Recent Dorkiness

The Art and Science of Dead Super Heroes

There's this little thing we do periodically here on the Dork Forty that we like to call... FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!! Fantastic Four #600, by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting, Carmine DeGiandomenico, Ming Doyle, Leinil Francis Yu, and Farel Dalrymple There are a number of ways to approach anniversary issues. You can do the big retrospective celebration of the series' history. You can do the “conclusion to the big major storyline” thing, or maybe even take the book in an “exciting new direction.” Or you can do what Jonathan Hickman and his collaborators did here, and just give us a major story in the on-going saga of Marvel's first family. Granted, with 100 pages to burn, Hickman covers a lot of ground, and he does so with a multitude of stories, each drawn by a different artist. So we get a regular-sized chapter of the current storyline (a Kree invasion of Earth), a handful of short features filling in some pretty important things that have happened in the background between issues of that storyline, and the capper, the double-length story at the heart of the book that brings the Human Torch back from the dead.

Should I have said "SPOILER"? I think maybe I should have...

And, seriously, there's no cheat here. He actually does come back from the dead. Not just once, but... Hell, I'm not exactly sure how many times Johnny Storm dies in this story, but it's a lot. I won't spoil the details here, but it's at once a cool science fiction adventure story, and a pretty funny commentary on Marvel marketing's decree that they kill off a major character once a quarter. Sure, it's still part of that big, artificial marketing ploy, and we all knew it was going to happen. But as I've argued before, super hero stories follow predictable formulas anyway. The only thing that matters is how entertainingly those formulas are executed along the way.

And I was entertained here. This is very much a Human Torch story, one in which he shines as a hero in his own right, something we don’t often get to see in the book’s team environment. He handles a bad situation with aplomb, and solves problems his own way, outside of Reed’s leadership. It’s impressive, and fun, and horribly horribly violent. In other words, solid spandex funnybooks.

It’s no more than that, though, and that means I’m gonna have to think long and hard about whether I want to keep buying this book in print, or go digital with it. Especially now that it’s going to be two different series (FF, the post-Johnny-Storm iteration of the book, will be continuing alongside the revived Fantastic Four series starting next month). If the price point’s at four bucks for each of them, I might have to consider dropping one or both. But if they’re keeping it at three… Let’s be honest here. Much as I’ve been enjoying this run, I’ll almost certainly never re-read it. And that would make it perfect for digital status. Hrm. Only time will tell.

Grade: B+

Kick-Ass 2 #5 (of 6), by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr

I expect big dumb fun out of this book, and that’s what it delivers on the whole. There’s one major (and I do mean MAJOR) plot point in this issue, though, that hinges on a pretty horrible misunderstanding of the American penal system. Without getting into spoilers, Kick-Ass’ dad has been arrested after claiming to be Kick-Ass in an attempt to protect his son from legal troubles. But, because Kick-Ass hasn’t actually done anything, you know, wrong… They’re only going to hold him for 48 hours. And yet, he seems to get processed and held in a full-blown prison, rather than the local lock-up they’d actually put you in for that kind of arrest. And it’s that prison set-up that allows something very bad to happen, something that probably couldn’t happen in the drunk tank.

This in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the bloodbath that follows, understand. It’s exactly the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top violence I read Kick-Ass to see, and I loved every minute of it.

But, man. I spent the rest of the issue with my suspension of disbelief totally shattered. It’s a fine line you have to walk in this kind of story. A nine-year-old killing machine is blatantly ridiculous, for instance, and thus a-okay. But if you’re going to deal with the legal ramifications of being a super hero… That’s too close to reality not to get it right.

Grade: B

RASL by Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith remains one of modern comics’ most interesting cartoonists, and a purveyor of exactly the sort of off-center middle-brow fantasy we love the most around here. While I doubt we’ll ever get something like Asterios Polyp out of him, his first series Bone is already an all-ages classic of the type that sells over time to generations of readers.

(And if you don’t know Bone, you should. It’s like Lord of the Rings filtered through Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and any fantasy fan who’s unfamiliar with it can’t really consider themselves well-read in the genre. That’s right! I just called out the fantasy dorks! Read Bone or turn in your Hobbit wigs, muthascratchas!)

At any rate. Smith has made his name, and his fortune, outside the funnybook mainstream. That’s a rarity in an industry whose fanbase seems so fanatically devoted to corporate trademarks at the expense of everything else, and I admire the hell out of him for doing it. Granted, he hit it big in the 90s, when small independent comics could still become breakaway hits, but Smith earned every ounce of his success by busting his ass to make it happen.

Bone has been so successful, in fact, that I can only imagine that it’s funding Smith’s current project, a decidedly uncommercial science fiction epic called RASL. Obsessed with quantum physics, multiple universe theory, and the work of Nikola Tesla, RASL is as much history and science lesson as it is a sci-fi adventure story (though it’s one of those, too). This issue’s overview of Tesla’s life, for instance, kind of makes me wish Smith would do a full funnybook bio of the great man.

I mean, LOOK at this!

Sure, it removes the action from the creepy (some would say positively Lynchian) atmosphere of previous installments, and any issue in which God (a deformed little girl in a filthy sun dress) doesn’t appear is always a bit disappointing. But I’m as fascinated by Tesla as Smith obviously is, so… In my book, it’s all good.

(Oh, and I buy this in print. I’m not even sure it’s available in a digital edition, and even if it were… I’m gonna want a hard copy of this one. I think it’ll stand up to a re-read once it’s all done. Kinda looking forward to it, in fact…)

Grade: A

Superman #1 & 2, by George Perez and Jesus Merino

I’ve been enjoying Grant Morrison’s Action Comics so much that I decided (against my better judgment) to check out the new Superman title, as well, just to see the future Action’s heading towards. On that front, these two issues served me well. Clark Kent’s working for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane has moved on to TV news, and the whole civilian side of things seems to circle around the tension between print and broadcast journalism. There’s frustrated romance between Clark, Lois, and Superman, too, but on the whole this is a comic about the news business.

And that’s pretty cool. Superman hasn’t really made being a reporter feel like an exciting career since the earliest days of the strip, and it’s neat to see that return. I like the busy feel of it, too, the non-stop hustle and bustle of the newsroom, the tensions between getting the story out fast and getting it out right, and the way that modern communications technology has changed how all that works. I also like that Our Hero, the Man of Tomorrow, doesn’t check his cell phone and is considered a bit of a Luddite by those around him for so diligently sticking with print in a video world.

Or, should I say, I like the idea of all that. Because the execution of it is a little less thrilling. It’s not a bad book, per se, it’s just… not very good. Perez is doing this news story style of narration that, while it ties nicely into the book’s themes, comes off as a bit belabored. Rather than getting more insight into what Superman’s going through in the action sequences, I feel like I’m being told things that the art should be showing me. Granted, it’s not showing me much of anything. Jesus Merino is packing his pages full of images, but to no good end. Too often, even beyond the intrusive narration, Perez is having to spackle the action together with expository dialogue from Jimmy Olsen as he films whatever’s happening (or should be happening) on-panel. It’s Merino’s job to convey that information, and he’s not getting it done.

Of course, the action sequences he’s being asked to draw are also pretty uninspired. In both of these issues, we see Superman fighting a nameless, faceless, personality-less, monster while cameras record his every action. This is obviously leading somewhere, of course, but it’s also dead boring. There’s a reason pulp super-villains gloat and leer: it’s entertaining! And that’s something these super-monsters, thus far, are not. Much of the supporting cast falls flat, too, coming off more like one-dimensional caricatures than actual people.

I dunno. Like I said, the book’s not awful. It just ain’t good. Even buying these issues digitally for two bucks a pop on DC’s one-month-later Cheap Bastard Plan, I don’t feel like I got my money’s worth. So, bleh. End of the line for this one.

Grade: C-

Ultimate Hawkeye #4 (of 4), by Jonathan Hickman, Rafa Sandoval, and Jordi Tarragona

While I’m glad that, with the conclusion of this Hawkeye mini, Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates work will be confined to a single four-dollar funnybook… I’ve gotta say, this was pretty damn good. In one fell swoop, he’s managed to introduce the Ultimate versions of the most mis-handled Marvel creations of both Jack Kirby and Grant Morrison. That’s impressive, both from a creative standpoint, and for having the balls to tackle cast-off concepts from two of the most vivid imaginations in funnybook history.

How does he do it? By introducing us to the Chinese twin brothers Xorn and Zorn, the two most successful products of the SEAR super-soldier program. They have stars for brains or somesuch, and one of them leads a group of super-humans known as the Celestials, while the other leads an equal and opposite group known as the Eternals. They work together like the opposing sides of yin and yang…

...as reflected in their spandex monk robes...

…and consider the regular old human race to be Deviants. Which… wow. If you’re up on your Kirby and Morrison, that works far, far better than it has any right to. Kirby’s Celestial/Eternal terminology slots very neatly into Asian cultures, after all, and if you’re talking about Asian Marvel characters who are all about the sort of transcendent consciousness and mystery of Kirby’s work, Morrison’s maybe-he-existed-maybe-he-didn’t Xorn and his even-less-certain-of-reality brother are a perfect fit. I’m still kind of reeling from the elegance of it, even now. Bravo, Mr. Hickman! That is some mighty fine pulp remodeling right there!

It’s not all about combining spandex DNA, however. We also get some fascinating (and perhaps even terrifying) insight into Hawkeye and his relationship to Nick Fury. Warned by Xorn that completing his mission and returning the Celestial serum to the West might have dire consequences one day, Hawkeye’s faith in Fury is so complete that he doesn’t even bat an eye. So it’s mission accomplished, with a sudden heavy burden placed upon Fury’s unwitting and all-too-fallible shoulders. Which makes me look forward to future issues of The Ultimates very, very much…

Grade: B+

The Shade #2 (of 12), by James Robinson and Cully Hamner

After feeling kind of luke-warm about this series’ debut issue, I gave it another chance in digital form. And I kind of wish I hadn’t. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but… I’m just finding something about it off-putting. I think maybe in part it’s the glib tone. That can go over well with me, but there’s a self-satisfied edge to it here that bugs me. The narration from the detective Von Hammer, especially, makes me want to slap somebody. He introduces himself with a quote from the Shaft theme song, then self-consciously reveals that he’s really not “a private detective and a sex machine with all the chicks,” but that he’s “always wanted to say that.”

Gah! Okay, number one, I’ve seen that “I’ve always wanted to say that” gag a million times. Number two, quoting the Shaft theme is also a pretty played out joke. And number three, quoting Shaft isn’t funny at all if you don’t get it right! It’s DICK! Private DICK! Who’s a sex machine with all the chicks! See, there’s a sex joke in there if you say “dick,” and there’s not one if you say “detective!” The whole scene’s just a big ball of suck, and it’s only made worse because I get the feeling that the writer actually thinks it’s pretty clever.

GAH!

With shit like that going on, I find the Shade’s Oscar-Wilde-via-Bauhaus patter annoying, as well, and I get an even greater sense that James Robinson thinks that’s clever. And to be fair, it probably is sometimes. But I absolutely can’t appreciate it because the book’s overall tone is driving me batshit.

Cully Hamner’s artwork, however, is very nice.

Grade: C

Captain America and Bucky # 624, by Ed Brubaker, Marc Andreyko, and Chris Samnee

The sixth and final issue of this creative team’s run through Bucky Barnes’ life comes to a close here, and it’s been a nice ride. The writing’s been imminently decent, and I love the period setting. I might not have started reading if I’d known going in that this was really just a lead-in to the new Winter Soldier series launching next year, mind you. I wanted World War II super-action, and the scope of this was sort of outside that.

But it’s Chris Samnee’s artwork that really made this book worth buying, and it’s also the only reason I’m even writing about it tonight. Because, out of dozens of nice panels in this final issue, there was this one:

click to embiggen

And that’s such a nice piece of cartooning that I just had to share it.

Grade: B

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About Mark Brett (431 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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