April 13th, 2010
SHIELD no.1 Marvel Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver
The high concept of this series is basically that SHIELD has always existed as an agency to protect humanity from super-powered and cosmic threat, and that our best and brightest minds have worked for SHIELD throughout history, a roster that includes Galileo and Leonardo DaVinci. Pretty spiffy really, and the scope for fun and hi-jinks is readily apparent. Writer Jonathan Hickman has given himself a wonderfully large palette to play with.
And it’s pretty fun. It’s hard not to like a comic that features Galileo aiming a large magnifying glass cannon at Galactus, or Leonardo DaVinci in a time-travelling flight suit. Hickman knows what makes a certain kind of comic fan tick, and provides moments guaranteed to raise a broad smile on the face of even the most jaded spandex-fan.
The main narrative strand concerns Leonid, the latest recruit in the 1950′s incarnation of SHIELD, and his whistle-stop induction into the organisation allows Hickman to bounce merrily through time giving us Celestials, ancient Egypt and Renaissance cosmic weaponry. Narratively this is a bit clunky – the dry intonation of the SHIELD elders is a tad portentous and, one suspects, empty of real content. But the comic whips along at a cracking pace and can’t be faulted for it’s lack of ambition. It’s the latest in a line of superhero comics that Marvel is producing, along with Fraction’s Iron Fist and Aaron’s Ghost Rider that aim for the crazed intensity of Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby’s finest hours, with a healthy dose of post-modern nous and widescreen operatics.
Now I’m pretty divorced from both Marvel and DCU comics at the moment, so I’m not sure whether the comic is loaded with references to Dark Reign and all that other stuff, but the comic reads pretty succinctly on it’s own. Which for a first issue is pretty much a must. Recent launches like Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain were, to my mind, totally hamstrung by their incorporation in a larger story-line. It’s constricting, limiting and doesn’t allow a comic time to establish it’s own voice or identity. SHIELD is a comic that’s certainly steeped deep in Marvel mythology and continuity, but more importantly it’s a big, fun, and intriguing comic that you can pick up blind and still appreciate. Hickman holds enough of his cards close to his chest so that we can’t be entirely sure who to trust from the outset, and provides some lashings of mystery in the peculiar figure of Leonid’s errant father and his morally fuzzy agenda.
As an aside – not entirely sure whether Agent’s Richards and Stark are supposed to be the father’s of their similarly named contemporary Marvelites, but it might just be a bit too pat if that’s the case. One of the many lessons learned from the mistakes made by George Lucas in his St* W*rs prequels was an obsessive need to tie everything together to a frankly ludicrous degree, with the effect that a huge universe becomes small and piffling. I don’t particularly need Iron man and Mr Fantastic’s destinies to have been always intertwined – I like the idea that it’s a random cataclysm that causes these weird and disparate figures to come tumbling into being. But that’s a minor gripe. For now SHIELD remains a fun boisterous read with extremely attractive artwork from Dustin Weaver. His fluid detailed art is adept at depicting the wonders of a Celestial in ancient China, or a zero gravity gunfight in SHIELD HQ. There’s an appealing European grace to some of his line-work. I’d prefer a bit more gee-whizz colour, but that just isn’t the case in Marvel’s current ‘black-ops’ palette it would seem.
I award this comic 4 brains out of 5.
WEIRD WORLD OFJACK STAFF no. 2 Image Comics Paul Grist
With irony so thick you can spread it on toast, Paul Grist’s latest editorial in Jack Staff bemoans the dour samey-ness of most superhero comic covers while simultaneously sporting an extremely generic cover by perennial un-favourite Ian Churchill. For shame! Part of Jack Staff’s appeal is the fact that it’s all guided by Grist’s unique and strong design sense. There’s something deeply wrong about seeing a beefy spandex version of JS on the cover with a pouting busty Becky Burdock. Boo!
That aside, it’s another issue of Jack Staff. Which means some of the most delightfully idiosyncratic comic art on the racks, stellar page layout, and yet more overly convoluted storylines and temporal hop scotching. I think I get what Grist is aiming for with the latest incarnation of JS, a kind of intertwined multipart story that utilises the ‘boys weekly’ format so beloved of the UK comics industry. Each segment is part of its own ongoing narrative that feeds into a larger overall storyline. And it sometimes works very well. Grist uses logos and splash pages to great effect and manages a great job of building up and juggling an expanding universe in the guise of a continuing story. But the problems, as have been noted before on the Mindless Ones, lie in the fact that there’s this strange feeling of lots going on whilst nothing happens at all. The fact that it comes out relatively sporadically doesn’t help, meaning that the comics themselves occupy a strangely static space, whilst still being extremely enjoyable as a comics reading experience.
Grousing about Grist’s undoubtedly excellent comic feels mean spirited to say the least – Jack Staff is a great and unique thing in the comics world: a vibrant, original British comic that pays homage to a virtually hidden UK comics heritage without lapsing into cosy nostalgia and in-jokes. But there’s no side-stepping the fact that it can be a slightly dissatisfying read. It’s so near to being amazing that it’s minor failings seem all the more disappointing.
But look. The fact is that you should be buying this. It looks great, Grist’s flat out one of the greatest comics artists working today – Mignola level good – and Jack Staff is basically tonnes of fun. Once again, you should be buying this.
4 brains out of 5.
SPARTA USA Wildstorm David Lapham & Johnny Timmons
If there’s one thing that Sparta USA is, it’s unique. It’s also pretty batshit crazy, but then I think after the tour de force of gonzoid apeshittery that was Young Liars, that was to be expected. As with the first issues, this poses more questions than it answers, and delves deep into the mystery of Godfrey MacLaine, the Maestro and the bizarre football worshipping town of Sparta.
It’s difficult to know what Lapham’s aiming for with Sparta USA. It seems to occupy the same queasy twilight unreality of Young Liars, where the only thing the reader can be sure of is that something isn’t right. It’s satirical in tone, but it’s not a simple allegory. It reminds me somewhat of Joe Lansdale’s Drive-In novels in it’s broad parodic version of twisted Americana, and more surprisingly has echoes of Michael Chabon’s children’s book, Summerland. That novel mashed together baseball and fantasy to present an engagingly contemporary children’s adventure, and while Sparta USA is most definitely not that, there’s a strangely similar tone. This is a comic where the return of an errant Quarterback legend as a giant red barbarian is not greeted with too much surprise by the inhabitants of the titular town. They just don’t want anything to interrupt the football.
It’s suitably trashy, definitely bizarre and basically a pretty unique read but it is sadly hampered by the art of Johnny Timmons. While notionally attractive, his clumsy photo-referencing and figurative stiffness get in the way of what the script is telling us. For example when we are told that Godfrey received ‘the beating of his life that night, we instead get a rather confused mish-mash of brawling figures with Godfrey posing like Conan in the middle of it all. Facial expressions are unclear and awkward and the effect can be disjointing, and not in a good way. The fact is that Lapham is best served when writing and drawing his own comics. He’s one of the most unfussy, clear storytellers in the business – one only needs to imagine how badly YL could have been de-railed by using a less capable artist. I don’t want to run down Timmons too much – he’s by no means terrible, (and it’s not like he’s alone in this crime – stand up Bryan Hitch) but nonetheless there’s something desperately unappealing about being reminded of Colin Farrell when reading a comic.
I suspect that a comic like Sparta USA is probably selling dick all – partly because it’s such an oddball proposition, and partly because Wildstorm has become a graveyard for low selling comics. This is a shame, as anything that Lapham puts out tends to be more interesting than a whole lot of other comics, especially weird creator owned stuff like this. And there’s something truly appealing about a comic where you really don’t have a clue where it’s headed. So I’ll be sticking with it, and I think you should too.
3.5 brains out of 5