Friday, February 22, 2008

Marvel Comics Presents

I've been meaning to write about this series for a while now, since after almost every issue I've thought, "Well, I probably won't buy any more," and then the next issue comes out and something compels me to pick it up to see what else it has to offer. After six issues, I'm still torn on whether to buy the next one, but I have to admit they are at least doing something right here, and Marvel's willingness to put out an anthology title (notoriously low sellers for mainstream American comics) that often spotlights their more obscure characters is worth supporting.

The original 175-issue run of Marvel Comics Presents from the late '80s through the early '90s is one of the few examples of a successful comics anthology from a big American publisher, but I've never read any of those old issues. I'm now at a point where I tend to ignore most of Marvel's high-profile series, but I still have a certain degree of affection for their universe and wide range of characters, so a book like this, with four short stories each month - some parts of serials, others stand-alone tales - is theoretically perfect for me. It's not part of some wide-ranging crossover, and it's not expected to reinvent major elements of the Marvel universe. It's just supposed to tell good stories.

Whether it succeeds at that varies from story to story and issue to issue. The meat of the series so far has been two 12-part serials, one of which has grabbed my attention, and one of which has not. Marc Guggenheim's "Vanguard" started out slowly, with cops investigating a mysterious murder apparently connected to superheroes, and even at the halfway mark not much has been revealed. But the twists and turns have caught my interest, and I like Guggenheim's introduction of a black-ops team of offbeat anti-heroes, which is exactly the sort of thing I would hope to see in this book. Dave Wilkins' art (with occasional fill-ins by Francis Tsai) is a little stiff and posed, but overall my desire to find out what happens next in this story is my main reason to pick up the book.

The other 12-parter is much less interesting. It follows up on a Brian Bendis story from New Avengers that I didn't read, and continues events from the Omega Flight miniseries, which I also didn't read. It's cheesy and overwrought superhero stuff from writer Rich Koslowski (whose acclaimed graphic novel The King I also found cheesy and awkward), with bright, undistinguished art by Andrea DiVito. Yet it's far from unreadable, and although it's also slow it does contain moments of intrigue, and I'm mildly curious to see where it goes. I'd probably be a lot more interested at about half the length, though.

What comes in between those two stories varies each month, and is the main factor in deciding whether the book as a whole is worth picking up. Most of the one-off stories, which tend to focus more on big-name characters so they can be plastered on the cover, are enjoyably forgettable at best and painfully contrived at worst. The shorter serials have so far been hit-or-miss; the first four issues featured a delightful if somewhat nonsensical Hellcat story, with lovely art by Stuart Immonen and unfocused story by his wife Kathryn. The two more recent issues have featured the first two parts of a three-part Savage Land story by Christos Gage and Joyce Chin that's basically just mindless action, and has pretty much bored me.

So will I buy the next issue? Even at a higher price ($3.99) and with varying quality, there is still generally more here that's worthwhile than not, and with the exception of the Weapon Omega story, if I don't like something it'll quickly be replaced by something else. Moreover, the idea of this book existing as an oasis amid crossovers and overblown events and eight different books starring Wolverine does appeal to me. Maybe it's time to stop debating about picking up another issue and just commit to reading it (at least until it gets canceled around issue 15).

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