Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Spider-Man: Spider-Island (comic)

Writers: Dan Slott, Rick Remender
Artist: Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli and Tom Fowler
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, Amazing Spider-Man: Infested, Spider Island: Deadly Foes, Venom #6-9

You may have guessed by the lack of reviews over the past couple years, but I fell off the Spidey bandwagon a while back. It's not for utterly boring reasons like "oh my god I'm so mad Peter and MJ aren't together anymore", as you may recall that I was pleased with that development. It's not really an issue of quality either, though I have some issues I'll get to in a minute. No, there are a few reasons, but the biggest one is a pretty simple one; I just plain could not keep up with the Spider-Man release schedule.

It started with Brand New Day, where Amazing went thrice-monthly. I loved the first few volumes, warts and all. But the trade release schedule was just as hectic; seemed like a volume was releasing every other month thanks to the accelerated schedule of the floppy and Spider-Man was about mid-way on my list of purchase priorities. It was sort of inevitable that I was going to fall behind. It got to a point where I was so far behind I just gave up and figured I'd get back to it later. I didn't.

Spider-Island seemed enough of a self contained thing that I could pick it up and go from there. The premise is just ridiculous enough to scream "fun" at me in big bold letters. Basically, everyone in Manhattan suddenly has all of Spidey's powers, with none of his morals or - cliche as it is to say it - responsibility. Clearly, this is not going to end well.

Oh, also, Jackal's involved, which nearly caused me to drop the book on page one - to paraphrase Mary Jane in this story, "If we're doing the clone thing again I'm leaving" - but thankfully there's only a bit of his usual shenanigans.

If you want to look at the big picture, it's easy to see the reason for this story. By giving everyone his powers and thus making him one in a crowd, Slott can highlight what it is that actually makes Peter Parker stick out. A good trick to be sure. DC had a similar idea not that long ago; the entire New Krypton saga existed for many of the same reasons, though how much success they had with that one depends on who you ask*.

Spider-Island is far from the most cerebral read going, but there's something to be said for some dumb superhero fun mixed with your typical Spider-Man soap operatics. It also has the good sense not to overstay its welcome; think about how many past big Spider-Man stories seemed to never end. Overall, we get a decent portrait of what makes Peter Spidey, along with some choice developments to the ongoing narrative.

But then there's the other half of the coin. I actually read the first volume of Big Time a while ago in an attempt to get back on the Spider-Man bandwagon. Apparently, I didn't review it - a quick check of the Spider-Man tag seems to indicate as much - but there was one impression that stuck with me. I just flat out hated the artwork.

To my disappointment, the artist Marvel chose to accompany Slott on the Big Time venture was Humberto Ramos. He's still around for the main storyline of Spider-Island. I am not a fan of his work for numerous reasons, many of which can be seen in this book. The anatomy is always off, limbs are bigger than they should be, judicious use of impossible poses abound (at least one panel has Carlie swinging while she's bent so far back I'd expect to see a "snap" SFX somewhere near her midsection) and everything looks vaguely ugly.

Being harsh is not my intent. His style does have its fans. I simply do not see it. I have a similar problem with Kelley Jones; at some point, I just can't chalk things that bug me up to "it's just his style" anymore. I don't begrudge the man work and have nothing against him. His art is just a major turnoff for me. I try, but I can't look past the Popeye proportions. It's part of why I didn't stick with the book after reading the first Big Time trade.

Also included here are four issues of the Venom ongoing. A while back I actually wondered where the hell #6-9 ended up and this seems to answer that question. The first couple can stand apart from the main story well enough, initially making me wonder why they didn't have their own volume, but by the end I understood; the events of #8 are very important and lead right into the next issue of Spider-Island, making them inseperable. Clearly Marvel hates me.

All four issues are very good - and frankly, I'd rather Tom Fowler or Stefano Caselli had handled art duties for Spider-Island proper - with numerous developments building off the first volume of Venom. This is a joy and a curse; these issues are important to the ongoing events of the Venom series, yet are tied so strongly to Spider-Island they can't really stand alone. As such, this is likely to be the only place you're going to find these issues in trade. Dammit.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

I'd score this higher, but the art really hurts it for me. If you can deal with Humberto Ramos artwork - or are a fan of his - bump this up half a point higher. It's far from an instant classic, but it's fun and it's memorable.

* Some people think it was an interesting experiment, but most were sick of it and it seems largely forgotten now. It certainly didn't help that Geoff Johns run on Action Comics was cut short at the time for reasons I can't recall. He essentially set the whole thing up and had to bail, leaving New Krypton to others. The whole saga seems to be regarded as a failure and I'd say losing its architect before the plot gained momentum had a large part in that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 1 (comic)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Steve Niven
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #1-5

The Marvel love affair with relaunching rolls on. The sad part being that it wasn't twenty issues before that they renumbered the last volume to legacy numbering. Then, this one lasts all of nineteen issues before they relaunch Cap again*! Unbelievable.

Steve Rogers has the mantle again and Ed Brubaker decides to lead off with an accessible story. You need no knowledge of prior volumes to read this one. Brubaker's been pretty generous in giving us an easy in between bigger storylines. "Two Americas" is similar in this regard.

This story leans on a few Captain America cliches to work. Someone from his past returns and is kind of cheesed at him. They fight. Steve then ends up wondering if he's a failure as Cap or if America has lost its way under his watch. On the plus side, Ameridroid shows up for a bit, even if we aren't likely to see him again. What we end up with is more of a straightforward action comic, which is not something Ed Brubaker has done a lot of in the past.

I mentioned Two Americas earlier; this volume has a few similarities to that book. The basic conflict is the same; someone shows up who is pretty unhappy with the way that America has gone, has a pretty concrete view on how it should be and will go to extreme methods to "fix it". The difference is in the message. The point of Two America's is that Crazy 50's Cap was essentially fighting to regain a vision of America that probably never existed. It was pretty clear that, however good the intent may have been, 50's Cap was off his rocker and definitely in the wrong. This time, it's left ambiguous; Rogers himself wonders if the jerkass had a point. Not exactly unfamiliar ground for a Captain America story**, but it's not something I recall Brubaker doing before, so I can cut him some slack here.

The ending points towards another multi-arc plot from Brubaker, but I have no idea if it's resolved. Brubaker's run finally ended - after a staggering eight years - about fourteen issues later. You'd think that would be plenty of time to wrap it up, but it depends on when exactly Bru knew he was leaving and if he got enough space.

Steve McNiven's art is nice, as expected. There's a gaffe or two in there, though. The two panels where Sharon tosses the shield from out a hole in a building immediately come to mind. I wish I could counterbalance with something other than "it was nice", but I'm far from a master art critic.

The Score: 7 out of 10

This arc doesn't hit the highs of the past, but it's solid entertainment. Not a bad place to jump on either; I wouldn't recommend it, but if you just wanted a recent Cap book without six years worth of ongoing plot driving it this is as good a choice as any.

* Because, you know, DC did it and it was pretty successful. They deny it, of course, but they're not fooling anyone. To their credit, though, they're doing a better job with the rollout; instead of the hardline "wrap your shit up before September" approach DC took, Marvel's spreading out the new number ones and allowing books time to finish. So I hesitate to give them too much of a hard time. Still, two Captain America and Uncanny X-Men relaunches within two years?

** We can thank Watergate for that.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Spider-Man: Death of the Stacy's (comic)

Writer: Stan Lee, Gerry Conway
Artists: John Romita Sr., Gil Kane
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #88-92, #121-122

Time for a rough truth; a lot of old comics, especially from Marvels Silver Age, do not age well. As influential and groundbreaking as the work may have been at the time, the sad fact is that those comics were done in a style that is so far outdated that it's almost painful to read. Stan Lee, great as he was for the time, is probably one of the worst offenders; and while Gerry Conway isn't nearly as bad, he's still a writer of that time period and that particular style.

I've always had a problem reading old Stan Lee comics. Stan Lee wrote in the most verbose way possible, constantly having characters describe things clearly depicted in the artwork and narrating the hell out of the slightest action. It's not like he had incompetent artists, either; hell, here he has John Romita Sr., an all time great. Such was the strength of Romitas art that if you ignored the narration or speech and just followed the art you could get a clear picture of the fight anyways.

The problem, for me, is that I find myself struggling with all that redundant prose. I'm easily bored, especially with things I already know, which is why I've always had a rough time with old timey comics. On the other side of the coin, I don't want to just skip it because what if I miss something important or cool in the dialogue? That constant struggle always irritates me. A lot of people complain about how quickly you can read through a comic these days, but they forget that there are several very good reasons no one writes like this anymore.

So for all the strength of the stories - and the emotional beats contained within - their age shows, making them difficult reads today. Marvel is not like DC - they're fairly uninterested in retelling stories - meaning this will probably always be the official version of the Stacy family's death. That's probably a good thing for these comics, because - and your mileage may vary, since you may well have more tolerance for material this old - in this day and age the importance of the stories are about all they have going for them.

One last note about this whole thing and it pertains to Gerry Conways forward. He admits outright that he killed off Gwen Stacy because he wanted Mary Jane with Peter Parker and saw his shiny new job writing Spider-Man as his chance. Considering how iconic the story is now, one can always make the argument that he made the right choice, reasons for it aside. But does his reasoning reek of bad fanfiction or is it just me? Male writer kills off female character because he doesn't like her and she is in the way of his preferred pairing? That's about three quarters of internet fanfiction right there.

The Score: 6 out of 10

I can't say I had a good time reading this. I hesitate to give it lower, because it's an important story and, well, despite how much trouble I had enjoying them, these comics come from a different time. Don't let me scare you off if you want to read the Death of the Stacy's. Sixties comics simply don't agree with me.