“You’re a super-villain, right?” – Superior Spider-Man #15 gloriously reverses protagonists a second time

superiorspiderman15658-642x362 Responsibility looms over the Spider-Man franchise. It’s the key part in Uncle Ben’s most famous quote and it’s a theme that runs through everything from Spider-Man’s ethos, powers and his villains.

Dan Slott has played with the theme since he joined the franchise and never more so than in Superior Spider-Man. While he tried  the idea of Spider-Man’s powers being given to a man without Peter’s morality in the Spider-Island story-line, giving Doc Ock the classic costume and powers has expanded the mythos in ways that never would have been possible had Peter stayed alive. Ock’s one man war on New York City crime has been one of the standout parts of the book and his differing perspective on violence and crime has been fascinating.

gobfeatureSlott gave Doc Ock all the toys last issue as the villain returns to make war on Wilson Fisk and Shadowland. It was a violent issue and it showed the full lengths the anti-hero would go to for what he believes to be justice. While issue #14 was primarily a plot mover, this week’s #15 focused on his struggle against a single villain, Phil Urich’s Hobgoblin. Otto works best when Slott focuses on the competition between villains, namely the way these characters have dealt with each other for years.

Urich is an interesting case. A legacy villain with debts to other killers, Urich’s Hobgoblin has always been in an interesting spot and forcing him out from under the Kingpin’s thumb puts him on the run. I was struck during this issue by the way Slott wrote Urich as a murderous Peter Parker. Trying to get some cash together to pay the Tinkerer to repair his gear and needing to send a check to ex-Goblin Robert Kingsley, Urich is under pressure from all sides and is forced to do things he may not have expected. His crime spree at issue’s end reminds me of a Spider-Man on the ropes, struggling to make ends meet.

gob3It’s an interesting role reversal in a series all about that theme. Much like other series focusing on an antihero, namely Breaking Bad and the excellent American Vampire, viewers are meant to struggle with how much we want the protagonist to win. Do we really want Doc Ock to get away with it, to be Spider-Man forever or are we waiting for his comeuppance? Placing Urich so closely to Peter Parker, even drawing him similarly shows Slott’s willingness to make reader’s question what they want out of his elaborate game of cowboys and robbers.

I’ll admit, Humberto Ramos is probably my least favorite artist in Marvel’s stable. His chunky, straight edged characters feel out of place in a series about lithe, mid-air ballets and the fact that he was the beginning of the end for Runaways digs him deeper into a hole. He does a fine job here but Slott’s script is the real star, showing how far Doc Ock is willing to bring all his powers to bear to take down his enemies. It’s an issue all about desperation and last steps, with both Urich and Octavius playing trump cards and reaching deep as they struggle to get what they want.

gob2It’s only a matter of time until the Spidey-Ock era ends, pretty much the weeks before Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out but Slott continues to push the limits of audience expectations with a protagonist whose struggle to be a hero is crushed by a lack of empathy and morality. It’s a story that shouldn’t, can’t possibly work in Spider-Man’s corner of the Marvel Universe but impossibly does, over and over again.

Stray ObservationsTrillium_1_PanelThis was a big, really great week for DC in particular so let’s dive into it.

  • Again, Jeff Lemire proves his place isn’t on a franchise book. While offering little more than promise of what the series will become, Trillium #1 shows an outsider’s perspective on a time travel/drug trip story-line and has the same inventive imagination Lemire shows on his other more offbeat books.
  • It’s definitely a weird wonderful finale for Dial H, a book which, clearly, never had a chance to grow into what China Mielville hoped for it but still a fitting finale for his heroes. Nelson’s twists on all the heroes he dialed previously is a great, nostalgic way to close the cult series.
  • Charles Soule is making a great name for himself at DC. His Swamp Thing #23 features the sort of nausea inducing darkness Alan Moore and Jamie Delano used so well and is a great, powerful mainstream horror issue.
  • As far as alternative horror, Ed Brubaker has that on lock. This week’s Fatale #16 shows the corruption Jo effortlessly brings with her and the darkness is starting to close around Lance’s house.
  • Billy Tan is definitely trying to combine his dull ’90s style with Doug Mahnke’s work in the new Green Lantern #23. It’s a better issue than what he’s done before but he needs to step it up very quickly to make this book shine.
  • Once again, Superior Foes of Spider-Man knocks it out of the park. This week’s #2 is another hysterically funny, very knowing look at the politics of villainy. Boomerang’s desperation as he faces pressure on all sides gives this book the drama that makes it a must pull.

“The world is won with violence” – Jonathan Hickman defines the new Golden Age of comics in East of West #4

East-of-West-4-Maos-ReignIt’s hard to place the moment when comics changed, leaving the cigarette butts and undrawn feet of the Bronze Age and entered the new era. I generally put it either in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film and Marvel’s attempts to turn its characters into brands, or with the beginning of Avengers Dissasembled, when Brian Michael Bendis blew up Marvel’s structured universe and focused on the characters who defined the world.

Both point to character driven narrative, a focus on motivation over shock tactics, violence with consequences over violence for posturing and analysis over deconstruction. There are a few writers and artists who have masterfully embraced the spirit of the new status quo: Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns on his best days, and most importantly, Jonathan Hickman.

tumblr_motxa032U31qknzn8o1_1280Coming up through Image when the company was beginning its creative renaissance and making a name for himself at Marvel during the Secret Invasion/Dark Reign eras, Hickman was uniquely poised for success. He’s always had an eye for blistering, brilliant violence, morally compromised characters and a genius for redefining the place his characters exist in. We’ve seen it as Reed Richards looked inwards to redefine the Fantastic Four’s place in the world, the return of one of Marvel’s most forgotten characters into a cataclysmic event and now, redefining Death himself in his masterpiece in progress, East of West.

Between Manhattan Projects and two great Avengers titles, Hickman has had plenty of room to play with different characters and situations. In this week’s East of West #4, was obviously going to be a fight issue. Death, bringing his wrath on Mao and New Shanghai was going to be brutal and it suitably is but the interesting thing is about who’s playing the cards. A final page reveals that Xiaolian holds all the power over her white rider and a great conversation between Chamberlain and the child horsemen shows the power Death has over all those who have wronged him.

east_of_west_004-024 What takes East of West #4 from being a great comic to one of this year’s best is the way Hickman and Nick Dragotta humanize a destructive force and keep him an enigma. Xiaolian has been defined as a woman with control and agency, one who even with her back against the wall demonstrates total control and her hold over Death is clearly about more than love. Her brutality shows the human face of violence and a sense of dominance mirrored in Death’s massive slaughter. These are characters with a history, a connection that goes beyond love and chaos.

The defining thing about East of West has been the way Hickman and Dragotta have shaded their twisted world. There’s a wonderful sense of building, with a slowly unraveling back story of betrayals and shattered alliances and each new character and event adds additional colors and twists to the characters. Whether it’s Death’s devotion, Chamberlain’s fearless stance against the Horsemen or Xiaolian exorcising her familial demons in a flurry of horrendous violence, East of West is a world constantly in flux and a masterfully presented one that defines where comics are and what they can be.

Stray ObservationsEHYHktC

  • Nightwing has rarely been one of DC’s most exceptional titles but taking Dick out of Gotham and bringing him into Chicago’s twisted urban hellscape has given the book energy it hasn’t had since Night of the Owls. This week’s #22 might be the best issue of the series yet, with the Prankster tightening his grip on the city and Nightwing getting closer to Zucco’s hiding place. I’m going to thank Brett Booth for taking the month off.
  • Astro City #2 went back to the classic style the series is used to, with citizens being called to heroism in the mundane. It’s a solid way to show that despite the series new trappings, it’s still the book I know and love.
  • I’ve sang the praises of Otto-Spidey and Superior Spider-Man #13 is taking the character in a new direction, with Spidey blackmailing J. Jonah Jameson, killing Alistair Smythe and maybe going back to his old ways in a new villainous lair.
  • I don’t really know what to think of Batgirl #22. This is the second issue in a row where the title character has been the target of rape threats and the third in which a woman has. I have to ask, is Gail Simone trying to portray the struggles women face or is she using the same cheap literary devices she has rallied so passionately against?

“I should be ashamed. But I’m not.” – Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four #4 gives a stand-alone unexpected weight

ffMatt Fraction is trying something devilishly clever in his Marvel works by writing nothing but loosely serialized mainstream comics. It’s a bold departure from the rest of the publisher’s line and even from Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title. By writing stand alone issues, he’s intelligently given his characters time to shine in a variety of situations while letting the stresses of each issue weigh on the characters.

Fantastic Four has benefitted from this writing style as much as the also excellent Hawkeye but the First Family also has the problem of starting with a premise. From the first issue, Fraction set up Reed’s need to find a cure for his cellular degeneration as well as Franklin’s dreams of a bleak future in space. It’s obviously a long game but one that constantly needs acknowledged.

Fantastic-Four-3Fraction may have made a small misstep in the third issue. When the family makes contact with a living planet, it’s clear Fraction and Mark Bagley were trying to set up a Dr. Who style sci-fi romp with a pure pulp heart but the characterization took a back seat. It’s clear Fraction is trying to highlight Ben’s struggle to fit in as he’s pushed out of his element but it just didn’t mesh together very well. It’s hard to tell if Fraction was setting up the pieces or if he had learned his lesson but the series’ fourth issue pulls it all together in a big way.

Reed and Sue are put in sharp focus here as the family stumbles onto an uncharted planet which worships the Fantastic Four after discovering cave paintings of the team thousands of years ago. It’s a neat premise and it pairs well with Reed’s flashbacks to the early days of his relationship with Sue.

fanfou10Bagley is one of the reason this issue in particular shines. His style has always recalled John Romita Sr. and shows off the facial work that made Ultimate Spider-Man stand out on shelves for years. He’s great with people and his aliens are consistently depicted and well designed. His strength really shines in those pivotal flashbacks though. He brings a certain sense of soft, sunny  nostalgia to Reed’s memories of his wife and it makes the sequence shine.

Of course, that’s all leading to the gut punch. Reed has to rewrite history to remind himself of what’s important in his life. Sue’s written for the first time in the series as a woman who sees and knows much more than she lets on. The future foretold in Fraction’s also excellent FF #3 is coming soon and Reed’s breaking down as the future rushes up to greet him and the family continues to splinter. This is one of Marvel’s best characters written excellently and forced into the only situation he can’t think himself out of. Frankly, there’s no better place for Reed to be.

No power, no responsibilities: “Amazing Spider-Man” is an engaging, occasionally thrilling super-powered failure

The one advantage that film will always have over comics is giving characters the visceral thrill of movement. With someone like Spider-Man, that lets viewers enjoy the thrill of watching someone fly through the air, slide across the ground and use the force of momentum to his constant advantage. Its exhilarating, visually interesting and thrilling to simply watch movement.

It is in these moments that “Amazing Spider-Man” makes a case for its’ own existence. Looking back on Sam Raimi’s films, the special effects haven’t aged particularly well and it was filmed more as an homage to the comics and pulp action than as a film that was meant to thrill with stunts. “Amazing Spider-Man” does a great job of bringing this energy back to the franchise but it loses all that momentum as Andrew Garfield struggles through lines, director Mark Webb directs without style or panache and the story struggles with telling anything that viewers haven’t heard before.

My biggest problem with the whole thing was that need to do the origin story again. Peter Parker’s transformation from nerdy kid to super-powered defender of New York City might as well be ingrained into our American mythos. Webb doesn’t do a lot new with it, playing Pete’s transformation mostly for laughs but he does brilliantly change the death of Uncle Ben to tie more closely to Peter than to Spider-Man, making Pete’s choices, personally and behind the mask, more defined by Ben’s death. Martin Sheen does a great job as Uncle Ben but he isn’t given a ton of screen time to make an impression.

And that’s really strange for a movie that drags over the two-hour mark without any real reason. The origin story takes over an hour to set up and it forces us to race through a disjointed plot by scientist Curt Connors, a not particularly deep antagonist from Dennis Leary’s Captain Stacy and the romantic subplot with Gwen, played by Emma Stone. No one really makes a huge impression and the generic plot doesn’t connect too well.

There are the building blocks of something that could make future installments more engaging. Webb makes the odd decision of keeping the fate of Pete’s parents a secret, tying it into Connor’s work at OsCorp. It is a strange move and Webb does little to make it one that we should care about. That’s a shame because the rest of the mysteries of the mysteries of the corporation are super engaging. The specter of Norman Osbourne looms over the film, both in the lobby of his building as well as in constant lines of dialogue. If Spider-Man’s greatest enemy is to show up before the series ends, he’s already had a great sense of mystery built up around him.

This lack of connection is what makes the movie’s exhilarating action sequences less memorable than they should be. Webb uses great tracking shots and close angles so that we can see every move Spider-Man makes as he zips and darts around his enemies but if we don’t care about the character or the people he’s fighting, then why does it matter?

It is clear that Webb was given the unenviable job of setting up a new franchise so that Sony could continue to hold onto the Spider-Man license for as long as possible. As such, he’s stuck having to keep Peter Parker in a very narrow world as well as having to keep the audience’s mind as far away from the unfairly maligned “Spider-Man 3” as possible. That’s why the film seems so narrow, so aimless and at times, so downright dull. Hopefully, like the superb “Spider-Man 2,” the inevitable sequel to this film will be able to build off the formidable base in order to craft a franchise that can not only keep the money coming in, but also keep fans interested.