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Dusting Off

Dusting Off: JLA: Earth 2 (1999)

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jlaearth2My interest in DC’s straight-to-DVD animated features – New Frontier, Green Lantern: First Flight and the like – has been piqued recently with the release, to a generally positive reception, of Justice League : Crisis on Two Earths. I’ll hopefully be getting hold of it to review here at some point soon (along with, possibly, some of the other films), but in the meantime, reading about it gave me the impetus to look back over one of the comics upon which it’s loosely based – and an early work from one of my favourite creative teams, to boot – namely, this Morrison and Quitely standalone OGN from 1999.

Only the second collaboration between the pair – following 1996’s Flex MentalloEarth 2 sees a slightly rawer Frank Quitely than we might be used to nowadays. The traditional and thicker inking calls to mind his work on the likes of New X-Men and Authority – as does the occasional bluntness in some of his facial work, a feature that’s undoubtedly improved over the course of his career. But there are nevertheless some cracking examples of the unconvential storytelling and point-of-view placement that would later define his work, and he’s helped also by an excellent colourist in the shape of Laura Depuy. And the group plane rescue sequence that introduces the JLA to the action is wonderfully choreographed, and the sort of thing you could imagine opening a Justice League movie.

The story itself, meanwhile, is something of a fun romp – perhaps a shade lightweight (if well-suited to the book’s length, which feels roughly equivalent to a three-part miniseries) but nevertheless constructed around a cracking hook. It’s not just that it’s a parallel universe where everything’s flipped, as there’s a long tradition of that in the DCU anyway (whatever you might say about DC in relation to other comics publishers, alternate realities are something they’ve always done best) – but rather, the individual, smaller high-concepts and twists that Morrison is able to tease out of that larger premise. It makes sense that even a “good” Luthor would have a certain level of arrogance about him, for example; while the realisation that an “opposite” world would mean a reversal of standard comic book rules about just who tends to win is an inspired moment, shown best by the subtle hints about how even the “good” Commissioner Wayne may be susceptible to unchecked power. Still, the inevitable stalemate brought about by that twist does leave the book suddenly grasping at a fresh antagonist – for both sides – to give its final act some dramatic impetus, and the threat doesn’t wholly convince. But it’s a minor quibble in what is otherwise a terrifically entertaining little story.

Though often overlooked in favour of later collaborations, Earth 2 nevertheless stands as a fine example of what the Morrison/Quitely partnership is capable of. It’s a strong continuation of the lively, well-characterised and idea-driven tone of Morrison’s earlier JLA run, and as a spiritual sequel to that series, stands up there with its finest stories. Whether the film can live up to it (or whether indeed it takes much inspiration beyond the superficial) is another question, but there’s no denying that it’s a cracking bit of source material to want to draw from.

Seb Patrick | 24th February, 2010

Dusting Off: The Pulse #13 (March 2006)

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pulse13You’ve read us yakking about Alias enough on here by now, I’m sure. But a comic that you might be less aware of, one that got even less of a chance to fully establish itself, was Bendis’ follow-up series, The Pulse. After inadvertently bringing Alias to a natural end point, he shuffled Jessica Jones and Luke Cage over to a new series and setup, where Jessica would work alongside Ben Urich and Kat Farrell at the Daily Bugle. It was a nice idea – not least because it involved putting Jessica and Urich, two of Marvel’s best characters, in the same comic – but managed to find itself caught up in crossovers and tie-ins (not to mention stuck with a rotating cast of artists – all strong in ability, but it led to an unconsistent “feel”) for almost the entirety of its run. Only with its last arc, Fear – which culminated in this, the penultimate issue of the series before the lead couple would move over again to New Avengers – did it really manage to do the kind of story you suspect it was always designed to.

By this point, however, Jessica had already angrily quit the Bugle, meaning that the series’ setup lasted for an even shorter time than its publication. As such, although there’s a linking thread involving the paper trying to cover Jessica and Luke’s baby’s birth, the issue’s pretty much split down the middle between the “main” plot – that of said birth – and one involving Urich. The Jessica scenes – wrapping up a story that is essentially a little coda to Alias itself – are good, particularly a nice moment where Ms. Marvel is made to recount the circumstances of her own… offspring (a neat bit of meta-commentary by Bendis on a controversial and best-forgotten moment in Carol’s history), but if truth be told, it’s not the primary plotline that makes this such an unmissable issue. Rather, it’s the subplot, involving Ben Urich tracking down a rather pathetic, fallen C-list hero called D-Man, and learning just how far it’s possible for the heroes that the MU’s citizens take for granted to fall.

I didn’t know the character before this arc – his schtick is that he’s a former wrestler and massive Daredevil fan, who dresses in a replica of DD’s old yellow costume and a Wolverine mask – but his story as portrayed in this issue is devastatingly touching. Ravaged by a mental illness that leads him to believe he’s on a “quest” to retrieve seven “Infinity Gems” (actually trinkets almost unwittingly stolen from jewellery stores), he’s living in a sewer off scraps of food. His earnestness in the face of his horrendous situation is deeply poignant – and rendered quite superbly in the facial expressions drawn by the welcome-returning Michael Gaydos, who’s possibly never been better than in these scenes – and Bendis’ mastery is in having this poor, wretched soul be discovered by Ben Urich. Not only does this allow for a splendid piece of pontificating narration from the journalist, but it makes for a warm – yet still quite sad – conclusion as he gets his friend Matt Murdock to intervene. Maybe this wouldn’t get everyone the way it seems to strike at me – I suppose different “issues” are meaningful to different people – but by gum it’s difficult reading, yet at the same time a rare and welcome musing on a topic rarely explored in this medium.

There are many who write off Bendis purely on the strength of reading the type of comic he’s generally weakest at (i.e. Marvel’s big summer crossovers, or his first attempt at “doing” the Avengers). But it’s hard to deny, when he writes a story as moving, powerful and rooted in humanity as this, that he’s capable of standing up there with the best of this generation of creators. It’s partly the fact that he does something that so few other writers would have thought to do, as much as it is the compassionate and innately empathetic execution. It’s a shame that The Pulse was so short-lived, considering the story potential it held, but I’m thankful that we at least got another quick shot of that Bendis/Gaydos magic.

Seb Patrick | 27th January, 2010

Dusting Off: Detective Comics #826 (Feb 2007)

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detective826I’m determined to make an annual tradition out of doing a Dusting Off Christmas Special for as long as I can find Christmas-themed issues of comics to talk about – and with the number of the things out there, I can’t imagine running out any time soon. This year I’ve gone with a relatively recent issue – this Paul Dini story, “Slayride”, from Christmas 2006 (despite the cover date of Feb ’07). Certainly one of the better Christmas-set superhero comics of recent years, it’s also one of the strongest issues of Dini’s run on the title (dating as it does from a time when just about every issue was a strong done-in-one tale), and holds the interesting position of being (to date) the last story to feature the “traditional” version of the Joker before his recent revamp – although it falls in a weird position chronologically, as it was published after Morrison had the villain shot in the face by a deranged cop but clearly needs to take place beforehand story-wise.

I also included the story in a list of “Best Joker Stories” I wrote for another site a little while back, and I’m still inclined to agree with that. In terms of the plot itself, it’s relatively straightforward – the Joker manages to fortuitously (although it’s never quite clear, despite his claim, how well-planned it is) kidnap Robin, and drives around the streets of Gotham in an SUV committing wanton murder and destruction while Tim, tied and gagged, is forced to watch, before an inevitable moment of quick-thinking leads to his escape. What really makes it, though, is the effortless manner in which Dini captures the grinning psychopath’s character – showing all the depth of understanding that helped drive Batman: The Animated Series towards being such a good adaptation.

It’s funny at the same time as being horrifying – it’s hard not to stifle a laugh when the Joker calls 911 to report a hit-and-run before carrying it out, or rambles confusingly at a drive-thru attendant before shooting the manager in a fit of pique, but it exemplifies a spirit of terrifying, unfettered chaos in much the same way as The Dark Knight‘s version would later do. That said, there’s clearly much more of an element of the grotesque campery of the Animated version (itself inspired by the way the character was from around the late ’70s onwards) present, and indeed it feels like something of a last hurrah for that incarnation while still tipping the hat to the way the character would later go. Meanwhile, in essentially being a Robin rather than a Batman story, it offers a rare opportunity (outside of his solo title) for Tim Drake to shine on his own – and his internal monologue helps to show the sense of urgency in his attempt to escape, while he proves his mettle by taking on and defeating the worst possible foe. Even better, he does so by way of a Marx Brothers quotation.

Don Kramer’s art is some of the best he turned in during his on-and-off stint on the Dini run, too – the menace he imbues the Joker with is palpable, particularly in a truly terrifying moment as he looks Tim square in the eyes having revealed an escape plan to be a setup. It’s not exactly what you’d call “Christmassy” in its tone or message – really, the time of year happens to be a decorative visual to hang upon it, and an excuse for the punning of the title – but in proving to be a cracking little piece of Bat-lore, it certainly earns the designation of “special”.

Seb Patrick | 24th December, 2009

Dusting Off: Sandman #13 (Feb 1990)

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sandman13Common wisdom (including that of the author itself) is that issue #8 of Sandman, the first Death story, is when Neil Gaiman first “found his voice” on the series. That’s certainly true to a certain extent, and of particular elements of the book – but to my mind, in the middle of the subsequent storyline (one which, I still feel upon re-reading, shows the series stuttering a little bit in firmly establishing itself), we’re given an issue that rather more successfully defines and exemplifies the best characteristics of what still remains perhaps the finest long-form achievement in the history of the medium – issue #13, “Men of Good Fortune”.

A standalone done-in-one tale, its placing as a “break” in the middle of The Doll’s House seems odd – but it almost feels like the book needs it, because it does such an important job of establishing that it lives in a much, much wider world than the set of characters and places we’ve so far been following. Elements that wouldn’t become important until much later – talk of a “delegation from Faerie”, the first appearance of Johanna Constantine, further hints at Death’s character, and the seeds of William Shakespeare’s relevance – are planted here, as if Gaiman is saying “Right. This thing’s going to run and run. And here’s a few examples of how I’m going to play with it.”

It’s just so bloody clever, too. Without actually looking it up, I’m not sure how loosely Gaiman plays with time in order to conveniently have centennial encounters in years ending in ’89 allow for cameo appearances by Geoffrey Chaucer and a chummy Shakespeare and Marlowe, but I’d bet it’s not by very much. Conveniently catching the Bard prior to his fame and his friend at the height of his, Gaiman is able to draw parallels (explicitly referenced in the dialogue) with the latter’s Doctor Faustus in the Shakespeare/Morpheus deal that we first see hinted at here, while at the same time leading us to wonder slightly on the nature of the unwitting “arrangement” between Death and Hob. The tone and atmosphere of each successive decade (not to mention the common threads of general conversation between them), meanwhile, just feel so spot on – this is the furthest from lazy writing that you can imagine, with so much care and attention devoted to the setting as well as dialogue that is largely a joy from start to finish (“Now the chap next to him with the broken leg, bent as a pewter ducat – he’s a good playwright.”)

Part of that latter point, of course, is down to the introduction of Hob Gadling – unashamedly my favourite of the series’ stellar cast of characters, and here he demonstrates exactly why. Not without his flaws (most notably the manner in which he chooses to make his eighteenth-century fortune, something for which the series rightly never allows him to make full restitution), he’s nevertheless a brilliant and deeply human pair of eyes through which to view the series, and its lead character. He’s also, I’d argue, one of the first truly unique voices that Gaiman is able to bring out – after all, as the only person (with the possible exception of Matthew) that Dream can truly call “friend”, he needs to be a strong character, and he is. And even now, even having read it countless times, the final page is still just utterly lovely.

Of course, anyone reading Sandman for the first time nowadays will always come at it from the angle of knowing what a monumental series it’s supposed to be, and so are more likely to have the preconception that it’ll turn into something magnificent. And I can’t even claim to have read this story in sequence when I did first embark on the series – The Doll’s House was missing from the borrowed set of trades I read. Nevertheless, it’s clear looking back that #13 is an important milestone in the series’ history, the second big “moment” (after #8) to hint that this was going to be something special – and arguably (despite Hob’s relatively unimportant role in actual events) the first true indication of what the whole thing was all about. It absolutely nails it, in other words, and it’s fair to say that comics are very rarely as good as this one.

Seb Patrick | 18th November, 2009

Dusting Off: Superman #400 (October 1984)

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superman400Comics like their anniversary issues. Hardly surprising, since by their very nature as periodicals, they can enjoy plenty of them – whether it’s a literal anniversary of a publication date/year, or simply a landmark issue number, there are enough comics being published nowadays that date back a sufficient period that if publishers were so inclined they could probably find something to celebrate every single shipping week.

And yet in recent years, DC in particular seem to have celebrated these occasions with a bit less fanfare. Marvel, at least, tend to pull out something when a title such as Amazing Spider-Man hits a new century (usually an anthology issue of some kind), but DC’s issue landmarks – while they might get slightly oversized issues – tend to go almost unheralded, while they seem to almost entirely ignore their decade-based anniversaries nowadays. Back in 1984, however, it seemed that such issues were a bit more of a big deal – and so this 1984 comic (also, give or take a few months, 45 years after issue #1 of the title) was the cue for a general celebration of the Superman mythos.

It’s an anthology of sorts, although what’s not immediately apparent is that (with the exception of Steranko’s closing pages) it’s all written by one person – Elliott S! Maggin. Maggin takes us on a journey through a myriad imaginary futures, looking at the legend of Superman passing through the ages; and tailors his stories sufficiently to his artists that each vignette has a distinct style and tone all of its own. Some are more successful than others – but the shared motifs are the twin examinations of the power of myth, and also that of the iconography of Superman and of heroism in general. A downbeat yet slightly uplifting story of rebellion in a fascist future society is the best example of the latter, while another highlight is the somewhat meta Frank Miller-drawn tale of archaeologists finding a video – fallen through interdimensional cracks all the way from Earth Prime – of the George Reeves TV series and using it to discover Superman’s secret identity.

What really makes this such a draw, though – and indeed, one of the absolute prides of my comic collection, quite aside from the fact that it’s one of the earliest comics I remember reading – is the array of artistic talent brought in to draw Maggin’s stories. The loose theme for the issue is the hiring of artists not previously known for having drawn the character – and while the art for the stories themselves is of varying quality, it’s in a succession of pinups that we’re given an unprecedented and stunning roster of talent – most notably Brian Bolland, Berni Wrightson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko (drawing Superman for, I believe, the only time ever), Moebius (!) and Will Eisner (!!!). It’s also amusing seeing John Byrne draw the character in his style of the time, just a couple of years before taking over the book and (in a very different manner) defining his look for the next couple of decades.

It really is a wonderful gallery of pieces that each perfectly encapsulate and celebrate the character (if I were choosing favourites, I’d go for Sienkiewicz, Wrightson and Bolland’s), and as fun as Maggin’s stories are, it’s these that make this issue such a classic. Perhaps it’s just that the mid-80s were a fortuitous time for comics featuring names that were in the process of becoming legends, while still being able to call upon those that had shaped the medium in its defining decades; but this time-capsule of a piece feels like a genuine one-of-a-kind.

Seb Patrick | 28th October, 2009

Dusting Off: Marvel Boy (October 2008 Hardcover)

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mbEvery month we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

With the ‘final’ pieces of last year’s DC crossover now settling back into place, it’s interesting to take another glance at the miniseries which the firm’s competition tried to sell off the back of its creators’ more high profile gig. Marvel Boy undeniably reads well in the trade format, particularly the closing half of the story, but the knowledge that little of any interest has followed for Noh-Varr in his original writer’s absence somewhat overshadows the series.

 While the Kree soldier’s adventures were hyped as being a bold new take on the Fantastic Four mythos, it’s perfectly possible to simply enjoy the story without knowledge of Marvel Boy’s race, as simply a slice of pop-art sci-fi. A common-sense structure is adopted, with an origin story preceding two stand-alone issues and a three part concluding arc. The writer’s approach to the property varied noticeably through these instalments. Grant Morrison had praised Warren Ellis’s Authority as being the first superhero comic of the twenty first century and these two issues seem very much inspired by the Wildstorm book, with grandiose sci-fi concepts being fought by the hero against an urban backdrop, supported by his otherworldly spaceship. You can’t argue with the imagination deployed, and Morrison was clearly having fun here, but these distractions sadly weaken the story as a whole. We’re left with certain elements of the main tale being rather perfunctory, with Noh-Varr and Oubliette’s attraction to each other being communicated by other characters, rather than shown in the events on-panel. Certain character traits also come off as less than convincing, with the destruction of Noh-Varr’s friends and lover being used rather unconvincing as a reason for light angst, rather than anything stronger.

It’s a little harsh to view Marvel Boy as a failure; JG Jones turns in some excellent work here, and Morrison used this book as a launch pad to inject his sensibilities into a much more high-profile Marvel property. The story itself was clearly influential- the conception of SHIELD here is an obvious influence on Joss Whedon’s SWORD set-up. By destroying the series status quo in the final issue, however, the creators gambled that they’d have time to return to their creation and fully define him. The failure of this bet sadly left Noh-Varr as driftwood in the Marvel universe. Marvel Boy still entertains, but the standard trade format seems more fitting than the hardcover treatment it received.

Julian Hazeldine | 9th September, 2009

Dusting Off : Roy of the Rovers, 20th March 1993

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rotrlastissueSomething a bit different for this week’s Dusting Off, as I recently dug out a pile of issues (actually borrowed off a mate) of Roy of the Rovers, in order to look something up in them – and I thought it might be fun to attempt to review one. For non-UK readers who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, Roy of the Rovers was a weekly comic strip begun in the 1950s, chronicling the adventures of a football (soccer) player named Roy Race, and his team, Melchester Rovers. It was part of a great culture of British sporting comics – one that gradually died out as the 1980s and 1990s went on – and by far the most successful example, starting in an anthology series called Tiger before moving to its own eponymous comic in the ’70s.

By the early ’90s, however, its popularity was on the wane, and its decline culminated in this – the famous (featured on the news, and everything) final issue, from early 1993. It wasn’t the last comic to carry the title – later that same year, a rather different, edgier monthly title (aimed at a teen market and looking to tackle more in the way of “issues” in the game) would launch – but for all intents and purposes, this was the end of the “classic” style ROTR.

Ever since its launch, ROTR had consisted of a lead feature – the titular story – and a number of backup strips, each of anything from one to about four or five pages. As such, the cancellation of the series meant that those which were running at the time also had to be wound down at the same time as the main strip. So there’s a curious feeling to this issue, as aside from the main story there’s really not much else left – a series called Buster’s Ghost gets a rather open-ended and inconclusive final two-page installment, but every other story featured had left the building within the preceding year, and it’s like they’re just waiting for Roy to turn the lights off behind him when he’s done. Classic strips Hot Shot Hamish and Playmaker are featured, but only in the form of reprints from the late ’80s. And that really is it – with the rest of a lightweight issue being given over to the ROTR strip itself, and nothing else. There’s not even the usual mixture of “real life” football features, readers letters and so on – the only text features (a standard aspect of British kids’ comic magazines) are ones looking briefly over the history of ROTR itself. If you’re looking for an example of a classic comic magazine at its finest, then this isn’t it.

But there’s excitement to be had from the main strip itself – split, for the first time in some years, into two separate instalments at the beginning and end of the issue, allowing for a cliffhanger partway through. The early pages show some of the problems the strip was having by this point – at a time when the Premier League era was just kicking in, it is rather old-fashioned, in its type of story if not the suitably-updated superficial trappings. The tale of a new manager replacing Roy and trying to bring in new tactics, only to fail miserably and be faced with players, fans and directors that want their old boss back, could have come from any point in the strip’s life – although it’s given an element of sharp, contemporary class with the art of Barrie Mitchell, one of the very best pencillers the series ever had.

But where ROTR always excelled over other sporting comics was in mixing “soap opera” elements with the football, and the helicopter crash that dominates the second half of the issue, while somewhat melodramatic, provides a suitably gripping end to Roy’s weekly adventures. The strip ends on a downbeat note, with the deliberate cliffhanger (to be resolved in the succeeding monthly title) of whether or not Roy actually survived (he did, but at the expense of his left foot and playing career). The closing scene of Roy’s son “Rocky” addressing the assembles press and fans feels somewhat abrupt, and it’s a strangely subdued place on which to end (you rather expected more bombast from this comic) – but that actually feels somewhat appropriate when you consider how few people were still buying the thing, and the strange, ghostly feeling that consequently haunts its pages at this point.

It’s a shame that there’s been nothing to match Roy of the Rovers in the years since (save for a short-lived comeback in the late ’90s) for those of us who are nerdy about both comics and football – the garish dross that passes for football comics in the pages of assorted tabloids isn’t even worth speaking about in the same breath. While this final issue – affectionate tribute cover and all – didn’t see the comic at its best, it’s still nice to flick through and remember a time when football crowds could squeeze an entire conversation into a single on-pitch moment (“Will Racey get there in time?” “The defender’s closing in!” etc etc), and a burst of “Racey’s Rocket” could solve all the world’s problems. Not to mention a time when you could turn the page of a periodical, only to see an advert for the film Mr. Nanny, starring Hulk Hogan. We really won’t see the like of those days again.

Dusting Off: Wisdom #1 (September 2006)

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wis 1If there’s a particularly acute drought of new titles, Wednesday sees us delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

On the week before Captain Britain & M.I.13 is lowered into the ground, still struggling, it’s interesting to take a look back at how the story started, in 2006’s ‘Rudiments of Wisdom’ mini-series. It was here that we were introduced to M.I.13, and remarkably little has changed since these early, days, with Paul Cornell hitting the right notes with sufficient strength first time around.

Pete Wisdom seems determined to single-handedly shake off the British establishment’s stuffy image, putting together an eccentric collection of foul-mouthed figures imaginable in response to a series of covert offensives by the country’s supernatural underbelly, but a completely different sort of mature-readers approach proves to be the solution to the problem. With hindsight, the immediately striking feature of the title is that it’s a bona fide team book, with Wisdom a doorway into this world, just as Brian Braddock has proved in the successor title. Despite the superficial nods to the MAX label, the writer primarily uses the freedom available to him to inject a slightly larger-than-life feel to the proceedings, with moments of straight-faced find-racing silliness such as Wisdom’s briefing on conduct when in Avalon complementing more traditional all-ages jokes such as the super spy running out of puff while leading the team. One part of foreshadowing aside, the issue functions as a self-contained piece, conforming more to one-shot rules than the mini-series ethic.

Trevor Hairsine’s is extremely variable as an artist, with his scratchy style having to walk a fine line between moodiness and ink-drenched obscurity. Here, he’s obvious on form, doing a fine job of maintaining a coherent tone in the issue, no matter how fantastical or mundane the locations to which Cornell dispatches his protagonists. There are a couple of corners cut here and there, but not enough to take the gloss off some extremely strong work. In terms of themes, the writer makes a bold gamble by having several characters articulating the main concept for the book, of Britain’s inability to escape its past, so openly, but subsequent issues vindicated this approach, with each story giving rise to one moment when it becomes clear just how this idea fits into the tale. The overall impression is of a superabundance of imagination- it’s hard to remember the last time so many memorable figures were introduced within the same issue of a comic.

Julian Hazeldine | 15th July, 2009

Dusting Off : Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Omega (August 1995)

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maximumclonageomegaEvery month we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

In recent discussion with Comics Daily Cohort James Hunt, an assertion that I’ve often made about comics reared its head – that Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Omega was the worst single issue comic I’d ever read. James scoffed at this – worse than Jeph Loeb’s recent efforts? I confessed that it had been years since I’d read it, but that I was fairly sure that yes, in the intervening time, I’d never encountered anything worse. He remained sceptical. Well, with a Dusting Off rolling around on the schedule again, I figured it would be the ideal opportunity to refamiliarise myself with it.

I was wrong.

There is never an ideal opportunity to refamiliarise oneself with Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Omega.

Originally intended as the capstone to the infamous Clone Saga – at least, the bit of the Clone Saga that was going to wind up with the newly “I’m-a-clone”-ified Peter Parker going off into the sunset and Ben Reilly taking over as Spider-Man, although you’re a fool if you think that was ever really intended to be the end of the story – the six-part “Maximum Clonage” (topped and tailed by these ludicrously-named “Alpha” and “Omega” issues) is, quite simply, one of the most wretched and pointless exercises in the history of comics. Featuring the final stages of the irrevocable destruction of the character of Dr Miles Warren – turning the Jackal into a green, pointy-eared goblinny figure (yeah, like there aren’t enough of those hanging around Spidey) whose agenda has inexplicably shifted from “hate Spider-Man because he let the woman I loved die” to “I want to kill everybody on the planet and replace them with clones”, not to mention one of the most appallingly-conceived and named characters (“Spidercide”) ever unleashed by Marvel, it’s a confused mess on every conceivable level – and the scene in which Peter is confronted by thousands upon thousands of costumed clones of himself a genuine nadir in Spider-history.

But that scene had already taken place by the time Omega rolled around. And Omega is even worse. “Scripted” by Tom Lyle, an artist promoted to writing duties far beyond his horrendous level of inexperience simply because, it seems, no-one else would touch it (so he was the ’90s equivalent of Tony Daniel, in other words), the ludicrous plot is delivered by way of unbearably trite dialogue (“No! I think that you must still die.”), inane exposition (“No wonder I thought that I was the clone so easily.” “Oh, that? When I took the cell samples from you that I used to create your clones, I implanted that thought in your head while I was there.”) and page after page of tedious, circular events. The bomb’s going to go off! Look, it’s the Jackal! They’ve webbed up the Jackal! Quick, stop the bomb! Wait, the Jackal’s free, stop him! Get back to the bomb! Oh no, the Jackal’s free again! Gwen’s got his gun! She’s going to fall! No, he‘s going to fall! It’s honestly enough to make you pound your own head against the wall. And it doesn’t even manage to achieve its stated aim – in the closing pages, the question of who’ll be Spider-Man afterwards is still, staggeringly, left wide open.

What really pushes this into “downright appalling” territory, though, is the art – honestly some of the worst work I’ve ever seen in a mainstream comic. I mean, you know, at least Ultimates 3 had Joe Mad going for it. An incredible four pencillers (including Mark Bagley, although I can’t see anything that actually looks like his work) and five inkers are credited on a 48-page comic (one telling, lest we forget, a single story – this ain’t an anthology), and so even if they were turning in good work, it’d still look as horrendously inconsistent as it does. They’re not turning in good work, though – not at all. Unclear storytelling, absolutely dreadful (and mostly distorted) character work from all concerned… I know that at this point the editors were in a tremendous rush just to get the thing out, but it honestly feels like an insult that anyone thought the work contained within these pages was worth charging people nearly five dollars for. Maybe they reckoned the chromium cover (oh yes) would make it worthwhile.

Is it the worst comic I’ve ever read, though? I’m not sure. Since I first read this I’ve read not only recent history’s Ultimates 3/Ultimatum, Titans and All Star Batman, but also things like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Dreaming, and Tom Veitch’s Animal Man. Although to be fair, all the aforementioned had better art than this. Story-wise, though… well, it’s rotten, and trite, and pointless, but it’s a very comics-y kind of trite, and people have been churning out guff like it all over the place for years. It’s at least lousy in a more amusing way than the obnoxiously-bad-and-kind-of-proud-of-it work Miller and Loeb have been doing recently, and even Lyle probably can’t be blamed too much for pages that were apparently subject to a bajillion rewrites. In the end, an accolade such as “worst comic ever” is not one to give out lightly, and I’m not sure I’d ever be able to definitively state what I think that is. But I’m pretty sure you’d have to work hard to find something worse-looking – or with a worse title – than this.

Dusting Off: Alias #10 (August 2002)

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Every month we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

Despite the vast success he’s enjoyed over the past decade, reader opinion continues to be split on the subject of Brian Michael Bendis. For many, though, he’s earned the right to have stumbles such as Secret Invasion overlooked in perpetuity, courtesy of his top-end work on the likes of Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers and – perhaps most notably – Alias. A quite superb fusion of Bendis’ knack for crime fiction and characterisation, and his knowledge and grasp of the Marvel universe, the twenty-eight issues for which it ran represent one of the most consistently excellent comics runs of the past decade – and in the shape of failed superhero turned private investigator Jessica Jones, it introduced by far the publisher’s most compelling new character since… well, since I can’t remember when, quite frankly.

Something of a format breaker, this standalone issue is presented, rather than in standard comics format, as scripted dialogue alongside uncharacteristic painted art from Michael Gaydos – and one can’t help but wonder whether this was planned all along, or if the issue was forced into this style after Bendis realised he’d written too much dialogue. Either way, it somehow works perfectly, and is exemplary of the book’s wit and characterisation at its finest.

The story is a fairly straightforward one – Jessica is hired by J. Jonah Jameson with a view to uncovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, but disliking both the assignment and the editor’s attitude, pulls something of a fast one on him. There’s nothing more elaborate than that, but what makes this a real joy – aside from the reveal of the precise nature of Jessica’s clever trickery – is, quite simply, the way Bendis plays with character. Quite aside from the ranting of Jonah (of which more shortly), there’s a nuanced precision to his handling of Ben Urich, Robbie Robertson and even Betty Brant, and more specifically the dynamic within the Bugle offices. This particular corner of Spider-Man’s supporting cast has always been one of the MU’s strongest assets, and Bendis gets that, just as he gets how to write fluid, believable, characteristic and downright hilarious JJJ dialogue. More than that, he gets to the nub of the neuroses that lie at the heart of Jonah’s anti-mask paranoia, as well as exploring the more active side – from hiring Jessica to compiling a “Spider-Man map” of repeated sightings around Queens and ESU – of his Spider-hatred campaign.

Michael Gaydos’ art throughout the series was as consistently excellent as Bendis’ writing, but here he breaks out of his comfort zone somewhat to illustrate Bendis’ dialogue with a succession of paintings – and while it wouldn’t necessarily have worked every month, it’s fair to say he outdoes himself on this occasion. Stylised and yet with a tangible realism, they’re an aid to immersing the reader in the immediacy of what are, essentially, a pair of single-set, real-time scenes (split by two months). I’m not sure they could really be described as “storytelling” in the purest sense, but from an absolutely lovely Spider-Man panel (which I think I’m right in saying was the webhead’s only in-costume appearance in the series) to a superb two-page vista of Jonah looking out over the city, the entire issue is a visual delight.

Aside from setting up the later plot element of Jonah’s distrust of Jessica (not to mention a neat touch that jumped out on re-reading: an early mention of Jessica’s “Knightress” identity, a backstory thread that wouldn’t be picked up until long after the series had finished), this doesn’t do a huge amount to move the series along. But as an amusing standalone piece, it’s lovely – and nothing short of superbly crafted. Modern mainstream comics honestly don’t get much classier than Alias, and if you’ve never read it, you could do yourself a hell of a lot worse than starting from the beginning the next time you’re down the LCS.

Seb Patrick | 27th May, 2009