Monday, April 30, 2012

X-FORCE #91 - June 1999



Fallout
Credits: John Francis Moore (writer), Tommy Lee Edwards (penciler), Al Williamson (inker), Marie Javins (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Unable to speak, Siryn wanders San Francisco. After briefly considering suicide, she buys a liquor bottle and contemplates drinking again. Eventually, she visits an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting instead. Banshee arrives to check on Siryn and spends a futile night with X-Force searching the city. She returns hours later, says goodbye to Proudstar, and leaves behind a resignation letter.

Continuity Notes:
· Banshee knows Domino as “Beatrice.” They apparently met when she was very young in Madripoor.
· Fearful that their friendship is in jeopardy, Meltdown breaks up with Sunspot while they’re searching for Siryn.
· Sunspot is soon detained by INS agents who say he’s in the country illegally.
· Detective Napoleon Sanders, the police officer that’s been trailing Domino since issue #73 catches up with her in San Francisco. To their mutual shock, she begins to glow and disappears.
· Siryn claims she almost gave away two years of sobriety, which would place X-Force #31 two years ago in continuity. I’ll once again point out that these specific time references are peculiar when you consider how adamant Marvel is that some of their characters should not age at all.

I Love the '90s: A calendar shows Siryn’s birthday as some point in the late ‘70s. This issue also establishes her age as twenty-one, which means she would have to be born in the ‘90s today.

Review: Siryn is given an issue-long goodbye, which is appropriate considering her long history with the book. Because Marvel still had some faith in the “every issue is someone’s first” mantra, there’s a plethora of flashbacks in this issue establishing not only Siryn’s backstory, but Banshee’s as well. Moore works it into the story smoothly, using the old continuity to establish Siryn’s motivation for drinking and setting up the significance of her decision to leave the team. For anyone not engrossed with Siryn’s dilemma, Moore’s also thrown in a decent amount of subplots to keep the title’s momentum going. I’m sure the INS agents Sunspot encounters are frauds, but it’s amusing to see a writer finally address the legalities that the foreign X-members never seem to face while staying in America.

Periodically, you need one of these cast changes to keep things interesting, and while Siryn isn’t a character I would choose to dismiss, I can see where Moore’s coming from. With the addition of Domino and Jesse Aaronson, the book is packed with characters, so someone probably should be leaving. Cannonball is widely viewed by the audience and the characters as the true leader of the team, which makes Siryn’s role slightly superfluous. This also opens the door for Moonstar to make a play for team leadership, since she’s been groomed for the role going back to the early days of New Mutants. Proudstar’s response to her departure also opens up avenues for new stories.

Fill-in art for the issue comes from Tommy Lee Edwards, who’s about as far away from Jim Cheung as you can get. His style fits the brooding story, even if some of his faces are extremely off-model (his rendition of Meltdown resembles a blonde James Woods). My favorite panel is the flashback to Siryn meeting X-Force for the first time, since Edwards has chosen to draw them in the Mignola-style.

Friday, April 27, 2012

X-MAN #53 & #54, July-August 1999


In Cold Blood
Credits: Terry Kavanagh (plot), Luke Ross (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Kevin Tinsley & Mike Thomas (colors), Comicraft (letters)

That’s a nice cover, even though Cyclops and Phoenix don’t wear those costumes in the issue. As far as we can tell, they’re wearing their ‘90s outfits underneath heavy hiking gear. Another oddity: Terry Kavanagh is only credited with “Plot” this issue, and his credit looks like it was pasted in after the others were written. (“Plot” appears inside a white box, lettered in a different font than the other credits.) If someone else scripted this issue, he or she doesn’t have a noticeable style, although this seems less verbose than the typical Kavanagh issue. Finally, if anyone wants to make any jokes unfavorably comparing Terry Kavanagh to Truman Capote, go right ahead. Now, on to the issue…

The story opens with X-Man having a nightmare about the Age of Apocalypse, something we’re now told is a common occurrence. When he awakens, we discover he’s hiking an Alaskan mountain with Cyclops and Phoenix. A dream led him here, and his biological parents are helping him out presumably because they live close by. On the mountaintop they discover a pile of dead bodies, bizarrely merged into the rocks, along with an army of Infinite soldiers from the Age of Apocalypse. One of the human rebels’ Atlantic Sea Walls has also merged into the mountain, and its “mutant nullification grid” is inhibiting the heroes’ powers. As they attempt to dismantle it, they’re trailed by the mysterious cyborg Hatchet-9.

Apparently, I’ve stumbled upon the random issue of X-Man that isn’t bad at all. These tend to be the opening chapters of arcs that ultimately disappoint, though, so who knows what’s coming next. If an X-Man series had to exist, this should’ve been the direction it followed. It’s stupid to ignore his connection to Cyclops and Phoenix and his origins in the incredibly popular Age of Apocalypse. The abrupt opening also works as a pleasant surprise, although it does mean that the fifteen or so ongoing storylines Kavanagh still needs to get back to are on the backburner once again.

A Little Piece of Home
Credits: Terry Kavanagh (writer), Luke Ross (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Mark Bernardo (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Oh, never mind. This is terrible. Apparently the Atlantic Sea Wall from the previous issue is also housing an Infinite soldier cloning plant for Apocalypse, even though the Sea Walls are supposed to be the human rebels’ base (explaining the “mutant nullification grid” which is still a plot point this issue). Hatchet-9 makes his move against Phoenix, but Cyclops and X-Man arrive just in time for a rescue. She then returns the favor and helps them defeat the Infinite soldiers. And that’s essentially the extent of the drama in this issue.

Hatchet-9 is revealed as a human who joined Apocalypse’s cause by agreeing to become a cyborg, but I’m not sure how he’s supposed to be different from any of the Infinite soldiers, since they have the same origin. Outside of his unusual design, I have no idea why the creators felt he was worth using.

Because every X-Man story still needs a giant explosion, Kavanagh fulfills this issue’s quota by destroying the entire mountain after the Seawall implodes into itself. X-Man passes out, has a vision of the AoA Forge and Siryn, then wakes up in our reality. The baffling final panel is supposed to show X-Man and his parents standing on top of a mountain ledge, but inexplicably has them facing several miles of flat land. Luke Ross is a perfectly competent artist by this point, so I don’t know what happened here. Phoenix abruptly screams, “The ride’s not over yet!” for some reason, perhaps because they’re going to be hiking down that imaginary cliff, and that’s the story’s conclusion. Nothing resolved, no coherent hints at a future explanation. Typical X-Man.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

WOLVERINE/PUNISHER: REVELATION #1 - June 1999



Ladies in Waiting
Credits: Tom Sniegoski & Christopher Golden (writers), Pat Lee (penciler), Alvin Lee (inker), Angelo Tsang & Pat Lee (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Wolverine goes on a date with his new girlfriend Caley Blair, while the Punisher escorts his friend’s sister Lucy home. After stopping a drive-by shooting with his new angelic powers, the Punisher is abruptly kidnapped by the Council of Thrones, a group of angels who demand he use his powers in their service. He refuses and returns home. During Wolverine’s date, Caley is called away on museum business. He follows her to the museum’s dig underneath New York’s subway tunnels. A mysterious force emerges from the tunnels and kills Caley. Simultaneously, a sickness infects the local citizens, including Lucy.

“Huh?” Moment: As he dons his costume on the final page, Wolverine reflects: “It ain’t been long enough since I had occasion to dress like this. It sure ain’t what I wanted. But Caley was somethin’ special.” Is there an implication here that Wolverine doesn’t wear his costume all of the time while fighting evil? In titles such as Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, and Wolverine?

I Love the ‘90s: Caley wears a beeper, and is even paged 9-1-1 when the excavation accident happens.

Review: I haven’t really discussed the Marvel Knights line yet; the line that seemed like such a good idea at the time, and has aged about as well as a Backstreet Boys album. The narrative that certain people like to advance is that Marvel was a creatively bankrupt storing house of old IPs in the late ‘90s, the House of Dull Bland Comics that apparently no one was buying. It took the vision of Joe Quesada (and, oh yeah, Jimmy Palmiotti) to create a line that rose above the banality to produce Smart Daring Comics that could reach a mainstream audience. I will politely call this revisionist history.

Bob Harras had his faults, and favoritism was certainly one of them. It’s obvious that certain creators of dubious talent were allowed to stay way too long on various X-Men and Spider-Man titles. It’s clear that too many X-titles were being published and the overall line was lacking focus, while the Spider-Man books were mired in an embarrassing attempt at forced nostalgia that seemed to be alienating both old and new readers. But the “core” Marvel Universe was doing just fine, and that’s not a minor accomplishment. A portion of the audience had turned on Dan Jurgens and Chris Claremont by this point, but the rest of the line was being written by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, and Mark Waid. These guys know superheroes. Young Turks like Joe Kelly, Brian K. Vaughn, Joe Casey, and Joseph Harris were starting to make a name for themselves on other titles. And what about the art? George Perez, John Romita, Jr., Andy Kubert, Ron Garney…nothing to sneeze at. For the first time in years, mainstays like Captain America and Thor were consistently outperforming the average X-spinoff.

So…X-titles in a rut, but still selling (comparatively) well. Spider-Man forced into a relaunch that commercially flames out within a year. Mainstream Marvel titles doing very well. Not a perfect track record, but Marvel is still selling more comics than anyone else, and there are really no problems that couldn’t be fixed with a little planning and a couple of new creative teams. That leaves the “edgier” Marvel books. The ones that once were literally called “Marvel Edge” (I swear.) Well, Marvel had mixed results farming four of its core titles out to Wildstorm and Extreme Studios during Heroes Reborn, but overall those books sold quite well and generated a lot of publicity for characters that had been ignored for years. Why not license a few of the street-level books, along with some of the more obscure titles that ordinarily can’t make it to issue twenty-five, to another studio? Only this time, the books will be firmly set in the Marvel Universe, no continuity is rebooted, and the people responsible for the books physically move into the Marvel offices. It’s almost as if they learned something from Heroes Reborn.

In the fall of 1998, Event Comics founders Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti moved to Marvel to create Marvel Knights. The idea was that only top-tier creators would be assigned these comics, and the art and production values would be impeccable. The first book announced was Daredevil by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada. At the time, Joe Quesada wasn’t known as an artist with a penchant for chubby heroes with dopey faces, and Kevin Smith was viewed as a promising young screenwriter who happened to like comics. Really, someone from movies writing a comic? That’s crazy. Plus, everyone likes Daredevil, even if his book is rarely in the Top Ten. This was going to be a hit.

The other Marvel Knights titles included an Inhumans miniseries by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee (an unusual pairing that actually worked out, even if some people complained that the series was too slow), an ongoing Black Panther series by cult-favorite writer Christopher Priest and former Wolverine artist Mark Texeira (which debuts strong and receives great reviews), and a supernatural-themed Punisher miniseries by Tom Sniegoski & Christopher Golden and legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson (umm…).

Marvel Knights was a massive hit, commercially and critically. These were intelligent, stylish superhero comics with production values that were previously reserved for overpriced prestige-format titles (slick paper was still something of a rarity on standard-line Marvel and DC comics of the era). I’m not sure if any of those books have aged well, with the exception of Black Panther, perhaps because it didn’t try to be so SERIOUS, but at the time, the consensus seemed to be that the Marvel Knights titles were the best mainstream superhero comics in years. Some fans began to demand a Marvel Knights takeover of the entire line. And yet, whenever the brilliance of Marvel Knights was discussed, everyone seemed to forget about that Punisher limited series…

The initial Punisher miniseries received scathing reviews; forget the Bernie Wrightson art…this thing was dumb. The Punisher should not be hanging out with angels. He should not be facing supernatural villains. His guns shouldn’t be glowing, and they should actually look like guns. Who the heck were the guys writing this thing, anyway? Because people liked the other MK titles so much, they were willing to dismiss this as a fluke. Surely if Joe Quesada (the more vocal of the duo, and clearly the one with the highest profile) was to take over Marvel, you wouldn’t have a series of no-name writers making arbitrary and shockingly misguided changes to established Marvel characters…right?

This leads us to 1999’s second wave of Marvel Knights titles. Wolverine/Punisher: Revelation is a follow-up to the previous year’s Punisher series, and it’s a sign that maybe someone at Marvel Knights can be slow to admit to a mistake. Perhaps it’s the same person who thinks adding Wolverine to everything makes it better. Aside from the addition of Wolverine, the commercial hook of the mini is allegedly Pat Lee’s colors and art. Pat Lee was already pretty unpopular with the hardcore internet comics fandom of the time, but Wizard magazine loved him. His status as a “hot” artist seemed to be based on his ability to mimic not just manga but more specifically anime. His pages looked like something out of Ghost in the Shell…until you actually looked at his art and realized that he can’t draw faces or anatomy or tell a coherent story to save his life. Credit to Lee for using technology to develop a new coloring style for comics, but everything Udon Studios publishes today puts this work to shame.

The story opens with Wolverine going on a date with a previously unknown girlfriend named Caley. It’s kind of a presumptuous idea for people who aren’t in charge of the character to be throwing into a miniseries, but in fairness, Wolverine’s love life has been virtually non-existent for around ten years at this point. I mean, he’s married to Viper, but everyone tried to forget that. I don’t necessarily mind the debut of a new girlfriend, and Sniegoski & Golden do have the decency to do a believable flashback that establishes how they met. My first thought upon seeing Caley was that she was going to be killed off in the final issue. She doesn’t even make it to the final page of the first issue. So much for being daring and unpredictable, Marvel Knights. Having Wolverine do a mental rundown of all of his other dead girlfriends just a few pages into the story doesn’t exactly make Caley’s ultimate fate too hard to figure out, either.

Wolverine’s story is intercut with scenes of the Punisher starting a new domestic life with his friend’s sister (I initially assumed this was his friend's daughter, since Punisher served with this guy in Vietnam and Lucy looks around twenty), using glowing supernatural cannons to non-lethally stop criminals, and later talking to angels. All things the Punisher should not be doing. His path begins to cross with Wolverine’s when the generic mystical plot device underneath New York is accidentally unleashed. Not that they actually meet in this issue, of course. “Sophisticated” comics take time. Doesn’t this sound exciting? Quesada and Palmiotti have been given creative freedom, huge budgets, high production values, and this is what they produce? If this is the Marvel Knights’ idea of “quality control,” it’s a bad omen for Marvel’s future.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

X-MEN ANIME and IRON MAN ANIME on DVD


Review copies provided by the studio.

My satellite provider dropped G4 over a year ago, so I haven’t been able to watch the Marvel/Madhouse anime collaborations. (I’ve barely seen a reference to them online since the project was announced, making me wonder if G4 is somehow blocked in every comic fan’s home.) Thankfully, the X-Men and Iron Man series have been released on DVD, without any of the annoying clutter that G4 no doubt pastes all over the screen during pivotal moments of the episodes.

Both series are written by Warren Ellis, and apparently translated into Japanese by the Madhouse production staff, then translated back into English for the American airings. I initially thought these guys were very serious about making this authentic anime, since my DVDs were already set for Japanese language with English subtitles when I hit play. Only after watching the first X-Men episode did I realize that you can turn off the subtitles and listen to an English translation. And, surprisingly, the English dubs are very enjoyable. The X-Men receive some of their best voice acting ever, and the dubbed Iron Man is mercifully not the annoying voice chosen for the recent Avengers Disney XD cartoon. By the way, I wouldn’t be so quick to turn off the subtitles. The translated text often doesn’t match the spoken English dialogue, and some of the incongruities are interesting.

Much of the look of the X-Men series comes from the movies, while New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men serve as the main inspirations from the comics. Speaking as someone who doesn’t particularly like much of this new-fangled continuity, I’ll give Warren Ellis some credit for providing more reasonable rationalizations for many of the events he’s adapting (Emma Frost’s secondary mutation, for instance). His use of Armor as the latest replacement for Kitty Pryde also makes sense, giving the series an organic connection to Japan. One of the DVD extras features an interview with Madhouse’s producers, which reveals that they found Ellis’ original ending far too depressing (Warren Ellis, you say?) so they changed it to better reflect Japanese sensibilities. The story is still clearly Ellis, though, for better and for worse. The pacing of the series is leisurely to say the least, and the show never quite creates a balance between extremely long conversation scenes and extremely long fight scenes. Conversely, the character interactions work pretty well, the dialogue is often sharp, and the “horrors of science” villains blend perfectly with Madhouse’s art.

Iron Man might as well be named Iron Man: The Movie: The Anime. This is flagrantly the movie interpretation of the Iron Man mythos, minus Pepper Potts, whose role is downplayed in favor of two potential Japanese love interests. Visually, the series is amazing (with one glaring exception I’ll get to later), while the stories are mostly done-in-one action pieces that pit Iron Man against mech-influenced interpretations of the old Avengers villains, the Zodiac. It doesn’t pretend to be as deep as the X-Men series, but it’s very entertaining and I think most Iron Man fans will really enjoy it, although the return of one major character from Tony Stark’s past might infuriate them.

Now, these are absolutely beautiful cartoons. I would have to be a spoiled, obnoxious fanboy to complain about the visuals in these shows, but I will. Assuming that the X-Men movies have done well in Japan, I can understand going for an amalgam of the movie and Frank Quietly comics when designing the costumes. And, Cyclops’ ridiculous shoulder pads aside, these costumes look fine. And yet…the first episode opens with a flashback to the previous year, featuring the X-Men in their retro-style costumes from the early issues of Astonishing X-Men. Not only are these superior designs, but they finally bring us an anime interpretation of Wolverine in his cowl. I’ve wanted to see the “real” Wolverine animated anime-style since I was twelve…and I get it for about five seconds in this series.

The Iron Man series also has a design element that perplexes me. The producers have decided to do Iron Man’s armor as a CGI model, along with most of the mech villains he fights. These aren’t bad CGI models, of course, but I have no idea what they’re doing here. When the Iron Man anime series was announced, I think most of us had a very specific style in mind for the armor, and it wasn’t CG. When I think of anime, I think of the classic armor and robot designs from Robotech, Gundam, and Transformers: The Movie. There is a specific anime look for this material, and it’s not reflected by computer-generated models. Any animation studio could create a CG Iron Man -- the movies are filled with CG Iron Man models, so it’s not like we haven’t seen one -- I wanted to see a genuine anime Iron Man armor.

Those are all very fannish complaints, I understand. These shows are pure eye candy, and the stories are solid enough to attract fans of the comics and the movies. Hopefully, the DVDs are going to perform well, because I’d like to see a second season for each show. And maybe someday, we’ll be lucky enough to get a Madhouse interpretation of Spider-Man. This horrible Ultimate Spider-Man thing wouldn’t prevent a simultaneous Spider-Man cartoon, would it?

Monday, April 23, 2012

GAMBIT #6 - July 1999



Pig Pen Part 1 - Muddy Waters
Credits: Fabian Nicieza (plot/script), Steve Skroce (plot/pencils), Rob Hunter (inks), Shannon Blanchard (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Summary: In the past, fifteen-year-old Gambit aides his twelve-year-old cousin Etienne in Etienne’s Thieves Guild initiation assignment. They’re apprehended by the Pig’s men, who take them to the heart of his child slavery operation. During their escape attempt, the Pig knocks them off a cliff. Gambit survives, but Etienne drowns in a river. In the present, the Pig targets Gambit’s family after they grant asylum to two members of the Tokyo Thieves Guild -- Zoe Ishihara and her mutant brother Shirow. Gambit attempts to rescue Zoe and Shirow from the Mengo Brothers, but all three are captured when the Mengo Brothers cause a building to collapse on them.

Continuity Notes:
· Teenage Gambit wears the same purple-and-black armor he wears today.
· Etienne’s initiation challenge is to steal from Candra. Based on her dialogue, she’s already had a run-in with a time-traveling Gambit. Her guards are henchmen provided by the Pig, who presumably turns teenagers into faceless goons for supervillains.
· Speaking of which, Viper (“Madame Hydra” at this point) later shows up in the flashback to scrutinize Pig’s soldiers for sale.
· The Pig is blinded in one eye by teenage Gambit, who’s still learning how to use his powers. Etienne steals a deck of cards from one of the child-prisoners, which leads to what we’re told is Gambit’s first use of playing cards as weapons.
· Fontanelle visits the dreams of Kimberely Purcell, the sister of Mary Purcell, a.k.a the Green Mist Lady that’s living inside Gambit.

Review: The first page of this story promises “The Little Rascals meets John Woo,” and it pretty much lives up to it. Plus, the origin story of Gambit’s playing cards is revealed, which is a nice surprise. Now, has anyone explained those tiny spikes he used in his first appearance?

Gambit’s past with the Thieves Guild isn’t usually fertile story ground, but Nicieza did use a teenage Gambit in X-Men #33’s flashback tale, and that’s potentially the greatest Gambit story ever written. If there’s anyone you want writing a story about fifteen-year-old Gambit helping his little cousin steal from an External, it’s Nicieza. Sadly, this is too rushed to give you the same impact as X-Men #33, even though it’s still an entertaining caper story with an unexpectedly dour ending.

For the present day scenes, Nicieza and Skroce also get some mileage out of the Thieves Guild with the introduction of Tokyo members Zoe and Shirow. I don’t know how exactly the idea of foreign Thieves Guilds gels with the specific origin given to the New Orleans chapter, but previous writers have established foreign members before (Storm’s mentor was retroactively made one), so it’s fair game I suppose. Building on the series’ ongoing continuity, we discover that young Shirow generates the mind-controlling gas seen in the previous issues, and we’re also made privy to the utterly disgusting way the kid expels it.

Zoe and Shirow don’t really have to be Thieves Guild members in order for the story to work, they could simply be a random mutant and his sister Gambit runs into one day, but the creators are trying to find some way to make the Guild material work. Gambit isn’t only helping the kid because he’s a mutant; his family has an obligation to him. Plus he’s being chased by a known adversary of the Guild, someone responsible for the death of Gambit’s cousin. Gambit’s drawn into all of this even though he was disowned years ago. Nicieza and Skroce are trying to make this a story about familial obligations in general, while downplaying the cornball elements that made the Guilds easily dismissible in their early appearances. At this point it works, but later on in the series I think Nicieza tries too hard to legitimize the Thieves Guild as individual characters. The extended time travel arc that details the past of this allegedly great secret society is also one of my least favorite elements of the book’s second year. But for now, things are good.

Friday, April 20, 2012

WIZARD: X-MEN TURN THIRTY - August 1993



The first of many Wizard X-Men specials. Andy Mangels’ article on the ‘90s X-Men cartoon confirmed my suspicions that three different versions of the first two episodes aired on FOX (plus, the third episode had two versions, and the seventh episode originally had a different, non-cliffhanger, ending). You’ve really got to wonder why the producers stuck with Akom even after the show became a massive hit.







Wednesday, April 18, 2012

WOLVERINE: KILLING - September 1993



Credits
: John Ney Rieber (writer), Kent Williams (artist), Sherilyn van Valkenburgh (colors), Bill Oakley (letters)

Summary: Wolverine responds to a subconscious prompt that sends him to Tibet. The psychic who sent the message, Tane, is reluctantly obeying the wishes of Nirissa, who wants her grandchildren to inherit Wolverine’s healing factor. Tane loves Nirissa’s daughter, Serra, but must obey her command. When Serra discovers she’s to be bred like an animal, she runs away into the elements. After arriving in Tibet, Wolverine rescues Serra and takes her back home. When he discovers the life Serra lives in captivity, he agrees to travel outside of the mountains with her. Tane spies on them, and when he suspects Wolverine and Serra have true feelings for each other, he confronts Wolverine. In the battle, Wolverine spares Tane's life, proving he isn't what Tane thought he was.

Production Notes: This is a forty-eight page, $5.95 bookshelf format one-shot.

Review: Wolverine: Killing might be best known as one of the rare occasions Marvel was crazy enough to let Kent Williams draw Wolverine. This is an interpretation that makes Bill Sienkiewicz look conservative and restrained. I can live with his everyday Logan in a wifebeater, but that bizarre rendition of Wolverine’s cowl is something I’ll never understand. (I suspect Williams is the artist behind that memorable ad for the X-Men Sega Genesis game. This was certainly an...interesting way to go.)

Luckily, Wolverine is sans costume for much of this story, a story that covers much of the ground you expect these prestige format one-shots to cover. Wolverine’s uneasy about city life, but also with his bestial nature, outsiders want his powers, he discovers a new love interest (mysteriously Anglo in appearance even though the story is set in Tibet), he reflects on the nuances between an animal and man killing, and there’s some vague talk about the importance of survival…Wolverine’s animal instincts will never allow him to give up, while the “civilized” Nirissa is obsessed with the survival of her bloodline.

If you accept the plot as trippy dream logic and don’t ask too many questions, it’s a perfectly serviceable Wolverine story. Once you get into the “who, what, where, when, and how” you’re faced with mystery people from a mystery tribe luring Wolverine to Tibet through mysterious means because they mysteriously know of his healing factor. Plus, there’s an old man who picks a fight with Wolverine on his way to Tibet for no discernible reason, but that’s okay because Wolverine learns a lesson about changing the world in the process. Recognizing that this isn’t supposed to be the most literal story in history, I’m willing to accept it on its merits. I like the setting of Tibet, and John Ney Rieber’s philosophical divergences help to create a certain mood without violating the core of Wolverine’s character. It’s certainly a more rewarding experience than the previous year’s “artistic” Wolverine one-shot.

Monday, April 16, 2012

GHOST RIDER, WOLVERINE, PUNISHER: HEARTS OF DARKNESS - December 1991


Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), John Romita, Jr. (penciler), Klaus Janson (inker), John Wellington (colors), Joe Rosen (letters)

Summary: Blackheart manipulates Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and Punisher into traveling to the small town of Christ’s Crown in their civilian identities. They stay at Flo’s Boarding House and grow attached to Flo’s daughter Lucy. Blackheart appears to them in the night and makes his offer -- their greatest desires if they join him in assassinating his father, Mephisto. When they refuse, Blackheart steals Ghost Rider’s motorcycle and kidnaps Lucy. Ghost Rider finds another motorcycle and follows Wolverine and Punisher into Hell. They eviscerate Blackheart and take Lucy back home. Before Ghost Rider leaves, Mephisto hints that his origin will soon be revealed.

Continuity Notes: Ghost Rider’s ability to power up with a different motorcycle (one he steals from a local bike shop) is treated as a major revelation. Mephisto’s hints of more revelations apparently didn’t pan out since Howard Mackie left the Ghost Rider series before giving the Daniel Ketch version of the character a definitive origin.

Production Notes: This is a forty-eight page bookshelf format one-shot, retailing for $4.95. The front and back covers fold out to reveal a larger image.

Review: Hearts of Darkness was pretty much a license to print money in the early ‘90s. There are so many copies floating around now, it’s hard not to find one for less than a dollar. While this is shamelessly commercial, there is something to be said for a one-shot that pairs the hottest, grittiest stars of the day in one story and lets John Romita, Jr. go crazy with giant demonic images and manly action. But the story…well, is anyone shocked that the writing isn’t the selling point on this one?

The premise attempts to expand upon a storyline set up for Blackheart in Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil run; Blackheart admires man’s freewill above all else, but has none of his own so long as his father allows him to be worshiped as a demonic idol on earth. If you think that doesn’t make total sense, I agree. I don’t recall the concept working too well in Blackheart’s original appearances, even though Nocenti/Romita still used the character rather effectively. Mackie picks up the idea and creates a new scheme for Blackheart -- he’ll assemble three representatives of the new breed of hero, heroes “on the edge,” and mold them into his father’s assassins. There is some logic behind this, as it’s hard to imagine old Marvel stalwarts like Thor or Silver Surfer accepting a hit job on anyone, even Mephisto. And yet, if he’s looking for hired killers, why not hire villains? And why are two of the three heroes he’s assembled characters with no supernatural powers? And is the Ghost Rider of this era even supposed to be a killer? I thought he had a moral code against killing.

Assuming that you buy the premise that Blackheart’s plot needs heroes willing to live in “the gray area,” the execution still has problems. The little girl Lucy is clearly here as a cipher to be rescued; absolutely no effort is put into giving her or her mother any personality. We’re also never shown why any of the heroes have formed such a bond with the girl. It’s not hard to infer why each one would grow close to Lucy (Punisher lost a daughter near her age, Wolverine tends to form bonds with young girls, and I believe Ghost Rider lost his sister in his origin story), but the story keeps their relationship extremely superficial. There’s also a fundamental moral question relating to the basic plot that isn’t addressed. Why wouldn’t any of these heroes be even slightly tempted to kill Mephisto? He’s the Satan of the Marvel Universe, the cause of all evil and suffering. I get that they’re supposed to be heroic enough to reject a personal reward for killing, but aren’t they willing to consider the offer solely on a humanitarian level? I’m not saying Mackie should’ve had any of the heroes buy into the plot, but there is an opportunity to present the characters with a worthy moral conundrum. Just as John Byrne once justified Galactus’ existence in Fantastic Four, perhaps we could’ve even learned why exactly the Marvel Universe needs an entity like Mephisto.

Despite my gripes, I have to give Mackie his due for one scene. Mephisto has lured the heroes to Christ’s Crown with letters promising information on their pasts. Ghost Rider’s offers information on the mysterious “Soul Crystal,” the Punisher is promised the location of one of his family’s killers (which he knows is a lie, since he’s already killed them), and Wolverine is offered information about his adamantium skeleton. Wolverine’s casual dismissal, “As though I care.” sums his character up beautifully. Before Wolverine got dragged into story after story relating to his past, this was the extent of his concern. Wolverine didn’t allow his past to define him; he’d found redemption with the X-Men and that was the end of it. That’s the attitude that suits the character, and I can’t think of anything that’s been tacked on during the past ten or fifteen years of “revelations” that’s added anything of true value.

Anyway, the story’s an excuse for the three toughest vigilantes of the day to slash up demons together. It accomplishes that much. John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson are perfect for the material, the production values still hold up to this day, and it’s possible to follow the story without actually reading any of the words. The core audience got exactly what they wanted, assuming they didn’t try to recoup their five dollar investment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Final Web-Zinger



What to do with the clone mess, circa December 1995? The most obvious way out is to kill Ben off and reveal Peter is truly the original, ignoring all of the evidence presented to the contrary and months spent establishing Ben as the “true” Spider-Man. Marvel would never be that cheap, I know. Marvel, at this point, wants to keep Ben around, and I can understand why revealing him as a clone could hurt his appeal as a solo star. Making Peter the clone is an even worse idea, potentially alienating anyone who’s purchased the books since 1975. I would dismiss the issue immediately. Peter and Ben run the tests, but without Miles Warren, the creator of the cloning process, around to analyze the results, the answers are inconclusive. (Dr. Seward Trainer is no help at all. Perhaps he’s dead by now.) Maybe each is convinced that he’s the original, or perhaps Ben is convinced Peter is the original while Peter is adamant that Ben is the original. Regardless, both decide to move on with their lives.

Is this a copout? Perhaps. But remember that the ending of the original clone storyline in Amazing #151 wasn’t very different. Peter had a chance to know if he’s a clone or not and literally threw it away. He had enough confidence in his own depth as a human being not to need a test to show him if he’s “real” or not.

If it’s a given that Ben has to stick around and can’t be killed or written off, I would give him half of the monthly Spider-titles. Web could remain Web of Scarlet Spider (in this fantasy world, Web would keep its original numbering and none of the Scarlet Spider minis would’ve existed), and adjective-less Spider-Man would be cancelled and replaced with Scarlet Spider. Marvel gets to keep that “Scarlet Spider” name that the marketing department loves, and no one is being forced to choose between Peter and Ben. That leaves Peter with Amazing Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man. (Spider-Man Unlimited, if it had to stick around, could be a flip-book focusing on both characters.)

Amazing and Spectacular focus on Peter and MJ as they prepare for parenthood. He’s back as Spider-Man, working for the Daily Bugle, fighting his traditional rogues gallery, and each of the titles has a healthy amount of character-driven subplots, following Gerry Conway’s successful lead on Spectacular Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man. I have no idea if the baby should be born or not. Kidnapping the child and having the Parkers believe that she was stillborn isn’t a great solution, but it does give the creators time to stall and give serious thought over where to go with the concept. (Aw, screw it. Let’s just reveal the kidnapped baby has somehow been a cat this entire time.)

Ben Reilly can continue traveling the country on his motorcycle, having Incredible Hulk TV-style adventures with a different set of supporting cast members every few months. Under most writers this would get old fast, but I can see it working with the right creative team. Another option would be to have Ben enroll in college somewhere, far away from anyone who might recognize him as Peter, and just live out the “classic” status quo of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Let’s face it, this is the set-up Marvel absolutely can’t let go of, so let Ben be the one worrying about his grades and supervillains while two beautiful co-eds vie for his affections. Too bad Ben can never manage to keep a date with either one of them! Dan Jurgens apparently joined the Spider-titles specifically to do these types of stories, so just let him have them.

Amazing and Spectacular would steer clear of pretty much anything clone-related. All of the villains and new characters created for the clone storyline would appear in Ben’s titles, assuming there’s much of a desire to see them again. It would probably be best to let Ben make a clean break from all of the clone nonsense as well, although there are still some dangling threads with Kaine that should be resolved.

All of this assumes that there is an audience for two different Spider-Men. The fact that one of the heroes is a clone might be too big a hurdle for some readers, although putting the two characters in noticeable different status quos and locations would do a lot to differentiate Peter and Ben. (Ben should also have some cosmetic deviation from Peter’s look, although hopefully someone can come up with a better solution than bleached blond hair.) I do question how long Ben could last as a solo star, but who knows? Maybe a healthier market could’ve kept War Machine and Thunderstrike going. There is a segment of fandom with a strong devotion to Ben, and perhaps by temporarily dismissing the question of which Spider-Man is the original, the hardcore opponents to the storyline would’ve lightened up and given Ben a chance.

Eventually, the core question behind the clone saga would have to be answered. And, c’mon, there’s no way Ben can be the original Spider-Man. If Ben’s books aren’t doing well, then Marvel could do the quickie copout and reveal that he’s been the clone the entire time. I would lean towards killing him off as well, but that is a very obvious way to go. If executed properly, a vague death scene might work just as well, and give Ben’s fans hope for a possible revival.

If Ben’s titles are commercially viable, I wouldn’t see a need to change the format. Peter doesn’t need more than two monthly titles, and neither does Ben. Splitting the line between two Spider-Men could actually create tighter, more effective storylines within each corner of the Spider-verse. I still maintain that the basic clone story could’ve been done by using college student Anthony Serba as a genetically modified “genetic duplicate” of Spider-Man, so if there is a sense that Peter and Ben are too alike, a storyline could be done that revives Gerry Conway’s original retcon. Ben discovers his past life as Anthony Serba and becomes literally a different person. Perhaps he can somehow physically become Serba again, but maintain his spider-powers. This would allow Scarlet Spider to move even further away from Peter’s shadow, and open up new story avenues.

So, that’s my humble solution to the quagmire. This also marks my final appraisal of Web of Spider-Man. I still have a soft spot for Web based on my initial encounter with the book in the late ‘80s, but it’s hard to deny that this title was too often an afterthought with no real identity of its own. The only redeeming quality of the book for a long stretch of its run was Alex Saviuk’s art, and even that’s marred by some inappropriate inking towards the end. For what it’s worth, Web published over three times as many issues as Sensational Spider-Man, Marvel’s attempt to replace Web with a glossier product. Are there more Spider-Man posts to come? Yes, but don’t expect Sensational Spider-Man #0 just yet…

Thursday, April 12, 2012

WEB OF SCARLET SPIDER #4 - February 1996



Nightmare in Scarlet
Credits: Evan Skolnick (writer), Paris Karounos (penciler), Randy Emberlin (inker), Steve Dutro (letterer), Tom Smith & Malibu (colorists)

The Plot: Spider-Man joins the New Warriors to rescue the hostages captured by the evil Scarlet Spider. After falling off of a building, Scarlet Spider shocks everyone by stumbling back to life and continuing the fight. An injured Stephanie Briggs confronts Scarlet Spider and convinces him to face his pain and revert back to Joe Wade. He complies, and is taken away by the FBI.

The Subplots: Firestar is suspicious that she knows this Spider-Man’s “true” identity. When he accidentally calls her by her first name, her suspicions are confirmed.

*See _________ For Details: The evil Scarlet Spider took a group of citizens hostage in New Warriors#67.

Production Note: The indicia is still one month behind the cover date.

Review: And finally, Web of Scarlet Spider, the series no one really wanted to publish, is gone. The previous issue had some entertainment value due to Skolnick’s dark sense of humor, plus it’s interesting just to see how he deals with the illogical existence of these comics in the first place. This issue isn’t as funny, the art is still ugly, and the story cops out with a predictable “friend talks villain out of madness” ending. Apparently, another motivation for doing this story was to besmirch the Scarlet Spider’s reputation and essentially force him back into the Spider-Man role, but that idea hasn’t been expressed in any of the chapters I’ve read.

Given the vocal backlash to the clone storyline, it’s amazing that Marvel considered the “Scarlet Spider” such a valuable name that it couldn’t just die when Ben “reclaimed” the title of Spider-Man. If it was a brand name they really liked, you would think Marvel would’ve been more protective of the material it appeared in. Reading the Life of Reilly, it’s amazing to see the various hoops Marvel went through to get Ben into the Spider-Man role, even though it seems like everyone knew all along that Peter (and MJ) shouldn’t be written out of the books. Marvel’s solution was to make Ben the “real” Spider-Man, have Peter “retire” with MJ in a series of mini-series, and try to carve out a new supporting cast for Ben in New York. This was destined for failure. Not that anyone asked, but tomorrow I’ll present my solution to the Peter/Ben conundrum…

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

WEB OF SCARLET SPIDER #3 - January 1996



Nightmare in Scarlet Part One: Rude Awakening!
Credits: Evan Skolnick (writer), Paris Karaounos (pencils), Randy Emberlin, (inks), Steve Dutro (letterer), Kevin Tinsley & Malibu (colorists)

The Plot: Undercover FBI agent Joe Wade finds himself physically transformed into Scarlet Spider following the destruction of Dr. Octopus’ lab. Overcome with a manic sense of mischief, Wade performs cruel pranks throughout the city in the Scarlet Spider persona. When an exhausted Wade reverts to his true personality, he meets with his partner Stephanie Briggs and explains the story to her. Before she can help, he’s overcome by his dual identity. Nastier than ever, Scarlet Spider ambushes Firestar and plots to kill her.

The Subplots: None.

Web of Continuity: Scarlet Spider joined the New Warriors a few months earlier, although by this specific issue, Ben Reilly has reclaimed the role of Spider-Man and is no longer calling himself Scarlet Spider (or associating with the New Warriors, apparently). The New Warriors want to know why their latest member has gone rogue.

*See _________ For Details: The malicious Scarlet Spider persona previously appeared in Scarlet Spider #2 and Spectacular Scarlet Spider #2. The specific story of how Joe Wade was transformed into a digital copy of Scarlet Spider is told in Scarlet Spider #2. The real Scarlet Spider joined the New Warriors in New Warriors #62. This story is concluded in New Warriors #67.

Production Note: The cover date lists this as the January 1996 issue, but the indicia has December 1995 as the date.

Review: Well, this is certainly different. Ben Reilly has retaken the identity of Spider-Man in the January 1996 titles, yet Marvel’s marketing machine still wants to milk the name “Scarlet Spider” for two more months. The solution was to create a second Scarlet Spider and place him in a storyline that’s partially divorced from the main titles. Tom DeFalco and Todd Dezago are now off the hook, leaving New Warriors writer Evan Skolnick the privilege of creating a last-minute story that satisfies the arbitrary demands of bean counters.

To Skolnick’s credit, this is more enjoyable than the previous two issues. That’s like saying shampoo in your eye is preferable to mace, I understand, but many of the “evil” Scarlet Spider’s lines in this issue are actually funny. How exactly Skolnick is trying to pull off the illogical premise of two extra Web of Scarlet Spider issues is also an interesting feat to watch. The story is unfortunately tied in with the absurd virtual reality/hard light hologram nonsense from the previous chapters, but treating Joe Wade as the innocent Dr. Jekyll in this scenario, and recasting the Scarlet Spider as a more sinister Creeper, injects a lot of life into a dull premise.

Even if Skolnick is somehow making the story less intolerable, there’s no excusing Paris Karaounos’ art. If you think that cover looks bad, I can assure you it’s the best art in the entire issue. I already had low expectations going into this miniseries, and even I can’t believe how unprofessional this comic looks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

WEB OF SCARLET SPIDER #2 - December 1995



True Deceptions
Credits: Tom DeFalco (plot), Todd Dezago (script), Tom Morgan (breakdowns), Randy Emberlin, Hector Collazo, & Don Hudson (finishers), Steve Dutro (letterer), Tinsley & Chi w/Malibu (colorists)

The Plot: Tso’s gang war with Dr. Octopus has destroyed his Noir club, forcing him to align with Alistair Smythe. Smythe uses his Cyber-Slayers to attack Dr. Octopus’ henchmen (Looter, Aura, and Override) at a children’s zoo during an alleged peace conference. Scarlet Spider faces both sides of the battle until the authorities arrive. Dr. Octopus’ henchmen are arrested and the Cyber-Slayers fly away.

The Subplots: Seward Trainer is trapped in the internet. When Tso’s lackey Orlando is suspicious of his new bodyguard Ben Reilly, he searches for information on him online. Seward Trainer senses the search and mentally creates a fictitious backstory for Ben Reilly.

Web of Continuity: Since the previous issue, Trainer has somehow been trapped in cyberspace, and Ben Reilly has gone from waiter to bodyguard in the Tso empire. According to the narrative captions, Trainer creates an elaborate history for Ben using computer records, including a Social Security number, driver’s license number, and high school and college records. Presumably, this was done to make Ben’s transition into a “real” life easier for the writers.

*See _________ For Details: Seward Trainer was “spirited away to the realm of cyberspace” in Amazing Scarlet Spider #1. Ben Reilly cancelled a date with a woman named Carrie in Spectacular Scarlet Spider #1, which also featured a failed attempt by Dr. Octopus’ team to retrieve the stolen computer chips from the previous issue. Alistair Smythe altered his own body to fight Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man #368-373. He’s currently selling out the services of his Cyber-Slayers to fund more anti-Spidey operations.

Creative Differences: An added word balloon clarifies that Tso is waiting for Smythe in his lobby when they’re communicating via video-chat. Later, another added balloon has Scarlet Spider speculating that the Cyber-Slayers are leaving the fight because Tso remembers Scarlet Spider “saving his butt recently!”

Review: So, since the previous issue, Dr. Octopus and Jason Tso have continued their epic battle over computer chips, Alistair Smythe has gotten involved, Seward Trainer is trapped inside a free AOL trial disc, Ben’s somehow become a mobster’s bodyguard, and he’s grown out his hair and beard stubble in a tribute to ‘90s syndicated TV star Lorenzo Lamas. (I was never a fan of the bleached blond look, but this is even worse. Ben looks like one of the “manlier” glam metal lead singers; the ones that were too masculine to dye their hair but still wanted the ladies to know about their sensitive side.) We’ve also been introduced to Dr. Octopus’ goon squad in-between issues, and they certainly seem to be a sorry lot. Nothing in this issue makes it clear what any of their powers are supposed to be, and unfortunately, the Looter’s distinctive Ditko design has been replaced with generic ‘90s “cyber-armor.”

It’s honestly hard to find anything to like about the issue. I’ve enjoyed Tom Morgan’s work in the past, but this issue he’s only doing what are likely very loose breakdowns. Some of the anatomy and facial expressions in this issue are atrocious. Only in the final few pages (presumably Don Hudson’s section) does the art not look like a rushed mess.

Monday, April 9, 2012

WEB OF SCARLET SPIDER #1 - November 1995



Virtual Mortality Part One - There’s a New Spider in Town
Credits: Tom DeFalco (plot), Todd Dezago (script), Paris Karounos (penciler), Randy Emberlin (inker), Steve Dutro (letterer), Kevin Tinsley (colorist)

The Plot: Scarlet Spider stops a helicopter from hijacking a van, unaware that the van is carrying stolen computer components and the helicopter is piloted by Dr. Octopus’ henchmen. Later, her men try to steal the components again from the police, and this time manage to escape Scarlet Spider. Crimelord Tso is dismayed to learn of his competitor’s tenacity.

The Subplots: Ben Reilly searches for a job, eventually finding work at a restaurant named Noir. The manager, Joey, later gets into a car with Tso.

Web of Continuity: Doctor Octopus has been “killed” by Kaine at this point, as a part of the rather lazy attempt to build the character up at the expense of established villains. He’s been replaced by the female Doctor Octopus, who we later learn is Seward Trainer’s daughter.

*See _________ For Details: This story is continued in Amazing Scarlet Spider #1.Link
Production Note: All of the Spider-titles have been renumbered and renamed after Scarlet Spider for the next two months (Marvel’s marketing department loved the X-titles' similar stunt during “Age of Apocalypse”). Unlike the rest of the titles, Web of Scarlet Spider lasts four issues instead of two for some vaguely defined marketing reasons.

Review: Web of Scarlet Spider #1 kicks off the Scarlet Spider stunt, setting up a timeless storyline that centers on the horrors of virtual reality. In this issue, we learn that Dr. Octopus and a gangster are competing for a stash of computer chips, and poor Scarlet Spider has been caught in the middle of their feud. This somehow leads to Ben doubting himself and declaring himself a failure when compared to Peter. Later, we’re supposed to feel even sorrier for Ben as he’s unable to find a job. These are obviously attempts to evoke the “classic” feel of Spider-Man as the insecure, hard-luck hero with real problems, and while these scenes are the best moments of the issue, they still feel tired and predictable.

Ben’s having these problems because they’re the ones Marvel thinks he’s supposed to be having, not because there’s a great concept behind them, which makes the delivery feel tedious. The action that lands Ben his job, helping a waitress pick up a tray of food before it hits the ground, is a tired cliché that goes back to the Flash’s origin story. (A virtually identical scene appears in the first Spider-Man movie, although I doubt anyone involved read this specific comic.) When we aren’t getting the recycled secret identity scenes, the audience is forced to endure repetitive fight scenes that are horribly rendered by Paris Karounos. Not only are the characters repulsive, but the action is often hard to follow, making me wonder just how bad “cartoony” work had to be in the ‘90s before an editor would turn it down.

I’m not sure if even the most ardent clone saga fans will defend the renamed Scarlet Spider books. These are conspicuously bad filler comics rushed out in order to fulfill a marketing directive…we really didn’t need Life of Reilly to confirm this. They’re ugly, pointless, and boring. And somehow I’m stuck reviewing four of them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

GUNFIRE #2 - June 1994



On the Rebound
Credits: Len Wein (writer), Steve Erwin (penciler), Brian Garvey (inker), Bob Lappan (letterer), Martin Thomas (colorist)

Summary: Gunfire rescues Yvette from Ricochet, who’s ordered to abort the mission. The next day, Andrew van Horn is visited by a detective investigating the dead bodies found at the battle site. He directs Detective Rivera to his attorney, and soon leaves to investigate a break-in at a Van Horn warehouse. Once again, he defeats Ricochet and more of Slater’s men. However, he unwittingly keeps one of the men’s helmets, unaware it’s broadcasting to Slater. Slater uses the bug to learn of the location of the top-secret CDI weapon and sends Ricochet to JFK Airport to retrieve it. Gunfire arrives for a final battle that sends Ricochet into the Long Island Sound. Slater’s employer, Mr. Perggia, decides to oversee matters personally as the armored Purge.

Review: And I thought this book was trying to avoid clichés. The structure of this comic -- resolve cliffhanger, let villain escape, set up a second confrontation with villain, let villain escape, wrap up with final battle that uses established plot device to defeat villain -- is about as tried and true a superhero formula you can find. Maybe it’s considered a novelty to attach this kind of a story to a ‘90s gun guy, but that’s a stretch. Even the revelation of the mystery plot device Slater is hunting (which was treated with a decent amount of humor last issue, since Gunfire had no idea what he was talking about) just whimpers out -- we discover it’s a “Cellular De-Integrator” (CDI) weapon, which means it melts people. Since this is a Code-approved book, most of the human melting occurs off-panel, and even if it didn’t, that would still be pretty tame during the days of Spawn.

So, what isn’t predictable about this issue? We discover that Yvette is actually Gunfire’s ex-girlfriend and not his current love interest. That does give her a slightly different role as the main female supporting cast member, I suppose. The audience also discovers what happens when Gunfire tries to use an actual “rifle” (drawn as a Liefeld gun) -- his powers cause the gunpowder to explode. So, he decides he’s better off using long, pointy objects to project his powers (why exactly is this book called Gunfire, again?). There’s also an attempt to deal with how exactly casualties work in a masked vigilante’s world. Gunfire is a “had no choice” killer, by nature of his powers. While most vigilantes can just leave their victims behind at the crime scene and never think of them again, Wein’s introduced the question of what happens when those bodies are discovered on the hero’s property. Van Horn tries to dismiss the problem by passing the detective off on his lawyer, but he can’t deny that he actually did kill these men and has some legal responsibility to face. I don’t know if this will produce a meaningful storyline, but it seems like the only promising concept in the issue.

JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA #3 - October 1992



Out of the Past
Credits: Len Strazewski (writer), Mike Parobeck (penciler), Mike Machlan (inker), Bob Pinaha (letterer), Glenn Whitmore (colorist)

Summary: The JSA discover their mystery guest is Johnny Quick, who is now an infomercial star. He reveals to the team that Ultragen recently sued him for exposing the dangerous side effects of their nutrition products. Suddenly, Dr. Midnight enters, divulging that Reggie, his patient and old friend, recently died after agreeing to one of Ultragen’s experimentations. He leaves with Wildcat and Atom to investigate the facility. Soon, they’re confronted by the Ultra-Humanite. Meanwhile, masked men arrive to steal Reggie’s body from the clinic. Johnny Thunder happens by, but is unable to stop them. When his genie appears, it’s greeted by a strange woman.

Irrelevant Continuity: Johnny Quick’s aging even more slowly than the JSA due to his speed formula. The modern explanation for how exactly a “string of letters and numbers” gives him super-speed is that he has a “meta-gene,” which is a madness that affected ‘90s DC, to the point that even Green Arrow was revealed as a metahuman. Johnny believes that the formula is a mantra that releases his fullest potential, which is the philosophy he teaches in his self-help classes.

Total N00B: The version of the Ultra-Humanite that appears in this issue is a man with red eyes, white hair, and vaguely ape-like features. I know that the very first version of Ultra-Humanite was human, but I don’t know of any story that changed him out of animal form. He also stutters habitually and I have no idea why.

Review: Hey, more coincidences. So, an old friend of the team just happens to agree to a risky medical treatment offered by Ultragen, the same company that’s connected to their old foe Ultra-Humanite, and located right next to their headquarters. Another associate, Johnny Quick, also happened to have a run-in with this company last year. And, only a few pages after this revelation, Johnny Thunder just so happens to be visiting Dr. Midnight’s clinic when it’s being ransacked by masked men, presumably working for Ultragen.

Now, if Ultra-Humanite was plotting these events out years in advance and specifically targeting people associated with the JSA, that’s defensible, but the story at this point is treating all of these events as random occurrences. Wild coincidences were common in the Golden Age, back in the days when every city only seemed to have one police officer and every newspaper one reporter, but a) those stories were often eight-pagers that had to cram in an excessive amount of plot, and b) the audience largely consisted of young children. I don’t think the audience of 1992 is so willing to suspend disbelief.

Overlooking that complaint, this is another chapter dedicated to slowly bringing more members in and building up the Ultragen mystery. Len Strazewski seems to be writing this story specifically for JSA fans, since most of the characters’ superhero names are never referenced, and we’re never told who exactly Johnny Quick is or how he’s connected to the team. (Is he a former member or just a friend? Is he another Golden Age hero, or did he debut later? Why wasn’t he trapped in the alternate dimension with the other heroes?) There’s also an assumption that the reader knows detailed JSA continuity, like the specifics of when Dr. Midnight is or isn’t blind. It’s easy to feel as if you’re not getting the full picture, but the story moves at a steady pace, the tone feels right, and of course the art is stunning.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

GUNFIRE #1 - May 1994


Deadly Homecoming
Credits: Len Wein (writer), Steve Erwin (penciler), Brian Garvey (inker), Bob Lappan (letterer), Martin Thomas (colorist)

Summary: Following his father’s funeral, Andrew van Horn is harassed by Slater, a representative of one of his father’s business associates. Slater wants Andrew to turn over his father’s mystery project, and after Andrew’s initial rejection, he returns with armed thugs. With the help of Andrew’s friends Benjamin and Yvette, Slater is chased away. However, Yvette is soon kidnapped, forcing Andrew to rescue her as Gunfire. After finally reaching Yvette at a Van Horn Industries construction site, Gunfire is confronted by the armored Ricochet.

Irrelevant Continuity: Gunfire debuted during DC’s 1993 “Bloodlines” annual crossover event. (Deathstroke the Terminator annual #2, to be precise.) The gimmick is that each issue introduced a “New Blood” character, making every installment a surefire collector’s item. This worked about as well as Marvel’s 1993 new character annual stunt, although DC did get Hitman out of the deal.

I Love the ‘90s: Gunfire’s hairstyle looks like it could be anything from a mullet to a ponytail to (horror!) a rattail, depending on the angle it's drawn.

Review: When Rob first told me about the New Blood kid Gunfire, my initial thought was, “Great. Another superhero with a very big gun, low-grade rage, and a girlfriend with breasts bigger than her head.” -- Opening statement in this issue letters page, presumably written by some member of the editorial staff.

So, we’re deep enough into the ‘90s for a comics company to be openly cynical about the lone, gun-toting vigilante archetype. DC didn’t seem to jump on to this fad as quickly as the other companies, so by the time they finally had to cave in they were apparently willing to avoid many of the clichés. This is still a book called Gunfire, though, starring a character with the ability to “agitate the molecules of solid objects…then fire them off in short bursts like bullets” essentially making his gimmick a Gambit meets the Punisher riff. Regardless of the creative team’s efforts to make him unique, time isn’t going to be kind to this concept.

Now, how is Gunfire different from Punisher, Solo, Grifter, Cable, Huntsman, Cyborg X, Trencher, Deathblow, Maverick, Chapel, etc? Allegedly, Andrew van Horn has a social conscious, putting him at odds with his predictably evil capitalistic father, Gunther. Having inherited his father’s company, Andrew must reconcile his family’s business practices with his personal beliefs. (I said “allegedly” earlier because the social conscious aspect of the character never comes up in the actual story, but it’s mentioned repeatedly in the letter column.) So, he’s starting off with a bit of an Iron First/Green Arrow/Iron Man riff. Obviously, at least some variation of this has been done, but I don’t know if it was ever attached to a gunman character before.

Another attempt to pull Gunfire away from the clichés is to emphasize his status as a rookie superhero. This could easily introduce a different series of clichés to the book, considering the number of titles dedicated to neophyte heroes still learning the ropes, but Wein has avoided a few of the more obvious ones in the first issue. Andrew’s best friend and girlfriend already know about his superpowers, and they’re even actively involved in creating his superhero persona. Yvette is far from a whiny shrew, although she’s predictably kidnapped and used as bait by the issue’s end. I’m not sure what other non-cliché qualities she might have, aside from the more modest proportions the editors seem so proud of, but the series is young. Her thick French accent can be tiresome, though, especially if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ridicule Chris Claremont’s accents. Looking at the cover, there’s apparently been some form of miscommunication regarding Yvette. At no point in the interior of the comic is Yvette depicted as Asian. Gunfire’s pal Benjamin is Asian, however, making me wonder if the characters’ ethnicities somehow got mixed up and improperly communicated to the cover artist.

The plot of the first issue cuts back and forth between Gunfire’s rescue mission and the events that led to him donning the superhero disguise. There’s very little to pick apart; Len Wein’s written and edited comics for a long time and he clearly knows what he’s doing. It would be easy to mock the fact that Slater’s men can’t recognize Gunfire as Andrew van Horn, even though his modest mask exposes his mouth and red hair, but it’s no more absurd a disguise than Green Lantern or Robin’s domino masks. I don’t know what exactly happened in the “Bloodlines” annuals, but I’m assuming there’s a good reason why Wein is skimping over the origin of Gunfire’s powers. Instead, we’re introduced to his supporting cast and offered some insight into how the Gunfire persona was created. (Gunfire’s armor is crafted by Benjamin out of ceramic, which honestly doesn’t sound very impressive to me).

Gunfire is still lacking in much of a specific personality by the issue’s end, but he’s thankfully not a one-liner spewing ‘90s tough guy. He’s just designed to look like one. And even if that design was passé within a week of the comic’s release, Steve Erwin’s pencil work has aged much better. There’s a bit of an Image influence in the inking, but the story is clearly told and the characters all look realistically human. The final product isn’t quite what you would expect, which possibly worked against the series. Traditional superhero fans probably didn’t want another gun guy, and gun-crazed vigilante fans probably didn’t want a Bronze Age-style superhero book. The countdown to the “Fat Lady Has Sung” letter column editorial has begun.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Casualty No. 4 - GUNFIRE


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Going back once again to the early ‘90s, the next DC Casualty will be Gunfire, a series that perhaps doesn’t have the critical reputation as the previous entries. You might even say that this concept hasn’t aged particularly well. If someone were ingenious enough to finally look back to mainstream ‘90s comics as a source of ridicule, Gunfire might even be seen as an easy target.

Okay, let’s face it, people like to make fun of the guy.

I wasn’t even aware of this title’s existence during its run, and only discovered it through house ads in a couple of cheap back issues I purchased a few years ago. And, yeah, it’s certainly “of an era” you could say. However, the initial creative team isn’t bad at all, and I am interested to see how exactly the gun-blazing/armored hero concept played out in the mainstream DC Universe. Now, shall we take bets on whether Gunfire has been killed or merely mutilated in the past ten years?