Sunday, March 06, 2016

On four Marvel collections

Apache Skies

This 2002 semi-sequel to the previously discussed Blaze of Glory reunited the creative team of John Ostrander and Leonardo Manco with The Rawhide Kid, who lead the ensemble in the previous miniseries. The title is a reference to the plotline: The Kid is seeking to avenge an old ally of his, The Apache Kid (another old, Marvel-owned character, unrelated to the real-world Apache Kid, who didn't appear in Blaze of Glory–perhaps this was because Red Wolf had fulfilled that story's Native American hero quota, but, more likely, because between Rawhide, Outlaw, Two-Gun and Colt, that story had all the Kids it could handle).

Unlike Blaze of Glory, Apache Skies appeared on Marvel's then-new Max imprint, supposedly the home of the publisher's adult content–with the logo itself reading "Parental Advisory, EXPLICIT Content" and an "MA" rating–but in practice these were almost always just regular Marvel books with regular Marvel characters, allowing for some actual swear words instead of grawlixes or black bars. They rarely if ever actually included nuded or a greater degree of violence than that seen in the regular Marvel line, and certainly never threatened anything approaching literary, the way that rival company DC's Vertigo imprint was so often prone to.

Here, the N-word and the S-word appear a few times, the only sex scene is a single panel in which the couple are naked but posed so as to cover their bathing suit areas, and the violence is no more extreme than in Blaze of Glory, or any old-school Western: When people get shot, they mostly just fall or sprawl. None of this is meant as a criticism of the comic, of course, just a note on the head-scratching nature of the Max imprint in general. Whatever Marvel's plans for it upon its creation, as the years passed and the publisher gave up on younger readers for their core, Marvel Universe line, there was no real distinction. All Marvel readers were adults, after all. (I should note that this has changed more in the past few years, as the publisher does release books now that are perfectly all-ages in content, with Ms. Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl leaping most immediately to mind.)

Aside from the change in imprint, this story has a much smaller cast and a smaller scale. This makes for a tighter, more focused and, yes, more realistic story, but it also loses some of the operatic grandeur of Blaze; the previous series might have been prone to purple prose and self-importance, but then, that was part of its charm, too.

Ostrander and Manco's Johnny Bart, looking more like a "real" cowboy than the Hollywood version of the original, 20th century Rawhide Kid comics, is going about gunning down the men who killed the Apache Kid, shooting him in the back. So too is another long-haired gunfighter, this one calling herself The Apache Kid–in actuality, the first A.K.'s widow. The pair join forces, with A.K. II being quit resistant to doing so, given how her husband's attempts to bridge the worlds of their people and that of the white men ended up for him.

Lots of gunfights and a spectacular train chase follow, including a final look at The Rawhide Kid that is far more dramatic, even superheroic, than the simple riding off into the sunset of the previous series.

It's a pretty great comic book Western, and Manco's artwork is just as incredible as it was in Blaze, perhaps more so. Like the preceding storyline, this collection has also gone out-of-print. It's kind of too bad, as they are such good comics, but then, that's Marvel's publishing strategy. Perhaps they'll reissue them both in an omnibus if Hollywood starts running out of Marvel superheroes to base films and TV shows on, and finally works its way down to their Western characters.

Captain America & The Mighty Avengers Vol. 1: Open For Business

Don't be fooled by the title or the numeral 1 on the spine; this is only technically the first collection of a new series, collecting the first seven of the nine-issue comic book series by that title. In actuality, it's merely a continuation of writer Al Ewing's Mighty Avengers series, which shipped all of 14 issues before getting technically relaunched with a slightly different (and more distinct) title, a new artist and a new #1 (So, if you want to read Ewing's Mighty Avengers in trade at this point, you'll want to consult Wikipedia, as the reading order is Mighty Avengers Vols. 1-3 and Captain America & The Mighty Avengers Vols. 1-2...careful you don't accidentally get any of the seven Brian Michael Bendis-written volumes of The Mighty Avengers, some numbered and some not).

Underscoring the complete arbitrariness of the relaunch and re-titling is the fact that the book begins apparently where the last one left off, meaning none of the characters are introduced (some, like Captain America Sam Wilson and Luke Cage, probably won't need any introduction to even casual Marvel readers; others, like Blue Marvel or Power Man II*, most definitely will), their new status quo isn't introduced (basically, this is a splinter-group of Avengers functioning as a community organization, a Heroes For Hire that don't actually need to be paid for their service) and plotlines still in-progress (Spider-Man's first appearance is apologizing for what he did to the team while Otto Octavius' mind was in his body and he was the "Superior" Spider-Man, a villain and his company from previous issues are still there, in mid-plot).

If those aren't enough hurdles to the casual reader, who might–quite understandably!–see the "1" on the spine and pick the damn thing up expecting a decent jumping-on point, the very first issue collected herein (that is, Captain America & The Might Avengers #1) is an Axis tie-in, meaning that it introduces the title character on the first pages as a thoughtless, violent vigilante, and his teammate Luke Cage as a self-centered, disrespectful, greedy asshole. The reason for this is that they have been "inverted" before the start of this issue (in the pages of Axis), in which good guys and bad guys had their moral alignments flip-flopped.

Much of the first half of the book is concerned with Axis business, as Wilson and Cage join a team of other inverted Avengers (and Medusa) to fight the non-inverted members of their own team. From there, it resumes storylines in-progress from Mighty Avengers, which is heavy on Blue Marvel, who is a Sentry-like Superman analogue created by Kevin Grevioux in 2008.

I spent most of the time in a state somewhere between bewildered and trying to mentally place this between other Marvel events and what I knew of Marvel's publishing moves the last few years, which is a shame, because I really like quite a few of the characters on the team, and, with a few exceptions, it seemed like Ewing was doing a riff on Brian Michael Bendis' franchise-rejuvenating "street-level" Avengers team that he launched as The New Avengers (Ironically, Bendis' Mighty Avengers title featured his more traditional, superhero action-focused team and adventures).

From what I've seen in this particular book, which is set after a few line-up changes, this is one of–if not the–most diverse superhero teams of the last few years, featuring black characters Cap, Cage, Blue Marvel, Power Man II and Spectrum, the Hispanic White Tiger V (I think this one is the fifth one; I lost count a long time ago) the exotically "oriental" Kaluu (he's a 500-year-old dude from a Himalayan village who hung out with The Ancient One, depicted as an, um, ancient old Asian man, but soon to be played in a feature film by Tilda Swinton, I think...?) and a pair of white people, one of whom spends all of her time with green skin (She-Hulk) and the other who dresses from head-to-toe in red-and-blue tights (Spider-Man, now Amazing rather than Superior).

This diversity appears to be anything but forced, by the way. For the most part, these are all native New Yorkers who seem perfectly suited to the book and some of the characters, like the new Power Man, for example, would likely seem out-of-place were they anywhere other than on this team and in this book at this particular moment in time. In other words, it's a diverse team, but a completely organically diverse team.

This really seems to be a case of Marvel's over-reliance on a strategy that favors short-term sales to the direct market (and, perhaps, their quixotic quest for constant market share dominance over DC, which seems of no real value aside from bragging rights) interfering with their ability to publish collections for the bookstore and library market...or just the folks who read collections instead of serially-published comics. Sure, that Captain America & The Mighty Avengers #1 probably sold quite a few more units to direct market retailers than Mighty Avengers #15 might have, but the collection would have at least been readable as Mighty Avengers Vol. 4.

But then, I don't run a comics company. Marvel certainly knows all this, and are selling the comics and collections to the people they want to, and not to the rest of us.

Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1: Counter-Evolutionary

This is yet another randomly rebooted Marvel comic book series that makes reading the books in trade somewhere between confusing and confounding. This Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1, featuring the first few issues a series entitled Uncanny Avengers written by Rick Remender, shouldn't be confused with Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1: The Red Shadow, which collects the first few issues of a series entitled Uncanny Avengers written by Rick Remender.

Rather randomly relaunched under the same title after the events of Axis, this particular Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1 at least seems to devote some effort towards starting a new storyline in a manner that a new reader could pick it up and not be hopelessly lost, as they might with Captain America & The Mighty Avengers Vol. 1. Yes, Remender is still writing a book with the same title, and a line-up consisting of a mixture of Avengers and X-Men (or at least mutants), but the line-up has changed, its composition a bit more ad hoc and they have a new adventure to embark on. It is, of course, heavily burdened by past events–including those of Remender's own Axis event/series and the fact that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver have just learned that they are not Magneto's children after all (Because Fox still has the rights to the X-Men, apparently, while Marvel Studios wants to make use of Scarlet Witch in future movies, I guess).

Seeking answers to their true origins and operating under the assumption that The High-Evolutionary is involved, the twins have traveled to Counter-Earth, which is basically The High Evolutionary's Planet of Doctor Moreau. Scarlet Witch aving been off the (seriously diminished) Avengers Unity Squad's radar for a while, Rogue gathers a new Unity Squad to go looking for her.

Rogue, Doctor Voodoo, The Vision, Captain America Sam Wilson and the newly-inverted Sabretooth travel to Counter-Earth via voodoo, but the spell is interrupted, and they end up scattered all over the planet. The remainder of the story arc finds the seven heroes each dealing with different conflicts or challenges, all of which are eventually revealed to be part of a whole, and in the climactic battle against The Counter-Evolutionary and his forces they all come together to win the day.

It's pretty classic (read negatively, basic) superhero team plotting, but Remender does it well. Sure, some of the characters have less to do than others (particularly Cap), but then, this is pretty obviously the story of the twins, and so their getting the most panel-time certainly makes sense.

Remender is still working with artist Daniel Acuna (who drew the previous volume, Uncanny Avengers Vol. 4, because, remember, this second Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1 comes after Vols. 2-4, because Marvel has a peculiar belief in the totemic power of the number 1), and while I've not always been a fan of his work, here he gets all kinds of cool stuff to draw, particularly given all the animal-headed humanoids that populate Counter-Earth. He additionally does a pretty great job rendering some of the super-powers, particularly Quicksilver's super-speed, which he and Remender collaborate on to depict in semi-inspired ways.

It's pretty good super-team comics...although it's also kind of curious, as the title was re-relaunched immediately after this story arc, with another new #1 late last year, so expect a third Uncanny Avengers Vol. 1 soon. That volume, at least, will have a new writer to help distinguish it from the last two Vols. 1.

Uncanny X-Men Vol. 6: Storyville

Brian Michael Bendis is a comic book writer, but, for the sake of saying the same thing that I and others so often say about him in a different way, let's imagine that he was a runner competing in track and field events. If his comic book writing were running, we could say that Bendis is a very experienced, very talented runner. He has pretty great form, and he clearly understands the mechanics of running and what it takes to do well in his chosen sport. He's quite versatile, able to run marathons and super-marathons, as well as shorter distances. It's been a long time since he even attempted a sprint, but one imagines he would do decently at such a short event as well.

The major flaw in his performance isn't the running of the race, but the ending of it. Sometimes he collapses before the finish line, sometimes he trips over it, sometimes he falls flat on his back, sometimes he misses the finish line completely, running off the track and colliding with a bystander.

Uncanny X-Men Vol. 6 collects the end of Bendis' run on the X-Men franchise, which has spanned three years and almost 80 issues of two titles, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. It is a very poor ending, which shouldn't come as any surprise, given how the ends of Bendis' runs on various other titles, characters, franchises and crossover/event series have gone, but it's not his worst ending. To return to the race-running metaphor, this is more of an ugly, clumsy, stumbling collapse of a finish than some spectacular, laughable, unimaginable collision.

Bendis' run spun out of the events of Avengers Vs. X-Men, a massive status quo-shaking event series in which he was one of the main architects and writers, and was premised on a two basic ideas. First, that Cyclops had done something horrible (he not only took over the world and beat up most of the Marvel Universe, he also killed Charles Xavier), making him a wanted man and an absolute pariah to all but a handful of longtime allies. Second, Beast decided to bring the original X-Men–the teenaged versions of himself, Cyclops, Angel, Iceman and Jean Grey–forward into the present/their future, in order to shock Cyclops back to his senses...or, at the very least, allow Teen Scott to tell off Adult Scott.

These ideas allowed Bendis to write two interconnected X-Men books–one featuring Adult Cyclops and his outcast team of mutants, the other featuring the teen X-Men, who it was eventually determined were stuck in the present–as well as providing an awful lot of tension. The time-travel element especially, as even the most rudimentary understanding of time-travel (i.e. that gained from watching cartoons and reading comic books) would dictate that the X-teens had to go back at some point (the complicated but once strictly enforced rules of time travel in the Marvel Universe are a different matter, and Bendis excused himself from those with a weird "Time is broken" sub-plot tacked on to one of his many event/series).

Hell, even just a basic awareness of how comic books work at the Big Two publishers all but promised that Bendis would have to put things back to some semblance of where he found them when he left. He introduced a seemingly un-resolvable issue...surely he would resolve it, rather than leaving it for another writer, right?

Not so much. The teens are, of course, here to stay (All-New X-Men has already been relaunched). Which is fine: Cyclops is MIA after the events of Secret Wars (or, actually, after the mysterious events after Secret Wars, which the "All-New, All-Different" Marvel Universe skipped over), Jean Grey is dead, Angel is...I lost track (but suffice it to say, quite different than his First Class version), Beast is further mutated so as to look nothing like his original version and Iceman, well, Iceman's really the only true duplicate. The fact that there are basically a million X-Men means having a few doubles hardly matters. It's not like they all always need something to be doing at any one time anyway; the writers and artists use the dozen or dozens they like in the the many X-books, and the others are just left in the limbo of the Marvel Universe occurring off-page until someone decides they want to use Maggot or Jubilee or Cannonball or whoever.

As for the other storyline, regarding Cyclops' place in the Marvel Universe, well, that is apparently To Be Resolved...Bendis just lets it fizzle in his run.

As for the conclusion of that run in Storyville, which collects the last six issues of Uncanny, is simply six single-issue stories, each more-or-less devoted to a single group of characters or plot-point, providing some form of punctuation...even if it is more often than not an ellipses. And, if you're wondering why the conclusion of All-New's storylines might appear in a collection of Uncanny well, as he did during his run on the Avengers franchise, Bendis never let the title of the comic dictate its contents.

The first, drawn by Chris Bachalo, finds Alex "Havoc" Summers meeting with his brother Scott at The New Xavier School, where flashbacks reveal how Scott unilaterally decided to disband his X-Men team and his school, and his break-up with Emma.

The next, drawn by Kris Anka, teams Magik up with Kitty, as their friendship is renewed and they return to the fold of the "real" X-Men, those based at the Jean Grey School. It's set partially on Monster Island, so, in addition to treating readers to Anka art, it treats us to Anka art depicting classic Kirby monsters.

That's followed by another Anka issue, devoted to Dazzler taking her revenge on Mystique, who abused her rather badly throughout much of Bendis' Uncanny.

The penultimate issue, drawn by Valerio Schiti, follows Cyclops' now teacher-less students, The Stepford Cuckoos (here dubbed less evocatively "The Stepford Sisters") and the new characters Bendis co-created for Uncanny, as they strike out on their own. They do alright for awhile, with Goldballs becoming an unlikely celebrity, but things eventually go sideways, and they realize they still have a lot to learn. They're never officially called "The New Mutants" as a team name, but they are alluded to as such. In a more expansive time for Marvel's merry mutants, perhaps they would be starring in a book entitled The All-New, All-Different New Mutants.

And the final issue is renumbered #600, even though it is the 36th issue of this volume of Uncanny, because Marvel only appreciates high numbers when they end in two zeros. Uncanny X-Men also recently relaunched, with that title going to what appears to be the post-Secret Wars version. I can't imagine it will last 100 issues without being relaunched and renumbered, but I'm certain there will be an Uncanny X-Men #700 eventually.

This issue, illustrated in jam fashion by a mixture of artists from throughout Bendis' run on the X-Men books and frequent collaborators of his (of which there is obviously overlap), is basically an issue-length intervention for Beast, based on his having kicked off the two series with his time-travel shenanigans and some other acts of madder-than-usual science (this story, incidentally, doesn't acknowledge that the whole time he was doing all this stuff, he was also part of a clandestine group of super-geniuses trying to save the Multiverse and occasionally having to snuff out alternate earths in New Avengers and the long run-up to Secret Wars, all of which really makes the time travel business seem like small potatoes...relatively, anyway).

In between, Bendis ties up all that he's going to tie up: Colossus makes amends with Magik, Adult Iceman comes out to Teen Iceman (resolving the weird question that Bendis left dangling when he outted Iceman, as to whether the past version was gay and the present one was straight, raising the specter of a text that posits homosexuality as a choice), Jean chooses Teen Beast over Teen Cyclops and Eva Bell reappears to tell Beast to join the cast of one of the too-many Inhumans books.

Also, Cyclops initiates a Million Mutant March in Washington, D.C. which doesn't make any goddam sense, no matter how you want to think about it. Paul O'Brien called the scene "unearned," and I think he's right; also, I think you should read Paul O'Brien's review instead of mine. Too late? Well then, read his and mine.

*Or Power Man III, depending on whether you want to count Erik Josten or not. I don't.

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