Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Manhattan Projects proves Jonathan Hickman is an American Comic Book God

Perhaps there are those that feel that the World War Two genre or subgenre or whatever you want to call it has been played out, that no new territory can be worn in the grooves of the many that came before.  Better to launch into neo-futurist tirades of tomorrow, perhaps, cast off the offensive caul of Hitler and be free of the smirking decrepit racists that comprise what some fabled newscaster once dubbed "The Greatest Generation".

Yet with the new Image Comics title The Manhattan Projects, Jonathan Hickman (FF, Fantastic Four, The Nightly News, Secret, upcoming: New Avengers) proposes to visit a world where superscience of the future takes a toehold in the past, giving him free room to range between the Supermax-Scifi epic arcs and individual character subplots, a strong suit he has tailor made to his areas of interest, quite clearly. Superscience World War Two's cast of loose alt/historical figures is presented with one-line bios, shown here, but really no amount of sneak peeks can spoil the actual content of the work, immensely fun and perfectly paced.  It's simple. What if the Manhattan Project of our world was expanded and amplified and continued in other projects, limited only by the expansive imaginations of a fantastical military-funded think tank?  Would the atomic bomb then be a mere incidental in the shadow of such amazing discoveries made?

Taking real historical figures and adapting them into comic books is of course as old as product endorsement for fruit pies so far as comics are concerned.  Einstein has appeared as Uncle and Robot alike in the flatland, as consultant and as hero and as villain. Likewise, Hitler, who so far in The Manhattan Project has had but one cameo, is mutable along various mediums, the message of course most always derisive, or at the very least chiding.  But what precident does Oppenheimer have in the comic book universes? A brief appearance in one panel of The Invisibles and perhaps a scattered shot here and there in a flashback sequence elsewhere. 

In The Manhattan Projects, Hickman takes Oppenheimer, with his famous quotation "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds", and delves into the core of his tangent twin, revealing a nesting doll with more parts than even Schrodinger could calculate.  The theme of The Manhattan Projects is scale applied to pseudohistory.  

The fixed idea of this series can be found on the grand tour/briefing in the first issue. 

And the root of this, as it always is with comics, is the art.  Nick Pitarra was fated to work on this comic book. The man is a master of the form, installing high-grade perspective into each panel, pulling out and zooming into amazing pages that hearken to Geoff Darrow streamlined, Seth Fisher refined, and a certain something else, an economy of line in some places akin to a third-generation Moebius. His sense of composition demands repeated examination, and it stands up to that and more.  The demands of expression are delivered in a fashion that even Frank Quitely could only capture on a decent day. A Where's Waldo luxury comes out of such styles, but the real money is between the panels. And it works perfectly.

The Japanese have of course refined the fine art of Robotic Samurai. What's that turtle doing there?

The potential for the series is critically influenced by a number of things Hickman's found along his career path.  When working on The Fantastic Four, revitalizing the title to such status that it got a spin-off, he took Reed Richards to the next level of achievement, and juggled subplots for months at a time without dropping any too catastrophically.  But with this title, none of the restrictions of the Marvel Line-up are in place and these characters, plucked from history and suspended in alt/real fluid, can play out their experiments and provide a chuckle at the surprising bits.

We find our potential central protagonist (although with such an ensemble cast it's hard to say if that's possible) after initial introductions in young Richard Feynman, supergenius with daily mirror affirmations down pat.  It feels as if Hickman's work with S.H.I.E.L.D. gives us a tone for our soldier Leslie Groves that sounds like a Nick Fury tuning fork before he broke up with the Howling Commandos.  Albrecht Einstein is a whiskey-shooting troublemaking rebel.  Enrico Fermi is an inhuman and Harry Dhaglian is an irradiated skull in a bottle.  Zen Death Buddhist Gate invasion marks our introduction to the series and a key to the first arc overall.  Hickman's script calls for the ghost of FDR trapped in a supercomputer to play a pivotal part.  There is in this title a sense of capturing that giddy thrill of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but tapping history rather than literature to draw forth the fun.  We see the Pandora's Box of Hickman's plot constructed like a Operatic leitmotif echoing, for some reason, the scope of The Dune Saga, all intrigue and adventure, perhaps a coming of age thrown in, a splash of humor, hateful heroes, sympathetic villains, perhaps a few parallel reality twists, maybe even a betrayal or two.   

An explosive title, totally underhyped because I don't see it being overhyped, the clean design of the cover and introduction, with critical quotes from The Recorded Feynman, show the echoes of reality come to play best in the medium of comic books when there is a proper sense of wonder and discovery captured.  Thanks to the path leading to this point, that is Hickman's strongest case for status as god (or demigod, Tony Stark might say) of comic books.

Oh yeah, and they nuke Hiroshima.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Secret Avengers: The Remender Redemption

It was upon first appraisal of Rick Remender that I recognized his style felt like Morrison in the same sense that Morrison felt like Moore.  It has to be recognized that nearly each and every character in a Rick Remender storyline has more depth and emotional complexity than most superhero books can hope to achieve, and it unfolds without too-oft repeated contrivances (or as-yet unexplored facets on those contrivances, or tropes, if you like) and ill-suited demographics-pandering that are built into the structure of Comic Books: the Entity, as a whole, both at this time and (let's admit it) most of its existence.

Could be that Rick Remender's a new breed of comic book writer, the metaspawn emerging around the Age that Morrison made Weird, altering the scope of the world with the destruction of Genosha and wide-screen life-tampering and near-cosmic grounded in adventure proper, writ large with neon signs and snappy dialogue.  He's not John Byrne and he's not Chris Claremont, thank Christ.  He's the type of fellow who knows the nuance of nerd like the palm of his hand, yet walks through the socially-crippling flames unscathed, with a quip or quirk that you'll need to reread, a hook that you can explain in two sentences, and cliffhangers that aren't simply driven by virtue of being the final page.  He kills characters with all the mercy of a slaughterhouse manager. This makes him very dangerous for the entities within Marvel 616, resilient as they are.

Rick Remender could turn the Marvel Universe into a graveyard and make it matter as he did so.

Secret Avengers, your surprise of the week is a newly reformed Masters of Evil. Have some.

Mind you, this is supposed to be a professionally structured review of The Secret Avengers storyline currently occurring (post Status Quo Disrupting Revamp? Pre?) but it will likely degenerate into gushing fandom for the man's work.  He made a comic book with a joke title (Uncanny X-Force) into one of the freshest and most surprising titles in the Marvel Universe, and has mined the veins of the mountains that came before with an aplomb as graceful as a swan and as ruthless as a badger.

Remender was no doubt raised on Bruce Campbell  dark physical comedy and likely when he saw the dystopian hodge podge future burned away by the Phoenix in Here Comes Tomorrow he liked what he saw.  Twisted variants on all the old themes, fresh and remastered as villains or heroes, morally grey issues greeted with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.

Currently two of his titles, the effective Uncanny X-Force and The Secret Avengers, involve his rehashing of two groups that seemed silly by title in the morally ambiguous quagmire attempting grand declarative statements: The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and The Masters of Evil.  Elements of The Venture Brother's Guild of Calamitous Intent are called forth: Who would want to join an organization called Evil right in its title?  How many demented souls would actually want to carry such a title? Plenty, it turns out, and not all of them from what we would call reality.

Remender alters the Marvel Universe landscape as he murders innocents and guilty alike... the mythos of place is conjured up and handed off to other writers, friends every one, to explore and adventure in.  The key to any Remender storyline is simple.  It's fun, see.  A comic book is supposed to be fun.

The activity of reading a comic book is a leisurely one. A novice, unschooled, must be entertained, but a certain gravitas (to greater or lesser extents) must always be given to the auteur providing the imagery.  Remender's eye for artists from his time in Fear Agent on has served his work well, a complimentary matter of fast motion and stillness incorporated to suit the events of the story.   Matteo Scalera's one of the latest in a line of artists whose ample abilities seem to suit the activity of Rick Remender's script, with motion and perspective driving the story at a steady pace.

Small moments like this mean so much. Pun intended.

So what is the story, at least with the Secret Avenger's corner of the Universe? Seems that Nick Fury has had this habit, since a very long time ago, to have life model decoy androids of himself all over the globe to keep from getting assassinated and to foster a sense of confusion, since he's the ultimate Cold Warrior.  One of his life model decoys went a little bonkers, calls himself Max, and is assembling a new Masters of Evil in a supervillain bar-pit formed by a Molecule Man battle (remember the landscape shifts mentioned before?)... and he's been collecting crowns of power (calling back to the first missions of the Secret Avengers series, led by Steve Rogers, Supercop)... to become Lord of the Abyss.  And the Abyss, from what we the reader can easily gather, is a darkness beyond demonic, reminiscent, in fact of the Qlippoth explored in Alan Moore's Promethea (the 11th gate in the Tree of Life, the Beggar, the Fountain).

This makes for entertainment, people.  A comic is supposed to be a good time.  And so long as this procession of entertainment continues to keep up in quality, we should pile great heaps of our money at the base of its altar, the serial, and its throne, the graphic novel.  Long may the King, Comic Books: the Entity reign. Long may it be held to a higher standard, with examples set by quality writers and extremely talented artists.

Max Fury, that's like Max Power or Lance Uppercut right?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Penultimate Impressions to Avengers vs. X-Men (with Spoilers)

So, imagine for a moment that you're a nanoscout in an editorial bullpen at Marvel Comics. It's somewhere around the mid to late 1970's and you're dealing with a fellow that used to be a gofer but can call himself a writer now, really and truly.  This sparkly fellow, who lives and breathes these mutants through and through, is Chris Claremont, the originator of The Phoenix Saga, at his absolute prime. It's the prime of Miss Jean Grey as The Phoenix, as well, coming out of the darkness. Immense forty-foot tall avatars of Len Wein and Bob Harras are breathing down everyone's neck over the death of the Broccoli People, whose tiny fictional solar system was snuffed out by that fiery telekinetic redhead in shockingly descriptive detail not too long ago.  Claremont, glowing with all the vim and vinegar allotted to him in his contract (Stan Lee sits in an immense hot tub on the next level up in the building, charging outrageous parties to the petty cash box and using such contracts to light his expensive imported cigars) explains how the rehabilitation of Jean Grey will occur.

The sevenfold veil of Marvel editorial eidolons parts, and a booming voice issues forth, shaking everyone present to the rims of their bellbottoms, as a three-faced robed figure emerges in hard-light hologram.


Claremont, crushed, rushes into his tiny office cave and hastily works out the final outfit Jean Grey will wear. It'll be the Shiar that pass judgment on her, yes, those pristine imperial scum.  She deserves a second chance.  He imbued her with powers after a creature that had resurrection built into its function, for crying out loud.  As ever, Claremont knows, the important bit is to approach these characters as if they were well established actors providing an excellent play. He had to have the motivations down, or it would fall flat.

Suicide by laser on the Blue Area of the Moon. Cyclops, crushed, to be consoled soon by a clone who he would have a son with.  That son would be thrust into a dark future where Apocalypse, genetic supremacist mutant, is destined to rule.  That son would return older than his father, much later, after Jean Grey's return ("Hey guys? She was on the bottom of this river! In an energy cocoon! Nyah.") to raise the first mutant born since M Day, when almost all the mutants lost their powers. That mutant's name would be Hope and the Phoenix would come for her.

But not without the process being drawn out among multiple titles for nearly a year.

These guys see Xavier rollin'. They hatin'.

It should be said, the maximized cross-over super-event Avengers vs. X-Men has gone directions that not all that many readers predicted (unless, of course, they proceed in that joyless endeavor of "reading ahead" in the various teasers and previews) but in more recent issues has come to the dilemma of all such major universe-rattling plots, the diffusion of tension.

Captain Britain, eternally upstaged by his betters

After the Phoenix is splintered by Iron Man's Phoenix Buster, five mutants are chosen to live in a Utopia and have their authority questioned by the entrenched power structures.  Find out what happens when heroes stop being polite, and start posturing in angry ideologies that shape the world.  The Real World: Marvel 616.

If you're just joining us, Emma Frost gently pushed Namor into attacking Wakanda to rescue Hope (and, um, drown thousands of innocent civilians in the process), and the Avengers did their best and take the fellow down.  Succeeding, Namor's portion of the Phoenix Force was transferred to the remaining four.  When, during a rescue mission, Spider-Man taunts Magik and Colossus into cancelling each other out ("I'll stop you... with the power of laughter!" or something to that effect), Cyclops and a newly rekindled (no pun intended) homicidal megalomaniac Emma Frost are the last... um, Phoenixes standing.

And that's the real shame of the matter.  The Phoenix has always embodied a fusion of opposites. The message that comes across in this crossover is that the pathway to hell is always paved with good intentions. With good must come bad, and with life, death.  To imagine that the powers would corrupt these noble heroes (who, admittedly, have been shifting more and more into a morally gray area) is to discount the efforts of Charles Xavier, for decades reiterating that peace and reason are the solution to the turmoil and murk that the 616 Universe often finds itself grappling with. And that's just the murk that results from convolutions of plot since Claremont started the Phoenix rollercoaster/death of Jean Grey/clone/future storylines that ground most plots into dust until more recent efforts gave the teams and characters new and more energized focus. Like a laser. Ahem.

The idea of Cyclops being a myopic self-centered god-like being is about as fun as it sounds.

Where does Xavier really stand in all this?  He's been shuffled into the background of each and every X-Men title (notable exception being his visit to Wolverine's new school) for quite some time. Prior to the maddeningly and surprisingly dull Skrull Invasion, he had a place at the seat of the Marvel Illuminati, but perhaps, without crippling him again, or outright killing him (remember Bishop? How he shot Professor X once? How he's nowhere to be seen for any of this?), the creative teams have seen fit to stomp his dream of peaceful coexistence, the Utopia that the Phoenix Five would have had, if they'd been able to maintain control (insert What If? issue HERE), into so much dust.

There's a moment, and maybe you'll catch it. Here...

The only other time I've seen Cap cry is that time Red Skull gouged his eyes out on the steps of Capitol Hill.

Remember, Cyclops was Xavier's star pupil from teen years, and Wolverine the dangerous Giant-Size-come-lately rogue (much older than Captain America, even). For all the posturing done, it's been nearly but not completely subtle, the shift that those two characters have undergone in recent years, Cyclops the militant edge in league with Magneto, thrice-time reformed supervillain (himself plagued with legions of hackneyed clones), and Wolverine, the immortal-by-way-of-popularity, the killer with a soft streak, rebuilding the school and adding a Baby Krakoa.      

So, after so many years of Danger Rooms and such, when imbued with the Phoenix Force, Cyclops is corrupted.  So it goes. Emma Frost is to blame, perhaps.  Or perhaps these years since Jean Grey's final death, at the hands of a faux Magneto that ripped New York apart, had changed Scott Summers too much, and his investment in Hope was too great. Or perhaps the Phoenix Force is too much for oldboy. It works. It works on multiple levels. And for that, we have the current authors involved to thank.

What nobody mentions is, Hope's been listening to Wu Tang Clan during her training sessions.

Each issue of Avengers vs. X-Men is plotted by the same five writers that have taken turns scripting, issue by issue.  Jason Aaron's turn at scripting provided ample comfort with the mutants, and clean dialogue. Brian Michael Bendis took a more action-based "cinematic" set-piece for the scripts he ran on, which is his strength.  Ed Brubaker writes a mixed bag of events, zeroing in on key moments of characterization and domino toppling. Matt Fraction's comfort with the Avenger's end of the spectrum, especially Thor and Tony Stark, gives girth to his portion of the story. Jonathan Hickman, of course gives an intelligent weight to his scripts, packing in information that drives the story with a scale and complexity not unlike a decent Dune novel.

It's a unique opportunity provided by each writer to play to their own strengths, no doubt assessed and analyzed by editors (Jake, Lauren, Nick, Tom and Axel) prior to the plot points being anchored and assigned.  Of course, the rotating artists, the second generation powerhouses such as the Adam Kubert and John Romita Jr, even Oliver Copiel in conjunction with Mark Morales, transition less jarringly than one might expect, as the story unfolds, and it seems that in this project a good time was had by all.  Laura Martin and Larry Molinar do a fine service to color duties.  Overall, everyone did their job well and should expect a dump truck filled with money to be backed up to their brand new empty heart-shaped pools, hollowed out by fanboys that vainly wanted to believe, if only for a moment, that the X-Men, the eternal underdogs and demagogues, stood a chance against the mega-noble hardcases that raked in more billions than some counties (or countries) will ever even see.  If only this sort of care and attention was invested in so many titles as AvX houses (only a few dozen, modest by superhero crossover terms), then surely a new golden age, blessed by the ghost of Jack Kirby himself, would ring out over the dusty bins of bagged and sealed promotional materials and movies waiting to happen, in comic book shops throughout the country.


This is all a build-up to the next big thing.

Dammit, why did Nick Fury's son have to look exactly like Ultimate Nick Fury, again? Really, people. C'mon.

There is always a follow-up to major cross-over events, no matter how the drab tangential storylines play out. Nevermind the plotholes and inconsistencies and linear gaps and Xavier mind-wiping everyone at one point, nevermind the characters in jail or out, or who got beaten up by whom or what dialogue did or did not happen when Gambit fought Captain America, briefly, for the rod of relevance.  There is more time travel yet to come. And more shifts in writing duties. Comfort zones shifting.  Golden ages packing their bags and awaiting the Silver Aeon, overseen by Rocket Raccoon and Groot for some reason, maybe a movie, maybe the recently shark-jumped and all pervasive trend of remaking and remaking and remaking until the whole mess is meta-regurgitation/vomit/feces.

Prepare yourselves for Marvel, now (sorry, I mean Marvel NOW!). It's recommended, if you are a diehard fan, that you insinuate yourself into a comfortable seat, and remember that it's been done before.  If you're invested in the stories, good, that means that the writers are doing their job.  If you're angry about creative team swaps, or ambivalent, don't flinch, not yet.  Be prepared to. This is the answer to New 52. If not, now, never. Avengers vs. X-Men merely paved the way. The appearance of a game-plan being in place is reassuring, even in the unlikely event of a catastrophic cosmic prolapse.

The story has not yet fully resolved itself. The proverbial "suicide shot on the Blue Area of the Moon" has not come. Yet. The Living Tribunal has not yet spoken the last words of the day.  The Watcher's patented "disapproving look" has not reached peak sadness. Yet.

It's coming. The next "Impressions of Avengers vs. X-Men" will be the last.

Sponsored by Rocket Raccoon.

Rocket Raccoon being the cornerstone of the Marvel Multiverse, after all.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One-Line Reviews for Recent Marvel Comics Publications (all mutant-based)


Rick Remender almost seems to enjoy killing characters in his charge, and this corner of the Marvel Universe folds around the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the consequences of preemptive vengeance ... it's a shame about Fantomex, but Phil Noto's solid art structure carries the content well.


The Phoenix Five confront Mr. Sinister's clone nation... the mining of older and newer storylines is delivered by writer Kieron Gillen and penciler Daniel Acuna, whose respective methods of approach compliment each other, and have made recent issues of Uncanny X-Men a surprising treat.


The use of a situation report for the Ultimate United States really helps these days.

Brian Wood and the rest of the Ultimates writers seem to be having a blast reformatting the Ultimate Universe into a true alternative to the standard 616 format, and this issue carries that theme right along, with art provided by Paco Medina, Reilly Brown, Juan Vlasco, and Terry Pallot, depicting the slow start of Kitty Pride's underground mutant revolution.