Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Retro-Reviews: Avengers #318-333 (June 1990-June 1991)

Written by Fabian Nicieza (#318- 324), Mark Gruenwald (#319-325), and Larry Hama (#326-333)
Pencilled by Paul Ryan (#318, 320, 322, 324, 326-332)  , Tom Morgan (#318), Rik Levins (#319, 321, 323-325), James Fry (#319-320), Jim Reddington (#321-322), Mickey Ritter (#323), Brad Vancata (#323), and Herb Trimpe (#333)
Inked by Tom Palmer (#318, 320, 322, 324, 326-), Christopher Ivy (#319, 321, 323), Keith Williams (#319-320), Mickey Ritter (#321-323), Fred Fredericks (#324-325), Reggie Jones (#333), and Tom Morgan (#333)
After John Byrne left the Avengers titles, things started to flounder again, as the book did not seem to have any sort of clear direction.  This set issues, which were published over the course of a year, thanks to an early experiment in double-shipping, were chosen for this review because my fifteen-year-old self stopped buying the title regularly with issue 333, and reading these books again, I could see why.
Fabian Nicieza dove in after John Byrne’s departure, finishing off his Nebula story arc, which featured Spider-Man, before writing ‘The Crossing Line.’ This six-part arc is basically an homage to The Hunt For Red October, and includes Alpha Flight and The Peoples’ Protectorate (a.k.a. The Soviet Super Soldiers) in a complicated story that touches on geo-politics, Altantean self-determination, and extra-dimensional exploration.  These stories were backed up by a long-ish Mark Gruenwald-written story featuring the Avengers support crew, which finished in a whole-issue story.  After that, Larry Hama came along, restructured the team’s charter, and debuted Rage, a total 90s character who showed up too early in that decade to be considered truly extreme.  Rage was the final nail in the coffin for me.
This set of issues can be recognized for the utter lack of character development, sub-plot, or consistency.  Characters appear and disappear almost at random.  The Black Widow is made a part of the active team, but goes issues without speaking or doing anything.  The team gets a new charter from the UN (they found out that their US charter is revoked while they are in the middle of an adventure, with no explanation or reaction), which leads to a very complicated structure of ‘active’ Avengers, ‘reserve substitute’ Avengers, ‘probationary reserve substitute’ Avengers, and regular old reserve Avengers.  The probationary members are Rage, because he’s angry and doesn’t want to be an Avenger anymore, and the Sandman, because he’s reforming, but is only around for like two issues, and no one talks about how or why he got invited.  It feels like a lot of thought was put into this structure.  The leader of the team is now referred to as the ‘Chair-being’, because ‘Chairman’ or ‘Chairperson’ is considered discriminatory.  The only problem is that Hama doesn’t bother investing any real emotion into any character other than Rage, and that character is just embarrassing.
Let’s take a look at the main story events from this run:
  • The Avengers and the Stranger defeat Nebula.
  • Captain America awkwardly fires Spider-Man, who had just been made a member of the team an issue or two before.
  • The Avengers, with Stingray in tow, try to find a stolen Soviet submarine, only to get into it with the People’s Protectorate.
  • Those two teams have to team-up to fight off some angry Atlanteans (because apparently no one noticed that the stolen Soviet sub was drifting alongside an underwater civilization).
  • When the sub crew goes to Newfoundland to effect repairs, Alpha Flight joins the two other hero teams in trying to stop the terrorist organization, actually called the Peace Corpse, from using the nuclear weapons on board.
  • Somehow, two of the terrorists are joined into a weird amalgamated being who sets off the nuclear bombs, forcing Shaman to stick everything into his pouch.
  • Various heroes, scattered throughout Shaman’s pouch, need to find each other and find their way out into the world again, without irradiating everything.
  • While the Avengers are in Canada, each member of their support team is confronted with a figure from their past, part of a scheme by Mother Night to control their minds so they can spy on the Avengers.
  • During a party (this was a theme that year), the mind-controlled crew try to kill the Avengers.
  • Rage, a large black man who goes shirtless under a leather vest and wears a yellow luchadore mask comes to the Avengers to complain about how they don’t have any ‘righteous’ black men on the team, because Black Panther is African and Falcon is a loser.
  • The guy who stopped Chernobyl from melting down comes to New York for treatment, but goes nuts, and the Avengers have to try to stop him.
  • Rage decides to destroy a condemned crack house which has a luxurious apartment in it where a gangster with a very prodigious vocabulary lives.
  • The Avengers fight the Russian guy, with help from Rage, and they all have to go to another dimension (another theme that year) to take away his powers.
  • In that other dimension, they fight a lot of monsterish creatures, who trick them into taking a little friend of theirs back to Earth.
  • That little monster brings the others to Earth, and they team up with the gangsters that don’t like Rage, and take his grandmother hostage.  She thinks they are devils from the Old Testament (seriously).
  • Quasar starts wearing one of the worst costumes of the early 90s.  It’s really terrible.
  • The Avengers announce their new UN charter, their complicated internal structure, and their new line-up.  Nowhere in this issue is there mention of the West Coast team, which continued to operate under different rules.
  • Spider-Man is one of these reserve substitutes, even though we saw him get fired before, and no explanation is given of how he made it back on the team.
  • Some other creatures, called the Tetrarchs of Entropy, come to Earth angry that the other monsters are out of the dimension where they imprisoned them.  They imprison the Avengers, who get free.
  • The Avengers and the Tetrarchs go to stop the monsters, and rescue Rage’s granny.
  • The Avengers have a party to show off their new headquarters.  Rage brings cupcakes from his granny (seriously).
  • The Avengers suspect that Doctor Doom has crashed their party, so they let Captain America, Vision, and Sandman investigate, without alarming their guests, who represent some of the most powerful people in the Marvel Universe, because they wouldn’t want to take them away from cocktail franks and Rage’s granny’s cupcakes.
  • Eventually everyone figures out that Doctor Doom is there, because he takes over the whole building, and threatens to blow it and himself up if the Avengers don’t help him free his mother from Hell, using whatever trick they used to free the monsters from before.  The Avengers explain that they can only do that with Thor, and they don’t know where he is right then, so they can’t help Doom.  Doom leaves.
  • At this point, I also left, dropping the title.
Like I said, this run was a mess.  I think I would have weathered the stupid plots, but the lack of character development (other than Rage) gave me no reason to stick around.  And really, Rage himself is a big problem.  I can appreciate that Hama was trying to address the consistent lack of diversity on the team, but Rage is just too clichéd and silly a character to make it work.  Had Hama played up the fact that he was just a fourteen year old in an adult body, like what Geoff Johns did with Captain Marvel in JSA, he might have gotten somewhere, but instead, I found the character exhausting, and not Avengers material.
It’s hard to say who was on the team during this era, as characters randomly appeared and disappeared a lot, and often just stood around in the background without doing anything.  Also, there were a lot of parties where former Avengers were invited.  From what I can guess, the line-up included:
  • Captain America
  • Vision
  • Sersi
  • She-Hulk
  • Thor
  • Iron Man
  • Spider-Man (briefly)
  • Quasar
  • Stingray (as an associate)
  • Rage (in a probationary role)
  • Sandman (in a probationary role)
  • Black Widow (in a ‘stand around and don’t even talk’ role)
Reading through these old issues has been fun, but really, everything after Roger Stern left in the upper 200s was moving along a downward spiral of mediocrity.  The art remained remarkably consistent, with Paul Ryan and inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer putting in some very nice work, but there were a lot more guest artists that muddied thing up.
After dropping the title, I did keep picking up some random issues, mostly because of tie-ins or guest stars, so for my next Retro-Review, I’ll look at the few issues I have that took us up to Heroes Reborn.  I’m pretty sure I skipped the worst of it though, as I’ve never read a chapter of The Crossing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tooth

Written by Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee
Art by Matt Kindt

The Tooth, the beautifully designed hardcover published by Oni Press back in 2011, is a strange love letter to the earlier days of the Marvel Universe, when Stan Lee and his friends made comics that blurred the line between superheroes and monsters.

Graham Stone has come to his recently deceased grandfather's house to decide what to do with it, and his grandfather's strange collection of occult artifacts.  Graham is attacked by some creeps working for a local wizard, and soon enough, his life is unrecognizable, as he becomes the host of The Tooth, a man-shaped creature that grows from a large tooth now wedged into Graham's mouth.

The Tooth is an Incredible Hulk-like creature, with an origin story that harkens back to Ancient Greece.  He has to protect Graham and his fiancée, and find a way to help them stop the wizard dude.  Oh, there's also a big dragon in here, as well as another monster fight that happens in a dentist's office.

Writers Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee have a lot of fun with the old school Marvel stylings of this story, from the bombastic narration, the editor's notes, and the fake letters pages and 'bullpen bulletin' style announcements that pepper the story.  Leaving the homage aside, this is a decent enough story that is fun to read.

Matt Kindt is one of my favourite artists for the singularity of his style.  It works well here, although someone less effectively than it does on his own titles like Mind MGMT or 3 Story.  He has a way of making the most outlandish ideas (and really, what's wilder than a yellowish seven-foot tall tooth fighting monsters?) work on the comics page.

This was a good read on a quiet weekend, and I'm sure this book was a lot of fun to make.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Retro-Reviews: The Avengers #305-317

Avengers #305 - 317 (July 1989 - May 1990)

Written by John Byrne, with scripting by Fabian Nicieza (#317)
Pencilled by Paul Ryan
Inked by Tom Palmer
In my last retro-review, which covered the set of issues that came after long-time writer Roger Stern left the book, I had written about how rudderless the Avengers series began to feel, and how I was curious to see how the addition of John Byrne as writer for an extended run would help stabilize things.
It looks like Byrne was intent on making a number of changes to the way in which the Avengers operated.  In his first issue (#305) he has Captain America assemble any and everyone who was ever considered a member of the team, to basically have a little pep rally.  He basically gets rid of the distinction between East Coast and West Coast teams (which makes sense, considering that Byrne was both writing and drawing the West Coast title, which reshuffled its name under his tenure), and declares that he doesn't really see the team as made up of active and reserve members anymore.  Instead, he'd like the ability to call up anyone he needs, when he needs them.  This goes over well enough, and leads to a pretty fluid line-up for the rest of Byrne's run, although to my mind, it's marked by the sudden disappearance of some characters (like the Black Panther, who is there for a couple of issues, and then just isn't).
Another change that Byrne brought to the book was the creation of a support staff for the Avengers.  It didn't really make sense to have Jarvis do everything for the team, especially after moving the Mansion to Hydro Base, so this was a wise change.  Strangely, none of these people were hired in the main title.  I vaguely remember Cap approaching some of them in his own title (like that annoying Fabian kid), and so suddenly, people like Peggy Carter and that O'Brien Guardian guy are just around, sometimes.  John Jameson too.  Also some plant-based villain, whose job is keeping the tropical Hydro Base plants alive once the island is based just off Manhattan.
Here are some of the things that happened in this run:
  • After Cap's pep rally, Lava Men attack the island and capture the Avengers, leaving Reed and Sue Richards to try to save the island from destruction.
  • Gilgamesh gets badly hurt fighting the Lava Men.
  • The Avengers try to get Sersi to help save Gilgamesh, which leads to a trip to Olympia, which has gone missing.
  • The Avengers search for Olympia in the Negative Zone, which leads to a big fight with Blastarr.
  • The Acts of Vengeance crossover begins, which leads to a bunch of robots attacking and sinking Hydro Base while all the Avengers are away.
  • A group of heroes fight off Freedom Force from attacking Avengers Park, which has become their main base after losing Hydro Base.
  • Mandarin and the Wizard (constantly referred to as the Wingless Wizard, which is just weird) then attack the same park, and get fought off by even more Avengers.
  • Loki is never actually revealed as being behind the Acts of Vengeance in this series, although it's pretty obvious.
  • Nebula shows up again, manipulating some old scientist into using a device that wipes out existence (although a small group of Avengers manage to continue existing to take the fight to her).
  • The Stranger shows up because Nebula stole some super-weapon from him.
It's hard to point out a list of 'active' Avengers in this run, because of the changes Captain America made to their usual protocol (the classic six-person roster), but these are the characters who fought under the Avengers banner for some or all of this run:
  • Captain America
  • Thor
  • Quasar (although he spent much of his time sitting out or just missing the team)
  • She-Hulk
  • Gilgamesh
  • Black Panther
  • Namor
  • Sersi (she joined somewhere in here)
  • Scarlet Witch (I'm pretty sure she stayed with the West Coast team)
  • Hank Pym (red jumpsuit era; also West Coast)
  • Wasp (West Coast?)
  • Falcon (showed up out of nowhere, disappeared right after)
  • Vision
  • Black Widow (for one issue)
  • Hellcat (for one issue)
  • Wonder Man (West Coast)
  • Spider-Man (joined team for one adventure, and was awkwardly fired at the end of the story, which isn't in this run as Byrne left)
  • Starfox
  • Iron Man
I'm not entirely sure that Byrne brought the stability that people were looking for, as the team was constantly shifting around, and there were no plotlines involving characters' personal lives (although both Vision and Captain America were shown as being doubtful that there was someone other than Tony Stark in the Iron Man armour, which is something he was claiming at the time, apparently).  One thing he did that I appreciated was use some random pages in early issues of his run to set up later storylines.  From the beginning, we kept being shown the old scientist who ended up working with Nebula towards the end of the run.  I liked when writers did this more, but writing for the trade has killed that kind of thing in modern superhero comics.
I was pretty disappointed with the Acts of Vengeance issues.  Granted, these are tie-ins to a larger event which I didn't just re-read, but I was surprised to not reach a resolution in this title (where did that happen?), and to not see any kind of checklist or indication as to what other books I would need to read to get the whole story.  Was there really a time when Marvel didn't over-market their cross-over events?  It's hard to believe, isn't it?
While not as impressive as the run on this title by Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer, it is impressive that the team of Byrne, Ryan, and Palmer were able to put out thirteen straight issues together.  I assume that Byrne left because his superior Namor series launched towards the end of this run (now that's a title I should re-read), and I've noticed that Ryan and Palmer stuck around a fair amount afterwards.  Keeping Tom Palmer as inker on this book for so many years really gave it a consistent feel, and he works well with Ryan, who is a very capable artist.
This was definitely not one of Byrne's more celebrated comics.  His work here is fine, but it doesn't compare to the other books he's so well known for, like Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Namor, Superman, or even She-Hulk.
From what I recall, after this run, the Avengers continued to slouch slowly towards 90s terribleness, so my next retro-review will cover the period from Byrne's departure to my own abandoning of the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dotter of her Fathers Eyes

Written by Mary M. Talbot
Art by Bryan Talbot

I've never had a lot of interest in the writing of James Joyce, and have only ever read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man back when I was in university, but I am always interested in seeing how comics can intersect with the academic world, and I have long been a fan of Bryan Talbot's work.

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is written by Talbot's wife, Mary.  She is the daughter of James S. Atherton, a renowned Joyce scholar, and, apparently, a difficult man to get along with.  Growing up, Atherton was a complicated presence in Mary's life.  In some ways, she longed to please him, but in others, she found his intransigence painful.  So, in other words, she was a typical daughter to a typical father, especially considering we are talking about post-War Britain.

To prove the commonality of her story, it is told in parallel to that of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, who was subject to her family's nomadic and penniless ways, and who was forced to put a successful dancing and teaching career on hold because of familial obligations.  The two women's stories unfold in such a way as to look for lines of intersection, but the telling difference is that where Mary ended up marrying Bryan and becoming a successful academic, Lucia ended up in a string of asylums.

This is a very personal work, made even more so by the fact that the artist is married to the writer.  There are a couple of places where Mary includes small notes to disagree with the way Bryan has pictured events, and these add to the sense of accuracy that this book carries.  Mary shows a strong sense of self-awareness, and Bryan keeps his art clear and more minimal, avoiding the lush work we are used to seeing from him in his Grandville graphic novels.

This book was well worth reading, and provided some insight into the lives of the brilliant.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Johnny Hiro {The Skills to Pay the Bills}

by Fred Chao

I absolutely fell in love with Johnny Hiro when Fred Chao first started publishing his adventures through Adhouse Books.  I picked up and enjoyed the first graphic novel, even though I'd already read most of it, but I somehow didn't know until just recently that a second volume, {The Skills to Pay the Bills}, had been published.

In Johnny Hiro, Fred Chao follows the titular character, a sushi chef who lives in New York, as circumstances create problems for him and his Japanese immigrant girlfriend Mayumi.  They sublet an apartment from Hiro's best friend, and worry about money, their relationship, and what will happen if Mayumi's work visa is not extended.  Hiro also has to spend his days fighting off the assistant chefs of Shinto Pete, his boss Masago's bitter enemy.  They literally attack him at the fish market every time he goes.

Hiro and Mayumi are basically trouble magnets.  A nice lunch with Mayumi's work friend, who is also Hiro's ex from college, gets interrupted when a giant ape, the son of King Kong, randomly picks up the blonde, and tries to make off with her across the city.  It is Hiro who manages to save her, leading to the couple's second meeting with Mayor Bloomberg (the book came out in 2013).

Later, Masago's restaurant is chosen to cater an event at Gracie Mansion for Bloomberg, but that turns into a disaster when the Mayor's usual caterers try to sabotage the event, and end up chasing Hiro through the historic building.

As we get deeper into the graphic novel, which is made up of short and longer stories, Chao abandons some of the hijinks in favour of having Hiro retreat into his head a little, and contemplate his life going forward, as he moves into his late twenties.  We also get Masago's backstory portioned out over a couple of stories, as we learn why he's so grumpy all the time, and just why Shinto Pete has such beef with him.

What really makes this book work is the depth of its charm.  Hiro and Mayumi are very loveable characters, and their relationship feels very real.  Chao blends the wacky and the profound beautifully, and I especially like the shorter vignettes, such as the one where Hiro watches a stranger comfort another stranger on the subway, and wonders why he's not capable of such kindnesses.  Chao's art is simple and straightforward, but capable of transmitting a lot of emotion.

I love how much New York City becomes a part of this book (New York and LA even meet for a beer at one point, sort of), as Bloomberg pines for the failed Atlantic Yards project, and we learn the true reason for the first King Kong film being made (as well as Peter Jackson's remake).  Also, any book that has a cameo by rapper Grand Puba is okay in my books.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Avengers #288-304

The Avengers #288-304 (February 1988-June 1989)

Written by Ralph Macchio (#288-290, 300-303), Mark Gruenwald (#290, 301-303), Walter Simonson (#291-300), and Danny Fingeroth (#304)
Breakdowns by John Buscema (#288-300), Walter Simonson (#300), Bob Hall (#301), and Rich Buckler (#302-304)
Finishes by Tom Palmer (#288-300, #302-304),Walter Simonson (#300), and Don Heck (#301)
I've kind of fallen into rereading all of my Avengers issues, at least from the arbitrary starting point I picked back in the summer.  The collection of books I discussed in the last two columns represent the high point of The Avengers in my childhood, and were the best that comic was until Kurt Busiek came along and fixed the extremely bad choices of the 1990s.  The collection of issues I've picked for this column, however, represent a low point.
This batch was grouped due to the inconsistency in writing that happened between Roger Stern's legendary run, and John Byrne's largely forgotten one.  None of these issues are to ever be considered iconic, and feel very constrained by some of the decisions being made in other Marvel comics (such as Captain America giving up his uniform and taking on the unique new name, The Captain).  The team roster was shifting as often as the writer's credit, and for a couple of issues, the only Avengers team in existence was the West Coast one, not that they appeared all that often in the book.
To examine the main plot points, in bullet form:
  • The Avengers deal with the Super-Adaptoid's plans to take over the Cosmic Cube, after recruiting a number of robots to aid him, including Machine Man.
  • Namor proves himself to be a very over-protective and domineering husband, refusing to allow Marrina to fight on the team, despite her always being around.
  • The Cosmic Cube adopts the name Kubik, and looks really stupid.
  • Marrina goes all feral at a party, turns into a gigantic worm, and starts wrecking ships at sea.
  • In order to stop his wife, Namor uses the Black Knight's Ebony Blade to cut her, which causes the Black Knight to suffer from a curse (resulting in his having to wear a cumbersome exo-suit, and to become sharp to the touch somehow, as well as immobile).
  • Doctor Druid becomes ever more critical of Captain Marvel's leadership, and begins to manipulate her.
  • Captain Marvel takes a break after the fight with Marrina, and Druid manipulates (and psychically control) his fellow Avengers into making him chairman.
  • We learn that Druid is himself being manipulated by Nebula, who has become part of the Kang Korps.
  • Everyone ends up fighting one another at Nebula's behest, while she tries to retrieve a super weapon from a time bubble, or something like that.
  • The Avengers basically break up after getting rid of Nebula and Druid.
  • Jarvis is the only Avenger left, and he runs into some weird crap during Inferno, when all the payphones in Manhattan become demons.
  • The Captain goes to suburban Connecticut to get help with the Inferno problem from Reed and Sue Richards, just to arrive after Nanny and the Orphan Maker (remember them?) kidnap Franklin Richards.
  • While fighting these ridiculous villains, Gilgamesh, the Forgotten Eternal shows up to help fight, just cause.
  • The Captain (who almost immediately becomes Captain America again) decides, basically in some text pages, to hire a bunch of helpers for his new Avengers team, and we occasionally see some of these people, but their presence is never explained in any story.
  • Super-Nova, a very large member of the Nova Corps decides that he's angry at Nebula for destroying the planet Xandar, so he comes to Earth to wreck it (apparently he thinks she's an Avenger).
  • Quasar, the Fantastic Four (of which there are only three?) and the West Coast team fight him because the new East Coast team is fighting robot brain leech things in space.
  • Captain America, Thor, and Gilgamesh hang out on Ellis Island, where they try to stop Puma from taking a kid from his tribe back home.  That kid opens a portal to another dimension and the U-Foes show up to fight them.
These issues feature the following Avengers, many of whom leave the team for very poor reasons, story-wise:
  • Captain Marvel (leaves after losing most of her energy)
  • Doctor Druid (lost in the time-stream)
  • Black Knight (becomes immobile, left behind in a protective energy field during Inferno, and not seen again)
  • She-Hulk (leaves because she's embarrassed at being mind controlled)
  • Namor (leaves after killing his wife)
  • Thor
  • Captain America/The Captain
  • Nebula (although I don't think she was technically ever an Avenger)
  • Mister Fantastic
  • Invisible Woman
  • Gilgamesh
None of these line-ups were exactly classic.
One thing I noticed is that I'm not the only person revisiting this timeframe lately.  In a recent issue of Avengers World, Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, is seen telling a bartender a story about himself being, basically, in a full-body cast during a battle.  Also, in Mighty Avengers, when a boring mystic type (Kalluu?  Something like that) talks for too long, She-Hulk remarks that he's just like Doctor Druid.
As I said, the writing here was very inconsistent.  I wasn't surprised to find the issues that were hastily written after Roger Stern's departure to be lacking, but I would have expected a lot more from Walter Simonson, with these issues coming between his excellent runs on The Mighty Four and The Fantastic Four.  Perhaps he never really wanted to take this job, as the stories really lacked enthusiasm.  It's weird that even his Thor, the character he knew best at that time, felt forced and unnatural.
The art also began to suffer as John Buscema and Tom Palmer took some breaks (presumably out of exhaustion, after having drawn so many consecutive issues).  A lot of the fill-in artists, such as Rich Buckler, Bob Hall, and Don Heck represent an earlier Marvel era, and they weren't adapting well to the transitional era that moved away from artists like Buscema, Byrne, and Romita Jr. towards people like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane.
It's not hard to imagine, at a time when the X-Men were at the height of their popularity, that the Avengers were kind of an after-thought in the Marvel offices.  That would explain the general malaise one gets from reading these issues.  Was John Byrne able to turn it around when he came on the book?  Find out next time!