Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Making the Scene with Some Magazines

Posted by Don MacPherson on April 5th, 2011

A lot of longtime comics readers and especially Conan fans remember The Savage Sword of Conan from the 1970s and ’80s, and some might even remember seeing Epic Illustrated on regular newsstands. Both were published by Marvel Comics, but that should come as no surprise. The publisher published a number of magazine-format comics, some featuring familiar characters (such as Rampaging Hulk) and others not so familiar.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Marvel tried its hand at that format again? Well, guess what? It did, and quite recently. But (a) Marvel didn’t tell anybody, (b) no one noticed or (c) all of the above.

Marvel Super Special #1
Writers: Paul Cornell, Alex Irvine, Ted McKeever, Mike Benson, John Barber, Jonathan Hickman, Peter Milligan & Howard Chaykin
Artists: Will Rosado, Nelson DeCastro, Ted McKeever, Tomm Coker with C.P. Smith, Jefte Palo, Kody Chamberlin, Frank Brunner & Howard Chaykin
Cover artist: Lucio Parrillo
Editors: Jody LeHeup & John Barber
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $9.99 US

While this new incarnation of Marvel Super Special features a fairly typical array of Marvel super-hero characters — Iron Man, Wolverine, Shang Chi, Ares, Deadpool and Dr. Strange — the original magazine title from which it derives its name featured, for the most part, comics adaptations of other-media properties in the ’70s and ’80s. Among them were KISS, the Star Wars franchise, Annie, Indiana Jones and Labyrinth. They were mostly genre properties, yes, but the series as a whole delved into an eclectic mix of pop culture. The publisher and editors have chosen a much different tack with a bunch of black-and-white super-hero properties, but the eclectic mix here is of comics-industry talent. There are up-and-comers, one of Marvel’s editorial stars at the moment and some experienced artists who’ve left their mark on the medium showing they still have something to offer in the 21st century.

The standout in this issue is a Jonathan (FF) Hickman story that’s completely unlike any Jonathan Hickman story his fans have ever seen in that it’s a comedy piece. Hickman is known for strong writing, challenging concepts and sharp design work, but I wouldn’t have thought gags and ham-fisted satire were a part of his creative arsenal. But his Shang-Chi/Deadpool story — Cannonball Run meets Death Race — is a lot of fun. His over-the-top villains remind me of some of the throwaway concepts we saw in Warren Ellis’ Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. a few years ago or more recently in Fred van Lente’s goofy yet oddly touching Taskmaster mini-series.

Other treats in this magazine included Ted McKeever’s Picasso-esque take on Wolverine; Tomm Coker’s dark, kinetic choreography of martial-arts action in a Shang-Chi solo piece; and Peter Milligan’s tribute to classic Dr. Strange stories. Still, many comics anthologies, what the reader gets here is a mixed bag. There are some strong, entertaining stories and others that never rise above the level of simply capable or standard fare. At 10 bucks for more than 100 pages of story and art, it’s a good value, but nobody’s reinventing the wheel in these pages either. 6/10

Marvel Super Action #1
Writers: Chris Yost, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Duane Swierczynski, Kieron Gillen, Robin Furth, Ted McKeever & Charlie Huston
Artists: Mateus Santolouco, Paco Diaz Luque, Manuel Garcia and Stefano Gaudiano, Frazer Irving, Nelson, Ted McKeever & Enrique Romero
Cover artist: Nelson
Editors: Jody LeHeup & John Barber
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $9.99 US

It was the manager of my local comic shop that brought these magazines to my attention, but it was one story listed in the contents of this particular magazine that prompted my decision to buy them. Among the black-and-white short stories in this mag is a Dr. Strange segment by Kieron (Phonogram) Gillen and Frazer (Xombi) Irving. That level of talent alone was enough to sell me on these magazines. Gillen and Irving didn’t disappoint. The core plot is somewhat inventive and novel, and the surreal and dark mood that permeates the piece is quite engaging. Irving’s style is perfectly suited to a supernatural character such as Dr. Strange.

“Marvel Super Action” is another revived title from Marvel’s past. It’s perhaps best known as a comic-book series that featured Avengers reprints in the 1970s and ’80s, but another incarnation preceded that one. In 1976, Marvel published one issue of a magazine-format book entitled Marvel Super Action, featuring the Punisher.

Of these two new black-and-white magazines, this one featured stories of a slightly higher quality. McKeever also offers up a Dr. Strange piece that features an alternate and unusual interpretation of the character; it’s an entertaining and unique story for Marvel. His Ares story features a logical plot, placing the Greek god of war in the context of a modern Middle Eastern desert, though the threat isn’t a conventional one. Duane Swierczynski’s story about a Howard Hughes-esque Tony Stark in the future was a bit different too, but the linework was clearly crafted with a color presentation in mind, not black and white.

The Wolverine stories in both magazines feature fairly typical plots and scripts for the character; they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. They’re about as inspired as the stock cover art adorning the publication. This magazine, as well as Marvel Super Special also features an illustrated prose piece. Neither is particularly engrossing, and the story is painfully predictable and felt rather familiar. Still, I appreciate the inclusion of the prose piece. It slowed down my progress through the magazine, reminding me to peruse the material leisurely. 7/10

The recent announcement that Marvel will publish 15 Love — a tennis-themed soap opera of a comic that’s been sitting in a drawer at Marvel Comics for almost a decade — makes me wonder if these new black-and-white Marvel magazines are meant as a way to clear out the stores of unpublished material that’s been accumulating in its offices over the years. Some have speculated that Disney’s recent acquisition of the comics publisher is directly connected to older, forgotten, unpublished material seeing the light of day once again. Some of the material in these mags is clearly more recent in their creation; the incarnation of Ares that’s featured is the same one that was a member of the Avengers in the last few years, for example. But other stories are clearly using older character designs or concepts; the Bob Layton-era Iron Man is definitely depicted in Howard Chaykin’s story in Marvel Super Special, for example, and the 1970s/’80s Iron Man design is on the cover.

The only ads featured in these magazines are in-house ads for Marvel’s better-known comics products. That further reinforces the notion that these magazines were part of a spring-cleaning exercise (well ahead of spring, mind you — these were published in November and January, respectively). The lack of ads and the fact that these books seem to have flown under the radar also point to a meagre effort to recoup costs on stockpiled material.

It’s unfortunate. At a time when a lot of comics readers are considering the value of the products they’re buying (or not buying), these magazines offer a better return on the reader’s money than the typical floppy comic. Each page of story and art in a $2.99 comic tends to cost the customer about 15 cents, but these books run just under a dime a page.

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4 Responses to “Making the Scene with Some Magazines”

  1. John Platt Says:

    I’d buy just about anything by Ted McKeever, but these seem to have too much other stuff to be worth it. Sigh.

  2. Sam Humphries Says:

    Some of this material was previously published in Marvel’s comic book-sized black and white anthologies that shipped to the direct market. There was one for Daredevil, one for Dr. Strange…I’m blanking on the rest.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    I’m learning about these B&W one-shots now, as people are bringing them up in light of my reviews of the magazines (I now see the references to those one-shots in the magazines’ indicia). The thing is… I’ve never heard of these B&W one-shots. The Savage Axe of Ares?!?! Really? Is it possible they weren’t distributed in Canada?

  4. Chad Nevett Says:

    Nope, they came out in Canada like every other Marvel comic. I bought a couple of them.