The Amalgam Age Of Comics: The DC Comics Collection
(Art by John Byrne, Scott McDaniel, Jose Luise Garcia-Lopez, Jim Balent, Howard Porter, Dave Gibbons, Derek Fisher, Terry Austin, Kevin Nowlan, Ray McCarthy and John Dell)
Six stories from the Amalgam Universe starring Wonder Woman Ororo Munroe, Catsai and Dare, Doctor Strangefate, the JLX, Dark Claw and Super Soldier.
In case you didn't know the Amalgam Universe was a mash-up of the two title franchises from 1996's 'Marvel Versus DC/DC Versus Marvel' event (reviewed here), which saw familiar characters from Marvel and DC merged (amalgamated, see?) into new ones. For me, I was always particularly impressed by how cleverly the heroes that got merged were chosen. Sure, there's obvious ones like Hawkeye and Green Arrow but there were also much cleverer ones like Superman and Captain America or, a personal favourite, Sabretooth and Joker being combined into the Hyena.
The stories on offer here are, naturally, a mixed bag but none are outright bad and even the less interesting ones let us explore the marvellous potential of this new universe, such as seeing the JLX go toe-to-toe with the Judgement League Avengers. I found that the highlight of the book was Chichester's 'Assassins: Political Suicide' starring Dare (a female mash-up of Daredevil and Deathstroke) and Catsai (a combination of Catwoman and Elektra). It's surprisingly adult in tone and a compelling tale of two femmes fatales taking on New Gotham's criminal Mayor The Big Question (Riddler/Kingpin). The only downside was Chichester's insistance on including references to the original Marvel and DC characters in the dialogue which is just too on-the-nose.
The big downside to the book overall is that each of these stories was released as a one-shot comic purporting to be part of an ongoing series (that conceit even carries over into having actual letters pages from fictional lifelong fans of Amalgam). Whilst an amusing idea, what it means for the stories here is that they feel incomplete in the way that reading a single comic of any ongoing series would. Personally I would have happily read a complete story arc featuring any of these characters. Imagine how great a full-length Dark Claw (Batman/Wolverine) graphic novel would've been.
4 out of 5
The Amalgam Age Of Comics: The Marvel Comics Collection
(Art by Cary Nord, Gary Frank, Jeff Matsuda, Salvador Larroca, Mike Wieringo, Roger Cruz, Cam Smith, Mark Pennington, Art Thibert, Jaime Mendoza, Larry Stucker, Al Milgrom, Gary Martin, Karl Kesel and John Holdredge)
Six stories from the Amalgam Universe starring Bruce Wayne, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Diana Prince, the Punisher, Magneto and the Magnetic Men, Speed Demon, Spider-Boy and X-Patrol.
The Amalgam Universe was created by the merging of the Marvel and DC Universes in the 1996 event story 'Marvel Versus DC/DC Versus Marvel' (reviewed here), leading to major characters from both publishers being amalgamated into new ones. For example here, DC's Etrigan the Demon and the Flash are mashed-up with Ghost Rider to become the Speed Demon.
This is definitely the worse of the two anthologies of 'The Amalgam Age of Comics', with largely weaker stories but also less interesting mash-up characters. Also, as with that other book, the conceit that these stories are pretending to be part of larger ongoing series once again leaves the offerings here feeling unfinished and unsatisfying.
It's not all bad and the first and last stories on offer here are definitely the highlights. The first features Bruce Wayne, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. going on the offensive against the Green Skull, with his mentors Nick Fury and Sgt. Rock rushing to back him up. With the mantle of sort-of-Batman taken by Logan in the Amalgam Universe, I felt that head of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a really appropriate role for Bruce's personality. The last story in the book stars X-Patrol, a mash-up of X-Force and Doom Patrol. Both of those original teams are ones I'm a fan of, so I found the adventures of Niles Cable's team to be pretty engaging.
3 out of 5
The Avengers: Road To Marvel's The Avengers
(Art by Sean Chen, Victor Olazaba, Scott Hanna, Barry Kitson, Ron Lim, Tom Palmer, Stefano Gaudiano, Matthew Southworth, Tim Green II, Felix Ruiz, Matt Camp, Luke Ross, Neil Edwards, Crimelab Studios, Daniel Green, Javi Fernandez, Andy Smith and Richard Elson)
A tie-in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase 1, featuring an adaptation of Iron Man, stories bridging that movie and Iron Man 2 and a tie-in to Captain America: The First Avenger.
This book opens with an adaptation of the movie which launched the MCU and I have to say it's by far the best comic-to-movie-back-to-comic adaptation I've read to date. Peter David does a great job of not only knowing which scenes from the movie to include, but also manages to capture the irreverent charm of Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark, upon which the success of the movie ultimately hinged. It made me want to immediate re-watch Iron Man, which I would say means this story is a success.
The series of stories bridging the gap between the first and second Iron Man movies aren't of quite such pitch-perfect quality, but they still do a really good job of actually feeling like they belong in the movie continuity, something which some tie-in comics fail at. It's not enough to have the same characters as the movies; the world they live in has to feel the same as it did in the movies and the writers achieve that here. It's also fun to see a bit more of characters who would go on to have far larger roles in the MCU, including Nick Fury, Coulson, Black Widow and General Ross.
The book finishes out with 'Captain America: First Vengeance' by Fred Van Lente, which is a thoroughly enjoyable expansion of the first Captain America film. It shows the backstories of several important characters like the Red Skull and Doctor Erskine, as well as letting us see Cap and the Howling Commandos taking down Hydra bases which was sadly largely skipped over in the movie itself.
All told this is a solid collection of stories which nicely capture the feel, tone and excitement of those first few years of Marvel movie magic (Stan Lee would be so proud of that alliteration).
4 out of 5
The Avengers: The Coming Of The Avengers/Ultron Unlimited
(Art by Jack Kirby, George Perez and Al Vey)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 24. In the first of two stories we get to see the very first assembling of the Avengers as they're tricked into thinking the Hulk is on a murderous rampage by Loki. The second story has the Avengers facing public relations problems when their old enemy Ultron launches his latest and most deadly attempt to wipe out organic life.
I've got to be honest, I was a bit disappointed by Lee's first-ever Avengers story. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with the story being told, in fact having a villain as iconic as Loki be what brings these heroes together was a nice touch (one which Joss Whedon reused for the first Avengers movie). No, the problem is that the coming together of Marvel's mightiest heroes (*wink*) doesn't actually feel very triumphant. They just sort of all end up in the same place and say, more or less, "Well, since we're all here, I guess we can probably work together...". I was hoping for something a bit more bombastic, I suppose.
What I didn't like about Kurt Busiek's 'UItron Unlimited' is a lot harder to pin down, but I definitely didn't like it. Honestly, there's nothing overtly wrong with this story and it does, in fact, have the bombastic coming-together of mighty heroes to save the day that I felt Lee's story had been missing. I also liked that Ultron is far from an unemotional robot and is instead a complete raving lunatic, with twisted family-issues, who succeeds in devastating the population of a small European nation (things that Joss Whedon reused for the second Avengers movie).
One of the things that I definitely didn't like was George Perez's artwork. He is a great comics artist, but I found everything here to just be too busy, focusing on cramming as much into every panel as possible rather than focusing on what was necessary for the storytelling. I think that maybe Perez's artwork combined with lots of minor niggles to just sour the story overall for me.
2 out of 5
The Black Knight: Magneto Walks The Earth/The Black Knight Lives Again/Vampire State
featuring Roy Thomas and Paul Cornell
(Art by John Buscema, George Tuska, Leonard Kirk, Mike Collins, Ardian Syaf, Adrian Alphona, Jay Leisten, Robin Riggs and Craig Yeung)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 39. Stories of the Dane Whitman incarnation of the (other) armoured Avenger beginning with the first time he put on the costume up to his work as part of Britain's magical super-team MI13.
The first two stories here, by Thomas, are actually part of one single narrative in which Magneto is drawn back to Earth (it's pretty vague as to why he's not on Earth, mind you) and captures Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Dane then dons the mantle of his uncle, who was a supervillain, and rushes to tell the other Avengers. Thomas unfortunately follows the Stan Lee method of introducing new heroes by having the Black Knight immediately get into a fight with the Avengers for no good reason. Honestly, I'm so sick of reading that exact plot play out when seeing these first appearances of characters. On a slightly weird note, this story seems to take place at a time when Magneto and the Maximoff twins have no idea that they're father and son/daughter, something which was a little jarring to read at first.
The majority of the book, however, is taken up by Cornell's 'Vampire State' in which Count Dracula and his vampire army decide that Britain is going to be their new vampire utopia and set about trying to conquer these Sceptred Isles. I have read some MI13 before but I still thrown off by Cornell's habit of dropping you right into things assuming you know every character and their entire backstory. It took me quite a while to get my head around the situation and the significant players, making this a poor jumping-on point for any reader new to MI13. However, once I'd gotten to grips with all of that, I really started to enjoy the story and was interested to see how it mixed up all of Marvel's major vampire characters (except Morbius, I guess), including Dracula, Baron Blood, Spitfire and even Blade.
3 out of 5
The Doctor Who Storybook 2009
(Art by Rob Davis)
This book could easily be dismissed as just a kids' cash-in book from its cover but, as follows the old saying, you'd be misjudging it. It is in fact an anthology of seven prose short stories and one comic strip featuring the Tenth Doctor (as played by David Tennant) and his companion Donna Noble. What makes this particularly interesting is that many of the stories are written by writers who've worked on episodes of the TV series itself.
Here the Doctor faces such trials as a hostile theme park, a floating city, an old enemy, the disappearance of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, an apologetic artificial intelligence, the voyage of the Argonauts, a schoolboy vital to the Norman invasion and a lost alien hiding in a school.
It's a mixed bag on offer, as you'd expect, but I have to say all of the stories did a great job of capturing the Doctor's manic enthusiasm. My favourite story by far was 'Cold' by Mark Gatiss (of League of Gentlemen and Sherlock fame), a writer whose scriptwork I have long enjoyed. 'Cold' is told through letters written by the protagonists and builds up the layers of the story in the manner of the 19th Century gothic literature that both I and Gatiss are fans of. Added to this classic style of storytelling is the fact that the alien invader featured will be familiar to those who remember the pre-Christopher Ecclestone days of Doctor Who.
3 out of 5
The Flash: Rogue War
featuring Geoff Johns and John Broome
(Art by Howard Porter, John Livesay, Carmine Infantino and Frank Giacola)
Part of the DC Comics Graphic Novel Collection. The title story sees the various members of the supervillain group known as the Rogues errupt into open conflict with each other with the Flash, not to mention the people of Keystone City, caught in the middle. The second story here features the debut appearance of the Rogues' leader, Captain Cold.
The Flash's enemies are among the weirder and, to a certain extent, sillier supervillains in DC's pantheon but there's something genuinely engaging about seeing this motley collection of baddies in all-out melee with one another. For much of its length the title story is very much about the Rogues, with Wally West, Bart Allen and Jay Garrick just caught in the middle.
I enjoyed it slightly less when the story does a sudden 90-degree turn into a time-travel tale featuring both Zoom and Reverse-Flash as the antagonists. It does allow a nice moment, however, in which Barry Allen shows up to save Wally (despite having been dead since 1986).
The throwback story 'The Coldest Man on Earth, from 1957, is perfectly fine but is simply an example of a tale from the days of comics when every week saw the introduction of a new themed supervillain.
3 out of 5
The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told
(Art by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Charles Paris, Lou Schwartz, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Stan Kaye, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Frank Robbins, Jim Aparo, Walt Simonson, Joe Staton, George Freeman and Jerry Bingham)
Published to celebrate Batman's 50th Anniversary (way back in 1989), this collection features twenty-one stories from across those five decades.
The word 'greatest' is very subjective, as you'll certainly find if you read this anthology of Batman stories. The greatest Batman stories are 'Year One' and 'The Dark Knight Returns' by Frank Miller, Alan Moore's 'The Killing Joke' and 'The Long Halloween' by Jeph Loeb. None of those stories is featured in this book. Honestly, a far more accurate title would've been 'Some of the More Influential Batman Stories Ever Told', but I can certainly see that this is less punchy than the title they went with.
What we get here, then, is a range of stories which have some larger significance to the Batman mythos, be it the first appearance of the Batarang or the first time some of the Dark Knight's villains team-up (Penguin and Joker, if you were wondering). Unfortunately, the quality of the storytelling, both in terms of writing and art, is very much of its time, which means that the stories from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s tend to be shallow, obvious and slapsticky. Plus, there's just so many puns. However, the stories originally published in the 70s and 80s show the more mature sensibilities that Batman's niche in comics has come to be synonymous with, making them much more enjoyable. For me, the highlight was Alan Brennert's 1983 story 'The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne', which tells the story of how the Batman of Earth-2 finally gives up his solitary life to marry Catwoman. It was a really interesting 'what if...?' scenario that we'll probably never see play out for the mainstream version of Batman.
One final note is that, like watching a Batman movie-marathon, you should prepare yourself to see Bruce's parents shot over and over again throughout this book. Although, interestingly, this book does feature a reprint of the very first story where that detail of Batman's backstory was told (nearly ten years after the character was first created), so at least we get the original before having to see all the repeats.
Ultimately, there's just too much outdated storytelling on offer here to make this book appealing to modern audiences. It's worth a read for people wanting to get a sense of Batman's real-world story, but not if your just looking for good quality in-universe adventures of the Caped Crusader.
2 out of 5
The Silver Surfer: Origin Of The Silver Surfer/The Herald Ordeal
(Art by John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, M. C. Wyman, Ron Lim and Tom Christopher)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 34. In the first of these two stories we see the tale of how Norrin Radd saves his homeworld Zenn-La by agreeing to serve the world-devouring entity Galactus. In the second Galactus empowers the monstrous and genocidal new herald Morg, prompting the Silver Surfer to gather the other former heralds Air Walker, Firelord, Nova and Terrax to stop him.
I was already pretty familiar with the Surfer's origin story, although this is the first time I've seen it in its entirety, so there wasn't anything too surprising about the first story here. Although, that said, I was intrigued by the suggestion that Norrin's motivation wasn't simply to save his world, but was also to gain the chance to explore the universe.
The second story definitely made up for any shortcomings of the first, however. I've always enjoyed tales featuring Galactus' varied cadre of heralds and therefore enjoyed seeing them forced to team-up to defeat the newest being given the Power Cosmic. They are an ill-fitting bunch with a range of personalities but that's what makes it so much more interesting to see them cooperating to a common purpose, even the villainous Terrax the Tamer. If you're new to the Surfer's cosmic adventures then it might all be a bit overwhelming for you, but for me it felt like a brilliant narrative crescendo that leaves a beloved character dead.
4 out of 5
The Vision: Behold... The Vision!/Avengers Icons - The Vision
featuring Roy Thomas and Geoff Johns
(Art by John Buscema, Marie Severin, George Klein, Ivan Reis and Joe Pimentel)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 42. In the first of these two stories we see the first appearance of the Vision, as he is sent to destroy the Avengers by Ultron. The second story has an amnesiac Vision seeking out the original creator of his android body in an attempt to recover his memories.
Altogether too many Marvel superheroes were first introduced by having them fight existing heroes for spurious, sometimes ridiculous, reasons. I have to say that of all the iterations of that I've read, this one works the best. It makes a certain kind of sense that an insane machine intelligence like Ultron (Ultron-5, if you want to be exact) would send an artificial human in its stead. However, despite being more convincing, that doesn't actually make it a good way of introducing the character and the fact that Vision goes instantly from "Kill the Avengers!" to "Help the Avengers!" has no drama or nuance to it.
The second story here, by Johns, definitely has more drama and nuance, but still isn't amazing. It's nice to see the Vision's story loop back to its links with the WWII-era Human Torch and reveal that the same AI technology was stolen by the Nazis, who used it to create the psychopathic Gremlin. However, the combination of Vision's amnesia and the one-time-only characters it features make this feel like a sidequest for the character without any significant impact.
3 out 5
The Warriors Three: Dog Day Afternoon/Marvel Fanfare
featuring Bill Willingham and Alan Zelenetz
(Art by Neil Edwards, Scott Hann and Charles Vess)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 32. The Warriors Three, Volstagg, Hogun and Fandral, have long been side characters in Marvel's Thor stories but in these two tales the adventuring Asgardians take centre stage. The first story has the Warriors Three charging towards their long-fated final confrontation with the monstrous Fenris Wolf, whilst the second story sees the three warriors attempting to foil one of Loki's mischievious plots.
The Warriors Three are very much C-list Marvel heroes and unlike many characters featured in Thor's adventures they have no actual basis in Norse mythology, being entirely an invention of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. These things made me wary of this book to begin with by, honestly, I enjoyed the characters in their minor roles in the Thor movies, so it was worth a look.
What we get here are a couple of stories which are much more fanciful than most Marvel tales, coming across as sort of modern day fairy tales rather than mythological epics or superhero action stories. There's an element of whimsy to these stories, particularly Zelenetz's 'Marvel Fanfare', that you might not otherwise find in a Marvel graphic novel. It's not entirely unwelcome, either; making for a nice change of pace.
The long and short of it, however, that these are minor tales of minor characters and you wouldn't be missing anything major if you skipped this book.
3 out of 5
The Wizards Of Odd
featuring Terry Pratchett, Lord Dunsany, John Collier, Henry Kuttner, Eric Frank Russell, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen Donaldson, F. Anstey, James Branch Cabell, Fredric Brown, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Brian W. Aldiss, Avram Davidson, Douglas Adams, H. G. Wells, C. S. Lewis, Reginald Bretnor, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
A mixed bag of short stories here, ranging from the excellent to the excrement, which really fell short of my expectations considering the who's who of writing talent included. Also, for the most part, the book's claim to 'comic tales of fantasy' is unfounded; there's not much fantasy and even less comedy.
The real treat in this compilation is the short additions to well-established series, such as Le Guin's Earthsea, Leiber's Lankhmar and Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide. Also, my personal favourite is the Discworld City Watch story which involves a hilarious, and typically Pratchett, take on the old Punch and Judy shows.
Ultimately, however, this anthology contains just too much pointless dross to be worth the money.
2 out of 5
The X-Men: Children Of The Atom/X-Men
(Art by Steve Rude, Andrew Pepoy, Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 17. In 'Children of the Atom' we see a world where mutants are just beginning to emerge into the public consciousness. As fear and hatred for the mutants grows, Professor Charles Xavier attempts to recruit a number of vulnerable young people to attend his new academy. The second story here is the first-ever appearance of the X-Men and sees the team of mutant teens joined by their newest member, Marvel Girl, take on Magneto for the first time.
I wasn't really getting into this book to begin with. The set-up of the growing hatred towards mutants and the various scenes which were clearly allegories for things like race relations, anti-semitism and homophobia all felt pretty obvious to me. Mutants have been used allegorically in Marvel almost since their beginning so to have it all rehashed felt unnecessary. Put simply, these themes had already been done better before (see Chris Claremont's iconic run, for example).
However, toward the tail-end of the first story it started to come together for me a bit more because it explores how Professor X's original plan to merely create a defensive mutant militia is diverted by his relationships with the actual students, eventually changing their remit to be one of proactively helping the world instead of merely protecting against it.
Narratively, the last scene of 1999's 'Children of the Atom' flows perfectly into the first scene of 1963's 'X-Men', but the connection doesn't go much further than that. Like so many stories from the 60s, Lee's original X-Men adventure has some very dated moments, not least the horrible way that all of the male X-Men immediately sexually objectify Jean Grey when she arrives at the school. Even Xavier, who is her teacher don't forget, refers to her for the first time as 'a most attractive young lady'. The story becomes much less uncomfortable, however, when the X-Men actually go into action against Magneto. The iconic villain was the best element of this story, appearing on the page pretty much fully-formed as he would be for decades to come.
3 out of 5
Thor: The Power Of Thor/Avengers Disassembled: Thor
featuring Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Michael Avon Oeming and Daniel Berman
(Art by Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott and Andrea Divito)
Marvel's Mightiest Heroes Book 11. In the first of two stories here we get the first ever appearance of the modern Marvel Comics Thor, as Doctor Donald Blake finds a staff in Norway which turns out to actually be the mighty hammer Mjolnir. The second story tells of Ragnarok; the death of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.
The first story is an iconic piece of Marvel lore and is a fun mash-up of Norse mythology and 1960s science fiction, with the newly empowered Thor going toe-to-toe with the 'Stone Men from Saturn'. It's good fun but I found that here it's spoiled somewhat by having been recoloured with modern digital techniques. Sometimes these modern updatings work fine, but here it clashes really badly with Jack Kirby's iconic art style, robbing the story of some of its classic provenance.
I was particularly impressed by the second story (variously called 'Avengers Disassembled: Thor' and 'Ragnarok' depending on which title page you're looking at here) which takes Thor back to the character's mythological roots. Michael Avon Oeming and Daniel Berman do a great job of capturing the tone of classic Norse mythology and there is a distinct air of both melancholy and inevitability to the events of Ragnarok which feels very appropriate to the cataclysmic passing of an entire pantheon of gods.
4 out of 5