"U.S.Avengers": A Guide to Marvel's New Patriotic Superhero Team
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Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition by Pat Mills (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist/colorist), Mark Chiarello (colorist), Phil Felix (letterer), Steve Potter (letterer), Bill Oakley (letterer), and Scott Nybakken (editor). $49.99, 470 pgs, FC, DC.
This came out a few months ago, but it took me a while to dig through it – it’s a nice, giant slice of comics, and when you’re dealing with Kevin O’Neill’s artwork, you need to stop and appreciate it a while!
Marshal Law finally gets a nice big omnibus, courtesy of DC, and it’s nice to see. It collects most of the appearances by everyone’s favorite hero-hunting cop, excluding crossovers for which DC either didn’t get the rights or wasn’t interested in getting the rights. In case you’re wondering, Marshal Law is a police man in San Futuro, which is what San Francisco was renamed after the big quake destroyed half of the city, and he goes around killing or simply beating up superheroes. As there seems to be a ridiculous proliferation of superheroes in post-apocalyptic San Future circa A.D. 2020, his job seems endless. The series has a fine reputation for its vicious satire of superheroes, as it came out during the the late 1980s, when this kind of story was newly in vogue. Marshal Law has inspired many, many comics creators, and it’s not too difficult to see that Garth Ennis ripped it off in The Boys. It’s ridiculously violent, harshly humorous in places, and features more wacky designs for superhero costumes and names per panel than probably any non-Kirby comic in history.
However, it just didn’t do much for me. Maybe it’s the fact that this kind of thing is no longer new and daring – taking superheroes down a peg is old hat by now. But I’m trying to read this as if it were 1987, and this was coming out at the same time as The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen or other radical books that claimed superheroes weren’t the shining beacons of virtue that audiences had believed they were for decades. The biggest problem with Marshal Law, in my humble opinion, is that the satire is so obvious. Mills chooses to make his points by taking out a very large hammer and pummeling his readers over the head with them. Wait, there’s weird homosexual subtext in the fact that a lot of heroes have kid sidekicks? Superheroes’ spandex is lascivious and means they might enjoy some kinky stuff in the boudoir? Superheroes are essentially fascist? Holy crap, Pat Mills, tell me more! In the middle of “Super Babylon,” which is Mills’ take-down of the Justice Society, he even has Marshal Law stop in the middle of the action and lecture the Golden Age heroes on their shortcomings, asking them why they didn’t go after war profiteers in the States who kept doing business with the Nazis. I mean, while his satire before this wasn’t subtle, at least he didn’t have his hero just start lecturing about things.
The best story is the original, “Fear and Loathing,” which was a six-issue mini-series from Marvel’s Epic line in 1987. Although Mills is still not subtle about it, at least he sets up an interesting story about someone murdering heroes and what this has to do with the Public Spirit, the Superman stand-in. There are some problems with it (there’s a blatant Woman in a Refrigerator, for instance), but Mills is able to rip superheroes apart while still telling a decent story. As the series moved on, he became less interested in stories and more interested in laughing at how terrible superheroes are. Finally, in “Secret Tribunal,” Mills still takes down his thinly-veiled analogs (in this case, the Legion), but he also shows that Marshal Law might actually admire people who act heroically, as long as they’re not hypocrites. Unfortunately, so much of the book, while often very funny, is so bitter and enraged that Mills’ points are lost. As I was reading this, I kept thinking that if Frank Miller’s satires of this time period are more subtle than Marshal Law, then perhaps Mills needs to ease up a bit. Satire shouldn’t be this obvious, because it loses its effectiveness if it is.
O’Neill’s art is magnificent, though, and if you had to pick an artist to skewer superhero conventions, you’d probably pick him. The inventiveness of his designs is wonderful, as he gives us not only Marshal Law’s Freddie Mercury-as-fascist cop look, but so many other insane costumes for so many oddball heroes. Everyone is ridiculously sexualized, which is the point, of course, but O’Neill’s people run the gamut from gods on Earth to truly ugly, so the fact that everyone is hyper-sexualized is even funnier and crazier. Of course, because it’s O’Neill, we get plenty of amazing details, from the graffiti to the signs to the wonderfully demented denizens of San Futuro. O’Neill’s artwork isn’t to everyone’s taste, but you can’t deny he makes a fantastic effort to make the comics he draws as visually immersive as possible. It’s interesting to see how his art becomes a bit more cartoony as the series moves along – in “Fear and Loathing,” for instance, the art is a bit stiffer and just slightly more “realistic” – as realistic as O’Neill can get – while in later stories, the art becomes a bit looser and … bendy, for lack of a better word. The art remains the highlight of the book, and it’s fun to see what O’Neill can come up with on each page.
Despite the fact that I don’t love this book, it’s nice to have. As with a lot of DC hardcovers, the art falls into the spine a bit too much (DC could have made the dimensions slightly bigger and made the spinal gutters a bit wider), but otherwise, the package is very nicely done, and I can never hate having so much beautiful art in one big book. While I don’t love Mills’s story as much as some other people, there’s good work in Marshal Law, even if it’s swamped by the polemical stuff a bit too much. If you’ve ever been interested in the comic but haven’t been able to find it anywhere, this is the book for you. I admire Marshal Law more than I like it, but it’s still a cool comic to own.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Manara Library volume 5 by Milo Manara (writer/artist), Kim Thompson (translator), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Lois Buhalis (letterer), Brendan Wright (associate editor), Dave Marshall (consulting editor), and Diana Schutz (editor). $59.99, 280 pgs, BW, Dark Horse.
In this volume, Manara continues writing and drawing the adventures of Giuseppe Bergman, his fourth-wall-breaking character who first appeared in volume 4 of the “library.” Manara used Bergman to make pointed commentary about art, politics, and society, and he continues to do so in this volume. Like volume 4, this is better than the first three, possibly because Manara is not trying to fit naked women into a standard narrative and coming off as gratuitous – there’s a lot of nudity in this volume, but it feels more like commentary on a various number of topics rather than titillation. A lot of it deals with the ugliness of male desire and the objectification of women – obviously, critics can accuse Manara of doing the same thing in some of the more conventional narratives he deals with, but when Bergman speaks to the audience and many characters talk about the construct of the story in which they appear, it comes off more as Manara understanding this ugliness more than participating in it. In the first story, for instance, the characters are appearing in a production, one they know they’re putting on for the readers. Manara drops a character, Lulu, into the production when the actress who’s supposed to appear in it begs off. Bergman and Lulu have many adventures, but none of them make much sense. What’s interesting is that Manara shows Lulu as a woman who gradually takes control of her sexuality, so that early on, she’s treated as an object by the men (there’s a particularly brutal scene where a man punches her in the stomach), but by the end, she’s terrifying the men by embracing her sexuality while Bergman (who’s a decent fellow) is embarrassed by his desires. This leads to a marvelous ending, as Lulu, in the words of Paul Pope in his introduction, “masturbates into infinity” – Manara structures the page so that the panels simply get smaller and smaller, to give Lulu as much time in existence as she can get (she knows she’s a fictional character who will disappear when the story ends). It’s a remarkable ending, erotic and upbeat yet still somewhat tragic.
Manara continues this metafictional approach in the second story (“Dies Irae”), which begins with a girl explaining that readers react to her differently depending on how she’s drawn, and continues from there, with both Bergman and the unnamed girl questioning their identities throughout the story. It ends with the ultimate in identity-challenging – Manara deconstructs Bergman on the page and turns him into something completely different, and leaves him there. Of course, Bergman will be back, but it’s a clever way to wrap things up.
The next two stories (“To See Once More the Stars” and “Bergman’s Odyssey,” the second of which has never before been translated) are more of the same, in different ways. Both are concerned with how we define ourselves, especially the first one, in which a young lady takes her identity from famous paintings, acting out the scenes depicted within. Manara also cleverly shows the somewhat hypocritical attitude modern society has toward nudity – the woman is nude quite often because the people in the paintings are nude, but everyone freaks out when confronted with her actual body (of course, it’s not really an actual body, but as fictional as the paintings) but think nothing of the nudes in the paintings. “Bergman’s Odyssey” is a bit more “straight-forward,” in that Manara sticks to one narrative, even though it’s a bit odd, and his anti-war views come through quite clearly.
Throughout the book, especially in the first two stories (which collectively are “The African Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman”), Manara does quite a bit to subvert the notion of white superiority. The white people in the stories – Bergman usually, but not exclusively – are the butt of jokes by the natives, who always know far more about what’s going on than Bergman and the other white characters. Manara also uses racist imagery to turn the notion of African inferiority around – the natives deliberately adopt racist tropes to show how ridiculous the stereotypes are, as well as to mock the white characters in the book. Manara isn’t always this self-aware about his usage of stereotypes – in some of the earlier volumes, he seemed tone-deaf to the implications of what he was doing – but it’s clear that by the time he created these stories, he was far more conscious of the work he was doing and how he could manipulate racist imagery to subvert it.
Of course, Manara’s artwork remains beautiful throughout, and he does a lot of nice experimentation in this volume, from the way he distorts the “babe” and Bergman in “Dies Irae” to the way he challenges our own notions of subtle differences in artwork in the same story. He paints “To Once More See the Stars,” presumably to evoke the lushness of Renaissance-era painting, and he often thickens his gorgeous linework on “Bergman’s Odyssey” to give it more of a mythic impact. There’s not much to say about Manara’s regular line work – comics fans know what his art looks like, so they’ve probably made up their minds about it. All I can say is that the covers he does for Marvel don’t do his work justice. He’s far better than that.
As usual, this is a bit overpriced, but the past two volumes have been worth it (the first three are a bit of a toss-up). Manara’s work in volumes 4 and 5 is wonderful, challenging the readers about their attitudes toward a lot of mainstream comics and what they want from their comics. If you’re interested in picking up some of these but don’t want them all, I’d suggest volume 4 or this one. They’re both quite good.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
The Adventures of Augusta Wind volume 1: The Girl with the Umbrella by J. M. DeMatteis (writer), Vassilis Gogtzilas (artist), Carlos Badilla (colorist), Tom B. Long (letterer), Chris Ryall (editor), and Christopher Schraff (editor). $24.99, 111 pgs, FC, IDW.
I’ve long been a fan of J. M. DeMatteis, both in his collaborations with Keith Giffen and on his own, but he does have some writing tics that grate on me a bit, and they’ve kept me from really loving his more recent work (I’m talking about the last 15-20 years as “recent”) because it seems like he hits all the usual beats. It’s frustrating, because he’s one of the few comics writers who writes intelligently about spirituality, for instance, but he writes about it too often and seems to have covered what he wants to say. He’s also, despite some rather depressing books on his résumé, one of the most relentlessly upbeat comics writers around, which is also nice, but again, he seems to be upbeat in the same way too often. It makes it difficult to love a lot of recent DeMatteis work unless you’ve never read some of his older stuff. That might be true with a lot – perhaps almost all – comics writers, but DeMatteis has such a strong authorial voice that his writing tics seem to stand out more. At least to me.
That’s not to say I’m not interested in what he’s working on, as my purchase of The Adventures of Augusta Wind proves. I had read a little about it, and it seemed like something that DeMatteis would do really well with – a girl is visited by a strange, magical, fairy-tale creatures who tells her that her life is a lie and she needs to save a bunch of people from monsters. So we meet Augusta Webster, who tells bedtime stories to her two siblings about a weird world that, of course, turns out to be real. A half-rabbit, half-snake creature (a “snabbit” called, well, Mr. Snabbit) shows up at her window and she realizes that she’s really a girl called Augusta Wind, who lives in a half-ruined castle with a bunch of other children, but she’s not sure why she was there or what she was doing. So she and Mr. Snabbit have to get back to the castle, all the while eluding all sorts of bizarre creatures that want to stop her from returning. As it’s a DeMatteis comic, there’s a soupçon of spirituality, but the book is really about another of DeMatteis’s favorite themes, that of storytelling and how stories shape the world. It’s a bit familiar, but DeMatteis is always so committed to this kind of story that it’s still charming. DeMatteis doesn’t really break any new ground, but he always tries to show how good life can be if we strive to be the best we can be and to love others, which isn’t a bad thing. The most annoying thing about this comic is that it’s volume 1. I know that mini-series don’t sell and ongoing series are all the rage, but this could have easily been 6-8 issues and wrapped the whole thing up (it’s 5 issues for this first volume). I don’t know how long DeMatteis plans to make the series, but if we get just one more 5-issue mini-series, that might work. It will still annoy me, though.
Gogtzilas and Badilla are superb on the book, though, and any sequel will be much better if IDW can keep the art team together. Gogtzilas’s cartooning creates this strange dimension through which Augusta travels, and he fills it with a wonderful array of insane creatures that help or menace Augusta. His most inspired design might be Miss Information, who has six eyes and from whose head erupts a panoply of planets and stars, trailing behind her like smoke. As this is an “all-ages” book, Gogtzilas’s bad guys aren’t that scary, but he does a nice job exaggerating their features so that they look menacing even though it’s clear they’re a bit goofy. The main villain of the story does look a bit more menacing, as Badilla gives it a slightly more angry color palette, which helps convey its nefarious intentions. Gogtzilas does a lot with tilted panels and borders of thick, rushed strokes, implying a more frenzied and less orderly world than the one Augusta knows in the “real” world. Gogtzilas and Badilla also give us a beautiful rendering of the being that “answers” Augusta’s questions – I don’t want to give too much away, but they need to rein in the wackiness a bit to show us what’s going on, and they do it very well while keeping the light tone of the book. Long does a nice job, too, shifting fonts for some characters (and, in the case of Mr. Snabbit, the color of his word balloons) and using some nice sound effects. The book feels like it takes place in a strange world, which is a good thing, obviously.
Augusta Wind is a fairly typical DeMatteis book, elevated slightly by the wonderful artwork. As I noted, if you’ve never read a DeMatteis book before, it’s probably more of a treat than if you’ve been reading his work for decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad comic, just a bit familiar. DeMatteis isn’t afraid to deal with larger issues of existence, and that makes his work at least compelling, even if it’s not his best work.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Bloodshot volumes 1 and 2 by Duane Swierczynski (writer), Manuel Garcia (penciler), Arturo Lozzi (penciler), Matthew Clark (penciler), Stefano Gaudiano (inker), Matt Ryan (inker), Ian Hannin (colorist), Moose Baumann (colorist), Chris Sotomayor (colorist), Rob Steen (letterer), Josh Johns (assistant editor), Jody LeHeup (associate editor), and Warren Simons (executive editor). $9.99 and $14.99, 98 and 122 pgs, FC, Valiant.
The first volume of Bloodshot came out a few months ago, but for some reason I missed it, so when volume 2 came out, I was able to find volume 1 and read both of them together. It’s all one story, though, so no big deal.
Bloodshot is about a super-soldier whose actual name is classified, but who has several identities because the government had implanted them to keep him sane. He is full of nanites, so he’s really strong, heals very quickly, and has other cool advantages, but the government wants him to be motivated, so they created these personalities so that he’ll have something to fight for. Early on, of course, he realizes that his entire life (or lives) has been a lie, so he starts trying to figure out what’s going on. Along the way, he teams up with Kara, an EMT who happened to find him after he escaped from the bad guys, who helps him get into the government facility where he believes he can find answers. He discovers that the government is experimenting on kids with powers, and he, Bloodshot, was responsible for rounding them up. So they don’t think much of him. In the manner of these kinds of stories, he’s reluctant to help – he just wants to know his real name – but he eventually comes around.
Swierczynski keeps things moving along – the story is riddled with action movie clichés, but it’s enjoyable enough – and he and Garcia (mostly, as he pencils a large percentage of the book) pile on the violence. Bloodshot can heal very quickly, so the creators enjoy going further than even Marvel writers like going with Wolverine – plus, Bloodshot himself needs to kill a bunch of people in volume 2, so Swierczynski and Garcia come up with some fun ways for him to dispatch people. I think my favorite is when Bloodshot uses the bones sticking out of his broken arm to impale someone in the neck. That’s quality violence!
Much like pretty much all of the Valiant books, Bloodshot is an enjoyable-but-somewhat-forgettable comic – Swierczynski has written better stuff, but he’s a solid noir-ish writer, so he knows how to entertain the audience, and Garcia is an underrated artist who does balls-out action quite well. I don’t know if I’m going to get caught up in the whole “Harbinger Wars” thing that seems to be crossing over into all of their books, because I’m just not that interested. As usual, I appreciate that Valiant is trying to make this a big universe where things are connected, but the danger is that instead of getting readers to read ALL their books, some readers might not read ANY of the books. I’m mildly interested in Bloodshot’s search for his identity and his new role as mentor to a bunch of screwed-up superpowered kids, but I’m not interested in a big crossover. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Killogy is a weird comic. Robert “casts” Frank Vincent, Marky Ramone, and Brea Grant in it – he uses their likenesses but they’re “playing” characters. I have no idea why he does this – it’s not like you’re getting the actors, and they’re not playing themselves, so it seems weirdly self-indulgent and distracting. As I read this, I just kept wondering why Robert put the three people in the book, and it took me out of the story a bit. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it was a little weird.
Perhaps Robert uses real people because his art relies heavily on Photoshop, so maybe trumpeting the fact that you’re “casting” people helps obviate complaints about using real people, like, say, Tommy Lee Jones as Norman Osborn. Beats me. Robert uses the various elements that he integrates into the book pretty well, and the fact that he uses blacks and the coloring on the book very well helps obscure some of the more stilted artwork. He uses actual computer effects – starbursts and the like – pretty effectively, not overdoing it, and a lot of the book is drenched in blood, which also helps distract from some of the weaker parts of the art. It’s not a bad-looking book, once you get used to the way Robert constructs it.
The story is fairly clever, for a zombie book. Sal, Shaggy, and Summer (Vincent, Ramone, and Grant) begin the book in jail, and none of them are in a particularly good mood. Before they can find out why Summer is covered in blood (she killed her boyfriend, but that’s all we know), a zombie cop shows up at the cell door and they realize some strange things are going on. Over the course of the first three issues of the four-issue mini-series, each character tells how they got in the cell and what they know about the zombie plague. Sal is a Mafia hitman, Shaggy is a gambler who owes a lot of money, and Summer is dating … well, that would be giving too much away. Suffice it to say, they’re all involved with bringing the zombie curse to life, and they’re all connected in lots of clever ways. Robert does a good job shifting back and forth between their stories and the present, until everything collides in issue #4. They think they’ve figured everything out, but like any good horror story, there’s an ironic twist at the end. I mean, there has to be, right?
Robert’s writing is vulgar and obnoxious, but that’s part of its charm. The book is full of black humor, culminating in the finale, and Robert has as much fun with a zombie plague this side of Edgar Wright. Summer is somewhat sympathetic, but the rest of the characters are pretty reprehensible, so the strength of the book lies in Robert’s ability to hook us into the plot, and he does a good job. It’s not the most original story, but the way he tells it, gradually revealing how everything is connected, works pretty well.
Killogy certainly isn’t a great comic, but it’s not bad, either, and it’s pretty entertaining. In a world where action/horror movies seem to rely more and more on shaky cams and jump cuts and shocks around every corner, it’s fun to read a comic like this, which feels a bit more old-school. I still don’t know if using three celebrities in the lead roles is the right idea, but that’s the way it is!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Wolverine by Larry Hama and Marc Silvestri volume 1 by Larry Hama (writer), Walter Simonson (writer), Alan Davis (writer/penciler), Marc Silvestri (penciler), Mike Mignola (penciler), Dan Green (inker), Bob Wiacek (inker), Paul Neary (inker), Glynis Olvier (colorist), Mark Chiarello (colorist), Bernie Jaye (colorist), Pat Brosseau (letterer), Ken Bruzenak (letterer), Michael Heisler (letterer), Alex Starbuck (assistant editor), Nelson Ribeiro (assistant editor), and Mark D. Beazley (editor). $24.99, 267 pgs, FC, Marvel. Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita Sr., and Chris Claremont if you really want to include him. Tyger Tiger and Gateway created by Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri. Puck created by John Byrne. Lady Deathstrike created by Denny O’Neil, Larry Hama, Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, Chris Claremont, and Barry Windsor-Smith. Donald Pierce created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Ernest Hemingway created by manly sperm.
I’m going to assume you can find issues #31-37 of the first Wolverine series fairly easily, but I wonder about The Jungle Adventure and Bloodlust, the two “prestige-format” stories jammed into this giant collection. Are they difficult to find? Are they spendy if you can find them? I don’t know, but for 25 bucks, you can get them and 7 issues of Hama/Silvestri goodness, which isn’t a bad deal.
Bloodlust has long been one of my favorite Wolverine stories, and it’s also the first time I read an Alan Davis-written comic, so it was the first time I realized he could write a damned good comic. It’s a story about Wolverine meeting a bunch of Yeti, basically, some of whom have turned evil and are stalking people across the Canadian wilderness. Davis takes good advantage of Logan’s struggles to control his baser instincts, because he’s fighting against a bunch of bad guys who have given into theirs. Davis is remarkably good both at the dark aspects of the book (it’s a pretty dark book) and the hopeful parts, and his artwork is, well, it’s Davis. Of course it’s gorgeous. He and Jaye do give us some stunning pages where Logan experiences the world the way the “good” Yeti do, which means we get some nice pastel colors to contrast with the brutal real world. It’s a fine, fine comic book.
Meanwhile, Simonson and Mignola give us The Jungle Adventure, which I thought I already had but which is only semi-recognizable to me – maybe I’ve seen so much of it that it’s familiar? Logan shows up in the Savage Land, where he defeats a tribe’s super-warrior so he becomes their leader and he hooks up with one of the tribal women, because Logan’s got game, yo. He’s not sure what the heck he’s doing in the Savage Land, but he slowly figures it out and the whole thing ends in a big ol’ donnybrook. The cover of the original comic kind of gives the game away – although Simonson still has some twists to dole out – but I’m not going to. It’s an exciting book, beautifully drawn by Mignola when he wasn’t quite as abstract as he would be on Hellboy, and while Simonson also goes to the “human/savage” dichotomy that is so much a feature of Wolverine stories, he does it in a different way than Davis, which makes them both more interesting. There’s also a dangling plot thread on the final page that I don’t think has been picked up, unless that’s supposed to be … you know. That guy. (I know it’s not, but it’d be cooler if it were!)
Anyway, the Hama/Silvestri issues form the bulk of the collection, and while they’re not quite as good as the two specials, they’re wildly entertaining comics. In the first arc, Logan, Tyger Tiger, and Logan’s pal Archie track down a drug dealer who’s trying to create a super-drug and pissed Logan (or “Patch,” I suppose, since this story takes place in Madripoor) off because they tried to kill him. They give a reason for trying to kill him, but it’s pretty lame – this is another case of the villains doing something to piss off the one guy who can stop them when if they had just left him alone they could have gotten away with everything. Hama writes a good Wolverine – he doesn’t take any shit, but at the same time, he knows that some fights are better left unfought. Plus, he has a morbid sense of humor, which is always good. In the second arc, Lady Deathstrike wants to kill Logan, who’s hanging out with Puck in Vancouver, but because she forces Gateway to help her instead of asking him nicely, Gateway ends up transporting Logan, Puck, and Yuriko to the Spanish Civil War, where they have an adventure with Ernest Hemingway fighting Nazis. You know, like you do. It’s a ridiculous story, but it seems like Hama wanted to write a story with Ernest Hemingway as a superhero, so he did it, by God! In between these two arcs, we get issue #34, a single-issue story in which Logan helps two Mounties track down an escaped criminal who’s taken a girl hostage. Of course, it’s not that easy – this is the Marvel Universe, so of course there’s a monster in the woods, and of course one of the Mounties thinks that Logan looks awfully familiar. It’s a great story, actually – full of tension and surprises (well, sort of – I mean, it’s pretty clear where Hama is going with the story, but still) and cool action and just the right amount of pathos.
Silvestri’s art is, well, Silvestri’s art. I’m not a huge fan, but I do like it a lot more than a lot of people, especially this earlier stuff, which had a sketchy and twitchy energy that his more recent stuff seems to lack. Yes, all of Silvestri’s women tend to look alike, and yes, Logan’s hair gets more and more ridiculous as the book goes along, but Silvestri is quite good at the action and violence that the issues need. This is a very violent book, even though the creators don’t show too much gore (it was still 1990/91, so the trend was still to keep most things hidden even as comics got more violent). Silvestri, Green, and Oliver save their best work for issue #34, where Oliver uses yellow cones of light to hide some of the horrors in the dark as Logan stalks the kidnapper, and Silvestri’s frantic facial expressions that occasionally seem out of place in some stories fit perfectly. Compared to the two masters of art also featured in this volume, it stands up fairly well – Silvestri will never be a Mignola or Davis, but at this time, he was still an artist capable of turning out strong work.
Wolverine’s ridiculous overexposure since this time (this was just about when it started) has diminished his mysterious appeal, but these stories show that there was a time when he was a fascinating character. If you don’t already own these issues, this is a nice package of good to very good Wolverine stories. You can’t go wrong with that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Prophet volume 2: Brothers by Brandon Graham (writer/artist/colorist), Giannis Milonogiannis (writer/artist/colorist), Simon Roy (writer), Farel Dalrymple (writer/artist), Joseph Bergin III (colorist), Charo Solis (color flatter), Ed Brisson (letterer), and Eric Stephenson (editor). $14.99, 123 pgs, FC, Image. Prophet created by Rob Liefeld.
This trade paperback collects issues #27-31 and 33. What happened to #32? Does anyone buy this in single issues? What was #32 all about?
Graham and his collaborators continue to bring us the second-best science fiction comic currently being published, as John Prophet begins his long trek to Earth and collects a bunch of fighters to help him in his quest. That’s pretty much all that “happens” in this trade, but because Graham and Milonogiannis (mostly) are also busy creating this totally wacky universe, it’s fine that John is taking his time. I mean, he has to find Hiyonhoiagn, the living tree who helped John survive during the last war by giving him fruit that he himself grew, right? And they have to keep searching for the parts of Diehard’s body, which was broken up and scattered across space, right? And we have to meet Rein-East, the assassin who reminds John of his lost lover, right? And it just wouldn’t be a good comic without a visit to the town built on the giant dismembered corpse in space, which survives by mining blood, flesh, and bone, would it? And is that Supreme? It sure is! In the middle of John’s journey, Dalrymple stops in to draw another clone’s rebellion against a bunch of slavers in the middle of a 300-year-old space war. Because why not?
It’s a crazy story, but Graham and the others manage to keep it personal, as they keep the focus on the characters without allowing them to get swept away too much by the insanity. Yes, the creatures are very odd, but Graham makes sure they all have relatively “normal” motivations so that readers can understand them. The book continues to be very exciting and action-packed, but despite the alien nature of most of the characters, their actions are easy to comprehend. The only thing that bugs me about the book is Graham’s heavy reliance on caption boxes. Occasionally they’re necessary because of the weird stuff happening, and Graham often uses them well to explain some of the odder things that John encounters, but at times it seems like the artwork falls short of showing what’s going on, and Graham needs the caption boxes to explain the art. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Milonogiannis is a good artist, and his design work on this comic is phenomenal, but the book is very crowded, and I wonder if Graham needs to let the book breathe a bit so that Milonogiannis can tell the story better with his art. I like Dalrymple’s art more than Milonogiannis’s, and it seems clearer, yet Graham still has a few too many caption boxes in his issue. I can’t complain too much, because Graham does explain a lot of very strange things in the caption boxes, but I do wish he had reined it in just slightly.
After the quest to “wake up” in the first volume, Graham turns around and begins having John build an army, so it’s another quest. That’s cool, though – there’s a lot of fascinating things happening that make this universe far more interesting and weirder than we might think. It feels more alien than most comics – or other fiction – set in space, and it’s cool that Graham is able to do that but still make the narrative something human enough for earthbound readers. Prophet is good comic, and I’m very keen to see where Graham and the others working on the book go with it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Superman: Phantom Zone by Steve Gerber (writer), Gene Colan (artist), Rick Veitch (artist), Tony DeZuniga (inker), Bob Smith (inker), Carl Gafford (colorist), Gene D’Angelo (colorist), Milt Snapinn (letterer), Ben Oda (letterer), John Costanza (letterer), and Scott Nybakken (editor). $14.99, 157 pgs, FC, DC. Superman, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Jor-El, Lara Lor-Van and Mr. Mxyzptlk created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Quex-Ul created by Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan. General Zod and Mon-El created by Robert Bernstein and George Papp. Faora created by Curt Swan. Supergirl created by Otto Binder and Curt Swan. Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston. Hal Jordan created by John Broome and Gil Kane. Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Barry Allen created by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino. Ralph Dibny created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. Jax-Ur and Bizarro created by Otto Binder and George Papp. Va-Kox created by Robert Brownstein, Curt Swan, and George Klein. Jer-Em and Kru-El created by Leo Dorfman and Jim Mooney. Gra-Mo created by Edmond Hamilton and George Papp.
I assume DC finally collected this because of the new movie, but that might not have been a great idea. I haven’t seen (nor will I for a while, until it shows up on television) Man of Steel, but I know enough about it to at least compare it to this mini-series, in which Steve Gerber uses General Zod and a bunch of Kryptonian bad guys who had been sent to the Phantom Zone as his primary villains, and when they get out, they begin to ravage the world. Hey, that sounds familiar! Gerber, as is his wont, turns the book into a weird hero’s quest as Superman and Charlie Kweskill (the Kryptonian Quex-Ul) are thrown into the Phantom Zone while Zod and his cronies come up with a diabolical plan to destroy or at least do something nasty to the Earth. The plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity … and its stupidity, as well, but Zod never seems to think too long about his plans – how was he such a brilliant general on Krypton? The story is more about Superman and Charlie in the Phantom Zone, discovering its bizarre secrets, as it eventually leads to something like God, but a particularly grumpy Old Testament kind of God. On Earth, the bad guys easily dispatch the Justice League, but Batman and Supergirl manage to keep up the good fight until Superman gets back, and then it’s on like Donkey Kong!
The reason this might not be a good idea to compare to Man of Steel is because Gerber isn’t interested in turning this into a giant fight between two superpowered beings to see who can destroy more skyscrapers. Gerber is an odd writer, and while Superman certainly acts more heroically in this series than he (presumably) does in the movie and even though there’s some death, it never feels gratuitous. However, this couldn’t work as a movie, and that’s just another reason why comics are so awesome. This is a bizarre adventure even for mainstream superhero comics, but it still illuminates what makes a man a hero, even if he’s not superpowered (as Superman and Charlie are both depowered for most of this). Plus, Superman doesn’t, you know, kill anyone. Even if you ditch the various other superheroes, this is far too weird to make into a movie (unless Warner Bros. hired Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick to direct a Superman movie), but it’s interesting how Gerber comes up with a solution to why Superman can’t just beat on Zod until one of them gives in. With Superman, it’s always a challenge to figure out how the most awesomely powered dude on the planet can ever be slowed down, much less beaten, and Gerber does a nice job with it. The “epilogue,” which is a “pre-Crisis” story from the last issue of DC Comics Presents, is much less successful. Gerber begins by telling a bit more about the various villains from the mini-series, but the book then morphs into a strange Bizarro story for a few pages and then a Mxyzptlk story for a few pages, with Mxyzptlk taking on the personality of the Alan Moore version. It’s certainly something, but what it isn’t is a good issue. But that’s okay, because the main mini-series is quite interesting.
Gene Colan isn’t a bad choice to draw this, because Colan’s fluid lines fit well in a story about a dimension where “reality” changes so much. I know Colan drew DC’s superheroes, but most of his DC work that I’ve seen is in horror or Batman stories, where his atmospheric stuff works really well. It’s a bit odd when he draws the brighter-colored heroes in DC’s world, but his flowing work and DeZuniga’s darker inks help create a more sinister world than we often saw at that time of DC’s history. Without being too obvious about it, the art team gives this a slightly edgier tone than it might have otherwise.
Phantom Zone is as much a historical curiosity as it is an interesting comic book, and while it’s a good story, it’s also cool to have because it’s Gerber doing his Gerber thing, which is a bit at odds with the way DC usually presents Superman. It’s a neat little trade that I doubt DC wants us to compare to the antics of the latest movie, but it’s still fun to do!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Archer & Armstrong volume 2: Wrath of the Eternal Warrior by Fred van Lente (writer), Emanuela Lupacchino (penciler), Alvaro Martinez (penciler), Guillermo Ortega (inker), Matt Milla (colorist), David Baron (colorist), Dave Lanphear (letterer), Josh Johns (assistant editor), Jody LeHeup (associate editor), and Warren Simons (executive editor). $14.99, 121 pgs, FC, Valiant. Archer and Armstrong created by Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, and Barry Windsor-Smith.
Archer & Armstrong is the only Valiant title I really like, even though they’ve all been pretty good. The Valiant writers are usually decent, but van Lente is apparently really good at this whole “buddy comedy” thing that he (and Greg Pak) did so wonderfully in The Incredible Hercules and is now doing again on this book. The idea of an uptight, sheltered dude getting his first taste of the real world while hanging out with an obnoxious epicurean is not terribly original, but when it works, it’s very funny, so even when Archer and Armstrong are beset by bad guys, van Lente does a fine job making sure the banter remains light, which helps the book move along nicely. In this volume, we meet Armstrong’s brother, the Eternal Warrior, who is a bit pissed that they allowed a Geomancer to get killed in the previous volume. Armstrong knows that this means his brother will never stop hunting them down, but he believes that if they can find the new Geomancer, maybe they can save their lives. Meanwhile, there’s yet another secret sect that’s trying to unmake the universe. You know, like you do. Van Lente gives us an entire evil organization based on the concept of zero, which is actually quite cool. Armstrong and Archer manage to find the Geomancer – an attractive young lady – before Gilad – the Eternal Warrior – can kill them, and then they all try to stop the sect. It’s a fun romp.
If justice existed in this world, Lupacchino would be drawing one of the top books at Marvel or DC, but I probably wouldn’t want to read that, so I’m glad she’s still low-profile enough to work on books that I might want to read. She’s wonderful on the book – her action scenes are tremendous, fluid, and perfectly legible, and she makes everyone in the book attractive without being either unnaturally gorgeous or weirdly disproportionate. It’s just such a pleasure seeing the work of someone with a nice, clear line and a solid superhero sensibility. She actually draws everything (well, she uses a few effects, but they’re supposed to look like effects, so it’s not a big deal), so everything is nicely integrated into the whole, and Ortego’s inks make the lines sturdy without overwhelming their fineness. I have to check out her work now, because I imagine soon she’ll fall down the maw of the Big Two and I’ll look at her name on something like Teen Titans and weep that I don’t care about that comic (like Mahmud Asrar on Supergirl – the book looks great, but I have no interest in it at all!).
Archer & Armstrong remains the best book Valiant is putting out, and while it’s certainly not going to change your religion or sexual orientation or sports team affiliation, it’s a pretty darned good comic. So there’s that.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Star Wars: Agent of the Empire volume 2: Hard Targets by John Ostrander (writer), Davidé Fabbri (penciler), Christian Dalla Vecchia (inker), Wes Dzioba (colorist), Michael Heisler (letterer), Freddye Lins (assistant editor), and Randy Stradley (editor). $19.99, 116 pgs, FC, Dark Horse. Star Wars created by George Lucas.
The second Agent of the Empire trade is a bit better than the first, but the first was pretty good, so Ostrander is doing a nice job. As I noted with the first trade, it’s the kind of story Ostrander does well – it’s espionage/high adventure, and the fact that it’s set in the Star Wars universe during the empire years doesn’t make that much of a difference to Ostrander. Sure, he has to adhere to the trappings of the universe, but basically, he just has to tell a good espionage story. And Ostrander is good at that!
In this volume, Jahan Cross, the titular hero, is at it again, as he gets involved in a succession dispute on Serenno, where the empire wants to install a more malleable ruler, so they set things in motion to make that happen. The coolest thing about this series is that Cross isn’t a hero in, really, any sense of the word – he has a job to do, and he does it. Early on, he has to do something that doesn’t sit well with him, but Ostrander shows that he moves past it quickly. Ostrander teases us with hints about Cross’s decency, but he’s decent only because he doesn’t like doing things blindly, and in the empire, one often needs to simply obey orders. I imagine Ostrander will continue to explore this “flaw” in Cross’s personality if the series continues – there’s nothing on the radar right now, but I hope for it! – because, as Cross shows and points out often in this volume, he’s not really a nice guy, but he does have a code, and it will be interesting to see how far he can be pushed before he decides to push back. Ostrander, meanwhile, does a nice job with the intricate plan Cross cooks up to thwart the bad guy, and he enjoys chucking a lot of interesting characters at us, because he’s quite good at establishing characters quickly, and that’s a good skill when it comes to a somewhat sprawling epic like this. I was a tiny bit disappointed because one character dies in kind of a lame way – it makes sense in the book and I don’t have a problem with a mundane death, but this isn’t really “realistic,” and it would have been nice if the character had gone out a bit more dramatically. Oh well.
I’m not as big a fan of Fabbri as I was of Stéphane Roux, who drew most of the first volume, but I imagine Roux isn’t that fast, so perhaps Dark Horse just wanted to move on. Fabbri is perfectly fine, and his more stolid style actually works to make the space opera a bit more down to earth, but his style isn’t quite as sleek as Roux’s, and as Agent of the Empire is kind of a James Bond book, some sexiness is required. Fabbri’s style just isn’t as sexy as Roux’s is. But there’s nothing really wrong with it. He’s perfectly fine telling the story.
You can get either volume and not worry about getting the other, if that’s your thing. The few hints Ostrander drops about Cross maybe not being too happy with his bosses might turn into something if there are more mini-series down the pike, but right now, there are two pretty much standalone stories of Agent of the Empire. It would be nice if we got more.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi volume 2: Prisoner of Bogan by John Ostrander (story/scripter), Jan Duursema (story/penciler), Dan Parsons (inker), Wes Dzioba (colorist), Freddye Lins (assistant editor), and Randy Stradley (editor). $18.99, 127 pgs, FC, Dark Horse. Star Wars created by George Lucas.
The first trade of Dawn of the Jedi felt like a lot of set-up – there was plenty of action, but it was pretty clear that Ostrander was just setting up a bunch of stuff to knock down later, and in this volume, he starts knocking shit down. His main character, Xesh, has been sent to Bogan, a prison moon, for his actions in volume 1, and there he meets Daegan Lok, who had a vision a decade earlier and was exiled to the moon for daring to speak about it. Man, the Je’daii are tough! Daegan claimed that he saw an alien race coming to Tython – the home of the Je’daii – and destroying them, but no one listened to him. His years on Bogan have made him a bit grumpy, but he realizes that he can use Xesh to escape and stop the invasion, which will make him a hero again (he fought in the “Despot Wars” and was lauded for it before he had his vision). Meanwhile, the Je’daii want to stop him, even though it turns out he’s right – a terrible bunch of aliens is coming to destroy Tython, because they worship the Dark Side of the Force and want to wipe out the Je’daii and, you know, rule the universe.
Ostrander continues to do solid work on this book – as with the first volume, this one isn’t as good as Agent of the Empire, but it’s better than volume 1, because Ostrander has gotten a lot of his actors into place and can start moving them. He had to get Xesh and Daegan together, so volume 1 was making that happen, and now he can start revealing more about every character and what motivates them. So we find out more about the dude who shared Daegan’s vision but claimed he didn’t, and the three students who helped bring Xesh down in volume 1, and the other “Force hound” who shared a bond with Xesh before, she thinks, he betrayed her – it’s all very epic, and while Ostrander’s not bad at epic, he does feel more comfortable with more intimate stories, which is why when the characters actually talk to each other in this book it’s much better than when Ostrander gets into the bigger schemes of the Rakata and the Je’daii.
Duursema, who continues to co-plot, also continues to do her solid work – she’s never been one of my favorite artists, but I appreciate her old-school storytelling – she has a lot to juggle in this book, but she makes sure that the transitions between panels and scenes are perfectly natural, and she gets to show off her design work a bit more in this volume, as Daegan and Xesh zip around the solar system in which Tython is located. Duursema’s characters always seem like they move easily through the book – she eschews artifice in her characters, so even though they’re alien-looking, we can recognize how they move and how they interact with each other quite well. I’ll probably never be a huge fan of her style, but I always know that her art will do everything it can to tell the story clearly, and that’s not a bad thing.
I’m curious enough to keep reading, although like Agent of the Empire I’m not even sure if it is continuing (an issue is not offered in this month’s Previews). I suppose I could find out, but I could also just wait until they get solicited!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Mighty Thor/Journey into Mystery: Everything Burns by Matt Fraction (story/scripter), Kieron Gillen (story/scripter), Alan Davis (penciler), Carmine Di Giandomenico (artist), Stephanie Hans (artist), Barry Kitson (breakdowner/finisher), Mark Farmer (inker), Jay Leisten (finisher), Javier Rodriguez (colorist), Chris Sotomayor (colorist), Wil Quintana (colorist), Joe Sabino (letterer), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Alex Starbuck (assistant editor), Nelson Ribeiro (assistant editor), and Cory Levine (editor). $19.99, 189 pgs, FC, Marvel. Loki, Thor, Surtur, Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral, and Sif created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Mephisto created by Stan Lee and John Buscema.
Kieron Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery, which lasted 24 issues but, thanks to Marvel’s double-shipping policy, came out over the course of about a year, is collected in six trades. Five of those trades came out late last year, in relatively quick succession. Then Marvel waited until July to release the final trade, at which time Gillen’s Young Avengers has been out for several months, basically giving away the ending to the end of Gillen’s JiM run. Meanwhile, two of the trades are not listed as part of Gillen’s JiM run – one is a crossover with New Mutants, and then there’s this one. So if you’re looking for Journey into Mystery trades, you might not find them all. Why couldn’t this be listed as “volume 6/volume [whatever number of The Mighty Thor]” and shelved in two places? It makes no sense.
Anyway, this trade ends both Gillen’s run on JiM and Fraction’s run on The Mighty Thor, which got a nice new #1 for the “Marvel NOW!” relaunch while JiM didn’t (leading, perhaps, to its cancellation?). I’m not sure what plot threads it picked up from Fraction’s comic, because it seems entirely devoted to wrapping up Gillen’s plots, as Surtur, whom Loki released in an earlier issue of JiM in order to stop someone else, decides to burn everything, including all reality itself. Yeah, that’s not too nice. Chickens coming home to roost and all for Loki, don’t you know. The Manchester Gods, from the previous JiM arc, are allied with Surtur, and there are a bunch of other alliances, as well, all tenuous at best. Gillen brings in several characters from earlier arcs as Loki scrambles to figure out how to stop Surtur with guile while Thor tries to stop him by hitting things, which is what Thor does. There are some surprises as Loki’s schemes come tumbling down, and it’s nice how he ties everything together nicely. It’s also nice to see a superhero book where the “hero” never actually fights anyone – a lot of people around him fight, but Loki is always using his wits, and while that helps him quite a bit, it also gets him into some trouble. But this is still a well-constructed story finishing a well-constructed series.
There are a couple of problems, though. As well-constructed as it is, Gillen still uses a tired old trope to solve things, and it’s a bit disappointing. For all the nice misdirection of the series in general and the arc specifically – Gillen and Fraction try very hard to make us believe Loki has gone bad again, and they almost succeed – when it comes down to it, the solution is ridiculously deus ex machina. It’s a bit frustrating, especially because after that, he again uses his wiles and some goodwill he has built up over the course of the series to further solve things. The small twist that bothers me doesn’t wreck the entire arc or series, but it’s still a bit annoying.
Finally, the ending – the last issue of Gillen’s run, not the ending of the Surtur story – feels off. I imagine it was Gillen’s plan all along, but it still feels tacked on, as if editorial suddenly realized that Gillen was changing way too much. I suppose most people know what the deal is with Loki these days, but I don’t want to give it away. Gillen does tie up a loose end (that really didn’t need to be tied up), but it feels oddly cruel of him to deal with Loki the way he does. Again, I imagine it was his choice, but it still feels as if someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Um, yeah, we’re going to need you to do this.” It’s even more frustrating because Gillen is such a good writer, so the issue itself is beautiful (and beautifully drawn by Hans), but it still feels a bit like cheating.
There’s not much to say about the art – Davis is great, of course, and Di Giandomenico gives us some nicely etched cruelty on his characters’ faces when he needs to, something Davis has never quite mastered (which is fine – the way Davis draws makes you enjoy comics, and cruelty doesn’t really fit in with that too much). Unfortunately, as with a lot of Marvel stuff when the schedule is sped up, the writing becomes paramount, and while both main artists do a fine job with the spectacle of Surtur trying to destroy everything, this is definitely a trade that relies heavily on the plotting. The artists do a good job keeping up with the story, and that’s all we really want.
Gillen did a nice job with Journey into Mystery, and while I wouldn’t recommend getting this trade without getting the rest of his run, this is still a very good way to wrap things up. Will Gillen reveal more about Loki in Young Avengers? Who knows? But if you don’t want to read that, this is still a decent way to leave things, even if I wish it had been slightly different.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Uncanny X-Force volume 7: Final Execution Book 2 by Rick Remender (writer), Dave Williams (artist), Phil Noto (artist), Jerome Opeña (artist), Dean White (colorist), Frank Martin Jr. (colorist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colorist), Michelle Madsen (colorist), Edgar Delgado (colorist), Cory Petit (letterer), Nate Piekos (letterer), Jeff Eckleberry (letterer), Alex Starbuck (assistant editor), Nelson Ribeiro (assistant editor), and Jennifer Grünwald (editor). $19.99, 140 pgs, FC, Marvel. Betsy Braddock created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe. Wade Wilson created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. Kurt Darkholme created by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, Roger Cruz, and Steve Epting. Fantomex created by Grant Morrison and Igor Kordey. Amahl Farouk and Sabretooth created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Daken created by Daniel Way and Steve Dillon. Mystique created by Dave Cockrum and Chris Claremont.
I’m rapidly losing faith in Rick Remender as a writer, and having read his entire run on Uncanny X-Force after the final trade came out, I know why: He, like a lot of comics writers, has some cool ideas but either doesn’t have the talent or isn’t given the opportunity to do anything else with the characters. Throughout this run on X-Force, he had two great ideas: resurrecting Apocalypse as a young boy, and having Fantomex shoot said kid in the head. Both of those ideas came in the first arc, and Remender coasted on them for the remaining 30 issues. The other thing he did was kill Warren, driving Betsy into the arms of Fantomex, but their romance was even dumber than Betsy’s and Warren’s but at least that had 20 years behind it (that didn’t make it good, just long-standing). At the end of this series, Betsy is with Fantomex, which is, well, stupid. But that’s what happens when the writer doesn’t do much with the characters. Uncanny X-Force was always a book driven by plot, so while Remender made some concessions to long-term X-fans (believe me, I LOVE the references to the Outback Era and to the Captain Britain series), in the end, this was just a comic about characters trying to kill everyone they see. Whenever one character proclaims that they’re tired of killing, you can be sure that in a page or two, they’ll be confronted with a situation where they have to kill. The fact that Remender writes about the worst Wolverine I’ve ever read doesn’t help. The fact that so much of this book depends on you having read other books doesn’t help, either. As I’ve noted, part of reading a shared universe means that some things will be covered in other comics, but Remender really leans heavily on that, especially in this volume, as Daken shows up and he and Wolverine talk about their relationship as if we’re supposed to know what happened between them. It’s somewhat annoying.
Remender, laughingly, tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He has spent the entire run showing how bad-ass these characters are, just to turn around and try to make them spout nonsense about how killing people isn’t the answer. Of course, he does this AFTER they kill everyone who’s been pissing them off, so his proclamations are a bit empty. Yes, his ultimate point is that people aren’t pre-ordained for anything, but that’s a bit weak when the book is so blood-soaked. That’s another problem with the book – there’s a lot of bloody violence in this book, but because for a large part of it, most of the characters have healing factors of some strength or another, nobody dies. If you’re going to approve a book where a team goes after bad guys and kill them, you probably shouldn’t have them get killed and come back to life in one way or another so quickly. At one point in the comic, Betsy talks about how losing Nightcrawler was really hard on her. That’s bullshit. Why do these characters even care when one of their own gets killed? They even make jokes about them coming back. Remender has a lot of fun gutting characters, and it’s all nice and disgusting, but it’s utterly pointless. It feels fake. In comics, if you’re going to kill a character, you have to put in the work making the reader care about them, because even though we know the character will come back, if we care about the character, it still feels awful when they “die.” Remender zips through deaths and resurrections so quickly I’d almost think he was parodying it if the book weren’t so deadly serious.
I hate not liking this comic more, because I love the fact that Betsy got such a starring role and Remender at least tried to do some things with her. But it really is, ultimately, an unpleasant book, very much deserving of a clichéd line like “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s the kind of book that is impressive on the surface, but the instant you think about it even a little bit, it’s utterly shallow. Remender tries to examine the idea of pre-emptive strikes against bad guys to stop them from doing evil, but it’s such a ham-fisted attempt that it never gets off the ground. Plot twists piled on top of plot twists work a lot better if the characters are interesting and if the twists have consequences, but these really don’t – they’re just in the book to make the reader go “Holy shit!” It’s too bad. The book had a lot of potential, and what happens? It turns out to be a bunch of bad guys fighting a bunch of slightly-less bad guys. Yawn.
(Oh, and Remender cheats on the first page of issue #31, if you notice. Noto draws Wolverine holding what looks like a corpse, and it looks like Betsy. The legs are bare, so the person isn’t wearing long pants, and the way Noto draws the feet, it looks like a woman. Maybe Remender changed his mind between that and the end of the arc, when it’s revealed who it is, but I doubt it. It’s just another example of Remender trying for the shock, because that’s basically all the book is, in the end.)
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility by Taner Akçam (translated by Paul Bessemer). 483 pgs, Metropolitan Books, 2006 (originally published in Turkey in 1999).
The issue of the Armenian genocide is still a raw one in Turkey and Europe in general, and Akçam’s fascinating but somewhat dry book lays out the reasons why the Turks should deal with their responsibility for it. Akçam has made the Armenian genocide his own personal cottage industry, so he’s the person you want to read if you want to understand why this was an act of genocide and not the vicissitudes of wartime, as the Turks argue. Whether or not the Turkish government will ever accept the conclusions of most serious historians in the world is a mystery, but it’s pretty clear that Akçam and others like him have, you know, facts on their side.
Akçam is able to make such a good case for the government’s intent for several reasons which he notes at the beginning of the book. The trials that the Turkish government held in the years directly following the First World War, while not complete (although some people were executed for their crimes), provide an invaluable source for what the government intended with regard to the Armenians in 1915-1917. He points out that scholars haven’t used these documents as much as they could because they’re scattered in several repositories and they’re written in Ottoman – Turkish written in Arabic script, with strong influences of Persian and Arabic – and it’s very difficult to read them. He also uses many German and Austrian documents, which are useful because those countries were allies of the Turks in the war and therefore had firsthand knowledge of the genocide and were willing to write about it more specifically while Turkish officials were more oblique. It becomes obvious that the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the political party that established a dictatorship after 1908 in the Ottoman Empire, was the driving force of the genocide, and the program could not have been carried out without the government being involved. Akçam also tracks the Ottoman persecution of Armenians back to the nineteenth century and notes the CUP’s programs of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism in the wake of the 1908 revolution and the Balkan Wars, which made the Ottomans far less tolerant of Christian elements within their empire. Prior to the First World War, they were looking for a way to “cleanse” the empire of Christians, of which the Armenians were the largest group. Only after the war did they try to cover up the fact that they wanted to unite the Muslims of the empire against the Christians and make the empire purely Islam. Akçam shows that this was a driving force of the genocide.
He also confronts the idea of massacres on both sides. The Armenians and Greeks engaged in massacres of Muslims, especially after the Allies allowed the Greeks to occupy Izmir (Smyrna) in 1919. The Christians engaged in mass killings, but Akçam makes the point that they were on a far smaller scale than the genocide (not that it should matter, but it’s still a point), and, more importantly, the killings of Muslims were carried about by small groups in random places and immediately condemned by the Christian authorities. The Armenian genocide was much larger (anywhere from 800,000 to 1.5 million killed) and organized by the authorities. The Turks, from the earliest days to today, insist that the deaths of Armenians was part of the chaos that comes with any war, and that Christians and Muslims massacred each other on an equal scale. That just isn’t true.
Akçam has to confront the notion of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) having a role in the genocide, which is a touchy subject (Kemal is the “father of the country,” so it would be like George Washington being the architect of a genocide – think how well that would go over). He doesn’t completely exonerate Kemal, but he does point out that he was more guilty of not prosecuting the people who committed the genocide rather than actively engaging in it – during the war, Kemal was a bit of an outcast from the CUP, and only later did he rise to power. He did drag his feet on prosecuting war criminals, and Akçam does note that he should be blamed for that, but that’s about it.
The book is very in-depth, but as I noted, it’s a bit dry. I don’t know if it’s the translation or if it’s just Akçam’s style, but if you’re looking for easy-reading, popular history, this ain’t it. I liked it a lot because I’m a history geek, but if you’re looking for a book that zips along, you’re going to be disappointed. A Shameful Act is the kind of book other authors who are writing a more popular history cite in their bibliographies. It’s a very thorough book and I thought it was excellent, but I do think it’s just a bit ponderous. If you’re looking to catch up on your summer reading, you can skip this. If you’re really interested in the Armenian genocide and what role the Turks actually played in it, it’s brilliant. It’s just too bad that the current Turkish government can’t accept that a former Turkish government committed genocide. Of course, many governments (including my own) have problems with this, so it’s not too surprising. It’s just the way the world works.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Andrade’s tale of the Sino-Dutch War of the 1660s is fascinating for two reasons. First, he tells the story of an obscure war between two very different civilizations, one at its height and another, if not exactly at its height, that was still one of the sophisticated in the world. In the war, the Dutch lost Taiwan, one of their most prosperous colonies, but part of the irony of the war was that the man who ripped it from the Dutch, Koxinga, was himself a rebel against the new rulers of China, the Manchus, who had toppled the Ming dynasty not even twenty years before the war began. In the second case, Andrade uses this war to expand on a theme that has troubled historians for years: Why did Europe ascend to global dominance, and when did this happen? Many historians peg the Age of Exploration as the beginning of European dominance, so from 1500 or thereabouts. Newer historians push that back even to the Industrial Revolution around 1800. Andrade makes the point that most historians ignore this war, which is one of the only conflicts between two evenly matched yet very different societies. He can’t completely prove one version of history over the other, but he does make a compelling case that the Dutch-Chinese interactions in the seventeenth century deserve more study.
The story itself is fascinating. The main character is Zheng Chenggong, who is known to history as Koxinga, which is a European version of “Kok-seng,” which means “Imperial Surname.” Koxinga was the son of a pirate and was, early in his life, perfectly happy to do business with the Dutch – his focus was more the restoration of the Ming Dynasty, which was displaced in 1644 by the Manchus, who became known as the Qing Dynasty. In 1661, he decided to move to Taiwan as the Qing invaded Fujian province, which was the Zheng family stronghold. Koxinga decided that Taiwan would make a good base from which to continue his guerrilla operations against the Qing, and he ignored the fact that the Dutch owned Taiwan. He would just drive them away!
His opposite number in Taiwan was Frederick Coyet, the Dutch governor of Taiwan. Coyet seems like a douchebag of the first order, as he quarreled with everyone and ignored the advice of people who knew far more than he did, but he did manage to thwart Koxinga’s conquest of Taiwan for many months after the initial invasion. Koxinga took over the city on the mainland fairly easily and imprisoned the Dutch who lived there, but Coyet, in Fort Zeelandia, which was on a spit of land just across the bay from the mainland, held out. He refused to surrender to the indomitable warlord, preferring to trust in the fort’s construction to resist the invaders. Andrade brings the siege to life, as both the Dutch inside the fort and the Chinese outside suffered greatly. Taiwan at this time was largely untamed, and while the small farms near the coast could support the small Dutch population, they couldn’t support the giant army Koxinga brought with him. He didn’t anticipate a long siege, so he didn’t bring enough provisions, and it was difficult to get food from mainland China past the Dutch in the fort. The natives on Taiwan were extremely hostile, as well, and on more than one occasion were able to defeat the soldiers that Koxinga sent to “pacify” them. Andrade also does a nice job showing how both sides descended slowly into barbarism – this is one of the better books I’ve read that is able to show really well what happens during a siege when both sides get desperate. Coyet had some chances to break out, but he frittered them away because of his stubbornness and inability to get along with others, while Koxinga became increasingly bloodthirsty, slaughtering his Dutch prisoners for the flimsiest of reasons. Eventually, Coyet surrendered, but when he returned to Batavia on Java (the capital of the Dutch Asian colonies), he was scapegoated, imprisoned, and almost executed by those he had angered in the previous years. After he left Asia, he spent the rest of his life writing diatribes against those who wronged him, turning the tide back to his side. Koxinga, meanwhile, didn’t have long to enjoy his triumph – he died about four months after the siege ended, probably of malaria.
While Andrade’s narrative is gripping, he also makes very interesting points about the debate over European supremacy. Traditional historians who claim that Europe rose to global dominance the minute the Portuguese started sending ships out into the Atlantic in the 1420s, but Andrade points out that they ignore any evidence to the contrary, dismissing the great Chinese treasure fleets of Zheng He at the same time. He tends to fall on the side of the revisionists, who push European dominance forward several centuries, as he points out the the Ming, for instance, used muskets in the 1360s and that the Chinese were using guns in the 1100s. Koxinga’s conquest of Taiwan is a classic case study, as a European nation that was about as cutting-edge as you could get faced off against a civilization that had been dominating the region for centuries, and the Asian society won. But Andrade points out that it’s not as easy as that. He points out that the Dutch had the superiority in shipping, as one of their ships was able to sail against the strong monsoon winds and warn Batavia that Fort Zeelandia was under siege, and had it not been for Coyet’s intransigence, the Dutch relief fleet might have saved the day. Meanwhile, Koxinga couldn’t use Chinese tactics to take the fort – the Chinese tended to storm the gates of a castle/fort and use sheer manpower to overwhelm the defenders – because of the so-called “Renaissance fort” design, which used the famous star-shaped bastions so that defenders had many different angles of fire and cannon fire was less effective against it. Koxinga was only able to force Coyet to surrender when he took the advice of a German defector who explained how to truly besiege a Renaissance fort. Andrade makes the point that while Koxinga had many advantages over the Dutch, including far more intelligent officers who were far more flexible in battle than the Dutch commanders, he was also able to adapt well to European battle tactics and use them against the Dutch. Both sides had advantages, and it makes proclaiming European dominance over “heathen” cultures far more difficult to do.
Lost Colony is a very readable book, full of fascinating personalities and excruciating hardships, and Andrade is lucky that so much was covered by primary sources. It’s the kind of book that should kickstart the debate over how Europeans came to dominate the world and what that means for the world. As this article shows, Koxinga is still a controversial figure in China today, which is just another reason why history is keen, as it informs the present in ways we don’t even consider. Andrade’s book is very good, and it’s always nice to read about something that has been ignored by a lot of Western historians!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach. 432 pgs, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.
I must admit that I’ve never seen Heaven’s Gate. I was not yet 10 when it was released, and so I never saw it in the theater, and in later years, I just haven’t gotten around to it. Every so often it will be on television, but it’s already far into it, so after a few minutes of watching, I usually turn it off. However, you don’t need to have seen Heaven’s Gate to read Bach’s book, because he goes over it with a fine-toothed comb. It might help when he discusses some of the more visceral reactions to the movie, but otherwise, this is a book about making a movie, and Bach does it very well.
Noted commenter Third Man (where has Daniel been recently?) has, I believe, cited Heaven’s Gate as the movie that killed a Golden Age of Cinema, and he’s not alone in this opinion. While Bach doesn’t necessarily make that point, others have used his book and other sources to show that Michael Cimino’s gigantic mess of a movie ended a period when directors could make movies with very little interference from the movie companies. It’s not just that he went over-budget – almost every director goes over-budget, even, as Bach notes in the book, Woody Allen, who has a reputation of staying under-budget (Allen doesn’t go very far over-budget, but he still does). It’s not that the movie was late – Apocalypse Now was at least two years late, and that was an artistic triumph. It’s that Heaven’s Gate became a perfect storm of shit, as Bach often dispassionately chronicles (despite the fact that he was right in the middle of it): it went ridiculously over-budget (the original budget was $7.5 million, and it ended up costing $36 million); it was late (it was slated for a Christmas 1979 release, but didn’t get a wide release until early in 1981); the first cut was five-and-a-half hours long; the second cut, which was shown to critics in late 1980, was three-and-a-half hours long (Cimino’s contract stipulated that he wouldn’t have final cut unless the movie was less than three); the critics who saw the three-and-a-half hour cut savaged it (Vincent Canby called it an “unqualified disaster”); it was a huge bomb when it was finally released to the public (after another hour had been cut); and because of all the shenanigans, the movie ended up destroying United Artists, which had been founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith for the express purpose of allowing directors to make art without commercial constraints. So Heaven’s Gate isn’t just another critically-reviled (although it has, naturally, been the subject of some revisionism in the years following its initial release), high-priced flop, it’s a critically-reviled, high-priced flop that essentially destroyed a company. Hence its status as a legendary movie.
Bach was one of the production heads at UA, and he and David Field, who was the other head of production, made the deal that brought Cimino, flush from the success of The Deer Hunter, to the company. So he has a complete insider’s perspective on the making of the movie and all the ancillary stuff going on. He doesn’t spare himself from criticism – in fact, he’s rather even-handed about everyone in the book, even Cimino, who you would think would bear the brunt of the rage in a book written by someone from UA. Cimino is on record saying that the book is “complete fiction,” but from the few interviews I’ve read that Cimino has given (he’s remarkably reclusive), he comes off as a bit of an ass, and I’m more inclined to believe Bach than him. Bach goes over how each small step in the path of making Heaven’s Gate had dire and unforeseen consequences for UA, from having to pass on some movies because of the budgetary constraints imposed by Cimino going so far overboard to Woody Allen deciding to leave UA for Orion (which had been founded by some UA refugees who were unhappy that Transamerica, which owned UA at the time, was meddling a bit too much in the movie-making business), taking his brilliance with him (Allen had made Interiors, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories for the new regime at UA after agreeing to a four-picture deal for the old one, the first of which was Annie Hall). Bach gives Cimino credit where it’s due – he often writes about how utterly gorgeous the footage is, how confidently Cimino shot the film, and how marvelous Isabelle Huppert is, even though he, Bach, was vehemently against casting her (as a businessman, he didn’t think she provided enough box office, but he also thought she didn’t know enough English to be understood). Cimino, presumably, thought Bach represented “business,” but while that might be true, it does not seem that Bach fakes his appreciation of the film. He championed it far longer than Cimino deserved, if Bach is to be believed, and only turned on the movie itself (which he grew to hate, because he had seen it so many times) when Cimino dug in his heels and refused to cut the three-and-a-half hour version. Bach perhaps saves his most venom (although he never changes his tone, just notes somewhat ironically) for reviewers, who loathed the three-and-a-half hour version, tore the two-and-a-half hour version to shreds (which, Bach notes, it deserved, as the film had been gutted), and then lauded the three-and-a-half hour version when it was finally released a few years later (and still didn’t find an audience, Bach notes almost off-handedly and probably wryly). While Cimino might be correct in his anger that UA butchered the film down to two-and-a-half hours, Bach makes it clear that they did it as an absolute last resort, and even in the longer version, Cimino cared more about the Western landscape and lighting a scene perfectly than he did about the characters.
Bach’s writing style is very informal and lively – he does a nice job giving us characters with just enough personality to make their personal trials interesting, from Andy Albeck, the president of UA, who tried to be a decent person in a business of cutthroats, to Joann Carelli, Cimino’s producer, who seemed for a while to be able to rein in him but ultimately gave up because Cimino even stopped listening to her. Cimino, interestingly, remains a bit of a cipher, but apparently that’s the way he liked it. Bach also takes great pains to point out that UA was more than Heaven’s Gate – it was the home of the James Bond movies (Moonraker, which is a terrible Bond movie, nevertheless made a ton of cash for UA in 1979) and the Rocky franchise, and UA also got Raging Bull made (and Bach claims some credit for making sure Jake LaMotta is more “human” in the movie, as well, as he and the production team thinks that everyone will hate LaMotta unless some script changes were made). The book is far more than just a story about Heaven’s Gate – it’s about how movies get made, what the budgets actually mean, how movies turn a profit (they have to make, according to Bach, about two-and-a-half times the actual budget), and how the creative side of the business struggles against the commercial side. Bach is a good writer for that, because he worked for a company that valued artistic freedom, he had worked on the creative side, but he was also on the business side when Heaven’s Gate was being made. So we get many different viewpoints, as Bach tries to explain how everything went so very wrong.
As he was writing in 1985, Bach is perhaps too close to the 1970s to appreciate the historical significance of the kinds of movies that got made during that decade. He alludes to the greater emphasis on blockbusters in his recent past, but he couldn’t have foreseen the continual (and continuing) evolution of the studios, which drove away mid-level pictures in their desire for the next big thing. Obviously, personal movies get made all the time, but Heaven’s Gate changed the way major studios (and UA wasn’t really a studio, just a distributor, but it’s close enough) thought about their movies. They could indulge the directors because the directors were making them money. Cimino’s vision was such a financial disaster (it grossed about $1.5 million in its initial release) that it terrified Hollywood, and even directors like Coppola and Scorcese had to deal with the new reality. Bach gives us a hint of that, but of course he can’t really get into it too much, because it was just beginning when he wrote his book.
Final Cut is a fascinating book, and if you’ve ever been interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff of movie-making, it’s a must-read. Even though we know the ending, Bach is a good enough writer to make the slow-motion train wreck of Heaven’s Gate gripping reading, and for people who like movies that aren’t necessarily big action pictures, it’s a bit tragic, as well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Phew! Man, that’s not even all the collected editions I got in July, but that’s all I’ve been able to read! I hope you find something in here that you can enjoy!
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