Reviews by KC Carlson
SHE-HULK #22 (Marvel Comics) — People buy comic books for a lot of different reasons. Not all of them good. Or even rational. For some, they are an investment (“This issue of Captain Crappy will someday be worth a ba-jillion dollars and I can use the money to send my kids to college.”). For others, they are a collectible (“I own all 753 issues of Confounding Comics, and I’m not missing this one, even if I haven’t read an issue since 1956!”). Others are often brainwashed (“I WILL BUY THIS ISSUE OF ZOMBIE TUBA BECAUSE GIZZARD MAGAZINE TOLD ME TO. AND I WILL BE HAPPY. YAY.”). And some brave souls, although their numbers seem to be dwindling, actually buy comic books because they enjoy reading them (“I like to read comic books. Please don’t hit me.”).
Which brings us to She-Hulk. As with other comics, there are many reasons people like to buy She-Hulk comics, and again not all of them are the best intentioned. She-Hulk is a character that some fans latch on to because she is: a) a woman, b) very tall, c) very busty, d) green, e) tends to occasionally “fall out” of her ripping clothes, and f) some pleasant (or unpleasant) combination of some or all of these. But let’s not talk about that.
The main reason that most people that bought (and read) the most current incarnation of the character, was for one reason only: Because Dan Slott was writing it. Dan’s She-Hulk stories were, of course, incredibly funny, but they were also occasionally powerful, moving, sad, touching, sometimes odd, but always fun. But the main deal was that Dan wrote his characters “real” — you cared for Jen, you rooted for She-Hulk and you fell in love with Awesome Andy (basically, a big dumb lump of clay — think about that!). And now (sniff) Dan is off to write Amazing Spider-Man.
And this is what new writer Peter David has chosen to step into. He alludes to it on the text page of his first issue, explaining that the series has experienced a couple of runs by creators who have brought their “unmistakable… and, more to the point, inimitable… brand of storytelling” to the series, invoking both Slott and John Byrne.
So, how is Peter’s first issue? Well, it’s… um… strange.
Some amount of time has passed since the previous issue. When we first encounter Jennifer Walters, she is no longer working as a lawyer for Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg and Book, although she is still a part of the legal world food chain, albeit on the grimy, dropped-the-egg-on-the-floor lower level. She is now a bail enforcement agent, or as better known in the pulp media, a bounty hunter. Her current case: a poor schlubb by the name of Rocky Davis (no, not the Challenger of the Unknown. That’s another company…) who goes by the super-villain name of “Hi-Lite.” Before attempting Davis’ capture, Jen sets a wager with a mysterious voice huddled in the back of the camper that Jan has been using as her stakeout vehicle. The wager? Jen bets the voice that she can take Davis without “turning green,” i.e. turning into She-Hulk. Unfortunately, the bust goes bad when Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man (who is Davis’ cousin), shows up, grabs Jen from behind, and violently snaps her neck.
Creel is there to gain revenge against She-Hulk for her constant assault of his wife, Titania. Thinking that he’s killed Jen, Creel goes to check out the camper as a possible getaway vehicle, only to be attacked by She-Hulk (?!?) who comes leaping out of the camper. The fight destroys a good portion of the neighborhood and comes to a temporary halt when Creel is struck by a bus. Meanwhile, back at the house, Davis is deciding if he should enter the brawl to help his cousin, when he finds himself at gunpoint by the recently deceased Jen Walters, who is back on her feet and somehow continuing to function with a broken neck. To which all I have to say is … “Ewww.”
So, Peter has presented us with a big puzzle — or several interconnected puzzles, to be exact. Have She-Hulk and Jen been separated somehow? Or is She-Hulk now somebody new? Or is Jen? But if Jen is now “human,” how can she possibly be alive and functioning after a broken neck? Plus there’s the mystery of how all this happened and why Jen is no longer a lawyer. Beyond this, Peter has deliberately shifted the tone of the book away from the kind of humor that Slott was known for, to more of a serious action/adventure feel (something that Slott was already beginning to work towards). The odd thing about it is that, with this change, Peter’s script is also consciously (but not completely) moving away from his natural tendency for humor, although, obviously, black humor is still much in evidence. Is this good or bad? Actually, I think it’s still too soon to tell. This was a good, solid, fast-moving issue, but I walked away feeling I needed just a bit more. Which means — in the long run — that Peter accomplished his job.
It’s really up to you to decide whether the new direction is to your liking. For me, Peter has been pulling surprizes out of his word processor for a long time now and I’m willing to keep checking in, if he’s willing to keep things moving.
ACTION COMICS #857-855 (DC Comics) — Good-Bye!
Just in time for Halloween, perhaps Superman’s weirdest adversary, Bizarro returns, in a 3-part story entitled “Escape from Bizarro World.” But instead of a scary story, full of angry and destructive monsters, writers Geoff Johns and Richard Donner and guest artist Eric Powell (The Goon) serve up a sweet — if bizarre — fairy tale about fathers and sons.
The tale begins quickly — with the kidnapping of Jonathan Kent by Bizarro — and, as in all the best Bizarro stories, barrels along frantically and haphazardly. The creators wisely know that if you stop to take time to explain Bizarro — basically explaining the unexplainable — it tends to undo the whole story. But here’s what we do know: Thanks to help from Superman’s “other” dad, Jor-El, we learn that Bizarro has taken Jonathan to a world under a Blue Sun and that said sun may enhance Superman’s powers, possibly in unusual ways. Oh, and that it may affect Bizarro as well.
In a wonderful sequence of mostly silent pages, Superman travels to the world under the Blue Sun — a perfectly cubic world — where Superman slowly comes to learn that Bizarro has remade Metropolis in his own twisted vision. Discovering this planet’s version of the “Dayli Planet” (topped off with a cubic “globe” and a sign which reads “Is here Dali Planit. Dilivrees in reer or punch in face”), Superman also discovers that the planet has been somehow populated with twisted duplicates of his coworkers, including Perry, Jimmy and Lois. The usual misunderstandings occur and a fight ensues, climaxing with Superman setting Bizarro on fire with his heat vision (“Call Gasoline Company!” cries Bizarro Lois.), unintentionally revealing that Bizarro Clark Kent is actually Bizarro — which in Bizarro-logic makes Bizarro the newly christened Bizarro World’s “worst enemy” and the population turns against him! Managing to escape the crazed mob, Bizarro flees, only to encounter Superman, who he quickly defeats by spontaneously generating several super-powered duplicates of himself — which is apparently one of the strange Blue Sun powers that Jor-El predicted — indicating exactly how Bizarro managed to populate Bizarro World. Bizarro then travels to his Bizarro Fortress, where he tells the captive Jonathan Kent that he needs his help in destroying Bizarro World.
The middle chapter gives up a flashback glimpse at the actual construction of Bizarro World by Bizarro, as well as propelling the story forward with the machinations of Bizarro Lex Luther’s “sekret weapon” to defeat Bizarro, making him Bizarro World’s Greatest Hero. Unfortunately, Bizarro Lex’s plans are literally crushed by the arrival of the Bizarro Justice League, who, being Bizarros, pretty much defeat themselves. During the fight, Superman accidentally strikes Jonathan with an unknown Blue Sun-derivied vision power, but instead of injuring Jonathan, he is temporarily given super-powers, which he quickly uses to defeat Bizarro Luther’s “secret weapon,” bringing the action to a temporary halt.
Superman, tired of dealing with a planet of Bizarros, just wants to grab Jonathan and fly home, but Jonathan insists on staying. “We have to help them all,” he contends. “It’s not their fault they’re different, is it?”
“They’re more than different,” says Superman.
“Some would say that about you, too,” replies Pa Kent.
Together, the two hatch a plan that enables Bizarro to save face with his people, embarrasses Bizarro Lex (Dali Planit headline: “Luther am jerk!”) and sets Bizarro into his rightful and deserved position of “Bizarro #1,” complete with the traditional prestigious emblem — a rock on a chain! Remarkably, Bizarro somehow understands what has occurred and, in gratitude, presents Pa with a homemade Superman suit.
Eric Powell was the perfect choice to illustrate this story, his rocky, blocky style evoking the very best of Superman creator Joe Shuster (and yes, there’s even an homage to the cover of Action #1). His Superman, like Shuster’s, is physically small, but tenacious, obviously having to fight for every inch. And to my way of thinking, this is how it should be. I get so tired of seeing the shoulders-six-feet-wide steroid freak that Superman often becomes in the hands of lesser artists. Obviously a guy who looks like that is gonna win most of his battles without breaking a sweat. Give me a scrappy little guy fighting the big monsters any day. And, yes, this is my way of saying that I’d welcome the return of Eric Powell to the pages of any Superman book!
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS #5 (Marvel Comics) — Y’know, I often get really angry when I read kids comics today. I guess I’m spoiled by the fact that the kids comics I read as a kid were done by the likes of Carl Barks, John Stanley, Sheldon Mayer, Dan DeCarlo, Warren Kremer and many, many others. And maybe it’s unfair of me to expect work like that out of today’s kids books (at least at the “big-time” publishers who only seemingly put any effort into their “kids lines” unless they are pushed.). But let me say this:
The work that Jeff Parker and Roger Cruz put into this series easily stands with the work of the gentleman mentioned above. Maybe not quite the VERY best of their work — at least not yet — but they could at least have dinner at the same table. Because they understand the cardinal rule of good kids comics — they don’t talk down to their audience!
The basic premise of X-Men: First Class is about as basic as you can get: These are stories told about the first six mutants that we were introduced to in the Marvel Universe — The original X-Men. Scott, Jean, Hank, Warren, Bobby and their professor, Charles Xavier — or better known as Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Professor X. This is not the first time this has been done, but it is most certainly one of the best.
Most issues to date have been stand-alone, single-issue stories, mostly revolving around the students being sent on a “mission” by the Professor. Some of these are just actually just “training missions” designed by Xavier to make the kids learn teamwork and how to think on their feet in order to control their often dangerous powers. But occasionally, they are sent out on a real mission, often requested by Xavier’s old FBI liaison Fred Duncan. And this is one of the key elements in my enjoyment of the series — the fact that the mutant kids are actually working alongside of — and cooperating with — various government and law-enforcement agencies, instead of constantly being hunted down by them in the “more mature” books.
In issue #5, the team has been called in to assist the army in finding The Hulk! Of course, they’ve been lead into thinking that he’s an uncontrollable, mindless beast, a presumption that isn’t helped by the Hulk’s attack of the team early in the issue. They learn right off that he’s one tough customer, but come to understand that his anger is mostly being fueled by the constant hounding by the army. This is reinforced by meeting the Hulk’s friend, Rick Jones, and eventually they learn the truth when the Hulk calms down and reverts back to his Bruce Banner personna, whom Hank recognizes as a leading nuclear scientist. In the end, the kids decide (with the Professor’s help) that the Hulk is best left alone.
It’s a pretty basic plot, actually, as are most of them. But the true enjoyment of the series is in the details and the personalities of these well-known characters. Bobby, the youngest, is charmingly annoying in that “Hey! look at me!” obnoxious younger brother way. He’s constantly chattering away about being the “King of Bobbyland.” Warren is headstrong and impatient, and his powers and his wealthy background set him apart slightly from the others. I love the way that Warren’s dresser is covered with piles of money, there for the taking of the other kids to enable the completion of important missions… or an unexpected road trip. Hank is the complex big brother and the heart — and anchor — of the team. Scott, as usual, is the stoic leader, secretly struggling with not only powers that he fears, but the fears of young romance with his teammate Jean. And it’s with Jean that the creators shine, with Jeff writing her as the cool and confident (but not too) emotional center of the team, and Roger depicts her as the determined — yet awkwardly cute — young woman that she is developing into. In issue #5, Jean faces down the Hulk alone after he effortlessly swats the boys aside in the issue’s defining moment.
Roger excels in drawing all of the kids — as kids (as opposed to muscle-bound midgets). They are awkward and gangly and you can imagine them all falling all over themselves in private, just managing to pull themselves together when needed to impress their teammates that they’re not totally hopeless. Well, maybe not Warren…
Every so often, a short back-up feature appears, illustrated by Colleen Coover in her gloriously cartoony style, and the tale in this issue features Jean secretly manipulating an Ouija board to freak out the guys, just in time for Halloween. Hey, Marvel! Next time regular artist Roger Cruz needs a break, why not give Colleen a chance on a longer story!?
Don’t let the stigma of being “just” a kids book prevent you from taking a look at this great title. X-Men: First Class stands with the best, even if it isn’t all angsty or dark or moody. That’s what sets it apart from all the rest!
SERENITY: THOSE LEFT BEHIND HARDCOVER (Dark Horse Comics) — Dark Horse Comics’ 3-issue Serenity miniseries, bridging the story-gap between Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly TV series and the then-forthcoming Serenity major motion picture, sold out so fast that a collection had to be pulled together practically in seconds. Accordingly, the Serenity: Those Left Behind trade paperback was an okay collection, but seemingly quite workmanlike in its execution due to the speed that the market demanded it be produced. This week a deluxe Hardcover edition has appeared and was truly worth the wait.
The biggest improvement, for me anyway, is its increase back to comic book size proportions. The 3/4 size of the trade paperback (not as large as a comic collection, not as thick as a manga) seemed to lessen the impact of the work, despite the wonderful story by Whedon and Brett Matthews and art by Will Conrad, as well as the evocative cover painting by Adam Hughes. The larger format restores the “epic” to the story.
New to this hardcover edition is creator Joss Whedon’s Serenity pre-production memo, “A Brief History of the Universe Circa 2516 A.D.” which is illustrated with several pieces of pre-production art for the film by Leinil Francis Yu and Joshua Middleton. There is also a brand new cover by Adam Hughes which is very serene indeed. Also, I am happy to report that all of the things that were cool about the original publications have been included, especially the original 9 covers from the comics — which are much enhanced by the book’s larger format — as well as Adam Hughes’ original cover for the trade paperback collection. The evocatively nostalgic Introduction by Nathan Fillion (“Mal”) from the original collection is also included.
THE SPIRIT: BOOK ONE HARDCOVER (DC Comics) — Not many people could take on the task of reviving Will Eisner’s landmark masterpiece The Spirit and do it justice. First off, it’s one of the most revered (and therefore, most reprinted) projects in comics. Secondly, its innovations were borne of some of the most serious restrictions of the medium — restrictions that Eisner put into play himself when inventing “The Spirit Section” for newspaper circulation in 1940. The Spirit ran as the lead feature of the “Section,” 6 or 7 pages each and every week for close to thirteen years. And most all of them were stand-alone stories.
Enter Darwyn Cooke. A man who knows what he’s doing. And he does it very, very well.
Darwyn’s been kicking around the industry for a number of years now, having snuck in through one of comic’s backdoors — the animation industry — where he storyboarded for the acclaimed Batman, Superman and Batman: Beyond animated shows. (He more-or-less created the stunning opening sequence for the latter show.) The usual pattern is that comic book creators, having been burned-out (or burned-up) by the comic industry, find their way into animation and into a second creative career. (Hey, it worked for Jack Kirby!). Typically, Darwyn did it a different way. And because he entered the comics field relatively late, he needed to make an impact immediately. And he did, with Batman: Ego, the redesigning of Catwoman, some remarkable one-shots for both Marvel and DC and his magnum opus (to date) DC: The New Frontier. Darwyn’s deft handing of the personalities of the heroes behind the masks in DC: The New Frontier led him to be chosen to re-launch Eisner’s classic character into the DC Universe.
This hardcover collection includes Darwyn’s first six issues of the series, along with his now classic collaboration with writer Jeph Loeb on the stand-alone Batman/The Spirit. All the right notes were hit with this team-up from the chumminess of the two Commissioners, Gordon and Dolan (and isn’t it warmly comforting how Eisner grew into looking like Dolan in his later years, something that the great team of Cooke and Bone are gently nudging along in the series?), to the big splash pages with the incorporated “logo” of the main characters (a Spirit tradition!), to the handling of all the gorgeous, powerful women in both the heroes’ circles.
In the regular series, Darwyn starts off with a bang, effortlessly pulling the 65+ year-old characters into today’s world of TV tabloid journalism and the internet, as well as strengthening the roles and personalities of the core supporting characters. Dolan is tenacious, soft and flinty, all in the space of a handful of panels and Ebony is re-imagined so matter-of-factly in the last three pages, shrugging off any kind of potential controversy over the past portrayal of the character. And wisely, instead of reintroducing one of the old Eisner femme fatales, Darwyn creates one of his own, the feisty NNN news anchor Ginger Coffee.
Ellen Dolan pops up in issue two — helping to solve the case with her knowledge of the internet — as does the always mysterious P’gell — two of the absolutely strongest females in comics.
Issue three spotlights some wonderfully imagined flashback sequences, which handily show off the massive contributions of inker J. Bone and colorist Dave Stewart to the series. If you want the back story of The Spirit, it’s all laid out for you right here.
Issue 4 is my favorite of the bunch, as it reintroduces Eisner’s classic character Silk Satin and instantly makes her one of the most complicated and intriguing characters in the cast. Plus, Hussein returns, and we get a glimpse of the always mysterious Octopus (or at least his three-striped glove.)
The Spirit sells Pork and Beans in issue 5, in an amazing satire of consumer culture and how quickly the Spirit has been absorbed into it, at the hands of classic Eisner character Mister Carrion (and his vulture companion, Miss Julia).
And issue 6 is devoted to the kind of tale that Eisner excelled at — the story of how the world exists for society’s outsiders and how they cope with a world that often cannot cope with them. The most remarkable thing about most of these stories is that The Spirit is often not involved at all. Here, Darwyn tops the charts with the tale of a mysterious musician called Blue.
The Spirit: Book One represents some of the absolute best of what current comics have to offer, by one of the Modern Masters of the field. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never encountered The Spirit or know anything of the 65+ year history of the character. You don’t even need to know Will Eisner or Darwyn Cooke. All you need to know is: This is remarkable work, and you will come to know these incredible talents through this work. This book deserves to be on your bookshelf.