Monday, April 29, 2013

NEW MUTANTS #95 - November 1990


Shell Game
Credits:  Louise Simonson (writer), Rob Liefeld and Co. (pencilers), Joe Rubinstein and Co. (inkers), Brad Vancata (colors), Joe Rosen (letters)

Summary:  Storm, Rictor, Boom-Boom, Wolfsbane, and Warlock are teleported to Genosha by Pipeline.  Warlock is severely weakened by the transport and near death.  Cameron Hodge has the mutants placed in power-dampening bodysuits and takes Warlock captive for experimentation.  Warlock sneaks away as Hodge argues with Dr. Moreau and frees his teammates.  They’re forced to leave him behind, but Wolfsbane soon returns to rescue Warlock, who's taken captive once more.  She witnesses Warlock turn into ashes as Hodge futilely tries to steal his powers.  Meanwhile, the remaining members of the X-Men and New Mutants contact X-Factor.

Continuity Notes:  
  • This story is continued from the first chapter of “X-Tinction Agenda,” Uncanny X-Men #270.
  • Storm at this point is an adolescent after being de-aged by Nanny.
  • Rictor and Wolfsbane share their first kiss, paying off the romantic subplot that’s been building for a few issues.

Creative Differences:  The united X-Factor, X-Men, and New Mutants team gets a call from Washington at the story’s end.  An altered word balloon establishes that the caller is Val Cooper, speaking on the President’s behalf, asking them to travel to Washington.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority:  Pipeline’s teleportation leaves the team naked, forcing the artists to cover them creatively for much of the issue.

“Huh?” Moment:  Wolfsbane suddenly disappears after Hodge invades the New Mutants’ cell and taunts them.  (Her disappearance is even confirmed by Boom-Boom’s dialogue.)  Five pages later, Wolfsbane is back in their cell, with no explanation.

Review:  Who doesn’t have nostalgic memories of “X-Tinction Agenda?”  Just look at those hand-lettered chapter numbers on the covers; they’re adorable.  Actually, even as a kid, my main interest in “X-Tinction Agenda” resided in the Claremont/Lee Uncanny X-Men issues.  I thought the art was too inconsistent in the X-Factor and New Mutants chapters and simply lost interest in the story after a certain point.  Nine issues seemed excessively long for a crossover back in those days.  

This was one of the earliest Rob Liefeld comics I purchased as a kid, and because I didn’t understand that this was a last-minute jam issue, I had no idea what to make of his art.  Some pages have an admirable amount of polish, others just look like a muddy collection of shadows.  You never know when a character will look recognizably human, or devolve into some kind of hunchbacked monster in-between panels (like Dr. Moreau, for example.)  The story isn’t served by the inconsistent art, but Louise Simonson is able to extract some humanity out of the events.  Warlock’s sacrifice for the team, and their willingness to do the same for him, is well played, and there’s certainly the sense that the stakes have been appreciably raised in this adventure.  Warlock’s actual death scene isn’t nearly as emotional as his other scenes in the issue, however, and it’s sad to see that this is an early case of an established character being killed off in order to sell the significance of a crossover.

Friday, April 26, 2013

X-MEN Episode Twenty-Two - January 8, 1994


A Rogue's Tale
Written by Robert N. Skir & Marty Isenberg


Summary:  Mr. Sinister informs Mystique that Xavier has been separated from the X-Men.  Mystique schemes to lure Rogue away from the team and back to her.  Posing as a mysterious blonde woman, Mystique causes blocked memories from Rogue’s past to surface.  Eventually, Rogue realizes that the mystery woman is Ms. Marvel, a superhero Mystique forced Rogue to attack while under her guidance.  Rogue’s assault left Ms. Marvel in a coma, while Rogue gained her superpowers.  Inside Rogue’s mind, Ms. Marvel surfaces and fights back.  With Jean Grey’s help, Rogue is able to quiet Ms. Marvel’s consciousness.  Later, Rogue visits Ms. Marvel’s comatose body in the hospital.

Continuity Notes: 
  • Rogue’s redneck father is seen for the first time in flashbacks.  In the comics, her father was still unknown at this time.
  • Ms. Marvel’s body, as it exists in Rogue’s mind, appears in the rotted form Jim Lee designed in Uncanny X-Men #269.
  • The flashbacks show Mystique living under the form of an unassuming middle-aged woman while mentoring Rogue. 
  • Blob, Avalanche, and Pyro are shown as Rogue’s teammates in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in flashbacks.  Why she didn’t recognize them earlier is explained away by saying Xavier placed memory blocks in Rogue’s mind.  However, there’s no explanation for why the Brotherhood members failed to recognize Rogue back in the first season.
  • Storm’s attic/nursery is seen briefly for the first time, as Rogue slams her way through the floors of the X-Men’s mansion while she’s fighting off her memories.

“Um, Actually…”:  Mystique is shown with the ability to transform into a monster, which ignores the comics’ rule that she can only shapeshift into human forms.  (Although the comics would also abandon this rule in a few years.)  Also, Rogue is shown as a runaway who’s rescued by Mystique, as opposed to the original continuity in the comics that claimed Mystique (in her true form) raised Rogue essentially from birth.

“Huh?” Moment:  Blob is somehow able to absorb Wolverine’s admanatium claws into his rolls of fat.

"Actiiing!":  You hear a lot of screaming from Lenore Zann as Rogue in this episode.  A lot.

Review:  This is the first time the show tries to retrofit its continuity in order to match the comic books, which means fans of the comic actually get to see Rogue as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  The decision also fits into a general theme of season two, solo episodes on (almost) every X-Man that reveal new information about their pasts.  The producers probably could’ve developed an easier explanation for Rogue’s super-strength and flight powers, but as a purist, I’m glad they decided to introduce Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel into the series. 

I believe Ms. Marvel is the first non-mutant superhuman to appear on this show.  (Well, Mr. Sinister we later learned was not a mutant, but no one knew anything about Sinister at the time.  And the members of Alpha Flight were labeled mutants for simplicity’s sake, even though that isn’t accurate for most of them.)  There’s no effort to give her an origin, we only know that she’s a superhero that regularly faces the Brotherhood, but that’s all the audience really needs to know.  The struggle between Rogue and Carol for control of Rogue’s body is executed rather well, and as a fan of the late ‘80s X-Men, I was particularly glad to see a few scenes of Carol’s persona taking charge of Rogue’s body.  I’m probably biased since this was the status quo when I was first introduced to the character, but I’ve always liked the idea of Rogue and Carol existing simultaneously within Rogue, and the X-Men never knowing which persona might emerge.  The setup also folds Xavier’s disappearance into the plot in a smart way, although it’s slightly annoying that this is the third episode in a row that hasn’t tried to advance that subplot.


Credit to http://marvel.toonzone.net/xmen/ for the screencaps.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

X-MEN Episode Twenty-One - December 18, 1993


Time Fugitives (Part 2)
Written by Elliott Maggin


Summary:  Cable time travels to the present and faces Bishop and the X-Men.  While recuperating from his battle with the team, Cable studies profiles of the X-Men and discovers Wolverine’s healing factor.  Later, he kidnaps Wolverine and puts him in position to be infected by Apocalypse’s virus.  Wolverine’s healing factor creates the antibodies needed to end the plague, allowing Cable and Bishop’s timelines to exist.  Cable returns home and is reunited with his son.

Continuity Notes: 
  • Cable’s son Tyler appears as a little boy.  Sadly, the cartoon’s audience never experienced Tyler’s evolution into such fantastic characters as Mr. Tolliver and Genesis.
  • After Jean Grey reads Cable’s mind, she strongly hints that he is Cyclops’ son (and presumably her child also, assuming that Madelyne Pryor doesn’t exist in this world).
  • Even though the animators know that Cable is Nathan Summers, they’re still running with the idea that Cable has cybernetic implants, as opposed to being infected with the T-O Virus.  His mechanical eye works like the Terminator’s, and he even repairs his metal arm, remarking “Good as the day it was made...”

Review:  Not surprisingly, Cable isn’t allowed to permit the spread of a horrifying plague throughout the world.  He comes up with a solution to his dilemma, and it’s a fairly obvious one the comics never bothered to explore during the protracted Legacy Virus storyline.  When a letter writer finally asked why the X-Men didn’t infect Wolverine with the Legacy Virus in order to develop antibodies for a cure, the editorial response amounted to nothing more than “Maybe it would work, but would you risk your friend’s life like this?”  Not exactly the most heroic response.

Even though the solution is the kind of harmless one you often find on Saturday Morning TV, the episode still has its moments.  Maggin has a nice handle on Cable’s one-liners, still keeping him as a fairly grounded character in spite of his retconned status as future savior.  (Thankfully, he never exclaims “Oath!”)  And I’m sure the audience of the day got a kick out of the extended Bishop and Cable fight, which is about as ‘90s as the show ever gets.  The time travel element is also used fairly well, as the viewer gets to see the events of the previous episode skewed by the arrival of Cable.  And I’m sure Saban didn’t mind saving a few thousand dollars by recycling around three minutes of footage from the last episode.


Credit to http://marvel.toonzone.net/xmen/ for the screencaps.

Monday, April 22, 2013

X-MEN Episode Twenty - December 11, 1993



Time Fugitives (Part 1)
Written by Michael Edens


Summary:  In 3999 AD, Cable sees his timeline erased in a storm.  His computer shows him images of the past, revealing that Bishop’s earlier time travels have disrupted reality.  In 2055 AD, Bishop returns home to discover that he’s inadvertently created a new timeline, one where a plague has decimated the mutant population.  He returns to the 1990s to stop the spread of the plague.  He teams with the X-Men and discovers that Apocalypse created the virus.  The plague is destroyed, which leads to a super virus developing that wipes out even more mutants in Cable’s timeline.

Continuity Notes: 
  • The plague is an amalgam of the Legacy Virus and the Techno-Organic (or Transmode) Virus. 
  • War Machine has two cameos in this episode.  One of Apocalypse’s robots in the future uses the design, and in a scene set in the present day, War Machine is seen standing next to Nick Fury and G. W. Bridge as they watch a Senate hearing on the plague.  It’s obvious the animators were looking at current comics, like X-Force #20-23, for reference for these various cameo appearances.
  • Other cameos in the episode include:  Gamesmaster (who’s also watching the Senate hearings on television), Cable’s team from the early issues of his ongoing series (Kane, Jenskot, and various other characters no one remembers), Colossus, Illyana, Cannonball, Warpath, and Feral (Illyana and Feral are shown to be infected with the plague in the future).

Saban Quality:  When Bishop returns to the future, Forge tells him that no group known as the X-Men has ever existed.  He’s wearing an X-Men uniform while saying this.

“Um, Actually…”:  Instead of the Professor (who was once Ship, we later discover), Cable has a portable cube that he calls “Computer.”  Both Computer and Ship have female voices in the cartoon, but I’m not sure if they were played by the same actress.

"Actiiing!":  Graydon Creed, who’s working with Apocalypse and stirring up public hysteria, has a line I’ll never forget.  “Let the world see that mutants carry the plague!”  The slow, phonetic delivery of that line is so bizarre it’s always stayed with me.

Approved By Broadcast Standards:  The Friends of Humanity are once again using laser blasters instead of guns.

Review:  When production of this show began, Cable was just a mercenary with hi-tech weaponry, as opposed to a mutant messiah from the far future engaged in an eternal battle with Apocalypse.  By the second season, Marvel had shoehorned quite a bit into Cable’s backstory, and the cartoon was more than eager to embrace Cable 2.0.  Even though it didn’t seem to occur to anyone working on the comics at the time, having Cable interact with the other mutant time-traveler of the day, Bishop, is a pretty obvious setup for a story.  And the concept behind this two-parter isn’t bad.  Bishop’s previous trip through time has accidentally allowed Apocalypse to infect humans and mutants with a virus in the revised timeline he's created.  When Bishop travels back in time again to fix his mistake, he makes things even worse.  Mutants needed that virus in order to develop antibodies for an even worse disease, one that’s so devastating it will eventually kill the mutant population.  This leads Cable with a dilemma straight out of Jim Shooter’s old playbook:  He must allow his mortal enemy Apocalypse to win in order to ultimately save the mutant race. 

If I have any complaints about the concept, it would be the fuzzy connection between Bishop’s first appearance and this one.  There’s some effort to have Forge explain how Senator Kelly living and becoming President could lead to a plague spreading across the population, but it’s rushed through with only vague details.  It’s not important for the overall story, all the audience needs to know is that there are unintended consequences for every action, but it would be nice to see a clear connection between Bishop’s time travel missions.

Credit to http://marvel.toonzone.net/xmen/ for the screencaps.

Friday, April 19, 2013

BATMAN #498 - August 1993


Knights in Darkness
Credits:  Doug Moench (writer), Jim Aparo (penciler), Rick Burchett (inker), Richard Starkings (letterer), Adrienne Roy (colorist)

Summary:  As Bane takes over the Gotham underworld, Dr. Shondra Kinsolving is called to treat Bruce Wayne in his mansion.  She reluctantly agrees, intrigued by the secrets he’s keeping.  As they  grow closer, Bruce ponders revealing the truth to her.  In response to the city’s violence, Bruce has Robin ask Jean-Paul to replace him as Batman, on the condition he stays away from Bane.  Jean-Paul dons the costume and heads out on patrol with Robin.  Meanwhile, Bane and Catwoman form a partnership.

Irrelevant Continuity:  Bruce instantly dismisses Robin’s suggestion that Dick Grayson, now Nightwing, take his place because Grayson is his “own man” now.

Total N00B:  Alfred orders Jean Paul to beef up the mansion’s security with Sal Fiorini.  No clue who that is.  Later, while coming out of his coma, Bruce babbles about a “box of blood,” Commissioner Gordon’s wife turning him against Batman, and Vicki Vale leaving.  All storylines that I’ve never read, but apparently played a part in Batman’s fractured mental state during this era.

Review:  And we’ve finally reached Azrael’s debut as Batman, in landmark issue number…498.  I don’t want to imply that issue #500 isn’t a commendable anniversary issue (it’s significant for its own reasons, and I certainly enjoyed it as a kid), but I still don’t understand why the debut of Batman’s replacement happened in such a low-key manner.  Relatively speaking, of course, since this entire storyline was a media sensation almost from the beginning.  Just from a marketing standpoint, it would seem as if the debut of the new Batman should come in the giant anniversary issue with the easy-to-remember number; and of course comic fans have been trained to view anniversary issues as the “important” ones, anyway.  You don’t expect a replacement Batman to debut in issue #498, you just don’t.  

Regardless, here we are.  This is a little more emotional than Chuck Dixon’s follow-up to the “Break you!” issue, and it’s one of the stronger Doug Moench chapters I’ve read so far.  Bruce is humanized in a way that doesn’t resort to just making him dangerously obsessive or unstable, and there a few nice scenes with the supporting cast members.  Jean-Paul’s characterization is simply odd, although I’m assuming that’s intentional.  It’s amusing to see him go from sheer awe at the prospect of replacing Batman to arrogantly declaring that he’ll be a better Batman in the course of one page.  

I have to say, it is somewhat annoying that we’re over fifteen chapters into this crossover and Jean-Paul has a) barely appeared in this storyline so far, and b) has yet to be properly introduced to anyone who hasn’t read Sword of Azrael.  Many new readers would also probably like to know why Batman isn’t calling upon his “old chum” Dick Grayson to replace him.  There’s just a one-line explanation here, which might make perfect sense for anyone familiar with Teen Titans continuity, but wouldn’t fly for the vast majority of the public that’s familiar with the classic Batman/Robin relationship that goes back to 1940.  Surely Jim Shooter would not approve.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

SHOWCASE ‘93 #8 - August 1993


Bad Judgment
Credits:  Doug Moench (writer), Klaus Janson (artist/colorist), Ken Bruzenak (letterer)

Summary:  Batman is rescued in the river by Two-Face’s men and brought to their hideout.  Two-Face holds a mock trial for Batman, accusing him of breaking their alliance during his days as D.A. Harvey Dent.  Robin and Alfred locate Batman and create a distraction that allows him to escape.  When Two-Face soon corners Batman several stories up, Robin throws his bolo at him, knocking Two-Face off the building.  Batman rescues Two-Face and rebukes Robin for playing by Two-Face's rules.  In the present day, Batman wakes from his coma and tells Robin that he actually made the right decision.

Irrelevant Continuity:  In this era of continuity, Batman and Harvey Dent were allies until Dent became obsessed with Boss Maroney and began breaking the rules.  Maroney goes on to become the mobster that scars Dent’s face in court during Two-Face’s origin story.

Review:  This doesn’t feel as shallow as the previous installment, even if it is clearly filler.  In this chapter, Moench plays up Harvey Dent’s past relationship with Batman, which was ruined after Dent became increasingly obsessed and lost sight of reality.  Years later, Batman’s now pushed himself to the edge and is suffering from his own poor judgment.  Apparently, the idea is that Robin, with his youthful verve and innocence, is the most clear-thinking individual in the entire story, although I would take issue with this.  As Batman points out, Robin had no way of knowing if Batman was capable of catching Two-Face when he knocked him off the edge, which would’ve made Robin culpable in Two-Face’s death.  Batman, in any context, would not abide this.  (Let’s ignore that Cracked.com article.)  Batman chewing Robin out for this is perfectly in-character and consistent with the moral code he’s displayed throughout his career.  Having Batman come out of his coma and spontaneously change his mind isn’t just a cheap ending for the story, it’s not consistent with everything we know about Batman.  I can see the point Moench is trying to make, but the story he’s crafted doesn’t support his argument.

Monday, April 15, 2013

SHOWCASE ‘93 #7 - July 1993


Double Cross
Credits:  Doug Moench (writer), Klaus Janson (artist/colorist), Ken Bruzenak (letterer)

Summary:  As Robin and Alfred watch over the comatose Batman, Robin flashes back to three weeks earlier.  Two-Face, after escaping Arkham during the breakout, targets mobster Legs Lyman.  He kills Lyman and leaves his body inside a museum as a clue for Batman.  Batman pursues the case, dismissing Robin’s offer for help.  Two-Face, now leading Lyman’s gang, ambushes Batman and forces him to crash the Batmobile into the river.

Irrelevant Continuity:  Klaus Janson’s Batmobile is extremely off-model.  For some reason he’s decided it should resemble a ‘70s Cadillac.

I Love the ‘90s: I guess I’m obligated to mention the title of this series.  DC curiously decided to run Showcase as a twelve-issue series every year, renaming it to match the new year every January.

Review:  DC somehow decided that this Showcase two-parter deserved to be reprinted in the Knightfall trade, as opposed to all of the early Bane appearances, the original “Venom” storyline, or the Sword of Azrael miniseries.  I guess they felt obligated because the covers list this storyline as official chapters of “Knightfall,” even continuing the numbering from the Bat-titles, and didn’t want readers complaining about missing the all-important thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of the crossover.  I imagine “Knightfall” only crossed over into Showcase in order to give the lower-selling title some attention, because this is by no means an essential story for the event.  With the removal of a few lines of dialogue and the quickie framing sequence, this could easily occur at any time in early ‘90s Bat-continuity.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this were an inventory story that just ended up in Showcase because Batman was obligated to appear in the book for a few issues out of the year.

Of course, none of this means the story is bad when judged on its own merits.  And in its defense, it’s a nice-looking Klaus Janson comic with better-than-average colors and lettering for the era.  But aside from a cute bit about the Brontosaurus during the museum scene (it’s “the only dinosaur with two names” because scientists originally mixed up two species when naming it), the story’s extremely flat.  And the awkward placement of the arc ruins the flow of the overall storyline, as it requires the narrative to flash back three weeks for no good reason.

Friday, April 12, 2013

MARVEL KNIGHTS: INHUMANS on DVD



Review copy provided by the studio.

The latest motion comic from Marvel, surprisingly enough, goes back to the initial launch of Marvel Knights back in 1998.  Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee's Inhumans debuted to great reviews, helping to cement the new line's reputation for resurrecting moribund properties and selling them to an audience that would ordinarily never give them a shot.  (Even if people did rightly complain months into the series that the story was moving too slowly, I do think the last two chapters do a lot to make up for the idle middle segment.)  Vertigo writer Paul  Jenkins and Image star Jae Lee didn't seem like an obvious fit, especially on an old Lee/Kirby property, but the final result was pretty undeniable.  Jenkins breathes a lot of life into the concept by taking what's already there and using it as a venue to explore everything from puberty to slavery to classism, while also fleshing out the main Inhumans and exploring their relationship as a family.  And Lee's art fits the mood perfectly, maintaining most of the style that made him popular in the '90s without getting in the way of the story.

If you ever want to see Lee's art animated, probably the only chance you'll have is in the motion comics format.  If you're annoyed by the simple motions and odd lip synch, I doubt this one would change your mind, but I think the performances and music help to compensate for the limited animation.  The narrator in particular is very good, with a style that sounds like it could just as easily be on PBS, but fits Jenkins' dry narration perfectly.  The trade is apparently long out of print, and going for outrageous prices on Amazon, so this could be your only opportunity to get the story at a reasonable price.  I have to point out, however, that this is the second Marvel Motion Comic DVD that has major audio issues in my Panasonic DVD player.  It's not that much of an inconvenience, since like most people I have more than once device that can play DVDs, but it is an odd problem to occur more than once.

DETECTIVE COMICS #664 - Late July 1993


Who Rules the Night
Credits:  Chuck Dixon (writer), Graham Nolan (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), John Costanza (letterer), Adrienne Roy (colorist)

Summary:  Bane throws Batman’s comatose body into Robinson Square.  Alfred, Robin, and Jean-Paul soon arrive in disguise and take him away in an ambulance.  Robin contacts Commissioner Gordon, who arranges for Bullock and Montoya to drop off Decadron, a medicine Batman needs to prevent spinal damage.  Meanwhile, an irritated Scarecrow turns on Joker, who easily fights him off, and the Ventriloquist is injured in a shoot-out between his two puppets.

Irrelevant Continuity:  Scarecrow gases Joker, even though he’s already thought to himself that it wouldn’t work.  It could be argued that Scarecrow is unusually emotional in this scene and simply lashed out at Joker, but that wouldn’t explain his surprise when the fear gas has no effect.

Review:  I suppose this is the Batman titles’ equivalent to the X-Men’s post-crossover “quiet” issues.  The story is largely devoted to how various supporting cast members react to Batman’s defeat, and possible death, although this is far from maudlin.  Bullock and Montoya don’t seem particularly fazed, the subplot pages with Joker, Scarecrow, and the Ventriloquist don’t even address Batman’s injuries at all, and there aren’t any of the predictable “man on the street” media montages of the average Gothamite’s reaction.  There are a few emotional scenes with Batman’s immediate allies, though, including a nice moment between Gordon and his wife.  And the logistics of how exactly Alfred can reach Batman before the real paramedics can, and whether or not Batman should be taken to an actual hospital, are handled well.  There just aren’t enough of those scenes in the issue, making the installment feel inappropriately cold.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

BATMAN #497 - Late July 1993


The Broken Bat
Credits: 
Doug Moench (writer), Jim Aparo (penciler), Dick Giordano (inker), Richard Starkings (letterer), Adrienne Roy (colorist)

Summary:  Alfred runs to Robin’s house for help as Bane brutalizes a battered Batman.  As Batman reflects on everything he’s endured over the past few months, Bane takes their fight down to the Batcave.  Batman refuses to scream Bane’s name, but Bane does succeed in breaking his back.

Irrelevant Continuity: 
  • Batman flashes back to a few stories not reprinted in the book, such as a confrontation with a Venom-amplified Riddler, and fights with Black Mask, Azrael, and someone with bandoleers and a mohawk.
  • Tim Drake lives in a house with his father, unlike the previous Robins that lived in Wayne Manor with Batman.  Presumably, the Drakes’ home is near Wayne Manor, since characters are often seen walking back and forth.

Total N00B:  Why do all of the flashbacks with Azrael have him in that spiky bondage outfit, as opposed to the costume he wore on the covers of his original miniseries?  What even happened in Sword of Azrael, anyway?

Gimmicks:   This issue has an alternate cover with an "additional black and white stiff paper partial cover overlay."

Review:  Now we’ve reached the big moment, the scene the creators have been building up to for around twenty issues now.  And it happens in Batman #497, of all places.  Not Batman #500, or even Detective Comics #666, but in a non-enhanced, regular-sized issue with a non-significant issue number.  I can almost see the reasoning that led to the event occurring in Batman’s titular series, the one drawn by legend Jim Aparo, instead of Detective (even though Detective was being written by Bane’s creator and is the original Batman comic), but why choose this point to give Bane his crucial victory?  I would be curious to know if Marvel or Image was launching something big this month and DC felt compelled to compete, or if some end-of-fiscal-year budget concerns lead DC to choose this specific issue. 

At any rate, this is the horrible event the crossover has been leading up to, and to his credit, Doug Moench steps up to the challenge and delivers a mature, somber script that suits the material.  Batman’s narration throughout the story conveys his anguish without coming across as mawkish, and even if this is an issue-long, one-sided fight scene, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.  Bane’s arrogant and evil enough to hold his own in the story, and his sadistic one-liners are a great contrast to Batman’s broken, humbled narration. 

Assigning this chapter to Jim Aparo also helps it feel more significant in a way, given that Aparo was the definitive Batman artist of this generation.  When the guy who’s drawn almost every Batman comic you own draws a giant splash page of your hero’s back being broken, that has an impact.  And if there is one iconic page of mainstream DC comics in the ‘90s, the “BREAK YOU!” page could be it.  Its main contender would probably be Lois mourning Superman’s bloody body, but I think Bane's page had even more resonance.  I didn’t even own this issue at the time, but I saw this page dozens of times during 1993 and 1994.  (Does anyone else remember watching the Home Shopping Channel and seeing the “BREAK YOU!” page flashed on-screen repeatedly the night they were selling signed copies of this book?)  As for the cover, I guess it’s significant too, in a “Wow, look at what you could get away with in the ‘90s” kind of way.

Monday, April 8, 2013

DETECTIVE COMICS #663 - Early July 1993


No Rest for the Wicked
Credits
:  Chuck Dixon (writer), Graham Nolan (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings (letterer), John Costanza (colorist)

Summary:  Batman rescues the mayor but nearly drowns in the process.  As he recuperates on a rooftop, he’s ambushed by Trogg.  Using gas from his utility belt, Batman neutralizes him, but Zombie and Bird soon launch their own attacks.  Batman defeats them and returns home to an empty Batcave.  He goes upstairs to discover Bane standing over Alfred’s unconscious body.  Elsewhere, Ventriloquist murders a police officer and retrieves his Scarface dummy from GCPD impound.

Total N00B:  Was Scarface always colored chalk-white in the comics?

Review:  The cycle of Batman pushing himself too far while fighting Arkham escapees ends this issue, and it’s not a moment too soon.  Batman’s rescue of the mayor is probably the best in the extensive series of “exhausted Batman fights pain and exhaustion to save the day” scenes, but it’s past time for this storyline to move on to the next phase.  The bulk of this issue is spent on Batman fighting Bane’s three henchmen, Trogg, Zombie, and Bird.  Trogg is such a Silver Age throwback (he even refers to himself in the third person) he disrupts the tone of the issue, and Zombie is spontaneously a knife-throwing expert simply to give him something to do against Batman, so neither of these fights are that great.  Batman’s hand-to-hand with Bird is a better match, and it manages to work in the fulfillment of Bane’s original prophesy fairly naturally.  The deadpan narration of “He said I would scream his name.” as Batman in fact screams Bane’s name while beating his henchman savagely is the kind of melodrama that only comics can get away with, and the storyline has more than earned this little moment after over 200 pages of relentless Batman torment. 

The cliffhanger is also one of the strongest scenes in the event so far.  Batman coming home to Bane standing over a possibly dead Alfred?  How could anyone resist buying the next issue?  In retrospect, this cliffhanger would’ve worked even better if the reader didn’t see Bane magically discern Bruce Wayne’s secret identity back in Batman #495.  Wouldn’t it be an even greater shock to discover Bane knows Batman’s identity just as he makes his move on Wayne Manor?  (Then again, this storyline has been all about Bane’s methodical dissolution of Batman, so perhaps the creative team thought it was important to show the exact moment Bane learned the secret.)  Regardless, this works as a great cliffhanger and dramatic payoff to an awful lot of teasing.

Friday, April 5, 2013

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #11 - December 1996


Revelations Part Two - Deadly Diversions
Credits:
  Todd Dezago (writer), Mike Wieringo (penciler), Richard Chase (inks), Gregory Wright w/GCW (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Ben and Peter discover a group of kids playing in debris left behind by Onslaught’s attack.  Suddenly, they’re ambushed by Gaunt.  Peter tries to get the kids to safety as Ben changes into Spider-Man.  Ben soon learns that Gaunt is actually Mendel Stromm, the Robot Master.  Simultaneously, the kids reveal themselves as robots and turn on Peter.

The Subplots:  A mystery man is sending various associates of Peter invitations to appear at the Daily Bugle on Halloween.  Meanwhile, MJ unexpectedly goes into labor after a new waitress at the Daily Grind pours a mysterious powder into her drink.

Web of Continuity: 
  • Arthur Stacy has a one-page scene, announcing his return to New York.  Arthur is George Stacy’s brother, and Gwen’s uncle.  He briefly appeared back in the early 1970s and was quickly forgotten.  Arthur and his children are returning to the books on the edict of editor-in-chief Bob Harras, who wanted to keep Gwen’s legacy alive and introduce more supporting cast members to interact with Peter.
  • The evil waitress is Alison Mongrain, a minor character that will occasionally appear over the next few years as Marvel deals with even more threads from the Clone Saga.  The mysterious employer of Alison and Gaunt, and the person behind the invitations, will soon be revealed as Norman Osborn.

*See _________ For Details:  Seward Trainer was murdered by Gaunt in Spectacular Spider-Man #240.  Mendel Stromm first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #36.  This story continues in Amazing Spider-Man #418.

Forever Young:  Ben encourages Peter to discipline the kids because he’s the father now.

I Love the ‘90s:  Peter is keeping a beeper to stay in contact with MJ during the final days of her pregnancy.  Later, he tells Ben that he’d better be ready to “do the Macarana” during their fight with Gaunt.

Creative Differences:  According to “Life of Reilly,” this storyline was originally going to be called “The Book of Revelations” and would prominently feature Norman Osborn’s journal.

Review:  Finally, after two years of constant second-guessing and ridiculously circular storylines, the Clone Saga is coming to an end.  And what a horrific end it turns out to be.  Spoiler Alert:  Norman Osborn was behind everything and Ben’s death will prove that he’s the clone.  The end.  P.S.  No baby for MJ.  It’s hard to imagine who exactly the creators thought this would please.  I can understand the desire to kill Ben if only to draw a clear red line to indicate this storyline is over, but giving him a quickie death scene and having him turn into goo just reeks of laziness.  And the resurrection of Norman Osborn wasn’t even popular within Marvel’s offices.  It only happened because of an edict by Bob Harras, who seemed to have a fuzzy understanding of Spider-Man continuity in the first place. 

Reviving Norman Osborn made many readers absolutely furious at the time, and I'm certainly in that camp (it’s actually a major reason why I stayed away from the Spider-Man titles even after the clone insanity ended).  Much to my surprise, however, as the months went on, more and more people warmed up to the idea.  Since he was killed off before much of the audience was born, many fans were actually eager to read modern-day Spider-Man stories featuring the original Green Goblin.  And, somehow, he was even adopted by the next administration, becoming a prominent figure throughout the entire Marvel Universe.  Now, you rarely hear anyone complain about Norman’s resurrection.  My opinion on this has never wavered -- Norman’s death was a definitive moment in the history of Spider-Man.  Far too many stories following his death hinge on Norman being truly dead, not “recovering” in Europe.  And essentially everyone working at Marvel, for over two decades, viewed him as dead (he even showed up as a zombie once.)  Reviving Norman just made the Marvel Universe feel less “real” in a way, and that sense of unreality, that anything can happen in the most ham-fisted or illogical manner possible, eventually turned me away from Marvel Comics in general.

Regarding this specific issue, it’s actually one of the better chapters of “Revelations.”  Wieringo’s getting a solid grasp on the supporting cast, and the action scene looks great.  It’s fun to see Peter and Ben team up against a villain, and the fake-out with the robot kids is a very clever move on Dezago’s part.  And as much as I complained about resurrecting a long-dead character earlier, reviving Mendel Stromm never bothered me, probably because I had no idea who he was.  (As revealed in “Life of Reilly,” none of the regular Spider-writers remembered Stromm.  The suggestion came from Ralph Macchio’s assistant editor, and occasional X-Man fill-in writer, Mark Bernardo.)  Knowing now that Gaunt was supposed to be Harry Osborn and that the creators had to come up with a last-minute switch after Bob Harras shot them down, I can’t fault them with choosing Stromm as the true identity.  His death never had any lasting importance on the Spider-Man mythos, and due to his past with Norman Osborn, it’s not a bad hint for who the mystery villain will turn out to be.  So, even if I disagree with the general direction, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this specific chapter.  It’s what’s coming next that I can’t stand…

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN ‘96 - November 1996


Kraven’s First Hunt!
Credits:
  J. M. DeMatteis (writer), Shawn McManus (artist), Atomic Paintbrush (colors), Janice Chiang (letters)

The Plot:  Kraven responds to the Chameleon’s request and heads to America to kill Spider-Man.  Eventually, the Chameleon realizes that he subconsciously sent Kraven to America to be killed by Spider-Man in retaliation for the abuse he endured at Kraven’s hand as a child.  Spider-Man ultimately defeats Kraven and the Chameleon, and the villains are deported.

The Subplots:  Peter Parker works to reconcile his two identities.  He’s initially envious of Kraven’s free spirit, but realizes how power has corrupted him.  Eventually, Peter recognizes his values are Spider-Man’s and that no mask can hide who he truly is.

Web of Continuity: 
  • This annual is a retelling of Amazing Spider-Man #15, the first appearance of Kraven, with numerous added scenes.
  • For some reason, gas surrounds Chameleon when he switches identities throughout the issue.  I don’t know if this has ever appeared in any other Chameleon story, but I know at this point in continuity Chameleon was merely ripping off masks to change identities with no real mystery attached.
  • This story establishes that Kraven gives the Chameleon small doses of the potions that keep him young.
  • I believe this is the first story to reveal that Kraven’s fear of spiders is rooted in seeing his mother covered in them after she was institutionalized.
  • Aunt May drops hints that she knows Peter’s secret identity.  At this point in continuity, the Aunt May who finally confessed to Peter before dying in Amazing Spider-Man #400 was not an imposter, and even if most people disagreed, J. M. DeMatteis seemed to be convinced that she figured out Peter's secret identity early on.

Review:  The theme of the 1996 Spider-Man annuals was flashback stories, so here we have J. M. DeMatteis fusing his take on Kraven the Hunter with the original Lee/Ditko story that introduced him.  Sometimes it’s an awkward fit, but DeMatteis is able to find a lot of material in the twisted relationships between Spider-Man, Kraven, and Chameleon.  I think the major failing of the issue is Shawn McManus’ art, and not simply because he isn’t Mike Zeck.  McManus’ human figures are often far too caricatured to work with the story.  His Peter Parker, for instance, resembles Clay Aiken after receiving a bad batch of Botox.  I don’t mind his monstrous Kraven, and some of the background extras have a charming look, but overall there’s a mismatch between the story and the art that’s just distracting.

It’s not hard to view this as a prequel to “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” and as a foundation for the themes of that story, it works quite well.  DeMatteis dances around the original comic this is based on by presenting all of the main plot points, but with three levels of narration that add a psychological edge that wasn’t there in the original story.  I’m not personally a fan of Chameleon as the scarred child of abuse that can never grow up, but I think DeMatteis’ take on Kraven and Spider-Man is intriguing.  Spider-Man envies Kraven for bravely living his life without a mask, unaware that Kraven is so deeply repressed that he’s descending into insanity.  While Kraven’s fa├žade begins to crack, Spider-Man begins to reconcile the fact that he truly is Peter Parker and isn’t hiding behind a mask at all.  This is an exploration of identity I can get behind; thankfully DeMatteis isn’t giving us “I AM THE SPIDER” this time.


The Return of Spider-Woman
Credits:
  Mark Gruenwald (writer), Pat Broderick (artist), Mark Bernardo w/Malibu (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Jillian Woods casts a spell that allows Spider-Woman II and Lindsay McCabe to travel to a strange dimension and rescue Spider-Woman I.  After Spider-Woman returns to Earth, her replacement wonders if she’ll want her name back.

The Subplots:  None.

Web of Continuity:  Jillian Woods is the secret identity of Sepulchre, a Mark Gruenwald character who occasionally still makes appearances.

*See _________ For Details:  An editor’s note says this story will be resolved in an upcoming issue of Spider-Man Team-Up.  I had no idea Spider-Man Team-Up was still being published at this time.

Review:  I never expected to be reviewing a Mark Gruenwald comic, given that his path rarely intersected with Spider-Man or the X-Men in the ‘90s.  I doubt this story was originally intended for any of the Spider-titles, but hey, it stars someone with “spider” in her name and it’ll eat ten pages just as easily as anything else.  I imagine I would’ve enjoyed this story more if I knew anything about the continuity surrounding it, yet there are no footnotes or helpfully detailed recaps to explain what Spider-Woman I is doing in this black void.  (The last I knew, she was depowered and living in Madripoor as an occasional supporting cast member in Wolverine.)  So, as the resolution to a story I know nothing about, it’s hard to have strong feelings about this one.  However, I guess fans of the original Spider-Woman were happy, assuming they knew she had been sent into limbo in the first place.

Monday, April 1, 2013

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #10 - November 1996


Global Swarming
Credits:  Todd Dezago (writer), Mike Wieringo (penciler), Richard Chase (inks), Gregory Wright w/GCW (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Spider-Man makes his way through Swarm’s bee army and reaches the Seismoharmonic Institute.  Inside, he helps the scientists set up a device that breaks up the vibratory pattern bees use to fly.  Spider-Man snatches the queen bee as the rest of the bees fall to the ground, ending Swarm’s menace.  

The Subplots:  Ben returns to his date with Desiree, who tells him she understands his reluctance to date again after breaking up with Jessica.  Meanwhile, Peter and MJ paint their daughter’s room, as Peter deals with the slow return of his powers.  Later, Liz Osborn orders Osborn Industries’ personnel director Menken to investigate several Multivex employees, including Seward Trainer.

Web of Continuity:  
·    Trish Tilby covers the Swarm story, and is incorrectly colored with brown skin.
·    Cyclops and Jean Grey make a cameo, as the vibratory wave the scientists sends out gives people with psychic powers (Jean, not Cyclops, of course) headaches.
·    And who else gets a headache after the signal goes out?  Ben’s date, Desiree.

*See _________ For Details:  Spider-Man (not Ben Reilly, but the Peter Parker we’re supposed to believe is the clone at this time) repelled Swarm’s bees by coating his costume with Raid in Spectacular Spider-Man #36.  We’re reminded again that Onslaught’s psionic storm hit in X-Men #56.  And Multivex, a division of Osborn Industries, previously appeared in Sensational Spider-Man #5 and Amazing Spider-Man #412.

I Love the ‘90s:  When Peter falls off the ceiling, MJ wishes she had a tape to send to Bob Saget.  There’s also a background extra wearing a Wesley Willis t-shirt.

Review:  While the issue setting up this storyline wasn’t particularly exciting, the conclusion is a marked improvement.  Dezago is able to make Swarm feel a lot less generic this issue, in part because we get to see how terrifying the bees can really be, but also because he’s incorporated actual facts about bees into the pseudo-scientific plot device that’s required to defeat Swarm.  Swarm isn’t a villain that can just be punched out, and while simply spraying him with gas would be an obvious way to defeat him, Dezago puts more thought into the problem and develops a creative solution.  He’s clearly having fun writing this material; so much fun, the cutsey dialogue might be too much for some readers.  (Dezago manages to sneak in references to everything from The Six Million Dollar Man’s opening to the Butthole Surfers’ song “Pepper” into the script.)

While it’s easy to dismiss a Swarm fight as two issues of filler, the creative team has apparently taken this as an opportunity to turn Dan Jurgens’ ditzy MJ stand-in Desiree into…a mutant?  Either that, or it’s one gigantic misdirection, but I’m almost positive they’re serious about this.  I can’t say I care for the idea at all.  This is one of those ideas that just feels inherently dumb, even though the opposing side could easily come up with a million counterpoints to defend it.  Yes, I know it’s not intrinsically any more ridiculous than any of the countless times a supporting cast member was dragged into the supernatural side of Spider-Man’s world, but…can’t he ever know any normal people?  Does everyone in Spider-Man’s life have to have some connection to a supervillain, or secretly be an alien or a mutant or genetically-altered actress?
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