GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "N", page 2

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New Mutants: The Return of Legion 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 124 pages.

coverWritten by Zeb Wells. Pencils by Diogenes Neves, and Zachary Baldus. Inks by Cam Smith, with Ed Tadeo, others.
Colours: John Rauch, and James Campbell. Letters: Joe Caramagna. Editor: Nick Lowe.

Reprinting: Marvel Spotlight on the New Mutants (2009), and New Mutants (2009 series) #1-5

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010

Published by Marvel Comics

The New Mutants was the very first X-Men spin-off series. It enjoyed some success, but underwent a few change-of-directions, cancellations, re-starts, etc. Now, once again, the team is getting their own series, featuring most of the core, founding members.

While adult characters in comics tend to remain unaged, youthful heroes are often allowed to grow up, however gradually. Sometimes that creates a richer narrative, as the original X-Men grew from rambunctious teens to sober adults, and Spider-Man evolved from a high school student to a married working man (until Marvel's "One More Day" story slammed the door on that and effectively said: Nothing of Lasting Consequence Will Ever Happen in a Spider-Man Comic). But for other characters, evolving teens into adults can kind of lose part of the raison d'etre of the property (some eras of the Teen Titans).

The revived series acknowledges that the "New" Mutants are no longer new and, in fact, seasoned super heroes while continuing the theme of young, inexperienced heroes. There's still an aspect of inexperience in the field, of the team proving themselves.

Despite starting with issue #1, this kind of expects you to know not just who these characters are, but what's going on in X-books in general. Fortunately, Marvel actually seemed to recognize that narrative pitfall (that so many comics ignore) and when launching the new series, also published the one-shot special Marvel Spotlight on the New Mutants -- which (apparently) explains pretty much everything you needed (or wanted) to know about "what's gone before". And Marvel thoughtfully reprinted that in this collection, making it so even new readers should be able to leap into the new story.

The whole X-pantheon is now in California, and the erstwhile "New" Mutants are actually tutors at the X-school, with Cyclops taking on the old Professor X role as overseer. When one time New Mutant, Magik (a.k.a. Illyana Rasputin) mysteriously reappears after an absence, warning of danger, Cannonball, Sunspot and Magma persuade Cyclops to let them and Magik go off after Karma and Dani who were sent on, what was assumed to be, an innocuous mission...albeit one they haven't reported back from. The New Mutants arrive in a suspicious small town, butt heads with locals, and eventually discover an old foe -- the multiple personality (and multiple powered) Legion -- is loose.

What was neat about the original character designs of the New Mutants by Bob McLeod (and maintained by subsequent artists) was that he created distinctive, and sometimes idiosyncratic looks for the characters, evoking the idea of awkward, and believable, teens.

What's neat about the character designs used here by artist Diogenes Neves...is, well, absolutely nothing.

Cannonball inparticular looks absolutely nothing like the gawky, long faced lad of years ago...replaced instead by square faced, greasy banged he-man that stepped out of a boy band. (To be fair, this change may have predated Neves involvement). The others are maybe closer to their original depictions, save dark-skinned Sunspot...no longer has dark skin. It'd be charitable to say he even has a tan! Native Indian Dani, too, has been lightened up a bit. Vietnamese Karma doesn't look especially Asian (maybe Eurasian). Not that this is a unique phenomenon to the New Mutants. But isn't there something a tad, well, creepy, about the X-Men franchise which, we are told, is all about the metaphor of prejudice against minorities, when it seems to be sending the message that it's okay to be different...as long as you don't, y'know, look too different?

For an inaugural story arc, writer Zeb Wells kind of assumes you know a lot about who these characters are and their background -- even wrapping the first story around the return of an old foe. (Which, as mentioned, is less of a problem read in conjunction with the Marvel Spotlight one-shot).

So with all those flaws, what's to like?

Quite a bit, surprisingly.

Even if the New Mutants are a tad older than they were, and can feel like you're turning into a revival of an old TV show only to find they've recast some of the actors, Wells nonetheless does capture the essence of the old comics that made them, and the characters, enjoyable. A sense of their basic humanity and youthful vulnerability, their camaraderie and sense of family. There's good dialogue that genuinely makes you believe these are people who know and like each other (even when they're arguing!). Even capturing the sense of undercurrents (aided by Neves' visuals) such as the way Illyana is supposed to be just a little...odd, and even her team mates aren't quite sure what to think of her. And though he could do a better job of explaining background (why is everyone mad at Illyana?) nonetheless, you can pick up on the important stuff as you go. I didn't know who Legion was -- and I hadn't read the Spotlight on... one-shot -- but I still got what was going on.

I've said before that the best comic book writing is where it's written in such a way that any background is easily, painlessly worked into the story. The second best is where the writer and artist can keep it entertaining and clear enough that even if there are oblique bits, it doesn't detract from you're following and enjoying the basic story. And Wells accomplishes the latter. There's no eleventh hour revelation or plot twist that only makes sense in the context of some previous adventure.

And Wells' basic story unfolds intriguingly, with some mysterious bits, and creepy bits, with some twists and turns, all while being filtered nicely through the characters. The story becomes pretty top heavy with action, but while some such "plots" can become numbing and tedious, here the interest level remains fairly high, with enough going on beneath the action to make it more than just a lot of panels of hitting and smashing.

Though I tend not to be that enthused about the modern trend in comics of having heroes constantly speak in -- euphemistic -- profanity as represented by Mad Magazine style #$*&@ symbols. I tend to find it more distracting and awkward than if we just assume these are kids who don't cuss much.

Granted, there are a few lapses that seem as though an editor needed to query things a bit more thoroughly. The two week gap between the opening scene and the main story seems excessive. And Cyclops wasn't the least bit curious why the girls hadn't reported in? Or (and this may be a visual problem) after the fighting and smashing has been going on for a couple of issues, there are still pedestrians obliviously wandering the streets?

Neves art is good...my objection to some of his character depictions notwithstanding. In fact, he's actually pretty good at maintaining slightly different looks to the girls -- noteworthy given two are pretty blondes. Some of his action scenes can be a bit muddled -- particularly if you weren't already familiar with the characters' particular powers -- and the figures can be a bit stiff and angular, Neves maybe a bit of a graduate of the Jim Lee school. And the art does seem to get a bit rougher as it goes, as if maybe he was rushing to meet deadlines (or maybe blame the inkers). But in general, it's attractive enough and easy to look at.

Writers and artists in comics often like to indulge in homages, so the sequence where the New Mutants first don their comics and stride toward the reader is intended as a nod to a similar, recent sequence in Whedon & Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men.

The Legion story covers the first four issues. The fifth issue acts as an epilogue to the Legion arc (including flashbacks to scenes not actually depicted in the previous issue, to provide a mini-story), a character-based interlude (resolving the tension between Cannonball and Dani), as well as setting up some things to come. The art here is provided by Zachary Baldus and colourist James Campbell who combine for a fully painted style. It's not uninteresting, but does look stiff...better suited to this talky issue than a more action-oriented one. At the same time, Baldus' Karma looks more clearly Asian, and his Cannonball nicely bridging Neves' version and McLeod's original.

Reading the first arc, and with a vague affection for the New Mutants, I found myself thinking, hey, maybe I should buy the comic regularly (as opposed to just reading a story arc, then moving on to another title, as is my wont). But with the fifth issue I'm reminded how no series is an island. Somewhere between issue #4 and #5 -- whole foundation shaking adventures took place in some other series, as the X-Men are now living on an island, and the characters make references to battling gods. And it makes me think, what's the point of reading a comic on a monthly basis...if you're still going to end up with gaps in the narrative? Not that it impacts on your ability to read and understand the Legion story...but it does sap some enthusiasm for following the title regularly.

Still, taken on its own, Return of Legion is an exciting, occasionally off-beat and intriguing, adventure. Granted, different TPBs satisfy on different levels. This collection of five issues (plus the Spotlight on... comic) is basically a single adventure, so it offers considerably less content than the New Mutants Classic volumes (reviewed above). But on the level of an action "movie", it's a nice return, not of an old foe, but for our young heroes themselves.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ USA.



Tales of the New Universe
see Untold Tales of the New Universe section

The New Warriors Classic, vol. 1 2009 (SC TPB) 208 pages.

coverWritten by Fabian Nicieza, with Tom DeFalco. Pencils by Mark Bagley, with Ron Frenz. Inks by Larry Mahlstedt, Al Williamson, Joe Sinnott.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The New Warriors #1-6, Thor 411-412 (1990)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Feb. 2011

Additional notes: intros by DeFalco and Nicieza (presumably originally written for the 1992 TPB, The New Warriors: Beginnings); covers; behind-the-scenes sketches, character designs; series proposal; story outlines; gag strips, etc.

Published by Marvel Comics

Most of this TPB -- issues #1-4, plus the two Thor comics -- had earlier been collected as the TPB, The New Warriors: Beginnings.

Despite super hero comics generally seen as being aimed at the young -- and young at heart -- comics about young heroes aren't that common, particularly teams. DC gave us the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the Teen Titans, and Marvel had the original X-Men in the 1960s, and the 1980s spin-off the New Mutants. And then there's The New Warriors, in which a bunch of largely pre-existing but minor Marvel teen heroes unite -- indeed, the comic can initially seem like a belated (almost 20 years on!) attempt to emulate DC's The New Teen Titans. Both groups being formed simply by a hitherto unknown, mysterious character appearing to them individually and saying, "hey, want to form a team?"

It's either a clever way of dispensing with a long, protracted intro and getting right to the on going comic...or a lazy way to avoid coming up with an origin. Take your pick.

The mysterious recruiter is the oddly named Night Thrasher -- basically a junior Batman clone (perhaps making this a mix of Teen Titans and Batman & the Outsiders). He's an angry rich teen with no powers, just skills and gadgets (and a skate board!) but waging war on crime after the murder of his parents -- he's also black, perhaps establishing the cliche of the black Batman that has cropped up in recent years. The recruited characters include Namorita (the Sub-Mariner's female cousin), Marvel Boy (who will eventually grow up to be the far future member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Vance Astrovik), Firestar (originally introduced, I believe, in a 1980s Spider-Man Saturday morning cartoon, and grudgingly adopted into Marvel continuity), Speedball (just recently off his own, short-lived comic) and Nova. Nova was arguably the biggest of the names, his own comic having run 25 issues (three times as long as Speedball's) -- yet that comic was in the 1970s, and Nova had lost his powers (and so largely disappeared from comics) in the early 1980s, so arguably he might've been among the most obscure characters (how Nova regains his powers here is as arbitrary as the team's origin!) Actually one wonders if at one point they had considered reviving the Nova concept, but with a different alter ego, because his costume has been redesigned (not necessarily improved), his name nominally changed to Kid Nova (maybe because Marvel already had another Nova by this point -- a female Human Torch) and, more distractingly, his personality is nothing like the Rich Rider of the 1970s comics!

Anyway, the team is introduced in a couple of Thor comics (reprinted here) intended to whet the reader's appetite for a monthly series (ironically, in an introduction, writer Fabian Nicieza remarks how the comic was an underdog, having to win fan acceptance...but it's hard to see it as an underdog when it was, more or less, created by Marvel's then editor-in-chief, Tom DeFalco, and so couldn't have asked for a bigger guardian angel). The Thor issues by DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz (inked by stalwart Joe Sinnott) are pretty weak. I tend to be mixed on DeFalco a lot of times, anyway, he often writing too much like he's genuinely trying to imitate the feel of comics he read as a kid...and resulting in comics that both lack modern sophistication, but also the creative edge that fired those early comics. The story just has Thor battling the Juggernaut (a villain largely defined as unstoppable) for two issues with the New Warriors lending a hand (to make matters worse, this was part of an Acts of Vengeance crossover, in which basically lots of super villains were unleashed on lots of heroes...for no particular reason, meaning the plot and motivation has all the depth of a WWF match).

It's little wonder if fans were skeptical.

Yet things improve with the regular series, and with the regular creative team of writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Mark Bagley.

There are a lot of impulses at work, combining...and colliding. So on one hand, Nicieza clearly wants to make it a team/soap opera comic, with the cast of heroes with their different personalities and backgrounds...even as it is almost entirely focused on the super heroing, with very little time put aside for out-of-costume drama. There's comedy, with quips and quirkiness, some of it a little self-reflective, some of it stemming from a kind of messy realism...yet there's also hints of serious real world relevancy, something I detected in the stories themselves, and was confirmed reading the series' proposal Nicieza wrote (included as an "extra" here) in which he sees the "teen heroes" angle as a chance to explore the idea of youthful idealism. I've grumbled about how modern comics often seem to be losing touch with a real world grounding, too mired in cross company epics, cosmic crises, Mutant Menaces, and more. The New Warriors are keeping one foot in our world, either reflecting comics back then...or that Nicieza was, himself, harkening back to comics of a few years before, including dropping occasional topical and pop cultural references (such as to novelist Joseph Heller). Of course, the "relevancy" plays both sides, as themes of environmentalism crop up...even as do villainous eco-terrorists!

The issues are fairly crammed to bursting, with their mix of action, humour, drama, and, yes, plot. And each of the first four issues are relatively self-contained (no decompression here!), even as they tease along a story arc involving a genetics research company (hence why an earlier New Warriors TPB collection -- Beginnings -- felt the first four issues made a nice package). And even when we get into the first two-parter from #5-6, it's still nicely contained within those two issues, and reasonably justifies the double length. As a contrast, again one just has to look at the thinly plotted two part Thor story included.

Yet the reason I say the various impulses "collide" as much as combine, is because Nicieza doesn't maybe end up with a smooth, sure footed result. The issues are enjoyable, and keep you flipping pages, even as they feel kind of slapped together. Like with the team's non-origin, it can feel a bit as though the elements are just being tossed in to get the ball rolling, rather than carefully unfolded. Night Thrasher himself is borderline out-of-control...yet it doesn't really seem to have any lasting impact from issue-to-issue (I mean, would you really want to be part of a team whose nominal leader you worried was going to kill someone in the heat of battle?)

Granted, though the series is Nicieza and artist Mark Bagley's baby, it was "created" by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz (at least, they established the roster) which might explain why, at least at first, it can seem a bit forced -- something imitating the formula of team comics, rather than sure of its own recipe. The creators' are getting a feel for characters that, maybe, wouldn't have been their first choice. Which might explain Nova -- Nicieza had a character type he wanted to use, and just imposed it on Nova. Sure, Rich Rider is supposed to have become surly and embittered by his loss of powers...but I'm not sure that'd explain the dropped "g"s in his speech pattern. And even so, Nicieza doesn't really develop it well (at least in these issues), Nova just seeming thuggish more than embittered. Nor, for that matter, does comic book time really lend itself to that idea too much -- after all, though in publishing terms it had been almost two decades since Nova lost his powers...he's still supposed to be a teen ager. Meaning, it's only actually been a few months for him! (To be fair, given the comic book propensity of sub-plots, maybe this was building to a revelation he had a brain tumour or something that was warping his personality).

In these early issues, they do a decent job of establishing the team for its own sake...while connecting it to the greater Marvel Universe. So there are requisite familiar villains cropping up (including the Mad Thinker in an issue trying for a nicely atypical, introspective style) and yet also original foes. Cameos by the Avengers, and a guest starring stint by the Inhumans, without it seeming top heavy with guest stars as though they don't trust their heroes to carry the mag. Though the use of the Inhumans is a bit blase -- as if the creators are assuming the readers know them already.

There's even an opposite team, the villainous Psionex (with a bizarre member who is an ex-stripper who uses her "erotic impulses" to create psychic weapons such as whips...essentially, a superpowered dominatrix! -- yeah, I think someone should've queried that before it went to press).

Obviously a big point of the series was the "teen" angle, something the dialogue itself constantly harps on. And they sort of succeed in creating a sense of youthful heroes...and they sort of seem like adult writers trying to fake it. Admittedly, Bagley's art is a bit problematic in that area, drawing them as over-muscled super types rather than maybe trying to effect a more youthful physique.

And speaking of Bagley's art, it suits the style established by the scripts, in that it's energetic, and crammed to bursting, and manages to hold the eye and get you turning pages, even if it's maybe "super hero generic" more than anything more striking. By that I mean Bagley does a fine job throughout, his figures well proportioned, his storytelling clear (I've seen later work by him that's more stylized) -- even as it maybe tells the scenes more than enhances them. It's the sort of art that you're glad the comic has, as you could well imagine a lot worse choices...even as you rarely find yourself lingering over an image, an expression, a gesture, a composition. Larry Mahlstedt inks most of the issues here, with a slick, firm style (that in a way, could also put you -- a bit -- in mind of the early New Teen Titans) but in some respects I think I preferred Al Williamson's inks on the first two issues, his rougher style maybe blending with the rough edges of Bagley's pencils a bit better for a moodier, more individualistic look.

The New Warriors Classic, vol. 1, is an agreeable little page turner, mixing fun n' frothy, and super hero hi-jinks, with some deeper themes and character bits, all attractively enough illustrated -- and though with sub-plots left dangling, well enough self-contained to be read for itself. At the same time, even after six issues, the characters haven't really evolved into flesh and blood people, the sub-plots introduced too obviously meant to tease us into later stories, rather than something we are interested in for themselves. Likewise emotional dilemmas (like Marvel Boy's abusive father, or Speedball's parents on the verge of divorcing) seem there to establish an emotional/realistic credential for the comic...rather than something that actually engages us as a drama that involves people with whom we empathize.

Cover price: $24.99 USA.


The New Warriors Classic, vol. 2 2010 (SC TPB) 256 pages.

coverWritten by Fabian Nicieza, with others. Pencils by Mark Bagley, with Guang Yap, Tom Raney, Terry Shoemaker, others. Inked by Larry Mahlstedt, others.

Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: New Warriors (first series) #7-10, New Warriors Annual #1, plus the lead stories from New Mutants Annual #7, X-Men Annual #15, X-Factor Annual #6 - with covers (1991)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed June, 2011

Published by Marvel Comics

I picked up a discounted copy of New Warriors Classic, vol. 1 and, though uneven, it was an enjoyable enough collection (reviewed above ^). Volume 2 was equally discounted, so I picked it up a few months later. The second volume is basically comprised of two multi-issue arcs, a single issue adventure, and a few short tales from New Warriors Annual #1. And, sadly, I found volume two less effective than volume one.

Although this makes a decent starting point, as the opening issue cuts back and forth to the various characters in solo scenes, conveniently introducing you to the regulars if you hadn't read volume one (and the short pieces from Annual #1 recap their various origins).

The New Warriors were teen heroes, joining the list of teen teams like the Teen Titans and The New Mutants. Created by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (or at least, developed by them from an initial concept by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz) one can well believe the creators were sincere in their commitment and having a blast, in their minds having a firm idea of the sort of comic they wanted to do -- "New" Teen Titans-esque in its mix of action, character interaction, and soap opera. But just because they knew what they were trying to imitate, doesn't mean they pull it off (and, to be fair, I had mixed feelings about the New Teen Titans).

For one thing, Nicieza's dialogue can be pretty clunky. In the first issue here, a girl appears before Night Thrasher, and we are basically are told everything we need to know about them in a single panel of dialogue and thought balloons. On one hand, that's good, Nicieza making the story accessible to a new reader -- on the other hand, it's awful writing. There is a right way and a wrong way to write expository dialogue.

The first three issues here comprise two parallel story arcs: one involving Night Thrasher, the other the rest of the team heading down to South America and getting embroiled with evil eco-terrorists. I can't decide if the latter is a reflection of an anti-green attitude (Nicieza had an eco-terrorist in the first collection, too!), or whether he was just trying to play all sides, politically speaking. At one point, the youthful heroes remark how most of their parents vote Republican...and given the heroes are largely estranged from their parents, one can infer that as a dig at the right.

Anyway, both plot lines would seem to be rife with deep themes, political sub-text, and moral ambiguity (the Night Thrasher story involves an ex-Vietnam vet priest being hunted by a Vietnamese man he wronged during the war). Along the way, The Punisher gets involved (during his 1990s spike in popularity making him a more in-demand guest star than Spider-Man). But the execution is clumsy and simple and never really engages the heart or mind. Like with his dialogue, Nicieza attacks his socio-political themes with a sledge hammer finesse. There's not much in the way of twists or turns, or even character development. The reason the team goes to South America is because Speedball's mom is part of the eco-terrorists -- but she barely has any lines (for that matter, I'm not sure the plot even makes sense in spots). In South America the New Warriors encounter a rival super team, cuing lots of fighting between colourful characters, which seems to be the series' bread and butter, as each story arc here involves them battling some rival team or other.

Then we get a single issue story of the New Warriors battling...yup, another super team, The Hellions (foes of the New Mutants) resulting in just a pointless stand off.

Then we get the "Kings of Pain" story arc that was serialized through four annuals, which results in even more colourful-but-unmemorable characters to battle as The New Warriors, The New Mutants (soon to be re-christened X-Force), and some second tier variation of the X-Men battle each other over various misunderstandings while pursuing yet another group of super beings. There are some comics where your involvement in what's happening relies upon your familiarity with the characters, while other stories can excite you about the characters even if you've never heard of them before. In this case, though I've come across these X-Men and New Mutant characters before (this being a period where neither featured their signature memberships -- only X-Factor was the "classic" line up), I'm not that familiar with them -- and nothing here made me care to know more. Though the back cover indicates the stories should have resonance for hardcore fans as some of the guest star characters either were, or went on to become, familiar.

The final chapter of the cross-over tries to be more thoughtful and talky, getting away from the "team A vs. team B" formula. But it just feels stretched. The whole cross-title story is indicative of its "dark n' gritty" 1990s era (the title alone reflecting that -- Kings of Pain), with a lot of nihilistic, unpleasant characters (the X-Men apparently going through yet another phase in their own series where they are acting surly because they are under an evil influence). Yet Nicieza is clearly still trying to deal with the series' signature Teen Titans-like theme of young heroes dealing with youth issues, as the story partly revolves around a mistreated boy. But instead of being profound and moving, it just seems unsavory...particularly when the solution is to convince the villain his life isn't worth living! The art in the annuals is uniformly decent, and though by a different artists, of a similar style to make for a consistent look.

Throughout the stories are often basically just a set up for the generic fight scenes, in which a bunch of heroes clash with a bunch of villains (or misunderstood heroes). But if you have an ensemble cast, you should come up with plots that can give them all something to do. Instead, there are a lot of panels of them all just crammed up together, trading quips and barbs, where you could drop or add characters and not affect the narrative one bit. That also relates to the character/soap opera stuff of which there's very little -- despite it seeming like Nicieza thinks the characters are a big part of the series' point. But we actually see very little of the heroes out-of-costume, dealing with personal lives.

Reflecting back on the first TPB, which I liked a bit more, I wonder if part of the contrast is this volume's emphasis on longer, multi-issue arcs (the stories in volume one were mainly one-off issues, at most two-parters). Maybe Niceiza's plotting style doesn't quite lend itself to stretched out storylines

Bagley's art is serviceable and clean, but doesn't really excite me.

I read the first New Warriors Classic volume and thought it was a bit clumsy, it had its moments. But with this second volume, I just found myself flipping the pages to get to the end, not because I was really enjoying what I was reading, finding dialogue poor, characters uninvolving, and the plotting thin.

Cover price: $29.99 USA.


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