Amazing Spider-Man #50
Marvel Comics – J. Michael Straczynski (w); John Romita, Jr. (p); Scott Hanna (i)
Y’know, everyone, it seems, has loved Straczynski’s run from Day One. Well, I haven’t.
There, I said it. I think the majority of his run has been, at best, mediocre.
While Batman is, historically speaking, my life-long hero, Spider-Man is a really close second. I was, for the majority of my comic-reading career, psychotically loyal to both characters. In fact, only the Clone Saga broke my Spider-Man addiction. So when JMS took over the reigns on Amazing, I was thrilled. And while I admit that most of my joy was derived from seeing the abysmal Howard Mackie leave the book, it was nice to see Marvel replace him with a solid writer, not just a competent one (though after Mackie, almost anything would’ve been a step up). The appearance of JMS was enough to make me regularly buy the book again.
But I’ve gotta tell you, I thought his opening arc could’ve been better. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s stories that try to convince me that a hero of Spider-Man’s caliber is in mortal danger. I understand that we’re supposed to suspend disbelief and tell ourselves that Morlun really might kill Peter, but I find that hard to do, particularly when there’s a movie just around the corner. I just find the faux suspense hard to tolerate; that’s just me, I’m a hard man to please. The now-famous September 11th issue rolled around and I absolutely hated it, because that’s my birthday. I mean, I can’t even read comics now to escape the fact that my friggin’ birthday has been forever tainted?
From there, things pretty much go down hill for me. The Dr. Strange and Shathra arcs made me feel like JMS had no feel for the character whatsoever, because those types of stories just aren’t the things that I associate Spider-Man with. No matter how colorful his rogues’ gallery is, Spider-Man villains are all essentially just criminals, bank robbers, what have you. He doesn’t fight moth-demons or jump through dimensional portals. That just seemed way out of character for me (and maybe I’m off-base here).
Overall, my problems with his run boiled down to this: Peter was spending far too much of his time whining about how much he missed Mary Jane and very little of it being the light-hearted character that he generally is. And most of the attempts at humor just felt very forced, like they’d been shoehorned into the story for no reason other than to reassure people that they were still, in fact, reading a Spider-Man book.
So where am I going with this, you ask? Right here:
I really enjoyed this issue.
After much ado and even more delays, Peter and Mary Jane are finally reunited, meeting at the airport, just the two of them. But with a move by Straczynski that reminds me of the best Stan Lee issues, it’s not going to be that easy for the pair. Not only does Doctor Doom stride through the airport gates, en route to an environmental conference, but also pro-democracy Latverian rebels spring a plot to assassinate the iron-fisted (my apologies for the pun, it was out before I knew it) dictator. Luckily, Captain America (also incognito) appears to lend a hand.
The simple fact here is that Straczynski delivered the exact opposite of what I was expecting from him. Given my past experiences (during which I had begun to refer to the book as “spidey-something” because of what I perceived as an overuse of “adult” melodrama), I was looking for Straczynski to crank out a heartfelt, sit-down sort of issue. A very special episode of The Amazing Spider-Man, if you will. But that’s not it at all.
The dialogue between Peter and Mary Jane is genuine and realistic-sounding. You can believe that this is the sort of conversation that a superhero and his estranged wife would have; it just makes sense. At the same time, the heart-to-heart sequences never have a chance to feel stale because they’re punctuated regularly by a new wave of attacks from Doom’s would-be assassins. The humor flows along at appropriate moments and, for once, the things that Peter says to break the tension seem to fall in line with what I’m used to. And I’m of the opinion that no one but John Romita Jr. should ever be allowed to pencil this book ever again, because I simply can’t imagine anyone alive today making it look as easy as he does.
However, I must say, the real show-stealer is Doctor Doom, who is absolutely hysterical. His dialogue alone is worth the price of admission. If nothing else in the issue were spot-on, I’d recommend picking it up just for Doom’s third-person rants. But, thankfully, there’s a lot more to be enjoyed here that just hyperbolic diatribes from a steel-girded madman.
Wonder Woman #189
DC Comics – Walter Simonson (w); Jerry Ordway (p); P. Craig Russell (i)
Well, it’s only six months until the fabled debut of Greg Rucka within these pages. By all accounts (I can’t speak from experience, I foolishly never sampled the man’s work), Phil Jimenez did a good job on the book during his run. So in the interim between Jimenez’s final issue and Rucka’s first, DC lined up a team of veteran comics pros that should have, by anyone’s reckoning, done a more than bang-up job of a fill-in arc. However, that has not proven to be so.
Now, I don’t know exactly how Jimenez left the state of things when his run on the book wrapped up, but as Simonson’s story opens, Wonder Woman is missing from New York City and has not appeared for her regular meeting at the United Nations Rural Development Organization, a group headed up by her current love interest, Trevor Barnes (a subject of some controversy recently, since he is not only Diana’s only overtly sexual entanglement in the modern age, but he is also of African descent). As well, a longtime friend and colleague of Barnes’ disappears from his station at the same time. This, by itself, has the makings of a decent, if not entirely original, story.
However, Simonson just continues to pile plot threads on.
In addition to what’s already going on, there’s the issue of what exactly the connection between Diana’s disappearance and an ancient coven known as the Silver Iris is. In the book’s opening scene, we are shown that in 1879, through a series of archaeological discoveries and arcane ceremonies, the order discovers a disturbing possibility about the nature of human existence. However, that one scene is all we’re given to work with.
Then there’s the matter of Diana herself, who turns up midway through the issue, albeit in an unknown (and decidedly otherworldly) location, interrupting a funeral of some sorts by armored, demonic creatures that masquerade as humans and entirely sans her memory. The tie between Wonder Woman and the clay doll seems fairly obvious (Diana was born when Aphrodite breathed life into a clay child sculpted by Hippolyta), but no explanation is given to where Diana appears from (a lightning bolt strikes the grave and Diana suddenly appears, albeit in street clothes) or what she’s doing there.
Compound all this with a very ham-fisted scene where Barnes convinces a young boy in his neighborhood to stay away from drugs and it’s simply too much for one issue. The dialogue is clunky and sounds dated and frankly, it looks like they had to cram it all into each panel; there’s just so much of it sometimes.
The real problem, I suppose, is that since nothing at all is explained or resolved, this is a pretty poor initial issue. The reader is left wondering what exactly is going on and there’s no indication whatsoever that the confusion one feels is all part of the desired effect. Rather, it leaves you with the impression that you’ve been reading a story already in progress and that’s not a feeling that makes you want to spend money on the book again next month.
Rawhide Kid #2
Marvel Comics / MAX – Ron Zimmerman (w); John Severin (a)
By some accounts, I ran a bit roughshod over the first issue of Rawhide Kid. Myself, I think I was rather civil. I was surprised to find that the book was better than I had expected it to be, but since I had expected something irredeemably God-awful, that wasn’t too much of an accomplishment. The first issue, I felt, was simply mediocre. It had its moments, but it in no way, shape or form lived up to the hype that Marvel had spent so much time generating for it.
The second issue, on the other hand, is a different story.
For one thing, to be blunt, it’s a lot gayer than the first issue. I think the initial offering of the series tried to be pretty subtle (or what passes for subtlety from Zimmerman), relatively speaking. The Kid was clearly gay (or at least leaning towards that persuasion), but only obviously so because the reader already knew in advance that his sexual preference was the pivotal point of the book. In other words, being in on the joke beforehand was really the only sure way to get the joke.
This time around, the Kid’s not trying so hard to hide his inclination towards the menfolk. Rawhide is flamingly gay, speaking almost entirely in the clichéd dialect that denotes homosexual characters on TV sitcoms. The Kid’s contribution to most conversations is to comment on someone’s wardrobe choices or manners, generally speaking. Comicraft’s lettering shares a good deal of credit for making his accent come alive through the use of hyphens in words that are normally not hyphenated and emboldened phrases to show emphasis (or overemphasis, as the case may be).
Continuing the comparison between issues 1 and 2, I felt that the comedy in Rawhide Kid #1 was essentially nonexistent. There were a few moments that I thought were passably amusing, but the funniest part about them was that they were seemingly the best efforts of someone who previously wrote comedy for a living. The second issue, on the other hand, does have more than a smattering of genuinely laugh-out-loud jokes and not all of them revolve around the Kid’s sexuality. The running gag of Sheriff Morgan’s son Toby’s shame over his father’s beating at the hands of Cisco Pike continues apace, gathering steam as the issue goes on, for example. Generally speaking, however, the most common gag is that the people around the Rawhide Kid simply cannot seem to wrap their brains around what is “going on” with him, a bit that works for the most part.
As far as the story goes, things have continued along a fairly predictable course. The Cisco Pike gang has vacated the town limits, but no one within Wells Junction holds any illusions about the permanency of that arrangement. Knowing that it is only a matter of time before Pike and his outlaws return to raise more hell, Sheriff Morgan begins interviewing potential deputies in an effort to replace the one he lost in his ill-fated fight with the bandit leader. True to form, the Rawhide Kid volunteers to serve as Morgan’s right-hand man, but only until a suitable replacement can be found. This he does simply out of the goodness of his heart and because he hates to see anyone bullied. And possibly because of more than a slight attraction to the gruff, but privately terrified, lawman.
If I have any real complaint about the issue, it’s that Zimmerman uses a sort of scattershot method to his comedy. Rather than pacing his jokes and using only those that truly work, he seems to be simply throwing out anything he can think of and seeing if it sticks. For example, the Taxi Driver and Andy Griffith bits were simply terrible. On the other hand, some of the comments, particularly from the schoolchildren, were downright inspired.
At the end of the day, the comedy ranges from absolutely painful to genuinely amusing. It’s that inconsistency that keeps me from giving it a higher recommendation, as the jokes simply may not work for some readers. However, if you can refrain from taking the book too seriously, there’s a fair chance that you’ll get a kick out of at least something contained within.
Metal Hurlant #1
Humanoids Publishing – Various (w/a)
Recently, while reviewing The Filth, I made reference to Warren Ellis’ once-common rant about “mad, beautiful ideas.” At the time, I used the quote because I felt that Morrison, in The Filth, had foregone the beautiful part in favor of simply doubling up on the mad quotient. However, the quote applies here as well, since the typical product released by Humanoids is the very embodiment of what Ellis was getting at (or, at least, it’s what I feel he meant by it). And while Metal Hurlant is not the greatest effort the company has put forth, it is a rare thing to find an anthology series that is not only commercially successful but also highly entertaining.
A note for the uninformed, a legion of which I was a member prior to reading this book: Metal Hurlant began in 1974 and was the European anthology from which the legendary American book Heavy Metal took its cues. It ceased production in 1987, but was resurrected nearly fifteen years to the day when it was released last summer. With that in mind, any familiarity with Heavy Metal, in either serialized or animated form, gives the reader a leg up in regards to what to expect from Metal Hurlant (which, incidentally, means “screaming metal” in French).
The opening issue of this new rendition of Metal Hurlant has a well-thought out format to it. In addition to the eye-catching paintings on both the front and back covers and the quality paper- and cover-stock, the editorial staff has mixed both American and European creators, stand-alone and serialized stories.
The opening story by Alexandro Jodorowsky (w), Marc Riou and Mark Vigouroux (a) sets the tone for the rest of the book. It is a glimpse of a world entirely unlike our own, a cinematic tour through an alien landscape, narrated by an unseen protagonist (who is quite literally the very core of the planet, enraged by the environmental rape of its body) and with an ending that twists just enough to provoke thought, or at the very least, raise an eyebrow.
Other stories include a werewolf tale by Kurt Busiek, a piece of primitive fantasy by Spanish newcomers Portela and Das Pastoras, and the beginnings of a serialized dystopian future epic by Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran. They are, overall, a mixed bag, but generally of sufficient quality to warrant the $3.95 cover price. However, if one thread can connect them all, it is that the art in each short piece is nothing short of stunning (though each story boasts a different style).
The one seemingly mismatched story is smack in the middle of the issue, a piece of slice-of-life fluff by Pierre Wazem. The short itself is interesting and drawn in an Andi Watson sort of style, but simply seems to stick out like a sore thumb amidst a company of science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s just like PBS taught us: one of these things is not like the others.
And the end of the day, Humanoids provides a valuable service for the comics industry by acting as an outlet for the release of European works that otherwise might go entirely unnoticed by the American consumer (as opposed to being mostly unnoticed in favor of another X-Men related title, as those works appear to be now). Metal Hurlant itself is exceptional in that anthology series are few and far between. Finding one that maintains a high standard of quality is even more rare, as the temptation to simply use filler to take up space must be overwhelming.
As a side note, I’m unaware of whether or not this initial offering is still available for your local retailer to reorder through Diamond. However, it can be found at finer online retailers, like the ever-useful Mars Import (www.marsimport.com).
Hellboy: Weird Tales #1
Dark Horse Comics – Various (w/a)
Man, it’s just an anthology kind of week around these parts… . First Metal Hurlant, now the new Hellboy series…
In any event, I’m a big Hellboy fan and an even bigger fan of Mike Mignola, so I was more than a little curious to see how his most famous creation would fare without his guidance, as Mignola handed over the reigns to a group of creators to do with as they would. And a more varied group of creators one would be hard-pressed to find.
The book opens with a bang, kicking things off with a John Cassaday story that is, in fact, the standout of the issue. Therein, Hellboy meets fellow B.P.R.D. agents Abe Sapien and Liz at the site of a haunted circus in rural Germany. Not only is Cassaday’s art breathtakingly good (making me long for the days when Planetary actually shipped), but also he demonstrates a real mastery of both the character’s style of story and the form itself. The plot is established, a bit of exposition moves things from the introduction to the conflict and resolution is swiftly and satisfyingly found; one could not ask for a more textbook-perfect short comic book story.
The stories that follow are varied, to say the least. Andi Watson’s is a slice-of-life style piece about Hellboy’s birthday. Invited to a carnival by Liz, his abnormal size and impressive physical attributes make normal carnival games a dangerous proposal, inspiring a bit of introspection on Hellboy’s part. However, Watson ends on an upbeat note, though it never feels forced or hurried.
Fabian Nicieza scripts and Stefano Raffaele pencils a story that breaks away from Hellboy for a bit to focus on the influence of one of his most famous nemeses, Baba Yaga (of Dancing Hut fame). The story feels a bit more compacted that the preceding two and has a less-than-satisfying ending, but is nonetheless a nice change of pace, in that it denotes a willingness to delve into the supporting cast of the Hellboy books rather than simply focus on the titular character himself.
John Cassaday wraps the issue up with a two-page, Golden Age style piece regarding Lobster Johnson, Hellboy’s childhood hero (himself a bit of a Sandman/Blue Beetle-type of guy), which is scheduled to continue in the next issue (and presumably all the following issues).
The real selling point of the book is that all the creators involved have been allowed to play to their own strengths. For example, Andi Watson and Hellboy are not creators and characters that one generally associates with each other. However, what I infer to be a lack of editorial interference allows Watson to craft a story that is both appropriate to the character and suited to his style of writing and art. In the end, Hellboy: Weird Tales #1 is comprised of a diverse group of creators and stories, but when they’re put under one roof, they all seem to fit. And Hellboy never once falls through a floor.