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Longbox Graveyard #31

A grab-bag of five phantasmagorical mini-reviews this week!

Incredible Hulk #331-345, May 1987-July 1988

In his introduction for the first volume of the Marvel Visionaries reprinting this run, author Peter David admits that the Incredible Hulk was a book that no one really wanted to write when he took it over in 1987. And small wonder. For most of his history, the Hulk has been a great character underserved by crappy books. With Todd McFarlane on pencils, David would simultaneously take the book back to its roots (with the Hulk at war with his Bruce Banner identity) and also explore new territory (as the grey Hulk develops a persona more complex and nuanced than previously experienced).

I quite liked the dangerous, brutish personality that David developed for the Hulk, but the road story of the Hulk, Rick Jones, and Clay Quartermain hunting down Gamma Bombs was a snore (as was Bruce Banner’s marital problems with his wife, Betty), and the bad guys never rose to the broad-shouldered standard of the Hulk himself. Story themes tended toward the supernatural and morality plays, and in this they reminded me a bit of Saga of the Swamp Thing, where Alan Moore was completing his run right about the time David debuted on Hulk. But David failed to really dig into the dysfunctional side of the Hulk the way Alan Moore deconstructed Swampy — what we wind up with is a day tour of the dark side rather than an exploration of the inky blackness of the Hulk’s soul.

This will sound strange coming from a guy who writes a comic book blog … but reading this series for the first time recently was my first exposure to Todd McFarlane’s pencils. (Remember, I was in a comics cold sleep for decades). Most artists are a product of their age but I have to say that McFarlane’s pencils haven’t aged well. Aside from a select few panels I found his work static and overly posed. The range of expression in his humans was limited — a lot of clenched jaws and 80s hair — but he drew a pretty mean-looking Hulk.

Yeah, he’ll never amount to anything.

Anyway, I found this series a bit of a let-down, and can only assume the esteem in which it is held is largely due to Incredible Hulk having been such a terrible book before the Peter David gave it a fresh take. To be fair, these issues are just the start of David’s decade-long run on the character. I’ll come back and give the series another chance, but this year-long arc was enough for now.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C+

*   *   *   *   *

Jungle Action #6-18 September 1973-November 1975

I filled in my collection of Jungle Action at San Diego Comic-Con for a song, and I touched on my affection for Black Panther in a previous column, but I must still rank this series as a disappointment. Make no mistake — this is an historic run that scores high points for ambition and degree of difficulty. It has a minority character in a leading role, it eschews standard superheroics for a tale of African civil war, and it can lay claim to being the first graphic novel. Author Don McGregor approaches his subject with intelligence, examining themes of betrayal and the horror of war, and the art and page layouts from artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham were brash and fresh for the era.

My problem with the book is entirely down to Don McGregor’s writing style, which employs a tortured syntax that just never flowed for me. Read the two-page spread below and decide for yourself — it may work for you, and it may not, but either way you have to admit McGregor’s style demands a different kind of attention from the reader. I will concede that he may be an acquired taste, but it is not a taste I want to acquire — I reprogrammed my brain to read Patrick O’Brian but I’m not going to do the same thing for Black Panther.

So the problem with Jungle Action may be with the reader and not the book, but I found this a run to be admired, rather than enjoyed.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C

*   *   *   *   *

Daredevil #20-49, September 1966-February 1969

With the grim & gritty Frank Miller Daredevil so firmly engrained in my mind it is a bit jarring to go back to the character’s original “swashbuckling,” smart-Alec personality. And as much as I hate to disparage the original, the wise-cracking Matt Murdoch does come off a bit dim-witted in this run, showing little of his supposedly keen legal and seeming something of an airhead as he stumbles through romantic misunderstandings with Karen Page. A convoluted subplot where Daredevil tries to maintain his secret identity by masquerading as his wild and crazy “twin brother” Mark Murdoch has not aged well at all.

Stan Lee’s plotting is heavily reliant on gimmicks. Daredevil is rendered genuinely blind! Daredevil dresses up like Thor, and meets the real God of Thunder! Daredevil is about to be unmasked on live television! The villains are a third-string bunch, too — Stilt Man, The Beetle, The Trapster, The Owl — yeesh! Even when Doctor Doom shows up it’s for a silly body/mind swap story that doesn’t quite work. It’s pretty tiresome stuff, even by Silver Age standards, but the series is rescued by Gene Colan’s flowing pencils, which seem full of motion (and emotion) even when his subjects are at rest.

So effective is his action that I’ve long overlooked another of Gene Colan’s strengths — he was an excellent draftsman, too, and his automobiles, store fronts, and urban landscapes lend an additional air of authenticity to Daredevil’s street-level adventures.

The later half of the run improves a bit. Daredevil’s battle with Captain America in issue #43 is one of the classic stories of the age, and issue #47′s “Brother, Take My Hand” is melodramatic in a good way, as Matt Murdoch finally uses some of his lawyer smarts to help a blinded veteran. But overall, these issues aren’t Stan Lee’s finest moment as a writer, which is a real shame, because if the script had been as strong as the pencils, this would have been a run for the ages.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C+

*   *   *   *   *

The New Teen Titans #1-25, November 1980-November 1982

I took the plunge on the New Teen Titans Omnibus when I realized the twenty-five books it covered almost exactly corresponded with the issues missing from my collection. While the stories in this run are classic, the Omnibus is a bit less so, with an oddly stiff binding that sometimes makes it difficult to see the interior edges of the pages, and an introduction from author Marv Wolfman that apparently dates to some earlier collection, rather than offering fresh perspective on the occasion of this particular republication.

But it’s the content that counts, and returning to the Titans after all these years did not disappoint, though DC’s answer to Marvel’s X-Men seems quaint by modern standards, a Silver Age book in Bronze Age clothing. The stories are straight-ahead, uncomplicated, and compressed in old-school fashion, with heroes leaping directly into the action, and narrating their use of powers, their identities, and their inner conflicts so readers have no doubt who they are and what they are doing.

doing what they’re doing, saying what they’re doing, saying what’s happening, and showing it all at once

George Perez’s art is clear, clean, manically detailed, and displayed in deep focus, each page laid out with the precision of Dutch tulip fields — a perfect order of squares and rectangles parsing out consistently-paced superhero action. With its occasional “Epilogs” and portrait-emblazoned splash screen “Roll Calls” the book hearkens to Justice Leagues past, and the narrative captions used to set up some scenes might comfortably be narrated by Ted Knight, the voice-of-god storyteller from a 1970s Superfriends cartoons.

Marv Wolfman’s scripts reveal teenage yearnings in most un-teenaged fashion, his characters almost perfectly self-aware in the way they emote, stating out loud their insecurities and needs where the genuine article would more likely be sullen, or confused, or capricious in coming to grips with issues that can’t identify, let alone articulate.

self-help Robin saves himself a bundle on analyst bills

But for a series where all the gears are on the outside, it works, and works wonderfully, giving our teen cast a richly detailed and evolving characterization. Like the book itself, our characters are orderly, proscribed, and predictable, even when they are coming off the rails. In a way the stories remind me of later-day Star Trek teleplays, with their A and B-stories, their arcs, their spotlit characters, and the sense of a not-so-invisible storytelling hand that will wrap this thing up, one way or the other, by the end of the current episode.

remind me to renew my subscription to the “Underworld Star!”

It’s a world where the bad guys call themselves “The Fearsome Five” and put an ad in the newspaper to fill out their roster. The tales are unambiguously about good versus evil. There are no shadows here and no shades of grey, in the story or the art. The heroes may argue with each other over methods or objectives, but there’s never a doubt about who the baddies are. And lest demons like Trigon think we find them cute for sporting Bullwinkle antlers, he drives home his point by killing little girls and blowing up planets (for starters).

don’t let those Bullwinkle antlers fool you …

It’s remarkable how the book handles heavy issues with a light touch. Raven is the daughter of a woman wedded to a demon by her coven; Donna Troy is sexually beguiled by a Greek Titan; Starfire was sold into slavery — but the story doesn’t dwell on salacious details, instead concentrating on the strengths of each character in overcoming these tragedies. The tales imply rape and genocide but remain nonetheless sunlit and optimistic even in their darkest moments, and it’s not that these events lack weight so much as the glossy nature of the storytelling is magnetically repelled from the grimmest corners of this particular comic book universe. The New Teen Titans are nostalgic, refreshing, and a pretty much perfect example of its form.

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B+

*   *   *   *   *

Avengers #1-35 September 1963-December 1966

Full of anticipation for this year’s Avengers movie, and armed with a Marvel Digital Unlimited subscription, this seemed an ideal time to revisit the original run of the Avengers. The origin tale — with Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk thrown together with all the chemistry of strangers stuck in an elevator — was familiar, but the rest of the run was new to me, as I first came to the Avengers in 1974. Jack Kirby’s pencils on the first six issues were serviceable, but the Don Heck run that followed was genuinely dire — twenty-nine issues of artistic bad road.

Heck, Don, this just stinks!

The first dozen issues are a bumpy ride, though they have an endearing, “gee whiz” Silver Age charm, with the Avengers democratically rotating their leadership responsibilities, and Rick Jones hanging around and coordinating the operations of his “teen brigade” via ham radio. With Tony Stark determined to hide behind his Iron Man identity, the way is clear for Ant Man/Giant Man to be the brains of the outfit, and that character is the best-realized cast member for the first year of the book, as his powers are (amazingly) used to clever effect, and Hank Pym comes off as a level-headed man of science. The Wasp is a one-note bubble-brain, though, and the internal conflict of the book is limited to arguing with (and about) the Hulk.

The book finds its stride with issue #16, when the headlining heroes are jettisoned, and only Captain America sticks around, to lead a spare parts team of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch as replacement Avengers. Now the book starts to simmer with internal conflict, as everyone seems to want Cap’s job leading the team, and the series begins to benefit from its own history, with villains like Kang returning to challenge the Avengers anew. So, too, do classic Avengers themes begin to emerge, with villains turning good (the Swordsman, the Black Widow, and an earlier version of the Black Knight figure prominently in this run, while the Avengers Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver all overcome villainous origins to join the team); the Avengers enjoying an uneasy relationship with government authorities eager to regulate them or shut them down; Captain America proving more entertaining here than in his own book; Hank Pym’s revolving identities; and continuing obsessions over bylaws, memberships, and leadership. We’re also introduced to characters that would figure prominently in later Avengers lore (like Wonder Man) and we get more Baron Zemo than anyone should have to endure.

The book would truly come into its own with the Roy Thomas/John Buscema run that kicked off in issue #41, but this early run is still a lot of fun (despite Don Heck), and it is a joy to watch the Avengers tropes appear. Plus you can watch Tony Stark smoke as he recharges his ticker!

The series does bottom out a time or two but the overall trend is up and to the right — even after all these years, it is still worth watching the Avengers assemble!

LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #32 Panel Gallery: To Me, My Board!

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