Reviews: Slugfest – inside fifty years of Marvel-DC rivalry

Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle Between marvel & DC,

Reed Tucker,

Sphere

Growing up as a comics reader there was often a dividing line for many – are you DC or Marvel? Personally, even as a kid I found that a silly distinction as I read comics from both – and of course in Britain, back then, we had a huge amount of homegrown comics competing for our reading time as well (and they were easier to get hold of than US imports). But for many readers it was a real question, and that rivalry for the attentions of comics readers between The Big Two is the meat and drink (and sometimes spilled drink) of Reed Tucker’s fascinating history in Slugfest.

The comics business has changed enormously since the birth of the superheroes in the 1930s; they’ve survived (well, some have, not all) wars, depressions, civil unrest, the rise of several new media, changing societies, circulation declines and changes in consumption. And in the US the main contenders have, since the 60s, been Marvel and DC. DC, still, even by the 50s and early 60s, a staid, conservative, buttoned-down place, run by old men with pipes and leather patches on their jacket elbows, growing every further out of touch with their young readership. And with the arrival of Stan Lee’s hyperbole and energy they have a competitor they need to fight against for readership. Except the old men in charge refuse to see this new upstart as a serious rival – much to their cost.

It’s the beginning of decades of rivalry and competition – and often sniping at one another, sometimes humorously, sometimes quite nastily. And as the tired old crossover “events” pretty much always say “nothing will ever be the same again!!!”. Tucker takes us through the once-exciting characters now stultifyingly stale at DC and their initial reluctance to change – or even acknowledge change is needed – as the Marvel experiment begins to draw more and more readers and exciting new talents. It’s a heady, exciting time – Kirby, Ditko and more give readers something exciting and new, starting a whole new wave in the medium, with work that has inspired – arguably is still inspiring – new creators who, in their turn, would also explore just what else they could do with comics storytelling. And eventually that would stir changes in DC, elderly staffers finally out, new blood in, and an ongoing exchange between both publishers as one would, inevitably, follow the other on new ideas and innovations (or downright gimmicks).

Comic books were disreputable, and that was fine by me,” Denny O’Neill commenting on being part of the new blood brought in by DC in the 60s in reaction to Marvel.

Some of this will be common knowledge to a lot of comics fans, I imagine – I certainly knew many of the broad brushstrokes of the DC-Marvel rivalry, but what Tucker does here is to fill in far more detail into that picture. He discusses not just the main competition between the publishers over who had the most popular characters and titles, the best circulations, Tucker goes into more depth. Problems such as distribution, interference from the owners, self-censorship with the Comic Code, the decline in sales, the slow death of the newsstands and the establishment of the direct market and the specialist comic shops, the change in readership from mostly youngsters to adults, the rise of the “superstar” writers and artists like Miller, Morrison and others, the slow evolution of the capes and tights to the big screen (from the Superman movie of the 70s showing they could be huge box office for adults and kids through the duds to the current box office domination), the increasingly corporate nature of the Big Two and more.

Crucially Tucker has spoken to a huge number of people who have worked in the industry, and those first hand accounts and personal insights are where the book really sparkles. Writers, artists, editors, Tucker talks to a large array of talent from across those decades, giving a much more personal and relatable inside view, some working exclusively for one publisher or the other, but many going from one side to the opposition, sometimes because they lost their job, or were fed up with their treatment and walked (keeping your talent happy seems to be a lesson both side often ignored, foolishly), more than a few actively poached from one publisher to the other. The larger events here are important and worthwhile reading for anyone with a love of the comics medium, but it is these many personal touches from the numerous creators Tucker talks to which truly makes Slugfest so compelling.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_cover

Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_04

And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_01

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_02

This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_03

And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

thor_goddess_thunder_vol1_aaron_dauterman_marvel_05

The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

Jessica Jones: Alias

AKA Jessica Jones : Alias Volume 1,

Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos,

Marvel

jessica_jones_alias_volume1_bendis_gaydos_marvel_cover

You’ve all been watching the new Jessica Jones TV series over the weekend, right? A companion piece of sorts to Netflix’s superb Daredevil series, it follows Jessica Jones, formerly the superhero Jewel, now retired from the capes and tights and running her own private investigation agency, Alias. Created by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos back in 2001, the original volumes have been getting reprinted recently ahead of the new TV series, and that makes it a pretty good time to draw attention to them for those who missed them first time round, or for those who read them years ago and are feeling the urge to revisit them (you should, they stand up very well).

When we open this first volume we meet Jessica, in her small PI’s office, having an argument with a less than happy client. A lot of PI work involves morally messy stuff – spouses who suspect their partner is cheating on them, paying Jessica to find out and then, if their suspicions are confirmed, turning their anger on her in a “shoot the messenger” style. And that’s what this fairly seedy looking bloke in the “wife beater” vest does when she shows him the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Despite the fact he paid her to investigate his wife and find this evidence, he turns his anger on Jessica and curses all women as the same (how could his wife cheat on such a charmer, muses Jessica), then he gets violent… And oh boy, has he picked the wrong woman to get violent with. She may be much smaller than he is, but Jessica was a superhero. In the next scene the man is flying through the glass window on her office door (and yes, they did borrow this for the start of the TV show, and it works great there too). I know violence rarely solves anything, but also have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a violent creep like this being taught a lesson by someone he thought was “defenceless” and weak…

jessica_jones_alias_volume1_bendis_gaydos_marvel_01 jessica_jones_alias_volume1_bendis_gaydos_marvel_02

It’s clear from the start that Jessica is a damaged character, bitter, a little self-destructive, in many ways a classic 40s/50s private eye character that Raymond Chandler might recognise, carrying mental scars from her past experiences, although where those classic Noir gumshoes were all mentally scarred by what they saw in the war, with Jessica it is events during her time as a cape. When asked by various people why she gave up being a superhero her normal answer is that she didn’t quite fit into it, she was never going to be as good as the A-list heroes, that she didn’t have that drive they have. And some of that may be true, but as the series unfolds we find out there is a much more complex, emotional (and upsetting) core to why Jessica left the superhero line.

But it doesn’t leave her. Although she runs a regular detective agency, given her past and abilities it’s hardly surprising that the world of the capes intrudes into her life whether she wants it to or not. Sometimes in good ways – she’s maintained a friendship with Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), although in true Jessica fashion she can be a bit of an arse about it, pushing away those who like her and want to help (of course this just makes the reader feel for her all the more and become more emotionally invested in her). Or her on-off relationships with Luke Cage or Scott (Ant-Man) Lang.

jessica_jones_alias_volume_1_benids_gaydos_marvel_04

And some of these scenes really work oh so well, they ground that fantastical world of superheroes – we see Jessica and Cage hanging out in a bar, or her and Carol doing lunch and enjoying a good gossip about which superhero is seeing who and how Luke Cage is a bit of a “cape chaser” according to Carol. I thought he was a good guy, protests Jessica (who has had close relations with him herself). He is, Carol opines, but he just can’t resist superpowered women. It’s the everyday, social stuff that you don’t see so much of in the main superhero titles (although to be fair Marvel has always had an element of the everyday life for many characters included in stories). And it lends a realism to the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe to have such ordinary events like two girl chums chatting over lunch.

Naturally there is more going on here, and even in this first volume Jessica finds herself being manipulated by shadowy forces, pushed into an investigation that just happens to include spying on a woman who it turns out is covertly dating a major superhero, an iconic figure. Who takes off his mask while she is filming the tryst. She had his secret identity on tape and panics – of course she doesn’t want to air it, in fact her first instinct is to destroy it so it can’t be used against an upstanding superhero.

Then she thinks about it and realises she has been set up. But who knew this hero was going to see this woman and why did they want her to film it? If she destroys it she might throw away something that could protect her later. And then when a murder is thrown into the mix Jessica finds herself implicated (and rather thankful that Luke Cage asks a certain Matt Murdock to go in as her lawyer and demolish the shaky cop case). But that still leaves a very shadowy conspiracy going on that Jessica has unwittingly been drawn into…

jessica_jones_alias_volume1_bendis_gaydos_marvel_05

It’s hugely compelling and immensely well-written, as you would expect from Bendis, delivering both a good introduction to Jessica Jones and her world and troubles and juggling both larger story arcs (which will reveal much more about Jessica’s past experiences as the volumes progress) and the much more believable, personal, human level. And that is just so profoundly satisfying; it also means that the creators really manage to hook the reader totally into Jessica and her life in a very effectively emotional level.

Gaydos’ art manages the trick of portraying a woman who can be incredibly powerful and strong or can be lost, emotionally hurt and damaged, and again as with Bendis’ script this makes Jessica a much more believably human, three-dimensional character. Gaydos also uses some nice visual tricks – rapid, multiple small panels for a police interrogation scene, hinting at the bewildering speed of events as the detectives try to get her off balance, or a visit to Avengers Mansion being shown from a low perspective behind her, the imposing gates towering over Jessica, suggesting her emotional state of mind on a visual canvas.

jessica_jones_alias_volume_1_benids_gaydos_marvel_05

It’s an unusual side-on view of the world of Marvel superheroes that makes it all feel more realistic and believable, delivering a good, twisting detective story with added capes now and then, and a very engaging emotional core. All centred around a female lead who is neither impervious strong hero or emotionally ravaged victim to be saved, but, like most people, has her good and bad days, days where she may just want to break down and run away from it all, or days where a boasting “man mountain” gets the hell kicked out off him by a very strong and angry woman. She’s not a glowing heroic icon of perfection nor is she a damsel to be rescued, but sometimes she has elements of both, which is much more true to life (and also much more compelling for the reader). Jessica is no cipher or archetype, she’s a wonderfully realised, complex human character, with flaws and good points, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and conflicting emotions, and that may be the single best thing in this engrossing series, just how human Jessica feels.

jessica_jones_alias_volume1_bendis_gaydos_marvel_03

With Marvel reprinting the series in larger collections (this first volume has nine issues-worth of material, a great way to get into it) and the TV series making a good impression on viewers over the last week, it’s a good time to revisit Jessica Jones and find out why she deserves a place in your classic comics collection.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

God of Thunder (and rock and roll*): Thor, the God Butcher

Thor, God of Thunder Volume 1 : the God Butcher,

Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic,

Marvel Comics

thor_god_thunder_god_butcher_aaron_ribic_marvel_cover

893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…

As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.

thor_god_thunder_god_butcher_aaron_ribic_marvel_02

We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…

Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…

thor_god_thunder_god_butcher_aaron_ribic_marvel_04

The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).

The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?

thor_god_thunder_god_butcher_aaron_ribic_marvel_03

It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.

In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.

thor_god_thunder_god_butcher_aaron_ribic_marvel_05

(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Fists of Fury

Iron Fist the Living Weapon #1

Kaare Kyle Andrews,

Marvel

iron-fist-living-weapon-1-cover-kaare-andrews-628x972

Alright, confession time – I’ve never read a lot of Iron Fist before, so I come to this first issues of the Marvel Now! take on the hyper kung-fu martial art warrior relatively fresh. A colleague recommended it to me and well, since this is a first issue of a new take on the series it does seem like a good time for those relatively unfamiliar with the character to have a peek. And actually I’m pretty impressed.

Kaare Andews has a somewhat unusual opening for a mainstream comic issue, the very first page being pretty much just a head and shoulders shot of Danny, the current Iron Fist, very long series of speech bubbles down the left margin (we soon find out he is being interviewed by a very smitten and flirty journalist) and series of dialogue boxes counterpointing the speech bubble conversation over on the right. One large image and an awful lot of text – not the usual way top open a brand new action series. Ballsy, different and quite interesting, I thought.

There is one smaller element to that main head and shoulders shot, almost easy to overlook actually given the small size and the amount of text distracting the reader’s focus – a small image overlaid on one shoulder of Danny, explorers by the look of them, in parkas tramping through snowy mountains. The following pages follow into that flashback presaged by this tiny, subtle hint on that first page, Danny as a boy, with his mother, father and family friend trekking through storms in the remote mountains, his father so obsessed with his quest he is risking his family.

iron-fist-living-weapon-1-kaare-andrews-01-628x977

There are some fantastic scenes and layouts here, from a one page splash that combines fairly minimal art juxtaposed with big, stark, bold sound effects lettering to denote the start of an avalanche – quite excellent use of art and graphics, more effective than a series of smaller panels depicting the characters being caught up in the moving wall of snow would be, followed by several landscape format panels on the next page, each one becoming slimmer than the last, the black spaces between wider, giving a seriously good impression of being caught in the flow of that avalanche, the noise, sudden movement then white out followed by black out…

Back to the present and Danny musing on his father and his obsession, as well as his business empire, He eats and drinks mechanically, even has sex with the flirty journalist, but again the same lack of emotion on the face, everything is the same to him, he is going through the motions. Outside his apartment window the ruined tower of his father’s former corporate headquarters juts up into the sky, still standing but huge portions gone, mangled, standing in silhouette against a blood red sky like some Freudian symbol of father-son power dynamics.

Of course this is Iron Fist, so we have to have some action, and wouldn’t you know it, helicopters deliver teams of ninjas sliding down their ropes to attack sneakily, but it’s rather hard to sneak up on Danny. And he really hates ninjas…  Again Andrews uses some pretty interesting layouts for the dynamic, unusual looking fight sequence, and the troubled Danny forgets his brooding over his life, his father, his company – a big battle against multiple opponents focuses his mind: “this is just what I needed.” This line is delivered from an uplit, menacing looking facial shot of Danny which reminds me very much of Miller’s The Dark Knight where it clearly acknowledged the dark part of the Batman that liked dealing out violence to wrongdoers, even needed to do it.

iron-fist-living-weapon-1-kaare-andrews-02-628x973

As for the question of why the attack team was sent to ambush him and what is going on back at K’um Lun, those I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves – don’t want to spoil the whole issue now, do we?

I have to say I was very impressed with this, even coming to it with no great knowledge of the character or indeed particular love or interest in it previously, but for a first issue of a relaunch it worked perfectly for someone with that background – I didn’t need to know anything else, this was self-contained (I’m sure old hands will spot references I didn’t, but it all still worked for me). And as I already said there are some fantastic, innovative layouts here, some great use of space, different panels and the like, some of the most interesting I have seen since JH Williams III’s brilliant work on Batwoman, and some wonderfully moody use of colour schemes and shadow. Intriguing first issue plus creative use of art and layout, someone clearly wanting to push and play with how you tell a story in a comic issue, what’s not to love here?

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

SHIELD by the great Steranko

SHIELD by Steranko: the Complete Collection

Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby et al

Marvel

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-cover

Don’t Yield! Back SHIELD!

Nick Fury. SHIELD. Steranko. Three words that are sufficient to give goosebumps to many a comics geek. Starting life as Sgt Fury, fighting the good fight in WWII, the Swinging 60s and the era of such uber-cool superspy productions like James Bond and the Man From UNCLE saw him become Colonel Fury, the eye-patch wearing, cigar-chomping comics king of the superspy genre. There are wonderfully – sometimes ludicrously to modern eyes – over the top plots, conspiracies, crazy supervillain agencies – notably the green-clad HYDRA (“Hail, HYDRA!!”) – amazing action, sardonic wisecracks, sexy, deadly femme fatales and of course, this being the 60s superspy era, the gadgets.

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-02

Oh, the gadgets! From rocket packs to the massive SHIELD Heli-Carrier, oxygen pills concealed inside shirt buttons, wrist video communicators, impeccably sharp 60s suits a Tarantino gangster would kill for and which have bullet-proof linings sewn into them, weapons even concealed inside Fury’s trademark cigars, the list is as long as it is fantastically inventive. Sometimes those gadgets even prefigured something we now have for real today – take a big splash opening page with Fury diving through the sky in a suit with wing membranes between the arms and legs, just like the ‘squirrel’ suits some skydivers use today (of course Fury still holds a lit cigar in one hand while skydiving in this suit).

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-03

To modern, adult eyes some of these stories – often quite short, rapid-fire, all-tension and action throughout – may seem a bit on the simple side, but it has to be remembered that when these were penned in the mid-60s they were, like many mainstream comics, aimed at a far younger audience than reads these sorts of titles today. We’ve effectively grown up with these. But you make allowances for this and then simply let yourself go and just enjoy the sheer pleasure and adrenalin rush of these madcap tales of daring-do and international espionage and world saving the same as you do for a classic Bond flick. It was a different era and it sometimes shows – Fury’s cry to his team of “We got us a female to rescue!” may seem sexist to modern eyes, but this was the 60s, and it was the superspy genre…

In other spots though it tackles this sexism of the age, when an irate, wounded Fury shoves a shapely female agent away declaring he doesn’t need any care or help from a dame she sharply tells him just for that he can address her as “Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine”. It may be the sexist 60s, but as with TV’s The Avengers and Mrs Peel there were some female characters who may be sexy and alluring (Steranko’s depiction of the Countess’ rather pert bottom drew the ire of the Comic Code Authority) but they were also quite certainly strong and independent, the equal and often better at some tasks than the male superspies. Long before Xena or Ripley we had attractive but powerful – not to mention ass-kicking – women characters setting the stage for the strong action heroines who would emerge in their wake.

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-05

The real joy of this collection though isn’t those crazy 60s superspy stories and mad villain superweapons to destroy the world, or even the relentless action and constant wisecracking comments from Fury. It’s Steranko’s art. This is some of the most influential work in comics, and rightly so. The layouts, the splash pages, the double splash pages, hell Steranko creates a four-page splash scene! Kinetic, colourful, full of dynamic energy, not to mention Steranko gleefully pulling in influences from all around him, from comics influences like Wally Wood to the Pop Art of the 60s, psychedelia, Surrealism, anything which caught his imaginative eye and he thought would work on a page. Steranko doesn’t sit back and think, hey this is a young readership, I should make it simple, he treats the readers in a more mature fashion, trusting them to follow and luxuriate in his art, even if they were too young at the time to get all the references (I wonder how many had their first exposure to a wider art world through Steranko’s references?).

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-01

And oh ye four colour comics gods, that art is simply fabulous, from a simple, wordless (save for a few lines in a dialogue box in the first panel) sequence in a cool 60s bachelor pad, man, woman, music on turntable, a rose, romance (it looks like it could have come from Jim Lawrence-era Bond strips) to glowing, colourful, psychedelic effects, montages, and more, astonishing sets for bases that look like Ken Adam’s amazing Bond sets on acid, fabulous aircraft and cars (ohhh, that grand prix racing sequence… incredible bit of comic art) and so much more to simply indulge yourself in here.

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-06

The collection includes extras showing some art before it was altered and naturally those covers, including that utterly iconic origins issue cover, Fury, guns in hand, with an visually astonishing black and white Pop Art background that is one of the best bits of graphic cover design of all time for my money (see here for an amazing animated version of that cover by Kerry Callen). This isn’t just nostalgic tripping back to those crazy 60s superspy tales, this is watching a master at work, showing just how far you could push the envelope in terms of how a comic could work, inventing new visual comics languages and styles that are still influencing creators half a century on. Sheer, utter brilliance.

SHIELD-by-Steranko-complete-collection-04

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Reviews: Hawkeye Volume 1 – My Life as a Weapon

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Hawkeye Volume 1 : My Life as a Weapon

Matt Fraction and David Aja

Marvel Comics

hawkeye volume 1 my life as a weapon cover

Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.” From the introduction.

Oh, where to start with Matt Fraction and David Aja’s superb, rollicking ride of a superhero series? I’ve never been a huge Hawkeye fan, but FPI Glasgow’s Nicola raved about this so much on our blog that I picked up the first couple of issues. And I am glad I did, I liked it; in fact I liked it so much it made my annual Best of the Year list (and some of our other Best Of posters picked it too).I love when someone puts you on to something unexpectedly good, something you’d probably never have picked up otherwise – I mean that’s why we all love to talk about our favourite comics and books, after all, share the love of them, hopefully spread it around.

This is Clint Barton’s life when he’s not busy being an Avenger and saving the world as Hawkeye. This is Clint the guy who lives in an old apartment block, talks to his neighbours (and tries to help them out although he often messes up in the most endearing fashion), who know who he is (even if some keep calling him “that Hawkguy” by mistake). And even outside of his epic Avengers role Clint seems to continually walk into trouble, be it relationships (Kate Bishop is almost like an apprentice to him, except numerous times she proves to be as good as him and has to rescue Clint, while the will-they, won’t-they chemistry between them is superb leading to some cracking inter-personal scenes between the pair), the mystery women that breeze in and out of his life (and bed, always with some sort of I-knew-it-was-too-good-to-be-true consequences, of course), tracksuit wearing, Mini driving Russian mafia goons, secret video files and more.

hawkeye volume 1 fraction aja 02

And along the way there is the day to day stuff; Clint trying to be ‘normal’ (whatever that is), helping neighbours move stuff, attempting to sort out cable problems for another neighbour and her kids after buying the block (to fend off a greedy landlord who attempted to screw his neighbours over – not every victory is won by a battle, sometimes lots of cash works well too, fortunately Clint is very rich), trying to take care of a homeless dog, unpack his own belongings (including, in one great sequence, a bewildering array of ‘trick’ arrows that Aja & Fraction then gleefully give him an excuse to use) and organise his apartment to be like a regular place a regular person would live in. And throughout often sparking off Kate, who is more than a match for him, be it in the middle of action or on a high society bash stake out.

Keep your eyes open. Keep it casual. Casual. Casual. Nice and…”

“Clint”

“Casual. Casual. Super casual.”

“You know there’s nothing casual about a guy muttering ‘casual’ to himself over and over again, right?

hawkeye volume 1 fraction aja 01

And all his good intentions always end up in some sort of unintended action (including a brilliant car chase that partakes of both The Italian Job and Bullit). Or his mixing with the neighbours on the roof on a nice day, barbecue, some beers, relaxing, being a regular guy, not just an Avenger as he keeps telling is neighbours – right up until a huge shadow falls over them all and they look up to see a massive SHIELD vessel floating over the roof, ropes drop out, black-garbed action men rapel down, grab Clint without so much as a by your leave and pull him straight up into the air for an urgent mission, while the nonplussed neighbours look on with an “I told you he was a big Avenger guy” expression, a wonderfully deadpan comedy moment.

Yes, it is clever writing, with some smart takes on the superhero genre and what they do when they’re not saving the world and battling supervillains. It has sassy dialogue, superb characterisation, humour, romance, drama, sex, car chases, diving out of buildings, falling into pools, saving ‘orphaned’ dogs, pulling mad stunts, all of them depicted with great art that walks the fine line between realistic and cartoony (right down to an old style Hawkeye mask placed over Clint’s naughty bits when he has to dive naked from bed when hoods machine gun it! A lovely, cheeky nod and wink to the audience).

hawkeye volume 1 fraction aja 03

It has all of those elements, but what elevates it from good to brilliant is that in addition to those Hawkeye is purely and simply fun. Huge, enormous, your own floating bar in your very own pool staffed by monkey butlers fun. And dammit, we like the gritty stuff, the dark stuff, the autobio stuff and the serious, heavy, introspective stuff that the medium can deliver so well, but sometimes a comic read should just be darned good fun. And this is about the best fun you can have with your clothes on, one of the best reads in comics right now. If you’ve not been picking up the issues over the last few months then do yourself a favour and grab this first collection.