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Alternate Cover - 9th August 2006

Alternate Cover

With this week's reviews, I'm going to introduce you all to Jeffrey Brown, one of my more recent obsessions, and his latest book, "I am going to be Small". I'm also going to try and figure out just what it is that I dislike so much about Straczynski's comics through the medium of Fantastic Four #539, I'm going to give Bendis his dues over Ultimate Spider-Man #98, and I'm going to give Brubaker a hard time over Uncanny X-Men #437.

I am going to be Small

I am going to be Small

Publisher Top Shelf • Writer & Artist Jeffrey Brown

I haven't said a lot about Jeffrey Brown. Strange, really, considering he's one of my favourite comic creators. After reading all of fellow (NTS contributor) Josh's copies, I bought up almost the entire back catalogue for myself from the Top Shelf table at the Bristol Expo this year. "He's getting pretty popular in the UK," I was told, as I forked over for £60 worth of graphic novels. It's understandable.

While his earlier work focuses mainly on fragile emotions and how badly screwed up his life can get, it should not be overlooked that Jeffrey Brown is also one of the greatest comedic geniuses in the medium. In this book, he writes observational comedy in a way that should make Jerry Seinfeld feel like an amateur hack. He's got range, and he's not afraid to use it. It's sometimes offbeat, sometimes emotional, sometimes crude, sometimes twisted, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes just enough to make you smirk. The only consistent thing it's got is that it's all great.

Except for those last 30 pages or so of some tragically crap animal cartoons.

It's fair to say that Brown's more emotionally involved work is his best. However, it's also plenty accurate to say that it's worth buying anything he does on the strength of his name alone. I've bought entire anthologies just to get a one-page by him. While the last few pages in Small weren't my favourite, there are an additional 350 to pad out the rest of it. On those pages are well over 500 pieces culled from Brown's previously unpublished or uncollected work, spanning a 9 year period - with single-panel jokes, text pieces, fake adverts, more conventional comic strips, and god knows what else, you could entertain yourself with this book for an incredibly long time. If you're the type of person who enjoys reading on the toilet, it's perfect for it, though you could end up permanently affixed to the bog while caught up reading just one more joke.

All that said, I'm not sure I'd recommend it as the best way to get into Brown's work. It's fairly unrepresentative of his other stuff which is actually much more satisfying in the long run - even his previous collection of comedy pieces, "The Miniature Sulk" is far more about the laughs. If that's his "Greatest Hits," this seems more like a B-Sides collection for the hardcore fans. I love it, I encourage everyone to buy it, but if you're really looking to get into Jeffrey Brown, do yourself a favour and start with his debut Clumsy and work your way forward. You'll fucking thank me later.

Fantastic Four #539

Fantastic Four #539

Publisher Marvel • Writer J. Michael Straczynski • Artist Mike McKone

It's been a long time since I picked up Fantastic Four regularly, and to be honest, I never expected to be buying it with Straczynski at the helm. However, I'm punishing myself by going for all the Civil War issues, good and bad, and so once again I'm left trying to figure out just what it is about Straczynski that makes me dislike his work so utterly.

It may be his dialogue. Ever since Babylon 5, I've found his dialogue a bit stilted. It's like Claremont's, only less wordy. It's got the character, but I don't feel any heart in it. There's some cute stuff with the Mad Thinker and the Pippet Master constantly reminding each other that they're partners and not plotting to betray one another, but even that only works because they're both classic villains who have the camp 60s appeal, where the other characters in the book are supposed to remain modern.

If not his dialogue, perhaps it's the plotting. So far we've had two issues of Ben being paralysed by indecision, wandering around, just trying to stay out of the way. In this issue, he gets dragged into the crossfire, someone dies and as a result he announces his intentions to quit the country. It feels like it's badly structured.

The characterisation as well seems skewed. I don't like being one of those fans who goes on about how the creator doesn't understand the character, but luckily it's not even that - it's just that two issues into this plot thread, I don't feel remotely involved with Ben's choice. It should be a huge emotional payoff - after all, a member of the Fantastic Four is LEAVING. That's *huge* by modern standards. It's a staple way of mixing the team up but it hasn't happened in years. There doesn't seem to be anywhere near enough inner turmoil involved. If anything, Ben should be angry at himself for his own inaction, because while his friends were fighting it out, he was moping around and didn't even go near the stable door until the horse had long since bolted, at which point he was too late. At least if he'd tried... but, well, I'm going on a tangent.

The fact is, I'm not enjoying this, on almost every level. As a piece of work, it's technically adequate, but as a piece of entertainment or art, it's leaving me stone fucking cold at every turn.

Ultimate Spider-Man #98

Ultimate Spider-Man #98

Publisher Marvel • Writer Brian Bendis • Artist Mark Bagley

Now, Bendis, on the other hand, is doing almost entirely the opposite to Straczynski. When he writes a character in turmoil, by god you know about it, and not least because of Bagley's utterly brilliant portrayal. Between the two of them, they make for some frantic reading. Alan Moore talks about how part of the comics reading experience is that you can take it in at your own pace, but I defy anyone to read the start of this issue and not feel the speed of it all.

Where JMS' FFstories leave me feeling disconnected, Bendis' Spidey pulls me in. The series hasn't been at its best for some time, but I'm starting to wonder if that wasn't because Bendis knew he was treading water until this issue. I'll admit to being totally surprised by the reveal. I didn't see it coming a mile off, even though I was sure it was going to happen one day.

I'm torn on the decision to bring back Gwen, though. One half of me is thinking "About bloody time!" and the other is thinking "...not like this!" - then again, the perfect time to bring back the real Gwen would be right in the middle of the Ultimate Clone Saga, when we're all going to assume she's a fake. In fact, if Bendis had any sense he'd use this opportunity to pull a switcheroo on us and have Peter split up with Kitty, only to get together with Gwen instead of MJ - but that's assuming they'll even all survive. I'm expecting "clone degeneration" will turn plenty of these characters to dust by the end of the arc, but which of those it'll be is impossible to predict right now.

The new Spider-Female character is quite interesting though. She appears at one point to project webbing from her hands by conjouring it out of thin air, rather than shooting it out of her hands. This is similar to the "psychic" webbing of Julia Carpenter, Spider-Woman 2, who also wore a black costume. We could, therefore, be seeing the first appearance of Ultimate Julia Carpenter. However, between me and Seb, the most popular theory of the several I came up with is that this character is a female clone of Peter, hence her brown hair and psuedo-spider-powers. The dialogue supports it, but god damn if it wouldn't be a disturbing road to take.

It's been a long time since I've been this excited about USM, but just as it felt like my enthusiasm for the title died with Gwen, it seems to have been resurrected at exactly the same time as her. I can't fucking wait.

Uncanny X-Men #477

Uncanny X-Men #477

Publisher Marvel • Writer Ed Brubaker • Artist Clayton Henry

Fill in art? Already? Can't say I'm thrilled with that. It's pretty good, yeah, but when they're knocking out an issue every two weeks, I thought there was something more than a 2-issue lead. It's highly disappointing, but not nearly as much as discovering that the previous two well-paced and charmingly old-school issues have been followed up with an issue entirely about the history of Brubaker's pet project (and villain of the piece) Vulcan.

It's tedious retcon after tedious retcon as the "original" third summers brother, Adam-X, finds himself even less likely to claw his way into canon and Vulcan, dear christ, is establised as a full blood relative of Scott and Alex, whereas I was assuming he'd be a half-brother as Adam-X was intended to be. Sometimes when I read a comic it saddens me to thing that a story is making itself so hard to undo that it'll never be possible. Vulcan, as ridiculous and pointless and generic as he is, is now firmly entrenched in contiuity. Before this issue, it could've been some kind of trick, but to get him out of continuity now, you'd have to make Vulcan's past a bigger hoax than the moon landings.

Needless to say, I'm not happy. Brubaker's been openly pacing this 12-part epic to be read as a collected piece, however, when I read an X-Men comic and the closest thing I can find to an X-Man is this interloper, well, where's the trade descriptions act when you need it? Surely they don't expect us to swallow this load of fucking tripe?

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