Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Sporadic Superhero Samplings: What If We Had A Team-Up And Everyone Came?

Occasionally when I make my trips to the local library to pick up my manga reserves (latest catch-up obsessions: School Rumble and The Drifting Classroom), I browse the graphic novel sections (there are two: one in "young adult / teen" and one in "adult") and pick up some impulse reads. Even more occasionally, I end up grabbing some superhero comics. Here are some thoughts on two recent library reads.

Anyone who's read Alan Davis' Elseworlds tale JLA: The Nail will find his take on the "final" Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The End, familiar. Both books feature Davis throwing in absolutely everything he loves about the respective comic book universes, even if they don't always really fit with the story being told (in fact, FF: The End could just as easily be titled Marvel Universe: The End since it features nearly every non-mutant Marvel character); both books are barely held together by the slimmest of plots; and both books work despite the jumbled mess of characters and slapdash story scaffolding, mainly because Davis succeeds in evoking the essential elements that captured our imaginations when we were younger, less cynical readers.

FF: The End starts out with the team long since disbanded over a terrible tragedy that took the lives of the Richards' children, Franklin and Valeria. Unable to cope with their grief, Reed and Sue go their separate ways, while Ben and Johnny engage in their own pursuits. Meanwhile, life on Earth has changed dramatically, with mutants eradicated and society a virtual utopia thanks to Reed Richards' scientific advancements. However, a series of shadowy galactic sabotage strikes threatens to disrupt the harmony of human existence.

Calling the basic plot of FF: The End weak almost feels too generous: it really does seem like Davis just strung together some random ideas in an effort to connect all the elements he wanted to include in this story. Why the alien races are so intent on messing with Earth is never really clear, and that entire plotline is resolved in the most dubious of dues ex machina developments by actors other than our core four (although at least the resolution does have a tie to FF lore). Still, it's doubtful that anyone seeking out this book is looking for the tightest of plotting; the draw here is seeing Alan Davis play with the toys of the Marvel Universe. And in this book, Davis manages to cram in nearly every single character from Lee and Kirby's landmark run on Fantastic Four. (When Davis even manages to sneak in the Infant Terrible's race, you know he's been thorough in checking off every concept from his Kirby checklist.)

So, overall I really enjoyed reading this comic, but enjoyment was one fueled almost entirely by comic geek nostalgia. I can't imagine this book being as much fun for someone unfamiliar with the Lee/Kirby collaboration. That said, for fans of the "classic" FF, this is a definite recommendation. There are some really nice character moments that will resonate with long-time FF fans, such as Ben Grimm finally finding happiness with a (biological) family of his own; Sue proving herself the most capable member of the team, even when no one else believes in her; Johnny maturing somewhat (at least until he regresses back to girl-chasing teenager mode again in the presence of Crystal; and Reed simply being Reed (aloof, absent-minded, arrogant, and detached).

Plus, there's the stunning Alan Davis artwork. Did I mention how much fun it is seeing Alan Davis cut loose on all these characters like this?

In contrast, The Brave and The Bold Volume 1: The Lords of Luck by Mark Waid and George Perez left me feeling grumpy. Part of it was due to high expectations: I still follow a number of superhero-focused blogs, and everyone and their mother seemed to be raving about this series, saying it was a return to more light-hearted and "fun" comics. I'm not the biggest fan of either Waid or Perez, but I used to love all those old superhero team-up series, including the original B&B, so I was intrigued enough to check this out. So when I read the book and didn't care for it, all those reviews came back to mind and I felt like a grouch for not liking it. Still, I thought it might be worthwhile to point out my reasons for disliking the book (even if doing so reveals me as a definite grumbly, grumpy grouch), so here goes. [Editor's note: This all seemed a lot more original when I started writing this review last week before it was revealed that comic book bloggers may be the only ones reading and enjoying this series.]

When you're reading a Mark Waid comic, you're fully aware that you're reading a Mark Waid comic. I'm trying to remember if I've ever actually enjoyed something by Mark Waid but I'm coming up blank. The closest I can come is his 9-cent debut issue of FF (which showed a promising premise that was quickly squandered) and some of his work at CrossGen (I remember particularly enjoying Negation, but according to Wikipedia he only co-wrote that series, only only for three issues). I know Waid certainly has his fans, but his work has never really clicked for me, and I've never really been able to pinpoint why. With BB: LL, I think it finally dawned on me: In Waid's comics, everything and everyone comes across as so damned smug. For me, this attitude is best encapsulated by the appearance at the end of the Challengers of the Unknown as the monkey wrench gumming up the carefully crafted plans of the all-knowing bad guys: Not only do the Challs carry themselves with an offputting air of smugness (I don't think even Spider-Man quips so flippantly and frenetically in the face of overwhelming odds), but the very act of having it be the original Silver Age Challengers who save the day conveys a certain sense of smugness ("Whaddya mean the kids today don't think the Challs are cool? Alright, alright, let's see... I know! We'll make it so that in the end the Challs are the only ones who can save the big heroesnot to mention the entire universe! That'll show those young whippersnappers that the Challs are still 'cool'!!"). The end effect is that, rather than cheering when the heroes overcome insurmountable odds, I'm left thinking, "Geez, those characters are kind of arrogant dicks. They could have been more gracious winners, couldn't they? After all, they are supposed to be the good guys."

George Perez's art is cluttered and claustrophobic. I think I first noticed this problem with Perez's art in my review of Avengers/JLA #4: In trying to cram so much detail into every single panel, Perez hobbles the overall flow of the works he's illustrating. Since then, I think I've only become more disillusioned with his "pack it all in" style of art, thanks largely to my ever-increasing consumption of manga. In manga, artists know when to turn off the backgrounds so that the reader focuses on the foreground characters; how to vary line weight so that different elements appear to exist in different layers; and how to use stylistic devices to convey motion, force, emotion, and humor. With Perez (and most Western superhero artists) everything lies flat on the same plane so that nothing pops out.

In his EW review, Douglas Wolk described Perez's art as "fluid [and] hyperdense," which made me scratch my head: How can hyperdense art be fluid? I can understand how hyperdense art could have its own aesthetic appeal (the joy of finding hidden details in the art; the satisfaction of feeling like you've gotten a lot of bang for your buck, art-wise), but I'm at a loss to understand how it would be viewed as fluid. Am I just being (hyper)dense? Does anyone else get what Wolk is saying? (The closest example of something being both "fluid [and] hyperdense" that I could come up with was Katsuhiro Otomo's art in Akira, but even that didn't seem to fit exactly. Otomo's artwork is certainly highly detailed and realistic, but it's not hyperdense the way that Perez's is. Yes, Otomo creates insanely detailed urban landscapes, but he also knows how to "turn off" the detail when the story demands it, every now and then even going so far as to leave white space on the page (!). Perez, on the other hand, seems compelled to fill in every last detail of every single panel, no matter how tiny.)

Hey, how come the backgrounds disappear whenever things get intense?

The DCU is incomprehensible. Look, I'm not claiming to be an expert on all matters of DC arcana, but I have read a fair number of DC comics during my lifetime. But reading BB: LL felt like doing homework when I'd failed to study all the preparatory material. In the endnotes to the hardcover collection, Waid walks readers through who each character is, even the ones that just appear in a throwaway panel, and where they first appeared, which I guess is a nice touch in terms of providing readers with historical background, but it also makes the comic feel like an assignment for history class. I don't care that you and George Perez had a blast fitting in even more obscure sci-fi superheroes than you had originally planned; I just care if the story itself is fun to read, and when it gets bogged down in this level of trivial minutiae, it's not. (Of course, as is always the case with projects like these, YMMV. Just as I had a blast spotting all the nods to the Lee/Kirby era of Fantastic Four in FF: The End, if you grew up with all of the stories and characters Waid and Perez are referencing, you'll probably view this book as a celebration of DC's rich history rather than a maddeningly self-indulgent hodgepodge of the creators' favorite childhood memories.)

Actually, even worse than not recognizing who the heck certain characters are is recognizing the characters but then wondering why they're portrayed that way instead of the way you remember them. Which version of the Legion is this? Why do the Thanagarians look like that? Ah crap, not the purple-jumpsuited version of the Challengers again. I guess that means these guys vanished into limbo Hypertime.

The plot is stupid. And not the good kind of stupid, either. I know, I know, it's trying to go for that gonzo Silver Age vibe, but it just doesn't work, especially when the whole thing is stretched out over six issues. (Maybe you could get away with covering up some of the story's problems if everything had been crammed into a single issue, but by letting the story "breathe" you also allow more time to think about how things don't really add up.) Some specific complaints:
  • Destiny thought the best way to deal with the anomalies in his Book that could be catastrophically dangerous in the wrong hands was just to toss it aside and hope for the best?
  • The Luck Lords have all this power to manipulate time and space and this was the best plan they could come up with?
  • The Challengers are so special because no one could possibly walk away from a fatal plane crash?
All that said, though, I still enjoyed seeing Batman wipe the floor with the Legion of Super-Heroes. What can I say? There are certain things that no fanboy (even a former one, in my case) ever overcomes, and for me a good demonstration of the "Batman always wins" maxim always hits the right nostalgia pleasure centers. (Going even deeper into shameful fanboy territory, the scene brought to mind the moment in Secret Wars when Spider-Man handily defeated the whole X-Men crew.)

Anyway, there are plenty of people who did enjoy this book, so here are two reviews that are much more positive. OK, because I'm mean, here's one more quote from someone on The V snarking on this series:
Brave and the Bold is probably only for people who go "Holy shit! That's Viking Commando and Space Cabbie!" though.

Also for people who go "George Perez, I LOVE YOU!"

Forgot about that one. Although it's probably because the story's so weak.

"You must collect these wanky artifacts in order to stop the evilest thing in the world!! How many artifacts? One an issue, please."
See, The V had the whole problem with B&B pegged days before everyone else started wondering about it.

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