Sunday, April 23, 2017

Some recent Marvel trades I read, um, recently:

Daredevil: Back In Black Vol.3--Dark Art

After a really rather rough second volume (discussed in this post), the current, Charles Soule-written volume of Daredevil is back to the level of quality of the first volume. This likely has a lot to do with the fact that pencil artist Ron Garney is back, drawing all five of the issues collected herein. It may also have a lot to do with the fact that, like the first volume and unlike the second volume, Soule apparently wrote these issues as a single arc. It's not quite complete enough to read like a distinct graphic novel, as it does pick up on at least one event from volume two (Elektra having broken Blindspot's arm), and there's a pretty dramatic cliffhanger ending regarding the fate of Daredevil's new sidekick, but otherwise this is a pretty self-contained comics story.

Our heroes are doing their thing, lawyering and/or law assistancing by day, fighting crime by night, and they are forced to face a sinister new villain. The papers have dubbed him "Vincent Van Gore," which is pretty good, but he personally prefers "Muse," which isn't quite as good. He's a serial killer/artist, and his first major piece being a gigantic Guernica-esque mural painted with the blood of dozens of different victims. He's also got some weird and, frankly, ill-defined powers that make him a match for Daredevil in a scrap, particularly since Daredevil can't "see" him.

And that's pretty much that: Hero vs. villain, with the latter being a brand-new villain. There's something you don't see much anymore!

Complicating matters is that Muse's second piece involves killing of several Inhumans*, and so Daredevil and Matt Murdock try to work with Medusa and New Attilan. There's another new character introduced here--a former New York City Police Department detective who got Inhuman-ized, given a neat but subtle power and who now works as a liaison between the country and the city's police--who spends the most time with DD and/or MM, but the climax of the Inhumans' involvement seems to be to have Medusa be kind of a jerk and let Karnak and Daredevil fight. As I was reading one scene, in which neighborhood toughs attempt to murder an Inhuman, it occurred to me that this story arc may seem quite dated in a few years' time, as the scene is written almost exactly as if Soule had simply replaced the word "mutant" with "Inhuman."

I'm not crazy about Muse's mask, which appears to include a tight-fitting knit cap like the kind of a cartoon burglar might wear, and his tiny little backpack, but otherwise his design is visually striking, and of the sort that fits into the book's unusual coloring scheme (which color artist Matt Milla manages).
I can't say I'm terribly excited about what I imagine may dominate the fourth volume, based on the last, climactic pages of this arc, in which Blindspot is forced to take on Muse solo in order to save many lives, but it's quite possible that Soule will end up zagging instead of zigging.

Again, after a choppy second volume, Daredevil is again pretty tightly written super-comics, with great art and a somewhat unique visual hook to its telling that separates it from the scores of other superhero comics on the shelves at the moment (the vast majority of which are also published by Marvel).

Deadpool: Too Soon?

If Deadpool's current state of popularity is such that his presence can not only goose interest and sales in books he appears in, than this four-issue miniseries operated on almost reverse logic. This is a Deadpool comic filled with a large cast of guest-stars, most of them relatively minor characters, but ones with strong fan bases.

Writer Joshua Corin (whom I have never heard of**) sends The Forbush Man, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, The Astonishing Ant-Man, Rocket and Groot, Howard The Duck, The Punisher and Peter Porker, The Amazing Spider-Ham and, um, The Punisher to a mansion, each following a similar mysterious letter. There they are greeted by Deadpool and his apparent wife, a demon named Shiklah (I had heard he was married, although this is the first time in my extremely sporadic reading of Deadpool comics that I learned to who).

Deadpool has invited them all there to pose for his Christmas card photo with him, and has dug up enough blackmail material on each of them to force them to comply. Why this particular assortment of characters? Because, he explains, they are the funniest characters in the Marvel Universe. If The Punisher seems particularly out-of-place among this group, I suspect that is the joke regarding his presence.

This set-up leads to a locked-door sort of mystery, as when the lights briefly go out and come back on, Forbush Man is found decapitated! Is this the end of the Forbush Man, the most expendable of the guests, in that he's not currently starring or co-starring in a comic book? Looks like! At his funeral, attended by all (dig Tippy-Toe's little black ribbon), Deadpool vows to find the killer, criss-crossing the country to investigate the other suspects in the room that night (he naturally dismisses himself and his wife).

Joined against his will by Squirrel Girl, he travels to California, to Miami and then back to New York City, pursued by "Squirrelpool," a hideous clone monster created accidentally when he and Squirrel Girl share an old teleporter (I was pretty disappointed in this design by artist Todd Nauck; it suits the purposes of the story fine, although I'm not sure why it's a hulking monster-sized creature instead of being Deadpool-sized, or even just Deadpool-plus-Squirrel Girl-sized, but man, it would be so easy to amalgamate those two characters into a cool design).

When the beheadings start to pile-up, and include clearly-not-going-to-get-killed-off-for-long characters like Rocket and Groot (and, a little more shockingly, Squirrel Girl's besties Nancy Whitehead*** and Tippy-Toe), the stakes are lowered and, when the murderer is revealed and defeated with some help of Marvel's latest movie star Dr. Strange, it should come as no surprise that everyone is restored to life in some particularly random deus ex machina. (To be fair to Brad Meltzer, whose Identity Crisis is pretty much the worst murder "mystery" in comic book history, I should note that the killer is not a suspect introduced at any point in the comic, and so as a mystery, this doesn't work...not that the mystery set-up was ever meant to be anything more than a premise, of course).

Nauck is an artist I sometimes have some trouble evaluating entirely impartially, given the amount of affection I have for his work on account of his years on Young Justice. His ability--and tons of experience--balancing light-hearted supehero comedy with concinving superhero action serves him well in this particular series, though, and it's certainly interesting to see so many diverse characters translated though his particular visual style, even if they don't all seem to work (Squirrel Girl, for example, is a character that some artist seem to nail a particular take on, while others flounder a bit, sometimes for reasons I have a hard time pinning down. Nauck's version just looks like a typical super-girl character with a few Squirrel Girly features, rather than looking like Squirrel Girl.)

I was a little surprised to find a back-up, the story "Deadpooloween" taken from the Gwenpool Holiday Special: Merry Mix-Up #1, and I was more surprised still to find that it was both written and drawn by Chynna Clugston Flores. I guess it was included because it prominently features Squirrel Girl, as does the Too Soon?. It's been a good long time since I've read a Chynna comic, although I can hardly overstate how much I loved her Blue Monday in Action Girl and then from Oni (Image is currently reprinting it, and you should buy it and read it). While I'm sure she's done something for Marvel since, the last Marvel comic she drew that I read was that issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up from the earliest years of the Ultimate line, when Brian Michael Bendis had Peter Parker and pals run into the X-Men at the mall.

In her story, Deadpool belatedly realizes it Halloween, and suits up to cruise the town near Empire State University. There he finds that Squirrel Girl is hosting a Deadpool costume contest, which he angrily enters, irritated that the success of his movie has spawned so many college bros dressing up like him this Halloween.

Remember what I said about certain artists seeming to do a better, truer Squirrel Girl than others? Chynna nails hers. Her style is so different than that of Erica Henderson, but Chynna is just an all-around expert when it comes to drawing geeky young people, I guess. I would love to see more Chynna Clugston Flores Squirrel Girl somewhere in the future.

Doctor Strange Vol. 3: Blood in the Aether

With Doctor Strange's magical powers and resources utterly exhausted by his two-volume battle against the magic-destroying interdimensional entity The Empirikul, he is at one of his lowest, weakest points in Doctor Strange #11, by writer Jason Aaron and guest-artists Kevin Nowlan (who draws the scenes set during Strange's origin) and Leonardo Romero (who draws the scenes set in the present). That means there's blood in the water and the sharks are starting to circle.

And by "the water" I guess we mean "the aether," and by "the sharks" I guess we mean an assortment of villains, including Doctor Strange's arch-enemies and a few newer or more random threats.

So after the prelude chapter that the 11th issue serves as, the rest of the collection is a sort of week-in-the-life story, in which Doctor Strange runs a gauntlet of foes new and old, all the time being forced to rely on his wits, his allies and what new sorcery he can invent on the fly to save himself...and everyone else.

So in rapid succession Strange faces Mister Misery (the name the thing from his basement assigned itself), Baron Mordo, Nightmare, Satana and Master Pandemonium**** (and Pandemonium's hands), the post-Original Sin version of The Orb and, of course, the dread Dormammu. Their motives range from the dire to the petty to the idiosyncratic, and if you're at all familiar with any of these characters you can probably assign each of them to those categories without any help from me, but it all adds up to a pretty dramatic, almost arcade-like fight, with a few lighter moments to stop and exhale.

Regular pencil artist Chris Bachalo manages the bulk of the five issues that make up the actual "Blood in the Aether" story arc (with a pair of pencilers getting "with" credits on the last two issues, and eight different inkers credited on these issues...speaking of credit, it's to Bachalo and company's credit that the story actually looks pretty great, and all those different artists work together well enough that their collaboration is, if not seamless, than relatively seam-light).

It's really difficult to overstate how well-suited Bachalo is to the material, and not just to the Steve Ditko-conceived world of Doctor Strange in general, but to writer Jason Aaron's world-weary, joke-heavy conception of the character and his story specifically. As I've said before, Bachalo handles weird well, and he manages to make old characters like Dormammu, Mordo and Nightmare his own, while the characters that are his own, like Mister Misery, are hard to imagine under anyone else's pens.

Probably the best example of his work is the issue devoted to Satana, however. She plans to open up her own hell, one in which the damned can spend time with "cool" dead people, like dead rockstars and superheroes, like Doctor Strange. She pitches him over a bizarre meal in a bizarre diner (Pandemonium is both her short order cook and her muscle), filled with elaborately, cartoonishly designed creatures. To save himself, Strange must use his astral projection form in a pretty unusual way, which I'm not sure if he's ever done before, in order to achieve a particular goal I'm quite positive he never has.

I'm not sure if Bachalo has completely redesigned Satana here, or if his and colorist Antonio Fabela's version is just strikingly rendered, but this is maybe the coolest I can remember her looking. I think Bachalo draws Pandemonium's hand demons a little too gitancially, but, like Swarm, there's really no way to screw up the drawing of this crazy-ass Marvel villain.

Bachalo's Orb is another pretty great character. I don't believe I've seen him since Original Sin, nor do I quite understand how either he or Nick Fury Sr. "work" in the Marvel Universe anymore, but Aaron's conception of The Orb works well here for the purposes of a Doctor Strange comic, and Bachalo seems to have a lot of fun selling this new life of the character's menace as well as inherent humor.

This volume is really strong enough to stand on its own, independent of the two preceding it, as the only things one really needs to know from the previous ten issues get summarized in the three sentences following the Doctor Strange logo on the title page.

Power Man and Iron Fist Vol. 2: Civil War II

Here's another in the too-long line of pretty good books that got derailed and/or destroyed by Civil War II. In the case of the David Walker-written Heroes For Hire revival, I say "and/or destroyed" because the book is no longer around. That may have simply been Marvel trying to more closely tie their comics to the various Netflix series, as after this book's cancellation Walker went on to write a Luke Cage solo title sharing the name of his TV show, and a new Iron Fist series launched. Or it could have been because of this dumb-ass story arc, that takes over issues #6-9 of the then-new book, almost the entirety of this second collected volume of the series (there's also a fun, holiday annual included in this collection).

For trade-waiters like me, the other unfortunate aspect of Civil War II? Because that book was so delayed, and expanded after solicitation, it meant I couldn't read any of the tie-in trades like this until I read the main series, but so many of the tie-ins were published prior to the Civil War II collection, that basically meant holding off on reading any (or at least many) Marvel collections for a few months longer than I might have otherwise. (As it turns out though, one really only needs to have read the first few issues of Civil War II to understand what's going on here; War Machine's dead, She-Hulk is in a coma and Carol Danvers is a big, stupid immoral idiot and...that's it, really).

Now, this arc is bad, but it's still fun, and maybe as good as a tie-in to such a dumb event series could be if it really did try to honestly engage with the event instead of simply side-stepping it as fast as possible. Walker writes these characters extremely well, and has a lot of fun with Luke's refusal to swear and in recovering the often very goofy characters from Cage's deep past, and other failed or half-forgotten street-level characters from Marvel's past, and reintroducing them, often portraying their past portrayals as youthful indiscretions, or perhaps trying to be something they weren't...or, in at least one case, trying to hang on to something they never were in the first place.

The artwork by Flavianao and Sanford Green is great, and I could look at those two guys' drawings of the two guys in the title all damn day; I particularly like, as I believe I mentioned when discussing the first volume, how huge this Luke Cage is drawn, in relation to Danny, Jessica, Danielle and the whole world around him. He's a literally bigger-than-life character.

Walker's way of dealing with the Civil War II plot is interesting, and I find myself wondering whether the plot for this arc, which isn't quite concluded in this volume, is one he would have written anyway, and he was just forced to fold Carol Danvers in, or if his non-Civil War II plot was an intentional echo of Civil War II, inspired by its plot.

So the first issue opens with Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Jessica Jones and a clueless Danielle watching news footage of the battle with Thanos that took place in Free Comic Book Day 2016, which the Civil War II collection puts between Civil War II #0 and Civil War II #1 (That event series, by the way, makes an excellent case for trade-waiting, as it's really hard to tell where and when it actually starts; there are basically three different starting points, one of which isn't terribly relevant. Better to let a collections editor curate it, I think). This is the battle that ends with War Machine James Rhodes dead and She-Hulk in a coma, and the two heroes are pretty shaken for obvious reasons, with flashbacks giving less-obvious, more personal details: Cage and Rhodey's last conversation was an intense argument, and Danny thinks about the time he kissed She-Hulk. Four more pages are devoted to Civil War II: They attempt to visit Shulkie at the Tri-Skelion but are turned away, and they are warmly greeted by Carol, who then asks if they can give her a minute of their time so she can explain what's going on.

Jump to the two of them walking to their car, reiterating that Civil War II is dumb and they hope they can avoid being in it (they can't!).

"What was all that 'predictive justice' stuff Carol was talking about?" Danny yells. "Sounded like a bunch of fiddle-faddle to me," Luke says, and they agree to sit this one out, as they are also sick of hero vs. hero fights. On a two-page spread, between two tiers of them talking about it, there's a nice big spread of the Luke Cage-lead Avengers (from the second volume of the Bendis-written New Avengers, I want to say) fighting the Carol Danvers and Iron Man-lead Avengers (from the pages of the Bendis-written Mighty Avengers). Cage, who sided with Captain America in the pages of the first Civil War, was basically in a kinda cold war with the government-sanctioned Avengers between the end of Civil War and the post-Secret Invasion "Heroic Age," I think.

Walker then returns to matters related to his book, as a bunch of reformed criminals and their family members attempt to hire the Heroes For Hire to find a bunch of ex-cons who have since gone straight but disappeared shortly after encountering a group of mysterious vigilantes. And then those vigilantes attack! Followed by the police!

This ends with Danny Rand in jail for assaulting some officers, where he tries to figure out the disappearances. Many of those who have disappeared are also in jail there, and they ended up there without officially being charged or getting trials. Outside prison, Luke calls in favors from many friends to try to figure out the one clue they have, a mysterious device that mixes facial recognition software with the ability to manipulate and falsify criminal records. This is what the vigilantes were doing to bust their victims.

So you can see how this thematically kinda sorta ties in to Civil War II, as innocent--or at least innocent-until-proven-guilty--people are being attacked, arrested and punished for crimes they didn't actually commit. Civil War II comes back to the fore when Ulysses--the prophesying Inhuman that Carol Danvers is using to predict possible future crimes to prevent before they happen--has a vision of Luke Cage leading a break-in at Ryker's to free the incarcerated Danny.

In fact, a confused and frustrated Cage calls Songbird and Centurius to join him as he looks at Ryker's, in the hopes that they can talk him out of doing something stupid and figure out this whole mess, and then "Sweet Christmas, Easter and Hanukkah," in swoop Danvers, Mockingbird, Puck, Spectrum, Storm, Deathlok and a whole bunch of SHIELD troops. They are there to stop Ulysses' vision from coming to pass by arresting Luke first and, just as in All-New Wolverine Vol. 2: Civil War II, Carol's intervention is exactly what causes the vision to come to pass (slow learner, I guess).

Luke's not having it, of course, he tells off Carol in such a way to piss her off, and everyone fights, with the fight eventually spreading inside the prison after Carol punches Luke through its walls and a couple of errant energy blasts and explosions continue to escalate the situation.

There's a lot of fighting between all parties. I particularly liked the fight-then-team-up sequences involving Mockingbird, who Walker writes close enough to Chelsea Cain that she sounds like the same character, and Songbird, because they have similar names. And I'm always calling Songbird Mockingbird by accident.

It ends with Cage making a couple of speeches in Carol's direction, and then Danny making another one, and she's eventually shamed into dropping it and they help round up the prisoners and clean up the jail. (I'm not sure this all lines up perfectly well with Civil War II, by the way. In that book's third issue, Luke and Danny appear to be working with Carol and SHIELD, at least according to one big panel of a series of three images that run across a two-page spread while New York City Assistant District Attorney examines Carol Danvers, but in issue #4, Luke is allied with Iron Man on the "cool" team that shows up at the Triskelion to fight Carol's lame team.)

But just as in the pages of Civil War II, the tie-ins seem mostly designed to demonstrate that Carol is dumb and keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

As for the A-plot, which becomes the B-plot, Luke's team is just about to crack where the doohickey being used to find and incarcerate people came from, when a very powerful person in a hoodie teleports to his safehouse and steals it from the hands of his allies.

As I mentioned earlier, the rest of the collection is devoted to an annual, or, to be specific, Sweet Christmas Annual #1. Walker writes this as well, but Scott Hepburn provides the art. It's Christmas Eve, and Luke, Danny and Danielle visit a toy store to find the Pokemon-like hot toy of the season. Also there is Spider-Woman Jessica Drew and her baby. And Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, in an open-coat Santa suit. And The Krampus. And the real Santa Claus. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and Hepburn draws a hell of a Krampus, as well as a pretty sweet warrior version of Santa that isn't as over-the-top as the one in the Grant Morrison-written Santa vs. Krampus comic, Klaus.

I'm really glad it was collected here, even though the storyline preceding it didn't really reach its conclusion, because it at least means the book ends on a high note, rather than being another example of the Civil War II storlyine stumbling into an already perfectly strong title, upsetting all the furniture and then stumbling back out.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 5: Like I'm The Only Squirrel In The World

This volume takes for its cover that of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #13, i.e. the one where Squirrel Girl is hauling back to throw Tippy-Toe, who is herself hauling back to throw Ant-Man, who is all curled up like a ball in her tiny squirrel fist. Is this modified Fuzzball Special just something for the cover, or does it actually occur within the pages of the comic itself?
It does!

The Squirrel Girl/Ant-Man team-up takes place during a story arc that dominates this trade, occupying the first three of the five issues collected herein. Doreen, Nancy and Tippy-Toe join Doreen's mom at a cabin in Canada for a rather boring vacation, which is interrupted by a bid to conquer the world by a character who can split himself into many different versions of himself. His name is Enigmo, and he is apparently a pre-existing Marvel villain (The Internet said he debuted in 1994 issue of Avengers). Brain Drain, the disembodied brain in a jar atop a powerful robot body that has been hanging around with Doreen and friends for a while, teleports to Canada to help her, and he does so with the only hero he could find who was small enough to fit in the teleporter at the same time as him: The Astonishing Ant-Man, Scott Lang.

As per usual, Squirrel Girl is able to save the day, with the help of her many friends and the help of science knowledge, which writer Ryan North applies to the comic book world of the Marvel Universe as charmingly as ever. For example, there is a flashback to physics class, where in Doreen and Nancy remember their teacher's lecture on "Galileo's Square-Cube law," which explains why giant mice are impossible.

"And yes, you can get around this restriction with certain cosmic rays or other exotic particles. I am aware of Pym's work, thank you," the professor continues. "It's hard not to be when he published journal articles like 'Ha Ha, I'm Giant-Man Now: Screw You, All Other Physicists.'"

That sounds like a fantastic journal article! Should I be reading scientific journals, for laughs?

This very full arc, which actually feels a lot longer than three issues, contains not only a team-up with a very grumpy Ant-Man--who was kidnapped into participating--but lots of jokes based on Brain Drain's nihilistic view of the universe and the humor inherent in Canada, and how it is different than America.

I mention that the arc felt longer than it actually was, not as a criticism, but as a compliment. Not only does artist Erica Henderson draw lots of panels per page when called on to do so, but North clearly spends a great deal of his writing-time think of how to pack as many jokes into each page as possible. Not just the bonus jokes that come in the alt-text like sentences below most of the pages, but, for example, this panel, in which Doreen surveys her choices for magazines to read in the cabin:
North easily could have stopped at the titles of the magazines themselves, but he went above and beyond, to include several jokes on each cover, detailing the contents of those magazines.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has got to have set some kind of record for the most jokes per square centimeter of page-space.

The remaining two issues of the collections are done-in-ones. The first of these is a comic told entirely from the perspective of Nancy's cat Mew, which I believe the solicitation for blamed on Matt Fraction and David Aja doing that Pizza Dog issue of Hawkeye a few years back (In fact, there's a dog that appears in this that I'm fairly confident is supposed to be Pizza Dog, although he's not named, and I didn't see either of the Hawkeyes among the many super-heroes running around). In the background, The Taskmaster is using his awesome skills to take on a whole mess of superheroes--Iron Man! A The Hulk!***** Captain America! Spider-Man! Ms. Marvel! Ms. America! Hellcat!--in addition to Squirrel Girl, but she ultimately proves unbeatable, thanks to the fact that she has something Taskmaster can't master. This issue contains several pages by Zac Gorman, in which he draws comic strips that replicate Mew's dreams. Apparently cats dream in comic strips? Who knew?

The final issue is devoted to celebrating the 25th anniversary of Squirrel Girl's introduction by creators Will Murray and Steve Ditko in 1991's Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special #8. It's a kinda sorta origin of the character, although not in the "how she got her powers and became a super-hero" kind of way as much as a "where, specifically, she came from" kind of story (That is, it opens with her parents meeting, and the title page is her mom holding her just after giving birth). From there it jumps around in five year increments, and we meet the late Monkey Joe, watch 15-year-old Squirrel Girl help The Hulk take down The Abomination and, finally, enjoy a birthday party with her pals and some Avengers, a party which The Red Skull foolishly attempts to crash.

While the issue is mostly another North and Henderson joint, Murray writes the 15-year-old Doreen sequence, and a piece of Ditko art is repurposed to get something from the great artist into the issue.

*Oh hey, in all those recent discussions of the source of Marvel's current sales woes--you know, whether it was diversity of characters or event exhaustion or them renumbering their books twice a year or whatever--did anyone theorize that maybe it was just that everyone hates the Inhumans, yet Marvel seemed to go ahead and keep publishing Inhumans books constantly, while shoehorning them into pretty much everything they publish? Could that have been a factor? Did Marvel comics readers so hate the Inhumans that they stopped buying Marvel comics to avoid reading about the Inhumans?

**At least not until googling him. He's a prose writer and playwright, and this was his first comics work, which would explain why I had never heard of him. It should be noted that he writes like a comic book writer here, and doesn't display any of the typical flaws one sees when writers fluent in another medium tackle comics-scripting for the first time.

***I was a little surprised that Corin didn't include a joke of any kind referring to Nancy Whitehead as Nancy Whiteheadless. He is a stronger man than I am, I guess.

****I just went to check the table-of-contents of Jon Morris' The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains, the companion book to his earlier League of Regrettable Super Heroes and, to my surprise, Master Pandemonium was not included. Nor was The Orb. Swarm was however, and there's actually a pretty good showing from Marvel villains overall: Stilt-Man, MODOK, Angar the Screamer, Black Talon, The Headmen and others.

*****Not a typo! I'm just not sure which The Hulk it is, Amadeus Cho or Bruce Banner, the latter of whom I'm fairly certain wasn't temporarily dead-ish at the time that issue of Squirrel Girl was pubished.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Did Marvel comics readers so hate the Inhumans that they stopped buying Marvel comics to avoid reading about the Inhumans?

This is the most plausible take I've read yet.