Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Comics Review: February 1

Exiles: World Tour - 2099 (75-76)

I had a chance to read four 2099 series (X-Men, Ghost Rider, Doom and Spider-Man) a while ago and I really enjoyed them, partly because they were well-written (duh) but also because it's a world almost completely detached from Marvel tropes. It's the kind of alternate reality you don't really get these days, so remote that the Days of Futures Past are two or three generations removed, and the very idea of a superhero is something relegated to myth, to legend. It's also notable because, while the line was in its prime, it never relied upon the old iconography: oh, you'd see a picture of Charles Xavier from time to time, and there was that "Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2099" issue, but there was no direct descent from the "time of Marvels" to the world of 2099 (with the possible exception of Doom, whose identity is problematic to say the least).

The point is, 2099 succeeded (and failed) on its own merits. It was a fresh playing field which the writers worked very well (personally, I always thought Miguel O'Hara was a hell of a lot more interesting than Peter Parker). Unfortunately, Marvel going bankrupt brought the whole line crashing down after editor Joey Calavieri was fired, followed by Spider-Man writer Peter David and Doom writer Warren Ellis. After four years of excellent stories, 2099 was dismantled by Ben Raab, Tom Peyer and Terry Kavanaugh, ending with a mediocre whimper that certainly didn't befit its creative and financial success.

Now, almost ten years since the line's demise, Tony Bedard and Jim Calafiore bring it back as a segment in the Exiles' "World Tour". When I reviewed the previous "New Universe" segment, I noted that I was able to take two avenues of criticism with regards to the overarching storyline as a whole: as a reader unfamiliar with featured realities, and as a fan who enjoyed the original stories.

So, does 2099 work as a welcome bit of nostalgia? Yes and no. Let's get the criticisms out of the way first: this story was too compressed. It's easy to understand why "Future Imperfect" gets two issues - it's a minimalist setting, you've got the Maestro and that's about it. But 2099 is at least as complex as the New Universe, if not moreso, and it doesn't accomplish everything it COULD have accomplished due to space. Keeping in mind that the first issue of this two-parter was the 75th issue, I don't see why it couldn't have been double-sized. Part of the disappointment stems from the misleading covers: it's a bit of a let-down to see the entire cast of 2099 on display only to discover that the story itself only features two characters from that reality (with a third making a painfully brief cameo).

Still, taking all that into account, Bedard again demonstrates an aptitude for knowing which characters work best in the story he's telling. With Proteus' current host body (formerly Justice) wearing out, he arrives in 2099 searching for the most powerful superhuman alive - one with a healing factor so immense that it may stabilize him for a while. The Exiles follow suit, and hijack Spider-Man 2099 to guide them. Unfortunately, the third confrontation with Proteus doesn't go any better than the previous two, and by the end of the battle circumstances force Miguel to join the team and abandon his home reality.

As I mentioned before, it all happens a bit too quickly: there's no real exposure to 2099 the way the New Universe was exposited in the previous arc. In fact, I have a hard time believing any reader can really appreciate what's going on without the context, which isn't as readily available here as it was before (ie: Tyler Stone's final threat to Spider-Man is a lot more creepy if you know who he really is in connection with Miguel). Of course, it's pretty much a question of priorities; there's only so much you can do in 40-odd pages, and we actually get some surprising character development - with Proteus, of all people. At first I thought Bedard was taking liberties with the character, until I went back to the original Claremont story and discovered that yes, Proteus actually does keep the memories of his previous hosts. So he's not as flat a villain as he appears to be. I like this development because it ties Proteus and the Exiles together in a much deeper way, adding a more personal dimension to the conflict than if he was just "Mimic's killer".

When all's said and done, I do feel - as a fan of 2099 - that there might have been room for a little more exploration. But as a reader of "Exiles", I acknowledge that Bedard did what he was supposed to do, using the setting to enhance his story rather than let this be a gratuitous fan-pleaser. This third confrontation with Proteus ends the way it does precisely because of a quality that was always inherent in the world of 2099. And there's no question that it'll be very interesting to see Spider-Man 2099 as an Exile. That's enough, for now.


Daredevil: The Murdock Papers (76-81)

It seems oddly fitting that now, at the end of Brian Michael Bendis' run of "Daredevil", I'm reminded why there was a time not too long ago when I'd pick up Bendis books sight-unseen.

I don't think there's any question that Bendis is a writer currently in decline, the quality of his work sagging across the board. Look at where "Ultimate Spider-Man" is now, as opposed to three years ago. Look at "Powers". Look at the transition from "Alias" to "Pulse". But I think that, of all the series he's been writing during his downward spiral, "Daredevil" suffered the least.

In fact, "Daredevil" is a very atypical Bendis book, in that his entire run - fifty-one issues in total - comprises one mega-structure. It really is one story broken into two halves, those halves fragmented into five arcs each. Very meticulous, very exact, far more than anything you'll find in any other Bendis series. It's pretty amazing, considering that even Frank Miller's definitive run tended to go a bit wayward from time to time.

That's not to say that every story was equally successful, of course. While the first half (26-50) counts among the writer's strongest works for Marvel, the post-ellipsis half (55-81, taking place one year after the events of issue 50) fell flat on occasion. I'm thinking here of "The Golden Age", which was a very lovely artistic experiment that, on the level of the plot, amounted to the Kingpin before Fisk coming to New York, slapping Matt around, and dying of a heart attack. To coin a phrase, "Big overture, little show." In fact, this is the biggest problem with Bendis now; it used to be that his stories took four or five issues (out of six) to actually get started, but the payoff was always worth it. These days, it isn't anymore, which really blows the point, doesn't it?

But as a whole, it's been one of Bendis' best series - and thank God he's getting off it now before his slump really started to show. As mentioned in previous entries, he's being replaced by Ed Brubaker, who has the same kind of urban noir/crime sensibility with the added bonus of putting actual content in single issues.

So "The Murdock Papers" is a summing-up of everything that has happened for the past five years of Daredevil's life. It's a violent eruption of all the forces that have been surrounding Matt Murdock since his identity was exposed. And it's a return to a level of quality I never thought I'd see Bendis reach again. There's no backing down here, no contrivance to reset the status quo. The Kingpin's plan is brilliant, and I recall now that Bendis always wrote Wilson Fisk excellently, as a true criminal mastermind who's two steps ahead of everyone else.

Yes, the arc is decompressed, the dialogue has some frustrating tics and the fight scenes are static and disjointed. But this storyline is a success on so many levels that I can forgive it its flaws. It's the natural, logical conclusion of everything Bendis has set up, going as far back as the trial of the White Tiger. At the same time, you have Frank Miller's foursome all together again - Matt, the Kingpin, Elektra and Bullsye. It's going forward with a brief look over the shoulder to remind us where it all comes from.

The last issue, #81, is especially good, wrapping up the run on a high note while offering an enjoyable narrative trick: when Matt "escapes", Bendis works backwards through the women as he introduced them: first we have Natasha (who made an appearance in "The Widow" after Milla left), then Milla, and it ends as it began, with Elektra. The only thing missing is a visit to Karen Page's grave - but then, her absence says enough. It's poignant, it's tragic, and for once Bendis doesn't leave anything up in the air. It's very clear what's happening, and why Matt makes the choice he makes.

Hiccups aside, Bendis and artist Alex Maleev leave behind a far better book than the one they took over, with a new status quo that's certain to provide Brubaker with a wealth of potential story angles. It's been slow at times, exciting at others, but certainly a run to remember.


BPRD: The Black Flame

It's getting progressively harder to remember what's going on in these books. Partly because the schedule is absolutely ridiculous, with no consistency and no recap to bridge the months-long gaps between various miniseries; partly because Mike Mignola and his associates just haven't fleshed out these characters enough to be compelling after long absences; and partly because the story hasn't been moving in any particular direction. While Hellboy runs around the world digging up foreign mythologies, the BPRD are in a bit of a loop: they find frog men, kill frog men, find some disgusting Lovecraftian giant at the core of the current Evil Nazi Plan, they kill said giant and that's it. Wash, rinse and repeat.

It's not that it's being written badly, mind you. It's just boring. Not that "Hellboy" has been any better - "The Third Wish" and "The Island" were probably scripted on napkins. But at least there you have Mignola continuing the theme of exploring the world's folklore through Hellboy, be it Russian or Chinese or African. It's educational, if nothing else. "BPRD" isn't even offering some kind of variation on the theme.

The next miniseries, "The Universal Machine", starts in April. I very much doubt I'll be there.



Thanks to Neverglades for this one.

Jeff Smith's "Bone" is one of those series that slipped under my radar when I first returned to comics; everyone was talking about it but nobody could tell me why it was so good. I find that attempting to describe it, more often than not, results in a bunch of oxymorons: it's simplistic yet complex, it's innocent yet not necessarily for children, it's fantasy but it's also comedy. It's most often compared to "Lord of the Rings", which is accurate on the thematic level: you have three diminuative strangers from a small, rural land drawn into a war for the fate of the world, which they will ultimately determine despite their outsider status (or perhaps because of it). However, Jeff Smith's writing is much more energetic than Tolkien's, as the artwork allows him to cut down on unnecessary descriptions (which I always felt was Tolkien's great flaw as a writer - his inability to get to the point without going on for pages and pages about the trees and the hills and the rivers).

Anyway, when I finally got around to "Bone", it had me intrigued by the end of the first storyarc, and utterly enthralled by the second. Fifty-five issues in length, it's an absolutely marvelous read. But even though the story is epic in scope, there's still an area the reader never gets to access: specifically, the immediate backstory to the current crisis. We're told what happened years ago to set the stage (Grandma Ben delivers the tale to the Bones in summary), but we never see Queen Rose in her prime, or how the Lord of the Locusts tried to free himself in the past.

Here, then, is that story in its entirety, a prequel to the actions that take place in "Bone". It's a bit jarring when you read it immediately after the main series, because it's a jump back to before most of the main characters were even born. At the same time, seeing Briar's fall is chilling, and Charles Vess' artwork grants the whole thing an ethereal feel, as though we're reading a fairy tale - which, in a sense, we are. There's no real surprise here for "Bone" readers (remember, we already know the story), but there's a sense of wonder nonetheless because "Rose" depicts a world that no longer exists by the time the main story begins. We never see other dragons aside from the familiar Red, nor are the Venu and their practices as commonplace as they are when Briar and Rose were young.

It's a lovely tale, one that stands on its own well enough but also provides one last glimpse at the fantastic world Jeff Smith created.


Girls #9

Not much to say about this one, as we're still holding course: the "quarantine" of Pennystown is having an adverse effect on its animal inhabitants, while the confined townspeople are starting to go stir-crazy. I do think everyone is a bit too quick to condemn Ethan unfairly - from what we've seen of his characterization, he's not that bad a person - but then, maybe that's the point.

Once again we have a last-page cliffhanger that seems to turn the entire series on its head... more on that, I suppose, when it develops. It's moving slowly, but at just the proper pace for a mystery.