Grotesque Anatomy
Monday, November 10, 2003
  Grotesque Gripes: AVENGERS/JLA #2 & ASM #500
Why is it I'm so behind the curve?  Not only do I get my comics later than everyone else, but I seem to arrive at the general consensus on things more slowly as well.  Case in point:  Avengers/JLA (or JLA/Avengers, depending which month it is) #2.  Back in October, I surveyed other reviewers' opinions on the first issue and thought many were being excessively harsh.  Now I've read the second issue and I'm beginning to think they were just quicker to spot the sluggish direction this mini-series is going in.

Things start out encouragingly with a much more dynamic cover than last month's group photo.  There's a helpful summary of the story so far on the inside cover, and the issue begins by giving a little more detail into the conversation between Krona and the Grandmaster, which set events into motion.  So far, so good, but then we run into a big roadblock on page 3:  Who the heck is the floating cosmic chick?  Eternity's sister?  Eternity in drag?  Luckily, ComiX-Fan's annotations for #2 were there to inform me that this is "The physical manifestation of Kismet in the DC Universe."  OK, whatever; I know a lot less about the DCU than I do the minutia of the Marvel Universe.  Don't get bogged down by minor details; keep plugging along.

Next comes the superhero slugfest that got underway last issue.  There are some fun moments here, especially the banter between Flash and Hawkeye ("Purple Arrow" was especially fitting, given Hawkeye's repeated Squadron Supreme jabs).  Meanwhile, Batman and Captain America decide to find out who's pulling the strings while the other heroes fight.  While I can see Batman (or at least Morrison's version from JLA) using the others' fights as cover while he does his clandestine thing, I was taken aback by Cap's quick acceptance of Batman's plan, especially in light of Cap's worry last issue that the DCU heroes were "fascist overloads."  Didn't it cross Cap's mind that some of his teammates might be injured, or that Batman might be feigning cooperation in order to trap him?  And how does sizing up someone's fighting abilities reveal anything about their trustworthiness?  A bit of an awkward transition from the tone of last issue.

Although Captain America seems to have calmed down, Superman still appears to be acting out of character.  (Surest sign that Superman isn't quite himself?  He's quoting Spinal Tap.)   Even Superman's teammates continue to comment on his abnormal behavior.  So now I'm not sure what the point was in having these heroes act so oddly.  At first I thought it was perhaps Busiek's way of commenting on how these characters are the embodiments of their respective universes:  Transported into an alien universe, each begins to act in an alien manner.  But Cap's calm behavior in this issue while in the "other" universe seems to shoot down this theory.  Whatever the eventual explanation (mind control, possession, doppleganger switch during teleportation), the loss of symmetry seems to have weakened the impact of this device.

Speaking of heroes acting out of character, the Thing shows up in this issue to provide some comic relief.  The only problem is that it doesn't seem to be Ben Grimm's trademark gruff sense of humor.  He shows up in the Batcave and yammers on while Batman doesn't get in a single word.  It's a funny scene, contrasting Batman's taciturn demeanor against a much more gregarious character, but Grimm's nonstop chatter is more suited to a character like Spider-Man.  Even worse, the Thing's line that he's not needed "fer gumshoein'—even cosmic gumshoein'" only serves to draw attention to the contrived nature of the cast:  The Thing—who has handled plenty of cosmic affairs on his own and as a member of the FF—only declines to help because Busiek doesn't want him in this story, not because he'd rather lift things for Reed than save the universe.  So why does Busiek include the Thing at all?  Because of the promise to include every character who's ever been a member of either team, and Ben was a member of the West Coast Avengers for a short period.  (Reed and Sue, who were members of the regular Avengers team for several issues, also get a quick cameo for this reason.)  Busiek sacrifices a smoothly-flowing story for some comedy and character checklist completeness.

There were a couple other spots where I felt the story ground to a halt.  Any time Krona and Grandmaster would explain the rules of their wager, my eyes started glazing over.  ("So let's go over this one more time:  If you win, I'll leave your universe.  But if I win, you have to let me wear that darling yellow dress you have on!!")  And since the full plot has yet to be revealed, I know I have even more exposition to look forward to in upcoming issues.

Then toward the end of the issue, it seemed as though every other panel was a close-up of a hero wearing a shocked expression and exclaiming "WH--??"  After a while I lost track of who was being surprised by what.  An acceptable pacing device, but definitely overused here.

Although I found this issue frustrating overall, there were still some fun scenes for long-time fans:  Cap seeing the case containing the Jason Todd Robin costume and asking "You...lost a partner?"; Hawkeye grumbling that he didn't get a chance to square off against Green Arrow; Batman entering the Grandmaster's lair and commenting that he's "fought men with this kind of compulsion before, but never with this scope."  I also thought Perez's art was stronger in this issue, especially in the use of symmetrical page layouts to show the two teams' parallel actions throughout the story.  Check out pages 16-17, 24-25, 37, 38, 39, 47—some very nice stuff.

Next Issue:  The Amalgam Universe!! (?)

On the other hand, sometimes I feel I'll never be able to join in the conventional wisdom on certain books.  My impression is that most people are enjoying J. Michael Straczynski's run on Amazing Spider-Man but I've never been able to get into it.  I've read some of his earlier issues (either through Marvel's DotComics or lucky bargain bin finds) but found them tedious.  But what find of fanboy would I be if I passed up a chance to read a double-sized (well, almost) 500th issue special of my favorite superhero?  So, yeah, I picked up ASM #500.

I'd hardly hit the first page when I already had several complaints.  A J. Scott Campbell cover?  Ugh.  I don't understand why people think his females are attractive; I think his female characters look hideously distorted.  (His Mary Jane has been a featured image in the Grotesque Anatomy Hall of Shame before.)  OK, turn the cover.  Huh?  What the hell is going on??  Why is the Earth X Spider-Man in this comic?  Why does the young Peter Parker have a spider-shaped lamp?  "Happy Birthday, Part Three"???  Hey, doesn't Marvel do those recap pages?  I could sure use one now!  Aarrgh—way to plan for all those casual readers who will be picking this issue up because of the "500" on the front, Marvel...

Since I didn't read the issues leading up to this one, I have no idea why the future Spider-Man is being pursued by the police for manslaughter.  I have no idea who this Lamont character trying to talk Future-Spidey into surrendering is.  And I have no idea why Future-Spidey thinks committing suicide will be "better for MJ."  (Can't you just get a divorce if she's sick of your being Spider-Man?)  So this scene with Future-Spidey deciding to go out in a pointless blaze of glory eats up about seven pages of the (almost) double-sized issue.  From the future, we return to the past as we watch Spidey (with his present consciousness) relive several events from his earlier career, including yet another homage to the "pinned under rubble" scene from ASM #33 (didn't JMS just do something similar to this not too long ago?).  At first the idea struck me as lazy ("Hey, we don't even have to write any new scenes for this issue!  We'll just have Spidey relive his past!!"), but the execution isn't bad.  Watching a wiser, more experienced Spidey wisecrack his way through earlier events reminded me of something out of one of the better Buffy episodes.  Plus, we get to see JR, Jr's renditions of some classic Spidey villains.  (My only complaint is that JMS' lame villains are shoehorned in alongside the classic rouges' gallery.)

Spidey returns to the present, convinces the other heroes not to do something Very Bad, and Dr. Strange shows up to save the day.  Doc also presents Spidey with a special gift—five minutes with Uncle Ben (which is a treat for the reader, too, since the four-page scene is illustrated by none other than Jazzy Johnny Romita himself).  Yeah, I got a little misty-eyed seeing Peter finally unburden some of his guilt.  (And somewhere John Byrne read this scene and shed tears as well, but tears of anger:  "How dare they screw up Peter's motivation for being Spider-Man??  Idiots!!!  Looks like I'll have to step in to clean things up again....")

Actually, now that I think about it, this would make a very good ending point for the Spider-Man saga:  Peter, finally realizing that he is happy, deciding to continue as Spider-Man because he derives satisfaction from helping others.  Yeah, I think it makes sense to stop reading Spider-Man comics here.  I like this ending.

Thanks, Marvel.
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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