Friday, February 26, 2010

Martians and Spiders and Cocoa Puffs, Oh My


Killraven by Alan Davis and Mark Farmer (Six-issue miniseries 2003): Marvel Comics' 1970's Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds series (which started off as War of the Worlds) was a sequel to H.G. Wells's late 19th-century Martian invasion novel War of the Worlds. Set in the third decade of the 21st century, Killraven depicted a world overrun by Martians about 20 years earlier, with humanity reduced to slaves, food, entertainment, and the occasional survivor living off the grid.

Though created by others, Killraven quickly became the stand-out work of writer Don McGregor and artist P. Craig Russell. The whole 70's saga is still available in a Marvel Essential edition, and I'd recommend seeking it out -- it's an odd but intoxicating blend of superheroics, post-apocalyptic action and increasingly intricate experiments with art and storytelling, none moreso than the final issue of the initial run, "The Morning After Mourning Prey." McGregor and Russell helped pave the way for the increasingly literate genre comics of the 1980's and 1990's -- in many ways, their Killraven is a more direct ancestor of Alan Moore's 1980's Swamp Thing work than any previous Swamp Thing iterations.

By my count, this miniseries was Marvel's second attempt to reboot Killraven with a new team for a new generation of comics readers. It isn't exactly a failure. Writer/penciller Alan Davis is a solid writer and artist of superhero comics for both Marvel (Excalibur, Fantastic Four: The End) and DC (JLA: The Nail). His Killraven reboot attempts to streamline things, and the plot reaches a point after six issues of this miniseries that the original series never actually reached over its 30+ issues and one graphic novel -- a partial rapprochement with some of the Martians.

Nonetheless, this is pretty boring stuff, though maybe it wouldn't be if one hadn't read the original run. Characters are simplified and streamlined, none moreso than Hawk, a tragic Native-American malcontent in the original run who here becomes simply a whiny blowhard. The introspection and weirdness of the original (a battle with Martians amongst the devastated breweries of Milwaukee would be one of the high points of the original series, which often set its larger battles with the Martians in iconic American locations including, in the graphic novel finale, Cape Canaveral) have been abandoned for a relatively straightforward quest plot. It all looks great, albeit a bit slick, and it's all as boring as hell. Pick up the Essential volume, don't bother with this. Not recommended.

Essential Silver Surfer Volume 2 by Stan Lee, Steve Engelhart, John Buscema, Marshall Rogers, Ron Lim, John Byrne, Joe Staton, Joe Rubenstein and others (1981-1988; coll. 2006): The former herald of Marvel's world-eating Galactus would undergo a 16-year hiatus between the cancellation of his first regular series and the beginning of his second regular series in 1987, with only a couple of solo one-shots and appearances in other characters' titles during the interregnum. Writer Steve Engelhart and penciller Marshall Rogers were finally allowed to get the Surfer back into outer space in 1987, as the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm figured out how to get around the 'barrier' Galactus had placed around Earth to stop the Surfer from leaving, a punishment for the Surfer turning on Galactus to save the Earth way back in the Surfer's first appearance in the Fantastic Four in the 1960's.

Engelhart and Rogers waste no time going cosmic, placing the Surfer in the middle of an intergalactic war between Marvel alien-race mainstays the Skrulls and Kree, a war which becomes part of a larger battle involving the machinations of a bunch of Marvel's really old, powerful aliens, The Elders, and their attempts to really, really, really screw up the entire universe. Along the way, various cosmic characters and storylines from Marvel's past show up, including the Celestial Madonna, Jim Starlin's In-Betweener, Lord Order, Master Chaos, the High Evolutionary, Galactus himself, Mangog, the Soul Gems, the Super-Skrull, Jack Kirby's Eternals, the Celestials, and Kree super-blowhard Ronan the Accuser. Surprisingly fun. Recommended.

Spider-man: Election Day by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Zeb Wells, Todd Zauck, Matt Fraction and others (2009): AKA 'the Spider-man collection with Barack Obama on the cover.' Spider-man's megaselling team-up with Barack Obama on Inauguration Day makes up only about 20 pages of this 200-page collection, with most of the rest of the collected issues dealing with New York City's mayoral election on Earth-Marvel. The main story, by writer Guggenheim and artists Romita, Jr., Kitson and Janson, is a sort of standard, competent Spider-man arc, angst alternating with action sequences. Someone's framing Spider-man for 'The Spider-Tracer Murders,' in which murder victims are found with Spidey's electronic bugs on their bodies. Meanwhile, a Green Goblin-like menace called The Menace seems to be trying to affect the outcome of the mayoral race in its last few days. The whole thing plays out like a slightly more self-reflexive Spider-opus from the 1970's.

The Obama issue also evokes the 70's, though in this case the Hostess Fruit Pie one-page ads that used to run in comics and featured licensed DC and Marvel superheroes fighting supervillains who were trying to steal large quantities of fruit pies. The Obama issue, written by Robot Chicken's Zeb Wells and illustrated by Todd Zauck, feels like the longest Hostess Fruit Pie ad ever created. Minor, early Spider-man villain The Chameleon tries to impersonate Obama at his inauguration. Spider-man has to stop him. This would be a bit more interesting if Zauck could draw a convincing Obama. Unfortunately, he can't, though he's a little better with John McCain and Joe Biden. It's all pretty crappy, making DC's 1963 story "Superman's Secret Mission for President Kennedy" look like Watchmen by comparison. Not recommended.


Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (Collected 2003): Klosterman's essays on various pop cultural topics managed to combine hilarity with insight at about 120 bpm. Though I remain unconvinced by his attempt to argue for the greatness of Billy Joel, I am convinced by his explanation of how The Empire Strikes Back helped create the angst and failure of Generation X. A piece about the differences between the 1980's Lakers and Celtics and another one about several nights spent 'touring' with a Guns and Roses cover band also stand out. Highly recommended.

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