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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1457 (10/12/01)

"He's pretty much anything for hire. Name your price. If you want somebody taken out and if you have enough money, he's for hire."
-Writer Brian Azzarello on Luke Cage, a hero for hire prior to the coming of Marvel's MAX Comics imprint.

Previously in this column

I expressed my concerns about the use of Marvel heroes created for readers of all ages in "mature readers" titles, with specific comment on the use of Luke Cage in same. Brian Michael Bendis, who is a friend and the creator/writer of ALIAS, the first MAX series, called me out for my comments, mistaking them for an accusation of racism. In my response to his response, I promised to review ALIAS #1 ($2.99) in "Tips" as soon as possible. See what you've missed if you haven't been reading CBG faithfully?

"As soon as possible" turns out to be this week. But, before I get into the good/bad of ALIAS, I have a few thoughts on the MAX Comics imprint itself.

I'll start by repeating my concern that utilizing "all-ages" Marvel characters in a "mature readers" line, even beyond being a questionable creative decision, carries a high risk of marketplace confusion and adverse publicity. I applaud the concept of comics, even super-hero comics, for older readers, but I think Marvel does a disservice to its existing characters by altering them to fit the company's needs of the moment.

Using their existing characters may create a ready-made market for the MAX line among their existing older readers, but I doubt it will garner any significant rise in readers of any age. Portraying the characters in an arguably unsavory manner may alienate Marvel's long-time readers and, in doing so, Marvel may be making itself an easy target for them what considers the First Amendment a terrible idea except when it protects them.

I'll also restate my belief that "MAX Comics" is a decidedly juvenile name for a "mature readers" line and could be construed as Marvel's marketing these titles to readers for which they would be inappropriate. Even though the Marvel name does not appear on the cover of ALIAS, a flip through the book will reveal, in addition to a few shots of the Avengers, seven pages of advertisements for all-ages Marvel comics or related products. This blurs the distinction between Marvel and MAX to an uncomfortable degree.

The parental advisory on the cover of ALIAS #1 makes its case well, although it does stop short of limiting sales to customers of appropriate age. However, this advisory is positioned at the very bottom of the cover, visible only when the comic is displayed full cover. I can appreciate and even agree with the artistic rationale for this placement, but I can easily see where others might find it insufficient for its purpose.

So much for the preliminaries. What about ALIAS?

The bad: Could the logo possibly be more uninteresting? ALIAS #1 is the first release of a new imprint and the series title just lies on the cover like a hastily-scrawled signature. The logo has no personality and says nothing about the book; that's a disservice to the obvious effort Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos put into the issue's interiors.

The not-as-good-as-it-should-have-been: The David Mack cover painting is an evocative piece of work, but, beyond the emotional reaction it inspires, it tells me nothing about the nature of this comic book. Looking beyond the quality of the painting, it's just a head shot. Were this a fantasy realm where I could actually draw a straight line, I would have gone for a shot of Jessica Jones by her office door with the name of her company (Alias Investigations) quite visible, or, perhaps, a similar shot of her sitting alone at her desk with the door open. That would tell a potential customer something about ALIAS prior to their purchase of same.

Quick thought: The lettering on Jessica's office door might be a good starting point for designing a better logo.

The good: Jessica Jones is a great character. A minor super-hero who abandoned that calling for unrevealed reasons-perhaps the equivalent of a fall from grace?--she makes her living as a private investigator. I am intrigued by and sympathetic to her situation, and, most importantly, I want to learn more about her. Despite her seeming compliance with the sadness/seediness of her existence, I'm definitely rooting for her.

The good: For the most part, writer Bendis does his usual fine job. His use of the dreaded "F-word" and sundry other vulgarities wasn't inappropriate to the overall tone of the series and did not strike me as gratuitous. It was maddening for him to dangle-but- not-reveal what Jessica discovered about her client's wife, but I grudgingly admit this wasn't germane to the main story. Still, I'd like to see him follow up on this in a future issue.

The good: Gaydos is a terrific artist. He used a wide range of storytelling techniques and used them well, dealing tastefully with scenes that could have reduced this issue to pandering in less subtle hands.

The not-so-good: Did the brutish client of the opening scene really need to be wearing that t-shirt? With everything else that established his character--his language, his anger, his actions- did we really need that cliche?

The good: As much as I dislike the idea of Marvel super-heroes in these MAX comics, I thought the photographs of Jessica with the Avengers were effective. Such isolated nods to the "real" Marvel Universe would be acceptable to even a cranky old professional like myself.

The good: Jessica's reluctance to offer the police officers or readers the specifics of her abilities, her career, or even her nom de guerre was an excellent touch. Sure, I'd like to learn more at some point, but, for now, I relish the mystery.

The almost-bad-as-I-had-feared: Cage's appearance in ALIAS #1 is as detrimental to the character as I had feared it would be. At best, one could say his concern for a friend triggered the command center located in his lower brain and led him to take advantage of her...or to be taken advantage of by her. At worse, and intending no disparagement of the creative team, Cage's actions and dialogue can arguably be said to foster a racial stereotype. I consider this a major injustice to one of the all-too-few African-American heroes in the Marvel line-up.

Questions: Why did Jessica's one-nighter have to be with Luke Cage? Since race was clearly not intended to be the issue, why did it have to be an existing character? Was Cage used for the shock value of having an established character getting busy with Jessica? Was it the equivalent of stunt-casting? These are tough questions, but, given the emphasis on the sex scene in Marvel's promotion of ALIAS, they are fair questions.

Observation: Can you imagine how...thrilled...I was on reading this week's opening quote? Can you imagine how much I am praying Azzarello misspoke himself or was misquoted?

The good: The "explicit content" advisory notwithstanding, and overlooking momentarily my dislike of how Cage was used, I thought Bendis and Gaydos stayed well within the boundaries of good taste. The crude language, as previously noted, was never gratuitous. The sex scene was less revealing than those shown on NYPD BLUE and far less smarmy than the sophomoric hijinks discussed endlessly on so many sitcoms.

The not-so-good: After Jessica's dalliance with Cage, we are introduced to a new client, a well-to-do woman seeking her missing sister. As the woman tells her story to Jessica, the "camera" pans in closer and closer on her.

This storytelling choice drew so much attention to itself that it distracted me from what the woman was saying. It was too obvious.

The good and the bad: I give Bendis credit for coming up with a superb cliffhanger ending for ALIAS #1. On the other hand, this ending involves just about the last Marvel Universe character I'd want to see in a MAX book, especially given my objections to Cage's portrayal. Despite my objections, Bendis, by virtue of the overall quality of his work, has earned the benefit of my doubt. In short, I am cautiously optimistic that any fears I have about this classic hero's appearance in ALIAS #2 will prove groundless.

The bottom line: ALIAS is a pretty good comic book. Yes, it has its flaws, at least as I see them, but it features a compelling story of an intriguing heroine. I'll be back for the next issue, which would be more of the compliment I intend it to be if I hadn't ordered the next two issues before I read this first issue. Let's leave it at this: Having read ALIAS #1, I will be ordering ALIAS #4 when it's solicited.



I changed my mind. I can't put it any more plainly than that. The more I thought about my ALIAS review, the more I considered the portrayal of Luke Cage in that issue, the more I realized that it *was* as bad as I had feared. I bent over backwards to give that sequence the benefit of the doubt and, in doing so, minimized how truly intolerable it was.

There was no sufficiently good reason to use Luke Cage in this manner. Alternate reality or not, Cage's portrayal was demeaning and insulting. That Cage is one of the few African-American heroes in the Marvel Universe adds to the insult.

Do I think the creative team of ALIAS meant the portrayal of Cage to be insulting? Of course not. But I do believe they failed to appreciate that possibility.

It's a common failing in many comics. Writers want to "push the envelope" in their stories, which would be all well and good if "pushing the envelope" translated into characters and comics with something vital to say about the human condition and the questions of the day. But, all too often, "pushing the envelope" translates into coarse language, graphic violence, and, of course, sex...with the latter generally being utilized as a not particularly clever metaphor for degradation, self-loathing, and that always ubiquitous standby, violence.

"You said violence twice, Mr. Isabella, sir."

"Shut up or I'll shoot you in the head."

There are stories in which the use of coarse language, graphic violence, and sex are not only acceptable, but vital to the nature of the story. If you want to argue that ALIAS is one such story, I won't disagree with you.

But, at the end of the day, what I cannot accept or condone is a once-positive character like Cage being abused and twisted for the sake of some other character's story...or the basic integrity of a character being discarded without logical rationale to shove the character into a role he was never created to play. At the end of the day, it's the literary equivalent of smashing the square peg into the round hole instead of making the effort to locate (create) the round peg which would properly fill the hole.

I stand by every other positive thing I wrote about ALIAS #1. But, as customers have done since the very concept of commerce was born, I've weighed my displeasure with this particular product and made my purchasing decision accordingly.

I didn't order ALIAS #4.

I'll read--and maybe even review--ALIAS #2 and #3, when those issues find their way into my hands. I ordered them, I'll pay the retailer for them, and I'll read them. But, barring a believable explanation for Cage's behavior in #1, and a convincing adjustment thereof, I can't see spending any more of my cash for a comic which so troubles and disappoints me.

I am aware there are creators who wish to explore and readers who enjoy viewing the deconstruction of the super-heroic icon, and I don't have a problem with that concept. Indeed, when the concept is explored in a manner intelligent and literate, without playing to the cheap seats who appreciate only the surface flash and eschew any deeper significance, it can be as rewarding as any other comics expression. It's only when such exploration is visited on existing heroes whose characters and histories preclude such deconstruction that it becomes problematic for me.

There will be those who, on reading my words here, will come to the conclusion that I simply don't get it. I could say much the same to them, but instead, I'll say this

Tell your stories of fallen heroes and compromised values if those are the tales which capture your imagination. Tell them with all the originality and passion at your command. All I ask is that you tell them using your own creations.

Show consideration for those who came before you. Don't break other people's toys just because you can.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 10/05/2001 | 10/12/2001 | 10/26/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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