GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Star Brand Classic 2007 (SC TPB) 178 pages

Written by Jim Shooter, with Roy Thomas. Drawn by John Romita Jr., with Alex Saviuk. Inks by Al Williamson, with Art Nichols, Vince Colletta, Rick Bryant, Al Milgrom.
Colours: various. Letters: Joe Rosen, with Rick Parker. Editor: Michael Higgins.

Reprinting: Star Brand #1-7 (1986-87)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

Supposedly part of the impetus for the so-called Marvel Age of Comics -- when in the 1960s Marvel (under the auspices of Stan Lee) introduced Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc. -- was to kind of shake up the super hero genre by introducing more realistic characters in a more realistic world...characters with human foibles. Following in that wake, in the mid-1980s, Marvel Comics attempted a grandiose project by launching a series of comics under the "New Universe" label. Under the auspices of then editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, the "New Universe" was separate from regular Marvel continuity and attempted an even more "realistic" take on super heroes. So yes, it generally involved people with powers, but they didn't wear costumes, didn't battle colourful arch foes, and spent a lot of time just trying to figure out their place in the world. It also doesn't take much to see it as a trial run for the initial Valiant line of comics, which Shooter would help create a few years later.

At least, that was the intent. The execution was more uncertain. Most of the titles only lasted only a year or two (the "universe" spinning off into a few one-shots and mini-series that seemed to get further and further away from the "realism") and many were plagued by changing writers and artists and a suspicion that many of those working on them weren't really sure what they were supposed to be going for -- or what this New Universe theme was all about.

In that sense, Star Brand -- at least initially -- seemed the most sure footed (of the New Universe series I've read) and that may be because it was written by Jim Shooter, who as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, and presumably a main instigator of the new line, may have been one of the few people who fully grasped the "vision" for it.

Star Brand was supposedly intended as the flag ship title, initially written by Shooter himself and with John Romita Jr. -- already becoming a fan favourite artist -- on pencils (Alex Saviuk pinch hits one issue). As often happens with "new" heroes, they can seem a bit like a deliberate riff on existing characters. And though some have likened hero Ken Connell to the New Universe's Superman, clearly the concept that was flittering through Shooter's mind was Green Lantern. The premise has Connel encountering a mysterious Old Man who claims to be a dying alien and bequeaths to Ken a tattoo that gives him extraordinary powers.

And what follows is an attempt to realistically explore the fall out from such a premise. Ken struggles to understand his powers, to figure out what to do with them, and grapples, sometimes amusingly, with their limitations (he discovers that flying high above the ground, it's very easy to become lost and he has to carry a map with him) -- all the while trying desperately not to reveal himself to the unsuspecting world. He also begins to question his own origins, and wonders how much of what the Old Man told him was actually true.

But all that's only part of the tale, because the series is also very much about Ken's life removed from his powers and where Ken is definitely a "feet of clay" hero, juggling two women in his life: Barb, the single mom he's thinking of settling down with, and the almost slavishly devoted Debbie, who doesn't seem to mind being the "other" woman. And there's a slight adult nature to the tales, as it's obvious the relationships are sexual in nature (when many super heroes at the time had more chaste relationships).

The New Universe series weren't that well regarded at the time, some seeing it as an act of hubris, and Shooter was already becoming an unpopular and controversial figure at Marvel (soon to be given the boot) and, yes, probably because a lot of the titles maybe weren't that good. But read years later, it's obvious the concepts were also ahead of their time, as the notion of trying a more "realistic" super hero reality would become increasingly en vogue and, as noted, the (temporarily) successful Valiant line very much followed the New Universe formula.

And though flawed, the first seven issues of Star Brand (the whole of the Shooter-Romita Jr, run) collected in this TPB is definitely an intriguing, and oddly compelling series.

It can seem silly to refer to a super hero comic as a "personal" work, but one wonders if we're seeing Shooter at his most personal, trying to tell a story about an average guy as much as a super hero -- Ken is even supposed to be tall (Shooter is a notoriously tall guy) -- and where the kitchen sink reality of Ken's life at work (where he works at an auto body shop) and his relationships and commitment issues take up a huge section of the comic, and where the depictions of his powers seems a bit like a reflection of a writer who had accumulated pet peeves over the years of ideas he'd like to work into super hero stories but never found the right venue (such as that map/flying thing). In a way, part of the idea is to explore the idea that having super powers doesn't necessarily mean you can solve every crisis that comes along -- and Ken can seem almost a bit of a Hamlet figure, given to brooding and dithering so much, but not always accomplishing a lot. In one sequence he decides to intercede in a rescue -- but can't quite figure out how! He contemplates burrowing anonymously to a location -- then realizes that he'd very quickly lose his sense of direction. Eventually the rescue is accomplished...with Ken still on the sidelines!

If all that sounds boring -- strangely, it's not. As mentioned, in some respects it seems a bit ahead of its time (some aspects reminded me of Paul Chadwick's later, critically acclaimed Concrete). Even Shooter's use of a supporting cast seems maybe to be trying for a little more kitchen sink reality than most super hero comics, giving them their own idiosyncratic quirks, such as Ken's psychiatrist friend whose hobby is too compulsively "salvage" junk he finds by the side of the road. Often supporting characters in comics aren't really developed enough to have hobbies because, well, they are just supporting characters. And an odd turn in their relationship could perhaps be a reflection of Shooter's own cynicism toward friendship. While Debbie's odd penchant for saying "quack!", though distracting, is nonetheless another attempt to seem "real" precisely because it doesn't necessarily follow a template. For that matter, the fact that Barb has kids, so that a relationship with her includes an instant family is not something a lot of super hero comics get into.

With all that being said, I'm not trying to suggest Star Brand was completely re-inventing the wheel -- feet of clay heroes, and complex or atypical relationships had cropped up in mainstream comics like Spider-Man before. But Star Brand was maybe ratcheting it up a bit.

The series is also extremely introspective. Despite a supporting cast, despite the mix of domestic scenes and "super heroic" fantasy, much of the story is focused on Ken brooding, thought balloons overhead.

And at other times, the series does stray into more conventional super hero areas, as Ken battles terrorists and does get into a few "super" battles, as his Star Brand seems to have embroiled him in some sort of intergalactic conflict, and a few aliens show up, trying to take it back. There's a slow building -- and unsettling effective -- aspect of a paranoia to the series, too, as Ken reflects on how strange and dreamlike his encounter with the Old Man was, and wonders if he can even trust his memories of the incident (and maybe deliberately evoking the dream-like tone of stories of alien abductions) -- and as it becomes obvious the Old Man wasn't telling him the whole story. And Ken is basically vulnerable, despite his powers, as he's just a guy out of his depths, with no one to turn to for help, unwilling even to go to the government for fear he'd be locked up as a public security threat.

There are flaws to the series. For one thing, like with the later Valiant line, Star Brand can seem a little too cerebral at times -- more than emotional. For all that it's all about Ken, and much of the series is told introspectively through Ken's thought balloons, it can lack a certain raw emotionalism. It's as if Shooter has over-intellectualized his concepts. We don't necessarily care about Ken the way, decades before, we cared about Peter Parker. Part of that may be because Ken is a flawed guy -- cheating on the women in his lives, and Shooter has him leering at women he meets. At first you wonder if this is Shooter living out a vicarious macho fantasy (and probably was a bit), except you realize that it's supposed to be -- at least sort of -- negative behaviour, that even Ken is aware that he's acting inappropriately and wants to change his behaviour. And for all that Shooter is trying to go for an arch-realism, there are times when the dialogue is just awkward, as he's having the characters speak to get across ideas, more than talk the way people would.

And there's a sense that, for a series, Shooter's not entirely sure what to do with it. Though most of the issues are sort of self-contained (as opposed to ending on cliff hangers) they aren't necessarily tightly plotted -- admittedly, that's deliberate. As mentioned, part of the premise is to do a "super hero" comic that isn't like a regular super hero comic, as we spend many pages and scenes with Ken's on-going domestic life, or flying about, ruminating on his powers, punctuated by an occasional fight with an alien or terrorists, sometimes ending deliberately anti-climactically. Yet each issue also just kind of blends into the next, as part of an on going saga. Yet, as an on going saga, it doesn't fully seem to be going anywhere, as Ken basically just struggles with the same ideas and dilemmas issue after issue, every now and then acting as if he's come to some sort of self-realization...then seems to be right back to his brooding the next issue. There are also a few cryptic scenes -- at one point, Ken encounters some people with a super suit, which isn't fully explained (they were stars of their own New Universe series, Spitfire -- but it seems a bit early to start doing guest appearances!) and even stranger he later has a battle with some super powered misfits that are totally unexplained -- I don't know if they were from another comic too, or whether they were supposed to represent a mystery to be explained later.

Still, these seven issues do build to a climax of sorts, as the Old Man returns, more sinister than before, and a climactic fight ensues -- but the bigger questions remain unanswered, like why did the Old Man give him the Star Brand only to want it back later? And the fact that Shooter stepped back from the series after this makes you wonder if even he lacked a fully realized vision of where it was headed. The final issue also, interestingly, seems to build to a domestic climax as well, as Ken seems almost to finally make a decision involving the two women in his life -- though even then, it's not sure how much that was intended (having read the next issue -- not included here -- it seems to be right back to the status quo).

Still, the result is that these seven issues, read as a collection, do build to a suitable climax (whatever came next), a feeling that they do form a story arc...even as it's a vaguely unsatisfying arc.

I can be mixed on Romita Jr's art, but I kind of like his work from this period, simple and straightforward, but with a certain dynamicness, and nice story telling composition. It suits the tone of the series. Actually, maybe too well. As mentioned, there's a certain lack of emotion to a series that is all about character, and that may be partly because Romita (as inked by Williamsom) tends to draw people in a slightly vague way, with faces lacking detail.

Interestingly, the final issue, though still plotted by Shooter, is actually scripted by old hand Roy Thomas, and though Thomas' dialogue veers a little away from the subdued realism as Ken becomes a little more flippant and hip -- like Thomas tends to write super heroes -- it's also true that it seems a little more emotional, Ken seeming a little more human. Likewise, Romita Jr. is inked by Art Nichols who brings a stronger definition and detail to the characters and their facial expressions.

Ultimately, Star Brand emerges as more intriguing and compelling than not. An atmospheric series that lingers with you. It's more talk than action but, sometimes, in the right context, talk can be more interesting than action. The notion of trying to envision what would really happen if someone acquired great powers is interestingly and, generally, convincingly handled, moreso than a lot of comics that have gone that route in recent years (though if you go back and read the earliest Spider-Man comics by Lee and Ditko, you realize that really was what they were going for, too).

One can't say it's an unqualified success, for the flaws I've mentioned, but read now, years later one can say Shooter deserves a partial vindication -- and Star Brand Classic stands as a worthy, off-beat TPB in the super hero genre.

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA.


Static Shock: Trial by Fire 2000 (SC TPB) 96 pages

coverWritten by Robert L. Washington III & Dwayne McDuffie. Pencils by John Paul Leon. Inksd by Steve Mitchell, Shawn C. Martinbrough.
Colours: Noelle C. Giddings, others. Letters: Steve Haynie.

Reprinting: Static (1st series) #1-4 (1993)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug. 2010

Published by DC / Milestone

A later TPB -- Static Shock: Re-Birth of Cool -- reprinted these same four issues, but now collected with a later four issue mini-series revival of the character.

The early 1990s saw a bunch of new comics companies springing up headed by recognized talents -- Valiant, Image, etc. In the case of Milestone (which was an imprint of DC rather than a true independent), it was a company founded by largely African-American creators -- some established, some on the rise -- hoping to provide a more visible presence for black super heroes.

A new "universe", with all the titles taking place in the fictional city of Dakota, Static emerged as, arguably, one of the more fondly recalled characters of a generally well regarded line.

Although pigeon-holing Milestone as being "black" is something even the founders I think would bristle at -- it was predominantly black, deliberately so, but the casts are more varied and multi-cultural than that. It was only black in the same way that DC was white -- which is, both companies assume a broader audience base. Like a lot of those 1990s companies, Milestone was pushing a bit outside the Comics Code, with some grittier subject matter (characters give each other the finger, and use slurs) though not too much so (particularly by today's standards). Some comments suggested the Milestone line overall could be more violent and brutal than the norm...but that's not in evidence here. Perhaps Static was meant to be the (slightly) lighter side of the Milestone universe.

Static's super power is electrical-magnetic, making him basically a low rent version of X-Men villain, Magneto -- but his character and milieu was pure Lee-Ditko Spider-Man. And writers Robert L. Washington III and Dwayne McDuffie do better at capturing that early Spider-Man realism vibe than almost any other comic I've read...including later Spider-Man! Static's teenage alter ego, Virgil Hawkins, is the series' star...not just a convenient mask for the super hero. He's a wisecracking nerd, and a brain to boot -- just like Peter Parker (although Virgil starts out with a circle of friends...including his best friend, a girl named Frieda -- a girl he'd rather be more than friends with). The scenes of Virgil with his friends, or of his home life, are energetic and well played, establishing a sense of real world grounding for the super heroics. Virgil himself, like Peter Parker before him, is a likeable hero you can root for...unarguably noble, even as he is not without his feet of clay.

Of course, how much the environment in which Virgil lives is meant to reflect the African-American experience...and how much just comic book contrivance, is hard to say. Virgil's world is tougher and grittier than Peter Parker's (though we are talking a three decade gap). At one point, Virgil's mom suggested they moved to this area to get away from the bad elements...yet this is still a school where gangs run freely through the halls and one of Virgil's friends cavalierly suggest Virgil use a gun to deal with a bully! As I say, whether that's really meant to be reflect a gritty "realism"...or simply falls into the usual comic book cliches (where a mugging occurs on every street corner) is hard to say.

Artist John Paul Leon has gone on to even greater notice in the biz, but even with this early work his art is stylish and energetic, full of mood and expressive characters that straddle the extremes of caricature and realism. The art is attractive and appealing (with a Walt Simonson flavour) yet does have its short comings. The action scenes can be a bit confusingly staged, with electric bolts zig zagging about and you're not always too sure who's doing what to whom (not unlike Simonson, come to think of it).

But as much as I like Static...I fell short of loving it. Part of that is maybe simply my becoming jaded. Because after all is said and done -- a lot of this has been said and done. As mentioned: it's Peter Parker with the powers of Magneto, and given dark skin. The adventure plots -- at least at this early stage -- aren't really anything that stands out. Some super foe crops up, they tussle, they go their separate ways, the have a climactic re-match. The end. And even though Virgil sometimes uses his brain in his fights (something I've lamented too few characters do in the last couple of decades) the fights still just come across as...well, fights. Not an extension of the drama, or something where you really feel suspense or danger. The down side to feeling the writers are interested in Virgil as a person, is they seem to let the fantasy-heroics side slide a bit. And even on the civilian side, though Virgil has a collection of friends...most don't really evolve into much over these four issues.

And, yes, I realize I'm only talking about four issues. Hardly enough issues to judge the series as whole. But I'm just reviewing this TPB collection for itself. And my review is that I liked and enjoyed it...but didn't get fully excited by it.

Over these issues, Virgil's origin is detailed -- though it's a bit disappointingly vague. Like a lot of recent comics companies, the creators set out to create an instant "universe" (as opposed to creating separate series that gradually can crossover with each other). And apparently believing that it's less silly to have people get super powers from a single impossible event, rather than a bunch of impossible events, the gimmick here is that one mysterious incident spawned many of the city of Dakota's super beings -- the "big bang" (the same way Marvel's New Universe had it's "white event"). It can seem a bit, I dunno, lazy -- and, by the end of these issues, we still don't know what was behind it. As well, they're already getting into guest stars, as with the fourth issue another Milestone character appears who Virgil (and the reader) is already supposed to have heard of!

Though, ironically, that fourth issue perhaps delivers the best of this batch. Guest star Holocaust is a super powered gangsta (a former member of the Blood Syndicate -- anti-heroes with their own Milestone comic) looking to recruit Virgil and essentially acting as a temptation for Virgil (not to get all Biblical on ya) -- a temptation Virgil finds it hard to resist with his own, honest life frustrating him. It provides a deeper, compelling character drama, and boasts some clever techniques (like how Holocaust's words echo in Virgil's mind, literally blocking out the word balloons of other characters). The fourth issues also deals with some minor on going character threads, perhaps explaining why DC/Milestone felt these four issues made a good collection.

The result is a good read -- heck, more than good. A likeable, well realized hero, and nice sense of place, good dialogue, and stylish, dynamic art. But it's a good take on the super hero template, without really pushing outside the template, and with action-plots that feel a little like filler.

Enjoyable.

This is a review based on the original comics.

Original over price: $__ CDN./ $9.95 USA.


Marvel Masterworks: The Sub-Mariner, vol. 1 2002 (HC) 272 pages

cover rep. Tales to Astonish #70Written by Stan Lee, with Bill Everett, Roy Thomas. Pencils by Gene Colan, with Wally Wood, Bill Everett, and Jerry Grandenetti. Inks by Vince Colletta, Dick Ayers, Bill Everett, Wally Wood.
Colours: various. Letters: Art Simek, Sam Rosen, Bill Everett.

Reprinting: Daredevil #7 (1965) and the Sub-Mariner stories from Marvel Comics #1 (1939) and Tales to Astonish #70-87 (1965-1967)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was one of the first super characters published by the company that would become Marvel Comics -- wa-ay back in 1939. He continued into the 1950s when, like most other super heroes, dwindling sales led to cancellation. When Marvel's super hero revival came about in the 1960s, Prince Namor got dusted off for a few guest appearances before landing his own series -- as one of two features in Tales to Astonish comics (the other series was the Hulk -- the Hulk stories are not included here, though the cover might make you think they were!). And just for you sticklers for accuracy, there was a later, late-'70s revival of the Tales to Astonish title, featuring Namor reprints.

Collected in one of Marvel's ridiculously over-priced Marvel Masterworks hardcover books (which, frugal one that I am, I got on sale), this collection reprints the first 18 twelve page episodes from the 1960s Tales to Astonish, as well as an issue of Daredevil (drawn by Wally Wood) in which Subby guest-starred and which led into the Tales to Astonish series...and, just for completists, a reprint of the very first Sub-Mariner story from back in 1939 (neat from a historical point of view -- frustrating from a story point of view as it's "to be continued" -- Marvel later released Marvel Masterworks: The Golden-Age Sub-Mariner which collected the earlier run).

I believe Marvel eventually released one of its cheaper, black & white Essential volumes reprinting much of this same material.

The Sub-Mariner was always a kind of curious hero -- anti-hero even. The half-human, half-mer-person, prince of undersea Atlantis, he was arrogant, imperious, hot headed, and didn't much like surface dwellers (humans) and was as often as not a villain in his guest appearances (though even when he was a villain, one could usually empathize with his motivations). He's a little more restrained here, but still a passionate, easy to rile character -- which is part of what makes him fun, and carries the series over some prosaic spots of simplistic action.

Namor is full of the passion and impulsiveness Lee could write better than most, and given to high-faluting soliloquies that drag you along and even involves you emotionally...even when you know you really shouldn't be 'cause it's so corny and sillily plotted at times.

This collection also takes on an aspect of an epic drama that, when published in instalments probably seemed a little like Lee was just stretching out a story arc because he couldn't come up with anything better. But when collected together, it takes on aspects -- dare I say it? -- of a graphic novel. The first seven chapters form its own story (and, indeed, was collected and reprinted decades ago as two issues of Sub-Mariner Annual) as Subby returns to Atlantis only to find his throne has been usurped by his chief warlord, Krang (which he first learned in the Daredevil story included in this volume). And he spends a few chapters on an obligatory quest to reclaim his throne, while we cut back to Atlantis and Krang, and the Lady Dorma who becomes Namor's love interest. The appeal of aquatic heroes like Sub-Mariner and Aquaman, for me, is the otherworldly environment, and this story plays that up, taking place entirely in the ocean depths.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of these stories tend to involve Namor on the surface...and with a few judicious guest appearances, such as Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne (Ant-Man and the Wasp -- but only appearing in their civilian guises), Iron Man, and a bit appearance by the Hulk.

Anyway, once his throne is reclaimed, the Sub-Mariner journeys to the surface for some misunderstanding/conflicts with surface people (and the villainous Puppet Master). Pretty soon though, warlord Krang is back for more mischief. And he remains, in one way or another, a thorn for the rest of this collection, which is why I said that taken as a whole, it does almost seem like an epic story arc (rather than Lee just overusing the same foe!) Plus there's the added emotional/angst twist that the Sub-Mariner thinks Lady Dorma has betrayed him -- which really gets Subby riled!

Best of all, it does build to a conclusion! (I half expected it to end in mid-story).

The lion's share of the art is by Gene Colan -- which proves decidedly problematic. I've become a big, BIG, Gene Colan fan over the years, with his unconventional, but oddly realistic, style, full of artful shadow and dynamic angles. Colan was years ahead of many of his contemporaries in his art (and still ahead of many). Yet this may not be his best work (being earlier than most other art I've seen by him). Worse -- the choice of inkers was decidedly unfortunate. Vince Colletta inks the first half of these stories...and with his thin and rigid line work, isn't the best choice to embellish Colan's soft, organic, flowing figures. Dick Ayers, though a little better, still doesn't bring out the best in Colan. Everett inks Colan twice -- once to good effect, once to shabby effect. As I said though, whether this is entirely the inkers' fault, or whether Colan's pencils weren't as good as they'd become, I don't know.

With that being said -- the art is still a selling point. Because even Colan not quite at his peak, paired with inkers not quite hip to his game, still delivers some interesting and dynamic panels that add a depth and, yes, even maturity to Lee's at times goofy writing. Lee supplies the emotional passion, Colan the dynamic intensity, and together, the stories are greater than the sum of their parts.

Colan's value is made more obvious towards the end of the collection, when other artists pinch hit and the narrative itself seems to falter a bit as a result. There's the conclusion of an Iron Man cross-over -- though without the first part (though it's a fairly inconsequential interlude) -- drawn seeming hurriedly by Jack Kirby. Kirby does the next chapter, and the saga starts to get back on its feet, but Colan's return is certainly welcome. Then the final two chapters are handled by Jerry Grandenetti and Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett, both men cartoonier than Colan, lacking his power

But, overall, I got a kick out of this collection, the tight, twelve page chapters making for nice, bite-sized reads, even if it has its ups and downs in story and art. But then, I've always had a soft spot for Namor and Aquaman both (two characters almost identical to each other and who have ripped each other off so much over the years it's hard to say which was the original and which the imitation -- certainly Aquaman's hot headedness he began cultivating in the 1970s was clearly borrowed from Namor, and the multi-part story arc reprinted here where Subby goes on a quest to reclaim his throne seems likely to have influenced Aquaman writers to try something similar with the "Quest for Mera" story arc done in the late 1960s.)

Cover price: $79.95 CDN./ $49.95 US.


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