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Pipeline, Issue #445

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline, Issue #445

A VERY SMALL CHRISTMAS

Bob Gale and Phil Winslade combined for one of my very favorite Daredevil stories that nobody remembers. It was sandwiched between the Kevin Smith/Joe Quesada run and Brian Bendis’ current run on the title. Filling in on a series between two landmark runs like that is bound to get you forgotten, I suppose. Even worse, due to time pressures to start Bendis’ run, a fill-in artist came in to break up the story, and he couldn’t live up to Winslade’s meticulous detail or realism. The story has never been issued in a trade paperback, but if I were editor in chief of Marvel with a few grand to spend, I’d go back and pay Winslade today to redraw those fill-in issues and put the whole thing out as a Marvel Premiere Edition.

And that is why you’ll never see me in the corner office at Marvel Comics.

That’s not the only work the two did together, though. For Christmas of 1999, they did the Marvel Knights Christmas special, ANT-MAN’S BIG CHRISTMAS. Right after reviving (to various degrees of success) the likes of the Punisher and Daredevil and Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange, why not go to Ant-Man and his wife, The Wasp, right? And what better and more mature way to present the story than under the Marvel Knights banner’s Christmas special? You can almost see the thing derailing before I give you the synopsis.

It starts off strongly enough. There’s a beautiful three-page sequence set at Avengers mansion as all the current Avengers work on decorating the place. Spider-Man feels the need to say to nobody in particular, “Webbing sure makes hanging this stuff a whole lot easier.” Nova and Firestar hang a Christmas card from the X-Men next to cards from Stan Lee and the law firm of Nelson and Murdock. The Beast attempts some baking while Thor covertly adds a dash of alcohol to the bowl. (This is a Marvel Knights book, after all.) If the two-page spread were drawn by George Perez, people would be begging for a poster. Phil Winslade, sadly, never garners that level of attention.

It’s after this warm and fuzzy opening that the story kicks in. Hank Pym has recently located his long-thought-lost samples of shrinking gas. His wife, Janet Van Dyne, doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. On top of that, she has accepted a Christmas invitation from her family. Hank doesn’t want to go. He wants to spend Christmas with his family.

“Your family sucks,” Janet tells Hank.

“Nuh uh. Your family does,” Hank maturely retorts.

The previous quoted bits of dialogue are rough summations, and not actual text. Gale’s dialogue is filled, however, with such witty bon mots as “Don’t go there” and “Oh, behave.” Yes, those parts are embarrassing. Thankfully, we seem to have finally shaken every last catch phrase from those awful Austin Power movies out of our collective memory.

In the end, they both admit that their families are awful people to hang out with. That’s where Captain America saves the day, showing the happy duo a letter written by a boy in Pennsylvania who is unhappy with his family coming over for Christmas, and wants the Avengers to help save the day. His family can’t be any worse, can they?

Oh, yes, they can. One’s a chain smoker. One’s a braggart. One rummages through Mom’s underwear drawer. One set of twin boys just break or steal everything they like. Etc. etc. It’s hardly subtle storytelling, but this is a Christmas story and who wants that, right?

The boy hatches a plan for payback on all of these family members, with the help of Hank’s newfound shrinking gas. Janet sticks around to control the boys, though she gets into the fun, too.

There are some cute bits in the story, and the ending is a warm fairy tale/Christmas tale kind of thing. However, the entire package feels bloated to fit the allotted number of pages, usually with small character bits that don’t advance the story, or needless dialogue exchanges and false bits of hazard. The latter is the worst of it. There’s no drama in this tale. The only dangers the characters face in their plan to save Christmas are too easily dismissed and never change a thing.

The book is beautifully drawn and does have a few sparse moments, but you can easily skip it without worry. I just wish the creative team would reunite for something new. Bob Gale hasn’t done many comics in a long while, though. Last I can recall, he was seen on the fringes of the end of CrossGen. Winslade keeps busy, having drawn a HOWARD THE DUCK mini-series a couple years back and the MONOLITH comic at DC last year. He’s not really a monthly comic book artist, but his art is always a joy to see, wherever and whenever it pops up.

We have two new Christmas comics to discuss this year, too. The first is the IMAGE HOLIDAY SPECIAL 2005. It’s an all-new trade paperback weighing in at 100 full color pages for only $9.99. There is some filler in there, such as full page ads interspersed between stories and a text page at the end, but otherwise the book is just jam-packed with short and complete stories fitting the holiday theme. They range from the sentimental to the darkly humorous and everything in between.

The book functions as a bit of promotion for many of the company’s regular titles. Most of the stories feature characters from on-going titles, like PVP, THE SAVAGE DRAGON, THE WALKING DEAD, GODLAND, AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS, SHADOWHAWK, and many more. Those are followed up with one-page ads highlighting their respective series and/or trade paperback collections. Brian Haberlin, for example, writes and draws a nine page Spawn-related story that’s followed by four solid pages of SPAWN ads. Funny enough, the colorist’s story is in black and white, though with plenty of gray tones.

The stories themselves are entertaining, and your mileage will vary based on your familiarity and enjoyment of the series to begin with. Chris Giarrusso’s G-MAN story is cute. The AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS story is wonderfully bizarre, featuring Santa Claus fighting the Christmas Troll, even topped with a bit of fourth wall breaking at the end. The coloring on the story is fitting for the art style. Erik Larsen’s various entries are wickedly hilarious, from the opening single page sight gag to the SIN CITY “Silent Night”-styled story featuring Glum and his internal monologue. Chris Eliopoulos comes up with “Buddy Henson’s Unexplained Mysteries,” a new character with a very similar feel to his “Franklin Richards” stories at Marvel. Robert Kirkman returns to the very first issue of WALKING DEAD to catch us up to two almost-forgotten characters on their Christmas survival attempt. It’s a warm and touching story, and the most traditional of the stories in the book. Eric Stephenson and Tim Seeley have a series of one pagers featuring overheard conversations at a bar on Christmas Eve. They’re not meant to be satisfying stories on their own, but more peeks into some character’s lives, meant to feel very real. The coloring by Sunder Raj is perfectly painterly for this story.

It’s a mixed bag, over all, but I think there’s much more to like here than dislike. If you’re enjoying a couple of Image Comics’ currently popular series, you’ll likely find enough to like in the IMAGE HOLIDAY SPECIAL 2005 to justify the ten buck cover price. If you’re at all curious about the scope of titles and artistic styles Image has to offer today, this is also a great sampler.

This year’s MARVEL HOLIDAY SPECIAL contains three stories, two of which are light-hearted fun, with a third more serious rhyming tale to round it out. It’s the best such Marvel special I’ve ever read.

The lead story riffs off CITIZEN KANE, as the Mole Man whispers, “Santa” before running off to parts unknown. The trouble comes from his Moloids kidnapping every Santa they can find in the city to present to their master. The Fantastic Four finally catch the critters in the act and follow them back to their point of origin. It is Ben Grimm, however, who saves the day through smarts rather than fisticuffs. Weird, eh?

The story is played for laughs by Shaenon Garrity, who neatly balances the movie references with light hearted pokes at the Marvel Universe and the types of comics told in it. Roger Langridge’s art is a nice match for the story, in the same vein that worked so well with the Marvel Monster books. As a bonus, he gets a few monsters to draw in this story, too.

The longest story of the lot is “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santron.” Just like it sounds, it’s the story of an Ultron dressed up as Santa Claus, determined to kill the Avengers at their very own holiday party at Doctor Strange’s place. Writer Jeff Parker again plays the story mostly for laughs, with a couple of great running gags: Gravity tries to crash the party, while the mistletoe follows Spider-Woman around, much to the delight of the male Avengers.

The ending is more serious than the rest of the story, with a reading of Francis Church’s famous editorial referenced in the title. It’s interesting to see how it could apply to superheroes, if one were willing to go down that path. That Parker kid knows what he’s doing.

The book winds up with the shorter “Christmas Day In Manhattan.” Mike Carey’s script is done up all in rhyme, as a supervillain must return to his roots to secure his family a happy Christmas morning. Mike Perkins gets a chance to shine here with his art. Colored by Laura Martin, the art is — well, this is where my lack of knowledge for art history becomes troublesome. You know how ROAD TO PERDITION looked? The way a series of straight and parallel lines can form any image you want if you vary their weights along the way? The technique was also used on the covers to 1602 last year. There has to be a term for that technique. It’s what Perkins uses here, and it looks great.

The book is $3.99, since it runs 48 pages without ads. It’s a bargain at that price, and great fun for any Marvel Universe fan. Stuart Immonen handles the cover.

AND SOME OTHER THINGS. . .

When it comes to reviewing philosophies, I think the most important one I subscribe to is also the most basic: Don’t judge a comic based on what you want it to be, but rather on what it wants to be. It’s such a no-brainer to me that I’m having a difficult time working out how to expand on it.

It’s obvious: You don’t review an X-MEN book in the same way you review an UNCLE SCROOGE issue. Heck, you can’t even review ASTONISHING X-MEN in the same way you would the classic Claremont/Davis EXCALIBUR. They’re different books that need to be judged on their own merits, and part of that is working out what the creators’ intentions are. This is the stickiest wicket. You don’t want to read minds or plug words into creators’ mouths, but you have to also be able to work out what a book is supposed to be in order to judge if it’s successful in its result.

I point this out now because I need to lay the covering fire before I explain to you why I enjoyed WOLVERINE: ENEMY OF THE STATE, Volume 2 so dang much. I’ve critically reviewed ASTERIX here recently, and poked fun at some harmless Christmas comics. I’ve been pleased by PERHAPANAUTS, and raved about NOTHING BETTER. A whole spate of monster comics entertained me around Halloween, but I also looked favorably upon the dramatic SUNSET CITY and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. I think I explained why I liked each as I went along, but most of all it always came back to figuring out if the creator did a good job doing what they set out to do. All of those creators were trying something different, though, so you need to consider that.

Mark Millar set out to create a large-scale slam-bang boffo superhero book with his run on WOLVERINE: ENEMY OF THE STATE. He crammed in as many cameos as he could from across the Marvel Universe. The scale of the series grew larger and larger, with ramifications both large and small. If you are not favorably predisposed to this type of comic, you’re going to call this a “big dumb superhero book.” If you remember the joy those superheroes brought you growing up and the sense of wonder and surprise around every turn, then this book might just be a bit of a pleasant surprise and a throwback for you, too. And just like those stories of old, there’s a big giant reset button pushed at the end of this one, more or less, and everyone goes on their merry way.

There might be a bit more on-panel death and blood in this book than there was when I was a teen reading Marvel comics, but that’s a sign of the times. This is a modern version of those comics with its sense of fun and reckless abandon remaining intact. I’m sure it wouldn’t hold up to a thorough or thoughtful inspection, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m not expecting THE USUAL SUSPECTS here. I’m reading THE ROCK. Check your brain at the door and enjoy the ride.

John Romita Jr.’s art shines in this book. His storytelling is particularly effective, starting with a sequence yanked out of a HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS type of movie, as the villain of the piece fights ninjas in a colorful fall forest. Everything is staged beautifully, and Paul Mounts’ colors sell the whole thing. From there we have large numbers of cloaked figures in a secret underground society, vast numbers of mind-controlled superpowered characters flying in formation, Helicarrier hell, mutant mayhem, Sentinel mischief, and lots of things going BOOM or CRASH. In the midst of all that, Romita gets to draw a variety of characters. While the series focuses mostly on Wolverine, Elektra, and Nick Fury, there’s a broad range of supporting characters and cameos throughout. It’s a tour de force for Romita, and a pleasure for my tired eyes.

Like I said, though, it’s not without its faults. The storyline ends with the defeat of the villain in a way that wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but the fun involved in getting there more than makes up for that fact. I’m sure there’s a lot of other holes to poke in the story, but that’s not why I read it. It didn’t insult my intelligence and it entertained me. Sometimes, that’s all I want and that’s all I expect.

This volume also contains a bonus story. It’s Millar’s concentration camp story, drawn by Kaare Andrews with colors from Jose Villarubia. It’s completely out of step with the rest of the book. This one is much more somber and dramatic. It’s serious, as befits the nature of its setting. It’s a good kind of TWILIGHT ZONE story, but some might disagree with its inclusion here. I don’t mind it so much, knowing that it was the writer’s final issue on the series. It’s good to have it collected with the rest of his run. However, it does stick out like a sore thumb and should likely be read separately from the rest of the book. Thankfully, Millar’s text piece explaining the story and its origins is included in the collection. I think an offbeat story like that deserves some explanation, if only to keep Marvel from having to answer uncomfortable questions from some unknowing reader down the road.

WOLVERINE: ENEMY OF THE STATE 2 is a good-looking hardcover superhero book, filled with an energy and a color that makes reading comics fun again. Wrapped around by a Greg Land cover homaging Steranko, you can find it on store shelves now for $21.99.

With ASTERIX AND THE FALLING SKY, character co-creator Alberto Uderzo decided to go the way of satire. Co-creator and original writer Rene Goscinny died 25 years ago or so, leaving Uderzo to write new ASTERIX volumes himself. And I wish I could tell you for sure what he intended to accomplish with this book. I can tell you that the characters remain true. There are some minor laughs in the book. The art is detailed in showing off the village and surrounding lands. And character names continue to inspire awe and a few chuckles — the man making weapons, for example, goes by the handle of “FulliAutomatix.”

But what he’s satiring and how eludes me. There’s clearly something going on here about the different factions of European comics, as I understand them. There’s the friendly Disney faction, represented by a purple mouse-like alien named Tadsilweny (“Walt Disney” rearranged). They also control a legion of cookie cutter superhero characters, all of whom look like Tommy Lee Jones in a Superman costume. Then there’s the slightly more evil robot and alien menaces called the Nagmas. (Rearrange “manga.”)

They all fight, with poor Asterix and friends representing traditional bandes dessinees comics. I think. I’m not sure. It’s never entirely clear. It keeps branching off in different directions so often that I lose track. Uderzo even introduces a George W. Bush analogue for a panel and then drops it entirely. I was bracing myself for a traditional anti-war Hussein-apologist Frenchman’s rant, but that never materialized. It came and went. The problem is, so did all the other characters. They’d show up. They’d fight. They’d go away. Repeat. It’s a series of blackout gags, almost, but without a point. Or, at best, Uderzo is saying that Disney comics, superhero comics, and manga comics have all lined up to conspire against his brand of bandes dessinees. Perhaps Uderzo is a protectionist?

Some of the unmistakable charm of the series is still to be had in this book, and Uderzo’s art is remarkably strong for a man who’s been drawing the same series for forty years. But the story is not nearly as strong as any of the ones that Goscinny wrote that I’ve read so far. This book feels thin, and is easily distracted with a tortured analogy to the state of sequential narratives in Europe.

On the bright side, it’s only $13 for the hardcover edition here in the States. Pick up ASTERIX IN BELGIUM for $3 less and enjoy it ten times more.

ODDS AND ENDS

* This would be even funnier if it weren’t for the fact that I think I made the same mistake once before in the history of this column: Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice will be handling AQUAMAN next year, and not NAMOR. Different universes, but the same oceans. Weird, eh?

* Special thanks to all of you who wrote in with your own personal Purge 2 stories. I hope to talk more about the Purge in a near future column.

* If you’re looking for a Christmas present in the comics shop, don’t pass up MICKEY AND THE GANG: CLASSIC STORIES IN VERSE. It’s an impressive coffee table tome. I haven’t had the chance to do more than skim through it so far and read a few highlights, but it’s a well-researched, finely-detailed, and voluminous piece of work. For $30, you’ll get 360 pages of classic Disney reprints from the pages of Good Housekeeping magazine with loads of commentary, analysis, and behind the scenes material.

I wasn’t all that excited about the book when I first read about it. It was just supposed to be a series of reprints. Big whoop. The book, as it turns out, is much more than that. Check it out if you can find it.

Next week is traditionally the time to look back at Pipeline in 2005. Last year, that meant a look at the more than 50 trade paperback and hardcover books I reviewed. This year? We’ll see what I come up with.

The Pipeline message board is your source for updates on the Pipeline Comic Book Podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes now, too! This week’s podcast will show up over here this week. Last week’s is forever posted over here.

Don’t forget about the VandS DVD podcast, while you’re at it.

Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, DVD talk, and more.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.

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