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Pipeline, Issue #480

CATCHING UP ON OLD TIMES. . .

If you're anything like me, you have a stack of unread comics sitting by your computer, or on a bookshelf, or acting as a nightstand next to your bed. There might be a box of trades or a long box stuffed in the back of the closet with unread comics -- either runs that you were waiting for the full story on and yet never got to, or single issues that just never seemed as appealing to your collection as they originally seemed on the shelf of the comic shop.

Well, guess what? The CIVIL WAR delay gives you six weeks to catch up on all of them. No, the delay doesn't mean the end of civilization. It doesn't mean the end of all comics. It doesn't mean you'll have nothing to read. Heck, it doesn't even mean there aren't plenty of valid independent or even DC titles that are reading being published at the same time.

But I'll take you all at your words. All of you on the comics message boards across the internet in the last week have done an excellent job in describing the end of world scenario that this six week delay represents. Many of you have even promised to make it last longer, by vowing to never read another Civil War book or another Marvel comic for the rest of your lives. I think you all have amazing death wishes, since I guarantee we'll see you kvetching about the post-CW storylines six months -- nee, three months -- from now, anyway.

As you can tell, I'm rather cynical about the whole thing. A company's poor response to bad news is only trumped by the groupthink of an agitated crowd.

I, however, am making lemonade out of these lemons. I'm looking at my bookshelf and planning on tackling it. I read a few books this week that have been sitting on my shelves untouched for weeks and months. It feels great! Give it a try. Rather than denying yourself the pleasure of a new read, use the newfound time to create new reading opportunities. (Or, you know, catch up on those piled-up DVDs, or go out to a movie, or read a novel or something.) Marvel will come back. Don't worry. When CIVIL WAR #4 comes out in a few weeks, I'll be back to review it. And I'll do my best to not be like every other reviewer out there who will judge the book not on its own merits, but rather on the basis of, "Was it worth the wait?"

In the meantime, let's see how my time was spent this week. Coincidentally, both books came from Marvel.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR'S LAST STAND

Given how much I've praised the recent Waid era of the FANTASTIC FOUR, it might surprise you to find out that I never read the last set of stories collected in the third FANTASTIC FOUR hardcover. I recommended the run based on the earlier Wieringo-drawn issues, and Waid's great political Latverian storyline. The latter, I think, read much better when taken in all at once. After that, though, I fell behind and never caught up. When JMS and Mike McKone started on the title, I jumped right back in and just wrote off that last missing set of issues. As I suspected, Waid reset everything just right so it was almost like he was never there. When JMS assumed the writer's throne, he didn't have much to deal with. He had a clean slate.

But to ignore the final year of Waid-penned stories on the series is to risk missing some of the best moments of his run, including the best Galactus story I've read since Stan and Jack created the big lug. But let's start at the beginning.

Karl Kesel co-writes the first story, "Dysnfunctional." Kesel is the man who should someday assume the title of Fantastic Four Writer. While he's been given the opportunity to write fill-in work here and there, he's always been robbed from the regular slot by a bigger name, I'm sorry to say. Kesel is a natural for the book, and someday I hope he gets his chance to do an extended run.

The story covers the return of The Frightful Four, as The Wizard brings the Trapster, Hydro-Man, and his own ex-wife together in another madcap scheme to eliminate the Fantastic Four. Paco Medina steps in to draw the four-parter; he's another artist whose work I think is too often overlooked. He was amazing on Keith Giffen's SUICIDE SQUAD, and does a nifty job here. His art is a bit more relaxed in this story, but has all of the same features and quirks that I enjoy in the style.

I don't want to give too much away about the plot, but it's a very well done straight-ahead Marvel comic. It's not decompressed. It's not twist-piled-on-twist. It has a certain old fashioned feel when it comes to pacing and storytelling, but I like it. The FANTASTIC FOUR really isn't the title you want to start trying to rethink the art of sequential storytelling. It's a family of superheroes in the Marvel Universe, set against a backdrop of the fantastic and unexplained. Play it straight and honestly with the readers, and you'll get a lot back from them. That's what Waid and Kesel do here.

The second story is meant as a quick way to restore the F4 to their former glory in the minds of New Yorkers. How? By stopping an alien presence from ripping Manhattan out of the Hudson and throwing it into the sun. Yes, you have to be careful with a high concept like that. After all, the image of Hercules pulling Manhattan out to sea with a set of chains is one that still haunts Marvel fandom for its sheer stupidity. This one is a bit better thought out.

For the story, Waid sent artist Mike Wieringo detailed plot outlines instead of full scripts. Wieringo went wild with the art, giving the story a more open feel to it, as the natural disaster befalling New York as it is lifted into the air gets a lot of screen time. This is widescreen storytelling done the Fantastic Four way. It's a nice balance of that old school storytelling I talked about above with some more modern techniques. Waid, of course, throws in some nice bits along the way, including an F4 flare gun that you'll need to see to appreciate.

The third story transforms the Human Torch to be the herald of Galactus, and is the highlight of the book. First, Johnny Storm versus Galactus is the stuff of pure comedy gold. Waid gets more funny one-liners in those moments than anywhere else in the series. Second, he dares to give us an origin story for Galactus. While I'm sure some of the Marvel faithful didn't appreciate it, I loved it and how Waid used it to resolve the overall story arc. Some might consider it a little silly. Some might be reminded of the Vorlons on Babylon 5. A lot of people will just never be happy. I liked it as a classic bit of Gods Amongst Men science-fiction/fantasy literature. It felt very pulpy, or even early STAR TREK-esque.

I don't think Mike Wieringo's art has ever looked as strong. When he has Karl Kesel inking him and Paul Mounts coloring his work, Wieringo has nothing to worry about. The pages are clean, clear to read, and creative. There are several alien worlds seen in the story -- and several aliens in the last storyline -- and Wieringo draws them in all their gritty detail.

Finally, there's a one-off storyline to end it all in which the F4 have to chase people around the city. Waid combines a nice action piece with some strong character beats. Wieringo gets to draw a lot of big stuff happening. The reader is please, and then mad that it's all over.

Why can't there be another year of these two together on this title?

::sigh::

If you can still find the hardcover, it's out there for $30. There are a lot of Wieringo cover sketches in the back, as well as a few text pages of Waid discussing the stories and the outlines that passed between he and Kesel on the first storyline.

If you can't find the hardcover, look for the fifth and sixth volume of the trade paperback series for the same stories. It won't have the bonus materials, but at least you'll get the stories.

AVENGERS DECOMPOSING!

Robert Kirkman's MARVEL ZOMBIES was a surprise hit of the last year. I waited for the collection, and I'm glad I did. I don't know how anyone could enjoy this one at a monthly pace. It's a book that needs to be read in one sitting. It's fast-paced enough to not make that a chore, but the story is thin enough that there's not a whole lot there to latch onto. When it's over, the book turns out to be much bigger than you realized it was as you read it. Yet, it's still satisfying in its own curious way.

First, this is a disgusting little book. Kirkman said it at his panel in San Diego this year -- he never thought Marvel would let him get away with half the stuff he put in the first script. He did it on a lark, and was shocked when Marvel editorial approved it. The first issue includes classic Marvel characters getting their scalps sliced off, their intestines eaten away in a mad frenzy, and multiple impalements from the likes of steel beams and arrows. Honestly, it was a bit much for me to take at first. By the time I read through the second chapter, though, my mindset had adjusted for the tone of the book and I found a certain giddy joy in the insanity of the book. This is really a book about a world in which the zombies have taken over, run out of fresh food, and are turning on each other. Some of the horror comes from knowing the characters ahead of time, and feeling wounded by the ends that, say, Peter Parker went to in order to stay well fed. (Yes, we learn the fates of Aunt May and Mary Jane really early.) It's all gruesome, but done mostly for laughs and not just to creep you out.

Kirkman does a nice job in ramping up the story, escalating both the drama and the ends to which the "heroes" will go to stay alive. We start with Magneto introducing us to the new world order. The fight against him establishes pretty firmly what's to come in the story ahead. But then we move on to Hank Pym's depravity, the Black Panther's resilience, and the Silver Surfer's ignorance of the severity of the situation. By the time Galactus shows up in the last couple of issues, you just have to laugh at how far Kirkman has taken the concept. And that's a large part of the thrill of the book for me -- how far can it go? This isn't a book to be taken seriously, and Kirkman uses that to go to some outrageously fun ends.

Brian Hibbs recently referred to Kirkman as a really good Marvel fan-fic writer. With work like this, MARVEL TEAM-UP, and ULTIMATE X-MEN, I can see that point. He's making a pretty good living at Marvel in rethinking core characters and placing them in new situations. Plus, he's allowed to let his inner geek run wild over his stories that way. I can appreciate that because Kirkman comes from the same comics-reading generation that I do. We both seemed to have "come of age" with comics in the late 80s to the very earliest part of the 1990s. His love for Jubilee should cement that. Or look at his challenge to Todd McFarlane. Or his admiration for the Savage Dragon universe.

MARVEL ZOMBIES is a different book from Kirkman's breakout hit, THE WALKING DEAD. Kirkman plays it much more for laughs, but also with a bit of tongue in cheek to indicate to the readers that he knows he's getting away with something here, and won't you all join with him to enjoy the moment? You don't need to be a Marvel Zombie to pick up on all the gags, but it certainly adds an extra layer of laughter.

I'm used to seeing Sean Phillips' art on "serious" comic books. Everything is well photo-referenced, with a strongly designed grid anchoring each page's storytelling. Blacks are meticulously chosen and filled in, while characters act naturally and behave like real people.

Then, there's MARVEL ZOMBIES. This book is a lot looser. Since most of the action is set amidst the rubble of New York City, there's not much in the way of backgrounds to draw. Most pages contain a few large panels filled to the brim with Marvel heroes gritting their zombie-fied teeth and eating humans. There are some isolated sequences in which Phillips returns to his more formalized narrative techniques for the sake of moving the story along, but for the most part, this book is an exercise in drawing zombies doing horrific things, and Phillips' art fits the bill. The blocky shadowy areas give the book the right mood, while the disgusting bits are, at times, covered by them. This isn't to say that this isn't a mature readers title. Most of the disgusting stuff is show on the page. Make no mistake about it.

At the end of the day, MARVEL ZOMBIES is nothing deep and meaningful. It's just disgustingly fun comics. The story is fairly thin, and often just used as a device to get to the latest mutilations, but the ending is clever, the writing is funny, and the art fits it all rather well.

It's available today as an oversized hardcover for $20. That includes a gallery in the back of all of Arthur Suydam's painted covers, printed one to a page with a bonus gallery of the original covers he homaged. It's a nice value for the money, especially when you consider that the Premiere Edition hardcovers are the same price at a smaller page size, and often with the same number of pages.

ODDS AND ENDS

  • I just got my cell phone bill in the mail for the time period of the San Diego Comic-Con. The good news is that my plan doesn't charge me for "long distance" calls to states like California, Nebraska, or Florida. So dialing people from there all the time doesn't impact me. The amazing thing, to me, is that I sent or received 100 calls during the six days that the trip lasted. And, for the first time in years, I nearly used up all my monthly allotment of minutes. Crazy!
  • Why isn't there more Civil War coverage in this week's column? When news breaks on Tuesday night, it takes a full week before I can respond to it. By then, just about everything's been said. I did bring up some points in the podcast last week that I haven't seen anywhere else. I'd suggest listening to the first five minutes or so of that for my thoughts on the matter.

Even more reviews! There are a lot of books that got lost in the San Diego shuffle. I want to look back at a few of them.

The Pipeline Podcast has its own homepage. Tell your friends! Review the podcast on your favorite podcast directory! Spread the good word!

My blog, Various and Sundry is still updating daily, mostly with commentary on reality TV shows lately, including Rock Star: Supernova and Big Brother All-Stars.

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 700 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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