New Comics Day 2/3/2010: what I read, how I felt about it, and why you should (or shouldn't) care.
That was me as I pondered this week's new releases. It was an ugly one yesterday, no Fantagraphics, no Morrison, no GARP (Golden Age of Reprints) temptations. In other words, a fairly typical Wednesday.
I don't buy a whole lot of comics -- three in a week is pretty much as big as I ever go -- so weeks like this one, where there's just nothing at all I've planned to read and write about, are not that uncommon. But in an effort to keep this a weekly column, here is my commitment. On weeks such as this, rather than skipping the Roundup, I will try a book I haven't tried before, and pick something from the back-issue bins to discuss as well. If they all go like this week, I may have to start a separate Wednesday column called "They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore".
And so to work;
The Indomitable Iron Man #1, by Paul Cornell, Will Rosado, Howard Chaykin, Duane Swierczynski, Manuel Garcia, Alex Irvine, and Nelson DeCastro. Marvel.
Though plenty of Marvel books do use creative teams as numerous as the one listed above, this isn't one of those. Rather, it's an anthology book with four stories by four different teams. My love for the anthology format and the surprise of getting 48 ad-free pages for 3.99 from Marvel helped sweeten the deal -- and Chaykin's participation was key too -- but I bought this book for purely cosmetic reasons. It's right there on the cover:
Yes. When was the last time Marvel put a black-and-white book out? I remember those colorless variants of Eduardo Risso's Wolverine series a while back, but for just a straight B&W release I think we have to return to the days of Chuck Austen's US War Machine. Though I never read that comic, it was something I occasionally flipped through at the store on those Jemas-era Wednesdays that were my formative ones as a comics fan. It came off as a harsh, intimidating book, set apart from a Marvel continuity that was then quite approachable by its stark lack of any color.
However, the fact that War Machine was a MAX book with guns n bad words n shit probably set it apart more than did its monochrome pages. It was interesting, then, to see how a B&W Iron Man book, published under the aegis of mainline Marvel and featuring one of their marquee characters, would deal with the aesthetic break with the rest of the company's output provided by the lack of hue. Anthologies, too, are hardly the traditional superhero fan's cup of tea, which I figured might make it something a little closer to mine.
Marvel puts out so many books of such varying styles and calibers every week that it's become impossible to gauge the logic behind some of their releases. One suspects that something like a quota is used to determine the release schedule. If it maximizes profit to put out 200 comics a month, who cares what's inside them? And on the newly-popular Iron Man especially, I'd imagine Marvel can be assured of a minimum sales figure. It seemed like it could go either way: would this be a rule-breaking romp akin to Strange Tales or Chaykin's recent return to Dominic Fortune, or just another Marvel book, released because it could make the company money? Of these two varieties of "Marvel also-ran" projects, I didn't know which I was buying.
So I read it, and it turned out to be a little of both, actually. The lack of typically dull, overdone computer coloring automatically makes the book something nicer to look at than your average superhero comic, that's for sure. But drawing for black and white is a different art than drawing for color, and of all the artists involved, only Chaykin demonstrates full understanding of the format's demands. The scripts, too seem a little hesitant. Given a space in a bound-to-be-low-selling anthology done in black and white, it seemed not irrational to hope that at least one or two writers might take the opportunity to roar out of the gate with something tasty that fit the project's outside-the-norm look. And while there are a few moments that hint at that bravery, none of the stories leave anything that lingers beyond the pages allotted to them.
Will Rosado, the artist of the opening story "Berserker", has a great approach to action storytelling that I'm sure would be quite impressive in color, as well as a nice feel for Zip-A-Tone. But it's obvious that he's used to relying on a colorist, as his spotted blacks do the reader's eye no favors in directing the flow of the story, especially during the action sequences. It takes you right out of the story -- a shame, since Paul Cornell's script needs all the help it can get.
I've never read Cornell before, but he wrote the supposedly good Captain Britain series, so I was looking forward to a taste of his work. It was bland, hitting all the predictable notes of an Iron Man story -- and this was the first Iron Man comic I've ever spent money on. Even so, watching Tony Stark juggle beautiful women, a tech company, and a superhero sideline with a devil-may-care attitude feels dusty. Ditto for the villain, a rogue machine that just wants to be loved. Really? Not that there couldn't be something interesting to say with that, especially when Iron Man begins communicating with it directly in machine-language, but nope, it just wants to fight and Iron Man beats it up. Then he gives some money to NASA. The end. Aside from the fact that no capitalist worth his salt would ever give money to a potential source of major contracting revenue (he pays them to ensure they won't have to pay him some time in the future? what?), it's like Cornell was purposely ignoring the more interesting aspects of Iron Man's creation of a near-intelligent rogue machine in favor of just showing a fight scene. Very disappointing.
There was one first-rate little tidbit, as Iron Man opens his mental connection with the machine, and the art suddenly shifts from this
...but overall, this story was just pedestrian, abounding with missed opportunities. And can I just say: Cornell does not exactly endear us to Tony Stark. I've worked in Hollywood. I've met this guy:
He's an asshole.
Howard Chaykin's story, "Multitasking!", on the other hand, hits every mark it aims for neatly. A vignette that places itself a solid distance form modern continuity, it too goes for obvious "Iron Man moments" -- flirty banter with assistant Pepper Potts, an aerial showdown with a robotic menace, talks with other superheroes, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting -- but they're more interesting than the ones Cornell chose for his story, conveying twice the character with half the pages. Chaykin seems to know we've seen these moments before, too, so he goes the whole hog and sticks them right on top of each other via Iron Man's in-helmet telephone. We get the CEO talking to his secretary as she patches him though to his business partners Nick Fury and Mr. Fantastic during Iron Man's fight with a villain over New York. A little of Tony Stark's savant-y schizophrenia powers the story -- he's just tryin' to get through a very high-powered day -- and it's a neat use of the comics medium, the opportunity for simultaneous portrayal of different events taken and used with a veteran's grace. Chaykin's art is also top-notch, really shining when stripped of the usual unsympathetic Marvel coloring as well as wisely putting Iron Man in his classic '60s armor.
But at the end of the day it is what it is -- a cute superhero story, little more. reading it, I was reminded of a quote from Chaykin's recent Comics Journal conversation with Ho Che Anderson:
"I have a paranoid commitment to consistency, because I believe that I won’t be taken seriously unless I deliver a consistent quality-based product. And let’s face it, quality isn’t necessarily any kind of guarantee of success in the comic-book business. But if it’s all I’ve got to offer. When I do take on an assignment as an illustrator solely, it’s my responsibility to deliver the best work I possibly can under the circumstances. And that applies both when I’m doing work that’s creator-owned and when I’m doing work for hire."
That's all well and good -- even admirable. But it bespeaks a creator who can turn in perfectly good work devoid of passion, and that's what this story is. Doesn't mean it isn't a great read... but... eh, whatever. It's an Iron Man comic, and to expect Chaykin to produce the level of work he did on Blackhawk or Dominic Fortune is a little naive. If I had to verbalize the problem with "Multitasking!" I would say it's too cute and leave it at that.
The Duane Swierczyinski-written "Brainchild" has the most interesting script of the bunch, taking on the age-old question of why superheroes don't affect real change instead of punching things. Iron Man/Tony Stark, however, hardly takes the direct approach to this problem, choosing to retreat to a giant penis-shaped tower in the Mojave desert and mull things over for half a century. His rationale is that if he were to loose a world-saving future on the populace without completely thinking things through (basically what he did throughout his career as Iron Man), "there would just be swarms of people trying to patent it, modify it, sell it, broadcast it." I liked that, so it came as an immense disappointment when it was revealed that the modified, patented, sold, and broadcasted Stark inventions put out during his time in the public eye have in fact saved the world already. Clunk.
It's a good story besides that, though -- breaks free of the typical genre tropes, gives us a much more interesting view of Tony Stark (who resembles Gandalf in his dotage), and waves ideas around like it ain't no thing. The art is unremarkable, with half-finished backgrounds that would probably have been saved by a colorist, and this depiction of Wolverine and Captain America:
The last story is a prose piece by Alex Irvine with accompanying illustrations by Nelson DeCastro, and it would have worked a lot better in comics form. It features clones, which is always fun when you actually have an artist drawing two of the same person, but in prose it's a slog to get through, and I wouldn't have finished it if I weren't going to write this review.
Overall, this comic was a disappointment. Despite Chaykin's stellar contribution and the flashes of something quite interesting in Swierczynski's story, there just isn't enough here. The missed opportunity of black and white artwork is especially sad, as a B&W Marvel magazine redux could be quite nice if it were patterned after the '70s ones, which served as pulpy, crafted antidotes to an often anemic Marvel proper. Unfortunately, this is just another Marvel book. One for the cut-mix pile.
RATING: 4 out of 10 (and at least two are for the Chaykin story, which took up less than a quarter of the book).
Silver Surfer (volume 2) #5, by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Marvel (1987).
I may be completely alone in this, but I think the best Batman comics ever done were the handful of issues this team pumped out for Detective Comics in the late 1970s (collected as "Strange Apparitions"). Steve Englehart simply writes what we call "good superhero comics", building on continuity and past characterization to enrich his narratives, while never losing sight of his own plots or overloading the reader with backstory. His scripts evoke a "classic" version of whatever characters he's writing, even if, as with the Silver Surfer, there is no generally accepted "classic" run or period on the character. He understands how to do what he does well. He knows how to make it tick.
He's best when paired with Marshall Rogers, one of the most underappreciated artists in this entire medium's history. At his best, Rogers' pages are architectural, gelling together as entire works of art while still presenting gorgeous individual pictures and moving the story along clearly. His Batman comics approach a Jim Steranko level of innovation: something new on every page, and damn near in every panel. Here, a decade older and wiser than he was on Batman, he's simplified his drawing, cutting out any extraneous lines or background elements, and gotten even more proficient with the little storytelling tricks he uses to slow the narrative down or whip it into overdrive. The result is a completely absorbing comic, right from page one.
This is an issue I picked up just because it looked good and I like the artist. It's part of an extended storyline, continued from last issue, continues in next issue, but it's still eminently readable, free of exposition, and has the special feeling of comics that are done with joy. It might be the dizzying way Englehart rakes his fingers through the entirety of Marvel's cosmic character library, with nods to the Eternals, the Celestials, the Dire Wraiths, the Skrulls, the Kree, and Galactus. It might be a little burst of panel subdivision from Rogers that makes Krigstein look unnecessarily severe and Quitely a bit formal:
It might be the way you notice how colors and art can work in perfect tandem when it's the same person doing both. It might be the furious shouts of John Workman's lettering or the crackling booms of Rogers' elegantly incorporated sound effects. Whatever it is, this comic is one of those rare superhero issues that manages to be great without making a big fuss about it. Hurling you into the void of imagination while making the danger seem fun and novel, this is what every Marvel comic should be. It's the cool everybody sees in the Silver Surfer character but nobody brings out. It's a grand reunion for a partnership of master craftsmen who know exactly what they're doing and how to do it. It's fifteen minutes in a more interesting zone than anything real life could possibly cook up. It's why I read comics, in other words.
(I've also got to at least mention the strongly absurdist appeal of the ad on the back cover, which truly makes this comic a total package...)
RATING: 8 out of 10. It's possible that I'll adjust that once I read the rest of the run.