Saturday, June 02, 2007

Stripping Down #19

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v1) #150 (Panini UK)
“Sins Past” by J. Michael Straczynski, Mike Deodato & Jose Pimentel
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #513-514)
“Carnage” by David Michelinie, Mark Bagley & Randy Emberlin
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #361-362)

A 100 page special to celebrate a century and a half and to close the first volume of this incredibly successful UK Spider-Man title. The first half of the issue is devoted to the concluding chapters of the controversial Sins Past, as Spider-Man finally confronts Gwen Stacy’s children with the truth about their father. The extent of Norman Osborn’s manipulations goes some way to offsetting the less palatable retroactive continuity. Although this storyline has skirted very closely to the realms of implausibility, particularly in redefining Gwen Stacy and her relationship with Peter Parker, it’s impact cannot be denied. J. Michael Straczynski has stirred up a narrative hornets’ nest, leading to one of the liveliest debates about Spider-Man comics in a long time. Credit also to Mike Deodato, whose work on this series is arguably a career best. The second half of this giant sized edition features the 1992 debut of Carnage; I’d put the emphasis here on ‘archive’ rather than ‘classic’ Spider-Man. I’ve never been a fan of either the character or then-artist Mark Bagley, but it’s interesting to see how much the former has declined and the latter has improved in the last 15 years. David Michelinie’s script is good, but not on a par with his earlier work on the title. However, the unusually bloodthirsty narrative (typical for the early 1990s) is balanced by the sketching of Cletus Kasady/Carnage as a dangerous psychopath with no moral restraint, juxtaposed with his ‘father’ Eddie Brock/Venom’s warped sense of justice and protecting the innocent and Spider-Man’s moral dilemma in finding a way to deal with them both. Rounding off the issue is a fascinating article by Comics International’s Mike Conroy, where David Michelinie explains his reasons for creating Carnage as a counterpoint to both Spider-Man and Venom, and how the character was subsequently used and misused. All in all, this is a fine swansong and I for one am looking forward to The Astonishing Spider-Man volume 2, although it’s fortnightly frequency means that my bank account won't be…

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #1 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #1-2)
“Carnage” by David Michelinie, Mark Bagley & Randy Emberlin
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #363)

Wow, this just screams “Buy Me!” An Andy Kubert illustration, excessive use of alliteration, a shiny foil cover and a big, bold number 1 in the corner box. I’m not a fan of relaunches for the sake of it, so does the interior of The Astonishing Spider-Man volume 2, number 1 stand up to scrutiny? Simple answer is that it sure does. Previews magazine had originally listed this premiere issue as running Sarah’s Story, a follow-on from the recent Sins Past arc. Given that the point of a relaunch is to provide a jumping on point for new (and lapsed) Spider-Man readers, leading with a continuity heavy story would have been a bad move. Although the replacement mini-series Breakout (originally planned for ASM #3) is also a tie-in to the similarly titled storyline currently running in The Avengers United, it’s entirely enjoyable as a standalone series. Writer Tony Bedard’s writing provides sufficient explanation without an over reliance on exposition, meaning that the narrative is suitably fast paced. Artist Manuel Garcia does struggle a bit with long shots, his figures looking a tad static and/or amateurish at times, but expressive facial close ups and panel layouts in general are a real strength. Inker Raul Fernandez adds a polish to Garcia’s pencils that overcomes most of their shortcomings. The archive strip wraps up Carnage’s first appearance (there’s a handy contents page recap if you missed The Astonishing Spider-Man (v1) #150). The story is really nothing to write home about and Mark Bagley’s rendition of Venom is dreadful, shadowed only by an excruciatingly awful depiction of a rock concert. At least next issue promises some proper classic art, courtesy of John Romita Snr and Jim Mooney. On reflection, a reassuring beginning for the (slightly) new Astonishing Spider-Man. Let’s hope it maintains the high standard in the year ahead.

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #2 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #3-4)
“Beware…The Black Widow!” by Stan Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney (Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #86)

Another double dose of Breakout, as The U-Foes and Crossfire’s crew attempt to flush out Rosalyn Backus, the object of both teams’ enmity. Luckily for Backus, Spider-Man gets to her first and begins to unravel some of the mystery surrounding Backus’ history with these super-villains. Tony Bedard has produced a fast-paced and unpredictable tale, where nothing is quite what it seems. Crossfire, who always seemed to me like a second rate Bullseye, has become in the course of this series both an intriguing character and formidable foe. Bedard also makes good use of comparisons between the two groups. Crossfire’s crew, comprising mind-manipulators The Controller, Mr. Fear, The Corruptor and The Mandrill, clearly struggle to work as a team, ultimately to their cost. Vector’s leadership of his team on the other hand is much tighter, more akin to family unit of the Fantastic Four, whose powers The U-Foes sought to replicate. Breakout explores power on several levels: physical superhuman abilities as a blessing or a curse; individuals’ use of power to influence others; and, of course, the old adage about the corrupting effect of power. The end result is a story that deftly balances thought provoking narrative and dramatic tension and, given the large cast of characters, doesn’t forget to place it’s lead character at the centre. Garcia and Fernandez again impress with some energetic storytelling. Back to 1970 for the classic strip, one of my favourite Marvel heroines, The Black Widow, swings by. I’d forgotten that the Russian femme fatale debuted her black skintight jumpsuit, inspired by The Avengers (TV’s Emma Peel not the Marvel’s superteam) in these pages. An iconic look that hasn’t dated as the decades have passed. Wowza! The story itself is a bit hokey: The Black Widow, seeking to establish herself a superhero, decides to fight Spider-Man in order to test his abilities and learn from the experience. Unfortunately, Spidey’s feeling more than a little under par and is convinced that he’s losing his spider-powers. The script is inevitably melodramatic (come on, this is Stan Lee after all), the art is vintage John Romita and there’s a finale worthy of the best soap operas. What more could you ask for?

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #3 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #5)

“Unusual Suspects” by Paul Jenkins, Phil Winslade & Tom Palmer
(Daredevil/Spider-Man: Unusual Suspects #1)
“Unmasked At Last!” by Stan Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #87)

In the concluding chapter of Breakout, Spider-Man calls in some help from New Avengers team-mates Captain America and Iron Man to stop The U-Foes and Crossfire’s crew. As with the previous chapters, Tony Bedard manages to provide each of the characters with convincing motivations and rationales for their actions. Of the two teams, the reader is encouraged to empathise with The U-Foes and in particular Vector, as their pursuit of Rosalyn Backus has been driven by much more than just greed or revenge. Manuel Garcia’s art isn't quite up to the same standard here, the artist notably having a hard time with the aforementioned Avengers, who seem oddly squat throughout. However, on the whole, Breakout has been a welcome break from the regular Spider-Man series and a perfect start to this new title. Sticking with mini-series for the second strip is Unusual Suspects, a Daredevil / Spider-Man double header. Just one look at the credits was enough to assure me that this would be a great read and chapter one does not disappoint. Phil Winslade’s incredibly detailed pencils are a joy to look at, not least the opening half dozen pages. Veteran inker Tom Palmer has been a favourite for as long as I can remember reading comics and seems to thrive on working with artists of this calibre. Although Palmer’s heavy style can be overpowering at times, here his judgement is spot on and the best of both artists’ styles are evident. Paul Jenkins’ script is typically rich, with a well constructed premise and some excellent dialogue. I was rather bemused by the trio of villains – Gladiator, Stilt Man and Copperhead – none of whom are the original Daredevil foes. Exposition would have affected the flow of the story, but I hope that this – and The Kingpin’s blindness - will be explained, either in the story itself or by way of an accompanying article. Unmasked At Last! screams the classic strip’s splash page. Of course, Stan Lee’s still writing like it’s the early 1960s so you know that the story will include so many twists and turns that Lee can barely squeeze in a deus ex machina at the end. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much by saying that this issue leads into The Death Of Captain Stacy storyline (and is included in the Pocket Book of the same name that, strangely enough, Panini UK published in March). As of itself It’s not a 'classic' classic if you get my meaning, but it’s a fun story if only in demonstrating that ol’ Peter was often more of a worry wart than his dear Aunt May…!

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