Friday, May 9, 2014

Captain Marvel Masterworks Vol.1 review

There are some characters that just seem to haunt the fringes of your interest in comics until you finally decide to explore them in depth. While I’m not too keen on DC/Fawcett’s big red cheese, and I don’t find MF Enterprise’s “SPLIT!” version to be the campy masterpiece some praise it as, I’ve always seen Marvel’s ‘Space-Born Super-Hero” as the Captain Marvel, even though, as everyone points out, Marvel created him to secure copyright to the name. Granted, my fondness could stem from my first continuous exposure to the character being Jim Starlin’s acclaimed run and the good captain playing big roles in ‘important’ stories like the RoyThomasBrainFart Kree-Skrull War, or maybe it’s because, courtesy of a flea market, I ended up owning his first two appearances in Marvel Superheroes #12-13, as well as issue #4 of his own title where he fights Namor. Now, I fully admit I picked those books up because of the Golden Age reprints and because I go crazy for Gene Colan art and even crazier for Namor, but I always liked them because of the series’ gimmick, even though there were things in those stories that even as a teen I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about.
  Captain Marvel was about Mar-Vell; a member of an alien race called the Kree who came to Earth, took on a secret identity as a scientist and wound up becoming a superhero. On paper, it’s not too different a concept from lots of other alien heroes, going all the way back to Superman himself, and Cap’s costume wasn’t too markedly different from that of other spacemen like Adam Strange except for being in secondary colors.
 
  No, what made Mar-Vell unique was why he acted as a superhero. It wasn’t that he was raised by humans, or was an intergalactic policeman who decided to study our methods, or who fought crime since he was stuck here and believed evil should be eradicated no matter where it was, or because he was struck by the beauty of human life. Nothing like that. Mar-Vell was a soldier on a reconnaissance mission whose entire goal was to spy on us, and if need be, blow us all to kingdom come if we ever came anywhere close to developing weapons that could challenge the Kree empire.
 He only came off as a hero because his asshole superior officer, Colonel Yon Rogg, wanted to bang his girlfriend Una, so Yon-Rogg kept trying to force Mar-Vell into situations where he would be killed or forced to abort his mission (an offense punishable by death in Kree law), such as activating big homicidal robots to kill people who Mar-Vell was merely supposed to study, or tricking enemy alien races into attacking him. Mar-Vell would then fight these various menaces (mainly out of self-preservation and because he believed in sticking to the original plans to simply spy on Earth’s people, not kill them) and, to the unknowing populace of Earth, Mar-Vell would appear to be a benevolent superhero defending them.
 This could have been turned into a comedy series where the evil alien always ends up doing good by accident, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style horror; where the people of Earth have no idea that their champion is an alien spy. But the thing was, Mar-Vell was torn up inside because of this. He knew that, other than to Una, he was just another grunt to the Kree, while to the people of Earth who he was supposed to view as the enemy, he was appreciated and acclaimed as a hero, and noble soldier that he was, he couldn’t live with betraying trust, since he was a firm believer in showing honor even to his worst enemies. Even worse, he knew that eventually, he was either going to have to destroy us, or Yon-Rogg would find some way to make him look bad in the eyes of the Kree higher-ups and he’d have nowhere to go (if the Kree council didn’t kill him first).
 The final panel of #4, where Mar-Vell speeds off after battling Namor, the true hero of the story, and considers the tragic irony of his situation, always stuck with me for some reason.
 Many years later, I got a hold of the first Marvel Masterworks volume of CM, read up to the fourth issue (which I was already familiar with), and then, due to a bunch of factors, didn’t get a chance to finish reading and sort of forgot about it.
 
 That, however, has been rectified.
 
 And you know what? For a character created just to secure copyright, these stories are pretty damn good!
 
 Oh sure, there are plenty of ludicrous coincidences that even as a kid I found hard to swallow, namely, Mar-Vell conveniently happening across a dead rocket scientist named Walter Lawson who looks exactly like him and who he then impersonates to get access to Cape Canaveral.
 At the same time though, there are also some nicely realistic touches like a hotel clerk who becomes suspicious of Cap being a spy after noticing that ‘Lawson’ has no idea how to properly register, often uses false names and doesn’t handle money well (an interesting subplot that sadly gets hand waved a bit too easily), or people at the cape falling for the ruse, but admitting they detect something subtly “off” about ‘Lawson’, from the way he doesn’t understand various social norms or seems too forced in his slang, while others just write off his weirdness as harmless eccentricity, like a cab driver named Chester whom he befriends. There are also some nice moments of humor, such as Mar-Vell coming to appreciate mankind’s greatest achievement: The Coffee Break.
 

 The characterization of the supporting players is also quite good, and the situations created for them are handled uniquely. Carol Danvers, later to become a super heroine called Ms. Marvel (among several identities) is introduced here, and she’s as different from your typical female supporting character of the time as it’s possible to get. She’s a full-time working woman employed as the cape’s head of security, and although she needs to be rescued now and then, so does pretty much everyone else. Mar-Vell is the only one who knows how to stop the various alien threats that pop up, so having any human character defeat them on their own would come off as a stretch. And best of all, there is no romantic subplot….at first, but again, how it’s handled is quite unique. She doesn’t come to fall for ‘Lawson’, as she suspects him immediately and thinks he’s a spy (which he is, just not for the Russians), and there’s no attempt to portray her as secretly having feelings for him. In fact, next to Yon-Rogg, she becomes the biggest thorn in his side, with each time she appears building up tension. Using a female character in such an antagonistic light without making her a villain or a Lois Lane-type isn’t something you saw much in this era.
 However, Carol does end up falling for Captain Marvel. Again, this is handled in a far from typical manner. She’s just as suspicious of him initially as she is of ‘Lawson’, but because he saves her life several times, demonstrates his noble qualities and displays the grudging respect he has for her that he couldn’t show as Lawson, she gradually ends up falling for him over the course of many issues, without it ever coming off as forced.
 
 But here’s the thing; Mar-Vell does not at any time reciprocate her feelings or show any sign of falling for her (As Walter Lawson, he does occasionally make flirtatious remarks, but he’s clearly trying to keep her away from him by making her think he’s a sexist pig). He remains loyal to Una, and his attempts to protect Carol in particular are simply a combination of respect and because he’s afraid she might stumble onto something if he’s not around. However, Una sees them together and starts to worry that she might seduce him. Una could easily have been portrayed as jealous or unreasonable, possibly even ending up trying to kill Carol or betray Mar-Vell (remember all those times Lady Dorma would betray Namor or try to kill Sue Storm?), but instead, she’s portrayed with nothing other than sympathy. Her fears of losing Mar-Vell seem completely reasonable based on what she has to go on, and when she sees Cap kissing Carol (she forced herself on him and he immediately tries to pull away), it’s a legitimately heartbreaking moment.
 Una is also far from the typical weepy love interest (aside from a few lines about her feeling a ‘woman’s weakness”). She’s portrayed as a brilliant scientist and Mar-Vell’s go-to-gal for technology, and uses her expertise to get him out of several jams. She also gets one awesome moment where she knocks Yon-Rogg and his entire crew out with gas to buy Mar-Vell more time. It’s also made clear that she’s fully aware of Yon-Rogg’s lecherous designs on her, and even at her most paranoid about losing Mar-Vell, she’s smart enough to never trust Yon-Rogg or confide in him. In other Marvel series, she would probably end up falling for him in a fit of grief, or at least pretending to in order to make Cap jealous. Not here. There’s a lame subplot about how she and Mar-Vell are the only members of the Kree race that can feel emotion, but thankfully that isn’t dwelled upon much.
Yon-Rogg himself is easily the most despicable villain in late 60’s Marvel. He has no depth other than being a jealous, glory-hungry bastard, but you end up truly hating him on a level you don’t for say, Doctor Doom, because his evil is a real world, every day evil, and all of the drama in the stories come about from the emotional tension he creates, not because of his powers or latest super weapon. The way he mockingly tries to convince Una that Mar-Vell is cheating on her, or orders Cap to wipe out a city with a virus to prove his loyalty, or tries to get Cap in trouble with the Kree council really, really makes you despise him. A common reaction I’ve seen from people reading Silver Age Marvel is that the fights with supervillains often seem like distractions from the real drama that takes place out of costume, and that you often want to see supporting characters or ‘employers” like J. Jonah Jameson, Senator Byrd or General Ross pummeled more than the actual villains. Since Yon-Rogg is both villain and supporting character/employer, he comes off as far more compelling.
 Roy Thomas writes the first four issues and the second appearance, and he does a fine job. His purple prose is perfect for the space opera/soap opera going on, and he gets in several great lines which really capture Mar-Vell’s loneliness and inner conflict. He does however, have a tendency to reuse familiar characters as antagonists too much (something he admits to in the introduction). First we have the Sentry, The Super Skrull and Namor (all Fantastic Four-related characters). Things pick up when legendary DC oddball, Arnold Drake, takes the reins. He comes up with some interesting foes like a Soviet monster called the Metazoid, a living solar flare called Solam, alien pirates and a robot created by the real Walter Lawson (who it appears was far from saintly, or sane). Drake does reuse familiar Marvel villain Quasimodo the living computer, but gives him the bizarre gimmick of seeing himself as the ‘liberator’ of machines. Seeing him talk about the oppression of his “brethren” (drills, heaters and power tools) is just the kind of looniness you’d expect from Drake’s Metal Men and Doom Patrol, and makes him a lot more interesting than the rather vaguely defined villain from the Fantastic Four annuals.
  The Metazoid story is the one that most impresses. The Metazoid is portrayed as a tragic figure, an ordinary man arrested by the KGB and put on trial for speaking out against the USSR, then mutated into a monster and sent to abduct Lawson to prove his loyalty; if he fails, he will never be made human again. The Metazoid’s plight provides a fascinating counterpoint to Mar-Vell’s conflict with Yon-Rogg and his turmoil over whether to prove his loyalty to the Kree or to do the right thing. The fact that neither Cap or the Metazoid ever realizes the similar situation they are both in is a nicely mature little touch. It doesn’t end happily, and succeeds in creating a genuine feeling of ambivalence in the reader. It’s so good, you can easily forgive the Metazoid’s vaguely defined powers and appearance (is he made of rock, fur or tar?).
 The artwork is excellent throughout. Who knew Gene Colan “comic's prince of darkness” (as Wizbang called him) could be so good at space opera? Much maligned inkers Paul Reinman and Vince Colletta also do a fine job. This Masterworks edition features photocopies of Colan’s pencils before they were inked, and although they do look more impressive prior to inking, that was pretty much the case with every Colan inker. Reinman’s scratchy style gives things a rough-hewn, gritty mood, and although I’ve heard that Colan hated Colletta so much he sometimes went back and re-inked his own work, all I can say is that either he found time to do it for every issue here, or Colletta’s reputation for erasing is exaggerated. This stuff is fantastic.
 Don Heck takes over with the fifth issue (also the same issue where Drake arrives) and seems much more comfortable on this strip than with The Avengers, which is where most of Heck’s poor reception comes from. Heck was a fine artist, just admittedly not a superhero artist, more suited to science fiction and romance (You could always tell he enjoyed drawing Tony Stark more than Iron Man), so he’s at home here. Like I said before, some of his character designs are kind of odd, but then again, what is a ‘Metazoid” supposed to look like anyway? This is some of his best work.

 I really, really enjoyed this volume. Some people really hate this series, calling it a cynical copyright grab, or “a foray into sustained tedium”, often by pointing out the radical changes the premise would undergo (Mar-Vell eventually ended up becoming a space wanderer, an approximation of the old Billy Batson/Shazam concept, then a cosmic philosopher) as proof that he was a “nothing” character without a unifying concept. It may indeed be true that those abrupt changes destroyed the series (I haven’t read many of them and can’t comment), but I have to say, there’s nothing wrong with the original premise presented in these stories at all. It’s one of the most compelling (and grim) ideas for a ‘space hero’ series I’ve seen, and as long as it lasts, I think I’ll enjoy reading more of these collections before getting to the Starlin stuff. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here at all. 4/5.

 

Monday, May 5, 2014

R.I.P. Dick Ayers

 Sad to report the passing of another legend, but Dick Ayers is no longer with us. The famed inker passed away earlier today at the age of 90. His thick, gritty inks on Kirby’s pencils helped to define the look of Marvel in the early Silver Age, so much so that when he took over the Sgt. Fury and Human Torch strips, you’d almost think Kirby had never left at first since Ayers’ inks had been such an integral part, but of course his own style shown through.
 Ayers was also more than just an inker, he was quite an accomplished artist in his own right. Besides making a name for himself on hundreds of war and western comic, he co-created the original Ghost Rider over at Magazine Enterprises in the 1940s and was so identified with the character that when Marvel launched their carbon copy version in 1967 (later renamed Night Rider and Phantom Rider to avoid confusion with Johnny Blaze) they got Ayers to draw it! Say what you will over how Marvel treated its artists, but that’s a nice gesture.
 Here’s “Hate Town” from Ghost Rider #9 (1952), a story drawn completely by Ayers on his own, where the ‘Scooby Doo” conclusion doesn’t detract at all from the atmosphere Ayers creates.
 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Green Lantern: Secret Origin review

 So here’s Secret Origin. I’ve been wanting to cover this one for a while, as far back as 2011 in fact, but the words just didn’t seem to come to me until now. It’s a story which got a lot of acclaim from some and was clearly the main influence on the film in regards to story structure, Hals’ initial arrival on Oa and his training, the bar fight, tying in Hector Hammond’s origin to Abin Sur and a few other things. Some printings have introductions by Ryan Reynolds, and a few even have photos of him on the cover. But while some loved it, others really hate it and see it simply as Geoff Johns’ attempt to make the GL property his own and to make certain big events look like part of some grand design.
 I have mixed feelings about Geoff Johns. On one hand, I like the way he manages to throw so many completely superfluous elements into his stories (Does a retelling of Hal Jordan’s origin really need Atrocitus, Black Hand, Hector Hammond, The Empire of Tears and Sinestro in it?) without them ever seeming intrusive or overly fanboy-ish (like some of Roy Thomas’s lesser work); just a writer showing off his love for the vast universe he’s playing with. He also writes dialogue you can imagine real people speaking rather than always trying to get in clever one-liners (and he’s no slouch in that department).
 On the other hand, he might just be the worst violator of the “show don’t tell” rule in comics. Granted, most stories he writes attempt to have an epic quality with lots of subplots and foreshadowing going on, so that is to be expected now and then. That said, the disconnect from what we’re being told by Hal’s narration and what we’ve seen for ourselves can be pretty jarring at times.
 For example, a key plot point in this version is that Hal needs to overcome his anger and resentfulness. However, except for a few scenes scattered about here and there such as a bar fight (which comes about from him attempting to save a woman from being raped), Hal comes off more like he has a longing to be free than anything else. I’m not saying that recklessness and anger are mutually exclusive, but it gets sort of funny when Sinestro, of all people, brings up Hal being rude and resentful, when at that point, all of the rudeness Hal has shown toward him has stemmed from Sinestro nearly killing him in mid-flight!
 What’s even funnier is how all of this gets chalked up to Hal losing his father in a test flight accident, even though we see Hal acting just as reckless and impulsive when his father was alive by skipping school and sneaking onto landing strips. (And I don’t even want to get into how glossed over the death (and life) of Hal’s father is, one minute we have a big tragic scene of papa’s plane going up in flames, next thing you know, it’s Hal’s teenage hi-jinks). Even though fandom tends to dislike the whole drunk driving bit from the Emerald Dawn books, the whole theme of an irresponsible Hal growing up was handled much better there.
 
No, I didn't cut out some crucial context. These pages really did appear in sequence like this. Dead dad one page, next page wacky hi-jinks!
 
  Another pretty funny bit involves Hal describing Sinestro as the first person to truly connect with and understand him, when at that point in the story, Sinestro has done nothing but berate, misinterpret and look down upon him, more so than anyone else! Not until the very end of the story does Sinestro seem to warm to him any, and we all know how long that’s going to last. Frankly, I much prefer the way Sinestro was portrayed in Emerald Dawn II, where he was no more likeable, but where his downfall carried a lot more weight to it and actually came off as sort of tragic. Here, even though he still remains a good guy by story’s end, you can’t wait to see him become evil just so he can be smacked around.
 There’s also a subplot about Hal going to confront Carl Ferris, his father’s former friend and who Hal apparently blames for his dad’s death, and the build-up to that scene implies that Hal hates him a lot, possibly enough to kill him, even with his daughter Carol in the house. It’s supposed to be an intense, character-driven scene with us worried about what Hal might do. However, except for one bit earlier where he snaps at Carol, this is first mention of Hal having anything against Ferris; completely ruining what Johns obviously intended to be a powerful and emotionally resonant climax.
 
  To be fair though, there’s a narrative twist at the end which does sort of justify some of the more disjointed aspects of the story, but since it’s one of the parts of the book I absolutely loved, I really don’t want to spoil it.
 
 One criticism I often see of John’s GL work is that he makes Hal too perfect and makes anyone who dislikes him look like a bad guy to prop him up. That’s not really the case here, thankfully. Most of the people who get pissed off at Hal in this story (like his older brother Jack) are shown to have legitimate reasons to be and aren’t really depicted in a negative or unfair light. Pretty much the only time Hal is shown in an overly ‘saintly’ mode is when he defends buddy Tom Kalmaku from being called the racist nickname “Pieface”, which of course, was what Hal (and everyone) used to call him all the time back in the Silver and Bronze Age. Doing away with offensive or dated elements is fine, but why be so smug about it?
 
  Writing aside, the real star of SO is Ivan Reis’s art. It does a good job combining realism with a 1980’s sci-fi paperbacks aesthetic. Some of the moodier scenes, like the subplots involving Atrocitus and Black Hand, or Hal first finding Abin Sur, have an almost Gene Colan vibe to them, and the depiction of Hal’s arrival on Oa just might be my all-time favorite. He’s just as good with earthbound scenes too, like Hal first applying for the Air Force, which looking at it, you’d never think came from a superhero comic, but one of those ‘biographical’ comics written to win awards.
 
The only real problem I have with Reis’s art is how he seems to fall back on clich├ęs for how some characters should look as if we wouldn’t recognize them or their function in the story otherwise. He gives Carol freckles as a child that she has no trace of as an adult, just so we know, hey, she’s a little girl. He gives Sinestro perhaps the most stereotypically old fashioned villain mustache imaginable, even though at this point he’s not supposed to be evil. Sinestro’s mustache and how it makes him look like a Snidely Whiplash/Simon Legree character is probably the most joked about aspect of the villain, but even in the Silver Age it was more subdued.
Which one looks more "Nyaaa! Foiled again!" to you?
 
 
 Also (and boy is this scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to complain about) why does Hammond drool in this? It’s become common since the 90s to depict the villain drooling, and I always assumed it was a side-effect of him being paralyzed and no longer being in control of his nerves and muscles. Some writers have had him paralyzed because of the meteor’s radiation, others because his huge head snapped his spine. Either way, it made sense as something that would happen to him as a long term side effect. Here, he starts slobbering almost the instant he gains his powers, still with a normal-sized head and full mobility.
To be fair, most people I know who claim to be mind-readers seem like the types to drool on themselves.
 
 Speaking of oozing bodily fluids (I just love beginning a sentence with words like that), man do some parts of the book get gory. When the movie came out with a full-on marketing blitz, I remember seeing a Scholastic edition of this at a Borders, and although I didn’t look through it, it looked roughly as thick as the regular editions. Did they censor any of this out of that edition? Even without the gore, the bits with Black Hand trying to make sexy time with corpses and Hammond being told his mustache makes him look like a pedo must have made for awkward reading time for parents who got this for their kids.
Each panel could pass for an Image cover
 
 Green Lantern: Secret Origin isn’t quite the definitive take it wants to be, it often feels rushed and probably won’t make many new Green Lantern fans, but as a superhero adventure with lots of action, monsters and sci-fi, it’s a great way to kill 50 minutes. 3/5.