Γ (An Open Letter to Mark Waid)


Long time no talk! You probably don't remember me. We talked in Pittsburgh, back at the old ExpoMart. Early on a Friday, absolutely nobody was waiting to talk to you. You signed some Flash comics for me including the introduction of villain du jour Cobalt Blue, the evil twin brother of Barry Allen. You suggested that Cobalt Blue wasn't, strictly speaking, a retconned-in character, because nothing in Barry's history outright stated he wasn't a twin.

One of my favorite Flash storylines. Don't judge. (Art by Steve Lightle.)
What you didn't know and what didn't even matter back then is that I am, was, and probably ever shall be a fan of that green goliath called the Incredible Hulk.

So, maybe I didn't take it so well the other day when the following showed up on your Twitter feed after what I'm sure was a frustrating time at Wondercon:
Now, I'm not about to take you to task over the above comment, which has incensed more than a few Hulk fans who are on my Twitter feed, or who friended me on Facebook, or who hang out on the Hulk Message Board with me, or who read this very blog.

About as angry as most Hulk fans I've talked to lately. Art by Mahmud Asrar.

I've been reading the Hulk's adventures for over thirty years, since I wasn't quite three years old. Long enough to be set in my ways, surely, right? Well, consider that I turned three in 1982 and that my first issue was Incredible Hulk #272, wherein Bruce Banner's personality became ascendant for the first long-term period in the character's existence. Consider that since my very first exposure to the character, he's never really stayed with one status quo for more than a few years at best, and you'll easily understand why I'm very, very comfortable with the concept of change.

You're one of my favorite writers, Mark. "The Return of Barry Allen" is one of my all-time favorite stories. I told Brian Augustyn how much I enjoyed "Chain Lightning" and "Dark Flash" when I saw him here in Arizona a few years ago. I loved Empire and look forward to seeing more of that world after your recent announcement. Captain America, JLA, Amazing Spider-Man, and even Ka-Zar? Terrific! Kingdom Come? Revolutionary! And nobody's brought Daredevil out from Frank Miller's shadow like you. (J.M. DeMatteis and Karl Kesel tried it, but the world just wasn't ready.)

So you, Mark, writing my favorite character? "Bliss" didn't sound like too strong a word, especially when considering the series had really and truly lost something with the departure of Greg Pak, the book's best voice since the departure of Peter David. Sure I was sad to see the book relaunched for the second time in two years, but it went along with the whole "Marvel NOW!" program and legitimately seemed like a new direction. "Hulk destroys, Banner builds"? Who doesn't love the dichotomy?

Waid's journey into Hulkdom begins. Art by Leinil Yu.
Something I didn't like about the run immediately preceding--without even getting into the story--was the constant artistic Armageddon going on. I know I said I liked change, but I prefer consistency in art. I grumble and I grouse that today there are seldom any unbroken artistic runs like in the sixties and seventies, and never at the Big Two. (Ironically, Hulk has been home to not one but two great, long art runs, by Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema.) Generally, though, the more consistent the look, the more I'm willing to forgive.

So we had Leinil Yu, whom I've always wanted to see take the regular Hulk gig (since Wolverine #145). And then we had Walt Simonson (ditto, since Rampaging Hulk magazine). Then we had Matteo Scalera, the "new guy" with 4 generally good issues right out of the gate...before we ran smack into what must've been a mountain of Dreaded Deadline Doom. Kim Jacinto; Mahmud Asrar; Clay Mann; Miguel Sepulveda; Jheremy Raapack; Tom Grummett; Joe Bennett.

I know you don't have any control when the Doom hits, Mark, but let me tell you, nothing kills momentum like artistic inconsistency--even among artists whose work I casually enjoy. It honestly felt like nobody cared about the book since about the halfway point of "Agent of T.I.M.E." Each issue marked time (yes, please groan) until the relaunch.

So what was I expecting out of Hulk, the new series that started last week? I saw Mark Bagley's name and immediately connected the dots to his unbroken or nearly-unbroken runs on Amazing Spider-Man, Thunderbolts, Ultimate Spider-Man, New Warriors, and Justice League of America. Nothing says "consistency" like adding "Bags" to a project.

Story-wise, that's something different. Since the seventies, more casual fans have identified more with the mute Hulk of the live-action TV show. A mute or near-mute Hulk carried over into both the 2003 and 2008 films as well as Marvel's The Avengers. While it works well enough because of the character's physicality, the Hulk's near-muteness can be a real detriment to the comic book page, working best when hidden behind prose more purple than the Hulk's pants (e.g. Bill Mantlo's "Crossroads" stories) and worst when the Hulk becomes an incredible cipher (e.g. Bruce Jones's horror take of the early 2000s).

The segue into the relaunch. Art by Joe Bennett.

The Hulk is Bruce Banner's rampaging id, yes. Everything Banner represses sublimates into the Hulk, true. But the Hulk works better with a brutish personality, whether it's the craftiness of the Grey Hulk; the canny savagery of the World Breaker; or the unique blend of childlike innocence and blind rage that was the Savage Hulk. (Very few, it seems, can write the latter well anymore, alas.)

When you stray too much from a Hulk who is capable of articulating his rage at being bound to Banner--either by saying "Banner keeps Hulk locked in dark place!" or by imbibing so much booze before dawn that it leaves Banner incapacitated until his next change at dusk--you lose something about the character. The Hulk becomes less a character and more a mindless weapon to aim.

I don't feel that Banner's character development must come at the expense of the Hulk's. However, it seems that's what we've gotten lately. True, from the looks of last week's Hulk #1, you might just be priming us for a reversal of fortune for which I'd be ever so grateful.

I'm anxious, very anxious, at the questions posed between last month's Indestructible Hulk #20 and this issue. How can the Hulk's healing factor be so severely curtailed by two mere bullets? (Clever way to make the Hulk "indestructible" no more.) Who could have infiltrated a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility to make the hit, and why? Could one of Banner's own team be to blame? What does that frightening last page mean for the Banner/Hulk paradigm you've established? How will the physicist we know and love return to normal? And might we still have to worry about Banner's "insurance policy" he worked out with Matt Murdock?

Where the answers begin (we hope). Art by Jerome Opena.

So, you've got a whole lot of questions to answer. Hopefully a smarter Hulk is part of the answer. After all, a Hulk that doesn't talk--much if at all--is an invention of a television producer who by and large looked down at the comics medium. Comics shouldn't be beholden to that portrayal. Comics are, well, comics. So reach higher. Do more.

And for god's sake, "Hulk knows how to con-joo-gate stupid verbs! Hulk is not stupid!" Truth: As was frequently the case during Bill Mantlo's earliest issues as Greenskin's scribe, those around him underestimated the Hulk time and again. Just because the Hulk spoke like a caveman, that didn't mean he was as dumb as one.*

(* - With apologies to the Geico cavemen.)

With a character that's been through as many iterations as the Hulk has over the last 52 years, you're always going to do something that disagrees with part of the readership. You've just got to find balance--between Banner's intelligence and the Hulk's savagery; between loquaciousness and taciturnity; and between what you want to write and what the readers want to read.




Rebirth of a Delusion (Of Lanterns & Things)

Did you miss me?

Yes, it's been a hectic year--buying a home tends to add a whole lot of complications to a perfectly productive life. You've still seen me lurking around Facebook and Twitter, and I've even taken up co-hosting duties alongside Ragin' Rick Hansen and Captivatin' Karl Fink on The Incredible Hulkcast starting with Episode 28. But now, I hope to be back to where it all started, right here at Delusional Honesty. Because honestly, if nobody's posting a thing here, why the heck do I even keep this site around?

So, think of this as the rebirth of delusions, or maybe the rebirth of honesty. Whatever sounds better.

And, like any decent column of mine should, we begin with a green character.

But no, not that green character.


Allow me to explain.

Everybody remembers when "The New 52" started, right? It's been about 2-1/2 years now and many of you are probably wondering why that moniker even still matters. (Meanwhile Marvel Comics is on their second "Marvel NOW!" campaign, entitled, appropriately enough, "All-New Marvel NOW!" Insert groans and sighs if you wish, but at least they didn't reboot continuity as a sacrifice to the elder gods of Burbank, California. Ahem.)

Anyway, one of the books that relaunched during "The New 52" that wasn't quite relaunched as much as the others--am I still making sense?--was Geoff Johns' perennial favorite, Green Lantern, the book on which he'd worked nonstop since late 2004. Johns seized the reins of a series that was a very modest seller, and in one month more than doubled circulation. He raised a middling book to the top of the heap where, after a fashion, it's remained ever since. Not just that, but the book has spawned an increasing number of spin-off series, becoming one of DC Comics' largest franchises, right up there with the Superman, Batman, and Justice League corners of their universe. (Hooray, he says sarcastically, for diversity in the marketplace.)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
 The series and its spin-offs have flourished in spite of Johns' and DC's own Icarus moment. Yes, I'm talking about the much-maligned, overlong, banal Green Lantern film of 2011. You remember, it was the one that was supposed to be the start of a franchise that didn't have "bat" or "super" somewhere in the title. Instead it was a tragic misfire that tried to cram too many incredible concepts into two hours, and ended up exactly that--not credible--in the eyes of theatergoers everywhere. With a budget of some $200 million US, ol' GL racked up an embarrassing domestic box office total of some $116 million and a foreign B.O. total of $103 million. (Unsurprisingly, a sequel is stuck in development hell.)

I've had a long, off-and-on association with the Green Lantern character. It began in late 1984, courtesy writer Len Wein and artist Dave Gibbons, as well as a little comic shop in East Liverpool, Ohio, where my father bought me the book. In the story--which to this day invites comparison to Denny O'Neil and Luke McDonnell's deconstruction of Iron Man the previous year at Marvel--Green Lantern Hal Jordan has quit the Green Lantern Corps, and the Guardians of the Universe--they who lead the Lanterns--have assigned another Earthman, John Stewart, to fill the ring, er, suit.

It was the era of Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show on ABC-TV, and Super Powers also meant a series of limited series by comics legend Jack "King" Kirby. It also meant a line of action figures made by Kenner Toys, each of which included a mini-comic starring the same hero as was in the package. There were even tie-ins like hot chocolate. I'm relatively certain that one of those tie-ins--I'm thinking the figures--had a special offer for 3-month subscriptions to a few choice DC titles. That's how I learned about the Legion of Super-Heroes, and that's also how I began following Green Lantern in earnest.

Maybe it wasn't the best time to come aboard the series, what with John Stewart learning what it meant to be a Green Lantern all over again, and Hal Jordan trying his best to get back to the Corps. (Much later I bought the Green Lantern/Green Arrow trade paperbacks and learn of Stewart's first outing as a GL.) Still, there was something inherently interesting enough about the characters that I renewed with another 12-month subscription as the long, slow countdown to issue #200 began. (By "countdown" I mean it literally, as each issue's title literally counted down, beginning with #194's "5.")

The series changed hands from Wein and Gibbons to Steve Englehart and Joe Staton, but the stories kept their cosmic bent, featuring such key GL concepts and characters as Star Sapphire, the Predator, Katma Tui, the ring's yellow impurity, and more. During the crossovers with the Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series (which I wasn't even reading then), I even saw Guy Gardner get a GL ring for the first time!

Alas, right after the 200th issue, with the book's name officially changing to The Green Lantern Corps even though Hal had regained his ring, I was no longer interested. (Funnily enough, my subscription ended the month before, with #199.) In fact, I was no longer interested in DC at all, and would remain so until I rediscovered Firestorm, whom I remembered from the Super Friends cartoon. (And you can read all about my obsession with the character starting here. See how we all tie things together at Delusional Honesty?)

So, how did I pick up Green Lantern all over again? And how exactly does the answer lead to the horrendous pile of trade paperbacks I've had stacked in my library room?

Well, now that would be like skipping to the end, wouldn't it?

See you next time!



Life Is Buddha-Ful: Jon Haward Talks TALES OF THE BUDDHA

Did everyone forget about me over here? I've had a lot happening. New home, promotion at work, new 60" HDTV and all-region Blu-Ray player to lure me away. (Anybody seen that glorious new transfer of what we Yanks know as Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula?) And there's this Hulk thing I'm still working on, so, yeah.

But you don't want to hear about any of that. You want to hear about the Buddha. You want to hear about the time he drank twice-passed reindeer urine to get high, or the time he lost a duel against Hercules and ended up having to complete his 10 tasks, including cleaning crap from the Aegean stables.

What's that? You thought the Buddha preached peace, enlightenment, and purity of body?

As the Brits would say, "Bugger that!" I'm talking about the Tales of the Buddha (Before He Got Enlightened), a strip that began life in the U.K. underground comic Northern Lightz and is now being collected--along with some brand-new strips and pin-ups--in Renegade Arts Entertainment's new graphic novel collection of the same name.

I had the insane pleasure of reading the collection, sans bonus material, courtesy the iTunes store ($4.99). Writer Alan Grant (most famous for Judge Dredd and some Batman stories in Detective Comics) has partnered with artist Jon Haward and colorist Jamie Grant to bring the Buddha's adventures to print, and it's been a real hoot. So of course, with the print edition finally on its way in June, I couldn't resist shooting Haward, who's one of my Twitter pals, some questions about his career and about the project.

Haward is no stranger to the comics medium, having grown up reading the work of many greats. "Basically I grew up loving cartoon art in Mad and Cracked, [and artists like] Robert Crumb [and] U.K. comic artists Hunt Emerson, Ken Reid, R.T. Nixon, [and] Leo Baxingdale.," he says.

Although U.S. success has sadly eluded him, he's been quite popular in the U.K. He broke into the business in 1990, filling in for regular series artist David Pugh on the Dan Dare strip in Eagle, and never looked back. British fans have enjoyed his work in 2000 A.D., Thunderbirds Are Go, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice From Mars, and an incredible five-year run on the now-defunct Marvel U.K.'s Spectacular Spider-Man series. (Out of 32 stories, we Yanks have only seen one of those tales on these shores!) He's won Bronze Ippy awards for his work on Classical Comics' Macbeth and The Tempest, both adaptations of Shakespeare's famous plays, so he's in no way confined to traditional comics fare.

And on the other hand, there's his humor work, which has spanned such unusually-titled U.K. publications as Shit the Dog, Smut, Toxic Pie, Wasted, and the one in which the foul-mouthed, booze-swilling, womanizing Buddha made his debut, the aforementioned Northern Lightz.

Buddha had its genesis as a one-off tale in the comic series, then edited by Grant. "Alan and I had fun working on short funny stories for Northern Lightz and I told him I would be keen to work on a new character. Alan came up with a two-page Buddha story which made me laugh out loud, still does. The intention was that the strip would be a 3-panel gag strip appearing on different pages [of the comic]. I didn't know this so I drew the panels as a regular two-page strip. Once it appeared both Alan and I wanted to do more...as they say, the rest is history."

Haward greatly enjoys the collaborative process with Grant in Buddha. "Alan writes the scripts. Sometimes I'd ask if we could do certain characters like Hercules, Jason [of "Jason and the Argonauts" fame], Alexander the Great, Cleo, etc." After he received the completed scripts, he would improvise his own ideas into the finished art: "I'd read the script [and] add extra little gags in the panels like the sign on the Jonah Whale, 'Don't call him Moby.'" He credits his love for the cartoonists of his youth for his sensibilities and offers the following advice: "The secret for a great humor story should be the art should be as funny as the gag line. When Buddha is in Mexico he's asked if he would like donkey sex, so I drew a camp donkey with Madonna bra and stockings. (Laughter.) So the line and the art combine to hopefully make you laugh."

Laughter is just what Haward and his collaborators are counting on to overcome the work's air of sacrilege. "It's humor, satire. Buddhists embrace laughter and Buddha as a young man was a prince who sampled all forms of pleasure. If I found the work totally offensive I wouldn't draw it. The work actually makes me laught a lot and has been a good tonic for me over the years. If you are very religious and with a low threshold for adult humor don't buy the book. But if you're open-minded and enjoyed Ted, The Life of Brian, Milk and Cheese, Mr. Natural, Preacher, Lobo, Carry On Cleo...dare I say Benny Hill, you'll enjoy our book."

And if you look at the above list of films, TV series, and other comics that Haward suggests echo the brand of humor found in Buddha, well, the off-beat humor is just what he believes should lure fans to his work. "It's different [and there's] nothing else out there that looks like it, with the borders [and] the 'Buddhaful' coloring. it's satire, spoofing everything from gods to rock stars to princes. He travels through time so he can meet basically anyone on his path to find enlightenment."

Part of the allure of the new edition are the new works therein, which seize upon that very conceit of meeting anybody. "The extra stories in the printed edition are where Buddha helps out Santa and where [he] meets Prince Harry. Both funny strips, and yes, Prince Harry is naked! (Laughter.)" The new works aren't just contained to stories: "Also there will be new pin-ups by Duncan Fegredo, John Ross, Alan Craddock, Simon Williams, Nigel Dobbyn, Jim Stewart, Dave Alexander, [and] Gibson Quarter," giving fans their money's worth.

Unfortunately, further projects are on hold while Haward deals with some health issues. Hopefully, however, he and his collaborators will have other projects at or above the quality level of Buddha. (Who knew the Buddha could make me laugh so hard I cried?)

Do me a favor, do Alan and Jon and Jamie a favor, and order Tales of the Buddha (Before He Got Enlightened). It's in this month's PREVIEWS catalog from Diamond under order code APR131223. If you order from my preferred comic shop, Discount Comic Book Service, you get a 30% discount off the regular price of $14.99USD!


Do You Think I'm Being Unfair?

Fellas and dames,

I have recently been selling my stuff on eBay. Someone bid on one of my items, then sent the following 3 days after winning:
i must say that i was excited to bid n this item however, after looking closely at the ad, you stated that the item has dents on it and I CANNOT PURCHASE THAT LIKE THAT. I collect these things and display them and i cannot display something like that i am sorry. could you cancel the transaction, i cannot pay for this sorry.
-deadbeatbidder (name changed to protect the guilty)
 What would you do? I'm awfully close to replying thusly:

I was initially happy to see you bidding on this item. However, after seeing your completely ignorant response, I can see it is very clear that you did not examine my pictures nor the auction text carefully before bidding.

Nothing has changed in the description since you bid on the item. The only thing that's changed is your attitude. If you didn't want the item as-is, you shouldn't have bid. A bid is a legal contract. I have canceled bids for people before, but they made it clear their bid was an accident. They also asked me, politely, before the auction had been completed--not 3 days after while I have the item packed and awaiting payment. You're shouting at me (CAPS) showing neither politeness nor respect.

If you want someone to be angry with, be angry at yourself for not reading or examining my auction description or pictures more closely, or not contacting me before the auction closed. If you don't want the item, complete your responsibility to me and to eBay, and then resell the item. If you refuse to pay, I will initiate non-paying bidder procedures ASAP.

For more information on eBay's policies on bidding and canceling a bid, please see http://pages.ebay.com/help/buy/questions/retract-bid.html

Have a great day,

What do you think, sirs? Am I being too tough on Monsieur Deadbeat?



Indestructible Hulks & Marvel, Nowish

Well, now.

It's been a few months since I've been around these parts. For those of you with Twitter, you know I've still been as active in my fandom as ever; I just haven't been able to blog on account of a whole host of realtime issues. The Hulk book is still forthcoming, I promise. In fact, with this very blog post, I really have to watch what I say about at least one series I want to review because its release has totally thrown a spanner into the works of the final essay I've left to write.

Am I making sense?

So. Let's get on with it, shall we? What have I been reading during the last couple of months?

INDESTRUCTIBLE HULK #1 (Marvel, $3.99) - It's true that Marvel seems to be caught in a cycle of perpetually relaunching some of their characters, and the Hulk is one of their biggest targets. It started with "Planet Hulk" in 2006 and continued through the Red Hulk launch in 2008, the re-renumbering of Incredible Hulk in 2009, the introduction of the Hulk family in the transformed Incredible Hulks series in 2010, and finally last year's rebranding courtesy Jason Aaron. As part of the "Marvel NOW!" initiative, our favorite Jolly Green Giant has once again had his series restarted, written by Eisner and Harvey Award-winning writer Mark Waid, no less!

Let's get this out of the way right now: I love Mark Waid. He's written several of my favorite comics storylines, including "The Return of Barry Allen" early in his Flash run; "Chain Lightning" and the "Dark Flash" stories late in same; "Unthinkable" and "Hereafter" in Fantastic Four; "Man and Superman" in JLA; too many Captain America stories to count; "Urban Jungle" in Ka-Zar; and, well, you get the idea. In my top ten comics writers of all time, easily. Have I mentioned yet what miracles he's worked in making me enjoy the perennially-dark Daredevil by embracing a lighter mood? No? Corrected!

So far--and I realize we're only one issue into his and Leinil Yu's run--I remain optimistic, but can't help but feel we've moved a dozen steps backward. While it's an inspired choice to have Bruce Banner accept that he and the Hulk aren't going to be rid of each other anytime soon, and while there's a germ of an interesting idea having him set up shop with the same spy organization that once was complicit in exiling him into space, there's honestly precious little here we haven't seen done better elsewhere. We saw Banner using his incredible intellect on a regular basis during the final two years of Greg Pak's run, and Lord knows how many times we've seen him bring the Hulk's strength to a big think-tank organization. (The Pantheon, anyone?)

Then there's ol' Greenskin himself. Last month, Jason Aaron gave us a fully articulate behemoth who briefly swapped places with Banner due to the old stimulus of anger before giving way to a more well-balanced behemoth. Now, Waid seems to be fully embracing anger as a trigger, which no one's really done with any regularity since 1982. Not only that, but this first story only gave us a mute misanthrope rather than the "nobody's fool" incarnation of recent memory. If Kelly Sue DeConnick's Avengers Assemble and Jonathan Hickman's Avengers are any indication, it's very likely we're seeing the full-fledged return of the savage, child-like Hulk to the Marvel Universe.

And I'd be perfectly fine with that, if not for the fact that blessed few writers actually have a knack for the character since his exeunt from virtually the entire Marvel line in 1982. Being a fan of the "classic" Marvel tropes, I'd think Waid would fit among that number, but he's stated in an interview that he's "still having a hard time pinning down an exact 'voice' for Hulk," which doesn't exactly inspire confidence seeing how he's likely more than a few issues along in his scripting efforts. And when one of Marvel's best writers has a tough time with a character's voice, well, gulp!

Waid does have plenty of time to prove me wrong. With the so-far mute Hulk, though, I'm reminded of another relatively recent writer's run--that of Bruce Jones. Spy stuff? Check. Mute Hulk? Check. Boring as hell and wildly inconsistent with what came before? Check and mate. I'm hoping that, unlike Jones, Waid remembers, as Pak and David and even Jason Aaron did, that the Hulk has his own needs and desires. Even in his childlike incarnation--the one Marvel seems intent to foist upon the reading public as result of his scene-stealing appearance in the Avengers film--he has been underestimated in terms of cunning and yes, intellect. And those are aspects that have been lost in the shuffle, atrophied from years of disuse.

Buy it. Read it. Just don't expect to be blown out of the water quite yet.

On the other hand, there's Jeff Parker, Carlo Pagulayan, and Wellinton Alves's RED SHE-HULK #60 (Marvel, $2.99). Three months in, I'm enraptured by the narrative they're constructing in which Betty Ross has been desperately trying to avert a future that seems to already be happening. Parker has smartly begun reintroducing elements of Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver's landmark SHIELD series, which is interesting because of Waid's tying the original Hulk to the modern version of same. It's also nice to see Parker keeping Machine Man in the mix, since he was in the Red Hulk's series ever since the "Hulk of Arabia" arc some months ago. Pagulayan and Alves's styles mesh well enough, and I'm hoping they're able to keep the series consistent for a while yet, as having two artists working concurrently on each issue beats trading off artists between arcs.

That conclusion to issue #60 does raise some interesting questions. Without spoiling anything, hey, it's not like we didn't see the same thing happen to Jen Walters before (in the late Steve Gerber's opus, "The Cosmic Squish Principle"). I'm just curious as to why it's happened, and what it means for Betty in the immediate future. If you haven't tried this book yet, please, please, please do.

It's been a while since I predicted this series' status quo change, but it's better late than never. THUNDERBOLTS #1 (Marvel, $2.99) gives General Thad "Thunderbolt" Ross a chance to share the spotlight with a team of Marvel's nastiest assassins and killers that's, perhaps ironically, named after himself. The seeds for this group, if the cover's any judge, were planted during Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill's "Code Red" storyline in Hulk, with some of the extra stuff courtesy the recent "Circle of Four" arc. Writer Daniel Way sets up the story interestingly enough, framing the "pilot" as a conversation between Ross and the Punisher while intermittently flashing back to the incidents wherein he "drafted" the other team members. True, Ross no longer seems to be in hiding like he was in Jeff Parker's series, but it's too early to tell whether that's a good or bad thing. (I like having the Red Hulks' identities be secret to the world at large, as a counterpoint to the green Hulks.)

By far the most surprising thing about this first issue is the identity of the member that isn't on the cover. She's a Hulk foe from way back, and could be just the wild card the new Thunderbolts need. Kudos to Daniel Way. (Just please, please, please don't use the origin Peter David gave her.)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The weak link in this series is the horrendously average artwork of Steve Dillon. He works well on a "street-level" series like Punisher; not so much with a book filled with super-powered characters, one of whom is built like a brick outhouse. The book just doesn't have the visual "pop" it should, and a more dynamic artist would be tremendously appreciated, the sooner the better.

Still, this is a quality read and I'm anxious to see this group get together and kick some ass.

Alas, I've saved the best for last. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #699 (Marvel, $3.99) has surpassed my every expectation. The final arc, "Dying Wish," has everything that I want out of a Spider-Man story: Life-and-death stakes, challenges that cut to the core of Peter Parker's character, insidious villainy, stupendous suspense, and that trademark humor. If you missed the last issue, please run, don't walk, to your local retailer. You can even catch it digitally on ComiXology if you like. If you miss this story, you're missing great comics.

Writer Dan Slott has been seeding this storyline since The Amazing Spider-Man #600 back in 2009. Doctor Octopus has been dying, his all-too-human body slowly breaking down because he's taken too much punishment at the hands of super-powered individuals. His schemes have steadily escalated, until now where he's finally in possession of a super-powered body that will help him show the world who's boss. Unfortunately, that body is our hero's! That's right, Otto Octavius has transferred his consciousness into Peter Parker's body, which means our hero's mind is in a body that is failing him by the hour. Not only that, but Peter-as-Ock's trapped in an underwater prison under armed guard! It can't end this way...can it?

Slott and artist Humberto Ramos bring their "A"-game to this Spider-saga, due to end in The Amazing Spider-Man #700 in just a few weeks' time. The whys and wherefores behind Ock's scheme become crystal clear in this story. Not only that, but the ending and the cliffhanger bring to mind the sagas of yesteryear that we just don't see in comics anymore. You know the kind I'm talking about, because I've written about them before. There's a feeling of momentum building toward the conclusion, rather than something new beginning like in just about every other anniversary issue Marvel and DC put out these days. Let's make no mistake: I want that book, and I want it now. Kudos to Dan Slott and the Spidey team supreme for making me feel that way.

That's enough from me tonight. What d'you think, sirs?



Against Incredible Odds: Who Will Write The Next 'Hulk' Series?

According to Marvel's October 2012 solicitations, made available today, The Incredible Hulk is being "canceled" with issue #15 of its current run by writer Jason Aaron. Putting aside the irony of the series being "doomed" with less-than-stellar reviews being wrapped up by a battle with Doctor Doom, we know in our bones that the company is just readying yet another relaunch of the series as part of their Marvel NOW! campaign that begins the same month.

Coincidentally--or maybe not so much--Hulk, the book that's been starring Thad Ross, the Red Hulk, concludes in August. The book has been sliding down the sales charts lately despite solid stories and artwork. Rumors have it that the series is being relaunched to coincide with Marvel TV's new animated series, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. I have my doubts, not the least of which is the fact that in spite of some critical acclaim, Greg Pak's Incredible Hulks series that did pretty much the same thing tumbled down those same sales charts month after month.

Below, I've assembled my own serious picks for the new Hulk series that's sure to debut sometime between November and February. I'm likely to be wrong, but I'm playing the odds here. Somebody could come out of left field (even moreso than some of my suggestions!) and steal the book away.

In order from best chance to worst:

1. Fred Van Lente (2-1) - The odds-on favorite. Mr. Van Lente has closely flirted with Hulk super-stardom, having been buddy-buddy with Greg Pak since the days of Incredible Hercules. He created AIM's Scientist Supreme Monica Rappaccini and her daughter Thasanee, better known as the not-so-new-anymore Scorpion. Peter David one-upped him and established Bruce Banner and "Nicky" had a college fling which just might explain where her dear daughter got her green hair. Since then, those characters have only grown closer to the Hulk. Add in that we're a month away from Fred and Tom Fowler's revision of the Hulk's origin in Hulk: Season One and I think you can see where I'm going with this. The book is poised to introduce a new villain into the Hulk's corner of the Marvel Universe, and it will also plant the Scientist Supreme smack dab into his origin. Why not capitalize on these aspects in the best way possible and bring Fred Van Lente into the fold as the regular series' new writer?

2. Matt Fraction (5-1) - The more radical, yet still safe bet. Matt Fraction has been on the periphery of the Hulk universe for some time, writing the 2011 Fear Itself event which turned the mighty monster into Nul, the Breaker of Worlds. Since then, he's been writing Defenders, showcasing the team of heroes the Hulk is most often associated with--that is, up to this summer's blockbuster film, what was it called...? Anyway, he has enough off-the-wall ideas in books like The Mighty Thor and The Invincible Iron Man that he could very well be right at home scripting the adventures of Earth's Mightiest Mortal. Certainly it would make crossovers between his book and Defenders far easier, which would be a major plus if for no other reason than Betty's over there as Red She-Hulk. I admit, I'd be very curious to see Fraction take over.

3. Jeff Parker (20-1) - The guaranteed hit among Hulk fans. Jeff Parker has been writing the Red Hulk's adventures for about two years now. During that time, he's made the book--in this fan's opinion--a whole lot better than it has any right being, and ludicrously better than Jason Aaron's series about the "real," green-skinned Hulk. Hulk fans have longed to see him cut loose on Bruce Banner the way he has with Thad Ross. The only problem is whether Marvel will see the ever-declining sales figures of Hulk as a reason why he shouldn't be made the main series' writer. While his stories win critical acclaim and old-time fans' hearts, they don't seem to be catching on with the larger contingent of fandom essential to long-term success. Giving Incredible Hulk to Parker would be a gamble, but one I'm certain could pay off, especially if he's teamed with an artist capable of putting asses in seats.

4. Kieron Gillen (40-1) - The longshot with the inside track. Kieron Gillen has been making a name for himself in the Fear Itself spinoff series Journey Into Mystery which many have described as Marvel's very own Sandman (DC's dark fantasy series of the 80s by Neil Gaiman). He's also begun plugging away at the X-Men and, as seen in the above cover, he's written the Red Hulk in battle with Colossus-as-Juggernaut. He's not a big name, but this Brit's star is rising, and as a friend said on Twitter, he "can mix bombastic superhero battles with intricate, character-driven stories, a MUST for Hulk writers." That certainly sounds like a ringing endorsement. Again, pick a stellar artist, and this might be the team to beat.

5. J.M. DeMatteis (100-1) - The diamond in the rough. J.M. DeMatteis hasn't been doing much at Marvel these days, but what he has written has been as awe-inspiring as any of his older work. Like Gillen and Fraction, he really hasn't done anything substantial with the Hulk, his work relegated to a couple of stories in the black-and-white Hulk! magazine and some Defenders work here and there. However, when I recently interviewed him for my Hulk retrospective book, he told me that ol' Greenskin was right in his wheelhouse, as the character dealt with the themes of duality so prevalent in his best work. Anyone who enjoyed his stories in Spectacular Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, and Man-Thing would certainly see where he's coming from. Although he's known for deeper, psychological tales, he's also capable of light humor like in Justice League International and Defenders alongside longtime friend Keith Giffen. He's the best pick on my whole list, and I wish he'd get this gig. Never say never, but if the miracle came that we ever got him on Hulk, we'd never regret it.

Your thoughts?



Why Spider-Man Vs. Spawn Must Happen (An Open Letter to Axel Alonso & Todd McFarlane)

(Special note: Any fans or creators wishing to re-post or share this note may do so with the conditions that I am credited as its sole original writer and that my website, DelusionalHonesty.com, be linked from your posting.)

Dear Axel & Todd:

As you are both well aware, 2012 marks an important time in the "lives" of your companies' most enduring characters. Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko 50 years ago in the burgeoning days of of Marvel Comics with its eye toward more realistic super-heroes. Todd, you created Spawn 20 years ago during the explosion of creator-owned sentiment that was Image Comics' raison d'etre. Since then, both characters have enjoyed significant success, be it Spawn's HBO series or the 1997 movie; or Spider-Man's various animated series and 70s live-action TV series and movies throughout the last decade. Spawn #220 recently hit comic shops everywhere, celebrating the 20th anniversary, and in August, Marvel will release Amazing Spider-Man #692, which does the same for his 50th.

Although I know it's far, far too late to do it this year, I think you should really put your heads together and produce what we all know would be the premier comics--nay, pop culture event of 2013.

Spider-Man Vs. Spawn.

While 2012 marked the anniversaries I outlined above, 2013 will be the 25th anniversary of Todd's first work on Spider-Man, a character whom I daresay he changed forever by infusing his unique sensibilities into his design. I imagine, during the 43 issues Todd drew between 1988 and his exit from Marvel in 1991, he turned many a teenage boy (or girl!) into a devoted Spidey fan for life. There's not a creator working on Spider-Man today who doesn't owe something to Todd's work. If you don't believe me, just look at the character's bigger, buggier eyes and the mess of webbing from head to toe and spitting forth from his web-shooters. Arguably, there are two truly huge names among Spider-Man artists. One is Steve Ditko; I hope I don't have to tell you the other.

Spawn started out terrifically in the your hands, Todd. You soon ceded your artistic designs to Greg Capullo, who paved the way for Angel Medina even as you lent the writing reins to your colleague Brian Holguin, who then passed the torch to others. In spite of all this, you've always returned to the character and shown a heartfelt passion for Al Simmons, Terry and Wanda Fitzgerald, little Cyan, and even Malebolgia, Violator, Angela, Cagliostro and others introduced during the early part of the series. Jim Downing, the new Spawn, has continued to develop since his introduction, growing on fans who miss Al most fervently.

In spite of your immense and consistent popularity with comic fandom, I respectfully offer that it's important to reconnect with your roots. There are entire generations of younger comics fans who don't know the enthusiasm with which we fans who were around in the late 80s and early 90s grabbed the newest issue of Amazing Spider-Man or your Spider-Man. There are younger people--a few generations of them by now--who are only familiar with your work as Spawn's creator, or as the guy who bought Mark McGwire's baseball, or the guy who directed a music video or formed a video game studio with Curt Schilling and R.A. Salvatore. Only because of Marvel Comics' relentless graphic novel program do many even know you once, long ago, drew Spider-Man.

Axel, you've done some terrific things in your decade-long career with Marvel Comics. You stepped in when Joe Quesada renovated the company and drove such unique efforts as Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Statix as well as J. Michael Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man and Bruce Jones's Incredible Hulk. You've also brought various crime writers to Marvel, and helped to start the MAX mature readers label. In short, you've taken chances with Marvel's properties just as often as you've put out crowd-pleasing fare such as the current line-wide event, Avengers Vs. X-Men.

Marvel Comics and Image Comics have both had their share of successful inter-company crossovers, but Marvel hasn't stuck its feet in the water since the deal with Top Cow which produced books like Darkness/Hulk (which reunited Dale Keown with Marvel and the character with whom he was most often affiliated) and Cyberforce/X-Men (ditto for Marc Silvestri). The last crossover Marvel did with any other company was 2008's Magdalena/Daredevil.

Todd, you've been stingier in letting anyone else play with Spawn, letting him briefly pal around with Batman in a duo of one-shots, one of which you illustrated while comics legend Frank Miller wrote it. It wasn't bad, but at the same time, I don't believe it ages particularly well, nor do I think fans were as enthusiastic about a crossover with a character you rarely drew (in Mike W. Barr's excellent Batman: Year Two) as they would have been about a story involving a character you--let's be honest--revolutionized. And there was another Batman/Spawn project brewing, but there has to be one damned good reason why it never happened.

It's the perfect time for the drought to end on both your sides, and you know it.

While Batman and Spawn certainly have certain characteristics in common, it would no doubt be fascinating from a character point of view to bring Spawn into conflict with Spider-Man, a character who is his polar opposite: a hero of the daylight hours who fights with a web and a quip instead of a creature of darkness who uses chains and hellfire. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have the whole thing drawn by the man who, with the exception of a cover for the Ultimate Spider-Man #100 Project, hasn't drawn the character that put him on the map for two decades.

You know also that the project would entice the reading public--fans both old and new--like nothing that Marvel, Image or any other company has created since the formation of Image itself. And I'd imagine such a project would require the largest available canvas. Give the project the gravitas it deserves, not as a mini-series with an inevitable graphic novel collection at the end of the tunnel, but as a Treasury-sized spectacular like the super-project Superman Vs. the Amazing Spider-Man and all their ilk. 64 pages? 80? 100? Doesn't matter. Precious few projects have debuted in this superlative format in recent years, and fewer still have actually deserved it. Not only would comic readers get to see Todd McFarlane drawing Spider-Man again, swinging alongside his own creation for the first time ever; but they'd also see it in a large format actually befitting the event!

I'd also make one final recommendation to sweeten the pot. Everyone knows that you, Todd, have championed creators' rights since you left Marvel. Axel, I know that you and Joe Quesada have worked to establish the good name of Marvel through your works with the Hero Initiative charity. I would suggest the project be created in tandem with the Hero Initiative, with a significant amount of the profits going to the program and the creators it helps. Maybe you don't even have to go that far; maybe if each of Todd's art pages were auctioned off for the Initiative, like the covers contributed to the various "100 Projects" year in and out, that would be a blessing in itself. Put some space in the back and let various "indie" creators draw pin-ups of Spidey/Spawn or their own creations in the back. Make the project all about creators' rights, about benefiting those in need. Work out the reprint rights for subsequent printings and ensure this project is the gift that keeps giving, while you're at it.

Who would write this gem? It's one thing worth discussing. Certainly Marvel elite writer Brian Michael Bendis has the "cred" to script such a gig. He's earned it through working on Spawn and his cast in Hellspawn and Sam & Twitch as well as Marvel's in Ultimate Spider-Man and now the super-project Spider-Men. Certainly another name I'd put up there in an instant would be regular Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott, who knows his way around web-head and could certainly bring well-textured life to a project that needs big action, spot-on characterization and big action set pieces. On the other hand, there's dark horse candidate J.M. DeMatteis, whose work shows both humor and psychological complexity and who does exceptionally well with the duality of good and evil.

You can play fast and loose with the concept, too. If you think it's worthwhile to take a trip back in time, to when Spidey was still married to Mary Jane like in the Michelinie/McFarlane originals, so be it. If you want to use Al Simmons instead of Jim Downing, so be it! If you want to involve Venom and swap his symbiote with Spawn's K7 Leetha, make yourselves happy! If you'd rather have it take place in the here and now, I completely understand that desire, as well.

I've made my thoughts known, gentlemen. It's time to make your voices heard. Whether or not you like this idea, or even see it, I think there can be no overstating the potential good a Spider-Man Vs. Spawn project can do for the industry.

Thanks for reading,

Gary M. Miller