Thursday, February 27, 2014

Born on the Fourth of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. For All Anyone Cares #183

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (1966)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #1 (1986)
Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (1986)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (2013)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
"Master of Evolution" was a paper thin excuse to have Dynamo punching dinosaurs, which wouldn't normally be my thing, but Wally Wood makes it work. The writer Len Brown gets into Schwartz style couple dysfunction through Alice Robbins, which also could have been off-putting, but she's a woman drawn by Wally Wood. That's never not okay. The story needed to be a bit bloodier, and I mean that objectively in context, plus I mentioned its gratuitous nature already, but ultimately a competent Dynamo yarn with perks.

"The Synthetic Stand-Ins" sees Mike Sekowsky trade off of Menthor to a NoMan strip, and he's not really an apt choice on this character. Steve Skeates' script pops though, which helps make up the difference. Cool spy action that makes use of NoMan's unique abilities, plus some neat looking goons and a "The End...?" Could launch a lot of stories off that ominous note.

Wally Wood offers a pair of single page infotainment pieces, "NoMan in Action" and "The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R." I miss well executed introductory material like this, but Woody also plants an easter egg for the old timers in the form of a nonchalant peek at a new Agent. Having set that pin, the following T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad story (by the same team as "Stand-Ins") knocks it down. Jeez, only T.H.U.N.D.E.R. would invent a super-speed ray to combat a gas instead of just offering its operatives masks, or correctly outfit its bases. Sekowsky is much better suited for the Squad, but Skeates throws them under the bus in a rather bruising way here. I did like the line's-width-distance-from Nazis. Too bad they didn't bother to name the first scientist after Professor Jennings to create gear for an Agent.

Was "The Return of the Iron Maiden" really necessary, since she only missed one issue? They even go to the trouble of breaking her out of prison, despite her not having been shown getting arrested in her previous story. We could have skipped right into the latest adventure, y'know? Especially when you factor in that she had yet to be unmasked, so she was captive in full armor. For reals? Moving on, Dynamo proceeds to lose any ground gained in credibility from the first story here. I do get a kick out of Agents making cameos in each other's strips. Maiden has some moments, and Dynamo gets the last, um, frown? I'm uncomfortable with the villain, Doctor Death, because he's either a Subterranean in disguise or a gross Arab caricature. I expect better from Woody.

Menthor closes out the book on the same artistically off note as NoMan started, drawn this time by John Giunta and company. Sekowsky helped distance Menthor from his Gil Kane origins, but here he swings back to looking exactly like an Atom knock-off, not that it would be a problem for too much longer. I assume the cliffhanger ending to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents story from last issue inspired the change-up, but feeding a team story back into a solo strip sounds like a whimper. It's a weird yarn, involving an early example of the power internalization trend and a late example of employing a friggin' stage mentalist. There's too much bad plotting by convenience without forethought, and why doesn't anybody strip John Janus out of his dang costume? Bad enough to stay on the bad side of so bad it's just bad.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #1 (Savoy, 1986, 75p)
Back when the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were popularly thought to be in the public domain, a British company briefly put out a magazine of unauthorized Tower reprints. This issue offered "First Encounter," "The Iron Fog," "Iron Maiden," and NoMan's origin tale, all from the 1965 T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1. There were also two newly created black & white strips. One starred Jonathan Shatter and his partner Roxanne as agents of the European Aerospace Intelligence Agency in near future tales taking place in the United States of Europe. I don't own actually copies of this book, or even replications in its entirety, so I can't expound on that.

The other new material was "Cloud of Death," a small feature credited to artists Eddie DeVille and Jon Sussex. In it, a Soviet soldier gets vaporized, turned into a sentient storm cloud, and drifts to Kansas to launch an attack on an Air Force base. Dynamo, with the exacting direction of some bossy guy at T.H.U.N.D.E.R. H.Q., manages to turn the Soviet Stratus into a rainstorm through liquid oxygen. It better recalls Charlton with its typed lettering and propagandistic plotting, but there are worse ways to spend three pages.

Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (Deluxe, 1986, $2.00)
The inside cover editorial gets a bit hinky, with David M. Singer dismissing the legal challenges launched against this series and taking pot shots at The Comics Journal. Rather strident, given that there's only one more issue before the whole enterprise crumbles.

George Pérez returns to Raven, and that's the most good I can say about it. Dann Thomas spent her writing career credited on the back end of "Roy and" for a reason. The villains of this story are extremely lame, and their scheme impossibly dumb. Raven has to be stripped to his man-panties and disarmed to be presented with the slightest challenge, and quite frankly, manages to under-perform in the face of such shoddy competition. As saving graces go, Pérez is a fantastic asset, but he's not complimented well by Wally Wood's old studio mate Dan Adkins. I kind of wish Adkins had just gone off and done his own story, instead.

It continues to be a labor to plow through the thick bricks of unedited text that make up the oddly placed L.E.T.T.E.R.S., but it's only two pages this time. Apparently, there's an unpublished John Workman Kitten solo story out there, and the Pérez Raven stories would have been collected into a trade paperback with new material if Deluxe had survived. A four issue Iron Maiden mini-series was in the works, as was the Tales of Thunder companion book. It's neat to get a peek at what could have been if Singer had maybe licensed the property from John Carbonaro instead of trying to steal it.

Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums continue to make the Lightning solo strip a hideous slog. This issue, an ill-tempered, coldblooded superior officer tries to dictate nasty terms to Guy, with ambiguous results. It's an ugly, opaque, mean-spirited story involving child murder, and I could have done without it. Giffen did a better Lightning splash this time, at least.

There are ads for Dave Cockrum's short-lived Futurians and Giffen's shorter-lived March Hare. I can't recall if I ever read any issues of the Cockrum book, but he was missed in this title. The ad was weak, riffing on a far better series of Marvel spots for Power Man & Iron Fist, and Cockrum didn't bother with backgrounds or even the lower halves of his figures. I still have a copy of March Hare, read once in the late '80s and never again.

The concluding half of the NoMan story was extra cheesy. Cy Klopps only got more ridiculous, and NoMan's big gambit doesn't make much sense. Regardless, it's Steve Ditko rendering the goofy with gonzo gusto, making it worthwhile in spite of Steve Perry's clumsy script (did the chief actually call someone "dude?") and a coloring error by inker Greg Theakston that hampers the effectiveness of a punchline.

I first read these issues about twenty years ago, and I'm sure my enthusiasm over being introduced to the rich history of the Agents at a time when so many undercooked "universes" by inferior hands were vying for my dollars helped me overlook some now obvious shortcomings, exemplified in the group story. To review, Steve Englehart wrote the first entry, going so far as to copyright his script, but David Singer wrote the dialogue over his plot for the second chapter. Dave Cockrum drew the first three stories, and wrote the first half of a second two-parter with plotter Singer. The second half of that story was plotted by editor Brian Marshall, scripted by Singer, and drawn by Rich Buckler. Nobody seems committed to this project but Singer, who liked to crow about getting top of the line talent. That may have been true of the pencil artists (including Pérez, who infamously struggled to tell anyone "no,") but he got those names by paying something like double their normal rates. Then he would dig up old journeyman inkers to muddy up the expensive pencils, followed by simplistic, garish coloring with poor separations printed on paper stock that made those bungles glaring. He had a great letter in John Workman providing some of the worst work of his career, with hand-written "typos" and flimsy "fixes," probably done on the sly. The most egregious deficiency was in the writing department, mostly handled by lesser lights, then-unknowns and never-wases. This issue's tale rushes to resolve as many plot points as possible in serviceable fashion, absent Cockrum's charm. The primary story is the ickiest fan service nonsense. The only interesting element is a conniving bureaucrat so completely lifted from Shooter's Avengers that he's even a ginger like Henry Peter Gyrich.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (DC, 2011, $3.99)
George Pérez is exactly the caliber of artist you want for this type of project, especially given his history with the Deluxe volume. Getting proper inks and not doing the work while moonlighting from Crisis on Infinite Earths also means his work here is better than what he could offer in 1985. I appreciate that DC allowed the property to exist in real time, and to incorporate elements of many different incarnations (including some that were yet to be seen at this point.) As much as I enjoyed the five page history lesson, it's hard not to resent it taking until the fourth issue to be delivered instead of launching the series. I did like how well Cafu & Bit's art contrasted against Pérez, clearly delineating the return to contemporary narrative. I'm not as into Nick Spencer's talky-talky dialogue and irritating characters, but I'll give him credit for setting up a solid last page twist.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (IDW, 2013, $3.99)
With this issue, the main initial conflict is resolved. After decades of Guy Gilbert being a whiny little bitch about the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, it's nice to see him as the non-costumed, assured Squad member of the early days at Tower. I don't think they've revealed who Lightning is in this volume, but his costume isn't too bad, and I'm curious to see what assuredly ill fortune awaits him. I'm okay with working the subterraneans in early, but they don't make much of an impression, especially with their primitive capabilities in comparison to the '60s version. I'm not at all into the new situation created for Dynamite, but nuDynamo got some needed backstory. Despite constantly reminding me of Ron Lim and early Paul Pelletier, the art of Andrea Di Vito grew on me, so it remains to be seen how I receive the replacement artist. I don't know if I ever mentioned it, but I also liked Rom Fajardo's colors. I still have to file the book under "fans only" though, unless you're flush enough to pay $4 for a safe, comfortable, '70s-80s style team book.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Walking Dead Volume 19: March To War (2013)

So, Walking Dead. Walking Dead, Walking Dead, Walking Dead. Fuck, it's gotten tough to get interested enough in this book to write about it. It's this comic about people who don't have working smart phones, so they start full contact LARPing over cans of ravioli. There's the Guy With A Tiger club, and the Pussy Posse, and the Greaser Warriors, and the Characters You Only Kinda Still Care About From The First Two Years That Haven't Died Already. There were these two newer Marty Sue characters that were getting on my nerves, but they take the piss out of Better Than Ezra and Charlie Adlard Thinks Jesus Looks Like a Hobo, so they're okay now. Andrew "Dice" Clay though-- man, they are shoving this asshole and his baseball bat right down everyone's throat. Comic book Andrea is still tougher and cooler than TV show Maggie, but the action movie sloganeering? And Rick is still a shit leader, regardless of medium.

This is boring. Let's talk about the TV show. I very much enjoyed the first half of season four. The storyline about a deadly infection running through the prison was strong. The super market set piece was innovative and exciting, while the various prison rampages certainly held my attention. Most of the other tangents were unsatisfying, but I did like the young couple Rick & Carol found in the suburbs. Michonne got back to human moments, instead of just serving as a stewing vehicle for vengeance. Tyreese was put in a situation where he continues to kinda suck, even dipping into Andrea 2.0 territory. Luckily, the flawed but valuable TV original Bob Stookey's struggles have rung truer. Beth Greene shocked everyone by becoming interesting by her sugarcoated nihilism. Carol's brutal pragmatism makes perfect sense for her character arc, and I'm hopeful it will be further explored in the future. Carl got dialed down in a necessary way, still cool if back to being a bit whiny. Rick Grimes remains the most boring character of the lot, but Glenn and Maggie seem to have joined him in development limbo. The season of course belonged to Hershel, the heart of the group and recipient of his character's finest moments this season.

The half-season pulled a Lost with the two episodes leading to the season break, and while I recognized the need to move certain pieces around to revive the threat of the Governor, it all felt like a retcon to fix the failings of the third season finale. In a very short span of time, new characters were introduced that improved on any featured citizen of Woodbury. After the interruption, the closing episode was all-killer, no-filler, leaving me greatly anticipating the resumption of the season tonight. The great thing about AMC's The Walking Dead is that it has already covered the best period of the comics, and looks to be course correcting for Robert Kirkman's missteps going back to 2009's Here We Remain. I'm already paying for cable, and the show gives me so much more pleasure these days, I'm looking forward to finally ending my too long bitching streak over these trades with #21.


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