Optic Verve makes its triumphant (or generally unnoticed, depending on your point of view) return to the Internet, having taken the holidays off due to lack of Internet connectivity and a general plague of viruses on my own machine. It’s good to be back and here’s hoping you had a pleasant holiday.
The Punisher #20
Marvel Comics – Garth Ennis (w); Steve Dillon (a)
Time to eat a little crow.
The last time I reviewed this book, I remarked that the saving grace of Ennis’ run has primarily been his general lack of a serious take on the character. Granted, the ‘Nuff Said issue was fairly subdued and dealt with a markedly more serious plot than, say, a Russian super-soldier having breast implants, but that’s been pretty much it and Ennis has been doing this book for quite some time now (something like two years, not considering the various fill-in writers and hiatus in between the mini and the regular series).
So it’s kind of embarrassing to have said that, then read this issue, which is considerably darker than much of the previous run and certainly less likely to have slapstick, gallows humor as a centerpiece. Why’s it embarrassing? Because this issue was really good.
Herein, Castle discovers evidence of police corruption (not that that’s all that shocking, I suppose), a collusion between one rising detective and a liaison to the mafia to ferry confiscated narcotics. On the surface, this doesn’t appear like much. Seems pretty standard, when you get right down to it. As a rule, The Punisher tends to deal more on one specific side of the law, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that putting the hurt down on corrupt cops is hardly uncharted waters for the character. So this story obviously needs something more substantial to make it truly shine, a spark of originality to spice things up a bit. And Ennis delivers than in the latter half of the book.
You see, initially things seem pretty cut and dry. Mike is the good cop, the son of a son of a son of a cop, if you will. Police work is in his blood, quite literally it seems, and it’s a profession that he takes very seriously. Another officer describes his partner, Andy, as “a bit of a cowboy;” the phrase seems accurate. Andy, obviously, is the one to make contact with the “other” side, making his connection with the underworld through some notoriously shady individuals with the department. Mike, keeping in character, attempts to dissuade him from becoming associated with the wrong element, fearing for his partner’s reputation.
Then, halfway through the issue, things start to get turned on their ear. Andy seems remarkably nervous about his dealings in narcotics, looking shifty and out of place, making his exit from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. I had begun to chalk it up as just me being over-analytical (as I have a tendency to do, or so says my fiancée) until the final portion that deals with Mike. Who, it turns out, is a drunken wife-beater. So who’s the good guy NOW? It would seem, at least to me, that Andy is a very good candidate to be wearing a wire, given his general unease. So is he really a bad guy at all? And no matter what Mike does for the rest of the arc, he’s been tainted, at least to me, by the specter of spousal abuse, a deplorable act no matter how you slice it.
Anyway, all in all, very interesting stuff, particularly in that certain events and turns of phrase begin to take on a different significance upon a re-reading of the issue. At one point, Andy inquires after Mike’s wife, to which Mike responds simply, “She’s good.” When I first read it, I merely marked it off to more of Ennis trying to establish that Mike is a “good guy,” in that he seems stable, wife and kids, picket fence and what not. It seemed like a casual response to a common question. In light of his violent tendencies, you can almost imagine a terse, impatient tone in his voice, as he tries to dismiss a subject he’d rather not broach: the well being of his battered wife.
The Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1
Marvel Comics – James Sturm (w); Guy Davis (a)
I’m a big believer in the notion that James Sturm is an unappreciated genius. His prior works, which include the absolutely awesome The Golem’s Mighty Swing, were all books that I enjoyed. So I was a little bit nervous about seeing him make his mainstream debut.
Partially it was because I wasn’t sure how well suited he was to the type of books that Marvel produces (and by that, I mean that Sturm makes good books, books that qualify as art; Marvel, on the other hand, historically produces crap, for the most part). My other worry was, quite simply, that it wouldn’t be all that good and, hence, mainstream readers might not be inclined to seek out his more obscure work (i.e., like Kyle Baker on The Truth, easily his most underwhelming artistic performance to date).
But when the moment of truth arrived, I realize that I shouldn’t have worried. My faith in Sturm’s abilities is more than justified. Unstable Molecules is, to me, quite similar to Grant Morrison’s FF: 1234. And by that, I’m not implying that it’s dark or “twisted,” simply that it’s a more honest look at Marvel’s first family, dealing with the sometimes unpleasant subtexts inherent to the relationships those characters have with each other, than would otherwise with taken within the regular series. In Unstable Molecules, I don’t mind if Johnny Storm (or Sturm, as the case may be) is portrayed as being juvenile. It’s appropriate, given the setting (take note, Mark Waid).
However, I must complain about something and it has absolutely nothing to do with the creative team of the book. It’s to do with Marvel (what a surprise). Clearly, Marvel’s and my idea of what constitutes a “PG” book are two entirely different things. And seeing Mature Content below a book with that rating just seems, y’know, contradictory. If it has Mature Content (which the book clearly does, as Johnny not-so-subtly masturbates to one of his sister’s Vapor Girl comics and Reed essentially verbally abuses Sue through his domineering personality), how can it be a “PG +” rated book? What exactly about the “+” is supposed to make me think of teenage masturbation and unhealthy relationships? It’s a minor complaint, I admit, but it just struck me as wholly idiotic. If you’re going to have a ratings system that you either ignore or that makes no sense, why bother having one at all?
The Filth #7
DC Comics/Vertigo – Grant Morrison (w); Chris Weston (p); Gary Erskine (i)
There are some things that I’m usually too ashamed to admit. When the subject of them is broached, I usually clear my throat and shift the conversation elsewhere. But to make a point to you today, I will admit to some of them.
I don’t see what the big deal is with Neil Young, he’s never impressed me. Until about a year ago, I don’t recall having ever listened to Stairway to Heaven in its entirety. I have never, despite having meant to for countless years, read Maus or From Hell. I have owned the entire run of Miracleman, from first issue to last, for about a year now and have not, as yet, read it. Mallrats is my favorite Kevin Smith movie. I saw Clueless seven times in the theater and The Phantom Menace six times. So knowing all these terribly embarrassing things about me, what I say next will come as no surprise.
I don’t get this book at all.
Here’s another one that I can’t believe I’m putting in print, where it can never retracted:
Sometimes, I think Grant Morrison’s finest work is his superhero stuff.
Warren Ellis used to go on and on about “mad, beautiful ideas” and how they were going to change the comic book industry. It’s like Morrison took the Beautiful part out and compensated by upping the Mad quotient in this book.
I’ve been increasingly unimpressed with this book, despite our site’s esteemed owner’s cries to the contrary. This issue was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
Here we have a floating city hosting an appearance by the president (whose coke habit is a thinly veiled reference to someone, but I just can’t seem to place it…), who is consequently assaulted, shot full of drugs and raped by a member of the Secret Service at the suggestion of a man who seems to appear from out of thin air. And then in the end, a distress call is made by writing in blood on a tampon, which is then found by our “protagonist” whilst he is hiding in a sewage drain.
And then I ask myself, “What the hell just happened here?” This isn’t thought provoking, nor is it terribly creative, in my opinion. And when I continually see other websites giving positive reviews to this book, I’m forced to ask myself, “Am I simply too damned dumb for this book?”
So anyway, this has been less of a review and more of a rant. But suffice it to say that there’s very little content in this book, if you ask me, so there’s even less to talk about. All the same, I’d be curious to hear what everyone else thinks about the book. If you’re enjoying it, by all means, let me know. If you agree with me, stand up and be counted. We have a message board here at the site; feel free to use it.
Ultimate Spider-Man #34, 35
Marvel Comics – Brian Michael Bendis (w); Mark Bagley (p); Art Thibert (i)
Much is made of Bendis by both the print and online media. Much of what is said about him, I think, is little more than fluff and hyperbole. The man hasn’t had a long enough career yet to go proclaiming him as the Second Coming of comicdom’s Messiah. However, if the man can be called a genius, I think that this particular story arc of Ultimate Spider-Man provides the most convincing argument for doing so. Simply put, he’s done what I had previously considered to be the impossible: he’s made Venom interesting.
And not only interesting, but also downright entertaining. The Ultimate version of Venom isn’t tied up in past continuity. There’s obviously no reference to the Secret Wars (the telltale sign of rough waters ahead if I ever saw one) in his origin and you’re not required to know exactly why it is that Eddie Brock hates Spider-Man. For that matter, you’re not expected to even know who Brock is, since this arc marks his introduction to the Ultimate Universe. At this point in time, there is no such thing as a spawn of the symbiote, making in unlikely that Carnage will rear his head anytime soon. And most importantly, I think, the appearance of Ultimate Venom makes sense, at least from a writer’s standpoint.
For a brief moment (basically, #35), it allowed Bendis to sidestep the issue of how the public currently trusts Spider-Man even less after the previous incident in which someone committed a series of robberies using his costume as their disguise. Simple solution: put Spidey in his black costume, a move that draws predictable reactions from the crowds that witness its debut.
However, the sticking point for me so far was wondering how exactly Bendis would rationalize that most ridiculous part of Venom’s existence: his illogically twisted facial structure. And even though he hasn’t explained how it works, we do have a bit of a why, since the suit is clearly quite criminally insane. Even still, the suit’s murderous intent bears out a plot thread that Peter’s earlier thoughts began: he feels somehow that the presence of his father, the suit’s creator, is imprinted on the suit itself. As the suit knows his thoughts, it lashes out with a vengeance at Ben’s murderer when Peter finally confronts him.
And the scene with Uncle Ben’s murderer is my only complaint about the arc. I understand that Marvel and Bendis are intentionally keeping Ultimate Spider-Man and the movie continuity as close as possible. But was making the comic book and movie scene where he catches the killer exactly the same really necessary? It just strikes me as unoriginal, really.
Superman: The 10-Cent Adventure
DC Comics – Steven Seagle (w); Scott McDaniel (p); Andy Owens (i)
I used to be a devoted fan of the Superman titles, back in the mid-90s before I quit reading comics for several years. They were never great books, but the art was generally pretty and easy to follow and the stories were fun, if utterly inconsequential. So I had mild hopes that Seagle’s debut on the book would be fun, since I’ve previously found him to be at least competent. As well, I had been really enjoying McDaniel’s pencils on Batman and I think that he has a fluid style that brings a real sense of motion to basically any character that he draws in an action sequence. And while this jumping point is certainly a decent start, it’s not quite the shock to the system that I had hoped for, because the Superman books have certainly been in a rut lately.
I guess my real problem is sort of a nitpicky complaint, but I’ll make it anyway: Seagle treats the reader like they have absolutely no familiarity with the character whatsoever. I can appreciate that this book is supposed to be a jumping on point for new readers and hence, should be fairly archetypical so as to give a solid idea of what kind of stories one can reasonably expect from the book, but if you aren’t aware that Superman is from Krypton, can fly and is married to Lois Lane, I’m inclined to believe that you’re simply not paying attention and probably aren’t that interested in Superman to begin with (good God, what a sentence…You still with me?). So you can imagine how long-sufferingly I rolled my eyes when Seagle insisted on forcing the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” bit into the story.
In any case though, aside from my fanboy grumbling, this is a readable, standalone Superman story. And it does its job, which is to get you to pick up Seagle’s first official issue on the title, next month’s Superman #190. The use of humor is endearing, since I think Superman should be treated as a larger than life icon consistently, but not constantly, so it’s a nice change of pace to see a slightly more human side of him as he has no recollection of an earlier fight with a third-rate villain. And the Clark/Perry subplot, while entrenched in previous continuity, is explained quickly and succinctly and continues the light tone of the book, as well as echoing the classic Silver Age element of keeping Clark continually on his toes to maintain his secret identity from his colleagues.
So, again, it’s a book with flaws. But it’s not a complete waste of time and for a dime, you can’t really afford to not read it.
DC Comics – Jeph Loeb (w); Jim Lee (p); Scott Williams (i)
OK, as much as it pains me to say it, this simply hasn’t been that good so far. I mean, really, for a book to be dominating the #1 sales spot in recent months, you’d like to expect some degree of quality (though you’d be regularly disappointed, since Masters of the Universe and random Transformers books have also recently held the spot). But when you get right down to it, the thing that makes this book remarkable is quite simple: Jim Lee draws a hell of a good Batman.
And that’s really all there is, because Loeb appears to simply be phoning this one in. It’s like he’s not even trying to do anything more than an average Batman story and I wonder if I’m not being too hard on him due to the fact that The Long Halloween was so good. I don’t know, you tell me.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Batman wants to know who hired Killer Croc, but he’s currently got Croc captured. So in a remarkable display of disregard for the safety of others, he baits Croc into escaping, risking other people’s lives on the chance that Croc (being none too intelligent to begin with and even less so after his recent mutation) will make a beeline straight for his former employer. That’s pretty much it.
The saving grace for me of the book is this complete geek-out moment on the final page. I won’t spoil it (though Wizard already did in their nominations for Best Moment of 2002 in their Wizard Fan Awards), but it was worth the price of admission for a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan like myself.
The Ultimates #8
Marvel Comics – Mark Millar (w); Bryan Hitch (p);
Hey, remember this book? It’s only like six months late or something. You’d think it was the best superhero book on the market given the way you have to wait forever for it. Oh, wait, it probably is…once you get past the absolutely intolerable delays, at least.
Anyway. So it’s here and the second arc finally begins to pick up speed. Millar seems to be taking distinct shifts in style and pacing in each arc so far. Whereas the first arc was essentially a nostalgic modernizing of the ’60s Avengers origin story, this arc has seemed to mix The X-Files‘ invasion conspiracy with The Matrix‘s action sequences. And it absolutely works.
Two things are going on in this issue: 1) Hawkeye and Black Widow continue their field tests with the team and we’re finally given a bit more back-story on what, exactly, this hive consciousness stuff is all about. 2) Captain America continues to be absent, choosing to hunt for the AWOL Hank Pym, who disappeared after nearly killing his own wife (a plot thread that doesn’t come into play until the last couple pages of the issue, however, setting up a Captain America vs. Giant-Man fight for next issue).
The action sequences here are pure adrenaline, reminiscent of every good action flick you’ve ever seen. There are smart-mouthed one-liners, tension to spare and those moments where you say to yourself, “Wait a minute…No way…” It’s just a complete blast to read and, like I’ve already said, my only real complaint is how long I have to wait between issues. Millar has, in my opinion, really cemented his reputation as one of the definitive superhero writers in the field with this book and Ultimate X-Men lately. And, when you get right down to it, Bryan Hitch’s artwork is always worth the wait (though somehow not quite as slick as I’m used to in this issue).
I do have a sort of misgiving about this issue’s plot, however, and it might be a little nitpicky. It’s hard to verbalize properly, but something about portraying the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust as the machinations of alien shape-shifters just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s just…well, trivializing. If Millar had decided to say that the World Trade Center attack had been the result of eight-foot tall lizards infiltrating Al-Qaida, people would be up in arms. But somehow, this little tidbit slipped out quite and without a public outcry (and given how Marvel adores a controversy, I’m surprised they didn’t highlight it themselves).
In any event, that annoyance aside, another great issue of one of the most consistent books on the shelf (in quality if not in regularity). I can’t recommend it highly enough.
G.I. Joe: Frontline #3
Image Comics – Larry Hama (w); Dan Jurgens (p); Scott Hanna (i)
I was pretty damned hard on this book last time I reviewed it. I’m not apologizing, because I feel like it completely deserved it; it was a terrible book in almost every respect.
Unfortunately, this issue is barely any better.
You’d think writing Marvel’s GI Joe title for something like 150 issues would have left Larry Hama with a better feel for the characters than this. But sadly, Frontline reads more like a mediocre piece of fan fiction than a book written by an industry veteran.
Herein, the Joes assault one of Cobra’s many mountain fortresses (how can your bases be considered hidden when you’ve carved mountains all over the globe into the shape of giant snakes?) in an effort to retrieve some piece of random science fiction technology. It’s a transmitter than controls satellites or something; what it does is really irrelevant. It could be the Weather Dominator, it could be the Broadcast Energy Transmitter; the point is that it’s unrealistic and innately diabolical. In any case, you’re left wondering how it is that an organization (Cobra) that can develop and produce technology like this can somehow be so wholly inept.
I don’t know, I guess I’m just looking for realism in entirely the wrong place. When you factor in that this issue features some downright simplistic artwork from Jurgens, the only thing that makes it any better than the previous is that the conversations are slightly less hyperbolic in this issue. But it’s still not good. Avoid at all costs.
DC Comics/Homage – Warren Ellis (w); Steve Rolston (p); Al Gordon (i)
And just like that, the whole book is turned on its ear.
Ellis wraps up what has been easily the taken the frontrunner position in my “Best Mini-Series of the Year” category, but not in the manner that you’d suspect. The first issue featured Sarissa mostly just wandering around her old neighborhood and commenting on how much had changed. The second had more of the same, but provided a bit more backstory and made her a genuinely sympathetic character. In this final installment, her motivation is fully revealed and while it’s violent and a bit shocking, it makes her a wholly tragic figure.
It’s hard to review a book like this, where the surprise ending is a big part of the entertainment value, because you want to say enough to convince someone to buy the book, but not so much that it gives everything way. But suffice it to say that while one might be a bit surprised by Sarissa’s actions and probably feel that her line of logic is a bit skewed, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. She’s seen her dream absorbed into the mainstream, watered down and made safe for corporate consumption. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also watched as her life’s work was turned into a weapon, a concept that was meant to revolutionize society used to make the business of murder a simpler task. Given this set of circumstances, it’s understandable that she’s a bit on edge.
If you’ve not picked up the series so far, I highly recommend that you go out and pick up all three issues. It won’t disappoint, I promise.
Vertigo Pop: London #3
DC Comics/Vertigo – Peter Milligan (w); Philip Bond (p); Warren Pleece (i)
Here’s a book that’s founded in a great concept that just keeps getting better, due solely to the execution of that concept by Milligan. The concept, you ask? What does an aging rock star (Rocky Lamont, a blatant riff on Mick Jagger) do when he realizes/remembers that he knows a way in which his consciousness can be transferred to another body, possibly permanently? Things grow more interesting when it dawns on Lamont that Sean Cody (a pretty overt gag about the Gallagher brothers, of Oasis fame), a popular but vacant young star, has raw vocal talent, but no real motivation or songwriting ability, making him the perfect recipient for Lamont’s mind.
It’s a book that started out entertaining in a darkly humorous way (it’s hard to feel too good about yourself when you’re laughing at the protagonist plotting to steal another man’s body and, hence, life), but has rapidly grown into a more serious take on very real issues. Milligan is essentially exploring what it means to be young and to grow old; to pine for your past, to abhor your present and to fear your future, all at the same time. Lamont gets his way and swaps bodies with Cody and after some legal wrangling, manages to retain access to his fortune. As well, his current wife finds a renewed interest in him sexually and his excitement over his new body (both in the bedroom and in the studio) leaves him giddy. What more could he ask for?
Well, not only does he realize that there’s a distinct possibility that he’s still in love with his first wife, a woman that he carelessly cast aside when the inevitable effects of aging took hold of her body, but it also begins to dawn on Rocky that Sean’s life may not be exactly the bed of roses that it first appeared. For one thing, Sean’s entire image is built around a lack of respect for aging hippies like Rocky, so a sudden reverence for The Idle Hands (Rocky’s band) does not go over well with record execs. Compound this with the facts that Sean has been sleeping with Rocky’s daughter and that his former girlfriend (who, like Rocky with his first wife, he left in the lurch when fame provided a more attractive option) just overdosed on heroin and there’s a big conclusion a-brewing.
A lot of you are probably reading this and thinking, if you’re at all intrigued by my rambling praise of it, “Guess I’ll wait for the trade…” Please, don’t. It’s a great book that deserves to read right now, dammit. This is the sort of thing that I’d like to have on the shelves when fans of Milligan’s work on X-Force/X-Statix ask me, “Hey, what else has this guy Milligan done?” As opposed, of course, to The Filth and New X-Men fans. But I’ve harped enough about that as it is.