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Cape Fear One: Several Superhero Books Reviewed
posted December 12, 2004
 

It's a Bird...
Creators: Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
Publishing Information: DC Comics, $24.95, 2004
Ordering Numbers: 1401201091 (ISBN)

The Ultimates Volume One: Super-Human
Creators: Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch and Andrew Currie
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $12.99, 2002
Ordering Numbers: 0785109609 (ISBN)

The Ultimates Volume Two: Homeland Security
Creators: Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch and Andrew Currie
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $17.99, 2004
Ordering Numbers: 078511078X (ISBN)

The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street #1-4
Creators: Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $3.50 each, 2003
Ordering Numbers:

Marvel Boy
Creators: Grant Morrison and JG Jones
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $15.95, 2002
Ordering Numbers: 0785107819 (ISBN)


It's a Plan

The incredibly fancy looking stand-alone graphic novel It's a Bird... tackles the subjects of mortality and disease and human weakness as it plays out in network of one man's family and friends. It also functions as an extended rumination on writing mainstream comic books for a living. On page ten, grumpy protagonist Steven is offered the chance to write a Superman comic book for DC Comics. The remainder of the volume follows Steven as he works through his resistance to the assignment while dealing with a minor personal crisis related to his family's genetic predilection for Huntington's Disease. The narrative tempo of the 124-page story relies greatly on moves back and forth between Steven's explorations of the character and his efforts to hold things together grappling with the job and trying to resolve his family problems. The personal difficulties inform the writing process, both the blockage and, it's asserted, the eventual work. In some ways It's a Bird... functions like a really long and depressing superhero-centric episode of The Seinfeld Chronicles.

Writer Steven T. Seagle, who did end up working on the Superman comics for a few years, does a fine job pacing his dramatic tableaux. His characters react to one another in the emotional shorthand that arises from years of familiarity and chronic disappointment. The same dull expectations characters bring to one other mirrors Steven's earlier, surface oriented and limited-perspective explorations of the Superman character. When Steven finally breaks through and understands the emotional underpinnings of his father's bizarre, hurtful actions and how it's had an impact on him, he gains the ability to come to terms with what Superman means for himself and may mean for others. The order of epiphanies makes writing superhero comics look like the most emotionally daunting enterprise in all media.

A key to understanding It's a Bird... is that nothing in Steven's transformation absolves the vapidity that preceded it. The writer's attitude changes towards the character, but the character never really changes -- in fact, Superman may not be able to change, at least not all that much. Artist Teddy Kristiansen gives each moment of super-scrutiny a visual signature that aids great in parsing what Seagle is saying without slowing the read to a standstill. Kristiansen's work is routinely lovely, expressively angular and full of fun, grotesque figure drawing. But the various scenes of analysis tend to be the kinds of things stoned college students muse over at two o'clock in the morning: Superman as a manipulative liar, Superman as a totem of invincibility, Superman as a awkward vehicle for justice. After his hospital-room moment of truth, Steven finds much to cherish in the character's links to folk literature (he even reminds us of the Christ metaphor), a memory of the value escapism and fantasy can have in young peoples' lives, and the reliability of the Superman's continuing adventures as a metaphor for human coping. Seeing eight hundred something monthly issues as a nudge for the rest of us to keep on keeping on is obviously highly problematic due to the corporate nature of Superman's continued survival. It takes very little effort on a cynical reader's part to see Steven's transformation as a capitulation to getting along, making himself and those around him happy at the cost of pursuing a more trenchant set of truths. I think the creators realize this as well.

More than any graphic novel I've read, It's A Bird... engages the difficulties of working with superhero material in a way that doesn't rely on a simple construction of relative worth. What seems enlightening to Steven may horrify another writer; surface qualities of color, excitement and imaginative art may be as valuable as any metaphorical weight with which such stories can be infused; one man's corporate treadmill is another's life-saving regular gig. Seagle and Kristiansen play up the ambiguity about superhero stories in a way that suggests a shrugged shoulder notion of value may be the greatest comfort of all. More than any genre or sub-genre, superhero stories have resisted rigorous analysis about what they do well in part, perhaps, because suggestions are more useful than hard answers when it comes to securing the emotional response we want from these works. Becoming thoughtful about superheroes may involve floating ideas that embarrass in a different context, or it may mean moving freely between the seriously intended and the simply ridiculous. The most interesting thing about these often garish, sometimes even painfully deficient comic books isn't in what we are able to see but that we keep looking.

My Dinner with Tony

One writer who seems to grasp the lessons of It's a Bird... without even trying is Mark Millar, the outspoken workhorse of the comic book moment. The scene I like best in the first trade of his popular The Ultimates series comes near the conclusion, where the Marvel superheroes Thor, Captain America and Iron Man sit around in their civilian clothes and have dinner. Captain America even gets to wear a goofy-looking Army uniform as if on the way home he's planning to stop by the local airplane hangar for a nostalgia dance. The original Marvel alpha males, the three heroes get on famously in an encounter that lasts a generous nine pages, and except for a dramatic soap opera plot twist announcement made by Iron Man that feels like a serious moment in a 1980s television sitcom, very little happens. In some ways this scene is merely the extended happy ending in which a lot of popular art traffics: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker receiving their medals, the kids in Harry Potter winning the House Cup, and so on. One half expects the three heroes in The Ultimates to turn and wave to the reader, or for someone to make a corny joke after which everyone laughs over the end credits.

In another sense, the dinner scene plays on a very specific, very noteworthy element of the 1960s Marvel comic books. It's not just that the early Marvel characters had the appearance of personal lives beyond the fistfights that made up the majority of every issue. Because such scenes were never very long, or only hinted at, they became in a way much more desirable for the kid deeply immersed in them. Marvel's scenes of domesticity were the adults staying up late at the summer cottage to drink wine and gossip about the neighbors while you sat on the stairway; parsing them was like trying to guess the background of favorite characters on a police procedural through casual clues dropped in a detective's off-hand remarks. Through the technique of extended scene work popular in the majority of superhero comics today, what fans call "decompression," writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch (and any editors actively involved) are able to indulge multiple generations of Marvel fanboys by giving them the backstage equivalent of Superman pounding crap out of the Incredible Hulk. For the new reader, one imagines the scene plays as a variation on the original appeal such moments had, a break from fantasy fight scenes of appropriate size for the modern approach to pacing.

Comics like The Ultimates, a re-do of the old super-team The Avengers in Marvel's updated "ultimate" version of the original Marvel Universe (stay with me), work on those two levels most of the time. The differences may intrigue older fans who can compare and contrast which elements work best for what reasons: Thor the Thunder God or Thor the New Age Guru? Nerdy Bruce Banner and the Gamma Bomb or henpecked Bruce Banner and the Super-Soldier formula? Millionaire playboy munitions dealer Tony Stark or billionaire research and development super-mogul Tony Stark? Unlike the changes that come with a revamping of a character within an established series, the core of the Ultimate Universe is the frequently strong pulp of writers and artists like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby and Don Heck. This allows the creative team to pick and choose from a 40-year-buffet, with emphasis on the meat at the beginning of the line, in a way that favors what best works about such concepts at their core. The differences between the Ultimate Universe and previous efforts in the re-launch department by mainstream comic book companies is first, as discussed above the updating extends to the way the stories are presented, and second, Marvel uses a good portion of their best talent on these books to see that they are as strongly crafted as possible. If the creative process sounds familiar, think of it like this: Marvel is essentially letting its talent do big-budget paper movie out of its core licenses.

The irony here is that what makes these concepts work in the short-term will eventually stab it in the balls. The regular Marvel books diminished in potency over the years because of accrued continuity and because decades of publication exhausts the natural lifespan for fictional characters; the Ultimate Universe material, because it is a series of high notes, by definition promises to get to the same exact point, only sooner. Much has been made about gradual storytelling as a stylistic quirk, but it may be best to think of it as a narrative survival tool. Even in the longest-running arguably high quality superhero entertainment that began in the 1960s -- say Marvel's first 150 issues or so of Amazing Spider-Man -- there are only enough worthwhile story moments for a few dozen issues unless every single plot point is slowly teased out at almost excruciating length. Standard comics have in the past mitigated the distance between current comic and core concept through selective amnesia and a series of convenient returns to status quo. But even the tightest circular patterns tend to widen over time: wrists gets tired, pen points become dull, and the paper may even wear through. Marvel's Ultimate Universe strategy will almost certainly end in as complete a state of exhaustion as the regular line.

In the meantime, creative teams like Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch get to have fun rehashing the core Marvel elements in slightly ramped up fashion, like Michael Bay and Doug Liman getting to re-film Sean Connery's James Bond movies. Millar's dialogue work is uneven, particularly when he veers off into humor -- the Incredible Hulk's pursuit of Freddy Prinze, Jr. (don't ask) makes me cringe just thinking of it -- but he enjoys a distinct advantage over his peers in not being equally fond of every character. Lacking the fanboy mandate that's strangled other writers in their conceptual cribs, Millar can build up some of his heroes at the expense of others. His Captain America is a decent man given to occasional bursts of anger, and exudes a poignant, on-edge quality that never becomes morose. The series funniest moment to date was an issue collected in the second volume that ends with Captain America screaming an insult about the French; its most satisfying moment, also found in Homeland Security, was Captain America beating up an ostensibly more powerful teammate for doing something repugnant. On the other hand, Millar's version of Giant-Man introduces himself as half an ass and by the first volume's conclusion appends the second cheek. Millar and company don't have to pretend that the Wasp or Hawkeye has as compelling a pop pedigree as Mr. War Hero Recovered From an Ice Flow.

With Bryan Hitch providing art that combines meticulous detail work with action that clips along with a nice mix of long views and close-ups (end result: the action feels bigger than life), the two Ultimates volumes published thus far are well-crafted, occasionally pleasurable adventure stories that go absolutely nowhere and say almost nothing -- sort of like the 1963 Avengers series with sex jokes and a smidgeon of self-awareness. Future trades should get more complicated, moving further away from whatever power the original stories had and forced to stand on their own. Barring some extremely skillful reclamation work that finds unique riches in later-period Marvel Comics, material that mostly failed to distinguish itself the first time around, it is not likely The Ultimates will stand tall for very long. However, it should at least look great until that imminent collapse and subsequent whimper. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have returned the concept of the disposable comic book to corporate superheroes not by tweaking a few pop-cult universalities but by pushing the strengths of the original formula back to the forefront and feeling perfectly comfortable with such material's inherent sell-by date.

Yancy Street Shuffle

Superheroes have an interesting shelf life. I was in the fifth grade when the Uncanny X-Men's Wolverine rode the Hellfire Club's dumbwaiter into the upper stratosphere of fannish regard. A student of the art form as Stan Lee defined its parameters, I recognized a changing of the guard when I saw one. I soon became fascinated with which Marvel superheroes were most popular and when. It was not at that time a very long list. According to the older comic book fans in my hometown, at least when they could put down their bongs and turn down their Billy Connolly albums, the most popular character in the Marvel Universe before Wolverine was the robot superhero, occasional crybaby and Mr. Spock stand-in The Vision. Before that, Spider-Man ruled -- the version on the motorcycle that complained about having two girlfriends and fought everyone with his arm in a sling. The very first breakout character 1960s Marvel ever had, I was repeatedly assured, was the agonized everyman brickhouse of The Fantastic Four: The Thing.

I have since encountered very few significant disputations of this fan-favorite lineage 1961-1980, although a bit of haggling over the details. Many older fans have assured me they were taken aback by the potency of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man long before they were seduced by John Romita's swanky mini-skirts. They testify the singular oddness of that title and character are what really distinguished the Marvel superhero renaissance. Letters from college-aged fans to Stan Lee in the mid-1960s indicate that the Hulk was well received from the time Ditko helped shape his second run in comic books, maybe the most significant under-the-radar creative contribution of that period. But despite the efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to puff up Reed Richards in any comic where he appeared, the Thing was obviously popular in a way that lingers for decades. The character continues to offer a combination of humor, pathos, stellar design and ability to punch things that indicates charming stories in him still.

There is some funny and almost poignant material sprinkled throughout the Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel mini-series, The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street. It's just not where you might first look. For instance, the series opens with a fight between the Fantastic Four and the exquisitely stupid Red Ghost and his Super Apes. Kicking things off that way puts Haspiel immediately on the defensive, because such fight scenes run on different energies than the artist's own comics and he gets little chance to work his way up to speed on the slugfest particulars. Haspiel's potential discomfit proves worth it in order to read Dorkin's voiceover for the Thing. Dorkin coaxes from the character the weariness in mulling over the 465th most interesting day one has ever spent at work. This makes for sly commentary in that not only is the Thing slightly bored with the routine, readers may be a tiny bit tired with the Fantastic Four "mythos" or superhero fight scenes in general. Most opening back and forths in a Marvel superhero comic whet the reader's appetite for action to come; any domestic scenes that follow help the reader become invested in the personal struggles that parallel the physical action. As played here, the opening scenes are more like narrative Ipecac. They condition the reader to accept that the best, most interesting, and vitally important portion of the Thing's combat-filled recent life is going to be an encounter with a woman. Dorkin and Haspiel not only show you a super-baboon, they convince you it's boring.

Both writer and artist have filtered romance through genre prisms in their alternative comics work: Dorkin in the "The Bummer Trilogy" Hectic Planet shorts in Dark Horse Presents and Haspiel in his Billy Dogma books. That experience makes them sharp enough to work as specifically as possible in terms of emotional range. They cagily set up the Thing's romance based not on its sexual component, but as the kind of encounter with the opposite sex where the potential for physical contact is subsumed into a sweet, happy-to-be-here crush, an easy to wear acceptance of someone as an attractive person desirable to be around that is often a way station before sexual energy becomes an overriding issue. This proves interesting to read because those feelings may be more rare than those surrounding lustier forms of attraction, and as such are underplayed in representations of relationships in pop literature. It is also an appropriate area of exploration for the Thing, as despite a name so phallic it could have won him a place on the member-fixated 1997 Seattle Mariners one suspects he has some sort of rock business in his underpants.

Dorkin and Haspiel use the character's emotional and physical state to unpack a crucial portion of his story's thematic progression. The initial scenes between Thing and Hazel are played convincingly enough that the reader stands a good chance of becoming invested in the character's emotional state, and sympathize with his overwhelming desire for connection. Thus when the relationship is in issue #4 revealed to have an unsavory sexual element, it feels like a new narrative element has been introduced to the mini-series rather than a somewhat obvious story point revealed. Cosmic rays and Jack Kirby have conspired to make this giant brute an effective stand-in for a reluctant innocent, and Dorkin plays the thoroughness of his self-loathing and the ugliness of his condition's obvious metaphors with a knowing hand. Both cartoonists utilize their lead with an appreciation for the relationship between power and potency that is an underlying theme in the early Marvel comics, making the series an apt extension of an early subtext.

Another nice twist to be discovered in Night Falls on Yancy Street is that the seriousness of the violence runs parallel to the degree of emotional complication. Emotional vulnerability invariably leads to its physical counterpart: love hurts, and so do broken limbs. The major fight in issue #4 between the Thing and various "Frightful Four" members reads ten times nastier than the monkey tussle in issue #1. When one of the major bad guy characters does horrible things to his ostensible ally Paste Pot Pete -- the mini-series has the designation for how Marvel describes "imaginary" stories, those tales set apart from the corporate approved plot progression for the characters, so anything goes -- it feels briefly like the reader has come across a Lee/Kirby snuff comic. Dorkin and Haspiel may lack the sort of investment in superhero comics necessary to make use of vicious asskickings as a metaphor for much of anything beyond devastating hurt, but that rudimentary comparison lingers much longer than the soap opera moments that drive the remainder of the plot. If the story lingers in its readers' memories, it will likely be for the surprising relentlessness of its depressing outlook concerning our ability to connect with other people despite significant obstacles.

The major failing of Night Falls on Yancy Street is that the mini-series takes forever to connect its dots. Minus its two major fights and the initial meeting between the Thing and his potential paramour, the series feels like it was stitched together out of undistinguished subplot pages cut from 30 issues of the ongoing comic. It might have been more interesting read that way. In mini-series form the pacing manages at times to be cursory and leaden, giving loads of information about non-essential details but not enough that coheres into an overall effect. The reader spends a lot of time with the Thing and Hazel and sees a bit of their world, but none of their shared experiences provides poignancy behind the basic set-up; nothing sticks. Dorkin and Haspiel also fail to explore the implications of certain issues their story broaches, the way that failure at love can hint at a world of much wider personal problems and a lifetime's worth of regret. The characters they use might collapse forced to work such territory, but as it stands it feels like so many obvious questions are hinted at then ignored for the sake of narrative expediency. This makes the bulk of the four issues feel like an exercise in mood rather than a story that asked to be told, more interesting pitch than compelling comic book.

The real-world elements which the creators put into play end up being judged not on their usefulness in exploring an issue or theme but in terms of their appropriateness for marching these characters around a while. Like many Marvel comics, even something halfway evocative about the human condition quickly becomes a servant of the license and the larger story that has accrued around it. Dorkin and Haspiel have hit on an unfortunate truth: Marvel Comics are mostly about themselves, the way long-running television shows nearly always lurch away from their original concept and adopt the characteristics of soap opera. Even at the series end, when events have turned out dark and hopeless, the feeling is less about that part of the human condition and more that a Marvel property has had one of its original subtexts restored to it. Night Falls on Yancy Street ends up a pretty good story for the Thing; it is not a good story in and of itself. Your ability to empathize depends greatly on how naturally you feel for superheroes going in, or how much you have invested in this specific character before page one. And even that kind of connection is harder these days with 40 years of material on which to draw, multiple takes that exhaust some story possibilities and confuse others.

Dean Haspiel's art provides its own combination of unique interest and occasional frustration. The artist draws a fun New York rooftop, a refreshingly real-world attractive and physically present female lead, a fine rocky-looking Thing, pretty standard bad guys and some not-as-interesting side characters. At times the art pops off the page in fine, cartoon-energetic fashion -- Matt Madden's coloring flatters Haspiel's contributions throughout the series. At other moments it seems like Haspiel wants to put over events and people he hasn't quite nailed in terms of look and presence by jacking up the general energy and attitude of his figure drawing. In those scenes, characters lean into the action and their faces contort, designs feel arch and over-stylized. Gene Colan used to do something similar, but was throughout his career a more interesting illustrator than Haspiel. It rarely worked for Colan, either. One can also sniff out a potential slight disconnect between dialogue and art. For instance, one major plot revelation regarding the nature of someone's death comes in dialogue after the fact, the kind of thing a writer might do to resuscitate an idea lost earlier in a scene. This has a deleterious effect on the way the story is paced. Without a dramatic counterpart in the scene itself, the act of picking up such information distracts greatly from the emotional arc present at the story's end. Haspiel's art is really effective in the date scenes and less memorable depicting the Thing's lonelier encounters with the title neighborhood. Haspiel has an obvious knack for depicting person-to-person physical relationships and the energy level dims whenever a character goes solo or the impact of their presence has to be spread out over a group. One hopes the artist will receive future opportunities to work through these crucial subtleties.

Despite stand-alone moments of admirable craftsmanship and appeal, The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street reinforces the argument that Jack Kirby's characters cannot handle the weight of thematic accrual as well as they can military press a giant piece of groovy-looking machinery. By story's end several plot elements have blown up in the Thing's face; you may not get through issue #2 before you feel that something has begun to fizzle out in yours.

Thoroughly Modern Morrison

A much goofier take on superhero source material can be found in Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones' Marvel Boy, a little talked-about mini-series from the front end of the New Marvel era signified by Joe Quesada's assumption of the Editor in Chief position and his subsequent recruitment of writing talent. Marvel Boy was collected in a trade paperback in 2001, putting it close to the beginning of the slightly-friendlier-to-bookstores era at Marvel as well. Grant Morrison went on to a long run on New X-Men good enough it was immediately dismantled on his departure while Jones is perhaps best known for his current work on Mark Millar's bad-guy soap opera Wanted. A minor key adventure story that wears its underlying lack of profundity like cotton boxers beneath rubber pants, Marvel Boy is a textbook example of less is more, even in terms of its publishing history. A planned sequel never came off, giving the book a disposable and energetic sheen unfettered by explanations, explications, and one too many fight scenes.

The stand-alone nature of the book recalls the first, brief Marvel Boy series from 1950. It ran a whole two issues at a time when Martin Goodman's comic book company spent a few years experimenting in off and on fashion with the superhero genre, partly it seems as a matter of running every genre up the sales flagpole, and partly in hopes of a revival that might lend a ready-for-television sheen to some of their more classically popular characters. The second issue of the first Marvel Boy was one of Bill Everett's odder efforts during a long and mostly under-appreciated career. Everett, like Charlie Biro, dabbled in two-dimensional, personality-driven superhero stories before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched the billion-dollar Marvel entertainment empire with the technique in the early 1960s. If Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner stories leaned towards a harder-than-industry-standard pessimism about man at his jerkiest, the cartoonist's issue of Marvel Boy fully embodied Cold War stress disorder at its bomb shelter craziest. The decidedly loopy qualities of Marvel Boy's second set of adventures, its alien conspiracies and nuclear explosions, seem even more disjointed experienced through the rudimentary narrative structures favored by first generation comics creators like Everett. Such stories tended to unfold in uniform panel progressions no matter how many jumps in narrative there were, or how weird individual plot points might be in relation to what came before and after. This gave the wildest adventures the feel of an outlandish anecdote told in a creepy monotone, casting doubt on the sanity of the tale and the teller. Jack Kirby may have opened up the page at Marvel very early on for action, but by 1950 the King had yet to mix presentational styles in ways creators like Everett might have found extremely useful.

Coming of age in the 1970s, Morrison has long enjoyed access to storytelling strategies that effectively communicate the weird and disjointed. Many believe the writer responsible for introducing several of these techniques to American comic book readers through works like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. But unlike the central role the bending of reality plays in those more ambitious serials, in the Marvel Boy mini-series oddness serves mostly as a flourish. Morrison displays uncharacteristic restraint in Marvel Boy. The overriding emphasis seems to be on making certain everything works first as a comic book adventure story rather than as an idea virus, magic spell, pop culture cluster bomb, or whatever grandiloquent description writers like Morrison use for comics that goose superhero formulae with a formal twist and one or two declarations about the state of reality.

By making less obvious the stabs at relevance and deeper meaning, particularly those he sometimes attempts through sentiment and affectation, Morrison with Marvel Boy hewed closer to the Lee/Kirby model of superhero storytelling than anything he had done to date. It is a good fit. What the series resembles most closely is the later, Kirby-dominated and slightly tossed-off seeming issues of Fantastic Four. Like Kirby, Morrison focuses on the weirdness of the superhero concept itself, leaving many of the out-there science fiction ideas, the bizarre combat technologies and hints of radical, identity-focused politics, to sizzle at the perimeter of the page. When Marvel Boy digs into these ideas head-on, like in #3's "living corporation" story, the result feels more like Morrison is having fun with a pretty standard, straight-forward way of doing satire than slipping a semi-shocking point or two under the radar. That's the Stan Lee effect, particularly the way dialogue is used to deflate the seriousness of the action. Sometimes the concepts don't work -- the At its heart, Marvel Boy is a light science fiction story with a lot of punching, kicking and blowing things up. The pages are filled with bright colors and attractive figures, the leads are handsome, the villains are monstrous, and if there are a number of smarter than average details to keep the reader on the page when the eye drifts away from the action in the foreground, that has to be good for the bottom line.

Morrison avoids getting bogged down in details. World-building elements accrue to describe the setting; they never consume the reader's attention as things unto themselves. The main character is Kree, one of the standard Marvel Comics alien races, and he uses a computer with the face of Roy Thomas-era super-villain The Supreme Intelligence of the Kree. The villain Doctor Midas wears the old Iron Man armor, and name-drops the Baddoon (the half-naked and surprisingly dull-witted eventual conquerors of Earth from the Guardians of the Galaxy serial). Readers glimpse a trophy room in issue #1 that is filled with Marvel alien paraphernalia. Reed Richards' name flits by on a newscast, Dr. Doom's rolls off a prison guard's tongue and Marvel's super intelligence agency SHIELD serves as a recurring foil. All of this suggests a pretty standard "alternate universe" trope, or another potential sideways upgrade of the standard Marvel "universe" reminiscent of what Kirby was asked to do by bringing his Ancient Astronauts series The Eternals into Marvel's company-wide storyline. This plays in very clever fashion into one of Morrison's favorite subjects. In many of Morrison's comics, one has to be appropriately fabulous before the bad guys become revealed to you at all. For most of us common folk, the bringers of destruction to soul and free will are merely a comfortable status quo. Victory over evil thus involves replacing our accepted reality -- or as he hints in this comic, Marvel's -- with a better one, such as that enjoyed by an advanced space traveling civilization.

The way Morrison sidesteps the insidious traps of the here-but-maybe-not-here trope is by jacking up the thrills and spills. There is little to no unpacking of the tedious realities or a course in comparative relationships between Marvel Boy's world and the more familiar license-filled homes of socky-zappy. The theme of replacing one world with another comes up explicitly only at series end, avoiding overexposure and excess scrutiny. Tiny clues as to where we are and why scurry off into the corner as if they desire to avoid the beatings and explosions, as if they know they are unnecessary to understand the work and are perhaps beside the point when it comes to appreciating it. One also gets the feeling that Morrison and Jones may have been hedging their bets as to exactly where the story takes place so as to better fold it into any future editorial-driven directions that might hold sway at the House of Ideas. If true, one might applaud the creative team's willingness to provide their sparkly jumpsuit of a comic book with the equivalent of removable epaulets.

Grant Morrison channels Stan Lee's savvier qualities in several ways throughout, none more important than letting the strengths of his artist do most of the pulpy lifting. JG Jones is one of the most talented commercial mainstream illustrators of the post-Image comic book world. He lacks the distinct approach to human form and character design that someone like Frank Quitely brings to comics, but Jones outperforms Quitely in terms of finding the right tone for the moments between action set pieces and varying the pace once he gets into them. He controls the readers' eye by setting up dead spaces in one panel in a way that builds anticipation, and then in the following panel filling that empty area, usually while tweaking the readers' point of view. Thus no matter what the shape of the panels, or the design of the page, the reader can follow the action because they're drawn to specific representations within the larger piece of art work. It's a particularly good way to approach superhero comics because it drives one's attention to the human form. Jones' figure drawing approximates the effects of manga's energy and body extremes that many of the core Image artists pursued, without forcing the reader to confront grotesque moments of incompetent craftsmanship that stopped most early 1990s comics dead in their tracks. Jones is a pro.

Unlike superhero creative teams that get their most interesting moments out of ways in which they clash, Morrison and Jones work well together, teaming up to achieve effects of emphasis. For instance, the shiny, rubbery quality of Jones' costume designs adds greatly to what Morrison does to bridge the Lee/Kirby and Everett traditions of characterization. As written, main character Noh-Varr lies somewhere between early Reed Richards and the Sub-Mariner on the asshole scale of hero-dom; Jones underlines this by making Marvel Boy a great-looking jerk in a kind of biker shorts outfit that begs to be sideswiped by one's Lincoln. Noh-Varr's generally grating personality and punch-me look snatches from readers' hands the crutch of no-questions-asked superhero shorthand, the way many books sugarcoat the irksome reality lurking behind fantasies of effectiveness and moral certainty with comfortable totems of one's youth. This kind of character work is a uneven section of wood for any team of creators to walk, and Marvel Boy offers up at least one obvious genital-crushing slip: the female lead is an absolute bore. The prickliness shines through, however, and thus the general impression carries the day. Bill Everett's take on unpleasant men doing unpleasant things had to be tempered by Stan Lee's slippery faith in redemption to really hit it big with audiences. Grant Morrison and JG Jones failed to create a hit with Marvel Boy, the essential jerkiness of its cast of unknowns almost certainly playing a significant role.

That a comic book like The Ultimates finds a large audience, It's a Bird... hits upon a smaller one and books like Night Falls on Yancy Street and Marvel Boy quickly fade from memory suggests that today's comic book readers remain entranced by sublime moments over subversive ideas and reflections of movie reality over the tweaking of comic book icons and universes. Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel put an old spin on melancholy and Grant Morrison puts a slightly fresher one on self-transformation; Mark Millar and Steven T. Seagle remembered to get corporate permission first. U