Monday, June 04, 2007

Stripping Down #20

The Mighty World Of Marvel (v3) #55
(Panini UK)

“Beyond!” by Dwayne McDuffie & Scott Kolins (Beyond! #1)
“Vicious Cycle” by Daniel Way, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira (Ghost Rider (v5) #3)
“Rumble In The Sky” by Kurt Busiek, Erik Larsen & Al Gordon (The Defenders (v2) #6)

Lead story Beyond! seems to satisfy three reader requests in one fell swoop: i) more Spider-Man, ii) more Scott Kolins and iii) Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars. Well, okay, maybe the last isn’t strictly accurate but it’s the next best thing if you ignore Secret Wars II (and believe me, I’ve tried). As with the original series, Beyond! sees a group of superhumans kidnapped from Earth and challenged to fight each other for their heart’s desire. Alongside Spider-Man’s arch foe Venom, there’s Kraven, who seems to have both reformed and gained a sense of humour since his last appearance in The Astonishing Spider-Man. In addition, there are three former Avengers: Firebird, The Wasp and Hank Pym (aka Ant Man aka Giant Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket); the interesting dynamic here being Hank’s history of hanky panky with both women. Rounding out the group are Medusa of The Inhumans and two relative unknowns, dyed-in-the-wool goodie Gravity and The Hood, who appears to be rather more conflicted, morally speaking. The writer, Dwayne McDuffie, impressed with his Damage Control mini-series and Deathlok revamp in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but pretty much dropped off of my radar after that. Happily, his script doesn’t disappoint, giving plenty of space to each of the featured characters, building up to the unexpected cliffhanger. Scott Kolins’ art is impeccable, his take on Venom a particular high point, with Paul Mounts’ colour art adding a real depth to Kolins’ visuals. Whilst lacking the sheer scale of the 1980s Secret Wars maxi-series, this is nonetheless a refreshing take on the now commonplace superhuman slugfest. In the second strip, the 2006 return of Ghost Rider continues apace as the biker with the flaming skull confronts Dr. Strange, appropriately enough in a graveyard. It’s the time honoured narrative of two heroes at cross purposes coming to blows but, thanks to Daniel Way’s sharp set-up and deft writing, the conflict avoids coming across as clichéd and predictable. Likewise the Lucifer sub-plot, despite being a mere three pages this issue, continues to intrigue as the dead rise in Oklahoma and go on a killing spree. Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira perfectly judge the visual tone, with the horror of the latter sequence coming from what is implied, rather than explicitly shown. The pair really are an ideal match on this series, with colourist Dan Brown’s excellent work enhancing the mood of the story no end. With a bound Dr. Strange on the receiving end of Ghost Rider’s Penance Stare at the episode’s climax, I’m looking forward to seeing how the good ol’ Doc gets out of this mess next month. This is undoubtedly one of MWOM’s best features to date. I wish I could say the same for The Defenders. As a kid, I loved Marvel UK’s Rampage weekly, which headlined the non-team’s early exploits, and followed them through to Rampage monthly, Hulk Comic and Captain America weekly, before sticking with the original US title to the bitter end in the mid-1980s. This 2001 revamp promised so much, with the classic line-up restored and a pair of capable creators in Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen. However, halfway through the series’ short-lived run and I’m starting to understand why it was cancelled as I’m still feeling underwhelmed. The Defenders was, by virtue of it’s status as a non-team, a home for ‘leftfield’ creators, heroes ‘in between’ solo series (or membership of The Avengers) and the Marvel Universe’s more obscure villains. The latter has certainly been true in this incarnation, but I found it very hard to muster any enthusiasm for this issue’s adversaries, Red Raven and, erm, Bi-Beast. Having the story narrated by the ‘dumb’ Hulk is mildly amusing, and there’s a big explosion to close the episode, yet… there’s still something missing. I’ve struggled to put my finger on it, though I think in part it’s the characterisation, or lack of it. Much as I love these characters, there’s little here to engage the reader. If I were new to The Defenders, I’d be forgiven for not giving two hoots about any of them, which seems to be borne out by comments from MWOM readers, particularly in the Panini Comics forum. Disappointing.

The Mighty World Of Marvel (v3) #56
(Panini UK)

“Beyond!” by Dwayne McDuffie & Scott Kolins (Beyond! #2)
“Vicious Cycle” by Daniel Way, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira (Ghost Rider (v5) #4)
“Fire Above, Thunder Below” by Kurt Busiek, Erik Larsen & Sal Buscema
(The Defenders (v2) #7)

Judging by Scott Kolins’ (uncharacteristically bland) cover, Venom may have bitten off more than he can chew. Inside, Medusa proves this by giving the symbiote a good whupping for murdering Spider-Man in the opening instalment of Beyond! Of course, you know that the webhead isn’t really dead and, to his credit, writer Dwayne McDuffie doesn’t drag things out, resolving this particular issue by the close of the chapter. The group crash land on an alien world, encounter both a friend (Deathlok) and foe (Dragon Man) and get more questions than answers. In the absence of Spider-Man, it’s Kraven who gets the best lines, a choice exchange being with Hank Pym on the latter’s size changing abilities:
Hank Pym: “I submit myself to the same [shrinking] process but there are certain biological difficulties…”
Kraven: “Say no more. Shrinkage is nothing to joke about.”
Aside from Carry On moments like this, Beyond! continues to provide a winning combination of solid writing and impressive art. There are also informative fact files on Kraven, Gravity, The Hood and Firebird, to help bring readers up to speed. In the Ghost Rider strip, the mysterious Numecet appears and reveals the true nature of Lucifer’s manifestation on Earth and Johnny Blaze’s unwitting part in his plans. As to be expected from writer Daniel Way, Ghost Rider seems to be in a no-win situation; it’ll be fascinating to see how the character defeats Lucifer without also condemning himself to an eternity in hell. The Defenders storyline comes to an end with another shift of narrative perspective, this time to the new Valkyrie. Although this keeps the tone of each issue relatively fresh, I don’t think that it’s achieving it’s intended purpose of enabling the reader to engage with the characters or understand their relationships with one another. The core members of Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner and Hulk are keen to break the curse that binds them together; Nighthawk, Hellcat and Valkyrie see The Defenders as their surrogate family and want the team to remain intact. Beyond that, I don’t feel any closer to empathising with any of them, which is a real shame. The main action sees The Defenders fight to save Red Raven’s aerial city from The Wayfinder, have yet another truncated stab at freeing Atlantis from Attuma’s mob of marine Z-listers and a battle with former foe Hell-Eyes that’s over before most of the team (and indeed, the readers) have even caught up. There’s an epilogue worthy of the Steve Gerber era that promises more (Headmen, probably). The Defenders take another break next issue to make way for their AWOL founder member – and now movie star – The Silver Surfer in a classic tale. Bring it on!

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