Monday, April 14, 2014

I Used to Have the Runs: Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men

Here at The Matt Signal, we live by a simple code: If we don’t have anything nice to say about a comic or a particular creator, we don’t say anything at all.

So let’s talk about Chuck Austen.

(Cue record scratch)

Austen is an easy target. Just ask Chris Sims. When you Google Austen’s name, the first thing that pops up is a fan-requested treatise Sims wrote for Comics Alliance in early 2012 on the bizarre trajectory of Austen’s career, from penciling Miracleman for Alan Moore to porn comics to Little Mermaid comics to superhero comics back to porn comics.

To be sure, there’s oh-so-much he got wrong about the X-books. But like it or not, from 2002 to 2005, he put his stamp on Marvel’s mutants.

It should be noted that this was during the X-Men’s hellbent for leather period, when it was decided the team should look more like its counterpart in the movies and Grant Morrison was writing some of the most interesting X-stories since ’80s Claremont in New X-Men. Austen picked up Uncanny X-Men from Joe Casey (and would later pick up the other X-Men from Morrison) and inherited a team that included Nightcrawler, Angel, Iceman, Wolverine and a mutant prostitute who hits on everyone. Over time, he would expand this team to include former X-Factor members Havok and Polaris, reformed baddie Juggernaut, former Alpha Flight member Northstar and former Generation X member Husk. Generally the three main X-books were pretty compartmentalized at this point (though the idea of blue and gold teams had long gone by the wayside), so characters like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Bishop were all out of play. And Psylocke and Colossus were dead, but they eventually got better.

And, full disclosure, there’s a reason I unloaded my Austen X-books in a garage sale in 2009. I remember reading many an issue saying to myself things like, “This scene where Angel is lovin’ on Husk in the sky over her mom is clearly pushing statutory rape.”; “Wait, Nightcrawler’s dad is the devil, but not like the Mephisto or Belasco devil?”; “Why is this nurse in love with a coma patient?”; and “I have to believe there’s a way to make Polaris an interesting character beyond just making her a jilted, crazy witch.”

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Herewith, a shortlist of the things Austen got right, in the X-books and beyond:

He gave Juggernaut a redemption arc: Before Austen, Cain Marko was ne’er not a ne’erdowell. He was a big lug who wore a helmet that made him look like a big, red chode. He liked to run through things and smash them. He hated his step-brother, Professor Charles Xavier. He fought the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk and others. And he once got punched from Canada to Hoboken. But it wasn’t until Juggernaut started forming a friendship with a young mutant named Samuel “Sammy the Squid-boy” Pare that anybody could rightly call Juggs a good guy. Austen made the character someone worth rooting for, to the point where, when the character ends up in bed with She-Hulk in issue 435, you can’t help but smile and say, “Go ahead and enjoy; you’ve earned it.” (Though if you ask Dan Slott, that never happened).

He returned Havok to the X-books: From 1999 to 2001, Alex Summers starred in a book called Mutant X, in which he led a troupe of alternate-reality X-Men that weren’t the Exiles. The book was canceled after 32 issues. Austen brought a comatose Havok back to the 616 almost immediately, albeit in a subplot in which the nurse who’d been tending to him falls in love with him (in her defense, as an X-vegetable, he was the strong, silent type).

He brought Northstar into the X-fold: Alpha Flight is a book that’s really great at being canceled, leaving its characters to be ignored until the next time a creator says, “Hey, I’ve got a pretty decent Alpha Flight idea.” Austen took AF mainstay Northstar and made him an X-Man, giving the team its first openly gay member and laying the groundwork for Marvel’s first highly publicized same-sex wedding about a decade later.

Azazel: Wait, hold on, hear me out. I said Azazel, not “The Draco,” the storyline that introduced him and canceled many a pull subscriptions. Did you see X-Men: First Class? Were you OK with the red demon guy who kinda looked like Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas with evil-Nightcrawler powers. Thank Chuck Austen. Did you think the first arc of Amazing X-Men was the Nightcrawler storyline you’d been waiting for since “Second Coming,” even with Azazel leading a horde of demon pirates? Thank Austen. Without Austen mixing Kurt Wagner up in a bunch of stories about exploding wafers and his never-before-seen demon father (flying in the face of the Cartman’s mom is his dad theory), you wouldn't have writers like Jason Aaron and Chris Claremont giving you make-good Nightcrawler stories today. [Matt's aside: Also have to add, that while looking for an image to go with Azazel, there are a much larger number of disturbing, shirtless, slashy drawings of Azazel in Google image search than I would have expected in my wildest nightmares. Way more.]

He cut the fat from the lesser X-teams: During a storyline involving the Church of Humanity (not to be confused with the Friends of Humanity or the Purifiers, even though it clearly sounds like a sex-baby of the two), the church crucifies a number of unused X-detritus on the front lawn of the Xavier Institute, including Generation X’s Jubilee (who survived), the New Mutants’ Magma (who survived), and X-Force’s Jesse Bedlam and Generation X’s Skin (who did not). Bedlam was introduced to X-Force long after I stopped reading the book, and Skin was basically Mr. Fantastic but worthless, so, to quote Jay Sherman, “And nothing of value was lost!”

He kept the Avengers warm for Brian Michael Bendis: Austen took over Avengers in 2004 from Geoff Johns, who of course went on to fix Hal Jordan for DC and mastermind many of its big stories and characters. During his brief period on the book, he created a new, female Captain Britain codenamed Lionheart. Lionheart hung around just long enough for Bendis to come along and Disassemble the team.

He supports the real heroes: In the early 2000s, Austen wrote a series of The Call of Duty stories for Marvel, starring New York City emergency responders, a fitting tribute to the city’s finest and bravest in the wake of 9/11. Except they fought ghosts, so now all I can picture is Ghostbusters, and I’m sad about Harold Ramis all over again. THANKS A LOT, AUSTEN!

Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men is available in six volumes of trade paperback. May God have mercy on your soul. 

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/9

All New X-Men #25
Story: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: David Marquez & many others

Issue 25 has often felt like an artificial anniversary issue to me. "hey, look, we're a quarter of the way to issue one hundred! Good for us!" Then again, in a day where there are next to no books on the rack from the big two anywhere near issue one hundred, maybe it means more now. But All-New X-Men takes that anniversary issue and does something very cool with it. A mysterious figure confronts Hank McCoy, the Beast, in his bedroom, and spends the entire issue giving him glimpses of possible futures he has either created or destroyed by bringing the original X-Men to the present. Each of these possible futures is illustrated by a different artist, and holy cow are there some great artists! Bruce Timm does two pages of Jean Grey, one a montage of her past and one a dark future. David Mack draws the fall of Cyclops, Skottie Young a Monster Iceman, and Art Adams a feral Beast. JG Jones draws a beautiful two page spread of a much more optimistic future, and Jill Thompson gives us some X-Women in space. Two of the indy creators involved did two of my favorite pieces: Maris Wicks provides a two page history of the Colossus/Kitty Pryde relationship from its beginning to its inevitable end, and Jason Shiga draws "Scott + Logan: BFFs Forever," which is as funny as it sounds. There are far more creators involved for me to list them all, but each provide something different. Plus, despite me thinking that there's more to the end of the issue than meets the eye, it seems the cosmos is showing up at Hank McCoy's bedside to just call him a jackass, so the Marvel Universe itself agrees with my current assessment of the character, so I feel pretty good about that.

Batman: Eternal #1
Story: Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Jason Fabok

It's been a few years since DC did one of its weekly comics (Trinity would technically be the last one, but the biweekly schedules for Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost made them an ad hoc weekly following up Blackest Night), and within the next couple months we'll be getting two. The first is the one I've been excited for, Batman: Eternal, a series that looks to change the face of Gotham as we know it. If the first page is to be believed, it will. After page one, which shows a broken Batman in a ravaged Gotham, we flashback to the present, where we see Jason Bard arrive in Gotham. If you know Jason Bard,well, good for you, for the rest of you, well, he's an old school Batman supporting cast member, former boyfriend of Barbara Gordon and Batman's day man from the "One Year Later" era (this was set up but rarely used after that, which was a shame). We see that corruption in the GCPD is not exactly a thing of the past in Gordon's regime, and then we get a fun action scene with Jim Gordon and Batman fighting Professor Pyg. But things go horribly wrong pretty quickly, and by issue's end, Gordon has seemingly caused a major tragedy and has been arrested. But clearly there is far more to this than meets the eye. This issue does a great job to set up the series, and gives the reader a view of Gotham from the eyes of a newcomer.  I know a weekly series is a major investment, of time, of money, of space. But if the rest of the series keeps up the quality of the first issue, this is going to be an action packed Batman ride, and well worth fifty two weeks of my time, and yours.

Now I have a question to you, my loyal readers, one I probably should have asked last week: Who would like to see weekly, in depth analysis of Batman: Eternal? Page by page analysis with references to appearing characters and plot as the series builds? If you want that, let me know in the comments section.

Lumberjanes #1
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis
Art: Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes is one of those books that you want to describe with a cutesy little comparison to two other things, in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes to summer camp. But the good thing about this book is its clearly more than just someone who took two ideas and squeezed them together. A group of girls are away at Lumberjane Camp for the summer, and by the end of the first issue have fought kitsune (three eyed Japanese fox creatures), seen a bear woman, and been yelled at by the girl in charge of their bunk. Mal, Molly, April, Ripley, and Jo each get a moment or two that helps us understand who they are, from Ripley's charging into battle hellbound for leather, or April's taking notes on the surroundings and the creatures. After Jen, their councilor, catches them coming in after hours, they get brought to the head of the camp, Rosie, who resembles a famous historical character of the same name. Clearly she knows something about the surrounding woods that the councilors don't, and she warms the girls that there's more out there than what they'd expect. It's a story about friendship, and while we don't get a lot of plot momentum, other than what seems to be set up, the set up and the characters are charming. It's another great all ages book, something I'm always looking for, and one that has  a strong female cast, which as the uncle of nine and six year old nieces is a big plus. While the mystery of what's going on in the woods and the cryptic words of the kitsune and interesting, I have a feeling it's the characters that are going to keep readers coming back for more.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Special Advanced Review: Scratch 9: Cat of Nine Worlds #1

It's been a while since we've gotten a new adventure of Scratch, the cat who can summon his past and future lives to his side. I wrote about Scratch 9 in recommended reading for last year's Free Comic Book Day, and with a new series set to debut in June with a preview on FCBD this year, it's time to revisit Scratch and his friends. I got a preview of the first issue of the new mini-series, Cat of Nine Worlds, and I'm happy to say it's right up there with the previous series in terms of quality, meaning it's one of the best all ages books I've read this year.

This new series opens with Garogga, the first of Scratch's incarnations, a sabretoothed cat, investigating a bad feeling. And his investigation tins up... Scratch? Wait, Scratch calls his other incarnations to him, not goes to visit them. So, right at the beginning, we have a mystery, and we start to get the answers right off. We flashback (or is it forward?) to the present, where we see Penelope, Scratch's girl, getting ready to go to camp, and looking for Scratch to say goodbye. It's a sweet scene, and reinforces one of the central themes of Scratch 9: friendship. Penelope has to leave without saying goodbye to Scratch, and shortly arrives at camp Robo (not to be related to Atomic Robo, although wouldn't that be a great crossover).

Pretty soon, the action of the series starts, as Penelope and Scratch (who winds up at camp with Penelope. How? Read the comic!) once again run afoul of Dr. Schrodinger, the evil scientist whose fascination with sending his consciousness into other bodies and responsible for Scratch's powers, who is out for revenge for Scratch and Penelope stumbling across his plans. And by issue's end, Scratch has gone back in time as a result of Schrodinger's plot, and we're back at the beginning.

One of the real strengths of Scratch 9 is it's characters. Not only is Scratch clever, but his relationship with Penelope is endearing; if you've ever had a cat who really loves you, you can see that relationship in Penelope and Scratch. Penelope shows just how smart she is in her time at Robot Camp, an aspect of her character that gets more play this time around. While we don't get a lot of time spent with Scratch's friends from the previous series, we do get to see some of Garogga's cast from his short in the Cat Tails mini-series. Schrodinger isn't exactly a villain of great depth; he has no tragedy in his background as far as we know. He's just a jerk. And frankly, I'm fine with that. Not every villain needs to be Magneto, who you can sympathize with. Sometimes a villain who is a mustache twirling bad guy is fine.

The art for this new series is provided by a new artist to the series. Joshua Buchanan takes over for original series artist Jason T. Kruse, and the hand off is seamless. Buchanan's art is fun, light and expressive. Penelope's facial expressions are well rendered and full of emotion, and Scratch is feline while still being more expressive than a cat's face could be if rendered "realistically." The designs for Schrodinger and his robots are very cool, and the new villainous character, who I don't want to talk about and ruin the surprise, has a similar design to another character, but the coloring and the facial expressions make for a smart design and an excellent addition to the cast.

There are more good all ages comics out there now then there have been in a long time, but still, finding on this smart and fun is a rarity. Scratch 9 is smart and fun; it doesn't talk down to it's audience. I'm a cat person, and Scratch is the kind of cat I want, and would be even if he didn't have superpowers.If you're looking for a book to share with your family, this is definitely a book to look at. Scratch 9 is back, and there's nothing that could make me happier.

There will be a new Scratch 9 issue for Free Comic Book Day, and Scratch 9: Cat of Nine Worlds is going to be released in June. Issue 1 is solicited in the current issue of Previews, so if you're interested, head to your comic shop now and place your order.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Matt and Dan Go to the Movies- Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(This past weekend saw the release of Marvel Studios newest film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So your humble host, and contributor Dan Grote, went out to see if the movie lived up to the hype. Here's what we thought)

Dan Grote: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a movie of basements with sub-basements, secrets with sub-secrets, ops within ops, escapes via quickly created holes in the ground, and tall buildings with really long elevator rides and easily shattered glass. And Cap and Black Widow go to all the floors.

My friend Rob called it the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after he saw it, on account of storytellingwise, it's easily one of the best of the bunch (up there with the first Iron Man and Avengers). But I'd compare it to a different Star Wars movie, considering the mission at the end is essentially to blow up three death stars by exploiting the womprat-sized weakness at each of their cores. Also, Robert Redford’s character finds the lack of faith of the other members of the World Security Council disturbing.

Matt Lazorwitz: While I see both those comparisons, I would liken the movie more to The Dark Knight. Both are intense, action based films with plots that mirror current political fears. In 2008, urban terrorism was a fear that permeated every day, which granted hasn’t really changed, and that film’s Joker was this idealized (for want of a better word) urban terrorist; he just wanted, “to watch the world burn.” The Winter Soldier deals with a fear that has come to the fore in the past couple of years; the fear that Big Brother is watching. In a day of Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, the idea of terror using what the government has set in motion, or the government using that knowledge to itself instill terror, is a real one, and the film takes it to the logical endgame in a world where things like S.H.I.E.L.D. exist.

DG: Seriously, though, this movie is more than two hours long, but I would have gladly sat for three. As someone who loves Cap, especially Ed Brubaker’s run on the book, this movie gave me everything I wanted: Action heroes with dry, cool, wit; geopolitical intrigue, a WarGames reference, at least three cameos that made me smile despite my dropped jaw, what briefly appears to be an old British woman who isn’t Helen Mirren fighting people, and Alan Dale.

Most refreshingly, it was leaps and bounds better than Captain America: The First Avenger, which, let’s be honest, was a two-hour-long Act I, as much as I enjoyed it.

ML: While I haven’t read the Mark Waid mini-series of the same name (and I know I need to, especially with some real good press on it lately), this is one of the best examples of showing how Cap is a, “man out of time.” He doesn’t dwell on it, and it’s not just played for laughs, with scenes of him looking at iPods and commenting about record players, like it could have been. But the general sense of not fitting in, of not knowing who he is and where he should be, was done perfectly, not dwelled on, but always there. And the final action scenes of the movie, where Cap re-dons his World War II era costume, both show who Cap is and when he is most comfortable, but also are physical representations on the theme of the world of the past in conflict with the world of the present being crafted by Hydra.

DG: The relationships between the movie’s main protagonists are spot-on, especially between Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie is a fantastic addition to the MCU, btw). There's always a danger of Falcon being treated as Cap's sidekick, but that was never the case. They were always partners. And in the movie they find common ground as soldiers having a hard time adjusting to being “home,” which provides a perfect way to weave in Sam Wilson’s background as a social worker in the comics.

ML: The rapport between Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie was clear from the film’s opening scene. The two played off each other perfectly, not just in how they were written, but how they were realized by two great actors. Evans has come into his own as an actor as Captain America, and while he hasn’t done a, “golly shucks,” sort of performance, he’s always stood apart. Giving him a friend in the present lets us see a different aspect of him. And Mackie plays the Falcon as a hero in his own right, looking to Cap for inspiration but not looking at him as his boss.

DG: Cap and Black Widow make great work spouses, which is good, because ScarJo eats up a lot of screentime. It’s pretty much a team-up movie the whole way through. She and Cap even go on a Scooby Doo-like adventure in a dusty old basement with a secret room behind a bookcase (which leads to my favorite surprise scene in the whole movie).

And Cap and Fury, well, it could have ended up being more of the same from Avengers, if they hadn't removed him from the equation early on.

ML: I was also happy to see Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill given a time to shine. Maria Hill in the comics is a hard character to like, as she seems to be just to the left of classic Marvel hardass government guys like Henry Peter Gyrich, always waiting for the heroes to screw up. Here, she is Fury’s loyal right hand, and has plenty of action scenes and plenty of brains, and works with Cap and company not begrudgingly, but as part of the team.

There are actually quite a few strong female characters in the film, especially when you look at it in comparison to other superhero movies. Black Widow and Hill alone would be impressive, but when you also factor in Emily Vamcamp’s Agent 13, who doesn’t get a ton to do, other than have some great fight scenes, but is set up nicely to be the female lead in Cap 3 (hopefully Black Widow will have graduated to her own film by then), you have more women fighting then in pretty much any movie I can think of that isn’t specifically an ensemble movie about women warriors. And one final note, Haley Atwell’s brief appearance as an aged Peggy Carter is both beautiful and tragic.

DG: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their work on NBC’s Community, and you can see that show's genre-bending humor in the movie, especially when they play with tired action flick cliches like threatening a low-level baddie with a fall from a tall building to extract information.

There are a couple of shots toward the end that are boldfaced homages. Cap plunges into the water - again - and after Cap is shot in the stomach, he lies in the exact same pose He did when he was killed in the comics. And of course the scene where all the fake D.C. cops attack Fury reminds of the Blues Brothers (and, uncomfortably enough, of racial profiling).

With that same Fury scene in mind, I want to tell whoever first thought of having a car or truck flip forward and explode in movies this: I love your work, but I'm worried it's been overused, especially in superhero movies (see also X-Men: The Last Stand, The Dark Knight).

Also as you watch this scene and the rest of the movie, ask yourself: Why was Fury the only person allowed to have bullet/shatterproof glass? If I lived in the MCU, after this movie, I would invest in a glass factory; that’s all I’m saying.

Audience observation: There were at least three people in a not-that-packed theater who gasped when the Winter Soldier took off his mask. Compared to some of the other surprises in this movie, this one was horribly kept, but I’m happy those people got an extra thrill.

ML: Before we get to wrap ups and final thoughts, I figured it best to actually talk about the film’s title character, the Winter Soldier. This film is so much more than that, more than just about that one figure, but I frankly couldn’t think of a better title, and it certainly is one that is dynamic and interesting. Sebastian Stan does a great job acting with just his body and eyes. His origin works well here, fitting seamlessly into the universe that has been crafted, and Stan plays the tormented side of the character as well as he does the ruthless side. I don’t know exactly where they’re going with him in the future, but I hope we get to see more of his interaction with Cap.

DG: Biggest quibble (and I don't consider it all that legitimate a gripe): Batroc was not Batroc-y enough. I'm not saying I wanted the purple-clad French martial arts master to be a joke, but I did want him to fight with more bravado and braggadocio. At the very least yell "Zut alors!"

Random observation: In the first action sequence on the ship, when Cap takes out the first pirate from behind, I really wanted the words "Y silent takedown" to appear on the screen, because I've been playing a lot of Arkham Origins lately.

Trailer notes: I was disappointed the Guardians of the Galaxy was the same one from two months ago. Next to Lucy in my notebook, I wrote "ScarJo is LIMITLESS SPECIES." Who the hell looked at Kelsey Grammer's resume and said "How have we not put him in the Expendables movies?" I do not buy Megan Fox as April O'Neill.

ML: This film had some of the best fight choreography I have ever seen. The up close fighting between Cap and Winter Soldier was that tight, Taken style, with tremendous economy of motion, while fights between other characters was broader and more open. I like how Black Widow doesn’t fight like Cap, who doesn’t fight like Falcon. That was smartly done.

As a personal pat-myself-on-the-back moment, when Agents of S.HI.E.L.D. debuted, I observed that it felt like the season’s seeming big bad, Project Centipede, were like Hydra, and wouldn’t it be great if that played into Winter Soldier since it would be coming out near the end of the season. This is being written Tuesday morning, so I haven’t seen the new episode yet, but judging by scenes from last week’s episode, I just might have been clairvoyant.

Oh, and just in case you don’t know, stay through the credits in this one. There are two scenes like in Thor: The Dark World, one mid-credits, teasing an upcoming Marvel Studios film, and one at the end, giving a final sting to this movie. It’s 2014 and we’re nine movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I was shocked at the number of people who got up right as the movie ended, and more shocked at the people who left after the first scene. You stuck with it this long; what’s five more minutes?

So, in the end, the consensus here on The Matt Signal is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a good film over all. On a scale of one to five, this one gets five cybernetic Soviet issue arms up.

(Post movie trip to the Bargain Book Warehouse. Yes, I wore an Invincible t-shirt to see Cap. You don't wear a band's t-shirt to their concert, you don't wear a superhero's shirt to his movie.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/2

Detective Comics #30
Story: Brian Buccellato & Francis Manapul 
Art: Francis Manapul

Detective Comics has had the most creative teams of any of the core Batman comics since the New 52 began. I really enjoyed the last team of John Layman and Jason Fabok, but when I heard the creative team on the (to me) surprise hit title, The Flash, Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul, were coming on, I was excited, and the book has definitely lived up to that excitement. The first issue is dense, introducing a lot of new characters and concepts, and really setting up what I assume is at least their first arc, if not the themes and characters of their run. We don't get any supervillains in issue, just Batman fighting some street level thugs, although one is addressed as The Squid. This could be a completely new character, despite the name that connects him to a Gotham mobster from the 80s. We also meet Elena and Annie Aguila. Elena is a self made woman who is trying to help Gotham's East End revive, and Annie is her sarcastic, extreme sports motocross driving daughter. Elena is clever, and is able to push all the right buttons to get Bruce to side with her plans. One of the buttons she pushes is mentioning Bruce's son. Damian's death is not public knowledge, and so this is a different blow than she intended. With the return of Jason Todd, Batman lost one of the tragedies that defined nearly twenty years of his character; Damian's death returns that tragedy, and amps it up since Damian was Bruce's biological son. There's also a thread introduced involving a crooked councilman, and the mention of a new drug called Icarus. While the issue might sound busy, it all plays well together and feels like different aspects of one story that we haven't seen how all the pieces fit together. The art is astounding as ever, Manapul is, for my money, DC's top artist right now, with a sense of motion that worked perfectly for The Flash. I wasn't sure how his style would work in Gotham, but it is a home run. The art is gorgeous, and Batman's combat flows. The motor cross scenes are also astounding. And his character beats are equally lovely; the expression on Bruce's face when Elena mentions Damian is heartbreaking. I think that this run is going to live up to the name of the series, playing a long running mystery for Batman to solve; I like it when Detective Comics lives up to its name.

She-Hulk #3
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pulido

Ok, three issues in I can safely say that She-Hulk has become my favorite comic currently published by Marvel Comics. I love my dark, serious comics (I'm a Batman fan after all), but I also like a comic that has a sense of humor while still taking the world it exists in seriously, and this volume of She-Hulk does exactly that. The issue picks up pretty much where the last issue left off, with Kristoff, son of Dr. Doom, asking Jen (She-Hulk) Walters to represent him in seeking asylum in the USA. Jen gets to spend some time with Kristoff, who carries himself with the air of one who was raised by a megalomaniacal- mad scientist- sorcerer- dictator. From the moment Jen and Kristoff head to the courthouse, we get a scene out of a classic comedy, with Dr. Doom sending his Doombots to find ways to stop Kristoff from making it to the courthouse by the five o'clock deadline. Jen smashes them, steals a Fantasticar from her former Fantastic Four teammates, and even sets up a decoy. Soule does a great job of showing that Jen thinks with her brain as much as her fists, one of the things that separates her from her more famous green-skinned cousin. Pulido does a great job of showing Jen bulking up in combat; I forget that despite being big, she can get much bigger when the need arises. There's also some fun images panels dealing with Kristoff's chauffeur turning out to be a Doombot and Jen smashing it; Pulido makes what could be simple little thing into a great sight gag. The issue ends reinforcing the idea that when Jen takes on a client she will do the best she can for them, even if that puts her in the cross-hairs of a major bad guy. Looks like Jen's off to Latveria, and I have a feeling Doc Doom might regret getting involved in this one.

Monday, March 31, 2014

I’ve got the Runs: Joe Kelly’s Deadpool (Deadpool 1-33, 1997-2000)

Deadpool loves married! Marvel announced earlier this year that its overmarketed Merc-with-a-mouth will be getting hitched in April’s issue 27 (issue 26 came out last week), a megasized book featuring backup strips from the creators who have helped shape the character over the years, including Fabian Nicieza, Joe Kelly, Christopher Priest, Frank Tieri, Gail Simone, Daniel Way and more.

All of those writers put their stamps on the character. Nicieza co-created Deadpool with Rob Liefeld and a decade later partnered him with Cable for a buddy-cop comedy that totally shouldn’t have worked but did. Priest made Deadpool obscenely self-aware. Tieri returned him to the Weapon X program. Simone body-swapped him and replaced him with a completely different character. Way gave him multiple voices in his head, a facet of the character that made its way into a 2013 video game. And current writers Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn have woven Wade Wilson deeper into the tapestry of the larger Marvel Universe (while letting their comedian friends write letters to the editor and creating SHIELD agents in the image of 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit).

But there was a time, long before all that, when Deadpool was a relative baby in the universe, a supporting player in X-Force who carried a pair of miniseries but otherwise was known as the guy who looked like a cross between Spider-Man and Deathstroke the Terminator. Kelly gave Deadpool a backstory, people to care about, people to spar with and about a billion pop culture jokes in between.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the book was a commercial success, of course.

I was told we were canceled almost every third issue, and it got to be so ridiculous because I couldn’t plan anything. Eventually I left with issue #33 because I was just tired of being told we would be gone soon. I had more stories, but I feel I said everything I wanted to and it was a good place to leave,” he told Bleeding Cool in an October 2013 interview.

And Kelly gave old ’Pool a proper ending, letting him walk off into the sunset with his beloved Death, but with the caveat that he was only 99 percent dead and would likely be revived in 30 days.

But back to the beginning. Kelly sets the tone right away in issue No. 1, having Deadpool sneak up on a Bolivian guerilla squad while at the same time speaking his yellow-box exposition out loud.

At the outset, Wade's supporting cast includes Weasel, his weapons and tech supplier; Blind Alfred, an Aunt May lookalike he keeps prisoner; Gerry, a Haight-Ashbury hobo in whom our antihero confides; Patch (not this one), a diminutive mustachioed man who gives Wade his jobs; CF, a fellow merc who Wade regularly puts Looney Tunes-style hurts on, to no permanent injury; Fenway, another merc who talks in baseball speak (none more one-note); and T-Ray, an albino Akuma-from-Street Fighter knockoff who antagonizes Wade at every opportunity, wears a bandage on his nose at all times and knows magic.

Kelly's run begins a long line of writers showing Wade he could be a great hero if he wasn't such a self-loathing a-hole. Right off the bat, he risks his life to stabilize a gamma core nearing critical mass in Antarctica after a fight with Alpha Flight's Sasquatch. (Yup, Sasquatch, that was the big "get" for the first issue of this series, though to be fair, this was not long after Onslaught, and most of the big Marvel heroes were in a pocket dimension. But still, Wolverine was available. I’m pretty sure he had no nose at the time, but he was available.)

The first DP series also introduced much of the world to Ed McGuinness, whose blocky, yet-round-at-the-edges style has provided the perfect pencils for Superman, Hulk, Nightcrawler and more since then. Some of the most fun art is in the scenes at Hellhouse, where mercs go to get their orders and McGuinness and other artists go to draw background characters who look like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat characters, because it was the ’90s.

Kelly was an early adopter of the recap page at the beginning of the book explaining the players and their current predicaments plus jokes and jokes and jokes. Not long after the book's debut, Marvel began including recap pages with many more of their books, sometimes in gatefold format. Nicieza’s later Cable and Deadpool series also used the recap page to set things up and deliver additional jokes.

The series also sets up a long-term frenemyship with Taskmaster, who before Kelly was an obscure Avengers villain but after becoming a recurring Deadpool character went on to be a key part of the post-Civil War "Initiative" storyline and even star in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3.

’Pool’s romantic allegiances shift pretty quickly during the first year. He starts the series crushing on X-Force member Siryn, a by-product of a teamup with her and father Banshee in a Mark Waid/Ian Churchill mini that ran a couple years before the series. Not long after, he begins hanging out with Typhoid Mary, the multipersonality character from Daredevil. But perhaps the most interesting romantic endeavour he pursues under Kelly is Death, the feminized concept previously only wooed by Thanos. Of course, one could argue Deadpool’s dalliance with Death is also a far-too-obvious metaphor for Wade’s desire for an end to his suffering, the same suffering that drives him to be a nonstop joke-and-murder machine. But the whole Siryn thing was probably bordering on Angel-and-Husk creepy anyway.

Also, hope ya like dated references! The first five issues alone include jokes about Speed, Ace Ventura, The Nanny, Cindy Crawford, Kerri Strug, Sally Struthers, the musical Stomp, Diff'rent Strokes, Johnny Dangerously, the Macarena, Lionel Richie, My Left Foot, Alice Cooper, Mr. Belvedere, the SNL land shark sketch, Webster, the Olsen twins, Yanni, Wilford Brimley, the Partridge Family, "Time to make the donuts," The Tick, Herbie the Love Bug, Hulk Hogan, Ginsu knives, This Is Your LifeCarrie and Polaroids. And man, lemme tell ya, I found every word of it high-larious in 1997.

Kelly's Deadpool is traded in Deadpool Classic volumes 1 through 5. The first volume includes only the first issue of the series, as it bookends his first appearance in 1991’s New Mutants 98 and two limited series.

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/26

All-New X-Factor #5
Story: Peter David
Art: Carmine Di Giandomenico

We're five issues into All-New X-Factor, and I admit to feeling bad I haven't reviewed an issue yet. It's not for lack of quality. X-Factor was one of the consistently best books Marvel published for years, and the new version hasn't lost that quality. It's exactly for that reason that it's fallen below this radar; books this good regularly just sort of are expected to be good. But after talking about Peter David on Friday, I knew I had to discuss the new issue. The new team, the corporate X-Factor in the service of Serval Industries, has a very different dynamic than the previous one. The last X-Factor was a dysfunctional family; this one isn't there yet. There's a very funny dynamic here, with the two siblings sniping at each other, Gambit not trusting Quicksilver, the newly added Danger acting really weird, and the manipulative CEO of Serval Industries, Harrison Snow, clearly up to something. This issue begins the two issue arc that will round out the team's roster, with the first appearances in the series of Warlock and Cypher. Warlock is seemingly in league with his evil father, The Magus, who is hiding among humanity with the most conspicuous and evil sounding human name ever; clearly he doesn't get that there are no people with the last name Smaug. The action sequences are top not, with artist Carmine Di Giandomenico pulling out all the stops, but it's the smaller scenes that really grab. Danger's strange obsession with Gambit, after he helped reboot her in the previous issue, is interesting, building a different relationship between them, and fleshing out Danger. And I have to say, for everyone who rags on Cyclops, Havok once again proves to be the creepier Summers brother with his having Quicksilver hanging around X-Factor to spy on his ex, Polaris. This isn't going to come back to bite Havok on the ass when his occasionally unbalanced ex-girlfriend finds out. Not at all.

Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine #5
Story: Dan Jolley
Art: Leonard Kirk

The new Bloodhound mini-series wraps up in an issue that is intense final issue that ties up all the story points, but leaves the characters in a very dark place. Clev, the man who hunts super people, his partner, Agent Saffron Bell, and their erstwhile super powered ally, Terminus, confront Dr. Morgenstern, the man who has been giving everyday people superpowers. Morgenstern's reasoning behind his program is warped and sent chills up my spine, especially in its logic. But in pushing Clev's buttons, Morgenstern made a mistake, and the confrontation comes to a bloody conclusion. The core of the issue is not the action or violence, and there's plenty of both, but the emotion. Morgenstern's pain at the death of his son, that has not faded, parallels Clev's own loss, caused by Morgenstern, and we see Clev as a man who feels like he has nothing left to lose. He ends up in a place even worse than the one he was in when the series began, both literally and figuratively. While the ending is a downer, it works in the context of everything we've seen in the series; not everyone gets a happy ending. The final discussion of Morgenstern's plan furthers what I read as a comparison to super powers and firearms, dealing with some of today's most divisive political topics in a way that comics do so well. I hope that we get to see more Bloodhound in the future, so if you didn't try the series, a trade will be arriving shortly, so give it a shot.

Manhattan Projects #19
Story: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Ryan Browne

After the past few issues, stories that have forwarded the main plot of the series, it's nice to go back a revisit the inner mindscape of Joseph Oppenheimer, where the war continues between Joseph and his brother, Robert, who he consumed and took his mind, especially after the shocking ending of the previous issue and the seeming death of Joseph. Hickman's story is exciting, with all sorts of crazy ideas that work because we're in a world completely controlled by the wills of the combatants, but artist Ryan Browne is the absolute star.  Having drawn the first "Finite Oppenheimers" story, returns to draw the bizarre world, with all the different versions of Oppenheimer in all of their different costumes, all the bizarre weapons, and all the chaos of massive battles of different versions of one guy massacring other versions of himself. I'm being cagey, because I don't want to give away all of the cool things that Hickman provides Browne to draw, because the joy of the issue is experiencing each page and all the detail worked into it. Browne's style works well with the series; his won but not so far from the work of series regular artist Nick Pitarra to be jarring. The issue ends with a resolution of the end of the previous issue, showing who it was who shot Oppenheimer in the real world, and it's the return of a character I have been waiting to return for some time. Every issue of Manhattan Projects is so stuffed with crazy ideas and twists that I keep thinking, "Nothing's left to surprise me," but every issue I'm proven wrong, and I love that.

Sandman: Overture #2
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: JH Williams III

It's been five months since the first issue of Sandman: Overture, and I admit that I thought even my excitement, as an avid fan of all things Neil Gaiman, might have been dulled by the length of the wait. But by the end of the first page, I was enchanted again. The issue opens not directly where the first issue left off, but in the present, nearly a century after the events of the previous issue. Daniel, the current human incarnation of Dream, meets with Mad Hettie, an immortal bag lady from the original Sandman, and retrieves an item that I can only imagine will have importance in the future. With that, we return to the convocation of Dreams from the end of the last issue, with the different aspects of Dream having a conversation. Or is it a monologue? There is an amusing discussion of the semantics of dealing with an infinite number of the same being, all slightly different, speaking to each other, before events start to play out. The oldest Dream, the Dream of the first beings, talks to the others, and as each of the Dreams seems to be pulled away, Morpheus summons one who can answer his questions about the death of the Dream in the previous issue and what he was told about a coming end of all things. And in the end, Morpheus heads off with the Dream of Cats to go to a place the Endless should not walk and meet with a being whose description left me with my jaw on the floor. For an issue where there is next to no action in the strict sense of the word, an issue that is for all intents and purposes and extended monologue, a lot happens. The understanding of the cosmology of the universe the Endless exist in is expanded, and the threat is made more clear. And as ever, the art of JH Williams III is something to behold. It is literally breathtaking; there were some of his trademark double page spreads that made my breath catch in my throat. The different Dreams are all meticulously crafted, all different yet still clearly aspects of one being, and the dream house that Daniel and Hettie walk through is a twisted house that is part Escher, part Giger, but all the lush painted art of Williams. According to Gaiman, we won't be seeing issue three until July, another four months, and while I won't say I'm not disappointed, the quality of the first two issues makes it worth the wait.