Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/08/2018 – 04/14/2018

Three first issues and a seven hundredth? Yeah, this oughtta be an interesting column —

Crude #1 kicks off a new Skybound/Image six-parter from the creative team of Steve Orlando and Garry Brown revolving around a mix of family drama and Russian oil business shady dealings, with some sort of vague-at-this-point mystery thrown into the mix to — sorry — muddy the waters. Orlando has always been an up-and-down writer in my estimation, but he seems to be more “up” here, serving us a script that’s heavy on the characterization and stage-setting. This may just turn out to be yet another revenge yarn, but those are fun if they kick enough ass, and all indications are that this one’ll do just that — and Brown’s murky, expressionistic art is more than well-suited to the proceedings. At $3.99 a pop for singles this might be one to “trade-wait,” but since I’m already in, what the hell — I’ll stay in. I really dig the intrigue emanating from this comic.

Also from Image this week we have The Dead Hand #1, a modern-day spy thriller with its roots in the Cold War and — hey, is this a theme? — the Soviet Union. Kyle Higgins has cooked up an immediately-absorbing yarn here with a ton of backstory to explore in the months to come, while Stephen Mooney’s art is stylish, sleek, and reminiscent of the best pulp covers, and superstar colorist Jordie Bellaire finishes things off with a polished set of hues that give the pages a very fluid, cinematic look and feel. This one impressed me a lot and felt like four bucks wisely spent — I heartily recommend getting in on the ground floor.

I was pretty underwhelmed by Unholy Grail by the time all was said and done, it has to be said (it started off okay yet ended up just being a kind of “Cliff’s Notes Camelot” with pretty pictures) —  but apparently not so underwhelmed that I was unwilling to give The Brothers Dracul #1 , from the same creative team of writer Cullen Bunn and artist Mirko Colak, a shot. Like their previous series, this one is a mildly revisionist take on ancient legend, is published by Aftershock, and has a lush, atmospheric, “Eurocomics” look to it. Fortunately, the story seems a bit more ambitious here, with an emphasis not only on the future Count Dracula himself but also, as the title plainly states, his less-heralded (and therefore less-notorious) brother. I know, I know, I was a little worried that we would simply be getting another Dracula Untold here, too, but so far that doesn’t seem  to be the case. Things could go south in a hurry with this book — they did before — so I’m keeping it on a short leash, but what the hell? I felt like I got a damn solid read for my $3.99 with this first issue.

Finally, then, we come to Captain America #700, an extra-sized (and extra-priced, at $5.99) anniversary issue that also sees the conclusion to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s truncated “Lost in Time” pseudo-epic. I liked where this was headed — and, as always, loved the art — until the very end, when Waid takes the dull and predictable step of “retconning” the previous few issues out of existence. Cap’s back in our time like nothing ever happened — because, essentially, nothing did. And that’s kind of a shame, because what did happen (until, of course, it didn’t) was actually pretty interesting and borderline-relevant. Alas, it’s all water under the bridge now, Samnee is off to greener pastures, and I’m all out of cliches. Real quick though — the less said about the backup strip, the better. The art’s great — they dug out an old, unused Jack Kirby inventory story — but the script (and again, this is all on Waid) doesn’t match up convincingly with the visuals at all, and the modern computer coloring just bastardizes The King’s work. For a supposed “milestone” comic, this one should have been a lot better.

Okay, that’s me keeping it short and sweet for this installment, something I should probably try to do more often. I dunno what all we’ll have to talk about next week, but something tells me Action Comics #1000 will at least merit a brief examination, don’t you think? Catch you back here in seven short days!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 10/29/2017 – 11/04/2017

What captured my attention this week — for good, ill, or somewhere in-between —

One day before the great Steve Ditko turned 90 years old (and here’s to 90 more!), I received my copy of #26, the latest in the now-decade-long “32-Page Series” published by Ditko and Robin Snyder (and bearing, curiously, a 2018 copyright date, making this the first comic I’ve ever received from the future) and funded via yet another successful Kickstarter campaign. As always it’s a thoroughly intriguing, and at times near-impenetrable, affair that highlights the fascinating creative tension that’s arisen between intention and execution in latter-period Ditko works, to wit —

It seems that Ditko has made a conscious effort to boil everything down to the most pure and distilled iteration of his Objectivist philosophy possible, adopting a decidedly minimalist approach to both scripting and illustration, and yet the end result is a series of strips featuring Ditko’s idiosyncratic characters — Miss Eerie, The Hero, The Outline, etc. — so oblique as to be downright confusing. Every word, every action, every line in every drawing, is pared down to its most bare and essential purpose, a precise exercise in sheer utility that perhaps only the artist himself fully understands — all of which means, of course, that these stories are both absolutely pure and unhindered transmissions from Ditko’s mind, through his hand, onto paper, but that they’re not necessarily easy for anyone else to grasp in their entirety given that, hey, we’re not Ditko.

Final verdict, then? #26 is as hard not to admire as it is sometimes to figure out. There are any number of “hip” young cartoonists out there who would give up half the fingers on their drawing hand to achieve what Ditko does here as a matter of course, and while I’m sure he’d balk at such labels, in my own humble estimation this is as pristine an example of “avant-garde” and/or “outsider” art as you’re likely to find in any medium. A hermetically-sealed vision completely unhindered by any outside artistic influences whatsoever, playing only by rules that it has set for itself. Utterly brilliant, utterly singular, and yeah, utterly perplexing.

Captain America #695 is Marvel’s latest re-launch of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s archetypal patriotic super-hero, and who knows? Maybe this time they got it right. After absolutely bastardizing the character for the past year-plus by turning him into a Hydra/Nazi “sleeper” agent (and, to make matters worse, at the very least implying that’s what he “really” was all along), a “back to basics” approach is probably  about the only thing that can save the entire concept, and the fan-favorite Mark Waid/Chris Samnee creative team is probably the best pair in the Marvel “stable” for the task. Waid’s script — a fairly simple series of statements of intent couched around some fisticuffs — captures Cap’s essence in a naturalistic, unforced manner, and Samnee’s “throwback”-style art is crisp, fluid, and elegant in its deceptive “simplicity.” If this keeps up, chances are I’ll be sticking with this series for the foreseeable future.

Don’t look now, but we’re smack-dab in the middle of yet another Elseworlds-style “alternate universe” Batman boom. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Dark Nights : Metal cross-over “event” seems to be leading the charge, with something like a half-dozen “evil” versions of the Dark Knight from “shadow” universes that don’t exist (even though they do — go figure that one out), but Sean Murphy has also gotten in on the act with his so-far-disappointing, and frankly nauseatingly elitist, Batman : White Knight, and now we’ve got book one of Batman : The Dark Prince Charming, a two-part “graphic novel” from Italian writer/artist Enrico Marini that gives Gotham City the Eurocomics treatment, and that I’m sure DC thinks (or at least hopes) will be viewed as something of a “prestigious” project. I suppose it could be interesting, right?

Except it’s not. Marini’s art is lush, cinematic, and highly literate, but the story hinges on one frankly lame “gotcha”-style twist, the dialogue is stiff and wooden, and honestly nothing much happens here except Batman kicks a bunch of ass along the way to trying to pull off a rescue mission that he suddenly finds he has a highly personal stake in. Characterization is both broad-stroked and ill-defined, plotting is contrived and simplistic, and while Marini’s redesigned Bat-costume looks pretty cool, his version of Joker essentially looks like Sid Vicious in clown makeup.  It’s a quality hardback presentation on heavy, high-gloss paper, sure, but $12.99 is too much to pay for this gorgeous, but hollow, runaround.

Deadly Class artist Wes Craig moves behind the keyboard as writer on The Gravediggers Union, a new ongoing from Image illustrated by Toby Cypress (apart from the 2001-style wordless opening sequence, which is drawn by Craig) that pretty well knocked my socks off with its inventive premise, smart characterization, fun action sequences, and gallows humor. Unionized monster-hunters as the world’s only defense against zombie plagues, vampire infestations, golems made of garbage, and “ghost storms”? I’m down for that.

Admittedly, genre stuff is enough to put off most of the (largely self-appointed) “sophisticated” crowd, but that’s their loss — this is brisk, eye-catching, smart stuff that’s worth taking seriously, even if it doesn’t take itself overly seriously. Image’s policy of giving creators eight or ten extra pages for their first issues ensures good value for your $3.99 here, and while the complete absence of any female characters seems a curious choice to say the least, apparently next month we’re gonna get some witches added to the story, so we’ll see what that’s all about. This one’s well worth following  from the start — and since the start is now, what are you waiting for?

Okay, that should about do it for this week. I got a couple of packages in the mail yesterday that look to contain some interesting items, I’m methodically making my way through The Collected Neil The Horse, and I’ve just discovered the gleefully blasphemous work of cartoonist Aaron Lange, so there’ll be plenty to talk about here in the coming days — and of course, I’ll be back in seven for another “consumer-centric” round of mini-reviews. Hope to see you then!

A “Marvel Legacy” Of Mediocrity

You may as well buckle in, because this one could take awhile —

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Marvel Comics (as opposed to their Hollywood arm, which is really the tail that’s wagging the corporate dog now) is in a bad place these days. Sure, they’re still the number one publisher on the Diamond sales charts most months, but you should take that as literally as possible — they’re well and truly the number one publisher, as in, they publish the most stuff. They crank out, on average, 20-30 more periodicals per month than their nearest competitor, DC, and therefore they sell more units, and take in more dollars, almost by default. But when you look at things a little bit more closely, the news for Marvel is almost all bad:

For the last several months running, for instance, Marvel hasn’t had a single comic book or trade paperback collection sell over 60,000 copies; the overwhelming majority of their books are selling in the 20,000-30,000 range; each of their much-ballyhooed cross-over “events” for the past four years running has sold in lower numbers than the previous one; once-venerable franchises like Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk are having trouble moving 20,000 units per month; it’s been nearly a year since any Marvel book other than the first issue of an “event” has cleared the 100,000 sales threshold; each of Marvel’s last four nearly-annual relaunches has resulted in lower sales, even for the “new” first issues, than the last one.

All of these various trouble signs, concerning as they are, really are just symptoms, though — the “disease” itself is more amorphous, but infinitely more serious : the comic book-reading public just doesn’t seem to like what Marvel is putting out these days, by and large, and the reasons for this are many and varied :

Marvel’s previously-referenced constant re-launches have become tedious in the extreme; the combination of Marvel’s high cover prices and shoddy physical product doesn’t offer good value for money; that incessant stream of cross-overs results in series that people are following and enjoying being hijacked for months at a time and most readers jump off, rather than on, when that happens and don’t come back; the overwhelming majority of Marvel’s titles feature continuity-heavy, derivative stories, mandated by mans of editorial dictate, that aren’t welcoming to new readers; the quality of the art in most of their books has gone noticeably downhill in recent years; there are more cost-effective ways of following the goings-on at Marvel than buying their printed product, most especially thanks to their Unlimited digital service, which gives consumers access to almost their entire back catalogue for only ten bucks a month and is now running only six months behind their periodicals. In short, Marvel is actively giving readers plenty of justification to not go down to the LCS and pick up their books.

What may be noticeable to some by dint of its absence on that list is Marvel’s purportedly “progressive” political stance, which a small but vocal (and angry) contingent of fans maintains, armed with plenty of inference but no actual evidence, is driving readers away in droves. I put no credence in this school of “thought” simply because, if handled properly, Marvel’s semi-recent diversification of its line-up could actually bring new readers in, and because those clinging tight to this particular hobby-horse really aren’t seeing the forest for the trees : Marvel Comics exists as an IP farm for Marvel Studios now, and unlike their printed-page counterparts, the silver screen versions of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Thor and the like actually age, and like it or not, they’re going to need to be replaced at some point. There’s a reason that the new cinematic Spider-Man is purportedly 15 years old, and characters like Riri Williams, the Jane Foster Thor, the Amadeus Cho Hulk, and Kamala Khan have been introduced in the comics with the same logic in mind — they’re here to be long-term replacements for and/or reboots of characters who are getting long in the tooth in the movies. Their introduction has precisely fuck-all to do with a so-called “SJW agenda,” no matter how much the troglodytes who are doing their level best to “port over”the “mind”set of “Gamergate” to the comic book scene may claim otherwise.

That being said, these trolls do represent one more contingent of readers who don’t like the ideas coming from the once-branded house of them, and once you remove their noxious, mouth-foaming racism and sexism from the equation (I know, that’s kind of like saying “if you just ignore that whole slavery thing, the confederacy maybe had a point about local, decentralized government”), their displeasure with Marvel isn’t necessarily all that different to the one being advanced by rational, civilized human beings — namely, that this is a company that has lost its way and doesn’t know how to connect with its readership anymore.

Still, none of this means that all is lost, does it? I mean, about 15 months ago DC was in a pretty similar spot, with nothing outside of Batman selling worth a damn and everyone writing the company’s obituary in advance. Then came DC Universe Rebirth, and yeah, while most of their line has reverted to “New 52”-era sales numbers, for a good few months there nearly all their books were selling like hotcakes and a solid half-dozen or so are still selling a lot better than they used to even to this day — and hey, fans generally seem much happier with the direction of their comics (I’m not one of them, but for our purposes here today that’s actually and entirely beside the point). Crucially, the company is also back in the “black” in terms of profitability after spending a couple of years in the “red.”

Now, if you’re Marvel, you’re going to notice this, of course. And if you’re Marvel, you’re also tapped-out in the “new ideas” department, so you’re simply going to try to copy what worked for your competition given that your own publishing strategy just ain’t working anymore. Enter Marvel Legacy.

Of course, a few wrinkles are necessary in order for Marvel to look like they’re not just completely aping what DC has already done, so to that end they’re reverting, by means of a complex and frankly nonsensical formula, back to “classic” numbering for all their series rather than starting everything over at #1 yet again; they’re keeping all their books at $3.99 rather than knocking the price back a buck; they’re sticking with a monthly publishing schedule for their titles rather than upping ’em to twice per month; they’re leaving most of the extant creative teams on each series in place, albeit with some notable exceptions.

Still, the message they’re at least trying to send to their readers with Marvel Legacy is more or less the same as that telegraphed by DC Universe Rebirth — “We’re going back to basics and we’re determined to bring you the type of storytelling you love. We admit we kind of got off-track there for a spell, but that ends now. Give us another chance, you won’t regret it.”

But have they really changed their ways? Do they even know how to pull out of their creative and commercial tailspin? I would submit, based on the evidence offered up in Marvel Legacy #1, the “blockbuster” oversized special kicking off this supposed “new” direction, that the answer to both questions appears to be an emphatic “no.”

Again, we’re presented with basically no choice but to refer back to Rebirth. Much as I actively detested that comic and most of what’s followed in its wake, they did a few things right with it : pricing it at $2.99 was clearly a smart move, as was putting the entire project under the supervision of one person. I would have preferred that person to be someone — hell, probably anyone — other than Geoff Johns, and I still and always will despise the idea of bringing the Watchmen into the DCU “proper,” but the notion of an over-arching storyline that allows for each series to go in its own direction while tying back into the main narrative if and when the situation calls for it at least makes good sense on paper, especially when a company is trying to come out of a period that seemed directionless at best, downright misdirected at worst. Marvel seems to be kind of on the fence about the whole centralized narrative thing, though, as Legacy offers up a few different potential avenues for that without seeming to settle on any of them, and on the dollars-and-cents side it probably comes as no surprise that they’ve eschewed the bargain introductory price point altogether, slapping a whopping $5.99 tag on this special (but, hey, it’s a got a big, fancy gatefold cover by Joe Quesada, Kevin Nowlan, and Richard Isanove — featuring mostly characters who don’t appear in the book at all). You know what, though? Those negatives actually fall pretty far down on the list of complaints here.

Let’s look at some of the bigger ones, then, shall we, starting with — who’s in charge here? Okay, yeah, Jason Aaron is the writer of Marvel Legacy #1, but he’s a freelancer, and not even one who’s signed to Marvel exclusively. His job is done here, he’s going back to writing Thor, and whatever comes out of this clearly won’t be based on his, sorry to be grandiose here but, “vision.” But is anything going to come out of this?

That’s actually a very open question. Unlike Rebirth, Marvel clearly isn’t using this as an opportunity to clear the decks — the handful of plotlines that are touched upon here spring more or less directly from stuff already underway in their titles, which leads into another problem : this book isn’t especially welcoming to either new or returning readers. In fact, if you’re “out of the loop” about what’s been going on in the so-called “616 Universe” these days, you’re going to be totally lost here from jump, and nothing that happens on subsequent pages is designed to pull you back in. We’re basically shown a disconnected series of events involving a small handful of heroes from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who seems to be able to “see” both past and present, as well as to cast his or her gaze into deep space. We start with a brief look-in at the “1,000,000 B.C. Avengers” that Marvel has been hyping in recent weeks/months before cursory visitations serve up various vignettes (how’s that for Stan Lee-style alliteration?) centered on third-tier (at best) characters like Starbrand and the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider, we’re introduced to what could possibly, I suppose, be (yet another) new Avengers line-up of Riri Williams/Ironheart, the Jane Foster Thor, and the Sam Wilson Captain America (except everyone knows that Sam is going back to being the Falcon next month), we find that Loki’s up to some typical shit with the Frost Giants, and somewhere in the midst of all this we’re asked to give a shit about a mystery crate that’s being cleared out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters — along with everything else, because the organization itself has been dissolved in the wake of Secret Empire.

The contents of said crate lead to what could arguably be labeled as the one “major” revelation this comic has to offer, since a dude driving a beer truck comes upon it after the entire convoy transporting it is overturned, but come on — if there’s one “long-lost” Marvel character who’s probably going to turn up again hauling a load of beer cross-country, who do you think it’s gonna be? Here’s a hint in case you you haven’t figured it out :

Anything else in here that might grab ya, then? Not really. We get a rapid-fire appearance from Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm; there’s a pit-stop at an empty Avengers Mansion, which shows that the statue they keep out in the backyard appears to be different for whatever reason; we learn — and don’t ask me where the fuck this comes from — that Wakanda has established a space-faring, intergalactic empire (I actually read Black Panther every month and this is news to me); Steve Rogers and Deadpool each turn up for a page for reasons that not just escape me but don’t appear to exist; and we find out that in some way, shape, or form the Celestials have something to do with all this (whatever “this” even is), because hey, there are very few Jack Kirby creations remaining that Marvel hasn’t strip-mined for all they’re worth already, so why not one more?

Artists Esad Ribic, Steve McNiven, Chris Samnee, Russell Dauterman, Alex Maleev, Ed McGuinness, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, Pepe Larraz, Jim Cheung, Daniel Acuna, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, Mike Deodato Jr. and David Marquez (all colored by Matthew Wilson) comprise our “all-star lineup” on the visual side, but the same lack of inspiration that infects the script seems to have made the leap over to them, as well — it all looks fine, sure, but none of it is especially memorable.

Unfortunately, the same is true of the cliffhangers here — what’s in that mystery crate? Why, it’s an Infinity Gem . Yawn. And who does our unseen narrator turn out to be? Why, it’s Valeria Richards, seen traipsing around the universe with her brother, Franklin. Double yawn. And that’s Marvel Legacy #1 in a nutshell.

A less-than-bold prediction before we close this out, then : Marvel’s highly-publicized vow that they’re taking “at least” an 18-month break from cross-over “events” is going to turn out to be bullshit. The Celestials thing, the Infinity Gem thing, the search for Reed and Sue Richards — one, more, or all of these are going to suck everything into their orbit the minute sales begin to lag again (assuming they even get a “bounce” from this).  My money’s on any Infinity Gem-centric story, because let’s face it — every time one of these things shows up, a cross-over is never far behind. Those other sub-plots probably won’t prove to be “red herrings,” but they’ll most likely be “localized” into just a few titles. Now, assuming this proves to be an accurate Criswell imitation on my part, that means —

Nothing. Has. Changed. Here. Okay, bringing back the FF and the “real” Logan seems to be a signal that Marvel is ready to integrate Fox-owned cinematic properties back into their printed-page universe, but seriously — that’s my only “take-away” here, and I went into this thing more or less expecting disappointment . In fact, it honestly felt like the entire comics world was resigned to defeat in regards to Marvel Legacy going in, and rumors (possibly originating from Marvel itself) have already begun to circulate  that this whole damn thing is just a “stalking horse” for another, bigger re-launch that’s in the planning stages for late 2018.

Normally, of course, I’d be rolling my eyes at this point, and for good reason. We’ve all been down this road way too many times. But in this case, I actually hope the scuttlebutt is true — I freely admit to not being much of a Marvel fan, but without a healthy, robust, and popular Marvel Comics, your local shop and mine are probably finished. We may not like Marvel, but our retailers need them — and if there’s not a second, and better, re-boot in the works at the back end of Legacy, then the days of this publisher, and of the store owners who rely on them, are probably numbered.