Monday, October 5, 2009

Comics X 5

Essential Spider-man Volume 6 (1972-74) by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, John Romita, Gil Kane, Ross Andru and others: Not only does this volume supply a lot of the framework for Spider-man movies 1 and 3, but it also introduces the Punisher, Marvel's popular and bloodthirsty vigilante who so far has starred in three woeful movies of his own. Major moments in Spider-man history showcased here include the death of Gwen Stacy, the death of Norman Osborn (the first Green Goblin), and the assumption of the Green Goblin mantle by Norman's mentally disturbed son Harry.

The issues -- mostly written by Conway -- work heroically to expand Spidey's rogue's gallery while also managing to get decent stories out of fairly minor Lee/Ditko era villains (most notably the Vulture and the Molten Man). Contained herein are some of the first Spider-man comic books ever bought for me, which gives this volume a nostalgic tinge. For the record, "my" Spider#1 would be the second installment of the Molten Man two-parter.

Spider-man probably had one of the smoothest writer-and-artist transitions from its initial Lee/Ditko (or for other Marvel books, Lee/Kirby) days. John Romita took over prety dynamically after seminal Spidey artist Ditko left in the mid-1960's, while in this volume, Conway and Wein finally take the reins from Stan Lee without any noticeable drop in quality. On the art side, Gil Kane and Ross Andru start putting their imprints on the web-spinner. Andru, especially, is one of the more under-rated super-hero artists of the 60's, 70's and 80's, with terrific runs on Wonder Woman, Super-man and Spider-man during that time, along with the spiffy first Superman/Spider-man team-up.

Reading these issues now, I'm struck by how much plot and dialogue a normal Spider-man comic book of the far-flung past of 1973 had when compared to most super-hero comic books now, allowing for things like character-building to occur in between the fight sequences.

Showcase Presents the Flash Volume 2 (c. 1960-63) by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino: Fittingly, super-speedster Flash had pretty much the zippiest adventures of DC's Silver Age heroes. His rogue's gallery was the weirdest this side of Spider-man and included such characters as the Top, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Captain Cold, the Reverse-Flash, the Pied Piper, 64th-century magician Abra Kadabra and the Weather Wizard. When he wasn't dealing with those criminals separately or in various combinations, the Flash tended to fend off alien invasions.

The whole volume goes down smoothly, and Broome's often loopy extrapolations of the Flash's power (the Flash can control every molecule in his body, to cite one example) keep things fresh and lively. Team-ups with Kid Flash, Green Lantern and the risibly named stretchy superhero Elongated Man also appear.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans Volume 1 (1964-68) by Bob Haney, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Lee Elias, Bill Draut and others: Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Kid Flash -- the youthful sidekicks or proteges of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash, respectively -- team up here for adventures that are generally easy on the eyes (Nick Cardy, a really deft and appealing penciller and sometime inker, handles a lot of the art duties here) but sometimes really hard on the old reading part of the brain. Writer Bob Haney, who's generally quite readable on his Batman material of about the same era, seems to have been under orders to make the Titans hip and groovy and, once the Batman TV show hit the airwaves, campy.

The result is possibly the worst writing on any DC book of the 1960's. The only analogy I can think of is Homer Simpson's attempt to be hip with Poochy on the Itchy and Scratchy Show. OK, so who doesn't want to see the Titans disguise themselves as hippies, battle the Mad Mod or take part in various adventures that seem to be thinly disguised ads for Honda motor scooters? The art is terrific, though, and a glimpse of things to come appears in the last story of the volume with Titans uber-scribe Marv Wolfman sharing writing duties with Len Wein on what was, for the Titans of the time, a thoughtful and serious piece about politics and bigotry.

Angel: Blood and Trenches by John Byrne (2009): Byrne's story of Buffy's Angel fighting vampires during World War One is a fun piece done in glorious black, red and white. The art recalls Byrne's similar B&W art on his vastly under-rated OMAC miniseries of the early 1990's, a miniseries I'd suggest you go out and buy right now. Angel isn't quite as compelling, but it's still a fun read with an interesting twist at the end. A warning to the curious: don't read Byrne's afterword until after you've read the comic or you'll spoil the surprise. Certainly recommended for Buffy and Angel fans.

Hellboy Volume 7: The Troll Witch and Other Tales by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben (2003-2005): After the catastrophic Hellboy mythology building of Volume 6 comes a somewhat lighter collection of standalone stories (though most add something to our understanding of how Hellboy is either going to destroy the world or save it).

Having two of comics' greatest fantasy artists along to illustrate a couple of the stories -- Russell on a light-hearted romp about the vampire of Prague and Corben on an apocalyptic slice of African mythology -- keeps things fizzing along quite nicely. Russell can be one of the funniest -- or maybe drollest -- comic book artists around, and the vampire story plays to that side of his art. Corben's story gives us that distinctive mix of the monumental, the realistic and the matter-of-fact grotesque that's characterized Corben's work since the early 1970's. By this point, Hellboy has become a rarity in horror/dark fantasy stories -- an investigator character who's as interesting as the menaces and mysteries he investigates, a company that would also include Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer and not many others.

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