A Day at Borders

Greetings, and welcome back. I just got back to Chi-town on an Amtrak train, just in time for the inaugural edition of New Comics Day 2004, the first after our holiday hiatus. Good to see we’ve all made it through the high-water mark of suicides for another year. Drop those pills and put down your razor, it’s time for Cheap-Ass Bastard Reviews.

Today I wandered down to the local Borders and took malicious advantage of their lax loitering policy. I grabbed a handful of comics that I either dropped at some point or never read in the first place in an effort to keep my finger on the pulse of the industry. Or, as it would appear, right up the smelly asshole of the industry. As it turns out, there’s a damn good reason I don’t read more superhero books than I do.

So let’s begin with…

Spectacular Spider-Man #8

If there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to see Spider-Man tackle, it’s the continuing crisis in the Middle East. It’s an obvious combination, really — wisecracking New York superhero whose most memorable antics are rooted in street-level adventure and overblown soap operatics, and ages-long conflict between two religious groups which, over the course of history, has claimed of untold innocents over a protracted campaign of aggression and terror in a war that seems to have no end. Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko must really be fuckups not to have caught onto this one sooner.

Paul Jenkins is generally a pretty bad writer, and I don’t say that lightly. After all, there’s a fifty-fifty chance Jenkins will wind up taking a swing at me at a con sometime over the course of the year.

[Speaking of which, I have a great fundraiser idea. Ed Brubaker arm rassled folks over copies of Sleeper in a clever promo appearance at James Sime's store. The event was a major success. Imagine the inevitable popularity of a room at the San Diego Con lined with bleacher seats. In the middle, an unwitting Jenkins, wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth, fitted with a shock collar to keep him in the room, stands awaiting the steady stream of people who've roused his ire over the course of the year. Ten dollars a ticket, five clams for the kiddies, to see the first annual Paul Jenkins Fight-A-Thon. Losers have to donate fifty bucks to ACTOR. Winners are promised never, ever to have to read Origin so long as they live.]

But I digress.

So Jenkins doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record. I’ve been thoroughly not enjoying his work for several years now, occasionally trying an issue or two and finding it entirely dissatisfying. Still, if you would have asked me yesterday if I thought Jenkins would ever write a story in which Doctor Octopus threatens to escalate war in the Middle East unless Spider-Man reveals his identity, I probably still would have given him the benefit of the doubt. And yet that’s what we have here, depicted in all its ghastly anti-glory by Humberto Ramos whose art is the visual equivalent of chewing on tinfoil.

This is Jenkins at his worst. The story isn’t particularly good as it is, but not only is it not a good story, it’s a story that doesn’t seem to fit Spider-Man. Of all the people to kidnap, why a Palestinian ambassador? It would be just as easy to nab a cute little girl or a baby. Are we to infer that Spider-Man will save the ambassador but not the baby? Jenkins appears to be tossing in plot wrinkles for the sake of plot wrinkles.

Isn’t Spider-Man supposed to be fun?

Flash #204

I read the first issue or two of this arc sometime back and sort of kind of enjoyed it, but when the next one came out I entirely forgot to care. This is never a good sign. But, hey, I’m at Borders, it’s free, why not give it a try?

Apparently Captain Cold, the obvious culprit, isn’t the culprit. He and Flash fight. Flash’s girlfriend is harassed by Zoom’s ex-wife. Batman shows up.

The whole story felt random, drawn-out and generally boring. I’m sure Geoff Johns will tie up some of the loose ends he leaves dangling here, but I can’t muster up the will to care how he does it. The story is too silly to be dramatic and too somber to be any entertaining.

Allegedly this is all a big parody of the “new” superhero storytelling style, poking fun at books with long story arcs and attempts at looking at superheroes through a pseudo-real world filter. Maybe so, but it’s still boring as hell. The joke’s on the reader, I guess. No wonder kids spend all their money on videogames.

Ultimate X-Men #40

Did you know that humans hate and fear mutants?

Brian Bendis doesn’t think you do. That’s pretty much the whole setup to this steaming pile of an Ultimate X-Men issue, a story that wouldn’t be all that interesting even if it wasn’t a tired cliché.

He tried to justify the “Blockbuster” arc by claiming it was an homage to Kurosawa films (which may be so, but his “homage” also happens to be a superhero team-up story trope that was thoroughly beaten to death by the early ’90s), so, hey, maybe this was actually an homage to a brooding Bergman picture. As opposed to a bright, happy Bergman picture.

Angel joins the cast of the X-Men because, quite frankly, there wasn’t enough whining and moping. He comes to the mansion and whines and mopes. Some religious people get all riled up because they think he’s divine. Only he’s not. But he does feel really, really bad.

I felt really, really bad, too, mostly for people who paid good money and didn’t read this for free at Borders.

Punisher #36

Garth Ennis’ Punisher never appealed to me when it was serious. I’ve read odd issues of the series here and there, and it always seemed to work best as a black comedy. The character is just too damned one-dimensional to work month-in and month-out in straight-faced action tales. He has no personality to speak of, no real supporting cast and a completely one-track mind. This is not the stuff of compelling fiction.

Throw in some bizarre villains, kooky situations and ultraviolence and the whole enterprise is good for a laugh or two, though. When Castle uses Spider-Man as a human shield against the Russian, who recently returned from the dead with his severed head placed atop an oversized body with breasts so big they would make Luba jealous, that was funny. When Frank Castle and Wolverine fight a roomful of angry midgets, that was hilarious.

But in his final pre-Marvel Max Punisher story, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” Ennis overdoes it. It’s a real feat for the severed-head Russian boob fighter and angry midget mobster guy, but he does it. The problem here is that the characters and situations aren’t delightfully outlandish, they’re just big and dumb.

The entirety of the plot seems to be as follows: Wolverine, Punisher and Spider-Man decide to team up and take Castle out of the picture for good, but he doesn’t want to go to jail, so they fight. If I remember correctly, I was reading part four of the story. Part four. This is more than enough for a premise that doesn’t really sound like it could sustain a single issue, much less a longer arc.

Ennis’ best attempt at comedy here is basically to turn Spider-Man, Daredevil and Wolverine into the Three Stooges. I really don’t care that they’re being “disrespected” in his work — plenty of people, from Ann Nocenti to Frank Tieri to Paul Jenkins (see above) have done much worse to the characters just by writing shitty stories for them. Besides, they’re fictional characters, for Stan’s sake. That said, it would have been nice if Ennis would have at least made a token effort to have one of them retain some semblance of the personality that defines them as a character. In his story, the three characters play like random extras, Storm Troopers in Star Wars or random blue-painted fighting Scotsman in the background of Braveheart. They’re nothing more than generic people for Punisher to fight.

Did I mention that this goes on for several issues?

Wolverine #9

I can say one good thing about this issue: the Apocalypse Now riff on the cover was very cool. Marvel’s dumbass policy that nearly every comic cover must feature nothing but a character or two posing has wreaked havoc on the overall aesthetic of Marvel’s line, which, even relatively speaking, is saying something. But this was a nice twist on it.

I can say one other good thing about Rucka and Fernandez’s book: something happened. I read the first Wolverine arc and spend most of the time wondering when something was going to happen, a dramatic revelation or a joke or some stabbin’. Nothing ever really did. In this issue, though, there is a good deal of cinematic jumping around and slashing.

But that’s about all I can say for the book. Like the above Punisher issue, this book falls smack in the middle of a story arc. The recap page tells you everything you need to know, though, and everything you need to know is: don’t buy the book. Wolverine is an unstoppable killing machine with mutant healing powers and claws made of indestructible metal. He’s fighting some guys with guns. This is not exciting. Watching Wolverine fight some regular people is like watching Lennox Lewis fight me. It’s so anti-climactic, even the senseless violence is drained of fun.

Now if Wolverine were to fight Paul Jenkins, that might be cool.

“And this is ‘fer writing Origin, ya’ European pansy!”

(My money is on Jenkins.)

Birds of Prey #61-62

Gail Simone is a funny, funny lady. Her column at Comic Book Resources was consistently hilarious, and her quips and replies on messageboards everywhere were always witty and charming, a rare combination in this industry (or any other industry, for that matter).

She can’t seem to find a comic that allows her to let her comedic talents take over, though. Killer Princesses was amusing, and Gus Beezer looks like it would probably be a pretty nifty kids book, but she still hasn’t tapped her full potential. Birds of Prey has received the most buzz, so I decided to give the series a shot, mostly because Borders had two consecutive issues.


It’s not bad. It’s just…eh.

Not only have I never read the series, I don’t even know what in the hell it’s about. Apparently some DC superchicks have a little organization going in which they fight crime, all linked by the wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon. It reads a bit like Charlie’s Angels with superpowers, only written by a clever woman who isn’t just out to show a lot of T&A.

Unfortunately the artist, Ed Benes, seems to have an agenda that consists of doing his best to show a lot of T&A. It’s inexplicable. Assassins and superheroes, women who could at any moment be thrust into the heat of battle, strut around braless. Somehow or another Barbara Gordon, despite being unable to walk for years, has an incredible ass. Must be the Atkins diet.

In one story, the Black Canary gets shitcanned and has to prove to Gordon / Oracle that she has what it takes to stay on the team. Everyone winds up hitting people in the same alley, and then they all go out to eat. In the next story, one of the chicks goes to Japan to visit her dying sensei one last time, and some fighting ensues. Meanwhile, back home, somebody is stalking Oracle.

Neither story was poorly told (except maybe the whole “hey, fancy meeting you in this blood-soaked alley, let’s grab some pasta” scene). The book has an obvious appeal, showing a group of tough, intelligent women working together for a common cause without lapsing into a lot of insulting stereotype. Except for the art, that is, which is pretty much all insulting stereotypes. And yet nothing in the book really jumps out at me. It’s better than a hell of a lot of superhero books on the market, and yet Simone seems capable of much more. I’m still half-tempted to start buying it, just to throw cash Simone’s way so she can have time to write the inspired, hilarious title she’s bound to do at some point.

Amazing Spider-Man #501-502

I’m a big fan of Spider-Man, but I don’t read many Spider-Man books. They’re terrible. If a Spider-Man book is even marginally good, I’ll pick it up.

When last I checked in with JMS’ run on Amazing Spider-Man, it was pretty damn far from being marginally good, but out of sheer determination to enjoy another Spider-Man book, I figured, hey, why not give him another shot?

Oh, now I remembered why I decided not to give him another shot.

I think JMS might be an alien. I say this because every attempt he makes at conveying some sort of emotion or humor comes off so awkwardly that it’s almost unbelievable he could have even a basic understanding of either dramatic device, or even human communication. Reading his jokes or, worse, his attempts at tear-jerker drama is like reading a story that was ineptly translated from Spanish to Japanese and then ineptly translated again from Japanese to English.

In #501, May sits on a bench and chats with somebody Forrest Gump style about her concerns over Peter. Now that she knows he’s Spider-Man, she worries constantly. Meanwhile, Peter runs around town trying to fight a gigantic vibrator. Really. Some guy steals a robot suit that causes massive vibrations originally intended to dig to the center of the earth, but which are here used to knock shit down so that he can… well, I don’t remember the book ever saying, but I’m sure The Vibrator was up to no good. I don’t really know what his deal is. Put it this way, I certainly wouldn’t trust my girlfriend with The Vibrator.

JMS does seem to have some vague notion of what makes Spider-Man work. At one point he contrasts Spider-Man’s superheroics with May staring down a rude cell-phone user in public. The scene comes out of nowhere, but it does at least show that JMS has some clue that the heart of the Spider-Man concept is a regular guy with extra abilities doing everything he can, even when it isn’t enough. The former Babylon 5 writer also gets credit for writing a self-contained issue, which is a rare thing these days.

Issue #502 is another self-contained issue, which I appreciated. At least I appreciated that it was self-contained, but not so much the actual content of the story. It’s kind of a one-gag premise that a tailor makes and mends superhero costumes — and supervillain costumes as well. After he overhears a bit of shady business while working, he’s torn between customer loyalty and, you know, stopping murder. He and Spider-Man have a nice, heartfelt chat about it like a couple of Nancy-boy super-sensitive reject characters from Thirtysomething, this after a slew of tiresome jokes about how people need costumes and Thor apparently enjoying a bit of knob gobbling.

These were the most accessible issues I read all day, and yet some of the worst. (Well, okay, the Jenkins was worse.) I didn’t need a recap page or any prior knowledge past the old “Peter Parker was an ordinary high school student when…”. It was refreshing to read 22 pages that had a beginning, middle and end, that weren’t decompressed beyond all comprehension, that were so damn autonomous. Really, if they just weren’t so damn bad, I’d love to recommend them to new readers.

I can’t say I’m surprised that comics has lost the casual reader. Out of the nine books I picked up, these were the most accessible. Simone’s books didn’t outright defy you to read them, and Bendis’ UXM made sense, although it didn’t cover anything I couldn’t get by watching one of Brian Singer’s movies. I pity any kid who grabs a comic and tries to get into the hobby, though, lost in a sea of six-part arcs, somber stories and a general lack of the wonder and fast-paced storytelling that got me hooked lo those many years ago.

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