Trade Post: Marvels, Atlas Volume 1 & Gotham By Gaslight

marvels Marvels (Marvel)
Written by Kurt Busiek, painted by Alex Ross
Collects Marvels #0-4

Going into last weekend, I pulled out a random sampling of mostly one-off trades that I wanted to make my way through this weekend. Some I had experience with, others were brand new to me. I’m splitting the experience between two posts, but here’s how the first three went over.

When I was a kid in the early-to-mid 90s Alex Ross blew everyone’s mind in comics. He might not have been the first guy to paint comic books, but he seemed like it to me at the time. His figures were so iconic and classical looking that you just couldn’t help but pour over his pages. The fact that he and the writers he worked with liked hiding pop culture easter eggs throughout the panels also helped. Kingdom Come was the first book of his I read and it blew me away. I even picked up his next work, Uncle Sam, which I didn’t understand at the time, but definitely want to dig out of my longboxes when I have access to them. I did eventually pick up the four issues of Marvels at a garage sale where a woman was selling off her son’s collection for a buck a book.

I don’t actually remember much about that original reading experience, but I can imagine it was pretty revelatory to me. I was a hardcore DC guy growing up, so my main exposure to the Marvel U was through trading cards, action figure bios, pieces in Wizard and cartoons. At the time, I was a novice when it came to Marvel’s Golden and Silver Age history which we see through the literal lens of photographer Phil Sheldon. He’s there from the beginning, when the original android Human Torch first gets shown off to a suspicious crowd and, as a NYC journalist, sees the beginnings of the superhero world and the way people react to what he labeled Marvels.

Unfortunately, the story wasn’t nearly as fresh this time around. I’ve read a ton of Marvel comics in the meantime and even a few books about the company, so the big action scenes are pretty well-worn for me even if they were presented by Ross in his heyday. I know that’s not what the book is ABOUT, but it is what drives things forward. I appreciate the man-on-the-street perspective that Busiek uses with Sheldon, especially the way his opinions of the “mutant menace” evolves, but I felt like he did all this much better in Astro City (a complaint I realized I also had when reading Busiek’s Web of Spider-Man #81). It’s interesting to see how the writer has wanted to work with specific themes throughout his career, tried them out with Marvel books, but, in my opinion at least, was really able to nail them down in his creator-owned book.

I can’t move on without talking about Ross’s art in this book. It’s as big and bold as you’d expect, though far less pastel than you might expect if you’re more of a recent fan. You can also tell, though, that this is the guy who will evolve into the Kingdom Come painter. The characters here seem a bit lighter and less dense than they do in KC, which is still one of my all time favorites and I’ve got the itch to read it again, so look for that review soon.

atlas return of the three dimensional man Atlas: Return Of The Three Dimensional Man (Marvel)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Gabriel Hardman, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Ramon Rosanas & Parker
Collects Assault On New Olympus Prologue, Incredible Hercules (back-ups) #138-141, Enter The Heroic Age & Atlas #1-5

In writing about Agents Of Atlas: Dark Reign, AoA: Turf War and pretty much every other Jeff Parker comic I’ve reviewed here on the site, I’ve talked about how much I enjoy his ability to play within the Marvel sandbox while still adding something new to the characters. It’s a skill set that I’m always impressed by, especially in the days when it seems like creators at the big two don’t have as much freedom thanks to huge events and/or other external circumstances that have nothing to do with creating. Of course, it helps when you’re dealing with characters that are only really cool because you made them that way.

Parker launched AoA as a miniseries back in 2006 based off of an old issue of What If?! that posited a team of characters created back in the Atlas days of Marvel’s history actually became the Avengers. Forgotten by most, Parker dusted these characters off, gave them unique voices and personalities and, in the course of telling thrilling stories, hooked me forever. Since that first outing, the team has appeared in a few failed ongoings (I always said I’d like them to simply take the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. series-of-minis approach, but that wasn’t in the cards), minis and back-ups. This trade collects the team’s back-up features in Incredible Hercules which were going on at the same time as the Assault On Mount Olympus story. The team then got another shot at an ongoing simply titled Atlas, but it only made it the five issues collected in this volume.

Anyway, this volume continues all the elements about Parker’s team that I enjoy while always moving the individuals and the team itself forward. The thrust of the main story revolves around Triathalon and the gang figuring out why beings are trying to kill the original 3D Man and his brother (who was a part of that What If?! issue but no subsequent iterations). The book ends with the team searching for and finding a resolution that actually winds up helping everyone involved instead of going the easy route, which is a nice touch. At this point, I believe this is the last AoA book around. I still haven’t gotten my hands on the Gorilla Man or Marvel Boy minis, but I’m hoping somewhere down the line Parker gets to bring these guys back again and show the world why they’re rad.

gotham by gaslightGotham By Gaslight (DC)
Written by Brian Augustyn, drawn by Mike Mignola

Gotham By Gaslight is the kind of book I’ve heard about for years. Though not labeled as such on the cover of this original GN version, this was the first of the Elseworlds tales, stories taking iconic DC characters and putting them in different settings throughout time, space and, oftentimes, literature. Back in 1994 when I was 11, DC gave every ongoing book the Elseworlds treatment in that year’s annuals. It was a lot of fun, spawned one of my all time favorite stories and also sparked my imagination in a general way. So, as a fan of Elseworlds and artist Mike Mignola, Gotham By Gaslight was easily on my to-get list.

After working out a Sequential Swap, I wound up with a copy in hand and while I’m not sure if it deserved so much anticipation, it’s still a pretty good story. The idea here is that Bruce Wayne became Batman back in 1889. As it happens, he comes back to Gotham just in time to take on Jack the Ripper who has also relocated after committing his infamous crimes in London.

I think this book sounds cooler than it actually is. Batman versus Jack the Ripper drawn by Mike Mignola? That was a much different animal back in 1989 than it is today. The book isn’t bad by any means and dodges many of the elements that made some of those Elseworlds books annoying — like every single DCU supporting character coming into play in these alternate universes — but also doesn’t do a great job of creating a compelling mystery. The looming question over the story is, “Who is Jack the Ripper?” {If you want to completely avoid SPOILERS, skip the rest of this paragraph.} We’re offered a few potential suspects, but the actual culprit is really the only person it could have been, right? We’re thrown some red herrings like the creepy British people on the boat and this world’s version of the Joker, but neither of them come up ever again. Had those characters recurred more throughout the story, I would have questioned my original guess at who the killer was, but as it was, I had it pegged from that character’s first appearance in the comic.

Still, I enjoyed the comic and would be interested in checking out the follow-up which features art by Eduardo Barreto called Master Of The Future. While the main character of Bruce Wayne and Batman is basically the same as you’d expect as even a casual Batman fan, it’s cool to see how that character interacts with a world that reminds me a lot of the one seen in Sandman Mystery Theatre. Plus, that costume is just rad!

Red Hulk Trade Post: Scorched Earth & Planet Red Hulk

Red Hulk: Scorched Earth (Marvel)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Gabriel Hardman, Ed McGuinness, Mark Robinson & Ben Oliver
Collects Red Hulk #25-30

My unexpected love affair with the Hulk continues on through these two volumes of Red Hulk written by Jeff Parker. Like with most of my reading of this series since a few years ago when Jeph Loeb took over, I’ve been getting these trades here and there when I can find them either on Sequential Swap  or cheap on Amazon. So, while I haven’t actually read War or Fall of the Hulks, I am reading these two books that take place after those other stories.

The basic idea is that, after running around causing all kinds of trouble throughout Loeb’s run, Red Hulk (who was finally revealed to be General Thunderbolt Ross, something I’d known from working at Wizard a year before the book even launched) got captured and started working with Steve Rogers and some of the other Avengers to show he’s not such a bad guy. What this series winds up doing, in addition to explaining away or building upon some of Loeb’s wilder ideas (punching the Watcher), is making the Red Hulk more of a character instead of the trademark force of nature status Hulks tend to wind up with.

The Scorched Earth of the title refers to a contingency plan by MODOK and the Intelligentsia (the bad guys of Fall of the Hulks) to destroy the world in various ways. Red Hulk gets recruited by Steve and Iron Man to help put a stop to them because, basically, he’s responsible. These adventures bring him into conflict with giant monsters and techno zombies, but also into battles with Iron Man, Thor and Namor. The beauty of a Jeff Parker comic like this comes from the balance between awesome battle scenes (which it has in spades) and more personal moments. There’s something sad about watching the strangely honorable Ross hanging out in a base inhabited by only Life Model Decoys so he can’t hurt anyone. There’s also a few back-up stories, one involving Rick Jones (aka A-Bomb) on Monster Island that eventually leads into the main story and Uatu the Watcher going bug nutty and telling another Watcher about how this thing called Omegex is going to kill all life on Earth, but that’s a matter for the next book.

The collection also contains Red Hulk #30 which is about as bonkers as it gets with Red and Green Hulk teaming up both together and in the same body going up against the Impossible Man, Xemnu The Titan, Woodgod, Kluh and a bunch of monsters that look like Jack Kirby creations. It’s a fun romp and it’s all drawn by Ed McGuinness doing what he absolutely does best.

Red Hulk: Planet Red Hulk (Marvel)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Gabriel Hardman, Carlo Pagulayan & Pat Zircher
Collects Red Hulk #30.1-36

While Scorched Earth set up a status quo and did a little clean up with previous stories, this collection of shorter stories did a little of that, revisited even older stories and blazed even newer trails. This is the kind of thing that can be tricky/bad for me as a reader, but Parker’s a very skilled writer and walks that balance between familiar and new very well.

With the looming threat of Omegex, Red Hulk takes on a few other threats. First up, a soldier who used to work with Ross and idolized him is after Red Hulk because he thinks the Crimson Crusher killed Ross and wants revenge. He’s got a new team of Hulkbusters and planted micro mines in Rulk’s brain that will go off when he transforms back into Ross. That’s just such a great superhero comic dichotomy going on there paired up with a flip of the norm established in the previous arc that I can’t help but love the development.

There’s also a growing group of baddies lead by someone called Zero/One that would take quite a while to explain, as would her team. Needless to say, they’re from earlier issues and wind up being both scary and threatening. Seeing how their mission winds up mirroring the new Hulkbusters is another interesting balance.

From there, Rulk gets his own Planet Hulk experience and it’s cool seeing Carlo Pagulayan returning to some of the ideas he and Greg Pak tackled the first time around. Just when I was getting a little bored with this, it’s revealed why Ross has this experience and I was back on board. The book ends with Rulk taking on Zzzax and also taking on the new MODOK who appeared in the previous book in a pretty fantastically gross and awesome way.

What I enjoy about Parker’s characterization of Rulk is that he’s both deviously conniving, but also has a moral code. There’s a dual nature there and it’s interesting to see how this character reacts to certain experiences and how they differ from Banner/Hulk’s responses. I wonder if the stories would be as interesting for someone who has not read those other stories, but I would guess they still would be because Parker’s a solid, creative writer who always keeps me interested in what’s happening next and why.

Jeff Parker Trade Post: Agents Of Atlas Turf War & Mysterius The Unfathomable

Agents Of Atlas: Turf Wars (Marvel)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Gabriel Hardman, Carlo Pagulayan, Dan Panosian & Paul Rivoche
Collects Agents Of Atlas #6-11

In an age filled with comics that mine past characters and stories like blood diamonds, Jeff Parker’s Agents Of Atlas is one of the best. Maybe it helps that I don’t have an incredibly deep knowledge of characters like Jimmy Woo, Venus, Gorilla Man, The Uranian (formerly Marvel Boy), Namora or M-11, but it almost doesn’t matter because Parker is a master of giving these characters amazing personalities and back stories that I am completely absorbed by.

I’ve written about the volume before this one already, but not the original on the blog. I actually first wrote about it for Wizard as a Book of the Month and it was a pleasure. One thing that I’ve thought from the very beginning, though, is that this should have been presented as a series of minis like B.P.R.D. instead of this strange stopping and starting that happens because, unfortunately-but-not-surprisingly, the comic book market can (or will) not support a quirky fun book like this that offers tons of entertainment, but doesn’t necessarily drive the overall story of the Marvel Universe, though it does play well within the bounds of things like Dark Reign.

Anyway, the story itself revolves around the continued adventures of the Agents as they support Woo in his efforts to change the evil Atlas organization into one that does good. This involves their continued ruse to Norman Osborn that they’re still bad guys as well as some scenes between Namorita and Namor in an attempt to have their two kingdoms join forces, but the real meat of this volume comes in the form of a war between Atlas and another similar organization that’s headed up by Jimmy’s ex girlfriend. Here’s another thing that Parker excels at: mixing legitimate character beats and overarching plots with the kinds of things that are awesome but can easily be handled poorly, like M-11’s upgrade or the dragon fight (or lack thereof). In the hands of a clumsy writer these could have been groan-worthy, but I was so invested in these issues and characters that I was full-boat in. BLOW EM UP, M-11!

On the art side of things, this collection definitely has a solid group of pencilers like Gabriel Hardman, Carlo Pagulayan, Dan Panosian and Paul Rivoche. They each have a fun, dynamic style that fit their individual issues, but I have a pair of minor complaints. First, I wish there was a list of which artists drew which issues somewhere in the collection. I also, as much as I like the individual artists, prefer for series’ like this to keep a consistent look throughout. Really, any one of them could have done it, but I get a little thrown when I’m constantly noticing the differences from issue to issue and I can’t easily look and see who did what. Again, that’s not a huge complaint and it didn’t bother me a ton, but it’s something I noticed that took me out of the story just a bit. Otherwise, though, I think Agents of Atlas is one of the best damn superhero comics around and should be read by everyone, superhero fans and not, alike. I need to get the rest of these collections.

Mysterius The Unfathomable (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
Written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Tom Fowler
Collects Mysterius The Unfathomable #1-6

Mysterius is the first non-Marvel comic of Parker’s I’ve ever read. I was a little worried because sometimes writers work really well within the world of the Big Two but don’t when allowed to write whatever they want. Thankfully, that is not the case here and Parker produced a fantastical action drama starring Mysterius, an immoral magician/conjurer and his brand new assistant Ella who goes by the alias Delfi at Mysterius’ behest as they encounter a demonic version of Dr. Seuss, a man trying to become a god at Burning Man and even more craziness all woven together into not only a great example of episodic fiction, but also overarching storytelling.

Before getting into more of the story details, I have to take a moment to sing the praises of Tom Fowler. Bangarang, this is a nice looking book that wavers between pretty and ugly in all the right ways. I’m sure I’ve seen Fowler’s art before, but this was the first time I really found myself drooling over his pages. There’s a cartoony style to this comic, that works so well, balancing the dark real world moments in the first few pages to the completely bonkers world and demons found in the Dr. Seuss-type guy’s dimension. I was blown away by those pages and stared at them longer than a lot of pages I’ve looked at recently. So awesome, you guys. A lot of times, art in comics feel less important than the story–much like the visuals in some movies–but in this case, it’s equally if not more important. They seem to lift each other up, it’s great.

Storywise, Parker pulls a bit of a trick on the readers by getting us to think the book is initially going to be a series of vignettes, but winds up connecting all the different elements to create a satisfying combination of–and I’m starting to sound like a broken record here–the episodic and the long range ways of telling a story. Plus, the very idea of a Dr. Seuss-like writer putting demonic incantations into his books is ingenious. There’s a lot more going on, but that is easily my favorite part of the book.

I actually tweeted to Parker how much I enjoyed the book and asked if there are plans for more stories to which he replied that he and Fowler “badly want to make more.” You can add me to the list of folks on that list as well. We need more Mysterius in our lives.