GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "M" Page 4

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Ms. Marvel: Operation Lightning Storm 2007 (HC & SC TPB) 178 pages

cover by Greg HornWritten by Brian Reed. Pencils by Roberto De La Torre, Aaron Lopresti. Inks by Jon Sibal, Matt Ryan.
Colours: Chris Sotomayor. Letters: Dave Sharpe. Editor: Bill Rosemann.

Reprinting: Ms. Marvel (2nd series) #11-17 (2007) -- with covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: April, 2011

Published by Marvel Comics

Modern comics can be a dizzying mass of continuity references, where stories don't just connect to their own previous issues, but are interwoven with everything else going on in a comics company's "universe". This follows on the heels of Marvel's cross-title "Civil War" saga, in which the super hero community was divided and turned upon itself by a government edict that all super beings must register with the government. A lot of bridges were burned between those as complied, like Ms. Marvel, and those that didn't.

Fortunately this collection -- particularly in the hardcover edition -- is accompanied by some "previously" recapping text pieces that actually makes it a bit easier to just jump into, and scripter Brian Reed writes some of the scenes with a clarity (when making backstory references) a lot of writers don't these days. And as a collection of stories, this works as a decent arc involving the recurring terrorist group, A.I.M., with -- more or less -- a beginning and an end. Along the way, Ms. Marvel is fully recruited by the spy agency SHIELD and given her own little strike team and flying airship, to act as a kind of proactive strike force (hence the title Operation: Lightning Storm).

Reed writes some solid dialogue, mixing human introspection with glib quips. Yet there is feeling that we've seen it all before, without the reprising of old themes and old villains really being embellished with clever plotting (heck, even the idea of a "super strike team" is hardly new, from The Legion Espionage Squad, to Justice League Elite, and a bunch inbetween).

Take the opening two-parter. The basic plot has the villain The Doomsday Man (a villain she'd fought before) escaping A.I.M. (ditto), involving a zombie plague (ditto, again). Doomsday Man's plan/goal/motive is just to get revenge on Ms. M. And then after a long, protracted fight, in which we are continually told how tough and unbeatable Doomsday Man is...Ms. Marvel punches him out...um, 'cause she got really mad...or something. Not much of a "plot", not much of a "denouement", and nothing much original -- certainly not stretched over two issues. It isn't that it's terrible -- it clips along, and isn't uninteresting, but nothing much really stands out, either.

Then we get another two-parter (A.I.M. becoming a sub-plot) where Ms. M., feeling bad after having previously arrested an ex-superhero (Arachna) and separated her from her daughter, wants to make amends. There's actually not too much action in this story...but, arguably, there's not too much else, either. Part of the problem with editorial enforced storylines like Civil War that are imposed on the entire line of comics is that it kind of falls to the regular writers to try and get their characters back on track, to explain, justify, or nullify what the characters did. But the problem also here is that Ms. Marvel basically starts out feeling bad...so it's not like the story acts as a character arc, where we see how Ms. Marvel arrives at her decision. And because she now has the full backing of SHIELD...there aren't really any plot complications, moral or legal, she can't overcome simply by pulling a few strings.

Reed may have a decent ear for dialogue...but his understanding of plot, whether it be the action-thriller of The Doomsday Man story, or the character dilemma of the Arachna story, seems weak.

Then we get to the three part A.I.M. battle where Ms. Marvel and her Lightning Storm team (which includes fellow super hero Wonder Man, as well as a few SHIELD agents) get caught up in A.I.M.'s internal conflict, the terrorist group having splintered into opposing forces fighting it out over a lethal gene bomb. It's briskly paced and decent enough without quite gelling into anything that great. Sure, the different factions can keep you on your toes trying to keep track of who's who. But the basic plot (and plans) are pretty simple...and a mite confusing (why does arch foe MODOK act almost as though he's winning when he seems to be getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop?) At one point Ms. Marvel is presented with the dilemma of maybe allying herself with one branch of A.I.M., choosing the devil you know...but it never really becomes a moral issue, or progresses to the point where it's actually relevant to the plot.

It does, at least, build to a climax -- admittedly a wishy-washy climax, clearly opening the door for future conflicts. But at least it's enough of a resolution that the three issues -- and this seven issue collection -- can satisfy as an arc.

Sometimes super hero comics can excuse thin plots because our real interest is in the character/soap opera and brewing sub-plots. Yet for all that Reed can write a fairly talky script...it's not like there's a whole lot else going on.

Ms. Marvel is one of those characters who is sufficiently marginal that, I suspect, her personality isn't set in stone as solidly as, say, Spider-Man. She started out as a security specialist and romantic interest in someone else's comic (Captain Marvel), then became her own super hero...while working as a magazine editor. Along the way her powers and costumes have been tweaked here and there. Reed tends to write her as a bit, um, girly. Despite wanting to take charge of a strike team, and being made leader of the Avengers, she doesn't really seem like a veteran strategist and combatant. She's likeable enough, but tends to mope about, pining for a boy friend like a teenage girl. .

Instead of a supporting cast providing a human grounding for the super heroics...it's a cast that is mainly comprised of fellow super heroes (Wonder Man, teen heroine Arana, and Iron Man in a few scenes) and SHIELD agents, with Ms. Marvel herself relocating to a SHIELD mini-carrier, further removing her -- and by extension the series -- from a real wold/civilian footing. Ms. M doesn't have a civilian job or a secret identity anymore. And you end up with a comic that doesn't really seem like a solo Ms. Marvel series anymore...without giving the others enough to do that it seems like a team book (the SHIELD agents don't really become characters).

The opening two-parter involving Doomsday Man is drawn by European artist Roberto De La Torre, and he has a nice, beautiful, realist style -- moody, with good facial expressions and body language. My main quibble, ironically, is that he's not as strong drawing Ms. Marvel herself, of making our beautiful heroine...beautiful. But even then, it's not bad. The rest of this collection is drawn by Aaron Lopresti, a solid artist, with clear storytelling. He tends to have a style (or blame the inker) that tends to give everything a bit of a plastic sheen, rather than flesh and blood. Ms. Marvel's hair seems to gleam more than flow. Still, even if my preferences lean a bit toward De La Torre, the art is better-than-average throughout.

So, ultimately, as a pick-it-up-and-read-it-for-itself book, or as sampler of Ms. Marvel's current run, its a decent book, with some plot threads carried from, and into, surrounding issues, but enough of its own complete-in-itself story(ies) to make for a perfectly comprehensible read just for a casual reader. The visuals are good, and Reed's dialogue is solid, even if like a lot of modern comics writers, he seems to stretch out talky scenes longer than they need to be, the characters talking a lot without necessarily saying anything more. The plotting is pretty rudimentary. It's a decent book...but doesn't maybe instill in me any great desire to follow her monthly comic.

Cover price: $__ USA


Mr. Monster: Worlds War Two 2004 (SC GN) 48 pages
a.k.a. ...vs. The Nazi from Mars

coverWritten by Michael T. Gilbert. Illustrated by George Freeman (layouts by Gilbert).
Colours: Laurie Smith. Letters: Ken Bruzenak.

Reprinting: the story originally published in Penthouse Max #3 (1998)

Suggested for mature readers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June 2015

Published by Atomeka

Mr. Monster is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek adventure character who has appeared variously in his own series and in specials and anthology comics. Although created by American Michael T. Gilbert apparently the character's roots lie in a Canadian comic book character who appeared very briefly in the 1940s, and then lapsed into the public domain -- Gilbert's appropriation of the character more as an homage, or because he liked the name, rather than because the character itself was that brilliant (I think Gilbert re-invented him a lot) or out of any mercenary impulse (I'm pretty sure not many people had heard of the character when Gilbert recycled it).

Mr. Monster is also known as Doc Stearn and basically blends elements of costumed super heroes and pulp fiction adventurers like Doc Savage as he battles monsters and aliens and the like.

In Worlds War II (also known as Mr. Monster vs. The Nazi from Mars) the story takes place in a kind of alternate reality 1960s when earth is invaded by, well, Martian Nazis. It's all meant to be cheeky and evocative (the Martians modelled after a notorious trading card line from the period -- with appropriate nods to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds -- except with added swastikas and a certain historical dictator's disembodied brain involved).

There isn't really a lot of deep characterization, or even a great deal of concrete plotting -- which makes it surprising it works as well as it does! At 48 pages it clips a long at a good pace, starting fast and furious and not really letting up much over the rest of the story (and is deliberately a bit gory -- in a tongue-in-cheek way). Mr. Monster finds himself playing hit n' run with the Martians (who have also infiltrated the army and halls of authority -- in addition to simply marching across the landscape incinerating everyone in their path) eventually taking him and his allies to Mars itself. As mentioned, it's all tongue-in-cheek, a style that I can be ambivalent about (as it means it's not really funny-funny, even as you aren't supposed to take it seriously or become emotionally involved) but here that style sustains itself better than I'd expect given the page count.

It helps that Gilbert, as mentioned, keeps the action moving, and does provide at least nominal plot aspects (even if it's just MM and a woman he's befriended seeking shelter in the sewers). It's also aided a lot by the visuals.

Gilbert himself provides the lay-outs (Gilbert also an artist in his own right) but the actual pencils and inks are by George Freeman. Freeman's an artist I'm something of a fan of and his style, which tends to blend super heroic-ism with cartoony caricature normally, suits this story's mix of heroic action, sci-fi horror, and camp silliness. In some other work I've seen by Freeman over the years, I've often thought the difficulty is finding an inker that is sympathetic to his light, feathery line work, with Freeman generally his own best inker (and Freeman has often worked simply as an inker over others). By this point in his career Freeman's own inking is firmer, heavier than the style he used to employ, but it's still good work, well suited to his pencils. (Gilbert and Freeman have collaborated before, notably on some Elric of Melnibone comics in the 1990s). Aiding the visuals are the vibrant, rich colours of Laurie Smith, giving the whole a kind of technicolour lushness (and perhaps further evoking the old trading cards). Perhaps it means that despite the frivolous plotting and tongue-in-cheek story, the visuals do create a vibrant world around the action.

(Interestingly: as mentioned, apparently the character's origins were in a Canadian comic, but Gilbert's version is inarguably American, and publisher Atmokea is American. However, both artist Freeman and colourist Smith (who I believe are married) are Canadian -- and in the opening credits, "colour" is spelled with a "u" rather than the American "color." I don't know why, but just found that interesting.)

Admittedly a qualm about the material is the whole frivolousness of it, with Gilbert treating the idea of Swastika-adorned villains and Hitler's brain as simply silliness, which one might argue trivializes the real life atrocities. But equally one could argue Gilbert's feeling is the Nazis were so obviously evil, it's not like he has to sombrely address that fact in a comic about Martians.

I'll admit, I picked this up partly just for the art (Freeman an artist too rarely seen) and with no knowledge of Mr. Monster, or much expectation of enjoying the campy style. And though I wouldn't want to suggest this is even a minor classic of sequential storytelling, it did keep me turning the pages to the end.

So -- a reasonably fun romp.

Cover price: $__ USA


Mystery Men 2011 (HC & SC TPB) 120 pages

cover by ZircherWritten by David Liss. Art by Patrick Zircher.
Colours: Andy Troy. Letters: Dave Sharpe. Editor: Bill Rosemann.

Reprinting: the five issue mini-series (2011)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan. 2015

Suggested (mildly) for mature readers

Published by Marvel Comics

Mystery Men is both an atypical project for a company like Marvel -- even as it's part of a rather crowded sub-genre of the super hero idiom.

It's unusual in that, for a continuity-obsessed major comics company like Marvel, writer David Liss was apparently invited to create a largely self-contained super hero universe. Okay, not exactly -- Mystery Men is still meant to take place within the established Marvel reality. But it is, for the most part, a stand alone creation featuring costumed characters that never existed before -- a prequel to the Marvel Universe. It's set in the 1930s.

Yet equally, it's part of a long established tradition of "nostalgia" comic book projects. Since the super hero genre was begat in the late 1930s, and was itself preceded by the pulp magazine heroes, it's not uncommon for modern writers to harken back to that era, either by telling new stories featuring characters back then -- such as The Invaders or The Shadow -- or by creating new characters that evoke that period, going back to Terminal City and others.

Which creates a problem for me as a reviewer. You know how there's the cliché of a relationship that is dissolved, but one party insists: "It's not you, it's me"? Well, Mystery Men never quite sparked for me, but part of that may just be because I've read so many stories like this before.

Heck -- I've written stories like this before! Okay, not ones you're ever likely to have read, but I'm just saying. (Actually, if you're curious you can check out these stories I wrote). Or buy a copy of the prose anthology, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories in which I have a short story.

Now, to be up-front: I'm not saying Mystery Men is bad. But I did find it a little -- bland.

The plot involves various masked vigilante characters running about 1930s New York -- some already active, others arising over the course of the story. Some are meant to resonate with archetypes from the time. They range from the fedora-wearing Operative, a kind of Robin Hood-type who robs from the rich as a social protest, to a female aviator (a cross between Amelia Earhart and The Rocketeer), to The Surgeon, a disfigured vigilante whose murderous ruthlessness unnerves even the other heroes. They're drawn together by the actions of The General, a villain who heads a conglomerate of ruthless business men and who is allied with dark, sorcerous powers.

On the plus side: it's certainly an okay page-turner, and clips along briskly enough. And it's lavishly -- and attractively -- illustrated by Patrick Zircher with a moody, yet realist style.

But given it involves rather generic pacts with otherworldly demons and vague quests for world domination, it's not really like it's designed to provide twists or turns, or mysteries to be unravelled. You pretty much know what's going on and why throughout. In the original comics each issue begins recapping what went before -- and a number of issues simply recycled the same blurb with only an extra sentence or two, kind of indicating the plot isn't chock full of twists and turns.

Yet the telling itself is pretty loose, with the heroes simply announcing that such-and-such a character has vital information, or they must locate someone else -- often with little explanation for how they concluded that. That would be fine in a "gee whiz" movie serial way, where such sequences are just bridges to stitch together the more important plot points -- but, as I say, the overall plot itself isn't very complicated.

Often the point in such retro/nostalgic exercises is to do something deliberately evoking the narrative style of the time -- the snappy banter of a Howard Hawks film or using expressions like "Gosh!" and "Dagnabit!" -- or to explore the gritty realities of the era in a way comics at the time might not have. Mystery Men tries a little of both. The story references the poverty of the period, the attack on unions, and racism (one of the Mystery Men, The Revenant, is black), while also drawing upon the whimsical tropes of the genre, with the inevitable fight on an airship and, of course, the costumed characters themselves.

Yet I didn't feel it did enough in either direction. It may throw in scenes involving racism or union busting -- but they remain peripheral. While the story lacks some of the "fun" you might expect from a throwback to the period -- not a lot of sassy dialogue or goofy charm (other than the crazed Surgeon's medical puns -- but those actually got a bit tiresome). Indeed, there is a certain blandness to the dialogue. It's not bad (though there were a couple of clunky bits) but it doesn't really spark.

Of course "fun" is a problematic description given it's a kind of dark story, what with evil demons, and basically pushing into slight mature readers areas with some brutal violence. The Surgeon is a sadistic vigilante and the other heroes initially rebuff him as too extreme (not that they aren't above brutality themselves) yet eventually they all team up anyway, making it kind of a non-starter, ethically speaking.

Which brings us to the characters themselves -- what I would argue is the paint that can spruce up an otherwise generic house. Engaging characters make the difference between a good story -- and a bland one.

The Operative is actually the General's son (no big spoiler, as we learn that within the first couple of issues) and there's a sort of romantic triangle between the heroes. But none of that feels especially developed. The father-son relationship doesn't add any emotional depth to the conflict (they just mutually hate each other) and it's not like we see the romantic entanglements blossom and develop. Like a lot of modern comics, I might argue Liss relies more on the "tell-rather-than-show" school of comic book writing, relying on voice over narration rather than the scenes themselves. And few of the characters seem to evolve from when we first meet them, or to reveal hidden secrets.

And maybe that also relates to Zircher's art. It's good and striking. But if I were to quibble, I'd maybe suggest it can lean a bit toward the generic, in terms of faces and expressions. Some artists are great at capturing body language and facial expressions, able to really invest life into the characters. And others are better at square jaws and characters standing about in iconic poses.

Does all this sound a bit harsh? Maybe if I had never read another retro-super hero adventure I'd find it more fresh and novel. But I'm going to dig in my heels and say that, for a five issue saga, the plot is rather simple (to me there should be mysteries to be revealed, puzzles to be unravelled) and with the characters not really growing beyond their archetypes.

For a saga that was presented as a "mini-series" it ends hoping to be the start of a series of adventures. Oh, it doesn't end of a cliff hanger, and the General is defeated -- but if the story seems rather thin, that might be because it was only really intended to be the "start." The fact that there has yet to be a follow up (I'm writing this review toward the end of 2014) could simply mean the creatives have been busy with other projects, but it could also mean sales weren't that great. And if the latter -- well, maybe my criticisms aren't without merit.

Cover price: $__ USA

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