Monday, January 12, 2009

Lightning Round!

Marvel Zombies 3 #4

This was far, far better than it had any right to be. Everyone involved should pat themselves on the back for a job extremely well done. It is really a testament to how well this series was done that I was actually sorry it was only four issues long - I thought it would be five, like the previous Marvel Zombies series, and was disappointed when I turned the last few pages to find it was ending. Seriously, I can't remember the last time that happened.

For all the crap Warren Ellis gets - most of it deserved - he deserves praise for his reconceptualization of Machine Man. From being one of the least well developed Kirby creations - so boring that not even Barry Windsor-Smith could do much with him - Ellis was able to make him into the type of character whose presence can make even boring crap like Ms. Marvel fun to read. I imagine he's really fun to write, which is one reason he keeps showing up now. He was even fun in that X-Men: First Class issue where the old-school overly-earnest Machine Man appeared. Imagine that - a character revamp works so well it even makes the older versions of said character more interesting.

But with all that said, reading this incredibly enjoyable series, only to turn the final page and see the set-up for a new Morbius the Living Vampire relaunch, is akin to waking up to find out the hooker stole your wallet and your car keys. The fact that Morbius spent the previous three issues being repeatedly vivisected by his evil twin from Zombie Earth was one of my favorite parts, considering how much I loathe the character. Seeing him relaunched into his own spin-off - featuring a revitalized Midnight Sons, no less - feels like a cock-punch from Tom Daschle.

The Punisher #1

First, this was not a comic book - this was the opening scene of a larger comic book story which must have gotten mixed up at the printers, sort of like that thing where they printed the X-Men / Spider-Man innards in the Manifest Destiny packaging. Seriously, even though it was a nice piece of action storytelling, it was damn frustrating to realize the story was over at the point where, in truth, the story was just getting interesting. There's cliffhangers, and then there's just stopping the story because you ran out of pages and realized you maybe should have been more economical with your action sequences.

That said, this issue also points to a major problem with "Black Reign". I realize the Sentry is the definition of a "problem" character - i.e., the fact that the guy is a walking deus ex machina whose comically exaggerated power level and cardboard personality make it necessary for every writer who uses him to spend more time rationalizing and extenuating his presence and lack of potency than actually, you know, doing something interesting with him. There have actually been a few good Sentry stories but, surprise, they've been stories about the Sentry and his individual problems, set slightly aside from the superhero universe he's ostensibly enmeshed in (the original Sentry series, corny gimmick aside, was good), and never actually stories involving other characters or his membership the Avengers. The premise of the issue is hamstrung from the beginning.

So - here he is, the Golden Guardian of Good, not merely an apologist for Tony Stark's post-Civil War, at least theoretically defensible New World Order, but an actual active defender of the new psuedo-authoritarian reign of terror perpetrated by one of the Marvel Universe's most infamous murderers. How does that make sense considering that one of the Sentry's few incontestable, unambiguous character traits is the fact that he is supposed to be an archetypal "good guy", a blatant and purposeful Superman pastiche whose problems stem from an extra-textual inability to reconcile the (perceived) Manichean ideals of old-school Golden and early Silver Age superheroics with the morally ambiguous ethical texture of contemporary post-Bronze Age superheroics? That's why his arch-nemesis is a schizoid version of himself, for God's sake, the metaphor isn't that hard to follow. Given that, how does it make sense for the Sentry to ever put himself in the position of defending the life of the man who murdered Gwen Stacy? I don't even mean just preventing the murder - we all know why he's doing it, because we've seen Superman save the Joker's life under similar circumstances hundreds of times, so we understand the logic behind the specific choice. But putting himself in the position of being an apologist for the "Dark Reign"? Working for the man who killed Gwen Stacy? Superman was always able to see through Lex Luthor's schemes, and Norman Osborn isn't even trying very hard.

Even if the Sentry doesn't remember who Spider-Man is, post "One More Day", it's been established that he does know who Peter Parker is. Would you put yourself in the position of taking orders from a man who killed your friend's (for all intents and purposes) fiance? Even if it wasn't a particularly close friend, hell, even if it was just someone you met at your friend's party that one time, wouldn't that still probably make water-cooler conversations a bit awkward? If the character wasn't already practically worthless I'd say that making him a tool for the Osborn regime ruined him for good, but as it is it's just another in a long line of non sequitor plot points in bad superhero comic books.

Invincible Iron Man #9

And again, any suspension of disbelief I may have had about "Dark Reign" dissolves the moment I see Norman Osborn ordering his government goons to murder Maria Hill. For a useful analogy, imagine if incoming Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano ordered Michael Chertoff's assassination. It's certainly possible, say, if you live in Russia or another post-Soviet kangaroo oligarchy, but it doesn't really jibe with my empirical understanding of the way the United States Government, even in the darkest days of the Nixon or Bush II administrations, has ever operated. And it especially doesn't jibe very well if we're supposed to believe that Barack Obama, elected as the champion of responsible, accountable, transparent and ethical government, is also president of the United States in the Marvel Universe.

There are two options: one, Marvel was betting the farm on McCain winning the election, certainly a feasible option if we consider that the details of the post-Secret Invasion Marvel Universe were probably being hammered out during the interminable Democratic primary fight, when it looked not only possible but probable that a divided Democratic party would manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat by putting up a fatally wounded candidate to lose against a weak but well-backed Republican. The second option is that everyone at Marvel is an arch-conservative who sees the election of Barack Obama as the first step in a totalitarian socialist takeover of the American government, a la Michael Savage, or those people who still jack-off when they think about how Hillary shot Vernon Jordan for threatening to go to the press about her lesbian harem. The only other option to explain a storyline so radically out of synch with the country's mood is that the people at Marvel are just not bright enough to understand how a story which is obviously designed to be read in a political light might actually be read in a political light, to the confusion and bewilderment of many. Civil War had a metric shitpile of problems, but the one thing it succeeded quite well at doing was figuring out how to express topicality without being explicitly topical, fingering the pulse of the national mood in a blatant, albeit effective manner. This new storyline is so tone-deaf and preposterous that it's almost endearing, but more likely just disheartening.

Secret Six #5

There's been a lot of talk lately about just why certain books about female characters, or books by female creators, don't sell. I can't pretend to answer that, and I won't try because the answers a most likely depressing as fuuuuuck, but I do feel confident saying that the reason why Gail Simone's Wonder Woman isn't selling better is that it's just not very good. It's not just a matter of exaggerated expectations - the Number One Female Writer in Comics Finally Writing the Number One Female Character in Comics! - but the stories themselves have done precious little to rise above the stinky morass of the DC Universe circa 2008, or even make Wonder Woman's dull-as-dirt status quo seem more than life-threateningly banal.

But then I read a book like this - which, I must stress, is far from perfect - but nevertheless hums along with sufficient vim and vigor, and positively sings at certain moments, and I have to (heh) wonder. Is Simone saving up her A-game for this decidedly B-list book? Stranger things have happened: Bendis still writes a mean Ultimate Spider-Man even while his far more high-profile gigs suffer from attenuated craptitude. Has the pressure of turning around the perpetually sagging fortunes of Wonder Woman - a book every single person in the comics industry wants to see succeed but which nevertheless resolutely fails to do so year after year - cramped her pen, bringing about a series of clenched and constipated autopilot exercises? It's not that there haven't been flashes of interest. Her first arc had some nice ideas - the funny monkeys, the new Amazon arch-nemeses. Genocide, for all the characters' regrettable qualities, seems like she might have the potential to evolve into a genuinely creepy adversary once she moves past the "over-hyped and slightly preposterous debut" stage. But despite those moments, it still seems as if Simone is writing Wonder Woman with one hand tied behind her back. It never takes off like it should.

Secret Six, on the other hand, is a good book. Sure, it suffers from being a bit too reserved in places. There are moments when you wish the story would lose some of its soap-opera trappings and just take off into Nextwave-style ultra-weirdness. It's a book full of despicable villains, supposedly doing despicable things, and sometimes it feels too mannered for its own good. But still, it's a far sight better than her Wonder Woman, and even when it threatens to get dull, it's not long before the fun Gail Simone rattles her chains and something genuinely weird or scary happens - like the scene with the formerly conjoined twins, for instance, which evoked a real honest-to-Gosh chuckle.

Sometimes there is no larger reason behind a book's not selling other than it just isn't good enough to get people to want to read it. Other times, however - and judging from the sales figures for Secret Six, this may be the case - there's no good reason why a superior title doesn't sell much better than it actually does. This is a fun book, the kind of book I can see lasting some sixty or seventy-five or even a hundred satisfying issues, a perennial critical darling like Suicide Squad or Birds of Prey that never manages to break any records but nonetheless pleases a devoted readership for many, many years, the backbone of any successful publisher's strong mid-list. Or it could be another in a long line of series that gets canceled far too early because no one cares. As they say, U-Decide.

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