The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 55: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 1!

The greatest superhero of all time.

It’s taken me a while to get back to my culling project, mostly because I’m sick to death of my culling project. The problem is that I read so far ahead of what I was writing about, that I actually lost interest in it by the time I had to write about it. Plus, me not so interested in superhero comics anymore, and it’s still going to be a while before we get to the indie and creator owned stuff that I really enjoy. Still, I’d like to finish what I started, and so I give to you this:

Spider-Man is the greatest superhero of all time.

Yep, I said it. No take backsies. I’d fight anybody (well, not ANYBODY. If you’re a UFC fighter, or a professional soldier I just don’t think that would be very fair. Or if you ever took a self-defence course. Or watched a lot of martial arts movies. Or if you own a baseball bat) who says differently. Why, you ask? It’s not because of the suit, though the design and look of Spider-Man is a huge part of the character’s success. And it’s not because of the powers, though again, awesome.

It’s because of his origin. It’s the greatest in comics. Better than Superman (illegal immigrant becomes neo-messiah), better than Green Lantern (thrill-seeking diva is given magic jewlery by alien Chamber Of Commerce), and yes, I dare say it’s even better than Batman (spoiled rich kid sees his parents killed, becomes spoiled rich adult who also is absolutely crazy). Batman’s may be the most tragic, but Spider-Man’s is better. Why? Because it’s his fault. When people think of Spider-Man’s origin they usually think of the spider biting him after class, but me? I think of Uncle Ben.

After Peter Parker figures out he has godlike spider powers, he does what any of us would do: He robs a bank and bangs hookers. No actually, he becomes a professional wrestler. He wears a mask while he does so because Aunt May was hoping that he would grow up to rob banks and bang hookers, and he’s embarrassed that he didn’t live up to her expectations. One day, a thief makes his way into the arena that Parker is working at, and although Parker has plenty of opportunity to stop the villain, he lets him go. And so of course in the middle of a city full of 9 million people, the bad guy just happens to stumble into Peter’s Uncle Ben immediately afterward, and kills him dead.

It’s Parker’s own fault. That’s the whole crux of this guy. He was given a great gift, he didn’t use it properly, and he paid the ultimate price. It’s so simple, and yet it’s almost never used in superhero comics anymore. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has the perfect motivation for doing what he does, and without motivation, you just have a guy who likes to dress in fetish gear and likes to get punched in the face.

That’s why he’s stuck around so long. More than any other hero, he truly understands what a responsibility he has, and as such, is probably the only true hero in a universe full of pretenders.

Spider-Man: Essential Spider-Man 1-6

I’ve mentioned numerous times throughout this project that I’ve gotten rid of most of my Marvel Essentials, and although the actual quality of the comics these are reprinting are unmistakable, the quality of the reprints themselves just doesn’t do these comics justice. These collect the run of Amazing Spider-Man from the early 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and are as close to the Holy Grail as you’re going to get in superhero comics: Stan Lee. Steve Ditko. John Buscema. Roy Thomas. The first appearance of Spider-Man. Flash Thompson. The Kingpin. The Green Goblin. The Death of Uncle Ben. Glory Grant. J. Jonah Jameson. The death of Gwen Stacy. And so on.

When it comes to the Silver Age of superhero comics, it doesn’t get better than this. And yet, I’m getting rid of them. The Essential line are basically cheap, black and white reprints of classic comics, and while they are eminently affordable, you do get what you pay for, and sadly reading these digitally and in colour on my iPad is a more fulfilling experience than these black and white cheapies.

CULL

Spider-Man: Greatest Villains

This was a collection of some of the greatest stories involving some Spider-Man’s greatest villains (Green Goblin, Mysterio, Sandman, Venom, etc). Like the Essential line, the quality of the stories themselves are not in doubt, but the quality of the presentation sadly is. LIke many Marvel trades from the late 90’s, the glue on has deteriorated to the point that it’s unreadable, and therefore not worth owning.

CULL

Spider-Man & Black Cat - The Evil That Men Do

This was from the brief period in the late 90’s/early 2000’s in which Kevin Smith was considered to be a good comic book writer. Thankfully, that time seems to be over now, and it’s rare that any of the major comic book companies will let Smith near their characters. But the comics from this period are still around, and this one might be one of the worst. Smith reimagines long time Spider-Man supporting character Black Cat as a bisexual vamp whose previously unmentioned rape was a big motivator for her beating up bad guys. It’s turgid, over-the-top, and barely readable. In short, it’s Kevin Smith. Terry Dodgson’s art is fun, and as one would expect, his Black Cat is about as sexy as is legally allowed in comic books. But it’s not enough to save this turkey.

CULL

Next up: More Spider-Man!

 

A story of a man and his hammer: My review of Thor

I’ve been looking forward to Marvel’s adaptation of their Thor character for a while now, ever since it was announced that Kenneth Branagh would be directing. I thought right off the bat that Marvel had made a wise choice, and I’m happy to see that choice was justified. I had a shaky moment or two when I actually saw the first images and trailers from the film, as to say that they looked like something a film student would do would be an insult to film students everywhere.

But now I’ve seen it. And it is wonderful.

Here’s the saga: Thor is the son of Odin. They are both part of an ancient race of extra-dimensional creatures that were once worshipped as gods (though Branagh goes out of his way to ensure that the “g” word is barely mentioned here, in deference to our hillbilly cousins to the south) on Earth. Thor is the greatest warrior of his race. He’s also a bit of a douche. And so his father strips him of his powers, and banishes him to Earth. Once there he is found, and flirted with, by Natalie Portman. Eyelashes are batted. Adventures ensue.

Things I loved: 

The script:  It’s also a tight script, and it’s one that makes Thor that rare superhero movie that has a better origin for its lead character than the actual comics ever did. The script is a combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Journey Into Mystery stories, J. Michael Strazynski’s recent run on Thor, and Mark Millar’s work on the character in Marvel’s Ultimates line, and to my mind should pretty much be the definitive origin for the character going forward. In addition, the dialogue really set the tone here, and walks a fine balance between simple fun, and straight camp. The script also understands that it’s not necessarily Thor and the Asgardians that people want to see, it’s Thor and the Asgardians interacting with people from Earth. It’s your classic Stranger In A Strange Land scenario. That’s what’s always worked best in the comics, and it’s a big part of why this works as well as it does.

The acting: Chris Hemsworth is a star. You might not know it yet, but he sure as hell sure does. His portrayal of Thor has all of the intensity you would expect from a great warrior, but also has a sincere humility and charm that basically makes the film. Like Robert Downey in Iron Man, it’s Hemsworth’s performance here that is going to be what allows non-superhero fans to truly enjoy this movie. Fantastic choice, and I for one can’t wait to see how he interacts with Downey and Chris Evans in The Avengers next year.

Not that this is a one person cast. While I still think the role of Jane Foster was wasted on someone as talented as Natalie Portman, she still did a fine job here. And Anthony Hopkin’s Odin really captured the idea of an old and tired god, who wants nothing more than to hand the reigns of power to his son. But it’s Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Thor’s kind of evil but not really evil but still pretty evil brother Loki that is the other real star of this show. He mixes the perfect blend of mischievousness and anarchy for the character, and I think Marvel is right to feature him as the lead villain in the Avengers next year.

The direction: Branagh was the perfect choice for this, as he’s a director that not only understands father-son drama VERY well, but also understands how important character is to whatever story you’re telling. This entire movie is crafted around character. It’s character that moves every plot point forward, and even minor characters are full realized under Branagh’s direction.

Almost everything else: This movie really captures the wonder of Asgard. This is a true land of the gods. This is also Marvel raising the bar. This is still only  done 3 movies now on their own, but it’s the first one that really moves out of the mostly light sci-fi world they’re been playing in, and pushes into full genre storytelling. And it’s effortless. Like the original 1960s Marvel Universe, you truly believe that the same world that has gamma monsters and futuristic battle suits would also have travellers from another dimension.

What I didn’t like:

I’m not sure if it was the fact that Branagh has never really done this type of movie before, or Marvel’s legendary frugality, but the CG isn’t exactly going to light anybody on fire. I’ve seen a lot worse, but rarely in a movie this good. Although this is a story and character-driven film, it’s also one with a LOT of CG, and so the poor effects are quite noticeable. The problem with movies like Avatar setting the special effects bar as high as they do, is that if you hope to hit that bar, you need to spend $300 million. Marvel did not, and so the effects aren’t great. That is a SMALL price to pay, and is a relatively tiny gripe.

In short, Thor is the perfect superhero movie. It captures a healthy mix of camp, adventure, and action. And it’s fun. So much fun in fact, that  I will pay it the highest compliment I can: I want a sequel.

Rating: A

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 43: Marvel Comics – The Fantastic Four

Although its easy to point at your Batmans, your Supermans, and your Spider-Mans as the most iconic superheroes of our age, it’s unlikely that we’d even be discussing them if it weren’t for the Fantastic Four. Fantastic Four #1 is where what we know of as Marvel Comics really began in 1961, and a strong case could be made that superhero comics as we know them wouldn’t exist without it.

A family of four adventurers accidentally gets caught in cosmic rays while on a secret mission in space. They develop superpowers, and voila! The FF is born. When you’re a kid, reading superhero comics for the first time, that can come across as a pretty tame origin compared to those of vigilante Bat-creatures and snarling feral rodents. But my appreciation for the first family of comics has increased over the years, and it’s been somewhat of a surprise to discover how consistently good Fantastic Four comics have been.

Fantastic Four – Essential Fantastic Four Volumes 1-5

As has been the case with most of Marvel’s Essential collections, they don’t nearly do their source material justice. These oversized black and white editions collect the first several years of the FF’s adventures; Yep, it’s Stan and Jack. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work on the Fantastic Four is one of the greatest achievements of modern comic art. That I am getting rid of these isn’t an insult to them, it’s a compliment. I’ll be replacing them with their high-gloss, Marvel Masterwork equivalents ASAP.

CULL

Fantastic Four – The John Byrne Years (Fantastic Four Visionaries 1-8)

Although Lee and Kirby’s work on the FF is considered sacrosanct, many fans would actually jump to the early ’80’s when asked to point out their favourite FF run. John Byrne took over both the writing and art in 1982, and redefined the concept for a new generation. How? By going back to basics. In fact, every single successful run of this title can be summed up in one phrase: Tight, close-knit family that loves each other unreservedly goes on crazy, science-oriented adventures. That’s it. When you try to complicate it,  or go outside of those parameters, then you fail. Byrne understood this, and so while he did make changes, they were necessary societal tweaks, rather than a full-out overhaul. His stamp was mostly felt by the Invisible Woman character. He doesn’t get enough credit for it, but Byrne is the one who is responsible for transforming her from the vapid, blubbering, talking uterus as created by Stan Lee, into one of the most fully formed, realistic female characters in superhero comics.

There were several notable moments in Byrne’s tenure on the title, but I don’t think he was stronger than on “The Trial Of Galactus”. Reed Richards had previously saved the life of one of the galaxy’s worst threats, and was now being held accountable by an intergalactic tribunal. To a 12-year-old kid, this was a jaw-dropping story, and one that doesn’t get enough credit.

There are some flubs, mainly the marriage of Johnny Storm to Ben Grimm’s ex-girlfriend (easily fixed later on by the revelation that it was actually a shape-changing alien the whole time! Surprise!), but all in all, this is one of the better continuous superhero runs that Marvel was responsible for in the ’80’s, and I think more than a few people would say that it was the greatest Fantastic Four run of all time.

KEEP

Fantastic Four – The New Fantastic Four: Monsters Unleashed

I’m a writer guy. I love writing, specifically good writing. And so, there aren’t many artists in the superhero world I like enough to make me pick up their books based on art alone. Art Adams is one of those, which is probably why I picked this up in the first place in the mid 90’s. The Fantastic Four have been captured, and so an ad-hoc team of Marvel’s most popular heroes (Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and the Hulk), team up to go after the bad guys. This was a fun story. It blends action and humour well, and Art Adams’ work  jumps off the page into your brain, as usual. Walt Simonson wrote this one, and I enjoyed it enough on reread that I’m going to try to give the rest of his run a shot.

Fantastic Four – The Mark Waid Years (Imaginauts, Unthinkable, Authoritative Action, Hereafter, Disassembled, Rising Storm)

As with Daredevil, my collection of FF stories has lots of holes it. For some reason I stayed away for most of the next 15 years after John Byrne left the book, until Mark Waid brought me back to comic’s first family. As with Byrne, Waid stuck to the basics, and focused on the FF as Marvel’s premier explorers, (or “Imaginauts” as Waid would have us believe).

In my opinion, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s run on FF really set the bar for what is still possible with fun, all-ages mainstream comics. Those who say that it’s impossible to just tell a good, old-fashioned superhero story anymore hasn’t read this run. Waid starts where are truly great superhero comics start; with the characters. He recognizes that these 4 people are comic archetypes by now, and so Waid doesn’t try to change their characters to match his stories; he changes his stories to match their characters. And so the stories, while fresh and action packed, still feel very familiar, and accessible. Waid’s writing here isn’t continuity heavy, it’s character heavy.

Of course, any writer who tackles the FF eventually has to bring Doctor Doom into the mix. To Waid’s credit, he resists the urge for as long as possible, but then tells one of the most horrifying Doom stories of all time, one that focuses on Doom as a tortured, sociopathic villain, rather than as a two-dimensional punching bag. There’s so much to love here, but I’d be remiss in pointing out a few of my favourite moments: Reed telling his daughter the real reason why he went public with the Fantastic Four; Ben telling Franklin how hard it is for him just to get through every day; Johnny becoming the CFO of Fantastic Four Enterprises; Johnny and Sue switching powers, and many more.

For superhero comics, it doesn’t get much better than this. While John Byrne’s time on the title might have been the most successful, and Jonathan Hickman’s current run might be the most critically acclaimed, it’s Waid’s that I’ll always go back to. It’s my personal favourite Fantastic Four run, and one of my all-time favourite all-ages superhero comic.

KEEP

Fantastic Four – The Mark Millar Years (World’s Greatest, The Master Of Doom)

Or year, to be more accurate. Millar  and Brian Hitch only did 15 issues of the Fantastic Four, but they definitely left a mark. As usual with Millar’s comics, this story was epic, ambitious, and ultimately disappointing. There were some big additions introduced (The “mentor” of Doctor Doom, the creation of an alternate Earth to eventually move all of Earth’s citizens to, etc), but the payoff was poor, especially with the Doom’s mentor storyline. This is the catch-22 of superhero comics: If you don’t add anything new, than people complain that your book is boring. If you DO add new concepts, then people complain that you’re monkeying around with time-tested classics. Millar decides to monkey, but doesn’t take enough time to really build up his new villains, or to develop subplots (Ben’s “marriage” comes to mind), that really should take years to pay off, not months. And so although he keeps telling us that they’re real threats, we don’t really believe him. These are fun stories though, and while I won’t say that they’re essential, they’re definitely worth a gander.

KEEP

Fantastic Four – The Jonathan Hickman Years (Vol. 1, 2, 3)

It might not be fair to judge these yet, as Hickman’s tenure on the book is still ongoing. Jonathan Hickman is still relatively new to the comics world, but he’s making a pretty big impact in a relatively short period of time. I’ll get into my thoughts regarding his writing skills later on when I review his non superhero material, but for now, let me say that I think that his run on FF has been fairly strong, with moments of genius. At this point however, those moments are brief. I’m also not sure he’s got a handle on all four of these characters the way that Waid did (Millar didn’t either, so Hickman shouldn’t be too worried about it), and his Fantastic Four is often colder than I would like. Who he DOES have a handle on is Reed Richards, which should be no surprise to those familiar with Hickman’s superhero work. And so he asks the question that most writers have never really explored: Why would the smartest person on earth be satisfied with being the Marvel Universe’s version of Bill Nye The Science Guy? Answer is: He wouldn’t. And so Hickman assigns Reed Richards the most difficult task of all:

Solve Everything.

So far he hasn’t quite managed to do that yet, but I like this aggressive version of Reed Richards so much I’m willing to keep giving Hickman a shot. So far, so good.

KEEP

Next up: Ghost Rider, GLA, and the Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 42: Marvel Comics – Deadpool, Daughters Of The Dragon, Dr. Strange, and The Exiles

Deadpool – Deadpool Classic Vol. 1

Deadpool might be the last original Marvel character to really gain mainstream popularity. When you consider that he was created almost 20 years ago, it shows how much people care about the current slate Marvel characters.

His popularity is mystifying to me. I will give a no-prize to anyone that can give me even one reason why the character still endures. Rereading this collection of his first few solo mini series did nothing to change my mind. The fun, cartoony art by Ed McGuinness and Joe Madureira are overshadowed  by the infantile humour and poor pacing, and I’m more than a little embarrassed that I bought this in the first place.

CULL

 

Daughters Of The Dragon – Samurai Bullets

Sometimes the math doesn’t add up. I’ve long been a fan of these former supporting cast members, not to mention that I love the writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. I also think that Khari Evans has a lot of potential, and has a big future in store for her in the comic biz. Then why don’t I like this more? I think it’s because they are trying to tell so many types of story at once (superhero, kung-fu, blaxploitation), that they lose their focus, and forget to tell a cohesive one. Although there’s some joy here, it’s ultimately not compelling enough to keep.

CULL

Doctor Strange – Master Of The Mystic Arts

This is a digest collection of some the good Doctor’s earliest adventures by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Brief primer: Former great surgeon goes to Tibet to regain the use of his hands after a terrible accident. He meets the Ancient One, a Tibetan yoda that teaches him how to become Earth’s greatest sorcerer. These are breathtaking stories, and Ditko was never stronger than his work on this 1960’s mind-fuck.  Unfortunately the digest format doesn’t do this amazing work justice, but I’ll keep it until I can replace it with the Marvel Masterworks version. Essential for fans of 1960’s Marvel comics.

KEEP

Doctor Strange – The Oath

Doctor Strange is probably the most successful Marvel character never to have his own successful series. There have been numerous shortlived attempts at doing more with Doctor Strange, but it’s never seemed to work, and for the most part Marvel seems content at using Strange as it’s resident deus magical ex machina. The Oath was a mini from a few years ago, written by Brian K. Vaughan, with some incredible art by Marcos Martin. This a little-known gem of a story, one that focuses a little more on the Doctor part of the character than the Strange part. Although Brian Vaughan is more known for his creator-owned comics, this is one of my favourites of the superhero work that he’s done.

KEEP

Exiles – Exiles, A World Apart, Out Of Time, Legacy, Unnatural, Fantastic Voyage, Time Breakers, Age Of Apocalypse, Bump In The Night, A Blink In Time, Earn Your Wings, World Tour Book 1 and 2, The New Exiles Enemy Of The Stars, Starting Over

This is the kind of series that gets launched regularly by both major publishers, but rarely seem to work for any period of tine. The concept was designed to take advantage of the endless amounts of alternate universes that Marvel seems to create on a weekly basis. The Exiles were a team of characters tangentially related to the X-Men. They were comprised of characters from different alternate realities, all teaming up to solve “cracks” in the multi-verse. No, I don’t know what that means either. I do know that what should have been another generic team book became one of the more interesting straight superhero books that Marvel published in the first half of the last decade. At least that’s how it started. But the reason why the book worked wasn’t the characters, it was writer Judd Winick, and the minute he left the book, it didn’t take long for it to become yet another bland superhero comic.

Why? Character vs. Plot. Winick is a character guy, and he spent a lot of time crafting a team of well-rounded, two dimensional character, with some real emphasis on their relationships, both romantic and otherwise. When Tony Bedard too over the book, character got pushed down in favour of crazy, intricate plots, involving as many alternate realities as possible. While some of those stories were readable, any hint of “specialness” that the book previously had was soon gone. By the time Chris Claremont started to write it, the book was just downright awful.

Exiles, A World Apart, Out Of Time, Legacy, Unnatural, Fantastic Voyage: KEEP

Time Breakers, Age Of Apocalypse, Bump In The Night, A Blink In Time, Earn Your Wings, World Tour Book 1 and 2, The New Exiles Enemy Of The Stars, Starting Over: CULL

Next up: the Fantastic Four!