Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Deathmatch Volume One (2013)

At its heart, Deathmatch is just a more lethal variation on Marvel's Contest of Champions and Secret Wars (which is directly referenced in an alternate cover) with off-brand analogues of more famous super-heroes. What does it say about our culture that this is only one of two current books in which super-people are forced into deadly gladiatorial combat by mysterious beings working toward unrevealed ends? It says The Hunger Games made a lot of money, and publishers want some. At least the comic book medium ripping off the old trope is much easier and more gratifying these days than tired Comic Code Approved variations on Ben Hur, Rollerball, and the like.

While Marvel is busy murdering D-list teen characters for profit in Avengers Arena, BOOM! advertised transparent copies of all your favorite heroes in no-holds-barred mortal combat. They didn't quite deliver, not because of fault in the product, but because it's better than it was probably intended to be. While writer Paul Jenkins works in stock types, not dissimilar from generated characters in an '80s roleplaying game (oh so Champions,) they're not blatantly derivative enough to fulfill the role of the Squadron Supreme vs. the Extremists, or whatever. You can trace Spider-Man or the Hulk in the DNA of new introductions like Dragonfly and Nephilim, but different origins, quirks in powers/personality, and the inventive designs of series artist Carlos Magno differentiate the book's characters from their intended parallels. By making the mistake of hiring people who care about their craft and are possessed of imagination, Deathmatch baits-and-switches costumed gore porn with a solid book.

The series is not without fault, however. It recalls Keith Giffen's "Five Years Later" Legion of Super-Heroes stories, involving dozens of characters that aren't thoroughly introduced speaking familiarly about matters rendered obtuse to a reader lacking key information. It's also terribly distracting having obvious swipes like The Rat (Rorschach) working alongside more general types like Sable, because in the back of your mind the reader is trying to figure out "who they really are" instead of focusing on the story. The scripts are disjointed, as if they were first drafts written at different times, or sections were edited out without bridging material replacing them. Then there's the fatigue that comes with the umpteenth out of control faux Superman being managed by ersatz Batman, although the book is good about borrowing from less well worn capes. However, so many characters are killed so quickly, there's a strong detachment from the proceedings, as obscurities the reader isn't invested in fight to the death in less than thrilling fashion. It's frustrating that everyone is keeping secrets from one another and the audience while constantly teasing their revelation. That might make sense in a feudal fantasy setting, but among four color mystery men in a true life-or-death circumstance, the authorial hand is waving inches from your face declaring "I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!" The book lives or dies based on how steeped the reader is in comic book cliché, so the withholding of standard exposition becomes antagonistic.

Deathmatch is interesting despite these complaints. The main characters hook you, and there's such variety in the designs that you want to look at these figures interacting. The plot is never boring, and you do want to find out the truth of all the goings on. The art is quite intricate, and the storytelling sensibility recalls European sci-fi strips more than common American crap. Even if you find the premise unsavory, the writing and art are simply too good to pass on sampling at $9.99, and I'll be back myself for the second volume. The knowledge that the series wraps in a third volume is definitely a motivator when so much in this first edition strings readers along, though. I'd say Strikeforce: Morituri fans should especially give it a peek. Both books are less about violent death than its emotional impact, and are the better for it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ferals Volume 2 (2013)

I’ve heard True Blood called Twilight for (horny) adults. I haven’t read the True Blood comics, but I have read IDW books, and they tend to shy away from sexually explicit material. If that is the case, then perhaps Ferals is the true True Blood of comics, except way gorier. At its essence, Ferals is a What If…? where Jason Stackhouse actually got turned into a were-whatever in Hotshot. There’s wannabe Vikings in this one too, and a Russell Edgington stand-in, but they’re all werewolves in this version. The details are unimportant. It’s a campy, ultraviolent supernatural soap opera with a lot of boning.

This is where the spoilers (for the book, not True Blood) start. I was wary of jumping into this trade about seven months after reading the last, but there’s a very quick recap of the previous volume in the first few pages of dialogue, and none of it matters anyway. Jason Stackhouse survived the bloodbath that closed the previous season, and the surviving F.B.I. agent recruits him to investigate other towns where traces of ferals (werewolves) have been found. He’s saddled with a female partner and a cover identity, so aside from three characters (two quite minor) and a premise carrying over, this might as well be an themed anthology installment rather than a continuing narrative.

Jason Stackhouse is a bit more of a bona fide protagonist this time, since he’s been properly initiated and is basically just going by the numbers in a similar situation to the first volume. Again, the details don’t matter. Nobody is meant to care about these characters. Everyone in the book is simply fodder for fucked-up turns involving either rough carnal episodes or savagery inflicted upon the human/lupine body. There’s also a nice big blockbuster finale that would break the budget of a TV show, so I guess that validates it as a comic book experience, but the story itself is as ephemeral and the choices as arbitrary as the last several (bad) seasons of the vampire show (or the worst of the zombie show.)

Gabriel Andrade continues to be one of Avatar's best artists, drawing out the maximum allowable entertainment value from all the writhing bodies and werewolf viscera. I suspect he'll be recruited for something higher profile sooner rather than later. David Lapham trades in audacity that keeps the reader engaged during the act of reading, but the unsatisfying cliffhanger endings and the emphasis on plot developments over characterization color the lasting perception of the series. I think I'll give it one more "season" to see if it's going to go anywhere, mostly out of love for werewolves and softcore porn, as opposed to the merits of the work taken objectively.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wednesday Debuts the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents For All Anyone Cares #177

I joined Twitter at the first of August, two weeks later the latest volume of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents debuted, and not a single person I follow said dick about it. As a one man corrective measure, I've decided to review T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1. All five of them, spanning nearly fifty years. Before anyone gets pedantic, I'm talking about full color non-reprint first issues of (presumed) ongoing series titled "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" or a reasonable derivation of same. Don't come whining to me about JCP Features, Hall of Fame Featuring the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Blue Ribbon Comics, Thunder, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action or Omni Comix or any of the solo titles/guest appearances, though if I keep doing this for long, I'll likely get to most of them.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (1965)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Vol.2 #1 (1983)
Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (1984)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (2013)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (Tower, 1965, 25¢)
Cheapjack dime novel publisher Tower decided to cash in on both the comic book super-hero and spy crazes of the mid-60s by publishing an extra-sized anthology title following the adventures of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves. The brainchild of 50s great Wally Wood and manned by his friends, the premise was introduced in a four page prologue in which U.N. scientist Professor Jennings is murdered by the evil spies of "The Warlord." Jennings' legacy is a cache of devices that bestow powers unto top agents selected by T.H.U.N.D.E.R. The first full story centered on one Len Brown, who gladly trades desk duty for the chance to wear a belt that temporarily increases his strength and density. This was not without complications, which include the luscious Iron Maiden and her armored henchmen. Wood's art is glorious, and the story happily flouts the conventions of the day.

The second story debuts aged Doctor Dunn as an associate of Jennings who permanently transfers his consciousness out of his decrepit body into a series of androids. As if that wasn't enough, "NoMan" also gets one of Jennings' devices, a cape that renders him invisible. This serves him well against the odd menace of Demo (hard "e," like "demon.") The art of golden age ace Reed Crandell sets a tense, grim mood, and I dug the creepiness of his inhuman hero. There's also a two page NoMan text adventure by Larry Ivie that was tedious with plot details and lack of panache.

Menthor really really looks like the Atom, especially when drawn by Gil Kane for half the story. However, "perfect" agent John Janus is secretly a spy for the Warlord, though the helmet he wears in costume forces him to perform good deeds against his will. His power set is bog standard telepathy/telekinesis, but his conflicted nature is intriguing. George Tuska pencils half the tale, and there normally would have been a serious disparity, but between some rather hacky non-effort from Kane, consistent inks by Mike Esposito, and Tuska's only being halfway to his '80s nadir, it pans out alright. I'll point out that after having read a lot of Manhunter from Mars strips, the Janus/Warlord dynamic is very similar to old Marco Xavier/Faceless yarns.

I don't actually own a copy of this original first issue, so my review material comes from 2002's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, Volume 1. I have to say, the forward by Robert Klein and Michael Uslan is shit. There's a bit of useful historical and anecdotal material on the first couple of pages, but then they spend six-and-a-half synopsizing every story collected in the fucking hardcover. I skimmed the passages for editorializing, and found that they made a point of shitting on the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad tales. Ivie and Mike Sekowsky basically sneak a war story into the book, and these two little assholes can't handle that, but it's actually a fun piece. I found Kitten Kane much sexier than Iron Maiden, and loved the varied facial and body types given to the squad members. They're basically the post-war Blackhawks, including the red tunics, and they're a hoot.

Finally, Wood returns to close out the bridging story, as the forces of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. confront the Warlord's evil plot. Dynamo has more room to show off his cocky side, everyone gets a spotlight moment, and you know it's pretty as a pasture to gaze upon. The characters are still being defined, and there are plenty of clunky moments throughout the book, but it's still a gas to read these stories today.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Vol.2 #1 (JC, 1983, $1.00)
As I understand it, Archie Comics wanted to reprint the old Tower stories, and to get the opportunity from new copyright holder John Carbonaro, they agreed to distribute his self-produced relaunch of the property. It only lasted a couple of issues, and upon re-reading it today, I found it to be much better than I remembered. Of course, I remembered it stinking on ice, so that's a backhanded compliment.

Scripter Chris Adames had done a few stories for Creepy, but this series marked the end of his career. The plot is the worst sort of Bronze Age team book drivel, beginning in medias res to launch into violent action. As it carries on into tense discussion between the West and the Soviets, the intent was surely to evoke James Bond, but it functions to distance the reader emotionally from the grand scale tumult and stalls significant character introduction for eight pages. It does not help that the course change is prompted by Lightning standing on a gargoyle atop a rain swept rooftop, cursing his fate as lighting crashes in the background. It's a bit much, yes? This also begins a pattern of dialogue serving almost solely as exposition, even as it describes emotions rather than communicating them.

Continuing a theme of introductory splash pages, the Raven gets to be a flying Wolverine in a wholly unnecessary aside, battering some random punks. The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad shows up to remind everyone that Reagan is in office, but it also offers one of the only attempts at the sort of levity Wood's books were known for. Dynamo pops in for the finale, which in contemporary comic fashion was in no way the conclusion of the story, instead wrapping with an obligatory last page character reveal.

Again, the story isn't inherently awful, but it is so much a product of its time that it chops any specialness the Agents had off at the knees. Instead of truly reviving the spirit of the Tower comics, it just transports their characters right smack dab into 1983, even as their retro look and silly names ensure readers of the time would not embrace them as they would the exact same product already proven on the stands. However, I have to say that the art by Lou Manna and Willie Blyberg (with a sharp assist from James W. Fry) is mighty fine, and makes it a worthwhile purchase if you're already a fan. Manna recalls Wood without aping him, and it's a damned shame he only did a little work for DC in the late '80s and Hero Comics in the early '90s after this.

Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (Deluxe, 1984, $2.00)
David M. Singer was an attorney and associate of Carbonaro's who came under the assumption that the property was in the public domain based on the lack of a copyright notice in their first published comic. He then raised a bunch of Wall Street money and paid top artists several times their normal pages rates for a high end relaunch of his own. Never mind that Singer used material from later, copyright protected issues of the Tower comics and that he even borrowed from Carbonaro's own efforts. Needless to say, Carbonaro sued Singer's effort into oblivion, and his estate now owns Singer's material.

The Deluxe series is what turned me on to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, so I had rosy memories of the books. As with my misperception of the JC series, on re-reading, I found that I had given this book too much credit. Doesn't make it bad exactly, but it's shy of good.

George Perez provides a gorgeous cover and part of a Raven story. Dave Cockrum had to finish the pencils, but it looks like Perez may have inked him for continuity. He based a belly-dancing femme fatale on his own wife, and even on the Cockrum pages, she's drawn exactly the same. Regardless of who laid out what, it's a good looking Bondian adventure, marred by a terrible script by Dann Thomas with painful dialogue and illogic. But then there are pin-ups by Jerry Ordway and Steve Ditko, so you try to put it past you.

Next is a Menthor tale by Journey frontman Stephen Perry (or not) and Keith Giffen deep in his José Muñoz period. Rick Bryant can't tighten Giff up like Bob Oksner could, so the art is fairly ugly and obtuse. The story is well-intentioned but dumb as it buys into a Death Wish scenario as played out from a bleeding heart leftist angle. But then there are pin-ups by Stan Drake and Pat Broderick, so you try to put it past you.

Finally, there's a team story by Steve Englehart and Dave Cockrum. Is it hubristic? Well, Englehart made a point of retaining the copyright to his script as indicted by the indicia, at least until Carbonaro claimed it, even though it's a steaming pile of shit. Everything I criticized in the JC Comics story is magnified here, with the hammiest of dialogue and the most repellent characterization. The cherry on top is the need to drag in a plot point from the second issue of the 1964 series that was actually resolved, but not to Englehart's liking, so he got all Roy Thomas up in its guts. Meanwhile, Cockrum is 100% at his Cockrummiest, so if you adored his second run on X-Men like most of us, there's more of that here. We really needed a couple more pin-ups at the end to cleanse the palate of that sorry friggin' cliffhanger.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (DC, 2011, $3.99)
A bunch of indie publishers tried to follow Singer's lead, but the lawsuit put a swift end to that, and Carbonaro's rights were eventually upheld. Throughout the 1990s, Carbonaro shopped the property as a license to a variety of publishers, but revival efforts were repeatedly killed either by market instability or Carbonaro's dissatisfaction with creative directions. DC Comics got a few issues into production of a bid in the early 00's, but Carbonaro didn't care for it, and only reprint material came out of the company while he was alive. However, with his passing in 2009, DC finally progressed with new material for the license.

To me, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are one of the gems of indie super-heroes, so it never set well with me for DC to lay there paws on the property, especially in the scummy Didio era. I'm also not fond of the concept of $4 comics, so I waited this series out until I dug it out of a dollar (or less?) bin at a con.

My apprehension aside, this was a pretty good book, except that it has as little to do with the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents as it can possibly manage. Nick Spencer's script is largely about promoting Nick Spencer as a writer for the Big Two, employing a non-linear narrative and focusing on office workers who bear as much of a resemblance to Everett K. Ross and Nikki Adams as the whole book does Christopher Priest's Black Panther. I hasten to add though, Black Panther was a very good book, and Spencer also turns the Agents into Peter B. Gillis' Strikeforce: Morituri, which was another revolutionary title. Now, the unfortunate part is that 2011 is not 1986 or 1998, just as Snatch wasn't Pulp Fiction, but there are a lot worse things to be.

All the throat cutting and back stabbing and wibbily wobbly timey wimey (and that one blatant Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. rip-off) don't leave any room to get into the characters or even the story really, but it's a pretty good stunt on Spencer's part. The attractive art by Cafu and Bit, along with the promise of Spencer and proper characterization next time, are enough to lure a body back for a second sampling.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 (IDW, 2013, $3.99)
Finally, we come to the latest iteration of the property, with IDW publishing the book the year following DC wrapping their incarnation. I'm willing to pay the four bucks a month just to support the team being carried by an independent publisher again. Curiously, their approach is probably the most traditional ever. The book starts with only NoMan and Lightning as active agents, but that's just to create a scenario wherein Len Brown can begin his hero's journey to become Dynamo. Rather than Brown being an everyman in the more common sense, he's just not a trained agent here, but is an exceptional human being solely capable of using the Dynamo belt. Destiny much? Phil Hester's story is safe and familiar, while Andrea Di Vito's art is perfectly sound super-hero stuff. It's nice. It's agreeable. They got Jerry Ordway back for a variant cover. It has nods of the hat to the original series. In other words, it's pussy, so we'll see if it competes with the other second issues next month, or if it just sits in my lap and comforts me with softly purring nostalgia.


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