Monday, June 24, 2013

The History of the X-Men in June

UNCANNY X-MEN #497 (2008)
At the very first editorial meeting I got to sit in on at Marvel, all the various editors did slideshow presentations on what were coming up in their particular books with covers, art, and little notes on which characters they’d be using. I’ll never forget X-Men editor Nick Lowe running down the Divided We Stand plans for Uncanny X-Men character-by-character, getting to Angel and, with a big grin, simply saying “he’s going to San Francisco where he’ll have a really good time.” I guess you need to know Nick, but it was all in the tone he said “really good time,” cracking himself up at the idea of Angel just chilling and getting a tan. That’s kind of what this issue is, though, as SF has been transformed into this weird retro hippie paradise where any X-Men who enter get groovy 60’s-style redesigns by Mike Choi and Sonia Oback at the height of their artistic powers and hang out. Some of the mystery behind that whole deal gets explained here, but I just enjoyed the weirdness of it all, as it set the tone for the trippy, socially-aware San Francisco era of the X-Men under Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen.

UNCANNY X-MEN #421 (2003)
If you want an example of why most folks remember Chuck Austen’s stint with the X-Men as perhaps leaning too heavily on the soap opera aspects, this issue gives a pretty good snapshot, with not much action but one character/relationship after another practically begging for the musical sting from Days of Our Lives. As always, a Melrose Place fan like me tended to dig this sort of thing, but there were times even I felt like Austen’s stuff would give Amanda Woodward pause. Over the course of this story alone, Havok comes out of his coma, Havok reunites with Polaris, Polaris proposes to Havok, Havok accepts said proposal, and Havok and Polaris elect to take a leave of absence together, oddly enough with Nightcrawler in tow because he just stepped down as team leader (I personally think a limited series and/or sitcom about Nightcrawler tagging along on Havok and Polaris’ honeymoon would be money in the bank). Elsewhere, Juggernaut pleads with his brother Professor X to help him be a good guy and Nurse Annie confesses her love to the aforementioned now-engaged Havok. At the end, Alpha Flight shows up in crazy battle armor to bring Sammy the Squid Boy back to Canada. Love it or hate it, you had to admire Austen’s willingness to let it all hang out.

UNCANNY X-MEN #356 (1998)
If there’s one period in X-Men history I regret missing out on, it’s when Joe Kelly and Steve Seagle were co-writing the books. I was in high school, not really buying comics, and I missed this era more or less in its entirety. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, since the run got cut short due to creative differences…nah, I still wish I’d been reading. Kelly and Seagle are both masters of their craft, particularly when it comes to balance, be it between characters and subplot or comedy and drama, showing one reason they’ve become so successful in the animation field. I eventually went back to collect this period, but was only able to do so via eBay and quarter bins, meaning I read it scattershot and out of order, not the optimum experience. This is an issue I particularly liked though. The primary plot deals with the original five X-Men reuniting in Alaska—where Cyclops and Jean Grey have retired to—both to game plan how to search for the missing Professor X and because Scott was worried Jean might be becoming the Phoenix again. I may not have grown up with this quintet as “my” X-Men, but I’m a sucker for the chemistry between them. I like Warren confiding in Jean about his relationship issues with Psylocke; I like Bobby being a bit aloof. I also really enjoy Chris Bachalo’s art in this issue as his progressive style helps breathe life into classic characters.

UNCANNY X-MEN #301 (1993)
I have never read this comic. I was heavy into collecting X-Men in particular in 1993, but for some reason, I never got Uncanny X-Men #300 or the next few issues up until Fatal Attractions. I do remember having no appreciation for John Romita Jr.’s art at the time because it was so different from the smooth Jim Lee/Andy Kubert style I was used to, and not really getting Forge or Mystique. Oh well.

UNCANNY X-MEN #230 (1988)
I don’t remember this issue too well either, but I’m pretty certain I read it. Maybe in an Essential? Not sure. It’s a month after the X-Men moved to Australia in one of the first comics I ever read and it’s a Christmas issue (in the summer). Searching their new home, the team finds a bunch of stolen goods swiped from around the world by the Reavers or whoever. Fortunately, among Longshot’s litany of powers is the ability to know where an object came from by touching it, plus the X-Men just met a teleporter named Gateway, so they make like Santa Claus and return all the goodies. It’s a sweet little story and also a nice spotlight for Longshot, who could be a bit of a cipher, with some slick Marc Silvestri art.

UNCANNY X-MEN #170 (1983)
Classic issue right here. Angel has been captured by the Morlocks and the X-Men have been unable to rescue him. The Morlocks particularly in their early days made for an interesting threat because they weren’t just an opposing team, they were a society, and besides that, they had so many seeming non-combatants mixed in with the dangerous ones and the good guys couldn’t really pick them apart (Leech is a little kid, but he’s also got a potentially lethal power and didn’t know any better than to follow Callisto or Masque). Besides that, they had such a diverse array of powers, from the raw power of Sunder to the poison touch of Plague and everything in between. Recognizing a traditional fight couldn’t be won, two of the X-Men take matters into their own hands, as Kitty Pryde promises Caliban she will live with him if he helps save Storm, then Storm turns around and invokes the challenge of one-on-one combat against Callisto for leadership of the Morlocks. Storm displays a combination of street smarts and ruthlessness in her duel with Callisto, which would get an extremely PG but nonetheless memorable adaptation on the 90’s X-Men cartoon. The great Paul Smith provides the pencils to put the bow on a gem of an issue.

UNCANNY X-MEN #111 (1978)

I believe I have this issue as part of either a Masterworks or Essential that I’m too lazy to go check right now, but I recall the concept and the quintessential Dave Cockrum art and designs even without remembering the full story in detail. Mesmero captures the still-new X-Men and convinces them they’re basically a circus freak show, complete with Colossus as the strong man, Wolverine as the jungle savage, and so on. A guest-starring Beast stumbles on the situation and manages to pull Wolvie out of the spell, with the rest following suit. Another fondly remembered one that has reverberated in homage as well as across media.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pimping My Stuff: Place to Be Nation

If you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, you may have noticed of late I've been tossing a lot of links to a new site called Place to Be Nation. I've been listening to the pro wrestling-focused podcast of the same name for a few months now and quickly became a fan, not merely because it's a better way to spend my commute then staring at downtown Newark, but because it's a great show. Scott Criscuolo and Justin Rozzero have done a tremendous job creating a consistently entertaining piece of business and developing an impressive fan following along the way, building it into a community. They provide insightful and humorous insight into the past and present of wrestling and conduct some of the better interviews I've heard.

Needless to say when Justin reached out to me and let me know they'd be expanding their efforts into web site form, I was eager to join up. It may seem a bit odd that somebody who spends every day running a fairly involved entertainment web site would want to also devote a portion of his free time to an endeavor like this, but as evidenced by this blog and other outlets I've used in the past, I love writing and collaboration, and when there are avenues beyond the one I'm lucky to have professionally, it's a treat for me to get to spout off about things I love.

So while I have no plans to discontinue my ramblings here, you'll also notice a lot of my thoughts on wrestling and TV in particular migrating over to The first two pieces I was a part of have gone up already, one which kicks off a regular wrestling list feature called The Five Count with a round table discussion of the most wasted WWE title reigns of all-time, plus me chatting with Justin and his pal Jen about one of my favorite topics: boy bands.

In conclusion, if you were concerned you weren't getting enough Ben Morse via and The Cool Kids Table, you've now got even more via Place to Be Nation, plus a boatload of other great columnists and writers to boot. Truly we live in a golden age.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Multi Paragraph Movie Review: Now You See Me

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

Seeing the cool premise for Now You See Me--it's a heist movie but with magicians--and the hugely talented cast, it seemed to me like this was an easy slam dunk. It did pretty well in its first week at the box office and got mixed to good reviews, but then faded pretty fast and people seemed to stop talking about it. The first point can be explained away by summer movie season, but the fact that there wasn't more buzz made me feel like there had to be something else going on here, some fatal flaws preventing it from being a critical hit. Having seen it, it was a fun, fast moving flick with an army of great actors and some truly brilliant action sequences, but no question there was a much better movie that could have been made. Speaking first to that cast, there isn't a weak link the bunch, as you've got Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman all bringing the goods plus lesser-knowns like Melanie Laurent and Dave Franco delivering on the promise they've shown elsewhere. I had my doubts initially whether Eisenberg could pull off arrogant ladies man, but he found a way to not so much disguise or lose the socially awkward charm he generally displays as much as redirect it. Ruffalo gets saddled with arguably the weakest character, the bumbling FBI goober who seems to exist only to make the magicians look more clever, but he manages to make the routine entertaining, if a bit tired. Of course there's a joy to watching Caine and Freeman face off, and I do appreciate that director Louis Leterrier or somebody recognized the simple but brilliant idea of "Oh, Morgan Freeman is in our movie, we should have him do a voice over at some point."

The primary problem for me with Now You See Me is that after the first 15 minutes of introducing Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher and Franco's wonderfully compelling quartet of magical thieves, we get a year-time jump and they disappear like the proverbial bunny for three quarters of the screen time while the Ruffalo-led FBI team gets the lion's share of the attention. Ruffalo is game, as mentioned, and Laurent as his believer partner is winning, but their chemistry is only so so, and even at their best they can't distract me that I'd rather be seeing more of Eisenberg and Fisher's dynamic--they're former magician and assistant with underlying sexual tension--or Harrelson being quirky or Franco finding ways to use magic tricks as weapons in awesome fight scenes. On its own, this Mark Ruffalo FBI movie would be whatever, but it becomes almost irritating when you teased me with something much more tantalizing and then moved it just off to the side for nearly two hours.

I would imagine a lot of people also have trouble with the ending, which its hard to get too into without spoilers, but needless to say as you'd expect from a movie about sleight of hand, it's a big twist. I didn't see it coming, which is a good thing, but one the other hand, that's because it requires the audience to discard a lot of what they just watched quickly and without much explanation. If they went through Ocean's 11 styles and explained all the motivation and machinery, I think it could have won a lot of goodwill, but it feels like they start that and then cut it off with some hasty lines, maybe saving it for a potential sequel. There are a lot logic gaps I can surmise solutions to, but they should be right out the screen.

I can't really complain, because I don't think I was bored during too many of Now You Can See Me's 115 minutes and found the majority of them to be entertaining, but I do mourn a bit for the superior film that died somewhere along the way; that one could have been a real classic.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Art Attack: August 2013's Coolest Covers

-I dig that take on Brother Blood by Francis Portela. It maintains the classic coloring and basic design of the classic George Perez but streamlines it a bit; plus while I have a soft spot for the original black-accented mask, amping up the skeleton crown instead is ominous and puts the character in line for a book like Animal Man. Portela definitely captured a creepy sense of glee here.

-Can't get enough 8-Bit variant covers. It makes a special amount of sense on Avengers Arena. Darkhawk and Mettle were born to be old school video game characters. Can whoever did that Adobo game look into something with Darkhawk?

-Love Chris Samnee's Silver Surfer! That's the type of smooth, sleek figure Samnee excels at, plus he does the crackling power effect in a neat kind of way. But what I dig more than simply the Surfer is how he contrasts getting dropped into the urban setting against a different figure like Daredevil. I believe Javier Rodriguez did the colors here (apologies if I'm mistaken) and he really sells it with the pale blue background, the stark red DD and the simple silver of the Surfer.

-As inventive as Mike Del Mundo's X-Men Legacy covers have been, that Deadpool Kills Deadpool one makes me chuckle.

-Did Dan Brereton just draw my dream Halloween costume for this year on Dream Thief #4?

-Mark Brooks continues his duel with the aforementioned Mr. Del Mundo for cover artist of the year in my view. Extra points for presumably being able to use recycled material for a new Fearless Defenders piece (although knowing him he may have created all-new design sketches).

-That Indestructible Hulk cover by Mukesh Singh sure does look like a lot of fun, doesn't it? Keep an eye on this guy.

-Just when you think Skottie Young has peaked on his variant covers (not really), he brings a Thanos video game console--which I now want to be real!--into the mix for Infinity.

-KISS Kids by Bruce Timm? Ok!

-I can always use more Jerry Ordway in my life. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is, of course, a perfect property for him, with colorful costumes and timeless designs. I had many great exchanges with the kind and talented Mr. Ordway when I was covering Infinite Crisis for Wizard back in the day and he sent me his full runs on Infinity Inc. and All-Star Squadron, so I'm indebted to the gent.

-The cover to Ultimate Comics Ultimates #29 by Michael Komarck has been my desktop screensaver at work for awhile now. Neat way to depict Quicksilver's powers in action.

-Declan Shalvey's Venom covers are a higher degree of art.

100 BULLETS: BROTHER LONO #3 by Dave Johnson

ANIMAL MAN #23 by Francis Portela

ASTONISHING X-MEN #65 by Phil Noto

AVENGERS ARENA #14 8-Bit Variant



BATWOMAN #23 by J.H. Williams III



DAREDEVIL #30 by Chris Samnee


DREAM THIEF #4 by Dan Brereton

EARTH 2 #15 by Juan Doe

FATALE #17 by Sean Phillips


HAWKEYE #14 by David Aja


INFINITY #1 by Skottie Young


KISS KIDS #1 by Bruce Timm

MICE TEMPLAR IV: LEGEND #6 by Skottie Young

SCARLET SPIDER #20 by Ryan Stegman

SKULLKICKERS #24 by Edwin Huang & Jim Zub

SWAMP THING #23 by Guillem March

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #1 by Jerry Ordway


UNCANNY X-FORCE #10 by Kris Anka

VENOM #39 by Declan Shalvey

WONDER WOMAN #23 by Cliff Chiang

X-MEN #4 by Terry Dodson