MARVEL PREVIEWS AND PIPELINE PREAMBLE
Welcome to the 250th uninterrupted week of Pipeline Commentary and Review. I'm not going to do any big celebration around this fact. I'm saving that for the big 5th anniversary of Pipeline coming up in three months. I'd be remiss if I didn't make mention of this milestone, though. While some of the early columns may have appeared later in the week then they should have, I'm still proud of having made it 250 weeks without taking a break, a vacation, or a leave of absence. Since coming to CBR almost three years ago now, Pipeline hasn't been late once. That includes a second weekly column for just about the entire time here at CBR. Pretty cool.
This week's column is devoted to some of the interesting titles that Marvel is releasing to your local comics shop this week. This includes a pair of Ultimate books, the writing debut of a new comics humorist, and the premiere of a new mini-series from Marvel Knights. The good news is that three out of four are worthy reads. Let's break them down, shall we?
ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP #14 introduces Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. the Black Widow, into the Marvel Universe's offspring world. She's introduced as an intern at the Latverian Embassy in America. Brian Bendis writes the tale and Terry Moore (STRANGERS IN PARADISE) tackles the pencils for it, with Walden Wong on inks.
Bendis' story is a little thin, with Spider-Man appearing only at the tail end of things. This is Natasha's story. It takes a little bit of time to set up, and then things get dramatic in a hurry. The problem is that you never feel she's in that much danger, and her quick wit and sassy attitude doesn't help that at all. Still, it's a pleasant romp introducing a new character who is as interesting as anyone else introduced throughout the series.
Obviously, the big draw of this issue is the art. How does Moore's stuff look when he's drawing superheroes and isn't inking himself? The truth, for me at least, is that it's a marked step down from his solo work on SiP. For starters, the scratchy thin pen line that graces his flagship title is part of what gives his art its charm. It's missing here for the most part, replaced with workmanlike inks from the inkwell of Walden Wong. Also, some of Moore's weaknesses are exposed here. His backgrounds look artificial and flat. His cityscapes, in particular, are cartoonish. It's not grotesque and it's not distracting, but it is not his strong suit. You want to see his characters' body language and facial expressions, and that's where he shines in the book. For starters, he uses a variety of body shapes. The opening two pages show us the Latverian Ambassador being interviewed for a TV show, with the whole television crew present. No two look alike, and there's even a character with a plain beer gut. Too many artists aren't capable of doing that, relying on cartoonish exaggerations of character traits to emulate variety. Others draw everyone as being superheroic looking and drape different clothing around them. While there are some stiff looking people throughout the issue, it's never from a lack of trying. Peter Parker, for the few panels that he does appear in, looks a bit too effeminate for me, though. His hair is too long and its color contrasts too highly with his black eyebrows.
Transparency Digital's colors aren't doing anything to energize the book, either. They sit there flat. The background colors are plain and flat. They don't add to the atmosphere of the story so much as they fill in space. It's a major difference after reading this week's issue of THE ULTIMATES, where Paul Mounts expertly adds dimension to any space with lighting and color schema.
ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP has provided a great forum for a variety of more independent artists, such as Moore and Matt Wagner and Jim Mahfood to strut their stuff. It's the great part of the series, seeing otherwise non-superheroic artists drawing men-in-tights. Moore does a good job in this issue, mostly because Bendis writes towards his strengths. While his weaknesses show up, also, it's not enough to ruin the effect of the book. It's still good stuff and worth a read if you're into the Ultimate line.
THE ULTIMATES #3 is also out this week, with the regular artistic team still aboard: Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Paul Mounts, and Chris Eliopoulos. In this issue, Captain America wakes up and tries to account for lost time and the Ultimates' headquarters gets the Five Star Hollywood treatment for its grand opening.
Despite all of that, I'm sure we'll still hear complaints that nothing happened in this issue. To a certain degree, that's true. Much of the space in this issue is devoted to Captain America's revival, which is an old story given some new legs by the different situation he's in thanks to the Ultimate universe. The rest of the issue marks time and keeps us up to date with the on-going characters. There's still no sign of Thor, though, although he is name-checked in one scene.
Bryan Hitch doesn't get a whole lot of exciting stuff to draw in this issue. Don't expect to see a repeat of the first issue's gala performance. That was the artistic high point for the series and will probably remain so for a good long time. While Hitch does get in a couple of strong splashy images, the bulk of his work is relegated to talking heads. They all work for the story, but if you're expecting THE AUTHORITY here (and why would you be?), you'll be disappointed.
As mentioned before, Paul Mounts' coloring deserves special mention for being volumetric, if I can steal a term from the computer gaming industry. He doesn't just fill space with color; he adds depth and dimension to an otherwise flat piece of art. The difference in looks between this book and either of the Ultimate Spider-man titles is jarring.
The only problem with the series so far is that the three issues have all felt so radically different. The first issue is a great look at a monumental event in one character's life. The second issue ignores that and moves on to the other characters that will make up the team. Now, the third issue starts to bring them together, but not very forcefully. It all has the net affect of leaving the reader a little confused. I'm sure in the long run it will all make sense, but reading from month to month is a little jarring.
Still, it's a highly entertaining series with very high production values from a top-notch creative team.
One last "Ultimate" mention: last week's ULTIMATE X-MEN #16 includes the first appearance of a small bookstore in Marvel's London, UK. Featured across the bottom of a spread on story pages 8 and 9 of the issue, the independent establishment's name is "De Blieck's Books." I have the inside scoop that the store owner is just waiting for a big money buyout from Borders or Barnes and Noble so that he can retire to the fields of his family's estate in the country, and spend his afternoons at the local pub tossing darts.
Assuming it doesn't get him in trouble, thanks to Chris Eliopoulos for sneaking that one in. If it does get him in trouble, then I have no idea what I'm talking about. I think Jean Grey's word balloon obscures enough of the sign that this whole tangent is just wishful thinking on my part. . .
Back to this week's comics:
SPIDER-MAN: TANGLED WEB #12, "I Was A Teenaged Frog Man," is the writing debut of Zeb Wells, who will have to go through life now with the modern equivalent of Mark Bagley's, "I broke into comics by winning the How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way contest." Wells produced a couple of hilarious superhero spoof videos for WIZARD that were shown at the Chicago convention last year. He won the award and shortly thereafter the attention of comic book editors. Axel Alonso got to him first and the results will go on public display this week.
The good news is that the kid's got chops. While you might expect a series of black out gags like the videos he produced, you're not getting that here. You're getting a fully realized story with a couple of silly moments in it, but otherwise with humor stemming directly from the actions of the characters and their worldviews. (Just for the record: I've got nothing against silly. I like silly. I miss WHAT THE --?!?, for goodness sakes, and think there's never been a better time to resurrect such a title with the stable of talent Marvel has working for it now. I just want to warn you that there are a couple of moments in the story where things veer off just a bit for a silly sight gag or situation. You're talking about Leapfrog. Of course it's going to be silly!)
The story is dense. Fegredo draws the entire issue in a four-tier layout, which means lots of reading on each page. Wells keeps the humor rolling along at just enough of a clip to keep your interest going. The story doesn't stop for the jokes, nor do the jokes stop the story. It's a rather impressive debut in that way. Fegredo was a great choice to illustrate the story. A lazier artist might have ruined the script completely. That's the way with humor, though. Humor comics actually require greater skill than action comics, because the pacing is such a strong element. If an artist had been chosen who refused to do more than six panels per page, the whole story would have been sunk.
In the end, you have the sweet story of a son who's ashamed of the public spectacle his father had become, and how the divide between the two might be closed just a bit. It ends quickly, but there's ample build up and plenty of examples of how one man's short-lived career of high crime can affect his son's life. The humor springs naturally from all of that, and quite expertly. Zeb Wells makes a debut worth being proud of here. Give the issue a chance if you're in the mood for something a little different.
One last review from this week's slate of Marvel titles: MARVEL KNIGHTS #1, the long-delayed release from the word processor of John Figueroa and drawing board of Alberto Ponticelli. Ponticelli, you might recall, did some terrific work with Brian Bendis on SAM AND TWITCH. If you'd like that memory to remain sharp in your head, skip this book. It's not worth much. It's bland and uninteresting. It's paint-by-numbers, with tons of exposition and a rather poorly executed attempt to tie the plot into an astronomical phenomenon. Worst of all, it's boring and never grabbed my interest. It looks like I'll be skipping this one.
Pipeline2 returns on Friday with reviews of other books released in the past couple of weeks from a smattering of other comics producers, such as Harris, DC, CrossGen, and more!
Don't forget - Oni releases THE COPYBOOK TALES trade paperback on Wednesday, complete with an introduction written by me so long ago that I'm sure I'll hate it when I read it again this week.
Finally, thanks to Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ and Uber-Librarians Matt and John for making this week's column possible.
More than 350 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.