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Tom Strong
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The Torch 2010 (SC TPB) 200 pgs.

coverWritten by Mike Carey (story Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Mike Carey). Illustrated by Patrick Berkenkotter, with Anthony Tan.

Colours: Carlos Lopez. Letters: Todd Klein.

Reprinting: The Torch #1-8 (2009)

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

Number of readings: 1

This review posted: Jan. 2015

Published by Marvel Comics/Dynamite Comics

I'm not sure of the publishing background to this revival of Marvel Comics' seminal super hero -- the original Human Torch. He's the android hero first created in the 1940s, but who continued to crop up, very occasionally (such as in The Timely 75th Anniversary Collection -- reviewed just above!), for a time even being resurrected in modern times (and being killed off and resurrected more than once). But what makes the publishing odd is this is listed as a co-production between Marvel and Dynamite Comics. Yet it isn't a cross company team up or anything. It's set in the Marvel universe, using familiar Marvel characters (with The Fantastic Four and The Sub-Mariner cropping up).

I suppose I could google it -- but I'm too lazy. So just speculating, it might be possible the age of the property means it's starting to slip into the public domain and Dynamite was threatening to produce the series anyway -- which might explain why it is titled "The Torch" as opposed to the more Trademark-able "The Human Torch." And so Marvel decided to just go "partners" with them rather than fight it out in court. After all, Dynamite has had issues with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc for its unlicensed use of Burroughs' characters. A less sleazy possibility is that wunderkind artist-turned-"creative overseer" Alex Ross might be contractually ensconced at Dynamite and only works on projects if Dynamite is on board.

The reason I mention this is just to explain that The Torch, despite Dynamite's logo on the cover, is unarguably a Marvel Universe series.

And it's an odd structure for a mini-series -- but maybe a good use of its somewhat lengthy, 8 issue presentation. It's less a straightforward 8-chapter story and more two or three stories that run together, arising out of and connecting back to each other. As much a "story arc" as a "story."

It begins focusing not on the original Human Torch (Jim Hammond, who's long-since dead) but rather on his sidekick, the equally combustible Toro -- also long dead but now recently resurrected in Marvel continuity. Toro becomes embroiled with the villainous Mad Thinker, the Fantastic Four arch-foe who has a history with both the Torch and Toro -- having been responsible for both their deaths (though The Human Torch was later revived, only to die again).

The Mad Thinker's recruited by the villainous terrorist group, A.I.M. (another long serving Marvel Comics adversary) to develop a super weapon, and The Thinker is convinced the Torch's are the way to go. So he kidnaps Toro, and then resurrects The Human Torch -- the later seeming to have lost his humanity and reverted to a more traditional robot persona -- while trying to concoct a mind-control formula. This leads to much conflict (including the Torches coming to blows with a mind-controlled Sub-Mariner, reprising one of their many Fire-v-Water battles) but eventually the scheme is thwarted. The Thinker escapes -- only to hook up with an ex-Nazi in his South American hideaway -- which, coincidentally, ties into Toro's search for answers to long ago mysteries over his own origins and his parents' deaths. The Human Torch aids his quest and slowly starts to reclaim his lost humanity.

As I say: it's almost like two or three different stories, though they overlap and interconnect (The Thinker remaining a unifying presence throughout). At first it can seem like too much focus is on The Mad Thinker and A.I.M., almost as though a revival of Super-Villain Team Up, with Toro a prisoner and The Human Torch a robotic automaton. But the focus shifts back to the two Torches, more clearly putting them in centre stage. And though the idea of resurrecting The Human Torch but where he's not acting like himself might seem an odd idea, he too starts to resume a more familiar personality as things progress. Not that either The Torch or Toro are especially distinct characters.

The strength of the series is that it can feel less like a mini-series at times and more like a run of issues that, conveniently, don't end on a cliff hanger. No one plot shoulders the weight of the whole series, yet one thing leads to another sufficiently that, equally, it doesn't feel like just a string of episodic adventures. The dialogue by Mike Carey is solid enough and the art is generally quite striking. When painter Alex Ross has his name on the cover it's always a hope that the art, even if not by him, will evoke him a bit, and drawer Patrick Berkenkotter and colourist Gloria Vasquez present generally realist figures with an almost painted look. It's not on the same level as Ross, but it's in the same ball park. Though the art is a bit rougher at times in the final couple of chapters as Berkenkotter presumably started to fall behind and another artist, Anthony Tan, helps out here and there.

It's an enjoyable enough saga -- but if I was to be honest, I'd admit it didn't leap any bars. As mentioned, it's not like Toro and The Torch are necessarily nuanced or distinctive characters nor brilliantly developed here. They are decent, likeable enough heroes -- no more, no less. And as a story it can feel a bit like its settling into familiar grooves. That, I'll admit, can be a problem simply when you're someone who has read a lot of comics, and it might not be as noticeable for others. The very notion of making The Mad Thinker the central villain is because, well, the two Torches have fought him before! The idea of resurrecting/returning a hero who at first isn't acting like himself is fairly standard. And the idea of doing a story where the characters have to re-examine their origins and learn things aren't what they believed is also a staple. Though given Toro is a character first created in the 1940s and only really seen in recent decades in occasional retroactive Invaders stories, it's not like most readers will have much pre-knowledge of his origins.

And some of the familiarity is, presumably, deliberate. Working in a conflict with the Sub-Mariner is doubtless an intentional homage to old Subby/Torch battles. The Fantastic Four crop up a bit, allowing for an issue where Toro and The Torch team up with the F.F.'s Human Torch. (Another minor guest star is The Vision -- not the android hero, but the original 1940s otherworldly character. But whether he's part of Marvel's current continuity, or just dusted off for this series, I'm not sure).

It also reminds you how cyclical are comics. The Sub-Mariner is wearing a full costume (as opposed to his green trunks) he used to wear in the 1970s! And once again apparently his people are scattered and Atlantis no more (or something).

The advantage to the more-than-one story idea is it allows the saga to seem a bit more sprawling, and no one plot has to out stay its welcome. The downside is it can feel like some of the aspects (and characters) could have been developed more than they are.

But I'll give credit where it's due. I had become rather cynical seeing Ross' name on a comic (here paired with Jim Krueger and Carey) as anything other than artist. Some other comics I'd read which credited him with "story' (and where he was presumably the overseeing force, such as Project Superpowers) often seemed erratically plotted and poorly developed. And though I would still argue there's maybe too much of an emphasis on the "super hero"-ing -- little real sense of any of these characters having "normal" lives outside of their flying about and getting into comic book battles -- nonetheless I found this an enjoyable romp.

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

Cover price: $___ USA

Showcase presents The Trial of the Flash
  Is reviewed here section.

Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: TRINITY 2013/2014 (HC & SC TPB) 208 pages

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

Reprinting the three issue mini-series

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed June, 2016

Published by DC Comics

Trinity joins the long list of "retro" stories comics put out from time to time -- an opportunity to kind of sift through the accumulated backlog of mythos and history and tell a simpler story set earlier in the heroes' careers; essentially a kind of "Year One" tale. What makes this a bit different from Batman: Year One or Superman for All Seasons is that the focus is on the first meeting between heroes (I suppose not unlike JLA: Year One>).

Specifically: Wonder Woman's first adventure with Superman and Batman (who by this point already have worked together) -- and as is the wont with such team ups, the various character's mythos collide in that the adventure involves Batman foe, Ra's Al Ghul, acquiring henchmen in Superman foe, Bizarro, and a renegade Amazon from Wonder Woman's people.

Part of the point of such a team up is it's not really meant to be especially taxing -- it's just a big, fun spectacle, deliberately evoking an Old School "gee whiz" adventure held together by only cursory logic. While along the way it tries to more seriously explore the three leads, what differentiates them and, also, what unites them: Superman, the paragon of virtue, Batman, the grim avenger, etc.

It's written and illustrated by Matt Wagner, a critically popular comics creator, albeit one perhaps more associated with darker, grittier material.

But a project like this may struggle to find traction with someone like me simply because, well, it can feel a bit like we've all been this route before. But maybe to another, younger reader, it won't have that same problem.

The idea of doing just a fun, not-too-deep spectacle of the three heroes teaming to stop a potentially world destroying scheme by an arch foe can be fun -- but maybe drags a bit at about 180 pages. I'm specifically thinking of something like the original Superman vs Spider-Man epic that I liked, even though it was kind of dumb -- but it was a fun kind of dumb. However it was half as long as this. Part of the problem is that by involving established villains like Ra's Al Ghul, Bizarro, etc. -- there's nothing really fresh or unexpected in the conflict. Wagner doesn't even bother to depict Bizarro's reverse-logic thinking (which could've made for interesting scenes, with Ra's having to figure out how to phrase instructions to get Bizarro to do what he wants) and Ra' Al Ghul himself can kind of exceed his "Best Before" date. In recent years, writers have tried to turn Ra's from simply a pulp fiction megalomaniac into a kind of self-styled eco-terrorist...but it isn't used to give him any more nuance, or to suggest any moral ambiguity. The eco-terrorism thing isn't used to make Ra's less black hat bad guy, so much as the writer's arguably use Ra's villainy to discredit environmental issues.

Arguably, then, the real focus is on the heroes; exploring, contrasting, and comparing Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman -- especially in the context of their earlier, less jaded selves. So Batman is cast, as is typical these days, as the surly bad boy anti-hero -- but he's not quite the one-note fascist as is often celebrated today. Although he's initially brusque with Superman, there is a degree of amiability between them -- if still a far cry from the "best friends" of the Silver Age. And Wagner does defy certain cliches. When Superman and Wonder Woman first meet it's in the context of a misunderstanding and so we assume, in comic book fashion, it's about to cue a ten page fight scene -- except it doesn't. After all, both are level-headed, not overly aggressive heroes, and so they end up talking it out. It's a clever (and I assume deliberate) pulling of the rug out from under the expected.

At the same time, by still depicting Batman as the hard-nosed "gets his hands" dirty crimefighter (even if slightly less extreme than some versions) it ultimately does undermine any pretense of the story harkening back to an earlier, gentler time. After all, if Superman and Wonder Woman are still prepared to work with him, then all their tongue clucking aside, they are still endorsing his actions. For that matter, Superman himself uses his laser vision to cut off Bizarro's hand in one scene -- so much for Superman being a throwback to an earlier, kinder incarnation. But perhaps that just reflects Wagner's roots -- a creator more associated with dark, grittier work than the old fashioned sensibilities this purports to celebrate.

And Wagner doesn't really come up with anything especially fresh or unusual to say or do with these characters. That's sort of the problem with all these comic book scribes wanting to showcase their profundity with tales exploring long established heroes -- namely, they are long established, and nothing said here hasn't been said in a zillion other stories. (Obviously, one wouldn't necessarily want Wagner to take them in some radical, out-of-character direction -- but occasionally you can come upon stories using established characters that find that interesting scene, that surprising nuance, which embellishes upon the established character).

Another point (and one I've noticed in other comics by other creators) is Wagner switches voiceover narration between the three heroes -- without creating distinctive enough "voices" that it really seems like the story is being filtered through three different personalities. Sure, you wouldn't want it so extreme as to be campy, but equally I found myself reading narration in a few spots not (at first) clear who was narrating, or realizing that we had switched over from the last one.

And maybe that's the problem: it's a big splashy story, but without a lot of inherent logic or point (Ra's is basically just doing bad things) or coming up with any unusual plot threads or scenes; while the heroes just act out usual contrast-n'-compare scenes and conversations. The characters spend most of their time in costume, so with little use of any supporting cast.

Wagner's art is part of his appeal as a creator, but it left me mixed. Oh, not because it isn't decent enough. But his style is a deliberately simple style, with a slightly cartoony flare. You could liken it to Tim Sale, only with less stylistic panache. The visuals are certainly robust and hold the eye, but the very nature of that style means it doesn't really add any extra realism or character to the figures that might shore up the dialogue.

Cover price: $___

The Twelve, vol. 1 and vol. 2 2008, 2012 (HC & SC TPBs) app. 144 and 184 pgs.

coverWritten by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by Chris Weston. Inks by Garry Leach, Chris Weston.
Colours: Chris Chuckry. Letters: Jimmy Bentacourt. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Volume 1 Reprinting: The Twelve #1-6 (2008)
Volume 2 Reprinting: The Twelve #7-12, The Twelve: Spearhead (2008, 2012)

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

Number of readings: 1 (vol. 1 read twice)

Suggested for mature readers

This review posted: July 2012 (re-reviewed and modified June 2015)

Published by Marvel Comics

The Twelve was a 12 issue max-series that has been collected across two volumes. I initially reviewed volume one by itself, but have decided to replace that with a combined review of both collections. After all, although the first volume (ending with issue six) doesn't end on a cliff hanger or anything, and so can be read as a "sample" of the series -- Marvel isn't really expecting readers to pick up vol. 1 and not vol. 2. The Twelve is a 12 chapter story.

The premise is that twelve obscure 1940s era super heroes (culled from the pages of Marvel Comics at the time -- then called Timely Comics) get trapped in suspended animation at the end of World War II and are awakened in the modern world. Seeing them as symbols of a nobler age -- and one more tractable to the whims of authority -- the U.S. government houses then in a mansion, so they can slowly re-adjust to this brave, new world, and with the government's hope they will all agree to resume their old crime fighting activities as sanctioned government agents. Granted, one can quibble about whether the government would care that much given that, although some of the characters have super powers...some don't. Some are just guys in masks carrying guns and a right hook and are hardly a unique arsenal in the war-on-crime.

The story is set in the mainstream Marvel Universe -- references are made to the Super-Human Registration Act of recent Marvel lore -- yet is essentially isolated from it. Spider-Man and the Hulk don't drop by for guest appearances. One wonders if creators Straczynski and Weston had wanted to set it in its own reality, but Marvel brass insisted it be set in the Marvel universe proper (perhaps so that if any popular characters arose out of it, they would have no trouble making guest appearances in other titles). Still, it basically comes across as its own, self-contained reality...even as we don't have to question the credulity with which people accept super beings. (Though it does make some of the dilemmas a little less dramatic if you pause to think that the Avengers or Dr. Strange are just a phone call away).

The series has obvious echoes of other sagas. Indeed, around the same time Dynamite Comics unleashed their Project Superpowers series about...a bunch of obscure 1940s super heroes resurrected in the modern age! (Though Project Superpowers was more clearly super hero action, while The Twelve is aiming for more low-key sophistication). Both even use a "Dynamic Man" -- apparently there were two Dynamic Men published by separate companies in the 1940s...though they were almost identical to each other. Stracznyski himself had been the route of "revisionist" super hero sagas set within a distinct universe with Midnight Nation, Supreme Power, and even Bullet Points.

And an obvious antecedent to The Twelve is...The Watchman. Both take a bunch of super heroes, hook us with a mysterious murder of one of them in the first chapter meant to tease us through the saga...even as the real focus is on simply examining the characters and their backgrounds. It's more a talking head drama, with the murder and the action often on the backburner. There's plenty of flashbacks, and cutting between what was and what is. And both explore their subject -- and their idiom -- with a revisionist eye, pointing out the feet of clay, the neuroses and prejudices, of these erstwhile stalwarts.

The art by Chris Weston is part of that realist deconstruction. Although he still draws the heroes with rippling musculature, the figures and environments are meticulously rendered, right down to wallpaper patterns. But instead of presenting a collection of square-jawed matinee idols as they were in their original comics, he presents them as a more motley collection of "real" people, some with big noses, or jutting jaws. Although, when it comes to the -- only -- woman in the group, the Black Widow (no relation to the later heroine), he presents her with movie starlet looks and an improbable bust line. Indeed, most of his women are drawn glamorously -- including another female character who, other than a streak of grey in her hair, hardly looks to be in her sixties! The art can be a bit stiff at times, particularly in the occasional super hero/action scenes, but I liked it, and it suits the material.

The comics flirt with "mature readers" material, but not as fully as the R-rated Supreme Power. There are mature ideas, such as allusions to sex (and homosexuality), or a scene where a Nazi is shown nonchalantly fondling the unconscious Black Widow's bosom (fully clothed, of course). There are a few gory panels, and three or so panels where we glimpse the Black Widow's bare backside (as well as a male backside from time to time). But in essence, Straczynski and Weston generally pull off the trick of imbuing the thing with a "mature" tone, comparable to The Watchmen...without seeming gratuitously so.

Unfortunately, The Twelve fails to be anywhere near as ambitious or accomplished as The Watchmen. Admittedly, I tend to have mixed feelings toward The Watchmen, because Alan Moore's approach to characters and characterization tends to be rather cold and analytical rather than human and emotional. And though Straczynski can fall into a similar trap, here at times he creates a little more sense of the characters as people, human beings with human emotions, rather than just ciphers for an idea. At times. Unfortunately, at other times, not.

Still, at the end of the day, The Twelve is a bit disappointing. It's not terrible, but it does feel like a concept in search of inspiration. The saga even went on a ridiculously protracted hiatus -- something like three years between issues #8 and issue #9. Supposedly this was because the creators got swamped with other projects (though Weston managed to find the time to draw -- and write! -- the double-sized one-shot The Twelve: Spearhead, telling a flashback story of the characters during WW. II, which is included in vol. 2).

The heroes get resurrected, housed together, and then the saga mixes flashbacks to their origins (some based on their real, 1940s comics, others suggesting those origins weren't the "true" story), their struggles to adjust to a modern world they don't fully understand (which, frankly, you could get in any of a number of Captain America comics over the years!)...with a mystery involving the murder of one of their own, and some other deaths. But Straczynski never really ties it all together into a tight, cohesive epic.

Frankly, one can't help thinking the 12 issue length was simply hubris -- because The Watchmen was 12 issues, as was the original Squadron Supreme. Not because Straczynski had 12 chapters worth of material. Frankly, he could've resurrected eight heroes, and serialized it over an eight issue series called The Eight. Or six.

Straczynski fails to create much sense of group camaraderie -- hence why I say you could drop a few and it wouldn't affect much. We learn this character's back story in one issue, another character's in other...but mostly it doesn't have any relevance to anything else, or get developed upon. And they tend to be defined by one or two characteristics. So Mr. E, we learn, is a Jew who in the anti-Semitic 1940s hid his Jewishness...and now feels bad about that. And that's pretty much the definition of his character, and his scenes, for the entire series. Captain Wonder, a family man, struggles with the grief that his wife and kids are long dead. Some characters get more development...but some even less!

Arguably the most crucial emotional/character thread is the romantic tension between the Phantom Reporter -- the saga's narrator/nominal hero -- and the mysterious Black Widow. Except even here it's not really clear why there's the attraction -- other than she's pretty, the only woman in the group, and tends to sleep in the nude. But it's not like we're exactly thinking, gosh, these two belong together, I hope they can work it out.

There are some emotional moments, some cute exchanges. But there's also a lot of times where Straczynski smugly reduces his characters to simply vectors to deliver an idea, rather than convincingly presenting well rounded, three dimensional personalities that we can care about. The flashback themselves often aren't particularly detailed, or form compelling stories in and of themselves. And even the revisionist aspect, as Straczynski clearly feels he's making pointed comments about race and sexuality, can feel rather simple and trite.

Ironically, it's not even really clear what the point is at times as by the end Straczynski himself is shrugging off the deeper ethical issues of vigilante justice and the like.

And then we get to the mystery/suspense aspect. In the first issue, we learn one of the heroes will be murdered -- albeit nothing much more is hinted at for a number of issues. By the sixth issue (which Straczynski presumably knew would serve as the final to the first TPB collection) a prophetic character arbitrarily announces something is "wrong" as if to try and reminded us that, uh, yeah, all this is really headed somewhere, folks, honest. There's also a mysterious attack on a gay bar that the police suspect connects to the Twelve.

It can all feel a bit...anti-climactic (despite one of the issues' captions referring to the characters trying to "save the world" the story hasn't anywhere near that kind of ramifications). And when the revelation occurs...well, it's pretty much who you would suspect (cause he came across as a jerk), for the reasons you would imagine. Straczynski has The Phantom Reporter spend most of an issue, Agatha Christie-style, laying out suppositions and referencing clues to build a case against a character the readers kind of assumed was the likeliest suspect all along! (After a second reading I can't decide if Straczynski genuinely though it would be a surprise, or whether the mystery -- as noted -- was so irrelevant to the story he just couldn't be bothered to come up with anything clever). The only surprise revelation is something which, if you were familiar with the character's 1940s origin -- or had simply googled him! -- won't be a surprise!

And it all kind of degenerate into a big fight for a couple of issues -- a bit incongruous given the contemplative tone of the series -- before finishing off with a sedate epilogue issue. It's a final issue that clearly indicates that Straczynski feels we've come to really care for these people, as if we've spent a long time with them. But I'm not sure we do entirely -- on both counts (even with that three year hiatus).

Now to be fair -- I grumble that the 12-issue epic doesn't have a better mystery, or a more Byzantine plot, or have better developed character interaction (in the final few issues Straczynski tries to hint at camaraderie between characters who barely interacted). But arguably that's partly me judging it for what I assumed it would be -- more than what it is. Maybe Straczynski would argue he never intended it to be a graphic "novel" (though the issue covers keep billing it as a "novel" of tomorrow) ala The Watchmen. Maybe he wanted to use his 12 character format to simply explore different aspects of herodom and 1940s/2000 contrast -- essentially using the saga as almost an anthology of individual stories rather than one where it all weaves inexorably together. Although I would still argue the individual characters and their stories tend more to be vignettes than plots.

Initially I gave it a slightly better review for just the first volume -- when the saga was incomplete -- because although it was a bit slow and rambling, I was reasonably intrigued to see how it played out. But, now, finally, after its extended hiatus, the complete saga of The Twelve is...okay. Not bad, but not really anything that stands out from others within what could be seen as a sub-genre of the whole super hero genre, not fully creating a rich cast of characters that will linger with us long after we close the pages, with a two hundred plus page story that never quite becomes an epic, complex saga.

With that said, after recently re-reading it two or three years later, it's certainly an okay page turner.

As I say: it's okay.

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

Cover price: $___ USA

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