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Marvel Mangaverse

 

Some years back, someone at Marvel Comics said, "Golly, maybe there's somethin' to this Manga craze all the kids are all hepped up about." They tried a number of experiments about this time to combine Japanese comic style with mighty Marvel characters, including translating the licensed Japanese version of Spider-Man, but perhaps the strangest, most interesting of all was called MARVEL MANGAVERSE. They gave cartoonist Ben Dunn the keys to the Marvel Universe and let him re-make it, manga-style, for a fifth-week event.



Ben Dunn, founder of Antarctic Press and creator of NINJA HIGH SCHOOL, has been drawing manga-style comics since before manga-style was cool. Like the best of the "American manga" artists, he does not ape the look of Japanese comics as much as he takes visual techniques from manga and incorporates them into his own distinctive style. Oddly enough, the American artist Dunn most resembles is George Perez. Like Perez, he has a love of detail; and when presented with a fight scene of CRISIS-level proportions, says "Gimme a couple dozen more Para-demons! I can take it!" Which is just what is required for a story like MARVEL MANGAVERSE.



The title is appropriate. Ben Dunn was not just re-imagining a few popular characters; MANGAVERSE presented a densely-textured world with an elaborate history to it, just like the real Marvel Universe. Reading it is a lot like jumping into, say, an AVENGERS ANNUAL with no familiarity of the continuity. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a bit confusing, but Ben gives us enough points of similarity to keep us oriented and provides the backstory on the fly; and the complexity also gives a sense that this isn't just a miniseries to fill a hole in the monthly schedule, but that it truly is a universe with it's own history and rich population of characters.



The bookend issues of the series, NEW DAWN and ETERNAL TWILIGHT, were written and illustrated by Ben Dunn and provide the set-up and the resolution of the main story, how Hydra instigates a war between Atlantis and the surface world in order to seize a source of unlimited power. It also introduces the main characters: U.S. President Steve Rogers, who also leads the Avengers as Captain America; Doctor Strange and his familiar Tigra; billionairess Antionette Stark, a Godzilla-sized behemoth called the Hulk, and others. 



Between the bookends were six issues focusing on individual characters and teams within the Universe. They are largely independent of the overall plot and of each other and vary in quality. AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (written by Ken Sui-Chong, with art by Alvin Lee, Arnold Tsang, Omar Dogan and Shane Law) takes the Avengers' battle cry literally as the team pilots battle craft which combine to form a giant robot: ULTIMATE IRON MAN!!! The story and art are fairly good; it lacks some of the goofy fun of Ben's work, but it's a serviceable manga pastiche.



MEGA-SCALE METATALENT RESPONSE TEAM FANTASTIC FOUR has the most Japanese title of the six interior issues. It was written by Adam Warren, one of the best of the American manga artists, who did a number of first rate DIRTY PAIR miniseries for Dark Horse back in the late '80s. He did not draw this comic, but Keron Grant and Rob Stull did a fine job with the artwork. In this version, the Fantastic Four wear exo-skeletons which give them the team's familiar powers. (Reed's power is not exactly the one we're familiar with, but is brilliantly imagined). The team has been organized to combat other-dimensional threats to the Earth. The story isn't perfect; I did not find the characters terribly likable and Adam's liberal sprinkling of foul language, (represented by black censor bars), comes off as grating rather than naturalistic and clashes stylistically with the dialogue in the other books. Nevertheless, I like Adam's stuff and the story does a decent job of fusing manga themes with the Marvel Universe.

GHOST RIDERS is the weakest of the lot. Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, and Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, two supernatural characters from the '70s, hang out in a bar while outside the kaiju-sized Hulk lumbers about. Daimon tries to convince Johnny that they're related; Johnny wants nothing to do with him. Their sister, Satana, shows up and is embarrassing. The story, but Chuck Austin, is not bad, but feels stretched and thin compared with the other stories in the set. The artwork, also by Austin, features simply-drawn characters with flat, animation cel coloring over 3-D computer-rendered backgrounds. It's an interesting technique, but comes off as garish and ugly.

Of course, it just wouldn't be manga if we didn't have some sexy schoolgirls. But PUNISHER, written by Peter David and drawn by Lea Hernandez goes against expectations. By day, Sosumi Brown is the strict disciplinarian principal of a boarding school. By night, she adopts the guise of the PUNISHER to give crime a sound spanking. One might expect the character to be drawn as a scantily-clad dominatrix, as in some of the manga of Japanese artist Go Nagai; but Hernandez draws her fully-clothed in kimono and Geisha make-up. (The obi of her kimono tied in an elaborate knot that looks like a skull, referencing the skull on Frank Castle's outfit, is a nice touch)

Perhaps the most successful story in the series is SPIDER SCROLL, written and drawn by Kaare Andrews. In this re-imagining of Spider-Man, Peter Parker's Uncle Ben was the last of the Spider Ninja Clan, and Peter his student. When Sensei Ben is killed on the orders of the villainous Kingpin, Peter vows vengeance; but since he has promised his Aunt May that he will turn his back on the Way of the Ninja, he must do it in secret, wearing a mask. The story skillfully blends all the essential Peter Parker elements with those of a martial arts story. SPIDER SCROLL was spun off into a limited series; and more recently, the character has resurfaced in the “Spider-verse” storyline, in which Peter encounters alternate versions of Spider-Man from other universes.

X-MEN, written by C.B. Cebulski, penciled by Jeff Atsuda and A.J Jothikumar with inks by Andy Owens, was another disappointment. It came off as just another X-Men story with slightly different costumes. Theoretically, these X-Men's powers are based on magic rather than genetic mutation, but I didn't really see much to make this group special and different than the regular Marvel Universe version.



Ben Dunn returns for the final chapter, ETERNITY TWILIGHT, which brings everything back together. We get the defeat of Ultimate Iron Man, the betrayal of Baron Strucker, the return of Black Panther, the arising of the Dread Dormammu and the coming of the one hero on earth who can stop him!



MARVEL MANGAVERSE was followed by a monthly series, once again written and drawn by Ben Dunn, that lasted eight issues. The second series was more focused, benefiting from a single writer. The first story arc introduced a re-imagined version of Captain Mar-Vell and a weird and fantastic version of Galactus. The second arc introduced this world's Doctor Doom, who has a tragic connection to the Black Panther.

Truthfully, not everything in the series works; (I thought the appearance of Spider-Man in the final chapter, for example, a little forced); but there are just so many fantastic ideas in MARVEL MANGAVERSE, so many appealing and intriguing characters and such promise that I was more than willing to overlook it's weak spots and just revel in the sheer Marveltude of it all.

I've long been a fan of Ben's work, and MARVEL MANGAVERSE was a fun look at the Marvel Universe through a different lense.


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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.