Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wednesday Is Any Day For All I Care #97

Captain America: Hail Hydra #1
Hack/Slash: Me Without You
Spawn #200
Witchblade #142

Captain America: Hail Hydra #1 (Marvel, 2011, $2.99)
This book starts with a front piece introducing both Captain America and the Hydra terrorist organization (presumably incorporating retroactive continuity from Jonathan Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D.) It's a swell way to get the reader into the action.

The comic opens outside a German castle in 1944 with trusty Captain America, itchy-trigger-fingered Bucky, and a luscious resistance fighter. Sergio Cariello's art is much more loosey-goosey than I remember from the '90s, but he actually bothers to draw landscapes and shit instead of digitally processing photos like most fuckers these days, so it works out to being somewhat like Joe Kubert's modern look. Writer Johnathan Maberry maintains Ed Brubaker's violent characterization of Bucky, but his heyday was the bloodthirsty '40s, and Cap in recognizable as the less grisly '60s model, so I can roll with that.

The story is fairly plot heavy, so to talk about it much ruins it. Suffice to say it's a done in one involving Nazi zombies, and seems to set up an episodic mini-series revisiting these elements at various points in Captain America's career. I found it to be a fun, satisfying read that will hopefully hold up as a trade paperback collection.

Hack/Slash: Me Without You one-shot (Image, 2011, $3.50)
This was an alright book. Cassie Hack is the star of the series, so she's gotten a three issue mini and numerous specials covering her early days. Vlad is a sidekick, so he gets a one-shot with some tangling plot threads to pick up. Vlad's origin is okay, but I got back to reading David Lapham's Young Liars recently, so it felt awfully familiar. The art by Daniel Leister is fine for the material, and the colors by Daniel Leister are decent enough. You probably see where I'm going with this.

Writer/creator Tim Seeley has surely had plenty of requests for this story from regular Hack/Slash readers, so this takes care of their need to know. It won't alienate new readers, but I kind of doubt it will convert anyone, either. This is lunch out of a can-- quick, palatable and it gets the job done, but probably won't help your cholesterol or overwhelm your taste buds.

Spawn #200 (Image, 2011, $3.99)
Sit down. Get comfortable. I'm about to ramble 'bout teh back in teh day.

In the early '90s, I had become disenchanted with Marvel, and hadn't found my way into the DC fold yet (which would really get rolling after "The Death of Superman.") I was a big fan at that time of the exciting, anime-influenced art popularized by Adams/Lee/etcetera, specifically on the X-books, so I jumped into the Image Comics exodus with both feet. There were a great many of us who ended up knee deep in that shit, thanks to pre-orders on extremely late shipping books that went on for years in some cases. Spawn was something of an exception.

My brother had been buying Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man, and I had been reading his copies. I never got to be a big fan of the art, but McFarlane's writing wasn't too bad, so I figured to give Spawn a try. The plot was decompressed, so it took a few months just to establish the basic premise and first villain. I thought it was a fine concept as these things go, and I was pleased that McFarlane had gone with an African-American anti-hero, but it wasn't really my thing. However, McFarlane had announced a round robin run of four issues guest-written by Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Dave Sim and Frank Miller, so I kept up my subscription through the first year's worth of issues (which probably took a year and a half to come out, a respectable schedule for an Image book.) The Sim issue was a glorious manifesto for the Image ideal, but the Miller issue was abominable, and the other two disappointing. I finally jumped off.

There were shenanigans related to the skipping of some issue numbering, which were later filled in, and some quality guest creators also joined the fun. McFarlane was unusually cautious about expanding the number of books in his stable, which strengthened his core title, and made ancillary mini-series like Angela, Violator, and Spawn/Batman feel like prestigious events rather than a license to print money. McFarlane also started a very popular toy company that changed the way action figures were sculpted, and gave him an area of boom while comics and trading cards were going bust. The book benefited from a number of stunts and controversies, like issues with its violence getting the title pulled from Wall*Mart, and a Florida woman campaigning against the series when the black hero was lynched, strange fruit hanging on a stark white cover. There was even a (laughable) motion picture and a (dull, dumb) HBO cartoon.

I believe Spawn was the first Image book to make it to fifty issues, commemorated by a variant action figure. By that point, I was assistant managing a comic shop, before taking over the comics department entirely. A lot of my subscribers used that fiftieth issue as their break point for collecting the series. When I moved to another, larger shop, I was surprised that they were still ordering massive quantities of the book. I soon realized they weren't keeping an eye on their inventory, and were ending up with many dozens of leftover, non-selling copies of each issue. The book had become chronically late, which afforded us the opportunity to get a refund on as many stripped cover returns as I could put together. The rest slowly made their way into our discount boxes for the kids. I had already experienced mass dumping with #50, so as #100 approached and lots of subscribers (often buying for several concurrent runs for their collections) verbalized their intention to wrap it up at the anniversary, I battened down the hatches. Spawn #100 had six covers, one semi-important death, marked the transition from longtime artist Greg Capullo to Angel Medina, and the suction sound from lost readership made a sonic boom. The book had been treading water for a decade, and seemed to finally take that water on in a big way.

Spawn has limped along in the years since. Angel Medina had a following from KISS: The Psycho Circus, and helped maintain a certain visual continuity, but the book had fallen hard from its days as a top-seller. #150 seemed to pass with little notice of its numerous variant covers. Horror novelist David Hine was joined by several darker, less Image-y artist for a critically well-regarded run of a couple years as a cult favorite. Storylines that had dragged on for fifteen years were finally wrapped up, and fresher avenues pursued. The sales weren't to McFarlane's liking, and the direction was still mostly John Constantine in tights. McFarlane returned to the book with fellow Image founder Whilce Portacio on art and a new face under that really long cape. The second Spawn was still fighting the same old battles though, including those against lateness, right up to this delayed bicentennial edition.

Here there be bells and whistles. Seven covers by headlining artists, and one or two of them were even pretty decent. Fifty-three pages of storytelling with layouts by Michael Golden buried under inks by Todd McFarlane, and contributions from hot Image partner Robert Kirkman. About eight pages of plot strung out of a fatiguing fight sequence and endlessly teased big reveal that anyone with a passing knowledge of Spawn could deduce, as there are only a handful of characters that general comics readers know of. It was a summation of the pre-Hine Spawn, not in the sense that it gave a complete history (it's actually actively hostile to theoretical new readers,) but in its taking an eternity to get nowhere but the obvious. Golden and McFarlane's art styles aren't especially compatible, and the result is a hash, but who cares when it's all shoddy pastiche of now ancient tropes. McFarlane scripts most of the "story," having picked up the kind of density of dialogue Brian Michael Bendis and Chris Claremont were known for (including the overwrought exposition of the latter,) but with none of their style or saving graces. Reading this god damned thing was a chore, and Heaven help us all, I think there might even be some Christ allegory with the new Spawn. Get thee behind me, rad blond Jesus on a papier mâché float.

There's a one page, Geoff Johns' style "teaser" of upcoming issues by the new creative team of total unknowns, which seems like a much lower budget return to the David Hine days. This may serve to explain my lengthy historical review. You see, I look at this not as a bold new direction, but McFarlane's resignation that his glory days are behind him. McFarlane has pulled out every stop over the last twenty years, but it seems like his bad reputation of fucking over creators, his inability to progress his story or translate Spawn's early success to other media has resulted in the death knell of the series. I see this review as an prepared obituary for the inevitable end, as Spawn continues to progress further and further into the Elysian Fields. Who will save Spawn, and what would be the point, since it was never much more than an empty vessel people poured expectations and licensing opportunities into? I'm just amazed something so played out has played on this long.

Witchblade #142 (Image, 2011, $2.99)
It may not be true that every comic book is somebody's first anymore, or even their first issue of a given series, but it could still be true that each is somebody's first issue in a long while. I haven't read a Witchblade since before #100, and #150 is approaching. The boring handsome male police detective sidekick that replaced the even more boring himbo male police detective sidekick from the earlier days stars in a solo adventure. The pretty vacant art of Stjepan Sejic is replaced by some crude looking shit by Matthew Dow Smith, recalling lesser works by dudes like Tom Cocker and Tommy Lee Edwards. I just realized I've disliked this guy's work in the past under the more manageable name of Matt Smith. I don't typically dig that kind of art when it's good, but as with my earlier comments, I appreciate Smith's willingness to draw backgrounds, buildings, and different perspectives.

There was some movie or comic I encountered recently that blatantly ripped off Hannibal Lecter scenes from The Silence of the Lambs, and here we go again. There is blessedly a twist that could have made for a good single issue chiller, but when I reached the end and saw that "to be continued," it just pissed me off that I gave the change-up any benefit of doubt. I've liked a few Ron Marz scripts over the years, but he's generally mediocre, and there's no way I'm paying three bucks in the hope this will be worth my time or even end next round.

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