Friday, January 25, 2008

A Good Start to A Brand New Day

With the last issue of the first arc of Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day having just come out, I figured it would be a good time to weigh in one last time on the issue of Spider-Man's marriage before I bid adieu to the character for a little while. While unfortunately, Erik Larsen may have beaten me to the punch in his One Fan's Opinion Column on, I have a slightly different perspective on the matter which, as a fanboy, I'd like to make known.

Historically, One More Day marks the third time in the last fourteen years or so that Marvel editorial have tried to 'un-marry' Spider-Man. The first, and up until One More Day most contentious attempt took place during the infamous Clone Saga, where it was essentially declared that the Peter Parker whose adventures everyone had been following for twenty one years or so was a clone, a fake, a copy of the real Peter Parker, who in Marvel time had been gone five years. The set-up for this idea took a full two years, but the backlash was so bad that this publicly regarded impostor, renamed "Ben Reilly" to distinguish him, absurdly enough, from Peter "clone" Parker, was so widely rejected by readership that rather than let him fade quietly into the background with the possibility of reintroducing him at a later date, editorial killed the poor guy within a year of his having donned the Spider-Man outfit. The poor Spider-clone was killed twice.

The second time took place during the similarly reviled tenure of Howard Mackie and John Byrne, under the editorial watch of chief Bob Harras. Their solution was more and less drastic at the same time: Mary Jane Parker was apparently blown up in a plane by some guy who was stalking her. Of course, her "death" was loaded with ambiguity and in the end it felt rather half-assed even before it was revealed to have been a fake-out; having learned from the debacle of the Clone Saga, which took years to set up but less than a year to unravel, Marvel decided a "safer" route which would enable them to resurrect MJ at the drop of the hat if fan reaction was unfavorable.

Oddly enough, credit goes to the current regime at Marvel for having the balls to throw their full weight behind this initiative, Clone-Saga style, fully aware that reader could react as violently to this story as they did to Ben Reilly, as many of them in fact have.

While as I've often said, I have a problem with the whole Faustian Pact thing (Joe Quesada's defense of the methodology notwithstanding), I see the logic of un-marrying Spider-Man, which I've already discussed.

In fact, I'll go one step further than Joey Q and address all of the people who've said "but anyone who wants a swinging (pardon the pun) single Spider-Man can always read Ultimate Spider-Man or Spider-Man Adventures."

Well, the Q would never, ever put down one of the books his company puts out, but bound by no such compunctions, I can say that the way things are, both those books are currently second-class citizens in Marvel's publishing scheme.

Spider-Man Adventures isn't even designed for the mainstream, direct market; it's a kid's book designed to sell in bookstores, and everything in it is essentially a re-hash of old Lee/Ditko or Lee/Romita stories.

As for Ultimate Spider-Man, well, as far as I can tell it's served its initial purpose, which was to revitalize interest in Spidey by making him "relevant" to younger audiences. There was a time when this title was regularly outselling the flagship one, but those days are long gone and USM hasn't even been selling in the top ten for years now.

The idea, in short was to increase readership on the core Spider-Man book, to the extent that all other Spidey books, Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood, were axed to make way for the thrice-monthly, rotating creators publishing scheme.

Having finished that scheme's first storyarc, I think Marvel may be on the right track here.

It was a marketing coup on Marvel's part to have Civil War alumnus Steve McNiven draw the launching arc. His art looks livelier in Amazing Spider-Man #548 than it ever has, and quite frankly not even the previously partially-true accusations of his people looking 'plasticky' can stick here. I think the switch from regular colorist Morry Hollowell to reliever Dave Stewart may have something to do with it. The art is absolutely brilliant, and bristles with much more kinetic energy than I've ever seen in McNiven's pencils. There is no way any of the artists following McNiven on this title, at least four of whom have already been named, can match this standard of quality in my eyes, so it's still adieu for me.

I must say, before I go, that writer Dan Slott sets a tone for this new direction that seems a lot easier to swallow than the idea of Peter Parker being counterfeit or the idea of Mary Jane lying in a million pieces at the bottom of the sea. A new villain (albeit one with the somewhat prosaic name of "Mr. Negative") has been introduced and established, with powers and an origin yet to be fully revealed, a nice little monkeywrench has been thrown in the works for the Daily Bugle, and Peter Parker is back to the down-on-his-luck loser he was created to be...a concept that got diluted several times over, especially when he moved into the New Avengers' tower.

Last time I thanked Marvel for making the decision for me to leave easier and less tainted with bitterness over One More Day. Now I'd like to thank Dan Slott and Steve McNiven for making me believe that, however bad OMD may have been, Brand New Day is actually a pretty good idea.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


After a little over a year and a half after I bid the halls of the Supreme Court a very fond farewell, I find myself back in the city to which I have written more than one ode.

I find myself exposed to a different part of Manila this time; I'm working out of Binondo, and in a law firm at that, so I've been a little too busy to take in my new surroundings.

That said, though, I have taken the opportunity to walk along the Escolta, to hear a mass at Sta. Cruz and to say a prayer at the Binondo church. The other day I spent my lunch break walking through the streets of Binondo looking to see what kind of shops they had, and wound up in Divisoria.

I have to say that I'm not one for teeming streets; give me old architecture any day and a nice "old world" vibe, but considering that I'm someone who's repeatedly professed love for this city it's nice to have seen another few parts of it, like Binondo, Sta. Cruz, and even the stretch along Recto between the LRT2 station and these places.

Of course, my homecoming wouldn't have been complete without a leisurely stroll through Luneta Park ;)

Spider-Man's New Status Quo: The End Which Justifies the Means?

This week the second issue of Marvel's newest experiment, the thrice-weekly shipping of Amazing Spider-Man came out. True to my resolution to finish the first arc before quitting the series for the foreseeable future, I bought the issue, ASM #547, and to my surprise was thoroughly impressed by what I saw.

Am I backpedaling on my decision to put buying Spidey on indefinite hiatus? Not really, considering I still need the money and considering the team behind this story arc will only last until next issue, but I have to say that while I still disagree with the methodology used to bring about this new status quo, I am starting to see why Joe Quesada was willing to brave fanboy ire, online and offline, to establish it.

Recently a friend of mine briefly discussed one of my posts here with me, in particular asking why Marvel felt the need to "un-marry" Spider-Man, saying that between the two of us, we led pretty interesting lives even though we were already married.

Now, I value my friend's opinion quite a bit but I have to say I understand the logic here; Spider-Man was created for a young audience, for the teenagers and twenty-somethings still trying to come to grips with the fact that the world more often than not doesn't work the way they want it to, and a Spider-Man married to a supermodel somehow damaged that paradigm. How could Peter Parker be a lovable loser when he's married to one of the hottest women in the Marvel Universe? And, more crucially, could kids and college students, many of whom are hard-pressed to get a date at that point in their lives, really relate to a married guy, let alone a guy hitched to and regularly boinking a supermodel?

Marvel's plan to void Spider-Man's marriage was, although problematic for me, not my main beef with them, but rather how they pulled it off. This matter has been discussed in this blog and elsewhere ad nauseam, so there's really no point to rehashing any of those old diatribes here.

What I will say is that, after the tumultuous "reboot," the creative team of writer Dan Slott and penciler Steve McNiven, inker Dexter Vines and colorist Morry Hollowell (the art team collectively known as "Team Civil War") pretty much hit the ground running. Had the first couple of issues been scripted as ineptly as the epilogue to One More Day, for which Joe Quesada has accepted blame, this "new" Spider-Man would almost certainly be stumbling out of the gate. That is definitely NOT the case here.

To wax cliche, Slott demonstrates that he was born to write Spider-Man. From Peter's character moments to Spider-Man's battle banter, Slott seems to have everything about him down pat. As much as I enjoyed my issues of JMS' run, I have to admit his take on Peter was pretty short on the witty comments, which is pretty essential to the whole affair. Slott hearkens back to the old Stan Lee days of snappy patter without the goofy, anachronistic tone from which Lee's recent writing efforts (e.g. The Last Fantastic Four Story) have suffered.

That Slott is not quite able to completely remove the bad taste that One More Day has left in my mouth is through no fault of his own; it's simply been too soon since that storytelling debacle. I have to say, though, that with the second issue, Slott manages to come a lot closer to making me forget One More Day than I thought possible.

As impressive as Slott's writing is, however, the main reason for my loving this story arc is the reason my resolve to drop this book remains, which is that there is no way, barring a change of editorial heart, that Amazing Spider-Man will ever look this good again, at least in the near future, because McNiven is, quite frankly, a penciling god, and upon his departure from the book after next issue, he will be SORELY missed.

The quality of McNiven's pencils, ably abetted by Vines and Hollowell offers stark testimony to the advantage of giving artists buckets of lead time to prepare their work; it's better than it's been in years. The last time I enjoyed his art this much was when he had just started on Marvel Knights 4. In the projects he had done for Marvel since then he was either hamstrung with scripts that didn't exploit his talent properly (his run on New Avengers) or rushed into meeting deadlines (Civil War), such that his work, while still better than that of 80% of most other mainstream artists noticeably dipped in overall quality.

For two issues out of three, however, this has not been the case for ol' Stevie. McNiven has long said he's wanted to do Spider-Man and his love for the character absolutely shines through here. He even pulls a bit of a surprise and channels Todd McFarlane for one glorious splash page. Looking at the page from afar my father thought the art had been digitally rendered rather than hand-drawn. That's how good the guy is.

Marvel, however, have been pretty candid that McNiven is kind of a marketing hook to whet readers' appetites for Spider-Man's new direction; after #548 ships next week he's off to join Civil War collaborator Mark Millar on a yet-undisclosed project, undoubtedly to the anguish of many a Spider-fan who may have hoped he'd draw Peter Parker's adventures forever. After he leaves, with due respect to the artists they've got lined up, including my sentimental favorite John Romita, Jr., the book will simply not look as good.

So while I'm still taking my indefinite break from the title after McNiven leaves, at least now I'm leaving with a lot less bitterness.

My wallet thanks you, Marvel, and now I can say I thank you for seeing me (and possibly a lot of other readers) off with a great story, and some absolutely stellar art.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Legend of Will

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a connoisseur of the sub-genre of literature known as speculative fiction, but I am familiar with the central premise of one of its landmark works, the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. Essentially, it's about how an ordinary man, Robert Neville, becomes a legend in a world full of vampires for his ferocious ability to kill them, essentially turning the concept of vampires being legendary among men on its head. As fascinating as this book is, it is unabashedly bleak in is storytelling approach, and not exactly the stuff of box-office fireworks, although it was made into two movies, The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston.

Trust Will Smith to prove everyone wrong.

Will's version of the movie, scripted by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman and directed by Francis Lawrence, is the first film adaptation to actually use the book's title, although from what I understand it has more in common with Heston's Omega Man (which I haven't seen) than the actual book.

In it, Robert Neville (Smith) is not an ordinary man but in fact a military scientist, and the world is not populated by vampires (at least not nominally) but by humans who have been mutated by a virus that was engineered by a scientist named Dr. Alice Krippen (played by an uncredited Emma Thompson) as a cure for cancer. The virus has wiped out most of the world's population, and of the remainder who have survived an overwhelming majority have transformed into these beasts (referred to late in the film as "dark seekers"), while the immune remainder basically serve as their food.

Neville is, to his knowledge the one remaining immune person in the world. He lives in New York City, which was essentially ground zero for the infection, and spends his days searching for survivors, hunting for food, and experimenting with infected rats using his own immune blood in hopes of finding a cure. He spends his nights holed up in his brownstone with steel shutters, hoping the dark seekers won't come for him. His only companion throughout majority of the movie is a German Shepherd named Sam.

Without giving away too much, I can say that at some point he does, in fact, encounter these mutants, and in fact he captures one for experimentation purposes. Any other revelation would lead to spoilers.

I will say, though, that while the movie strives to maintain the bleak nature of the book, Matheson's conceit eventually gives way to a somewhat more upbeat ending than originally envisioned, and the reason for Neville's becoming the titular "Legend" is altered somewhat.

Much has been said about this film, particularly Smith's performance as Neville, which has been rightfully likened to Tom Hanks' Oscar-nominated take as a marooned FedEx employee in Cast Away. Truth be told, Smith is astonishing as Neville, creating the full range of emotions his character feels; desolation, despair, regret and even fear, all without any co-stars to play off. This is his movie to carry, and without him, no amount of suspenseful music, tight camera angles or shadowy lighting could create the atmosphere he does by his mere presence. In short, he pulls it off superbly.

Much has also been said about the special effects, most of it bad. Well, to my mind the filmmakers' greatest achievement was turning New York City into a deserted wasteland, which was no mean feat considering how populated it is in real life (and they did shoot on location). The effects used to create the zombie/vampire creatures in the movie is serviceable, and though it could have been better I would not really say it was the worst I've ever seen.

But even dodgy effects cannot detract from the manner in which Smith successfully sells this property. It is an amazing tour de force for an actor who has already reaped both box-office glory and critical acclaim. Only the two Toms, Hanks and Cruise, can claim to have achieved more than Will, and notably, both of their movies this year have floundered, leaving Will the last man standing, as it were.

At this rate, Smith could probably sell a movie about him reading the phone book (an unfortunate cliche, but an entirely apt one, I think), though as canny as he is, he'll probably come up with an even more successful project next time around.

Legend indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Goodbye, Spider-Man...

I've decided to give Marvel Comics' new direction for its flagship character, Spider-Man a shot; last week I bought the first of three issues of Amazing Spider-Man to be published this January, which prosaically enough bears the caption "Brand New Day."

Having suffered through the contrivance of One More Day and its ham-handed tabula rasa treatment of Spider-Man continuity, I couldn't help but groan at how Marvel is essentially trying to sell us a bill of goods by telling us that the Marvel Universe is essentially the same place it's been all this time, except that Peter Parker is no longer married to Mary Jane, Aunt May doesn't remember who Peter Parker is, and, oh Harry Osborn, who died quite poignantly in Spectacular Spider-Man 200, is inexplicably alive. As a comic fan I understand that contrivance is very much the name of the game, but that doesn't excuse a lack of creativity.

Oddly enough, I, a married man, even understand the logic behind 'un-marrying' Peter, but find the way it was done so slipshod that I simply cannot give my long-term support to the damage it's done to the last twenty or so years of Spider-Man's mythos. Oh, sure, Marvel editorial have done a great deal of online damage control saying that they've gone over Spider-Man's history and have figured out how this is all going to work, but frankly I'm no longer interested in waiting around to find out how.

I can't stand, first and foremost, that Peter and Aunt May's relationship, which had evolved quite beautifully under J. Michael Straczynski's tenure, has been reset to her not knowing his secret identity. Issue #38 of ASM Vol. II, the issue where May and Peter have it out about his long-kept secret, and easily my favorite issue of JMS's seven-year run on the title, has just been rendered null and void, as well as all of the other touching issues where Aunt May shows how strong she really is. Sure, the new Spider crew tries to show the audience that this isn't your daddy's Aunt May--she's a proactive, tough-as-nails member of the community, helping out in soup kitchens and election campaigns--but it feels like it's too little, too late. The point is that Peter is still bullshitting her, and not only that, he's now a bum to boot. Parker luck my ass.

I find the 'mysterious' superheroine Jackpot (to whom I was introduced as early as last May's Free Comic Book Day issue of ASM) similarly wince-inducing, and hope, most likely in vain, that it isn't Mary Jane under the tights because I can't possibly think of a worse conceptualization for a superhero. Where'd she get her super powers? Mephisto? Shouldn't she be on fire or something?

Most jarring of all is the return of Harry, whose death way back in 1993 was handled with such sensitivity and finesse that I was sure his demise would go on to be Spidey canon, like Gwen Stacy, Jean De Wolffe, or Kraven. I found particularly crass how Joe Quesada basically said "come on, you just have to have Harry back, it makes everything more fun" or something like that, basically showing that the only reason Harry's back is because he thinks it's a good idea.

I'm not even going to go into the hypergeekness that has fandom picking away at how One More Day and Brand New Day represent essentially a huge tear in Marvel's space time continuum as a whole. I don't even read that many comics, as big a comic fan as I may have been.

All I know is that Joe Quesada and company have whipped out their wangs and pissed on, by and large, my experience of reading Spider-Man comic books. I'm going to finish the first three issues of this new direction, and then I am going to swear off Spider-Man in general...not a hard thing to do considering 1) I hadn't been regularly collecting ASM since John Romita Jr. left the book and 2) I really do have to make some spending cutbacks in the next few months, so this is a good place to start.

It made me happy to see Marvel Comics dominating sales for two years in a row following DC's several years of dominance riding on the shoulders of Jim Lee, Michael Turner, and event comics with the word "Crisis" attached to it, but now I'm just depressed because I really get the impression that Joe Quesada thinks he can get away with murder.

Well, Joe, I can now honestly say that although I've enjoyed a lot, and I mean a LOT of the comic books that came out under your watch as Marvel E-I-C, I'm done letting you walk all over my favorite comic book character.

I'll be back if and when all of this new dreck is retconned out of existence.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Year's First Guilty Pleasure

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
directed by Jon Turtletaub
starring Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha

As risible as many of my movie-loving friends may find the idea, I genuinely enjoyed the first National Treasure movie when I saw it three years ago. I had walked into it with next to no expectations considering the penchant of both its star, Nicolas Cage, and its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer for some really trashy movies, and given that I wasn't too impressed with what I had seen in the trailers. It had therefore come as a really pleasant surprise. There was a lot about the movie that worked and this is relevant to the evaluation of its follow-up, Book of Secrets, because essentially the makers of the movie transplanted everything successful (or which they believed successful) about the first movie into this new installment.

The first, most important aspect of the first Treasure movie is that unlike the rather self-important story and movie on which it is widely believed to have been based, The Da Vinci Code, it does not have any aspirations or pretensions towards being taken seriously. It is in many ways, a fun romp, as is evident in everything from the dialogue to the lighting.

A lot of the fun was in "seeing clues" on such mundane items as hundred-dollar bills. The ability of Benjamin Gates (Cage) to unearth important clues in the most unexpected places was integral to the original movie's charm.

The second movie tries to follow suit by planting clues on other historical landmarks but using a remote-control helicopter to see a clue on the statue of liberty's smaller duplicate in Paris is nowhere near as engaging and novel as seeing hidden symbols and meaning on something as ordinary as paper money.

The first movie was also refreshing for the fact that it could sustain a moving story with action, but with little to no violence. The first movie had a minimal body count and it was entirely from people falling down a deep hole rather than the traditional, human inflicted death that takes place in Hollywood productions. It did have a car chase, as does the second, but both are fairly disposable affairs, especially after the Bourne movies set the bar for such chase scenes so high.

Finally, both movies' enormous set pieces, as unbelievable as they may be to anyone who thinks about it, are really a lot of fun.

The first movie was about unearthing the treasure of the Knights Templar, while this one is about unearthing a City of Gold which the Confederate Army had intended to use during the Civil War in order to overthrow the Union. The twist is that Ben Gates and company must unearth the treasure because it's the only way to clear the name of their ancestor, Thomas Gates, who was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by a shady character played by Ed Harris. The path to this treasure takes our heroes around the world, well, "across the pond" anyway, to Paris and London, to find clues. Maybe next time they could head somewhere in Asia and give the movie a truly global sensibility.

There are a couple of welcome additions to the film, like the inclusion of new cast members Helen Mirren as Ben Gates' mom, and Harris. Jon Voight is still a delight as Patrick Gates, Ben's dad, who had a ball with the role in the first movie and still does here. Mirren gets to let her hair down as well with this movie, having a lot of fun as Native American history expert Emma gates.

The sequel, to be sure, lacks the novelty of the first movie, which basically caught me off guard with how enjoyable it was. Fortunately, the chemistry between Cage and his original costars, like Voight, and Justin Bartha as his sidekick Riley Poole and Diane Kruger as Abigail Chase (with an improved accent) is still quite evident, and this helps propel the movie through some of its clunkier moments.

Admittedly, the producers really had quite a challenge in store for themselves when they decided to stretch a pretty thin plotline into another movie, but all things considered they still made a movie that was worth two hours and four minutes of my time.

Though I still preferred the original, the box office of this film would suggest that other people feel differently, so I guess another sequel is inevitable. I think it would be cool if, for a change, Ben Gates and company had to hunt for clues all over Asia as well. Then maybe we could catch a glimpse of genuine hottie Kruger filming her scenes here in the Philippines. Rowrr!!!