16 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #004: Planetary #27

Introduction by Alan David Doane

You may recall that Planetary was to have been finished around the same time as the 20th century. It appears that time has finally come.

Planetary #27, the final issue of the sometimes-celebrated series by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday and Laura Martin, is here at last, and the subject of this week's Flashmob Fridays. In a post on his LiveJournal, Ellis reflected on the end of the series, saying "It’s a book I associate with bad times: protracted illnesses, big arguments...my physical collapse and months in bed, and my dad’s long illness and eventual death. All of these things are intertwined with PLANETARY for me, and make it difficult to enjoy the moment."

Of course, any individual is likely to suffer some setbacks and tragedies in any given ten year span, but it did seem at times like this particular comic book was cursed -- a phenomenon that would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that, at its best, it was one of the most exciting and beautiful adventure comics being published. Together with The Authority #1-12 with Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and (again) Laura Martin, these two series represent a pretty high peak for Ellis's writing powers and excellent comic books that are always worth re-reading and losing one's self in.

But of course, it's been hard to judge the series as a whole as long as this one, last issue remained unpublished. Now that it's in print, the TWC gang shares their thoughts on the epoch-ending issue.

Christopher Allen

I won’t be commenting on the long-awaited twenty-seventh and final issue of Planetary. I haven’t read it. But like a baseball player, you want to get your swings in, and the reason I’m not reviewing the final issue right now is what I wanted to write about.

Planetary and The Authority hold some meaning for me, as much as any superhero comic of the past decade. I first encountered both series in mid-1999. I hadn’t been reading comics for a year or two, having gotten married, bought a house, and tried to get serious about work. One day I noticed a nice-looking comics & collectibles shop in a strip mall in my new neighborhood, and went in, marveling at such things as busts of superheroes, and wondering what this card game was that the kids were playing at a table in the middle of the shop. Well, the need to read some new comics gripped me, and I looked over the shelves, which had new releases with prior issues underneath. Being out of the loop, I looked for some familiar faces. Hey, that looks like John Byrne art, and he’s doing my favorite character, Spider-Man in a kind of Year One thing? Cool! Hey, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

But I also noticed a couple other books, nearly jumping off the shelves with their stylish covers, and these were the two Warren Ellis series. I wasn’t reading many comics when Ellis made his earlier splashes in comics, so his name meant nothing to me at the time. But these books, they really had the look of the state of the art in superhero comics, and so I picked up the first couple issues of each (there were complete runs there) and read them that night. The Authority was a glorious kick up the pants to superheroes, with stories of real scope and consequence and a fresh attitude to solving them, while Planetary was an ingenious way to pull together every cool superhero/sci-fi/horror character or concept, with either some new tweaks or a good scrubbing to get them down to what made them cool in the first place.

The Authority was great, but it had already been out for a while when I discovered it, and Ellis was just about done writing it, a rare case of a comics creator making the perfect exit, but Planetary only had a few issues out when I started with it. I recall my boss at the time, who was my age, sharing a fondness for superheroes, and I soon lent him these books, making him an instant fan as well. As The Authority passed through many creative hands and with increasingly diminishing returns, Planetary kept going, and with generally good stewardship by Ellis, aside from some less-than-stellar one-shots.

Unaccustomed to paying for high-priced hardcovers, Absolute Authority and Absolute Planetary were nonetheless instant purchases for me. As they were state-of-the-art monthly comics, so too did they lead the way towards the boom in fancy slipcased editions. It was upon my purchase of these that I stopped buying Planetary on a regular basis. It’s not that I was disillusioned at all—I forget a lot of what I read, but several years on, The Drummer, Jakita Wagner and Elijah Snow are still there for me in my mind, along with certain scenes and dialogue. No, it’s just that I felt like the next time I read them would have to be in another Absolute edition. I didn’t want fifteen minutes of brilliance whenever Ellis and Cassaday could get together to make it happen, once a year or so. It’s really nothing on them; I’ve never been one of those guys who turns on creators for missing deadlines as long as the work’s good. It’s just that I set Planetary aside, a reward of hours of images and ideas to be enjoyed fully upon its completion. Various projects, illnesses and other difficulties aside, I really think this has always been a special book for Ellis and Cassaday, and that neither wanted to do it unless they could bring their best effort to it. And so, when the time comes, I will read it in the best format possible. A thank you to both for some great memories, and more to come.

Michael Paciocco

I had become largely bored and uninterested in comic books by the time I was twenty. Not surprising really; the adolescent power fantasies and melodramas that I was all too familiar with by the time had no longer anything to offer me except the promise of the same, and I was ready to move on out of comics. However, needing some kind of stimulation that wasn’t offered by mass media, it was a combination of boredom and experimentation that I picked up issues #3-6 of Planetary from the local comic shop.

So, it’s all Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin’s fault that I’m still buying comics at all nearly ten years later. And not just because I’ve been waiting for this particular issue either, although there were a few occasions where it certainly felt like it.

At the time I started reading the series, there was nothing like it, and that there still isn’t anything comparable to this is a credit to the creators, and the strength of their vision, despite the waxing and waning of the title over the years as various, sundry reasons, both professional and personal, diverted some of the energy and immediacy from this work. Still, it was worth the wait for this epilogue and endcap for the series.

Ellis’s best works are often obsessed with “A Finer World” and the efforts, sacrifices, compromises, and rewards of the quest to create them. In that sense, this finale represents a Platonic ideal of how such a world might come about. There’s a sense of unbridled optimism and selfless altruism that is absent in most of his other writing, which makes it all the more rewarding to examine and immerse oneself in. As an epilogue, it is more concerned with wrapping up various loose ends, some of them going back a decade (in publishing time). Most of the mysteries are solved, one is left wide open, and a few more are actually created.

It’s often been claimed (and by Ellis himself) that Planetary was his ultimate meta-story about the transformative powers of fiction, and comic books in particular. If that’s the case, I’ve long held to the belief that the core members of Planetary are metaphorical stand-ins for Ellis’s own instincts as a comic fan: the ‘mad idea’ lover, the action junkie, and of course, the puzzle-maker and problem solver as embodied by the acerbic and brilliant Elijah Snow. And this final issue is, like many of the best issues, a story about Elijah, about the quests that drive him, the decisions he make to better the world, and how much of the world and its wonders he’s willing to risk for the sake of making the world a more tolerable place.

I’ll make an admission here that I’m sad to admit -– I generally don’t like Cassaday’s art on other works, as there’s just no way for me to separate his visual style in my head from this series. I can’t think of any other artist that can create the rich tapestry of worlds that seem both old-fashioned in their opulence and at the same time incredibly advanced beyond our technical grasp. I hope that he enjoys a successful career in the years to come because I do admire his work, but it is as difficult for me to imagine this series as presented by any other artist as it is for me to see his work and not immediately think of his efforts on this series.

Laura Martin is the unsung hero of this series, and her palate here, as with the rest of the series, is as vibrant as it is necessary. Martin’s colors here and in the rest of the series has been essential in setting both the tone of the series, and in subtly bringing out characterization and mood in many of the defining sequences of the book; take a look at how a shadow never falls on Elijah’s white suit, and yet it never appears to glow or reflect light. There’s a dozen unique effects just like that in this issue alone, and hundreds more over the length of the series. Martin shows how vital color can be in a story, and that makes her as indispensable as anyone else on this book.

And so Planetary ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with the final pieces falling into place and locking together into a complete picture, as it should. I admit, I’ll miss this series, and I highly doubt we’ll see something like this from the Big Two for a long time to come. What I will miss more than this book though, was its effect on me – this series lead me to scour the net for good comics and for fellow fans to discuss the series with. It led me to Warren Ellis’s site, to that of other creators, to meet fans that I still talk to today, and of course, to Comic Book Galaxy. I will miss discussing the various mysteries and fan theories that circulated about the story over its long run, and I’ll miss the thrill of turning the cover of an issue to see something new and unexpected behind it. It was a strange world, and let’s keep it that way.

(But I think I know who the fictionaut really is, and if you’ve read the series carefully, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion. If you want to discuss it with me, feel free to contact me anytime...)

Marc Sobel

Alright, let's get the issue of the delay out of the way first so we can get to the actual comic.

I've never been one of those fans who gets too uptight when a comic I like is delayed. I understand that drawing, inking, coloring and lettering hundreds of little panels takes time, and I'd much rather creators focus on making their pages as great as possible, rather than rush to meet some corporate-imposed artificial deadline. However, there is a limit to this philosophy. When an artist leaves a title unfinished to work on other projects, this seems unfair and disrespectful to the fans who supported the series. The reality is that this book is so delayed (issue #26 came out nearly three years ago), that I have little to no recollection of what was going on in the story, and to really get back into it would require going back and re-reading the series, which is a time commitment I'm not willing to make right now.

The whole issue is basically a rescue mission to save Ambrose from some kind of time vortex he sealed himself in right after being shot. Unfortunately, I remember very little about who Ambrose is, what happened to him, or why it's so important that the others rescue him. Although there was undoubtedly a lot of context I'm forgetting in those earlier issues, the opening pages of this final chapter do little to recap what went before. One would have thought, given the delay, that it would have been common sense to add a "Previously in Planetary..." style recap before launching into this final chapter, but unfortunately, there is nothing. The script also suffer from an overwhelming amount of pseudo-science, the kind of made-up techno-jargon that sounds like it could almost be real, except that it's actual meaning lies just beyond your grasp. It's like your typical Grant Morrison comic, strung together with ideas that almost make sense, but never quite coalescing into a coherent, believable concept. What is "quantum foam?" "Chernekov radiation?" "Super-massive frame dragging?" These are just a few examples of the physics-based techno-babble that weigh-down the first half of the book. In that sense, the story is alienating and confusing.

All that being said, John Cassaday delivers in a big way. Cassaday is the best artist Ellis has ever worked with, and he's worked with some pretty good ones. The artwork in this final issue is superb! In fact, it's THE highlight, and for fans of Cassaday's work, it was worth the long wait. The amount of attention paid to every tiny detail, and the architectural precision throughout is impressive. There's also some exceptional coloring in this issue. I find most digital coloring in mainstream comics to be overwrought and eye-numbing, washing out the linework rather than enhancing it, but Ellis's script calls for bright, popping colors, crackling off the page like raw energy, and to that end, Laura Martin delivers in spades. Her electric, neon colors jump off the page in places and go far beyond just filling in the spaces demarked by the linework.

Overall, I didn't think this final issue was anything amazing, though the artwork was certainly worth the price. I suppose it was good enough to make me want to go back and re-read the series again (though I doubt I will anytime soon), and that's perhaps the best compliment I can pay it.

The rest of the issue features a 6-page "sneak peek" of Victorian Undead, and the generic title tells you pretty much all you need to know about this creatively bankrupt concept. It's yet another zombie book, this time set in Victorian England and from the preview, it looks like a hideously-colored atrocity, regurgitating the same old cliched zombie crap as if a new setting could somehow magically reinvigorate this exhausted genre. I hope it's better than it looks in this preview, but I kinda doubt it.

09 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #003: Haunt #1

Christopher Allen

Haunt may purport to be a gritty supernatural adventure comic. It may even purport to be fun. But what it is, is a creatively bankrupt exercise in coming up with a new action figure/cartoon/movie property with a lot of corrupt pieces stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. To carry the monster analogies onward, old vampires McFarlane and Capullo have gotten younger talents Kirkman and Ottley to give them some fresh blood. I honestly wonder why a guy like Kirkman, who is a good writer at times, would willingly give up months (at least) of his time on something so ugly and trashy as this. Marvel Zombies is pandering, but at least it’s entertaining. Haunt is the kind of book that knocks writers off the Cool List because its cynicism is so transparent it breaks faith with the fans.

Starting the story with a priest finishing up a round of sex with a prostitute is just the kind of thing to let readers know we’re dealing with a bunch of immature men trying to be edgy, especially with the addition of other trite signifiers of the priest’s degradation as having him curse frequently, have beard stubble, and Heaven Forfend—he smokes, too! Surely the Image “Director’s Cut” edition of this issue will have a scene of him dipping his balls in the baptismal font.

Shifting into flashback mode, we see the priest’s brother (no, I don’t remember the character names and don’t care to read it again to find out) as a mercenary or black operative with a conscience, killing the Mengele-like scientist he’s supposed to rescue, and getting killed in turn for spoiling the mission. If the earlier priest scene hadn’t been so loathsome, this scene might have worked a little better, but as it is, I was already repulsed by the sourness of the story and the juvenile dialogue.

All is not lost, however, as the final scene is unintentionally hilarious. The priest, who has been haunted by the ghost of his brother, is shot by killers who have come to the brother’s widow’s house to silence her, suddenly merges (with his brother) into a supernatural creature with more than a passing resemblance to Marvel Comics’ Venom. McFarlane has a thing about widows of killers, I guess; hey, it worked for Spawn. It then dispenses some sticky—one might say ectojismic—vengeance to the would-be assassins. The funniest part is when the priest, still in this new Haunt guise, calls out to his brother and finds he’s right there, sharing the same body, and he says, “I guess I’m not crazy after all.” Because when you have changed into a supernatural being with extraordinary, apparently easy to master bukkake powers, and you find this creature also contains the soul of your dead brother, the first thought is going to be relief that you are not, in fact, a raving lunatic. Aw. Ful.

Mick Martin

I was pleasantly surprised at the story quality of Haunt. It's not great, but it's not horrible. While I've enjoyed his work on The Walking Dead Kirkman's Marvel work was largely disappointing, and while I didn't hate it, the few issues of Invincible I checked out didn't convince me to keep reading.

Other than that, there's little about Haunt I liked. I didn't hate it, but it didn't impress me either. The concept seems like a tired mix between Brother Voodoo and Spawn (I think I already heard about a McFarlane project regarding an undead hero who used to be a covert-ops soldier and I don't know why covert-ops soldiers are the only guys who get to be undead heroes - Maybe they get that in lieu of a scholarship?). I didn't like the fact that there was hardly anyone in the story I felt sympathetic towards. The covert-ops brother does something supposedly brave and morally "correct", but I couldn't help thinking it was an act made A) out of a sense of self-righteous indignation B) by a character who murders random strangers on the orders of his superiors.

Two things about the art. First, while I know taking potshots at McFarlane is hardly original, I have to say it's very unimpressive that the guy couldn't - or wouldn't bother to - draw a character on the first issue's cover that didn't look like Spider-Man. I mean, the guy is NOTHING like Spider-Man, thematically or physically. But I look at the cover, and all I see is Spider-Man.

Second, the main character's costume was I think, for me, the final nail in his coffin. The costume looks horrible. It isn't even that it looks like a bad design - it looks lazy and unfinished. It looks like they came up with it in 5 minutes and never looked back.

Alan David Doane

Marvel's Venom meets 24's Jack Bauer in this unpleasant and unattractive new mess from Image Comics. Writer Robert Kirkman has the chops to create a comprehensible story, which is more than you could say for almost all of the original Image creators, so it's not like this is as unreadable as most of the comics with Todd McFarlane's name attached; but the look here is solidly 1990 Image, with all the overwrought scowls, gory action and speedlines-as-background that that implies.

More than anything one gets the sense that McFarlane felt it was time Image cash in on whatever part he had in the "creation," of Venom all those years ago, so there's a lot of angst, Catholic guilt trips and uninteresting reveals on the way to the new fake Spider-Man/Venom avatar getting up and making McFarlane Spidey/Venom poses. Haunt seems to be composed of milk or possibly semen, which splurts in the air webbing-like from the areas of impact where he is shot, while his Venom-like claws tear the heads off personality-free bad guys specifically created to have their heads torn off.

I would have thought at this late date that the bad comics I don't want to read would have moved on from material like this, but no, here it is, it's 1990 all over again. If you're feeling nostalgic for the lousy titles Image crammed the racks with in the early 1990s, most of which now crammed into quarter bins across the nation, then by all means, pick this up. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

Matt Springer

When I was thirteen, Image Comics was the bomb. McFarlane, Lee, even iefeld...that's what I was all about. I stood in line in a tent at Chicago Comicon in the early nineties to get Todd McFarlane to sign a copy of an old Quasar issue featuring his pencils on the cover.

It's been years since I followed Image closely at all -- I'm talking the core Image creators and characters, of course. I buy Image books all the time; they've evolved into a terrific and diverse publishing label that has several interesting books on the schedule month after month, from miniseries like King City and Underground to ongoings like Chew, Godland, Age of Bronze, Elephantmen...the list goes on. They might be the most "game" publisher in comics right now, willing to take risks with one-shots and miniseries that often pay off with strong critical and cult hits.

Haunt is a new book co-created by the newest Image partner, Robert Kirkman, and an original partner, Todd McFarlane. It's got Greg
Capullo on layouts and Ryan Ottley on finishes; McFarlane inks and provides a cover. It's an absolutely Image book, in the old-school sense. Lots of crosshatching, gratuitous violence, breasts the size of bowling balls, and heaploads of "bad ass" such as a priest who hires prostitutes and a doctor who mutilates living people. The concept is reminiscent of Spawn, in that it's another dead-guy-rises-again-for-vengeance bit, except the dead guy is possessing his living brother's body to become who I assume is the titular hero -- he's not named in the book.

Kirkman is a writer whose stuff I sometimes enjoy, and other times don't; certainly I respect most of what he does, even if it's not my cuppa. Even McFarlane has had his moments; it may not be the most popular opinion but I liked his adjectiveless Spider-Man stuff for what it was. I...don't respect this much. I don't like it either.

There's occasional moments of blunt cleverness; I could see this concept having potential in other hands, even though honestly, it doesn't seem like the most original concept to me. Right now it's like Robert Kirkman is the first creator actually nostalgic for the "glory days" of Image style over substance, and the first one in a position to actually relive those days with a new book cut from the same cloth as the "classics." In many important ways, this is Spawn 2.0. I woulda loved it when I was thirteen. Today? It's not for me.

Johnny Bacardi

Oh, brother. Pun intended.

We've been blessed, so to speak, with a new Image Comic called Haunt, which is a collaboration between popular writer Robert (Walking Dead, Invincible -- but you knew that already, didn't you) Kirkman and wealthy baseball souvenir enthusiast and onetime comics artist Todd McFarlane, apparently born out of the latter's challenge to the former to stop playing with his balls and draw some more comics.

Of course, it's not really a total McFarlane art effort -- it's a Ghidrah of sorts, with someone (well known in some circles, I'm sure) named Ryan Ottley on layouts, then longtime stalwart Greg Capullo doing the penciling honors...after which the Toddster comes along and lays down inks. Where it goes next in this assembly line isn't made clear; the preview PDF I read didn't come with any actual credits. I can assume it's then Photoshopped, to give it that hightoned veneer that all comics of this stripe demand these days.

Kirkman's a decent enough scripter, although I got bored with Walking Dead after a dozen issues; here, I suppose the thinking is not to stray too far outside either's comfort zone -- there's a reason why the lead character(s) in all its costumed glory looks like Spawn's second cousin twice removed. It is a ghoul-ash of a number of different genres -- supernatural, action thriller, superspy, Catholicism, horror (with a nod to the mad doctors performing hellish experiments sub-category), and eventually superhero...and damned if it doesn't kinda work on its own terms. Of course, these terms are strictly of the straight-to-DVD, late night Cinemax kinda type, but Kirkman (despite some gratuitous profanity) thankfully doesn't get too pretentious with the dialogue, and truth be told Capullo has always been better than the company he usually keeps, and thus the layouts and pacing aren't showoffish and cluttered, keeping readabilty at a high level.

Which is not to say that I recommend this at all -- it's the kind of lowest-common-denominator supernatural superhero action horseshit that one would hope that comics outgrew years ago, but sadly doesn't seem to be the case. We've all seen this before, done better (and certainly done worse). However, if, like a mushroom, you thrive on this particular type of manure, then you will probably want to pick this up. That said, I think I'll decline to join you.

02 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #002: Incredible Hulk Annual #13

This week, the internet's premier Hulk aficionado Mick Martin called us all at the last minute and told us to weigh in on Incredible Hulk Annual #13, and here we go!

Mick Martin

Incredible Hulk Annual #13, or "Friends," is part of what Hulk fans have come to call the Crossroads Saga. In what was the first of a long series of Hulk personality juggling, Bill Mantlo gave Bruce Banner the ability to change back and forth between himself and the Hulk at will, only to take it away later via the machinations of Doctor Strange's enemy, Nightmare. The battle with Nightmare rendered the Hulk an almost completely mindless brute, even more destructive than before, leaving Doctor Strange with the sad duty of exiling the Hulk to a crossroads with seemingly endless pathways leading to different worlds. The one thing each world shared in common was that their inhabitants were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Hulk. The Hulk stayed in the Crossroads for nearly a year -- from Incredible Hulk #301 to #313 -- until Alpha Flight unwittingly fished him out, at which point the creative teams of Hulk and Alpha Flight switched chairs.

"Friends" is a fairly typical example of the stories Mantlo produced during the Crossroads era. Usually the Hulk would go to a world and find a damsel in distress or a new friend, and the story tended to end in death, betrayal, or both. I read this comic, along with the rest of the Crossroads Saga, as a child and by that point they were just about the most depressing stories I'd ever come across. By the time he emerged from the Crossroads to a bunch of very surprised (and soon very bruised) Canadians, it felt like finally getting home after the longest, crappiest work day of your life.

Compared to today's comics, "Friends" can feel pretty cheesy. With a Hulk who is -- for most of the story -- unable to even speak in his classic, monosyllabic, third-person caveman-tongue, the bulk of "Friends" reads like a strange nature program. The Hulk scrounges for food on a strange, alien planet while Mantlo narrates like Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins stranded on the Klingon homeworld. The narration is melodramatic, and sometimes awkwardly goofy. While it's clear we are meant to take the Hulk's plight seriously, it's difficult when Mantlo gets uncharacteristically silly with lines like "Amidst much guttural growling, the green goliath gorges."

The planet of "Friends" has only toxic food, and we soon learn the only way the Hulk can ingest the food is by being physically connected with the symbiote he calls "Sym." Sym, basically a crawling spine with fangs, attaches itself to the back of Hulk's neck after the Hulk angrily kills its original host. At first, the Hulk thrashes and fights to free himself from Sym. After learning he can finally eat the planet's food with Sym's fangs stuck in his neck, the Hulk accepts the creature's presence. For a while the two enjoy a tranquil life. The Hulk keeps healthy on the planet's food, Sym marvels at the feats the Hulk is capable of, and the two become friends. Unfortunately, when Sym's people learns he has merged with an alien, they demand he leave the Hulk. Sym refuses and the Hulk brings him to the top of the planet's tallest mountain where Sym can be the first of his people to see the stars. While the Hulk sleeps, Sym detaches himself from the Hulk, knowing if he doesn't that the Hulk will die. Distraught by Sym's death, the Hulk returns to the Crossroads.

In many ways, the story is unremarkable. Upon rereading it for this review, though, I realized that, if looked at in the right light, the story of Incredible Hulk Annual #13 could be seen as a highly compressed version of the character's entire history up to that point. As I wrote earlier, "Friends" is typical of the Crossroads stories. In each, the Hulk tends to find a friend who is either dead or an enemy by the end of the story. Where "Friends" differs is that the friend Hulk finds is a symbiote -- a creature who is literally, physically one with Hulk for most of the tale. And the idea of a symbiotic relationship is nothing new to the Hulk. He'd had one with Bruce Banner for years. Like on Earth, when the weaker half's people learned of what had become of him, Sym's race hounded them. Just as the Hulk had, for a time, found peace and unity with Banner, he ultimately accepted the presence of Sym. Eventually, Sym dies and leaves the Hulk alone, just as Banner "died" (the same way all comic book characters die). In fact, while Sym is still attached to Hulk, the green goliath regains his limited "Hulk like SYM!" speech, which he lost after Banner's "death" and loses again after the death of Sym.

The Crossroads stories perplex me and "Friends" is no different. Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is not a story I would automatically think to pluck out and read. In many ways, Mantlo's Crossroad stories are simply not good. But they stay wedged in my mind and I can't help but think there was something desperately important he was trying to say with them.

Alan David Doane

Gerry Talaoc was one hell of an inker, to be able to bring the sort of life to Alan Kupperberg's pencils that he did here. The book is absolutely average for the period in terms of both story and art, but I remember disliking virtually everything Kupperberg ever drew, so the fact that this book looks as atmospheric and professional as it does is a minor miracle, and one I attribute to Talaoc's gifts.

Bill Mantlo wrote a lot of Hulk comics in the 1970s, and I'm sure I read most of them, but nothing really resonates with me in this story, or in trying to evoke my own memories of reading Hulk comics when I was a pre-teen or into my early teens. It lacks the energy and punch Sal Buscema brought to the book during the time I was reading it and liked it (around age 9), not that Buscema's art ever rose much above the level of simple, effective storytelling.

I will say there's a damn lot of words in this issue, most of which I couldn't bring myself to bother to read after the first handful of pages, but that the tone of struggle and loneliness and making a connection with another soul probably would have moved me when I was 8 or 9 years old. It's too bad Marvel can't be bothered to create these sort of entry-level melodramas for young readers today, churning out instead the simplified "Adventures"-style of storytelling that DC has always been better at (in print and on TV), or the faux-mature stylings of Bendis and his colleagues. That this sort of comic isn't attempted -- or probably even possible -- anymore, is probably a major reason why kids aren't attracted to Marvel (or DC) comics in the 21st century.

Johnny Bacardi

Sometimes, one's opinion of any sort of creative endeavor, be it music, film, or even a comic book story can be influenced or informed by nostalgia or one's own experiences at the time of initial exposure; as a case in point, I offer my own example: the mix of the music on the second album by the Electric Light Orchestra, new to me at the time and which I listened to as I first read DC's 1970's Shadow #2 (also, a very early exposure to the art of Mike Kaluta as well) at age 13 have combined to form an unbreakable bond in the murky recesses of what passes for my mind. I'm sure everyone has similar experiences.

This phenomenon was what went through my mind when we were given this week's Flashmob Friday "assignment" of commentary on 1984's Incredible Hulk Annual #13, which came out at a time during which I had pretty much given up on buying Marvel Comics, which had become Shooterized (analogous to Pasteurized) to the point of bland homogeny, the occasional Miller Daredevil, Simonson Thor or Byrne Fantastic Four notwithstanding. I also have never really been much of a Hulk reader, either; I read a few issues here and there as a preteen, and didn't mind seeing him pop up in other comics that I read, but as the '70s wore on the book seemed to devolve into five hundred consecutive issues in which he's constantly hunted and hounded and fighting the super villain of the month and being called "Jade-Jaws", many written by Len Wein, who had just a couple of years before thrilled me with his Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger and Justice League efforts at DC but had somehow been reduced to another imitation Roy Thomas Marvel hack after crossing the street; and each and every one drawn by consummate pro Sal Buscema, featuring the Hulk with a gaping mouth equal to the length of his head. I wanted none of it, and I never saw anything as the '80s came on that changed my opinion, so it's no wonder that I was completely unfamiliar with this particular issue, and was a bit surprised to see it offered up for our examination.

Oddly enough for an annual, it seems to take place in between issues of the regular title; intended as a supplement I suppose. Apparently the Hulk has completely eliminated all traces of Bruce Banner from his psyche and has been sent "elsewhere" by Dr. Strange (hey, they kinda did the same thing in World War Hulk! Oh the relevance to current events!), to a Ditkoesque (or actually, an approximation of Jim Starlin's version of a Ditko-like otherdimensional realm, but more on that later) realm where he can follow each path to a different destination, ostensibly to find one in which he can find "happiness," just as long as it's not on our Earth apparently. Doc Strange has woven a mighty spell, as it also allows for a failsafe in that if Hulky is unhappy in whatever world he lands in, it will automatically send him back to Ditkoland, presumably for another chance. He's not alone in Ditkoland, either; there are some mysterious floating glowy puffballs that are also striving to make Hulky happy in between travels, guess they're kinda like Motel 6 mysterious floating glowy puffballs. Anyway, after landing in a world full of acidic rain and dinosaurs that he can't beat up, he ends up going to another realm in which all the food is poisonous, but the animal life survives thanks to chalky white wormish parasites, that look like big spinal cords and enable their hosts to eat and survive in exchange for mobility. Of course, one latches on to the Hulk, and they eventually get to know each other and strike up a friendship of convenience. Wormy longs to see the sky and stars, and Hulk is all too happy to help him in this goal, although the results end up tragic, as you knew they would. Then, an abrupt and somewhat downbeat ending, which curiously reminded me of the old children's book Goodnight Moon.

Now what exactly writer Bill Mantlo was striving for here is unclear (to me, anyway)...is he trying to set Wormy up as some sort of muse figure, or perhaps imagination/inspiration, enabling the Hulk to survive in this hostile environment? He's not particularly written as inspiring, nor does he really inspire much sympathy. Perhaps Wormy is intended to represent something more mundane, like a brawn needs brains to be able to glimpse the stars sort of thing. Perhaps it's something that's obvious to everyone but me, who knows. Mantlo's prose is excessively melodramatic, as so many Marvel writers (and to be fair, more than a few DC scribes as well) tended to be back then -- we're a million miles away from the terse dialogue and caption style of your Moores and Ellises. It progresses decently enough, and kept me reading until the end in order to find out what was going to happen, but the payoff wasn't especially memorable to me. Artwise, it was drawn by Alan Kupperberg, who labored anonymously for Marvel during the Shooter regime to little lasting effect; if he had a recognizable style, he used it on his own work because it sure didn't look anything but generic on the few Marvel books I saw with his work. On this issue, he apes Jim Starlin in very convincing fashion; in fact, before I checked the credits I thought it WAS Starlin. So nicely done on that front, Mr. K! Inks were provided by my old pal Gerry Talaoc, whom I always considered an above-average part of the whole Filipino/South American artist movement of the '70s on DC books like Star-Spangled War Stories featuring The Unknown Soldier and Phantom Stranger. Here, he's pretty much subsuming his style to help further Kupperberg's Starlin illusion; I think he succeeds, for what that's worth.

All of which brings me back to my opening paragraph, and our individual, subjective impressions regarding the stuff we put in our heads. I have a feeling that this comic must be one which carried a special meaning or fond memory for the person who suggested it, one which I'll never be able to completely experience for myself. To me, this is just another anonymous, bland mid-'80s Marvel Comic Book, the likes of which left me unwilling to buy any but a handful of fringe Marvel titles for almost two decades until just recently. I don't get the importance. To others, those who also tend to revere the likes of Squadron Supreme and Englehart's Captain America run, this is good comics. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong...I'll leave that up to you, dear reader.

Marc Sobel

1. Well, damn, that was pretty weird!

2. Bill Mantlo basically wrote a love story between the Hulk and a disembodied spinal cord.

3. This comic peddles weirdness for weirdness's sake. I'll give Mantlo credit for breaking out of the villain-of-the-month formula, but the push to concoct outrageous Ditko-like mindscapes for the Hulk to wander through comes with only the thinnest pretense of a plot. Perhaps if read as a chapter within the broader context of the Hulk universe of the early '80s, maybe this issue might have made more sense, but read as a stand-alone, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Where is the Hulk and why has he been banished by Doctor Strange? What happened to his human side? Why can't he utter a grammatically correct sentence? None of these questions are addressed.

4. Also, whereas Ditko's early Doctor Strange tales felt bold and original, these surreal images, particularly in the first half of the book, feel derivative and labored. The craftsmanship of Alan Kupperberg (with Gerry Talaoc on inks) is indisputable, these guys can certainly draw, but the images feel like tired retreads of earlier visionaries.

5. I will say this, though. There are at least three or four really nice splash pages, especially the double-page spread on the title page with the Hulk pinned under the foot of a huge alien dinosaur.

6. Bill Mantlo's narration quickly becomes tedious, merely describing what is visually depicted. Like a lot of Stan Lee's early Marvel stories, after a while you realize you can just skip over or skim most of it, focusing instead on the images.

7. Is there some kind of contractual requirement that all Hulk writers must use the phrase "Hulk is the strongest one there is" in every story? Same as "with great power..." for Spider-Man? Maybe it wasn't such a cliché back in 1984, but I kind of doubt it.

8. When I reached the climactic final scene, in which the Hulk had ascended the mountain with his spiny new friend so the two could gaze upon the heavens together like young lovers, all I could think about was..."Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and all the things you do, and they were all yellow..." Maybe Chris Martin was a Hulk fan as a kid?

9. I think the real flaw in this story is that the raging Hulk is just a wholly uninteresting character. What I always loved about the Hulk when Peter David was writing it, and even in the old TV show, was Bruce Banner's struggle to be human and tame the beast within. That's what made the character interesting. Without his human side, the Hulk is one-dimensional, idiotic and frankly, irritating. Who would want to spend time watching this mindless brute stagger around searching for food, no matter how surreal and visually spectacular the locale?

10. The other thing that made David's run on the Hulk so memorable was the great supporting cast. In fact, most great superhero books have a diverse and interesting cast of supporting characters surrounding the lead. This solo Hulk story could benefited from a little Rick Jones humor, Doc Samson psychobabble, Betty Ross anguish, etc.

Matt Springer

"The Hulk ignores the puffball collective."

If that isn't the greatest line I've ever read in a comic book, it's damn close to it. That's a Bill Mantlo original, from Incredible Hulk Annual #13, circa 1984. When Mick volunteered to provide the pick for this week's Flashmob Friday, I encouraged him to "make it weird." He delivered, in spades.

Sometimes I get to thinking about the enormity that is the collected output of the comic book industry over the past seventy-odd years. So very many titles, running for so very many months, each one bringing a new round of issues with stories upon stories upon stories. So, so many plots, characters; villains and schemes; days saved and worlds that were never the same.

And we all know much of it, maybe most of it, is low-grade superhero pablum. That's good stuff, strong stuff, and it satisfies. It scratches an itch.

But we also know that as the writers and artists toiled to churn out all this material over decades spent at typewriters and drawing tables, the urge to flip the script must have occasionally loomed large. Instead of plugging new variables into tried and true superhero comic formulas, there must have been an almost physical need to occasionally create a story that practically defies description.

Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is such a story. I don't mean to overinflate its importance, or even its quality; it's a clever, creative science fiction parable with the Hulk as its protagonist. It's told mostly in narration, with only a handful of characters, and one of them an ignorant brute. It's got a puffball collective and snakes like spines that attach to symbiotes and yearn to see the stars.

Mantlo takes full advantage of the Hulk, who is particularly suited to this type of story -- remove him from the boundaries of the Marvel universe, and he's practically a blank slate onto which you can place any story you want. His fundamental desire for understanding, coupled with a continued inability to supress his rage, means that the ending of these stories may always be the same, even when the journey is new. He can never find true happiness or contentment, and it's the world's fault, and it's his fault too. This story riffs on that theme, in ways both ambitious and mundane; it's set in a pretty whacked-out fantasyscape, but at its heart it's a simple sci-fi story with the Hulk as its star. You could imagine a similar tale minus the Hulk in Weird Tales or Amazing Stories magazine.

Yet here it is, totally native to its chosen form, words and pictures and a pissed-off green guy in torn purple pants, exactly what you want, nothing you expect. Again, not overstating it (I hope), but seriously -- this book is a good single-issue argument for the oddity, the wonder, the idiocy and the greatness of the 20th Century American Superhero Comic Book. Nice choice, Mick.

Christopher Allen

Away, all this asinine alliteration. Mantlo makes a morass of the mother tongue! Actually, while it probably would have been better as a single issue instead of an annual, this isn't too bad. The Kupperberg/Talaoc team present a pretty good Hulk, along with the alien creatures. The Crossroads was a good idea, as it opened things up for almost any kind of Hulk story, although I think a lot of them mainly just gave Hulk a reason to fight aliens. The Symbiont story here led me to believe it would resolve itself with Hulk figuring out how to beat the symbiont and get him off his back, so to speak, so kudos to Mantlo for trying something a little more ambitious. It's overwrought and overwritten, but it has some charm. I may not ever read this story again, but I fear The Puffball Collective is now stuck in my brain forever.