What I thought of Absolute Carnage and other comics

In which this is the latest of a series of occasional blog talking about recent comics, and to start the big Marvel crossover event since the one they had in the spring, Absolute Carnage. Written by Donny Cates and drawn by Ryan Stegman this teams Spider-Man and Venom up against Carnage in a story that is virtually incomprehensible if you’ve not been reading Cates’s run on Venom, or dipped in and out of various Spider-Man titles over the years.

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If you don’t want to dive into Wikipedia, Cates does include pages of exposition in the first issue explaining what’s going on as Eddie Brock brings Spidey up to speed with what’s going on but it’s a scene that kills the story stone dead. Prior and post this scene, the comic is a pretty average superhero title with lots of fights as one would expect from a massive crossover event. The problem with these events now is they’re weighted down with so much continuity that they have to have these scenes to explain to reading just what the fuck is going on.

And what is going on is that Venom and Spider-Man have to fight loads of Carnage controlled symbiotes who are out to kill as many people as possible. It is basically what you’d expect, though Ryan Stegman’s art is nice, plus he can tell a story which is a sadly decreasing talent among many Marvel/DC artists. This is ordinary stuff, but there is one great scene at the end of the overlong exposition scene which shows Cates is capable of doing more than he is here.

Which brings me onto Silver Surfer Black.

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Written by Cates and drawn by Tradd Moore, the story is a typically angst-ridden Surfer story, which most Silver Surfer stories are. Again this spins out of another Cates written title, The Guardians of the Galaxy, to tell this story of the Surfer fighting an old evil. There’s nothing spectacular about the writing but dear me, the art is extraordinary stuff.

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Moore is a definite talent,  and his work here veers from surrealism to expressionism to whateeverism. It really is like watching a talent hit his prime, and Marvel need to be applauded for releasing this in the autumn in the same treasury format they released Ed Piskor’s X-Men work.

Meanwhile over at DC Comics, Brian Bendis is writing Event Leviathan, another crossover event wich also relies upon knowing lots of continuity but less so here as Bendis is crafting a detective story so much of the exposition flows better here, but it’s still a crossover that reliesupon characters stopping what they’re doing and telling others the plot.

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Bendis is a good solid writer, but hasn’t bothered to push himself in over a decade and he doesn’t here, but this is still decent enough stuff though it is Alex Maleev’s art which drags this up from the usual DC crossover. I especially love his version of The Question.

The problem with crossovers in 2019 is they give publishers a healthy sales boost during the spring and summer when they’re traditionally fighting against other streams of entertainment. Quality tends to go out the window but here at least, there’s three examples of good to great artists showing what they can do.

And finally, The Wicked and the Divine #45.

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Keiron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s superb comic comes to an end with a sort of coda set in the future when the gods are old and can mourn their dead. It is a firm, definate end. Over the coruse of the run Gillen and McKelvie carved a story which criticised and celebrated modern culture, society and the comic itself  as an artform. As a comic it was one which did a lot but recently never quite got the plaudits it deserved but it was one of the best published this decade.

It is a shame the market goes wild for an uninspiring crossovers while comics which try new things build a solid audience without the aid of empty crossovers. As a comic I wish more tried to explore the medium as The Wicked and the Divine did.

And that’s it. Another blog soon about some of the stuff clogging up comics shop shelves…

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In praise of John Byrne’s Superman

If you talk to most comics fans they’ll reel off the big turning points of comics in the 80’s. Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus will be first out the block. Maybe Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, possibly Love and Rockets, maybe even Crisis on Infinite Earths which did kick DC Comics back to life. Few will mention John Byrne’s run on Superman from 1986 to 1988 which is a pity as this showed not only to handle Superman, but how to revamp a character by bringing in newer, updated elements while staying faithful to the roots. Not an Alan Moore style total reimagining,  but something fresh and old at the same time.

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And it is forgotten how huge Byrne’s Superman was. The mainstream media picked up on it which helped turn Superman from a comic which barely registered on most people’s radar to the essential purchase if you were a superhero comic reader, or indeed, just a reader of comics.

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See, for most people in 1986, Superman was one of four, maybe five superheroes (the others being Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Wonder Woman) the general public knew on sight. Everyone knew who Superman was, and the idea John Byrne was revamping him so that anyone could jump on board from Man of Steel #1 and get what was going on. Which they did. And it sold bucketloads. True, shops did over-order and you can spot how long a dealer has been in business by how many copies of Superman #1 they’re selling cheap, but the fact Superman titles were selling was extraordinary.

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Byrne played it right. He seriously depowered Superman so he could be beaten in a fight but a villian who wasn’t as powerful as a God, plus he made Clark Kent likeable and interesting. Byrne also slowly bled in the scale of the DC Universe, so eventually crossovers happened and Superman became a Big Thing in DC’s titles again.

For a few years Byrne crafted some great little superhero tales,  and for me it’s his run on Action Comics that show off how to do the team-up book (I’ll skim over the dreadful Big Barda issue) while keeping it always accessible but editoralstarted making clear demands of him which came to a head over a stoyline where Superman had to kill General Zod; a decision which split the readership apart.

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Reading this 30 years later all of it seems odd as superheroes now kill all the time, but this was a Big Deal. To be honest, Byrne had written himself into a quandry so killing Zod was the only option, but it was his last big contribution to Superman that still lingers on today.

After this Byrne’s time was past anyhow, Sure, things like Next Men sold, and his Spider-Man run for Marvel later in the 90s was fun,  but he wasn’t as box-office as he was. The industry had moved on and he was no longer the sales draw he was as tends to happen to many a creator. However his Superman run changed things. It showed how Superman could, and possibly should be done, while making readable comics which brought in tens of thousands of new readers who had a few years of fun before Superman slowly became over-powered and what he was again. But it was still Byrne’s character. That mix of Christopher Reeve and Byrne’s idea of what a superhero should be never really changed even to today, where the version of Superman (although long since bastardised) is still drawing upon what Byrne did for a few years in the 80’s.

So give it a try and the credit it deserves.

What I thought of The Walking Dead

After 16 years, 193 issues (And various specials) Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (drawn for the majority of the run by Charlie Adlard, the person you’d least have expected in the 90s to have become one of the major, and richest, people in comics) is over as a comic.

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KIrkman has been saying for some time that he has an end in place, but the feeling is he was after Dave Sim’s record of publishing 300 issues of Cerebus, though 193 issues for an independent comic is pretty good going for something which in 2003 was a risk, and anyhow, Aircel had already published a comic called The Walking Dead in the late 80s and it barely set things on fire. However Kirkman and Image were publishing this one at the start of the zombie revival of the early 21st century. It came at the right time and found an audience quickly as the zombie bubble expanded to the point where it became an amazingly popular TV series in 2010.

The comic still drove the TV series but by 2010 the comic was hitting a certain pattern; Rick and his crew would find somewhere safe. It’d be full of crazies or/and cannibals. Rick and crew would fight them. For the first 100 or so issues KIrkman tells a tale of survival horror intermingled with soap opera elements but on the whole the comic pushes forward with a relentless tale of survival and how one deals with their humanity, or lack of, in such a situation.

Then issue 100 happens. Glenn is brutally murdered by Negan, the latest  badguy protagonist  who although less comic booky than The Governor (whose TV version was much better than the comic) and like many villains becomes a fan favourite.

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Negan is a great character but the problem is once Negan is defeated, Kirkman keeps him around and although the scenes between Negan and Rick act as two philosophical viewpoints however we’re then into fighting the Whisperers, and onwards to the point where the comic seems to be building to another quiet phase.

And then it ended.

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I applaud Kirkman, Adlard and Image for ending this now. It isn’t an ending that closes things off as Kirkman smartly leaves it open just in case there’s a massive tax bill in the future.

Instead of years and years of following the same cycle we have an ending, and it works well. As a run, The Walking Dead never really captured the quality of the first decade but to maintain that level of quality for so long is an admirable task beaten only by Kirby and Lee’s run on the Fantastic Four.

The Walking Dead changed modern comics, saved Image Comics (who were floundering at the time in 2003), made rich men of the creators and has been at the front of the current ‘Geek’ bubble for nearly a decade. Kirkman continues to make comics as well as count his money, but nothing he’s done will ever match what he’s done with The Walking Dead.

What I thought of Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home acts as a coda to Avengers: Endgame and the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole while throwing out seeds for the next phase of the MCU. It is also a film that  messes with the characters of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and not for the best either.

From here on in lie SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.

The film takes place shortly after Endgame where the world is still reacting to the death of Tony Stark (less so the Black Widow) and the return of half the life in the universe after five years.  The problem lies with the return of people who’ve been essentially dead for half a decade suddenly returned to life to deal with the people who survived. A Spidey film could have been the perfect place to deal with the angst of this through Peter Parker; a comic character who is angst himself but instead we get a few gags as Peter and his pals (who all happened to be main or secondary cast members who died during the Snap) go on a jolly to Europe.

I get the idea to give Peter and co a break as a plot tool to show how the world (well, Europe) has changed but while on holiday Peter is contacted by Nick Fury who has hooked up with Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall having enormous fun), a self-proclaimed hero from another reality who snuck through chasing four elementals after the Snap. At this point Peter is mourning Tony Stark and is vulnerable to another role model entering his life to dish out helpful lessons in life.

The problem is that the very essence of Spider-Man/Peter Parker is that he’s learned his main lesson in life that great power comes with great responsibility due to his selfishness causing Uncle Ben (the man who raised him as his own son) being murdered. Now we don’t need to see Ben die yet again on screen but in every version of Spidey out there this is the core of who he is, even the Ultimate version written by Brian Bendis on which this version is largely based. Up to now things have worked with Peter desperate for a father figure in Tony Stark and carrying on his lesson learned from Ben’s death but here Peter is a lovesick arsehole doing silly things to prove himself to MJ and Mysterio who he barely knows.

Nobody is fleshed out. Nobody has sensible motivations.  Mysterio is yet another bitter villain who just wants revenge on Tony Stark, or on his legacy,  while Peter and MJ’s relationship feels rushed and unearned even though Tom Holland and Zendaya work their arses off to make the best of what they’re working with.

Far From Home isn’t a bad film. It’s a summer blockbuster that is fun and entertaining but the script is a road accident as it feels like it took a desperately quick rewrite after Endgame to take that film into account, not to mention work so it sets up Phase 4. Plot overtakes story and characterisationas these films are made on a production line. That’s one reason why most recent MCU films use a load of green screen work which makes scenes look cheap and rushed. However ignoring the character of Uncle Ben changes Spidey. It takes the guilt and self-loathing (in those Ditko/Lee strips Peter not only hates himself but is often a pretty unlikeable bit of work) out of Peter Parker and replaces it with a whining stupidity that ends up with Peter giving Mysterio the key to Stark’s technology because Peter here is an idiot.

Which is a shame. Tom Holland is a perfect cross between the John Romita and Ultimate era Spidey. He’s a good actor who will clearly be the new cornerstone of the MCU in the decade to come and will hopefully have better to work with in the future but Far From Home feels rushed and more interested in the overall arc of the MCU than telling a great Spidey story.

What I thought of Heroes in Crisis

Written by Tom King and drawn by Clay Mann, Heroes in Crisis was yet another massive event title which promised to ‘change the DC Universe forever’, or at least til the end of June. It is an interesting, but seriously, seriously flawed experiment  but more on that in a moment.

The story centres round Sanctuary, a centre created by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed to help superheroes deal with the physiological effects of being a superhero. Basically it’s a drop in centre for people suffering with PTSD. This in itself is a great idea as it deals with the violence intrinsic in superhero comics and forces the reader to confront the fact their favourite genre is a violent one soaked in wish fulfilment.   This would be a great chance to do something unique and original as Tom King is certainly a talented enough writer to pull it off.

Except it doesn’t. It fails badly because it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it a murder mystery or a psychological study of the superhero because merging both doesn’t work as all of the threads become a mess as King also throws in some threads from his Batman run not to mention enacting obvious editorial demands which ends up making the ending pretty worthless.

But is an experiment. It does try to say something different. Mann’s art is pretty good often following a 9-panel grid but again it all feels a bit empty which is a shame as DC need something to give them a hard kick in the arse and this could have been it.

What I thought of some recent comics…

For many folk who follow this blog one way or another you possibly followed me because of my reviews of comics and although I don’t have the time (or to be honest the energy right now) to pick this up again but I do miss it so here’s a rundown of some of the comics you should be picking up, and some to avoid,

Starting with…

The Immortal Hulk.

The Hulk has had long runs of quality throughout the character’s long life from the original Kirby/Lee run, through to Herb Trimpe’s long run, and so on. This latest run written by Al Ewing and drawn by Joe Bennett is rewriting the character in a horror setting although still playing with the superhero genre. It owes a lot, and I mean a lot, to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run and Neil Gaiman’s superhero work.

It is however a stunning work in its own right melding body horror. supernatural elements and superheroics. This is by far the best comic produced by the Big Two today.

Batman.

Tom King’s run initially was offputting to me but he’s developed a clear story for Batman/Bruce Wayne that’s went from strength to strength. DC suffer from producing reams of utter drivel with art trapped in DC’s sub Jim Lee house style. King’s Batman run is blessed from having artists who can actually draw comics.

The Walking Dead.

This is a title which has been treading water for some time since the introduction of the Commonwealth with the title often resembling an essay of the benefits of capitalism versus socialism. With issue 200 coming soon it was clear Robert Kirkman would pull something out his hat for that issue to rival #100’s death of Glenn and introduction of Negan.

Well he’s done that in #191 and #192 and in these two issues the entire comic is up in the air as I have no idea how the comic is going to develop from now on. Picking these issues up won’t be easy as they both are selling around the £10 mark already and look to increase once the second print hits.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Remember the days when Marvel used to produce fun, all-ages comics that anyone could pick up? They’re more or less gone but Squirrel Girl keeps the flag flying with light, fun superheroics every issue and it is a complete delight.

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This title was one again I was less than excited about at the start but is now clearly the best superhero based title out there today. It is however nearing the end so pick it up now and you’ll get the final days of one of this decades most interesting mainstream books.

The Green Lantern.

Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp’s revamp of Green Lantern is interesting mainly thanks to Sharp’s stunning art. Morrison is going back over old ground in terms of style and although it is readable, there’s not much going on here apart from Sharp’s splendid art.

The Avengers.

As a title, this sells like proverbial hot cakes and it should do but I’ve never been convinced by Jason Aaron as a writer and this title won’t be the book that sells me on him having one good title in him and that’s about it. Its readable but disposable rubbish.

Savage Avengers

Remember the 90’s when any old shite would be thrown out if it had a bunch of EXTREME characters who were anti-heroes so they could do EXTREME things every month? Well, this is that book but they’re doing SAVAGE things instead of just being EXTREME. With a lineup of Wolverine, Elektra, The Punisher, Brother Voodoo, Venom and err, Conan this is a shameless cash cow designed to milk the Avengers brand, the Conan IP, and the popularity of Wolverine, Punisher and Venom for every single fucking penny Marvel can get out of the punter. It is terrible but it does serve as a signpost as to how awful comics can get.

 

And that’s it. Hope this pointed you in the direction of some good books and warned you off others. I may end up making this a monthly thing, so until the next time go out there and get yourself some good comics.

What I thought of Avengers: Endgame

In 2007 I read in Empire magazine that a film version of Iron Man was on it’s way from the newly formed Marvel Studios along with a new Hulk film. Future plans included a Thor and Captain America film as Marvel expanded into film media with what characters they’d left having sold the film rights to all the crown jewels like Spider-Man and X-Men during the 1990’s when the company was on the verge of going out of business.

Iron Man, Thor and Captain America (along with Hawkeye and the Black Widow who made appearances in those early Marvel films) were characters from comics who’d had the odd good run, but the majority of the comics featuring these characters were landfill comics. Basically these were destined for dealer’s 50p boxes with the odd issue/run standing out. Add into the mix Robert Downey Jnr who was in 2007 desperately piecing back something of a career after his drugs and alcohol problems of the 90’s left him popping up in films like the underrated A Scanner Darkly, or Zodiac, or the rather wonderful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.He was never really a megastar, and you most certainly didn’t pin the hopes of a virgin movie studio upon him.

But we’re now in 2019, Downey Jnr is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Iron Man is as recognised a superhero as Batman or Spider-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest moneymaking machine in film history, hence why Disney bought the company. Endgame is the end of a number of story arcs that started with Iron Man in 2008 as well as setting up some of what comes next so what maybe plotholes could actually be setting up future films, or TV series.

So, the film. From here on in lie SPOILERS.

The film starts right after the events of Infinity War, with the remaining Avengers trying to work out what to do next now that half the life in the universe has been wiped out. Meanwhile in space Tony Stark is near death’s door as he and Nebula try to return to Earth from Titan in the damaged ship of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Saved by Captain Marvel who returns the ship to Earth, Tony is bitter, angry and cynical after his defeat at the hands of Thanos plus seeing the likes of Spider-Man die in front of him has left him jaded. Leaving the Avengers to retreat and set up a family, the remaining team decide to find Thanos and use the infinity stones to reverse what he did. Upon finding Thanos they find he’s used the stones to destroy them leaving no way of changing things back to what they were, so Thor kills Thanos and the film jumps five years into the future.

Time has past. The world is trying to cope but we’re told economies around the world are in collapse while people try desperately to live normal lives while trying to cope with overwhelming grief. This first hour or so is not what you’d expect from a billion dollar blockbuster. There’s genuine big ideas as well as how grief affects people and how the phrase ‘moving on’ is easier said than done. There’s also hints that actually, Thanos may have been a lunatic but the oceans are becoming cleaner and well, life is going on. The film however doesn’t dwell on this for too long which isn’t too much of a shock but I hope in future films we see how this world has changed.

After Scott Lang frees himself from the Quantum Realm (another reality) he was left in at the end of Ant Man and the Wasp, he meets up with the Avengers to propose a ‘time heist’ to steal the Infinity Stones throughout time to make a new Infinity Gauntlet to turn back what Thanos did. Tony Stark is initially reluctant having now settled down with Pepper and having a child but rejoins the team after a sort-of reconciliation with Captain America.

The film then flips tone as firstly the original team is reformed, and then embark on a heist to steal the infinity stones throughout time which means the Russo brothers and scriptwriters Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus can do a tour of past MCU films, specifically the first Avengers film and Thor: The Dark World. This section allows the three core Avengers some personal moments so Tony meets his father, Thor meets his mother, and Cap looks longingly at Peggy Carter. Meanwhile the Black Widow sacrifices herself to get the Soul Stone which means all the stones are returned to the current day so the Hulk can use the stones to change things back as the Hulk is the only one of them powerful enough to use the stones.

The Hulk does indeed bring back everyone but not without being badly hurt in the process, then Thanos from 2014 (there’s lots of time travel stuff here) comes from the past to the present to get the stones, while destroying Avengers Mansion, and the Avengers. A big fight breaks out with Thanos and the core Avengers of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America who nearly beat Thanos, but his armies are pouring down on the Earth and all is lost…until all of the characters lost in the last film, come back along with the Wakandan tribes, sorcerers, Asgardians, and pretty much every film Marvel Comics bit of intellectual property barring the TV shows in a huge fight which everyone expected and just about stays on the right side of being a tedious cut scene from a computer game.  The gauntlet is in the hands of Thanos and just as we expect all to be lost, Tony Stark has stolen the gems from under him and clicks his fingers to wipe out Thanos and his armies.Tony dies, everyone is sad and we have a funeral to end Tony Stark’s arc and to maybe set up the future of the MCU.

Thor goes off with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Hawkeye returns to his family, Hulk is still around, but it’s Captain America who has the best ending as returning the stones back in time he decides to stay with Peggy to have the life he thought he could never have and the film ends…

Endgame is a titanic film. To think that in 2008 the first Iron Man film we’d end up at this with a film which isn’t just on track to be the biggest of all time, but is an astonishing piece of modern culture that cuts across every social, class and cultural divide you can imagine. I find it hard to imagine where Marvel go from here, and yes, sequels to Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Doctor Strange will ease the way in the future, but it took 11 years and 22 films to get here  using mainly the lower tier A list, not to mention B and C list Marvel Comics characters to forge what they’ve done here.

Of course Disney/Marvel now own the Fantastic Four and X Men characters which if done right would give the boost to keep it going for years, if not decades to come. We’re talking of a sausage factory here. Getting back to this level of popular culture? I don’t know. Plans for the future are still vague though a few TV series are announced for the new Disney channel but you can’t just throw Galactus or the Kree/Skrull war (which is where I think they’ll go) in two or three years for the next Avengers film without building up as effective a set of villains like Loki or Thanos so someone like Doctor Doom seems essential.

For now though Endgame is a triumph. It gives the audience what it wants, as well as what it didn’t know it wanted. It manages to hold together everything, and even for the first hour managed to challenge expectations massively but mainly it happens to massively entertain, even seriously provide some moving scenes for the 3 hour running time. To tie together 22 films to a coherent ending, not to mention acting as a new start for the next decade of Marvel is a task. My only real complaint is that I wish this massive piece of pop culture resulted in more people reading comics let alone actually knowing the names of the men and women who created these characters who make billions for Disney.

So, if you’re a fan of the films and/or comics go and see Endgame. If this is the peak for Marvel then it is a bloody good peak to hit.