GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Black Orchid
is reviewed here


Black Lightning, vol. 1 2016 (SC TPB) 200 pages.

Written by Tony Isabella, with Denny O'Neil. Pencils by Trevor Von Eeden, with Mike Netzer. Inks by Vince Colletta, others.

Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Black Lightning (1st series) #1-11, plus the Black Lighnting story from World's Finest #260 (1977 - 1980)

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

Number of readings: 1

Review posted: March 2018

Published by DC Comics

With plans already afoot for a live-action Black Lightning TV series, DC Comics presumably figured the time was ripe in 2016 to reprint the character's original appearances. And now that the series is airing (circa 2018), TV fans might enjoy seeing the roots of the property.

Black Lightning first appeared in the 1970s -- DC's first comic to feature a black lead (and one of only a very few black DC heroes at the time -- Mal of the Teen Titans the only one that comes significantly to mind; by this point Marvel already had comics starring Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Black Goliath). Created by Tony Isabella (with artist Trevor Von Eeden) the comic set the character -- typical for African-American characters -- in a quasi ghetto, with Black Lightning a hero of the streets. But it avoided the more "street-wise" cliches by having BL be Jefferson Pierce, up-standing school teacher in his alter ego (perhaps shades of Room 222 or To Sir, With Love).

An interesting aspect to the series is that BL's beat, the so-called Suicide Slum, was in Superman's Metropolis -- maybe adding a subtle commentary on Superman comics and their guileless vision of American big cities. (This echoed DC's earlier Ragman series, which was also an attempt to present a grittier, ghetto superhero set in a pre-existing locale -- Batman's Gotham City; although Ragman was white).

I think I read somewhere that DC had already been interested in publishing a black hero, perhaps suggesting Isabella hastily threw together a pitch more than that this was an idea he had had in his pocket for a while. That might explain why aspects of it can feel a bit as if he's making it up as he goes. In the very first issue it's not clear if BL even has super powers since he just fights with his fists. By the second issue we are told he has a forcefield-generating belt -- made for him by his, um, tailor. Later the belt is destroyed and yet BL still generates a forcefield while a caption simply says the reasons are "not ours to unfold" at the moment -- but it's not followed up on in the next few issues. It can feel a bit like Isabella really doesn't care about that stuff and is hand-waving it away.

But that's maybe because what he does care about is the story and the characters. He does go some way to setting up some interesting dynamics with earnest Jefferson Pierce (teacher by day, crimefighter by night), his avuncular father-figure, Peter Gamby (the aforementioned belt-inventing tailor), the gruff police Inspector Henderson, with his own adult son (and the two parallel father-son relationships seem thematically deliberate), plus little person informant, Two-Bits Tanner, and Jefferson's ex-wife, Lynn (a divorced couple being an arguably grown up idea for a 1970s comic).

As well, the first seven or eight issues form an arc, with BL tackling organized crime (here represented by a group called The 100) and especially its local crime boss, Tobias Whale -- building to a climactic (and pathos-tinged) showdown.

I had initially though Tobias Whale was a conspicuously blatant rip-off of Marvel's Kingpin -- a voluminous bald mobster with erudite diction. But the Kingpin had more or less been written out of the Spider-Man comics a few years earlier and it would be a few more years before he would return to menace Daredevil. So presumably Isabella figured Marvel had benched the character, making the archetype fair game (maybe even intending it as an homage). I had wondered if the fact that he was an ethnically ambiguous chalk white was to avoid being political (if he was a white man or a black man, either could be seen as having baggage in a series about a black hero). But later I realized Isabella was going for literary resonance: Tobias Whale is, in a sense, the "white whale" (ie: from the novel Moby Dick).

Admittedly, even these ambitions can feel a bit loose, as if Isabella isn't fully sure what to do with them (in a way, BL is Tobias' obsessively pursued white whale more than Tobias is BL's). And the relationship between Jefferson and Lynn never seems to get more than a panel or two here and there.

Still, issue by issue Isabella delivers some solid, engaging page-turners, reminding me (reading them now) that Isabella was arguably an above average scribe at the time. Oh, maybe not hitting the peaks of some of the more celebrated writers of the Bronze Age, but equally rarely sinking into too many valleys, delivering credibly-paced out plots with hints of higher ambitions (ie: the white whale allusion, etc.) Reading through these early issues there's a smoothness to them that is quite appealing. Sure, they suffer from problems of the era (some corny dialogue, not enough time spent delving into details) but they hold up. As an example, Isabella brings Superman by for a guest appearance (logically enough given the setting is Metropolis) but does so in a way that doesn't feel like just a generic superhero meets superhero story, or like a gratuitous, sales-boosting gimmick. And with an interesting use of Superman pal Jimmy Olsen as the catalyst.

Aiding and abetting Isabella is artist Trevor Von Eeden who in addition to being black (so a black artist working on a black superhero) was getting his first major exposure on the comic. Von Eeden would go on to become one of the most stylistically dynamic artists around, with some wild composition and panel arrangement techniques that could make his stuff eye-popping (and, at its most indulgent, a tad confusing). There's not too much of that here, but you can see how quickly he's evolving as an artist. The first issue or two are simply okay, but very quickly he presents effective panels with a straight forward, realist faces and figures. And though his composition isn't as experimental as it would be in later years, there's a sometimes subtle but equally effective storyboarding that helps sell some of the scenes. Von Eeden's pencils definitely give the series a solid foundation that helps Isabella's scripts.

But once the 100/Tobias Whale arc is resolved (and ancillary threads like BL's evolving relationship with the police), there's maybe a sense they're struggling to figure out where to go next (a collection of #1-8 might have made an effective "graphic novel" just for itself). There appears to have been some sort of shake-up behind the scenes, and the whole thing for nought as the comic was caught up in the infamous DC Implosion (where the company abruptly cancelled a bunch of titles due to over-extending itself). Isabella's final issue (#10) is a kind of quirky homage, with BL tackling a Flash villain and the whole thing presented like a Flash comic, the story a bit cheesier, and broken up into chapters. Although it's a cute idea, I suspect it might have been a bit too subtle an in-joke, and a casual reader might pick it up, think this was what the comic was like normally, and decide against following it. (At least I'm assuming this is the case: given this was Isabella's final issue, I suppose it's not impossible it was ghost-written by someone else, such as The Flash's Cary Bates).

That issue also foreshadows a plot line to come. But with Isabella gone, that thread seems to be forgotten as...

..taking over the writing for the next issue is Denny O'Neil. Although O'Neil might have seemed an obvious choice (a respected industry writer with experience writing "socially relevant" comics) one suspects O'Neil was late to the gig, as his first issue feels hasty and disjointed while trying to be more hard hitting than Isabella's had been, but in a way that feels clumsy and self-conscious. As well, it's presented in such a way that BL himself is kept at arm's length (another character narrates) almost as if O'Neil hadn't had time to get up to speed on the character and his cast (and BL also talks a lot more stereotypically, um, "black"). This would also be Von Eeden's last issue.

It also proved the comics' last published issue (caught up in the company-wide mass cancellation). However the unpublished twelfth issue finally saw print in World's Finest #260 where Black Lightning later found a home when that comic was jumbo-sized with multiple features per issue. Mike Netzer (then billed as Mike Nasser, and working in a style reminiscent of Neal Adams, Rich Buckler and the like) is on board as artist, but O'Neil still doesn't really feel like he has much feel for the character the way Isabella did. O'Neil tries to be grittier, even working in racism more than Isabella did -- but in a way that can feel more gratuitous and self-conscious (and, as I say, not helped by O'Neil's making BL seem a bit more "jive"). And once again the plotting is erratic and muddled mixing a super villain (Dr. Polaris) with a runaway teen plot (and the problematic idea that even though we are told the boy's father beats him, it ends with BL telling the kid to go home because his parents need him -- I'd like to think O'Neil was just writing to a deadline and lost track of the thread).

So despite a kind of weak end to this collection, the early issues of Black Lightning are enjoyable page-turners with two notable talents (Isabella and Von Eeden) delivering solid work. The story arc linking the first few issues gives it all a sense of a graphic novel. And for fans of the current TV series it might be interesting to see the roots of the show. For even though there are differences (the TV Jefferson is middle-aged with teenage daughters) in other ways the foundations are here (Tobias Whale, Peter Gamby, etc.)

Cover price: $__. 


Black Panther
reviews are here


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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