Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Spotlighting Marvel must-reads

Presenting a few more Marvel series that should grab your attention...

Iron Man: Extremis (2005-6) – an unmissable addition to the Iron Man canon, the lifelike art and gritty story of Extremis has been acclaimed for bringing the character up to date for a new generation. What is Tony Stark’s response going to be to a new generation of weapons technology? What is his attitude to his own tech, and what is his responsibility as a hero? Here we see the moral lines blurring for Iron Man as he tries to mix pioneering technology and big business with the intention of benefiting the world. The villain of the piece is surprising too – it’s not often that an ordinary US citizen is shown to hate his country for good reasons. Writer Warren Ellis elevates this one till it becomes an analysis of what Iron Man is doing with his life and how he hopes to help society through using dangerous technology.

House of M (2005) – This story stunned Marvel fans as it opened up a wealth of unpleasant possibilities for the future of the whole Marvel universe, by seriously affecting the tense mutant/human relationship. The Xmen, New Avengers, and others try to find a way to face the Avenger who turned bad – a powerful witch, who is now bordering on complete mental breakdown. Unfortunately she wields the power to alter reality, and successfully alters the memories of all but one of the heroes, and even the entire history of the world, as a form of self-protection. Interestingly, the story becomes a quest for truth and for revenge as heroes like the Xmen and Spiderman are not content with the new reality they have been given, and want the world changed back to how it naturally was, the one they have worked for and have families in. What struck me most about this eight-issue series was the huge potential it had to alter relationships between characters and the whole Marvel world, and write Bendis really knows how to pile up the shocks. My only criticism would be that occasionally the art layouts on the page need re-thinking as they actually get in the way of the story – oh yes, and I don't like how everyone looks mean and nasty all the time. The pencils and inks are pretty snazzy in places though; look at Cloak or Luke Cage and you’ll see what I mean. One final word on it: the main House of M series was accompanied by some fun connected miniseries, the best of which was Spiderman: House of M (beautifully painted), followed by the almost-manga-style Iron Man one.

Captain America (Jan 2005-present) – Another of Marvel’s “big guns”, this World War II hero stranded in our time has become interesting again in this action-packed series from Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. It is hard to resist the way the series examines its characters and their motivations, while providing an ongoing big-budget-movie espionage plotline, which takes our characters from Eastern Europe to Paris to the southern states of the US as the try to get ahead of businessman and terrorist Lukin, and the enemies and plans left behind by the deceased Nazi criminal the Red Skull. Here’s a snippet of Brubaker’s own thoughts on the character of Captain America and whether he is relevant today: “Captain America isn't some partisan tool. His history as a character since the mid-'60s shows that. He can call a lie a lie, and he doesn't care which side the liar is on. I think the United States really needs an icon without those partisan blinders on right now, more than ever.” (from - you can check out his new noir Marvel project there too.)

Fantastic Four: The End – Brit superstar artist Alan Davis both wrote and pencilled this brilliant mini-epic in 2007 and it quickly became one of my favourite stories of the year. Incredibly in such an explosive and colourful six issues it manages to get to heart of what made the Four such a likeable team and family in the old Jack Kirby and Stan Lee stories from the sixties (which by the way, are interesting both as comics history and as well-crafted and charming stories in their own right). In fact you really might want to check out the first 10 or 15 or more issues of Fantastic Four before you read it, as a lot of classic villains and other Marvel characters turn up. The plot is roughly as follows: In the future the Fantastic Four have split up after a battle with their nemesis Dr Doom, in which Reed and Sue’s children are killed. The lives they now lead are wildly different, as the universe is different, owing to Reed’s political power and his latest inventions, including something called the Methuselah treatment, which has given humanity long life. Johnny (the Human Torch) is now leader of the Avengers, having finally grown up enough to take the role, while Reed (Mr Fantastic) is now an obsessive worker, and neglects his former friends and estranged wife Sue. The story revolves around the way they have treated one another and dealt with their past traumas and where hope for the future can be found when new threats arise from alien races from the Fantastic Four’s history.

On reflection, it is interesting how youth is idolised here, amidst all the fantasy –children again and again are the ones to live and provide for, and, in this optimistic view, humanity will be saved by them. I guess this is refreshingly different from the UK’s culture of general pessimism and anxiety about our youth – but a similar feelings can be seen here in child-obsessed mums and overworked dads who live to provide for their children and to keep them safe. How are we to answer this culture? Right now, I don’t pretend to know!

That's a wrap for today - before long I will be posting on projects by some of my favourite comic writers, including JM Straczynski, Alan Moore and that utterly crazy Scotsman Grant Morrison. Oh and look out for some non-comic-related posts too! For now, enjoy some more great Marvel cover art, and feel free to leave comments on my very opinionated posts.

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