The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 47: Marvel Comics – Iron Man, Luke Cage, Longshot, Marvel Boy

Iron Man – The Five Nightmares, World’s Most Wanted Books 1 & 2, Stark Disassembled, Stark Resilient Book 1 and 2

Iron Man is the next contestant in what’s become my regular “Marvel Characters I Actually Don’t Give A Crap About” column. For those of who haven’t seen the movie, here’s Iron Man: He’s smart. He’s rich. He got shot/stabbed/punched in the heart, and invented armour to help him survive. So since the wealth and the supermodels weren’t enough, he now used that armour to turn himself into more of a pretentious douche than he already was.

My problem with Iron Man is simple. He has no motivation. He’s rich beyond belief, is one of the smartest people on earth, and could invent his way out of pretty much any problem that comes his way? So why dress up like a drunken Tinman and fight crime? It’s not something Marvel has ever answered properly, but the beauty of Matt Fractio’sn recent run on the character is that he doesn’t even try. Fraction’s Iron Man isn’t recently motivated by altruism so much as self-interest. He wants to save the world, but he doesn’t really care about the citizens of those world. He’d never admit it though. For him, it’s being able to solve problems that is his motivation. This is a refreshing take on the character, but it’s one that I doubt has much left in the bank. Fraction’s run is a decent, well-crafted thrill-ride, and Salvador Larocca has convinced me that he’s one of the preeminent pencillers in the superhero genre today. Good, modern-day take on the character.

KEEP

Iron Man – Extremis

Before Fraction’s recent run on Iron Man, Marvel hired noted comic book legend and all-around mad god Warren Ellis to attempt to spruce the character up a bit. He succeeded from a superficial standpoint with the Extremis storyline. In order to combat a new type of villain, Tony Stark injects himself with an enhancement organism called Extremis. It gives him new powers, a new lease on life, blah blah blah. Blah. This IS an entertaining story. It really is. And every panel by Adi Granov is pin-up worthy. But like most of Ellis’ mainstream superhero work, it comes across as written by someone who really hates superhero comics, as well as by someone who hasn’t read a Marvel comic in decades. Although I enjoyed the story for what it is, there isn’t a single action taken by Tony Stark here that fits into what we know of his history and character. This is a man who has literally fought gods with his bare hands, and we’re to believe that he would inject himself with a virus that could possibly kill him just because he had a tough time in a fight? And not call the rest of the Avengers?  As a stand-alone, this works. As a regular part of Marvel continuity, not so much.

KEEP

Luke Cage – Noir

I usually HATE this kind of story.  HATE it. This was Marvel’s recent attempt to capitalize on the recent interest in noir and crime comics. And so instead of creating new and interesting characters to play with, they took their old standbys, and dropped them into a James M. Cain novel. It shouldn’t have worked. Actually, it didn’t. For the most part, these were silly, forced contrivances that weren’t any better than the usual Marvel fare. Except for one. Except for Luke Cage.

I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Luke Cage was created as a response to 1970’s blaxploitation movies, which share more than a passing similarity to some of the lighter noir fare. And so Cage not only works as a 1940’s muscle-for-hire, the character thrives on it. This won’t be competing with Brubaker’s Criminal or Azzarello’s 100 Bullets any time soon, but it’s much subtler approach to this type of story than I would have given Marvel credit for in this day and age.

KEEP

Longshot – Longshot

This was a bizarre little mini-series by Anne Nocenti and Arthur Adams that snuck under Marvel’s radar in the mid 1980s. It had enough goof and charm that the character has been used intermittently ever since, most often in some X-Capacity or another. I’ve been a big fan of Nocenti’s writing in the past, so I was a little surprised to find that I found this almost unreadable. Longshot is your typical “stranger in a strange land” scenario, with the lead character being an escapee from a hell-dimension that is trying to make a go of it on Earth, and runs into a few of Marvel’s more colourful characters while doing so. While the premise seems sound, the execution is so poorly paced, with such goofy characterization, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Everything moves at a breakneck pace, with Longshot getting into scrape after scrape with almost no effort to portray him as anything more than a fun-loving, kind-hearted chaos agent. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t stand up to repeated reading. And although Arthur Adams is one of the finest superhero artists of his generation, his art alone isn’t compelling enough to get me to keep this book.

CULL

Marvel Boy – Marvel Boy

About 10 years ago, Grant Morrison had a brief tenure at Marvel which he spent trying to whole heartedly destroy the X-Men. In the middle of that, he took the time to write Marvel Boy, an interesting little mini-series about an alien soldier who has been stranded on earth. I’ve been very tough on Morrison on this blog (and will continue to be so), but I remember this series fondly. So I was a little surprised to see that it’s as guilty of the usual shoddy storytelling his comics usually offer. If you read a lot of reviews about Morrison’s work, the following observation often comes up: Great concept guy, poor storyteller. And while it’s redundant to go back to that well, it’s really the best way to describe him. I would take it a step further. He’s a brilliant concept guy. Just freakin’ brilliant. The sheer depth of characters, concepts, and realities the man comes up with on a daily basis is astounding. And Marvel Boy is no exception. Morrison throws out so many expansions on the Kree (Aforementioned alien race) Mythology, that it would take Marvel a year to fully capitalize on them. Not to mention Dr. Midas, a truly great Marvel villain in search of a truly great story. But then you get to the other side of Morrison. The side who can’t seem to tell a simple story without adding more exposition than a U. N. Resolution about the evils of exposition.  That side is in full force here. And so what starts as a taut thriller, ends up as an incomprehensible mess. I know I’m spending a lot of time talking about a series that I’m culling, but I’ve taken a lot of shots at Morrison without really explaining why.

The man seems to be incapable of telling a coherent multi-issue story. The man loses track of characters and plot lines like I lose my glasses. It’s not that bad in something like Marvel Boy, but extremely noticeable in something like Final Crisis, a story so bad it makes Marvel Boy look like Middlemarch. There are comics he’s written I enjoy (All-Star Superman, and…well…I guess just All-Star Superman then), but they are too few and too far between considering his status as the most popular comic writer alive today. And he is. People love him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.

CULL

Next up: Moon Knight!

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The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 46: Marvel Comics – The Inhumans, Iron Fist, and the Immortal Weapons!

The Immortal Weapons – The Immortal Weapons

These are supporting characters that spun out of Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s epic run on Iron Fist (more on that below), and so this book is disposable if you’re not a fan of that run. But it’s an essential companion piece for those who loved the original series, and several of the mysterious characters from that run get fleshed out here. This is essentially a martial arts anthology book, and so some tales stand up better than others, but all in all, this is a good kung-fu book.

KEEP

 The Inhumans – The Inhumans, Silent War

The Inhumans have been minor Marvel supporting characters since Jack Kirby and Stan Lee first created them for the Fantastic Four title in the mid 1960’s. They are a race of genetic superhumans that were created on Earth millenia by the Kree (Marvel alien race) to serve them. It never happened.

The Inhumans have always been an interesting concept, but have always played second fiddle to the X-Men in the superhuman genetic monstrosities department, and they have often been pushed to the back of the bus as a result. Until recently. Over the past decade or so, Marvel has been slowly rebuilding the concept of the group, to the point where they’re an integral part of numerous Marvel storylines. And it all started with The Inhumans, a 12 issue maxi series from 1998 by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee.

Paul Jenkins is one of the best writers in superhero comics. No question. However, as a plotter he leaves a little to be desired. Jenkins is a character specialist. He knows how to dig into the heads of characters like nobody else, and really gets to the essence of the people he’s writing about. Emotion is his trade, and he plies it well. The trade-off is that he takes 12 issues to tell 4 issues of story. But in this case I’m willing to accept it. Jenkins (with the help of the gorgeous art of Jae Lee), crafts an intense collection of character studies here, and really sets up what Marvel would do with these characters later on. The “outsider” angle is really pushed hard here, and Jenkins sets up Black Bolt (the leader of the Inhumans), as one of the great tortured heroes of the Marvel Universe.

David Hine & Frazer Irving told a similar story a decade later with Silent War, but it’s one that’s just as effective. This is a transition story, one designed to set the Inhumans even further apart from the mainstream that most Marvel heroes operate in. While it didn’t get a lot of attention when it came out, it’s one that is integral story-line wise to the events that the Inhumans would be involved with later.

KEEP

The Immortal Iron Fist – The Last Iron Fist Story, The Seven Capital Cities Of Heaven, The Book Of Iron Fist, The Mortal Iron Fist, Escape From The Eighth City

Here is the truth about Iron Fist: He’s awesome. He’s a kung-fu master, he once ripped the heart out of an immortal dragon, and can summon his internal energies to make his fist indestructible. Cool, right? Wrong. Despite his bad-assery, Iron Fist has never been what you would call a popular character, and is usually relegated to team-ups, bad mini-series, and failed team books. How Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction convinced Marvel to let them create this under-read gem of a series I’ll never know, but I’m glad.

This is pure kung-fu epic storytelling. Although the character is firmly set in the superheroics of the Marvel Universe, it’s the martial art side of the character that Fraction and Brubaker focus on here. Lost cities, epic kung-fu battles, and secret conspiracies: They’re all here. The origin of the Iron Fist isn’t redone here, it’s expanded upon, with the character’s history, mythos, and motivations made much clearer.  Fraction and Brubaker turn the story of the city of K’un L’un into one of political intrigue, human rights, and magic, and really make us care about the character they’re writing about for the first time. Definitely one of the better martial arts stories that Marvel or DC has ever told, and the quality remained solid even after Fraction and Brubaker left the book, though it was cancelled not long after.

KEEP

Next up: Iron Man!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 45: Marvel Comics – The Incredible Hulk!

Here’s what you need to know about the Hulk:

  • He’s really a scientist named Bruce Banner. When he loses his temper, he becomes a gamma-spawned gene freak that can bench press a F-16. Kind of like Charlie Sheen.
  • He’s usually written as the strongest being on earth. He gets even stronger when he’s angry. Sometimes. Kind of like Charlie Sheen.
  • I’m don’t really give a shit about him. I’ve never found him particularly compelling over a long stretch of time, and I think more bad Hulk stories have been written than good ones. I also hate the randomness of the character. He’s essentially a chaos agent, and I find that boring to read about for the most part. Kind of like Charlie Sheen.
  • There are a few stories I like. Here they are.

Hulk – The Peter David Years (Hulk Visionaries Vol. 1-7)

Peter David’s run is the run that people point to when talking about the “great” Hulk stories of the past, and it’s easy to see why. Peter David is one of those rare comic writers whose style seems to be timeless. He’s just as relevant today as he was in the late ’80’s/early ’90’s when these stories were written, and he’s currently producing some of the best work of his career in X-Factor. So I was a little surprised to find that when I reread these that they got off to a skakey start. In my opinion, it took David a few years to really get his bearing on the title. It wasn’t that they were bad stories. In fact, they were perfectly fine, run-of-the-mill Hulk stories. But I don’t care about run-of the-mill Hulk stories. And so it wasn’t until David really started to explore the concept of multiple personalities that I started to give a damn. These are the stories I love: The grey Hulk becoming a Vegas mob bodyguard, Doc Sampson attempting to merge all of the various Hulk personas, The new and improved Bruce Hulk, etc. There are so many classic Hulk moments that David is responsible for that I’m still not sure why he’s not back on the title for good.

David’s run also attracted more than a few of of the hottest artists of the past couple of decades, but it’s Todd McFarlane, Dale Keown, and Gary Frank that got the most attention. Out of the three, it’s Gary Frank’s work that stands the test of time the best, though Keown’s still has impact. Although I can’t say that I have the love for this run the way that I love Miller’s Daredevil, or Byrne’s Fantastic Four, the second half of it still stands up pretty well today.

Vol. 1-4: Cull. Vol. 5-7: Keep

Hulk – The End

Long after their run on the Hulk ended, David and Keown were persuaded to kick the can one last time, and to tell the very last Hulk story. And in my opinion, one of the very best. The story starts after humanity has fallen. All the cities have collapsed, all of the humans have died. All, except for one.

This really is the perfect “ending” to the Hulk mythos, and might be the only way his story could be told. At it’s heart, the Hulk story is one of two things: Tragedy, and courage, and this brilliant little one-shot captures both in spades. Recommended.

KEEP

The Hulk – Planet Hulk

The Hulk has been in somewhat of a resurgence as of late, and it all started here. This story came out of nowhere 4 years ago, and relaunched the character so successfully, that his book now is one of Marvel’s top sellers. Here’s how it goes: Some of Marvel’s top heroes are tired of the Hulk’s constant destruction, and decide to trick him into going to outer space. While there, they tell him they’re sending him off world. Permanently. He doesn’t go where he’s supposed to, and ends up on Sakar, a planet full of gladiators, horrible monsters, and a corrupt empire. So basically, Ottawa. Hulk, being Hulk, quickly becomes the top dog, and leads a revolution, and falls in love. Needless to say, his happiness is very shortlived.

This is one of my all-time favourite Hulk stories. Why? Because the moping is kept to a minimum. Bruce Banner is barely a footnote here, and while I understand that he’s an integral part of the character, the constant whining gets tiresome. This Hulk is bad ass, and has no mercy. Not only that, but writer Greg Pak puts together an interesting supporting cast, a brand new planet, and a tight, yet epic plot, in only 12 issues. Hulk as Barbarian Warlord is a concept so simple, yet so damn effective, that it’s hard to believe that it hadn’t been done before.

KEEP

Hulk – World War Hulk, World War Hulk Frontline, and World War Hulk: X-Men

As I said, Planet Hulk didn’t end well. Now the Hulk is pissed, and he wants revenge. He comes back to Earth, in hopes of getting back at the heroes that he blames for what happened to him. This should have worked, but in reality Marvel wasn’t willing to take this story to it’s tragic, logical conclusion, and so the ending comes across as a bit of a cop out. Still entertaining, but not in the same league as the story that spawned it. And while I enjoyed the main story enough to keep it, the same can’t be said for the tie-in books.

World War Hulk: Keep, Frontline, X-Men: Cull

Next up: Inhumans!

Movie Reviews: Hanna, and I Saw The Devil

Hanna – Directed by Joe Wright

I’m used to being disapointed at the movie theatre. It happens pretty regularly. Hollywood has been slowly dumbing down their product for so long, that when I see something that counters that trend, it can take me a while to recognize the quality of what I’m seeing.

Enter Hanna. On the surface, Hanna is a murder-by-numbers thriller, with a comic book plot that doesn’t deserve a second chance. But not only is it worth a closer look, it demands it. The plot: Hanna is a teenaged girl that has been trained by Eric Bana to be a lethal killing machine. Once he deems her ready, he sets her loose on her unknown mission.  Simple right? Right.

But wrong. What’s important here isn’t the what. The what is a teenaged girl kicking ass. Big whoop. And It’s not even the why. The why is interesting, but ultimately predictable. What makes this movie interesting is the how, specifically in regards to stylistic choices. What I loved about this movie is that Joe Wright NEVER takes the easy way out here. He could have easily set the entire film in the US, slicked it up a la Zach Snyder, and millions would have been made. Instead he set the entire film in North Africa and Europe, with accents, subtitles, and an avant-techno soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Ibiza dance floor.

The thing about this movie that’s worth remembering is that it’s got balls the size of grapefruits. The plot is simple, but the emotions behind it are not, and Wright gets every last drop of pathos out of the excellent script by Seth Lochhead & David Farr. And so the movie is quite intense, and the acting performances are over the top at times. The only time this actually detracts from the film is when Cate Blanchett shows up. She’s one of the finest actors in the world, but  she’s guilty of the worst performance I’ve seen since….um….well, since she was in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. I don’t think her and action movies mix well.

What else? The fight scenes are short, but realistic. Almost no slo-mo, sound effects, or enhancements at all. The acting performances (other than Blanchett’s) are laudable, and Saoirse Ronan is well on her way to becoming a star. It’s her deft portrayal of naivete and revenge that makes this movie ultimately work so well.

Hanna is a risky, ambitious thriller that more than delivers a perfect mix of action and drama.

Rating: A-

I Saw The Devil – Directed by Jee-woon Kim

I’m a big fan of the modern Korean action movie. Huge. And that fact, combined with the fact that this was directed by the guy that made one of my favourite Korean films of the past few year (The Good, The Bad, & The Weird) , and it starred the guy that was in one of my favourite films of all time (Oldboy), made this a must-watch in my book.

I wish I hadn’t.

The concept here is solid: When his pregnant girlfriend dies horribly, a secret agent goes after the man responsible. Awesome, right? Yes, except that our hero catches up with the serial killer 45 minutes into the movie. Huh? Exactly. There is a good movie here, but it’s paced so weirdly that it’s impossible to enjoy. The serial killer (played by Min-sik Choi) is portrayed as strangely inept, and our hero (Byung-hun Lee) isn’t much better. So it’s not so much a game of cat and mouse, as it is a game of cat missing both eyes, and mouse with one leg.

What happens for the rest of the movie? Torture porn. Lots and lots of torture porn. Cop beats up killer. Killer beats up cop. Cop beats up other killer. Killer beats up two random killers he finds in a taxi. Cop beats up killer again. And again. And again.

Although there are a few scenes that held my interest, for the most part this movie just made me mad at the lost opportunity. In Jee-woon Kim’s attempts to own a genre that died two years ago, he lost the opportunity to make something even better: a decent thriller.

Rating: D+

Wednesday Comics Woundup: Fear Itself, NonPlayer, Green Wave, Jake Ellis, Orc Stain, Butcher Baker, and Undying Love

I thought I’d take a little break from the cull project, and talk about a few recent single issues that I’ve read recently.

Fear Itself #1 by Matt Fraction & Stuart Immonen

I’ve long since lost my fascination with the Big Two’s annual cross-over events, but I still succumbed to Marvel’s recent pimping of this, their most recent attempt to win the “HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE WHAT THEY JUST DID” comic book sweepstakes.

The premise here is twofold: 1) The daughter of the Red Skull (Captain America’s arch-nemesis. Very bad. Has a Red Skull. ) gets possessed by an ancient Norse god of fear, and is planning bad stuff, and 2) Odin (king of the Norse gods), finally gets tired of his son’s (Thor, as in The Mighty) whippersnappery, and removes Asgard (King of The Gods. Like Vegas, with more mead, and less blackjack) to another plane of existence.

Fear Itself is one of those comic events that promise that THE MARVEL UNIVERSE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME OMG!!!. I can’t say that we’ve seen quite that level of hyperbole as of yet, but this was a good read, and did exactly what you would hope a number one of this magnitude would do: Have you breathlessly waiting for the next issue. Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen did a nice job here, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

Undying Love #1 by Tomm Coker & Daniel Freedman

Image has a bunch of new first issues I’ve been looking forward to, and it’s ironic that the one I was looking forward to the least is one I enjoyed the most. Undying Love is the story of John Sargent, an American spy/solider type trying to turn his Chinese vampire girlfriend back into a human.  Awwwww. Despite the horrible title, this was pretty good first issue. Tomm Coker’s Tim Bradstreet-inspired photo-realistic art is the perfect fit for this dark thriller, and I think Coker and Daniel Freeman did a nice job with how judiciously they paced out the exposition. They give just enough plot to ensure our return, but still keep a healthy sense of mystery about the whole thing. For a Chinese Vampire Romance comic, this was pretty good, though heavy on the schmaltz. I’ll definitely try a second issue of this.

Rating: B

Green Wake #1 by Kurtis Wiebe & Riley Rossmo

Probably the biggest disappointment out of all of the titles that came out yesterday. Not because it was so bad, but because I had such high expectations from it. Image has been on fire lately, but their laissez-faire attitude towards letting their creators do whatever they want, can sometimes mean that the editorial tweaks that a more hands-on publishing house like Vertigo could bring aren’t there. And so you have something like Green Wake, a great concept desperately in need of a new script. First of all, the art is really the reason to buy this book, and fans of Riley Rossmo’s work on Cowboy Ninja Viking will be glad to know that his style of colour-as-metaphor continues here, and is perfectly suited for the dark theme of the book. Where this fails is the script. Kurtis Wiebe seems to be overly impressed with the sound of his own voice, and isn’t content to let Rossmo’s atmospheric moodiness speak for itself. The premise is interesting: A murder takes place in Limbo. But Wiebe feels the need to preach, instead of telling his story. Preach about what? Death, I guess. And life. And mortality. Blah. Blah. And Blah. I’m just impressed enough with the look and tone of this book, that I may give it another shot, in hopes that things improve. I don’t mean to be harsh, this is an interesting first issue, just not one that lived up to my expectations.

Rating: C

Who Is Jake Ellis # 3 by Nathan Edmondson & Tonci Zonjic

I’ve written about this book before, and gave it a tentative thumbs up. With the third issue, I may have to revise my stance. Edmondson seems to be stretching out a razor-thin concept as far as he can, as this issue barely moved our story ahead at all. If you’re going to choose to do 5 issues, rather than 4, or 3, then have a reason. Each issue should fulfil a specific purpose, and there’s nothing in issue 3 that hasn’t been seen in the previous two issues. The premise (Former CIA agent with an invisible friend that only he can see) is still engaging enough that I’m going continue with the series, but I really hope that Edmondson fulfills the potential shown in the first two issues.

Rating: C

NonPlayer #1 by Nate Simpson

This is the big one. This is the one EVERYBODY is talking about, and although it just came out yesterday, is completely sold out everywhere, and is going on eBay for over $20.

Although I’m always excited when independent creators get attention, I’m not exactly sure why it’s happening here. This is usually where I would  tell you what the plot is, but it’s not really a plot so much as it’s a not-quite-realized concept: In the near future, it’s possible to plug your consciousness virtually into an artificial video game environment, so that you can basically  play real life Dungeons & Dragons. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Yes, there’s a lead character, but we don’t know anything about her other than that she’s a bit of a dick. There’s no hint as to what her goals are, or motivations, or next steps. All we see is her playing in a game, waking up, and then going to work. Why would I ever read another issue of this?

The reason, of course, is the art. Nate Simpson’s art is the reason why this book is getting the attention it is, and to some extent that attention is justified. His backgrounds, monsters, and battle scenes are nothing short of spectacular. I don’t use this lightly, but the only person whose work I could compare this to is Geoff Darrow. His  detail work is so precise, with colour that almost blinds you. In a good way.  His art really something to see, and very much worth your money if you’re drawn to art first in your comics. Unfortunately, where the art falls short is any time the camera falls on an actual human face. Every person has the same bland, dopey stare, and other than hair and eye colour, there’s nothing to differentiate the characters from each other. I know all of this sounds like sour grapes, and I do think that Simpson is a major talent as an artist, and one that deserves more attention. But he’d be well served to start putting together plots with some character motivation if he’s hoping for long-term success with this comic.

Rating: B- I know it’s high, but the art really is incredible.

Jimmy Olsen Oneshot by Nick Spencer & R.B. Silva

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, and so  I just need to come out and say it: This is one of my favourite comics of the year thus far. Yes, it’s about Jimmy Olsen. The guy who takes pictures and gets bailed out by Superman all time. I’m as shocked as you are.

Nick Spencer is one of the hottest writers in comics right now, and while I’ve definitely seen the potential, I’ve been hesitant to lavish as much praise as some other sites and blogs have done. I think he’s a raw talent, and while his ideas have been quite interesting, there’s really nothing to show that he’s an actual writer’s writer. The word clumsy often comes to mind when reading his scripts. Until now, and it’s ironic that the best comic he’s written is one of the few that he didn’t actually create.

This is actually a collection of backup stories from Action Comics. And so it’s a series of 8 page vignettes about Jimmy dealing with a multitude of problems: Job, girlfriend, alien invasion. The usual. This is a funny comic book. Really funny. Spencer’s grasp of dialogue is extremely confident for such a new writer, and it’s rare to see a superhero writer use wordplay as effectively as he does here. Spencer’s Olsen is a little cooler than what we’re used to, but it’s a welcome change to the character. While this breaks almost no new ground, what it does is give us an extremely entertaining read by a writer that is finally starting to realize his potential.

Rating: A

Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker #1 by Joe Casey & Mike Huddleston

Image has been promoting the hell out of this, and while nothing in the previews particularly grabbed me, I thought I would give it a shot based on the strength of Casey’s work on Godland. Here’s the story: Dick Cheney and Jay Leno go to the last superhero’s house, interrupt him in the middle of a three-way, and ask him to break into a prison and kill all of the world’s super villains. This is exactly what it looks like: An over-the top tribute to violent excess. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There isn’t, and there’s nothing particularly “wrong” with this book either. It was entertaining enough. But in a world full of books like The Boys, and Casanova, and Deadpool, I didn’t find that it covered enough new ground to justify another look.

Rating: C

Orc Stain #6 by James Stokoe

One of the best books on the stands continues to get better. This is the fantasy epic that I hoped Nonplayer would be. The art is breathtaking, the violence is fierce, and most important of all, the book is extremely character driven. There’s only a handful of main characters, but their motivations are all very easily defined, and very clear. This is an action packed issue, but it’s not one that will make much sense unless you’ve read the first 5 (what are you waiting for? Go on then. I’ll wait). Awesome stuff.

Rating: A

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 44: Marvel Comics – Ghost Rider, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Great Lakes Avengers, Hercules, Heroes For Hire, and The Hood!

Ghost Rider, Wolverine, & Punisher – Hearts Of Darkness

Sounds like a formula for 1991 success: Put 3 of your most popular characters in a self-contained graphic novel, with Howard Mackie on scripts, and have John Romita, Jr do the art. I can’t say that this would go on my list of favourite stories from any of these characters, but it’s still a more than passable team-up, with art from a John Romita Jr. that’s at the top of his game. I also realized that this is the only Ghost Rider comic. I’ve never found the character particularly interesting. Any suggestions for arcs/runs that are worth my time?

KEEP

Great Lakes Avengers – Misassembled, X-Mas Special, Summer Fun Spectacular

The Great Lakes Avengers is a little known Marvel concept that’s more of an in-joke than an actual viable super-team. They were originally created by John Byrne in the 90’s, and turn up periodically, mostly as comic relief. The only writer who was actually able to do anything viable with the characters was Dan Slott. Although this batch of mini-series and one-shots aren’t going to crack top 10 lists any time soon, they’re a nice mix of funny, and well, more funny. If you think the idea of a teenager whose power is the ability to talk to squirrels being the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe is as hilarious as I do, these books are for you.

KEEP

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Legacy, War Of Kings Vol. 1 & 2, Realm Of Kings

The original Guardians were a 70’s/80’s Marvel team set in the future, that showed up from time to time in Avengers-related time mishaps. Despite a long running series in the early ’90’s, the concept never really took off, and so Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning borrowed the team name for their recent “Marvel Cosmic” comic events, and spun this new team out of those stories. This version is straight forward: A group of Marvel’s B and C level “space” misfit characters (Adam Warlock, space lesbians, a talking Racoon, and a talking Soviet-era Cosmodog) team up to save the universe from intergalactic threats. As they’re known to do.

Although I like (I should say liked, since this was recently cancelled, which is par for the course with superhero books that I actually enjoy) this book, it’s hard for me to recommend it, unless you’ve read the other Marvel Space comics that Abnett & Lanning have been writing. The great thing about the space stories that these two have been writing is that you don’t need to be following most of what’s happening in the Marvel Universe to enjoy them. But you do need to be reading all of THEIR books in order to fully grasp what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s not that their stories are overly complicated, it’s that’s they think they’re overly complicated. Abnett & Lanning spend a lot of time needlessly explaining simple stories. It’s a relatively minor complaint though, and there’s more than enough to recommend this series. It’s character driven, as the best stories are. It’s a diverse cast, and because the writers have gone fishing through the Marvel backwaters for these characters, there isn’t the feeling of “Been There, Done That”, that is often felt in team books these days.

Phyla and Moondragon, in one of the rare moments where one of them isn't dead.

There’s a few subplots that became tiring quite quickly; namely the “will they, won’t they” nature of the relationship between Moondragon and Phyla Vell. Except in their case it was more of a “Will they actually manage to end an issue without one of them being horriblly killed” relationship. In the time that DnA wrote the characters, Moondragon was turned into an actual talking dragon, and then back to a human, then died, and then was brought back to life as a result of Phyla agreeing to become the avatar of death and killing Adam Warlock. But then Phyla was killed herself, except that she wasn’t really dead because one of her colleagues travelled back in time and stopped her before she could actually go through with it. But then she died again 5 minutes later. And then Moondragon became pregnant with a Lovecraftian space-god (Don’t judge, Republicans), and then found out that Phyla wasn’t really dead. But then Phyla brought Thanos back to life, and of course the first thing he did when he woke up was to kill her for real. Which is how she’s managed to stay for about a year, which means she’ll be coming back to life around the time I press “publish” on this post. It’s hard to take major character moments seriously if we’re not given time to digest them properly, and this book often moves a little too quickly for us to really fall in love with the cast.

Still, it’s a fun, space adventure series with a big emphasis on humour that’s better than most of the stuff that Marvel’s putting out these days. I’m also not sure how Paul Pelletier isn’t one of the biggest artists in comics, as his work on this title is some of the finest I’ve seen on a superhero title in the last couple of years.

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The Incredible Hercules – WWH: Incredible Herc, Against The World, Secret Invasion, Love and War, Assault On New Olympus, The Mighty Thorcules, Dark Reign, The New Prince Of Power

This has been one of Marvel’s weirder success stories over the past couple of years. Hercules (yes, the god. No, not the one with the hammer. No, not the one on the cross. The super-strong one that gets laid all the time. No, not Charlie Sheen), has been part of the Marvel Universe since the late 1960’s, but has never risen above the role of second stringer. In a universe full of complicated characters, Hercules is painfully two-dimensional, and Marvel has long been content with portraying him as the drunken, fun-seeking lout. Until now.

Both of the two big companies have been quite consistent in their attempts to use their bigger cross-over events to push lesser-known characters as of late, and that’s what Marvel did a couple of years ago with Hercules. They made him a major part of  the major World War Hulk storyline, and went as far as renaming the Hulk’s ongoing series after him, and getting two of Marvel’s hottest up and coming writers to take it over.

This was a delightful change of pace for those of us weary of Marvel’s recent doom and gloom. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente took an uninteresting yet charismatic character, paired him with Amadeus Cho, a multi-faceted but slightly cold character, and let magic take it’s course. This is a 1980’s buddy movie, Marvel style. The two new friends bumble their way through the Marvel Universe comically, but the writers also make sure they give the two enough emotional complexity that by the series conclusion, we feel as we’ve been a journey with two old friends, not two former D-listers that we had forgotten about. This is the way you rebuild lesser known characters.

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Heroes For Hire – Civil War, Ahead Of The Curve, World War Hulk

To capitalize on the moderately successful Daughters Of The Dragon series, Marvel decided to dust off their old Heroes For Hire concept a few years ago. This one’s been kicking around the mid-70’s, and it’s one that is most often associated with Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In this version, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing (The aforementioned Daughters), take the lead of this awkwardly grouped band of Marvel D-listers. Although I’ve always liked the concept, I had to force myself to finish rereading this. It’s poorly written, the plotting is all over the place, and the characters are barely likable. Thankfully the new version as written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, more than make up for it, and I’m very much looking forward to collecting this new series in trade.

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The Hood – Blood From Stones

It’s difficult to come up with new super characters that people will respond to. Although dozens of characters are added to the Marvel and DC universes every single year, almost none of them ever catch on with the general populace, and most are forgotten by the time the next writer takes over which ever book they were featured in.

And so was the case with the Hood, at least for a while. 9 years ago, Brian Vaughan (of Y The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways fame) wrote this unassuming little mini series about the origin of a super villain. I loved it at the time, and although I had hopes that this would launch a new Marvel icon, the book went woefully unread, and the character was largely forgotten for the next 5 years.

It wasn’t until Brian Michael Bendis dusted off the character and decided to turn him into the new Kingpin of Crime, that anyone really remembered the first series at all. The character endures today, and has become a major player in Marvel’s current continuity. But the new stories haven’t quite matched the original promise shown in this fantastic mini series.

Parker Robbins is a low-level part-time criminal who is juggling a relationship with someone he’s losing interest in, the care of his invalid mother, and figuring out ways to pay for both. On a routine burglary, he accidentally kills a creepy alien/demon, and steals the cape and boots from its body. Voila, superpowers! And so Parker, with the help of his cousin Dave, decides to become a bona fide supervillain. There is success, but it comes at a steep price. Enjoying this will require almost no previous knowledge of Marvel Comics, as  it’s a fairly realistic take on the superhero story, and one that actually humanizes the villains that we so love to hate.

I’m not usually one to convince writers to go back to superhero comics. In fact, I’m usually the one trying to convince superhero writers to try something different. And while I’m more than happy to read anything Brian Vaughan does in the future, I’ll admit that a part of me would love nothing more than to read a monthly Hood series as written by Vaughan. Recommended.

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Next up: The Hulk!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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