Friday, June 17, 2005

Comics: Stormbreaker - The Saga of Beta Ray Bill #1-6

(Note: Ninja - don't read this until you're finished the series. No real spoilers, I just don't want to inadvertently ruin your enjoyment of the series.)

When I found out that Marvel comics killed Thor and all the Asgardians in the "Ragnarok" storyline, I wasn't that concerned. I hadn't been reading Marvel comics for a while, and I certainly hadn't been reading Thor. But then I read that Mike Avon Oeming, the guy who penned "Ragnarok" and who draws the very excellent Powers, was writing a Beta Ray Bill miniseries, and my exact words were "Hell yes!"

(Beta Ray Bill - Best Dressed Space Horse, 1985, 1987, 1992, 2005.)

In brief: Beta Ray Bill first appeared in Thor #337. He was a biomechanically altered being who was the guardian of a dying race. Thor believed he was a threat to Earth, and went off for one of those necessary big fight scenes, during which Bill disarmed Thor, and then picked up the mystical hammer Mjolnir. Thor was surprised - as were the readers - because it was thought that only Thor was worthy enough to hold the weapon. The two met up again in Asgard, where Odin decided that they should engage in mortal combat to see who was the most worthy. After another long fight, Bill beat Thor, but refused to kill such a worthy adversary. Odin was so thankful that Bill spared his son's life that he gave Bill an enchanted mace that was almost as powerful as Mjolnir, called Stormbreaker. And so began the legend of Beta Ray Bill, the most powerful horse in the Marvel Universe.

When I was a kid, I was mesmerized by this guy. Someone who's stronger and more relentless than Thor? The only person worthy enough to hold Mjolnir (that is, before they let anyone hold it, including Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, and...Spider-Man?)? Who has a talking spaceship? And is the last hope of a doomed race? This is the kind of space opera my five-year-old brain, still reeling from the spectacle that was Return of the Jedi, could really get behind.

So. Now it's 2005, and the book that nobody wanted - except Ninja, myself, and about thirty other people - is finished its six issue run. How was it?

Okay, I guess. I mean, space opera is not a genre that pops up in a lot of comics, but this was a pretty good one. Oeming and writing partner Dan Berman go absolutely insane with the plot, realizing that they need to touch on a whole lot of history in only six issues. Suffice it to say that they involve the destruction of Asgard, the destruction of Bill's home world, a visit from The Devourer of Planets, portals to alternate dimensions, four huge interstellar battles, and Skuttlebutt, the best talking spaceship of all-time (I'm looking at you, Andromeda). It's a return to the tradition of Jim Starlin-esque space comics, which might be too implausible for some readers, but I was gigglingly happy for five issues. (Only five, you say? Just you wait; all will be explained.)

The dialogue, by comparison, is weak. They cut back on the flowery prose that was a trademark of the Thor comics - god, how I missed "I say thee nay!" - which should have made for more even-handed dialogue all around. But they put conventional figures of speech and contractions in Bill's mouth, and it just doesn't work. A guy can't say "Don't sweat it, girl" and "I call upon thee to smite this evil thing that would destroy us all!!!" in the same comic. He just can't.

Even with teeth-gritting dialogue and an incredulous plot, Stormbreaker was totally worth what I paid for it, because Andrea DiVito's art brought the entire thing to life for me. The galaxy-spanning fights were gorgeous; I could almost feel the power behind every blow and burned with Bill's fury. The smaller, more personal scenes were nicely drawn, too, with touches of tenderness and real emotion that the dialogue didn't always convey. Good story, great art, and the return of one Marvel's most overlooked characters, this series hit all the right points. I give the first five issues a solid recommendation.

The sixth issue, though...I just don't know. At the end of Issue 5, Beta Ray Bill is pounding all hell out of yet another foe in the fiery ruins of Asgard, flashes of magical energy all around, and the sound of his mighty hammer overpowering the thunder in the sky. At the beginning of Issue 6, we open on...a homeless guy who almost gets hit by a car? Driven by a guy who can turn into a giant mutant pig monster? And then...Spider-Man? What the hell is Spider-Man doing here!?! This last issue is stunningly bad. Using my previous Jedi reference, it's as if Vader throws the Emperor over the banister, and then you cut to a very confused Indiana Jones having margaritas on the beach. It makes absolutely no sense, and it's very unsatisfying

Putting Bill on Earth takes him way out of his element, and it takes the punch out of the previous five issues. He's supposed to be a starfaring Norse alien with a talking spaceship, not living in Manhattan being "just another superhero". I was left feeling foolish for enjoying the grand adventure of the earlier issues, and resenting that Spider-Man had to pop up to legitimize the series for the typical Marvel reader.

Stepping back for a moment, I realize I'm being a cranky guy who rants on the Internet about comics, one step away from saying crap like "Bring back Hawkeye!" or "Blue Beetle 4ever!" Really though, I'm just trying to give a review of what was a very promising series. I thought the first five issues were solid gold, and comics-minded people should track down some copies and read them. Stormbreaker: The Saga of Beta Ray Bill gets an overall rating of 6/10; with the breakdown being 8/10, 8/10, 7/10, 7/10, 7/10, and 1/10.

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