Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Civil War II: Choosing Sides

Ever since the first Marvel Civil War, the majority of the publisher's big, line-wide crossover events have been accompanied by a companion miniseries, generally showing the how the world-changing goings-on of that year's story is impacting the normal people of the Marvel Universe, or perhaps the many, many lower-tier characters who don't show up in the crossover event proper, or have books of their own that can be tied-in to the the event. Civil War had Civil War: Front Line, World War Hulk had World War Hulk: Front Line, Fear Itself had Fear Itself: The Home Front, and so on*. For last year's Civil War II, that companion series was Civil War II: Choosing Sides, a six-issue anthology miniseries, each featuring a chapter of a Nick Fury story written and drawn by Declan Shalvey entitled "Past Prologue," plus two short stories featuring various Marvel characters.

It is surprisingly quite good, with most of the stories being good ones, almost all of them being interesting ones, and only a few being neither.

It should be noted that the sub-title is more-or-less random. Few of the stories have anything at all to do with their stars deciding if they are Team Carol or Team Tony--as discussed though, there aren't really "sides" in this particular civil war, beyond the ones that exist for its sole battle in in #4 and #5--but rather with the characters reacting to various story beats from Civil War II, some quite personally, others in a more vague way.

It should furthermore noted that the cover doesn't really reflect the sides of the civil war. Aside from Captain Marvel and Tony Stark, and Medusa, Captain America and Black Panther, most of the characters dpeicted play relatively small roles in Civil War II...if they appear in the main series, or this companion series, at all. They certainly aren't pictured on the right "sides" here. Vision fights against Carol, for example, while Spider-Man sits that particular fight out. Star-Lord and Ms. America fight on Carol's side, while Daredevil sits it out. Not that comic book covers have ever been all that strictly reflective of their contents, but given the title of this particular series and the arrangement of the cover images, it sure seems to heavily imply that what we're looking at are Team Carol and Team Tony, and that the stories under this cover will show how the various heroes chose which side they would fight on.

In the trade paperback collection, the contents are slightly rearranged, so that all of the Nick Fury chapters run consecutively without break, making for a single, uninterrupted, 40-page story, the rest of the short stories following it.

Let's take them one by one...

Nick Fury in "Post Prologue" by Decan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire

While SHIELD has long-since proliferated to the point that they serve as supporting characters in just about every Marvel Universe comic, one imagines this is exactly the sort of comic that would run in a SHIELD monthly, if such a thing existed, and the concept was kept rather tightly relegated to a single, super-spy series within the Marvel Universe.

The Nick Fury is not the original one, but the one who looks like Sam Jackson--not the original one that looks like Sam Jackson, but the other one. That is, not Ultimate Nick Fury from the Ultimate Universe, but Nick Fury Jr. from Earth-616. Isn't it cool how incredibly complicated the road can be to get to something presumably simple and "easier," like a degree of synergy between what the comic book, cartoon and movie versions of a particular character might look like...?

Shalvey's story is just barely related to the plot of Civil War II. SHIELD Commander Maria Hill sends Nick Fury on a mission based on intel from "The Inhumans' precog--Ulysses" to wipe out a particular Hydra cell that, if successful in its mission, could spell doom for SHIELD. A version of the specific prophecy is repeatedly voiced through a fight scene in the first chapter: "SHIELD must live! Fury must die!" and there's a double-cross involved. As far as the prophecy goes, like those in a lot of the Civil War II tie-ins, it's rather cryptic, and ultimately turns out to be true-ish; that is, true, but not in the way that the people acting upon it think it is, and their attempt to prevent it only fulfill it.

Fury, outfitted in a personalized version of the standard SHIELD uniform, with a big SHIELD eagle emblem on his chest and a trench coat, has to fake his own death and go solo to route out a rogue faction of SHIELD within SHIELD. It's a nice, straightforward story, featuring some neat gimmicks in Fury's souped-up super-suit (which has some neat visuals to accompany its functions) and a satisfyingly inevitable, expected conflict, all carried along by Shalvey's clean, elegant artwork and fleet storytelling. It reminded me a bit of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Black Widow, which is quite appropriate given that it shares a specific genre and a few plot points with that book. Also, Black Widow shows up for a few pages to unknowingly fight Fury.

I can't imagine a Marvel getting a Nick Fury series to work at the moment, but this story sure works, and it's not hard to imagine the publisher getting a Declan Shalvey series to work.

"Night Thrasher" by Brandon Easton, Paul Davidson and Andrew Crossley

The first of the 10-page short stories stars Night Thrasher, the former New Warriors character whose "powers" revolved around his super-skateboard (He was one of the two black, super-skateboarding heroes of late '80s marvel that lead to the late, great Dwayne McDuffie's sarcastic proposal for a series entitled Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers). Set during the battle against The Celestial Destructor and its foot soldiers from Civil War II #1, the all hands on deck threat that was Ulysses' first prediction, it is basically just Night Thrasher Dwayne Taylor introducing himself to readers via narration, as he and the rest of the Marvel Universe fight off the invader. During the course of the battle, he crosses paths with both Iron Man Tony Stark, who he finds to be kind of an arrogant jerk (notably, the two have a lot in common), and Captain Marvel Carol Danvers.

To Easton's credit, he is able to craft an actual story out of this, accentuating the character's street-level focus and giving him an important side-quest. He also gets to the opportunity to point out that as dangerous as the fantasy land version of Marvel's New York City may seem during fantastical threats like this, it ain't got nothing on the fucked-up aspects of a lot of real American cities for real people. It's actually a bit of a sucker punch of an ending, but it is effective.

On the other hand, he has Night Thrasher seem a little too defensive about his skateboard, refusing to even call it a skateboard, and bristling when Tony does. Look Turner, you're the one calling yourself Night Thrasher. You're just gonna have to own that.

"Damage Control" by Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, Leonardo Romero and Miroslav Mrva

This story starring the members of the Marvel Universe's post-superhero battle clean-up and reconstruction crew is set in the immediate aftermath of the Everyone Vs. The Celestial Destructor battle that readers of the first issue of this series would have just finished reading about through Night Thrasher's point-of-view.

The business is in a bit of trouble, made worse by the fact that someone seems to be vandalizing their equipment in the middle of their job cleaning up after this latest battle. That "someone" turns out to be Trull The Unhuman, an alien being in the form of a sentient steam shovel...and evil sentient steam shovel. (I had to look him up, but turns out he is not original to this story, and is an old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creation).
How it is that a Kirby/Lee sentient steam shovel has never before appeared in a Damage Control story, I don't know, but writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims finally make it so. Romero's art is excellent, and of the same classy, classic aesthetic of the previously mentioned Samnee and a handful of other artist working for the publisher these days. His version of Trull makes the story, as does the fact that his realistic human beings contrast so sharply with the steam shovel with an angry face.

"War Machine" by Jeremy Whitley and Marguerite Sauvage

We're still not to the civil warring point in Civil War II, but this short story picks up on one of the plot-points from the first few issues of the event series: The death of War Machine James "Rhodey" Rhodes. Specifically, his funeral, and how a handful of female heroes of color process his death in snippets of two-pages apiece.

The eight-page story is book-ended by America (former Young Avenger and current member of The Ultimates, who was at the battle in which Rhodey died), tries to keep Hawkeye Kate Bishop at a distance, and explains how her ability to punch her way into different realities allows her a certain perspective on Rhodes' death, which she shares.

Between those two pages are a series of three, two-page vignettes starring Spectrum Monica Rambeau, Misty Knight and Storm, each narrated by each character.

There's so much telling in these rather wordy eight pages that it's easy to see how this comic could have been a bit of slog to read, but it's drawn by the incomparable Marguerite Sauvage, so every panel is beautiful, perfectly rendered and slightly radiant.

"Goliath" by Brandon Thomas and Marco Rudy

The original Civil War featured a single casualty, Goliath Bill Foster, who was essentially murdered for resisting arrest by...an cyborg that his peers Mister Fantastic and Iron Man had created from the genetic material of their other colleague, Thor. Oops. So there's something that both of Marvel's Civil Wars have in common--both kill off a prominent hero of color.

Foster's legacy was later carried on by his nephew, Tom Foster. I lost track of the character shortly after he was introduced--around the time of World War Hulk, I believe--but apparently he did something at some point to land himself in jail. This short story is narrated by a prison guard working at the supervillain jail where Foster was serving time, in which the young hero-turned-villain regains the use of his powers and has the opportunity to do bad, do good or just get the heck out of there. He chooses to do good.

The story is mostly a little character sketch, the purpose of which seems to be the rehabilitation of Tom Foster, but it's presence in the closest of the Civil War II tie-in books is appreciated, as it provides a rather rare call back to the original Civil War story (For the most part, Bendis' invocations of the first Civil War only consist of things like Tony saying he's learned not to disagree with Captain America, or other characters mentioning that all the heroes are fighting "again").

Thomas also ties it to the death of Rhodes, with the narrator explicitly comparing the two heroes at the outset.

"Kate Bishop" by Ming Doyle and Stephen Byrne

So how does the other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, feel about her sometimes crime-fighting partner and the guy she named herself after being on trail for shooting Bruce Banner in the forehead with a super, Hulk-killing arrow? That's what this story is for! She's...not happy. Most of the story focuses on her trying to shut out news that can't help but assault her, and writer Doyle probably over does it with Bishop's narration, as the scenes she lays out for artist Stephen Byrne to draw are pretty self-explanatory. But the resolution is a fun one, as most of her teammates from the last iteration of the Young Avengers--Wiccan, Hulkling, Ms. America and Prodigy--show up to be there for her. Also, Pizza Dog.

"J. Jonah Jameson" by Derek Landry and Filipe Andrade

So I guess Jonah runs some kind of Fox-esque news channel now, rather than a newspaper...? He was the mayor of New York City last time I saw him, I believe. There's not a whole lot to this story, which is essentially one big walk-and-talk scene between Jonah and a bespectacled, bow-tied Robbie Robertson type (That is, someone for Jonah to talk to in the office).

Mos of the talking part revolves around how they are covering the Barton trial, and it's not a whole lot clearer who is representing who here, but Matt Murdock does seem like maybe he's acting as the prosecutor (I still don't know why the case is being tried in New York City, though), as New Robertson refers to "Murdock's office" and "Barton's team" as if they are different entities.

Andrade's art is quite nice, and differs quite sharply stylistically from the more standard superhero art of Byrne in the story that preceded it, and pretty much everyone else's art in this book.

"The Punisher" by Chuck Brown and Chris Visions

So what is The Punisher's role in this here superhero civil war? He doesn't have one. He's just going around murdering criminals, as per usual. This story has so little to do with Civil War II, one wonders why it was even commissioned. The criminals/victims, who are attempting to steal a deadly virus from a lab, mention that there's a guy who can see the future now, and worry that maybe he's predicted the crime they are in the process of carrying out, and...that's about it, really. The Punisher arrives, and kills them.

Visions' art has a loose, sketchy look to it, and he draws big figures with big, thick lines, but aside from it's interesting look and some meta-commentary on casting Finn Jones as Danny Rand on Netflix's Iron Fist**, there's nothing to this.

"Power Pack" by John Allison and Rosi Kampe

The Power Pack's Jack, Julie and Katie visit Empire State University Campus, and briefly chat about current events, like Hawkeye having killed Bruce Banner, and the existence of Ulysses.

"If people are going to die, and you can stop it, then stop it before it happens!" Jack says. "Just do it!"

"Why does it hav eto be just one thing or another? It's stupid to take sides," Katie says. "Things are very complicated. Very very very complicated."

And that's it for Civil War II relevance! This story and The Punisher both ran in the fourth issue of Choosing Sides, which makes it the least relevant of the issues in this series, I think, as it has almost nothing at all to do with Civil War II (I guess we could qualify these as verbal red sky tie-ins), and the very idea of choosing sides is explicitly dismissed.

"Alpha Flight" by Chip Zdarsky and Ramon Perez

Now this one I actually found to be a valuable story in terms of understanding the greater Civil War II method, in addition to the other pleasures it promised, as it was the first time I had seen any explanation for what the hell the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight was doing working with Captain Marvel Carol Danvers out of the Triskelion in New York. Apparently, they--or at least Puck, Sasquatch and Aurora--are part of something called the Alpha Flight Space Program lead by Danvers, and its an international body focused on defending the entire planet from space invaders.

In the first half of this surprisingly full and Civil War II-centric story, the trio take down a couple of American citizens on intel gained from Ulysses in Michigan, and then get called into a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who gives them a good talking to, and makes it pretty clear that he thinks Team Carol is kinda dumb (The best part of this scene, I think, is that Puck is shown sipping from a Tim Horton's coffee cup. That is also the worst part, as it made me crave Tim Horton's, and the nearest one is almost two hours drive from me. What I'm saying is Tim Horton's should build a Tim Horton's in Mentor, Ohio, or somewhere nearby (Of course, that would be one less reason to visit Erie, Pennsylvania...Hmm...Maybe Tim Horton should just call me and we can discuss this further...)

The second half of the story is a surprisingly touching scene between Trudeau and his apparent bro, American billionaire millionaire industrialist and superhero Tony Stark, with whom he occasionally boxes. Here Trudeau says that while he does indeed think Alpha Flight is wrong, he doesn't think Tony is right, either. "There's a middle ground," he says "There always is." Well, I don't know about that, but I was really surprised at how emotional this story was, and how effectively conveyed those emotions were, given that it was written by a guy I know primarily from writing comics about Jughead Jones and a talking duck, and that it featured the Canadian Prime Minster and Bigfoot.

"Colleen Wing" by Enrique Carrion and Annapaola Martello

If I had to guess, I would guess that the only reason this story exists is that Colleen and Misty Knight are featured characters on some Netflix TV shows? Otherwise, there's nothing to it, and this is another story in the title that has pretty much nothing to do with Civil War II, save maybe some thematic business, as besties Colleen and Misty fight one another at one point.

Misty is hero-for-hired to act as an escort on a S.T.A.K.E. mission, transporting a prisoner along with Man-Thing. Then Colleen attacks, because she needs the prisoner's help finding a missing person. After a brief, forgettable sword fight with Man-Thing, Misty lets her take the guy and, um, that's it. That's the whole story. Dum Dum Duggan appears and says "Carol Danvers" once, but that's as close as it gets to having naything to do with Civil War II.

I'm usually down for any and all Man-Thing stories, but while Martello's art is fine, it doesn't do anything particularly special with the generic material.

"Jessica Jones" by Chelsea Cain and Alison Sampson

There's a little note saying that this issue takes place before Civil War II #3, which is all well and good, but I was more curious as to where it takes in relation to the Power Man and Iron Fist Vol. 2, as the Civil War II tie-in arc in that title has Jessica and Danielle on the run and separated from Luke, while Jessica's only real role in the main series comes at a point where Tony Star name-drops her, saying that he's hired her and Dakota North to dig up whatever they can on Ulysses.

That's this story, by Chelsea Cain, the prose fiction writer turned one of Marvel's best comics writers (in the too-quickly canceled Mockingbirds, the first volume of which I can't recommend enough). Cain is here paired with artist Alison Sampson. It's a very short story, as all of these are, but it's also very good, and the one thought I couldn't get out of my mind while reading it was that I liked Cain's writing of Jessica better than I liked Brian Michael Bendis', even though the latter created the character (I think the same goes for Alison Sampson's art vs. Michael Gaydos'; Sampson draws in a very realistic style like Gaydos, and this Jessica similarly looks like one you might run into at a grocery store or the library or the bank instead of a movie star pretty woman like Kristen Ritter, but there's a bit more life in Sampson's art than in Gaydos' stiffer lay-outs and photo-referenced settings).

Jessica is in Ohio--Point Pleasant, Ohio***, specifically--trying to dig up as much dirt as she can on Ulysses, the new Inhuman who is the maguffin of Civil War II. At the very least, she discovers why he's named Ulysses! As in Mockingbird, Cain writes sharp, fun, funny dialogue and comes up with some striking situations and characters (and, in the case of Jessica, characterizations), even if it is much more realistic and down-to-earth than her series about the super-spy-turned-superhero-turned-super-spy/superhero.

Chelsea Cain and Alison Sampson for Jessica Jones! Brian Michael Bendis has more than enough other stuff he can be writing...

"White Fox" by Christina Strain and Sana Takeda

So I've never heard of this White Fox person before. She is apparently a Korean super-person, who is maybe actually some kind of fox demon or fairy or spirit that poses as a human, and she can talk to animals and out-fight Abigail Brand (who now works for Captain Marvel, I guess? When did that happen?). Carol wants her to come work with them in "The Ulysses Initiative," White Fox thinks about it and declines. The end!

I still don't know a whole heck of a lot about this White Fox person, but now I've at least met her. Takeda's art is gorgeous, but this is another of those no-there-there stories, and it's a rather bum one to end the collection one. Heck, if they had only switched this one and the Jessica Jones short, then it would have ended on a high note.

Anyway, to recap: This is an overall pretty good collection, a much-better-than-expected companion series to a much-worse-than-expected crossover event series.

*The best--or should I say "best"...?--of these was probably the one that ran alongside 2012's Avengers Vs. X-Men,AVX: VS, which, of course, stood for "Avengers Vs. X-Men: Vs.", and consisted of extended fight scenes that there just wasn't quite room for in the main series, making it a comic book series that was the equivalent of deleted scenes from a movie that one might find available on the DVD.

**At least, that's how Iread the exchange. When someone mentions that Tombstone is the buyer for the thing they are stealing, one of them says "Word on the street is he's burning through cash to take out the bulletproof black dude and the Chinese karate guy." Another member of the gang corrects him: "It's kung fu, not karate, and he's a white guy." To which the original guy replies, "You're kidding?! Really?"

***Yeah, we've got one of those too.


Bram said...

Will be picking up the new NICK FURY #2 tomorrow, but the first issue was a terrific, visually driven spy action sequence.

Dean said...

White Fox was introduced in Al Ewings' 'Contest of Champions' series, which was a lot better than a phone game tie-in comic needed to be.