Friday, February 29, 2008

COMICS- Graphic Novel Roundup

While I’ve been laid up I haven’t felt like doing anything (goes without saying) and haven’t been able to concentrate well enough to enjoy my usual reading habits. But being a voracious reader I find myself unable to give it up even when I can’t do it well. As a result, I’ve probably read 10 thousand pages of graphic novels in the last month. Now normally I’ll indulge myself in a graphic novel only when I see something that looks interesting and when I do I’ll buy the complete run of a title. For instance I read all nine PREACHER graphic novels last fall when the subject came up on a blog I read. I don’t read monthly comics and haven’t for quite a while (with the exception of ALL STAR BATMAN which I’ve bought the whole run of) so I don’t have any real sense of continuity and I find that suits me. It’s partly nostalgia and partly love of the art form for me now. So over the next few weeks I’m going to intersperse the usual blogging with what I think of what I’ve read. Most of these have been on the shelves for a while and all are available through Amazon, Ebay, or your local comics shop, so if you’re looking for a good read, try some of these.

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE Vols. 1-5- Kurt Busiek writer, George Perez (and others) art

This is a five part collection of the Avengers which comes in a nice hardbound set with excellent paper and printing. Each volume covers approximately one year of the series and each volume is reasonably priced at about 35 dollars each. I was familiar with Busiek from his ASTRO CITY work and had collected the early Perez Avengers monthlies when he started on the title, so I was really looking forward to seeing what they might do with this collection of Marvel’s greatest. However I was quickly disappointed to find that the humanity and insight that Busiek evidenced in ASTRO CITY was nowhere to be seen here. It starts out looking promising, with a new twist on the Scarlet Witch/Vision/Wonder Man affair, a couple of new members, all the old standards in attendance, and a subplot with a religious group that has political designs leading an anti-Avengers campaign. But it never goes anywhere and winds up being a rehash of so many old Avengers plot threads that for a while I wondered if I was reading one of those Retcon books that have become such a vogue. Plot threads are introduced and then wander endlessly through the almost nonstop fight scenes. The Avengers battle a laundry list of old foes, a new government liaison with questionable motives is introduced and forces a suspicious new member on the team, said new member is a black man with a chip on his shoulder about the “all white” Avengers (that the team has had several black members in the past is brushed aside), Hank Pym splits in two (again), and no real character development for anybody is even attempted. In one instance the vision asks Ms. Marvel (with a new name) on a date and then goes off in search of himself. We don’t see him again until we find him living giving up a secret identity and coming back. He and Carol make a remark about the date every few issues and then they go jet skiing. End of subplot. Each issue seems to feature a several page battle scene with just enough interaction to set the stage and offer a denouement after the fight.

George Perez’s artwork (which spans the first three books) is competent but nothing new if you’ve ever seen his work before. His style has been set in stone since his first work. I guess it’s a matter of “if it ain’t broke” but I’ve never understood why he’s such a fan favorite. He does a good job with team books because he fits more figures in per panel than anyone else but his panel layouts are uninspired, his figures often lack drama, and everything is lit the same way. He isn’t bad, he’s just mundane.

The artwork picks up a little when he leaves but unfortunately the unevenness of the revolving door of artists who follow him still hurts the book. My personal favorite is Alan Davis. I hadn’t seen Davis’ art since he was doing Batman for DC and short stints on Marvels mutant books. His style has matured, with dramatic lighting and far more realistic rendering than any other artist in the five volumes. His work is exceptional on the series but only lasts for a few issues.

All in all, I have to say that I was disappointed with the AVENGERS ASSEMBLE quintology. Not that the books were bad, just because I was expecting so much more.

THE ULTIMATES Vol. 1 and 2- Mark Millar writer and Bryan Hitch artist.

I’ve always been a fan of the imaginary tale in comics. I remember when I was a kid if that month’s issue of Superman would have the Imaginary Tale blurb on the cover I knew I was in for something special. I wondered about things like what would happen if Superman lost his powers, or if Lex Luthor had been rocketed to earth when Krypton exploded. Things were going to get shook up! When Marvel started their WHAT IF title I bought every one, taking a special shine to their shock ending style which was an improvement in some ways on the more mundane Superman books. So I came to the ULTIMATES with interest in what they were going to do to revamp the Avengers. In this case I was anything but disappointed. I had seen some of Smallville and knew that Millar was able to come up with interesting retcons for dull characters. (Superboy was always deadly dull to me. The only thing I liked about the comic when I was a kid was the Legion of Superheroes and the art- Neal Adams covers and Wally Wood inking.) But I was not prepared for what Millar was going to do with the Avengers. All the old plotlines are there but twisted through the funhouse mirror just like in Smallville. Hank Pym is a wife beater, Janet Pym is having an affair with Steve Rogers, Thor works for Greenpeace and nobody really thinks he’s a Norse God. The book is well plotted and the characters take center stage.

And the art is exquisite. Hitch grounds this reality-based approach to the characters with reality-based artwork that jumps off the page. Everything is lit like an episode of CSI. Every character has their own build and a recognizable face (necessary since the masks are off most of the time). The layouts are interesting and the whole thing plays like incredibly detailed storyboards for a movie. Nick Fury is even being played by Samuel S. Jackson. All this combines to give the characters real interest and veracity.

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