I skipped talking about the last two volumes because they wound up getting mired in my least favorite part of the series: the Mashiro/Azuki romance. While there was some good stuff in vols. 12 & 13, mostly revolving around “Perfect Crime Party” being taken off the “deathwatch” and the personal struggles of Mashiro’s new assistant Shiratori, “Muto Ashirogi’s” relationship is put under a strain after they’re told that their new series will likely never be made into an anime. Naturally this dashes the hopes of Azuki being the voice of the heroine in a manga created by Mashiro and ever being married and IT’S SOOOOO SAAAAAAAD!!! God forbid they should actually get married because they like each other rather than let their happiness be defined by some arbitrary plot contrivance. Anyway, now that the emphasis on that particular event has passed, “Bakuman” makes a return to form with this volume.
Remember how I said last time that it looked like things were turning around and the book was going to start focusing on the main characters again? Oh god was I wrong about that. Not only do we not see any of the main characters, save Aya in a witness role, for three-quarters of this volume, we’re introduced to a whole new cast and time period. The narrative now flashes back to the end of the Warring States era of Japan when Aya and Soichiro’s ancestors were embroiled in a struggle to stop Sohaku from prolonging the war indefinitely and awakening any individuals with supernatural power across the world. It’s a jarring switch, to be sure, and between the text pieces and author comments at the end, you’re left with the feeling that there’s a lot of self-indulgence going on in the mangaka’s choice of this particular setting. Couple that with the initially unlikeable bunch of new protagonists and it wouldn’t surprise me if people decided to stop reading partway into this volume.
This volume was solid... and not a whole heck of a lot more. In the wake of Abe Sapien slipping into a catatonic state following his shooting in the previous volume, Kate and Johann find themselves on a plane to Russia after the dead start rising north of Moscow. However, that’s not the only surprise they find there, and as Kate deals with leftover political tensions from the Cold War, Johann quickly comes under the influence of Iosif, head of the Russian occult bureau and a man trapped in a suit like the B.P.R.D.’s bodiless medium. This all leads to a bloody confrontation with a monstrous entity a mile below the Earth that has to be nuked up close rather than from orbit.
This round of solicitations sees not one, but TWO collections of “Conan” for us. Unfortunately, it signifies the start of a trend that I’m not really that keen on. You see, a few weeks back the second volume of the “Road of Kings” series (subtitled “Throne of Aquilonia”) arrived in hardcover. This was unusual because Dark Horse always publishes the hardcover and softcover editions of the title at the same time. That’s not going to be the case anymore because the softcover edition of that volume arrives in January alongside the hardcover edition of the first collection of Brian Wood’s run. So we’ve essentially transitioned into what Marvel does with their “premiere hardcover” line. As you might’ve guessed, I don’t think that’s a plus.
This latest adaptation of the “Parker” novels by Darwyn Cooke offers up the immense thrill of seeing highly competent professionals plan and pull off a job that is, shall we say, “unreasonable.” After six months of idleness, the title character agrees to take part in a new job through an old contact. It’s a job that breaks some important rules -- It’s planned by an amatuer! It requires about a dozen men! -- but the sheer audacity of knocking over an entire town in one night proves to be ultimately irresistible to the anti-hero. From there we get to see the planning of the heist in meticulous detail as the crew needs guns, a transport, walkie-talkies and a hideout if they’re going to make this work. The buildup here is fascinating to watch as it feels utterly credible, like we’re getting a realistic peek into a way of life that few of us have ever seen, let alone contemplated.
Of course, the way these things go is that the plan usually goes right out the window after the heist starts and we get to see everyone’s real character as they cope with the fallout. That’s only partly true here as the chaos that unfurls here is surprisingly low key. It does take some interesting approaches, such as seeing Parker’s all-business psychological approach to keeping the few townspeople they encounter under control, as well as what happens to the girl who hooks up with Grofield. However, the falling action after the climax goes on for too long. You get the feeling that we’re being set up for some final twist, but then there’s... nothing. I suppose it’s their reward for such professionalism, and don’t get me wrong -- the book is pretty much worth buying to see the setup for the heist and its execution -- but it does end things on a whimper rather than a bang. Even so, the text at the end informing us that Parker will return in 2013 is welcome news indeed.
Looking at a lot of the Marvel NOW! relaunches, I’ll concede that they’ve certainly done a good job of getting top talent on A-list characters. Of course, looking at some of these launches still has me scratching my head at what they were thinking. There’s also one that has a great idea for a mini-series behind it... except that it’s meant to be an ongoing. Lots of interesting stuff after the jump.
After the first book, I was expecting great things here and they didn’t let me down. After successfully acquiring the life seed in the “Age of Apocalypse,” X-Force is immediately ambushed by Archangel, and his Horsemen who take it for themselves, leaving the team to escape by the skin of their teeth. Everyone except Psylocke who stays behind to try and save the monster who used to be the man she loved. From there, things only escalate in scale and urgency as a town is incinerated, a new land is born, alternate realities invade and (of course) the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Rick Remender executes it all so skillfully that even though the form of the story is quite familiar it becomes impossible not to get swept up in the drama. There’s even some real heartbreak at the end as Psylocke has to deal with the ashes of her relationship with Warren.
Even with all the high stakes and dark tone of this collection, it never becomes suffocating. It’s the details that Remender throws at you, from Archangel’s “really nice bad guy” disposition, creative power uses from Famine and the “Age of Apocalypse” Iceman, Fantomex and Psylocke making their last stand, “Kid Apocalypse,” and Deadpool’s perfectly solid reasoning as to why they can’t go to the Avengers or X-Men with this. There’s a solid undercurrent of fun throughout the book that keeps things from turning into a dirge, and keeps things thrilling. Jerome Opena also illustrates most of the book and brings a level of style and detail that you don’t see very often in superhero books these days. Robbi Rodriguez’s stylized work at the end is a somewhat jarring change, but it brings some energy to the “winding down” feel of the epilogue. Yes, this is still a story that will only appeal to those familiar with the characters and relatively well-versed in their continuity; but, if you are then it’s one you’ll want to have in your collection.
(Of course, after reading all this I can’t help but wonder how Remender got so far off track with “Fear Agent.” Isn’t the rule for a writer’s creator-owned titles to be BETTER than his work-for-hire stuff?)
Vol. 17 of “The Walking Dead” comes out this month and collects the landmark issue #100. I’d also like to issue a special, “Thanks a fucking lot!” to the reviewer at IGN who managed to spoil one of the key events of that issue for me. You see, the way IGN’s comics reviews work is that they’ve got an intro paragraph to give you the gist of what the reviewer thought with a link you can click on in order to read the rest of the review. 99% of the time, they’ll indicate that there are SPOILERS after the break. In the case of their review of “The Walking Dead #101” the spoiler for #100 was part of that first paragraph. So now that I know what’s coming, that genuine “OH SHIT!” moment (and trust me, that’s certainly what it sounded like) is going to have a lot less of an impact now. Well, at least it won’t be ruined for the friends I loan out the newest volumes to.
(This is actually “vol. 16” in Ed Brubaker’s run, but this is what they’re calling it on the spine.)
Reading this left me hugely depressed for reasons not wholly related to the story within the book. It’s pretty standard as far as these things go: Steve Rogers, now back as Captain America, finds out that one of his old comrades from WWII has suddenly reappeared in the present day. The fact that this man, Codename: Bravo (no, really), is back at all is surprising since he was previously stranded in a dimension between reality along with a couple soldiers and some agents of H.Y.D.R.A. Now that he’s out, Codename: Bravo is working with Baron Zemo and the Hydra Queen to bring our world into new dimension.