Thursday, October 13, 2011

'Captain America,' 'Punisher' and 'Daredevil' relaunched with unexpected style, substance

Before I delve back into DC waters, it's been interesting to notice that Marvel has been relaunching a lot of titles lately as well, though without anything like the fanfare that DC has been getting.

In addition to next month's relaunch of Uncanny X-Men — the very last long-running title from Marvel or DC to get a new first issue — Marvel recently relaunched Captain America, Daredevil and The Punisher. I had started thinking about this piece a while back when only one or two issues of each was out, but now there's four issues of DD out and three each of Cap and Punisher.

Let's start with Captain America, which seems to have gotten a new first issue to coincide with the release a few months back of the movie. That's not a bad move on Marvel's part, and it's one I'm surprised they haven't used to greater effect in the past.

This isn't much of an introductory first issue, but it really doesn't need to be. Comics fans know who the characters are and the basic setup, while readers new to the character who saw the movie will be in pretty much the same place. There's a nice connection to the movie with the first issue opening on the funeral of 91-year-old Peggy Carter that also introduces Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13.

Unlike most of last month's DC debuts, Captain America has a very distinct tone and feel to it that is tailored quite well to the character. My original thoughts were that it was a bit decompressed, but on a second read I think it's far from being the worst offender in that category. The second issue does drag a bit, however, with much of the first half of it devoted to back story before stuff starts happening. The third is another good issue, and writer Ed Brubaker has surprised me by writing comics arcs that are structured like they used to be, with enough going on in each issue to keep me interested.

The best part of this series, though, is the exquisite artwork of Steve McNiven on pencils, Jay Leisten on inks and especially Justin Ponsor on the harder-than-it-looks task of coloring. McNiven does a terrific job of truly choreographing the action scenes. When Cap hurls his shield, you can follow it on its ricocheting path with a clarity that's usually lacking. And the fights are overall realistic and yet suitable to a character with Cap's abilities.

Not only that, but the art is pristine in its clarity and full of details that add to the story and not distract. Leisten deserves a lot of credit for doing a fantastic job of old-fashioned inking — making everything look better, sharper and clearer.

Ponsor's colors also are detailed, and normally I dislike when the colorist adds to the image through highlights and shading that wasn't there in the line art. But those details are done extremely well, and bolster the excellent palette of colors that Ponsor brings to the book. This is light, airy and clean, where a lot of coloring is dank, dark and muddy.

A few final notes: I like the cover design, which puts the logo front and center and very large so it's easy to read and, in fact, hard to miss on the stands. The one drawback is that this is one of Marvel's $3.99 books, and if I didn't enjoy what I read so much and appreciate the care that went into this book, I'd complain about it a bit more.

Moving on to The Punisher, which boasts Greg Rucka as the writer and Marco Checchetto as the artist. This is a character who seems very tough to write and do well, because most fans have different answers to the questions of how realistic The Punisher should be, how violent and how much he should interact with the Marvel Universe at large. Rucka delivers a solid mix of all three, without ever becoming excessive — a pretty amazing feat in itself.

This opening arc sees the Punisher getting drawn into a gang war after a clash at a wedding kills some 30 people including the groom. Most of the story is told through the eyes of others — the cop who's slipping info to the Punisher, an aggressive young reporter, and a few of the bad guys. The Punisher himself is scarcely seen in the first issue, but his presence is felt very strongly. By the third, the Marvel interaction becomes clearer with an appearance by the Vulture, who looks a lot different than the old Spider-Man villain I remember.

Rucka definitely writes good crime stories, and this is a very slick, very entertaining crime story with the Punisher at its heart. It's complemented by some very sharp visuals from Checchetto — an artist I'm not familiar with — and good coloring from Matt Hollingsworth that brings definition to the murky world Checchetto is drawing. Even the production value is high, and the book's slick paper and high-quality reproduction all add up to a very nice package. As with Captain America, the covers by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Paul Mounts are well designed and eye-catching, with the logo spread very big and very legibly across the top.

The result surprises me. I haven't read much Punisher in ages, but find this one quite interesting because Rucka's put enough story into each issue to make it so. It also helps that, after the extra-long first issue, the price dropped from $3.99 to $2.99. I'll keep buying it for a while at that price.

This also is what I would consider a very good first issue. If you had never read The Punisher, this introduced Rucka's conception of the character and the story well enough to be entertaining to a new reader. Quite a coup, when this is something like the seventh Punisher #1 Marvel's published in the last 25 years.

Lastly, there's Daredevil, a character whose definitive run was the then-groundbreaking visceral violence and grittiness that Frank Miller made his specialty. DD has been rebooted a number of times — not as many as Punisher or Cap, but this is I think the third first issue for the character since 1964.

Writer Mark Waid does the unexpected in Daredevil — rather than try to one-up the Miller version, he goes back to the original, lighter version of the character and then modernizes it to make it feel completely and utterly modern. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone pull this off as well as it is in the first four issues of this comic.

Story wise, there's a lot going on and a lot of things that look like they'll continue to pay off. I hadn't noticed until re-reading them that this series starts — just like in The Punisher — with a crashed wedding that involves mobsters and a key event set at the Cloisters in New York City. There's also some old Marvel villains from the fringe, like Klaw and Spot, though they're used to great effect.

The real key to pulling off Waid's stories is some of the best art I've seen in a superhero comic in ages, from Paolo and Joe Rivera, with excellent colors from Javier Rodriguez. Issue #4 and a back-up tale in the first issue feature art from the also-excelling Marcos Martin, colored by Muntsa Vicente. The art is more than just pretty pictures — though they are that — it's excellent storytelling applied with a degree of economy, clarity and style that is all too rare in comics. From the first issue alone, the way the Riveras draw how Daredevil sees a character like Spot and Klaw is simple, inventive and something that completely works as a 2-D drawing. The two-page spread of Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson walking the streets in the back-up story of the first issue, the way Captain America temporarily blinds DD in the second issue, the oddness of Klaw in the third and a fight with lions in the fourth issue are all extremely well done. The covers also are excellent — the first and fourth issues in particular are clever, graphic and extremely appealing.

Daredevil is a seriously fun comic book and an absolute joy to read.

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