Not that long ago, I bought a bunch of back issues out of a bargain bin: 100 comics for 20 cents each. I’m not quite going to review them all, but I would like to share some thoughts on a few series.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve read Infinity Inc. I have quite a few of the earlier issues, from the single digits into the teens. So I had some idea of what I was getting: serviceable action stories. They’re not the best thing I’ve ever read and Roy Thomas is a little past his prime, but they’re fun and they feature a number of characters that I’ve grown to like. This time around, I bought a bunch of issues in the 20s and a few in the 30s.
Unfortunately, I think Roy Thomas was starting to slip even more. There were some decent stories. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the introduction of Beth Chapel, who would become the new Dr. Midnight, and the re-introduction of Rick Tyler, who would become the new Hourman. They’ve always been noteworthy to me for having two of the worst costumes in a title renowned for bad costumes. I expected to dislike the characters as much as their clothes. Yet I didn’t. I was actually sympathetic to both of them. I also thought that Roy Thomas did an admirable job of incorporating the fall-out from Crisis on Infinite Earths by writing a story in which Fury remembered a world that no longer existed.
But for every decent story there was a bad one and, not just a bad one, a really bad one. One particular bad one was Infinity Inc. 22. An issue earlier, Roy Thomas had allowed the team to be spirited away so that they could participate in Crisis on Infinite Earths. This allowed Thomas to concentrate on the new heroes, Hourman and Dr. Midnight. With issue 22, Thomas picks up the story of the departed Infinitors. They’re on the Monitor’s monitoring station. And it’s an awful mess of a story. There are way too many scenes of the Infinitors standing around pointing out other heroes. Fury somehow mistakes the Earth-1 Wonder Woman for her own mother to, um, spell out the differences between Earth-1 and Earth-2. Hector Hall wonders why his parents, the Hawkman and Hawkwoman of Earth-2 are wearing older costumes. Older fans wonder why “continuity” is sometimes a dirty word and complain that DC’s multiple earth continuity wasn’t at all confusing. Well, Infinity Inc. is exhibit A. Roy Thomas seems to need to explain every costume change and every difference in continuity. It stops any story in its tracks, is really boring, and doesn’t even clear up that much. But that’s only part of the problem. Infinity Inc.’s rivals in Helix have also been spirited to the Monitor’s station. So they have an argument. A really long and pointless argument that fills up a lot of space but that doesn’t move the story along or tell us anything interesting about the characters. Plus, Helix is only a half-decent set of rivals. There’s one good character in there, Dr. Bones, though his rhyming scheme is incredibly annoying. There’re also a couple of awful characters, Baby Boom and Kritter. Finally, Thomas gets us back to Dr. Midnight and Hourman. Unfortunately, their story takes an uninteresting turn into a Crisis-inspired Civil War battle. Thomas may have written a great response to Crisis, with the Fury story, but he bungled his way through participating in it.
The other thing to note about these issues is that they happen to be Todd McFarlane’s entrance into the comic book biz. I’m not a big fan of what Todd McFarlane becomes but his style is very different on these early issues of Infinity, Inc. He’s not over-rendering musculature or warping facial expressions. His figures are actually fairly straightforward, following in the footsteps of Jerry Ordway who helped launch this title. However, McFarlane’s work on Infinity Inc. becomes noted for what he does with a page. McFarlane doesn’t simply illustrate the story. He works outside of the panels drawing symbols and icons and extra details. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this. “It seems like Todd was bored with the story.” That might be true, though you’d have to ask Todd McFarlane for the truth. “These extra details distract from the real story.” That’s occasionally true. A few of the machines and extra links draw our attention away from what’s going on and create clutter. Yet I like the inventiveness of it.
I’m reminded of later work by other artists. I liked how Chris Bachalo worked visual themes into his runs on Generation X and Uncanny X-Men, using apples and bubbles and crows to create a visual whole. One of my favorite issues of Generation X was one in which Jubilee was supposedly doodling in the margins and we got to see whimsical portraits of the other characters. Bachalo’s former inker Mark Buckingham does similar things on Fables, including icons at the top of each page and backgrounds behind the panels to help set the scene and remind us of the characters. Todd McFarlane was doing that as well. One of the best examples is the Fury story that I previously complimented. In the story, Fury remembers an adventure from her youth. The members of the Justice Society were going away to a state dinner and their children, who were all about ten years old, are left on their own. It’s a pretty good story as the young children wander around a big mansion, exploring and getting into a little bit of trouble. Yet it’s not a visually interesting story. McFarlane works outside of the panels, reminding you of the heroes that these children grow up to be and tying the past to the present. It works, augmenting the story rather than distracting from it. It doesn’t work every time, I’ll admit that. As I noted earlier, it can be clutter. But the bad issues are more the fault of the writer, Roy Thomas, than of the artist and his unique approach.
Wildstorm: The Kindred, Warblade, Wildstorm Rising and WildCore
I love ‘90s comics. If you’ve read my recent “Ranking the ‘90s Universes” column, you’d already know that. But at much as I love ‘90s comics, I acknowledge that there’s an absence of good villains. Whether it’s Ultraverse, Valiant or Wildstorm, all of the heroes seem to fight the same one or two villains. Those villains may be pretty good, but as a reader you get a little tired of seeing the same villains pop up in every story.
For Wildstorm, the big villains are the Daemonites, an alien race that has been at war for millennia with the Kherubim and have a not-so-subtle resemblance to demons. The biggest Daemonite is Helspont. He’s actually a pretty good villain. He’s unrepentantly evil. He has a great look; his forehead forks in two and blue flame erupts from the centre. And his motivations are clear enough that he’s even sided with the heroes when it helps his cause, as happened in the third series of Majestic. But as much as I liked Helspont, I thought he was a little lonely on the villain side.
I bought these three series because of the heroes like Grifter and Warblade and Backlash. And in that regard, I got what I was looking for. The Kindred paired off Backlash and Grifter. They may have worked together previously on Team 7 but they don’t have fond memories of each other. They forge an uneasy alliance and it’s as much to see them rile each other as it is to fight the bad guys. Warblade features not only the title character, but also Ripclaw from Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce. The two characters were established as friends in the crossover Killer Instinct and it’s nice to see them together again in a sequel of sorts. Wildcore came out several years later but it featured Backlash again, this time working with Zealot in putting together a team of mostly new heroes. I like seeing Backlash in this mentor role, and though I don’t know the new characters that well I was quickly growing fond of Brawl. So I was pretty happy reading adventures featuring some favorite characters and a few ones.
However, as much as I enjoyed reading about the heroes, these series surprised me in another way. They actually did a good job with the villains, showing that the Wildstorm world was more than just the good guys vs. Helspont. I thought that The Kindred would feature Backlash and Grifter vs. werewolves which while not the most original set of villains would be pretty fun. But the werewolves had a leader: Bloodmoon. This was a new villain to me and I was impressed. He had a great look: a red and gold color scheme with a skull mask and several other skulls on his shoulders and belt-buckle. Plus he had a personal connection to the heroes as a former ally who had felt betrayed by Team 7. Warblade introduced another villain, Pillar, who admittedly had a Daemonite connection. Yet Pillar wasn’t content to follow Helspont’s lead. Instead, he was creating a rival, almost terrorist group. And he was trying to up his powers. The result was an interesting transformation into a glowing, green creature, sort of like a cross between Dr. Manhattan and the ghosts in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Finally, Wildstorm Rising was a big crossover. As such, it did feature Wildstorm’s big villain Helspont. But it also featured Helspont’s main rival, Defile. I’d read a few Defile stories before, but none that featured him so prominently. And I liked the way that he was contrasted with Helspont, his big Viking horns standing out against Helspont’s fiery head. The crossover gave me a new appreciation for Wildstorm’s second-best villain. Indeed, these stories as a whole gave me a new appreciation for the Wildstorm universe. They had more interesting and visually arresting villains than I had previously given them credit for.
I read a lot of other Valiant titles before I tried X-O Manowar. I’m just not that big a fan of the man in the metal suit. Whether it’s Iron Man, or one of the many variations such as Hardware or Prototype, I’m just not that interested. But I knew, from reading several of their other titles, that Valiant was a quality company. And I knew that a lot of good artists worked on X-O, such as Mike Leeke, Joe Quesada and Bart Sears. So when I saw a run of nearly thirty consecutive issues in a bargain bin, I just couldn’t resist.
I’m glad I bought them. And I’m glad I read them, though it’s hard to explain why. When I describe the premise of X-O Manowar, it doesn’t’ sound good even to me. Here’s the situation. A Visigoth barbarian in the year 400 is abducted by aliens. Aric serves as a slave on one of their ships for years. He eventually steals a suit of armor that they’ve designed for their warriors. The suit, the X-O armor, bonds to him and he manages to escape. Due to the vagaries of traveling space at faster than light speeds, he returns to earth in the year 1990 rather than 400. He uses the suit’s abilities to wrest ownership of a multi-national corporation. He thinks that will allow him to live a life of luxury but it results in as many headaches as it cures. And he occasionally fights things wearing his suit of alien armor. Yeah, that’s right. An ancient barbarian wears an alien suit of armor and runs a multi-national corporation. I told you that it wouldn’t sound good.
And yet it is good. It’s really good. The title
doesn’t shy away at all from its lead character. He’s a barbarian and he deals viciously with
aliens, villains and corporate slimeballs. He’s decisive. He’s
forceful. He’s unlike any other
hero. He’s not an anti-hero like The
Punisher who knows that he’s stepping beyond the bounds of the law. He’s a barbarian trying to force his values
on a very different modern world. I
don’t know that I like Aric. But I am
fascinated by him, and by what he’s going to do next. It’s hard to describe. Yet I know two things: it’s not like any
other title I’ve ever read and it’s good. And when you’re buying comics for twenty cents a piece, that’s more than
( Originally Published at CaptainComis.us on April 6, 2007, Back Issue Bargain Bin Reflections)