Hallowe'en: Ten (Doctor) Strange Tales

Happy Hallowe'en, all!

Welcome to one of my Hallowe'en installments of Delusional Honesty. Originally, I was going to get to some comments on "I...Vampire!" the original series by J.M. DeMatteis, Tom Sutton and a host of other talent. It's still going to be a few more days until I can make that article just the way I want it, so I wanted to give everyone something else that's closely involved with the macabre.

Saturday night on Google+, Marvel and Aspen writer Greg Pak (whose Dead Man's Hand #0 is now available!) posed a question after having read a particular story: Which Doctor Strange stories are fans' favorites? Well, let me tell you, that suggestion made the wheels begin to turn!

Although most of you know me as a die-hard Hulk fan, and those of you who listen to me at Comic Book Noise know I'm well-versed in the ways of Spider-Man, you might not know I'm also of the opinion that Stephen Strange is one of Marvel's best, most underrated heroes. Indeed, between five volumes of Marvel Masterworks and hundreds of back issues, I've read every issue of Doc's adventures in his solo mags. (And from a certain Green Goliath's association with an unusual Non-Team, I've got each of his appearances in Defenders, too!)

Forthwith is my assemblage of Doc's ten greatest adventures, in chronological order. (Greg, don't let anybody tell you I never gave you anything.)

Shall we begin? Tamam Shud!

1. Strange Tales (1951) #126-146
By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Lee and Ditko, also famous for creating the amazing Spider-Man, created Doctor Strange in Strange Tales #110, cover-dated July 1963. Although it took them a few issues to get their feet under them, the first time everything really "clicked" for the duo was issue #126, "The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!" The storyline introduced Dormammu, an other-dimensional sorcerer, as well as the then-nameless girl who'd soon become Strange's student and paramour, Clea. A number of other noteworthy events occurred within these pages, too, like the Ancient One's gifting of the Cloak of Levitation that has become a trademark of Strange's look. Having then-established villain Baron Mordo as Dormammu's earthly servant sealed the deal. And even if it didn't, well, there's always Eternity...!

Currently available in graphic novel format in Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vols. 1-2 or Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 1.

2. Doctor Strange (1968) #175-178
By Roy Thomas & Gene Colan

After spending years as a co-feature in Strange Tales, Doc finally graduated to his own series in 1968, with the numbering scheme picking up from there. Roy Thomas first teamed with Wally Wood protege Dan Adkins, and then Tom Palmer, but then hit the big time with the arrival of Gene "The Dean" Colan. The stories, running from #172 until the series' premature conclusion in 183, were the most mature Doc tales we'd seen to that point, in large part due to Colan's influence as a visual storyteller, and Palmer's incredible inking style. Those talents were on prime display in "Unto Us...The Sons of Satannish!" where Doc takes on a demonic cult and emerges nearly a different character. (This is the birth of the "costumed" Strange you may have heard about, but believe me, nothing about it belies Doc's history.) The storyline comes to a head in Avengers #61 and Dr. Strange #178, wherein Doc teams with the Black Knight to face both Ymir and Surtur. What more needs be said?

Currently available in graphic novel format in Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 3 or Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2.

3. Doctor Strange (1974) #1-2, 4-5
By Steve Englehart & Frank Brunner

Doc may have been left his career as a sorcerer behind shortly after the conclusion of his first series, but once he came back as a founder of the Defenders, could a new solo series be far behind? After spending the first few issues in a quasi-adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, Marvel handed the reins to Defenders scripter Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner, then known for his work on Warren's horror magazines. The two deftly concluded the Lovecraft storyline before launching into a pair of epics: "The Sise-Neg Genesis" and this four-part storyline that introduced a dark analogue to Strange--disgraced man-of-the-cloth Isaiah Curwen, the Silver Dagger. This epic struggle starts with Strange's death, and stretches across other dimensions with their own challenges. (Ever wonder why an ankh sometimes appeared on Strange's brow during a battle? You'll discover that secret here.)

The Silver Dagger is handily defeated in this storyline, but he would return later to menace Dr. Strange plus Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel in Marvel Team-Up #76-77 and 80-81, which get an honorable mention here. In a story by Chris Claremont, Doc is driven to the edge of sanity and beyond, eventually becoming a werewolf. Unusual? Yes. One of my guilty-pleasure favorites? Absolutely.

Currently available in graphic novel format in Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 5 or Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 3. The Marvel Team-Up tales are currently unavailable.

4. Doctor Strange (1974) #10-13
By Steve Englehart & Gene Colan

Englehart continued on the series after Brunner left, and the series only increased in intensity. Gene Colan and Tom Palmer returned, illustrating this book on even months and Tomb of Dracula on the odd. As books like Warlock and Captain Marvel flirted with cosmic concepts, so too did Strange's, with this gem among the most powerful. Eternity comes to the Doctor, telling him the world will end! Meanwhile, Baron Mordo, reduced to a babbling idiot after having glimpsed the birth of the universe, may not be so powerless as he appears. Doc faces iterations of his past selves as he fights to save the Earth, and it all climaxes explosively! (And hey, what is the secret of Adam Qadmon?) Certainly not to be missed by any "cosmic Marvel" or Doc aficionado.

If you're a fan of cosmic Marvel stories, you may also want to check out Jim Starlin's too-short tenure, as Doc fights the Creators with their "Cosmic Wheel of Change" and tries to disrupt their deadly scheme of transforming themselves into stars (which had the effect of changing stars into humanoid entities). Starlin only worked on #24-26, but the entire "Creators" epic took place over #19-20, 22-28 with work from writers Marv Wolfman and Roger Stern.

Currently available in graphic novel format in Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 3.

Speaking of Roger Stern...

5. Doctor Strange (1974) #48-53, 56
By Roger Stern & Marshall Rogers

World's worst-kept secret: Once upon a time, comics superstar Frank Miller (no relation!) was to have been artist on Doctor Strange alongside writer Roger Stern. You can even see house ads in 1981 announcing this combo, accentuated by a thrilling piece by Miller. Unfortunately, that supreme duo wasn't to be, but we may have seen something better in its place. Enter: Marshall Rogers.

This storyline, in six parts with an unofficial epilogue in #56, began with the introduction of a new companion of sorts for Doc in Morgana Blessing. She, like Strange's friend Victoria Bentley before her, possesses a degree of untapped supernatural potential. Intrigued by Strange, she attempts to get closer, only to find herself in the middle of an epic involving the return of Baron Mordo, his transformation into a cat (!), and their travels through time to stop Dormammu from escaping the Dark Dimension (alongside Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) as well as into Ancient Egypt where we see the Fantastic Four's first battle with Rama-Tut from a different perspective! The story also brings to a head developments with Clea, caught in the quandary of being both Strange's disciple and lover. Much of the storyline falls into "seen to be believed" territory, and the epilogue, an interview between Blessing and Doc with art by Paul Smith, is sublime.

Currently available in graphic novel format in Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 4. 

6. Doctor Strange (1974) #58-62
By Roger Stern,  Dan Green & Steve Leialoha

Just as I've got two stories by Steve Englehart on this list, now we've got a second story by Doctor Strange scribe supreme Roger Stern! This one serves as an epilogue to the late, lamented Tomb of Dracula series, with Doc teaming with the Avengers, Blade, Frank Drake and Hannibal King to take down the Lord of Vampires, who'd seen something of an uptick in appearances with the absence of his own book. He appeared in Uncanny X-Men; he appeared in Thor. Doc and Dracula both race to find the demon bible called the Darkhold, but for different reasons. A passage inside, called the Montesi Formula, contains the secret to ending the vampire threat once and for all. But, what will that solution mean for heroic vampire Hannibal King...?

The "Destroy All Vampires" storyline took these things that go bump in the night out of the Marvel mythos for the better part of the eighties, and set up some interesting stories. Its direct sequel, "The Vampiric Verses" (its title a riff on the controversial Salman Rushdie thriller, The Satanic Verses) returned vampires to the Marvel Universe, and is also generally well-done. Roy Thomas and Jackson Guice's story is in Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #14-18, but its threads begin with #9. It also features the intriguing (at first, anyway) tale of Strange's heretofore-unknown brother, Victor.

Currently available in graphic novel format in Dr. Strange Vs. Dracula: The Montesi Formula. "The Vampiric Verses" currently unavailable.

7. Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa
By J.M. DeMatteis & Dan Green

J.M. DeMatteis has handled Dr. Strange for a number of years, going back to his tenure on Defenders in the early eighties. Is it any wonder he remains one of his favorite characters? I don't want to spoil much of the story here, as it's really brilliant and plays to the character's strengths--why, exactly, wasn't DeMatteis a Doc writer beyond this book and seven issues of his regular series in the nineties?--suffice to say, it's lyrical, it's brilliant, and it's very nearly everything a Dr. Strange story should be. When Strange returns to the Ancient One's former abode, he comes upon a puzzle box. Contacted by the Lords of Shamballa, he embarks on an odyssey whose ultimate goal is the enlightenment of humanity. But then, he discovers the Lords' terrifying secret, and finds himself faced with an awesome dilemma.

Just breathtaking. Go. Now.

Currently unavailable in graphic novel format.

8. Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #5-8
By Roy & Dann Thomas & Jackson Guice

Roy Thomas returns for his second go-round as Doctor Strange scripter, this time alongside his wife, Dann, as well as artist Jackson "Butch" Guice. Once Roger Stern departed the title, writer Peter B. Gillis trod Strange into dark waters, removing many of his mystic talismans, poking out his eye, having him rely on black magic and bringing him into mortal combat with Shuma-Gorath and other entities that roamed the Earth at the dawn of humanity. The duty fell to the Thomases to bring Doc back from the abyss, and they did it in style here.

In "The Faust Gambit," Baron Mordo returns to menace our resident Sorcerer Supreme, imbued with power far beyond anything he has demonstrated before. Doc is still able to defeat him, however, and traps his soul inside a small sphere before he learns the horrifying truth. Mordo's newfound power comes from promising his soul to not one, but two of Marvel's demonic heavies: Satannish and the mighty Mephisto! With the soul of one of Doc's friends also in the sphere, how can our favorite magician save the world from Mordo's mad scheme? It's an intriguing tale that brings together disparate corners of the Marvel Universe as only Thomas can, echoing various pieces of previous continuity. We even meet Mephista, the daughter of you-know-who, who's got a crush on Strange, much to her daddy's consternation! What more do you need?

Currently unavailable in graphic novel format. Go find the back issues!

9. Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment
By Roger Stern, Mike Mignola & Mark Badger

Third time's the charm for writer emeritus Roger Stern, who outdid himself in this graphic novel which absolutely deserved the hardcover treatment it got upon its 1989 release. Picking up on plot points from several previous Doctor Doom stories (particularly from Astonishing Tales) and presaged by Stern's own meeting between the Doctors in Doctor Strange (1974) #57, Triumph & Torment tells the tale of Doom's annual attempt to free his mother's soul from the clutches of Mephisto. This time, through special circumstance, Strange assists Doom, and the results are unusual and mind-blowing. Add to this rich story some breathtaking artwork by a pre-Hellboy Mike Mignola as well as Mark Badger, and this graphic novel becomes a can't-miss fable in desperate need of being reprinted in the same oversize format as it was introduced.

Currently unavailable in graphic novel format.

10. Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #60-75 & Annual #4
By David Quinn, Melvin Rubi, Kyle Hotz, Peter Gross & others

Don't let the "Siege of Darkness" crossover stamp on the above issue's cover fool you: This Doctor Strange very much did his own thing during his time among the "Midnight Sons" horror line. The old gave way to the new when Roy Thomas and Geof Isherwood left the book, replaced by Faust writer David Quinn and a herd of artists including then-neophyte Mel Rubi (now known for his work on Dynamite's Red Sonja) and a pre-Lucifer Peter Gross.

His powers severely limited after he declined to participate in a cosmic war at the behest of the Vishanti he served, Strange coordinates many a dark scheme as result. Salome, previous holder of the title of Sorcerer Supreme, returns from the dimension to which she'd been banished, and begins an onslaught on the current title holder. Too weak to resist, Strange cedes his title to the madwoman and begins a series of schemes to regain his former power. Cue the disappearance of Stephen Strange as we knew him, and the arrival of two mysterious entities, each of whom seems to reflect a facet of the man we knew: Victor Stevens, a ruthless businessman, and Strange, a similarly ruthless being of pure elemental magick force. Add Clea into the mix, in the middle of a challenge to her own rule in the Dark Dimension, and what do you have? An intensely fascinating, and daringly different, Dr. Strange epic.

Currently unavailable in graphic novel format. Go find the back issues!

What are some of your favorite Dr. Strange stories?



NYCC '11: Advance Reviews - Dead Man's Run #0, Incredible Hulk #1

At this year's New York Comic Con, this blogger had the honor and pleasure of sneaking peeks at not one, but two special projects that should be of interest to you, my assembled legions. (Or, you know, the two or three of you that read this thing.) I was trying to hold back in one case, because I didn't want Marvel editorial to get miffed at me for spoiling the beans far in advance. You guys know me--I'll spoil important details only when I warn, and never when reviewing a book before its release.

So, yes. Today I have two special treats available to you. From Aspen Comics, I've been able to read an advance copy of Greg Pak and Tony Parker's Dead Man's Run #0, which I'm told will be available this Wednesday, October 26. Many thanks to Greg for the advance peek. (I'm not the only one--NYCC attendees could score their own copies of the book, right at the Aspen booth on the show floor, complete with an exclusive cover by the very talented Tony! Did you get yours?)

The other treat? As many of you may have seen on Twitter, I attended Sunday's "Incredible Hulk" panel at NYCC, hosted by Marvel Director of Communications Arune Singh and featuring guests Jason Aaron (new Incredible Hulk writer), Jake Thomas (new Incredible Hulk assistant editor), Bill Rosemann (editor of the new Hulk Smash Avengers weekly event), and C.B. Cebulski (Marvel SVP - Creator & Content Development). They showed off exciting new projects (like the announcement of that weekly event featuring Hulk fighting the Avengers across different eras, all with delicious Lee Weeks covers), and talked up future happenings in both Aaron's Incredible Hulk and Jeff Parker's ongoing Hulk series. A select few fans in the audience saw something more special: a printed color proof of the entire first issue of Aaron and artist Marc Silvestri's Incredible Hulk #1. And guess who got his hands on it for a read?


DEAD MAN'S RUN #0 - Aspen Comics, $2.50
By Greg Pak, Tony Parker & Peter Steigerwald
Created by Ben Roberts

"Jailbreak from Hell." Those three words, as Greg Pak states in his text piece in the back of this issue, were all he needed to spark his imagination. In this issue Pak introduces readers to the world beneath the Andrew Jackson Federal Corrections Facility. Captain Frank Romero is a prison guard who's about to get in way over his head when an explosion rocks the prison, leading to the catastrophic revelation of what exactly lurks below.

It's a "zero" issue, so readers have largely accepted what such an issue entails. In this case, it's a twelve-page prologue story by Pak and his artistic collaborators, Tony Parker (fresh off BOOM!'s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Peter Steigerwald (who subs for regular colorist David Curiel). Following the lead story are the aforementioned text piece by Pak and a four-page peek into Parker's sketchbook, with designs for many of the lead characters. Aspen delivers the goods with these materials, providing ample incentive to find the first issue when it premieres in January.

So, what about this first story? I don't want to spoil too much here. Not that there's much to spoil, mind you--only twelve pages, remember? If the sketchbook at the back is any indication, we get one page of introduction to the story's leads, surrounded by eleven pages where Pak and Parker skillfully begin to present their vision of creator Ben Roberts' world. Comparing Hell to a jail may have been done before--the comparison is nothing if not apt--but the creators immediately establish enough texture so as to avoid the obvious pitfalls. Pak is always skilled with words--never a word out of place. And what about Tony Parker? While Androids may have been a powerful artistic statement, Dead Man's Run will--hopefully--be the project that puts his name on everyone's lips as one to watch. While colorist Steigerwald helps, Parker brings a terrific sense of style to every page, matching Pak's script.

Supernatural overtones, check. Fascinating, if slightly goofy, high concept? Check. Terrifically fitting, "Twilight Zone"-type ending for this prelude? Check. A killer creative team to propel us along this insane journey? You bet.

Buy It.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK #1 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Jason Aaron, Marc Silvestri, Michael Broussard, Joe Weems, Rick Basaldua, Sal Regla & Sunny Gho

Every few years, lately, Marvel relaunches even its biggest sellers. They've done it a few times with the Hulk. Certainly Greg Pak's revolutionary "Planet Hulk" saga counts, followed by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness' reinvention following the conclusion of World War Hulk. Just over a year ago, Pak and a bevy of artists teamed to bring a bi-weekly, 24-issue examination of ol' Greenskin as leader of a team of monsters. Now, although Red Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Skaar and all the rest are still out there in the Marvel Universe, the time has come to again cast sole spotlight on the one and only Hulk.

Cue Jason Aaron and Marc Silvestri's Incredible Hulk, picking up where the bizarre events of the summer event Fear Itself left off. (It's true, there's a four-page prologue to this story by Aaron and artist Michael Choi in the final issue of that series, but it's by no means necessary prior to reading this tale.)

In "Hulk: Asunder," Aaron opens with the Hulk doing what he does best: smashing. It's a Hulk who has sequestered himself apart from humanity, and found a home living on Monster Isle, surrounded by a legion of the Mole Man's subterranean creatures. "Hulk knows how to smash. Not how to dream," he says, long-haired, bearded, wearing a necklace of bones around his neck. "[T]his is where my story ends," he says...and right then, we know it's not, because if there's one thing the puny humans don't know how to do, it's leave Hulk alone. Cue...Commander Doom.

Of course, that's also right when the narrative takes a sharp right turn. That's because this Hulk doesn't change into Banner. "I killed everything inside me that was Banner," he says. If you've read the promotional material, or the ending of Fear Itself, you know this means that Hulk and Banner have been separated, as has happened a few times before. And it seems Aaron is trying to say something different about them than any of the previous times.

From the first narration, it's clear that Aaron is approaching the story from the Hulk's P.O.V. Should it surprise anyone that he sees Banner as his jailer, and himself as a prisoner? Aaron extrapolates well from the end of Greg Pak's tenure as writer, as Fear Itself had the Hulk's image once more destroyed after being possessed by Nul, Breaker of Worlds. While there's some dissonance between Pak's run and where Aaron begins, I have to admit a happy Hulk isn't particularly one that is enjoyable to read.

I've only been a sometime fan of Marc Silvestri, although I've been familiar with his work from the days of Web of Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men. He's only drawn the Hulk a few times, so it was terrific seeing him do such a smash-up job here. I'm not sure if it's how his style just naturally is now, but he seems to very much root the story in a horror atmosphere, and it works eerily well. Especially eerie are the parts I can't talk about, featuring a scene that is very much out of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. The less said, the better. (I have to say, though, that having Silvestri abetted by not one but four assistants doesn't seem to bode well for artistic continuity.)

The back matter in this one consists of some words with Jason Aaron and a look through the Hulk's storied history. A solid way to pad out the remaining pages this month, even if the $3.99 price tag still irks.

Doubts? I still have them. It seems clear that Aaron wants to follow through on establishing the Hulk's animosity for Banner, and developing Banner as villain in the Hulk's mind. I'm just afraid that attitude will be borne out in a way that irreparably harms the character of Bruce Banner. While yes, we've seen a very obsessive side to Banner's personality surface during the time John Byrne separated man from monster, we haven't seen anything on the level you'll see this issue. It's scary and maybe, just maybe, crosses the line that shouldn't be crossed. At the very least, I'll say Aaron hasn't forgotten Banner is an absolute genius.

Can anybody buy me the Long Beach Comic Con variant to this one?
Big doubt? That abominable logo. The sooner Marvel brings back the logo from the seventies they teased on the video when news first broke, the better. This logo is just too generic. Sorry, guys. Boo. Hiss.

Still, for all my doubts, there's a lot to like here. The atmosphere is rich, and Jason Aaron has the Hulk's dialogue--emotionally worn, an undercurrent of savagery--down pat. There are monsters everywhere, and shades of gray abound. The mystery of how Banner and Hulk have been separated is incredibly intriguing and I'm on board. Definitely Buy It, but be warned if you're a first-timer to the Hulk that the depiction you're seeing of one character in particular isn't at all a traditional one.

Both issues in this review are on sale Wednesday, October 26 at comic book shops everywhere.



Fear Itself #7: Smart Marketing, Dumb Comics

Howdy all!

This missive comes hot on the heels of this week's announced mass layoffs at the House of Ideas. Whether you believe it's a Disney thing, or all the work of that evil overlord, Ike Perlmutter (with tongue only halfway in cheek), I think we can all agree it's a sad day when people lose their jobs. All the best to victims of Marvelcution 2: Electric Boogaloo. May those who have been let go land on their feet, not their asses.

Now, let's turn the other cheek--as my reading of this week's finale of Fear Itself touches off a li'l firestorm of debate. Or, well, I'll let you be the judge; I'll just pontificate on the book and why it's such a perfect example of everything Marvel's doing wrong today.

Okay, so I'm not coming into this out of nowhere. You've seen my previous posts about Fear Itself, and if you've been hanging out at Jim Shooter's blog, you've probably seen me reply to Jim's insights about Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man series starring the new guy, Miles Morales.

Let's begin with the cover, yeah?


In a Nutshell: New York Comic Con 2011

Okay, okay, I can't quite squeeze everything into a single post. More likely, you're going to get a trickle as I start to follow up on my many, many leads from this year's New York Comic Con. I don't know how the other press do it! Anyway, those of you out there who have my card: you'll be hearing from me sooner than later. Today I was back to the grind, working and slaving. In a few minutes from now, I'll be watching some TV I missed.

The show was amazing this year and I really have to give props to the folks at ReedPOP for a job well done. This was my second year attending NYCC, and if this is any indication of how the show is only going to grow, sign me up!

Of course, this year my enthusiasm was also heightened by the fact that I actually got to explore. No, I'm not talking about exploring the convention floor, although I certainly did my share! I'm talking about traversing the length of Manhattan Island! From my arrival at Penn Station with my friend Don on Thursday morning, I really took advantage of having that extra day to familiarize myself with the territory and see some sights. The subway took us from midtown, south to the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry brought us out near the Statue of Liberty before returning us to the isle, where once again we rode the subway a few exits.

Shake Shack for lunch!

After walking by the construction zone around the 9/11 memorial, more subway time...this time riding to Central Park, where I saw Strawberry Fields. And then, back to the subway until arriving in Times Square. There was a TKTS booth, and I wasn't leaving until we had tickets to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark!

After we got the tickets but before the actual show, we attended NYCC's Thursday night preview. Surprisingly, the place was pretty busy! But it was only a small taste of what was to come in the following days. That night, I met up with FoxyArt's Kristin Allen, who'd drawn a terrific Scarlet Witch piece for me a few months prior (and one that you'll see soon on this very blog!). I also finally met the talented David Gallaher, writer of High Moon (which I'll review shortly), Box 13, and various Winter Guard projects from Marvel, all with his collaborator Steve Ellis (who drew a terrific Rom sketch for me in '10). I also once again found the artist Franchesco, who'd drawn a piece featuring Dracula's daughter Lilith nearly a decade prior, and who was just itching for a shot at outdoing himself. Then there was Gabriel Hardman, who'd drawn Morbius for me last year, and--well, we'll get there.

What about Turn Off the Dark? We'll get there. Suffice to say, I ran into another one of my friends from the west coast in the lobby during intermission. Things have a way of working out.

After a long train ride back to Jersey and a short night's sleep, Friday beckoned--the first full day of the show. The highlight of the day was IDW's presentation of a brilliant Fox pilot that sadly never went to series. That's right: I saw Josh Friedman's adaptation of Joe Hill's Locke & Key! (I'll share that in a few days, too.) Oh, and I also picked up Hasbro's exclusive "Composite Hulk" figure at their booth. Nice little item.

Saturday brought more chaos, including a rendezvous with Hulk Vs. Dracula and brand new Scarlet Spider artist Ryan Stegman. (The man threatened me with bodily harm if I don't buy and review his new series when it arrives in January. He actually looks like he might be able to carry through on that promise.) There's a sketch from him you guys'll also see soon, one that may or may not have something to do with his upcoming series.

I also picked up a sketch from a longtime favorite artist. Geof Isherwood, who drew Dr. Strange when Roy Thomas was on the book in the mid-nineties, was ever so gracious, and I presented him with an interesting idea he couldn't pass up. You'll see it right here soon. (I'm full of teases, aren't I?)

Greg Pak even put in an appearance in the middle of Saturday, bringing with him a copy of his and Tony Parker's sure-to-be-a-success book from Aspen, Dead Man's Run. Expect a review of that "Zero" issue early next week.

There's more I could talk about. Like meeting a terrific Hulk fan who also used to be one of Marvel's editorial staff. Or trying not to gush like a fanboy when I met one of my idols after a panel on Sunday afternoon. There's also my secret project I've been seeding throughout the con. Yeah, there's all that stuff.

And, of course, I was one of a half-dozen souls outside the Marvel offices who were the first to read Jason Aaron and Marc Silvestri's Incredible Hulk #1. You'll get some of that early next week, promise. Can't spoil the details. Can't.

But enough with the teases. I leave you with two of the colorful costumes from the convention floor. Ladies and germs: Silk Spectre and Poison Ivy!


I do deliver the goods once in a while, don't I?



Review Special: Fear Itself: Hulk Vs. Dracula #3

Good evening, campers!

As I type you these words, I'm mere hours away from attending this year's New York Comic Con. There, I'll be hobnobbing with the comic industry's best and brightest (and yeah, the ne'er-do-wells, too!). I thought I'd give you a review to get you in the mood, especially since it has been longer than usual between entries these past few weeks.

So, courtesy Victor Gischler, Ryan Stegman, Mike Babinski & Frank Martin Jr., here comes Fear Itself: Hulk Vs. Dracula #3, in which the hammer-ized Hulk--possibly, maybe?--faces the evil might of Count Dracula himself.

With the beginning chapter doing an okay job of setting up the key conflict of this miniseries, and the second piece a regurgitation of the first, Gischler and Stegman, et al. had their work cut out for them in this final entry in the series. While events occur in this chapter that do contribute a good deal to the overall tapestry of Marvel's summer event, so much so that I'm honestly shocked, the overall effort falls squarely in the realm of "too little, too late."

This story features the second-ever confrontation between the Hulk and Dracula (the first was in Peter David and Gabriel Hardman's one-off prose story from Monster-Size Hulk), and it's quite a bit different than that tale. The whole series long, Gischler has painted this version of Dracula as a master strategist, sending other vampires into battle in his stead with no regard for their well-being. This time he finally involves himself directly in the main battle. With the title of this miniseries being what it is, I would have honestly expected more of a battle than the handful of pages devoted to the event herein.

Last time out, I remarked how artists Stegman and Babinski weren't working up to their potential, probably due to the clash of their "comedy" sensibilities with the book's horror-oriented tone. While not perfect, this issue the duo balances their efforts much better, and achieves a stronger finished product. Stegman's artistic high point comes in the finale, where Dracula preys upon the Hulk's emotional core. Just like the titular monster, he manages to find strength in emotion.

The story isn't a total wash as in previous segments. True, the Hulk never finds a consistent voice, moving from "Hulk smash" to speaking fairly intelligibly, to grunting out those unusual Norse runes that mark him as a tool of the Serpent. It is also true that none of the vampires emerge as a credible threat, or a worthwhile protagonist, if there is one to be found in the narrative. Succinctly, I was surprised the story ended in the manner it did, if only for the reason that such an event should have taken place in the main Fear Itself series. Then again--and this is as big a hint as you'll get from me about the story's conclusion--I thought for sure all of "The Worthy" would be shown getting their hammers in that series' second issue, too.

I'm right on the line here. Nobody will remember the events of this miniseries in just a few weeks. On the other hand, this entry was better than the two before it, even if it only briefly delivered on its promises.

Go ahead and Read It.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


DCnU: Beating a Red Hood...er, a Dead Horse

Welcome back, kids.

Tonight's impassioned entry was inspired by a conversation I had just an hour or so ago with Tim aka @Ikariniku, one of my followers over on Twitter. Anyone who enjoys my entries over here, please, get yourself over there and follow me there at @Gary_M_Miller, and follow Tim while you're at it! We have some fun debates, 140 characters at a time.

What makes a "great" first issue?

It's a deceptively simple question, isn't it?

As someone who, once upon a time, wrote a story during Marvel's Epic 2.0 initiative, let me tell you: a first issue isn't easy to write. Especially when you're "pitching," a first issue has to hit all the right notes. Depending on what a company needs, that story might become a one-shot, or the first issue in a miniseries, or if you're very, very lucky, it might become the first issue in an "unlimited" series. If the latter occurs, congratulations, because it means you can do a bit of world-building and seriously expound on the concepts in that first story.

DC Comics creators got very lucky this year, because up popped fifty-two magical lottery tickets. Last month, fifty-two series premiered. They were written by forty-two writers, including fourteen writers who took on more than one project (and two who braved three!) and seven writing duos.

With the sheer amount of new first issues coming out last month, and the onslaught of publicity that surrounded the DC relaunch, it was important--nay, essential--that the writers know how to write great first issues. To coin a cliche, the stakes were never higher.

In simplest terms, a first issue must introduce the key roster of characters, tell us why we should love or hate each character, provide at least one thrilling set piece, and tell an engaging enough story so that we, the readers, just can't live without picking up the second issue in a month's time.

And yeah, there's that whole "first issue of how many?" question.

With these tenets in mind, I started thinking about the DC "New 52." And just as there are some stunningly good examples of what a first issue should be, there are also some depressingly horrible ones. Because it's so much fun to beat a dead horse until it wakes up and barfs blood all over you and fifteen of your closest friends, I've chosen to level my criticisms at what I declared to be far and away the worst of the new lot.

That's right: Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 is again squarely in my sights.


DCnU: Crisis? What Crisis? (The New 52 & Rampant DiDioism)

Spoilers for the last four weeks of DC's books. Haven't read 'em? Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.

Breaking news: Dan DiDio has just punched Superboy-Prime right out of the DC Universe. Film at 11.

Just over a month following my last mighty missive about DC Comics' relaunch of 52 of their titles, I'm back with some thoughts, after having read all but four of the titles I've signed on for. (To be read: Aquaman, Justice League Dark, Superman and Voodoo. Am I a masochist? Consider the books I've already read, noted below, and then attempt an answer.) What did I think of the books? Which books will I continue reading? And hey, just what did I think of DC co-publisher Dan DiDio's recent announcement that all company events bearing the umbrella word "Crisis" have been retconned out with the relaunch?

Those are all questions I'm just itchin' to answer. Shall we?

To date, I've read twenty-three "New 52" titles. The old cliche goes, some are good and some suck. Some of them--albeit very few--are fitting for the new audience that DC states they want to lure in. A few will appeal to those fans who are lapsed readers. For the vast majority, however, it's business as usual, with almost nothing really changed from August's books. And then, there are a couple--just one or two, mind you, and I think you know which ones--that are patently offensive and should be canceled as soon as possible.

Of course, they won't actually be canceled because DC has made it obvious that they thrive on controversy, and apparently every bad word about these books only serves to drive sales figures up, up, up. Joker's face ripped off and hung on the wall in Detective Comics? Controversy! Babs Gordon, out of her wheelchair and back to fighting crime as Batgirl, but with acknowledgment of her previous handicap? Controversy! Mister Terrific and an apparently unpowered Karen Starr (formerly Power Girl) possibly being "friends with benefits"? Horrors! Superman ran around in a li'l cape and jeans in his early days, and has never dated or married Lois Lane? Holy Toledo! Amanda Waller, formerly Suicide Squad's rotund leader, now a svelte, sexy lady who might weigh 100 lbs. after eating dinner? Great googly moogly!

And I haven't even gotten to Catwoman's sexcapades with Batman where they keep most of their costumes on in a fetishized scene. Nor have I told about former Teen Titan Starfire, who once had a long-term relationship with Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing, being reduced to a caricature who doesn't even remember who she fought or slept with--little more than, to be blunt, a pretty, curvy set of warm, wet holes that occasionally speaks.

It's been all over the internet now, of course. And hey, did anyone mention that Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 came out on the exact same day as Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans magnum opus, the hardcover graphic novel Games? You know, a book where Starfire is actually treated with some degree of humanity? For maybe the last time ever? And of course DC closes the book on their end with the proclamation that everyone should look at the rating on the book and take a big dose of STFU. Yes, hooray for tact, DC. You care about the bucks, not the content. We get it.

(Yes, I actually went out and bought Red Hood and the Outlaws #1. I didn't want to give DC a dime for the book. Alas, my decision was made a little better when I considered that my retailer had already paid for the drek that lined his shelves, and I'd be doing him a disservice by not relieving him of the book. I did, however, tell him that I most definitely would not return for any subsequent issues, so he need only take my copy in consideration when adjusting his future orders downward.)

There are, of course, equal-opportunity digs at male characters. Ray Palmer, the original Atom, is a mere scientist in Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. And...wait. Did any male character who was obscenely obese get trim? Did any paraplegic male character get up and walk? Is any male character reduced to humping the leg of any female in sight?

Don't misunderstand: there are parts of the new DC Universe I enjoy. As in my earlier review, I love I, Vampire. It's a brilliant reinvention of the original concepts by J.M. DeMatteis and Tom Sutton. I also really enjoy the stylishness of Batwoman by J.H. Williams III. Couldn't honestly imagine anyone else making the book quite so good. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is just goofy enough to work. I'm giving Resurrection Man another month or two, but boy, would it thrive under a more stylish artist. Speaking of stylish artists, Yanick Paquette is the next Kevin Nowlan in Swamp Thing, and the story by Scott Snyder fires on all cylinders even as it undoes everything Alan Moore did in "The Anatomy Lesson." Animal Man is the creepy polar opposite of Swamp Thing and I loved that cliffhanger. I even liked Snyder with Greg Capullo on Batman but at the same time I don't feel any compulsion to buy the next one. Aside from the astonishingly sexy art by Guillem March on Catwoman, there's little to recommend--for titillationists only. All-Star Western is okay enough and I could get it in collected editions, but I've the feeling I should reach for Jonah Hex Vol. 1 first. Nightwing? I'm really, really close to picking up number two. And Batgirl? Gail Simone takes into account the ongoing evolution of the character, doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater, and gives me adventures of Babs monthly without my having to dig in the back issue bins. What's not to love? (Okay, besides the overcomplicated costume!) Yes, Batgirl is sublime. As for Grant Morrison's Action Comics...it's Grant Morrison, and I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't match the complexity of Batman Incorporated, alas, nor is it meant to.

Still, there are a lot of misses. I couldn't stomach Justice League no matter how much I used to enjoy Geoff Johns' scripts. It just felt like a team-up between the two heroes everybody should recognize from the movies, with another movie hero at the end in case anyone started to fall asleep. Hawk & Dove is typical Rob Liefeld, and although I like the relationship between Dove and Deadman....it's Rob Liefeld. Green Lantern tries too hard to turn Hal Jordan into a jerkier Peter Parker. I'd almost be interested in picking up issue two if not for the fact that Johns has burned me out on Sinestro. O.M.A.C. is DC's very own version of the Hulk, right down to the sci-fi milieu, but the "lead" plays just a bit part in the book so far, hardly a character at all. In DC Universe Presents Deadman, Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang don't give me anything better than Neal Adams & co. already offered in the seventies. Wonder Woman, I found guilty of trying way too hard.

In the "didn't make enough of an impression to care" department, I humbly submit Justice League International, Demon Knights and Stormwatch.

Aside from Red Hood, the biggest travesty I've discovered so far has been the book for which I held out the most hope. When DC promised a "reimagining" and a land of new and exciting concepts--when they said the character never existed before now in this post-"Flashpoint" universe--I should have known something would go horribly wrong. And, well, remembering the old jokes about a previous series being named after the fury instead of the character himself...just shoot me now.

The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men is the biggest dud of them all, if you don't consider the horrendous treatment of the women of the DC Universe to be worse offenses. (I kinda do.)

I've still got the next two issues of the series on order from the good folks at Discount Comic Book Service, but from reading the first issue, it was just too kooky, cliche, and derivative to stand a decent chance of working. Where would you like me to start? Cliff Carmichael is recast as a super-badass black ops guy who likes to kill people. Instead of being a potential mentor, Professor Stein is still dead. And Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch are about the most generic study in contrasts I've ever seen, all their attributes recited by rote. The Large Hadron Supercollider in Europe replaces the Hudson Nuclear Power Plant for a topical touchstone of superscience. And I haven't even gotten to Firestorm him/themselves!

Long ago, when the series was first announced, I looked at Jason and Ronnie's costumes and thought they were ridiculous. I get the idea: one character is mainly in red, and one is in yellow, and when they merge, hooray! Something vaguely resembling the original Firestorm!

Bzzt. Wrong answer. The bad news is that the costumes don't look any less ridiculous in the issue itself, which actually has capable artwork by Yildiray Cinar. The worse news is that when our heroes merge, they turn into Fury, a Hulky, Anti-Monitor-esque character that oozes nuclear fire and speaks in sixties slang. You can even tell right now that Jason and Ronnie won't be the only two characters to "plug into" this new entity. There are six circles on Fury's chest, y'see, and only two of them are now occupied by emblems that match the ones on their costumes. So I'm guessing we'll get to see four more nuclear characters. Firehawk, Pozhar...Atomic Skull, Tokamak anybody? (And if there are six total slots, why do we have seven nuclear men/women? Check the middle of the book...)

And, pardon me for drawing attention to cliche, but...Jason turns into Firestorm by saying the magic word? What are we, twelve?

Incredibly, "God Particle," the first story in this new era of Firestorm, is co-written by Gail Simone, who wrote Batgirl, which is one of my very favorite books in the "New 52." It seems she does her best, but I've really got my doubts about this new direction. I've got the uncanny feeling I'm about to drop Firestorm for only the second time ever. It's really that different and that unrecognizable to me. We'll see if Simone, Van Sciver and Cinar are able to make me reverse course, but it's not looking good.

All of the above brings me to this week's news from Dan DiDio that none of the events labeled "Crisis" happened the way we remember. Is it really that much of a shock? It appears that, with rare exception centered around most but not all facets of Green Lantern and Batman, everything about DC continuity prior to last month is up for grabs. That means you're best off not even acknowledging any events that occurred before four weeks ago as part of DC continuity. Unless they happened to Batman or Green Lantern. And in those cases, only about seven out of ten of those things happened. Get out your graphing calculators, kids, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Look at what hints at the past we've got in the books, and we're only a month along. Already we know the original Dove (from Hawk & Dove) died during "the worst crisis the world's ever seen." In Red Hood and the Outlaws, Arsenal clearly quizzes Starfire about her previous team, the New Teen Titans, bringing up names including "Vic," which is likely a reference to Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone. The only problem is Cyborg has been set up to be a founding member of the "New 52" version of the Justice League...so why would he have been batted down to the Titans? Similarly, if Final Crisis never happened, under what circumstances did Bruce Wayne "die" so that Dick Grayson became Batman for the better part of a year (referenced in Nightwing #1)?

DC is on a slippery slope with this new approach to continuity. If they really are serious about September being a new beginning, then they should keep the references to pre-"Flashpoint" events to a bare minimum. If they're trying to put the continuity genie back in the bottle--as I postulated in my previous post where I labeled the recently-finished event the "Anti-Crisis"--they should work hard to adhere to their own new set of rules. Without that commitment, the company fails in the same way as they did during the fallout to 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Already we're seeing all manner of new stories that dredge up new versions of the past. Superman showed up in Metropolis wearing a little red cape and blue jeans some five years ago. At the same time we've got him showing up in Justice League, also five years ago, wearing his armor.

I've heard that Batman has been around for ten years, but I don't know how much stock I put in that idea. He must have been around for some time, as he's on his fourth Robin right now...who just so happens to be his illegitimate son. I have to suppress a chuckle every time I see a reference to DC publicity painting Robins as Batman's revolving door internship program. Please.

My point is that if we're really not supposed to think about older continuity, then the whole line should have been rebooted like Man of Steel and Wonder Woman did in 1987, and like only a few books--Mister Terrific, The Fury of Firestorm, Supergirl and a few others--did last month. If we're not supposed to try and fill in the blanks what happened and what didn't, then there shouldn't be four Robins, multiple Batgirls, Batmen across the world, etc., etc.

And if they care about historical interpretations of classic characters, then they shouldn't take characters that are familiar to kids from animated series like Teen Titans and make them into thoughtless sex drones.

Lastly, let's please, please, please not clear the decks of "Crisis"-type events just for the sake of 2012's line-wide event, First Crisis, No, Really, We Swear, Why Are You Looking at Us Like That, Just Shut Up and Buy It Already, These Aren't the Droids You're After. You've already given us hints that everyone's going to start to crossover in the third and fourth issues of various series, but please, if I wanted to read interconnected chaos, I'd be a Marvel Zombie forever and ever, amen.

DC, really, with the relaunch, I'm pulling for you guys. If you're successful, then maybe Marvel will lay off the aforementioned chaos. Then maybe we'll start to heal the industry.

I'm getting the idea you're gonna blow it. Don't do that. Don't.

Or Hulk will smash.