Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Cover Review: Micronauts #32

The cover to issue 32 of Marvel’s original Micronauts series had just about all the right elements in it to snag my attention.  First, I loved the Micronauts toys as a kid, and the comic was pretty darn good science fiction, too.  Then there is that white “snowbear.”  (I imagine in some cultures it would be a polar bear, but here the weird eyes, aura and rune-like chest symbol denote that it is something far stranger.)  And finally there is the snow against a black sky.  I am a sucker for black and white cover schemes.  They catch my eye every time.
The more observant among you may have noticed a woman’s ass jutting out at an odd angle.  Go ahead and try that pose.  It’s lovely to look at, but not so hot to hold.  That woman is known as Marionette, and she always looked damn cool in the comics.  Here the pose is strictly for eye candy, and does not speak well of her character.  Those who read the comic know what I mean.

There are certain comic book covers that I’d love to own the original artwork to so that I could hang it on my wall.  This is one of those covers.  Later in life I would swear this influenced the cover of issue 19 of the New Mutants, which was part of the demon bear saga.  Look at the covers and compare.  While not exactly the same, you can’t help but think its artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, had this Micronauts issue in mind when he painted it.  I’m not saying he ripped it off, but I believe a strong case can be made for inspiration.

Marvel put out some great covers in the early-to-mid 1980s (the Micronauts cover is from 1981) that were often the perfect marriage of art and storytelling.  You could look at the issue and know what was going on between the covers.  This issue’s cover artist, Pat Broderick, knew how to capture a potential reader’s attention and hold it, as he proves here.  I actually don’t think anyone can look at this cover and say it looks boring.  It is pure action with a good sense of style and color.  Granted, not every issue’s cover was up to this one’s high standards, but most of them in both of Marvels’ Micronauts series were appealing in one way or another.  Of course, there is the exception of that Beyonder one … but then again all of those covers associated with that crossover sucked, as did most of the issues, too.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014


Sparks is one of those works that if I had just read the description for it in Previews without knowing the talent behind it, I probably would not have ordered it.  Writer Christopher Folino (one of the directors of the excellent movieadaptation of this) and artists JM Ringuet and Tyler Endicott created a superhero story that looks at the genre realistically and weaves a tale of intrigue, violence, backstabbing, lust and love against a 1940s noir backdrop.  How many times have you read of something similar?  How many times has it worked?  Exactly.  People do this sort of thing a lot.  It usually fails.  Not this time. 

The start of this tale, which was put out by Catastrophic Comics, opens with a serial killer operating in 1920.  As he makes a kill, a meteor hits the town he is in, and a lot of people die.  13 survivors, however, are irradiated and start to mutate to the point where they gain powers.  Later their children inherit those powers.  Enter Sparks, a young man who believes he has powers.  Things go horribly wrong when he tangles with a new serial killer 28 years after the meteor strike, and so begins his downward spiral in the public’s eye and in his mind.

This is an interesting and unusual take on the hero genre, and it works incredibly well.  The characters are handled so deftly and are so against the usual stereotypes that exist in the world of comics, that you can’t help but wonder just how Folino managed to pull this off the way he did.  If you read comics a lot, you know this type of story rarely works.  (Incidentally, the movie adaptation is something that must be seen, too.   See it after reading this, though.)  Why is that?  Because superhero fans and creators talk a big talk, but they don’t walk the walk.  They say they want something different and unusual, but when they get it, they shun it … if it’s any good in the first place, which it usually isn’t.  The work usually starts out flawed because the creators are steeped in the history of the genre and are not only far too familiar with its conventions and archetypes, but they are also too familiar with those tweaks other creators do in order to set their stories apart from the rest.  That causes the superhero genre to become an incestuous cesspool of stale ideas masked as groundbreaking entertainment and art.  It’s the equivalent of saying Terminator 2 was original where all it really did was tread the same ground as the first film with just a few eye candy differences.

When fans get something truly new and original, they stay away from it like the plague.  They can’t pin it down to something they recognize, so therefore it is wrong.  If that sort of “logic” is keeping you away from this project, shame on you, Jack.  You are missing out on something truly unique.  No, it’s not Wolverine in his 4,332 story, and nor should it be.  You’ve read all of those.  Try something different.

Admittedly, the art is sometimes a little hard to follow in places and there are few scenes that feel like they could have been strengthened by a bit more fleshing out, but overall it works with the story’s noir aspects.  This is just wonderful storytelling, and should be read by anyone who thinks he or she has seen it all when it comes to superheroes … but only if you really want something different and not just the same old tale dressed in some new tights.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I received this copy to review.  Clicking on a link may earn me some dough.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

They Shoot First Ladies, Don't They?

1988.  Action Comics #610.  The series was experimenting with a weekly format.  48 pages for just a buck fifty.  A bargain by today’s standards.  When the series was weekly it was a testing ground (or dumping ground, if you prefer) for second-string characters while the man who made the series famous (Superman) took a back seat.  In this issue he was relegated to a two page spread that did little more than tease the average fan.  Also filling its strange pages was a Black Canary story that made no sense unless you read the issues prior, a Secret Six story that ended with a man falling to his presumed doom while clinging to a butchered pig (I am not kidding), a Phantom Stranger piece with artist Kyle Baker that was just short of being utterly boring, a Green Lantern story that had its moments … and a chapter in an ongoing Deadman story written by none other than Mike Baron (Badger, ThePunisher).

Nancy Reagan's about to get blasted!
The Deadman chapter was called “Catfight,” and it featured the title hero possessing the body of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.  It opened at a black tie political function, and in attendance was Raisa’s husband, as well as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who was possessed by a devil claiming to be Satan.  Deadman, inhabiting the body of Raisa, wielded an alien gun that he was going to use against Nancy to kill the devil inside her, all while Ronnie was busy being his typical clueless self.  In addition to that insanity, there was also an appearance by someone who was mistaken for D.B. Cooper and a man who was turned into a Ken doll. 

I don’t think this was based on a true story.

I can’t say this chapter of Baron’s story was good storytelling.  It was, however, weird.  It was the high-end kind of weird that indie comics were known for, but this wasn’t an indie comic.  This was DC, the home of Batman.  This was Action Comics, the book that gave the world Superman and changed the comic book game completely.  The title was Americana at its finest, and here was First Lady Nancy Reagan possessed and being shot at with a gun obtained from an alien astronaut … a gun being used by the story’s hero.  The ‘80s were cynical, but they weren’t that cynical.

Baron has always been a solid writer.  I don’t enjoy all his work, but it contains a certain chaotic glee that I find missing from a lot of comic stories.  On the flip side of that, his work can sometimes feel a bit forced.  This chapter of the Deadman arc was neither of those things.  It was, if anything, probably influenced by some Hunter S. Thompson-like dream and liberal paranoia (often one in the same).  D.B. Cooper’s appearance felt right at home in it, and Nancy Reagan’s possession seemed proper.  It all made sense in its own strange way, and readers were better off for it.

The weekly experiment for the title didn’t last too long, which I found to be a relief.  It really wasn’t a good idea to begin with, as it gave readers an excuse to avoid buying the title.  If they hated the characters, there was no need to get it, and if they liked the characters, the stories weren’t long enough to satisfy.  It did, however, give artists and writers a chance to go a little nuts, and while that didn’t always work, they sometimes created something so bizarre that you can’t help but remember it decades later.  

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I bought this comic.  Clicking on a link may earn me some dough.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Legacy of DC's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

I used to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons quite a bit.  With that in mind, back in the late 1980s when I heard DC was doing a comic based on the role playing game, I immediately put it on my pull list.  How could I not?  How could any player who was also into comics not want to read this title?  There was a genuine air of excitement around it, and the wait for the first issue to arrive was a bit maddening.  In the days before the Internet made it commonplace to ruin any surprises, the speculation of what the comic would be like was the topic of many conversations.  And then it arrived.

The cover of that initial issue looked promising.  It was a group shot of the comic’s cast of characters with a hint of the evil they would face, and anyone who played the game and saw it on the rack would be intrigued by it.  The story, however, was fairly standard fantasy stuff … which was all it really needed to be.  Granted, it was cool to see some of the spells and monsters from the game brought to “life,” but the setting could have been any fantasy realm as most are fairly interchangeable.  Fantasy comics at that time were limited, as well, so genre fans grabbed whatever they could get their pale, trembling hands on, and this series was no exception.  It had a built-in audience from the start, a fact I’m sure wasn’t lost on DC.  It was guaranteed sales (at least for a while) regardless of quality, and the comic franchise did something no other work of entertainment has done since.  More on that in a bit.

I bought all the issues in the DC series, and several of the other associated titles, all of which varied in content.  (Spelljammer was not a favorite of mine, though I had friends swear by its superiority to any other title on the market at the time.)  Once the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series folded thirtysome issues later, there was a lull before other publishers brought the franchise back to life in the comic world … all with mixed results.  Few of the titles managed to spark fan’s excitement like that first DC series, though.  Many of those companies should have never tried, either, as that initial series was never really all that special anyway.  As a matter of fact, I can’t remember a single character or storyline from it.  I actually remember some of the Hardy Boys stories I read as a boy far better than those issues.  Memorable?  It’s the exact opposite, and nothing since that DC run has really caught fire, either.

I haven’t revisited the title since I read that last issue, but every once in a while I think about breaking it out to see if I could get anything new from it.  I fear, however, with tastes that have changed over the years, the flaws I casually overlooked before would become glaring nightmares this time around and ruin even my sparse nostalgic memories of the title.  I’ll go back to it eventually, though, if only to satisfy my curiosity.  After all, waiting 12 years between thereadings of Origin changed my view ofthat series for the better, though I doubt re-reading this one will give mesimilar results.  What that means for the game that inspired it, however, is something totally different.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons really only failed as a comic book series because the game was impossible to live up to.  Anyone who has played the game knows that you are only really limited by your imagination.  Readers of the comics were limited by the creators’ imagination, and sometimes that imagination wasn’t all that strong.  While the concept of a comic based on the game seemed promising at first, it didn’t take long to see that everything which made the game special could in no way be transferred to a static comic book series because it lacked one simple thing: the players.

There is not a single one of those series that could stand as a testament to the game from which they sprang.  They do, however, prove that unlike other games, it isn’t the mechanics that makes it stand out, it’s the players.  I can’t think of another instance in any crossover media where such a thing has happened.  Sure, sometimes a movie adapted from a book makes moviegoers say the book was more in-depth and therefore better, but when else has an audience been credited with making the work special?  Never, and that’s what makes these various series such an anomaly in the realm of entertainment.  Their mediocrity proves the superiority of its source inspiration, and that is something players should be proud of.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


In 2001 I was working as the manager of a comic book store in Eureka, California.  One of the biggest events of the year was the release of Origin, a six-issue limited series written by Paul Jenkins, Joe Quesada, and Bill Jemas; and with art by Andy Kubert.  It was an event simply because the series was going to tell the story of how one of the most popular comic book characters, Wolverine, came to be.  To say most of the customers were talking about it is an understatement.

There had been hints of Wolverine’s past in previous stories.  Often times these were red herrings or contradicted one another.  Each dropped clue kept the mystery and speculation alive, however, and they kept fans talking and guessing.  With that in mind, I wondered why Marvel, the publisher of this series, was even bothering to tell the story, as it was a tale that didn’t really need to be told.

Wolverine sold titles.  His solo title sold, and any book he was in sold.  Wolverine fans would buy his books no matter what, so to do a series that would put an end to some of the mystery seemed almost counterproductive.  In that sense, like the Star Wars prequels, it could only fail in its attempts.

My first reading of the series left me disappointed.  It had gothic sensibilities and horrific moments, sometimes actually feeling like a Hammer horror film back in the 1960s and 1970s.  Far from the anti-hero of Chris Claremont’s heyday on the Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, the boy, was a pathetic, tragic figure who slowly transformed into the hybrid beast of a man readers knew and loved.  It made dramatic sense, however, and it also made his rise to the samurai-inspired, bloodthirsty savage even more poignant, but something about the story felt decidedly lackluster.  As it transpired in those six issues, Wolverine’s rise to power was more situational than anything else.  He was an accidental hero, though those heroics were barely seen in the series.

Then a funny thing happened.  I decided to revisit the story recently, and was actually most pleased by what I read.

When Origin is left to simmer away from the hype of telling the Wolverine origin story, it actually gains strength.  It is no longer the let-down it had originally been simply because it is removed from anticipation.  Many die-hard Wolverine fans complained to me that the character didn’t start out kicking butt, but instead was sickly and quick to cry.  It was a blasphemy, and it didn’t jibe with what they knew.  That wasn’t the problem I had reading the series for the first time, however.  Instead, I found the story to be far too boring.  Sometimes it took too long to make its point, and at other times it was too heavy-handed.  Time changed that, though.  Removing the story from the constant hype and checkout counter criticism has shown that despite its flaws (those very obvious references to the character’s future that have all the subtlety of being hit in the face with a mallet), it was a rather well-crafted bit of characterization that worked.  What seemed lackluster on the first reading, now feels like a masterful stroke of storytelling.

There are some outstanding Wolverine stories out there.  Comic book legends like Frank Miller (Sin City) and Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) have contributed tales that are above and beyond Jenkins and company’s work, but that doesn’t mean Origin should be dismissed for what it attempted.  To answer my earlier question of why it was even written in the first place, the tale was created because Marvel feared that if it didn’t tell the story of how Wolverine came to be, Hollywood would do so, and once that cat was out of the bag Marvel would have a hard time reclaiming the character if purely on an ideological level.  No amount of great talent could save that story if Hollywood, with all its entertainment-by-demographics, got its hands on it first.  The creators Marvel assigned to do it had to know they were playing with fire, and were going to most likely disappoint people artistically, all while realizing sales would be through the roof regardless.  It was, by and large, a bold move of them to create the story they did, and they did it far better than Hollywood would have done if given the chance.  Marvel set the standard, and then Hollywood tried to tell its own version in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which borrowed from the comic series and added its own bit of misery to it.  Marvel, which has only been helped by the silver screen as of late, beat the beast at its own game.

Ironically, Marvel, in a fairly standard Hollywood-like move, has its own sequel to the comic due out soon.  Will lightning strike twice?  I seriously doubt it, but I’d love to be surprised … again.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this for free and clicking on a link may earn me a commission.