Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Secret Six: Review

DC has a long tradition of groups using the name “secret six,” but the most recent limited series may soon become the only team anyone remembers. Back in 2006, the first volume mixed with Villains United teaming Knockout (now dead), Catman, Rag Doll, Deadshot, and others under Scandal Savage, Vandal Savage’s lesbian daughter. But with the addition of a “reformed” Bane, the first two issues of Secret Six have far surpassed that overly busy title by combining the suicide squad’s caper stories with the always interesting character insight super-villain team-ups bring.

The Good: Issue one shot out of the gates with all four elements that make this a fun and interesting read. A freaky, mystery villain, plus actual character development, plus costumed crazies in a gritty, down to earth world, topped off with a decent sense of humor. “Junior” is the monstrous crime-boss who lives in a crate in the male strip-joint’s basement and is seriously messed up. For a character almost completely off-panel his impact is stunning—and the wrap up with him at issue one’s end reveals he’s even more off the chain than you thought! The Six (actually five) get lots of time to talk while going on an impossible mission to break Tarantula out of Alcatraz and fetch “the card,” some cosmic McGuffin that’s got Junior all in a tizzy. Catman, something of the lead, apparently went totally sick-house on some poachers in Africa and is all messed up about it. Scandal is grieving for her very dead girlfriend. Bane is suddenly a moralist mercenary. Rag Doll is the go-to comic relief as the seriously depraved and murderous fop. Deadshot is Deadshot, DC’s merc with a mouth. These extreme players occupy a world of ice-cream and strippers, vomit and skin-heads (for better or for worse); it’s a world with more four-letter words than Bawahhahahahaas! As ridiculous as a bunch of costumed psychos sitting around having birthday cake might be, unmasked and (sort of) human characters work better than a cartoony, legion of doom scene. They might not be super-realistic, but when Deadshot executed the Fiddler for being incompetent in 2006 the book carved out an edge for itself. That being said these characters could be played way too serious, instead the books are peppered with dark humor and one-liners. Black Manta charges them a rental fee to use his sub, Deadshot stops a robbery basically because they were doing it all wrong, and Ragdoll laments the loss of his “tackle.” (Also, they totally snuck in a dirty Catwoman joke). Good banter, and there’s some great pacing, like the reader figuring out what Mammoth’s “watch-thing” is just about the same time as the characters.

The Bad: There is a clash though between “real life” and humor. Issue two has Catman fighting Batman, supposedly to keep him busy, but there’s this whole “Batman ate a burrito” theme that is pretty dumb. 1) Catman you can bring down to earth, leave Batman alone. 2) Catman cannot hold his own with Batman. 3) How does the burrito pay off? Either it’s a joke and more “real life” stuff, or the Burrito is a major plot point, both are terrible results. 4) If you’re a character like Catman and you think you’re destiny to kill Batman, start coffin shopping. Otherwise, sometimes the jokes are too blunt, sometimes the grit is too gritty. Life’s not all vomit, strippers, and verbs ending in linguist. Being edgy is a fine line.

The Ugly: The artwork is pretty good. Feels a little rushed, but in world delayed books who can complain? Batman and Catman fighting in issue two look kind of Men’s Health: the Speedo Edition. With all the dismembering and cursing and daddy-issues, this book ain’t for the kiddies. And frankly, it’s one “Logan touting the Canadian health care system” from losing the magic. Edgy, fun, mildly insightful can all go “poof” when somebody sneaks in a message about Bane’s position on the Death Penalty. The rest is nit-picky. For example, the skin-heads in issue one, why are they skin-heads, how often do you hear about skin-heads on the news? Not nearly as often as you see them in comics. But when a soul-searching Catman is reminded he left an innocent woman at their mercy and leaps back into the store Wolverine-style, you get one little Skin-Head in the panel’s bottom left-side whispering, “Oh, my white Jesus.” I like to think they were skin-heads just for that line, and not some weird aversion to putting Black or Hispanic gangs in comics (Asians are fine apparently with the truckloads Marvel has).

Bottomline: Pulp-Fiction meets Taskforce X, with completely enjoyable dialogue and fun surprises, but you couldn’t live on it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Profiles in Courage

I totally called this Friday. Powell endorsed Obama. I knew because if he had nothing to say he'd stay home, and he's not hawking any charity I know of recently. But to go on and endorse McCain? He'd have to have all the balls in the world. No if he's endorsing it was always Obama. And you can't fault him for being "electrified" by a black president, his life story is a reaffirmation of the American Dream and the civil rights movement. A black president? What better way to cap off the last 50 years?

So 1). We've reached the promised land (until anyone challenges any of Obama's ideas, then, like Palin, they are crypto-racist, because racial politics are only used by old white racists).

2) Powell goes down as the proto-Obama, whether he realizes it or not.

3) Powell is now has a line of credit with the party in power (and has figured out the GOP will never cut him loose because they are pathetically unable to attract minorities--despite the facts that the ruling power in America, and even longer in heavily African-American populations, has been Democrats since the 40s--and clings in a my-one-black-friend manner).

4) Powell is no longer Bush's man (or Uncle Tom if you a jerk lib).

5) It is the two point conversion after the touch down return from the fumble of the bailout. It's pile on time.

But this isn't about race? Obama is a "transformational figure." But it is not about race? So, Powell's for socialism? It is brave for him to come out for Obama, because frankly it was a political move which always has risks, but it is in no other way risky. And, sure, Obama is no weak canidate, but to say it is not about race, and you like McCain. And then to say, not that you prefer one as a voter, but that you are throwing your full support to one--and its not about race???? What is the other major difference that would matter to the Republican Icon? He said something about the Supreme Court--I'm brain-blanking on one darn issue he would fear so much to break with the GOP if the Democrat canidate was white.

Brave: endorsing Obama.
Braver: endorsing McCain.
Bravest: endorsing Obama and admiting it is about race but you can't say that because it undermines your endorsement.
Super-brave: Running back in 2000.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Man-Thing Returns

Ever read Man-Thing? Yeah, most didn’t, it seems. Man-Thing fits even less well into the mainstream of Marvel superheroes than the likes of Blade or Werewolf by Night. He protects this “nexus of realities” in a swamp, and "whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch." His better known brother, Swamp Thing, is no less esoteric, but Man-Thing is way weirder. Man-Thing is back in the new MAX imprint title Dead of Night.

Man-Thing vs. Swamp Thing is a battle from old times in geekdom. Most recently, Kung Fu Rodeo had a wonderful piece about the true origin and “who came first” question. Dating the idea back to a 1940s short-story and the infamous Solomon Grundy, KFR explores the muddy waters of origin. And more recently, KFR pointed out that, while Man-Thing beat his DC counterpart to press by a month in ’71, two months later a Man-Thing look alike sprung from the house Superman built—oddly, too close in time for a knock off! But the swamp monster cover is a simple formula: a monstrous creature rising from or escaping into the mire, plus shocked onlookers, often disheveled young women. Less effective when paired with the red and blue Spider-Man, Man-Thing’s vibe is a throw back to horror comics of yore.

And that’s where Dead of Night picks up. Borrowing a cover and narrator cloned from the pages of Vault of Horror, Dead of Night plays on a taste for the old school (at which point one might also mention the latest Mighty Avengers for its throwback style). The left side carries a “featuring” column of three headshots, the title bannered in solid blue, a quarter of the cover, in block white letters. Digger, a ghoulish grave digger (duh), tells the tale and sandwiches the issues; introducing the issue so faithfully to the style that his fade out literally ends with “…the Dead of Night.” A perfect setting for Man-Thing: not mainstream, not fantasy: horror; “fear” is emblazoned right on the cover!

Inside, the story is a bit too much like comics of yore, and even they had a “B” story at least. Four bucks gets you 16 to 17 pages of simple plot. While most Marvel books are struggling to fit an entire arc and the action into an issue, Dead of Night introduces murderers, introduces the next victim, there’s a twist, and then Man-Thing mops up in the time New Avengers takes to get through a telephone conversation. A lot of shoe leather in the panels, doubtlessly attempting mood, but one feels it is over a little quick at about 20 cents a page.

Brevity aside, this is an adult comic, and for the wrong reasons. Truly the villains’ deeds are not for kiddies, but not themes totally unexplored in more famous titles. Apparently, the cover warning allows characters, and—clumsily—the narrator, to drop the f-bomb a few times. Plus, we get a 50 cents piece-sized panel of a character changing clothes to allow nudity that’s less provocative than some panels in the frame story from the recent Mighty Avengers annual, or one second with a certain splash page (pun intended) from the late Dave Steven’s work on the Rocketeer. One imagines old mighty Joe clapping his hands in the bull-pen and shouting, “alright people, this is the MAX imprint, let’s nude it up a bit!”

But one must appreciate the not-so-subliminal word appearing in the big twist splash page. After, the infamous New X-men issue, one spends hours peering at swamp backgrounds and Man-Thing’s carrot-nose trying to find the secret messages. So far only one confirmed, but “Cheese Dip” or “Secret Message” is definitely ruled out (buy a back issue of Groo if you’re wondering). But this careful reading will disclose what is some subtle foreshadowing in the issue. An odd candle in the background, an out of place book, and an interesting choice of domestic pet are so carefully inserted you’ll be shocked you missed them.

There’s plenty to complain about: the tawdry plot points, the oddly muscled up Man-Thing, and the fact one villain dies completely off-panel and his body is never seen, but considering the long wait most horror fans have endured Dead of Night is a gritty and gory fix. Man-Thing kills with an unnatural strength that makes a guy with a carrot nose seem a little freaky again. Considering the patchwork of awfulness that was the Man-Thing made for TV Sci-Fi Channel movie, it’s nice to see the big guy get some good treatment. Even if Marvel feels it needs a few panels of exposed flesh to sell it, Man-Thing has returned…beware!