Friday, August 31, 2018

Emma Frost #1

The Fairer Sex
Emma Frost #1

A Tale of Two Emma’s, part one:
A backstory we didn’t need

"Higher Learning, 1 of 6: Growing Pains”
Writer – Karl Bollers
Penciler -Randy Green
Inker – Rick Ketcham
Letterer – Cory Petit
Colorist – Pete Pantazis
Associate Editor – Mike Raicht
Editor – Mike Marts
Editor-in-Chief – Joe Quesada
August 2003

I get that sex sells. I also get that out of all the books fumbling around in the discount bin, I, a straight male, did pick up this book in particular. And possibly did so based solely on two things: I know the character and that very revealing, sexy Greg Horn cover image. And I’m betting it was more the latter than the former.

I can state that honestly because Emma Frost was by the late 1980’s as solid an X-Man villain as you’d ever meet. We didn’t need a pointless and unconnected backstory that told her origin any more than I need a third nipple. The character appeared as foe back in issue 129 of Uncanny X-Men, tooled around as both a straight up villain and as headmistress of the Hellions (a kind-of mean version of Xavier’s New Mutants), and found redemption after the Phalanx invasion gave her cause to become part leader of Xavier’s Generation X group.

But this was the Joey Q era of Marvel, something I mark as the company’s slow side into mediocre and bad decision-making in title choices and revisionist history.

So Emma gets an origin story. The sad part is that this feels a bit like grafting a rat to a pigeon: even when it works, you aren’t sure you want it to and the end result is something that doesn’t look or feel natural. Setting Emma up as the downtrodden underdog in a prep school full of stuck up snobbish girls who harass and humiliate her at every turn is an ugly duckling story Emma doesn’t need or deserve. Can’t she just be a straight-up biotch from day one? That’s kind of what makes Emma fun. She’s an ice queen that you’re never quite sure if she has a beating heart. Just when you think she’s a total wicked witch, she does something nice and screws up that preconception…for a short while.

Certainly that cover is a clever ruse designed to get red-blooded males to pick it up without thumbing through it. Emma is in high school in this book and…well, let’s dive in to take a look-see where we are at in this one.

We begin with a full page establishing shot of Show Valley School for Girls, a huge two story campus-type affair with those old-style windows that actually open. As we pull in, the teacher is handing out report cards, telling each student how good they’ve done as he calls the name and then hands out a card. When we finally reach the window, the teacher hands a card to Emma Frost…

…and then we pull into class to find…

…that THIS is Emma Frost. Note the text confirms it to those of you still skeptical.

Not what you expected? I know, right!

Emma Frost has for years embodied the platinum-blonde, ice-cold yet fashion model hot bitch (please excuse that term). She was cold to the core and part of that was embodied in her look of conservative dress in public while underneath it all was the seething dom goddess in white bustier, thigh-highs, and panties. Her look was very much a part of her psychology, she wore an air of respectability in public but her mutant persona came off as someone depraved, stuck-up and power hungry.

And that bleach-blonde hair sold it all.

Brunettes are approachable, affable, and girl-next-door. Blondes, on the other hand, are typically shown as either party-hardy bimbos or cold, calculating snobs. Yes, I am stereotyping here, but part of this is the literary culture and social norms we are brought up in. And the creators of Emma Frost played upon those stereotypes. “Blondes have more fun” is the age old myth, and brunettes are typecast as being more down to Earth, more intelligent (even though an Ohio study done in 2016 found the opposite in regards to IQ), and less likely to be noticed. And while you can pick out a few blondes that don’t fit this mold, they are more exceptions that prove the rule than establishing that the rule doesn’t exist.

Being blonde was part of Emma’s personality. It was part of who she is as a character, embodying that she WASN’T the kind, sweet girl. The lighter locks demanded notice, commanded attention. Emma’s hair color emphasized that she wasn’t ordinary, that she was unique and unobtainable. It completed her frost queen image.

So, this hair color change is actually a big deal, character-wise. It points up that Marvel is attempting to soften her image. In this school-age version, we are going to see that the writers dumped everything we knew about Emma out the window and started from scratch.

And not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. As tales go, this is a decent story. However, it feels like it has ZERO to do with the Emma Frost seen in any of her prior appearances and more to do with a teen romance movie the writer couldn’t find a buyer for.

But enough of all that…Emma is a hard-working, average intelligence student at an all girl’s prep school…

…who, unlike her stuck-up, popular-beyond-popular BLONDE classmate and nemesis Matilda, struggles to make the A-B Honor Roll. Emma walks hunched over, friendless and beset upon by Matilda …

…and her clique of most likely to succeed peeps who mercilessly tear into the brunette, mousy Emma for everything from her intelligence and rich parents…

…to her underdeveloped physique and lack of sex appeal. 

Uh…I should stop the book right here and state that I don’t buy this for one damn minute as being Emma Frost’s origin. It is TOO counter everything she has been in various X-books up until now. Not that I think the story is bad, I just don’t believe this is the same character (only younger) as the one on the cover. This is a sympathy ploy. Anyone going all-in on this being the future White Queen of the Hellfire Club I have a bridge I wanna sell ya.

And bringing in the hunky, pedophile young teacher who will act as Emma’s protector (and sicko love interest) doesn’t win the argument, either. Nor the “sudden onset of mutant brain headaches.”

This is simply a different character. And I go with the book along those lines.

I go with it to the fabulous Frost estate, where servants attend to the Frost family’s dinner needs, going so far as cutting the food for them. We meet Emma’s crappy, overbearing, manipulative father, her stuck-up, uncaring mother, her sassy, sexy fashion model sister, her punkish, gothy other sister and her vaguely gay, good-guy older brother.

While all this dysfunction is fun and all, can we get back to Emma for a moment? Emma wants to go to the school dance (which happens in about 99% of these type stories, I’m finding), but can’t without Daddy’s approval. Her Father, asshole that he is, says she can’t because…

…her grades haven’t improved enough. Which causes Emma to storm off, quickly followed by big, gay brother Christian. We get a bit of snark from goth sis and I find myself wishing the author didn’t have to shoehorn all this into an Emma Frost backstory. Seems these characters would make interesting stories on their own. In truth, I would much prefer to read that tale.

Why? Because we have a neat little scene with her brother and instead of it going somewhere interesting, we have to put in that Emma’s having headaches and fainting spells and migraines and mutant, Mutant, MUTANT things going on. Boring. We know where that tale goes.

It goes to the fencing class next day where Emma is forced to spar against Matilda, a duel that ends with a little bloodshed…

… which is somehow Emma having A NOSEBLEED that has leaked onto the sword as it stabs her. No really. That’s what it is. The school nurse has just the prescription for that, though and before long, Emma is back in class…

… where she can get hit on by hunky pervert teacher Ian Kendall, who shamelessly stands too close to her. (thanks Police for that one). Stands too close and makes certain that Emma will be at the dance by leading her into asking to study him…A-hem!...for his help in studying for class with him.

And like all those underdog movies with the cute girl who is actually smoking hot but you aren’t supposed to notice because she wears her hair in a pony, has on sweats and long-sleeve shirts, and always wears glasses, Emma shows up in a dress looking amazing while turning every head on the page.

Emma getting all this attention doesn’t sit to well with Matilda, who turns the dance into a claws-out cat fight after ripping the dress off of Emma. Emma, in turn, lays into Matilda with info she’s accidentally lifted from the girl’s mind. Appears Matilda’s family is having a little money trouble. This escalates matters quite a bit.

And Emma is left the laughing stock by Matilda somehow…what happened to the hot guy? Surely, he wouldn’t just abandon her like that, right? No? Well he did.

Not to mention that the author of this tale has decided to just keep heaping this on to the poor dear. 

By the time the pair reach the mansion, our over bearing Father has heard about Emma’s night at the dance. He’s none to pleased about it either. And how he heard breaks Emma’s heart…

So, during the following day’s first tutoring lesion Emma spills the beans about her abusive, control-freak father to sexy but too old for you Mr. Kendall.

Something tells me that Mr. Kendall isn’t telling the whole truth here, but whatever. This emotional outpouring brings our two wrong lovebirds together. They share a fading sunbeam as Emma asks if she can get TOO FAMILIAR by using his first name. It’s something that Matilda asked in the first part of the book and was denied. The vibe of this is so creepy and improper that you want the book to stop making this the central love interest, but no dice audience. You’re getting an improper love story…

…which becomes even more apparent when the next day Emma’s powers go wildly out of control again, this time driving her to her knees with a bloody nose again.

And we end with “Ian” holding a swooning Emma while screaming her name. 

So, I didn’t HATE this. There was enough going on to make me want more of the story. That isn’t to say that I like to link it with my most favorite underdressed X-Woman. It works as a solo story. It really shouldn’t be about Emma Frost though. Marvel should have trusted this storyline as its own thing.

Instead this feels crammed into a character’s history in a way that is neither helpful in developing them in the present nor appropriate for how that character turns out.

And as long as I’m complaining, the teenage wank-tastic cover art is so misleading given the story and art INSIDE the box, I have to take some points off there for tackiness.

In all, though, I read the first two issues and the story is decent. I’d buy more to see where Higher Learning ends up going.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Maggie the Cat #1

The Fairer Sex
Maggie the Cat #1

Mike Grell does it again (heck, has he ever NOT done it?)

Creator, Writer, and Artist – Mike Grell
Letterer – Steve Haynie
Colorist – Carol VanHook and Vanhook Studios
Editor – Mike Gold
January 1996

In 1987 I had no interest in Green Arrow. DC and Marvel both had brash, big talking archers who used trick arrows to fight super criminals. And being a Marvel guy by-and-large, my preference fell on the side of following Clint Barton’s Hawkeye around with his Avenger buddies.

At least until Mike Grell came along.

Realize that the mid-80’s was the point where I became a “serious” collector of comics. And by that I mean that I began looking at the creators and following artists and writers more than characters. I hadn’t truly encounter Mike Grell’s impressive pencils and intriguing storytelling at this point.

All of that would change with the prestige three-issue Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters mini series. The square bound books with their impressive colors turned me into a purveyor of all things Ollie for several years thereafter. Grell took Green Arrow in a direction away from the jokey trick arrows and into Batman-caliber vigilantism. I can still see Ollie threatening one mob boss with his bow cocked and a steel tipped arrow notched, surrounded by the boss’s goon squad aiming guns at Ollie. Green Arrow reminded the gangster that with an arrow all you had to do was let go. Grell made Ollie badass again and that carried him to an ongoing that lasted 80 issues worth of writing credits.

Grell moved on from the title to draw a James Bond adaptation for License to Kill and then do an original story for the British secret agent as both writer and artist Both by Eclipse. He dabbled with a creator concept book called Shaman’s Tears, many of which have shown up in the Crapbox but I’ve been too busy to pull out and read. (Upon closer reading of the afterward, it appears Maggie debuted in issue 12 of that series.) However, after one read through of Maggie the Cat, I’m thinking those are going to get dug out pretty quickly.

Grell shows that he can craft any concept into a great, engaging story. Even something that smacks of the same 90’s flash and sexism that litter so many book titles of this era. Don’t let that hot blonde on the cover fool you, this isn’t an empty-headed tale. Grell has cooked up quite a delicious dish for us. But I should just let you to the table instead of boring you by gushing about it. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.

We begin our tale in sunny Scotland, on the castle grounds of the Greymalkin estate, with the arrival of Ryan James and his weekend guest, one Miss Elanore Hensley. Hensley has been here before, it appears, which is a surprise to James. It appears she know the former Lord Greymalkin. The current Lord of the castle is…

…Lady Margaret, our title character. 

It’s also at this point that I realize that showing you my carved up, slice-and-dice windows into Grell’s stunning page layouts isn’t going to cut it in 99% of the cases for this issue. This is what you get when you give Grell free reign on the page. An organic flow that will not be bound by panel boarders or traditional boxy rectangles.

But unlike most of the other showy books sharing mid-90’s shelf space with Maggie the Cat, Grell’s art is used in service of the story, not to distract from it. Lady Margaret’s stride and poise as she makes her appearance tells us she’s a strong commanding woman, James’ suave good looks and charm are clearly on display, as is his attraction to Maggie show in his appreciation of her backside as she exits the final frame in this sequencing. Also of note is that the arriving couple are ushered into the quaint looking guest house, while Maggie goes to stay in Greymalking Castle, certainly playing up the Lady’s isolation and defensiveness. 

And because I cannot bear to cut any of this out, we next watch Maggie’s manservant bring her a file in her room at the top of the tower. Note all of this is metaphoric as well as atmospheric. Butler Angus represents one of the few people Maggie trusts in any real way. She has locked herself away from human contact in this tower rather than spending more time with her guests. 

It soon becomes apparent why: the necklace that Hensley wore upon meeting the Lady holds some special interest for her. Almost like Hensley was flaunting that she owned it. The brazenness of this action brings up a fire in Maggie to match the one in the hearth and Angus quickly lets her know of the couple’s next destination – Hereford.

And so we watch as Hensley goes out for a night on the town in Hereford, leaving behind a very valued necklace and a very determined and skillful Maggie. 

Couple of things here: in watching this sequence it becomes easy to get distracted by the thought that what Grell was meaning to convey was that Maggie was a professional cat burglar before wanting to get back her late husband's rewards to his lovers, and perhaps he was doing just that. However, he clearly setup that this isn’t “just business” for Maggie. There is a personal stake in this related to the history of that necklace and Lady Margaret, that much is clear.

Additionally, ISN’T IT JUST FREAKING GORGEOUS? This is classic, unfettered Grell at his best. Typically I don’t appreciate page after page of wordless action sequences of any type, but Grell’s work always stands out as the exception to that rule. Mainly because he understands visual plotting and his stuff is never boring. This isn’t a few pages of random poses, this shows a natural progression of story in a visual format. What’s astonishing to me is that Grell does such a good job on both writer and artist sides of the table to get sequencing like this just right. It draws you further in to the tale and wondering what Maggie will do next.

Which is get caught by a gun-toting man hanging out the window who knew she was coming. This whole necklace as bait turns out to be a setup to test Maggie’s abilities it seems, because rather than arrest her or even stop her, the military-green clad gentleman just offers a meet-up two days hence to discuss an opportunity that he believes Maggie will find interesting. At this point I’ve pushed all my chips in on wagering this tale is a winner. Great art and a solid story hook has me captured as tightly as Maggie as captured that necklace.

One of the real thrills of Grell’s storytelling abilities is his understanding of how to use wordless panels to establish a setting, convey action sequencing and move a story forward. Not one dialogue box or thought bubble mars this page and yet we get a perfect understanding that this is our meet-up point and this is the mysterious man in green who offered Maggie the chance at an interesting job opportunity. Grell lets his art do all the talking and he has the considerable skill for the message to come through loud and clear.

And when the waiting solider gets jumped by a camouflaged Maggie, again Grell gives more power to his images than any amount of voice over. These scenes sell the book for me and it really is all because the art is fabulous, panel after panel. So our actor friend is also a secret special agent for the British Army? Interesting development.

And with this we follow a little into both Maggie’s background and James too. Grell weaves both stories together as we find the British government doesn’t really care about bringing Maggie in for her many, many crimes, most of which it is interesting to note come with the moral caveat of being jewelry her late husband gave away to his many mistresses it appears. Gotta have a bit that makes Maggie’s morality a tad more on the side of the angels. But now comes the real offer: using Maggie’s many skills in service of the British government. This is like an updated “It Takes a Thief” and I can totally dig it.

And then the sly twist on Maggie surprising James by having James prepared a hidden welcoming committee for the cat burglar in case she didn’t want to play…

Maggie realizes she really doesn’t have any options. James lays out the mission she is to be tasked with and it revolves around stopping one of Hitler’s supporters who has moved on to leading terrorist armies in the wake of WWII. Neat idea for a villain although I’m not too certain that Maggie is the bloodthirsty sort. I’m giving this time to grow into a reasonable story. 

What I’m not doing is excusing the one layout issue that stops this book from being a perfect 10. The bottom left panel is supposed to be read after the top two on the right. Followed by your eyes then returning to the bottom right.  That isn’t a natural flow around the page. I understand why Grell is making the choices he is about dramatic placement of the reveal center page, but I read this wrong the first time through. That’s important because first time read-throughs for me are just for enjoyment. I don’t mark books too review or not until I know what they contain.

Now this isn’t a “throw the book away” kind of mistake, but it needs to be pointed out. It is kind of a design flaw from someone who isn’t known to make design flaws. I get it though: big reveal near center of page and then use a mirroring with focus on the left picture to make up a more dramatic “pull in” effect on the right. Grell really gets how to pack a punch, this one haymaker just went a bit wild in execution.

But next is a blow that connects. After listing off all the places this Hitler-era bad boy might be spending his final days and all the people Blucher has hurt over the years, James accentuates the point he came to make. Namely, that Blucher plans on going out with a bang and taking a lot of innocent lives with him in the process.

The second part of this knock out is that British Intelligence knows where Blucher keeps his most prized possession: a priceless Vermeer painting presented to him by Hitler himself. The mission for Maggie is to steal it so that it can be presented at auction…and intelligence can follow the painting right back to Blucher’s doorstep.

And this story’s James Bondian twist would not be complete without a little nod to the Q Branch (duly noted in the narrative) with a gizmo that will make Maggie the most cat-like cat burglar ever. That bottom panel framing sequence is amazing, specifically showing how it might be James that is really caught in Maggie’s claws with some subtle positioning. 

The book ends on a gorgeous double page spread of Maggie parachuting in to “rescue” the Vermeer,… 

…followed by a single page of her landing taking down a guard.

Amazing stuff.

And the crying shame of it all? Two issues. Yes, a book this good gets two issues.

There’s something wrong with comics from the 90’s, I tell ya. The good stuff got buried then forgotten and the fans instead stuck around for weeks waiting for books that were so below average that they show up in multiple copies in the Crapbox all the time. What were they smoking back then?

If you see these in the bins (or those Shaman’s Tears, or Green Arrows from the mid-80’s, or anything that Mike Grell even glanced at), my sound advice is to GRAB ‘EM.

You’ll be glad you did.