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Is It Wednesday Yet?

07 September 2010 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always, the reviews are free of spoilers, so read on without fear of having your experience ruined!

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 Widow #5
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 25 August 2010
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Daniel Acuna
Letterer: Blambot's Nate Piekos
Cover: Daniel Acuna
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
This is one of the most interestingly written comics that's been put on my plate for review. Thanks to Iron Man 2 and the casting of Scarlett "Yummy" Johansson, there has never been a better time to try and launch Natasha into her own series. For years she was relegated to supporting character, mostly in Daredevil and The Avengers, but recent forays into Marvel history featuring Wolverine and Bucky have linked her closely with those characters. Now her position with the Avengers and her relationship with Bucky / Captain America make her one of the most sought-after women in the Marvel Universe, and this solo comic seems primed to capitalize on that.

So it's with mixed feelings that I found a chunk of this book dedicated to old school Wonder Woman-style bondage, even if it was updated for the modern era (ropes are so last century). This fetishisation of female comic book characters seems almost archaic in the modern age, like Superman being a condescending dick or Spider-Man skipping between the affections of multiple women (wait a minute). It would be easy to dismiss this book as something in that vein.

It's not the case here, though. Writer Marjorie Liu hasn't had much chance to shine on her own, working mostly with Daniel Way on various Wolverine books. In fact, given that she's been writing for Logan, Daken, and X-23, this might be the first significant title she's worked on where the protagonist didn't have big spikes coming out of their limbs. Shame really, hidden forearm blades would be ideal for escaping bondage-style situations. Something to note for your X-23 series, Marjorie. However, despite the aforementioned issues, Liu writes a Black Widow that refuses to be a victim. Even when the villain taunts her with personal tragedies, you never feel as though Widow is dealing with it by sinking to their level. She's got this great way of not letting anything get to her that is perfect for this story in particular, where the hilariously named villain Imus Champion wants nothing more than to make their rivalry intensely personal. It's also nice that she has Captain America and Wolverine as her supporting cast for once; they really aren't much more than comic relief here. This is undeniably her book, and the boys know her well enough to understand that she really doesn't want or need their help dealing with this one. It also gets quite poetic at one point, which really shocked me considering the bondage / violence quotient earlier on. Liu is a good storyteller; at several points it felt like an adaptation of something that had actually been performed. You get the feeling that she's really mapped out environments and character actions for the artist rather than just leaving it up to Daniel Acuna. I'm not sure that Marjorie Liu is totally in the swing of writing comics solo yet, but she's not afraid to try things and there's a great deal of promise here. This won't stun and amaze you, but you won't find much wrong with it either. Really, it is a breath of fresh air.

On the art front, Acuna's work is strong as usual. I've liked a great deal of his work from what I've seen. He's really great at dynamic, expressive faces, and whilst the multi-tonal nature of the shading occasionally leads to some issues (Widow is blue-skinned for a couple of panels) by and large this is really quite pretty to look at. Yes there is cheesecake, but this is far from being Danger Girl. Acuna's not mainstream enough to put on a major team book, but I'd happily see him get regular work on these sort of dark and dirty spy tales.

Borrow it. Though Black Widow #5 is not exactly essential, it's still strong work from all concerned.

Secret Warriors #19
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 25 August 2010
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Alessandro Vitti
Colorist: Imaginary Friends Studio
Letterer: Artmonkeys' Dave Lanphear
Cover: Jim Cheung
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
If you do buy this — and bear in mind I have yet to tell you whether you should or shouldn't — take a look at the opening recap page. Now look at the Howling Commandos' logo. Have you spotted it? Yes, that's right. Some bright spark decided that the Latin legend on that badge needed to be upside-down and read right to left as a part of its design. Surely the fact that it's Latin makes it hard enough to read, without complicating matters by forcing you to walk up to the scary men holding the big guns and saying, "Do you mind, I'm just trying to read what it says on your uniform." Upon close inspection, the motto "Nunquam Obliti, Nunquam Victi" translates to "Never Forgotten, Never Defeated," which I'm sure I would find inspirational as the hulking professional soldier (who really only needs me to look at him funny as an excuse) feeds me my teeth via the fast, unequivocal medium of his fist.

Secret Warriors is a book that confused me from the start. Nick Fury leading a team of legacy heroes? Aren't there enough books for legacy heroes already? What does Nick Fury know about leading a team of superpowered heroes, anyway? Last time he assembled superheroes for his own ends we wound up with Secret War, which was what cost Fury his job as top cop. Also a book based around Fury seems a little wasted if it's also devoted to some fresh-faced teen team. That would be like Batman leading the Teen Titans, it wouldn't help either of them. The lack of focus on Fury himself and the continuity skewing plots drove me away early on. Hydra being the front for the ultra-secret organization Leviathan seemed a little too much like the old "now that you see my true power" anime trope that doesn't actually work because the reveal makes everything that has gone before almost senseless.

All that being said, this issue seems to have undergone a radical shift towards what a Nick Fury book really should be (i.e. super-spy / professional soldier Nick Fury battles unseen evil using guile, cunning, and his old SHIELD buddies). This is a Howling Commandos book, part memorial to the unpowered heroes of that unit, part all-action firefight against all odds. Yes there's a lot of talking going on at points, but it seems to have grasped the whole struggle against the system to defeat the real foe vibe that Nick and his comrades should have been moving towards all this time. There is a lot to like here. On the down side, the opening recap page reads like the opening spiel for Return of the Jedi. Yes it brings you up to speed, but it's an info-dump of epic proportions, and doesn't really compare to having watched the events yourself. If you're wandering into this and you don't have a good working knowledge of Nick Fury's post-SHIELD activities, then you don't have a hope of understanding a thing that's going on here.

The cover for this issue — which has some beautiful art by the extremely talented Jim Cheung — unfortunately looks naff because Cap, Fury, and Dum Dum all have orange outlines, making it look like each was individually rendered, then pasted together. Inside, there's really nothing to complain about unless you're unduly upset that Dum Dum Dugan looks facially like Gimli. Other than that it's pretty and well-suited to the title.

I don't know if the book at large is worth your money, and I don't know how much sense this story makes without seeing something from it beyond this issue. Flip through this one. It might be for you, but I suspect you'll need to buy a lot more issues to get up to speed.

Superman: Secret Origin #6
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 25 August 2010
Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: Gary Frank
Inker: Jon Sibal
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover: Gary Frank
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
Coming into this final chapter of the Man of Steel's latest origin re-spin, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank have a whole fist-load of plot threads left to wrangle. First and foremost, Superman is still an unknown variable to the common man, a curiosity with great power but uncertain motives. General Lane and Lex Luthor have already seen enough to make up their minds about him, though, and have set out to incapacitate the man in blue at all costs — even if they have to tear Metropolis down around them in the process. With Lane's troops sweeping into the Daily Planet bullpen and Luthor's Kryptonite-powered Metallo suit crashing down on Superman's back, all signs point to this being an action-packed climax. It doesn't waste any time.

While I'm still not sold on the necessity of this series, there's no denying the kind of care Geoff Johns has delivered between its covers. This is more than just a retelling; it's an homage to the core of the character, however naοve and dated it might seem in the present setting. It's also an apt reminder of what comics used to be all about. Underneath the modernizations, the gaudy wardrobe, and the convoluted master plans, there's a genuine sweetness, a passion to do the right thing despite the high cost of doing so. It's straightforward, innocent, and perhaps a sign of the times in which this basic story was first told, but it's still there and it's still pertinent.

Of course, you have to dig pretty deep to find that, because on the surface this is more than a little bland. Though he may be dealing primarily with the enormous issue of basic human nature (and all the ignorance, xenophobia, disbelief, and outrage that it encompasses), Johns' insights fall well short of revelation. In fact, many such lessons, which seem obvious at first glance, are hammered home so bluntly, so repeatedly, that they lose any power they might have carried in the first place. Johns is capable of subtlety — I've seen him flex that muscle repeatedly in his other works — but it's a skill he brazenly neglects in Secret Origin #6.

The issue's fight scenes are a strong point, as Johns invents no shortage of giant-sized splash pages for Gary Frank to knock out of the park, but even these aren't free from the writer's dalliances. At one point Superman pauses right in the middle of his tank-crunching brawl with Metallo to share a full page of redundant conversation with Lois. What was the enemy doing while that was going on, chatting up a few nearby troops? I guess they called a brief timeout.

Frank's artwork goes a long way toward smoothing over the story's rough spots, adding more depth and character with his pencils than the narrative could deliver with a thousand captions. Fortunately, that's an observation Johns seems to have made over the course of the series as well. In earlier issues, the artist's compositions were difficult to appreciate beneath the stacks of layered word balloons. In this climactic issue, though, that dialog is much more concise and restrained, allowing the stunning artwork to bear the bulk of the load. It blossoms given the opportunity, a show-stealer in every way.

This issue is something of a conundrum. On one hand, it's a masterful demonstration of who Superman is, who he was, and what he stands for. It enjoys tremendous artwork, a stunning fight scene, and an appropriate climax. On the other hand, for all its attempts to modernize the setting, the actual story remains incredibly outdated and narrow-sighted. Its dialog is clumsy and unnatural, its narration redundant and heavy-handed, and its conclusion boldly unsurprising. It's a paint-by-numbers story, and no matter how good a job Johns and Frank may have done with staying inside the lines, it'll never be more than that. Flip through it and enjoy its merits, but don't linger too long for fear of its shortcomings.

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants - Blade
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 25 August 2010
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Tim Green
Colorist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover: Dave Wilkins
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
After a few months out of the limelight, Marvel's resident vampire hunter, Blade, is back in the game, this time playing a supporting role in the latest X-Men crossover. With the recent appearance of day-walking vampires and the assassination of bloodsucking kingpin Dracula, it's been a time of sudden revelation for this sword-wielding half-breed. Hunting vamps has suddenly become twice as dangerous and unpredictable, with a recent rash of dead hunters only serving to reinforce that fact.

With a setup like that one and a looming tie-in to one of the publisher's premiere titles, the stage would seem to be set for some serious fireworks in this one-shot. Or rather, one might think it would be. In practice, this issue serves little purpose beyond reintroducing the audience to the rules of Blade's world, sharing a few graphic slayings, and giving the lead a reason to take his show to San Francisco in search of Scott Summers and friends. Even as someone who's never been all that familiar with this character's adventures, I noticed several moments where it felt like the information I was getting was more than a little redundant.

Duane Swierczynski's writing is a strange concoction, blending a grizzled noir detective's narration with a hardass action hero's behavior. The idea was to give Blade some extra depth, to prove there's more to him than stakes, bad hair, and machismo, but in practice it just feels like the narrative is spoken from another player's perspective. Blade pulls the trigger, postures, and fires off terse one-liners, then Humphrey Bogart comes in for a scene-shifting voiceover or to describe a new character. As the page count begins to add up, Swierczynski tries to cover for his issue's deliberate pace with a few gory pages of action and brutality, but it doesn't work particularly well. When the dust clears, the plot has gone almost nowhere and the dead are relegated to the handful of disposable no-names we'd met just a few pages earlier.

Tim Green's loose, light artistic touch is an awkward match for the mood Swierczynski is trying to set in the plot; while the story's trying to provide a tense, horror-tinted atmosphere, the artwork never feels entirely serious. Green's visuals are quirky and energetic from start to finish, and they do show some signs of rush in the final pages. I actually enjoyed the majority of his compositions, but it's a terrible choice for this kind of story, which would have been better suited for the deep, dark, somewhat dated style provided by Dave Wilkins on the cover. It's like Darick Robertson teaming up with Neil Gaiman, though neither Blade contributor deserves that comparison: two creators headed in such precisely opposite directions that they directly cancel each other out. A mismatch at best, a disaster at worst.

Blade's edition of X-Men: Curse of the Mutants spends more time treading water than it does in the thick of things, avoiding the meat of the subject so that the bigger books have more to chew on when they finally get around to it. It's far from essential reading, especially considering the entire thing is summed up in a few word balloons when Blade finally arrives in San Francisco within X-Men #2. Skip it.


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