Here we have a somewhat belated entry into the semi-weekly No Context Comics! I’ve been busy outside of Urbane Turtle dot com, lately. You can find my spotlight review for this week’s thrilling new series, ALL AGAINST ALL, over at The Comics Beat. I also had the chance to interview TMNT writer Tom Waltz and editor Charles Beacham about the super fun event series, THE ARMAGEDDON GAME.
I also had a couple days off from the day job, but spent them doing nothing productive whatsoever other than watching a few movies and the Rise of the TMNT series on Netflix. You see, I am teetering on the brink of ~*~ burn out ~*~ and some days of total vegging were paramount.
This week we’ve got a new superhero, fantasy misfits, and a longtime pro hero. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Monkey Prince #9
DC. Gene Luen Yang, Writer. Bernard Chang, Artist. Marcelo Maiolo, Colors. Janice Chiang. Letters. Jessica Chen. Editor.
Gene Yuen Lang has written some of my favorite superhero stories of the last few years, and DC has seen a dearth of new superhero creations in the last ten years. So I should be excited by the prospect of the Monkey King, which draws from Chinese mythology to introduce a new player into the fold! Yang’s authentic voice deserves to be heard above the din of the corporate cape books. And yet I have been remiss in even looking twice at Monkey Prince, Yang’s latest mainstream series.
Despite Marvel’s reputation as being more “grounded” or “street level,” it has no shortage of characters pulled right out of mythic pantheons. In that way, Monkey Prince as an idea feels more at home in the Marvel U. DC has plenty of godly beings but most of them are DC originals, not pantheons or public domain heroes. Marvel is much more willing to do that kind of thing, historically.
There’s a LOT going on in this issue, and it feels very disorienting as a new reader. There are general ideas that feel familiar–Metropolis, Lexcorp, Bizarro Clones, and even the “Journey to the West” iconography (thanks, Dragonball!), but a lot that took a bit to put together. But everything needed to get caught up is here on the page.
Marcus, the main character’s, parents are two-bit henchpeople, and Marcus has to deal with that while juggling being a normal kid and also learning how to be a hero. His encounter with Supergirl here gives the reader a firm idea of his character, impetuous, petulant, and frankly, kind of unlikable!
There’s a big twist on the last page that gave me a big laugh. The villain of this piece is genuinely creepy and his attack that starts the issue is unsettling.
I get the point of making a young male hero kind of a jerk but it does make it hard to root for him, even if he is trying to learn. I’m certainly willing to give Yang the benefit of the doubt that Marcus is growign and learning, after all, his parents are crooks. It’s not like he’s had a strong role model.
Crossovers can get exhausting but I did get a little bit of a thrill to see this tie-in to the Devil Nezha and Mark Waid’s work over on World’ Finest/Batman vs. Robin/Lazarus Planet. It’s not ridiculously intrusive (yet, anyway; the next issue seems to be a full tie-in) but it makes all of these new elements feel important and tied into the larger DCU. Something a lot of new ideas in superhero universes fail to do authentically.
The art is serviceable if unremarkable all around. There are flashes of inventiveness and humor, particularly toward the end when the hero is transformed, that play into the Monkey Prince’s irreverent personality. I also really liked to see that most of the creative team is of Asian descent and their names credited in script as well as English.
Overall–this felt like a standard issue of a monthly comic book. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad. A perfectly serviceable diversion, with the bonus of introducing new representation.
Least We Can Do #4
Image. Iolanda Zanfardino, Writer.Elisa Romboli, Artist.
A caveat that I think is important here: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons or other tabletop RPGs. I have passing familiarity with some of the concepts, which let me generally understand some of the ideas here. I don’t know that the extreme number of word balloons here are specifically referencing Tabletop games but they certainyl seem to be. And boyoboy are there so many words here. And references to concepts that are not explained. And explaining powers and how powers work like it’s a gosh darn encyclopedia.
I found this book so hard to get through that it was a wonder to me that it exists? There is no compelling character within these pages, or even a plot that I can decipher. These characters seem to exist to talk about going on quests and to research magic we mostly do not see. It’s a real slog.
The art is mostly okay with a few truly standout moments. There is a page in here where a character stops time and speeds past other characters that displayed the idea of superspeed or time manipulation better than almost anything else I’ve seen in comics. The first panel is a shot of three characters. That is then cut through by a second panel with another caracter’s face in profile. In the third panel, the one who interrupted is suddenly standing behind the others, far in the distance. The way Romboli depicts the character slicing through the gutter where we usually read the passage of time is shockingly effective. The fight scene on the train toward issue’s end is well-staged and easy to follow (a trait not to be undervalued in comics!) with a dynamic sense of movement.
But beyond that there was nothing much here to draw me in. Romboli does the best she can with some exhausting exposition, giving the characters plenty of emotion as they shout about things I didn’t understand.
By issue’s end I just can’t help but wonder who this is for. I would like to see more of Romboli with something more to work with, though.
Captain Marvel #44
Marvel. Kelly Thompson, Writer. Sergio Dávila, Artist. Arif Prianto, Colors. Clayton Cowles, Letters.
Kelly Thompson is a writer I have heard a lot of good things about that I always intend to look more into. But there’s always more books to read and I never get to it. She’s maintained an impressive run on this Captain Marvel series, which I am sure speaks to the quality of her work.
At 44 issues of a character older than me, I don’t expect to know all the ins-and-outs of what is going on. Particularly when it seems to be a spiritual sequel to an old Claremont X-Men story. I am sure X-Men fans are happy to see this (or maybe not, X-Men fans are never happy). Ever since becoming Captain Marvel it has seemed like Marvel has tried to distance her from the mutants, despite her having had significant relationships with them during Claremont’s tenure.
I’m not an X-Men aficionado, but I am familiar enough with the broad strokes to appreciate Carol’s opening monologue here, about enjoying getting to bust on Rogue and the Brood simultaneously, in another life. I’m also able to appreciate how Thompson effectively builds this grand space drama around decades of publishing history to effectively tell a story of growth and empowerment over past trauma.
In many ways, this issue is a stellar example of how to tell superhero comics in a long-running shared universe. Just enough mentions of the past to orient newer readers while spurring interest in the old stories. It doesn’t spend pages explaining those events in detail, boring die-hards. And it moves Carol forward as a character forward and illustrates how she has grown and changed since she was Binary and Ms. Marvel. She’s no longer the B-List side character in a team book. Now she’s a blockbuster headliner, and how does that change how she approaches the things that have harmed her?
I really enjoyed this, despite being years behind on Captain Marvel. Thompson has a clear vision for who Carol Danvers is and where she has come from. The art from Sergio Dávila is standard superhero fare. I particularly like how he illustrates Carol’s powers and the almost Super Saiyan way it blows her hair around.
Perhaps I need to stop overlooking Captain Marvel, and get down to finally reading more of Thompson’s work in full.
Iron Man is at his most compelling when Tony Stark hates himself. It is his most important character trait. After his near death experience, Tony Stark looked at the life he led, the things he accomplished, and hated what he saw. Deeply and fully. That is what compelled him to become Iron Man. The best Iron Man stories, on the comics page and on screen, recognize and build from that place.
Everything else: the arrogance, the smart remarks, the attempts to control everything, it stems from this foundational hatred.
Tony Stark is not, fundamentally, an altruistic man, though he knows he should be. He hates that it does not come naturally to him.
Writer Christopher Cantwell beautifully explores this self-loathing and in doing so, tells one of the most compelling and human Iron Man stories of all time. In the Books of Korvac, the epic nearly 2-year story that accounts for the bulk of his run, Cantwell crafts a definitive Iron Man story without aping the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Robert Downey, Jr’s performance.
Instead, Cantwell’s Iron Man is an unabashedly broad, high concept superhero tale where Iron Man merges with cosmic power that gives him near omnipotent power. It uses superhero iconagraphy and cosmic scope to dramatize Tony’s inner turmoil in the way the best superhero stories reflect the human condition through grandiose action.
Like the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov Extremis storyline that defined much of what makes modern Iron Man, Cantwell is joined for most of the run by an artist who renders with a humanist depth and realism. Spanish artist Cafu is of a similar mold to Granov, imbuing depth and realism to the technology and architecture of Tony Stark’s world. But where Extremis was concerned with putting Iron Man in a realistic 21st Century context, Cafu takes that same verisimilitude and propels Iron Man far beyond Earth. Cafu’s artistic sensibility, his precision use of light and shadow, is critical to keep Tony Stark’s all-too-human concerns front and center. Frank D’Armata’s colors complement Cafu’s pencils and rendering, giving the Iron Man suit a sleek but whethered sheen.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Tony spends the early portion of this run in a subconscious slide toward his death. Being Iron Man has become his addictive escape. He is dealing with the emotional fallout of Dan Slott’s run on the book, which saw Tony’s body rebuilt through cloning and his mind restored through a computer backup. He’s left to ponder existential questions of life and death.
Tony looks inside for an answer and sees nothing within himself, as made literal in his hallucination aboard Galactus the World Eater’s worldship, Taa II, where he absorbs the all-powerful Power Cosmic. As his body absorbs and merges with the Power Cosmic, he sees visions of himself. Alone. Unnoticed. Crying in an opulent house, his father and family nowhere to be found. This is ultimately what Tony sees when he looks in the mirror. Not a hero. Not a friend. Just a boy, desperate to be noticed and without love.
The perception of people, frustrated with his failures and ungrateful for his heroism, becomes Tony’s only metric to measure himself.
In response, Tony castigates himself in a self-humbling journey to “reconnect” with the common man. An egotistical bravado that he can somehow learn through performative actions the secrets of lesser men.
In walks Patsy Walker, the superhero known as Hellcat. Patsy points out early on that Tony is newly obsessed with how people perceive him and his actions.
“This new humility you’ve got going on? It’s still your ego in different clothes.”
The inclusion of Patsy, one of Marvel’s most human characters, pulls Tony down to Earth. Her openness to talking about her frailties and mental health issues draws Tony to be honest with his own.
By the time they face the threat of old Avengers foe Michael Korvac, Iron Man is at a crossroads. He sees his only value as dying in battle to save others. Patsy warns him that this deathwish is not altruism but an escape from self-loathing. She knows that temptation all-too-well.
God is a Verb
Iron Man’s foil and the primary antagonist throughout this run is Michael Korvac. Originally from a future where an alien race known as the Badoon conquered humanity, Korvac sold out his human allies for a position in the alien’s military. The Badoon quickly turned on Korvac and eventually punished and tortured him. They removed his lower half and converted him into a cyborg. He later traveled to the past and absorbed the Power Cosmic, making him nearly omnipotent. His abuse of that power in his misguided attempt to save humanity put him at odds with the Avengers. During their battle, he killed all of the heroes before returning them to life and destroying himself in grief.
At the start of Cantwell’s run, Korvac is revived in an android body by a mysterious group of scientists. He quickly escapes and seeks out the power to regain his former godly status. As a first act, Korvac poses as a scientist to garner funding from Stark for his research into harvesting the energy from lightning.
Korvac introduces himself to Tony as Teilhard Fuller, a mashup of two 20th century science-minded philosophers. The first, Teilhard De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist nearly excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of his scientific research and rejected by scientists because of his spiritual conception of physics. De Chardin believed the cosmos were working not toward a destructive entropy but to a full spiritual unity. In his book, The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote,
However convergent it be, evolution cannot attain to fulfilment on earth except through a point of dissociation. With this we are introduced to a fantastic and inevitable event which now begins to take shape in our perspective, the event which comes nearer with every day that passes: the end of all life on our globe, the death of the planet, the ultimate phase of the phenomenon of man.
In his Catholic thinking, this implies a turning toward a higher power. Evolution was a movement toward fulfillment of God and creation.
The second name in Korvac’s alias references R. Buckminster Fuller, who, like De Chardin, believed society was marching toward a utopic fulfillment. He believed that society had reached a point where the accumulation of knowledge and resources extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level. He posited that competition for necessities had become unnecessary and cooperation was the optimum survival strategy. He declared: “selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable … War is obsolete.” Though Fuller’s futurist bent was more in the area of sociology, both philosophers envisioned a utopia of equality.
The names are no coincidence. Korvac seeks to attain godhood to enact his utopian ideals. Individual consciousness would be eradicated, physical differences eliminated. It is, for the Neon Genesis Evangelion fans out there, a version of its Human Instrumentality. Utopia via the death of the individual. Cosmic, universal peace. Under one man’s vision. Without self.
Naturally, Tony Stark rejects this idea outright. Cease to be Tony Stark? Out of the question. Even for all his faults and self-loathing, Tony believes himself to be among humanity’s greatest.
The Drink or the Dream?
One of Tony’s great faults is his addictive proclitivities, which manifests in both substance abuse and obsessive behavior. He has become addicted to self sacrifice and risky behavior. His obsessive need to take Korvac alone results in being severely beaten and nearly killed.
It is enough to make him realize he cannot go it alone. Iron Man gathers a ragtag group of heroes who dub themselves his “Space Friends.” Gargoyle, Misty Knight, Scarlet Spider, Frog-Man, Hellcat, and War Machine, travel through space with Iron Man to stop Korvac.
After his first disastrous encounter with Korvac, Tony’s allies, under his direction, fuse Tony with his armor to keep him alive. To deal with the pain he has a controlled morphine drip installed into his armor. Tony knows it is a desperate measure that could prove disastrous. But his need to prevail over Korvac, to prove his heroism, drives him beyond anything else.
It is a compromise of one of his most sacred vows.
The drink … or the dream? In this moment, I remember that question. Something I asked myself a long time ago. Something I still have to ask myself time and again. I am an addict. I know that. I know what these drugs could do to me. But I’ll die right now without them. My blood-brain barrier has been damaged… The drink…or the dream? The drink…for the dream?
As he is fused to his technology he compromises his sobriety and thus his humanity. It is a step that draws him even closer to Korvac, himself a fusion of man and machine.
Tony awakes from his cyborg operation newly convicted. The fear and doubt replaced with resolute, obsessive purpose that closes him off from his allies.
“I am alive. I am angry. I am no longer apologizing for anything. Not my machines. Not my decisions. Not my deeds. I am going to win this fight.”
The clarity of mission drives him to view his new allies not as friends but tools. While they joined Iron Man to save the universe, they had no intention of being his soldiers.
While things get contentious, Iron Man is abruptly teleported off the ship. He arrives on a mysterious planet, where a group of stranded beings from across the universe have formed a cooperative society. The only catch? They are terrorized by seemingly random attacks from giant Ultimo robots, native biosynthetic organisms. The threat is omnipresent but ultimately seems to bind the disparate beings into a tight-knit community. Tony eventually discovers that this community is led by his old enemy Stilt Man, which naturally leads to the requisit superhero fisticuffs.
Ultimately, Tony is won over. On this stranded planet, Tony is forced to rely not on Iron Man but Tony Stark. He comes to see the world as a chance to restart.
As Stilt Man summarizes:
“Everyone here lost everything. People. Purpose. But also…responsibilities. Not just to others, but also to some…version of ourselves we believed necessary.”
Tony begins to embrace this simple life, even as the morphine drip becomes a crutch. In a psychic conversation with Hellcat (who rediscovered her psychic powers earlier in the run) he explains his new sense of peace. If he has to sacrifice himself on this world, defeating the Ultimos for good and preserving this paradise, it would be a good death. More noble than a great battle to save Earth where the public would always doubt if he acted from altruism or for recognition.
Hellcat is glad Tony has found a kind of peace. Stripped of all of the wealth and celebrity, Iron Man cannot be driven by headlines.
“Before everything else, you have to be Iron Man. Here you’re just the guy I knew was underneath the entire time. The selfless one. A hero. And a friend.”
“A hero and a friend, I like that.”
The stranded planet’s utopian society is revealed to be a lie. The Ultimos are not a force of nature but have been intentionally programmed by Stilt Man to attack the town at regular intervals in order to bind them to common purpose.
Stilt Man’s hubris, like Korvac’s, makes him believe he can create a perfect society if people just operated under his control. He needed to prove that he could be a leader and, more importantly, that he could create something good.
Tony chafes as much at the artificiality of Stilt Man’s world as the human toll. And sees too much of himself in Stilt Man’s delusion.
Stilt Man’s mission is no different than Korvac’s, a picture in microcosm of the greater universal conflict Iron Man has been fighting. The same arrogance and temptation to prove one’s human worth. It is the same conflict within Tony.
Iron Man falls into the same patterns and temptations when he later absorbs the Power Cosmic to stop Korvac’s ascendance. The godly power allows him to reshape the world into his image and set things how he believes they could be.
The Iron God
In the first issue, Iron Man fights an old enemy and destroys one of the last copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence. It is a destruction of an old conception of God.
Cantwell’s Iron Man is awash in spiritual themes, from his refrences to Teilhard de Chardin, to quotes from various gospels. It is not a question of religion versus science. But rather, the danger of a religious view of science. The destructive conception that one man with the right math and a big enough brain can fix everything.
The last few issues see Tony ascend to godhood aboard Taa II along with Korvac. When they emerge on the other side, their battle rages across the universe. Both men utterly convinced of their righteousness and worthiness to wield omnipotent power.
Ultimately, the battle of gods is interrupted by the arrival of The Living Tribunal, creation’s avatar of balance itself, along with every other abstract entity in the cosmos that represents a facet of reality. They capture Korvac for the threat he poses to existence itself. They let Iron Man go free.
The Books of Korvac seemingly closed, Iron Man turns his attention back home.
Believing his purpose just and his ideas infallible, Tony proceeds to reshape the world despite the protestations of his allies in the Avengers and the Space Friends. His first act, to show the promise of his ideas, is to share his genius intellect with all the people of New York.
His alternative to Korvac’s forced unity is to overcome the barriers of small mindedness that stand in the way of his grand solutions.
In effect, he turns everyone else into him, too, because who wouldn’t want to be Tony Stark?
When he gives his intellect to everyone in New York, he doesn’t see it as stripping away choice. It is a gift to grant others a better way of living.
Of course, the irony is that Tony Stark also hates himself. By using his godly powers to extend his mind, he inflicts his own misery upon others.
It is a striking allegory of extreme depressive episodes and the addictive experience. The absence of self-love radiates outward, tearing down those around him.
When the Space Friends confront Tony, the Iron God kills them all in horrific fashion with the wave of his hands. Their deaths do not register on his conscience until he approaches Patsy. Patsy Walker, the tether to his humanity for the last few months, drags the Iron God down to Earth once again.
“I guess it’s my turn huh? At least I’ll go out a hero. And a friend.”
The words break through Tony’s delusions. Reminded of the brief glimpse of the man on the stranded planet, he stops in his tracks and breaks down in tears.
Patsy transports them into Tony’s mindscape where Tony reflects on his misdeeds. He could bring everyone back, make them forget everything. It would be easy to make it like their deaths never happened. But once again, Patsy anchors him. “But it did happen. You did this.” Tony operating under the assumption there were no consequences to his actions, like he was a god even before he ascended, has long been the root of his destructive tendencies.
Pretense stripped, in the vulnerable space of his own mind, Tony admits that it was fear that drove him and put him at odds with friends and allies. Fear that they were standing in the way, not of heroism, but of his chance to make his life worth something. Being Iron Man allowed his better angels a vehicle for doing good even as the man inside became emptier.
Every grand attempt to make things right ended in disaster because Tony Stark was still there, no matter what good Iron Man accomplished.
Patsy encourages Tony to bring those he killed back, but make them remember what he had done so he could not run away from it and forget. Only by accepting his failures could he move on from them. Tony brings back those he killed and apologizes. As they watch, he relinquishes the power cosmic. An addiction overcome.
Like any addiction, there is consequence and withdrawal. His friends walk away without a word, leaving Tony alone. As he walks through Central Park, no longer all-powerful, the delayed symptoms of his morphine withdrawl hits all at once and he collapses. He knows his death will come.
But as he passes out an escaped Korvac returns. He announces his new plan. Universal balance through universal annihilation.
Expecting a fight, Korvac is thrown off by Tony’s weakness and hallucinatory rambling. Instead of killing his hated enemy, Korvac falters back. A vulnerable Tony asks Korvac, “When was the last time you were a human being?” Korvac explained that in his time humanity was slaughtered. “But not you,” Tony pointed out. What did he do to survive? What deal did he make?
It threw Korvac into a rage. Stark mocked him. “Just know that this is how you had to beat me….This has been your thing since the beginning. You were smart but you always needed more. A security blanket. Protective alien masters. Android body. The world’s electricity. Cosmic power. You always had to have an ace… How long have you been scared to lose?”
The words were pointed at Korvac but they were just as much a curse upon himself. He thought that if he had just one more advantage he would finally fill the emptiness, overcome the fear of his own ignonimous existence. But even control over reality itself didn’t fix anything. He understood Korvac’s temptation now.
Tony challenged Korvac. “Stop hiding. Be a #&%#ing man for once in your life. Try it. Or are you too scared?”
Korvac relinquished the power, just as Tony did. He wanted the satisfaction of killing Stark with his bear hands. As he beat his hated enemy bloody, he demanded to know why Stark wasn’t fighting back. He admitted he was dying even if Korvac didn’t kill him.
Tony beaten and bruised at his feet, Korvac looked at his bloodied hands and up into the night sky, where the remains of his Power Cosmic streaked past. Suddenly, the meaninglessness of his vendetta, the delusions of cosmic mastery, were clear.
The final moments of the Books of Korvac are a powerful emotional payoff to this deceptively deep and introspective look at Tony Stark that uses the full tapestry of the Marvel Universe as allegory for Tony’s demons. Korvac lifts Tony and carries him to a hospital in a series of silent panels. Cafu draws Korvac with a succession of emotions ranging from confusion, to anger, to sorrow, and, ultimately, a crushing emptiness.
After leaving Tony at the hospital, Korvac turns around and climbs a ladder to the top of a building. For a moment he looks out at the horizon. He steps forward, and is gone.
Months later, Tony is driven to a rehab center by Patsy. Because of his relationships, he is able to accept his failures and weaknesses and work to heal them, even as Korvac succumbs.
Everything that Iron Man went through, the reality warping, the super villains and space travel, it all acted to literalize the human struggle of addiction and depression. This has always been the greatest potential for superhero storytelling, to make grand the personal battles we all face. Tony’s inner conflict is reflected in the external battle with Korvac, magnified a thousand fold.
In the story’s final moment, Tony reads a letter of support.
Just thinking of you. You can do this.
Tony smiles and looks out the window. He realizes at last that the world is not the empty, lonely place he remembered it being.
Ultimately, the solution to his self-hatred was not to become a god, or to fix everything to his liking. It was always about being a hero.
And, most importantly, a friend.
The big releases this week were probably the final issue of Chris Cantwell’s Iron Man (which I just started this week), a new Immortal X-Men, World’s Finest, and Nightwing. Of course, I am not talking about any of those. Because I’m reading the latter 3 and I plan to do something more cohesive about Iron Man.
For a look at other books outside the big 2 this week, check out The Beat’s round-up of indie books that came out yesterday, featuring my first contribution to the site.
The biggest news in the comics-related world this week was probably the death of Kevin Conroy, the iconic voice of Batman for more than 30 years. I have toyed with eulogizing Mr. Conroy here on the site but ultimately, I find myself with a lack of words to describe his impact on me, his contributions to the world of animation. Here is what I posted on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter:
Heartbreaking to hear the news about Kevin Conroy’s passing. Because he was most connected to a superhero cartoon, the immensity of his talent as an actor is undervalued and underestimated. Conroy’s performance as Batman is immortal not because of Batman as a concept but because he made Batman so profoundly, painfully human. Kevin tapped into the loss and rage and sorrow that propels Batman. He became the indelible voice of Batman because he recontextualized the character into a complex man with emotional range. Conroy’s Batman could be frightening and intense. He could be soft and compassionate. He could be vulnerable and colder than ice. I have no doubt that Batman has become a cultural icon because of his seminal work. To understand the depth of that humanity I invite you to read Kevin Conroy’s short memoir and reflection on finding Batman in DC’s 2022 Pride Special. A painful, uplifting, and honest reflection. RIP, Batman.
If you’ve not read his contribution to the DC Pride special, DC made it free to read in his memory here.
Kevin’s death, from an aggressive and rapid cancer, hits especially hard given the recent loss in my own family under similar circumstances.
Obviously, my love for Batman and the Animated Series (and the DCAU it spawned) is well-documented. Kevin Conroy is to thank for so much of that. You can read my series of Batman essays from earlier this year at this link. And if you are interested in revisiting the DCAU, you can journey along with my watch-through from about ten years ago on my old tumblr (Which may become a replacement for my Twitter if that place keeps sinking).
Well, let’s get to the funny books.
Star Wars: Han Solo & Chewbacca #7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Paul Fry, Artist. Alex Sinclair, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J Basso, Danny Khazen, Mark Paniccia, Editors.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book. But there’s also nothing particularly compelling to sink your teeth into. It does very little to justify its existence and fails to leverage the iconic characters at its center in any meaningful or interesting way. Oh there’s plenty of Easter eggs, we’ve got Ponda Baba and Greedo and Maz Kanata. But none of them do anything that gives us more information about them that fills out this universe.
It’s the worst type of Star Wars publishing. Playing with the old toys and adding nothing new.
This is a prison break issue, which can be a fun trope for a sci-fi story. There have been lots of good ones. God knows I loved the scenes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the prisonbreak is one of my favorite Outlaw Star episodes. But to make it compelling there needs to be some investment in the stakes. What are the characters going through in this jail? How is the Imperial system degrading the people it incarcerates?
We are set firmly in the darkest moment of the Galaxy’s history, a period being explored brilliantly by the television show Andor, but Han Solo and Chewbacca fails to grapple with any themes at all.Continue reading “No Context Comics – A Look at 3 Books I Don’t Read From the Week of 11/16”
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Al Ewing is one of the best writers active in comics today, and one of Marvel’s most gifted storytellers of all time. His work on Immortal Hulk alone, a deeply personal look at trauma, faith, and identity, through the elevated lens of the superheroic, cements his legacy at Marvel. His creator-owned series, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead tackles similar lofty themes in the search for the ineffable sublime.
Ant-Man #1 is neither of those books…And that’s good.
Because Ewing has also proven he can take all of these grand ideas, the many folds and hiccups of continuity, the nuanced understanding of what makes a superhero tick, and serve up books that are funny and character-driven, delivering set pieces and moments that celebrate the wonder and potential of superhero comics as a storytelling medium. Ant-Man is more in the school of Ewing’s work on Defenders, a rolicking adventure through the cosmic eons, with a tinge of his time on Mighty Avengers, which explored heroism through the lens of primarily street-level heroes while delivering depth of emotion and character.
Celebrating the character’s 60th anniversary, Ant-Man’s pitch is to explore the legacy of this founding member of the Avenger through the lens of the 3 men who have held the name and how that legacy inspires a fourth, new future version of the size-shifting superhero. Joining Ewing is artist Tom Reilly (most recently of the stupendously fun THE THING miniseries with novelist Walter Mosley), colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire (who also colors the sensational THE NICE HOUSE ON THE LAKE), and letterer Cory Petit.
It seems strange to attach the word “legacy” to this character in particular, despite the fact that numerous people have taken the mantle, including thief-turned-hero Scott Lang and the amoral mercenary Eric O’Grady, now a super-villain-for hire named The Black Ant. Ant-Man’s profile has never been large (Giant though he may sometimes be), though it has grown recently thanks to Paul Rudd’s effortless charm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But those movies primarily concern Scott Lang, the every-man and underdog out for redemption. For much of the culture at large, this is Ant-Man’s legacy: a tale of redemption and the potential for selflessness.
But it is not Scott Lang’s legacy explored in this issue, or, really, the series at all. It is about Ant-Man’s legacy.
We are greeted in the first few pages by a robotic narrator welcoming us into a new Marvel Narrative Experience. The disembodied voice immediately invites us to ask a few choice questions:
“Who is the Ant-Man? What is the Ant-Man? Why is the Ant-Man?”
Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, has a complicated legacy. He never recovered from the events of 1981’s Avengers #213, where he slapped his wife Janet Van Dyne, the superhero known as The Wasp, across the face. It was an unforgivable sin, one that came to define the character, rightly, for such violence need be reconciled with.
The issue’s writer, Jim Shooter, has long held that this act of violence was never his intention but a construction by the artist, Bob Hall, who misunderstood Shooter’s direction to have Pym accidentally push Janet. Bob Hall has even expressed regret for how he portrayed the moment. Intentional or not, the damage to Hank Pym’s legacy was cemented.
Pym became synonymous with hubris and violence. It was he, after all, who created the android menace Ultron, one of the Avengers’ most dangerous adversaries.
For decades, then, Hank Pym became a character desperate for the approval of his more successful peers. Tony Stark and Reed Richards outclassed him as scientists. Scott Lang became a new Ant-Man without the baggage. How could Hank Pym redeem himself in the eyes of the other superheroes, who in time passed him by? How could he make right the death and chaos brought by his creation Ultron?
No writer has ever managed to truly rehabilitate Pym, though there has been an effort in recent years to simply sweep the events of Avengers 217 under the rug, as a brief dark moment of comics that has aged poorly. But the shadow of it looms over every story, every panel Pym appears in.
Dan Slott’s brief time on the Mighty Avengers series in 2008, following the events of the alien Skrull’s Secret Invasion and the death of The Wasp, seemed like an attempt to wash Hank of any lingering guilt. Pym, having been absent from Earth and replaced by an alien Skrull imposter, returned to see his planet in shambles, his ex-wife dead, and the Green Goblin in charge of America’s security apparatus. He took on Janet’s superhero name and reconnected with the android Jocasta, who held Janet’s psychic imprint as part of her being.
By having him carry on Wasp’s name and forging a new relationship with Jocasta, Slott attempted to absolve Pym of any lasting harm. Instead it only furthered his descent into a pathetic also-ran. This brief stint as leader of a B-Team of Avengers gave us a Hank Pym preoccupied with the past and his own absolution.
Hank Pym, ultimately, is a man obsessed with his legacy and his public perception. And it has been there since even the earliest days, before all the mistakes and dramatic loss. In Tales to Astonish #44, Hank Pym wonders what would happen if he someday meets defeat and death. He wants someone to carry on his crimefighting campaign if he dies. He empowers The Wasp as an agent of his own legacy.
He is haunted by the death of his first wife. Stan Lee’s narration notes that Pym is feverishly obsessed with forgetting the past, subsuming himself in his work in his lab, forgoing sleep or food. It is vengeance for her death that spurs him to action.
The obsession is baked into Pym’s very DNA from the outset.
Ewing knows that. His mastery of Marvel continuity as illustrated in Immortal Hulk, Defenders, and X-Men Red all make that an unquestionable fact. As does this issue’s use of the “ANT-AGONISTS” , a collection of Ant-Man’s rogues’ gallery from those early issues of Tales to Astonish.
But Ant-Man is not about these dark corners of Pym’s history, or at least not yet. Though there are hints at his obsessive and petty nature in the way he torments a young Eric O’Grady.
Instead, the issue is on its surface a loving send-up of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early adventures, where Pym is a mostly prototypical everyman Marvel hero and Janet is still his beloved partner in life and superheroics. It is a delightful romp through the Silver Age that simultaneously ties Pym’s early adventures to both Lang and O’Grady as if destiny itself set each of them on a shared path.
In the issue’s main plot, the Ant-Agonists gives Pym a “Sinister Six” of his own. It is simultaneously outlandishly goofy and thematically resonant. These villains are nobodies and goons. As Ewing’s opening splash-page, a perfectly rendered Tom Reilly homage to Kirby’s opening salvos, narrates for us:
It is said that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes! How, then, to judge THE ANT-MAN, whose rogues’ gallery includes Egghead, The Scarlet Beetle and The Cyclops? And even the Miniature Marvel’s LESSER foes could pose a DEADLY THREAT—if the dark day ever came that they united as a single fiendish force!
If you can indeed judge a man by the enemies he makes, what better enemy for a man obsessed with how future generations will judge him than a man who controls time and aging? What better enemy for a petty man who feels that life has passed him by than a nameless thug with a paralyzing spray? What better enemy for a man who lashes out in violence than a villainous head of a protection racket who intimidates others with brute force? What better enemy for a man who unleashed a monster upon the world than a villain who brings nightmares to life?
Not since the 60s has Ant-Man been a solo hero, his adventures subsumed by his role as a supporting character in The Avengers.
In this issue Ewing provides Pym a chance for heroism–a rogues gallery of his own that does not rely on the failures and hubris of Hank Pym, but men obsessed with him. It is a kind of superheroic glory that Ant-Man has long been robbed of.
What good is a superhero without a nemesis, after all?
And in the backdrop of this Silver Age homage (which it must be said channels the bombastic energy of the best of a classic Lee/Kirby joint), the mysterious future Ant-Man looms. He sets Hank on his journey and plucks him out of the past, for what purpose? That’s still to be determined. But it seems unlikely that Pym will get to avoid reckoning with his own shortcomings and the darker remnants of his own legacy.
Ant-Man is a name that has only been given to men of questionable character. Scott Lang represents the best of that story, O’Grady its worst, and Pym sits alone somewhere between them, never fully forgiven nor fully giving into his worst whims.
After the future Ant-Man plucks Pym out of the past, he falls through time and sees visions of the man he will become in all of its ugliness and does not recognize them. “Who are these men?!” he asks as the timestream flashes by him.
Hank Pym, welcome to your life.
Tom Reilly’s graphic sensibility, with its economy of line and expressive characters, is perfectly suited for this issue’s celebration of Silver Age storytelling. Like Darwyn Cooke and Evan Shaner or Elsa Charretier, Reilly marries classic cartooning comics with modern sensibilities. He lovingly invokes Kirby’s tight close ups and dynamism but maintains a more contemporary approach to the characters’ interactions that relies on subtlety of movement and expression. They are not the stiff and stoic heroes of old. Reilly paints Hank Pym as a man of haggard frustration, who smiles only in the presence of Janet, alone and away from villains or movie theater hecklers.
Reilly flexes his range in the story’s framing sequence in the future, trading in the scratchy faint lines of Don Heck inks for a streamlined future of curves and minimal strokes. The empty color backgrounds of the 60s are replaced with floating cities and harsh shadows.
Reilly is an artistic dynamo, and his work crackles with life. The range he shows here, though the differences between eras and even from his work on The Thing are subtle, they make a significant difference in the tone of the story. Compare the scratchier inks of this issue to the bold lines of his work on The Thing. There is a distinctive difference in how even those seemingly minor shift give volume and weight to these characters. Ben Grimm is sturdy as a rock, a trustworthy and straightforward presence. Hank Pym is anything but.
As gifted a visual storyteller as Reilly is, it is the work of colorist Jordie Bellaire that brings the entire issue together. The subtle misaligned colors, the texture of yellowed paper, the use of benday dots and the limited silver age palette all give the issue an authentic feeling of a “lost issue” of Tales to Astonish. It is not a 1-for-1 reproduction, however, relying on a far more painterly sensibility and subtlety of shading not possible in the early years of Marvel. This is good because it keeps the issue from being a too-cute parody. But the muted and textured colors evoke a feeling of a time gone-by.
In that way, the art itself reflects Pym’s perception of his past. These were the glory days.
It is a far cry from the slick, high contrast flat colors and rimlights of the future sequences.
Ant-Man #1 does not revolutionize comics or the character of Hank Pym. It does not even directly intimate toward much of the history discussed here. But it is a superb issue of a superhero comic that plays on knowing who Hank Pym is as a man— failures and all. Because here we get to see Hank as he always wanted to be: the Main Character, the swashbuckling super science adventurer.
But that is not who Hank Pym really is, and it is that aching hunger for an idealized legacy that makes Hank Pym a fascinating character.
As the robotic narrator compels us to wait for the continuation of this Marvel Narrative Experience, we await the future of a 60 year old character, trapped in a purgatory of his own legacy, overshadowed by the better man who came after him, who successfully found the redemption Hank Pym so desperately craved. What is the legacy of the Ant-Man?
I look forward to seeing what Al Ewing and Tom Reilly have in store as an answer to that complicated question.