Friday, July 31, 2009

My Weekly Dose--Pt 2: The Prescription

The last post was something of an introduction for what should be a regular feature here. The Weekly Dose will be a rundown of quick reviews of the books I picked up for the week. (I have a lot of spare time this week, so maybe not so quick.)

So what'd I get?

Detective Comics #855: I love this book. The artwork by JH Williams is absolutely stunning. I'm getting the issues, but, unless the storyline falls apart or Williams doesn't keep it up, I will be picking up the trade as well so I can pull it out and show off to people for years to come. This is the kind of book that gets new readers interested in comics. From the page layouts to the character designs to the individual panel work, the book is beautiful. The fact that Greg Rucka is writing it doesn't hurt either, but the star of this book isn't the lead character Batwoman or the is absolutely an artist's book.

The New Avengers #55 and Dark X-Men #2: The story of the Marvel Universe right now is the story of Norman Osbourne, who, in the recent Secret Invasion storyline, rose to prominence as the hero of the day (he took the kill shot on the invading alien queen who threatened humanity), and is now in charge of H.A.M.M.E.R., the replacement organization for S.H.I.E.L.D., policing the world's superhero population and having the president's ear. The bipolar businessman, a longtime archenemy of Spider-Man when in his Green Goblin guise, has become the star of the show in the big picture storyline at Marvel, and he is the big bad looming over every book with the "Dark Reign" banner. His rise and inevitable fall is making for some really intriguing action and antics in the Avengers books, since he's basically created his own government sanctioned team of Avengers comprising "rehabilitated" villains and fringe heroes, and now he's turned his evil eye to the mutants, pulling together a team of "Dark X-Men" using the same formula. The Avengers stuff is tight and compelling, but the X-Men portion of the story isn't working. What is exciting and crazy to read in an Avengers book seems out of place and out of character for the X books. While it all feeds the same big picture plotline that I am enjoying, I can't help but feel that the X stuff is not really essential reading. Dark X-Men and the "Utopia" storyline that is threaded through all the mutant books seems like a flop, and I think it is safe to say you should pass on it. As for the Avengers -- I enjoy the writing of series scribe Brian Michael Bendis, but he does get awfully repetitive with his style and his setups. Avengers sit around table talking about their next move while bad guys do the same in a warehouse, someone blows something up somewhere, and everyone gets into a fight. I feel like I've been reading the same issue of New Avengers every month for a year! So, while these books do fit into Dark Reign, they aren't necessarily helpful in selling that storyline to anyone. The best book to pick up if you are as into the Norman Osbourne story as I am is Dark Avengers. Everything else is just kind of messy and not worth the price of admission.

Fantastic Four #569:
Why aren't you reading Mark Millar's run on the FF? I've been reading and hearing people crap on this run from the start--that it is too slow or unbelievable or whatever. I can't wrap my head around people not liking this latest take on Marvel's first family. It is a big story...multiverse-spanningly big. Everyone is in character and the stakes are high. Crazy things happen in this book that grow organically out of exactly what the FF have been about for decades--family, adventure, invention, and Doctor Doom! Yeah, this is the best kind of Fantastic Four story--the kind that is actually about how great a villain Doctor Doom is and always will be. And the reason for this is that, over the course of this latest arc (titled "Doom's Master"), we're put in a position where we're more concerned about the fate of Doom than we are Reed , Sue, Johnny, and Ben. You've got to love a writer who can make you feel for the bad guy who is trying to murder your heroes. Go back to the start of Millar's run and give this series a chance. It has been a fantastic run. (Yeah, I went there.)

A few years ago, Marvel decided to experiment with it's core characters--Spidey, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four--by creating an alternate continuity where they could move the timelines up to the present (remember, they all started out decades ago) and re-examine the early days of these characters in a new, modern, unconvoluted-by-40-years-of-history light. It was a weird, radical move that worked for the most part. Rebooting Spider-Man led to one of Marvel's best ongoing books in years and a far superior take on Spidey than the "real" Marvel Universe Spidey with 600 issues under his belt. The Avengers, now called The Ultimates, reminded readers how great Captain America was, how crazy and scary the Hulk should be, and how entertaining the suave, boozing billionaire Iron Man could be.

But for all the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates, the X-Men and FF reboots were a mess. All of the books sold well and sparked fan interest at first and there was plenty of buzz for at least a year or two after launch...but Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were simply not very good.

The Fantastic Four may not be the best selling book on the stands from month to month, but the concept, the characters, and even the broader continuity surrounding that book is tight. It's what serialized comic story-telling is all about. The reason the Ultimate version didn't really do much for anyone was that the core concept wasn't broken and didn't need fixing. Nothing changed in the Ultimatizing process except for the ages of the characters, and even then, some creators failed to understand that they were writing younger versions of the cast, and simply went on writing regular Fantastic Four stories. So the book wasn't so much bad as it was pointless. Also, they gave Doctor Doom hooves and changed his name from Victor Von Doom to Victor Van Damme. Yeah, no. You don't mess with Doctor Doom (see previous FF review)! The best thing to come from the ultimate FF was the "Marvel Zombies," but that idea has since turned into a Pandora's Box of corniness and out-of-control even that bright spot is a mixed bag.

The X-Men reboot was another story, though. The reason X-Men needed a reboot in the first place was because there were way too many characters in the X Universe and their continuity was a garbled mess. The only approach to a reboot that made sense was a smaller, streamlined team that would focus on the core elements that the X-Men and Marvel Mutants were about, but without the clutter. But what we got instead was a book overloaded with character from the start, convoluted plot points, betrayals in progress, mystery characters, love triangles, deaths and resurrections--all right out of the gate. Decades of nonsense were dumped into the mix from issue #1. Where Ultimate Peter Parker was suddenly back in high school experiencing teen angst and first love again for the first time, the X-Men were already mourning their first casualties in an Earth-threatening war against Magneto and an army of evil mutants. And from there, the creative teams tried to "Ultimatize" every dumb B-list character who ever graced an Assistant Editor's Month cover and every dopey plot twist that had occurred in the core Marvel books into this fresh start. Not even a dozen issues in, the Ultimate X-Men were dealing with Dark Phoenix and the Mojoverse?! It was a disaster, and the book had to be be put out of it's misery.

All of this leads back to Ultimatum--Marvel's apocalyptic reboot of the reboot, where cataclysmic events set off by Ultimate versions of Doctor Doom (mad about his hooves?) and Ultimate Magneto would trash the world beyond recognition, kill off major players, and pretty much force every corner of the Ultimate Universe to finally move away from the familiar ground of the core Marvel continuity once and for all. After Ultimatum, the Ultimate Universe would be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They got Jeph Loeb to write it, a man who does his best work revisiting old, established characters' earliest days with artist partner Tim Sale, but who has slipped into a new mode of writing big clumsy goofball stories that read like they were spit-balled from the brain of a 10-year-old with ADD (see Smallville, Heroes, Ultimates 3, Red Hulk, Wolverine). Putting the job of destroying a world into the hands of a hyperactive man-child was actually not a bad idea, since he was already responsible for ruining the Ultimates with his trashy, childish, and clumsy third volume, and could just continue the rampage through the rest of the books in the line, like the Ultimate Hulk on a libidinous, radioactive roid-raging feeding frenzy. Marvel needed a clusterfuck, and Loeb is a master of the trainwreck kama sutra.

So what does all of this background have to do with the comics I got this week? Well, Ultimatum was exactly the sloppy, violent, spank-fest you'd expect from a kid handed a box of matches and given permission to set the playroom on fire. How it serves the bigger picture of the Ultimate line moving forward, I don't know. Things do not bode well for the world or for my continued interest in the ongoing story of anyone left in the rubble.

As for Spider-Man: Requiem, a two-part comic dealing with what happens to Spidey and Ultimate New York City after Ultimatum, it was consistent with the quality I've come to expect from the Ultimate Spider-Man series to date, but comparatively weak considering nobody got their head crushed or drowned by a tidal wave rolling down 5th Avenue or was torn to pieces, like in Ultimatum. I'm conditioned now to expect a certain level of gore and severity from the Ultimate books, which is in direct conflict with the pleasantly simple retro feel established over more than 100 issues of Ultimate Spidey. I don't know that I even want to keep up with the ongoing adventures of that Spider-Man in such a dark, broody place as this new, devastated Ultimate Universe.

Ultimatum was a great way to trash an entire line of comics that had lost its way and to put the whole thing to rest on a wild, gross, memorable note. Unfortunately, Marvel isn't planning to put it to rest, so it could all have been a terrible mistake.

No comments: