Marvel, Stephen King’s The Stand: Soul Survivors #4, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, drawn by Mike Perkins, 2010
I can’t remember how I came into possession of this comic book. It could have been strapped to a bundle of desirables in the “5 for $1” grab-bags I adore so much, or perhaps it was carelessly lifted out of a dime box, stuck to the back of a Dreadstar I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. It’s possible; this book has a nice hard, sticky-in-the-right-condition card-stock-like cover. Either way, it certainly wasn’t a book I was dying to read. In fact, I only read it on a whim, while waiting to leave for work one day. I figured it was a book I wouldn’t mind putting down quickly if I ran out of time. It’s the 4th book in a 5 issue mini, in the scope of a larger adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. Inconsequential, I thought.
Boy did I find myself a winner.
First things first, let’s start with that hauntingly beautiful cover. Lee Bermejo is, traditionally, an amazing artist. He’s one of those artists that’s work is so detailed—so carefully, painstaking lush and “realistic” that one would never expect he has time for interiors. It happens though, and you better count each time a blessing. Here his work is strictly cover, but it speaks in such volumes that it effects the way the book is read. You have no idea what you’re about to read, but you have a pretty good idea about how you’ll feel. And you’ve got to hand it to Laura Martin, those colours draw you right in.
Open to the first page and you’re in for another treat. Mike Perkins is an artist I find easy to ignore. His work is very Steve Epting (and he proved it with his fill-in work for Captain America) but he’s not nearly as well-regarded. I always found his past work to be forgettable. It never really clicked. Something in this book, however, clicked big time. His storytelling is a sight to behold, and the amount of detail he crams into the expressions of Mother Abigail—it makes all the difference, trust me. I knew nothing about The Stand and yet, I was completely captivated by each and every panel.
Half of that captivation is due to writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. His narration, captions and dialogue are pitch-perfect, balancing character development, plot and mood. And the mood here is thick. We’re told the story of Mother Abigail, an unbelievably old woman in the south who somehow survived whatever occurred in The Stand. But this isn’t about the mystery of why she’s alive, or what happened before this book, this is about Abigail and her devotion. She’s unwaveringly faithful and it’s played positively, without an ounce of satire or offence. It’s quite refreshingly, actually. Aguirre-Sacasa’s style steeps the story in realism, while providing us a horrifying glimpse into the series’ conflict.
The fact that I was able to pick up this entirely random comic book and fall head over heels in love with everything about it is a true testament to its quality. There’s a complete story within these pages, and it’s a character study of the highest calibre. I can’t recommend any other issues of this series (because I haven’t read them yet!), but if you happen upon this one, buy it. Read it. Take it all in. As a single issue, it’s as satisfying as they come.
Marvel, Stephen King’s N. #4, written by Marc Guggenheim, drawn by Alex Maleev, 2010
And here we are on the flip-side. After being in complete awe of what was accomplished in The Stand: Soul Survivors #4, I had high hopes for this one. As far the score was concerned, Marvel’s Dark Tower adaptations had been incredible and now that I found value in The Stand I figured everything out there was golden. Not so. This one let me down big time.
Now to be fair, my expectations were probably unjust. To compare this short, four issue series to the larger adaptations is probably unfair. This is also issue 4 of 4, meaning the very end of the series. Already the deck is stacked against this book.
Let’s start with the cover again. This time it’s Alex Maleev at bat, and he swings wide for a miss. I have no idea what’s going on here, and only after finishing the issue did I realize that this was a sort of “man jumping off a bridge” scene. The mood that’s set? Some guy is scared, maybe, and dies. No, this cover didn’t do it for me.
The art inside is no better. In fact, it’s much worse. I liked Maleev’s work back in Daredevil, but here his “photo-referencing” is simply out of hand. Each panel looks like a poorly stylized, over-photo-shopped picture. It’s quite distracting and not my cup of tea—at all. The colours are blotchy and everywhere, adding nothing and further distracting. The start and end pages are particularly disappointing, being mainly text without much impact, but I’m not sure if Maleev is to blame there.
Marc Guggenheim might be the one to point a finger at. His scripting here is very unimpressive. Characters don’t seem natural; dialogue flows without weight and even the captions feel uninspired. The amount of mainly-text pages throughout also feels unnecessary. There are two pages dedicated to an article written by one of the characters. We understand what the article is about before it’s written—reading it is completely unnecessary as it provides no new information. In fact, the only thing it proves is that Guggenheim can take what he just wrote about and write it again in newspaper article format. Instead of furthering my investment in the story, it sucked me right out.
The story itself isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. The possibility of infectious mental-illness is explored but a point is never really made. It’s not even a decent McGuffin. I can’t recommend this book, though perhaps it reads better if you’re going through the entire series. As a single issue, it turned me off of the idea right away.
Marvel, Howard the Duck #14-15, written by Steve Gerber, drawn by Gene Colan, 1977
I love the idea of Howard the Duck, I just don’t love the book. I want to… I just don’t. Steve Gerber is a heck of a writer and these two issues are drawn by Gene Colan. What more could one ask for?
Something memorable, I suppose. In issue 14 Howard gets possessed and causes plenty of trouble, with Damion Hellstrom in tow to save the day. Nothing of note happens until late in the book when Howard gains cosmic awareness of the human experience (which is quite neat) and a certain someone shows up at the end. Unfortunately it’s less of a shock and more of a head-scratcher. Gerber’s script is wordy and stylized, but never as clever or funny as I was hoping for. Gene Colan’s pencils are terrific (as usual) and the inking from Klaus Janson is dark and heavy, yet appropriate. I liked this issue, but found it regrettably forgettable.
Issue 15 has an amazing cover, but the story inside is less about Dr. Bong and more about a shipwreck. The action here is more enjoyable than last issue, but Bong’s appearance comes too late in the game. Side character Winda Wester also put a kink in my enjoyment, as Gerber carefully crafts her dialogue to reflect her lisp. It’s creative writing, but I found it detracted from the reading experience, forcing me to look into her words very carefully and disrupting the flow of the story. Again the art is super, but that alone does not a great book make.
I’d like to tell you that Howard the Duck is a fantastic relic from Marvel’s glorious 1970s, in line with Warlock, Killraven or The Defenders, but judging from these two issues, it isn’t. Of course, I haven’t given up on Howard yet. Here’s hoping future issues I read will leave a more positive impact.
Marvel, Captain Justice #2, written by J.M. DeMatteis, drawn by Steve Leialoha, 1988
Bet you never read this one before! Ever hear of a show called Once a Hero? I hadn’t, but apparently this comic is based on that quickly cancelled, 1987 anomaly. Watch the intro; it features pictures of Thanos and Iron Man baddy The Controller. Weird eh?
The show lasted 3 episodes, and I believe the comic series lasted only 2 issues (this being the last). How good can it be? Well, with J.M. DeMatteis and Steve Leialoha at the helm, don’t count it out just yet!
The story revolves around Captain Justice, a comic book character who’s crossed over from the page into the real world. He befriends his creator, his young next door neighbour and a private investigator, deciding to tackle crime on the mean streets of modern suburbia. Trouble is, in our world Captain Justice doesn’t have his powers. Will that stop him from taking on the local extortion ring? Sounds corny, but the further you read, the better it gets!
DeMatteis knows how to write a story. His dialogue is always great and his pacing is right on track. He takes scenes that could ooze with cheese and gives them just enough credibility, keeping things fun yet meaningful. The characters here are fairly two-dimensional, but that private investigator character? He steals every scene, and he’s actually quite a large part of the book. I found myself enjoying the writing here a lot more than I thought I would.
Leialoha’s art isn’t the prettiest, but it’s perfectly functional. The storytelling is great, hitting all the right beats. The detail is there too, it’s just his awkward balance between realism and exaggerated proportions that might throw some off. Personally, I found his work to be very enjoyable.
I’m happy to report that this is a great read. It’s a very rich, complete story despite being only a single issue and worth every penny (of which I paid 25). Now to give the show a try…
Milestone, Hardware #8, written by Dwayne McDuffie, drawn by J.J. Birch, 1993
I love Milestone comics and I’m sure you can tell, I’ll be recommending this book. What could have been “the black Iron Man book” is actually so much more. Hardware is quite the unique creation, despite his similarities to the Marvel powerhouse.
This particular issue of Hardware deals with the character’s past. He was a brilliant child who abandoned his family to learn under the guidance of his science-focused mentor. His mentor turned out to be one evil son-of-a-gun and the Hardware battlesuit was born for revenge. Once his vengeance was dealt, however, fighting for justice seemed like a pretty natural step. This all sounds fine and dandy, but personal demons make for some nasty nightmares and nothing is as simple as it seems.
I never cared for Dwayne McDuffie until I read his Milestone work. For some reason, he was firing on all cylinders back with that company, but as far as I’ve read, never caught the same fire with any other books. The dialogue here is as good as it gets, throwing in lines atypical for comic books but so darn true to life they make you smile. It’s unabashed super-heroics all around, but something about Hardware just feels different. These characters have dimension and nothing is played by stereotype.
The art by J.J. Birch (which we all know is the angular, more experimental pseudonym for penciller Joe Brozowski) is great too. He renders each scene with just the right touch. There are muscle-bound heroes, sexy ladies and evil villains, but it’s all very tasteful and nothing feels exploited or over-done. The colouring from Milestone’s excellent team is a high point too, as usual. Some house-styles have aged very poorly (Valiant, I’m looking at you) but Milestone’s consistent colouring stands the test of time. I simply love it.
Buy this book. Buy every Milestone book. This isn’t the first time I’ve said it and it won’t be the last.