Monday, June 28, 2004

Looking To The Stars:Why Doc Ock Rocks!

So I was walking about the old comic store, when I happened to overhear two youths as they watched the Spider-Man trailers that we had playing on a loop near our Spider-Man Merchandise Display OF DOOM!

“This looks cooler than the first one,” said the first.

“Yeah, but I wish that hadn’t used Doctor Octopus,” said the other.

“Yeah! He’s so old and lame,” the first agreed.

“They should have used Venom,” stated the second.

“Or Carnage,” added the first.

“Yeah! Venom and Carnage together would be sweet! I don’t know why they used Doctor Octopus,” concluded the second.

Well, an old-school Spider-fan like me can only take so much. Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock as he is often called for short, happens to be my favorite Spider-Man villain of all time. I will in fact, go so far as to say that he is THE greatest villain that Spider-Man has ever had. And considering how many greats Stan Lee created on the first year of Spider-Man alone, that is saying something.

This is not to say there haven’t been any good stories done with Venom and Carnage but for sheer villainy, NOBODY can top ol’ Doc Ock. Yes, that includes anyone and everyone who ever put on a goblin mask. With that in mind, here’s the list of reasons I gave those boys as to why Doctor Octopus is the best Spider-Man villain there is.

1. The Dark Reflection

The greatest villains in history have always been a mirror of what the hero is and might have been had it not been for one small difference. Professor Moriarty was an emotional mathematician and criminal genius; the perfect nemesis for the emotionless detective and heroic genius Sherlock Holmes. The two could have been great friends and were indeed admirers of one another, though they found themselves facing off because one was determined to be a criminal. With that in mind, it is easy to see how Doctor Octopus is the Moriarty of Spider-Man. In many ways, Otto Octavius is a twisted parody of what Peter Parker might have become.

It is worth noting that depending on the writer, Octavius has been depicted as both a crank mocked by his fellow scientists whose accident was a karmatic punishment for his arrogance and as a kindly, if misunderstood scientist, working to improve humanity’s lot. I prefer the later, as it is in more keeping with Stan Lee’s original vision of the character, whose evil ways were caused by a brain injury acquired in the same explosion that gave him his powers. More, this emphasizes the path Peter could taken had his accident happened differently.

Differing tales of the Doctor’s past have also altered just how rough a childhood he had, but it is generally agreed that he had a father who was anything but supportive of his genius and a mother who was too protective. This lies in stark contrast to Peter’s own upbringing by a father who was very supportive of his studies and a mother, who while nurturing, was not too constrictive.

Regardless of his personality and past beforehand, Otto’s accident definitely drove him to madness and criminal behavior whereas Peter was empowered to become a protector of the innocent. Despite this, Peter and Otto have much in common. Their accidents were similar enough that in the “Chapter One” mini-series, John Byrne attempted to combine their accidents into one (A change that has thankfully been declared null and void). Both took the identity of an eight-appendaged creature whom is generally considered scary or gross. And both are brilliant scientists. This brings us to my next point.

2. Brains And Brawn

Spider-Man is renowned for being one of the brighter superheroes out there. More than just a science whiz, Peter is also quick on his feet when it comes to improvisation and battle strategy. And even with such brains as Mysterio, Vulture and The Kingpin in his Rogues Gallery, it’s safe to say that Spidey can easily outwit most of the villains he faces in a spelling bee or a game of Scrabble.

Not so with Doc Ock! Peter’s a genius, but he’s never quite managed to develop anything quite as advanced or as groundbreaking as his web fluid, which he can’t patent for obvious reasons. He’s also never been able to quite finish his degree plan. By contrast, Doctor Octopus has multiple doctorates and was the recognized world authority on radiation before his accident. In terms of pure genius, Doc Ock is the only villain who can possibly outmatch Spider-Man. More, with his mechanical arms, he is just a little bit stronger than Spider-Man, able to break through his webbing with a concentrated effort.

3. The First Defeat and First Umasking

Doc’s keen genius and enhanced strength made him the first super-villain to ever actually defeat Spider-Man in a one-on-one fight. (Amazing Spider-Man #3) Granted, Peter was still a high-school kid and just getting into the costumed crime-fighting gig… but Doc was still new to being a criminal. This also marks the first example of when Peter really should have kept his mouth shut about his good fortune, as he declared that he had run out of enemies who could present a challenge and “I almost wish for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money!” Well, Peter got a run… and a-runned over. And while he would always bounce back and stop Doc Ock’s plans at the end, Peter often seemed to take his worst licks from the good Doctor, who would escape at the last moment about half as often as Peter was able to catch him.

And let’s not forget that Doc Ock was able to unmask Spider-Man before a whole crowd! (Amazing Spider-Man #12) Only the fact that Peter was ill and unable to fight saved his secret identity, as everyone on the scene was convinced that Peter had foolishly dressed as Spider-Man to rescue his girlfriend, who was one of the hostages. Had he not been so tired, he might have been insulted that nobody had even considered for a second that Puny Parker might really be Spider-Man.

Still, Doctor Octopus would be one of the few to figure that secret out years later and the only one to fully take advantage of it. At least until the need for a way out of the quagmire of the Clone Saga would push the long-dead Norman Osborn back into the land of the living. And even he, so often counted as Spider-Man’s greatest enemy, has done little in the time since then to truly warrant being considered Spider-Man’s arch-enemy.

4. A Sinister Plot

Reincarnated in various forms and ripped-off even by other super-villains (such as the infamous Legion of Losers that was known as the Sinister Syndicate), The Sinister Six was based on the simple idea that if two heads were better than one that six super-powered baddies with a mad-on for Spider-Man would surely allow at least one of them a chance to defeat him.

And who was the mastermind behind the formation of The Sinister Six? Who created the battle plans and arranged the meetings between all these dangerous criminals? Who organized these various lunatics, thugs and geniuses into a fighting team capable of mayhem on scales inconceivable?

Well, it sure as heck wasn’t Aunt May!

5. Nice Day For A White Wedding…

But while we’re on the subject of Aunt May, Doc Ock managed to make Peter’s life more difficult even outside of the superheroic battlefield. During the first battle with the Sinister Six, Doc Ock took Aunt May and Betty Brant hostage (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1) Far from being his usual psychopathic self, the Doctor was sweet and nice as can be to Aunt May, who became convinced that Otto was a persecuted genius and that his crimes were all misunderstandings.

This paved the way for Doc Ock to move in with Aunt May shortly after Peter moved out. Seeking a hideout to lay low in, he answered an ad for a boarding house only to find that the landlady was… well, you guessed it! (Amazing Spider-Man #54)

Peter tried to convince Aunt May that the Doctor was up to no good, but to no avail. May later accepted a position as Doctor Octopus’ housekeeper after he “procured” a large mansion and was sent to prison yet again. (Amazing Spider-Man #114) Aunt May gleefully cleaned up after Otto’s “business associates” re: hired goons in Doc Ock’s latest attempt to take over the New York Underworld since his brief stint as The Master Planner.

And in the ultimate last-straw, an escaped Octavius would later attempt to wed Aunt May, in the issue that spawned perhaps the most famous “funny” Spider-Man cover of all time (Amazing Spider-Man #131, if you must know!). Of course Otto’s motives were less than pure: he discovered that May had inherited an island with an active nuclear reactor and a uranium mine and was hell-bent on collecting it for his own experiments.

Aunt May remained blissfully unaware of her potential beau’s past until recently, where shortly after discovering Peter’s secret identity she saw Otto for the danger he was during a fight with Peter and the man who had stolen his new and improved tentacle suit.

6. The Death of Captain Stacy!

So far, we have a pretty impressive list of famous firsts. First one to defeat Spider-Man. First one to unmask Spider-Man. First one to form a team of villains to defeat Spider-Man. And probably the first super-villain to seduce a superhero’s mother! (Let’s not quibble- she’s the closest thing he’s had to a mom, okay?) Throw in the similar origins, animal themes, power levels and a slightly higher I.Q. and we have one good list to go out on. But we have one more famous first to add; the first person close to Peter to die after he became a superhero.

Of course The Green Goblin gets all the glory for throwing Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy off a bridge. But a scant thirty-one issues before that infamous and overplayed scene, Doctor Octopus was responsible for the death of her father: Police Captain George Stacy. (Amazing Spider-Man #90)

In yet another battle with Spider-Man, Doc Ock threw Peter through a chimney, which collapsed sending a rain of bricks and rocks down onto the street. Spying an oblivious child underneath the falling rubble, Capt. Stacy ran and pushed the boy out of the way only to be pummeled to death himself.

Shocked, Spider-Man swung down and took the Captain up on the roof. It was here that Capt. Stacy told Peter that he knew his secret identity and asked him to look after Gwen. With that, Capt. George Stacy left this earth, his last act, like so many of his acts in life, made to save another.

Though it was the indirect result of his trying to kill Spider-Man, Doc Ock was able to make Peter’s life more difficult yet again. Because the crowd on the scene only saw Spider-Man being pushed against the chimney and his taking Capt. Stacy’s body later, it was assumed that Spider-Man had pushed the chimney onto the retired cop and was trying to hide the body to prevent it from being used as evidence. This marked the first crime that Spider-Man became wanted for over an extended period.

More, not only was Capt. Stacy “the second-best friend I ever had”, according to Peter, but the guilt over being unable to stop Doc Ock then would leave Peter barely able to speak to Gwen for the next few months. And so he was never truly able to square things with her before her death at the hands of The Green Goblin. This makes an already tragic pair of deaths all the more so. We can only imagine the kind of happiness Peter might have found in the Stacy family, had his secrets been revealed to everyone earlier.

And that all might have been… had it not been for Doctor Octopus.

And for those who must have a happy ending after ending the list on such a sour note, take comfort in this. Those two boys I mentioned left the store with their eyes opened to the light. I don’t know if I totally convinced them that Doc Ock is better than Venom but they admitted that the stories I told them did sound pretty cool. And with the youth of today as jaded as they are, I think that’s a pretty good start.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Fantastic Four #514 - A Review

Written by: Mark Waid and Karl Kesel
Penciled by: Paco Medina
Inked by: Juan Vlasco
Cover by: Gene Ha and Morry Hollowell
Colored by: Paul Mounts
Lettered by: Virtual Calligraphy’s Randy Gentile
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Even in these days where four monthly Fantastic Four titles are available to me, this is still the only one that I read. Marvel Age just rehashes material from my “Essentials” collections that I liked just fine the first time. Ultimate Fantastic Four I’m avoiding on the principal that I can’t support Warren “If you read superhero books, you’re a bloody wanker” Ellis’ whoring himself out for the highest bidder. And Marvel Knights Four strikes me as a silly idea, adding unneeded darkness to a team that works best as a light entertainment and adding “realism” in order to ground its’ characters, when they belong in the clouds.

Still, another few issues like this and I may have to start leaving this book on the shelf as well. Waid seems to have been jogging in place ever since reaching the end of Authoritative Action; the arc that was to mark the end of his run before fan demand got him put back on the title. The last few arcs, where The Fantastic Four went to Heaven and the “Spider-Sense” arcs were enjoyable enough, but didn’t reach the high levels that Waid usually writes at. Still, I suspect that he did have to rush a few things together and that this arc, co-written with Karl Kessel, is a reflection of that. Still, even allowing for a rush to get some scripts done at the last moment to keep the series going, this is a rather sad spectacle.

The whole of the plot centers about the return of a new Frightful Four. (Any connection to this week’s return of The Fearsome Five over in “Outsiders” is probably just a coincidence.) I say return, even though we only have two of the founding members returning: The Wingless Wizard and Paste Pot Pete aka The Trapster. Filling the rest of the spots in this all-star loser squad is long-time lamer and second-tier Sandman substitute… literally; the hapless Hydroman and apparent newcomer (I’ve never heard of her, nor have any of the other Marvel experts I consulted), Salamandra, The Fire Maiden.

I would LIKE to take them seriously as a threat. Really, I would. But Trapster is, by his own admission, rather useless with the Wizard around. Hydroman, even with his powers supped up, is barely competent under good conditions. And… well any brilliant genius who can call himself the Wingless Wizard without any sense of irony can’t be all THAT brilliant.

Howard Porter and Mike Wieringo are sorely missed already on this title. Paco Medina is a poor replacement for the quality artist’s that used to headline this book and I can sum up the biggest problem with his characters with one word: noses. Look at anybody in this book and marvel at how hugely out of proportion all the noses are compared to the rest of their faces. Reed Richard’s himself comes off looking like Karl Malden in some panels. And perhaps there is some explanation as to how The Thing mysteriously acquired a pair of boots in the middle of a fight after being barefoot for the whole issue other than a poor sense of artistic continuity. But I doubt it.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Looking To The Stars: One Paragraph Wonders

Since I have a lot of ground to cover this week and since I am trying to cure myself of being one of the wordiest writers this side of Brian Michael Bendis, I’m going to challenge myself. That’s why for this entire column, there will be no more than one paragraph with no more than four sentences each used to review any book or discuss any bit of news.

There. That wasn’t so hard.

Now, on to the news!

1. I’d like to give a shout out and congratulations to my former writing-group member Randy Millholland. Randy writes the hilarious web-comic Something Positive, which I’ve mentioned here before even though he hardly needs my help to promote the site. Last week, he received enough donations from readers to match his salary and quit his job in order to focus on his comics for one year. Congratulations again, Randy, for succeeding where so many artists cannot.

2. On a similar note, another one of my favorite artists is also seeking financial assistance. Aeire of Queen of Wands is asking for donations to buy a new computer, with which she will work on the comic. On the odd chance you’re reading this and still have yet to experience the sublime drama and amazing humor of QoW after all the times I mentioned it before, go check it out now. And if you like what you see, give a little something.

3. Tony DiGerolamo of “Everknights” sent me an e-mail thanking me for my recent review. He wondered if I could start linking to the Kenzer & Company website in my reviews and mention that they have a large number of web comics available on the website in addition to their printed works. Well, I have no control over how the reviews are programmed into the website but I can plug away as I whim here in “Looking to the Stars”. So there you go, Tony.

4. As long as I’m shameless shilling for my fellow comic creators, I may as well do one plug for myself. As of this week, 144 Anima will begin publishing bi-weekly. Updates will take place on Sunday night and Wednesday night, granting you twice as much Overlordy and Monkey goodness.

So far, so good. Now, it is time for some reviews. I bought nearly fifty dollars worth of comics this week. You can bet I’m going to write about them.

Alternation #3 & #4

I picked up the end of this series more to see it out than out of any great fondness for it. Don’t get me wrong: it is a great idea comic, but in the end that’s all this book has besides good artwork. Edgar Allan Poe as a steam-punk Darth Vader, Annie Oakley as a battle-mech pilot and Mark Twain leading a new American Revolution against the armies of Mad King Ludwig and Rasputin while riding a dinosaur are all cool ideas but they aren’t really used much beyond throwing the idea into the story. Still, at no point did I ever groan at any of the ideas thrown out here… even Thomas Edision’s secret laboratory being called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Score: 5 out of 10.

Amazing Spider-Man #508

A fitting conclusion to “The Book of Ezekiel” and a good ending issue for John Romita Jr., who exits the title as of this issue. The last few pages, in which the “mystic” angle of the entire JMS run is explained away destroyed any reservations I ever had about introducing a little bit of magic into the science-based world of Peter Parker. Issue 509 comes out this week and marks the premier of new artist Mike Deodato Jr. If you can’t wait, the whole thing is available to read at Mile High Comics.

Score: 8 out of 10.

Batman: Gotham Knights #54

A character issue devoted to a character who works best as a force of nature. It’s different, but it kind of works even though it refers to a past story (The Killing Joke) while simultaneously blowing apart the timing of that story, like a bad comedian. Still, we only have The Joker’s word for his own past and as he once said, if he has to have a history it may as well be multiple choice. The art team is top notch, though.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Birds of Prey #68

Still easily one of the best books published today and a personal favorite. Simone takes a whole issue to develop the characters and their relationships and manages the nigh-impossible feat of explaining away the inconsistent portrayal of Huntress as a cheap slut and a cold bitch by other writers by… GASP!, writing Helena Bertinelli as a believable character and not a broad stereotype. My one complaint is that this issue drops a major revelation regarding Green Arrow that Judd Winnick has not seen fit to getting around to discussing in his book yet after half a year of demon-fighting stories. Still, that is hardly Simone’s fault.

Score: 10 out of 10.

Daredevil #61

If nothing else, this issue proves in a brief scene that Avengers will be in good hands with Bendis, when he takes over in a few months. And as the cover suggests, we get reintroduced to a character whom has been sorely missed in this title in the past few years. Hopefully this means that the “new, kewl and blonde!” Black Widow, which Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson tried and failed repeatedly to force onto us, is gone forever into comics limbo. Welcome back, Natasha.

Score: 9 out of 10.

Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink #1

Spinning out of a back-up feature in Dork Tower, this promises to be a cult classic comic. Reprinting the original back-up comics as well as an origin story for our title character and a character gallery, this book about a psychiatrist for the super-powered is a must-have for all superheroic humor fans. Highlights include the Riddler-esque Quizzler becoming an effective criminal after having his obsessive compulsive need to leave hints to his crime cured and a Wolverine-esque hero screaming in the waiting room about his problems with psychotic episodes and a history of violent behavior. All this, and a character called The Killer Pussy.

Score: 10 out of 10.

Ex Machina #1

Brian Vaughan (Y, The Last Man) wrote it. Tony Harris (Starman, JSA: The Liberty File) did the artwork. That’s all the reason I needed to get this book. It should be all the reason ANYONE needs to read it.

Score: 10 out of 10.

Fables #26

I’m officially hooked on this title now. Easily the best Vertigo series since Lucifer, this penultimate issue in the March of the Wooden Soldiers storyline is a real treat. If you’re a fan of mythology and fairy tales, you’re probably already reading this book. And if you aren’t, you should be.

Score: 9 out of 10.

Green Arrow #39

Sorry Ollie, but much more of this and I may have to drop the book of my favorite DC hero. Winnick ruins another writer’s character AGAIN in yet another month of drawn out, demon-fighting action. Hester and Parks make it all look pretty, but even they can’t save the shattered soul of this book.

Score: 3 out of 10, and that’s purely for the artwork.

Justice League: Another Nail #2

I can sum this book up in one sentence. A lot of stuff, seemingly unrelated, happens and by the end all Hell’s broken loose. That’s all. Davis’s art is good as ever, but his plot is much ado about nothing.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Hawkman #29

I’m still Jonesing for a Johns fix on this book. This issue was better than the first one, but I’m still not buying how quickly the St. Roch police department has turned from working alongside the Hawks to turning on them Spider-Man style, even in the wake of a line of murders with wings planted on the victims. Still, the artwork is good and the character scenes with Carter Hall and his new main squeeze are good. It’s still on the pull list for now.

Score: 6.5 out of 10.

JSA #62

A good solid issue that, like most issues of this series, actually effects some major changes very quietly. If you’re a Green Lantern fan or have any interest in the upcoming “Reborn” series, it would be a good idea to pick up this book along with #60 and #61. Besides that though, we get some very nice character development to Mr. Terrific along with the apparent death of the zombie Ben Morse. Sorry, Ben.

Score: 8 out of 10.

Lucifer #51

God has quit his job and the universe as we know it is about to collapse. The only hope we have is the other universe that Lucifer created to prove that he could do a better job than dear old dad. Too bad he’s closed it off to everyone except mere mortals, so the immortal and magical beings are all S.O.O.L. All this and Destiny of The Endless does a cameo.

Score: 9 out of 10.

Mary Jane #1

I’m not the target audience for this book and probably the last man on the planet who should be writing about what pre-teen girls will like. Still, this book does fit the manga model well, centering around a teenage girl who has problems with her family, a crush on a wonder man with superpowers, a bland but nice guy her friends are trying to set her up with and that quiet guy in the glasses who is watching her from afar. I think it would work better in a digest-sized book form than in a monthly comic, as many of the manga readers I know refuse to read anything that even SMACKS of being a “regular comic”. Based on what I’ve seen so far, this is their loss.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Spider-Man

A must have for any Spider-fan. Nuff said.

Score: 10 out of 10.

Phantom Jack #3

I love this book, though I’m somewhat concerned about the revelation in this issue that Jack is far from alone in his special powers. I’d hate to see Jack absorbed into this mysterious organization of other “spooks” where his uniqueness as a character would likely be diminished. Ironically, I do like the harbinger of this news as a character and wouldn’t mind seeing more of her in the series as it progresses. The artwork is great as well.

Score: 7 out of 10.

She-Hulk #4

I picked this issue up simply for the concept: Spider-Man sues J. Jonah Jameson for libel. It proves to be just as funny as I had hoped and a real treat for the die-hard Spidey fan who can actually name all the criminals Jameson has employed or sponsored since the Stan Lee days, who are brought up when discussing Jolly Jonah’s own criminal misdeeds. This was perhaps the funniest read I’ve had all year and I think this title might just make its’ way into my regular reading list.

Score: 10 out of 10.

Spectacular Spider-Man #15

You’d never know it from the story, but this is allegedly a tie-in to the upcoming “Avengers: Disassembled”. I usually love Jenkins work, but this issue seems a bit flat for some reason, with Captain American and Spidey seeming a little off their usual characters. Still, let’s wait for Part Two before judging it too harshly.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Tales of the Realm #5

This was a fitting closing issue for a series that turned fantasy comics and the actor’s society on its’ ear. Special mention needs to be made of the untypical virgin sacrifice scene as well as the method in which the being of ultimate evil is destroyed. If you missed the first few issues, don’t worry: a trade will be released this August!

Score: 8 out of 10.

Ultimate Spider-Man #61

For a story called “Carnage” that features a character named Ben Reilly, this book doesn’t make my Spider Sense for bad stories isn’t tingling nearly as bad as it should be. Indeed, it isn’t tingling at all. Bendis does a good job developing the relationship between Dr. Connors and Peter, giving them a student/mentor bond as well as a feeling of partnership as they discuss using Peter’s gifts as a boon to Dr. Connor’s research. There’s also a fair bit of action, as Peter is caught in the middle of a fight with The Punisher and Boomerang.

Score: 9 out of 10.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Hawkeye #8 - A Review

Written by: Fabian Nicieza
Penciled by: Joe Bennett
Inked by: Sandu Florea
Colored by: Tang Animation & Coloring
Lettered by: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics

This is the last issue of a new regular series that lacked an audience. To be sure, there are a large number of Hawkeye fans out there. I’m one of them. Still, I can’t help but think that the impetus for this series was the fact that one of the best selling titles at DC was Green Arrow and some marketing person said “Hey, let’s give a book to that archer guy we own!”

Sadly, unlike Green Arrow, Clint Barton does his best work as a team player. Though he’ll deny it himself, the character is at his best when he is pushing off of someone else. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed this closing-two part arc so much more than the first six issues of this series.

Hawkeye is in the middle of investigating the murder of his grocer, a Russian immigrant named Antoly Krylenko, when ex-girlfriend Black Widow shows up. She confesses to the murder, saying little more than that it is a Russian affair and that Clint needs to back off. Naturally, that just makes ol’ Clint want to get to the bottom of things even more, dragging him hip-deep into the secret past of his grocer, who was once known as the Butcher of Shir Khan.

This book was good. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that Clint has Black Widow to play off of or if it’s just the quicker pace of this story compared to “The High Hard Shaft”. I’m not sure if it’s the new art team, which eliminates the “same-face” male characters or dull, washed out colors that the previous team used. But this last arc is a good one and I am sorry to see this book go.

I fear this book may the first of a new trend in the coming months. Marvel has a slew of solo titles devoted to characters who have forever been part of a team planned for release later this year. Given the way Hawkeye was handled, I fear that most of these titles will have a shelf life only slightly better than milk.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Crisis of Dual Identities!

Two books came out this past week, both with the word “Identity” in them. One is a highly anticipated book, declared the thing to watch this year by Wizard Magazine, which promises to have a lasting presence in the books of its universe for the rest of the year, and indeed, for all time. The other has, in general, been discarded as a cynical ploy by the Marvelous competitor of this first universe, to steal their thunder with a storyline that seems to offer little more than an excuse to throw several cool villains together in what looks like your typical heist flick with superpowers.

Is either of these pictures totally accurate? Both? Neither? Read on for one man’s opinion…

Identity Crisis #1

Since the story is the major concern here, I’ll mention the salad that is the artwork quickly so we can move on to the meat of the writing quickly. Suffice to say, I’ve been a fan of Rags Morales ever since his first issue on Hawkman and he does not disappoint here. I hope DC gets him on a regular monthly book soon after this, because as this book shows, he is too great a talent to not used regularly.

I’ve found Brad Meltzer’s writing to be a mixed bag. I think he’s a great idea man and a good writer of dialogue. More, his love and understanding of old DC Comics characters is clear and obvious in his writing. And in this book, he takes some old-school, often forgotten characters… and actually does something with them. Not with a retcon as such, but with an expansion; something that fits the base idea behind the character and makes them more relevant without changing them completely.

The best example of this I can give without spoiling most of the plot may be The Calculator. Once a costumed shlub in a costume that let him do amazing things through the power of computers, he has now changed himself into a villainous version of Oracle; giving other villains the information they need… for a price.

Still, I do have some issues with Meltzer’s work. While he has a great eye for character and an obvious love for comics history and trivia, he sometimes takes liberties with past stories for the sake of his own, picking and choosing what he wants to use. This problem was evident through his Green Arrow run, culminating in the final scenes where we discover that Oliver Queen must be an Oscar-caliber actor for having managed to fake total surprise and indignation at the revelation that Connor Hawke was his son before his death… despite having apparently KNOW about Connor nearly 20 years later, but being unable to settle down and have a family then. Never mind that such stability is all Oliver has EVER wanted in his life…

There are no such glaring characterization glitches in this issue, though there is another example of either sloppy attention to detail or picking-and-choosing. To wit, this book does inform us that Elongated Man and his wife now live in Opal City: home town of the much missed Jack Knight, a.k.a. Starman. Fans of that book will remember that the Dibnys showed up during the final major story arc and announced their intention to settle down in Opal. Rather funny then how later, as they run down a list of suspects for the much ballyhooed murder that the name Dr. Phosphorous comes up and a team is dispatched to fight him. Rather an easy task as the good doctor was killed in that same Starman series by a cancer-ridden Ted Knight, who was determined to stop the super-villain who was indirectly responsible for “killing” him. I’m willing to concede that Dr. Phosphorous is not quite dead, but it seems a waste to bring him back after the amazing sacrifice Ted Knight made.

Still, this is fanboyish nit-picking about a book that has too much else going for it to NOT be a modern masterpiece. And that is what it is. I shall spoil nothing for those who have not yet read it, except to say that the book does live up to everything that it promised. A JLA member DOES die. We do get to see the old school JLA getting together to do something. And yes, we do get a murder mystery. This story is a loving tribute to everything that made DC Comics great and still makes it great. I’ll stick with this one to the end, even if I do wince occasionally as a dead villain shows up alive and well or one of my favorite stories goes ignored. Cause for a good ripping yarn, I can forgive a lot. And in the end, it’s just a story.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10.

Identity Disc #1

So there’s this crime boss, possibly immortal, who is an urban legend. He’s even more powerful than The Kingpin was at the height of his power. He gets the dirt on six of the nastiest baddies of all time and sends them out to recover another legend: The Identity Disc…which is not really a Disc, but a database containing the secret identity and contact information of every single costumed crime-fighter on the planet Earth. One he has that, he intends to give the information to said villains, who will then do as they do and kill off all the heroes so that said crime boss can scheme his evil schemes without fear of being hauled in by a bunch of well-meaning citizens in their jammies.

Our all-star team of the curdled cream of the crop is…

1. The Vulture- tried reforming last year in the Gawd-Awful “Get Kraven” mini-series. Has apparently turned back to crime. He’s been recruited into this scheme thanks to his long lost daughter being framed for a murder in Texas. And I don’t need to tell you that they don’t treat female murderers well in Texas.

2. The Sandman – reformed for quite a while and became a better character for it. Went evil again on the whims of Howard Mackie, died after getting bit by Venom, merged with the MTV beach house set, and then went crazy before becoming all evil again. Playing into this scheme thanks to his mother’s life being threatened.

3. Sabertooth – perpetual pain in the neck of Wolverine. Is being blackmailed with an unknown secret. 10 to 1 it turns out he has the largest private collection of Hello Kitty merchandise on the Eastern seaboard.

4. Juggernaut – perpetual pain in the neck of Professor X. Actually reformed sometime back in Uncanny X-Men. Framed for murder, he is going along with this scheme to get proof of his innocence.

5. Bullseye – perpetual pain in the neck of Daredevil. Back in his usual costume after a very brief, two-issue stint, in the costume he had in the movies. Probably in this for the money, as no reference was made to him being blackmailed.

6. Deadpool- perpetual pain in the neck of anyone who spends two minues with him. Probably also just in this for the money, as it’s hard to imagine anyone blackmailing someone as shameless as Wade Wilson.

Of course if someone REALLY wanted to learn the identities of every superhero in the Marvel Universe and kill them, this team would be a good one. With the exception of Spider-Man and a few of the Avengers, most of them already have open identities or are known to one of the villains above.

Kill Daredevil? Semi-public identity. Even if he denies it, Matt Murdock is still believed to be Daredevil and Bullseye already pressed the issue once.

Kill The X-Men? You have a guy who LIVES In their fricking mansion right there! Not to mention a mercenary who has crashed the place to hang out with Siryn more than a few times. I think you can find them pretty easy.

Fantasitc Four? Look for the big tower with the 4 on it.

Avengers? Most of them have open identities. The big issue is actually getting someone close enough to Tony Stark without his technology or security team being an issue, not finding him.

Spider-Man’s the trickiest one in the bunch to pin down and if you go “friend of a friend”, Vulture could easily find out his ID from Kraven the 2nd if “Get Kraven” has any place in Spider-Man history. (It doesn’t. I’m just speaking rhetorically…)

That’s the problem with the whole conceit of this story. Thanks to a number of different writers over the past three years, the concept of secret identities is now a non-issue with the vast majority of Marvel superheroes. And various signs make it clear that this story does not take place in the past before Captain American, Daredevil and Iron Man were revealed to the world. Signs like William Blake being a villain or Juggernaut’s new costume and talk of being reformed. The issue is not finding out the identities of these heroes… it’s figuring out a way to attack them and win.

This is not to say that the issue is a total waste. The characterization is pretty much spot on even if the plot is a bit of a mess. Deadpool is inappropriately funny. Sabertooth is sufficiently predatory. Sandman is just as blustery and quick-tempered as ever. And Bullseye? Calm and collected as ever. And the dialogue is nothing if not inspired. I lost it on Deadpool calling Sabertooth “Puss in Boots”.

The artwork is a mixed bag as well, being far too heavily inked in some places with some overly thick lines. Things are too shadowy by half, with the Vulture’s wrinkles making him look not so much like a wrinkled old man as they make him look like an old-time print-shop clerk, smeared in ink. Still, the pencils look good when they can be seen through the shadows.

This could have been a great book… five years ago. It is merely good, and even then only if you ignore the fact that a CD full of superhero secret identities is not the great treasure it once was. It’s not quite the spoiler-book that many make it out to be, but neither is it anything to write home about.

Final Score: 4 out of 10.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Knights Of The Dinner Table: Everknights Special - A Review

Written by: Tony DiGerolamo
Penciled by: Benjamin Hall
Inked by: Benjamin Hall
Colored by: Marlena Hall
Lettered by: Marlena Hall
Editors: Mark Plemmons & Brian Jelke
Publisher: Kenzer And Company

As a fan of the regular Everknights title as well as a fan of Arthurian Legend, I went into this title with high expectations. I was not disappointed, as this pairing of our world’s greatest knights meeting Garweeze World’s most dangerous adventurers is easily the funniest thing done with the Arthurian Legend since the boys from Monty Python quested for the Holy Grail.

The plot is simple stuff. The Knights of the Round Table find a magic mirror in the cave where they were lead to believe the Holy Grail was kept. This mirror leads them into the basement of the castle, formerly controlled by an evil wizard, now “owned” by the adventurers known as The Everknights. After encountering some booby traps, the Knights return to their own dimension with “The Holy Grail”, i.e. the trophy for the Everknights annual badminton tournament. The theft is quickly discovered, and with sneak-thief Lefty leading the charge over this insult to his honor (“No ONE firking steals from Lefty III!"), the Everknights go to Camelot to fight for what is theirs.

This leads to the epic battle promised in the title, where-in wizard is matched against wizard, knight with magic sword is matched against knight with magic sword… and the only woman on one team is matched against the only woman on the other team. To describe the fights would be to deny you all the opportunity to view several very funny visuals, well-illustrated by the team of Benjamin and Marlena Hall.

This title remains one of my favorite and this issue is the perfect opportunity for new readers to jump in and learn about the characters without having to worry about the on-going story, such as it is, in the main title. So go forth, young heroes, and fetch thyself a copy of Everknights fortwit!

Monday, June 7, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Good Trades And Bad

It was a pretty light week for me comics-wise, me having picked up a grand total of four titles. Still, I didn’t lack for reading material. A few trades that I had been looking forward to for quite some time came out this week as well. So I did my part for the slumping American economy, clunked down twenty-some-odd wing-wangs and sat down for some fine comic reading time.

Essential Spider-Man: Volume 6

The Essentials series has proven a godsend to those of us Spidey fans who lack the material wealth to procure the original back issues from the good ol’ days when such giants as Lee, Ditko, Romita the First, Kane and Conway worked on the book. Heck, it’s a godsend for those of us who can’t afford the Marvel Masterworks set that collect 10 issues in hardback for fifty bucks a pop.

The Essentials TP series reprints some twenty-five issues of a classic Marvel title in one volume, all priced reasonably under twenty dollars. True, the artwork is uncolored but this does little to affect those of us who focus more on story than art. And even the art fan might enjoy these volumes as the lack of color makes the pencils and inking stand out all the more. The effect is not unlike that of a Film Noir thriller and while all of the Essentials series have been great treasures, Spider-Man in particular seems to enjoy this treatment the best.

I suspect the timing of this volume’s release was to coincide with the new Spider-Man movie. Thankfully, this is an appropriate move as this trade does contain some of the best Doctor Octopus stories ever, including the infamous “Doc Ock Marries Aunt May” issue. (Look for more details about that story in an upcoming column, True Believers!)

This volume contains other milestones, such as the first appearances of The Jackal, The Punisher and, of course, The Death Of Gwen Stacy. On the lighter side, we also get the first appearance of John Jameson as The Man-Wolf, the second (and last, thankfully) appearance of The Kangaroo and, as much as it pains me to recall it… The very short-lived Spider-Mobile. Either way, whether you are out for more serious tales or in the mood for something a little more kitsch, Essential Spider-Man will not disappoint.

Hellblazer: Highwater

I am a completist. I hate to leave things unfinished. I like to have things done with. This applies to my collections and when I’m in the middle of trying to complete a run on a book, there is very little outside of budgetary concerns or a book’s availability that will keep me from filling my collection.

On the other hand, I do not like Brian Azzarello’s writing. At least, I do not like the way he writes established characters. His work on 100 Bullets has been fine indeed but that is his baby. His recent Batman arc did not read like Batman. It read like a generic Hammet novel that had masks thrown onto it at the last minute. There was a bad guy called “Fatman” in it, for goodness sakes. And I have been sorely unimpressed with his work on Superman, though I must give him credit for trying a new tact with Superman that doesn’t involve him beating new trumped-up villains senseless. I just wish he’d tried a tact that had a little more action than his hovering around (he doesn’t really stand around as such) and talking to a priest about how he’s screwed up.

Still, the two opinions warred and the completist won out, after a brief team-up with longtime enemy Financial Concerns, who pointed out that getting the trades was cheaper than trying to hunt down the single issues. So now I have a copy of “Highwater”, which was the low water mark on Azzarello’s Hellblazer run as well as the final year’s worth of his run.

The biggest problem with the stories here is that John Constantine just doesn’t sound like John Constantine. I don’t know who he sounds like, but whoever it was his speech was removed of all “g”s and was peppered with the occasional British colloquialism. More, the story itself, concluding Azzarello’s on-going, three-year story, is a bit of a let down considering we are following the exploits of a man who has fought The Devil Himself on numerous occasions and won.

John faces know great supernatural threats in this story. There are no great evil hellish beings to outwit or banish. No, Azzarello instead tries to follow the example put forth by writer Jamie Delano, who said through Constantine’s mouth that humanity was, through sheer imagination, capable of greater evil than demons. So that is what we got: John Constantine fighting a whole lot of evil humans; neo-Nazis, hardened criminals, mass-murders and corrupt rich men.

The thing is, there’s very little challenge and drama in this. Strictly speaking, most of the people John faces in this book and indeed throughout Azarello’s run aren’t nearly enough of a challenge for him. This is not to say that he must fight demons in every issue but to say that John Constantine vs. a town full of dumbass neo-Nazis is not exactly a riveting spectacle. Besides, Delano did much better with the same gag in the early issues of Hellblazer and put a brand new twist on the two-headed giant gag in the bargain. Azzarello used far less humor than any other Hellblazer writer in the past and what little humor he did have was reserved for whole issues, such as the one where John recruits a hooker to help him bilk old women out of their Bingo winnings.

This is not a bad collection by any means. Even bland Hellblazer is still Hellblazer and a darn sight better than a lot of the mature titles out there. Still, I can’t help but wonder why DC felt the need to collect the complete works of this particular writer and yet will not do trades for the early Delano issues or indeed, the entirety of the Paul Jenkins run. Both of which were infinitely superior to this. I suspect it might have something to do with Jenkins having moved on to do even better work for Marvel and Top Cow (Spectacular Spider-Man and The Darkness) but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The Traders lose out and the completists are stuck paying through the nose trying to find that elusive copy of Part Four of “How To Play With Fire”.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Green Lantern #177 - A Review

Written by: Ron Marz
Penciled by: Luke Ross
Inked by: Rodney Ramos
Colored by: Moose Baumann
Lettered by: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics

The last time I reviewed Green Lantern, my final thought was a hope that this book would maintain the same level of quality and attention to the details of the past which were such a strength of the Raab run on this title. With all due respect to Mr. Raab, Marz has not only upheld that level of quality: he has surpassed it and reminded me of what got me to reading Green Lantern in the first place.

After narrowly escaping a death ordered by the Guardians “to maintain a balance”, Kyle Rayner has returned home after a year in space where he was trying to reform The Green Lantern Corps with what can only be called a certain amount of success. Sadly, the homecoming has been anything but warm so far, with Kyle finding his girlfriend (the super-heroine Jade) is now seeing another man and that his position in the Justice League has been well-maintained by his chosen replacement, John Stewart. Now, Kyle is struggling to find a place for himself in a world where everything he thought he was coming back to is gone, trying to find an answer to the ultimate question: Why am I here and what do I have to live for?

Kyle gets little time for self-introspection, though. Long-time enemy Sonar shows up, sparking another fight and an internal monologue where Kyle wonders why HE always has to be the one to fight such a relative lightweight villain. And then Jade shows up, wanting to talk about where things stand: a talk that Kyle enjoys only slightly less than the prospect of having to beat up Sonar AGAIN. And in the background, a mysterious figure arranges for the mass-murdering, Green Lantern hating Fatality to be released from prison on one condition: kill Kyle Rayner.

Marz peppers this story with references to stories past for long-time readers, without ever making things in accessible to newer readers. In the last issue, for example, Kyle came home to hear someone in the shower. He recalled how he first met Jade when she broke into his apartment to use his shower and was expecting it to be then girlfriend Donna Troy. The joke is repeated, with Kyle finding Jade’s new boyfriend in the shower instead of her. Marz also manages to neatly explain way different artists renderings of Sonar, explaining that the reason Sonar’s machine components look different every time Kyle fights him is because he is always upgrading his equipment. And I may be one of the few people in the world who will recognize “Norman”, the head of security at The Slab as the former assistant to Mister Miracle in his quick cameo, but it is a nice Easter Egg for those of us in the know.

The art is excellent, with the comic looking downright cinematic at some points. Rodney Ramos does a good job with shadows and shading, particularly in the opening scenes with Fatality being escorted out of prison and into the waiting vehicle with the shadowy figure. Ross’s pencils are crisp and clear, highly detailed without feeling cluttered. And he meets the measure by which all Green Lantern pencilers are judged and draws some darned impressive ring projections including a giant Chinese dragon, a fighting gorilla. Perhaps most impressive is the dragon-shaped subway train, in which Kyle makes his grand entrance to battle Sonar.

Overall, the book is in good, well-practiced hands. My only complaint, and this has nothing to do with the book itself, is that I’m going to have to spend the next year listening to the Kyle haters chuckle and snort about how the end is near and death is certain. Never mind that Ron Marz said Kyle doesn’t die in this story. Geoff Johns said Kyle isn’t going to die in “Rebirth”.

Still, I suppose the HEATers and the trolls can have their fun. I’ll just satisfy myself with reading a good book.