Monday, December 28, 2009

Franken-Castle Lurches To Life...And Into Our Hearts

What kind of upside-down world are we living in where suddenly The Punisher has jumped to the top of my reading list? After being lopped into cutlets by Wolverine Junior and left for dead, the Punisher has been rescued by Morbius the Living Vampire and sewn back together as an honest-to-Mary Shelley Frankenstein monster!And I'm loving it.

In a classic it's-just-so-crazy-it-might-work move, Rick Remender and Tony Moore have taken Punisher down a whole new rabbit hole in the Marvel Universe, taking him to his lowest point during Dark Reign only to dismember him and dump him square in Marvel's monster underworld...AS a monster. I don't have a problem with this at all, since I've always found the standard criminal-hunting Punisher an odd fit in the fantastic world of Marvel, anyway. I have bought Punisher solo comics in the past, even collecting the title regularly if a writer I liked was working on the book. I especially enjoyed Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Punisher series, at least before it got super-serious and super-grim. In general, "straight" Punisher stories bore me.

Punisher purists may be aghast at all of this, but there is a gritty crime-drama PunisherMAX book out there, not to mention the steady flow of standard Punisher one shots and mini-series that are constantly flowing from the MAX imprint, so as far as I'm concerned, why NOT make the Marvel Universe Punisher as far-out and superheroey as possible?

The Franken-Castle arc combines two creators I like with several characters and concepts I normally don't like to create a book that has so far been a true surprise. Normally I don't even like Morbius, but cast as the mad doctor that reassembles the Punisher to lead the Legion of Monsters in battle an army of cyborg samurai led by a disembodied skull in a robot body bent on destroying all monsters... well, whats NOT to like? Go, Franken-Castle, go!

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Panic!

MAD magazine may be on the ropes today, but at one time, it was popular enough to spawn a host of imitators. In 1953, Bill Gaines decided to have EC Comics publish their own MAD knock-off, an even more risque magazine he titled PANIC. EC was already known for stirring up trouble amongst uptight 1950's America, and Panic #1 followed in that fine, nose-tweaking tradition on two fronts. The first story in the issue, a parody of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, caused a furor by revealing the tough-as-nails P.I. to be a transvestite, but the second story got the issue "banned" in Massachusetts for "desecrating Christmas". Yes, Virginia, the "War on Christmas" was being waged by pill-popping funnybook publishers as far back as 1953! Yep, this one fifty-seven year old comic book story that poops all over Clement Clark Moore's "A Christmas Carol" will no doubt ruin Christmas for you forever, so read with caution! (offer void in Massachusetts)

"The Night Before Christmas"
Script:Albert B. Feldstein Pencils:Bill Elder
Story scanned from PANIC #1 (Reprint), Gemstone Publishing (March 1997)

Merry Christmas from Again With the Comics! Seeya next year!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taps For the Daily Bugle

Spoilers for Amazing Spider-Man #614 below:

Over the years, Peter Parker's photography job has become an iconic, defining aspect of the Spider-Man mythos, but what happens in a day and age when anyone can take Parker-quality photos with a cell phone, and real-life newspapers are facing extinction?

For whatever reason, the Spider-writers have definitively moved away from the newsroom milieu in Amazing Spider-Man #614, where an amped-up Electro destroyed the DB building during his attempt to blackmail Dexter Bennett. Spider-Man, Bennett and J. Jonah Jameson were all in the building when it came tumbling down, and Bennett was critically injured. The Daily Bugle status quo has been in turmoil since the beginning of “Brand New Day”, when Jameson lost control of the Bugle, and things moved even further from the norm with JJJ’s surprise election as Mayor of New York, now this would appear to nail shut the coffin.

For longtime readers, Jonah’s mayoral win was surprising, but blunted by the assumption that at some point, everything would revert to normal, as they tend to in comics. Comic readers have been trained to expect a reversion to the status quo after drastic changes, and all things being otherwise equal, Jonah would most likely soon be back at the Bugle, screaming at Peter about needing pix for his latest Spider-Man Menace article. In this particular case, however, real world events may provide the finality that fiction usually won't. Newspapers ain't healthy, folks.

Sure, JJJ could always become the editor of Front Line, or a Bugle website and scream at Peter about needing viral video for his latest Spider-Man Menace LiveSpamTweetFeed, but it wouldn't be the same, would it? I’m not sure how much mileage Marvel can get out of Mayor Jameson (lots, I hope), but there’s probably more of a photography future for Pete there than at any newspaper.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Comics Ever: John Byrne's Fantastic Four

Best Comics Ever will be an occasional feature looking at the highlights of my back-issue collection. These are the back issues I go back to re-read again and again, my "desert island" comics, if you will. Some of these books shaped the way I look at "graphic literature" to this day, others are just rollicking fun. Share your thoughts on this classic Fantastic Four run in our comments section!

The Fantastic Four have long been one of my favorite comic book superteams, dating back to the first time I remember noticing them, in the pocket books reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1, where Spidey tried and failed to join the popular team. As a child, I mainly followed Spidey, but as often as he crossed paths with the FF, I became familiar with them as well. When my parents drove me to my first comic book store, and I discovered the joys of the quarter-bin, Fantastic Four was one of the first titles I branched out towards, so my history with Marvel’s first Family goes back nearl as far as my general comics’ experience.

But the actual Fantastic Four comic books weren’t all that great by the early 1980’s. Despite the efforts of some talented creators, Fantastic Four was in a rut, and I remember liking the various back-issues that I had acquired a lot more than the newer issues. I wasn’t yet trained to follow specific creators yet, so I usually only picked up FF at 7-11 or the grocery store when there wasn’t much else available.

I can still remember seeing the cover of Fantastic Four #232 on the stand at the Security Book Exchange, with its striking Autumnal-hued cover. A leering Diablo gesturing over a set of glowing effigies, (FF-igies?) with a brilliant, creepy color scheme drawn by the guy who had been drawing Marvel-Team-Up caught my twelve-year old eye immediately, and told me there was something exciting here. I cajoled my mom out of the extra .50 cents, and off we went. I didn’t know it that day, but I had just started a five year journey with writer/artist John Byrne into one of the best damn runs of Fantastic Four the book would ever see. I basically read FF #232 to pieces. It was a simple enough one-off tale, but it cleared the deck of so much accumulated stodginess; that’s what I remember best of all. Under John Byrne, the matronly Sue became adorable, the Thing became craggy and frightening, the Torch was a fun hothead again, and Reed looked more brainy than brawny. The cumulative effect was a complete redesign of the team, without really redesigning anything.

Over his tenure on the title, Byrne showed a knack for looking at everything with a fresh eye. His second story was a Human Torch solo story, placing the Torch in a more grounded, human-interest setting, something that is hardly ever done with the character. The landmark 20th anniversary issue, #236 featured “Terror in a Tiny Town” an eerie tale that appeared to give the FF the normal life they had always craved, but at a terrible cost. As his tenure continued, Byrne mastered the art of keeping things changing and moving, without “breaking” anything permanently. The Thing devolved for a time, Frankie Raye gained Human Torch powers and briefly joined the team before becoming the next herald of Galactus, Reed and the FF first fought Galactus, then saved his life, an act that would haunt him later. The Inhumans, long hidden in the Himalayas, left Earth, a move that could be said to have led to their current space-bound status, and Doctor Doom regained his throne with the FF’s help, in an especially twisted, excellent storyline.

1983 saw an extended trip to the negative zone, and a return that culminated in new uniforms for the team (caused by negative zone energy, rather than tailoring), pregnancy for Sue (the child would be stillborn but was later retconned back to life as Valeria, the Richards’ super intelligent daughter) and the destruction of the Baxter Building (rebuilt as Four Freedoms Plaza). Doom returned as well, with Terrax in tow, and his craving for power once again led to his ultimate destruction, this time for sure! (Riiiight…!)  This was about the time, though, that Reed went missing.

In a clever twist, Byrne followed up on his previous Galactus story by playing out the implications of Reed’s previous rescue of Galactus. Issue #257 was an interlude issue, showing Galactus devouring the Skrull homeworld, an action that continues to have repercussions in the Marvel Universe today. The Galactic powers-that-be then abduct and place Reed on trial for his culpability in saving Galactus. In “The Trial of Reed Richards” the argument was successfully made that Galactus was more a force of nature than a villain, and Richards was freed. This was more thought than most had put into the wandering devourer before, and the story was quite controversial at the time.

1984 brought with it the Secret Wars, and a roster change, as the Thing elected to stay on battleworld, after a breakdown in his relationship with Alicia. She-Hulk replaced him on the team, and returned to Earth with them just in time for tragedy to strike, as Sue’s pregnancy terminated despite Reed’s best efforts. The team forged ahead, however, fighting Terminus, before a strange reunion with Reed’s time-lost father, Nathanial Richards.

1985 brought us the famous She-Hulk centerfold issue, and Byrne’s first crack at a solo story featuring the character with whom he would become much more closely associated. Shulkie had become a favorite of the naysayers by this time, and the cheesecake factor made this issue equally controversial and popular.  By this time, Byrne had hit his stride, but he had a few more tricks up his sleeve, such as starting up a romance between the Torch and Alicia, a move I heartily approved. As much as I like the Thing, the relationship had stagnated by that time, and this was an intriguing twist, especially when Ben returned from Battleworld and predictably flipped out. Of course, as soon as Byrne left, the next guy couldn’t wait to undo it.

Byrne also made great strides during his run in establishing the Invisible Girl as a powerful, competent fighter in her own right. Keep in mind, that up until that point, she had been considered the weakest link in the team, and largely a waste of a character. Over his run, Byrne made her more vital and interesting than she had ever been. His work on Sue culminated with the “Malice” storyline, where she was manipulated into fighting and utterly defeating the rest of the FF by the Psycho Man before breaking free of his control and revenging herself on him. The story arc ended with her renaming herself the Invisible Woman, now aware of her true abilities.

All good things must come to an end, and 1986 saw Byrne’s Fantastic Four run come to an end, anecdotally due to increased editorial interference. Doctor Doom returned yet again, followed by a time- travel story, but by the time Byrne began a story set in Central City, the fake city where the FF debuted, the increased involvement of other creators Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway made it clear that Byrne was on his way out. In those pre-internet days, a change of personnel was usually intuited more than officially reported, but clearly the Byrne era was over, and sure enough, issue 296 had not a hint of Byrne. The book would founder for awhile, with promising but short runs by Steve Englehart and Walt Simonson to come, but overall the years from 1981 to 1986 would be the best Fantastic Four years for some time to come. It was fun while it lasted, and I still consider Fantastic Four #232 – 295 to be some of the best comics ever.

All covers were found at the Grand Comic Database.
All images were found at The John Byrne Forum.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Horror of Stretchy Superheroes Revealed in "The Reaching Hand"

Speaking of DC Comics' Elastic Four, as I was recently, I was reminded of this very clever, very creepy little story from the lost Elseworlds 80-Page Giant, exploring the frightening side of elasticity! Bruce Wayne's descent into a Lovecraftian nightmare of stretchiness has gone unseen, unknown...until now. Gibber in terror, as you read "The Reaching Hand"

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Look Upon My Crap, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

And now, what you've really been waiting for: hardcore pornography. Not the good kind, though, just "shelf porn". I keep all of my Action figures (wee dollies) displayed in the basement of our house, along with my graphic novels. As you descend the stairs, the East wall greets your eye, with DC Direct JUSTICE figures in the spotlight: