Sketch Time: Meggan (Pittsburgh Comicon 2011)

I'm still hard at work on my "Crossing" piece, so I thought I'd show you all yet another of the sketches I've received recently. This one's from Pittsburgh Comicon 2011 and is courtesy artist Joe Pekar. Keeping up with my theme of non-standard pieces (i.e. characters not everyone would ask for), here's Meggan, girlfriend (or is that wife?) to Captain Britain, and Excalibur teammate. Done in watercolor, it's all I could have asked for! So glad I asked for this one! What do you think, sirs?



Quick Reviews: Alpha Flight #0.1, Incredible Hulks #629, Skaar #3

A round of much-delayed, eagerly-awaited reviews, mes amis!

Alpha Flight #0.1 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak, Ben Oliver & Frank Martin

The eight-issue miniseries begins in earnest in a few weeks, but Alpha Flight #0.1, which shipped May 18, serves as a terrific introduction to the characters and concepts for the uninitiated. The twenty-page story, behind a cover by Phil Jiminez that shows nearly all the original Alpha Flight cast from their 1980s heyday, introduces the ensemble, as well as some other peripheral cast from the "good old days." It's true what writer Fred Van Lente said: this series marks the first time since the early days of John Byrne and Bill Mantlo that virtually the entire group has been the focus. Guardian, Vindicator, Sasquatch, Shaman, Marrina, Northstar and Aurora are all here, and purely from a nostalgic point of view, seeing them together just feels good.

Van Lente and Pak don't let nostalgia carry the story, however, wisely involving the Alphans in a plot to interrupt Canadian elections, ostensibly planned by someone very familiar to the title's middle years. Both that villainess and the specter of the elections themselves are portents of bigger things sure to erupt in the series proper. The only drawback in the book is in the artistic layouts by Ben Oliver. While the figures themselves look great, Oliver's panel shape--always jagged, seldom having 90 degree angles--are a distraction at best and a source of vertigo at worst. I must say I'm glad the miniseries itself will be illustrated by another artist (Dale Eaglesham).

I'm definitely expecting the storyline to ramp up with the actual first issue in June, but this is still a solid introduction with an accessible story, on-point characterization, and above-average artwork. Do yourself a favor and Buy It.

The Incredible Hulks #629 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Greg Pak, Tom Grummett, Cory Hamscher, Rick Magyar & Edgar Delgado

For the conclusion of Greg Pak's penultimate arc, "The Spy Who Smashed Me," which had been a surprisingly off-beat and humorous arc in its previous three sections, this story takes a decidedly standard superheroic slant. Behind another generic cover, this time by fan-favorite Frank Cho, "License to Smash" nonetheless provides an emotional finale that serves as setup for "Heart of the Monster," beginning next issue.

When you're talking about emotional Hulk stories, it seems the powers-that-be can seldom do one without involving Betty Ross. It's her eyes through which we're supposed to see Banner and the Hulk this issue. However, Betty here bears little, if any, resemblance to the same strong character of Peter David's tenure on the book. Becoming Red She-Hulk appears to have split the character into her strong and weak personality halves, with neither one of them showing exactly why Bruce carries such a torch for her. And maybe that's the point, right?

Arch-foe Tyrannus descends into his traditional mad brand of villainy for this final chapter, leaving the real emotional arc to be solved between Bruce/Hulk and Betty/Red She-Hulk. True, we do finally see what's in the urn and that particular conclusion is perplexing (and may provide a hint to next issue's story). If nothing else, Greg Pak has provided an excellent emotional underpinning for his final arc with this issue's soft conclusion. Tom Grummett finishes the storyline in his same standard superheroic style, which is still far above most else out there. While still not as strong as the previous three parts, you should still definitely Read It.

Skaar: King of the Savage Land #3 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Rob Williams, Brian Ching, Rick Ketcham & Guru eFX

The Savage Land adventure of Skaar, Son of Hulk, continues as he teams with Ka-Zar and delves deeper into the Designer's mysteries while encountering more of the area's unusual inhabitants. Rob Williams continues the story which seems to have less and less to do with the titular character and more to do with facets of Marvel continuity the writer wants to play with "just because." You can see one of the characters in question--Kid Colt--on the issue's cover, and while he looks a little different inside, he's still symptomatic of the "anything that will stick"-ness of the narrative.

On the plus side, Brian Ching's artwork continues to impress. He's really right at home in the jungle landscapes, drawing monsters of all shapes and sizes, from Skaar himself to dinosaurs. Guru-eFX similarly brings the pages to life with their colors. Still, I'm severely losing interest in the narrative as Skaar continues to be moved around like a pawn on a chessboard. I don't have much hope the remaining two issues will turn things around. Unless you have nothing better to read, I'm firmly of the opinion you should Skip It.



Storm Warning 7: Shadowstorm Was a Wuss, Dude (Blackest Night/Brightest Day)

Are we all here? I'm sure you were all beginning to worry...

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. I know it's been a long time since the previous installment of this series, but sometimes, that's the way things go. I always intended to come back at the conclusion of Brightest Day and summarize my thoughts on the most recent iteration of everyone's favorite nuclear hero. In the previous segment, I took you through the death of Ronald Raymond, the introduction of Jason Rusch, and the return of Professor Martin Stein to a prominent role in the Firestorm matrix. This time out, we're picking up Firestorm's activities in two fixed-length series, Blackest Night (2009's runaway hit "event" series by DC) and its direct continuation, Brightest Day (which just finished a few weeks ago).

Black Lantern Firestorm. Original design by Ethan Van Sciver.

It's worth noting early on that Geoff Johns is a master of DC Comics' long and varied history. He began his career as production assistant to Richard Donner (yes, that Superman director-guy) and soon started writing for DC on books like Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. and JSA. After briefly sojourning down the street at Marvel, he returned to DC where he's been ever since, having written Flash (both Wally West, in the wake of longtime scribe Mark Waid), Green Lantern, Teen Titans, and several "event" series like Infinite Crisis, 52, and the two series I'm about to discuss here. And, back in 2003, he pitched a Firestorm revival that interestingly fused Ron Raymond with his "brainy ex-girlfriend," a take that was tabled in favor of Mike Carey and Lewis LaRosa's version (which I touched upon a few episodes ago). Perhaps that version was a conscious or unconscious inspiration for the latter-day merging of Jason Rusch and Gehenna that opened Blackest Night.

The crossover that set in motion everything about Firestorm that continues to date is to a vast degree a Green Lantern story that spilled over to the rest of the DC Universe. Everyone who's familiar with DC lore knows the Lanterns' oath: "In brightest day, in blackest night..." and Johns parlayed the oath into a prophecy of sorts. Not only that, he took the previously-established Star Sapphires and Yellow Lanterns and wrapped them with the Green Lanterns into a color spectrum of powered beings. In the lead-up to Blackest Night Johns introduced the other corps to both explode the Green Lantern brand and set the stage for the massive storyline to come. You don't need to know the gory details for the purposes of this article. Just know that an old Green Lantern enemy, Nekron, captured the Anti-Monitor (the big bad from 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths) and used him to establish a beachhead of power in this reality in the form of a Black Lantern whose rings infected dead bodies and reanimated them, using their memories to draw in the living and generate more power. When the rings and lantern were sufficiently powered, Nekron would again rise. Easy peasy?

Firestorm, surrounded by his oldest foes all as Black Lanterns.

For the components of Firestorm--Jason Rusch, Gehenna Hewitt and Martin Stein--the return of the dead obviously spelled the return of Ron Raymond. Meeting at Ron's grave in Pittsburgh, they discussed Ron while the rain fell and plants mysteriously died. The rings came later in the first issue, and with them, Ron came back as a Black Lantern Firestorm. In the next issue, he appeared in a Black Lantern version of the Justice League who battled Green Lantern Hal Jordan and the Flash (Barry Allen). The third issue (which features a stunning Firestorm-centric variant cover by Ethan Van Sciver) would easily be the most essential to Firestorm fans for its momentous events. Jason and Gehenna quarreled over her thoughts on starting a family, which Jason "overheard" while they were merged as Firestorm. Jason thought they were too young to be having such ideas, and Gehenna countered by suggesting they no longer be Firestorm anymore. (Be careful what you wish for, Gen.)

Summoned by an emergency signal at the Justice League's Washington, DC headquarters, Jason and Gehenna arrived as Firestorm and talked with Mera, Aquaman's wife, about the emerging chaos. Green Lantern, Flash, Atom and a group of Indigo Lanterns arrived and compared notes about the Black Lanterns before the BL League arrived. Then, BL Firestorm fissioned his counterpart, removing Jason and Gehenna. He merged with Jason, who watched in horror as "Ron" turned his girlfriend to salt, killing her. The strength of his emotions for Gehenna powered the lantern considerably.

In the fourth issue, Jason gained control over BL Firestorm to warn Flash to evacuate the Earth, but soon "Ron" reasserted himself. Jason remained trapped within BL Firestorm for virtually the rest of the story, through the return of Nekron, the introduction of a "rainbow corps" of Lanterns and the White Lantern Entity, and the revelation that life in the DC Universe originated on Earth. Finally, the heroes formed a "White Lantern Corps" and defeated Nekron by using the rings to resurrect a number of characters, from Nekron's herald Black Hand, to the Anti-Monitor, to several heroes and villains including Firestorm, now comprised of Ron Raymond and Jason Rusch.

Firestorm and the Atom, together! Art by Ivan Reis, from Brightest Day #2.

The new status quo of all the resurrected characters became the thrust of the next series, the 24-issue Brightest Day. Was there a method to the White Lantern's madness? Who, if any of those resurrected, would become the Guardian of Life? Would the heroes and villains permanently be returned to life, or was it a temporary situation? As in Blackest Night, there's much more to this story than just Firestorm's involvement, but I'll only discuss the portions germane to our guy(s).

Brightest Day began for Firestorm with the wake of Gehenna Hewitt, attended by Professor Stein, Ray Palmer (the Atom), Jason Rusch, and members of Jason's family. Ron didn't attend the funeral, missing appointments to file paperwork with the Justice League to renew his legal status in favor of partying with friends at Pittsburgh University. He also no longer remembered anything that happened after his death at the hands of the Shadow Thief (which meant he didn't remember meeting Jason). Arriving at the wake, Ron talked with Jason but a shouting match erupted, resulting in merging into Firestorm--a Firestorm who could not fission!

At Pittsburgh University, Professors Stein and Palmer met to diagnose the problem, and Palmer reduced in size to infiltrate the matrix and discover the source of Firestorm's new instability. He caused an explosion that successfully fissioned them, and Ron and Jason awoke in the hospital, where Stein made it imperative that they remain separate. Ron, who actually did remember some of what had happened when the Black Lantern possessed him, found himself haunted by a salt effigy of Gehenna. Similarly, a disembodied voice nagged at Jason before a crane nearby turned into bubble gum, prompting a disaster that caused him to again become Firestorm. With a hungover Ron in control, the hero vomited a black ichor on someone he saved from the disaster. Ron apologized to Jason and admits he remembered when BL Firestorm killed Gehenna, even as they reached the conclusion something else was in the matrix with them.

Firestorm learns his final (?) fate. Cover to Brightest Day #10.

Ron and Jason went to the Professor, then, who ominously hinted at a "third and final stage of Firestorm." Before he could elaborate, the White Lantern entity showed them its wisdom: "You need to study," it told Ronald, while it told Jason "You need to get your head out of the books." It told them they needed to learn from each other so they could stop "him"--the mysterious third being in the matrix. During a series of tests back at Pittsburgh University, Professor Stein put forth his theory that the Jason/Ron merger made Firestorm more powerful, but also more unstable. In a bit of retroactive continuity, Stein told Firestorm that his original experiments aimed at finding the spark that led to the Big Bang, and that's what Firestorm is: the universe's cosmic reset button. And the more agitated Ron and Jason become, the more likely the Big Bang would again occur, This is all the third entity needs to know to break free, fissioning Firestorm and rendering the Professor unconscious before standing revealed as the Black Lantern Firestorm, henceforth called Deathstorm.

Deathstorm wasted no time in drawing Professor Stein into itself along with Jason's father Alvin before finding its way, Firestorm in tow, to Star City and the White Lantern. It infected the lantern to be able to lift it so that it might bring it to its new master, who also said that Deathstorm must bring him/it an army and stop the Entity's replacement from being chosen. To that end, the creature recreated Black Lantern duplicates of all those the Entity resurrected, and left. Firestorm traveled to the JLA Watchtower in hopes that scientists Dr. Mid-Nite and Atom might help stabilize the matrix, while Deathstorm toys with Stein and Alvin Rusch, tempting them to kill themselves in hopes his threat would perish. Anger got the better of Jason and Ron, however, causing an explosion that left them as Firestorm in an apparent black void. Did they end the universe?

Ah! That classic logo! A terrific cover for Brightest Day #16.

Not so fast! Shedding some proverbial light on the subject, Ron found they were amid a swarm of Shadow Demons, which meant they did not end the universe, but instead had been transported to another one: the Anti-Matter Universe, home of the Anti-Monitor and the Weaponers of Qward. After briefly intervening in a battle between some Green Lanterns, Sinestro and the Weaponers, Firestorm finally found Deathstorm, the Black Lantern Corps, and their master...the Anti-Monitor.

Now, everything to this point in Brightest Day was a prologue. We had solid character development and an interesting throughline that proved Firestorm was among the most important characters in the series, but in issue #22, he finally took the spotlight in an epic battle with the Anti-Monitor. It's a true masterpiece in virtually every sense of the word and one that all Firestorm fans should read. Ron and Jason finally work together to save all life--as well as their "fathers"--from the clutches of ultimate evil and death. Unfortunately, while Firestorm was able to save the White Lantern and destroy the Black Lanterns, he was not able to save Martin Stein, who sacrificed himself to save Ron and Jason from Deathstorm's transmuting power. Turned into salt the same as Gehenna, he bequeathed his final wishes to the two men, "knowing" that Jason would be a better partner to Ron than he was. His life now returned, Firestorm found himself transported to the Star City forest, where Deadman demanded the Lantern, and the Lantern wished to be given to him.

Gary Frank illustrates the final battle between Firestorm & Anti-Monitor.

The final two issues really have very little to do with Firestorm, his story all but fulfilled in the previous story. All of the resurrected united at the Star City forest, where Deadman told them they were there to combat the "dark avatar," in actuality the Swamp Thing, the former Earth elemental whose body was possessed by the power of the Black Lantern. The five key heroes--Firestorm, Aquaman, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and the Martian Manhunter--all transformed into elementals to form a last line of defense until the Entity's replacement could assume his role. Under a tree in that forest was--miraculously--the body of Alec Holland, the man whose consciousness had been imprinted upon the Green to become the original Swamp Thing. Now, Holland literally became the Swamp Thing and combined with the elementals to banish the dark avatar. At the end of the battle, most of the elementals returned to their normal forms and went their separate ways.

Ominously, as the main Brightest Day saga ended, a new era dawned for Ron and Jason. Upon examining some tests designed by the Professor, Jason found that the Anti-Monitor's blasts had caused a change in the Firestorm matrix, beginning a countdown to the detonation they all feared. That's where we leave our heroes until their next appearance.

The new merger, as previously glimpsed in Firestorm #9-13, was similar to the Jason/Professor merger of Stuart Moore's run in that it combined elements of both the "new era" (Jason) with the "classic era" (Ron) in hopes of pulling both new and old fans along--a smart move. This time, however, Firestorm returned to being about the "dumb jock" fused with the "intellectual" that fell in line with the original Conway/Milgrom iteration, getting away from the "dual intellectual" bit of Moore/Igle vintage. Only this time, due to popular demand, DC forsook one type of comic book minority (the fifty or sixty-something Stein) for another (the black Jason). They even went so far as to kill Martin Stein--my favorite character in the mythos--and with his parting words Geoff Johns and Brightest Day co-writer Peter J. Tomasi hit fans over the head with how much better a partner Jason would be than he was. It was one powerful line of dialogue for its sheer wrongheadedness, a moment where it felt less like the character saying the words and more like the writers forcing them in.

Deathstorm! Cover by David Finch.

Instead of getting a "voice of experience" in the dynamic, we now have two guys who are similar enough in age whose key differences are in intelligence and skin color. (Is anyone other than Kurt Busiek really going to call Ron Raymond "experienced"?) In selecting a Jason/Ron merger, Johns and Tomasi established a racial dynamic--or, at the very least, a stereotypical one where Jason functioned as the "angry black man" and Ron as a similarly intolerant white man who found themselves at odds, sharing the body and power of Firestorm. (It's not the first time such a dynamic has been used--anyone remember that Blaxploitation film, "The Thing With Two Heads"?) The point was even made explicit by Deathstorm in one of his early non-appearances.

I do enjoy the dramatic tension of having Ron and Jason at odds, and I do want it sticking around, but it goes without saying I want the racial undercurrent to be curtailed. The light antagonism is a plot point that didn't gain much traction in previous Firestorm series, with perhaps its strongest showings in John Ostrander's first issues (wherein Ron and the Professor were at odds over the ban on superheroes during the Legends crossover) and early in Dan Jolley's tenure, where Jason got to pick his partners in the matrix.

In some ways, the infighting between Ron and Jason highlights a key distinction and an evolution in Firestorm that I'd love to explore in deeper detail. Subtextually, the original relationship between Martin Stein and Ron Raymond was always depicted as one between a father and son, with Martin as the father that Ed Raymond couldn't be. Johns and Tomasi made that relationship explicit with Stein's death, while the entire Brightest Day arc functioned to establish a different dynamic between Ron and Jason Rusch. Since the Professor mentored them both, one can easily read the characters' antagonism and their very relationship as being between brothers--moreover, brothers who have experienced the loss of their "father." An intriguing shift, to be sure, and one that I hope DC will investigate in issues to come.

Deathstorm, Deathstorm, Deathstorm. More by Ivan Reis.

As far as villains go, Deathstorm seems like another "dark mirror" character in a long line, which is interesting since Firestorm already had one in Shadowstorm. It's true, he's all but forgotten--didn't he die in Captain Atom?--but since when did that ever stop a character from returning? While Shadowstorm was often too straight-faced, too stoic, too eeeeeeevil, Deathstorm was too often off in the other direction, with his deliberately horrible "surfer dude" dialect. I hear he'll be back, but I'm not so sure I like that prospect.

So, where are we heading from here? I keep hearing September will be rife with new first issues and it's obviously when the new Aquaman (by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis) and Hawkman (by James Robinson & Rags Morales) series will debut. However, DC's made definite plans for Firestorm as well, and I wonder if we won't see a brand-new Firestorm #1 in September as well. At the very least, we should soon see him in a book like Justice League of America or somewhere his new, post-Brightest Day status quo can be explored. Who could be writing the book, if Firestorm returns to a solo series? I don't know, but you can bet that you'll see an interview with the new guy (or girl) either here, courtesy me, or at FirestormFan.com, courtesy Shag, that site's owner. I'm feeling good about this.



NYCC '10 Remnants: Morbius by Gabriel Hardman

Not much to say today, kids, due to other things going on. That said, I wanted to catch up with old sketches, so here I bring you one of my favorite pieces from New York Comic Con 2010, by Hulk artist Gabriel Hardman! Here, Gabe channels the days of 1970s Marvel magazines with this thrilling rendition of Morbius, the Living Vampire!

Thanks, Gabe! Now, I just have to plan what I want at this year's con...!



Reviews: Incredible Hulks #628, Hulk #33

I've been remiss in reviewing last week's Incredible Hulks due to lots of other things happening. So this week, you get a two-in-one review, with Greg Pak & Tom Grummett's issue, followed in swift succession by Jeff Parker & Gabriel Hardman's Hulk. Can it get any better, folks?

Incredible Hulks #628 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Greg Pak, Tom Grummett, Cory Hamscher & Edgar Delgado

"Live and Let Smash," part three of the latest storyline, "The Spy Who Smashed Me," continues the James Bond-inspired globetrotting of previous chapters while upping the ante with more mythological underpinnings as in recent issues. The MacGuffin of the piece, Pandora's Box, continues to play a central role, with other agencies attempting to claim it, kidnapping both Tyrannus and Dr. Di Cosimo and leaving Hulk and Red She-Hulk to pursue them while sorting out their own issues. It's an intriguing imbroglio that's surprisingly lighthearted for a Hulk tale.

Greg Pak deserves a lot of credit for switching gears in his waning days on this series. In some ways, the stylistic shift reminds me of the kinds of stories Peter David used to tell using the merged Hulk incarnation of the early #400s. Such stories, often imbued with David's trademark off-center sense of humor, would in theory fail to work in the Hulk's tragic milieu. Yet, here we have another gifted writer, who opted to stay with the Banner/Hulk dichotomy, not only giving us another lighthearted romp, but making it look easy. Kudos, Mr. Pak. And playing up the ties between the Knights of Rome and recent foes, leading to a priceless exchange involving Tyrannus, Cho and the Hulks? Priceless.

Once again, Tom Grummett and Cory Hamscher do a slam-bang job with the art chores this issue, telling the story clearly and stylishly. Edgar Delgado's colors match the light tone of the script. It's a terrific package, made all the more surprising by the fact that the creators stuffed all this excitement into just 20 story pages. Conversely, that's also one of my only complaints about the issue. (The other is more about the arc's lack of covers appropriate to the story inside.) But then again, if cutting two story pages saves readers a whole dollar, then it's hard to dispute the point. Overall, there's still plenty to recommend this issue and series.

Quick Verdict: Buy It.

Hulk #33 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Jeff Parker, Gabriel Hardman & Elizabeth Breitweiser

Another month passes, and Jeff Parker and his merry crew again step up to the plate and present another solid issue of the series that just over a year ago was being decried as a blight on the legend of the Hulk in the Marvel Universe. Since taking control in issue #25, Parker, Hardman & Breitweiser have delivered well-hewn stories month in and out, and this issue is no different.

Writer Jeff Parker definitely isn't shy about lining up opponents to face the Scarlet Smasher, as this issue features not one, not two, not three, but four antagonists for Thad Ross, the man who became the very thing he hated. He's been brewing this tableau for a few issues now, and it's to his great credit that the storm of foes surrounding Red Hulk never feels forced. Every development is a cleverly calculated result of what has come before. Keep in mind, yes, the issue's cover (and one of its variants by Ed McGuinness, above) isn't representative of an exact moment in the narrative; still, all four villains have a presence, and three of the four have a direct or indirect conflict with our hero. (The fourth will have his day soon.)

Unlike last issue, the Red Hulk has a meatier part to play at the center of this narrative. He's weary from being unable to rest, hounded by General Fortean, to the degree that he's an easy target for Zero/One's new minion, Black Fog. While making for a terrific action sequence, Parker's plot nonetheless highlights an increasing problem with the character--namely, his unfortunate position of always playing defense. He's being attacked from all sides, unable to shape a plan of his own to overcome his obstacles. And that's a failing that echoes his green-skinned progenitor in the 1970s. Maybe it's the point Parker's trying to make, but if it goes on too long it has the consequence of belittling the title character. I'm hoping Red Hulk gets the chance to strike back soon.

In the art department, Gabriel Hardman and Elizabeth Breitweiser continue to impress. The Red Hulk's battle with Black Fog is stunningly drawn by Hardman, and Breitweiser's colors establish the proper mood. I love the stylistic choices Hardman uses month in and out, employing a solid design sense, easy-to-follow layouts, and tools that very few other artists deign to use (screentone!) in order to produce a unique, dynamic look. My only regret is that we won't see this team together again until issue #39 (!) due to the upcoming biweekly schedule.

Hulk #33 continues the upward trend of this series, which may yet eclipse the terrific storytelling of its sister title. It already often exceeds the other book's fun quotient, in spite of having a protagonist not many fans liked upon his introduction.

Quick Verdict: A close call, but with four villains, a complex ongoing plot, and our Crimson Crusher, in spite of my misgivings about the Red Hulk's role, I'll say Buy It.

What do you think, sirs?



Alpha Flight: They're Ba-ack!

One of the first teams whose stories I followed on the newsstand back in 1985 wasn't the X-Men, it wasn't the Justice League, and it wasn't even the Micronauts. I distinctly remember walking into Triangle News in downtown Beaver Falls (which long ago went out of business) and buying the above book, Alpha Flight #24. And from then on, I was hooked on the Canadian super-team. It was hopeless.

The characters were interesting--Sasquatch was my favorite, in part because he was in the first comic I'd ever bought (Incredible Hulk #272), but also I liked the idea of the Great Beasts, whose mega-arc really was a backdrop for the series under writer/artist John Byrne. I liked the self-made-man James MacDonald Hudson as Guardian, his sexy wife Heather, and their relationship with the then-enigmatic Wolverine. I liked Puck (who wouldn't, eh?) and Shaman, a sort of Native American Dr. Strange (before I really got into Dr. Strange). Snowbird also really appealed to me as a goddess who was trying to live life as a normal woman. I even found Marrina an intensely fascinating character in spite of her complicated backstory and the out-of-control thing she became near the end. And Aurora and Northstar were...well, Aurora (n'est-ce pas?) and Northstar. Beta Flight, Gamma Flight, Omega Flight...wow! And add in the wild story of Guardian's "return" from death. It was thrilling stuff and a great time to be a fan.

I've followed the team's exploits since then--buying the last few issues of John Byrne's two-plus-year run, then enjoying a mail subscription to Bill Mantlo's issues, which were turbulent and really upset the original team dynamic. (Not to mention the editorial interference I've heard about since!). I left shortly after the book went direct-sale only with #52 and upgraded formats with #61. I remember seeing various artistic talents on the book, from Mike Mignola, to Dave Ross, to Jon Bogdanove, to future superstar Jim Lee. I remember the introduction of the Purple Girl, Pestilence, Goblyn, Manikin, Scramble and the Dreamqueen. I remember when they brought back Sasquatch in Snowbird's body. (Anyone else wanna forget they ever heard the name 'Wanda Langkowski'?)

So yes, eventually I fell off the Alpha Flight bandwagon, but years later I'd return, and even amass a collection of every issue I'd missed. That included the return of James MacDonald Hudson as Guardian for just over a year in Fabian Nicieza and Michael Bair's "Building Blocks" series-within-a-series, a few crossovers with the Infinity War and Infinity Crusade that ran rampant in the early 1990s, and the series finale by Simon Furman. Fortunately it also included the remainder of John Byrne's tenure. I also bought the second and third volumes of the series, but many years later, the only issues I still own are Byrne's, and a small handful of the rest.

It's interesting that John Byrne's series is so highly regarded, and yet precious few have actually used the same group as he did for those two years and change. Both the second and third volumes used very different lineups, as did Omega Flight which didn't attract me beyond the second issue. It's also worth mentioning that for much of his series, the team wasn't united, but off having adventures in certain contingents. Sasquatch would go off by himself, Northstar and Aurora would do their own thing, Puck flew solo, etc. Only for a few issues in the middle and toward the end did they really form a cohesive team, and those moments were fleeting until Mantlo took control, steering the team toward a more conventional feel.

A few short months ago, Marvel Comics released word that they were bringing back Alpha Flight in an eight issue limited series (which has since added one issue). And for the first time since the original Byrne series, some...things...are happening. I've got the feeling this is going to be great, and to prove it, I recently interviewed co-writer Fred Van Lente, who with Greg Pak (Incredible Hulks, Herc, Silver Surfer) is bringing Alpha back. Take a look, why don't you?

Click here to read my interview with Fred Van Lente at Jameson Lee's The Daily P.O.P.!



The End of an Era: Marvel Heroes #33, Reviewed

As you may have seen in my previous post, Marvel Heroes #33, released by Panini, the UK licensee for Marvel Comics, has become a book of substantial importance beyond its meeting between the incredible Hulk and the original Death's Head, making his first U.K. appearance in over a decade and a half. Due to Disney's edict, it's also the last issue released by Panini to feature original content. That explains the dedication on the final story page ("Dedicated, with much respect and admiration, to all those who worked at Marvel U.K.") as it was clearly known around the Panini offices that it was, indeed, the end of the road. Alas, I've blogged enough about the actual end of Marvel U.K., so now it's time to review this last, bittersweet memory of an issue.

The powers-that-be went all-out with this issue, not only furnishing "The Brute and the Bounty Hunter," the main eight-page story by Simon Furman and Simon Williams, but also "The Hero Inside," a seven-page prologue by Ferg Handley and John Ross, and a spotlight feature on Death's Head for those who might not be familiar. The book is clearly intended for younger readers, but the Hulk/Death's Head stories can be enjoyed by fans of all ages and degrees due to some rather interesting uses of continuity.

Handley and Ross' story begins with Bruce Banner, on the run against those who would capture him, meeting with Betty in a public spot. However, not all is as it appears, and soon the Hulk is loose and fighting General Ross' Hulkbusters! The soldiers have an unexpected ace up their sleeve and the battle ends quickly. S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives with Ross, and they reveal to Banner that they need his--that is, the Hulk's--help to eliminate an alien threat that old-time Marvelites will find vaguely familiar. (To say nothing of the situation itself and its echoes of "Planet Hulk.") It's a decent setup story with the same art style as in the U.S.' Marvel Adventures line; in fact, John Ross' art reminds me to a degree of the work of Andy Kuhn, a Hulk fan of some renown and artist of Image Comics' Firebreather. Handley's script is capable, too, and gets all the characters in the right place for the main event.

And it's the main event by Furman and Williams that succeeds beyond all expectations. Transported to the Blue Area of the Moon to face the aliens' champion, the brutish Hulk must restrain his savagery if he is to defeat him. That champion is, of course, Death's Head, looking and sounding exactly as he did in his earliest adventures at Marvel U.K. (In fact, his costume is the one he wore circa Transformers, Doctor Who Weekly and Dragon's Claws, which should inform you where the aliens snatched him from the timestream!) You can tell this is Simon Williams' dream project, as his art captures the raw power of the Hulk and the snarky attitude of Death's Head during their battle. The outcome is different than expected, but no less satisfying. Furman's script depicts everyone as spot-on as they could be, and Jason Cardy and Kat Nicholson's lush color palettes complete the package.

This two-part tale is a fitting end to Marvel U.K., teaming one of the U.S.' best-known heroes with one of the best characters to ever come out of the U.K. To have the main event written by one of the company's foremost talents of yesteryear and drawn by a terrific artist who's also a big time fan--that's icing on the cake. Again, I sincerely hope that Marvel U.S. reprints this tale--both parts--as a tribute, for these stories in this issue mark the end of an era.

If you're in a position to buy this gem, by all means, do it. If you're not, write to Marvel and request this tale, especially in light of recent news.

Quick Verdict: Do I really need to say it? Buy It.



More On That Mighty Marvel Renumbering Game...

(Blogger's--and that means Gary's--note: Blogger--the hosting site, that is--swallowed up this post, originally made available Wednesday evening. The end, which I edited in afterward, was gone, so I had to rewrite from scratch. They also deleted some comments here and there, which I hope to restore very soon. Enjoy!)

A few more words on something the previous entry brought up:

It now seems obvious why Marvel is releasing Fear Itself: Hulk Vs. Dracula miniseries starting in September, as that will be the first month we're without a regular book starring the Green Goliath. If the core event keeps on-schedule, its finale will ship in October, which means the Hulk mini will likely double-ship in its first month. It'll be November at the earliest before the Hulk we all know and love gets another regular series, probably tied to the events in the Fear Itself finale.

It's of course still a possibility that the series will resume as Incredible Hulk (no "s") with #636. I just think it's sad that Marvel seems more intent on short-term sales bumps with new #1's (as is most likely) than delivering quality, accessible product. Their track record with new first issues and renumbering speaks for itself: a few years ago, the first such casualty was, ironically, Incredible Hulk, which became Incredible Hercules after the conclusion of World War Hulk. From that, we got a new Hulk #1 that infamously introduced Red Hulk. (And eventually, of course, we got Incredible Hercules relaunched as Herc in March.)

In December, only a year after Daredevil resumed its original numbering with #500, that series was "canceled" and Black Panther took over its numbering. Daredevil subsequently starred in the four-issue Reborn limited series, and Mark Waid is now spearheading the character's return in a brand new first issue shipping in July.

Fantastic Four, a title having its fiftieth anniversary this year, ended this year following the death of the Human Torch. (Don't worry, he'll be back.) It was the first title to regain its original numbering with #500 in July 2003, but it's a safe bet you won't see issue #600 this year. Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting relaunched the book in March as simply FF, or as some prefer to call it, Future Foundation.

Thor was the first of the newest wave of series to be restored to their original numbering with issue #600 in January 2009. Last month, with the advent of Fear Itself, Marvel renamed the title, as they did in the late 1990s, to Journey Into Mystery, the same month as Thor starred in the first issue of a new series. Obviously, the timing was meant to coincide with the new Thor movie from Marvel Studios.

And just solicited for July is a new Captain America #1 by Ed Brubaker and Steve McNiven. That series had also been renumbered to #600 in June 2009. Like Thor, that renumbered series is not going away, but Marvel is renaming it to Captain America & Bucky and will contain stories set during WWII. (In other words, cancellation looms.)

At this point, Iron Man is the only title that was recently restored to its original numbering (although the renumbering, like Hulk, is suspect) and is continuing that numbering scheme. Amazing Spider-Man remains with its original numbering that Marvel restored with issue #500 in 2003. And Uncanny X-Men remains the one Marvel title whose numbering has gone wholly untouched over the years. How long will those three titles remain, given the company's propensity to forgo history for the sake of momentary sales blips?

In most of the above cases, one series didn't really end, but rather one spun off into another, then relaunched itself, providing two streams of revenue where at first there had been only one. This strategy is wrongheaded in the current sales climate where circulation for individual books is falling even as overall profits are rising (along with single issues' pricing). I long for the days where there was only one title for one character (except for Spider-Man because, let's face it, he's Spider-Man!). Sure, there might be short-term sales gains, just as there are brief gains from increasing a book's frequency to twice a month (wink, wink) but if we've seen one thing from recent sales figures, it's that those books take dives in today's climate, too, no matter the quality of the book being produced. (I'm looking squarely at you, Incredible Hulks!) Books that relaunch with a new first issue quickly resume their original sales figures largely irrespective of their creative teams, while books that overproduce find their sales figures slouching toward cancellation. When will it end? When will Marvel learn smarter marketing or, we can hope, smarter storytelling?

If Marvel's mighty marketing department feels the persistent need to reboot and renumber the majority of their line every couple of months/years, maybe they'd best turn their attention to the reasons why sales figures keep falling. You know, the Law of Diminishing Returns, and all that. Devise new strategies, strike out beyond the local comic shops where product has been sequestered since the market crash of the 1990s! Does the industry need to abandon or embrace its long history? Marvel seems to want it both ways when it's financially advantageous, hence the situations as described above. Has the industry become so inbred, is it really so hesitant to reach beyond its ever-constricting borders? Should the bigger companies abandon regular monthly periodicals altogether in favor of a new #1 issue every few months? Should they retain the high numbering some outside the industry claim contributes to the medium's impenetrability? How can comics compete with the video game culture? No easy answers, people...

Article coming, guys. "How To Fix Comics (Or, There Wasn't an Ultimate Spider-Man in 1986!)" Your thoughts, as always, appreciated.



What? No INCREDIBLE HULK #650 in 2012?

Although I'm sure we're in for some surprises, it seems on the surface the question has been answered, "Who will take over for Greg Pak after his last issue of The Incredible Hulk?" Nobody! Press release, coming right up (all emphasis mine)...

Greg Pak’s biggest story yet, “Heart Of The Monster”, brings dire consequences to the Green Goliath and those close to him.

What happens when the furious monster inside Bruce Banner says, “ENOUGH”?

The writer of Planet Hulk and World War Hulk brings his critically acclaimed Incredible Hulks run to a close…with a SMASH.

Catch the oversized final issue of the long running series, with a monster sized story and dozens of extras celebrating Greg Pak’s run, that no fan of the Jade Giant can miss.

Written by GREG PAK
Pencils and Cover by PAUL PELLETIER
Variant Cover by PAUL PELLETIER
Variant Cover by ADI GRANOV
Blank Cover Also Available
Rated A …$3.99

So, what's in the future for the ever-incredible Hulk? Will Thad Ross be the only Hulk with a title to call his own? What extras are we talking about in this issue aside from the multiple variant covers and that blank cover you can bet I'll be taking to conventions? Any extra backup stories inside? How big will the issue in question be? And might there be one final enemy beyond Fin Fang Foom, one long rumored to return? Mmmmmmmaybe?

One thing I'm relatively certain of is that once again, we're going to get a senseless renumbering of the series when it's on the cusp of a terrific anniversary number (#650, which if keeping the current schedule, would've been available just in time for the character's 50th anniversary next year). What it would also mean is, unless things change, the Red Hulk title will outnumber the title of the character from whom he spun off, and that's rather backwards. So, is there a sea change in store for Red Hulk, too?

So many questions, indeed...



An Ode to Marvel UK (May It Rise Again Someday)

I'm not based in the United Kingdom, and yet, I can't help but feel sad over news that Bleeding Cool editor-in-chief Rich Johnson broke today about the "death" of Marvel UK. The longstanding imprint, created in 1972 to further the Marvel brand around the world, was home to a great many noteworthy characters over the nearly four decades since it was established, and served as a breeding ground for new talent that would often find its way to U.S. shores. Now, following Disney's purchase of Marvel Comics in 2009, the new parent company has elected to not renew their license which permits production of new content, instead preferring to continue farming out reprints of U.S. content in all U.K.-published magazines.

What started out as a home for reprints of Marvel's U.S. content soon became more in 1976 with the landmark decision to have U.S. creators Chris Claremont (then writing the revival of Uncanny X-Men with artist Dave Cockrum) and Herb Trimpe (fresh off a seven-year run on Incredible Hulk) create Captain Britain, thus providing the fledgling branch's first original content, but not nearly the last. Although initially a success with full-color, weekly stories, sales nonetheless flagged and the series combined with their weekly Spider-Man title in less than a year. Marvel UK also experimented with a Star Wars title that combined U.S. reprints with original content by British creators.

Eventually, Marvel publisher Stan Lee recruited Dez Skinn to assume control of the line in 1979, and that's when the line caught fire. Skinn organized a host of talent for the weekly Hulk Comic consisting of David Lloyd (later of V for Vendetta), Steve Dillon (later of Preacher), John Stokes, Paul Neary and John Bolton, among others. He resurrected Captain Britain to co-feature in a Black Knight strip in the book, and revamped other books too. His most significant contribution was the licensing of the popular "Doctor Who" character from the BBC for his own weekly magazine.

Skinn left the company in 1981, and other editors took control eventually, including Bernie Jaye, Richard Starkings, and Paul Neary. The company increasingly focused on monthly publications more than weekly ones. Jaye was editor when Alans Moore and Davis began their magical run together on Captain Britain on Mighty World of Marvel and later Daredevils--probably, upon reflection, the apex of creativity at Marvel UK. In the mid-1980s, Marvel also acquired the licenses for the hot "G.I. Joe" and then-new "Transformers" properties from Hasbro, and the U.K.'s weekly comics matched--even exceeded--the popularity of their U.S. variants, in part because the U.K. had to tell more new stories due to the titles' frequency. Talent involved in this wave of stories included writer Simon Furman and artists Dan Reed, Geoff Senior, and another gent you folks might've heard of: Bryan Hitch (now of The Ultimates and The Authority fame) among many others.

Sweeping changes occurred at Marvel UK during the 1990s, just as with other companies. Editor Richard Starkings advocated a switch to the same comic format shared by the U.S. Several new series launched, including Death's Head, based on the character created by Furman and Senior in Transformers. Talent during these years included Furman, Hitch, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Liam Sharp, Gary Frank, Gary Erskine, Simon Coleby and Charlie Adlard, all of whom have since had their share of successes in the U.S. in recent years. Unfortunately, too many books released in such a short time, combined with the larger comics market suffering much the same problem in the mid-1990s, doomed the company, who became relegated to publishing almost exclusively reprints.

In 1995, the European company Panini bought Marvel UK's assets and continued to publish both reprints and new stories under license. Most of their original stories were published in series like Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Rampage, and the recent Marvel Heroes. In an ironic twist, the thirty-third issue of Heroes was already due to be a minor milestone with the return of Death's Head in battle with the incredible Hulk by original creator Furman and artist Simon Williams. That issue would, I'm told, become the final issue to feature original content from Marvel UK. And now, Marvel UK ends the way it began, as an all-reprint line.

Thankfully, Marvel UK did go out with a bang and not a whimper, at least as far as their last original story goes. (You can read an interview with that strip's artist Simon Williams here and I'll be reviewing that final two-part story featuring the Hulk/Death's Head fight later in the week, right here.) That said, I'm extremely disappointed and disheartened that Disney felt compelled to effectively kill the company, although I certainly can see their (selfish) reasons.

According to another article by Johnston on the Bleeding Cool site released shortly after the Disney purchase of Marvel, there were many markets in Europe where Panini and Disney were in direct competition with their magazines. Consider, then, that Panini held a license deal with Marvel to publish their books, which thanks to Marvel's new owners, meant that Disney was now having a percentage of their own product published through their key competitor. I get the unnerving feeling that blocking Panini from producing new content under the Marvel umbrella is but the first part of a series of developments, two years in the making, designed to bring all of Marvel's worldwide intellectual property under Disney's sole umbrella. I'm confident that Disney will next fail to renew any existing license, preventing Panini from releasing any reprints, meaning their remaining series like Marvel Heroes and their stellar graphic novel production program will go away. And then, Disney will be free to produce and distribute Marvel properties without a middleman like Panini reducing their profits.

Will Disney, with the freedom to distribute Marvel's properties in the overseas market, have use for a stable of exclusively foreign talent like what Panini had in Marvel UK? Sadly, I don't think so. In recent years, thanks to the efforts of Senior Vice President of Creative & Creator Development C.B. Cebulski, Marvel has become an increasingly global presence in their search for talent, eliminating the need for a "farm team" such as Marvel UK has historically been. Yes, it'd be nice for Marvel to assess the talent they had in their U.K. branch before summarily dismissing them, because I believe a good few of them could continue to serve the company and become real breakout talents if given the opportunity in the U.S. market. But it appears Marvel is treating them less as part of the family and more Those Guys Over At Panini Who Do Knockoffs Of Our Fine U.S. Work. Which is a bloody shame, to borrow the Brits' expression.

You guys out there--and I know you are because you've read this blog, my Twitter page, and that iFanboy interview with Simon Williams--will likely never experience that Hulk/Death's Head story on these shores, and it's sad, because it's some excellent work by the talents involved. Marvel U.S. seems to look down their nose at the U.K. folks, neglecting the decades of history that have sprung from across the pond. Sure, they'll glorify Bryan Hitch and put him on a pedestal--nice new gig on Avengers #12.1, yeah?--but then they'll give precious little respect to the company and the country that brought him to the attention of fans in the U.S. They'll reprint one measly story about Captain Britain, as told for the first time in years by British creators, but they'll stick it in a book nobody cares about that has atrocious sales figures (such as they did with the above Marvel Milestones). Marvel's Senior V.P. of Publishing Tom Brevoort barely acknowledged a post on his Formspring page that referenced the Death's Head/Hulk story, which tells you the level of his interest.

It's sad but true, but if fans really want to see this project come out in the U.S., they've got to raise a stink unparalleled in the industry today, and I really don't think that's going to happen. I can't imagine people are going to get angry enough over the eradication of Marvel UK that they'll care about this one little project. But comic fans, I'm going to ask you to do something for me, and for the creators of Marvel UK, who deserve a better send-off than they're getting.

If you arrived at this story via a Twitter link, retweet it. If you saw it on my Facebook page, click "Like" or reply to it. Use the tools at the bottom of this post and spread the word--link to this story from whatever social media sites you can. Send e-mail or actual letters to Marvel to voice your opinions. Post on your blogs. Let your voices be heard. Don't let Marvel UK go gently into that good-night. Tell the world!

Let's get this story retold in Marvel U.S., but on a major stage--in an actual issue of The Incredible Hulk at best, or at least, in a Marvel Vault one-shot like they've been doing this year. Come on, my friends. Stir the pot and make sure the U.S. acknowledges the departure of a once-formidable brother in the comics medium.



Why I Read What I Read

Howdy, folks!

It's been a few days since my last blog posting, too long in fact. I'm working on the second "Crossing" retrospective piece which should be out this week, and the seventh and final Firestorm article's right around the corner, too. I've also got plenty of convention sketches to plow through, and I'm conducting an interview this week that I'll be posting soon as I transcribe it. So, while I don't really have the time to grab some screen shots of a DVD or something, and I still haven't seen the "Thor" film, I've gotta talk about something. How about we discuss why I read the comics I do? No real in-depth reasons here--a sentence or three, no more. Keep in mind, these are the regular titles that I follow (no miniseries). In alphabetical order, away we go!

Amazing Spider-Man - I've been entranced with the direction of the title since "Brand New Day," and with Dan Slott as sole writer, the series has seldom been on more solid footing. A great sense of humor and a terrific understanding of who Spidey is makes this book nearly atop my monthly list.

Avengers - I admit I'm not Bendis' biggest fan, but I've always liked John Romita Jr.'s artwork. Right now, the presence of Red Hulk is keeping me on board as the stories have been lackluster. We'll see how future stories go.

Avengers Academy - Christos Gage is telling some interesting "young Avengers"-type stories, picking up where he and Dan Slott left Avengers: The Initiative. With "Fear Itself" crossing into the book, I'm not sure if I'll stick around. We'll see.

Batman Incorporated - Grant Morrison rekindled my interest in Batman. I was reading in hardcovers, but when Bruce Wayne returned, I couldn't resist. Favorite artists Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham solidify this book on my monthly pull.

Captain America - Ed Brubaker is the spiritual successor to Steve Englehart and shows no signs of slowing down. I've loved Bucky's journey, and will continue with the Brubaker/McNiven Cap series, although I'm not sure about the Captain America & Bucky series that takes over the current title's numbering.

Fallen Angel - I've long enjoyed Peter David's series about the city of Bete Noire since it was at DC before IDW. The series keeps David's trademark sense of humor at a minimum which is a major plus, and artist J.K. Woodward is well deserving of higher recognition. Whenever there's a new installment of this series, I'll be there.

FF - Since reading Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four from the beginning all in one go prior to reading the death of the Human Torch, I've been fascinated by the longterm scope of his vision. Steve Epting's art and Spider-Man as the newest member don't hurt, either.

Flash - I've enjoyed the current run, but with the series poised to explode into Flashpoint and a zillion tie-in series, DC's given me the perfect jump-off point, just like they did last year with Green Lantern.

Herc - I enjoyed Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente's Incredible Hercules series, so I'm predisposed to check this book out on the strength of that series alone. One issue in, I'm unconvinced, but optimistic.

Hulk - Jeff Parker, Gabriel Hardman & Bettie Breitweiser have built up General Ross as Red Hulk more strongly in nine issues than in nearly the whole of Jeph Loeb's tenure. I love these guys and what they've been doing.

Incredible Hulks - Honestly? I've never stopped reading the Hulk for 27 years. Have I mentioned Greg Pak is the spiritual successor to Bill Mantlo? Good, solid drama month in and out.

New Avengers - Again, still not a big Bendis fan, but this series I continue reading for Dr. Strange. I'm not overly keen on the "original" team of Avengers we're seeing, though.

Savage Dragon - Erik Larsen hasn't let me down since 1993. The book is always entertaining and more happens in one issue than in several of the average Marvel or DC book.

Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose - I buy it for the art. Pretty, pretty art by Jim Balent.

Thunderbolts - I've picked up this book since #1 back in 1997. Right now, I enjoy the offbeat combination of characters Jeff Parker has assembled, including Man-Thing, Juggernaut, and Satana, all of whom are old favorites. Especially Satana, although everyone keeps getting her costume wrong.

Venom - Flash Thompson as protagonist, using the Venom symbiote to fight crime--what's not to love? A terrific premise I'm totally enjoying in action.

Zatanna - I love Zatanna when written well, and I love Paul Dini's writing. This series has been excellent from word one.

Oh, and I always pick up the following in graphic novel collections: Chew, Fables, Locke & Key, Power Girl, and The Walking Dead. Maybe sometime soon, I'll tell you all about them.



Quick Thursday Review: Fear Itself #2

"The Worthy"
Fear Itself #2 (of 7) - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Matt Fraction, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & Laura Martin

Marvel's summer event that effectively combines elements of their Captain America and Thor franchises (just in time for the movies) continues, this time setting up the centerpiece of the narrative in unveiling the identities of four of the seven characters dubbed "The Worthy" while hinting at the remainder. Meanwhile, Thor finds himself in big trouble upon the Asgardians' return to the original home of Asgard, the Avengers embark across the globe, and the Red Skull's daughter Sin, now super-powered and named Skadi, begins a wave of attacks.

The ambitiousness of the talents involved is clear with this second issue, and I find myself pulled in to the narrative despite my initial misgivings. Matt Fraction does a good job of introducing "The Worthy" here, giving space to each character's discovery of their particular hammer. Of special enjoyment is a certain Green Goliath's union with his hammer, and his clever new title that echoes recent developments with the character and his otherworldly associations. I counted two surprises among the four characters granted a hammer here, and I'm hoping Fraction will employ those characters' histories to full effect in later stories. (Hint: A battle with She-Hulk would come in handy.) And the others? Well, one of the Worthy is unveiled, sloppily, on both the cover and in the previews of crossovers to the story in the back of the issue, but appears nowhere in the issue itself. Another's impending contact with a hammer is hinted in this story, and on that preview page, but nobody knows if that event will actually occur.

Right now, all appear to be solid choices, and it's interesting that only one of those unveiled so far has been classified a "hero"--by comic fans, anyway--during his entire time in Marvel's pantheon of characters (although a second will join him next month, if next issue's title, as spoiled at the end of this issue, is any indicator). My only worry is that I get the feeling from the previews at issue's end that at least one of the Worthy will not be unveiled in this series but instead in one of the tertiary crossovers, and that's bad form, pure and simple. But I could be wrong--I've been before. (Hey, remember the days when the Worthy--excepting that last, shocking member--would've been unveiled over six pages--or twelve, max--in the middle of an issue like this? Sigh.)

If there is a weakness to this issue, it's that all we're getting is a story's middle this month. The hammers that began their fall to Earth last month find their owners, or some of them do; the Avengers get sent out to keep the peace; and Skadi starts an invasion. It's well-textured, but still there's no clear beginning, middle or end--it's all middle! Superbly illustrated (by Immonen & Von Grawbadger), lushly colored (by Laura Martin) middle, yes, but the book only appears to be a cog in the greater event with no internal structure of its own. Even still, this second installment of Fear Itself has its share of excitement and big moments that make it worth a read.

Quick Verdict: Read It.



On Adam Hughes, Con Sketches & Con Artists

We now interrupt this regularly scheduled blog to bring you a Delusional Honesty op/ed on current events!

Before we begin, a little about me: I've been attending comic conventions on a fairly regular basis since the early 1990s, when I was a teenager. I attended the Pittsburgh Comicon probably a dozen times, San Diego Comic-Con five times, Wizard World Philadelphia twice, New York Comic-Con once, and various other smaller shows. I own over a hundred unique pieces of original artwork obtained at these shows. I get them in hardcover sketchbooks, on comic backer boards, and on paper of the artists' choice. I've never sold one yet, and it would take a dramatic shift in my financial situation to get me to think of doing so.

But this entry's not about me...

Last weekend, at the Boston Comic Con in Massachusetts, Adam Hughes appeared, as he has at roughly a dozen conventions each year. And as he did at previous conventions, he opened up his "sketch list" so that lucky fans would have the chance to obtain a treasured piece of artwork from one of the modern masters. As he's one of the few true "superstar" artists out there whose reputation is rightly deserved, Adam finds himself swamped at convention after convention with legions of adoring fans, and he and wife Alison Sohn do their best to make each fan feel welcome. Even on some of his earliest work (like The Maze Agency, above) Hughes' work has always had that je nai sais quoi, that indefinable something that pulls you in and never lets go. Unfortunately, Mr. Hughes' personable quality, and the current comics convention market have combined to form the perfect storm, resulting in his ceasing all convention commissions in favor of auctioning off all further opportunities on eBay.

So, what happened? This decision has been a long time in coming to anyone who has spoken with Mr. Hughes at conventions past. Originally, when I first met him in the 1990s, he would simply take sketch requests on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to the high quality of his pieces, fans would arrive earlier and earlier to convention halls, some staying in the entrance line for hours and breaking into a sprint when it was time to hit the floor just for the golden opportunity. Eventually, the story I'm told at conventions goes--and I can't verify its authenticity--that someone knocked over a little girl on the way to his table, and ever since, he changed his policy, turning to a lottery system to decide who got a sketch. That process has been in place for several years now and I hear it's worked reasonably well, but there's one force that still has worked against Mr. Hughes, and it's led to the most recent developments.

Since the advent of eBay, convention-goers have increasingly used the auction website as a hub for redistribution of artwork obtained at these shows. A certain contingent of "fandom" believes if they obtain convention sketches from popular artists, they will be able to pay for their trips and more by hocking the pieces for vastly inflated rates there. Now, I have to take a step back and say that I don't have anything against the genuine fan who must let artwork go to pay medical bills, or get out of debt, or even pay for a wedding or honeymoon a year or ten after obtaining said art. I do have a serious problem with these so-called "flippers," so named because no sooner do they shake hands with the artist and say thanks, they go home and start that auction because they've got something other people want, dammit. And even worse--and from what I understand, this is what befell Mr. Hughes last weekend--is the fake fan who begs, pleads, cajoles, even makes up fake stories and cries fake tears, to play on an artist's sympathies in order to secure said art which he will then hock.

The art in question, a sketch Mr. Hughes drew of Wonder Woman, was on eBay only scant hours after the owner obtained it. The owner also cajoled a "quickie" Black Cat sketch from J. Scott Campbell, and a Batman sketch from Neal Adams at the same convention. Although at first fetching premium prices, once the artists made a fuss on Twitter and elsewhere the owner promptly removed all the auctions. You can bet, however, that once the hubbub dies down, he'll once again attempt to sell. It's the nature of the beast. (Part of me wishes the winner would give back the artwork to the original artist if only so that they'd be able to resell and justly reap the benefits of the piece. Or, y'know, maybe he'd even be a nice guy and give the piece back since it's obvious he has to date only shown appreciation for its monetary value. But I'm weird that way.) I wish that some artists would team up to contribute to some online forum whose purpose was to expose these flippers. On Twitter, I suggested Mr. Hughes take photographs of his artwork with their owners in the case of flipping, so their face could be plastered all over with a stern warning for artists to not draw for these people.

These con artists (short for "confidence" and not "convention," natch) are shameless and they act unconscionably in pursuit of the almighty dollar--and they've cost all but the richest fans any remaining chance to own an original Adam Hughes artwork they've personally requested from the man himself. You see, Mr. Hughes doesn't take on that many commissions at conventions to begin with--he finished a total of three in Boston--and now they'll be all the rarer due to not one fool from this weekend, but a selfish pattern of behavior on the part of a particular class of so-called "fan." Now, all future commissions will be handled in advance through eBay. In the words of his wife (and accomplished artist in her own right) Alison Sohn from their Yahoo group: "[I]f eBay is where they will end up, then eBay is where they will start."

I remember going to conventions in Pittsburgh, or San Diego, and talking with Mr. Hughes and Ms. Sohn for quite some time, about The Maze Agency, about Catwoman, about Power Girl and even Justice League International. They are terrific people, warm and welcoming. I've even had my name on the sketch list more than once, only to for one reason or another not walk away with an original piece (instead getting sketchbooks, which are always incredible). I've never given up on trying, even when the prices rose and rose, because Mr. Hughes' work is just that good. However, now it seems I must abandon the dream, unless I happen to get a job that triples my income, or I win the Powerball lottery. On eBay, the highest bidder walks away with the product--and bidders have been known to plunk down in excess of $3,000 USD for a single original Adam Hughes convention sketch, a figure that is certain to rise with these new developments. And yes, it's possible that with the new "highest bidder gets a commission" rules, the aftermarket on the sketches will also rise even further.

Do I fault Mr. Hughes for this compromise plan? (Immediately after the most recent incident, he stated on his Twitter account that he was finished sketching at conventions altogether.) Hell, no! I honestly believe he has more right to the funds his artwork can generate than anyone else, and certainly more right than any "flipper." Let's face it: everyone knows that $400 for an original Adam Hughes convention piece was the best convention bargain since God created comic conventions. If I had the cash, I'd definitely rather give the money directly to the artist; wouldn't you?

My only worry is that Mr. Hughes' actions may be only the start of a movement to flip the bird to flippers by having all the most popular artistic talent take their convention sketch opportunities to eBay where they may fetch similarly high prices. It's already happened before this situation, as I've heard Walking Dead, Punisher and Venom artist Tony Moore auctioned off one guaranteed sketch at the recent Comic Geek Speak Super Show in Reading, PA. I hope such activity is reserved for special situations and does not become the norm for superstar talent, else it severely diminishes the chances of other fans of lesser means to obtain that special piece of artwork.

Similarly, I feel like it takes something out of the convention experience to remove the traditional process of obtaining a commission from the convention hall. Just imagine the next comics fan who goes to see Adam Hughes at a convention, who may not follow him religiously on his website, or Yahoo group, or Twitter page, thinking they've got as good a shot as anyone else at obtaining an original piece, only to discover that the process has changed and to be eligible for a sketch, they must plan in advance and possess both Internet access and an eBay account, which in turn all but requires a Paypal account. Now, it's true that it's likely more the exception than the norm for a fan to not have these things, but still it's a likely source of frustration.

I'd take an Adam Hughes sketch in any medium, in any size--on a sketch card, on an 11"x14" Bristol board, on a comic backer board, or (my favored choice) in my sketchbook. That artwork, if ever I get it, would be safe with me. (Hey, how about that? I guess I haven't altogether given up!)

Good luck to Mr. Hughes in this new era of selling his artwork. I'm just waiting to see how The Law of Unintended Consequences applies...



Peeking in Pandora's Box: Incredible Hulks #627, Reviewed

The Incredible Hulks #627
"The Spy Who Smashed Me," Part 2

Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: Tom Grummett & Cory Hamscher
Colorist: Edgar Delgado
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Production: Irene Y. Lee
Assistant Editor: Jake Thomas
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Last issue and this, I've been struck by how effortlessly writer Greg Pak has shifted the tone of his Incredible Hulks adventures with "The Spy Who Smashed Me." Part James Bond-style action movie, part snarky rom-com, part big budget special effects blockbuster, this story is a refreshing turnaround considering the darkness of recent arcs.

For the last few years, Pak has kept his humorous side at play with co-writer Fred Van Lente over on The Incredible Hercules, the book that until recently had been home to the smartaleck sidekick Amadeus Cho. The Hulk appeared in Cho's introduction back in 2005's Amazing Fantasy #15 by Pak, so it's only fair that Cho repays the favor in time for Pak's exit from this book. Here, Cho plays "Q" to Banner's "Bond," infusing every scene with the same sardonic wit as with Herc. His mere presence infuses the narrative with a lightheartedness that's been rare in this title.

That lighthearted quality is emphasized by the wonderfully expressive, clean artwork of Tom Grummett and Cory Hamscher. They're having a ball drawing big scary monsters of both the human and inhuman variety, beautiful women, and a certain green-skinned goliath. While the artwork has a fun feel, it also strongly hearkens to the best superheroic work in the biz. Edgar Delgado contributes his usual strong colors. Overall, it's quite the attractive artistic package.

The plot continues this issue with Tyrannus having recruited Betty in his plan to steal the Pandora's Box of legend. Similarly, Banner recruits an expert in Roman crypto-mythology to help him stop the long-lived former emperor. Of course, he's also got another stake in rescuing Betty, who risks being stuck as Red She-Hulk with each metamorphosis. These underpinnings are there in nearly every panel, but wisely Pak doesn't let them overwhelm the narrative to the degree they hamper the fun quotient.

We're halfway through "Spy," and it's still as rollickin' a ride as it was last issue. With the supporting cast pared down to the bare essentials and hardly a gamma-enhanced being in sight, Pak has upped his game in this, his penultimate arc as Hulk writer, and Grummett, Hamscher and Delgado bring his vivid visions to life. If you've been wondering when the Hulk's tale would lighten up a bit, wonder no more. Incredible Hulks #627 brings the myth and humor of Incredible Hercules home in exciting fashion.

The Verdict: Buy It.



John Byrne & The Hulk: A Post-Script

Hey, folks,

A while back, I posted a four-part analysis of John Byrne's original tenure on The Incredible Hulk that found some measure of popularity and acclaim. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4) Interestingly, former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who recently began blogging thanks to his friend JayJay (Janet) Jackson, today posted an article that answered a fan's question and at the same time raised another interesting point surrounding Byrne's departure from both Hulk and Marvel altogether for DC's shores in mid-1986.

I've heard all the theories out there about John Byrne's 1986 exit. The main literature out there tells that he may have felt that he had no choice but to leave due to the editorial climate. In my previous blogs, I pointed to comments made by Byrne that he and Editor-in-Chief Shooter had initially agreed to the direction he had in mind for the Hulk, but after the issues came out Shooter refused to let that direction continue as-was. A reply from Brian to the fourth entry suggested an alternate explanation, that it was less over the book's direction and more a disagreement about the storytelling device used for what would have been issue #320--the story that eventually became Marvel Fanfare #29, told entirely in splash pages. By some accounts Shooter didn't like that a story would be told in such a way and killed the story, driving Byrne from the book. It seems, from Shooter's commentary, that the latter is closer than I suspected.

There's a major caveat in this blog entry. Now, I suppose in light of recent comments made by Gary Groth at The Comics Journal website about how Shooter may have distorted the facts about Marvel's 1980s dealings with Jack Kirby, the details of this chain of events may also be suspect. I'll go ahead and repost Shooter's musings just the same, and you can make your own judgments. If you care to read further, the full text is at his blog.
During the nine plus years that I was EIC at Marvel, only three times did an assistant editor come to me privately to complain about the editor he or she worked for. Two times, it was an assistant of [Denny O'Neil's], two different assistants. The complaint from both was that Denny left too much work to them, and spent the day writing his freelance scripts.


[A] number of issues from Denny's office made it into print that had serious flaws or things that were unacceptable -- including several by John Byrne.

After one particularly bad incident, I finally confronted Denny and told him he'd better start doing his job. That very day, I think, a John Byrne Hulk job came in, finished, lettered and inked, that was all splash pages. Denny thought I'd go ballistic when I saw it, so he rejected it! And he told John it was because I, Jim Shooter, didn't approve.

John was the one who went ballistic. He quit, contacted [Jim Galton] the President of Marvel and demanded I be fired. The President called me and asked who the hell John Byrne was, and to please keep these people from bothering him.


At any rate, as previously stated, when the above happened, Publisher Mike Hobson ordered me to fire Denny, and I did.

Here's the twist ending. I never even saw the rejected book! I assumed that Denny had given it back to John. I didn't even know why Denny had rejected it, only that he did. I didn't know it was all splash pages. Months later, Al Milgrom found the rejected book in a drawer and brought it to me. He liked it. So did I. I thought it was great. Al looked into the situation and found out that Byrne hadn't been paid for it, got him paid and ran the job in Marvel Fanfare. (Fanfare jobs paid rate-and-a-half, so it turned out to be a good deal for John.)

Know this: John and I weren't on the best of terms before all of the above happened. I had objected to some things he'd done in the books, and nixed a few things he'd wanted to do; and he had objected to my objections. So, maybe he would have left Marvel eventually anyway because of me.

If true, this situation explains not only why we had a new writer/artist with issue #320 in Allen Milgrom, but also why editor O'Neil was gone, replaced in the same issue by Bob Harras. It makes a degree of sense, since it seems highly unusual for two major creative shifts to occur in the same month.