In addition to reading horror novels like Stage Fright (and many more to come) and falling down the It’s All Connected 2020 rabbit hole, I’m also doing my best to read through some of the spookier comics I have access to. I feel very lucky to have my entire comic collection all in one place, but also some nice shelves my dad and I built in thee garage so I can actually get to them! With that in mind and in the spirit of not going out because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I’ve gone through my existing comics, my trade shelf and even my To Read boxes and pulled out a huge pile of comics I want to read! Let’s see how that goes!
The Amazing Spider-Man: Big Time (Marvel)
Written by Dan Slott, drawn by Humberto Ramos with Neil Edwards & Stefano Caselli
Collects Amazing Spider-Man #648-651
Want to know something? I’ve never really read Spider-Man comics. I’ve loved just about every incarnation I’ve seen on TV, some of the movies and really dig the idea of the characters, but every time I asked someone to recommend a definitive Spider-Man run from the modern era, there wasn’t much of a general consensus. That all changed in the past few years when Dan Slott took over the book. He was part of the rotation when the line was slimmed down to just Amazing Spider-Man after One More Day, but eventually took the reigns himself. I actually tried getting into the run with New Ways To Die, but it didn’t stick. Still, I wanted to give it a shot and Big Time seemed like the place to go.
And boy, was it! I think I’m in love with this run and have already requested the next six or seven volumes from the library. Much like with Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run that I love so much, Slott takes what the general public knows about the character while also incorporating new elements and (I assume) offering plenty of tasty bits for longtime fans. No, I didn’t know that Aunt May was married to J. Jonah Jameson’s dad or that JJJ had been elected mayor, but those details didn’t derail me at any point from enjoying the story. Even when characters with highly complicated back stories like Hobgoblin and Mac Gargan come into play, Slott conveys the exact right amount of information without coming across as a mega info dump.
But, you don’t stay on a book for so long just because you write stories that are easy for me to read. You stay on a book because you create great stories with characters readers can’t get enough of. I’m reminded of the love I had for Peter Parker when I watched the 90s cartoon. Sure he has the problems he’s always had (or new versions), but he’s also not a total sad sack about them as he was in Spider-Man 2. In fact, as these two books move along, things start going really well for Pete as he scores a killer new job. But these are comics and we’re talking about Spider-Man, so it can’t really last, can it?
The Amazing Spider-Man: Matters of Life and Death (Marvel)
Written by Dan Slott with Fred Van Lente, drawn by Stefano Caselli, Humberto Ramos, Marcos Martin, et al
Collects Amazing Spider-Man #652-657, 654.1
The fun times start to decline for Spider-Man and Peter in this volume as Smythe attacks J. Jonah Jameson’s family and loved ones with an army of insect-enhanced people who share his distaste for the former Daily Bugle Editor-In-Chief. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Smythe makes good on his threat and offs someone Jonah loves and, even though I’ve only read these few issues with this character, I’d grown quite fond of them and felt pretty darn bad myself.
Though nowhere near as bad as Peter who shuts down a bit before deciding that he’s not going to let anyone else die. Leading up to that, though, we get Amazing Spider-Man #655, an issue that deals with death and loss in such a raw, real way that it’s easily one of the best, most honest comic books I’ve ever read.
There’s a lot more going on in these books as well including the first appearance of Flash Thompson as Venom (which spun out into its own series), Parker’s new workmates and what they think they know about Spider-Man and not one, but TWO different costumes for our hero. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.
Most of all, I love how fully Slott embraces Peter Parker’s intelligence. Before I worked at Wizard and was exposed to a lot more comics, I never really thought about how Parker fits up there with Banner, Stark and Richards, but he does and Slott goes right in for that idea. Smart is sexy and nerds are cool. We need more of that pretty much everywhere.
I’m also a big fan of the artwork in these books. Ramos is an artist I generally associate with horror comics like Crimson, but drawing Spider-Man is in his blood! He mixes the flexibility of the character with the ability to capture facial expressions perfectly AND kill it when it comes to the villains. I also quite enjoy Caselli’s style and have since I first saw him draw Secret Warriors. And, boy, I hope Martin won all the awards for Amazing #655. The script for that was top notch, but the art came up to the same level.
Several years ago I started writing a pretty lengthy post about my brief time as a big-time X-Men fan. I never finished it, but am incorporating some of the ideas into this Trade Post. I loved the 90s cartoon, but that only ever read into me picking up the Fatal Attractions trade as one of the first collections I ever purchased. I also tried getting into the X-world around the time that Grant Morrison took over, but funds grew limited as did my attention span so that went out the window. Then I got a job at Wizard in the research department and wound up covering the X-Men beat for about a year. This might have stemmed from the fact that I’d interviewed Mike Carey for Newsarama about his impending Vampirella take-over between my Wizard internship and actually working at the mag. Anyway, I was the go-to guy talking to Carey about X-Men, the editors and lots of other folks. When you cover things like this extensively you feel the need to keep up on the books because, one, you will probably have to cover them again in the next few months and two, you’re curious to see how it turned out.
At this point which was after the mutant-limiting 198 even with Scarlet Witch, Ed Brubaker — who I dug as the writer on Captain America — took over Uncanny X-Men and Mike Carey was doing X-Men. I’ll get into some of the ancillary titles I also really enjoyed like Cable/Deadpool and New X-Men when I can get my hands on more of those trades, but I figured it’d be fun to go back and read the first years’ worth of both these books, starting with Bru’s Rise And Fall Of The Shi’Ar Empire story. This was one that a lot of people I knew weren’t that into and, if memory serves, it did feel kind of slow when coming out in single issues — this is a pretty epic story spanning 12 issues — but when you read it all together it has that concise nature that I love in his writing.
This story spins directly out of Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis miniseries which revealed that Professor X sent a brand new team of mutants to try and save the original X-Men before he put together the international group made famous in Giant Sized X-Men #1. Most of them died, but two — the third Summers brother now called Vulcan and a super adapter named Darwin — survived. Vulcan flew off into space to get revenge on the Shi’Ar who killed his mother and enslaved him. This prompts Prof. X — who’s not having a great time as all his dark secrets are finding the light of day — to put a team together and go after his one time student. Said group includes Havok, Polaris, Nightcrawler, Darwin, Rachel Summers and Warpath (who I did a fun Wizard Insider on and actually got really excited about as a different take on the Wolverine idea). They head into space, but the trip winds up taking a long time because Vulcan is destroying all the jump gates and winds up actually falling for Deathbird and becoming part of the Shi’Ar royal family.
There’s a lot more going on in the book, which also introduces Korvus, a Shi’Ar citizen locked up because his family line was touched by the Phoenix force long ago and a portion resides in a gigantic, anime-style sword that only he can heft. Oh, plus Skrulls, the Imperial Guard and the Starjammers all play important parts. There’s so much going on that the book actually feels like a really solid TV season with a few departures — every three or four issues Vulcan takes the spotlight in issues drawn by Clayton Henry to give regular artist Billy Tan a bit of a breather.
Not being the biggest X-fan in the world, I must say that I felt it was pretty easy to slide right into this story. I put X-Men up there with the Legion of Super-Heroes when it comes to figuring out how characters related to one another, so it can be daunting wading into a story like this, but Brubaker handles these ancient relationships in such a way that he gives you enough information to understand what’s happening without getting deep into continuity porn. I know very little about, say, the Havok/Polaris relationship or Rachel Summers’ backstory, but I was never confused by the elements being presented to me in this story.
I really enjoyed this trade and a big part of that is the big, bold artwork by Billy Tan. Henry does some fun fill-in issues, but there’s a clear difference in style with his looser pencils showing off how tight and clean Tan’s can be. They both create large, heroic looking figures, though, which unites the stories. I’m also going to give huge props to the ink and coloring team of Danny Miki (mostly) and Frank D’Armata. I remember around this time being really impressed with the house inking/coloring style that Marvel seemed to be fostering in a lot of their books. While not necessarily uniform, I felt like a lot of different books had a somewhat similar feel thanks to a dark-ish, yet bold tone. I don’t have either of them yet, but I’d like to get my hands on Deadly Genesis and The Extremists which bridges the gap between Rise and the Messiah Complex crossover, which I’m a huge fan of.
I’m going to say right off that bat that I wound up talking to Mike Carey quite a bit in my time at Wizard and grew to really enjoy those talks. He’s a very cool guy with a deep love of all things X-Men and comics whose enthusiasm always comes through. I will also say that I had a bit of a harder time reading his X-Men book because of a lack of familiarity with a few of the characters. The idea behind his book is that, in a post-198 world, Rogue will lead a team of mutants not connected to the school who go out and deal with problems. Her crew included Iceman, Mystique, Cannonball, Sabertooth (kinda), Cable (kinda), Lady Mastermind and Sentinel. Most of my confusion — both during my initial reading and the more recent one — came from a pre-occupation of who those latter two characters were. It’s not like Carey put a lot of importance on their backstory, but being almost completely unfamiliar with them and their abilities was distracting. It’s like knowing everyone at a party except for two people and becoming obsessed with who they are. I should have just looked them up on Wiki, but that info should also have probably been in the story.
Speaking of the stories, you’ve got a couple doozies here. First off, there’s a new kind of mutant who were created and evolved on a battleship who have woken up and want to take out the X-Men. They’re so tough that they scared the poop out of Sabertooth who makes his way to the X-Mansion in an attempt to take advantage of the locale’s mutant refuge. He’s kept captive for a while, but is also used as a weapon during various missions. This group of X-Men also finds themselves on the hunt for an evil scientist named Pan who can absorb and use mutant powers like Rogue, but for longer periods of time. He was experimenting on Lady Mastermind and Sentinel which is how they found their way into the story. Oh and they also help fix Northstar who was turned into a psycho killer in Mark Millar’s run on Wolverine. I like that Carey went with new villains because it adds to the sandbox while also allowing him to work within a far more limited cast of mutant bad guys.
While I did have some trouble with understanding a few of the characters, I really enjoyed getting to know some of the others better. Rogue is super-rad in this book, taking charge, kicking ass and taking names. She goes through a lot too, which toughens her up even more, something she probably didn’t need, but gets worked with in later stories. I also liked seeing the weird relationship between Iceman and Mystique. Carey also does some really interesting things with Iceman’s powers that I got a kick out of. Then you’ve got Cannonball who played well off of Cable, the two having moved on a bit from the younger hero’s hero worship of the other. There’s a bit of a sadness that runs through these stories that infects these characters, all of which makes sense when you contextualize it against the fact that their very species is at risk of extinction.
And, of course, you can’t talk about this book without talking about the artists. I love Mark Brooks and his contribution as the artist on the annual is exactly what I think of when I think of superhero comic books. But since this is a darker comic, Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos’ styles fit better. Both retain their unique looks, but also feel like part of the same cloth. Bachalo has a crazy, erratic-ness that fits with the idea of a new species popping up to take over for mutants while Ramos’ freneticism fits his story. I will say that sometimes, their sketchy nature makes some of the panels hard to read, but overall I like the effect of their art on the story. Like with the above book, there’s a much shorter trade between this one and Messiah Complex that I want to get my hands on, plus Carey wrote the back-ups that made up the Endangered Species collection. I’d like to get those in the ol’ collection as well to see how they all play together. After that? Well, I remember X-Men Legacy getting a little too in-depth when it came to X-Men history which isn’t really my bag.
Along with Battle Chasers and Danger Girl, the third comic to bow from WildStorm’s Cliffhanger imprint was none other than Crimson, a vampire saga written by Brian Augustyn and drawn by none other than Humberto Ramos. I know Battle Chasers and Danger Girl were the big titles coming out of Cliffhanger, but Crimson was the one I glommed onto. I read the first few issues of DG, but couldn’t afford to keep up with that and all my other books, so I dropped it. I believe I read every issue of Crimson, but getting to the end of the fourth volume and the end of the story, I didn’t remember as much.
The basic story is that this teenager Alex is driving through Central Park with his friends when a vampire gang attacks. His friends get killed and Alex gets turned. He becomes a vampire, an ancient being named Ekimus tells him he’s the chosen one and he makes friends with a Mexican vampire named Joe. From there things get even crazier. For a full-on crazy review, hit the jump.
The first trade focuses on Alex adjusting to his new life. He’s got to give up his family and his girlfriend gets caught up in his new life. He gets vengeance on the vampires who turned him. We also meet a young woman named Scarlet who s part of a group called the Red Hoods which hunt down vampires, werewolves, demons and other monsters. We’re also introduced to Senator Van Fleet, another vampire who employs Alex’s dad and a cop who turns out to be the reincarnation of St. George the Dragon Slayer.
The next volumes broaden the spectrum of the story, by introducing all kinds of religious and mythological characters. The Christian idea of God comes into play, there’s angels, werewolves, Templar knights, Eden, the queen of the vampires and dragons.
Looking back, I think Crimson might have been the first limited series I ever read. Everything else I was reading at the time was ongoing superhero stuff. Seeing as how the neverending superhero idea is what I was used to, I don’t think I was prepared for how crazy Crimson got so fast. By the end of the second year, you’ve got all these ideas about Alex being the chosen one, defending the trod-upon demons and monsters of the world and fighting against the Church’s assassins. Soon enough, you’ve got dragons overrunning New York City and Lisseth, mother of all vampires, trying to destroy all living things so that neither heaven nor hell will have anything to rule over.
I’m a bit conflicted on how to review this series. I really liked reading it, but there’s a lot of nostalgia behind it. The dialogue slips way into Silver Age “let’s explain EVERYTHING we’re doing and recap EVERYTHING that came before in the book” which can come off as tired and stale. It’s annoying, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me. There’s also echoes of Buffy, but the two things were kind of happening at the same time. There aren’t even that many crossovers or references to Buffy (you do get X-Files, Friends and NYPD Blue references though in the issues), but it’s hard to think of any late-90s vampire without thinking of Buffy. Consider this Buffy if it was starring a teenage vampire and done by the BBC with a lot more religion involved.
Also, the originality of this book depends on what you’ve read coming in. See, for me, this was the first piece of fiction that addressed the Knights Templar, the idea of multiple chosen ones living at the same time (I got really sick of the chosen one concept eventually) and especially the idea that agents of the Church were actually persecuting innocent demons who weren’t hurting anyone. To me, at the time, these were all very novel concepts. Now, I feel like I’ve seen all of them thanks to watching hundreds of freaking horror movies and reading my fair share of limited series comics.
Having read all of this one a relatively brief sitting, I will definitely say that I enjoyed Crimson as a whole. While Augustyn’s writing got tedious at times, Ramos’ art stayed amazing throughout the entire series. And think about this, not only do you get to see regular doses of vampire, but also werewolf, dragons, angels, demons and even an alien or two (in crowd shots). I haven’t read a ton of Ramos’ comics, but I freaking loved what he did on these books (though I wish the borders would have been a little interesting than just solid colors, but whatever). For horror fans, the way the blood is penciled, inked and colored is proabably the best I’ve ever seen in any comic book. I have no idea how easy it is to get these trades. I got them on Sequential Swap, though there was nothing easy about that. Plus, just check out the cool designs for the trades. Even though I usually like some kind of uniformity in my trade designs, I like how amazingly different these covers were designed. You’ll just have to wait for someone else to scan the backs or buy your own to see how the themes were continued on the back.
So, if you’re looking for a vampire story without sparkles or too much relationship drama, then you should do what you can to dig up Crimson issues or trades. Danger Girl kind of trailed off and I don’t think Battle Chasers ever ended, so I think Crimson is your best bet when it comes from the world of Cliffhanger, though I would love to read some of Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk. I even followed him on to Out There, but I have no idea if that book ever ended because I was in college at the time and reading my books in awkward bursts. Give it a shot if you’re game, if nothing else, the art is of the highest quality throughout!