Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson - A Comic Book Review

Having read the first issue of Irredeemable and the first couple trades of Incorruptible over the past couple of months, I recently dug out my Empire trade paperback for a reread.

The first two issues of Empire were originally released under the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint via Image Comics back in 2000. I guess Gorilla Comics didn’t do too well (most of their books were eventually published by other companies), and eventually the rest of Empire was published by DC Comics in 2003.

In the introduction to the trade paperback, writer Mark Waid talks about the genesis of the story. Basically, he woke up on the morning of his twenty-ninth birthday and realized that he had accomplished everything he had ever dreamed of doing before he was even thirty. It was a sobering and frightening moment for him. Faced with an unknown tomorrow, he could only ask himself, “Now what?”

That really encapsulates at least half of what Empire is all about. It’s a man known as Golgoth, a technologically-savvy dictator in a suit of armor he never takes off (think Dr. Doom), who manages to defeat or kill every superhero in his path and subjugate virtually every civilized nation on the planet.

In most superhero comics, villains rarely triumph; usually, even when they do win, it tends to be either temporary (where you know the heroes will regroup and the villains will get their due comeuppance), or a Pyrrhic victory. Even in a hero’s defeat, you know he usually at least gets the moral victory. At best, supervillains can win a battle but lose the war.

So if half of what Empire is about is the question, “Now what?” then the other half is the bleak idea that evil very well can ultimately triumph. Golgoth’s rule is absolute. He’s killed all of the enemies who were powerful enough to be a threat to him. Moral victories don’t matter to him because he’s accomplished the goals he set out to accomplish. There are only one or two significant pockets of human resistance on the entire planet, and they know it’s all futile. Every other vestige of humanity is under Golgoth’s dominion. His weapons are might and fear. With his technological prowess, his weaponry is unstoppable. He even has technology that allows him to teleport. There really is no escape from Golgoth, and Empire establishes a dreadful sense of hopelessness amongst the common man.

Through a minimal amount of dialogue from Golgoth himself, Waid establishes that this despot is fearsome and authoritative, and, to some degree, he even has the right to be somewhat arrogant. Even though he has armies who destroy his enemies, he’s not above entering a fray and sullying his own armored gauntlets with the blood of his opposition. He seems to revel in butchering the soldiers of freedom, and he slaughters people left and right with a sort of mechanical precision. Though he doesn’t gloat like a traditional comic book supervillain madman, and he isn’t prone to bombastic monologues, it’s clear that Golgoth is capable of extreme cruelty and callousness.

Perhaps the only shred of humanity left in him is displayed through the care and attention he pays his teenage daughter, whom he basically treats like a princess locked in a high tower. (Her mother, Golgoth’s wife, died under mysterious conditions years ago.)

Golgoth is a menace, but there’s no one left who has a chance against him. Although he has no real enemies, there’s still a great deal of tension and conflict in the plot. The story of Empire focuses not only Golgoth and his work in conquering the remaining pockets of resistance on Earth, but also on his political and military cabinet. His cabinet consists of a variety of perverse, twisted, and sadistic individuals, though they’re all highly talented at their tasks. Some of them are loyal, but some of them have their own motivations and intentions. Golgoth keeps his cabinet subject to his will by controlling their addiction to the Eucharist, which is a drug that triples one’s strength and speed. (In the middle of the book, there’s a great story about the origin of the drug, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

Waid takes Golgoth, his daughter, and these disparate cabinet members. Waid uses these characters to tell a story about what sort of world it’d be if evil had its ultimate triumph and good men were powerless to resist. Even Golgoth’s antagonists, whether it’s the last few remaining leaders of the resistance or his own scheming and conniving cabinet members, come off as rather impotent. No matter how hard they try or how well they think they’ve planned ahead, Golgoth always seems to be one step ahead.

One of the chapters of the book, “This Time,” is a microcosm of Empire as a whole. This particular chapter takes a break from the overall plot, and focuses on a superhero named Endymion, who seems like your basic Superman analogue. Years ago, after pretty much killing all the other superheroes, Golgoth defeated Endymion, the last superhuman who could stand against him. Though Endymion was thought to be killed, the truth is that he’s been imprisoned in a room, connected to machinery that constantly weakens him and drains his blood to be converted into the Eucharist.

It’s a tale of despair, as Golgoth has a conversation with Endymion, and Endymion recounts the story of Golgoth’s rise to power. What makes this particular chapter stand out is how powerless and impotent the superhero is. In just about any other superhero comic, the hero would somehow find a way. He’d gather the strength to break free. He’d use mind games to mess with the villain’s head. He’d have friends who would bust him out.

Not here. Here, Endymion does his best to use psychological warfare on Golgoth (he tries to sell Golgoth on the idea that Golgoth’s wife didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered), all to no avail. He has no hope of breaking free of his prison. All of his friends and allies are dead; even if they weren’t, the entire planet already thinks he’s dead. In the end, Endymion can’t get free and it’s all he can do to retreat into his own mind to futilely try and escape the pain of the machinery. Golgoth has crushed the spirit of the superheroic ideal.

And that, right there, really sums up Empire to me. It’s a superhero comic where the superheroes have utterly failed. It’s about being so consumed and obsessed with one’s own goals that perception of reality itself is diminished. This is evident in Endymion’s hope to be set free one day so he can avenge himself, his comrades, and the world. Yet it’s a despairing shred of hope because in his dreams he can’t imagine a better tomorrow; all he can do is revisit the past over and over in his own mind, and think about how things could have been different. In his own way, Golgoth himself is so consumed with conquering everything in his way that he isn’t willing to believe Endymion’s theory that Golgoth’s wife was actually murdered all those years ago.

After Endymion lays out his credibly logical theory on why Golgoth’s wife was murdered, he offers to find her killer if Golgoth will set him free. There’s this great sequence of panel-to-panel storytelling where Golgoth just kinda sits there for a while, glaring at Endymion, pondering his words. It sounds plausible that Endymion is absolutely correct. But after thinking it over a bit, Golgoth just says, “You would say anything to be free.” He then gets up, turns away, and teleports out of the room, leaving Endymion trapped and alone. He can’t do anything except hate his enemy so fiercely that he cries.

I love how “This Time” ends on such a downbeat note. It’s weirdly poetic.

The rest of Empire has some good stuff with Golgoth finishing off the rest of the human resistance, the machinations of his cabinet members, and a plot twist involving how his wife really died. I don’t think I’ll spoil the ending too much by stating that the whole thing ends with a little bit more despair than hope. There’s a tragedy in the proceedings, but Golgoth only seems colder than ever. If the typical superhero comic ends with the hero walking into the sunset with more hope in the human condition, or life in general, than ever before, maybe the typical supervillain comic is meant to end with the villain walking into the sunset with more bitterness in his heart than he did at the beginning of the story.

Mark Waid writes some excellent supervillains. There’s been a lot of buzz around Irredeemable and Incorruptible and those comics just reminded me that, in Empire, he’s already written one superb story about a Dr. Doom-like supervillain who stomps all over the world.

I know I haven’t said a whole lot about Barry Kitson’s art. He’s a well-respected artist, and rightly so, especially by Waid himself. I like Kitson’s work for the most part. I think his style can be a bit bland at points, but in terms of craft, it’s hard to really fault him. His panel-to-panel storytelling is clear and conveys all the information you need to know. His facial expressions and his characters’ body language are both well-done. He’s excellent at illustrating action, but he’s also more than capable of depicting the quieter moments and simple conversations.

The design for Golgoth himself is really inspired, capturing the cruelty and the regality of the despot of the world. Some of the designs for the other characters don’t really stand out, and I think some of the uniforms for Golgoth’s new world order are kinda fruity, especially the colors people wear. (Could just be a trope of the superhero genre in general, but I still don’t think the colors look good.) Kitson’s a reliably good artist. He’s nowhere near my list of favorites, but he’s certainly above average and you could do a whole lot worse than him. I’m glad he and Waid have a great rapport, because Empire is better because of his contributions.

Kitson’s overall style is sort of your typical superhero fare, which I think is an interesting choice. Empire is such a dark book that it sort of feels like something is amiss because the art looks like a standard superhero comic. A part of me does wonder how Empire would read if the art were suitably grim, but I do appreciate how Kitson’s art gives the comic a subversive sense of style. It certainly isn’t what it looks like at first glance.

Probably the only thing that really threw me off was how a couple of the later issues contain some uncensored swear words. Some earlier issues had some dialogue where you could tell that a swear word was heavily implied, only to get cut off. It makes me wonder if Waid had more freedom to write once DC picked up the book. Still, it’s a minor tonal shift in the latter half of the book that is noticeable, though it’s not really anything that hinders my enjoyment of the comic as a whole.

I think I’ve read interviews with Waid where he’s stated that he and Kitson, at some point in the future, would like to continue with a sequel to Empire. I’d definitely be interested in seeing how he can take this supervillain tale further. He and Kitson left themselves a few loose ends that I could see leading into a second big story. Still, on its own, Empire does have a satisfying ending, one that feels inevitable but is surprising nonetheless.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ultimatum by Jeph Loeb and David Finch - A Comic Book Review

There are dumb and pointless, but ultimately harmless, superhero comics and then there’s this travesty. Ultimatum isn’t just a lousy comic book; it’s an insultingly lowbrow piece of filth that should be the poster child for the digital comics movement because no tree deserves to die and be transformed into… this.

On second thought, I’m not really convinced Ultimatum is worth the storage space on anyone’s hard drive, either.

I find this comic very offensive, not because of any sort of underlying message or theme inherent in the text, but because it simply seems to pander to the lowest possible common denominator. It’s like Jeph Loeb thinks his readers are such lazy thinkers that he felt the need to write a pointlessly hyper violent story featuring ill-wrought dialogue and questionable comic book science. I don’t even think I can classify his characters as one-dimensional; they’re more like half-dimensional.

Ultimatum’s supposed to be this major story event that changes the status quo of the entire Ultimate universe. I guess it did its job in that regard, seeing as how the Ultimate Comics line has been rebranded over the past year or two. But that doesn’t make it a readable comic in and of itself.

Ultimatum sort of starts off as a follow-up on Ultimates 3, which I read chunks of and also thought was absolutely horrible, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Let me mention right now that I don’t have a personal vendetta against Jeph Loeb. I certainly don’t wish any ill on the man and, if he were to read this review of his work, I would hope he doesn’t try to hire a professional hitman or someone and destroy me, despite my vitriol for his work. While I don’t think Jeph Loeb has done anything good in years, he did write the screenplays for Teen Wolf and Commando, two rather entertaining and amusing movies. And I know he’s capable of writing decently good comics; Challengers of the Unknown and Superman: For All Seasons are both fun reads from what I remember.

Anyway, back to Ultimatum. Like I was saying, it seems to follow-up on some points left over from Ultimates 3, and broadens the scope of everything so as to include all the major players (and a number of minor ones) in the Ultimate universe.

I guess by the end of Ultimates 3, a bunch of stuff had happened to tick off Magneto in a major way. Scarlet Witch had been assassinated and Quicksilver seemed to have been killed by Hawkeye. Then, in the last couple of pages, Doctor Doom was revealed to be the sinister mastermind who secretly manipulated all of the events of the story. If Doom had facial hair, he surely would have been twirling his curly mustache. (The secret mastermind is one of Loeb’s go-to tropes in his writing. He’s done similar stuff in a lot of his other comics, like Batman: Hush, Spider-Man: Blue, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, and maybe some others that I’m forgetting right now.)

Ultimatum begins when some catastrophic stuff happens to Earth. Apparently, Magneto has shifted the planet’s magneto poles and kicked Earth of its axis. Therefore, as it says on the trade paperback’s back cover copy, “Eastern Europe is frozen over in a new Ice Age. The Amazon is on fire with volcanic eruptions. A massive tidal wave drowns Manhattan.”

I’m not a physicist, but I’m reasonably sure that even the comic book science involved in the premise of these catastrophes is somewhat faulty. I mean, even if all that stuff could somehow happen, why would the massive tidal wave strike Manhattan only once? In the story, there’s just one giant tidal wave that hits one borough of New York City. Why wouldn’t the entire eastern seaboard simply be completely drowned under water? I don’t understand that.

Not only that, but Magneto is shown to be able to basically move the entire planet off its axis with minimal effort. He’d never exhibited such power levels before, so why is he suddenly able to do so now? It all reeks of lazy storytelling.

Speaking of which, why is Doctor Doom depicted almost exactly like his 616 counterpart? When Warren Ellis created the Ultimate version of Doom back in the early days of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Doom was depicted as a vile creature, with hands like talons and legs like those of a goat. Now he just looks normal, and there’s no explanation for it. Was David Finch just too lazy to look at the original model, or did I miss the story where they explained this?

Also, what happened to Thor? All of a sudden, he’s talking in that Stan Lee-style, faux-Shakespearean dialect. And Mjolnir is no longer drawn as that giant axe/hammer thing that Bryan Hitch brilliantly designed. Instead, it looks exactly like the 616 Mjolnir. Again, did I miss a storyline where all of this was reconciled? Also, I can understand that Magneto has somehow gained possession of Mjolnir, how is he able to lift it? Is the Ultimate Mjolnir just a normal weapon without any enchantments?

For that matter, what’s up with the Ultimates’ costumes? I know that Joe Madureira gave some of them a new look in Ultimates 3, but why? I never understood the point of making the Ultimates look and act more like the traditional Avengers. Part of the appeal of the Millar/Hitch Ultimates was that it took place in a world that felt a little grittier and more like the “real” world.  Joe Mad (and Loeb, I presume) were the ones who first started to make the Ultimates feel like the red-headed stepchild of the 616 universe. Talk about a fall from grace.

Now, David Finch’s art isn’t as bad as Joe Mad’s. To tell the truth, though, I’m having a tough time thinking of an artist who’s actually worse than Joe Mad. Still, Finch uses the same unattractive designs that Joe Mad came up with and that’s why I have to read this comic where Hawkeye looks like a poor man’s purple Grifter, Giant Man looks almost exactly like the 616 Giant Man, the Wasp is no longer Asian, and none of the teenagers actually look like teenagers.

(Can someone tell me why the Wasp suddenly stopped being Asian? Well, at least Ultimate Nick Fury’s still black.)

There are a lot of things I don’t like about Finch’s art. Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that he is a very popular artist and there’s a reason he’s a big name.  He has a very commercial style, one that seems to appeal to those who grew up on ‘90s Image-era art (and the stylings of Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and the like). His action scenes are furious and gritty. His supermen are broad-shouldered, buff, rippling piles of musculature. His women are large-breasted, with thin waists, and pretty much all curves. I get that a good portion of comics fans love his style.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good artwork. I really don’t like how everything is drenched with unnecessary crosshatching. People’s biceps have way too many lines. Their foreheads and brows are coated with ridiculously unattractive amount of furrows. Thick veins are popping out everywhere.

Finch’s characters only have two expressions: They’re either stone-faced sullen, or they’re raging mad. As a result, his scenes that involve characters doing anything other than fighting are particularly lackluster. Everyone stands around posed unnaturally. It’s like Finch draws everything to be a poster. That might be fine for the occasional splash page or fight scene, but it’s just not good storytelling in terms of panel-to-panel continuity and emotional resonance. I find myself extremely bored looking at most of his pictures.

I also think it’s funny how, in some of the extras in the back of the trade, we see some of Finch’s penciled pages. There’s this one page of Carol Danvers meeting Iron Man and Cap in a hospital, and he originally drew her with her 616 Ms. Marvel mask. In the actual printed page, she doesn’t have a mask. I think that kinda sums up David Finch. He’s more passionate about the superheroic aspects of the story rather than any other personal or emotional aspect.

To be fair, I have to point out that Finch does draw one of my favorite pictures of Hela near the end of issue two. (However, Thor’s arms in the foreground have a disgusting amount of extra lines.) It’s probably my favorite David Finch drawing, other than one of his Sentinels during his Ultimate X-Men run with Brian Michael Bendis. It doesn’t necessarily fit the style of the Ultimates that I felt Bryan Hitch had established so nicely, but out of context, it’s not such a bad drawing.

Now, I can stomach lousy artwork if the story’s any decent. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter half of Bendis’ Ultimate X-Men run, and Finch penciled that. Jeph Loeb, clearly, is no Brian Bendis.

There are a lot of problems with the writing. I’ve already mentioned some of the sillier aspects of the premise. The details of the story aren’t much better.

In the first issue, when the tidal wave hits Manhattan, a number of characters die right off. Cap and Iron Man manage to survive and they both seem fine, but, inexplicably, in the second issue Iron Man is racing an unconscious Cap to a hospital. It’s baffling.

I have no idea whether or not the tie-in issues in the Ultimate line’s regular lineup touched on the emotional impact of the deaths. I haven’t read the tie-ins. I can only judge Ultimatum itself. I have to say that here, the deaths feel completely meaningless and pointless.

True, in real life, death often can feel meaningless and pointless. But that’s not the way you want to convey death in a work of fiction. There are ways to convey the idea and emotions of a senseless death to the other characters in the story, but you don’t want the reader to feel that what he just read was pointless.

As such, a lot of Ultimatum simply feels like Loeb’s just clearing the deck of various characters. Beyond the simple shock value, there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind why certain characters are killed, often in absurdly violent fashion.

There’s the infamous scene in which the Blob eats the Wasp’s guts and organs, and Hank Pym retaliates by growing to giant-size, grabbing the Blob, and chomping his head off. Pym then takes Wasp’s chewed corpse and thinks he can still save her. It sounds like something that could be a parody, but Loeb and Finch play it completely dead serious, like they’re actually aiming at genuine gravitas. The results are unintentionally comedic!

When Magneto kills Professor X by snapping his neck, the Professor lies in a pool of his own blood. Granted, I’ve never seen anyone get his neck snapped before, and I’m no expert on anatomy, but should there really be that much blood after a snapped neck?

There’s a lot of unnecessary gore and violence in this comic.

Carol Danvers uses an assault rifle and blows holes in a bunch of Multiple Man’s dupes. Hawkeye shoots arrows through people’s eyes. The X-Men find the x-ceptionally bloody corpses of their comrades. Giant Man explodes, his skeleton scattered all over the water. Dr. Strange is choked in his own sash to the point where his head explodes and the rest of his body plops onto the ground from sixty feet.

In Valhalla, Cap and Thor hack through an unceasing mob of the undead, who all happen to spurt and gush blood with every chopped limb. (For that matter, isn’t Valhalla supposed to be a majestic hall for the souls of dead warriors? In Loeb and Finch’s Ultimate Universe, it’s just a dreary place ruled by Hela and filled with a zombie army. Also, there’s no background, which must have helped Finch have the time to draw all those extra sinews on those zombies’ biceps.)

Sabretooth bites Angel’s wings off. Wolverine eviscerates Magneto’s guts out. Magneto retaliates by forcing Cyclops and Iron Man to shoot all the fleshy bits off of Wolverine before he uses his magnetism to completely disperse his adamantium skeleton. It’s all very juvenile.

You also have to love how, for the final battle against Magneto, Nick Fury assembles a hit squad of Cap, Iron Man, Cyclops, Wolverine, Hawkeye, Marvel Girl, Angel, Valkyrie, and Storm. Really? Nick Fury (whom Reed Richards and Dr. Doom retrieved from an alternate universe – it sounds stupid, and it is, so the less said about it, the better), the greatest and most brilliant tactical strategist in the entire Marvel multiverse, plans an assault against the Master of Magnetism and assembles a team with a guy who uses a metal shield, a guy who uses a metal suit, a guy who uses metal arrows, a chick who uses a metal sword, and a guy with a metal skeleton and metal claws? Really? I’m a bit shocked that Colossus wasn’t part of the team. And after all the times the X-Men have faced Magneto, you’d think Cyclops would wear a plastic visor… but nope.

The ending is also a really cheap copout after all the havoc Magneto wreaked throughout the story. After killing half the world for revenge and mutant pride, Fury tells Mags that homo sapiens created mutants in a laboratory. Booya! Mags’ world is totally shaken! Everything he knew was a lie! A lie! And he believed it! So after he learns the truth, he fixes the earth’s axis in three panels and then asks for forgiveness. Cyclops demolishes him with an optic blast. (Aren’t his optic blasts concussive force beams? How come they completely disintegrated Magneto’s face? I don’t understand comic book science!)

A few pages later, in the epilogue, Cyclops is giving a speech when he gets assassinated. (With a completely gratuitous blood splatter! Almost as gratuitous as my use of parentheses! And exclamation marks! Jeph Loeb, look what you’ve done!)

The Thing then pays Dr. Doom a visit and crushes his head with one hand. “You hadda pay for what you did,” Ben Grimm says, grimly. Did you see what I did there? Jeph Loeb would have been proud at my mastery of the obvious.

At the end, Quicksilver is revealed to have survived Ultimates 3. In typical Jeph Loeb fashion, Quicksilver, or rather some mysterious shadowy woman, is the TRUE mastermind of Ultimatum! What a cliffhanger.

What a horrible comic. Still, it’s worth reading, just once, so you can get a feel for what a truly terrible comic feels like when it assaults your senses. Ultimatum is exactly the sort of shameful, puerile superhero drivel that sets the genre back to the point where you question whether people who brush off comics in general as "kids' stuff" have a legitimate point.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Comics Reviews 6

El Diablo by Brian Azzarello and Danijel Zezelj – Originally published during the early run of 100 Bullets, El Diablo taps into a similar twisted bleakness. Like Johnny Double before it, El Diablo is based on an old DC Comics character. Here, Azzarello gets the chance to give El Diablo a bit of a spitshine by injecting a healthy dose of noir attitude into this western. In this story, El Diablo is more of an unknowable force of nature than a character. The protagonist is a guy named Sheriff Moses Stone, a former bounty hunter with a shady past, who is out to track down one mean hombre of an outlaw. Somehow, El Diablo is tied up into Stone’s dark past.

This is a great read. It’s more complicated than you’d expect from what was originally a four-issue miniseries, but this is Brian Azzarello here. El Diablo certainly warrants multiple readings. It’s a rather dense noir western tale about death and tragedy, so how can you not love that? Zezelj’s art really works. He uses a lot of thick lines and alternates between packing a lot of detail into panels and designing cleaner panels. Sometimes things get murky, but I think this just adds to the denseness of the comic as a whole. Sometimes people don’t like it when art is confusing, and I can certainly agree with that. Still, I do think there’s a difference between lousy storytelling and intentional chaos. Just look at some of Chris Bachalo’s stuff and you can see that he likes the intentional chaos. Zezelj’s art isn’t as wild as Bachalo’s, but I do think it forces you to kind of slow down the pace a bit, which is a pretty cool trick of the trade.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli – This book deserves all the acclaim it’s garnered. It is an amazing piece of comics art. The title character is a fifty-year old architect/professor who, due to forces of nature, is forced out of his home and ends up soul-searching and reflecting on his past as he moves to a new town. A good chunk of the story is told through flashbacks as we learn more about Asterios and who he is and how he came to be. Thematically it’s rich. It touches upon Greek tragedy and philosophy, dualism, art, arrogance and pride, life and death, regret and optimism, and so much more. It’s really one of those comics you can read many times and continue to glean something new with each successive reading. I love how layered it is, yet it’s not one of those pretentious comics where the creator’s just out to prove how amazing and intellectual he is. Asterios Polyp has genuine emotion at its core, and the protagonist undergoes a legitimate journey of progress. I love the ending, too. It’s hugely satisfying.

Most people probably know of Mazzucchelli due to his art on two of the most influential superhero comics of all time: Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both of which were written by Frank Miller. Those two books are rightful classics, but I also want to point out his indie work in the years since. His adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass is one of those comics that someone could claim is one of the ten greatest North American comics ever and I wouldn’t bother trying to debate that. Mazzuchelli’s artwork in Asterios Polyp doesn’t really look anything like his work on Daredevil or Batman, but his level of craft is immaculate, and some of his ideas and his execution here could be considered groundbreaking. This is one of those comics that I think people will study years from now. You can learn so much about the form from it.

Asterios Polyp definitely deserves my highest possible recommendation.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 2 – Rhino and Mysterio by Dan Slott, Fred Van Lente, Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara, Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido, and Michael Lark – I haven’t been consistently reading Amazing Spider-Man since it One More Day ended and Marvel revamped the series with its thrice-monthly release schedule. I’ve read a handful of trade paperback collections, though not in any particular sort of reading order. I appreciate what Marvel’s been trying to do with this title and if I were still inclined to buy single issues every week, I could see how Amazing could be an addictive experience. Reading these trades, however, makes me feel rather critical because the actual quality of these comics varies wildly from issue to issue, which is never good when reading a single collected edition.

It’s sort of like a football team that doesn’t have a featured running back who gets the bulk of the carries throughout the course of a game. Sometimes a team doesn’t really have one legit starter, so the team just rotates three guys in and out throughout, hoping they stay fresh and that the constant changes keep the opponent’s defense off-balance.

Comic books don’t really work that way. Or if there has been a series that’s pulled that off, I can’t think of it right now.

This Spider-Man-by-committee succeeds in giving readers a steady, consistent dose of Amazing, but I can’t say everyone in their creative stable lives up to the top billing that The Amazing Spider-Man rightfully deserves.

In The Gauntlet volume 2: Rhino and Mysterio, we get some excellent stories written by Joe Kelly featuring the Rhino. We also get some really mediocre comics about Mysterio (with some stuff about Silvermane, the Maggia, and Mr. Negative) written by Dan Slott. Fred Van Lente chips in with a couple of origin stories, each of which feature the aforementioned supervillains.  Max Fiumara’s art in Joe Kelly’s stories is serviceable, but compared to the truly wonderful art of Marcos Martin (and Javier Pulido) in the Mysterio arc, it isn’t as appealing. Michael Lark draws on of Slott’s issues, too. If only the artists had been switched around.

All in all, I wasn’t impressed by this collection. The Joe Kelly issues are ace, though; I really like what he’s done with the Rhino’s character. He gives the Rhino a memorable voice and the heart of the character even feels consistent with Peter Milligan’s indelible “Flowers for Rhino” story back in Tangled Web some years ago.

Slott’s issues are middling. They seem to focus more on the larger, overall plot of the series (which is meaningless to me, as I haven’t read everything to keep up, and this didn’t make me interested enough to start caring). There are some things I don’t like about Slott’s writing. I’m tired of how many times he has Spider-Man tell us that his Spider-Sense is tingling, and I’m just not down with the incessant, melodramatic chatter that goes on during action sequences, or when characters narrate their actions.

He also portrays Spider-Man as a bit of a jerk, as someone who uses his friends to do stuff for him, and who feels okay with playing the field when it comes to women. I get that most people probably wouldn’t think twice about that, but there’s a part of me that just feels like Spidey should be one of the last bastions of the wholesome superhero. It’s disappointing, and while Kelly’s issues are enjoyable, the package as a whole is forgettable.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 3 – Vulture and Morbius by Fred Van Lente, Greg Weisman, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, Joe Kelly, and various artists – The third installment of The Gauntlet isn’t a whole lot better than the second. Morbius only shows up for half an issue, which is misleading based on the title. Paul Azaceta does some nice art for a two-parter written by Waid and Peyer featuring the new Vulture. It’s decently-executed, but again, lacks a satisfying resolution. I suppose that’s something more noticeable when reading the trades, as opposed to weekly installments of a serialization. I also thought it was a little overly melodramatic the way J. Jonah Jameson goes out of his way (holding a press conference, no less) in order to humiliate Peter Parker on a professional level, especially when Peter’s intentions were good. I know Jameson is supposed to be a jerk, but I felt that this was some unnecessarily melodramatic overreaction on his part. It’s rather artificial, as though the writers are just trying to pile dogcrap on Spidey just to show us that he’s got it that bad in life.

Tom Peyer does write a fun little Jameson short story about a wannabe villain kidnapping him. It’s a pretty silly story, but fun and true-to-character. Greg Weisman (the Gargoyles guy, I believe) contributes a realistic issue about Flash Thompson dealing with losing his legs from the war in the Middle East. It’s surprisingly heartfelt, and probably one of the more interesting subplots going on in the series. Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara also do a one-off issue with the Rhino that serves as a tragic epilogue to their story from the previous volume. That’s the sort of sad-sack Spider-Man story that really works, (especially compared to how things are handled in the Vulture story) because it all flows so naturally from the characters and situations they face.

Ultimately, the Spider-Man-by-committee approach makes for some rough trades. Not every story is an Adrian Peterson. If I could find all of the Joe Kelly issues in a quarter bin somewhere, I’d pick them up. Otherwise, I can live without owning these books.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham – Level Up is a well-done coming of age tale about an Asian-American young man whose addiction to videogames makes it tough for him to live up to the expectations his parents have for him to become a doctor. These are some themes that Yang excels in communicating, as evidenced by his award-winning American Born Chinese comic from a few years back. Don’t think that Level Up is a rehash, though, because this comic has its own soul. It’s realism mixed with a bit of magical realism, as the main character communes with four silly little angels who poke and prod him on his way through life and med school. Pham’s watercolor-style art is attractive and his facial expressions and body language are superb. There’s humor, drama, sincere emotion, and actual character growth throughout Level Up. The ending is brilliant.

Two-Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner – Warren Ellis did a string of three-issue miniseries in the early 2000s, and they all had some really sharp high concepts. Two-Step’s high concept: “A weird romance with guns in three issues. He’s a Zen Gangster. She’s a wirehead camgirl. They don’t fight crime.” That right there tells you all you need to know. Taking place in a madcap, insanely multicultural and sci-fi London, Two-Step is full of rowdy action set pieces and Ellis’ blisteringly pithy witty dialogue. Heartily recommended to anyone who has a pulse.