Thursday, November 08, 2007

Morbius: Part 1 (Marvel)
Where: Ultimate Spider-man #95 When: July 2006
Why: Brian Michael Bendis How: Mark Bagley

Quick Fix...
Over the past two years the Infinite Wars have slipped behind schedule more than a couple of times, but quite often there seems to be some sense of serendipty, lining the unfortunate with a silvery sheen.

I don't know how fresh the news is, but I certainly wasn't privvy to the knowledge that Marvel pencilling sensation, Mark Bagley, will be departing to new pastures at DC!
Fitting because, here we are, predetermined to take a look at the reliable pencil work of just such a fellow!

Honestly, I wish it could be under better circumstances, because it's undeniable that Bagley has been among the most iconic Marvel pencillers to survive the shift out of the nineties. His work on Spider-man, a decade before "Ultimate" became a buzzword, made him an instant icon. Many fans instantly identify Bagley by his contributions to popular storylines like one of the first major arcs to transcend the medium on a mass scale, Maximum Carnage.

What initially attracted me to this Halloween hangover post was the opportunity to introduce one of my favourite midnight sons to the Infinite Wars - Morbius.
It was perhaps the most noted absence on the site in '05/'06, and it's to my chagrin, that we breach the character like this, in an Ultimate title. Generally the Infinite Wars aren't about slinging negative reviews, but certainly these two issues have sat like burning coals in the anti-Ultimate argument.

Before we get to slamming an entire universe (and Bendis...), we should steer it back to a topic that has had many-a comic fan scratching his head for the better part of the last ten years...

It was under the pen and direction of David Goyer and Stephen Norrington respectively, that the 1970's vampire hunter, Blade, was distilled to a stoic, sleek, modern snapshot of everything the character had the potential to be.
It drew upon influences that developed the character right through to the mid-nineties [ala; Ghost Rider #40], and formed the adult structure of a modern superhero film, capable of taking itself deadly serious.

With two movie sequels following, and a TV spin-off under his belt, Blade vastly exceded reasonable expectations, and surpassed his jive-talking beginnings.
However, despite mainstream success, Blade somehow fails to sustain himself as a leading character in the medium that gave his birth. Attempts to capitalize on buzz have been mediocre at best, with many simply lacking the promotion to even penetrate the comics reading consciousness.

It was while scanning cover art by break-out talent, Marko Djurdjevic, that I was inevitably drawn back into the mystery of the character's failures. With the exception of a design-influenced receding hairline, Djurdjevic's Blade attempts the hard sale, glistening on covers with rendered sheen, and leathery blacks that conjure up the stylish glory of that first film. Which easily points to the problem.

While this is fast becoming a double feature hate-fest, I simply cannot turn away from the glaringly obvious. This newest effort to utilize Blade was simply-put, dismal. Djurdjevic no doubt swayed the tempted, but it's those that can bitterly lament upon the distinct difference between cover and interior.
Artistic direction is quickly out the window as Chaykin's pencils defy the modern covers; instead delivering pumpkin flavoured latern jaws, and a Blade that lacks the stiff cool of early Wesley Snipes, looking more like an early-eighties Steve Harvey.

Of course, sure, Howard Chaykin is an acquired taste, but the blame shouldn't fall squarely on his shoulders. Editorial is one of the most vilified quotients of mainstream comics, but at their best they steer projects to an appropriate asthetic that is the difference between a sleeper hit, and this.

The increasing pull of Hollywood writers runs amok in the worst way here as Guggenheim is seemingly allowed to do as he pleases. Bucking against the ill-fated works that carried superficial inspiration from the first movie, Guggs takes Blade in an opposite direction, gleefully revelling in the naff of meaningless peril (a villainous vampire Spider-man), gawky retroactive continuity (Blade and Wolverine in ye olde west), and the downright stupid (gun-hand Blade).

It's a harsh report card for a series that felt doomed from it's inception.
At best, a more stylistic approach to visuals might have saved this project. At worst, it is as it is. In interviews, Chaykin embarassingly refers to research of fashions, and Guggenheim throws us a movie-villain who has long been deceased in the comics all in the name of a "final" confrontation. Ugh.

So, does Marvel's on-again/off-again golden boy do any better?

As typical of Ultimate Spider-man, Blade appears in the first five pages, in an action sequence that bares the barest justification of immediately indicating the tone and portion of this world we are entering. Otherwise, like so much of USM's battle scenes, it is disconnected action that at best fullfils much needed quotas for excitement and fisticuffs.

The man we spoke of at the beginning of this entry, [Mark Bagley], instantly proves the theory of stylistic justification. Complimented by motley colours by Richard Isanove, Bagley delivers an acceptable rendition of the leathcoated, sunglasses-at-night Blade made famous by comics, cartoons and cinema, alike.

Ianove projects through satisfactory inks, highlighting Spidey's light-grabbing reds as he drops out of the moonlit night sky. Free-falling to an alley below, his descent lands him atop a gun-toting Blade who pursues unnamed prey through the city. The uninformed Spidey has no way of knowing the dangers that lurk.

Spider-man checks on the terrified prey, whilst pinning Blade down with webbing, distancing him from his hi-tech pistols. The frightened runner is unreceptive, but Spidey's continued concerns soon earn him the man's fanged attentions!

As the vampire claws at Spider-man's mask with evil intentions, a silver katana cuts through the night air, and impales through the vampire's chest. Strong and confident, the vampire hunter rips his blade through his victim's body in an explosion of green mist and blazing light reminiscent of Hollywood effects.

Stepping through the ash-cloud, Blade grabs the young hero by the throat, and slams him against the alley wall.

Bringing the tip of his katana to hover menacingly infront of Spidey's mask, Blade delivers an uncompromising threat, promising to, "... eat your heart for breakfast!" should Spider-man interfere in his affairs ever again. Which, to-date, he hasn't.

Blade disappears into the night, leaving Spider-man gasping and wheezing. An act that neatly summarizes so much of what makes this another disappointment to come from the pages of Ultimate Spider-man.

The Blade films exemplify the very best of a dumb, but thoroughly worthwhile action sequence opener.
USM's stuttered meandering sometimes clears to boast spontaneously inconsequential confrontations between characters like Gladiator or Shocker that represent a characteristic play for verisimilitude [ala; Daredevil #75]. This, however, is a case of don't-ask/don't-tell; completely overlooking everything that could have made this an all-star appearance by a character as culturally significant as Blade.

This welcomed two-issue storyarc, like so many other USM arcs, promises a fantastic concept that sucks me right in, in this case the opportunity to explore a familiar vampiric section of the Spidey mythos. Alas, instead of a contemporary retelling and modification of this theory, it's a chance for Bendis to catch-up on other scripts, neglecting the Ultimate Spidey audience that has already proven itself to be sycophantic enough to swallow decades of reviewer ravings about so-called "realistic teen dialogue," that supposedly made this the must-read book of the early double-ohs.

The Fix: 3.5 The Issue: 3
Winner: Blade

Some say Bendis writes USM for the trade. I've read the floppies back to back, and the only benefit I can imagine from trade is timelines and an immediate distraction. Scores are salvaged by Bagley's art and the minutia, but this book reaffirms much of what has made me a growing critic of the book, now seemingly in recession for reasons shared.

Morbius: Part 2 (Marvel)
Where: Ultimate Spider-man #96 When: August 2006
Why: Brian Michael Bendis How: Mark Bagley

Quick Fix...
While on the attack, I might as well express my malevolent opinion that USM fans largely represent the outer fringe of confused and nervous comics fans, more concerned with peer approval than a solid read.

Right now those USM die-hards among you who haven't had the pleasure of reading my work are probably vehemently questioning my credentials to make these scathing claims -- and maliciously making an effort to avoid purchasing the first issue of The Kirby Martin Inquest.

It's the danger of wearing both hats, and while I hope the Infinite Wars can benefit my small press projects, I am ever-reluctant to allow those dreams to compromise the honesty of my opinions. Lord knows I have to do enough censoring when talking to would-be collaborators, and apparently reviewers, too.
If it makes you feel any better, I would love someone to be interested enough in my work to dedicate this wordcount to understanding, and even decrying it.

Of course, this double feature isn't about me.
Although, truth be told, it is about a fetishistic fandom of the character Morbius. Not to say I'm any kind of expert on the character. Actually, I despise much of what is regarded as Morbius iconography, particularly the giant, triangular red eyes, and matching red and blue outfit which is largely the basis of the Ultimate "revamp."

Yes, it once again we find ourselves at the garrish nineties, as I delight in champining the tattered purple cape and black leather evil-doctor's uniform that featured in that previously mentioned crossover -- Maximum Carnage! Not that that is where the love came from. Again, though not an expert, the attraction of the Midnight Sons is a curious and interesting one.

Morbius differs from Blade in that he is closer connected to the purist form of vampire. He, like the film version of Blade, shares the thirst, albeit to a far greater extent, and also suffers the sensitivities of his vampiric cousins.

In my [un-published] time dealing with vampires and zombies, I like to think of them both as categorizable by two overarcing types; scientific, and mystic.
The so-called "living vampire," Morbius represents in no subtle terms, an extreme version of the scientific vampire, literally the victim of his own experiments.

Though the character was almost inevitably dragged into occult variations, and enhancements and mutations at the hands of mystic elements; the scientific specifics of his origins have been the key defining quality in his history.
He is a character at odds with his nature, but unlike the film Blade, utterly responsible. It's a pathos that has allowed the character to intrinsically walk the line between dark hero, and villain.

Alas, in a universe where Dr. Doom was reshaped as a goat-legged gas breather from a New York think tank, who spent a few months building a jealous hatred for a rival years his junior -- Morbius remains among the most disappointing conversions of a character from traditional, to Ultimate variation.

Though appearing as a suitably sinister ally in Spider-man's struggle with decidedly mystic vampires (able to transform into mist and wolves); Morbius loses much of what makes him an interesting and unique character, retaining only the superficial - a red and blue skin stretched over a dull standard.

Lurking from the shadows to the hospital bed of Daily Bugle reporter, Ben Urich, Morbius makes his reappearance. Having suffered the bite of the vampire during his expose on this secret underworld, Urich is slowly succumbing to the occult disease that encourages hunger for blood.

Apparently hoping to aid Urich in his struggle, Morbius is set upon by the reporter's hidden protector, Spider-man! Bursting through the cheap cladding of the hospital ceiling, Spidey descends with a swinging kick, and follows it with a stiff right hat topples Morbius!

The advantage of surprise is quickly lost, and Morbius exerts vampiric strength that overcomes even the comparable strength of a spider! Despite their physical confrontation, Morbius is content to simply delay Spider-man's attacks.

In a vaguely ironic twist, Morbius reveals much of himself in an effort to earn Spider-man's trusts. He tells of his life's history, revealing his origins as the son of the first vampire - Dracul! In this respect, Morbius holds an obscure relation to the Walachian descended Victor Van Damme, aka Ultimate Dr. Doom!

With his fangs leering out of his gaped mouth, Morbius leans over the delirious Urich, only to again incur the the physical defensive of the Spider-man.
With time of the essence, Morbius wastes no time freeing himself of Spidey's kung-fu bearhug, sending him hurtling through the hospital wall.

Just then, the lights go out in the hospital, and the corridor fills with an eerie mist that ushers the entrance of three demonic vampires. Their stare freezes Spider-man's apt muscles, leaving him easy prey to the animalistic swarm.
Making this a double within a double, Morbius smashes his way through the hospital room door to come to the aid of the youngster.

With superhuman precision Morbius swiftly stakes the three vampires, moving close quarters and projectile with his wooden weapons. As Parker babbles like the child he is about having been "killed", Morbius again leans over a vampire bite, sinking his own fangs into Spidey's neck.

He is able to taste the tainted blood altered by the bite of a genetically engineered Spider. Much like Urich, having been bitted by Morbius before the commotion, Peter Parker is assured safety. Showing off his handiwork, Morbius shows signs of fatigue, and disappears in a burst of mist before delivering a similar parting to Blade, "And if we ever bump into each other again... Let's both pray that you've grown the $%#@ up!"

As if to attack Bendis' so-called strengths, Morbius' dialogue, though funny for a conclusion, is indicative of one end of an awkward characterization. Dialogue typically reads along the lines of an awkward statesman, but lacks seniority, or convincing competence. He sounds less European, and more like a character lost for words, which is not what I would imagine of any interpretation of Morbius.
Then again, at the risk of sounding underhanded, no one has ever accused Bendis of writing a terrific smart person.

I really want to at least cast a positive light on the fact that good sense was applied to restrict this to a two-issue arc. As is, I can at least derive some enjoyment from this as a disposable piece of fun. Though Morbius is utterly malformed for no fantastic reason, the broad disappointment is the total inconsequentiality of the entire story. Though peppered within are B-story plot elements concerning Parker's relationship with X-Woman, Kitty Pryde, the bulk of the subject matter here is of no interest.

I would've loved to have seen a six-issue arc that placed a real weight on Blade and Morbius, but alas, that wasn't to be, and may have ultimately been familiar to the point of further emphasising the redundancy of the Ultimate universe.
It should be said that Bendis can write, and he can even write paced, very well, and I fully acknowledge this. It just seems USM fails to deliver in the same way Daredevil has -- and lord knows I've nibbled at the title enough to know!

Bagley is a treat, and I thoroughly look forward to what comes of his work at DC. With a hint of tongue in the cheek, Bagley has often been referenced as getting sick of working with Spider-man. It was earlier this year that Stuart Immonen graduated up to pencilling chores as Bagley exited with a writer/artist record for consecutive issues that cracked previous holders, Lee and Kirby on FF.

I honestly struggle to imagine what Bagley will draw for the company. Flash, perhaps for nothing more than a vague similarity to the physically kinetic Spidey, is one character that comes to mind. If I had a suggestion, it might be a 52-esque weekly series that covers a variety of characters sufficient to ease readers into a Bagley-drawn DCU.

The Fix: 4 The Issue: 3
Winner: Morbius

A rare Infinite Wars double-stat, handing Morbius victories for beating Spidey AND the vampires, with a web-slinging assist for the latter. I would also say it's rare we have such negatively strong opinions about a book, and hope readers can walk away interested and contemplative, rather than offended.

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