Apr 16, 2014

Review: The Judas Coin

It took me a while to find a copy of Walt Simonson's The Judas Coin, but when I did, and at a big discount, at that, I snapped it up.

I know Simonson's name is itself a draw among comics fans, so I'll try to gear the review towards fans who may not be so familiar with Walt, or maybe to people who are in a bookstore right now, wanting to try out a book in the graphic novel section, pulling Google up on their tablets to see what's being said about...


The Judas Coin
A Review by Duy

So, here's the concept of The Judas Coin. Some 2000 years ago, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and was paid 30 pieces of silver for it. He regretted the action almost immediately, but no one wants to take it. One of the coins gets out into the world, carrying with it a terrible curse that afflicts anyone who holds it. The book comprises six short stories revolving around the coin, each taking place in a different era, featuring different characters from the DC Universe, and all approached upon differently in terms of style and artistic choices.

The stories, apart from the (actually pretty excellent) four-page sequence that details Judas' betrayal and suicide, are the following:


  • Blood Peace, 72AD: The Golden Gladiator, in his twilight years, accompanies his emperor Vespasian into the forests of Germania, where betrayal and treachery await.
  • Black Blade; Silver Heart, 1000 AD:  Jon, The Viking Prince, is captured and has to fight a giant, and it involves Vikings and swords, so, if you need anything else to sell you on that story, then our tastes must not match enough for you to consider me a reliable recommender.
  • Mutiny, 1720 AD: Captain Fear, the best and most ruthless pirate of the Seven Seas, has had his ship taken over by traitors, and he has to reclaim it!
  • Ill-Gotten Gains, 1881 AD: Out in the wild west, Bat Lash is cheating at cards. And it's pissing people off! Can Bat Lash get out of Tombstone before the whole town catches up to him?
  • Heads or Tails, the present day: In Gotham City, Two-Face finds the Judas Coin and attempts to rob it from the new big player in town, Shiv Morgana. It falls, of course, to the Batman to set things right.
  • Manhunter 2070, An Epilog—2087: In the far-off future, Manhunter encounters two space pirates from his past and a missing psychic who uncovers the truth of the Judas coin. Ostensibly, this is the coin's final tale.
Now if you're looking at that list, and you haven't been reading DC Comics for 25 years, you might be thinking "Wait, who are those guys and why should I care?" And when I tell you that the Batman story, "Heads or Tails," is in black and white (and a bit of red) and that it's drawn on the side to make it look like newspaper strips, you might feel the work to be inaccessible. And what I can definitely say about that is this: it's not. It's all very accessible. Each story stands on its own and is able to introduce characters, establish conflict, bring the action to a climax, and wrap it up satisfactorily in a very small number of pages.

Possibly, it's the shortness of the stories that will put some people off the book, or, quite possibly, it's the fact that the stories are only tangentially connected. The actual blurb on the back of the book calls it a "saga that spans centuries," and "a narrative," singular. It isn't, really; it's six short stories with a connective element. To anyone who's expecting a satisfactory wrap-up to the entire thing (and I was one), one big final scene that provides a collective punch to everything, well, it's not there, and that might be a source of disappointment. On the other hand, that's not the fault of the book so much as the way the book was marketed. We don't jump into short story collections expecting everything wrapped up neatly at the end, and you shouldn't jump into The Judas Coin expecting that either, despite what the marketing says.

Will that actually make a difference? I feel like it should, but I don't know. There's something about the experience of reading a book that will make you change your expectations along the way, if you let it.

The real risk of the book, the thing that might make it uncommercial, is its actual artistic strength. Simonson tried out a different style for each story. For the Golden Gladiator story, he was influenced by an old John Buscema comic featuring Helen of Troy, and implemented straightforward layouts to reflect the comics of that era.  In the very next story, he's got The Viking Prince in more momentum-building, fist-pumping action, with more elaborate panel borders and sound effects (with props for that going to John Workman).



It's not just the draftsmanship and the lettering; the coloring is also experimented upon, with the Bat Lash story taking on muted colors.



Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, the Two-Face story is sideways and black and white.



Throughout the book though, despite whatever else he's trying to do, Simonson's art at least is still recognizably his: angular, cerebral, full of right angles and the right amount of grit. And then we get to the final story, where he just goes manga, to reflect the fact that at the time he was making this, manga was seen as the future of comics.


So The Judas Coin is an ambitious work. That ambition might be the thing that prevents it from being sold more than it does in the mass market. (I'm guessing on that score — it was the second bestselling trade paperback/hardcover in the direct market the month it came out, and... that was that. There isn't that much press on it beyond the comics sites, and Simonson does have a pretty big following, so I assume it was profitable, but I'd like it to be consumed a bit more by your traditional reader.) But it's that ambition, I think, that makes it worth reading. Simonson stepping out of his comfort zone to try new things, and with characters that have never really sold, is, from a creative stanndpoint, an admirable thing to do. There's no reason for someone like Walt Simonson to say "Hey, you know what, I think I'll do a manga-type story when I've never done that before," and it would be easy for someone like him to coast on his reputation, but no, in each and every story, there's genuine effort, thought, and care put into it.

In fact, if anything, I think Simonson wasn't ambitious enough. As I said before, until you get to the Manhunter 2070 story, each strip is still recognizably Simonson. Behind the differences in sound effects, panel borders, layouts, and design, the draftsmanship is still his, the kind he's known for. If anything, I wish he'd tried setting each story more distinctly in terms of style. Maybe that would have made the shift to manga stand out less by the end, but I also feel like the book as a whole would have been stronger.

As it is though, I'm pretty happy with what the book actually is: a collection of six short stories that involve fighting, piracy, swords, vikings, and cowboys. It's a series of pretty fistpumping short rides, if not one long fistpumping ride. And you know what? That's rare these days. Superhero comics used to excel at short stories, and they barely even do them anymore. So, just on that note, on principle, I'm glad The Judas Coin exists. And fortunately, the stories are actually pretty good.


Apr 14, 2014

JMS: "Sophisticated" Doesn't Mean Good

JMS: "Sophisticated" Doesn't Mean Good
Ben Smith

J Michael Straczynski is one of the worst Spider-Man writers of all time.

There seems to be this idea among a certain contingent of fans that he wrote great dialogue, the stories were more mature, the marriage was handled beautifully, and that they were overall just great. In reality, they were lifeless, unnecessarily dark, and out of character.

Those same fans that feel he should be on the list of the greatest to ever do it, also seem to forget that he wrote two of the all-time worst Spider-Man stories in the character’s history, Sins Past and One More Day. I don’t hate One More Day as much as the online contingent of sad and lonely fans do, but it’s not entirely great either. (If you think that marriage was written well, then you are a very lonely person.) But the commonly held belief is that OMD is all Quesada’s fault, despite JMS helping to plot the story, write it, and his name being on the cover. (JMS actually wanted to make it even worse, by erasing everything that happened to Spider-Man all the way back to the famous drug issues around Amazing Spider-Man #96. He publicly admitted he wanted to erase his own story, Sins Past. It was never about not erasing the marriage, his problem was with how far back it should go.)

My goal today, it to definitively put these myths to rest once and for all. That will never happen, but it’s a goal to aspire to, and I have some free time at the moment.

Our journey begins in Amazing Spider-Man #30, with a rousing inner monologue from Spider-Man about the lack of pockets on his costume. This is supposed to be clever and show us that he’s like us “real peoples” and is innocent enough, but it’s trying just a little bit too hard, and I can’t help thinking it’s some kind of veiled over-explanation for the silliness of costumes, the type of explaining that JMS likes to do so often.


Spider-Man follows this up by immediately using his powers to demolish a building marked for demolition, because “I really need to go pound a bad guy.” This may be viewed as a mature take on the character, and another example of him being a “real” guy because he’s frustrated, but it’s fundamentally different in how I view the character.


Early Spider-Man was very angry, under the guidance of Steve Ditko. Ever since then, the bouts of extreme anger are the exception to the rule. They’re supposed to highlight when Spider-Man really means business, no more cracking wise and joking around. That’s how I view the character, but JMS disagrees on that point apparently. He really needs to pound bad guys to make him feel better every so often.

Next we find him on his way to his new job as a substitute teacher, where he takes a second to keep a kid from being bullied. A lot of people liked this development of the character, considered it a natural extension of the character as a teaching assistant in college. That’s not entirely wrong. The problem isn’t that it isn’t a natural progression, it’s that this actually ages the character of Peter Parker too much. The primary foundation the character was created on was of youth and a never-ending stream of personal problems. Not only does this job make him an authority figure over youth, he’s solving other peoples problems. (All this after punching the walls out of a building in a fit of rage. Yes, come teach my children science.)


Now some of you might argue that his time at Horizon Labs made him too responsible and successful as a character. The difference between the two is that I feel like Horizon Labs offered a lot more potential for stories derived from that situation, and far better ones. Peter being a teacher and taking the nerds of the day under his wing might be heartwarming, but that’s one story, and it will get old quick.

So, Peter takes some time to scare the bullies as Spider-Man, because that’s how he should be spending his time, and that’s when we are introduced to the character of Ezekiel.


Ezekiel is an awful character. I am obviously not a fan of the whole spider totem angle. I generally don’t prefer when a writer comes along and “changes everything you thought you knew” about a character. I don’t like when a know-it-all character comes along to school the hero we’ve known so long, and all of a sudden it’s like that hero is incompetent and doesn’t measure up in the shadow of this mysterious new person that knows everything they don’t know (let’s call it Batman syndrome).


Spider-Man is shocked that he never considered the possibility that the spider might have consciously intended to give Peter its powers. Why has he never considered the possibility (probably because it’s stupid)? But it seems like it is a deep and thoughtful exploration of the character, and that it has a lot of meaning, so we’ll pile that on the stack with all the other evidence that this stuff is “well-written.”

After Ezekiel pulls a disappearing act, Spider-Man remarks to himself how he reminded him of Uncle Ben. This is a quick and easy way for the writer to convey the importance and the presence of this new character, even though he talks and looks ridiculous.

Finally we’re introduced to the dangerous new menace of Morlun. He’s supposed to strike fear into the heart of the reader, but how fearful can he be with his receding hair, and a full body leotard with finger holes in it.


That’s all I can stand this time around. I may or may not continue this look at the legendary JMS run, as it will all depend on how much I’ll be able to stomach reading these terrible, terrible comics. Look, just because JMS approached the character with a (seeming) level of sophistication and seriousness does not mean it is entertaining. JMS likes to explore a lot of themes and big ideas when he writes a comic book, but he often forgets to make them not boring. Superman walking the country and getting in touch with the people may be a big idea that could make for some meaningful stories (it didn’t) but it’s not all that entertaining to read.

In this one issue of Spider-Man, lots of mysterious questions were asked, Peter was shocked to learn that spiders might be cognizant creatures that can transfer their powers to other beings, but what did Spider-Man actually accomplish? He destroyed a building because he was having a bad day, and he picked on some high school bullies. Let’s not forget the riveting scene inside the halls of a high school, and the thrilling introduction of Grampa Spider and the balding vampire.

These comics were not good. They’re the kinds of stories that a teenager might think are really smart. Maybe they were better than the comics that came before it, but that’s not really a feather in anyone’s cap. At least it shouldn’t be.

Next time, lightning sex?


Duy here. I quit reading comics for around five years after I read the first JMS trade. I have never regretted that decision.

Apr 11, 2014

Peanuts: Pacing, Progress, and Peppermint Patty

I recently came across a copy of Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, and I burned through it within a couple of days, making a few observations and feeling the need to share them with you. So here I am now, talking about...

Peanuts: Pacing, Progress, and Peppermint Patty
by Duy

I've got a bit of a weird relationship with the life's work of Charles Schulz, as I certainly was exposed to Peanuts from an early age, but I could never really get into it or see what the big deal was. It didn't seem particularly funny, and let's admit it, it was kind of depressing. Schulz made it so that his characters, Charlie Brown in particular, were always struggling with life and could barely ever find success in whatever it was they set out to do.

Over the years, the appeal of Peanuts has been explained to me ad nauseum, by friends, fans, critics, and curators. I even went to the Peanuts Art Exhibit when it came to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2003. Schulz's work has been likened, several times, to a haiku, in terms of its rhythm and the fact that it tends to have a lingering final panel instead of an actual punchline. Peanuts stays in the air after you read it, leaving you to figure out what it means, or wondering what comes next. A lot of the time, it feels as if it ends prematurely. Like I said, it lingers. In a way, that's what makes Peanuts so palatable to adults; adults get it (or, more aptly, they get not getting it).



One thing I noticed this does, when reading a lot of Peanuts strips in one go and there's a long-running storyline, is the pacing gets kind of staggered. There is, to be sure, a clear flow within each strip, but the transition in between installments is a little stilted. That's of course in large part because of the serialized nature of the strip, but you know where else I find that kind of pacing? Very frequently, in grounded, down-to-earth, "indie" comics, such as the works of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Seth. It's very similar to the way they jump or transition from one scene to the next, by ending one scene in a kind of open-ended way and then moving on rather abruptly. Reading A Golden Celebration is when I actually thought, "Oh, so that's where they get it from," something that never occurred to me even after a lot of them discussed the influence of Peanuts on their works in Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions.

Peanuts seems like simple work, but it's very nuanced. There's a complex web of interpersonal relationships that, when closely examined, kind of highlights the tragedy of the whole setup. Charlie Brown takes care of Snoopy, but Snoopy can't even remember his name, often referring to him as "the round-headed kid." Sally Brown doesn't seem to care what happens to anyone around her, and Lucy Van Pelt is as nice to her little brother Rerun as she is mean to her middle brother Linus, even if she's continually mentioning how similar they are to each other. Perhaps most tragically, for all the times Lucy pulls away the football or tries to bring down Charlie Brown, she also seems to genuinely like him, as much as someone like her is capable of genuinely liking anyone. This kind of characterization, when done in superhero comics, tends to get lost on fans, who mostly take whatever any character says or does at face value.

Side note to the whole thing: Lucy was based on Schulz's first wife. Make of that what you will.

Check out the facial expressions up there. It's easy to read Lucy's words and see that she's angry, and she is, but her brow's not furrowed at all. She's legitimately worried. Schulz could do subtle emotions; it's just easy to overlook them because of the simplicity of the art style.

Another thing that struck me was the letters that Schulz received, one being this particularly negative reaction to Franklin, the African-American character.


Gentlemen:
In today's "Peanuts" comic strip Negro and white children are portrayed together in school.
School integration is a sensitive subject here, particularly at this time when our city and county schools are under court order for massive compulsory race mixing.
We would appreciate it if future "Peanuts" strips did not have this type of content.
Thank you.


Look, this is a big deal. I know we want to get to a part in our history where this kind of thing is no longer a big deal, and Schulz probably just wanted to reflect reality as he saw it, but there was really no way, I think, he was drawing Franklin going to the same school as Peppermint Patty and Marcie and not thinking, in 1969, that he was going to get that kind of reaction. And you know what? It's okay. People like to complain about "diversity for the sake of diversity," but to that I say, (1) really, what else would it be for the sake of?, and (2) what is so wrong about doing something for the sake of diversity?

It would be easy to continually create all-white casts and it would still sell if it were entertaining, but you do need to make a conscious effort if you wish to diversify your casts. And that's important. People of all races and orientations should be able to project themselves into these things. People complain about that kind of thing today, but it requires a conscious effort. Diversity is and has always been an important thing to work towards. So in that sense, my hat's off to Charles Schulz. I can't even imagine what Franklin meant to young black kids growing up in the late 60s.

So I think I get Peanuts now, but I can't really say it works for me or that I'd seek it out, since a good portion of it still kind of leaves me cold on an emotional level. Except if Peppermint Patty is in it.


Patricia Reichardt is and has always been my favorite Peanuts character. She's insecure and kinda dumb, but she's got gumption and spunk and she stands up for what she believes in. I think that combination makes her adorable, and she's definitely, for me, the most consistently entertaining character in the whole strip. Schulz has called her "the part of us that goes through life with blinders on," and he's right. Peppermint Patty is nonstop, full gear, on with life. She enjoys life, even though she doesn't get it, and when something stops her in her tracks, we feel it, because she's such a great vehicle for driving a story forward.

When Peppermint Patty shows up in A Golden Celebration, my speed of reading increased immediately. When her first appearance came on in my GoComics subscription, I suddenly started paying attention to Peanuts. She's just that entertaining for me.

Here are some of my favorite Peppermint Patty strips.





Charles Schulz has called Peppermint Patty a strong enough character to carry her own strip, and I'll be honest, if she had headlined her own daily newspaper strip, I'd probably have been a fan, and I'd have read it all the time.

As it is, I'll have to settle for Peppermint Patty strips in a larger strip that doesn't always work for me. But that's okay. Even if it doesn't always work for me, I can still appreciate it.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Debra Jane Shelly, who convinced me to give Peanuts another try, and who passed away days before I found a copy of the Golden Celebration.


Apr 10, 2014

Spider-Man Complaints That Need to Stop

As far as superheroes go, Peter Parker is a complex character. And by that, I mean he's full of contradictions. But we as fans have such set notions of who he is and what he should be like and what his reaction to any given situation would be, and for whatever reason, the idea of going back on a promise or lying or anything other than what's directly said on the page or the screen seems to befuddle a lot of fans. So here now, I present to you...

Spider-Man Complaints I Keep Seeing That Need to Stop
by Duy

Complaint #1: Spider-Man would never give up! 

Yes, this has never happened. Ever.

Amazing Spider-Man #18, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Amazing Spider-Man #50, by Stan Lee and John Romita


Corporate superhero comics are cyclical in nature. Readers now probably were not reading the last time a particular story was done. The big difference is that things like this are going to be more protracted as time goes on, as you need more space and time to deal with emotions and fallout.

I'll just go ahead and say that yes, in the next 10 years, you will see a story where Spider-Man quits and gets replaced. You will see a story where Steve Rogers stops being Captain America. You will see many stories where Batman will mention his parents a lot, and it will probably be set in Crime Alley and involve pearls. Superman's origin will be retold again, and Iron Man will have to deal with his technology being used for the wrong purposes. These are part of these characters' overall makeup and composition, and if you're tired of seeing these stories repeat themselves, it's probably time to move on.


Complaint #2: Why is he so angry?!?

I see this in relation, mostly, to the new movie franchise, mainly because people mostly remember Tobey Maguire whining and crying. Andrew Garfield's got a bit more of an edge, just like some dude I read in the comics.

Amazing Fantasy #15 (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)

Amazing Spider-Man #30 (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)

Amazing Spider-Man #37 (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)



Complaint #3: How dare he date anyone else!

Look, he can date people other than Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson and the Black Cat. It's okay. The issues where he dates them still exist; you can read them anytime; and those characters didn't get to the level they did without being given a chance for exposure to begin with.  I'm sure people were really opposed to Felicia Hardy when she was introduced because she wasn't Gwen or MJ, but creators should have the opportunity to tell stories they want to tell with characters they want to tell it with.



(I'd also like to point out that sleeping with two women, especially when one of them is your ex, when you're single doesn't make someone a slut, as a good portion of fans apparently thought when he went to bed with Michele Gonzales and the Black Cat — separately, get your minds out of the gutter! — in the span of a few issues.)


Complaint #4: Spider-Man should never break his promises!

He's about to break a big promise in the next movie, and apparently this is a big terrible thing. Wait, let's check out that time he forgot that whole "I'll never let a criminal go free anymore, Uncle Ben, I swear," vow...


Turns out that dude eventually finds this...



And leads someone to it, who eventually uses the equipment to become the Hobgoblin.


OH NO! And all because Spider-Man didn't want to go traipsing around in the sewers!

Of course he breaks promises. That's when bad things happen.


Complaint #5: Peter Parker's morals are unshakeable and he's the greatest person ever! 

No, that's Superman. You're thinking of Superman. Peter Parker does things like this.
Amazing Spider-Man #4 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Somewhere, some dude is reading this and taking Spider-Man's rationalization
at face value, instead of reading it as Spider-Man overly rationalizing.

Amazing Spider-Man #9, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
At least Peter admits it this time.

Spider-Man is a great character, and he's often been called an everyman. But he's not an everyman because he's a genius or because he can leap three stories in a single bound or because he dates girls like Gwen Stacy in her go-go boots and Mary Jane Watson the supermodel and Felicia Hardy in her latex catsuit. He's an everyman because he makes mistakes, he's prone to undesirable traits, and he has to deal with the consequences of his actions.

Just like us.


You can read these stories in the following volumes below, from Amazon, or if you don't live in the States, through Book Depository:

Apr 9, 2014

It Conceals Enlightenment: Marvel's Conspiracy

It Conceals Enlightenment
Travis Hedge Coke


One of the most chilling pages in Conspiracy follows a stack of thin panels bringing us closer and closer to the back of our protagonist’s head as he fills a Open In Case of My Death envelop, only to go nearly black in the final panel and present without image, with only barely a flicker of color, two quotes:

“If the Government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

and

“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” – Robert Louis Stephenson

What if all the bogeymen, big monsters, and bad events in recent history were deliberate maneuvers to keep us scared and wounded? What if the brightest accomplishments and the most valiant struggles of our lifetime were dog and pony shows to keep us laughing and sedate? Would you feel safer if the military was running the show completely? What would worry you more than that? If it was run by businessmen? Scientists? Social reformers? God? A God of Mischief?

A little over fifteen years ago, Marvel published a two-issue bit of brilliance called Conspiracy. Conspiracy follows a way too eager journalist for the Daily Bugle being forcibly involved in what seems like the biggest mystery around: Who is pulling the entire world’s strings? Dan Abnett and Igor Kordey rocked the hell out of this comic, and today? Today it’s pretty much nowhere. Back issue bin filler. Why? Well, it’s too short to reprint by itself as a trade, it’s got a ton of pre-existing characters, but they’re either cameos, minor characters, or appear in flashbacks or discussions, and even at the time there was so little promotion most regular Marvel readers didn’t even know it existed.

So, why is Conspiracy worth it? The character work is solid from both Abnett and Kordey, who appear perfectly in sync. The art meshes various tones, exaggerations, and light levels together, while the dialogue, narration, and pacing maintain a constant sense that everything isn’t just about to be overwhelmed, it is overwhelmed and it may soon get worse. This is a comic wherein, learning that a character might simply be a deranged, overpowered murderer is a relief. This is a comic who used Spidercide and Clone Saga-era Jackal as a couple bricks and made them look dangerous. In a world of superheroes, it’s easy to forget how much damage even the dumbest bruiser or silliest one-off villain can accomplish, even if they can’t stand against the superhero. This comic invoked the Hulk, old Madder He Gets Stronger He Gets, to make him seem insignificant next to the people who use him as a bogeyman, as an excuse for a bigger budget.

Post-9/11, American superhero comics went through a whole cultural reevaluation, in regards to both the extent of “collateral damage” in superhero comics and, also, the power of a conspiracy that gets us all the comfort we want. Conspiracy, primarily by a couple guys who weren’t born in the US, were tackling this before the century even switched over. That is both part of why it was so ignored at the time, and also a strong part of why the comic still holds up. Bit players from old Invaders issues, elements typically treated as comedy, like Damage Control (the contract guys who clean up after superhero fights in New York) or Spidercide (a massive Spider-Man clone monster thing), and the Man vs Monster comics from Marvel’s 50s and early 60s that pretty much everyone else was busy pretending never happened, since most of the monsters wore shorts and they all had goofy names. Conspiracy pulled all this disparate material together, the absurd, the melodramatic, the metaphoric, and presented it as stuff someone had to live through.

Conspiracy never lets Ewing or the reader get a foothold. There’s exceptional thought in the comic, but the pacing is deliberately erratic. Chapter titles are declared sometimes mid-page as a scene changes, major shifts such as explosions or character reveals occur without warning, and Chekhov’s gunning is just out. Is it unfair that it’s out?

Abnett and Kordey are both exceptional planners. They think things through. Conspiracy doesn’t just involve a bunch of names and faces from decades of other comics, it weaves them together in ways that make sense. Even when the stories being spun, the conspiracies being suggested shift up, the shifts make sense. The background elements, the set pieces throughout the comic are carefully brought to life, from posters on streets to the colors of mesas at sunrise and the staff offices of the Daily Bugle, everything bleed veracity, everything has its own energy. Kordey goes straight for lifts and visual homages at points, such as the snapshots on the cover of the second issue, but even his non-referencing pages or panels can seem classic, seem genuine, as if they preexist his painting them.

While many Marvel comics of that age seem slapdash, and often were constructed on the fly off a vague marketable idea or new character, Conspiracy is deliberately constructed. Where it is vague, it is because vagueness serves the comic better than clarity. It is neither “lazy” nor “incompetent” that Abnett and Kordey do little to flag surprises before they arrive. It’s a comic about being unsettled, about having no footing, not a comic about seeing it coming. If the comic has a message, perhaps it is that shit happens, and asking questions as to why, that can get you hurt.

Marvels, which I love, was about the man on the street perspective of the Marvel Universe’s grandeur and battles, but its protagonist was, essentially, an eyepiece, when it comes to much of the comic. He feels upset, in the later chapters, he feels threatened, but to me, he never feels endangered after the 40s issue that starts it out. Conspiracy never lets up on its protagonist, Mark Ewing. He never feels safe to me, even on rereads. I know the pages won’t change, I know it’s locked in, but he feels endangered. Even if he lives, he lives in a world that’s incredibly dangerous. Supervillains blow through buildings only focused on the superhero they’re punching. Gods wreck cities or slaughter star systems. People firebomb your apartment building on the days where Hell isn’t possessing your neighborhood, in the Marvel Universe.

Even if you’re living, you’re living at the whim of other people. Post-Conspiracy, Norman Osborn was practically running the government, so it’s not like the MU is any safer now, or in other comics, but Conspiracy hits on that element harder than almost anywhere else in a Marvel comic. It’s easy to laugh off Norman, because you’re not in a room with him, you’re not subject to laws he’s pushing into effect or deals he’s brokering in a haze of mismatched medication and manic anxiety. A SHIELD mandroid looks ridiculous, but if you were being arrested by one, after a long stressful weird night? A SHIELD mandroid, which is an eleven foot tall, bright yellow, armored, super-strong prosthesis worn by a world policeman with virtually no public accountability, can be the scariest thing on the planet.

When a bank robber in an animal mask, even one superhumanly strong, hurts you, it is inevitable in a superhero comic, in the Marvel Universe, that a superhero will punish him, find him, stop him, send him away. When the Government threatens you? When SHIELD takes action? When was the last time Nick Fury, frequent Director of SHIELD, was ever punished for anything? When was the last time Doom’s human rights abuses or frequent invasions of foreign nations ever warranted even a minor retaliatory strike? You’d think Doom was selling the US oil at two cents a gallon the way he’s tolerated? You? Me? We don’t even own any oil fields. We don’t have friends who can fly experimental aircraft to Heaven and get us back. We don’t know jacket-wearing superheroes who’d blow the roof off a maximum security prison with robot guards to get us out in time for Tuesday’s poker game at Avengers’ Mansion or Stark Tower.

Conspiracy does amazing things with light sources on every page, with cast shadows in every panel. The use of harsh lighting, cartooned details, film grain, shrapnel, rapidly changing but always guiding page layouts, Conspiracy can box you in while you read, it cages you, grabs you, it can throw you around an incredibly tight scene, no floor under your feet, no sense of perspective, then once you start to feel grounded, begin to have a sense of what’s going on, get an inkling of a name or a face who can be held accountable, it blows it all up and lets you look again at the same elements to see the pattern you had was probably just trees you were staring at, instead of the forest around them.

Apr 7, 2014

Secret Warriors: If You Liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier...

Secret Warriors: If You Liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier...
Ben Smith

One of the fortunate (or unfortunate for my wallet) side effects of another great Marvel studios movie, is when it inspires me to read any comics I can find of a character I may never have been all that interested in before. The Avengers inspired me to track down any Black Widow comics I could get my slippery hands on. In preparation for Thor: The Dark World, I read far more Thor comics than I thought I ever would in my lifetime, in the span of a few months. Going all the way back to ’01, the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man reignited my interest in comic books.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be no different. Along with another great performance by Scarlett Johannson as Black Widow, the first thing I wanted to read after seeing the movie was a series named Secret Warriors.

At this point I’d like to offer the obligatory SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and MINOR SPOILERS for Secret Warriors.

Secret Warriors was a series starring Nick Fury, operating independently from S.H.I.E.L.D. and leading a team of new recruits against Hydra.

Following the Secret War mini-series, Nick Fury had gone underground, leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hands of Maria Hill, eventually enabling Civil War. Nick Fury discovered the existence of undercover Skrulls on Earth, and recruited a team of young superpowered individuals from old S.H.I.E.L.D. files. The characters were introduced in Mighty Avengers #13, and made their first impact in Secret Invasion #3.

The team consisted of Yo-Yo Rodriguez (super speed), Sebastian Druid (magic), J.T. James (charges objects with fire), Stonewall (superhuman strength and endurance), Eden Fesi (teleportation portals), Alexander Aaron/Phobos (Son of Ares/God of Fear), and the previously introduced former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Daisy Johnson, who served as the team’s field leader.

Fury and his team of secret warriors led a series of attacks on the Skrulls, rallied the other heroes, and eventually were instrumental in turning the tide of the war. Unfortunately, Norman Osborn was appointed director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which he would change into H.A.M.M.E.R.) after killing the Skrull Queen during the climatic battle, leading into the Dark Reign status quo that would blanket the Marvel universe for the next year.

Secret Warriors would launch as part of that Dark Reign banner. The series was written by Jonathan Hickman, with plotting assistance from Brian Michael Bendis, and art by Stefano Caselli. This would be Hickman’s first work in the Marvel universe, following his critically acclaimed creator-owned work. (I like Hickman’s Marvel stuff more often than not, with him accomplishing the impossible by getting me to read Fantastic Four on a semi-regular basis. His independent work is entertaining as well, especially Manhattan Projects.) Caselli would go on to be a favorite of mine as part of the rotating team of artists on Dan Slott’s Big Time run on Spider-Man.

The hook of the series would be provided by the shocking last page of the first issue, which also happens to be a key plot point of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Nick Fury discovers that Hydra has been secretly running S.H.I.E.L.D. all along, and that he’s been their puppet since the beginning. This part in the movie was a genuine geek out moment for me, as it fit in perfectly as a continuation of the first movie, and of course, instantly made me want to re-read this series.


(Confession: I read the first hardcover of this book not long after it was released, and I thought it was pretty good but not good enough for me to keep reading. I just didn’t have much of an affinity for Nick Fury, Hydra, or that entire world at the time. I gave it another try after some friends highly recommended it, and this time I finished it via the Marvel digital comics unlimited online subscription service. I enjoyed it, appreciated it a lot more the second time, but not enough to purchase any of the hard copy books. After watching the second Cap movie, and subsequently re-reading the entire series again, I bought all the books digitally, as well as the deluxe omnibus.)

With this new information, and Hydra reeling from the Skrull attack like everyone else, Nick Fury decides to unleash his final gambit to win the war against Hydra once and for all.

Hydra is now being led by a group including Baron Von Strucker, Madam Hydra, the Kraken, and the Gorgon.



 Their goal is to seize as many old S.H.I.E.L.D. assets as possible before H.A.M.M.E.R. and the U.S. government can take control of them. Nick Fury and his many field teams do their best to prevent that from happening, while also following Fury’s own mysterious machinations.

Despite the title of the comic and the existence of this new team, this was very much a Nick Fury comic. The new characters are interesting and engaging without requiring the full focus of the book. Alexander and Daisy are standouts, with Daisy especially stepping out of her (in my mind) role as Maria Hill lite. Daisy goes through a lot as lieutenant to the enigmatic Fury, who doesn’t (and can’t) let her know the full scope of his plans. By the end, you’ll be a fan of hers, that I can guarantee.


On the Hydra side of things, Baron Von Strucker is definitely the focus.


But the Gorgon is fantastic as an opponent to be reckoned with. Like I said before, I was never a big fan of the spy organizations as a kid, but the movies have definitely elevated Hydra in my eyes, and I imagine this is about the best portrayal of them you can find.


The Howling Commandos and Captain America make memorable appearances as well, all to varying degrees. Dum Dum Dugan fans will not be deprived.


Eventually a third group, Leviathan, enters the fray. At first, with all these groups and characters that are familiar with each other, you may think you missed something, because not everything is explained right off the bat. I felt like maybe Hickman was using some old continuity that I wasn’t familiar with (and maybe he was), but rest assured, all will be explained by the end.


That, ultimately, is what the strength of the series was. Hickman deftly weaves a long-form story through flashbacks and slow reveals, and more than a few surprises along the way. He even goes as far back as adding a connection to the Scorpio storyline from classic Nick Fury comics. The story has many double agents, moves and countermoves, twists and turns, betrayals, all while Nick Fury calmly runs his operation like it’s all going to plan, because maybe it just is. This is Fury at his best, four steps ahead of everyone else, which is the only way to play him in my mind (unlike Batman, who should at some point be fallible).


Hickman has become fairly well known at this point for his expansive storylines with meticulous planning, mostly from his lengthy run as the writer of Fantastic Four, but I think his time on Secret Warriors provides an even tighter and more satisfying epic in one easy-to-read series.

If you’re like me and left Captain America: The Winter Soldier enjoying Hydra’s role in the movie, as well as the espionage aspects of the story, than I highly recommend you pick up Secret Warriors. Do what you can to combat international terrorism, by…uh, sitting around reading comics.


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