Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bendis Does What Kang, Ultron, and Zemo Could.

Well, I promised I'd read it as penance for bagging Bendis, but the thing is, I may need to read more Bendis after this review. Avengers Disassembled is one of those books where you can read it once through quickly and it's a good read. So you read it again (I've read it at least four times prior to this review reading) and that's the point start to jump out at you.

The book itself is issues 500 - 503 of Avengers and Avengers Finale, all written by Brian Michael Bendis. Art for #500-503 is by David Finch (with some assistance on 503). The Finale has Finch joined by the likes of George Perez, Steve Epting, Jimmy Cheung, Alex Maleev, Lee Weeks, Darrick Robertson, and Steve McNiven (there's a host of others that would fill a page to list). Amazon would love for you to purchase it from them for $17.16 USD for the hardcover, and funnily don't seem to want to sell you the paperback copy that I read (which was a couple dollars less less than that when it was first released). The hardcover they have is oversized (which is a plus) and is 184 pages. If it's anything like the paperback you get an interview with Bendis (more on that later) some script pages with commentary from Finch, a cover gallery from all the preceding Avengers issues, and a mini-comic detailing Avengers history from the point of view of The Hulk.

Now I implied that there were problems with this book, and there are, but to truly understand them you need to be an Avengers fan (and also possess reasoning and logic). The guts of the plot, though, are very good. The tale starts with Jack of Hearts, who had died not long before Disassembled takes place, coming back (seemingly undead) and blowing up The Avengers Mansion, killing Scott Lang. Meanwhile Iron Man/Tony Stark is addressing the UN in his dual role as an Avenger and US Secretary of Defense (this was when The Avengers were a UN peacekeeping force) and threatens to kill the Latverian delegate in what appears to be a drunken rage. When The Avengers' highest priority alert goes off to draw support for the events happening at the mansion, all hell breaks lose: Vision arrives and spews forth 5 Ultron style robots, She Hulk goes mad, Wasp is hospitalised, a Kree fleet attack, and finally the penny is dropped on all assembled by Dr Strange - the Scarlet Witch is behind it all. Our heroes confront Wanda and with her defeat we get the disassembling of The Avengers as a team.

This book was brought to
you by the colour red.
So what is it that's wrong with this book. The art is generally good. At least as far as the pencils and inks go. The colours quickly begin to drag as everything gets an orange or red hue. Issue 502 includes two one thing that seems to be a mistake (though Bendis established much later that it was an early clue to Secret Invasion), and supporting evidence for statements in the Finale about Quicksilver's whereabouts. But no, the art is not the problem, the story is. While I could easily detail each and every gripe that fans have had with this story there are three major problems that stick out like sore thumbs: the existence of Chaos Magic,  the essential premise that the Scarlet Witch has been insane since the 1980s, and that Magneto would be allowed to take away a daughter who is so obviously unstable, and so obviously able to destroy the planet.

All hail Mutant Supremacy!
The first of these is a problem because Dr Strange himself has used Chaos Magic for years. Now we're told it doesn't exist. It's such a bad idea that a What If story was based on this point alone. Next up, Wanda could have gone crazy bananas at any time in the nearly 20 years before this story and didn't? So divorce, the whole thing with blaming herself for Wonder Man's death and rebirth, and the loss at the hands of Kang weren't going to do it, but Wasp reminding her she once had kids will? Finally, we have to accept that Nick Fury (who is present) simply allows Magneto to take a threat that powerful away. Magneto. And that threat. What could possibly go wrong? (See the House of M crossover if you don't know.)

Then after all's said and done we get to the Bendis interview. There're some interesting quotes in there both in the context of this story, and in the context of what followed from it. None of them are relevant to anyone who hasn't been following anything set in the Marvel Universe for the last decade, but for those who have, you'll be bound to have a cynical remark or two to make.

Ah c'mon, he's just a synthetic human, right?!
Now it sounds like I dislike this book intensely, and on one level I do. But then again, I do seem to keep reading it over and over again, and that begs the question of what I actually think of this book, and who I'd recommend it to. I think that, on the surface, it's a fine book, and it set the wheels in motion for more or less a decade of Marvel continuity. So it is an influential book. It's also well drawn (I'd love to see a black and white pencils and inks only version). The dialog is, for Bendis, typically great.

After something that got me all riled up this week, next week I'll relax with, oh let's see... this.
WARNING: Do not even THINK about
letting the kids at this one!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tonight's Menu: Chicken Ra's Al Ghul

As promised this week it's Batman: Tales of the Demon. It's a great collection of the early appearances of Ra's Al Ghul, billed on the cover as "Batman's Deadliest Opponent" (debatable). All stories are written by Dennis O'Neil, the pencils are a selection of Bob Brown, Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Michael Golden and Don Newton, and the inks are all either Dick Giordano, or Dan Adkins. Aamzon will sell the 2007 printing to you at a reasonable $26.99 US for 207 pages.
As an added bonus there's an introduction from Sam Hamm (screeenwriter of the 1989 Tim Burton helmed Batman).

I generally enjoyed reading this both the first time through and on this repeat reading. It's definitely a lot different from reading the current Batman stories by the likes of Grant Morrison. There is one slight catch though: the colours have clearly been digitally redone. Those of you who have read the Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. collection that got the same treatment know what you're in for, the rest of you, it's something like this:

And I'm sure we can agree that in1972,
colouring didn't look like this.
The issues collected are all from between 1971 and 1980, and the standard of story is always significantly better than the decade proceeding this where Batman would be fighting an alien, or a Batman from another dimension, or a robot version of <insert hero here>, or.... well any other bad idea involving Batman you can think of. O'Neil's Batman as represented here is an interesting simulacra of James Bond... from the James Bond news strips. He's smart, beatable, funny (well, almost), and can solve crimes without the need to use a super computer every time. In short, he's the gosh-darn Batman.

Ra's is a bit hit and miss in this tome: sometimes he seems to be just playing with Batman, other times completely at a loss, and in some stories, he's barely even there. I guess as this is an early representation, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but he's certainly not the major terrorist he later became at the hands of others. In general he seems to be outdone by Talia, and that to me is very interesting, given that he wants Batman to marry her.

With a collection such as this, it's hard to spell out all that happens, however the most significant events can e summed up as: Batman meets (and saves) Talia Al Ghul, Saves a kidnapped Robin when Ra's is testing Batman to see if he is worthy of Talia (and the League of Assassins),  Stops a biological agent that could kill millions, Accidentally kills a dead man's brain, fakes the death of Bruce Wayne to get leads on more of Ra's' activities before besting him (after Ra's first shown use of the Lazarus Pit), is unwillingly married to Talia while busting up another of Ra's plots, and finally avenges the death of Kathy Kane (the original Batwoman) at the same time as sorting out a factional dispute in the League of Assassins and saving a bunch of religious leaders from a manufactured earthquake.
Like I said, he's a bit like James Bond.

I'd recommend this volume to almost any Bat-fan who hasn't got it already, and in particular anyone who's never read the older work, and is tired of the recent developments. Sure it's a little disjointed in places, but there's a lot of one and done stories, and no arc lasts more than three issues.

If you have got this already, bring it out for another read, and I'm sure you'll be wondering why Batman had to be dark and gritty again in the 1980s, because clearly with a decent writer Batman can be a jet-setting international symbol of scared villains.

And so to next week's choice. I've had a good hard think about it, and I realise that my Bendis bashing the other week requires some sort of atonement. So we'll start with the story that got him control of one of the biggest franchises at Marvel in the last decade.
Forgive us Bendis, for we have sinned.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stylized Violence, Boobs, and Sex... With VIKINGS!

Like the song says, "hide your wife, hide
your kids, and hide your husband too"
As I said last time, I felt it was time for a change of pace, and boy does this deliver. Sven the Returned is 200 pages collecting issues 1 through 8 of Northlanders, a violent, adult romp from the mind of Brian Wood and pencilled by Davide Gianfelice that'll set you back about $10 US on Amazon.

If you (or the person you're buying this for) are not keen on graphic violence, sex, nudity, revenge stories, sexual violence, misogyny vikings, or a good story, I'm going to tell you just this once: DO NOT READ NORTHLANDERS.

And now that you've been warned, what's the book like, and what's it about. The book deals with the story of Sven of Orkney who is returning home to claim his family's fortune after decades of service in the Byzantine Varangian Guard. On his return home Sven finds that his Uncle Gorm has claimed control of Sven's village and run it (more or less) into the ground. What Sven had thought a quick grab for cash turns into a prolonged campaign of revenge on Gorm to not only get the money, but also free his people.

Gianfelice's pencils suit the piece well by giving an initial appearance of simplicity that fades on closer inspection. The detail is there, but subtly masked by David McCaig's colours. And really that mask of simplicity is something that this whole book has, whether it's the simple focus of the story compared to the actions of characters, the seemingly simple choices to be made from complex situations, or even the possible responses to the question "who is this book for?"

So far it sounds like I really enjoy this book on  every level, but let me be honest for a moment: there are some problems. There's a problem with the underlying premise of the story and how it fits the characters as initially presented, there's a problem with some of the pacing, and there's a problem with just how smart Sven is meant to be.

The first of these problems is that Sven is presented as going back to Orkney to reclaim his family's fortune. At first that seems fine, until it's later explained that this would mean he'd be considered a traitor in the Varangian Guard, and that he'd have to spend some of the fortune he'd be claiming to bribe his way into being reinstated. What makes it worse is that his longtime lover has enough money for both of them, and enough that he could have bribed his way to a higher office (had he desired it). That poses the question of why Sven is really going home when he repeatedly states that he has no intention of staying.
The second problem is evidenced in the level of set-up. There's a lot of set-up that is common to the revenge genre, but it's over the top, and the pay-off is short-lived. The flashbacks of issue 6 could easily have been removed. It didn't really add to the characters, and didn't advance the plot. The final problem I have can be summarised with this question: once Sven has decided he needs to kill Gorm at all costs, why did he continue to use very passive guerilla tactics? He's not Batman, his character as established early on is that he's capable of setting up the entire village to panic and leave Gorm by himself so that he can extract revenge, but that never happens.

Now I know there's a fair level of criticism to be made of the treatment of women in this book. It's justified. The women are treated as barely better than cattle, though they are portrayed as strong women. However, at that time in history it's likely an accurate representation of attitudes. The nudity seems to be somewhat gratuitous (I'm not complaining, this book wasn't kid friendly to begin with), and I'm ultimately thankful that the sexual violence is kept off page.

Overall this is a great read, and if you like the revenge genre (or even mob style gangster movies) this is likely a great book for you. Added to that, it costs less than a movie ticket, and likely takes as long to read. That's value. Some might have preferred to pay a bit more for glossy pages, but I'm perfectly happy with the paper stock as is.

Next week I'll jump into some Batman, the way I like my Batman.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

...And Then I Had These Revelations

This week I'll be looking at the second volume of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Amazing Spider-man which includes issues 36-39 of Amazing Spider-man, and issues 5 and 6 of Spider-man's Tangled Web (odd inclusion). You get John Romita Jr on pencils and Scott Hanna on inks for the Amazing issues, and Peter Milligan plot with Duncan Fegredo pencils for the Tangled Web issues. As with Volume 1, Amazon have it for between a couple dollars and about $60 US. Page count: 96.

Last time I merely pointed out that you could get the same content in the Ultimate Collection Volume 1 but didn't do much more than that. However I think this time there's a reason to list off a few details in the interest of full disclosure. Volume 3 of the older TPBs goes for about $5 to $22 US. Add that to Volume 1 and Volume 2 and you get somewhere between $10 and $110 US. Compare that to the Ultimate Collection going for about $25 US (all prices are on Amazon) and you get some idea of the difference. Keep in mind that the Tangled Web issues aren't in the Ultimate Collection, and that Volume 1 of Tangled Web will cost you about $5 US. Wait, what? Why is there a Tangled Web TPB from the earlier in the same year that has the same issues of Tangled Web that were printed in a volume which is clearly an Amazing Spider-man TPB? Cross promotion maybe? At the end of the day, it bothers me slightly but I won't complain because the story is a good one (if a blatant swipe).

In brief, we get the 9/11 issue, Peter (potentially) saving a student from a life of squalor, The Conversation between May and Peter about the fact he's Spider-man, the 'Nuff Said issue, and Flowers for Rhino in which Rhino becomes a genius and then even stupider.

What to make of this volume is not entirely clear: it has some key issues from the time, and if you wanted to read them you save a pretty penny (eBay has the 9/11 issue for upwards of $40 US, the 'Nuff Said issue goes for a few bucks as does The Conversation, and Flowers for Rhino shouldn't set you back more than a couple dollars), but over all it feels lacking and meaningless.

Anyone else remember this?
The 9/11 issue gets its fair share of flack across the board, and I don't disagree. The vast majority of text (read upwards of 90%) is in narrative boxes, and clearly not the usual style for Peter Parker/Spider-man. I'll accept that it's not a standard Peter/Spidey thing to deal with, but that being the case, why is it Pete at all? I know Spider-man was picked because JMS wanted to do it, and Spidey's viewed by some as the quintessential New York City character (odd thing to say when so many Marvel characters live there), but it doesn't fit. I guess it's a hard fit, because the other strong contender is Captain America, where the words would fit, but where it might not seem quite so personal.

Or this?
Another problem is that the tragedy of 9/11 would (unfortunately) seem trivial in a world where half of NYC is demolished every couple of weeks (taking the compressed continuity of Marvel into account), and that Spidey's been involved in numerous hostage/terrorist plots involving the World Trade Center, one of which succeeded in doing fair damage. I get that if this happened it would be somewhat different from the usual villain destroys NYC, but at the same time the lack of super-hero preventative action is more inexplicable than that in Maximum Carnage (oh we'll get to that eventually, and I'll hate it). Then there's the smaller details such as the bad art, and Dr Doom crying. I could understand Kingpin crying, and at a stretch Magneto crying. The only reason Doom cries over that (or is even there at all) is that he didn't get to do it in some attempt to destroy the Fantastic Four or The Avengers. I'm also aware that people found some of the ideas offensive, in particular the idea that the USA had it coming. I'd ask them to re-read that issue and read the next couple of captions where that line of thought is rebuked. I generally skip this issue when re-reading the arc. I think that much of it.

Following the 9/11 issue we get another "Peter helps students in real life" story, which became stale and vaguely ridiculous as JMS' run wen on. This case is not so bad, but not so great. The girl's brother is a drug fiend, and the live on the streets. Peter gets involved to save the brother and the girl, but doesn't really help them beyond that. I'm not sure what to take from this issue, other than that the title ("Interlude") was probably the best thing about the issue. Oh, and May sits on a bench for a while before calling Peter to say that they need to have The Conversation.

Can you read this cover? No?
Then forget everything that
happened inside it.
And one issue later that's what we get. No super-heroing at all in this issue, just Peter and May cutting to the chase. I know this is the umpteenth time May should have worked out Pete was Spider-man, and hell she'd actually done as much before and said so in issue 400 (only to have it retconned away, thank you very much 1990's Marvel). We get a brief recap of the events surrounding Uncle Ben's death (including a retcon) and end with the two deciding they'll try and forgive each other. It's a solid issue, but not stellar, and the fact that the best panel is something that really only shines because of events in the last year or so makes my point for me. PS this issue? might as well not exist after Brand New Day.

Honey, when will you get plastic surgery
so your face looks like pressed ham?
And then, then we get the 'Nuff Said issue. The concept of 'Nuff Said was that it was a challenge from Joe Quesada and the rest of the editorial staff at the time to their writers and artists to go one month without a word balloon, thought balloon, caption, etc while still producing a story that could be followed by fans, and not trying to get away with some alternate universe story. As Bill Jemas put it back then " of our goals with the silent month was to give the reading public a peek at what people like Joe (Quesada) and I see every month, which is sort of a beautiful colored comic book page without balloons." Which is a fair enough goal. Pity it takes about 5 minutes to read through while getting the story and intend emotion. Pity that JRJr was doing the art for such a concept, and turned in some of the most awful pictures of Mary Jane Watson-Parker (one-time super model) ever seen. Pity that the plot thread with May is explained via text on a computer screen somewhat copping out of the point. So what do we get from the issue? Peter misses his estranged wife MJ, MJ maybe misses her estranged husband Peter, May wants the media to stop being mean to Peter/Spider-man, May hasn't forgiven Peter entirely for lying all those years about being Spider-man. That's it. I'd love to see the script, because I think you could have conveyed most of it with that sentence.

Finally we get to the two part Flowers for Rhino. Personally, this is the best part of the TPB. The plot is great, the pencils are great. The colouring leaves a bit to be desired (it seems like the pencils called for noir, and the colours didn't quite match). In any case this story is set (seemingly) entirely out of continuity, and is based upon the material presented in the SciFi short story (and then novel) Flowers for Algernon, with Rhino playing the part of Charlie, and some random monkey paying the part of the mouse Algernon. In essence Rhino gets a job rescuing a mob boss' daughter, Stella, which ends up with him in jail and ruing his terminal idiocy. After trying to have his suit removed, he opts instead for a surgical procedure to make him smarter. The second issue deals with the repercussions, and I think any fan who feels that the "evil genius" stereotype is flimsy will be happy with the outcome. This story is charming and personal, and includes details necessitated by the content of the story to stave of the finicky comments of fans without sacrificing the pacing of the story. In just two issues. Someone put this in front of Brian Michael Bendis. Now.

So where does that leave me in the wash-up of this issue? I mean, I panned two issues, gave solid a solid "meh" to two issues, and loved the loving gizzards out of the last two issues. I guess it depends on how you get hold of it. It's not value for money if you're paying more than $10 US. It's not collectable like the single issue versions are (though only the 9/11 issue seems to be worth money these days). It's not the most efficient means to fill your JMS run out if you don't have Volume 1 or Volume 3 of the same printed run. It's got Flowers for Rhino which breaks the JMS run up. Overall I'd give you this advice for buying it: get it if the cost of the book and shipping is under $12 US, and you have Volume 1 or Volume 3 in this run and aren't think of swapping to the Ultimate Collection editions. As far as reading it again goes, sure flip through it quickly if you're reading JMS' run through, otherwise skip to Flowers, and leave the rest in the mental bin it belongs in.

Well after thinking that I was on to a good thing last week, I'm really not sure what to go for next week. For a change of pace I'll go with something I've been meaning to get around to re-reading.
I mean, the cover claims it's "Vikings finally done right", how could that go wrong?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,