GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "D" Page 2

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Cover by Adams The Deadman Collection 2001 (HC TPB) 354 pages

Written by Arnold Drake, Jack Miller, Neal Adams, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher. Illustrated by Neal Adams, with Carmine Infantino. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Jack Miller, Dick Giordano.

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

Number of readings: various

Reprinting: Strange Adventures #205-216, Brave & the Bold #79, 86, Aquaman #50-52, Challengers of the Unknown #74 (1967-1970)

Published by DC Comics

Cynical circus aerialist, Boston Brand (under the stage name "Deadman"), is murdered in mid-performance, however an Eastern-style supreme deity, Rama Kushna, "The Face of the Universe", grants his ghost a chance to track down his killer, a mysterious man with a hooked hand. Deadman will remain unheard and unseen, but can possess the bodies of living people. Thus empowered, and understandably embittered, Deadman sets out to find the Hook, following various red herrings over the course of 12 issues of Strange Adventures and two of The Brave and the Bold (teaming up with Batman) that invariably led to him helping others, before finally tracking down his killer.

This epic saga -- really a bunch of individual stories, loosely forming a story arc by the search for the Hook -- remains surprisingly fresh, thanks to its off-beat mix of ideas. The series was a blend of crime thriller (as opposed to super-hero adventure, since there were no costumed villains in sight -- an absence that was surprisingly effective), human drama, eerie mysticism with an Eastern flavour, superhero (with Deadman's circus costume providing an appropriately macabre "costume") and, of course, a premise that was a supernatural spin on TV's The Fugitive (with the Hook replacing the One-Armed Man). The circus milieu, though only exploited in a few of the stories, was also wonderfully evocative -- an environment never before or since used as a backdrop for a comic book series. The stories were a mix of anthology, with Deadman sometimes in different locations, dealing with new faces, and on-going series, with periodic returns to the circus and the irregularly used supporting players like Vashnu and Tiny.

Even Deadman himself was an off-beat personality. Hard-boiled and coarse (though with a heart-of-gold, natch), he was middle-aged, weathered (with a broken nose) and, of course, dead. His frustration and rage, often seething below the surface, made him a passionate character and his utter isolation made him one of the most poignant. And his sense of personal mission (though he was easily sidetracked by a sense of altruism into helping others) gave the character and the series a focus and an intensity. And dig that '60s dialogue, baby.

Neal Adams art and unusual panel composition, of course, added a lot to the mood. Adams, admittedly, is an uneven artist, but when he's "on", well, there's a reason he's something of a legend. Though, ironically, it's the first story, by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino (neither of whom did another, though Infantino was given story credit on a couple of other issues) that remains the most memorable, with the characters and scenes vividly realized and Infantino using striking panel composition.

Actually an e-mailer pointed out both Drake and Infantino did work on Deadman again -- Drake wrote a few issues of The Challengers of the Unknown that guest starred Deadman, and Infantino drew a Batman-Deadman team-up as one of the stories in the anniversary Detective Comics #500 (a good issue to track down, though the Deadman team-up was one of the lesser stories).

Though I was familiar with Deadman, I didn't realize the character had ever been a lead feature until I came upon back issues of a 1985 reprint series. I picked up one issue just on a whim, then another, then another -- I was, much to my surprise, hooked. It was intended as a slightly more "grown up" series than a lot of DC's comics at the time (I'm not judging, I'm just repeating what I've read) and the uniqueness of the series and its various ideas make it a shame that DC hasn't bothered to re-collect it as a more economical TPB.

This is a review based on the issues reprinted in a mid-'80s reprint series

Cover price: $___ CDN./$71.00 USA.


Cover by Ross Death Defying 'Devil 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 120 pages

Written by Joe Casey, Alex Ross, with Jim Kreuger. Illustrated by Edgar Salazar, with Andy Smith.
Colours: Romulo Fajardo, Jr., with Debora Carita. Letters: Simon Bowland.

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Reprinting: Death Defying 'Devil #1-4

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed November 17, 2009

Published by Dynamite

I find myself a bit amazed at how awful Dynamite's super hero line is.

Yeah, that's harsh -- and, obviously, subjective. I've certainly come across some reviews of their comics that were more favourable. But for me, there's a bizarre, well, amateurishness to what I've read. And the reason I'm "amazed" is because Dynamite is a glossy, professional comics publisher, one that got its foot in the door producing decent enough comics licensed from other mediums like TV's Battlestar Galactica. When they decided to finally jump into the super hero market -- the genre that largely dominates mainstream comics -- they didn't go about it tentatively, instead creating an instant universe of characters by resurrecting dozens of Golden Age comic book characters that had fallen into the public domain. And to oversee it, they recruited Alex Ross, the artist whose fully painted art (along with some plotting credits) had made him a fan favourite for his involvement with such seminal works as Marvels (for Marvel Comics) and Kingdom Come (for DC). Ross doesn't provide art for Dynamite's comics (other than covers) but he is clearly the guiding force -- which is why I tend to think of Dynamite's line as a single entity, rather than a product of different creators, with the potential for highs and lows.

Dynamite's super hero line begat with the first Project Superpowers mini-series, in which a bunch of 1940s heroes found themselves resurrected in (more or less) modern times. It was used as the launching pad for a bunch of mini-series, including this one featuring the original Daredevil -- here generally referred to as 'Devil so as not to get into copyright entanglements with Marvel Comics who have owned the name for decades.

And this four part story (plus a sixteen page prologue released as part of the annual Free Comic Book Day) is, like Project Superpowers, a strangely muddled, confused effort that fails to satisfy as a story...or to convince you it'll get better if you stick around for future adventures.

Part of the problem is that the Dynamite Universe is based on resurrecting decades old characters that most readers have barely heard of...yet in which little effort is made to explain things for the newer readers. I mean, I have some passing familiarity with Golden Age comics, and even I found a lot of the background poorly articulated.

The story has 'Devil, who is mysteriously mute ever since his re-appearance in Project Superpowers, and Justine, a female French agent, tackling minions of The Claw, an old war time super villain who seems to be at the centre of some global terrorist cult. They also team up with the super fast Silver Streak and the masked aviator, The Ghost. Which is a little what I mean about lack of explanation. The Silver Streak is easy enough to get -- he's just a Flash/Whizzer/Quicksilver type. But the Ghost isn't as clear who/what he is or the extent/limits of his powers (and one suspects they've completely re-invented him from his Golden Age stories, given how different he looks in a one page flashback).

Anyway, thrown into this mix is Dragon, a guy who dresses in a similar costume to 'Devil, and attacks him -- insisting that 'Devil's not the true 'Devil, but an imposter who has usurped a great man's legend.

The art by Edgar Salazar is reasonably good -- arguably more consistent than the art in Project Superpowers. It perhaps helps that Dynamite gave up on the faux-painted colours of the Project Superpowers series, which tended to just look muddy, for more conventional colouring. But though the art is certainly good, viscerally it left me mixed. The action and talky scenes both tend to be a bit stiff, and there aren't too many striking images or panels (save a few shots as we see the Ghost's plane looming overhead).

But it's in the writing where the saga is let down. I mentioned near the beginning that it occasionally seemed "amateurish". In a way, it's as if Ross hasn't quite shaken off his fanboy roots when it comes to plotting, as it almost seems like something a kid would do. The focus is mainly on the action/fight scenes, as if he and co-plotter Casey see story and characterization as being like panel borders -- just a necessary evil to be squeezed in around the cool pictures.

The "reality" in which the characters exist is a bit confused, which is the problem with creating a "new" universe as opposed to DC and Marvel's long established ones. The Superpowers world isn't quite like ours, but it's not always clear what are the rules. There are also technical questions, like why is a French agent running around on U.S. soil, using lethal force? Isn't she out of her jurisdiction? And despite her clearly having authority and government resources...when she and the heroes go to thwart the Claw's next scheme, they have no back up. And during a briefing she announces the Claw is using brainwashed operatives -- "sleepers" who might not know they are the Claw's operatives. But, um, we didn't see this earlier. Well, except one scene where a Claw operative starts murmuring to himself, but it wasn't clear this was the result of brainwashing -- he could've just been spouting dogma (blame Salazar's visuals? Or Casey's script?). Me, I prefer a story where we see when the heroes come to their realization...not where they toss off an explanation after the fact.

Likewise, how the characters make deductions is basically just left up to the French agent announcing information derived from unseen and unknown contacts as opposed to anything depicted in the pages. And the Claw's plan remains, well, non-existent, with even the heroes left to speculate about why the Claw is doing what he's doing. Again, it's a bit like a kid who's just trying to get to the cool scenes, and doesn't really care how or why he gets there.

Which then gets us to the characters...of which there aren't any. Not really. I mean, the 'Devil is mute, so remains a pretty blank slate, with Justine (the French agent), The Silver Streak, and The Ghost pretty non-descript, generic personalities. There to utter a line or two, but not really to be people through whom the scenes are filtered. The closest we get is a scene where, during some particularly anarchic violence, The Ghost cheerfully says it's like "old times" (referring to their war time exploits) and Silver Streak grimly echoes him, evincing less enthusiasm. But that's about it.

And even the fight scenes are pretty bland and generic, as 'Devil fights Dragon a couple of times, and the heroes fight the Claw's minions a couple of times. But you could pretty much mix and match the panels to little discernable effect.

And to top it all off, this is yet another mini-series which isn't really a mini-series -- that is, a stand alone, beginning-middle-and-end sort of affair. By the end, the Claw is still loose, still with (or without) a master plan; Dragon is still running about; we are left to infer Dragon was right -- 'Devil isn't the original, true Daredevil. But we have no hints or clues as to who he might be...nor do Silver Streak and the others really care. And there's another, sinister, sub-plot introduced that is left dangling.

So, let's recap: it's a not very interesting, poorly developed plot featuring not very interesting, nor well defined heroes that, after a lot of page consuming fighting, doesn't really take you anywhere or resolve much. But it has okay art.

Man, I think I'll tell the guys at my local comic shop that if I try to buy another Dynamite super hero comic co-plotted by Alex Ross, that they should refuse to sell it to me. Better yet, they should just shoot me.

This is a review based on the original the mini-series and the FCBD one-shot.

Cover price: $___ CDN./$14.99 USA.


Cover by Starlin The Death of Captain Marvel 1982 (SC GN) 64 pages
also re-issued in 2010 as a hardcover collection, with some additional material (reviewed below as well).

Written and illustrated by Jim Starlin.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: James Novak. Editor: Al Milgrom.

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

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewd: Aug. 2010

Additional notes: Originally published as Marvel Graphic Novel #1, tabloid dimensions.

Published by Marvel Comics

This was later combined with the contents of the TPB The Life of Captain Marvel, for the TPB The Life and Death of Captain Marvel. Still, later, this was re-released as a hardcover collection -- so I've reviewed the graphic novel on its own...then added a postscript review considering the additional material in the 2010 hardcover collection.

GRAPHIC NOVEL...

The Death of Captain Marvel -- featuring Marvel Comics' alien hero, Mar-vell (as opposed to the Big Red Cheese) -- was Marvel's first official foray into the realm of the "graphic novel" (well, other than 1978's Lee & Kirby Silver Surfer opus). It was first published in over-sized tabloid dimensions, with sturdier paper and richer colours than were (then) the norm in monthly comics. It begat what, for a time, was a regular series of "Marvel Graphic Novels" which encompassed projects featuring their regular heroes as well as independent tales.

It was also rather blatantly audacious -- or smugly self-indulgent depending on your point of view -- in that the title says it all. This wasn't a story where Captain Marvel has some grand adventure and then gets killed unexpectedly in the climax in a shocking twist. The title tells us this is the end of Marvel, and that's what the story is.

Furthermore, this isn't an adventure saga rife with twists and turns. There are a couple of minor fight scenes, but really this is a low-key drama as Mar-vell discovers he has terminal cancer -- no super villain to fight, no universe-shattering scheme to be thwarted. Just a wasting illness.

And the result is...mostly a success, without quite being the graphic classic one suspects writer/artist Jim Starlin (and Marvel Comics) was hoping for. (Starlin himself, years later, was quoted as citing this as among his most personal works).

After all, to take a super hero and tell this sort of a story smacks a little of pretention, of "hey, kids, this ain't your usual four colour fantasy fest". And some of that can be a little self-conscious, as the characters themselves remark how no one expects a super hero to die from something as mundane as disease. And Starlin even does it in a way that one could question whether it's true to the characters. After all, would Spider-Man (in a small appearance) -- surely the most "human" of super heroes -- need to be lectured about how super heroes are just people under their costumes?

Still, as a drama, Starlin succeeds in capturing the essence of the concept and dilemma, Mar-vell's mix of bitterness...and resignation, and the reaction of those around him, from former sidekick, Rick Jones, to other super heroes. There are moments of sensitivity, of realism, without straying too often into blatant manipulation or maudlinism as could so easily happen in such a story. And Starlin is a solid artist.

But, I suppose, the weakness with the tale, at least in execution, is that though Starlin has produced some great, even classic comics...he is not automatically, inherently, a flawless talent. And so for a tale that, somewhat pompously, wants to transcend its genre...it is still hamstrung by it. The dialogue, though sometimes very good, other times seems like "comic book" dialogue. And though Starlin is always a solid artist, his figures can be a bit stiff at times, and over-muscled, the faces a bit distorted. Though, curiously, I was going to remark that in storytelling and moody panel composition, this isn't maybe Starlin's best work (that would probably be his early Adam Warlock run). But flipping through the book again, I think I'm being overly judgemental, because there is some nice use of close ups and angles.

There are also a few (minor) narrative inconsistencies...like one scene having Mar-vell suggest his Kree race has no cure for his condition...then later suggesting they would refuse to help him.

And I suppose the other weakness is simply inherent in the conceit of the concept. Being simply a chronicle of Mar-vell's final days, as a "plot" there's not too much to it, no room for twists or turns (other characters work on developing a treatment but, of course, it's a forgone conclusion they'll fail). Starlin fills up some time with Mar-vell dictating his memoirs -- which is appropriate that in a tale bringing an end to his saga we get a recap of that saga.

But The Death of Captain Marvel succeeds on the basic level of storytelling, or entertainment (if you'll excuse such a description in this context)...of holding your interest enough to get you turning the pages, and to let you close the book feeling emotionally bestirred. Which is why I say it is mostly a success.

After being first published in an over-sized tabloid format (and going through a few printings), I believe it was re-released in regular comic book dimensions...and then subsequently included in the TPB The Life and Death of Captain Marvel. Then re-released as a hardcover with additional material which I comment on next...

Cover by StarlinTHE 2010 HARDCOVER COLLECTION...

Written by Doug Moench, Jim Starlin. Pencils Pat Broderick, Jim Starlin. Inks by Bruce Patterson, Jack Abel.

Colours/letters: various. Editor: Roger Stern.

The Graphic Novel plus...Captain Marvel #34, Marvel Spotlight #1, 2 (1974, 1979)

The problem with the glut of collected editions, ironically, is now often not that something isn't being reprinted...but that it's being reprinted too much. There's an increasing amount of overlap, as though the reprint editors just throw something together impulsively, without thinking about whether it's the most efficacious use of the material. In this case, the Death of Captain Marvel story was first released as a single, over-sized graphic novel, then re-released in regular comic book dimensions. Then it was reprinted in the larger collection, The Life and Death of Captain Marvel, collected with Jim Starlin's earlier CM material (which itself had previously been collected in the TPB The Life of Captain Marvel). Now it's being re-printed yet again...this time with different accompanying material.

Even then, one of the comics reprinted here -- Captain Marvel #34 -- was included in the earlier TPB. In other words...why not simply re-release The Life and Death of Captain Marvel collection? Or, re-release the original Life of Captain Marvel collection, and then reprint the Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel in a second collection, but with all never previously collected comics?

CM #34 starts out as a bit of an epilogue to the previous arc, then segues into telling a minor adventure as Mar-Vell and sidekick Rick Jones tackle Nitro -- a villain who can literally explode himself. It's an okay page turner -- nothing terrible, nothing great (particularly contrasted with the classic epic it followed). It even ends on a secondary cliff hanger -- Nitro is defeated, but Mar-Vell lies near death, a plot resolved in the next issue...that isn't reprinted here. Presumably the reason the comic was included in this TPB is because it sets up stuff that relates to the Death of Captain Marvel story...but it's hardly essential to following the graphic novel.

So the only issues in this prestigious, hardcover collection that haven't been reprinted in an earlier TPB are the two Marvel Spotlight issues.

Admittedly, the two issues from Marvel Spotlight maybe make a nice counterpoint to the talky, "human drama" nature of the graphic novel, as they are the polar opposite -- fast paced action the rockets along (literally, as it takes place in space and the moons of Saturn). Written by Doug Moench, it's entertaining and robustly illustrated by Pat Broderick and inker Bruce Patterson. However, it is the closing act of a longer epic that had begun in the pages of Captain Marvel's own, then recently cancelled, comic. So though it's entertaining as a fast paced adventure, you're well aware you're coming in in the middle, and are picking up the gist of the back story as you go.

Why those two issues were selected, then, I'm not sure. They have little thematic or literal relevance to the Death of Captain Marvel story. If the reprint editor was just looking to fill up pages with some random Captain Marvel stories, ironically a couple of stories from just a few issues later -- Marvel Spotlight #4 and #8 -- might've made better choices. Not only are both better-than-decent tales featuring Mar-vell, but they are largely divorced from any continuity, making them both ideal for a grab bag collection...and because, as such, there'll be no pressing imperative to collect them in a later TPB.

Being as the two Marvel Spotlight issues reprinted here are the end of a longer arc...isn't it possible that, at some point, some later editor is going to think of collecting the whole story in a TPB? And then, once again, you'll have that overlap, where instead of getting a bunch of Captain Marvel TPBs...you'll just get the same comics, with different covers.

So, the bottom line is you could pick up this hardcover collection...but you could also hunt down the complete Life and Death of Captain Marvel collection for better value for money.

This is a reciew based on the original comic book and graphic novel publications.

Cover price:


District X: Mr. M
   is reviewed here.


Devi
is reviewed here



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