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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.

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.

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