Saturday, December 4, 2010

Strange Tales II # 2

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Strange Tales II # 2 (Marvel, 2010).

I've been a little in love with the idea of this comic since Marvel first released the cover as a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come. Their first Strange Tales miniseries in 2008 was occasionally amusing and consistently eyebrow-raising. In it, they gave a pile of comic creators not generally known for superhero properties four to six pages each to produce their own takes on the company's iconic characters. I wouldn't call it consistent - I thought the unauthorized Coober Skeeber anthology from the late '90s was funnier - but it was nice to see Marvel let their hair down in this way.

In issue two of the second miniseries, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez take center stage for a pair of very, very fun six-page stories. As with many issues of the creators' Love & Rockets over the years, they each bring such verve to the project that I'm hard-pressed to decide which I like the best. Certainly Jaime, whose wonderful cover illustration has been making everybody who sees it giggle, is getting all the attention, but I'm not sure that Gilbert didn't one-up him here.

Going completely against my personal expectations - I'd have bet on either Nameless Ones or Emma Frost, knowing his tropes - his six-page story sees Iron Man teaming up with Toro, the flame-powered sidekick of the original 1940s Human Torch, for a scrap against the Hulk's big-headed nemesis the Leader, who apparently thinks both heroes are robots. Seriously. Most of the pieces in Strange Tales seem to start with a scrap of memory of the old stories these creators once read, but don't any longer. This one just somehow connects three random points of oddball continuity and expertly tells a story in a world that we can see is much larger than what Hernandez depicts. I was reminded of a bizarre and disturbing story that the artist did for L&R a few years ago in which avatars of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis go into outer space to fight aliens. This story is similarly confident in its ability to give readers an entertaining peak at its weirdness before closing the doors.

That said, I think that Jaime's story will prove the more popular, since it substitutes girly pictures for cerebral weirdness. That's fine; nobody in comics draws gorgeous women like Jaime. In this one, a body-swapping supervillain called the Space Phantom gets wind of several 1960s superheroines having a beach party and plans to crash it, with comical results. Over in L&R, Jaime had lost me a little with his critically-acclaimed "Ti-Girls" adventure, which evoked the worst of continuity-obsessed modern comics, just drawn really well. But this just as effortlessly evokes the best of Lee and Kirby's 1960s world, and does it with a "Beach Blanket Bingo" vibe. It's so damn cute and charming that you can't help but wish for a Marvel universe written and drawn by creators with this sense of fun.

And that's only twelve pages! There are several other really good stories inside. They may not appeal to everybody; I've personally never really enjoyed Jeffrey Brown or Tony Millionaire's styles, and their contributions here didn't sway me, although at least Millionaire starts with an unbeatably funny idea of having Thor lose his hammer and find work operating an old roller coaster at Coney Island. I was unfamiliar with Farel Dalrymple, but his four-page story of Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer meeting for the first time shows off some really neat artwork, and Jon Vermilyea has a gleefully sick four-pager about Ant-Man battling MODOK by shrinking and jumping up his nose. I felt bad about laughing so hard about that one, and retired with a collection of Punch to restore my inner snob.

It's tough to find a way to recommend one-off anthologies like this. I think that if you enjoy the creators, you might enjoy seeing them stretch their legs in this format, and if you've got a nostalgic sense of how fun this universe used to seem when you were younger, you might enjoy seeing that nostalgia filtered through talented artists who once read the same comics you did. Heck, even the ones that didn't really appeal to me seem more vibrant than Marvel's regular titles these days, which means this must count as a success worth applauding, right?

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