Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
September 2008

Proudly Wearing Our Underpants On the Outside Since 1984

Secret Invasion, All Hail Megatron, Amelia Rules: What Makes You Happy

I don't know why I did it.

It's madness.

I told the guy at my local comic shop to hold me all the tie-ins for Marvel's Secret Invasion and DC's Final Crisis.

Do you know how many comics that is? There's a whole Marvel Universe for the Skrulls in Secret Invasion to invade. There is the moon in Inhumans, the made-up country of Wakanda in Black Panther, and the teeny-bopper superhero clique in Runaways/Young Avengers. The Negative Zone in Fantastic Four. Both Avengers titles. X-Men. Thunderbolts. The free press turns on the alien invasion in Front Line. And of course, there's the main title, which comes in at a steep four bucks per issue.

Then in Final Crisis, there's an entire multiverse to wreak havoc in. There's even a 3-D tie-in where Superman goes flying through upper dimension. Well, actually, that one was pretty cool, but it came on top of a massive amount of money already spent for the month on Rogue's Revenge, Revelations, Requiem, and Legion of 3 Worlds. Not to mention the DC Universe lead-ins.

You know what doesn't fly with your spouse? This conversation: "Hey, we overdrew at the comic store again. The baby can survive on oatmeal and cardboard, right?"

So, lest you be thinking of glutting yourself as I did, read on for guidance. Secret Invasion this issue, and Final Crisis the next.

Secret Invasion's main series continues and continues . . . to disappoint. It's a big dumb slugfest written with the worst of Brian Michael Bendis's flaws, stretching events across five issues that could have happened in two. So far the junior teams of Avengers: Initiative, Young Avengers and Runaways have been fighting an army of Super-Skrulls in New York while the mainline Avengers are stuck fighting their doppelgangers in the Savage Land. The best part so far has been the face-off between the Spider-Woman disguised Skrull Queen and Iron Man, in which she tries to convince him that he is a Skrull sleeper agent with his memory removed, but other than that, human interaction has been limited to "So, anyone here a Skrull?" In issue six, the main Avengers finally get out after a lot of fumfawing about who was who, until Mr. Fantastic showed up with a ray gun that could reveal all the Skrulls. Yay. A ray gun. In what could almost be a tribute to the original deus ex machina, Mr. Fantastic flies down out of the sky in a space pod.

I can't slam it too much, though. It did provide one fanboy pee-your-pants moment in the last issue, when the "Big Three" Avengers, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man, reunited to face the army of Super-Skrulls in Central Park. But that starts another slugfest. Other than two amazing double-page spreads from Yu, there is no reason why we should invest personally in these stakes. Unlike last year's World War Hulk, which featured actual details and dialogue as part of the slugfests, in Secret Invasion we see the fighting between the generic Super-Skrulls and the various members of the Avengers the way we might view a medieval tapestry. It's cool, but who is doing what and why and is that guy falling or just angry and is that another Super-Skrull/Saracen or just a coloring mistake and and and?

We just don't get a lot of reasons to care because Bendis doesn't care enough to get us involved. Leinil Francis Yu's art is a paean to the power of shape, with huge slick spaceships stretching in thick swarms to the horizon, and thickly muscled heroes and heroines bursting with the urge to pummel something. But it is wasted when it just gets crowded with shot after shot of fighting without details of the risk involved for the characters. There are so many characters that there is little chance to hold on to any one particular one. Again, unlike World War Hulk, where Hulk focused on the five men who had sent him into space, making each issue a fight between two larger-than-life personalities, each issue here gives us no detail on the Super-Skrulls or the folks they fight. Generic Skrulls take on heroes with no time to establish their stakes, and the battles are too big for Bendis to keep anyone onscreen for more than two panels. The characters who are prominently featured aren't always the ones who make the big differences, and when they are, like Tony Stark, they are often stuck in Bendis's long rounds of circular dialogue.

To deal with some of this problem, Secret Invasion has taken the route of "offscreen-itis" where the real character moments happen in different comics from the main title. It's the same tactic Marvel took in Civil War. To really "get" Civil War one had to at least be reading the Front Line tie-in, and all the other tie-ins helped, especially since the main series would shamelessly set up hooks for the spin-offs. The best tie-ins for Secret Invasion thus far has been the two Avengers titles, telling individual stories about the Skrulls who have infiltrated the various groups of superheroes. Like the Civil War plugged tie-ins, the Avengers titles also take care of things that happen offscreen in the main title, and things that should really be in the main title, like the story of the Skrull double for Captain America and the history of Spider-Woman and the Queen of the Skrulls who replaced her.

The Runaways/Young Avengers and Avengers: Initiative tie-ins also show offscreen what should be onscreen in the main titles, namely the New York slugfest Bendis has set up with these junior teams. In this case, the happenings are tied to numerous things that have gone before in these titles, so any casual fan is guaranteed to be lost. Luckily Avengers: Initiative is the best title Marvel publishes, and Runaways, with runs by the legendary Brian K. Vaughn and Joss Whedon, has traditionally been solid gold, so anyone who hasn't read them should know that picking up the previous stories is worth the money. In Avengers: Initiative, the 3-D Man, who can see Skrulls with his special old school glasses, (nothing beats old school) is trying to find the Skrulls among the many super hero teams in the Marvel Universe. In Runaways/Young Avengers, a specialized Skrull unit is coming after two young Skrulls who have been kicking around Earth with the junior teams. They're both good comics, Initiative more so than YA/Runaways. But the idea of buying additional titles just to see how the story really plays out -- well, no matter the quality of the story, your wallet is emptier than it would have been.

So as long as I'm savaging corporate moves, the recent decision by IDW to focus on their new Transformers: All Hail Megatron title is a smack in the fans' face, made doubly smacky because IDW has, up till now, been exemplary in their treatment of fans and creators. It doesn't help that writer Shane McCarthy writes All Hail Megatron like a teenager trying to imitate the 80s cartoons. But the truly offensive thing about it is what it has done to the other Transformers storylines.

Simon Furman, a longtime writer of Transformers, spent the last two and a half years building up to a storyline called Revelation, an epic space opera the likes of his previous work at Marvel. To do this, he planted seeds in the main IDW Transformers titles and in the supplementary Spotlight titles, predicting a dark threat from a Dead Universe that would require his traditional pages and pages of robot mayhem.

But now, in order to release All Hail Megatron, a comic that makes Michael Bay's film look deep, Furman's grandiose conclusion has been shoved into four little Spotlights when it could easily take up six double-sized issues to resolve. It could take an entire series, and it should, because unlike Shane McCarthy, Furman has shown that he can deliver.

It's obvious when one reads the Revelation issues that Furman is being rushed. In the third chapter of Revelations, Spotlight: Doubledealer, four different plot threads get squeezed into tiny tiny panels, not helped by the art of newcomer Dan Khanna, who needs space and time to polish his undeveloped work, and has neither here. Furman creates an "ultimate McGuffin," a magic 8-Ball computer that can answer any question. I can't help wondering whether the magic 8-Ball of Space would be needed if there was a little more room for the Autobots to find out these answers on their own.

All Hail Megatron also takes place a year after Revelation, which means that if you read one you know at least some of the ending of the other. In AHM, Optimus Prime lies dying on a metal table, which means that Revelation has to end with him getting the fatal wound. Thanks for giving away the ending, IDW, especially when you could have waited a scant two months to release the title until after your cramped Revelations arc was done.

All Hail Megatron is slightly saved by the fun, dynamic art from Guido Guidi, an IDW mainstay, though his style resembles the 80s cartoon a bit too much compared to his earlier work. It kills me that someone at IDW mandated the backsliding of Decepticon forms from modern-day tanks and planes back to the 80s models. That update was a key part of Furman's run, in the mode of looking forward rather than backward, and is also a slap in the face to the beautiful work of EJ Su, who redesigned all the robots to look modern, and did a damn fine job of it.

All Hail Megatron, unlike Revelation, is a spectacular space-waster of a story. In the first issue we spend 22 pages watching the Decepticons destroy a generic segment of New York. Then also kill some fighter pilots whose one characterization has been the fact that they looked at pictures of their loved ones before going in the air. Yeah. It's that bad. Let's not forget the obligatory argument between Starscream and Megatron, an insubordination Furman wisely made far more fatal in Infiltration, where Starscream's insubordination was grounds for a hole through his middle. But no, we have to go back to the cartoon clichés.

The editorial board at IDW has obviously decided that blatant nostalgia, to the point of dumbing down the stories and crapping on the work that has gone before, is what the fans want. Somehow they've missed the reason why fans have always read Transformers comics. Furman is able to push far beyond the limits of a toy cartoon to create massive space operas on the level of Dune and Star Wars. Everything good about Transformers comics has always come from Furman. And, whether in the short-lived Dreamwave company or the Marvel comics of the 80s, every time the comics have moved away from Furman they devolved. Obviously, there are good Transformers stories that could be told without Furman, but the fact that both Dreamwave and now IDW have squeezed his stories out of the spotlight says that they do not appreciate the man who is the singlehanded source of their line's success.

Whew. That's a lot of negativity. Well-deserved, but still a lot.

Let's talk about a good comic.

I have a running argument with my wife about Peanuts. I say it was funny for a brief window in the 60s and 70s. She says it was never funny. Growing up, her dad would not allow her to watch the TV specials, and every time I play "Linus and Lucy" on the piano, her nerves grate a little bit. I think fondly of the story where Charlie Brown had to push his little sister around the baseball field. She thinks fondly of how she and her dad would rub out the words in the speech balloons and replace them with dirty jokes. We will probably never agree about Peanuts -- but we can agree that Amelia Rules, while heavily influenced by it, is better than Peanuts ever was.

Eight-year old Amelia has moved to the suburbs to stay with her aunt after her parents' divorce. In the beginning of What Makes You Happy, she is seeking for new friends and happens on Reggie, Rhonda, and PajamaMan. Reggie's major goal in life is to imitate Batman, while Rhonda's major goal in life is to marry Reggie. PajamaMan, save for his big smile, betrays no emotion behind his reflective glasses. Somehow he is still a dashing ladies' man, though.

Gownley's art works through ridiculously exaggerated word balloons and frenetic line art that turns on facial contortions. Among the highlights are Reggie's encyclopedic definitions of things like the "sneezebarf," which comes in handy in a fight with some bullies, and "latchky kids," who, in Reggie's world, are immigrants from Eastern Europe who wear big furry hats and cavort "Butt Nekkid." Even when he's dealing with things like divorce or poverty, he never gets away from the Calvin & Hobbes-esque childhood madness that accompanies Amelia and her friends.

My favorite scene follows another character, the small, pale Mary Violet, as she's picked for a round of dodgeball. She is understandably horrified. "Permission to pee myself, ma'am?" Mary Violet asks the teacher.

"Permission denied," the teacher replies.

"Oh dear."

Rhonda holds the ball, waiting to throw it, and says, "Mary Violet . . . I'm sorry if I kill you."

"Thank you," Mary Violet answers.

As Mary Violet sits waiting for the ball to fall on her, she prays, "Dear Lord, as I stand here about to be smooshed, I ask forgiveness for all my sins. Even the fun ones and the ones I got away with on technicalities. Also, if it is at all possible, please prevent me from being creamed by this orb of death."

Then the ball hits, crushing her, and when Amelia yells "Oh my God!" Mary Violet responds, "He's not in."

I hate to use the term "heartwarming," lest we see a Disney moment coming, but Amelia's Christmas story really does light up the old cockles. In the beginning, Amelia has been milking her parents' divorce guilt for the maximum amount of presents. However, things take a turn for the serious when Reggie, in his alter ego as Captain Amazing, reveals that one member of their group has received nothing for Christmas except the bare necessities of socks, deodorant and undies, despite being exceedingly good! This leads to an incident where they bust the mall Santa, only to be told he was a decoy and the real Santa was watching through the mall security cameras.

But that's only a background for the real story, when Amelia sees the desperate poverty PajamaMan lives in, and realizes that his Christmas wish for a "Red Ninja Fight Squad" will not come true. Amelia suddenly feels awful for the way she's been milking her parents for all they're worth. She pictures herself ending up on a list even worse than the naughty one, the "Whiny Self-Centered Jerks" list with Celine Dion and P. Diddy.

So when, on Christmas, she receives the Red Ninja, she sneaks over to PajamaMan's house in a Santa hat and leaves it under his tree. Gownley gives us a couple of beautiful silent pages where PajamaMan walks into his front room, sees the present, opens it and dances across the page with his new toy. Despite the way this might disprove the notion of a true Christmas, Amelia reassures the audience that she refuses to live in a world without Santa Claus. Even if sometimes he needs a little help.

No matter which side of the Peanuts debate you come down on, Amelia Rules is essential. Comic books are needed to expand reading skills, minds and senses of humor in our nieces, nephews, kids and students. Now, more than ever, there is a massive selection of comics for all ages and tastes, and Amelia Rules is one of those that anyone can read for the sheer joy of it. Santa needs a little help. Put Amelia Rules in someone's stocking.

Next issue: Final Crisis and I've slammed Marvel's Spider-Man: Brand New Day run without really looking at it. Next issue, I will explore just what the ramifications are of setting a character back twenty years. Of course, this means . . . uggh . . . reading it.

Pity me not, dear readers, as I go into the mouth of death. This next column may kill me, but the eternal spirit of comicdom will go on.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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