Best Shots Reviews: SPIDER-MAN - LIFE STORY #2, B.P.R.D. THE DEVIL YOU KNOW #15

B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know #15
Credit: Laurence Campbell/Dave Stewart (Dark Horse Comics)
Credit: Chip Zdarsky (Marvel Comics)

Spider-Man: Life Story #2
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Mark Bagley, Drew Hennessey and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

While it’s an easy marketing hook to show Spider-Man: Life Story exploring the wallcrawler’s life crossing from the 1960s to the 1970s, Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley are actually taking a different approach for this limited series — one that might have more in common with Grant Morrison’s comprehensive take on Batman from a decade ago.

Given the general soap operatics of superhero stories, there is a degree of collective amnesia that often takes place — how could any one person withstand so much pain and heartache without losing their minds entirely — but Zdarsky and Bagley take a big swing to weave Peter Parker’s major storylines together to create one cohesive storyline. While the end result might not be as much of a departure as the marketing might suggest, Spider-Man: Life Story still proves to be a well-crafted stroll down memory lane.

The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same — in the case of Peter Parker as he crosses into the 1970s, he’s still swinging into the fray as the Amazing Spider-Man, now married to Gwen Stacy and working alongside Reed Richards and Otto Octavius as part of the new Future Foundation. Sure, there are some surface-level deviations to the timeline here — Spidey’s got a little more armor to cover up those aging joints, and Captain America continues to act as a renegade agent in a spiraling Vietnam War — but for the most part, this is just window dressing to a pair of stories that many of us are already familiar with.

Similar to the way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe swipes and repurposes major moments from the comics in order to provide an accessible touchstone for new viewers, so too does Zdarsky in synthesizing both Harry Osborn’s rise as a Goblin as well as the Clone Saga — an ambitious cocktail for sure. And it’s to Zdarsky’s credit that he barrels through both of these with such momentum that we’re able to accept his condensing of these two storylines — although to be fair, some of the denouements come so suddenly and abruptly that you might need to take a few minutes to reread things carefully. But while Zdarsky does an effective job in summing up all the major moments in Peter’s life — not dissimilar to Ed Piskor’s encyclopedic take on X-Men: Grand Design — a recitation is ultimately still what this series feels like, rather than any revolutionary departure from what long-time Spider-fans already know.

This extends to Mark Bagley’s artwork, as well — which might make the well-deserved compliments feel a bit double-edged. Bagley is at home with the Webslinger in a way that few artists ever could be — there’s a reason why Bagley defined Spider-Man’s adventures for close to two decades. He is still incredibly effective with how his characters emote and express themselves on the page, and I think Bagley deserves some credit for effectively tweaking Spider-Man’s design in a way that shows his increasing age, but doesn’t distract from the rest of the storyline. (It’s similar to the Spider-Man design from the bestselling Playstation 4 game.) But — and this is not Bagley’s fault — he’s also a safe choice for a project like this, which already has a tendency to look backwards rather than to use its high concept to say anything new. To Bagley’s credit, however, teaming him up with colorist Frank D’Armata feels at least somewhat forward-thinking — D’Armata’s colors gives Bagley’s linework a sense of depth and mood that goes against the grain from what the artist is usually given. Like I said — Life Story is a good-looking book, even if it’s one that you’ve seen time and again.

This review might make it sound as though I don’t enjoy Spider-Man: Life Story, and that couldn’t be further from the truth — this is a solidly constructed story on all levels, and it’s one that appeals to longtime readers as well as makes things surprisingly streamlined for fans who aren’t aware of Spidey’s continuity. But I would also make the argument that a book like this could do a lot more — not even in terms of continuity wrinkles like Otto Octavius marrying Aunt May (who surprisingly remains MIA in this series) or Reed Richards becoming a diehard liberal, but finding new things to say about these characters in the context of these historical periods. Right now, beyond Vietnam looming in the background or a detour to Studio 54, this story doesn’t feel like it’s particularly beholden to real-world history, as much as it preoccupies itself with weaving together one man’s fictional story — one that’s been analyzed exhaustively on just about any pop culture wiki page. It’s not to say that Spider-Man: Life Story is a bad book — it assuredly isn’t — but one can’t help but hope its ambitions grow beyond navel-gazing.

Credit: Mike Mignola (Dark Horse Comics)

B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know #15
Written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie
Art by Laurence Campbell, Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

So it’s time to say “goodbye” to Hellboy… again.

The final battle has been fought. The big bad has been defeated once and for all. Hellboy was brought back from Hell for this battle so there’s a bit of a feeling of “now what?” in this final issue. After over 25 years of storytelling, this issue wraps up the story which began in Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction #1 back in 1993. Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Laurence Campbell, Dave Stewart and Clem Robins still have a lot to do in this issue, as half of it wraps up some of the remaining loose ends that Mignola started years ago while the latter half is a is a more wrap up of the thematic loose ends, the least of which is the final fate of Hellboy and the world.

For the first half of the issue, Campbell turns in some wonderfully Mignola-esque artwork. As this story has raced towards its own Ragnarok, he has provided a more naturalistic art than this series was ever used to that grounded this mythical story. As the battle for the world was fought, Campbell’s art made this Hell on Earth feel far too real. But here, his shadows and staging owe more than just a little bit to the stories’ creator. Working with Allie and Mignola, they address and close out a number of plots that have been hanging out there, including biggies like the mysterious Osiris Club and the ever present and threatening Ogdru Jahad. In many ways the B.P.R.D.’s story ended last issue but there are a few last things that the creators are required to address if this is truly the end. And in doing so, these pages feel a bit more obligatory than they do satisfying. This is the job of putting the chairs up on the table and shutting off the lights on this grand tale.

If the first half of this book gives an ending to the story, the final pages, drawn (and perhaps written by Mignola? It sure feels that way) gives an ending to the myth. Employing the poetic storytelling that he has grooved on lately, with its own visual meter and structure, Mignola provides a true Ragnarok to this series and to this legend. Even if it feels like Mignola has brought us to this point of saying “goodbye” to Hellboy at least two other times before, there’s a finality in this story that’s been absent from any other Hellboy story. Giving the character his own unique ride off into the proverbial sunset, we recognize Mignola’s work as both an ending and the beginning of new possibilities of what could come after this. Hellboy, Liz Sherman, and Abe Sapien’s stories are complete here but this ending is about rebirth as much as it is about an apocalypse.

Is it possible to think of Dave Stewart as an underappreciated colorist? This issue shows his versatility, moving from the more realistic and shapely hues of the beginning to the more flat but vivid colors of the final sequence. As much as the difference between Campbell and Mignola as artists provide a transition, Stewart moves us between two states of being in this issue. Using his unique sense of color, he guides us from life to death and into a new life all in the span of around twenty pages. There will probably never be another red as vivid as his Hellboy red or one that will never be full of as much personality as that red against the infinite grays that envelop these stories.

So maybe this is really goodbye and so long. Maybe this is the rest that these characters deserve after more than 25 years of fighting against the dying of the light. And after the past 10 years of mourning this character since he defeated Nimue inThe Fury, it was difficult to see him resurrected last year for this final battle. He died, had earned his rest but was brought back for this Ragnarok. Could the character or the audience stand to go through that again? Mignola has created a myth, one that has often been imitated over the past 25 years but never equaled. He, as well as Allie, Campbell, and a whole host of other creators over the years, have told the story of a modern day myth, something that not many storytellers get to do. And like every good mythology, Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.’s legend has a creation story as well as its own Ragnarok. And in the final 12 pages of this issue, Mignola gives us hope for this apocalypse. It’s not a hope of rebirth but of a new creation to spring up from this grand story. Nothing ever truly ends, especially in comics. But even as Mignola and his team shut the door on this story cycle, they leave it open a crack to maybe someday explore the world that Hellboy, Liz and Abe sacrificed so much for to help create.

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