To get into the spirit of Spandex, our recent sold out super hero party at the Wonder Bread factory, I decided to catch up on some comic books.
Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was a stupid little dork, I obsessively collected Marvel comics, believing Todd McFarlane’s work on Spider-Man to be on par with the Renaissance artists… whom I was only familiar with because of the Ninja Turtles. But alas, I eventually discovered Fantagraphics and other indie publishers, realized girls didn’t give a shit about polybagged X-Force #1s with gold-foil covers, and never really looked back. But my love for the characters never waned, and I was just as excited for Iron Man 3 this year as I would have been if I was 14.
In October 2012 Marvel comics began their Marvel NOW! initiative, a large scale creative relaunch that saw long running series end, new personnel assigned to books, and a bunch of #1 issues published. Joe Quesada, Chief Creative Officer at Marvel, explained that it wasn’t a reboot exactly, but that there will be “a lot of changes to the character status-quos, alter egos, costumes, creator shifts, design shifts, the way that we do our covers, digital shifts and the way we start delivering our books”. OK, probably just a marketing ploy, but whatever, sounds like a good way to jump back in.
This post is for people like me, who used to read Marvel comics but haven’t in years, or for people that have only seen the Avengers movies. The first wave of Marvel NOW! graphic novel collections have been released, and I am purchasing and reviewing every single one to let you know if super hero comics are as much dumb fun as I remember, or if you shouldn’t waste any time looking at pictures of grown men wearing spandex punching each other. Here’s the first batch:
This book is almost like Marvel living out their big screen fantasies of an X-Men/Avengers shared universe. In case you’re not a nerd, you may not realize that Marvel comics owns both the X-Men characters and the Avengers characters, but Marvel movie studios does not. Hence, Robery Downey hasn’t called up Hugh Jackman for backup,yet. But in the comics, anything goes. And apparently, it really goed recently, with some sort of big X-Men VS The Avengers crossover event scuffle, prior to the Marvel Now! relaunch, and the subsequent cancellation of two long-running series: The Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers.
I guess in the end the mutants and earth’s mightiest heroes kissed and made up, because in this book we get a new “Unity” team consisting of half Avengers: Captain America, Thor, Scarlet Witch, and half X-Men: Wolverine, Rogue, Havoc. Fun Fact: Scarlet Witch is a character who currently is in the midst of a real-world movie studio fight, and may end up appearing in both Avengers 2 and the new X-Men movie, played by two different people because of money and stuff. Anyway, the story dives right in without any sort of “Previously on…” block of text. Cyclops has apparently killed Professor X (!), and everyone hates him now (more so than usual), but they don’t really go into why or how this happened. I thought this was supposed to be a jumping on point for new readers, yet it plays like the next chapter of a big story arc and is an odd choice for a debut. And this next chapter isn’t even very interesting. Since I wasn’t privy to what’s been going on, I didn’t feel any of the weight of Wolverine speaking at Prof X’s memorial, or understand the tension between Rogue and Scarlet Witch (cat fight!). But even if I did, I still think this book would suck. The bad guys are corny and the art looks like 1996 with computer coloring.
Look at this dumb art and this dumb villain
But by issue #5 a new penciller and inker step in and the quality improves immensely. The story gets a little more engaging and it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I’ll give Vol 2 a try, but if it gets lost in the mail I probably won’t notice. So far, not a great start in revitalizing my interest in Marvel comics.
2 Stars out of 5
Ok, MORE X-MEN. This one is being touted as a flagship Marvel NOW! series, fingers crossed. The story here is that Beast goes back in time to get a young Cyclops (and the rest of the original X-Men, including a hairless version of himself) to come try to talk some sense into the present day Cyclops, who, as we now know has not only (inadvertently?) killed Professor X, but also teamed up with Magneto/Gandalf to start some sort of mutant revolution. This of course MAKES NO SENSE WHATSOEVER, but, time travel never does and is fun so who cares.
The whole idea is obviously inspired by the recent First Class movie and the upcoming sequel, and runs into some of the same continuity problems. For instance, it’s sort of glossed over that these original X-Men are from 1963, so therefore everyone from the present day should be like 70 years old/dead. Whatever though, it’s an exciting read, the art is top notch, and if retro costumed teenage Jean Grey could read my thoughts, she’d never stop slapping me.
Stuart Immonen’s vibrant work bursts out of panels
The pace of the story can be a little too quick at times though, like there are these batshit crazy things going on and everyone is sort of barreling through without taking it all in. I grew up on MTV and I’m still like chill Iceman. Plus there are a lot of new characters introduced, and not knowing the details of the recent history meant it was a little hard to follow. And people scream out “NOOOOO!” way too often. Regardless of the flaws, I was excited for the next volume, and this is a big step up from Uncanny Avengers.
4 Stars out of 5
In the same spirit of Uncanny Avengers comes A+X, although with a much different format and presentation. In this book you get two short stories per issue, teaming up one Avenger with one X-man. The vibe is light, and a jokey fake Q&A at the beginning of each issue sets the tone that these are basically independent little stories and you shouldn’t worry about continuity and stuff like that. Each vignette is by a different writer and art team, so there is a lot of variety. For the most part it’s pretty skippable, but a few standouts like the Rouge and Black Widow team up in issue #2, and the overall high quality of artwork make this one worth checking out, just don’t expect to care too much.
3 Stars out of 5
Fantastic Four, Vol. 1
New Departure, New Arrivals
Collecting Fantastic Four Isses #1-3 and FF #1-3
Available in paperback from Amazon for $12.60
This book breaks form a little and contains the first 3 issues of two different new Marvel NOW! relaunches, Fantastic Four and FF (stands for Future Foundation, which is sort of like the X-Men school but for weird Fantastic Four kids. Or something. They probably should have named it something that didn’t have the same acronym.) The stories are directly intertwined, hence combining them in the collected edition, but subsequent volumes will split them up. Fantastic Four follows the original team of terribly named superheros: Mr. Fantastic (stretchy genius), The Invisible Woman (powers of invisibility and vagina), The Thing (living circus peanut), and The Human Torch (has great hair and yells Flame On! a lot, but is totally not gay) + Reed and Sue’s kids, on their one year Star Trekkian family vacation through time and space. They’re only supposed to be gone 4 minutes in earth time, so they recruit a backup team to take their place for those few moments, which is the FF team. It consists of Medusa, Ant-Man (soon to be an Avengers movie directed by Edgar Wright!), She-Hulk (the green one, cause apparently there is a red one now too), and Ms. Thing (Human Torch’s current girlfriend wearing a Thing-like suit). It’s all sort of tongue in cheek until, you guessed it, 4 minutes pass and the original Four don’t return.
The FF series is drawn by Mike Allred, creator of Madman, one of my indie comic loves from the 90s. I’m happy to see he brings his campy pop-art Jack Kirby vibe out in full force for this project, and it’s very unlike your modern super hero book. Every page is a treat to look at, and I applaud Marvel for having the balls to hire him. By the third issue in each series, they have dispensed with the setup and are starting down their own paths, with Matt Fraction’s lighthearted writing complimenting Allred’s zany style. The art in the Fantastic Four on the other hand is a snoozer, but I’m still interested to see where the story goes. So, FF get’s a 5, Fantastic Four get’s a 3, giving us an average of:
4 Stars out of 5
BONUS RET-CONNED MARVEL NOW! TITLES:
A new Captain Marvel series was started not very long before the whole Marvel NOW! thing began, so instead of relaunching it or changing the creative team around, they just slapped a Marvel NOW! logo on it starting with issue #9, and again when collecting the first 6 issues in paperback. So while it technically wasn’t part of Marvel NOW! at the start, I’m not complaining about this marketing sleight of hand, as this is a great read. The art in the first couple issues is wonderful, with a beautiful painted style. I didn’t really remember who Captain Marvel was (there is quite a convoluted back story in which a number of different hosts have donned the Captain Marvel mantle), but it still wasn’t too hard to follow. It’s written by a female and definitely has a strong girl power vibe. Even when the story gets a little ridiculous, the characters feel grounded and fully realized, I definitely plan on picking up Vol 2.
4 Stars out of 5
Hawkeye is another ret-conned Marvel NOW! title, officially added to the fold at issue #6. And it’s a good thing too, otherwise I might have missed the best Marvel NOW! title to date. In fact, it may be the best Marvel comic I’ve ever read. I couldn’t care less about everyone’s least favorite Avenger and never was a fan as a kid either, but this comic is fucking brilliant. The art has a simplistic but edgy indie style and the pacing is kind of like a Guy Ritchie film. It oozes cool. And it’s laugh out loud funny. Both in the dialogue and in meta gags throughout the art:
I would love to see Marvel continue in this direction, with more offbeat takes on the tired superhero genre. Highly recommended for everyone, regardless of their level of fandom, past or present. As a crappy bonus, they throw in an issue of Young Avengers from 2008 featuring Hawkeye. It’s terrible. Just stop when you get to it cause it will make you feel like even more of a loser for liking comics like this when you were a kid. Rip it our if you lend it to anyone. Do not let it tarnish your memories of what came before.
Seriously though, buy this book.
5 Stars out of 5
Should you, with all the entertainment options at your disposal, still read superhero comics? If you’re like me, and you have love for these characters and the medium already, the answer is a resounding yes. These comics are better than what you used to read. Buy them all, even the shitty ones like Uncanny Avengers, and then get in geek arguments over beers about whether Cyclops’ powers are dumb or not (they are).
If you’re a girl or have seen some movies but never read anything? Maybe. DEFINITELY READ HAWKEYE. Every self-respecting hipster needs to own this book and display it proudly on their shelves. As for the others? I’d try Fantastic Four next. If you’re not into it, you should probably move on to another hobby. If you dig it, pick up All New X-Men and Captain Marvel. Then stay tuned for when I review the next batch of these things.
A few more nerd notes:
Some of these come in hardcover, and some come in paperback. One bonus of the hardcover editions is they contain a code to enable a download of the digital version, which looks great on computer screens. On the other hand, the hardcovers are bound so tightly that you can’t lay the pages flat, and there is no buffer, so art near the crease gets sucked into the abyss. You can also buy issues individually at marvel.com but it’s usually more cost effective to buy the physical collections, plus there is something about holding a real comic in your hand, reading them in bed, having the art bend as the pages flip, etc, that you can’t really re-create on a tablet. I love gadgets and my iPod and will read text on a Kindle any day, but I still prefer that tactile feedback of an actual comic.
Most of these books also contain the Marvel AR feature. You download the app and then scan in a panel when you see the little AR icon, and you’re treated to some supplemental material. Sometimes it’s a video interview with a writer, some background story facts, some behind the scenes look at the art process, or a bunch of nerdy Marvel employees engaging in some office hijinks. With some of the books it works pretty well and the supplemental material is worth checking out, but for the most part it can be frustrating and then when you finally get it going you’re rewarded with a pixellated “art process” screen shot of a pre-colored page. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo.