GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "B" PAGE 3>

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Brave and the Bold Annual2001 (SC TPB) 80 pgs.

cover by Dick GiordanoWriters: Bob Haney, Dave Kaler, Jack Kirby. Pencils: George Roussos, Carmine Infantio, Steve Ditko, Joe Simon. Inks: George Roussos, Charles Paris, Rocke Mastroserio, Jack Kirby.
Colours: Lee Loughridge. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Brave and the Bold #50, 67, Captain Atom #85, Detective Comics #76

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Starting, I believe, last year, DC Comics has released a few "lost" annuals. That is, harkening back to a time when DC would regularly publish 80 page giants featuring reprints of older, hard to find material, DC has released a few mock comics--newly packaged reprints that are meant to feel like the ones from the 1970s. Format-wise, it's also intended to be a kind of middle ground between a regular comic and the Trade Paperbacks common today, being on expensive paper with stiff covers...just not as expensive, or as stiff, as a TPB.

DC had started to slow down on these "lost" comics, but now we have Brave and the Bold Annual #1, 1969 (the 1969 in the title is part of the joke).

The Brave and the Bold was a title that started out as a try out magazine for new characters, but soon was turned over to featuring team ups and, shortly after that, specifically Batman team-ups. That's how the title continued until it was cancelled to make way for Batman and the Outsiders in the early 1980s. Included here are a couple of semi-classic reprints from the 1960s. From B&B #50, there's a team up between Green Arrow (and sidekick Speedy) and the Martian Manhunter, which basically inaugurated the team up format, and the first Batman team up (with the Flash) from #67. Rounding out the comic is a "Boy Commandos" story by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from the 1940s, and from the 1960s, Captain Atom #85 (which was actually published by Charlton Comics, but DC bought up their catalogue years ago).

The best story in the collection is "The Death of the Flash" from B&B #67, written by Bob Haney and drawn by Carmine Infantino (inked a bit crudely by Charles Paris). It reminds you of a time when comics could be fast paced adventures, where the action was more than just splash pages and 10 page fight scenes, where single issue stories crammed enough into them to fill out two or three issues today. The story ain't particularly sophisticated or ambitious, but the fast-paced plotting could be studied, and learned from, by most comics writers today. Haney even injects some angst and emotion, in that the Flash discovers his superspeed is killing him, and wrestles with the idea of whether he should help Batman track some superfast thieves, thereby risking his life. It gives the story a dramatic core. The writing is a little too sixties at times, trying to emulate the camp Batman TV series, but the underlying story is interesting and entertaining. Infantino's art is also pretty good (Paris' unfortunate inks notwithstanding), reminding you why his eye for composition made him something of a Silver Age legend.

The Captain Atom story, likewise, is a fun, well-paced adventure. Written by Dave Kaler and drawn by comics legend Steve Ditko (well served by inker Rocke Mastroserio) it's nothing classic, but it's an enjoyable, well scripted story, with Captain Atom teamed with sidekick Nightshade (the theme of these stories is team ups) battling supervillains Punch and Jewelee.

The Green Arrow-Martian Manhunter story comes from a slightly simpler age than the other two, with little in the way of characterization or emotion. But writer Bob Haney still delivers a nicely plotted piece. It's a fast-paced, movie serial type romp, with some twists and turns. The opening pages alone set up an intriguing case...though quickly the heroes figure out what's going on and the intrigue dissipates. It's drawn by George Roussos in a simple, but serviceable, style.

The Boy Commando story has the under-age war heroes coming to America and meeting up with characters from other Simon and Kirby strips from that time: the Guardian & the Newsboy Legion and the Sandman & Sandy as well as the even younger Kid Commandos (that may've been an attempt by Simon and Kirby to launch another series). The Boy Commandos get kidnapped by Nazi agents, but the team up aspect is minor, with the other characters in little more than cameos.

There's nothing classic or indispensable here, but the solid Batman-Flash team up is almost worth the purchase by itself, and the other stories are entertaining to varying degrees. Of course DC's "lost" annuals pale a little beside Marvel's recent trend of releasing "Monster" issues. Marvel's gimmick is to randomly pick an on going title, and expand one issue with reprints backing up the regular, new story. Marvel's Monster Issues are roughly the same size as DC's 80 page giants...but considerably cheaper, which is a decided plus. Also DC's decision to mainly reprint material from the 1960s or before is too bad, neglecting worthy stories from the 1970s.

Of course, what this collection also does is remind one of what an under rated title was Brave and the Bold, particularly from the late 1960s and onwards. Throughout the 1970s, the Batman team-ups (drawn by first rate talents like Neal Adams, Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo) in B&B were of surprisingly high quality. It wasn't that these were deep, profound stories (though one or two were genuine classics), but as tightly plotted, breezy adventures, many written by Haney and often self-contained, single-issue stories, the series boasted a baseline readability that a lot of flashier comics can't match. If DC Comics didn't seem to have an editorial aversion to reprinting 1970s-era stories (maybe only a dozen TPB collections contain '70s reprints out of how many hundreds of TPBs DC has published) then they probably would've long ago published a Best of the Brave & the Bold TPB.

Cover price: $9.95 CDN/$5.95 USA.


Bullet Points2007 (SC TPB) 120 pgs.

cover by EdwardsWritten by J. Michael Straczynski. Illustrated by Tommy Lee Edwards.
Colours: Tommy Lee Edwards. Letters: John Workman. Editor: Mark Paniccia.

Reprinting: the five issue mini-series (2006) - plus covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Reviewed May 2012

The "What if...?" story may be almost unique to comics. I mean, certainly the idea of SF stories exploring alternate realities have been around. But comics may be the only place that has so fully embraced that concept as it applies to an already fictional universe. In the 1960s DC did occasional "imaginary" stories published in the pages of Superman and others. In the 1970s, Marvel had a regular comic -- What if...? -- that each issue explored some possible way Marvel lore could've diverged from the events fans knew. In later years came Elseworlds, Ultimate, Startling Stories, All-Star, Infinities and more.

Which brings us to Bullet Points, a five issue mini-series that re-imagines Marvel history by altering one seminal event.

In the "true" Marvel universe, in the 1940s, frail Steve Rogers is turned into the super hero, Captain America, thanks to the invention of Prof. Erskine...who is then killed moments later. In this story, writer J. Michael Straczynski posits the idea that Erskine is killed a day earlier...so the Captain America experiment never comes to fruition. As well, a young soldier guarding Erskine is also killed...one Ben Parker, who in the normal chain of events would've become the uncle of Peter Parker -- Spider-Man.

What if?/alternate reality comic book stories can be fun but, as noted in my opening paragraph, they've also been done...a lot. And the biggest problem with Bullet Points is it never really becomes more than just an old issue of What if...? that's been stretched out to over 100 pages!

Given the trend toward dark and "serious" comics, you might assume Straczynski is maybe using this to explore the old "what if super heroes really existed?" idea, and trying to deal with political ideas with opening captions dissecting what a bullet is and does, and referencing the real life assassinations of King, Kennedy, Ghandi, etc...but that turns out not really to be the point. This is first and foremost a super hero story about super heroes in a comic book universe.

Another reason you might assume some extra gravitas is the art by Tommy Lee Edwards which is quite effective for the most part -- and quite broody and dark, mixing hyper-realism with a sketchy, scratchy style. Edwards also supplying the sombre painted colours. Although it's not as effective in straight super hero action scenes set in the bright sunlight -- such as in the climax. And his faces don't entirely evoke the famous characters -- on one hand, this is an alternate reality...on the other hand, surely part of that should be that the heroes look like the familiar heroes...but in unfamiliar roles and situations. It was also sometimes hard to recognize characters from scene to scene.

Yet perhaps the biggest flaw is that Straczynski doesn't really seem to use his concept as the jumping off point for telling some grand adventure -- like, for instance, Justice League of America: The Nail. He doesn't set up this alternate reality Marvel universe, and then tackle a plot...rather, the plot is basically just chronicling how this Marvel universe diverge from the one we know. Yet, like so many What if and Elseworld stories before it...part of the gimmick is simply to show how the more things change...the more they stay the same. Straczynski basically just switches around identities -- so Bruce Banner doesn't become the Hulk...Peter Parker does; and Steve Rogers doesn't become Captain America...but he does become Iron Man (Straczynski not really explaining why his alternate universe means the Iron Man armour is designed 20 years earlier, and not by Tony Stark!) At times, it can almost border on simply being a "spot the in-joke" as, for instance, Dr. Strange (in a small part) doesn't become a sorcerer...but does somehow acquire Wolverine-like claws!

There's some attempt to make it about characterization...a bit. In so far as, for example, Peter Parker (without the guiding influence of his uncle) becomes a bitter, delinquent teen. But even then, it doesn't really succeed in making you believe the characterization is what it's about...or even that there's enough of it, and enough focus on it, to make it a "character" drama. I mean, for all that some characters emerge with bigger parts than others (Reed Richards) you still don't really end up with a "main" character. The characters still feel as though they are been driven by the plot, rather than vice versa...and the plot is mainly being driven by the desire to extrapolate this alternate reality, rather than a story...and Straczynski hasn't always concocted a plausible chain of events.

And there may have been some miscommunication between writer and artist: the story climaxes in what would still seem to be the mid-1960s and acknowledges that plenty of Marvel heroes aren't changed by this new reality...yet in the climactic chapter we see a bunch of Marvel heroes (in one or two panel cameos) that didn't come into being (or, at least, in costumes that didn't come into being) until the 1970s or 1980s!

Eventually it does turn into a more straight forward super hero story in the climactic issue, as the planet eating Galactus comes a-calling (as he did in established Marvel lore) only now with a different array of heroes to face him. Though even it more amounts to a twenty page action sequence rather than a story.

Ultimately...it's not like Bullet Points is especially terrible. And perhaps for someone who had never read another story like it before, it would benefit from a novelty. But as I say: "what if?" super hero stories are almost literally a dime a dozen and Straczynski doesn't really come up with anything especially unusual here in the core concepts or in the way in which this universe diverges from the norm, and without backing it up with an especially complex (or rollicking) plot or deep, memorable characterization. And maybe that was the point. Maybe Straczynski himself would say this was intended as nothing more than a fun homage to the old "What if...?" comic. But if so, he takes 110 pages and 5 issues to do what they did in one!

Cover price: $__ CDN/$13.99 USA.

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