Friday, September 19, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/19: Incredible Hulks

I try to write recommended readings that are topical. I pick series that are getting new volumes, new trades, or from creators who are about to release new work. I was having a hard time picking something for this week, before I saw the new issue of Hulk on Wednesday, where Gerry Duggan is dealing with the new, supersmart Hulk (excuse me, Doc Green) going out to depower all the worlds other gamma powered monster-men and -women. I had, by sheer coincidence, just finished reading Greg Pak's run of Incredible Hulk/Incredible Hulks, and so I decided to touch on the series that redefined the Hulk's family.

Pak's run on the various Hulk titles was five years long, and I'm starting a bit into that run. I'm not going to talk about the "Planet Hulk" story or the World War Hulk crossover, but am going to start with Pak's return to the ongoing Hulk adventures when Incredible Hulk was working in tandem with Jeph Loeb's Red Hulk centric Hulk series. Just to touch on what has gone before, Hulk was blasted off Earth, became king of an alien world, knocked up his queen, there was a big explosion where she and most of his citizens died, he came back to Earth, beat the snot out of the heroes who shot him into space before being defeated, fought a new Red Hulk, and then was depowered. These are some really good stories, and are well worth tracking down, especially "Planet Hulk," starring barbarian/warlord Hulk.

In case you didn't notice, a good chunk of this run has a plural; it is Hulks. The Hulk has had a consistent supporting cast from pretty much his inception (except for a few years in the nineties/early 00s, where most of them were dead or hanging out with Captain Marvel), so as much as Hulk often screams, "All Hulk wants is to be left alone," he hasn't really ever been. But Pak takes it to the next level during his run by giving the Hulk a full on, flat out family of fellow gamma mutants, many of whom are blood related to him. The series explores how the Hulk and Bruce Banner interact with others, how he/they try to love and form these bonds, and how it can all come crumbling down.

While Pak did interesting and fun things with She-Hulk, A-Bomb (Rick Jones's gamma monster form), Korg, and Amadeus Cho (who isn't a Hulk, but a steadfast Hulk ally), and how they relate to Banner, I want to spend most of the time focusing on two relationships specifically, as they seem to be the two central ones: The Red She-Hulk and Skaar, Son of Hulk. I'll also want to talk about the relationship between Banner and Hulk, because I feel that how a writer defines that relationship is the key to their run on Hulk, and a successful or interesting relationship between these aspects makes for a good run on Hulk.

When the Hulk left the planet Sakaar at the end of "Planet Hulk," he didn't realize that the combination of his gamma powers and the Old Power of his alien queen Caiera the Oldstrong had allowed their child to survive its mother's death. On Sakaar, the child aged rapidly and was filled with rage for the father who abandoned it. Finally arriving on Earth through a portal, the child, dubbed Skaar, sought out Hulk and nearly triggered a fault line fighting him. Skaar was a reflection of the pure rage that Hulk was often gripped by, but had a native cunning forged by having to survive the ravages of an alien world. And after that one confrontation, Banner lost the ability to change into Hulk, and he took on Skaar to train him to fight Hulk when and if he ever resurfaced, or so he claimed. And this is when things got really interesting.

These early stories in the run, of Banner leading Skaar into run-ins with some of Hulk's deadliest foes, including Juggernaut, Wolverine, and Tyrannus, are a ton of fun to begin with. Skaar is basically Hulk meets Conan, a giant gamma monster with a sword, and that in itself is a brilliant concept. But Banner is clearly up to something, and his plans are to manipulate Skaar into helping him save the life of Betty Banner, Banner's wife, who has been resurrected. While this succeeds, sort of, Banner now has a well trained fighting machine for a son who wants him dead. This act of Pak's run ends with the re-emergence of the Hulk persona that was married to Skaar's mother, and the battle between the two. This ends with a reconciliation, as Skaar realizes Hulk isn't the monster he thought he was, and Hulk/Banner have an epiphany about the cycle of abuse and violence.

Pak mentions in the essay at the end of the last volume that he was inspired by Bill Mantlo's story of Banner and his abusive father, Brian Banner (which is collected along with these issues). Peter David, in what I still feel is the definitive Hulk run, spent quite some time with this relationship as well, adding some harrowing moments, revealing both the exact nature of Brian's murder of Bruce's mother, and of Bruce and Brian's final confrontation. But it's Pak who deals with the final results, of Bruce having a son of his own, and whether Bruce will just repeat the cycle. The final pages of Incredible Hulk #611, where Hulk stands above a transformed Skaar, a Skaar back in his form as a small child, and seeing himself as the same beast Brian Banner was, is a powerful sequence, and made moreso with Banner transforming back to Banner and embracing the child, showing love in a way that Brian Banner would have been incapable of. It's a transformational moment for Banner, and feels to me like the real beginning of him building his family.

The Red She-Hulk was introduced in Hulk, the Jeph Loeb series, and there her origins and identity were revealed. She is Betty Ross-Banner, wife of Bruce Banner, his greatest love. Throughout Pak's run we see most of Banner/Hulk's loves, including Caiera, Jarella, Monica Rappaccini, Kate Wayneboro, and even introduces a flirtation with a new character, Sofia di Cosimo (you know, for a mousey guy, Banner gets around), and how the complement and contrast with Hulk. But throughout the run, it's Betty who Banner keeps coming back to. Betty who was loved by both the Hulk and Banner. And it's Betty who suffered years and years of rage from Banner and Hulk, from her father, Thunderbolt Ross, and who has been unwillingly turned into a Red She-Hulk. And all those years of keeping it bottled up has released something horrible in the Red She-Hulk.

After everything Bruce does during the Fall of the Hulks/World War Hulks stories to reclaim Betty, Banner finds a Betty who doesn't want to take him back. A Betty who is happy to be in her half-insane, powerful new form, a Hulk who has minimal self control and who loves to smash as much as the Hulk. Every time the two come close to reconciling, one or the other of them breaks into a rage or leaps away. It's a tragic love story. But in the end, the two reach an understanding, an accord. While they are together at the end, their future was far from certain, and the nature of serialized storytelling doesn't lend to happily ever afters. But still, Bruce and Betty are entangled in each others lives, and maybe the Hulk gets a little bit of that happy ending, something he has earned through the trials he went through during this series.

I love what Pak does with Betty. Peter David did great things with the character, but killed her off at the very end of his run for various reasons and while there had been attempts to resurrect her earlier, it didn't work. Making Betty a Hulk gave a new dimension to their relationship, allowed her to confront the Hulk on a level she never had before. But Pak didn't lose Betty's voice when she was Betty, and gave an interesting new take on her as Red She-Hulk. "The Spy Who Smashed Me" was a story where Banner and Betty, and their alter egos, wind up working at cross purposes with each other, and we get to see them all interact in their different iterations.

The other major shift I feel that Pak brought to the Hulk as a character is that he made Bruce Banner a force to be reckoned with. While Peter David had made the merged Hulk a powerful threat, part of David's run was showing how that version of Banner/Hulk gave in to his physical prowess far more than strict Banner would have. Pak's Banner was a man of science, who came up with shield tech, teleport tech, tasers; all sorts of cool gadgets. He was also a coldly manipulative character, moving his friends around like chess pieces in his battle with the Leader and his allies, the Intelligentsia, to retrieve Betty. I liked this new aspect of Banner, and it's something writers since then, like Jason Aaron and Mark Waid, have played up: the fact that Banner might be a bigger threat to the world than Hulk is.

And now we get to the relationship between Banner and Hulk. This has been a central theme in Hulk stories from the beginning. The early stories are fairly simple, with Hulk being the childlike embodiment of Banner's rage, and Banner trying to suppress it. It was Peter David who dealt with the Hulk as Multiple Personalities, and there started a relationship that would flourish. While some writers have tried to go back to the simple model, other writers have embraced it, like Paul Jenkins deepened it, creating legions of Hulks in Banner's mind. Pak, though, seemed to create a... detente of sorts between Banner and the Hulk. During "Planet Hulk" Banner and the Hulk actually communicated in Banner's head, and after that, their relationship became a bit more cordial. And at times it felt like it blurred. This is partially because Banner was being written as a deadlier character, but partially because I think the Hulk now wanted what Banner always said he wanted, which was love and acceptance. There was also a current of thought that Banner and Hulk weren't that different, that they are really the same mind. This comes up very strongly in the final story, where both Banner and Hulk choose to sacrifice themselves to save this family they have created.

I also want to give props to Pak for using some interesting old villains in his run. Hulk doesn't exactly have a wide rogues gallery, and while Pak does use the old standbys (Leader and Abomination), he also brings back some of the others. He has the first use of Armageddon, warlord of the alien Troyjan, since Peter David left the title, and it's interesting to see Hulk fight someone who blames him for the death of his son, with Hulk now having a son of his own. Tyrannus, the immortal lord of Subterranea, is a character I only really know form one Peter David annual and an arc in Warlock & the Infinity Watch. Pak writes him brilliantly, making him this sleazy, smirking world conquering lech who makes a play for Red She-Hulk. And by introducing the world Sakaar and it's inhabitants, a legion of new supporting characters and enemies were introduced, notably Miek the Unhived, the Hulk's ally and eventual betrayer, a character who shows Hulk the extreme extent of his own rage.

The artists who worked with Pak throughout his run are a group of some of comics strongest artists, guys whose career I have followed for years. Paul Pelletier, who does a more issues than any other artist, has a history with Hulk, and his Hulk is one of comics most expressive. Ariel Olivetti has a history with Conan, so his drawings of Skaar and the giant monsters of the Mole Man are second to none. And Tom Grummet draws the heck out of the story with Hulk and Red-She-Hulk, giving them a playful and brutal physicality, depending on the moment, to perfectly suit the story.

While the Hulk isn't a character whose comic I read every month, he is a character I have a lot of affection for. The work that Greg Pak did on the series helped build up the world of the Hulk, and created a new web of characters and relationships. It was an exciting time for the character, and is well worth checking out, as the ramifications are still being felt.

The complete run of Greg Pak's Incredible Hulk/Hulks are collected over various trades: Son of Banner, Fall of the Hulks, World War Hulks, Dark Son, Chaos War, Planet Savage, and Heart of the Monster, not to mention the Planet Skaar collection and Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk: World War Hulk. These are mostly out of print, but are available at most comic shops and on-line.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The X-Men’s Wacky Neighbor: Told Tales of Spider-Man Team-Ups

Marvel last week announced a replacement title for Wolverine & the X-Men – on account of Wolverine’s dead – called Spider-Man & the X-Men, to be written by Elliott Kalan and drawn by Marco Failla. As usual, there was the normal Internet contingent of “This is unnecessary and/or different and must be destroyed so my butt stops hurting!”

But it’s not like Spider-Man hasn’t been teaming up with the X-Men for years. He may not be a mutant, but his powers are born of the same Nuclear Age, with-great-radioactivity-comes-great-powers-comes-great-responsibility schtick as anything else Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created in the early 1960s.

With that in mind, here are some of the other times Spidey teamed up with the X-Men, in varying media and to varying degrees of success.

Marvel Team-Up featuring Spider-Man and Captain Britain (1978): This one’s a bit of a slant rhyme as X-characters go, but it counts as a Spidey-X-Men team-up for a few reasons: 1) Captain Britain spent a decade with Excalibur during the book’s original run, hanging with X-Men such as Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde and Rachel Grey; 2) The story was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne during their golden-age period on X-Men; 3) The main villain in this two-parter is Arcade, a Claremont/Byrne creation who tormented the X-Men on the regular (see further down this list).

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends: From 1981 to 1983 on Saturday mornings, Peter Parker and his Aunt May took in a trio of strays: Bobby Drake, the X-Men’s Iceman, who spent 1975 to 1985 bouncing around lower-tier teams like the Champions and the Defenders; Angelica Jones, a fire-powered character created for the series but who was later written into the comics as a member of Emma Frost’s Hellions; and a dog.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine (1987): In this one-shot by Jim Owsley and Mark Bright, Peter Parker and Logan end up in a still-divided Germany on different assignments and end up exchanging blows. The one-shot is notable for spelling the death of Ned Leeds, who may or may not have been the Hobgoblin depending on who was writing the title. It also features Spider-Man wearing a knock-off Halloween costume with the words “Die Spinne” on the back.

Spider-Man and X-Force in “Sabotage”: It’s 1991. “Beverly Hills 90210” is on the air. Vanilla Ice’s film “Cool as Ice” exists. Kelly Kapowski has left Zack Morris for her boss at The Max, Jeff. On Friday nights we hang out with our friends Urkel, Balki and Uncle Joey. These were cheesy times. Then Black Tom Cassidy blew up the World Trade Center, which hadn’t happened in real life yet so it probably didn’t make readers uncomfortable. With Todd MacFarlane and Rob Liefeld handling the art (incidentally, it was MacFarlane’s last issue on Spider-Man), the result is a big, dumb early ’90s action movie. The books were even laid out horizontally (though the ads were not) for an allegedly more cinematic experience. All that was missing was Cable yelling “Yipeekiyay, Mr. Falcon.” On a side note, these issues go a long way to showing how much comics culture has changed in the past two decades, considering how many times the Juggernaut calls Warpath some variety of “Injun” and accuses Shatterstar of being a “pretty boy” and a “pansy.”

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge: This LJN game was released in 1992 for Nintendo’s Super NES and Game Boy and Sega’s Genesis and Game Gear. Playable characters included Spider-Man, Wolverine (in his yellow-and-burgundy ’80s outfit), Cyclops (in his blue-and-white ’80s X-Factor togs), Storm (in her then-modern ’90s uniform) and Gambit (in his classic trenchcoat and headsock). Arcade – not exactly a marquis Marvel villain, but OK – kidnaps the X-Men and runs them through his trademark murder mazes, with Spidey in hot pursuit. I remember never beating this game, rage-quitting it a few times and failing to sell it at a garage sale. Bosses included typical villains such as Rhino, Shocker, Carnage, Apocalypse and Juggernaut, and head-scratchers such as the demon N’Astirh (from the "Inferno" storyline) and Obnoxio the Clown.

“The Mutant Agenda”/”Mutants’ Revenge” (1995): Fox had a good thing going on Saturday mornings in the mid-90s between the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons. So it made sense the two would cross paths at some point, which they did in Spider-Man’s show. In the second season in 1995, old Peter Parker’s spider-borne mutations were out of control, so he sought help from the gang on Graymalkin Lane. In the process, the Beast gets kidnapped, the Hobgoblin (who sounded suspiciously like the Joker) makes trouble, and good guys fight each other over the kinds of manufactured misunderstandings that only happen in comics.

Uncanny X-Men 346 (1997): The issue is tagged as being part of "Operation: Zero Tolerance," the big X-crossover of 1997, but only one actual X-Man – Gambit – shows up for all of one page. At this point, half the X-Men had been lost in space for six months, helping the Shi’ar fight the Phalanx, while the other half had been kidnapped by Bastion and his Prime Sentinels. So 346 turns into a Spider-Man issue, complete with America’s favorite micromanaging, sensationalist newspaper publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. Spidey teams up with Morlocks Callisto and Marrow against a pair of Prime Sentinels tasked with running security for Henry Peter Gyrich, Marvel’s longtime government d-bag. In the process, Spidey lectures Marrow that with great power yada yada yada. Marrow later joins the X-men for all of about 8 seconds.

Bendis’ pet Avengers (2004-2012): Spidey and Wolverine have been teammates for about a decade now, courtesy of the Brian Michael Bendis age of Avengerdom that ran roughly from 2004 (Avengers: Disassembled) to 2012 (Avengers vs. X-Men). And since Bendis shifted after that from writing Avengers to writing X-Men, overseeing two of the franchise’s main books, it makes sense that that relationship is still in place. Also, a book called Spider-Man & the X-Men is going to sell far more copies than, say, Beast & the X-Men or Kitty Pryde & the X-Men or the New Broo Review.

X-Men and Spider-Man (2009): In this four-issue retcon-tastic miniseries by Christos Gage and Mario Alberti, Spider-Man is shown teaming up with the X-Men across their respective 50-year histories in an overarching plot that involves Mr. Sinister, Kraven the Hunter and Carnage. Issue one is set in the ’60s, with the original five X-Men. Issue two takes place just after the Mutant Massacre in the ’80s. Issue three takes place amid the Clone Saga in the ’90s. And issue four takes place in the wake of M-Day in the 2000s.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/10

Batgirl: Futures End #1
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Javier Garron

The last time Gail Simone was leaving Batgirl, I wrote how much I was going to miss her. And while I feel that way this time too, it's nice to feel like this time she got a chance to not just wrap up her run in her last regular issue of the series, but to put a bow on it with this issue, the tie-in to DC Comics September event, Futures End, where all the series jump five years into the future. She brings in different aspects of her run, from Barbara's roommate Alysia to James Gordon Jr., but tells a story that shows the depths that Barbara could go to when pushed beyond the point of no return. Only it's not the point of no return. Even though Barbara has become Bete Noire, the black beast, even though Barbara has seemingly lost everything, she comes out of it stronger. Simone has proven that Barbara is one of the strongest characters in comics, and this story seals that, showing that, no matter the depths, Barbara will pull her way out of them. But beyond the Barbara story, which is a good one, readers are introduced to the League of Batgirls, or should I say reintroduced. While one is a new Batgirl, the character under the mask being Tiffany Fox, daughter of Batman's ally Lucius Fox, the other two are the pre-New 52 Batgirls Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain, characters fans have been dying to see again, and back in their Batgirl identities. Simone leaves the book on a high note for many fans, letting them revisit these characters, written wonderfully, with a tribute from Barbara to them and for them to show how much Barbara has effected their lives. And this issue is a tribute to everything Simone has done with Barbara for all the years she has written the character. Thank you, Gail, for everything you've done, and I can't wait for the new Secret Six.

Copperhead #1
Story: Jay Faerber
Art: Scott Godlewski

Jay Faerber has written some of my favorite Image series of all time, including the superhero soap opera Noble Causes and the crime comic Near Death (and i just recently picked up the full run of his series Dynamo 5. I see a recommended reading in the future). So I was excited to see the announcement of his new series, Copperhead, which is a sci-fi/western mash-up, described by him in the little essay at the back of the issue as, "Deadwood in space." Mixed genres are a favorite thing of mine, and while the space western isn't new (Faerber admits as such in the same essay), it is a genre combo that works, and one that I've enjoyed often (see Firefly and Defiance and the Thrilling Adventure Hour segment "Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars" for some good recent examples). Faerber starts the series out strong, with an introduction to our leads, a couple of crimes, and some world building. Clara Bronson and her son Zeke move to the frontier town of Copperhead, where Clara has been hired as the new sheriff. Upon arriving, she meets the deputy who was passed over for the job, an alien named Budroxifinicus, who Clara dubs Boo to his chagrin. Clara and Boo go off to deal with a domestic disturbance, and come back to find the local mine owner, big shot Benjamin Hickery waiting to introduce himself, along with his artificial human workers, who Clara clearly has an issue with, saying they should have been destroyed, "after the war." While no details about this war are clear, it is clearly a plot point to be revisited, and an important part of world building a new universe; we readers aren't going to know everything that is normal conversation on a removed world in the future, and explaining it thoroughly would be forced. The relationship between Clara and Boo is going to be central to the comic, and her insistence on being in charge immediately is not going to go over well with a deputy who feels he should have been given the job. The issue ends with Clara and Boo discovering a crime that is much bigger than what she's seen so far, and Zeke getting himself into trouble while helping a local girl look for her lost dog; it's a nice cliffhanger that makes you want to come back. Scott Godlewski does a great job with the looks of the different aliens, and the old west/used universe feeling of the setting. This is a very solid first issue of a series that I'm going to be keeping my eye on over the coming months.

Lazarus #11
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Michael Lark

The third storyarc of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's at times frighteningly realistic dystopian political sci-fi, Lazarus, begins with the arrival of the Bittner family Lazarus, Sonja, at the borders of the territory of the Carlyle family, our main characters. For those of you who haven't tried the series, a Lazarus is a family member of one of the sixteen families who rule the world, who has been transformed into a fighting machine to guard their family's interests, and as Forever, our main character and Lazarus of the Carlyle family, arrives, we again see that Forever is seemingly more human than the other Lazarus (I'm assuming the plural of Lazarus, by the way. Lazaruses just sounds wrong to my ear). As was set up in last issue's one off story, Bittner is serving as go between for the Hock family, Carlyle's bitter rivals, who have captured Jonah Carlyle, the rogue son who attempted to betray the family and failed. The issue has two important aspects. The first is a further view into the way the families who rule the world interact with each other. The politics and the wheels within wheels that we see Malcolm Carlyle, family patriarch, planning for when in comes to the conclave of families. More integral is Forever beginning to really dig into the mystery of the message she received at the end of the first arc, saying that she is not, in fact, actually a Carlyle. She says she believes that message is from Jonah, attempting to sow discord, but there seems to be more to her belief than that, and there's clearly more to this. Her sister, as well s the doctor in charge of her care, Bethany, laughs it off, but goes out of her way to tell Malcolm that Forever is asking these questions. We also see Johana, Jonah's twin sister and co-conspirator, who escaped without suspicion after the treason, egging Forever on, reminding her what a traitor and bastard Jonah is, clearly hoping Forever will eliminate him before he reveals her part in the plot; Johana is the character most to be watched, as she is clearly far more clever than most give her credit for. Forever also spends time with Marisol, the woman who trained her, and mentions the message and her doubts. It's always interesting to see how different Forever's interactions with her family is from most others, and how different her interactions with Marisol is from everyone else, how much more comfortable she is. Forever is a wonderfully nuanced chaarcter, and I am looking forward to seeing her interact with other Lazarus.  The conclave begins next issue, and I'm curious to see more of each of the sixteen families, and I have a bad feeling for Marisol, who now might know something she really shouldn't.

Ms. Marvel #8
Story: G. Willow Wolsin
Art: Adrian Alphona

Ah, there's nothing like the story of a girl and her dog. Unless it's the story of a girl and her gigantic, genetically altered, teleporting dog. In the new issue of Ms. Marvel, the Inhumans' dog, Lockjaw, finds his way to Kamala Khan, our heroine. Kamala continues her attempts to track down and defeat the Inventor, the villain who has been menacing Jersey City, but now she has a little extra help. Kamala fights her way through another of the Inventor's mechanical menaces, and discovers more about just how he's powering them, and the action scenes are well written and drawn in Alphona's wonderful style. We also get to see Kamala with Nakia, one of her best friends, specifically the one who doesn't know her secret, and we start to see some fraying at the edges of that friendship, and more time with Kamala and Bruno, her best friend who does now her superhero identity, and he continues to be a classic superhero tech guy/sidekick who also serves as a sounding board for Kamala. We also get an ending with quite a cliffhanger, and I'm unsure of what Wilson is doing with Kamala's powers in the best way; I like to be kept guessing. But the real treat of the issue is seeing Kamala interact with Lockjaw. It's sweet to see how excited she is to spend time with the big dog, and it's great to see him add to her superheroing and to be so affectionate. When written write, Lockjaw is presented as a dog who might be a little smarter than average, but is still a dog, and Wilson captures that. I love Lockjaw, who is just one of the great superhero pets, and Alphona draws a great Lockjaw, with a face that is expressive without ever looking like anything other than the face of a dog. He also gives Lockjaw real mass and weight, making him feel as gigantic as he is. I hope Lockjaw stays as a member of the cast for the foreseeable future.

Stumptown Vol.3 #1
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Justic Greenwood

Any writer with range is a slightly different writer when he or she is working in a different genre, and I'm a big fan of all the different writers Greg Rucka is, be it sci-fi Rucka, superhero Rucka, or steampunk Rucka. But the Rucka I love best is crime and spy Rucka, the guy who wrote Gotham Central, Queen & Country, and the Atticus Kodiak novels. And that Rucka is back is strong form with the debut of the new volume of his Portland set P.I. series, Stumptown. The issue is a character issue, getting you up to speed if you haven't read either of the previous stories. Stumptown follows Dex Parios, a private investigator in Portland, Oregon. The issue opens with Dex playing keeper for her local soccer team. When that game ends, she takes her brother Ansel, who is developmentally disabled, to a professional soccer game, where she meets Mercury, a friend of theirs, who gives them tickets to a signing with the team afterwards. At the match, she runs into CK, who scored the winning goal against her at the game at the beginning of the issue, and they spend some time chatting, and after the signing, Dex and Ansel stumble across the aftermath of a crime. And that's it. Not exactly the stuff of gumshoes and dames, huh? No, but what it does is expose you to exactly who Dex is, how protective she is of Ansel, how good she is to her friends. I'm also sure that, like the beginning of most good mysteries, it will be chock full of clues that will make a lot of sense as the mystery comes into focus. Rucka is a great writer when it comes to character, and this issue spotlights that. Justin Greenwood comes in as the new series artist, the first since co-creator Matthew Southworth. Greenwood's style isn't quite as gritty as Southworth's, but still fits the down and out P.I. tone of the series that was set by those earlier arcs. The end of the issue does set up a crime, one that strikes close to home for Dex, so it looks like things are going to speed up very fast from here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I’ve Got the Runs: Gail Simone’s Deadpool 65-69/Agent X 1-7 and 13-15

I previously wrote about my love for Joe Kelly’s run on Deadpool, how he, more than any other writer, shaped Wade Wilson’s personality, supporting cast and place in the Marvel Universe.

But it takes a special hand to write Deadpool without actually writing Deadpool. And that hand belongs to my all-time favorite person on Twitter, Ms. Gail Simone.

In all serious, if you’re not following Simone on Twitter, shame on you. She brings all the humor, warmth and twistedness of her comics to social media, and is followed by an inclusive community of fans only a troll could hate (#bonerses). It’s that same following that likely kept her on Batgirl (a book reviewed often and well on this blog) well beyond DC’s original planned expiration date.

Deadpool was Simone’s entry to the Big Two, after blogging for Comic Book Resources and writing Simpsons Comics for Bongo, among other projects. Simone was also supposed to pen a Night Nurse comic for Marvel’s MAX mature-reader line in 2002, but that project was shelved.

Simone’s Deadpool run is most notable for replacing Wade Wilson with Alex Hayden in a Psylocke-level series of convoluted events. The move on its face seemed like a shark jump (and someone must have known it: Agent X #13’s recap page featured a doodle of Alex performing a motocross jump over a shark in a kiddie pool), but when you break everything down, no matter the protagonist, Simone was still writing Deadpool.

The run starts with Wade being hired to kill one of four rival Japanese crime lords, The Four Winds, only to end up watching all four keel over in front of him. Six months later, his merc-for-hire schtick has become a semicorporate enterprise, complete with receptionist and homeless personal assistant, and his fellow mercs have proclaimed him a hero. But another assassin-for-hire, the Black Swan, kicks the crap out of him and rewires his brain – ruining his aim and giving him a limited aphasia that makes him refer to guns as doorknobs – for taking credit for his hit.

The thing to remember is at this point, Deadpool was still just a mouthy antihero. Joe Kelly’s run showed Wade how he could be a good guy, but it wasn’t until Fabian Nicieza teamed him up with Cable in a monthly series in 2004 that the more recent phenomenon of Deadpool saying, “Hey, look at me, X-Men, I’m one of you guys, right? Right?” came to light. That said, Simone does have Deadpool mete out some social justice, after he discovers his secretary, Sandi Brandenburg, is being abused by her boyfriend.

Different writers have brought their own supporting casts to the character over the years, and Simone is no different. Wade’s (and later Alex’s) backup during this stretch includes the aforementioned Sandi, a sexy-cowgirl themed mutant merc/love interest named Outlaw, and the Taskmaster, Wade’s sparring partner/begrudging ally from waaaaaay back in issue 2 of Kelly’s run. Udon, the studio that handled most of the art for Simone’s run, also drew a Taskmaster miniseries in 2002 that introduced Sandi, Tasky’s on-again, off-again gal.

Udon’s art gives the book a very Manga-esque look, right down to the Hello Kitty-style assassins who appear in issue 13. Quite frankly, everybody looks like they’re a character in Street Fighter, but what else would you expect from the art studio that drew the Street Fighter comics? Coincidentally, both Deadpool and Taskmaster were playable characters in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, though neither in their Udon-era costumes.

My one true quibble with the art is that every so often the panels would switch from a vertical to a horizontal layout within the same two-page spread, with no actual unified theme between the two.
After issue 69, the book is rebooted and renamed Agent X, which centers on the Alex Hayden character, who was born of the explosion that supposedly killed Deadpool, Black Swan and Swan’s henchman, Nijo, at the end of 69. Incidentally, about the same time, Marvel relaunched Cable as Soldier X, which lasted 12 issues before it was canceled.

If Agent X were written in 2012 or later, it would have been called Superior Deadpool. In some ways, Alex Hayden was only superficially different from Wade Wilson. He didn’t wear a mask, his facial scars took on X patterns and he spoke in gray word balloons instead of the traditional yellow. All the humor was still there. But where Deadpool pined for X-Forcer Siryn and danced with Death, Agent X actually got the girl, forming a relationship with Outlaw, whose invulnerability is matched only by the skimpiness of her outfits. Seriously, for how much people complained about that Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover, at least she was fully clothed. He also slept with Sandi in a non-Simone-written issue.

The first arc of Agent X even has a happy ending, as Alex, Taskmaster and Outlaw take down an army of hitmen and superpowered goons (Rhino, the Constrictor and Crossfire among them) who invade Alex’s theme park, which he’d had outfitted by none other than Arcade for just such an occasion.

After that initial six-issue arc, issue 7 finds Alex caught in a battle between two omnifetishists – people who are turned on by everything – one of whom has squeezed herself into one of Emma Frost’s old outfits and has a gang of Village People at her command. So, again, all the Deadpool humor is still there, in mildly different packaging.

Simone is absent for issues 8 through 12 (fill-in writers include future Deadpool scribe Daniel Way and Milk & Cheese creator Evan Dorkin), then returns for the book’s final arc, “Deadpool Walkin,’” which brings Alex, Deadpool and the Black Swan back together, resets the status quo and puts a bow on Sandi, Taskmaster, Outlaw and the Four Winds.

It’s not goodbye, though. Agent X, Sandi and Outlaw show up in several issues of Cable & Deadpool. Outlaw even found herself keeping her mutant powers after M-Day and getting drawn into some panels through Civil War and “Second Coming.” And Taskmaster has remained a mildly major character in the Marvel Universe, acting as a trainer in The Initiative comics and appearing in Thunderbolts, though he has since reverted to his pre-Udon, Skeletor-meets Combo Man design.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/3

The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1
Story: Jen Van Meter
Art: Roberto de la Torre

Valiant continues to move from strength to strength with the debut of The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage. While all of Valiant's books are superhero comics at their heart, they all exist within the trappings of other genres. X-O Manowar is really the most superhero of the lot, Bloodshot is an espionage comic, Archer & Armstrong is about conspiracies, Quantum & Woody is a buddy comedy, etc. Shadowman has been the occult comic, and with its end, it feels like this series is picking up that baton. From what I gather from a friend who reads all the Valiant books, Dr. Mirage made her first appearance in the pages of Shadowman. However, you don't need to know anything about that other appearance to get into this first issue; all I know is that it happened, nothing more, and I really enjoyed this issue. Dr. Shan Fong, also known as Dr. Mirage, is a medium and paranormal investigator who is the real deal. She can speak to the dead. The issue opens with her agent having ambushed her with a seance for a group of wealthy widows, and this sets off some issues for Shan; you see, her husband, Hwen, died and she has never been able to speak to him. Dr. Mirage is tough as nails, and she admits it freely. She isn't a warm, fuzzy character, not one of those John Edwards-esque mediums. She calls 'em as she sees 'em, and no one gets in her way. After the initial scene, that does a great job of establishing personality and the status quo, we get the thrust of where the series is going. A billionaire hires Mirage to help solve an occult problem, one that he is clearly not being entirely up front about, and unbeknownst to him, Mirage gets a hint from a creature that he is vonbed to of what might have become of her husband. And so the issue ends with the beginning of a classic Orphues in the Underworld journey. Jen Van Meter is one of those writers whose work I always really enjoy, as she has a great feel for character, and this issue does an excellent job of packing a lot of that in with all the required backstory and never feeling burdened by it. Roberto de la Torre's art is well suited to the story, with dark tones that are still realistic but with a bit of creepiness to them; I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with the much more abstract canvas of the afterlife next issue. As someone who appreciates a supernatural hero, I was pleased to see Valiant resurrecting Dr. Mirage, and this first issue makes me hope that, if the series keeps up at this pace, we'll see this five issue mini spin off an ongoing in the not too distant future.

Grendel Vs. The Shadow
Story & Art: Matt Wagner

New Grendel written and drawn by Matt Wagner is something I look forward to a lot. When Wagner is just writing Grendel stories they're still great, but that mix of his story and art are a real treat. And when it was announced that not only would the new Grendel story feature my favorite Grendel, Hunter Rose, but it would also be a crossover with The Shadow, one of the prototypes for all masked men, and a character who Wagner has written before but not drawn except for covers, I was chomping at the bit. The story starts with Hunter Rose being displaced in time from the present (well, Hunter's present, which is the 80s) to the 30s. With Prohibition ending and one of the leaders of the Five Families dying, Hunter begins to take over the gangs of New York as Grendel while making himself the toast of New York literary set as Hunter. Meanwhile, the Shadow is also preparing for the coming gang wars and learning more of this new player, Grendel. The issue has dual narrators, with Hunter narrating his own parts in his inimitable style, and the Shadow's companion, Margo Lane, narrating others. It's interesting that Wagner chooses to not have The Shadow narrate his own parts of the stories, something that amplifies the mystery of the character (it is of note that in his The Shadow: Year One mini-series, Wagner also chose Lane as the narrator). This also gives the reader a different sort of insight into The Shadow, and lets the reader really understand Margo, who is a key character in the Shadow mythos. The plot is fine, a good gangster/30s/masked man story, but the issue is really outstanding for its atmosphere. Hunter slides into the 30s perfectly; he's a man about town and a bon vivant, so he fits perfectly in this era, The looks of the piece is outstanding, with Wagner really drawing the hell out of the vintage clothing, cars, and settings. And the action scenes are equally astounding, with Grendel's usual graceful slaughters and The Shadow's appearances and disappearances and his gun play. It's also of note that the story starts in the present with the typical Grendel color palate of black, white, and red, and when he moves back into The Shadow's time, the story shifts to full color, which is a great storytelling technique. This is a great jumping on point if you're a fan of one of these characters and not the other, or haven't read anything featuring either.

Justice League #33
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Doug Mahnke

Justice League is a comic I've had very mixed feelings about, and I've said that before. I've been unsure of the gravity of it, of the darkness, of the fact that the League, which was before sort of a group of peers and friends, were bickering like the Avengers at their worst. But things feel a little different since Forever Evil. While we're still waiting to see if that crossover will have any real long term effects, the short term effects on this book have been to kick into a much higher gear. This issue wraps up the Justice League's first confrontation with the New 52 Doom Patrol. Johns takes the Grant Morrison idea that The Chief, mad scientist and the leader of the Doom Patrol, is comics biggest ass, and plays it to the hilt. When there is a guy on the page who is even more full of himself than Lex Luthor, you know this guy has some serious chips on his shoulder. The dialogue between the Chief and Luthor is crackling, with them feeding off each other's egos. I'm not a big fan of the Doom Patrol. I don't have anything against them, but with the exception of Morrison's run, I don't think I've read more than an issue here or there featuring them, although I did like their appearances on Teen Titans and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I do like what Johns does here, which is give each of them a unique personality and reaction to their freakishness, from Elasti-Girl's mind numbing happiness to Negative Man's apathy. I'm not sure of these are logical extensions of previous characterization or something new, but I liked it. The other moment in this issue that spoke to me was when Batman has to talk down Jessica Cruz, the young woman possessed by the Power Ring from the alternate Crime Syndicate universe, where the green ring is sentient, evil, and powered by fear. There's a scene from the episode of Justice League Unlimited, "Epilogue," where Batman finds the immensely powerful psychic called Ace, who is dying, and sits with her and talks to her and agrees to stay with her until the end. Here, Batman, the master of using fear as a weapon, talks to a woman who is agoraphobic and traumatized about his own fears and how he was able to not give in to them, and get her to come around and throw off the ring, which is fueled by her fear. It's a wonderful scene, and one that shows that Johns can really get Batman. Batman isn't some aloof, ogre, but someone who is intrinsically and at times almost painfully human, who understands fear and pain, and really wants no one else to experience it. The issue ends with the completely expected induction of Lex Luthor into the Justice League, but the scene leading up to it, between the DC trinity, gives a new context to that, once that I think will make for some great plot in the future.

She-Hulk #8
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pulido

She-Hulk is beginning to feel like Batman, in that it's a comic I review every month. I freakin' love this comic. It's smart, it's well written, the cast is wonderful, the art by Javier Pulido is beautiful. This issue, where Jen starts representing Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, in a wrongful death suit from the 40s, is a really solid story, and write Charles Soule writes Steve so well. But this month, I want to pull back a bit and focus in a particular aspect of the issue that made me unadulteratedly happy. With Jen Walters, the lawyer also known as She-Hulk, having to go out to represent Cap in California, she needs to find a firm that she can attach herself to, since she isn't licensed to practice in the state. And the firm she chooses is the firm headed up by the character find of 2014: Matt Rocks. If you don't know your Marvel comics well enough to get the joke there, and haven't read enough about X-Factor on this blog to pick it up either, what we're dealing with is a duplicate of Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man, former leader of X-Factor who can create duplicates of himself. Jaime sent out legions of dupes years ago to learn skills so that when he reabsorbed them, he would pick those skills up himself. Turns out, one of those dupes became a leading Hollywood entertainment lawyer who has basically been paying Jaime off with half his income so Jaime wouldn't reabsorb him. It's a weird, crazy idea, and deeply steeped in the knowledge of a pretty obscure Marvel comic; X-Factor isn't the Avengers or Uncanny X-Men, it had a pretty niche audience. But Soule doesn't shy away from it. He dives right in, explains what you need to know about the character and creates something delightfully fun with it. I'm the guy that scene was written for, someone inundated in this comic book minutiae, someone who would have gotten the joke without the prompting, and I say thank you for it. Next month, the trial will begin, and an idea that I'm shocked no one has pulled before, two super-hero lawyers challenging each other in court, will kick off in earnest for a story that I'm sure will be full of fascinating twists and turns. But for this month, well, Matt Rocks is just going to make me smile.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/5: Star Wars: Legacy Vol. 2

Two Wednesdays ago, the final Star Wars comic from Dark Horse was released. Fittingly enough, it was the final issue of the second volume of Star Wars: Legacy, the series set the farthest into the future of any Star Wars story, and the era that Dark Horse was the most responsible for defining. It was an appropriate ending for the Expanded Universe era that has defined so much of Star Wars for the past twenty plus years, the era that brought so many people into, or back into, the galaxy far, far away.

I admit, when a second volume of Star Wars: Legacy was announced, I was a bit worried. The first volume of Legacy, which was a much earlier recommended reading, is one of my favorite Star Wars stories of all time, following the adventures of Cade Skywalker, Luke's descendant, who struggles to find his place in a galaxy ruled by the Sith. The series was created by my favorite Star Wars comics creative team of all time, writer John Ostrander and artist Jan Duursema, and while other artists drew an occasional issue, those two creators defined this entire sweeping era.

So, volume two was announced, and it's by two creators whose names I knew, but whose work I had never read, Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman. And I was torn. Yes, this is a spectacular era (one I even ran a few adventures of the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG in, that's how much I love it). And they're creating their own characters, so it's not like it's continuing the adventures of the characters whose stories I felt Ostrander and Duursema really wrapped up. But still, there's always a chance it will fall flat. But I was excited when I picked up that first issue of the series, and was very, very pleased to see that this series was going to be a fitting successor to the original.

The protagonist of the second volume of Legacy is another descendant of the main characters of the classic trilogy, but a very different one. Cade Skywalker was a Jedi in hiding, a drug addict who was using to avoid visions from the Force and running from his destiny. Ania Solo takes much more after everyone's favorite rogue, her great great great grandfather, Han Solo. Not a Force user, Ania ran a junkyard out on the Galactic Rim, trying to keep her head down and make a mostly honest living, until stumbling across a lost lightsaber and droid leads her into the middle of the great galactic events that seem to dog Solos, no matter how hard they try to avoid them. So pretty soon, Ania, and a small group of her friends, are out having adventures, being threatened by all sorts of beings they would just rather be left alone by.

Ania is a great contrast to Cade Skywalker in that she is not a haunted, brooding character. Cade was a rogue as well, trying to live the life of a bounty hunter instead of fulfilling his destiny as a Jedi, but he was always feeling the pull of the Force. Ania is a rogue through and through; when problems come up, she gets her hands dirty and finds the quickest solution. She isn't a person who looks at the metaphysical, isn't someone who thinks she has a great destiny to be embraced or avoided; she just finds the way that gets her out of the most trouble and might help her turn a profit. That is not to say that she is just out for herself. Ania is a fiercely loyal friend, who puts her life on the line repeatedly to help those that she views as her true friends.

Those friends are the usual collection of ragtag Star Wars heroes and heroines. Sauk is a Mon Calamari, one of Admiral Ackbar's people, whose homeworld was made uninhabitable in the last Legacy series. Possibly even moreso than Ania, Sauk wants nothing to do with big galactic action; he just wants to be an engineer. But he and Ania are good friends, and he is as loyal to her as she is to him. AG-37 is an assassin droid, but one who has been operational for well over a century, and, while still an assassin droid, has a good side, one that is friendly and courteous. The final member of the main cast is Jao Assam, an Imperial Knight who isn't too good at listening to his superiors, and winds up working with Ania and company after he goes on an unsanctioned mission.

Friendship and loyalty is probably the most central theme in this volume of Legacy. Nearly every story comes down to one or more of these characters being in mortal peril and the others having to save them. Jao is drawn into Ania's orbit when he defies orders and goes in search of his missing master, Yalta Val. When Sauk hears that his people are starting to reclaim their homeworld, he falls into the hands of slavers, and the others rush to the rescue. When bounty hunters kidnap Ania, AG is nearly destroyed saving her life. And the final arc sees Ania and company working with the Empress Fel, the head of the re-formed and reformed Galactic Empire (and Ania's distant cousin) to retrieve Jao from the hands of the Sith. Loyalty to your friends is one of the core themes of Star Wars; it's the major reason why Han Solo comes back to save Luke at the end of the first movie, so it makes sense a series focusing on the spiritual and physical descendant of Han Solo would so strongly focus on it.

Of course, when you're talking Star Wars, as much as you love the heroes, the franchise is famous for its villains. The list of great villains could go on forever: Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Darth Maul, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Yuuzhan Vong, and Darth Krayt are just a few. Bechko and Hardman introduce a new Sith in the first issue of the series who soon reveals himself to be Darth Wredd. The last Ostrander/Duursema issue of Legacy left the One Sith, the order that once ruled the galaxy, in shambles, its members hiding and waiting for their time to rise again. After the initial arc, Wredd begins hunting other Sith, and this leads to various questions about his motives. Is he trying to take out the competition? Or is he really not as evil as he seems. By the end of the series, when his history is revealed, you see he's a subtly drawn character, with interesting motivations unlike any other Sith we have seen before.

I also really enjoyed the lack of Jedi in this series; that's not to say I dislike Jedi, but it's interesting to see other types of Force users. Instead of Jedi, we spend a lot of time with Imperial Knights. A concept introduced in the previous Legacy series, Imperial Knight serve the Force by following the Emperor or Empress. The concept was well fleshed out, and we got to know some of the Knights very well in volume one, but this series shows even more stark contrasts between the two orders, and how much more strict the Imperial Knights are, as they are a military order in service of a government, after all. While this is shown at times to be a problem, this strict adherence to the rules set forth by the Empire, the Knights are never looked down on, never looked on as nothing more than  Force using Stormtroopers. They are an interesting variation on the classic theme of the Force using hero, and I like that we got to spend some time getting a spotlight on the concept and characters.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this series was how small the big stakes were. The classic trilogy is about the Galactic Civil War. The New Jedi Order is the story of the Yuuzhan Vong War. The first Legacy series is the battle between the One Sith and most of the other forces in the Galaxy. These are stories set around big characters, doing big things. Ania's story is really about her and her friends just trying to make it from one day to another. Even when they run into big events and big people, like Empresses and Imperial Knights, it's really just a distraction and a sideline to them trying to stay out of jail or make a few more credits. The story ends on a big note, on a massive final battle, but that was reserved for the climax. And, without spoiling too much, in the end, Ania doesn't choose to stay a part of that wider world. She goes back to her smaller, happier life.

Artist Gabriel Hardman, along with the other artists on this series, gave it a wonderfully grotty look. Star Wars has always had the feeling of a lived in universe, not a clean, pristine sci-fi world. Ania's ship is like the Millennium Falcon, nothing new about it, and she starts out as a junk dealer. Even on Coruscant, the galactic capital, the world isn't as shiny as it was after the war. It makes for a stark contrast to many other science fiction comics, and even other Star Wars comics, and it gave the series a unique feel.

And that's the end. I'm sure I'll be writing more about Star Wars in the future. We have the upcoming Marvel series, the new Star Wars: Rebels cartoon, plus the new movies and all the media that is going to spin out of them. But this really marks the end of an era. I loved the Star Wars movies a lot as a little kid, but fell out of that deep affection until I was 16 and read Heir to the Empire. From there it was all downhill. I now have all the Dark Horse comics (some in collection rather than single, but I have them all in some form), have read all the novels, and spent countless hours playing the various video games. I love Star Wars, always will, in any of its myriad forms. And I want to thank all the creators who have helped make it this wide, Expanded Universe. The Force will be with you, always.

Three trades of Star Wars: Legacy Vol. 2 are out currently: Prisoner of the Floating World, Outcasts of the Broken Ring, and Wanted: Ania Solo. The final volume, Empire of One, will be released in mid-October. All the single issues should be available from your better comic shops.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fell on Black Days of Future Past: Chris Claremont’s Adventures in the 21st Century.

This column started out as a Rise My Pets feature, similar to the one I did a couple weeks ago on Peter David. But, as happens sometimes, I got sucked down a research rabbit hole, and something different came out on the other side.

It’s easy to geek out when talking about Chris Claremont. Any comics fan worth his pull list could lecture you about the "Dark Phoenix Saga" or "God Loves, Man Kills" or the "Mutant Massacre" or "Life-Death" or "Days of Future Past," classic stories that have been revisited, What If’d and strip-mined practically to death.

But the world has not always been kind to Claremont. And, certainly, nor have I.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, I bestowed upon Claremont the nickname Pappy. By this point, he had already returned to writing the X-titles after a decade’s X-ile at the hands of editorial whim and the rise of the rock-star artists who would go on to found Image Comics. After a far, far shorter stint than his original run on Uncanny X-Men (10 months vs. 16 years), he stepped aside again, this time in favor of rock-star writer Grant Morrison and Joe Casey.

To quote then-new editor-in-chief Joe Quesada in an interview in Wizard, Claremont’s new X-Men comics “were completely unreadable. Right around the time of the movie, the heavy hand of continuity for whatever reason just came crashing down on them.” And he wasn’t wrong. At the time, there was no Cyclops, they were fighting the Neo, Wolverine had just done a stint as a horseman of Apocalypse, Magneto wasn’t around, Rogue was kissing Colossus, Jean Grey and Psylocke had switched powers, Cable had joined the team and was wearing his missing dad’s visor like a chunky necklace, etc.

So Pappy was given his own book to play with, X-Treme X-Men, that still had a few of the team’s heavy hitters, including Storm, Rogue and Gambit, and a quality artist in Salvador Larocca (who left more than halfway through the series). After that book ended with issue 46, he returned to Uncanny from issues 444-473, starting with a good old-fashioned game of baseball and going on to resurrect Psylocke, one of his most precious pets, though he was also the one to kill her in the first place.

After Uncanny, Pappy disappeared again through a haze of increasingly lower-tier and lower-continuity books, including New Excalibur, Exiles, GeNext and X-Men Forever. Given his fondness for slapping his forehead and shaking his head in interviews when asked about changes made to the X-characters in his wake, taking a sort of “In my day” attitude, I started using “Pappy” as shorthand when referring to him. But just like your grandfather or great-grandfather, “in his day,” Claremont probably kicked way more ass than you, and could arguably be considered among the Greatest Generation of Marvel writers, making lasting contributions most of today’s crop can only aspire to.

As I’ve likely made far too obvious in previous columns, I grew up on the ’90s stuff, a decade that was far from perfect. It wasn’t until I started collecting the Essential trades and actually read all 16 years of Claremont’s Uncanny work that I realized how good the X-books were when they were at their best. But, again, we’re not here to talk about the good times. Consider this the second act of a Behind the Music, when the drugs and alcohol take their toll and the album sales slip … except there aren’t any drugs or album sales involved.

Herewith are some of the quirkier quirks of Pappy’s second act:

The Neo: Claremont’s second tour of X-duty started with a six-months-later time jump from the Apocalypse story "The Twelve," creating a whirlwind of plot points and characters that have since been forgotten. Chief among them was a new species called the Neo claiming to be the next evolutionary step. The main problems with the notorious N-E-O were that each issue featured a different group of characters claiming to be Neo and that they were the major the threat for the X-Men at a time when the first movie was introducing many to classic baddies such as Magneto, Mystique and Toad. They have since been wiped out. P.S.: The Neo is a weird name for bad guys created in 2000, just months after the release of The Matrix, which featured a hero called Neo.

Sage: Though created early in Claremont’s time with the X-Men, in 1980 as an aide to Sebastian Shaw named Tessa, Sage didn’t really get her moment until the early 2000s, when Claremont revealed she had been working as an undercover operative for Charles Xavier the whole time. The mutant with the computer brain was then shipped off to the X-Treme team. As the decade progressed, Sage, like Pappy himself, got pushed into more and more irrelevant books, from X-Treme X-Men to New Excalibur to New Exiles, where she merged with the computer on the team’s reality-hopping base … or something. Greg Pak later used the character in a second volume of X-Treme X-Men, which was actually more like Exiles. Either way, it was canceled.

Psylocke: As Claremont’s pets go, Betsy Braddock was one of his oldest and dearest, having created her in the U.K. Captain Britain comics in 1976, a full decade before she joined the X-Men, fulfilling their need at the time for a telepath. The time jump helped Betsy continue her proud tradition of being a convoluted mess, starting with the retconning of how exactly she went from British noble with funny-colored hair to Asian bad girl and Cyclops seducer. Post jump, she and Jean had switched powers, she got a new boyfriend and, to ice the cake, she was killed by a new villain named Vargas in X-Treme. Pappy later resurrected her in his return to Uncanny, in an arc that included her brother Jamie Braddock, another thought-dead character.

Thunderbird III (Neal Sharra): To his credit, Claremont liked to create characters who hailed from all over the world, to give the X-Men a more global feel and appeal to the widest audience possible. Unfortunately, sometimes, readers just don’t care. Pyrokinetic Neal Sharra appeared after the time jump and took the code name of the team’s most consistently dead member, a bad PR move made worse by the fact that this Thunderbird was the “other” kind of Indian, from the Asian subcontinent. Thunderbird III sought the affections of Psylocke, who had been paired off with Archangel in the ’90s, and succeeded until Betsy was killed. Neal shrugged it off and went after X-Treme teammate Lifeguard, another Claremont creation, and the two lived irrelevantly ever after.

Acting like 1992 never happened: After bouncing from Uncanny to X-Treme, back to Uncanny, to Excalibur, to Exiles, and so on, Claremont bounced out of continuity entirely with X-Men Forever, a book intended to show where he would have taken the band of merry mutants had Jim Lee not edged him out in the first place. Hint: He would have killed Wolverine.

Nightcrawler: With any luck, the fuzzy elf is laying the groundwork for Claremont’s third act, the part where the band gets back together and talks about how the music they’re making now is better than ever, regardless of whether it actually is. In April, he launched a Nightcrawler ongoing that reviewers said harkens to classic Chris, in that it contains “a heavy-handed narrative style and classic overexplanation.” Which could just be code for “it has thought bubbles and yellow narrative boxes,” which went passe sometime in the past decade.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.