Uncanny Avengers: Rogue is grumpy

If you have been reading Uncanny Avengers, written by Rich Remender and published by Marvel Comics, you are no doubt aware that one of the ongoing subplots deals with the tension between reluctant teammates Rogue and the Scarlet Witch.  Rogue is carrying a grudge, angry that Wanda, during her recent period of madness, cast her reality-warping “No more mutants” spell and nearly wiped out mutant-kind. As far as Rogue is concerned, this set into motion the chain of events that eventually led to Charles Xavier’s death during the AvX crossover.

There is, of course, a hell of a lot more going on in Uncanny Avengers: the Red Skull grafting Xavier’s brain onto his own, time traveling Avengers arch-foe Kang attempting to alter history in his favor by abducting the so-called “Apocalypse Twins” in their infancy, the efforts by the now-adult Twins to derail Kang’s plans and assure mutant supremacy of the Earth, the tension between Havok and Captain America over who is the actual leader of the “Avengers Unity Squad,” Cap’s disapproval of Wolverine’s wet works activities when he was leading X-Force, the debate over whether or not mutants ought to assimilate into humanity or remain apart.  Remender is juggling a heck of a lot of balls right now.  I read Uncanny Avengers #9 a few days ago, and once again I cannot wait for the next issue to come out.

But, all that aside, getting back to Rogue, I had a revelation of sorts.  It concerns John Cassaday, who illustrated the first four issues of Uncanny Avengers and remained as the cover artist for subsequent issues.  There was a quality to Cassaday’s depiction of Rogue which reminded me of something.  That sour expression he gave her just looked sooooo darn familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Until yesterday, that is, when suddenly it hit me:

Rogue and Grumpy Cat

Yep, Rogue has been walking around the pages of Uncanny Avengers with an expression on her face that matches the famed scowl of Tarder Sauce, aka Grumpy Cat, the internet’s grumpiest cat, the feline who launched a thousand memes. I can’t believe I didn’t catch it before.  At this rate, next thing you know, Rogue will be telling us “I was an Avenger once. It was horrible.”

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests.  Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.

I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton.  But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.

At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before.  This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.

Kneel before Zod... oh, wait, wrong comic book company!
Kneel before Zod… oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events.  An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.

As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers.  Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god.  Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes.  They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him.  Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.

Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324.  Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!

Fantastic Four 323 pg 2 Mantis
Mantis wasn’t at all happy after she got another parking ticket.

Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna.  Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character.  First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.”  Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him.  Yipes!  Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.

Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away.  The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial.  The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis.  Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers.  However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo.  At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.

As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close.  The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive.  Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with.  The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.

Fantastic Four 325 pg 15
A potted view of plant politics.

The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.”  Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body.  A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.

As I said, strange!  But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing.  Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts.  Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.

In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial.  He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest.  I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers.  Personally, though, I enjoyed it.

Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four.  At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.

Fantastic Four 324 cover
Talk about hanging by a thread.

The artwork on these issues is also very good.  Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe SinnottFF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325.  All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.

I also have to point out the lettering.  John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues.  Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.

The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.

Fantastic Four 324 pg 17 Kang
Kang’s weaponry courtesy of the BBC prop department.

Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually looked at them in over a decade.  In the intervening time I finally had the opportunity to read the entirety of Englehart’s original epic Mantis storyline via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB.  Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325.  That said, they are still very strange comic books.  But, of course, strange in a good way.

Comic book reviews: Uncanny Avengers #1-5

One of the few Marvel Comics titles I am currently following is Uncanny Avengers.  For years now, I have wanted to see a book that established some sort of ties between the Avengers and X-Men teams.  It never made sense to me that Captain America, who fought against the Nazis during World War II and who witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust, would just stand idly by while mutants were persecuted.  I’d always hoped that at some point Cap would actively recruit mutants to join the Avengers and publicly speak out in support of acceptance for the mutant community.

Uncanny Avengers #1
Uncanny Avengers #1

In the aftermath of the recent Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, we finally see Cap taking steps in this direction.  We are told that, following the events of AvX, fear & hatred towards mutants is at an all-time high.  This spurs Cap to form an “Avengers Unity Division” that demonstrates humans and mutants working side-by-side to protect the Earth.  He approaches long-time X-Factor leader Havok to head up the team.

While Havok and Cap are busy organizing this new Avengers squad, the Red Skull resurfaces.  He steals the body of Professor Xavier, who died during AvX.  The Skull somehow succeeds in implanting Xavier’s brain into his own, gaining the Professor’s formidable telepathic powers.  The Skull then sets out to ignite a race war between humans and mutants.  Following in his mentor Hitler’s footsteps, the Skull identifies a vulnerable minority who can be used as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills, in this case mutants instead of Jews.  The Skull utilizes his stolen telepathy to magnify bigotry against mutants, hoping to rally humanity to his side.

Just as I have wanted to see more of a connection between the Avengers and X-Men, so too have I long hoped that the Red Skull would one day become a major foe of the entire Avengers, not just Captain America.  And given his bigoted nature, I’m surprised that the Skull never really had any major encounters with the X-Men.  So I certainly appreciated the set-up of the first four issues of Uncanny Avengers, pitting an all-star line-up of Avengers and X-Men against the Red Skull and his bizarre lackeys, the so-called “S-Men.”

It is an interesting concept, having the Red Skull gain the awesomely powerful mental abilities of Professor Xavier.  On more than one occasion it has been shown that Xavier had the ability to affect literally millions of other minds.  However, he was a very principled individual, and usually refused to use his abilities for selfish ends.  Even so, on occasion Xavier did use his mental powers in morally questionable acts.  So, the question arises, what would then happen if those same abilities were gained by someone with no moral scruples, a man considered the human embodiment of evil, the Red Skull?  Scary thought, isn’t it?

It's a Red Skull kind of world.
It’s a Red Skull kind of world.

On writing duties for Uncanny Avengers is Rick Remender.  I’ve been a fan of his past independent work, such as Black Heart Billy, Crawl Space: XXXombies, and Sea of Red.  I haven’t really been following much of his material at Marvel.  Uncanny Avengers is certainly an interesting blending of traditional superhero action and Remender’s bizarre sensibilities.  In particular, having the Red Skull graft Xavier’s brain to his own stands out as a very Remender-ish twist. The oddball S-Men also are quite characteristic of his style.

One complaint I did have concerning the first four issues is that they did seem rather padded out.  The opening arc with the Red Skull might perhaps have worked better as a more tightly plotted three part story.

Issue #5 was an improvement as, in the days after the Skull’s attack, the Avengers Unity Division work to properly organize.  There is quite a lot of tension going on between the various members, and Remender does a good job examining these conflicts.

Havok is supposed to be the leader of this team, yet already we have seen his opinions and strategies being questioned by Captain America, the very man who appointed him.  At times Cap has a tendency to take charge uninvited, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between him and Havok plays out in future issues.

Okay, so who's in charge here, anyway?
Okay, so who’s in charge here, anyway?

There’s also a great deal of tension between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch.  Rogue blames Wanda for previously having tried to de-power mutant-kind, an act that set in motion a series of events which eventually led indirectly to Xavier’s death.  Rogue sees the Witch as a potential menace waiting to explode.  One of the main reasons why Rogue is sticking around is to keep an eye on the Witch, in case she eventually needs to be taken down.  This is an interesting reversal of status, because years ago Rogue was the outsider and one-time enemy with out-of-control powers who was reluctantly accepted by a suspicious X-Men team who kept a wary eye on her.  One would think Rogue, knowing what it is like to be in that position, would realize the hypocrisy of distrusting Wanda.  But, of course, that’s the thing about people: they are flawed & inconsistent like that.

The art on the first four issues is courtesy of John Cassaday.  He is a very talented artist who does amazing work.  The problem is he is also quite slow.  That resulted in a few delays in these issues coming out.  From what I understand, going forward Cassaday is sticking around as the cover artist, but the interior art will be handled by Daniel Acuna.

I liked the guest art team of Olivier Coipel & Mark Morales on issue #5.  Coipel previously penciled the main Avengers book about a decade ago.  I really enjoyed his work back then on the “Red Zone” arc which featured, yep, the Red Skull.  It’s too bad the Skull wasn’t in this issue, because I’d have liked to have seen Coipel draw him again.  Perhaps in a future issue?  As for Morales, he is an inker who has done consistently good, solid work in the past on such artists as Jim Cheung, Steve McNiven, and Leinil Francis Yu.  He seems to be well paired with Coipel here.  If Acuna needs someone to spot him on a future issue, I hope that editor Tom Brevoort will call in Coipel & Morales again.

The one thing I don’t like about Uncanny Avengers is the price tag.  Yep, four bucks is a bit steep.  Okay, yeah, I don’t mind as much having to fork over $3.99 for something published by Image or IDW or Dark Horse.  Those guys are smaller publishers, so they have to charge more to pay the bills.  But Marvel is owned by Disney, and this is one of their flagship titles.  They really do not need to be asking that extra dollar in order to turn a profit.  That is why I buy so little from Marvel nowadays, that $3.99 price they have on so many of their titles.

Uncanny Avengers is the exception, because I really like Remender’s writing, I definitely enjoy the characters he’s using, and I really want to see where this series goes.  I reached the end of issue #5 and thought to myself “Damn it, what happens next? Oh, hell, I actually have to wait a month to find out? Damn!”  I guess that’s the mark of a good book.

Comic book reviews: Captain America & Hawkeye #629-632

I never thought I’d see the day when I would decide to drop Captain America from my monthly comic book reading list.  As I’ve said before, I am a huge fan of the character, and I have not missed an issue of the series since 1989.  But I have just gotten weary of Ed Brubaker’s decompressed writing on the main series.

The second Captain America ongoing book has the original numbering but now features a rotating co-star each story arc.  I believe that, to tie in with the Avengers movie, Marvel is going through the team membership.  Hawkeye was featured in issue #s 629-632, and Iron Man comes on-board next month.  Unfortunately, I’ve likewise been underwhelmed by the last few issues of this title.

There are also financial considerations at play here.  Right now I can’t really afford to purchase too many comic books.  I would much rather save my funds for Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Supreme, and a few other independent titles that I’m enjoying more than the majority of the material from Marvel or DC.

Anyway, what exactly did I think of Captain America & Hawkeye #s 629-632?  Well, to be fair, this four issue arc written by Cullen Bunn did have a lot of potential.  Cap and Hawkeye are in the San Andreas Mountains, searching for a missing group of environmental activists.  The two Avengers come across a government research facility named Damocles which is acting in an extremely secretive manner.  Despite a hostile reception from Damocles, Cap and Hawkeye continue their search in the caves underneath the base.  There they encounter an army of reanimated dinosaur skeletons, brought back to life by an insidious parasitic life form, one that is seeking to expand its control to living human beings.

Captain America & Hawkeye #632
Captain America & Hawkeye #632

Bunn is drawing on some near-forgotten subplots here, specifically material written by Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo in the early 1980s.  Bunn does put it to good use, though, giving those decades-old storylines from Ms. Marvel and ROM Spaceknight an interesting twist.  As a fan of the books those plot strands were originally featured in, I enjoyed seeing something unique being done with them.  If you’re going to recycle the past, you ought to put a unique spin on things.

The problem with Captain America & Hawkeye is in the execution.  We basically get four issues of Cap and Hawkeye fighting Dire Wraith-dinosaur hybrids.  The story feels extremely decompressed.  It could easily have been told in the space of three issues, rather than four.  Conversely, at the exact same time, the readers are given no answers as to the mysteries of what Damocles is really up to, and the identity of their mysterious benefactor.  Some of the space that Bunn devoted to the Avengers / dinosaurs slugfests could instead have been utilized to explain what was going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps Bunn is intending to develop this further in upcoming issues of this title.  I would not have minded that as much if, again, this opening arc of his had been more tightly plotted.  This is the major problem a lot of writers have when it comes to writing for the trade paperback, in that they just do not have enough material to their stories to fill up the space.

I don’t mean to say that this story arc was bad.  There was a lot to it that was fun & entertaining.  It just needed some serious tightening up in the plotting department.

I did enjoy the artwork by Alessandro Vitti.  Admittedly it was at times somewhat unclear as to what was taking place in some of the action sequences.  But Vitti’s style was extremely well suited to the horror content of the story.  In an arc like this, it makes sense to not have Cap or Hawkeye look too clean-cut, to make them slightly more shadowy & gritty.  And I was especially struck by Vitti’s renditions of the dinosaur parasites spawned from the shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  It really captured the gruesome, alien quality of the original Wraiths seen in the pages of ROM Spaceknight.

Captain America & Hawkeye #629 features a beautifully painted cover by Gabriele Del’Otto, while for the next three issues the cover art is from the talented, underrated Patrick Zircher.  I’ve enjoyed his work since his days penciling New Warriors.

Right now, I still haven’t decided if I am going to pick up Captain America & Iron Man.  It really depends on what else happens to be on sale a month from now and, more importantly, how much money I have in my wallet at that time.

It’s strange, because for a long time I thought Captain America would be the very last comic book series I would ever stop reading.  But times change, and so do people, and I guess I’m just more interested in other material right now at this point in my life.

Comic books I’m reading, part two: trade paperbacks

After I wrote my post about what I was reading from Marvel and DC, I realized that I had left out something crucial: trade paperbacks.

Trade paperbacks have the advantage of containing a complete story or, in the case of the black & white Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents volumes, several hundred pages of reprints for twenty dollars or less.  TPBs often give you a lot more value for your money than a single issue “pamphlet” which only contains 22 pages, and they are much more durable.  I find it easier to take a TPB on the train or bus to read, because if it gets knocked around a bit, it won’t end up being destroyed.

I recently picked up a pair of trades published by DC which both featured the artwork of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  The first one, JLA: The Hypothetical Woman, was written by Gail Simone.  It has to be one of the best Justice League stories that I have read in years.  Simone absolutely understands  how to write the JLA’s team dynamics, highlighting the particular strengths of each member while still showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And she gives the team a truly worthy adversary in General Tuzik, a ruthless Machiavellian dictator who seems to spend the majority of the story one step ahead of the League.  You really are left wondering how the JLA is going to get through this one.

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman
JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

The artwork is stunning.  This is some of the finest penciling by Garcia-Lopez in his entire career.  He draws a story on a truly epic scale, with both superhuman spectacles and intimate personal moments.  And his Wonder Woman… she is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the story’s second half, when we see her on the field of battle, a commanding portrait of beauty & strength.  Garcia-Lopez is very ably complemented by inkers Klaus Janson and Sean Phillips on this book.

I believe that JLA: The Hypothetical Woman is out of print, but a number of copies are still available on Amazon.com.  I definitely recommend picking it up.

The other TPB with Garcia-Lopez’s pencils is Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, which reprints “A New Dawn” from Batman Confidential #s 26-28.  Yes, the comic books actually use the television bad guy King Tut, but he is completely revamped into a credible, dangerous criminal by writers Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir.  Batman is forced to team up with his long-time foe the Riddler to track down Tut.  DeFilippis & Weir do a great job with that character, making him a very mischievous, devil-may-care rogue.  In a way, you have to admire their version of the Riddler.  Unlike most of Batman’s foes, he isn’t a homicidal maniac.  Instead, the Riddler’s goal is to commit clever crimes and outwit Batman, proving his the superior intellect.

Again, Garcia-Lopez’s artwork is of a high quality.  He is inked by Kevin Nolan, who has an extremely slick, polished style.  I think Nolan can often overwhelm other artists with his inks, but he works very well with Garcia-Lopez.  The finished artwork is a pleasant blending of their styles.  Additionally, I liked the vibrant coloring by David Baron.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb also contains a trio of Batman stories Garcia-Lopez drew in the early 1980s.  I don’t have any of those issues, so they were a nice bonus.

I purchased Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier back in December of last year.  I read the book when I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  I’m re-reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it once again.  It contains the character’s appearances from Star Spangled War Stories #s 151 to 188, which were originally printed in the 1970s.

Who is the Unknown Soldier?  He is an unnamed American soldier who, in the early days of World War II, was horribly disfigured in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  Trained as an expert at infiltration and a master of disguise, he is dispatched on missions behind enemy lines to sabotage the Axis war effort.  When not wearing one of his lifelike masks, the Soldier is typically clad in trench coat & fedora, his face completely covered in bandages.

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier
Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

When I first read this collection of Unknown Soldier stories, it occurred to me that the concept was very similar to the Sam Raimi movie Darkman… except that film came out a good twenty years later.  Coincidence or influence?  I don’t know.  I recall that when I saw Darkman in the theater in 1990, I thought to myself that it would make a great ongoing comic book series, and I was right.  What I did not know then was that such a series already existed in the adventures of the Unknown Soldier.

This Showcase Presents volume contains work by a number of talented writers & artists.  The Unknown Soldier was created by the legendary Joe Kubert, and he collaborated with writers Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher on the first several stories.  After the first dozen or so stories, Kubert slips into the role of cover artist, also providing many of the very striking opening splash pages which combine his artwork with photo montages.  Jack Sparling takes over art chores for a time, before Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc becomes the regular artist for the remainder of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  Other writers who worked on the book are Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie.

(It is a bit of a pity that Robbins does not also provide any artwork.  He is one of those artists who when I was much younger I could not stand his work, considering it weird and rubbery.  But over time I’ve grown to greatly appreciate his immense talents.  Nowadays, when I come across a story he has illustrated, it is a real treat.)

I am not generally a fan of war comics, but I instantly became a fan of the Unknown Soldier.  I think a major reason for this is the fact that, at his core, the Unknown Soldier is really an anti-war figure.  His origin is the personification of the horror of war.  There is nothing glamorous about what he does.  Really, the Soldier’s whole reason for being is to bring an end to the conflict that destroyed his life.

I hope that one of these days DC releases a second Showcase Presents collection of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  The final half-dozen tales in the first volume are written by Michelinie, who really ramped up the dark moral ambiguity.  His first story, “8,000 to One,” very much drives home just what a grim, horrific role the Soldier has had to take on to carry out his mission.  And the superb artwork by Talaoc is a perfect fit for the tone of Michelinie’s writing.  I definitely want to read the rest of their work on the character.

Before I close out this blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention a magazine that I regularly follow, Back Issue from TwoMorrows Publishing.  Superbly edited by Michael Eury, Back Issue has featured a diverse selection of articles on the comic books of the 1970s and 80s, and occasionally beyond.  The current issue spotlights the Avengers (just in time for the movie) and has some fascinating, informative interviews & commentary from Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, George Perez, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, and Mike Carlin, among many others.

Back Issue #56
Back Issue #56

The reason why I had to bring up Back Issue is that many of the articles that have appeared in it have led me to pick up trade paperbacks or, in the absence of collected editions, actual back issues themselves.  I’ve learned about a number of characters, series, and creators of whom I previously only had a passing knowledge.  The Unknown Soldier is one of those.  There was a pair of articles authored by Michael Aushenker in Back Issue #s 37 and 52, the first on the character of the Soldier, the second on artist Gerry Talaoc.  Thanks to these, I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier collection.  So, the magazine has definitely broadened my interests & horizons as a comic book reader.

BI #52, incidentally, covered DC Comics’ horror titles from the 1970s, and also got me to buy one of the Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery volumes. Going back to BI #25, Aushenker conducted an interview with Deathlok creator Rich Buckler which helped motivate me to purchase the Marvel Masterworks collection of that series.  Really, I think both DC and Marvel ought to be paying Eury and Aushenker a small commission for helping to drum up their sales!

Back Issue is definitely worth picking up.  It’s an entertaining, informative read, and you never know what else it might lead you to discover.

Anyway, next time I do one of these “comic books I’m reading” posts, I will definitely be talking about independent (i.e. non-DC and Marvel) titles.  I just need to really collect my thoughts together on what is going to be a very diverse selection of material.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.