Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Seventh Circuit Court of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Appeals For All Anyone Cares #18

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (1966)
Dynamo #1
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2014)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Hey look, another classic Tower issue in my possession! However, I didn't read any of these stories prior to picking up the second volume of DC's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, so no rosy glow of nostalgia here. This issue had a lot to live up to after the exceptional prior edition, and at least at the start, it seemed like it would meet the standard set there.

The opening Woody Dynamo story had a swell hook, our downtrodden hero reflecting on his being wanted for treason. That would have been a good engine to run a longer story, or even to launch the Dynamo solo series that came out the same month. Too bad they kept things short and simple, a cute ten page yarn that wraps up easily. The story is interrupted by an ad for the "Commander Abdominal Supporter Belt," but that girdle isn't fooling anyone.

There's a lot of good to be said about the Lightning strip. The returning Warp Wizard has a power that believably checks a super-speedster, unlike making rain or champion boomerang throwing. Mike Sekowsky depicts the villainy well, with a particularly suffocating countdown to doom. Steve Skeates' dialogue pops, but if I had to finger a problem, it would be with the writing. This is the second time Skeates has used the same villain in two consecutive installments of the strip, and for every inventive turn taken, there's something dumb that has to happen because the script said so. All in all though, Lightning is one of the book's most consistent entertainers.

"Subterranean Showdown" was weird. The art was credited to George Tuska, but he's barely recognizable. There's a bunch of continuity references in the story, but characterization is way off. Dynamo is an over-eager sexist nitwit, Kitten Kane is a useless coward, and NoMan is cavalier with the life of a fellow agent. The return of Dynavac has potential that is squandered, and a whole new one-time power is invented for an agent to wrap things up. A Dynamo pin-up is repurposed into an ad for his spin-off book, and then Iron Maiden gets her own lovely dossier page by Wood and Dan Adkins. Next up are full page ads for Fight The Enemy and Undersea Agent, then a letters column. An editorial reply noted "Lightning has become tremendously popular."

I guess I spoke too soon about John Giunta taking over Menthor, as he was moved to NoMan after only two months, though it's understandable once you get to the last story of the issue. Before that though, Bill Pearson offers a histrionic Invisible Agent under circumstances that are understandable but uncomfortable with regard to characterization. NoMan basically flips out over the human opportunities he's lost in becoming a supposedly tireless agent. The good is that this is an unusual story for its time which sets NoMan apart from other companies cookie cutter crimefighters, but on the other hand, it kind of invents NoDickery. Giunta appears more comfortable with this character than Menthor, though perhaps the inks of Sal Trapani helped.

Finally, the big one, likely the most highly regarded and oft-noted T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents story ever: Menthor in "A Matter of Life and Death!" by Dan Adkins with additional layouts/inks by Wally Wood that render the Steve Ditko pencils barely recognizable as such. It's funny that nobody ever mentions the Ditko part, but you can see it in the body language and the more exaggerated Subterraneans. The story does a good job of pointing out the mishandling of the property to date, including the need for added security measures after John Janus had the Menthor helmet stolen, what, three times in seven issues (with one retrieval spanning two issues?) Where he was once a double agent for the Warlord, that promising angle was forgotten after the second issue, so a new confrontation plays out as straightforward as it would with any other Agent. There's no internal conflict in Janus anymore, and while his physical prowess is again highlighted, it's not enough to get the job done. Dynamo is often compromised, but where he always ultimately works out a "no harm, no foul" remedy, Menthor was only ever a guy in an Atom costume with a less novel gimmick than shrinking. With this story, he serves a higher purpose, and though it's slightly clunky, that only helps to offset the infamous turn it takes toward the end. The somber tone isn't what I read the book for, but this story was a trailblazer that kept its promises.

As I'm sitting here comparing my Archive Edition to my lower grade original copy with light brown pages, I've got to say how much I appreciate DC's superior reproduction. Solid blacks replace grays, muddy flat colors are made both more vibrant and more subtle... unlike many other garish modern reprints I could point to, the Archives work entirely in service to improving the presentation quality of these stories over their initial run. Kudos! By the way, you're only missing out on ads for 200 toy soldier "comic flats," learning to play guitar, and hypnosis.

Dynamo #1 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Say, yet another issue I own the original of but have never read before, and like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 this one also has an ad for a "Magic-Scope" on the inside cover and an engaging Dynamo splash page by Wally Wood! Running across the lunar surface while being strafed by a flying saucer? Sold! Shame my opinion on the "traitor" story bares out here. A good chunk of the first portion of this yarn was dominated by NoMan, and considering this is the first story in a new ongoing series, none of the characters are properly introduced to a potential new audience. On the other hand, it was fun to see a tale like this from before man had actually walked on the moon, where the technology and concerns about failure of same are contemporary and realistic. At the same time, matters felt drawn out, there's too many arbitrary developments, and the menace remains shrouded in mystery. If it wasn't for the glorious art, this would have been a sorry way to launch a new book.

"A Day in the Life of Dynamo" seemed off to me. I'm used to Mike Sekowsky on Lightning, and he doesn't feel right on Dynamo, plus his work is buried under Frank Giacoia's inks. The story aims for humor but misses, coming off jingoistic and diminishing a host of prior villains in rapid succession. "Back to the Stone Age" was much better, with a more comfortable, funny script and great art by Reed Crandall and Wood. The team-up of Demo and Dr. Sparta didn't amount to much, as it was Sparta's gimmicks, cast, and characterization that carry most of the tale, but so long as it was a good one, right?

Dynamo had a few different ads from the mother book, including one for its seventh issue and Undersea Agent #4. I have one or two issues of the latter, but I wish someone would reprint them. I'd have rathered DC put them in their Archive Editions instead of the cheaply available upscale format Deluxe series, but maybe IDW will include them in their otherwise redundant current series of trade collections. Also, there's ads for a seven foot replica "Polaris Nuclear Sub" that fired torpedoes, and a life-sized, personally autographed pin-up of David McCallum for $1.

Thanks to Steve Ditko doing full pencils, the layouts on "Dynamo meets the Amazing Andor" are clearly his, despite heavy handed inks from Adkins & Wood. This is a highly unusual story for the line, as it begins twenty years previous, prior to the formation of T.H.U.N.D.E.R., and offers an honest to gosh superhuman. Also, we learn here that there's a whole council of Warlords with a "Mighty Overlord," and individually named Subterraneans. Also, as I guy who's read more revivals than original issues, I'm familiar with prominent mentions of Andor, but had never read an actual story with him. He seems to be like the original Amazing Man taken to the nth degree, which makes him a serious badass who's still vital as an adversary at story's end. He also seems like an attempt to revisit the original Menthor premise and hopefully better see it through this time. My guess is that subsequent publishers held Andor in reserve for later storylines that never materialized in the face of swift, unexpected cancellation. I'll be surprised and disappointed if he doesn't turn up again in the Tower run. My only complaint is that Kitten Kane has forsaken all of her feminist credibility since the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad lost their feature, with Alice Robbins being a more capable, reputable damsel in distress.

Finally, a Weed solo strip, returning to the lighthearted mundanity that's been missing from the Tower comics! After being beaten over the head with the Guy/Kitten relationship dramatics of the '80s series, it's jarring but nice to see Gilbert go out on a date with some random Olga chick. Hey buddy, you may be dying one speeding mission at a time, but you're not dead yet! If that doesn't work out though, room can be made for Weed! John Giunta can't draw sports cars, but he's a fair fit for "Mr. William Wylie" (in case there was any doubt that he was Wallace Wood's analogue.) Nice to see the Agents in a fun story, and even Menthor is redeemed somewhat by a villain who would have been a natural in his strip showing up all of his fellows at once.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7
(DC, 2011, $2.99)
I don't understand the thought process of modern writers. This book presumably licenses the rights to the lyrics of the Dion song "The Wanderer," which "plays" in full on a radio across several pages of a flashback that gives way to more pages of a domestic scenario. Then there's a sequence of violence, and the whole thing is bookended by a page each of basic context. None of it involves much dialogue. Even if this were the storyboard for a movie, that's maybe two minutes worth of finished film. Gave Mike Grell some work, at least.

I assumed the five page back-up strip was drawn by Paul Smith until the credits revealed it was actually Nick Dragotta, which should be taken as a compliment. The strip revisits a dynamic that dated back to the '60s comics and informed the lead story. It's so much more enjoyable and full than the Grell story that by rights they should have switched page lengths.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
I seriously thought that with IDW behind it, this volume of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents might reach and exceed the longevity of the Tower original. Instead, I finally realized they had quietly canceled the book with the eighth issue only after it had gone months without new solicitations. It's not like they had the smartest business plan anyway, reprinting the old comics that DC had already reprinted in readily available Archive Editions, only marginally cheaper and with questionable extras (vintage ads? Whoopee.) DC caught the edgy Nick Spencer just as he was getting noticed, while Phil Hester is a veteran without any heat doing a fairly traditional super-hero book. Coupled with the licensing fees for Radiant Assets, LLC, whoever the hell they are, it's no wonder the ongoing turned mini-series double quick.

Last issue ended on a cliffhanger that cut to the core of the team's lore, and I wonder how far in advance Hester knew he needed something big enough to draw the volume down. After reading the Dr. Sparta story in Dynamo, I wonder if the kid here was originally supposed to be Wilbur and his elder Sparta. While the script was well done, in retrospect it's odd that Hester referenced an Undersea Agent and introduced an all new Lightning (did he ever get named?) plus revisited John Janus and Dr. Sparta in these last issues only to return the story to the ancient towers that dominated the first four issue arc. This issue was exceptionally busy with turnabouts and cross-cutting. I continue to enjoy Roger Robinson's art, especially his use of tones little seen since computer coloring took over shading. I have some issues with changes Hester made, but seeing the potential of the book and some smart decisions that were made, I'm sorry to see it go so soon.

I'll have to stop complaining about the Subscription variant covers, because at least they offer a choice. If I recall correctly, the gorgeous Jerry Ordway variant I got was used in the solicitations, whereas I don't believe the standard Roger Robinson was, and that's a whole lot more businessman crotch than I'm game for.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Zero Vol. 1: “An Emergency” (2014)

Back in 1993, when Brian Michael Bendis was a nobody who styled his name with an "Æ" because he was insufferable, he produced a two issue mini-series through Caliber called Fire. It was an Americanized version of La Femme Nikita, like Point of No Return, but if the boyfriend were the spy. It was all about secret training facilities that churned out amoral cutthroat agents who were kept in the dark and fed shit by their ruthless superiors who would pit them against one another or leave them to rot somewhere as it suited their agenda. Twenty years later, Zero is just like that, except with more Bond-influenced Steranko sci-spy elements, like a less sexy version of Fraction, Ba & Moon's Casanova from a few years ago. I bring all this up because the cover of the Zero trade paperback has all these hyperbolic blurbs about how it is "changing comics" and "takes the spy genre to a new level" and yeah, shut up, no it doesn't. Let's just enjoy this for what it is.

What I like about Zero is that after I've done so much bitching about the lost art of single issue storytelling, this collection of the first five issues of the ongoing series tells five complete if interdependent tales. They span from the beginning of this century through 2038 and numerous locales around the globe. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, usually one with very few credits in the field, creating an appropriate disorientation and unfamiliarity as our protagonist is dropped into one extremely dangerous situation after another. It's a showcase not only for a variety of imagery, but also for Ales Kot's ability to write to each. That diversity also means individual readers are going to enjoy some stories more than others, and there is a consistent, oppressive tone of brutal conflict and general doom that is perhaps less appealing. At the end of the book, Zero is still basically a cypher intended to function within each story's demands, so there isn't exactly anyone to root for or become invested in. Still, it's a worthwhile experiment within the industry, and enjoyable single serving fictions that I might continue with, so long as the next volume doesn't fall on a month with too many other treats to try.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Revolutionary War (2014)

In 1988, my half-brother visited his grandparents in Ireland, they made a trip to London, and he brought me back a souvenir copy of Dragon's Claws #2. It seemed like a rare and exotic artifact, but as it turned out, the Marvel UK series was being distributed concurrently in the U.S. direct market. We both had access to comic shops in 1989, and between us collected the entire ten issue series. I doubt it would read exceptionally well today, but at the time its gritty, violent dystopian future of death sport and government malfeasance was exciting to a teenager gravitating toward more aggressive fantasies. Death's Head had a few single page comic strips and a guest appearance in the book, and I liked him, so I picked up The Life and Times of Death's Head trade paperback when it turned up at a B. Dalton Booksellers a year or so later. It was an interesting read, given that the character had debuted in Transformers and Doctor Who comics that weren't licensed for republication, but there were a lot of nudge-nudge/wink-wink asides packed in to reference them. My brother also bought a few issues of Knights of Pendragon, but I don't think it clicked with either of us.

A revamp mini-series, Death's Head II, was solicited in 1991 but delayed until 1992. Very influenced by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the story was action-packed time travel liquid metal nonsense drawn in a more commercial take on the Biz style, perfect for the times. I was hooked, and when Marvel UK rolled out a new wave of titles to exploit the speculator boom, I sampled the majority of them. Hell's Angel had art by Dragon's Claws Geoff Senior which I enjoyed very much, but none of the bleak humor of the prior series and tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. The Death's Head II ongoing series initially retained the flashy art of Liam Sharpe, but lost all its momentum from the mini-series due to tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. Warheads was closer to the vibe of Dragon's Claws with its dimension hopping mercenaries and sci-fi/action/horror vibe, though the main draw was the junkie fever dream art of Gary Erskine. He's still likely the only artist to ever sneak a silhouetted scrotum into a Marvel comic, but he left the book very early on. Then there were the tedious X-Men/Marvel US tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. You might notice a pattern emerging, and I did too. Despite some very pleasing early art by Gary Frank, I only gave Motormouth and the obligatory Marvel US guest stars a one issue trial, and skipped Digitek and the Knights of Pendragon revamp entirely. It didn't help that they were pumping out ever increasing amounts of obvious low rent garbage to fill the stands with polybagged #1s, including about half a dozen variations on Death's Head II. My last dance with the line was MyS-TECH Wars #1, which despite the talents of Dan Abnett and Bryan Hitch couldn't overcome the toxicity of the line or the unnecessary inclusions of Marvel US characters.

Elements of the Marvel UK books have popped up again in recent years, mostly under nostalgic British creators. Andy Lanning, recently "divorced" from his decades long writing partnership with Abnett, pitched a revival mini-event to editor Stephen Wacker for 2013. Joined by new co-writer Alan Cowsill, Lanning scripted four of seven one-shots that made up "Revolutionary War," a play on Dez Skinn's "Marvel Revolution" of the UK branch in the 1970s. I'm not sure how they would work for the uninitiated, but as a reader who has brushed up against these concepts off and on for a quarter century with a reserve of nostalgia built up, I was entertained by the lot.

Revolutionary War: Alpha started things off with the return of Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom of the late MI13 series, as they learn of a retcon used to write the old UK heroes off the stage, and the need to reactive several of them. There's a nod to the classic '80s run of Captain Britain, but this is mostly set-up with pedestrian art by Rich Elson. Dark Angel comes up next, under a title change necessitated by a legal settlement with the Hell's Angels biker club back in the '90s. Kieron Grant reestablished the anti-heroine here for a string of appearances in Iron Man, including circumstances surrounding the her that use a demonic contract to reflect the financial crisis of 2008. It's occasionally too cheeky for its own good, but mostly works well, especially with the appealing art of Dietrich Smith.

Rob Williams takes the piss out of Knights of Pendragon, a very British thing to do, but it did nothing to endear me any further to that property. The art by Will Sliney was fine enough, but wasn't conductive to the humor of the script, such as it was. Fell flat all around. Death's Head II was the closest to its origins in tone, given that it had a co-creator on board, a recognizable supporting cast, and prominently featured the first Death's Head in character. The only fault here is the art of Nick Roche, rubbery in the manner of later '90s output. I completely passed on the first run of Super Soldiers, and once again Rob Williams gives me no cause to regret that. The art by Brent Anderson is so bad that I wonder if its the same guy I know by that name, or if he maybe developed some sort of issue with his drawing hand. Tom Palmer's inks may also be to blame, as he's well past the point of being viable on a full length comic. However, there's a poignancy here as a sense of permanent doom starts to seep into the proceedings.

Glenn Dakin wrote an issue of Motormouth back in the day, and emphasizes the lighter tone of that run in contrast to the depressing domestic squalor of current circumstances with the aid of a semi-chibi opening sequence. Ronan Cliquet's art is a bit loose at times in the story proper, oddly showing influences as diverse as Peter Snejbjerg and Mike Deodato, but it serves the material well. Warheads is heavy on exposition, revisiting the dooming scenario of the book's team while spelling out most of the plot meant to unite these one-shots. Erskine returns to give the period details punk authenticity, but he's also smoothed out and lightened up over the years, so the art doesn't reach the old highs. It's a solid yarn with consequences that wouldn't typically be a legitimate issue for mainstream characters, precisely because there isn't another creative team coming in next month to effect a reversal. It's the high point of the book, meaning Revolutionary War: Omega whimpers out by comparison. The same creative team is on the bookends, though Rich Elson's art is much improved by drawing the legions of Hell over spooks in suits. There's an oh-so-appropriate single page shoehorning in Marvel US heroes, but with the stakes established by Warheads, the resolution seems too pat and underwhelming. Regardless, as a whole I had fun on this ride.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

God is Dead: Volume One (2014)

God is not dead. It's actually a second coming, not of Jesus, but of oodles of ancient deities of world myth clashing like Mortal Kombat with global consequences.

I read God is Dead yesterday, and had planned on mounting a lengthy takedown of the book based on Jonathan Hickman's elevated reputation and the high profile of the book by Avatar standards. I was going to compare conflicting views of last Sunday's "The Watchers on the Wall" episode of Game of Thrones and use them to consider objective versus subjective critical evaluation. It was going to be involved. Then I read some reviews online, spanning from tepid to condemnatory, and figured there's no sense in killing myself trying to shine amidst a choir.

God is Dead is a poor piece of craft. Hickman is given a full credit for the writing of the six issues collected in this arc, and even though I haven't liked much of his work that I've tried, he's previously been competent. Mike Costa shares writing credit, and assumes it solely from the seventh issue forward. Given that his primary writing experience has been on adaptations of Hasbro toy licenses, I'm inclined to think Hickman gave Costa a basic outline with the expectation that it would be fleshed out, and Costa did no such thing. Where the premise brings to mind Gaiman's "Season of Mists," the execution is less nuanced than the remake of a Devlin/Emmerich film directed by Uwe Boll. It reads like a maladjusted teenager smashing a younger sibling's action figures together while cursing.

The title reeks of cultural imperialism. The most powerful god is a very Caucasian Zeus. The only non-white characters are the gods of the Hindus (gray/blue-skinned,) Ancient Egypt and Latin America (anthropomorphic.) The primary aggressors are Nordic, most recently acknowledged in real life by Nazis and White Supremacists. There could have been subtext drawn there, but rest assured, the material is too shallow for anything but a surface reading. The collective of super-scientists trying to figure out how to stop the gods are uniformly honky, including an extremely distracting Albert Einstein and a merely distasteful Stephen Hawking analog. The only prominent female is a gun-toting new wave/goth sex kitten perhaps modeled after early '80s Jamie Lee Curtis who never changes out of her impractical bosomy costume and exists based on how she relates to the male characters. Almost impossibly, those characters are even more threadbare and disposable, giving ammunition to Men's Rights Advocates looking for offense. Everybody who reads this suffers.

The art by Di Amorim reinforces the feeling that this was an ultraviolent mid-90s Thor annual that fell out of a parallel universe. It functionally represents the plot with a smidge of faux-Image flash while being stiff, flat, and altogether failing to convey any legitimate trace of humanity. There are no actual characters in the book, merely dramatic events and gory fatalities divorced from emotional context. It's a Chromium Age crossover from a small publisher you're unfamiliar with whose characters are all washed out recreations of better known properties, full of blood and thunder divorced of relevance to the reader.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Prison Pit, Book One (2009)

I've had limited exposure to Johnny Ryan, mostly through Angry Youth Comix, which wasn't my bag. However, Tucker Stone has talked up his graphic novel series Prison Pit, so I opted to give it a try. Johnny Ryan still isn't my bag. A badass alien criminal who dresses like a luchador gets sentenced to a truncated life on an extremely hostile penitentiary planet. I don't recall if he's ever given a name, and it's unimportant. This guy commits and has committed upon him acts of heinous violence that usually bring in some element of wild alien biology as a complication in the action. Animated tentacle intestines, exo-suits made from mounds of ejaculated sperm... that sort of thing. There isn't much plot or dialogue, so you can burn through the initial 120 page volume inside a few minutes. If you're into unpretentious, boyish avenues to ultraviolence or are curious how Jack Kirby might have handled a symbiote that fellates its master while he's covered in the blood and gore of their opponents, this might be for you. To the rest of us, it's juvenile, amateurish, uninvolved, unevolved and all around ridiculous.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Six Degrees of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. For All Anyone Cares #186

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (1966)
JCP Features The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (2014)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that this issue was probably the first of the original Silver Age series I ever owned, purchased at SDCC in 2000 during my only wonderful trip there. There's a lot of positive association for me, but at the same time, I feel I can objectively say that it's a great issue. I don't know that I ever made the connection between the Red Dragon's appearance as I read it (a reprint story in #20 from issue #3) versus "Dynamo and the Sinister Agents of the Red Star," but this titular disciple put the original villain to shame. Red Star has a better costume, contrasting against Dynamo's blues, and his martial arts finesse allows him to work over the powerhouse using his own misguided muscles. For me, this is a quintessential Dynamo yarn, with troubled romance, job problems, very cheeky humor, charming Cold War super-spy tropes, and heroic difficulties that embarrass and stymie without making Len Brown look like a meathead. The women are strong, sexy and respectable, the villains cunning, and the art by Wally Wood and Dan Adkins stunning. I also have to point out the silent semi-splash where Dynamo is fired like a torpedo toward the enemy submarine. It's only two-thirds of the page, but by using the surrounding panels for set-up and the simple restraint of not using the same trick anywhere else in the story, it has vastly more impact than one of Ivan Reis' lovely but limp mini-portfolios DC has the nerve to call comic book these days.

Since I have the actual Tower comic for once, I'll point out the presence of a house ad here for Dynamo #1, which you could get free with a ten issue subscription commitment to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for just $2.50. It was strategically placed after the Dynamo story, opposite an ad for Balentine Books' Edgar Rice Burroughs collection. Later in the issue, they plug Dynamo #1 again as a twenty-five cent single issue direct mail offer to "Avoid the disappointment of your newsstand being 'sold out,'" along with Find the Enemy... Fix the Enemy... Fight the Enemy #1.

Given what a blatant rip-off of the Flash he is, and how I've never liked speedster characters, I have to admit that the Lightning strip was one of the most consistent in quality of the early going. Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia clearly had a solid Flash run in them, and they were all moonlighting from DC Comics anyway, but absent that opportunity they deliver the goods here. Guy Gilbert is frankly not as bright as Barry Allen by half, but his military background offers a different path toward problem solving that entertains. Sekowsky brings his wily, rocky vibe to the premise, making up for the lack of Flash Facts with shaggy dog charm and a greater propensity for violent overtures. "The Origin of the Warp Wizard" could have easily been a dog, especially with the villain looking like Doc Brown on crack in a bland all purple get-up, but he sells himself with his wry grin and mad twinkle of the eye. It's still odd though how for a dude being slowly killed by his powers, Guy never once takes the Lightning costume off and seems completely disconnected from the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad. I miss them.

"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. vs. Demo" once again answers questions I'm not sure anyone was asking, but Woody seemed bound to ride herd over the shoddy continuity between the strips in the team feature through the power of the retcon. Demo's appearance in the previous issue didn't seem like it was going to amount to much more than a Gil Kane showcase, but here it becomes the spine of a key event. Having gotten a taste for NoMan's invisibility, Demo sets out to steal all of Professor Jennings' creations from the individual super-agents, which sets off a string of events that returns his girl Friday Satana in a new role and would lead somewhat to a major character death in the next issue. Where I complained about the inks of Wally Wood & Dan Adkins overwhelming others, John Giunta's dated, cluttered style benefited much from their strong influence. Demo starts a line trope here, but there's cute wrinkles in this story that later derivative works could have used.

Speaking of John Giunta, Menthor became "his" character after Sekowsky moved permanently to the Lightning strip, and it did nothing to correct the character's disastrous drift off course. Menthor was the anti-Dynamo, Len Brown being a Peter Parker-like relatable schlub who was capable of overwhelming good, but only ever reaped the whirlwind of unlucky turns and harsh criticism for his efforts. John Janus was supposedly a virtual Adonis who pleased his superiors endlessly, but his stories always seemed to pivot on his being an arrogant douchebag who loses his telepathic helmet to one dubious dope after another. In "The Carnival of Death," the mentalist Zizaqz might as well have been the Entrancer in disguise, and he wasn't even targeting Menthor for a plot-- the idiot just created a situation Zizaqz could exploit. As usual, Janus spends most of the tale trying to shake a mental whammy, recapture his belongings, and bring the bad guys in. When that sort of thing happens to Dynamo, he struggles against long odds. With Menthor, he again keeps a portion of his powers even without the helmet, and still fails at most of his mission goals. The cluttered, coarse art as inked by Carl Hubbell looks a bit like Frank Robbins, but without the idiosyncrasies that make him interesting. There are actually a few amusing turns in this script, but the character and art mute any pleasure they might have brought.

Thanks to my reading multiple chronologies of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at the same time, I almost missed Steve Ditko's debut work on the series with NoMan in "To Fight Alone." It occurs to me that he would have probably been able to salvage Menthor, who in practice was the most Randian hero of the group, but in principle was supposed to be an evil agent driven to good by technological compulsion. Can't imagine that sitting well with Ditko. Anyhow, despite a script credited to Steve Skeates, it seems unlikely that Ditko didn't have something to do with an anarchist cult leader hypnotizing upright citizens into giving up their hard earned material possessions. Even if that was already in the script, Ditko's presentation makes it all his own. Ditko seems uncomfortable with NoMan's hooded cape, and I'm not sure the glowing eyes he gains here quite work, but the mood and storytelling on display suit the Invisible Agent. There are some fantastically dramatic angles and novel techniques employed that wow, and I appreciate Tower's willingness to let the art tell the story in many silent action sequences. A strong closer for the issue!

JCP Features #1 (John C. Productions Inc., 1981, $2.00)
In rereading the Deluxe and the Archie/Red Circle comics, I realized I'd judged John C. Carbonaro's genuine contributions too harshly against the razzle-dazzle of Singer's. On revisiting this magazine, I wonder how much it contributed to that critique, since it is friggin' terrrr-ib-ble. Total amateur hour torture session. I published reviews of the fifth issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at the end of March, and had read ahead to review some seventh issues by mid-April. This round of reviews were written then, except for this magazine's, and trying to sporadically read it held up posting for two months! I haven't read every T.H.U.N.D.E.R. comic yet, but this is the worst that I have read, and I feel confident that when I'm done it will continue to hold its all time standing at the very bottom.

Why is it so bad? For starters, it's just cheap and shabby. There's a nice painted cover, but it's marred by the crumby hand lettering in the the large ugly yellow boxes pasted all over the piece. The inside cover editorial is typeset, and I mean it looks like someone xeroxed the template, fed the paper into a typewriter, and wrote out the editorial and indicia in one rip. There's poor hand lettering through the black & white story, with ill-advised freehand recreations of old Tower logos. The first "story" spotlights Raven, and is written by Warren editor Chris Adames. It is pure, dry exposition recapping the Tower run in a few pages, mixing hand and typed lettering. Lou Manna would go on to do decent work on the Archie issues, but here he offers a collection of ugly swipes from the old comics. He's inked by Mark Texeira at the coarse dawn of his career, though his embellishment is a highlight compared to co-finisher Pat Gabriele, a never-was with a handful of low rent credits. This is followed by a second "story," which is actually a continuation of the first, and sees a shifting of job duties to Tex pencils, Gabriele inks/edits, and a script by occasional Warren writer Kevin Duane. Ostensibly about Dynamo, it's really just a five page bridging sequence to set up the action for NoMan (mostly by the same team in the same roles.) Where the Tower stories would have been separate single stories, these are unsatisfying, disjointed chapters in one long, damp narrative.

The fourth "story" jumps the tracks so abruptly that you'd be forgiven for assuming this was a legitimate new tale. Not so fast, because creative auteur Pat Gabriele has simply dumped a Kirby pastiche space opera into the midst of the current yarn without set-up or regard for the Tower aesthetic. It looks like one of Jack's Bronze Age bombs, complete with Asgardians/New Gods, but at a fraction of the aptitude. Four pages in, Gabriele cedes the script to the unknown Richard Lynn and inks to Texeira for no apparent reason. The division of labor isn't terribly important, since the whole book is a hash of hoary corporate comics cliché, purple prose, and clunky hand-me-down art diluted by too many chefs. There's no vision and little style, plus it's humorless and charmless in direct opposition to what made the Agents stand out. It's so flavorless that I find myself tuning out as I try to read, like it was a textbook on a dull subject.

I lost track of where we were. Installment six? Lightning? Yeah, or course Guy Gilbert whines about his impending death due to his usage of super-speed. It isn't the scripter's fault that this same scene would play out in nearly every Agents comic until the character was finally dropped in the late '00s, but the only thing added to the lot was Lightning's being able to run from Earth to outer space thanks to "newly designed antigravity gloves." Even in comic books, the suspension of disbelief has its limits.

For thirty-some pages that feel like twice if not thrice that, the Agents exposit or numbly battle inconsistently drawn aliens (reptiles? subterraneans?) and robots while mouthing off crap to fill up space. Then the tiniest of big bads turns up on the last few pages, there's an explosion, and the story ends with... another dialogue balloon of exposition and a crap line from Dynamo to fill space. Oh, and a third of the final page is devoted to a horrible sketch by Kelly Freas of Pat Gabriele offering a brick of typeset words of acknowledgment. Following were a two page reprint excerpt of a Fly story by Simon & Kirby and a ten page Black Hood reprint by Morrow, Adams & Giordano. Just to remind you how professionals do things.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6
(DC, 2011, $2.99)
Worst issue of the series to date. Wally Wood didn't seem to have a problem with illustrating extended sequences of people in offices wearing business attire discussing stuff, but that always gave way to something exciting, usually involving cool looking things having knuckles smashed against their mouths. By comparison, Nick Spencer is a pleasure denier. All of the key action in this issue takes place off-panel, and much of the issue is devoted to characters explicitly not even discussing what happened. Seriously-- characters bring stuff up, and then other characters just say "tut-tut-- mum's the word," and then there's some nudging and winking. Like, six instances of that, and then an Arkham City sneak preview starts. Cafu & Bit illustrated the entire issue this month, so I didn't catch what I guess was an anti-climax to the main story, followed by an Iron Maiden five-pager that also ends so abruptly I was all "whaaat" when Batman and the Joker showed up-- rifling the pages looking for an actual conclusion to the issue in hand. Nothing happens in this issue but characters staring at their navels over stuff the audience only sort of get having happened, and then Iron Maiden rips off the Wonder Woman in Vietnam segment of The New Frontier.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
Phil Hester has fun reimagining and critiquing a Silver Age villain, which translates to the page. I'm still enjoying the art of Roger Robinson, which I can take more seriously than the book's previous toycentric look. I'm digging most of the redesigned Agents, though I'm still struggling with Robo-Dynamite. A new "old" Agent gets introduced that checks two boxes on the Equal Employment Opportunity questionnaire, and while a bit self-righteous, she's still an improvement over other recent attempts. Can't get behind Weed's altered look though, and in fact he reminds me more of Perez's Raven than a character Woody modeled after himself. Body type is another path for diversity, and all these agents are too uniformly buff. There's a modest undercurrent of political commentary, and subplots brewing, that make this volume seem like it's catching up in quality to the DC incarnation without the vaporous decompression that hurt that run.

Returning to the theme begun last review of Andrew Currie sucking on the Subscription variant cover, this no background having, altogether incomplete group shot added insult to injury by not even being colored. I ordered this sight unseen, which will not happen again. Friggin' IDW is on my list, man!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Walking Dead Volume 20: All Out War, Part One (2014)

I read this trade a month or two ago, but put off writing a review because of general life fatigue and because it just wasn't an important thing for me to do. With the announcement of the bi-weekly arc "All Out War," the series gave me a jumping-off point, so we're in lame duck mode here. The series has always been a bit of a western, but has taken on a few war feature tropes, though processed through a Road Warrior filter that renders it cheesy and half-assed. This volume starts with a gentle wading in chapter, establishing where our heroes and their relationships sit at the eve of war. Then comes the first big gambit against our villain, Negan, which is half clever/half obvious. It's nice to see the good guys take an early advantage and undercut the seeming infallibility of Negan, but we all know that won't last, because, y'know, Rick's the leader. The war continues on other fronts with the idea of building up Rick's rep, but this is done through highlighting the incompetence and cowardice of leaders who are not Rick, so that we know he's at least the best of what's around. The worm turns, bad things happen to nothing characters, and our heroes return to underdog status by the chapter break.

While we're waiting for the wrap-up, how about that fourth season? The mid-season breaks are always strong, but that show sure meanders on the back half, huh? Thankfully, the writers were wise enough to tear their focus away from Rick and Carl to show us how other survivors dealt with the fall of the prison. That led to "The Grove," one of the series' best episodes, which was both faithful to a comic book storyline and built upon it magnificently through the twisting relationship of Carol and Tyreese. Others fared worse, like I'm now hoping the sickening codependency of Glenn and Maggie ends with their grizzly deaths. The jarring cosplay of Abraham, Rosita and Eugene sure was distracting. The shipping of Daryl and Beth was sweet though, and I still like wholly original supporting players Tara, Sasha and Bob Stookey. Finally, good to see Jeff Kober getting work, and the more organized Terminus was a solid deviation from the comics, though the show has suffered from excess fidelity of late. The closer it gets to the comics post-prison, the deeper it enters the territory that has me ready to stop reading.

And we're back for "ALL OUT WAR!" Meh. I do like Stefano Gaudiano's inks in this environment, adding a crispness and clarity that suits the more action-adventure tone of this arc, though it occasionally becomes so sharp and flashy as to reveal its Image roots. If I'm thinking about Cyberforce and Pitt during your "realistic zombie apocalypse," something may have gone awry. Charlie Adlard is still great at grounding the action though, even as the horror is lost amidst the flash-bang and soap opera. As has been the case for some time, the problem with the book is Robert Kirkman-- too enamored with empty spectacle to spice up plodding plotting; having lost faith in his zombies and divided his attention to oversee (and I hear micromanage) his empire. The new characters don't stick in the mind, while the old are wearisome and tainted. I can't imagine a way for this to end well, in the sense that there's anything to make me change my mind about leaving. To quote the show, it's too far gone to ever come back...


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