From the Bookshelf

I recently got to several graphic novels and comics trade paperbacks that have been waiting on my shelf, some for years. It’s not uncommon in my family to buy books and never get around to reading them. Buying books and reading books are separate endeavors controlled by distinct parts of the brain. For what it’s worth, here are my reactions and opinions.

Anyway, the first thing I read was Essential Super-Villain Team-Up, which demonstrates Marvel’s penchant for scraping the bottom of the artistic barrel in the mid-1970s. The book collects the entire run of SVTU as well as a number of ancillary titles and crossover issues to produce a sprawling narrative focusing on Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner. The main series was a mess from start to finish, with four or five writers on board during its brief run, and artists such as Happy Herbie Trimpe (in the twilight of his career – at least the first wave of it, before his bizarre comeback in the early 90s), Mike Sekowsky (very much an acquired taste – many swear by his DC work, but the stuff he did for Marvel is rancid!), George Evans (a golden-ager known for his “air aces” type work for EC), and even Jim Shooter did breakdowns for an issue facing the Dreaded Deadline Doom, which were inked by a third-rate scribbler named Sal Trapani. Things settled down toward the end under the undistinguished pens of Bob Hall & Don Perlin.

On the brighter side, the book kicks off reprinting Doctor Doom’s solo series in Astonishing Tales, the first few of which were penciled and inked by the legendary Wally Wood. Even though many observers said that old Wallace was “burned out” by this time, it’s still a treat for those who appreciate the classics. And the last issue of that run featured some gorgeous work by Gene Colan & Tom Palmer (one of Marvel’s all-time greatest teams).

SVTU met a bizarre end, in that, after 14 issues they wrapped up the Doctor Doom storyline, announced it was the last issue, and suspended publication. Then, a year later, they published # 15, which reprinted a “Doc Doom vs. Red Skull” story arc from Astonishing Tales. A year after that, they published # 16, an all-new story by Peter B. Gillis and Carmine Infantino featuring the Red Skull and the Hate Monger, as an Israeli secret agent tries to escape the slave pens on the villains’ island fortress. He ultimately fails and is dragged back to captivity while the bad guys gloat. No super-heroes appear, but they seem to be setting up some kind of storyline. Unfortunately, another year would pass before the release of #17, which again teamed up the Red Skull and the Hate Monger for a sequel to the previous story. The Israeli agent dies at the end, a victim of the Skull’s diabolical experiments, but his girlfriend (a minor character last issue), has escaped and leads a squad of anonymous SHIELD agents back to destroy the island. Nick Fury does not appear, neither does “Dum Dum” Dugan. Heck, even Jasper Sitwell is nowhere to be seen. The main thrust of the story, though, is actually the relationship between the Red Skull and the Hate Monger, who is, of course, really Adolf Hitler. Totally bizarre stuff. I was thinking, why are they even publishing this? I’d love to see the original issues to know if there’s an editorial or anything explaining what they’re trying to do with this oddly amoral storyline.

As soon as I finished that, I devoured Essential Silver Surfer, which reprints the classic Stan Lee / John Buscema series in its entirety. It’s Stan at his most faux-Shakespearean, and Buscema gives some of his most exaggerated poses ever to the Surfer’s many agonized soliloquies. It’s a really strange series, and not much even seems to happen in the stories. There’s no supporting cast, they’re all stand-alone stories, and even the guest-stars are kept to a bare minimum. Although Big John was clearly inspired during the early issues (the introduction of Mephisto is a feast for the eyes), by the end he was clearly phoning in his breakdowns for people like Dan Adkins or Chic Stone to finish up. The last issue marks a 180-degree turn as Jack Kirby plays guest-penciller and pits the Surfer against the Inhumans (naturally), and ends with the Surfer declaring total war on the human race. Well, the title was cancelled and the storyline was summarily dropped. I think it was eventually explained away. The Surfer turned up next in the early issues of Defenders.

Next, I decided the time had come to finally read Kyle Baker’s The Cowboy Wally Show, which had been gathering dust next to my copy of Why I Hate Saturn for many, many years. It was amusing, not so much a story as a collection of interrelated comedy skits, like something one might expect to see on SCTV. During an interview, the no-talent celebrity Cowboy Wally recounts the rise and fall of his media empire. Baker’s sketchy cartoon line-drawings are fun, though there’s quite a bit of sliding between the realistic/cartoonish poles that could be annoying if you’re not into it. The jokes are generally funny, and he even works in a spoof of a French Foreign Legion movie as well as a production of Hamlet staged by four guys in a prison cell. Not as accomplished as his later work, but an amusing diversion.

Tired of the Black & White scene, I moved down to Death: The Time of Your Life, by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo & Mark Buckingham. A somewhat disappointing sequel to The High Cost of Living, which I thought was great. Bachalo shifts to a much cartoonier style here that I didn’t feel suited Gaiman’s story of two lesbian lovers being driven apart by one’s devotion to her budding career as a pop singer. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Bachalo was replaced halfway through by Buckingham, who tried to imitate him for the rest of the story. The earlier work is far superior, and frankly, I wouldn’t waste money on this one. Luckily I bought it many years ago, so it doesn’t matter anymore.

I had an afternoon totally free for some reason, so I took the opportunity to read Selina’s Big Score, a tale of Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke, which I bought last spring. It was great, and I would highly recommend it, because it owes less to Batman comics and more to “heist” films like Ocean’s Eleven or whatever. Selina doesn’t really appear in costume, no one displays super powers. In fact, you don’t need to know anything about the Batman mythos to enjoy it, but it’s a fun, colorful yarn about a couple of crooks trying to rob a train full of mob money. If they had filmed this instead of that Halle Berry garbage, they’d have had a hit film, I’ll wager. It’s drawn in the cartoony style of the Bruce Timm school – much like the various animated shows of late, though somewhat rougher and sketchier. I thought it worked, though, and I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it was in the typical “representational” style. It’s a bold, thick-brush approach to the art that makes for an engaging quick read – time that would be less well-spent watching most recent movies. Far and away the best of the bunch I’ve discussed here.

Lastly, I finished Essential Daredevil volume 2, featuring more of the Stan Lee / Gene Colan run on the book. Gene’s art really blossoms during these issues, and he starts getting into more and more crazy panel lay-outs. Unfortunately, his style is often hampered by journeyman inkers like John Tartaglione and Vince Colletta. George Klein (of Avengers fame) is a relief by the time he shows up late in the book. It’s a shame that he died around that time, because he was quite a good inker. As I’ve said before, nobody captured the essence of Colan’s work like Tom Palmer. Stan’s work is unusually uneven here, especially as he tries to convince us that Stilt-Man and Leap-Frog are formidable villains. He puts a merciful end to the whole “Mike Murdock” farce, which went on way too long, and struggles unsuccessfully to pit DD against any really fearsome world-beater. (The best he can do is the derivative Jester.) However, perseverance pays off in the second-to-last issue (#47), which is an offbeat tale of Daredevil helping clear the name of a cop who was blinded during his tour of duty in Vietnam. It shows our hero doing as much in the courtroom as Matt Murdock as he does in his red tights, and the story of the luckless Willie Lincoln is strangely compelling. Stan gives full voice to his social conscience, and for a change the theme takes precedence over the plot. A really nice change-of-pace, and an underrated classic of Stan Lee at his best, with strong visuals by Colan & Klein.


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