Saturday, 22 December 2012

Best Books of 2012 Part 1

So far on this blog I've posted one positive article and three negatives - which they deserved - so I thought I'd try to balance things out by writing an article on the best reads of this year that aren't comics.

"The House of Rumour" is my choice for best novel of the year. It was published this year and was easily the most engrossing, well written, clever, and fascinating novel I'd come across.


“The House of Rumour” is Jake Arnott’s tour of 20th century curios taking in some of its most defining moments and including some of its most interesting and notorious individuals. Reality and fiction blur as created characters mix with real people, and events have a habit of connecting to other events with tenuous links – “jonbar points”, to use sci-fi vernacular. 

A classified paper detailing a secret government operation in World War 2 to use black magic and astrology to lure Hitler’s second in command, Rudolf Hess, to leave Germany for Scotland is stolen by a transvestite prostitute in late 80s England from a retired spymaster. From there Arnott sends the reader back to the dark year of 1941 where the war was firmly in favour of the Nazis and a young Ian Fleming, commander in Naval Intelligence, utilised his contacts to arrange a meeting with Aleister Crowley, once known as “the wickedest man in the world”. 

Crowley agrees to Fleming’s bizarre plan (or is this disinformation?) to hold magical gatherings to lure Hess to Britain, sending word to his cult centre in California to do the same. And so on to California where we meet a young (fictional) author, Larry Zagorski, who is introduced to Robert Heinlein and his Manana Society where he meets L Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons. I won’t go into the various strands of the story because there are too many to list but they include the Nuremberg Trials, the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution, Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple, UFO conspiracies, and culminating in space with the Voyager 1 probe. 

Jake Arnott has written some tremendous books so far in his career but “The House of Rumour” is his best yet and definitely his most ambitious. It is structured in the style of tarot cards with 21 chapters each named after a face card (“The Hanged Man”, “The Hierophant”, “The Female Pope”, etc.) with each chapter told from the perspective of the rich and varied cast of characters. 

It’s a beautifully written novel full of fascinating people and events. I loved the parts in the 40s highlighting the Golden Age of science fiction and reading about the exploits of Jack Parsons (a rocket scientist who would die in mysterious circumstances) and L Ron Hubbard (who would go on to found the controversial religion Scientology), Arnott captures the spirit of the age showing the naivety and excitement of the times. The communes and free love read like the 60s but this was the 40s, a time that wasn’t as innocent as some would make out. 

Across the pond, the Ian Fleming chapters were my favourite. You get a great sense of the man he was and how frustrated he was that he wasn’t the suave, manly character he wanted to be. In a particularly funny section he saves a Moneypenny-like colleague from an assassin in a bungling way before sitting awkwardly with her afterward, cursing that he hadn’t the courage to take her to bed immediately after killing the assassin. He thinks that one day, with words, he will make this right. 

Years later after his Bond novels have made him rich and famous, he gives a clue as to the meaning of this novel. “The House of Rumour?” “At the centre of the world where everything can be seen is a tower of sounding bronze that hums and echoes, repeating all it hears, mixing truth with fiction.” (p.244). The House of Rumour is deception and counter-intelligence - disinformation fed to the enemy. And that’s what this book is full of: deception. A transvetite who looks like a woman but is a man; a troubled female David Bowie groupie becomes a man; a writer whose life influenced his fiction (Fleming) and a writer whose fiction influenced his life (Hubbard); a prescient novel called “Swastika Night” allegedly written by a man is revealed to have been written by a woman (this is real novel); and a fictional writer, Zagorski, writes a novel with each chapter named after a face card in the tarot... 

The novel talks about utopias and dystopias and is full of examples: the Cuban Revolution which tried to create a socialist paradise before becoming a bankrupt third world country; Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple which promised paradise on earth but ended in mass suicide. Each character is looking for truth in their own way - but what is true in this twisting hall of mirrors story?

There is so much about this novel I enjoyed but this review is already too long to talk about them. I will say that a number of reviews have said this novel has no plot as if this is a critique against it; I agree that the book has no plot but disagree that this is a bad thing. When a novel is this entertaining, where each chapter takes you into another fascinating life, bringing colour to episodes in history previously unexplored (where else will you get such a description of what Hess must have felt inside the cockpit of the plane as he prepared to parachute out over the Scottish Highlands?), who cares that there’s no plot? Does a novel always have to have a plot to be considered “good”? I think “The House of Rumour” proves resoundingly that it doesn’t. 

“The House of Rumour” is a wildly ambitious, perfectly executed novel full of secrets, conspiracies, anecdotes featuring the occult, and a veritable cast of anti-heroes and oddballs that spans both space and time, layering the novel in meaning and dead-ends. It’s a novel that’s thrilling to read but also contains so much that it invites repeated readings and no guarantees that there are answers to it at the end. Jake Arnott has created in “The House of Rumour” a mesmerising, meditative, and vexing story whose secrets always seem within reach to the reader - but always just out of reach too. It’s an amazing accomplishment and a masterpiece - “The House of Rumour” is definitely my favourite novel of 2012. Bravo, Mr Arnott!

The House of Rumour


*

A close runner-up is Elmore Leonard's "Raylan", also published this year. It's a novel made up of three novellas featuring Leonard's character Raylan Givens, protagonist of the TV show "Justified". Leonard's gift of dialogue once again takes centre stage as Raylan solves some bizarre cases and meets some brilliant characters. It is tremendous fun and well worth your time. 



Raylan Givens, US Marshal, looks up a weed dealer in a hotel room only to find him sat in a tub with ice and his kidneys missing. From there a twisting trail of murder, blackmail, land dispute, and cards unfolds taking in everyone from an elderly drug baron operating out of a food stamps store to a disgruntled nurse who decides to strike out on her own, to a band of bank robbing gals, and a poker playing girl called Jackie Nevada with her ace in the hole. Elmore Leonard's back and he's packing heat.

I loved this book. I thought he was going to spin out the organ trafficking storyline for the full 260 pages but he finished it at page 100, without introducing any new characters, making me wonder where he was going to take the story next. From there he goes into a murder story concerning a coal mining exec and an old man who happened to live nearby whose house was flattened by the coal company. Then from there Leonard introduces a new story of a trio of bank robbing girls and then another story of a poker playing 23 year old student on the lam.

Elmore Leonard does some amazing storytelling weaving these fascinating individuals into a single storyline. It's masterful and incredible to see these disparate elements prove to be part of a larger whole. More amazing still is the way he creates characters. Each one had its own voice and seemed completely real. Leonard writes femme fatales like no other, making them sexy and deadly and smart and witty too, from the organ harvesting nurse to the ice queen coal mining exec to the smart and resourceful poker player to the drugged out bank robbing gals.

The dialogue is the star, something Leonard is famous for and what everybody says about his books, but it's so true. Honestly, I was blown away by some of the scenes, particularly when the poker girl and the horse breeder rich guy have that exchange about playing cards - the dialogue is fast, musical, hits the ear perfectly, and is unlike dialogue in any other novel. Are you a first time reader of Elmore Leonard? Pick up this book and see why people praise his characters' speech like no other.

Putting aside the technical majestic on display throughout the book, Leonard knows why people read and particularly why people read his books - to have fun. To relax, unwind, and be entertained. And for no other reason than entertainment, this book excels. Murders, kidnappings, shootouts, high stakes poker games, this book has it all and no-one reading this novel will come away feeling short-changed of entertainment value. Even the characters seem to be having a good time, Raylan moving from crime scene to shootout to bars and finally to bed with a good looking girl, I got the feeling his eyes were wide, his heart was beating, and a smile lay beneath his face the entire time.

This is my favourite novel of 2012 so far. It's got everything from fine storytelling, superb writing, one of a kind dialogue from the man who sets the gold standard for dialogue, an array of excellent characters and some utterly brilliant setups, this is a novel that readers will rocket through with a big grin on their faces. You're looking for a good read? Stop reading this and pick up "Raylan" - he'll sort you out.

Raylan
 
*

That's it for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll look into other great novels I read in 2012 but weren't published this year. Some excellent reads nonetheless. 

The Baffling Case of DC's "Identity Crisis"


Quick note: this review is full of spoilers so if you're planning on reading this book, don't read this article. Otherwise, enjoy!

“Identity Crisis” is probably one of the most baffling event books I’ve ever read. By turns it’s unintentionally funny, confusing, and ultimately pointless. At its core, it is a deeply cynical story and seems to be DC’s attempt at Watchmen-ifying the DCU - and utterly failing.

It opens with two unfamiliar characters speaking atop a rooftop: Elongated Man (yes that really is his name!) and Firehawk, a pair who look like the most generic superheroes ever created. They are failing to blend in with the scenery but aren’t spotted despite Firehawk being on fire at night, watching an alley with a box in it, 2 gangsters, and a “super” villain who are somehow all connected. Sue Dibny, Elongated Man’s wife, is preparing a surprise birthday for him so he’s put on his tights and headed out into the night to give her room. But it’s not going to be a happy birthday as she is about to murdered. Sue, it turns out, is the first in a line of family members of superheroes who are being targeted for some reason.

This first chapter… I think I could write an entire dissertation solely on how stupid this chapter is. First off – Elongated Man. Does anyone know who he is, let alone his wife? Does anyone care? His wife’s dead – so what? We’ve just been introduced to these characters. Maybe you’re one of the Silver Age readers who might remember these characters but I’m guessing most people coming to this book aren’t, and I’m definitely one of them. But the response is hilarious. EVERYONE in the DCU mobilises as if their entire world is shook up. Sue Dibny is dead? SUE DIBNY? The correct response would’ve been “who?” but it seems she meant a great deal to everyone in the DCU despite not being a superhero and being the wife of a superhero called, yes, Elongated Man. The worst name ever created for a “superhero”. Was “Distended Man” taken?

This is where DC begin ret-conning like crazy. Elongated Man tells stories of going out on patrol with Batman – I’ve read a lot of Batman comics and not once have I seen one mention of this character. Hell, in all the DC comics I’ve read, I’ve never seen a single mention of this guy. But whoever he is, he’s suddenly important because otherwise this book has no impact on the reader, so DC make up a whole bunch of stuff about this couple you’ve never heard of to build them up as some kind of massively important characters on par with Superman, Wonder Woman, et al. when the truth is Sue Dibny is an easy character to kill off because nobody remembers her. 

The response is so overblown and melodramatic that, once you realise this is all for a character called Sue Dibny, the wife of a superhero you’ve never heard of, it becomes really funny. Green Arrow at one point says “Clark and Bruce may be the bricks - but Ralph and Sue... they were the mortar” which just made me laugh partly because he’s so solemn when he says it and partly because it’s so untrue. And then the funeral takes place. You’ve never seen such an outpouring of superheroes – for Sue Dibny! The superheroes act like this is their 9/11! At this point I wondered if someone had made “Who the fuck is Sue Dibny?” tshirts and that I should buy one – seriously, DC, it’s one thing to insist the reader cares so much about this unknown couple, but to have literally every superhero in the DCU breaking down over her death? It’s so ridiculous. This leads to the hunt for her killer who is judged to be an unknown villain called Dr Light - with no evidence! 

To recap so far: the wife of a superhero, neither of whom anyone has heard of before, is killed by an equally unknown “supervillain” whose power is being able to light up like a lightbulb. Oh dear...

The Dr. Light connection leads to some baffling revelations and the explanation for the title. Dr Light, a seemingly harmless loony, manages to break into the JLA’s moon headquarters (somehow because it’s never explained) while they’re all away. Wandering about – for no reason! You’re never told why he’s even there in the first place! – he meets Sue Dibny. And then rapes her! Here the laughter is replaced by an uneasy feeling that DC are now actively channelling Alan Moore. After half a minute or so, most of the JLA appear and stop him, beat him up, etc. Then, out of the blue, they decide to wipe his memory using Zatanna and then go further, changing his brain so his personality is altered! It should be said that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – the Big 3 – are absent but it’s implied that this has happened many times before and, as they were involved, they must have had a part in this. But for the purposes of this book, the ringleader is winner of the curviest goatee ever seen in comics, Green Arrow, who, in this book at least, manages to win over Barry Allen/Flash, Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, and Carter Hall/Hawkman and together, they watch as Zatanna does the deed. 

In a book of really strange goings on, this is perhaps one of the strangest reasonings I’ve ever read in a DC comic. Going waaaaaay back to 1960s Silver Age comics, they single out an issue where a magic box switches the identities of superheroes and villains momentarily. While the villains are in the superheroes’ bodies, they unmask and find out the superheroes’ secret identities. Aghast, the superheroes, once returned to their bodies, fear for their loved ones as they will now become targets for the villains. So they decide to wipe the memories of the villains to ensure their secret identities remain secret.

This highlights one of the biggest problems DC, and Marvel for that matter, have – going back to the past and rewriting it so it’s “darker”. It’s like they’re embarrassed of their history. So those silly Silver Age stories that were aimed at and written for kids? DC have decided to go back and rewrite them to suit where they are – in the 21st century – as a company, creatively. They want things to be “real” and “dark” and “gritty”. First of all, if you’re reading superhero comics and want realism – STOP READING SUPERHERO COMICS. You’re reading about a guy who can move so fast his can vibrate his molecules and pass through solid objects and a billionaire who dresses as a bat, not to mention the alien who can fly – and you want them to seem more “real”? What a nonsensical complaint! The good news is that there are lots of “realistic” comics out there so you can fill your boots, but if you’re picking up a DC or Marvel book then you’re choosing to put aside realism and indulge in pure fantasy.

Second, why can’t DC leave well enough alone? Those Silver Age comics were written for a younger, less sophisticated readership compared to the comics audience of the 21st century which is predominantly adult. Those stories in the 60s were silly but that doesn’t mean you have to address the many bizarre stories that were printed and then find ways of explaining them so that there are “real” reasons behind their existence. They were just innocent stories for kids, designed to be silly – there is absolutely no reason to have to go back and pillage the past to suit the current Dark/Modern age of comics. I’m just getting so sick of this revisionist crap - writers who can’t come up with something original so they go back and “spin” something old. It’s so uncreative. How about a new take on Winnie the Pooh? Hey, you know why Eeyore is so down? He was molested as a young donkey. Yeah, he’s on a ton of antidepressants. And speaking of drugs, Tigger? He’s on crack. All the time, hence his energy. And Piglet, man s/he is such a whore, the things s/he does with Pooh in his trailer... 

So that’s the “identity crisis” of the book – superheroes performing immoral acts on immoral people. I don’t know why DC felt they had to come up with an answer to the question of “how do superheroes maintain their secret identities so long?” especially as if that’s a valid question, how about “how can Flash move so fast? Isn’t that kind of speed impossible for a human?” etc. Once again, if you’re picking up a superhero comic, questions of realism/logic – these shouldn’t be valid as they’re not applicable. 

And then we’re back to the murder mystery story of Sue Dibny, except now there’s another body and once again this victim is someone you don’t know nor care about: Tim Drake’s dad. I don’t even remember his name, that’s how unmemorable he was. He was Robin’s dad, that’s it.

To recap again: two unknown and inconsequential characters have died, and superheroes have been revealed as morally bankrupt. Why is this considered to be a “great” book again?

So finally we get to the end as Dr Mid-Nite figures out, just as Bruce Wayne does, who the killer is. And on the subject of Dr Mid-Nite, he’s been performing the autopsy on Sue Dibny since her death, basically the entire book. The events in this book take place between one and two weeks. Which means Dr Mid-Nite’s been performing an autopsy for over a week! Don’t these things take a day or two? He’s got to be the worst “doctor” of all time to spend this long autopsying a corpse.

And who is the killer of two unknown, inconsequential characters? Only another unknown, inconsequential character! The Atom!....’s wife. Who? Yes, the superhero you kind of know about, or might not at all, the Atom is a guy who can shrink himself down to the size of an atom. In this book, he’s been going through a divorce with his wife – who left him – and, despite the fact that she could get back together with him at the drop of a hat – he repeatedly reminds the reader how much he’s still in love with her – she concocts the most convoluted plan to get him running back to her. Which he already was.

So how does Atom’s wife do it? Well, I have no idea. I’ve read and re-read the sequence and am no clearer. She finds one of his tiny costumes in a box one day and then in the next panel she has acquired his powers and is able to shrink to the size of atoms. Um... Then for some reason she decides to try out her new power by going into Sue Dibny’s brain and playing around in there...Er...Brad Meltzer, I’m not following. Then she loses control, Sue Dibny dies, Atom’s wife tries to hide it by torching Elongated Man’s house, fake a murder attempt, and then kill Tim Drake’s dad. That’s right, this is the most nonsensical resolution to a non-story I’ve ever read. 

Before I finish (and congratulations if you’ve made it through this elongated rant - eh?) I will say that the book contains one of the best fight sequences I’ve read all year. Normally I’m against superhero violence as it’s so inane, two roided-out dudes in tights punching one another – it’s dull, right? But the sequence when Deathstroke takes out the group of Justice Leaguers (minus the Big 3) was genius. It wasn’t plain fighting, it was tactical, it was clever, it was well choreographed, it was a perfect example of how superhero fights should be and so frequently aren’t. That and I just like Deathstroke, this is the one part of the book that is faultless. Rags Morales is the other reason this book gets 2 stars instead of 1. His art is, as always, fantastic and, despite the far-too many scenes of costumes crying, his work only elevated the book.

So that’s “identity Crisis”. A story featuring nobodies important in the DCU killing one another while the superheroes hover around the edges, awkwardly trying their damnedest to pretend it matters. Brad Meltzer manages to craft one of the most poorly constructed “mysteries” I’ve ever read while also smearing crap over DC’s superheroes for no reason whatsoever. This entire book is pointless, partly because the characters who died didn’t matter in the first place. It is a disasterpiece of modern comics, a cautionary tale for future writers to avoid making superheroes “real”. “Identity Crisis” doesn’t make you think differently about superheroes, it just makes you wish for the kind of stories that are reviled in this book. The ones that don’t try so hard to be “dark” and “gritty” and focus instead on creating original stories that have a balance between drama and levity - the kind of comics a kid would want to pick up. 

“Identity Crisis”... it just sucks.

Identity Crisis

Monday, 10 December 2012

Why Jonathan Hickman’s “The Nightly News” is one of the worst debuts ever




A sniper begins shooting journalists and anyone connected to the media, journalists, cameramen, sound guys, all in the name of an obscure cult leader called The Voice. John is recruited to join this mysterious and deadly organisation after a news story destroyed his life where he meets similar people who've had a rough deal from the news companies, wrongful accusations, etc. They begin the fight back against the information monopoly the media corporations hold and the way these corporations abuse this power to mould our reality.

I've enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's work a lot - his FF series with Marvel, his books with Image - they're great, so it made sense to me to pick up his critically acclaimed debut comic book which writers like Andy Diggle and Brian Michael Bendis positively gush about in the blurb and Brad Meltzer even says "This is what the future looks like". Well, if this is the future of comics then I can only imagine that in the future we've all become significantly stupider.

You know how some kids go to college for their first term and return completely changed, believing that having heard a lecturer talk of big ideas and treat them like adults for the first time, they now know everything? This is the impression Hickman gives in this book. Reading "The Nightly News" is like reading someone who has just read Noam Chomsky for the first time and is clumsily fashioning a story around his barely-digested teachings.

Here's Hickman's take on news reporting: journalists and everyone in the media are evil. So evil they deserve to be shot in the head with a high-powered sniper rifle. And to make sure the reader is on the side of the lunatic with the gun, he makes every single journalist evil too. He makes them say things like "I tell people who to pick as the next president, what stocks to buy, what to think about foreign affairs. The Japanese have a saying `The press leads the public'. They're goddamn right." So they're all amoral and deluded with god-complexes: they deserve to get shot right? Especially when they're in collusion with the politicians who are even more evil and scary.

Like cartoon Bond villains the politicians make toasts such as "To the violence that makes peace possible. To the true power that makes market economies stable" and say even nuttier things like "We destroy people without fear of retribution or litigation. It's what we do." And when the evil media types and the even more evil politicians get together Hickman has them literally quoting Goebbels and Hitler along with exposition like "our revenues are tied to our dominance on the front line of ideas". Yeah that's convincing dialogue, Jonathan, they would really be saying that to one another.

But we're clear so far, class? Media and political types are just bad. They deserve all the bullets and bombs the cultists throw at them. Because the cultists know what's really going on, they're the smart ones. They're so smart they say things like "We call them programming facilities. You call them public schools. 99 of 100 students are automata. They are careful to follow prescribed paths and customs, not by accident but by the result of ample education." Riiight. We're all "automata". Thanks guys, for lifting the veil of deceit and showing me the truth - now I see the world for what it really is.

Hickman sprinkles info dumps in each chapter showing charts, figures, and stats in the midst of the story with a snarky and smug disclaimer along the lines of "To find out more about poverty/hunger/rape/genocide read below, however if all you're concerned about is entertainment, skip this and continue reading the next page." He also includes smarmy comments throughout like an un-asked-for commentary along the lines of "here's why I made this artistic choice because you wouldn't be able to handle anything more challenging". It's so unbelievably patronising.

On the one hand you have more-evil-than-Darth-Vader politicos and rich media types vying for some kind of Orwellian future and on the other you have brain-dead anarchists represented here as heroes looking to create a utopia through nihilism. And then between the two you have an author sneering at the reader with an array of facts lecturing you that you're a bad person because you bought this comic book for entertainment and that unless you're fighting the system and the corporations, you're an "automata". I don't know which I disliked more, the authorial voice, the characters in the book, or the story - I just know I hated them all.

I get that 6 giant corporations owning all of the media outlets in the west is a bad thing, but Hickman's solution in the book is "shoot them all". For a book posing (and boy is it posing) as intellectual and knowing, that's a pretty trite answer. Why put so much effort into making yourself look educated and smart when your only conclusion is chaos - surely it undermines the entire point of the book? If you want to address serious problems and talk down to people who ignore them, you can't then turn around and claim the solution is out and out violence, some brainless bang bang boom. It betrays the central premise that this is an adult book with adult issues if you supply childish answers. How about saying something intelligent and/or original? Hickman subtitles this book "A lie told in 6 parts" to cover himself from critiques about his actual political stance and the fiction he's writing. He can make a political statement and then back away from it claiming "hey, it's fiction, it's all a lie!" - in other words he can have his cake and eat it. It's a cowardly approach.

And a hypocritical approach too. Hey Jonathan, if corporations are so bad, why do you work for one? Marvel is owned by Disney who are owned by Buena Vista, one of the Evil 6 you singled out. Writing "The Nightly News" and then going to Marvel to write "Fantastic Four" is like if Tyler Durden made his "you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake" speech and then put on a suit and went to work for Goldman Sachs.

But political posturing aside, how's the story? Well, tedious to be honest. The - and I say this very loosely – “heroes” of the book kill journalists and media types and then the book ends. They're not "characters" as Hickman doesn't really give them character, they're just ciphers at best. There are other plot-holes in the book which I won't go into but are glaringly obvious if you choose to read this.

There are a couple of good points. I liked Hickman's art. I didn't even know he was an artist but he draws pretty well and sets out the pages like graphic design rather than comics layouts and it's quite effective. At times I felt the pages were a bit overstuffed with boxes of information but I suppose that's Hickman educating a robotic schlub like me to think than just read a comic for entertainment. Thank you sir, may I have another?

Overall, this book is astonishingly crap. Bad story and even worse characters aside, being condescended to on every page became very tiresome very quickly and I struggled to make it through the end. This is political thought as written by an immature, thoughtless half-wit who is parroting back ideas bigger than he conceive in a convoluted and messy way. Hickman's response to 21st century media saturation is to throw his toys out of the pram while mumbling banalities about how everyone's an idiot. I cannot believe writers I respect are in cahoots on this book, that a good writer like Hickman wrote this and that Bendis and Diggle praised it. "The Nightly News" is one of the dumbest debuts I've ever read and the kind of book a 15 year old would think is cool and righteous because they're 15 years old. Jonathan Hickman, if this is you trying to prove your intellectual veracity, shut the hell up and get back to writing about the Thing and Spiderman, ok? You're embarrassing yourself, mate.

The Nightly News

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Avengers Vs. X-Men: The Dumbest Superhero Book Ever?


This review is going to contain a lotta spoilers so be warned - if you want to save the crappy surprises for when you venture into this title, skip this review entirely, then come back and agree vigorously with my opinions. 

Back in the 90s, Marvel and Capcom teamed up to create a Marvel Superheroes fighting game; now in 2012, comes the late novelisation of that game. Not really, but “Avengers Vs. X-Men” is essentially the same idea – characters pointlessly brawling with one another.

The book started poorly with an introduction by a WWE wrestler called CM Punk. He incorrectly calls his intro a “forward” instead of a “foreword”; I immediately stopped reading and turned to the story proper.

Anyone saying you “have” to read a ton of X-Men and Avengers books before reading this are probably working for Marvel because you simply don’t. “House of M” and subsequent books like “Messiah CompleX” and “Generation Hope” are interesting to read and set up this story but all you need to know going into this event is that a) Scarlet Witch got rid of almost all the mutants on Earth (less than 200 remain) by uttering a spell at the end of House of M: “No More Mutants”; and b) Hope Summers was the first mutant born after the spell and was subsequently hailed as the Mutant Messiah.

Phoenix - the fiery and all-powerful being that possessed Jean Grey in the “Dark Phoenix Saga” - is returning to Earth because the “creative” directors at Marvel have run out of ideas and are desperately ransacking past, greater storylines for their new books. The vessel Phoenix is going to choose, everyone thinks, will be Hope, the first and only mutant born after Scarlet Witch’s “No More Mutants” curse. Captain America and co. remember the devastation brought about by Phoenix the last time it visited Earth and bonded with Jean Grey, so they are understandably terrified of this happening again. If Hope is to be the new Phoenix, she must die. But Cyclops and co. believe Phoenix’s return will signal the rebirth of the mutant race and undo the damage caused by Scarlet Witch. If Hope is to be the new Phoenix, she must live. And so we have Avengers Vs. X-Men, a massive Royal Rumble of superheroes sparked by an argument about a being nobody fully understands and a possibility nobody knows will happen for sure.

But don’t think about the “plot” and “storyline” too much! This is about fighting! Stare at the colourful characters as they shoot colourful power beams and punch one another in their colourful costumes while gritting their teeth. Wow, Cyclops is fighting Cap! Red Hulk is fighting Thing! Doctor Strange is fighting Magik! And so on…

I did actually find this first cycle of fighting exciting and thought that with the fighting out of the way, maybe this predictable scenario would take a different turn? Then when Hope hits the road, on the run from both sides, and Wolverine joins her, I thought great! Wolverine and Hope going it alone! And then that storyline fizzles out mere pages later and we’re back to the fighting. And more fighting. And more fighting. Until Phoenix arrives, and then more fighting entails. That initial burst of interest had long been eclipsed by the sheer banality of the story and unrelenting tedium of the endless fighting.

Superhero comics are more than just fighting but that’s all this superhero book is: fight fight fight. And despite having a massive cast of characters, all of whom have decades of defined personalities, this book essentially wipes away all traces of them so they’re all monotone dullards. Spider-man (in his brief appearances) doesn’t crack jokes or say anything witty or interesting because all this fighting is all so serious. Iron Man is basically relegated to the side-lines to scientifically figure out how to beat Phoenix (by the way, where’s Reed Richards?) so when he appears he’s talking boring science crap; his charming, roguish personality is entirely absent.

Instead, arguably the two most boring characters in the Marvel U are given centre stage: Cyclops and Captain America. Cap is whiter than white bread and with his no-nonsense manner of speaking is about as interesting: he is practical, dull, and unimaginative, repeatedly yelling “Avengers Assemble!” way too many times. Cyclops has the personality of a brick. When he’s not being told what to do by his girlfriend, he’s whining about mutants being an endangered species for the billionth time, wittering on like a fussy hen and glumly looking into the middle distance. These have got to be the most tedious men to ever headline a superhero comic. Long before this book was over I wanted both of these dudes dead, never to return.

The storyline does get punched up to the next level when Phoenix appears but doesn’t pick Hope to bond with, instead dividing its power amongst Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus, and Magik to become the Phoenix 5 – because Iron Man did some…thing to it. And now they have jazzy new outfits like they stepped from the pages of the last Marvel event, “Fear Itself”. Anyway… remember that Cyclops wanted to use the Phoenix to bring back mutants? That turns out to be the one thing he doesn’t do with the Phoenix power. He does make the world a better place, destroying all guns and weapons and providing free and safe sustainable energy for everyone instead.

In the end, Cyclops follows the obligatory bad guy path to hell even though he was doing well controlling Phoenix until the Avengers kept showing up and fighting him. The ending is forced and contrived, predictably ending in a fight and once more using Scarlet Witch’s ridiculously over-powerful ability, emphasised by Hope, to cast out Phoenix (until Marvel need it for another event story) and then, for no reason, every mutant whose powers were taken by Scarlet Witch at the end of “House of M” has them returned.

It should also be pointed out that Cap does a complete 180 on his original plan for no reason. Initially he wanted to stop Hope from having contact with Phoenix as he was certain she would be unable to control it leading to the destruction of everything. But by the end, he has no problem with her becoming the Phoenix! She has literally done nothing to warrant this sudden trust but he’s ok with it anyway. If he would’ve just taken a minute and thought about it at the start then this whole AVX storyline could’ve been avoided. Especially as it doesn’t seem like Phoenix did anything terrible to Earth – got rid of weaponry, check, produced free, safe and renewable energy for all, check. It’s not until the Avengers start trying to kill the Phoenix 5 that things go wrong. I guess I’m saying Cap’s reputation as a strong, thoughtful leader is totally unjustified and he is in fact a complete and total incompetent.

My edition was the mammoth 568 page hardback. After the Avengers Vs. X-Men #0-#12 main issue story arc comes the #1-#6 AVX issues which are just fights. At least with the main storyline there are respites from the fighting to attempt including some sorely needed elements like dialogue, ideas, character and plot development (despite none of these things being effectively pulled off); with AVX, it’s just fighting. So we get some arbitrary fights with Iron Man Vs Magneto, Magik Vs Black Widow, Namor Vs Thing, and so on. These are fights that are supposed to be happening in the main story but were separate to keep that story from slowing down. It was with AVX that I realised why Marvel had asked a WWE wrestler to intro this book – these fights were the comic book equivalent of WWE wrestling: staged, colourful, and meaningless.

Finishing off this book is Infinite Comics #1, #6 and #10. Infinite was created for the sole purpose of reading comics digitally on tablets, which is a great idea. Content-wise, these comics rehash the events already gone over in the main story arc but with added pages that don’t improve the story. Consequently, like AVX, Infinite feels like an unnecessary add-on.

And speaking of unnecessary add-ons, you may be wondering what the “AR” boxes appearing on every other page in the book mean - “Augmented Reality” is another innovative feature by Marvel to integrate interactive content into their comics. Because when I read comics, I always think, this is good but what I really want when reading is to watch video. It’s a strange idea to insert video of artists informing the reader how they came up with a particular design choice for the panel but how interested are you in hearing about that really? It depends on the reader but I’m not one of those who needs to know everything about the creation of a comic. Also, I read to read – I’m not some ADHD kid who needs to flick from reading to watching video and back again every few panels.

Also, Xavier dying is becoming kind of a cliché at this point. He died in Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men”, he died in “Messiah CompleX”, he died in this book. It’s not at all affecting knowing that the character who died in this book has died many times before and Marvel has had no compunction in bringing him back to life. It seems almost pointless of them to shoehorn in his death (to give their story more emotional weight perhaps) but all it does is underline how pointless this entire story is. While the rule is that no-one is gone forever in Marvel except for Spider-man’s Uncle Ben, the stories should at least be entertaining – fail that, and you fail big. And this book fails.

It’s odd that this would be the case. Some of the best comics writers working today worked on this book. Jason Aaron, one of my favourite comics writers, has written a great run on Wolverine and is working on the even better Wolverine & the X-Men title; Ed Brubaker wrote one of the most acclaimed Captain America books ever; Jonathan Hickman’s doing stellar work on FF and Fantastic Four; and Brian Michael Bendis, whose work on Ultimate Spider-man, Marvel’s flagship character, speaks for itself: 12 years of first class writing and counting, his stewardship of that character has been invaluable to Marvel and readers alike. And yet, all of them worked on this book and all of them failed to create an interesting story. Too many cooks in the kitchen maybe? But it makes me think that maybe it’s not just the writers who should be blamed for this awful book but the dodgy creative direction at Marvel who steered this book into such unfathomably crap waters. Either way, despite this book having enormous talent attached, it is a massive artistic failure.

So another year, another lacklustre Marvel Comics event. “Avengers Vs X-Men” is for those who enjoy WWE wrestling and like to play with gadgets and watch videos rather than read a comic straight through. This book is dumber than Lou Ferrigno’s pants. It’s also for people who don’t care much about anything related to good storytelling, like character development, memorable scenes and dialogue, and good writing – just superheroes punching one another. This review is already too long so I won’t go into the many plot holes the flimsy premise of this book rests upon but suffice it to say “Avengers Vs X-Men” is a cynical, contrived, bloated mess of a book that, despite its immense bluster, is ultimately a very small, piecemeal story with forgettable moments offering nothing of substance.

If someone tells you this is a good book and is worth reading, be very suspicious. Chances are they’re waiting for you to fall asleep somewhere around the 300th page and umpteenth consequence-free fight, then steal your kidneys. But I’d wake up! you say. Oh no - reading this boring book is far more potent than camphor. You won’t awaken until it’s all over. To re-iterate: read this and you will lose your kidneys to the black market and die. To avoid this inevitable fate, stay far away from “Avengers Vs. X-Men”. But who wins? you ask, the Avengers or the X-Men? Nobody wins, you poor soul. We all lose by reading this.


Avengers Versus X-Men

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Ballad of the Superhero Cafe



Why are superhero comics so dour these days? Particularly DC Comics. How great would it be if there was a light hearted Batman and Superman comic like “Superhero Cafe” from “How It Should Have Ended”?

“How It Should Have Ended” (HISHE) is an animated series on YouTube where the animators create an alternate take on the ending of a popular movie like “Titanic” or “Hunger Games” and quite often they do superhero movies too. At the end of their superhero sketch they usually cut to Superman and Batman who are sitting in a cafe booth talking, accompanied with whichever superhero movie HISHE has just parodied.

Superman is leaning back, relaxed, talking casually, brilliantly boastful, lightheartedly; Batman talks in that breathless whispery growl Christian Bale did, sitting with a cup of coffee. It’s perfect! Two famous superheroes, sitting in a cafe having a cuppa joe, yakking about whatever, with Iron Man or Thor or whoever.

It’s a take on the heroes which isn’t seen at all in the comics; they’re always super serious. Batman is either currently battling the Court of Owls and slowly losing his mind or the Joker is picking off members of Batman Inc., while Superman goes from being either the cool and energetic figure from Grant Morrison’s “Action Comics” to George Perez’s stodgy take in the poorly titled “What Price Tomorrow?” to the heinous interpretation in J. Michael Stra-too many letters for a surname’s “Earth One” series.

Occasionally you catch glimpses of Batman doing ordinary things like eating a sandwich in the Batmobile in Kevin Smith’s “Widening Gyre” or sitting down with his adopted kids and Alfred for a showing of “Zorro” with a bowl of buttered popcorn in - I’m not sure what book that was. It was definitely recent, maybe one of Grant Morrison’s?

Anyway those glimpses are great and there should be more of that instead of trying to make every B-list rogue the terrible threat to Gotham they clearly aren’t in whatever throwaway story they've put Batman in to make some dough. Deadshot, really? Are the Gotham PD so incompetent that they can’t deal with that guy?

How about... a book where Batman goes for a burger with Nightwing and they talk about their drunken weekend last month? They could talk about singing a duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, the crazy chick Nightwing hooked up with, prank calling the Joker until he lost it. Batman could lead the crowd in shots, telling them his benefactor Bruce Wayne - wink wink - will foot the bill so let’s all have a good time, eh?

But DC won’t do that. It seems all most people want to read is “Serious Batman”. Batman can’t just hang out and be normal or do silly things, everything he does has to serve a purpose in his never-ending war on crime. Just one title, that's all I'm asking. Call it "Batman: After Dark". Ho hum.

I love Batman and will keep reading him but “Superhero Cafe” is an excellent series which only makes the comic book reader’s heart grow fonder for their beloved costumed heroes as they have a quiet drink in between major battles and saving the world. Here’s hoping DC loosen their ties (and cowls) a little and try some new approaches in 2013.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mTpxoNOZa8&list=FL32gQvmlEuY8f_YndkQFN-Q&index=1&feature=plpp_video