Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Savage Hulk #4 - Marvel Comics

SAVAGE HULK No. 4, November 2014
The somewhat grotesque and distinctly disturbing cover illustration to this issue of “Savage Hulk” unfortunately seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the conclusion of “The Man Within”; a four-issue story arc written and drawn by Alan Davis which once seemed full of promise in recapturing the late 1960’s exploits of Bruce Banner and the original X-Men.

The portrait of the Hulk is beautifully drawn by the British artist with some genuinely inspirational pencilling. However at the same time Davis’ illustration also plainly depicts an alarming perversion of the green giant’s physiology, with the Hulk suffering ‘brain bulges’ more closely associated with his arch-nemesis The Leader. The book’s interior is equally at odds with one another, as the comic’s pages are both well-drawn and the panels packed full of the ‘almost cartoony’ detail the 1989 Will Eisner Comic Industry award winner is well-known for.

But the storyline is completely unrecognisable as one belonging to the era of writer/editor Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin. Indeed, at one point The Leader, presumably as baffled by the turn of events as the reader, angrily turns upon a captive Charles Xavier and asks him what is going on. The Professor’s response is an unequivocal “I have no idea”; and he is not the only one.

Based upon the premise that Bruce Banner’s relentless suppression of his violent alter-ego has caused the mild-mannered scientist to vastly increase his mental capacity and develop telekinesis blasts equivalent in power to his formidable strength, the Hulk becomes a veritable machine of destruction, laying waste to an entire army of the Leader’s super-strong plastic humanoid henchmen. Luckily for all concerned this brief but cataclysmic rampage results in the Hulk ‘burning off’ the gamma power needed to maintain his telekinetic abilities; though not before the green-skinned behemoth has somehow destroyed his foe’s distant secret base with an earth-shattering psychokinetic charge.

As one can imagine such a super-powered version of Bruce Banner’s ‘greener’ side is totally at variance with the character’s normal routine (of the time) of simply getting angry, pounding a few objects or people or both, and then leaping away to the next adventure. Alan Davis’ ludicrous incarnation is therefore disconcerting and badly jars with normal expectations. As a result it is with some relief that this book’s final panel depicts a ‘normal’ looking Hulk bounding away from the X-Men as it confirms that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s co-creation is once again safe from the hands of Davis; an artist who with this particular four-issue run has shown himself to be an infinitely better drawer than writer. Indeed the entire plot of “The Man Within” is best encapsulated by the words of the title’s main antagonist, the Leader… “I have indulged this farce long enough.”
The variant cover art of "SAVAGE HULK" No. 4 by Dale Keown

Saturday, 20 December 2014

All-New Captain America #2 - Marvel Comics

ALL-NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA No. 2, February 2015
It is hard to believe that either Joe Simon or Jack Kirby would recognise much, if anything, of their co-creation, if they were alive to see the cover illustration of “All-New Captain America” Issue Two. For whilst Stuart Immonen’s artwork is well-detailed with copious amounts of shadowy cross-hatching and contains a veritable Rogue’s Gallery of the Sentinel of Liberty’s most famous adversaries eerily floating behind Sam Wilson and Ian Rogers, the title’s two leading, garishly-costumed characters are visually a far cry from the ever-recognisable trappings of Steve Rogers and James “Bucky” Barnes.

Fortunately, Rick Remender’s actual narrative for this twenty-page periodical is far closer to Flag-head’s fist-fighting free-for-alls of the Forties than the magazine’s front page artwork, and in the main actually makes for a darn good read. Admittedly the “punk trying to pass himself off as Captain America” doesn’t have the impressive hand-to-hand combat abilities of his predecessor, nor “operated without backup in a while…” But it’s difficult to think of many heroes in the Marvel Universe who could literally go toe-to-toe against the combined might of Taskmaster, Cobra, Viper, Crossbones, Armadillo, Baron Blood and Baron Zemo even for just a few panels.

What must have perturbed this comic’s 50,077 readers though is the way the former “Uncanny X-Force” writer avoids using the increasingly old and preposterous ‘villains get in the way of one another’ punch-up trick by simply having Wilson unheroically fly to safety and leave the ‘new’ Nomad confronting such insurmountable odds alone; “We have all the blood we need, Ian Rogers. It’s not his blood we’re interested in. It’s yours.” Such a dishonourable tactic is hardly the sort of behaviour this book’s audience would arguably have seen if the World War Two super-soldier was still carrying the star-spangled shield, and it’s not as if the cowardly retreat grants the red-winged ‘Cappy’ any respite, as he soon re-encounters Crossbones for a gruelling slug-fest.

Sadly however, not even a sequence as simple as Sam taking a viciously savage beating from a far more able opponent is entirely safe from Remender’s frustrating interference, as the American author somewhat shockingly resorts to the red, white and blue hero having to point a pistol in the face of his homicidal foe in order to resolve the conflict… At least until Misty Knight inexplicably makes a surprise appearance in her “four-inch heels” and helps “Blue Bird… lose him in the streets.”
The variant cover art of "ALL-NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA" No. 2 by Time Sale & Dave Stewart

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Rocket Racoon #5 - Marvel Comics

ROCKET RACCOON No. 5, January 2015
There’s a genuine sense of the master handing over the baton to his pupil with Issue Five of “Rocket Raccoon”, and an uneasy sense of foreboding as well. Much of this wariness stems from a single, easily missed change to the credits which top the comic book’s title page. For instead of just ‘Young * Beaulieu’, a pairing which has produced four cracking previous editions and essentially guarantees more of the same, this issue includes the additional name Parker… and it is smack bang in the middle of the line-up where the artist usually sits.

Turning the page, something which is easily done considering the unusually poor Skottie Young cover art, it is all too clear that illustrator Jake Parker is indeed ‘in the chair’ as the penciller for “Storytailer”; albeit Young still gets a co-credit as a result of sketching three pages for the story. In fact the presence of the Inkwell Award winner permeates throughout the book’s twenty pages, and not just because the American is the writer. Parker’s artwork is uncannily similar to Young’s, so much so that when the animator takes over the reins from page three it would be all too easy to miss the transition… for a handful of panels at least. As unfortunately, despite a very brave effort, Parker fails to maintain the zany yet superbly detailed artwork of his predecessor, and quickly degenerates into drawing something more akin to that seen within a Hannah-Barbera magazine than a “Marvel Worldwide” monthly.

It is clear that the Editors were equally as sceptical about the quality of Young’s replacement, despite his style so closely resembling that of the former “New Warriors” (2006) artist. Otherwise it is doubtful that they would have ensured Young’s artwork bookends the comic so cleverly. Although the switch back from Parker, whose final panels look awfully rushed and are frankly appallingly drawn, is far from smooth and inconspicuous. 

Disappointing though the majority of the artwork is, sadly the comic book’s storyline is probably even more substandard despite Young attempting something rather clever and original. Written from the perspective of the anthropomorphic raccoon’s constant companion Groot, the simple plot is based around the Guardians of the Galaxy dispatching Rocket to the ‘four corners of the universe’ in order to spring a surprise party upon him.

However as the Monarch of Planet X is the storyteller, all anyone ever says is “I am Groot.” As a result the comic is a frighteningly fast read, for without Young’s superior illustrations and acute sense for depicting screwball action, there is nothing to hold the reader’s eye as it flits from panel to panel, page after page, faster and faster, as Parker’s artwork appreciatively deteriorates.
The variant cover art of "ROCKET RACCOON" No. 5 by Jason Latour

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Mercenary Sea #2 - Image Comics

THE MERCENARY SEA No.2, March 2014
There’s a definite early Twentieth Century motion picture feel to Issue 2 of “The Mercenary Sea”. It is not just the fantastically dynamic cover art by Matthew Reynolds which depicts a Japanese Zero Fighter strafing Captain Harper’s submarine; a front page illustration which certainly wouldn’t look out of place plastered to a bill board with the name David Niven or Gregory Peck headlining a war-time thriller. But the artist’s blatant characterisations of some of that cinematic period’s most famous film stars.

The hapless portly padre is instantly recognisable as the actor Robert Morley, presumably fresh from having filmed the 1951 adventure film “The African Queen”. Whilst Captain Tono, grim-faced and stern-looking, is undoubtedly inspired by Toshiro Mifune’s extraordinary performance in “Hell In The Pacific”. There’s even a cameo by Jack Watson as Sergeant Lee, straight from “The Wild Geese”. However perhaps most successful is Reynold’s depiction of Commander Graham, who is a ‘dead ringer’ for actor Vincent Price; something which immediately provides the mysterious military officer with an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

Technicolor artwork to one side however “Red Sails At Sunset” also boasts a reasonably successful action-packed storyline; which writer Kel Symons only disappointingly fails to maintain towards the comic book’s final third. Certainly the issue’s opening few pages are especially enjoyable with the tension between the ex-bootlegger and his crew’s would-be Chinese captors being quite palpable before their subsequent battle over the surface of “The Venture”; an action sequence which is not only very well written, but paced and drawn by Reynolds.

Unfortunately once concluded both the plot and speed of the storyline does significantly, and detrimentally, slow down. There’s some nice interplay between Harper and his crew in the aftermath of their ‘gun-fight’ with the Chinese. But the dialogue steadily increases as each page is turned and events finally become unnecessarily bogged down under the sheer weight of words being exchanged between the German U-Boat’s captain and his supporting cast. Only at the book’s very end does Symons turn back up the suspense dial, as Harper is betrayed and the Japanese navy mobilised to intercept him.
Writer: Kel Symons, Art & Colors: Matthew Reynolds and Letterer: Pat Brosseau

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Mercenary Sea #1 - Image Comics

THE MERCENARY SEA No. 1, February 2014 
Ordinarily I am not really that much of a fan of any comic book artwork which approximates ‘cel shading’ or purveys an atmosphere of storyboard-like animation. But frankly Mathew Reynolds’ front page illustration alone is worth this “Image Comics” cover price. It is truly eye-catching and despite being quite minimalistic in its composition, that is a lone tall standing stone protruding out of the sea, there is plenty to excite the reader’s imagination. Whether that be the shadowy shape of a submarine dodging sea mines in shark-infested waters, or the single Japanese sentry about to be shot by a scuba-gear wearing assassin who would not look out of place plastered over an old “Rolling Thunder” arcade game cabinet.

It is perhaps therefore understandable that Kel Symons’ story “Nice Work if You Can Get It” does not quite live up to such heady expectations but the plot to Issue 1 of “The Mercenary Sea” still has plenty of surprises within it, and really does establish the central character, Captain Jack Harper as a cross between pulp fiction luminaries Doc Savage and Indiana Jones. There are some nice nods to other cult classics as well such as Toby’s knife point removal of a venomous crawler from the neck of the Frenchman, Jarreau (a la “Predator”) and the submariner’s notable book collection which contains such adventurous novels as “Treasure Island”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Tarzan” and “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”; not forgetting his prized “King Kong” film print.

Admittedly the writing is though a little clunky in places. Perhaps most notably when the spy Mister Taylor usefully provides the reader with a brief synopsis of each of the comic’s main cast members when he starts reciting from their dossiers whilst in a night club.

Reynolds’ artwork is equally as ‘hit and miss’ at times when it comes to his interior artwork. One moment illustrating a fantastically atmospheric jungle beach landing, complete with palm tree silhouettes and fading sun. The next depicting an exchange between fellow crew members with a series of panels within which the line art becomes increasingly thick and ugly. Almost as if far smaller drawings have simply been manipulated and enlarged electronically. Indeed the artist’s work seems to be at its most impressive when he resists the temptation to provide his drawings with a black outline and simply uses the various colours and shapes of his characters’ faces and bodies to depict the action.
The variant cover art of "THE MERCENARY SEA" No. 1 by Mathew Reynolds