Monday, October 22, 2007

Marvel Zombies 2 #1

Are we not supposed to like this? Sure, the gimmick itself may be overplayed, but the book itself is still pretty fun, miracle of miracles. I like how they don't make any pretense of this being anything other than a totally trashy piece of repulsive superhero decadence. The cover gimmick has run its course -- it'll fall out of fashion soon enough. But there are still a few twists and turns left in the story itself, and I quite like the way Robert Kirkman is smart enough to play it basically straight. I really liked his Ant-Man series -- enough so to actually physically purchase, which should tell you something -- and there's something of a similar mood here. Besides, anything that introduces the phrase "zombie Galacti" into the nerd lexicon can't be bad.

And if anyone from Marvel reads this, I've got a great idea for Marvel Apes.

Mighty Avengers #5

Brian Michael Bendis can write some things very well, but one thing he has proven himself fundamentally incapable of doing is writing the Avengers. I don't mean the "New" Avengers, which has its own tone set slightly apart from the traditional Avengers mythos. I mean, real old-school Avengers stories, of the type which Mighty Avengers supposedly purports to be. His Avengers stories seem to focus on getting a bunch of really powerful heroes together in one place to talk, and then having them react to something, usually in out-of-character ways that boggle the suspension of disbelief for those of us who have been reading these characters for decades. That's a really rudimentary description, but bear with me: the one thing that has always defined the Avengers has been the density of the storytelling. For every memorable era of the title you can recall, there was always a bunch of stuff happening at any given moment.

In many ways, there are few franchises less suited to modern decompressed storytelling than the Avengers. The way the stories are told is crucial to the stories themselves, in a way that can't be said for the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man or even the X-Men. It's not easy, and that's why it's so rarely done well: throw a dozen balls into the air, keep them in the air, and keep adding new balls into the mix, with A-plots and B-plots and C-plots and D-plots colliding and caroming across each other over the course of dozens of issues. It has never been high art, and it's never even been close to being Marvel's top franchise, but when done well it is immensely satisfying for us old-school junkies. You can tell a lot of about someone's commitment to the superhero genre if their favorite book is Avengers.

Bendis seems to be figuring some of this out. On the one hand, the heroes are facing a threat which appeared out of nowhere, to which they spent a lot of time standing around and reacting, before acting ineffectually. Bog-simple. But then in the last couple issues you see a little bit of the old-school Avengers flavor creeping in -- regardless of how weak the set-up, when things start moving, Bendis falls into well-worn creases, tweaking a formula that was already perfect when he was in shortpants. Make the story as complex as possible in such a way as to constantly raise the stakes; give characters who otherwise would have little in common reason to interact and come into conflict; keep a level of innocuous soap-opera percolating below the surface. The beginning of the story was weak, but as all of these Avengers-esque elements begin to recur, there is a good risk of the story actually becoming, gulp, an Avengers story, and not just a random Bendis book that happens to have the Avengers logo on the cover.

As for Frank Cho -- well, eh, the man flunked out of strip cartooning to draw naked silver robot babes who look like Louise Brooks, and be late while doing it. Not exactly what I would call moving up in the world, but I'm not his guidance councilor.

Countdown #28

My God is this still being published? I don't care how well it is or isn't selling, this is simply horrid. It is remarkable to me how no one at DC sees how boring and unpleasant this whole endeavor is. Characters no one cares about, doing things which make no sense for ill-defined reasons, caroming across each other in such a way as to make them even less interesting when they interact. Seriously -- this is poor work from all concerned. But the nature of the failure is such that I don't think the blame can be laid at anyone's feet. However many dozens of people were involved directly in the editorial conception of this book, it is clear that no single voice has been allowed to carry the day. Someone has a checklist of story elements which have to be crossed off before they can get to Final Crisis or whatever the fuck. (I'd prefer Sonic Disrupters.) The result is four-color gruel. It's even unpleasant to look at the pages: yeah, this is what a weekly comic book looks like, folks, poor art and garish colors combining to create the visual equivalent of toddler vomit. Take a good look.

It's easy to criticize DC of late, but the fact is that the books keep getting worse and the possibility of recovering market momentum becomes a dimmer and dimmer prospect with every passing week of this shit. As silly as it seems, the Marvel Zombies franchise is the sign of a healthy company: willing to take risks (within established perimeters), responsive to the demands of their customer base (retailers and readers), and above all maintaining a brand recognition of "edgy" and "hip" despite the company's overwhelming plurality. DC would probably kill to have an organic hit like Marvel Zombies, even if they don't have the guts to pull the trigger on necrophile torture-snuff porn. The Powers That Be at DC probably think less of Marvel for publishing it. But the first Marvel Zombies is on it's fifth printing (and counting!) as a $20 hardcover.

New Excalibur #24

Has anyone noticed that Marvel seems to be going through a rather ruthless process of culling their mid-list? Underperforming peripheral Spider-Man and X-Men titles are being dropped left and right. The X-Men are heading into a big crossover cycle which will, Marvel is hoping, reinvigorate the franchise in much the same was that Avengers: Disassembled and New Avengers invigorated the moribund Avengers books. Potentially more interesting, Marvel is making Amazing Spider-Man their test-case for a new almost-weekly format (thrice monthly), with thanks to DC for that unpaid market research, I'm sure.

What does this market consolidation mean? It means, partly, that Marvel smells blood in the water. The direct market is a zero-sum game, and DC is suffering badly in both actual sales and customer perception. The more dynamic Marvel appears to be, and the more they can turn this perception of dynamism into sales, the smaller DC's piece of the pie becomes.

So what of New Excalibur? Flipping through this comic was a sensation not unlike that of Countdown, albeit I actually knew who most of these characters were. This is one of those odd books that continues to exists seemingly to appease the whims of Chris Claremont. These characters have no compelling reason to be together doing these things, other than Claremont's perpetual desire to keep Alan Moore's Captain Britain mythos as an integral part of the X-universe despite how incongruous the fit. It's telling that Frank Tieri's extended guest-run, during which he took over the book while Claremont was convalescing from a stroke, seemed to be as well received or better than Claremont's work on the book he created. This book is supposedly being cleared away to make room for one just like it at some point, but newer and shinier. Or something.

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