New number ones! Sometimes, it seems like corporate spandex comics survive on these things. And it’s easy to see why: number one issues spark sales. In part, that’s because of collectors who believe that number one issues are more valuable (and to be fair, in the collectors’ market, belief often equals reality). So we get the continual relaunches everybody bitches about, but that everybody evidently buys anyway. But another reason new number ones sell, I think, is because people like new beginnings. Fresh starts for old favorites. And that’s something I’d like to talk about today…
Black Widow 1
by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee
When I took this book to the counter to buy it, the guy at my local funnybook store raised an eyebrow. “Who are you, and what have you done with my customer?” he demanded. And, I have to admit… He had a point.
I am not a fan of Mark Waid. I admire how thoroughly he thinks his stories through, and I even think he often has good ideas. I just don’t like his execution of those ideas. He explains too much, rather than demonstrating things. His dialogue doesn’t quite ring true to me, either. But I think my biggest problem with Waid’s stuff is that it’s a tad too… mainstream? …for my tastes. He seldom surprises or delights me. He never shocks me. And, worst of all from my perspective, he never challenges me. Never makes me think. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little escapism, but… I think it’s safe to say that, as a writer, Mark Waid simply isn’t interested in the same things I am as a reader.
Why did I pick up Black Widow, then? That’s easy: Chris Samnee.
I’ve loved Samnee’s art since I first saw it on that all-ages Thor romance comic he did with Roger Langridge a while back (Thor the Mighty Avenger, the interweb tells me). Samnee’s work on that book could be equally fantastic…
…and he’s just damn talented besides. He’s got a great classic illustration style, mixed with solid cartooning chops and a nice sense of dynamic storytelling. When he and Waid were doing Daredevil, I flipped through every issue in the store, just to admire his art. And on Black Widow, they’re working Marvel Style: Samnee’s collaborating on the plots and blocking out the action, with Waid providing dialogue once he’s done. That sounded promising to me.
Even more promising is something a friend told me over the weekend: there’s hardly any dialogue in this first issue. And while he didn’t think of that as a positive, it was what put me over the top on laying down my four bucks for the thing. Less dialogue, after all, means less of the stuff I don’t like about Mark Waid. And since “spy adventure” is one of those genres I can accept a little mindless escapism in, I decided to give it a shot.
How’d it go? Mmm… Pretty good, I guess. As promised, there’s very little dialogue in this issue, which leaves Samnee open to do all the heavy lifting on telling the story. And he rises to the occasion well, with some good fight choreography and a great sense of drama. That page up above, where the Widow is jumping, all action-movie-like, out of an exploding window on the side of a building? It’s followed up on the page turn by this…
…and you realize that it wasn’t a building she was jumping out of, but the SHIELD Helicarrier. Which makes the stakes of her leap a little bit higher.
There’s lots of great spy-fi color, too, with SHIELD agents using jet packs and a flying car to give chase. Plenty of nice ups and downs in that chase, too, with Natasha managing to rather stylishly steal a jet pack from one of her pursuers…
…only for him to turn up on the very next page in that flying car, ready to take her down:
How he got from his parachute into the driver’s seat of a vehicle previously shown plummeting, driverless, down toward the city… is anybody’s guess. Which brings me to Samnee’s failings here: if you’re going to do a silent issue, you’d better make sure the action is airtight. And while it mostly is, there are places where I was left wondering what was going on. There’s an early fight scene, for instance, that’s mostly impeccable:
That’s nice work. SHIELD office drones rush the Widow in panel one, she elbows one of them in the face while getting another in a headlock in panel two, then she throws headlock boy to one side in panel three as the rest dogpile her and they go crashing through the wall (shoddy government construction!). There’s just one problem with the sequence: the female agent. In panel one, she’s rushing the Widow face-first, along with the two men I’ve already discussed. So in panel two, how did Natasha manage to hit her with a knock-out dart in the back of the neck?
It’s a small thing, yes. But if you’re telling the story with pictures, it’s important. And because I was enjoying the craftsmanship that went into so much of that storytelling, the cheats and errors stand out more. Later on, for instance, the Widow hops a motorcycle and leads the flying car on a merry chase through what looks like an under-construction high-rise in the middle of New York City. It’s a really cool sequence. But the next thing we know, the action has inexplicably shifted to a mountain road, with no transition whatsoever.
There’s also a problem with that scene where the Widow steals the jet pack. I showed you the cool part earlier, but here’s the whole page:
Now, that’s a great character bit at the top, where she feigns helplessness to get in close. It tells us that Our Hero is not above using sexism as a weapon. But when she steals the jet pack… What, exactly, is going on there? She just slips her arms in under his, and pulls the rip chord on his parachute. But the jet pack’s still around his shoulders, and… Wouldn’t it have to pass through his torso for the scene to happen as drawn? I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the jet pack, but… That just doesn’t make any sense.
Another problem with that scene is the dialogue. I’m a little disappointed in general that they didn’t go completely silent with the action. A line or two at the beginning to establish why Natasha’s on the run from SHIELD (she stole something from them) would probably have done it, with maybe another line or two at the end for punctuation. But the rest of the dialogue honestly seems superfluous to me. Check out this scene a few pages later, for instance:
“Hill’s exact order.” I guess maybe Waid felt like he needed to excuse SHIELD’s use of such heavy ordinance in New York City. I dunno. But the page works perfectly… works better, even… without the agent saying a word. And since the scene shifts to the mountains on literally the next page, I’m not sure it even serves that purpose.
There’s also the problem that pretty much all the SHIELD dialogue makes the agents sound like a bunch of idiot thugs. I assume it’s supposed to accentuate how very clever and bad ass Black Widow is. But all the clever and bad ass stuff she does takes care of that quite nicely, thanks, so there’s no need to diminish SHIELD to drive the point home.
But let me slow down a minute here. Honestly, I don’t mean to crap on this comic. As I said, it’s quite well-done overall, and I did enjoy reading it. So let’s close this thing out with a little praise.
Natasha eventually manages to blow up the flying car, leaving it a heap of flaming wreckage. But when she goes forward to check on the driver, he (having gotten clear of the explosion) gets the drop on her. Then this happens:
I share the entire page here because I really like how Samnee jumps to a 14-panel grid (!) to convey the brutality of what’s happening. This is not crazy wide-screen cinematic action. This is two people beating the shit out of each other in the mud.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. No, what I like the most here is what it reveals about Natasha: she’s not willing to let a man die in a burning car, but she is willing to shoot that man in the head, straight-up execution style, when the chips are down. That speaks volumes about her, and it’s the kind of fine character detail I have to think is Waid’s idea. It just feels like something he would do.
Now, in a comic where he wasn’t going out of his way to let the artist tell the story, I’m sure he’d have felt the need to embellish the scene with lots of dialogue belaboring the point he was trying to make. But here, thank god, he didn’t. And it’s a far better scene because of it. Which just goes to show, even writers you don’t generally enjoy can sometimes pull off beautiful stuff.
Would I call Black Widow #1 beautiful on the whole, though? Mmmm… Not quite. It’s damn good comics, well-worth reading. It’s creative, bravado work of a kind that’s seldom seen anymore on corporate spandex properties. But it ain’t high art. And it’s flawed in ways that bug me. So I can’t give it my highest score.
Well. That took a little longer than I expected. Still, though. I’ve got time to talk about one more new number one before I go today…
Power Man and Iron Fist 1
by David Walker and Sanford Greene
I loved this book when I was a kid. Seriously. I missed the Claremont/Byrne issues, unfortunately, but the Mary Jo Duffy/Kerry Gammill stuff was my jam. That run struck a nice balance between adventure and comedy, offering lighthearted street-level thrills that were always fun to read. So how does this new series measure up? Well…
The more things change, the more they stay the same. David Walker has captured the tone I remember, and updated it a bit, both for modern audiences and these characters’ current status quo. Granted, I’m not sure how I feel about his characterization of Iron Fist as a hyperactive Owen Wilson type. And his running gag of Cage using childish made-up cuss words really started getting on my nerves before the issue was over. A good old-fashioned “Sweet Christmas!” was much-appreciated, but some of the cutesy shit that comes out of Cage’s mouth just doesn’t work for me. I also found the reason for it a little difficult to buy:
I mean, sure, it’s funny. But anybody who’s ever read Alias will tell you that Jessica Jones has a far, FAR dirtier mouth than her husband. I think Brian Bendis even made a joke about it at one point. So that fell flat for me.
Otherwise, though, it’s a fun read. And I would feel remiss if I didn’t express how much I like Sanford Greene’s art here, too. He’s got a funky, expressive style that I like quite a bit. His stuff’s grounded and gritty, but not afraid to get cartoony at the same time. I’m especially taken with his take on classic Power Man villain Black Mariah:
So, yeah. I enjoyed this new Power Man and Iron Fist. It’s lighthearted street-level super heroics with a funky art style that I dig. Still don’t know if I’ll be sticking around for it monthly, though. It’s good, but I’m not sure it’s four dollar funnybook good. At three, I wouldn’t think twice. At four, I’ve gotta wonder if I’m really enjoying it THAT much. So we shall see.