26 November 2004

Review: New X-Men:Academy X #1-6

When the New Mutants re-appeared on the stands 20 months ago, I was just returning to comics after a 15-year hiatus and welcomed the sight of a familiar face to ease me back into the monthly habit. Joshua Middleton's beautiful cover art featuring some of the women from the original lineup drew me in, and Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir's patient, nuanced introduction of the first mutant of the new generation, and their reintroduction and use of a tortured Danielle Moonstar as the story's anchor, kept me glued through to the last page.

The closing dialogue sealed the deal for me:

Sofia: What's Xavier's like?
Danielle: Like no place else in the world. You'll see.
While I didn't love Keron Grant's interior art, nor his uneven trio of inkers, there was something in its intent that worked for the tone of the story. For the next 11 issues, despite working with four different artists, DeFilippis and Weir made good on Danielle's promise, consistently delivering the goods by capturing that tricky combination of teenage angst and super-heroism that Marvel Comics seemingly trademarked ever since Stan Lee came up with the idea of a nerdy science buff bitten by a radioactive spider, but that so few mainstream comics are able to pull off today. They also organically weaved appearances by a couple of other old-school New Mutants into the storyline, giving Xavier's school a sense of realism that it's rarely had over the years.

But then, with issue #13, something bad happened.

Marvel's X-Men Reloaded marketing stunt ripped through almost every X-book being published and the New Mutants became collateral damage in their fanatical worship of the bottom line. Issue #13 inexplicably fast-forwarded the story, side-stepping the new generation in favor of an out-of-left-field, ill-conceived reunion of the original New Mutants, setting the stage for the reloaded and awkwardly-titled New X-Men: Academy X.

While the primary X-team got reloaded into the high-profile Astonishing X-Men, DeFilippis and Weir had to trade in their title for a previously-used model, New X-Men, forced to take a crowbar to their storyline and cram in plot elements that completely threw off the dynamic they'd lovingly established over the previous 12 months. And in the first six issues of their reload, they got three more artists to work with, not to mention five of the most trite, uninspired covers on the stands any given month. (Issue #3's cover was decent.)

The opening story arc to the reload, Choosing Sides, begins by explaining everything that's changed at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, with Cyclops and the apparently reformed Emma Frost [I don't follow the other X-books so this was news to me.] serving as the new headmasters of the school; a cursory reintroduction of the New Mutants that reduces each of them to standard team book stereotypes; and, presents their first adventure as a team in the Danger Room. Standard stuff for a first issue, but even accepting that as a necessary evil, there's something missing from the overall package.

That spark of sincerity that made DeFilippis and Weir's short-lived New Mutants run work so well is clearly dulled, as if the corporate-mandated reload as a "team book" sucked the joy from it for them and they're now going through the motions. In issue #2, you get a sense that they're determined to work in some of the more interesting themes that were hinted at before the reload, but in the structured confines of an official "team book," they come off feeling forced and insincere. ie: The prerequisite hothead, and hottie, Noriko, is given an Afghanistanian roommate, Sooraya, complete with burqua and traditional beliefs, and they clash for a couple of panels of simplistic rhetoric. You get the impression that there was something left on the cutting room floor; that pre-reload, this two-page encounter would have been a primary sub-plot that would weave it's way through the series as they explored the ever-present subtext of mutants as minorities. Instead, it goes no further, Sooraya ends up being on the rival squad mentored by Emma Frost, code-named the Hellions, and it all smacks of a cookie-cutter editorial plan being handed down from on high.

By the arc's drawn-out conclusion in issue #6, Danielle Moonstar is rudely shoved to the background, the Hellions and the New Mutants go head-to-head, a couple of team members switch sides, and the whole thing starts to feel like Saved By The Bell: The Superhero Years.

The New Mutants, and DeFilippis and Weir, deserve better than this.

22 November 2004

COMMENT: On Reloads and Relaunches

Answer: Everyone that bought a copy of Astonishing X-Men #1. [See the end for the Question.]

As someone who stopped buying comic books back in the early 90s - missing the worst of the speculator-driven boom and bust - and started again last year, I can see both sides of the "Relaunch/Reload" debate that seems to be flaring up on several fan sites.

As Comics Buyer's Guide pointed out in a great article a couple of months ago, the comic book industry doesn't really know very much about its audience. Other than the accepted stereotypes - predominantly young, male, into superheroes and Barbie-doll proportions - there's no strong demographic, or more importantly, psychographic - data available. Even actual sales figures are privileged information, guarded closely by publishers seemingly nervous about what the truth about the post-90s boom/bust might reveal. The clues are there, though, easy to read for anyone paying attention: expanded story arcs, trade paperbacks, multiple variations of the most well-known characters with little attention paid to the B-listers...unless Hollywood comes calling.

Despite the protestations of elitist fanboys, rebooting a title can actually be a good thing for both the industry and the readers, especially for one that's been lagging in sales and/or in need of a creative spark. Comics publishers make little to no money from print advertising and, with best-seller status ranging in the 100-125,000 copy range these days - ordered, not necessarily sold - the bulk of their revenue comes from trade paperback sales and licensing. And that's Marvel and DC, the juggernauts of the industry.

Anything not related to the X-Men or Spider-Man, Batman or Superman, is basically lucky to be published at all.

While I would be (and have been) annoyed to see books I follow regularly get the reboot, simply from a cataloging/collecting perspective, if the reboot is as good or better than what came before, then I couldn't care less what volume or issue number appears on the cover. It's when a rebooted title takes a step backwards - ie: New Mutants, good; New X-Men: Academy X, bad - that I have a problem with it. But that can happen within the confines of a long-running series, too - ie: Batman, Loeb/Lee vs Azzarello/Risso vs. Winnick/Ngyuen - with the difference being that a 6-12 month hiccup in Batman isn't going to completely tank the book.

Short of a Bill Sienkiewicz or Greg Rucka jumping onboard, reboots are generally the only way I'll check out a book I'm not familiar with, or characters I've never particularly cared for or had lost interest in. I love Sleeper's "Season" concept, and felt comfortable jumping into that series because of it; and the reboots of Spectacular Spider-man, Teen Titans, and, while not exactly the same category, Ultimate Fantastic Four - all have ended up on my monthly pull list. As a matter of fact, its reboot is the only reason I picked up the new Iron Man, and I'm planning to check out the new Legion series, a title I've never had much interest in before but its reboot has me curious.

One reboot I definitely won't be picking up, though, is the New Avengers, because the Disassembled storyline that ended the original run (and completely tore apart the iconic team) was sloppy and lacking in credibility, and the new lineup simply doesn't interest me at all. [EDIT: I caved.] In fact, it strikes me as a blantantly marketing-driven concept. The ubiquitous Wolverine in yet another title? Where does he find the time?!?

In the end, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Marvel and DC's decisions reflect an unflinching eye on the bottom line. They're corporations first and foremost and, as lacking in common sense as it generally is, their investors rank far ahead of their fans in influencing their decisions.

That said, it's a relatively small industry and the majority of the creative types that move it forward are not mindless corporate drones. Any given book's fan base holds an inordinate amount of power, if wielded properly. Taking a stance that amounts to an elitist closing of the ranks with cries of "the good old days," and contradicts the financial realities of both the industry and the average reader, isn't the proper way to do it, though. While Joe Quesada may be peeking in on a message board here and there for shits and giggles, it's highly unlikely that anything he reads there is going to influence his decisions about whether a new Moon Knight series makes sense or not. (Joe, if you're reading this, it does!)

Question: Who bears the blame for all of the rebooted titles that fanboys across the internet are up in arms about?

20 November 2004

Comment: Comic Book Superheros Unmasked (2003)

Comic Book Superheros Unmasked (CBSU) is a History Channel documentary that has aired numerous times over the last few months. Released in 2003, the film was directed by Steve Kroopnick and he takes us on a tour of the comic book industry from its Depression Era-beginnings through its modern-day multi-million dollar enterprises. Our guides are some of the industries greatest legends, and current innovators, names like Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Joe Quesada, Neil Gaiman, and Will Eisner.

I've seen CBSU three times, and I'd watch it a fourth time if it were playing right now.

What struck me the most is the consistent relevance of comic books over the decades. Many of the greatest stories in comics meant something, had a soul to them. Comics in many ways have served as modern-day parables. Look at what's on the stands today. Captain America fighting terrorism at home and overseas. Superman contemplating his role in an alien world. Countless other books are juxtaposing real-life conflict into the fictitious world of comics.

Some of the most memorable story lines from the past were no different. I'm paraphrasing, but Stan Lee said, "We [Marvel] were fighting Hitler, way before the U.S. got involved in the war." Another story that comes to mind is one in which Harry Osborne, Peter Parker's best friend, overdoses on drugs. If I'm not mistaken that story was written during the height of 60s drug craze. Countless social phenomena have been explored in comics over the years, from the media's influence on society to civil rights.

The stories we still talk about today all have something in common. The authors of those stories created something more than a 20-page propaganda pamphlet. They created a story that resonated within us. They made us look at a situation in our current world through different eyes. And by doing so, they may have made things a little clearer for us to see.

19 November 2004

Review: Iron Man #1

Issues with Marvel's questionable relaunches aside, I admit to being...intrigued. I wasn't going to buy it at all but, seeing how Marvel didn't release a single title of interest to me this week, I figured I'd take a gamble.

It's no secret that Warren Ellis is a good writer, and I've thoroughly enjoyed his run on Ultimate Fantastic Four so far, so I was curious to see what he'd do with another Marvel icon that I'd never been partial to.

It's made very clear on the cover and the first page that this is the first part of a six-issue arc, and Ellis sets an expectedly slow but steady pace that fortunately doesn't skimp on content. Overall, it's a solid read, with just enough updated background - nicely framed as a 'nothing is as black-and-white as it seems' interview with a Michael Moore-like documentarian looking to expose Tony Stark - to justify a relaunch without ultimizing it with a complete retelling, or overhaul, of the origin story. Unlike many fanatics, I have no problem with bringing iconic characters' origins forward in time to better fit into our current reality, especially when the writer makes a point of firmly establishing the setting in something close to the real world. Ellis does exactly that, and he does it quite well.

While the tone of the issue is a rather somber one, as Stark reflects on the consequences of his genius and his place in the world, Ellis isn't above a little humor, such as taking a poke at earlier stories the first time the Iron Man suit is shown: "Hard to believe I used to be able to fit this into a briefcase."

Adi Granov's art is a bit of a mixed bag, however, with muted colors that perfectly match Ellis' somber tone, and uncluttered panels that skimp on detail in favor of a small screen intimacy. His Tony Stark suspiciously resembles a goateed Tom Cruise, and the Iron Man suit looks...off, somehow. I can't put my finger on it but it's a little too sleek for my tastes. Granov also doesn't employ a very wide range of facial expressions, especially not for the significant amount of talking head shots throughout the issue, choosing to vary perspective instead, not always to the best effect.

All in all, while I'm not greatly anticipating the next issue I'll at least give it an in-store read, and I don't feel like I wasted my $3.50 on this issue, either. Like I said, I'm intrigued, which for an Iron Man comic is saying a lot.

12 November 2004

Review: Superman/Batman #8-13

I reserved judgement on this until it was complete, hoping there'd be a little more to it than than fanboy pandering, but alas, it is what it is.

Credit Jeph Loeb for giving the people what they want, I guess.

From his lazy, summer-blockbuster plotting and scripting, to Michael Turner's incredibly overrated artwork, this story arc bored me senseless. Another Supergirl. Whoopee! I imagine there's bigger plans for her in the near future but this overblown introduction certainly doesn't have me anticipating them.

Never has Superman been more annoying, or Batman so predictable, and their navel-gazing narration was frequently trite and simple-minded, making me wonder why Loeb apparently has such a low opinion of his audience.

(DISCLAIMER: I blame Loeb, rightfully or not, for the ill-conceived Pamela Anderson body double for Kristin Kreuk's shower scene on Smallville earlier this season.)

And the Source Wall?!?! * groan * Can you say cop out, boys and girls?

As for Turner, while his ubiquitous covers are generally pleasing to the eye, his interior work is sloppy and repetitive. All of his women look the same - busty and button-nosed, differentiated only by their costumes - and his page layouts strike me as someone more interested in impressing himself than in telling a coherent story.

Thumbs down!

11 November 2004

Guy's Top 5 Comics of 2004

(ongoing series only)

1. Gotham Central - I'm a big fan of strong characterization and tight plotting, and this Batman-themed take on the classic police procedural, a la Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street, features some of the strongest writing in comics. Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka are terrific, and Michael Lark's gritty artwork matches them note for note. He'll be sorely missed but I'm hopeful that DC will tap a replacement with similar sensibilities.

2. Teen Titans - I fully expected this series to take an immediate downhill turn for the worse after the thrill-ride of its first 11 issues, but Johns has continued to up the ante every month, even making the seemingly throwaway Beast Boy story (#14-15) work with his intricate juggling of multiple subplots that makes every issue count. The "Titans of Tomorrow" arc promises to establish an excellent foundation to build on as everything that happens afterwards will carry the subtext of "is this what sends them in the wrong direction?"

3. Conan - One of the hardest things to do in comics is taking on a well-known character loaded with history and making him seem fresh and exciting without "updating" or "ultimizing" him. Even moreso when the character isn't at least somewhat based in the world we live in. Kudos to Busiek for pulling it off masterfully. Plus, Cary Nord was born to draw Conan and Dave Stewart's coloring complements him perfectly, making this one of the best looking comics around, too.

4. Ex Machina - Though only 5 issues old, Brian K. Vaughn has crafted a parallel New York City that feels absolutely real and populated it with 3-dimensional human beings that go far beyond comic book stereotypes - a legitimate spiritual descendant of Alan Moore's Watchmen. At this point, summarizing the plot would be selling it short, because there are multiple layers at work - superheroing, politics, the human condition - and Vaughn's barely scratched the surface. If there was ever a comic book that could seamlessly transition to traditional fiction, this is it. Unfortunately, that would mean missing out on Tony Harris' eye-popping artwork. As a native-New Yorker, I look forward every month to visiting this much more interesting version.

5. The Losers - This is "Hollywood Blockbuster" done right. The A-Team with a Three Kings edge, Andy Diggle writes intelligent action entertainment better than anyone, and his cynical take on world affairs gives this book a realistic, sharp edge that's missing from most other stories in this genre. The characters may be a bit generic, but like a B-movie with A-list actors, Diggle's scripting lifts each of them above their stereoypical cores. And Jock? His jagged, bombastic artwork evokes the hyperactivity of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This is my high-octane, not-feeling-the-least-bit-guilty pleasure every month.

Honorable Mentions: Powers, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Spectacular Spider-Man, Batgirl, Amazing Fantasy.