Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/15/2018 – 04/21/2018

One book understandably sucked all the oxygen out of the room this week, and we’ll dive right into it first, but fear not, there are a few others worth talking about, as well —

So, look, let’s just call it like it is : Action Comics  #1000 is an eight-dollar victory lap. A “double milestone” book celebrating both the fact that it’s the first American comic to hit the four-digit-issue-number mark, as well as the 80th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance, you go in figuring you’re in for plenty of self-congratulation here, and yeah, it’s essentially 80 pages of DC’s top creators, past and present, paying tribute to the company’s number one character (sorry, Bat-fans). Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster get the “80-Page Giant” dedicated to them, as well they should, but don’t come in for much mention anywhere else within its pages, which feels like a bit of a slight — although not nearly as big a one as when they were swindled out of any claim of ownership to their creation in exchange for the princely sum of $130. And yeah, as DC’s defenders are always quick to point out, the company did attempt to “make good” with the two guys from Cleveland in their dotage , but they were certainly owed a lot more than they ever got. Hell, their heirs are probably still owed a lot more than they ever got. But we’re not here to focus on that issue too specifically, we’re here talk about what we got in this comic —

“What Superman Means To Us All” is the connective tissue holding all the short-form strips in here together, and some address the subject more successfully than others — there’s a veritable “murder’s row” of talent on hand, with Dan Jurgens, Peter J. Tomasi, Paul Levitz, Marv Wolfman, Tom King, Brad Meltzer, Paul Dini, Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, Scott Snyder, Louise Simonson, and Brian Michael Bendis on script duties and Jurgens, Patrick Gleason, Neal Adams, Curt Swan, Butch Guice, Jim Lee, Clay Mann, Rafael Albuquerque, John Cassaday, Olivier Coipel, John Romita Jr., Jerry Ordway, Jorge Jimenez, Doug Mahnke, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez on art, and while it’s nice to see that Jurgens, Tomasi, and Gleason were all allowed to say good-bye to the character before Bendis’ much-ballyhooed arrival next month (the Tomasi/Gleason story being a particularly effective “Superman Through The Years” yarn told entirely in single-panel “splash” pages), it’s really the “guest” creators who do the best job here, particularly Tom King and Clay Mann, who capture the essence of all that is special about the Man of Steel in just a handful of gorgeously-drawn, sparsely-worded pages.

Of the other offerings, I had a lot of fun with the “retro”-style Supes/Luthor confrontation by Levitz and Adams (available only in the digital preview copy I got and not the print edition, fair warning), and the Johns/Donner/Coipel “Golden Age” story is a blast, as well, but really the overall quality of everything is pretty consistent, barring one curious misfire, that being the Wolfman/Swan/Guice strip that takes a previously-extant story originally written by Cindy Goff and simply swaps out her original dialogue and captions for new stuff. Not sure what the point of that was, other than to make sure the greatest Superman artist of all time was represented in the book.

As for covers — there were nine to choose from, one for each decade Action Comics has been around in addition to the “main” one,  and I opted for the Dave Gibbons/Angus McKie 1950s variant, so that’s what’s atop the column here. All in all I felt like I got my money’s worth and then some out of this book, and while the intro to the new Bendis “era” that wraps things up was nowhere near interesting enough to convince me to give his forthcoming Man Of Steel mini-series a try (much less to continue on into the two monthly titles after that’s done), I’m glad to have bought this comic and recommend that anyone with even a passing interest in Superman —whether as a character, as a cultural icon, or both — do the same.

Sticking with DC, this week saw the release of the sixth and I-thought-final issue of Neal Adams’ Deadman mini-series, and if you thought things were incoherent before — you ain’t seen nothing yet. I swear that Adams is just making this shit up as he goes along and that no one’s really bothering to edit what he turns in — and that’s what makes his latter-period work so jaw-droppingly, singularly bizarre and interesting. Batman is on the cover here but isn’t in the book — the multitude of supernatural guest stars who are in the book aren’t on the cover — and everyone is shouting all the damn time, even when there’s no reason to. I’m certainly game for more of this kind of utterly alien type of storytelling, where the normal rules of what’s “good” and “bad,” what “works” and what “doesn’t,” simply do not apply — and whaddya know, as this issue comes to an end the story doesn’t, and it looks like a second six-part “arc” is in the offing for later this year. Yeah, at four bucks a pop buying all twelve is going to get pricey, but I have no complaints. Adams’ work may be an acquired taste at this point —but once you have acquired it, there’s nothing else remotely like it.

I was a little rough on Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson’s Come Into Me #1 a few weeks back (although I gave well-deserved “props” to artist Piotr Kowalsi), but I’m still down to give any of their creator-owned stuff a try, and the first issue of their new Aftershock series Her Infernal Descent is all the proof I need that sticking with these guys was the right call. An elderly woman who’s lost her family in an apparent (though, as yet, undefined) tragedy is escorted through Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell — by William Blake? This is the sort of brash, ballsy mash-up that’s either going to really work or really miss the mark, and so far it’s really working.

I’ll grant you that some of Blake’s rhyming iambic pentameter dialogue seems both forced and far less intelligent than anything you’d expect him to actually say, but the overwhelming majority of it is highly successful, the sheer bravado of the imagination on display here is a sight to behold — and speaking of sights to behold, Kyle Charles’ rich, sumptuous, evocative artwork is worth the $3.99 price of admission on its own, and his page layouts are astonishingly imaginative. I think this one is slated to run six issues, although I could be wrong about that — one thing I’m not wrong about, though, is that you need to jump on this book now.

One more debut issue to wrap things up, even if it’s not a real debut issue, so to speak : Black Hammer : Age Of Doom #1 kicks off the second “arc” of Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s revisionist super-hero series, and shows that my concerns about this “universe” being spread kinda thin through franchising and whatnot (see Sherlock Frankenstein And The Legion Of Evil and Doctor Star And The Kingdom Of Lost Tomorrows — with, apparently, more on the way) were ill-founded indeed. I know, I know — Dark Horse has always milked Hellboy for everything it’s worth and then some, and they seem to think they have a big enough hit on their hands to do the same here, but who can argue with results? I’ve enjoyed both spin-off series to date, and Lemire and Ormston haven’t missed a beat during the brief hiatus on the “main” title, either — this issue sees the new Black Hammer promise to reveal all, only to be whisked away to another kind of limbo that causes her to re-think all that she thought she had figured out, while the rest of our cast finally manage to get all their ships sailing in the same direction, and that direction is right the hell out of their own private Idaho and back to the “real” world. Somehow. Lemire’s script is fast-paced and bursting at the seams with energy and ideas, Ormston’s art is atmospheric, emotive, and creepy when it needs to be — and no less than the goddamn fucking Ramones themselves put in a guest appearance. What’s not to love? You need this comic more than you need four dollars.

Okay, that’s good enough for another column. I don’t see a whole lot in next week’s solicits that turns my crank, but I’m really looking forward to Michelle Perez and Remy Boydell’s The Pervert, so we’ll have that to talk about, plus whatever else strikes my fancy, when next we meet here in seven days.

“Doomsday Clock” #1 — Yup, The End Really Is Here

And so here we are — the “big event” that all of DC Rebirth has been leading up to, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s eagerly anticipated/thoroughly dreaded (depending on your point of view) DCU/Watchmen mash-up, Doomsday Clock. The lines between the two formerly-separate fictitious universes were blurred, of course, in last year’s DC Universe Rebirth Special, and here they’re completely wiped out. We’ve known it was coming, now it’s arrived — and it wants five bucks a month from you for the next year as it plays out over the course of 12 issues. Should you do what it (and, specifically, DC) wants?

Lots of critics are answering that question with an emphatic “yes,” some no doubt charmed by the free pancake mix and maple syrup that preview copies of the book came packaged with (DC shrewdly, but wisely, calculating that many comics critics — like many comics creators — are fucking starving), while others seem to genuinely like the fruits of Johns’ and Frank’s “imaginations.” Allow me, then, to do what I’m best at and piss on everyone’s Corn Fla — err, pancake breakfast.

Granted, to say I wasn’t expecting much from Doomsday Clock would be putting things mildly, but I was genuinely taken aback by just how much I despised this thing. Frank’s art is certainly competent enough, I suppose, highly detailed but utterly devoid of personality, a triumph of style over substance, and Brad Anderson‘s colors are a reasonable enough computerized approximation of original Watchmen colorist John Higgins‘ singular palette, albeit with more gradations in regards to shade and hue, but hey, you know what they say about lipstick and pigs — and this story is one hell of an oinker.

Johns has clearly read Watchmen dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years — but the entire point (hell, points) of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ seminal, transformative classic was just as clearly lost on him. Every page — in fact very nearly every panel — of Watchmen was layered with thematic, conceptual, even allegorical meaning, but if you’re a facile, “surface-level” reader? Hey, it’s just a clever super-hero “whodunit” with a decidedly dark tone. Issue one of Doomsday Clock makes it abundantly clear what sort of reader Johns is.

It makes it abundantly clear what sort of writer he is, as well — one whose abilities are dramatically limited by his reading skills. Nobody apart from the most continuity-obsessed, intellectually adolescent fanboys have ever even wondered  how you could cross over the DC and Watchmen “universes,” never mind what would happen once you did so, and for that reason I really can’t fathom how anyone apart from a continuity-obsessed, intellectually adolescent fanboy would find what’s going on in these pages remotely interesting : it’s 1992 (a 1992 where variations of the term “deplorables” are in common use, where a Brexit-type event has triggered to the collapse of the EU, and where there’s a wall along the US/Mexico border — even though President Goldenshower isn’t in office, Robert Redford is? Does anyone even edit Johns’ scripts for such basics as logical plausibility?) on “Earth-Watchmen,” and things are a mess with Adrian Veidt’s scheme exposed and the purported “world’s smartest man” the subject of a global manhunt. Rorschach is on the case, but they make it clear pretty quickly that this Rorschach isn’t that Rorschach (special points for tone-deafness on Johns’ part for putting a black guy in the costume made infamous by a racist, civil-rights-trampling, vigilante lunatic — again, where’s an editor when you need one?), and that his part in whatever the hell’s going on global meltdown-wise isn’t what it seems. In fact, he’s working for —- fuck it, spoilers and all that — who’s very much alive but — fuck it, spoilers and all that again — and they’ve got a plan to — by this point you already know I’m not really going to give any “big” details away. Then we wrap up with a scene of Clark Kent on “Earth-0” (or whatever it’s called these days) having a dream about his parents’ death that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve known before.

Now, plot twists were a key component of Watchmen, of course, but they were the icing on a damn deep and rich cake. Here, though, those twists are all that Johns and Frank are serving up. This is a cheap, “flashy” story dependent on “wowing” you with one surprise after the next — but again, those surprises will only be effective if you give a shit about this cash-grab premise in the first place, and no reason for the skeptical, or even merely curious, to “buy in” is ever offered by these low-rent “creators.”

Hell, truth be told, they’re like Trump in that I don’t think they know how to reach beyond a hard-core base. Watchmen was the comic you could give to people who don’t read comics, but in order to begin to understand Doomsday Clock you need to have been deeply invested in the intricate minutiae of DC product (let’s just call it what it is) for a couple of decades or more. If nine-panel grids and grumbled “hrrrmmm”s are enough to convince you that Johns and Frank are “honoring” the legacy of Moore and Gibbons, then I guess this’ll do in a pinch, but for anyone else? Say, somebody with a modestly-developed sense of discernment? This comic is as insulting to you as it is to Watchmen‘s creators, neither of whom were even given so much as a courtesy call to let them know this toxic sludge was about to slide down the pipeline.

Johns has made some public statements clearly designed to mollify concerned parties, saying that this series won’t be saddled with any “tie-ins” to other books because he doesn’t want to “dilute the Watchmen brand” (as if its very existence doesn’t do precisely that), and that he doesn’t intend to wrap things up with a Superman vs. Doctor Manhattan fight but, rather, with a “conversation” between the two of them — but that presupposes that he has anything worth saying about either character. Based on the evidence offered by Doomsday Clock #1, I’d say it’s painfully obvious that he doesn’t. I won’t be sticking around to find out, of course — and neither should you. So enjoy those pancakes, everybody — they sure taste better than the shit sandwich that came with them.

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.