Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of 2011

As with every year, it feels like it has come around twice as quickly as before, but nonetheless, we are on the cusp of 2012, and hence a whole new year in the world of comic books. 2011 was an up and down year for comics, but will personally always be a year that I remember as the one that I started to regularly buy D.C comic books. I had often previously picked up titles as collected editions, but had always stuck to Marvel for single issues, a peculiar quirk of them being the company that got me into comic books. D.C's 'New 52' initiative seemed a great place to jump on, and I have not been disappointed in the five titles that I am picking up. For the first time ever D.C are challenging Marvel on my pull list and it actually feels great, despite some misplaced brand loyalty initially making me uneasy about it.

 Either way, despite more mixed fortunes than their rivals there has been much to cheer for Marvel too. Fear Itself flopped but Daredevil's relaunch under Mark Waid has earned widespread critical acclaim and was recently voted CBR's best ongoing of 2011. Ultimate Spider-Man has shot back to the top of many people's reading lists through the unexpected death of Peter Parker, and introduction of Miles Morales as his replacement. And of course lets not forget the Avengers titles, which after an underwhelming 18 months have rapidly improved in the second half of 2011. With D.C's relaunch still firing on all cylinders and Marvel's Avengers vs X-Men event Amazing Spider-Man's 'Ends of the Earth' storyline on the horizon too, there is much to expect from both companies in 2012. But who was I most impressed with in 2011? Read on to find out...

Best Single Issue: I, Vampire #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino 
I picked up the first issue of I, Vampire completely on a whim, amid the hype and bluster created by the D.C relaunch. In truth it is not the sort of series that I usually go for - I was burned out on vampires before Twilight, and horror has never really been my thing. In the space of a single issue however, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino hooked me on Andrew and Mary Bennet's story. Because that's what the series is - the story of two starcrossed lovers who just happen to be vampires. One of them relentlessly bloodthirsty. Sorrentino's beautiful art completed what for me, was the best single issue of 2011.

Best Character: Miles Morales
Given the monumental pressure on his shoulders, it is a huge surprise that Miles Morales has even begun to live up to it. Peter Parker's replacement as Ultimate Spider-Man, his story has barely begun to get going yet, but Bendis has already managed to invest me in his character. Somewhat more unassuming than the bespectacled Peter Parker, Morales is shy, humble, but above all possesses obvious heroic quality. The decision to make him a thirteen year old boy was a brave move but has so far paid off, giving his character a unique slant. Miles Morales could yet be the biggest hit in what has been a career full of them for Brian Michael Bendis.

Best Villain: Norman Osborn
There are many who disagree with Norman Osborn's ascent into being an adversary shared by the whole Marvel Universe, as opposed to just Spider-Man. Formerly the alias of the Green Goblin, Osborn has been Spider-Man's greatest foe for decades, and I would agree that it is a shame that he rarely appears within the pages of Amazing Spider-Man anymore. Those feelings, however, are tempered by the fact that he appears such a natural fit to be a universe wide threat. Osborn is ruthless, cunning, and clinically insane, and his appearances in both Avengers and New Avengers towards the end of the year have turned both into must-read titles.

Best Story-Arc: Who is Jake Ellis? (#1-5) by Nathan Edmonson and Zoran Taljic
I have no doubt that quite a few people will not have heard of Nathan Edmonson's breakout success, and in fact the series was brought to my attention almost by accident. This does not change the fact that Edmonson, along with artist Tonci Zonjic are responsible for what has been the most gripping, exciting and most importantly original arc of 2011. Edmonson's plot oozes cinematic quality, helped ably by Taljic's moody yet cartoony artwork. I have no doubt that both will be names to watch in 2012.

Best Comic Book Series: Animal Man
One of the most pleasing things about the D.C reboot so far has been its capacity for getting me involved in series' and characters that I previously had only the most cursory of knowledge. Animal Man is one such title, initially made popular by Grant Morrison in the late 1980's and experiencing something of a resurgance of late. Despite my ignorance I heard good things about Jeff Lemire's reboot, and was far from disappointed. Lemire's take on the character is creepy ahead of all else, a style matched by Trevor Foreman's sketchy, macabre style of artwork. Foreman is something of an acquired taste, but his pencils give the plot an edge that they may not be there under a more conventional artist. Lemire is sowing the seeds for an epic story but the core plot is still moving along nicely and the series manages to be a well rounded read each and every month.

Best Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Brian Michael Bendis is a writer who, perhaps more than most, has to contend with a number of detractors. It's true that since being elevated to the upper echelons of comic book writers, his work has not always been  as good as it could have been. His event books have often flattered to deceive, and despite several high points his run on Avengers has been uneven. Despite this, 2011 will have been a year to remember for Bendis. His relaunch of Ultimate Spider-Man has been outstanding so far, and the Avengers titles have been firing on all cylinders since their disappointing Fear Itself tie ins earlier in the year. Bendis plans to leave the franchise late next year, and all signs point to the superstar writer going out with a bang.

Best Artist: Daniel Acuna
Despite loving his style, Daniel Acuna's work has often flown under my radar. With his Avengers issues however, I have finally got a chance to sample the Spanish artist's work, and what a treat it has been! Acuna's style is distinctive, and though I would not instantly put it down as a suitable one for a conventional superhero book, he copes admirably well with action sequences despite his dreamlike style often coming across as more static than particularly dynamic. While Bendis' scripts on Avengers have been suitable solid, Acuna's artwork has made the book in recent issues. I hope to see more of him in 2012.

That's all for now from me, thanks a lot to everyone for reading! Be here in 2012 for more on my series on 'Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed'. Most importantly perhaps, I hope each and every one of you have a happy and fulfilling new year. Live long and prosper.

Friday, 30 December 2011

I, Vampire #4

I, Vampire #4 by Fialkov / Sorrentino

The irony of the D.C reboot is mainly found in the fact that its most successful titles aren't as well represented by sales as they could be. I, Vampire sums up the problem - Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino are crafting an epic, slow burning story, the tragedy being that not enough people are reading it. One of the most pleasing facets of the story has been Fialkov's willingness to use established D.C characters, with a scattering of  references to Batman in previous issues and John Constantine's star billing in this weeks #4.

Although some of the wider plot threads continue to drift along, for the most part this is a done in one story about a 'vampire' and his struggle to control his ability. Constantine's appearance was a somewhat obvious move for the title, but he is more than welcome and Fialkov writes him with unexpected verve and confidence. For those unfamiliar with the character he is well introduced, without any intimidating info-dumps and plays a refreshingly pivotal role in the story. The plot, while being simple is rendered well, and its central figure is once again introduced effectively in a limited timespan, Fialkov forging the sort of emotional connection with the reader that often takes several issues of development. One gripe would be the lack of last issues newly introduced supporting cast - I thoroughly enjoyed them and was hoping for more this issue. I also expected the story to have developed a little further at this point, although Fialkov's measured style is one of the stronger aspects of his work. Andrea Sorrentino's work is once again, simply beautiful, atmospheric and haunting. The book looks superb and has a style to it that many top tier titles would do well to learn from.

I, Vampire still isn't flashy, colourful, or particularly gimmicky, but it certainly fits into a niche not otherwise occupied in the world of comic books - despite its somewhat done to death subject matter. It won't be for everyone, but Fialkov and Sorrentino look to be crafting the sort of storyline that deserves a lengthy run to match its obvious scope.


Thursday, 22 December 2011

Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Five - And Here, My Troubles Begin...

Amazing Spider-Man #3 by Mackie / Byrne / Hanna

Peter Parker: Spider-Man #3 by Mackie / Romita Jr. / Hanna

Surprisingly enough, Amazing Spider-Man's second issue was a decent enough story in its own right. Sure, it had the same faults that have plagued the rest of the reboot, but at its core it was a solid slice of superhero action, with a cool villain. A good conclusion to the story may have kickstarted what was already a somewhat disappointing start for the rebooted Spider-Man titles. Unfortunately what we were ultimately given fell a little short of the mark...

Amazing Spider-Man #3 follows on from the end of #2, with Peter Parker (now as Spider-Man) exiting the scene while handily recapping the events of the previous issue. He also forgets that the Spider-Man costume that he is wearing doesn't have webshooters and falls to earth in embarassing fashion. Oops.

We then get an origin for our intriguing new villain, Shadrac, as his shadowy master reveals that he is Override, a pre-reboot villain who took part in the Gathering of Five ceremony in an attempt to save his dying wife. The ceremony held five possible outcomes - one being power, but Override ultimately received death, a 'reward' that appears to have transformed him into Shadrac, a ghoul like character. The shadowy figure reveals himself to be Dolman, the previous owner of one of the five shards required to perform the ceremony, who is now on a quest to recapture the shard. Or something. If it sounds boring and convoluted, it's because it is. I could feel my brain turning to mush just typing it out. Override was actually a very interesting character before the reboot, but loses a lot of his depth as Shadrac. His dying wife seems abruptly forgotten about, and he simply becomes an anguished pawn of Dolman's and an essentially useless character, cool design or not. This is the point where the arc begins to go off the rails.

Mackie switches the scene to Peter Parker, who has stopped off at Tricorp to pick up some webshooters, that he has inexplicably stashed at his place of work. It seems like an awkward way of squeezing Tricorp into the story, which isn't actually a particularly bad thing given how irregularly Peter's new job was mentioned later on. Peter runs into resident A-hole Javier who tries to rope him into viewing an 'exciting' new project. Unfortunately Peter is forced to leave to track Shadrac, much to the disappointment of his new boss. While Mackie obviously has the best of intentions with the scene, it reads very irritatingly. The balance between being Spider-Man and having a real life has always been a fundemantal aspect of the character, but it comes across as forced  here, and far too early to show Peter letting down his new employers. He comes across as a bit of a jerk, even if he does have the best of intentions in mind.

Shadrac and Dolman continue to look for the shard, but are interrupted by Spider-Man and Iceman (?). Dolman is revealed to be in complete control of poor Shadrac, but is nowhere to be found as Spider-Man and Iceman take on the beleaguered villain. Iceman's appearance is completely inexplicable, he seems to have been placed in the story purely for the visual of his ice against Shadrac's fire. It makes some wonky sense, but isn't explained very well and after a few pages of enjoyable enough tussling, Iceman literally freezes Shadrac in a block of ice.

The story continues in #3 of Peter Parker: Spider-Man (not #2, confusingly enough. We'll get to that next time). Here, Mackie takes the interesting step of recounting the plot through the eyes of a handful of innocent   bystanders, the idea being that Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson are trying to piece together the events so as to include them in a story. The idea is neat but doesn't really work, it ends up being fairly annoying having to see the events of the conclusion second hand, it doesn't help that Mackie's dialogue is sort of clunky too. I think that the idea would have worked more effectively in the middle part of the storyline. MJ being interviewed about Spider-Man was a nice idea though, and she is written very convincingly. It's always nice to see her showing up at this stage, even if it is a cameo.

Anyway, various bystanders guide us through what is a very formulaic story, as Shadrac breaks free and runs off the pawn shop owned by yet another person to take part in the Gathering of Five ceremony. Spidey and Iceman follow, but somehow allow him to build up a significant lead over them, despite the fact that they should both probably be quicker than him. Never mind. They eventually track Shadrac through a sewer, bringing them to an underground cavern, where he is revealed to have kidnapped the pawnbroker, with Dolman joining the two of them in some sort of bizarre ritual. The characters keep talking about preventing Dolman making contact with 'the spindle' but it's unclear what it is. It's also unclear why the pawnbroker needs to be there, Dolman refers to him having the spindle, and having hidden it somewhere in the crevice but it's all very sloppily explained. I'm not sure why Dolman couldn't have just gone to the pawnbroker himself without involving Shadrac, particularly as it's already been established that he can control the holders of of the other shards. At several points reading this story it feels like I've missed a few pages somewhere along the line.

Anyway, Dolman starts suddenly getting really powerful - again its unclear why - giving off lots of yellow crackly energy and levitating a couple of feet off the ground. Who knows what he actually plans to do with this power, he is a really poorly defined character. The next few pages are a total mess, as Dolman seems to cause the cavern to collapse around them and the other characters sort of...flail around a bit. Eventually Shadrac leaps at Dolman and thrusts his arms into his chest, revealing that if he can't stop him as Shadrac, maybe he can as Override. No, I don't know what he means either. There is a big explosion and Spider-Man and Iceman run away, pawnbroker in tow.

The final civilian - a hobo - finishes telling the story to Jameson and sneaks off when Spidey and Iceman show up, neither of whom can remember seeing a hobo on the scene. When he is alone, he removes his hood and reveals himself to be.. Dolman! And Shadrac, the two of them having somehow merged. He slinks off into an alley, and is never seen again.

This was a really poor end to what had started off as a promising story. The involvement of the Gathering of Five was completely unnecessary - apart from revealing what happened to a couple of characters - and feels tacked on. Mattie Franklin is completely forgotten about, after the first couple of pages of Amazing #3. I have no doubt that she will appear again, but it feels pretty jarring. Peter being back as Spider-Man doesn't really have the impact that I thought it would either.

Shadrac was a decent enough villain who became completely pointless by the stories end. As I said earlier, Override was a good character and seems to have been totally ruined. As I keep pointing out, he does have a cool design but that doesn't make up for his failings in every other respect. Dolman is an atrocious villain with no motivations or personality to speak of. Mackie does make a half hearted attempt to give him a British accent, but it adds nothing to the character and he is very very weak throughout. Iceman's presence was pointless, and he really added nothing to the story apart from being able to cover Shadrac in ice - which ultimately never achieved anything. The pawnbroker's also seems pretty superfluous, and does very little. He only actually appears in a handful of panels - again, what was the point?

It pains me to say it, but this was a total failure of a storyline. Mackie seemed to have good intentions, dealing with the ramifications from the Gathering of Five, but nothing is properly explained or resolved. Dolman/Shadrac never appeared again, and it is easy to see why. The story is a convoluted mess. Byrne's art on part 2 is excellent, and makes the story somewhat readable, but Romita Jr.'s work on the conclusion is less successful, often coming across as slightly muddled and sketchy. The artwork was enough to rescue the first two issues of the reboot, it unfortunately can't do the same here.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #5

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #5 by Bendis / Pichelli 

As is inevitable, the latest Ultimate Spider-Man relaunch was not short of naysayers. Poor old Miles Morales - the now deceased Peter Parker's replacement as Ultimate Spider-Man - was up against it from the start. Everything, from his age, to his race were placed under the closest of scrutiny, yet all the doubts seem to have been forgotten since the series itself actually started. Bendis has shattered all expectations with an opening that -  whisper it - may have reached the quality of his initial run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The series has been a slow burner thusfar, but with Miles finally in costume, the action amps up a notch with its fifth issue.

After meeting a none too pleased Spider-Woman at the close of #4, Miles is quickly brought into custody at the Triskellion, home to a justifiably suspicious Ultimates team. Miles is introduced to Nick Fury, and after its revealed that Fury is aware of Miles' uncle Aaron, their conversation is interrupted by Electro breaking himself out of custody. A brief fight scene ensues, as Electro takes down Iron Man, Hawkeye and Spider-Woman but Miles (aided by no small amount of luck) manages to subdue him and he is shot by Nick Fury. Miles appears to have proved himself, and at the issues close is finally awarded the nifty black costume that he has been sporting on the series' covers.

The series has been accused of severe decompression so far but although it's hardly silver age style storytelling, this issue does manage to fit in a pleasing amount of plot. Miles is introduced to the Ultimates, defeats a villain and is given his costume - and Bendis even manages to fit in a page or two dealing with his admittedly limited supporting cast. As ever, Miles is a likeable, if somewhat blank character and his reaction to meeting a group of world famous superheroes is suitably realistic. By the same token, it's fun seeing the Ultimates, although they were taken down a little too easily by Electro, a villain hardly among the big hitters of the Ultimate Universe. This brings me neatly onto my main complaint with the issue - despite it being fairly lucky, it seemed a little unbelievable, not to mention slightly predictable, that Miles would be able to defeat Electro where three of the world's premier superheroes failed. I had enjoyed seeing him built up as very much a rookie superhero, and he seems a little too competent in his fight scene with Electro.

That said, this is still a very enjoyable comic book. The subplot concerning Miles' uncle Aaron continues to be interesting and promises to be brought to the fore next issue. Sara Pichelli's art is as excellent as ever, although her handle on the Ultimates is not quite as strong as her version of Miles Morales has proved to be. The action seems a little static, but she does capture Electro's powers very well. This may not be the strongest issue of the titles relaunch, but it is still a good read, and carries on the momentum of what has, so far been a solid debut storyline.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Four - Because Nobody Demanded It

Amazing Spider-Man (Vol.2) #2- by Mackie / Byrne / Hanna

If you've read my previous two entries, you may be surprised to hear that the debut issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man's second volumes weren't too bad. They were fairly dull, and had their flaws of course, but they were not complete failures. With the reboot's first multi-part story, writer Howard Mackie had the chance to tell a gripping, elaborate tale, and hook readers onto what had so far proved to be an underwhelming new direction for the two titles.

Mackie actually makes a solid enough start, and the first issue of this three parter is a decent enough story, perhaps the most enjoyable of the reboot so far. I complained in the previous part that the new Spider-Man lacked characterisation, and lo and behold! The first four pages of Amazing Spider-Man's second issue are given over to fleshing out 'his' character, as he stops a mugger. The scene is nothing special really, but it is interesting to get a glimpse into the character's head. The idea of a fan of Spider-Man replacing him is fairly obvious, but is played out well, and a character who I had complained of being unlikeable is made far more engaging in the space of a few pages. Very nice.

What follows, however is less pleasing, as Mackie gives us the latest in a series of 'stock scenes' that have plagued the reboot. The two scenes in question remind us of how young and in love Peter and Mary-Jane are , as well as looking in on Aunt May who is in typically irritating form. The scenes add literally nothing that we do not already know, save for a worrying early sign that Jill Stacy may 'like' Peter. The first step on the road to what eventually made a welcome supporting character into a loathsome presence in the titles. More on that soon, I'm sure.

The villain of the piece is then introduced, Shadrac - a shabby looking bandaged man in a long overcoat. His appearance is actually more interesting than the previous two villains to appear in the reboot, and although his personality is barely glimpsed, we are given a look at a 'mysterious figure in the background' who appears to be controlling him as he breaks into Osborn Industries (not Oscorp) demanding to see new CEO 'John Stone'.

The rest of the issue passes by more quickly. Peter is actually shown at his new place of work (take a picture), clearly the darling of his new colleagues. One of his co-workers, Javier, appears to be Tricorp's resident douche, and acts very off towards Peter for no apparent reason - although he does correctly guess that Peter has made a mistake in one of his calculations. The resulting explosion is quickly forgotten about as the team are relayed footage of Spider-Man and Shadrac dueling outside Osborn Industries. Presumably his meeting with John Stone didn't go so well. Conveniently enough Peter is required to head into the field to procure a DNA sample, and he promptly heads over there.

We are given another glimpse into the new Spider-Man's head as 'he' battles Shadrac, who after a few pages trading punches has his bandages torn off, revealing him to be a glowing skeleton-thing. It looks cooler than it sounds, honest. His design is probably the best thing about the character, particularly as he still doesn't have much of a personality to speak of. Shadrac beats up Spider-Man, before Peter Parker breaks his no-powers rule to carry him to safety. He unmasks him, and shock horror - he, is a her, a teenage girl to be precise. The new Spider-Man is revealed to be Mattie Franklin, a minor character from the much maligned Gathering of Five storyline, where she took part in the ceremony in question, in place of her father and received vaguely defined superpowers. She will not shut up either, and grates a lot in this scene. After glancing guiltily at a billboard of his wife, Peter changes into Mattie's conveniently stretchy costume, and swings off into action. That lasted long.

Despite how predictable it was, it is good to see Peter Parker back in costume, although the excitement quickly wears off. Much is done in the issue's early stages to endear the new Spider-Man to the reader, so in that respect it is a massive disappointment that she is written in such an irritating way after being unmasked. Ultimately there weren't any real clues as to the new Spider-Man's identity, and it is resolved too quickly to be a truly satisfying arc. On paper Mattie makes sense, but in practice she turned out to be a massive disappointment.

The bulk of this issue is fine though. Shadrac is a much more interesting adversary than the Ranger and the Scorpion, and although he isn't given much in the way of personality his design is very cool and makes for a fun fight scene. Byrne's artwork is once again excellent, and Mackie's pacing is very good. None of the scenes are particularly interesting in their own right, but the action zips along very nicely and this issue is certainly more exciting than the previous two. The links introduced in this story to the Gathering of Five storyline are somewhat less welcome. It was a dreadful, universally reviled story that did not even need to be told. Its presence here also makes the reboot's intentions seem very confused. Was it intended to be a clean break from the previous titles? If so then why reference them in just the third comic book to be released since the reboot. In any case, if they had to carry on pre-reboot storylines then there were far more interesting ones than the Gathering of Five. While this issue doesn't bode well for the future, it is actually an entertaining story in its own right. Nothing special of course, and still nothing to justify a character-wide reboot, but a fun enough start to what eventually turned out to be an abysmal story-arc.


Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Three - The New Beginning, Again

Peter Parker: Spider-Man (Vol.2) #1 by Mackie / Romita Jr. / Hanna

So far, so mediocre. Howard Mackie's first issue of post-reboot Amazing Spider-Man was hardly a disaster, but failed to entirely capture the imagination. On his first issue of sister title Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Mackie teams up with John Romita Jr, the pair having recently joined forces on the titles successful first volume.

The first page sees Peter Parker standing, somewhat nervously over the body of a policeman, camera in the hand. Not an entirely thrilling way to start the issue, particularly given the promise of an interesting new career in the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man. It turns out that Peter is taking pictures of the new Spider-Man, who is clashing with a group of armored heavies calling themselves 'The Agents of Anarchy'. The group manage to break out a colleague of theirs known as 'The Ranger' from a nearby police van, and he promptly exits, with the new Spider-Man doing the same, albeit somewhat less gracefully. The scene is very brief, but it is mildly interesting to see Peter Parker taking pictures of someone else as Spider-Man. Mackie seems to be setting Spider-Man up as a bit of a klutz, and once again 'he' isn't shown to be much use at all. Mackie's dialogue is decent, apart from the few lines that the Ranger gets - they are all horribly hackneyed. Towards the end of the scene a Police Officer describes Peter as a 'kid' the second reference in two issues to his youth. It comes across as very forced and unnecessary, but isn't a major issue yet.

The scene shifts to the Daily Bugle, in a scene presumably intended to remind readers that everything is as it used to be. Jonah Jameson is on top form, actually rewriting Betty Brant's story to show the new webslinger in a bad light. Jameson's portrayal doesn't bother me as much as Aunt May's reversion to type in Amazing Spider-Man #1 - he does after all tend to be defined by his hatred for Spider-Man - but in context this seems to represent something of a worrying trend towards ignoring character development. The scene doesn't really accomplish anything apart from introducing Senator Stewart Ward, but it is good to see the Daily Bugle cast showing up. Peter and Betty also appear to be on good terms, a development that I have always liked.

The next scene is a brief interlude, as Stewart Ward is bombarded in his hotel room by spooky otherwordly messages, that appear to be reminding him of some past misdemeanor. It all comes across as a little to vague and wishy-washy to be immediately compelling, particularly given that we have barely been introduced to Ward as a character. The scene would have had more impact if he already had a strong presence in the stories, and ultimately comes across as a cheap way of making him an important character.

After a page of groan-inducing interaction between Peter and Aunt May, Mackie brings us over to JFK International airport, where MJ is returning from a modelling gig a few days early. Jill Stacy has joined Peter, which at this stage is a welcome move. Introducing Gwen Stacy's relatives was an inspired move on Mackie's part - they were an interesting addition to the pre-reboot supporting cast. MJ and Peter's reunion is fairly touching, if a little hammy, and is followed by Stewart Ward entering the scene, amid a wealth of publicity. Ward is promptly attacked by the Ranger, and the new Spider-Man enters the scene a page later, prompting a bit of obligatory soul searching from Peter. It is obviously nice to see him conflicted as to whether he should be helping out or not, but it seems slightly unbelievable that he would stand by and watch. Much of the tension is also alleviated by the knowledge that he will be Spider-Man again. It's easy to forget that he was a civillian just a couple of years earlier, when Ben Reilly was Spider-Man, so the development isn't that original, although the fact that he doesn't know who this Spider-Man is does put a unique spin on the idea. Spider-Man and the Ranger tussle for a few pages, and once again Spider-Man is defeated. It is realistic that the new Spider-Man would be somewhat less experienced, but it seems like Mackie is laying it on a little thick. The Ranger is after Stewart Ward for as yet unknown reasons, and keeps reminding him of 'the monster that he really is'. Once again, it isn't very engaging, particularly as there are no real clues yet as to 'what' exactly Ward is. As the Ranger is bearing down on his prey, Peter Parker enters the scene and lays a punch on him, serving as a distraction to allow Spider-Man to attack him from behind. He really unloads on the villain, hitting him several times until he is lying on the floor, before leaving. Peter remarks that he is 'like an embarrassed kid lashing out at a bully'. The issue ends with the Ranger being captured and Peter resolving to find out more about the connection between Ward and the Ranger.

Once again, this issue isn't a disaster - it is just a little dull. There are no strong emotional moments and only very basic characterisation. Mackie has a decent handle on Peter's voice and general character, but this should really be the minimum requirement for a Spider-Man writer, and it is frustrating seeing him not being in costume. The new Spider-Man is not particularly interesting as a character. Very few clues have been given as to 'his' true identity, and although seeing him lash out at the Ranger was pretty cool, the mystery around him seems a little forced.  The Ranger is simply a dull villain, boasting a bland design and fairly uninteresting powers. He isn't an awful choice, but more thought should have been given to the first villain after the title's reboot, particularly as he is a new character. His dialogue is atrocious throughout, and although it is implied that his intentions are more noble than a typical villain, the idea is half baked. John Romita's art lacks the mass appeal of John Byrne's, but his style has become synonymous with Spider-Man and he and Mackie seem to work well together. His action sequences carry a bit more weight than Byrne's, and overall there is little to choose from between the two artists. Both are solid choices for the relaunched titles.

This was slightly better than Amazing Spider-Man #1, but not by much. The art is solid, Mackie's script is slightly better and Aunt May doesn't grate quite as much. There is still little weight behind the story though, this feels like an average Spider-Man yarn rather than the event that a new #1 should be. The Ranger is an uninspired villain and the Stewart Ward subplot gets off to a relatively bland start. This is decent work from all concerned, but a minor failure as a first issue.


Monday, 19 December 2011

Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed: Part Two - The Legend Reborn

The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol.2) #1  By Mackie / Byrne / Hanna 

The issue opens with the Human Torch investigating Spider-Man's disappearance. The Torch narrates the opening two pages, which serve as a fairly clunky way of getting new readers up to speed with the events of the past few months. Despite his severely workmanlike dialogue, The Human Torch's appearance is welcome, if a little random - he plays no significant part in the story and disappears from the title for a good few months. 

The story moves on to Peter Parker himself, enjoying a relaxing time at home with his newly returned Aunt. This scene is where the problems really set in. Peter's internal narration is constantly reminding us of how great his life is without the burden of being Spider-Man, which does not sit too well with his generally guilt ridden attitude. This isn't a major problem though -it is fairly obvious that he will be back in the webs before too long and it is actually fairly refreshing seeing Peter happy with his life for a change. My real issue with this scene is the way it deals with Aunt May. Peter's elderly aunt was a mainstay of the title for a numbers of years, but in all honesty was barely missed when she was deceased, and this issue does little to remind readers of what they were missing when she wasn't around. May's characterisation seems to have regressed entirely back to the Silver Age. She treats Peter like a child, dotes on him to the point of irritation and actually uses the phrase 'That horrible Spider-Man'. Years of character development appear to have been thrown out of the window for the sake of an unnecessary nostalgia trip. MJ shows up briefly and is revealed to have resumed her supermodel career, a fact touched on before the reboot. I don't have a problem with the development, and find it can actually make her a more interesting character. In this case she only appears very briefly though.

The issues villain is introduced shortly after, a revamped version of The Scorpion who seems to be causing trouble for the sake of it. His new design is solid, but somewhat lacking in inspiration and his motivations are pretty much non existent. The character tends to be at his most interesting when he is railing against his status as a 'freak', a facet that is barely touched on here. Betty Brant shows up taking pictures of the commotion, a welcome move on Mackie's part. It's always good to remind readers that Spider-Man has one of the healthiest supporting casts in comics, and its especially welcome seeing Betty being portrayed as strongly as ever. The 'new' Spider-Man is also introduced here, and gets 'his' clock cleaned by the Scorpion. It's easy to scoff at the character, but initially at least it was an intriguing enough idea, and one never really seen before in Spider-Man's history. Little is done to make the character immediately compelling but the mystery itself is fairly strong in its own right, underdeveloped as it may be. 

The action moves back to Peter Parker, who is across town at an interview for a seemingly lucrative position  at 'Tricorp' Industries. Once again, it's easy to scoff when you know where the plot will eventually end up, but initially it seems an intriguing move. It was hardly new, given that Peter had moved to Portland for a similar job just a couple of years ago, but it is more interesting than yet more Daily Bugle, beloved it as it is. Unfortunately Mackie fails to make the job, nor any of his potential co-workers interesting in the slightest. Great care has obviously been taken to make their appearances as diverse as possible, but they barely have a glimmer of personality between them. Anyway, The Scorpion appears and it emerges that he is after Peter.  After a brief tussle, the 'New Spider-Man' appears and a couple of pages of fisticuffs ensue, before Peter takes the villain down using his scientific acumen. Suffice it to say that Spider-Man exits, and Peter reveals to  Aunt May that he was given the job for 'thinking on his feet' in what is clearly intended as a heartwarming final page. 

The issue is not without its faults - as I have hopefully made clear. The Scorpion is hardly an exciting choice of villain and none of the new characters introduced are given much room to shine either. Mackie's dialogue ranges from adequate to horrible and Aunt May's characterisation is truly grim. Despite this, it isn't a complete failure as a debut issue. The identity of the new Spider-Man is relatively interesting, and makes up for the half baked mystery around the Scorpion's employers. Peter's job at Tricorp is hardly thrilling, but the promise seems to be there for interesting stories. John Byrne's artwork is very solid throughout. His action sequences could use a bit of work, but for the most part his pencils are vibrant, detailed and expressive throughout. Unfortunately the story is, on the whole, a little dull. The only thing genuinely 'new' or different about the series is the presence of a new Spider-Man, and honestly - I think most people would have preferred to see Peter wearing the webs. Not a disaster by any means, but a below par start for Mackie and   Byrne. 


Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed: Part One - Background

There is a reason that Spider-Man is arguably the most popular comic book character of all time. With a few notable exceptions his titles have been consistently good for a number of years and have encompassed some of the finest (and often groundbreaking) super hero stories of all time. The likes of 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died', 'Kraven's Last Hunt' and 'The Death of Jean Dewolff' are all held up as high points in comic book storytelling, and the character has been the subject of many other classic stories, with many comic book greats having tackled his universe.

With that in mind, it often comes as a surprise when the Spider-Man books are struggling. When he is the victim of, not just one poor story but a seemingly never ending succession of uninspired and sometimes downright awful tales. There have been several periods of Spider-Man's history that have polarised opinion - The Clone Saga or Brand New Day for example, yet none have been as universally reviled as the era that saw both Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man relaunched with new #1's for the first time in the character's history. Despite the era that it followed not being one of the more commercially successful spells for the Spider-Man titles, it had, broadly speaking, a good time to be a fan of the character. All four Spider-Man books were telling solid, easily distinguishable stories, with more than passable artwork. A number of intriguing subplots appeared to be heading a conclusion - in short, the era was one of my most memorable as a Spider-Man fan. And then came the 'Final Chapter'. Advertised as the culmination of several long running and noticeably popular story arcs, the Final Chapter was a widely criticised storyline for a number of reasons. Aunt May's death - widely known as one of the finest Spider-Man stories of all time - was undone, and following a climactic (off panel) duel with the Green Goblin, Peter Parker decided to retire from his career as Spider-Man. The story was ill conceived, poorly paced, and a sloppy way to close Amazing Spider-Man's 35 year run. Issue #441, released in November 1998 was the title's final issue, and after a month long break both it, and sister title Peter Parker: Spider-Man were relaunched with new #1's. Long running Spider-Man writer Howard Mackie was tasked with writing both comics, with legendary artists John Romita Jr and John Byrne tackling art duties on one title each.

The stage had been set for the latest acclaimed Spider-Man run, yet what followed was one of the worst eras in the character's history - both critically and commercially. What went wrong? Although I read the issues in question a number of years ago, I have lacked the will to return to them since. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to return to the period and read the issues in order, noting down my thoughts, and finally aiming to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, and whether the period deserves to be called the worst in Spider-Man's history. With that in mind, read on as I tackle the very first issue of a phase that has become synonymous with failure, lack of inspiration and all round suckage - 'The Reboot'!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Review: Animal Man #4

Animal Man #4 by Lemire / Foreman

Possibly the most pleasant surprise to be found among DC's new 52 has been two of the less heralded additions to the line - Jeff Lemire's Animal Man and Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing. Two titles that deal with the supernatural side of the D.C Universe, their opening storylines have gradually intertwined to the point where the new D.C Universe's first crossover appears to be forthcoming.

Animal Man's first four issues have seen the veteran superhero's seemingly idyllic family life put under considerable strain, his daughter Maxine having appeared to inherit his animal based powers. Maxine's gift has made her an object of desire for 'The Red', the supernatural power that is the source of Animal Man's powers, with the powerful pre-teen key in its struggle to defeat the plague-like 'Rot'. This issue sees her struggling to rescue her father from the Rot, while another one of its diabolical agents pursues the rest of her family.

Placing Animal's Man's daughter at the forefront of the book has certainly been an unexpected move by Lemire, but is a more than welcome one. What could have been a somewhat cliche family dynamic has become much more interesting - helped by the fact that Maxine is a charming and likeable character in her own right. Animal Man himself has seemed like a slightly peripheral figure at times, but it is pleasing to see the entire family given a role to play in the series. The pacing of the issue is excellent too - a lot of plot is packed in without it ever seeming rushed, and the story moves along in exhilarating fashion.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this issue is the macabre tone that is prevalent throughout. Travel Foreman's art is an acquired taste and his human figures do at times leave a little to be desired, but he provides a great take on some of the more supernatural aspects of the issue. Foreman is also a better storyteller than it might appear at first glance, and he handles what could be a confusing plot in style. Lemire's humour too, is subtle but ever present - the issue is far from slapstick but there is a surreal undertone that is played with in a pleasingly light hearted way at times.

Animal Man is not flashy, and I do not doubt that Lemire is yet to play his full hand. Ably assisted by Foreman, he is telling a slow burning story, that may yet become something of an epic. Perhaps not the capes and japes superhero book that you might expect, but a great read nonetheless, and for my money the most consistent book of the last six months.