spoilers: this is not about Fumi Yoshinaga (yet)

Spoilers: this is not about Fumi Yoshinaga (yet)

Last week in my piece about cinema, I wrote this line, which at the time I liked very much:

Superhero comics are a dream of community, a dream created and supported by very lonely people.

It’s not like I tend to sit around for hours after I write something, dreamily rereading my prose.  Typically, I forget the bulk of what I’ve written once it gets out there in the world.  My brain is a crowded bus, so there’s rarely more than just a momentary feeling of relief at some space opening up (and then the next batch of obsessions climb on, re-jostling everything).  But this line kinda nagged at the corner of my thoughts: a discharged passenger running behind, waving and yelling, because only after they got off did they realize they’d left something important behind.

Are superhero comics a dream of community, a dream created and supported by very lonely people?

To give the idea an aphorism’s towel-snap I pared down any equivocation or context.  Most of the people I know now in comics are not lonely people…I think?  Being in your twenties and thirties, it can feel like everyone’s got their shit together but you, and one of the great solaces of middle age is realizing just how much energy everyone was expending trying to look like they had their shit together (yourself included).  And now, in your forties, with less time left on the clock and less brain power and less patience with your own bullshit, you either can’t keep up the facade anymore or it’s just not fooling anyone now (if indeed it ever did).

And yet, no matter how much people in their forties show you about their lives in the course of a leisurely mid-Sunday brunch, it’s still difficult to gauge how lonely they might be.  Your web browser knows.  Google and Twitter and Facebook know.  But I’ll never know how truly lonely you are.

And—despite me typing this—you’ll never know how lonely I am, in no small part because I myself have no idea.  I am nine and a half years into my marriage and still absurdly grateful for every minute I get to spend with my wife.  I have enough friends that I could hop from meal to meal with each and not end up repeating partners after a week.  And I get to spend close to three hours every other week talking about my favorite subjects with one of my favorite people in the world.

How lonely can I really be?

(And when the hell am I going to start writing about Fumi Yoshinaga?)

I find it easier to look back on my past and talk about it with clarity (if not necessarily accuracy).   I was absolutely a lonely kid back then, and superhero comics were absolutely an imaginary community for me, one in which my power fantasies could intermingle with a feeling of community in whatever way I wanted:  I feel like the common example here is to The Legion of Superheroes or The X-Men, but I think Graeme has done a great job pointing out how much Marvel Two-In-One was about The Thing helping out his pals, and Marvel Team-Up, at its best, really captures the way certain childhood friendships are formed—you meet, you fight, and then comes respect and friendship (by teaming up to throw rocks at that kid you really hate).

Mmmm....prawns....

Mmmm….prawns….

In fact, the genius of Marvel Comics back in my day (ugh, old) was how there was another fantasy of community layered on top of the superhero fantasy of same:  the Bullpen Bulletins, where everyone got an alliterative nickname and was affectionately razzed, and the letters pages, where editors bantered with readers.  By having the courage to step forward and make yourself known, you could become part of this community, join it, be accepted by it. (Which community?  Did it matter?)

And I gotta say—and this is just me—but many, many years later (and not so many years ago), when I was exchanging emails with Mark Waid about the stories he’d bought from me, or chatting up Axel Alonso at Wondercon, or being introduced to Mike Richardson…it didn’t feel like that at all.

Part of that is the crucial difference between the fantasy and the reality—sure, okay, step forward and make yourself known, fine.  But what can you do?  What do you have to say?  What can you contribute?

And once you’ve realized that and learned what those things are, then comes the constant clamor of having to prove it to the gatekeepers, the ones who leave every con with bags bulging with new material to look over (and that’s just the stuff that cleared the bar of “Has this been published?  Is this not about our characters? Do you seem sane enough not to sue us when we publish a story with a character whose name starts with ‘H’ just because you gave us a story with a character whose name starts with ‘H’?).

It’s interesting. I was probably still a long ways off from breaking in…but maybe not that far off?  There were far worse names to drop at Marvel at that point than Mark Waid (who I should point out was 100% gracious in allowing me to do so, and supportive and kind in every very brief communication I had with him) and my follow-up with Axel Alonso, although brisk, caught him just as he was making the big move up to EIC at Marvel.  He was not unreceptive—didn’t go out of his way, mind you, but he did say “oh yeah, email so&so at the X-books and tell them I told you to pass your stuff along.”  That’s a tangible step, you know?  I could now go into my next random encounter equipped with Name To Drop +2.

And yet it was, for whatever reason, terrible. Part of that was just probably the feeling of, man, if I wanted to prove myself over and over again to distracted harried people who are barely pretending to pay attention to me, I’d just talk to my parents.  You know?  And part of it I’m sure is my own hey, fucker, I’m a precious unique snowflake, god damn you! But also,  a surprising amount of it was just I am too fucking old to help you prop up your sagging status quo for this little money.

By engaging in a psyche-up ritual so desperate and unhinged I resembled an enemy boxer in a Rocky movie (slapping myself in the face and balls, injecting myself with steroids made from mongoose blood, asphyxiating a hospital orderly) (I’m realizing I haven’t watched a Rocky movie since Rocky III, and have since confused a lot of it with Cobra), I could come up with a decent story about Wolverine… because at that time you could still tell stories about Wolverine without having to worry too much about the current state of the Marvel Universe.  But what if I had to pretend to care about Gambit? Or had the opportunity to pitch a six page Storm/Black Panther  for an Avengers/X-Men crossover title in which I had to pretend I didn’t hate what they had done to both characters?

And but so:  foisting myself upon the indifferent; injecting myself with mongoose blood; working my ass off so I might get the chance to later pretend I can prop up a status quo I ceased to care about at least  a decade ago?  It all seemed a bit too poisonous, too much living up to the letter of a childhood dream while betraying the spirit.

(In fact, I wonder. I admit I’m not paying a lot of attention, but it seems like Marvel and DC are both spending a lot of time on stories where the superheroes are expending tremendous amounts of energy trying to keep their earth from being destroyed/overrun by another earth, another dimension: all these heroes having to put all their energy into this impossible task, preserving their reality, keeping an invasion of otherness from subsuming them, the man on the wall, etc., etc.  I’m sure that’s just, you know, what Americans tell stories about these days, about zombies and antimatter and some big-ass explosion taking out some sacrosanct object held to be inviolate, and hard decisions having to be made because. you know, 9/11 or at the very least, hey, where did that middle class go again?   But, again, I just imagine all these Marvel and DC creators hustling, hustling, hustling, giving interviews where the phrases “can’t” and “couldn’t” always seem disquietingly prominent—”I couldn’t be happier with the art by [artist]” and “I couldn’t be more pleased” and “I couldn’t be more excited”—as if unable to avoid subconscious confessing that, you know, there is only so much happiness or excitement or pleasure really possible in their particular situation.  And then what comes out of these summits is stuff like: “what if the Marvel heroes suddenly got infected by the Red Skull’s hate rays and all they cared about were selling their pilots to cable networks?” and “So Darkseid destroys the Earth 2 entire universe  just by showing up, you know, just like video games did!” and “what if some old turd just could not stop fixating on Wolverine to the point where Wolverine got so god-damned tired of it he died, he just died?”)

"He just died."

“He just died.”

Anyway.  I have to start in on the podcast editing so…here is where I leave us for now, in this very special happy place.   Tune in next week where I maybe go on to do more of what I did last week but better!  Don’t worry, I think it’ll probably get a perkier. (I sure hope so, anyway.)

NEXT:  Planet Manga; the mysteries of shōnen-ai; Fumi Yoshinaga (finally); and more! (Unless there’s actually less.)

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WCA_21So, I caved; after the discussion about Hank Pym’s character arc in the Roger Stern issues of Avengers — and, specifically, the fact that Stern actually manages to give Hank some closure and, potentially, bring the character himself to an end — I went back to the library to pick up the Steve Englehart West Coast Avengers collections and see just where things went wrong afterwards. Spoilers: It’s at the very tail end of the second collection, and it comes out of nowhere.

(I know; Steve Englehart, Avengers and Hank Pym? It’s the Wait, What?-iest Wait, What? post yet. I’d apologize, but I feel surprisingly little shame.)

Arguably, Englehart’s entire use of Hank is problematic in the first place. Stern leaves the character not only accepting that he’s not a superhero, but essentially writing himself out of that world altogether; it’s implied — but only implied, because you can’t just state this in a 1980s Marvel comic — that the melodrama and hyper-reality of superheroing is what drove him to his breakdown in the first place, because it’s an unrealistic state for… well, normal people to exist in in the first place. By having Hank acknowledges that and not only leave the Avengers but leave the comic book continuity in its entirety, the character accepts responsibility for his actions in a way that’s satisfying for the reader (and Hank himself, to an extent).

So for Hank to show up in the first scene of the first issue of the regular West Coast Avengers title, ostensibly to investigate what’s happening with the villainous Goliath — well, that’s something that feels a little off. Englehart doesn’t ignore what Stern’s done with the character, however; that’s not his style. Instead, we get Hawkeye telling Mockingbird “He’s basically a scientist, and always has been!” as well as pointing out, “I think he really is set on civilian-ness this time!”

That’s certainly the way Englehart plays Hank for a long time. “I meant it when I called playing superhero the biggest mistake of my life!” he tells the Wasp in the first issue. By the third issue, he makes his case for staying on with the team as, as he puts it, “the Higgins to your Magnum, P.I.” by telling Iron Man, “I’m not an Avenger now! I am indeed a scientist, and I spend most of my time playing with equipment anyway… It’s a way for me to contribute, without being something I don’t want to be — since that’s what messed me up before.” If we can ignore the fact that he’s inserted himself back into the world he voluntarily left, this still seems pretty consistent with what Stern laid out.

There’s definitely a reading in here — and I don’t think it’s something that Englehart did consciously, as much as I want to credit him otherwise — where Hank is addicted to superherodom, and is pushing himself right up to the edge of relapsing without realizing it. It’s an idea that arguably fits with the character as we know him, even today, especially given what Englehart does next.

For more than a year, this new status quo for Hank holds up. He gets dragged into adventures because Englehart, and he goes investigating on his own, but throughout the first fifteen issues of the series, he’s still fairly explicit in his disinterest in actually trying to be a hero anymore, and also pretty upbeat about making that decision. There’s even a scene in #13 (my first issue as a reader when the book was coming out, fact fans) where he inner-monologues “He’s lying — and that’s plenty of lead for the Avengers to pick up on! The rough part’s not my job any more!”

It’s all the more surprising, then, when #16 comes along and just flips everything on its head. With no foreshadowing whatsoever, Hank is suddenly self-pitying about his lack of superheroing. “Tiger Shark! One of the goons Egghead used to end my crime fighting career — and I can’t do anything but hang on!” he thinks to himself in one scene; by the end of the issue, he’s staring at the Golden Gate Bridge and thinking about suicide. “Yes… you’d really have to be certain there was nothing left to live for…,” he says, above a garish blurb along the bottom of the page that screams “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT MISS NEXT ISSUE!”

Sure enough, the next issue features a suicidal Hank, thinking things like “I have made a mess of my life! It’s time I stopped hanging onto a world I’ve written myself out of. It’s time I killed myself…” and loading a gun silently before pointing it at his own head. (“He can smell the bullet…” the narration tells us).

Where did this come from? It’s never revealed; instead, his suicide attempt is halted by La Espirita (AKA Firebird, for those writers who don’t want to go near either the Mexican or Christian elements of the character) and spun out into Hank’s becoming a superhero again. We’ll get there in a second, but reading these issues in quick succession, especially after having read Stern’s Avengers issues, there’s more than a slight sense of whiplash going on here.

For those who want to put everything into a “how does this work in-universe” context, you can plug in the idea that Hank has bipolar disorder, and is swinging between a manic episode in the first 15 issues and a depressive one in #16-18, but that’s never made explicit (or, arguably, even implicit) in the comic. Instead, my first thought was that someone — Jim Shooter, perhaps, given my recent re-read of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and the impression it leaves that Shooter was behind everything bad in Marvel from this particular period — simply stepped in and told Englehart that only superheroes were allowed to be in Avengers comics and so Hank needed to go back on his pledge if he was going to remain in the title.

Sure, Englehart tries his Englehartiest to make it work — there’s something almost Millennium-esque about dialogue like “I was always able to do it! I just didn’t try, because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with super-heroing! But now that I’ve given up the “super” idea, I see many things, differently!” — but the result is ultimately unconvincing. Watching Pym call himself “the scientific adventurer” feels more like Englehart try (and fail) to convince himself and everyone else that Hank’s not lost the development his character has gone through over the last few years, and the way in which his return to herodom is met by the other characters — “I knew you wouldn’t let us down, Avenger!” — lays bare the relief such a devolution would’ve been met by many creators and fans: Phew! Now we don’t have to think that maybe being a superhero isn’t for everyone!

As anyone who’s listened to the podcast for any length of time knows, I’m a massive fan of both Englehart in general and his West Coast Avengers in particular. Re-reading these stories with a focus specifically on Hank Pym, however, lessens that a bit; one of the things I think about with Englehart’s superhero work is the way in which he tries to push the characters forward, even if his idea of forward is problematic and/or misguided (See: Hal and Arisa in Green Lantern Corps). What he does to Hank flies in the face of that, entirely; it’s retrogressive and demolishes what Stern had done building off of the earlier Shooter-devised story. Hank no longer learns anything from the experience, which may perhaps be the reason that the character has become identified by that plot for the last three decades.

Instead of being a turning point, Hank’s abuse (emotional and physical) of his wife and his mental breakdown are pushed back to unresolved issues, and leaving them free to be used again and again. Increasingly, I find myself wishing that Hank had disappeared for good in his final Stern appearance and become a footnote and cautionary tale in Marvel history.

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74646-44Fr

Dear Chris:

Thank you so much for your recent comment on our podcast—as  I mentioned in my reply, I read it while traveling (just got my ass back home and had to hop immediately back into the day job) and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to reply.  Of course, whenever anyone says they’ve started to worry about us, I also immediately begin to worry about us.  You mentioned you discovered our podcast the other day so you may not be familiar with “WorryGate,” where our worrying about the mental state of a certain comic book writer caused our listeners to in turn worry about us, which then worried us.  Unfortunately, all the time we then spent clarifying and elaborating only worried everyone more, to the point it seemed like we were now obsessed with said writer, and our repeated worrying about him seemed less like talking and more like stalking, to which we wrung our hands and tried to clarify some more.

It’s not our proudest moment.  In fact, it may even be our least-proud moment which is amazing, really, because we have quite a collection of not-proud moments, so much so that trying to pick out just one is very difficult.

All of which is to say: I worry when others worry.

Additionally, there were some excellent points in your comments, so I also found myself worrying about them too.  I decided I’d tackle them here as a way to clarify my own points for myself (as well as have an excuse to put in some fine, fine superhero movie eye candy).

[More behind the jump because good lord, does this go on and on and on….]

Continue reading

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DreddIronI can tell you exactly when I went from enjoying Wear Iron — the third in the series of Judge Dredd: Year One eBooks from 2000AD sister company Abaddon Books — to loving it. It’s the start of the third chapter, when the narrator decides to give a brief history of Inferno, the sport of the future that died a sudden death.

For those who don’t know their 2000AD history, it’s a fun little interlude that merely sets up the story to follow. For those who do, it’s an even-more-fun trip down memory lane, referencing not only the Inferno strip that ran early on in 2000AD’s run, but also its predecessor Harlem Heroes, while also setting up the latter Judge Dredd story “The Fatties.” It’s Al Ewing playing around in the larger mythology of the Dreddverse, and making it seem effortless.

“Fun” may not be the best descriptor for the books in this series (City Fathers and The Cold Light of Day were the first two, by Matt Smith and Michael Carroll, respectively) — City Fathers, at least, is a harder-edged crime tale, while Cold Light of Day feels very, very much like a Dredd strip from anywhere between Prog 200 through 400 or so, when Wagner and Grant were building their universe and populating it with extravagant social satires — but that’s okay; I’ll happily swap in “smart” or “addictive,” instead.

Historically, Dredd has been a strip that’s relied as much on visuals as writing; something that comes with having artists like Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra and Henry Flint drawing things, no doubt. Translating the strip into prose should be problematic, as a result (“You mean we have to imagine the guy with the helmet and the big green boots kicking ass and frowning at people?”), but it goes surprisingly smoothly — the result is, perhaps, comedic in a different way than the comic strip version, but still very much recognizable as the same character and the same universe.

Part of that is down to the authors responsible — Carroll and Ewing are both regular Dredd writers in 2000AD, and Smith is, in addition to writing IDW Dredd titles, also the current Tharg the Mighty, so they’re all intimately familiar with the material — and the choice of setting for the series. As the overall title suggests, all of the stories take place in Dredd’s first year out of the academy, which has been left relatively untouched by the comic book canon and is ripe for exploration.

DreddCityIt’s also a period that allows Dredd’s clone brother, Rico, to be part of proceedings before he gets arrested and sent to Titan (Spoilers, for those who don’t know their Dredd history). To varying degrees, Rico’s a presence in all three of the stories, a corrupt clone who’s both a perfect foil for the stoic, humorless Dredd and also a time bomb waiting to go off. He’s a great character, and his appearance here will make you want to see more of him; thankfully, Carroll’s already launched a prose series about his time on Titan with this year’s The Third Law. (It also sent me back to re-read Rico’s comic book debut, Prog 30’s “The Return of Rico,” which is actually available online right here. That punchline! Early 2000AD stuff is so wonderful and so weird, looking back.)

The books, then, manage to stand alone from the comics enough to make them perfect introductory material for newcomers, while also offering enough background to make them perfect material for longtime fans who haven’t had the chance to read stories set during this time before. Add to that the nice price point — they’re about $3.50 each, making them essentially the price of a single U.S. comic book — and the people responsible and what you have is the rare comic-to-prose crossover that isn’t just entertaining for people who’re already fans of the property, but highly recommended reading for anyone who’s ever been curious about Judge Dredd in general.

(If you’re not into eBooks, a print anthology of all three titles has just been released, titled Judge Dredd: Year One Omnibus. Don’t say I don’t help the luddites amongst you — although, if you’re reading this, you’re not that luddite-y…)

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KURTZMAN!

KURTZMAN!

First things first! Those of you who just want the direct link to the podcast for copying and then pasting for downloading however you choose, PLEASE SEE THE FIRST COMMENT .  (So, technically, it’s…last things first?)

Now, then about this show notes thing:

00:00-34:09: Greetings! Graeme takes “cold open” to a new level in this opening, and then makes up for it by singing the praises of Serial, the long-form documentary from the creators of This American Life. And along the way, we here at Wait, What? tackle one of our show’s great mysteries: just how many hours of podcasting does Graeme listen to a week? And which ones? Only Wait, What? is bold enough to ask the hard questions, and then almost screw up recording the hard answers. Graeme mentions a lot of swell-sounding stuff here, but germane to part of our discussion is the discussion with Tom Brevoort at Let’s Talk Comics as is, in its way, this image:

Sweaty Cap

Frank Robbins Cap Watches His Own Flashbacks

Also mentioned: The Frankenstein Comic Swap in Portland Oregon, a brief discussion/mild disagreement about Superman comics in the ‘70s (in which Graeme is largely right and Jeff is largely wrong); issues of The Brave And The Bold including a guest appearance by Kamandi; the first four issue of Justice League Detroit recently looked at by Graeme here on our website; Gerry Conway as the Warren Ellis of his generation; bitter, old Aquaman; J.M. DeMatteis as “the inappropriate backrub guy”; the absolutely stunning death of Vibe;

Justice-League-of-America-Vol.-1-258-1987

What. The. HELL.

and more.
34:09-48:04: Somewhat arbitrary split in the time code here, but at least this’ll help you figure out what we talk about in our first half-hour. Here is where Jeff brings up reading the first half-dozen issues (minus one) of Marvel Comics Transformers, as reprinted by IDW and purchased in a Humble Bundle a little while back. Much more talk about robot cats than you ever thought you would hear in this lifetime.
48:04-51:14: From high to low: Jeff also talks about the amazing Harvey Kurtzman and his work collected in  “Corpse on the Imjin” and Other Stories, currently available from Fantagraphics:

KURTZMAN!

(The Image So Nice I Used It Twice.)

51:14-1:12:00: And to really double down on “modern comics, what are modern comics?”, Graeme has been reading the Star Trek comics from Marvel and DC, courtesy of the Star Trek: The Complete Comic Book Collection DVD from GIT Corp. Also discussed: licensed comics, Indiana Jones, Peter David, the latest Terminator movie; and more.
1:12:00-1:51:49: In the mood for something a little more contemporary? Jeff wanted to talk about the Marvel film slate as well as two films he finally got around to seeing. Oh, but first: the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer; then Amazing Spider-Man 2; and Captain America Winter Soldier; Jeet Heer’s Twitter essay on same; the follow-up to Winter Soldier on Agents of SHIELD; the problem with the third act in superhero films; and then finally, around 1:34:00 or so, the Marvel film slate. How announced what when, who announced what to steal whose thunder, and where with the what when and the whizzle-why, all of which are discussed. Also: The Flash TV Show, and a lot about Gotham (starting at about 1:45:53).  Oh, and here’s a helpful chart of the Apocalypse, courtesy of Comics Alliance:

AIEEEEE

AIEEEEE

1:51:49-2:03:24: Even though we are under the gun to finish early, we say the phrase either nobody wanted to hear or everybody wanted to hear: “Oh! Okay, Secret Wars: let’s talk!” (After a brief period of Jeff exhorting Graeme to read The Wrenchies, which, with any luck, we will discuss next episode.) Discussed: toys, forts, hook-ups, the TV show Survivor, people’s boners, Graeme’s post about Secret Wars, the New Universe and it’s Phase II: Newer and Universe-ier, and a lot more (a little bit more, anyway).
2:03:24-2:17:17: Hey, here’s a special section of the show that’s been a long time coming—and no, we’re not talking about the bit where Jeff refers to Graeme as “the worst.” No, we are talking about thanking our awesome Patreon supporters who’ve given for several months and reach our bonus reward level: being thanked on air! Super big thanks to:

Kristoffer Peterson
Chris Tanforan
timothy rifenburg
Leef Smith
Scott Ashworth
Stephen Williamson
Jeffrey Lang
John Kipling
Robert Grzech
Dan Billings
Ford Thomas
Derek Moreland
Steve Kushner

(Of course, we’re grateful to everyone who’s contributed to us on Patreon where, as of this count, 83 patrons make this whole thing possible.) Some people have been upping their level of donation which we are *super* grateful for, and here we officially disclose the plans for what we’ll be discussing should we hit our goal of $500 a month /what we’ll be reading next once our Avengers round-up settles down at issue #300.
2:17:17-end: Closing comments! Birthday wishes! Remember The Tote Bags! Places to look for us at—Stitcher! iTunes!  Twitter! Tumblr!

Okay, now if you’ll excuse me, I have to start packing my bags for a road trip tomorrow. Look for Graeme’s weekly piece here soon and mine not long after that!

Also, in case you’ve forgotten:  FIRST COMMENT.

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WeirdAngle1

Weird Angle 1!

NewWeird2

Weird Angle 2!

Time for my apology of the week:  not only was it my birthday on Halloween, and not only do I live in a city where my team took the World Series, but we had this crazy apartment re-flooring thing that unexpectedly went from dormant to very active in the course of about twenty-four hours and that ate up a good four days of my life.

So yeah, this is late and some of it may be frankly a bit redundant by the time the podcast goes live as I talked to Graeme about some of it.  It’s a bit of a bag of loose Halloween candy, although there may be a few more Lemonheads and small rolls of Necco Wafers than either you or I might like.  Let’s see!

AVENGERS ANNUAL #14 and FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #19:  As you know if you’re listening to us read through The Avengers on the podcast, Graeme and I have skipped reading the annuals.  (Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Graeme is reading them but not mentioning it because he doesn’t want me to feel bad.)  But I’ve been enjoying Roger Stern’s run on the book so much that when the Nebula storyline continued over into an Annual, I figured it was worth hunting it down on Marvel Unlimited and giving it a read.

And then, of course, that issue tied into Fantastic Four Annual #19, so I read that too—and that featured Raksor, the Skrull from Fantastic Four Annual #18 and Uncanny X-Men #137 (you remember that guy, he’s the one on the Blue Area of the Moon to observe the fight of the X-Men and the Imperial Guard and ends up mixing it up with Wolverine and the Kree observer).

Raksor1

And Dudes Shall Call Him….Raksor!

Informative screenshot aside, I did not fall down a continuity hole and read FFA #18 and UXM #137…but I have to admit I was tempted.  Say what you will about the triumphs and failures of the current state of superhero comics, but there’s still something attractive to me about a minor character popping up in three annuals and The Death of The Phoenix and me finding out thanks to a tiny editor’s note in a book I read on a whim.  (In fact, if I were you, I’d put even odds on me taking a break from writing this to read FF Annual #18.)

So there’s a couple of interesting things about Avengers and FF Annuals #14:  one is that although John Byrne draws both issues and the two issues tie in so closely together that the last six pages are identical for each, they’re very different beasts.

The other interesting—and shocking—thing is that FF Annual #14, written and drawn by Byrne, is by far the worse of the two. I’ve had a tough time reconciling John Byrne, the artist I loved so much as a kid, with John Byrne, the comics auteur who spent decades refining absolutely every interesting thing out of his product, and these annuals are serious food for thought.  Considering the guy was drawing two full annuals (cheat of the identical ending pages aside) on top of his monthly book,  I would’ve thought Byrne would’ve saved his energy for the book he’d made into a monster hit but…nope.

Byrne’s story is practically Bendis-esque in its long opening sequence of an alien crashlanding into the Hudson Bay, making his way into Manhattan, and being discovered—and discussed at length—by cops before the FF get called in. From there, you have prototypical Byrne from the period: a deep cut from early FF continuity (The Enfant Terrible!), a second act twist to make Mr. Fantastic seem smart and/or the reader to feel dumb (no, you idiot, of course we’re not bringing back The Enfant Terrible!), a perfunctory action sequence (The FF vs. Fat Lady Skrull and her crew of non-fat, non-lady skrulls!),  and then the tie-in to the Avengers Annual where the Fantastic Four and The Avengers encounter each other on a skrull warship and of course assume the other group is a bunch of shape-changing skrulls taking on the forms of their friends to trick them.   After working it out in the most rational way possible, the teams join up to defeat the menace of a mad Skrull terrorist.

Overall, John Byrne the artist seems pretty uninspired by what John Byrne the writer has cranked out for him and so it’s all about as exciting as reading a Bullpen Bulletins page (if that page was actually forty pages).  By contrast, Avengers Annual #14 opens with Rakzor and his team of Skrulls breaking into Skrull prison to free Prince Dezan, the Skrull In The Iron Mask, then catching us up to date with The Avengers (having gone into space to rescue Captain Marvel, they are now hot on the trail of Nebula after she has told Starfox that she is the granddaughter of Thanos) and then making sure by page eight the team is attacked in the void of space by World War I biplanes.

Even if some of of it is as mothworn as the material Byrne is parading around in FFA #14 , the Avengers Annual keeps hopping, with John Byrne the artist being as energized by Roger Stern the writer as he was let down in FF.  (It also helps that after spending three issues of The Avengers dealing with the Skrulls, the path to the encounter between the two teams feels far more organic here than in the FF Annual.)

And this is the third interesting/shocking thing for me about the Annuals:  although FFA is inked by Joe Sinnott—one of the best inkers in comics history—Avengers Annual has breakdowns by Byrne and finishes by Kyle Baker…and it looks beautiful.  Having seen Baker’s work at Marvel from back in the day, I knew he was good more or less out of the gate, but his work in this is fantastic.  (Thanks to it being in the Avengers Annual, there’s no pun involved there.)  If you told me I would’ve preferred an inking job of his to the same work by Joe Sinnott, I would’ve laughed in your crazily hypothetical face, Mr. Straw Man!  But check out some of these lovely Baker finished panels:

PrinceIronMask

The Skrull in the Iron Mask

StarfoxBaker1

Fist-Shaking Starfox

BakerBogart1

Don’t Bogart That Photo Reference!

In fact, I can even show you a quick example based on the shared pages between the two annuals. Here’s the big “moment of truth” where the crazed Skrull bad guy sets off his ultimate weapon, first by Byrne/Sinnott and then by Stern/Byrne/Baker:

SinnottYes

Pretty…But Generic

 

BakerSplash

Prettier…and Less Generic

Look how, even as the colorist blows the dynamism of the skrull bomb (it looks like a hubcap), the Avengers Annual page has more heft, based on little more than Baker’s shading choices and adjustment of expressions.

And, finally, the fourth interesting/shocking thing:  although Byrne’s FF Annual is wayyyy more dull, it does everything it sets out to do.  Whereas Avengers Annual #14, driven by Starfox’s need to catch Nebula and find out if she is indeed a granddaughter of Thanos (and thus Starfox’s own grand-niece), not only does not resolve that storyline, Starfox himself disappears completely from the final pages, presumably so you don’t notice the whole story  ends up being an unnecessary digression.

The whole crossover is simultaneously pretty clever and not as clever as everyone behind it seems to think:  instead of the loose, devil-may-care continuity of crossover events past (and future), this was so tightly plotted and coordinated it seems only the colorists were left out.  The covers  even show the same scene from two different angles. But it’s worth noting both covers are, technically, kind of terrible, with the title characters being shown from behind on their own books and from weird, undynamic angles so that they look their best on the other book’s cover.

And although SternByrne show two teams grown up enough to reason out their true identities instead of just pounding on one another for a few pages, that solution is, let’s face it, much more dull than what we would’ve seen under Marvel 1.0 or 2.0.  Even as Eighties Marvel was refining the ideas of continuity in ways Stan Lee and the other creators of the Marvel Universe could never have anticipated, it was also highlighting the possible flaws in the concept itself.

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I love the Detroit Justice League of America.

That’s not sarcasm, and I don’t mean it ironically; I genuinely love the characters, and the concept. They were the first Justice League I read even vaguely regularly as a kid; the newsagents at the end of my street would get in irregular copies when I was starting to pick up American comics, and it was just around the time of Steel, Vibe, Gypsy and Vixen making their mark on the book. They’re my league, in some strange, nostalgic, indefinable way. I genuinely love them.

More excitingly for me, it turns out that I actually like them, too. This past weekend, I picked up Justice League of America #233-236, the first appearances of the characters in the regular series (They’d debuted in Justice League of America Annual #2, a couple months earlier), and was relieved — and a little surprised — to discover that they’re actually pretty strong comics, despite the reputation they’ve gained in the decades since.

It’s not that they’re forgotten classics of the genre — they came out in 1984 (Yes, it’s the entirely-unrecognized 30th anniversary of Justice League Detroit), and there were inarguably better superhero comics being published at the time — but they’re definitely good, and I think that’s something worthwhile, especially for a series like this. Reading all the old Avengers books over the last year for the podcast, it’s become clear that there are times when flagship titles like JLA or Avengers aren’t any good — that they exist purely to fill a spot in the publishing schedule, without any larger aim, and without any real entertainment value, either. As a longtime Justice League fan, I feel relatively confident in saying that the beginning of the Detroit era for the JLA was more interesting and had more potential than anything else that book had seen on a regular basis in years.

JLD Rebirth

And these four issues — ostensibly, a four-parter called “Rebirth,” but it’s more like a three-parter with a prologue of sorts first — really, genuinely have a lot of potential. There are a lot of things thrown out in these issues that beg to be explored later, whether it’s the agenda of Steel’s grandfather, Aquaman’s creepy overstepping of boundaries when it comes to being a leader (At one point, he uses his telepathic powers to shut down an argument with Steel, which feels like something that needed to be followed up on) or, my personal favorite, Vibe’s putting on a cliched accent when he’s around the team that he drops when he’s at home (Something that is expressly called out in dialogue). These four issues genuinely feel like the beginning of something, and made me want to read more.

(I didn’t read these issues, when they came out first time around; my first issue was #237, and I admit to regretting not picking that up this weekend, as well. It was only $1! What was I thinking?)

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot that’s derivative, as well; Steel is essentially little more than a white Cyborg with more angst, while Gypsy — for all that we see her — feels very much like Gerry Conway is trying to retrofit himself his own Kitty Pryde character. The idea of the JLA suddenly made up of three teenagers, an equally unknown quantity in Vixen and four lesser-explored veterans remains awkward, with the explanation given in JLA Annual #2 being… tenuous at best. But, once you get over that hurdle, there’s more here to like than dislike.

There are also hints of Justice Leagues to come, as well: The attempts to insert sitcom into the formula via the team’s new Detroit HQ feel predictive of the Giffen/DeMatteis works to come, especially the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Justice League revivals. The soap operatics hint at Brad Meltzer’s Justice League, while the new-heroes-try-to-get-along-and-become-better-superheroes brings to mind Geoff Johns’ New 52 incarnation of the team. What may have seemed, at the time, to be very “un-Justice League” now reads, oddly, as an amalgam of ideas ahead of their time and execution contemporaneous with something like Marv Wolfman’s New Teen Titans or Paul Levitz’ Legion of Super-Heroes.

It falls apart, after these four issues, I know that: ideas and characters get dropped (Aquaman, who put the team and new approach together, is gone six issues later), and others get hijacked by big events (The Steel reveal proves to be a Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in, I remember, which overwhelms the story underneath it all). Gerry Conway, who seems to have such confidence and purpose in these issues — there’s a sense of him being enthused by his new direction, convinced that this is what they want, even if it turns out he was apparently wrong — seems to lose interest, direction or both, midway through the run, and it never quite reaches this level again. This really might be as good as it got for these characters, sadly enough.

And yet, I find myself wishing that DC would collect the Mars-Earth War three-parter that led to this storyline, the JLA Annual, and these issues all together in one place, as a redemption of the reputation that the Detroit League has found itself saddled with. They’re not just “not as bad as you think,” they’re a glimpse at the Justice League that could have been, the Justice League that’s coming, and something that just might make you wish that these characters had been given more of a chance than they eventually received.

That said, who would’ve thought that Vibe would be the breakout star of the book, huh?

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SPOILERS: I am way late in posting this (Even more spoilers: This isn’t even the post I left unfinished yesterday, because that one just wouldn’t come back to life at all), so I’m stick it all under the cut and telling you to scroll down and read Jeff’s far more entertaining comic reviews. Can he turn against Tony Daniel? The answer may surprise you! Seriously, scroll down and read. Then, when you come back, why you shouldn’t read a lot of Fantastic Four at once.

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DSTROKE001_Cover_rev_53b40b8a307326.06494387

“Red skies at night—Tony Daniel’s delight.”

Man, you know those guys who turn around and post reviews for comics as soon as they come out?  Sometimes even before  they come out?  Way, way back in the day, I used to be one of those guys.  Okay, maybe not the day of but, you know, I’d work at CE on Friday, write reviews on Saturday, get them up before the end of the weekend.  It was kind of fun back in the days where my only serious commitment was to, I dunno, Dragon Quest VIII or something.  (Speaking of which has anyone played Dragon Quest VIII for the iPad?  Is it any good?  I’m asking for…a friend.  A friend who’s on the second day of a two week vacation for which he vowed he’d devote some serious time to goofing off—okay, okay, I’m asking for me, all right?  I’m asking for me!)

Anyway, the neverending Sketchook entry is still far from finished and not even all that interesting to me anymore personally (which is a drag considering the time already sunk into it), and coming back from the store yesterday and looking at my wide-open schedule I thought, you know, why not get the band back together for one last gig?  “Let’s read some comics and say what we thought about them, and then post it on the Internet!” I thought.  “That’ll teach me!”

Anyway, these are mostly in alphabetical order except when I think I have something clever to say, in which case they’re not.  That’s sorta fair, right?

ARKHAM MANOR #1: SPOILER THIS TAKES PLACE AFTER THE EVENTS OF BATMAN ETERNAL #30.  Technically, that really shouldn’t be a spoiler but since Editorial didn’t disclose it until page four of the book, I’m assuming it’s something they were trying to keep under wraps from the casual browser.  Unfortunately, this casual browser read that and went “damn it,” because he’d already bought the damn book. Since Batman Eternal #28 came out this week, I have the choice of either spoiling those two issues (although I’m pretty sure I already did by reading panel three of page one) or putting this aside.

So.  In two weeks:  My review of Arkham Manor #1! SPOILERS: I will complain about the scheduling problems of the Bat-Editorial Department.

BATMAN ETERNAL #28:  Meanwhile, this week in “wait, where the hell does Batman think Alfred is again?” Ray Fawkes returns to run the ball a little farther up the field on his “spooky shenanigans in Arkham” story.  I’m not much of a fan of this storyline, in part because I generally don’t like spooky shenanigans mixed in with my Batman stories unless Mr. Bob Haney is holding the swizzle stick, and in part because giving the story to Batwing, the only Bat person of color, and having him play second banana to New52 Jim Corrigan is deeply, deeply WhiteDumb.  (I’m trying to rebrand racism so that maybe white people can own up to it a little easier rather than getting all upset when someone points out they’re being racist. Let me know how I’m doing.)

But this issue had a number of nice beats, with Simon Coleby’s art given an enjoyably smoldering palette by colorist Romulo Fajardo, Jr.  And the pacing at the end was aces, intercutting Batwing assembling his armor, all hell breaking loose in Arkham, and the code of the Riddler being computer decoded before our very eyes.  Sure, that pacing is almost utterly generic now thanks to the preponderance of hyperactive thrillers on TV and in movies but…at least it was done well and kept me turning the pages attentively even when, really, part of me was like, “man, where the hell are my Brave and The Bold Showcases?”

To sum up: this was an okay issue, and I’m looking forward to getting drunk later and digging through my longboxes to find those Showcases.

AQUAMAN #35: I think this is my last issue because even though I dig Jeff Parker’s characterization of Aquaman as The Introverted Guy Who Would Be King, I’m just not into Atlantis.  Atlantis is that kid brother every Aquaman writer either tries to ditch or, with a heaving sigh, turns their attention to and tries to give a makeover so they’re not embarrassed to be seen in public with.  One good thing about getting to my age is being able to acknowledge the only thing I care less about than a fantasy kingdom is an underwater fantasy kingdom. Sorry, Aquaman: it’s not you, it’s me.

STUMPTOWN #2: That previous issue which I apparently bought twice was on my mind as I went into the store today, in part because I was thinking something like: remember, dummy. Do not buy two copies this time.

But also I was thinking about how I dug the whole “here’s a murder mystery about Portland soccer fans,” in part because it so obviously seemed like writer Greg Rucka was just a huge Portland soccer fan.  It made me think about that one issue of Moon Knight where suddenly the cast gets all broken up over the death of John Lennon and what’s-her-name is playing the piano and then crying.  It was an embarrassing issue to read as a kid because it so clearly didn’t have any kind of place in a story about a multiple personality Batman-by-way-of-werewolf’s-blood superhero (although, let’s face it, if each one of Moon Knight’s personalities had a different favorite Beatle and drove the rest of surrounding cast insane about it, that would’ve been pretty great).  And yet, I also dug it.  Before disposable pop culture took over the world, it was kind of neat to see people pack thoughts about pop culture into other pop culture.  And Stumptown issue one reminded me of that, and how much I used to really like it.

Issue two reminded me that while I find this stuff great to read in trades, I find it pretty draggy in the single issues.  Although there’s every chance it will pay off in later issues, there were way too many pages of people talking about how much they care about the victim and how important it is that the perpetrators get caught, and…I don’t know, isn’t that the kind of thing that doesn’t really need that much justification? Too many samey-seeming scenes in one issue for my taste. Reading it felt like I was right on the verge of some kind of realization about something… but it took me a few more books for that to come together.

SUPERMAN #35:  Considering how slowly this book is unfolding, I don’t think it was helped by that Future’s End skip month issue.  (I call it a skip month because I skipped it.)  I saw issue #35 on the stands and was like, “wait, am I still…reading this?”

I am, in part because I keep trying to figure out what I like about John Romita, Jr.’s art?  It’s a weird style, one where I feel like I’m always noticing something new.  Like…did you know we had so many wrinkles on our nose?  Maybe it’s a side-effect of having our noses broken so many times?  You can look at a character in profile and sometimes their nose will look broken—clearly broken, like big old knot at the bridge and then mashed up against the face below that—and then on the next panel it won’t be?  And then in a medium shot it will be wrinkled?  It’s a fascinating world John Romita Jr. lives in, where people’s noses behave like dog’s noses, springing to attention before lolling back brokenly above their marionette mouth.

Seriously: I like the guy’s work.  Like I said on a podcast, it reminds me more of Gil Kane (or, in this issue, Frank Robbins for some reason) than John Romita, Sr.  Also, I think I just really like what the guy does with body language.

NOSES.

NOSES.

Anyway, Johns’ story doubles down on his “let’s make Superman the most boring part of this Superman story,” which is a shame.  I can see how a Superman analog is our modern equivalent of the old DC Imaginary Story, where wacky hijinks will show us that it’s important that Superman be a superhero only in the most reactive, passive sense of the term. But I found the end of this issue a bit of a bummer: having Superman decide to use a supercity in an alternate dimension to house six million people to build a better tomorrow? It’s a drag that story hook goes to not-Superman, instead.

ZERO #11:  Tonally, Ricardo Lopez Ortiz’s art ran the gamut in this from absolutely perfect to kind of unfortunate: perfect for the scenes of Edward Zero having a few moments of peace and happiness, and even when the tension starts to crank up…but the facial expressions in the fight scene made it feel a little too much like something out of The Castle of Cagliostro.  And even though it was twenty-four pages of story, the issue felt a bit light to me which suggests it either needed just a dash more story in there or all those old issues of Avengers are totally throwing off my sense of story pacing.  Probably the latter.  Decent little issue overall, though.

STARLIGHT #6:  I guess I’m glad my current phase of comic book reading is more focused on the art because every bit of Mark Millar’s storytelling in this was rubbish.  Duke’s escape, his cigar smoking return, that kid yelling out Duke’s name even though he is in the process of being hanged (seriously, how can Mark Millar not know how strangulation works?), the final showdown with Kingfisher and Duke…just a big old heaping pile of garbage.

But, of course, Goran Parlov does something great on every page. I could never make fun of his faces the way I do John Romita, Jr.:  his characters are cartoony but he can draw them at any angle and the exaggerations stay completely proportional.  And of course, the faux-Moebius stuff going on in the backgrounds (aided a ton by Ive Svorcina)?  I was just really happy to read 30+ pages of Parlov’s work in one go…at least until I got to the back page and remembered the price tag for doing so was five bucks.

Overall, Starlight was  a pretty good reminder why I don’t read Mark Millar comics anymore. I hope Parlov sees some decent Hollywood money out of it, and someone scoops the guy up to do their much better book.  But…well, let’s just say I’m very, very glad this was the mini and Jeff Parker and Doc Shaner’s Flash Gordon is the ongoing, let’s put it that way.

DEATHSTROKE #1:  Probably the book I was most excited to pick up this week since it’s the return of Tony Daniel writing and drawing a book while his editors go and huff glue, or do whatever it is they do instead of saying, “Uh, Tony Daniel, shouldn’t we have more of a story here?” like they probably should.

On the one hand, this has a lot of the stuff I love when Tony Daniel writes and draws his own book.  Blood-red skies? Check.  Hot women with some sort of disfigurement a la a Metal Gear Solid game?  Check.  Ganking stuff from Frank Miller, including creating an outrageously unsubtle Wolverine analog to make fun of? Check.  There’s several pages of really fun over-the-toppery, like when the bad guy gets free and just starts hacking pieces off Deathstroke with his own sword, or when Deathstroke returns the favor by lopping off people’s heads in a ridiculously glorious bottom-up perspective.

But on the other hand, even with the embarrassingly low bar I set for Tony Daniel comics, this just barely cleared it.  Kinda knocked the bar off with its back foot as it went over, frankly. While I’m glad the book is free of the “this story is all about the hero and the hero’s past and how it’s really their most personal, dangerous dramatic adventure the hero’s ever had!”, it was also just a little too low-stakes for me: Deathstroke (which I just typo’d as Deathstorke, which I now pray to God someone will do in any Captain Carrot revival that comes down the pike) gets a contract to bump off a bunch of guys including Wolverine analog (also funny for a Captain Carrot revival: A wolverine named Wolverine?) and then it turns out to be a trap to get the secret memories hidden in Deathstroke’s head and then he has to swordfight his way out of an ambush?  I was pretty emotionally uninvested.  Plus, on the last page, beneath the newly young Deathstroke in his blood diaper yelling “What did you do to me?” there’s a next issue box hollering, “NEXT:  The Secret Past of Slade Wilson!”  So…cue up the story bit about Deathstroke’s past and how this is really the most personal, dangerous dramatic adventure he’s ever had. Damn it.

Still.  It’s only $2.99 and I have every hope Daniel will introduce thirty-seven villains next issue, some of which will look like ordinary household objects wearing top hats so…I’m far from giving up the book.

MEMETIC #1:  Jesus, another $4.99 book?  Sure, it’s 32 pages of story but…that’s a lot of investment for the first shot of a three issue miniseries, don’t you think?

Or maybe I’m just extra-cranky because those 32 pages had a lot of what felt like the same scenes over and over: it’s kind of tough when you’re doing a story about a memetic invasion not to fall into “PAGE FIVE: More people love the Good Times Sloth and say it makes them incredibly happy to look at.  PAGE SEVEN: Even more people love the Good Times Sloth and say it makes them incredibly happy to look at.  PAGE THIRTEEN: Now all the world loves the Good Times Sloth and say it makes them incredibly happy to look at.”  But…I got to the end of these 32 pages, most of which are spent in and around just a few characters resistant or suspicious of the hypno-sloth, and I don’t know if we really got more than a superficial “here are the contours of this character” take on anyone.

James Tyrion IV and Eryk Donovan are quite good at keeping the pace on a page by page basis and things started to go bad exactly when I was hoping they would, but…the work just missed being strong enough to get me back. And then I look at that price tag again and cringe.  It’s probably the right move for Boom! to make in this market where there’s a lot of issue #1 speculation for indie titles but I mean that it’s “right” in a possibly-too-cynical kind of way.

LAZARUS #12:  So remember what I was saying all the way up there about Stumptown and Greg Rucka and being right on the verge of some kind of realization?  Lazarus #12 is where I cracked that code, and the code is:  Chris Claremont.

Chris Claremont. Chris Claremont.  Chris Claremont.

Screw Cyclops:  Marvel should put Greg Rucka on an X-Men team title because Greg Rucka is Chris Claremont as fuck.  Reading this issue of Lazarus where all of the world’s controlling families get together for a big “let’s all try and sway other families to our side on important issues that will advance our creepy agendas” and the biggest emotional beat is…having Forever, who doesn’t dance, have to dance in front of everyone at the big gala with the guy who looks a little too much like Tom Hiddleston for my liking.

CHRIS CLAREMONT.

The same way Mr. C was hyper-plugged into the emotional lives of his characters (especially their discomfort), and pushed for a “strong women to the point of making other men roll their eyeballs” agenda, and in fact more or less made a lot of hay by having the latter have to confront the former?  That’s pretty much Rucka’s work, too.

Unfortunately, like Claremont, Rucka is a big ol’ ham, and so his drama can come off a little too melodramatically and—even worse—his characters tend to all sound samey and bloviatey. There’s a scene here where Forever chats and works out with two other Family “Swords,” and at first I was all, “oh, this is cool, we get to see how they interact and watch them gossip and that should be fun.”  But none of the characters had any surprise to them, and the snap in the dialogue was precisely and exactly the kind of “oh, she’s timid; he’s extreme; and she’s reasonable, watch how every single piece of this reinforces that,” creators have to learn to achieve and then strive to subvert as soon as possible.

A ham actor gets a lot of mileage out of their commitment (and/or over-commitment) to the part, which can be surprising and fun…but it can also make them crashing bores because the only thing they know how to do is TURN UP THE VOLUME and (turn down the volume).  There wasn’t one scene that surprised me in this issue, and considering it’s layered with characters I’ve either never met or didn’t bother to even remember, that’s a little depressing.

So Greg Rucka should break that habit, probably?  Or, if he can’t, put it to use on an X-Men title where the nostalgia will cover up boredom’s sting.

POSTSCRIPT:  Guess who forgot to buy Multiversity?  Arghhhhhhh……

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Friends, Whatnauts, countrymen, lend me your – Well, I guess it’d be eyeballs instead of ears, considering this is a written post. What is really is is a written apology: as a result of a crazier than usual work schedule that was a little blown up by the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer leak this afternoon, I’ve not had a chance to finish my review post for the week, which was already a day late due to me being sick this weekend and thrown off my game. I both beg apologies and tell you to come back tomorrow when I’ll really, really try and get it up. And if Jeff gets a post up as well, it’ll be like double the fun in… the same amount of time as normal except I was late and I’m very sorry…? Okay, that didn’t come over as impressive as I’d hoped, I confess.

In the meantime, go and read Colin Smith writing about Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing run. It’s far more worthy of your attentions.

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