This Week in Comics (June 25th, 2014)
Experimenting with tone a bit on these, for a couple of reasons, most of which are ones of trying to find a purpose for these while also enjoying doing them quite a bit. For the first few I was leaning towards comics evangelism, since I know contemporary comics are a niche medium. But someone asked me for some recommendations for good comics from the last few years the other day, and I had to admit, there weren’t that many that I enjoyed in a “tell other people to check them out” sort of way – more a cautious “if this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably enjoy it all right” way that is all too true for a lot of comics.
Which is the other odd thing in writing about contemporary comics, which is that their sales are pathetic. For fun comparison, this week’s pick of the week sold 34,839 copies last month. Its runner up, the mega-successful Saga, sold 55,442. The top-selling comic of last month was the first issue of Original Sin, all the way up at 147,045. These numbers are expanded a bit by digital, but honestly, not by much.
Comics, in other words, really are a niche medium, and while it’s worth pointing to the good bits that shouldn’t be as niche as they are, when we are talking about Underwear Fetishists Punch People #Whatever or Countably Infinite Crisis on Fifty-Two Sins #0.437 Deadpool vs Batferret the truth is that this is an idiosyncratic paraphilia that we should go ahead and be honest about. Which is to say, since we’re largely discussing my embarrassing Marvel habit, let’s all acknowledge that anyone who gives a shit about how the latest issue of Guardians of the Galaxy is can therefore be assumed to be a fetishist as well.
Which is to say that I’m going to stop pretending that I’ll drop a comic just because it’s terrible every month. I don’t drop the equivalently priced Starbucks mochas just because they are essentially sugar weaponized into a slow-acting poison. I’m much more interested in this being a thoroughly partisan, modern equivalent to a fanzine column that will simply mouth off recklessly about where mainstream American comics should be looking at any given instant. Because with an audience as small as comics have, the fanzine is actually finally appropriate, as opposed to when they started and represented a tiny and irrelevant minority of the audience.
All of which said, they’ll be taking a week off next week, as I will be out of town and will not be able to get to the shop. Looking at what’s coming out, it’ll be Uber or Lazarus fighting for Pick of the Week (which will always be something I can recommend with a straight face that someone who is not me read), with Rocket Racoon and Moon Knight the dark horse candidates. Though if it’s a crap week, I could always pick Miracleman. Even though the really interesting issue of that is going to be in August. But yes, no comics post next week, and a double week roundup the week after that, though probably with books I don’t have anything interesting to say about dropped.
Amazing Spider-Man #3
I’ve been ambivalent on Spider-Man for a bit. The whole Superior Spider-Man premise left me utterly cold at a period when I needed to shrink my pull list, and so I used it as an excuse to drop the book. I picked it up when it went back to Peter Parker because I’d been enjoying Dan Slott’s run all right before the Otto switch. But I’ve completely lost track of what’s going on in that .1-numbered thing, and Slott is off to what can generously be called a decompressed start. This issue picks up nicely and is what you want out of Slott on Spider-Man, but the answer to what you want out of Slott on Spider-Man is still basically a very faithful “Stan Lee for the present day” imitation, which this is. There are some very good ways to do this – the pick of the week this week, in fact, is ultimately a Stan Lee derivative, albeit via Bendis’s reworking of the formula. But Slott is ultimately just a very competent and conservative approach to it, and this is basically what you’ve got going on in this comic. C
Guardians of the Galaxy #16
It is very much what it is – a comic that exists because there is a movie coming out. Given that this is going to exist no matter what, Marvel is at least putting a good writer on it. But Bendis is also a frustrating writer – he is perhaps the most prone to serialization, such that his comics almost never have big, iconic brilliant issues. This comes close, with a very solid payoff to Starlord’s plot. But with so many other plots lying around, it doesn’t get the weight it deserves. It’s clearly the issue’s climax, but there are five pages after it that just amount to a double cliffhanger unconnected to the preceding resolution. Feels like a poorly structured Game of Thrones episode. B-
The Massive #24
I’ve been turning off Brian Wood a bit over the last year or so, and I honestly can’t tell if it’s because I’m getting tired of his writing or because I’m still disgusted by how he handled the sexual harassment accusations against him. The Massive has been the one Wood book I’ve been semi-consistently enjoying, but it’s had some real problems ranging from the industry endemic “pairing talky books with noirish artists” problem to a bizarre sense of structure that’s been hugely averse to reveals about the premise and overly invested in its setting-of-the-week, or, more accurately, setting-of-the-season, since it’s always structured in three-issue arcs whether they make any sense or not.
In any case, this arc has actually been an arc, and, more than that, has been really brilliant and good. We’re finally getting solutions to the central mysteries of the book, and they’re good, rewarding answers. Which only makes the fact that it’s two years in more frustrating. Ultimately, this is a book whose best character is turning out to be a black woman but that has spent two years focusing on a story about a white dude instead. There were better ways of doing the ideas in this book, although the ideas were and are very much worth doing. It’s actually worth picking up issues #22-24 of this, which are a pretty self-contained story. If you love it as much as I do, it’s probably worth reading the rest of the series. If it leaves you cold, well, that was the book’s best shot. But this has been a very, very strong arc, and this is an equally strong issue. A
Ms. Marvel #5 (Pick of the Week)
In a very real sense, this is what comics are about. G. Willow Wilson is an excellent writer who I’ve plugged and talked about before. This is a Marvel Universe book, yes, but it’s still first and foremost two phenomenally good creators doing their own thing. Under the hood we have a Pakistani-American version of the classic Spider-Man “teen superhero” story, with a female lead. It’s unabashedly Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man being imitated, but in the same way that Daredevil was unabashedly The Amazing Spider-Man being imitated. This issue maneuvers deftly among the stock scenes in an early-era superhero story (the comic is still in the first film, so to speak) while still packing in the small human moments and surprises Wilson is good at. Lovely, and worth catching up on the first few issues of. A+
New Avengers #20
The sort of thing that is frustrating about Hickman. Ultimately, this entire issue amounts to a declaration that we will be paying off the “Doctor Strange selling his soul” plot now, and in a very big way. The thing is, we don’t pay it off. We instead build all issue to a cliffhanger about it. But nothing happens other than that cliffhanger. Our heroes lose a fight at great length. Fifteen pages of this comic are fight scene, all coloured in reds. Five more are exposition about how Doctor Strange sold his soul, which we knew, and all the issue establishes is that he sold it in a slightly different way than we thought. That’s it. That is all this issue aspires to do. A monochrome fight scene with a cliffhanger that reverses the tide of battle in a terrifying and high cost way, which is to say, the most cliched comics fight scene imaginable, accompanied by redundant exposition. At $3.99. What a fucking ripoff. F
Original Sin #3.1 Hulk Vs. Iron Man #1
Bought because issues #2 and #4 (or is that 3.2 and 3.4? What Original Sin lacks in creativity about superhero crossovers, it more than makes for in creativity about counting) will be by Gillen and serve as the end of his troubled but occasionally fascinating Iron Man run. The other issues are by Mark Waid, who I gather is currently writing Hulk, but I have no idea what the status quo on that book even is. Avengers suggests we’ve gotten away from Hulk as near-villain and are instead on a “Banner is dangerous but useful and really wants to be a good guy” approach to match the films. In any case, this was solicited as being about some big revelation about Iron Man and the Hulk that goes back to the fundamental origins of the characters. The first issue… is basically that. There’s some introducing of set pieces, but it’s all very much in a tonal/stylistic “here is what our themes and major images are going to be” sort of exposition, all leading to the revelation that… the book has the premise it was solicited with.
Compare, if you will, with The Wicked and the Divine #1, just to make the point a little more edged, and you’ll note that The Wicked and the Divine simply started with the broad knowledge of the premise assumed and got on with it. Yes, the premise still gets explained within the comic, because it has to be, but the exposition is midway through, in a scene that does loads of other things too. This is part of why it’s a really fucking good first issue.
This, however, is not a good first issue. This is a first issue that uses its solicited premise as a cliffhanger, which is a practice that should just be banned from comics. Really. A new ironclad rule: never, ever use the solicited premise of a comic as the cliffhanger. It is bad writing. Also, Mark Waid needs to be better about asking himself if his captions are actually necessary. D
Not a stellar installment for Saga, which is to say, not the one you’d hand to someone to hook them. B-list issues of Saga are still strong contenders for pick of the week, and it’s only because I thought Ms. Marvel was particularly strong this week and worth highlighting (Trees will have to wait for Ellis to show his hand on where he’s going, not because it’s not good, but because Ellis has a track record of having the wheels come off projects. As they do in comics, to be clear. That’s just the nature of the industry. Why are we talking about two other comics in this review?) that it isn’t. Vaughan has to get several characters from point A to point B, and he gets them around the board gracefully and intelligently. Saga is a fascinating book – unabashedly structured like television, with single arcs being seasons, but also unabashedly using comics to make a story that would make HBO run away in terror at the expense of. Very fun and worth reading. But don’t start this month. B+
Ah, a new Warren Ellis thriller. Welcome back. I look forward to you frustratingly ending after one arc without resolution. Although you’re at Image, which seems to be reasonably committed to double digit issue numbers if a book does decently, which this hopefully is. Ellis is playing very Game of Thrones “events going on across the planet” with this book, and he’s good at cutting among them and having discrete scenes that are satisfying for each one. There’s a lot to be said about the influence of Game of Thrones on comics right now, though that’s really part of a larger discussion of the influence of television on comics, but Ellis has always been sharp about this sort of game.
And then there’s the ideas – Ellis doing major social change, new conceptions of the alien, and playing in a very science fiction mode. His usual “let’s use science fiction to imagine what parts of the world you’ve probably not been paying enough attention to could end up doing” stuff, this time with giant aliens that are just poles stuck in the ground that don’t react to humans. So vintage Ellis – interesting big ideas, well thought-through structure, some fun scenes. Very much worth looking at, as you can still get in early on. A
June 26, 2014 @ 2:52 am
Not that I'd disagree about Hickman, but I find it amusing that it's this particular issue of New Avengers that has triggered your rage, after the issue where the fighters are introduced, the issue where the fight scene is previewed on magic TV, the issue where they get ready for the fight scene, the issue where people talk about whether the fight scene is going to happen or not, etc etc. Though those issues had more good Namor being a dick moments, which is the main comic-to-comic appeal at this point…
June 26, 2014 @ 5:55 am
I appreciate the unabashed take on comics. (I know "this is not a review site") but too many review sites just play into the comic propaganda machine, with only superficial criticism, serving to inflate the value and importance of many lack luster issues.
I would be very interested to read your take on the influence of TV on comics, as I've historically viewed the phenomenon in the reverse. By which I mean, stringing comics out into 6-issue arcs or 12 issues 'seasons' has been the norm in comics for decades, yet television has really only been doing this (or doing it skillfully) in recent years. (Doctor Who of course being a trailblazer with its 4 or 6 parters with designed cliff hangers)
Comics and TV are quintessential serialized media, and I see TV (from shows like Veronica Mars that mastered the one&done that tied into a season long plot) being just as influenced by comic formatting as vice versa..
June 26, 2014 @ 6:38 am
Even though I no longer read many comics I enjoy reading your thoughts. I also hadn't realised that the industry had become so niche! Are you going to provide any info on when and why that happened, either here or in the later stages of Last War?
I saw the Guardians of the Galaxy film trailer for the first time the other night, and it made me realise quite how out of touch I am. I'd been looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Vance Astro, Yondu, Martinex et al., who I fell in love with back in their first ever appearance (mumble) years ago. Then I saw…who? Starlord, not Starhawk? Rocket Raccoon? Gamora and Drax (though without Adam Warlock, so perhaps he's dead at the moment)? And, um, Groot. Don't know him.
Not so excited now. 8(
June 26, 2014 @ 6:43 am
I've often wondered how Hickman reads from issue to issue, since I've only ever read him in collections, and as someone said on Amazon in a review, Hickman tends to write not for the trade but for the omnibus. And he's writing two books that are clearly meant to be read together, since they're basically ruminating on the same theme of building and saving worlds, which means you get double the long term fun. I get the sense that issues like this-which admittedly is far from the best Hickman can do-are ones that look better when you pull back to the macro distance and take the longer view.
I wonder though if I had been reading Infinity and the two Avengers books that make up the Infinity collection as singles if I'd occasionally had gone "what the hell is this?" over it, though.
June 26, 2014 @ 7:08 am
The division of comics into discrete arcs seems to have been a result of the rise of the TPB, which started in the 80s but didn't really hit full steam until the 00s. The Invisibles, for instance, wasn't being collected in the order it came out or with any great speed, and big trade paperback lags for all but the most prestigious series were common. The situation now, where even the shoddiest, lowest-selling comic gets put into trade, is relatively recent (it's probably a result of the popularity of manga – as are a lot of 00s comics trends). So you got decompression, "writing for the trade", etc – the stuff people complained about in the early 00s – but at that point the big extra-comics cultural influence on US mainstream comics storytelling and how stories were structured was still blockbuster cinema: the "widescreen" ideal of Morrison's JLA, Ellis' Authority and artists like Finch or Hitch. There's definitely been a shift from that to TV thinking, I think.
Really interesting point re the two-way influence tho – the big shift into continuous storytelling at Marvel (picking up on seeds sowed in the Lee/Kirby FF run) was in the early 70s – Starlin, Englehart, etc developing the concept of the authorial 'run'. I dunno what TV was like then – was it "soapy" in the same way? I always assumed TV influenced Claremont's X-Men storytelling, for instance – but the thing his run was most compared to (Hill Street Blues) didn't start until well into it.
June 26, 2014 @ 7:32 am
As with most of Marvel, I'm over a year behind on Spidey, since I get Marvel UK reprint mags, so I'm right in the middle of Superior, and enjoying it a lot more than I expected. I agree that Slott's take on Spider-Man is a Stan Lee homage, but disagree it's a conservative one; he seems to delight in keeping the spirit of Stan Lee while shaking up just about every aspect of the status quo that previous writers seemed to see as sacrosanct. The obvious example is that J. Jonah is no longer running the Bugle, but my favourite is that someone has finally said that a guy who studied science at university, even if he never got his doctorate, probably shouldn't still be working at the freelance photog gig he took as an after-school job when he was 15.
June 26, 2014 @ 9:10 am
ironclad rule: never, ever use the solicited premise of a comic as the cliffhanger
You must hate that British tv show, what's it called, Doctor Who.
June 26, 2014 @ 9:11 am
Mark Waid needs to be better about asking himself if his captions are actually necessary
Reminds me of so many movies in which the narration tells us what we are already seeing on the screen.
June 26, 2014 @ 9:16 am
They aren't new characters, though. Groot, e.g., was created by Lee & Kirby in 1960. Yondu does have a brief role in the movie.
June 26, 2014 @ 10:58 am
Yeah, sorry, rereading my post I can see I wasn't expressing myself too clearly – I recognised all the characters (except Groot, and even he might have guested in something I read but not left an impression); my "WTF?" moment happened because they weren't members of the Guardians of the Galaxy…in the outdated Marvel Universe that sits inside my head.
June 26, 2014 @ 11:02 am
Yes, I was consistently in favor of the tendency to have stories called ____ of the Daleks end with cliffhangers revealing the Daleks, wasn't I?
June 26, 2014 @ 11:57 am
I had the same reaction Elvwood, but probably about a year ago when the publicity started and Karen Gillan was cast. I loved the old Vance Astro Guardians of the Galaxy but actually I can't remember why. Wasn't it written by Steve Gerber round the same time he was doing Howard the Duck? Now I'm wishing I hadn't sold my comic collection.
June 26, 2014 @ 12:44 pm
There's a memory! Yeah, Steve Gerber – and, having looked it up, it was exactly the time he was also writing Howard the Duck.
This being a time when my access to US comics was still pretty ropey (both because of unreliable UK distribution and reliably too little pocket money), I actually read one issue in French first. Couldn't figure it out that well, and I remember when I finally got the issue in English, several years later, I found the opening dialogue included "cakewalking down a beam of light! This, folks, is spelunking in style!" – and thought it wasn't too surprising I was struggling.
Part of me also wishes I hadn't sold (95% of) my collection. The larger part thinks "where would I have kept it?"
June 27, 2014 @ 10:57 am
I;ve got no way of confirming it but I always thought the original publishing schedule of The Invisibles was to do with the death of Diana in1997. Given that one of the storylines in Apocalipstick & Entropy In The UK deals with the plan to have the Royal Moonchild use Diana as breeding stock to bring into our reality the Cthulu-esque entities of the Outer Church I don't see DC corporate going for their release in 1997/8 after the release of Say You Want A Revolution in 1996.
Whilst it was never his intention to get the story radically re-worked I've never forgiven Rich Johnson for putting X-Statix on the Daily Hate's radar…