Is It Wednesday Yet?
24 June 2008
24 June 2008 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always the comics you're about to read about won't be released until tomorrow (25 June 2008), so these reviews are free of spoilers and should help inform your purchases on new comic book day.
Our grading scale is simple:
Buy: An excellent comic book.
Borrow: A good comic, but save yourself some money by reading a friend's copy.
Flip Through: Give it a once-over at the comic shop.
Skip: This doesn't need to be explained.
Black Panther #37
Writer: Reginald Hudlin
Artist: Francis Portela
Colorist: Val Staples
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Alan Davis
Life is never simple when you're a former Avenger, an opponent of the Superhuman Registration Act and ruler of an entire nation. Since concluding their adventures with the Fantastic Four, Black Panther and Storm have left the United States in protest of Tony Stark's Initiative, proudly returning to Wakanda. But once there the couple was troubled to discover that an old enemy, Erik Killmonger, had overthrown a neighboring government. During the coup, hostages were taken — including former Avenger Monica Rambeau, and Panther's sister. Naturally unsettled by these actions, T'Challa has launched an assault of his own on this forgotten nemesis.
In returning the character to his roots, Reginald Hudlin has brought a much-needed sense of identity to the title. Okay, so a great deal of the Black Panther's time has always been spent bouncing around with the Avengers, throwing down with supervillains and adventuring. The problem is, I can buy one of two dozen books that follow that same premise and do so with more appealing, interesting, recognizable characters. Last time I checked, T'Challa was still the only Marvel hero in charge of his own African nation, and by ignoring that facet of his personality for so long, the series had lost its way.
That's not to say it's out of the woods yet. Hudlin still has a few issues with relatable dialog and pacing, but he's at least making progress. He's given the book a legitimate direction and personality for the first time I can remember, and along the way he's concocted a villain that's a fine fit for the tone of this story.
Killmonger makes for a curious foil to Panther's more straightforward political persona. He fancies himself a revolutionary, not a plain-brained, over-inflated sociopath hungry for a fight. When he calls T'Challa out, he does so in a public place, surrounded by his loyal supporters. Killmonger talks Panther into a corner, ensuring that no matter the outcome, he'll be seen as the righteous leader and T'Challa the asshole. He's a fine character, both a physical and political superior to his rival. After almost a year of adventuring with the Fantastic Four in alternate universes, the return to familiar territory and the shift in storytelling it represents makes for quite a change of pace for Black Panther, and a welcome one at that.
Artist Francis Portela still has a few wrinkles left to iron out. His work is nicely textured, but often stiff and strangely postured. In one panel, three characters run through a hallway together, striking virtually the exact same pose. It reminded me of the canned animations Hanna-Barbara would use in Scooby Doo when it was time for the crew to run away from something. Once I made that connection it was tough to remain objective. Portela is much more at ease with individuals wearing everyday clothing than he is with spandex, and while he's afforded that luxury for most of the issue, his take on Panther needs a lot of work.
Although it's taking steps in the right direction, Black Panther still hasn't decided what kind of stories it wants to tell. It's at the stage in its development where it's throwing everything at the wall, keeping an eye on what sticks. It's a political / action / adventure / sci-fi / espionage tale, and that's a whole heck of a lot to expect a reader to swallow. This series will probably be in a better place after this arc is over, but for the time being it's still in the midst of a painful series of growing pains. Flip through it, but don't pay it any serious attention.
Captain America #39
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Rob De La Torre
Colorist: Frank D'Armata
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: Steve Epting
There's so much going on right now that I hesitate to even attempt an explanation. In short: Steve's still dead. A despondent, imprisoned Sharon Carter is pregnant with his child. Bucky has claimed the red, white and blue wardrobe as his own. Soviets are sabotaging the American economy. The Red Skull has saved his pennies and bought his own politician. And there's a brainwashed imposter Cap running around in search of his old shield. Got all that? Yeah, thanks for being honest, because I'm not entirely sure I did either, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet despite the complexity of what's going on behind the scenes, actually reading this issue wasn't the chore I expected it would be. Ed Brubaker is taking a different approach to this series; rather than keeping the readers in the dark, he's filling them in on every detail of the enemy's plan before it unfolds. The drama provided by the characters' reactions to those plans is what keeps everything moving. If you've been keeping up with the series recently, you aren't surprised by the appearance of another Captain America who looks and sounds a lot like Steve, but Bucky and the Falcon certainly are. It's their response to these developments — not the developments themselves — that bring the suspense and keep the readers guessing.
Brubaker keeps the story set firmly in the present, discussing a lot of the hot-button political issues that are all over the American media. He offers a smart take without coming off as preachy or giving the impression of working on an agenda. Bru keeps a lot of pots simmering on the range top, but they're all given an appropriate amount of attention. While he's covering a large set of congruent narratives, he keeps things legible and doesn't give the impression that he's handling more storytelling than he's capable of. Which, I'll be honest, was my biggest concern after the digest-sized recap that opened the issue.
Rob De La Torre's artwork is wonderful throughout the issue. He brings a gritty, cinematic look to the page that's beautifully framed but still explosive. Where Torre's style of precise posturing and painstakingly composed panels often carries with it the risk of feeling overly sterile and lacking fluidity, this artist's efforts are an exception. While his characters hang in the air realistically, mimicking Jackie Chan's just-this-side-of-lifelike acrobatics, they're also given enough artistic license and natural body language that they don't seem too perfect. While I fear that a lot of the intricacies of his artwork are lost behind the bright coloring job they're given — he'd benefit from a more subdued, atmospheric palette — the work is good enough to shine despite that minor handicap.
De La Torre treats the backdrops sensibly and really brings the goods when asked to make an impression. This is a guy who was born to deliver stunning splash pages, but also knows how to make an impact within the tighter confines of a page filled with panels. His take might feel too realistic to some, but in my eyes he's just right, giving the book an instant visual identity.
This is a fine issue, although I'd think twice about jumping onboard in the middle of the storyline. The opening blurb covers most of the fine details, but there are quite a few points it takes for granted that wind up being pretty important as the story plays out. If you've been a loyal reader for some time now, this issue is just a continuation of what's becoming an epic saga. If you're fresh to the scene, give it a borrow and see if you can find your bearings first. It's very rewarding if it doesn't lose you somewhere along the way.
Writers: Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka
Artists: Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterer: VC's Chris Eliopoulos
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic
Reeling from the most recent set of intense personal setbacks, Matt Murdock has found himself without a direction. While he was dealing with the consciousness-altering villain the Grim Reaper, Matt's wife Milla was drawn into the conflict and hasn't been herself ever since. Accused of manslaughter and attempted murder, Milla has been committed to an asylum as she can't rid herself of the Reaper's demons. Matt's taken the news hard, and in an effort to snap him out of his funk, his coworkers have asked him for help in overturning a client's conviction. Unfortunately, this seemingly simple legal maneuver may be riskier than it appears.
Ed Brubaker has taken Daredevil readers on quite a ride since wrangling the book's storytelling duties, and this arc looks like a chance to slow things down before the next major supervillain comes to Hell's Kitchen. In most cases that would mean a forgettable / throwaway change-of-pace tale, but that's Brubaker and Rucka's bread and butter. A lot of the allure of this character lies in his civilian life as a lawyer, and how his other role as a vigilante represents such a distinct conflict of interests. It opens a vast field of opportunities for great storylines, and in this instance the writers have reached in and grabbed hold of something really meaty.
If you're looking for a lot of acrobatics and fistfights, this isn't your book. Daredevil doesn't even appear until the waning pages of this month's story, so you'll be waiting a while for that big brawl at the end of it all. But if you're down for a lengthy look at the professional life of Matt Murdock, if the dual nature of the character is a big part of what interests you about him, this story is the one for you. Longtime readers will notice a lot of similarities between this story and the one Brian Michael Bendis wrote a few years ago dealing with the trial of White Tiger. They both offered a heavy dose of legal rhetoric, balanced by just enough extracurricular activity to keep your attention. It's a tremendous story, an instant classic in the more mature, dramatic style that's swept through several of Marvel's higher profile books over the last few years, but it isn't for everybody.
Providing the visuals this month is the team of Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano, who bring their best Alex Maleev impression but leave a little something to be desired. Don't get me wrong, their work is largely just fine, but they suffer from the comparison to their predecessor. The duo seems too committed to retaining the noir-ish qualities that Maleev successfully brought to the title, and not enough to adding their own dose of originality to the equation. They do a very nice job of retaining the atmosphere and the character of this series, but I just couldn't shake that feeling that I'd seen it all before. And at this point the repetition is beginning to wear thin.
It's become characteristic of Ed Brubaker's books that you can't really jump in midstream and appreciate the intricacies of his storytelling, and Daredevil #108 is no exception. As somebody who's followed the series for his entire run, I'm noticing a lot of little seeds that were planted at the outset beginning to sprout, and if I'd begun reading with this issue (or with the beginning of this arc), most of that would be lost on me. This has the makings to be no less than the latest in a series of staggeringly good storylines, but it requires a lot of dedication to fully appreciate. Despite a disappointing showing from Lark and Gaudiano, I'll be buying this issue and recommend you do the same. Just make sure you come prepared.
Mighty Avengers #15
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Breakdowns: John Romita, Jr.
Finishes: Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer
Colorist: Edgar Delgado with Guru FX
Letterer: Artmonkey's Dave Lanphear
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic
Review: Dan Toland
Okay, again, if you're not caught up with Secret Invasion, then you shouldn't keep reading. Of course, any chance you may have entertained regarding the avoidance of spoilers was essentially destroyed when you looked at the cover. (Marvel.com, take note. Don't put a big honking spoiler tag next to the picture of the thing you're trying to hide. Commencing facepalm... now.)
The first of two Avengers titles this month to hit the rewind button, here we come to learn when and how Hank Pym was replaced by his Skrull counterpart.
Beginning all the way from the cover of the book, referencing the classic Avengers #213, it's clear that the man never had any chance. For many years, Hank has been "screwed up." His inferiority complex and need for validation has done all but place an "impersonate me" sign on his back. And, as this flashback to the pre-New Avengers era illustrates, the Skrull Empire is more than happy to take Hank up on his invitation.
I feel like a broken record: Brian Bendis has done a sterling job. Hank's downfall is presented in a totally matter-of-fact manner and in an entirely in-character fashion. The first time I looked at this, I thought, "Jeez, this is so freaking obvious. There's no subtlety to this Great Masterplan. I'm not buying this at all." Then I thought about it a little bit. Henry Pym is an unhappy man who desperately wants someone, anyone, to find him fascinating. As a superhero, he frequently finds himself standing between Thor and Captain America. As a scientist, he's often standing between Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Even in his marriage, he's second best (and it always occurred to me that Janet would not be the easiest person in the world to be around, either). He's never the one anyone pays attention to. And when the day finally comes when that happens, he's not really paying attention to the fact that this person seems to be asking him about his favorite cereal, who his grade school teachers were, whether he preferred Dick York or Dick Sargent and a thousand other small questions. And the fact that it says point-blank on the recap page "This is how they got Yellowjacket" makes it possible to write a story in which Hank is so maddeningly oblivious to what's going on.
I almost feel like John Romita, Jr. is being wasted here a little bit. There's virtually no action to speak of; almost the entire issue is made up of people talking. What he's called on to do, he does well. I'm not a huge fan of Klaus Janson's inks as a rule, and nothing here changed that. If there's any artist out there who doesn't need to be made bigger and blockier, it's Junior.
As a well-made issue, this stacks up pretty well. Is it essential? No. Buy it if you're a Secret Invasion completist, but you could miss this and not really feel like there was a huge chunk of your soul missing. Borrow it, though; it's a decent enough story on its own, and a surprisingly subtle look at Henry's psychology.
Oh, and one other thing. I only have the PDF to go on, so I don't know if this is accurate on the cover, but according to Marvel.com this is rated A (nine and up). If that's the case, then someone at Marvel needs to take a very serious look at its rating system. I'm not a prude, but Hank spends half the issue in bed with someone who's not Janet, and I would never in a million years give this to a child.
New Avengers #42
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Jim Cheung
Inker: John Dell
Colorist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: RS and Comicraft's Albert Deschesne
Cover: Aleksi Briclot
Review: Dan Toland
More Skrull-induced flashbackery. More spoilers if you haven't been following along at home.
Remember when the whole Secret Invasion deal was getting ramped up, and the powers that be were hyping it, and Bendis himself looked up from his typewriter long enough to let us know that all of our questions were going to be answered? Well, folks, this is it. This issue not only answers your questions, it answers questions you forgot you had. The "Oh, right, I forgot about that. Well, thanks for answering that question... four years after the fact" stuff.
Ostensibly, this issue is about the replacement of Jessica Drew, but in reality, this issue goes over the entire background of the invasion as a whole. And holy crap, Bendis really has had this whole thing figured out. The groundwork was laid at least five years ago. I have to give Marvel their due; they let Bendis run with this and in the process take over the whole damn universe — and it really did have a point.
That would have been enough all by itself, frankly. However, Bendis' script is pretty good, even if you were to take out all the explainy stuff. Jessica has not only been replaced, she's the Skrull empress and is actually running the show. She's able to switch her manner from Skrull tactical leader to new-at-this-Avengering-thing human and back again very easily, and the script makes the distinction subtle. I hope she's still around when this storyline is over, because she's got the makings of a very satisfying long-term antagonist.
Jim Cheung, too long exiled to covers, turns in stellar artwork. This is a wonderful-looking book. The art is clean and defined. Everyone has their own face, even the Skrulls. Light and shadow are handled deftly. Logan resembles an actual person you might conceivably run across and not necessarily stare at. And Nick Fury looks like he could kick your ass and nail your girlfriend before you hit the ground. Great looking stuff.
It's (probably) not an overstatement to say that this is most likely going to turn out to be one of the most important Marvel comics of the decade. The repercussions of the events gone over here are going to be felt for years to come. And even if that weren't the case, this would still be an issue totally worth your time. Excellent writing, superb artwork and an issue full of "so that's why this thing that's always pissed me off happened" add up to an easy buy.
Thor: Ages of Thunder - Reign of Blood
Writer: Matt Fraction
Pencilers: Khari Evans and Patrick Zircher
Inkers: Victor Olzaba and Patrick Zircher
Colorists: Avalon's Matt Milla and June Chung
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic
Review: Dan Toland
Matt Fraction's look at the medieval Asgardian legends continues with another pair of stories detailing the spectacular level of foolishness and subsequent bloodletting inherent in the original Norse myths. Essentially, Odin hates the daughter of the frost giant, because about a jillion years ago he came onto her and she set a trap for him and suggested he take his frustrations out on a goat. Years later — after which we still don't know whether that goat can wear white at his wedding — the daughter has sent Midgard into a deep freeze. While Odin is taking care of that, the Enchantress sets her eye on a necklace made by the dwarves. To get it from them she does what she does best. (Brack chicka wah wah.) Odin takes the necklace from her, partially because doing the whole "brack chicka wah wah" thing with a roomful of dwarves is less than godly, but mostly because he's a colossal dick. At this, the Enchantress raises the Army of Darkness. Without Ash and his boomstick to fix things, it falls upon Thor to unleash a keg of whoop-ass, as he thunders through on his sled, pulled by eight steeds that he seems to be way too attached to. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
Now, Slaughterbit! Now, Swamptooth!
Now Snow Harpy and Warhoof!
On, Smokemare! On, Strombringer!
On Mudbrute and Firegnaw!
Thor's is not a sled you want landing on your house.
First and foremost, don't go looking for reasonable motivations and sensible behavior here. Also, don't expect to run across very many likable or sympathetic characters. There's none to be found. Fraction keeps these books extremely faithful to the tone of the stories to be found in the Edda, when it was perfectly reasonable to raise a demonic army of undead soldiers to destroy all life because somebody took your necklace. If that's gonna bother you, avoid this.
Once you accept that we're dealing with a book with absurd plotlines and ridiculous motivations, you can sit back and enjoy the carnage. Fraction's story is primarily concerned with "How do we get to the next battle?" and when we get there, it's something to see. Some of these scenes are awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Fraction works with his artists to create a world that's totally centered on warfare, and when it doesn't have to be dressed up in superheroics, some of the imagery is given rein to be truly mind-blowing.
The artwork is wonderful, and is split in two parts. Evans draws the first half of the book, dealing primarily with the frost giant's daughter, and he does a perfectly good job. His Loki, particularly, looks really good. However, the second half of the book, the bit with the Evil Dead, is handled by Zircher, and these pages are astonishing. They look like the bloodiest, most violent children's storybook ever: the pages are simple and detailed. Why this guy isn't on a monthly book these days, I don't know, but this needs to be rectified immediately.
Also, I want a Blood Colossus.
Whether you should buy this or not really depends on your ability to roll with the absurdity. If it's really going to annoy you that people get angry enough to unleash horrors beyond imagining because someone stepped on their sneaker, you should still flip through this book for the art. However, if you can achieve the right frame of mind, then buy this book without hesitation.
Uncanny X-Men #499
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Mike Choi and Ben Oliver
Colorists: Sonia Oback and Jason Keith
Letterer: Cory Petit
Cover: Mike Choi
Despite their decision to disband following Messiah Complex, the X-Men have remained pretty active. And, although there are former members scattered to every corner of the globe, a few clusters of Xavier's former students have hung together. Cyclops and Emma Frost have gone to San Francisco in search of Angel, while Wolverine, Colossus and Nightcrawler have journeyed to Europe — and neither group's travels have been uneventful. In Scott and Emma's case, the landscape looks an awful lot like it did 40 years ago, thanks to Lady Mastermind and her powers of illusion. Logan, Piotr and Kurt, on the other hand, have been taken prisoner in Russia and subsequently barreled headfirst into an angry Omega Red.
Ed Brubaker's swan song with Uncanny X-Men is sadly not his finest hour. The writer never really clicked with the mutants like he did with Daredevil or Captain America, and his final chapter with the team is just further evidence of that. This month's dueling teams of X-Men aren't very compelling; Scott and Emma explore the offbeat and bizarre while the other three sail thoughtlessly into a cover-to-cover brawl with Wolverine's old nemesis. There's no individuality here; outside of their powers, each of these characters are interchangeable. They fire off bad quips faster than they do optic blasts, and there's always a reason to leap into action right around that next corner.
Each assigned to their own group of splintered X-Men, Mike Choi (Emma and Scott) and Ben Oliver (Wolverine, Colossus and Nightcrawler) bring vastly different artistic styles to the book. Choi's artwork is more concerned with expression and simplicity, while Oliver's contributions are darker, more reliant on excessive coloring and overflow with detail. If you remember the old Marvel Masterpieces line of trading cards that were all the rage in the early 1990s, I get exactly the same impression from Oliver's work as I did from that series. It frequently goes way over-the-top to the point that the page is awash in so much visually that I had trouble following the action. Mike Choi's artwork doesn't suffer from that problem, but because it's so much simpler and cleaner, the seams in his style are much more pronounced. Something about his White Queen doesn't feel right, and he often leaves out too many details in his quest to rid the page of inessential linework. I really don't think the two could be much more of an opposite to one another, and although my preference is for Choi's take, neither artist seems like they're ready for this kind of a high profile book.
There's not very much worth thinking about here. Ed Brubaker's story is skin and bones — simple housekeeping before he departs the series for good — and lacks every bit of the intelligence he brings to his other big Marvel stories. His tandem of accompanying artists deliver work with a similar ethic: they're just here to kill some time before Greg Land and Terry Dodson step in next month. This issue is in a holding pattern, here to fill in a gap before the next regime sweeps in. Skip it, even if you're a big fan of the X-Men.
X-Men: Legacy #213
Writer: Mike Carey
Penciler: Scot Eaton
Inker: Andrew Hennessey
Colorist: Frank D'Armata
Letterer: Cory Petit
Cover: Alan Davis
Review: Dan Toland
Okay, this issue has Gambit and Mister Sinister. If I just assume I'm not going to like it, do I still have to read it?
So, Charles Xavier is still on the table. Or he's on it again. I think that's it. See, he was in a coma when I reviewed X-Men Legacy #209. That one, he got better from. So they decided to knock him out again a few issues later.
It's totally not the same thing, though, because this time, instead of Exodus poking around in his mind, it's Sinister.
I think I need an aspirin.
Anyway, while all this is going on, Gambit and Sebastian Shaw are fighting assassins — assassins who have a list of people they're going after, all of whom have nothing in common except that they've all had contact with Mister Sinister. Of course, anyone who wandered vaguely through an X-book in the past 15 years has had some degree of contact with Sinister, so I don't imagine that would ordinarily be terribly helpful, unless, of course, the writer really needs it to be.
I gotta be honest: after reading this book, I had almost no idea what the hell is going on. I had to go through it three times before I decided I had everything, and that's totally not worth the amount of work I had to put into it. If I had to labor this hard to understand what's happening, I should turn to the last page and find arcade tokens or coupons for ice cream or maybe a puppy. Hell, I'd settle for a Hostess Fruit Pies ad. Alas, there's nothing on the final page except a promise to drag this interminable storyline out for at least another month.
Carey's story is workmanlike, at best. It's not awful, per se, but it's certainly not going to blow anyone away. It does have one thing going for it, in that it calls out Charles Xavier for the manipulative jackass he was, particularly before Giant-Size X-Men #1. You know, the Professor X who pretends to be dead for months at a time and then comes out of nowhere, chiding his students for questioning his omniscience when they quite reasonably want to know what the hell was going on. Otherwise, this just feels like another example of the X-books spinning their wheels, acting like the past 10 years of advances in storytelling style never happened. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to go back to the credits page and see Scott Lobdell's name there.
"But I like Scott Lobdell," you say.
To which I respond, "You're wrong."
The artwork isn't terribly consistent. There are examples of images that look fantastic, and just as many examples of panels that look sloppy and rushed. One panel in particular, on the bottom of page seven, looks like a thumbnail that was blown up. It's awful. In the end, it all kind of cancels itself out and what remains is serviceable, but not more than that.
I honestly don't see any reason why anyone should devote any time at all to this book. Skip it.