Brian's Big Ol' Comics Round-Up

A quick glance at what I've been reading recently...

Buffy The Vampire Slayer #12 & #13: Like a vampire, each new Buffy writer has taken up the skin of the title and possessed its soul in a slightly different way: creator Joss Whedon's work was heavy on arc and exposition (logically, since he wrote the first six issues, and presumably has the whole thing planned out in his head), and somewhat awkwardly attempted to adapt the television show's very fluid mixture of humor, action and melodramatic angst to the comics page, with up-and-down results (the best being his recent one-issue return, in issue #10); comics writer Brian K. Vaughn's Faith-Giles arc was suspenseful, dark and character-driven, and by far the best work the title has seen thus far; Drew Goddard, who wrote for both the Buffy and Angel TV shows, took over with issue #12, and the most surprising thing thus far is how humorous his work has been. With the exceptions of "Selfless" (on Buffy) and "The Girl In Question" (on Angel), both of which had moments of high comedy, Goddard's Whedonverse work on the small screen was unrelentingly dark, violent and twisted (and some of the best writing the final seasons of those shows produced), but his comics writing here is a romp. I particularly liked the Xander-Dracula and Buffy-Satsu scenes, which ironically parallel and comment on their respective same-sex relationships, and manage to be funny, sweet and respectful at the same time. The inclusion of the campy Dracula figure (briefly introduced in Season Five of the TV show) is inspired: his arrogance, self-absorption and insecurity are a nice echo of the Spike from the "Lover's Walk" era, and his anxieties about his aging become a subtle companion to Buffy's own fears and doubts of her leadership abilities. Goddard also pulls off the neat trick of making the odious Andrew appealing (love the George Hamilton joke), and offers a couple of very nice scenes for Willow. Perhaps because his two issues feel more like situation comedy than the earlier issues, they play better on the page, relying less on the mock cross-cutting and awkward attempts at voiceover with which earlier issues struggled. That doesn't mean the action's not there, though, particularly in the suspenseful scenes that close out issue #13, an explosion of violence that whiplashes the reader from the earlier comedy back to the angsty melodrama, and reminds us that Goddard's the guy who ripped Xander's eyeball out.

Justice League: The New Frontier Special #1: Designed as a comics tie-in/promotion for the DVD adaptation of Darwyn Cooke's 2004 miniseries, DC: The New Frontier, and boldy (for such a promotional project) sporting the optimistic description "first issue!" on its cover, this one-shot with the unwieldy name is a surprisingly good use of the single-issue, anthology form. Written by Cooke, and drawn by Cooke, David Bullock, and J. Bone (with fantatstic color throughout by Dave Stewart), each story illuminates a different set of DC characters and their relationships. The anthology form allows Cooke the chance to fluidly shift from the action-packed and darkly ambiguous (the opening story's Batman-Superman face-off for "The Greater Good") to the teenaged and trashy (Robin's motorcylce hijinks in "Dragstrip Riot") to the wonderfully satirical (Wonder Woman's hilarious infiltration of a Playboy club in "The Mother of the Movement"), while playing with the form and history of DC comics itself. As he also proved during his stint on the revived Spirit, Cooke is adept at taking older characters and making them say something new and self-reflexive about comic book writing and readership, while doing so within the form of a straightforward action tale; he's the Howard Hawks to Alan Moore's Jean-Luc Godard, so skillful at what he does that you might not even notice how deeply he's reaching as you tear through the pages. The New Frontier miniseries re-imagined the Silver Age DC universe (roughly World War II to JFK) in a more "realistic" manner, using familiar heroes like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman to ask questions about nationalism, patriotism, racism, and patriarchy in the conflicted period of the Cold War: what does it mean to be a 'hero' in a world that's rejected the idea? (In addition to its slam-bang action and humor and its fascinating political context, it also acted as a neat meta-commentary on the comic book industry of the early 50s, which rejected superhero books for nearly a decade). imply due to its length, the miniseries was able to cover a broader and deeper swath of American cultural history than this one-shot issue can: JL: TNFS feels less like a novel and more like a series of improvisatory sketches, but it's no less of an achievement, and if you've never read The New Frontier, it acts as a tasty appetizer (I must admit, it also does its job as a promotional piece: the storyboards and anecdotes in the back made me drop the DVD into my Netflix queue).

World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control #1-3: As a longtime Marvel reader, and as someone whose childhood imagination was shaped by heroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers, it pains me to admit: the current Marvel Universe is a mess.

Don't get me wrong: it's still full of great characters (which is why there are so many movies featuring them), and there are still talented writers and artists doing good work on books each month (the Knaufs on Iron Man, Joss Whedon on The X-Men, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, and the ongoing miracle of Runaways). But they're working in an environment that's become toxic due to one thing: the dreaded crossover. For the last four or five years, Marvel has become obsessed with the "event," some kind of multi-issue miniseries which crosses over into every book in their stable and, in its ripple effects, tries to remake the Marvel U. Most comics bloggers trace this disease back to the 1980s, when the two Secret Wars miniseries did a similar all-company crossover thing, but you could really go back as far as the birth of the Marvel Universe itself in the 1960s: one of the coolest things about Marvel growing up was that all their characters lived in New York, interacted with one another, and appeared in each other's books. It was a brilliant marketing device, of course, but it also gave a cohesion and intertextual richness to the reading experience-- in its chance meetings and intertwined emotional threads, Marvel felt "real" in a way other companies' adventure comics didn't.

The problem with the "events" of the last several years is that they've lost that casual, "hey, there's Spider-Man!" quality, and foregrounded their status as "must-reads," despite the fact that they are nearly always an underwhelming creative experience. Heavily promoted, built around a series of single-entendre 'political' ideas that make The X-Men look like Frederic Jameson, and spreading their narrative too thinly across every book in the Marvel Universe, these titles (everything from House of M to Civil War) always leave me feeling bored and annoyed, and they have the added effect of damaging characters for no truly compelling reason. If Stan Lee was a Cold War hipster, full of irony, self-reflexivity, and a spin on superheroes that somehow blended Jean-Paul Sartre and Mad magazine, this Joe Quesada-era Marvel is totally emo: almost parodically dark, self-serious, decompressed, and overhyped.

Thank god, then, for writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist Salva Espin, whose World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control is the antidote to all this self-regarding gloom. Light where the Marvel "event" comics are heavy, laughing instead of frowning, pissing all over the idea of multi-issue epic arcs (the whole series is only three self-contained issues), and cheerfully ignoring the man-boobs and computerized machismo of contemporary battle scenes in favor of character, dialogue and wry laughs, this book with the horrible title is almost the anti-Marvel, a through-the-looking-glass return to the fun that Marvel once provided on a monthly basis, and a melancholy reminder of the spirit it currently seems to lack. I was turned on to the book by a review at Bully's site, and I don't think I've had as much fun with any comic in a long time.

The quick narrative conceit: for reasons that really aren't important, superheroes must now register with the government, Tony Stark/Iron Man is in charge of nearly everything, and the Hulk has been shot into outer space. For reasons that aren't really important, the Hulk comes back to Earth, and for reasons that aren't really important, he gets in a big fight and basically destroys whole sections of Manhattan. Yeah, like you care, right? The folks at Damage Control, Inc. don't, not about motivation, anyway: a privately-held clean-up corporation, they specialize in cleaning up the post-apocalpses that superheroes seem to create on a daily basis (what with all that lunging and punching and blasting and jumping), and their only concern is getting Manhattan back on its feet, rescuing folks and putting building back up (while staying under budget and making a profit).

Having a blase (or at least tongue-in-cheek) attitude towards superheroes is essential for Damage Control, which mocks the genre's cliches while clearly showing a great deal of affection for them. As longtime readers of this blog know, I love superheroes, but I also think we can become too self-serious about them: Damage Control is out to puncture our pretensions, from the parodic splash page intros which mock the importance of continuity (one is structured as a "Mad Libs" for the reader to complete) to the almost Godardian paring away of all those elements (spandex, action, longwinded speeches) that seemingly define the form; in their place, McDuffie and Espin highlight the average, the everyday, ironic and quotidian, all those humans in the background that we might not notice as we look up in the sky, but who are no less heroic despite their lack of costumes. In shifting the focus and the tone, they paradoxically remind us of why we love superheroes in the first place: without ever showing one punch or repulsor ray blast, they offer us that mixture of magic, hope, humor and possibility that Marvel always used to represent.

Ultimate Spider-Man #118-#120:: OK, there's one Marvel comics title that's managed to avoid all of this crossover silliness. But it's over in a different universe.

Since its debut in 2000, Ultimate Spider-Man has been the "real" Spider-Man title to me, the one that-- moreso than the Spidey in the 'proper' Marvel U.-- captured the character's mix of heroism, humor, insecurity and hope. USM was aunched as the flagship title of a new "Ultimate" universe: the idea was that, after nearly 40 years (and following Marvel's recovery from its 1996 bakruptcy), the Marvel Universe had a vast and slightly unwieldy history; the continuity and intertwined threads that were once its calling card had made it difficult for new fans to catch up with everything that had happened. So, why not start over? The Ultimate U. would have the same characters as the 'official' Marvel universe, but would be separate and started from scratch, as if Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and others had just debuted in 2000. Some of their histories would be completely reimagined, while others (like Spidey's) would cleverly rethread the characters and events from the earlier continuity into the new origins and adventures; new readers got in on the ground floor, while longtme Marvelheads could chuckle at the intertextual jokes spread throughout.

USM succeeds because of Brian Michael Bendis, the gifted, Cleveland-born comics writer and artist who's been scripting the title since its debut. Originally known for "indie" books like Powers, Sam and Twitch, and the mind-blowing true-crime book Torso (as well as a funny memoir of his time in Hollywood called Fortune and Glory), Bendis has spent most of the 21st century working for Marvel and becoming its new mastermind. I'm not sure his "official" Marvel U. stuff is that hot, but he was born to write USM, since the teen angst, wit and superheroics of Peter Parker provide him with the perfect canvas for his style. Bendis's writing is full of pauses, stammers, sentences that cut-off, dialogue that overlaps or gets stuck in the throat: what better way to represent the travails of adolescence? At the same time, his jones for research and vast knowledge of Spider-lore makes the book pop with an almost cinematic sense of place and character, and his years of writing crime and gangster comics allows him to truly capture a city under siege, and provides the necessary dark balance to Spider-Man's sunny disposition. Paired first with artist Mark Bagley, and for the last year or so with artist Stuart Immonen, Bendis has offered 120 issues of Spider-Man whose action, character, depth and emotional resonance match any period in the character's long and successful history.

For all that success, however, even I didn't think Bendis could make the "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" idea work. Green Goblin? Harry Osborn? Venom? Death of Gwen Stacey? Spidey in Hollywood? Check, check, check, check, check-- he seemd to be reimagining key moments in the character's history with great skill. Bringing Iceman and Firestar into the mix, from the mediocre mid-80s cartoon? Why not just introduce Spider-Smurf instead?

But damned if it doesn't work. I wouldn't dare spoil the twists for those who haven't read the last three issues, but suffice to say Bendis takes the cheesiness out of the concept, and replaces it with heart, humor and not a little scariness. That scariness takes the form of a noted mutant supervillain, but that figuration is only a metaphor for the larger and more universal fears-- of bodily change, getting older, hiding secrets, changing your identity-- that Bendis is really interested in, and that superhero comics have always been one of the best pop culture vehicles for. The best moments of USM are almost never the fight scenes, expertly staged as they are, but those moments before and after, as characters must face up to what they will or have done. Appropriately, then, the climax of this arc is not a battle in the sky, but a heart-to-heart between three teens in a suburban backyard. For this most human of all superheroes, that seems by far the bigger challenge.


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