Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Fighting Yank #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy and was later printed in the back pages of Fighting Yank #2. It is posted here for safekeeping)

Written and drawn by Eric Coile/Jerry Robinson & Mort Meskin
Published by AC Comics

Captain America Fighting Yank and Bucky Kid Quick team up with a host of other gaudily-garbed, commie-crushing super-studs (along with one voluptuous boxing beauty) in the first issue of AC Comics' new retro romp; Fighting Yank.

After months of searching for the kidnapped Professor Nodel and his lovely daughter Carrie, Fighting Yank and Kid Quick believe they've finally uncovered the lair of The Panda: Communist China's meanest super-villain and chief suspect in the disappearance of the Nodels. But, after a quick slugfest, Yank and the Kid find out the Panda and his goons are nothing but robots. Battered into unconsciousness by Sputnik the Super-Ape and subsequently forced to nose-dive out of an airplane, Yank and the Kid are rescued by the scantily-clad Yankee Girl (whose cleavage is reportedly an issue of national security). The three Marxist-manglers find themselves on an old Nazi battleship which turns out to be the base of operations for the true commie culprit; The Gremlin! The Red Square! The pint-sized bolshevik has plans to detonate an H-bomb in order to rouse world anger against the red-white-and-blue. The trio of heroes won't stand for that, of course, and they aren't alone. It isn't long before the likes of Captain Flash, the RedDevil, The Avenger, and even Squeeks the Monkey join the fray in the name of Truth, Justice, and all of that other non-commie stuff.

The issue also features a reprint of "The Return of Fingers;" a golden-age Fighting Yank reprint in which a reformed bank robber is forced back into the seedy underworld of crime.

With Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine just finishing its run and Ultiman Giant-Size Annual #1 being released this month by Image and Big Bang Comics, it's understandable that some readers may have had their fill of all things retro. But to lump Fighting Yank in with all the rest is a mistake.

Unlike the inconsistent art many critics pointed out in Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine, Fighting Yank has one great Kirby impersonator; Eric Coile (or "Hard-Boiled Hack Koilby" if you go by the credits in the beginning of the mag). Coile's art is wonderfully simplistic and action-oriented and won't have readers wondering why the characters look different every few pages.

The humor of Fighting Yank is also much less tongue-in-check than other recent mainstream and indy retro books. You'll actually laugh at classic lines like, "Who would've thought Ivan and Boris were actually commie spies," or when Fighting Yank explains why communist scum must be lanced like a boil, "So that their putrid puss of evil is ejected into the blackest reaches of outer space!" That's right, you actually get to laugh, rather than just cerebrally appreciating the irony. Hey, there's nothing wrong with exercising that brain cavity, but it's nice to belt out a few stomach-wrenching guffaws every now and then, isn't it?

Perhaps the most unique thing about Fighting Yank is that it isn't just a tribute/pardoy to Kirby or a comment about the state of comics. Fighting Yank is a genuine slice of Americana. When we laugh at this story, we laugh at ourselves, because it wasn't too long ago that the "commie-crushing" quest of these heroes wouldn't have seemed very funny at all. At a time when Americans are understandably angry at and frightened of a foreign menace, and has found it once again necessary to unleash its armies overseas—whether or not we're doing the right thing—it isn't a horrible idea to have a comic like this that reminds us how ridiculous we can be when the rhetoric gets a little too fiery and our anger clouds our common sense.

This reviewer will be adding Fighting Yank to his monthly buy list and you should too. Unless of course, you're a commie bastard.

--Mick Martin

Give me a Nazi hero, dammit

Finally, the paper on black male superheroes is over. Once again, I've proven what a bastard I am in comparison to other students. Unlike my classmates, who by and large will be busy the night before the paper is due finding subtly HUMUNGOUS fonts and testing whether or not the professor will notice that their paper is triple-spaced, not only did I decrease the font, but I formatted it single-spaced in order to get under the maximum seven pages. Here's to hoping my professor admires my hard work rather than resenting the comparative thick paper she has to read.

I settled on the title "Badass Heroes: Black Men in Superhero Comics." Basically, my thesis was that black superheroes represent a safe harbor to fans and creators for ultraviolence and hypersexuality. In other words, you can't have Spider-Man or Superman assfuck a retired superheroine because they need to remain the moral beacons they've always been. Apparently, however, there is a demand among fandon for retired-heroine-assfucking, so someone needs to do it. Since Luke Cage is black, and is therefore already regarded as being ultraviolent and hypersexual, no problem. Just another day at work for the HERO FOR HIRE!

One thing I wanted to mention but just didn't have time to was the MAX series. Well, I did mention U.S. War Machine and Cage, but I didn't mention the relative absence of black superheroes in mainstream Marvel vs. the number of ultraviolent black superheroes in the MAX books. One minute, Black Panther is the only non-white hero to be found, and suddenly MAX comes out, promises to be grittier and dirtier, and subsequently Blade, War Machine, Cage, and Supreme Power's Nighthawk get center stage (on a sidenote, I never read enough X-books to despise Chuck Austen's work: I read the first three issues of U.S. War Machine in preparation for this paper and my mind changed pretty fucking fast).

Supreme Power was something I definitely wanted to talk about a lot more. I did mention Nighthawk as an example of how black heroes tend to be more violent, and I also mentioned the Blur as an example of how black heroes tend to be less altruistic (remember, he only reveals his powers to the world when he's spurred to action by a pair of booking agents). But what I really wanted to talk about was the idea of Nighthawk as a bigoted superhero.

I think the idea of an overtly bigoted superhero has promise, and it's something that hasn't been explored a lot (outside of Watchmen). Racial supremacists can be quite extreme people obviously, and the idea that it's perfectly acceptable to wear funny clothes and beat up criminals can only be defined as, likewise, an extremist view. The idea of a bigot and a crimefighter finding a home in one body is not only feasible, not only inevitable, but pretty fucking likely.

What bothers me is that in a society where whites are the dominant group, where most racial prejudice and its ill and sometimes violent effects are perpetrated by whites upon racial minorities, and in a medium--superhero comics--where most of the leading characters are white men, we choose to look at the idea of bigotry...

...in a black man.

On one hand, I understand why it's done that way. Nighthawk, the bigot, is black because we wouldn't tolerate a white bigot superhero (at least not an overtly bigoted one), because our thin PC values tell us we shouldn't feel sympathetic for such a character, and if we did feel sympathy for the character, that would mean there was a problem with us.

Newsflash: there IS a problem with us.

I don't like admitting what I'm about to admit, but here it goes.

For anyone who's managed to catch the film American History X, you know the genius of the film. You probably don't admit it, as I'm about to (not because I'm any more courageous than you, but because I'm an argumentative asshole and I want to prove my point). It has nothing to do with the non-shock of the ultimate fate of Ed Norton's younger brother. You knew it was going to happen as soon as I did. It isn't because of any self-righteous message found in the story, and it isn't because you find it in any way revealing about the skinhead subculture.

The genius of the film lies in one brief scene. Ed Norton's character and his skinhead compatriots place a bet with a group of young black men at a basketball court. One game. The skinheads win, the black guys leave the court for good. The black guys win, the skinheads abandon it. The skinheads eventually win. They jump up and down, give a big group hug, and the whole thing is accompanied with some "yay we won" type music stuff.

And when you see it, if you're white, you cheer for them.

I did.

I cheered because I've been programmed to think that blacks have conspired to (paraphrasing the words of Bill Nunn's character in Canadian Bacon) "slowly take over every single sport." Blacks are dribbling as soon as they pop free of the womb, or so we're led to believe. So, cheering for the skinheads doesn't feel that bad. It feels like they're giving us back some of our manhood. It feels like they're winning one for the home team. God help me, it feels like they're breaking down racial barriers instead of building them.

That's what makes the film so disturbing, that and the times you listen to Ed Norton's eloquently hateful tirades and find yourself nodding. It isn't the jail rape or the murder or anything else that turns your stomach when you watch it: it's the fact that they're just showing you a fucking mirror, whether or not you want to admit it. It's not as simple as "he's racist, but I'm not." It's just not that fucking simple. It's not that--forgive me--black and white. We're all a bunch of racist bastards because that's who we've been programmed to be. Of course YOU are too much of an INDIVIDUAL to succumb to society's programming, but the rest of us just have to suffer it like the stupid sheep we are.

Of course if you believe that, and you have no problem with the only overtly bigoted superhero of note being a black man, and you have no problem with James Rhodes telling Nick Fury in U.S. War Machine that he failed to MURDER a criminal because he was a black man, while you would similarly reject such portrayals of white superheroes, then your programming is pretty fucking naked, because it means the only racial bias you are willing to accept exists is that which can be found in minorities.

So, give me a fucking nazi hero so I can see what I am, so it can turn my stomach, and I can do something to change it. Don't give me more black superheroes with "Badass Motherfucker" wallets. There are currently only two black male superheroes--Firestorm and Black Panther--with their own titles at DC and Marvel, and really thank God for that. Take all the Blades and Bishops and Nighthawks and Deathloks and Spawns and flush them down the toilet. Or, better yet, make them white, and make the traditional supermen black, and give the white fans of comicdom something in the mirror worth looking at.

Swap Meet #1 -Cloak and Dagger: Predator and Prey

(This is the first of a series of reviews centering around graphic novels and TPB collections I come upon via my trading at Sequential Swap: a site for comic book readers to trade TPBs and GNs with other readers from all over the U.S., as well as other countries.)

By Bill Mantlo, Larry Stroman and Al Williamson
Published By Marvel Comics


Ever watch Family Ties? Remember when they’d call Tom Hanks in to play the alcoholic Uncle Ned? He showed up twice if I remember correctly, and once gave Michael J. Fox a nice crack upside the head (something most male watchers of the show envied Hanks for, I’m sure). At the time, I was just a little Hulkling, and to me those shows were the height of serious drama. That and, of course, that Different Strokes show when the old guy touched Gary Coleman and his goofy buddy in inappropriate ways.

These days it’s a little humiliating to look back and realize what managed to pierce my emotional defenses back then. Now the only thing poignant about those episodes is the idea that anyone could be so hopelessly swayed by as hopeless a medium as the American TV sitcom that they could think anything worthwhile could live within it. Some of the old feelings linger; like my girlfriend’s enduring fears of E.T. and Skeletor, and my own silent promise that I will never read Watership Down after being so thoroughly mindfucked by the cartoon adaptation (there were bunnies, and I was six: I had to watch it, it was a law); but most of those monsters become small, fragile, and barely worthy of note.

Similarly, the boogeymen Bill Mantlo produced during his run on The Incredible Hulk have long since faded. The last two years or so of his tenure on the title were comparatively very dark. My age hadn’t yet reached double digits by the time John Byrne and Mantlo switched places (Mantlo moved to Alpha Flight while Byrne left the Cahnucks for a brief run on Hulk), and when Mantlo did leave, my young soul breathed a deep sigh of relief. Mantlo had given the world the first long-term version of a Hulk controlled by Bruce Banner’s mind, and Banner’s subsequent fall from grace via the psychic powers of the villain Nightmare was as dark and disturbing as anything I’d read in a funnybook. His year-long “Crossroads Saga,” a comparatively epic arc in which the Hulk is banished to a dimensional crossroads by Doctor Strange, was an absolutely spirit-crushing tale of isolation, betrayal, corruption, death, and hopelessness. The climax of the arc comes with a visit from the Beyonder–the omnipotent Jheri-Curl man who’d been floating around the Marvel Universe via Secret Wars II–that inspires a psychic flashback outlining the systematic abuse Banner suffered at the hands of a paranoid father, and his mother’s death (something that later helped to inspire Peter David’s take on the Hulk, as well as Ang Lee’s film: on a sidenote, apparently there is some speculation that the issue in question–The Incredible Hulk #312–was actually written by Barry Windsor-Smith, David makes mention of it in his foreword to Hulk Visionaries: Peter David, Vol. 1). When Byrne showed up with his desert battles with Doc Samson and The Avengers, it felt like walking out of a three-day wake into a viewing of Back To The Future. I couldn’t have been happier.

Back then, the darkness of Mantlo’s storytelling was oppressive. Looking back at it is a lot like visiting your old grade school and realizing how small it is. Case in point–Cloak and Dagger: Predator and Prey.

It may seem odd to take up the lion’s share of a review for these two obscure Marvel heroes talking about the Hulk but, well, there just isn’t a whole lot to say. It makes you wonder why Marvel bothered with the GN format for the story, unless they hoped featuring these enduring peripherals in bigger panels would translate to bigger sales.

The story centers around a secret revealed regarding the source of Cloak’s power: a demon simmering in the folds of the hero’s cloak who feeds on the same light Cloak devours. After an altercation with a priest who manages to harm Cloak with holy water, the hero convinces himself he is a demon, and wanders through the city’s streets, refusing to help those in need of aid while in the throes of self-torture. Dagger likewise begins to believe that Cloak may be as evil as he himself fears, while the demon hiding inside the Cloak releases the spirit of Jack The Ripper to further complicate things.

In part this story was ruined by Alan Moore, whose masterpiece From Hell makes Mantlo’s brief re-working of the Ripper’s history seem cute at best, lazy at worst.

But Moore has been blamed quite enough for the relative lack of talent in the rest of comicdom, and you can’t pin anything on him here. Ultimately, Mantlo’s melodramatic style is to blame. What could potentially be an intriguing story is ruined countless times by his unneeded and loud, droning exposition.

It’s a shame this duo has found so few worthwhile paths to travel. The blatant parallel between their powers and both drug addiction and sex is one that could be exploited to maximum effect, but hasn’t been in anything I’ve read so far. One of the few striking moments of the GN, in fact, is one in which Dagger overloads Cloak with the light he needs to feed on, and the consecutive panels accompanying the scene (a scene with, thankfully, very little dialogue), show Cloak devolving into an ecstatic state of ultimate pain and absolute orgasm. The moment fades fast, and we’re left with Mantlo’s usual superhero over-dramatics.

It’s regrettable to write such a negative review for the first of my “Swap Meet” installments (especially considering that I’ll be putting this GN back in circulation, and so hope no potential traders read this review), but what the hell. Hopefully, some of you think I’m a moron.

Mick Martin

Friday, April 15, 2005

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong
Published By DC Comics

Young Kal-El finds a home in a collective farm in the Ukraine rather than Smallville, and as a result the Cold War has a much different outcome in Superman: Red Son.

I’m not usually a fan of Elseworlds/What If stuff, as much as I desperately want to be. The concepts are often promising (not always,e.g. Superman/Tarzan: Sons of The Jungle), but in execution the drama often revolves completely around the alternate history, and ultimately sloppy storytelling is the result.

Take The Nail, for example (an Elseworlds story in which Superman is absent from the world of superheroes). Considering it a story on its own, divorced from standard DC continuity, it has one of the dumbest endings in superhero comic book history: the uber-powerful bad guy who has made mince meat out of the rest of the world’s superheroes is laid low when, in the last few pages of the story, he accidentally comes across an Amish guy who just happens to possess the same powers. Regardless, the series apparently enjoyed high sales, considering DC green-lit a sequel.

Initially, Superman: Red Son threatens to be more of the same. Particularly in the first chapter there are numerous references to the “real” Superman, too many to be more clever than annoying. “Centuries later, after a thousand interpretations of this meeting,” Superman says of his first meeting with Lois, “a famous poet would write an alternate history of the world where Lois Luthor and I became lovers...I still don’t know what appeals to people about this notion.” Earlier, when President Eisenhower learns of the Soviets’ new weapon: “Just think...if that rocket had landed twelve hours earlier, this Superman they’re talking about would be an American citizen.” Yeah, yeah, we get it. How ironic, dontcha think?

Despite the warning signs, Red Son eventually proves to be one of the better Elseworlds tales, and the secret to Millar’s success is that–despite his Soviet upbringing and the Orwellian world he molds–Red Son’s Superman IS Superman. It would’ve been easy to create a menacing, commie bastard Superman, or even a gullible man-child like Supreme Power’s Hyperion (and in fact it’s difficult to read Red Son without hearing echoes from the aforementioned MAX series, its predecessor Squadron Supreme and the sadistic Ultraman of JLA: Earth 2). Millar takes the more difficult route: giving us the Kryptonian hero we all know, and somehow making us believe him capable of creating a world not unlike the ones we find in 1984 or Clockwork Orange.

Millar’s Lex Luthor–a federally funded scientist in this alternate history, as well as Lois Lane’s estranged husband–is one of the highlights of the series, and like Superman the Luthor of Red Son is essentially the same old Lex (if a bit funnier). In spite of the fact that he’s essentially on the side of the angels (though morality is hardly black-and-white in the story), there are never any illusions in regards to his true agenda.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about the series is the ending. I still haven’t decided whether or not I think Lex’s “ultimate weapon” against Superman was ingenious or just trying really hard to be ingenious, which I guess is indicative of how well it reads regardless. The resolution to the story, while not completely predictable, is kind of “Elseworlds predictable.”

The very concept of Superman: Red Son is one of its greatest strengths, but not because of how different the Russian Man of Steel is from the "real" Superman, but because it shows how different he's NOT. It may be, as Tom DeSanto writes in the intro to the trade, “social commentary on capitalism vs. communism and current America foreign policy.” But for those of us who have followed the Man of Steel's adventures for some time, I think it reveals something that's so easy to forget.

I don’t remember the quote verbatim, but I recall an interview I read with Mike Myers. He talked about how his parents moved from England to Canada when he was a kid and said something along the lines of, “English people are never as English as they are when they’re not in England.”

Likewise, Superman is never so wonderfully and dreadfully American as he is when he’s wearing someone else’s flag.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Endless Finale - Peter David's Last Issue of The Incredible Hulk (or so we thought)

I’ve been working on this fucking thing since last November.

Actually, that’s not true. I first got the idea after reading Alan Doane’s wonderful exploration of Frank Miller’s final issue of Daredevil, and if the date in the URL is right, that makes it July of 2004, meaning I’ve been working on this piece for the better part of a year. November was just when I sent ADD the e-mail to see if he’d want it.

Yeah, there are peripheral factors that could explain my procrastination: working and going to school full-time, helping my mother with her various medical issues, every now and then trying to squeeze in time to pay attention to the nice woman who’s kind enough to sleep with me, etc.

The real problem, I think, is that I’ve tried to be very professional. Detached. Unbiased. Every time I’ve started to write a review of The Incredible Hulk #467, "The Lone and Level Sands" -- the last issue of Peter David’s original twelve-year run on the title -- I’ve tried to write it from the perspective of someone who isn’t a shamefully loyal Hulk-nut; who doesn’t see every empty space in his collection of David’s Hulk as an unpardonable sin; who didn’t absolutely dread the idea of publishing online negative reviews of Peter David’s work and considered it a Herculean act of bravery when he finally did; who didn’t initially consider turning down his girlfriend’s offer to cohabit because he was afraid her cats might break his Randy Bowen Hulk statue; who didn’t leave his girlfriend alone to eat lunch in a pizza parlor because he was afraid he might not be thirty minutes early to the Hulk film; whose forgiving girlfriend didn’t buy green drapes for their office (once he capitulated to cohabitation, after realizing the statue was much too heavy for the cats to topple) to match his Hulk posters. And mirrors. And clocks. And stickers. And action figures, model kits, coloring books, baby shoes, coffee mugs, twisty straws, Christmas ornaments, mini-busts, stamps, cards, bobble heads, key chains, sunglasses, board games, lunchboxes, wastebaskets, baseballs, cardboard stands, t-shirts, matchbox cars, electronic talking hands, and probably some other stuff (mostly green).

But I can’t, and considering the genius of "The Lone and Level Sands," it’s only the truly bugfuck-crazy Hulkophile who can see how masterful David’s finale was, and why.

The entire story is told in flashback, with an aged, chain-smoking Rick Jones recounting the aftermath of Betty Banner’s death (she dies in the previous issue) on the tenth anniversary of her demise to a Daily Bugle reporter. Most of the story is told in double-page spreads with Jones’s hand -- a cigarette scissored in-between his index and middle fingers, the smoke curling up the sides of the pages and through the gutters–breaking only to return to Jones at the end as his eyes grow heavier, the ashtray gets more crowded, the fire grows smaller, and the various superhero paraphernalia (alluding to the vast trophy chamber seen in Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect) are swallowed by the shadows.

David and Adam Kubert create a beautiful montage of the aftermath of Betty’s death–from the more familiar scenes like old Thunderbolt Ross stupidly blasting at the Hulk with a handgun; to the tragic grace of a grinning Bruce Banner taking a swan dive off the Empire State Building.

Through Jones we learn of Bruce’s first suicide attempt, his subsequent imprisonment, his escape, a brief glimpse at the Hulk’s future battles and adventures (most of which, of course, have yet to come if ever, though Chris Cooper may or may not have been attempting to be faithful to the reference of a "face-to-face with Namor" with the Hulk/Sub-Mariner 1998 Annual), Betty’s funeral and the gathering of superheroes it drew, and a final meeting between Jones and Bruce Banner. David throws in the fates of some of the series’ peripheral figures (e.g., the citizens of Freehold, the vengeful Armageddon, and the time-traveling Janis Jones) for good measure.

Something always nagged at me after re-reads of the story, and it didn’t take me too long to figure out what. As much as I’ve long considered it the perfect Hulk tale, there was something about it that simply made no sense. The title, "The Lone and Level Sands," is the thing.

The line comes from a Percy Shelley poem that Banner recites to Jones as his long time sidekick visits him in prison after his first suicide attempt. The poem speaks of Ozymandias, "King of Kings," and the traveler who finds his shattered statue in the desert. "I can see it, Rick," Bruce tells Jones. "The broken legs standing there...barefoot, the cuffs torn. The Hulk’s feet. And that broken face, lying half-buried in the desert...My life, a shattered ruin."

A powerful image, but does it fit? This is the Hulk we’re talking about. The poem is about a man who built a kingdom, but succumbed to the inevitable. How is the analogous to the Hulk? What has the Hulk built? And what has Banner built, besides the Hulk? What did either create that’s worth mourning its destruction?

The answer is that it isn’t strictly the Hulk who David is talking about. David blatantly injects himself into the story from the very first page–the unseen Daily Bugle reporter is named Peter (and for a nice little double entendre, we all know someone else who’s worked for that rag with the same first name).

Most often we hear David through Rick. David purportedly left the title over a creative dispute regarding the future of the Hulk, and Jones refers to Betty’s death as "the day the Hulk started down the road he never wanted to travel." Rick’s final monologue can easily be read as David’s farewell to his readers: "I could keep on telling stories about the Hulk...keep on going...but there’s other things in life, you know? It’s like what Bruce told me. Realize what’s important...family, loved ones...that’s the important thing." He includes a continuity loophole for subsequent writers who would doubtlessly steer clear of his version of the Hulk’s future: "So maybe I’m an alternate timeline. Who knows what’s really fated or ‘official?’" He ends fittingly with, "I’ve said enough."

David switches seats in the narration, from Rick to the reporter to the Hulk himself. We hear him lamenting his departure from the series when Banner laments the loss of Betty during a meeting with Rick in a military prison, but when he subsequently transforms into the Hulk, Rick tells us, "I’d seen so many things in his eyes over the years. Anger, resentment, betrayal, exhaustion...but in all those years...I’d never seen him look at me that way...with envy. And then he was gone." Considering we already know this is apparently the road the Hulk, "never wanted to travel," it seems likely the Hulk’s envy is leveled at David himself: the writer who will escape this unwanted path, while the Hulk will remain. During Rick’s last meeting with Banner, Bruce leaves him with, "Sometimes it’s best to move on," and in a nice symbolic gesture the scene opens with Bruce sitting in Rick’s wheelchair. Even the unseen reporter switches places. Despite his first name, he often resembles the reader more closely than the writer: "Look...I hate to keep you...but there’re so many other things I’d like to hear..."

But while David wrestles with his own demons throughout the story, it’s far from self-indulgent. Ultimately, the Ozymandias/Hulk analogy does fit, because of the one theme that consistently distinguished Peter David’s Hulk from those that came before and after.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all Hulk fans were happy with Peter David’s interpretation of their favorite muscleman, particularly in the case of the so-called "Merged" or (the name that Paul Jenkins’s misreading of David’s run helped him create) "Professor" Hulk: an incarnation that came about after Doc Samson brought Bruce Banner’s personality together with that of the childlike green Hulk and the thuggish gray one. A cunning, green strongman with the IQ of a rocket scientist is what emerged, though when you strip away the bigger words and not-quite-as-tattered clothes, on the surface the Merged Hulk was never really much different than his savage counterpart. You could often throw a "Hulk" or a "puny" into the Merged Hulk’s dialogue with predictable results, often changing a line like "Pathetic humans. Getting in my way," (Incredible Hulk #383) to "Puny humans! Always getting in Hulk’s way!"

Ambition is what distinguished David’s Hulk from the previous interpretations, which probably has more to do with some fans’ dislike of Peter David’s tenure on the title than anything else. He didn’t have to count on money he’d stitched into his pants which would somehow survive a fall from orbit after battling the Toad Men. He didn’t have to sleep in the woods or in the houses of trusting strangers. The Hulk had been the world’s most powerful hobo, even stealing food from the campfires of homeless men and family reunion picnics in some stories. By gathering some semblance of control over his life, Bruce Banner and his alter-ego became less pure in some eyes, and perhaps less of a hero. Ambition is what made the Maestro of Future Imperfect -- an evil, future version of the Hulk who ruled over the last vestige of humanity on a post-apocalyptic Earth . It’s why the Hulk’s membership into, and eventual leadership of, the Pantheon -- a paramilitary group of that intervened in international crises without official sanction, whose founder was eventually revealed to be much less altruistic than he originally claimed -- was so important to the Hulk’s development. It was the first time since that fateful day in New Mexico that either Banner or the Hulk had wielded any kind of power or control, except the kind that came from an emerald fist.

Part of what makes this story the perfect ending not only to Peter David’s initial run on Incredible Hulk, but to the story of the Hulk as a whole, is that it’s less than an ending, and at the same time it’s so much more.

It’s the ongoing aspect of superhero comics that both renders the characters immortal and makes them less than characters. Stories end. Superheroes do not. They’re like endless porn scenes. The money shot’s never gonna come. If Luke Skywalker were a superhero, Vader’s emphysema would still fill theater speakers every few years. If Frodo were a superhero, he’d still be stumbling towards Mount Doom. If William Wallace were a superhero, he’d be wrestling the Brits for centuries to come (and it would probably be a CrossGen book). Stories end. Characters die. A story that never ends is not a story. A character that never dies is not a character: it’s a franchise.

Peter David achieved the impossible with Incredible Hulk #467, by circumventing the necrophilia of the superhero genre. Before bowing out of the green-sometimes-gray goliath’s franchise, he wrote the endless finale to a story that can’t ever end. And while, upon reading it, you will know that it’s a story that only Peter David could write, it’s a story you’ve known for a long time. You’ve felt it in your bones. David wrote it, but you knew it before you read it. David wrote it, but so did Lee and Thomas and Wein and Stern and Mantlo. Despite the fact that the Hulk series continues, despite the various limited series and guest appearances, despite even David’s own Incredible Hulk: The End, "The Lone and Level Sands" is the last Hulk story. It’s the only Hulk story. And it’s certainly the best.

Four Years Later: Defending The Defenders

Around eight years ago, at my first school Florida, I was surprised to learn that one of my English professors was a Ramones fan. I wasn’t surprised because of his age or because of the fact that he was an English professor. But nine times out of ten, when it came to music all he talked about was jazz. On the rare occasions that he expressed some appreciation for rock, punk never came up, and in fact now that I think about it, he told me once his appreciation for punk never got any further than Blondie. When I asked him how The Ramones managed to invade his record collection, he said something along the lines of, “Well, whenever rock got too pretentious and too self-important for its own good, The Ramones would come along with a bunch of loud, three-chord tunes and remind everyone what this whole Rock ‘N Roll thing was all about.”

Replace “rock” with “comics” and “Rock ‘N Roll” with “superhero,” and you’ve basically got my thoughts on the ill-fated second volume of The Defenders.

There are a lot of reasons why The Defenders failed to draw in enough readers to stay afloat. The heads of the project––Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen––were both suffering chronic health problems while working on the series. Many readers took the plot device of Yandroth’s curse––a curse cast upon Hulk, Dr. Strange, Namor, and Silver Surfer, the so-called “Big Four” of the team––as a cheap and easy gimmick to explain how the four loners could bear to work together. In comparison to Avengers and JLA, only one character in the team––the Hulk––had his own ongoing monthly, and Larsen’s involvement in the title injured any hope that the green goliath’s presence would boost sales (many Hulk readers liken Larsen to the Anti-Christ, due in no small part to the fact that the green goliath has managed to get the crap beaten out of him in just about every Hulk-related story Larsen wrote previous to Defenders, as well as the nasty spats––most notably in the letters pages of Savage Dragon––Larsen has carried on with Hulk sacred cow Peter David). The Rogue’s Gallery of the Busiek/Larsen run read like the Punisher's “Don't Waste Ammo on The Following” list. And, of course, there were precious few X’s appearing anywhere in the mag.

Despite my adoration for the series, I have to admit its critics made some valid points, though it was far from deserving the “worst comic ever produced” title given by Comics International (a quote that would later be printed defiantly on the cover of The Defenders #8).

Larsen’s penciling rarely seemed to be of the same caliber seen in Savage Dragon or The Amazing Spider-Man. Even some of the covers seemed like they were thrown together at the last minute, and on the few occasions Ron Frenz filled in for Larsen, the contrast in quality was so staggering you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the regular guy.

I think it would have been fabulous if Ron Frenz had replaced Larsen as regular penciler. I don’t know if the idea was ever brought up, though I imagine Frenz might have had a problem with it if it meant giving up his duties on Spider-Girl. With Kurt and Erik both suffering health problems, it may have given Larsen the opportunity to concentrate his efforts on the co-writing chores. I don’t know if this would have saved the series, but at the very least it would have made the ride a bit more fun (even if it still ended up being a relatively short one). Fans of the first volume might’ve been happier as well, with Frenz’s glaring similarities to Sal Buscema (who did almost all of the art for the early stories of the first Defenders volume and actually worked as inker for most of the second).

I’d also say that involving Silver Surfer in the story was a mistake. He seemed to be just casually tacked on to the team, simply because he was one of the so-called “Big Four.” It never seemed as if Busiek or Larsen intended on doing anything particularly interesting with him. On the rare occasions that he captured the spotlight he was usually being batted around like a cat toy. Like the case of the Hulk, his presence backfired. Instead of attracting Surfer fans, it drove them away.

For those who may not know, in the first issue of the second volume, the “ Big Four” are summoned to battle their old villain Yandroth. After seeing how the four heroes can barely tolerate one another, Yandroth lays a curse upon them as he dies, ensuring that whenever the Earth is threatened they will have no choice but to work together to stop the threat.

A lot of readers believed that Busiek and Larsen had a Gilligan’s Isle thing going–that their plan was to keep the curse going indefinitely, never coming up with any more interesting explanations as to why this team of loners would bother to unite. As it was revealed in The Order--the limited series that followed The Defenders--the creative team had something completely different in mind, but by then the damage had already been done.

Despite its weaknesses, the overall response to the series stunned me. Maybe I was wrong–maybe the assholes just shout louder–but while there were fans like myself who enjoyed the book, most of the responses ranged from indifference to outrage and disgust, falling heavily on the latter. While I could certainly empathize--if not agree--with those who didn't like the series, the idea that anyone could literally get angry about it confused the hell out of me.

I guess in retrospect it really ain’t that complicated. Busiek and Larsen’s most unforgivable sin was that they took beloved characters and made them funny.

I don’t like using the word, “fanboy.” It’s interesting how often it’s used in different ways. The casual reader will use it to describe the obsessed collector/completist, whereas the obsessed collector/completist will use it to describe the casual reader. And of course some people use it for any fellow comics readers that they just don’t particularly like. It’s a stupid word, a demeaning word, and call me Captain PC if you’d like, but I’m just as loathe to use it as I am to use the kind of words ignorant assholes use in describing people of different colors, sexual orientations, whatever.

In spite of my feelings towards the word, if you are a fan of a mostly-naked aquatic monarch with elf ears and feathered ankles; a completely naked shiny guy who uses a surfboard to traverse the cosmos; a guy who turns into a half-ton green manifestation of repressed rage; or a shut-in magician who calls himself “Doctor Strange” without cracking a grin every time; and you are unable to appreciate the potential for humor in your favorite character, you have worked very fucking hard to earn the title “fanboy” and I hope your dumb ass enjoys its throne.

The Defenders was funny. At times–like The Defenders #6, an issue narrated by the Hulk and which, should I ever decide to compile a Top Ten list of favorite Hulk stories, has a damn good chance of finding a home there–it was absolute chair-rocking hilarity. In fact, the few times I had complaints about the title, a lack of successful humor was usually to blame.

I was a lonely, lonely reader I guess, because I was one of the few who put the humor in the plus column. We happily lap up all the deconstruction and re-examination in Supreme Power, The Ultimates, The Authority, Planetary, DKR, and Watchmen, but make the Hulk look a little too silly and we’ll smash your ass! It seems as if looking at characters through different lenses is just fine, as long as those different lenses produce characters who kill and fuck a lot. Turn Captain America into Rambo and everyone’s a-okay, but poke fun at the fish man in the speedo and you better fucking duck.

Of course, humor is okay, as long as the comedy is isolated to those characters who were never anything more than comic relief, like the recent GLA. A healthy number of movie and rock stars are able to cope with, and even revel in, humor at their expense, yet so many of us are unwilling to extend the same tolerance to the comedy aimed at other people who don’t even exist.

Regardless, the second Defenders volume will always be welcome in my long boxes. If nothing else, it will always stand out in my mind as a superhero series that didn’t re-define the concept of the superhero, didn’t give me any new and revealing insights into the characters, but was just plain fucking fun to read.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Avengers Forever

By Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco, and Jesus Merino
Published By Marvel Comics

When Rick Jones is plagued by a mysterious illness somehow connected to the godlike power he briefly wielded in the much-celebrated "Kree/Skrull War" storyline, the Avengers bring Jones to the Moon to consult the Supreme Intelligence (imprisoned there after the events of the more recent "Live Kree or Die!" arc). Once Marvel’s favorite sidekick is left in the care of Marvel’s favorite Big Head, supervillains like Libra of the Zodiac, the time-traveling warlord Kang, and the temporal guardian Immortus come crawling out of the woodwork. One comes to murder Jones, and others come to aid him. Jones once again taps into the power that has, until now, rendered him helpless. Instead of calling for heroes from his imagination--as he did in the aforementioned Silver Age tale--this time Jones reaches into time for Avengers from the past, present, and future.

Avengers Forever delivers exactly what the title implies. It’s a big superhero cross-time romp, bringing the team of adventurers all across existence, from the wild west to a war-torn Earth where a Martian invasion renders the few remaining heroes much more vicious than their twentieth century counterparts, and eventually to the end of time itself. The story features some of the most wonderfully rendered epic battle scenes in comics, with heroes and villains standing side-by-side against armies of alternative universe Avengers, aliens, and most commonly Time Bandits-like regiments made up of European knights, Samurai, World War II machine gunners, Ice Age cavemen, and more. Busiek and Stern give us a story that touches every corner of the Marvel Universe and revels in its history in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s Marvel.

Pacheco’s pencils are one of the biggest highlights of the series, particularly impressive are the many vast battle scenes appearing in the series. There’s no mistake Busiek and Pacheco chose to work together on another war story, the fantasy-tinged World War I series, Arrowsmith.

Ironically, the battle scenes are one of Avengers Forever’s weaknesses. I had trouble putting my finger on why I had a problem with them, until I watched one of the many documentaries on the The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers Extended DVD set. In describing one of his worries concerning the Battle of Helm’s Deep sequence, Peter Jackson calls the problem, "Battle Fatigue," i.e., finding a way to keep the scene action-packed while not exhausting the audience. Avengers Forever suffers a different, but not completely dissimilar, strain of Battle Fatigue. There’s hardly a chapter in the 12-part story that doesn’t feature a huge battle between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and regiment upon regiment of crazed bad guys. Not only can it exhaust the reader, but it kills the suspense. After viewing a half-dozen battles with hordes of combatants, and watching the heroes wade through them with ease, it’s tough to imagine the next batch of baddies is going to fare any better.

It's a shame Busiek and Stern didn’t have more time to explore the dynamics of such a truly mismatched team. The story’s team is comprised of, among others, a disheartened Captain America of the past considering giving up his crime-fighting career, the unstable Yellowjacket alongside his future counterpart Giant Man, the former villain Songbird, and a post-Kree/Skrull War Hawkeye who has yet to head two superhero teams of his own and still ignorant of his full potential. A lot more could’ve been done with such a strange group, but the focus is primarily on the action.

I never thought much of Kang as a character before this series. He seemed like, aside from the time traveling aspect, a generic baddie with a host unfortunate costume choices in all of his various incarnations. Avengers Forever gives us a Kang that is a joy to behold. In spite of the fact that he appears in the series as an ally to the heroes, Kang has never been more ruthless, more brutal, more tragic, or more noble. In fact, one largely Avenger-less chapter of the story is devoted to nothing but Kang’s complicated history and how it has affected his motives and deeds.

Which brings us to the issue of continuity. Along with the aforementioned chapter involving Kang, another chapter of the tale involves almost nothing but exposition concerning the history of the Marvel Universe and how it has lead to the events of the series.

For those who appreciate and, more importantly, know the continuity, this will come as a masterstroke. Busiek and Stern obviously worked tirelessly to construct this story within continuity while adding new elements to the past stories. One of Busiek’s strengths is the ability to explain complicated past storylines in a coherent manner, but still, with two whole parts of a 12-part series dedicated to nothing but reviewing the past, as well as brief flashbacks throughout the other chapters, to some it may seem just as daunting to read it all as it was to write it. There’s something very important in there about the Vision and the original Human Torch which, despite numerous re-readings of the trade, I still couldn’t completely explain if asked. If you know some of this history, it may not be a problem. But, if you’re one of the readers who agreed with Bill Jemas and friends with their thoughts on wading through the so-called "continuity mud," it’s likely this trade isn’t for you.

Avengers Forever is, at its heart, a celebration of the Avengers and their history, offering numerous homages to "The Kree/Skrull War" and constructing a story from just about every era of the team’s history, from its origin to future stories not yet seen (and in many cases never to be seen). As such, if you’re not a hardcore Avengers fan, picking up this trade may be risky. If you’re a regular Marvel reader and know at least a little bit about the team (like myself), you may still enjoy it. If you’re new to Marvel comics, this ain’t the book to start with.

Mick Martin

Friday, April 08, 2005

Aquaman: Time and Tide

By Peter David, Kirk Jarvinen, and Brad Vancata
Published By DC Comics

Reaching what Peter David calls "a crisis point in his life" in the introduction to Aquaman: Time and Tide, Aquaman settles in a cave at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by various memorabilia from past exploits and reflecting on his past. We see the hero’s first struggles with his warring aquatic and human origins, his first love affair and the disastrous results, his introduction to Barry Allen and the idea of being a superhero, and finally his first meeting with the villain Ocean Master (though not necessarily in that order). Along the way, Arthur stumbles over a few disturbing revelations that may or may not spell doom for his future.

Aquaman is a character that’s always struggled to be taken seriously, and as such Peter David challenges his readers to look at him in a different a way. The Aquaman of David’s story is a tragic hero wedged between the surface world and that of the sea. Slowly but surely he comes to feel that his heritage has already laid out his path before him and that the path in question may be one too dark for his sanity to withstand.

The introduction of the first chapter achieves this well, starting off with the familiar, funny, and touching scene of a girl and her mother flushing a goldfish down the toilet. We follow the goldfish through the sewers, into the sea, and right to Aquaman’s doorstep where it’s promptly devoured by a bigger fish. The reader is forced to stop looking at Aquaman as he might look at other superheroes. This is a man who lives in a world sharply contrasted to our own, and we have to realize that before we can ever hope to understand him.

Perhaps David’s most successful device in evoking Aquaman’’s warring sides is the contrast between the introductions to the second and third chapters of the tale. The second chapter opens with Aquaman battling Asian sailors to save the life of a pair of dolphins, while the beginning of the third chapter features the same hero fighting off a polar bear to save a girl who was trying to kill it.

Unfortunately, there are David often seems to be trying too hard to impress us with Aquaman’s individualism. At the end of the first chapter, Aquaman recalls--among other things--an attack by a supervillain. He reacts in a particularly un-superhero manner, and his actions, along with those of the villain, seem terribly forced. It’s scenes like this where David seems to be telling a lot more than showing. When Aquaman turns on the crowd witnessing the battle and explains precisely why he did what he did, you feel like you’re being spoonfed, and the whole thing seems disingenuous.

Jarvinen’s renderings of the hero also hurt the idea that this guy is much more than your garden variety do-gooder. Jarvinen’s style is too cartoony for the story, and it’s difficult to see past Aquaman’s cheesier aspects when he’s drawn in such an iconic staring-into-the-camera-with-a-gleam-in-his-eye way. David’s own writing betrays the idea sometimes, having Aquman and Aqualad engaging in witty, Silver Age-esque banter while storming Ocean Master’s submarine in the last chapter of the trade.

The second chapter, "Fish Tales," stands alone in the collection as a touching, heart-wrenching story about Aquaman’s first days. Raised by a school of dolphins, and even believing he’s a dolphin himself, Aquaman’s early years are written in a very Tarzan kind of way, and David even admits this in the intro to the trade, saying he often calls it the "Jungle Tales of Aquaman."

Aquaman’s final revelation at the end of trade is a surprise, but unfortunately not in a good way. It falls flat because David really hasn’’t convinced us it could possibly be true. David has a history of looking at darker sides of heroes, of taking them to the breaking point and seeing how they fare, such as his work on The Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel, but this time it seems like he’s trying too hard.

Perhaps in the context of the rest of Aquaman's history, Aquaman: Time and Tide might work. But to a reader relatively new to the character, it doesn’t, which is sad since it seems that’s precisely who David was trying to reach.
I should also mention that if you do decide to pick up the trade, it may be a good idea to skip David’s introduction until after you’ve read the stories. In explaining the stories, he reveals quite a few "surprises," which may not have helped my enjoyment of the story.

While overall I didn’’t enjoy this collection, I should say that David has succeeded in one aspect. Though most of the story doesn’t work, if you, like me, never really gave Aquaman a second thought, the aforementioned second chapter may, all on its own, make you care about this character just a little bit more.

--Mick Martin

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Set phasers on "bullshit"

About nine years ago, the creators of the various Star Trek incarnations gave the most blatant example I know of something that, in superhero comics as well as popular sci-fi, has become the writer’s most successful tool as well as the writer’s most tired crutch: time travel overkill.

In November 1996, Star Trek: The Next Generation was over, while ST: Voyager and ST: Deep Space Nine were still going strong. Star Trek: First Contact, the TNG cast’s first shot at their own film, was released. It featured, among other things, a trip back to a war-torn, pre-Federation Earth. The same month, Voyager gave us the two-part "Future’s End," in which the Voyager crew traveled to present day Earth, while in "Trials and Tribble-ations," the heroes of Deep Space Nine went back to the "Troubles With Tribbles" episode of the original series.

I’ve never been a huge Trek fan. I’ve always felt, particularly with TNG, there were a lot of moments where the creators came close to greatness but fell flat in execution. When I consider my favorite TNG episodes, the only two examples that spring to mind are time-travel stories: "Yesterday’s End," featuring an alternate universe where the Federation was locked in a desperate war with the Romulans, and "All Good Things...," the two-part series finale in which Picard’s consciousness jumped back and forth between three separate time lines.

I think the reason those episodes stick out in my mind is pretty obvious. In Star Trek, time travel had become the only solution to the problem of stale characterization. There’s only so many times you can beat the audience over the head with "oh he wants so much to be human" Data stories or "he’s so mean yet he’s so nice, oh the inner conflict" Worf stories before everyone but the most loyal fans scream "We get the idea!" and start flipping through TV Guide for Babylon 5 air times. Rather than trying something a little daring, something that might provoke anger from the fans who resist the notion that their favorite characters––like real people––could be vulnerable to change, the Trek Powers That Be opted to reserve the more provocative character exploration for one-shot deals; giving the audience a new, fresh look at the objects of their interest, while at the same time assuring them that the safe, stale bastards would be back the next week in usual form.

What happened with Data is a perfect example. Unlike just about every hardcore Trek fan I’ve spoken to either in person or on the Internet, I actually thought Star Trek: Generations was one of the better TNG films, much better story-wise than either First Contact or Insurrection (though, even Generations utilized time travel). One of the more interesting aspects of Generations was Data’s conflict with his new emotion chip. We’d been given seven years of the same “Data wants to be human, Data tries to be human, Data gets close but is never really human, boo hoo, wah wah” bullshit, and finally the emotion chip gave the character a new direction. Instead of the old reliable tin man, we had a supercomputer on legs with the emotional maturity of a toddler. Rather than explore this further, Trek creators retreated from the new, promising concept faster than their fans could run from conversations with women. With First Contact, it was revealed that Data could switch back and forth from “emotional” to “unleaded” with a little spastic neck twitch. Trekkies everywhere sighed in relief. The same old comfortable horseshit was back.

And if you look at superhero comics–at least in the case of the Big Two’s enduring franchises–for the most part it’s the same deal. Time travel and alternate realities are the easiest roads to critical acclaim. Of course, I don’t mean just stories where characters actually get in time machines and zip to the future or the past. I’m talking about DKR, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, JLA: Earth 2, Earth X and its various sequels, and Kingdom Come. Young Avengers seems to be getting some good mileage from it, as well as Strange. It’s the entire basis of Marvel’s various “The End” titles as well as the whole “Age of Apocalypse” thing. Supreme Power, its predecessor Squadron Supreme, 1602, Planetary, Astro City, The Authority, What If...?, Marvel’s entire “Ultimate” line, and DC’s “Elseworlds” stories to some extent (some more than others) are giving us alternate versions of old characters. Ask any fan of Peter David’s run on The Incredible Hulk for a list of his favorite Hulk stories and Future Imperfect is bound to be there somewhere (as well as, perhaps, The Incredible Hulk: The End), just as Avengers Forever and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would be found on most Avengers-fans’ lists (for favorite Avengers stories, not Hulk stories, that’d be dumb).

This isn’t a blast against time travel/alternate reality stories (unless, of course, it comes in the form of Sliders) or stories looking into the future or past of a particular character. Many of the stories I just mentioned are favorites of mine, too. I guess I just question why it’s necessary to traverse all these alternate worlds in order to get the creative freedom necessary to write something refreshing, innovative, and just plain fucking GOOD. Is it just inevitable that any ongoing superhero title must eventually find time-shifting and alternate worlds as its only oasis for provocative change? And if it is, is it the fans’ fault for refusing to swallow something that looks too different from what they’ve been ingesting for years, or the creators’ fault for being too chickenshit to inject the regular monthlies with something new and saying, “This is change. It’s good. Deal with it?”

P.S. I hope readers appreciate how hard I resisted the urge to end this with “or the creators’ fault for being too chickenshit to go where no man has gone before?”