Alexis E. Farjado, Animal Man, Batman, Batwoman, Bob Scott, Brian Azzarello, Brian Bolland, Brian Michael Bendis, Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown, Charlie Chaplin, Chris Samnee, Cliff Chiang, Courtney Crumrin, Daredevil, David Marquez, David Mazzucchelli, DC, E.C. Segar, Eisner Award, Evey Hammond, Flash Gordon, Fleischer Brothers, Fred the Clown, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, IDW, J.H. Williams III, Jeff Lemire, Kevin Maguire, Kevin Nowlan, Laurel and Hardy, Lewis Carroll, Mark Waid, Marvel, Merciless: The Rise of Ming, Mike DeCarlo, Monty Python, Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, Paige Braddock, Peanuts, Popeye, Rocket: Cargo of Doom, Roger Langridge, Ron Adrian, Sandman, Sara Pichelli, Scott Beatty, Shane Houghton, Snarked, Spider-Men, Superman, Ted Naifeh, The Shade, Ultimate Spider-Man, United We Stand, V for Vendetta, Vicki Scott, W. Haden Blackman, W.C. Fields, Wonder Woman
Derek Mainhart: So this week was marked by the end of three series I enjoyed (in addition to The Shade from last week – sniff!) Let’s start with the one I liked in spite of myself:
Spider-Men #5: I was all set to not like this series. It seemed pointless – why kill Peter Parker if you’re going to introduce Miles Morales to…Peter Parker? (The fact that he’s from an alternate reality just seemed like splitting hairs.) The only reason I picked it up was that Brian Michael Bendis has created a compelling character in young Miles. And then, about midway through, I found myself getting caught up in it. One of the things that make for a good story are memorable moments. And this series, especially in the last two issues, was full of them. The scenes with Peter “reuniting” (for the first time?) with Aunt May and Gwen Stacy were touching and understated, the reactions of all involved perfectly calibrated. Mysterio almost willing himself to be defeated was wry and knowing. (By pointing out the cliche, Bendis milks it for humor turning a potential weakness into a strength.) And it ended on a wonderful note: a cliffhanger that was organic, inevitable and completely earned. The art by Sara Pichelli was knockout; a touch of Kevin Maguire in the facial expressions, some Brian Bolland in the refined linework. (Yes, she’s keeping that kind of company.) I was still left with a slight, nagging feeling of “having your cake and eating it too” by the whole concept. But when that concept gives rise to a series this good, my reservations (unlike this book, as it turned out) were pointless.
Scott Carney: Yeah: I agree. I, too, was lulled into a sense of “Who shoots a web?” about this series. I jumped into it for a pair of reasons: the creative team–as you’ve said–is top-notch; and wouldn’t you know, I’m kind of caught up in Miles, clearly the most compelling character kicking around any of the Marvel universes. After the first couple of issues, I wasn’t very impressed. To be honest, I stuck with it only because it was a five-issue run. And I’m glad I did: as I’ve described at length in a “Scottlight on” post, I absolutely loved #4. Oh, I could’ve called it quits there, at the highest of highs, but there was only one chapter left; so I picked up #5 with amazingly low expectations. And, as one might–and as I did–imagine, those expectations were met–until the end, of course. What a final page! Peter’s searching for Miles on the–ahem–World Wide Web–is pitch perfect and honest. Plus, I think Bendis is making the ultimate statement here: that even Peter Parker–the Marvel hero–is interested, just as much as we are, in Miles Morales, the spiderling who would replace him, more or less.
DM: Which brings us to Miles’ regular book Ultimate Spider-Man #15. As mentioned above, Bendis has more than justified the decision to kill off Ultimate Peter by crafting such a refreshing character in Miles. This book shines when it concentrates on its young protagonist’s private life; his interactions with his best friend (the irrepressible Ganke), his chilling interactions with his murderous uncle (quite a change from Ben!) and especially the ever-growing complexity of his relationship with his father. In Miles’ Dad, Bendis has created a character that is completely decent, full of integrity, and utterly fallible. (It’s a shame that Mom is still a bit of a cipher). The interactions between father and son have been the highlights of the series. Methinks tragedy lies ahead, and not the simple kind caused by burglar’s bullet. Paradoxically, the least compelling scenes are the ones with Spider-Man. The wisecracks seem to have come too easily to Miles and make it difficult to discern any difference between him and Peter Parker, at least when he’s in costume. So if I have on a quibble here, it’s that developments from the “UNITED WE STAND” crossover (there it is, stamped right on the cover, see?!) seem to be pushing the book in a direction of less Miles, more Spider-Man. Hopefully I’m wrong. (Crossovers. Ugh.)
SC: I feel your pain when it comes to crossovers. I think it’s time to look at any “stamp” or banner or threat of a crossover or tie-in as a sign–a desperate warning sign, like, I don’t know, Bridge Out.
In terms of USM #15, I couldn’t have said it any better. The book itself is better when Miles is just plain Miles–and when he bands together with his super-free coterie–Ganke and the family–to take on the wicked, and infinitely patient, antagonist Adolescence. I mean, come on: Ganke’s premature discharge (art by the solid David Marquez)–with Peter’s web shooters in hand–is a all-too-relatable teenage tragedy that calls down the comedy with every web cast toward the ceiling. With a chunk of ceiling dangling from a strand in his hand, Miles admits, “I gotta have my webs”; but he’s had plenty from the get-go, including the stickiest one–how his dad feels about Spider-Man–which plays out here some, but to no great effect. Speaking of no great effect: if Spider-Men #5 has a perfect ending, this one has, well, not that.
DM: As good as USM has been, Marvel’s best book (with the Eisners to prove it!) has been Daredevil. Mark Waid has infused, not only the character, but the entire series with personality and style to spare. In this he’s been abetted by some stellar artists including Chris Samnee this issue (Waid and Samnee are quickly becoming the new team supreme – check out Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom). Issue 18 though, is a bit of a letdown. What bothers me, I think, is the shift in tone. Waid’s run has distinguished itself (mostly) from DD’s usual morose proceedings by injecting a good dose of healthy, swashbuckling fun. The somewhat forced conflict between Matt and Foggy in this issue, and now the re-introduction of a tragic character from the ol’ gloom-and-doom, pre-Waid days, is threatening to let the air out, sending DD back into the deep, dank basement from which he so recently escaped. Ah well, Samnee’s art, as I said, is fantastic, with the best bits having to do with DD riding up and down an elevator.
SC: OK, so, I think I know what you’re saying without your saying it outright. Hidden there in your pristine prose is exactly how I felt about this issue, too: it’s boring. Like you, I didn’t buy the B.S. rift between Matt and Foggy as it was “developed” in #17, and I certainly am not reaching into my pocket this time around–except, obviously, to pay for the book. I will say that my spirit was lifted as I turned to page 8, which is where I found Matt and Kirsten, thank God, outside of Matt’s apartment. Their conversation–two panels’ worth, anyway—whisked me back to the wonderful DD #12; unfortunately, I wasn’t left there very long. I’m blindly banking on the fact that this issue is a transition into something decidedly more daring and devilish. If it’s not, I’m going to be darned disappointed. Despite my display of displeasure, I assure you that I’m not down on the artwork. Samnee is one of my favorites right now, and I’m happy to see him back here, no matter how dank this month’s delivery may be.
DM: Speaking of dank places: Batwoman #0. The story by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman is wildly uneven. It further explores our hero’s origin and begins with some quite insightful, sensitive reminiscences of her sister and especially her father. This section fleshes out her character’s past motivations while exploring her bond with her father (lots of Daddy issues – get it? issues? – this week!) We then get an extended Kate-in-training montage. Here the writing goes from heartfelt and specific to numbing and cliche’. This is followed by an elaborate exercise in cruelty that, it turns out, was a final test of her readiness set up by – SPOILER ALERT! – her father. First problem – this reads like a second-rate version of Evey Hammond’s transformation in V for Vendetta (right down to Guy Fawkes-like devil mask that dad is sporting). If this reference is intentional, it’s a mistake. You shouldn’t highlight a work that is superior to yours; it can only suffer by comparison. (Do you hear me Jeff Lemire on Animal Man? Leave Grant Morrison’s run alone! – ahem.) The second, and larger problem, as far as this book goes – the premeditated masochism of the plan not only runs counter to what we’ve seen earlier in this very issue, it defies everything we know about her father’s character dating back to Greg Rucka’s original, excellent conception. To say his actions are out of character is an understatement. It reads like a friggin’ supervillain origin. The ending however, is a partial return to sanity, and William’s art, it must always be said, is just gorgeous. He employs the same David Mazzucchelli-inspired style he used for the flashbacks during Rucka’s run, and he nails it. He can pretty much just do anything, art-wise. Take page 13 – he utilizes both the simpler flashback style and his more lush, rendered technique in the same splash page. The visual tension between the two is a show-stopper.
SC: Without question: Williams III’s art is the thing here. But even though his shift in style provides an unexpected and equally as stunning anchor for the pieces of the past, I found myself still somewhat lost in the origin story–and not in a good way. I may as well have been blindfolded like Kate when she first became involved with the “Murder of Crows.” What I was reading, for the most part, meant nothing to me. Could’ve been the Perez-esque (circa New 52 Superman) wordiness of the captions, or the layout of the captions, which was unnecessarily awkward at times; in fact, the gorgeous splash to which you referred is marred only by an almost unreadable caption–red writing on a gray background–to the left of the beautifully rendered Batman. I had to tilt and turn the book; I had to move into the light and out of it again in order to follow the damn narration! That’s unacceptable! It’s something I’d expect from a Marvel book, for goodness sake! I don’t know. It could’ve been–as you stated–that the story of how she came to be a hero is an all too familiar one. Hey, it happens–unless, of course, you’re Azzarello on Wonder Woman #0.
DM: You hit the nail on the head. With Wonder Woman #0, we have a writer in full command of his craft; not surprising when that writer is Brian Azzarello. Check out how he effortlessly establishes theme and tone on just the first page: We see a pubescent Diana climbing to reach a giant egg while the accompanying caption box announces: “The monthly monster strikes again!” This ostensibly refers to comic book deadlines (wink, wink) but offers, of course delicious counterpoint to the image. We are then informed of the conceit that this is a reprint of that classic (apocryphal) series, “All-Girl Adventure Tales for Men”! So there you have it: a tongue-in-cheek, coming of age tale tackling gender issues through the retro paternalistic tone of a comic of yesteryear. Again, that’s just the first page! This is simply writing on another level. (Cliff Chiang’s art complements the tone with bombastic panel compositions, though perhaps not the retro style that the story seems to call for. Oh well, we can’t all be J.H. Williams.) So, young Diana manages to steal the egg from a shrieking harpy (‘natch!) in order bake a cake (‘natch!) for her birthday. After an altercation with one of her Amazon sisters, she runs off feeling misunderstood and isolated (that common teenage malady) She even asks, weeping, (in a panel worthy of Lichtenstein) “Why must I be different?” A god suddenly appears proclaiming in most manly fashion “I be blood! I be iron! I be guts! I be WAR!” (That he does so while wearing what appears to be an outfit from an S&M flick just adds to the fun.) He offers to train her to be the world’s greatest warrior, once a month, under the full moon (‘NATCH!) By now you may be thinking, “Gender issues? Old-fashioned dialogue? S&M outfits?! Maybe I’ll steer clear of this one…” But NO! Here there be battle! Here there be the Minotaur! And despite the inherent irony in the writing, here there be…pathos. As Diana, in the end, must defy her bloodthirsty trainer, Azzarello defines, with utmost sincerity, the essence of his rendition of Wonder Woman: not her strength, not her prowess in battle, but her compassion, her mercy, her love. That he ties this in implicitly with her womanhood might seem, itself, paternalistic, even condescending. I call it revelatory.
SC: I found Wonder Woman #0 to be a clever combination of a writing style that is clearly aware of itself and a retro art style that proudly profits from its roots. Overall, I liked it a lot, perhaps more than USM. I particularly liked the relationship between Diana and Ares, despite its being one we’ve seen a thousand times. Every panel in which we find them together reflects their powerful connection–until, of course, on page 27, when Ares lets Diana have it after she defies him. That connection, however, is never actually severed: the Minotaur is obviously a doppelganger for Ares. (Check out the final panel of page 21 and the first panel of page 26. How about the last two panels of page 27? Accidents? I think not.) And, in that, it’s clear that Diana, in being merciful, has passed Ares’ test after all. Ah, the “Merry Men” have done it again–even if it is for the first time.
DM: Another book conjuring impressive literary tricks is Courtney Crumrin #5. This issue takes some time to explore the Crumrin ancestral tree. It does this by employing a story-within-a-story-within-a-story; no mean feat and Ted Naifeh pulls it off with aplomb. With its mixture of folklore and personal history, it put me in the mind of some of Neil Gaiman’s work, especially the great Sandman (though less subtle, and perhaps not quite as precious). The atmospheric artwork; some Kevin Nowlan influence I think, with just a dash of P. Craig Russell (though I hate the way Naifeh draws hands). If the writing lacks some of its usual irreverent buoyancy, it’s only because the title character takes a necessary back seat this issue. So all in all, another impressive effort in a title that is YA in name only.
Moving further down the age bracket, we have Peanuts #2 from kaboom!, BOOM’s excellent all-kids imprint. I have mixed feelings about the existence of this series. Should the exploits of Charlie Brown et al., be understood as highly individual vehicles of personal expression for their creator, the master, Charles Schulz? Or do they, like Disney characters, now belong to the world, necessitating new stories for a new generation of readers? It’s a matter for legitimate debate. But it makes it harder to complain when the stories (by Alexis E. Farjado, Shane Houghton, Vicki Scott, Bob Scott, Mike DeCarlo and Paige Braddock) are as charming as they are in this issue.
And now, returning to the aforementioned goodbyes, Merciless: The Rise of Ming #4 (by Scott Beatty and Ron Adrian) brings the Flash Gordon spinoff to a close (sidebar – I get annoyed when limited series like this aren’t explicitly advertised as such. I had no idea this was the last issue. Maybe it was mentioned in Previews or elsewhere, but it should be right on the front cover. Perhaps not listing it allows for some editorial wiggle room if something is a hit, or not, but as a customer I like to know what I’m getting into (grumbled the old man)). While I do think more of his depraved rise to the top could have been explored, it was still great fun watching Ming go from backstabbing prince to Despot of the Universe through sheer ambition, callousness and relentless force of will. A true Randian hero.
And finally Snarked! #12 (another unexpected last issue, grumble grumble!). This well-deserved Eisner-Award winning series represents comics at their most exciting; idiosyncratic work by a cartoonist (the inimitable Roger Langridge) at the height of his powers, putting them in the service of a singular, fantastic vision. In this case that vision is a heady brew of Lewis Carroll, W.C Fields, Laurel and Hardy, the Fleischer Bros., Segar’s Popeye, and…and I don’t know what else. This book had it all: high adventure, slapstick comedy, classic art and undeniable heart. If, over the course of twelve issues, some of the comedic bits fell a little flat, it’s only because Langridge’s previous work set the bar so high (What? You haven’t read Fred the Clown, equal parts Charlie Chaplin and Monty Python? One of the funniest comics ever. Get it. Get it now. And while you’re at it, pick up his current Popeye series by IDW. And, oh, just get anything with his name on it!) The final issue of this crown jewel of the aforementioned kaboom! imprint provides a fitting close to the yarn, full of suspense, laughs and a lump in the throat (who knew the sentence “I like bananas.” could be so touching?) In a comic strip afterword, the lead character Wilburforce J. Walrus states that you should always leave them wanting more. Mission accomplished. Book of the Week. Well done sir, and good night.