Sunday, December 03, 2006

Stripping Down #10

Avengers United #73 (Panini UK)
“Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” by Joe Casey & Scott Kolins (Earth’s Mightiest Heroes #5-6)
“The End…And Beginning!” by Jim Shooter + David Michelinie & David Wenzel (The Avengers (v1) #175)
“A Viper In Our Midst!” by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (Journey Into Mystery (v1) #115)

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is the latest in a long line of series that attempt to reinvent or retcon (retroactively insert continuity into) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s formative classics. Some, like John Byrne’s risible Spider-Man: Chapter One have been quickly (and quite rightly) dismissed by both readers and Marvel themselves. Joe Casey’s Avengers series succeeds by exploring and expanding Stan Lee’s stories, rather than simply updating them for a modern audience. I particularly like the revelation that Hawkeye’s imminent induction to the team results from a meeting with erstwhile butler Jarvis, rather than the recommendation of his employer Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. This issue also focuses on Captain America’s crippling obsession with seeking vengeance on Nazi mastermind Baron Zemo for the death of his partner Bucky at the tail end of World War II. In both cases, the back stories render the original tales more plausible whilst remaining true to Lee’s vision for the characters. Whilst I’m not overly keen on Scott Kolins’ rendition of Thor, and the colour art occasionally makes his pencil art murky and difficult to follow, the visuals on the whole have been an asset to Casey’s writing. The Michael saga has long been one of my favourite Avengers stories and is a welcome addition to this title's archive section. The pace necessarily slows this issue to allow for the eponymous character’s origin and motivation to be revealed, but the cliffhanger promises an action packed final two instalments. Despite the fact that the enormous cast of characters results in their being slightly sidelined, it’s also been good to see the Guardians Of The Galaxy in these pages. A reprint of their origin story, drawn by the mighty Gene Colan, would be welcome in an upcoming issue of The Mighty World Of Marvel. I suspect this may not be the popular view, but I’d be happy to see the back of the second archive strip, Tales Of Asgard. Never a highlight of my Marvel UK comic experience as a kid, these stories really haven’t aged well, with last issue’s take on Little Red Riding Hood the nadir of a consistently underwhelming series. Vince Colletta’s half-arsed inking doesn’t help; I’ve never rated him as an artist, but his treatment of Jack Kirby’s potentially powerful art borders on the criminal. I’d like to see Tales Of Asgard replaced by another back-up strip or, equally preferable, a return to the informative and well-written Avengers Spotlight features, which have taken a back seat of late.

Wolverine & Deadpool #132 (Panini UK)
“Enemy Of The State” by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr (Wolverine (v2) #20)
“If It Ain’t Broke--!” by Chris Claremont & John Buscema (Wolverine (v1) #8)
“A Kiss, A Curse, A Cure” by Joe Kelly & Steve Harris (Deadpool/Death Annual 1998)

Following Greg Rucka and Darick Robertson’s Return Of The Native, which was beautiful to look at but a frustratingly sluggish read, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr debut with Enemy Of The State. Hitting the ground running, an exciting opening instalment sees Wolverine go AWOL after being ambushed by zombie ninjas in Japan. SHIELD discover Wolverine sometime later on the brink of death; however, it quickly transpires that he has been brainwashed by Hydra in the intervening period and proceeds to go on a killing spree. Millar’s script plays to his strengths, creating tension and uncertainty in both the characters and the reader. The ever versatile Romita Jr enhances the atmosphere considerably with dark, claustrophobic art that cements his reputation as one of the greatest artists working in mainstream comics today. In a single issue, Wolverine has once again become a “must read”. The second Wolverine story reprints the early issues of his 1988 (first) ongoing solo series. At this point in time, writer Chris Claremont had driven the X-Men into a rut and although the same propensity for overwriting, belaboured points and implausible plots is evident here, there’s also a sense of fun and vitality lacking in the ‘parent’ title. This is particularly highlighted in this issue’s conclusion of a two-part story featuring the Hulk. Both characters have adopted alternate identities: the Hulk as smart, grey-skinned mob muscle Joe Fixit; Wolverine as the less convincing and flimsily concealed ‘Patch’, keeping rival crime bosses in check on the island of Madripoor. Much of the entertainment is provided by the characters’ awareness of each other’s true identity, Wolverine setting the Hulk up for a series of prat falls to amusing effect. There’s a plot hiding in here somewhere, but it’s subordinate to the comedy antics. Unencumbered by the mismatched pairing in previous issues with inker Al Williamson, John Buscema’s art shines here. Co-feature Deadpool’s origin concludes in typically leftfield fashion as his mutant powers kick into overdrive and yet another relationship hits the skids. Given that Deadpool’s latest paramour is the embodiment of Death, this is perhaps no bad thing. Guest artist Steve Harris is no substitute for series regular Walter McDaniel and produces some patchy visuals that fail to do writer Joe Kelly’s script justice. That said, Deadpool continues to be a surprisingly rich comic book experience (which I completely missed the first time around) and an appropriate counterpoint to Wolverine’s grimmer and less self-deprecating narratives.

Batman Legends #41 (Panini UK)
“Family Reunion” by Judd Winick & Paul Lee + Doug Mahnke (Batman (v1) #640-641)
“To Kill A Legend!” by Alan Brennert & Dick Giordano (Detective Comics (v1) #500)

In a sudden, but on reflection unsurprising, move DC have renewed their Batman licence in the UK with Titan, bringing Panini’s title to an abrupt end. Although an anomaly in Panini’s otherwise exclusively Marvel focused Collectors’ Edition line, Batman Legends has been a consistently enjoyable read and I, for one, am sorry to see it go. Thankfully, the final issue ties up the current storyline and (most) plot threads, thereby providing a perfect jumping off point. Two thirds of this issue are devoted to Family Reunion, as Batman discovers that Jason Todd, aka the former Robin Mk II, believed murdered by The Joker, has somehow come back to life as extreme vigilante The Red Hood. Judd Winick’s deft script delivers plenty of action and a satisfying denouement, Batman struggling to comprehend both Todd’s resurrection and hardline stance on battling crime. Artist Paul Lee is a disappointing stand-in for Doug Mahnke in the first instalment, but Mahnke returns with a visually powerful final chapter. The how’s and why’s of Jason Todd’s return are not explained here, but Family Reunion is nevertheless a fitting conclusion to a series that has continually exceeded Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s frankly over-hyped Hush that launched Batman Legends. The archive section has also been a delight, with classics from Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams, Frank Miller’s Year One and Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky, to name a few. This issue doesn’t disappoint with 1981’s To Kill A Legend, a story that prefigures DC’s later Elseworlds stories by exploring an alternate world where Batman is able to prevent the murder of his parents. As you might expect, artist Dick Giordano delivers the goods here with some wonderfully realised pages. All in all, Batman Legends ends on the same high note that it’s frequently held throughout it’s three-year run. Titan are relaunching Batman Legends on December 21st. Acknowledging Panini’s success, they are largely replicating the formula, mirroring not only the title but also the Collectors’ Edition branding and three story format. However, the new series will focus on Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder, Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s Batman and Son and, most depressingly, Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s turgid Superman/Batman series. Although any misgivings I had about a UK Batman title were more than amply addressed by Panini’s assured handling of the title and choice of current and archive material, Titan’s revamp on the surface lacks appeal. Like I said, Batman Legends #41 provides a perfect jumping off point and… I’m poised on the edge.

Panini UK comics website
Titan Magazines' Batman Legends mini-site

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