Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Retro-Reviews: Avengers #255-287 (May 1985 - January 1988)

Written by Roger Stern, except for #280 (written by Bob Harras) and #286-287 (scripted by Ralph Macchio from a plot by Stern)

Breakdowns by John Buscema, finishes by Tom Palmer, except for #280, pencilled by Bob McLeod and inked by Kyle Baker (!)

During the summer, I felt the urge to start re-reading some classic comics, and as the longbox with my Avengers comics was closest to hand, that's where I started (you can read about it here).  I was enjoying myself, and decided to keep reading.  I decided that this particular run of issues are worth discussing for a number of reasons.
To begin with, these are the comics that I still consider to be my personal definitive run of the title, at least until Brian Michael Bendis came along and blew everything up, or perhaps until Jonathan Hickman's current tenure directing the team, where he seems to determined to really examine the mechanics of the Avengers concept on a larger scale.  To me, these are mostly definitive because they were published between 1985 and 1988, which is my own Golden Age (being between the ages of 10 and 13), giving my memories of these comics the same sepia tone that the paper in some of them has yellowed to.
I remember being home sick from school, and my dad bringing me a copy of Avengers #259 that he picked up at a corner store, not knowing I already had it.  I remember reading #273 a few times in a row, as I was stuck on a long road trip, with my grandmother crammed into the backseat of the car with my sister and I, and it was all I'd brought with me to read.  Going through these books brings back some good memories.
This run also stands out because every one of these issues save one was drawn by Buscema and Palmer.  That's thirty-three issues with only one fill-in!  To be more accurate, these two talented, iconic artists continued with the book even longer, but I chose Roger Stern's departure from the book after many years as my point to stop reading for this column.  Imagine an artist team today being able to put out that many issues, and in an era when comics were two pages longer than today's.  They also drew more panels than current artists, although sometimes backgrounds were lacking.  Their work is never stunning, but it is exceptionally good at telling a clear story, and to my mind, their portrayals of Captain Marvel, the Black Knight, the Wasp, and Hercules are classic.
This run is notable for a number of reasons in terms of story as well.  Let's run through some key moments in bullet-form:
  • Captain Marvel becomes trapped on Thanos's vessel, the Sanctuary II, by Nebula and her crew (this was Nebula's first appearance).
  • The team fights Terminus in the Savage Land, and the whole thing gets destroyed and covered by ice (I'm not sure how it ever came back).
  • Firelord joins the team in travelling to rescue Captain Marvel, and gets all angry when he has to help Skrulls.
  • The Beyonder shows up a few times, as Stern had to make the ridiculousness of Secret Wars II work in his storyline.
  • The Avengers lease Hydrobase from Stingray after losing their security clearance, and receiving notification that they can't fly their Quinjets out of their mansion anymore.  Eventually, they move the whole mansion to Hydro Base (I don't remember when it was moved back to Manhattan).
  • Namor joins the team, which makes a lot of the general public very angry, because of his status at that time as a villain.
  • The Avengers discover the weird pod-thing in Jamaica Bay which eventually turns out to be holding Jean Grey, in a tie-in to the new title X-Factor.
  • Baron Zemo gathers his Masters of Evil in the slow set up to an epic story.
  • After vanquishing the Beyonder, the Avengers and Fantastic Four need Molecule Man to fix the entire Earth so it's not destroyed.
  • Kang embroils the Avengers in a complicated plot to eradicate his other selves.
  • Alpha Flight and the Avengers help Namor fight off Attuma, who has kidnapped his wife and taken over Atlantis.
  • The Masters of Evil infiltrate Avengers Mansion, beating the hell out of Jarvis and Hercules in the process.  Eventually they are taken care of, but it's a pretty dark tale for that time.
  • Dr. Druid joins the team, Thor wears some truly hideous armour, and Captain Marvel becomes the leader after the dust of the Masters of Evil story settles.
  • We get to see some of Jarvis's history with the team as he contemplates leaving, after recovering from his injuries.  This is the fill-in issue, and it's really weird to see Kyle Baker inking an artist as straight as Bob McLeod.  You can see hints of where he has ended up as an artist.
  • Zeus gets angry with the Avengers for allowing Hercules to be hurt (he's in a coma), and brings them to Olympus (by way of Hades) for revenge.
  • The Super-Adaptoid, in the guise of the Fixer, starts gathering robots and artificial beings to help him with a plot.
The team's line-up is interesting during this time, consisting of:
  • Captain Marvel
  • Black Knight (these two are the only ones to be in almost every issue in this stack)
  • Captain America
  • Hercules
  • The Wasp
  • Starfox
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner
  • Thor
  • She-Hulk
  • Dr. Druid
Stern's writing during this period became less focused on the mechanics of running a team, although he did show that both the Wasp and Captain Marvel suffered a number of doubts and self-recriminations over their decisions.  Hercules is portrayed as being a little misogynistic, as he keeps complaining (if only to himself) that the Wasp should not be giving him orders, mostly because she is a small woman.  From the beginning, Stern shows that Dr. Druid has designs on taking over the team, but does almost nothing else to develop his character aside from taking every opportunity to show his arrogance.
I noticed that the Avengers get attacked in their mansion or on Hydro Base a lot in these issues.  They almost seem to be sitting around waiting for the bad guys to come to them, and they don't ever appear to be very proactive in their work.  It's interesting that the issues around their security clearance are just left dangling for ages, but, unlike the last pile that I reviewed, there are no subplots that never really go anywhere (like the Quicksilver storyline I talked about before).
One last thing that I found notable about these comics came in the issue after Stern left (wherein Ralph Macchio is given only a scripting credit, but no credit is given for the plot), in the form of a column by series editor Mark Gruenwald.  In it, he talks about why Stern left the book, citing irreconcilable differences about where the editor wanted to take the book, especially in relation to two other series, Thor and Captain America (which Gruenwald was writing - this was the era of The Captain and John Walker in the usual Cap uniform).  There is a fair bit of hubris in Gruenwald's description of events, and it made me wonder what plotlines Stern had planned that were left abandoned.
I did notice that, after the Masters of Evil storyline, my enjoyment of these books took a bit of a down-turn, with the Olympus and Super-Adaptoid stories running a little too long, and being a bit dull.  Still, that Masters of Evil story is a classic, and one of the best Avengers stories ever told (might make a good plot for movie #3 or 4).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Wrenchies

by Farel Dalrymple

Farel Dalrymple's work can be a little inaccessible at times.  I enjoyed his Pop Gun War, but by the end of it, wasn't really sure of what it was that I had read.  His Omega: The Unknown is universally adored, but he didn't write that.

I went in to The Wrenchies a little unsure of what to expect, but came out of it with a massive appreciation of Dalyrmple's plotting and story construction, to go along with my usual enjoyment of his art and sense of design.

The Wrenchies is a multi-layered book, basically about a future where only the young are able to survive, and even they are in a constant battle with the Shadowsmen, as well as with the hostile environment the Earth has become.  The gang of kids who have built a reputation as being able to best fight off the Shadowsmen are The Wrenchies, who have named themselves after an old comic book.

This comic was written and drawn by Sherwood Presley Breadcoat, who as a young child entered a cave with his brother, did battle with demons, and then embarked on a long adolescence of being a hero, then an art student, and eventually an unhappy comics artist.  He embedded The Wrenchies #1 with a number of puzzles, to draw mystics to him.  Next door to adult Sherwood lives young Hollis, a misfit child in a bad homemade superhero costume, who has a ghost as a best friend, and who believes that his Wrenchies comic may be making him do bad things.

The narrative shifts between these different groups of characters as the book unfolds, and as we learn just how connected all of these different plotlines are.  Dalrymple blends, very successfully, a variety of genres in this graphic novel.  We get some pretty cool post-Apocalyptic action, a coming-of-age story that I'm sure a number of comics fans can relate to parts of, and some pointed commentary on the nature of the comics industry, and its influence in the world.

I found the book's shifting narrative structure, and embedded connections to different layers of the story, to be reminiscent of novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  Dalrymple's art is terrific, and I especially liked the pages where he laid out the floor plans to secret underground lairs or scientific laboratories.  There were some pages where the colouring process rendered things a little too dark or muddy, but overall, this was a beautiful and rewarding book that screams out for second and third readings so that its nuances can be completely understood.  Highly recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bad Houses

Written by Sara Ryan
Art by Carla Speed McNeil

I knew I wanted to read Bad Houses just on the strength of artist Carla Speed McNeil's involvement, but I was not prepared on any level for how good this book is.

Bad Houses is set in Failin, a small town in Oregon that has seen better days.  It's main industry, the Faithful Angus Brewery has been closed for years, and young people seem to be in a hurry to get out.  The story is centred around Cat's Matchless Estate Sales, which organizes and runs estate sales as the town's aging population dwindles.

Cat runs the business along with her son Lewis, who is just out of high school (I assume) and is learning the ropes.  He meets Anne at one of the sales.  She's an artsy high school student who feels very deeply the connection that people have to objects.  Part of that comes from her mother, Danica, who is a hoarder.  Danica meets AJ when he admits his mother to the old age home where she works, and they begin a relationship.  The other important member of the book's cast is Fred, a grumpy antique shop owner, who has a connection to Cat and Lewis's absent father.

Writer Sara Ryan uses an interesting approach to telling this story, using a third person narrator who sometimes steps into the characters' heads to help explain their thinking, and at other times leaving the heavy lifting to McNeil.  All of these characters are complex and very well-realized, and after reading through the book's hundred and fifty pages, I felt that I knew them so well I'd been reading about them for ages.

This book explores our relationships with stuff as well as with other people, and has a good understanding of just how much emotion, hope, and memory can be invested in the things that we own.  It also looks at how hard it can be to share some of our most personal inner stuff with others.

McNeil is an incredible cartoonist, and it's nice to see her portray a more everyday world than the one she has created in her superb Finder graphic novels (which I cannot recommend strongly enough).  I really wish that McNeil was more prolific, because her work is so strong.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Arctic Marauder

by Jacques Tardi

I've been enjoying Fantagraphics translations of older Jacques Tardi comics, and so was happy to be able to pick up The Arctic Marauder, a very strange graphic novel by the French comics master.

This book is set in 1889, and stars Jérôme Plumier, a medical student who has, for some reason, booked passage on a ship, L'Anjou, which is sailing through the North Atlantic, in a region filled with towering icebergs.  The crew of the ship spot another vessel wedged on the top of a gigantic iceberg, and a small group of sailors, and Plumier, are sent over to investigate.  What they find is the Iceland Loafer, with both ship and crew frozen solid.  They aren't able to spend too long exploring the mystery before L'Anjou suddenly explodes, with all hands lost.

Eventually, Plumier is rescued, and returns to Paris, where he finds out that his uncle has died, leaving behind even more mystery.  In his lab, Plumier finds evidence of some strange experiments involving animals, and a machine that's only function appears to be freezing itself.  Later, Plumier receives word that his uncle may not be dead, and he heads north to try to find out what is going on.

Plumier ends up on a ship being sent to the North Atlantic to discover why so many vessels are sinking in a particular area, although that ship also explodes.  It's not easy to discuss where things go from here, except to say that the titular Arctic Marauder is a very unique vessel, worthy of a James Bond villain, and that Plumier, upon finding his uncle, is not a good person.

Tardi has a great time with this story and its design elements.  The story was originally published in 1974, which makes me wonder if Tardi may be the inventor of the steampunk genre.  He delights in surprising the reader by having Plumier joyfully join his uncle in his evil plans, and in setting up the ultimate hero of the book as a villain.

The art in this book is incredible.  Tardi captures the dread of a dark ocean, with a ship surrounded by menacing icebergs that loom over it.  His design for the Marauder, and the strange assortment of submarines, flying vessels, and manned torpedoes that its crew uses, are amazing.  He makes great use of the larger pages of a French comic to construct page layouts that remind me of stained glass windows.

The book is a much quicker read than I would have expected from its size, mostly because after each chapter (some lasting only five pages), there is a full title page for the subsequent chapter.  I also found it odd that this volume doesn't share a trade dress style with the other books in Fantagraphic's Tardi series.  Still, this is well worth getting your hands on.