Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What I've Been Reading - Uncanny X-Men, Justice Society of America, Mighty Avengers and Spider-Man: Noir

For this edition of What I've Been Reading, I'm taking a look at some comics I loaned from the library that I had reservations about before even reading and only took out for lack of other options and morbid curiousity.

From DC, I take a look at the second volume for Geoff Johns's and Alex Ross's psuedo sequel to Kingdom Come with their Thy Kingdom Come JSA story while, from Marvel, I check out Matt Fraction's Uncanny X-Men and the first Spider-Man Noir miniseries. Also from Marvel, I discuss the first three issues of Dan Slott's Mighty Avenger run, which I came across when I was sorting my collection. Hit the jump see what I thought of books.

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Terry Dodson, Daniel Acuna and Mitch Breitweiser
Collect Uncanny X-Men #504-507 and Annual #2

This is a very disappointing collection. Not because it is outright bad or some other easily identifiable reason related to the story - in fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit - but the odds of me actually reading anymore of Fraction's X-Men run are practically zero at this point. The exact reason it is disappointing is mostly because Greg Land is the book's regular artist, alternating with the Dodsons, which also stopped me from checking out Fraction's run when it started up on a monthly basis because I refuse to subject myself to Land's "art" unless absolutely necessary. As I expected though, Fraction gets the X-Men and his work is honestly one of the few times post-Morrison that I thought I could get interested in the franchise again.

Unfortunately, aside from Land's atrocious work, I also know that this title gets mired in crossovers on a regular basis and, in most cases, I have no interest in any of them (Utopia and Second Coming spring to mind as recent crossovers I'd rather avoid) and it still seems Marvel doesn't know what to do with the X-Men post-House of M, so they are going with whatever they can think of until they get another idea and want to try that out. Nation X looked like it might be a new long term(ish) status quo, but that's probably going to go away when Second Coming finishes up. I loathe crossovers/events which exist merely for the sake of boosting sales and I'm not really interested in following the book if Marvel has no idea what to do with it, even if Fraction's character work is very appealing.

So, bitching about Marvel's inability to do anything with the X-Men or Land's "art" aside, this collection was very enjoyable. It shouldn't be a surprise that Fraction would be a good fit for the X-Men. There is a similar vitality to his work that Morrison's had as well. There is not this palpable sense of doom that hangs over either writers' work that most other X-Men comics do. That's what makes the franchise work for me. The collection also stands on its own pretty well despite there being several subplots that run through out the story and the fact that the annual is a Dark Reign tie-in.

The main plot of the Lovelorn story focuses on Colossus trying to deal with the loss of Kitty Pride while Emma Frost is trying to deal not only with Cyclops's recent personality change brought on by Messiah Complex but also trying to adjust to the new status quo in general. Fraction does some good character work with the two and mainly focuses on them without bringing in a lot of excess characters that don't need to be there. There are bits here and there that move the overall plot of Fraction's run along but they are generally understandable if you haven't read any of run and they don't get in the way of the main story.

The main sub-plot in the trade is Beast and Angel's recruitment drive of super scientists to save the mutant race. It's awesome, plain and simple. While Most of UXM is Fraction bringing his sensibilities as a writer to the title, the X-Club (the group's name) sub-plot literally has him picking and choosing characters that work best for him and then writing a very Matt Fraction-like story around them. Why else would they fight Godzilla? The characters Fraction picks out are a riot as well, particularly Dr. Nemesis. Why Marvel hasn't given Fraction a Dr. Nemesis or X-Club book yet I don't know. There is also a wonderful moment between Beast and Angel when Beast finds outs that Angel has his Archangel powers/persona back and learns of his X-Force connections and has been keeping it a secret from his longtime friend. All in all, the X-Club parts were definitely the highlight of the collection.

The annual focuses on the newly developed relationship between Emma Frost and Namor, which I believe is just one giant retcon created by Dark Reign. It reads like one anyway which is why I didn't care for it. It's not really bad but I can't get into to it because I couldn't care less about Dark Reign, on any level. Tony Stark does show up at the Hellfire Club in one of the flashback sequences though he's basically being a drunk buffoon, and it's hilarious, especially when Norman Osborn shows up and threatens retribution down the road.

Verdict - Buy It.

Interested in Uncanny X-Men: Lovelorn? Buy it on Amazon.com and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by Geoff Johns and Alex Ross
Art by Dale Eaglesham, Fernando Pasarin and Jerry Ordway
Collects Justice Society of America #13-18 and Justice Society of America Annual #1

While this was no where near as bad as I imagined it would be, it more than lived up to expectations for it by being an incredibly dull read to the point of being almost mind numbingly so at times. This is one of those comics where things do happen - it's not just people standing around or a story dragged out for issues at a time spinning wheels to fill a trade - but it doesn't feel like anything has happened of consequence when you are reading it.

The first part of the trade is about the build up and eventual conflict with a madman named Gog while the second half is about the rise of Gog (a different one), a survivor of the Third World, but then all he does is walk around Africa while doing some slightly ominous things.

The main thrust of the story after Gog arises is whether or not he is what he claims to be and whether or not his actions are blessings or curses. The biggest problem the story has is that everything is just so painfully obvious. There is never any ambiguity to anything in the story when it seems like Johns and Ross, through their characters, are acting like there is, which just baffles me. This is because of the fact that some of characters voice a concern or two that plainly point to where the story obviously has to go (Gog isn't as nice as he originally appears, gifts are curses, etc) but then Johns and Ross just come out and say what is going to happen anyway.

For example, one of the first things Starman says after being cured is that it is a bad thing after being cured of his "insanity". Additionally, Alan Scott even comes out and says that Gog's cures may very well be curses in disguise at one point. Johns and Ross are clearly aiming for some ambiguity in Gog's actions, unless I read the story wrong, and I doubt that, yet they seemingly go out of their way to remove any uncertainty or ambiguity in the comic with such a telegraphed and blatant manner of storytelling. To say that Johns and Ross actively undermine their own story would be a massive understatement.

Much like Kingdom Come, Thy Kingdom Come also feels the need to apply superhero morality to real world situations, which is just moronic, and the fact that most writers for DC, and Marvel to be fair, don't realize this is astounding. The black and white ethics of superheroes don't work well with anything resembling real world moral ambiguity and the ease at which these powers would and should solve these problems or how the threats they face every day almost take away from the affects of real world situations (honesty, near extinction events every other Tuesday or even regular thugs with death rays kind of makes a few insurgents look a bit pathetic in comparison and undermines how big a threat and problem they are in real life situations). Maybe that's why Johns and Ross have such a problem building anything resembling ambiguity, because they can't do in it an superhero comic. Or won't, maybe? Either way, it doesn't make for interesting, or good, superhero comics.

As for the real world situation, while trekking across Africa, Gog naturally acquires a group of followers/worshipers, who are then attacked and some are killed. Most of the JSA is against killing the attackers while Gog, Hawkman and David Reid, the soon-to-be-Magog, aren't. Long story short, the JSA looks like a bunch of idiots and that's about it. Much like Kingdom Come, Johns and Ross to fail to make any kind of coherent point because they are simply not engaging with the issue. Although, unlike in Kingdom Come, it doesn't seem like Johns and Ross are trying to make any point at all but that makes the whole situation all the more perplexing.

The other problem I had with the story, which is something of a minor one at this point, was the reworking of Magog into a legacy character. I get that the Justice Society, as a comic and team, is about legacies but Kingdom Come wasn't. It was about how great Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are, despite how inept they appear in the series. Yes, you could get an interesting story about an "evil" heroic legacy but why make it an official sequel to a story nothing to do with legacies? In fact, a story is that is thematically anti-legacy at its core? I really don't get that.

Much like Kingdom Come, there were a lot of little things that bugged me but I'll limit my list of complaints to one thing this time as well - JSA doesn't know what the Third World is. This struck me as weird since, in some of Johns earliest work on the franchise, the JSA teamed up with Metron. I'm not saying that the JSA had to know what exactly the Third World was, but shouldn't at least one of them to be smart enough to realize that the a Third World might have some connection with the Fourth World?

Verdict - Avoid It.

Still interested in Justice Society of America Vol 3, Thy Kingdom Come Part Two? Buy it on Amazon.com and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky
Art by Carmine de Giandomenico
Collects Spider-Man Noir #1-4

I love a good Elseworlds story, so I was interested in Marvel's Noir imprint, even if I wasn't entirely convinced its premise. It seemed like a random genre that someone at Marvel pulled out of a hat and ran with it. To get the obvious question out of the way though, no, this isn't a noir comic. While it has some noir aspects, it's probably more of a pulp comic than anything else but I guess Spider-Man Pulp sounds kind of stupid. As for the comic, it's pretty good.

The best thing about the mini is the way Hine and Sapolsky rework the Spider-Man mythos into the 1930s setting. May Parker works surprisingly well as a socialist activist, the Daily Bugle remains essential unchanged, as do the Enforcers.  However, Kraven and Vulture are reworked as sideshow freaks and, in probably the best move of the series, Felicia Hardy is the love interest and owner of the Black Cat speakeasy. I love world building since, when done correctly, it just adds so much to the reading experience, and while the story is pretty good, it just isn't quite as good as the world of Spider-Man Noir. Another great thing about the world building in the mini is that it actively adds to the story and helps build up the tone and mood.

As I already said, the story is good if a little predictable. The twists and turns are still satisfying since they are executed so well. The pace is also on the brisk side and moves along nicely for a four issue series. I also enjoyed the fact that Peter's origin as Spider-Man isn't the focus of the story but, rather, it's merely a part of Peter's journey. Uncle Ben's death is part of Peter's motivations but it's not the singular catalyst. This is what makes the series stand out. It takes the elements of the Spider-Man mythos and reworks them so they fit into the story Hine and Sapolsky are telling instead of awkwardly mashing the two together.

Verdict - Buy It.

Interested in Spider-Man Noir? Buy it on Amazon.com and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Mighty Avengers #21-23
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Khoi Pham

These three issue remind me why I never bothered with the Avengers before Brain Bendis took over. Slott's run on Mighty Avengers is very a much a throw back to the pre-Bendis days and can positively be described as "old school." Personally, I'd use dull, old fashioned and, at times, lame. Don't get me wrong, Slott can writer some great comics, just see his She-Hulk run, but Mighty Avengers is definitely a miss.

The biggest problem Slott runs into is that he is trying write something like the Platonic form of the old school Avengers stories that kind of prevents him from just telling a good story. It's a lot of problem that "retro" comics like this have - too busy trying to emulate their inspiration and not busy enough trying to tell a good story. This comic doesn't really read like anything from the past decade, and not in a good way. The two biggest examples would be that the character tend to vocalize their inner thoughts and the fact that Slott over narrates at times. I know this is supposed to be a throwback but these techniques were abandoned for a reason.

Another thing I didn't like was the focus on Hank Pym. Now, I don't think he should be known as the wife beater dude but the guy has never really been an interesting character or inspired confidence in anyone. Making him the Wasp and dressing him up like his dead ex-wife just adds to this. Nothing against the original Wasp, but neither Ant-Man nor the Wasp were ever really impressive super hero names or characters to begin with. This is where the whole "lame" thing pops up. This is not to say that either Hank Pym or Janet Van Dyne should be marginalized or that they are bad characters in and of themselves but they shouldn't really be headliners either nor forced down the the readers' throat like Slott does with 'building up' Pym here with undeserved praise and accolades. They work best as supporting characters yet Slott is pushing Pym as the leader of the Mighty Avengers and that doesn't really work given the character's history.

Sure, Slott could rebuild the character and establish him as a credible leader and respected character again but that doesn't mean that other writers will follow his lead. In fact, odds are, they won't. Unless a character undergoes a drastic and, more importantly, popular reimagining, they tend to stick to whatever image they have developed over the years. For Pym, that's generally the image of a loser, in one way or the other. It's kind of odd that, in Slott's story, Pym chastises Iron Man for all of his post-Disassembled mistakes yet Pym got captured by the Skrulls because he couldn't keep it in his pants and then his Skrull replacements kept going insane because it was modelled on Pym's unstable brain patterns. Granted, Slott didn't write those issues but Bendis did and it was a Secret Invasion tie-in which is going to have way more pull than anything Slott does. This, and other reasons, are why this level of pushing of Pym is a waste of time.

My "So what, why bother?" reaction to Pym is also the same way I felt about the story. Slott's story, while not bad, offers little in the way of new or compelling content. In fact, it reads pretty much like what few other pre-Bendis Avengers stories I've read. There is also nothing to distinguish Slott's comic from the vast majority of Marvel's, or DC's, output other than it's a retro Avengers book, which is actually a negative in my case.

Verdict - Avoid It.

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Flip The Page said...

I don't think I could possibly disagree more with your opinions on Mighty Avengers. I've found all of it to be an exciting, captivating experience with only a few flaws along the way (stature whining, khoi pham's weird tendency to draw a tiny shouty mouth that looks weird on everyone). the writing's been nothing but top notch from beginning to end, and it made me care about and want to see more of Hank Pym, a character I thought was a pathetic joke as Yellowjacket. this is helped due to the whole 'greatness thrust upon them' style in which he gets to step up to the plate and become a great leader.

and sure he chastises Iron Man, who in turn treats him like a mental invalid. Neither one will admit that they're essentially as fucked up as each other nowadays.

But you ARE absolutely on the money about how post-slott Hank Pym will probably just go back to being how so many writers have treated him before. which is a shame. his progress over slott's mighty avengers and his small appearances elsewhere have inspired so much confidence in that rendition of the character.

Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed Slott's Mighty Avengers run. It was simple, fun comics without any Bendis talking heads. Herc and Cho are funny, US Agent is a jerk - the team dynamics are some of the best at marvel right now, IMO.

Fraction's UXM is also really good. Too bad that Land is still employed at marvel, he really brings the book down. Ive gone through entire issues without being able to tell any of the female protagonists apart from one another.

I second your wish for a Fraction penned X-Club title, it would be epic!

Zdenko said...

Those who wish a X-Club Title, there's a one shot in may... It's a Second Coming tie-in, of course...

Aaron Kimel said...

I have to side with Flip The Page as well. Mighty Avengers has been an excellent book under Slott's pen. Indeed, its stories, characters, and writing are substantially better than Bendis's pre-SI incarnation (ignoring here the SI tie-ins that didn't feature any of the Mighty Avengers). Did those stories have characters or just power-sets? (Also, if you want to complain about characters verbalizing their thoughts or excessive narration, read the first two or three issues of Mighty Avengers. Bendis - your cited Avengers scribe of choice - fills up so much space with thought bubbles, one wonders why they even bothered drawing pictures behind them.)

Your criticism that Pym is a marginally-interesting character undeserving of attempted redemption is strange. Who SHOULD the team focus about? Do you want another Spider-man or Wolverine book maybe? Slott is attempting to bring respect to a character with a varied history: Pym is, in many ways, the most interesting Avenger. Prior to Tony Stark's demise in the last five or so years, has anyone else tried so hard to do good and been met with such drastic defeats? That is the crux of Hank Pym: a man who wants to be better than he is, or maybe than he even can be. I think Slott has nailed this. I have no problem with a character who fails to accurately appreciate his own limitations from time to time. I find it interesting. The fact that Pym does not always inspire confidence, as you say, is WHY he's an interesting leader. It's a cliche for Captain America to lead; it's a story for Pym to lead.

Your critique also would condemn all characters to static importance or unimportance forever. Do you object to Bendis making Luke Cage the greatest thing since sliced bread? How about Brian Reed's attempt to reinvigorate Ms. Marvel? These were pretty boring characters too. I can't understand a criticism that a writer is trying to make an uninteresting character interesting.

Ivan said...

Wow, surprised by the Kingdom Come hate. I think it's such a great superhero story...

And I think is "point" is pretty clear: Waid doesn't like EXXXXTREME 90's superheroes. I don't think there's anything else to "get" besides that.

Anonymous said...

@Aaron: amen, you captured my thoughts and feeling on pym perfectly! He is more human than most marvel characters due to his faults and failures.

Eric Rupe said...

Flip - Well, I never found Slott's writing to be out and out bad but, for me, it never rose above generic or average but it could have gotten better later on.

Zdenko - It's not written by Fraction either.

Aaron - Personally, I didn't care for Bendis's MA and though it was a miss, outside of Cho and Bagley's art. And while there was a lot of dialog in the issues, it was rarely extra narration.

"Your critique also would condemn all characters to static importance or unimportance forever."

That's the thing, most of them already are, including Hank Pym. Marvel's, and DC's, mid and upper tier characters are set in stone. It's the reason why DC can never have a long lasting and successful Aquaman series. There are lower tier characters that can go through reinventions though, much like Luke Cage did. They can because many readers don't really know enough about them to form a set in stone opinion about them. For example, pre-Bendis, Cage was probably best known as the dude with the tiara and yellow shirt but that has almost nothing to do with the character. Sure, it may make some fans think he's kind of stupid, based purely on looks, but give them a good story and you can their minds. Pym's probably isn't his looks, it's his characterization, hence the problem. It's almost impossible to change a fan's opinion about someone should be characterized.

Pym is simply too high up to be changed in any significant or lasting manner so, 9 times out of 10, attempting to do is just going to be a waste of time. Slott's Mighty Avengers run was never going to be influential enough to change the way Pym was viewed.

Ivan - Waid does make his point very clear but he uses one of the worst strawman arguments I've ever seen in a comic book to make, which is where the problem comes. I covered it here. I'll admit the series does have it moments though.

Ivan said...

Eric - I've read your KC review now. The only thing I agree with you 100% is on Superman being portraied as a dumbass. I was almost cheering for Captain Marvel in the final fight, and through the comic I was siding with Batman. And I'm a "Superman-guy".

About your other points, I can see how you may not like the story, but the way I see it, it's a love declaration to the way comics were before, and I think it worked great when you're in that mindset.

About Alex Ross' art, I just love it. Can't get enough of it.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Mighty is'nt bad because it is old school. It is bad because the writing and the art suck. Slott's take on the team is to do a poor mans West Coast Avengers, with the team being treated as being lame, and consisting of losers. Not the type of Avengers book I care for which is probably why it's being swept away after Siege is over.

The Phoenix King said...

Nice reviews, Eric. I have to agree with you on Mighty Avengers; with the possible exception of Mighty/Fantastic, each arc has been pretty lacklustre, and Slott seems more concerned with pushing Pym as a A-list character and maintaining a "classic Avengers" feel than he is, you know, writing interesting plots and characters. While I do believe that Pym has long been due for something of a resurgence, it's been so heavy-handed and forced in the series that it's really turning me off of it. I can't say the words "Scientist Supreme" these days without vomiting a bit into my mouth thanks to that idiotic plot with Eternity. So much of it just seems contrived, it's not a very enjoyable read, particularly when there are so many other great books out there. Then again, that's just my two cents on the subject.

e.g. seitz said...

It really sucks that Marvel is weighing Fraction's X-Men down with Land "art"

As for Pym I don't mind him (actually really liked the Dr. Pym era in West Coast Avengers) but his complete turn in to super awesome was too sudden. Also an Avengers book shouldn't have a star, it's supposed to be a team book yet Pym gets virtually all the page time.

Brandon Whaley said...

Completely agree about Ross' artwork. It's great for some iconic pin-ups or such, but it doesn't convey action well. It's the reason I have such a hard time reading Justice, even though I actually rather like the story there.

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