Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Masks and other comics

Masks #1: A solid if unexceptional first issue focusing mostly on the Shadow and the Green Hornet and Kato and laying down the foundation of the threat, of the "Party of Justice" taking over control of the city of New York, its police and courts. Likewise, the painted artwork by Alex Ross is pretty to look at. I personally chose the Francavilla cover. He is one of the stronger artists with a more unique style and approach to layouts and colors and perfectly suited to the pulp and noir storytelling feeling of such a book.

I don't know much about the particular Spider novels that serve as the inspiration and source for the plotline. Kudos to Dynamite to running an ad for places to get more about it. However, I've read several that have a similar set-up and feel.

There are questionable things concerning it, still. The story is to feature the Black Bat and we see him as Tony Quinn his alter-ego here. However, it's from the time before he was blinded and became the Black Bat. He's one of the few pulp heroes whose origin is pretty much given and does not leave much wiggle room to fit in another epic. In his pulp origin, he's a lawyer as seen here, only is blinded by a criminal who smuggled in some acid (the chemical not the drug). An act that will seem familiar to most comic fans as that's the origin for both Two-Face and Dr. Mid-nite. He retires from Law and becomes a recluse. He's visited by the daughter of a slain sheriff and agrees to an eye-transplant with the lawman's eyes. The operation is a success and leaves him with the extra ability to see in the dark, though he still has the acid scars around the eyes. With the sheriff's daughter and two other aides, he decides to let the world to continue think he's blind while he remains retired, acting as a sometimes consultant and the masked and costumed vigilante the Black Bat.

Nor does this crossover actually line up with the portrayals of the Spider in his own comic. Visually, he looks the same, but this is set in the late 1930s and his pulp novel while the main series is full of retcons and set in the present day. Time will tell if his supporting cast will be at least truer to the pulps or to the retcons. The story continues the Bruce Lee influence of Kato, which makes it hard for Green Hornet to seem really a peer of the likes of the Shadow and Spider.

Conversely, the upcoming covers featuring the Black Terror have him in his classic costume and not Alex Ross' redesign. But, Miss Fury is being shown in a re-designed costume.

Storywise, the main thing that doesn't really add up is the discussion between Britt Reid and Lamont Cranston concerning Law and Justice. Thematically, it fits as the Party of Justice is about a group taking over and subverting the law with criminals being enforcers and agents of the new corrupt laws, leading to men of justice becoming outlaws. However, the discussion doesn't really fit. Reid as the Green Hornet is a man who fosters the idea of him as a criminal, to act outside of the Law. If he truly believed in the Law over Justice, he wouldn't be a masked vigilante but fight solely from within the system as a crusading newspaper publisher. It's a scene for the sake of the story and not growing out of the characters.

Otherwise, the writing is solid. It introduces the heroes, a brief hero vs hero fight (though it should be the Shadow vs Green Hornet, Shadow vs Kato is akin to Batman fighting Bucky or Captain America fighting Robin... even the tv show got that right and had Kato fighting Robin), A discussion of the heroes in civilian identities over the problem. We get the introduction or teases of a couple of other characters but otherwise see the criminal group in action, enforcing the new laws. Ends with the heroes fighting overwhelming odds and the addition of another hero to the ranks. The writing is tight. It doesn't try to introduce every character at once. Where it does offer glimpses of future heroes, it's in scenes that also serve in showcasing the corruption of the Party of Justice and building storytelling tension. There's talking, but also plenty of superhero action.

While Ross did the artwork on the first issue, he's not the artist on the subsequent issues and as far as I know the future artist hasn't been announced. The cynic in me is so that retailers and readers will have to commit at least to the first couple of issues. Ross is a good painter. However, he's not a great storyteller. Panel flow is often clunky and he overuses his trick of casting the viewpoint beneath the characters to make them seem larger than life. Combined with tilting the angles of the panels making it seem some heroes are flying and shifting the viewpoints from low to high can cause a bit motion sickness. It feels as he's almost approaching each panel individually without much regard to the storyflow from panel to panel. His Lamont Cranston looks like an old man, and I've never found his women to be all that attractive. So, the scene of the Cranston and Margo in the Cobalt Club doesn't really give a feeling of jazz, glamour, or sophistication.

There are many that don't see a problem with the portrayal of women in comics. One can look no further than this comic to see the gap and issue. This comic will feature heroes from pulps, radio and comics the Shadow, Spider, Green Hornet and Kato, Zorro, Green Lama, Black Bat, the Black Terror and Miss Fury. Among all those men, one woman out of all of comics and pulps from the era though there are several that would fit. Instead of the oddballs such as Zorro and the over-powered Black Terror, women heroes like pulp's Domino Lady and comics Woman in Red, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil or Phantom Lady would  better fit. To add insult to injury, one of the alternate covers of the first issue featuring Miss Fury is her half out of costume as is one of the future alternate titles. There is no similar depiction of any of the male heroes.

There are a few other male pulp heroes I wouldn't mind seeing over the Black Terror and Zorro either: Jim Anthony, Phantom Detective, the Black Hood, Angel Detective, the Park Avenue Hunt Club, Operator 5, the Avenger, Secret Agent "X", the Crimson Clown, the Ghost, the Purple Scar, Skull-killer and the Octopus/Scorpion. Maybe the latter can be the next story. A sequel to the the Octopus and Scorpion pulps, clearing up some of those loose ends and having the two villains teaming up with Wu Fang bringing various pulp heroes together again.

Another big flaw is that at the price of comics today... the first page is wasted to a black title page with credits and acknowledgements. The second page is all black with the publisher information at the bottom... the story doesn't start til page 3!!? Why aren't those two pages just one page? Or better  yet, at the bottom of one of the story pages as most comics do? Sure, that would mean reducing a page of Ross' artwork or putting non-story text on it, but it would free up two more pages for art. At the very least, print some of the alternate covers, original pulp covers or sketches on the pages. Seriously, an all black page at the front of the book? Before I even began the story I had a bad taste in my mouth.

Talon #2: Ok, second issue (or 3rd if you count the zero issue) and there's a guest-artist? Right on the heels of Snyder online praising the work of the artist. I'm out.

Aquaman #14: Like Masks, a set-up issue, following up the the events of the last issue and setting up the next arc. It tells us what happened with Black Manta, though not a single mention of The Others.

This issue has been billed as a good jumping on point, but it's not really. Because, for the most part it is incredibly dull with a lot of talking and Aquaman not doing much. We get some heavy handed dialogue as to why Aquaman is cool and tough, while Black Manta turns down an offer to join the Suicide Squad. Only, there's nothing to tell new readers who or what the Suicide Squad is. There's a tease in dialogue concerning Garth. However, as this is a new reality, how much this Garth will be like the old Garth remains to be seen. A long dialogue between Ocean Master and Aquaman concerning past events. A scene with Vulko as an Atlantean body washes onshore conveniently near where he's been in exile. A bunch of disparate scenes, with little to tie any of them together, especially if you've not been following the title and very little action, but a whole lot of talking. The only scene with oomph is Black Manta asserting his Bad @$$-ery while in prison while talking about Aquaman and turning down the Suicide Squad.

Pete Woods is the guest artist for the title and he does a good job, didin't really miss Ivan Reis. Being aware that it was a guest artist, I looked to see if the odd widescreen panels would occur. The answer to that is "yes" and there was a page with just 4 extreme vertical panels. Woods does a better job at disguising it though, there's not a lot of empty space or odd croppings of figures other than a couple. This leads me to conclude that while Reis is the flashier artist especially when it comes to the figures and faces and with more finer line detail, Woods is actually the better storyteller and better at executing the script. And, that much of the fault of the odd panels and its effects on the storytelling as well as padding out the comic is coming from the writer and not the artists. Will be interesting to see what new artist Paul Pelleitier will be able to do.