Friday, January 06, 2006

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

Vol. 2, No. 2
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In this issue:
reviews of The Thing #1-2 and Light Brigade TP / notes on Special Specials, Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, Ragnell's Written World, and JSA #81 / no rants this time; I'm in too good a mood

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The Thing #1-2 (Marvel)
Dan Slott (Writer) / Andrea DiVito (Artist) / Laura Villari (Colorist)

I love this. It would be impossible to write a review of a Dan Slott comic and not include the word “fun.” The thing is, The Thing is not just fun; it’s old-school Marvel fun, and that’s some of the best kind of fun to be had.

Dan Slott, Andrea DiVito, and Laura Villari all deserve medals—or at least gold-plated No-Prizes—for setting the ever-lovin’-blued-eyed Thing on the road to reclaiming his former glory. Next to Spider Man (and before Wolverine was, well…Wolverine), the Thing was Marvel’s most iconic character. And for someone like me who grew up on the Thomas/Wein/Perez/Sinnott Fantastic Four of the late 1970s, the Thing nearly eclipsed Spider Man as an emblem of the bittersweet comedy and melodrama at which Marvel excelled. Slott, DiVito, and Villari recapture and update the atmosphere of 1970s Marvel in their snazzy new Thing series, which takes as its starting point Ben’s recent financial windfall and celebrity status. Like the 70s Marvel comics it self-consciously evokes, the series emphasizes continuity through the use of relatively obscure or neglected characters like Goliath, Nighthawk, Constrictor, and Brynocki, through references to the Thing’s (not to mention the Hulk’s) long history of mutation (in a sculpture-garden courtesy of Alicia Masters), and through the allusive “attractions” of Arcade’s Murderland theme park (which include nods to Magneto’s old sea castle and that cosmic serpent from Simonson’s Thor), etc.

It also revels in the “real world” setting of the Marvel Universe. In the first issue alone Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart play large roles and there are cameos by Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Danny DeVito, and assorted other celebrities whose likenesses I can’t quite pin down. In issue two, Ben and the castaways on Arcade’s Murderland island in the South China Sea stumble across an attraction called the Marvel Island of Misadventure—a miniaturized mock-up of New York—and we are treated to a Times Square brawl that plants us squarely back in the Marvel of the late 70s and evokes precisely the kind of metafictional play that was a Marvel signature during this era. (The ’70s Marvel microcosm within Arcade’s Murderland is a perfect emblem for Slott’s series, which reestablishes a kind of pocket-universe of glorious ’70s Marvel within the “Murderland” of the current Marvel Universe. It also recalls the use of the Marvel Comics offices in that very New York setting in metafictional masterpieces like the Impossible Man story in FF #176. If Slott wants to get really postmodern he’ll have one of the Hulk doppelgangers hurl the Thing straight into the Marvel Bullpen at 417 5th Ave. and smash Joe Quesada’s desk to smithereens!)

The references to Old Marvel and to contemporary pop culture are so numerous, in fact, that the first two issues have an almost hyperactive feel, as though Slott is challenging himself to see just how many Easter eggs he can plant. The comic business in issue two between Arcade and his “Mini-Me” robot assistant Brynocki (who, it shouldn’t have surprised me to learn, has a small but interesting history in the Marvel Universe) is a tour de force of clever pop allusion and double entendres that epitomizes what I love about Slott’s compacted style. Having Arcade sing the Bee Gees theme from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever is appropriate for many reasons—not the least of which is that he’s wearing John Travolta’s disco suit. We also get broad winks at modern Robinson Crusoe stories like Survior, Lost, and Gilligan’s Island. The aforementioned nod to the Dr. Evil/Mini-Me duo from the James Bond-spoofing Austin Powers movies is especially neat as it makes a rather complicated (and ingenious) reference to the James Bond villains from The Man With the Golden Gun—the story that underpins Slott’s entire concept here. Dr. Evil and Mini-Me are parodies of Scaramanga and Nick Nack from the Bond film. Moreover, diminutive robot assistant Brynocki puns on “Murderland,” announcing: “there’s no escape from Mordillo’s Island”—the island named after Brynocki’s creator, a robot-building assassin who once battled the Master of Kung Fu. As Omar Karindu informs us: “Mordillo Island is most certainly supposed to be an MU version of Scaramanga’s Island from the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. In this sense, Brynocki is also a bit like Nick Nack, Herve Villechez’s character in the film.” This is of course precisely the scenario that Slott exploits for his cat-and-mouse adventure, making Arcade play the role of Scaramanga to Brynocki’s Nick Nack. (Scaramanga not only has an island, he also has an Arcade-style Funhouse on it where he too plays murderous games of cat-and-mouse with his “guests”—clearly Slott’s inspiration here.) The mis-en-abyme of allusion and repetition is all part of the dizzying pleasure of Slott’s clever simulations. (Another dimension of the comic’s metafictional genius is its liberal use of statues and robots—literal simulacra. What could be more fitting in a story that is itself an elaborate, loving constructed simulation of an earlier Marvel age.)

And what about that Andrea DiVito? Quite some time ago, back when DiVito was drawing for CrossGen, someone there (Chuck Dixon? Barbara Kesel? Mark Alessi?) predicted that DiVito would one day ascend to the ranks of the Wizard “Hot Ten” Artists. That day may not be far off, if it isn’t here already. He is the perfect choice of artist for this book and here’s why: he marries the styles of two of the all time great FF artists from the late 70s and early 80s, George Perez and the early-mid John Byrne. Like Perez, DiVito has a thing for realistic anatomy and obsessive fine detailing; but like Byrne, his figures also tend to be somewhat elongated and cartoony. The combination is wonderful—my eyes actually remember looking at the Thing and his environs with exactly this sort of appreciation for depth, detail, and dynamism all those years ago. This is one of those great times where an artist’s style superbly complements the writer’s sensibility and actually contributes in a very profound way to evoking a particular time (Tom Scioli on GODLAND is the other example that springs to mind).

DiVito’s art, beautifully enhanced by Laura Villari’s great coloring work on the Thing himself, is a treat—there are so many things here that evoke Perez’s FF, but I’ll only mention one: the terrific shrieking “Party Favor” device that emerges from the mouth of the Thing statue in issue #1. I mean… !!!! The hollow Thing statue here, operated by an unseen Brynocki and drawn in full Byrne/Perez mode by Andrea DiVito, is actually yet another metafictional time capsule—and we all know that the little robot operator is none other than one of Marvel’s best writers, Dan Slott. Kudos all around, gang. I wish this was an ongoing. [UPDATE: I just found this. It is an ongoing. Yahoo!]

Light Brigade TP (DC Comics)
Peter J. Tomasi (Writer) / Peter Snejbjerg (Artist) / Bjarne Hansen (Colorist) / Ken Lopez and Rob Leigh (Letterers)

Beautiful but disappointing.

Artist Peter Snejbjerg and colorist Bjarne Hansen outdo themselves on this gorgeous prestige format miniseries from 2004, recently collected as a trade. Their artwork perfectly captures the oddity and pathos of the winter wartime setting, evoking the surreal opening winter scenes of George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller’s film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) where soldiers periodically emerge from snow-shrouded, grave-like trenches and non sequiturs proliferate. (The story of Light Brigade, about a platoon of American soldiers who become entangled in an ancient supernatural battle between good and evil angelic orders, is set in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.) The cinematic quality of the first quarter of the book is no accident, as writer (and DC editor) Peter J. Tomasi remarks that he initially conceived the story’s haunting and ingenious beginning as a film script:

knowing that there were so many cemeteries/graves in France and Belgium, etc., due to the mind-numbing slaughter that was World War One, I always had a nagging idea for an opening scene for a movie in my mind of a group of American soldiers at the start of the Battle of The Bulge in World War Two dug in amidst the graves of a World War One cemetery about to repel a German attack. So I wrote the scene, shattered graves and all, and the horror of the old bones being disturbed by exploding shells and the soldiers facing the skulls of young soldiers kind of got me into a weird mode. Before I knew it, I had undead Germans taking on American GI’s. I said to myself: “Now there’s a combo of genres ya don’t see every day.” And the other story elements then fell into place once I allowed myself to write a War/Horror story.
As long as he sticks to the American soldiers, Tomasi succeeds in building an engaging, emotionally textured narrative; when he turns his attention to the undead German army and the homicidal Angelic Hosts, however, things go awry. With typical precision and economy, Paul O’Brien sums up everything that is wrong with this book when he lambastes its ham-fisted treatment of Christianity and scorns the script’s “chronically simplistic attempt to explain why nasty things happen in a loving God’s universe, and the way it ends up trying to blame the failings of humanity on the nasty magic thingies.” The story aims for Weird War Tale profundity, but settles for a Sunday School homily about faith that would not be out of place on the curriculum of a conservative religious high school.

I agree with O’Brien that “The appeal of most religious mythology is that it resonates with wider themes and therefore can still have some resonance for audiences who don’t accept the underlying religion.” I took a chance on Light Brigade (a book I’d never heard of before) in anticipation of some such “resonance.” I was disappointed that it didn’t deliver. In the end, though, what disappointed me most about this book was not the banality of its religious narrative per se, but the ill-fit between its religious framework and the genre of wartime fiction to which it owes such a significant debt. The best war fiction forces us to confront the absurdity of war and invites us to examine the categories and assumptions from which wars and war-cultures spring. Despite their many differences, war novels like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Wars by Timothy Findley, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Time’s Arrow by Marin Amis all do this, and they do it precisely by showing the places where traditional systems of morality and commonplace assumptions about the righteousness of one’s own position break down or become fatal. How frustrating, then, when a comic with as much potential as Light Brigade betrays the complexity of its source material and ends up simply rehashing Crusader pieties.


Specials That Are: Young Avengers and Day of Vengeance

What’s going on? Last week Marvel put out a nifty Young Avengers Special that actually felt like required reading and contained real revelations about the kids. Now we get a Day of Vengeance: Infinite Crisis Special from DC that is sheer lunatic fun from start to finish and features more great atmospheric art by Justiano, Wong, and Faucher. Is the quality-level of regular series finally beginning to leech into the specials they spawn? We really must be in the middle of a renaissance of some kind. (Only two months until Bill Willingham’s Shadowpact ongoing!)

DC OYL: Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis

Once upon a time, I bought an Aquaman story. I don’t remember a single thing about it, except Craig Hamilton’s amazing artwork—particularly the stunning cover to the first issue, one of my all time favorite comic covers. I also picked up the first few issues of the Rick Veitch relaunch a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it. Now it looks like I’m going to be taking the plunge again, and this time, with Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice on board, things look really promising. Busiek is hit and miss for me, but when he’s on he’s on and I love the “heroic fantasy” premise for the new series: “swords, wizards, exotic locales, wars, monsters, ancient gods and more, all taking advantage of that undersea setting that makes the seascape practically an alien world, full of mystery and wonder.”

What’s more, it was Steve Epting’s breathtaking undersea settings that initially drew me to try CrossGen’s Crux, so the lure of another of my favorite former CrossGen artists drawing an undersea adventure has me a-tingle. Ever since Ruse (and now, that incredible JLA: Classified arc with Ellis), where Guice goes, I follow. Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. How can this not be fantastic? (knock wood)

Women, Myth, Comics, and the Funny: Ragnell’s Written World

Ragnell has been saying some very nice things about this blog of late and I’m happy to have the chance to return the favor. In a recent post at the witty, addictive Written World entitled On Persephone, Ragnell provides a great feminist reading of the Persephone of myth and goes on to riff insightfully on the Persephones of the DCU—they’re not who you might expect. I’ve also really enjoyed her installments of Favorite Women of DC Comics: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. In fact, I enjoy Written World so much that I can almost forgive Ragnell for this brutal post. Almost.

Late Addition: JSA #81


Keith P. Stieneke said...

Yes this is a great issue of Justice Society (JSA #81) and really has a lot to say about ones relationships with ones children and ones parents.

I have also just read Day of Vengeance - Infinite Crisis Special and want to say that its great in my opinion although it does pose as many questions as it answers. Look for a review of it this week at my blog the Unofficial DC Comics Review

Ragnell said...

I think I'm totally biased towards it for one of the gueast appearances. I've been dying to see that character again.

(Oh, and thanks for the link)

Anonymous said...

Man, yeah. I don't know how I missed the boat on Dan Slott; I guess it's because I wasn't nuts about his GLA stories. But The Thing has been great, and I just picked up the first TPB of his She-Hulk, which I adore--smart and funny, with a good sense of the richness and depth of the MU.

Sean Kleefeld said...

I'll add that Dan Slott is putting out some of Marvel's most entertaining books these days. Between The Thing, GLA and She-Hulk, he's got old-school comic fun down. He's joined my short list of comic writers to keep my eyes peeled for.

I'm also looking forward to Busiek's Aquaman. He's always been a character that I thought should have been a lot more interesting than he's usually portrayed, and I think Busiek's the man to do it.

zack soto said...

holy crap- you've updated a lot lately! I'm glad to see you've got enough free time on your hands to keep us entertained.

Anonymous said...

I think Dan Slott solidified his place among today's top comic book writers with one simple line... "Because I'm black." Too funny.