THE NEWEST NEW AVENGERS
When Marvel's new Avengers series (aptly titled NEW AVENGERS) began last year, it didn't find much love in the critical community. Those who came to enjoy Brian Bendis' crime dramas and light-hearted ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN fare bemoaned the book's darkness and the ludicrousness of Marvel continuity and direction. They hated the way the book became an all-star lineup instead of a traditional Captain America-led group of misfits. There were quick accusations that Bendis couldn't write a team book. Didn't AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED prove anything?
I don't think HOUSE OF M was a great success, personally, and DISASSEMBLED seemed like more one of those stories that had to be told for the sake of future stories rather than for itself. To that end, I forgave some of the clumsy plot mechanics and needless character deaths. But I didn't think either were bombs.
NEW AVENGERS, though, turned out to be a lot of fun. There's plenty of Marvel minutia to be had in the book, and the initial storyline did a great job in bringing so many disparate characters together in as believable a way as possible. By the end, the team had a raison d'etre and a larger story arc could be seen forming at the corners. David Finch's art worked better in the new series than the old, without the problems of a massive "event" type of comic hanging over his head.
The trick was to pull off the second volume in a different way from the first, while still making it entertaining. Bendis and artist Steve McNiven do just that. The second premiere edition collection of the series collects a four-part story that is split between the serious major plot point and a slightly lighter one acting as backup. The major arc has to do with getting The Sentry back on his own two feet and reconciling some of his crazy history. It's the Big Story, with sweeping ramifications and tons of excess superpowers spilling from every panel. Doctor Strange and the White Queen are called in, just to show you how crazy it all gets. I normally don't enjoy stories that get so wrapped up in magical matters or mental tricks, but this one worked for me. Bendis answers questions while leaving a few hanging out there. He even gets to write Paul Jenkins into the story, as befits the whole Sentry oeuvre.
The second story is quickly concluded, but puts the Avengers into their role as the new cleanup crew sent to capture the villains who broken out of jail in the previous storyline. Bendis doesn't take it too seriously when a villain with the power of a, er, crowbar runs up against Spider-Woman, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Luke Cage. It's a nice diversion, giving Bendis the chance to play with some of the unique interplay a group of characters like this should naturally have.
This is also the debut of Bendis' Illuminati group, a high-powered round table including Strange, Professor Xavier, Namor, Reed Richards, Iron Man, and Black Bolt. They have their own little club, the impact of which we're promised to see in the next big Marvel crossover event. They're all strong personalities, so the interplay is good and the individual motivations are explained clearly. I like the concept of the group, so the upcoming one shot is high on my reading list.
There is one major "but" coming to this whole review. It's in the hardcover, itself. In case it slipped past you, let me say it again: there are four issues collected in this hardcover. The price is $20. The book is padded out with NEW AVENGERS: MOST WANTED FILES, a roughly 50-page section devoted to profiles of major Avengers baddies. It's all tedious text pages. I don't need a hardcover excerpt from THE OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, thanks. That said, I don't know what the ultimate solution to this problem is. Packing two storylines together might work, but if the follow-up was a six-parter, then a ten-comic collection would work better in the oversized format, which is what Marvel should have used from the outset. Or, they could just package the four comic books together with nothing else for $15 or so. This stopgap measure does not work too well for me.
To sum it all up: The story is good, the packaging stinks. You might want to wait for the trade, instead.
The third hardcover of the series is supposed to be out this month, but I can't get a firm release date on it. Marvel.com says one thing. Amazon.com has another. I don't remember seeing it at my comic shop. So who knows? (Now that I've mentioned it, I'm sure it'll show up in stores this week.)
COLAN SHOWS HIS FANGS AGAIN
THE CURSE OF DRACULA TPB (Dark Horse, $9.95) collects the three-issue mini-series from Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, originally produced in 1998. It reunites the team behind Marvel's classic TOMB OF DRACULA series for another go-around on the classic horror character. It's not a rehash of their work together from the 70s, but something new and obviously meant to lead into more stories that never happened, for whatever reason.
This Dracula is a cruel plotter, a sadist with a mind for politics and power. Against him is an international group of hunters, including a half-vampire, an ex-KGBer whose family was destroyed by vampires, a descendant of Van Helsing, and more. Wolfman shuffles the pieces into place very quickly, expertly giving the reader just enough information to understand what's happening at the start, and filling in the gaps along the way. The text of the piece is a little more voluminous than most comics these days, but it didn't bother me. A good writer can add context and atmosphere to a comic story with some extra prose. Wolfman is one of those. He's part of a generation of writers raised more on novels and the written word than movies and television. Words don't scare him. It's rare to see caption boxes used so much these days, but it works well with this story.
The true star of the book, though, and the reason I review it today, is Gene Colan. All the art is shot and colored directly off his pencils. It's amazing stuff to behold. The looseness of his line translates beautifully. Characters look more animated. The rougher textures are due to an artist who gets to shade things in as he likes. Smooth ink lines can be nice, but they're not always the right thing. Colan's art today is only hindered by an inker.
There's one little trick I noticed in my reading of the book: I was holding the book a little further from my face than I usually do when reading a comic. I didn't want to get bogged down in all the minute details during my first read. Since there are no solid black inked-in areas, those areas are created with sketchy lines. If you get too wrapped up in noticing that, you might be distracted. If you let Colan's storytelling carry your eye from panel to panel and never get fixated too much on any one, your eyes are going to slide right across the beautiful art. I always went back later, however, to appreciate the art in more detail. Colan's loose pencil line is less concerned with getting the perfect smooth shape on the page, and more interested in the movement of the line and the characters. There's a lot of action in all of those pages. Even simple things like a sideways glance is drawn from a dramatic angle, or shaded so that the look is given extra weight. The action scenes are downright frenetic. Colan does a great job in drawing an environment for characters to be placed in that helps set the mood, from classic cars to dramatic architecture and landscapes.
The coloring is from Dave Stewart, whose job it is to color up a dark story without loosing the details of the artist's lines. It's a masterful job, and a slick-looking result. His colors don't pop off the page. They're somewhat subdued, but the general darker shades used in the backgrounds of all the pages keeps the reader in the right frame of mind. More colorful clothes on some of the characters keep the pages from looking monotonous, while helping to pop them out to the reader. Most of all, they don't dominate the page. Colan's art dominates the page. Stewart just makes it look even better. It's the perfect coloring job matched up with the perfect paper stock. You'd be amazed at how many great coloring jobs are absolutely destroyed in the printing, by paper stock that soaks up too much color.
THE CURSE OF DRACULA arrived in comic shops last fall. With any luck, your retailer will still have one on the shelves. It's a slim volume of 80 pages, but it's well worth the $10 you'd throw down for it. Dark Horse's web site has a few pages of art from the book available for your perusal.
BITS AND PIECES
- Corrections/Additions to last week's column:
First, Gemstone's DUCKTALES trade paperback is not in the digest format. It is, indeed, to be a standard comic book-sized formatted trade paperback, which makes the $11 price point look all that much better.
Second, Titan Books did already release a compilation of the first six issues of Peter David's STAR TREK run, titled "Death Before Dishonor." Plans are in place to release another volume with the next six issues later this year, under the title "Return of the Worthy." Both are worthy reads, for interested fans of the original series.
- Todd McFarlane turned 45 years old last week. Why does that make me feel old? I guess it has to do with him being the first comic book artist I followed, from the time I bought my first coming in 1989, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #318. I remember reading interviews around then about how he sent out hundreds of samples when he was in college before breaking in. College was still years in my future at that point. It never dawned on me back then that all the time he spent before that on INFINITY INC. and THE INCREDIBLE HULK (and filling in on books like G.I. JOE and SPITFIRE AND THE TROUBLESHOOTERS and INVASION) meant that the Spider-Man gig wasn't his first. He had already been at it a few years. Given my artistic leanings at the time -- ah, the folly of youth -- it also served as an inspiration.
So happy birthday to Todd. I hope we get to see some of his art on that recently announced BATMAN/SPAWN book.
- Donald Duck: Drunk Driver?
- The makers behind the BONE PC game are getting additional funding. And a voice actor from the game checks in on Slashdot. The news there is that voice work on the GREAT COW RACE game recently wrapped up.
- The bad news is, FEAR AGENT #2 and #3 are sold out, with #1 available in very limited supplies. The good news is that there's a trade coming of those first four issues for only $10, and you'll see it in the next PREVIEWS catalog. Issue #4 is due out next month.
FEAR AGENT is my favorite new series of the past year, with each issue getting better than the last. It's high action/adventure science fiction/fantasy, complete with the hard-drinking loner lead. Rick Remender does a great job in putting together each issue, with Tony Moore and Lee Loughridge putting in some amazing visuals.
- I want to see the rest of the Peeters/Schuiten CITIES OF THE FANTASTIC books here in America. Only a half dozen or so have ever been translated, and that's a real shame. Just look at the list of the other titles in the series that we haven't seen yet!
- Comicraft's latest font release, Monologous, is my new favorite from the font foundry. It will neatly replicate the feel of Tom Orzechowski's classic X-MEN style without slavishly imitating it. If you hurry up, they're also having a half-off sale on the site through the 22nd.
Next week: Some love for the work of Art Adams.
Don't forget about the VandS DVD podcast, while you're at it, looking at each week's new DVD releases.
Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, DVD talk, Thursday Geek Talk, and more.
More than 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.