by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "T" (Page 1)

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cover by Colin MacNielTales of Suspense 1994 (SC GN) 64 pages

Written by James Robinson. Painted by Colin MacNiel.
Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Marc McLaurin.

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Presumably riding the wave of critical and commercial success that greeted Marvels -- the fully painted mini-series re-examining Marvel lore -- Marvel produced at least three fully painted graphic novels which took their names from 1960s anthology comics, featuring the heroes who used to appear in them. These were Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, and this: Tales of Suspense...a comic which used to feature Iron Man and Captain America in separate adventures. Here, though, they team up at the behest of super spy Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to help take on a fledgling, pan-national terrorist group, D.A.N.T.E., that seems to be utilizing research that helped create both heroes in the first place.

Whatever Marvel's flaws, it was undoubtedly a work of great effort and meticulous research. By contrast, Tales of Suspense -- sub-titled "Men and Machines" -- seems as though scripter James Robinson might have knocked it out over a weekend. To be sure, Robinson has a theme he wants to play around with, contrasting both heroes, and throwing in the idea that both men secretly admire the other -- Iron Man, aware that Cap combats danger without benefit of super armour, Cap admiring Iron Man's intellect for having designed the armour in the first place. And in the end, there's an interesting turn about as both men must face the enemy, in a sense, in each others' boots.

Emphasis is put on the themes, but little effort is expended on the plot itself. It's pretty rudimentary: Iron Man and Cap are told at the beginning that there's a new terrorist group planning to assassinate some government big wig and, in the climax, the terrorists attempt to assassinate a big wig. Wow! Talk about plot twists, eh? The execution is pretty prosaic, without benefit of imaginative scenes or plot complications -- or even non-stop action. At one point Robinson's captions refer to the plot being "away from bright costume- clad super-villainy" as if his story is more gritty and relevant than your average superhero comic. Except it's less so. D.A.N.T.E. isn't even like a real terrorist group, in the sense of a fanatical organization devoted to a particular philosophy or agenda. Rather, they're just hired mercenaries with flying ships and super weapons who make Dr. Doom look like a poster child for politically relevant comics.

I even found myself nitpicking over minor points -- always a bad sign. But there were scenes that just seemed implausible, or even illogical. I don't think we even learn what D.A.N.T.E. stands for!

Robinson's characterization is uneven, too. As noted, he makes use of themes, of exploring both men's sense of inadequacy compared with the other, and Cap's usual fear of being a living anachronism -- which should be good. But as I've complained about with so many comics in the last decade or so, describing characters isn't the same as portraying them. For all the insight, the two men don't quite emerge as flesh and blood people. Part of that may be my own feeling that what makes Iron Man interesting is Tony Stark, the man inside the armour -- but Iron Man barely appears out of costume in the entire story.

Furthermore, Robinson begins by emphasizing Cap's contrast to then-contemporaneous, more violent heroes...but by the end, both Iron Man and Captain American seem to be employing lethal force with nary a qualm!

As a sidebar, reference is made to the fact that the two heroes had been on the outs with each other lately. It doesn't relate to the story, as the two quickly forgive any past transgressions, but neither is it explained (presumably it related to concurrent issues of the Avengers or something).

Obviously, one suspects the whole point of these books (and a few others that come to mind) is the fully painted art, as if the art will lift up a weak story. But surely the opposite impulse would be better -- pick a great story that deserves the fully painted treatment. But the art itself is problematic. Unlike Alex Ross, or John Estes (Tales to Astonish) and others who've brought a prestigious painted look to their work...artist Colin MacNiel's work basically looks like, well, comic book art, but done in paint rather than pencil and ink. It's neither uncannily life-like, or moodily Impressionistic (though it leans towards that at times, particularly when figures are drawn at a distance, looking like stick men). The colour choices are not particularly breathtaking. And even as comic book art it's not that great. The figures can be a touch stiff, the faces limited in their expressions.

Overall, a largely uninspired effort -- the flirtation with character insight notwithstanding.

Cover price: $9.40 CDN./ $6.95 USA 

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

cover by John EstesTales to Astonish 1994 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Peter David. Drawn and painted by John Estes.
Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Marc McLaurin.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Sub-titled "Loki's Dream", this has Hank Pym (variously having gone by the names of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket, and now whose schtick is changing the size, not of himself, but of others) his ex-wife, the Wasp, and the incredible Hulk joining forces in Norway when a psychotic killer with a mythology fixation is granted the powers of a god by Loki, Norse god of mischief.

Jumping on the bandwagon of the fully painted Marvels, this was one of three fully painted graphic novels Marvel put out that took their names from old anthology comics Marvel published in the '60s, utilizing the characters that had appeared in said titles. The others were Tales of Suspense (teaming Iron Man, Captain America, and Nick Fury) and Strange Tales (teaming Dr. Strange, The Thing and the Human Torch).

Estes' painted art is quite striking, at times bordering on the realism of Alex Ross (the guy who largely started the painted comics craze), but more often not quite, being more impressionistic. Sometimes that's a problem, with scenes being a bit confusing -- even knowing the Wasp was supposed to be zapping people with her "stings" it's hard to realize that in some of the pictures. Overall, though, the art is quite enjoyable.

David's one of the more respected writers in comics these days, but I'd been more ambivalent toward him, feeling his "clever" dialogue could border on cutesy. But here, it "sounds" well -- though there are still awkward passages where the hand of the writer is more obvious than the mind of the character (like a Norwegian villain quoting Monty Python).

The main problem is that the plot is just a big action piece. For 64 pages and given a sumptuous, painted treatment, one can be forgiven for anticipating more. Some human emotion, a more personal stake by the heroes, some greater complexity to the story. Perhaps if David hadn't chosen such a motiveless, one dimensional villain whose goal is to set himself up as a god and then stage Ragnarok -- the final batte of the gods. But why? What drives him? Answer: he's a nut. For that matter, it's unclear why Loki gives him power in the first place. And some of the story's resonance seems to rely on the reader having prior knowledge of Norse mythology.

Hank Pym and the Wasp are handled well -- more interesting than, frankly, I expected them to be. The Hulk was more problematic. I hadn't actually read a Hulk comic since his "Hulk smash puny humans!" days years ago. Here, having him have the mind of Bruce Banner, a smart guy in a super powerful body, just strikes me as rather...dull. The character lacks vulnerability, not to mention pathos. Still, David's run on the Hulk was highly regarded, so maybe it's hard to appreciate this version based solely on this one team-up story.

Another weakness is the use of a psychotic, homicidal villain -- there's an opening sequence (among others) which is particularly grisly. To his credit, Estes avoids being overly graphic in the visuals, but in the blatantly fantastical milieu of super-powered people doing super-powered things it seems inappropriate and keeps the thing from being "all in fun". Maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if writers like David didn't revel in the sadism so much. An enjoyable time waster (occasional lapses into mean-spiritedness notwithstanding), just don't expect anything more.

It borders on getting a mature readers label.

Cover price: $9.40 CDN./$6.95 USA.

The Teen Titans
see the Teen Titans section

The Thing: The Project Pegasus Saga 1988 (SC TPB) 126 pgs.

Re-issued a few times, including in a hardcover version in 2011!

The Thing: The Project Pegasus Saga coverWritten by Mark Gruenwald & Ralph Macchio. Pencils by John Byrne, George Perez. Inks by Joe Sinnott, Gene Day.
Colours: Bob Sharen (with Carl Gafford, Roger Slifer). Letters: John Constanza (with Diane Albers, Irv Watanabe). Editors: Roger Stern, Jim Shooter.

Reprinting: Marvel Two-In-One #53-58, 60 (1979)

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

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

Taken from the pages of Marvel Two-in-One, a comic featuring team-ups between the Thing (a.k.a. Ben Grimm, the rock-skinned member of the Fantastic Four) and a succession of guest stars, the Project Pegasus Saga (originally called just The Pegasus Project) has the Thing temporarily moonlighting on the security detail of Pegasus, a secret government compound dedicated to studying energy applications, as well as incarcerating various energy-based super-villains.

The Thing has taken the assignment to keep an eye on Wundarr, an alien man-child he had befriended but is now at Pegasus in a catatonic state, for which the Thing feels partially responsible. Once there, he encounters various attempts at sabotage. He teams up with Quasar, the compound's solar-powered security head, as well as Giant-Man II (formerly Black Goliath) who, in his alter ego, happens to be a scientist at Pegasus. They end up battling quasi-heroes Deathlok (a cyborg reprogrammed to work for the baddies) and Thundra, an alien Amazon who's allied with the baddies for personal reasons, as well as battling out-and-out villains like Klaw and others.

The final story (from #60) is unrelated to the Pegasus story, and is just an amusing adventure involving Ben and the Impossible Man (included, perhaps, because of Perez'a art -- Marvel Two-in-One #59 was drawn by another artist).

Despite being called "Marvel Two-in-One", the Pegasus story works out to considerably more than two characters per chapter. Thing and Quasar appear in all the chapters, Giant-Man II in most of them, and, if sometimes in small parts, Thundra and Wundarr, too.

I'm not sure what the background was for this story. The cover of the first chapter (#53) proclaimed: "At last! The saga of Project Pegasus!", implying the fans had anticipated this for some time. And a later letter writer refered to hearing about the storyline for months before it was actually published. And from references in the story, there had been previous Marvel-2-in-1 issues with Ben at Pegasus, suggesting this is dealing with threads that might have been left dangling for a while. Clearly, the Pegasus Project was intended to be a major epic (particularly as Marvel Two-in-One generally did single issue stories).

Reading it all these years later, one can't help but wonder if the powers-that-be had promised the saga for so long, that when it came time to actually deliver...they didn't know what to do. Gruenwald and Macchio deliver competent dialogue and pacing, and the opening chapter, more introspective than later ones, certainly sets a mood. The whole conceit of setting an entire epic (mainly) in one complex creates its own atmosphere. The art by John Byrne on the first three issues and George Perez on the rest is certainly good (of course), and the two men back then had sufficiently similar styles that the transition isn't jarring (though it's too bad they couldn't have kept the same inker to further unify the art. As it is, Sinnott inks Byrne, Day inks Perez). And the final, Impossible Man story is cute.

But overall, it's a bit...bland. There's lots of fighting and smashing things, but the individual issues muster only meagre plots (a villain is released from a holding cell, the Thing and his buds re-capture him) while the overall story arc is pretty thin for so many chapters. There aren't really any significant twists or turns or noteworthy sub-plots -- whuch is usually the appeal of lengthy sagas. If they had told the tale in two or three issues, it wouldn't have lost anything. For three issues we keep cutting away to Thundra in an unrelated sub-plot, waiting to see how it'll connect. But when it does, it does in a kind of unconvincing way. Even the climax is weak. Benjy and the gang prevent the destruction of Pegasus, but there are things left unresolved. The sinister organization is revealed (to the reader, though not to our heroes) to be a familiar bad guy organization that cropped up in various Marvel titles from the period...but so what? We never even learn what the bad guys promised Thundra in exchange for her help! (I think there's even another character who hints at some cryptic motivation that, likewise, isn't explained).

The fact that the Thundra sub-plot (before it merges with the main plot) involves her getting a job as a pro-westler is perhaps thematically appropriate -- that's kind of the feel of the saga, like a pro-wrestling match as each issue a baddie is unleashed (in some cases, literally just as a diversion) and the heroes whomp him. Sure, that's kind of what super hero stories are about, but as mentioned, here there's little surrounding plot, or motivation, or even clever strategy.

There's no great emotional or socio-political sub-text, either. Quasar is conscientiously dedicated to his job -- but that's about it for defining him. Ben's initial guilt over Wundarr's condition never comes into play in any major sense. Wundarr, meanwhile, undergoes a "cosmic" transformation so popular in comics, renaming himself the Aquarian -- but I'd never heard of either of his names prior to reading this. And it's a safe bet that's why he underwent the metamorphosis, to make a 2nd string character into something more marketable (billed on the cover as "Marvel's latest, greatest super-star"). Indeed, one can see a certain irony in a multi-part saga that seems, in part, intended to boost a supporting character's profile...and didn't.

The fact that this was collected in a TPB almost a decade after originally being published, when so many other great stories never were, would imply someone thought it held up (though it may be the presence of Byrne and Perez made it appealing to the decision makers at Marvel). Indeed -- it's been re-issued a few times over the years, including in a 2011 hardcover edition! And this story might've been more significant back in the '70s, when characters like Quasar, Wundarr, Thundra and Giant-Man II were maybe more familiar (I don't know if any of these characters are still around), and when fans might have been intrigued to see more of Pegasus (likewise, I have no idea if it still crops up much in Marvel titles). Though even then, you get surprisingly little embellishment about the inner workings of the compound or the characters' psyches.

Honestly, I didn't dis-like this. It's a harmless confection. But read years later, it's a saga in name only. Not by any means appaling -- in fact, I feel a little guilty about giving it such a dismissive review -- but it's nothing to engender much enthusiasm for either.

This is a review of the story serialized originally in Marvel Two-in-One comics.,

Original cover price:  __ 

Timely 70th Anniversary Collection 2009 (HC) 250 pages

coverWritten/illustrated by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting the new stories from All-Winners Comics 70th Anniversary Special, USA Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Mystic Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Marvel Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special, All-Select Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Young Allies Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Captain America Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Human Torch Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Miss America Comics 70th Anniversary Special, Sub-Mariner Comics 70th Anniversary Special (2009)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010

Published by Marvel Comics

One wonders if, after all these years, after Marvel Comics (arguably) revolutionalized super hero comics in the 1960s with the Marvel Age, and finally conquering the cinematic box office with Spider-Man and Iron Man (after years of watching DC produce hit movie franchises), one wonders if someone at Marvel Comics looked over at DC Comics...and got jealous. Because the one thing DC had that Marvel didn't so much...was a sense of history. Marvel has been around as long as DC, albeit undergoing various name changes over the years, from Timely, to Atlas, before settling on Marvel Comics. But while DC has frequently mined its Golden Age legacy for stories and characters (even buying rights to the heroes of other companies)...Marvel tended not to as much -- looking forward, perhaps, more than back. Sure, Captain America and, to a lesser extent, the Sub-Mariner have continued to be players in Marvel's modern adventures, and the original Human Torch, and possibly the Whizzer, have been dredged up from time to time. But in essence, Marvel's 1940s properties were allowed to slip into obscurity, enjoying only occasional revisitations in such series as The Invaders.

Now Marvel seems to have decided it wants to establish a sense of a venerable history. A few years back, Marvel had re-numbered a bunch of its series as a marketing gimmick to get them back into low figures presumably to attract newer readers. But recently they've re-established the old numbering, proudly proclaiming Spider-Man and others have reached their 600th issue! And with J. Michael Straczynski's The Twelve and Ed Brubaker's The Marvels Project the company has been all keen to suggest the Golden Age of Marvel Comics really was a Golden Age.

Of course the overall success of such revisionism is far from certain: The Twelve took forever to complete, while The Marvels Projects comes across as though Brubaker read Darwyne Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, and thought, "Hey, I bet I could do that"...and proceeded to prove that, um, no, maybe he can't.

As part of this wave of newfound nostalgia came eleven one shot 70th anniversary specials, drawing upon Marvel/Timely's Golden Age legacy, utilizing both familiar characters (Captain America & Bucky, the Sub-Mariner) and some more obscure ones, such as the Phantom Detective, or the original Vision. In addition to new lead stories, each of the one shots also included some vintage reprints.

The new stories have been collected between a single cover as The Timely 70th Anniversary Collection.

And the result is actually pretty good.

Employing a variety of writers and artists, the tales run a certain gamut of styles and themes. Some are adventure-thrillers...some are more thoughtful, character pieces; some are played straight...some have an element of tongue-in-cheek. As mentioned, there are plenty of stories using familiar characters, either solo, or teamed up...and others calling upon more obscure properties. Most are war time adventures, some are framed by modern sequences. At least one seems to be set in modern times. Some seem true to the war time characterizations...others seem to draw upon later embellishments...some I suspect take liberties with characters that, after all, were pretty vague to begin with (in the story involving the otherworldly Vision, he evinces a nifty power -- to confront people with their greatest fears -- that isn't actually indicated in the reprints that accompanied the one shot).

And all the tales are self-contained, though some draw upon continuity that came much later, as opposed to being totally true to the 1940s era (references are made, in one story, to the fact that the Captain America there isn't the true Captain America, while the Blonde Phantom story is set in modern times, and has her referring to being older than she looks...with no explanation for what or how). Yet it's not particularly confusing continuity that demands you need to know the background to follow the story.

And overall, it's enjoyable.

The issues were of a pretty high quality just on their own, and probably benefit even more from being collected, as the variety then becomes a plus, rather than a problem. That is, if you picked up a one shot, expecting an adventure, and got something a bit slower and more introspective (or vice versa), you might be disappointed. But pressed next to each other, that very variety is what makes the collection a fun, interesting read, with enough action and thrills to keep it entertaining, and enough introspection and characterization to give it depth.

The art style varies, admittedly much of it a bit more stylized, or cartoonier, than I necessarily prefer...but still, generally it's energetic and tells the scenes well. And there is more realist, conventional art on display, too. Among my favourites is Paolo Rivera on the Young Allies story, a nicely done Roger Stern scripted effort which mixes flashbacks and a modern framing sequence as Bucky reunites with survivors of the boy team he and Toro used to work with, for a mix of adventure and bittersweet melancholy.

Arguably, among the best issues, in sense of being well rounded, is the All-Winners issue, which manages to cram humour, drama, character interaction and an adventure plot all into one story, involving some of the team later popularized as the Invaders.

Perhaps among the more disappointing were the Sub-Mariner stories, despite some great art. Maybe it was because they choose to present too shorter tales of the Atlantean prince, giving neither enough room to really develop. Old pro (and one time Sub-Mariner writer) Roy Thomas delivers an introspective tale...that could've used more plot/adventure. And Mark Schultz writes an old fashioned adventure yarn...that could've used some more depth (and plot twists).

Still, there's not a "bad" tale in the bunch (save maybe Michael Kupperman's tale of the robot Marvex which is done as out and out parody. Even it isn't terrible...just kind of pointless.)

Because these stories are pretty well all self-contained, either featuring characters you aren't expected to know well, or explaining most of what you need to know of those that are more familiar, it makes a surprisingly satisfying anthology, where you can read the stories -- and the collected volume -- for itself, and not feel as though you have to buy six other TPBs just to get what's going on. And it does provide a neat kind of glimpse at an alternate Marvel Comics, pulling back the curtain on heroes and adventures otherwise largely lost to time.

Whether decades after the fact Marvel can establish a sense of a legacy like DC Comics has, is unclear. A lot of these characters -- though entertaining and interesting for these one shots -- don't necessarily suggest they have what it takes to be Marvel's answer to Dr. Mid-Nite, or even the Human Bomb. In powers, personalities -- even costume designs -- there's maybe a reason they fell into obscurity. Then again, maybe other Golden Age heroes seem more compelling simply because they've been kept in the public eye and embellished upon over the years. Maybe all it would take is a few more specials and mini-series, and Marvel's lost heroes will begin to glow with a similar nostalgic resonance.

Whether or not that happens though, is unimportant. Just read for itself and itself alone, this is a nice collection, mixing familiar and obscure heroes, in tales that run a variety of tones...and most of them above average.

This is a review of the story serialized originally in the comics.

Hard cover price: $24.99 USA

see the Thor section


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