Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SPAWN Ex Post Facto - Part Four

Obviously, Spawn wouldn’t have been a sales juggernaut if ‘90s comics fans weren’t in love with Todd McFarlane’s artwork. Originally an amalgam of Art Adams and Michael Golden, McFarlane earned a reputation as a “cartoony” artist who could turn in an inordinate number of pages a month. To say that his style was polarizing would be an understatement (Larry Hama, or perhaps his editor, was so displeased with McFarlane’s work on G. I. Joe, it was redrawn twice -- McFarlane redid his first issue, and Marshall Rogers was brought in after his second issue was totally scrapped), but the guy was fast and quickly building a name for himself. Editor Jim Salicrup has said in interviews that he was inspired to hire McFarlane for Amazing Spider-Man after seeing his inking, which I believe is the true source of much of his popularity.

With few exceptions, readers didn’t tend to pay attention to inkers. (Now that inkers are mostly treated as “tracers” again, I would say it’s returned to a pretty low-profile job.) The role of the inker was mostly viewed as strictly utilitarian -- the artwork had to be gone over in ink in order to be dark enough to be reproduced. I don’t think many inkers had the belief that they were supposed to be making the work better in the early days. That attitude began to change long before McFarlane entered comics, but even by the late ‘80s, most inkers not named Terry Austin and Klaus Janson were ignored by the fans.

While I’m sure McFarlane learned a lot from assisting Klaus Janson, the inking style he developed on Amazing Spider-Man seemed to owe most of its inspiration to George Perez. Perez’s penciling obviously overshadows his reputation as an inker, but anyone who’s seen Perez ink over someone else can easily recognize his style (look up his work over Dan Jurgens and Ron Frenz if you’ve never seen it). Aside from the fact that the lines just look darker, there’s also an added level of texture and attention to detail that’s rarely conveyed in inks. It’s hard for me to look at a page like this and not see a strong Perez influence:

While McFarlane was amassing his fanbase, Greg Capullo broke into comics with a standard mainstream superhero look, fitting in comfortably as a replacement for Paul Ryan on Quasar. Within a few years, Capullo’s work began to resemble a cross between John Byrne and Jim Lee. I don’t think anyone who followed his run on X-Force would describe it as “cartoony,” but it was striking and clearly energetic. When McFarlane announced Capullo as Spawn’s first fill-in artist, he didn't seem like too much of a stretch for the book. When Capullo returned as co-artist a few months later, the rubbery nature of McFarlane’s anatomy began to fade away, creating a style that merged the strengths of both artists.

As the months progressed, however, Capullo began to move further and further into expressionism. From around issue #30 on, it’s hard to describe the Capullo/McFarlane collaboration. Here’s a McFarlane solo drawing of a pretty redhead (and, yes, I know the scan isn't in English):

Here’s a Capullo pretty girl, shortly after his X-Force days:

Here they are together, depicting a redhead specifically designed to be a knockout:

It’s not very convincing, is it? As the issues go on, McFarlane’s inks become less about texture, and more about the sheer volume of scratchy lines that can fit on a page. Danny Miki, another scratchy line aficionado, replaced McFarlane as inker following the seventy-fifth issue. Compare now the unnamed female newscaster, as penciled and inked by McFarlane:

Here she is again, now penciled by Capullo and inked by McFarlane:

And finally, unnamed female newscaster, as envisioned by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki:

Admittedly, she isn’t drawn in close-up in that final scan, but the difference is still striking. The humans just look less human. Not that McFarlane was ever going for photorealism, but the characters still seem believable within the context of McFarlane’s world. Unfortunately, the look developed by the end of the Capullo/McFarlane collaboration becomes the house style of Spawn, resulting in an endless series of identical looking comics. Check out a cover gallery of Spawn following the fiftieth issue and just look at the screen full of sameness staring back at you. Even though McFarlane gained prominence from his off-model rendition of Spider-Man, apparently no one penciling Spawn was encouraged to experiment with the character (Ashley Wood was allowed to go nuts with spin-offs, but not the main book). That’s a shame, because a new injection of artistic blood helps to keep a series going. Bob Harras could’ve hired an endless series of Jim Lee clones to draw Uncanny X-Men, but instead he allowed Joe Madureira and Chris Bachalo to visually reinvent the franchise. While Marvel and DC were giving artists like Adam Kubert, Joe Cassaday, Carlos Pacheco, and Ed McGuinness high-profile assignments, Spawn kept on looking like Spawn.

One of the few variations on Spawn’s look came a few years ago in the Adventures of Spawn series. I’m not entirely sure what this comic is, but apparently it began life as a tie-in to a more kid-friendly incarnation of the Spawn toy line. This would explain why it resembles the CBS Saturday Morning Spawn cartoon that never existed. The art is a fairly standard, post-Bruce Timm “Adventures” look, but it’s clean, attractive, and the exact opposite of what McFarlane has trained the audience to expect over the years. Maybe McFarlane has become less dogmatic in recent years, as evidenced by his choice of new Spawn artist Symon Kurdanski. I thought his Streets of Gotham back-ups were too dark and muddy, but the guy clearly has talent. More realistic anatomy, fewer detail lines, Gene Colan-style washes…that could certainly work on Spawn. Unfortunately, the audience had to wait over a hundred issues to get this new look, and I wonder if it’s too late at this point to attract their attention.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Watch Out For the Corners!

Spawn: The Eternal. The scariest Spawn-related entertainment you're ever going to see.

Monday, June 27, 2011

SPAWN Ex Post Facto - Part Three

It’s a standard rule of writing that protagonists need motivation. Even the earliest superhero comics, written by teenagers, had a rudimentary understanding of this. Superman cared about the little guy and wanted to fight the bullies, often by behaving like a bully himself. A few years later, readers discovered that Batman hunted criminals in the night to avenge the death of his parents. A series lead needs something to do, and he needs a compelling reason to do it. So, what does Spawn do? He pines for his wife, and occasionally kills people if they invade his turf. Over the course of seventy-five issues and numerous miniseries, it’s hard to discern any motives deeper than this.

In fairness, Spawn’s lack of motivation is an intentional plot point in the early issues. He’s sent from Hell to Earth with no memory of his past, and only a psychotic clown as his guide. The first year of the series gets some mileage out of Spawn’s random flashbacks, which emphasize his love for his wife and disdain for the government agency that betrayed him. After Spawn torments his killer (the original one) in issue #13, the character’s left with barely anything to do. Over the ensuing issues, Spawn defends himself against an angelic attack, is manipulated by Harry Houdini into stopping a rogue atomic scientist, and is forced to protect his former best friend, who’s been framed for Spawn’s theft of CIA files and weapons. These are legitimate premises, but all of them involve outside forces that compel Spawn into action. Eventually, the hero has to do more than just respond (you could argue the X-Men were rarely proactive during their highest sales period in the ‘90s, but the writers kept the audience’s attention with numerous mysteries and various character-driven subplots).

With no motivation, Spawn is left without a direction, which becomes increasingly obvious as the series passes the twenty-fifth issue. Now, it certainly seems as if some things were supposed to happen, but apparently Todd McFarlane had last minute thoughts about the series’ momentum and decided to slow things down. The original solicitation for issue #24 had Spawn teaming up with detective duo Sam and Twitch for the first time. The characters have been around since the first issue, always on the periphery of Spawn’s life, so finally uniting them at the end of the title’s second year seems reasonable. Around this time, Terry Fitzgerald has his first inkling that Spawn is his deceased friend Al, which also seems appropriate for the next phase of the title. But what happens next? The content of issue #24 doesn’t match the solicitations, and instead devotes an extra issue to the conclusion to “The Hunt” storyline, which ends with Spawn intimidating his enemies into leaving Wanda and Terry alone (something he’s still doing by the seventy-fifth issue).

Terry occasionally wonders if Spawn is Al, but the idea is dropped until thirty issues or so later when Spawn confirms the truth. By this point, Wanda’s already learned Spawn’s identity, from Spawn himself. She chooses to ignore this information, even when her saintly grandmother repeatedly tells her that Al is alive. As for Sam and Twitch, they only learn of their destiny to become Spawn’s “knights” in issue sixty-five, which doesn’t stop them from trying to arrest him (even though they’re no longer cops) for the next ten issues. They don’t actually join forces with Spawn until issue seventy-eight. That’s over fifty issues later than the original plan! And it’s not as if these characters were given a compelling storyline in the meantime; their story has always been about getting them in place to become aides for Spawn on Earth. The story just doesn’t happen until several years later, as the writing transitions from McFarlane to Brian Holguin.

Surprisingly enough, the pace starts to pick up during McFarlane’s final days as scripter. After a two-year period that mainly seemed to consist of Spawn feeding off of worms in-between hopeless subplots scenes, events actually start to happen. Events that might seem familiar to readers with an HBO subscription. The kidnapping of Cyan, the floor-by-floor takedown of Jason Wynn, Twitch getting shot, a “dead zone” in the alleys, a mysterious library in a church-turned-museum that Cogliostro and Spawn use to investigate the occult…all ideas introduced in the animated series that also show up between issues #60 and #80 of the comic. If only that series had been green-lighted a few years earlier. It’s also worth noting that while the first season borrowed heavily from the first twenty-four issues of the comic, virtually nothing past issue #25 made its way into the later episodes. I’m not saying that the producers (which included McFarlane) specifically declared this era off-limits, but surely someone had to realize that the book is almost completely out of ideas by the end of its second year.

Why would a creator hold back on his ideas, especially in a book that he owns? Yes, the major milestones of a title should be spaced out appropriately, but most of the ideas McFarlane holds out on don’t seem that significant. It’s obvious that Spawn will have some relationship with Sam and Twitch, so why wait several years before establishing their partnership? Considering that Spawn’s a character with no real motivation, events need to keep happening, or else the series becomes totally aimless. And while the series continued to languish, every few months a new line of sick, bizarre, and twisted Spawn action figures hit the shelves. As Spawn hung around alleys and played with worms, dozens of potential allies and foes were molded into plastic and shipped to toy stores across the world. Could it be that McFarlane was unleashing his creative energies on his toy line, leaving none left for the comic that inspired the franchise?

Friday, June 24, 2011

SPAWN Ex Post Facto - Part Two

Oh, shut up...

If you look at almost any Image comic from the early days, you’re going to see a plethora of characters competing for your attention on every page. I can think of two immediate reasons why: 1) The X-Men franchise was selling insanely well at the time, so team books were hot, and 2) The more characters in a comic, the more potential action figures and movie pitches in the creator’s pocket. Spawn took a different route, slowly introducing the hero, main villain, and a handful of supporting cast members over the opening four issues. Unfortunately, McFarlane will take slow burn storytelling well past the point of self-parody in future issues, but the deliberate pace of the early issues is a welcome break from the convoluted, cluttered, and hyperactive comics associated with the early ‘90s.

And, just imagine, an early Image comic that took the time to introduce a supporting cast of normal humans. Not a support staff for a government-sponsored superhero team, or a billionaire financier or bimbo girlfriend, but instead a suburban family and two ordinary detectives stuck investigating the chaos that surrounds the hero. A few issues later, Spawn will be adopted by the city’s homeless -- people who have lost perhaps even more than the series’ protagonist. And, for the first twenty-five issues or so, this scenario works quite well.

While McFarlane realized that the supernatural elements of the series needed to be contrasted with ordinary human drama, he apparently didn’t grasp how quickly these characters can stagnate. Terry is introduced as a government pencil pusher; a decent guy who loves his wife and daughter and misses his friend, Al. Wanda is…allegedly a businesswoman based on a narrative caption in the early issues, although we never see her go to work, or even leave the house, outside of her visits to her grandmother. Later on, McFarlane has her talk about fundraisers quite often. So much so, I assumed she was a philanthropist, or simply someone working for a non-profit. The HBO series made her a lawyer. Regardless, she’s a nice enough lady living in suburbia with her husband and daughter. And that’s fine as a starting point. But when the book lumbers past the five-year mark and the readers still know virtually nothing else about these characters, something’s wrong.

Yes, a few years into the series they decide to investigate Terry’s corrupt boss, but look at how this turned out. Aside from the fact that the storyline failed to expand their characterizations in any discernable way, it dragged on six weeks past forever. “Investigating” in Spawn unfortunately means looking through file folders and repeating the exact same information in every appearance. I can’t even say “every month,” because the subplots in this series appear and reappear at random, sometimes going six months or longer without any acknowledgment.

Even worse investigators are Sam and Twitch, the buddy cop duo that began examining a conspiracy in issue #25, and by #75, still couldn’t uncover their anus with a flashlight. They also, on two separate occasions, prepared themselves to meet an informant that had all of the dirt; a meeting that never occurred and was conveniently forgotten after the setup was used the second time. (Of course, their “informant” was actually a plant by Jason Wynn and Violator, the two major villains of the series who also forgot they were forging a partnership with one another, or that Sam and Twitch had to be punished for getting too close to Wynn). When Sam and Twitch finally return to the series, they forget about the conspiracy and go back to chasing Spawn…a plot that goes back to issue #5. While Sam and Twitch can be fun characters, the inept plotting of their adventures just leaves them spinning in circles; never learning, changing, or showing any depth. Plus, they look like the biggest idiots on Earth.

What about friends? Whom does Spawn have to turn to? Who is his sounding board? Bums. Literally, bums. Now, the idea that Spawn can only find companionship in the people shunted by society is a sound one. While everyone else views Spawn as a demon or a monster, they can see the true hero that might lie within, perhaps because they have no one else to rely on. Spawn literally doesn’t have a home to return to, so it even makes logical sense for him to end up on the streets. Leaving him in the alleys certainly adds more flavor to the series than setting him up in an abandoned warehouse or church would. However, the supporting cast can’t just be populated by faceless winos; they need personalities.

Only one member of the supporting cast is treated as more than a cipher, Bobby (originally spelled “Bobbie,” until perhaps McFarlane realized that is the feminine spelling). He tells the story of his wife’s death and the pressures that lead him to alcoholism in #21. Around fifty issues later, he opens up about his daughter and how she dealt with the situation. Bobby still makes appearances throughout those issues, he’s even killed by Chapel at one point, but he’s not developed as a character at all during those years, and he’s the closest thing to a confidant Spawn has.

The rest of the cast is a group of interchangeable drunks. You could perhaps argue that Boots is more than a face in the crowd, but aside from the quickie characterization from his creator Frank Miller that the guy’s obsessed with a pair of boots, nothing’s done with him until the abrupt revelation that he’s an angel in disguise. They’re all male, fiftyish, and hopelessly devoted to Spawn. And he’s totally undeserving of their support. Beginning in issue #26, when he declares that if he could create money, he wouldn’t be living with these people, Spawn treats the cast like something he wiped off his gigantic red boot. Their response is to view Spawn as their king, and to even build a throne for his majesty. Now, Spawn’s cruel dismissal of his “friends” is occasionally (if not intentionally) funny, but the sheer inanity of this scenario is the real joke. If McFarlane decided a few months into the book not to develop the homeless cast, why not move on to some other idea? Why do only men live in these alleys? Why couldn’t a young runaway look up to Spawn? Anything’s better than King Spawn and his dense subjects.

Of course, not every lead requires a healthy supporting cast to stay alive. Wolverine's solo series has previously gone several years with virtually no supporting cast. The only cast member normally associated with the Punisher is Microchip, and even he was introduced a few years after Punisher’s debut, and has disappeared for long stretches in the books (I know he showed up in the MAX series, and I assume he’s still dead in the mainstream continuity). Even if the bit players couldn’t sustain McFarlane’s interest, the star himself still had lots of exciting adventures, right? Umm….

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

SPAWN Ex Post Facto - Part One

#75 seems like a suitable place to end my series of reviews. By this point, it’s the late ‘90s, the Spawn movie and TV show have been released, and Todd McFarlane is wrapping up his stint on the book. Anyone who cares enough to form an opinion on the property has already done so. Personally, I’m burned out on the book at this time, and wondering why I stuck with it for so long. Now, I’d like to spend a few days reflecting on that ‘90s fever dream known as Spawnmania.

First of all, Todd McFarlane is not the worst writer on Earth. He’s not even the worst writer to work in mainstream comics in the past five years. The overwhelming evidence certainly points to him being a bad writer, but that doesn’t mean he’s one hundred percent bad one hundred percent of the time. Let’s face it, McFarlane took such a beating with his Spider-Man work, it’s hard to imagine any of his writing on Spawn getting a fair shake from the critics. To this day, people are still mocking “Rise above it all!” and “Advantageous!” -- references that are over twenty years old at this point. What other comics published in 1990, good or bad, are still having specific lines quoted like this?

Occasionally, McFarlane has flashes of…certainly not brilliance, but competence at least. Spider-Man #8 is a not-very-appropriate-for-Spider-Man story involving dead kids, but McFarlane really does treat the issue with sensitivity and decorum. He even manages to make the reporter responsible for the ensuing media circus a sympathetic figure, and he creates one of the few memorable throwaway Daily Bugle reporters. Most, if not all, of the editor-turned-writers doing ‘90s Spidey stories couldn’t claim to have accomplished that much, even with several years on the books.

The first issue of Spawn opens with the character cryptically hinting at his origins, while wandering the rooftops of New York and striking dramatic poses. Someone started a rumor that the issue consists of random pages McFarlane strung together arbitrarily into a story, but I refuse to believe it. Actually, I don’t see how anyone who’s actually read the comic could believe it, as most of the pages have elaborate transitions into each other. Regardless of what followed, Spawn #1 actually is a compelling introduction for the anti-hero. McFarlane loses focus over the next few issues while introducing the arch-nemesis and fleshing out the premise, but he recovers with #5, the first standalone issue. He’s back to child killers again, but the story’s a nicely constructed piece that connects Spawn’s past to his new life, while also giving the nascent supporting cast something to do. HBO apparently liked the issue enough to dedicate almost the entirety of the animated series’ first season to an elaborate adaptation of the story.

A few months into Spawn, McFarlane decided the greatest stunt Image could pull would be to hire honest-to-God professional writers. The “Creator’s Choice” series in issues #8-#11 saw the return of Alan Moore to mainstream comics, and the introduction of Angela, a character that eventually sparked a legal battle with Neil Gaiman that contributed to the bankruptcy of McFarlane’s company. McFarlane hoped that hiring high-profile writers would force the quality of his own writing to improve, and for a few issues, that actually seemed to work. Spawn #12 and #13 help to humanize the book’s cast, and even differentiate Spawn from Chapel, the archetypal ‘90s blood-crazed government assassin.

I doubt he did this to make a statement, but contrasting the aspiring family man Spawn with the inhuman, amoral Chapel shows that McFarlane had a better understanding of the fundamentals than most of his Image compatriots ever exhibited. Even if you thought Chapel was cool, no one knew or cared anything about his domestic life. There’s no dead family in Central Park driving most of these ‘90s lunatics; they’re there to look cool and kill people with giant guns. Eventually, people got sick of this. While Rob Liefeld was having trouble keeping his publishing company afloat by the late ‘90s, Spawn still outsold most of the comics in stores. You might’ve felt like a sucker afterwards, but if you were the right age, I bet you really did care about Spawn’s relationship with Wanda at some point during the book’s run.

After a guest arc by Grant Morrison, McFarlane returned to Spawn with issue #21, the opening of “The Hunt,” a four-part story that effectively draws on the book’s established continuity and forces Spawn’s supporting cast into the main action. The book still has flaws, but at this point, it appears that McFarlane has some insight into what it takes to produce a monthly series. The supporting cast is starting to develop a personality, actions from previous issues logically lead into new stories, and the hero has a clearly defined motive (getting his old life back), but has no idea how to do it, or if he even should. The book could go anywhere at this point. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are even writing miniseries, expanding the mythology and creating even more directions for McFarlane to explore. So…what happened?

Monday, June 20, 2011

"I Think He Should Donate His Brain to Science"

Todd McFarlane, his family, his friends, and fans, from an old TechTV show. Part Four is interesting, as it features Tom DeFalco and Jim Salicrup discussing Marvel's reaction to the "adult" nature of McFarlane's Spider-Man series.

Coming soon, the post mortem...

Friday, June 17, 2011

X-MAN #43-#44, October-November 1998

Inside Out

Credits: Terry Kavanagh (writer), Roger Cruz (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Comicraft (letters), Mark Bernardo (colors)

A killer stalks Dublin, as X-Man sleeps off his exhaustive act of heroism from the previous issue. Apparently, there’s no deep drama attached to his abrupt disappearance at the end of the last issue; Nate passed out and a mystery girl took him to a hotel (instead of a hospital) for some rest. Madelyne Pryor finally locates him, even though she doesn’t have telepathic powers at this point either, and declares he should be more “proactive.” She takes him into Dublin to investigate the murders. Since this is 1998 and apparently every freelancer is still obsessed with The X-Files, they have to do it as Scully and Mulder. Two problems with this -- Roger Cruz can’t draw likenesses at this point, and the characters just spent several pages discussing the loss of the telepathic powers that allow them to create these kinds of illusions.

Want more nonsense? X-Man senses the presence of “Age of Apocalypse radiation” at a murder scene, explodes with anger, and then flies into space with the Phoenix avatar wrapped around his body. If the idea is that Madelyne is supposed to be flying behind him, that’s not conveyed by the art at all (and she hasn’t been wielding the Phoenix Force, anyway). The story honestly reads as if X-Man has abruptly gained the Phoenix Force for absolutely no reason, and it magically disappears on the very next page. Also, reality warps created by time-traveling mutants leave behind radiation, it seems. That means X-Man hasn’t merely been annoying people since 1995, he’s been giving them cancer. Anyway, Madelyne tries to calm Nate down by giving him another open-mouth kiss, which leaves a giant smile on the kid’s face. Hooray, incest!

The insanity abates a bit, as X-Man and Maddie return to Earth and trace that unique AoA radiation. The other radiation spikes are in New York and Genosha, homes of the Dark Beast and Sugar Man respectively, leading Nate to believe Nemesis is the killer in Dublin. This is a decent use of misdirection, as we learn on the final page that a fiery duplicate of X-Man is the “true” killer. He’s chosen a girl’s dormitory to attack, which I’m sure isn’t going to tempt Cruz into any gratuitous cheesecake. Meanwhile, Ness is still stalking X-Man, and a shadowy figure speaks to a mechanical spider, which apparently ties in with the earthquake-creating “techno-gnome” from the previous issue. X-Man -- The Best Subplots in Town.

Nowhere to Hide...

Credits: Terry Kavanagh (writer), Roger Cruz (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Comicraft (letters), Mike Thomas (colors)

Kavanagh goes for the double fake-out, revealing that the X-Man doppelganger really is Nemesis. He’s used his armor’s shape-changing abilities to pose as X-Man, for some reason, and steal the life force of the locals. Madelyne suddenly declares that their interest in the murders is over, now that Nate’s cleared himself, and teleports them away. I know that we’re still not entirely sure what this version of Madelyne is even supposed to be, but it bothers me that Kavanagh has casually given her teleportation powers. Even if she is a mere psychic projection, as Jeph Loeb originally hypothesized, that doesn’t mean she could just take someone along with her while jaunting. And if she is a creation of X-Man’s telepathic powers, shouldn’t she have disappeared after “Psi-War?”

Not only does Madelyne have a nonsensical origin and power set, but her characterization is still all over the place. Last issue, Madelyne was the one pushing X-Man to be less passive and stop the murders, and now she’s adamant that they give up. He refuses, and they return for a big fight scene that’s just as vague and illogical as anything else in this series. Using their combined telekinetic powers, they destroy Nemesis’ armor, which causes his “bio-energies” to explode. Somehow, the human form of Nemesis survives the explosion and plots a trip to New York, hoping the Dark Beast will build him new armor. His energy form also survived apparently, and it continues to kill innocents in Dublin. Or, perhaps, this is a dream belonging to Madelyne, who seems to have absorbed some of Nemesis’ “bio-energy.” It’s impossible to tell if the story’s intentionally cryptic, or just poorly executed.

Meanwhile, the Gauntlet (or “Strikesquad: Gauntlet” as it’s now known) subplot continues. Cruz wasn’t able to draw too many nubile co-eds in the main story, but Kavanagh’s given him several pages of a Titanic-obsessed teen, undressing for a shower, as she contemplates her role in the Gauntlet organization. They’ve also lost their psi-powers, and are unable to locate X-Man for whatever nefarious purpose Kavanagh still hasn’t gotten around to explaining. On the final page, another young female Gauntlet member, Vice, is introduced. Via a computer monitor, a shadowy figure informs her that he’s tracked X-Man to Dublin. But, hold on, that’s not enough ambiguity and shadowy figures...

Ness is in a large city, presumably New York, complaining to a mystery man named Slaine that he’s lost X-Man. Slaine owes Ness some form of debt and agrees to talk to “our people” about helping him. He also warns his “cousin” Ness that he might not be able to return to “the Nest.” Still in shadow, Slaine flies away, on wings that resemble either large batwings or the metal wings Apocalypse gave Archangel. Again, it’s hard to tell how much of this is intentionally ambiguous, but it’s not hard to see what a mess this book is. I thought “Messiah Complex” was a conscious effort to get this title out of the dumps, but it looks like it’s determined to stay there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

X-MEN UNLIMITED #20 - September 1998

Where the Wild Things Were

Credits: Joseph Harris (writer), Alè Garza (penciler), Cabin Boy w/ Pepoy & Leigh (inks), Comicraft (letters), Shannon Blanchard (colors)

Summary: Munson, a displaced Asgardian troll, discovers Generation X at a carnival. He kidnaps Husk and takes her back to the forest, where he’s hiding out with fellow trolls Nettles and Chambliss. Convinced that Husk is magic, they demand that she restore the damaged Rainbow Bridge to Asgard. Frustrated by her inability to help, Munson and Chambliss search for the rest of Generation X while Nettles stays with Husk. A girl searching for her lost dog spots the trolls, leading to a crazed mob invading the forest. Husk takes Nettles to the school for protection, while Munson and Chambliss sneak in upstairs. Husk placates Munson and Chambliss by giving them a husked skin made of gold, and calls Police Chief Authier to disperse the mob. Nettles, the more humane troll, is offered sanctuary at the school, but decides to return to the forest to look after his fellow trolls.

Continuity Notes: This story takes place shortly after the “Heroes Return” relaunch of the mainstream Marvel Universe. At this point in continuity, a mysterious force has left Asgard in ruins.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: One of the carnival attendees is wearing a pot leaf t-shirt. Sounds like someone needs a little trip to…the Fast Lane.

Review: Here’s another standalone Gen X story by Joseph Harris, and it’s certainly an improvement over that Dracula annual. Harris takes advantage of Unlimited’s double-sized format by presenting a three-act story (Gen X has fun at the carnival, Husk and Nettles bond in the forest, and the mob tracks the trolls to the school) that has enough room to comfortably work out each of the ideas. The carnival setting is reminiscent of the early Generation X issues, allowing the characters to have fun and play off each other for a few pages before any of the superhero action begins. Pairing the team with Asgardian trolls is a clever use of the Marvel Universe (I initially assumed Tom DeFalco wrote this story when I read the description, since it sounds like one of his efforts to incorporate the X-characters into the broader Marvel Universe), and Alè Garza certainly does a great job drawing the beasts. I’m also pleased to see the return of Police Chief Authier, a character introduced by Larry Hama that probably didn’t receive a lot of attention after he left the book.

My only real complaint about the issue would be the missing dog subplot. The opening of the story makes it clear that Hannah’s dog, Maxie, was eaten by the trolls. It’s not a pleasant thought, but Harris gets some dark humor out of the trolls’ taste for canine. At the story’s end, Hannah’s mother finally finds her in the mob, claiming that she’s been worried sick since Maxie returned home without her. Huh? Is this woman so dense she can’t recognize her own dog, or did the trolls just happen to eat a different dog named Maxie? Maybe that’s the twist Harris was going for, but it reads as if an editor didn’t paying enough attention to the story’s opening and tacked on a happy ending.

Monday, June 13, 2011

X-MEN/DR. DOOM '98 - December 1998


Credits: Jorge Gonzalez (writer), Aaron Lopestri (penciler), Art Thibert & Jaime Mendoza (inks), Shannon Blanchard (colors), Comicraft’s Dave Lanphear (letters)

Summary: In the past, Dr. Doom learns of the coming of Onslaught from the mystic Seer. Suspecting a connection to Magneto, Doom travels on his Time Platform with the Seer to secretly spy on Magneto at various points in his future. At one point the Seer makes telepathic contact with Onslaught, leading the duo to investigate Professor Xavier’s life. Eventually, Doom battles the Magneto of the present day, before finally reaching the moment of Onslaught’s creation. As the darkness inside Magneto invades Xavier’s consciousness, Doom tries to steal its power with his absorption module. The nascent Onslaught entity responds by sending Doom and the Seer back to the past. Doom is satisfied with the knowledge he’s obtained, and kills the Seer to keep it for himself.

Continuity Notes: The framing sequence of this story takes place shortly after Magneto invaded Santo Marco in the original X-Men #4. At one point in the issue, Doom arrives in the “Days of Future Past” timeline. The presence of the Sentinels inspires him to create his own robots.

Review: It’s always a dodgy proposition when creators predict the future of their characters, especially in corporate-owned comics. The writer doesn’t know if he’ll be on the book three months from now, let alone twenty years in the future, and there’s no way of telling which new cast members will join a series, or which characters will be killed off or resurrected by editorial fiat. There’s a reason why Stacy X isn’t on one of those posters behind Wolverine on the cover of Uncanny X-Men #141, aside from the fact that everyone hates her.

Gonzalez escapes this trap by setting the story far in the past of Marvel continuity, guaranteeing that his visions of the future are absolutely accurate, since they’ve already happened. As much as fans might’ve complained about the “Onslaught” crossover, within the context of the Marvel Universe, it’s entirely feasible that Onslaught’s the type of omnipotent entity that would give a mystic soothsayer fits. It’s not like he’s going to predict the dawning of the Age of Humbug, after all. Gonzalez has selected a series of “greatest hits” from UXM, mainly hitting on the Claremont issues, which will likely please most longtime fans. There’s always a chance that referencing an old story can make yours look weak in comparison, but Gonzalez writes an entertaining Doom and Lopestri’s art is strong enough to compete with the original stories.

The continuity issues are danced around by allowing Doom to remain cloaked during most of the adventures, with only Phoenix and Onslaught making brief detections. The official line used to be that time travel is supposed to automatically create an alternate reality in the Marvel Universe, but even if this trip didn’t alter reality, there’s no impact Doom’s presence could’ve made on the time periods he visited. The only question now is why Doom didn’t go through with the promise he makes at the end of the story to use this information to his advantage. If we’re to believe that the Dr. Doom of the mainstream Marvel Universe knew of the coming of Onslaught years in advance, why did he so rarely interact with Xavier and Magneto? Why was he so unprepared for the emergence of Onslaught? Why couldn’t he prevent his own sacrifice, which helped to destroy the entity? I realize that erasing Doom’s knowledge of the future at the story’s end would’ve been a cheat, but allowing him to keep the information creates its own set of problems.

Friday, June 10, 2011

GENERATION X/DRACULA ‘98 - December 1998

Children of the Night

Credits: Joseph Harris (writer), Tomm Coker & Troy Hubbs (art), Comicraft (letters), Felix Serrano (colors)

Summary: Chamber is haunted by strange dreams, as Dracula takes refuge in an abandoned church not far from Gen X’s school. While watching a movie with Synch and Banshee, Chamber is attacked by one of Dracula’s thralls in the theater's bathroom. Meanwhile, Dracula slips into the mansion and kidnaps Husk. The team unites and tracks Dracula to the church. Husk is rescued, but Chamber is stunned when Dracula restores his missing body parts. Following Husk’s lead, Chamber rejects Dracula’s influence and opens the curtains. Dracula evaporates in the sun, and the church collapses. Husk assures Chamber that this wasn’t “real,” unaware of the bite marks on his arm.

Continuity Notes: While synching Banshee’s sonic powers, Synch asks Banshee how he talks while “doing this.” I believe the official explanation is that Banshee cannot talk while using his sonic scream (see the opening of Uncanny X-Men #255), but due to the odd mechanics of word balloons, it often appears that he is speaking. Another example of strange word balloon mechanics would be characters reciting entire speeches while leaping in mid-air, which I didn’t really notice as a kid until Wizard made fun of Jim Lee for doing it in WildC.A.T.S. (EDIT: A commenter has informed me this scene was actually in Cyberforce.)

Review: I’m starting to wonder about the editing of Marvel’s 1998 annuals. Not only did the ’98 Uncanny X-Men annual duplicate a scene from a recent X-Men issue, but now Generation X is recycling the 1997 annual. I can’t blame anyone for forgetting the ’97 annual, as it was dreadful even by annual standards, so here’s a recap: Chamber discovers the rest of Generation X acting odd, which he soon learns is due to D’Spayre, who later restores Chamber’s original body as a part of his scheme to…do something. The 1998 annual has Generation X questioning Chamber’s odd behavior, which they soon learn is due to Dracula, who later restores Chamber’s original body as a part of his scheme to…do something. I realize it could be difficult to keep up with every X-title published, even within the span of a few years, but shouldn’t your current annual not duplicate the basic plot from just the previous year?

Overlooking the similar plots, the story still has major issues. While the pairing of Generation X and Dracula is a creative use of Marvel continuity, the characters aren’t given any real reason to be in the same story together. Dracula apparently just likes mutant blood, and has selected Chamber as his ideal target. Why exactly he’s wasting so much time entering Chamber’s dreams, teasing him with ideas of how “the powerful” should behave, is unclear. Maybe Dracula honestly views Chamber as more than just a hamburger, but the story never explains why he’s so interested in Chamber, or what his future plans for him would be. There’s more than enough text in this comic, unfortunately most of it’s wasted on tedious gothic narration rather than clarifying the villain’s motivation.

The ending is also a mess, as apparently the cast refuses to believe that their fight with Dracula was real, even though they’re standing in the ruins of the church that was destroyed during their fight. (Why would Dracula evaporating in the sun destroy the church, anyway?) Or is it only Chamber’s metamorphosis that was never “real”? Who can tell. And while I realize the non-ending that hints that Chamber might now be a vampire is a nod to the horror movies that inspired the story, it’s not a great way to end what’s essentially annual filler. I’ve gone through the comic three times and can’t find when exactly he was supposed to be bitten, anyway. So, as a story, this is just as disappointing as the previous annual it unintentionally imitated, but thankfully the art isn’t another bland Jim Lee rehash. Tomm Coker and Troy Hubbs fit the mood perfectly, and rival even Chris Bachalo when it comes to drawing Chamber.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

CABLE #62 - December 1998

Strange Agencies

Credits: Joe Casey (writer), Ladronn (penciler), Vlasco/Milgrom/Palmiotti/Koblish (inks), Gloria Vasquez (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Summary: The Nemesis Robots are activated, but unexpectedly turn against SHIELD. Adopting the personalities of Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos, the robots mistakenly attack SHIELD agents, believing them to be Nazis. Nick Fury arrives, and with Cable’s help, the robots are defeated. When Cable attempts to repair the Helicarrier’s damaged turbine chamber, he’s attacked by Jack Truman, who wants to prove he’s the better warrior. A collapsing turbine falls on Truman, leaving his damaged body in the hands of SHIELD’s Extechop division. Due to Irene’s exposé, published in the Daily Bugle, the rogue SHIELD agents are uncovered. Nick Fury promises the public he’s taking back the reigns of SHIELD.

Continuity Notes: Cable has regained full access to his telekinetic power, quietly putting an end to the latest techno-organic virus subplot. Since X-Man was also allowed to keep his TK powers following “Psi-War,” it would seem the editors realized quickly that not every character could lose all of their psi-powers, especially the ones headlining their own books.

Review: This ending felt like it came out of left field the first time I finished this arc, and having read it again, my feelings haven’t changed. An extended storyline dedicated to Cable being hunted by rogue SHIELD agents, experimented on, and confronting a soldier determined to prove his mettle against a mutant ends with…zany robots spouting Silver Age dialogue and destroying the Helicarrier? Maybe Casey’s trying to make the point that modern-day SHIELD is behaving like the Nazis Nick Fury originally fought, but that feels too heavy for the tone of this story. Even accepting that Casey had a legitimate reason for going in this direction, the story never explains why the robots have assumed the identities of the original Howling Commandos. Yeah, some of the dialogue is funny, but where is this coming from? Adding to the confusion is the robot that assumes Cyclops’ persona when it encounters Cable. Maybe SHIELD downloaded some personality profiles of old soldiers into the robots’ databases, but where is Cyclops coming from? Cable doesn’t have telepathy at this point, so he can’t be projecting anything into the robot’s programming, and there’s no inherent telepathy in the T-O virus, so the robot couldn’t be reading Cable’s mind either.

After the robot wackiness calms down, Casey returns to Jack Truman’s story. Truman still comes across as a thin persona -- he’s obsessed with proving that he’s the best, but wants a fair fight. Conveniently, Cable’s regained his telekinetic powers and isn’t near-death anymore, so Truman’s now ready to prove how great he truly is. This requires him to stupidly pick a fight in an exploding engine room, which ends with a tepid action scene and another plot convenience that puts the character in place for the upcoming Deathlok series. I’m sure Casey did much more with Truman in Deathlok, but he’s still little more than a cipher at this stage. And that epic battle he wanted so badly from Cable lasts all of three pages by the arc’s end. None of the payoffs in this finale are satisfying, and even the art suffers under rushed, inconsistent inking.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

EXCALIBUR #123 - August 1998

Lost & Found - The Search Part Two

Credits: Ben Raab (writer), Trevor Scott (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters), Kevin Tinsley (colors)

Summary: Excalibur fights the erratic Mimic, who fends off the team’s attacks. Following Nightcrawler’s orders, Douglock uses his techno-organic coils to shock Mimic with electricity. Mimic is stunned into submission, and the telekinetic dome surrounding the Zero Tolerance outpost disappears. The Prime Sentinels escape, with at least one Sentinel expressing gratitude to Excalibur. Meanwhile, Meggan prepares for her wedding to Brian Braddock. She asks Moira if she should reveal to Brian the crush she developed on Nightcrawler during his absence.

Continuity Notes: According to Brian, his Captain Britain powers still haven’t returned. His fear that Meggan would reject him without his powers was the main reason he stayed away from the team for so long.

Review: Excalibur is only a few issues away from cancellation, so Raab has begun to set the stage for the finale. Brian and Meggan are now making real plans for their long-delayed wedding, while Shadowcat tries to reassure a dubious Nightcrawler that Excalibur still has a reason to exist. In-between the conversations, the team gets beaten up by Mimic for a few pages. The fight scene is mainly there to fulfill the action quota, although Raab slips in a bit of characterization for one Prime Sentinel. The unnamed cyborg prevents her fellow Prime Sentinels from killing Excalibur while the team is distracted, condemns Bastion for tricking her into becoming a Sentinel, and renounces her own prejudice as she flies off into freedom. I don’t think anything else was done with this character (years later, Chris Claremont will introduce another sympathetic Prime Sentinel), but I appreciate the attempt to humanize at least one O:ZT participant. The rest of the issue is by-the-numbers action/subplot juggling, although Raab’s dialogue isn’t as awkward as the previous issue, so it’s an easier read.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-FACTOR #149 - September 1998

Times Change

Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), James Fry (penciler), Scott Koblish (inker), Comicraft (letters), Glynis Oliver (colors)

Summary: Havok calls Cyclops to make amends, as Greystone works on a time machine. Archer decides to leave the team to take care of Jude Black’s family, while the remaining members of X-Factor and the XUE meet. Havok proposes a new X-Factor that will stop super powered criminals and aid the public. Greystone suddenly lashes out at Madrox, and then returns to work on his time machine. Fixx realizes that he’s suffering from temporal insanity. Havok sneaks onboard Greystone’s vehicle and tries to talk to him. Suddenly, the unstable craft explodes.

Creative Differences: X-Factor was originally supposed to go to issue #150 and beyond. A Marvel house ad earlier in the year even promised that #150 would resolve the mystery of Graydon Creed’s killer.

We Get Letters: The letters page is still vague about the future of the title, even though this is the last issue. The editors boast about Tom Raney, the new regular artist, and encourage readers to come back next month to see more of (presumably) Archer’s redemption. However, a blurb on the bottom of the page announces that X-Factor subscriptions will be carried over to X-Men. Why exactly the subscriptions didn’t carry over to the replacement series Mutant X is unclear, but this does lead some credence to the theory that Mutant X was originally intended as a miniseries. Some of the details surrounding X-Factor’s odd cancellation are covered in this edition of Comic Book Legends Revealed, with the editor providing some more information in the comments thread.

Review: After a twelve-year run, this is how X-Factor says goodbye. No retrospective, no tribute to the past, no massive finale that sends the series off on a high note…just more aimless wandering followed by a tacked-on explosion on the final page. The characters still have the personality of oatmeal, the scripting is still dull and occasionally robotic, and of course, virtually none of the mysteries introduced during Howard Mackie’s run have been resolved. This is what happens when a book is kept alive by completists; it sells well enough to stay afloat, but isn’t a high enough priority for editorial to pay it too much attention. I can’t imagine anyone at Marvel was thrilled with the previous three years of this book, but since it wasn’t losing money, it’s allowed to continue with virtually the same creative team under a new name. And, to be fair, the early issues of Mutant X sold fairly well and received decent reviews. However, it wasn’t long before the book slid down the charts, as the stories and characterizations became increasingly arbitrary and occasionally just ridiculous. The fans who suffered through the final years of X-Factor could’ve seen this coming, yet Marvel allowed Mutant X to creep along for years. A brand new regime at Marvel is what it eventually took to end this nonsense. And, if we’re to believe the rumors, “New Marvel” gave Howard Mackie another chance with The Brotherhood. That’s a book that’s been largely forgotten, but it’s another poorly received, for-completists-only title with nonsensical plots and no direction. Mercifully, this one died after only twelve issues.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CABLE#61 - Late November 1998

Captive Audience

Credits: Joe Casey (writer), Ladronn (penciler), Juan Vlasco (inker), Gloria Vasquez (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Clay Quartermain meets with Horatio Belgrade, the SHIELD scientist who’s been given Cable’s body. Belgrade surgically removes a portion of Cable’s techno-organic virus and introduces it into the Nemesis Robots, hoping to develop a superior artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Blaquesmith helps Irene reach G. W. Bridge, who’s discovered the plot within SHIELD to steal Cable’s techno-organics. Jack Truman also learns of the conspiracy, and in response, defiantly frees Cable from his bonds. With the telepathic coaching of Blaquesmith, Cable regains access to his telekinesis and awakes ready to fight.

Miscellaneous Note: The Statement of Ownership lists average sales for the year at 94,050 with the most recent issue selling 77,374 copies.

Review: Hey, Cable’s gotten a haircut. Despite the horrific human experimentation he’s endured, Cable should at least be thankful to SHIELD for shaving that horrible ‘90s boy band hairstyle. With the exception of one Greg Capullo pin-up, I believe this is the first time someone’s taken the obvious step and given Cable a military buzz cut. In non-hair related news, this issue continues the “Nemesis Contract” storyline, as the cavalry begins to arrive for Cable, and the exact nature of the Nemesis Project is revealed. It turns out that the elaborate conspiracy responsible for kidnapping Cable and hiding him from Nick Fury merely amounts to a plot to animate a few robots. They’re drawn spectacularly well by Ladronn, along with the rest of the Kirby-tech, but it’s a fairly pedestrian plan. Within the context of the Marvel Universe, these rogue SHIELD agents might as well have been developing a new coffee maker with the T-O virus. Casey is able to build up some anticipation for Cable’s inevitable comeback, and he’s still giving Ladronn some cool things to draw, but I’m more than ready for this arc to end.

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-MAN #41-#42, August-September 1998

Outta Nowhere

Credits: Terry Kavanagh (writer), Roger Cruz (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Comicraft (letters), Mike Thomas (colors)

Roger Cruz returns as the regular artist, an event commemorated by the letters page running three negative letters about ChrisCross in a row. One letterhack is even “ashamed” for X-Man, having to endure an interpretation by a lesser artist than Cruz. I’m often ashamed for X-Man for merely existing, but to each his own. I doubt there was a conspiracy to make ChrisCross look bad, the editors probably just wanted to make Cruz’s return seem like a response to overwhelming reader demand, but it is strange to read such negative mail in a ‘90s Marvel letter column. The worst criticism Terry Kavanagh gets is along the lines of “This book seems to have lost focus lately, but I can’t wait to see what happens next!” and that’s on the rare occasion Kavanagh receives anything but euphoric praise. And, not to be a jerk, but I have to say these kids are out of their minds. ChrisCross can draw circles around the Roger Cruz of this era.

The story picks up shortly after the previous issue, as the mysterious Witness (or just “Ness”) continues his search for X-Man. He comes across the Gauntlet interrogating a group of scientists who were just rescued from the Great Beasts by X-Man. Ness tricks the armored men into leaving, and is soon horrified when he sees the strange metal the scientists have discovered. He destroys it and exists dramatically. So, mystery man outsmarts a group of mystery men, then freaks out over a mystery metal. Who could possibly complain about these subplots?

Meanwhile, Madelyne Pryor has somehow teleported X-Man to the Swiss chateau where they first met. After a few pages of creepy cuddling that verges on incest, X-Man suddenly realizes that Threnody’s ability to drain energy from the dying could help him with his powers. Threnody’s been virtually forgotten for almost two years at this point, and the idea that her powers can work on X-Man since he’s slowly dying is a stretch, but I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Her exit was never clearly explained, and she’s certainly a better love interest for X-Man than, you know, his mother. Speaking of which, Madelyne senses X-Man searching for Threnody in the Astral Plane (or “psi-plane,” or “psi-dimension,” as Kavanagh alternately calls it) and grows insanely jealous. She fights X-Man for a few pages before he suddenly collapses. A footnote points to the “Psi-War” storyline for details, mistakenly listing Uncanny X-Men #358, the Bishop/Deathbird spotlight issue, as one of the chapters. Considering how chaotic the X-office was during this era, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Psi-War” was originally supposed to cross over with Uncanny X-Men. Anyway, it’s time for X-Man to deal with the “telepathic blindness” Marvel editorial half-heartedly enforced in 1998. And, surely, this marks the end of X-Man’s ridiculous relationship with Madelyne Pryor…right?

Rainbow’s End

Credits: Terry Kavanagh (writer), Roger Cruz (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Comicraft (letters), Mike Thomas (colors)

Two weeks have passed since the previous issue, and a “mindblind” X-Man has made his way to Ireland. X-Man must now adjust to merely being the world’s most powerful telekinetic, as opposed to being the world’s most powerful telepath and telekinetic. Madelyne Pryor disappeared after their battle in the Astral Plane, but unfortunately for those of us with an anti-incest bias, she resurfaces in Ireland. The narrative captions point out once again that Maddie is X-Man’s genetic mother, and once again the readers have to endure several pages of the duo flirting with one another. When a few girls who aren’t related to X-Man hit on him in a bar, Madelyne retaliates by approaching a group of men who aren’t related to her, either. This isn’t spite, it’s healthy. For the love of God, keep making each other mad.

The action comes from a cluster of…cybernetic bugs, I guess, that are causing earthquakes in the countryside. Ness finally runs into X-Man as the bugs attack and prompts him to “think bigger.” I’m not sure what exactly happens in the next sequence, but apparently X-Man launches a mental assault from the skies that ends the attacks. Ness and Madelyne search for X-Man after the quakes stop, but can’t find him. A little more information is given on Ness, as Madelyne recognizes him as a figure “hiding in the shadows” during X-Man’s vision of his own death. That was worth a four-month wait, wasn’t it? I guess I should be glad one minor mystery is almost resolved, though.

Ness’ arc seems like the only idea Kavanagh has any real interest in exploring, as the Threnody and Gauntlet subplots continue to appear and reappear at random. As for the doctor who somehow gained a portion of X-Man’s powers, and the three “bad girls” from New York, I’m assuming their stories can officially go in the “dropped subplot” category at this point. And, seriously, how much longer does this Madelyne Pryor nonsense last? Did Kavanagh ever even connect her back to the long-running Hellfire Club subplot he abandoned ages ago?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

WOLVERINE #132 - December 1998

A Rage in the Cage

Credits: Fabian Nicieza (writer), Lenil Francis Yu (penciler), Tadeo/Koblish/Elmer/Candelario (inks), Comicraft (letters), Jason Wright (colors)

Summary: Wolverine discovers that one of the X-Men’s neighbors, Bob Higgins, is wanted for the murder of his wife. Higgins has escaped with his son Richie, leading Wolverine to stalk their trail to a nearby airport. Meanwhile, the police investigate the suspiciously small fingerprints left on the murder weapon. They discover Richie is the killer. After Wolverine confronts Higgins at the airport, he learns the story. During a fight, Jane Higgins pulled a gun on her abusive husband. Richie hit her with a shovel before she could shoot, inadvertently causing her neck to break. As Higgins is arrested, Wolverine declares that Richie isn’t the true killer.

Continuity Notes: Bob Higgins is the abusive drunk from Wolverine #91, who Wolverine nearly killed in a feral state.

Review: After five years of completism, this was the first issue of Wolverine I skipped as a teenager. It didn’t seem like a bad comic at all, but it was clearly a fill-in. After a solid year of filler, including a few issues that shipped biweekly, perhaps to make up for the lack of a 1998 Wolverine annual, I was burned out on Wolverine. I was willing to give Erik Larsen a shot whenever his run began, but I wasn’t going to buy any more fill-ins. Of course, as it turns out, I missed the best Wolverine issue in years.

The issue doesn’t read like an inventory story, partly because it picks up on a plot thread from Larry Hama’s run, but also because it marks Fabian Nicieza’s return to Marvel. Nicieza didn’t stay at Marvel for long after his departure from the X-books, as he was hired to revamp Valiant/Acclaim Comics in 1996. Acclaim couldn’t last in the post-implosion comics market, but as editor-in-chief, Nicieza produced a respectable line of comics, featuring creators such as Kurt Busiek, Christopher Priest, Kevin Maguire, Ashley Wood, Mark Waid, and Barry Kitson. This is Nicieza’s return to the X-universe, and while it’s a quiet reentry, it’s notable that one of the head writers of the ‘90s has returned. Nicieza goes on to deliver a solid run on Gambit’s first regular series, disappears from the X-books for a while, and then returns with the excellent Cable & Deadpool.

Despite his lengthy stint within the X-universe, Nicieza’s barely touched the character of Wolverine. Wolverine was certainly around during Nicieza’s run, even getting his adamantium skeleton ripped out in X-Men #25, but Nicieza rarely centered a story on him. This issue proves he does know how to write the character, as Wolverine is given a believable personality that doesn’t rely on catchphrases or any of the other lazy clichés associated with the character. Wolverine had a chance to kill Higgins months earlier, and was even proud that he didn’t slice his throat because he thought it proved to Xavier that his humanity isn’t totally gone. Now, he regrets allowing the abuser to live, giving his narration a proper amount of guilt without going overboard on the angst. The twist comes when we learn the true identity of the killer, and thankfully Nicieza doesn’t blow the story with the revelation. Lesser writers would’ve revealed Richie has secretly been a sadist obsessed with killing his mother for years as the "dark" twist. Nicieza makes it clear this was an accident. The villain is still clearly the father, and Wolverine still has to live with the guilt that he didn’t do enough to help the Higgins when he had the chance. It’s one of the better standalone issues of the series, and it’s a shame the other fill-ins from this era aren’t nearly as good.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

CABLE #60 - November 1998

Atlas Burned

Credits: Joe Casey (writer), Ladronn (penciler), Juan Vlasco (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters), Gloria Vasquez (colors)

Summary: Agent 18, a.k.a. Jack Truman, receives unwelcome backup from SHIELD’s air cavalry. Led by the reckless Larry Young, the air cavalry chases Cable throughout Hell’s Kitchen, destroying buildings and endangering civilians. After Cable rescues a homeless man from a burning building, he’s confronted again by Agent 18. Weakened by the battle and his uncontrolled techno-organic virus, Cable collapses. Meanwhile in Washington, G. W. Bridge suspects a conspiracy within SHIELD. Administrator Seth Waters arrogantly dismisses his concerns.

Review: After Jack Truman’s slow build-up in the last issue, he takes a backseat to an even less likable SHIELD agent (and apparently, another future Deathlok), Larry Young. Young’s a stereotypical government bully who doesn’t care about harming innocents in order to get what he wants, and apparently lives in a fantasy world where there are no repercussions to his insane actions. It’s an extremely shallow characterization, and since the story still hasn’t established why exactly the SHIELD rank and file should care so much about exploiting Cable’s techno-organics, it’s hard not to view him as a cartoon character. Truman redeems himself a bit when he grows suspicious of what exactly his superiors are planning for Cable, and G. W. Bridge has begun to investigate the conspiracy, so there is at least an acknowledgment that the entire organization isn’t corrupt. The story would probably work better if SHIELD had a more legitimate reason to pursue Cable, since Ladronn is doing a great job on the Kirby-tech and incessant explosions, while the conspiracy material drags.

Casey seems to be borrowing from two of Frank Miller’s works, “Born Again” and “Year One” during the extended chase sequence. “Born Again” had a rogue government agent carelessly destroy parts of Hell’s Kitchen, while “Year One” had Batman cornered by corrupt police officers in an abandoned, burning building (Batman saved a cat after the homeless person died in “Year One”). Perhaps he didn’t intend these scenes as Miller tributes, but they’re so familiar it’s hard not to notice the similarities. Not surprisingly, Casey can’t match Miller’s original work, but Ladronn’s art distracts from the unoriginality, which is the role he’s been playing for the larger story arc at this point.

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