So last week, I said I’d catch up on some older reviews this week, unless something amazing came out. Well, nothing amazing hit the stands, really, but SO MANY BOOKS came out that I just decided to cut bait and move on. Seriously, we got new Gideon Falls, Immortal Hulk, Superman, Pearl, Daredevil… and the book we’re going to start out with below. So here we go, with LAST WEEK’S COMICS TODAY!
Spider-Man: Life Story 3
by Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley
This issue takes Spider-Man into the 1980s, and deals with two of the three stories that define the character for that decade: the saga of the Black Costume, and “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”
The third major 80s story would be Roger Stern’s long-running Hobgoblin arc, but the series’ premise (aging Spider-Man in real time) has rendered that story far less likely to happen. It hinges on someone finding Norman Osborn’s hidden stashes of Green Goblin equipment, and the way the more mature Peter Parker chose to handle things with Norman made those secret stashes less likely to exist by the 80s.
Of course, Peter Parker being a successful middle-aged scientist and businessman changes the way things go with Kraven and the black costume, too. Secret Wars still happens…
…and that’s still where he gets the alien symbiote that becomes his new outfit. But after he gets back to Earth with it, he’s far more aware of the dangers the suit represents. He figures out that it’s trying to bond to him pretty quickly, and takes measures to limit its affect on him. But he still keeps wearing it in spite of the danger, because, well… He’s getting older. His body doesn’t work as well as it once did. The suit bolsters his abilities, and allows him to keep righting wrongs the same way he’s been doing for the last 20 years of his life. A better solution would be to figure out new ways to help people (like maybe with his science and wealth), but Pete can’t see it.
This is some particularly smart writing on Chip Zdarsky’s part. One of the series’ continuing threads is the relationship between Peter and Reed Richards. Aging in real time, and existing without the need to periodically reset the status quo like in the original stories, this Reed never got over the obsessive work ethic that drove Sue away from him on more than one occasion in the real 1970s FF stories, and has since lost his entire family because of it. He and Pete had a falling out back in the disco era, and Pete thinks he’s learned from Reed’s example.
But he’s wrong. Just seeing that word “responsibility,” the foundation stone of the Spider-Man ethos, set off alarm bells for me, and I was right to be worried. I mean, getting yanked away to Secret Wars by some crazy space-god is hardly Pete’s fault, but it causes him to miss the birth of his children. And much as that pains him, it doesn’t stop him from continuing to operate as Spider-Man, and to use the black suit to keep from losing a step. It’s putting too much pressure on Mary Jane, and driving a wedge between them as surely as Reed’s obsession drove Sue into the arms of Namor. I like that parallel, made all the more tragic by the fact that Peter thinks he knows better. It’s a kind of blindness that rings true to me, for a person so driven by the desire to do right.
Then “Kraven’s Last Hunt” starts, and all those threads get sewn together. In this version of the story, Kraven’s getting old, too. He’s dying of cancer, and (just as in the original story) takes on the persona of his greatest foe as a means of fighting off the end. But he also wants to draw Spider-Man in, to make him find his full potential, or die in the attempt. So it becomes a story about two men who should be moving on, but who can’t let go of the past long enough to do it. And that damned black costume becomes the focal point for both of them.
So this issue is a really masterful distillation of everything that defined Spider-Man in the 80s, joined to Zdarsky’s own themes of aging and maturation. I won’t spoil how it all plays out, but I was really impressed, especially with the last page. It’s a good twist that I didn’t see coming. I probably should have, mind you. But I was sufficiently wrapped up in the rest of it that I didn’t even think about it.
Another thing I didn’t think about on my first reading is a potential tip of the hat to the biggest super hero story of the 1980s: Watchmen. That story’s all about the looming threat of nuclear armageddon, and the affect super heroes might have on that conflict. Here, Zdarsky describes a perceived super-human arms race.
I love that it was the Red Ghost, of all characters, who saved Russia from the American nukes. It’s good to be reminded that he’s about more than just the Super-Apes. But as Peter says in the narration, things don’t go quite as well in America. At least one Russian missile hits, and a chunk of Pennsylvania is wiped out.
Pete helps with the clean-up instead of joining other American heroes in an attack on Russia, which is probably wise. In this instance, he can do more good with his science than with his fists. There’s a nice irony in that, though: he once again avoids taking Spider-Man to war, but he can’t make the leap from the large-scale good he’s doing as a scientist to the smaller-scale good he could do if he cut back on being Spider-Man in general. In fact, his avoidance of the larger physical conflict plays on his sense of responsibility in such a way that it’s making it even harder for him to concentrate on what’s best for his family.
So, yeah. This is good, multi-layered writing, easily the best work I’ve seen from Chip Zdarsky. It’s even good in the little details. The way he dropped the thought balloons this issue, just like how they started to disappear in the 1980s. And the dialogue! There are a couple of scenes here with people communicating in half-sentences, with the sort of awkward, loss-for-words pauses that happen when you have too much to say, and too many emotions getting in the way of saying it. It’s just damned impressive, all the way around.
If I have any complaint about what he did here, in fact, it’s that he doesn’t follow up on one of the more intriguing sub-plots from the first two issues: Captain America in Vietnam. Last time out, we learned that Cap was fighting a one-man war against both sides, saving innocent Vietnamese villagers and American soldiers alike. Iron Man, meanwhile, was fighting wholly on the side of the American army, and it looked like a confrontation between the two was inevitable.
This issue, however, both of them appear to be fighting on the same side in Secret Wars, and there’s no mention of the previous conflict. Granted, it has little to do with what’s going on in Peter Parker’s life in 1984. But it had such a huge impact on Pete’s earlier decisions that I want to know how it turned out. There’s still time, of course. We’re only halfway through this series, so he could return to it later.
But for now… This was easily the best comic of last week, and I’m very glad indeed that I decided to give this series a shot.
by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto
Another Chip Zdarsky comic, and one that… while quite good… is nowhere near as good as Life Story #3. Though it does have an eerie parallel that I have to think was at least partially intentional.
This issue, Matt Murdock comes to grips with the fact that he killed a man. If you’ve been following this story, you’ll know that it was an accidental death. But it’s still tearing Matt apart, and making him act in ways that are far from rational. His friends (Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist) try to help him as best they can, but mostly they just make things worse by telling him that they’ve all been through it.
Now, that’s kind of a shocking revelation in and of itself, to me. We’ve seen stories in which super heroes kill, and in which people are killed as a byproduct of super hero fights. But honestly… The kind of careless accidental death that happened in the first issue of this book is such a rarity that I’m a bit agog that they’re establishing it as something that just happens sometimes. Not that they’re trivializing it. But even suggesting that it’s commonplace is… Well, that’s shocking to me. I don’t dislike it, mind you. It’s just a surprising thing to hear these characters discuss.
But that’s not what I was going to talk about here. I was going to talk about the parallel to Life Story. So let’s do that, instead.
After talking to Luke, Jessica, and Danny, Matt goes home, where he gets a visit from none other than the star of Chip Zdarsky’s other comic this week: Spider-Man. And Spider-Man tells him this:
Which… Holy crap. That’s exactly the speech Thirtysomething Spider-Man needs to hear over in Life Story! Not that the two books are connected in any way, except by their author. But you just have to know that the writing of one informed the writing of the other.
(Spider-Man tells Matt that he’s accidentally killed someone before, too, by the way. Which… I dunno. There’s 30 years of Spider-Man stuff I’ve barely looked at. So I guess it’s possible. But holy crap. HOLY. CRAP. This is blowing my damn mind.)
Anyway. Matt comes to a decision after that, and I’m curious to see where Zdarsky takes the book next. He’s said that this was his initial pitch for the series, so I’m assuming that next issue we’ll get to what his run is really going to be about. Which, you know, should be interesting.
Gideon Falls 13
by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino
This issue continues Father Burke’s journey from 19th Century Gideon Falls through the multitude of alternate realities linked together by the Black Barn. If you’d told me a year ago that this book would be trading in haunted quantum mechanics at this point, I’d have said you were crazy. But here we are.
After that little homage to the Akira Effect, we get a super-authoritarian militant atheist Gideon Falls, in which both Father Burke and the mysterious wide-mouthed man from the Black Barn wind up in jail. And that’s when something sinks in for me that I hadn’t twigged to before: that weird revenant from the Barn is actually Norton Sinclair, the 19th Century serial killer whose actions seem to have started this whole mess. Sinclair has apparently come into contact with something far worse than himself in the depths of the Barn, and it’s turned him into… this:
Of course, Norton Sinclair is also the name given to the surgical-masked mental patient from Big City Gideon Falls, who’s actually the reality-tossed little brother of the sheriff from Small Town Gideon Falls, whose story is the one that lead us into the Black Barn to begin with. That Norton Sinclair, I think, is an unsuspecting pawn of giant-mouthed serial killer Norton Sinclair, but to what end we don’t yet know. Is he a replacement, somehow? Or some kind of sympathetic magic surrogate set up to open the Barn in Big City Gideon Falls?
Whatever it winds up being, I’ll be around to find out. This reality-hopping story arc has made me a bit wary that the series will take a downward turn, but this issue is impressive enough that my fears have been quelled. Gideon Falls remains impressive stuff, one of the more compelling series on the market right now. Definitely worth a look.
Immortal Hulk 17
by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett
Another month, another entertaining chapter in Al Ewing’s horror-adventure take on the Hulk. This time around, Banner takes on the persona of Joe Fixit (aka the Gray Hulk), but without physically changing. This is a bit of a new twist on Banner’s multiple personality disorder, but I’m sure Ewing has plans for it. He always does, it seems.
Joe Bennett continues to turn in satisfyingly gruesome body horror transformation scenes, though, especially this issue, when Banner gets an overdose of Gamma radiation, and…
Yeah, that can’t be good.
It is fun comics, though, and sometimes that’s all you need.
by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos
So this is yet another issue of stellar artwork from Gaydos…
…and better story than you’d expect from Bendis.
Okay. That critique is flippant, and not entirely fair to the author. Bendis has been turning out good character work on this book from day one. Plot-wise, though, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s meandered around from one event to the next, and there’s a weird disconnect to the storytelling that makes it feel like nobody actually cares very much about anything that’s happening.
Character-wise, though, like I said, it’s been great. And we get another great character beat this time out, as Pearl finds out her mother told everyone that she bleached Pearl’s skin white as a child “for not respecting your father.” To which she responds…
That’s a hell of a story to tell, and a hell of a thing to find out that your mother told people about you. But Pearl’s reaction to it, that denial followed by stoic silence, tells us a lot about how fast she’s learning to navigate the dangerous waters of Yakuza culture. It’s also something that’s got to have an impact on Pearl’s next couple of decisions. Which I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that instead of getting out of the crime business, what Pearl does next only gets her in deeper.
Which is all to the good, considering that we’ve still got three issues to go…
by Brian Michael Bendis and Ivan Reis
So, wow! This is two issues in a row of this book that I didn’t think were largely empty and dumb! And Ivan Reis even managed to draw an entire issue for a change! And… AND… It’s a story featuring Rogol Zaar that I didn’t despise on pure instinct!
None of which is to say that this is a great comic. It’s not. But it is pretty good. And several of Bendis’ long-term subplots come together to make it that way. So for this book, that’s a win!
Aaaaannndd… That’s all for now. I still need to do a write-up on Little Bird, a cool new sci-fi series with art by nerd farm favorite Ian Bertram. But that book deserves more time and attention than I can give it right now. So it’ll have to wait. Maybe next week…