Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Marvel DCU Monthly Subscription - Part 4

I had a one-month subscription to the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited (DCU) program. It was awesome because it was a free trial but it also meant I had to make the most of it. My aim, to sample the books I might never have bought but have always been intrigued to read. I had 30 days to see what I could chew through, hit the jump to see where I went and what I thought of it all. These are kind of like reviews and kind of like train of thought entries. Some smarter and better than others. If I wrote a massive review on each one I’d never make it out of the month alive.

Up for today's pleasure is some of The Steve Gerber Grab Bag - I look at the debut of Shanna The She-Devil, the start of Howard the Duck, and the entire Omega the Unknown run. Enjoy.

Before reading this, go read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

The Steve Gerber Grab Bag

I haven’t read enough Gerber in my time and it’s sure shootin’ hard to find so I’m striking here while I can. The first issue I’ll dip into is Shanna the She-Devil #1. I just bought an old Gerber Daredevil issue that features this temptress so I figure reading this origin issue first might give me the proper heads up on a character I don’t think I’ve read at all before.

Oh, and it seems like even with free digital content, the lure of the #1 issue is still too much to handle. Maybe it is the perfect marketing device.

Written by Steve Gerber and Carol Seuling
Art by George Tuska

Wow, this comic is a strange beast, indeed. It’s an ecological tale, as it bills itself, and it’s still well entrenched in the way Stan Lee did things. The captions narrate everything, even the visuals, and the characters stop to say the obvious and lose themselves in thoughts and memories. It’s not exactly bad, though it’s not exactly good, but it’s just so obviously a far cry from today’s comics.

Hearing Shanna say “fatuous fool” makes me realise we’re probably not writing to character. The verbose author voice dominates all. Not to say she should be grunting and pointing but she’s far too loquacious to be a jungle hunter, even one with a more scholarly background.

Hey, whatta ya know, there’s a panel of Shanna getting dressed. A shirt is just pulled down over the bosom, where the previous panel only had a sheet pulled up on Shanna sleeping naked (we can only assume), and the underpants point out at the reader, beckoning them to come closer. Take a look, stick around a while. I love that these old comics did this all the time. At this era of Marvel, Black Widow was just getting a run in Daredevil and she was constantly getting dressed. There’s something about it really, the wholesome quality for kids, the pandering to their nascent sexuality. It clearly made for sales success.

There’s a clear agenda in this comic that animals are poorly treated. It’s dropped into the narrative, and Shanna’s back story, in a heavy handed way but there’s enough to still make you think. Shanna must obviously be a devoted veterinarian to then put her life into the jungle after having the Manhattan apartment and the dream zoo job. Shanna believes and you will, too. The montage of inhuman cruelty to caged animals, and other humans, will certainly make you stop and think.

It’s a shame the momentous occurrence in Shanna’s history is dropped a little clumsily. It could have been a suspenseful page, a series of growing moments filled with tension but instead it’s kind of blurted out. It holds impact but not as much as this sort of senseless parent death (is there any other kind of superhero motivation?) really should.

Hahaha, Shanna really should have taken that spot on the Olympic team, she’s a one woman wrecking ball and a solid montage shows us all she can do in the gym – including stand around after a work out with a towel barely doing a job covering her. She gets an opportunity to go back to Africa with a few leopard cubs and she jumps at the chance. She then quickly lets her hair grow long and takes to the ground in the skin of a lion. See how easily she shirks her lifelong ways to become one with the jungle. This is a release for a woman with immense brains and brawn. Damn, why isn’t this character being used right now?

Watching Shanna get attacked by Zarg, a bald brute with eye teeth the size of his actual eyes (and more) is the sort of scene I can see a current creator retconning to include much more lascivious nastiness. Here’s hoping it never happens. Ugh.

Then there’s the conclusion to this origin. I’d like to think this part is Gerber’s doing because it’s nasty in an almost EC horror way and the line the day after from the guy who finds the body is priceless. This is nasty and a perfect comeuppance for such a terrible hunter. And Shanna’s hands are still clean – win/win.

Verdict – Buy It. I’d read more of this series, that it were available. There’s only the one issue but my appetite is whet. I’m very keen to see how she goes in the Daredevil issue I have. This character is fun and the setting is different, and there’s gotta be some great uses for her. This doesn’t quite feel like Marvel but I’d love to see it slowly integrate.

Written by Steve Gerber
Art by Frank Brunner

We open on the character contemplating suicide and then he calls a tower in the dark distance an “architectural abortion” – man, I’ve clearly waited far too long to read this guy.

There’s a weird neo-Conan vibe to this book – like it’s a future we don’t know steeped in a past we never understood. This could be the Planet of the Apes through the vision of Darren Aronofsky also wildly adapting The Phantom Tollbooth, but with ducks. Y’know, for kids.

What a shock this #1 issue features Peter Parker. I wonder how many #1 issues he’s appeared in over the decades.

Holly hellcow, Kieron Gillen needs to write this book. Now. With Jamie McKelvie on art. Let’s make this happen, people. Rick Remender can handle the one-shots between arcs. Howard the Duck doesn’t need to be kicking people in the face, or fighting average goons and wannaB-listers, he should be solving the problems inherently woven into the fabric of reality. He should be doing something with meaning.

This first issue is wicked crazy inventiveness and comicy fun. It’s weird and a little high and certainly aware of itself, as well as other forms or literature. The second issue kicks off into another genre, the space opera. The barbarian motifs are lost for sleek helmets and ray guns. This is a wild ride through the history of entertainment, by a character who does not want to be entertained. How funny then that he should wake to find himself in Cleveland, a land not as entertaining as any other landscape within the Marvel U.

It’s hard to keep up with the series, and that’s a good thing. For current reference, it’s like Gødland mixed with the voice of Matt Fraction, his real voice, back when it was awesome. There’s intellect on the page and it isn’t postured and it isn’t watered down – it simply is. That’s a true state of erudition you so rarely find. Enjoy it, here, and remember it well.

I’m only two issues in, a Robert E Howard pulp homage and something about sci-fi and turnips and I’m sold on this book. Hell, I’m almost guaranteed to spend some money on it in the future. I don’t know if I want to read on or not. Should I save myself for the hard copy I so vehemently lust after? I think I might, or at least I’ll go onto something else and save this for later. Two issues at a time might be more than enough for each chunk.

Y’know, I think I want to write a book about Howard the Duck.

Verdict – Must Read. I really didn’t expect this to be anywhere near as good as it is. I will buy this if I can get my hands on it at a decent price. Howard the Duck is a strange comic that feels like a few other things but isn’t actually like anything else you know at all. This book is a sweet anomaly all to itself and that’s exactly how it should be.

Written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, Scott Edelmen, and Roger Stern
Art by Jim Mooney, Lee Elias

As I take a break from Howard to see if I can actually purchase his adventures, I duck across to Omega The Unknown. I’ve never heard of this title but it’s Gerber so it gets a run for me.

I see, much like Shanna the She-Devil, this book is also co-written with a lady. Seems Marvel wanted to pair him up at first, make sure he had the chops. The premise of this issue isn’t apparent at first. There’s some sort of hero, mashed up from what I think of when I see Wonder Man, the Beyonder, and maybe some sort of cheap shop Superman knock off toy, and he’s fighting some ethereal force. Then we’re suddenly following a kid who doesn’t seem to be all okay. It’s a little strange in the first few pages but then everything becomes much more clear as it gets even stranger.

There’s a car accident and the boy’s mother’s head flies off and sits in the grass, wires jutting from her neck and dangling across the ground. She utters some words of warning to her ‘son’ and then melts down. So, does the book all make sense now?

Y’see, by this page I’m already sold. I don’t know what I’ve just bought but I’m all over it. This book is bizarre and any old comic not afraid to send a decapitated parent’s head out of the car and next to the kid is alright in my book.

There’s a split between the superhero and the boy surviving the car crash. But this first issue doesn’t spill everything. This isn’t a Stan Lee book and not everything gets a page of expository captions, the mystery of this book remains by the end of the debut issue. That’s a bold move, especially for a bi-monthly book, but it’s also a smart one. The boy has his tale set up, somehow the hospital won’t fund his stay there so he’s discharged into the care of the good looking nurse and her slightly alternative, and yet equally attractive, housemate. Medicine doesn’t work like that anymore, I’ll tell you.

The superhero and boy finally collide and share the same scene, or do they? Nothing appears to be what it seems and the levels of intrigue and uncertainty make this book interesting and feel unlike most Marvel books.

I also, strangely, kept thinking of An American Werewolf In London and the hospital scenes there. Omega doesn’t bust in and kill werewolf Nazis, but it’s not far off. It’s certainly got a similar vibe. Perhaps the boy has been cursed with this Omega, not gifted. We have to return in 60 days to find out. I can’t wait that long.

The second issue drops the boy into Hell’s Kitchen but instead of being welcomed by Daredevil, he gets a panhandling old man trying to scrounge up some cents and then human excrement finds him, and the two nurses he’s moving in with, in the hallway. Life is not Marvel polished in this book, it’s a heady mix of sad and exciting.

I’m pretty sure one of the girls tells the boy to keep his opinion to himself because the other nurse is on her period. It’s couched in Marvel speak but that’s clearly what she’s saying. This book is unlike anything else – and that’s a very good thing.

What a callback, the shuffling bum from the start turns up pages later hassling a wino on the street. What you could hope to score from a guy sleeping on the street and only wearing purple pants baffles me but this goon, and his dumb buddies, give the poor guy a rough time. You only hope they don’t make him angry because, if the purple pants didn’t give it away, he introduces himself as Bruce Banner and they should get the message. They don’t and they pay the price. Why a punch from the Hulk doesn’t kill more people is beyond me. Their faces should be annihilated.

The title continues trucking along, dropping hints of character and story along the path of enlightened captions. Omega is never identified completely, but we get that he came from a homeworld, and it has been overrun. We get he’s good, great even, but he won’t speak about it. You start to wonder if he even can. Then there’s the boy, the connection we still don’t understand. Or know how he fits into the schedule. To obfuscate the true direction and motive of this book for so long is stellar because without the truth of the background we are still delighted by what is present. Each issue gives enough so as to intrigue and entertain.

Gerber uses this title, somewhere in the outer arm of the Marvel U, to explore the concept of a Superman-type character. He looks at the true outside view of the human race, the idea of our barbarism, and he turns the skies dark with these thoughts.

There is a sequence of school bullying that looks and feels like something out of a Charles Burns book. The prose hints at such inner turmoil, the violence becomes inevitable, and the colours make you squirm in your seat. It’s a brilliant page and the sort of thing that makes you hate people, and kids, all over again. The mute superhero is off battling shape changing fools and the B-plot deals with the kid’s new school and the torment to be found there. It grounds everything more in the real world than anything else could.

It doesn’t take long before Gerber, and Mary Skrenes, look realistically at the relationship between the boy and his two sexy nurse babysitters. They talk to him differently, slowly come to find him a burden and tiresome. What must they truly think of a child who survived a car accident that outed his parents as robots?

One mystery that isn’t the sort of thing a comic does often is keep the hero’s powers uncertain. Over halfway through the series and it’s still uncertain what Omega can and cannot do. He seems to fly great heights but then a bullet takes him down. He’s not quite Superman, that’s for sure. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself what he is capable of.

Steve Gerber’s name disappears from the credits and Roger Stern is fun but ultimately nowhere near as deep as Gerber and Skreenes; major bummer. The fill in issue without Gerber is noticeably quicker to read – it’s mostly just a fight. There’s a great solution to Nitro by using a steel tube and metal floor that turns him into a cannon. It’s pretty cool but the issue otherwise brushes over any character work.

Gerber ramps things towards their conclusion in a very strange way. Omega hits the road with his old man companion confidant and starts winning big in Vegas. James-Michael leaves school, and Hell’s Kitchen, when a classmate is killed by a brutal beating. The final panel shows Omega copping a back full of lead and then we’re told this tale will conclude in a future issue of The Defenders. It doesn’t even state which one – I wonder if they even knew at the time? So as it stands, the title concludes with no shred of the mystery connection between this hero and this boy being divulged. What a gyp.

Fortunately, those two issues of the Defenders are on here so I quickly hop across to read them.

Unfortunately, they aren’t exactly amazing. You get the feeling Steven Grant is playing the cards dealt him. It is years after the first series and Grant has two issues to tie up all the mystery Gerber and Skrenes laid in. It’s not an easy task and I’m sure Grant tried his best, and he dedicates the issues to the creative team that spawned Omega, and in the end what he comes up with seems alright. Gerber stated he wasn’t entirely happy with the conclusion given behind his back, so I wonder what he would have planned, but otherwise Grant’s conclusion seems wacky enough to have worked. It’s all about an alien race and a chance for survival. The connection between Omega and James-Michael is thin but it’s logical enough.

What a shame for the book to have come so far and then completely dropped the ball come the end. I guess even back then Marvel was in the habit of cancelling great series’ that were underselling.

Verdict – Must Read. Even with the average and hokey ending, this book was bloody good. There’s a social undercurrent of violence at play between the superheroics. This book leans more toward abstract and smart than it does bombastic. I can’t think of any better compliment.


Have you read these books? What did you think about them? And have you used the Marvel DCU, what are your thoughts of that? Hit me up in the comments with your views.

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