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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next up: Moon Knight!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 33: More Avengers

Avengers West Coat – Vision Quest

I’m really not sure how it’s possible that I only have one West Coast Avengers trade, as I loved this book in the late ’80s when it originally came out.This trade focuses on John Byrne’s run on the book. There are lots of interesting stuff here: The first appearance of the Great Lakes Avengers, the foreshadowing of Scarlet Witch’s eventual meltdown, and a complete retcon of the origin of the Vision. Plus John Byrne’s pencils were great on this run. I’m definitely looking for more trades from this era ASAP.

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Avengers – Red Zone

It didn’t take Marvel long to try to scoop DC’s Geoff Johns up for one of their books, but for some reason the pairing never seemed to click. His run got a LOT of online heat from fans, and proved to be controversial. Nothing like what was to come when Brian Michael Bendis took over the book, but at this point, Marvel still hadn’t quite cottoned to the fact that if they wanted the Avengers to become a top-tier book, they were going to need to do some serious changing. So while Johns run is edgier than previous writer’s attempts to reboot the Avengers, it still comes across as slightly forced. That being said, I did enjoy this far more than I thought I would. The “big reveal” of the arc’s villain still comes across as quite hackneyed, and not well-thought out at all, but it’s still quite a good read. Some good character moments between Black Panther and Iron Man as well. There are a few other trades from Johns’ run that I may track down now.

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New Avengers – Breakout, The Sentry, Secrets & Lies, The Collective, Civil War, Revolution, The Trust, Secret Invasion Books 1 & 2, Power, Search For The Sorcerer supreme, Powerloss, Siege, New Avengers

So it’s 2004, and Marvel finally realizes that the Avengers are done. Not the concept, but the team as it currently stood. The book had been running on fumes for quite a while, and even bringing in superstar writer Geoff Johns to revive the teams fortunes hadn’t grown any traction with fans. The book was is in the doldrums. Enter Brian Michael Bendis. By this point, Bendis had garnered some serious goodwill among Marvel fans for his runs on Daredevil, Alias, and Ultimate Spider-Man. But he had never really tackled anything with quite as big a potential scope as the Avengers. Could he pull it off? Could he make the Avengers relevant again?

From a commercial standpoint, the answer was unequivocably yes. Not only did he make the Avengers relevant again, Marvel essentially rebuilt the entire framework of the Marvel Universe around the work Bendis did on New Avengers. It became Marvel’s flagship book, usurping Spider-Man and X-Men as the top draws at the company. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the title’s success had a large part to do with Marvel realizing that an Avengers movie could work.

From a quality standpoint, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s Brian Bendis. Which means the book went from becoming a light-hearted adventure-of-the-week book to a dark, conspiracy-laden, dialogue-heavy, noir thriller. Whether you liked it had a lot to do with how much you liked Brian Bendis’ writing. I for one loved it, and still do. In fact, my appreciation of what he’s done for the book has only increased upon revisiting the work.

The first thing Bendis realized is that if he was to make this work, if he was to completely revitalize the very concept of the Avengers, he was going to have to make some tough choices. And so he threw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, he didn’t just throw out the baby, he drowned it at the bottom of the tub. He damaged Avengers Mansion, killed fan-favourite character Hawkeye (and didn’t just kill him, but gave him one of the most ignoble deaths a well-known character has ever gotten, and dismantled the team.

Enter New Avengers. The premise here was to organically grow a “street-level” team of some of Marvel’s top characters, as well as some of Bendis’ favourites. And so perennial C listers Luke Cage and Spider-Woman joined team stalwarts Iron Man and Captain America. In addition, he also brought triple A listers Wolverine and Spider-Man into the fold to garner the favour of casual fans. He also threw the Sentry into the mix, just to provide some tension. This doesn’t sound so crazy now, but at the time all of these changes were considered blasphemy, and the changes Bendis brought to the Avengers were probably the most radical since the mid-’60’s. He also provided an opportunity for more casual fans to experience the adventures of their favourites  without having to actually follow what was happening in their own books. Even though I love the team, I’m the first one to admit that not only was this not your daddy’s Avengers, it really wasn’t the Avengers at all. The team didn’t have any type of government mandate, almost never went on patrol, and really just stumbled from adventure to adventure. And for me, that was ok. And still is.

Those looking for holes to poke won’t have to look far however. While there is some long-term plotting here (the buildup to Secret Invasion, the slow recreation of Luke Cage becoming one of Marvel’s top-tier heroes), and some ideas took almost 4 years to pay off, it does seem as if Bendis viewed what was happening in the rest of the Marvel Universe as somewhat of an inconvenience. The Civil War storyline in particular seemed to take Bendis by surprise, though he deftly brought it into his master plan relatively painlessly. I’ll also never fully believe Bendis’ claims that he had the entire arc of Spider-Woman’s character planned out in advance, as the events of Secret Invasion seemed to fly in the face of reason. And while I happen to enjoy Bendis’ Mametian maelstroms of dialogue, they’re not for everyone, and one of the major criticisms of the book was (and still is) that it’s heavy on exposition, low on action. I think that was a legitimate comment at one point, but Bendis seems to have captured a solid middle ground now, blending character development with action much better than he did at the start of his run. Another critique that is often made of the book is the art. Although David Finch garnered few complaints when he started the book, he handed the reigns over to darker, more stylized artists like Lenil Yu and Alex Maleev, whose work seems to have antagonized long-time fans. Again, this happens to be a matter of taste. I happen to think Alex Maleev is one of comics unheralded geniuses, but those looking for a more traditional, detailed look weren’t happy.

For the most part, Bendis’ New Avengers has been a wholly entertaining thrill ride of a superhero comic book. Though not for everybody, I think it’s really set the bar a little higher for what is possible  (and also necessary in order to capture a modern audience) with team superhero books in the 21st century.

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Next up: Wow. More Avengers. Whee.