Friday, June 29, 2012

Unbeatable Comics: Nightwing #10

writer: Kyle Higgins
artist: Eddy Barrows, Geraldo Borges

Nightwing is not Batman.

I think Kyle Higgins is about to explore that better than he thought he would.  The introduction of Paragon is like the Nightwing version of the Court of Owls, someone who thinks they know how to improve Gotham better than the heroes do.  That's an important story to tell for any member of the Batman family.  For years Batman has waged a crusade to clean up his beloved city.  Yet Gotham has not become a utopia.  In most respects, Batman's failed.  The reason is the same as I've just explained: everyone thinks they have the answer.

Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween is perhaps the ancestor text for this Batman story type, with the Falcone clan poised to define Gotham City on their terms, and Batman, just getting started, helps to subvert those plans.  Bane did it, too.  In fact, that's what Christopher Nolan has been doing in all of his Batman movies.  Everyone has a solution and no one can get any progress done because they're all fighting each other.  As far as I could tell, Scott Snyder's Court of Owls was a conspiracy that sought to accomplish the very same goal.

I didn't read most of the Court of Owls saga, but I know Snyder and Higgins have done a fair amount of collaborating, most obviously in Gates of Gotham, the DC reader's introduction to Higgins.  As this issue kicks off the ambitions of Paragon, Higgins has Nightwing muse on the sad state of Gotham, its glory days buried far beneath the collective scum that has for many years manifested itself in the nocturnal activities of the Dark Knight and the corrupt forces he works tirelessly against.  Higgins works with a different kind of conspiracy, too, someone trying to frame Nightwing for murder, and a dirty cop who's possibly been at this hobby for months.  It's not the first time a writer has flung this kind of story at Nightwing, but it's a welcome return.

Nightwing isn't Batman because he seems capable of taking a little perspective.  When Dick Grayson joined the Teen Titans, he found himself in a group of friends.  When Batman joined the Justice League, he had maybe one friend and a bunch of people he didn't trust.  Dick's had an alien girlfriend and complicated relationships with numerous female colleagues, including Donna Troy and Barbara Gordon, the latter of which Higgins and Gail Simone have touched on in the New 52.  He's known the responsibility of living up to an image many times over: with his parents, with Batman, as a leader, as a replacement Batman.  Batman's only ever believed in one image, and that was his own.  Nightwing might seem more carefree and replaceable, but no Robin since Dick Grayson has so successfully transitioned into his own crimefighting career, not even wunderkind Tim Drake.

Nightwing is the version of Spider-Man that would exist if Marvel let Peter Parker exist in a world where his parents mean more to him than his aunt and uncle, if he had to exist in the shadow of giants and learn how to emerge from it.  Nightwing doesn't strike fear like Batman, but then Batman doesn't make friends like Nightwing.  The more he works on his own, the more lonely Nightwing becomes, closer to the archetype set by his mentor.  But he also establishes the ability to operate independently better than Batman, who will have to reluctantly admit that he works better with a little help than he does when he's completely alone.  There will never be a Nightwing Incorporated.

Higgins has put our boy in another bad spot, in the center of another conspiracy, and while the opening issues of this series have already seen that in the remnants of Haley's Circus (which Dick seems poised to transform into his own Wayne enterprise, only instead of a business, an entertainment) and then Nightwing's unexpected connection to the heart of the Court of Owls.  Paragon calls himself "Gotham's true son," and perhaps that's what's at the center of this story, that Nightwing is a son by his core definition, and like any son, the world he grows into doesn't always respect the path to responsibility.  He's faced a thousand hurdles   already, and some ready will consider this story redundant, but it's Nightwing's story, more than the Court of Owls was Batman's.  There's a reason why the whole family took on the Talons, because that was a clash for the whole family, a challenge everyone had to face.

Everyone clashes against each other in Gotham.  Nightwing, and Kyle Higgins, are about to explore the ego behind this phenomenon.  And maybe that's it.  Nightwing doesn't have an ego.  That's why he's ideal to serve as a counterpoint to Batman, or to usurpers like Paragon.  Carry on, Higgins!

Unbeatable Comics: Comedian #1

writer: Brian Azzarello
artist: J.G. Jones

Before Watchmen continues, creating a new ripple in the canon by emphatically stating Edward Blake, the Comedian, was not involved in the assassination of JFK.

I guess it's implied in the comic, and strongly suggested in the movie, but the beauty of revisiting this world is that another writer can given another interpretation of both the character and events as we've come to know them.  Blake famously took up the role of the Comedian because he came to believe that the world was a big joke, and he would provide the punchline, but I was never convinced that his motivations were properly explained, nor his particular worldview explored.  He was the fall guy for Ozymandias's master plan, the one who figured it out long before anyone else.  But he's mostly known as the maverick with violent tendencies and the tenuous link between generations.

I've never really gotten into Brian Azzarello as a writer, and so can't begin to form a basis for comparison with his other work, only that it seems I've more or less avoided him until now, or so it seems.  He's a name writer who seems to have avoided being identified with the mainstream.  He wrote Superman with Jim Lee on art, and no one really remembers that.  (Maybe I'll have to investigate it now.)  Anyway, he starts his tale off pretty deliberately, with Blake being good friends with the Kennedy boys, who J.G. Jones draws very much as boys, actually, and I think that's fairly deliberate, and a telling element of the issue.  With everything that's been said and seen about John and Bobby over the years, a lot of things have been obscured.  I've read that some people found Azzarello's depiction of Jackie as offensive and unlikely, but I take it up with everything else he does in the issue as a way of removing that barrier that's existed for fifty years, and revealing the whole clan as living human beings again.  Blake joins this ride as another pragmatist believing the Kennedy vision, assassinating an American legend (Marilyn Monroe) and crying with Moloch over the fall of his good friend.  Where do we go from here?  That's what the question is in the story, and that's what Azzarello successfully challenges his reader with, too.

Like the Comedian, JFK's legacy has been obscured by the reports of his womanizing.  It becomes hard to reconcile the visionary with the man, especially after one of his disciples tried to follow that pattern without any of the vision.  (What Clinton never seemed to realize was that Jack wanted anything but to become a politician.  It just so happened that he and Bobby were better at it than anyone else in their family.)  Yet there's the man and the vision, wrapped up in a tidy, tragic package.  The tragedy of the Comedian is that he never really got to play the hero.  In fact, Azzarello goes out of his way to suggest that not only was Blake not responsible for the death of JFK, but that he was probably the only man who could have prevented it.

It seems like incredibly heady stuff, and maybe stuff that doesn't even belong in a comic book, much less one that some say by definition impugns a rich legacy.  Yet this issue proves beyond a doubt what this project is capable of accomplishing, what someone like Azzarello can give both to fiction and history, because in this case the two are intertwined, inextricably, much like the man and the vision were in JFK, and how we'll learn the same is true of the Comedian.

The real joke is that the story of Edward Blake is just beginning, twenty years after everyone assumed the book had already been completed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #6

X-MEN #s 46-53

The final issues in this volume are pretty random but they have a few treasures buried in them!  But first, we have another pretty meaningless visit from Juggernaut, in the midst of Foggy Nelson reading the last will and testament of Charles Xavier and F.B.I. agent Amos Duncan requesting for their own safety that the X-Men break up!

That’s from Gary Friedrich, completing his final solo adventure before helping Arnold Drake establish himself with another pretty random Merlin adventure, where the one-time Warlock becomes the Maha Yogi in order to brainwash some worthless support in his continuing plans for world domination, with Beast and Iceman able to take care of him.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are featured in Drake’s first solo adventure, featuring another random historical legacy in Quasimodo.

Lorna Dane, the eventual Polaris, makes her first appearance in #49, part of a wave of formerly dormant, newly activated mutants Angel gets tangled with, part of a larger plot on the part of Magneto in his continuing hapless quest to do something meaningful, though he does manage to bring the X-Men back together after an absurdly brief period made all the more melodramatic in Jean Grey’s typical thought balloons, wondering what will happen to her budding relationship with Scott Summers a few issues earlier, even though they were still paired together…

Anyway, so Lorna Dane is tricked into believing that she’s Magneto’s daughter, which really only entitles her to being cut into the megalomaniac’s plans as an equal partner (something only Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were privy to earlier…is that why someone figured out they might as well be revealed as his kids?), until the X-Men convince her that Magneto is crazy.  Which isn’t hard, because in this incarnation he is!  The fiftieth issue sports art from Jim Steranko, by the way!

The story drags on with a meaningless inclusion of some villain named Erik the Red, and then another pretty random threat named Blastaar in #53, featuring art from Barry Windsor-Smith, which looks suspiciously like Jack Kirby.  It should be noted that the origins backup tales continue, but they’re increasingly worthless.  Beast is depicted as having been the product of his father’s accident with radiation!

It’s a shame that the series is treated so frivolously, with one creator caring very little for what the creator before him was doing.  Whatever happened to Ted Roberts, for instance, or Jean Grey’s college education?  She becomes a bikini model during the team’s brief exile.  I kid you not.  I suppose it’s not so different from how most X-Men creators in most eras not written by Chris Claremont or Grant Morrison or featuring Hope tend to be, random and meaningless and having nothing to do with the “mutant problem” so much as villains with generic goals and defeated less by the X-Men than by themselves.  It’s not a surprise that the book wasn’t popular, because it featured a bunch of outsiders desperate to be cool even though they weren’t (the one with the biggest personality was a total square, after all).  I seriously want someone to rewrite these adventures knowing exactly what they were.  That’s what reading something like this demands.  Vindication!  But it was certainly interesting, informative, enlightening.  But exciting?  Only in the most exacerbated sense!


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Unbeatable Comics: Spawn #220

writer: Todd McFarlane
artist: Szymon Kudranski

It's hard not to see Spawn as the defining creation of Image Comics.  He was the most famous one in the early days, and he's one of the few still standing, and in regular publication since the beginning.  He was Todd McFarlane's response to the question, "What happens after DC and Marvel?"

As indicated in an extensive commentary included in this twentieth anniversary issue, McFarlane still has passionate belief in Spawn.  When the movie version was released in 1997, he called Spawn the complete opposite of Batman.  That may be more relevant today than ever before.  Spawn is no longer Al Simmons, the hapless military vet tricked into becoming the occupant of a costume created in Hell.  Instead, he's Jim Downing, whose past has been shrouded in mystery, even though he's become a celebrity to the rest of the world as a possible messiah.  (It was hard for me to read this issue and not think of Warrior, in which Tom Hardy seemingly comes out of nowhere to be a prime participant in a massive MMA tournament.)

Downing is not only Spawn, but the victim and outcast of a cabal of scientists who would probably be at home in Fringe.  There's a lot of reading to be done in this comic.  It's definitely, now more than originally, nothing like the superhero comics you'll find at DC and Marvel.  In a way, that's hugely encouraging.  Truth be told, Spawn used to be the worst offender of the overblown creations Image used to be known for, even after its vaunted sojourn into creator rights.  The joke ought to have been, "They wanted the right to create garbage?"  But over time, the company got its act together.  Of course, sales are marginal even by the low standards of comics today, especially compared to the nearly two million copies the first issue of Spawn sold.  (There's a handy timeline of Spawn history included as well, that helps outline its legacy to date, even though it conspicuously overlooks the whole Neil Gaiman flap.)

In losing most of its audience Spawn has finally shaped itself into something that would have been worthy of those readers.  That's an irony if I ever saw one.

Unbeatable Comics: The Shade #9

writer: James Robinson
artist: Frazer Irving

Having had an opportunity recently to catch up with this series, I've become more eager to read more.

Beginning the final arc of the twelve-issue run, Robinson finally reveals who in his family line was interested in murdering Richard Swift, the Shade.  Turns out his enemies are both in league with gods, and in control of them (Egyptian, in case you were wondering).  In fact, by the of the issue, for the first time in centuries, he's powerless.  Yeah, the stakes have gone way up.

Although the character has possessed spectacular powers since he first appeared, the Shade has never really been defined by them.  Robinson has gone out of his way to write him more for his deep connection to legacy.  In Starman, he was Jack Knight's best connection to legacy.  Jack's father, Ted Knight, was the original Starman, by was now an old man.  Jack's brother, David, died in the first arc of the series, and was the reason why the reluctant collector of novelties accepted the role of superhero in the first place.  The Shade was once a supervillain, but had grown more ambiguous over time, less interested in taking an active role, perhaps because he no longer felt he had much purpose.  Jack helped give him purpose again, and helped redefine him as a theoretical force for good.

The Shade so far has been steeped heavily in the character's history, with two "Times Past" issues (one of the recurring elements of Starman, along with "Conversations with David"), while the last arc saw how his long relationship with La Sangre has affected both their careers.  We've gotten to see a portrait of Richard Swift that has convincingly presented him as more interesting than even Jack Knight.  Of course, "ambiguous" is the key term here, and perhaps that's why few readers have been reluctant to embrace his successor, because unlike a reluctant superhero, there's no easy thing to grasp onto with this story.  The Shade is not a hero and is not even a villain in Robinson's intricate vision.

Speaking of visions, art chores are now given to Frazer Irving.  I guess I didn't expect that the art would change with every arc, but now that there've been several, and several good ones, there's no more denying that this was always the plan.  Irving is yet another coup, and a testament to DC's interest in seeing the best for this project.

Unbeatable Comics: Green Lantern

Green Lantern #10
writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Doug Mahnke

Green Lantern Corps #9
writer: Peter J. Tomasi
artist: Fernando Pasarin

Green Lantern: New Guardians #8
writer: Tony Bedard
artist: Tyler Kirkham

Red Lanterns #7
writer: Peter Milligan
artist: Ed Benes & Diego Bernard

The Green Lantern franchise may be a big question mark on the big screen, but in the comics, it's hard to think of a better era.

The latest issue of Green Lantern from Geoff Johns concludes the Indigo Tribe arc, in which we've finally discovered the origins and intentions of the mysterious compassion corps.  (In related news, I beg DC, beg, for an extended look at the life and career of Abin Sur, Hal Jordan's predecessor and originator of the Indigo Tribe, a theoretical answer to the Guadians of the Universe's plans for a Third Army.)

The Indigo Tribe lost its central power battery thanks to Natromo, the native of Nok who helped Abin Sur realize his vision, but its members prove more worthy of the cause than he realized, resparking their own rings with their faith and need for redemption.  The only ones who are able to walk away from the cause are Sinestro and William Hand, who inadvertently kills himself, only to be once again claimed by the black rings of death.  It's Hal Jordan who fights for Sinestro's future, because he's discovered his old foe just may be the greatest ally he ever had.

I haven't read a single issue of the other books in the expanded franchise of the New 52 since their September launches, part of my effort to save money I don't technically have.  I decided it was time to check in, and I discovered that they're doing better than I would've thought.

Pete Tomasi, for instance, so good in Batman and Robin, continues to be a worthy chronicler in  for emerald warriors in Green Lantern Corps.  In this issue, for instance, he helps me understand something I've been going through in my own life as John Stewart faces the consequences of owning up to responsibility, even when those who are to be his judges aren't likely to look after his, or their, best interests. having murdered a member of the Corps, he's once again in hot water.  It's not the first time his actions have resulted in jeopardy for his career as a Green Lantern, or a superhero.  In Cosmic Odyssey, he was responsible for the destruction of the planet Xanshi (where the character Fatality, once a villain and now a Star Sapphire and not to mention featured player in New Guardians, comes from).  He considers his actions justified because the murdered colleague would have betrayed the integrity of the Corps.  Guy Gardner, the most famous hothead in comics, is John's main advocate.  The Guardians don't want to interfere, since their plans no longer concern a Corps, but an impending Third Army.

In New Guardians, meanwhile, Tony Bedard continues his own fruitful contributions to the franchise, playing in the expanded sandbox of the spectrum created by Geoff Johns.  In Green Lantern, Johns did away with the Sinestro Corps.  In New Guardians, Bedard gets to explore what happens to its remaining members, including Arkillo, who gets help from the Weaponer whose story Bedard himself previously explored in shaping a new ring and new battery to continue the legacy of the Yellow Lanterns.

Pete Milligan, meanwhile, is still working at Red Lanterns, including the first human to become a member, Jack Moore; as well as Atrocitus, the founder of the brood, who is currently seeking vengeance on Krona, the rogue Guardian, but instead running into the undead revenge of his own son; and Bleez, the new leader of the Red Lanterns who also co-stars in New Guardians.  Another crossover this issue is Guy Gardner, who once wore a red ring, trying to process the significance of Jack Moore, who is himself trying to figure out what his new life means.  For anyone who struggles to see the need for a series based on anger, this may be the issue to read.

I found quite a lot to like about this family.

Unbeatable Comics: Paul Cornell

Demon Knights #10
writer: Paul Cornell
artist: Diogenes Neves

Saucer Country #4
writer: Paul Cornell
artist: Ryan Kelly

Paul Cornell has been one of the best writers in comics for several years now.  One of these two books may finally help comic book fans realize that.

"Look!  It's a pirate sea serpent!"  Lines like that, combined with a guest character who briefly breaks into the heavy British dialogue used so well in Cornell's Knight & Squire, are just token examples what helps set his work apart.  The whole book demonstrates his ability to juggle both character and story, whether he's dancing around the nature of Shining Knight or once again using the juxtaposition between Jason Blood and Etrigan to convey the depth of relationships any good story should have.  By the time the climax of the issue reaches Zombie King Arthur, you realize anything can and will happen in a Paul Cornell story.

In Saucer Country, meanwhile, everyone's still trying to figure out if the alien abduction that serves as the crux of this book actually happened, but that's proving trickier than expected (which is exactly what Cornell's going for).  Arcadia Alvarado is currently governor of New Mexico, but she's going to be running for president, so there's good motivation for her wanting to know exactly what happened to her.  She's not the only one.

Her ex-husband Michael  is the one with the least amount of credibility, and exploring his side of events has been equally fascinating, especially since it's far less likely anyone will believe him.  Last issue we saw how he started to rationalize his experience by turning the aliens into rabbits, trying to cover up his own memories.  To retrieve them, he visits a hypnotherapist known for his radical views on alien abduction.  Naturally, when Alvarado's men hear his version, they're skeptical, or to be more accurate, dismissive.  Then Arcadia makes the radical decision to visit the hypnotherapist herself.

The whole point and approach of Saucer Country is that the truth is not a simple thing.  In The X-Files, it was famously declared to be "out there," and perhaps it is, but some people have to live with that ambiguity a little closer to home, with incredibly high personal stakes.  There's a lot of ways this can be explored.  Cornell has decided to let it speak for itself, and nothing about it is easy.  That's a testament to his ambition, and vision.

The thrill is always waiting to see what he does next.

Unbeatable Comics: Cobra #14

writer: Mike Costa
artist: Antonio Fuso

The brilliant thing about this book is that its publishing history has already completely altered IDW's G.I. Joes comics line, and that hasn't thrown it for a single loop.

The original story concerned a Joe operative working his way into Cobra.  When this approach was determined to breathe new life into the perception of the enemy, we got "Cobra Civil War."  Essentially, the underdog became mainstream.  How to compensate?  By turning its story in reverse.  Now Costa is exploring the possibilities of a Cobra operative working their way into Cobra.  Which operative, though?  Tomax Paoli, former Cobra power broker turned informant?  Or Erika La Tene, who's become Chameleon, a full-fledged Joe?

At the moment, Tomax and Chameleon are playing a little dance, and the Joes are forced to be partners.  last issue she tried to kill him.  Now she's taking away all the remaining perks from his former life.  At the moment, they're both pursuing the only leverage either has over Cobra, the hidden son of the assassinated Cobra Commander, a modern spin on the Billy arc from the original comics.  It remains a must-read simply to see how Costa does it.  Despite the baffling failure of Blackhawks, few are to the level of his execution.  It may make things easier to know that Fuso is currently making his artwork more action-oriented, which the introduction of Ronin may be helping.

Bottom line is, you're rapidly running out of excuses for not reading this book.

Unbeatable Comics: Silk Spectre #1

writer: Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner
artist: Amanda Conner

What's the point of Before Watchmen?  Some say that it's gratuitous and disrespectful and unnecessary.  Well, two first issues later, and what I can say is: essential.

Far from ruining the legacy of Alan Moore's Watchmen, I believe, now more than ever, after reading Silk Spectre #1, that this project is going to enrich that legacy.  Cooke and Conner have already shaped a bigger and better portrait of what could be considered the token female character into something that delves deeply into her motivations, not just backstory, so that she becomes three-dimensional.

Laurie Jupiter (there's a lot of names to choose from, but this will suffice) is the daughter of a superhero.  Turns out there's not a lot of glamour in that, especially if your mother had the kind of career hers did.  Her classmates shun her, and her only real relationship is with someone who she thinks understands what she's going through, but their shared pain does not equal anymore healthy a solution than the mixed up life they've already been leading.  And that's just the beginning of this story.

This is the kind of storytelling that undoubtedly makes it worth the Before Watchmen project.  What's even better is that it's got someone like Amanda Conner behind it.  At first, she seems to be the total opposite of the creator one would expect to tackle Silk Spectre.  She's too bubbly, right?  After reading this issue, you won't think that.  Same style, new context.  But isn't that what all of this is about?

Unbeatable Comics: Batman and Robin #10

writer: Peter J. Tomasi
artist: Patrick Gleason

"War of the Robins" would have been better than "Night of the Owls."  

Damian Wayne has been a little spitfire since his first appearance, and has successfully taken the Post-Crisis Jason Todd version of the Boy Wonder, the Robin readers actually voted to kill off, into the mainstream.  As a job description, Robin has been around for almost as long as Batman.  For most of this time, it was a role played by Dick Grayson, a character whose origin closely mirrored the tragedy of the Wayne family.  He was, however, introduced as a surrogate for the young readers comic books attracted, the original Spider-Man, a wisecracking adventurer who wore bright colors and didn't seem to notice anything dangerous about it.

Dick grew up with the rest of the comic book landscape, joining the Teen Titans and eventually becoming Nightwing.  He was replaced by Jason Todd, originally a surrogate for a surrogate, then modified into a daredevil who spit in the face of authority and paid the ultimate price, until several decades later, when someone figured out that his legacy could be more valuable as an active part of the mythos than if he stayed dead forever.  Then Tim Drake came along, and like the rest of comics at the time, seemed to have been born ready to accept the role, figuring out the secret identity of Batman and talking his way into the yellow cape.  Then he moved on, too, and was even momentarily replaced by Stephanie Brown, whose ambitions were greater than her experience.  

And then Batman had a son, and when they were reunited, Damian became the new Robin.  With all due apologies, no one will learn more from being Robin than Damian Wayne.  In Batman #666, he's portrayed as Bruce Wayne's truest successor, more fit for the grim responsibility of Gotham's protector than Dick Grayson proved in two separate cracks at the mantle.

All of this is important to this issue, because Damian has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Batcave.  He puts each of the previous Robins (aside from the near-apocryphal Stephanie Brown) on notice soon after Bruce has the bright idea to have a family portrait commissioned, out of costume, excluding Jason.  Yet there's trouble throughout the sitting (er, standing), and soon Damian gathers all the Robins, including Jason, and tells them he'll beat them at whatever they think they're best.  

That's the kind of hubris that defines the whole Dark Knight legacy.  The characters who don't behave this way are always learning how they're not truly a part of the family.  Nightwing has gone a long way to earning respect from his own publisher, for instance.  Tim Drake has only been welcomed back into the fold in the last few months.  This is the first time since 1993 that he does not have his own ongoing series.  Arguably, Batman and Robin is Damian's.  He's the common thread between the two incarnations of the series.  The first one featured Dick's Batman, after all.  Now, thanks to Tomasi and Gleason, we're seeing what Damian is like around his father.  Apparently not all that different.

This is yet another issue that makes this clear.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #5

X-MEN #s 41-45

Lots of things change in these issues.  Roy Thomas concludes his run with a two-part story involving an encounter with the Subhuman (another subterranean character; it shows that Marvel is obsessed with New York) and then transitioning with Gary Friedrich, before resurfacing in the conclusion of the Magneto story that follows as writer of AVENGERS #53.

The big news is that Professor X “dies” in #42.  I say “dies” because that’s how it’s got to be.  Clearly in the context of the series to that point, he really did die, although he came back at some point.  The sophistication of the writing at the time really did not allow for a lot of subtlety concerning the subsequent appearance and significance of Magneto, but there’s not much to say about that, except that’s the way it was. 

Starting with #42, actually, the covers start supplanting the team’s logo in place of character titles that suggests the series was in pretty rough shape, trying to keep afloat in whatever way it could keep a semblance of relevance, which is probably why the Avengers play such a key role in these issues, even though the team that appears by the end of it is bereft of any major members (though Black Panther has apparently just joined).

The loss of Xavier pushes the team to rely on itself and its own abilities more than ever, something he tries to push them toward in his final appearances (though “final appearances” should be taken with a further grain of salt, because he is still featured in the new origins backup features that so far as added Cyclops and an incredibly dubious Iceman to Professor X’s side).

It should also be noted that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch factor into Magneto’s plot.  They’re coming off a stint as Avengers, but have been coerced to side with their fellow mutants.  Though they are brother and sister, they have not yet become Magneto’s offspring.  We do get Toad, who was featured in the X-Men movies, as Magneto’s hapless stooge.  Magneto is supposed to be the team’s most dangerous opponent, but instead of actually fighting them, he initiates the first war between the X-Men and the Avengers, and then pretty much slips and falls into the sea, disappearing without actually doing anything.

One thing I want to point out, is how apparently “Tiger” is a term Marvel used to use pretty loosely.  I associate it today as Mary Jane’s pet name for Peter Parker, but back then it was used by everyone, including editor Stan Lee, which just seems weird (and, quite frankly, disturbing).  It’s not the only slang present, either.  Wrestling fans who might believe Zack Ryder came up with “You know it!” will be dismayed to hear it used with some frequency in these pages, forty years before anyone actually thought “Woo woo woo!” was acceptable catchphrase material.

Anyway, I’ve got only a few Gary Friedrich issues left, and only eight issues overall, and I’ll have concluded this crazy collection.  You know it!

Have Muse, Will Travel

Baby did a bad, bad thing.  See, I was about town when I discovered there’s a new comics shop in Colorado Springs, called Muse.  It carries a wide assortment of titles and keeps older issues around for continuing titles.  See, this is bad because I had a chance to catch up with some stuff I’ve missed recently.  I quite reading new comics last year because I am not, as they say, flush with cash, and since I lost my job recently, I really ought to have repeat that feat, not gotten a bunch more comics…But I’m an idiot savant (or perhaps just an idiot), so I told myself, These are good stories and need to be read.  And so I listened to myself and here’s what I got:

Readers of this blog may know that I have a soft spot for the Challengers of the Unknown, basically the DC equivalent of the Fantastic Four without fancy powers, who’ve gone through a number of incarnations the past few decades (including the excellent and seminal Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale version depicted in THE CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE!, and a Howard Chaykin cycle that’s very Howard Chaykinian), so when I first heard of the New 52 anthology title doing a Challengers story, I worried that I’d miss out, because Heroes & Dragons does not carry the entire New 52.  Muse corrected that but good, having the complete arc (which like I said is par for the course).  This version postulates the team as stars of a reality adventure show (playing fast and loose with the concept), but otherwise keeps the concept of risk-takers living on borrowed time intact (even if many of them actually die in the story), and to my mind is a worthy take on the team.  It reads as incredibly self-contained, in case you were wondering, which is only natural for a concept that has existed since 1957 but has never been popular, making every appearance special and finite.

Muse also had a small selection of local work, which is always nice.  This one was published in 2003, and comes from the mind of Geoffrey Hawley, reading like one of the best independent comics no one ever read, which is a shame.  The lead story is based on writer Jorge Luis Borges, a philosophical kind of guy, and is like a cross between Fred Van Lente and Jeff Smith.  There are a couple of shorter works as well, and they’re fine, but the lead story is the best thing here, easily.  

The first issue of the series was always a curiosity for me, considering that’s when the Starfire controversy that still dominates its reputation came from.  It’s actually interesting, because Starfire receives a soft reboot in the story, revealed as having a short memory, basically, which explains at least why she’s ignored Dick Grayson since almost marrying him (but still doesn’t explain Dick’s silence on the matter since that time).  The issue actually revolves around Roy Harper, and Jason Todd’s rescue of him, which explains why they hang out now.  And anyway, I love this book, and it was just nice to see how it started.  I recently learned that Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort are taking over SUPERMAN, which might be what I need to finally read an issue of that series in the New 52.

I’ve got a couple of biographies waiting in development at Bluewater Press, and I mentioned that I was interested in doing something with D.B. Cooper, and although I didn’t received a favorable response on that, I was a little chagrined to learn of the existence of a series called THE SECRET HISTORY OF D.B. COOPER not so long after.  I mean, what are the chances that D.B. Cooper will have two comic books, much less one, on the stands at the same time?  Cooper famously hijacked a plane in the ’70s and got away.  I figured it’d be interesting to provide an account of the search for this bogeyman.  SECRET HISTORY is about an alternate explanation for why he’s been so elusive for forty years.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one, Chuck Barris.  It postulates that he’s an agent of the C.I.A. whose career as an assassin is aided by access to a pocket dimension where he uses a sword and fights monsters that are analogies for his targets.  The creator is Brian Churilla, whom I first encountered as artist of THE ANCHOR, which is almost exactly this book, but not as awesome.  I thought THE ANCHOR was awesome, by the way.  It was written by Phil Hester, one of my favorite comic book creators (though he doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect otherwise).  So I knew what SECRET HISTORY would look like, but I had no idea how it would actually read.  It’s like a mix between AWAKE, the short-lived TV series about a man living parallel lives, and THE ANCHOR (which I’ve already alluded to, and is only appropriate).  And it’s absolutely brilliant, richly layered and featuring a teddy bear as Cooper’s main companion.  It has quickly vaulted into my favorite books of 2012.

THE SHADE #s 5-7 (DC)
That makes twice this year I’ve miraculously been able to catch up with this series, which inexplicably has been all but ignored by pretty much everyone, even though it’s James Robinson at his finest.  Featuring a supporting character from Robinson’s STARMAN, the basic story is about trying to figure out who tried to kill The Shade, and why.  So far it’s caused a lot of introspection and revisiting of his history (and just begging anyone to care enough so we can read this as an ongoing series), and in these three issues a visit with Spanish heroine La Sangre, a vampire caught in the midst of an epic feud with the Inquisitor, with his own rich history.  This whole story is steeped in history, and maybe I love it because I love stuff like this and maybe not a lot of other people do, but I love depth in comics, and that’s what THE SHADE is all about.  These are the best issues so far, too, and that was a treat to discover, and what makes it all the more wickedly fantastic that I was able to catch them.  Our antihero would approve.

THE TWELVE #s 9 & 11 (Marvel)
The interval years since the first eight and then the last four issues meant fans of this J. Michael Straczynski/Chris Weston mini-series that reads like a modern WATCHMEN means that anyone who wasn’t already thinking about it was forced to do exactly that, especially now that BEFORE WATCHMEN has come upon us.  A comic book that seeks to explore the origins and motivations of superheroes cannot help but have comparisons to WATCHMEN, even if Alan Moore’s legacy became about deconstructing superheroes rather than building them up.  THE TWELVE doesn’t deconstruct or build anyone up.  It’s a version of the Captain America story where twelve heroes were put into cryogenic suspension in WWII and then reawaken in 2008.  It’s a story about generations, but really the changing of social mores and the ability to remain relevant, to understand oneself (very few of the characters in WATCHMEN seemed interested in that, but most of them thought they did).  Straczynski isn’t interested in creating individual narratives so much as weaving a tapestry.  I suspect the whole thing reads better in one sitting, but it also reads well in single issues, and that’s most of the point, that these are characters who figure things out in increments.  Both WATCHMEN and THE TWELVE have a thru-line of a character being revealed as murdered (the Comedian and Blue Blade, respectively) and then trying to figure out the who and the why.  Both stories are then about figuring out how the resulting revelation explains everything.  THE TWELVE has a couple of happy endings, where things end badly for just about everyone in WATCHMEN, where the illusion of control is key.  THE TWELVE is about the lack of control, and whether one can find peace with that.  Each character has some kind of reckoning with that.  You don’t need to know or care about WATCHMEN to enjoy THE TWELVE, by the way.  But it doesn’t hurt to love comic books, and good storytelling.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Controversies Edition!

Grant Morrison is probably the first writer after Geoff Johns to write the Justice League in the New 52.  Perhaps predictably, he goes against the grain.  This is the Morrison of JLA, but rather the one willing to subvert the mainstream, defy expectations, and end up with Superman as an outsider rather than the cheerful face of “normal.”  That’s about what Morrison has done with the Man of Steel since ALL STAR SUPERMAN, where he first postulated that Kal-El possesses a hyper sense of responsibility, rather than the more usual notion that he’s nothing more than a Big Blue Boy Scout.  He’s the one trying to get the team to have a little ambition, not to mention compassion, and if you really stop to think about it, it makes sense.  The rest of the team has very specific areas of interest and the one most identified as his opposite number is obsessive and controlling (that would be Batman, who even in Morrison’s interpretation of his best possible mode has established a network of allies that are most effective only in relation to him).  The thing that Morrison has been trying to stress in ACTION COMICS is the humanity of Clark Kent, which is an identity he readily sacrifices this issue (SPOILER ALERT, by the way), something he doesn’t even think twice about, because he’s more interested in his humanitarian mission than his own reputation.  Yes, he no doubt hears when Batman cracks that he’s going to be the League’s problem some day (and not in an IRREDEEMABLE way), but that’s not his problem, and he cares a great deal that his teammates don’t care about what he does.  That makes him irreplaceable.  Just like Grant Morrison.

Okay, so this issues pretty much makes it official: Geoff Johns has gotten into GREEN LANTERN mode.  For the past few issues, he’s been exploring Aquaman’s association with a whole different set of superheroic allies from around the world, totally different from the Justice League, a lot more similar to him, actually.  He’s also brought back Black Manta, Aquaman’s greatest foe.  This issue, he inserts a key bit of mythology into their relationship, one that deepens both characters as well as the story I hope Johns will be telling for years to come.  I guess in hindsight it was clear that he wasn’t going to stick around THE FLASH with Barry Allen for too long, because that’s not something he did on that book (but definitely something he did in FLASHPOINT).  When he starts to shape an entire world that’s when you know he’s really invested, and that’s something he’s started to really get into here.  Here is an issue any self-respecting fan of superhero comics ought to read, because it’ll be important later.

AVENGERS VS. X-MEN #5 (Marvel)
This should be another of those moments, but owing to the length of the event book, the Phoenix choosing its new host becomes a little convoluted, leaving Hope behind and entering into a few of the X-Men, who are still contractually obligated to be diametrically opposed to the Avengers.  On the other hand, Matt Fraction does a good job writing Iron Man as he appears in the movies, so that’s something right there, right?

The big controversy here is that someone other than Alan Moore, and without his consent, is playing in the Watchmen sandbox.  This is being viewed as a violation of creator rights, mostly because everyone really loves WATCHMEN (but not the movie, which I always found odd, because the movie rocks).  MINUTEMEN is the first of several mini-series, and is handled by nostalgia-rich Darwyn Cooke.  It concerns the first generation of heroes envisioned by Moore, essentially the golden age, the birth of superheroes, and narrated by Hollis Mason, the original Night-Owl and author of the fictional UNDER THE HOOD autobiography that served to give the original story its first measure of authenticity, the quality that everyone dances around when speaking about WATCHMEN.  At heart, the story of the Watchmen is about weaving a self-contained world where everything makes sense, even the bits that get swept under the rug, and so it’s about perspective.  It’s always seemed odd to me that fans of WATCHMEN seem to utterly lack perspective, including Moore himself, a man so steeped in his own favorite memories that he barely seems to exist in the present.  Cooke is very much like that, but like his art style, he’s far more whimsical about it.  Perhaps it’s because he exists to play in not just other people’s sandboxes but their memories as well, that he serves as the perfect introduction to the BEFORE WATCHMEN project, which seeks to expand the narrative back to the characters and not just their story, because as Moore so cleverly demonstrated in the first place, without them the story couldn’t exist.  He already took the liberty of modifying the creations of others to reach that point in the first place.  Now we get to see how strong his own creations were.

EARTH 2 #2 (DC)
Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Mart Nodell, creator of Alan Scott.  He was a gracious man who didn’t mind signing comics that featured Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner, even though they had nothing to do with his Green Lantern.  I’m thinking he would have been fine with a little reinvention of his own character.  You may have heard by now that James Robinson made Green Lantern gay.  This is no surprise on the part of Robinson, who’s incorporated gay characters in his other comics, and was made as an official press release only days before this issue was published, just to allay, or at least moderate, the reaction.  The whole EARTH 2 series is about redefining a whole generation of superheroes, some of the oldest in comics, by ironically making them once again the successors of Superman and Batman.  Robinson has handled it beautifully so far, with the second issue better than the first, with more time to explore his brave new world.  The character on the cover is Jay Garrick, the original Flash, now endowed with the powers of Mercury but an inexperienced hothead (like a certain Bart Allen!), and it’s not until the third issue that Alan Scott is supposed to steal the spotlight.  He’s already been cast as a key figure in the narrative, shaping the public reaction to the aftermath of a parallel version of what happened in the first handful of JUSTICE LEAGUE issues, where events turned tragic and created a bleak (brave?) new world with awesome consequences.  So he also happens to be gay.  Some observers are saying it’s convenient, that he’s an alternate version in his own pocket world, but I don’t think Robinson ever had the media in mind when he made his decision.  Oh, well, it’s just that much easier to ignore if that’s easier for you.  Except you’ll be missing out on a great read.

This is another of those free preview flipbooks, showcasing a bunch of upcoming Spider-Man stories as well as the latest from Jeph Loeb.  The Spidey previews are a little awkward.  First there’s something from Dan Slott’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that involves the Lizard but has no relation to the upcoming movie.  It paints a pretty generic portrait of the Lizard and leaves anything human out of the picture.  Is that really the point of the character?  Then there’s SPIDER-MEN, from Brian Michael Bendis, a crossover between the regular wallcrawler and is Ultimate doppelganger, who happens to be Miles Morales these days.  The only problem is this excerpt is generic Peter Parker bemoaning his life, and only begins to suggest what will actually happen in the book.  This goes on for pages.  Finally there’s AVENGING SPIDER-MAN that’s supposed to sell you on the new, female Captain Marvel, but ends up doing a far better job for a character who doesn’t even technically have a name yet.  Get that girl her own book!  On the other side, Loeb and artist Simone Bianchi talk about their new Sabretooth project (they previously collaborated on WOLVERINE: EVOLUTION).  I wish Loeb hadn’t gotten so skittish about working with Tim Sale, but it seems these Wolverine tales are in that same basic tradition, character-rich stories that are probably worth checking out, even though they’re on the fringe of continuity.

At this point Justin Greenwood has nicely settled in as the new artist of the book, and Antony Johnston is free to dive back into the mythology of the story, finally explaining the deal with Gerr, the assassin sent by Lord Founder Marcus of Newbegin to dispatch Michael and Abi, but only after they find A-Ree-Yass-I, fabled oasis of the Big Wet, the apocalypse that led to our little wasteland.  The bigger news is that next issue we may actually learn more about Marcus, Michael, and Abi, who share superhuman abilities, including the inability to age, that has kept them youthful for some hundred years.  But that’s next issue.  This issue finally provides closure to at least one long-standing arc in the series: Gerr has loomed as a threat over Michael and Abi for some twenty issues now (ever since BOOK 3: BLACK STEEL IN THE HOUR OF CHAOS, to be precise).  This is what THE WALKING DEAD should be like.   

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #4

X-MEN #34-40

There’s a lot to get to, so let’s just plunge in!

The first issue in this set involves Mole Man.  No, not Hans Moleman from THE SIMPSONS, but rather Mole Man, one of Spider-Man’s foes, or perhaps not just yet, because in this appearance he’s apparently better known for a struggle with fellow underground denizen Tyrannus, a struggle that brings the Roberts boys back into the picture.  Ralph, as you may recall, became the Cobalt Man a few issues back, while Ted is Jean Grey’s college love interest.  Well, Ralph has reformed from his evil ways, but that doesn’t stop Tyrannus from kidnapping him in the hopes of using cobalt to cover his giant robot warrior, his answer to the giant robot warrior Mole Man has crafted out of diamond.  (It seems before the fictional adamantium, Marvel was equally obsessed with other things incredibly hard to penetrate.)  Needless to say, the X-Men must rescue Ralph and also thwart the generic plot of taking over the world, this time by Tyrannus.  Mole Man is surprisingly uninterested in that ambition, by the way.

#35 is a guest appearance by Spider-Man that teases the forthcoming revelation of just what Factor Three is and what it aims to accomplish.  It was probably conceived as a means to make the X-Men more popular, because otherwise it really makes no sense, and actually makes Spider-Man the good guy and the X-Men exactly the bumbling idiots he considers them to be!

#36 features yet another would-be supervillain with some metallic aide fighting the team, this time Mekano, a college kid looking to rebel against his perception of fatherly neglect.  Technically, since last issue we’ve been making great strides toward resolving the Factor Three arc.  Technically.

The next three issues are the epic clash with Factor Three.  These issues are more significant than they may seem.  They are essentially the basis for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, featuring a band of evil mutants threatening nuclear holocaust during the Cold War.  Instead of the Hellfire Club, though, we get the Mutant Master, the Changeling, and a band of foes the X-Men defeated in its earliest adventures, including the Blob.  Everyone’s being manipulated by the Mutant Master, or so the Mutant Master believes, until the X-Men succeed in exposing him for what he really is, and it turns out to not be a mutant at all!  He’s actually an alien, which actually presages later preoccupations with aliens by other X-Men writers (even though this makes no sense, because the X-Men are theoretically all about mutants and mutant persecution).  This was Roy Thomas’ big story, the league of evil mutants that was inspired by the first Brotherhood but was arguably more significant, and is the only story so far that has anything to do with mutants and what Professor X was trying to accomplish in the first place.

That point is emphasized in a series of backup features that begins in #38, in which the team’s origins are explored.  Charles Xavier is portrayed as a recluse following the tragic fate of his brother Cain Marko (the Juggernaut), until he hears of public panic caused by Scott Summers, whom he seeks out to try and help, lest he be hounded and become the very menace humans already believe mutants to be.  Scott first has to elude the manipulations of Jack Winters, who “becomes a mutant” in the same kind of accident that gives other heroes their powers, developing diamond hands and thus calling himself Jack o’ Diamonds, until Xavier intervenes.

Combined, these backup features and the Factor Three epic are easily the best stories so far in the collection, fulfilling the potential and the periodic angst sprinkled in with all the character antics that fill in the pages between fairly generic battles that all seem to fit the pattern of, “villain seems to best the team, the team rallies.”  It’s especially significant that Magneto actually has nothing to do with Factor Three, nor any other major foe, and for some, that’s reason enough to assume it doesn’t mean anything historically.  That it’s a direct threat to mutantkind as well as mankind says differently, as does the fact that it so directly parallels the events of FIRST CLASS, despite widespread differences. 

Well, and then #40 has Thomas repeating the Merlin trick he pulled earlier, trying to assimilate Frankenstein’s Monster into the mythology, and pointedly again featuring aliens (and again, why???).  Many, many X-Men writers have failed to understand what the X-Men are actually about (just one of the many reasons why X-MEN 2099 remains for me one of the best X-Men experiences I’ve ever had, because it does not make that mistake), while even Chris Clarement had perhaps his most lucid moment playing with the future rather than the present.

It should also be noted that a new set of individualized costumes is introduced at the end of the Factor Three saga, and that my favorite artist so far is featured in #34, and his name is Dan Adkins.  He becomes an inker the next issue, and seems to have been employed mostly as a cover artist.  But now you have my opinion.

But the collection continues! 

It All Comes To This!

I’ve been visiting Comic Book Resources for a couple years now, as it’s become my major touchstone to the major goings-on of the comic book world, and every now again it’ll motivate me to read something I hadn’t previously planned on checking out.  It happened recently with HITMAN, and now again with Ron Marz, who has a regular column there.  When talking about THE MAGDALENA, a series I had no intention of reading (and only had experience with via a one-shot crossover with Daredevil a few years back), he made it just compelling enough to rouse my interest.  I’d previously assumed that it, along with every other Top Cow character, was still basically the flimsy pinup book the whole line was originally conceived as.  Marz has been writing for the company for several years now, but I assumed he was basically slumming it (I retain a great amount of respect for his Green Lantern work).  Also, it was just plain easier to keep on assuming that, as it allowed me to limit my reading pool.  Then he talked about the project like it really meant something to him, and so it seemed like it might mean something to me, too (this is sometimes, but always, the case with passion projects).  Magdalena is a DA VINCI CODE kind of gal, the descendent of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, now a protector of the Church.  Well, it turns out she also fights dragons.  I never really believed that the character’s adventures could be all that religious, because she’s still mainstream.  The art is surprisingly standard (something Top Cow probably switched to years ago).  If this were published by DC, no one would really consider it out of place.  Marz doesn’t really dig very deep into his story, and I don’t say that as someone who couldn’t figure out what was going on having only read the one issue, but rather as someone who read it and figured it to be fairly light storytelling.  One of those not-bad-could-have-been-better sort of deals.  I have no particular regrets, though.  Still worth a look, and I can see where it was probably a tad more interesting for those who read the rest of the series, cancelled after poor readership and many creative delays, unfortunately.  In another reality, I bet I was a fan.

The latest issue of Peter Pan in WWII sees the erstwhile lost boys laying low with the Darlings and has a great deal of depth to it, a gratifying issue for someone who still wasn’t sure if their faith in the series was unfounded.  Almost every Image book is touted as a creative triumph only Image would have published (the reality is that Image publishes just about anything, and rarely makes sure it’s really going to stand out or amount to something), so there was no guarantee that something that sounded intriguing was actually going to be.  This book is.  I like Peter Pan, yes, and would’ve been interested one way or another, at least to sample, but this is the kind of issue that proves that there was no mistake, that this series really does have something to say, not just about Peter Pan in a different context, or about war, but both, and beyond even that, and that’s what really makes this book work.  This is the issue to persuade anyone to read it, for any reason they like.

RASL #14 (Cartoon)
Hard to believe there’s only one issue left of this Jeff Smith series.  Smith is best known for BONE, the novelty that turned into epic fiction and one of the biggest cult hits in comic book history.  I tried to argue with Tim at Heroes & Dragons my disappointment that RASL hasn’t gotten anywhere near the kind of interest BONE garnered.  He didn’t really seem to understand what I meant, but I can be a little obsessive about quality projects getting their due (which may be why I can never seem to focus on any one quality project, because I identify too many of them for my own good).  I originally believed that fans who loved BONE loved Smith enough to embrace, even at a diminished capacity, his next project, but that simply hasn’t been the case.  Perhaps RASL is a little too different, a little more ambitious than those fans were anticipating.  Then again, who seriously believed that someone like Smith had another great big idea in him?  It’s not uncommon for creators to have only one sure thing in their arsenal, and it’s just as easy to assume that this really is all there is to believe.  And maybe that’s something of what’s happened to RASL (or maybe I’m simply jumping the gun, and its popularity will rise in the collected edition, much as what happened with BONE).  Anyway, it’s a tale of science gone amok, parallel worlds, Nikola Tesla, and a guy’s enduring love for the woman he lost, and found again.  All that’s coming to a close, and this issue sort of suggests how.  I will leave concluding thoughts for the final issue.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

It's All A Vast Marvel Conspiracy...

Now, a few weeks ago I came out with one of those rare reviews that was actually critical of The Avengers.  I'm about to do something that will sound like a retraction.  It isn't, because my reservations remain, but now I've locked on a reason to think a little more positively about it.

It came about, it all started actually, at the start of the millennium.  (Origin story!)  I was entering college and had been forced for financial liquidity to quit reading comics (not the first and maybe not the last time), and my brother took pity on me, and on several occasions bought boxes of comics for me, which being the appreciative guy I am I didn't actually read for a very long time.  My original reasoning was that these were comics I had not personally selected and so could not possibly interest me.

Well, long story short I was an idiot.  Many years later I proved myself wrong (because of course I did not get rid of them), and the latest example of just how wrong I was came in my second reading of Conspiracy #2, from Marvel Comics.

Conspiracy looks like a book Marvel put out in the continuing giddiness over the success of Marvels, the Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross milestone that set the company's comics history in perspective (and was probably the reason Gwen Stacy's death remains relevant today).  I have never actually read Marvels, but Conspiracy is something I can really get behind.

Written by Dan Abnett (who usually works with Andy Lanning on sci-fi adventures that can appear to be fairly generic) and featuring painted art, Conspiracy is exactly what its title suggests.  I love conspiracy stories about as I scoff at actual conspiracy theories, mostly because they're more coherent, and Conspiracy attempts to weave a version of Marvel history that pretty much ties everything together.

It is surprisingly relevant to The Avengers.  That was something I admired about the film at the time that I allowed to be overshadowed by the weaknesses portrayed as strengths by everyone else dazzled by spectacle.  The movie's greatest strength is how it actually ties everything together, brilliantly, in less superficial ways than, "Hey!  Nick Fury!"  The comics, which featured all these characters either created or revived in a matter of years, were more or less done that way, with the Marvel age defined by a sense of continuity that was more shadowboxing than reality (much as these films have been), have never really approached this level of coherence, no matter how many crossover events are done.

Conspiracy is an early example for how exactly this sort of thing could be pulled off, and could only be viewed out of continuity because fans prefer to keep one version alive rather than anything else, at least as far as Marvel goes (DC is a different story, obviously).  At least until The Avengers.  I know that the Ultimates were a pointed inspiration for these films, but Conspiracy is the true father of this revolution that has now vaulted to the top of box office history.

The truth strength of the film is the mythology, as the mythology had its best showing in a forgotten masterwork.  And I wouldn't have made that connection except for a fluke of a fluke of a fluke.

But that's just how these things sometimes work.