Best comic I'll read this year? Biggest disappointment I've experienced in ages? Or somewhere in between. My thoughts on the final volume of my favorite ongoing series.
The text on the back of this volume spells out its appeal in succinct detail: “The bailiff takes one up his ass.” It’s no secret that the series has been building to the takedown of this character. Anything less would’ve had its audience riot in the street, small as it is. So let me say that while his fate doesn’t quite match up to the gold standard for bastard deaths -- that would be what happened to Shira over in “Blade of the Immortal” -- it’s still quite satisfying. The only thing is that even though Wolfram is dealt with here, the series is set to continue on. How does a series which has been about one thing up to this point shift its focus to tell another story?
Writing the first issue of a new comic is one of the most difficult things a writer can do in this industry. There’s the establishment of the core cast, setting up and then upending the established status quo, and providing a compelling hook that has the reader coming back for the second issue. A good first issue buys you the opportunity for your comic to succeed, and a comic may never find its audience if it debuts with one that simply just “okay.” I mention this because Brian Vaughan has shown over the years that he is REALLY good with first issues. Remember the moment when we found out that Yorick Brown was the last man on Earth in “Y: The Last Man?” Or when it was revealed that Mitchell Hundred had prevented one of the twin towers from collapsing in “Ex Machina?” Even if I’m not as big a fan of it as everyone else, there’s no denying that “Saga” wouldn’t have become the phenomenon it is without that great first issue.
I mention this because Vaughan is giving us a new first issue in these latest solicitations. His new series, with artist Steve Skroce, is called “We Stand on Guard” and is set 100 years in the future. It involves the brave rebels of one country fighting off the giant robot army of another. So far, so good. The thing is that the country with the rebels is Canada, and the invading robot army belongs to the U.S.A. When I heard this, the setup alone made me want to read more. Given Vaughan’s track record, I doubt I’m alone in expecting this to be really good. At least in his case, we’ll know for sure once the first issue hits in July.
It’s been rumored for a while now, but the third “Dark Knight” series is officially a reality. Subtitled “The Master Race,” it will be serialized as an eight-issue miniseries, bi-weekly starting later this year. Frank Miller will again be writing and illustrating this series and that by itself doesn’t really bode well for it. Following “The Dark Knight Strikes Again” and “All-Star Batman and Robin” which can be best described as “entertainingly awful,” and “Holy Terror,” which is just plain awful, it would seem that we can safely assume that anything associated with the creator won’t actually be any good.
That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for one thing. Brian Azzarello is going to be co-writing the series with Miller. This isn’t an entirely surprising development: The fact that “DK3” would have a co-writer has come up before. Frankly, I was hoping that the rumor of it being Scott Snyder with Sean Murphy as an artist was going to be true. With Azzarello… I honestly don’t know what to expect. It’s hard to pin down what to expect from the writer on his superhero projects as he always tries to serve them up in a way that you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes this works out really well, as in the case with his “Wonder Woman” run. Other times, as with “Batman” and “Superman,” the results aren’t as effective. All it means is that there’s the possibility for “DK3” to actually turn out to be a worthy sequel. It’s a freak chance at this point, which is still better than no chance at all.
Kieron Gillen so flawlessly defined this latest incarnation of the title character over the course of “Journey Into Mystery” and “Young Avengers,” that the idea of another writer chronicling his solo adventures sounded like a recipe for disaster. In one of those instances where I’m quite happy to be wrong, Al Ewing effortlessly picks up where Gillen left off. Still doing odd, off-the-books jobs for the Asgardia Triumvirate, their current deal is that for every successful mission one of Loki’s past crimes will be erased from history. Right now his current assignment is rounding up a couple of Asgard’s wayward children: Lorelei the seductress, and Sigurd the (not all that great) hero. It’s part of a journey that will take him to Avengers Tower, Monte Carlo, a mountain in Tibet, and some of the most heavily guarded cells in Asgard. Yet even as he does Asgardia’s bidding, the God of Mischief is ever furthering his own agenda. Except, could this be the one time that the people pulling his strings have his best interests in mind as they try to shield Loki from… himself?
Ewing provides some twisty plotting in the five issues (and a prologue) collected here that form the first part of an even knottier story. I know that I said the writer’s work on “Original Sin: Thor & Loki” made me want to check out this series. After finally reading this first volume, I regret not doing it sooner. Comparisons to the previous writer aside, Ewing really nails Loki’s quick wit, cleverness, and penchant for self-destruction. He also comes up with a winning foil to the character in Verity, a woman who can see through any lie. We also get the perfect villain in Old Loki. Yes, his very presence suggests that the hoops our Loki has jumped through in order to reinvent himself are all for naught, but… he is Loki after all. It’s more a question of just what kind of scheme he’s running here. All of this is great, and the art from Lee Garbett is fine. The visuals aren’t mind-blowing, yet they’re easy enough on the eye and his character work is quite good. This is a great start for a series that is set to wrap up in another couple months. No matter. I’m already under the impression we’ll be getting one of those runs that’s good from beginning to end.
Arriving just in time for the new “Avengers” movie is Marvel’s latest original graphic novel. Its title isn’t just a pun on the movie’s, it’s a key part of the book’s plot as it deals with the tortured familial relationship between Hank Pym and his creation, Ultron, with some angst from Vision thrown in as well. The plot itself is pretty standard issue, as it opens with the Avengers taking on the title character an unspecified amount of years ago and shooting him into space. After that iteration of the android winds up on Titan and terraforms it into Planet Ultron, he comes back looking to settle the score with his dear old dad. This is the least successful part of the book as the threat of Ultron to all life in the universe is pitched really high and not given enough space to be fully developed. It’s hard to be concerned about the fate of everything when it’s mostly a background detail in the story.
Then again, the focus of writer Rick Remender’s narrative isn’t on that galactic threat. It’s about Pym coming to terms with what has become his most enduring creation as well as the doubt that has plagued his character for years. That narrow scope serves the tale well, as do the sparks that fly when he buts heads with Vision over how A.I.s should be treated. It’s a solid action-packed adventure that plays to the better side of the writer’s tics and features a genuine status-quo shift for the characters of Pym and Ultron. Granted, said twist does make the story feel like little more than a prelude for the one which will be spun out of it.
“Rage of Ultron” also looks great, thanks to the work of Jerome Opena, an artist who knows how to make an action scene look compelling on the page, and produce some imaginative visuals. The scenes of Planet Ultron unveiled are real showstoppers. The funny thing is that even though this is an OGN that has been in the works since last year, it also features fill-in art from Pepe Larraz at certain points. Larraz does a decent enough job of maintaining stylistic consistency with Opena, but I’m left wondering what went wrong in the production of this graphic novel to warrant his involvement. That issue aside, this is one of the better Marvel OGNs and the most stand-alone, new-reader-friendly “Avengers” story out there if you’re looking to read one after seeing the movie.
Strip the covers off of your (first print) copies of “Star Wars #1,” send them in to Dark Horse, and get a free variant cover of their new “Barb Wire” series. It was the “April Fool’s” joke that wasn’t. I’d call it schadenfreude, but it really isn’t. Anyway, with over a million copies in circulation I imagine that there are plenty of copies to go around for any retailer who wants as many of these variant covers as they can get their hands on. It’s also a good cover too! Profanity aside, Adam Hughes can usually be counted on to produce a quality cover and this is certainly one of his better efforts. I like the visual physics of Barb’s kick to the thug’s groin, but it’s the expression on one of the guys behind her that really makes the image work.
Will I pick it up? Not likely. I mean, it’s still “Barb Wire” after all. Good cover, though.
Real progress towards sorting out the Goridian’s Knot of Madarame’s love life by the end of the volume. You’ll have to wade through a lot of waffling on the cast’s part to get there, though. That’s because ComiFest time has arrived again and everyone who is not Ogiue (she’s busy prepping her own doujinshi for sale) is getting ready to buy all of the fan-made comics they can at the convention. Hato is too, except that this time he’s sworn off picking up any BL (Boy’s Love) manga this time out. Realizing that the more he indulges in this particular fantasy, the stronger his feelings for Madarame become, the fudanshi decides to quit cold turkey before things get any more complicated. Meanwhile, American otaku Angela returns to stir the pot even more, Yajima makes an indirect play for Hato, and Kohsaka outlines the four romantic possibilities for Madarame.
Yes, we’ve got ourselves a real otaku soap opera here. I don’t mind the relationship drama all that much as the characters have been fleshed out quite well over these six (fifteen, in some cases) volumes. In short, Madarame is clueless and not assertive enough to allow this situation to escalate as it does in a reasonably believable fashion. That doesn’t stop me from thinking that he deserves to suffer that particular injury again at the end of this volume. A friend of mine pointed out a while back that Madarame is effectively stuck in a dating/hentai game scenario, and it’s made explicitly clear that’s what mangaka Shimoku Kio is going for here. It’s certainly interesting to see something like that play out in a grounded setting that isn’t all about male wish fulfillment, but it also underlines the current problem with this series: There’s a solid Madarame story here, yet not so much for everyone else. Everything in this volume revolves around this particular thread and anyone who isn’t directly involved in it winds up being shunted into the background. It makes for a focused story, to be sure. Yet you’d think that it would progress a lot faster than it does here with that kind of focus.
Wait, didn’t I just do a roundup of my Image backlog yesterday? Yes I did, but this title is a special case. Though I’ve enjoyed a lot of comics that Rick Remender has written over the years, he’s also managed to write one that I gave up on after following it for a little while: “Fear Agent.” That was a morose, depressing yarn whose protagonist is ground down at every possible opportunity masquerading as a rollicking, two-fisted sci-fi action adventure story. Though it’s clear that Remender is bigger on grinding down his characters than building them up, he has managed to make that aspect of his writing just more palatable in his work for Marvel. Being reined in by the constraints of working in a corporate superhero universe likely means you can only grind down a character so far before you’re required to build them back up again, I suppose. It’s been a concern of mine that this aspect of his writing would overwhelm his Image titles. Fortunately “Black Science” and “Deadly Class” have managed to (mostly) dodge that particular bullet. Not “Low,” however. Amazing art aside, this title is pretty much everything I’ve been worried about seeing in Remender’s latest creator-owned work.