Apr 30, 2014

The Too-Short and Not-Discussed-Enough Career of Alan Zelenetz

The Too-Short and Not-Discussed-Enough Career of Alan Zelenetz
by Duy

One of the first comics I ever read was What If...? #35, featuring a Frank Miller story in which Elektra was not killed by Bullseye. It was an introduction to comics and is one of the examples I use to show that you can actually jump on most titles in the middle of the action, and was the first exposure I had to Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil and all the characters herein.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the dude who wrote the second story, "What if Yellowjacket had died?", featured on the bottom part of the cover. That man was Alan Zelenetz, whose name hadn't really registered in my mind until recently, even if he wrote a story in a comic I read to pieces as a kid.

The creator of Alien Legion (the concept essentially being "The French Foreign Legion in Space"), Zelenetz didn't have a long or prolific comics career. You can view his bibliography here, but like his What If... story being overshadowed by Frank Miller, a legend, Zelenetz's career seemed overshadowed also by the people around him. He was a good, not great, writer, who wrote some entertaining stories. And when you're good, not great, following a great writer or being followed by a great writer is going to make a big difference when it comes to how you're remembered. For example, he wrote three issues of Master of Kung-Fu, now a cult classic and beloved by many fans, but he wrote the three final issues before cancellation and right after Doug Moench, who gave the title its voice and identity, left. And he had a pretty fun six-issue run on Thor that included traveling around the universe to find Jane Foster, and an adventure with Dracula, but it's probably best known for some issues having Bill Sienkiewicz covers.

Also, it's probably not remembered much because it came right before some dude named Walt Simonson got on the title. You may have heard of his run on Thor. (All things considered though, Zelenetz's run on Thor coincided with Jim Shooter's Thor graphic novel, I Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which is a truly objectively terrible comic book, so Zelenetz should get points just for that.)

Zelenetz's issues were fun, and although I wouldn't really say they were much better than your standard Bronze Age fare, I do think that he showed quite a bit of potential. The most notable thing he did was bring back Jane Foster, marry her off to her longtime love Keith Kincaid, and break up Sif and Thor.

Art by Ernie Chan

Zelenetz had a good ear for that kind of mythical story, which was at display most in the five issues he did of Marvel Fanfare with an artist well known for doing folklore, Charles Vess. Their first story was a short one involving the Warriors Three looking for Bragi, Asgard's poet.

Each Warrior has his own adventure and it all leads to the same place. It's got a good balance of whimsy and danger, similar to most fairy tales.

Their next collaboration was a four-parter involving Loki trying to stop a wedding, which is prophesied to signal the end of Asgard if it doesn't push through. (Loki's such an ass.) The script gives way to great visuals and dialogue. It's written in such a way that if I were a publisher and there were a mythological or fantasy comic to be written, Zelenetz would be on the short list, no question.

Here's Fandral getting away from two women he's, um, seduced. Very Errol Flynn-y.

As a side note, these Marvel Fanfare comics were collected in the Thor: The Warriors Three premiere HC with this one-shot by Len Wein and John Buscema (also one of the first comics I ever read, and itself an entertaining story. I think you actually have to try hard to make the Three not entertaining).

Zelenetz and Vess' collaboration continued with the Marvel original graphic novel The Raven Banner: A Tale of Asgard, which takes place a long time ago and features Thor and the Warriors Three only in cameos. It features Greyval Grimson, charged to protect the Raven Banner, which is prophesied to guarantee victory for whomever holds it.

As this very detailed recap points out, Marvel's original graphic novels did not, despite massive opportunities, really put out much in the way of unique quality work. Most were just oversized comics of standard fare and quality, and some were just terrible (see the aforementioned I Whom the Gods Would Destroy), but The Raven Banner was an exception that has not been reprinted, perhaps because it's uncommercial (as mentioned, Thor has only a small cameo). There's no better time to reprint it, with the world being on a Thor/Avengers high. I think it's legitimately well written and is a good read for the mythology buffs.

Zelenetz also worked on the swords-and-barbarians genre for a bit, with runs on Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian. As such, the work of his that may be of the most interest to fans of these genres (fantasy and superhero) is What If...? #39, featuring a crossover between Thor and Conan drawn by Ron Wilson.

In the story, Thor wanders off into Hyboria and loses his memory, which brings him face to face with Conan.

After the customary kerfuffle, Conan leads Thor to Crom, Hyboria's cruel god, which leads to Thor regaining his memories but also leads to him getting on Crom's bad side, which then leads to him dying.

That silent panel's pretty powerful, and a rarity in 1983 comics. It ends with Conan the Barbarian using Mjolnir, and Thor, as inspiration to climb a mountain he was previously unable to climb, ending with another rarity in 1983 comics: an open ending.

There's an open-endedness to the whole thing, and the moment lingers even when you're done with the story. Like Zelenetz's career in comics, it shows promise, potential, and fire. And then it ends, leaving you to wonder just what could have happened next.

Zelenetz went on to become a movie producer, but fortunately, we still have archives of his work. If you see them at a convention, grab 'em up. They'll entertain you, and make you think of what kinds of comics we could have gotten if Alan Zelenetz had decided to hone his craft and stay in comics.

Apr 28, 2014

Dr. Pseudo-Science: How I Learned To Stop Forgetting And Read Warren Ellis

Dr. Pseudo-Science: How I Learned To Stop Forgetting And Read Warren Ellis
Ben Smith

Probably going back to Nextwave, Warren Ellis has been one of those writers I always seemed to enjoy whenever I read something written by him, but would always forget to mention as a favorite when it came time to list such a thing. This would continue on project after project, no matter how much I enjoyed it, but now is the time to end it. Warren Ellis is one of my favorite comic book writers, and today I am going to tell you why (or attempt to, in my usual rambling barely literate kind of way).

One of the things I like the most about a Warren Ellis story is the way he dives into the inherent craziness and even silliness of superhero characters, but unlike many of his peers, he celebrates that craziness instead of trying to “deconstruct” it for the modern audience. I always kind of expected him, based on what little I know of his public persona (which is next to nothing and full of assumptions), to be kind of the grumpy writer that only does Marvel comics every once in a while to pay the bills inbetween novels, but that’s not how his superhero comics read. Instead, I feel nothing but genuine love for the characters coming off the page anytime I read one of his Marvel books, and a surprising amount of knowledge of who the characters are at their core for someone I tend to assume (most likely erroneously) doesn’t care enough to know about Marvel characters.

Another thing I like about a Warren Ellis comic is how smart they are. I don’t mean smart in the way it’s crafted, because I’m not educated enough to make that determination, or how smart you have to be to enjoy it (as some Grant Morrison fans are fond of saying). Ellis has a definite skill for using pseudo-science in his comics, and I don’t know how much research he does or doesn’t do, but he does it in such a way to make it believable, understandable, and entertaining. Most writers have a hard enough time checking off one of those boxes, but Ellis consistently manages all three.

All of that said, let’s dive in to some of the comics he’s done that I’ve enjoyed the most, with hopefully as little research and effort as possible on my part. As always, remember that I am primarily a Marvel fan, so of course most of the books to follow will be his Marvel books.

Nextwave: Agents Of H.A.T.E. with Stuart Immonen

Most likely my first exposure to the madcap zaniness that is the mind of Warren Ellis, Nextwave was almost immediately one of those books that for anyone that actually read it, they were screaming to the skies above (or more accurately, internet message boards) for everyone to pay attention to this book, because it was great. Unfortunately, it was all too late to save it from cancellation, but fortunately Ellis and Immonen were able to give us a complete story. This book was pure fun, and wild craziness from beginning to end. With my beloved Elsa Bloodstone reinvented as a sarcastic smartass, Machine Man as a self-important degenerate alcoholic (think Bender from Futurama, only a superhero), a pantsless Fin Fang Foom (sold!) and Devil Dinosaur in a smoking jacket. It satirized superhero comics while simultaneously celebrating them, and it was flat out hilarious while doing it. If you have never read it, you are missing out.

Thor: Worldengine with Mike Deodato

I like Mike Deodato’s art, I don’t know why you don’t. Also Thor should occasionally hook up with the Enchantress. Why wouldn’t he? I’m all for that.

Iron Man: Extremis with Adi Granov

I can say without a doubt, that this was the first Iron Man comic I ever enjoyed. After being stuck in the classic red and gold armor for decades, Marvel had tried for several years to reinvent the armor with diminishing returns (see Heroes Reborn). Adi Granov was more than up to the task though, as the armor he designed not only looked sleek and modern, it became the basis for the armor they used in the eventual Iron Man movie. Those movies owe a great deal to Warren Ellis and his work on Iron Man as well, down to the third one heavily borrowing from this storyline. Robert Downey Jr. may get the lion’s share of the credit for making Iron Man an enjoyable character (and probably deservedly so) but Warren Ellis laid the foundation for that. The rehabilitation of Tony Stark all started here.

Desolation Jones with JH Williams III

JH Williams III before he became the superstar he is today. I have to be honest, I don’t remember much about reading this comic, but I do remember Hitler porn. And what else do you really need to know other than Hitler porn?

Justice League Unlimited: Dark Heart

Warren Ellis wrote an excellent episode of what I must begrudgingly admit was the best superhero animated series ever created. That should count for something with you ungrateful pups.

Astonishing X-Men with Simone Bianchi and Phil Jimenez

Ellis was at full pseudo-science levels in this Astonishing X-Men run, while also giving me probably the most faithful and true portrayals of these X-Men characters that I’ve read in a long time (at least the version of them I have in my head). His banter (a possibly underrated skill of his) between the characters was at its peak in these comics, and made for a very enjoyable read. He’s the only other guy besides Grant Morrison that I’ve felt has gotten the voice of the modern Emma Frost, which is the version that made me a fan. Not surprising considering what he was able to do with Elsa Bloodstone in a similar vein. He also does what most good X-Men writers seem to do, and that’s kill a Native American.

Fell with Ben Templesmith

Richard Fell is a homicide detective transferred to the city of Snowtown, which is basically one step above a desolate apocalyptic cityscape. Ellis weaves in a series of one-and-done mysteries issue to issue, with larger ongoing mysteries percolating in the background. Not only are the mysteries not simple to figure out on my own (a must for me), they usually involve a level of depravity that really speaks to my inner degenerate. Fell quickly shows his extreme competence as a detective, echoing Sherlock Holmes in that regard. Definitely one of the most highly recommended books on this list.

Thunderbolts with Mike Deodato

Ellis and Deodato took what easily could have been a throwaway follow-up from Civil War and turned it into one of the most enjoyable books at that time. His group of psychopaths turned reluctant bounty hunters was dripping with paranoia and anxiety. Their mountain base of operations was practically claustrophobic trying to contain all the psychosis and downright evil inside. Every character of the team had a different agenda (especially my beloved Moonstone) all with Norman Osborn at the center trying to keep it all together (not only the team, but his own fractured mind). This story was so interesting that it ended up becoming the basis for the entire Dark Reign status quo, with Norman Osborn’s control expanding out from one team of Thunderbolts, to the entire Marvel universe. I can’t even think of another time anything like that has ever happened.

Moon Knight with Declan Shalvey

At the time of writing this, only one issue has been released of this new series, but boy was it a great first issue. Some may not have appreciated the character redesign, but it works for me, and the art by Shalvey was fantastic. The colors by Jordie Bellaire really enhance the look and tone of the series, which is not something I usually notice with my caveman levels of insight into coloring. Really excited about the potential of this series going forward.

Planetary with John Cassaday

Last but not least, is probably Warren Ellis’ most celebrated comic book work, the absolutely stunning Planetary. It took me a long time to get around to reading this, with me only having finished it a few months ago (it takes me a while to venture beyond the warm embrace of Marvel) but am I ever so glad I finally did. The series is famous for the level of detail in its Easter Eggs and analogues, and also for its exploration of different genres of fiction. I’ve never been the most perceptive reader when it comes to themes and homages, but the great thing about Planetary is that I don’t think you have to get them all to enjoy the story. At the beginning of the series, I was loving the different stories from issue to issue so much that I almost dreaded the eventual transition to the larger overall plotline. But even when that plotline did come to the forefront, it was something new and exciting, subverting my expectations yet again. The art by Cassaday was absolutely gorgeous (the man was born to draw a Western, get on it) (He's done one! -Duy) and the story was engaging from the smallest story to the biggest. The ending was about as satisfying as you can get for me as a reader, so much so, that I almost immediately wanted to reread the entire series upon finishing it. That’s quite a feat for someone as lazy as me.

There you have it. There’s some other quite enjoyable Warren Ellis comics such as Secret Avengers and The Authority to look into (I never could get into Transmetropolitan) but I feel like I’ve given you a pretty substantial list to start working on. If you don’t have all the comics I listed above, you should get them. If you don’t want to get them, then frankly you must hate joy and freedom.

So go out and buy them you fascist hater of enjoyment. Or don’t, I’m taking a nap either way.

Apr 26, 2014

The Sand Saref/Elektra Connection

In the documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, Frank Miller says he stole the introduction of Elektra in his acclaimed Daredevil run, structurally, from Will Eisner's The Spirit, specifically the introduction of Sand Saref. Let's put some panels together and check out how they compare.

The Sand Saref/Elektra Connection
by Duy 

First, both stories start out in the rain.

Next, the Spirit discovers a clue, in writing, that points to Sand Saref, while Daredevil's mission is interrupted by Elektra, whose voice he immediately recognizes.


Then we go into flashbacks. Sand Saref knew the Spirit, Denny Colt, when they were kids. Denny's uncle killed Sand's dad, who was a police. Meanwhile, Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios were lovers in college, until Elektra's dad was killed and she left the country.

Then, both Denny and Matt say they have to bring these girls from their past to justice.

The climaxes of both stories take place by the waterfront, where both women are caught in a bind (Elektra a bit more so).

Our heroes come to the rescue.

The girls get their hits in.

The girls recognize the masked men.

And then they walk away.

Well, that's pretty clear-cut, but considering that this was the height of Miller's initial run on Daredevil, the storyline that really put him on the map, I wonder what would have happened if things had turned out just a bit differently. See, Eisner didn't create Sand Saref for The Spirit. He created her for a new strip about a private detective named John Law. The first strip was all about Sand Saref, but for several reasons, John Law didn't push through and Eisner just adapted the John Law stuff into The Spirit.

There's a What If question for you. What if things had gone as planned and Sand Saref, which has been reprinted more than any other Spirit story I've seen, in my experience, was not there to influence a young Frank Miller. Would he have taken off as quickly as he did?

(Okay, I'm sure the answer is yes. Sue me, I'm trying to end the column here.)

You can read Elektra and Sand Saref here.

Apr 24, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Thor: The Mighty Avenger

On Thor: The Mighty Avenger
A Sense of Wonder
by Duy

A while back, my brother said to me that he played The Avengers on home video for the kids — that's my 15-year-old nephew, my 9-year-old niece, and two of the other kids who are always at the house — and they were just watching intently the whole time. So I asked that second one, my niece Fiona, which one her favorite Avenger was. Her answer was Thor, meaning she's a girl after her uncle's heart. So I asked her if she wanted me to read her some Thor comics, and she said yes, the same way I used to (and still do) read her some Golden Age Shazam/Captain Marvel comics, but I figured, what would I read her? Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's run isn't "cute" enough for her (she likes to call things "cute"), Walt Simonson's run is (I think) a little too dense in terms of words, and I considered the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby original run until I opened my Masterworks and remembered how much 60s-era sexism and racism there was.

Fortunately, there was one universal answer: Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee, a stand-alone book with its own self-contained continuity. I've been meaning to get it for a while, since I love Samnee (Daredevil is one of only two titles I'm still getting on a monthly basis), and Fiona wanting some Thor to read just made me pull the trigger.

I bought it first thing on a Wednesday morning, on a holiday. I went to my family's house, and she and I read it, with me reading the words and her doing the sound effects. We finished it in a day.

There's a lot to like in Thor: The Mighty Avenger, which sets the Thunder God in contemporary times, banished to Earth by Odin for reasons unknown and taken in and given a home by Jane Foster. For one thing, the art is pretty incredible. Samnee's got a style where you can tell what each character is feeling even if all the panel contains is a hollow outline of a figure with two dots for eyes and a quick line for the mouth (which Fiona kept pointing out to me every chance she got — she's related to me, after all), and man, it really helps. Some scenes are completely silent. The entire book starts out with these first two pages.

Look at how much is established in those pages. From Jane's loneliness to her sense of awe and wonder at a simple rainbow, Samnee's able to convey it with simple facial expressions and gestures. These are some inspired artistic choices — the everyday act of putting your pinky on your lip when you're in awe is still something many comics artists forgo. Samnee's mastery of body language is evident in Mighty Avenger.

In fact, it's possible that even after so many issues of Daredevil, where Samnee pulls out trick after trick and fancy layout after fancy layout, it's in Mighty Avenger that I really appreciated him and his hold on fundamentals the most. Keeping layouts and compositions simple really highlighted his gestures and facial expressions. At no point, ever, does anyone say anything to the effect of "Thor loves to fight," but Samnee gets it across each time with a simple smile or smirk.

It's not just Samnee, either. Roger Langridge does a good job with this kind of texture. It's no accident that Thor ends up watching The Wizard of Oz (which Fiona loved so much, because she loves that movie), right at the part where Dorothy's about to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Mmmm. Sammich.

There's a genuine romance to Mighty Avenger and it's centered, of course, on Thor and Jane Foster. Thor's desperation to get back to Asgard and his growing acceptance for Earth is a focal point, and it doesn't happen without Jane.

And if you couldn't figure it out from that dialogue, Roger Langridge is pretty good with words. And he's also pretty good at moments, too. In case you've been thinking "This is just for kids!", well, first I'd say there'd be nothing wrong if that were true, but also, there's enough in there to provide a fun, layered experience for all ages.

And of course, there's just some great fistpumping, adrenaline-rushing action throughout the book. With guest stars like Captain Britain and Giant-Man (whom Fiona eagerly calls "Brian" and "Henry") and Wasp and Iron Man and Captain America, there's no shortage of punching, and boy, does Thor love to punch things.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger isn't perfect. For one thing, it was cancelled four issues early and some of the main questions were never answered, such as why Odin banished Thor from Asgard in the first place, or who the hell Krask is (he's this guy, so don't feel too bad about not getting that big reveal), and I actually think it starts off a bit slow. But the characters make it. The moments make it. It's a comic that looks simple on the surface but has true, genuine beauty, and it's a comic about that very thing, about how things that seem simple on the surface, that you take for granted each day, can still fill you with wonder and awe, if you only stop to look.

A half hour after reading Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Fiona came up to me with her iPad and, with a smile on her face, said, "Look. I made a Rainbow Bridge in Minecraft." So, thank you, Avengers the movie, for giving me the impetus to buy Thor: The Mighty Avenger. And thank you, Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee, and company, for bringing me and my niece closer together, with the Marvel character that I'd be happiest doing it with.

You can get Thor: The Mighty Avenger here: