $24.99 each, 496/594 pages.

Cat-Eyed Boy belongs to that subgenre of children’s literature where monsters, aliens, animals or otherwise inhuman creatures are made to stand in for children. The aim (explicit or not) is to capture the experience of being a child — adults too easily forget how unlike us children are, how strange their minds and changeable their character. Cat-Eyed Boy himself is as convincing a portrayal of childhood as Yotsuba from Yotsuba&!, if a little more savage. By turns, he is proud, uncaring, empathetic, kind, cruel and always, above all else, unpredictable. At times he spurns the human world, at others he helps it out. He contains multitudes, and then some.

The stories themselves, however, suffer from mirroring their hero’s fickle character a little too closely. The earlier stories* follow the same sort of disjointed logic of children’s narrative that we find in The Drifting Classroom: then this happened, then that happened, then we all turned into giant bugs, then a monster came and ate some of us, then there was a flood and then and then and then we all had ice cream and went home the end. Only there’s something missing from Cat-Eyed Boy, something that grounded The Drifting Classroom; without it these earlier stories are, at best, curiosities for Umezu buffs only, and certainly not essential. Maybe it doesn’t have the same sort of luminous horror that surrounds the kids in Classroom. Maybe it’s that the illogic of children is externalised in Classroom while the kids themselves have solid character — the events they struggle against may not make sense, but the kids can be identified with; by contrast, that same illogic is internalised in Cat-Eyed Boy, who is himself something of a cipher. Maybe it’s that, unlike Drifting Classroom, the earlier stories in Cat-Eyed Boy just aren’t for adults. Maybe it’s that the earlier stories simply aren’t as good as Classroom. Hey, even Homer nods.

Or maybe it’s some combination of all these. That solution is suggested by the later stories in volume 2, some of which are truly excellent, approaching the fevered intensity of Classroom. It helps that Cat-Eyed Boy takes a backseat in these stories while we foreground on ordinary children, to whom the usual horrible things happen. In these stories we find that old Umezu magic again, that mixture of funny and scary and uh actually no I guess it’s really not that funny OH GOD MAKE IT STOP. Those stories are well worth the price of admission; it’s just a shame that the rest of the volumes don’t match that standard.

Recommended? Volume 2 starts with a continuation of a story from Volume 1, so I can’t recommend reading Volume 2 only. People who really liked Drifting Classroom will probably find the whole experience worthwhile, provided they can lower their expectations somewhat and hold out for the really good stuff in Volume 2.

* “Earlier” in the sense that they appear earlier in the two volumes. The reader is given no clue as to original publication dates.

***

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja and a thousand other artists. Marvel, 2008. $17.99, 216 pages.

It’s not hard to see why this book became a sleeper hit among the blogerati. It’s competent pulpish stuff — actually calling it “competent” is probably damning it with faint praise in this degraded age. This book collects a sequence of superhero comics that won’t make you want to gouge your own frontal lobe out; it wouldn’t necessarily embarrass anyone over the mental age of twelve to be caught reading it. In today’s market, I guess that makes it the graphic novel equivalent of War and Peace, only with more punching and kicking.

Personally, it didn’t quite float my boat the way it has many other people’s. A lot of the style seems lifted from Alan Moore — the fictitious backstory and period counterparts from (e.g.) Promethea, the steampunk ancestor stumbling across the natives from Tom Strong, the use of multiple artists from both those (not to mention Supreme).** There’s also a touch of the Bendis/Mack Daredevil, albeit without Bendis’ logorrhea or his inept plotting; like Mack, Aja and his colourists favour static, photo-referenced monochromes. I guess they think it looks mature?

To this are added various tropes from the tournament style of shonen manga. Indeed, the overarching structure is pure tournament: seven characters fight each other in a round-robin competition, using elaborate moves with fanciful names. It’s the most original thing the series does, to introduce these tropes (plus a couple of later plot twists which will be familiar to readers of Iron Wok Jan, Ultimate Muscle, Yakitate!! Ja-pan or any other tournament manga) to an audience presumably weaned on superhero comics and so unfamiliar with them. Frankly, I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more had they dropped the pretense of superheroics altogether and gone all the way with the tournament stylings. Give us 200 pages covering one duel, not to mention the hundred pages of training beforehand and dozens of pages for reaction shots. Now there’s a martial arts comic I could get behind.

Recommended? Way over-hyped, but enjoyable enough in its own right.

** I know Moore didn’t invent these, but they’re closely associated with his work.

You demanded this, too!

September 27, 2007

Top 10 Marvel characters of all time:

10. Dracula

9. Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen

8. Zombie Mary-Jane Watson

7. Lila Cheney

6. The In-Betweener

5. Willie Lumpkin

4. Heimdall

3. The Whizzer

2. Daken

and

1. Wolverine