Lately, writing out these Previews Picks entries every month has felt more like a grind than a fun diversion from all the reviews I write around here. So this month I’m going to try something new. Below the link are my thoughts on the most notable solicitations from DC, Dark Horse, Image, and Marvel as well as some assorted news stories relating to some of these publishers. This is likely going to be the format for anything Previews-related going forward. If you’ve liked how I’ve given Marvel/DC/Image/Dark Horse their own Previews Picks each month then now would be the time to say something about it either in the comments below or via e-mail.
Aphra’s creator, Kieron Gillen, is credited as a co-writer on this arc, but the story here does feel more like the work of incoming co-writer Si Spurrier. That’s not a bad thing as Spurrier has done some great work at Marvel and other publishers in the past and here he seems to be focused on throwing as much stuff at the title character as possible. For starters, the punnish title which indicates the central conceit of this storyline as Aphra is now under the thumb of murder droid Triple-Zero. While the droid isn’t exactly being vindictive about his time spent calling Aphra “master” he’s certainly not above putting her in some very sticky moral situations that leave a lot more people dead than the good doctor is comfortable with. One of these situations has her crossing paths with disgraced Imperial officer Magna Tolvan who finds a new purpose (and more) when she makes pursuing Aphra her priority.
The good news is that Spurrier acquits himself well as the new writer on this title. He’s leaving his genre-deconstructuralist tendencies behind and concentrates on making Aphra’s corner of the “Star Wars” universe one of the more appreciatively weirder and offbeat ones. Expect to see a glib multi-armed assassin, to a probability droid whose mind is always blown, to data storage facility where the Empire keeps all of its research products that were too crazy for mass production, and the destructive power of the phrase “Snugglebum Oogiewoogie.” Yes, this volume of “Aphra” is as crazy as “Star Wars” gets these days and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
My only real issue with this volume is that the writers are guilty of throwing almost too much stuff into a single storyline. To the point where all of the character, action, quirk, and plot twists start to feel like a bit too much for a single arc. I’m also left feeling that bringing Triple-Zero back and in this particular role feels “too soon” after the events of the previous volume. Still, too much ambition is a better sin to have than too little and the art from Emilio Laiso is fantastic. He’s got an impressive eye for detail and has a real knack for imaginative creature and mech designs. Not the smoothest handoff as far as shifts in writers go, but still one that shows “Doctor Aphra” to be in very good hands.
What’s new in the land of “Kamuy?” Sugimo and Asirpa have just pulled the latest convict with a tattooed skin out of the sea at a fishing village. Unfortunately for them, they don’t know that he’s the man they want or that he’s a serial killer with a death wish. While he’ll kill a man at a drop of a hat to keep his identity safe, this guy just wants an epic death and he thinks Sugimoto is the man to give it to him. While the series maintains its breakneck pace through this section, aided in part by the surprise appearance of Lieutenant Tsurumi, it also gets queasy assist from the killer’s overtly sexual response to the thought of being killed by Sugimoto and a ludicrous boost when a killer whale gets involved in the action towards the end. Whether or not these things constitute positive additions to the story will likely depend on the reader’s tolerance for such things.
Much easier to appreciate is what comes next as the story goes back to Asirpa’s village to show us what awaits soldier Tanigaki now that he’s mostly recuperated from his injuries. That would be the arrival of two fellow soldiers who believe that he may know something about the anti-Lieutenant Tsurumi conspiracy they’re involved in. This leads to a series of tense strategic showdowns as Tanigaki has to figure out how to get out of the village and take out a sniper who’s just as good as he is with only one bullet. It’s good stuff and that’s even before the bear gets involved in the conflict.
While it’s nice to see that mangaka Satoru Noda can hold the reader’s interest when he shifts the focus entirely away from his protagonists, he does circle back around to them by the end for some key revelations. The minor one being Asirpa’s Japanese name, and the major one being her connection to Noppera-Bo -- the thief who stole the gold everyone’s after from the Ainu in the first place. This sets up what looks to be a very promising storyline as our crew is going to have to break into a jail to get some answers. With the help of no one less than the biggest goofball in the series, of course.
It was a fun idea while it lasted. I’m talking about the idea of Laura Kinney assuming the mantle of Wolverine during the run of this title. After this volume she’ll be back to being X-23 in a title of the same name from a different creative team. Honestly, that development is more than a little disappointing. Having Laura assume Wolverine’s mantle felt like a step forward for the character. One that showed she could replace an A-list character, but do so on her own terms. All that’s over with after this volume, which wraps up writer Tom Taylor’s run. Though you might not be expecting things to be at their best with the writer attempting to put his own spin on another… *ahem* classic Mark Millar “Wolverine” story, it managed the neat trick of exceeding my expectations.
After the previous volume my biggest concern with this one was “How is the art going to turn out?” To my surprise, things are actually better this time around. It appears that artist Salvador Larroca and colorist GURU-eFX have decided to double-down on making the human characters (and those humans who were also in the movies) look as realistic as their techniques will allow. While some faces still come off looking like they’ve been pasted onto the art, their efforts actually mesh better with the overall art here more often than not. I still wish that they’d just ditch this approach entirely as Larroca shows here that he can deliver perfectly appropriate alien faces without the “enhancements” that have been applied to the human ones. His design sense and action work are also still on form here as the scenes of the water ballet performance on Mon Cala look great and the big spaceship battle that closes out the volume is impressively epic.
Even better news is that while there were some rocky bits in the storytelling in “The Ashes of Jedha,” “Mutiny at Mon Cala” shows writer Kieron Gillen perfectly on form here. The storyline concerns the efforts of the Rebellion to recruit the Mon Calamari to their cause, and while we all know how that’s going to turn out the actual mechanics of it are pretty entertaining to observe. They involve (in no particular order) the kidnapping and impersonation of Mon Cala’s Imperial Moff, an undersea jailbreak to rescue royalty, the unexpected return of Leia’s guardian Bail Organa, C-3P0’s performing arts debut, and Queen Trios of Shu-Torun proving her loyalty to the Rebellion. It’s a great heist story that also manages to effortlessly work in the kind of witty asides that Gillen loves to pepper his work with. “Mutiny at Mon Cala” was basically everything that I was expecting from his and Larroca’s run on this title when it was announced and it builds things up in just the right way for hope to die in the next volume.
While I liked the first volume of this title well enough, the second one leaves me feeling that this storyline has a real big problem to it. It’s not in how Charles Soule handles his large ensemble. He gets the characters more or less right and divides up the action so that no one of them feels neglected over the course of the volume. Neither is it in the six different artists who each handle a single issue in this collection. While they may lack the star power of those who contributed to the first volume, the reality-shifting nature of the threat posed by Proteus actually makes the artistic chaos work for the story rather than against it. The reasonably conventional styles of Phil Noto and Paolo Siqueria give way to the reality-bending work of Matteo Buffagni and (most impressively) Aco as Proteus makes his bid to give the people of the world what they want and the phantasmagorical hell that results from it. Ron Garney and Gerardo Sandoval then go on to split the difference as they bring the story to a close. A story that is ultimately about the return of Professor X, which is not a problem in itself either.
No, the biggest problem with Soule’s storyline is that he introduces a major new character in the returned Xavier, now calling himself X, and basically decides to let the creative community figure out what to do with him. X is the mind of Charles Xavier in the relinquished body of Fantomex and he doesn’t come off as anything like the Professor who founded and mentored the X-Men over the years. In fact, due to a last-page twist in the eleventh issue it’s really hard to say how much of his actual character we’re seeing in these issues. While Soule gets some credit for not simply bringing Xavier back wholesale and for trying to find a new angle on his character, his motives and purpose are left frustratingly opaque at the end of this volume. What Soule should’ve done is stick around for another twelve issues and given us (and by extension the creative community at Marvel) his take on what the character’s new dream is and how he’s going to interact with the other mutants out there. Unless someone actually sits down and does this kind of dirty work don’t expect X to have a very long or memorable shelf life as a character.
Enter Yu Ishigami! The student council’s elusive treasurer finally makes his appearance in Kaguya-Sama: Love is War vol. 3 and proves to be a worthy addition to the core cast. He’s a gloomy otaku with a gift for number crunching and an unfortunate knack for saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. The fact that we’re introduced to him expressing his fears that Kaguya wants to kill him (after he unwittingly foiled a few of her schemes to get closer to Shirogane) should tell you all you need to know about him. Ishigami’s appearance, along with the expanded presence of Kaguya’s personal assistant Hayasaca, also heralds a shift in the status quo that takes “Kaguya-sama” from relying on a will-they-or-won’t-they rom-com formula to being a genuine ensemble comedy. That’s not to say that the rom-com shenanigans haven’t stopped being funny yet as bits like the mind games Kaguya and Shirogane engage in to determine who actually forgot their umbrella on a rainy day and who is using it as a ploy to get closer to the other person that open the volume are comedy gold.
Meanwhile, over in Silver Spoon vol. 3, Hachiken is wrapping up his summer vacation over at Mikage’s farm. This includes the creation of memories both happy (quality time with Mikage, lots of good food) and not so much (the unexpected arrival of his insufferable brother, a massive milk spill). Yet with them comes payment for the hard work he did on the farm and the decision of what to do with it. Hachiken wants to use the money for a good purpose, but it’s not clear yet if his decision will bring him any happiness. Though the volume is rife with wackiness and slapstick, seen most prominently when the Ezo Ag students descend like locusts upon a local festival’s food stalls, it’s balanced out by these quieter moments when Hachiken tries to figure out what to do with his life. That these sharply contrasting tones can coexist as well as they do in this manga is a testament to mangaka Hiromu Arakawa’s talent, and seeing her pull it off is all the reason I need to keep reading it.
In the wake of the “Hydra Cap” storyline and “Secret Empire’s” uh… decidedly mixed reception, it’s safe to say that Marvel felt Captain America’s image could use a little rehabilitation. But what creative team could be trusted with the task of getting Cap back to his old heroic standard? That would turn out to be the team supreme of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. While Waid is responsible for what was probably best received run on “Cap” back in the 90’s, it was his work with Samnee on “Daredevil” and the underappreciated “Black Widow” that showed they can do no wrong while working at Marvel. So it’s no surprise that they were given “Captain America” both to let fans know that they’d be getting a take on the character they could believe in and to mark time while Ta-Nehisi Coates prepared his run with Lenil Yu.
Ok, so it turns out that the trans-dimensional crisis involving the monsters streaming from magical portals in the absence of Wakanda’s gods is genuine. Klaw showing up with a hard-light hologram machine at the end of the previous volume was just his way of trying to cash in on the current crisis to troll his longtime foe T’Challa. So now Wakanda finds itself fighting a war on two fronts with magical enemies on one side and supervillains on the other. And the Dora Milaje are becoming restless after being told that they can’t go rescue one of their own who was captured by Klaw in the previous volume. The odds might seem particularly dire for the nation of Wakanda at the moment, but that’s only because the Black Panther is waiting for the right time to make his move.
While Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run has lacked the fun of seeing T’Challa as the manipulative mastermind who was three steps ahead of everyone in Christopher Priest’s classic run, this volume comes the closest yet to capturing it. Seeing how Black Panther deals with the Dora Milaje situation and disclose the real reason he got Storm involved in this conflict are the kind of clever and, in one case, morally ambiguous moves that I like seeing from the character. This volume is also helped out by some very lively art from Leonard Kirk for most of its run (Chris Sprouse ably chips in for an issue in the middle) and he turns out to be the perfect choice to energize the actual fighting in this three-sided conflict. His handling of the silent action sequence with Aneka is aces too.
Where the volume falls down is in its use of Klaw. His history with Wakanda and T’Challa specifically makes him an ideal big bad, but he feels largely peripheral to the conflict. You almost get the feeling that his presence was something editorially dictated rather than organically implemented. Then you have the fact that the real big bad is someone who comes out of nowhere and is a VERY deep “X-Men” villain cut likely to prompt a response of “Who is this?” in the reader and the climax basically falls apart. I dunno, I’ve given this series plenty of chances so maybe I should just stop here. Or will excellent new artist Daniel Acuna illustrating the Interdimensional Empire of Wakanda finally (FINALLY) get this series to live up to its potential?