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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.