Saturday, March 31, 2007

Supergirl: DC and Child Exploitation

Supergirl (Kelly & Churchill).

After her fun (if somewhat disconcerting) appearance in The Brave & the Bold 2, I figured I'd give Supergirl's solo title a shot to see how she was handled in her own book. While I am fully aware that Kara Zor-El is, in fact, a fictional character, it's hard for me to not see DC's treatment of her as borderline child exploitation. This appears to be a book designed to be read and enjoyed by dirty old men and few others.

I'm not some kind of right wing prude, either. I don't need my heroes to be role models. I don't need them to always win. I don't mind sexuality in comics, and I don't even mind cheesecake comics.

But when that cheesecake is a 15-17 year old girl, it's really kinda disturbing.

It's not just that Kara runs around half-naked - that's not atypical in comics - it's the way sex is used through the book. In one issue, Kara has a doe-eyed, little school girl crush on Nightwing. Fine, and age appropriate. A few issues later, however, she's rubbing herself up on Boomer (the Outsiders' Captain Boomering, son of the original) and telling him she's his hot little sister he has confused feelings towards. Every other panel she's in seems to sexualize her, as well, either through the writing, the art, or both.

And she's 16. Or 15. Or 17. They don't seem to be sure exactly how old she is, given her travel across the galaxy in suspended animation from Krypton to Earth, but it's always between 15 and 17.

Now, 16-year olds are going to wear skimpy clothes and they're going to obsess over sex, but DC doesn't seem interested in actually exploring the mind of a kid and their sexuality. They seem interested in having a hot piece of "jailbait" (as she refers to herself at one point) flying around for people to drool over.

Ian Churchill's art plays up her sexuality. Of course, it's not uncommon for characters in comics to have idealized bodies, but again, this is a 16-year old kid. I'm not bagging on Churchill's overall work, either. I think he's a talented artist who lays out his pages solidly, makes excellent use of perspective, handles action and static scenes equally well, etc. But his style on this character feels more dirty than fun in most places, and DC editorial is as much at fault for that as he is. They know what kind of artist Churchill is and he's been on the book since the beginning (with the occasional off-issue) so they obviously approve of what he's giving them.

Kara is an interesting character, or rather, an interesting idea - her backstory of being sent to Earth to kill Kal-El and her inability to come to grips with that mission makes for a fertile wellspring for stories, but this title is all over the place. Not only is it disturbing for all of the above reasons, it's also a disjointed book.

It's also disturbing that no adult really attempts to help her; Superman and Batman spy on her, but they don't actively try to parent her, apparently content that Wonder Woman gave her every bit of nurturing she'd need back during her time on Themyscira. It just adds to the creepiness. There's something to be said for giving a kid some space, but that space shouldn't be as large as the gulf between Krypton and Earth.

There's only been one issue of this series - Supergirl 12, by Gray, Palmiotti, and Conner - where she really feels and looks like a kid. If DC really wants this to be a cheesecake comic, make Kara 19 or 20 where it's less creepy for her and DC to exploit her sexually. If DC wants a comic about a 16-year old, Joe Kelly and Ian Churchill (both fine creators) are the wrong duo to chart Kara's adventures because what they've produced feels like child exploitation more than anything else.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Back in Black: The Post Civil War Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man 539 (JMS & Garney); Sensational Spider-Man 35 & 36 (Aguirre-Sacasa & Bachs); Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man 17 & 18 (PAD & Nauck).

The black costume is back.

This is not exactly surprising; once the teaser images for Spider-Man 3 started hitting the net you knew the Marvel offices would at least toss around the idea of bringing back the black costume. If anything, what's surprising is that it's just the costume and not the Venom symbiote.

Marvel's got a dual "Back in Black" thing going on here in the books which could be a bit confusing. On the one hand, they've got the "Back in Black" storyline taking place in Amazing, yet all the other Spidey book are dressed in the "Back in Black" cover block. Sensational and Friendly aren't part of the "Back in Black" story (their stories take place after the Amazing storyline) yet are part of the "Back in Black" event. Even more potentially confusing, Sensational and Friendly ship ahead of Amazing, so they're both 2 stories into their new storyline while Amazing is only one issue into a five part series. Homina-homina-homina ...

Amazing kicks off the post-CW Spideyverse with Aunt May being shot and delivered to the hospital and Peter going on a rampage to hunt down whomever's responsible. Peter is angrier and more aggressive than we've seen him in the past when his friends and family have been hurt, but he's never really been in this position before. Coming right out of the Civil War, where he was under as much stress as anyone, to find Aunt May being hit with a sniper's bullet ... I don't think it's all that uncharacteristic that he'd flip out a bit.

JMS delivers a tight, quickly paced initial issue that gives Garney the opportunity to do what Garney does best - draw action sequences. Peter starts back-tracking the assassin, but we know it's going to end with the Kingpin, sitting behind bars but still controlling the issue. It's a great choice of villain, as Kingpin is perfectly suited to spout JMS dialogue. The issue ends with Peter reclaiming a black costume he'd stored on a building downtown. He says that he stopped wearing the black because it sent the wrong message, but know that's exactly the message he wants to send. Which is to say, he's pissed off, he's driven, and he's not playing around.

I don't buy Peter's final line, that he's going to kill whomever is responsible, but JMS has done a great job giving Peter a real reason to put the black back on. The suits can be happy the comic looks like the movie and I can be happy that JMS didn't just have Peter wake up one morning and decide to wear something different because he forgot to do the laundry.

My thoughts on Garney, as a whole, is that Spider-Man is the wrong character for him to be working on. Or rather that JMS is the wrong writer for him to be paired with on Spider-Man, given that JMS' strengths are more about the set-up (the standing around, figuring things out, dialogue) than the action-filled payoff. Part of that, though, is that Garney's strength isn't drawing normal people standing around talking. Almost everyone knows how great his run on Captain America was (he and Waid seem perfectly suited to each other), but he was every bit as good on his Silver Surfer run, where JM DeMatteis did a lot of standing around and talking. Garney's use of perspective and heightened angles on Surfer were amazing - no one draws Surfer standing on his surfboard any better than Garney did, but Surfer isn't an old, worrisome woman. With the Surfer, Garney can play with as many perspectives as he can dream up, but there's less angles to play with indoors. Having Garney draw a lot of pages with MJ and Aunt May sitting around chatting doesn't seem the best use of his talent, but when he gets to draw Peter/Spidey in action his art is well-suited to a Spider-Man title.

In Sensational Spider-Man, Spidey is tracking down a bunch of would-be Spider-Man duplicates in a storyline entitled "The Strange Case of ..." Through the first 1 3/4 issues I was pretty bored with this storyline - a bunch of orphaned teenagers are kidnapped, given Spider-powers, and sent out into the world where Peter webs around picking up one after the other. It was sort of neat to see all these old costumes and identities back in action but there wasn't a lot of meat to the story. Aguirre-Sacasa writes a good Spider-Man in terms of character but his stories just don't do a lot for me.

The best part of the storyline for that opening 1 3/4 issues is the interaction between Peter and Reed Richards. Reed tries to let Peter know again and again that he's there to help him and he's not going to turn him in and, in the best exchange of the story, he tells Peter, "You don't have to feel like you're alone in this." Peter responds by challenging, "If I am ... it's because you and Tony put me there." Not that Peter isn't a mature young man/hero, but as much as he's Marvel's signature character, he's never thought of himself on the level of the big guns, so it's nice to see him take a shot at Reed.

The Spider-knock-offs are being created by Dr. Calvin Zabo, the scientist half of the Zabo/Mr. Hyde persona (and thus the allusion of the storyline title). It's all kind of mindless fun until the back 1/4 of the issue where Aguirre-Sancasa reveals Zabo's motives: he's creating the knock-offs to attempt to figure out why Peter Parker became a hero instead of a villain after have acquired super powers. Zabo is bringing in kids from around Peter's age and background, giving them spider powers and costumes and sending them out into the world to see how they act in an attempt to answer the "nature/nurture question on a super-human level." It's twisted logic - he casts himself in the role of Aunt May, an older benefactor, for instance - but there's a real bite to the reasoning. It's not really a "big reveal," though - this is one instance where I think it would have been better to front this information back at the beginning of the storyline.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man has the benefit of being written by Peter David, one of the most underrated Spider-Man writers ever, as far as I'm concerned. In Friendly, he does the other half of the movie tie-in business, trotting out Sandman for a storyline. Sandman comes to Peter for help as Sandman's dad is accused of murdering the alt-Ben Parker. The mystery aspect isn't nearly as appealing as the Sandman/Spider-Man team-up. PAD does a great job using Peter's unmasking as grounds for character development and Sandman, for a scene, at least, becomes something of a mentor figure for Peter. Peter's talking about how it's all getting to him, not having a place to hide anymore either physically or emotionally, and Sandman understands what he's going through, warning, "After a few years, it'll get to you a lot. It don't take wearing a mask ... or turning yourself into sand ... to wind up being unrecognizable."

All three Spider-books are solid an all have their own territory carved out. Amazing is always going to be the lead book, but Aguirre-Sancasa and PAD are doing solid work, too, and well worth a look. I'd argue Friendly is better than Sensational but Aguirre-Sancasa is definitely a writer to watch.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

X-Factor 16: Self-Dominion

X-FACTOR 16: "No Dominion." David & Raimondi.

I often get the feeling when reading PAD's X-FACTOR work that while most x-writers use the state of Marvel's mutants a given background on which to set their stories, only PAD sees it as an actual opportunity for exploration and investigation. In X-FACTOR at the moment, PAD has Jamie Madrox going around and re-absorbing all of his duplicates that he'd sent out over the years. (Madrox has the power to create duplicates who he can then later re-integrate, gaining their life experience.) In 16, Jamie has his sights on "John Maddox," an Episcopal minister with a wife and son.

The outcome - Madrox eventually lets Maddox remain living his own life - isn't unpredictable, but that's not really the point. Madrox's journey is ostensibly about reclaiming his lost dupes, but what he learns here is that he doesn't always need to re-absorb them to learn from them. Madrox tells the minister that he needs to reclaim him because without him his soul isn't whole, but when Maddox threatens to shoot him, Jamie implores Maddox to pull the trigger. John can't do it and resigns his fate to Madrox's decision. Madrox's decision to let John remain living his life gives Jamie a sense of freedom he's not accustomed to: "I made a decision and instead of being strangled by its implications ... I feel free."

PAD balances this issue with Monet and Siryn's continued conflict in Paris with the traditional anti-mutant hysteria. While Madrox deals with the internal conflicts of being a mutant, M and Theresa deal with the external conflicts. Through M and Madrox PAD gets to the heart of the issue - whatever the outside pressures forced upon you, your sense of self-worth has to come from within, and how you relate to the world - not how the world relates to you.

Another excellent issue in one of comicdom's best books.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Anti-Heroes Rising

Thunderbolts 112 (Ellis & Deodato) & Punisher War Journal 4 & 5 (Fraction & Deodato & Olivetti).

The early days of the post-CW Marvel Universe has seen two unlikely titles leap to the head of the wave of writers willing to explore the new status-quo: Thunderbolts and Punisher War Journal. Perhaps Thunderbolts isn't quite so unlikely, given that the new bad-ass TBolts were formed during Civil War for the express purposes of bringing in non-registered heroes. Punisher War Journal, on the other hand, has really surprised me by stepping up and delivering two excellent stories that ground the Punisher in the superpowered community in a logical manner that nods to a classic Captain America storyline from the 1980s: the Scourge of the Underworld.

What I like about both Ellis and Fraction is that they're not just doing grim-n-gritty redux here, which would be easy given their characters. Instead, they're using the style to explore the ramifications of the post-CW landscape. These are character that are, for the most part, villains, and yet because of the SHRA, the TBolts are sanctioned by the same government that branded Captain America a criminal. They are a unique form of anti-hero and I'm starting to get really interested in where Ellis takes them.

With Thunderbolts 112 Warren Ellis has taken a massive step forward in convincing me that this title is going to go someplace worth following. (I'm sure he'll sleep easier knowing he's made me happy.) Problems I've had with the earlier two issues of his run are addressed here. For one, the lack of success of such a powerhouse group of superpowers capturing a relative lower-level hero like Jack Flag is immediately addressed. Norman Osborn is in full-blown CEO mode - his workers aren't producing and he's not happy. He's confident enough (thanks both to his own ego as well as the nano-tech security devices implanted in the team's blood) to acknowledge this, but just by raising this topic he allows for Moonstone and Songbird to debate one another on the merits of the team's performance.

I really like how Ellis is setting up is team dynamic. Last issue we had Osborn siding with Karla against Melissa, and this time around Osborn allows Melissa the voice he seemed willing to squash in order to argue with Sofen in front of the entire team. The argument between Karla and Melissa over what constitutes a leader and teamwork would fit nearly anywhere in this title's long and historic Busiek & Nicieza runs. It's a serious discussion, and while Ellis gets in some sex talk to help with his obsession it never devolves into immaturity nor is it used for shock value.

Ellis is doing a slow-build here on the team - we get quick hits with Radioactive Man, Bullseye, and Venom, while Penance and Swordsman take back-seats. Ellis also builds in the next batch of target/targets: Steel Spider, Sepulchre, and American Eagle. It makes me think he's in this for the long-term (or at least thinking long-term) which makes me more willing to trust what he's doing.

Over in Punisher War Journal, Matt Fraction gives us two interesting stories that relegate Punisher's screen time to the back burner, yet make Frank's new status pretty clear - he's going after supervillains, Scourge style, instead of sticking with the mafia, street-crime types.

The classic Mark Gruenwald "Scourge of the Underworld" storyline, including the legendary "Bar With No Name" story from Captain America 319, involves Scourge going after and executing supervillains - primarily third or fourth rate villains who have fallen by the wayside. PWJ 4 is a modern reinterpretation of Cap 319 - instead of villains being assembled in a bar to go after the Scourge, who's hiding in plain sight as the bartender, Fraction has them assemble at a wake for Stilt-Man, whom the Punisher killed a few issues back. (Check out the Daredevil comic at the head of the casket on the cover.)

It's a great issue, with a bunch of third and fourth rate villains sitting around bitching about being a bunch of third and fourth rate villains. Sure, the Rhino shows up to deliver some classic villainy presence, but it's mostly folks like the Gibbon, Will o' the Wisp, the Eel, Dragon Man, and the Prowler. Fraction gives a great comment on modern comics when he has the villains lament that back in the old days things were more fun and less violent.

Of course, the problem with an issue like this is that it raises these characters up just to execute them. Some of the villains surely get away, but most don't. Fraction manages to give most of them a fitting end; it makes them mostly sad and pathetic but it also makes them human. It also raises the question of Frank's desire to go after villains like this that don't really seem to be causing anyone any real harm, anymore. And yet ... they are villains and that makes it a black and white case to Castle. That it might not be black and white to the readers is part of what makes the issue so enjoyable.

PWJ 5 is told Astro City-style, where the story revolves around Frank, showing how Frank's presence causes collateral damage when people come after him. It's a different tone than the previous issue but even more effective, including Frank's reaction to Captain America's assassination as it plays out on the large screens around Times Square.

Here's hoping Fraction and Ellis can keep delivering stories that are this enjoyable and offer some thought-provoking commentary on the post-CW Marvel Universe.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Oath and Marvel Magic

Dr. Strange: The Oath 5 (of 5). Vaughn & Martin.

Running alongside CIVIL WAR for much of it's run, Dr. Strange: THE OATH feels both irrelevant and comforting. While the Doc is locked in a battle for Wong's life, so there exists the ever-present possibility of a major change to the status-quo, the series has enough of that old-school charm that it feels, on the whole, like just another adventure for Dr. Strange. CIVIL WAR promises things will change, THE OATH just delivers a good, solid story.

There's also a telling difference between the two series as it relates to the issue of death. In CW, death is used both for singularly dramatic purposes (the death of Bill Foster), but also treated as something of a triviality (the revelation of 53 total deaths seemingly after the fact in Front Line 11, either in the event or the final battle, I'm still not sure) or a necessary evil in the quest for a greater reality (the killing of Atlanteans by a Stark-controlled Osborn). In THE OATH, Vaughn puts one life on the line - Wong's. Wong has inoperable cancer and there exists a magic panacea, Otkid's Elixir, which has the potential to cure not just cancer but every disease. Strange is eventually faced with a question of whether he takes a shot at saving Wong, or potentially the rest of humanity after the vial container the elixir is destroyed, leaving only one drop remaining.

Vaughn smartly saves this quandary for the end of the series - we all know Strange isn't going to end up creating a cure-all for every disease walking because if he was Marvel would be building an event around it, not slotting it into a stand-alone mini-series. Or, at the least, they'd be publicizing the heck out of it. The tension is less about "Will Wong survive?" and more "How will Strange save him?"

The story is effective, well-paced, and only strained, at times, through dialogue. Strange's references to Night Nurse as "My dear Watson" don't work, except to point out that Strange really isn't that good at this kind of witty repartee. So maybe it does work, even if it's not exactly pleasant to read ...

At worst, it's a small complaint in an otherwise excellent mini-series. Vaughn manages to tell a solid Dr. Strange story with the requisite twists and turns, and scores points for making the most dramatic moments physical instead of magical. Strange is forced to fight a physical, non-magical battle, and in doing so reveals that Wong has been teaching him the martial arts. Plus, Strange gets to suck a little face with the Night Nurse, so good for him.

Marcos Martin's art is gorgeous, too.

In other Marvel magic news, they've got a Annihilation-esque event coming in June called Mystic Arcana. There are four one-shots that make up the series, each focusing on a different character: Magik (written by Louise Simonson), Black Knight (Roy Thomas!), Scarlet Witch (Jeff Parker), and Sister Grimm (CB Cebulski).

It might seem odd for Marvel to be doing a major magical event like this and not include Dr. Strange, but it's a good move, I think. By not including Strange directly they get to show off other magical characters in a major way. More odd, I think, is that the Black Knight and Scarlet Witch stories deal with previous versions of the character. Instead of using Dane Whitman, Thomas will be using the 1950s Black Knight and Parker will be focusing on a pre-teen Wanda Maximoff. So while they might be rebuilding Marvel's magic system, I'm not convinced they've got the right cast to revitalize it.

We'll see what happens. I am excited about the project and if it's as successful as Annihilation I'll be happy with the outcome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What's a War Hero Got to Do to Make the National News?

The events of CAPTAIN AMERICA 25 have made the national news. Here's a round-up of stories I've come across:

Here's the story from CNN.

Here's the story from the Associated Press.

And to stay on top of things as they develop, here's the story from Newsarama.

Beware that the stories contain spoilers. I'll have a review up after I've read the issue later today or early tomorrow.

Monday, March 5, 2007

LOST: Remember When This Show Used to Be Fun?

Season 3 has been a rough one for LOST. The show seems almost determined to drag stories out, filling an entire season's worth of episodes with half a season's worth of stories. The Kate/Jack/Sawyer storyline that has dominated this season has robbed this show of nearly all levity. Not that LOST has been a ball of laughs, but it hasn't been painful to watch. It's been fun to watch characters grow and change and have their past lives revealed.

Until this recent stretch, at least. LOST used to deliver week-in, week-out, but this season has been hit and miss. Other than the ep two weeks ago focusing on Desmond, the second-half of Season 3 has been a drag. LOST is in a tricky position given the popularity of Kate, Jack, and Sawyer, but when they exclude characters like Hurley, Charlie, and Locke the shows becomes too focused on the angst and not focused enough on the hope.

Last night, at last, the show got back to a focus on Hurley. Picking up on Hurley's flashback story of the "curse of the lotto numbers," LOST's two halves (pre-crash and present) were once again working with each other to move us to a strong conclusion. Unlike last week's Bai Ling flashback sequence snooze-fest for Jack, which felt too forced and too focused on the past, and even the otherwise solid Desmond episode which was balanced slightly too hard on the past, "Tricia Tanaka is Dead" worked for me. In part, this is because Hurley has been one of the more interesting characters since the inception, but simply as a stand-alone episode, last night worked for me better than any show this season. When Ms. Tanaka and her cameraman were killed by a meteor (or asteroid, Hurley wasn't sure) inside the Chicken shack, it was tragic and hilarious at the same time. Good stuff.

It was nice to see people laughing again. It was nice to see them connecting again. And yeah, it was nice to see Delenn show up again, too. Sawyer's brooding over Kate was nicely balanced with his assistance to Hurley at getting a "hippie van" they found in the jungle. Kudos, too, for the 8-track kicking to life by blaring Three Dog Night's "Shambala," a perfect song for the joyride.

It was nice, too, to have a Jack-free episode. I get that Jack's a deadly serious guy in a deadly serious situation, but when the show focuses on him this season it loses something. That he's been an ass isn't the problem; that he's been, at various times, wishy-washy and holier-than-thou has made him come off as poorly written more than troubled or "on the edge" or whatever else we're supposed to think of him. I get that he's the "good guy who, at times, is an asshole," just like I get Sawyer is the "asshole who, at times, is honorable," but the show pushes too hard to ring emotion out of every scene that Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are in. Let 'em breathe before you suffocate them, folks.

And us in the process.

More Kiele Sanchez wouldn't hurt, either. I'm just saying ... if you're paying her to be around getting her to do a little more would be nice, too.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Is Marvel Going to Kill/"Kill" Captain America?

The image to the left is the released preview cover image for Captain America 25, which hits stores this Wednesday, March 7. The implication seems to be that Cap is going to get shot. Cap has been mostly absent from post-CW solicitations, though Marvel will occasionally release false, or misleading, solicits to keep other stories from being spoiled.

As John Warren has pointed out elsewhere, however, while CAP 25 ships this week, CAP 26 isn't scheduled to be released until May 23rd. The cover image for CAP 26 doesn't include Cap, but does include the other members of the recent CAP storyline (Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Winter Soldier, Agent 13) as well as the addition of another of Cap's old partners, the Falcon. In between the two issues is the entire FALLEN SON event, a series of one-shots featuring Wolverine, Spider-Man, New Avengers, Captain America, and Iron Man. The solicits for these issues admit they're not really saying anything definitive given they don't want to spoil anything - presumably that meant CIVIL WAR 7 or CW: FRONT LINE 11, but now may more accurately mean CAP 25.

Also, next week CIVIL WAR: CONFESSION is scheduled to arrive in stores, and that would make a pretty good title for an issue focusing on a character who just killed Captain America to tell their side of the story. It also supposedly features an indication Cap has been shot with the blood-splattered shield to the right. So is Cap going to die? Perhaps not. The solicit for CONESSION reads:

"From the Eisner Award winning team that brought you the start of CIVIL WAR with the NEW AVENGERS ILLUMINATI SPECIAL comes this heart-wrenching finale that cannot be missed. Two of the Marvel heroes most affected by the shocking conclusion of the war get together one last time. What is said between them will set the course of the Marvel Universe for years to come. This is the confession."

Maybe Cap gets shot but doesn't die. Maybe he's paralyzed, which would make all of the covers and solicits work together. Being shot satisfies both cover images (not that cover images are law) and allows for Cap to show up both in the Confession (if he's one of the two heroes who meet up there) and in Fallen Son.

Then there's this Marc Silvestri image that's been floating around, ostensibly the cover to CIVIL WAR: THE INITIATIVE. If Cap is shot and out of action (whatever that means), Tony taking the flag and shield would be a nice gesture to his fallen ex-teammate who he will likely feel some guilt at seeing shot. Then again, if Cap is paralyzed, maybe that's Steve Rogers under that suit of armor.

Marvel's done a good job muddying the waters, both letting fans know something big is coming and also keeping them from knowing exactly what they've got planned.

What do I think? I think Cap gets shot (maybe by the Punisher given Caste's taking of Cap's mask in CW 7 and that this mask is going to play a role in upcoming PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL books). I think the public will be told Cap is dead, though we'll know he's not. Over the next year we'll see the New Avengers working this angle, attempting to find out exactly what has happened to Cap because they don't believe he's dead. Winter Soldier takes over the bulk of on-screen duty in CAPTAIN AMERICA. A year from now Steve Rogers is back in the costume.

Should be fun. Whatever shows up in print in the coming weeks, though, we know by now that Marvel won't kill Captain America. They might "kill" him, but it's only temporary.