Story – Alex Ross & Mike Carey
Script – Mike Carey
Artist – Patrick Berkenkotter
Once again I venture into the potty to read another comic book and review it… just like I’ve done several times before…
For this Comics on the can I’m apparently going to face a notorious evil that comic book heroes have to face time and time again. Something that can’t be avoided even by the best and most powerful of our favorite fantasy characters. An inescapable sinister force that becomes more difficult to defeat the more successful a hero becomes.
What on earth could it be? (Cue sinister music: Da da dum daaaaaaa)
How many times can Batman face off against the Joker before it gets old? Well if it was the same story of the Joker making a giant robot (insert animal and/or 19th century president here) or a shrink ray. Batman punching Joker out. Repeat every eight issues…
Yes, it’d get old pretty quick. The same goes for any hero and their arch-nemesis or run-of-the-mill-villain. The evil I speak of in the above paragraph is, naturally, repeating yourself.
A few columns ago I wrote about The Twelve and the interesting position comics are in where there is a great amount of history to draw from, and the puzzle of making the characters of the past resonate and/or work for contemporary times. Fate (that cruel mistress) and the totally random chance (that less focused kinda ADD sister to fate) of what is in the box of comics (that is the basis for this column) want me to think about that particular topic a bit more, I guess.
How does our hero (or your humble narrator for that fact) escape this fiendish trap that always gets set somewhere in the timeline?
You change it up a bit, jiggle around the narrative, change the perspective, and/or examine the relevant themes under a different light. How ’bout telling a Batman story from the Joker’s perspective of trying to find the parts, genetic or otherwise, to build his James K. Jumbo Polk Squid-Bot. Ten years later revisit the story from one of the henchmen’s perspective.
Good thing Mike Carey knows how to do this. Odds are a Mike Carey story would have all three perspectives told in grand exciting flashback panels at one point or another. He also knows how to wring some profound character drama outta his subjects. Man, you’d FEEL the regret the henchman would still suffer from because his best hench-pal was devoured by Squid-Bot as the Joker made good his escape. Not to mention that Mike Carey could probably sell the high concept of a squid/executive branch robot hybrid in his story like metaphorical ice to an Eskimo. His work on this makes it a lot easier to go back to the well here.
The set-up – Tom Raymond aka TORO – sidekick to the original Human Torch (the golden age android one that had a continual grudge match against the Submariner till they both decided it was better to take their aggression out on Nazis) has been cursed with a common affliction of superheroes; he’s back from the dead. Normally one might be happy about this but Tom is having some problems adjusting; his wife has re-married, his sister has moved away; in fact there is no one from his past he can connect with – the details surrounding his resurrection make him a blank slate to the world. Toro feels unmoored from his new life. Unlike JMS’ characters whom all were struggling to adjust (or struggling against adjusting) to the new world and their role in it. Carey’s take on Toro is one of a severe existential crises. Granted the characters of The Twelve were cursed with the type of affliction that nabbed heroes like Buck Rodgers, Captain America, and Fry from Futurama… suspended animation… and not a full bore back from the dead thing (like Superman, Punisher and, eventually, we all know, Wolverine) but even considering the scope Toro is having a rough time of it. The only connection he really has is golden age Vision. What doesn’t help is golden age Vision popping in every once in awhile telling him, in the wisdom of contemporary pop songstress Taylor Swift, to “Shake it off”. Initially you think it could possibly be a manifestation of Toro’s subconscious except eventually The Vision teleports him to an A.I.M. base to do something ill-advised (more on that later).
The story isn’t all dour, though, because the other side of the plot is that the Mad Thinker is hired by A.I.M. to build a city destroying weapon. I don’t know much about the Mad Thinker in detail except that he is, what?, a B-lister that doesn’t have much resonance in today’s nutty super-fierce bad guy styles. And he looks kinda old school mad scientist ugly. Which also mirrors the theme of fitting in the new style when you’re terminally old style. I guess villains can have the same mid-life crises, job ennui, and story clichés too. Except that it’s obvious that Carey is having a lot of fun writing the Mad Thinker. Given carte blanche, copious resources, and an irritating handler by A.I.M., The Mad Thinker is droll, sarcastic, and bored with knowing (or is that thinking) he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s great fun to read. He grins insanely as if he’s aware that he’s being drawn by the talented but sit-com-ishly named Patrick Berkenkotter from slightly below with un-natural under-lighting like a mirror universe Captain Kirk. The Mad Thinker doesn’t break out in that cliché crazy laugh that was old back in the 40’s, but you hear it in every line of dialogue he says.
The stories intersect when, as I said earlier, Toro goes to the A.I.M. base with the intention of ganking the Mad Thinker as vengeance for killing him all those years ago. Understandable but not well thought out. Golden age Vision half-heartedly tries to talk Toro out of it but, shit, he wears yellow and red to go with his green skin; I wouldn’t take advice from him either. Plus it seems apparent that Toro really has a death wish more than a thirst for vengeance. Mad Thinker shuts down Toro with-out breaking a sweat, and considering ole’ Maddie’s exercise regime that’s saying a lot. Thinker cuts Toro up and discovers that the same cells that made the Torch dictated Toro’s mutant power. BAM! Carey logically explains the dopey concept of the sidekick having the same powers while opening up a ton of new possibilities. The issue ends with Thinker stealing The Torch’s android corpse (???) and having the key to the super weapon he’s been contracted to make.
Mike Carey demonstrates in this issue pretty much all the ways to beat the “repeating stories” trap while finding some thematic verisimilitude. He makes the outdated characters fun, interesting and most importantly relevant in a modern context. This is done by grinding their misfit status against a modern sensibility bringing something new to the proceedings. The sparks make for some great exciting reading.
So the trap can be avoided, you just have to be a good storyteller and, thankfully, Carey is one, exceedingly so.
I can’t wait to read his story about Cyclops fighting a giant Millard Duck Fillmore cyber flock of nanobots.
Random thoughts somewhat pertaining to the book but I couldn’t work in organically in the main review…
The opening page draws thematic weight of disaster and fire holding hands; Hindenburg, a famous but tragic Mississippi nightclub fire, and Hiroshima.
Mad Thinker’s A.I.M. handler needles the crap out of him. I’m curious to see if it was intentional or the guy being awkward and fanboyish on MT.
There is an ad for the Nissan cube. I have a hankering to get an ugly boxy little car like that. Any word on the Cube which leads the pack in that respect?
The Mad Thinker: “You might be men, women, or hyper-evolved colonies of bacteria. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt.” That’s super villain droll.
And equality minded too.
Page 20 has one of those trademark Mike Carey action/flashback spreads I was talking about; Torch, Toro, Captain America, Nazis… I’m surprised no Sub Mariner.
I’m sure Mike didn’t want to shoot his action-flashback-featuring-characters-barely-tangental-to-the-story load in issue one. Sub Mariner probably pops up by issue #3.
Other giant animal/19th century president hybrid mecha-monstrosities:
James rabid weasel Buchana-bomb
Zachar-izard Taylor Doom-Dirigible
Ulysses S. Hippo Cannon
Martin Van Buren-ing- Death Flamingo
James Weevil Mon-rover of wholesale carnage, and last but certainly not least…
Abraham Lynxn coal powered Kill Gor-illa!
Sorry, Patrick Berkenkotter, I’m just clownin’ on your name dog. I really loved your work on the book.
NEXT – Titian A.E.. Based on the lackluster movie from the early aughts.
My semi-monthly promise to review Big Trouble in Little China (which I named as one of my favorites of 2014 HERE)
Later – Something else in the box. Or something new.