The focus of this series shifts back to Darryl Lorenz and his squad for this volume as the Zeon forces pursue their own efforts to recapture the tech behind the Psycho Zaku from the Nanyang Alliance. Well, with a side of pillaging to go with the hunting as it’s revealed in the opening chapters that some of the officers overseeing this operation see it as nothing more than a chance to line their own pockets. I’m not sure if this is going to be a recurring plot thread or just a nod to the fact that there will always be bad apples in Zeon in spite of the allegedly honorable ideals they seek to pursue. Nevertheless, the story quickly moves to The Rig, an abandoned oil platform that serves as the black market for the local area. It turns out that a number of disabled veterans have gone missing after arriving at this place, which is an interesting coincidence since the Psycho Zaku requires pilots who have lost several limbs (willingly or otherwise) like Darryl in order to pilot it. The squad’s lead becomes a lot more credible when none other than Claudia Peer shows up on a recruiting mission for Nanyang’s leader, Sojo Levan Fu, and her path finally crosses with that of Darryl’s.
After the revelation that Claudia was still alive and a willing member of the Nanyang Alliance that last development shouldn’t surprise anyone. Much of the volume up to that point is busy laying groundwork by introducing us to The Rig and its culture as well as the other members of Darryl’s squad who are an interesting mix of affable, calculating, surly, and ruthless. It isn’t until late in the volume that things get interesting; specifically, when Claudia acts as a medium for Sojo and realizes who Darryl actually is. The tension ratchets up, in the real world and astral plane, from there as the Nanyang troops move in and Sojo makes his pitch to get Darryl on his side. While the real-world action is skillfully handled, it’s the astral plane meeting that’s the most interesting to observe. That’s because what Sojo is preaching makes a lot of sense and you can tell that Darryl acknowledges this on some level. Then the volume wraps up with a development that somehow manages to bring the drama to a whole new level and sets the stage for an explosive battle in vol. 9.
“Bedlam:” Two volumes.
“Morning Glories:” Ten volumes.
“The Fix:” Three volumes.
What do all of these series have in common? They’re all creator-owned series written by Nick Spencer which are all unlikely to see completion. Apparently writing for Marvel Comics takes up so much of his time that he can’t work with the artists of these series to wrap them up. It’s downright aggravating for a puzzle-box series like “Morning Glories” which kept raising new questions right up until its tenth volume, and only marginally less so for “The Fix” which ends its third volume on a cliffhanger. There was going to be a thirteenth issue to kick off the next arc of this series, but it was cancelled earlier this year and has yet to be re-solicited.
The smart move would’ve been to wrap the series up in this volume. It’s been a fun read thanks to Spencer’s witty writing and Steve Lieber’s expressive art, but its premise of “Isn’t it crazy what these bad cops can get away with?” has always had an uneasy relationship with current events. That continues here as Roy wanders into a prostitution ring run by a (former) horny sitcom grandma, nearly gets auto-erotically asphyxiated, and then tries to pitch the whole experience as a movie. Mac, on the other hand, gets a more heroic arc as he tries to bring his boss’ henchman to justice only to wind up being fodder for the volume’s cliffhanger. This would’ve stung more if I hadn’t gone into this volume feeling that it was going to be the last one after issue #13 was cancelled. As it is, these three volumes are entertaining if your sense of humor aligns with Spencer’s. If you’re looking for a complete story, however, stay the hell away from it -- and any other future creator-owned work from the writer.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm and kicked the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe to the curb, Grand Admiral Thrawn immediately rose to the top of everyone’s lists of characters who they expected to see re-incorporated into this new continuity. It’s not hard to understand why as he was the main antagonist of Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” trilogy which served to reignite fan interest in the franchise during the early 90’s. After the character was featured in the “Rebels” series, Zahn got the chance to write a new novel showcasing Thrawn’s rise to power in the current continuity. This miniseries, from writer Jody Houser and artist Luke Ross, is an adaptation of that novel and while I haven’t read the source material this holds up pretty well on its own.
That’s mainly because we get to see the character in a context where he has to struggle. I always found Thrawn to be a frustrating character to get behind because he was the kind of villain who was always correct in his assumptions and plans. Which left the impression on me that he was the kind of character who succeeds because the plot demands that he does rather than because of his own strength. While that aspect of the character hasn’t really changed here, Zahn and Houser have pitched it against a more worthy adversary: the racism and bureaucracy of the Empire. Thrawn is on an officer’s track in an organization that hates aliens and for all of his tactical genius, he has little facility or interest in playing politics. Seeing the character having to fight battles he wasn’t assured of winning for once went a long way towards making his story engaging here.
It also helps that this miniseries utilizes established characters like Emperor Palpatine and Grand Moff Tarkin well, and gives us some memorable new ones like Thrawn’s aide-de-camp Ensign Vanto. Ross gives the story some appealingly detailed art while keeping the many conversation scenes visually interesting. That latter part is very important since Houser crafts a refreshingly dense script where every issue is almost its own self-contained story and is full of enough detail that it’ll take you longer than an hour to read through the whole thing. “Thrawn” winds up being a great re-introduction to the character, to the point that I’d like to see what Houser and Ross can do with the follow-up novel that Zahn has written.
I didn’t mention this in my review of the latest volume of “Star Wars,” but these two volumes represent a stealth crossover between the two titles. Where “Mutiny at Mon Cala” shows us how the planet and its people came over to the Rebellion’s side, “The Burning Seas” gives us the story of how their initial resistance was snuffed out by the Empire. Led by Darth Vader, of course. While that’s a good setup for this arc, I was pleasantly surprised to find more going on beneath the surface (pun intended) as we find out that the Mon Cala forces are being backed by a Jedi with an agenda of his own. It’s not the kind of agenda I’d expect from a Jedi, which is part of what makes this arc so entertaining. That, in addition to some very dynamic art from Giuseppe Camuncoli that sells the big action sequences, quality political and tactical maneuvering from Moff Tarkin, a clever callback to “Episode III,” and the way writer Charles Soule continues to balance Vader’s indomitable-ness with the story’s need for him to struggle make this another entertaining chapter in what has been a surprisingly enjoyable series.
That’s not all as the collection is rounded off with a couple of one-off stories. The first, from Soule and Camuncoli, shows us how Tarkin has to repay Vader for the favor he owes him from the previous storyline. It involves gathering up a bunch of mercenaries to hunt Vader on a dry and decrepit world. The creators smartly play this story from Tarkin’s perspective and get some good suspense going as Vader methodically whittles down the man’s entourage. In the end, they take the story as far as it can go without actually killing the two, with Tarkin’s interior monologue providing the commentary and eventual explanation as to why all this is going on in the first place. I’d be tempted to write this off as disposable fun, but the level of craft on display from Soule and Camuncoli bring it at least a notch or two above that.
Also, “disposable fun” is a good way to describe the final story from Chuck Wendig (author of the “Star Wars: Aftermath” novels) and artist Leonard Kirk. It plays around in the realm of “Rogue One” as Vader is sent to investigate sabotage against “Project Stardust” on Geonosis. While it initially looks to be the result of a power play between the project’s heads, Tarkin and Orson Krennic, Vader’s investigation leads him to another of the movie’s characters. It doesn’t really add a whole lot to the story we already know or the characters themselves. Though I can still appreciate the efficiency of Wendig’s storytelling and the clarity of Kirk’s art, this isn’t on the same level as the main story and its follow-up in this collection.
If this series sticks to the estimated number of issues the story was planned to run from creators Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, then it should be wrapping up in the next two volumes. You’d expect the series to start ramping up the tension and action as its many players start to converge and make their (usually quite bloody) moves. That’s not what we get with vol.8. It’s a fairly low-key affair that advances several main plot threads in mostly satisfying faction starting with some long-overdue father/son bonding time between Death and Babylon. While the former does his best to impart some personal knowledge about the world -- like they joy of fishing -- he can’t help but feel that the Balloon which has been guiding his son might be up to no good. We also have Crow letting the revolutionaries of the Union know that their revolution will not be televised as the Endless Nation assumes control of their capitol. That’s only a stop on the way to fulfilling his real agenda: Bringing the Message to Armistice. Meanwhile, Hurk the ranger crawls his way back from death to take out the Message’s Chosen, starting with Prince John Freeman.
As always with this series there’s entertainment to be had from simply taking in Hickman’s baroquely eloquent dialogue and Dragotta’s exaggerated sense of design and detail. There’s still that nagging sense that I should be re-reading all the previous volumes before tackling this one, but these storylines still establish enough personal stakes to keep me invested. You can really feel it in scenes like the conversation between Crow and Bodaway which simmer with long-term resentments, which are easy to pick up on but the specifics of which are a little fuzzy. Still, this volume only leaves me with two real complaints: That Death has not fully picked up on the really obvious fact that Balloon is manipulating his son’s perception to his own ends, and the death of a major character on the last page whose body is nowhere to be seen. I’m certain that Hickman will follow up on both of these things as the series heads into its final act, though they’re left to read as annoyances here.
The first few chapters in this volume are set in Belgium and are veeeeeery foreshadow-y. Specifically in regards to what the endgame of this virus might be, and I hope it’s not as much like “The Human Centipede” as it’s made out to be here. Then things finally shift back to Hideo, Oda, and the awakened-and-recovered Hiromi as they work out what to do next. While Oda determines their primary goal to be delivering Hiromi to someone who can examine her and possibly fashion a cure for the ZQN outbreak, they’ve got more immediate concerns. Such as finding more food, getting more ammo for Hideo’s gun, and finding a bath because everyone is really starting to reek after all this time. All of their interests converge in the town of Hakone-Yumoto which has both a gun shop and hot springs! It also has plenty of ZQNs lurking about, but it’s nothing our heroes can’t handle at this point. Especially after Hiromi starts talking about the sense of togetherness she felt with them while she was infected and the sympathy she shows towards a burned-up lurker. Nothing to be worried about there.
I liked the shift in gears for the volume’s first half, which is focused on giving our heroes a moment to catch their breath and recover. Even if the end of the world is upon them, it makes sense that not every minute of their existence would be spent scraping for survival, and that they’d have times like this as well. It also helps set up the back third of the volume, which is one of the most relentlessly suspenseful action sequences of the volume to date. There really is a feeling of impending doom to these chapters, which keeps the scenes with Oda and Hiromi in a hot spring from feeling too fanservice-y. This could be the very last thing they do on Earth after all. While that’s going on we get a moment with Hideo that’s a genuine game-changer, only not for the reasons it immediately appears to be. At this very point, “I Am A Hero” goes full werido in order to give us a better understanding of how the virus works. It’s an insane sequence in a particularly insane part of the series and one that leaves the reader hanging on in pure anticipation as it takes a literal and figurative leap into the unknown.
I was prepared to start this review with an “I think I’m done with this series.” Then I read my review of the previous volume and realized that I should be done with it. In buying physical copies at least. I may follow this in digital form via ComiXology sales just to see how it ends because the series feels like it’s about to wrap up. That said, I’m done giving creators Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky any more money than they deserve for this series.
Sometimes a character in a corporate-owned superhero comic book can change. More often than not they don’t and even when they do change, they’ll usually revert back to type in a couple years. Writer Matthew Rosenberg has found a way to turn this trait to his advantage in this miniseries which, going by its title alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s about Wilson Fisk. He does play a central role in the story, which is actually about a disgraced journalist named Sarah Dewey. She’s been recruited by Fisk to write his biography, an unvarnished look at his criminal history that he hopes will hold him accountable to the public so that he can move on to legitimate pursuits. Except that even when he’s entering the political arena or running a successful charity he’s still the same ruthless, scheming, amoral mastermind who has to have things his way no matter what. Fisk is never going to change and the book is just a ruse to make people think that he has so that he can keep being himself. So on one hand “Born Against” is about a man who has done some awful things trying to appear contrite before the general public in the hopes that they’ll forgive him and allow him to keep doing what he does best. Sounds very timely now that I think about it.
On the other hand, the real main character of this miniseries actually does get to change over the course of its duration. Sarah was created just for this story, which is about how working with Wilson Fisk changes her. We’re introduced to her as she’s trying to make it as a sports writer, having ruined a promising political writing career and marriage as a result of her alcoholism. Enter the former Kingpin, who recognizes her talent and appears to be genuine in his offer of wanting to help Sarah get back on her feet. Except that every little bit of help he offers comes with some small compromise that sees the journalist compromise her moral code just a little bit more each time until the end when… Well, the ending is probably a bit too pat and could’ve used another issue to really show us what Sarah has become after all this. It’s still easy to see how the events of the previous five issues lead to the version of her we’re shown in the final two pages. This was a very unexpected route for a “Kingpin” miniseries to take, but it turns out to be a very worthwhile one.
(And of course Matt Murdock/Daredevil shows up here because it wouldn’t be a proper “Kingpin” miniseries without him. He’s used sparingly, though, and in a way that further helps to underline the moral compromise of Sarah’s character.)
I don’t think that the world was crying out for a third color-coded core “X-Men” title, but here we are. Fortunately the title has a real advantage in that it’s coming to us from writer Tom Taylor after he delivered a very good six-volume run on “All-New Wolverine.” Does Taylor’s first shot at the brass ring for “X-Men” comics deliver? Kind of. It has a good handle on its core cast and a timely story, but one that is also fairly surprise-free and whose agenda of change feels doomed to failure.