Marvel, Marvel Graphic Novel #18: She-Hulk, written and drawn by John Byrne, 1985
I’m not John Byrne’s biggest fan. On the one hand, he destroyed my beloved Doom Patrol. On the other, he created Alpha Flight. I’d say we’re about even.
Despite handling almost every major, established creation known to Marvel and DC, I rarely appreciate John Byrne’s work. She-Hulk is the exception. Byrne kicked off the green giantesses second solo series in 1989 and things were … different. This wasn’t your average chronicle of female fury, but a fourth-wall shattering, self-referential, expertly crafted, often hilarious mirror that was held up against the comic book world. She-Hulk is not the first character I think of when I think “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with super-heroes” but Byrne was quick to convince.
But that’s beside the point. This review isn’t about Byrne great run on The Sensational She-Hulk, it’s about the Marvel Graphic Novel that preceded that series. Truthfully, almost everything that I loved about Byrne’s series—everything that made it original, weird and notable is absent here. This is a fairly straightforward She-Hulk story with none of the absurdity. Believe it or not, it’s still pretty great!
There’re a few good reasons to love this book, and the art is the most obvious. Flipping through the larger-than-usual pages and sampling Byrne’s gorgeous work will give you instant appreciation for what lies inside. Characters are big, bold and drawn with confidence. The larger format is taken full advantage of and action-movie scenes jump off the pages. She-Hulk is rendered as beautifully as ever—equal parts muscle-bound babe and powerful 80s female archetype. The backgrounds are terrific, the characters are all ripe with expression and emotion, and the action stays clear and dynamic. Really, this is Byrne’s art at its best.
Another reason to love this book is Byrne’s characterizations. He knows how to write She-Hulk, SHIELD agents—heck even Wyatt Wingfoot seems interesting here. In my opinion, despite many great writers tackling Jennifer Walters and her She-Hulk persona, Byrne’s take on the character is definitive. She’s been many things, but under Byrne’s pen her levity, beauty, intelligence and power shine.
The story here revolves around some conflict with S.H.I.E.L.D., a date with Wyatt and some behind-the-scenes villainy. It’s a neat tale, but the plot isn’t the big draw here. This book is all about She-Hulk appreciation. With some of the best superhero artwork of the 80s, able scripting and a great large format, appreciation comes naturally.
Marvel, Marvel Graphic Novel #44: Ax, written and drawn by Ernie Colon, 1988
When I first began this column, there was one thing I couldn’t wait to share with the world. Ernie Colon is an artist worthy of icon status, yet his work is often remembered with confused shrugs. Maybe a few of you remember Amethyst and a few more yet recall Arak, Son of Thunder but they aren’t the gems I cherish. Have you ever seen his Magnus: Robot Fighter work? Well, he drew Dreadstar and Ax? If you haven’t read this original Marvel Graphic Novel, you should.
Colon is an artist who, under the right conditions, can blow you away. Most of his work (like the aforementioned Amethyst) is capable and impressive, but somewhat lacking in … “wow” factor. Ax is nothing but “wow” factor. Much of the difference, I believe, has to do with control. When Colon’s work is subject to the traditional means of a separate inker, colourist and letterer, things tend to look … well, traditional. When he has control over every aspect of the art, in this case everything including writing, things are taken to another level. The beauty of Colon’s sometimes watercolour-like sometimes chalk-like colours makes this book what it is—a visceral, beautiful, unique experience.
There’s a story behind the art as well, but don’t ask me exactly what it is. You need to read it yourself. Ax is anything but straightforward and there’re a lot of things to take in here. For an artist who rarely challenges the eyes, it’s interesting to read something so complex, thematic and meaningful. Combining Viking, African and sci-fi aesthetics we get a tale about acceptance, ignorance and class struggle. It’s a “one boy will change their minds” kind of story, but so much more as well. It’s an experience that leaves you bedazzled. For the better, trust me.
Now hopefully I’ve convinced you that Ernie Colon is a great artist. That much should be clear. That he is also a competent, surprisingly deep writer might be news, but should be no surprise. If he ever creates another project like Ax, I’ll be first in line to support it (and if I’ve missed it, let me know). I urge you to at least give this sometimes challenging, always breathtaking read a try.
Marvel, Marvel Graphic Novel #7: Killraven, written by Don McGregor, drawn by P. Craig Russell, 1983
Dig through the Comics Bulletin archives, there’s more information about this series (and subsequent graphic novel) than I could ever hope to sum up. Suffice to say, Don McGregor took what could have been a fairly substandard book and brought it into the realm of true literary greatness. This is so much more than the comic book version of War of the Worlds. This is eloquent comic book creation at its finest.
I won’t get into the original Killraven series. It started out pretty good, got a lot better when Don McGregor started writing and became amazing when P. Craig Russell began to draw. I’ve dug every issue I own out of bargain bins and I cherish each one. It was a series written with flair rarely seen outside of novels—the majesty of the golden age imagination with modern, literary practices. What could have very well devolved into the same realm as Adam West’s Batman was instead imbued with intricate ideas, distinctive themes and a respect for the reader’s intelligence. If I was a child of the 70s I’m not sure that I’d understand everything about Killraven, but I know I’d be intrigued enough to read those comics till they fell apart. But like I said, I won’t get into that.
This graphic novel was published in 1983, years after the series had come to an end. It starts with the sophisticated-yet-mainstream series’ themes and characters, but gleams with a new sense of freedom. P. Craig Russell’s art was great in the original series, but here it seems like he’d been hermetic and worked on nothing but this book for a lifetime. When he finally came out to breathe fresh air, his style was new, refined and completely original. That’s my fantasy of the situation, at least. The cover alone tells you that things have changed, that the creators have matured (not that they needed maturing) and that this will be the reading experience Killraven fans will never forget.
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But I digress. The art is spectacular and completely unexpected. No longer is Killraven a Conan-esque muscleman, but instead a lean, romanticized, almost Shakespearian-looking figure. Traditions are thrown out the window as each page offers something exciting and unique. There’s a nice dose of mixed-media art, astounding layouts and figure work that exceeded my every expectation. It’s coloured beautifully, lettered with adept skill and packaged in the lovely large format of Marvel’s Graphic Novels. I’m starting to run out of ways to describe just how gorgeous the art is, having just explained She-Hulk and Ax. These Marvel Graphic Novels sure were pretty.
The story lives up to McGregor’s previous work with the character, though it’s perhaps more perplexing. One does not simply skim through this book—it must be studied. Should your eyes glaze over the words and fail to absorb the messages, you’ll still be treated to an enjoyable read with attractive pictures. A careful read proves more gratifying. I’m sure if I delve into this book again in the future I’ll be rewarded further. If you’re new to McGregor’s writing or to Killraven in general, this book may throw you off. It begins in a very accessible manner, but artistic endeavours and experimental storytelling quickly whisks you away to a different place. If you’re open to going there, it’s one heck of a ride. If you’re unprepared, it may be an off-kilter experience. I say the trip is worth it.
Do yourself a favour and track this book down. I expect it won’t be for everyone, but to those that are even remotely interested after reading this review, I think you’ll find this an exciting, sophisticated read.