Like everyone else this summer, I’ve been a little caught up with the Avengers mania. Hey, it was solid, entertaining film that did almost everything right, so it is completely understandable that the movie and it’s characters have been reaching a high level of popularity. However, I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan, so I have never actually read any Avengers comics, but the film sparked my interest enough to check out one of their books. I thought I would read Mark Millar’s run on The Ultimates, the Ultimate Universe version of the Avengers, since I had heard that the film draws heavily from the title. Also, being in Ultimate Universe, it is easier to start at the beginning and not have to worry about 50 or so years of continuity.
I couldn’t even make it through issue #5. If the Avengers film does almost everything right, The Ultimates does almost everything wrong, and that’s not just an exaggeration. This title serves as an example of everything wrong with modern mainstream superhero comics. Now don’t get me wrong, I have read much worse. This certainly isn’t as bad as Ultimatum (which I unfortunately read all the way through just so I could keep up with Ultimate Spider-Man), and it isn’t as near as offensive as DC’s Identity Crisis, but with the characters being handled so well outside of the medium that birthed them, I was merely disappointed that a film adaptation could be so vastly superior to the source material.
The book doesn’t start out so bad. The first issue is an exploration of Captain America’s origin, starting with his fateful mission to stop a Nazi rocket from blowing up Washington DC. It doesn’t really achieve much other than action, but that is completely fine for this kind of book. The next issue is just more set-up, as Dr. Banner speaks with Nick Fury giving expository dialogue about the Ultimates team they’re trying to assemble, Hank and Janet Pym are introduced along with their powers, and Tony Stark is shown to be, well Tony Stark. Again, nothing too exciting going on here, but it’s a necessary chapter. None of the characters are developed well, but I don’t see that as a problem, as these are characters that have been around for decades and there is the assumption that the reader already knows some amount of information on them. In any other medium or comics publisher, this would be a serious problem, but DC and Marvel have always been able to get away with it. Besides, this is a superhero comic. Everyone really just wants to get to the superheroics as soon as possible.
Issue#3 is where I start to notice problems. The issue starts out with a giant-sized Hank Pym showing off his massive crotch to a group of women as he says, “Afternoon, ladies.” Maybe this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the sunlight was highlighting his crotch and bringing focus to it, but the book has already taken a turn to into typical comic book creepy territory by having one of the team’s heroes commit an act of sexual harassment. In the male psyche, a big dick means more power, and at 60 feet tall with a proportionate-sized package, Pym is letting all the ladies know what’s up (Spoiler–it’s his penis). Just the angle in which he is drawn over the women demonstrate the power and dominance he has over them. On the next page, his wife Janet just shrugs the incident off like, “Tee hee, my husband makes suggestive gestures to women like some kind of sex pervert. Boys will be boys!” Of course, that attitude is the real problem here, that sexual harassment and casual sexism is just a lighthearted joke that causes no real harm. Well, it’s not.
But okay, so there’s one attempt at humor in this book so far and it’s in poor taste. How is the humor in the rest of the book? Well, if you don’t like casually sexist jokes, that’s okay because Millar can whip out jokes about a topic everybody loves: Freddie Prinze Jr! Now some of my younger readers might ask themselves, “Who is Freddie Prinze Jr?” That’s a great question kids. I’m not sure I really know either. I think he was in that Wing Commander movie my dad rented once when I was 12. It wasn’t very good.
But therein lies the problem with issue #4–it doesn’t really tell a story unless you think a story can be nothing more than a list of celebrity names. If that was the case, then the Hollywood Walk of Fame may be the most compelling story ever told and I’m not even sure why they even bother to make books anymore. Issue #4 starts out with Tony Stark hanging out in space with Shannon Elizabeth. Do you remember Shannon Elizabeth? No? Neither did I until I Googled her, then I remembered seeing her boobs in the first American Pie movie. Today, she is doing what every actress aspires to do with their career: play poker for the Lebanese team in global poker events. I know the comic was 10 years old as I first read it (and as I write this blog post), and I would expect it to be dated in some way, but this entire issue expects the reader to be caught in in early 2000s pop culture, and with the way celebrities quickly fade into obscurity, it really doesn’t give the book any lasting power. The way Millar sets up the humor in the issue is like this: you are supposed to find it funny that Shannon Elizabeth is hanging out with Tony Stark because Shannon Elizabeth is a person that you are aware of. If you aren’t aware of Shannon Elizabeth, then it isn’t funny. If you are aware of her, then it still really isn’t all that funny. Putting an unlikely person in an unusual situation can often led to hilarity, but this is a real world actress hanging out with a fake billionaire playboy. I guess we’re supposed to be amused that she’s in the comic, but within the context of the story, they both are supposed to be real anyway, so what is so unusual or funny about a young celebrity hanging out with another young celebrity?
In contrast to this, I feel like the way The Avengers approached humor was much more appropriate and effective. Too often in films, fiction, and comics do writers feel the need to insert humor into every moment. They create whole scenes and characters just to have that comic relief that they feel is necessary. Well, you really don’t need to have random cameos of have Jar Jar Binks to create comedy, and The Avengers proved that. All the humor felt completely natural and true to both the characters and the situation. Tony Stark is the only character giving out the quips and one-liners, but that is because he is supposed to be an obnoxious, arrogant ass. Also because you can tell he’s a lot more scared than he likes to let on, and his wisecracks are really a defense mechanism. It certainly helps that the dialogue was written smart and snappy, and never felt forced. Perhaps the funniest scene in the entire movie was near the end during the not-so-dramatic showdown between the Hulk and Loki. Loki begins to go through a typical supervillian monologue, explain why his plan will work and that the Avengers are doomed to fail. As a morale destroying tactic, he tells the Hulk that he is just a mindless beast and then…well, he’s cut off. The Hulk grabs Loki by the feet and starts to swing him around and he pounds him into the ground. The scene resembled a two-year-old child throwing a tantrum with a doll more than a typical superhero fight. It was unexpected and funny, but most importantly, it was true to the character. The Hulk was not going to sit there and have a moment to gather his inner strength for having a highly choreographed and drawn out fight. The Hulk was going to do what the Hulk does, and what the Hulk does is smash things.
Name dropping one celebrity may not be funny, but it isn’t annoying. This issue was not content to stop at just one celebrity though. There is an incredibly annoying scene in which the crew are hanging out and talking about which celebrities would play them in a movie. The only one that actually came true was Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, but the Ultimate version of Nick Fury was designed to look like Jackson anyway, so that wasn’t surprised. This scene also bothered me because it reminded me that Janet “The Wasp” Pym was originally going to be in The Avengers during early phases of development, but she was cut after Scarlett Johansson signed on to play Black Widow in Iron Man II and international treaties forbid having a superhero team with more than one woman as a member.
After that scene, we see Bruce Banner’s ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross, having dinner with Freddie Prince Jr. This is what sets the Banner over the edge and makes him retake some kind of Hulk juice so he can hulk out again. Apparently he was cured before the events of the comic. At this point the comic stops reading like it was actually published by Marvel, but more like it was some guy’s attempt at parody that was uploaded to Deviantart. But that isn’t even my real problem with this scene. This group of superheroes obviously needs a first threat to unite them, but this is it? A jealous ex-boyfriend? A attempted humorous plot point? This is the great conflict that brings about a new era of superheroes working together for the common good of all mankind? If this was supposed to be a parody, a joke book, or some other kind of riff on the genre, I’d accept and enjoy it, but this isn’t any of those things. After a bunch of boring set-up, we get a boring conflict.
Issue #5 picks up where the last left off. The Hulk is rampaging through New York towards his ex-girlfriend while making threats to rape her. Are you disgusted by this? Well, congratulations on being a decent human being. Hank Pym is apparently angry at the idea of a rival rapist, so he is first on the scene to try to take the Hulk down. He has as much success in this as has at not being a creepy bastard, and he is quickly defeated by the Hulk. After that, the Wasp decides to avenge her husband and she flies over to the Hulk. Now you may be thinking, “The Wasp, huh? She has the power to get really small and fly, and she also holds two PhDs and is a highly accomplished scientist. Since she isn’t a physical match for the Hulk, she’ll have to use her brains and agility to stop him!” Well, no. That is not what she does. She pulls out her tits.
This was the point where I could take no more. I refuse to read any more of The Ultimates or any other book by Mark Millar for that matter. That’s a shame too, because his Superman: Red Son is one of the few Superman stories worth reading and one of my favorite books. I know he meant this as another “funny” moment in the book, but after all the other casual sexism, I just can’t let another moment like that fly. What he is saying with that moment is that Janet Pym, the only female hero on the team, is completely useless. Her powers are useless, her intelligence is useless, but what isn’t useless are those sacks of flesh hanging off her chest.
With enhanced strength, heightened reflexes, a mild healing factor, and piss-poor depth perception, Deathstroke the Terminator aka Slade Wilson aka “Slade” if you’re a heathen who only watches cartoons, has been established as one of the more dangerous threats in the DC Universe. Deathstroke was created in 1980 by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez as an unintentional parody of everything that is hilariously pathetic about comic book tough guys. But even though he was once shown defeating the entire C-List of the Justice League in the pages of Identity Crisis, he frequently suffers defeat at the hands of the pixie-booted, pantsless Dick Grayson, forever making Deathstroke impossible to take seriously for anyone with a strong enough visual acuity to see a comic panel.
Unfortunately for the world, Rob Liefeld apparently does not have the ability to see (which explains his art) and one day drew Deathstroke with two eyeballs (showing Liefeld’s yearning for vision) and showed it to the awesomely named writer, Fabian Nicieza. Upon seeing Liefled’s “new” character, Nicieza jokingly named the character Deadpool, or Wade Wilson, acknowledging the character’s similarities in both his appearance and his role as a super strong mercenary to the already established Deathstroke.
After a few years, Deadpool eventually grew from being just another villainous mercenary who carries an unnecessary amount of guns, to just another sarcastic anti-hero, except this time the people writing and drawing him actually saw him for the parody he always was. The ongoing Deadpool series became more of a comedy, and a place where writer Joe Kelly could do whatever he wanted because he kept expecting the book to be cancelled at any time. The book ended up being legitimately funny, and established Deadpool as a much more complex, interesting, and popular character than Deathstroke can ever hope to be. Recently, Deadpool was played by the apparent ruiner of Comic Book Films, Ryan Reynalds, in Wolverine Origins and there is talk of a Deadpool film somewhere down the line, and in comic shops, Deadpool can be found over-saturating the market by appearing in too many titles each month.
The Original The Superior Copy
First appearing in June 1963, the original Doom Patrol where a superhero group comprised of outcasts who are trained and advised by a wheelchair-bound mentor and they reluctantly use their powers for the good of society. A few months later in September 1963, the original X-Men where a superhero group comprised of outcasts who are trained and advised by a wheelchair-bound mentor and they reluctantly use their powers for the good of society.
Ok, to be fair, it’s not likely that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were ripping off DC’s Doom Patrol when they made the X-Men for Marvel comics. True, the similarities between the two teams are pretty damn suspicious and have been hotly debated by nerds on the Internet with nothing better to do, just like me, but it’s likely that this was just a coincidence. The main evidence supporting this is the very short time between appearance of the Doom Patrol and the first issue of X-Men. Frankly, there just wouldn’t be enough time Lee and Kirby to get a copy of Doom Patrol, decide to copy it, develop their own characters, get a script, draw it, and prepare it for publication, send it to the printers, and get the copies out to newsstands in only three months. But, the Doom Patrol were published first, and the X-Men had too many similarities, so whether it was intentional act of plagiarism or just badly timed coincidence, the X-Men get to be labeled a copy of the Doom Patrol.
But while the X-Men have appeared in countless comics, cartoons, and films, some of which were not completely terrible, how come the Doom Patrol has only had a few comic series published under their name, with the only run worth reading being Grant Morrison’s? Well, the simple answer is that the Doom Patrol is incredibly uninteresting and Grant Morrison’s run had little to do with the few redeeming qualities of the group and everything to do with the object truth of Grant Morrison being a genius. But the X-Men’s staying power is likely due to their ability to stand in for minorities. Even though both teams relied on their characters being outcasts that didn’t always want their powers, the fact that the X-Men were born into their situation, and that there were many more mutants popping up all over the world at any time made their situation far more interesting. The X-Men were not just fighting bad guys, they were fighting discrimination, which was a theme that fit right in with the political climate of the 1960′s, as the Civil Rights movement was about to hit full swing. Hell, that’s a theme that fits right in with today, since America never fully got over its little problem with racism, and homophobia, and more recently Islamophobia remain rampant today. So even though both groups featured characters with unusual and often unwanted powers, the X-Men went a little further ensuring it’s relevance in American culture. Also, I’m sure the Super Comic Team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn’t hurt them either.
The Original The Superior Copy
This one’s another favorite topic of debate for nerds with time on their hands. But while the debate usually either goes “Man-Thing is a rip off of Swamp Thing” or “Swamp Thing is a rip off of Man-Thing,” both are wrong. This is another coincidence as bother characters first appeared in 1971, only one month apart. But even if they were stealing from each other, it doesn’t even matter, because there was a another swamp monster that came around 30 years before: The Heap.
So, with all the swamp monsters infesting comic books, what makes Swamp Thing the best? Well, to put it simply, swamp monsters are boring. A guy falls into a swamp then becomes a misunderstood monster. That all sounds like standard procedure at this point. But it’s not always a character or conflict that makes a story good, sometimes it’s the writer. And if you need a writer to make your terrible character interesting, you can do much worse than Alan Moore.
Alan Moore took over the second Swamp Man series with issue #20 in 1983. He finished up Martin Pasko’s story arc on his first issue, but then Moore set about revamping Swamp Thing’s origin and tone. Swamp Thing was no longer Alec Holland who turned into a plant after a science experiment gone wrong, but a plant who thinks he is a man after absorbing Alec Holland’s consciousness. Moore even revamped Jack Kirby’s old character, Etrigan the Demon, and turned into something more resembling a monstrous Lord Byron who goes around hell bashing skulls in while speaking only in verse, and created the popular John Constantine during his run. The situations the Swamp Thing found himself in were frequently disturbing and bizarre as well, such as the incident where bad guy Dr. Anton Arcane possesses his niece’s husband and then rapes his niece. And of course there is the infamously trippy plant sex issue (Saga of Swamp Thing issue #34 “Rite of Spring,” collected in the second hardcover collection. Seriously, check it out.)
After Moore left the series, Swamp Thing went right back to being another boring swamp monster existing in an unimaginative world. This is because most comic writers don’t have a little something that can be described in technical terms as “creativity.” Swamp Thing was also made into a couple of terrible movies and a cartoon show, which features one of the best theme songs in the history of television.
Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is a lot like that time your dad promised to take you fishing but instead got drunk and passed out on the couch while watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard
It was a disappointment, that’s for sure.
To begin with, I should say that Whedon’s Astonishing was one of the first X-Men comics I actually read. Most of my exposure to the characters and universe had been from cartoons, films, and appearances in other comic titles. However, the X-Men had always interested me, and when I heard that Whedon had written a mostly self-contained arc, I decided that it would be a perfect place to jump into the main continuity. Best of all, it featured a classic roster, with fan favorites like Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Beast, the issue-selling Wolverine, the boring but obligatory Cyclops, and everybody’s favorite Jean Grey substitute–Emma Frost! Actually, I wasn’t familiar with Emma Frost the first time I read Astonishing, and when I first saw her, I just assumed her mutant power was the ability to wear really ugly hotpants without feeling embarrassed.
In case you don’t know, Joss Whedon is mostly known for his work on television series, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He also created the tragically short lived sci-fi show, Firefly, which was actually pretty good for a piece of blatant Neo-Confederate propaganda. He is also the man responsible for Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, which, according to the last time I checked, is still ranked #2 on the list of humanity’s greatest achievements, just below putting a man on the moon and just above aerosol pancake batter.
Based on his previous work, I was totally on board with Whedon writing the X-Men. He’s a creative enough guy and I was sure he could put his talent to use on the preexisting X-Men universe. After all, the characters and themes frequently found in X-Men have a level of depth that is rarely found in mainstream superhero comics, but desperately needed. The most obvious feature of the mutants in the Marvel Universe is that they metaphorically work for any oppressed minority in the real world without ever being pinned down as a being a representative of a single group. When story lines are focused on mutant experimentation or genocide, the Holocaust immediately comes to mind. When a mutant struggles to keep their powers a secret from their family or friends, and when has to “come out” to the world, it’s a clear parallel to what many homosexuals have to go through. But why are all these not-so-subtle nods towards real life discrimination so effective? Because the mutants aren’t actually the Jews or the Gays (although that can be). The mutants are girls that can move things with their minds or boys with wings or they’re just a big torso with a face. Many of them don’t even look human, and plenty have dangerous powers. So, while it’s absolutely baffling to me that so many people allowed the Holocaust to happen, it isn’t hard to understand where all the mutant hate is coming from. Even though many mutants are portrayed as decent people who just want to live normal lives, it’s always the ancient, immortal, shape shifting mutants who has conquered the world in a future timeline that ruin it for everybody.
For the X-Men to be anything other than a generic and boring superhero group, this racial tension needs to be present throughout most of their conflicts. After all, Charles Xavier’s main mission is to improve human/mutant relations by teaching young mutants how use their powers responsibly for the good of everyone, right? This is also exactly what makes Magneto the perfect villain. He is the ideological opposite of Xavier and believes that there can never be peace between humans and mutants. In his worldview, either the humans will kill all the mutants, or the mutants will kill all the humans. So, when he acts like an evil bastard, it’s not because he just likes to fight for reasons that are never really clear, it’s because he is doing what he believes to be necessary for the survival of his species. The irony that he is just as bad as the anti-mutant humans is perfect, and shows that his character is not driven out of a lust for blood, power or money like so many supervillains. He’s just afraid.
I was disappointed that Magneto was not in Astonishing, but I understand that he can’t be the villain in every single story arc. That would be repetitive and get boring fast. However, I still wanted a villain that would present both a physical and ideological challenge for the mutants. I’m not saying he needed to be a cheap copy of Magneto with the exact same motivation, but I feel the X-Men are sophisticated enough to deserve a challenge that showcases them struggling for their ideals of a harmonious world where humans do not need to fear the mutants, and mutants do not need to feel shame for who they are. I pretty much just wanted something that wasn’t a giant monster or an evil empire of aliens. So who did Whedon come up with?
His name is Ord and he is from a planet called Breakworld. They stuff their pillows with diamonds. The Breakworld is shown as a violent place filled with Evil Green Guys where only the baddest of badasses can survive. Weak children are immediately discarded and anyone who is against the constant fighting and wars is called a traitor and a pussy. So, it’s kinda like a Space-America. But anyway, this brings me to a little something I like to call Bad Comic Book Cliché #7: people who are violent for no reason in particular. While Magneto acutally has motivation and it was society that turned him into a villain, Ord here is just a bad guy because he comes from a planet of bad guys who are also uncomfortable pillow enthusiasts. I guess this does make for a very clear view of who is good and who is evil, as opposed to the sometimes moral ambiguity of Magneto, but the problem is that Ord could be the villain for any superhero. He could fight Spider-Man or Captain America and it wouldn’t matter. He isn’t playing to the strengths of the X-Men franchise, which ultimately makes him pointless and forgettable.
Ok, ok. It’s not quite as bad as it seems. Ord was sent to Earth to kill all the mutants because there is a prophesy that a mutant will destroy his home planet. After winning a bunch of battles, Ord is allowed the honor of going to Earth to fight the mutants. However, upon going to Earth, he meets up with the government defence force, S.W.O.R.D, who convince him that they’ll come up with a cure for the mutant gene. Of course, this brings us to Bad Comic Book Cliché #12: people doing things that are contrary to their nature for no reason in particular. Ord is from the Breakworld. They were already established as a society that likes to fight for no reason, so shouldn’t they be excited for an epic showdown with a worthy adversary? This guy doesn’t seem like the type who would compromise anyway, so he probably would have just told the S.W.O.R.D people to get out his way or he would fight them to, because that is how they roll on Breakworld. Then again, I wanted something to tie in with mutant hate, so this was Whedon’s attempt. But the real problem here is that this conflict is not as relatable or interesting. Especially because the prophesy predicting the destruction of Breakworld was really just bullshit, and there was another Evil Green Guy who just wanted his planet destroyed so there can finally be peace. The conflict doesn’t feel organic, and all these twists and turns were forced plot points that offer nothing other than the opportunity to send Wolverine into space so he can fight Evil Green Guys.
Of course, there were other conflicts in Whedon’s run that distracted from the overall plot for a few issues here in there. On of them involved the Danger Room becoming sentient and turning into a sexy robot lady. I feel like I don’t need to elaborate here because I’m sure we can all agree that this is the stupidest thing ever.
The Cassandra Nova arc was actually interesting and offered some of the only character insight and development of the entire run. Whedon does understand the characters he is writing, and this shows when Cassandra Nova starts messing with the minds of the X-Men. The sophisticated Beast has always prided himself on his intellect, but fears that because of his appearance if he were ever to lose his intelligence or appreciation of the arts, he would become nothing more than a feral, well, beast. Nova alters his mind, regressing him into a savage animal, and then sets him loose at the academy.
Wolverine hasn’t always been the Official Badass of the Marvel Universe, as he was once a spoiled, sickly rich Canadian boy who could never gain his mother’s affection. *Note to Mothers: If you don’t want your child to grow up with a bad attitude and muttonchops to match, hug him every once in a while* Nova reverted Wolverine back to his childhood in a scene that was humorous and served as a reminder that there is more to Wolverine than he likes to let on.
Of course, we are reminded of Wolverine’s softer side again when he and a young mutant girl called Armor fight there way through Breakworld. Armor was just the latest in a series of young girls (Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Rogue in the film version) that Wolverine has, er, “taken an interest in,” and while I think it is supposed to show that Wolverine is actually capable of caring for other human beings and that he isn’t as tough and callous as he seems, I think it’s just starting to get creepy. Anyway, this is Bad Comic Cliché #27: using children as a way to show a tough character’s softer side. At this point, we already know about Wolverine having a softer side. We don’t need another annoying kid tagging along for the ride. Armor was fairly forgettable herself, and I don’t think she has been used much since Whedon left the title. It seems like the only girl sidekick of Wolverine’s that had any staying power was Kitty Pryde.
But the worst sins from Whedon’s run is when he used Bad Comic Cliché #1: dead people coming back to life. Early on, it is revealed that Colossus was brought back to life with Breakworld technology so Ord and the humans can experiment on him to find the cure for the X-gene. He reunites with his old girlfriend, Kitty and everyone is very happy about it, except for you, the reader. Why? Because when death is meaningless, all the tension in the story is gone. Sure, you know that the main characters of a story have a slim chance of dying, but when the rules of universe acknowledge that dying is just a minor inconvenience, why should anyone, including both the characters in the story and the reader, care about all the bad guys facing the heroes? If anybody dies, they can just use Ord’s de-deadening machine to undeaden them, right? This is especially annoying when Cyclops purposely drives a spaceship into the path of a bunch of enemies, to allow the others a chance to escape and so he can be killed. He knew that his dead body would be recovered and then brought back to life so that he can blast the bad guys with an optic beam. But it’s alright if he killed anybody. They’ll be coming back.
But anyway, Cyclops’s noble sacrifice is suddenly not so noble, it’s just a pathetic reminder that in comic book universes, it doesn’t matter how bad things get for a character, everything will be ok after a writer pushes the undo button. Resurrection may be ok in moderation, or if there is some point to it, like with Jean Grey coming back as Phoenix, but most of the time, it is painfully obvious that a writer just wants to bring everything back to the status quo from when he was reading comics as a kid (I’m looking at you, Geoff Johns). Maybe this is more of a problem with continuity, and if that is so, then maybe writers should stop killing of main characters. Readers have learned that death won’t be permanent, and now writers are killing off people just to bring them back a few issues later. But the real thing to understand, is that when death becomes meaningless, life becomes meaningless as well.
All in all, there were some good moments and a lot of potential, but ultimately, Astonishing X-Men falls a little flat. However, if you do enjoy the characters and you just want to see them fight people for no reason, then you’ll probably like this. If you were wanting something with a subtext that is actually interesting, then maybe you should look into Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, more specifically the “E is for Extinction” and “Riot at Xavier’s” storylines, because even some of GMo’s run becomes bland in places.
I give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men 2 Hugh Jackman’s Manly Muttonchops out of 4.