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.

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