Monday, November 1, 2010

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Thor Vol. 1 (Journey Into Mystery #83-112)

With the Fantastic Four, Marvel had created a family of scientists that had turned into monsters, only to embrace their new destiny and become super awesome superheroes and win the hearts and minds of the world. Then came the Hulk, a Jeckel and Hyde-esque story of a brilliant scientist who would transform into a grotesque, violent, but ultimately misunderstood monster. So where was Marvel to go from there? Well, in what might be seen as an obvious move when creating a new mythology, they decided to go with an actual, literal god. Enter the Mighty Thor.

The story begins with Dr. Donald Blake, a physician with a bum leg, who also is a keen Norwegian enthusiast. While on vacation taking a hike through the mountains of Norway (despite his handicap it would seem), Dr. Blake stumbles upon an alien invasion by the Stone Men of Saturn! Don’t… don’t stop and think about it, just go with it okay? They’re yellow rock monsters from space. And they’re here to take all our… whatever we import from Norway.

Anyway! Naturally, the Stone Men hear Dr. Blake step on a twig while spying on them- because he’s a clumsy and has bum leg, remember- and start chasing after him. Dr. Blake tries to avoid them by ducking into an ancient cave, where he finds an old walking stick. Upon striking the stick into the ground, Blake is transformed into Thor, the literal God of Thunder, and proceeds to smack some space alien ass. The Stone Men run away, assuming that since this one human is so powerful, all humans must be, because alien invaders are dumb as hell. This a reacurring theme in Silver Age Marvel comics, I’m noticing.

The Stone Men are all well and good, sure, but the obvious villain to talk about here is Loki, God of Mischief. Loki, as in mythology, was born the child of giants, but raised by Odin as his own son and brother to Thor. However, Loki was always a bit of a scheming, jealous asshole who had it out for Thor, so he grew up to be all evil and stuff. Other evil gods in Asgard include the Enchantress, who’s pretty much the epitome of “femme fatale” as a concept, and the Executioner, who’s a big guy who likes to kill things. In more Earthly battles, Thor faces some cool foes like the Radioactive Man- who’s pretty sweet even if his “radioactive hypnotism” powers make absolutely zero sense- and some less than astonishing enemies, like the Cobra. Trust me, Cobra is lame as hell. You’d think being bitten by a radioactive cobra would be like being bitten by a radioactive spider. Spoiler: Not really.

There’s also some internal conflict between Thor and his dad, Odin. You know, the omnipotent, all seeing head of the Norse pantheon. Odin is convinced that Thor shouldn’t be falling in love with Jane Foster, the nurse who works for him back in the guise of his secret identity, and that pisses Thor off. Now normally thinking that an omniscient father figure is wrong would seem foolish, however, I’ve got a back up Thor here. First off, this isn’t the first time where an omniscient father figure has royally screwed over his son (sorry about the whole crucifixion thing, J-man). And second of all, this is the same omniscient father who has no idea how crazy evil and powerful his adopted son Loki is. More on that in a minute.

The problem I have with this book, I’m afraid, is Thor’s very nature leads to the real problems story wise. Stories with Loki or the Enchantress are great fun, but when you start dealing with guys like Mr. Hyde? Friggin’ Power Pack could take down Mr. Hyde. I don’t care that he has “the strength of 12 men”, Thor’s the GOD OF THUNDER. Thor getting captured by Soviet spies? Yeah, I’m just not sure about the threat level here. And while the Grey Gargoyle is an awesome and highly underappreciated villain, again, Thor really shouldn’t have any problems beating him. The very nature of the character leads to stories fluctuating between being really, really good, or just mediocre.

But enough complaining. When it comes to stories that are really good, I have to say, Journey # 94 is freakin’ awesome. And by that, I of course mean it’s hilarious and completely insane, and thus I love it. The story starts off with a nuclear missile going off course, threatening to start World War III. The Pentagon naturally decides to summon Thor, by making a mass radio announcement complete with a secret extension for him to telephone- all, once again, on a mass radio alert heard around the world. The military wasn’t too bright in the 60’s folks. Luckily, this being comics, it works, and Thor is off to save the day.

It’s at this point we learn how the missile got off course, and naturally it’s all Loki’s fault. Even though he’s chained up in a dungeon in Asgard, not one of the gods thought to put a magical power dampener on him or something. Turns out, it was Loki arranged the missile to fly off course. Now, you’re probably thinking that it’s hard to get much more hardcore than causing mass global conflict and inciting world war. But the reason you’re thinking that is because you are a mere mortal, and not the God of Mischief. Oh no, his plan is waaaaay bigger than that. You see, Loki knows Thor will stop the missile, and he’ll do it by tossing his giant magic hammer (giggle). That’s just how Thor rolls, after all. But Loki uses the hammer’s return to Thor to his advantage, and just as the hammer returns, Loki makes an illusion of a giant dragon appear behind Thor, distracting him, so that Thor’s own hammer knocks him in the back of the head. And because, once again, this is comics, the blow to the head INSTANTLY TURNS THOR EVIL. And all this so far? We’re only on page 4 here, people.

So, first thing, Thor rushes off to Asgard to break Loki out of prison, because again, no one in Asgard is smart enough to realize that putting Loki in a jail cell doesn’t work for shit. Now free, Loki and his new sidekick Thor get all pissed off at Odin for a couple pages, before returning to Earth and destroying every landmark on the planet that would later be blown up in a Michael Bay film. Oh, and Loki makes some sea serpents and dinosaurs and stuff. Which is awesome too. After bringing the property value of the entire planet down to nothing, Loki and Thor demand to be made the overlords of the entire Earth. The United Nations is all about to accept their demands- but wait! What’s this? It’s not really the UN! It’s the Asgardians, posing as UN members, who then clock Thor in the brain again, turning him NOT EVIL, so they can capture Loki, rebuild the destroyed cities and erase the minds of the entire world to never remember that Thor was evil- all on the last page! And if that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Also, the “Tales of Asgard” back-up features are all great. Jack Kirby at his finest, and if you’ve ever read his New Gods work, you can really see the foundation of that stuff in these stories. It’s Jack Kirby draws mythology- worth the price of admission alone. So if you like space god stuff, go buy this book!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Hulk Vol. 1 (Incredible Hulk #1-6, Tales to Astonish #60-91)

A funny thing happened in the early days of the 1960’s.
You see, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Marvel’s premiere writer-artist team, hadn’t been having a good few years. They were barely making ends meet ever since the comics bust in the mid 50’s, and had basically planned to call it quits from the whole comic book industry. But before they quit, they were going to do one final comic, Fantastic Four #1. The book was a surprise hit, and its creators decided to keep in the business. With superheroes back in vogue, they decided to create more superheroes, and the “Marvel Age” of comic books began. And the next hero they created, well… wasn’t considered much of a hero by most of the characters in his book.

Before he had a TV show, a cartoon series or three, and two movies (one of which was awesome, and another that everyone thought was going to be awesome until it turned out that it was absolutely horse shit), the Incredible Hulk was just a comic book character. The character was sort of a positive spin on Jekyll and Hyde- while performing an experiment, a scientist is transformed into a hideous, misunderstood monster.

Bruce Banner, a brilliant physicist and weapon designer, is one of the US Army’s top scientists. But during a experimental test run of Dr. Banner’s new gamma bomb, he realizes that a teenage boy named Rick Jones has stumbled upon the base unwittingly. Banner rushes to get him to safety, only to be caught in the blast of the exploding gamma bomb. His body absorbs the radiation, and transforms him into the Hulk.

No one other than Rick Jones knows Banner’s terrible secret, and the ever loyal teenage boy is always there to help the Hulk or Banner when either get into a jam. And they both get in plenty of jams, between his boss General “Thunderbolt” Ross always chasing after the Hulk, and villains of one kind or another always trying to capture the General’s daughter (and Banner’s love interest), Betty.

The collection of early Hulk stories in this book is, well… it’s a little odd, really. At least at first. You see, it’s really two different books stapled together, and it’s really obvious where the split is. After issue 6, no one thought the Hulk magazine was making nearly enough money, and so the book was canceled (the book’s pending cancelation may have had something to do with the brilliant but distinctly un-Kirbyesqe Steve Ditko drawing the final issue of the series, but that’s pure speculation on my part). After the cancelation, the Hulk made several guest appearances, including stopping by the Fantastic Four and becoming a founding member of the Avengers (more on that in a few months). Over time, the Marvel editors decided to bring the Hulk back in the double feature book Tales to Astonish.

And, maybe I’m being rude, but I’m really glad they had the break. The Incredible Hulk vol. 1 was a bit… lost, as a series. Don’t get me wrong, the first issue is pretty good. A solid origin story, and a mostly pretty okay continuation with a deformed Russian spy- while it’s not quite Amazing Fantasy #15 (more on that in a few months too), it’s pretty good. But the next 5 issues…. Well, let’s just say that issue 2 stars the menacing might of… the Toad Men. They’re midgets with scaly skin from outer space. It’s not exactly A-List material, if you get my meaning, and it never gets much better.

But the year and a half between Hulk #6 and TtA #60 really seems to improve the narrative, like Stan Lee and the art department just needed more time to refocus on the series and really figure out what worked and what didn’t. They quickly improve the best storyline from the original, the military investigation of the Hulk, by adding Major Talbot to the cast. Talbot is the new head of security at the military base, working not only as a foe against the Hulk by helping General Ross, but as a foe for Bruce Banner too, as a possible usurper for Betty’s affections. Not only that, but the revamped Hulk series ultimately finalized what changed Bruce Banner into the Hulk- high stress and anger. It seemed almost every issue in the original series had a different way for Bruce to turn into the monster- nightfall, another blast of gamma radiation, a trip in space through what I once again assume to be the Van Allan belts (see last review) - but now the Hulk’s transformation was triggered by anger. The symbolism of anger transforming into mindless violence couldn’t be much more obvious.

The revamped series also starts including the classic Hulk villains such as the Leader and the Abomination. Both are gamma created monsters, like the Hulk himself, though vastly different in nature. For example, the Leader’s transformation caused him to become super intelligent rather than super strong. I have to say, I really liked the first Leader storyline, it starts a little under the radar, slowly building more and more until he’s clearly the primary antagonist for the final issues of his story arc. The Abomination is wonderful as a Soviet Anti-Hulk, and I’m sure I’ll see more of him later. We also encounter the Boomerang, a villain who luckily will get a much better costume in the future. He is actually an okay character, a disgraced athlete who turns his skills into something far more lucrative, but both the outfits he wears in this book are pretty much terrible, even by superhero standards. The Watcher stops by for a bit (well, actually Hulk stops by the Watcher’s pad for a bit, but whatever). There’s also this crazy story about the Hulk time travelling to the future and dealing with a certain evil Asgardian that we’ll see more of next review (no, not Loki, but close). I was kind of skeptical about that story at first, but it’s actually pretty fun. In fact, it’s during that storyline (in issue #77 in fact) that a major change in the status quo happens… but you’ll have to read it to find out what it is.

Essential Hulk Volume 1 doesn’t have the zany-anything-can-happen energy of those early Fantastic Four stories from last time. But I have to say, it grows on you as you read it. The book gets more and more interesting the more you read, and that’s something I wasn’t sure would happen at first. There’s this wonderful cold war paranoia permeating throughout the whole book, and by primarily being set on a missile base, spies and sabotage are all over the place. Honestly, the book being so different from Fantastic Four is a good thing, and speaks to the versatility of its creators. This isn’t the sci-fi pop art crazy series. Sci-fi is still there, but this is a series about violence, paranoia, and seeing traitors everywhere.

Alternatively, it’s a book about a big green monster that smashes shit when it pisses him off. You can read it like that too. That could be fun.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1 (#1-20 and Annual #1)

It’s not exactly a secret that I’ve been into comic books basically forever. If you haven’t seen the collection, it takes up four bookcases and is in need of a fifth, and that’s just the stuff on display. I’ve always been a big Spider-Man and Batman fan, and I’ve dabbled in just about every major team or hero over the years. The Avengers, The JLA, X-Men, the Flash has the most fun group of villains outside Bats and Spidey- but I’ve never been a big FF fan. Oh, sure, I loved Grant Morrison’s "1234", every comic book fan did, but a few particular FF stories aside… Meh. I didn’t really care. They were the Fantastic Four, they went on cosmic adventures and fought Dr. Doom, two things that SHOULD have been awesome, but somehow it always rang hollow for me. The FF was always a cooler idea then their actual stories were, it seemed.

But no one can argue about the historical importance of Fantastic Four #1, a book pretty much unanimously considered the beginning of the silver age renaissance of Marvel Comics. And so when I decided to start reading the Marvel Universe from the beginning on up- basically as an excuse to keep buying Essential Marvel trade paperbacks and to keep putting my favorite comic book storeowner’s children through college- I dutifully started with Essential Fantastic Four volume 1, promising to give it an honest go of it.

And holy crap, I get it now. The Lee-Kirby FF were friggin’ awesome! I wasn’t completely sure at first, but by the end of the third issue, I was sold. There’s an energy and enthusiasm even in these early stories that is often missing from comics today. One of the things I love about silver age comics is the pacing of the stories- it usually doesn’t feel rushed, but something is ALWAYS happening! (Screw you, comics decompression) And that’s definitely the case here. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s FF is part pop art, part science adventure, part soap opera- all without ever spending way too much time on any of it or getting boring.

All of this, and Ben Grimm hasn’t even called out “It’s clobberin’ time!” yet.

Obviously, the book begins with the creation of the Fantastic Four: Dr. Reed Richards, his girlfriend Sue Storm, his best friend and test pilot Ben Grimm, and Sue’s teenage brother, Johnny. The four of them board a secret untested rocket ship, clearly not with NASA’s blessing, and attempt to be the first humans in space, winning the space race for America! This was 1961, remember. But when the rocket enters what I assume to be the Van Allen radiation belt (Wikipedia it), it’s bombarded by strange cosmic rays- something Ben had warned Reed about, but hey, Reed’s got to impress his hot little blonde somehow, right? Luckily, instead of killing them outright or giving them all cancer, the cosmic radiation gives our team superpowers. Reed gains Plastic Man-like elastic skin, Johnny becomes able to control fire in all sorts of ways, Sue gains the ability to become invisible, and Ben gains super strength and invulnerability with a rocky exterior.

Along the way in this book, Lee and Kirby introduce a host of villains, many of whom are still around today, fifty years later. The Mole Man, the Silver Age rebirth of Namor, the shape changing Skrulls, the I-still-don’t-understand-how-his-powers-work-but-whatever Puppet Master, the time travelling dictator Rama Tut (and boy, what a back-story he’ll develop as I read more of these books), the all-powerful Molecule Man, and of course the greatest supervillain in the entire Marvel Universe: Dr. Doom.

It’s amazing to see how quickly refined this series became, especially since they were just making it up as they went. The only real complaints I have with the book all basically stem from the attitudes of the times it was written in. Having the only female character in the book given the ability to literally turn invisible… well, there’s a subtext to it that’s undeniable. I’m rather thankful that her powers have been expanded since these early days so that she can generate force fields and other semi-telekinetic powers, arguably making her the most powerful member of the team. But while lines like “I’ve never heard a dame go so long without talking” are undeniably sexist, at the same time it seems obvious that Lee and Kirby very much felt that Sue’s character was one of, perhaps the most important character in the book. In issue 11, the Fantastic Four read and respond to some fan mail they’ve seen, including letters asking why Sue’s even on the team. Reed and Ben become considerably upset, and remind readers how often the team has only won the day thanks to the Sue’s help.

Particular highlights of the book for me… Well, Fantastic Four #5 is awesome, but not because it’s the first appearance of Dr. Doom (though that’s cool too). After capturing Sue, Doom makes a demand of the other three members of the team- travel back in time and steal the pirate Blackbeard’s treasure for him, or the girl gets it. Over the course of the adventure (SPOILER ALERT), we discover that in the Marvel Universe, Blackbeard is Ben Grimm, thanks to the miracles of time travel! I totally want to see a comic now where Ben goes on a time travel vacation to have other adventures in the past as Blackbeard. (Dear Marvel Comics: If you like this brilliant idea and want more, feel free to call me and offer me a job any time)

Also, FF #10 has Dr. Doom visiting the Marvel offices and meeting Stan and Jack, which is great fun. Issue 13 introduces the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, they’re an evil Communist team that also gets its powers from the same cosmic rays as the FF, only three out of the four of them are monkeys! It’s a well known law of comic books that monkeys make any book better. Also in that issue, we meet the Watcher, a nigh-omniscient being who lives on the moon, and, well, watches the Earth. He never interferes with history, though… except for all the times he does. For an omniscient dude, you’d think he would have heard of the Observer Effect…

For me, though, my favorite issue in the book is issue 17, “Defeated by Doctor Doom”. More than any other story here, the team feels not like a group of misfits, but a real family. Admittingly, Dr. Doom’s plot involving floating Michelin Man lookalike robot things is, well, downright bizarre, but fuck it man, it gets results! Because those robot things allow Dr. Doom to trap the Fantastic Four in a… well, I won’t spoil this one for you. But the team really gels so well here, you really need to go out and read it for yourself.

So yeah, this book rocks, and I’m stoked that I’ve got another 82 issues of Lee and Kirby’s run to go (I think it’s 82. It might be a little more than that). So if you want some fun 60s comic books, go buy this. Its 15 bucks for 20 issues and an annual. How are you going to beat that?

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Sparrow With a Machine Gun: Batman (1966)

In anticipation of the upcoming July 27th release of the latest Batman movie, Batman: Under the Red Hood- and as a flimsy excuse to give me something to do- I have taken it upon myself to review all 14 previous Bat-films (14! For reals!), including the one that I have never seen before! That’s right, there’s actually a Batman film I haven’t seen, and no it’s not Batman and Robin (if only I were so lucky).

We begin with the very first Batman film ever, the much beloved and similarly much denounced Batman (1966), Bat-Shark Repellent and all.

The Plot: When Batman and Robin are nearly killed responding to a phony distress call, the two piece together clues to discover that four of their greatest villains- the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman- have all teamed up to take over the world and destroy them once and for all! Hijinks, kidnappings, and bombs all ensue as the dynamic duo fight for their lives and try to stop a villainous plot to hold ransom the United World Security council!

My short take: Fuck the naysayers. This film (and the TV series it ties into) has received a whole lot of flack over the last forty years, and some of it is probably deserved. Yes, to the general public, this movie helped solidify the idea that superheroes were a bit ridiculous, and a lot of “serious” superhero people are always pissed off about that. But here’s the thing: superheroes ARE ridiculous. And I can say that, because I love superheroes. Superheroes have been, and always will be about escapism. It’s not supposed to be real, people! This movie is far from perfect (there are fight scenes that are painfully obvious about just how fake they are), but I bet that the kids in 1966 who watched this loved it, and I bet kids today who have watched it love it too.

The Good: This is Batman as 60’s camp awesomeness! You can tell that right off the bat (bad pun) from the title sequence, a darkly silhouetted chase scene of Batman and Robin chasing a criminal, lit only by varying colored spot lights. It’s actually pretty cool. Batman as pop art! The script is far closer to an actual Batman comic script than most Batman movies, though it’s a Batman comic out of the 50s and early 60s. Throw in a spot on parody of the United Nations and Adam West and Burt Ward’s deadpan seriousness about all the zaniness around them? Golden.

The great thing about the West and Ward Batman and Robin was the comedy. The villains are really the main characters, Batman and Robin ever the straight men to their villainous, comedic acts. Cesar Romero rocks the Dick Sprang era giggling, Joker, laughing at anything he thinks is funny, but mostly harmless in his own right. Burgess Meredith IS the Penguin, and if you want to know why a fat man in a tuxedo with a big nose is still popular in today’s world of a dark, brooding, “serious” Batman, you have only to look at Meredith to see why. He made the character, just as Frank Groshin made the Riddler. Few realize that the Riddler only had appeared three times in the 25 years of Batman comics before the TV series began, but Groshin’s interpretation of the Riddler made him one of Batman’s most famous villains. And Lee Meriwether is all kinds of 60’s sexy goodness, both in and out of her Catwoman costume.

There are so many good bits in this movie, it’s hard to lock them all down. Why wouldn’t the Penguin have a submarine? In fact, Batman’s utter disbelief at a Navy Admiral’s total stupidity in selling a military surplus submarine to a Mister P.N. Guin is one of the funniest parts of the movie. Batman gets a bunch of new toys thanks to a movie budget, and using them all manages to make sense. Which, let’s face it, is more than we can say for some Batman movies.
And for the record, NO ONE who’s ever played Batman has rocked their inner James Bond as much as Adam West does when he (as Bruce Wayne) meets ‘Kitka’ for the first time.

The Bad: On the other hand… well… a ballpoint banana and Bat-Shark Repellent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the current Grant Morrison “Batman thinks of everything” Batman, but Bat-Shark Repellent? Sigh. Obviously the effects are dated, but when people compare the rubber shark chewing on Batman’s leg to a bad Star Trek special effect, I think they’re doing a grave disservice to bad Star Trek effects everywhere. And why, oh why, couldn’t Cesar Romero shave his mustache? Putting make up over it might have worked for the TV series (though I’m not convinced of that), but on a movie screen? It’s painfully obvious in every scene he’s in.
I have to admit, as much as I defend this movie, there are a number of times when the coincidences and leaps of logic confuse me. I’m honestly not sure how much is supposed to be just campy fun and how much is plain out sloppy writing.

Another thing that seriously bugs me: the costuming department needed desperately to get rid of that one piece Riddler suit. Groshin’s Riddler looks AMAZING in his three piece question mark costume- it’s a phenomenal costume. Honestly, it’s probably the best costume in the movie! So why did the costumer keep taking it away from him and putting him back in the spandex? Maybe because it made Romero’s Joker costume look so boring and flat by comparison. Whatever the reason though, that spandex should never have been brought back, that suit is awesome.

Conclusion: This isn’t today urban vigilante Batman by any means- in fact, Commissioner Gordon states early on in the movie that this Batman is a deputized agent of the police. The logic behind that may seem odd to modern viewers, but in context with the setting of the movie, it works. This is still Batman just as much as Michael Keaton or Kevin Conroy’s Batman are Batman, it’s just a different interpretation. And it’s pretty fun, all around. Plus, a porpoise jumps in front of a torpedo and saves Batman and Robin’s lives. Which is awesome.
And don’t complain about the jetpack umbrellas. Much stupider props have shown up in Batman comics before.

Best line:
Commissioner Gordon (Reading a riddle left by the Riddler): What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?
Robin: A sparrow with a machine gun!

Pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie, right there: ridiculous, crazy, and kind of awesome. :)
Next time, on Reviewing Batman! The Joker gives a name to his pain! Batman tells a nice girl to shut up! And this town needs an enema! Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel!