Saturday, December 3, 2005

Comics Review: December 3

Legion of Superheroes #12

First things first. We finally get two things this book desperately needed: a recap and a dramatis personae. Considering the book's primary storyline spans thirteen issues and the cast is made up of nineteen primary characters, it was probably overdue.

This is the penultimate issue of Waid's "galactic war" epic, which has been running since the very first issue. We're reaching the climactic point now, as the four subplots begin to converge. Projectra's team launches a suicide attack on Lemnos' army; Cosmic Boy manages to send out one last message to the Legion and their followers; Sun Boy and his team reach their destination only to find a difficult choice waiting for them; and Brainiac calls upon a secret weapon against Elysion.

There's a lot of action going on, a lot of movement, and in that sense it's as strong an entry in the series as the other issues. However, one very problematic element in this particular chapter is an increased reliance on contrivance. Brainiac's secret weapon, for example, is something that had been foreshadowed once or twice before, but we're asked to believe that he just didn't consider using it until just now. For someone who's been portrayed as the smartest being in the Legion, that's a bit hard to swallow. After having their powers switched, Sun Boy's team suddenly have full control of their abilities again, for no apparent reason. Projectra has magical abilities that no one mentioned before (in fact, there was a whole scene in a prior issue where she was almost held back from the squad because she was powerless). And Cosmic Boy manages to whip up a Cerebro helmet out of nowhere.

It's a bit much, really. Granted that Waid is operating on an atypically-wide scale, and it hasn't reached eye-rolling levels yet, but it still knocks a few points off.

Stuart Moore delivers a rather dull and pointless interlude that supposedly takes place during the first issue. If it's a subplot Waid forgot to insert that will have major ramifications on the last issue, it's sloppy storytelling. Otherwise, it's just extraneous.


Amazing Fantasy #15

I've been anticipating this issue ever since it was announced. Some background: in the early '60s, "Amazing Fantasy" was an anthology book facing cancellation. In the very last issue, #15, writer Stan Lee went for broke and threw in an 11-page story about a boy named Peter Parker who has an accident with a radioactive spider. I'm sure you know what happened next.

Forty years later, "Amazing Fantasy" is resurrected as an anthology title, albeit in a slightly different format (ie: introducing new characters in separate, self-contained multi-issue arcs). Sadly, it hasn't quite done as well this time around: the first six issues were dedicated to Arana, who then got an ongoing series more because she was Marvel's token Latina superhero and less because Fiona Avery had a single interesting thing to do with her. The silent cancellation of "Arana: Heart of the Spider" due to abysmal sales (and despite considerable hype) speaks for itself. The next six issues were considerably better, featuring Fred Van Lente's "Scorpion: Poison Tomorrow", but sales failed to improve and the character has more or less been consigned to pointless guest appearances. The last three issues featured "Vampire By Night" backups by Jeff Parker, which led into Giffen's "Howling Commandos" series - but since that turned out to be a total failure, there's not much to say about it. Then came the two-part "Vegas" I reviewed a while back, along with "Captain Universe" backups leading to last month's "Captain Universe Event".

All of which brings us to issue 15, the "anniversary" as it was. Clearly hoping for lightning to strike twice, Marvel has put together a double-sized anthology issue, featuring six short stories (and a seventh that's really just a gag) by six writers. These six are part of Marvel's "Ten Terrific", a rather silly promotional device for writers trying to outmuscle the Hollywood influx for a bit of spotlight. Still, Mark Paniccia (AMFAN editor) has brought together a rather quaint collection here - Greg Pak, Dan Slott, Robert Kirkman, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Sean McKeever and Daniel Way. No one too horrible (ie: Hudlin) or otherwise occupied (Whedon, Heinberg, Hine). And, of course, that precious commodity for which I'll generously lower my critiquing standards: new characters.

So let's take them one at a time...

"Mastermind Excello" is an interesting piece about a teenage supergenius who's being pursued both by the American government and by a mysterious, undefined enemy who wants him dead. Except they might be one and the same - an ambiguity Greg Pak leaves open to challenge the reader. After all, if Amadeus Cho really is the seventh smartest person in the world (and he demonstrates this rather nicely in the diner scene), we'd be inclined to trust his calculations... except he's angry, he's tired, and he's clearly emotionally involved. What if he's just paranoid? Points to Pak for a Marvel superhero cameo that's both surprising and, more importantly, thematically relevant to Cho himself.

Dan Slott's "Blackjack" is actually four two-pagers, as opposed to a single eight-pager. The vignettes are interspersed throughout the issue, and range from comedy to high action to slightly baffling philosophy (destroying aliens who offer utopia because "to advance, man needs to be discontent"?). They're all very energetic, very light (no big shock considering the length), and fun.

"The Great Video" is typical Daniel Way: violent, muddled and somewhat unfulfilling. A man is caught in an explosion at his video store and gains X-ray vision (that, for some reason, also sets people on fire). After ten days in a coma, he wakes up to find officers accusing him of arson. After immolating them, he escapes to his house only to discover his girlfriend has left him and taken everything but the video camera. He duly straps the camera to his head and kills someone who is either his ex's new boyfriend, or the rival video store that put him out of business (though there's no indication he was going out of business). As I said, there's a lack of clarity here that really prevents the climax from coming across well. Or at all, for that matter.

I wasn't approaching Robert Kirkman's "Monstro" with any expectations; I've noted before that he's always seemed very bland and uninteresting to me. So you can imagine my surprise when I actually liked "Monstro", a tale about a man called Frank, who uses his super-strength in a rather unconventional way: he's a firefighter. His partner points to the obvious expectation that he should be famous, or an Avenger - but in a refreshing twist, Frank replies that he doesn't particularly care for superheroics. In a genre where the first thing most superpowered people do is slap on a pair of tights, Monstro's more realistic perspective is actually a nice change. Again we have a bit of mystery at the end, and I'm beginning to think all these stories were deliberately written that way, to encourage the possibility of follow-up miniseries. Interesting exercise, if slightly futile considering the general fate of Marvel Next projects.

The first thing you'll notice about Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Heartbreak Kid" is that it's drawn very much in the '60s Marvel style - dots of color, slightly yellow paper, etc. This isn't just a gimmick, because the story is set at the earliest point of Spider-Man's history - possibly his first encounter with another superhuman. Uncle Ben is freshly dead, and Peter Parker is inconsolable. Enter the Heartbreak Kid, Danny Shephard, who has the power to absorb people's pain and grief. As with Pak's story, there's a bit of ambiguity here because Peter thinks the Kid is just a vampire feeding off other people's misery, and he might be right; but unfortunately, by focusing so heavily on Peter Parker, Aguirre-Sacasa doesn't manage to do much with the character he's supposed to be introducing. We don't even see Danny's powers in action because Peter chooses to preserve his pain, thinking that giving it up would take away his memory of that fateful "Great Power" platitude. So when, at the end of the story, the narrator helpfully informs us that "another name is added to the roster of those marvelous individuals who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all", it's not a statement that rings very true.

"Positron", by Sean McKeever, is certainly the most frustrating of the six main pieces, because it doesn't even try to present a complete story. This can't really be blamed on page allocation, because however abbreviated the other stories were, they managed to provide both a self-contained tale and enough loose threads to warrant more. Annie and Jackson are enjoying a romantic evening when they get ambushed by Annie's father. Sounds domestic, but it spirals into something else rather quickly. A traitor is revealed, who expresses remorse after it's far too late... and that's it. It ends with "To be continued...?" Normally this wouldn't be such a big deal, except there's very little that guarantees McKeever will ever be able to finish the story, and it's a pet peeve of mine when writers take such things on faith (since they usually turn out to be wrong).

The anthology ends with "I Was That Guy In Spider-Man's Armpit!", a very amusing two-page story going back to the cover of the first Amazing Fantasy #15: who is that man tucked under Spider-Man's arm? More importantly, since Spidey helpfully blurts out his real name on that cover, does Armpit Guy know who Peter Parker really is? Great joke by Dan Slott.

Amazing Fantasy #15 falters here and there, but on average it's still an exquisite read, offering glimpses at a variety of characters we'll probably never see again... but it would certainly be nice if we did.