I didn’t realize it until reading this volume, but I screwed up when compiling my “Best of 2017” list. For reasons that I cannot explain, the brilliance of “Happiness” vol. 4 managed to slip my mind when I was putting things together. It stings even more because mangaka Shuzo Oshimi manages some really impressive tricks with this volume. Not only does she manage to craft an engaging and even suspenseful story while sidelining many of the core elements of the series up until now, but there’s even a real moment of genuine horror to be found here too.
With “The Defenders” getting their own show on Netflix, it was inevitable that we’d get a new comic which teams up Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Daredevil. That the comic is coming from a writer, Bendis, who has experience writing all of them is definitely a plus as is the fact that it’s being illustrated by the phenomenal David Marquez. With all these things in its favor it’s disappointing that this first volume didn’t turn out better than it did.
Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo wrap up their run on this title in the same weird, queasily funny, and strangely (pun intended) violent way they came into it. The stakes are high, though, as we’re picking up from the previous volume’s cliffhanger which had Mr. Misery -- the living embodiment of Strange’s pain and suffering -- possessing Wong with the intent to turn him against his best friend. Which he does by getting information on several surviving brain cancer patients that were operated on by the Doctor and having their cancers grow back -- with a vengeance.
I think Mark Waid’s strengths as a writer lie in character development and a willingness to subvert convention when necessary. These are the things that made his run on “Daredevil” so great after all. With “Champions” it’s all about channelling a youthful spirit of rebellion and that’s something he hasn’t quite nailed here. To his credit, I imagine it’s pretty hard to write a story about fighting back against the established social order in a comic book that’s part of a corporate-owned superhero universe. Which is why the stories here which focus on that, by way of an anti-Champions team -- The Freelancers -- who fight for corporate interests and the fallout from the team’s logo being trademarked and merchandised to ruin their street cred, come off as you’d expect and feel out of touch as a result. The parts of this volume which fare the best are when the kids are either hanging out with each other and having fun. Either during a paintball game, a movie night, teaming up with a new local hero, or watching out for young Scott Summers after he learns to cut loose after being blasted by the Psycho-Man’s emotion box.
Mention of this is buried in the text box on the back of the volume, but this volume also contains a couple tie-in issues to “Secret Empire.” The first is fine in that it has the team headed to an Inhuman relocation camp in New Mexico and running into some problems when not everyone wants to leave. As for the second, it focuses on the emotional toll the Champions endure when they take part in the rescue operation in the wake of Hydra’s destruction of Las Vegas. Much as the issue tries to sell you on this being an emotionally draining task, it’s hard to be too involved since you know that the city was restored to its former glory like nothing happened at the end of the crossover. Humberto Ramos does strong work here, as well as for the volume as a whole. While Waid’s writing may be uneven here, Ramos’ energy continues to be perfect for a story about kids who have the passion to try and change the world. Even if that is kind of a fruitless goal when you live in the Marvel Universe.
Vol. 2 left off on a pretty great cliffhanger where Sugimoto was being beaten and stabbed by twin soldiers while in the custody of Lt. Tsurumi. The resolution as to how he manages to get out of this situation is the best part of the volume. It involves a greased-up “Escape King” Shiraishi, some quick gutsy thinking, and a horse-driven sled chase through town. Pretty thrilling stuff all told. It follows that up with an I-honestly-can’t-believe-they-did-that moment involving a horse that I should probably cite as a trigger warning for fans of that animal. Things get less objectionable after that as Asirpa reluctantly-but-finally gives miso a chance and Hijikata makes his move against another tattoo-wearer, showing what a ruthless badass this old man is in the process.
So yeah, the first half of this volume is crammed with lots of good stuff once you get past that business with the horse. Things slow down a lot in the back half as Sugimoto, Asirpa, and Shiraishi are drawn into conflict with one Tetsuzo Nihei, legendary bear hunter and tattoo-wearer. While our protagonists’ interest in him is obvious, Nihei’s agenda is also going to pit him against them. See, he’s out here to hunt a legendary giant white wolf -- Asirpa’s guardian Retar, as we know him -- and through an amazing coincidence he’s managed to partner with someone who has a good reason to hold a grudge against the young Ainu girl and the immortal soldier. What we get here is mostly setup, mixed in with the usual Ainu cultural lessons, and it really doesn’t start catching fire until the very end. A good volume overall, even if it sags a bit in the middle.
For the first round of collections from the current flagship titles of the “X-Men” line, the win went to “Gold.” It didn’t exactly do anything new with the characters or its storytelling, but it did serve them up in a pleasingly familiar way which served as a welcome dose of nostalgia. The first volume of “Blue,” on the other hand, came off as a blander take on the “All-New X-Men” roster. I was expecting these trends to continue for their second volumes. What I wound up getting was a much improved version of “Blue” and a “Gold” that was more boring than I had reason to expect.
You know, I thought that Wizord’s arc for this series was going to be a standard redemption one but now I’m not so sure. There’s a lot here in “Explosiontown” which suggests that while he’s come to like our world and enjoy being a part of it, he’s still the same bastard he was back in the Hole World. From his attempts to get Ruby Stitch to be on his side, torments of walking French joke Jacque Zaque, bullying of the president (whose familiarity I finally realized here is not a coincidence), and casual indifference to the fact that the way he regains power in this world involves actually taking people’s beliefs, I’m not seeing a lot in the way of redemption here. Sure, Wizord realizes at one point that he’s acting exactly the same as he would back in the Hole World where he was constantly trying to curry his master Sizzajee’s favor. He immediately changes his approach because he recognizes that Sizzajee is THE BAD GUY and Wizord doesn’t want to be that here. So while our protagonist isn’t actually working towards redemption, writer Charles Soule may be onto something more interesting here. Namely, what happens when an utter bastard with magical powers tries to play nice with his adopted world?
In addition to this, Soule also manages a lot of fun worldbuilding throughout the course of the volume. We get to see a lot more of the group of wizards working under Sizzajee in the Hole World and they’re an enjoyably self-centered group of bastards with their own agendas at play. There’s also a very deranged take on baseball which they use to settle disputes, and in the holiday special we get to see how they curry Sizzajee’s favor and how Wizord and Ruby Stitch became a couple. It was also nice to see some effort being made to turn the above-mentioned French joke into a proper character, with some actual Wizord-fueled tragedy in his background and some setup to turn him into a key player in the story for the next volume. While this isn’t going to match the insanity of Soule or artist Ryan Browne’s -- who again turns in work which is as inspired as it is deranged -- other creator-owned work, it’s working really well on its own terms and is also a clear step up from the first volume too.
Does the second volume of this “Fables” spin-off make me sad that we’re not going to see any more of it? Not really. Most of this volume is the same kind of fine approximation of the original series that the first one managed, with a weird but serious detour into examining how hope can emerge from a warped power fantasy. It starts when three bullied nerds get their hands on some magical artifacts and take an entire school hostage. How did they get these artifacts? One of them is the son of Inola Tanner, the operative of the shadowy organization known as Acquisitions seen in the previous chapter, and they came from the secret collection she’s been keeping from her bosses. Not wanting to turn to them because of that, she contacts Feathertop who brings in the Shadow Players to try and set everything right.
The best part about this volume is the prologue chapter which introduces us to budding warlock Robert Speckland and, like the one-off story from the previous chapter, comes the closest to capturing the spirit of the original series. That’s due partly to the outlandishness of the story itself, which at one point has a magically powered car chasing Baba Yaga’s house up a beanstalk, but is mainly the result of being illustrated by regular “Fables” artist Mark Buckingham. His work is a reminder of the good old days and that counts for a lot here.
As for the main arc of “The Unsentimental Education,” it’s perfectly fine when it sticks to what’s going on outside of the school with the hostage situation. There’s lots of madcap action, some clever uses of powers, and an ending that wraps things up about as well as could be expected in this situation. Where it goes wrong is in the issue that spotlights what’s going on inside the school after a magical mistake causes time to pass much faster inside than outside. The kind of civilization that emerges from the kind of power-trip scenario that birthed it is as disturbing as you’d expect. This is the part of the volume that will stick with you the most, which is too bad that writers Dave Justus and Lilah Sturges mostly fail to develop it further after its spotlight issue. So while vol. 2 isn’t completely without merit it solidly marks the whole “Everafter” endeavor as one for the completists.