My opinion of Kevin Smith’s comic book career is a lot like my opinion of his filmmaking career. That is to say, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride. I enjoyed his View Askew-oriented work for Oni Press; it was silly and throwaway, but it was a lot of fun, at least if you were already into his flicks. His work on Daredevil, in my opinion, was strongest towards the end of the run, in a issue where Spider-Man showed up to hang out on the Brooklyn Bridge with Horn-head and talk shop, although I thought his eight-issue stint was solid overall. His Green Arrow work, however, I thought started strong, but suffered from the initial story arc being ten issues. There simply wasn’t enough steam in the story to carry it swiftly through ten straight issues (although what Kevin Smith-related book does anything swiftly?). That having been said, I thought the more character-driven issues at the close of his run on Green Arrow were the best of the bunch. So I must confess, despite having wanted to see a Smith-penned Spider-Man story since the aforementioned issue of Daredevil, I was more than a little bit leery of this book when it was initially released.
It’s certainly not for lack of affection towards the characters. A customer at my store once remarked, in regards to The Black Cat, “She’s just Marvel’s rip-off of Catwoman.” Failing to see the negativity that he seemingly found inherent in that comparison, I replied, “Yeah, I know…that’s why I like her.” After all, I am, first and foremost, a “Batman guy,” so how could I not enjoy shifting the dynamic from my favorite superhero to someone (Spider-Man) who is arguably a close second? (To be fair, however, one must mention that the dynamic between Spider-Man and Black Cat is ever so slightly different than that between Batman and Catwoman. The dynamic between Peter Parker and Felicia Hardy is based on the sexual tension that derives from their having previously consummated said relationship. The Batman / Catwoman version derives from a complete lack of said consummation. Like I said, it’s only a slight difference, but a difference nonetheless.)
That tangent aside, it’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what made me so nervous about the prospect of this book. I think it’s the simple fact that there are so many missteps that a writer can make in penning this book that may seem inconsequential, but amount to the complete ruination of the book. For example, too much could be made of the sexual tension between Peter and Felicia, which would lead to the book becoming too much of a soap opera (which is almost never helpful in a Spider-Man title), full of clichéd, hackneyed turns of phrase. Nearly as bad, the strained relationship between the two could be completely ignored for simplicity’s sake, taking the characters entirely out of their established roles. Or, we could end up with Smith giving us the “quintessential Venom tale” (or any other over-used Spidey villain, for that matter), which are never nearly as good as they’re billed to be.
Instead, the tension between them is played up, but mostly for comic effect. It’s not overdone; it’s spot on. There’s just enough to make for some drama, but not melodrama; it’s a subtle difference in superhero comics, I understand. To his credit, Smith creates an entirely new villain for the book, but he’s a “shadowy stranger from Peter Parker / Felicia Hardy’s past” or some other such tripe. Granted, Mr. Brownstone isn’t exactly the most original antagonist in comic book history, but he’s miles away from another “spawn of the symbiote” Venom clone.
Anyway, the real shining points of the book are the believably amusing dialogue, which plays well into Spider-Man’s trademark flair for snappy banter and the gorgeously cheesecake-esque artwork from the Dodsons. Part of me thinks that my enjoyment of this book stems primarily from my general distaste for all of the ongoing Spider-Man books at this time. Peter Parker: Spider-Man tends alternate between the “look how much Peter misses Uncle Ben” story and “look how Spider-Man is a hero who transcends racial notions.” Ultimate Spider-Man is a bit too laden in teen angst (I call it Spidey 90210) for my tastes, though I understand that it is at least ostensibly targeting an adolescent audience. And Amazing Spider-Man is so chock-full of midlife boredom that I refer to it as “spidey-something.” With these books as my only real options for my Spider-Man fix (and I don’t regularly read any of them), a Kevin Smith Spider-Man title is a breath of fresh air. I wasn’t prior to this mini, but I’m currently looking forward to his run of Amazing.
I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to reviewing this. It’s hard for me to put into words what exactly I didn’t like about it, since the plot is pretty bizarre. Before I launch into what may degenerate into a tirade, let it be said that any failing of this issue, or the series in general, are no fault of either Chris Weston or Gary Erskine. Both of them having done a more than admirable job of turning Morrison’s thoroughly off-the-wall story into a pretty damned stunning set of visuals. If this book did nothing else, it would serve as LSD for your eyes each and every month. And this month, that’s about all it does.
It was amusing to me when I finished this book today that I found that it both earns its title and its “Mature Readers” stamp many times over. I don’t mean to sound overly stodgy and narrow-minded here, but I’m really rather embarrassed to have put this book on my store’s “Recommended Reading” rack this week. It’s just… well, filthy.
To make a long story short, the issue revolves around a porn star with some rather unique gifts. That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily disturbing to me. And now that it comes down to it, I find it hard to say exactly what it is that I found so repulsive about this issue… but, just the same, I did.
Previously, I had begun to view this series as a sort of world-building exercise on Morrison’s part, seeing how twisted a universe he could weave and what sort of stories would be appropriate to that setting. There didn’t seem to be much character development going on in the story; rather, once you got outside the first issue’s decidedly tripped-out introduction, it was a fairly disconnected series of vignette’s dealing with the sort of things that The Hand is obligated to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It was strange, to be sure, but interesting in a morbid sort of way. It was definitely though, as I’ve said before, weird for weirdness’ sake.
With this issue, I’m forced to reconsider that idea and begin to mull over the new theory that, to put it bluntly, Morrison consumes drugs in quantities akin that of some sort of sequential Jerry Garcia. Or, to keep the surname going, Jim Morrison. This time, the plot isn’t just weird; it’s downright nonsensical.
I’ll tell you who I really feel for with this book though: the X-Men fans, whose first exposure to Morrison was through New X-Men, who enjoy that book and picked up The Filth, thinking it would be something similar. Even for those of us who have experienced Morrison before, this is something of a trip. For the Morrison-virgins amongst us, this must be something akin to culture shock.
This month’s issue of New X-Men allows me to continue ranting about Grant Morrison. It’s not nearly as bad as The Filth (which would be an accomplishment in mediocrity if it were), but it’s pretty lousy, especially compared to the generally high quality stories that Morrison has been turning in on the book as of late.
Begin snide comments: I hope doing the cover for this issue didn’t strain Frank Quitely, I’d hate for him to miss an issue. What? He only does one issue out of every eight or so? My mistake. Carry on, Frank. Because what a cover it is… Drawing a pair of eyes in between two strips of solid black that take of 2/3 of the page must be quite the daunting task for an artist. End snide comments.
As far as the issue goes, it’s not so much that it’s a bad one; it’s just that it’s nowhere near the kind of issue that I’ve grown accustomed to getting from Morrison. To be blunt, it’s just too average for him, too much like something I would’ve expected from X-Treme X-Men or Wolverine or something. My initial reaction was to recall the rumors that circulated around internet message boards about Morrison ghost-writing some issues of The Authority for Mark Millar and to think that maybe Morrison didn’t actually write this issue. However, if that were the case (and I seriously doubt that it is), I’d find it hard to believe that Millar wrote this book, as he turned in another thoroughly enjoyable issue of Ultimate X-Men this month (discussed below).
The problem with the issue, I think, is that everything in it either feels like a) it’s all been done before or b) contrived. I’ll spoil some plot points for the sake of analysis.
In the “been there, done that” category, we have the following: Wolverine rescues a newly empowered mutant from slave traders. The Shi’ar Empire is piss-scared over the prospect of the Phoenix Force. A previously presumed dead X-Man is up and walking around.
As far as contrived plot elements are concerned, Fantomex appears for no apparent reason than to evidently set up the next story arc (presumably Wolverine investigating the Weapon-Plus program) and the new mutant, Dust, is a Muslim woman apparently for its “relevance” to the current political clime. Oh, a Muslim; how hip and edgy! Way to take the medium to its limits, Morrison! Consider my notions of what a superhero book can accomplish officially challenged.
Apparently, by “some plot points,” I mean “all.” I apologize.
Regardless, as I’ve already stated, it isn’t that this issue is so terrible itself, it’s just that it’s a bit of a let-down after some really stellar issues the past couple months. It doesn’t help that the book is essentially in competition this month with another solid issue of Ultimate X-Men. To boot, I’m left wondering where the “psychic catfight” that was promised some months ago is, as I’ve yet to see it. In point of fact, Emma and Scott aren’t even in the issue. You could certainly do worse, but you could do a lot better.
I’m really pleasantly surprised here. I had completely braced myself when I sat down to read this issue, entirely expecting to dislike it as I have several issues of Bendis’ run, particularly last month’s issue. However, I’m happy to announce that my unease was unneeded, as Bendis really turns this issue on its ear and goes somewhere that I didn’t see coming right away.
To make a long story short, the first six or eight pages had me a bit disappointed. They’re an extended robbery / robbery break-up scene, or so it appears. Some thieves attempt to loot a pawnshop; a spandex-clad vigilante arrives to disrupt their livelihood. You are naturally led to believe that the vigilante is Daredevil due to the fact that the intervening hero is never fully shown until the moment of truth: when the cops arrive to shine a Mag-lite in his face, revealing him to be The White Tiger.
After that, a cameo appearance by Power Man and Iron Fist is the impetus for the rest of the issue’s action. The duo attempt to convince Matt Murdock to represent the White Tiger, as he is accused by police of killing the pawnshop owner. Murdock is naturally reluctant to do so, as his current predicament with the press springs solely from his involvement with the world of superheroics. However, through some guilt and a rather amusing application of Murdock’s super-senses (he can apparently hear heartbeats through a cell-phone, so strong is his hearing), Murdock accepts, much to the chagrin of Foggy Nelson.
The real surprise for me was that apparently the title of the story arc, “Trial of the Century,” applies not to Murdock’s litigation against the newspaper that exposed his secret identity, but to his defense of The White Tiger. The questionable morality of Matt Murdock’s continuing his career as a lawyer while operating outside the law as Daredevil is furthered in the final scene, wherein the prosecuting attorney brings up another complication. Overall, it’s a really rather entertaining issue and I’m happy to give it a good review (I always feel a little bit guilty knocking Daredevil, as it is, overall, such an outstanding book).
Alex Maleev’s art is absent this month, replaced by Manuel Gutierrez (who I believe we last saw doing an arc of Punisher). It’s nowhere near as gritty and atmospheric as Maleev’s, but then again, this isn’t the type of story that Maleev typically illustrates in this book, so the chance is less noticeable. The real artistic gem of this issue though, for me, is the cover, which really struck a chord for me for reasons unknown. It’s just really cool looking.
It’s hard for me to recommend Blue Monday to you without knowing you personally. It’s one of those books that you either enjoy or you don’t; there’s very little middle ground here. I personally enjoy them, though I’m not going out of my way to defend it as capital-A Art. It’s sort of like the American Pie of comic books, juvenile and lewd, but entertaining all the same if you’re of a mind-set to find that sort of thing entertaining.
This time around, the manga-tinged group of teenagers throw a Halloween party which, after a major storm causes most of the attendees to leave, turns into a story-contest, a la Byron and Shelley. And, as per always, the Jesus-Heads show up and make trouble for Bleu.
Millar just doesn’t seem to be taking this issue seriously at all. Aside from the soap opera moments between Jean and Scott, the book has a distinctly slapstick sort of feel to it. This effect is in no way lessened by the guest art of Kaare Andrews, who’s manga-influenced, cartoon-style art fills in for Adam Kubert here.
A throwaway joke becomes a full-fledged plot device this issue, as The Beast confesses the truth about Magneto’s death to his internet “girlfriend” (who in reality is The Blob). Millar draws, apparently, from Jurassic Park for one scene in particular, a scene that really allows Andrews to shine.
The “everyone looks out for Kitty Pryde” dynamic that was so pervasive during portions of the Claremont years of Uncanny X-Men returns in full force this issue when she tags along with Cyclops and Wolverine.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable issue, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a standout issue. One could make the case that the abrupt shift in tone in the middle of the arc is disconcerting and ill advised (and I would generally agree that a more light-hearted issue like this would have served nicely as an interlude between arcs), but I think it comes off rather nicely. It’s not the best issue of Ultimate X-Men to date, but it’s certainly not the worst.
It comes down this simple fact: after twelve issues of Bruce Jones on this book, I’d like to have some sort of idea as to what exactly is going on here. In other words, the whole “leave the reader in the dark” thing is beginning to wear a bit thin. Jones’ Hulk, on its worst day, is still head and shoulders above 90% of the other superhero books out there, but this issue is more annoyance than anything else for me. You’d need to pick it up if you were at all interested in continuing with this story arc, as some events transpire that will undoubtedly be important later; it’s just that it’s hard to see what significance, if any, there is to attach to anything as the reader has next to no idea what’s really going on in this book.