Friday, July 04, 2008

Things Coming up Phantom

So, I went to India for two weeks to visit my gal's family in Mumbai and Nasik. I didn't see many comic books. There was one with an Indian superhero at a news-stand at the train stop, but things were a little hectic with our misadventure there and foolishly, I thought I'd see more. I saw a little noisemaker with an image of Shaktimaan on it. I now know that he was a fairly big superhero on Indian television around 10 years ago. And they have the translated Power Rangers and similar shows. Not that need be as Casey and Isabella who only know English wanted to watch Power Rangers despite not knowing the language. And in the Sunday paper, there was the Phantom. Not the Sunday funnies as we have them over here, just a few very reduced strips near the back of the paper as they have every day, but only on Sundays is the Phantom. This paper was also in English, so I don't really know about the Hindu version.

About halfway through the trip, we are visiting one uncle and Pamela's sister notices how much weight he'd lost and says, "Where's your Phantom-muscles? You're so thin, what happened to our Phantom?"

Near the end of the trip we're doing some shopping. I stop in one used-book mart and across the way there's a children's book nook. It wouldn't have occurred to me because over here comics aren't really thought of as being kid's stuff, except by those that don't read them but Pamela asks the guy if they have comics. He starts pulling out some Asterix and Tin Tin books, just like the ones over here, and then a similar sized Phantom book, with two stories of the Frew Phantom. Not what I was looking for, but Wow. And then another. And another. Apparently the publisher did 15 issues of these and this guy had all of them. He also pulls out a stack of regular comics, American ones: Green Lantern, Archie, Superman... and in the midst a Frew Phantom! Or rather a Frew Phantom, reprinted in India.

While I was hoping for an authentic Indian superhero comic, I left with the Frew Phantom and 4 of the larger Phantom books. We also got a Phantom book and an Asterix for Casey who's ten. I imagine his mother will be able to tell him who the Phantom is.

I get back and I read that Dynamite has secured the rights to The Phantom comic, a surprise to Moonstone. A shame. Dynamite hasn't really knocked anything out of the park for me and while Moonstone's Phantom had a shakey and inconsistant start, that's really changed in the past year. The other thing that bugs me a little is in the interview, Dynamite talks about modernizing the character. Other than stories specifically set in the past, the Phantom has always existed in the modern day, he and his fictional Africa have changed to keep up with the times. Sure, the Billy Zane movie took place in the Phantom's original time period, but by and large, the character hasn't been kept there, not in the comic strips and not in the current comic books.

So, I read "modernizing" and I interpret it as them thinking the character is too old fashioned in look and concept. Images of Liefeld's modernizing Captain America comes to mind. Or the current Bucky-Cap. Or maybe just more grim and gritty storytelling, he carries guns, maybe he shoots to kill. Who knows? Just a shame when Moonstone's version seemed to settle into a rock solid comic and a nice alternative to the superheroes of the DC/Marvel cosmologies.

The Frew Phantom comic I got has a bit of "The tail wagging the dog" type story, to borrow that term. In this case, it's a story that acknowledges an inspiration by claiming to be the source of it. Peter David did this when he has the Hulk borrow a strategy from the movie REAL GENIUS and claiming the movie got it from something Banner and pals did while in college. It would be like Superman travelling to the 1930's and tells a neophyte Doc Savage about his Fortress of Solitude, and Doc thinks that's not a half-bad idea. Most times these stories kind of annoy me, because there are readers out there that just might not realize that it's a backwards way of homage, that REAL GENIUS is not influenced by the writings of Peter David or Stan Lee, that Doc Savage had the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic years before Superman.

In the Phantom comic, the focus is on Edgar, a Jungle Patrol officer who is a bit inept and a wonder he even got in the Patrol as he washed out everywhere else. All he really wants to do is write and return to America to marry his girlfriend. Instead he gets an assignment to go with a professor and his assistants into the jungles, looking to track down a legendary jungle-man who is said to be lord of the jungle, even able to talk to the animals. As the professor is injured and his assistants captured by natives, the rest of the patrol leaves to get more help, and Edgar is left to watch over the scientist. And, of course he meets up with the mythological jungle-man, the Phantom and the two of them manage a rescue of the professor's assistants. After the adventure, Edgar does go back to the States and get married. And he writes a fictional account of the story for the pulps, titled "Tarzan of the Apes."

Not a bad story. The only real flaw to the story is the first page is an explanation of how strict the requirements are to get into the Patrol, that one has to wonder just how Edgar managed it. Before he broke into the pulps, ERB didn't have a string of failures in various militaries, but he did have trouble holding down a steady job during those uncertain times. It should be also said that he didn't write Tarzan first. While that is indeed his most famous creation, it was John Carter and the "Princess of Mars" that he wrote first. One can only wonder about what encounter must have inspired that one. As an added bonus, there's also a Mandrake story, this one looking like it's straight from the comic strip.

The current issue from Moonstone continues his epic battle against the forces that strive to tear Begalla apart. His longtime friend President Luaga has been apparently assassinated and taken out of the picture and the populace and remaining rulers are dupes or under the sway of drug-induced paranoia. The Phantom meanwhile strikes from the shadows. We have the re-appearance of a missing character, but the stakes are taken higher as it's revealed the Phantom's kids have also been kidnapped. There are so many villains forming this conglomeration of evil that one needs a score-card to keep track of who's who. It also makes the Phantom being successful all that much harder as these are all threats and just taking out one or two won't get the job done. The art by Silvestre Szilagyi is top notch. I hope we hear more from him when this comic is no more.

Amazing Spider-Girl #21: Playing off other Spider-books, this one has the nice little heading of being a "Brand New May". It's not necessarily a trick either as Norman Osborne takes Peter Parker on a little field trip to one of his grandfather's old sites where in stasis is a duplicate of Peter's daughter May in a stasis tube and the signs point to her being Peter's real daughter, the one we've been reading about some kind of changeling substituted at birth. Otherwise, May is feeling the various pressures of responsibilities to her boyfriend, her friends, and those who would be her friends if she got an even break. But, then this wouldn't really be a Spider-verse book would it? Good solid fun as always.

American Dream #4 and 5: If you're a fan of Spider-girl, you're doing yourself a disservice not getting this mini-series. Tom DeFalco delivers on good old fashioned superheroic story-telling. He succeeds with both titles by populating the books with people you want to care about and who at times are all too human. Under another writer, this really would be all about the superfolk or wow-ing us with the "realistic" bad guys by peppering their language with expletives. Heck, the good guys would be matching them word-for-word. Here, there's a heart to this superhero action story. As the storyline progresses, we learn about what motivates American Dream, how much she worked to get here as she ruminates on just who she is beyond the mask, the person she has kind of forgotten about in her single-mindedness to pursuing her dream.

Likewise, the action angle of the plot has various sub-stories going on. The cop and the heroes that just wants to do their jobs, but being hamstringed by SHIELD agents who don't quite realize how much they are in over their head. The missing illegal immigrants including one girl's boyfriend who comes to American Dream for help. That pesky human element rearing its head again. While the forces for law, order, and justice are fractured because of their various self-interests, the villains on the other hand are unified in theirs. The scientist and his soldiers. Ion Man and Red Queen who just wants to kill an Avenger. And the silicone men and their master who just wants power and money.

There's really only one bad moment, the master of the silicone men, Silikong. See, I've long had this habit of when I read, I don't really think phonetically. After years of reading Kudzu, I was reading a particularly funny Sunday strip out loud to a friend. Being Sunday, it focused on the preacher as it often did, the Rev. Will B. Dunn. I'm reading it, and halfway through before I get to the punchline, I start laughing. I had just gotten the joke of the preacher's name. I wonder if DeFalco and his editors suffer from doing likewise. That's the only reason I can come up with that they'd let the master villain's name actually make it to print. I would have thought it was deliberate if the hero had at least started making fun of the name. Silly Kong? Seriously?

All New Atom #25: Just to state the obvious, another gorgeously done Ladronn cover. I'm going to miss those. Maybe he'll pick up some covers on another book that I get. The man has come along way from his channeling Kirby days. The story wants to have its cake and eat it too. A lot of it falls under the "final issue" storytelling cliche of wrapping a lot of things up in some neat little packages and having some big apocalyptic happenings (deaths, marriages, births, that type of thing). While the recent storyline does get all tied up, we don't really get what the Chronos' were after nor why Lady Chronos happens to be Ryan's first love from way too many issues ago and best left forgotten. And the villainous Dwarfstar is her son. It's one of those cutesy, tie things back to the beginning, every character related elements that comics trope out a little too often. Frankly, it seems to cheapen Dwarf Star in my opinion. That he was just some hired psycho-killer given duplicate powers of the Atom made him a whole lot more interesting. We have the return of Ray Palmer as a guest star, adding a fake conflict to the title. We know it's the last issue, so will Ryan live or die and will Ray return to being the Atom or not is implicit with his appearance here that really wouldn't be the case if we knew that there were 12 more issues after this one. There's the death of a long-term supporting cast member and the birth of a baby. Awww. Then, at the end, the book acknowledges it's at an end as Ray Palmer asks if Ryan's going to take some time off, retire, focus on teaching, you know, all the things one expects a character to do when his book ends. Instead, he says he still needs to capture the Chronos-es and Dwarf Star who got away. So the book ends, but wooh-ha, the adventure continues. Until he gets killed off in the pages of another book or just completely forgotten. Still, a good run and we'll miss you.

Captain Britain and MI13 #2: And Captain Britain is still dead in his own title. A good and interesting read as the country feels the death of their numero uno hero and those left behind have to continue the fight. Don't really buy that the Skrulls could invade the realm of fairies and English magic and do as well as they were doing when they could hardly hold their own against the Black Knight, a half vampiric Spitfire or Captain Britain in a realm where science works normally. And defeating the Green Knight by cutting off his head? Recovering from that is sorta his thing. A fun story but then I'm wondering, what about areas of magic in other countries... So far, so good. Going to have to stick around for awhile on this one I think.

The Last Defenders #4: The book is more of the same, feeling like a long prelude to a different book and team as we see Nighthawk shuffle through team-members to get a team that ultimately is not quite the Defenders with Son of Satan, She-Hulk, and Krang being not-Dr. Strange, not-Hulk, and not-Namor. With the promos of a Nighthawk with his face covered, speculation is rampant on the theme being carried through with a not-Nighthawk either as the African American SHIELD agent taking over that role. Between the long drawn out prelude type feel and the heavy reliance on the weak Civil War superhero registration angle, real story elements don't really get addressed as no one's asking what the Sons of Serpents were doing raising Aztec gods in Las Vegas. Or course, this issue deals with tearing up a bit of Atlantic City, maybe someone is trying to destroy all the gambling hot spots of the Americas? Seriously, the only reason I included this review was that the next issue blurb contains my brother's favorite word when we find out "the Son of Satan's in a defenestrating mood." Kyle Richmond may want to stay away from windows.

FX #5: Great cover evoking Ray Harryhausen (or a more recent reference, ARMY OF DARKNESS movie poster). We get some answers as we learn about the Aegis Group are a sanctuary for various worlds and beings of myth and magic including the golden calf, Nessie, Big Foot, Thor's hammer and Captain America's shield. Cool stuff. A friend is taken over by dark forces and becomes a big bad and we are introduced to another cool looking group of heroes, Home Front. The story might have finally gotten a little big as a little sub-plot from the last issue seems forgotten when we saw various characters suffering some sort of blackouts. Such a minor part of the previous issue, that it's liable to be completely forgotten about by the time it gets revisited.

Guardians of the Galaxy #2: For the most part, my assessment of the first issue still stands. There is some well done humor, but for the most part it's looking at characters that should be familiar and I'm just not seeing it. Sort of like Peter David in his heyday on the Hulk. As a book where you don't have any interest really in the characters, it's a somewhat enjoyable romp. But, it just doesn't feel authentic as it lets the humor and clever scripting gloss over making the characters feel real. But, I do like Vance Astro (the version from the original Guardians of the Galaxy, not Justice) and so I'm interested in seeing where that goes.

Justice League of America #22: What's annoying about using a comic as a tie-in to another series, especially as handled recently? How the book you're reading keeps having cliffhangers and issues raised in it and resolved elsewhere, especially when those issues should be germaine to the book you're reading. It makes the League just look especially sloppy as you don't see them following up on things. If you're reading this book, you don't know that the Martian Manhunter who was shown to have been taken by the villains last issue has been apparently killed. No, this issue has McDuffie finally getting around to resolving all the various plot lines that hot writer Brad Meltzer felt like opening but never addressing such as Vixen's powers and getting the Red Tornado back into an android body. We get logical cameos by some of DC's top resident scientists. Overall, a solidly written tale with logical ramifications and decisions as Vixen finally comes clean about her powers and Black Canary boots her off the team as her decisions had endangered them. A little strong as Superman and Arsenal were complicit, even if a little bit after the fact and they suffer no consequences for keeping the information to themselves (or even Batman for that matter who had deduced the whole thing but kept it to himself). If Vixen must go, then they should share in the punishment as they pretty much made the same decision to help her keep it secret.

The sparring between Arsenal and Hawkgirl just reads false to me. Arsenal is using real arrows. The whole purpose of sparring is to train under controlled conditions, if he's using real arrows, the risk of injury is high. At best it's counter-productive as it's training him to make sure he misses his opponent. Be far different if we are shown that the arrows are rubber tipped (they'd still hurt) or if it was just hand-to-hand. In war games, soldiers don't use live ammo.

Benes is back on the art, so it's back to being over-rendered further muddied by an over photoshopped coloring job.
JSA Classified #39: Another final issue, this one ties up the recent Wildcat two-parter. There's enough material out there, that a Wildcat TPB wouldn't be such a bad idea from his team-up with the Spectre, guest-stars in The Brave & The Bold, and few mini's and here. Other than it would almost seem like a boxing mini-series. A good story as he is helped out by friends to get his mind back and he goes after the organization that stole his skills in the first place. Mike Barr hints at Wildcat having a plan, but that quickly goes nowhere as they do gang up on him and his fight against all the fighters with his skills is over way too quickly and only really works if you don't think about it too much. Ultimately he wins because the lead villains aren't willing to do what it takes to win, ie download all the skills of all the fighters they've accumulated into themselves, each is scared just what it might do to his mind. While they dilly-dally, Wildcat is able to clean out their gang and take them out. It ends with a bit of that heart and human element, as it shows Ted Grant helping out an old friend through physical therapy much as the JSA were able to help him earlier and a little blurb honoring Bob Haney, the writer of those The Brave and the Bold stories.

Cannot say it's a surprise JSA and JLA Classified books didn't last long. They rarely do. Why? Lack of consistancy probably. There are no central characters. No central creators, each arc is by a different team, usually not a headlining combination of talent between them. Any one of those elements are stumbling blocks for a book in today's market. And, neither really lived up to their potential. For most of the existence of the JLA book (until it's last couple of arcs) and all of the JSA one, it focused on the current incarnations of the teams. None of them ever played up with the "Classified" angle, stories from the past that remained secret for some reason until now (Thomas' All-Star Squadron Annual years ago is a perfect Classified story as we find out that the JSA had protected future Presidents from assassination and failed in one case). Ultimately, they were mostly opportunities to tell some different type stories with some of the lesser seen characters or character combinations squandered for giving us yet another Green Lantern - Vandal Savage face off. Imagine an opportunity to do a team-up between the two with classic combinations of the teams, even a pre-crisis one where we finally see a team-up of just the counterparts. The JSA title would have been better titled "Spotlight" instead of "Classified" as it focused individual adventures. Most were as good as almost anything else out there, but nothing that really grabbed your attention unless you were already reading the books.

Star Trek: Assignment: Earth #3: A definite improvement over the last two issues as we get a little more into the characters and the time period as well as indications of a bigger plot at work as Gary Seven notes that they keep coming across technology that should be beyond the capabilities of the time. A little put off by a secondary character who is preaching non-violence is able to deliver a Chuck Norris round-house kick to the head when the situation calls for it. A solid read none-the-less with a bitter sweet ending.

Superpowers #4: Likewise, one of the more solid issues than the last several as the storyline gets addressed and we see characters and story elements being pulled together. Dynamic Man is still proving to be the big bad here, meanwhile there are things wrong with the ghost of Bruce Carter's ancestor. Seems he's a ghost because of a curse, that he failed George Washington somehow and was branded a traitor. The problem being, who's telling the truth. While he kept secrets, Carter seems to think that he's falsely branded a traitor and he sees his descendent and the Fighting Yank as a way to restore his honor and save him, while the American Spirit seems to think he really is a traitor and dragging his descendent down with him in his cursed nature. The ghost leaves in a huff and looking fairly demonic, vowing vengeance on the Spirit. Pyroman and Hydro nee Hydroman are kept pretty much to their original portrayals, though the text in the back says Pyroman "died" and reborn as a being of electricity and energy. Not really the case as he, like many electric heroes, survived what should have been electrocution, in his case execution by the electric chair. In the line-up in the back, we see heroes with names changed to protect presumably the trademarks somehow: Blue Beetle is Big Blue (what would IBM say about that?) and Yellowjacket is just Jack. Neither of those are really improvements, come across more as nicknames for them than actual superhero names.

The Twelve #6: This book continues its interesting dichotomy in that it's both written badly and well. The page where the Phantom Reporter has writer's block. The scene does a great job at communicating that. However, it takes a whole page when it could have taken just a few panels. This is where decompressed story-telling is bad for comics, the whole mini has been decompressed, not just this one page and it gives the story a plodding feel. We have pages and pages telling the stories in a very passive manner, giving all these character driven vignettes and not actual story, and they are all designed to show us how pathetic the various characters are, each in their own way. It feels like obvious manipulation in cases like the Blue Blade and Laughing Mask where it's over the top in the writing and the artwork.

Speaking of the Blue Blade, thought that his routine and all was supposed to be re-tooled and made more palatable for it to get the ok, yet it looks like it made it to the air pretty much intact? Are we sure this is the same JMS that actually worked in television?

The story of Rockman's origin is very poignant, managing to outdo both Captain Wonder and Mister E's stories. However, it completely re-writes the history of the character into being something completely different than he was before. And any future growth of the character out of this is basically stone-walled as the decision is made not to tell the character the truth. I had two problems with that. On the General's part, I just think that's a bone-headed and wrong decision. Deny telling someone the truth like that and you deny them from remembering all that's good as well, the real love he had, the family he still has and an opportunity to truly grieve and move on.

The other problem is from a storytelling point of view. It sets up a sort of false pathos and conflict. If the comic was Rockman's and this story was the major storyline, there'd be meat to it as we wonder will he discover the truth, what will he do when he finds out the general lied, what about the rest of Rockman's real family, etc. That'd be the story and the conflict. However, in the set-up that we got, the pathos and conflict is, Rockman doesn't know the truth but we the readers do. Thus we feel sorry for him, an empathy borne out by knowing something is bad but unable to help make it better. If the character dies, he does so without knowing the truth of the family out there, it makes the death more tragic in our eyes. It's different than the pathos of Captain Wonder who knows his family is dead and who lives with the fact they died without knowing what happened to him and from Mister E's family who rejects him and won't see the truth of him as being a hero even when presented with evidence of it. We still feel empathy, but it's because the pathos exists for the characters in the story, the conflict exists for them to work through and come to terms with. With Rockman, it's built on the fact we know something he doesn't, it's JMS manipulating us and our feelings. Rockman's story doesn't have to develop any further now, the easy decision would be to kill the character off for maximum payoff on what's set up here. Six issues to go, I hope there's more to the story. We see him slowly getting his memory back, from his backstory, the guy was a hero before he got powers. With his memory and all, he could be a great addition to the ongoing Marvel U. Considering the erratic and decompressed nature of the plotting and all, who knows if there is room for that kind of follow through?

JMS writes great scenes, but the structure of his overall storytelling and the decisions that lead to the scenes are greatly flawed. There's good stuff, but the whole things needs another revision or two to tighten up the writing and storytelling. If he's not telling scenes in very boring manner, he's re-writing and recasting characters, making them more mundane and sad. Mastermind Excello is a fascinating character with incredible physical and mental abilities and gadgets and such, he's Nick Fury with a little Professor X thrown in. Mr. E was in the pulp tradition with a vampire as an arch-enemy. Rockman from an underground kingdom. The Witness on the other hand gets a supernatural origin borrowing from the Spectre and even the Black Widow, but it makes the character seem even more pathetic and doesn't really explain his original m.o. that much, that he'd wait until after criminals committed acts instead of stopping them in progress. Well-written, yes. But actually extrapolated from the characters themselves? Not really. As if he doesn't want anything to detract from him wowing us and us recognizing him as a great wordsmith.

We do get a step up in the action and it finally looks like the plot is progressing where it should have several issues ago. Doesn't take much to figure out that it's Dynamic Man deliberately or subconsciously controlling the robotic Electro to take out the men who offended him earlier. Meanwhile he has a nice alibi that he's physically with the rest watching television while the attack is going on. Black Widow may end up being the suspected patsy though because of the other killings she is responsible for.

Both Superpowers and The Twelve make substantial changes to the original characters, but I have to give JMS credit that he at least does so in very moving story vignettes that clearly establish the characters and he seems to be laying down some groundwork for conflict that flows from there. Superpowers makes sweeping changes to the characters but doesn't bother to really define any of them, as if Krueger expects all readers to be as familiar with these characters as they are the Justice League or Captain America so he doesn't have to be bothered with explaining who they are. To the point it's confusing as to whether such changes are plot points or just convenient retcons. I know the characters are different, but then I've spent a lot of time reading and researching golden-age superhero comics. The average reader isn't going to know the relevancy of the original Daredevil being mute, or if the Face had any powers or not.

One thing both books have in common is that there seem to be too many characters for the writers to juggle effectively at their skill level. The Twelve would be better off if they compressed several of the characters. The Phantom Reporter, Mr. E, Laughing Mask, the Witness could fairly easily be combined into one or two characters, and thus giving a few characters a richer background/backstory. Fiery Mask and Electro are so far a non-entities, don't really need them with Captain Wonder, Dynamic Man and Rockman around. Likewise, Mastermind Excello's role so far could easily be folded into the Witness character given the needless add-on of a supernatural origin to the latter (whereas Excello did visualize things as they happened that could be explained away as types of supernatural visions).

Other minor notes.
Leafed through Blue Beetle as I'm wont to do but still cannot bring myself to buy the book. At first, this looked attractive in that it featured Dan Garrett prominently in flashback. Problem though, the writer seems to think that the scarab powered Dan Garrett Blue Beetle is the Blue Beetle from the 40's. He's not. While that Blue Beetle's identity was named Dan Garrett, it was a substantially different character, just as the Carter Hall Hawkman of the 1940's is different than the one from the 1960's. Now, the fluid nature of continuity being what it is, I don't have a real problem with saying that in the DCU, the scarab powered Blue Beetle had this long and illustrious career before dying and passing the mantle if not the power to Ted Kord. However, this means there was a superhero with Superman-esque levels of power that was active for close to 60 years! He'd have been a very big gun who somehow never served with JSA. And, like at the start of this column, it kinda gives the wrong idea of the real history of the character as it's so close to being like the real history but wrong in the details. Yes, there was a GA Blue Beetle. Yes, he was named Dan Garrett and the costumes ARE similar. As most readers don't know a lot about characters from that time, they will assume that the history here is correct. And there's nothing in the story that says it HAS to be in the 40's and not just "2o years ago", when this version of the Blue Beetle blazed forth only briefly.

The War that Time Forgot #3: Cover featuring work by Mark Schultz which was a natural in a title featuring dinosaurs. Cassus and the Mary Sue characters still get a little more play than they deserve but Tomohawk and Firehair showings as well and the story moves forward as we see there is purpose and intelligent design behind this "Secret War" on Dinosaur Island.

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