Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Some recent Marvel collections I read recently

All-New Wolverine Vol. 3: Enemy of The State II

Well, this was interesting move. Writer Tom Taylor follows a Civil War II tie-in, which was collected in the trade paperback All-New Wolverine Vol. 2: Civil War II, with a story arc entitled "Enemy of The State II." The original "Enemy of The State" was a 2004-2005 Wolverine story arc by writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr and others in which Hydra, The Hand and a new group "killed" Wolverine, resurrected him as a brain-washed Hand super-assassin, and then sicced him upon SHIELD and a large swathe of the Marvel Universe, and he fought and almost-but-didn't-kill pretty much everyone...well, I think Northstar might have "died" for a while. It was pretty cool; Wolvie fought a shark, and JRJR drew it, so, you know, it had that going for it.

For this "Enemy of The State," Taylor puts this Wolverine in a situation that...isn't really like that at all. Just enough that they could get away with using the title, I guess. JRJR is not involved; it's drawn by Nic Virella, Djibril Morissette-Phan and Scott Hanna. There is no shark.

I'm not sure if Taylor used that title simply as an attention-grabbing call-back, or if he was making a sarcastic meta-point, since "Enemy of The State II" has hardly anything in common with "Enemy of The State," in the same way that Civil War II had hardly anything in common with Civil War (which was also written by Millar!). Probably the former.

So when we last saw All-New Wolverine Laura Kinney and her clone/little sister Gabby, the pair had just survived a Civil War II tie-in, and took the opportunity to tell everyone off, express their dissatisfaction with the very premise of Civil War II and announce their intention to stay out of it.

That entailed Laura putting cosplaying as Netflix's Jessica Jones--well, she put on a scarf and leather jacket--and packing up Gabby and their pet wolverine Jonathan for a cross-country trip to a stinky old cabin of Logan's, where they can sit out the civil war and also stay off the radar of Laura's old handler, who just mailed her a scary package tying into her origin as X-23. But trouble follows Team Wolverine!

Doused with her "trigger scent," which turns her into an unstoppable, mindless killing machine, Laura blacks out and kills the entire population of a nearby small town! (Spoiler: Not really, but she thinks she did). She's promptly arrested by SHIELD, escapes and then she tries to get to Madripoor, but along the way she's abducted by bad guys lead by Kimura, who wants to use her trigger scent to have her assassinate Tyger Tiger so they can...take over Madripoor? (I believe the original "Enemy of The State" took its name from the fact that the bad guys wanted to use Wolvie to kill the president of the United States, after his various fight scenes; I guess "The State" Laura is the enemy of is Madripoor...? Huh; I think the worst part of this arc may actually be its title...)

It takes the combined efforts of Gabby, time-travelling teenage Angel (Laura's boyfriend, remember), Teen Grey, the rather randomly here Gambit and some unlikely allies to not only straighten out what happened and why, but to also cure the trigger scent's hold on Laura once and for all, essentially purging her of the sorts of berserker rages that plagued her predecessor for so long and bringing to a close the grown-and-programmed-to-be-an-assassin part of her backstory.

It may have taken two consecutive trade paperbacks specifically labeled as sequels to comics from over a decade or so ago, but it looks like Laura, Taylor and All-New Wolverine are all ready to move on once and for all and into a less Old Wolverine sort of series. In essence, this storyline seems to complete the X-23 part of Laura once and for all.

The artwork is pretty rough, and the changes in personnel don't do any of it any favors. The trade collects issues #13-18; Virella draws the first two issues (with Hanna inking), and then Morissete-Phan comes on for an issue, and then Virella returns for an issue, and than Morissette-Phan returns for an issue, and then it's back to Virella again. I couldn't guess what was happening behind the scenes, but the results don't look so hot; the two artists draw one character, Roughhouse, completely differently, and thanks to a change in colorists, he even has different color hair, depending on the issue.

There are some minor things--Gambit's staff looks more like a huge pipe in a panel, Laura dons an Iron Man costume but leaves off the helmet for some reason--but it's mostly the aesthetic whiplash that hurts the visual aspect of the book...which, this being comics, is kind of an important aspect.

The comic has its moments--I liked the bit where Gabby responds to the smuggler who says she sees things differently, for example--but it's probably the worst of the three volumes collecting the series to date.

Avengers: Unleashed Vol. 1--Kang War One

Here's a good example of how challenging Marvel makes following their comics in trade paperback. Despite the "Vol. 1" on the spine, this continues writer Mark Waid's run on the flagship Avengers title, All-New, All-Different Avengers. That produced 15 serially-published issues of a comic book series and three trade paperback collections, which was apparently enough that Marvel decided they needed to relaunch the series with a new title and a new #1 issue, despite the fact that it had the same core cast (with Civil War II and Champions prompted a few defections) and that the same writer would be continuing the same storyline from his All-New, All-Different Avengers series.

To make matters more confusing still, the relaunched, renumbered and retitled comic book series is called simply Avengers, but it is being collected as Avengers: Unleashed for, um, reasons...?

As always, this is hardly an insurmountable barrier that is keeping larger numbers of people from buying and reading Avengers trade paperbacks, but it's still a barrier, and I can't quite make sense of why Marvel continues to keep throwing up such barriers at all. It seems pretty abundantly clear to everyone now, even Marvel, that whatever positive effects a continuous cycle of relaunches-in-numbers-only might have had in the past are disappearing, and I'm not convinced those positive effects of a temporary bump in periodical sales to comic shops were ever really more valuable than the potential loss of audience for the trade paperbacks which can, of course, last and sell indefinitely.

The copy I read, for what it's worth, came from the nearest book store to me, a Barnes and Noble. This store has the bulk of their graphic novels in two aisles; one devoted to manga, the other to everything else. Titles are shelved more-or-less alphabetically, but in this case Avengers: Unleashed Vol. 1 came before All-New, All-Different Avengers Vols. 1-3, probably because they decided to start the shelf devoted to Avengers comics with the adjective-less title. (If you want to catch up on Mark Waid's Avengers run, and haven't yet started, the actual reading order is All-New, All-Different Avengers Vols. 1-3, and then Avengers: Unleashed Vol. 1. Lockjaw and The Pet Avengers: Unleashed, while pretty good in its own right, has nothing to do with any of this).

After Iron Man Tony Stark got kinda sorta semi-killed at the end of Civil War II, and the kids Ms. Marvel, Nova and Spider-Man Miles Morales all decided to bounce and start their own team, what's left of this line-up quickly recruits a pair of old Avengers: Hercules and Spider-Man Peter Parker, the latter of whom basically buys his way on the team by offering them funding and a new headquarters on the top five floors of the Parker Industries, which used to be the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building. This seems to be one more point of comparison between the current Spider-Man and the old Iron Man, the main difference here being that none of Parker's teammates know he is both the rich guy funding them and letting them live in his Manhattan tower and a member of their superhero line-up.

Picking up on plot points from All-New, All-Different--particularly from The Vision issue of the Civil War II trade (reviewed in this long-ass post), Kang the Conqueror attacks the team pretty much as soon as Waid fleetly and efficiently sets up the new status quo. Waid, as I've said plenty of times previously, knows how to write comic books, and this one is very much an old-school superhero team book, right down to the pacing.

The plot, as almost all involving time travel are, is kind of complicated. Essentially, The Vision was facing a Baby Hitler situation with the infant Kang, and decided that rather than killing him, he would just abduct him and hide him. That resulted in adult versions of Kang attacking first The Vision and then the rest of The Avengers, and so the Kangs killed all of them when they were babies. They got that sorted out by the end of the third issue, but Waid then went in an unexpected direction, and had Captain America Sam Wilson decide that they should really quit playing defense and finish Kang off once and for all. All of that leads to recruiting a team of teams of Avengers from four eras, including the founders, attacking various parts of Kang's temporal empire.

The artist is now Michael Del Mundo, and as he's the only notable personnel change, he's probably the only real reason to bother relaunching, but given how often artists change on Marvel comics, it's not a terribly convincing reason. He is a great artist though, and his artwork, which he mostly colors himself, gives the interiors a painterly aesthetic that quite closely echoes that of cover artist Alex Ross (also retained from All-New, All-Different). He's really great with the trippy visuals, of which there are many. Some of these involve all the time travel and general super-hero craziness--as when Kang calls alternate version of himself in as reinforcements, and these resemble a MODOK-esque Kang with a giant head and little limbs, as well as a vaguely ape-like Kang. There are also just a few throwaway instances of Del Mundo going nuts with the visuals, as when he draws a Kang head that is itself made up of different versions of Kang.

Del Mundo is also great with lay-outs though, and there is some really effective "acting" bits, some of which call on the placement of characters, panels or lettering to have one character cut-off or silence another character visually as well as in the dialogue. He really gets to shine in the penultimate issue, in which Kang narrates his entire history on the way to a surprise ending, as the book consists almost entirely of double-page spreads, although rather busy ones with lots of visual information embedded in them. Overall, his presence really elevates Waid's Avengers run by his mere presence. Adam Kubert and those other guys were fine, but Del Mundo? Del Mundo is really, really good.

I'm no fan of The Vision, and I have been sick of Kang and his time shenanigans for almost as long as I've known who Kang is (I believe I audibly groaned when he first appeared within the pages of All-New, All-Different), but despite my personal distaste for some elements in the story arc, I still enjoyed the hell out of this comic book. If you like super-comics, this one is a good one--provided you can figure out when to read it!

Doctor Strange and The Sorcerers Supreme Vol. 1: Out of Time

Doctor Strange and The Sorcerers Supreme is a comic book series that simply shouldn't exist. Marvel has struggled with the character since 1996, which ended about 20 years worth of Doctor Strange ongoing comics in a pair of monthly series. His particular role in the Marvel Universe has meant he's never really been completely MIA for long, regularly racking up guest-appearances, memberships in various team books and rather regularly produced miniseries, but that the publisher has been able to keep the 2015-launched, Jason Aaron-written and (mostly) Chris Bachalo-drawn series going as long as they have is something of an achievement for a character some 20 years removed from his last ongoing series.

So of course Marvel, seeing some somewhat surprising success, immediately tried to strike while the iron is warmer than usual, launching a second Doctor Strange ongoing monthly series. (Similarly, when the latest volume of Black Panther proved a success with its first few issues, Marvel launched two additional Black Panther series, both of which were almost immediately canceled. Marvel seems so intent to find their next Deadpool-style cash chow that they seem to be treating everything that doesn't flop immediately as if they've found it.)

This context sets before Doctor Strange and The Sorcerers Supreme a rather unfortunately high bar: It doesn't just have to be pretty good, which it is, but it also must justify its very existence, and I'm afraid that as well-crafted as it is, as enjoyable as it was to read, it wasn't so great an achievement of comics story-telling that it had to be. The world would have continued to turn just fine were this a miniseries, or an original graphic novel, or a fill-in story arc of the monthly, or was simply never told at all.

Writer Robbie Thompson works mainly with the art team of pencil artist Javier Rodriguez and inker Alvaro Lopez, who contribute five of the six issues in this collection, while Nathan Stockman provides art for one of the issues. The premise is a rather simple one. When an incredibly powerful foe threatens Camelot, Merlin magically travels through time to assemble a super-group of various Sorcerers Supreme. In addition to Strange, these include familiar-ish characters Wiccan Billy Kaplan, from a future where he has inherited Strange's role; Strange's mentor The Ancient One, from a time when he was still a very young man and Sir Isaac Newton, who I am fairly certain has appeared in a Marvel comic of not too ancient vintage which I never read (I want to guess "SHIELD" was in the title, somewhere?), and his more intelligent-than-usual Mindless One, whom he calls "Mindful One."

Rounding out the team are two characters I thinkride anything, though).

Why Merlin plucked these particular characters from these particular points in time isn't ever explained, but it seems curious that he would recruit Strange at this particularly low-point in his magical powers, as well as The Ancient One before he was a little more, well, Ancient.

The issues are pretty formulaic. After the first, each begins with an origin story of sorts featuring one of the characters who will play a bigger than usual role in that particular issue, and then the narrative will plunge into the next step of their adventure. It takes some unexpected twists, as the threat Merlin calls them to face isn't what it first appears, Merlin himself doesn't stick around too long, and one of the Sorcerers betrays the others.

Rodirguez's art is uniformly excellent. The designs of all of the new and/or altered characters are all pretty great, from Rodriguez's version of an adult Billy to The Demon Rider and Conjuror, and, as should be the case with a 1960s-born, Steve Ditko-created character and milieu, there are plenty of opportunities for show-stoppingly intricate and imaginative imagery, like Strange and Merlin's walk-and-talk through time in the first issue, or a visit to (and battle within) Merlin's Escher-like library (which seems to owe quite a bit to the Distinguished Competition's Doctor Fate's tower).

The guest-art is strategically employed, coming during the fifth issue, a sort of pause to the action in which we learn the origin of the Marvel Universe's Sir Isaac Newton, and see his first meeting with Doctor Strange (back when he was at the height of his powers, hanging out with Clea). The final issue, for which Rodriguez appears, is a cute, clever (but kind of irritating in practice) choose-your-own-adventure style comic.

All-in-all, it's a particularly creative comic book, but it doesn't really offer anything that one can't find in the other Doctor Strange ongoing (which has also seen Strange teaming up with various sorcerers and mages, including pre-existing Marvel characters and intriguing new ones). That makes it a somewhat idiotic publishing decision--unless Marvel really thought that the movie would create so many Doctor Strange fans that they could do like they did with Guardians of The Galaxy, and build a line around the doctor--even if it does have entertainment value and impressive execution.

In other words, it's a pretty good comic that probably shouldn't have ever been published...at least not as a $3.99/20-page ongoing monthly.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II

This is the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel that I did not purchase a copy of. (That's right, it's time for everyone's favorite aspect of EDILW--Caleb Talks About His Comics Buying Habits!). Ms. Marvel has been one of the handful of Marvel comics I have been not only reading in trade, but buying in trade as well (due to cancellations, I think Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is now the only one I'm still buying regularly in trade!). The week this one was released, I let it sit on the shelf at the comics shop because it was a Civil War II tie-in, and I wanted to wait until I actually read Civil War II before I read this tie-in to it, and Civil War II was still going on. And then it was expanded to last an extra issue or something. And I think it was also late...?

Anyway, by the time I had read Civil War II in its collected form, Ms. Marvel Vol. 6 was months old, and given that I had already read something close to 10,000 trade paperback collections sub-titled Civil War II that I had borrowed from the library, I didn't see any reason to not just borrow Ms. Marvel Vol. 6 too, rather than spending $17.99 on it (Well, aside from "voting with my dollars" so that Marvel keeps Ms. Marvel going, I guess, although I don't know if they make many decisions like that based on trade sales...Oh, and making sure some really great comics creators get some extra royalties...?).

So the lesson here, Marvel Entertainment Decision-Maker Who Is No Doubt Reading This Post And Hanging On Every Word,  is that tie-ins to event storylines can make excellent jumping-off points, particularly if said event is delayed. You have probably heard this before, but every jumping-on point is also a good jumping-off point, and pretty much anything at all that disturbs a comics reader's buying habits in anyway is perilous.

So this six-issue collection has a four-issue Civil War II-related story arc sandwiched in between two issues that serve as a good prelude and a good epilogue, respectively; taken as a single unit, writer. G. Willow Wilson's sixth volume of the series is a pretty well-constructed story with its own beginning, middle and end.

The first issue was drawn by the series' original artist, Adrian Alphona, and guest-stars Ms. Marvel's then-fellow teen Avengers, Spider-Man Miles Morales and Nova...although not in the capacity one might expect. There is a Tri-State Science Fair going on, and Kamala Khan, Bruno and other members of her supporting cast are there competing against the New York contingent, lead by Miles. When there's an issue that forces the superheroes to suit up, Nova is just kind of flying by.

That final issue is drawn by Mirka Andolfo, whose work frequently appears in DC Comics Bombshells, and follows Kamala to her ancestral home in Karachi, where she has gone to try and clear her head from the terrible things that happened to her during Civil War II and the tie-in arc. Ms. Marvel has already been pretty blessed with all-around great art, but Andolfo is a really good fit, maybe particularly for this particular story, which has Kamala out of costume for most of it--she purposely left her costume back in Jersey City. Andolfo is probably a good name for the editors to keep in mind when the regular artists need a break.

As for the tie-in arc, Wilson's got kind of a difficult job, as Kamala has particularly close bonds with the two opposing "generals" in the war, having taken her superhero name from her lifetime idol Captain Marvel Carol Danvers, and having served alongside Iron Man Tony Stark on The Avengers for a few years now (our time). Those bonds, and her relationship with Miles, meant Civil War II writer Brian Michael Bendis all but had to include her in the series itself, and the moment she decides Carol has gone too far is one of the more dramatic ones in the series, at least if you know/care about the character. Additionally, Ruth Fletcher Gage and Christos Gage used Kamala a bit in their tie-in arc, which was collected in Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Civil War II.

Wilson doesn't include any of those scenes, and her arc doesn't really quite line-up with the events of Bendis' main event series. They fit well enough though, as long as you don't think too much about the timeline between the various books (When I was a high schooler, this would have infuriated me, and I probably woulda wrote an angry letter to a letters column). Instead, she keeps Kamala busy in Jersey City, where Carol Danvers has assigned her to be the team leader of a group of four young (superpower-less) volunteers who are quite excited about this whole predictive justice thing.

Kamala is obviously a little torn on the matter, because it's so obviously illegal and dumb--these kids un-ironically dress like Hitler Youth, topping off their outfits with arm bands and Saddam-like berets, and keeping the victims they don't actually arrest in a makeshift Guantanamo in an abandoned Jersey City warehouse. On the other hand, it's Carol Danvers asking her to help. (The business with Miles doesn't come up in here at all; his appearance at the science fair was his only appearance in this volume.)

When a classmate gets citizen-arrested by the group, and Bruno gets badly injured, Kamala finally flips sides, trying to orchestrate a demonstration of how Ulysses' powers don't always work, one that gets Captain Marvel and Iron Man in the same place at the same time, for all the good that does.

Wilson's arc is actually pretty ambitious, as she tries, not terribly successfully, to tie Marvel's civil "war" with the geo-political events that created Pakistan. The four tie-in issues including flashback sequences drawn by Alphona that are set in the 1940s, the 1970s and in Kamala's childhood, as well as shortly into her career as Ms. Marvel. These reveal the origin of that thing she wears on her left arm, how she first met Bruno and some poetic suggestions about her Inhuman bloodline, as her grandmother and mother speak of something special inside them, something from beyond the stars.
The tone is a little all-over the place, though. Alphona's artwork in those four issues is his most stately and serious--well, there's a lot of silliness in Kamala's second-grade classroom--but the modern day business, all drawn by Takeshi Miyazawa, features a Canadian Ninja Syndicate who attack with, like, chickens and straight edges. The family history is meant to be taken quite seriously, while the Jersey City action is melodramatic in the mighty Marvel manner--all the Carol Vs. Tony stuff--while Kamala's difficulties with Bruno and her other friends are also supposed to be serious, but those scenes come between ones of over-the-top junior fascist nonsense. While not technically part of the arc, the very first issue is Alphona at his loosest, with most panels busting at the borders with little gags (Each long or medium shot is worth scrutinizing for visual gags, mostly centered around the science projects in the background, and callbacks aplenty can be found in the later classroom scene).

It's...a weird book. Well-written, extremely well drawn and with an ambitious amount of humor, drama and melodrama, it's nevertheless tonally unique, as if Wilson is deciding scene by scene what kind of modern Marvel book her Ms. Marvel is going to be, a serious one, a comedic one or a Nick Spencer-esque combination of the two.

Oh! I just noticed as I was writing this that, according to the back cover, this is rated "T+"; I found that a little surprising, if only because Ms. Marvel is one of the publisher's most consistently teen-friendly, genuinely all-ages comics I've encountered.

*Let me go check my bookshelf to be sure! Let's see... Ghost Rider canceled, Howard The Duck canceled, Patsy Walker canceled, lost interest in All-New, All-Different Avengers and Star Wars, didn't care for that first volume of the current Black Panther...Yeah, jeez, if I'm not going to keep reading Ms. Marvel in trade, I am currently down to just Squirrel Girl! At least for the time being. I am sure that will change in the near-ish future.

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