Saturday, April 16, 2016

Arc Review: Fantastic Four, Unthinkable

In a previous post, I talked about how I didn’t share in the relatively common sentiment that J. Michael Straczynski’s take on Spider-Man was a sort of Renaissance, ruined only by editorial marriage-meddling, organic web meddling, Civil War meddling, and “Gwen Stacy secretly had Norman Osborn’s kids” meddling. In my review of the “Spider Totem” arc, I think I explained why JMS’s work didn’t do it for me, even coming after a truly dire run by John Byrne and Howard Mackie.

I bring this up because recently in my Fantastic Four re-read I’ve reached Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s celebrated run on the book, and while I enjoyed the first arc quite a bit, I found their much-touted “Unthinkable” arc to be… not good comics. Which stinks, because I love Ringo’s art and Waid can be one of the best comic writers in the business when he’s on; I have no vested interest in disliking a story made by creators I like. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is that Doom, tired of his failures(???), embraces magic, sacrificing his teenage love Valeria in order to gain new mystical powers, which he then uses to capture the Fantastic Four and torture Franklin Richards by sending him to, as the comic puts it, “hell.” This is controversial to some fans, as apparently there’s a sentiment that this goes against Doom’s characterization as made famous by John Byrne and others, but the general consensus is that the vileness of Doom’s actions makes this a more memorable story. In 2011, it was ranked the #11 Dr. Doom story by Comic Book Resources.

I have quite a few problems with this story, so I’ll go over them one at a time. My first issue is: why does Dr. Doom feeling like he’s a loser? The idea of the story appears to be that Doom is tired of losing to Reed Richards, but that characterization doesn’t really make any sense. It’s the perception of Doom impotently shouting “RICHARDS” in Wizard magazine given form in a comic when it doesn’t reflect the comic’s reality. In Doom’s last appearance in FF, he’d successfully delivered Valeria, naming the child and one-upping Reed, who had failed to save Sue’s second child in one of Byrne’s best issues. So in his last appearance, he wasn’t “defeated” at all- he totally won. He's also the head of a small but important country. Before his latest appearance, he showed up at earth’s doorstep with an invading army after successfully conquering Counter-Earth. On earth, he rules a small country that he’s managed to keep independent from either Western or Eastern or Middle-Eastern powers, and he’s got diplomatic immunity: his previous story appearance prior to Unthinkable featured him offering asylum to the Inhumans. But for the purposes of this story, he feels like science isn’t working, and chooses magic, in what is a perfectly good prologue issue that doesn’t feature the FF at all. I’m fine with this issue showcasing Doom, and there’s a nice little fake-out that might surprise new readers, as Doom ups his magical powers at the cost of personal happiness.

So what does Doom want to do with these new powers? Humiliate Reed Richards, I guess? Now you can argue that Doom’s acted this way before, carrying petty grudges against the team, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Doom’s actions in the story beyond “Grr I hate Reed Richards.” But worse than his motivation is his execution, my second issue with this arc: Doom targets the family through their children, possessing Valeria, and mystically sending Franklin into “hell,” where he is tortured, presumably for hours if not days, by demons. Just so we’re clear, Franklin is 6-7 years old in this story. I get it, Doom’s the bad guy, but this is pretty bizarre stuff from the character, and seems to exist only to show that “this ain’t your daddy’s Dr. Doom!” It’s poor characterization that only makes sense from the outside looking in, trying to show that Dr. Doom isn’t just going to tie up the heroes and force them to dress as Blackbeard any more.

In the story, Doom then fights the team, whose “this time, it’s personal” response to their children being attacked is to bring guns. Also, Ben snaps Doom’s neck. But of course, since Doom is magic now, he Linda Blair’s his head back and captures the heroes. Except for the team immediately crossing their own moral event horizons, this is all pretty standard, but again, what bothers me is that Doom, who has engaged the team just because he hates Reed, then tortures the rest of the team too. Look, I’m not saying I oppose torture in my superhero comics (although I don’t like it), but here it’s just gruesome and needlessly grim. And unlike the old comics, where the heroes would be put in some sort of deathtrap and have to get out of it, the rest of the family just sort of sits there being tortured for the rest of the story until Reed saves them. I guess it’s nice in theory that we’re fridge-ing male characters now? Franklin, Ben, and Johnny’s literal torturing is just a means to make Reed feel bad. But don’t worry, Sue is tortured too, in that she is given an uncontrollable version of Johnny’s powers, leaving her painfully on fire. We cut to Reed, who has been left in Doom’s library, where Doom promises the tools to beat him are in some magic books he’s left scattered around a big library.

Reed, a character who regularly uses energy drawn from other dimensions and who hired a literal witch to be his child’s nanny is like “pff, magic is fake, I hate magic," as his characterization is somehow confused with Tony Stark's, and Dr. Strange appears to lecture him about magic technique (badly characterized Dr. Strange is apparently a favorite deus ex machina of early 2000’s comics: he had similar roles in JMS’ Spider-Man and the disaster that was Disassembled). Because this isn’t the focus of the story, Strange disappears and just leaves a vague ‘magic gun’ for Reed to use. He frees the team and they fight Doom for awhile, magicking him into the hell dimension, where Doom magically scars up Reed’s face. And it’s PERMANENT (for like, one arc). The rest of the team, uhhh, congratulate Reed for doing all the work, I guess?

And that’s that, except for a really tasteless denouement where Franklin is hugely traumatized and we need a two issue arc of him literally attacking people on the street because he thinks they’re monsters, and needs to be told it’s okay by Ben and Sue. Arguing with a friend about these issues, he pointed out that a “lesser writer would’ve skipped over Franklin’s trauma.” I think maybe a “lesser” writer wouldn’t have based a story around torturing children and the psychological damage it can do (that’s solved in two issues). I don’t want to read about psychologically damaged seven year olds in superhero comics, so maybe don’t base your storylines around total “Dr. Doom is EVIIIIIIL” mustache-twirling villainy stunts.

Maybe it’s just my own hang-ups, but Marvel in this period was really not what I wanted from comics. This was during the time Bill Jemas was trying to “fix” Marvel by focusing less on continuity and more on selling six part stories at Borders, and the rejection of the comics code resulted in some truly dire material as Marvel really wanted to sell ultra-violence and teased “adult content” in the most juvenile way possible. (Aren’t you glad none of this is a problem in mainstream comics anymore?) The whole story reads like an attempt to do “Ultimate”-style Mark Millar bleakness; the arc after Franklin’s PTSD has direct references to the Authority, after all (it's bad too). There’s a demographic that this sort of story appeals to: a demographic that thinks Kirby comics are uncool or that the FF in general or Dr. Doom is lame; unfortunately, that’s not me. I think there’s space on the shelves for gritty, realistic, Nihilistic comics, but I don’t think Fantastic Four should be that comic. There’s some cool visual moments by Ringo, but overall, there’s much, much better stuff out there that’s truer to the spirit of the characters and is just in general more enjoyable to read than this.

Monday, March 7, 2016

RIP Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, comic book artist and cartoonist, died yesterday at the age of only 66. As a dedicated fan of 90’s comics, especially those that flew somewhat under the radar, this is really sad news. A veteran who contributed lasting work across three decades, it’s a shame that Ryan’s name is not particularly well known, even to comic book fans. Originally Iron Man artist Bob Layton’s assistant, Ryan moved on to penciling work at Marvel, taking over the art duties on Iron Man and the Squadron Supreme, and co-creating the series DP7 for Marvel’s New Universe. Perhaps his most famous single issue is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, aka the wedding issue.


Spider-Man Annual 21 1987 Paul Ryan wedding

 Ryan began the 90’s working on the Avengers comic at a time when the book was struggling to find consistency or much in the way of sales success, but was pulled from it in order to work with then Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco on Fantastic Four, where he’d work for the next four years. In the wake of Walt Simonson’s incredible, boundary-pushing work, De Falco and Ryan focused more on the soap opera aspect, a decision that played to Ryan’s strengths at conveying emotion and character in his art. Perhaps most infamously, Ryan designed Sue’s “invisible cleavage” 90’s outfit, notable for a four logo being cut out, along with various other missing strips of fabric along her legs and arms. In some ways it was a response to the “bad girl” trend, but it seemed less extreme in the context of the story, where Sue was behaving more recklessly over time due to the slowly returning “Malice” entity from John Byrne’s run.

Invisible Woman 90's Costume Invisible cleavage Paul Ryan


After Ryan left the title just before the Heroes Reborn event, he became a freelancer, working on Superman: the Wedding Album and Flash. He returned at the tail end of the 90’s as part of the MC2 line, where he’d be reunited with DeFalco. In 2005, Ryan, the former artist of the Spider-Man newspaper strip, was chosen as the daily artist for the Phantom strip, a job he’d hold until his death. In addition, he spent several years illustrating the Sunday strip.

Paul Ryan Ant Man Trading Card Series 3


That Ryan isn’t particularly well-known, even among comic book fans, is not correlated to his talent as a storyteller. Not particularly flashy, Ryan, along with relative contemporary Ron Frenz, was a sort of throwback to an earlier era of clean lines and strong anatomy at a time not particularly known for either. That ability to draw simple, clean characters helped Ryan become one of Marvel’s most prolific trading card artists.

Paul Ryan Art Avengers Poster


A fan of the industry since childhood, Ryan was fortunate enough to make his living drawing. His contributions, even of the invisible cleavage variety, should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Knew There Was a Reason I Didn't Trust That Baby

Sorry to followers of this blog, I haven't had the time to update even on a slightly reduced schedule. I just don't have the time for humorous and insightful comics reviews at the moment, as I am somehow able to write as a full-time job. But I do have time to read great 90's comics and then screencap them:

Suprema Evil Baby Alan Moore Jim Mooney
Via Supreme 52-A, Alan Moore and Jim Mooney

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: Web of Spider-Man #129

Web of Spider-Man #129, "Time Bomb Pt. 2: By My Hand, Mary Jane Must Die!"
Written by Tom DeFalco (plot) and Todd DeZago (script), Penciled by Steven Butler, Inked/finished by Randy Emberlin

Web of Spider-Man 129 Cover


In the podcast I appear in, I had some negative things to say about "Spider-Man: The Clone Saga," a bizarre late 2000s miniseries written by Howard Mackie and DeFalco in an attempt to tell a condensed, "true to the original concept" clone saga story. In short, it's a bizarre mish-mash that chickens out about absolutely everything and is full of incredibly awkward dialogue and revives evil Harry Osborn for no reason. I'm not going to tell you the clone saga is great (it wasn't, by and large), but it did have genuine pathos when, say, Doctor Octopus saves Spider-Man's life and willingly surrenders, expecting to face Spidey next time only to be murdered by Kaine. Or Aunt May's legitimately great death issue that got rid of a character that hadn't been particularly useful in about 15 years in a touching, heartfelt way (later crapped on by John Byrne at his dirt-worst). But I'm not here to review those issues! I'm returning to Web of Spider-Man!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Robin #19

Robin 19, “War Gods in the Hood,” Cover Date August 1995
Written by Chuck Dixon, Pencils by Mike Wieringo, Inks by Stan Woch

Robin 19 Cover Julie Caesar Ulysses General


Tim Drake, aka Robin #3, is the Robin I grew up with as a kid in the 90’s. After the disaster that was the Jason Todd death, Tim Drake was created to be a smart, dedicated hero in his own right that wouldn’t be resented by fans for “stealing” Dick Grayson’s job the way Todd was. Early writers of the character, primarily Chuck Dixon, really focused on the “detective” aspect of the character. It’s easy to blame Batman’s sidekick getting his own series as some sort of early 90’s cash-grab, but the early Robin books tend to be consistently very good. All written by Chuck Dixon, who handled the mini-series and first 100 issues of the solo series, the books also benefitted from solid art from veterans like Tom Lyle and Tom Grummett. In the book’s second year, Mike Wieringo took over as the book’s regular penciler, and here we are!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Rant: Give Artists Credit

Comics Beat posted an interesting article a few days ago about the importance of the artist in selling a comic. Incredibly, only 5% of retailers credited the artist as the most important thing in terms of selling a comic. I understand there's market forces at work there; comic book retailers have taken on the near-insane task of selling comic books, so their ideas are necessarily skewed by the need to "feed their family" and other similar considerations.

As someone who is entering the "comic book podcast" arena only a handful of years after most, I've already noticed that the two episodes that have gotten the most downloads thus far are the two with work by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, two "names," that, not coincidentally, are not comic book artists. Not to pick on my co-hosts, but I cringe when introducing an episode by saying "Alan Moore's The Killing Joke," or similar pronouncements (although to be fair, in that episode we did explain that the story is really Brian Bolland's project more than Moore's).

The thing is, this mind-set is both backwards and toxic. Art is the most important thing in comic books. Period. It is the defining point of separation between comics and its bookstore neighbors in the sci-fi section.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: X-Force #46

X-Force #46, “Behind Closed Doors,” Cover Date September, 1995
Written by Jeph Loeb, Penciled by Adam Pollina, Inked by Mark Pennington

X-Force 46 Cover Sunfire Mimic


Most people on the outside looking in at X-Force see it as proof of 90’s excess: it was Rob Liefeld’s pet project, the book that set all sorts of speculator records before being overshadowed by Jim Lee’s X-Men #1. Despite not having its own media presence, there was a line of action figures featuring endless variations of Cable, the team’s gun-toting mystery-man. While it’s true that the book as drawn and plotted by Rob Liefeld was the sort of big, bombastic action you’d expect from a book called “X-Force,” what a lot of people may not remember is that Liefeld’s tenure on the title was exceptionally brief.

X-Force had begun life as the New Mutants, the mid-80’s teen group created when Jim Shooter noticed that there were basically no more teens on the X-Men title (except Kitty), and while the team’s roster had changed in the wake of Cable taking over as leader, these were still characters that had existed in some form for several years. As I mentioned in my New Warriors review, I am a sucker for “teens growing up” stories, and X-Force is no exception. Personally, I found the leader-less “wandering around” phase far more interesting than the military strike team. So let’s get into it!