Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The secret stealth department of fun at Marvel

X-Men: First Class Special #1X-MEN: FIRST CLASS SPECIAL #1: This comic is fun. As I mentioned a handful of weeks ago, and some of you may have noticed, I'm not buying very many floppies at all anymore. Part of the reason is economics—the books I'm interested in are mostly likely to come out in trade paperbacks within a few months after storylines or runs are completed, often for less cold hard cash than the separate floppies, certainly less when you count in the Amazon.com discount. But it's not mere penny-pinching alone that has turned Bully into a patient and neglectful comics reader, oh no no no. It's in many ways also the product of an age where the two big companies...especially post-Civil War era Marvel...are producing dreary and dystopian storylines that featured my once-favorite heroes. You know that I'm much more of a Marvel than DC fan (making me rare among the comics blogosphere, I think) and I don't think I'm alone in believing it's not the best time to be a fan of the old-school Marvel heroes. Spider-Man? Coming of a period where he had his eyes eaten out, now wearing the uniform of a known killer and a creature who terrified his beloved wife. Iron Man? Master manipulator and betrayer of the decency and good he once stood for. Mr. Fantastic? Justifier of horrible, horrible deeds. Captain America? Gut shot. Etc., etc., etc. One of the most popular series of books for Marvel in the past few years? Story after story of a nightmare zombie world where heroes eat their friends and beloved and even Reed Richards infects the Fantastic Four because he's impressed by the efficiency of the zombie neurosystem. Now, I ain't sayin' there's no place for titles and stories and even heroes like this...it's just simply that there is no joy to much of the Marvel Universe any more for me, and I'm taking a breather from it. It's not so much "good riddance to bad rubbish" as it is "stay away from the bad kids." Look, I've got nothing personal against Joe Quesada. He's selling a heck of a lot of comic books in which Norse god clones kill people and at the end of the day that's what Marvel is...a business. It's just that they're publishing huge gobbets of stuff I don't wanna read anymore.

But every now and then...a glimmer of light...

Do you get this feeling that there's a secret stealth department at Marvel, working away under the noses of Joey Q. and the powers-that-be, sneaking away to some basement lair and firing up the old printing press to occasionally publish a sneaky-pete good old-fashioned fun comic? Just like Harry Potter formed Dumbledore's Army, doesn't there seem to be a kind of "Stan's Army" fluttering around the edges of Marvel today? If not, how else to explain that while the mainstream Marvel books featuring the top iconic characters all seem to be doom, gloom and Jarvis's corpse being greedily gnawed on by the Avengers...there's almost a whole other Marvel line, not as distinctly delineated as Epic or Star or the New Universe, but sure enough a more upbeat and high-spirited antidote to the rest. Nextwave. Agents of Atlas. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Marvel Adventures: The Avengers. Franklin Richards. Chris Giarrusso's Mini-Marvels. Little parts and bits 'n' pieces of Heroes for Hire (but not "that cover") and She-Hulk. And the comic I did buy last week and clutched in my fuzzy little hooves like manna from heaven: X-Men: First Class Special #1.

This follow-up to the critically acclaimed and yes, absolutely fun X-Men: First Class miniseries features three short stories and three gag pages about the original X-Men, long before that guy with the knives for hands came along. Sure, they're continuity implants. Who cares? Heck, you might even want to argue that the continuity doesn't follow properly with the original Marvel Universe. Again, who cares? Previous "reboots" of the original X-Men have attempted to follow the general track and mood of the first Stan 'n' Jack 'n' Roy 'n' Company books, p'raps missing one very important point: while the concept of 1963 X-Men is solid gold, the execution frankly often left a lot to be desired. Whoo boy, a lot of those early X-Men issues are kinda stinkers, ain't they? Go ahead...I dare you, pull your Essential Classic X-Men off the shelf and try to read more than two or three stories before your mind wanders away.

What Jeff Parker has done in the original miniseries and this follow-up special is keep intact that basic concept of the X-Men—five teenage mutants trying to help their own kind and save the world—and tell modern stories using modern conventions and pacing (not, however, decompression...each of the stories have very wonderfully been done-in-one), and most important to me, with a humor and glee and a joy that is oh-so-missing from modern Marvel comics. Sure, you can point especially at the wonderfully giggleworthy Colleen Coover gag pages in this book. I love Colleen Coover's work (even tho' John won't let me read her book about the two girls who like each other very, very, very much). But did you ever think you'd see panels like this in an X-Men book?
X-Men: First Class Special #1 panel

Yeah, yeah, I know everybody and his brother posted that panel in their blog. How about this one?
X-Men: First Class Special #1 panel

Or this one?
X-Men: First Class Special #1 panel

It's humor that's not only well-written and well-paced, but is...and this is rarer than you might think...is actually funny.

Even a handful of wonderful gag pages don't make a comic a stand-out. What works best for me in X-Men: First Class is the upbeat sense of hope and triumph that is oh-so-missing from "mainstream" Marvel Comics. More often than not in these stories, the X-Men don't battle a foe to a stand-still and utterly defeat him: they figure out what makes him tick and work alongside him to help out. A gargoyle in a haunted house? A mysterious psychic neo-mutant at the X-Men's favorite coffee shop/beatnik hangout? Dragon Man, for Stan's sake? For First Class X-Men, these aren't foes to be defeated, they're puzzles to be figured out. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of action and good fight scenes. It simply means that yes, it's not necessary for death and destruction of entire alien empires and guys with big swords to follow in the wake of the X-Men in every comic being published by Marvel today. The feel-good effect is nearly foolishly gambled away with a handful of X-Men stat pages featuring the modern-day X-Men (really, who gives a flying fig that Scott Summers was once called "Slym Dayspring" in an alternate future miniseries) and a couple full-page house ads for contemporary X-Men books full of over-detailed impossible anatomy (and I ain't even talking about Colossus's muscles; what's the deal with Xavier's big-as-his-ear lips and Magneto's wrinkly, wrinkly nose?) but hey, go ahead and tear those pages out of your comic and throw them away. I won't tell anyone.

I've probably blathered on long enough when all I really need to say is: : This comic is fun. But it occurs to me that we're living in a Marvel Age which is almost the exact opposite of the 1970s Marvel. In the 1970s, mainstream comics—the big guns like Spider-Man, the Hulk, the FF and Captain America—were all running the usual type of Marvel storylines for that time: stories that were once in a while classic, but usually just serviceable, and most of all safe. There were no great risks taken or changes being made in Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, the quintessential seventies Marvel superhero title. But. Under the surface...in what may have seemed at the time to be a hidden basement secret printing press, a more involved and, let's face it, adult type of Marvel comic was also being published: Tomb of Dracula. Master of Kung Fu. Howard the Duck. And, towards the end of the decade, one of the lowest-selling titles in the Marvel pantheon—X-Men—suddenly became more adult and nuanced. Those small pantheon of titles in many ways set the tone for the reinvention of superheroes in the eighties: without them, no Uncanny X-Men, no Frank Miller Daredevil, maybe no Watchmen or Dark Knight. All fantastic comics. But when everything Marvel published was trying to be like those eighties and nineties comics, trying to outdo themselves with bigger and bigger steps: no secret identities, national superhero registries, one of Marvel's iconic characters killed: well, there was no place for the fun to go but to be the hidden comics—published but seldom promoted by Marvel, acclaimed by fans and accepted as cult classics. As our old friend Kang would tell us, it's all just a case of history repeating, and this reader has his hooves crossed that as time goes by, the wheel will swing back around, and what's a stealth comic of today will gradually grow acceptance and acclaim. The best first sign of this? X-Men: First Class is becoming a regular series. In other words, the fun is slowly but surely peeping its head out from the basement at Marvel. It's still only Groundhog Day...as far as I'm concerned, there's a lot of time and work until the fun returns to Spider-Man and Iron Man...but like a baby duck, it's the first sign of a glorious Spring on the way.


Anonymous said...

"One of the most popular series of books for Marvel in the past few years? Story after story of a nightmare zombie world where heroes eat their friends and beloved and even Reed Richards infects the Fantastic Four because he's impressed by the efficiency of the zombie neurosystem."

Wholehearted kudos to your entire post, but especially this. I thought I was the only one whom the zombies struck as less 'wow!Cool!' than 'kinda pointlessly icky'.

Anyway, you've managed to neatly sum up nearly every reason why I don't bother with the Marvel heroes in their original comic-book format these days. Thanks.

Steven said...

Do you get this feeling that there's a secret stealth department at Marvel

yup, and their names are Jeff Parker, Dan Slott and... Warren Ellis?.

Huh, look at that. Warren Ellis.

Go fig.

FoldedSoup said...

Echo-ing the previous, but.. thanks, Bully! Very well said.

Marvel really has lost the fun. Cap and Shell-Head used to be fun. Man, I remember that...

Steve Flanagan said...

From your two examples, we could suggest a general rule: comic books that do not follow the general, centrally-mandated editorial line (whatever that might be) tend to be better because someone must have really made an effort to ensure that they exist.

Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Ah yes, Marvel's Secret Agents of Superb Storytelling (S.A.S.S.). Operatives include Jeff Parker, Dan Slott, Zeb Wells, Fred van Lente and Chris Giarusso.

Luke said...

"X-Men: First Class" has been a breath of fresh air for it's entire run. I was very happy to hear that it was being picked up as an ongoing. And I know that you are more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy, but I think if more DC stories were written this way (I'm thinking like the Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman...) then things might just be a little bit brighter in the 4 Color world.

Pedro said...

I know it's cute to basically imagine that there is a different department of dudes running counter-culture to the man who is oppressing you and your "fun" comics, but didn't Joey Q greenlight First Class from going from mini to ongoing? Why would he do this if he hated you and "fun" comics?

Fun comics don't seem to sell in the direct market. Considering comic book stores, I can totally see why they don't succeed. Nextwave didn't get canceled because Joey Q hated the idea, but because the artist cost to much for the book and Ellis didn't want to do it with a new artist.

Marvel is a business, and at the end of day, they'll cancel a "non-fun" not profitable book as quickly as a fun book that makes no cash. Shit, look at Blade.

Bully said...


Oh, you know I'm just poking fun at Joe Q. I actually do have a line in my original post about Marvel being a business, and I can't fault them for publishing comics like Civil War that sell a gazillion copies. If those comics didn't sell, we wouldn't have X-Men: First Class, now, would we?

I'm just amused by the observation that most of the lighter and more rollicking comics seem to be out of the main spotlight, not populated by the major icons. That gives it a counter-culture feel of little elves sneakin' behind Marvel's back and publishing wacky stuff right under their noses. (Remember Assistant Editor's Month? That's kind of the vibe I pick up from some of these books.)

Joe's absolutely to be commended for publishing stuff like Nextwave and Doctor Strange: The Oath and the Marvel Adventures line. I just wish a little more of that fun and wonder could come to the big name top-tier comics, is all. That said, I like the concepts of some of them...Black Panther and Storm in the FF, for example...much better than the execution. But that's a step in the right direction.

SallyP said...

Fun comics? I...I remember these! I MISS fun comics. Or at least not "All the former heroes are now jerks and everything is dark and horrible" comics.

Bully, did you ever come across the old "Damage Control" series, by Dwayne McDuffie? Gosh, those were a hoot.

Bully said...

Sally, I love Damage Control. It's such a wonderful concept and well done--genuinely funny. (I understand part of the concept was darkened during Civil War, but I choose to remain blissfully ignorant of that development.

I have all the Damage Control miniseries somewhere, but I do have series 1 on my shelf, just waiting to be covered in my "Most Fun Comics Ever" feature. Sometime this summer, I hope!

Anonymous said...

One of the most fun Marvel comics I've read lately isn't even a comic book, but the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game!

It's a fun story that takes you on a sort of Grand Tour of the Marvel Universe. And while it takes advantage of many later plotlines and characters, it has a real Bronze Age feel to it - back when all Stan and Jack's groundwork had reached its "mature" form, but hadn't yet gone stale from repetition. And you've got a whole bunch of heroes from all over, and, sure, they squabble a little here and there, but they all know they're on the same side! And they're fighting Doctor Doom's Masters of Evil! How can you top THAT?

Steve Flanagan said...

Ooops! Maybe revealing the existence of the secret stealth department wasn't a good idea. They've smashed Slott's She-Hulk already.

Anonymous said...

well maybe this is that miss to marvel, a little funny edition with all characters, I don't know create different situations in which we can see characters in funnies moment like wolverine as a garden keeper, or viagra online as a nurse, Storm as a channel weather help.