Graphic novels challenge 2011


Writers: Jim Shooter, David Micheliene, Bill Mantlo
Artists: George Pérez, Sal Buscema, David Wenzel, Pablo Marcos, Klaus Janson, Ricardo Villamonte
Publisher: Marvel
Original issues: 167, 168, 170-177

This is one of the old, classic Avengers stories which I really enjoy. It was nine issues long so it took almost a year to publish it originally.

For starters, there’s the classic line-up which changes quite a bit during the long story with older Avengers coming back, and allies showing up, too. The story starts with Iron Man as the leader and at odds with Captain America who doesn’t like Iron Man’s leadership style and thinks that Iron Man doesn’t devote enough time to the Avengers. At this point, nobody knew that Tony Stark is Iron Man so Cap thinks that Iron Man is just a mercenary.

Then there’s Vision and the Scarlet Witch as a married couple. The Beast is also on the team as well as Wonder Man who is very insecure about himself. Thor is the resident powerhouse. Yellowjacket and the Wasp also return as active members in the third issue. Later, Hercules, the Black Widow, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye return, too. That’s quite a lot of Avengers and yet, the story didn’t feel crowded for me, at least. Of course, various Avengers disappear for a while during the story.

Another classic element is the inclusion of allies. Right at the start, the Guardians of the Galaxy appear and the plot starts with their quest to protect the past of one of their own, young Vance Astrovik. At the same time, they are also protecting the future history by preventing the past from changing. Most of the time, they’re in the background, though.

A couple of other allies appear too: Captain Marvel, the Kree warrior, and Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers. Mar-Vell actually doesn’t get much screen time; he appears when the mysterious, cosmic villain does something. On the other hand, Ms. Marvel is right in the thick of battle and she challenges some of the sexist notions some of the Avengers have. She also talks about how she’s her own woman in a way that feels a bit dated now. Wonder Man is quite taken with her and he marvels (heh) at the way that Ms. Marvel goes into a fist fight. Of course, her powers demand that. Wonder Man’s attitude seems quite dated, too, because surely super powers themselves should be non-gendered.

The plot centers on a mysterious and very powerful enemy, who calls himself Michael, who works behind the scenes and actively prevents the Avengers from detecting him. Most of the time, the Avengers deal with either their own problems or with fall-out from Michael’s plotting. In the first issue the main team investigates a giant space ship which has appeared on Earth’s orbit while Janet, Hank, and Nighthawk deal with attackers during Janet’s fashion show. Later they deal with such dire villains as Henry Peter Gyrich, Jocasta, Ultron himself, and Tyrak. However, just so the readers don’t forget about the main threat we get a scene with the big baddie almost every issue.

Another classic element is Avengers’ squabble with the US government. The government, in the person of Gyrich, decides that the Avengers aren’t guarding their secrets well enough and revoke their security clearance so that the super heroes can’t use anymore their Quinjets, communicators, or their contacts with the SHIELD which makes their work a lot harder. It also leads to hilarious scenes of the heroes running around streets and ordinary people wanting to either offer them a job or just gawking at them. At one point Iron Man even commandeers a bus!

The Avengers have a few mysteries to solve before they can finally confront the big baddie. However, the ending is ambiguous and shows that the heroes might have not known everything they should have about the situation.

This is a very enjoyable old fashioned Avengers action. Pretty much my only complaint is that it’s sexist and it appears that the almost omnipotent Michael chose his “mate” purely for looks because in later issues, after choosing his mate and making her powerful too, he get to really know her personality. That seemed a bit strange. And the fact that the main baddies are in shorts and t-shirts.

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The explosive end to Whedon’s run on X-Men!

Writer: Joss Whedon
Artists: John Cassady and Laura Martin
Collects Astonishing X-Men vol.3 #19-24 and Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1
Publisher: Marvel
Publication date: 2008

X-Men and S.W.O.R.D.’s Agent’s Brand’s troops are on their way to the alien Breakworld in order to either save the world or kill it. Brand is advocating destroying Breakworld while the X-Men, not surprisingly, aren’t. After their space ship is destroyed, they land on the Breakworld in several teams. The soldiers (and Lockheed) are supposed to get captured, and do so while Brand and the X-Men set about to learn more about the prophecy, according to which Colossus is going to destroy Breakworld and all its people, and find a way not to destroy Breakworld. Along the way, we get to know a bit more about the aliens and their brutal warrior culture. Oh, and Agent Brand turns out to have a quite a few secrets.

I would have wanted to know more about Breakworld. Perhaps an entire issue devoted to them would have fleshed out them and their factions. Now, they’re left a bit shallow. Powerlord Kruun seems to be the absolute ruler of his species and yet he treats them brutally. Compassion is seen not only as weak but as almost sinful and he organizes fights to the death between his own warriors. (I guess they don’t have any significant outside threats?) Aghanne leads a rival underground faction. They have people who can predict the future and have made the prophecy about Colossus. Which is literally carved into stone.

There are a few plots withing plots and some of them turn out to be ruses, which makes the characters, well, less like idiots, which is a good thing.

Despite the subject matter, prophecy and the possibility of mass murder, there are witty exchanges between characters which lighten the mood quite a lot. I especially enjoyed the banter between Wolverine and the new member Armor.

The lack of repercussions did bug me. Emma, for one. An unknown telepath declares that Nova has left Emma’s head and all is forgiven? Really? No repercussions? Same with Brand. She advocates murder and kidnaps people and all is sunshine and puppies?

I was also a bit dubious about how quickly Kitty and Peter got together again. After all, they face danger and death on pretty much regular basis. So, first Kitty says that she needs time and after one fight she’s back with Peter? Of course, logically thinking that had to happen because of the ending.

Otherwise, this was a good ride. Sci-fi action! Colossus has to ponder his morals. Cyclops gets to shine as a leader even without his powers. We got Star Wars cameo and I really enjoyed the parody of how Earth’s heroes thought they had averted yet another end of the Earth but that was just a magical defense. Heh.

I’m also confident that the one X-Man who has to sacrifice a lot, comes back, sooner or later.

Writer: Joss Whedon
Artists: John Cassady and Laura Martin
Collects Astonishing X-Men vol.3 13-18
Publisher: Marvel
Publication date: 2007

Whedon switches on the big gear! The Hellfire’s Club attacks and Emma’s situation is revealed.

The story starts more quietly with Wolverine training the youngsters in the former Danger room, and Kitty and Peter getting closer. Emma and the Club are meeting and discussing thing in the mansion (which is a clue that all is not as it seems). Only Shaw and Frost are left from the original club; the others are new. Cassandra Nova is back and pushing Emma to action. Then Emma and the Club attack the X-Men in their mansion.

The first victim is poor, tortured Scott. Emma twists his mind until he’s just a drooling catatonic and then pretends that she doesn’t know what happened. She also cuts Scott’s connection to his power. Then Nova makes Henry a beast by suppressing his human side, Shaw takes out Peter, the Negasonic Teenage Warhead sends Kitty to Earth’s core, and Emma reverts Logan to his young self before he was a superhero or even knew that he was a mutant. Then Kitty comes back to take on the whole club.

Meanwhile, Agent Brand and the S.W.O.R.D. finally finds out which of the X-Men is going to destroy Breakworld. Danger allies herself with Ord and they escape to kill the X-Men. (Again.)

Cassandra Nova is back! She’s creepy as hell and is used well in the story. I freely admit that the new Club members were confusing, however, considering who they were, that’s was entirely understandable. The new characters wouldn’t have introduced themselves and their powers because (spoiler!). I also find “Perfection” fascinating? Is Emma having a schizophrenic breakdown?

I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve even been sympathetic to Emma. Here she carries around a lot of guilt and remorse for the things she’s done and also for everything she’s survived in the past. In a true X-Men fashion she’s just buried the feelings deep instead of handling them.

OTOH, I really loathed the way that she manipulated Scott, using the images of Jean and Logan. I also find it a bit hard to believe that after everything Scott has done and seen, he’s still insecure about his abilities and even about his place as a leader. A younger Scott, maybe, but this is the man who has successfully lead the X-Men against so many threats, and not just on Earth, that surely he knows his capabilities by now. I’m fascinated by his lack of power now; hopefully that will show to him that he can be a leader even without his powers. However, I can believe that he’s very frustrated about his lack of control over his power, and that he’s lived his whole live in fear and controlling his optic blasts. Poor Scott.

Kitty and Peter get together, but knowing Whedon that didn’t last long. The start of issue 17 was heartbreaking when Emma/Cassandra created a false future for Kitty where she and Peter were married, and had a son. Emma used that to force Kitty to free Cassandra. So, once again Emma abused Kitty.

Hisako Ichiki is a student who has a larger role in this trade and most likely in the next one, too. We’re getting strong hints that she might be the next X-Men. However, Blindfold, who can apparently see into the future, said that not everyone would return to the space adventure in the next trade. Since all the other characters who were beamed off are established ones, I think that poor Hisako is going to die.

The trade ends in a cliffhanger when the X-Men, Hisako, Ord, and Danger are teleported away.

Writer: Joss Whedon
Artists: John Cassady and Laura Martin
Collects Astonishing X-Men 7-12

Publisher: Marvel
Publication date: 2006

The story starts with the student, Wing, who lost his powers in the previous story because of the medicine Ord injected into him. The poor kid is very depressed and is considering suicide.

Then we jump to the X-Men, with the returned Colossus who apparently wants immediately back in action, who are headed to Manhattan which is under attack by a large monster. The X-Men attack the monster and fight side by side/bicker with the Fantastic Four. Kitty and Peter are distracted by their thoughts about each other. When they get back to the X-Mansion, Wing is missing and people are getting anxious. Then someone or something attacks all the telepaths and cuts off all access to the outside world. Then an old Sentinel attacks and the X-Men send the students and Kitty to the Danger room. Which is exactly what their adversary wants.

This trade is pretty action packed. There are a few quieter moments, like Kitty and Peter’s talk or Agent Brand being reinstated, and the professor talking with the main adversary, Danger – and Emma Frost is apparently still in league with the Hellfire club, even calling Shaw her love. Yes! But otherwise, it’s fight against the monster, the Sentinel, and Danger.

There’s a little talk about the treatment of artificial intelligences, and the parallel between the treatment of Peter and Danger is brought up. However, I really didn’t care about how the professor’s whole ideology was apparently changed, in a ret-con. If the professor had known all along about Danger, surely he’s no better than Magneto. Doesn’t that invalidate the ideals that the X-Men are built on?

I’m also not sure if I like that Colossus just put on his old uniform and is carrying on like old times. That sort of undercuts the character development, but OTOH, I have faith on Whedon on the character part.

So, mostly an enjoyable ride but raises some uncomfortable questions. Hopefully, the characters will explore them in future issues.

Written by Joss Whedon
Artists: John Cassady and Laura Martin
Collects Astonishing X-Men 1-6
Publisher: Marvel
Publication date: 2006

I’m a fan of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, and I’m also a long-time X-Men fan, so I had high expectations for this comic. It was originally printed in the Finnish edition of X-Men in 2006, so I’ve read it a few times. 🙂

The stories have a lot of classic X-Men vibes: the us (mutants) against them (humans), a great moral dilemma, and villains to bash. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact I was relieved that I recognized all the main characters. But at least the first few issues don’t really give anything new. In fact, the old Logan/Scott conflict is resurrected.

The story starts with a little girl who is afraid. Later we learn that she has frightening mutant powers she can’t control and that a doctor of genetics has research a “cure” for all mutants. Then we witness Kitty Pryde’s homecoming at Xavier Mansion. Later, Scott tries to make his small group into a team (again). The line up is: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Wolverine, and Shadowcat. Cyclops and Wolverine are at each other’s throats and Kitty doesn’t trust Emma who apparently loathes her.

The geneticist Kavita Rao declares that she has found out that mutants are just sick and she has a cure for them. Meanwhile, Ord from Breakworld and his human merchenaries has taken a bunch of upper class people hostage and the X-Men are quick to engage Ord and his men. Ord almost wipes the floor with them but Lockheed arrives just in time to save the team.

Meanwhile, the mutant kids at the Mansion have heard the news about the cure and some of them want it. The X-Men investigate it, of course. It turns out that the vaccine has been developed from a mutant who is dead so the X-Men raid the Benetech building where Rao does her research. While they’re away, Ord attacks the mansion and the mutant kids.

The story has a great mix of character moments and action, and no wonder. The X-Men have a lot of internal tension which is always good. The story starts with a brief Scott/Logan fight, over Jean, of course, but they don’t seem hostile for long. Then there’s Kitty who doesn’t trust Emma and never will. There’s a great moment between them in the second issue where Emma asks Kitty to keep an eye on her and Kitty says that for her Emma’s face is synonymous with evil. (I tend to agree with Kitty, by the way. I encountered Emma for the first time during the Dark Phoenix saga when Emma was mind torturing Storm (one of my favorite characters ever), and now she’s teaching ethics for the next generation of mutants? Riiiight. I’m patiently waiting for her to show her real colors.) Then there’s Beast, who really wants to use the cure on himself and is trying to somehow evaluate it impartially.

The cure is an interesting source of conflict. I can believe that a lot of mutants with visible mutations would be eager to get it. Wolverine is fully against it. He doesn’t want to be called a disease and he doesn’t want any of the other X-Men to quit. The cure also causes riots although we don’t really see them except for the one near the end.

There’s also conflict between the X-Men and Nick Fury. Fury has sometimes been even friendly towards the X-Men but here he’s again shown to be their enemy. And I think Fury’s quip about how Scott haven’t yet earned a right to yell at Fury was a bit uncalled for. They’ve known each other for decades, real world time, and in Marvel time they’ve saved each other at least a couple of times. Otherwise, I rather enjoyed the banter.

I wasn’t impressed with Ord. He seems to be pretty generic super strong alien. He’s a new character and yet he seems to have a personal vendetta against the X-Men. We slowly find out that he has a reason for it but it’s told, not shown, so it’s never really believable to me.

The ending is open, of course. The cure still exists and the Ord is after the X-Men. There’s also a prophecy about interstellar war started by the X-Men.

This is very much a beginning volume.

Written by Alan Moore
Artists: Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon, and various artists
Collects Tom Strong 8-14 with the original covers and concept art.
Publisher: America’s Best Comics
Publication date: 2000

This time, most of the stories are shorter than before. Four of the issues have three stories but there’s also one two-part story which is my favorite so far.

Some of the stories are quite silly like “The Old Skool!” in the first issue where a group of school kids are kidnapped by giant robots. Turns out that that older teachers think that the modern school system is too gentle on the kids and they want to school the kids in an older style.

I also actually quite liked the first story in the first issue. It starts with Tom and Solomon riding in a landscape brings to mind old westerns. Then they meet the people… who have three eyes and are upset by Tom’s strange features. Alas, because the story was so short, everything was resolved quickly. However, I still liked it as a nice twist to a common, er, plot or plot device.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for the third story, where Tesla is goes to inspect a live volcano. She’s inside a transparent suit (would it have been transparent if a male character had worn it? I doubt it) kneeling in it, for some reason. She finds fire elemental type male creatures inside… and one of them is hugely attracted to her. He shooes the other fire creatures off and the problem is solved. Bah.

In issue 11 (Strange Reunion) Tom Strange from an parallel Earth, although not from a parallel dimension, comes to Tom Strong’s Earth to ask for help. Strange’s Earth (which Strong has named Terra Obscura) has been attacked by a giant alien robot (hmm. Is there a theme here?) which has killed all other Earth’s heroes and is attacking the Earth itself. However, Strange didn’t have a space ship so he simply jumped through the Milky Way to Strong’s Earth which took him thirty years. Unsurprisingly, Strong decides to help Strange and together they return to Strange’s Earth on Strong’s space ship.

In the next issue (Terror on Terra Obscura), we find out that the robot hasn’t killed all of Earth’s heroes, and Strange and Strong can save some of them. However, 30 years have gone by and the united heroes still have to find a way to stop the robot which is slowly building Earth into its own spaceship.

I really liked this one; it feels like an old-fashioned superhero adventure. Of course, I don’t really know much about the heroes in Terra Obscura but they are similar enough with other comics’ characters that they feel familiar. Pretty much the only think I didn’t like was the small part the the female characters played. Tesla and Dhalua stayed behind when the two Toms left and nobody even suggested that they should come to TO. Also, in the second part of the story all the heroes who do something significant in the story are male. There are a few female heroes but they’re apparently there just as eye candy. Sigh.

The Tower at Time’s End! in issue 13 is a classic time-travel adventure. Tom’s nemesis Paul Saveen has gotten hold of Parallax’s time machine and he’s traveled to the Fortress at end of time in order to become the master of time. He’s also gathered up other Saveens from other dimensions and they are all working together. However, in order to become the master of time the Saveens need the red ruby of eternity, and the Time-Keeper has split in three parts and send it to different (or rather the same protectors). Saveen, of course, goes after the ruby parts. The first one went to the the “current” Tom Strong, the next one to a 12 years old Tom Strong, and the last one to Warren Strong who is Tom’s counterpart in an dimension which is inhabited by talking animals. Warren is a rabbit and Saveen is a fox.

The last issue has three space adventures set in the year 1955 when the Strongs had a space vacation. The first one is a comedy but next one tackles a classic SF plot device: a place that came all of your dream come true. The last story is set in far future.

I didn’t like these short stories as much as the longer ones but I really liked the Terra Obscura double issue story. For me, the shorter stories didn’t have much meat on their bones. But I tend to enjoy the characters and the science fiction setting.

Written by Alan Moore

Artists: Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon, and additional art by Arthur Adams, Gary Frank, Dave Gibbons and Jerry Ordway

Collects Tom Strong 1-7 with the original covers and concept art.

Publisher: America’s Best Comics
Publication date: 2000

Tom Strong is a nod to classic super hero stories and pulp fiction. He’s supposed to be a “science hero” but, at least at first, he solves most problems with his fists. He has a great supporting cast, though. His wife Dhalua and daughter Tesla are his side kicks along with Pneuman, who is a robot built by Tom’s scientist father, and King Solomon who is an intelligent gorilla. The family structure brings to my mind the Fantastic Four, especially with the bantering Pneuman and Solomon, however, the rest of the team don’t have the same dynamics.

The first three stories are stand-alones that introduce the characters and the world, but a more continuous storyline starts at the end of issue four.

The first issue is our hero’s origin story. It’s a story within a story: the POV character is Timmy Turbo (who is drawn to look like he’s drawn character). Timmy has just joined the Strongmen of America and in his introductory pack is a comic which tells Tom Strong’s origin story: in fact the very comic that the reader is reading. I’m a sucker for this structure so I liked it a lot.

Tom’s father brings his family to a supposedly uninhabited island and builds a pressure chamber for his infant son, who is born on the island. However, the parents die and the locals raise Tom. He marries Dhalua who is a local girl and they have a daughter Tesla whose skin color is as dark as her mother’s. Tom and his family become the champions of Millenium City.

Tom’s super strong and invulnerable because of his stay in the chamber, and he and his family are all very long lived because of the goloka root that they eat. Tom is almost a hundred years old when the second issue starts but looks about 40 or 50.

The second issue is “the Return of the Modular Man”. Right at the start we see Tom, Tesla, and Solomon destroying the modules that when combined can produce the Modular Man. 13 years later, a few collage kids have found instruction from the internet to build the modules. Tom is away in Venus, so Tesla answers the police’s call for help when the modules begin to swallow up buildings. We also see Dhalua rescuing a plane in danger, so right at the start we see Tom’s family in action. However, Tom himself has to solve the Modular Man’s dilemma.

The third issue has Aztecs from an alternate dimension trying to conquer Millenium City! Tom enters their golden ziggurat to investigate. I really liked the techno-Aztecs as villains. The crew were clones and their god Quetzalcoatl-9 is a computer program that has to serve the humans and not the other way around.

All of these stories are pretty simple and the only surprising thing about them is Tesla’s and Dhalua’s strong roles considering the sexist pulp originals.

The fourth story starts as simple: Nazi throw-backs (all young, slim women who, for some reason, seem to hate trousers) attack Tom Strong’s home. Ingrid Weiss, a Nazi-engineered superhuman (strength, invulnerability, doesn’t age), is attacking the Strong family, and Tom relives his first encounter with her in the second World War. Quite frankly, I found this one a bit distasteful. It seemed to be nothing more than an excuse to draw huge-breasted women in skintight leather and the “dialogue” about each others’ great bodies was cringe worthy. (Yeah, showing the pulpy background but still…) However, at the end Tom is put into a time machine and sent millions of years back in time when Earth had just one super continent, the Pangaea.

In the next issue Tom relives his earlier visit to the past into this same continent. He and his wife were scientists there, gathering samples from the early Earth. They also encountered a shape changing, barely intelligent life form that didn’t like their presence. Tom and Dhalua had been sent with Professor Parallax’s time machine that was programmed to yank them back so they escaped that time. Now, the creature is massive and far more intelligent.

When Tom returns to his time, he has to deal with two old enemies who have teamed up. In issue six he see Tom’s first encounter with his arch-nemesis Saveen. Tom even has to protect a perky woman journalist!

In the next issue, Tom’s fight with his enemies continue while Dhalua and Tesla are looking for him. We also get a glimpse into a possible future in 2050.

I really liked the three last issues and I felt that the comic really got going there. All of the remembered stories, and glimpse into a future, are drawn by a different artist which creates a somewhat different mood to them. Dhalua also showed her real character in the last issue.

Like I said, I liked the supporting cast a lot. Tesla is the one we see most and she’s a pretty standard side kick: loyal, intelligent, brave. She doesn’t cringe from anything which is awesome in a female character. I actually didn’t like Dhalua as much because she’s jealous of Tom and to me that means insecure. She’s also pretty weirdly possessive of Tesla; she doesn’t mind it when Tesla’s in danger but she doesn’t allow Tesla to date. Huh? So, it’s okay for her to be injured or killed but sex is out… (eye rolling) King Solomon and Pheuman are a hilarious bickering pair.

In the last story Tom walks around in a memorabilia room where there are statues of his enemies. (It’s built by one of his enemies, which is a nice little twist.) Some of the names of the enemies remind me of DC and Marvel villains so even though I don’t really know what has happened, I can sort of deduce it, and I love that.

So, this is a nice, nostalgic romp for those of us who love comics but it’s not really high literature so anyone expecting something along the lines of Watchmen or V for Vendetta are bound to be disappointed.

Sprouce’s art work is pretty clean and it feels retro to me. No manga stylings,

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