Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Retro Review: Spider-Man: Masques

Spider-Man: Masques, collects Spider-Man #6-7 by Todd McFarlane

Over a year ago I reviewed Spider-Man: Torment, superstar artists Todd McFarlane's first work on the character as both writer and artist. While Torment has become one of the most talked about Spider-Man stories in recent years, his second storyline failed to make the same impression, and has been largely forgotten about in most circles. At times, Masques feels a lot like a product of the 90's, featuring many of the most notable excesses of the era. Despite this it is refreshing to see Spider-Man appearing in a different sort of storyline, far removed from the more 'fun' arcs that the character is known for.

Masques features the short lived 'Demonic Hobgoblin' as the villain of the piece, as he kidnaps a small boy, seeking to remake him in his own image. While this particular take on the character is not one that is generally well thought of, I thought it worked excellently in this two-parter. His motivations are a little murky and his dialogue is very hackneyed, but there is a real sense of menace and fear around the character, largely created by McFarlane's superb, atmospheric artwork. His renditions of regular human's often drew criticism, but he was born to draw a story of this nature.

Ghost Rider also appears, and although he is also very well drawn I found his presence in the story a little forced and pointless. I have never thought him to be a particularly interesting character, and there is little done here to develop his character beyond a very basic level. The idea of Spidey finding conflict with a hero using more extreme methods than his is one that has been done to death over the years, and there is little attempt here to put a new spin on it. Nevertheless, the character looks great and fits with the overall tone of the story.

If you can put up with some poor dialogue and questionable storytelling from McFarlane, I would recommend this as at the very least, a beautiful looking comic book story, and an attempt to tell a different sort of story with Spider-Man. The character himself has little of note to do, but that doesn't matter too much as McFarlane crafts a cinematic thrill ride, with some superb visuals. It might sound like I am damning it with faint praise by calling it his finest work on the adjectiveless Spider-Man title, but that doesn't make it any less true.


Monday, 20 June 2011

The CLiNT Experiment

Just over a year ago Mark Millar announced the latest in a long line of ambitious comic book projects - a monthly British comics anthology, with the long term aim of moving comic books back to the mainstream. A highly ambitious brief, and perhaps one that even Millar himself did not realistically believe that he would achieve. Nevertheless, CLiNT was announced in May last year, as a mix of comic strips, features and news, all produced by young British talent. At its inception Millar described CLiNT as The Eagle for the 21st Century, confirming that he would be aiming it at the 16-30 age bracket, ambitiously declaring that he wanted it to be 'passed around lunch halls and common rooms'.

The first issue (pictured above) launched in September, featuring strips by renowned British celebrities Jonathon Ross and Frankie Boyle. Largely a success, CLiNT #1 sold out and was confirmed for a second printing by its publisher Titan in November. Reviews were mixed, with seasoned comics readers praising the strips, while criticizing the magazines features for their somewhat low-brow nature. But they were missing the point. Seasoned comics readers were not the magazines target audience. I didn't like the features any more than they did. I was buying CLiNT for Nemesis, Kick-Ass and Turf, not for 'Sexy Chavs', or 'Top Ten Milfs'. But I understood why they were there, and accepted them, without ever really enjoying them. I loved Kick-Ass and its sequel was more of the same, Jonathon Ross' Turf was very good, if a little unpolished. Frankie Boyle's Rex Royd was not my cup of tea at all but nonetheless, there was a lot of good stuff in the magazine, something that hasn't changed nine months on.

In its early months CLiNT was dishearteningly ubiquitous, occupying pride of place in mainstays such as WHSmith and Tesco, and confusingly appearing on corner shops up and down the country. Had comic books finally cracked the mainstream again? The answer was of course, no. The confetti, premature. Since those heady days CLiNT has failed to maintain its position in shops, in my experience at least, and has shipped late at least twice. Can it be a surprise that interest is waning when the most reliable way to keep up with its erratic schedule is through its creators twitter feed? CLiNT will not be passed around lunch halls and common rooms if it can't be bought in the first place, and almost a year after its high profile launch, the public seem in danger of dropping out. The strips have for the most part been excellent, and Millar seems to have reigned in the spurious additional content, but in a notoriously fickle marketplace, no excuse can be given to lose interest.

I have no access to sales figures - for all I know CLiNT could be flying off the shelves, but for my money it is vital that the magazine sticks to a regular release schedule. I am a seasoned comic book reader, and avidly look forward to the magazine every month but even my affections have begun to wane. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the uninitiated to stay abreast of the magazines schedule. Lest we forget, to many not interested in comics Mark Millar is hardly a celebrity, let alone one deemed worthy of following on twitter (sorry Mark), whether they read his magazine or not. I was happy to read the release date of the magazine's latest issue on Millar's twitter feed, other readers may not have been so fortunate.

In short - Mark is doing a great job with the content. CLiNT is fantastic value for money, even if you skim over the features. My main criticism would be the scheduling. Mark cited the absence of any new Kick-Ass 2 content as the reason for this months latest delay, but I would put getting the product on the shelves ahead of ensuring that the selection of strips is as perfect as it could be. I can understand Millar wanting the product to be as good as it can be, but as long as the strip that replaces it can stand up to Kick-Ass 2, I'm sure that regular readers will not have a problem. What they may have a problem with is following a periodical that appears on an increasingly erratic basis. Retailers may feel the same way. Mark's choice of strips so far has been superb, and as long as what he chooses to replace any wayward ones is of a similar ilk I for one will still be happily buying.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Retro Review: The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4

The Web and the Flame by Lee / Lieber

Amazing Spider-Man Annual's have played host to a number of significant stories over the years, among them being the debut of the Sinister Six and the first mention of Peter Parker's parents. While this story cannot claim to be as much of a milestone as either of those classics, it is certainly a lot of fun, and while not quite a must read for any fans of Silver Age comic books, a more than worthy purchase.

All the way through, this story bears Stan Lee's unmistakable stamp. From his trademark fourth wall breaking captions, to his jazzy (if amusingly dated) dialogue. In places it can read as very cheesy, but if you are willing to accept that as a product of its time period then it shouldn't bother you too much. Indeed, for the most part Lee's writing has aged very well, carrying with it an undeniable charm and energy that is a great fit for the character. While the core plot is a little silly, the story is carried by the dynamic between Spidey and the Human Torch. It's easy to forget that once upon a time the two had a real rivalry, and this annual is a stark reminder of the edge that their relationship used to have. The two bounce off each other pleasingly, with Stan penning some fantastic quips that do not come across as nearly as dated as a lot of his dialogue does. Stan Lee's brother Larry Lieber is on art duties and does an able job. He is not quite John Romita Sr but his clear, smooth style is a more than capable substitute. The rest of the art team are on good form as well - Mike Esposito's inks are characteristically tight and the colors jump off the page (I couldn't find a credit for them anywhere so apologies to the talented creator who provided them).

The Wizard and Mysterio seem logical choices of villains, and serve their roles well, within ever being given much characterization. In truth, both are largely sidelined for the duration of the story and could have been replaced by any number of other villains with minimum fuss. Nevertheless, their combined mechanical expertise makes for an interesting variety of threats to be thrown at the two heroes. Just don't expect multi-layered characterization or well thought out schemes.

Of course this story is very much a product of its time, and carries with it a number of the flaws commonly associated with Silver Age comic books. The plot is nothing special, or indeed original and is held together by a number of contrivances and inconsistencies. In places it is very predictable and lacking in any tension or real atmosphere. In short - this story is not one to be taken too seriously. However, as long as you take it for what it is, The Web and the Flame is sure to be a comic book that you read with a big smile on your face.


Monday, 13 June 2011

TPB Review: Spectacular Spider-Man: Countdown

Spectacular Spider-Man: Countdown
, collects the Spectacular Spider-Man (volume 2) #6-10 by Jenkins / Ramos

Despite being undeniably one of Spider-Man's premier rogues, it could be argued that over the years Doctor Octopus has been mishandled on occasion. Despite being the star of some classic stories (and a well received movie), the good doctor has also appeared in some very forgettable comics, with his appearances often lacking the gravitas that a character of his stature probably deserves. While he is perhaps more known for his emotional, character driven stories Paul Jenkins also drew plaudits for his revamp Spidey's arch nemesis the Green Goblin, in the fan favourite A Death in the Family arc. With Doctor Octopus appearing in Spider-Man 2, Jenkins was chosen as the writer to take advantage of the character's increased exposure, and featured him as the focal point of his second arc on Spectacular Spider-Man, titled Countdown.

The story sees Octavius at his scheming best, as he kidnaps a Palestinian Foreign Minister, promising to release him only if Spider-Man unmasks at a scheduled time. Jenkins manages to craft an excellent Spider-Man story here, in my opinion using all the elements that make the web-slinger such a great character. His supporter cast - so often marginalized during the JMS era is utilized superbly well across the five issues. While Big John clearly has the potential to become very annoying I found him a likable presence and it's a shame that he has disappeared from the books with his creator. Jenkins is as adept as using classing members of the supporting cast as his own creations, and MJ and Peter's relationship, so often a bone of contention among Spider-fans, is displayed touchingly without being overplayed. This story is a good example of what MJ brought to the Spider-Man mythos while she and Peter were married. The likes of Jonah Jameson, Robbie and Flash Thompson are all here too, and while not playing major roles are all portrayed well. Despite his incapacitation the scenes with Flash in particular are very touching and a real highlight. Jenkins' scripting is superb and the pacing of the story is excellent. despite being spread across five issues it rarely lags and every page is used well.

Doctor Octopus too is at his villainous best here, Jenkins understands his personality and delivers a multi layered, if obviously insane villain. It was pleasing too, to see the criminally underrated origin story from Spider-Man: Unlimited #3 revisited. His fight scenes are superbly done and all in all I think there have been few better portrayals of the character.

This brings me neatly to Humberto Ramos' artwork. Few artists divide opinion as much as he does but I love his distinctive style and consider it a great fit for the character. His action scenes bristle with energy and even his human characters are well drawn, if very very odd.

For me, there have been few better stories featuring Doctor Octopus, and it is a shame that the character has not been this well done throughout his history. Nothing too groundbreaking occurs over the course of the five issues but if you are looking for a quintessential Spider-Man arc featuring one of his greatest villains, look no further.