Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.

August 30, 2011

Much as it pains me to say that something by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev is “deeply skippable,” that’s what best describes this collection.  Picking up in the wreckage of the title character’s life post-”Secret Invasion,” she’s offered a deal by Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D. that’s equal parts “fresh start” and “revenge.”  This deal involves heading to the slums of Madripoor to hunt down a high-ranking Skrull fugitive and while that provides the hook, it occupies less than a third of the collection.  The rest of it is filled up with Jessica Drew matching wits, fists and energy blasts with Viper and HYDRA, the Thunderbolts, and the sorry people who make up the Madripoor police department.

I don’t think that Bendis and Maleev could make a truly bad book together, but “Spider-Woman” feels hamstrung by an apparent need to be all things to all fans.  Aside from the hook to catch anyone interested in the fallout of “Secret Invasion,” they throw in Viper as a nod to the character’s history, the Thunderbolts act as a nod to the character’s current status quo, and show the connection to the rest of the Marvel Universe.  In between all of this, Jessica either has some lengthy monologues about her sorry lot in life or mixes it up with the police in scenes that feel like they’ve come from one of Bendis’ crime comics.

I’m surprised the story makes sense at all when you consider everything they’ve thrown in, but the end result feels like it dilutes Bendis strengths.  There’s several different stories going on in this collection and none of them are particularly interesting, even with his snappy dialogue, and the ending is almost unforgivably schmaltzy.  Maleev does a stellar job as always with all the disparate characters and plots he has to draw, and the afterword in the back shows that the man really went above and beyond the call of duty in working on the motion comic edition of this story.  So much so that it burned him out on drawing Spider-Woman for the forseeable future.  It’s probably for the best, as the more time they can devote to “Scarlet,” the better.

(But they had to go and work on “Moon Knight” instead!  Oh well, maybe it’ll be less of a mess than this was.)

X-Men: Legacy — Collision

August 28, 2011

This volume isn’t an essential read by any means, but it’s still a fun story -- assuming you can get past one glaring flaw in logic.  It kicks off in the wake of “Second Coming” as Rogue finds herself chaperoning Paras, Loa, and Anole to Mumbai after Paras receives a letter from his powerful lawyer father that his brother is ill and he needs to come home.  Accompanying them is Magneto, who is out to investigate some strange electromagnetic activity in the area.  Naturally, this turns out to be indicative of a much more serious threat once they meet up with Luz, a young girl with the power to manipulate light and the Sentinels chasing after her.  This leads to a return encounter with the Children of the Vault, the antagonists from Mike Carey’s very first “X-Men” arc and the results are satisfying like comfort food.  The moral dilemmas between Paras’ obligations to his family, and Luz’s concern only for herself are handled well, we get to see some nice uses for Rogue and Magneto’s powers, and the story gets a nice sense of urgency by the end.  Predictable, but still well done.

However, the problem here is Magneto’s very presence in this story.  While I’ve thought that his assimilation into the Utopia community was handled very well, it’s somewhat jarring to see him used like this here.  If you had told me when I first started reading “X-Men” back in the 90’s that in 15 years Magneto would be acting as a chaperone like this, I’d have called you a liar.  But that’s just me, and the bigger issue is how his presence in Mumbai runs counter to the “the world at large doesn’t know he’s part of the X-Men” thread that’s been running in “Uncanny.”  Considering that Kieron Gillen’s first issue is supposed to be dealing with this specific issue, this seems to be a clear case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing.  Maybe there’ll be some clever explanation in that issue, but for now it sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise enjoyable story.

The Invincible Iron Man vol. 6: Stark Resilient (Book II)

August 26, 2011

Was all that setup worth it? Kinda.  The biggest problem with this arc is that you really could’ve squeezed it down into five or six issues and only missed some of the “flavor” that Matt Fraction brings to Tony Stark’s adventures.  Throughout most of this volume I felt that he was trying to depart from the superhero action setup in much the same way that Joe Casey did nearly a decade ago with “Wildcats 3.0.”  That series eschewed the standard formula of the genre to focus more on boardroom business deals and the struggles former superheroes face when they try to change the world.  It’s a lot like what Fraction is having Stark do here and on one level I like that.

However, the reason Casey was able to get away with doing this to the Wildcats for as long as he did was that the Wildstorm Universe was far less defined than the Marvel one and had a lot less baggage for him to deal with.  Here, Fraction also has to contend with the fact that not only is he writing a character with over 40 years of history that happens to be one of the figureheads of this fictional universe, but also the constraints of the universe itself.  Now the Marvel Universe has always been designed to reflect “our word,” so you’re never going to see its characters introduce some fantastic world-altering change that would distort that image.  Or if you do, you can bet that it’s a plot by the Red Skull to destroy America and the reset button will be hit by the end of the arc.

Tony’s current plan is to power the world using repulsor technology and he plans to really show it off by building the car of the future.  (As I started typing that, I suddenly realized how similar it sounds to what Jack Marlowe and crew were doing in “Wildcats 3.0,” but if you’re going to call it anything Fraction’s work here is more homage than rip-off.)  With that as a goal, you know that he’s destined for failure because it’ll mean that this world is no longer a reflection of our own.  I want to see Tony succeed because he genuinely wants to use his power to make a better world, but such success is quite literally impossible in this universe.

Perhaps that’s why Fraction seems to be heading towards wrapping things up when the end of this volume has several of the primary villains from his run teaming up with a longtime “Iron Man” antagonist.  With a setup like that, I can’t help but think that the final issue will involve Tony stopping their evil designs at the cost of his dream.  I’d like to think that Fraction’s a clever enough writer to have forseen this possibility and is planning something completely different, but the moments when the characters are talking amongst themeselves and not advancing the plot continue to be more interesting than the main story.  Justine and Sasha Hammer just aren’t that interesting villains, as a sense of superiority seems to be their defining character trait, and I was disappointed that they weren’t taken off the board in the battle at the end of the volume.

The best parts of this volume were the two short stories written by Fraction and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie.  “Again at the End of the World With Your Pal Pepper Potts” takes place when the title character’s life is in limbo and she has a vision of her former husband Happy Hogan who’s trying to help her come to terms with dying and her relationship with Tony.  Pepper rightly senses that all is not as it seems and the final revelation comes off nicely with a bit of foreshadowing for future arcs.  “Good Morning, Tony” is a day in the life of the man seen through his eyes without any spoken dialogue.  There’s still a wealth of information to take from this story both in the ever-present information overlays and in Tony’s actions and body language and it’s utterly compelling to see it all unfold in front of your eyes.

It’s always a little disappointing when back-up features like those steal the show from the main story, but maybe it’s not so bad for now.  The next two volumes won’t be focusing on extended stories like the past several have, and that may make for a nice change of pace.  I’m still on board for this series, though as of right now I’m not reading it for its quality.  It’s that I know Tony’s plans are going to fail, and I want to see what kind of crater Fraction has them leave behind when they do.

Comic Picks #88: Echo

August 25, 2011

Terry Moore, of "Strangers in Paradise" fame and a specialist in down-to-earth character drama, gives us a sci-fi story.  It works better than you'd think.

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Secret Six: Danse Macabre and Cats in the Cradle

August 24, 2011

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the previous two volumes in this series, it’s just that they weren’t as good as their hype.  That’s why instead of buying them as soon as they came out, I picked up these two volumes for -- wait for it -- half off at Comic-Con.  I’m glad I did because Gail Simone’s vision of a barely functional team of supervillains finally starts to click here.  Well, hers and John Ostrander’s at any rate.

“Danse Macabre” isn’t quite a proper “Secret Six” story as it is not only part of the “Blackest Night” crossover, but also a quasi-team-up with the members of the Suicide Squad.  Appropriately, this arc is co-written with John Ostrander, writer of the best “Star Wars” comics now, but also responsible for building the legend of the Squad back in the 80’s.  The plot starts off with the Squad’s replacement for Deadshot failing a mission due to her instinct for self-preservation.  This has their leader Amanda Waller angling to get the man himself back on the team.  Problem is that while her plan to lure most of the Secret Six to Belle Reeve for a reckoning works, it happens that the Fiddler, now resurrected as a Black Lantern, has his own plans for Deadshot and the rest of the team.

I haven’t read as much of Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad” as I’d have liked (the second collection of his run comes out in the next month or two), but this arc captures the appeal of what I’ve read so far pretty well.  Part of the fun of that series was seeing how these sociopathic individuals who were forced to be on a team together would function (sometimes they’d work great together, other times not so much...) and teaming them up with the equally dysfunctional Six is an inspired move.  Even though it’s part of of a crossover, Simone and Ostrander do a great job of having each member of their team retain their voice and personality amidst the fighting.  Even the out-of-left field revelation about Mockingbird at the end of the volume felt appropriate -- and that’s saying something.

The volume also has two one-off stories:  A solo Deadshot tale by Ostrander and Black Alice’s introduction to the team by Simone.  Alice’s addition feels forced at first, but once the action starts you’ll see that she fits right in.  Deadshot’s story works well too, once you get past the retconning.

“Cats in the Cradle,” though, is one of the most brutal stories I’ve read in the mainstream DC or Marvel Universe -- period.  I don’t think that it’s an overstatement to say that the crowning achievement of Simone’s work with these characters has been her transformation of Catman from a joke to a serious badass, and the focus is again on the character as he finds out that some very, very bad men have kidnapped his son.  Now he gets this information in a call after the Six have completed a mission and the man is given an ultimatum:  Even though his son will eventually die, he’ll get one year of life in a secret location for every member of his team that he kills.

Artist J. Calfiore has done a lot of superhero comics over the years and while he has a reputation for solid, if unspectacular work, he absolutely NAILS the scene where Catman contemplates the kidnappers’ offer.  The look of rage and madness on his face is utterly spellbinding in this moment.  I won’t say more, but the man then goes on a tear of vengeance that only Frank Castle would approve of.  If you’re like me, then you’ll be surprised at the brutality of his methods, but still drawn to his quest to see these people get what they deserve.  It’s a very intense ride, to the point where I appreciated the fact that the story that follows, “Predators” a fill-in by Ostrander, is a lightweight take on “The Most Dangerous Game.”   Rich nerds bring the Six to their secluded island for a killing sport and wind up having the tables turned on them.  It’s an utterly inconsequential tale, but there are enough fun moments -- usually involving Deadshot or Ragman -- that allow it to successfully ease the tension of the previous story.

The final tale, “Unforgivable” is best described as an “Imaginary Story,” or better yet as an “Elseworlds” for those of you who remember them from the 90’s.  Here, the cast find themselves re-enacting a Western with Deadshot as the solo gunman, Scandal Savage as the town Sheriff, Bane as her deputy, and the rest of the cast filling out appropriate roles.  However, if you’re expecting a by-the-numbers Western story, then you might be pleasantly surprised as things don’t go in the obvious direction.  It’s Catman’s words at the end, “Thought... we might be heroes...” that really drive home the point and show you how the team’s fate was unavoidable.

Essential purchases?  No.  Nasty fun involving characters of very ill repute, yet strong, charismatic personalities?  Absolutely.  If you’re like me and were wondeirng when this series would kick into high gear, you have your answer with these volumes.

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth vol. 1: New World

August 23, 2011

If you’ll recall, I thought the last volume of this series was a bit of a “swing and a miss” when compared with the rest of it.  Too much speechifying by the main villain with a plot that functions more as a transition to the next part of the story than as a story in its own right.  We pick up here with the B.P.R.D. now a U.N.-funded organization with more power and reach than before.  Unfortunately, the team is fractured by infighting as Devon won’t let the bit about Abe being the potential antichrist from the previous volume rest, Johann is still creepily pining and plotting over his lost body, Panya is pulling all the strings she can from her automated wheelchair, and Kate has to find a way to get these characters to function as a team again.  However, Abe has his own agenda right now and it takes him to a remote town in British Columbia where people are disappearing and something Sasquatch-like has been sighted in the forests.

Minor spoiler:  What really gives this volume a leg up on the previous one is that after [...goes to check...] SIX volumes we finally get to see Ben Daimio again and things really pick up after that.  The infighting gets pushed to the back burner as Abe and Ben find themselves face-to-tentacle with a kind of monstrosity they had never seen before this “new world.”  It’s great monster-hunting fun and I wish we could have Ben’s no-nonsense vibe back on a regular basis, but it’s not to be.  His return does set several things in motion and that’s probably this volume’s most crucial success.  “B.P.R.D.” has its momentum back and I’m looking forward to its future -- even if it means one without Guy Davis.

Back to Brooklyn

August 21, 2011

Bob Saetta is the number two man in Booklyn’s biggest mob family, and one day he walks into a police department and gives them everything they need to put said family away.  His one condition is protection for himself and his wife and child, and it goes out the window once his brother Paul “The Wall” Saetta finds out where they are and takes them hostage.  So a new deal is struck:  Bob gets until Sunday at midnight before the police come in and settle things their way.  It’s a great hook that gets you into this story and it has all the brutality and slick execution that you’d expect from something by Garth Ennis.  This isn’t entirely his project as it was co-written with Jimmy Palmiotti who gives the whole endeavor a welcome dose of local color and gleeful political incorrectness that also helps it to stand out.

The problem is that by the end of this, you’re likely to go “What was the point?”  While Bob’s journey was pretty compelling with its numerous twists and shocking deaths it also has a final twist that undermines his whole reason for doing this.  This twist isn’t exactly implausible, but it comes from so far out of left field that you wonder if Ennis and Palmiotti didn’t hit upon it until they sat down to write the issue.  I can’t say that it ruins what has come before, but it does severely temper my enthusiasm for the book.  It’s probably best enjoyed by Ennis completists.  That said, newcomer Mihailo Vukelic gives us some nice, gritty photorealistic art that really captures the feel of the title borough.

Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such

August 20, 2011

As I mentioned on the podcast a while back, I’ve been wanting to read this series for quite some time.  “Two-Gun Mojo” was a definitive work that crystallized what I think a Jonah Hex story should be like.  I’m certain that it’s the reason I was never able to really get into Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s take on the character -- it was never weird or witty enough.  Now that I’ve read through “Riders of the Worm and Such,” I can say that it was mostly worth the wait.  Teaming Hex up with a pre-infamy Billy the Kid and setting them against underground worm creatures and their demi-human spawn makes for a good story, but it felt like there was only enough of it for three issues.

The rest of the series is padded out with what feels like a bit of self-indulgence on the part of writer Joe Lansdale.  I’m certainly not criticizing his dialogue or his way with words, but there are too many scenes that go by where the characters talk, and talk, and talk without advancing the plot at all.  Some might argue that it’s a bit too quirky for its own good, but I thought that having Oscar Wilde inspire an English ranch owner to bring some class to the frontier was actually pretty inspired.  Hex’s commentary on the wretched poetry he hears is also welcome.  The art from Tim Truman is just as good as it was in the original series, and he keeps the series grounded even when it threatens to spiral off into science fantasy madness at the end.  I still liked this series overall, and it’s worth picking up if you can find all the issues, but it just can’t measure up to the high standards of the original.

Bokurano vol. 4

August 18, 2011

After the last volume left me dying to see how current pilot Chizuru was going to overcome the moral dilemma in front of her, we find out that... her sister is a saint amongst saints.  It’s a surprisingly straightforward resolution and I will admit that it was a little disappointing in how conventional it was.  Still, Mohiro Kito does a great job of tapping into Chizuru’s rage and frustration at this development and showing how it influences her fight against the enemy mecha.  Once everything is said and done, though, I doubt that I’m the only person who is frustrated that we’re only given a *hint* that justice will be done to the teacher that betrayed her trust and abused her.

The next pilot turns out to be Kunihiko Moji, who comes off as the most mature of the entire cast.  Kunihiko is involved in a pseudo-love-triangle amongst two childhood friends, but he plans to use his inevitable death to resolve it to the advantage of one of them.  Naturally, things aren’t that simple and the use of dramatic irony in this situation gives the whole endeavor an “O. Henry” twist to it.  This story isn’t nearly as nerve wracking as the last two, but it’s a smart move on Kitoh’s part to dial things back for a bit.  Let the reader catch their breath for a while and then hit them with something that will really make their jaws drop.  We’ll find out if that’s where he’s going in January.

Steve Rogers: Man of Many Talents

August 17, 2011

If you had any doubts about Ed Brubaker’s grasp and understanding of the character of Steve Rogers, there are two collections that should clear them up for you.  Even though the character is no longer Captain America (at least, at the time these were written he wasn’t; he has since resumed the mantle, but we’ll get to that in a few months), the man is still one of the most capable leaders the Marvel Universe has to offer.  It’s just that since he’s no longer the symbol of a nation, he can afford to get his hands dirty and have a little fun -- James Bond style.

After his return to the land of the living and the events of “Siege,” Steve was installed as the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and made America’s new “top cop.”  So when the grandson of the scientist who invented the super-soldier formula that made Steve into the man he is today claims to have cracked it and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder, that’s our man’s cue to get involved.  Even though the story is called “Steve Rogers:  Super-Soldier” it wouldn’t feel out of place if it had run in the regular “Captain America” title.

It’s a better-than-average tale, actually, thanks to the nice balance that’s struck between Brubaker’s love of “noir” and the character’s super-hero legacy.  Introducing Professor Erskine’s grandson is only the start of things as his girlfriend turns out to be a dead ringer for someone Steve fell in love with back in the 40’s.  The choice of villain was also well-done (and will probably be best appreciated if you’re like me and have recently read the new edition of “Operation:  Rebirth”) and he does something that I’ve never seen to the character before:  turn off the super-soldier serum.  In what appears to be the most dire straits possible for Steve actually turns out to be the book’s high point as we see that the serum is only part of what makes him the greatest soldier in the world.  Even as a 98 lb. weakling, he still possesses a tactical acumen and fighting skill that shames men twice as built as he is.

As fun as this collection is, it kinda falls apart at the very end.  While Steve scores a certifiable victory, the whole endeavor turns out to have been part of a much larger plan by a much more sinister organization.  I was disappointed that this ended in a lead in to stories with no clear follow-up... until I read “Secret Avengers:  Mission to Mars” and realized that the “Shadow Council” are actually the main villains here.  It’s a good thing I buy everything Brubaker writes, or else I might’ve thought he was just pissing into the wind there.

Anyway, the Secret Avengers are Steve’s “black ops” team dedicated to proactivity in the Marvel Universe and finding and neutralizing threats before they blow up to become the next crossover event.  The team he has put together includes the Black Widow, Beast, War Machine, Valkyrie, Moon Knight, and (The Irredeemable) Ant-Man.  Nova is also on the team as their cosmic back-up and winds up sent to Mars as the team investigates a series of artifacts related to something known as the Serpent Crown.  Unfortunately they lose contact with him in short order and the team takes off after him.  Putting aside the fact that this Serpent Crown is the key to unlocking a threat of galactic proportions, the Shadow Council also have their eye on it as well and they’ve got Nick Fury on their side.

The main story in “Mission to Mars” doesn’t have any of the noir underpinnings of Brubaker’s work.  Sure, you could make the claim that they’re there because it’s a “secret black ops” team, but any possibility of taking that seriously goes out the window when they leave the planet.  That being said, this is still a very fun superhero book as the characters are well-defined, the pace is fast, the stakes are high, and things blow up with the best of them.  It’s a great example of the old formula done very well.  I will say that the noir comes back with a vengeance in the last story as we find out why Nick Fury is working for the Shadow Council.  It’s both a great “man on the run” story and a clever twist on one of the character’s trademarks.  You’d think after all the times he has used these things over the years, something like this would’ve happened sooner actually.

So these collections are both great examples of superhero fiction, and a showcase for the awesomeness of Steve Rogers.  Though each have their flaws as noted above, there’s also something else hanging over their heads:  price.  “Mission to Mars” is $20 for five issues and “Super-Soldier” is $15 for four (plus the eight-page origin of the character, which despite its historical significance I can’t really count as added value).  As with a lot of stuff I’ve talked about these past few weeks, I found these for half-off at Comic-Con, though I’d say that the standard discount Amazon is offering is also pretty fair.  With that kind of a barrier to entry, you’ll have to already have some vested interest in the character (or the writer) to want to pick these up.  Once you do, by whatever legitimate means, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.