Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Incredible Hulk by Jason Aaron vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio
Collects: Incredible Hulk (vol. 4) #1-7

Jason Aaron is a writer who has yet to let me down. That said, I didn't have high hopes for this book. It was announced that Jason Aarons run on the book was, for whatever reason, wrapping up long before the first volume even hit paperback to make way for a new primary Hulk title under the Marvel NOW! banner. That's just not enough time to put together a classic, memorable run and I adjusted my expectations accordingly.

Still, I think the potential was there as the book has an intriguing high concept; what if Bruce Banner was the real monster of the two personalities? Somehow, Hulk has found a way to physically separate the two, allowing them to go their own way. Only problem is that something is clearly wrong with Banner, who has gone off the deep end now that he's been separated from the Hulk; he creates an island full of transformed abominations in his continued effort to recreate the accident that led to the Hulk and is now a danger to the world.

This time, it's the Hulk who has to stop Bruce Banner.

I like the role reversal. It's such a simple idea, but one that we - that I'm aware of - have not seen before. The trouble is, I'm not sure it does the character any favors. The story seems to say that it's possible, had the Hulk never existed, Banner may have ended up as crazed and dangerous to the world as we see him here. I'm not sure that's something I completely buy; in any origin, Banner was at least a good enough person to have been willing to risk his life saving a reckless teenager.

Actually, this seems to be a little bit of a trend of late. I notice some writers have been interested in sort of "redeeming" the Hulk in a way, or making him seem less like a danger and more like a misunderstood teddy bear. It feels like there have been attempts to tone down the destructive qualities of the Hulk, or curb anything that might make him look bad; one glaring example being the time they tried to sell us on the idea that no one had ever died during a Hulk rampage, which even in the realm of fiction is ridiculous. The Hulk is admittedly cool and he represents something we all can relate to - that angry side of us we repress - but I guess I'm trying to say that occasionally it feels as though writers prefer to give him excuses within the narrative.

It's troubling, because I think it dilutes the appeal somewhat. The story does have an out, however; obviously, Hulk couldn't pull off the separation on his own and the person he recieved help from is not known for being the most moral individual. Still, we're clearly meant to at least question if this was who Bruce Banner would have become all along - a mad scientist unleashed - and I feel like something about that question wrecks the dynamic.

Had this been it's own thing - divorced from modern continuity and allowed to simply be, or at least separate enough that you can decide if it's canon or not - it would be a wonderful thing to explore. As it is, it's still an interesting idea and I do want to read the second half of the run. I just have my misgivings.

The art takes a similar approach to Wolverine and the X-Mens first volume - the first three issues with the star artist while another handles some after that - but the switch is far worse than that books. We start off with Marc Silvestri - who has a style I can enjoy well enough - and go right to Whilce Portacio. I hate being down on someones art, I really do, but this is not the first time I've encountered this guys work. I'm sad to say he has not managed to improve a lot since then. There's a higher ratio of decent pages, but the faces, poses and bodies are still borked. The last thing I want to do is begrudge a guy for getting work, but I can't get past how ugly his art can be at times.

The Score: 7 out of 10

An interesting high concept and some good writing manage to elevate this book, but the issues with said concept and the lackluster art in the second half of the book hurt it. I also have to look at the fact that there is only one more volume to this run, which leads me to believe there's little chance it had enough time to reach its full potential. Worth a look if you're a Hulk fan and would like a new take on him.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Carlos Pacheco, Brandon Peterson
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #1-4 (2011)

You might want to grab something to eat and drink, because this might be a long one.

The X-Men are pretty good stand-ins for just about any minority group - Bryan Singer did a lot of parallels to gays in the films - but I think we can all agree that they were always meant to represent the Civil Rights movement and the general fight for minorities to receive the same rights as white people. The parallels were as on-the-nose as you get; Xaviers Dream was basically Martin Luther King Jr.s idealogy brought to color comics, while Magneto represented the stance of "by any means necessary".

For the longest time, it was pretty clear who the heroes were supposed to be; the X-Men were the group fighting for a better tomorrow for everyone, while Magneto was the man who wanted results right now and would do anything he had to - down to committing straight up genocide - in order to get it. In the past decade, the waters have muddied considerably. Since Cyclops took over for Xavier as the figurehead of the group, the X-Men have slowly but surely veered into ideology resembling Magneto more than Xavier, imbuing the property with the sort of cynicism that befits 90's Anti-Heroes rather than a true group of heroes. Crap like that is what led to Cable.

"By any means necessary" is an attractive mantra. That may even be a fair take for certain characters or groups. But the X-Men are meant to be heroes - to represent something better - and typically heroes are not supposed to go down that road. They are supposed to be the group that believes in a better way and a better tomorrow so we can believe along with them. They may be forced to make tough decisions and take a harder route, but the path closest to the abyss should not even be an option for them. It's why Batman never kills Joker even though we're long since past the point where anyone would blame him. It's not the heroic action; and while Batman may lurk in the darkness, it - as Grant Morrison has laid bare in his run - should never be in his heart.

The X-Men have strayed. It finally came to a head in-universe in Schism, where Wolverine and half the mutants left over it. You'd figure it would have happened sooner - Beast realized where things were going a while ago and reacted accordingly - but better late than never.

Going to those extremes will result in fear. The sad part is that fear happens to be the thing the X-Men have been fighting from the start. Now they've decided to fight it with... more fear. Not a good way to get people to accept you. It breeds resentment. Makes them want to see your downfall. The X-Men have begun to resemble the oppressive instead of the oppressed, which is everything that the humans of the Marvel universe feared. Eventually, that poisoned fruit is gonna come to bear.

Going by this volume, I assume Kieron Gillen realizes that and is deliberately showing that things are going a bit too far. It's made pretty clear those still on Utopia resemble the Brotherhood of Mutants moreso than the X-Men. Everyone there save Storm has at one point been a villain. Everything is harsh, right down to the language. Cyclops labels them the Extinction Team and outright states that they are to fight back with fear. Obviously, this is not going to end well.

Storm is the voice of the reader here, asking "what the hell" of Scott and his ideas. I kind of wondered why she had been kept on the Utopia team - and I'm not sure I completely bought the in-story reasoning from the Tribal War Dance Recruitment Special - but for the purpose of the book her role is clear. She's the voice of reason, the one member that hasn't forgotten what the team represented.

Anyways, I'm rambling on a lot about themes, where the franchise has gone wrong and so forth without really discussing the conflict of the story. Well, it involves Mister Sinister, who has basically hijacked a Celestial and thought taking over folks bodies, essentially making them his clones, would be a good time. Mister Sinister has a bad rep, since he's been a critical part of some of the worst X-Men stories, many from the 90's. Gillen sort of redeems the character through making him an entertaining adversary while sidestepping the crap that made him unbearable at times.

After that we have a one shot supplementing the previous arc - basically explaining how Sinister discovered the means to do the things he did in the main arc - while also telling it's own tidy little tale. It focuses on the last of the Phalanx, which Sinister had captured at some point in the past, sparing it from the death of its kind. The story is almost sad, showing us a monster that does not understand a way of life separate from the hive mind and only wants to hear the collective voice of his bretheran. It's a being caught in the grip of loneliness and - when he discovers there's nothing left of his kind - despair.

The conclusion was foregone - because geez it devoured an entire town without a second thought, what other option did the X-Men have? - but it's a testament to the writing that you feel for it in some small way.

On the art side of things, we have the typically great work you'd expect from Carlos Pacheco. More surprising is the work by Brandon Peterson, whom I'm unfamiliar with. A quick search shows he's been in the business for a while, but if I've seen his work before I can't recall. He's pretty good at drawing the X-Men, but it's his depiction of the Phalanx that stands out. They look like this creepy mix of metal and code come to life, similar to how I've seen the alter ego of Cipher drawn in the past. I'm not sure if they've always looked that way or not, but the art is effective nonetheless.

So, great writing and good art combined with a continuance of a direction I've hated for years now. Ain't that always the way?

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

This volume of Uncanny X-Men is well written and well drawn, but I have a hard time getting into it. While Wolverine and the X-Men took a wonderful, fun approach that built on the basics the X-Men have thrived on for so long, this book is the evolution of everything the X franchise has done in the past eight years or so. It's an approach that seems to betray the X-Men and is, ultimately, not for me. Even so, it's an enjoyable read. Enough that I'll continue if the library keeps it stocked. I'm curious as to whether the kingdom eventually crumbles.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: I think this might be the most blatant example of all. Dude flat out drafts a letter to the nations of the world saying "we'll still protect you if you need it, but if you so much as look at us funny we're going to kick your ass". Setting aside that this is basically a threat that justifies many of the fears people had of mutants - without a direct visible counterpoint as the X-Men used to be to Magneto - it's basically just asking to be wiped out. Keep in mind that, thus far, they've managed to get away with seceding from the US on their own little island nation - actions that I'd say are typically frowned upon - have deaths directly tied to them and have Magneto of all people on the team. There's such a thing as pushing your luck; I may have said it before, but if someone were to feel threatened and drop a nuke or something on Utopia, maybe all of three people would have a mutant power that would save their ass.

This, of course, being part of his brilliant plan to make everyone fear the X-Men so they don't try anything. Because there's no way that could possibly go wrong. It's not like they ever, say, feared Magneto - who threatened total global catastrophe on more than one occasion - and attacked anyways before, right? Oh Cyclops, you tactical genius.

Also, the Extinction Team? Scott, you asshole. How do you THINK people are going to take that one?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

X-Men: FF (comics)

Writer: Victor Gischler
Artists: Jorge Molina, Will Conrad, Mirco Pierfederici
Collects: X-Men Vol. 3 #15.1, 16-19

So far the third volume of X-Men had been a fun enough read. "Curse of the Mutants" was decent enough for what it was. With Great Power was a hair better. There was an interim volume - X-Men: First to Last - but it wasn't anything special and I didn't have much to say about it. It wasn't by the regular writer anyways.

So that brings me to X-Men: FF, which is the first volume of the book that I feel outright failed.

The plots aren't anything special. The FF find some interdimensional bouy out in the Bermuda Triangle (Spider-Man is the one who discovers it, in fact, though for some reason that'll be the only time you see him). The FF call in the X-Men. They all go into another dimension on a rescue mission.

Unfortunately, the writing feels weaker than usual. The flow of the plot feels off at times and we have the by-now-expected issue of the characters not sounding themselves, Doctor Doom being the only real exception. This has been a consistent problem with Gischlers run on this book, but it's made worse here by the inclusion of another team of characters he doesn't seem to get.

This is not entirely unexpected; Gischlers run on X-Men hasn't had what you'd call great writing. It's competant enough to skate by when paired with fun plots. Problem is, FF is kind of a clunker. There isn't anything particularly interesting going on and anything new he introduces won't exactly qualify as original. I'm not entirely sure why it had to be another dimension the teams traveled to, as this story could just as easily have worked in the Savage Land. There are even dinosaurs running around.

Wonderful art has made up for problems with the writing in the past. Gischler doesn't have as much luck this time. The art is perfectly fine - hell, I'd go so far as to say it's pretty good overall - but there's nothing about it that might differentiate it from most of the artists in Marvels stable. It doesn't have the flair or uniqueness of a Paco Medina or Chris Bachalo, who both worked on earlier volumes, so it does not have as much luck drawing attention away from the iffy writing.

There's a point one issue stuffed in here as well - with the very short lived female Ghost Rider showing up - but it's completely forgettable. Something about ancient spirits. It's nothing you'll bother to recall when you're done reading it.

The Score: 5 out of 10

By far the weakest entry into the third volume of X-Men to date. It's self contained and affects nothing. Skip it.