Monday, 18 June 2012

Champions Classic Volumes 1 & 2

I’m still not buying any new Marvel Comics*, and since DC announced Before Watchmen, I’ve decided to stop buying new DC comics, too (but I’ll keep buying Vertigo titles, at least until Scalped ends).  I still have quite a few unread Marvel and DC graphic novels in my read pile, though, so I may as well review them as I work my way down the pile.  Why should I be the only one to suffer?

Between them, these two books collect all 17 issues of Marvel’s short-lived Bronze Age series, The Champions, plus some Champions-related stories from various other comics.  The Champions were a super-group consisting of former X-Men the Angel and Iceman, plus Hercules, Ghost Rider, and their leader, the ‘beauteous’ Black Widow.  After a while, they were also joined by Darkstar, and Black Goliath appeared in a couple of issues, too, but was never officially a member.  They called themselves The Champions because, according to their millionaire founder the Angel, they were Champions of the common man – a message that is repeated throughout the series – but during the stories reprinted in these volumes, they actually do very little for the common man.  Indeed, most of the threats they face are either otherworldly (mad gods and aliens), geopolitical (crazy Russians), or threats from rival super-humans (the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants).  They also spend a lot of time fighting faulty equipment in their own headquarters, or dealing with malfunctions in their vehicle, the crappily-named Champscraft.  I suppose saving the world from any of the aforementioned threats does benefit ‘the common man’, but surely no more than it benefits ‘The Man’?  And it’s not as if most of these characters have much in common with the common man, is it?  The Angel is a millionaire, Hercules is a god, Ghost Rider is half-demon (or something like that), the Black Widow is a former Russian spy, and Darkstar may not even be human, although I don’t know for sure because her story continued in comics not reprinted in either of these volumes.  Don’t get me wrong, The Champions weren’t a bad team, considering they were clearly just a bunch of spare characters someone at Marvel decided to sling together during their lunch break, but their raison d’ĂȘtre was flawed from day one.

Volume one collects The Champions 1-11, and for the most part, these are not great comics.  In fact, the first three issues, written by Tony Isabella, the series’ main writer until #8, are pretty dire.  I actually put this book down after reading the first issue and didn’t pick it up again for over a month.  In these issues, the various Champions are thrown together when mad god Pluto attacks the campus of UCLA and tries to get Hercules to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, so that Herc won’t be able to stop him when he attacks Olympus (or something like that – I lost the will to live long before I got to the third part and can’t quite remember now).  The weak story is not helped by some fairly basic art from Don Heck on the first two issues, and hurried-looking art from George Tuska and Vince Colletta on #3.  Issue 4 contains another weak story, written by guest-writer Chris Claremont, in which the Champions fight some super-strong homeless people – the brain-damaged victims of a mad scientist – but at least they actually do help some common men in this issue, which also contains hurried-looking art from Tuska and Colletta.

Tony Isabella returns for issue #5, the first part of a two-part story featuring a villain called Rampage – ‘the recession-born super-villain who could be you’ (if you were a mad scientist who was capable of building an exo-skeleton suit that gives you super strength).  Despite this bold claim and more bland / hurried-looking art (Don Heck on #5, Tuska and Colletta on #6), this was actually a perfectly decent two parter.  Here, a scientist loses his business during the recession (that’s the recession of the 1970s, not the current one or any of the recessions that have fallen between then and now – honestly, you’d think we’d be able to see these things coming by now!) and then loses his mind and decides to use his super-strong costume to rob banks so that he can pay of his debts and start again.  Technically, a mad scientist is probably not a common man, and by siding with the banks against Rampage, the Champions are actually fighting for ‘The Man’, not the common man, but I think they had Rampage’s best interests at heart, and at least Rampage was a somewhat sympathetic villain.  In this appearance, at least (he reappears several times and becomes more evil and less likeable with every appearance), his motives are understandable – he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wants his business to succeed.  And while I can’t imagine any kids being that interested in reading a story about the recession, I thought that side of the story made this two-parter a bit more interesting than previous issues.  Unfortunately, #7 kicks off a very dull four-parter in which the Champions are attacked by the Griffin and a bunch of Russian super-villains, including Darkstar, who eventually joins the Champions, and the Crimson Dynamo, who is the evil son of the Black Widow’s pal, Ivan.  Tony Isabella kicks off this story, along with Tuska and Colletta, but then poor old Bill Mantlo, the series’ new regular writer, has to finish it off, with very bland art from Bob Hall on the final three issues.  Thankfully, though, the quality of the comic takes a quantum leap with #11, with the arrival of young John Byrne on art duties.

The story in #11 is nothing special – the first few pages introduce Black Goliath, who saves the Champs when the Champscraft malfunctions, and then our heroes spend the rest of the issue fighting some shadowy aliens, former foes of the Hulk, joined by guest stars Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid – but Byrne’s slick, Neal Adams-inspired art makes the whole thing seem so much more classy than previous issues.

Byrne stuck with the series until more or less the end, pencilling issues 11 to 15 and inking #17 over George Tuska’s pencils, so at least half of Champions Classic volume two – which reprints The Champions issues 12 to 17, as well as Champions-related stories from Iron Man Annual #4, Avengers #163, Super-Villain Team-Up #14, and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man 17 and 18 – looks great.  Again, the stories in this volume range from perfectly decent to dire, and with the exception of the story from Spectacular Spider-Man issues 17 and 18, which isn’t particularly good but benefits from being pencilled by one of my other favourite Bronze Age artists, Sal Buscema, it’s the Byrne issues that are perfectly decent and the issues pencilled by the likes of Bob Hall and George Tuska that are dire (George Tuska wasn’t a bad artist, but he was either past his prime or hacking it out here). 

I’ve often thought that the old Marvel method of producing comics, where the penciller drew the comic working from a (sometimes very loose) plot and the writer wrote the dialogue once the art was finished, put an unfair amount of pressure on the artist, and this certainly isn’t the first collection of old Marvel comics I’ve read where I’ve noticed that the quality of stories has varied a lot according to who was pencilling the comic, even when the writer remained the same (with the exception of the story from Avengers #163, which is written by Jim Shooter, all of the stories in volume two were written by Bill Mantlo).  However, reading this book, I started to feel some sympathy for the writers who had to work using the Marvel method, and often had the job of polishing up some real turds, or at least had to try and add dialogue to stories that hadn’t quite ended up as planned.  For example, on the last page of the story from Iron Man Annual #4, pencilled by George Tuska, Iron Man is shown blasting Modok out of the sky, after which he crashes to the ground and explodes, but this was either not the story Mantlo wanted to write, or else didn’t make Iron Man look heroic enough, so Mantlo had to write some dialogue that completely contradicted what was shown: ‘I still have a reserve of power drawn from the cradle!  By feeding it to Modok, maybe I can stabilize his circuits and stop him – before he crashes to the ground!  Don’t resist, you fool, I’m trying to save you!’  (I think John Byrne’s success in the 1970s was as due as much to his skills as a visual storyteller as his slick style, even though he wasn’t officially writing any of the comics he drew.)    

Iron Man Annual #4 was a rotten comic anyway, like most of the other odd comics that padded out this volume, either because they featured guest appearances by the Champions or because they tied up some of the (many) loose ends left by the series sudden cancellation.  The real low point of the book, though, is the story which started in Super-Villain Team-Up #14 and ended in Champions #16.  Here, Doctor Doom manages to release a gas that puts everyone in the world under his hypnotic control but leaves Magneto and the Beast (who eventually enlists the aid of the Champions) free to try and stop him, because he (Doom) craves a challenge.  It’s as stupid as it sounds, and as dull as Bob Hall’s art.  As with the first volume, the high points of volume two are the handful of issues that John Byrne was involved with. 

The Champions spend the first few pages of the two-part story that runs through issues 12 and 13 fighting the Stilt Man, who somehow manages to hold his own against them and get away – he is eventually defeated by Black Goliath – which was surely an early sign that this title was doomed to cancellation?  From there they fight and then team up with the Stranger, who has left a bomb that is capable of crushing the universe lying around and needs their help finding the runestaff of Kamo Tharn, which is the only thing that is capable of defusing it.  They travel to another dimension to fight Kamo Tharn, but it turns out that the runestaff was in a broom-closet in a New York hospital all the time, which is bloody typical!  It’s not a brilliant story by any means but it’s okay and thanks to John Byrne (inked by Bob Layton), it looks great. 

Another two-parter runs through issues 14 and 15, this time featuring the menace of Swarm, who is basically a bunch of killer bees in a cloak, although the Champions spend the first half of #14 pissing around fighting faulty equipment in their headquarters.  This is better than the last story – not brilliant but perfectly decent, even good – and once again lifted to another level by John Byrne (inked by Mike Esposito) at his Bronze Age best.  Byrne’s final appearance in the book is in #17, in which the Champions fight the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (minus Magneto) and some Sentinels.  Here he is credited as ‘embellisher’, inking over George Tuska’s pencils, but he manages to pretty much drown out any trace of Tuska and make the book his own.  It doesn’t look half as good as the issues Byrne pencilled – it looks more like the work of the modern, scrappy Byrne – but still looks better than any non-Byrne issue of the Champions.

The series ended suddenly, with many questions left unanswered, and the story surrounding the dissolution of the Champions had to be told in Spectacular Spider-Man, in which Spidey teamed-up with the Angel and Iceman against Rampage.  In these comics, we also found out why the Champscraft kept going wrong, and why the machinery in the Champions’ headquarters kept attacking them (their contractors used cheap building materials, which seemed like a pretty weak explanation, especially as at one point the machines took control of Rampage’s empty exo-skeleton and used it to attack the Champions).  Other plot threads were left hanging, though.  Apart from the variable art, perhaps the biggest problem with this series is that it never really found a direction.  Throughout the series, plot threads were hinted at but never developed.  Iceman spent the first few issues saying (to himself) that he was going to leave the team as soon as they were established but didn’t actually leave until after the series was cancelled; Iceman had a crush on Darkstar but nothing came of it; there were hints that Darkstar may not have been human, but if her true origin was ever revealed, it wasn’t in these books; and there were hints of a relationship developing between Hercules and the Black Widow, but nothing came of this, either.

All in all, The Champions wasn’t a particularly great series, and I can’t recommend buying these books unless you are a big John Byrne fan.  My affection for Bronze Age John Byrne is so great that I will be keeping my copies, and I will probably end up re-reading the Byrne issues again at some point.  I’ll be very surprised if I ever find myself re-reading any of the other issues, though.

Cost: These books have a cover price of $19.99 each, which probably works out to about £14.99 each these days.  Both volumes are currently out of print but they seem to be readily available used, at prices up to about £20 each.  I bought my copies last spring, as part of a collection of about 80 Marvel graphic novels.  I paid £400, kept back about 20 books for myself and sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for nearly £500, so these didn’t really cost me anything in cash terms, just the time it took me to sell off all the unwanted books.

*Okay, I’ll admit it.  I did recently crack and buy a TPB collecting all the Claremont / Byrne issues of Marvel Team-Up (apart from the Red Sonja issue), but that is the only Marvel book I have bought since last summer, and I still haven’t seen the Avengers movie, which I like to think contributed to its failure at the box office.  That showed ‘em!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Iron Man : Doomquest

One of the things that the craze for repackaging has taught us is that not every comicbook merits a reprint, particularly not in a glossy hardback book. I had high hopes for Iron Man : Doomquest. I still consider the Michelinie, Romita Jr, Layton era of Iron Man to be the high watermark for  Ol’ Shellhead, and Issue 150, one of those collected in this book was one of my favourite comics at the time. Of course, at the time, I would have been eleven years old.

So lets discuss the contents. In Issue 149 of Iron Man, our titular avenger gets in a kerfuffle with Doctor Doom and at the climax of the issue the two are catapulted into the unknown. In the double sized issue 150, it turns out that the unknown is Camelot, whereby Iron Man fights alongside King Arthur whilst Doom joins up with Morgana Le Fey before they find a way back to the present day where the status quo is restored.

In issue 249 of Iron Man, our titular avenger gets into a kerfuffle with Doctor Doom and at the climax of the issue the two are catapulted into the unknown. In the double sized issue 250 it turns out that the unknown is the future, whereby Iron Man fights alongside an infant King Arthur, and Doom joins up with the Iron Man from 2020, before they find a way back to the present day where the status quo is restored.

First things first. The second story is such a homage to the first one that the first three pages of issue 250 are a scene for scene re-enactment of the opening to issue 150. But that comic was 8 years previous, and in the days before trade paperbacks, your casual reader would have had little idea. David Michelinie had been away from the title before he and Layton were reunited as a dream team, but this slavish reimagining of the earlier story, enjoyable though it is, reveals a paucity of imagination.

Unfortunately, pairing it with the earlier issues doesn’t do the later story any favours. Even by 1981, Romita Jr was a phenomenal talent, soon to leave Iron Man for The Amazing Spider-Man. Working with Michelinie and Layton, they had brought a real sense of drama to Tony Stark’s tales and set the template for much of his future, particularly with regard to his alcoholism. Romita Jr’s Iron Man was crisp and dynamic, never static or clunky. The splash page of our two combatants arriving in Camelot, reproduced on the cover, is a fine example of his artwork.

The second story pales by comparison. Layton may be a good storyteller, but he’s not in the same class. His characters lack the grace that they possessed in the earlier story and at the tail-end of the eighties, they’ve unfortunately inherited the big hair and outlandish fashions that mean these issues have dated much more than the earlier ones.

In an ideal world, these two stories wouldn’t be in the same book and the inadequacies of the latter wouldn’t be so glaring. The book still has a superlative example of a story told in the Merry Marvel Manner. It’s just a shame that it has to follow it up with a poor imitation.

Cost : I bought it from Excelsior Comics in Bristol at the bargain price of £8.99. It’s available at £10.19 from FPI. If you enjoy your 80s Marvel, that’s probably a good price.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The O Men Book One / Spandex: Fast and Hard

The O Men Book One is the first of five books that will eventually collect and complete Martin Eden’s long running O Men series, with this volume collecting the first eight issues (that’s issues 1 to 7 and 0).  Spandex was my first exposure to Martin’s work, so I had never read any of these comics before, but it turns out that Martin was a talented storyteller even when he started out in the late-1990s.  His art and lettering have improved a bit since these issues were originally released, but this is still nicely drawn – the way he draws faces always reminds me a lot of the art of the Luna brothers but there is also a touch of Love and Rockets here, and he always drew lovely hair – and his superb sense of page, character and costume design was present from day one.

The O Men are a group of British super heroes, put together by Doctor O from the remains of his previous team, the Psi-Squad, to tackle some of their old enemies, who have escaped from a maximum security women’s prison.  And that’s just the first of the two story arcs collected in this volume.  In the second story arc, the team try and enjoy a quite night out and end up tackling a villain called Frenzy, who feeds on people’s anger and brings out the worst in people.  These comics wear their influences proudly, and I was reminded a lot of Vertigo books from the 1990s as I read this – Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and even early issues of Sandman – but it is still very much its own thing, and mature in the best sense of the word – not full of sex and violence for the sake of it, but confronting real issues in a mature way.

I enjoyed reading this a lot and was hooked by the time I got to the end of the first page.  I can’t wait for book two.

Speaking of Spandex, Titan Books have just released a hardcover collection of the first three issues.  This book has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention, and not just because it features Britain’s first gay superhero team, but because it’s a really bloody good superhero comic.  It’s a shame that it doesn’t collect more than three issues (although issue four was the first part of a four part story, so I can see why it doesn’t) but there is plenty of reading here (and some special features) and unlike in your average comic by Brian Michael Bendis, stuff actually happens (there may be a whole generation out there by now who aren’t used to things actually happening in a 20-page superhero comic).  Despite being another ‘mature’ title, and slightly rude in places, this is very reminiscent of those classic Claremont / Byrne issues of the X-Men, and as those were the comics that got me hooked in the first place, that’s no bad thing at all.  And the series actually gets better after issue three, so book two (come on, Titan!) will be even better.

Cost: O Men book one is available direct from Martin for £8.00 including postage, which is a bargain.  Spandex book one is a little pricey at £14.99 (that’s Titan Books for you) but it’s available cheaper online.  I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon and only paid £7.50 including postage (I've just checked and it's still £7.50).  Mind you, it must be quite easy to keep your prices low when you are dodging corporation tax (which hasn’t stopped me ordering from them, but I do feel dirty every time I buy something from them now).