Category: From the Mind of Tim Jousma

Blink #1

   The X-Men. Thanks to various cartoon appearances throughout the years I am familiar with the characters but admittedly have not read too many of the comics where the characters originated. I wish I had a reason. I don’t hate the characters. Wolverine is an amazing character that I absolutely love yet for whatever reason I’ve found myself drawn to other comics in the super hero genre.   With the new X-Men: Apocalypse coming out this year I wanted to dive into the deep end of the X-Men pool so I decided I would give the story that became the inspiration of the film, Age of Apocalypse, a try. So I come to these stories as a new reader with a very basic understanding of the characters apart from the more well knowns like Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, and Professor X.

   The first story in the Age of Apocalypse story arc is Blink #1. Apparently this four issue series of Blink was written well after the creation of the Age of Apocalypse story but retroactively placed at the start of the story. That fact makes the story a little tough to follow since the story assumes you know a lot of what is going on before you even pick up the story. While we do encounter characters we are familiar with in this story, they have different motivations than we are used to so they may as well be new characters.

   That is the problem with prequels or stories like this that unintentionally become prequels. Take the Star Wars prequels for instance. Sure, they were not the landmarks of cinema that maybe George Lucas thought they would be but despite their many flaws, they told the story of how the heroes we do like and care about got to where they did when Episode 4 started. But when you’re creating a story that folks already know the ending to, it’s tough to create a story with characters and situations that are new and exciting since we already know where characters end up with the later part of the story. Any sort of tension or suspense you’re trying to create gets tossed out the window when you know the fate of the characters involved.

   You also have the problem of the writer not knowing how to focus correctly. What do I mean by that? The purpose of a prequel is to essentially write a new opening to an already established story. Your focus going into it has to be making sure that the story blends as well as it can with the original story as it can. Too often you find writers making decisions that assume the reader or movie watcher or whatever know something that, if they were supposed to start the story from the new starting point, should not know by this point. If you are going to have a character act in a particular way, you have to act like the audience is meeting this character for the first time and explain why, either through actions or through a little thing called exposition.

   The big issue I had going into Blink was the writer assuming myself as a reader knew a lot more of the story than I did coming in. I get that comics are a different medium than books so aren’t always afforded the benefit of a proper, exposition filled set up of the story. Being that this details a less well known character as well, saying this is a proper story introduction would be wrong as well because while it may be the start of the reading order, this is not a story where you can throw in a ‘Once Upon A Time…” and start the story off. It’s one character’s adventures tossed into an already established story. There’s nothing wrong with that per se but the disorientation I felt trying to get my bearings to me shows that starting the reading order with this issue was probably not a good idea. Does that make this a bad story? No. It’s all right. Not my cup of tea but enjoyment of a story is purely subjective. Marvel could have done a better job with the reading order.

   The art is not my cup of tea here. There are too many garish colors and oddly drawn characters for my liking. I get that these are mutants for characters so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they will look different than you or I. The problem I had was the fact that the artist in question really loved making the characters extra curvy. The characters didn’t have the bit of realness I like to see in stories. It was like the X-Men version of a Conan The Barbarian comic. Whether it be Conan or Red Sonja, everyone had to have muscles upon muscles or extra billowing bosoms which just distracts me from the story. I understand that comics are not movies. They’re not supposed to be as close to real people as possible. I just don’t care for the exaggerated nature these characters were drawn in.

Bottom Line:

   I didn’t care for this. I wouldn’t call it bad but for my tastes, it just didn’t do it for me. In regards to its placement as the start of the Age of Apocalypse reading order, something feels off here. It doesn’t really feel like a proper beginning which really made getting through this issue a chore. I’m supposed to know a lot of what is happening already when I start…but this is supposed to be the start of the story. They’re trying to accomplish two things at once which for my money, was a failure.

Ultimate Spider-Man #22

   It wouldn’t be a comic book if we didn’t have a villain that was presumed dead show up again out of nowhere to battle our hero. This is the case in issue 22 of Ultimate Spider-Man when his ultimate enemy, The Green Goblin, comes back to town.   The fear of bringing a character back in a story like this is the chance of ruining a character you’ve established as a big bad guy. You want to be able to bring back the same level of evil that was in your story before as well as expanding upon it, hopefully making your story and character that much better.

   A brilliant example of this is Star Wars. Darth Vader, when introduced in Star Wars Episode 4, was a standard bad guy. If you think about it objectively, Darth really is just a standard, by the numbers bad guy in that movie. There are seeds there that Lucas and others were able to exploit in terms of expanding the character and giving him more depth but in A New Hope, he was there to kick ass and be the foil for the Rebels. Hell, he wasn’t even the main bad guy. He was the lackey for Governor Tarkin. It wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that he became the focal point antagonist.

   One thing that concerned me this issue was time. Harry Osborn arrives back at school after supposedly spending time with an Uncle in Colorado. Based on the conversation between Peter and him, it didn’t seem like Harry had been gone long. They describe the Green Goblin attack on the school as if it were pretty recent. My guess is that they are still in the same semester in school. It doesn’t make much sense though because so much has happened during that short period of time that frankly I think it would be impossible for someone to pull off everything Peter has done without anyone knowing what the hell he is doing. Maybe it’s just me but having some semblance of time in a story helps space everything out. When the reader doesn’t have a firm grasp of time, when events are happening in the timeline of the story, it can lose the reader or make them question like I just did how everything in the story could happen in such a short period of time. Not that the story has to notate time like the television show 24 did but some line, something, indicating the amount of time that Harry had been away would have been nice.

   When Peter and Norman were brought into the same room I really enjoyed Norman telling Peter that his time as Spider-Man was over. While we don’t know where it is going yet there was a touch of logic in what Norman was telling Peter. Again, it’s probably the father in me but I found myself agreeing with Norman. Peter should not be Spider-Man. He’s a fifteen year old kid who is in way over his head. Norman was not wrong when he told Peter to stop. Granted, if Peter did stop we wouldn’t have one of the greatest comics in history so I’m glad he didn’t listen but thinking about it, you can appreciate the fact that others would think he is a fool for trying to save the world. Obviously, Norman Osborn has ulterior motives. Yet I think it is a stroke of genius to have him talk to Peter about stopping what he is doing. When you can take a villain and give him some motivation that the reader can relate to or even agree with in some way, you’re giving the audience a much richer character than the standard mustache twirling bad guy.

Bottom Line:

   We’re on the start of something good here. After the disaster of the last story with Doctor Octopus and Kraven, it’s great to finally get rolling with the right way with an already established character that is properly addressing issues from the past between them to start something new. The appearance of Norman is well worth the price of admission to the story alone.

   Mark Bagly’s work this issue is well evidenced by Peter’s walk to Norman Osborn’s home office. The look of dread and trepidation in his face almost negates the need for dialogue because you’re already aware of what is going through his mind. Even with the worst issues in the Ultimate Spider-Man run, Mark Bagly’s art is the highlight of the issue, showcasing action, emotion, and plain simple visual storytelling in a way that is not confusing to the reader at all.

   Really the only thing I would have changed this issue was Aunt May being suddenly open to sending Peter to see Norman and Harry after the events of last issue. The reason I would make a change was because they had her do a 180* with Peter being grounded. While Norman’s assistant was at Peter’s home talking to Aunt May, they didn’t have any dialogue referencing why she had a change of heart, just that she was ok with Peter going to the house. When all is said and done though, if this is the only issue I really had, Bagly and Bendis are doing something good.

Ultimate Spider-Man #21

We come to the end of the Double Trouble story featuring Peter facing off against Doctor Octopus and Kraven the Hunter. At this point Doc Ock has been handled and is ready for the police to take him off to wherever super villains are held. The battle with Kraven starts now.

That is if you can call it a battle. I’ve been holding back on Kraven because I knew where his story was going and that was really nowhere. Kraven is built up as some sort of bad ass hunter, a Steve Irwin meets Dolph Lundgren type, over eight issues of this story and within three pages and one punch to the face Kraven is down for the count.

If you are going to include a character as a villain and build him up as an unstoppable force you have to deliver on the promises you’re giving your readers. The introduction to Kraven in the Ultimate universe was a huge failure. Not that the character is bad mind you. I rather dug Kraven in the original comics and know that he will come back in the Ultimate line a little more dangerous than he is presented as now. First impressions mean everything though and the chance to have a truly modern bad ass Kraven hunting Spider-Man through the streets of New York was wasted on a scene that was more fitting in a Three Stooges film than anything else.

There are times where a failed buildup can be good for the story. I think of Iron Man 2 where Justin Hammer spent most of the movie talking about how great the improvements to the War Machine suit would make it. He talked on and on about various upgrades and the moment they actually get used in the film, they fail miserably. That was perfect for the story because it showed the audience how much of an utter failure Justin Hammer was. It also led to a great comedic moment when War Machine and Iron Man were fighting together and he attempts to shoot one of Hammer’s missiles to no effect whatsoever. The buildup and the subsequent failure of that buildup actually contributed positively to the story.

This issue is the textbook way on how you not to build up to something you’re not going to properly follow through. I would have no issue with Kraven being defeated. That’s the point of comics after all, the bad guy gets his due in the end. The issue all boils down to him being defeated so quickly as well as having him try to slink off before getting arrested. Kraven getting arrested had the same feel of King Arthur getting arrested at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You laugh at both resolutions but the Monty Python ending was intentionally meant to be funny.

The issue is not a total loss. Peter gets caught by Aunt May after the battle. He arrives home at three o’clock in the morning and Aunt May is up waiting for him. She has no clue he’s Spider-Man. She just has no clue what the hell kept a good kid like Peter out for so long into the night with no explanation. The emotions in the scene were quite real, making Aunt May a more fleshed out character in the process compared to the original version of her. It also goes to show how naive Peter is when it comes to his new powers.

One thing comics don’t do a good job with is how the heroes in question can live full, normal lives on top of fighting crime for hours or days on end. For a fifteen year old boy, how can he fight villains until three o’clock in the morning as well as going to school and having an after school job? The next issue shows Peter in school none the worse for wear. Not even one mention of being tired or needing a coffee. High school for me was my introduction to massive amounts of coffee. Why can’t Peter be sore or tired more often? Like Aunt May, why don’t more people notice that Peter is acting much different than he normally does? I think the only comic I’ve read that has a somewhat believable account of someone able to pull off a normal life and the life of a superhero is Iron Man. Tony Stark was already quite flighty in the comics, locking himself in a room to focus on his latest project so for him to disappear for long periods of time is very much understandable. How Peter is able to pull off Spider-Man without too many people noticing needs a little more explanation as to how he pulls it off.

Bottom Line:

This story has been tough to get through. It has some good moments to be sure, moments that will feature in future issues of this comic series. Yet the fact that we had at least two mistakes that are very much rookie mistakes, the failure to establish a back story between Doctor Octopus and Justin Hammer as well as the failure to follow up on the build to Kraven, lead me as the reader with a bad taste in my mouth. This eight issue story is really a what could have been type of story.

What can writers learn from this issue? For one, it’s important to establish relationships between characters you wish to have some sort of conflict with. You can’t write a comic book series or a book series and just expect to have two characters that are already established in a world to suddenly have a conflict with each other without establishing that they have some sort of connection. Secondly, follow through with your buildup. If you’re going to build up a character as some unstoppable force, you have to either follow through with that buildup or have a way through actions showing that the buildup was all a lie just like the Justin Hammer buildup in Iron Man 2.

The art for this issue was great during the scene with Aunt May and Peter. Mark Bagly is able to express so much emotion in her face during their argument. Concern, anger, despair, sadness, she runs the full gambit of emotions without the dialogue having to tell you how she is feeling.

Ultimate Spider-Man #20

As they say, the second time is the charm. Spider-Man faces off against Doctor Octopus again, this time in front of the eyes of the media.

What I digged in this issue was Doctor Octopus bringing attention to Justin Hammer’s evil experiments at his laboratory. It was quite unsuspected but I liked where it brought the story. I do have to ask though why the media would be dealing with a guy who has been established is a cold blooded killer as carelessly as they are. We’re not talking about an OJ Simpson type of criminal here, someone who despite being accused of a horrible crime still early on had a reputation as someone that you weren’t going to be scared around. Doctor Octopus brutally murdered a lab full of people on live television and the reporters here are treating him as if he were a celebrity. While I can see the reporters wanting to get that big scoop to help their careers, I would think they would at least call the cops too.

While having Doc Ock hold a press conference is definitely an out of left field idea that I find interesting, I have to ask what the end game for him was. While the first reaction as a reader would be that he was hoping to destroy Hammer through the power of the press, up until this point Doctor Octopus has been shown as a dangerous psychotic who has had no hesitations to kill people for his goal. He’s also shown that his memory is not what it once used to be. We also have the situation that up until this storyline we previously had no idea Justin Hammer existed and that he and Doctor Octopus had interactions with each other when Doc Ock was spilling corporate secrets to him.

What is Doctor Octopus trying to accomplish here? Is he someone that through his insanity is finally doing something good albeit in a very bad, messy way? Or is this a storyline that was pulled out of the ether and tried to fit into the existing universe? I choose the latter.

In a comic or book series, you will encounter situations like this further down the line of your creation where you have to create a story that had its seeds sown much earlier in the story. Whether it be one line that could seem throwaway at the time or the inclusion of a scene that details a history between characters that will be explained later, it is important for a writer to establish relationships as early as possible. The importance of doing this is twofold. One, you don’t confuse your reader by having characters that never met seem like the best of friends or the worst of enemies. Two, you’re rewarding the reader that has stuck through from the beginning by diving deeper into a world that the reader has invested themselves in. The reader benefits because it shows them that you’re just as invested in giving them a great story as you the reader are in reading it.

Comics are a unique beast in that especially with the big companies like Marvel and DC, they have to come out with material every month, if not quicker for titles that are released every two weeks. I am quite confident that if this were the second book in a series that Brian Bendis would have found the fact that a story he was looking to create did not have the seeds sown for it in previous issues. The fact that it isn’t addressed really makes this particular story quite difficult to get through.

Bottom Line:

These have been some real tough issues to get through. Maybe it’s because I am looking at this with a more critical eye instead of just as an average reader but the whole issue with the relationship between Otto Octavius and Justin Hammer is disappointing. It could have been one sentence by Norman Osborn expressing concern about a mole in his organization in a previous issue. Something would have been better than nothing. And let’s take into consideration the fact that maybe there is a throwaway line someone in a previous issue that I have simply forgotten about. I’ll admit it. I’m not perfect. If I missed said line, fine. But I still contend that the establishment of a relationship between two characters that are pretty big players in this universe deserves some sort of mention that will be memorable to the reader. Let’s say there is a line for argument’s sake explaining that there was a mole in Osborn Laboratories. The fact that twenty issues in I forgot it tells me that it was not a well done line explaining this history that this particular story hinges on.

Readers will probably have noticed that I haven’t mentioned much of Kraven in the reviews for this storyline much. There is a reason for that which I will address next issue. The buildup to the ultimate showdown between Kraven and Spider-Man is fine. The payoff is about as successful as my first attempts at dating.

One thing that really stands out this issue is the art. A majority of the pages are devoted to the big battle between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. With a character that has multiple arms, I can imagine it would be hell for the artist to create fight scenes that don’t get the reader lost. You want to have some semblance of reality when you’re going into a big fight. If Spider-Man is getting hit with one of Doc Ock’s arm’s, which arm did the hitting and from what direction? Mark Bagly does a masterful job of not only being an amazing artist but a good stage director. While it could be argued that Peter defeated Doctor Octopus a little too quickly, the fact that you can follow a multipage fight scene and not be lost as to what is going on says a lot for the art. Plus the little bits of humor Bendis and Bagly toss in during the fight breaks up the monotony with some laughs.