The first round of reviews for 2014-2015

6-11-14

This review project is now in its second year.

JONAH HEX #52 (DC, 1981) – A-. This issue has a hilarious and disturbing cover (a baby reaching out for a scorpion) and the mood of the story is a similar combination of humor and horror. The main theme of the story is that Jonah Hex is a loathsome man and a terrible husband and father; he lets his baby get bitten by a scorpion, then slaps his wife when he complains about it, and then leaves them both to go hunt down some criminals who have kidnapped his young friend Petey, even though his wife threatens to leave him and take the baby if he does so. These events are really quite tragic – the underlying message here is that Hex is so obsessed with maintaining his honor that he doesn’t care if it costs him his family. However, Mike Fleischer’s writing is so funny and so over-the-top that the reader ends up laughing at Hex rather than sympathizing with him. I felt a bit ashamed of myself for finding this story funny, since it involves spousal abuse, but again, the reader is not asked to sympathize with Hex or forgive him for doing this. The issue also includes a Bat Lash backup story by Len Wein and Dan Spiegle, which is very much in the spirit of the classic Bat Lash series.

SUPERBOY #172 (DC, 1971) – C. This is the first issue of Superboy that includes a Legion backup story. However, that story is a very boring one; it has one of the most overused plots in Legion history (Garth and Ayla vs. Lightning Lord) and it’s not particularly well written or well drawn. The lead story, in which Superboy battles Yango the Super-Ape (not to be confused with Yango of the Hairies, or Titano the Super-Ape), is only a little bit better.

WILDC.A.T.S #32 (Image, 1997) – B-. You remember when I said that Ryan Benjamin might be the worst artist Alan Moore has ever worked with? Well, some of the artwork in this issue is even worse. There are three credited artists (Mat Broome, Pat Lee and Jim Lee), and I can’t determine who did which pages, but on at least some pages, the artist completely ignores storytelling, composition and anatomy in order to draw stuff that looks cool. This is exactly the sort of artwork that gave Image Comics a bad reputation in the ‘90s, and it detracts from the story, which is composed mostly of a long fight scene. Even Alan Moore’s writing is not quite enough to save this comic, because it’s mostly a long fight scene, so the only thing that makes this comic interesting is the witty dialogue that accompanies the fighting. However, there is a pretty shocking plot twist at the end.

HALO JONES #2 (Fleetway/Quality, 1987) – A. After reading a bad Alan Moore comic book, I read a good one. This comic is a very low-quality reprint of the original 2000 AD stories – the artwork is reproduced at an excessively small size, and a lot of fine detail is missing. But it’s still possible to appreciate the story, which is a classic and a major early work of Alan Moore. It’s been a long time since I read the first issue of this series, so it took me a while to remember what’s going on, but the story is a powerful exploration of the theme of escape. Halo Jones, like so many real people both in 1980s Britain and in America today, is trapped in generational poverty; she lives in the Hoop, a floating island where all the poor people are kept so that the rich can ignore them. She manages to escape the Hoop by getting a job aboard a spaceship, but has to leave her best friend Rodice behind. This is very powerful stuff, especially the ending of this issue, where Halo leaves Earth while Rodice stays behind, making empty promises that she’ll follow Halo on the next ship. Yet Halo Jones is also one of Alan’s funnier works, though much of the humor is of the black variety. Ian Gibson’s artwork is highly impressive, reminding me of Kevin O’Neill, even if it’s difficult to appreciate the subtleties of his drawing at such a small size.

HALO JONES #3 (Fleetway/Quality, 1987) – A-. This one gets a lower grade because only half the issue is actually composed of Halo Jones material. The other half consists of two unrelated 2000 AD stories, which include some good artwork by Gibson and Mike McMahon, but are not nearly as well-written as Halo Jones.

THE STEEL CLAW #1 (Fleetway/Quality, 1986) – A+. This is another reprint of a classic British comic. Originally published in 1962, The Steel Claw is one of Paul Gravett’s “1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.” It is a classic of Spanish as well as British comics, since the artist, Jesús Blasco, is one of the greatest Spanish cartoonists. The title character, Lewis Randell, is a terrorist who has the power to turn invisible, except for his prosthetic steel hand, whenever he charges himself with electricity. This is a very simple premise but it has a ton of narrative potential, and the writer, Ken Bulmer, succeeds in making Randall a threatening and scary villain. Blasco’s artwork is very impressive; his spotting of blacks reminds me a lot of Caniff, who was one of his major influences. This comic definitely deserves its classic status and I want to either hunt down the rest of the Quality reprints, or get the hardcover collection that came out in 2006.

AVENGERS WEST COAST #80 (Marvel, 1992) – D+. This was a waste of Roy Thomas’s talent. This issue is an installment in a pointless and forgettable crossover (Operation Galactic Storm) and it’s hampered by excessive continuity baggage. There is so much plot in this issue that there is no room for characterization, and most of the characters are pretty lousy anyway, especially Living Lightning, who is a blatant Hispanic stereotype. Also, Dave Ross’s artwork is not good.

MARVEL PREMIERE #8 (Marvel, 1973) – B-. It is really weird reading a Marvel story by Gardner Fox, one of the writers most closely identified with DC. Fox was a poor fit for Marvel comics because of his lack of interest in characterization. However, during his brief Marvel career he wrote mainly horror and fantasy stories, which makes sense since he was a fantasy novelist and his DC stories often had a strong fantasy element (I’m thinking for example of Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast). And this specific issue displays a strong Lovecraft and REH influence; even the villain, Shuma-Gorath, has a name that originally appeared in an REH story. However, the Lovecraftian themes are little more than window dressing; the actual story is a generic piece of superhero material. Not much happens in this issue except that Strange defeats some monsters by poorly explained methods. Jim Starlin’s artwork in this issue is surprisingly impressive.

SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #40 (Marvel, 1980) – C-. This issue has a potentially strong premise – Spider-Man gets infected by the Lizard’s serum and turns into a Spider-Lizard – but the writer, Bill Mantlo, does nothing original or exciting with that premise. The issue ends with a scene in which Spidey is trapped underwater and has to pry open a barred window to escape. When he succeeds in doing so, he says “I did it! We’re free!” I’m not sure whether this is an affectionate homage to Spider-Man #33, or just a rip-off.

LUMBERJANES #3 (Boom!, 2014) – A+. With this issue, Lumberjanes is becoming less of a realistic summer-camp comedy and more of a fantasy comic which happens to be set at summer camp. The very first scene of the series included three-eyed animals, so it was obvious from the start that this story wasn’t taking place in the real world. But I still didn’t expect that there would be an entire issue set in an underground booby-trapped dungeon with talking statues. Not that I have any objection to that sort of thing; it’s just surprising. In temrs of the actual merits, Lumberjanes continues to be a fantastic all-ages comic, on the same level as The Amulet or Katie and Andy’s My Little Pony. None of the challenges that the Lumberjanes face in the dungeon are especially original, but the comic is a thrill to read because of what these challenges reveal about the characters. The creators have come up with an amazing ensemble cast; Riley and April continue to steal the show, but the quieter characters also have some cute scenes in this issue, and I’m starting to suspect that Mal and Molly are or will be a couple. I still have no idea where the overall plot of the series is going, but there are carvings of three-eyed creatures in the dungeon, so clearly this issue is relevant to the plot in some way that is not yet clear.

PRINCESS UGG #1 (Oni, 2014) – A+. I very much enjoyed Courtney Crumrin but I didn’t get into it until the end of its run, so I appreciate the opportunity to follow Ted Naifeh’s latest project from the start. Deconstructionist fairy tales are becoming almost as common as deconstructionist superhero comics, and Princess Ugg isn’t even the only recent comic with this theme. However, Ted Naifeh’s original and hilarious intervention is to mash up Disney princesses with Conan the Barbarian. The other awesome thing about Naifeh’s work is his deadpan humor. This issue includes a scene where a princess falls off her palanquin into a pile of mammoth dung, and yet I almost forget to laugh because this story takes itself so seriously, or pretends to. But Princess Ugg is also more than just a humor comic. Despite the hilariousness of her situation, Ulga is not a joke character; she is a confident young woman who is comfortable with who she is, but she also has a deep curiosity about the world and a desire to expand her intellectual horizons. Even in a comics industry which is full of fascinating female protagonists, Ulga stands out. I eagerly await issue 2.

MANIFEST DESTINY #7 (Image, 2014) – A-. This issue doesn’t have enough Sacagawea, but it’s still fun. Easily the highlight of the issue is the amazing reveal on the second page. On page one, we see three small panels of a ladybug plodding along the ground; in the third panel, the ladybug suddenly has some sort of rope harness around its back. Then we turn the page and discover that the ladybug is the size of a grown man – we can tell because Sacagawea and Charbonneau are capturing it in a giant net. We only assumed it was the normal size because there was nothing to compare it to. This sort of reversal of scale would be difficult to pull off in any medium other than comics.

SHE-HULK #5 (Marvel, 2014) – B+/A-. As far as the plot goes, this issue is mostly setup; we don’t learn anything about the Blue File except that people go crazy when it’s mentioned. But this issue does include some cute character interactions. I especially like the notion that Tigra has a giant jungle gym/kitty tree outside her house. The thing I don’t like about this issue is Ron Wimberly’s artwork. I suppose his weird perspective and his extremely crude drawing are deliberate stylistic choices, but I don’t understand what the appeal of this art style is supposed to be.

ASTRO CITY #13 (DC, 2013) – A. This is a fascinating and difficult issue. The story takes place on a single day, but is not presented in chronological order, so initially it appears as if the various characters in the story have nothing to do with each other. As you read more, though, the connections start to become clear, and you realize that the story is about love, and about how modern urban citizens are prevented from being with their loved ones because of the excessive demands on their time and energy. The line about the cold bed and the note on the fridge is especially poignant. The cool part about the structure of this story is that it keeps you guessing; I initially thought that the (unnamed) dude with the beard and glasses was the bank teller’s boyfriend, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was wrong and that he was actually Zvi’s boyfriend. Also, the Dancing Master has kind of a silly name but I love this character anyway. His dialogue is bizarre and full of nonsensical references (and it’s set in a gorgeous old-fashioned typeface), and every time he appears he’s drawn in a different style, which is never the same style as that of the surrounding artwork. All this makes him seem like a truly otherworldly and incomprehensible character. In retrospect, I think this may have been the best single issue of the current series.

ALL-NEW DOOP #1 (Marvel, 2014) – B-/C+. This issue tries to make some kind of a statement about marginality – we are told that Doop is a marginal character, and this somehow gives him the power to slip through panel borders. This sort of metatextual self-reference is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating effects that comics can use, so I should have loved this comic. But I didn’t because I had no idea what was going on. The story appears to be taking place concurrently with the Battle for the Atom crossover, but the writer (Peter Milligan) doesn’t bother to explain the plot of that crossover, so the parts of the story that don’t directly involve Doop are impossible to understand. Another annoying thing about this issue is the Doopspeak. Even though I’ve been reading Doop comics for over a decade, I still need to use a Doop translator to read his dialogue. I don’t mind having to do this once or twice an issue, but it becomes extremely annoying when Doopspeak appears on almost every page.

STRANGE TALES #134 (Marvel, 1965) – A+. The Thing/Torch story in this issue is pretty stupid. The villain of this story is Kang, and his plan is to travel back in time to Camelot and usurp the throne of England from King Arthur, so that he can change the past and ensure that the Fantastic Four will never be born. Of course there is a glaring plot hole here: if Kang changes the past in this way, then won’t that prevent Kang himself from being born? Kang repeatedly brags about his advanced futuristic technology, so it’s pretty obvious that he was born after King Arthur, meaning that anything he did to the past would affect him as much as the FF. Another bizarre thing about this story is that Kang thinks the Fantastic Four are his enemies, yet as far as I can tell, this is the first story in which Kang ever met the FF (ignoring the later retcon that Kang was the same person as Rama-Tut). I wonder if Stan just forgot which heroes were associated with which villains.

Of course the main draw of this issue is the Dr. Strange story, which is a masterpiece from probably the greatest era of Ditko’s career. The scenes taking place in New York are beautifully atmospheric and moody, while the scenes set in the Dark Dimension are mind-blowingly bizarre. This story also prominently involves the Mindless Ones, who are among Ditko’s most visually striking creations. This story is an obvious classic and I regret that I don’t have as much to say about it as about the Thing/Torch story.

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