Nobody writes war comics today like Garth Ennis. For that matter, nobody today really writes war comics other than Garth Ennis, but it’s hard to imagine many doing a better job. Ennis has thus far released eight chapters in his War Stories miniseries which runs in blocks of four issues every year or two. Each story is a self-contained piece that runs sixty-four pagers or thereabouts. Some of the stories haven’t been quite up to par, which is to say, they’ve only been pretty damn good. In general (hardy har), though, they’ve been top-notch. D-Day Dodgers, Condors, and Johann’s Tiger were phenomenal stories in which bloody battles and gritty combat served as a backdrop for intense personal drama.
Recently DC collected both parts of Ennis’ Enemy Ace story which was originally presented as a pair of prestige format books. I passed it over on the first go round for the same reason I skip every DC prestige book — who wants to pay six or seven bucks for a new comic? If I want it bound with a nice spin and a shiny cover, I’ll buy the trade, but if I’m buying the floppies I expect a three dollar price tag which, quite franky, is pretty damn exhorbitant in the first place. It’s not as though comics don’t cost more than a crack habit or a half-decent looking whore anyway; the last thing the industry needs is pointless price hikes on slightly oversized books. (Batman / Planetary, anyone?) So I skipped Enemy Ace and, quite frankly, forgot all about it. The trade looked intriguing, and though it was priced a little steep as well, I gave it a look. After reading it, I can say that, had I bought the prestige issues when they were first released, I might actually have gotten my money’s worth.
Enemy Ace is good. Not just good, actually, but great. Fan-freakin’-tastic. It’s every bit as effective as the best of Ennis’ War Story books, maybe even better. Von Hammer, the Enemy Ace, is a DC character of old resurrected by Ennis for a new tale, not unlike his kick-ass Vertigo mini, Unknown Soldier.
Von Hammer’s tale, told during the Vietnam era, was a risky bit of work for a mainstream company as it looked at war from the enemy’s perspective: the cast , the Germans during WWI. Von Hammer is the best pilot in the German army, or was as the new series begins. WWII has erupted and Hitler needs all the help he can get, so he enlists the help of the Enemy Ace. Von Hammer has no use for Nazis, but he’s an old dog of war and a German nationalist. His lust for combat is too great, so he agrees to enter the fight. As the war drags on, however, and Von Hammer is moved from battle to battle, he begins to see war in a new way. The German government, the puppetmasters of the fatherland he so eagerly defends, are worse than he believed, and his old ways are challenged even as he continues desperately battling the Russians and the Allies. Eventually, he realizes, he will have to make a horrible choice — but can an old dog of war learn one last trick?
Enemy Ace is riveting, at turns meditative and action packed. The battle scenes are fantastic, but even more powerful are Ennis’ understated emotional scenes. There’s much passion, sadness and sensitivity here, but Ennis keeps his story every bit as steely and restrained as the old Ace himself, making for a powerful read.
My one gripe at the book is inconsistent art. The first chapter has gorgeous Chris Weston art, as marvelous as his work on books like Ministry of Space and The Filth. The second half, however, appears to be someone else entirely. (The credits page of the book are strangely worded, but it would appear that the latter section was done by Russ Heath.) It’s not that the art in the last chapter isn’t good, just that it isn’t nearly as good as Weston’s exceptional visuals in the first half. Weston is one of the few storytellers who can pull off big, detailed “widescreen” (in quotes because it’s such a lame-ass term) action but still keep his focus on storytelling and the human moments, as opposed to somebody like Brian Hitch who draws fantastic ‘splosions but character expressions so stiff you’d think they were soaked in starch.
Enemy Ace is a brilliant war story, tough as nails and touching, too. (A reprint of the original Enemy Ace story is chucked in as well with some beautiful Joe Kubert art.) This is great, great stuff, absolutely unmissable.
Garth Ennis, who has been quite a bit more prolific since his minor lull following the conclusion of his long running series Preacher and Hitman, begins his first of two new mini-series for Marvel. Before Ennis does to his sure-to-be-weird riff on Thor, we get Born, a bit of revisionist history featuring the Punisher, his favorite toy of late.
Ennis revitalized the Punisher a few years back with his 12-issue mini-series which eventually parlayed into an ongoing. The Punisher hadn’t been cool for … well, since he got his own series, really. The character is a great foil for top-tier characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil, an excellent guest star (although not excellent enough to warrant his appearance in every third Marvel comic from 1988 to 1995 or so). During the Regan-era ’80s where even the president idolized Dirty Harry, the Punisher experienced a massive boost in popularity that landed him his first ongoing. The excesses of the ’90s saw THREE Punisher ongoings: Punisher, Punisher: War Zone and Punisher: War Journal. (One can only suspect that Punisher: War Fighting, Punisher: War War and Punisher: Shoot Bang Kill were in the planning stages.) Alas, the Punisher ongoing was fairly repetitive aside from a few high points in storytelling, and it wasn’t long before he was surgically altered into a black man. (Don’t ask.) Anytime a character changes race between issues, you just know cancellation was on the way. So Frank Castle offed himself, only to return under the Marvel Knights banner as an avenger of heaven killing demons with his Holy Shotguns. Or whatever. (Really, don’t ask.)
When Ennis rethought the Punisher, he acknowledged the character’s rampant psychoses and tossed in some black humor which made for an enjoyable book. Now he’s backtracking and revising the origin, suggesting that Castle wasn’t turned looney by the murder of his wife and kids but rather always was nuts and his vigilante streak was merely the repressed urge to kill, released and focused. Born shows us the pre-dead family but already crazy Frank, a man obsessed with combat stalking through the jungles of Vietnam in the waning days of a lost war. He’s clinging to the battles, the only thing that keeps him going, but he realizes that soon enough he will be sent home.
The first issue of Born does little more than establish Castle’s frame of mind and his place in Vietnam. There’s no real story yet, just characters and a setting. What we get is intriguing stuff, though, despite a bit of a slow pace. Darrick Robertson provides the pencils and, as always, does a magnificent job. Aside from Steve Dillon, nobody draws Ennis stories like Robertson. His characters here are dark and sketchy, their world basked in shadows. He’s equally adept with gory combat sequences and moody conversation. Born feels not terribly unlike another Marvel / Ennis / Robertson miniseries, Fury, which met mixed reactions. I enjoyed Fury despite its ambling pace, although I hope Born doesn’t retread the same combat-obsessed soldier territory as the previous miniseries, even though I got a kick out of it the first time around.
The only real problem with Born is the three dollar and fifty cent pricetag. Outrageous. I thought I must be reading an IDW book for a minute. There’s no extra content, nor even a cardstock cover (which the $2.25 Ultimate books used to have, so it’s clearly feasible). Once again, Marvel’s business practices get on my damn nerves, but once again their creative teams are solid enough to counterbalance it.
The boys stage a flat tire on a flatbed trailer outside a military base for the sole purpose of ambushing the courtesy call from the troops stationed within, which in turn allows them to radio in a request for med-evac, which leads to their actual goal: hijacking and stealing a military-grade transport helicopter. Using their newfound, ill-gotten hardware, Clay and his team stage a daring, broad daylight raid on a government convoy, using the chopper to airlift away an entire truck. In between these two heists, the reader is introduced to the newest member of Clay’s dysfunctional family, a woman named Aisha who breaks up a forced prostitution ring that pulls its victims from amongst illegal immigrants.
6 and a half/10
Admitted bias: I love Spider-Man above all company-owned characters. I’m a big softy for Jesse Custer and Spider Jerusalem and now Yorick from Brian Vaughn’s excellent new series, but when we’re talking corporate icons who lead franchises like little armies of dollar signs, it’s all Spider-Man in my book. That said, I didn’t read a Spider-Man book for a good while because they all sucked, and then Bendis came along and started Ultimate Spider-Man, my very favoritest of all the purty superhero books. I dig Bendis, I love his work here, and I’m a Spider-Man junkie. I’m predisposed to like this book every few weeks when it comes out before I crack the covers.
And yet, for the first time since the god-awful issue-long-rehash-of-last-month’s-story-from-the-Goblin’s-perspective issue, I find myself not particularly enjoying the book. I have an intrinsic affinity for the character and a real appreciation of Bendis’ take on him, so watching Peter Parker in the Ultimate universe do just about anything is usually preferable to me than most superhero stuff, but aside from that, I was just bored. This latest issue, which comes near the end of what I have until now found to be a pretty enjoyable arc, felt too gimmicky. Nothing much happened storywise. Spider-Man finally confronts Geldoff, the high schooler from down the street who also happens to have a superpower. Geldoff is a fun character, kind of a slightly vicious, high-powered version of Balky from Perfect Strangers. But here, after Peter tangles with him a bit, the X-Men girls show up and take them for a ride on the blackbird.
Um… so what?
Spider-Man is a street level character, so anytime he mingles with mutant folks or anything remotely cosmic he’s out of his element and the stories ring hollow. Bendis is pretty clearly aware of this, and he does some nice fish out of water comedy stuff, but that doesn’t make the story much more endearing. What’s worse, this seems like both a completely random guest starring role, reminiscent of the irritating ’90s where fucking Punisher or Ghost Rider popped into every second issue of every book like Skippy the irritating neighbor from goddamn Family Ties. (“Oh, hello Mrs. Keaton. It’s just me, the Spirit of Vengence. I came by for some milk, which may be hard to drink without lips.”) It also feels like a pretty shameless Charlie’s Angels ripoff / gag, which Bendis also acknowledges, not that acknowledging it makes it much less annoying. That this little blip in the story comes the week the Charlie’s Angels movie opens is probably coincidence, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
Maybe Bendis will be able to redeem the story with some fantastic twist next issue. If not, this may turn out to be the first lackluster arc in an otherwise excellent series.
I may love Spider-Man, but I don’t even really like the X-Men. I read the occasional X-book when I was nine or ten, but even then I found the execution of the concept pretty lame, and my opinion didn’t change much for years. The movies were entertaining enough, though, and Morrison usually turns in solid work. Once again, though the book is filled with characters I don’t know (Phantomex, Weapon Plus, Weapon XV… it all baffles me), Morrison’s plotting and characterization are once again strong enough to make for a compelling issue.
Not knowing who is who doesn’t help me follow the story as well as I should anyway, but not knowing what in the hell is going on at any given moment really hinders my reading. Chris Bachallo is a decent artist in terms of style and verve on any given panel, but he’s one of the worst storytellers working in mainstream comics today. My first exposure to his work came in Ultimate War where I would enjoy a random drawing of Magneto looking truly cool and frightening but spend most of my time trying to figure out what in the holy hell was going on. Action scenes were blurs of ink, clusters of seemingly unrelated panels. It’s awful, abysmal storytelling.
Morrison’s story, when I could follow it, was sharp, though. Wolverine and Cyclops get tangled up with Phantomex and find themselves in the middle of a scientific disaster in the wake of an attack on a strange laboratory. Morrison uses the same micro-world within a room bit he spun in the first issue of The Filth, but I’m fine with him rehashing himself, especially when I actually enjoy New X-Men as opposed to my general irritation at The Filth. So far this isn’t Morrison’s very best work on the book, and once again the art change takes the book in a less than ideal direction in terms of visuals, but this is still infinitely better than X-Men has been in a long, long time.
DC won’t put it this way, but Mark Waid is currently writing Ultimate Superman with Superman: Birthright, a twelve issue mini that reimagines the Man of Steel’s origin. Of course, DC has already done this. Marvel’s Ultimate universe isn’t really anything particularly special: DC has retconned the shit out of Superman, Batman and all the rest, has restarted and retold their stories before. But it’s popular to do now, so why not do it again? (All sarcasm aside, somebody needs to do SOMETHING with Superman, a character whose books haven’t been consistently good in years.)
It’s a nice idea and Mark Waid is a decent writer, but the effort so far is pretty mediocre. The first half of the book features basically the exact same “I must send my son away from this dying planet for his own good” Kryptonian bit we’ve seen before. Minor changes maybe, but nothing terribly exciting, nothing that makes us care about the characters more the way Bendis made Uncle Ben compelling in Ultimate Spider-Man. The second half of the book is a little more innovative. We see a young-ish Kent trying to help some citizens of a war-torn African country. The vague political feel of the story feels a little off in terms of tone. Traditionally, though, Superman is a little stodgy to be such an active leftist, but, hey, it’s a reimagining, Waid can do as he pleases. The idea is nice enough, but the execution is a little dull.
While the writing may be a little tedious at times, the art isn’t. Lenil Francis Yu, amusingly enough credited as “F Yu” on the cover of the book, turns in some really nice work. Superman books aren’t generally pretty, but this one is, shiny and glossy and nice to gaze at. Can Waid and Yu yank Supes out of the decade or more long creative quagmire and turn the character around for next summer’s alleged relaunch? It’s too early to tell, but Birthright feels just different enough, just interesting enough to suggest they just might pull something off.
4 and half/10
Bruce Jones’ run on Hulk started out impressively, but it’s just gotten irritating. Banner wanders, the conspiracy closes in, Banner escapes. On and on and on. We never find out who in the hell is behind the conspiracy, much less what are their plans. (Ten bucks says its Betty Ross — if Jones ever does get around to saying, that is.) Thanks to the release of that truly awful movie, Jones has (probably due to Marvel’s suggestion) sidetracked the confounding pseudo-X-files plot in favor of a more self contained arc involving the film’s villain, The Absorbing Man. Of course, Crusher Creel and wild-eyed Nick Nolte aren’t exactly similar, but it’s close enough for horseshoes and handgrenades and mediocre comics.
The Absorbing Man begins absorbing people’s minds and jumping from body to body. Why he’s never done this before is a bit of a mystery, but I’ll give Jones that one. Banner, of course, is caught in the middle of Creel’s plot. Let the redundancy resume. The running gag in this arc is that you never know who Creel might become next. The answer: everybody. There should be some suspense to this, I suppose, but there isn’t really — just random characters aquiring Creel’s red, glowing eyes every couple of pages. The end of the issue is foretold on the cover, so that possibly interesting development is pretty much a given before you even open the book.
So why read it?
Now there is a mysterious question.