Thursday, January 28, 2010

Marvel's second tier of books are better than its first tier, and an Authority run ends with a whimper

Marvel Comics.

Let me guess.  When you think about Marvel Comics you think about the very best comic book titles being published in the world today.  Naturally that means you’re thinking about Black Panther, Incredible Hercules, Nova, Secret Warriors and Guardians of The Galaxy.  No?  Well don’t feel bad.  Like many other people reading Marvel comic books, you’re probably following the more mainstream recognized top tier books for Marvel, and with the limited budget that many people have available to them you’re not able to explore titles with which you’re not already familiar. With that said, today I would like to spend a little bit of time telling you what I really enjoy about some of Marvel’s “B” books, and why I think they are more engaging than many of their “A” books.

[Black Panther] I commented to somebody reading the blog recently that I still haven’t seen an ethnic character really get the kind of series that he deserved, with the possible exception of the recent run by Reginald Hudlin on Black Panther.  Now I can’t take credit for being brave and giving this book a try when it first came out (it is now into its second volume, with the start of Dark Reign) but I was fortunate enough to find a number of back issues at The Heroes Lounge (now closed) in Georgetown and pick them up on discount when I had a couple of extra dollars in my pocket. Looking back, it is one of the best decisions that I’ve made.  I immediately started reading the book on a monthly basis, and was really impressed by the writer’s ability to weave together the concept of a super-hero (to me he’s Marvel’s Batman) with politics and intrigue. The Black Panther isn’t your typical story in any way, and because of that, it manages to always maintain a very fresh and original sense to it.  It deals with cultural differences, isn’t based in the United States and really touches on the concept of tribalism that dominates the African landscape.  Mix in a marriage to Storm, and an outsider’s perspective to things that happen on U.S. soil (like Civil War) and you get a very different kind of book.  It’s wonderfully written, and I really recommend it.

[Incredible Hercules] That’s right I said Incredible Hercules. I was standing in Axis Comics in Newmarket about 4 months before it closed, and listening to a number of comic guys laugh about the idea that Marvel was trying once again to publish a comic book about the longstanding “b grade” avengers character, when I was forced to ask if any of them had actually been reading the book.  They all laughed it off like I was joking, but I wasn’t.  When Greg Pak, who was doing brilliant work setting up Planet Hulk, made plans to spin Incredible Hercules out of the absence of an Incredible Hulk series at the time, I decided I would give it a try, and I was never disappointed.  The writing was smart, the new characters that they introduced were interesting, and the story served to really add depth to Marvel’s use of characters like Hercules, Athena and even Aries (currently a member of Norman Osborne’s Dark Avengers.)  More than that, my longstanding impression of Hercules in Marvel had been that he was bland, one-dimensional and basically a generic strong guy (not to be confused with Strong Guy of X-Factor.) After reading this series, I finally care about the character, and I see him as much more impressive and fleshed out than longstanding Avengers characters like Wonder Man or even Hawkeye. Pak embraced the character, and took him out of his comfort zone, setting Hercules clearly at odds with his family and with the American government.  The story is continuing to evolve, and I think that if you’re not reading this book, you’re miss a great opportunity to see a character get properly fleshed out for the first time.  That kind of freedom for a writer creates a myriad of possibilities, and Pak is exploring some damn good ones.  Plus, the mythology that is being woven into the super-hero genre works well too.

[Secret Warriors] This book might be the closest of all of them to being an “A-list” book because it was launched with the powerful brand name of Brian Bendis behind it, but make no mistake…..Secret Warrios is exactly the kind of smart, conspiracy laden Nick Fury story that almost always gets some momentum before getting buried for not selling enough. It’s another one of those titles that I wasn’t on in the beginning, but had a chance to pick up issues #1 - #8 on sale at Christmas, and did.  Man is it good.  Super-powers, secret agencies, and Nick Fury operating well outside the law.  It’s intelligent, without being highbrow, and it has powers without being Avengers.  Fury is building an army, and supplementing them with a black-ops group of young powers in a bid to retake the reigns of the spy world from the people like Osborne and Hydra (who we find out have always been the secret power behind SHIELD?!) It’s a fun book, with the kind of character I always have time for.  Fury is so old school that if he thought that making you cry would save him seven seconds in a fight, he’d find a way to break you emotionally in case he ever needed to beat you up.  He’s just so……so…..hard.  I like that when it is written up against the backdrop of young heroes, whose natural tendency is to rebel against authority.  What can I tell you?  Read this book.

[Nova & Guardians Of The Galaxy] To me these books make up the core of Marvel’s sci-fi heroes line.  There are other limited series and such that come and go, but these books have been at the heart of all things going on in space for the last few years.  The men writing both of these books have long since earned my admiration for telling smart stories, with creative edges, that somehow manage to hold on to that fresh feeling that I got when I was reading books as a kid. You may be surprised to hear that this is the fourth time that Marvel has attempted to tell the story of Nova.  The other reads are not very good, although they are reflective of their eras.  The Nova Corps is an intergalactic peace keeping police force (sound familiar anyone?) that has seldom had a big impact on the Marvel Universe.  That is no longer the case.  Abnett & Lanning launch the series by taking away the corps, and condensing the power all into one person; Nova Prime – Richard Ryder of Earth.  Once a New Warrior (the poor bastard!) Ryder is now the sole repository of a tremendous power source.  From there the story takes many twists, while bringing back into play some other characters from Marvel’s inter-galactic past.  Because Nova hasn’t been used in a deep and meaningful way, the writers have a lot of freedom, and as such they can tell original stories, making it a very interesting read.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a modern revamp of a campy 80’s book focused on a futuristic team comprised of members from a number of worlds. The new book takes a similar vein, but spins out of some of the major galactic stories that have been going on over the last couple of years in Marvel, like Annihilation, and takes place in the present. We’re treated to a very dysfunctional team with different purposes and agendas, and the struggle of holding those people together for the ultimate benefit of the galaxy. Adam Warlock, Rocket Raccoon (I’m serious!), Moondragon and Mar-Vell’s daughter all take center stage in this twisted and complex tale of social conflict and alienation. It’s a very creative and fresh book with an incredible dynamic and excellent story telling that is just a lot of fun to read. 

Now before I sign off, I should mention that while I have almost always enjoyed the work of Misters Abnett and Lanning, I found their recent ending to their time on The Authority for Wildstorm to be rushed, choppy and unfulfilled.  The premise that they were working on had legs and should have been allowed to run its course naturally, instead of being hurried to a resolution to make way for a new direction.  I don’t know if that’s their fault for not pacing the story better, or Jim’s fault for rushing their ending, but it left a sour taste in my mouth and I dropped the book.

Also, if you're read Morrison's Batman RIP, I'd like your thoughts.  We may have to discuss it some day soon.


Cam said...

Would you recommend these titles to someone that is otherwise uninterested in the Marvel universe? (Like me)

The 4th Man said...

The only thing I would say is that you have to have some level of interest in super-hero based comic books. That's what these are, and that's what Marvel does best. They don't get outside of that box very often.

Marvel is so rich in history that reading any of these books will eventually impart into you a basic knowledge of Marvel. You don't have to care about it, but you won't be able to avoid it.

Probably the easiest one to pick up would be Secret Warriors, because you really only need to understand 1 thing; Nick Fury used to run the world's top intelligence agency codenamed SHIELD. The book flows out of that.

Otherwise I might point you in the direction of either Nova or Black Panther. Team books (like Guardians) really would require more basic knowledge of Marvel's characters, and Hercules runs closer to mainstream Marvel in that it will cross paths with Spider-Man or Avengers more often.

Cam said...

Hmm.. the Fury book did sound the coolest to me. Is secret warriors the place to start getting into Fury though? (His doppelganger in Planetary was one of the best parts of that run)

The 4th Man said...

There are lots of places that you could start with learning a little bit more about Nick Fury before you jump into Secret Warriors, but you can basically get your head around him on the Wiki

That said, as a guy who has read and enjoyed Ennis work, you might like to read Fury (Vol.2 2001-2002) and Fury-Peacemaker (2006.) Ennis really writes Fury well, because he sees him as a man who has compromised normal morality for the greater good. He used that version of Fury in his Punisher run which was very gritty and violent, and into which Fury fit rather nicely.

The plus side of Secret Warriors is that it's full scope really can be summed up rather quickly:

Nick Fury uncovered the Skrull invasion of earth before anyone else, and not knowing who he could trust, disappeared. He began working covertly to prepare for a war with the invading shape shifters. Secret Warriors takes place just after that war has finished, with America handing the reigns of the remnants of Shield to Norman Osborne.

As a side note, the version of Fury that shows up in Iron Man is based on the Marvel Ultimates line. The "real" Fury is very much akin to the character you see in Planetary.

Randy Meredith said...


Check your local library. I know ours has a HUGE collection of graphic novels and trades now. You might find that they have collections of the books mentioned. That's how I discovered Incredible Herc. Sadly, they don't have the new Black Panther, Guardians or Secret Warriors.

The 4th Man said...

What I find interesting is that the new Black Panther was critically panned when launched, under the expectation that it would wither quickly and die. That was what? Five years ago?

Cam said...

Cool, thanks for the tip Randy. I'm at McGill University right now; you've got me curious to see if they consider comics worthy of their library.. they certainly should!

Nyarlathotep said...

I can see why people thought BP would fail. I bought the first few issues of Black Panther when it relaunched with Hudland and JR Jr as I'm a fan of Romita's artwork. The story was serviceable for reintroducing the character, but Hudland's dialogue was so horrible that I don't even think I made it through the first arc.

The 4th Man said...

Its obviously been a couple of years since I read the first arc, but I'm going to go back and have another look. I don't recall finding the dialogue horrible at all.

I'll comment again after the re-read.