The first round of testing for the First-Class Mage exam has begun. All that the teams involved have to do is capture a Stille and make sure all of their members are still alive by sunset the following day. This sounds simple, but the Stille is a bird that can fly at supersonic speed and sense the slightest amount of mana without giving off any itself. If that wasn’t bad enough, Frieren has been teamed up with two troublesome girls, Lawine and Kanne. They’re ice and water mages, respectively, and they tend to get on like cats and dogs more often than not. So Frieren is going to have to manage them in addition to the requirements of the test itself if she is to have any shot at becoming a First-Class Mage. Oh, and did I mention the other teams who are also looking for Stilles? While some of them are perfectly willing to hunt the bird on their own terms, others aren’t above a bit of theft or outright murder to get what they want.
This isn’t quite as good as the demon arc that straddled volumes two and three, but it’s easily the second-best one in the series so far. Writer Kanehito Yamada not only lays out the stakes quite well, but he also does a good job of throwing in little twists as the story goes on. The writer also fleshes out a decent portion of the competing parties and comes up with a nice diversity of motivations for why they’ve all entered this competition, in addition to making them more than just ciphers we want to see Frieren (and Fern) succeed against. It’s very solid work that wraps up before the end of this volume, leaving us with two chapters of fluff that give us even more insight into these new characters. As well as set up the next round of testing, which is to be administered by a mage who has had no one pass her tests before! Any takers on the over/under for how long it’ll take Frieren to pass it?
Dark Web #1
Yup, it’s another Marvel event. It’s not one of the big line-wide ones, however, just a smaller crossover between some characters who haven’t been interacting all that much in recent years. I’m talking about Spider-Man and the X-Men who are coming together to take on a threat that has bedeviled both of their franchises for years now: Clones! “Dark Web” has both Ben Reilly, now going by “Chasm” and the Goblin Queen, a.k.a. Madeline Pryor, teaming up so they can take back what they believe was stolen from them. This is coming to us courtesy of current “Amazing Spider-Man” writer, former “Hellions” writer, and the Goblin Queen’s #1 fan Zeb Wells. He’s done great work on all of those titles, so I’m looking forward to what he’s going to do with this team-up. Better still is that this issue features art from Adam Kubert while the “Amazing” issues that continue the story are illustrated by Ed McGuinness. So it’s going to have great art all around, including this most relevant of tie-in miniseries…
Lazarus vol. 7
I know what you’re thinking, “They’re still publishing this?” They certainly are even though I can’t blame anyone for letting this title fall off their radars. Pandemic plus Quarterly Publishing Schedule hasn’t done Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s future dystopia series any favors. I’m glad to know that we’re finally getting a new volume, though. Vol. 6, while not exactly what you would call upbeat, involved most of the characters I like in “Lazarus” actually coming out ahead for once. That includes series protagonist Forever Carlyle, who once again proved her worth to the Carlyle family, while also working with its eldest daughter to change what it represents. Oh, and also getting to meet herself at the end of the volume. No sarcasm here: I’m actually pretty sure that’s going to work out well for everyone involved. Can’t wait to see exactly how in December.
Hmmmm… In light of recent events, I think I’m going to have to re-title the next edition of this.
Delver vol. 2
I thought that the first volume of this series offered an interesting perspective on the fantasy trope of a dungeon crawl, with some surprisingly intense action to go along with it. It just needed some better art to really make it stand out. The series is returning with its second volume in February, so we’ll see if artist Clive Hawken has stepped up his game by then. In the meantime, co-writers MK Reed and C. Spike Trotman are set to continue the adventures of Merit and Clem now that they’ve emerged from the Dungeon to find out that their hamlet of Oddgoat has now become a bustling town. How does this change things for them? Will they seek their fortune in the Dungeon again? Does the talk of empire and colonization in the solicitation text suggest that “Delver” is going to turn into a series with a Message? We’ll see about all of these, though I’m most interested in checking out how the economics of dungeon crawling have changed for our protagonists.
Tales From Earth-6: A Celebration of Stan Lee
I’m putting this here for the sheer nerve it represents. Next year would have been Stan Lee’s 100th birthday and DC is getting the jump on Marvel in celebrating it. How? The only way they can: Revisiting the “Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe” series of books the legendary comic creator did for the publisher back in the early aughts where he reimagined classic DC characters. Despite Lee’s status and the massive amount of talent that contributed to these books (Jim Lee! John Cassaday! Adam Hughes! Chris Bachalo! A whole lot more!), the whole thing was mostly met with a shrug. “Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe” was a thing that happened and that seems to be the most anyone can say about it.
Outside of a few references, such as in “Multiversity” where the property’s status as Earth-6 was established, the whole project has mostly been forgotten by time. Which is why I can’t see this as anything more than a move to throw a little shade at Marvel. There’s a decent amount of talent attached to it (including Mark Waid, Kevin Maguire, Jerry Ordway, Becky Cloonan, and more) which means that there’s a chance these stories will turn out well. In fact, now that I think about it, I probably will see about picking this and the two volumes that collect all of Stan Lee’s stories. Seeing whether or not they’re actually any good might make for an interesting podcast.
There’s a lot of stuff that happens in the first four chapters of this volume. Oran and Oba have what appears to be a final encounter. Miura goes on TV to let everyone know that the alien mothership is going to explode in a few hours. Hiroshi tries to get out of the city while leaving a final message to his sister. Ikeda, the soldier who has popped up a few times over the course of this series, starts to question whether the orders he’s been given are correct. Oran and Kadode also reaffirm their bond to each other with the latter telling the former she’ll be on her side regardless of whether or not the world is against her. Smooches may also be involved in that last part.
Then Chapter 86 rolls around and a lot of this stuff appears to become inconsequential.
Not to give too much away but mangaka Inio Asano flexes his visual storytelling skills in big ways that convey destruction in equal parts breathtaking and heartbreaking nature. It and the two chapters that follow represent some of the most indelible scenes I’ve read in comics all year as the level of illustrative detail matches the emotional content involved. It’s a turning point for the series as it heads into its final act, with only two volumes left and one more surprise. Which is of the, “I didn’t believe I’d ever see THAT character in the present day!” variety.
Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough, we get what looks to be the final installment of “Isobeyan” in this volume as well. While these “Doraemon”-esque shorts have tended to be of the dark enough to ruin your day variety, this one… is not. Perhaps sensing that his audience would need some kind of uplift after the events of vol. 11 proper, Asano decided to send this series out on a surprisingly heartwarming note without betraying the core tenets of “Isobeyan” so far.
You’d think it’d be enough trying to follow up one era-defining Marvel run, while also managing multiple creator-owned titles, for Donny Cates. As you can see here, it’s not. After following up Jason Aaron’s legendary run on “Thor,” he’s now taking up the reins on “Hulk” from Al Ewing. (Who, coincidentally along with Ram V, is following up from Cates on “Venom.”) If you’re worried that the writer may be stretching himself too thin here, don’t be. Even if this first volume sees the writer re-using one of his favorite storytelling devices in the Marvel Universe, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff going on here. In addition to the gloriously over-the-top art from Ryan Ottley.
There is rot in the valley. First it came from the Bandit King, whose reign of terror cowed the hearts of many, save five who sought the power to defeat him. Power that came from the martial arts teachings of a lone master who taught them aspects of his art under the condition that they return to complete their training. These five used this knowledge to defeat the Bandit King, but they never returned. Now, their once noble aims have become corrupted because they refused to finish their training and these five have become an even greater threat than the one they vanquished. Enter Orphan Mo, the adopted daughter of the master who has been charged with bringing an end to their menace by any means necessary.
“Orphan and the Five Beasts” is James Stokoe doing a fantasy martial-arts epic. Do I need to say any more?
Okay, fine. The creator is one of the best artists who’s also pretty good with the stories he tells as well. Here, he takes his meticulously detailed style and gives us a setting and setup that feels like it could’ve come from the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. Along with the action as well. That’s the real draw of this volume as Stokoe choreographs some incredible fights between Orphan Mo and two of the five beasts: Thunderthighs and Chopper Teng. Both are uniquely disturbing monsters with their own style and make for impressive threats for the title character to pit her skills against.
While the action is unimpeachable, Orphan Mo herself comes off as more of a cipher than an actual character. All we know about her is that she’s a badass martial artist who’s also a vegetarian. Hopefully we’ll find out more as the volume ends with the promise of another arc in this series. From that and the way it’s paced so far, I get the feeling this was originally meant to be a twelve-issue maxiseries and that Dark Horse is publishing it this way in the hopes that this collected edition will help fund the rest of it. I don’t mind that because even if this is just the first third of the story, the action in this volume still delivers the goods.
The Ohm Corporation controls all the power in the future and they’ve just come under attack. It’s holo-A.I. CEO Mr. Karloff has unleashed Sam, a superpowered combat robot, into Ohm Tower to fight his way through the possessed threats representing various forms of energy at each level. He won’t be doing this alone, however, as he has Doyle on his side. She’s a low-level tech who has been hand-picked by Karloff to serve as Sam’s tech support. Together they’re going to fight their way to the top to stop these threats, and any other terrorists looking to do harm to Ohm. All because Mr. Karloff said so and there’s no reason not to trust the A.I. representation of an old, white CEO who controls the world’s power supply, right?
“Ghost Cage” is a real showcase for the artistic skills of Nick Dragotta. Best known for his work illustrating the entirety of “East of West,” he gets to really cut loose here in this three-issue miniseries that’s a fast-paced romp from start to finish. The fights against each kind of energy are impressively kinetic and appreciably diverse in how Sam deals with them. Dragotta also brings an impressive amount of detail to the story as well, while also displaying some memorable character designs throughout the series as well. The artist and co-writer also manages to make the conversation scenes feel like they’re part of the action as well as there’s still real momentum to how they’re displayed.
All of this is good enough to make me wish that the story was more interesting. “Ghost Cage” is basically “Robocop” meets “The Raid” (or “Dredd” if you prefer). While that sounds like a fun match-up, Dragotta and co-writer Caleb Goellner only pay lip service to the satire that drove Verhoven’s masterpiece and don’t quite capture the life-or-death stakes that characterized Evans’ action classic. What I’m saying is that it’s a good thing the visuals really sell the action here as the storytelling here is just alright. Fans of Dragotta will get the most out of this as it’s a good showcase for the creators evolving artistic skills.