guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2008

#1st Impressions

The Invincible Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Britain and MI:13 (Marvel, 2008), $2.99.

By James Moore

   As Spring draws to a close, it becomes that time of year when the flowers boom, the weather gets warmer, and not-so-young comic companies’ fancy turns to launching new series in the name of media synergy, trademark renewal, and to cash-in of the annual crossover. Still, just because they have commercial aims, it doesn't mean a trio of new Marvel titles don't have something enjoyable to offer.

Marvel’s big debut is also the tie-in to the companies big movie debut,
The Invincible Iron Man. Normally, a new  launch to capitalize on a film would be a gratuitous cash-grab, but Invincible’s excellent creative team more than compensates for the open greed. Matt Fraction is one of the most interesting and fresh writers currently working at Marvel, and he turns out a first issue of the same high quality of the film. The Iron Man film managed to be accessible to the non-geek without talking down to veteran comics fan, and Fractions' script has a similar quality. It smartly glosses over the more 'questionable' creative decisions (i.e., turning the character into a mustache twirling fascist who tries to put his friends in a super-concentration camp) the character has been subjected to, and keeps the focus on making the character both conflicted and, most importantly, fun.

    Fraction's Stark is the kind of man who can go from fixing a space station to bedding a socialite in the space of a few  pages. It's a pared down-approach getting back to what makes the character work without being retrograde, and it is easily the best portrayal of the character since Warren Ellis' "Extremis" arc that opened that the other ongoing
Iron Man. This is a Tony Stark that manges to be moral, without being stiff or unlikable. Even his status as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D  is played in such a way as to be understandable by any fans of the film, as is the supporting cast. Even the books villain, rogue genius young Ezekiel Stane, has a tie to the film's villain.

Invincible also manages to draw from Fractions previous comic work. While Pepper Potts played an important role in the film, the character was also the backbone of Fraction short-lived, criminally underrated series, The Order. Stane also got his start as the mastermind behind the The Order's travails. It is by no means a requirement to have read the previous series, but for those who did it is nice to see the threads picked up (fingers crossed for an appearance by Stark's old buddy-in-rehab Henry Hellrung soon).

    The opening issue of 
Invincible succeeds on an even more important level than its accessibility, however. It is a nimble, engaging story with sharp dialogue, a clever idea on every other page, and a delightfully evil villain. It has a central conflict that foregrounds Tony Stark's character and his world while being topical. It is a great beginning to what should be consistently enjoyable and unpredictable series.

    All you really need to know about another new Marvel series, Guardians of the Galaxy, is that it has a telepathic cosmonaut dog in it. You want two things? You also get a sarcastic talking raccoon.

    Anthromorphised cast members aside,
Guardians is about a group of cosmic outcasts drawn together after two universe-threatening crises, working to prevent further catastrophes before they happen. Like Invincible, it has its roots in a previous series, in this case the two suites of the space epic Annihilation. In a sense this makes the first issue of Guardians the sixtieth-odd issue of a sweeping space saga. These previous miniseries, while not essential to understand this comic, have revitalized the space opera/kosmic komics portions of Marvel Universe into a rich, fascinating world. Guardians works that groundwork in character development and world-building into an enjoyable new beginning here with the first issue of Guardians.

    Artist Paul Pelletier turns in the best young Alan Davis impersonation since Bryan Hitch's pre-
Authority work. There's that sense of playful weirdness in his line work and creature  design you'd see in the Moore/Davis Captain Britain. Pelletier is one of those quiet, under-the-radar artists who tends to turn out consistent, perfectly enjoyable work but never gets noticed by fandom. His work here is easy to pass over: it reads solidly enough on the first pass. Looking over it again he seems oddly suited to the series where he is required to bring a wide palette of skills to the table. He does great facial expressions and convincing body language on very diverse cast. At the same time, he also has to pull off some mind-blowing spaces, like a church-powered space ship or the team’s home base inside the enormous severed head of a space god. Guardians would do well to keep him on for the long haul.

Guardians of the Galaxy is written by the writing team of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, known as DnA. The pair have extensive experience working in sci-fi heavy comics, having writing for previous Annihilation events as well serving a solid tenure on DC's Legion of Superheroes. The pair do a great job making this debut issue both an enjoyable single issue story while introducing the cast, their relationships, and the teams raison d'etre. Their characters all have unique voices as there's a maniacal vein of sarcastic humor throughout. While the book is smooth and readable, it is striking just how dense it is. A lot of ground gets covered very quickly, making Guardians stand out from the agonizingly wheel-spinning team books cluttering the racks. The teams  forms quickly and they actually interact and do things. In the first issue they go fight a threat to reality itself, as opposed to spending seven issues playing Fantasy Super-Team while grimacing and crying a lot (I'm looking at you Avengers and JLA).

    The book also has possibly the weirdest lineup of any mainstream team book in years.  They run the gamut from a lesbian space Joan of Arc Quasar to a royal alien tree with a habit of getting blown up and regrown from his own twigs. There is a fluid, unpredictable group dynamic at work and hopefully it will be fun to see it play out.

    Captain Britain and MI:13 is another quirky team book launched on the back of a crossover. The opening story uses the Secret Invasion crossover as a springboard, but all a reader really needs to know is that a bunch of aliens who have copied various superpowers are invading Britain. In response to the invasion, the government expands its superhuman operative program MI:13 to include any and all British superheroes.

    Art is by Leonard Kirk who turns in nicely readable pages in the contemporary realist style. Like Pelletier its the kind of solid, meat-and-potatoes linework that is easy to take for granted.  He does action well, and his figure work is excellent. Kirk's superskrull designs are a good balance of creepy and goofy. If there's a weakness to the art, it's that his backgrounds are a little sparse. There is a little of Davis in his work as well, but that is most likely a combination of the cast/setting and the fact that Marvels unofficial house-style is heavily influenced by the work of Bryan Hitch who, as mentioned, bares a heavy Davis influence of its own.

MI:13 is written by Paul Cornell, perhaps better known to a wider audience for working on Doctor Who novels before the current revival, but whose credits include last year’s Wisdom miniseries, which set up some of the characters of the new series as well as the MI:13 concept. Cornell's writing is somewhat low-key with a sly sense of characterization-on-the-run, introducing some lesser-known characters in an action-packed first issue. Aside from its classic titular character, Captain Britain and MI:13 features WW2 speedster Spitfire as well, the Black Knight (who has some history in Marvel's UK line), and underrated Warren Ellis creation, mutant spy Pete Wisdom. Cornell’s original creations are quite good as well, including John the Skrull (a skrull who was part of a scheme to replace the Beatles but decided he preferred living on Earth to invading it) and superhero fangirl Faiza.

    And while we are only one issue in here, there does seem to be the implication that
MI:13 has already mapped out its larger themes as well,  including the question of what a person is versus what they want to be. From the Black Knights use of flippancy to dodge his grim legacy to Captain Britain's desire to become a national symbol, the book shows some potential payoff other than: 'Another superhero team, in Europe!'

    Despite the diversity of these books (at least by the standards of corporate superhero comics) its interesting how much these books have in common. All of them have solid if not exactly groundbreaking artists, skillful writers producing entertaining stories with just enough depth to keep them moving, and concepts with the potential to turn into above-average action-adventure books. The key to moving forward will be to keep the books visually stable and to avoid getting mired in any new big crossovers which would likely sap the new titles of their individuality (especially
Guardians and MI:13). For now, though, anyone looking for some good superhero comic would do well to check any of these new series out.