Death Comes To Call – Thanos #1

Lemire and Deodato conjure 70s sci-fi magic, as the big purple bad guy’s solo series gets off to a strong start.

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Thanos and a big pile of skulls. Enough to encourage you to buy the issue? Oh, yes.

I was a kid in the 70s. Gawky, goofy, obsessed with Doctor Who. And, like, I suspect, most boys of my generation, World War II. The pervasive effects of the Second World War on popular culture in the UK during the 70s really can’t be overstated. In film and on TV, Britain and its allies defeated the Nazis and theirs with varying degrees of realism, drama and earnestness. As a boy, Commando and Warlord were my comics of choice. (Until Marvel finally got their act together, acquired the rights to Doctor Who and started publishing Doctor Who Weekly, of course.) Published by D C Thomson, Commando books were (and still are, for that matter) digest-sized, single-story comics offering intense blasts of action-peppered storytelling with art that ranged from almost frenzied rough lines to beautifully detailed realism. They were a staple of my childhood years, thanks largely to my grandmother faithfully buying an issue for me every week.

So, what on earth has this got to do with Thanos? Well, every so often, the newsagent’s would be sold out of Commando books, so grandma would buy me an issue of Starblazer instead – same format, same publisher, but mad sci-fi/science fantasy instead of gritty war stories. This first issue of Thanos reminds me rather powerfully of some of those 70s sci-fi comics. This is largely due to Mike Deodato’s (I guess he doesn’t need the Jr anymore) artwork, but Jeff Lemire does a fantastic job of creating an exotic, alien setting for his story – and in a wonderfully economical way, too.

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Scene-setting. Very nice.

I must confess I’m not what you would call a Thanos ‘fan’. I like the character, but have yet to read the original Starlin Infinity Gauntlet stories. The cosmic side of the Marvel universe remains something of a mystery to me. That said, Thanos #1 is a good place to dive in and immerse yourself in the madness. We start off with a rather nicely done bit of narration[1] introducing us to the Black Quadrant, the moon from which Corvus Glaive rules his band of mercenaries (known as the Black Order), who in turn enforce his will throughout the territory that had formerly belonged to Thanos, Glaive having been Thanos’ right hand man when the ‘mad Titan’ had sat on the throne. Both Deodato’s art and Lemire’s words combine rather beautifully here; the images of the moon complex and tower, a group of Black Order mercenaries, and Glaive himself sitting on the throne surrounded by arcane tubing and wires echo are impressive both for their detail and ability to evoke the weird sci-fi comics of my childhood. Having explained that Glaive has usurped Thanos’ seat of power, no time is wasted in showing us Thanos returning and the entirely predictable carnage and devastation that follows. It is to Lemire’s and, particularly, Deodato’s credit that none of this violence feels remotely run of the mill. On the contrary, it is spectacular and dramatic stuff.

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‘THOOM’. That’s not going to be good, is it?

The sense of grim inevitability these moments produce is important for the action that follows. Once Thanos arrives, Glaive chooses to try to defend ‘his’ throne – a decision that, I must admit, rather surprised me. I expected abject grovelling and some sort of guff about how he was keeping the seat warm for his newly returned boss. The fight that follows is brutal and short. Having destroyed the weapon from which Glaive takes his name and to which his life force is tied, Thanos gives his former lackey a choice: kill himself or let Thanos do it for him. And, as much as I can recognise that, yes, this is all a bit contrived and obvious, the moment when Glaive chooses the former option and plunges a shard of his shattered weapon into his stomach remains both dramatic and remarkably powerful. Thanos really is a scary guy.

The build-up to and depiction of the fight is broken up by the introduction of Tryco Slatterus, Champion of the Universe, who is hunting the Titan Eros, otherwise known as Starfox. Former Avenger Starfox is doing what Starfox does best – having romantic fun with a… ahem… diverse range of lovers. (Well, he does have euphoria-inducing powers…) The story here becomes just a tad predictable: mysterious, buff-looking, tough-talking chap turns up to whisk Starfox away from his life of self-indulgent pleasure. A combination of threats, snark and exposition ensues. The dialogue, for the most part, is serviceable enough, although I’m inclined to say that Starfox describing Tryco’s ship as a “space turd” is a genuine highlight. Tryco’s news that he’s been asked by Thane, Thanos’ son, to help him kill Thanos is intriguing enough and that sense of intrigue is deepened when Tryco reveals that there’s going to be one more member of the Thanos-killing team they need to pick up on the way back to Thane.

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Starfox having fun. I think he needs a bigger bed…

Speaking of which, the final section of the issue deals with Thane and Death discussing their plan to kill Thanos. This is some nice stage-setting. Anyone who’s even only superficially acquainted with Thanos knows the role of the girl Death in his origin and ongoing psychopathy. (If you haven’t read Jason Aaron’s Thanos Rising, you really should – and not just because of the quite amazing Simone Bianchi artwork either.) What she’s doing here with Thane (a character with considerably more moral scruples than his father) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the comic and the greatest source of uncertainty in the story so far. Is she to be trusted? Almost certainly not. Why does Thane trust her? I’m not really sure. Her issue-ending revelation, however, does appear to be genuine. Throughout her conversation with Thane, we’ve seen images of Thanos obviously in some sort of physical distress and the issue ends very dramatically on a full-page of him bleeding (purple blood, naturally) from his nose and mouth and looking almost pathetically shocked. “Thanos is dying” we are told. While this does raise the question of why, in that case, Thane wants to kill him, it is a pretty shocking way to end the issue and primes the reader nicely for the rest of this opening story arc.

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On the whole, then, this is a very good comic book. We get to see all the major characters in action including Thanos at his most brutally powerful and, at the end, shockingly vulnerable. Lemire gets Starfox absolutely spot on and the relationship between Thane and Death is interesting. In this issue, he does pretty much exactly what any writer should with a first issue of an ongoing title. He provides action, clear characterisation and hints of an unfolding plot that is comprehensible and bold enough (the title character is dying, everyone!) to hook the reader. He is ably assisted, though, by Mike Deodato whose layouts and character work are simply phenomenal. The simple decision to frame some of the action in a rectangular border grid lends the whole comic an elegant but futuristic feel and the interplay of light and shadow is also very striking. In addition, Frank Martin’s colours are impressively alien; he uses a palette of dirty oranges and muted purples for the Thanos sections, that manage to feel strange without being garish. A strong, highly enjoyable issue, Thanos #1 is a highly promising start to what I hope will be a fascinating and exciting exploration of Marvel’s wider sci-fi universe.

[1] Who precisely is doing the narration remains a mystery to me. I did think it was Thane at one point, but I don’t think it is. Is this a sneaky return for third person narration? If so, I am a happy man.

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Hitting The Ground Running – Red Hood and the Outlaws (New 52) Issue 1

Lobdell and Rocafort’s New 52 effort is visually spectacular but leaves the reader hanging.

red-hood-and-the-outlaws-01_00A team featuring Red Hood, Arsenal and Starfire would not be high on my list of things to read, but, having heard good things about the current iteration of Red Hood and the Outlaws, I thought I’d check out the first issue of the title’s New 52 run. And, yes, as the Rebirth team features Red Hood, Bizarro and Artemis, that probably is as silly as it sounds; it’s just the way I roll.

 

The first thing to point out is that Kenneth Rocafort’s artwork is generally jaw-dropping. This is the first time I’ve encountered him and to say that I was impressed would be an understatement. His character work is detailed but clear, his facial expressions appropriate and evocative, and his action scenes easy enough to follow. Plus, he does cheesecake pretty well, too. (More on this in a moment.)

Scott Lobdell’s story is fun enough, too. We start with the Arsenal formerly known as Speedy stuck in a jail in fictional Middle Eastern country Qurac after helping its people overthrow their government and then falling foul of the inevitable turmoil that followed. Lobdell has Red Hood narrating at this point, which is a pretty big clue that the character is about to become part of the action. What follows is a pretty exciting rescue with Red Hood disguised as an overweight pastor in a moment that is influenced by Total Recall. The escape takes place over two double-page spreads, the art laid out in a crazy-quilt of shards and slivers that does a reasonable job of conveying the frenetic action. And violence. (Many of Arsenal’s erstwhile captors will not be doing the prison rounds ever again.)

The pair break out of the prison compound and drive away in Red Hood’s jeep. There is a chase, there is banter, there are tanks. There is a bad joke. (“Tanks!” “Don’t mention it.”) And there is a pointlessly sexist and unfunny joke that leads to the introduction of probably the most problematic element of this issue. Starfire.

Now admittedly, I am almost entirely ignorant of everything that’s happened to the character since 1991, but her portrayal here seems off. Visually, she’s as impressive as ever. Rocafort’s artwork presents her as beautiful, powerful and emotionally detached from the carnage she’s wreaking on the Quraci tanks. The splash page that introduces her is poster-worthy; the joke much much less so. And this, I think, is the point. Starfire has always been an attractive character – and explicitly sensual too. She has always been seen as uninhibited and free with her sexuality in ways that proved to be awkward or embarrassing for her more uptight friends in the Teen Titans. At the same time, though, that sense of self-confidence and freedom led to a rather touching naivety that is wholly absent here. Partly this is because society itself has arguably become more relaxed about sexual morality and, as a result, there is less mileage to be gained in that frisson between sensuality and decorum. This poses challenges for any creative team taking the character on, but Lobdell and Rocafort’s approach is to sexualise her more obviously while at the same time presenting her as having divorced emotion from sexuality completely. That combination is… unsatisfying. There are hints of more going on with the character (not least with the introduction of a shady character who appears to be on the look out for Tamaraneans), but they’re almost drowned out in a blizzard of crass one-liners and eye candy.

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Say “cheese”!

That’s not to say that there isn’t interesting stuff going on here. Once the story moves on to the island of St Martinique (and the obligatory swimsuit shots – thank you, Mr Rocafort), it diverges into two branches: the Roy-Kori plotline that is there primarily to establish the ground rules about Starfire (alien, ephemeral connections with humans, promiscuous), and the Jason-Essence plotline that provides the impetus moving forward. Essence is a character about whom I know nothing. Clearly she has a strong connection with Jason and there’s some intriguing stuff about the ‘All Caste’, which appears to be an organization with which Jason has close ties. The references to bodies with organs removed long before death is interesting enough to make me want to read on, too. Jason’s journey to the Himalayas to find out what’s been going on with the All Caste leads to a closing confrontation with nameless robed and blade-wielding bad guys and a “To Be Explained” note at the end.

“To Be Explained” is a less than ideal way of ending a first issue, though, and does, I think, highlight a problem with the pacing of this story. While the opening few pages are fun and easy enough to follow, the later pages are much more opaque, requiring prior knowledge to understand and a willingness to wait for more explanations. On the whole, then, this first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws is, despite its beautiful artwork, less satisfying than it should be. Partly, this is due to the portrayal of Starfire, but it’s also to do with pacing and structure. Hopefully, issue 2 will see things improve.

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Weird goth girl is weird. White on black word balloons are always a bit of a giveaway too.