Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review - Immortal Iron Fist

Immortal Iron Fist
Written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction; Art by David Aja
2008 Eisner Winner for Best Writer for Ed Brubaker

In shonen manga (Japanese comics targeted toward boys) there's a stereotypical storyline where the hero is forced to take part in a tournament against an army of freakish opponents. It's popular because there's a lot of action and is a convenient framework for drama but for whatever reason it's only been used rarely in U.S. comics. I think that's because every story in superhero comics comes down to strange people beating each other up so a tournament where a bunch of them get together for this purpose doesn't hold the same thrill. This makes Brubaker and Fraction's stories in Immortal Iron Fist different in two ways. Besides being one of the few instances that this story is used in American comics it's also one of the few times that I have been genuinely interested in how it would play out.

The Iron Fist is an easy superhero to sum up. He's a martial artist who beat up a dragon and consequently can make his hand glow. He was from a hidden city in the Himalayas which can only be reached once a decade. He's also a billionaire playboy who used to hang out with a tough guy from the mean streets and they ran a private detective agency together.

Brubaker and Fraction's story introduces an lineage of warriors who have held the title Iron Fist and one of their main purposes is to fight a tournament against seven other similar warriors to determine which mystic city can reach the outside world. The previous Iron Fist is a man whose father was a steampunk supervillain. When he decided to abandon his position he used his skills and that technology to form a team of pulp adventurers. Forces that pursued him for over fifty years cause the two Iron Fists to collide on the eve of this tournament. And those same forces are raising the stakes for this tournament far higher than they have been before.

If I had to pick a single word to describe this series it would be energetic. It's packed to overflowing with over the top concepts like "an empire of hypothetical science" or a woman who contains an army of spiders. There's no sitting back to provide exposition on why a dog wearing aviator goggles is on a team in the style of Doc Savage and that's fine by me since these are concepts where nothing is necessary beyond the concept itself. And none of it comes across as just random things thrown against the wall; once you accept the broad concept of mystical cities with superpowered kung fu champions then there's no reason not to accept the idea that one of those champions is powered by women who turn into birds. And this stuff never lets up as there's always something new and wondrous around the next corner.

The downside to this is that this is not a deep story. There's no grand unifying theme or deep message. It's about enjoying a hyperkinetic, over-the-top adventure story. I have no complaints on that front since even in superhero comics it's rare that I find one that is this much fun.

The other problem is that there are some aspects that I was left wanting to see more. The other warriors are intriguing and if Brubaker and Fraction could have piled on more just about them. I suspect that if they had continued their work on the series all the things that I want fleshed out would have been explored. Still what they've provided is sufficient for the story they're telling.

I loved David Aja's work on Immortal Iron Fist. He has a lean, lanky style with his figures that looks different from the standard superhero artwork. His characters are lithe martial artists, not overly muscled steroid abusers. He used a style of illustrating action that I've never seen before and connects with the martial arts in a brilliant way. In the middle of his fluid action he has inset panels highlighting the moment of contact; it controls the pacing of the action to freeze the most intense moment. This book has a cinematic feel that is all about control of pacing and how images are framed.

I read The Immortal Iron Fist as an omnibus that collected all of the issues of that these creators had done and their entire story was a fun one. It's complete in one volume in this format and I'd recommend it to anyone who thinks that it sounds like fun. Like most great martial arts films it's not a story that will make you think but it kept me smiling the whole time I was reading it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review - Dr. Strange: What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?

Dr. Strange: What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?
Written by Marc Andreyko; Art by P. Craig Russell
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Penciller/Inker

When it comes to superheroes my personal favorite is Dr. Strange. It's not because of his powers; they tend to be loosely defined and vary based on the needs of the story. And it's not because of his stories; if I took the hundreds of issues of Dr. Strange written since the character was introduced I might be able to point out three dozen that are really great. What I like about Dr. Strange is the core concept. It's the classic Marvel story cranked up all the way. You have an arrogant man who has been corrupted by worldly things until a tragedy of his own making brings him low. Now in other Marvel comics they deal with this by building a suit of armor and punching criminals. Or by climbing down walls and punching criminals. Or hitting their brother with a big hammer and punching criminals. Dr. Strange on the other hand got to the bottom and then reevaluated his life, realized his failings at a person, and then worked hard to change his ways. He was far ahead of the curve in terms of comic book characters and completely different from any other superhero out there.

What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? is the only time that my favorite superhero has won an Eisner. That makes sense since as I mentioned there's aren't a lot of good stories featuring Dr. Strange. In fact this book isn't a good story; it's flawed in every way possible. It also exists as a showcase for gorgeous P. Craig Russell artwork and on that level it succeeds.

Dr. Strange's friend is abducted, and a monastery of the same order that trained him has been slaughtered. He follows the trail through strange dimensions to an evil sorceress who demands his assistance is maintaining her dying kingdom. Naturally complications ensue.

Andreyko's story is not coherent. An individual page can hold together well but let me run through the first nine as an example. Strange finds a strange message in his fortune cookie delivered by a demonic waiter. Goes home and realizes his friend is missing. Gets a telepathic message from his mentor sending him immediately to the Himalayas. Goes to a strange universe where he talks a pack of monsters into opening a door for him. Gets to the monastery to find nearly everyone dead. One of the survivors has been brainwashed to kill Strange and the doctor knocks him out. After extracting information from the potential killer's mind he then goes to another universe. Really, that's nine pages. And most of it doesn't matter a bit to the actual plot that runs through the whole book. The demonic fortune cookie message that provides the title of the book doesn't tie into anything. The taunting monsters at the doorway don't matter. The death of the monks is never mentioned again.

The reason for this is that Andreyko seems to be blindly following the Joseph Conrad's hero's journey without actually bothering to build a story out of it. The hero's journey as a storytelling framework only works if you're actually telling a story. What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? is just a series of events. One station per page is insufficient to deal with the developments.

He does eventually locate a narrative but it comes in over halfway through this very short book. From there it's a by-the-numbers affair though considdering Andreyko was actually painting by someone else's numbers that shouldn't be a surprise.

There's only a few characters who are around for more than a page in the story and none of them are interesting. Strange is following the steps of the plot because it's there. The villain never is developed further than evil queen. There's a person who shows up toward the end to hand out the exposition and not do anything. I didn't have any reason to care about any of these people or what they did.

While I may not have a single nice thing to say about Andreyko's story I also have nothing but praise for Russell's artwork. He dives into the psychedelic artwork that has been the hallmark of Dr. Strange comics from the beginning and draws fantastically elaborate set pieces. The panel structure itself warps and extends as part of the surrealist effect. These are beautiful pages.

Unfortunately they're beautiful pages that are unreadable. I love the art and because I love Dr. Strange I don't regret reading What Is It That Disturbs You Stephen. On the other hand if you don't share my fondness for the character or Russell's art then you'll wind up annoyed with the book.