Sunday 23 March 2014

Ultimate Avengers: Crime and Punishment

The bad news with second series of Ultimate Avengers is that artist Carlos Pacheco was not involved. It’s a great shame as he’d proven a worthy successor to Bryan Hitch, his style proving a much better fit for the series than Joe Madureira’s murky work had back with Ultimates 3. The good news is that he was replaced by Leinil Yu. His scratchy pencil work is a far cry from Pacheco’s smooth efforts but proves a good fit for what writer Mark Millar tosses into this story.

This is the book that introduces the Ultimate universe versions of Punisher and Ghost Rider. Punisher is written as an even less forgiving man than his regular continuity counterpart. We’re told he has no trouble executing kids and harmless henchmen and are shown him doing so in decidedly gruesome (for Marvel) ways. His motivations remain the same: he’s a vigilante dedicated to wiping wrongdoers off the streets using his own brand of morals and ethics, all spurred by the death of his family at the hands of gangsters.

Ghost Rider’s origin is fairly similar too. He remains a young motorbike enthusiast who’s sold his soul in exchange for the resurrection and ensured happiness of a loved one. It’s rare in a Marvel origin story in that it doesn’t feature weird science, although the soul-selling clearly marks it as something of the comics realm, obvs. Yu handles the task of pencilling an eerie, soulless flaming skull well. As much as I liked his work I’m not sure Pacheco would have done as good a job.

In addition to Punisher, who’s kitted out with a supersuit emblazoned with his skull emblem, the Avengers also recruit Tyron Cash. He’s a Cambridge professor turned gangland boss who was once Bruce Banner’s mentor but is now a crime lord. Something about the character seems forced. It could be his often excruciating dialogue (a rare example of Millar’s standard approach steering him wrong) or it could be that he’s blackmailed into joining the team with the threat of his current life being revealed to a wife and son who think him dead and that the sequence never feels especially believable. With Punisher and Ghost Rider having similar, and superior, things going on Cash feels like overkill.

The villain of the piece doesn’t become clear until a few issues have gone by. The first pages of issue one could lead someone to believe it’s going to be Punisher. For a while after that it looks like Ghost Rider. In the end we discover it’s Satan… or possibly a cabal of devil worshippers led by the Vice President of the United States. It depends on your perspective.

Something that could be overlooked with Ultimate Avengers’ second series is that a lot of what happens is being set up for use in the third and fourth volumes. Punisher goes on the run at the end of this volume but returns later. Nerd Hulk and Black Widow interact with The Spider (the Spider-man in a tank from the first volume) and it’s revealed he’s psychic, and implied that he, like Captain America, has a fondness for daytime TV. Nicky Fury and Gregory Stark are kept in the background, the implication being that they’re scheming away on their own personal plans. Which would again play into later volumes.

While this story doesn’t quite hit the heights of New Generation and comes nowhere near The Ultimates first or second series it’s still a very good action comic. Mark Millar has never been better than when writing for Marvel’s Ultimate line.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Nextwave: Agents of HATE

Warren Ellis has a history of writing what are essentially creator-owned titles in established shared universes. He did it with Stormwatch, The Authority and Planetary in the Wildstorm universe. He did it with Excalibur and other associated X-titles in Marvel. And he did it with Nextwave.

Nextwave was written at a time when Ellis was working exclusively for Marvel. He's said that during this period he felt he was being paid to service Marvel's vast back catalogue of characters and concepts. Which is a fair argument to make. I wish Marvel would try their hand at creating a new batch of heroes and villains but this approach is a good alternative. Ellis selected a handful of barely used characters, stuck them together as a team and pitted them against a batch of equally barely used enemies (and new enemies with very clear links to established ones). It's a decent substitute for entirely new creations.

The characters in question were Elsa Bloodstone, a monster hunter who'd appeared in her own limited series before spiralling into obscurity; explosion-happy mutant Tabitha Smith; Monica 'Photon' Rambeu, who can transform herself into any form of energy on the magnetic spectrum (it’s about as interesting to see used in a comic about as it sounds); and android Aaron Stack (formerly Machine Man). They're joined by new creations The Captain, who has the standard flight and super strength combo, and recurring villain Dirk Anger. Through his usual snarky dialogue, a strong reliance on humour and a series of threats that are either inspired by the Lee and Kirby era or Saturday morning cartoons Ellis writes what is one of his best pieces of work.

The tone of the book is not dissimilar to The Authority: the aim is to have a fun comic that plays on the standard tropes of superhero titles on the shelves. But while Authority had serious moments and global level threats Nextwave retains its humour at all times, never trying to be anything more than amusing comic, and problems that are intended to be outlandish more than world-threatening. Ellis deliberately wrote Nextwave to be as shallow as possible, saying that emotional arcs and character development are foreign to comics. I think there is a place for these things but Ellis is right that they've become overused. More comics could get away with having a gang of supes smacking a giant robot about.

The premise is designed around this. We're told that the Nextwave group have gone rogue from former employers HATE (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) after finding out that they're backed financially by the Beyond Corporation, a former terrorist cell. Using a stolen business plan the team travel around the US hunting out Beyond's UWMDs (Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction). These UWMDs take such forms as a genetically engineered, Transformers-inspired robot, an army of samurais, various floating cities, and sixties fave Fin Fang Foom.

Stuart Immonen probably deserves a mention at this point. I'm sure most artists at Marvel would be able to draw the things Ellis thinks up for Nextwave, but I don't think anyone could have done quite as good a job. He gets the right blend of action and fun.

It's a simplistic approach but one that allows Nextwave to simply be enjoyable. There are no Big Ideas or underlying messages, it's designed just to be a fun read. It helps that Ellis amuses himself with a letters page and a Q&A segment at the start of each issue, the latter of which is there to get new readers up to speed but features minor alterations each issue for regular readers.

Nextwave was originally going to be written for twelve issues by Ellis and then get passed on to a new writer. For whatever reason that didn't happen and the series wrapped up as its initial creative duo left. I doubt anyone could have made the book work as Ellis did so it's probably a blessing in disguise that this happened. A return would be welcome, but only written by Ellis and ideally drawn by Immonen. For anyone who's enjoyed the initial stretch of The Authority and Planetary (and why wouldn't you, both are great) this series will go down a treat.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Deadpool: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Into its third volume the Deadpool MAX! series continues to be one of the best things Marvel are putting onto the shelves of comic shops. But it’s for a different reason than in the first two volumes (read about those here and here). While those books succeeded by emphasising Deadpool’s comedy, something which hasn’t been done right enough during the character’s twenty-plus year history, the third succeeds by exploring Deadpool’s more tragic elements.

It was something that could have failed. The title had been set up as something funny and so that’s what people had come to expect from it. But writers Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn do such good exploring Deadpool’s history with Weapon X, and the stolen memories and deformed cancer patient sufferings that come with that, that you find yourself swept along.

In hindsight they were making readers care about Deadpool during their first two volumes too. But because they were doing it with humour, something you’d expect from the character and his titles anyway, it wasn’t noticeable. Also, you don’t tend to read something funny and think to yourself “yes, I am beginning to care about this character.” They’re a talented pair of writers.

There are still laughs though. Even when Deadpool finds himself fighting through North Korean concentration camps alongside deformed X-Men clone experiments he’s given wises to crack. But it’s the first two issues of the volume that are home to most of the laughs. The first is once again told as a flashback. It takes place in the seventies and sees Deaders teaming up with Iron First and Power Man to take on The White Man. Every joke you could expect with a villain who’s chosen that name is used, usually by or within earshot of Power Man. It’s gloriously silly, and a great start to the collection. It also helps to balance out the more grim surroundings of the rest of the volume.

Much was made before the arc started coming out as singles of Wolverine and Captain America’s involvement. While they’re used well and there’s a logical reason for their team-up with Deadpool they do at times feel a little surplus to requirements, like they’ve been added to the title to encourage crossover readership. Both are well written though. Cap in particular. He’s a character I don’t usually care for (which can’t just be because I’m not American) and it was nice to see him believably presented as a compassionate, caring man instead of the military genius poster boy he tends to be in various Avengers titles.

The new art of Declam Shalvey takes some getting used but it’s fine once you do. Even if you’re not keen on it it can be overlooked because the writing is so strong. Posehn and Duggan continue to be the best writers to ever work on a Deadpool title. And this title continues to be one of the greatest successes of Marvel’s NOW! initiative.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Locke & Key: Alpha & Omega

I don’t usually put spoiler warnings here but I’m making an exception with this. Locke & Key is a series that is at its best when it has the ability to shock and surprise. As such I’d firmly suggest reading the first five volumes before checking out what I have to say below. I won’t mention anything specific that happens in this collection, but I can’t make the same promise about the first five. You’ve been warned.

Alpha and Omega had a lot to achieve. As Locke & Key’s final (regular) arc it had to provide fitting resolutions for the main cast, explain the origins of the otherworldly Lovecraftian soul-stealers, give the dastardly Dodge his comeuppance, and dish out a few more facts about the mythology of the series. It also had to live up to the high standard set by volumes one to five and be generally compelling.

It was a tall order but the series did at least have seven issues to tell its story in. That was one more than normal.

Happily Locke & Key here gets the ending it deserved. Joe Hill’s inventive streak is alive and well, firing out revelations and one or two final keys. His knack for writing empathetic characters is as apparent as ever, something easily overlooked with a series with such a wonderfully inventive central concept. Tyler and Bode-Dodge are particular highlights. The oldest Locke child has been taken from an impulsive, angry teenager grieving over his father’s death into a young man who thinks about and considers his actions across the course of the series. The way he’s written here shows how good a job Hill’s done at progressing him, and it was so natural that it wasn’t immediately noticeable.

Dodge, still wearing the body of Bode, is impressive for an entirely different reason. As the character in the know he’s the one who gets all the infodumps and monologues. It’s information most readers will have been waiting to get for a long time and so needed to be included. It could have been forced and unnatural but Hill manages to make it compelling and natural dialogue. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

Gabriel Rodriguez is just as on form as his creative partner. The page which shows Dodge talking about bringing armies through the black gate, surrounded by at first dozens and then just a few possessed humans, is particularly good. It hints at the key powers we’ve never seen at the same time as creating an interesting visual for what would otherwise be a boring bit of prattle. Rodriguez is just as important when it comes to making those moments worthwhile as Hill.

It was the final additions to the mythology I was looking forward to most, being someone more interested in ideas than plot when reading comics. I wasn’t disappointed. Every plot gap you could want filled in is and the motives of the horrors from beyond are satisfyingly single-minded and depraved. Hill does his creation justice.

But with all of this said it was in many ways the story that mattered the most here. In addition to a fantastic concept Locke & key had given us a great story told in perfectly judged instalments across its previous five volumes. It all could have fallen apart in this volume had the story not delivered the proverbial goods. But it does. There’s a climactic battle with a logical reason for happening, Dodge meets an unpleasant end, and Ty gets one last farewell with his dad. What happens to Bode makes sense but it’s not something I’ll comment on here. The series needs to have some surprises for you to discover yourselves.

All in all Alpha & Omega is a great end to a great series. Thank you Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez for giving us one of the best written series comicdom has ever had. What could have been a wonderful idea milked endlessly was instead something to look forward to and savour. It’s something that can be returned to again and again. It’s a fantastic accomplishment.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Dial H (The Complete Series)


When I first started this blog I wrote about the first four issues of Dial H. You can read the full thing here but I summed up by saying that Dial H had been one of the surprise hits of the New 52 relaunch and was one of the most inventive and enjoyable comic books available.

A brief refresher for those who've forgotten or were unaware to begin with. Dial H begins as a story about Nelson Jent, an overweight fella who discovers a magic phonebox near his flat (apartment, whatves) that can turn people into superheroes for a limited time. It began as a reboot of old title Dial H For Hero, designed only to play a minor and peripheral part in DC's New 52 event-slash-crossover-slash-reboot.

The old title featured protagonist Robby Reed getting into scrapes that could only be solved via use of the phonebox (it was a simpler, less demanding time for comic writers). China Mieville, author of the New 52 edition, took a different approach. Instead of a weekly adventure approach he wrote a long-running plot that involved alternate universes, reality-eating monstrosities, and, fittingly but surprisingly, the history of telephones. It was often difficult to read but in hindsight that was only because Mieville was writing each issue as a chunk of a whole. When the first six issues were done they told their own satisfying story that made sense, though there were obviously some threads left dangling. With Mieville being a novelist this was to be expected.

And that was just the first six issues. After that Mieville began focusing on what really interested him: the origins of the phonebox. He took the relatively simple idea of a phonebox that gives superpowers to ordinary people (something I suspect original creators Jim Mooney and Dave Wood lifted from Superman) and created an entire mythology around them. It's staggering how much detail Mieville manages to pack in about the history of the dials. He works in an otherworldly war, phone lines as another plane of existence, and multiple new dials, as well as addressing the question of where the dialled superheroes actually come from. It's an incredible achievement not only to have thought of everything he has bit to have written it in a way that seems fluid and natural. It could easily have been a case of continuous and boring infodumping. Mieville writes a story that’s fascinating and enjoyable, something that can be appreciated for its invention, its humour and story.

The artists who worked on the series warrant a mention too. Mateus Santolouco drew the first six issues (numbered zero to five) and did just as much as Mieville to establish the tone of the book with his grubby, dingy backstreets and bright, colourful and charismatic superheroes. Fill in artist David Lapham did a fine job and was replaced permanently by Alberto Ponticelli. He was more in line with the regular DC artist, someone who draws action sequences and dynamic poses, but he also understood the quirky nature of Dial H. In particular he triumphed with Open Window Man and The Centipede, strange characters who could easily have lost a lot of their impact with the wrong artist. Brian Boland provided a cover for each of the series’ issues. They were predictably excellent.

Sadly DC is apparently not a company willing to fund satisfying creativity. Dial H didn't get good enough sales and so was cancelled after seventeen issues. As DC is a company that makes more than enough money from its big titles, merchandise and films I think they could have allowed for a title that lost them money but was a creative success. In the long run it probably would have paid off for them as trade paperback and digital sales could have recouped cash in the long term.

Apparently it wasn’t worth keeping around even for that. They did at least have the good grace to grant Mieville time to wrap things up and allocated him an extra-long final issue. The reduced time resulted in a truncated conclusion (I suspect far longer would have been spent exploring the concept of various other dials had the book continued) but it did at least get to end. So many inventive series don't even get that.

Although it didn't go on for as long as Mieville would probably have liked Dial H is still something worth treasuring. It's a clever, imaginative read that's uncompromising in its pacing but knows where it’s going. It is one of Mieville’s greatest accomplishments.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Ultimate Avengers: Next Generation

Both series of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates were well received by those who read them. They reworked the origins of Marvel’s premier superteam for a modern audience and told mature episodic stories. They are amongst the best comics written since the turn of the millennium. Not even the horrible misfire that was Jeph Loeb’s Ultimates 3 could ruin them.

In 2008 Marvel decided to shake up their Ultimate line with a big crossover apocalypse event dubbed Ultimatum. The line’s credibility had already taken a battering with the Ultimate Power story but Ultimatum was worse. It was designed as a reboot of the whole line. It achieved that goal, with all ongoing titles either being cancelled or rebranded with new numbering, but also delivered an incredibly boring story that insulted fans and made no sense to new readers.

One good thing did come out of the reboot though: Mark Millar returned to write more stories using some of the characters he’d used in The Ultimates. Confusingly this new book was dubbed Ultimate Comics: The Avengers. The Ultimates were an Ultimate universe version of the Avengers, whilst the Ultimate universe’s Avengers were a black-ops S.H.I.E.L.D. team. It’s a minor detail and what that doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things but, well, it’s always seemed like Marvel made a choice with the name.

Poor choice of title aside it was a promising start. Millar had proven skilled at spinning compelling modern day superhero yarns that fused politics, history and pseudo-science with traditional superheroic action. With access to all the characters he’d written so well and a promise that he would be using ideas he’d originally planned for further Ultimate series it looked like Marvel were on to a winner.

The first six issue series, subtitled Next Generation, saw Nick Fury rehired by S.H.I.E.L.D. (after some time spent in an alternate universe he’d been involved in trying to destroy) and tasked with bringing in a rogue Captain America. Aside from those two the only other established character in the series is Hawkeye. He still sports the strange redesign insisted on by Jeph Loeb (it makes him look more serious, allegedly) but is written well again. He’s no longer the strange suicide-obsessed killing machine he became in Ultimates 3.

The new characters are Codename: Nerd Hulk, a good natured guy with Hulk’s body and Bruce Banner’s mind; Fury’s ex-wife Monica Chang as a new Black Widow; Insect Queen from the villainous Liberators team the Ultimates battled in the Grand Theft America arc, here renamed Red Wasp; Colonel Rhodes, who has the most advanced Iron Man suit on the planet; and Gregory Stark, the tee total, amoral brother of Tony who regards his brother as a feeble-minded disappointment. Written here it just seems like a list of ideas, continuity references and inverted regulars. Millar writes them with humour and makes them as believable as any Marvel character needs to be.

Even though he’s on the run Cap is at the centre of the story. The opening issue shows him discovering that he has a son. And not just any son. A son who is just as physically, mentally and tactically gifted as him. It’s the Red Skull.

Ultimate Red Skull is not a superhuman created during the Third Reich. He’s an American born to Cap’s girlfriend Betty and taken to a US military base as a baby. His escape at the age of seventeen, during which he slaughtered hundreds of employees, is shown, establishing how formidable an opponent Skull is.

The success of the book lies in the way Millar melds his ideas with a compelling plot. His naturalistic dialogue doesn’t hurt either. By the end of issue six you know what everyone’s motivations are and what they hope to gain from their black-ops work. Well, mostly. Gregory Stark is left a distant and shifty enigma. And the Spider-man sitting inside a glass tank inside S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Triskelion HQ is a complete mystery.

Artist Carlos Pacheco is excellent. It’s disappointing he didn’t get to return to work on any of the other three volumes of Ultimate Avengers. His knack for drawing action sequences was a boon for the series. With Next Generation Ultimate Avengers gets off to a strong start and shows that Mark Millar is still the best thing to have happened to Marvel’s Ultimate line. Definitely recommended reading.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a programme with a lot of potential. Okay, the big name superheroes and villains may be inaccessible because the rights have either been sold to film studios or because Marvel’s holding them in reserve for future projects, but the seventy-year-old fictional universe is a big place. There are dozens of minor characters that could be plucked from obscurity and made into a relevant and enjoyable part of a modern day TV series. How about Wonderman or Mr Immortal or Photon or Tigra?

There are plenty of oddball plots and series that are never going to be converted for the silver screen. Delving into Marvel’s Essential collections would turn up plenty of material. A look at Jim Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. work would be a good idea too. In fact I think the creative types working on the show have a great deal more freedom than those working on Marvel film projects for Fox, Sony or Marvel themselves.

The problem the show has is that this potential has come nowhere close to being lived up to. The show is too serious, too po-faced, too concerned with being seen as gritty and relatable. Everything from the drab stories to the cynically written and-or boring cast of characters demonstrates this. It’s a Joss Whedon show so I understand we’re going to have snarky nerds and Kung Fu lovin’ women but that doesn’t mean that’s all we have to have.

Agent Coulson is possibly the worst offense. Beyond the central mystery of how he was resurrected after death and the clumsy (and frequent) references to his time in Tahiti (mysteries I have no interest in hearing the resolution to by the way) there’s nothing to the character. As a recurring minor character in films he was fine. As a central figure on a TV show he falls apart. His motivations are supposed to be a combination of enigmatic and mysterious, his lines droll, but he’s just tedious and uninteresting. In fairness he’s the one character that had to be included as he provides the link between the films and the show but that’s no reason to make him a chore to watch.

A sense of grittiness and overly-tense characters are things that concern too many drama shows. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would make a greater impact if it embraced a sense of fun and tried to impress viewers with a sense of wonder. Grittiness can be seen any drama show. Fun and wonder cannot. S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organisation tasked with protecting the world from aliens, magic, tyrants, and errant superheroes. There’s a lot that could be done with the premise, but those in charge seem reticent to embrace that.

Episode four, Eye Spy, started in the right way. It depicted dozens of grey suit-wearing men marching in unison through public places clutching briefcases, their faces covered in red masks. The reason for it happening, when it was revealed, was boring, but the visual was both something different and compelling. If the show could dream up similarly intriguing images and marry them to plots that deserve them then it would be on the right track.