GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "B" PAGE 2

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Black Orchid
is reviewed here


Black Panther: The Client 2001 (SC TPB) 128 pages.

cover by Mark TexeiraWritten by Christopher Priest. Art by Mark Texeira, Joe Quesada, Vince Evans and Alitha Martinez.
Colours: Brian Haberlin, Avalon Colors. Letters: Richard Starkings, Siobhan Hanna, Wes Abott, Comicraft. Editors: Jimmy Palmiotti, Joe Quesada.

Reprinting: The Black Panther (3rd series) #1-5 (1998)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

The current revival of the Black Panther -- comicdoms first black super hero -- has been getting rave reviews. This TPB collects the first five issues, wherein the Panther, king of the super scientific African kingdom of Wakanda, arrives in America to investigate murder and corruption connected to an inner city charity he established. Meanwhile, back home in Wakanda, turmoil and revolution is brewing.

The Black Panther, when handled well, often plays with ideas that can stray far afield from your average two-fisted adventure comic: global and African politics, identity, honour, all held together by its brooding, thinking man hero. Writer Christopher Priest continues that trend (largely established by Don McGregor during a critically acclaimed 1970s run of Black Panther stories in Jungle Action) but he tweaks it just a little by also making it...funky. There's a hint of someone like Quentin Tarantino in Priest's style.

There's a lot of sassy humour, even absurdism, in this series. The story is narrated by Everett K. Ross, a U.S. government employee assigned to the visting Black Panther (The Client of the title). A fast talking nerd, the white Ross is bewildered by the ancient culture of Wakanda, but seems more confidant about his ability to handle inner city (read: black) America...not that we share his confidence as he gamely tells a hoodlum "Don't start none, won't be none," in his best street patois. He narrates the entire tale to his superior in a mixed up, back and forth, out-of-sequence way that is (intentionally) confusing for the first few issues. A lot of fun, but confusing.

Filtering the story through a white character might raise a few eyebrows. But Priest can get away with it in part because he's black himself, and though Ross initially dominates, the regal Panther quickly re-claims centre stage. By telling the story through someone else, Priest can indulge in the "Iconism" that has become so pervasive in modern comics, emphasizing the Panther's mystery and majesty. And it allows novice readers to be brought up to speed through Ross' reports. Besides, the Ross character gently turns cliches on their head. How many movies have you seen with the heroic white guy, and the comic relief black side kick? Here, Ross is the wisecracking nerdy pal. But what makes him work is that, clearly, Priest likes the little guy. Ross may get the laughs, but Priest isn't making fun of him.

And, as noted, gradually the familiar Panther, the one carrying the weight of the world -- or at least a nation -- on his shoulders, the idealist, the Hamlet-in-a-cat-suit, emerges from behind the self-consciously "hip" sun-glasses and bald pate 'tude and reassures us that Priest hasn't forgotten the character's roots. Although some of the supporting cast is, I think, new. As well, Priest expands the Panther's arsenal, giving him a bullet proof costume, a laser knife, etc. That seems to be the trend with modern heroes: accessorize. The costume has been fancied up a bit, and the Panther occasionally out does Batman on the mysterious front, appearing in locked rooms with no explanation for how he got in. But there was something cooler, more heroic, about the minimalist, self-reliant Panther, the guy who triumphed with skills and wiles alone.

Admittedly, Priest uses the jumbled narrative style to distract from a story that isn't as complex as he makes us think it is...or even as coherent. The Panther investigates a scandal and the murder of a child associated with the charity -- a molestation murder, one infers, though it's never clearly stated. But Priest never explains why anyone thinks the girl's murder is even connected to the charity. And the oblique way Priest alludes to the nature of the crime might seem to trivialize it, Priest not quite dealing with the seriouness of his subject matter. Meanwhile, the Panther's "detective" skills are basically to beat up and intimidate people. Sherlock Holmes, eat your heart out!

That raises it's own issues. The idealistic Panther is a character that has always leaned toward philosophizing, caught between the old world and the new, between what's right and what's practical. We learn he disbanded the Wakandan secret police years ago, unable to contenance their brutality. Yet the Panther beats up and intimidates people to get what he wants. What is Priest trying to say about, well, anything? If Priest wants to tackle big ideas, he needs to gets his head around them, first. Granted, the reason so many super heroes use such methods is probably less intended as an endorsement of torture and brutality, and more because the writers just aren't smart enough to write a real investigation.

Of course, the "investigation" is only part of the story, with the revolution back home being another thread, and the Devil being another.

Yeah, The Devil. Literally.

Seems Mephisto is looking to gain the Panther's soul, the Panther having been elevated to a level of purity previously reserved mainly for the Silver Surfer. The Devil stuff offers the story some delightful...weirdness, not to mention some genuine laughs (many revolving around some pants). The Devil sub-plot delves more deeply into the Panther's psyche, even as the resolution seems a bit...pat. Kind of like the charity investigation.

With all those diverse, but interconnected, plotlines, The Client covers a lot of creative bases, as well as fleshing out the Panther's background and origin, plus various digressions and asides. And maybe the fact that some of them aren't developed as well as Priest's unorthodox style fools you into thinking can be forgiven. And the trouble back in Wakanda, though reaching a stalemate, isn't resolved, leaving this "graphic novel" with a few threads dangling. It's no surprise Marvel rushed a second collection, Enemy of the State, onto the shelves, wrapping up the story (I assume).

The art is noteworthy. I don't know if it's truly painted, or just an elaborate variation on the usual computer colouring process, or whether it's Mark Texeira's rough, smudgy pencils and inks, but the book has a vibrant, painted look to it. Granted, the details aren't as detailed at times, having a (slight) Impressionist look. At the same time, there is a vivid realism, even photo-realism. Unfortunately, the art changes for the final issue. Normally, Vince Evans would be a perfectly fine, realist artist. But compared to what went before, it's a bit of a let down. Of course, Evans is only one man, whereas it's entirely unclear who did what on the first four issues. Texeira is generally credited, but Joe Quesada (who is also the co-editor) gets an ambiguous "storytelling" credit, and Alitha Martinez is credited with background assists. Plus there's Brian Haberlin providing the colour for all the issues. Whoever is fully responsible for the look, it combines with Priest's funky writing to make the story pretty electric at times.

I liked The Client, even though it's not as smart as it pretends, and some plot threads don't cleanly resolve (though most do). But reflecting back on it, I remember it with more fondness than negativity. It's simplistic at times, but so are a lot of comics (and movies, and TV shows). It's funny, and serious, and eccentric. Definitely worth a look and a respectable return of the Black Panther. Now if only Marvel would collect Don McGregor's classic "Panther's Rage" epic in a TPB...

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Black Panther comics.

Cover price: $24.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA. 


Black Panther: Enemy of the State 2001 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Christopher Priest. Art by Joe Jusko, Mike Manley, Mark Bright, with Amanda Connor. Inks by Jimmy Palmiotti, Vince Evans, Nelson Decastro.
Colours: Avalon Studios; Drew and Matt Yackey, Brian Haberlin, Chris Sotomayor. Letters: Richard Starkings, Comicraft. Editors: Joe Quesada, Jimmy Palmiotti, Nanci Dakesian.

Reprinting: Black Panther (3rd series) #6-12 - 1998-1999

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Considering Enemy of the State on its own is a bit tricky as it directly follows the previous Black Panther TPB collection, The Client. The Client covered the first five issues of the Panther's latest series and, though it was self-contained enough to be worth reading on its own, some plot threads were left dangling. These threads are tackled here. The Black Panther, super hero, and head of an African country, is in the U.S. in a kind of (ill-defined) exile, his throne having been usurped in a (sort of) coup covered in The Client. There's a certain ambiguity at work -- the Black Panther agrees not to return to his native Wakanda, to avoid instigating a civil uprising against the new regime...yet he is still treated as Wakanda's official ruler by the American government.

Anyhoo...

The Black Panther ends up tussling with villain Kraven (not, apparently, the original Kraven, but Kraven's son), and must avert a race riot and temporarily hook up with former teammates the Avengers. But all of this is a pre-amble to the main story, which has the Panther uncovering the international conspiracy that led to the coup, and his attempts to re-claim his throne.

Like in the previous book, Christopher Priest writes with a delirious eye for jumbling and juggling plot threads -- one story doesn't end for another to begin, but all are wrapped around each other, where even scenes that don't seem connected might, indirectly, have an impact on each other later. Also thrown into the mix is the fast-talking Everett K. Ross, the U.S. government agent who acts as The Black Panther's U.S. liaison, who not only provides plenty of comic relief, but narrates in a back and forth, mixed up way. Priest delights in throwing in scenes -- sometimes just an image -- that seems to have no meaning, only to reveal its significance a few issues later. One really believes Priest has plotted things out many issues in advance, which makes for an unusually sure footed read at times.

Added to all this is various relationship and character stuff, as Monica Lynn -- the Panther's on again/off again love interest -- returns, and the Panther must deal withh his ideological opposite, the White Wolf (and learning his history). Plus more minor things crop up, like learning Ross' boss/girl friend, Nikki, has a history with the Panther in a beautifully understated, but poignant scene.

And, of course, there's Priest's sassy humour, much of it courtesy of the bizarrely demented villain Achebe (with his talking hand puppet) and, of course, Ross. Priest is black himself and some of the humour is meant to be a little incendiary -- though I missed it myself (apparently a quip where a character speculates about the Panther ordering some ribs has a racial aspect to it???). There's also some humour in Ross' homophobia -- no, I don't mean Priest is advocating hate against homosexuals. There's merely humour in Ross' discomfort with anything that smacks of homoeroticism. But Priest is also serious, too, when dealing with things, whether it be race or the conspiracy against Wakanda taking the Panther into some unexpected quarters. Not that the book is some heavy tirade. Priest is a storyteller, first and foremost, and the comic is intended for people of all races and colours to enjoy. But it also wants to make you think, too.

All of this also means that both Black Panther TPBs will probably hold up for subsequent readings quite well. The first time through, you're just picking things up as you go. The second time through, you can better appreciate foreshadowing and early clues.

But a problem Priest has is that he's a little too keen to make the Panther...cool. To make him the ubersuperhero. Obviously the Panther is a sharp dude, and part of his appeal is his cool demeanour, his unflappableness. But he should also be human and vulnerable. Priest doesn't mind showing that with the Panther's relationships, and even as a super hero Priest grudgingly allows him a few weaknesses -- such as actually losing his first scuffle with Kraven. But a lot of the time, Priest doesn't permit him the opportunity to be human, with the Panther too often three steps ahead of the villains, so that the suspense is rather...muted. Priest even goes so far as to suggest that the Panther was wise to what was going on from the beginning, which kind of undermines some of the (perceived) emotion in early scenes. Priest seems too much in danger of subscribing to the Iconism of modern comics, where the hero isn't allowed to sweat, or bleed, or be anything less than totally in control. As I say, that's not always true here, but it's enough that it makes some of the later parts of the story seem lacking in a bit of tension. Is the Panther fighting back against overwhelming odds...or just cleaning house?

Priest even goes so far as to re-interpret the Panther's relationship with the Avengers in a way that, frankly, doesn't really jibe with earlier stories.

The art in this TPB is a mixed bag, with three different styles present. Joe Jusko illustrates the first three issues, with a photo-realist style that is captivating, even as it is, at times, a little stiff. Then he's followed by Mike Manley, a cartoony artist at the polar opposite from Jusko, and from the art in The Client. Manley looks like he's auditioning to draw for "Batman: The Animated Series", and though his storytelling ability isn't to be faulted, a lot of the atmosphere, the moody realism, of the comic is lost. Finally M.D. Bright wraps things up. I've become a bit of a fan of Bright's low-key, realist pencils in Green Lantern (circa the early 1990s) -- even if I once described his art as undynamic which, perhaps, it is. It's good comic book work, and I like it, and it allows the story arc to resolve respectably -- art-wise -- if un-extraordinarily.

I try to review books as stand alone works. Having already read The Client, I'm not sure how well this would read on its own. I think reasonably well, with enough of the plot elements relevant to this story introduced in these pages, just as The Client could be read on its own, despite some danging plot threads. But, in truth, the two books are meant to form a single, 12 issue story arc. The series was published under a Marvel imprint, Marvel Knights, then, starting with issue #13, it was published under the regular Marvel banner, a decision that seems to have led all those concerned to try to shape the first 12 issues into its own arc (though even then there're one or two threads left dangling).

After having read both books, I can't decide if Priest's Black Panther is the smartest, sharpest, most audacious and original, most provocative and ambitious (and funniest) mainstream superhero comic on the market...or whether there's a little too much flash with the substance. Priest's stuff is so good at times, there's a bit of a let down when it doesn't all seem to come together as well as you'd like, when there isn't quite the emotional pay off you were hoping for. Still whether it's that good, or whether it just seems that way at times, both books are worth tracking down, but if you can only find one or the other...they're still worth a read.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Black Panther comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ &16.95 USA 


Black Pearl
is reviewed here


The Black Widow: The Coldest War 1990 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

cover by George FreemanWritten by Gerry Conway. Pencils by George Freeman. Inks by Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, George Freeman, Mike Harris, Val Mayerik, Joe Rubinstein.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Ron Muns. Editor: Terry Kavanagh

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-review posted: Oct. 2014

Published by Marvel Comics in oversized, tabloid format.

Recommended mildly for mature readers.

One thing I sometimes do with my reviews (since in many cases I have them in my collection) is re-read them a while later, and see if that alters my opinion. Sometimes stories I loved I find, on second reading, don't quite seem as great. Other times stories I recalled not liking I find I've softened toward. But usually the change in opinion is more of a nuance thing.

Occasionally, though, my re-reading leads to a significantly altered opinion.

In the case of The Coldest War I read it a few years ago (though long after it was originally published) and didn't really rate it very highly and didn't retain particularly fond memories of it. I've only just dragged it off my shelf for a re-read a few years later -- but strangely find I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I remembered!

Sometimes I suspect I can be unduly hard on a story because, with no preconception, you're aware of all the ways it could've been better. But a second time through, accepting it for what it is, you can appreciate it for what the creators intended. For that matter, I re-read it in the context of reading some other Black Widow stories that were all reprinted in the collection Web of Intrigue. And maybe it's in contrast to re-reading those stories -- which I felt were a bit bland. Still, which is the more "authentic" review?

The plot has Marvel's resident super spy, and Modest Blaise wannabe, The Black Widow approached by some KGB agents who coerce her into pulling a job for them after they reveal that her husband, whom she loves and thought long dead, is actually alive and convalescing in a Moscow facility.

I'll start off by commenting on the art. It's by George Freeman, an artist I like and I'm not sure ever quite got his due from fandom, still best known for his long ago work on the Canadian comic, Captain Canuck. Freeman has a unique, distinctive style and, I'll admit, maybe wouldn't be my first choice for a comic featuring a pretty gal heroine, since his forte isn't drawing pretty women. But I'm a fan otherwise and that was one of the things that enticed me to pick this up. Unfortunately, because he's got a distinct style, it requires inkers sympathetic to his delicate, feathery line work. The first chapter or so is effective with, I'm guessing, Freeman inking himself. But later inkers bring a heavier, thicker brush that blunts his style. One inker (I'm guessing Ernie Colon) is particularly unsuited to Freeman and just makes it look messy. The result is a book where the art, when it works, is a plus -- but doesn't always work.

As for the story, my original (more negative) review suggested it was a rather thin, straightforward plot. The villains were stereotypical one-dimensional Russian "bad" guys. And though the story is meant to have deep emotional undercurrents, as The Widow finds old feelings stirred up by the possibility her husband is alive, I felt that stuff was a bit understated. I comment that a flashback sequence (retelling the climax of an old Avengers story) was actually more emotionally charged.

But re-reading it, I find I was too harsh in some respects. Sure, the plot isn't exactly John Le Carre, and yes there are no big surprises and stunning twists, but it fills out its pages well enough, and with some nicely staged scenes (including a cute scene where the Widow is trading banter with a scientist while fighting for her life). As for the emotional stuff relating to The Widow -- this time around I actually did feel it was there, that the story does feel like its an adventure-thriller that hasn't sacrificed the character or emotion. There are scenes of The Widow brooding, and grappling with her life choices, including an interesting idea that The Widow has always played her emotions tight to her chest.

As I mentioned, I re-read this in the context of the other stories in Web of Intrigue (and also remembering the much later, and excellent, Homecoming) and I'd actually say that I got more of a feel for The Black Widow as a person in The Coldest War than in any of those others.

There are strange technical problems with this graphic novel (aside from the poor choice of inkers) including a mistake in labelling the time (some scenes listed as 1987, some 1988).

The book came out in 1990 and there's an epilogue set a few years after the body of the story (and the end of the cold war) which is meant to put an interesting bow on the story -- as a character remarks melancholic on how the cold war now just seems "funny -- in a sad way." It further adds a sense writer Conway was at least trying to give the story a little more contemplative depth than just as an action-adventure.

I'm not dismissing my original opinion entirely. I think I was probably right in that The Coldest War could've been a lot more than it was. But sometimes that can mean I'm judging it for what it isn't, rather than reviewing it for what is. And re-read now I'd say it actually stands as a fairly strong effort in The Widow catalogue. Enough action and daring do to be an adventure, enough brooding introspection to seem character driven. Enough spys and subterfuge to seem like an espionage thriller, with enough flashbacks and references to super heroes, and the occasional robot and super gadget, to seem like a super hero adventure.

The Coldest War is a little bit of this and that.

Original cover price: $11.95 CDN./$9.95 USA.


The Black Widow: Web of Homecoming

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
is reviewed here


The Black Widow: Web of Intrigue 2010 (HC TPB) 176 pgs.

coverWritten by Ralph Macchio, Gerry Conway. Pencils by George Perez, George Freeman, Paul Gulacy, Bob Layton. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Marvel Preview #25 (the Black Widow story); Marvel Fanare #10-13 (the Black Widow stories), The Black Widow: The Coldest War (one-shot graphic novel) - 1981, 1983-1984, 1990

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Review posted: Oct. 2014

Published by Marvel Comics.

Marvel's female super spy has always floated around the peripheries of the Marvel Universe -- not exactly a "super hero" yet existing in a super hero world. She started out a villain, a Russian spy, in Iron Man comics, defected to America and became a heroine, and continued to crop up as a guest star in various super hero comics, occasionally a member of super hero teams (even founding the short-lived Champions) and co-starred in a long stint in Daredevil. In the early 1970s she had a brief solo series in the anthology comic, Amazing Adventures.

Because her solo appearances were so few (at least until the 21st Century) Marvel was able to throw together this collection of presumably the entirety of her solo stories from this decade. A 22 page story from the magazine, Marvel Preview (which also featured other stories, including a Daughters of the Dragon story). An epic four-part story originally serialized in another anthology comic, Marvel Fanfare (and which had previously been collected between one-cover in a 1999 comic book one-shot, also called Black Widow: Web of Intrigue) and the 1990 graphic novel, The Coldest War.

And the truth is, none are really that great, and hardly invite a prestigious hardcover treatment (though it boasts an interesting collection of artists). As well, the Marvel Preview story and the graphic novel were originally published at larger tabloid dimensions, so probably lose a bit in the reproduction.

Still, for character completists it's always fun when editors bring together stories from disparate sources that might, otherwise, be harder to track down on their own. As well, the stories reflect different approaches to the Widow -- and her place in the Marvel canon. Namely: is she a spy -- Modesty Blaise or James Bond -- or is she a super hero?

The Marvel Preview story ("I Got the Yo Yo, You Got the String") is a full-on spy story, meant to be dark, cynical tale of double crosses and moral ambiguity and kill-or-be-killed violence. The photo-realist art by Paul Gulacy is striking and suits the quasi-realist tone (later in his career Gulacy would start to affect a more caroony/caricaturish style -- but in this period had a photo-realistic look). Though that realism can be distracting when he self-consciously draws a character to look like Humphrey Bogart. It's overly cutesy, particularly given the character appears only in the climax. Though it makes me wonder if another character was intended to evoke Michael Caine (with a spy movie cachet thanks to the Harry Palmer movies) though maybe it was just the glasses.

It clearly wants to be a gritty spy-action story rather than super hero adventure (and Marvel Preview published outside the Comics Code, though there's nothing too adult here) -- but that doesn't mean it fully pulls it off. Written by Ralph Macchio, it feels like, well, a comic book story trying to pretend to be John Le Carre -- the dialogue's a bit clunky, the action (lots of shooting and rappelling) not wholly plausible. And it's trying so hard to seem twisty and talky the climax is three or four pages of dense explanation -- for a plot that wasn't that cryptic. As well, though set in South Africa it doesn't necessarily seem as though Macchio really knew anything about the country except guessing that it was probably in Africa. Actually it's funny reading stories involving South Africa from back then. In just a few years the issue of South African apartheid would become a defining international issue, but in stories even up into the early 1980s you wouldn't even know there was such a thing as apartheid!

Up next was the Marvel Fanfare saga, totalling 72 pages. Once more Macchio is writing, having presumably adopted the character as his own (as comic book writers are want to do) and this time paired with fan favourite George Perez, also known for his detailed art, though not the photo-realism of Gulacy (and with Bob Layton pinch hitting a few pages). Here the shift is toward a more super hero flavour, with more emphasis on the Widow's gadgets that give her, in effect, super powers (her wrist blasters, her grappling lines). There's acknowledgement of her super hero connections in a recap of her history, and with the mysterious villain revealed to be a foe she encountered when she was hanging with Daredevil.

Oh, there's certainly espionage undercurrents, and Nick Fury, Jimmy Woo, and SHIELD play their part. The globe hopping story involves the Widow looking into the disappearance (and possible defection back to the U.S.S.R.) of her sidekick, Ivan -- and the saga climaxing on a megalomaniac's island retreat complete with uniformed henchmen ala some of the more extravagant James Bond movies. But it's more fantasy/super-hero than Cold War espionage.

The emphasis is decidedly on action. Indeed, in the second chapter we open on action, then lead into the Widow reminiscing on what brought her to this point -- and we get a synopsis of an entire story involving the Widow returning to Russia, infiltrating a secret project, becoming romantically involved with someone... If you didn't know better, you'd assume it was a recap of a previous issue. In other words, instead of making that the story, it's treated as simply the back story for the action and fighting.

Perez is credited as co-plotter and one wonders if that influenced the tone and direction. Certainly a significant part involves the Widow being targeted by a colourful collection of international hitmen -- that bear no relationship to anything outside a super-hero fantasy (complete with colourful costumes and weapons). Just the sort of disposable team Perez used to send against the Teen Titans and other comics he's worked on, as though he just really loves designing new characters even if they aren't meant to last more than an issue or two.

It's a breezy, brisk saga but isn't much more than a series of action scenes strung together, and with somewhat clunky dialogue.

The Coldest War I review above, on its own. And, interestingly, re-reading it recently -- I enjoyed it more than I remembered, partly in contrast to the other tales here. It emerges as the most thoughtful, character-focused of these tales.

As I mentioned, this is presumably the entirety of the Widow's solo stories from that era. Not the entirety of her major appearances, of course, whether as guest star, or as co-star such as the graphic novel Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir. As should be obvious, none of the stories here struck me as "must reads" but, as often happens, by collecting them between a single cover, no one story really has to carry the book, either.

This review is based on the stories in their original publications.

Cover price: $24.99 USA.

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