I was kind of wondering when this might happen.

When we put together the Patreon and the plans to write weekly posts, in the back of mind, I kept wondering what would happen on the week where I just didn’t feel like I had anything to say.  I’d even started brainstorming perennials I could write ahead of time and just plunk in here when the need demanded it.  (Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Bold!  The Howard the Duck omnibus! ABC Warriors!)  As much as I’d like to be like Graeme, who has the focus to pop out 800-1200 words in a tidy stream, straighten them up, and get them out the door, it’s a messier thing for me. It’s gotten a little harder to stay focused, to make sure the words mean what I want them to, that I’m on the right track.  Youth is great for making fanatics–it can be easier to be single-minded when you’re young, or at least it was easier for me.

In fact, just seven hours ago, I was floating in a sensory deprivation tank, something I’ve done a handful of times now, and my mind just would not stay still.  Even the stuff I was being obsessive about kept getting displaced by the waterwheel of my mind.  It’s one of those times where I’m tremendously grateful for the Internet because it’s become my one-stop shop for excuses about my brain.  Can’t concentrate?  INTERNET.  Lingering on things that make me angry? INTERNET.  Sex stuff, in one second loops?  Well, that really is the Internet, thank goodness–I hope someone somewhere has put together a theory about how a .gif mimics obsessive thinking, and whether cycling through a ton of gifs might exacerbate or lessen obsessive thinking.  (For me, I think it tends to exacerbate it.)

Obsessive thinking, obsessive habits.  I’d actually thought for most of my life that I was far too lazy for either, but, um, then I realized I had twenty-seven longboxes of comics. So…

Anyway. Part of the problem with my obsessive patterns is I can go through periods of reading a shitton of comics, and then a period where I just…don’t.  I mean, there’s always going to be a thing or two, a book, a bit.  But I notice right now I’m in a pattern of seemingly constant comics accumulation, but my comic reading seems to wax and wane depending on whether it’s a podcast week or not.  And when it’s not, there are times where I just look at a big ol’ pile of comics, and even the dumb, colorful ones feel like…homework.  And yet that will not stop me from continuing to buy them.  (Man, between the Transformers and the Dynamite Humble Bundle sales, and the Batman 750, the Suicide Squad, and those forty-five cent SDCC graphic novels, it’s like I took a shotgun to my digital purchasing budget.)

All of which is to say:  here’s kind of the edges of the peanut butter jar, the stuff I’ve either managed to pick up just today or recently and wade through.  Here are the thoughts-without-thinking:

SANDMAN: OVERTURE #3:  I was actually shocked when this hit the stands this week.  Like, this odd shock of “oh, that’s not over yet?”  It hasn’t been high on my list of priorities.  But this was easily my favorite issue yet, if not probably one of my favorite things from Gaiman (admittedly a pretty short list, and although I haven’t given it any thought it is probably, in rough order:  that Riddler story; the Emperor Norton issue; his deposition testimony in his case against Todd McFarlane; the nurse’s hands making the bat signal as baby Bruce Wayne shoots out of his mom’s vagina; Coraline; his description of Amanda Palmer looking perpetually surprised in the morning before she’s applied her eyebrows; and then this?)  For the first couple of pages, I thought “well, okay, a lot more nothing is going to happen but it’s the best looking nothing yet,” and then…stuff happened?  I mean, it’s Neil Gaiman so of course, by “stuff,” I mean, “a dramatic confrontation is defused in a non-violent but flashy manner, and someone tells somebody else a story,” but, I dunno, those things worked?  It probably helps that the former was made easier by a certain amount of Moffat-written Dr. Who, and the latter was told pretty economically, considering how much more blowsy other comic artists can get.  Or maybe I just really like the way J.H. Williams III draws that cat?  Anyway, yeah.  I’ll be excited in 2017 (or whenever) when the next issue comes out.

SNIPE:  Picked this up when Rich said some nice stuff about it over at Bleeding Cool.  Read it twice.  Once when I picked it up, once just now.  A digital only comic (I think), another collaboration between writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Stuart Immonen, it is actually two different comics, Snipe 01 and Snipe 02: the first being a piece about a photographer in the woods where the graphic narrative is relatively straightforward (though elusive) and the narration is elliptical, almost stream-of-conscious; and the second where the narration is a relatively straightforward recounting (though, again, almost stream-of-conscious) of the career of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who had 505 confirmed kills during the Winter War, and the graphic narrative is a yet another running stream-of-consciousness commentary on the narration.

First impression:  Jesus Christ, the Immonens must have access to tremendously good pot.

Second impression:  Jesus Christ, the Immonens must have access to tremendously good pot, and they’re both tremendously talented.  I always appreciate the distinctiveness of Kathryn Immonen’s narrative voice, even though it’s never really Madras’d my lentils–there’s a distance to the narrative voice that never quite jibes with the whimsy–but it comes much closer to working here for me:  it’s an omniscient narration of a distant, somewhat alien  omniscience.  And Stuart Immonen’s work is just breathtaking in Snipe 02, sliding up and down one end of that pyramid Scott McCloud outlined in Understanding Comics from photorealism to iconography as the narration similarly swings from the specific-but-general (the heights of various types of men, the types of various colored deaths in history and literature) to the specific-but-vague (there are two possible dates on which Häyhä may have been shot).

I’m tempted to say Snipe 01 is about how the circularity of thought is joined to the circle of life, and Snipe 02 is about how the trajectory of….history?…is tied to the trajectory of life-toward-death?  Maybe?  Although that’s probably me just flailing about and grabbing some of the good stuff from Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion?   It’s not nearly so cut and dry, but it is tremendously compelling.  I liked it, although more than anything it made me wish I could get my hands on more Golgo 13 comics.  Because I’m pretty much a simpleton.

THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN: SEASON SIX #1-3:  Keep thinking I got these in the Dynamite Humble Bundle but nope, they were part of a Comixology sale?  Because of my age, I’m of course halfway in the tank for this sort of thing, the Six Million Dollar Man being among the better of the bad hands us nerds were dealt back in the ’70s, TV-wise.  And I dig the idea of doing a “season six” that would bring in all the best stuff from the series and kind of pretend that this what the show might’ve turned out to be.

It’s a rigged game, of course, because back in the ’70s, Congress passed a law that dramatic TV shows could only use a single type of subplot to connect episodes, and that was the Fugitive subplot.  Because the subplot of SMDM: S6 is *not* “Steve Austin is on the run, accused of a crime he did not commit,” a more stringent nerd than I would call shenanigans.

Honestly, half the fun of these  three issues is, bless them, the script pages in the back of these “digital editions” where writer Jim Kuhoric tries to convey to his artist just how insanely different the 1970s were from now (“We see [Oscar Goldman] from behind as he sits at his large oak desk and is talking on an old-fashioned corded telephone.   There are no computers on his desk–this is before the personal computer.”) and then seeing the flubs that are made anyway.  (In issue #1, Steve talks about going with Oscar to a popular new sushi restaurant, which is theoretically possible since I guess Sushiko opened there in 1976 but even experienced world travelers like Goldman and Austin wouldn’t have talked about it as “there’s this new little sushi place in Georgetown.”) (Also, it’s impossible to properly convey how hilariously bummed I was when they have Maskatron be controlled by joystick but it’s totally not an Atari 2600 joystick but one of those later P.C. style faux-jet joystick things.  I actually laughed aloud at my own disappointment.)

Anyway, in issue #1 Steve Austin fights sharks.  In issue #2, Alex Ross draws  a cover that is totally based on a a piece of art I recognize (though I can’t find it now, damn my eyes?  I want to say it was one of the covers of the Six Million Dollar Man magazine or comic?) and Maskatron fucks shit up.  And in issue #3, Steve Austin fights a Metal Gear.  With better interior art, I probably would’ve been more into this.  Between laughing at myself, imagining the disappointment Jim Kuhoric feels when he sees how his scripted pages are ending up, and trying to imagine what someone unfamiliar with the show is going to think of the onomatopoeia for the bionic sound effects (“Bana Nana” is the one that I think would really baffle them–and, really, editors, you couldn’t come up with a standardized “bionic” font for the sound effects that might clue people in as to what’s going on?), I admit to being entertained.  God help me, I might actually buy more of these if they go up on sale for $0.99.  I don’t have faith in anyone else involved, but I think it’s a fair bet Kuhoric is going to give us Bionic Bigfoot and another variation on the Venus Probe and hopefully like the sharks he’ll throw in some other stuff that was  hitting the scene in the late ’70s  (bionic punk rockers? bionic disco dancers? bionic body snatchers?), and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Alex Ross draw, I dunno, the Six Million Dollar Man gameboard.

But can I recommend these to anyone else who is not as messed up as me?  No sir, I cannot.

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Before diving into Chris Roberson and Bilquis Evely’s Doc Savage, I’d had almost no experience with the character. I knew who he was, of course—he’s one of those characters who’s ubiquitous enough that you know that, even if you’ve never read any stories featuring the character—but beyond an issue of Marvel Team-Up from the 1970s, I’m unsure whether I’d ever actually read anything that he’d appeared in. I signed up for two reasons: Roberson’s enthusiasm about the series in interviews and a curiosity about Evely’s art, which looked both attractive and oddly off in some way I couldn’t define from the previews I’d seen.

By the end of the eight-issue series (the final issue comes out this week), I feel as if I can call myself a Savage fan—or, at least, a fan of the character as Roberson writes him. There’s a certain amount of… perhaps not revisionism, but certainly re-examination and restructuring of the character and his mythos in this eight issue series as Roberson takes the Doc that was and plays with him, bringing him through the years from his 1930s origins to the present day and using the opportunity to tell a story that’s as much about the failures of the character-as-was as the triumphs.

Doc doesn’t change, you see. He adapts, to an extent, and takes advantage of new technology (“The Bronze,” a smartphone that sets up the final two issues of the series is something that at once feels entirely in keeping with Doc’s manner of co-opting the willing in his crusade and something that could only happen now, in these post-Global Frequency times), but he stays the same man throughout the series all the way to almost the end, and it’s that final transformation—the humiliation, in a sense, when it’s very clear that his methods have been very flawed all along, no matter how well-meaning they were—that both gives the series its final (and, perhaps, necessary) kick, but also makes the conclusion as frustrating as it is.

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To be fair, what’s frustrating isn’t the story being told—a story that’s fun, quick-paced pulp that slowly builds to something with more structure without the reader necessarily realizing—but the fact that, by the time it’s done, you want to read more. The humility that’s forced onto Doc in the final act when faced with the impact of his single-mindedness is dramatically fulfilling on one level, but it left me wanting to see what happened next. Did he change, or did he go back to being the Doc everyone expects, and if so, how did his support team feel about it? Why can’t there be more issues?

Another reason to want more was to see more of Bilquis Evely’s work, which straddled the line between solidly mainstream, clean and attractive and charmingly idiosyncratic—there’s something about the way she does faces, and especially noses—throughout the entire run. You can draw lines connecting her work to other artists (A little bit of Joe Bennett here, some surprising elements of Kyle Baker there, and so on), but her work remained her own throughout the entire thing. She’s someone Vertigo should be snapping up as soon as possible and let her stretch her wings and play around with her look. She’s really good now, but you can tell there’s the potential for something really good in the near future.

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Overall, Doc Savage might be something that fits into that category: good as is, but on the cusp of being something genuinely great. It was enough to get me on board the Doc Savage train—I’ve since gone back to explore the 1970s Marvel series which featured some unsurprisingly enjoyable work from Steve Englehart and then some less fun work by Roy Thomas—but nonetheless feels like the start of something, rather than something complete in and of itself. I can but hope that a sequel gets announced sooner rather than later, and it fulfills the promises made by this first run.

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Oh, Robin.

Oh, Robin.

Man, no sooner have you survived the bombardment that was San Diego Comic Con than here comes the two hour and forty-nine minute missile that is Wait, What? Ep. 155, with Graeme and Jeff talking about San Diego Comic Con….and the Image Expo….and Marvel’s diverse attempts to diversify its diversity…and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds, and Supreme: Black Rose, and G.I. Joe Vs. Transformers #1 and, oh yes, more than an hour spent discussing Avengers #152-178 (give or take a few issues.)

Join me after the leap for the show notes, eh?

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IMG_0311Thought I’d try something a little different from the usual here’s-what-I-read-and-here’s-why-I’m-a-bad-person-for-not-liking-it capsule reviews—I’m going to just give you my take on a character. Or a concept. Something that might not be tied down to what I’m currently reading.

So: The Hulk. Here are a couple of things about The Hulk. (Spoilers: at some point, I’ll probably just call him Hulk.)

He needs his pants.

You’ve heard the jokes about the Hulk’s pants. Maybe you’ve made jokes about the Hulk’s pants. I don’t blame you, I’m sure I’ve done the same. (Though either middle age or protective hysteria is preventing me from remembering exactly when.) But what’s truly great about The Hulk’s pants is they are not part of a superhero costume, or a uniform. Hulk’s pants are regular pants torn to hell: they give him a visual identity closer to a car crash victim than to Superman. The torn pants are a visual reminder that, at his core, The Hulk is a casualty. He’s a tragedy, not a triumph.

He is more Jack Kirby’s The Hulk to me than Stan Lee’s The Hulk.

This is the first of many warning flags that mark me as the essayistic equivalent of an unreliable narrator. (I believe the technical term is “misinformed.”) Stan Lee wrote more Hulk stories than Kirby drew and The Hulk, especially, is a character of accretion: it takes a suprisingly long time before some of The Hulk’s most best known qualities—Banner turns into The Hulk when angry or stressed out; the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets; The Hulk, far at the forefront of modern celebrity, talks about himself in the third person—get attached to the character. And not only is the tone of The Hulk consistent during The Hulk’s tenure in Tales to Astonish when Lee’s writing it, the plots stay more or less of a type.

Left to his own devices, Lee is more than happy to break out a Red spy operating in secret, with a plan to discredit the hero and sabotage the otherwise unbeatable might of the U.S. military, while the female love interest tears up and wrings her hands. Reading early isues of Lee and Kirby’s Thor is intriguing because it feels like you’re watching Kirby and Lee wrestle the character out of one another’s hands: a story will start in Asgard but end up in the mountains of Red China, Jane Foster’s roommate is actually a colonizer from Rigel-3, but the focus is still on that weepy old soap opera.

That’s actually an asset, mind you. It’s part of Thor’s spectacularly loopy charm as issues stretch to the ends of the galaxy then yo-yo back to the flower shop of Granny Gardenia. But with The Hulk, no matter how breathtaking Kirby or Ditko or Buscema pace it, it’s yet another commie spy, yet another tearful scene with Betty Ross, yet another scene of Rick Jones dutifully running about waving his arms. It all works pretty well, especially in ten page chunks (and especially compared to Giant-Man, the other ten pager for part of the run in Tales To Astonish). I think it’s the strongest work you see Stan do when not fully propped up by Kirby, Ditko, or Romita.

But. The Hulk is still Jack Kirby’s The Hulk to me. It is my selfish assertion and you’ll probably never argue me out of it.

To Be All You Can Be, or Not To Be.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both served in World War II.: Lee as a playwright, Kirby as a Combat Infantryman. Kirby earned two battle stars, fought in the battle of Bastogne, and almost got both his legs amputated. Lee wrote film strips and training manuals.

The Hulk’s origin is: Dr. (Robert) Bruce Banner saves teenager Rick Jones from Banner’s brainchild, the Gamma Bomb. In exchange for rescuing a callow teenager, Banner’s life is fucked up irreparably: a lifetime of black-outs, angry fights, stuff hidden from the people closest to him. That’s the story of a lot of guys who came back from World War II, the story of the ones who didn’t write training manuals and film strips.

IMG_0312For the majority of his time in print, The Hulk is closely tied to the military—it created him and it wants to destroy him. If peacable Banner and violent Hulk are dark twins, then the military, as personified by General “Thunderbolt” Ross, is yet another sibling or maybe a parent. Like Banner, the military wants peace; like The Hulk, it is quick to lash out. Ross, in fact, believes about Banner and Hulk what each believe about the other—he thinks The Hulk must be destroyed, and he believes Banner to be spineless and weak.

Over the years, the military has been replaced by shadowy government forces, or SHIELD (not that there’s much of a difference), or even other superheroes, and all of those choices are understandable in different ways and for different reasons. There’s a very good case to be made that once the draft ended in 1973, this strange form of resonance I’m talking about was over for the Hulk.

Now he could be just a superhero who scared the crap out of little kids (and so was strangely alluring to them). He still has a lot of resonance as simply the avatar of anger, as the guy who wins simply by willing to be angrier than anyone else. (It’s no wonder social media went through an infestation of parody Hulk accounts.) In a way, The Hulk is simply the logical, kinda hilarious extension of the hero who wins against the stronger, more resourceful villain simply because he has an unbeatable fighting spirit.

hulk_KirbyAnd there is something to be said for a rip-roaring Hulk fight, especially if you’ve got an artist who is really good at scaling things up while keeping the feeling of mass, of making sure everything doesn’t feel feather light. The Hulk’s poor posture is another thing I love about the character, not just because my own posture is especially terrible (although it is) but because he is so dense with muscle he can barely straighten up under his own weight.

But to me, the best stuff about The Hulk is Jack Kirby. Maybe not the way Kirby and The Hulk actually interacted in real life, but the way the two characters share space in my imagination.

In my imagination, Jack Kirby is a devoted family man, a kind and soft-spoken man. But in his comics, there are always new and terrifying war machines clawing up through the ground or arcing over the horizon. Men are always pointing, mouths open, captured at the second before obliteration. Dressed in rags, clothes torn, a man stumbles through the wrecked landscape, a hand to his face, unsure of what’s happened except that it could not have happened without him. This man is always hated. He is always hunted. But in order for the people he loves to be safe, he has to become a nightmare, a cauldron of violence. When it’s over, he stumbles alone into the horizon, knowing that soon it will all start again.  Again, and again, and again.

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Puffing thoughtfully on a cigar, caught halfway between the real world and his dream world, halfway between breakfast and lunch, Jack Kirby draws a page of a man hounded by the forces of war, and then moves onto the next.  Draws that one and moves on to the next. When he stops, he goes out to his wife and children, and they sit around a table together and laugh.  And then he goes back to his drawing board, ready to create again.  Again, and again, and again.

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Following on from last week’s read of the entire Fraction/Bagley/Kesel/Ienco Fantastic Four, I spent part of this week re-reading of the companion title, the Fraction/All-Allred FF. The short version? Like many people pointed out in the comments, it’s a lot, lot better.

For one thing, there’s a coherence to it that’s lacking in the main Fantastic Four series—although it occasionally approaches the haphazard and fragmented plotting of F4, there’s a character consistency and longterm arcs that redeem and, to a large extent, disguise the stuttering rhythm of storylines shuddering into and out of motion. In fact, alongside the art of Mike and Laura Allred—and I’ll get to that soon enough—it’s the character work that makes FF work so well.

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Not so much the overwrought Ant-Man arc, which seems to takes precedence over almost everything else in terms of Fraction’s interest. That makes sense: he’s essentially another of the writer’s hapless, wisecracking but essentially ineffectual loser protagonists, like Hawkeye in that title, who shambles through stories feeling pain and being misunderstood yet adored despite his lack of sensitivity to everyone else’s emotions. (It’s interesting that the Scott Lang that finishes the series, as written by Lee Allred, is far more proactive and kinder, less wrapped up in his internal angst, than what we’ve seen before; is it Allred having more interest in that kind of character, or was Fraction planning for him to come into this persona all along but had to leave the title too early to see it through?) It’s tempting to call this kind of character a Mary Sue for Fraction, if only that didn’t seem quite so unkind.

In fact, none of the core four adults of the FF title offer much in the way of interesting or worthwhile character work—She-Hulk and Medusa get reduced to cat-fighting maternal types who are robbed of much of their agency, oddly enough (Something that’s very unlike Fraction, for his sins), while Darla Deering’s evolution into a superhero feels both forced and all-too-sudden; she goes from self-pitying pop star to Miss Thing in the space of an impassioned plea and the quick revival of the artificial Thing suit. She remains an endearing character, but never one with much depth or believability.

No, it’s the kids of the title that are the most charming, and also the most off-the-wall; while the A-plots of each issue inevitably seek to show up the replacement FF as well-meaning but flawed, Fraction (and, to a lesser extent, Allred) takes the opportunity to go into less obvious, and far kinder, places with the kids and their plot lines: the amazingly touching moment where Tong realizes that she feels more comfortable as a girl (“Are you still my brothers? Are you still my family?” and you’re just shouting at the page say yes or I will be heartbroken) may be the scene most shared on Tumblr, but Adolf the Impossible Kid and Bentley both get their moments in the sun as well, and are just as winning in their own ways.

It’s these moments—when Fraction sneaks away from the superhero stuff and instead writes about messier, more honest emotions and experiences—that make FF, and also make me as a reader wish that he’d just write the book centering around the kids that it felt like he really wanted to. Imagine how good a series that would be (This skill when writing about “real stuff” is one of the reasons Sex Criminals can be so good, despite everything; the most recent issue was astounding, in part because it dropped the high concept to write about depression in a way that felt human and true).

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Fraction (and Lee Allred) are only part of the appeal of the series, though; the art—primarily by Mike and Laura Allred, although Joe Quinones offers up a couple of wonderful fill-in issues—adds to the off-kilter charm. It’s almost impossible to imagine this book in the hands of other Marvel artists, with their harsher lines and more aggressive visuals. There’s a softness (and, in many ways, a nostalgia) to Allred’s line that makes it feel more comfortable and approachable in a way that other superhero artists’ work isn’t; a sense of whimsy and lightness, too. Imagine, say, John Romita Jr. drawing the very same script and you have something that would feel more oppressive, and less inviting.

Allred’s (Allreds’?) visuals also add to the idea that this isn’t a traditional Marvel book on a subliminal level, as well, and lend something—a humanity, perhaps—to Fraction’s words even on the worst stuff in the book. As strange as it may sound, I almost wish he’d had the chance to work with Fraction on the short-lived Defenders series, as terrible as that ended up being. Perhaps his art would have been able to normalize the tone in some way that could’ve helped the book out. Great comics that we’ll never see, part seventy-two.

In many ways, FF is more of a Fantastic Four for today than Fraction’s Fantastic Four ended up being. It certainly updates the “it’s superheroes, but just like us” modus operandi in a more convincing manner, and also offers something new instead of, as Fraction’s characters have an unconvincing tendency to say, the “same-o, same-o.” If only we’d managed 32 issues of this, instead of just 16 and 16 of the “main” title.

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I’m back!  Are you back?  I was in such a hurry to get this posted Thursday night that I didn’t throw it behind the jump and….wow.  Until I get that “brevity is the soul of wit” thing down, it really is better I had some of this behind the jump, yeah?  Maybe someday I’ll be a real live boy, able to have all of my opinions out here on the front page without it seeming like the site has been hijacked by a bot that makes wikipedia entries out of random comic book reviews…

Anyway, after the jump:  Insufferable! Afterlife with Archie!  The New 52: Future’s End #0!  The grand finale of Jeff Becomes a Bot that Makes Wikipedia Entries out  of Random Comic Book Reviews!

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FANTASTIC-FOUR-4-Preview-4Because I (a) have Marvel Unlimited, (b) find myself drawn to Fantastic Four comics even when I strongly suspect that they’ll only disappoint me—I am one of the few people online who’ll admit to reading the entire DeFalco/Ryan run—and (c) there’s something about this particular run that calls to me like a siren or a car crash, I found myself reading 2013-2014’s Fantastic Four #1-16 over the weekend. It was, it turns out, not as bad as I’d anticipated, but in a way that only made things far more frustrating.

There are two fatal flaws in the run—well, three, but one of those (Mark Bagley as artist) is arguably an entirely subjective opinion depending on whether or not you dig an artist who draws every character as a gangly teenager so that you genuinely can’t tell the difference between the pre-teen Franklin Richards and early-20s (?) Johnny Storm at times. One of them was seemingly unavoidable (The replacement of Matt Fraction as writer as the series is approaching its conclusion), the other something that could have been avoided with more time and attention. To put it in layman’s terms, the story of these sixteen issues just doesn’t hold together.

You can see that it’s meant to. In one of Fraction’s latter issues, he has Reed Richards explain how the seemingly-random adventures of the run to date were actually part of a plan that he had concocted because he’s a genius who had a plan all along to solve the mystery of his powers suddenly killing him; similarly, when Karl Kesel—Fraction’s replacement, brought on to stick the landing with three issues to go—tries to explain that same mystery, there are callbacks to an earlier issue, but it all feels sketchy and unconvincing, as if it’s a first draft where the idea is there but the execution is lacking (In Kesel’s case, the problem lies in what was missing from Fraction’s earlier issue, but that could hardly be changed at that point; he should’ve either written around it or ducked the idea altogether).

Kesel’s final three issues feel particularly odd after thirteen issues of Fraction’s guidance. It’s not merely that there’s a tonal difference—Kesel’s FF feels more “like” the characters, as opposed to Fraction’s take on the team, for want of a better way to put it; it’s not that Fraction didn’t do his homework, because he clearly did, but that he nevertheless was too present in each of their voices, skewing them just slightly off, just enough for it to be noticeable—but there’s a shift in the pacing and the amount of focus in the writing, as well.

Fraction’s Fantastic Four never quite came together, despite clearly great intentions. It’s obvious from the first issue, which starts with a scene set a year in the future, that he was trying to build something that was very structured and intentional, but the actual work didn’t live up to that (Tellingly, perhaps, the moment that he flashed forward to in that first issue turned out to be nowhere near a climactic moment in the final story; a sign that Kesel’s finale was something other than what had originally been intended, perhaps). Everything felt underdeveloped, in need of a second draft or another pass. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not; the problem is that it’s not good, either. Instead, it feels frustratingly grounded and unfinished.

(It also feels unoriginal, which is a familiar problem with this title and still arguably the biggest one that any Fantastic Four writer has to struggle with these days. Too much of what happens in this run is a remix of what we’ve seen before, though: Historical figures aren’t who they appear to be, just like when Ben Grimm turned out to be Blackbeard in Lee and Kirby’s run—also odd is that we get that plot twice during Fraction’s thirteen issues—or the Skrulls are back trying to cause mischief and Reed turns them into cows. Perhaps these were meant as cute easter eggs, but they don’t come across that way, sadly. Even issues meant to explore the characters’ histories come across as rehashes, instead of revealing anything new about them.)

2705288-f41The biggest sin of the sixteen issues is a simple one: there is far too much that doesn’t make sense to fail to bring the reader down. Suspension of disbelief can only be sustained for too long, and the flabbiness of these issues overwhelms it far too early with no chance of recovery. This isn’t confined to Fraction; Kesel’s attempt to resolve the central mystery of the FF’s powers turning on them just simply doesn’t make sense, and especially so when the mechanics behind it are turned on their heads later in the climax. The predominant feeling of sixteen issues is one of an authorial voice saying “Don’t ask, just buy it,” but without the sense of glee and excitement that accompanied Kirby’s original boast.

That this run is so close to being “right” is almost the worst thing about it. There’s a sense throughout the entire thing of a sincere effort being put forth on behalf of everyone—even Bagley, whose work is, well, as Mark Bagley as ever—but it never quite coalescing into something that works. Perhaps the title really is one that defeats almost all that attempt to conquer it, transforming everything into another adventure by the Challengers of the Known.

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Our Fearless Judges

Our Fearless Judges

We have winners! We have arguments! We have arguably our most unlikely topic of extended lengthy discussion! More adorable dog pics! Plus: some hasty kinda hasty, but very Youtube-y show notes, and probably a surplus of exclamation points.  All after the jump!

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Last week I dropped some science on the first week of Comixology’s twenty day giveaway–namely, that I am a god-damned fool when it comes to the cartoonist, Jason.

What will I drop this week, you ask?  The answer may ASTOUND YOU.

Join me after the jump, won’t you?  Until I learn to trim my critical meanderings (or “word pubes,” to use the preferred term of professional writers), I think it’s better to give people the ability to scroll down our main page and see what’s new…like that awesome Gold Key overview by Graeme from a few days ago. (Yes, I’m linking even though it’s right below me.)

Okay? Okay!

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I went into Dynamite’s Gold Key reboot with somewhat tempered expectations. I have no nostalgia for the characters; I didn’t read Valiant in the 1990s, and my attempts to explore the characters via Dark Horse reprints of the original stuff left me more bemused than anything (Really, those are some very stiff comics, albeit ones that have flashes of charm in their awkwardness).

Even so, it felt as if the reboot was hooked around the Valiant relaunch that has worked so well for me; the cover designs and logos—like those for Valiant, designed by the wonderful Rian Hughes—called to mind the Valiant look, and of the four books, two were written by Valiant writers. Plus, Nate Cosby was packaging and editing the line; if nothing else, I figured, it would be worth a look for his connection alone given other books he’s been involved with.

Overall, the line is not quite there yet, but not in a bad way. (The newest book is only two issues in, after all; it really is early days.) There isn’t a bad book amongst them, although they’re offering very different types of stories and may not necessarily hang together coherently in a universe just yet, unlike the Valiant relaunch which felt very streamlined from the very start.

3683027-02Taking them in order of publication, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is arguably the most ambitious of the series, at least on the face of it—I suspect that Doctor Spektor is up to something far bigger, but we’ll get to that soon—and that ambition hurt the first four issues for me, with too much being thrown in to set up the status quo of the series but not enough “happening” to make it feel like it had a lot of momentum.

For those not following the book, it takes place in 1210AD, except that’s not quite true. Things are going weird with time, throwing the native American tribes that “belong” to the era into conflict with both prehistoric dinosaurs and religious crusaders from the middle ages (This may be a reference too obscure to mean anything to anyone, but it reminds me of the Joe R. Lansdale novel The Drive-In, which I loved many years ago). Greg Pak tries hard to not only unpack what that means for the various groups in his first storyline, but also give enough of an “origin story” to the title character, but the result is a bit muddied, with too many characters (and too few sympathetic ones) to really get a hold on.

The second storyline, which is currently midway through with #6, is far, far better, in large part because it strips the cast back considerably and allows for a clearer—and more character-led—conflict to emerge, with Turok’s dilemma being more sharply delineated. It helps, too, that Takeshi Miyazawa has taken over the art chores; original artist Mirko Colak is by no means a bad artist, but there’s something about Miyazawa’s work that makes the characters easier to relate to, and the book in general more organic and less forced.

Like Pak, Magnus: Robot Fighter boasts a Valiant veteran as writer: Fred Van Lente, who Jeff has a problem with on this book. While I understand his concerns, I don’t really share them, in part because I don’t think Van Lente really wants us to take this book as seriously as Jeff seems to believe he does (Naming a character H8R or spending two issues poking fun at the “political correctness”—I shuddered typing that without irony—modern audience awareness demands would suggest otherwise, for example) and in part because I appreciate Van Lente’s willingness to raise questions and concepts without signposting his own take on them.

What I’m less into, by the time we get to the series’ fifth and sixth (Sorry, fifth and “zero-th”) issues this week, the pace of the narrative, and the way it feels as if it’s getting away from me so early. I understand the need/desire to explore the broad Matrix-esque world of the series (High concept of the book: Magnus is awoken from virtual reality upbringing where man and machine live in perfect har-mon-ee as Michael Stevie and Paul once put it to a world where machines have replaced mankind as the dominant life form, for reasons that are not exactly what you might expect, goes on to fight robots and try to find the source of his VR childhood), but the book feels like it’s losing focus at the same time as Turok is coming into focus. Not necessarily a good thing, although it remains completely entertaining nonetheless.

(The art, by Cory Smith for the most part, is pleasingly blocky; it’s also one of those rare cases where a predominantly murky color palette from Marshall Dillon utterly fits, not least of which because it throws Magnus’ red-and-blue outfit into strong relief in almost every scene.)

solar_man_coverHaving left behind the screwy past of Turok and the wacky maybe-future of Magnus, we reach Solar: Man of the Atom, which I really, really shouldn’t like as much as I do. It has a lot against it, whether it’s the sudden, jarring fill-in art midway through the third issue, the reliance on cartoon swearing (Sorry, but that always %@!*ing annoys me when I see it) or the oddly glacial pace of the story compared with the other series, and yet, I’m really fond of it.

Much of that comes from Frank Barbiere’s tone for the book, which is at once pretentious—each issue starts with what’s essentially a text page featuring one line—and irreverent, matching the conflict within the title character, which Barbiere has reworked as essentially “What if Firestorm was Martin Stein and his pissed off daughter, whom he’d abandoned?” The bait and switch of essentially killing the title character of the book at the end of the first issue was something I appreciated, as well; a sign that all bets were off and that this wasn’t the Solar you knew.

The problem is that it’s not quite clear what this book is, just yet. It’s reminiscent of Ultimate Spider-Man (in a good way) as well as Firestorm, but it doesn’t quite have its own identity just yet. I’m sticking with it for now—there’s enough here to win the series a lot of goodwill, definitely—but this is a series that needs to find its own identity sooner rather than later. Ideally with one artist, instead of the five that illustrate the third issue.

And so, we arrive finally at Doctor Spektor: Master of the Occult, which is the most difficult of the series to get a handle on so far. Part of that is undoubtedly down to it being only two issues old, but there’s a sense of… misdirection, perhaps, about the series so far. The two issues so far have not only presented the eponymous lead as being one of the series’ many mysteries outside being one of writer Mark Waid’s trademark snarky leads, but have almost purposefully gone out of their way to keep what the book is about mysterious as well. Which leads me to wonder the following: Is Adam Spektor somehow the big bad of the Gold Key universe?

Doctor SpektorWe’ve definitely been given a strong hint or two in that direction—Magnus shows up in the second issue, saying that he came to save reality from Spektor, and there are some reality-bending (or, perhaps, multiple-reality-bending) elements in both issues to date that suggest that Spektor is easily manipulated, more powerful than he knows and more than likely, a bit of a sociopath. (Also, and this is something that is either an odd design decision or a clue, but Doctor Spektor is the only book where the logo isn’t placed at the same angle on the page, instead being “flat.” Although that might be a sign of me falling down the rabbit hole.)

To date, it’s a frustrating read, but intentionally so, I think; the problem with such stories, though, is that you can only throw questions at your audience for so long without them rebelling and demanding not only answers, but some concrete footing from which they can build a connection with the characters. If the dizziness of the opening issues isn’t grounded soon—whether with the “yeah, Adam is the problem” solution or something else that we can understand—then this might cross over from frustrating to annoying. Yet it is, still, early days. We’ll see how it shakes out.

Overall, the Gold Key line is “promising” more than “great,” but promising feels like a win these days, considering some of the alternatives out there. There’re definitely problems with each series, but all of them feel not only easily fixable, but close to being fixed, or the result of teething troubles that you can almost see being done away with within a couple of issues. It’s no Valiant—it’s not as slick, and not as coherent as a line—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. File under “cautiously optimistic,” and ask me again in six months.

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