Runaways volume 3 The Good Die Young


By Brian K Vaughan, Adrian Alphona & Craig Yeung (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-905239-78-8

The third chapter (collecting volume 1, issues #13-18 of the Marvel comic-book series) in the saga of children on the run from their parents who have been revealed as an evil coalition of mutants, alien, sorcerers and super-criminals kicks the saga into high gear as the youngsters stop escaping and start attacking.

So for newcomers and by way of recap: Six L.A. rich kids with nothing in common except that their parents hang out together discover that those selfsame adults are, in fact, a league of super-villains intent on world conquest. Since no parent can be trusted anyway, the kids band together to use their own powers to bring them to justice. The adults have fingers in every pie, though. As the De Facto owners of Los Angeles it takes little more than a phone call to frame the Runaways for kidnapping each other and for a particularly grisly murder.

From their cool hide-out they rescue another boy with evil parents, only to fall foul of a timeless monster, and super-heroes Cloak and Dagger first hunt, (recruited by a bent cop in the pay of those ol’ evil parents) before teaming up with them. Unfortunately, the insidious adults mind-wipe the heroes as they go for reinforcements…

This volume contains a positive flurry of frantic activity, the kids discover the reason behind their parents’ villainous coalition, find a traitor in their midst, save the world and even clear the way for the sequel in the best manner of bubblegum drama. There’s even room for plenty of fighting and vast bunches of snogging, and a few A-List super-hero guest-stars too.

As a weary old man it’s so easy to be disparaging about a new (-ish) genre-form tailored to the young, hormonal, middle-class and socially advantaged, be it comic books, TV, clothes or music. Yet I’m fairly sure that my discomfort with a lot of modern material aimed at new young consumers is the old one: lacklustre creativity soaked in varnish and dipped in glitter is no substitute for quality storytelling. Even the most naïve newcomer knows “Shiny” is not the same as “Good”.

Soap operas are generally considered to be the ass-end of drama everywhere, yet can often transcend their base origins to produce outstanding quality, shattering depth and lasting worth. And more so in comics where we’ve had this very argument for decades over not just the content but even the very form of our medium. Perhaps I’m just getting tetchy waiting for it to happen.

All that being said there is a marked and consistent improvement in this book, (except with the art which I just can’t seem to warm to, competent though it clearly is) and the story does actually improve with re-reading – especially as this UK edition is printed in the regular trade paperback size and not the annoyingly cramped and cluttered digest format. Perhaps the thing simply needs a decent amount of breathing room to work.

For something that’s a distillation of so many hybrid strands that’s actually not such a bad thing. I’d advise you to read them and decide for yourselves.

© 2004, 2008 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved. A BRITISH EDITION RELEASED BY PANINI UK LTD

Secret Invasion


By Brian Michael Bendis, Leinil Francis Yu & Mark Morales (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-405-8

The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who have threatened Earth since the second issue of Fantastic Four, and have long been a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse the insidious invaders were made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas.

The premise is simple: the would-be conquerors have undergone a mass religious conversion and are now utterly dedicated to taking Earth as their new homeworld. To this end they have replaced a number of key Earth denizens – including a number of superheroes. When the lid is lifted no defender of the Earth truly knows who is on their side…

This volume is just one of many collecting the vast number of episodes in this saga, and contains all eight issues of the core miniseries, the one-shot spin-off Who Do You Trust? and the illustrated text book Skrulls which claims to provide a listing and biography for every shape-shifter yet encountered in the Marvel Universe (but if they left any out could you tell?).

Fast-paced, well-drawn and suitably spectacular, this is a twisty-turny tale and quite enjoyable – if overly-complex in some places. When the heroes discover the plot they shift into high-gear, but everything gets really sticky when a Skrull ship crashes releasing a band of missing heroes who ought to be the originals that were replaced: but are they…?

Rather than give anything away let me just say that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love it, and a detailed familiarity is not vital to your understanding. However, for a fuller understanding, as well as the relevant 22 Secret Invasion volume that accompany this, you might want to seek out Secret Invasion: the Infiltration, Secret War (2004), Avengers Disassembled, and Annihilation volumes 1-3, as well as various Avengers: Illuminati issues.

Despite all that this is still a solid light adventure read, the kind of stuff-and-nonsense we all need occasionally and one that can honestly stand on its own two feet – or are those tentacles…?

© 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved. A BRITISH EDITION RELEASED BY PANINI UK LTD

AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED: THOR


By Michael Avon Oeming, Daniel Berman & Andrea DiVito with Laura Villari (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1599-1

A few years ago the “World’s Mightiest Heroes” were shut down and rebooted in a highly publicised event known as Avengers Disassembled. Of course it was only to replace them with both The New and The Young Avengers. The event also spilled over into the regular titles of current team members and affiliated comic-books such as the Fantastic Four and Spectacular Spider-Man ran parallel but not necessarily interconnected story-arcs to accompany the Big Show.

Said Big Show consisted of the worst day in the team’s history as a trusted comrade betrayed the World’s Mightiest Superteam resulting in the destruction of everything they held dear and the death of several members. The side-bar saga collected here ups the ante somewhat…

An Avenger since the team’s very inception, the Asgardian godling Thor has more often than not gone his own way in recent years, but this saga (collecting Thor #80-85) reunited the mythic hero with his mortal team-mates one last time as a prologue to the really-and-truly final Ragnarok story.

Any long-term fan knows that’s almost an oxymoron but in this revelatory yarn the Thunder God loses everything he holds dear and experiences the death of his entire race as a way of breaking a cycle of death and rebirth which had reduced his immortal race into nothing more than cattle for a predatory force that cannot be defeated…

The grim inevitability of this high-powered fantasy with its heroic dooms and unwavering nobility makes it one of the better post-Lee/Kirby Thor epics and effectively wipes the slate clean in a fair and decent manner for the next incarnation, especially as writers Oeming and Berman have a proven feel for the barbaric scale of mythmaking, whilst DiVito’s pictorial narrative skills blend well with Laura Villari’s colour palette to capture that end-of-everything momentum in a captivating and painterly manner.

A trifle overblown and not to everyone’s taste, this is nonetheless a great treat for saga-lovers who yearn to feel their pulses race and their hearts soar.

© 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Essential Thor volume 1

Essential Thor
Essential Thor

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1866-7

Even more than the Fantastic Four The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s restless fascination with the Cosmic was honed and refined in dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. His string of pantheons began with a modest little fantasy title called Journey into Mystery where in the summer of 1962 a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into God-like hero) was employed by the fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers. This gloriously economical tome represents those Asgardian exploits from JiM #83-112 in clean crisp black and white for your delectation.

Journey into Mystery #83 (cover-dated August 1962) featured the tale of crippled American doctor Donald Blake who takes a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing he is trapped in a cave where he finds an old, gnarled walking stick. When in his frustration he smashes the cane into a huge boulder obstructing his escape, his puny frame is transformed into the Norse God of Thunder, the Mighty Thor! Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for his Marvel career) ‘The Stone Men of Saturn’ is pure early Marvel, bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. The hugely under-appreciated Art Simek was the letterer and logo designer.

They were making it up as they went along – not in itself a bad thing – and the infectious enthusiasm shows in the next adventure ‘The Mighty Thor Vs. the Executioner’, a “commie-busting” tale of its time with a thinly disguised Fidel Castro wasting his formidable armies in battle against our hero. Dr. Blake’s nurse Jane Foster was introduced, a bland cipher adored from afar by the timid alter-ego of mighty hero. The creative team settled as Dick Ayers replacing Sinnott, and with #85’s ‘Trapped by Loki, God of Mischief!’ the last element fell into place with the introduction of a suitably awesome arch-foe; in this case a half-brother evil magician. We also saw a new world revealed with the first hints and glimpses of the celestial otherworld and more Nordic gods.

Issue #86 introduced another recurring villain. Zarrko, bristling at the sedentary ease of 23rd century life, travelled to our time to steal an experimental “C-Bomb” forcing the God of Thunder into a stirring chase through time and battle with super-technology ‘On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!’, whilst on his return Don Blake became a target for Soviet abductors. Those sneaky spies even managed to make Thor a ‘Prisoner of the Reds!’

‘The Vengeance of Loki’ saw the god of Evil’s flamboyant, bombastic return in #88, but ‘The Thunder God and the Thug’ was an adventure with a much more human scale as a gang boss runs riot over the city and roughshod over a good woman’s heart, giving the Asgardian a chance to demonstrate a more sophisticated and sympathetic side. Issue #90 was a total surprise to fans as the grandeur of Kirby and Ayers was replaced by the charming but drama-free art of Al Hartley, who illustrated a stock invasion tale of shape-changing aliens. ‘Trapped by the Carbon-Copy Man’ was followed a month later by ‘Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!’, with Joe Sinnott handling all the art, in a thriller starring a carnival mentalist augmented by Loki’s magic who comes close to killing our hero.

Sinnott also drew #92’s ‘The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer’ scripted by Robert Bernstein over Lee’s plot which moved the action fully to the mythical realm of Asgard for the first time as the hero sought to recover his stolen weapon. Kirby and Ayers returned for the Cold War thriller ‘The Mysterious Radio-Active Man!’, again plotted by Bernstein, as Mao Tse Tung unleashes an atomic assassin in retaliation for Thor thwarting China’s invasion of India. Such “Red-baiting” was common in early Marvel titles, but their inherent jingoistic silliness can’t mar the eerie beauty of the artwork. With this tale the rangy raw-boned Thunder God completed his slow metamorphosis into the husky, burly blonde bruiser that dominated any panel he was drawn in.

Sinnott illustrated the next three adventures ‘Thor and Loki Attack the Human Race!’, ‘The Demon Duplicator’ and ‘The Magic of Mad Merlin!’, but these mediocre tales of amnesia, evil doppelgangers and ancient menaces were the last of a old style of comics. Stan Lee took over the scripting with the Journey into Mystery #97 and action wedded to melodrama produced a fresh style for a developing readership.

‘The Lava Man’ was again drawn by Kirby, with the subtly textured inking of Don Heck adding depth to the tale of an invader from the subterranean realms, as a long running rift with Thor’s father Odin was established when the Lord of Asgard refused to allow his son to love the mortal Jane Foster. This acrimonious triangle was a perennial sub-plot that fuelled many attempts to humanise Thor, because already he was a hero too powerful for most villains to cope with. This issue was also notable for the launch of a spectacular back-up series. ‘Tales of Asgard – Home of the mighty Norse Gods’ gave Jack Kirby a space to indulge his fascination with legends. Initially adapting classic tales but eventually with all-new material particular to the Marvel pantheon, he built his own cosmos and mythology, which underpinned the company’s entire continuity. This first saga, scripted by Lee and inked by George Bell (AKA George Roussos) outlined the origin of the world and the creation of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

‘Challenged by the Human Cobra’ introduced the serpentine villain (bitten by a radioactive Cobra, would you believe?) in a tale by Lee and Heck, whilst Kirby, with them in attendance contributed ‘Odin Battles Ymir, King of the Ice Giants!’ a short but potent fantasy romp which presaged the cosmic wonderment of years to come. The same format held for issues #99 and #100, where the main story (the first two-part adventure in the run) introduced the bestial ‘Mysterious Mister Hyde’, and concluding ‘The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde!’ dealt with a contemporary super-villain Kirby produced ‘Surtur the Fire Demon’ and latterly (with Vince Colletta inks) ‘The Storm Giants – a tale of the Boyhood of Thor’. As always Lee scripted this increasingly influential comicbook.

JIM #101 saw Kirby finally assume complete control of the pencilling on both strips. ‘The Return of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ sees Odin halve Thor’s powers for disobedience just as the futuristic felon abducts the Thunder God to help him conquer the 23rd century. Anther two-parter (the first half inked by Roussos), it was balanced by another exuberant tale of the boy Thor. ‘The Invasion of Asgard’ sees the valiant lad fight a heroic rearguard action that introduced a host of future villainous mainstays. ‘Slave of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man’ is a tour de force epic conclusion most notable for the introduction of Chic Stone as inker. To many of us oldsters, the clean full brush lines make him The King’s best embellisher ever. This triumphant epic is balanced by the brooding short ‘Death Comes to Thor!’ as the young hero faces his greatest challenge yet. Two females that would play huge roles in his life were introduced in this brief 5-pager, the young Goddess Sif and Hela, Queen of the dead.

On a creative roll, Lee Kirby and Stone next introduced ‘The Enchantress and the Executioner’ ruthless renegade Asgardians in the front of JIM #103 and in ‘Thor’s Mission to Mirmir’ revealed how the gods created humanity, which lead to a revolutionary saga ‘Giants Walk the Earth’ in the next issue. For the first time Kirby’s imagination was given full play as Loki tricked Odin into visiting Earth, only to release ancient foes Surtur and Skagg, the Storm Giant from Asgardian bondage.

This cosmic saga saw noble gods stride the Earth battling demonic evil in a new Heroic Age, and the greater role of the Norse supporting cast was reinforced by a new Tales of Asgard strand focussing on individual Gods and Heroes. Heimdall the Sentry was first, with Don Heck inking. Issue #105-106 saw the teaming of two old foes in ‘The Cobra and Mr, Hyde’ and ‘The Thunder God Strikes Back’, another continued story packed with tension and spectacular action, which showed that Thor was swiftly growing beyond the constraints of traditional single story adventures. The respective back-ups ‘When Heimdall Failed!’ (Lee, Kirby, Roussos) and ‘Balder the Brave’ (Lee, Kirby, Colletta) further fleshed out the back-story of an Asgardian pantheon deviating more and more from the classical Eddas and Sagas kids had to plough through in schools.

JIM #107 introduced another major villain in ‘When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes’, a rare tale that highlighted the fortitude of Don Blake rather than the Thunder God, who was increasingly reducing his own alter-ego to an inconsequentiality, and the Norn Queen debuted in the quirky reinterpretation of the classic tale ‘Balder Must Die!’ illustrated by Kirby and Colletta. After months of manipulation the God of Evil once again took direct action in ‘At the Mercy of Lokj, Prince of Evil!’ With Jane a helpless pawn to Asgardian magic the willing help of new Marvel star Doctor Strange made this a captivating team-up to read, whilst ‘Trapped by the Trolls’ (inked by Colletta) showed the power and promise of tales set solely on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Issue #109 was another superb adventure masquerading as a plug for another new series. ‘When Magneto Strikes!’ pitted Thor against the X-Men’s greatest foe in a cataclysmic clash, but you couldn’t actually call it a team-up as the heroic mutants were never seen. The teasing hints and cropped glimpses are fascinating teasers now, but the kid I was annoyed not to have seen these new heroes. Oh… maybe that was the point?

The young Thor feature ‘Banished from Asgard’ is uncharacteristically lacklustre but the concluding part ‘The Defeat of Odin!’ in JiM #110 makes up for the silly plot with breathtaking battles scenes. The lead story in that issue is ‘Every Hand Against Him’ as Loki, the Cobra and Mr. Hyde kidnap Jane as Odin once again over-reacts to Thor’s affections for the mortal girl. The concluding part ‘The Power of the Thunder God’ features a major role for Balder the Braver, further integrating the “historical” and contemporary Asgards in a spellbinding saga of triumph and near-tragedy, whilst the Tale of Asgard co-opts a Greek myth (Antaeus if you’re asking) for ‘The Secret of Sigurd’.

This wonderfully economical black-and white compendium closes with the contents of Journey into Mystery #112. ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’ is a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “Who’s stronger…?” Possibly Kirby and Stone’s finest artistic moment, it details a private duel between the two super-humans that occurred during a free-for-all between The Avengers, the Sub-Mariner and the eponymous Green Goliath. The raw power of that tale is followed by ‘The Coming of Loki’, a retelling of how Odin came to adopt the baby son of Laufey, the Giant King.

These early tales of the God of Thunder show the development not only of one of Marvel’s fundamental story concepts but more importantly the creative evolution of one of the greatest imaginations in comics. Set your commonsense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures for the true secret of what makes graphic narrative a unique experience.

© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Captain America, Vol 1

Essential Captain America, Vol 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0740-1

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. Julie Schwartz had incredible success with his revised versions of the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days. A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive their superhero line in the mid 1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 (see Essential Human Torch vol.1, ISBN 0-7851-1309-6) and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. The real thing promptly surfaced in Avengers #4 and after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

That initial outing ‘Captain America’, scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby and Chic Stone is a simple fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion since only the one without superpowers is at home, and the next issue held more of the same, when ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’. ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ was insufficient when Cap invaded Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman and Cap took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby and Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounted how physical wreck Steve Rogers was selected to be the guinea pig for a new super-soldier serum only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique he was given the task of becoming a fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he was unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who blackmailed the hero into making the boy his sidekick. The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular thrillers as the heroes defeated the spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ saw the series swing into high gear as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle. ‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science in a plot to murder Winston Churchill, and the heroic duo stayed in England for ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which are very rough pencils that break down the story elements on a page) and the second part ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers artist George Tuska perform the same function. The final part (and the last wartime adventure) was ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ which added Joe Sinnott inks to the mix for a rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror weapons.

It was back to the present for Tales of Suspense #72 and Lee, Kirby and Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic adventure as a Nazi super-robot activates twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance. Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’ this masterpiece of tension and suspense perfectly demonstrated the indomitable nature of this perfect American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both the Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, in a taut 2-part countdown to disaster ending with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita (Senior). This was the first tale which had no artistic input from Jack Kirby, but he laid out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita and Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted a both a lost romance and a tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ returned Kirby to full pencils and Giacoia to the regular ink spot as Cap teamed with Nick Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis returned from the grave to menace the Free World again. He was initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but stole their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’

‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against AIM’s artificial life-form, capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim in a tale of psychological warfare. ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Ayers) and ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking action that further cemented the links between the various Marvel comics, building a shared continuity would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years.

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the earliest all-action, overwhelming odds yarns and ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling and Joe Sinnott) was a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane had his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back From the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, these last two inked by Sinnott) in a superb drama of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull.

Kirby and Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… Aim!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the hero fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing. ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ has the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four part tale that finished in issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it told of the return of long-dead Baron Zemo and an orbiting Death Ray.

‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores, who became the regular inker with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst that premier hundredth issue (how weird is that?) used the extra page length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Captain America #101-102 saw the return of the Red Skull and another awesome Nazi revenge weapon in ‘When Wakes The Sleeper!’ and ‘The Sleeper Strikes!’.

This volume concludes with an extra adventure from his actual war career. ‘Captain America and the Terror That Was Devil’s Island’ is from Captain America Comics #10, 1941, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Joe Simon.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights that his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Great, great stuff for the eternally young at heart.

© 1941, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 2000, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Daredevil Visionaries

Daredevil Visionaries 

By Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada & Jimmy Palmiotti (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-0737-1

Kevin Smith generated a lot of excitement when he was announced as the writer of the new Daredevil comic in 1998, and that transferred to high sales when the comics finally appeared. Unlike Frank Miller’s legendary tenures, Smith’s run (Volume 2, #1-8 “Guardian Devil”) wasn’t about tearing down and rebuilding as much as shining a light on dusty forgotten corners, reminding fans why they liked the character whilst presenting him to new readers.

The plot itself revolved around a young girl who believes she has given birth to a new Messiah, entrusting him, and possibly the fate of the world to the emotionally scarred and battle-weary Matt Murdock to protect them from eerie foes and the temptations of a seemingly insurmountable and pervasive evil. Despite living day to day among monsters and magicians can the Man Without Fear, a coldly logical lawyer, rationalise these events with the superhero’s deeply held Catholic beliefs? Is a different kind of evil at work here?

As a stand alone book Visionaries is a great example of an inspired idea competently delivered. Smith chooses to embrace all of the hero’s long history rather than re-tailor the hero to fit his vision, and the highly design-oriented style of art from Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti is garish but oddly appropriate to this moody tale. Seldom out of print since the first collection in 2001, this book remains a sadly rare high point in Marvel’s output of recent years.

© 2001, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man: Skin Deep

Amazing Spider-Man: Skin Deep 

By J. Michael Straczynski & Mike Deodato Jr. (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-905239-56-6

Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and family has always been important to him. Perhaps that’s because when he was a nerdy science geek at high school, he didn’t have many friends. Perhaps that’s why when one of those rare school-chums turns up begging a favour, Peter doesn’t think as long or hard as he should before acquiescing.

Uber-geek Charlie Weiderman had a worse educational experience than Parker, and the casual brutalities he experienced made him a man with no compunctions in using any method to achieve his ends. When his experiments turn him into a monster capable of almost any feat of murder, nothing will deter him from his goals. Not friends, not Parker’s family, not even Spider-Man himself!

Although sporting impressive creator credits this is a slow little tale, with lots of character-play and insights into Peter Parker’s past, but a decided lack of old fashioned Spider-action and indeed the costumed persona himself. I’m a great proponent of people over punches but even I felt the urge to shout “Get on with it!” every few pages. Also, casual readers should note that this was originally printed as Amazing Spider-Man issues #515-518, and the tactics of periodical publishing don’t always transfer conveniently to a trade paperback. It all starts with a hanging plot thread and closes on a partial cliff-hanger, so you might feel a little bit gruntled by show’s end.

© 2005, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Origin: The True Story of Wolverine

Origin: The True Story of Wolverine

By Various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-904159-07-0

Although long touted as a story that couldn’t be told, the history of such a popular character was never, ever going to remain a mystery. Wolverine captivated audiences from his earliest appearances in the X-Men comics, and apparently did it all over again in the movie versions. Thus, in a climate of declining comic book sales, finally giving him an origin was truly inevitable. Sadly, just as certain was the conviction that the event couldn’t help but be something of a disappointment.

Since I loathe story spoilers above all things, I’m going to be as vague as I can, so suffice to say that at the turn of the 19th century, 12 year old Rose is hired as the companion of sickly James Howlett, on the palatial estate of his wealthy grandfather. Among the servants she befriends an all but feral child called Logan, the abused son of a groundskeeper/general dogsbody. She settles into the daily routine quickly, but the estate is not a tranquil place.

Tragedy occurs one night as a murder-suicide destroys the stability of the gothic estate forever and Rose and the Wolverine-to-be must flee for their lives. On the run for years the pair eventually settle in a quarrying camp where the harsh conditions and physical toil rapidly mature our mutant hero. But even here the repercussions of the Howlett Estate tragedy inevitably find them leading to a final, appalling confrontation.

This is a very disappointing book. It was never going to live up to thirty years of anticipation, and the creators should applauded for ignoring the convoluted X-Men mythology to concentrate on a more primal tale in the fashion of Jack London or Joseph Conrad, but it’s a gamble that hasn’t really paid off. There’s a distinct lack of tension and no sense of revelation at all. Every character is one-dimensional, provided for a single purpose and predictably dealt with when its job is done. From the first page we know how it’s going to end and none of the characters has enough spark for a reader to emote with.

Understandably, such a “big story” needs a lot of creators so the credits are a bit convoluted. Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada and Paul Jenkins came up with the plot, which Jenkins scripted. The artwork was drawn by Andy Kubert, but any grit and edginess that this talented gentleman may have created was regrettably lost by the cloyingly heavy digital painting of Richard Isanove, whose very pretty colours have seemingly candy-coated the traumatic life-story of this most savage of heroes.

Publishing is a business, and the market always dictates what and where the stories are, but this was not what should have happened to make Wolverine. Still it is only a comic, so when someone decides to reveal the Real, True, True Real story of… we’ll all get another go at learning his secrets. Or not.

© 2001, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko with Jack Kirby

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 978-1-905239-58-0

The early years of Marvel Comics produced nothing but evergreen classics, and this cheap and cheerful softcover collection of the Spider-Man stories with cover-dates of 1964 – (issues #8-19 of the comic, plus the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual) is a wonderful way to introduce very valuable stories to the greater public in an accessible manner and at a very reasonable price. I’m not going to attempt to explain the vagaries of the US distribution system – just remember that in America the month on the cover denotes when the issue should be taken OFF sale – that’s why all the Christmas stories have February or March cover dates. This is a book for readers not collectors, okay?

The second year of the moody and misunderstood Peter Parker’s superhero career kicked off with a battle against a robot that divined his secret identity before going on a rampage at his high school, and a battle with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch (drawn by Jack Kirby but inked by Spidey’s artistic godfather Steve Ditko, who drew everything else web-based in those formative years). Closely following were the first encounters with Electro and The Enforcers as Lee and Ditko balanced costumed villains with more down to earth criminals. Doctor Octopus made a return appearance and then Mysterio, The Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter all took a bow. For added flavour – and free advertising – Lee began using guest appearances of his other heroic characters. The Hulk appeared with the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man actually teamed up with Daredevil to battle the Circus of Crime.

The growth of comics continuity can be seen here, as a storyline – innovative for the times – stretched over three episodes when the returning Green Goblin, Sandman and Enforcers seemingly made a coward of the web-spinner and not even the Human Torch could help him. It all worked out eventually, of course, and the year “concluded” – for the purposes of this book at least – with a re-presentation of the landmark, and still magnificently thrilling, battle against the ‘Sinister Six’. When a team of villains comprising Electro, Kraven, Mysterio, Vulture, Sandman and Doctor Octopus kidnap Aunt May and Peter’s girl friend Betty Brant, Spider-Man must defeat them without his Spider-powers! Also included are original pin-ups and special feature pages and the comedic short ‘How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man’.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics are quintessential comic book magic, and along with the Fantastic Four, they form the very foundation of everything Marvel. This volume is a fabulous opportunity for new readers of all ages.

© 1964, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wolverine: Wizard Masterpiece Edition

Wolverine: Wizard Masterpiece Edition

By various

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 1-905239-42-4

(A BRITISH EDITION RELEASED BY PANINI UK LTD)

Here is a great big book of mutant mayhem to introduce new readers to the world of Wolverine. Although not what I’d call masterpieces, and certainly not a section of the choicest cuts, this volume has good, solid action, lots of great art and many big name creators on board. If you are new to the X-scene this is a handy package to bring you up to speed without breaking the bank.

The first tale comes from Uncanny X-Men #139 and 140 (1980), with Chris Claremont and John Byrne at their creative peak, telling a gripping story of a reconciliation with Wolvie’s previous team, Alpha Flight that turns into a hunt for a carnivorous monster called Wendigo. This is followed by Shattered Vows (Uncanny X-Men #172-173, 1983), as the diminutive mutant prepares to marry a Japanese princess but runs afoul of prejudice, evil mutants, and the Yakuza. The excellent Paul Smith deftly underplays the art to superb effect and Claremont once again supplies the script.

Vicious Circle by Peter David and Todd McFarlane, comes from Hulk #340 (1988), and is fondly regarded by fans as one of the few times both characters truly lived up to their savage reputations, and this is followed by Ann Nocenti and John Bolton’s Hunter and Prey, originally published as a back-up strip in Classic X-Men #25 in 1988. It highlights the primitive side of Logan in a primal triangle involving a bear, an obsessive hunter, and our hero, in an arctic wilderness.

Next up is a classic tale from Uncanny X-Men #268 (1990), Madripoor Knights, a contemporary tale which also flashes back to World War II. Here a pre-claws and adamantium skeleton-ed Logan teams with Captain America and the Black Widow (sort of), whilst beating the stuffings out of arch-Nazi Baron Strucker and the ever insidious ninja gang, The Hand. Claremont’s story is illustrated by the then rising star Jim Lee.

The longest story in the book is taken from Wolverine’s own comic (vol. 1. issues # 150-153, published in 2000) as writer/artist Steve Skroce constructs an epic confrontation against insurmountable ninja odds when Wolverine has to rescue his adopted daughter from the clutches of a Yakuza gang-lord or become the unwilling weapon in a battle for underworld supremacy of Japan. Blood Debt is seventy-seven action-packed, gore filled pages that nevertheless manages to maintain enough decorum to keep an all-ages rating, something of a mutant miracle in itself.

Accompanying these tales are featurettes and commentary culled from the pages of the fan magazine Wizard, covering such diverse topics as Wolverines Greatest Foes, blueprints for his skeleton, the best and worst costumes of the last thirty years, and even “what if Wolverine had been a woman?”

© 1980, 1983, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.