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).

FF6 are you still my brothers-

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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First and foremost: how great is Graeme’s takedown of MPH?  Reading that the other day was like having a triple shot of espresso.

As for me, I keep wanting to write capsule reviews—if I do ‘em right, they’re lively, fast-moving, and funny, plus it’s a little bit easier to ignore my shortcomings (“Oh, the art? Huh, yeah, I guess the art is okay”) —and I think I finally found my hook. What if I reviewed the books from Comixology’s recent Summer Reading List giveaway? Maybe broken out over two or three entries?

That might be okay, right? If I don’t give myself too much rope and end up writing eleven million words, thereby defeating the purpose, right?

Anyway, after the jump:  Days 1-6!

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I’m sure you’re familiar with Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo’s MPH, a series that, according to the writer, melds the traditional Millar formula of “Take Popular Pop Culture Artifact And Scrape Off Serial Numbers, Maybe Add Super Powers If There Aren’t Any Already” to the kind of intense realism that comes from him visiting Detroit to see urban collapse for himself and get him so passionate about the topic that he mailed copies for the first issue to everyone in the U.S. Senate as well as President Obama.

You might even be thinking about picking the book up, thinking “Well, I’m sure this has to be something special if he’s proud enough to make that kind of grandiose gesture.” Well, in order to ensure that you know what you’re getting yourself into should you pick the book up, here’s a conversation between two characters in the second issue:

“I know he’s smart, but it’s not just jobs we’re missing now. Half the street lights don’t even work. What kind of city can’t afford to light its own streets? It’s all going to hell, girl. I’m telling you. America is fucked.”

“Oh, America’s doing fine, Chevy. I’ve seen it on TV. It’s just us who’ve been left behind.”

MPH1Yes, that’s right: one of the characters from Detroit is called Chevy. Another is called “Baseball,” because—well, I don’t know. It’s American? Or he’d watched The Wire and noticed that one of the characters was called Bubbles and thought maybe it was something similar? It’s not important, because Mark Millar is telling you how bad things are in the city, y’all. Like, he’s literally telling you, with characters offering laughably heavy exposition that not only doesn’t read like anything any real person would ever say, but of course makes the characters sound like every other character Mark Millar has written regardless of culture, location or any other factor that could possibly differentiate them.

The problem with MPH, then, is that it’s like every other Mark Millar comic despite all the hype. I shouldn’t be surprised—I’m not, not really—but I think I wanted this one to be different, at least, if not better. All of Millar’s early press for the series suggested that he was conscious that he was going to be reaching into an area that doesn’t conform to his traditional narrative of morally dubious leads finding power and subsequently moral redemption by going up against even bigger bastards (traditionally rich white men, although it’s not as if Millar’s known for demographic diversity) in some kind of overly-simplified climactic showdown tailor-made for the inevitable movie adaptation, but going by the first couple issues, MPH is on track to turn out to be just that.

On the one hand, I find myself wanting to absolve Millar from any blame in this. I mean, he’s a canny populist, knowing enough to pick up enough language and symbolism from contemporary trends to dress up his generi-story without letting them overwhelm or complicate What The Reader Wants; that’s what he’s always been, so surely the fault is mine in expecting anything more?

MPH2And yet, I find myself feeling as if it’s irresponsible, somehow, to not offer anything more given that what Millar’s doing with MPH isn’t just stealing a serious, real situation that a lot of people are living in, but—considering the publicity-generation of interviews or, you know, sending a copy to politicians—attempting to speak for, and represent the people in this kind of situation. There’s some kind of responsibility to do more than just “your usual” in a circumstance like that, surely? Especially for someone who describes themselves as a “leftie” whenever asked about their political views?

The lack of effort in rising to the challenge of actually trying to represent those you claim to represent in this comic is its most damning feature. We’re all used to Millar wasting the talents of his artists—you need to look no further than his current Stardust (I meant Starlight, of course; thanks, Ryan) for more proof of that, although Fegredo’s work here isn’t quite as eye-catching—but this is careless, cravenness on a whole new scale, it feels like. It’s a crappy comic book, sure, but it also manages to be a crappy comic book that makes you feel a little more disappointed in those involved with it after you’ve finished. It’s like the comic equivalent of Facebook manipulating your emotions in the name of science, except science is so very far away.

 

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The original Hurts Donut

The original Hurts Donut

Hey, everyone!  This is a big episode in more ways than one:  not only is it a two and a half hour episode for you, not only is it our epic conclusion to our discussion Steve Englehart’s amazing run on The Avengers, but it is also the episode to listen to if you want to win one of the five Oily Comics Summer Bundles!

It’s an episode so big, we…had to skimp a bit on the show notes?  Join us after the jump for notes, apologies, and your chance to win it big!

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So…who’s in the mood for an absurdly digressive review of the first three issues of a title that’s been out for months? But, wait, here’s a bonus: you also get to hear what I think about a thirty year old movie?

Tingles, right? Anyway, join me after the jump for a whole bunch of words about… Continue reading

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