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Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!

So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).

This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).

What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.

McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.

I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the  upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.

This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.

So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of checking out the new film Tron Legacy, which inspired me to do a little video blogging over on my disused Somnopolis account. Feel free to give it a gander. I have no problem admitting that my enjoyment of the film  is mostly due to nostalgia. Tron was a large part of my childhood. Y’know what I did not like when I was a child? The Punisher.

He’s a psychopath. A gun-toting Vietnam veteran who has decided to deal with the trauma of his family’s deaths by slaughtering the criminal underworld of New York. He makes Dirty Harry look like an easy-going guy. He cannot be reasoned with, is almost robotic in his lack of humanity and despite wearing a costume of sorts, is nothing like a superhero.

In fact writer Garth Ennis seems to agree with me. In his introduction to this volume of his initial twelve issue run he writes: Defend the Punisher? Justify what Frank Castle does to people? Condone the actions of a mass-murderer, whose bodycount must run well into the tens of thousands by now? I think not.

And yet. What Ennis does with Frank is to admit all of the excessive violence and inhumanity of his actions, while also poking fun at them. These issues feature endless scenes of murder and death, but also highlights just how ridiculous Frank’s vigilantism is, courtesy of an increasingly cartoonish set of villains and set-pieces. As Ennis concludes “you don’t have to worry about a thing: you can enjoy the Punisher with a completely clear conscience.”

The plot of Welcome Back, Frank concerns a vendetta between Frank Castle and the Gnucci crime family in New York. He has been systematically killing off the members of the Mafia clan and when he kills the sons of Ma Gnucci, she sends out a call for every gangster and hoodlum with a gun to hunt him down.

Since returning to New York Frank has found himself a new apartment in a run-down section of the city. Much of the book concerns his relationships with fellow tenants and the risk his activities place them in. Ennis manages these character building moments with a great deal of pathos, which is not what you might expect amid the blood and thunder of a Punisher comic.

The third thread of the storyline is the influence of Frank’s vigilantism on others. We meet three self-declared defenders of the peace – although their ideas of what that means is contradictory. There’s The Holy, an axe-murdering priest; Elite, a Manhattannite with extreme views on neighbourhood watch; and finally Mr Payback, who targets the wealthy. All three look up to Frank as a source of inspiration, justifying their murderous actions by dedicating themselves to his example.

Despite the bloodletting and brutal imagery, this is a very funny book. Ennis is a master of poking fun at machismo, as seen in his hit series Preacher, a comparison reinforced by his frequent collaborator Steve Dillon’s art. Frank Castle ‘s face carries the same trademark grimace to familiar to Marvel fanboys, but his musculature is not as oversized as the in-house artists insist upon. Dillon has Frank appear as he should – just another anonymous New Yorker wearing a long coat on the streets of the city.

The absurd extremes of Ennis’ script is the source of much of the humour. The villainous hitman known as the Russian wipes out an entire special forces team in Kazakhstan, sending the surviving officer running crying for his mother. There’s a great little sight gag involving Ma Gnucci that references The Empire Strikes Back. And then there is the unfortunately named Buddy Plugg, whose behavioural assessment of the Punisher is rejected as pure psychobabble: “obviously less a man than a force of nature. Have left his own humanity behind long ago, he has become a symbol as stark as the one he wears on his uniform. A spectre of vengeance moving like a virus within the criminal psyche…” In one stroke Ennis satirises every complaint raised against the character. He is, as he insists, only trying to entertain. Any attempt to analyze the meaning of this ridiculous character is doomed to failure.

As such Ennis once again delivers a book that manages to be both funny and disturbing, in equal measures. If you enjoyed Preacher, you’re strongly advised to check out his spin on this Marvel icon.

Last week the official trailer for Keneth Brannagh’s Thor was released (click here for a gander).

Personally I am looking forward to this one. Yes it’s another comic book movie. Yes, Marvel Studios are shoving the story into some kind of shared continuity along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man to build anticipation for the planned Joss Whedon Avengers picture. I do not really mind all this as Brannagh has nailed one aspect of Marvel’s Thor - and that is the paradoxically futuristic vistas of the city of Asgard from Norse mythology envisioned by Jack Kirby. Paradoxical as Stan Lee set the comical precedent of having Asgardians speak in a bizarre, faux-Shakespearean version of English, yet they reside in a cloud-borne metropolis that outstrips Fritz Lang.

What disappointed me the most about the recent Thor relaunch by J. Michael Straczynski was that Kirby’s vision of Asgard was completely lost, with the Norse deities cleaving more to Stan Lee’s anachronistic medieval type. This much-praised take on Thor, to my mind, mislaid much of the original storyline’s appeal. Kirby had a recurring notion that gods worshipped by man were in fact a higher form of alien life, an idea he made more explicit with his Fourth World/Eternals books later on. He avoided a simple repeat of Chariots of the Gods by having familiar gods, such as Thor and Loki, be at once technologically advanced aliens who appeared to humans as ancient warriors.

It is an entertaining conceit and one which Kieron Gillen appears to be returning to in this collection. The story follows Straczynski’s recent departure from the book and so at present Thor is in exile from Asgard for murder; Balder the Brave has taken his place as ruler; and Asgard itself is stranded on Earth, no longer seperated from Midgard.

As such the Norse gods are vulnerable and supervillain Doctor Doom has decided to exploit their weakness by kidnapping and experimenting on Asgardians to learn the secrets of their power. The gods have recently been guests of his nation of Latveria, thanks to the trickery of Loki, which explains the title. Doom would be a modern day Prometheus, steal the power of the gods themselves and elevate himself above them using only his intelligence and reason.

When the gullible yet noble Balder, who is beginning to realize just how much he has been manipulated by Loki, attempts to lead an attack on Doom’s fortress he is faced with a horrific sight. Former comrades and loved ones taken by Doom, twisted and corrupted into new cybernetic bodies, utterly brainwashed. The Asgardians are forced to fight against these tortured creatures, with the tide of battle finally turning upon Thor’s arrival. Unfortunately Doom has anticipated this also and has discovered the secrets of Asgardian technology such as the Destroyer.

It is of course no coincidence that the same alien weapon features so prominently in the movie trailer linked to above, with Marvel ramping up the release of Thor titles in advance of the movie’s release.  I am grateful to see such welcome synergy between the two mediums, as too often in the past Marvel Comics has dropped the ball in terms of capitalizing upon the films success. How many Blade books were sold after Stephen Norrington‘s box office hit?

Thankfully Gillen is not just writing a tie-in book. His story mixes elements of tragedy and some very decent character development. Balder’s insecurities about leading in his brother’s stead are well-realized and the script even allows the constant betrayals of Loki to be seen in perspective. He is the master of deceit after all, the most famous ‘trickster god’, who is capable of winning the trust of even his most fierce enemies.

However, it is of course Doom who steals the show, refusing to accept the superiority of gods themselves. He finds the very idea of a god insulting and demonstrates a degree of malevolent sadism in the treatment of his Asgardian prisoners.

I am happy to see such an epic tone return to the Thor franchise, which has recently become too enamored of the cliched ‘gods with feet of clay’, story conceit. A return to Kirby high fantasy and science fiction would be welcome.

As I said  in yesterday’s review, I have decided this weekend to write about two comic book creators whom I am most excited about for the next year. Yesterday I wrote about Paul Cornell, today I have chosen Jeff Parker. Now as it happens I have already reviewed a book by Parker – the whimsical Mysterius the Unfathomable. His comic book career continues to grow from strength to strength, and like Cornell, he evidences a strong fondness for a brighter, more fun spin on the stories he writes. Agents of Atlas, his superhero team book for Marvel Comics, is a wonderful example of comic book absurdism, with talking gorillas, vast global conspiracies and underworld (literally) societies. It was fun, refreshing and each issue left me wanting more.

For this earlier effort from Parker published by Virgin Comics, he has teamed up with Ashish Padlekar to fictionalise a series of episodes taken from the life of creator Dave Stewart. Now I already thought Stewart was cool – he and Annie Lennox were a bright light in my culturally sour 80’s childhood – but with this book he outstrips even that previous coolness cachet.

What I really want to know is, when Stewart was a young fellow jaunting around Europe did he really meet a psychic octopus? According to Parker’s script something like that happened…

Well in fact the story of Walk In concerns a young Mancunian named Ian who has a habit of blacking out and finding himself in strange locations with no idea of how he got there. Recently these episodes have gotten worse and he has found himself coming to in new countries, with no memory of what he has done. In an attempt to cope with the dislocation, Ian begins to frequent strip clubs. They provide a decent cover for his unusual behaviour, plus there is complimentary food (and naked ladies).

He begins to experience visions after he arrives in Moscow, visions that he uses as part of a variety act at a strip club named Deja Vu. It appears his black outs have bestowed upon him the gift of being able to surf the patrons’ subconscious. He works for tips, is given floorspace to sleep on at an apartment belonging to two of the club’s strippers Astrid and Valery (shared with a German band named Doppelganger) and becomes a permanent fixture at the club, with his act as ‘The Dream King’.

His increasing fame draws the attention not only of the club patrons, but two sinister shaven headed twins who appear to be following him. Also his visions begin to become more elaborate. Not only is he witness to people’s dreams, he begins to see individual auras as well, not to mention the odd appearances of an octopus around Astrid’s neck. Finally one night, after hours of listening to Doppelganger’s turgid experimentalism, he goes into a trance state and sees an incredible futuristic vista of flying vehicles, incredible buildings and people resembling the unusual twins. Has he completely lost his mind, or is Ian actually stretched between two worlds.

Oh and there’s a talking bear from Sussex who is not too fond of string theory. Just throwing that plot detail out there.

This is a fantastic book. Also, given the locale of Ian’s adventures with drug dealers, Russian mafia and strippers, the tone is surprisingly innocent. Parker’s script gives Padlekar plenty of opportunities to include funny little details in the panels, such as a Pizza Hut sign in Cyrillic script, or Ian’s ‘Dream King’, costume resembling Dr. Strange‘s duds. There are also plenty of hints scattered throughout as to where the plot is going, such as Valery hearing from a fortune teller that she will lose her heart to a man with long hair. It does happen, but not in the way she expects.

The book itself is also very funny – the talking bear is also a sharpshooter, I love that damn bear – and Ian’s weary acceptance of his increasingly weird life is well described. His narration to the reader is audible to the other characters, who assume he is crazy. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but with a psychic octopus and some strippers with hearts of gold. Padlekar’s art is somewhat cartoonish, which adds to the slightly innocent tone as mentioned above, with plenty of opportunities given for psychedelic excess during Ian’s visions of the futureworld.

Strongly recommended folks, Parker is someone to watch for the future.

Fellow blogger Colin Smith over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics has been on a roll lately. First there was his excellent series of articles on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman versus J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One . Then he quickly followed that up with another series on the DC event series Kingdom Come.

What can I say, I like his comic reviews. Also I am all over the comments threads for these pieces like a bad rash!

So I am taking a leaf out of Colin’s book and doing two comic reviews this weekend on the writers I am most excited about  for 2011, starting with Paul Cornell. Chances are, whether you know it or not, you have already enjoyed his work. With an impressive television career, he’s written for everything from Holby City to Coronation Street. Prior to his entry into American comics Cornell was mostly known in nerd circles for his Doctor Who novels, at least one of which was adapted for television, the excellent Human Nature. With a CV like that, and with Marvel/DC overrun by television writers such as Joss Whedon, Marc Guggenheim and Allan Heinberg it’s no wonder Cornell got a shot.

To date his comic career has shown a fondness for injecting a vibrant (and welcome) sense of optimism into the vicariously grim affairs of superpowered folks who like to wear garish costumes. He also specialises in rediscovering discarded characters and concepts, giving them a bit of a polish and then expanding upon their initial appearances.

Dark X-Men was published during a company wide storyline by Marvel Comics known as Dark Reign. To summarise in brief, the villains won and the US government itself has been infiltrated by arch-manipulator Norman Osborn, an erstwhile Spider-Man antagonist given a new shot of life by the series.

As such he has adopted an aggressive public relations campaign, creating his own superheroes, including a new X-Men team – filled out with former supervillains given new identities. His X-Men are the shapeshifting terrorist Mystique; Beast an evil doppelganger of this world’s Hank McCoy from another timeline; Mimic, an opponent of the original X-Men who first appeared back in the 60’s; and Omega, who was recently possessed by a destructive entity known as The Collective.

A wave of mass suicide attempts, with each individual chanting ‘I am an X-Man’, alerts Osborn to a new crisis. He is not so much concerned about the potential loss of life as he is copyright infringement. He orders the team to investigate. The duplicitous Mystique, who is attempting to gain the support of the other team members to revolt against Osborn’s control, discovers the cause of these events is a psychic being thought dead known as ‘X-Man’.

The team is ordered to capture and detain this immensely powerful mutant. However, they come to realize that if X-Man defeats Osborn, perhaps they could profit by the new regime. Villains will be villains after all and one double cross leads into another.

Where Cornell’s script excels is in its shades of grey. Mystique has betrayed so many people in her life no one trusts her anymore. As it happens she is only leading Osborn’s X-Men as he has placed a bomb on her that he will detonate if she tries to rebel. Mimic is tortured by his own inadequacies. Leonard Kirk draws him to resemble the original X-Man character Warren Worthington. This is a cruel joke on the character, a hired gun in the employ of a madman who has deceived the general public to see Mimic as a hero.

Dark X-Men is a book about characters who want to be something more than doppelgangers and stealers of powers. The sting in the tail of the book’s final panels is perfectly done.

The X-Men are not so much superheroes, as civil rights advocates in comic book hero drag. Osborn complains ‘Mutants are super heroes with politics.’ Cornell not only nails that ambiguity, he realizes the full potential of such X-Men action clichés as psychic combat, introducing Kirk’s grotesque image of a brain composed out of hundreds of bodies. The formerly lugubrious X-Man, Nate Grey, is rescued from comic limbo. There’s even hilarious running jokes throughout (each character is introduced on panel with a song title that describes their traits).

Combined with Kirk’s soft, yet dynamic pencils (the moment when Beast cheerfully smiles is both cute and terrifying)  that rivals Stuart Immonen, this book is both action packed and thoughtful. Great fun.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

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