This Column Has Seven Days #046 // Marvel’s Not Ready For Prime-Time Players

This weekend I took advantage of a couple of the sales on ComiXology, including picking up about a half-dozen Marvel comics collections. I thought a few of those series were worth talking about, because while they aren’t perfect they are at least interesting examples of what comes from corporate comics that try to look like boutique books.

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Going Solo, or “What I Got At The Marvel Digital Sale”

When Marvel announced their “All-New Marvel Now” branding across a slew of titles in early 2014, it seemed to me like they were trying a little too hard. There were a few books I was interested in, but seeing the “All-New” descriptor tagged to the initiative made it smell of desperation and hucksterism. I tried out a few of the new series, including Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and enjoyed each of them a great deal, but my choices were based far more on my interest in the creative teams than on the characters themselves. I took advantage of this weekend’s digital sale to pick up some other books, which promised some new takes on solo, “street level” characters: The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

The Punisher, Issue 5.

Let’s start with The Punisher. I have some very specific criteria when it comes to enjoying a Punisher comic book. Basically, if it’s written by Garth Ennis then I’m gonna like it; if it’s someone else, then it’s a crap shoot. In the first two volumes of the new Punisher series (Black and White and Border Crossing), writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads move Frank Castle from his home in New York City and send him to Los Angeles on the trail of the Dos Sols gang. This being a Punisher comic book, though, things get a little more complicated than that. The Punisher encounters the Dos Sols’ secret weapon, and is secretly hunted by the American military in the form of the black ops version of the Howling Commandos. In the second volume Frank finds himself in a South American prison, then later runs into Black Widow (more on her later) and ends up doing some dirty work for her in exchange for her not turning him in.

I enjoyed the team’s take on The Punisher as a tactician and soldier while still firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Frank’s not going out guns a-blazing and heading at super-villains head on; he’s mindful of collateral damage and is actually taking steps to be brutally efficient without making a spectacle of himself. Moving him to Los Angeles also provides Edmondson and Gerads with some interesting story potential, as well as the ability to establish a few new supporting cast members. Gerads’ art is clean and uncluttered, and he gives a flow to fast-paced scenes so I was never confused about how the action in one panel led to another, an important thing in a Punisher book. However, there were times where I had to actively stop comparing certain stories or situations to the Garth Ennis run; it’s not fair to Edmondson and Gerads to compare their work to some of my favourite Marvel comics of all time. I definitely would have an easier time reviewing this series if I could have stopped negatively comparing it to Ennis’ run, but at times I just couldn’t help it. Despite my own personal attachment to and opinion of the character, overall this new series is a smart, violent, and engaging book, like The Punisher is supposed to be, even if I couldn’t get out of my own way and just accept it.

Black WidowThe next comic, also written by Edmondson, is Black Widow, with art by Phil Noto. Out of the three series, this is the closest spiritual cousin to the critically acclaimed Hawkeye; though it doesn’t quite hit the same artistic highs as that series, Black Widow is a look at what an Avenger gets up to when she’s off the clock. From the first issue, Edmondson lays out his take on Black Widow: a woman who’s not running from the mistakes of her past, but rather using it as motivation for her current actions. I think the first volume, The Finely Woven Thread, is a good introduction to the character (speaking as someone who has never felt a particularly strong attachment to her). It starts with a few self-contained chapters establishing Natasha Romanoff’s globe-trotting espionage adventures and then closes with a multi-part story that establishes a conspiracy inside the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy agency. The dialogue gets a little rough at times, and towards the end of the collection the plot feels as though it is being stretched a little thin. On the strength of the writing alone, Black Widow would simply be an acceptable book. However, Noto’s art turns it into a much more interesting read; surprisingly, given his thin lines, his action scenes have real energy and the way he lays out the talking heads scenes help the pacing and actually elevate the dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Black Widow, and will definitely get the next volume to see how the seeds Edmondson and Noto plant in these early issues take root.

Iron Fist

My favourite of the three new-to-me series, however, was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, with Kaare Andrews taking care of both writing and art duties. The first volume, Rage, takes everything that has previously been established about Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, and deconstructs it. I don’t want to get into plot details, as revealing anything about the events of the plot (aside from the whole “Things will never be the same again!” hook) would spoil the read. However, I have to single Andrews out for making a book that looks absolutely gorgeous. His varying colour palette establishes just the right tone for each of the different settings, his faux-distressed and faded art for the flashback scenes strikes a good balance against the present day’s crisper line, and his action scenes are vibrant with Iron Fist moving through panels like a torrent of boiling water. Furthermore, the way he lays out each page is creative and eye-catching; some pages have a number of smaller panels against a larger backdrop, geographical details in one scene become panel borders in another, and his splash pages give the reader a chance to breathe while expanding the scope of the issue. I have no idea where Iron Fist: The Living Weapon is going, and though I am not sure I will like the final result from a plot and character perspective, I will love watching it happen.

Each of these new series scratches a different genre itch — action, espionage, martial arts — while never abandoning their identity as corporate superhero comics. That’s both a blessing and a curse — the use of established characters helps give them an audience but it also means that any significant changes are unlikely to remain in continuity after the current team leaves or the series wraps up. Taken for what they are, warts and all, all three are worth a read if only as attempts to shake up and reintroduce old characters to new readers, and the art on all three makes them worthy of a second look.

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I wasn’t just a Marvel zombie this past week, though. I also managed to dig deep into the origins of one of television’s biggest creative juggernauts — for good or for ill — of the last 40 years.

The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.
The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.

Television: I didn’t watch the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special earlier this month, mostly because like a stereotypical goon I dislike most of what SNL produced after I turned 19. However, I thought that the 40th anniversary was as good a reason as any to take my Season One DVDs off the shelf and give them a watch for the first time. After watching the first nine episodes I am still floored at how different the show was in its early days. It makes sense that a late-night sketch variety show would have a few growing pains when starting out, but the first few episodes feel wildly different than the format that is so familiar to today’s viewer. The first episode has host George Carlin (who only does monologues and never interacts with the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players), comedian Valri Bromfield, musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian (each of who does two songs), Andy Kaufman doing his Mighty Mouse routine, some original work from Jim Henson’s Muppets (which were an absolutely terrible fit for the program, as much as it pains me to say), and a film by Albert Brooks. All that plus some truly weird and wonderful sketches. It’s a fascinating watch, even if some of Carlin’s bits are de-fanged due to the combination of nerves and television standards, but watching the show evolve over the next eight episodes is absolutely fascinating. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, is basically a musical show with a few sketches, including a bizarrely hilarious film where he plays one-on-one basketball against former Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins. Simon sings a few songs on his own, then gets Art Garfunkel to come back to sing a few of their classics (and also to verbally Garfunkel on television).

The show really starts coming into its own when Candice Bergen hosts the fourth episode. She’s the first host to participate in sketches with the cast, and the show even has her in unscripted conversation with Gilda Radner, which is wonderfully sweet and sad. It is easy to see that everyone involved in the evening is having fun; the cast seems grateful and happy to have someone who’s willing to play along with them, and Bergen is up for trying anything. It’s the first glimpse of what the show would eventually turn into, and as much as I like the Carlin episode with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the Bergen episode is the first to border on legitimately great. Lily Tomlin’s and Richard Pryor’s episodes are even better, each tailored to best highlight their personas and skills. Even though the show can appear clumsy, sweaty, and dated at times, it’s also exciting and fresh and vibrant, and I can’t wait to get through even more episodes and then on to Season Two when things apparently get really interesting.

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That’s it for me this week. Until next time, try your luck at one of those Marvel series, or at least track down the Saturday Night Live “Racist Word Association” sketch with Pryor and Chevy Chase and marvel that it was on broadcast television in the ’70s. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #042 // Baby, I Hope You Like Funkin’ It Up

Happy Friday, everyone! I actually made a concerted effort to read a lot of comics this past week. So of course I’m going to spend the biggest chunk of my time talking about an album that came out last winter from one of my favourite bands of all time. Because I get to do what I want here, and I like that.

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First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate: An Excess of Excess

funkadelic_first_ya_gotta_shake_the_gate

I’ve been taking a few weeks to really listen to and digest First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, the first Funkadelic album of all-new material in over 33 years. I absolutely adore George Clinton, though my interests lie primarily in the 1970s P-Funk era. His wide-ranging musical tastes include doo-wop, rock and roll, soul, and R&B, and he’s influenced so many musical acts over the past 30 years that even if one has never listened to Funkadelic or Parliament, their music still sounds instantly familiar. The man is a huge inspiration and full of excess both musically and in real life, so I was both excited and hesitant to see what he could do on a triple album with all the production effects that have been developed since the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, at over 200 minutes of music, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but gloriously so. It’s very hip-hop and R&B-inspired, far different than the rock sounds of prime 1970s Funkadelic that I’m a fan of, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yes, some of the album’s 33 tracks seem a little self-indulgent, but this is George Clinton, damn it, and if the man wants to be self-indulgent then I say let him, he’s earned it. There’s also a lot of auto-tune on the album, which I think Clinton overuses, but it’s a fairly new toy so I can see why he would be excited to play with it even though it really overwhelms some of the songs.

I’ve been taking a few listens through each of the discs before I make any judgements on the songs, as there are so many different sounds and genres that it can take me a little while to get acclimatized to them. The first disc is full of highs and lows, so I’m going to focus on the highs. I really enjoy the smooth “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” and the G-funk groove of “Radio Friendly,” which is a little cognitively dissonant — Clinton homaging a genre that is itself an homage to Clinton — but it works. “Mathematics of Love” is a long track with some nice soul touches, and “Creases” has a rap by Del the Funky Homosapien that references He-Man villains like Man-E-Faces and Trap Jaw, so I’m all in on that one.

The second disc is probably the most solid of the whole album, with a lot of tracks that make me want to shake it all over the place. “Jolene” has a great hard guitar riff as a backbone, a sound that reminds me of the old 1970s Funkadelic in the best way. “Dirty Queen” is a rap-metal song which makes me strangely happy, while “You Can’t Unring The Bell” is a hip-hop/funk number with a solid groove and some killer drum and horn samples. “Pole Power” is a stripped-down funky number with a sexy groove and killer hook, and “As In” is a cover of a Bootsy Collins song I’ve admittedly never heard, but it is sung soulfully and wonderfully by the late Jessica Cleaves. This disc also features the most unexpected track on the album: a cover of The Four Tops’ “Bernadette” that at first rubbed me entirely the wrong way but ultimately I found to be one of the album’s most re-listenable songs.

I’m just now starting to delve into the third disc of the collection but there are definitely some great tracks already. “The Naz” features a really cool little groove that never fails to get my tailbone a-shaking, but really, the majority of the song is just special guest Sly Stone rambling all over the place. Plus, just the idea of a Funkadelic track with Sly Stone on it makes me happy beyond explanation. Some of the guitar work and vocal additions remind me of Frank Zappa and The Mothers, which is definitely not a bad thing. And the next three songs in a row — “Talking To The Wall,” ”Where Would I Go?” and “Yesterdejavu” — sound just like they could have appeared on a ’70s P-Funk album, if one could strip away a few of the modern production touches.

I’m aware that I took four paragraphs on a comics website to talk about a funk album that probably appeals to nobody but me. And that’s why I’m so glad Brandon and James give me this opportunity. Because if literally one other person checks out even one track from this album, then it will all have been worth it. First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, and then you gotta go back to listen to Maggot Brain and Standing On the Verge of Getting it On and Let’s Take It To The Stage. At least, that’s what I’d recommend.

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Comics: I have read a lot of comic books in the past week, but most of them have fallen around the “acceptable” range, give or take a few points, which makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone. (The really good ones were sadly recorded for an upcoming Scotch & Comics episode, which is actually happening, no joke, but I don’t want to pre-review them here.) One chunk of comics that I can nearly wholeheartedly recommend are the first three volumes of Ultimate Fantastic Four. The story collected in the first volume, “Fantastic,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar with pencils by Adam Kubert and inks by Danny Miki and John Dell, is extremely skim (or skip) worthy. It sets up the Ultimate origin of the FF and their first encounter with the Mole Man, a story that takes six issues to do when it could probably been much more exciting to read over three. The art is okay, with a few really interesting passages, but otherwise I feel the real meat of these issues is in the “Doom” storyline, in volume two. This is the jewel of the series, written by Warren Ellis and art by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger. This team really gets a handle on this younger and more vibrant take on the Fantastic Four: all the characters talk in more or less Ellis-toned dialogue, but it works for these young brash people, especially Ben Grimm. Honestly, Ellis’ take on The Thing is so fantastic it makes me wish he could write another FF story with the non-Ultimate versions of the characters. “N-Zone,” the story in the third volume, is once again illustrated by Kubert and a host of inkers, and while I don’t think his art is nearly as good a fit for Ellis’ story, it’s got a fantastic Ben Grimm, so I’m willing to overlook it. Maybe it’s just because I have an Ellis soft spot, but the second and third volume of Ultimate Fantastic Four feel youthful and vibrant even though they were first published over 10 years ago.

Books: Sometimes a book ends up being both more and less than I think it’s going to be. Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted was initially billed as combination memoir and travelogue, as author Eric Nuzum examines his youth, where he believed he was haunted by a ghost and started mentally falling apart, by exploring the ghost subcultures of modern America. It’s a little less complicated than that, actually. Nuzum does technically explore both of those ideas, but they’re not terribly well integrated. His accounts of his visits — to a highway that’s the centre of dozens of ghost stories, meetings with spiritualists, and a ghost tour through a haunted prison — are faintly interesting but don’t really lend much colour or depth to the exploration of his past. About three-fifths of the way through the book he drops those adventures entirely, and when he does the book becomes a far more gripping beast. His past is the much more interesting story, and the reason to read the book. Nuzum did not have an easy youth, whether it was being haunted by repeated dreams of a dead girl whose ghost lived in his spare room, or his tragic relationship with a young friend, or his substance abuse problems and subsequent mental breakdown. That’s the story that I appreciated the most, a man opening up and being raw and honest (as honest as he could be) about the horrors he’s lived through and how long he’s been haunted by that past. It gets extremely bleak and melodramatic, but that’s what being an adolescent was like for Nuzum (and many others), and when he finally gets to his lowest point I realized that his bleak and melodramatic tone may have been under-selling it. That’s when the book became more than I expected — the depth of emotion and exploration Nuzum dedicates to this horrible time in his life made that story so much more compelling than I had imagined it would be. Giving Up The Ghost would have been a much shorter book if he had done away with the framing device and it was just a memoir, but I’m sure that would have been a much harder book to get published, so I appreciate that I got to read the story at all.

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That’s all for me this week. Until next time, try to get a little funk on you. It’s a good look, I promise. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #041 // Boys in Sicktime Want to Write

What a day it has been, what a rare mood I’m in; why it’s almost like I have been recovering from a chest cold. That’s right, earlier in the week I had some kind of weird chest thing which made me hack and cough so much that one of my co-workers told me my voice sounded “sexy like Vin Diesel.” I of course ruined that by immediately saying “I am Groot,” which none of my other co-workers understood, but at least I was pleased by it. Here’s what else I was pleased by this week.

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This Column Has Seven Days #040 // Get Low

This past week has been one of the busiest I’ve had in a long time. It’s all good things, I assure you, and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, but it has wreaked havoc on my ability to sit still and dive deep into my to-read or to-watch lists. Still, I did manage to find a few hours to read and digest things, and it was time well spent because not only did I manage to check a few things off those lists, but one comic book in particular made me sit up — literally, while I was lounging on the couch — and take notice.

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Incoming // New Releases Shipping December 10th, 2014

The following titles are scheduled to ship on December 10th, 2014. As always, not all books will get into all stores, and depending on the region you’re in, certain books might have come in a week earlier, or will come in a week later. For reasons, I guess.

This list is pulled from the good folks at Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles – as such, it only features the books they ordered. Head over there where you can see me telling people what to do and how before my last day on December 31st. Also, you can buy comics there, I guess.

Best of the Week // A Fear of Penises

The Best

by Kurt Busiek, Ben Dewey and Jordie Bellaire
by Kurt Busiek, Ben Dewey and Jordie Bellaire

The presence of a penis in a comic will tell you a lot about a man’s maturity level. For some, it’s just another image, another fact of life. For others, the reaction varies from the shocked to the slightly uncomfortable to the blatantly homophobic and beyond. What I’m saying is, a lot of men react to cartoon penises differently, and that’s a strange thing to know. Such is the life of a comic shop manager.

Best of the Week // Pulling the Trigger

Award 02

Men of Wrath #3
by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney

While Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips diligently populate the industry with crime comics influenced by pulp novels and old Hollywood, Jason Aaron’s been putting together a solid string of tales himself in a slightly different arena. When you hear Aaron talk about his influences, you can sense a certain amount of cowboy in them. I’m not just talking southern influence (though clearly, that is there), I’m talking about tough-as-nails stoic protagonists and tension ratcheting silent stand-offs.

Men of Wrath approaches this type of crime from a decidedly wrong side of the law. It concerns the Rath family, and the seeming fact that the family has just gotten meaner over the years. Aaron and series co-creator Ron Garney take great pains to depict a generational souring that culminates in a confrontation between Ira Rath and his son, who put himself in a bad position by making the right choice at the wrong time. The tension in the comic not only comes from the situation that’s currently unfolding, but from the history of shocking actions the various generations of Raths. You’ve already been shown depictions of men doing the unthinkable, and so you’re left waiting for that trigger to get pulled. In equal measure, you’re wondering what this inherent meanness means for Ira’s son, and if that part of his family history will take root in him in order to survive. A hard crime story about being caught between a choice to be good vs. a history of evil. This series has earned itself our Crime Me A River Award for this week, as I eagerly await the final two parts to get into my hands.

Soon.

Best of the Week // Your Weekly Batmans

Award 01

by James Tynion IV and Fernando Blanco w/ Scott Snyder, Raw Fawkes, Jyle Higgins & Tim Seeley
by James Tynion IV and Fernando Blanco w/ Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Kyle Higgins & Tim Seeley

We stopped doing Best of the Week posts right around the time that Batman: Eternal started hitting the shelves. In hindsight, that was probably for the best, as I’d probably be talking about it every week (in some capacity), and I would have lost steam at this point.

Batman: Eternal is one of DC’s best books right now. While it remains mired in an aesthetic that doesn’t suit me personally, the storytelling has been incredible, and resembles something close to my platonic ideal for a weekly comic series. Over the past 35 issues, the writing team (and the ever-rotating series of artists) have taken the monthly serial and optimized for a swifter pace of release. What you get isn’t a typical monthly comic – it’s a story that lets plots bubble for issues at a time without having to wait six months for payoff. It lets different plots come to a boil at different moments, ramping pressure as each week offers progression and payoff. As a result, you get something like this issue, where a perceived victory mingles with some of the book’s slower moving plots in order to produce a bit of a nightmare for the titular character. So far, Batman’s been winning, but it’s cost him each time, and the price is starting to strip everything away from him. It’s gotten to the point where I am deliriously happy to read the Batman stories to come after this book concludes, as I’m sure the paradigm will have shifted. With the amount that’s happened in here, things can’t help but be different – and even though we all know things will go back to an equilibrium at some point in the future, for now (and the very near future), we’ll be getting some pretty strange and wonderful tales.

This is great. This is what superhero comics should be doing, experimenting with the form and building something interesting. A great job by the whole team, who has earned their Crazy Like A Fox award.

They know why.