Friday, May 29, 2015

NEW MUTANTS FOREVER #5 – February 2011

Shall We Rise Again?
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Al Rio (penciler), Bob McLeod (inker), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Guru eFX (colorist)

Summary:  Tiberius leads the Red Skull’s former army against Selene, the New Mutants, and the Nova Roman freedom fighters.  The fighters turn against Selene when Tiberius releases a wave of energy that forces them to join his side.  During the battle, Warlock slips away to free Sunspot from prison, but Tiberius possesses Sunspot as soon as he enters the fight.  The tide is turned when Cypher breaks from his mental conditioning and attacks Tiberius.  While he’s weakened, the Red Skull fatally shoots Tiberius from his escaping jet.  Magma and the citizens are freed from Tiberius’ control, and the X-Men soon arrive with Magma’s father.  Later, at the X-Men’s mansion, Warlock uses his techno-organic powers to purge Cypher’s body of poison and return him to normal.  Shadowcat comments that the two are truly brothers now.

Continuity Notes:  Tiberius’ powers are never explained, but he’s seemingly able to release an energy that can possess and/or brainwash people.  He also exhibits what appears to be pyrokinetic powers during his fight with Selene.

Review:  So…that was not a satisfying conclusion.  There are a thousand holes that can be punched into this closing chapter, and for brevity’s sake, I’ll list them in the bullet point format.  
  • Going back to the previous issue, where did Warlock disappear to after he encouraged Cypher to make his move against the Red Skull?  I assumed this would be resolved in the final chapter, but instead the story picks up (presumably) days later, as Tiberius has commandeered the Red Skull’s army and launched an attack on the rebels and the New Mutants.  What did Warlock have to do last issue that was so important he couldn’t help Cypher out?
  • While on the subject, why does Warlock wait until now to free Sunspot?  Following the timeline of the story, it seems as if he could’ve done this days ago.
  • More mind control?  I recall Claremont saying that he was avoiding mind control as a plot device while writing the early issues of X-Men Forever.  I didn’t expect him to totally kick the habit, but I didn’t think he would have two separate villains use the same gimmick in two different circumstances in one miniseries, either.
  • What’s the deal with Tiberius anyway?  If he’s so powerful, why did he allow the Red Skull to take him captive in the first place?
  • The Red Skull is brushed out of the story as an afterthought, which is a shame since Claremont never really took advantage of the character during the mini.  His justification for simply leaving Nova Roma implies that he actually respects the New Mutants as opponents and is going to allow them this victory, which is wildly out of character.  
  • And I’m guessing the Red Skull is somehow the Marvel Universe’s greatest sharpshooter, given that he’s able to nail Tiberius with one fatal shot while hanging out of the side of a passing jet.
  • I have no real complaints about Al Rio’s art, and Bob McLeod does a great job keeping the cast recognizable and on-model.  However, there is an utterly random page dedicated to a pissed Warlock, emerging from the ground after being struck by the brainwashed Sunspot, that isn’t paid off at all.  I don’t know what happened to the storytelling here.
  • Another mind control gripe…this is a story that clearly should be about Magma, yet she’s been brainwashed since the second issue.  (By two separate characters, no less.)  She’s not allowed any real reaction to the events of the story, even though she’s the character with the deepest emotional investment in the entire affair.
  • Selene, somehow, has redeemed herself to Amara and actually has a sweet family reunion with Magma and Senator Aquilla in the final pages.  That’s just insane.  The previous issues have fleshed out Selene as a character, true, but her motivation for helping Nova Roma remains pure selfishness.  Even if the story successfully sold the idea of a reformed Selene (something I wouldn’t want to see anyway), Magma hasn’t been conscious to see it.  Why has she suddenly dropped her blood feud against her grandmother?
  • Remember the scene featuring Wolfsbane near death in the first issue, with Mirage fighting to protect her from Hela?  Apparently, I’m the only one, since it’s not resolved in the final chapter.

Going through the list of questionable decisions and outright mistakes, it’s difficult to pretend that anything in the final issue is going to save this plot.  I will say that the New Mutants still feel like the characters Claremont wrote back in the ‘80s, and I’m glad some of the more outrageous elements from X-Men Forever haven’t been repeated here.  (Captain America wasn’t killed off, for example.)  And the ending with Warlock and Cypher is a decent example of an old Jim Shooter “I can’t, yet I must” conflict and a Claremontian bonding scene.  But, wow, what a poorly conceived conclusion.  If you’re a fan of the original New Mutants series, I would argue the miniseries is still worth your time, but you’re better off if you don’t think too hard during the final twenty pages.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

NEW MUTANTS FOREVER #4 - January 2011

Living -- A Nightmare!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Al Rio (penciler), Bob McLeod (inker), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Guru eFX (colorist)

Summary:  Warlock recognizes Cypher’s fighting style and realizes the truth.  Magma, still brainwashed, arrives and attacks Warlock.  He retreats and reunites with Cannonball and Magik.  They join Selene and the Nova Roman rebels in battle against the Red Skull’s genetically altered army.  After stopping one wave of soldiers, Warlock returns to Cypher’s room and encourages him to make a move against the Red Skull.  While sneaking through the Skull’s guards, Cypher is joined by Tiberius, who claims that he’s also rejected the Red Skull’s programming.  Cypher uses his newly enhanced reflexes to defeat the Red Skull, but is soon ambushed by Magma.  Tiberius reemerges at Magma’s side, places Cypher on a chain, and declares the future is his.

Continuity Notes:  One of the rebels tells Cannonball the story of Spanish explorers arriving in Nova Roma in the 1500s, who were later killed by Selene when they attempted to conquer the land.  He also claims that Selene had her son, Magma’s father, placed in prison years earlier as punishment for his political actions.

Review:  So, Tiberius turns out to be a sleeper villain.  I suppose that’s a legitimate use for the character, and in all honesty, I didn’t see that ending coming.  However, it’s hard to deny that this storyline is starting to drag.  I can understand why Claremont would want to use Nova Roma again in a New Mutants retro-project, but did the entire miniseries have to be about Nova Roma?  The first issue made a point to feature all of the cast and at least pay some acknowledgment to most of the ongoing storylines.  Instead of following up on Magneto and his uneasy alliance with the Hellfire Club, or Mirage’s new role as a Valkyrie, or the team’s feelings about Magik’s connection to Limbo, the miniseries has turned into all Nova Roma all the time.  Even the new plot introduced in the first issue, Wolfsbane’s serious injury and Mirage’s attempts to keep Hela away, has been ignored in favor of more Nova Roma material.  Judged on its own merits, this issue isn’t so bad -- Cypher has a nice, angsty monologue about his new appearance, past Nova Roma continuity is clarified a bit (as Claremont reveals that some people did discover Nova Roma over the years; Selene just killed them) and I like back-from-the-dead Warlock’s redesign.  By the standards of a Nova Roma story, not bad material, but Nova Roma was never the strongest aspect of New Mutants, and it’s disappointing that other elements of the title aren’t being addressed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

NEW MUTANTS FOREVER #3 – December 2010

To Sacrifice Selene?!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Al Rio (penciler), Bob McLeod (inker), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Guru eFX (colorist)

Summary:  Cypher, Magma, and Tiberius, joined by the female Skull, face the New Mutants.  During the battle, Cypher and Magma combine forces to bury Warlock underground.  Selene is injected with the Skull serum and Sunspot is taken captive.  After retreating to Limbo, Selene returns to Nova Roma with Cannonball and Magik.  A soldier, Marius, volunteers his life to Selene so that she can absorb his essence and fight the Skull serum.  Elsewhere, Cypher is trained as the Red Skull’s protégé.  When left alone to reflect at night, he breaks free of the Skull’s brainwashing.  Suddenly, Warlock enters his room, seeking vengeance for Cypher’s life, unaware the young Skull is Cypher.

Continuity Notes:  The Skull serum grants Cypher fingernail-claws, which he uses to “kill” Warlock in the opening scene.  The unnamed female Skull is also killed by Selene shortly after she injects Selene with the serum.

Review:  Another familiar plot element from Claremont’s work, the young hero taken on as the villain’s protégé, makes its way into the series.  I have a hard time fully investing in the Doug Ramsey as Red Skull, Jr. plot; the image of a skinny, teenage Red Skull just isn’t that intimidating, and there doesn’t seem to be enough room in the story to give Doug a convincing character arc from hero to villain to back.  The opening sequence is nicely executed, however.  If you’re a fan of the original series, you’ll understand the significance of Doug stabbing his best friend Warlock, declaring him an “obscenity,” and leaving him for dead under the earth.  

Claremont also works in an element of his writing I wanted to see more of in the Forever books – the contemplative inner monologue.  The story slows down for a few pages in order to turn the focus on Selene, who questions her previous treatment of Nova Roma and wonders if she’s ever viewed its citizens as more than chattel.  Her soliloquy doesn’t end with Selene renouncing her ways, she merely decides that the citizens of Nova Roma are hers, regardless of the reason, and she isn’t going to let the Red Skull rule them.  I don’t recall Claremont ever putting that much effort into fleshing out Selene, who previously only seemed to appear as an evil priestess/S&M fantasy, and the story is that much better with her as a more believable protagonist.  She’s still clearly a villain, but Claremont’s added some nuance to her characterization, so her desire to maintain power over Nova Roma feels less like an obligatory plot point.  

We also get a decent example of Claremont’s tendency to have his heroes debate moral quandaries, with Magik and Cannonball arguing the merits of just letting Selene die after she’s infected with the Skull serum.  It’s a brief scene, but Claremont allows Magik and Cannonball to stay true to their established personalities and express their point of view, while Selene offers her own inner commentary on the teenagers during their debate.  (Magik, for what it’s worth, has gone from admiring Selene an issue ago to coldly accepting that the team would probably be better off with her dead.)  Small moments like this are great; I just wish the main storyline could be as entertaining.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

NEW MUTANTS FOREVER #2 – November 2010

Fight – in the Favela!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Al Rio (penciler), Bob McLeod (inker), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Guru eFX (colorist)

Summary:  Sunspot’s mother, Nina da Costa, is pursued by armed men during Carnival.  Sunspot and Warlock are nearby enjoying the festivities when they receive a panicked call from Nina.  They rescue Nina and learn she’s recently escaped from Nova Roma.  Invaders have enslaved Nova Roma, and Nina’s seeking the Brazilian government’s aid.  Meanwhile, Cypher and Magma meet their cellmate, Tiberius Sum, who claims he’s been the Red Skull’s captive for as long as he can remember.  The Red Skull enters, with a female lookalike companion, and injects the teens with a mind-control serum.  Cypher’s treatment also mutates his body into the Red Skull’s mirror image.  Soon, Magik teleports with Cannonball and Selene to Nova Roma, where they run into Sunspot and Warlock.  They’re quickly attacked by Cypher, Magma, and Tiberius Sum.

Continuity Notes:  Sunspot’s mother is an archeologist who has been living in Nova Roma.  She traveled to Brazil with the aid of a teleportation ring, which is only explained by her saying that “Aquilla's people often prove full of surprises.”  I have no idea if this ring is connected to Viper’s teleportation ring.  (Viper faced the New Mutants in an early storyline, and she’s often a pet character of Claremont’s.)

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority:  Al Rio clearly has no problem presenting realistic depictions of skimpy Carnival outfits.

Review:  I didn’t complain about the use of armed goons in the first issue, since it was the opening chapter in the storyline and there was more than enough going on to distract from the bland villains.  Two issues of armed goons in a row, however, is much harder to forgive.  Making matters worse, Claremont’s decided to dedicate the opening ten pages to a fight scene with the generic henchmen, which is slightly ridiculous.  The comic is halfway over before Nina da Costa finally reveals the relevant plot info – Nova Roma has been invaded and she needs help.  The scene then shifts to Magma and Cypher’s prison cell, which introduces yet another teenage protagonist into the story.  Was anyone desperate to meet another young hero during this retro-project?  New Mutants was a book packed with cast members, and unless Claremont has a fantastic plan in store for Tiberius Sum, a part of me is going to assume that he’s eating up space that an established character could be using.  That might not be fair, but Claremont’s occasional tendency to cram his plots with characters and lose track of plotlines he’s already set into motion makes me wary.  This issue also brings us mind-control and a physical alteration of an existing character, for those of you keeping track of Claremont Clichés at home.

All that said, I am curious to see where this is ultimately going.  I think using the Red Skull as a villain is a clever idea; not only because he’s the Marvel Universe’s most famous bigot, but also due to the Nazis’ post-WWII connection to South America.  I don’t know if Claremont is going to establish that Nazis have been hiding out in Nova Roma for decades, but as far as lost Marvel Universe civilizations go, it makes sense that the Red Skull would consider the city a strategic asset.  The potential for a Selene/Red Skull confrontation, or perhaps even a villainous team-up, is also intriguing.  At the very least, this series is paying off the Selene/Magma storyline from the final days of Claremont’s New Mutants run, and the overall tone matches that of the original title.

Monday, May 25, 2015

NEW MUTANTS FOREVER #1 – October 2010

Shadows in the Night!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Al Rio (penciler), Bob McLeod (inker), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Guru eFX (colorist)

Summary:  The New Mutants reluctantly spend the night at the Hellfire Club’s mansion.  Wolfsbane detects conflict nearby in Central Park.  The team soon stops a group of soldiers from killing men in business suits.  Wolfsbane realizes that one of the injured men is Magma’s father.  The team returns to the mansion, and in minutes, armored men attack the Inner Circle.  Selene ends their assault, but the armored men die as soon as Emma Frost psi-probes them.  Nearby, more men kidnap Magma and Cypher.  Wolfsbane is injured in the confrontation.  One of the men is grabbed by Magik and transported to Limbo.  Magik and Cannonball accompany Selene to Limbo, where she interrogates him.  Elsewhere, Magma and Cypher arrive in Nova Roma.  They’re greeted by Nova Roma’s new leader, the Red Skull.

Continuity Notes:   
  • New Mutants Forever is a miniseries set immediately after New Mutants #54, Chris Claremont’s final issue of the series.  Like X-Men Forever, the series was promoted as Claremont’s next chapter in the story.  According to Claremont’s comments online, New Mutants Forever is its own entity and doesn’t take place in X-Men Forever continuity.
  • The New Mutants at this time consist of Cannonball, Cypher, Wolfsbane, Magik, Mirage, and Magma.  Magneto is the headmaster, following Xavier’s injuries in Uncanny X-Men #200.  Sunspot and Warlock are missing at this point, due to events in the Fallen Angels miniseries, and Karma has left to take care of her siblings.
  • Mirage, who is now a Valkyrie, has visions of Hela, who wants to take Wolfsbane away to Valhalla.
  • The team is staying at the Hellfire Club’s mansion following the events of New Mutants #54.  Magneto has followed Storm’s advice and joined the Inner Circle, in an effort to protect the X-Men from the Marauders and other threats.
  • New costumes for the team debut after Magik teleports them to Central Park.  She’s conjured them up on a whim.  The Hellfire Club guards are also wearing slightly altered outfits that look more like armor than spandex.
  • Cannonball’s Southern accent has been toned down, to the point that he says “I” instead of “Ah.”
  • Magma’s father looks around twenty years younger and several pounds lighter than I recall from his initial appearances.
  • A text piece in the back of the issue recaps the events of the New Mutants series up until this point in continuity.  The piece is a nice summary of the book, but I’m going to “um, actually…” and note that it incorrectly states that Xavier and Moira MacTaggart are Legion’s parents.  (It’s Xavier and Gabrielle Haller, for the record.)

“Huh?” Moment:  On the opening page, Magneto is doing a presentation on the New Mutants for the Inner Circle, one that features the team in the new costumes Magik hasn’t created yet.

Gimmicks:  The opening issues of this miniseries have a variant cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.  All of the variants are archived at

Review:  Strange to think that X-Men Forever is only a few months away from cancellation while spinoff projects like this are still emerging.  I don’t recall much of a response to New Mutants Forever, but based on the first issue, it does seem as if Claremont’s making an effort to avoid the reader complaints that plagued X-Men Forever in its early days.  The first issue of the series does honestly pick up right where Claremont’s final New Mutants storyline left off, and Claremont’s taken care to make sure the often-fluctuating team line-up is correct.  (I recall him asking online why exactly Sunspot and Warlock were missing from his final New Mutants issues.)  The only moments that don’t fully connect with the original series are the new Hellfire guard designs, the debut of the new team uniforms, and Cannonball’s subdued accent.  The new costumes are at least given a quickie explanation, and the designs aren’t a total departure from how the audience expects to see the characters (as opposed to the arbitrary redesigns in X-Men Forever).  The Hellfire Club’s goons are also recognizable, and it’s not a stretch to imagine their outfits getting an upgrade in-between issues.  Cannonball’s accent only stands out if you’ve spent the past few weeks rereading old New Mutants comics; it’s possible Claremont’s toned it down due to years of online mockery of his phonetic accents, so I have a hard time getting upset over the change.

The story takes its inspiration from an exchange between Selene and Magma in Claremont’s next-to-last New Mutants issue.  Selene casually revealed to Magma that she is her direct descendant, a plot point that seems to have been forgotten over the years.  New Mutants Forever picks up on the thread and rescues Senator Aquilla from obscurity.  He’s come to New York to warn Magma of…something, and is attacked.  Selene discovers he’s been injured and declares vengeance for her son, confirming that she is in fact Magma’s grandmother.  In the meantime, Magneto is still adjusting to his new role in the Hellfire Club, the team is uneasy with Magik’s demonic nature, Cypher’s too naïve for his own good, and Mirage is defying Hela in order to spare Wolfsbane’s life.  The plot’s dense, and it’s arguable that the story assumes you know a little too much New Mutants continuity, but I think that’s excusable given the nature of the project.  This is a comic for the hardcore fans and any new readers that have discovered the original issues in trade form.  If it’s staying true to the premise, it should read like a “next issue” instead of a “first issue.”  

I know that Claremont’s ideal choice for this miniseries was Bill Sienkiewicz, but his schedule (or Marvel’s pocketbook) only allowed him to illustrate variant covers for the series.  Instead, the pencils are handled by Al Rio, with New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod onboard as inker.  Al Rio would occasionally show up on random assignments like this, and I can’t say I’m disappointed.  I always thought he was one of the better Wildstorm artists, and he meshes well with Bob McLeod.  A few of the figures look a little stiff, but overall the storytelling is clear and the cast is attractively rendered.  New Mutants always seemed to alternate between mainstream, traditional pencilers (McLeod, Buscema, Guice), and experimental surrealists like Sienkiewicz.  Rio is much closer to the first group, and to his credit, he isn’t bringing any influences from the post-1980s into the series.  This honestly looks like a comic that could’ve been published in the mid-‘80s, only with better colors and production techniques.  While the appeal of the series might be somewhat limited to a niche audience, so far, it’s serving that audience very well.

Friday, May 22, 2015

PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN #95 - September 1998

Free Fall
Credits:  Howard Mackie (writer), John Romita, Jr. (penciler), Scott Hanna (inks), Gregory Wright (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Following a recent increase in mob violence, the mayor declares war on guns.  Spider-Man does his part by helping the police stop gun traffickers.  As Peter Parker, he meets Betty Brant at the Daily Bugle to discuss the gun story.  They run into Norman Osborn and his grandson Normie outside of the elevators, shortly before Nitro appears.  Nitro detonates, forcing Peter to shove Betty into the elevator for cover.  The elevator falls to the ground, trapping everyone inside.  After enduring Osborn’s taunts, Peter finally uses his super-strength to move the rubble and enable everyone to escape.  Luckily, Betty is knocked unconscious and Normie looks away, ensuring Spider-Man maintains his secret identity.

The Subplots:  MJ tells Peter that their finances have grown too tight.  She also mentions that Aunt Anna is considering moving back to Florida.  Meanwhile, Kingpin delights in the mayor’s crackdown on guns, boasting that it makes his life easier.  While Osborn is attacked, other crimelords are also targeted by the Kingpin’s hitmen.  Later, Osborn tells a mystery figure on the phone that it’s time for the “gathering of the five” to begin.

Web of Continuity:  Peter has to check into the hospital for broken ribs after escaping the elevator.  While there, Jonah informs him that Fortunato is at the same hospital, near death, following a mysterious attack.  This was perhaps an effort to write Fortunato out of the books, because he seems to disappear after this point.

How Did This Get Published?:  Witness Peter’s speech to Norman on page nineteen.  Yes, it is “painful for us all.”

I Love the ‘90s:  Spider-Man comments on the unnamed mayor of New York’s focus on “quality of life” crimes, which was a staple of Rudy Giuliani’s term as mayor.

Review:  Admittedly, there is a great hook behind the issue.  Peter and Norman trapped in an elevator together, neither one able to reveal his enhanced strength without compromising his secret identity, should’ve been the setup for a fantastic story.  And, by now, is it a shock to learn that the execution doesn’t live up to the premise?  

Howard Mackie had recently been named as the sole current-continuity writer of the titles following the relaunch, so there was more of an effort on Marvel’s part to push his work on this book.  I recall a few online critics picking up this issue after months away from the titles, and the results weren’t pretty.  It was hard to find anyone willing to defend Peter Parker, Spider-Man at this point.  I’m willing to forgive the clumsy opening pages that focus on the gun crackdown; I realize that they’re mainly there to provide a few pages of Spidey-in-costume action and to give Peter an excuse to go to the Bugle.  I’m willing to overlook the shockingly bland characterization Kingpin has received since returning to the titles, since he’s playing a small role this issue.  I’ll even keep my mouth shut when MJ makes yet another comment about how young she and Peter are (MJ is at least less shrewish this issue.)  But don’t dedicate virtually half of your issue to Norman Osborn if you absolutely cannot write Norman Osborn.  This Norman Osborn isn’t clever enough to get underneath anyone’s skin, nor is he particularly intimidating.  He also isn’t the sweaty-browed, borderline loon from the Stan Lee days.  I have no idea what Mackie was going for when scripting Osborn’s dialogue, unless he was honestly under the impression that Osborn is some form of robot.  Then again, practically every cast member in this book now talks in some unnatural, stilted speech pattern.  And those giant blocks of text…not even Tom Orzechowski could make this pretty.  

Even if you’re able to forgive Howard Mackie for not being David Mamet, the plot mechanics of the issue are also a problem.  Yes, we’re presented with a great predicament for Peter to get out of, but the story immediately gives him a series of copouts that kill the drama.  How will Betty respond when she sees Peter lift the girders?  Who knows, since she was knocked out as soon as Nitro exploded.  What will little Normie see?  Nothing, since Peter tells him to turn his head.  Are the security cameras still working?  Let’s check…nope.  They’re not.  So, you’re all clear, Peter.  Give a thoroughly unsatisfying speech and just get the story over with.  I’m not naïve enough to expect Peter’s secret identity to be revealed before the issue’s over, but shouldn’t the story have some tension running through it?  And if Norman Osborn is going to be the main villain of the titles again, shouldn’t he become a compelling antagonist in some way?  And have schemes that consist of more than just throwing little barbs at Peter while they’re in public?  Okay, that last complaint will be dealt with soon enough, but I'd like to meet the human being who thinks "The Gathering of Five" is a classic Norman Osborn story…

Thursday, May 21, 2015

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #438 - September 1998

Seeing is Disbelieving!
Credits:  Tom DeFalco (writer), Scott Kolins (penciler), Gary Martin (inks), Bob Sharen (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Spider-Man responds to a bank’s security alarm and is shocked to discover dinosaurs inside the building.  The dinosaurs abruptly disappear shortly before the police arrive, and Peter Parker later discovers his camera didn’t capture any images of the dinosaurs.  Meanwhile, Matt Murdock is hired by Gilsoft Games to write work-for-hire contracts for the company’s employees.  While at the software studio, Murdock notices employee Angela Bradford seems oddly unfazed by the announcement.  Angela exits and changes into Synario.  Using her Mobile VR Inducer, she constructs a false reality that will create a distraction while she attempts another robbery.  Spider-Man arrives just as Murdock changes into Daredevil.  After an initial misunderstanding, they unite and defeat Synario.  When the owner of Gilsoft Games and Synario argue over who has the rights to the VR Inducer, Spider-Man simply destroys it.

The Subplots:  None.

Web of Continuity:  The name Synario doesn't actually appear in the issue.

I Love the ‘90s:  Spider-Man wonders if the dinosaurs at the bank are related to “Godzilla's big screen return.”

Review:  The second one-shot story in a row with a gratuitous guest star and no character subplots.  Fantastic.  Blatant filler is annoying enough when it shows up in Unlimited or another peripheral spinoff, but how did the flagship title end up in such a sorry state?  And didn’t Daredevil just guest star in this book?  Admittedly, DeFalco has devised a better reason for him to appear in this particular story (DD’s blindness makes him immune from Synario’s virtual reality device), but his presence still adds very little to the issue.  There’s really nothing in the story to make it stand out above any other generic fill-in; even the self-aware references to work-for-hire deals don’t lead anywhere.  Synario’s already a disgruntled employee before she finds out the company plans on “stealing” her work.  She hates her boss for ignoring her in favor of his boy’s club, so the ethics regarding corporate vs. creator-owned work aren’t relevant to her specifically.  Synario’s already robbing banks before Matt Murdock even appears, funding her own game company with the help of her VR device.  And it’s clearly the most advanced virtual reality technology in the world, since it’s the size of a Roomba but is powerful enough to convince a bank that it’s been invaded by dinosaurs.  She should already be rich.  Why is she robbing banks?  And didn’t DeFalco already create a VR-themed villainess called Stunner during the clone days?  

With a story this hopeless, the issue would have to possess an incredible artist to save it.  And to be fair, even though the plot is annoyingly simplistic, it does leave room for an artist to have a blast with the visuals.  Scott Kolins is certainly competent at this stage, but he’s not stylized enough to make the various dinosaurs, robots, and monsters particularly memorable.  This is just a dud all around; best forgotten, which it surely is.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #31 - September 1998

More than a Feelin’
Credits:  Todd Dezago (writer), Mike Wieringo (penciler), Richard Case (inks), Gregory Wright (colors), Comicraft’s Liz Agraphiotis (letters)

The Plot:  The Rhino launches into a rampage, destroying everything in sight.  Spider-Man attempts to stop him, and discovers that Rhino is only doing this in order to provoke the police into hurting him.  Due to the body armor bonded to his skin, he feels no sensation.  Rhino is desperate to feel anything.  During the chaos, the Lothridge School for the Deaf’s bus is trapped in front of downed power cables.  Using the sign for “friend,” Spider-Man calms Hope and her classmates and helps them escape.  He then uses the power cables to knock Rhino unconscious.

The Subplots:  Billy stops by the Parkers’ home and apologizes for being rude to Peter earlier at the Daily Grind.  Billy explains that he’s moving out of New York City to spend time with his sick mother.

Web of Continuity:  
  • This story is based on the premise that the Rhino can’t remove his armor, even though it’s been removed and replaced a few times over the years.  
  • Billy reveals details of his past to Peter.  Billy was an only child, his parents divorced when he was young, and he feels as if his mother blamed him for the divorce.  He’s left the Bugle and is moving back to Port Jervis to be with her.

I Love the ‘90s:  Doing repairs around the house, Peter compares himself to Bob Villa.  MJ counters that he’s more like Tim Allen.

We Get Letters:  The next issue blurb in the letter column lists Mike Wieringo as next issue’s penciler, even though a brief goodbye note for ‘Ringo was published just one page earlier.
Original art from this issue, as seen on

Review:  Todd Dezago sticks around for one more issue (a chapter of the not-fondly-remembered “Gathering of the Five” crossover), but this issue marks his final Sensational collaboration with Mike Wieringo.  I wish I had something poignant to say about their run together, but there aren’t too many ways to say “it’s a fun, lighthearted superhero adventure with nice art.”  There is a bit of historical significance to their run, simply because this style of art was still rare in a mainstream comic of the era, and the emphasis on back-to-basics superheroics makes it an early entry in the neo-Silver Age revival of the late ‘90s.  It’s also worth remembering that the Dezago/Wieringo run had its own cult following, and at least a few fans were adamant that Sensational was the best Spider-Man book of this era and didn’t deserve cancellation.

I wouldn’t say Sensational was the highlight of the post-clone days, but more often than not it was an entertaining read.  I think the title often coasted on Wieringo’s art, making any of the fill-in issues feel a bit shallow, and that the dearth of ongoing character subplots ultimately worked to the book’s disadvantage.  The two major subplots from the Dezago/Wieringo run are resolved this issue, and it’s a bit telling that both of them involve new characters that have yet to be properly fleshed out as strong supporting cast members.  I liked the idea behind Hope’s story and think she and her mother had potential as recurring cast members, but even after several appearances, all we really know about Hope is that she’s a cute kid who happens to be deaf.  Her scene with Spider-Man this issue is great, and a nice payoff to a subplot that began several issues ago, but it’s hard to argue that Hope really needs to appear again.  And Billy Walters…did a real point ever emerge out of this?  Billy’s best scenes were the ones that hammered some guilt into Peter for consistently ditching Billy, but was Billy himself that interesting?  Billy’s arc consists of him being overly friendly, getting his feelings hurt, then making up with Peter before going back home to be with his mother.  A mother, we discover this issue, that seems to be emotionally abusive, or darned close to it.  What kind of an ending is that?  Even if Dezago’s ideas weren’t cut short by the reboot, I have to wonder if Billy would ever evolve past his status as the Daily Bugle’s Jimmy Olsen and stand out as a character in his own right.  

It’s a shame that this title never quite struck the balance between the Spider-Man action and the supporting cast.  With more subplots, and a bit more pathos, this potentially could’ve been a classic run.  As it stands, it’s a pretty good run that shouldn’t be forgotten.  If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I would say it’s worth tracking down.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED #21 - August 1998

A Real Boy
Credits:  Chris Golden (writer), Mike Deodato, Jr. (penciler), Joe Pimentel (inks), John Kalisz (colors), Jack Morelli (letters)

The Plot:  Peter and Betty are sent to the Swiss Alps to cover an event hosted by Dr. Walston Kraft, a scientist who specializes in cloning.  Peter investigates Kraft’s home and discovers Frankenstein’s Monster and Ivan the Hunchback are secretly staying there.  He also learns that Kraft has made dozens of clones of the monster’s body.  Betty’s own investigation leads her to believe that Kraft has a connection to his neighbor, a descendant of the original Doctor Frakenstein, Victoria Frankenstein.  Peter investigates her castle and discovers that she’s been kept prisoner there by Kraft.  She reveals to Peter that Ivan pretended to be the monster’s friend in order to trick him into falling for Kraft’s scheme.  Peter returns to Kraft’s and convinces the monster that Kraft and Ivan are using him.  The monster kills Ivan in his anger, and sets fire to Kraft’s lab.  Peter escapes with the monster, who disappears shortly before Peter can introduce him to Betty.

The Subplots:  None.

Web of Continuity:  I seem to recall Marvel labeling this a “retelling” of Peter’s first meeting with Frankenstein’s Monster, but this is clearly set in current continuity, since Betty is a reporter and Billy Walters is even mentioned.

We Get Letters:  The “Next Issue” box in the letters page accidentally runs a teaser for the Lizard story that ran two issues ago.  The same page also jokes that editor Ralph Macchio isn’t paying attention to what’s going on.

Review:  There’s an odd significance to this issue, since Peter only appears as Spider-Man on the cover.  In the story, he rightly decides that Spider-Man showing up in the Swiss Alps while Peter Parker is traveling there would make ace reporter Betty Brant suspicious, so he forgoes changing into costume.  It’s a perfectly logical decision to make, but it’s strange to read a story that doesn’t go through some form of acrobatics in order to get Peter into costume.  Visually, it’s probably not the best decision, since Mike Deodato, Jr. is forced to spend the majority of the issue drawing Peter in what appear to be black long johns.  I wonder now if Deodato was hired for this job after he successfully channeled Gene Colan in Spectacular Spider-Man a few months back.  Unfortunately, this issue doesn’t look much better than the average issue of Unlimited, which may or may not be due to the fact that Deodato isn’t inking his own work.  (It just occurred to me that Marvel could’ve gotten Gene Colan himself to illustrate this issue if they wanted, since he was alive and working at the time.)

The story, like the previous issue, is a somewhat baffling attempt to incorporate ‘70s monster characters into a Spider-Man story.  It’s not bad, since Golden does have a handle on Peter’s character and his dialogue is fine, but there is a sense that Marvel was kind of desperate to fill Unlimited with pretty much anything by this point.  Thankfully, there is some effort to personalize the story as a Spider-Man story, allowing Peter an opportunity to give his own thoughts on cloning and to relate to Frankenstein’s Monster on a deeper level.  I can’t believe I just wrote that, but hey, it’s a superhero comic.  Golden strikes a decent balance between taking the material too seriously and just presenting it as camp, and as bizarre as the premise is, the issue is actually more entertaining than many of the other titles released by the spider-office this month.
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