14 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 054 - Mash of the Titans

Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign TPB
Writer - Jeff Parker
Artists - Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz & Jana Schirmer, Gabriel Hardman & Elizabeth Disadang; Clayton Henry; Benton Jew; Leonard Kirk; Karl Kesel; Michelle Madsen; and Val Staples
Published by Marvel Comics. $19.99 USD

First of all, don't worry overmuch about that exhaustive list of artists. This isn't one of those books where a ton of people were pulled in to do a page here and there to meet deadlines. Well, that could be part of it, but it's really the first five issues of the ongoing (but recently canceled) Agents of Atlas series, which had a different creative team for flashbacks, plus other Parker-written stories from several Marvel specials that featured the Agents.

The Dark Reign storyline is handled with confidence by Parker, bringing any readers up to speed who hadn't read the introductory Agents miniseries or who, like me, weren't that familiar with the new Marvel Universe status quo of Norman Osborn being a powerful "hero" with his own paramilitary group called HAMMER, as well as running his own version of the Avengers. Atlas leader Jimmy Woo has a good idea: get on Osborn's real, dark side by posing as a criminal outfit, offering to build him weapons that will end up not working. They play their hand too early trying to establish their evil cred, which leads to conflict with the Avengers, though handled without much bloodshed. Woven into this is an enjoyable flashback involving dragon scales and time travel and a humorous, harmless retcon centered on Captain America, with nice Hardman art evocative of Michael Lark but lighter and more compatible with the Silver Age tone of the story. Parker sets up some other conflicts including a possible usurper to Woo's leadership of Atlas and some other business, but his emotional scenes are spare and not quite as effective as the crisp, plot-based work, though they're fine.

The bonus stories also attempt to work the Agents into not just the current but the past fabric of the Marvel Universe, with an early brush with Wolverine and a meeting with the time lord, Kang. Parker is He's well suited to writing about heroes with somewhat earlier, more traditional values. Woo is not an amoral tactician--he cares about his teammates and doesn't want them to do anything they don't want to do. I can't comment on whether Dark Reign has made other Marvel titles any grimmer, but I do find the tone of this book refreshing. Artwise, though, aside from Hardman, the various other artists are just okay. I liked them but didn't see anything that stood out.

The Incredible Hercules: Against The World TPB
Writers - Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Artists - Khoi Pham, Paul Neary, Dennis Calero, Eric Nguyen, Reilly Brown, Carlos Cuevas, Terry Pallot, Chris Sotomayor, Bob Layton & Guru EFX
Published by Marvel Comics. $14.99 USD

This series did something that's pretty unusual for modern superhero comics--let another character take the lead. It was Incredible Hulk, and that transitional issue is included, as well as the first storyline under the new banner, and a Hulk vs. Hercules one-shot that's basically a flashback to an old fight. Now that story is guilty of the deadline/don't care problems mentioned above, where there are several different artists doing a few pages each, with the regular Pham/Neary team only providing a framing sequence. It's cool to see Bob Layton, who up to this point had done the only real work on Marvel's Hercules, a couple pages, but that's about all I can say for this one. Just another link from the sausage factory.

The regular series, though, there's something there. Or, again, there was something there, as I believe this is another of Marvel's acclaimed series not featuring A-list characters to get the ax. Van Lente is working from the other side of the table from Parker, but towards similar goals. Hercules is not the lusty, grinning adventurer of the Layton era, a flagon of mead in one hand and a wench draped over his shoulder. He's more in line with the Hercules (or Herakles) of myth, the one with the berserker rage that end up costing his wife and son their lives. He's haunted by this, especially when his half-brother Ares, now on Osborn's team, reminds him of it, to gain psychological advantage.

Herc is joined in this buddy action story by young Amadeus Cho, so-called one of the seven smartest people on the planet. It's a good match, as Cho is very smart but too young to have found his moral center yet, and that's something Hercules has struggled with, or willfully ignored, for three thousand years. But as fun as they've had, running from HAMMER and the new SHIELD and all that, it's time to grow up, while still retaining their dignity and freedom. Although a darker book than Agents of Atlas, it's still about people (including demigods) trying to do the right thing. Hercules is flawed, but not evil, like Ares, and he feels remorse. It's an interesting dynamic, seeing him find the balance between being a kind of cool uncle to Amadeus while still forcing the two of them to make the harder and more responsible choice.

It's all too easy, even for a fairly hardcore Marvel fan, to miss out on some gems like these, that have some solid storytelling along with a fair amount of humanity. There are so many books hitting the stands week after week that you can't blame someone for only being able to follow a few core titles. I'm not going to say my life has been immeasurably richer for following the word of mouth and tracking these books down, but at least I can say with certainty that Marvel's output isn't as dire as I thought it might be, and that they still manage to put out some good books. Now if they only knew what to do with them.

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24 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 040 - Amazing Agents of Authority

Agents of Atlas
Written by Jeff Parker
Penciled by Leonard Kirk
Inked by Kris Justice with Terry Pallot
Published by Marvel Comics. $24.99 USD

You know, handing out a cup of rice to a starving African child sure looks more impressive than just normal, day-to-day parenting, doesn't it? What I mean is, when a writer does decent work about a bunch of characters no one gave a crap about for decades, it stands out more than, say, a decent effort on Spider-Man. So Jeff Parker actually has a little bit of an advantage going in.

That said, this is pretty good work. Seven Soldiers of Victory, Terra Obscura...I like those forgotten teams that were around before I was alive. I also like that in this first storyline, Parker comes close to, if not Golden Age, at least Silver Age pacing. The team gets together quickly and solves the mystery of who is behind the Atlas Foundation. I especially liked how quickly they investigated the various Atlas-named businesses--so many writers would have devoted an issue to each, where Parker just takes a panel or two. Of course, brisk pacing wouldn't matter if the story and characters weren't interesting, but they are. There's an appealing, straightforward innocence here: many of the heroes follow leader Jimmy Woo because he's a good guy and a good tactician and they trust him. That's all they need. Parker has done plenty of research to make these sixty year-plus old characters make sense, and that's all fine, but mainly I just liked them together doing their thing, and I especially liked the Yellow Claw recast not as inscrutable Asian mastermind but rather a playful genius who has accepted his place in the scheme of things and is only trying to bring his replacement, Woo, up to speed. I didn't like the cover or logo at all, but for the most part Kirk's art is on the money. Note: the trade is a little overpriced, arguably, in that the six issue miniseries is augmented with Golden and Silver Age appearances of the characters making up the team, and most of that old stuff isn't worth a damn.

The Authority: The Lost Year #3
Story by Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen
Script by Keith Giffen
Art by Darick Robertson and Trevor Scott
Published by Wildstorm. $2.99 USD

Picking up from where Morrison and Gene Ha left off after their two issues, Giffen is left with a story of superhumans dropped down into a world that's never had them before. As Giffen admitted before the book even came out, this is one of his least favorite kind of stories. Add to that few are at their best when they're working from someone else's outline, and no one ever accused Giffen of being similar in style to Morrison, and you've got a recipe for a misfire, if not an outright disaster. Oh, and I think the current The Authority ongoing by Abnett/Lanning is already dealing with what happened after this "lost year," so it's not like there will be a lot of surprises, right?

That said, I was still curious to see if the book would have any promise, and I have to say it's pretty dire. For one thing, it's alarming that a series that presumably had a pretty decent lead time to get its shit together has to use two artists, and Robertson's and Scott's styles aren't particularly compatible. It also doesn't look like Robertson's best work; it's pretty stiff and most of his scenes are dialogue-heavy and set in boring metal hallways. In fact, that's the biggest problem here, that in trying to get readers up to speed and moving the story beats along, Giffen seems to have forgotten one of the hallmarks of The Authority is big, mind-blowing images. Sure, there's a huge space-Cthulhu thing at the end, which is cool enough. But the wordless Midnighter assault at the beginning is poorly staged and dull, and then the pages in between these two events are almost entirely talking. The normal folks highlighted here aren't very interesting, and Giffen so far has only captured the broad strokes of the Authority members. One nice bit, though: Midnighter admitting that his conception of their purpose is right in line with fascism, and he doesn't have a problem with it at all. I suppose that question--can The Authority do good without taking over this world--is at the heart of the year's worth of story. But right now I'm not convinced I should stick around to find out the answer.

Amazing Spider-Man #612
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Paul Azaceta
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

This is my first foray into the Spider-Man books since his twenty-year real time marriage to Mary Jane turned out not to be true. Come to think of it, I dropped out with the repellent Norman Osborn-has-sex-with-Gwen-Stacy garbage, so it's been a while since I caught up with my favorite superhero. It's hard to be absolutely sure yet, but I might be in good hands again with Waid and Azaceta.

This is the beginning of "The Gauntlet," whose cover--at least the variant--suggests Spider-Man will be dealing with a lot of his classic rogues gallery. As the issue goes, it's a complicated plan by Kraven the Hunter's daughter, and the first part of the plan involves Electro, who takes advantage of a controversial government bailout of the struggling "DB"--formerly the Daily Bugle--by its owner and current governor, Dexter Bennett. Electro transforms himself from second-rate supervillain into a kind of folk hero, a voice of the people, and somehow they lap up his lies about only ever going after banks and corporations and never endangering working citizens. Of course, Spider-Man picks the wrong time to make a preemptive strike on Electro, and I do take some issue with that--isn't Peter Parker really smart? Has he no sense of timing? Aside from that, not a bad effort at making an old villain a little deeper than he's been before, and good art from Azaceta apart from a kinda thuggish Parker.

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