Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fraction Does Spandex: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

So I’ve been spending an awful lot of time reading and writing about the Comics Code here lately, to the exclusion of the funnybook reviews that have been the… manure… that the Dork Forty’s… fertilized its fields with… from… day… one… Okay, forget that metaphor. What I’m saying is, I feel the need to flex my snootified reviewer’s muscles once more. But I’m still in “long-form” writing mode, so… Rather than do my usual capsule review catch-up, I’m gonna look more in-depth at a few things that have come out in the last month.

And I think I’ll start with the Marvel work of my favorite writer in that company’s stable, Mr. Matthew Fraction. His Casanova series is one of my favorite books of the past decade, of course, but for my money, Fraction’s also doing the best corporate spandex work Marvel’s putting out these days, and some of the best super hero work on the market in general, corporate or not. Seriously, the only guy who’s beating him is Grant Morrison, and that’s not an embarrassing battle to lose at all. Fraction’s work features nuanced, understated characterization and long-term plotting on a level you don’t often see on work-for-hire books. His Thor series with Pascual Ferry is especially nice, so let’s start with that…

Thor #619
by Matt Fraction and Pascual Ferry

Fraction’s been slowly moving the status quo on this book into a shape more to his liking, bringing back Loki and more than hinting that Asgard needs to go back atop the World Tree. But my favorite change, by far, is the return of Odin. He’s all sullen and bitchy about having been brought back from his glorious, carefree afterlife, and Pascual Ferry’s rendering him as a round-bellied old bear, massive and grumpy and proud:

click to see Odin in all his embiggened glory

Ferry’s really bringing it on this book, his character designs simultaneously nodding to Kirby and looking entirely like his own work. That’s most evident with Odin, but also with the World Eaters, the villainous invaders from the Void (about whom more in a bit).

At any rate. Odin is not at all happy with Thor for bringing him back, and is even less happy with the way Thor’s brought back his little brother…

Don't risk Odin's wrath... Click to embiggen!

Pardon our seams and staples, by the way. All the god scenes in this book are laid out in two-page spreads, and Ferry’s making the most of them, going for full wide-screen bleeds and unrelentingly placing the action right smack-dab in the center. It’s going to be a bitch to read in trade, where the far more severe binding will make the lack of inside gutters difficult at best. Which is kind of fitting, in a way. While Fraction is doing his usual nuanced character development and long-term storytelling, Thor is still very much comic book comics. It’s about lusty Viking gods, their enormous passions, and their even more enormous melancholy. It’s BIG, above all else, and BIG is something that comics has always done very, very well. There’s a part of me that really likes the idea that this book can’t be contained by the tight-assed binding of the trade paperback or the narrow confines of the digital reader screen. It needs the wide open spaces of flat staple-binding to be experienced to best effect.

The SPOILERS begin... after the jump!

But what was I saying? Ah, yes. Odin. Not happy. After chasing young Loki away from Asgard, he lays into Thor for bringing both of them back from the dead:

Embiggened family strife is just one click away!

Ouch. I mean… OUCH. He really hit the nail right on the head there. While Thor was driven by nostalgia and a feeling that he (and Balder, let‘s face it) weren’t worthy of the throne… Part of his longing for the way things used to be is based in the fact that he likes it much better when Odin takes care of all the responsibilities of kingship, freeing him to go out and beat on things with his hammer. Thor is, at heart, a man of action, and the crown is not a burden he wants to bear. This makes Thor no less noble, mind you: Asgard was never reduced to rubble by a bunch of humans when Odin was in charge, after all, and it’s probably better for all the Nine Worlds to have him on the throne. But it does speak to Our Hero’s tendency to be a touch irresponsible, pig-headed, and (yes) just a tiny bit selfish.

But speaking of the throne… Odin’s return changes the power structure in (what’s left of) Asgard quite drastically. Balder is still king, but come on… really… Odin’s back, muthascratchas! And there ain’t no king but Odin. Something that Balder seems to grasp without saying it this issue, as he decides to make his last act as king stepping up the World-Tree and meeting the bad guys head-on before they get to Earth. Not that he’s handing the throne over, you understand. He’s just going on a suicide mission to gain Asgard time to prepare.

Joining him in this is Tyr (the seldom-seen Norse god of war), and they are truly bad-ass. Here’s their arrival in Svartalfheim, in all its gigantic two-page-spread glory. The artwork in this comic is actually too big for my scanner (as it should be!), so I’ve pasted the spread together for you as best I can. Definitely click to embiggen this bad boy, and enjoy the best pre-fight shit-talking since Frank Miller’s 300...


Okay, so it’s no “We’ll fight in the shade,” but still. “Better than being bored to death” is a great, practical, and fatalistic Viking sort of thing to say. And these two really do kick some ass here, as you can see in this insanely gory fight panel:

By Odin's Beard! Click to embiggen!

As the term “suicide mission” above probably implied, Balder and Tyr don’t make it. They take out the World Eater prince before the entire raiding party arrives, but in the end, they die glorious Viking deaths (handily leaving the throne open, as Balder no doubt intended).

Meanwhile, the bad guys prepare to march on Asgard itself. Next issue promises Odin and Thor having a showdown with the World Eaters, but I hope that’s not the last we see of these dudes. They’ve been made into some pretty compelling villains thus far, but I feel like we’ve only gotten a glimpse, and I’d hate to see them wiped out before we have a chance to dig deeper. But with the new Thor comic launching soon, and Fraction moving over to that book, I fear that this storyline will be ending, and Asgard returning to its status quo (as seen in the movies!) sooner rather than later.

Still, this is damn fine god-comics. Fraction and Ferry (and, lest I forget to praise him, colorist Matt Hollingsworth) have made every issue of this book an event, with larger-than-life artwork to accompany the larger-than-life characters. I’m also kind of impressed with Marvel for working with the creative team on those two-page spreads. While there are some single-page sequences when the action leaves the realm of the gods and returns to Earth… I notice that there were a lot fewer ads than usual in this issue, which maintains its artistic integrity and also makes me feel better about paying four bucks for it. Corporate spandex really doesn’t get much better than this.

Grade: A

Iron Man #500
by Matt Fraction, Salvador Larocca, Kano, Nathan Fox, and Carmine Giandomenico

And so we go from gods to the most human of all the Marvel heroes. And while the artwork is massive on Thor, this anniversary issue is literally massive, sporting a 56-page lead story that, refreshingly, looks forward much more than it looks back. Rather than celebrate what makes Iron Man great, Fraction choses to give us a glimpse of a horrifying future that sets up his forthcoming storylines, and continues his exploration of Tony Stark as a portrait of addiction.

No, he’s not giving us another alcohol story. There’s more than one type of addiction, after all, and for Tony that addiction is to his own genius. He’s driven to constantly invent, and sometimes he lets his mind take him to places that he shouldn’t. In this case, it took him to something called a Titanomech, an incredibly lethal (and, in this issue, somewhat ill-defined) robot AI. Unfortunately, Tony designed this thing in the period between his last brain back-up and his brain-death (a long story I‘m not going to slow down to explain here), and so doesn’t really remember doing it.

In future-time, this leads to a truly awful world where the Mandarin reigns supreme (under the auspices of our new machine overlords), and the children of Tony Stark fight for freedom and humanity. Each character’s arc in this future time is drawn by a different artist, and holy god do they knock this one out of the park. I dig on the fine line of Carmine Giandomenico’s work, but Kano and Nathan Fox really burn up the pages here. Kano delivers work that somehow puts me in mind of Katsuhiro Otomo without actually looking like Otomo very much at all, and Fox does his crazy kinetic Paul-Pope-on-crack thing. Both deliver action art that really moves, and stand in stark contrast (no pun intended) to regular series artist Salvador Larocca. Normally, in fact, I’d say that these three beat ass all over Salvador Larocca, but he brings the thunder this issue, as well, and his present-day segments have a weight and life that manage to hold their own against the competition.

Forgive me for not providing art samples here. I wanted to reproduce the Thor artwork at such a big size that I’m loathe to make this post even more of a bandwidth hog than it already is, and-- Oh… what the hell. Here’s a really gorgeous (and terribly SPOILERY) two-page spread from Kano (and it's even more impressive at full size, so... you know the drill):


Spider-Man guest-stars in the present-day segments, and provides both comedy relief and a rather elegant solution to the problem. It’s not a solution that makes the dystopian future impossible, however, and how we get there is still a mystery. Fraction does leave some clues, though. For one thing, Future-Tony says that the Titanomechs forced him to design them. And Peter Parker (who worked with Stark in the period when he was doing those initial designs) says that they were something Tony worked on pretty much obsessively whenever his mind wasn’t occupied with business or super-heroics. And since we’ve already seen some kind of malevolent machine-entities operating in Stark’s sub-conscious, machine-entities that didn’t want him coming out of the brain-dead coma he was in… Is this the Extremis developing an intelligence of its own?

Hrm. There’s another future-clue planted in this issue that I missed entirely until I scanned in that picture up there of Tony’s future-daughter Ginny. To the right you can see a detail from that page, showing the first of the three tombstones in close-up:

I might be crazy, but that tombstone looks an awful lot like it’s supposed to say “Virginia Potts Stark.” And Virginia (as a quick run to the Wikipedia reminded me) is Pepper Potts’ real name. So with Ginny’s red hair… And her being named “Ginny“… Well well well. Looks like Pepper and Tony will be getting together after all. Not that it’s incredibly surprising, mind you. But still. Considering the point their relationship is at right now, I might not have expected to see Fraction go there.

Another interesting tidbit: the future segments take place 41 years from now. And Tony’s other kid, Howard, is 41 years old (Ginny is 22). So… Since Pepper, as far as we know, hasn‘t popped out a little Stark baby… And neither is Maria Hill… Who’s Howard’s mama? It could be anybody, I suppose. Tony does toss the sperm around pretty freely, after all. But I’m hoping it’s somebody absolutely terrifying. Madame Masque would make a lovely mother, don’t you think? Or perhaps one of the Hammer girls...?

So, all in all, one hell of an issue. After more than a year’s worth of stories that, much as I loved their subtlety and intelligence, felt a little constipated, this blow-out of an issue was a breath of fresh air. Combined with the big villain family get-together at the end of “Stark Resilient,” this one’s got me really excited about reading Iron Man.

Grade: A

Iron Man 500.1
by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca

So. The “Marvel-Point-One” initiative. These books are planned as jumping-on points, new tellings of the origin stories of Marvel’s major characters that move on to cover their long histories in short form and bring potential readers up to date on each series’ themes and storylines. They’re intended as “evergreen” books to some extent, things that Marvel can keep in print as long as they’re pertinent to the status quo.

It‘s a tall order. If not handled right, this sort of thing could be a disaster, a mess of dull exposition or nostalgia-tripping that would serve more to turn new readers off than make them want more. Matt Fraction, not entirely surprisingly, pulls it off with aplomb, framing the whole thing around Tony Stark going to an AA meeting. This immediately does two things: it centers the entire Iron Man series around Stark’s alcoholism, and renders the intricate permutations of the various super hero storylines the character’s been involved in over the years… unimportant.

Which gets you out of having to cover an awful lot of complicated stuff that, ultimately, doesn’t matter. What’s important to understanding Iron Man is understanding that the alcohol fueled him through the good times, and destroyed him in the bad. That he’s made and lost fortunes because of it. And that it haunts him, even now that he’s clean. The rest is details, and that’s how Fraction treats it. As Stark tells his life story to the meeting, he doesn’t talk about being Iron Man in specific. He talks about it as his job, his passion. The thing he did when he wasn’t drinking. “Once you go into the Fin Fang Foom of it all,” he tells Pepper Potts on the phone afterward, “you can lose your audience.”

Wise words for Fraction to follow as the writer here, too. The super hero stuff is covered, of course, summed up in single-panel illustrations accompanied by Stark’s narration equating it all to typical life experiences. So you get the founding of the Avengers. The Mandarin. War Machine. Madame Masque. Extremis. Civil War. Even Teen Tony puts in an appearance:

...and if you don't know what that is, count yourself lucky...

If there’s any weakness to Fraction’s approach here, it’s that he doesn’t do more to talk about Armor Wars. It’s depicted, of course, in a series of panels with Iron Man fighting other guys in super-armor, but Fraction never delves into Stark’s desire to make sure that the weapons he’s created don’t fall into the wrong hands. That’s a pretty major plot element, and a major part of Tony’s emotional make-up, and it gets glossed over.

One other potential problem with this as a “new readers” issue is the book’s closing scene. After the meeting, as I mentioned above, Tony calls Pepper Potts, his personal assistant and all-around Girl Friday. Though the meetings help him, they also rattle him, and he tells Pepper “I don’t want to be alone tonight.” But Pepper turns him down, finally telling him that they slept together during his recent brain meltdown, and that, since Tony doesn’t actually remember it… That’s a little awkward. So Tony, horribly embarrassed (not to mention still rattled by the trip down memory lane), does what he always does when he’s feeling off-kilter: he finds a woman for a meaningless one-night stand.

Now don’t get me wrong. It‘s a great scene, and one that illustrates perfectly that Tony still has his problems. As a regular reader, I loved it. But I wonder how much sense it would have made if I was the new reader this issue is intended for. I suppose, if I didn’t know about the recent science fiction memory loss thing, I would have assumed that they’d slept together during an alcoholic blackout at some point in the past when Tony was still drinking, and the point of the scene would still be made. So maybe it works, and gives regular readers a little something extra to boot. But still. That kind of unexplained reference to the finer points of current storylines is something that should maybe be avoided in a book like this.

Overall, though, I think this was a rousing success. It gets the point across that Iron Man is primarily a character drama, with guys in armor beating the shit out of each other as a backdrop. It covers all of Tony Stark’s various ups and downs over the years, and puts his alcoholism front and center as the single most important thing about him. Plus, it’s very cleverly-written, with a nice mix of soul-crushing drama and snappy humor, and would definitely make me want to find more if I wasn’t already reading.

Granted, I like this kind of talky character stuff. If I was more of a straightforward action fan, it would have turned me off. But in that case, I wouldn’t like the on-going series anyway, so… Mission accomplished!

Grade: A-

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