Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thoughts After Reading a Day's Worth of Classic Avengers Comics

After seeing all five Avengers solo prequels (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, IM2, Thor, Captain America) and then the midnight showing of Avengers itself in one giant marathon at the theater, I left overjoyed and thrilled. This was an AVENGERS movie. 15 years ago, that was an unthinkable concept and now it's (possibly) the best Super-Hero movie ever made. Seeing them create the Marvel Universe on screen was a tremendously gratifying, once in a lifetime kind of experience, and watching all six in a row really made Avengers feel like a culmination as they paid off plot threads from each preceding film. I left feeling utterly nostalgic and decided to go home and read all the classic Avengers comics in my collection, most of which I had never read before. These were all from the first Volume, so before the Busiek/Perez Heroes Return renaissance that launched Avengers to the top of the charts for its only time until Bendis redefined the Franchise.

After a full day of reading a giant pile of Avengers issues amassed over the years, this is what I learned:

1. Man howdy, the Avengers do not have a legacy of great comics.

I went through a cross section of about 50 issues in the first volume, between issue #150 and #391 and they ranged primarily from mediocre to pure dreck. When you feel like you have to power through that many issues just to say you've read them, you are not reading good comics. They were rough.

2. Iconic covers do not make iconic issues. 

This is an incredibly famous (and Awesome) cover.

What an incredible cover with such a bold mission statement - "See these two tremendously underpowered Avengers? They are gonna nail it!" I want to BUY this comic.

But then as an issue? Meh. They fight Taskmaster. They win. There's not much there. Grant Morrison does a much better job actually doing something cool with this amazing set up in his JLA homage during the 90s that sees Green Arrow and The Atom team up to take down Darkseid. Now THAT is an amazing moment.

 Um. Awesome.

 The Avengers issue basically serves to show why Scott Lang absolutely deserved to lose custody rights over Cassie, after he drops her off on a roller coaster ride and abandons her for hours to go fight evil carnies. Which sounds a LOT better than it plays out.

That's a pretty indicative statement of most of these issues, sadly.

3. Those Character boxes on the right will tell you literally who is in this issue.

In the X-Men, those classic 'roster boxes' on the upper left serve as a good indication of who is in the active lineup at that time, but you might see any combination thereof. In Avengers, it will tell you literally who will be appearing, as they change issue to issue with frightening accuracy. It wasn't until #342 that the faces on the cover did not EXACTLY match the characters in the issue. That is an impressive attention to detail given how many times the roster changes.
And oh man...

4. Wow, does that Roster change a lot, and are these characters Bland as Heck.

Somewhere along the way Cap made a rule that there could only be six active Avengers on duty at any time (and anyone currently reading Avengers vs. X-Men is doing a spit take at that concept while watching 47 Avengers jump off a Helicarrier). And literally, every ten issues, it is six different people. And so every ten to twenty issues the exact same plots repeat:
- Someone leaves.
- Someone joins.
- Someone is hard to get along with.
- Maybe someone turns evil for a bit, or has a breakdown. (Hank Pym, Tony Stark, and Vision all get bad and get better).

There are almost no compelling subplots. Or character arcs. The closest we get is Tony is randomly a raging alcoholic out of NOWHERE, and Cap broods about it for a few issues. No set up. No follow up. They just show up one day (he's in the issue 2 or 3 issues before totally fine) cause he calls to quite and he is SCHWASTED in the afternoon and Rhodey is IM now. There are a few other minor character arcs, like Vision going crazy, but mostly it's all who's in, who's out, villain of the arc.

Which would be okay, except almost all the characters are EXTRAORDINARILY dull. Someone like Starfox became really interesting to me if only because he had a personality. We are just not treated to a lot of compelling dialogue and characterization in these issues. It's all plot, all the time.
Hope you like exposition.

Also, people call each other 'jerk' a lot.

4. Walt Simonson is AWESOME.

I know Roger Stern had a long and distinguished run on the title and a lot of this assortment comes from his pen. But my collection cuts off just as we're about to start his incredibly famous and well received 'Under Siege' story, and the rest of his issues are tremendously dull. I have one Simonson issue and the difference is apparent from the first page. We have a female version of Kang traveling to an alternate future filled with gigantic robot dinosaurs called Dinodroids so she can snag the Mechanisaurus Rex (real name) to face down Thor in the present. We have a secret society of Kangs including 'Kang Kong.' We've got Thor respecting Mechanisaurus Rex as a worthy warrior and challenging it to a battle to the death, while it "Skrees!" like a real boy. And most amazingly the Black Knight, who is turning into an immovable version of his Ebony Blade, jumping headfirst out a Quinjet slicing the Dinodroid down the middle with his own body while screaming "What's happening to Meeeeee!?"

That is BAT-SHIT INSANE and AMAZING. This is why I read comics, not to figure out who's going to be chairman or listen to Wasp lecture Hercules/Namor/Starfox/Insert Name Here on the importance of following orders.

6. No one involved in "The Crossing" had any idea what the hell was happening.

What was going on here? Good lord.

7. All hope is not lost.

Despite all this, the Avengers do have a lot of highlights not represented in this post. "Even an Android can Cry" is a seminal moment in Marvel History. The Kree/Skrull War, Korvac Saga, and Under Siege are all stories that are still referred to as classics today. The Hank Pym breakdown is THE defining moment of that character, and one of Superhero Comics' only long term attempts to look at a couple trying to reclaim a relationship and trust after a total mental breakdown and domestic abuse, and does not shy away from the lingering affects. This is not indicative of the ENTIRE run.

But overall, Avengers Volume 1 is not what I would recommend for a fan who's just seen the movie and loved every second. You will be sad. I say start at Kurt Busiek's run in the '90s. It has great art, a classic lineup including Cap, Thor, Iron Man, and Hawkeye, and a more modern sensibility - with some lovely character arcs for a lot of the main cast. It also leads into Ultron Unlimited - one of the best Avengers stories EVER and contains one of my favorite moments in all of comic history.
You'll know it when you see it.


Up next I do the same thing for my Hulk back issues, with hopefully better results.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thoughts on Batman: No Man's Land, Vol. 1

I'm on a Batman kick these days, so I've decided to take a look at some of the Bat-Books on my shelf and share some thoughts. Rather than a straight up review, I'm going to pick the areas I find most of interest and focus on those. Up first is a new book I just picked up, Batman: No Man's Land, Vol. 1.

Welcome to the '90s.

The Premise:

During the '90s there was a yearly tradition of large scale crossovers among the Bat-Books, usually centering around some kind of disaster that befell Gotham City, each escalating in scope and significance. You had the destruction of Arkham Asylum and the resulting wave of murder and mayhem caused by the freed inmates (Knightfall), a deadly plague (Contagion), and an earthquake that quite literally shook the city to its core (Cataclysm). After the city was entirely destroyed in the quake, the US government finally caught on to the fact that a LOT of really bad stuff was happening to Gotham in a very short period of time, and had no sign of abating. Given that Gotham has never been known as a particularly pleasant place to begin with, and was much more notorious for being the home of scores of lunatics and corruption, the American government made the almost unheard of decision to just abandon ship. No Fema, no national guard, nothing. Rather than attempt to rebuild, the US declared Gotham a literal No Man's Land within it's borders. All citizens were ordered to evacuate, power was shut off, mines were placed in Gotham River, bridges were blown, and a 'no one in, no one out' policy was enacted.

Much like one would expect out of Gotham city, the evacuation procedure was less than stellar. The poor, the mentally incapable, those who could not care for themselves were left behind - along with criminals, and a few stubborn stalwarts. Gotham became a lawless feudal system where batteries and canned food were more important than money, and street gangs waged war and divided territory, marking buildings with spray tags. This was the world of No Man's Land, an epic year long story that stripped Gotham to its most basic, bloody, and brutal instincts. Like most Batman stories, Bruce's arc and the arc of the city itself run parallel. Both need to rebuild themselves after they have been broken down to their most uncivilized places. Bruce has returned from three months away licking his wounds, after failing to convince the government that Gotham was worth saving. In that time the city has fallen into this barbaric state, fueled by the belief that Batman has abandoned them. Jim Gordon, who has stayed behind, feels so betrayed that he has come to despise the vigilante he once called friend. Bruce is ashamed of his failure, and keeps himself at arm's length from all his allies, believing he has to take responsibility alone. But the city is totally different than before, and there is a question as to whether the symbol of the Batman has any power in this new system.

World Building:

While I had read the novelization of this story before, this was my first time reading any of the actual issues. Reading now I'm most impressed with the level of world building this storyline established, especially in the first arc. Much like the Age of of Apocalypse story in the X-Men that came out earlier in the decade, this was an opportunity to take the sprawling cast of the Batman mythos and repurpose them to an entirely new situation. However, unlike AoA, this is no alternate reality - all of this is happening in the 'real' DCU, and so the repercussions are felt even harder.

A lot of thought was put into the creation of this world, and it shows. It helps to create a rich reading experience for those of us familiar with the usual dynamics of these characters, one that rewards for having followed their journeys to this point. This Gotham is an inversion of the usual status quo in many ways, but some fundamental flaws of the city have risen to the surface in the absence of containment. The brutality of Gotham is unmasked as the architecture of civilization is torn down.

In Batman: Year One a younger Jim Gordon says he would never allow his wife to take the train into Gotham, that seeing the buildings of the city from the sky almost convinces you that Gotham is a civilized place. At the same time, Bruce, flying in, laments seeing a sanitized Gotham by plane and wishes he was in the thick of it by train. There is no plain or train in the No Man's Land - only feet firmly on the ground. NML takes this idea of Gotham's relationship to architecture to its furthest point, asking what is the true heart of Gotham when the infrastructure of our society is ripped away? What happens when the people of Gotham are forced to stand on their own?

It's not a pretty answer. Masked killers still rule the streets, they just do it openly now. Gotham is divided into separate territories, each controlled by a different gang or protected by a vigilante. This neighborhood system is a life or death high stakes version of our real world 'good' or 'bad' areas, amped to the extreme. Here Gotham is a war zone, and in a way this is a look at what parts of modern day Africa or the Middle East would be like with brightly colored serial killers running the show instead of warlords and hatemongers. A map shows where main event players like Zsasz, Black Mask, and Croc have staked territory and rule with a combination of fear and power. Even Gordon and the remaining police have changed - known as the 'Blue Boys' they are run as a combination street gang, urban army, and police force. Gordon is pushed to the limit, forced to make decisions that Batman would never dare to make. There is a very real sense that Bruce, Gordon, and the other heroes are being tested for having faith in Gotham all these years. They can't abandon the city for fear that they'll have been proven wrong after all these years and so they sink with it, hoping that eventually they'll rebuild it by sheer force of will, before they are also crushed like Gotham by the quake. Was Gotham a modern day Sodom, and the quake a divine intervention, a latter day flood? Are Batman and Gordon meant to bring about the next generation, or are they just willfully in denial about Gotham's true nature?

The very rules of society are changed in a world of no electricity, and so the methods of Batman's fight have to change as well. How does one become scarier than the world around you when the world around is a living hell? This is the question Batman struggles with, and he starts far behind the 8 ball. In the three months he took to prepare himself, the spirit of the people has become entirely subjugated. Not even the appearance of Superman, the most hopeful and savior like man in the entire DCU, can inspire them to want to lift off their shackles. There is only survival. To succeed at winning his city back, Batman will have to learn how to unite and inspire at a time when he is cutting himself off from and chasing people away. It is a total paradigm shift in tone that he'll need to make and at the end of volume 1, there is no conclusive idea that Bruce will be able to make the internal changes to become a leader of his people, rather than simply a protector. Maybe Gordon will be that man, instead.

Structurally, every area is marked by tags, and in a world of no technology spray paint becomes the only means of determining boundaries. Even Batman is forced to start using spray paint to spread his symbol. No one goes out at night, since there is no light and batteries are scarce, so almost all the stories take place during the day. This is a basic, but FUNDAMENTAL difference to pretty much every Batman story, ever, and gives a decidedly eery feel. Batman is totally out of his comfort zone. He can't race over rooftops because half the buildings are in ruin. He has to patrol during the day. For the first time Batman wants to be seen, and there is no method of distribution of his image. It's a different world.

Almost the entire cast is represented in the story, with the very conscious exception of Robin and Nightwing, who have been purposely pushed away by Bruce. For the most part the characters are used very effectively and in clever ways. Two Face runs an underground court where he acts as judge, jury, and executioner - playing on his past as DA Harvey Dent and his warped obsession with justice. The Penguin prospers, running an underground pipeline of smuggled goods and controlling the supply. Black Mask finally feels free to show his scarred face, just like the city has become 'unmasked,' and leads a cult like gang he mutilates to look like him. Characters are used to solve infrastructure problems in the story.

And my absolute favorite thing is Batman using Lockup and KGBeast to run a prison, because this is exactly what Lockup has always wanted to do. He's stoked about it, it is literally his MO as a criminal, and so Batman utilizes him. It's a small but GREAT little moment that shows how well the creators thought out where these characters would be in this world.

Bob Gale:

I have very little familiarity with Bob Gale outside of this book, and I have to say I was really impressed with his work. While the overall story and high concept of the crossover is a wonderfully nuanced idea, the individual issues range from good to mediocre. Gale's work is consistently the most attuned to the over-arcing plot, balances the character beats and world building well, and genuinely feel like they are telling a long form story rather than 'just an issue of Batman.' Good stuff.

Batman is a Dick

There was a period of time when Batman wasn't portrayed as a complex, troubled, and driven man with no time for excess social niceties, but just as a straight up dick. I'm not sure if NML is at the apex of this period, but it is DEFINITELY in full swing here and more than a little off-putting, especially after spending so much time with the more well adjusted Batman of today. It's no wonder Gordon is pissed at him all the time - dude doesn't even stop by to say hello this entire volume. I forgot just how unlikeable Batman can be when his humanity is pushed to the background - and this is the key reason that Bruce Wayne should always be a major part of the equation. It's no coincidence that Bruce is barely to be found in NML, only the cape and cowl, and as such the supporting characters become the characters I want to spend more time with. This dickery made the character almost toxic by the early 2000s, when it became an actual plot point in the books leading to 52 and Grant Morrison's revitalization of the franchise.


Azrael is a character I've never had any affinity for whatsoever. Specifically created to be a representation of '90s excess and a failed Batman replacement, he then became Denny O'Neil's pet project and the star of a 100 issue series I steadfastly avoided. Given all that I was surprised to find that I enjoyed his parts in NML. He seems a very different character at this point in his journey (about midway through his series) that the bland hyper-religious "Batman meets Punisher" killing machine he is in Knightquest. Instead I found a man who constantly feels the need to prove himself, to do better to overcome the failures of his past both in his mind and the minds of others. He has a certain self-deprecating charm, a dry humor, and level of fallibility that actually makes him a slightly more relatable protagonist than Batman at times.
Those are words I never thought I'd say, by the way.

So Azrael was a pleasant surprise, and while I'm not sure how essential his story will be to the main arc, in the absence of Robin and Nightwing it's nice to have another less dickish perspective on the ground.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Batman's Worst Plan Ever

It's common knowledge that Batman is the World's Greatest Detective, and the foremost strategist of the Super Hero community. Superman may be known as the Big Blue Boy Scout, but if we're going to start handing out out actual merit badges, then I'm giving them all to Bruce, not Clark. Superman gets stuff done because he's pretty much invulnerable and can fly. Batman is just straight up PREPARED.

He keeps Shark Repellent in the Bat-copter, just in case.
He knows seven ways to disarm you from this position - three with minimal contact, three are lethal, and one just hurts - and that's true for every position.
He made secret strategies to take out all of his teammates in the Justice League as a weekend hobby, and they worked. Like a charm.

Point is, dude's got always got a plan. And chances are it's a good one.

That's why it's pretty amazing to me that I recently came across Batman's WORST PLAN EVER.

It all happens in Batman Annual #16, part of the "Eclipso: The Darkness Within Event."

In it, the Joker discovers that powerful black diamonds which grant evil revenge powers are out and about in Gotham and decides, spoiler here, he wants one.

On a side note, he learns about the diamonds because a cop gets plastered and starts talking these babies up to anyone in the bar who will listen. This makes me think he was a recent transfer to the department, because as far as I know 'don't get drunk and talk about the crazy super weapons in storage while in a Gotham dive bar' has got to be the FIRST power point presentation new GCPD officers get - right after sexual harassment training and 'shoot the clown on sight.'

Anyway, Joker gets his hand on these things. The way they work is that it has to be at night, you have to be holding it, and you have to think about how much you hate someone specific. Once activated they manifest in one of two randomly selected settings: either a giant demon creature appears to track down and murder the person you were thinking of, or your body gets totally possessed by Eclipso - the original spirit of God's wrath, who then went evil. Batman spends most of the issue telling himself, Gordon, and us that anyone having these is a terribly bad thing, and Joker especially so.

So Joker gets a diamond, thinks of (spoiler again) Batman and gets possessed by Eclipso, turning into a roided up demon freak. Since his sunlight flashlight is broken, and instead of trying anything else, Bats immediately uses the cursed revenge diamond on himself and ALSO gets possessed. This then leads into a quarter of an issue where Batman's possessed body fights to the death with Joker's possessed body while both versions of Eclipso talk to to each other about how stupid this fight is since they are effectively the same person. It turns out, in a loophole to this point unmentioned, that Eclipso can't stop attacking until the target is dead. They are, of course, evenly matched. So even though logic dictates they team up to wreak havoc on all the innocent people in Gotham, they are contractually bound to have a giant endless slugfest with each other.

Clearly an effective use of Evil's time and resources.

This lasts until sunrise when Eclipso is excised by the sun, and Batman takes advantage of the Joker's momentary confusion to knock him out. Then he says, verbatim, to no one in particular: "My plan worked. We must've fought until dawn - when the power of the sun drove out Eclipso!"

Really, Bruce?

Your plan was to let yourself be completely subsumed by a malevolent godlike evil, assume that evil spirit would be contractually obligated to fight itself, hope for the best that you didn't die, you didn't kill the Joker, that no innocent bystanders were straight up murdered in the crossfire, that no major property damage would ensue in a battle all over the city, that both of you would be evenly matched until dawn, and that you could definitely take out THE JOKER IN ONE PUNCH once 'the power of the sun drove out Eclipso.'

Yeah, I'm pretty sure you were just wingin' this one, buddy.
But good "no really, I planned it all along" speech at the end. Very convincing.
Worst Plan Ever.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Man, there are a LOT of X-Men comics out there, huh?

Well, less now. With Marvel having recently announced the cancellation of Generation Hope, Daken: Dark Wolverine, X-23, and Wolverine: The Best There Is (among other titles) the House of Ideas looks to be doing some spring cleaning across the line, cutting low selling titles and doubling down on established series and concepts. But still, even with the recent culling, there remains a plethora of X-Men titles out on the market, and that can be a bit overwhelming to the new fan or the lapsed reader looking to return. And seriously, I encourage you do! Now, more than many times in recent history, there are a number of X-Titles out on the stands that are actually really really good. Series with unique mission statements, compelling characters, strong art, clever dialogue, and high concepts brimming with new ideas but still capitalizing on the core conceits of the franchise. And yes, there are also a glut of mediocre titles that exist because of a dedicated number of readers who will buy anything with an "X" on the cover.

How do you know which is which and what is for you? Are you into mainstream Super-Hero adventures, noirish suspense, or over the top science fiction? Are you looking for idealogical innovation or comfort food? Do you wanna see Wolverine do what he does best, or did you rewatch the 90s cartoon on Netflix and just want to see if Rogue and Gambit have finally hooked up yet?

No matter your interest, Heroic Endeavours has got you covered, providing you a handy guide to the core concepts and casts for each of the current X-Books. See what strikes your fancy and head to the store a little smarter when it comes to Marvel's mutants.


THE CAST - Cyclops, Emma Frost, Storm, Namor, Colossus, Magik, Hope, Danger, Psylocke, The X-Club (Dr. Nemesis, Madison Jeffries, Dr. Rao).

THE CONCEPT - Uncanny is the core title, and the historic heart of the X-Men line. This is the book that everything else revolves around, and now it also has a very specific mission statement outside of being 'the important book.' Uncanny is focusing on Cyclops' current position as the effective leader of a mutant nation in a non-stop Cuban Missile Crisis. His solution? Put together a very public team of X-Men that ARE the weapons themselves in response to the world's nukes. Cyclops has created an 'Extinction Team' of the heaviest of heavy hitters - the majority of which are also either reformed villains or individuals of conflicted moral character - to act as the face of the X-Men. It's a combination Super-Hero team and PR gambit. If Scott and company can save the world enough times MAYBE one day they'll be accepted. But if not, they will DEFINITELY and very purposely be feared, and that will keep the bombs from coming . It's a risky gambit made worse by the company he keeps - Magneto is basically his consigliere now, and the underlying question is what happens when
Scott's team goes too far. The X-Men have always been hated and feared, but this may be the first time they've embraced it as a political maneuver.


The Faculty and Staff of the Jean Grey School, most notably: Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, The Beast, Iceman, Rachel Grey, Husk, and Toad. Also the Students, focusing on: Quentin Quire, Broo, Kid Gladiator, Oya, Genesis, and Angel.

THE CONCEPT - On the opposite side of both the country and philosophical divide sits the second flagship of the line - Wolverine and The X-men. After splitting with Cyclops over his use of children as soldiers, Wolverine literally put his money where his mouth was and re-opened the Westchester school to try and teach young mutants about more than survival. This book is ALL about that school, and Wolverine's attempt to run an academy of hormonal super-teens rather than a hit squad.

It's fantastic, with great characters and an over the top, anything goes style that fuly embraces mixing super hero comics with John Hughes movies. Focusing equally on the teachers and students, this is the kind of high concept that TV wishes it could put on prime time, but only comics can do since no one else has the budget.


THE CAST - In flux, but soon to be: Wolverine, Iceman, Gambit, Northstar, Warbird, Karma, and Cecilia Reyes.

THE CONCEPT - Astonishing first launched as an opportunity for Joss Whedon and John Cassaday to have a clear path at steering the franchise after Grant Morrison's seminal run ended. The book was designed for new or lapsed readers, with A-List talent working on stories that, while in continuity, were self contained and focused on a core cast. In the spirit of their run the book then became a 'boutique creator' book, featuring other A-List talents focusing on similarly self contained stories with that same cast. The mission statement was "Entry Point" - this was the book for someone who wanted to read one really good X-Men as Super Heroes book, without extra baggage. Eventually (and sadly kind of quickly) the quality of those A-List Teams really started to drop, the cast changed based on the story, and it became just another X-Book. In a few issues it will be officially reconfigured with a new core concept - the members of Wolverine's NY squad acting as heroes for the city of New York. A pretty basic premise designed to spotlight fan favorite characters not already featured in other books.


THE CAST - Rogue, Gambit, Frenzy, Rachel Grey.

THE CONCEPT - Legacy has been something of a rotating ensemble book with Rogue at it's core. Nominally about her acting as a mentor to the younger students, that aspect has often taken a back seat to her adventures of the day. With Rogue moving out to New York to side with Wolverine at the school, the book now serves the purpose of focusing on the X-Men living in New York that are not being featured in Wolverine and the X-Men, with Rogue serving as the focal point. A more traditional comic than W&TXM, but with more of a focus on the school than Astonishing, this is a book to buy if the core cast is specifically of interest.


THE CAST - Storm, Psylocke, Colossus, Jubilee, Warpath, Domino, and rotating guest stars.

THE CONCEPT - This is basically X-Men Team Up, featuring a different guest star for every story-arc. Previous guests have included Spider-Man, Blade, the Fantastic Four, and War Machine. There has also been a running subplot about mutants vs. vampires acting as an undercurrent since the title's inception, leaving Jubilee as the (somewhat surprising) linchpin of the book. Since the X-Men schism, the core cast (which had previously rotated as well) is being focused on Cyclops' "covert action squad" in order to spotlight characters living on Utopia not being focused on elsewhere. Essentially the remit is the same - this is standard fare with the team up aspect as the hook.


THE CAST - Wolverine, Psylocke, Fantomex, Deadpool, Age of Apocalypse Nightcrawler.

THE CONCEPT - When Wolverine isn't teaching his students, he's keeping their world safe by making the hard decisions he hopes they'll never have to make - by running a black ops mutant hit squad. A leader of damaged people trying to do right with the hands they were dealt, his squad targets those evils that require lethal and horrifying force. This isn't all guns and blood though - this is a dense character study about morality and redemption, and the consequences of necessary but brutal acts on the human soul. Steeped in X-Men history while remaining accessible, this is a pure ensemble book soaked in science fiction grandiosity and black humor. What could have been a gratuitous send up to the excesses of the 90s is instead a sprawling, nuanced take on the violence and the cost of being
broken and trying to do right despite it.


THE CAST - Madrox, Layla Miller, Rictor, Shatterstar, Strong Guy, M, Longshot, Wolfsbane, Banshee, Havok, Polaris, and Pip the Troll.

THE CONCEPT - Jamie Madrox runs a mutant detective agency out of New York City, helping the common man deal with specialized supernatural cases. He's assisted by his team, a motley group of former super heroes who now use their abilities to do right for a living wage. An ensemble book with a noir-ish tint, this is a combination character soap opera and investigative thriller set within the heart of the Marvel Universe. The core of the book are it's rich character interactions and it's deep sense of humor. While the whole cast shines, Madrox proves to be a philosophically deep lead as a man with the power to do everything, and thus has a hard time processing the meaning of anything.


THE CAST - Moonstar, Sunspot, Magma, Cypher, Warlock, X-Man.

THE CONCEPT - The New Mutants is a book capitalizing on nostalgia for the original iteration of this series, by reassembling most of the classic line up for a reunion tour. The historical legacy of the title, as well as creating a showcase for some fan favorite and otherwise underutilized characters, is the primary reason for this as part of the publishing plan. They have given the book a hook aside from 'the old gang gets back together,' though. This is a squad working for Cyclops, with a primary concern of dealing with the X-Men's 'loose ends.' While a little vague, after 50 plus years of publishing history the X-Men have more than enough loose ends to address, so the idea should be rife with story possibilities. Whether you're here to see beloved characters reunite or want closure for some lingering issues, the hooks of this series are clearly geared toward the knowledgeable fan, so I'm not sure if this is where I'd start as a new reader.


THE CAST - Wolverine

THE CONCEPT - What is Wolverine up to when he's not running a school, leading a black ops squad, patrolling NYC as an X-Man, or saving the world as an Avenger? Glad you asked! If you wonder what Wolvie does with his days off (ha!), then Wolverine might be for you. Featuring the solo adventures of Marvel's most popular mutant, Wolverine proves that Logan is indeed the best at what he does - and what he does is ubiquity. This is where you'll get your dose of Logan's love life, his adopted daughter, and the relatives of all the cannon fodder he's killed over the years coming up with revenge plots to kill him. So basically, Tuesday.


THE CAST - Deadpool

THE CONCEPT - Looney Tunes meet killer for hire in the serialized solo adventures of Wade Wilson, the Merc with a Mouth known as Deadpool. Dark humor, slapstick violence, and non-stop stream of concious fourth wall breaking narration separate this character from the herd. He's an assasin with a heart of gold and some SERIOUS issues - not the least of which is a healing factor that keeps him alive, but also horribly disfigured. He knows he's in a comic book and often talks to the reader. An immensely skilled fighter, he's also the bane of most other characters' existence, and watching his interactions with the 'straight men' of the Marvel U is part of the fun. Deadpool may be an acquired taste, but if you like smart aleck banter, hyper violence, and a level of metafictional self awareness, then give it a try.


THE CAST - Jimmy Hudson, Iceman, Human Torch, Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Quicksilver

THE CONCEPT - This book takes place in the Ultimate Universe, which started out as Marvel's 'classic heroes updated for the modern day and free from continuity' new reader friendly line and a decade later has become the 'we can break the toys however we want to' line. Case in point - Ultimate Comics: X-Men takes place in world where Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, Nightcrawler, Xavier and a lot of other characters have all been murdered - either before or after Magneto drowned all of NY, killing millions. In this world mutants were created by the government, Logan was the first mutant, and the US is just straight up gathering them into camps. In the midst of this, old friends Iceman, Kitty Pryde, and The Human Torch (who all used to chill at Peter Parker's place before HE died) are left with some other mutant runaways trying to survive. This is X-Men as teen dystopian future survival film, and part of the (morbid) attraction is that anyone can die and chances are they ain't coming back, so it's a chance to see some things they'll never do over in the regular titles (until it works here).

There we go! You should be all set to start your X-journey. So get to your local comic shop ASAP! (Tell 'em Schlaf sent ya.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

An In Story Introduction to the WWE Roster for the First Time Viewer - Part 7

Our continuing look at the WWE roster for a new viewer, to help provide some back story to the massive amount of people you'll be introduced to on the shows. You can check out our previous installments here.

Jack Swagger (RAW) - The 'All American American' and current United States Champion, Jack Swagger is a client of Vickie Guerrero's, along with Dolph Ziggler. Swagger is a former World Champ who fell on hard times after losing the big belt, and lost a lot of credibility. Looking for some momentum, he signed up with Vickie Guerrero to be her muscle - and so far it is paying dividends. Swagger just beat a very injured Zack Ryder (who was not medically cleared to compete) to win the US Championship, a befitting title for the self-proclaimed poster boy of the ideal American specimen.

Jerry Lawler (RAW) - Jerry "The King" Lawler is just that - the undisputed king of Memphis wrestling and a living legend in that city. He's also known for being one of the longest running commentators in the WWE, partnered previously with his good friend JR and now with the insufferable Michael Cole. Somewhere along the way the unthinkable happened - the self centered, egotistical, sycophantic Lawler of the 1990s has become the voice of reason in the announce booth. King isn't afraid to get in the ring either, having just entered the Royal Rumble last night, and it's clear it's something he'd like to do more of. Be ready, because when the straps come down, it's about to be on.

Jey and Jimmy Uso (Smackdown) - The Usos are the latest generation representing the rich tradition of Samoan tag teams in wrestling, although both are a great deal slimmer than most of their fore bearers. The sons of WWE legend Rikishi, these two pay tribute to their father and their culture in their ring entrance (performing a Siva Tau, or traditional Samoan war dance) and their move set. They've updated the classic Samoan wrestling techniques with newer, faster paced offense in a kind of fusion style. Respecting their heritage, while bringing the presentation in line with the current day, is clearly a priority for this team. They have been stuck in the under card since their arrival, but maybe things are looking up for the duo as they are one of the only three full time tag teams left on the roster - a sad state for the once respected Tag Division to be in.

Jinder Mahal (Smackdown) - The son of a wealthy and powerful family in India, Jinder Mahal arrived in the WWE to assume power and assert his dominance on another continent. An arrogant, unsettling man, Mahal started his tenure by blackmailing his brother in law, the monstrous Great Khali, into doing his bidding by threatening to divorce Khali's sister. His hold was tenuous and Khali soon rebelled. Now on his own, Mahal has been making many more enemies than friends - and in his solitude the zeal of his religious faith has become more apparent in his presentation, turning him into even more of an outsider. If Mahal notices, he doesn't seem to mind.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Scott Snyder's Batman #5 is the Scariest Comic of 2012

I’m going to talk in detail about this month’s issue of Batman, and about Scott Snyder’s ongoing run on the title, so before reading this you may want to catch up on Batman #1-5 to stay spoiler-free. Scratch that, you’ll definitely want to. Go ahead, the internet’s not going anywhere. Come borrow my copies if you like.

Okay, ready?

Scott Snyder1 has been absolutely killing the execution on Batman since taking over the title with DC’s “New 52” relaunch back in September. Without messing around with the uber-prepared, hypercompetent philanthropist billionaire ninja vigilante we all know and love, Snyder has made Batman’s world feel new and exciting- and increasingly spooky- by filling his continuing story arc with clever gizmos, Wayne family history, and details about the infrastructure of Gotham City that are as fun as they are frightening. I’m not kidding; Snyder is filling a superhero comic with architecture and city planning and it is riveting2. Most importantly, he’s doing the part of the job that must be the most difficult when writing Batman, which is challenging him. Batman, let’s remember, has been uppercutting crime and outsmarting his opponents since 19393. He has also beat up Superman a few times. Batman #1 opens with Bruce plowing through half a dozen of his most dangerous enemies while locked in Arkham Asylum with them, a feat that took gamers nationwide multiple sleepless weekends to accomplish and which takes Scott Snyder’s Batman a total of seven pages in the very first issue of his new comic book.

So how do you challenge this guy?

Snyder’s done it by introducing the Court of Owls, a secret society of that Bruce has long dismissed as a local legend, a nursery rhyme used to scare Gothamite children when the homicidal clown and the burlap guy with the fear gas aren’t scary enough. It’s starting to look like the Court of Owls is real and has been in Gotham for decades, influencing the Waynes and other families, building secret lairs into the architecture of skyscrapers and secretly dispatching enemies with an unkillable assassin called the Talon. The evidence is piling up too high for Bruce to ignore, no matter how much he wants to. Towards the end of Batman #4, he goes into the sewers of Gotham City, looking for the Court.

How's that working out for you, Bruce?

Oh. Oh, God. Not so well, then.

That’s not the scariest thing about Batman #5, though. Neither is the immense maze underneath Gotham where the Court traps Bruce for more than a week. Nor are the hallucinations where Bruce’s hands turn into talons beneath his gloves and owls crawl out of the mouths of his dead parents. Nor is the room lined with “Before” and “After” photos of other victims who aged and lost their minds while trapped in the maze. Nor is the way the artwork turns sideways and then upside down as the story progresses, so that you, the reader, start to feel disoriented and crazed. These are all scary, but they’re not the clincher.

The scariest thing is that Batman panics.

He moves blindly through the Court’s maze, keeping to the shadows out of instinct but otherwise unable to get his bearings. We don’t see him doing any detective work to find his way out, or trying elementary maze stuff like always keeping to the left. Granted, we first see Bruce in the maze after he’s been there a week, which means he’s probably tried all that and given up. His thoughts are all over the place; at one point he’s hiding from the Court and later he tells himself he’s chasing after them, but this is all vague and unfocused, something he tells himself to keep himself moving. The Court guides him through the maze by switching lights on and off, illuminating some rooms and herding him out of others. He uppercuts cameras and wooden owl figureheads, which helps no one. He stumbles across clues, like an entire Gotham City in miniature with the names of the Gordons and the Cobblepots chiseled on the walls, and a room full of coffins that may hold the bodies of generations of Talons, but he does a really un-Batman thing here and tries not to think about the clues that could help him solve the case. His inner mantra is him saying "Not listening" over and over and he's screaming it out loud when the Talon gets the drop on him. There's a great page-by-page analysis of Bruce's breakdown here.

For purposes of comparison, let me point out that Batman #2 opened with Bruce Wayne, in his civilian persona, being thrown through one of the windows of Wayne Tower, with three throwing knives sticking out of him and the Talon diving after him Point Break style to finish the job. Bruce not only survived this encounter, he kept his head enough to continue narrating fun facts about Wayne Tower and its relationship to Gotham’s tourism industry while catching hold of a gargoyle and watching the Talon plunge to his apparent death.

Dude is hard to rattle.

Going back further in Batman’s history4, let me point out that in Grant Morrison’s run alone Bruce has been memory wiped, buried alive, kidnapped by a space dictator who was also a god of cosmic evil, memory wiped again and sent back in time to fight cavemen and pirates with a Lovecraftian leech monster chasing him across multiple eras. Never, during any of that, did he panic or give up.

If anything gives Batman an edge over the rest of the DC Universe and makes people buy “What Would Batman Do?” T-shirts, it’s not that he’s a master martial artist (paging Black Canary and Bronze Tiger) or a billionaire with an ever-growing arsenal of crimefighting gadgets (hi, Green Arrow), or even that he’s a detective (yo, Elongated Man). Batman’s real superpower is that he’s always prepared, he always has a plan, and he is never, ever in over his head. The minute Batman stops outthinking his opponents, he ceases to be Batman and becomes a self-financed Delta Force commando with a pointy bucket on his head.

Which is why it’s so scary to see him lose it down there, in the maze. It’s like when you were a child and for the very first time you saw your dad get lost and upset on a family car trip and all your illusions of security were shattered as you realized this towering man did not have all the answers. That’s a life-changing kind of fear that Snyder has tapped into, and even Batman's triumphant return next month won't be able to chase it away.

Right, helicopter thugs?

Well, maybe it will.

1 Penciller Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion have also been killing it, drawing a sprawling, built-up Gotham city with plenty of room for creepy things to hide in it and a Batman who looks like a 21st century ninja gladiator and who has this wonderfully unnerving little smile right before he does something like ramp jump a motorcycle into a helicopter. I’m not going to write as much about their contributions here since I can discuss story far better than I can discuss art. Assume the art is uniformly top-shelf.

2 Here’s an example. In Batman #3, Bruce goes down to the train tunnels beneath Wayne Tower to shake down toughs for information. He tells us that there are five separate train tunnels that converge beneath the tower, and that each one is controlled by a separate gang. He narrates all this while fighting a Ukranian gang with iron masks soldered onto their jaws, and then defeats them all by magnetizing a passing train, which then drags the entire gang down the tunnel by their masks. This all happens in four pages and is relentlessly awesome.

3 Even though DC officially restarted continuity with the “New 52” relaunch back in September, I’m going to ignore that and talk about Batman as a character with continuous history. It’s pretty easy to do with this title, which keeps most of the elements of Batman’s recent history from the last few years of comics, including his extended family of Robins and ex-Robins, one of whom is his son, Damian, whom Bruce fathered with Talia al Ghul and who was raised by an elite order of international assassins. I would never in a million years want to lose that part of Batman’s family tree and I’m glad DC didn’t either.

4 Again, ignoring that all this happened before the continuity reset. Trust me, if the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh survived Crisis on Infinite Earths, stuff we like from before The New 52 will survive The New 52. It is going to be okay.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Wonder Woman: Man Version

After I wrote that title it occurred to me that I should probably clear up right away: this isn't about Wonder Man.

Nope, this one is about Marvel's second-longest running heroic deity. The God of Heroes, the Incredible Hercules.


Jason recently wrote about the launch of the new Wonder Woman series, depicting the Amazonian in kind of a mythological urban horror story. Well over in the Marvel Universe, things are working in reverse. Instead of a woman, their Greek deity is a man, and he's been starring in a mythological urban comedy which is being cancelled right at its peak.

Hercules was introduced into the Marvel Universe back in 1965 with the same title in which Thor made his debut, Journey into Mystery Annual #1. Whereas Thor was regal, noble, and refined, Herc was brash, arrogant, and never shy about showing off his god-like strength. Several times it's been shown that when he really wants to be, Hercules can be as strong as Thor or the Hulk, really only outmatched by them because Thor has lightning bolts and the Hulk is the freaking Hulk.

Pictured: The freaking Hulk.
Throughout his tenure in Marvel, Hercules has been a part of some of the biggest storylines they've ever put out. Since his first appearance, he's been both rival and ally to Thor, a member of the Avengers, the Champions, the Heroes for Hire, and the star of several of his own mini-series about his adventures in outer space. When Atlantis attacked, Herc was there. When Korvac had his saga, Herc was there. When the heroes had their Civil War, Herc played a major role both in saving the entire resistance movement from a Tony Stark ambush and in defeating the clone of Thor, Ragnarok. And when the whole universe was being destroyed by the Chaos King, Hercules was the one hero who stood in the breach and saved all of space and time.

Cool story, Herc.
Also, in the midst of all that, he found the time to sleep with just about every available lady Marvel had to offer.

Not pictured: She-Hulk, Thundra (I think), and probably Tigra.

During the events of World War Hulk, when Hercules was one of the only heroes to say, "Wow, tricking the Hulk onto a spaceship and launching him to an unknown planet was kind of a dick move," the Hulk's own title got shifted to Herc, making The Incredible Hercules the Olympian's first ongoing. Teaming him with super-genius kid Amadeus Cho, Herc revealed a side of him seen all-too-infrequently; the fact that he is both incredibly strong and incredibly hilarious.

For the sake of brevity, let me focus just on what we're missing out on now that his new solo title, Herc, has fallen off of Marvel's chopping block.

- A depowered Hercules fighting crime in Brooklyn using Peleus's sword, the Aegis shield, and Perseus's helmet of invisibility.
- Super-villains Basilisk, Man-Bull, and The Griffon thrown in as bumbling yet well-meaning supporting cast.
- Herc working as a bouncer in a Greek bar while he sleeps with the owner's daughter.
- A Spider-Herc getting it on with Arachne while a webbed-up team of X-Men are forced to watch.
- A depowered, drunk, and overweight Zeus coming to live with Herc, and then relentlessly hitting on Elektra despite her repeatedly beating the crap out of him. After returning to his full glory and having Herc turn down having his godhood restored, Zeus figures he's doing it to impress Elektra, and tells him, "Go get her, son."

Now that's all gone.

This wasn't cool enough for Marvel.
Herc ended with #10 at the conclusion of the Elektra/Zeus story. It fell victim to the same series of cuts which just ended Ghost Rider, X-23, Daken: Dark Wolverine, Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive, Iron Man 2.0, Alpha Flight, Moon Knight, and PunisherMAX. Marvel is gearing up for a universe where every title has "Avengers," "Spider-" or "X" on the cover, and Herc's sales didn't justify it being an exception.

Which is a shame, especially in this case. The last series, Incredible Hercules, had some very poignant moments as Herc traveled across America with Amadeus and his sister Athena. First amongst his tasks was convincing the young and angry Amadeus not to use his genius for evil or revenge, revealing a terrible secret from his own past about how being reckless with his own strength cost him dearly in the past. Another moment was when being confronted by his brother Ares, the God of War shouted in fury that he was pinnacle of godly perfection and Hercules was a drunken, loud-mouthed boor, "so why do they love YOU?"

"No matter how many millions I kill, they just won't warm up to me!"
Herc, after getting over shock about that being the reason Ares hounds him so much, replies, basically, that, "Perhaps it is because I am flawed, but I strive to be more. Perhaps it is because in me, they see themselves."

And that's the basic appeal of Hercules as opposed to Thor; Thor is the perfect hero. Maybe even more so than Captain America. Thor represents not just the best in all men, but the best in all gods, too. He is an untouchable standard, for even though Cap has a basic morality and goodness which no mortal can touch, Thor is the same thing except for millennia-old immortals with unfathomable power. Hercules is different. He's essentially just a mortal man thrust into this realm of divinity, dealing with it as a mortal would. He drinks, he fights, he sleeps around a lot, and when he's not doing that, he stands up for the little guy because he knows that's the right thing to do.

Thor's not a little guy.
Incredible Hercules focused primarily on Herc and Amadeus traveling across America, sharing their woes with women, eating pizza, and having adventures while relating their modern-day exploits to the classic tales of Hercules from mythology. With Herc, they abandoned the divine aspects of Hercules's character, and instead put him in Brooklyn to contend with magical and mythological foes without his powers, but with the same humor and wit he displayed in Incredible Hercules. It delved into the character in ways we'd never really gotten to explore before.

He was always kind of one-dimensional when portrayed in Avengers, portrayed as an arrogant strongman and barely suitable replacement for the oft-absent God of Thunder. There's even an issue where they unveil a statue of the Avengers with Thor standing tall, and Hercules laments being the "token god."

The statue he wanted looked like this, only with Thor crying.
With Incredible Hercules and Herc, we got to see the classic character stripped of the stereotypes writers had assigned him with over the years and watch him shine as a hero in his own right. Now the sun's setting on that, and whatever other fantastic tales were in store for Hercules, we'll have to wait to read until he pops up as a guest-star in some Avengers title, where he'll probably be portrayed as a drunken, loud-mouthed womanizer - which he IS - but without the humor and humanizing aspects which proved this character can be great.

So long, Hercules, and thanks for all the Gifts.

If you like reading David write about comic books, you might also enjoy his writing about video games over on The Backlog.