Marvel Comics – Brian Michael Bendis (w); Manuel Gutierrez (a)
My goodness… this was absolutely fantastic.
Daredevil is a book that’s been hit and miss for me over the past six months or so. I’ve frequently complained that nothing seems to happen in the average Bendis-penned issue of the book, that I can go cover to cover in literally three or four minutes and not have missed anything or hurried myself. But Daredevil himself is a character that I’ve always been fond of (originally, it was superficial things, like the fact that we have the same first name, the same initials and that I wanted to be a lawyer when I was a child), so I’ve stuck with the book. Now, I’ll be the first to say that Bendis’ status as a critical and fan community golden boy is highly undeserving. He’s nowhere near the peerless scribe that rags like Wizard make him out to be. But he is, to put it lightly, more than above average and it’s usually on Daredevil that he really flexes his proverbial muscles. If I were writing a Master’s thesis on the genius of Brian Bendis, this issue would be my closing argument, but it’s the very epitome of what a “mature superhero” book should be all about.
A little background: after having his identity exposed by a leak in the police department (who, in turn, learned of his alter ego through the confession of a fugitive from the New York city underworld), Matt Murdock stands in a precarious position. His lawsuit against a NYC newspaper is legitimate, in the legal sense, as they had no real proof that he is the costumed vigilante that he claims to be. On the other hand, how can a man, even a man with extraordinary powers such as himself, deign to pass judgment upon others through his vigilantism if he doesn’t possess the integrity and moral stature to face up to his own actions? It’s a sticky situation, to say the least. Now, as I’ve said previously, Bendis really swerved me with the title of the current story arc, “Trial of the Century.” I assumed (and quite naturally, I think) that the arc would deal with the lawsuit Matt Murdock has served the newspaper with. However, that plot thread has been dropped, at least for the time being, in favor of Murdock and Foggy Nelson defending the current (or former, depending on how one looks at it) White Tiger, who stands wrongly accused of the murder of a New York City police officer (and in the wake of my birthday, we all know how seriously the New Yorkers take their firemen and policemen). The trial of the century, it seems, will not feature Daredevil at all.
This issue plays out completely as a courtroom drama, worthy of (and surpassing, in my opinion) the best primetime television versions. The titular character makes not a single appearance, though his specter is invoked by the prosecuting attorney, who, while Murdock calls celebrity superhero witness after witness, remarks something to the effect of “Will the court be seeing testimony by Daredevil today?” So for the reader seeking nothing more than spandex-clad posturing and pointless fisticuffs, the book will serve as a disappointment (but, as misery loves company, I would redirect that reader’s attention to the abysmal DD / Bullseye: The Target mini). However, for those of us looking for an entirely original superhero story, this is pure gold. Much is made of Bendis flair for convincing dialogue and it’s never been truer than this issue, where both the prosecutor and Murdock’s cases are written convincingly, so the reader can definitely sympathize with the jury’s position, as both attorneys make solid cases. Granted, the prosecution takes the decidedly more irritating stance, but that’s what prosecutors do. And Murdock’s case would seem to be in the lead, but that’s a case of the fourth wall being broken for us more than anything else, as we have the benefit of knowing that Hector Ayala (The White Tiger) is innocent, while the jury does not.
In the end, it’s a compelling read from start to stunning finish. I wish I could do the issue justice, but I just don’t feel that I have the words. In any case, my highest possible recommendation goes out to the issue. This is the sort of material that should be made into movies, not the senseless ninja combat that will undoubtedly be spewed forth onto the silver screen in a few short months.
Ultimate Spider-Man #31
Marvel Comics – Brian Michael Bendis (w); Mark Bagley (p); Art Thibert (i)
“Good Stuff from Bendis Week” continues here at Optic Verve!
Ultimate Spider-Man is one of those books that I continually mean to scratch off my list of books to buy, but can never seem to find a good time to do so. Every time I think I’ve finally had enough of it, Bendis seems to crank out a good issue, which usually carries me through the bad ones (which, to be fair, are never truly bad, just mediocre sometimes). This is one of those issues that sends me back onto the bandwagon for the book.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of issues with Ultimate Spider-Man. I think on its best day, it’s the second strongest output by the Ultimate line (The Ultimates is better, but can’t match Spidey for quantity, clearly). The problem is, that on its worst day, the book is nothing more than exactly what a lot of fans feared it would be from its inception: a rehash of Stan Lee / Steve Ditko stories.
And Bendis’ constant reliance on cliffhanger endings is annoying, to say the least. It seems that he’s continually trying to convince the readers that some fairly critical character, typically Peter or Mary Jane, is in life-threatening danger. The problem with that is that we are all completely aware of the fact that Bendis wouldn’t be allowed by Marvel to kill anyone off (due to the fact that the Ultimate version of Spider-Man is closest to the movie version, making this book arguably the best with which to hook fans of the movie on comics) even if he wanted to.
So maybe it’s the fact that I’ve really been enjoying my Spider-Man dvd lately (after being fairly unimpressed with it at the theater for some reason), but I’ve recently remembered how much better the teenaged version of the character is compared to the more “mature” (read: boring) version penned by J. Michael Straczynski. And that probably has a lot to do with why I enjoyed the stack of Ultimate Spider-Man issues that I read today (I had basically stopped reading the book at #25, so I read #26-31 today in one sitting).
However, one cannot deny that Bendis is making some positive strides in the course of his tenure on the book. His take on Spider-Man features a much more realistic reaction by the police to his presence in the city and Mary Jane, for possibly the first time in her history, is marginally more important than wallpaper. Granted, she’s played a bit too much like the stereotypical high school girlfriend for me, but she is Peter’s high school girlfriend, after all, so it’s basically fine.
In this issue in particular, it’s again nice to get that sense of a shared world, just like in the Silver Age Marvel titles. Jan Van Dyne shows up to help Peter out of a bind, specifically. It’s essentially a throwaway appearance, but it’s a nice touch and it’s a creative way to get Parker out of a sticky situation (dealing with the bullet wound that only he and MJ are aware of). To top it off, Peter’s reaction to Jan’s scientific queries is pretty amusing; worth the price of admission, at least.
In the end, I still feel the book is plagued by an excess of teen angst, but then again, so are our teenage years. So while I may be periodically irritated by it, it’s probably in the best interests of the character to be portrayed as such. Mark this down as a first, people; I’m publicly shifting my position on a book.
(Incidentally, this shift in opinion is due to an e-mail from Savant columnist and friend, Bryan Miller, which reminded me of the more positive aspects of the book; never let it be said that I’m a man who doesn’t give credit where credit is due).
Moonstone Noir: Boston Blackie
Moonstone Books – Stefan Petrucha (w); Kirk Van Wormer (a)
To be perfectly honest with you, I was sold on this book from the moment I saw the word “noir” in the title. Mind you, this is from a man whose “5 Favorite Books of All Time” list would probably have three of the five written by either Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett (the other two would be some combination of The Great Gatsby, You Can’t Go Home Again, and On the Road) and whose favorite movies almost universally involve crime. But even without my predilection towards stories about the seedy underbelly of early to mid 20th century America, I’d have probably still enjoyed this book, because it’s rather good. And also because the creators recognize that noir should be in black and white.
As a quick summary, Boston Blackie is about a reformed thief (the titular character) who will never be rid of the specter of the botched crime that saw him incarcerated unless he himself takes action to clear his name. The cops want a confession for the murder that was pinned on him and the diamond that was lost and never recovered. The mob just wants the money that they think he has. And the state’s first female detective wants to break Blackie’s case wide open, making a name for herself in the process and further opening the profession to the fairer sex.
A majority of the pulp noir stories of the 30s and 40s deal with a concept that is sometimes called “the death of truth,” a kind of existential crisis wherein the protagonist realizes that there is no such thing as an absolute truth or that everyone can be corrupted or something similarly depressing. It’s not a pretty way to end a novel, but it’s a reflection of the times in which those authors lived. Boston Blackie walks in the footsteps of that time-honored tradition, with the titular hero realizing that nearly everyone around him serves nothing more than their own agenda, as well as being forced to consider the possibility that he himself has not been nearly as faithful to his code of ethics as he had previously thought.
In the end, it’s sort of hard to be more specific about the things that made me enjoy this book without giving away from fairly key plot points. So suffice it to say that anyone with an inclination towards noir would be well-advised to give the first of Moonstone’s noir line a try. Petrucha places fast and loose with the characterizations, never really delving too deeply into what makes them tick, but it’s all in the theme of the book, as many characters in early noir are nothing more than cut-out villains and flunkies and so forth. It’s a good-sized issue, if at a fairly unreasonable price point ($5.50? Why?).
Y: The Last Man #5
DC Comics/Vertigo – Brian K. Vaughan (w); Pia Guerra (p); Jose Marzan, Jr. (i)
If you’re wondering when I’m going to run out of ways to recommend this book, the answer is “right about now.” I really can’t think of a new way to explain how good it’s been for five straight issues, but I felt a little guilty leaving it out of my reviews entirely. So anyway, if you’re not reading it by now, this issue (like all the others before it) is a good place to start.
Incredible Hulk #47
Marvel Comics – Bruce Jones (w); Stuart Immonen (p); Scott Koblish (i)
I’d like to say that this issue explained a lot about what is and has been going on so far in this arc. But to do so would undermine that key flaw of this arc: until now, absolutely nothing (or as close to nothing as makes any difference) has been explained, so it’s sort of sad that three or four issues in, we’re finally treated to a coherent story.
And really, I’m using the word “coherent” loosely, because a lot of the discoveries that we make as readers in this issue seem to come completely out of nowhere. Not only are Agent Pratt and his cohorts some sort of biologically engineered vampires, but Bruce Banner can now harness the power of The Hulk without sacrificing his self-control (to be more specific, Banner simply uses the strength of The Hulk in his normal body, rather than become the “Smart Hulk” of Peter David fame). It’s all interesting, in a vague sort of way, but I’m rapidly losing interest in this book (which I had previously recommended highly both to you the reader and the customers in my store) due to this current meandering story arc.
The real star of the issue is how effective the newly added “summary page” at the beginning of the issue is. Anyone following this book over the past year or so can appreciate how convoluted explaining the recent story arcs can be, but somehow Jones manages to convey them succinctly and accurately in little more than a paragraph. I get the feeling that if I were a new reader, I could grasp the concepts well enough to get by, even if I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable in the reading.
The problem, however, is that I’m not a new reader and I’m still not certain what the hell’s going on here and why I should care. If Jones is capable of delivering precise storytelling like we can see he is in the summary page, I would suggest that he use it a bit more frequently in the course of the actual story itself. I’m by no means saying that I want everything spelled out to me explicitly, with plot exposition masquerading as dialogue, but a little more lucid storytelling would go a long way here.
In any event, I’m certain the book will improve soon (which I realize sounds like a total fanboy statement).
The Truth: Red, White and Black #1
Marvel Comics – Robert Morales (w); Kyle Baker (a)
Well, the “controversial” first issue is here. And it’s pretty damned good, if I do say so myself.
When this project was first announced, it was met with a mixed reaction from my customer base. Generally speaking, most of them were neutral towards it, choosing to reserve judgment until the book was released (but nearly all promising to pick the book up). Quite a few were excited about it, myself included, as it’s a project that should’ve been done years ago, simply because it makes so much sense. However, an incredibly small minority were incensed at the idea of not just one, but possibly several “black Captain Americas.” One went so far as to loudly announce that “Captain America could NEVER be a black guy!” When I questioned him as to why that was, given that the country has, for at least the last two hundred years or so, been fairly ethnically diverse, he could only stare blankly at me. He was even more stumped when I challenged him to find a more ironic figure for the defender of American ideals than a black American (or Native American, for that matter), as they have been systematically oppressed by those self-same “ideals” for the better part of the aforementioned last two centuries. Apparently stupidity and intolerance are still close friends.
Ignorant comments from close-minded fanboys aside, I can definitely see what I’m going to hear from my customers come next Wednesday. After opening the week’s shipment, the store owner and I took a flip through the issue and shared a laugh when I said, “How many complaints do you think we’ll get about the artwork next week?” Kyle Baker, it seems, much to my confusion, is not everyone’s cup of tea. I can understand that his fairly animation-influenced style of art does not fit the mold of what the typical comic book reader understand as “comic book art.” At the same time, nearly everyone I know that enjoys comic books was a rabid fan of cartoons as a child, so you would think that the style would be quite palatable. Clearly though, the opposite is true, as a large portion of the people I’ve recommended Baker’s solo work to were turned off by his art style. However, I continue to devour any bit of Baker’s work that I can get my hands on and The Truth is no exception. I’ll grant you, it’s probably not his finest hour, but it’s still so far above the average.
Really, my only complaint with the book is that the “controversy” surrounding the book seems to have been manufactured by Marvel for the purposes of generating sales. As I’ve mentioned before, aside from a few narrow-minded comments from my customers (and when I say that they’re a distinct minority, I’m talking about maybe two, three people who were offended by the idea), the book has been met with a warm reception in my experience. I guess I’m not terribly surprised, since this is the Jemas regime that we’re talking about here, but it just seems a little crass to me to take a fairly admirable concept and whore it out for the sake of profit. Exploiting a book about exploitation? But, again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but this is Marvel we’re talking about here. If there’s one thing that Marvel can always be counted on for, it’s a single-minded devotion to profits (which is ironic, when you consider the fact that they rarely post them).
But anyway, my rants about Marvel management aside, The Truth is a nice start for a series that certainly shows promise. Admittedly, little happens in the issue, since we’re busy being introduced to no less than three potential Captain Americas. However, so long as Morales refuses to flinch away from the more difficult issues posed by this book, I’m fairly certain that The Truth will turn out to be a nice mainstream debut for Kyle Baker and an excellent book in its own right. However, there’s a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that this book was published for no reason other than to find a way to bring the “black Cap” to the present Marvel Universe, spiking sales on that book momentarily.