Monday, December 18, 2006

The Comics Page #8: Onslaught Reborn #1

If I'm late reviewing ONSLAUGHT REBORN #1, it's for a very good reason: this past Saturday was the first time I was able to find it. Defying any and all logic, the issue was a sell-out. Then again, the original Onslaught event, and the entire HEROES REBORN project, is still classed as a commercial success by Marvel. (Granted, this was close to the very bottom of the steep plunge the industry took in the mid-Nineties, and arguably any title with a readership greater than that of this blog could be counted a success.) Of course, WHY I'm reading it, much less reviewing it, is a very good question in itself. Suffice it to say, the project is a call back to a period of comics history I find utterly fascinating. I had to look. Honest.

The early Nineties were a particularly odd time for the industry. Big events like the Death of Superman were drawing mainstream media attention, which in turn meant a lot of speculators were buying up issues of said important events under the belief that the issues would be incredibly valuable in the future, just as ACTION COMICS #1 and so on had become. In response, Marvel and DC, along with newer companies like Image, put out more "important" and collectible comics than ever. Sales went through the roof. This is actually the most interesting part of the whole sordid saga, since comics publishers must have felt that anything would sell, and as such writers and artists went kinda nuts. Eventually, speculators began to realize that not everything with a hologram cover or big even number was going to rake in the bucks, and from a period of around 1994 to 1997, sales dwindled spectacularly. Comics shops went out of business across the country, several good smaller titles vanished, and the industry basically fell into a hole that it's still slowly crawling out of.

At one point during the decline, Marvel figured it could garner more attention for several of its properties by rebooting them. They used an X-MEN event called "Onslaught", in which a giant creature of the same name, created from the dark depths of Charles Xavier and Magneto's minds when the former tried to brainwash the latter into being nice (or something), went on an unstoppable rampage, destroying the world basically for the heck of it. The X-Men fought him over several issues, but in the end, it was the non-Mutant heroes- the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, etc. who defeated the monster by merging with him, containing his essence and letting themselves be destroyed, eventually being reborn inside a parallel universe formed from Onslaught's essence and contained in a small sphere watched over by Franklin Richards, Reed Richards' reality-bending son. The upshot of all this nonsense was that all the sacrificed heroes were farmed out to indie comic superstars like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, etc., drawn in the popular mid-Nineties hyper-exaggerated style, and presented as HEROES REBORN, a new line-up. This lasted for about a year or so, then the rebirthed heroes were handed back to the Marvel bullpen and the main Marvel Universe, and nobody spoke of such things again, until now.

So, the present. As a result of the Scarlet Witch's declaration of "No More Mutants!" at the end of the glacially paced HOUSE OF M, a bunch of mutants (not all of them, for reasons I forget) lost their powers, and this energy somehow goes to the middle of Central Park and reforms Onslaught. Onslaught is obsessed with destroying Franklin Richards for reasons I'm probably better off not knowing, and takes control of the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards and Johnny Storm to try and kill him. Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing, and Frank's mother Sue are unaffected by Onslaught's attempt at mind control, and help defend him, but Onslaught himself somehow bursts in. Fortunately, Franklin has kept the pocket universe in his room, and escapes into it. Whereupon he meets the Heroes Reborn version of Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, who it turns out has been narrating this whole thing, and then Onslaught appears and it's a cliffhanger.

The important thing to know about this series is that it's drawn by Rob Liefeld, who came to epitomize the 90s style of drawing at its most bizarre. Liefeld is known for not only exaggerating the anatomy of characters, as many artists do, but for making basic anatomical mistakes. Characters with hundreds of teeth, nonexistent waists, and giraffe legs often crop up, and a number of non-anatomical continuity errors can often be found as well. A lot of people have done more work cataloguing Liefeld's various eccentricities, so I won't harp on his career in general. But the art in this book is extremely crude. There are about twice as many pencil marks as there need to be (Liefeld the inker failing to clean up after Liefeld the penciler), goofy angles and poses galore (Bucky greets Franklin with a truly bizarre facehugger stance, complete with jazz hands), photographs are dropped in as backgrounds (and not in a creative Kirbyesque way either); it's all just so rushed. There's a particularly horrific splash page of the Thing being knocked out of a building by the Human Torch that just happens to fall at the center of the book, meaning that's the page it keeps opening on. It symbolizes so much of what went wrong on the art end that it's almost fitting.

Not that Jeph Loeb, the writer, is getting away with anything anytime soon. The narration, only revealed to be Bucky's in the last two pages, is overwritten and strangely stilted. The characterization is generally pretty flat; Ben Grimm is his usual self, Onslaught is evil, Franklin is innocent, Bucky is weirdly spunky. Despite this, there's not a whole lot of action, either, and the story hasn't gone very far by the time the first issue wraps. Basically, we get a lot of splash panels taking the place of actual epic scope.

And yet, I don't hate this. I don't like it, but it's an inconsequential piece of 90s nostalgia that exists to give the people who happened to like this era something they'd appreciate. Perhaps it's just that the ways in this is bad aren't the same ways in which other modern superhero comics are bad; it's free of the kind of slow existentialist brooding where grizzled veteran superheroes (i.e. everyone who's not explicitly called a rookie) reflect that their best days are behind them but they must fight on nonetheless. (It also lacks ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN's vague feeling that the writer is just playing a massive joke on his fanbase.) Granted, just being different from the mainstream isn't the same as being good. But ONSLAUGHT REBORN is at least trying to be fun. It's not wholly succeeding, but as a failure it's still vaguely pleasant.

The next issue stars the Incredible Hulk, and I might be tempted to pick that up to see if the story actually goes anywhere. There are a huge number of people for whom this book will be insufferable, and you know who you are. There are also some people who like this sort of thing, apparently, and you know who you are as well. Me, I'm just a vaguely interested spectator. I'm not quite sure who I am. But it is, perhaps, saying something that ONSLAUGHT REBORN #1 is NOT the most unpleasant comic-reading experience I've had this year.

Grade: C-

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