ACTION COMICS #837 (DC, 2006) – A. Kurt Busiek may be the best Superman writer since Elliot S! Maggin, if Alan Moore doesn’t count. In this issue (which of course was co-written by Geoff Johns, but I prefer to credit Kurt with all the good parts), Kurt shows such a deep understanding of Clark, Lois and even Luthor. It’s deeply touching to watch a powerless Clark having to struggle with unaccustomed vulnerability. There’s one page that stuck with me, where Clark takes off his glasses and looks at Lois, and in the next panel her image is blurred. I also vastly prefer the classic mad genius Luthor to the post-Crisis corrupt businessman Luthor, and Kurt’s version of the character is closer to the former than the latter. Overall this was a very strong Superman story.
WONDER WOMAN #51 (DC, 1991) – A-. Maybe the overwhelming theme of this issue is tastefulness. The issue opens with three pages in which Diana, her mother and some other Amazons are naked, having just gotten up after going to bed nude. However, Jill Thompson succeeds in depicting this in a tasteful, nonsexualized way. It almost seems like an example of the Amazons’ naïveté about Patriarch’s World, which is also indicated by the funniest moment of the issue: Hippolyta is awakened by the phone, and thinks it’s “a cry in the night, like some poor tortured soul.” Most of the rest of the issue is taken up by a fight between Hermes and Mercury, which I assume is a lead-in to the War of the Gods crossover. However, this fight starts with a scene where Mercury, posing as Hermes, tries to rape Diana, and she flings him away from her violently, then immediately seems to regret having hit him so hard. Again, it makes perfect sense that Diana’s reactions here are rather conflicted; Mercury is a horrible monster (so is Hermes, for that matter), and yet Diana has worshipped him for her whole life. So in general this issue offers a tasteful and apparently realistic depiction of Diana and other female characters, something rather rare in the current DCU.
USAGI YOJIMBO #12 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A-. I’m having a tough time finding any back issues of Usagi I don’t already have, so it was a treat to find four issues of the Fantagraphics series at a local convention last weekend. Reading old Usagi coimcs can be a bit offputting, kind of like watching the first season of the Simpsons, because the characters were drawn in a rather crude style. But even back then Stan’s graphic storytelling was as brilliant as it is today. If you replaced all the characters with their modern versions, this issue would be indistinguishable from a recent Usagi comic. Also, even back then Stan was incredibly good at telling a complete, satisfying story in one issue. This story, about the theft of a sword from Lord Noriyuki, is rather lighthearted, and is mostly a prelude to the Dragon Bellow Conspiracy that starts next issue, but Stan resolves it in a satisfying way while also suggesting intriguing possibilities for future stories. One nice touch is that Tomoe and Usagi both appear in this issue but only meet for one page, which leaves the reader hoping for them to meet again. Back in 1988, every issue of Usagi included a short funny animal backup story by other creators; I’m glad Stan stopped doing that, because the backup story in this issue is awful.
STARMAN #73 (DC, 2001) – A-. This is the epilogue to “Grand Guignol,” depicting Ted’s funeral, and it’s pretty depressing. Half the issue consists of eulogies for Ted, and at the end of the issue, Jack doesn’t even get to see Sadie, who has left him a Dear John letter. Luckily I know there’s going to be a happy ending in issue 80, but at this point it’s still seven issues away. At least it’s all quite well written. I don’t particularly like Peter Snejbjerg’s art but he was an adequate replacement for Tony Harris.
GREEN LANTERN #66 (DC, 1969) – A-. I think I’m getting used to John Broome’s writing. This issue obviously has some weaknesses in the characterization department, but it tells an entertaining and well-crafted story, in which Hal saves the people of 5708 AD from a tyrannical computer. This story has some major similarities to Magnus, Robot Fighter, and ends with basically the same moral that characterizes Russ Manning’s Magnus: excessive reliance on technology is dangerous because it makes people soft and lazy. Probably this story was directly inspired by Magnus but I guess it could have been a coincidence.
SHE-HULK #2 (Marvel, 2006) – A-. This issue opens with a scene that’s hilarious but in a rather painful way. We see Jen going to bed with an unidentified man, and then she wakes up and finds Pug making breakfast. And then John walks in and it becomes clear that Jen was sleeping with him, not Pug. Adding insult to injury, Jen then tells Pug that she’s sorry if she and John were being too loud last night! Dan Slott obviously intended the reader to sympathize with Pug rather than John – they represent the stereotypical nerd and jock, respectively – and he repeatedly teased the reader by showing that Jen completely failed to realize Pug was in love with her. The rest of the issue depicts a trial which involves time travel, and the plot quickly becomes hopelessly complicated to the point where it’s impossible to follow, which I assume is part of the joke. This was a pretty fun issue.
AVENGERS #40 (Marvel, 1967) – A+. The best thing about Roy Thomas’s Avengers is the strength of characterization. The characters tended to be somewhat one-dimensional, but even that was an improvement over the Justice League or the pre-Shooter Legion, where the characters were completely indistinguishable. For example, the most exciting thing about this issue is the clash between two superhuman egos, Hercules and Namor. The plot hinges on both Herc’s stupidity and Namor’s pride. Herc accidentally lets slip that the Avengers are looking for the Cosmic Cube, thereby allowing Namor to find it for himself now that he knows there is such a thing. But once Namor finds the Cube, he insists on fighting Hercules on the surface, rather than underwater where he has an unfair advantage, and this gives the Wasp an opportunity to get the Cube away from him. It’s a good example of a character-driven plot. The issue also ends with another cute scene where the Mole Man finds the Cube but throws it away because he doesn’t recognize it; this seems like a preview of the scene at the end of issue 57 where a little boy plays with Ultron’s head.
DOOM PATROL #27 (DC, 1989) – A+. This might be the best ‘80s comic that I still haven’t read the complete run of. As with Surrealism and Dada, Grant’s Doom Patrol stories were weird for the sake of being weird, but they seemed to make sense on an affective, emotional or associative level even when they were completely absurd on a logical level. In this issue Mr. Nobody describes Dada as follows: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life. And Dada has no pretensions, just as life should have none.” That seems like a perfect description of Morrison’s Doom Patrol. It’s also notable because despite the absurdity, this series always seemed to have a lot of emotional sincerity – I got the impression that Grant genuinely cared about his characters and that I should too, and I don’t always feel that way after reading his more recent comics. Partly this is because the POV character in this series is Robotman, who (and this is part of the joke) is the only character who’s truly human. Cliff Steele deeply cares about his teammates despite his total inability to understand them, and this encourages the reader to feel similarly.
FEAR #15 (Marvel, 1973) – A-. Just as tofu has no taste of its own but is used as a delivery vehicle for more flavorful ingredients, Gerber’s Man-Thing had literally no personality, but served as a catalyst for stories involving other, more distinctive characters. This issue focuses on Jennifer Kale, who was a remarkably strong and proactive female character for this era, and reminds me of later Gerber characters like Beverly Switzer or the two women from Omega the Unknown. The letter column even includes a letter praising her as a positive depiction of a practicing Wiccan.’ However, this issue lacks the serious social commentary that’s present in Gerber’s best Man-Thing stories.
FANTASTIC FOUR #10 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. This story is a flashback to 1776, and guest-stars Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (though it misses an opportunity to mention Ben Franklin’s brief affair with Clea). Besides the plot involving the FF’s molecular disintegration, the main focus of the story is on Thomas Jefferson’s conflict over whether to mention slavery in the Declaration of Independence. On first reading this story, I felt it inaccurately depicted Jefferson as an unequivocal opponent of slavery; his actual views on slavery were deeply complex and not necessarily consistent, as indicated by the fact that Wikipedia has a 32-page-long article on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. The main conflict in this issue is that Jefferson wants to reference slavery in the Declaration, but Franklin and Adams are afraid this will cost them the support of the Southern colonies. In real life, it seems like the more significant conflict was in Jefferson’s own mind. But on second thought I think I may not be giving Fraction enough credit for his depiction of Jefferson. He does have Adams point out that Jefferson himself is a slaveholder, and at the end of the issue, when Franklin (Richards) asks Jefferson about slavery, Fraction intentionally declines to tell us what Jefferson said. Maybe this is a sufficient way of acknowledging the complexity of Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery, as well as the complexity of our attitudes about him today. Franklin says that nothing Jefferson said about slavery made any sense, and perhaps this suggests the impossibility of reconciling our views of Jefferson as a liberator and as a slaveholder.
Now that I’ve said all that, this next point seems embarrassingly minor, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m glad that Bagley is finally depicting Franklin as taller than Valeria.
ADVENTURES OF LITTLE ARCHIE #14 (Archie, 1960) – A+. At five dollars, this was by far the most expensive comic I bought at this weekend’s show. And it was worth every penny, because Little Archie comics with Bob Bolling artwork are nearly impossible to find. This issue includes a large number of stories some of which are blatantly stupid, but the highlight is “The Runaway,” a genuine classic. Like much of Bolling’s best work, this story is serious in tone, and is drawn in a style somewhat reminiscent of Barks’s adventure stories. In this story Little Archie gets a spanking for damaging his dad’s car, and decides to run away by rafting down the creek in the backyard. But the creek goes all the way to the ocean and Little Archie ends up lost at sea, clinging to a bell buoy. Obviously he gets rescued but the sense of danger is genuine, and Bolling emphasizes the gravity of this story by drawing everything in a realistic way; for example, the sailors Little Archie encounters have realistically drawn faces, whereas Little Archie’s parents have cartoony faces. It’s almost as though when Little Archie sails out of Riverdale, he leaves the world of childish adventure stories and emerges into the real world. According to the GCD, this story was only ever reprinted once, in a 1974 digest; it’s a shame that this and other Bolling adventure stories are inaccessible. A minor point is that this story claims that Riverdale is located on the Rapinog river; I wonder if this name is canonical, because I can’t find any other references to it on Google. Also, it mentions a city called Walmouth, which sure sounds like a Massachusetts place name.
The other notable story here is “Elvis Sings.” As the GCD writes, “Elvis turns out to be a frog, not the Elvis kids were hoping for,” but the story is genuinely poignant; Archie has to return his pet frog to the swamp, which makes him so sad he goes to bed without eating, but the last panel shows us that Elvis is happier in his natural environment. I notice that both these stories are heavily focused on the wilderness surrounding Little Archie’s house. I would have thought Little Archie was an influence on Calvin & Hobbes, except that Bill Watterson famously dislikes comic books. I think it’s more accurate to say that Little Archie and Calvin & Hobbes are both drawing upon a bygone era when little boys spent much more time outdoors than is common today.
POWER PACK #1 (Marvel, 2005) – B+. This was the first issue of Marvel’s Power Pack revival. When it came out I looked at it briefly and decided not to buy it, partly because the plot seemed kind of dumb. The premise is that Katie has a “how I spent my summer vacation” assignment and writes a story which reveals her and her siblings’ secret identities. This is problematic because Katie is not that stupid. After actually reading the entire issue, though, I find that the plot makes more sense than I gave it credit for. It turns out Katie just wrote the story as a plea for attention, not because she didn’t know better. Overall this was a reasonable start to a series, though I much prefer Alex Zalben’s Power Pack to Marc Sumerak’s version.
MS. MARVEL #8 (Marvel, 1977) – B/B-. About half this issue consists of a boring fight between Carol and Grotesk, a mediocre villain. Besides that, Carol herself is the star of this issue. It’s appropriate that Carol Danvers is Marvel’s best current female protagonist since she was also Marvel’s best female protagonist in the ‘70s, not that she had a lot of competition in either era. One nice touch in that issue is the new character of Tracy Burke, a middle-aged woman who is a distingushed journalist. At the time it was almost unheard of for a comic book to depict an old woman who had a profession other than that of witch, and unfortunately such characters are still rare today.
ADVENTURE COMICS #359 (DC, 1967) – A+. I have this story already since it was reprinted in Superboy #238, along with the following issue. I bought it again for the sake of completism, and I’m glad I did. I was only moderately impressed by “The Outlawed Legionnaires!” on my first reading, but on rereading it I realize that it’s a genuine classic. In this story – which was the basis for a later classic Legion story, “The Universo Project” – half of the Legionnaires are imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and the remaining eight are forced to go into hiding. At the time Shooter was the same age as the characters he was writing, and maybe this is why he is so effective at depicting their bewildered reaction to their situation. The Legionnaires suddenly find themselves betrayed by everyone they know, including their own parents, and they barely know how to react. One especically cute scene occurs when Val Armorr tries to relax by splitting a “slab of super-hard titanium manganite” with his bare hand, but he gets a phone call from Cosmic Boy, which breaks his concentration and causes him to hurt his hand. This scene indicates how Shooter’s Legionnaires are fragile and fallible, unlike typical DC heroes of the time, and this makes them sympathetic in a way that other DC characters were not. There are a few nitpicky problems with this issue – the girl Legionnaires need help from the boys in order to win a fight with some non-powered teenage thugs, and Phantom Girl doesn’t react in any way when Ultra Boy is sentenced to prison. Nonetheless, this is one of Shooter’s best Legion stories.
USAGI YOJIMBO #13 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A+. This is part one of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy,” which I believe was the first major Usagi epic, a predecessor to later stories like “Grasscutter” and “The Treasure of the Mother of Mountains.” Stan is equally good at this format as he is at the short story, and this issue demonstrates his ability to create excitement and to balance multiple plot threads. As with “Grasscutter,” this story consists of several parallel segments involving different characters (Usagi, Tomoe, Gen and Ino), most of whom don’t encounter each other yet, and none of whom knows the entire story. This is an effective plot structure because it builds suspense, whetting the reader’s appetite for the characters’ eventual meeting. The first three pages of this issue are an exercise in dramatic visual storytelling: page one consists of six horizontal panels showing rain, a charging horse’s hooves, Tomoe’s determined face, and a bunch of soldiers with swords, and then this is followed by an explosive two-page splash in which Tomoe charges straight into the enemy.
The plot of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy” involves Lord Hikiji’s attempt to overthrow the shogun using imported guns. In Usagi’s earlier days, this sort of epic plot with national implications was much more common than it is now. And there used to be a sense that the entire series was building toward a confrontation between Usagi and Lord Hikiji. But possibly because Stan has been growing older, Usagi has recently tended to focus on smaller-scale stories, the series no longer seems to have any definite endpoint, and Lord Hikiji has receded into the background.
STRANGE TALES #143 (Marvel, 1966) – B+. The pre-Steranko Strange Tales is not one of my favorite ‘60s Marvel comics, largely because neither of the protagonists was (yet) as interesting as other Marvel protagonists of the time. The obvious highlight of this issue is the Ditko artwork on the Dr. Strange story, though it’s mostly an extended fight sequence taking place in the Sanctum Sanctorum, and therefore lacks the graphic fireworks of other Ditko Dr. Strange stories. The Nick Fury story, in which Metallo and the Fixer take over the SHIELD Helicarrier, is reasonably good but doesn’t contain anything highly memorable.
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED #5 (DC, 2007) – F/A-. This series is a good example of the problem with buying stuff in single issues rather than trades. I’m buying it for the Dr. Thirteen backups, but because I’m reading the individual issues, I’m also forced to endure the Spectre stories that lead off each issue. And these stories are just execrable. They engage in wanton blood, gore and violence for no good reason. If Mike Fleisher’s Spectre was motivated by his hatred for evil, then David Lapham’s Spectre was motivated by his own sadistic desire to hurt people. I suppose this could be justified on grounds of psychological realism, but it’s not fun to read about.
The Dr. Thirteen story, on the other hand, is easily the best piece of metafiction that DC has published recently. In this story, we learn that the DCU is controlled by “the Architects,” who are at war with another universe that “reinvents itself every summer.” And that means we can’t have bizarre and cute characters like Genius Jones or Anthro or Funky Flashman. It’s a pretty damning condemnation of DC’s priorities, and it seems like a miracle that this series was even published. The other highlight of this series is the gorgeous art by Cliff Chiang.
SAVAGE DRAGON #77 (Image, 2000) – B-. This is the second installment of the Savage World story, which was a deliberate throwback to Kirby. Each page is based on a 4×4 or 6×6 grid and the dialogue is written in a characteristically Kirbyesque style. While I have no problems with the Kirbyesque aesthetic, though, I find that Larsen doesn’t add enough of his own style to that of Kirby. This issue just reads like a series of boring fight scenes, and lacks Larsen’s characteristic sense of humor. The only really interesting thing here is the scene that takes place in a tree-city, obviously based on Habitat from Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #11 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. The current Doc Ock/Spider-Man story arc is obviously a temporary gimmick and is not going to last, but at least it’s a reasonable solution to the problem of how to tell an original Spider-Man story after the character’s been around for 50 years. And unlike the Clone Saga or Brand New Day, it doesn’t invalidate years and years of preexisting continuity. This issue is somewhat painful to read in that it depicts Doc Ock completely crushing Peter’s psyche, rubbing Peter’s face in his mistakes and hubris. But this is justifiable because the story adds something genuinely new to the Spider-Man mythos; in addition, both the dialogue and the artwork are quite good.
FANTASTIC FOUR #11 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. I didn’t understand the story in this issue at all, but it had a couple interesting features. First, there is a line about how they had to crush 1,800 of the world’s last remaining peanuts to make Val a sandwich. Second, the villains are a group of steampunks. This is the first Marvel comic I can think of that directly engages with the steampunk genre, even though the steampunks are presented in a rather negative light. I’m not sure that any of the above is worth the price of this comic.
COURTNEY CRUMRIN #7 and 8 (Oni, 2012) – B+. This series is still not up to the level of Hellboy, which it greatly resembles in some ways. But at least it’s fun, and it has a certain bizarre combination of charm and spookiness, reminding me a bit of the Lemony Snicket books. I’m also finally starting to understand the story, which is compelling enough to make me want to read more of this series.
ACTION COMICS #8 (DC, 2012) – A-. This issue works surprisingly well as a reinvention of the Superman concept. In this story Grant comes up with a plausible new take on Brainiac and Metallo, and provides a redefinition of Superman’s purpose, which is very much in the spirit of Siegel and Shuster’s original concept: “I’m here to stand up for people when they can’t stand up for themselves, and I’m here to help out and make things better any way I can.” This is a very different Superman from the one that Kurt Busiek and Elliot S! Maggin wrote about, but it’s a Superman I would be interested in reading about, if it weren’t for my total lack of interest in current DC. If all the New 52 titles had provided such innovative new takes on their protagonists, then the New 52 wouldn’t have been such a dismal failure.
DORK! #7 (Slave Labor, 1999) – B-. In 2000, Tom Spurgeon wrote that “Cluttered Like My Head” was the best comics work Evan Dorkin had ever done. I don’t agree; I thought that this autobiographical story was whiny and pointless. It’s just page after page of Evan complaining about how he suffers from depression and impostor syndrome. Certainly this story seems quite honest, and effectively conveys how awful Evan felt while writing it, but I don’t think that’s sufficient for a satisfying autobiographical comic. In reading an autobiographical comic, I want the author to offer an innovative and unexpected take on life, to help me see the world in a way I hadn’t seen it before, and I don’t think Evan did that successfully. Tom must have seen something in this story that eluded me.
Another point that comes to mind about this story: In this story, Evan displays a deep sense of shame about his passion for comic books. He suggests that being a comic book geek is something to be embarrassed about. This was a very common attitude among alternative cartoonists ten years ago, but I wonder if the stigma associated with comic books is actually starting to decrease. I notice that two different recent books of poetry, Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis and Raymond McDaniel’s Special Powers and Abilities, have used comic book geekdom as a source of creative inspiration, and for Jackson especially, being a comic book reader seems like almost something to be proud of. Perhaps this is why “Cluttered Like My Head” seems a bit dated now – because it depends heavily on the stigma attached to comic book reading, a stigma which I believe has lost some of its power over the past decade.
BATMAN: THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE #2 (DC, 2010) – A-. I genuinely liked this one. Unlike some other Morrison Batman stories, this issue actually makes perfect sense on its own and tells a complete and satisfying story. That story takes place during the Salem (or rather Gotham) Witch Trials and therefore seems kind of trite, but ends with a surprising shock ending, which reveals that the grand inquisitor in the Gotham witch hunt was the progenitor of the Wayne family. The real highlight of the issue, though, is Frazer Irving’s art. His style is realistic and surrealistic at once; his faces look photorealistic and are presumably based on photo reference, but his coloring creates a mood of deep unease. I first became familiar with his artwork in another Grant Morrison comic, Seven Soldiers: Klarion, and I think he’s improved since then.
R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 (DC, 2010) – C+. This issue is a Blackest Night crossover, and so the plot is rather boring and doesn’t tie up any of the loose ends it introduces. The only thing I liked about this issue, besides the slightly above average artwork, is that it focuses on Stealth, one of the best characters from L.E.G.I.O.N. Unfortunately, at some point prior to this issue Vril Dox killed her, and now she’s back as a Black Lantern. She deserved a better fate than that.
ARCHER & ARMSTRONG #10 (Valiant, 1993) – A-. I would classify this as a minor work by BWS, largely because the draftsmanship is far from the best he’s capable of; I think the somewhat lifeless inking by Bob Wiacek is largely responsible. Also, the story is excessively weighted down by cross-title continuity baggage that no one cares about anymore. Still, this issue is quite fun, especially the scenes on the bus full of time-traveling tourists, and there’s a lot of deadpan British humor. This whole series was basically a prototype for the Freebooters series in BWS: Storyteller, which unfortunately ended too soon because BWS decided to be a prima donna and cancel it.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #34 (Mirage, 1990) – C-. I got this comic book for free many years ago, but never read it because it looked horrible. On reading it, I was surprised that it was less bad than it could have been. The story is an unfunny parody of the Punisher or something, and the villain constantly pronounces “turtles” as “toitles,” which gets old really fast. But at least Tom McWeeney’s artwork is okay – kind of reminiscent of Dale Keown or Dave Sim. And there is a pretty cool two-page splash in which the villain has a vision of an entire city street full of turtles. This wasn’t a good comic but it could have been worse.
JLA #37 (DC, 2000) – B-. Not Grant’s best issue of JLA. Too much stuff going on and it’s not clear how it all fits together. The highlight of the issue is the brief scene with Oracle and Prometheus. She keeps her cool when he says some horribly hurtful things to her, and refuses his offer to make her walk again. (Correctly, I think – one compelling aspect of Oracle’s character is that she’s learned to live with her disability, and she certainly shouldn’t agree to collaborate with a notorious supervillain in exchange for having her disability magically cured.) There’s also a cute splash page where Huntress gets flung into outer space, and Superman flies after her and gives her a big smooch, but only to keep her breathing. It’s an example of Grant’s trademark awkward humor. Unfortunately, besides the two scenes just mentioned, there is not much else in this issue.
JLA #39 (DC, 2000) – B+/A-. On initially reading this issue, I liked it a lot more than the previous issue, but now I can’t remember why. Perhaps it’s just because this is part 4 of World War III, while the previous issue was part 2, and so this issue seems like it’s closer to resolving the story. The impression I got from reading this issue, though, was that it had a profoundly Kirbyesque sensibility. This is not just because Orion is a major character in this issue and his dialogue is written in a Kirbyesque style. Grant just really seems to get the Kirbyesque aesthetic – the sense of sheer size and majesty and strangeness and unbounded creativity. At one point I thought of him as the contemporary heir to Kirby, though I don’t know that I still believe that.
MARVEL SPECTACULAR #3 (Marvel, 1973) – A-. Now here’s some actual Kirby. This is reprinted from Thor #128, though it doesn’t say so. Thor has never been my favorite Lee/Kirby comic; it was hampered by bad dialogue, wooden characters, and repetitive plots. The Ego storyline in the #130s might be an exception to that. Hercules guest-stars in this issue, though, and he serves as an effective foil to Thor’s rather flat personality. And the artwork in this story, where Thor visits Pluto’s netherworld, is often spectacular.
SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION #3 (Marvel, 1971) – B. This issue reprints Journey into Mystery #123 to #125. In the first two of these issues, a witch doctor from an unidentified Southeast Asian country is turned into a supervillain called The Demon (not to be confused with all the other characters by that name) and proceeds to conquer all the other neighboring countries, so clearly this is a job for Thor. This sort of Cold War-inspired story was fairly common at Marvel in the ‘60s, and this particular plotline is ineffective because it’s hard to distinguish from other similar stories – I’m thinking specifically of the Executioner story from very early in Thor’s JiM run. And it’s resolved in an anticlimactic way: isuses 123 and 124 are devoted to building up The Demon as an effective threat, but in issue 125, Thor defeats him on page six. The Demon plotline also exhibits Stan’s typical lack of concern for real-world geography. There’s a scene where The Demon besieges a village in Mongolia, where the people wear nothing but loincloths, carry spears and shields, and live in wooden huts. The other big thing in issue 124 is that Thor reveals his secret identity to Jane Foster, but this is not especially exciting because who cares about Jane Foster. Prior to Thor: The Mighty Avenger she was just a horribly boring and lifeless character. There is a pretty cute scene in #124 where Thor comforts a litle girl whose father was wounded in Vietnam. Issue 125 is significantly more effective because it guest-stars Hercules, and the story is driven by his huge ego and hedonistic personality.
THE POWER COMPANY: SKYROCKET #1 (DC, 2002) – A-. This issue is closer in sensibility to Astro City than to some of Kurt’s other Big Two material. It introduces Skyrocket, more or less the protagonist of the Power Company ongoing. Kurt convincingly depicts her as a passionate, idealistic woman whose career is derailed by institutional sexism: she resigns from the military when it becomes clear that she’ll never be allowed to serve in a combat role. The conclusion to the issue suggests that superheroism might offer Skyrocket a way of realizing her potential without being constrained by sexism. The trouble is that I’ve already read the Power Company ongonig series, and I know that Skyrocket’s superhero career ended up being just as unsatisfying as her military career. In Power Company, her idealism and passion are again derailed because she’s part of a team that cares more about making money than saving lives. So this issue ends up being a rather depressing read.
R.E.B.E.L.S. #21 (DC, 2010) – B. I liked this one a lot better than the last issue of R.E.B.E.L.S. I reviewed. This issue is mostly a big fight scene involving Lobo and Altin
Admos, the Okaaran Green Lantern. Lobo is not a particularly deep or versatile character, but this issue creates an effective conflict by pairing him with an opponent who’s his opposite in personality. The one problem with this issue is that I was buying this series primarily because of Starfire, and in this issue she only appears in a couple panels.
FADE FROM BLUE #1 (Second 2 Some Studios, 2002) – D+/C-. Unfortunately the name of the publisher accurately describes this comic. The premise here is interesting – the four protagonists are the daughters of the same man and four different wives, all of whom were ignorant of the others. However, the creators, Marat Murphy and Scott Dalrymple, just don’t have the ability to exploit the potential of this premise. The plot structure in this issue is highly confusing; the issue consists of a bunch of disconnected scenes with no clear relationship. There are so many characters in this issue that it’s hard to tell them all apart. An appendix listing their names and relationships would have helped a lot. This series has a good idea behind it, though, and it would be worth reading if the creators returned to it after refining their storytelling skills some more.
ADVENTURE COMICS 80-PAGE GIANT #1 (DC, 1998) – C-. There are seven stories in this issue but none of them are particularly good. I bought this issue because of the Legion story, but that story focuses entirely on Lori Morning, one of the worst characters in the history of the franchise. The other stories range from forgettable to terrible. In particular, the Supergirl story is extremely heavy-handed and unsubtle, and the artwork includes some glaring mistakes, such as one panel where the perspective is completely wrong: the characters in the panel appear to be less than half the height from the floor to the bottom of a window. The best of a bad lot are, first, a rather cute story where Superboy encounters a mermaid (though the writer must have known what he was doing when he named the mermaid Lolina). And second, the Bizarro World story, which features some spectacular Kevin O’Neill artwork full of visual puns. This one story is enough to raise the grade of the issue from D+ to C-.
THOR #192 (Marvel, 1971) – B-. This story illustrates the problems with Stan Lee’s Thor. The story is not original or entertaining – it’s just yet another one of Loki’s plots to usurp the throne of Asgard. And there is no effective characterization to distract the reader from the boring plot. In particular, Sif is depicted in this issue as a helpless damsel in distress. The Sif who appears in this issue is essentially a completely different and much worse character from the modern version who appears in the films and in Kathryn Immonen’s JiM. John Buscema’s artwork here is good but not good enough to save the story. The only cool thing here is the rather surprising ending, which unexpectedly introduces the Silver Surfer. Also, this issue was published during the month where Marvel chose to drop all the punctuation from the ends of sentences This was extremely bizarre and distracting, to the point where it significantly detracts from the impact of the story You can see how weird it looks when I do it
THOR #301 (Marvel, 1980) – F. This is just an average story, possibly below-average because of the excessive continuity baggage. The Celestials story that ended in this issue was part of Mark Gruenwald’s ongoing attempt to create a consistent version of the prehistory of the Marvel universe, and I feel like it’s only interesting to people who share Mark’s obsession with Marvel continuity, although I am such a person. The complexity of the plot is indicated by the fact that this issue begins with two full pages of recap. The primary redeeming feature of this issue is that it also features Thor’s reunion with his mother, Jord/Gaea, which is a genuinely emotional moment.
So why does this issue get an F? Because the bulk of the story depicts Thor visiting other divine pantheons to borrow their power, so that he can resurrect the dead Olympians. And the last pantheon he visits is the Hindu gods. But they refuse his offer, and this leads to a big fight between Thor and Shiva, which Thor wins (although the writers tactfully suggest that Thor only won because he teleported them to Asgard). Shiva is depicted here as an obese, double-chinned, combative buffoon. The problem here is obvious – Shiva is a deity worshipped by over a billion people, and even if this issue had an overwhelmingly non-Hindu readership, I think it behooved Marvel to depict Shiva in a more sensitive way, or ideally to not include him in the Marvel universe at allS. I imagine that any actual Hindu pepole who read this comic would have found it shockingly offensive. I mean, imagine if an Amar Chitra Katha comic depicted Jesus the way this issue depicts Shiva. For more discussion of this issue see http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/07/14/the-abandoned-an-forsaked-did-thor-just-beat-up-the-most-powerful-hindu-god/ and http://marvunapp.com/Appendix/shiva1.htm.
HERBIE #1 (Dark Horse, 1992) – F for the first story, A+ for the last two. You can guess why the first story gets an F when I say that it was writen and drawn by John Byrne. In this story, Herbie’s mom gets hired to do TV commercials, which prevents her from doing housework, so obviously this puts Herbie and his dad in danger of starving. So Herbie tries to deliberately sabotage her career so she’ll come home. Obviously this story was trying to make fun of the sexism of Silver Age comics, but it utterlfy fails to do so; it’s so unfunny that it ends up reproducing the sexist attitudes it’s supposed to be parodying. Also, this story demonstrates John’s typical inability to draw more than one female face, as Herbie’s mom looks just like Sue Storm or Heather Hudson.
Luckily this issue also includes reprints of two classic Herbie stories by Richard Hughes and Ogden Whitney. These stories are just fantastic in their sheer absurdity; they combine a deadpan art style with a completely nonsensical narrative, in which Herbie does things like defeating a giant ant by “bonking him with this here lollipop.” I have no idea what Hughes and Whitney were trying to accomplish with this comic, but whatever it was, they achieved it successfully. I need to read more of this series.
HERC #4 and #3 (Marvel, 2011) – C. I read these issues out of order, so I enjoyed #3 better than #4 because the story made more sense. However, neither of these issues felt particularly exciting. I think Pak and Van Lente basically ran out of ideas after finishing Chaos War, and the quick cancellation of the Herc series was unsurprising because it lacked the humor, passion and excitement of Incredible Hercules. This issue doesn’t even include any humorous sound effects.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: REBORN #1 (Marvel, 2009) – B-. This story made very little sense to me; there were too many things going on at once, and it wasn’t clear how they all fit together. Bryan Hitch’s artwork is visually impressive, but does not serve the story well. Too many many pages have giant splash panels for no particular reason. I feel like the widescreen technique should be reserved for particularly dramatic moments, but here Hitch uses it just for normal pages.
IZOMBIE #2 (Vertigo, 2010) – A-. Even though this is only the second issue, it’s difficult to understand without having read the first issue. The story seems to involve vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies all at once, and I can’t tell what is the unifying logic that holds the series together. However, each of the individual scenes in this issue is quite well written, and Mike Allred’s artwork is spectacular as always. His style does seem more suited to comedy than humor, and it creates the impression that this series is not taking itself entirely seriously, though there’s nothing wrong with that.
CAPTAIN AMERICA #41 (Marvel, 2008) – A-. I admit I’m not a huge fan of Ed Brubaker’s style of writing; his stuff tends to be too grim and gritty and realistic for me. However, it can’t be denied that he’s the best Cap writer at least since Mark Waid, if not since Roger Stern. His stories have an air of plausibility to them, even when they employ ridiculous characters like Arnim Zola. And even though this issue is part 3 of an ongoing story, it’s still fairly accessible. The real star of the show here, though, is Steve Epting’s artwork. He is one of the best storytellers currently working at DC or Marvel; in particular, he does action sequences better than possibly anyone else in the industry.
POWER PACK #4 (Marvel, 2005) – B-. This is the worst issue of this miniseries, largely because it ends with Power Pack more or less committing murder. They defeat a Snark and his human ally by arranging for them to be dragged into another dimension by a giant alien octopus. Neither the characters nor the writer seem to acknowledge that this act might have led to the villains’ deaths. Indeed, when Julie says that “that’s the last we’ll be seeing of them,” Alex replies “Thank goodness.” I don’t think this sort of behavior is appropriate to the tone of this all-ages Power Pack title. What makes this ending even worse is that in issue 1, this particular Snark was portrayed as a double of Katie Power; both characters felt they were being treated unfairly because of their relative youth, and tried to compensate by engaging in risky behavior. Other than the ending, this issue is more or less fine, but I don’t like the idea that the Power children would put their enemies in a situation of mortal peril, without expressing any guilt about it.