Essential Daredevil, Vol 2

Essential Daredevil, Vol 2 

By Stan Lee, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-905239-1462-9

Marvel Comics built its fan base through strong and contemporarily relevant stories and art, but most importantly, by creating a shared continuity that closely followed the characters through not just their own titles but also through the many guest appearances in other comics. Such an interweaving meant that even today completists and fans seek out extraneous stories to get a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. In such an environment, series such as ‘Essential’ and DC’s ‘Showcase’ are an economical and valuable product that approaches the status of a public service for collectors.

This particular edition, reprinting the exploits of a very different Daredevil to the one popularised by Frank Miller and his successors from the 1980’s onwards, covers the period of March 1967 (#26) to January 1969 (#48), and includes the first Annual and Fantastic Four #73 where a long running storyline concluded (see what I mean about cross-collecting?).

The adventures are fairly typical 1960’s action-fodder. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose other senses over-compensate, making him a formidable acrobat and fighter, and a human lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero, he was nonetheless a popular one, due in large part to the wonderfully humanistic art of Gene Colan. He fought gangsters and a variety of super-villains, and even the occasional alien invasion. He also joked and wise-cracked his way through life, unlike the grim and moody quasi-religious metaphor he’s been seen as in latter years.

In short order then, you will find here such foes as the Stilt-Man, Masked Marauder, sight-stealing Aliens, cheap hoods, The Cobra and Mr Hyde, The Beetle, and from the Annual, the Emissaries of Evil – that’s Electro, Leapfrog, Stilt-Man, Gladiator and the Matador. After some “Secrets of DD” information pages and lots of pin-ups the crime-fighting continues with the Trapster and Doctor Doom, which all concludes in the aforementioned Fantastic Four #73, drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott.

The Unholy Three and the Exterminator are next, followed by a prolonged battle with the Jester only interrupted by a brief tiff with Captain America. A well-written change of pace featuring a blinded Viet Nam soldier shows a more human side to the adventurer and the book ends with the return of Stilt-Man for one last hurrah. Other guest stars include Thor and Spider-Man.

This is a good place to end as Stan Lee would hand over the scripting to Roy Thomas soon after this and the social turbulence that marked the end of the decade would begin to alter DD into something closer to his current archetype. But that’s another volume…

© 1967, 1968, 1969, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq 

By Karl Zinsmeister, Dan Jurgens & Sandu Florea (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0785115161

It’s always good to see Marvel venture outside its self-constructed ghetto of Proprietary Characters, rather than endlessly re-hash the names it’s already trademarked, and doubly so when it is to venture into genres that it has previously abandoned. Sadly, in some cases the question then becomes one of seeking new markets as opposed to simply looking for new resources to exploit. Comics have had a long and chequered history when it comes to militarism, ideological witch-hunting and band-wagon hopping.

Combat Zone features the “real-life accounts” of US combatants in the 2003-2004 Iraq War, although “some incidents have been combined to make for a more condensed read”, and of course names have been changed to protect, etc. etc. …

Writer Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter during the conflict so I’m sure the events are as true as he saw them but the overall feeling after reading the book was one of tedious detachment. Maybe the modern military life is one of immense boredom, spent talking to buddies and telling everyone how cool your ordnance is, interlaced with the occasional skirmish, but if such is the case it shouldn’t be in a drama-oriented comic-book.

It’s hard not to compare this series with the excellent Real War Stories produced in the late 1980s by Eclipse or even such personal visions as Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story or Don Lomax’s gruelling, compelling and, above all, informative Viet Nam Journal, perhaps because all of these take the part, and the authorial voice, of the ordinary man, and there is an implicit understanding, that though necessary, the job at hand is neither easy or fun. Even Robert Kanigher’s Sgt. Rock tales had greater verisimilitude than what’s on offer here.

In Combat Zone even when a character eventually dies, the response is so anodyne that we know nobody really cares. There is more than the hint of the Press Release about it. Often it feels like the entire comic has passed through the same Pentagon ‘fact-checker’ that news reports do. A far cry, then, from Real War Stories #1, which the US government actually attempted to suppress.

On a purely dramatic level, the problem is one of heroic stature. When two desperate guys give their lives in a dramatic, doomed attempt to stop an onslaught of high-tech juggernauts from crushing their homeland, with nothing more than an old pick-up truck and a machine gun, those ought to be the heroes, not the bad guys!

There’s nothing but platitudes in each character’s mouth here to show the reader how justified the war might be, and no mention of the disastrous early days of allied blunders or numerous friendly fire incidents. ‘Those didn’t happen where I might see them’ is not an excuse in a documentary which has been subjectively edited “to make for a more condensed read”. You don’t get to pick and choose between Dramatic Authenticity and Journalistic Veracity at will, and not expect a few hits for it.

With lacklustre art masquerading as realism from comic super-star Dan Jurgens adding to the overall dullness of the mix (is it me or are all US soldiers darned good looking fellers?) the overall response to this is one of disappointment. It felt as if the neither the creators nor the characters were in the least bit emotionally engaged. I certainly wasn’t.

© 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A History of Violence

A History of Violence 

By John Wagner & Vince Locke (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-212-6

Once again Vertigo reaps the benefits of the experimental exploits of DC’s all but defunct Paradox Press venture when another barely noticed graphic crime thriller got the big-time Hollywood seal of approval. Following on the heels of Road to Perdition, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation furthered the trend away from flashy superhero spectacular movies with this tale of small, brave people who can only be pushed so far. The film itself was nominated for a Palme D’Or at Cannes where it premiered.

Veteran British comics writer John Wagner continues his life-long explorations of human nature with the tale of an ordinary guy who loves his family and runs a diner. When two thugs try to rob the place he manages to subdue them, but that’s where his troubles begin. Seeing his picture in the news, a team of New York Wise Guys turn up, claiming that he’s someone they used to know and they’re disturbingly not keen on taking “no” for an answer.

In typical Wagner tradition, there’s as much action as mystery before the startling and grisly denouement, and the vital, edgy drawing of Vince Locke reinforces the mundane nature of the characters and settings whilst capturing the shock and disorientation as these normal lives of ordinary people are permanently disrupted.

In a time where not one comic-based blockbuster movie has materially increased the readership of the core material, perhaps a few more creators might be enticed to make comics that are to the tastes of the wider world rather than a dwindling die-hard group of unreconstructed post-adolescents. Only so many consumers can handle that fetishistic costuming and power-tripping, but any reader can be sucked in to great story-telling, as long as they’re not put off by ludicrous trappings.

A History of Violence is a tight, dramatic crime-suspense thriller, with subversively sharp visuals, strong but accessible characterisation and a memorable climax. I know, because I read it, and I might even see it eventually. That’s an order of events I urge all comic fans to emulate.

™ & © 1997 John Wagner. All Rights Reserved.
Art © 1997 Vince Locke. All Rights Reserved.

All Star Superman Vol 1

All Star Superman Vol 1 

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely with Jamie Grant (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-326-2

Older readers of the Man of Steel remember an age of weirdness, wonder, charm, hope and above all, unparalled imagination. Grant Morrison obviously remembers them too, and must miss them as much as we do.

When dwindling sales forced comics down certain editorial paths, the US mainstream went for darker, grittier tales and heroes, and a policy of following trends became mandatory. Ninjas, cyborgs, younger incarnations – all the old heroes put on new clothes as fashion dictated, abandoning their own mythologies whenever it seemed most expedient. The saddest thing is that sales kept falling anyway, and by recanting all the appurtenances of a long-lived character, they removed points of reference for any older readers who might contemplate a return.

So ‘well done’ to those companies that have repackaged their classics (such as DC’s ‘Greatest Stories’ line) for the nostalgia market, and especially for those editors that have eschewed slavish continuity as the only option and opened up key characters to broader interpretation.

When I was a nipper, Superman had outlandish adventures and was still a decent bloke. His head could be replaced by a lion’s or an ant’s and he loved playing jokes on his friends. His exploits were routinely mind-boggling and he kept a quiet dignity about him. He only shouted to shatter concrete, and not to bully villains. He was cool.

And in All Star Superman he is again. Morrison and Quitely have produced a delightful evocation of those simpler, gentler times with a guided tour of the past redolent with classic mile-markers. Superman is the world’s boy scout, Lois has spent years trying to prove Clark is the Man of Steel, Jimmy Olsen is a competent young reporter dating Lucy Lane and all of time and space know they can count on the Man of Tomorrow.

But don’t believe this is just a pastiche of past glories. Kids of all ages are better informed than we were, and there’s a strong narrative thread and sharp, witty dialogue, backed up by the best 21st century technobabble to keep our attention. A plot to kill Superman carries this tale along and there is drama and tension aplenty to season the wonderment. I can’t wait for the next volume, and that’s how it should be. It’s how I felt at the end of each issue all those years ago.

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Abbie an’ Slats, Vols 1 & 2

Abbie an’ Slats, Vols 1 & 2 

By Raeburn Van Buren (Ken Pierce Inc. 1983)
Vol 1 No ISBN
Vol 2 ISBN 0-912277-24-6

It’s practically impossible for us today to understand the power and popularity of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of the Second World War. With no television, far from universal usage of radio, and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most people, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. To consider that situation as a parallel to the modern comic scene would be like expecting those generations distant readers to only read one out of a dozen of the numerous offerings in each and every paper. Our themes of adventure and horror, superheroes and merchandising tie-ins targeting kids would seem laughably limited in comparison to the sheer variety of story and genre available then.

If we tenuously compare those papers with television schedules today you might get a more accurate flavour of the industry, the stars and the brands that blossomed at that time. One entry from that era, created by stars, which began as what we’d probably call a soap-opera, evolved into an American Classic and became one of the most fondly remembered comedy strips of all time.

Abbie an’ Slats was created by Li’l Abner creator Al Capp and he scripted it for the first ten years, after which he handed it over to his brother Elliot (Caplin) who wrote it until its end. It began as the story of dead-end kid Aubrey Eustace (understandably self–dubbed Slats) sent to live with spinster relative Abbie Scrapple, and became in turn a seminal prototype for soap comedy dramas, the whole Archie Andrews phenomenon, a heart-warming melodrama, a slice-of-life pot-boiler, a romance strip, and, with the introduction of drunken reprobate “Bathless Groggins” – father of Slat’s one true love Beckie – a comedy classic. Groggins senior had appropriated the full colour Sunday page by 1941 for his own comedic fantasist shenanigans in the grand manner of Baron Munchausen.

That’s all well and good, but what makes this strip even more special is the art.

Abbie an Slats

Raeburn Van Buren was a highly successful illustrator much in demand by such prestigious publications as the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Esquire and humour magazines such as Puck, Judge and Life. When Al Capp approached him to draw the strip, he initially declined and it took all of the writer’s legendary wiles and perseverance to lure him away from his freelance ways.

Eventually Van Buren capitulated and the strip debuted on July 7th 1937, with a Sunday page beginning January 15th 1939. The last strip was published on January 30th 1971. Van Buren, who was credited with every single page and episode, retired to Great Neck, New York.

Over the decades his spectacularly underplayed scenarios, the wonderfully rendered, evocative detail – just enough for clarity, never too much to digest – and his warmly funny, human, loving characters became part of the psyche of a nation and the fictitious town of Crabtree Corners became a pictorial synonym of small town America.

Sadly very little of this wonderful strip has been collected as yet, but the books cited herein are long overdue for reprinting and with the current wave of strip reprints and a burgeoning graphic novel market rapidly burning its way through all the good stuff to reprint, we can only hope somebody opts for quality over major names and brings this much neglected gem back to public gaze.

© 1937- 1964 United Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

Vimanarama

Vimanarama 

By Grant Morrison & Philip Bond (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-207-X

Grant Morrison’s latest modern fantasy – superbly aided and abetted by the brilliant Philip Bond – is set in and around an “open all hours” corner shop in Bradford. Ali is fretting because his arranged bride is due to arrive any moment. His future happiness is tied to a girl he has never met. He really hasn’t got time to worry about the hole that has opened up under the shop, or his brother Omar’s injuries from falling down it, or even that the baby has wandered into it and found a lost outpost of Atlantis.

He’s pretty impressed by the very capable Sophia, though. His intended wife had made her own way to the shop, and also went looking for the toddler. She was with Ali when the techno-demons who had been slumbering there escaped, intent on undoing creation, and she helped him awaken the godly Ultrahadeen. And she’s beautiful.

The problem is that the leader of these lordly heroes loves Sophia too, which might impinge on the whole saving humanity thing, as well as interfering with his now eagerly anticipated marriage. The god-like Ben Rama is really tall, really beautiful, and, let’s not forget, a god.

How the world is saved and Ali gets what he deserves proves to a gloriously exuberant romp, bright, colourful and very funny. I haven’t heard a cool media term to pigeon-hole this sort of cross culture comic with, and I’m not going to use any form of “Bollywood” derivative. You should just read this and make one up yourself. Or, if not that, you should just read this.

© 2005 Grant Morrison & Philip Bond. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 3

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 3 

By Brian Michael Bendis & many and various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1300-2

The final volume reprinting the other Spider-Man’s meet-and-greet adventures cover the last three issues of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up (#14-16) and the Ultimate Spider-Man Super Special. Terry (Strangers in Paradise) Moore illustrates Bendis’s mediocre and somewhat silly spy tale featuring the remarkably fresh-faced Black Widow, plus a cameo by Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.

The last two issues featured Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu, in a big fight story. He’s a human weapon trained since birth by his father, an evil Chinese warlord who used to be Fu Manchu. Copyright being what it is we don’t know if his evil dad is that infamous trademark anymore, since that license has long since expired but whoever he is he’s still plenty mean. It’s all lovingly rendered by Rick Mays, Jason Martin and Andy Lee.

The volume is filled out with a giant collaborative venture both in terms of guest stars and guest artists. Basically it’s a travelogue of the Ultimate Marvel Universe held together by Spider-Man examining his motives foe being a hero. If you’re not that bothered by who drew things, feel free to skip the next paragraph and jump to the summing up.

In a fairly ultimate jam session, a number of creators all drew a slice of this story. In order of printing, they were Alex Maleev, Dan Brereton, John Romita Sr. & Al Milgrom, Frank Cho, Jim Mahfood, Scott Morse, Craig Thompsom, Michael Avon Oeming, Jason Pearson, Sean Phillips, Mark Bagley & Rodney Ramos, Bill Sienkiewicz, P. Craig Russell, Jacen Burrows & Walden Wong, Leonard Kirk & Terry Pallot, Dave Gibbons, Michael Gaydos, James Kochalka, David Mack, Brett Weldele, Ashly Wood and Art Thibert illustrating cameos from Blade the Vampire Hunter, Elektra, Daredevil, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Human Torch, the Ultimates, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D., X-Men, Wolverine and the Punisher.

Although not the edgiest or most powerful of volumes in respect of story-telling, the brave artistic choices in this collection make it an art connoisseur’s delight, and of course most comics fans will love all the pretty hitting and kicking.

© 2002, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 2

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 2 

By Brian Michael Bendis & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1299-5

Probably the best of the three collections from the short lived (16 issues) Ultimate Marvel Team-Up series that introduced the re-worked Marvel Universe characters to the audiences then latching on to the stripped-down web-spinner and Mutant franchises.

The stories originally appeared in issues #9-13 of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, all scripted by Bendis and feature a staggeringly innovative selection of comics stylists on the art chores. First up is the madcap Jim Mahfood, whose unique interpretation of the Fantastic Four – not to mention the never-so-wacky Skrulls – is a triumph of insanity.

Hard on those heels is a bleak tale of sewer monsters and family betrayal guest-starring the Macabre Man-Thing, illustrated by John Totleben and Ron Randall. A return bout with Wolverine and the X-Men comes next, courtesy of Chynna Clugston-Major. All these young heroes met during a bad day hanging at the Mall, in a refreshingly combat-free escapade, and the volume ends with Ted McKeever’s two-part Dr Strange tale as the son of Earth’s greatest Magician joins the wall-crawler in a charmingly odd multi-dimensional romp, loosely based on the Lee-Ditko classic that appeared in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965).

The refreshing willingness to play with the characters and the creative fourth wall lent this series a much-needed spontaneity that eased a great deal of the tedium that should have occurred whilst reintroducing 40 years worth of characters to an audience that most pundits were sure they were already painfully familiar with them. And stylish funny engrossing stories will always find an appreciative audience.

© 2001, 2002, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 1

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up Vol 1 

By Brian Michael Bendis & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0807-6

When Marvel rebooted their most popular characters into the more contemporary –some might say fashionable – ‘Ultimate’ universe where readers could jump on without having to worry about thirty plus years of intensive continuity, initial sales seemed to show that the theory was sound. So when X-Men and Spider-Man were joined by a Team-up title some pundits were heard to go, ‘Hang on a minute…’

There seems to be an unspoken belief about super-heroes. Not only should they face super-villains, but they should invariably encounter other super do-gooders. There can not be only one. Thus we have this series, and credit where credit’s due, the idea of using alternative cartoonists as the art side of the creative equation rather than mainstream artists rescued from potential disaster and assured mediocrity.

Reprinting issues #1-5 of the monthly magazine, this volume begins with a run-of-the-mill first meeting between our arachnid star and Wolverine, saved by the wonderful art of Matt Wagner. Sabretooth is the nominal villain of this piece.

From the second and third issues, Phil Hester and Ande Parks, who seem equally at home with independent properties such as The Coffin or The Wretch as with mainstream heroes like Green Arrow, illustrate Bendis’ stripped down, hi-octane introduction of the Ultimate Hulk. Once again a back to basics approach is used as Spidey finds himself more in tune with the monster than with the callous army types hunting it.

Closing the book, Mike Allred makes the pictures as Iron Man is re-invented for the modern consumer in a tale of corporate intrigue and international skulduggery. As with all Ultimate stories, there’s a very high explosion and collateral damage quota. This story was originally printed as #5-6 of the comic book.

It must be tricky trying to remake old and loved characters while they’re still actually being published elsewhere. There’s no narrative distance, and the unwelcome comparisons must begin immediately and you don’t have the luxury of enough pages to cement your version with the readers. In this case most of the stories don’t quite sell it, but the art is enough to make the stories worth a look.

© 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sea Princess Azuri

Sea Princess Azuri 

By Erica Reis (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59816-401-5

This charming fantasy follows the coming of age adventures of a regal daughter of the Oceans who is reaching maturity and therefore sadly compelled to accept some pretty odious responsibilities – such as marry a foreign prince to end a war.

I’m sure this all sounds like pretty standard storybook fare so far, but when you take into account that Sea Princess Azuri is a mermaid, half girl, half Orca (that would be a Killer Whale to you or me), that her friend and bodyguard harbours secret feelings for her, and that the Prince she must marry (half man, half Eel, by the way) is a sneaky, slave owning creep with a secret agenda of his own, the potential for a real rollicking adventure is pretty high.

Erica Ries draws beautifully and her undersea world is both whimsical and fully fleshed, whilst her modernistic take on the classical fairytale scenario makes for a charming and readily approachable read. I look forward to future volumes, and so, I suspect, will you.

© 2006 Erica Reis and TOKYOPOP Inc. All Rights Reserved.