Thursday, May 26, 2011

X-Men in 2001

Disclosure: This post might wind up being a little different than previous ones. The reason is that there’s a high risk of this one turning into “Memoirs of an X-Men Reader.” But it should be fun regardless...
I had an idea that I didn’t want to forget about. At some point I realized that, while it is still the month of May and the year 2011, we are 10 whole years removed from the last really significant shakeup of the status quo for “Marvel’s Merry Mutants.” Well, okay, plenty has happened since, including Astonishing X-Men and several year’s worth of X-Books that I have altogether ignored, but I feel safe in saying that there hasn’t been any kind of a shift that has been as impactful as what Joe Quesada set up for the 2001 X-Revolution.
So what really happened when the X-Men and all of their related titles came out in May 2001? Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that everything about them changed drastically. Uncanny X-Men got a facelift from Joe Casey and Ian Churchill. X-Men morphed into New X-Men with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. They found something good for Chris Claremont to do with X-Treme X-Men (do your best to ignore the cheesy title) with Salvador Larocca joining him. And X-Force....well, that book got shaken up so much it might as well have been a new title altogether, with Peter Milligan and Mike Allred turning it into something zany, violent, and unique.
I have a Wizard X-Men Special that was put out to coincide with the “New World Order” of the X-Books. It’s pretty much just a 64 page hype piece about how great the X-Men comics were about to become, which was gobbled right up by myself and many, many other fans, since the X-Men had been soooo terrible lately. Just a year previous, Chris Claremont had returned to make the X-Men comics so confusing and meaningless it wasn’t even funny. Oh yeah, and at this time when the storylines were so inaccessible, a certain big budget 20th Century Fox movie entitled “X-Men” came out. Anyone who might have caught the flick and said “Jeez, I wonder what the X-Men are like now?” would have run away screaming if he or she was brave enough to walk into a comic store to find out. 
So yes, any news of change for the X-Men in early 2001 was pretty much guaranteed to be good news. And, well, when they started announcing who would be doing what and art began to be released, it was pretty obvious to anyone that the powers that be were onto something that could certainly wind up being great. Joe Quesada, after becoming Marvel’s Editor in Chief late in 2000, knew that the X-Men needed a LOT of help. He did a quick and effective job in bringing people to the table who could shake things up in the best way possible. An interview with Morrison and Casey from the Wizard Special is peppered with ideas about things like chicken sentinels, secondary mutations, “super-consistency,” etc. New things all around. New costumes that while being clearly informed by the Hollywood X-Men retained some comic book style. New villains, new ideas. New X-Men = good.
The opening salvo in the 2001 X-Men reboot was Uncanny X-Men #394. It was a done-in-one story featuring a brand new antagonist and, besides that, Wolverine and Jean Grey kissed and didn’t even feel bad about it afterwards. There were no backstories in this issue, there were no extraneous characters carrying pointless subplots, it was just a nice, quick 22 pages. 
And then came New X-Men #114. Now this was the one that really broke the door off its hinges. But this kind of thing should be expected from Grant Morrison. This was a comic about evolution, about race issues in the 21st century, and about how a dream might have to adjust itself a little to fit into a new era. 
X-Force #116, in many ways the ugly stepsister of the New X-Books, featured a brand new team of superheroes. Before you even get to know them, almost all of them are mowed down in a grisly battle. Usually new mutant characters stick around for far too long, but not these guys. They were put into the comic to die and die quickly.
So if that’s what it was like in the beginning of the era, how did things finally end up? For the most part it’s pretty easy to say that it didn’t live up to the hype. I think that a considerable amount of the problem had to do with inconsistencies on the art side of things. The radical directions the writing was taking should have probably been balanced by some steady hands at the drawing table, but both Churchill and Quitely couldn’t keep up on the monthly grind. So fill-in artists galore killed the momentum of the creative teams. Joe Casey didn’t wind up lasting too long and I seem to remember a lot of fans saying they just didn’t like what he was up to, which is a claim that’s hard to understand. Casey’s successor, Chuck Austen, wasn’t really on the bandwagon with the whole 2001 reboot concept, and Uncanny returned to being a silly spandexy soap opera. 
We would definitely look back on Morrison’s New X-Men more favorably if it hadn’t been marred by (hate to say it) the rush job of Igor Kordey’s art. Kordey could be really good, but he was overtaxed with drawing two books a month and his issues are just murky. Morrison did a lot of good stuff and kept the book fresh until the tail end of his run, when he brought Magneto back. That just seemed really wrong, to have three years of “All New, All Different” X-Men stories and then just go back to a “Magneto’s about to take over the world again oh my god” type of story. The story that immediately preceded the 2001 reboot was one such story, so who knows, maybe Grant just wanted to take it all full circle. And the final story, Here Comes Tomorrow, was set in the future and kind of sort of made sense and seemed like a fitting conclusion to the work Morrison had set out to do but also felt like there was a lot of important story that had remained untold. 
Milligan and Allred seemed to have been able to tell the story they set out to tell with X-Force, which eventually morphed into X-Statix to further set itself apart from the other X-Books. The series was funny, morbid, and challenging, and rereading it today brings back a lot of social issues that were important at the time. So yes, it might be a little dated, but it might also be a nice little social history lesson. They wrapped the book up when it was time and before they ran out of steam.
I did pick up X-Treme X-Men for a good long while, and it wasn’t because I thought Chris Claremont’s stories were up to par with his early Cockrum/Byrne collaborations. X-Treme was good in what I call the “Image Comics of 1992” kind of good: if there was nothing else to be proud of, there sure was a lot of nice stuff to look at. Salvador Larocca’s art was colored straight from the pencils, so the book stood out on the shelf. It was a beautifully produced comic book that was strange because it was so disconnected from everything else that was going on with Uncanny and New X-Men. Larocca designed everything on his own without comparing notes with Quitely and Churchill and it was just weird that two X-Men teams would look all shiny and new while the X-Treme team was still kicking around in spandex suits. But it was its own thing and apparently it sold well enough.
With the departure of Grant Morrison in 2004, everything that had started in May 2001 had finished. Joe Quesada knew he needed to pull in something big to rejuvenate the X-Men yet again, and the Joss Whedon/ John Cassaday Astonishing X-Men started up right away and brought the mutants back into a more classic spandexy mode that they’ve been stuck in ever since. 

The 2001 reboot of the X-Men might be summed up as something that was a great experiment that just wasn’t built to last. Like a lot of things that Marvel was trying in the early days of Joe Quesada’s EIC tenure, the new ideas brought new life to the company, but the same old moneymaking tricks slowly but surely came back to make everything much “safer.” The 2001 X-Books were envelope pushing comics, and that doesn’t usually work for too long with a company’s hottest franchise. But now that it’s all in the past, the 2001 era of X-Books stands as a nice experiment that made a bunch of comics that still stand out today.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New Stan Lee Spider-Man

Putting Stan Lee together with Marcos Martin to do some Spider-Man stories was just a really, really good idea. Hats off to the person who made this happen. This comic (weighing in at 36 story pages) is a lot of fun from start to finish. If you might have thought that Stan the Man might have lost something in the last, oh, thirty years, this book might leave you thinking otherwise.

That is, if you give it a chance. The Amazing Spider-Man Spidey Sunday Spectacular (whew!) has a couple of things in it. Without checking out the indicia I wouldn’t have known that the contents are reprinted material of things that ran as backup stories throughout Amazing Spidey #634-645. So what we have here is not only the 12 part story the book was named after, but also another story entitled “Identity Crisis.” Stan Lee put together a couple of nice metafictional stories here, and if you can read them without getting upset about that kind of writing you’ll probably really enjoy it. Or you could just go the other route and ignore all of the words that are written on the pages. That would probably be pretty easy…comics art just doesn’t get much prettier than the work of Mr. Martin.

So the way that the first story works is that every installment is told across a two-page spread. So Marcos can go crazy with the layout and Stan can leave his witty banter all throughout. It must have been fun to read this episode-by-episode as it was originally published, but this way works great too. Just like they wanted, like the book is a reprint of a Sunday newspaper strip.

The story concerns a couple of dastardly villains named Brain and Bull. So yeah, we already know a lot about them: one’s the smart guy and the other is dumb and strong. As the narration reads, “Their nicknames are “Brain” and “Bull.” If you can’t tell why, you shouldn’t be reading comics!” The big plan that Brain comes up with to escape punishment for crimes he has committed in the “real world” is this crazy device called (rather obviously) a Digitized, Algorithmic Nano-Collider. Now what the hell can you do with one of those things? Well, Brain came up with the plan because it will allow him and his dimwitted assistant to “escape into the dimension of comics,” duh!

So of course they do so. The jump into comics land takes them to what appears to be early Marvel Universe New York City. Brain finds Spidey with the Fantastic Four and wants to follow him because he really, really wants to know the webbed guy’s secret identity. They watch him go into his apartment and see as Spider-Man enters the bedroom and Peter Parker walks out. “Look! Parker must be Spider-Man!” says Bull. Brain won’t hear any of that stupidity though, of course. There’s no way he could be onto anything at all with that observation…

Brain finds out that Pete is working on a time machine in his apartment. Hmm. This wacky device appears to be made out of a blender, a microwave, and a VCR, but let’s not ask too many questions. The story ends with Brain getting his hands on the device and traveling back in time to August 15, 1962 (no significance whatsoever to that date…). Apparently, as Peter explains it, when you travel back in time you get younger. So Brain is trapped in 1962 by story’s end, a goo-goo-ga-ga baby. The end.

The story is tailored at all times to give Marcos Martin wonderful things to draw. The Green Goblin, the Hulk, Doctor Octopus, and Mary Jane all show up to make for nice pictures, and really, why should anyone complain about that? Probably my favorite of the spreads was the cross-section of Peter’s apartment. Martin likes doing that kind of drawing, and it’s always fun in the sense of being able to say “Oh, so that’s how his house is set up! Looks like a decent place!”

Favorite meta moment in this story: Spidey gets into his apartment with the two bad guys and Mary Jane is waiting there, voluptuously laid out on the couch. Brain is perplexed by her; Bull is obviously smitten. “Okay, wall-crawler. Talk! Who is she?” asks Brain. “Beats me!” is Spidey’s response. “She’s either my girlfriend, my wife, or my ex-wife! It depends what issue this is!”

On to the second story, “Identity Crisis.” Dr. Gray Madder (oh is that old man writer crafty!) is a psychiatrist, and he’s the guy who Spider-Man decides to come to with a biiiiiiiigggg problem. The good doctor is a little greedy and thinks that helping Spidey will lead to a huge career boost and fame. He’s more than happy to take on this new patient. Well, the kinds of problems that Spider-Man has include things like growing four extra arms, being attached to a black alien costume, having an incident in which he got Hulked-up, another incident in which he shrunk down to Ant-Man size, becoming Spider-Ham, and plenty of other problems. Also, Spidey has a hard time figuring out how the Green Goblin died and came back to life, how he has been married to and unmarried to Mary Jane, how he was almost a dad once but then MJ just wasn’t pregnant anymore, and how his poor Aunt May has been dead or almost dead so many times. It’s all just too much: Dr. Madder winds up checking in to see another psychiatrist at the end of the story.

It’s plain to see that Stan Lee had a blast putting this story together. Kind of like he’s good old Grandpa Stan: “Well, I’ve known this guy since he was knee high to a grasshopper, and look at all of the crazy things he’s been through over the years!”

The Amazing Spider-Man Spidey Sunday Spectacular. Nothing else quite like it on the stands today… it will really make you appreciate Spidey’s history, the man who played a huge part in turning him into a character we all love today, and absolutely gorgeous art by a guy who still has a whole career ahead of him!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dark Horse Presents #1

Some time ago, Dark Horse Presents was a pretty important book that Dark Horse put out. They showcased a lot of different things in it. Frank Miller serialized Sin City through it, Paul Chadwick built quite a following for Concrete, and there were tons of other off-the-beaten-path stories that were told. At some point it must have stopped selling and the anthology got the axe in 2000. The DHP model was pretty much forgotten until 2007, when Myspace was a big thing (my how times have changed). Dark Horse revitalized the anthology concept by publishing stories on their Myspace page, and it worked pretty well for them until the entire website proved to be something that just wouldn’t last. So there’s been another whole year without DHP, and the company decided at long last to bring it back in print. It’s a neat format they came up with. They’re doing quarterly 80 page books without ads. So it’s like a nice comics magazine that costs $8. Fair enough.

With anthologies the biggest strengths also seem to be the biggest weaknesses. It’s great to see a whole smorgasbord of stories, but sometimes a quick 8-pager fails to really grab your attention. It’s great to see all kinds of different stories packed into a single book, but inevitably some of them are good and some of them aren’t really anything special. The new Dark Horse Presents is an anthology; of course it will have some of these problems. But overall, I’m really glad that this book exists again.

Let’s begin the tour, shall we?

Concrete by Paul Chadwick: This is, as I understand, the first Concrete story that has been published in awhile. I definitely came to appreciate Chadwick’s nice inky art and his colorist did a good job too. But I’m completely unfamiliar with Concrete and I can’t say that I really “get” it yet. Still a little in the dark, but I hope there are more installments in future issues. Let’s say that right now I want to like Concrete but need a little more to make sure!

Marked Man by Howard Chaykin: This story was a much easier sell for me as a big fan of Howard Chaykin. He’s doing a new story that will be running for awhile in DHP, and it’s looking like a fun double life story about a guy who is trapped in a bad marriage and family situation, and there’s no way in hell that he can let his wife know that he’s really a criminal! This looks promising and like it will be a lot of fun once it really gets cooking.

Blood by Neal Adams: hmm. Well, you have to have a lot of respect for Neal. He’s been working hard since the 60’s, and here is today putting out a brand new story. He still has the skills at the drawing board, that’s for sure. But this story looks like it’s going to be off the rails. It’s an alien invasion story, but that’s kind of hard to tell from this first chapter, which seems to be constructed so that Mr. Adams can draw, over and over, the grotesque face of a man who is tied to a chair and being beaten by others who want information about said aliens. We’ll see about this one…

Finder by Carla Speed McNeil: I’ve been curious about Finder for a good long while. Well, in eight pages Carla Speed McNeil has turned me into a convert! It reminded of Strangers in Paradise in terms of characterization, general hijinks, and beautiful, sensitive art. I have to find out if she’s friends with Terry Moore or something. McNeil is one of those very valuable artists who is a master at capturing great facial expressions and body language in her characters. But wow, I’m definitely going to be looking for that huge Finder book Dark Horse just put out.

Mr. Monster vs. Oooak! by Michael T. Gilbert: I guess there’s nothing to really complain about with this superhero parody. Gilbert gave credit fair and square to the kinds of Lee/Kirby stories he was romping on. I guess it just wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But I can see why it’s important to have the story in here…there isn’t really a wealth of humor material in the anthology.

The middle part of the book branches off into true magazine style. There’s a two page interview with Frank Miller about his upcoming Xerxes graphic novel (a prequel to 300). I hope that this is a project that materializes sometime within, I’ll be generous here, one full year. Because to hype a book and not deliver is just evil! After the interview there’s a four page preview of black and white pages. Miller is still drawing in that wonderfully cartoony style, but things are looking a little more muddled than they used to. Colors should help out in the final edition. The third thing in this part of the book is a Harlan Ellison short story, which I have to admit I didn’t read. It was a reprint from some magazine. I was riding in a bus and couldn’t be bothered by small print! I really just wasn’t interested.

Murky World by Richard Corben: This one I enjoyed a lot. I always forget to check out more of Corben’s work. He’s telling a tech/fantasy based story and he’s doing a neat black and white style. The art is great and the story is fun too. If you like to see corrupt old men getting what’s coming to them when they want to take advantage of young women, this is the story in DHP for you. Really looking forward to part two.

Star Wars Crimson Empire III by Randy Stradley and Paul Gulacy: Ah yes, a Star Wars story was definitely a good idea. This is a little sizzler for the third part of the Crimson Empire story, which has been laying dormant for a very long time. Having not read anything that came before it, well, I don’t know if I’m really enticed to pick up this new series when it comes out. Maybe if I can find some Crimson Empire. Although you could do far worse than have Paul Gulacy draw your eight page teaser!

Snow Angel by David Chelsea: This closes out the book, and it’s a family-friendly story about a girl who can turn into a sort of superheroic angel when she makes a snow angel on the ground. Kind of a strange yet cute idea. It also stood out from the rest of the pack because it was told using very few words.

Oh, and before I forget: they got Geoff Darrow to do some crazy little spot illustrations throughout the book. Very nice, but let’s get a new story out of this guy next time!

Well, that’s Dark Horse Presents version 3.0 in a nutshell. I’d have to say it’s off to a great start. It would be really great if there were more books out there in a format kind of like this!