Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Terrible Pope 1-3

As he was finishing the 2004-2011 "Borgia" series with Milo Manara, Alejandro Jodorowsky was already preparing the follow-up. It's probably due to scheduling that the first volume of "Terrible Pope" actually came out two years before the Italian artist finished drawing the preceding series, but the two  books can still be read separately.

"Della Rovere", published in 2009 by Delcourt pairs Jodorowsky with Theo Caneschi to present the papacy of Borgia's successor on the throne of Saint Peter. Gulliano della Rovere was a character in the Manara-drawn historical epic, but the writer goes to great lengths to make the new series accessible.

This is paramount considering the early 16th century setting could easily lead to the reader getting lost in the historical facts. Just like with "Borgia", Jodorowsky is careful to treat the material as a genre work full of intrigues and sexual debauchery. The protagonist's homosexuality quickly comes to define the work, coupled with his blood lust.

To put it kindly, the creative team present the major historical figure as a depraved raving lunatic and compel the reader to follow his machinations in a late Renaissance setting. The first volume starts with a story relating the events leading to della Rovere becoming the pope and follows it up with his revenge on the Borgia family that kept him from achieving the position at an earlier age.

Once again, the reader is given a primer regarding the events from the previous series and is in no way penalized from not reading the Manara illustrated story. Della Rovere is given a lover that helps humanize him and gives the protagonist someone to confere his thoughts to. The many sex scenes and intrigues prevents beautiful Aldosi from being a mere plot device. Instead, by pairing him with a black slave not only completes the menage a trois, but gives della Rovere a pair of servants devoted to carrying out his schemes.

All of this is very graphically illustrated by Theo, who lacks the precision of Manara's ethereal work, but instills a vulgarity and passion to the sinful Vatican depicted in the series. His work is gorgeously colored in browns and reds and helps to instill the series with its own identity. Par for the course of the historical fiction, the artist is burdened with historical references missing from his previous fantasy work, but the external details do support the unique balance of the work.

"The Terrible Pope" is at once a comic book biography that deftly manages to cohere the complicated political landscape of sixteenth century Italy and crafts it into a narrative about power similar to "Borgia". It is in the succeeding two volumes that Jodorowky's collaboration with Theo further crystallizes into a work with its own identity.

Ironically it does it by calling attention to one of the previous' work's major themes, that of the family. By bringing together a bevy of his own cousins, Gulliano at first seems to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, but his megalomania quickly spins out of control and the bizarre combination of freaks is quickly and unceremoniously dispatched.

Thus "Julius II" follows the first volume by essentially splitting into two stories, that feed into one another, and more importantly, continue fanning the political flames of della Rovere's insanity. The readers are instructed not to attach themselves to the supporting cast, as the major historical figures seem to be the only ones to escape the grisly treatment.

This is not to say that the creative team treats them with any kind of dignity, but that as the series goes on della Rovere's interest in lovers turns to the famous artist that he patronized. This is especially true when it comes to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Theo struggles somewhat when it comes to the famous artist's character design, but his role in the story is much more controversial. Simply put, the antics that go in the relationship he has with the pope, and later on Raphael are sure to prove divisive to a portion of the audience. Yet, it's difficult to think that any of the purists would have remained with the work long enough to witness the plot twists.

The second are third volumes are framed in Machiavelli's narration, with the philosopher's treatment stylistically in keeping with the rest of "The Terrible Pope". Thus, the writer of "The Prince" relates the story a quarter of obese prostitutes, with whom he enacts his fantasies of unified Italy.

Yet the the third volume is not completely devoted to the artistic legacy of Gulliano's time in the papal seat. The intrigues, always laced with depravity keep up as the ailing Holy Father fights fever and his usurpers. It's clear that his rule will not last much longer but the series leaves room for one final installment, even if it hasn't been formally announced. The last year's volume is otherwise just as brutal as the previous ones and maintains some of their flaws.

It's easy to see the series as simply a way for the venerable writer to amuse himself and imbue the facts with a sinister reading, which robs the series from some of its impact. Theo's work likewise maintains the visual identity and dedicates itself to the storytelling in such manner that it's difficult to look at it as something more than competent European-styled genre work.

Due to its over the top imagery "The Terrible Pope" is unlikely to find the success of "Borgia" and will likely be remembered as a spin-off that is no more than a footnote in Jodorowsky's bibliography. Nevertheless, the series has its own identity and presents Gulliano della Rovere's tale in a very compelling manner. Hopefully, the creators and Delcourt will find it feasible to finish their story with the fourth and final volume, that closes the door on their retelling of a particularly bloody time in Italian history and the rise and fall of the controversial man that was in front of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dream Thief volume 1: 1-5


"Dream Thief" is a long gestating project envisioned by Jai Nitz and Greg Smalwood. After three years of development, the two Kansas based creators have finally come to an agreement with Dark Horse to publish the initial five issues. Despite some work for DC's Zuda line of webcomics, Smallwood has remained a little known creator, while Nitz has spent a dozen years patiently building his career in the unforgiving Direct Market. Aided by an Alex Ross sketch that has eventually became the cover of their debut issue, the "Dream Thief" finally saw print last year.

The story opens with a recurring motif of the protagonist bewilderly waking up in an unexpected location, with no immediate memory of how he got there. The density of the creators' approach is clear from the very first page, featuring dual narration and a cascade of small panels. Visually, the layout and the heavily atmospheric minimalist stylings call to mind the work of Sean Phillips, particularly his time on "Wildcats".

Both Nitz and Smallwood are keenly aware of the space limitations of a 22 page comic, but seem determined not to let it impede their complex plots. Thus, the well acted and keenly observed look of "Dream Thief" is employed in service of storytelling, with the first issue acting as a complete story. The three suceeding issues are standalone, even while they feed into the wider plot begun in the inaugural episode.

In practice, they turn the title into a procedural with a supernatural twist, setting out a capable formula strong enough to support a bevy of successive stories. The creators call out this ready for TV series approach by having one of the characters be a fan of the "CSI" styled cop show. The high concept of "the Mask" meeting "Quantum Leap" is suprisingly easy to get a grasp on, making the reader care about the multitude of victims' perspectives.


Namely, while he sleeps, John Lincoln is possessed by the spirits of the newly murdered, leaving him to try to make for more righteous resolutions once he awakes to the aftermath of nighttime brutality. He is presented with the memories and abilities of the recently deceased, which go a long way towards resolving the situation that made them a victim in the first place.

The creators fully utilize the genre roots and the strengths of the medium they are telling their stories in, making for gripping cliffhangers and plot twists that maintain the paranoia. The reader is thus never sure what will happen once the perpetually sleep deprived protagonist awakes after finally succumbing to sleep.

Smallwood's clean pages intuitively respond to plot twists by becoming animated whether through innovative layouts or different color schemes when pertaining to flashbacks. For his part, by utilizing dualling narration, Nitz is able to string together the pertinent information about each of the vengeful spirits' previous lives. The writer is careful to make each experience different, while enabling the titular Dream Thief to retain all of their thoughts and abilities.

Such a scenario could risk turning the protagonist into a cypher, but instead the creators use the experience to help the character grow and mature. 

John Lincoln is introduced to the reader as a down on his luck slacker, quickly losing control of his life. Yet, the information regarding his past and the quickly set up group of friends and loved ones hint at the complex, multi-faceted person.



In many ways, the mystery surrounding John is more compelling than the murders he spends the central part of the story investigating. After introducing the story with a personal tragedy that gives him his powers, the mini-series ends with his return to Atlanta, forcing him to deal with his own situation, while in the process setting up the new status quo.

John's sister and his best friend are there to address his transformation and seem poised to remain by his side as he masters his new abilities and deals with the newfound knowledge regarding his predicament. The creators end the first volume of "Dream Thief" by promising that its follow-up will consist of a single story, more centered on John trying to discover the truth about his father. Hopefully, "Escape", starting June 25th, will be the first of many mini-series that continue Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood's strong debut on "Dream Thief".

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dead body road 1-6



Announced at last year's Comic Con, "Dead Body Road" was marketed as a creator owned revenge mini-series. The creative team consisted of Justin ("Luthor Strode") Jordan and Matteo ("Indestructible Hulk") Scalera. The latter has since seen his name attached as the regular penciller of Rick Remender's ongoing "Black Science", making for a year with very strong presence by the artist.

Most of the appeal of his collaboration with Jordan is visual, as his talents lend gravity to the fast-paced, pulpy tale. The gritty, heavily inked textures are somewhat reminiscent of Sean ("Punk Rock Jesus", "The Wake") Murphy's work, and coupled with Moreno Dinisio's colors make for a well-rendered, gritty tale purely defined by physicality.

The art team helps relax the readers into a seemingly familiar revenge scenario, giving them time to warm up to the way the plot navigates the cliches. The well paced action scenes which start the story filled with desperate, sweaty mercenaries quickly capture the reader into Jordan's uniquely inventive pulp rythms. His laconic, gleefully sadistic characters never stay still and quickly arrive at a conflict that suits each of their paranoid greed-motivated psyches.

Gage, the nominal protagonist slowly progresses into a man with a morality that goes beyond the familiar revenge motivation, while the book easily becomes something of an ensemble piece. By introducing Rachel and Orson, the writer manages a very unhealthy dynamic, that fuels the story's constant need for conflict.


Thankfuly, the whole creative team is onboard to illustrate the successive action scenes, as the characters opt to use violence in every possible instance. Even when professing aid to one another, they are either openly threatening each other, or defer to resolving the argument after a bout of violence.

What quickly comes to define the book's pages, densely realized in black washes, which seem particularly effective despite the medium's traditional problems when it comes to depicting vehicles in motion as related to one another. Not every beat is as clear as the other, but in general the thrill never lets up as the tightly plotted story propels from one set piece to another.

The central mystery, relating to the robbery whose aftermath "Dead Body Road" concerns itself with is slowly broadened to comment on the aforementioned morality of Gage, as the writer tries to instill a sense od nobility and character progression that distingishes him from the cutthroats and psychopaths he is set against and seems to understand all too well.

Most importantly, the story comes to a close in a bloody showdown whose results for once seem earned, as there persists a sense that something was accomplished beyond the customary McGuffin. Despite the inventivness of their take on the tropes, the creators manage to instill a humanistic viewpoint right at the center of their bleak revenge scenario, turning "Dead Body Road" into an actual story that goes beyond the typical list of cliches which usually characterizes similar narratives. Coupled with outstandingly raw and visceral artwork, this tale of grinning mercenaries set against each other in a bleak landscape on the brink of civilization certainly fulfills the reader's urge for a tense and dramatic revenge narrative in a medium that all too often employs the more fantastic elements in such stories.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's "Scatterlands"

Starting in February, Warren ("Planetary", "Authority") Ellis and Jason ("Amazing Wolf-Man", "Super Dinosaur") Howard started a daily webcomic, styled after newspaper strips. Updating every workday, "Scatterland" released one panel at a time until it reached the end of its first storyline in June.

The limited palette restricts itself by focusing on stark red and grey, with subdued black and white giving a duo-tone look. Styled after the classic newspaper strips like "Prince Valiant", the panels are captioned in an engaging style, giving more depth to the futurescape and providing the title character with a clear motivation for her journey in a hostile land.

The story concerns Amira, who left the Western Court to journey to Bioscape, searching for a Songline. Before the reader is able to parse this information, the story unfolds in a string of well told action sequences, forcing the reader to return for another read, providing a better context for the dynamic adventure that they've just been taken on. The writer's love of science fiction and technology shines both in the world building and the gadgets given to the characters, all of which are used in the service of the story and don't detract from the rushed pace given to Amira's actions in Bioming.

It stands as a testament to the creators' strengths that the journey of the reckless, yet highly competent character stays gripping the whole time, with the each challenge in the new land presented in a visually arresting way. The inventiveness used by Ellis and Howard stems from the angles the panels are presented in, as well as the artist's clear definition of the characters. The use of red is particularly noteworthy in that it helps the elements of the composition stand out from the crosshatching and anchor the scenes in an urgent manner, befitting the tone of the script.

The creators present the protagonist fully clothed, with the long cloak presenting the character's defining visual element. The addition of the pouches to her belt completes the design in a way that feels practical as she proceeds to her objective, despite the threats from the local sect and her Western court pursuers. The webcomic dispenses with dialogue bubbles and sound effects, relying completely on the captions and visuals in presenting her mission.

Interestingly, the story ends a definite progression, as Amira leaves the Bioming and the book dispenses with the color scheme to signify the change. What little the reader sees of the new location supplements red for the blue, with the final panel containing the story's sole dialogue bubble. This is enough to pique the readers' interest in the upcoming developments, and given that the story has reportedly been plotted on the day to day basis, its remarkable how well it stands on its own.

As of now, no further work has been presented online or in print, despite the announcement that the story will be continued from Warren Ellis' website to its own domain. Image has released the first volume of the story as a webcomic in July, billed as their initial digital-first comic book. Despite the announcement, the story has yet to be released in the print edition.

Hopefully, with the Warren Ellis' return to writing the serial superhero stories for Marvel will mean that he will find a place in his schedule to continue the collaboration with Jason Howard.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Marvel and Scott Pilgrim

In an interesting overlap, two of Marvel's latest releases feature references to Bryan Lee O'Malley's Oni hit-series "Scott Pilgrim". Both issues focus on teenage members of X-Men and Avengers, but otherwise lack any other sort of connection, both creatively and editorially.

First off, "Young Avengers" #12 features a direct reference to Scott Pilgrim, made by Loki, who has previously posed as a team member in his pre-teen incarnation. The scene is structured to cement the now-adult character as someone who is trying to appeal to his appeal to his teammates, with Wiccan deadpanning to remind him that they are no longer peers, even in appearance.

A creative interpretation could make the connection between Loki now modeled after his movie incarnation as the reason for the character going for a movie reference instead of the comic book original, but for all intents and purposes, the interplay serves to establish Scott Pilgrim as a series near and dear to the book's teenage cast. 

Under Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton, "Young Avengers" has stood out as stylish and urbane and is being marketed as a title in a similar vein to Marvel's "Hawkeye" (even sharing one of its main characters with the Fraction and Aja's co-protagonist). Seeing how Bryan Lee O'Malley created a memorable alternate cover to its first issue, the reference makes even more sense. 

On the other hand, "Uncanny X-Men" #14 is a new chapter in Brian Michael Bendis' saga, enfolding in two of the franchise's core titles. The Scott Pilgrim reference is much less literal, with the creators sneaking the name on the last panel, as a bogus identity of a new X-Men member Benjamin Deeds.

The character is using his shape-changing powers to gain access to a high security SHIELD facility and his using the name of Bryan Lee O'Malley's hipster protagonist to remind the reader of his youth. Seeing as how the name is only partially visible, the in-joke works as little more than an Easter egg.

It's interesting to note that both Bendis and Bachalo are middle aged creators known for their off-beat teenage series ("Ultimate Spider-Man", "Generation X", "Wolverine and the X-Men"). The Scott Pilgrim reference here is subtle and does not take the reader out of the comic, compared to the one made in "Young Avengers". "Uncanny X-Men" typically focuses on the older members of the team and is marketed to longtime X-Men fans, many of whom probably have only a passing familiarity with the Oni hit.


Thus it came to be that two very different books, featuring teenage versions of the company's most popular team-books happened to be issued the same week, calling back to O'Malley's teen classic, more than a couple of years after it reached the peek of its popularity. With the fans patiently awaiting "Seconds", the creator's follow-up to his breakout hit, Oni's latest effort concerns republishing the critically acclaimed series of graphic novels in color. Just two weeks ago, the publisher has released the new edition of the series' fourth volume which will hopefully finds its way in the hands of at least a portion of the audience interested in Marvel's teenage superheroes.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Marvel's Thor - A brief history: 1 Lee and Kirby

Thor was created in 1962 to headline the anthology "Journey into Mystery", with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fitting him with a very auspicious beginning. The story in #83 introduced the Norse God into the nascent Marvel universe by casting him in a generic science fiction scenario. The underdeveloped feature had an additional misfortune that both of it's creators couldn't devote much of their creative energies in his first year of stories. Yet, the character continue to headline the anthology and little by little, the broad strokes of the mythology started to fill out.

In a way, Thor was Marvel's reaction to Superman, a very powerful folk hero with a civilian secret identity that was in love with his co-worker. The physician Donald Blake was a handicapped man that transformed into a mythic hero by tapping his stick, but aside from a vague mythology connection, his stories had little to differentiate them from many of his costume compatriots. Early on, the creators settled on his evil half-brother Loki being his chief foil, with their rivalry overseen by the leader of the pantheon, Odin.

Jack Kirby never stops tinkering with the latter's design, with the All-father changing appearance in every issue. Much more tellingly, the creators slowly step away from Donald Blake as a human host for Thor, and start treating them as one and the same. Much like the murky origin, the character is slow to pick up a gallery of foes, with the creators resorting to uninspired Silver Age cliches (a double, an evil wizard), with an early low point being a retooling of the Fantastic Four's first encounter with the Skrulls. Some of these characters, such as the Radioactive man and Lava man would later work their way into other comics, but by and large the comic was hurting from not receiving Lee and Kirby's full attention.

In these early days, Lee and Kirby are slow to make full use of the Norse mythology that first inspired them and Thor is basically used as simply a powerful Silver Age superhero, frequently foiled by the Mister Hyde and Human Cobra teaming up. Beginning with "Journey into Mystery" #97, the character was additionally featured in a supplement called "Tales of Asgard", that started by retelling original Norse myths in pages consisting of four panels, which really brought Jack Kirby's contributions to the fore.

In the main feature, Thor continued to fight with the likes of Grey Gargoyle, with the subplots basically relegated to the budding romance between his civilian alter ego and nurse Jane Foster, who was unlikely to win Odin's favor. Thor was also a founding Avengers, with the team-up title serving to introduce him to the company's wider readership. Following the obligatory crossovers with the X-Men and the Hulk, the title finally gets around to introducing an iconic Silver Age villain in the Absorbing man, made into a credible foil thanks to his ability to transform into the materials he touched.

After finally deciding to dig into Thor and make the title work, Lee and Kirby launch into a longer saga pitting Loki against Thor, in the process introducing the Destroyer armor. Sporting a strong Kirby design, the Destroyer was to remain a staple of Thor mythos, but Loki was proving much more problematic. Despite receiving constant attention, Thor's evil sibling seemed slow to develop into an interesting foil, and was basically relegated to a role of laughing maniac, a petty wizard who enjoyed being evil and dreaming of seizing his father's throne.

The back-up "Tales of Asgard" continued to reintroduce the heroes of Norse mythology, such as Balder the Brave and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard's rainbow bridge. These characters were slow to reappear in the main Thor stories, which were still benefiting from the increased focus. In Lee and Kirby's hands, Hercules, the Greco-Roman demigod served as a perfect foil for their protagonist, with the hedonist champion standing in stark contrast to the dignified Thor. The heroes were quick to establish a friendly rivalry, with Thor's loyalty to his opposite number in the different pantheon a driving force behind the character's another memorable early adventure.

With #126, the feature took over the anthology, with "the Mighty Thor" finding his place on the racks among other more popular Marvel characters. Gone were the days of small panels filled with familiar comic book imagery, the Jack Kirby of mid 1960s was an artist increasingly sure in himself, with his pages bursting with energy as the larger then life characters fought out their conflicts on a scale they truly deserved.

In every way that matters, Lee and Kirby were finally hitting their stride, which meant further changes for Thor. Specifically, the creators continued to step away from his civilian life, with doctor Donald Blake's practice getting increasingly sidelined for the epic adventures. As the creators were opening up the outer space to add another dimension to their hero's adventures, Jane's continued to act as Thor's human anchor, with the hero that once labored over revealing his human identity to her now considering whether their marriage would gain his father's approval.

Thor's outer space adventure introduced the memorable characters of Rigellian Recorder, Ego the Living Planet and the High Evolutionary, once again proving how far the creative team's come from the title's meager beginnings. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were really hitting their stride with "Thor", featuring memorable characters and settings each issue, that have remained the staples of the characters ever since. Yet even then, the duo had to slow down for an issue, to resolve the question of Jane Foster. Thus, #136 pitted Jane against Odin's scorn for his son's mortal paramour, at the same time introducing Lady Sif as the character's new love interest (a different version of Sif was introduced as Balder's sister in an early "Tales of Asgard" back issue).

Lee and Kirby were not at all subtle in giving Thor a female companion that could carry her own in battle, making her a much more natural part of the title. Another multipart story introduced Ulik the Troll, before settling down for a series of more pedestrian issues. Thus, our hero faces the Avengers' arch-foe Kang and his android, with another robot to follow in the very next issue's episode. There is a momentum that propels all of these stories, even when they are as inessential as a fight with Fantastic Four's Superskrull.

A fight against the Enchanters (no relation to Enchantress, introduced in an early Lee/Kirby issue) quickly turns deadly and raises the stakes for the title's increasingly grandiose stories. Thor's Asgardian allies finally start playing a larger role in the main plot, even as the back-up that introduced them was discontinued with #145. The complicated relationship between Odin and Thor begats an oddball story of a powerless Thor working for the Circus of Crime, but at this point there is such a rhythm and energy to the title that the reader is liable to find charm in the creative duo's indulging their whims.

Having made Loki into Thor's arch-villain, Lee and Kirby naturally return to the character, who serves to introduce another of Marvel's perennial Silver age supervillains - the Wrecker. His debut signals the beginning of another multipart epic, benefiting from having a workable cast of characters. Hela, the Norse goddess of death makes a memorable early appearance as Thor battles life and death to help his friends. At this point, the title is making the most of its potential as a vehicle of retelling heroic legends by using Marvel's Silver Age superhero formula, and the reader is delighted to be along for the ride.

It's interesting to ponder Thor's companion Balder the brave's place in Lee and Kirby's work. Whereas Thor as depicted in these pages still seems torn between Earth and Asgard, his Asgardian friend is continually depicted as extremely competent and fiercely loyal. After envying Thor for having Sif at his side, the creators provide the supporting character with his own paramour, in the guise of beautiful Karnilla. By making her into a witch queen, the creators make for an interesting contrast and add more drama and flavor to their ever expanding cast.

With the same care applied to the main plot, Thor once again encounters Ulik, with the Troll reawakening the ancient evil that is Mangog. Despite the unfortunate design, the villain's appearance signals probably the strongest Thor story to date. With the monster powered by the anger of an entire race seemingly wronged by Odin, the powerhouse makes its way across Asgard to the Odin's throne, intent on unleashing Ragnarok against the Nordic pantheon.

Thor's "Tales of Asgard" companions make their first real appearance in the main title and are dully dispatched by the unstoppable evil of Mangog, in his attempt to raise the Odinsword against all that our hero holds dear. Following what is without a doubt the creative peak of the Lee and Kirby run, the duo stops to provide a recap for their previous work with the character, in the process making another set of revisions to his meager origins. Namely, #159 tackles the question of Donald Blake's relationship to the Norse deity that he inhibits, in effect providing a new origin for the popular character.

Once again, the creators were forced to reconsider their early work and find a way to proceed further with a stronger foundation. Interestingly, when they were finished with the controversial move, they repositioned the title as something approaching a "Fantastic Four" spin-off. For almost a full year Galactus remains a presence in the pages of "Thor", which is where his origin gets told. This is followed by another story featuring the rebirth of Adam Warlock (then known as Him), once again a solid Lee/Kirby effort that makes use of the existing Thor mythos, but in a way that builds upon the pair's work in their more popular title.

At this point, it's unavoidable to discuss the impending split between Lee and Kirby, as the period corresponds to the time the artist has been said to have saved his new characters and concepts to be used by his work outside of Marvel. Perhaps this explains the amount of space given to the concepts the pair have already established in their previous work, but it also speaks to a larger question, that of the authorship of the stories themselves.

Jack Kirby, unsatisfied with the compensation for his work that won the hearts and minds of Marvel fans felt that he was contributing much more than the artwork on the company's magazines. The writer/artist felt that he was largely responsible for creating the stories themselves, working from a very loose plots devised with Lee. 1970's Jack Kirby was no longer an inventive artist tasked with helping birth Marvel's Silver Age superhero line - he was a superstar and a major draw for the company that has richly capitalized on his work.

By this point, he was very aware of his strengths as a storyteller, and his last issues on "Thor" are certainly seem like the work of a man who is holding back on unleashing the full brunt of his talent. Seeing Thor fight another robot in Thermal man and watching his rematch with the Wrecker seem inconsequential even compared to the prolonged fight against Galactus that returned the title to outer space and reunited Thor with the Recorder. Ironically, a one-off story featuring Thor trusting to a science fiction procedure to save his former love Jane Foster reads like a classic Jack Kirby tale.

Ulik's reappearance tied to another bout with the Circus of Crime is merely uninspired, while the next issue's encounter with Crypto-Man goes so far to rework an entire earlier issue of "Thor". It is no wonder that Kirby was gone before the end of the next storyline, itself largely a callback to the earlier Mangog conflict. Loki and Surtur make much less of an impression with their plan to attack Asgard, and by the time the reader notices that Jack Kirby is missing, they will be given little reason to continue.

What awaited was a short run with Lee scripting over John Buscema's pencils, mostly notable for introducing the legendary penciler to the title that he'll be working on for years on end. Unfortunately, starting with the story featuring the Stranger, Buscema's work on the title will provide full of stories that can largely be categorized as harmless diversions that kept the character on the newstands, in lieu of producing entertaining work that could compare to the Lee/Kirby original.

Some of Kirby's last "Thor" pages end up providing an introduction to an instantly forgettable story of Loki trading places with Thor. One Silver Age cliche is supplanted by another as Thor fight Doctor Doom, another staple of Fantastic Four franchise that has had such an unexpected impact on the title. Lee sticks around for a mystical adventure pitting Thor against the all encompassing other-dimensional evil of Infinity, that provides a strangely ominous atmosphere and highlights Buscema's strengths as a penciler. Hela once more plays a larger ruler in the story, before Lee returns to Loki.

Thor's evil step brother is the villain of the last regular Stan Lee "Thor" story, with Durok the Demolisher the writer's last addition to the series. The android would show Thor a future ravaged by man's worst faults, in the process coming into conflict with Silver Surfer, a character associated with both Lee and Buscema. Yet, it was Gerry Conway that was slated to wrap up the conflict, in the process becoming the title's new writer.

Lee will return to his co-creation a couple of times, but never in an ongoing commitment. After experiencing the pinnacle of his writer/artist career with the Fourth World books as DC, Jack Kirby eventually returned to Marvel in 1977. His latter day work on "the Eternals" proved surprisingly influential on the Buscema drawn Thor plots, but it was his entire body of work that has inspired and continues to inspire countless writers and artists working in the superhero tradition.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hit-Girl #1-5

The latest outing in Mark Millar and John Romita Junior's "Kick Ass" franchise is a spin-off series starring the breakout character Hit-Girl. Although originally announced with Leandro Fernandez as the artist, the series was eventually laid out by the "Kick Ass" co-creator John Romita Junior, with Tom Palmer providing the inks and the finished art.

Chronologically, "Hit-Girl" takes place between the first and the second mini-series of the parent title, and serves to further delineate the motivation between the key players, most notably Mindy, the 12 year old assassin. As the story starts, she has moved in with her mother and the police officer foster father, trying to balance the life of an ordinary school girl with her nighttime activities as a vigilante serial killer.

It goes without saying that the book is completely over the top. Hit-Girl's bizarre attempts at fitting in the school's social structure are played as a parody, with the child assassin showing her classmates the same ruthlessness that she dishes out in her superhero escapades. Unfortunately, Romita junior's depictions of children leaves a lot to be desired, as most of Mindy's peers are rendered in a way that bears only cursory resemblance to actual human anatomy. The artist has spent his whole career in the superhero industry, and naturally feels much more assured when tackling the scenes dealing with out of school activity, which thankfully make up most of the book.

Besides the main narrative detailing Hit-Girl's troubles with the secret identity, Millar weaves several subplots, with the girl's relationship with Kick Ass being perhaps the most interesting. Using the knowledge thought to her by her late father, the hyper competent protagonist spends the first half of the book drugging her parents and going out to train the five years older Dave, who also doubles as a sympathetic school friend. This kind of a reversal from the traditional superhero/sidekick dynamic is relatively fresh for the medium, and certainly in keeping with the book's general tone, but once Kick Ass suffers a minor injury, the character's arc more or less ends.

Millar uses the remaining space to spotlight more of the villainous Red Mist's origin, which is entertaining, despite being largely divorced from the main plot. The fact that Dave's nemesis doesn't get to play the antagonist here presents a major problem, as the criminals opposing Mindy never outgrow their roles as one-dimensional foils. Red Mist's scenes ultimately serve to further explain his motivation and set up his actions in the second series, while also reminding the reader of his role in "Kick Ass 3".


Thus, the role of a direct foil ends up belonging to Marcus, Mindy's foster parent, who presents an honest policeman in a crooked squad. He is aware of his daughter's vigilante past, but actively discourages her nighttime activities, citing her mother's fragile health. By calling back to Spider-Man's original motivation for hiding his secret identity, Millar is simply using the genre tropes to support his story, and ultimately ends up fully utilizing the set-up in the book's action packed conclusion.

The gangsters Hit-Girl dispatches left and right end up threatening her family, by way of blaming her foster father for refusing to actively side with the Genovese family and their associates. The plot contrivance, coupled with smart scripting leads to a conclusion that epitomizes Mindy's abilities, but also leaves her largely unchanged for the beginning of the second "Kick Ass" miniseries, which it precedes chronologically.

This is another, and perhaps the most profound of the book's weaknesses. Despite seeding the debuts of some of the minor superheroes and providing the details regarding Mindy's secret identity and her family dynamic, the book is largely static. "Hit-Girl" serves to provide fans with more of the breakout character, but is largely superfluous to the main plot, while being completely anti-climatic. Having read "Kick Ass 2", the reader is aware of the ultimate outcome of the characters and their struggle, robbing the book of the shock factor that has provided so much of its appeal.

Millar and Romita junior could have utilized the spin-off to subversively introduce a major element, such as a romantic subplot between two teens (which would have been shocking considering the age difference), but they seem satisfied with providing another look at the ruthless world of the Kick Ass. The reader is offered a slight plot, filtered through the eyes of a side character, but at least in that respect the book is a success.

Mindy will never be as shocking as she was when she debuted in the original "Kick Ass" mini-series (as well as the movie adaptation), but she is still reasonably entertaining and, more importantly, works as a lead character in her own book. The creators' mandate seems to have been to present a well paced book with high production values, in order to keep the attention on the property while the second movie is being produced. Despite sacrificing some of the original's notoriety, "Hit-Girl" likewise works as a lighthearted tie-in, published in anticipation of the creative team's supposed final work on the subject, the "Kick Ass 3" mini-series.