FEARLESS DEFENDERS #9 (Marvel, 2013) – A. This was the first issue of this series I bought. Going into this issue I had some doubts about its gender politics, because the concept of an all-female superhero team is highly progressive for Marvel, but also very easy to screw up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this issue rarely if ever engages in titillation or sexism, and that Cullen Bunn genuinely tries to present gender issues in a progressive way. Maybe he even tries too hard, as it seems like he was kind of setting up a strawman by depicting various male heroes as having a very overprotective attitude toward the female protagonists, though many the characters in question (Hercules, obviously, but also even Dr. Strange) have been depicted in the past as having a sexist attitude toward their female allies. Overall, I think this series has both a great premise and effective execution, and now that it’s been cancelled I feel guilty for not supporting it. I have no idea why it was cancelled, but I would assume it was more because of lack of publicity than because the concept was not appealing. For example, I don’t remember seeing any scans from this issue on scans_daily, and it seems like that communtiy would have loved this series.
QUANTUM & WOODY #32 (Acclaim, 1999) – A. This was not actually the 32nd issue; the series went on hiatus after #17, and then when it started up again, the first issue they published was the one that would have come out that month, if not for the hiatus. (Issues 18 to 21 were published subsequently, but the issues from 22 to 30 never materialized.) Priest and Bright take full advantage of the comic potential created by the fact that the reader comes into this issue having missed over a year’s worth of stories. #32 is full of references to other stories that hadn’t been published yet, and in some cases never would be, and it’s full of surprises: on the splash page we learn that “yep, Woody’s a black girl”, and later we discover that the original Woody is now some sort of supervillain. Continuing with the joke, the letters page is full of fake letters that reference other nonexistent stories. All this would have been more effective if I had been caught up with the first 17 issues of the series, but it’s a good example of Quantum & Woody’s characteristic humor, and the issue is also full of the series’s typical jokes.
THE BATMAN ADVENTURES #19 (DC, 1994) – A-. I’m adding the minus because of a couple nitpicky points. First, as I mentioned on Facebook, there’s one scene in this issue that takes place at the “Gotham Board of Psychiatry Annual Convention,” and there are no women present at all. I have firsthand evidence that women psychiatrist do exist, such as my mother, and surely there is at least one of them in Gotham. Second, at the end of the story, it’s not clear to me how Batman manages to get close enough to the Scarecrow to unmask him. Besides that, this is a typically impressive issue of the best Batman comic of the ‘90s. Mike Parobeck was the absolute master of the animated superhero style, but what impresses me about his art is the anatomy and composition; his ability to create dramatic action sequences with a minimum of linework is reminiscent of Alex Toth or Steve Rude (it turns out I’ve made this comparison before). And Kelley Puckett’s storytelling ability is impressive ; he leaves out information that most writers would include, e.g. the identity and origin of the mad scientist who built Scarecrow’s fear device, and yet his stories always make perfect sense and offer a satisfying resolution.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #2 (IDW, 2013) – B. This is not at the level of the best T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material (i.e. the original series and the ‘80s Deluxe Comics revival), though it’s entirely readable and it respects the spirit of the original series. This issue reintroduces most of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and ends with the revelation that Kitten Kane is the Iron Maiden’s sister. As I write this review, though, I realize that there wasn’t a whole lot in this issue that stuck in my mind, and I’m not sure whether my T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fandom is strong enough to sustain my interest in this series.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542 (Marvel, 2007) – D-. This would be an F except that the issue reviewed below is worse. In this issue Peter confronts the Kingpin, who he blames for mortally wounding Aunt May, and proceeds to beat him senseless and to publicly humiliate him. In my opinion, the coldblooded and sadistic way in which he punishes the Kingpin is completely out of character. Even if the Kingpin deserved this treatment, I don’t believe Peter is capable of slapping a defenseless man in the face ten times, or threatening to pour webbing down someone’s throat. Peter might engage in such behavior while in a fit of rage, but here JMS makes it clear that Peter knows what he’s doing and has accepted responsibility for it. (Compare ASM #154, where Peter nearly beats a criminal to death, but stops as soon as he realizes what he’s doing.) That is not the Spider-Man I know.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #545 (Marvel, 2008) – F. This is the final chapter of One More Day, and if it’s not the worst Spider-Man comic of all time, it’s certainly a close runner-up.
SWAMP THING #4 (DC, 2012) – B+. Surprisingly good for a New 52 DC comic. I have never heard of Marco Ruby, but his full-page compositions in this issue are quite impressive, reminding me a little of classic Swamp Thing pages by Bissette or Veitch. Or even J.H. Williams, though Ruby’s art is not at the same level of complexity. There’s one particularly funny page that’s a grim parody of Norman Rockwell’s lunch counter painting, and another one that graphically depicts Abby and Alec as avatars of the Rot and the Grim: they’re sleeping next to each other in a field, but the area around Abby is totally barren, while the area around Alec is covered with flowers and butterflies. The story here is not as interesting as the art, but Scott Snyder effectively creates a sense of menace. This issue was not good enough to make me want to break my DC boycott and read more of this series, but I would buy it if I found it cheap.
MARVEL ADVENTURES: SUPER-HEROES #12 (Marvel, 2011) – C-. This series went into a steep decline just before its cancellation; the top talent (e.g. Paul Tobin) disappeared and I think some of the last issues were even reprints. This story, for example, is not actively bad, but it’s a very simplistic story about a fight between the Hulk and the Abomination, lacking the narrative depth or originality that made Marvel Adventures exciting. The lettering in this issue is in an unusually large font size.
ALTERNATIVE COMICS #2 (Alternative Comics, 2004) – B-. This FCBD issue was published by Jeff Mason, a frequent sponsor of the UF Comics Conference. It contains work by a lot of artists who would later become big names, including Gabrielle Bell, Brandon Graham, and Josh Neufeld, as well as already-established stars like Harvey Pekar and James Kochalka. Unfortunately almost all the stories are two- or three-pagers and so none of them are especially deep. For example, the Brandon Graham story is just a two-page slice-of-life vignette, though it’s intriguing because the subject matter is much more realistic than his later work. Maybe the best material here is the somewhat longer preview of Nick Bertozzi’s The Salon, which makes me want to read some of his work.
HELLBLAZER #229 (DC, 2007) – B+/A-. This late Hellblazer story by Mike Carey and John Paul Leon is surprisingly entertaining. The story is structured like a series of fetch quests in a video game: person A asks Constantine to obtain an item from person B, but person B refuses to give up the item unless Constantine gets something else from person C, and so on. Specifically, this reminds me of the trading sequences in Ocarina of Time and other Zelda games. The trick in this issue, though, is that all the people who want stuff from Constantine turn out to be connected in some way, and Mike Carey resolves the story in a way that explains who they all are and why they want what they do. It’s an impressive demonstration of narrative skill, though I don’t like John Paul Leon’s art much.
FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2011 (SPIDER-MAN) #1 (Marvel, 2011) – C+/B-. This issue offers a complete and fairly satisfying story, which is appropriate in an FCBD comic, but that story is kind of boring and is distinguished only by some witty dialogue. I predicted the twist ending (in which Spidey defeats Mandrill using perfume) long before it happened. Humberto Ramos’s style has changed so much since Impulse that I wouldn’t have guessed it was him if I didn’t know.
ADVENTURE COMICS #430 (DC, 1973) – B/B-. I really like Black Orchid as a character, and Sheldon Mayer writes effective dialogue, but this story failed to connect with me. Mayer does a good job of keeping Black Orchid’s identity mysterious, repeatedly refuting the reader’s and the characters’ guesses as to who she is. Other than that, though, there’s not much substance here, and Tony DeZuñiga’s artwork is kind of sloppy; several panels are notably lacking in backgrounds. The Adventurers’ Club backup story is also a very slight piece of work. In the letter column, the editor suggests that this series was being replaced by a new feature (i.e. The Spectre) because no one liked it, and I’m not surprised.
JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #647 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. Another series with a female protagonist that was unfortunately cancelled despite its fairly high level of quality. The success of Young Avengers proves that Marvel has the ability to attract female readers; I wonder what they can do to retain those audiences after that series ends. The main plot of this issue is that Sif has a severe anger management problem and is beating people up for no reason. I don’t find this especially exciting, but there is a lot of cute stuff here, particularly the scenes involving Volstagg and his family. I would actually much rather read Journey into Mystery Starring the Volstagg Family than Journey into Mystery Starring Sif. I admit I stopped reading this series because I didn’t think it was all that great, and I was surprised to see it on CBR’s Top 100 list; again, I think Marvel didn’t promote this series as effectively as they could have.
BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #2 (DC, 2013) – A+. I’m actually considering violating my DC boycott to buy this series. Obviously the writing and artwork in this issue are adorable, but unlike say Tiny Titans, this comic also almost works as a regular Batman comic. The two stories in this issue are less seriously intended than those in Batman Adventures, and the second story is just a comic romp, but the first story, which focuses on Mr. Freeze, has some serious emotions behind it. If this story were drawn in a less cute style, you might not be able to tell it was an all-ages Batman comic. If all of DC’s comics were as charming and well-written as this, the company would not be in such bad shape and I wouldn’t be boycotting their products.
ELRIC #2 (Pacific, 1983) – B+. If there was a World Comics Hall of Fame, Michael Moorcock would deserve to be included in it because of his influence on creators ranging from Alan Moore to P. Craig Russell to Philippe Druillet. This comic is a very literal adaptation of early chapters of Elric of Melniboné, which is why it doesn’t score higher than a B; I find that excessive literalism is a problem with many of Roy Thomas’s adapted stories. However, PCR and Michael T. Gilbert do an impressive job of translating Moorcock’s words into visual form. Maybe one reason Moorcock’s work has such influence on comics is that his prose tends to be quite visual – for example, the first Elric novel begins “It is the color of a bleached skull, his flesh…” And PCR is the perfect artist to tap the visual potential of Moorcock’s words.
FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2012 (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON POINT ONE) #0.1 – C-. This would be a D or an F if not for Bryan Hitch’s powerful and majestic artwork. I still can’t stand Bendis’s prose style, and I don’t see the point of this Age of Ultron storyline; after “Ultron Unlimited,” why should anyone else even bother writing another Ultron story? QU
THE MAGIC FLUTE #1 (Eclipse, 1990) – A. After reading Elric #2, I finally felt motivated to read this PCR opera adaptation that I’ve had for years. In Elric #2, PCR was already fairly close to his mature style, but by the time of the Magic Flute he had reached the peak of his career. In this issue he not only draws beautiful architecture, which is what I usually think of when I think of his art, he also shows mastery of facial expressions and visual acting. His characters clearly reveal their emotions through actions and body language, even when their eyes are depicted as single dots. PCR also effectively solves the problem of representing music in visual form; the sound of the flute is represented as long wavy lines that vaguely resemble musical notes, while the sound of Papageno’s bells looks like bubbles. Reading this was a lot of fun and it makes me want to both finish the series and actually listen to the entire opera.
SUPERBOY #60 (DC, 1999) – A. This series was at its best when Kesel and Grummett were directly adapting Kirby’s concepts and characters. They truly understood the spirit of Kirby’s early ‘70s creations, and they integrated this material into stories that made logical sense, which was something Kirby himself had trouble doing. I’m not saying this material is in any way equal to Kirby’s original work, but it’s an effective adaptation. For example, the highlight of this issue is some scenes involving the Hairies, characters who only appeared very briefly in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen. Kesel and Grummett correctly depict them as hippies with improbable technological skill, which is a hilarious combination, and I love their alliterative dialogue. Kesel also does a surprisingly good job of writing Batman.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #53 (DC, 1967) – C+/B-. I like the ideas behind these Silver Age DC comics, but the execution is often lacking. Too much of this issue is wasted on a boring fight between the JLA and a bunch of American folklore characters. I suppose the editors thought the readers wanted to see superheroes doing super-deeds, but that on its own is not enough to sustain an entertaining story. After the fight is over, the story does develop some more narrative complexity. And Hawkgirl, an unusually proactive and powerful female character for that time, ends up saving the day and even gets to beat some men up. But this story does not fulfill its potential for a progressive representation of gender, because Hawkgirl inexplicably doesn’t get invited to join the JLA, and the story ends with Green Arrow saying “If I could find a girl like you, Hawkgirl, I’d get married myself” – which is kind of offensive not just because of the word “girl,” but because it implies that her identity is inseparable from her marriage.
QUANTUM & WOODY #6 (Acclaim, 1997) – B+/A-. This was a substandard issue because there was too much plot and not enough humor. Some of the jokes were quite good, e.g. the sequence that cross-cuts between Quantum, who gets up at 5 AM to exercise and recite philosophy to himself, and Woody, who is lying naked in bed. However, the whole business with David Warrant would be more interesting if I could remember who this character was.
STARMAN #67 (DC, 2000) – A-. Part 7 of Grand Guignol. This one ends on a more positive note than earlier issues, and offers hints that the end of this rather long storyline is in sight. Jack is joyfully reunited with Sadie, and Bobo, who was supposed to have been dead, turns out to be alive. But the omnipresent darkness of this story is stil there: Ted Knight is shown to be suffering from the injuries that would kill him a few issues later, and Culp is depicted as an overly heartless and loathsome villain. I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned Peter Snejbjerg’s art before; I think it’s unfair to compare his work to that of Tony Harris, so I will just say that he drew some very silly facial expressions.
PROPHET #32 (Image, 2013) – B+. I’m ashamed to say that I’m about a year behind on this series. My difficulty reading it is attributable to the confusing storyline, but it occurs to me that story is really not the point of this series. Brandon Graham cares more about depicting bizarre people and places than about plot. King City is more of a series of travelogues and character sketches than an epic saga, even though it does have a flimsy underlying plot, and this series is the same. This issue is actually credited to Simon Roy, not Brandon Graham, but it has the same positive qualities as Graham’s work on this series: it’s full of creatures that are incredibly bizarre but also sometimes adorable (I love the panel where Brother John Ka strokes her pet fly under the chin). And there actually sort of is a plot here, involving John Ka’s attempts to protect the feral humans, so although this is a fill-in issue, it’s not a bad one. Simon Roy’s art seems rather crude at times.
THE FLASH #310 (DC, 1982) – B-. The Flash story here is not great, but it’s readable. As usual for Cary Bates, the plot is highly complex (or convoluted) and presents a sufficiently intriguing mystery to make me wonder what happens next. Colonel Computron is a good example of the public image of computers in the early ‘80s, as s/he can do basically anything at all but is rather clunky-looking. Carmine Infantino’s art here is less bad than it usually was in his later career, though there is one panel where Luna Nurblin, who is presumably the secret identity of Colonel Computron, is depicted in an extremely unflattering light. I suppose at the time it was rare for DC to depict a female character who’s not a statuesque beauty (and sadly it’s still rare), but Infantino makes her look disgustingly fat and invites the reader to laugh at her. There is also a Dr. Fate backup story by Martin Pasko, Steve Gerber and Keith Giffen. I don’t know what the division of labor was between Pasko and Gerber, but the story includes some Gerberesque touches, e.g. a supernatural entity that manifests as a farmer with overalls and a shotgun. And Inza Nelson is effectively portrayed as a bored and lonely housewife who is tired of sacrificing her own career for her husband’s. This must have been one of Gerber’s last works for either of the Big Two prior to Destroyer Duck. I ought to collect the other issues of Flash that included this backup series.