This Week’s Haul

  • Green Lantern #49, by Geoff Johns, Ed Benes, Marcos Marz & Luciana Del Negro, and Jerry Ordway (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #34, by Bill Willingham, Travis Moore & Dan Green (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #18, by Matt Wagner & Amy Reeder Hadley (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead #2, by Ian Edginton & Davide Fabbri (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Criminal: The Sinners #3, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Fantastic Four: The Master of Doom TPB, by Mark Millar, Joe Ahearne, Bryan Hitch, Neil Edwards, Stuart Immonen & others (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #574, by Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards & Andrew Currie (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #21, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Andrew Hennessy & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #139, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Rodney Buchemi & Reilly Brown (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 129 HC, collecting Strange Tales vol 1 #154-168, and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 1 #1-3, by Jim Steranko, Roy Thomas, Frank Giacoia & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
  • Powers #2, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • Absolution #5 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • Irredeemable #9, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • Hellboy: The Bride of Hell, by Mike Mignola & Richard Corben (Dark Horse)
  • Invincible #69, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
Fantastic Four: The Master of Doom Why do I keep reading Mark Millar’s comics? Hell if I know. I guess he’s just enough of an ideasmith that I’m hopeful he’ll provide some entertaining stories a la Grant Morrison, so I keep giving him another try, yet I keep being disappointed. The saying goes that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so what does this say about me?

In the new Fantastic Four collection The Master of Doom, the second half of his run on the title with Bryan Hitch, Millar demonstrates how to write a really bad bunch of FF stories. The run produced lower sales numbers than you might expect from a run by a pair of supposed super-star creators, but frankly the quality just wasn’t there. Oh, Hitch’s art was nice enough, although stylistically he hasn’t really developed much since his days on The Authority: Toothy grins, near-photo-realistic renderings, rather blah layouts. But the writing is really awful.

The first chapter is an epilogue to the previous collection, featuring the funeral of the Invisible Woman (sorta), the Thing getting engaged to his latest girlfriend – an ordinary schoolteacher, and Doctor Doom threatening that the man who taught him all he knows about villainy is coming to Earth. All well and good, but then it goes off the rails. (Well, the revelation that Reed and Sue’s 2-year-old daughter Valeria is smart enough to be creating tesseract vehicles inspired by Doctor Who isn’t exactly welcome. Writers have enough trouble figuring out how to thread the needle with Reed’s brilliance, let along adding another impossible-level genius into the mix, but fortunately Valeria’s brain isn’t a big factor in the story.)

The next chapter starts with the Human Torch having brought a couple of, well, prostitutes or strippers or just plain sluts, back to his apartment when he’s interrupted. Oh yeah, the two women are dressed as Storm and the Scarlet Witch. Johnny may not be the most admirable member of the team, but this is a new low, and a clear indication that Millar just doesn’t understand the characters. This is followed by further foreshadowing of the arrival of Doom’s master, and then we get a 2-part Christmas story where the team goes to Scotland to visit a cousin of Reed’s. Valeria ends up being the intended sacrifice to a creature that’s been haunting the town for a long time. This is classic Millar: A bunch of superpowered characters hitting things, but no real consideration for the larger issues that he introduces, such as what the creature’s actually been doing for the whole time, even if the price it exacts is disgusting.

Then we launch into the main story, about Doom’s master and the new apprentice arriving on Earth, being not at all pleased with Doom’s lack of progress in villainy, and disposing of the bad Doctor before turning to take down the Fantastic Four. The build-up to the master’s arrival involved him destroying whole parallel worlds, including killing one world’s Watcher, and there’s plenty of potential here: What sort of being would be so vile that he’d have been Doom’s teacher? Exactly when did Doom manage to hook up with an entity of such power, and why did he leave him? Why have they been out of touch for so many years? Heck, why did the master – with the rather generic name the Marquis of Death – leave Earth at all, given his predilection for destroying it?

But Millar finesses all of this by making the Maquis a minor character with no real personality and just the barest of backgrounds, and the new apprentice a means to advance Doom’s character in a rather pointless manner, inasmuch as it’s just a set-up for further stories which Millar won’t be around to tell. And then, our FF manages to take down the pair through some trickery which somehow none of their parallel-world counterparts were able to envision. It doesn’t ring true. And none of the potential of the set-up is realized. It’s just a big slugfest. Zzzz.

Millar wraps up the story with an utter cop-out of a resolution to the Thing’s engagement, which after Ben’s past relationships just seems completely unlike the character for him to handle things this way. Millar twists the characters to fit the story, and so the story just doesn’t work at all.

Millar is one of the hottest writers in comics, and I just don’t get it: His writing is mean-spirited, poorly plotted, weakly characterized, goes for the cheap thrills and doesn’t realize the potential it does have. The Master of Doom illustrates all of this perfectly. Maybe the fact that it didn’t sell very well shows that readers are starting to realize this. I’d had hopes that, reined in by working on a major mainstream property, Millar’s Fantastic Four would be inventive and readable, more like what we see from Grant Morrison (when Morrison hasn’t himself gone astray), but this is just more of the same from Millar. This should probably be the last thing I read by him.

Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 2 Jim Steranko’s work on Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is legendary in the comics field, and it’s collected in hardcover this month in the latest Marvel Masterworks volume. (The pre-Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were collected a few years ago.) If you haven’t read them before, this is an outstanding package to read them in.

Steranko, like so many of the prime innovators in sequential art, was before my time, and so coming to his work decades after it first appeared. It’s awkward, since Steranko’s Fury stories feel culturally dated, in part because he was consciously trying to make Fury and his friends feel like cutting-edge inhabitants of the real world, and the go-go world of the 1960s seems downright silly to most people who grew up after it (this is probably why today’s conservatives have so much fun pillorying the Flower Power generation). And besides that, so many of Steranko’s innovations in the field have been assimilated, reproduced, subverted and parodied in the years since, that they just don’t seem very, well, innovative. Plus, Steranko’s layouts and renderings have so much of Kirby in them, but without the sophisticated linework of a Pérez or a Byrne, that they seem dated in and of themselves.

Yet Steranko’s work collected here does look different from his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors: The sense of place he provides in Nick’s apartment, the fantastic devices – less contrived than Kirby’s – that S.H.I.E.L.D. works with, the cinematic sense of pacing (which works sometimes yet fails badly at others, but then Steranko was always trying something new), and his gradual breaking free from the often mundane page layouts of the day (Marvel was ahead of DC in this regard, yet the page layouts of the late 60s, even by Kirby or John Buscema, seem downright staid).

Despite being a bit of a mixed bag for the modern reader, Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. still has a lot to offer, both its historical context, and some rock-em sock-em adventure. The premise of the book is simple: Nick Fury and his international spy organization fighting against Hydra, the Yellow Claw, and a mystery man named Scorpio, in comics’ best-known contribution to the 1960s spy craze. Plus the volume contains a fascinating introductory essay by Steranko regarding the approach he took to writing and drawing the book. If you’ve read any of Fury’s adventures over the last 30 years, well, even at his best they paled in comparison to Steranko’s stories here.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 24 October 2007.

Somehow I’ve failed to post a single entry since last week’s comics reviews. I’ve gotta get it in gear!

  • Countdown #27 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Carlos Magno & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Fables #66, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Wraith #4 of 4, by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Holz (Marvel)
  • Avengers Assemble HC vol 5 by Kurt Busiek, Alan Davis & Mark Farmer, Ivan Reis, Keiron Dwyer, Brent Anderson, Patrick Zircher, Yanick Paquette & others (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 83 HC, collecting Strange Tales #135-153, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Severin, Don Heck, Jim Steranko & others (Marvel)
  • What If? Featuring Planet Hulk #1, by Greg Pak, Leonard Kirk, Rafa Sandoval, Gary Erskine & Fred Hembeck (Marvel)
  It’s too easy to keep piling the criticism onto Countdown, but I will make the following observation: Paul Dini‘s track record as a comics writer isn’t too great. His tabloid-sized graphic novels with Alex Ross were pretty weak (Superman: Peace on Earth was probably the best), and apparently his other current series, Madame Mirage isn’t too great either – The Invincible Super-Blog makes this point concisely. Does this make Dini’s best comic work Jingle Belle? Erk.
Avengers Assemble vol 5 HC Avengers Assemble volume 5 finishes off Kurt Busiek’s run on The Avengers from a few years back. It’s surely one of the best runs the long-running series has ever seen (though I think Roy Thomas’ run in the late 60s edges it out). What made it work was that Busiek was able to work with the characters and develop them, and he also had a fundamental respect for what made the Avengers feel like they did at their best. Within this framework he told some terrific stories and had a run of excellent artists, lead of course by George Pérez, but the artists here are also quite good. Basically he successfully updated the team for 21st-century sensibilities without destroying what made it fun. Contrast with Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title, which has been, well, destructive and depressing.

Anyway, the centerpiece of this volume is a long story in which Kang the Conquerer comes back to conquer the 21st century. While you might say “What, again?!?”, like the earlier confrontation with Ultron, Busiek takes Kang to the next level: He uses his time-travelling ability to outwit the people of Earth and set them against each other, and manages to bring the planet to its knees. There are some lovely character moments in the series, including the resolution of several long-running plot threads involving Triathlon and Goliath, complete with a fairly brutal depiction of what a world war against (effectively) an alien invader might to do the planet, somehow all without getting too depressing. It’s a classic adventure yarn, which means it’s fun to read, suggesting the darker elements rather than getting bogged down in them.

It wraps up with a short story titled “Lo, There Shall Come… An Accounting!”, which is both an amusing glimpse behind-the-scenes of how the Avengers do their jobs, and a nifty little way for Busiek to bring his run to a definitive close.

Every fan of mainstream superhero comics should read these stories, because this sort of thing has rarely been done any better, by anyone.

Marvel Masterworks vol 83: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Speaking of reprints, I’m delighted to see Nick Fury getting the Marvel Masterworks treatment. The Steranko stuff was reprinted in paperback a few years ago, but it’s good enough that I’d like to own it in hardcover. This volume starts at the beginning of Fury’s run, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used the character as their own super-spy, back when super-spies were the hot thing.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was an international law-enforcement agency (although it was always portrayed as a U.S. agency) of which Fury becomes director. Fury is a no-nonsense World War II veteran with an eye patch who bring a certain rough-and-tumble attitude to the stiff-necked agency, with lots of high technology bridging the gap between them. Lee and Kirby of course play it for action and play up the gizmos, while Steranko – when he came on board – both emphasized the spy element, and used it as a venue to deploy his cinematic approach to storytelling, something which was as revolutionary at the time as Neil Adams’ commercial art sensibility was. This volume has a lot more of the former than the latter, but hopefully they’ll do a second volume. In any event, if you’re a fan of Lee/Kirby Marvel, then this one’s for you, True Believer!

What If? Featuring Planet Hulk Planet Hulk gets the What If? treatment, in an issue with a trio of stories written by regular HulkWorld War Hulk. In the second, the Hulk ends up on the peaceful planet he’d originally been sent to, resulting in a continuation of the Hulk/Banner conflict without anyone else around to bother. The third is a one-pager in which Bruce Banner lands on Sakaar instead of the Hulk, with predictable results, played for yuks with art by Fred Hembeck.

It’s not a bad issue, and all three artists are quite good, but I was disappointed that it was so predictable. Either Pak was phoning it in, or else this was an issue mandated by editorial, with all the imagination we should expect from such a thing.

In addition to the usual haul, Lee’s Comics had their annual Black October sale. These days I don’t have a lot I’m looking for that I can’t just get through my usual store, Comics Conspiracy, but I still like to go by nearby sales to check them out. It turns out I was pretty lucky at this one:

  I was pretty happy to pick up this issue of X-Men at a very reasonable price. It falls short of pristine, it’s still bright and shiny and in great condition. It’s a piece of my childhood that I’m happy to have on my bookshelf, even if it has been reprinted several times.
Rex Mundi: The Lost Kings vol 3 Rex Mundi seems to be getting a positive review every time I turn around. In the introduction to this volume, J.H. Williams III (who is an excellent artist, BTW) writes: “I feel when all is said and done this series will be looked upon by future readers as one of the more truly important pieces of comics work to make it to the published arena.”

It’s a pretty good book, but it’s not that good. It’s a fairly convoluted and slow-moving conspiracy story in an alternate 1933 in which the Protestant Reformation failed and Catholicism prevails in Europe. France is a world power and is bidding to become more of one. Our hero, Master Physician Julien Sauniére, uncovers a secret society and starts to peel back the layers of a two-thousand-year-old secret involving Jesus Christ and the lineage of the Kings of France. Characterization is not very strong, and it’s often difficult to work up the enthusiasm to follow the twists and turns of the conspiracies and secrets being revealed. And there’s rarely any substantial threat to the lives and well-being of the characters, so there’s rarely much urgency in the story. Just a lot of ambling around learning things. So it’s not a bad series, but I don’t think it’s a terrific adventure story, nor does it (so far) have anything profound to say about the human condition.

That said, it is a pretty good historical conspiracy story, so if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, I certainly recommend it.

This particular volume is a transition between the first artist (EricJ) and the current artist (Ferreyra). Ironically, I think the interim artist (Di Bartolo) is better than either of them, having the polish of Ferreyra while showing a wider range of expression than either of them. Funny that.

Scarlet Traces: The Great Game vol 2 HC The last issue of this second series of Scarlet Traces came out when I started reviewing comics weekly in this space, and I’d very much enjoyed the first series. This one isn’t quite as good, but it’s still enjoyable.

The premise is that after humans defeated the Martians in The War of The Worlds, we appropriated their technology and substantially ramped up our own. By “we” I mean “Britain”, which became the dominant world power, and in 1898 took the war to Mars. 40 years later, when this series opens, the war has not been going well, and photojournalist Charlotte Hemming embarks on a quest to find out exactly what’s going on. Backed by quirky-and-inventive artwork by D’Israeli, Edginton’s script evokes Alan Moore’s second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while telling a more focused story, and one with more than a little relationship to America’s current adventures in Iraq. It moves right along and has a satisfying ending.

I’m hoping there will be more Scarlet Traces in the future, as it feels like there’s plenty of space for further extrapolation. Time will tell.