GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "C" Page 1

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Captain America
for reviews go to the Captain America section


Captain Britain
for reviews go to the Captain Britain (and MI 13) section


Captain Marvel (the original)
for reviews go to the Shazam section


Captain Marvel (the other one)
see The Death of Captain Marvel and The Life of Captain Marvel


cover by WeeksCaptain Marvel: Secret Invasion  2008 (HC & SC TPB) 136 pages

Written by Brian Reed. Pencils by Lee Weeks. Inks by various.
Colours: Jason Keith. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Stephen Wacker.

Reprinting: the 5 issue mini-series (2007) plus Civil War: The Return

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct. 2014

Published by Marvel Comics

There have been numerous characters to hold the name Captain Marvel, from the original guy (whose rights currently reside with DC Comics) to various Marvel Comics characters, of which the most famous is arguably this guy -- Mar-Vell, of the alien Kree race who had a sporadic publishing history before being killed off in the rather definitely titled graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel, published some three decades before this mini-series (though in comic book years, presumably it's only supposed to be a few years earlier).

But suddenly Captain Marvel reappears in modern New York. The initial theory is he hasn't come back to life, but is experiencing a time paradox -- this is simply Marvel from before he died! But there are curious aspects, like that even Marvel's memories seem a bit fuzzy after the experience, and he has weird indistinct flashbacks he can't make head nor tale of. As well, Marvel's reappearance has inspired a wealthy woman calling herself Mother Starr to establish an entire religion/cult around Marvel's seeming miraculous resurrection.

And just to add to the muddle this follows on the heels of Civil War (the previous cross-title crossover epic) and at the beginning of the next one: Secret Invasion (from which this derives its title for the collected edition) in which the shape-shifting alien Skrulls attempt to infiltrate and invade earth.

And muddle is a good word for it.

This is perhaps a good illustration of the problem with modern comics and their incestuous, obsessive continuity. Because it doesn't fully hold up (particularly read a few years later) as a stand alone read, seeming too much like what it presumably was -- simply a sidebar to the Secret Invasion epic. But as well, it's not clear how much you need to bring to the reading. The story involves super-heroes Iron Man (then currently director of the spy agency SHIELD) and Ms. Marvel (obviously with her own history with Marvel, and currently Iron Man's agent). Plus other characters like a SHIELD agent, Sante, and a tabloid reporter, Nathan Jefferson, not to mention would be evangelist, Mother Starr. Characters I'm not sure if we are supposed to know from other comics (Jefferson and Starr act as if they've had other encounters -- but maybe writer Bran Reed is just trying to hint at events that occur off the page).

It's also -- arguably -- a good illustration of the nature of some modern comics that clearly want to seem like grand, profound, thinking person's sagas -- without fully pulling it off. The whole idea of a religious group rising up around Marvel's return is rife with social commentary. And it touches on the idea of whether super heroes should be proactive in social and political arenas, not just fighting super villains. While Marvel himself is presented as a brooding, uncertain figure. Heck, even the frequent allusions to classical art (Mar-Vell is curiously fixated on a real life painting by Charles Le Brun) all seems like Reed thinks he's written something really high brow. And it is boosted by Lee Weeks striking, realistic and atmospheric art (at least on the first few issues -- some later inkers are a bit heavy, though it's still solid work).

But it can also feel a bit like Reed is relying too much on the concepts and less on the storytelling. You can come away remembering the broad strokes ideas, whether it's the pretensions to philosophical rumination, or simply the mystery surrounding Mar-Vell (and why villains -- also seeming back from the dead -- are coming after him), rather than the scenes themselves, the dialogue, the human interaction. Even Reed seems aware of flaws in the underpinnings -- such as when characters acknowledge that in a super hero reality, characters come back from the dead all the time, and Marvel himself wasn't exactly a top-of-the-line character so it seems weird a cult would spring up around him like he's the second coming or something.

Of course some of that may have to do with the broader Secret Invasion saga as, without giving too much away, Skrulls are certainly involved with the new religion -- but I was never entirely sure why or to what extent.

Marvel himself is a kind of awkward property/character to tackle as he's been presented at various extremes, and undergone various alterations (starting out a silver haired guy in green and white with no innate super powers and eventually evolving into a yellow haired super being in blue and red; sometimes solo, sometimes paired with sidekick Rick Green, sometimes the two acting as de facto alter egos for each other; sometimes depicted as an aggressive hot head, reflecting his space soldier origins, other times as a Cosmically Enlightened warrior-monk type -- sometimes writers evoke an ambiguous middle, the quasi-pacifist fighter with flashes of temper). I actually have a fair amount of affection for the character, having enjoyed some of his past adventures. But I didn't necessarily feel that there was enough of a character here to make me care.

This even relates to Weeks art. Because even as I said it was really good, moody yet also nicely realistic -- it also lacks a certain emotion, or passion. The faces are well drawn, but largely impassive. The figures well composed, but maybe lacking an idiosyncratic body language to humanize the moments.

By the story's end (and without giving too much away) it's not really clear what Reed -- or Marvel -- intended out of the series. Whether it was an attempt to re-introduce Captain Marvel, reinvent the property, or was just meant as a one-time gimmick. And maybe that's its biggest flaw. At five issues, and despite attractive art and interesting potential, it seems a minor, undeveloped plot for itself (and would've been better as just two or three issues, or as a sub-plot in another series, like The Avengers) without making you eager for anything more to come from it.

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: $ __  


cover by DavisClanDestine Classic  2008 (HC) 300 pages

Written and drawn by Alan Davis. Inked by Mark Farmer.
Colours:Helen Nally, others. Letters: Pat Prentice. Editor: Paul Neary, Bon Harras.

Reprinting: Clandestine (1st series) #1-8, X-Men & Clandestine #1-2, and the Clandestine story from Marvel Comics Presents 158 (1994-1996)

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

Additional notes: cover gallery; character sketches; afterward by Davis

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

These issues (minus, I think, the Marvel Comics Presents short) were previously collected as the TPB, Clandestine vs. the X-Men.

Alan Davis started out an artist, then became a writer/artist. But Clandestine was, I believe, his first wholly original, self-created series. And its short, erratic life is perhaps an illustration of the vagaries of comic book publishing.

After doing eight issues, Davis left because of "creative differences" with the Marvel brass, and a new creative team took over...and according to some commentaries I've read, to unsatisfying effect -- and it was cancelled just four issues later. Yet can we really blame the new creative team for the cancellation? Or was the root of the "creative differences" between Davis and Marvel that Clandestine wasn't selling well to begin with? Still, within a year of Davis' departure, fences must've been mended one way or another (looking at the credits, at the very least there was an editorial shake up at Marvel) and Davis was back, reviving Clandestine with a two-part mini-series teaming them with the ever popular X-Men. Though since the characters didn't get another revival for almost a decade, it implies that even with Davis at the helm, Clandestine wasn't proving a runaway hit.

And, sure, there's nothing really that stand out or extraordinary about the series.

So why is it so darn enjoyable?

Even the opening concept isn't really that fresh, as it begins with seeming unconnected people in different parts of the world being targeted and attacked by mysterious killers -- leading to the revelation that the "seeming unconnected" people are, in fact, connected, and themselves are mysterious enigmas. Even as I was reading this, I came across another story with a similar opening (though, funnily enough, I can't now recall what that story was!) But maybe that's a mark of Davis' success. Because even knowing it's not necessarily that unusual, Davis keeps it interesting and entertaining.

Davis throws a lot of questions and mysteries at us, not just who are these mysterious people, but who are their mysterious attackers (who clearly aren't human) and what do they want -- constantly demanding to know where the Gryphon is!

As the story unfolds, we learn all these "unconnected" people are part of the same secretive Destine family (get it: the Destine Clan...ClanDestine?), all of whom have different super powers. Think of it as the Inhumans, except an extended British family as opposed to an entire colony. Our "intro" to the family is Rory and Pandora, two youngsters who know nothing of their family's secret and, having manifested super powers, do what any comic book obsessed young person would do -- decide they have an obligation to become crime fighting super heroes! They are then shocked to learn that not only do all the members of their family have powers, but the familial relationships aren't what they had been told. And the other family members are shocked to discover, after centuries of living quiet, below-the-radar lives...young Rory and Pandora are sneaking out at night in garish costumes, jeopardizing the family's treasured anonymity.

Part of the appeal is that though mainly a drama, there's a lightness and some gentle comedy in the telling, a quirkiness to the characters and their interaction, and a playing with conventions that is quite appealing. By having the clan be -- for the most part -- decent people, willing to do the right thing, but not interested in becoming costumed crimefighters, it makes for believable, reluctant heroes. And though some of the powers are stock, others are off-beat, exploring the negative as well as the positive of such abilities -- such as a member with super senses, who needs to relax by periodically retreating to a sensory deprivation chamber, or who can lapse into a kind of ecstatic coma by eating a single bite of chocolate.

I'd commented in a couple of other Davis-written efforts that his dialogue was okay, but mainly workmanlike. But here he does a nice job with the interaction, and with nuanced, fairly rounded personalities. The kids, Rory and Pandora, could easily be cloying or annoying (or push the story in a "kiddie" direction), but aren't and don't. Since aimed at the American market, Clandestine isn't perhaps as conspicuously British as some other British-set comics. That is, it is set in England, but Davis doesn't try over much to employ a distinctly English milieu or colloquialisms -- which is too bad.

And in addition to a nice feel for the personalities, the sense of family dynamics, Davis also brings his art to the table. Davis is definitely what's known as a fan favourite in comicdom, with realistic, well rendered faces and figures, a robust, dramatic style, and a tendency toward idealism -- the men are muscular, the women implausibly buxom. Yet he's capable of giving the characters quirky individualism. Rory and Pandora look like youngsters (pre-teens) while another family member seems intended to evoke...Woody Allen. I've said before that Davis' style puts me in mind of the late, great Don Newton, or sometimes Neal Adams...pretty lofty company (in my opinion). I've also suggested that I can sometimes be mixed on him. Oh, he's never less than good. But sometimes it can be a little too polished, or bland. Among his best work was his 1980s Captain Britain art. But this, too, is Davis at the top of his game. Maybe working on his own creations set a fire under him. Or maybe, because they are his creations, his illustrations can't help but be the definitive visuals for the series.

After the initial four-issue story arc is resolved, a few more issues ensue, filling in some of the origin and history of the (long lived) family (although I'm not sure I fully grasped how the siblings could be of such radically different ages), tossing in an adventure or two, and guest appearances from Spider-Man, as well as smaller appearances by the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange and, in flashback, the world war II era super hero team, the Invaders. I sometimes grumble about new series that feel a need to toss in high profile guest stars (or are pressured to by editors) -- presumably to boost sales. But at least here Davis saves them for after the the first story arc -- letting the clan establish itself on its own first. As well, the guest stars seem reasonably logical for the scenes in which they appear.

Then came Davis' departure. But even if threads were left dangling -- a mysterious organization that was a looming threat and with a few questions about their origins that needed clarifying -- and avenues left unexplored -- being an extended family, Davis presumably intended to add other family members as needed -- he doesn't leave in mid cliffhanger or anything. Issue #8 is a reasonable end to his quirky run.

This collection finishes with Davis' return just a few months later, with the X-Men and Clandestine mini-series (two 48 pages issues!). Davis cheekily dismisses those four issues he didn't write by having Rory refer to them as being a dream he had. I had assumed the mini-series was an opportunity to wrap up dangling threads. But that turns out not to be the case, the story just a relatively isolated story of the ClanDestine and the X-Men getting involved in an ancient demon's attempt to breach our dimension, leading to misunderstanding and conflict. The story can get a bit muddled -- deliberately so -- in its misdirection and things-aren't-quite-what-they-seem, but is an enjoyable puzzler. Though even by this point, the X-Men had such an expanded roster, some of the team are just filling up the background. But Davis wisely keeps the focus on a few central team members. It isn't anything exceptional -- and at 96 pages, is mayhap a bit thin, plot-wise. At the same time, it's decently paced, providing a variety of scenes (some action, some character, some comedy) to make use of the ensemble cast (as opposed to just cramming everyone into the same panels, or simply stretching out a fight for 96 pages). And neither is it a disappointment in the context of the earlier issues, still being eminently enjoyable, still boasting a few quirky ideas, clever twists, and attention to characterization -- of Clan Destine and X-folk alike.

I started out this review suggesting I'm not sure of the series' commercial success, even with Davis at the helm. Clearly Marvel sees it as having cult potential, having published a second Davis produced mini-series in 2008 and having released all these 1990s comics -- twice! First as a 1997 TPB, Clandestine vs. the X-Men, and now as a snazzy, hardcover, Clandestine Classic. Yet just as short lived TV series can maybe find a second life as a DVD collection, so two can failed comics. Whether ClanDestine could've sustained a hundred issues, or whether its appeal here is precisely that it's a tantalizing glimpse of a series that could've been, the fact is this is a highly entertaining collection. It's beautifully illustrated, with quirky, well considered characters and dilemmas. And if a few threads are left dangling, enough is answered and resolved that it does satisfy as a self-contained collection...and as an enjoyable volume to have on the shelf.

"Classic"?...just maybe.

Davis returned to the property with a later mini-series -- reviewed below.

Original cover price: $ __ CDN/ $29.99 USA 


coverClanDestine: Blood Relative  2008 (HC TPB) 120 pages

Written and pencilled by Alan Davis. Inks by Mark Farmer.
Colours: Paul Mounts, J. Brown. Letters: Dave Lanphear.

Reprinting: Clandestine (2nd series) #1-5 (2008)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug. 2015

Published by Marvel Comics

Mainstream comics are basically "shared world" properties with the rights to the characters ultimately residing with the company. But creators who work in that field nonetheless sometimes "adopt" characters they have an affinity for, using them again and again, or create their own characters they clearly feel some affection for.

And that seems to be the case with Alan Davis' Clandestine -- his stories about the extended, long lived Destine family where each member has different bizarre abilities and super powers. They're a little bit like the Inhumans (except a family rather than an isolated colony) with hints of the X-Men.

He created the team -- under the auspices of Marvel Comics -- for a self-titled series. But "creative differences" led to him leaving the series (or being booted off it) after a few issues, only to have his replacements only muster a few largely ill-regarded issues before the series was cancelled. Which would suggest if the problem the editors had with Davis was over sales, getting fresh creative blood didn't help. Bridges must have been mended quickly, because Davis was back on the team in an X-Men/Clandestine miniseries (all of which was collected in a snazzy hardcover collection ~ reviewed above). Some years later Davis got another crack at it with this mini-series, and still later did a series of interlocking annuals (including Daredevil, the Fantastic Four and Wolverine) in which the uniting gimmick was members of the Destine Clan guest starred.

Anyways...

So this collects Davis' second go-round with the characters. Unlike the original series, which was intended to be on-going, this was marketed from the get go as a finite mini-series. Oh, I'm sure Davis was hoping sales would warrant it getting an extension, but at least this time around there's less sense it is interrupted unexpectedly. Davis tries to tie a few things up, even seeming to write out a character or two (though it's such an extended group, doing so doesn't dramatically affect the franchise). Although, oddly enough, this run also introduces a mysterious threat in the form of a shadow organization that goes unresolved -- whether this was Davis hoping to encourage readers to clamour for more, or whether it just tied into some on-going Marvel stuff (maybe readers were supposed to recognize the group) or set up that later Annuals crossover I alluded to, I'm not sure.

Regardless, I had mentioned in my review of the first Clandestine collection that it was a lot of fun and highly enjoyable -- and Davis' return to the well hasn't diminished the experience by much.

Clandestine remains an entertaining read, and arguably Davis' best work. There's a nice mix of the fantastic and super hero stuff (with some interesting powers and variations on established tropes) with -- and this can't be underestimated -- a genuine sense of the characters as people, a quirky family with the appropriately quirky dynamics (as some get along, some don't). It mixes genuine whimsy and humour (without becoming cloying or simply tongue-in-cheek) with adventure and suspense. And it's beautifully drawn by Davis in his signature idealized realism, mixing impossibly buff men and buxom women with more realistic characters and settings, and convincingly capturing the action and heroism and yet also scenes of characters just sitting around in their civvies.

My guess is the property just really fires Davis' enthusiasm as both writer and artist.

His approach here isn't really to treat it as a five chapter mini-series, or as a collection of singles issue adventures. Rather, it's more just a free-flowing collection of plot threads, almost as if it is just meant to be seen as an on-going series that has been shoe-horned into five issues.

Because it's a group of characters, Davis can break them up into separate plot lines. The result is you can't maybe say it's a carefully plotted adventure, or even necessarily focus on what the "main" plot is -- even as it keeps you turning the pages, not really having time to get complacent. And, as I say: it does mostly wrap up by the end.

Davis also works in some guest stars, but in a way that seems suitable to the material, rather than as just extraneous marketing gimmicks. Most notably he tosses in Excalibur, the super hero team he also co-created, as some of the Clandestine find themselves in an alternate reality, hooking up with Excalibur from a period where that team was bouncing around through the so-called Multiverse (in a run of issues known as the Cross Time Caper). Actually, since that alternate reality involves an earth where humans have been enslaved and engage in gladiatorial fights, one could almost see that as Davis doing another nod to a property he worked on -- Killraven.

Davis also tosses in the Inhumans (a logical group to throw in as one can easily imagine they might have inspired his creation of Clandestine) and does so in a way that makes their involvement comprehensible even if you weren't that familiar with them (by throwing in a brief reference to them before they become relevant to the story, so foreshadowing them).

Admittedly, how well the saga reads in general if you were completely unfamiliar with the Clandestine I'm less sure of. I mean, it's no worse than any comic book collection featuring pre-existing characters, but it is sort of assuming some knowledge of past adventures -- what with one plot thread involving them battling a returning adversary from the original series. I'm not suggesting that's any worse than picking up a random Superman or Spider-Man collection, but as a "mini-series" it is clearly just a continuation of the original series.

I'm not sure why the Clandestine doesn't seem to enjoy more success. At least, I'm assuming it hasn't really been a big seller. The limited first run, this finite mini-series -- even the fact that both collections have been released only in hardcover (suggesting sales haven't warranted a soft cover re-issue). I mean, Davis is, I believe, a popular creator, and obviously the fact that the group does get dusted off (and collected) suggests its teetering on the edge of mainstream success.

But for my money, it remains a highly enjoyable exercise, nicely capturing the flavour and best aspects of series like The X-Men while (if only thanks to the limited issues) not sinking into a bog of continuity references and muddled histories. It mixes a charm and light-heartedness with suspense and characters (and relationships) that seem to have real flesh and blood. Beautifully rendered by Davis who seems at the top of his game as artist and writer both. Of course, maybe it's that very limitedness that is its appeal -- it hasn't had time to get overused or stale.

Still, whatever the reason -- a lot of fun.

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: $ __  


Clandestine vs. The X-Men
pretty much the same contents were re-released as the hardcover Clandestine Classic

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