Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
March 2009

The League of Public Red Underpants Has Lost Another Member To Shame

Avengers: The Initiative: Basic Training, X-Factor: The Longest Night, Marvel, 2007

Every once in a while, the meaty fist of reality gives a solid uppercut to the reality-disconnected jaw of a comic book fan.

It started with my wallet. It was empty. Because of this, I took a look at how many comics I was buying per week. Then I said to myself, "Self, you really don't enjoy all these comics enough to dish out thirty bucks a week."

My thinker got thunking. Although I love Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers and just about every other franchise Marvel owns, the stories tend to go in circles. No one can stay dead in X-Men, because a writer will come along and decide they really need Colossus for their story, even if Colossus' death was really powerful. Spider-Man, as I have pontificated previously, can't stay married, or can't even hold a job besides freelance photographer, because the company needs their young, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker to keep the feel of the original 60s comics. Even my beloved Transformers are beholden to a toy company, who determines the way they look and act by the current model of the toy, which also determines that Optimus Prime, no matter how many times you kill him, can bounce back with the Autobot Matrix and an oil change.

It's the beloved retcon: short for "retroactive continuity," a phrase coined by longtime comic writer and editor Roy Thomas. When you don't like where a story has taken the title you are writing, you do some magical super backpedaling, through deals with the devil, multiverse smashers, or just plain saying, "He was healing. From death."

This is a dilemma. Any real devotion I have to one particular story will eventually be undermined. After I fought my way through this dilemma, I decided to drop all the X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, and most other mainstream comics I collect, and even some of the Transformers ones are biting the dust. It's not worth it when so many stories I've loved in the last few years are reaching that magical retcon time because the writers want a reset button.

But -- gasp -- doesn't that leave me without a monthly dose of comics? In the words of Thor, (whose comic is still quite good), I say thee nay! For behold, every once in a while, a writer comes along who has been reading comics for a long time, who takes a collection of discarded, forgotten and generally forgettable characters, then makes them interesting and writes a good story that has very little chance of getting retconned because the characters aren't the big cheeses. Then -- gasp to the 2nd power -- there is character progression, tight plotting, meaningful deaths, and even the occasional ending!

Case one: Avengers: The Initiative. Iron Man is on the cover of Basic Training, but only to sell the book. Little-known characters like Justice, Rage, Slapstick, War Machine, and the sole Avenger Yellowjacket populate the pages, along with a sprinkling of new characters like Cloud 9, Gauntlet, Komodo, and Hardball. (Yes, they did name a superhero "Hardball." His power is that he can withstand a punch to the . . . never mind.)

Art and writing, Initiative is the best title Marvel publishes. It features the oft-used "junior team" within a much more interesting, dangerous environment than the traditional autonomous city or benevolent training center.

The Initiative originated as a spin-off of the Marvel super-epic Civil War. In Civil War, four irresponsible members of the reality-TV show team the New Warriors attempted to take down a super-villain team in the middle of a crowded suburb despite the fact that the super-villains waaaay outclassed them. One of the super-villains blew the New Warriors all up, and most of the suburb and the elementary schools therein with said New Warriors. (Good riddance to that name: can you even say "New Warriors" without slurring it up and having your tongue oozing into "Norriers?")

As a result, the government pushed for regularization of super-heroes, which Captain America opposed and Iron Man supported. They fought. Registered heroes threw unregistered ones in jail. Captain America got killed. Spider-Man revealed his secret identity (that one's already been retconned) and young heroes suddenly had to get officially trained, hence The Initiative.

In the first issue, we open on a massive military compound squatting where once the blown-up suburb was. Young superpowered kids pull up in buses and are put through their paces. MVP, a physically perfect boy descended from the creator of Captain America, runs through the obstacle course in record time and smiles like a movie star. Cloud 9, a shy flyer, walks into the changing room and winces as the typical superhero babes all around her. "Geez, it's like they all walked off the cover of Teen Vogue or something." A training exercise accidentally blows off Komodo's arm, and another sprouts while she grimaces and says, "I hate regrowing these things." Trauma, a black-haired, black-nailed brooding kid, is taunted by Gauntlet, the trainer, with "Yo, emo boy! Your mama dress you that way because she wanted a girl or something?" He answers, "My mother's in a mental ward, sir." The unfazed Gauntlet shouts back, "Cry me a #@%*ing river, boy!" Trauma later reveals his power, the most valuable of all the group -- to turn into anyone's worst fear.

Dan Slott's writing brings a sense of big FUN to superhero comics that is missing in this era of the super franchised mega-event. Among the varied cast, there is even a resident mad scientist, a former Nazi supervillain who, under Iron Man's close supervision, runs the division's genetic engineering facility in the basement, doing some strange things with the genetic templates of the trainees, and driving home the idea that, as a government institution, super-heroing is now prey to quite a bit of nastiness behind the curtain.

Another good thing about titles like The Iniative is that they have to capture readers right off the bat, so the first big surprise, which drives the rest of the plot, comes at the end of chapter one of this collection. No, I won't give it away. Just go buy it and read the first thirty pages. I will say no more. Save that the first big shock is only the first of many.

And I'll say that the true star of The Initiative, good as the writing is, is Stefano Caselli. His art is reminiscent of the early days of Joe Madureira, legendary X-Men artist who brought an anime flow to American comics. But Caselli is better than Madureira, because he resists the urge to show off. He gives us fluid but built heroes and villains, lightning-quick in battle like striking pythons, and he sends us careening down from the sky with crashing Hydra airships or flying sideways through the canyons of New York chasing Spider-Man, yet spectacular as his art can be, it never gets in the way of the story. The fun, flashy and dynamic art suits the same qualities in Slott's story.

The colors by Daniele Rudoni deserve mention -- they go far beyond most comic book colors with shades of depth and richness that mold the light around Caselli's godlike figures. Just check out the fight with the Hulk halfway through this trade and tell me you weren't moved to gasp to the 3rd power.

Even the final chapter's fill-in statuesque art and colors by Steve Uy is up to the story. Oddly enough, in its twenty-something issues, The Initiative has even survived a recent handover to the creative team of Christos Gage and Humberto Ramos without any noticeable change in the quality of storytelling or art.

Case two: X-Factor. The X-Collective has generated tons of various heroic types over the years, few of which can approach the cool iconic status of Cyclops, Beast, Wolverine, Phoenix, Colossus, Storm, and More Wolverine. Meanwhile, we have lots of leftovers like Wolfsbane, Madrox, Siryn, Monet and Guido. X-Factor takes these characters, whom only X-continuity nuts will remember and spins a story that only Peter David, writer of writers, could write, to make to the best X-Book out there, a noirish detective story full of gallows humor and dark morality.

Going by sheer longevity alone, Peter David is the best comic book writer in the industry. He's been writing funny, interesting, powerful stories with both mainstream icons (Hulk, Spider-Man) and little known spin-offs (Captain Marvel 2, Impulse) for long after many of his contemporaries of the 80s and 90s dropped out of the industry. Unlike a lot of comic writers, his stuff never dates itself, and he is just as high-profile in 2009 as he was in 1991 and 1985. Besides X-Factor, he currently writes the many Stephen King Dark Tower spinoffs Marvel produces, which sell like especially moody hotcakes.

X-Factor is a moody, dark mutant detective piece. Like The Initiative and Civil War, it grew out of another Marvel mega-event, this time House of M, a super cosmic story wherein ninety percent of all mutants on Earth were robbed of their powers. X-Factor investigations is a fixture of Mutant Town, a mutant ghetto in NYC, where half the population has now found itself without powers, and in the first issue, an ex-mutant (not to be confused with X-Mutant) named Rictor is thinking about throwing himself off a building now that he is without powers.

Rictor is one of the previous junior X-Men, and, from what I remember of him in New Mutants and X-Force, was always a pretty boring, bland character with the generic power to cause earthquakes. Peter David instantly gives Rictor more pathos than years of other writers have. Explaining how his power was more than earthquakes, he says, "I was attuned to the planet, man. Separate but one. Like she was the mother and I was the baby in her belly."

And the character Rictor says that to -- Jamie Madrox -- also gets more interesting in a few panels than he has ever before. Madrox has the power to make lots of doubles of himself -- again, a power that in the past I found just kind of bland.

But now, every time he makes a double, it takes on an aspect of his personality. So he has to go through several dupes to find one that can talk Rictor out of his suicide.

The first one: "He might as well jump. Saves him from having to die in the nuclear holocaust."

The second: "If he does or he doesn't, it should be his choice. I don't see how we have the right to interfere . . ."

The third: "How can he want to die on a beautiful night like this?"

Jamie says, "You'll do."

Jamie has spent the last few years sending his duplicates -- he calls them "dupes" -- out into the world to amass knowledge and return it to him. He has an attorney's license since one of his dupes went to law school and passed the bar. He has a deep knowledge of philosophy and religion since one of his dupes went to divinity school, and he's not a bad boxer since one of his dupes hit the fights in the local basements. Jamie himself, though, is never sure who he is -- since every time a dupe pops out it takes on some aspect of his personality, often ones he didn't know he had.

The best character, though, is the mysterious little girl Layla Miller, who "knows stuff." Basically, she can see into the future, but she's selective about what she tells X-Factor. She, for instance, tells them how to solve a client's problem but doesn't say anything when Siryn, another member of the team, is kidnapped and tortured. Her explanation? "I'll die if I tell you certain things." It seems true, until you realize that Layla may be playing the whole team. And finally, there's a mysterious villain who is a multiple man himself, who knows a little too much about Jamie.

David creates a twisted, complicated mystery masquerading as a simple noir story that deepens and deepens until the subplots are everywhere. The story only gets better as it goes on through the second and third volume and leads into the super X-crossover Messiah CompleX, of which David's chapters are the best.

The only problem with X-Factor is that the art is just too dirty and dark. It seems to be attempting to be noir, but it ends up just looking muddy. However, pencilers Ryan Sook and Denis Caldero do have a gift for facial expressions, as in the moment when Rictor walks in on the blatantly conceited Monet singing, "I'm Too Sexy" stark naked. Those expressions are frameable.

I'd be worried that these titles might only appeal to the continuity nuts who know who the characters are, but after I gave X-Factor to my wife, who raved about it, I am reassured that they just might be the cure for people who can't get into the main Avengers and X-Men titles. And why not? They have characters who can grow and change and die and stay dead, and though their titles also have a built-in shelf life, it may not be a bad thing -- after all, these titles can also have a genuine ending, which is something the other cash cows never will. Like a . . . gasp to the whatever . . . real story!

Next issue: The aftershocks are fading, but the ghosts of Secret Invasion and Final Crisis still hang over the comic book superhero world. We look back at the fight and the endings . . . which don't really end . . . and ask ourselves whether the Superhero Mega Event can be more than just empty calories.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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