Monday, August 14, 2017

Some Marvel trades I've recently read:

Captain America: Sam Wilson Vol. 4: #TakeBackTheShield

Is this the first comic book with a hashtag as a title? It seems like surely someone must have used a hashtag as the title of a comic--or the sub-title, I guess?--by this point, but, if so, I'm having trouble thinking of one right this moment. That particular hashtag is one that we've been told is trending on the Marvel Universe's Twitter, powered by a right-wing, conservative media effort to somehow force the former Falcon Sam Wilson, who Captain America passed the shield and the codename to when he was turned into an old man, to stop being Captain America now that the original is back to being a young man again.

The effort has been just one of the many ways in which writer Nick Spencer has depicted elements of America reacting negatively to Sam's attempts to be a more political, more engaged, more representative Captain America and, of course, simple good old-fashioned American racism. In essence, Spencer has been writing Sam Wilson-as-Captain America as Barack Obama-as-president, at least in terms of the shit he has to deal with while just trying to do his very important, very stressful job. Surprisingly (and thankfully, given how easily a series with such a premise could be sanctimonious and, worse, boring), Spencer has often been able to play the tensions for laughs, as Sam finds himself caught in the middle of an America where he's not left enough to please the left, nor right enough to please the right. Not unlike Obama was.

I'm actively dreading the end of this series, and Sam's resumption of The Falcon identity, which seems to be something that's in the process of happening now...certainly it will already be past-tense by the time we get to the near, already-solicited future. Not only is the premise great and the action/comedy/political tone engaging, but Spencer's constant attempts to craft "ripped from the headlines" stories, like a particularly crazy iteration of the process the Law and Order writing room used to use for story ideas, keeps the series fresh and, well, weird. I know I've been talking and writing about the politics of Spencer's Captain America books a lot lately (here and below), but while one has to parse his other Captain America title, this one defies parsing. There are some stories where the book and/or Spencer don't seem to be taking a stand of any kind, other than to make fun of least, that seems to be the case in issue #17, which we'll get to in a bit. There's something South Park-ian about that...which I mean as a compliment, although maybe not-so-much (Please note I haven't seen an episode of South Park since the Bush administration, and that comparison may not be the least bit relevant anymore).

In a somewhat palpable sense, this volume seems to be marking time, waiting for the Captain America: Steve Rogers to complete it's build up to Secret Empire so that the climax of the multi-book, multi-year epic can begins.

Both Captains America team-up to take on Flag-Smasher (Confession: I love Flag-Smasher), a hostage situation that results in a death...and Steve talking to his Hydra cohort Docter Selvig about his villainous plans. Then Joaquin invites Sam and Rage to see D-Man wrestle in an attempt to bring the pair together "through the power of wrestling" after their conflict in the previous volume. Then Misty gets a spotlight issue in which she borrows Cap's shield and takes on The Slug over an extremely weird criminal plot that could only happen in the Marvel Universe, with its superhero reflection of our own world (there's a great visual gag in here featuring Lady Stilt-Man, by the way). And then, in the most bizarre of the stories, The Falcon and Rage team-up to first confront and then save an Ann Coulter analogue politically aligned with the book's Bill O'Reilly analogue, who is given a heavily protested speech about how immigrants are the worst at a college campus.

In this superhero political cartoon, the most vociferous of the Berkeley protesters are played by, well...
And check this out:
Yeah, see, Spencer is kinda hard to parse on this book, isn't he?

What's worse is that while the issue is mostly a superhero action comedy take on real, real-world issues, with The Falcon serving as the exasperated middle between The Bombshells ("Her very presence is damaging to those who have suffered-- --and for that she's gotta die!") and the not-Ann Coulter, it then ends with a resumption of superhero drama, ending with a cliffhanger that threatens the pleasant enough status quo of the issue.

The art chores on these four issues are divvied up between Paul Renaud (Issues #14 and #17) and Angel Unzueta (#15 and #16), the latter of whom gets an assist from Szymon Kudranski on the latter issue.

If four issues seems like too few for a trade, don't worry; there's also a reprint of a classic Captain America comic by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer and Al Milgrom. From 1988's Captain America #344, "Don't Tread On Me," it has The Serpent Society attacking Washington D.C., and turning then-President Regan into a snake-man for a time.

Its relevance to the trade will be obvious as you read, given that it features Battlestar and D-Man, and this story is in fact referenced in Sam Wilson #15, right down to Unzueta using one of Dwyer's poses. It's a fun comic, although I imagine I would be annoyed to see it here had I paid $17.99 for this trade collection of just four issues of a $3.99 comic and the reprint, which isn't used a bonus so much as justification for the price point. Luckily, I just borrowed this from the library, so I can't care much what Marvel charged for it.

Captain America: Steve Rogers Vol.2: The Trial of Maria Hill

Writer Nick Spencer did a pretty fine job of slowly unraveling a new, cosmic cube-created origin for Steve Rogers via flashback in the first six issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers while simultaneously revealing Cap's layered agendas, as both a secret agent for Hydra and an agent with his own plans to take out and replace Hydra leader The Red Skull. In this volume, also drawn by Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina, things get much, much more complicated, and maybe not necessarily in a good way.

On the flashback front, Spencer and company are now covering the years 1935-1940 or so, and the limited palette of black, white and red that color artists Saiz and Rachelle Rosenberg were using has now become black, white and Hydra green (They do break out the reds for drama occasionally, though). The years are significant too because the earliest of the revised flashbacks, which occurred when Steve was still a toddler and thus didn't seem to screw around with his previous timeline too drastically, now depict his schooling at some weird Hydra compound (where he makes an unlikely best friend) and then goes on to reveal Steve's life as a young man, his continual rejection from military service in the U.S. Army and his association with "Project Rebirth," which goes very, very differently here. We're now at a point where the previous history isn't just "here's some stuff that might have happened that readers were unaware of" to "Basically What If...? territory".

In the present, both of Captain America and The Red Skull's machinations are approaching byzantine. Skull and Hydra embroil their movement in a sort of civil war that grants them a degree of territory (and which moves their real world analogy away from some sort of weird alt-right/ISIS hybrid into more of an "ISIS, but with Nazi ideology" area), while Steve is engineering some plan involving a massively destabilizing Chitauri invasion and maneuvering between and around Captain Marvel, SHIELD, the Skull and the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the Maria Hill's-in-trouble-for-"Standoff" plotline and the effort to pass a hyper-inflated version of the Patriot Act move forward.

(What's really weird is that the stakes have gotten so high and plot elements now include things like alien invaders and a global force field that we're well beyond some sort of Real World Plus milieu, and yet here in the actually real real world the actual president of the real United States of America is using Twitter to provoke a nuclear-armed dysfunctional nation state, so I guess it's hard to actually accept things like this as "unrealistic" anymore. "Alien invasion" didn't sound any more unlikely than "President Donald J. Trump stumbling into a nuclear war in Asia" like, two years ago, you know?)

Much of the narration is delivered in the form of Cap talking to the person he has stashed behind the forbidden door in his ally Dr. Selvig's lab/base, and while it's kinda sorta a big surprise, the biggest surprise is on the last page, when Taskmaster finds a recording of the shocking moment from the first issue.

While I'm intensely curious as to how we get from this point to events that I am somewhat aware of unfolding in the Marvel Universe at this very moment, and what various players in this drama will do, and, in particular, what Cap's "new" origin will be, and the explanations given for why he was so deep undercover for so long if he's always been a Hydra double agent (like, why not strike during the first Civil War or Secret Invasion or whatever?), I can certainly see why so many Marvel fans might be sick of this storyline. All the plotting that was fairly engaging for six issues is growing tiresome after five more issues, and I still haven't gotten to Secret Empire proper yet.

As for the politics of Spencer's storyline, there were a few bits of interest in this volume. Of some note is a few lines of dialogue near the conclusion of this trade, wherein we see who Cap has been telling his story too, and he says this:
I understand how it all sounds right now--
--You probably think I'm insane. Or brainwashed. Or, maybe you just think the cosmic cube changed me, that I'm the aberration, and not--all of this.
Just Cap being aware of the possibility that Kobik re-wrote him into a Hydra agent seems like kind of a big deal, almost as big a deal as his suggestion that it isn't the cube that is ultimately responsible for his actions...which might be something for fans who care deeply about the character to freak out about, if that were the case. (As I said when discussing the first volume though, Spencer's scripts seem to indicate as bluntly as possible that the cube made Cap a fascist, so I guess if there's a twist of any kind, it will be a big deal.) The fact that the person he's speaking to isn't convinced, however, also makes me question the nature of Kobik and what she/it did to alter Cap and Selvig; did she just change their memories, rather than time itself? (I guess that would be an easier lift, although difficulty shouldn't be an issue for a wishing does make Spencer's job slightly easier though, in terms of having to explain all of Marvel history in this new reality via flashback or whatever.)

The second item is something I'm pretty sure was raised during the online arguments regarding Nazi Cap that I was only dimly aware of. There's a scene set in the past when the cabal of Hydra leaders that have been participating in Steve's revised origin gather to discuss the coming world war, and parts of the scene seem to be written precisely to address the differences between the real-world Nazis and Marvel's Nazi-splinter group Hydra, which has for a long time been little more than a generic bad guy organization.

At a torch-lit meeting, Daniel Whitehall/The Kraken, Elisa Sinclair, Sebastian Fenhoff and Baron Zemo argue the pros and cons of Hydra aligning itself "with Germany and The Axis Powers in the battle to come." Zemo, who was already offered a position with the Nazis, is all for it. He articulates the plan like so: "We will infiltrate their ranks and install our own lieutenants, who will then use their influence to forge a formal partnership with The Reich."

Elisa, who has some sort of limited ability to predict the future, argues that Hitler is not "the one we've been waiting for," as Zemo puts it, but rather just "a power-hungry madman with a blood lust that will not be sated...and if we align ourselves with him, it will consume us as well."

They ultimately outvote her, but the argument is pretty clearly articulated that they are doing so not because of any particular ideological reason, but simply because they think Marvel Germany's military build-up and collection of magical artifacts means they are the safest nation to bet on in the event of world war.

"If The Fuhrer does turn out to be as...unsavory as Elisa suggests, who is to say we don't simply remove him from power when the time is right?" Fenhoff sums up. "Let him build an empire across Europe and then claim it for our own. He is a means to an end."

Given that Spencer was and is writing these chapters on a monthly-ish basis, and thus subject to more-or-less constant input from Marvel readers as well as his editors--it's not like he's unplugged in a cave or cabin somewhere, he's online as he's working on these scripts--it's hard not to read the scene as a sort of response to all the concern regarding Captain America comics or Marvel embracing fascism or Nazi ideology or whatever the specifics of the online arguments about the storyline were and are (And yeah, let me state for the record how insanely fucking weird it is to be reading superhero comics about Nazis and writing blog posts about said super-comics while literally as I type this reports are coming out of Charlottesville about real people dying and being injured as a result of demonstration by actual white supremacists openly carrying and waving actual Nazi flags).

Perhaps I am overthinking it, but the specifics of the scene--the general aim is clearly to demonstrate that Adolf Hitler isn't the one Hydra was waiting for, but that Steve Rogers was--seem to have been written so as to act as a way of distinguishing Marvel's Hydra from Hitler's Nazi party. I imagine, however, that it is a distinction without a difference. Decades of Marvel comics and multi-media adaptations have painted Hydra as simply a fantasy version of Nazis, and that is something that has been ever more pronounced since Captain America: The First Avenger was released. Spencer himself has spent so many issues assuring readers that Hydra isn't just a bunch of green-suited crypto-fascist generic bad guys, like AIM or The Hand with different uniforms, that to suddenly include a scene divorcing them from the Nazis seems a little weird.

Welcome, perhaps, but still weird.

Mockingbird Vol. 2: My Feminist Agenda

The second and, sadly, final collection of writer Chelsea Cain and pencil artist Katie Niemczyk's too-short Mockingbird series isn't quite as good as the previous volume (reviewed at the bottom of this post), but that's not exactly surprising: That first, five-part story arc was pretty damn brilliant, and about as close to a perfect comic book as I've seen Marvel get in...well, pretty much ever, I guess.

Cain, Niemczyk and inker Sean Parsons have some challenges to deal with here, of course, namely that one big problem Marvel's whole line had to deal with: Civil War II. The title character's ex-husband Clint "Hawkeye" Barton played a significant, if random and ultimately kinda pointless, role in that shared setting-reshuffling narrative, and so Cain and company pretty much have to deal with it in some way, shape or form. Cain decides to lean into it.

Bobbi  Morse receives a cruise ticket from an anonymous stranger, along with a message telling her the sender has valuable information that could help the case of her ex-husband, who is at that point on trial in New York City for shooting Bruce Banner to death with a bow and arrow in Utah. Of course she smelled set-up, but she wanted to get out of town anyway.

This particular cruise, on The Diamond Porpoise, is a nerd cruise ("Is there some sort of convention on board?" "Those are the nerds, ma'am") and it's headed for the Bermuda Triangle.

Things get very, very weird very, very fast. Bobbi's informant is disguised by a rubber horse mask, her other ex Hunter (and lots of corgis) are also on board and, by the end of the first issue, the informant is found dead, in what looks like a pretty impossible locked-door mystery (or it would be in our universe; in the Marvel Universe, locked doors only narrow the list of potential suspects by their powers and/or technology). The killer turns out to be yet another man from Bobbi's past, one I had no idea she was ever involved with, and though there aren't asterisks and issue numbers included in editor's boxes, all the information needed to get and/or to enjoy the story is provided. If it seems completely random, well, it's no more so than, say, the guy selling Northstar figurines he carved out of wood, or the myth of the mer-corgis.

As was demonstrated previously, Cain is not only surprisingly, even shockingly good at writing comics (not as easy a thing to master for anyone who has spent a life-time working professionally in an entirely different medium, like prose), but she's better than most Big Two writers as letting the imagery fill in the blanks, finish her sentences and provide her punchlines. There is a remarkable amount of content in these three issues that uses the fusion of words and picture to convey information that is not at all what one might expect from a comic (like the elaborate flow chart for dealing with a particular character that fills up a splash page in the insane last issue of the series, for example, or the excerpt from Hunter's Boy Scout's Field Guide To Tracking, or that restraining order, or the revolving character design sheets for Bobbi's exes, and on and on).

I'm pretty disappointed that this book, which is maybe the ultimate expression of the recent Fraction/Aja Hawkeye-model of books Marvel has been releasing for the last few years, has been canceled. I'm even more disappointed that so much dumb shit, blatant sexism and frankly vile bullying that appeared online about the book and about Cain herself towards the end, apparently because of the phrase on Bobbi's gag t-shirt on the cover of the final issue and, I don't know, maybe because it was a comic book about a lady, written and drawn by a lady? (It drives me crazy when people complain about feminists and feminism, because those people tend not to have any idea what the word "feminism" actually means or refers to, but good on Marvel for using that cover for that of the trade instead of the perhaps more all-encompassing covers for #6 or #7, and, of course, for using "My Feminist Agenda" as the sub-title. That said, the harassment Cain had to deal with is as distressing as it is depressing, and I wish I knew how to fix it; I hate that so many comics fans are so terrible that they drag the industry, or at least some of the more visible parts of the industry, so far down.)

On the other hand, I'm kind of amazed this book existed at all. Obviously the character's appearances on Agents of SHIELD upped her Q-rating to the point that Marvel would want to exploit it (see recent attempts at Deathlok and various Agents of SHIELD comics, all of which were also pretty quickly canceled), and just as obviously Cain is the sort of prestige "get" that the Big Two love to give gigs to, but, man this was just so different from anything else Marvel was publishing--weirder, wilder and more idiosyncratic than any of the many other superhero comedies of late (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Patsy Walker, Howard The Duck, Unbelievable Gwenpool, various Rocket and/or Groot books, those millions of Deadpool comics).

Because three issues isn't enough to fill a $16 trade paperback, this volume also includes a pair of New Avengers issues from the second Brian Michael Bendis-written volume of the series, circa 2011/"Fear Itself." While these aren't exactly Mockingbird stories, she does play a sizable role in them, although there's very much a feeling of "we now join our story, already in progress" to them (Victoria Hand's around, Carol Danvers is still Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man's in his white Fantastic Four costume, etc). The issues are drawn by Michael Deodato and Howard Chaykin, and they don't make a whole heck of a lot of sense on their own like this. It might have been more useful for Marvel to maybe reprint some the issues that Cain's arc references, but I guess whenever Marvel is in doubt, their reflex is to just stick Bendis-written Avengers stuff in the back of a trade.

Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics

Spider-Woman has got to be neck-and-neck with Invincible Iron Man and maybe the various Guardians of the Galaxy books for the title of "Hardest Fucking Marvel Comic Book Series To Figure Out How To Read."

Let's review. Marvel launches a new Spider-Woman monthly series out of their "Spider-Verse" event; it is written by Dennis Hopeless and drawn by Greg Land. The first four issues, a tie-in to the event, are mostly overshadowed by an Internet small-c controversy about a variant cover provided by Milo Manara. He is an excellent artist, and I suppose there are arguments to be made against and in favor of Marvel hiring him to provide a variant and approving that particular image, as well as his repurposing of some older art as the basis for that image, but whatever one's opinion, I think we can safely all agree that the cover image did not go over particularly well. Those issues are collected as Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Spider-Verse.

For issue #5, Jessica Drew gets a brand-new costume--her first, ever, which is kind of remarkable given the hero's long life and how often superheroes get costume updates--and the book gets a new artist, Javier Rodriguez, as well as a new supporting cast and a change of direction. Marvel has renumbered series for less, but they decided to collect Spider-Woman #5-#10 as Spider-Woman Vol. 2: New Duds.

Then, seemingly at random, Marvel relaunches and renumbers Spider-Woman with a new #1, despite keeping the same creative team, same costume, same direction. The reason was apparently that Marvel relaunched everything following event series Secret Wars. In some cases, even though the serially published issues were being renumbered, Marvel kept the volume numbers on the trade paperbacks, because why make it harder for someone reading these things in libraries or from bookstores to not be able to figure out how to do so? (Think Ms. Marvel or Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). That was not the case for Spider-Woman; Hopeless and company's Spider-Woman #1-#5 is then collected as Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Baby Talk. So now there are two trade paperbacks entitled Spider-Woman Vol.1 by writer Dennis Hopeless.

But wait, there's more! That's followed by Spider-Woman Vol. 2: Civil War II, so now there are two Spider-Woman Vol. 2s, both by the same creative team, and, finally, the series was canceled (shocking, I know!) after the comics contained in Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics.

So, the proper reading order is: Spider-Woman Vol. 1, Spider-Woman Vol. 2, Spider-Woman Vol. 1, Spider-Woman Vol. 2 and Spider-Woman Vol. 3, although given that the first of the two volumes 1 is part of "Spider-Verse" and has little to do with what follows, you could probably start with Spider-Woman Vol. 2; the first Vol. 2, not the second one. Obviously.

In a futile attempt to try and distinguish one run of Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez and company's Spider-Woman from another, they added a sub-title to the post-Secret Wars title, Shifting Gears. It doesn't appear on the cover of the comic books or the trades tough, just in the fine print and on the spines. Marvel has added these phantom sub-titles to a lot of their post-Secret Wars books to apparently avoid confusion. I don't know how well they work, but my guess is somewhere between "not that great" and "not at all."

This is all fresh in my head at the moment because the night before writing this, I read Spider-Woman Vol. 3: Scare Tactics. It felt like I was missing something, since the last time I read Spider-Woman, Jessica had just discovered she was pregnant, and now here she is with a baby, but I--quite reasonably, in my opinion!--assumed that since the last collection of the series I read was volume 2, and this was volume 3, I couldn't have missed anything. Unless Marvel had started publishing collections with decimal points in their numbering, which is possible.

Anyway: I don't think this should be this hard.

So Vol. 3, which is actually volume five, or maybe four, is dominated by a Spider-Woman Vs. Hobgoblin story, plus a rather cute little epilogue issue. Veronica Fish has taken over art duties, getting an inking assist by Andy Fish, and the color art comes courtesy of Rachelle Rosenberg. Throughout Hopeless' run, Jessica Drew has basically appropriated a bunch of Spider-Man villains and supporting characters, some in pretty original ways--what with villain Porcupine becoming Jessica's sidekick/partner/babysitter/love interest and all--and in this arc, she's forced into combat with a whole mess of even more minor Spider-Man villains, plus one of Spidey's bigger ones. You know, the guy on the cover.

I'm no better at keeping track of Goblins than I am at keeping track of Spider-Women, but this appears to be the original Hobgoblin, whose relationship to the original Green Goblin I couldn't even begin to guess at. He has a slightly cooler costume and a worse color scheme, but he also has all the cool gadgets: The bat-shaped glider thingee and the pumpkin bombs.

While Jessica Drew is out fighting crime--there's a pretty well executed scene where she takes down The Blizzard--and Ben Urich is babysitting her kid Gerry, The Porcupine has a meeting at a bar where various lame-o villains hang-out. The gist of it is that he had made a deal with The Hobgoblin, who has been selling lame super-villain "franchises" in the form of costumes and codenames to bad guys, and Porcupine is there to tell him he wants out of their agreement, as he's planning on going straight now.

Hobgoblin shakes his hand, says no hard feelings, and then, later that night, The Hobgoblin and a bunch of villains arrive on a rooftop to murder Porcupine. It took me a while to figure out who all these villains were, and some of them I still don't know for sure; like the big, bear-themed guy I thought was The Grizzly? He's actually, as Jessica explains at one point, "Bruin, the bear super villain who's not Grizzly." (Who's the guy with the unicorn symbol on his chest? Is that The Unicorn?)

Once Jessica learns what happens, she jumps on her motorcycle, rides to the bar, beats the crap out of everyone there like she was Daredevil in an old Frank Miller comic, and, unsurprisingly, draws the attention of The Hobgoblin. She's in no shape to handle him and his gang of bottom-feeding Spider-villains alone, but perhaps she can with some help from a pair of allies she had thought she had lost (one in this volume, one in the Civil War II arc that I hadn't read yet because Marvel has weird ideas about how numbers work).

In the final issue, Jessica throws a party to introduce her superhero pals to her new boyfriend, The Porcupine (Spoiler alert! He's not dead! And is he the baby's father? I still don't know! I guess I missed those volumes, but seems like!). Carol and Ben help her decorate, and the drama is basically divided between The Black Widow being kind of a B about Jessica Drew slumming as a PI (instead of living up to her full potential by being an Avenger) and dating a D-List Spider-Man villain (or is that too generous a letter for the list Porcupine belongs on?), the Porcupine's anxiety about meeting a whole bunch of Avengers (including Spider-Man) and the baby demonstrating that he has already developed his mom's wall-crawling and venom blast powers.

The sentiment of this issue is pretty sweet, but I have to admit it's a little weird to see so many of these heroes all on the same page on the heels of the events of Civil War II (For example, Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel are both there; in fact, a lot of people who came to blows with Carol are in attendance). I imagine that the issue was already drawn before the end of Civil War II was known by Fish and/or Hopeless, though. With the exception of Spidey and Black Widow, few of the characters present actually have any lines, so the script may have just called for "a bunch of superheroes," without specifying who should be there.

But, for example, there's a really big lady there that looks like she's meant to be She-Hulk, but she has pale Caucasian skin and brown hair, rather than her normal green (or, now, gray, I guess). She's called "Jen Walters" at one-point, so I guess Fish must have just drew She-Hulk at some point, but they were able to color her not-green before publication...? There's a long-shot where Iron Man appears to be there too, which would, of course, be impossible. Jen's coloring aside, the scene works just fine for the purposes of this book, but likely reads a little weird if you spent too much time thinking about Civil War II and any of its many, many tie-ins which, um, I may have.

This collection contains perhaps the best artwork from Fish I've seen to date. It's always been pretty okay, of course, but it seems clearer, crisper and cleaner than ever before, and it wasn't at all as jarring a switch from that of Rodriguez as I thought it might have been. I already mentioned the sequence with The Blizzard, but all of the super-villain fights are pretty great, and Fish manages to draw all of those charmingly lame super-villains in such a way that there's a sort of stripped-down elegance to their goofy costumes.

Also, 8-Ball is there. I love that character, although it looks like he's a woman now...? Doesn't matter; it's still a great costume. She is shown shooting pool with...actually, I have no idea who that guy is, but he's brave to play pool with someone who has pool-related powers.

Aside from the broad work on the action and the character acting though, Fish has plenty of little moments that are of interest. I really liked that when Spider-Woman first meets Bruin in the bar, he's shown walking out of a restroom with a little white bear head on a placard by it. I guess he and Grizzly get their own bathroom?

Later, there's a scene featuring a "casual" Hobgoblin, with his hood off, and I don't like the way he looks there, like, at all, but it's still an interesting look, even if it's not a great look for him.


So it wasn't until after I read this and then spent a few paragraphs complaining about Marvel's numbering of the collections that I saw this collection has one of those weird flow-charts explaining what order to read runs of collections in. "Want to know the best way to explore the Marvel Universe? This guide will show you where to begin!" it reads. I would just like to reply that the best way would be for Marvel to quit fucking relaunching their series with new #1 issues and, when they do, to not also renumber the collections.

Anyway, this chart instructs one to "Follow The Adventures of Spider-Woman In These Collected Editions!" There's a "Start Here" next to Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Spider-Verse, which shows how fruitless this flow-chart is. Remember, that's a tie-in to Spider-Verse, so maybe start there...?

Then you read Spider-Woman Vol. 2, then Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 1--Baby Talk, then Spider-Women (which wasn't even on my radar as a comic book I would want to read, let alone need to read to follow the adventures of Dennis Hopeless' Jessica Drew) and then Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 2--Civil War II.

I guess the existence of these charts is a sign that Marvel at least realizes that they have a problem and are trying to address it, but this seems like a too-late patch to a problem that would have been easy enough to fix at an earlier point.

Star Wars Vol. 5: Yoda's Secret War

That's right Yoda, despite the fact that this series is set between the end of the original film and the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. Writer Jason Aaron manages this focus on Yoda in one of the more convoluted ways imaginable, and I can't help but wonder why this isn't just a stand alone miniseries. There's just a brief check-in with the ongoing narrative of the series. In the last volume, the special forces team of Stormtroopers captured C3-P0 after the Star Destroyer heist, and hear they rather amusingly discover that the loquacious droid is way too easy to interrogate; the human rebels reluctantly decide to let the Empire have Threepio, as he is just a droid, but R2-D2 commandeers an X-Wing, and essentially sabotages Luke's ship, so he can't pursue and try to stop him from mounting a rescue solo.

That cliffhanger is then abandoned for, like, five issues. Finding himself stuck in his X-Wing, Luke decides to pull out Obi-Wan's journal and resume reading it. In the past, this has provided Aaron an excuse to do short, fill-in like issues starring Obi-Wan, but here Obi-Wan is relating a story that Yoda told him. So, to review, this is the story of one of Yoda's "secret" adventures from around the time of The Phantom Menace, as told to Obi-Wan, who is telling it to Luke via his journal.

Luke has little to do for much of the story, then, aside from sitting in the cockpit of his ship, reading (I wonder if this whole journal idea is meant as a rebuke of Ryan Britt's essay about literacy in the Star Wars universe, in Luke Skywalker Can't Read?). Obi-Wan has even less to do, getting a page or two to remind us that he's telling the story; in one scene we see him meditating on Tatooine, writing the story through the power of The Force, as if he's dictating it to The Force ("Living Force; take a memo!"). Near the end, Luke rather impulsively attempts to follow the clues in the journal to look for the planet the Yoda's Secret War took place at, and there he provides an epilogue, faces The Beyonder and gets a cool new black and white costume that will turn out to be an evil symbiote.
The specifics of the war involve a group of children fighting a group of adults over strange and powerful blue rocks that are somehow extremely strong in The Force, as if they were Force-sensitive living things. Readers should figure out what's going on pretty quickly.

The arc is drawn by Salvador Larocca, an artist whose work I am not really a fan of, given his use of photo reference. It is more pronounced and hard for me to look at in this series, than in, say, Invincible Iron Man or Darth Vader, as there are fewer frozen mask faces and more human characters. For example, there's an early scene in which the rebel heroes debate their options regarding C3-P0, and Larocca gives them the exact faces, expressions, postures and posing of various stills from the various movies, and they don't all fit together (and it's hard not to be distracted by them).

His Yoda is similarly drawn from (over?) images from the films, and Larocca apparently culled images from both trilogies, as sometimes he looks like the puppet from the original films and sometimes he looks like the CGI character from the prequels. I suppose what Larocca does here can be appreciated as some kind of elaborate work of collage, but I can't bring myself to do so. It's cold, sterile and lifeless, and what he does isn't obvious enough to be seen as, like, visual sampling, but goes over like something of a trick.

It's kind of too bad then that Marvel collected Star Wars Annual #2 here then, as it is pretty damn different, and superior in all of the ways "Yoda's Secret War" is inferior. Written by Kelly Thompson and drawn by Emilio Laiso, this 30-page story is about Princess Leia...but only sort of about her. The actual protagonist is Pash "Bash" Davane, a former engineer reduced to crate-hauling after the war came to her home planet and wrecked the joint. Pash is neither sympathetic to the Empire nor a believer in the rebellion, and she's no fan of Leia, the reasons for which leads to the parts of the book that are "about" Leia. She's tried to live on the sidelines of the war to the best of her abilities, but is essentially forced to make a choice between which side to support.

She chooses the good guys, obviously, and the book is basically a team-up between the two ladies. Pash, as designed by Laiso, is a pretty interesting character. She's big--very big--and well-muscled, to the point that when she meets Leia's friends at the end, she's got to slouch and stoop to look Luke in the eye, and she has to tear the sleeves off of one of Han's shirts to have it fit her. There are additionally some pretty fun jokes about how tiny Leia is...she is tiny, of course, not just in relation to Pash, but, well, Carrie Fisher was only 5'1, a full foot shorter than her love interest in the trilogy.

Paired with a smart-ass robot that only she can understand and suddenly woke to the rebellion, Pash seems like a character who might be around to stay...which is a good thing. I'm not as deep into the so-called "Expanded Universe" as many fans, but I've come to the belief that the best such comics and books are the ones that are close enough to the film's characters to seem like they are relevant and therefore matter, but not so close that they run the risk of tripping up the franchises stars or causing narrative problems. I think Thompson gets it exactly right here, and that's not terribly easy; unlike Dark Horse's Star Wars line, Marvel's has been focused almost entirely on characters from various films (Darth Vader, which kinda sorta transitioned into Doctor Aphra, seemed to do the best job of following the films' slipstream without getting tangled, in large part because of all the new characters in those books, and the fact that they were placed in Vader's shadow).

By contrast, I'm not sure how I feel about Luke reading about Yoda, a character whose presence in Empire was kinda dependent on Luke knowing nothing about him other than his name and location. (Personally, I didn't like Yoda's presence in the prequels at all, as, watched in order, the Yoda scene in Episode V is ruined, and he seemed to have aged two million years in the, like, 20 years between Episodes III and V, but whatever.)

Additionally, it was just plain refreshing to see good old-fashioned drawings of the characters, old and new, after 100 pages or so of Larocca's work, to see Laiso's Leia and know that is what the character looks like in a particular artist's style, and the expressions and poses are coming from the artist's hand, not a particular frame from a particular film.

Star-Lord: Grounded

I lost track of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy comic proper just after Secret Wars, with what Wikipedia is telling me was the first collection of the fourth volume of the series (Guardians of The Galaxy: New Guard Vol. 1--Emperor Quill), although by then my grip on the franchise was already pretty loose, as I had barely followed any of the many, many spin-offs, with just about every character having their own title for a while, plus there being a short-lived Guardians Team-Up comic for some damn reason.

As it turns out, one need not know what the hell is going on with the Guardians to read, understand or enjoy writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Kris Anka's Star-Lord miniseries (I don't know if it was advertised and promoted as such--I wouldn't be surprised if Marvel failed to mention that it was a limited series--but this reads like an original graphic novel). All one really needs to know is that Peter Quill and his teammates are all temporarily stuck on Earth following the dumb events of Civil War II (wherein their ship was destroyed when they arrived to help Carol Danvers abuse civil liberties), and he's on the outs with his fellow Guardians.

What is a space-faring, half-human superhero to do when he's stuck on Earth for the first time since childhood? If it were up to Quill, lay around drinking beer shirtless, but SWORD Alpha Flight's Abigail Brand gives him a cellphone programmed with the numbers of his known terrestrial associates (Just Howard The Duck and Kitty Pryde) and makes him go outside.

This proves to be something of a mistake, as he ends up making a scene at a museum, getting in a bar brawl with Old Man Logan and some bad guys and given some 100 hours of community service by New York City prosecutor Matt Murdock. That public service takes the form of hanging out with a particular old man with a secret, while working as a bartender at The Bar With No Name, one of the apparently several (you read the above review of Spider-Woman, right?) where the city's low-level lame-o supervillains hang out.

It's difficult to talk too much about the plot without spoiling any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that everything is connected in a somewhat remarkable fashion, so that Zdarsky wastes almost nothing in the narrative, with even things that seem like minor jokes later playing important parts of the story. Lacking his regular ensemble cast, even in a solo title Quill pretty quickly amasses one, and it includes not only the senior citizen he's hanging out with and said senior citizen's son, but also Dardevil, Logan and so such bar regulars as The Shocker, Diamondhead and 8-Ball (who here is a man; are there two 8-Balls in the Marvel Universe now, or is the one in Spider-Woman Lady 8-Ball...?).

It is funny, but it's also extremely well-written, with the choices that seem frankly random (Logan, for example) eventually coming off as perfectly organic (Tangent: This comic was a particularly good example of how weird it is that Marvel killed off the "real" Wolverine shortly before introducing the one from Old Man Logan into the Marvel Universe proper, as there is pretty much nothing at all differentiating the pair except their hair. This could very easily have been Regular Wolverine; all that would have been different would have been his hair...and maybe Zdarsky wouldn't have made that joke at the end, but, on the other hand, maybe he would have, as both Logans are super-old men, it's just the dead Logan was always drawn not to look so old).

Anka's art is as excellent as always, and is a major selling point for the book. I think it's well worth pointing out that the way he draws Peter Quill, and the situations Zdarsky puts him in, are somewhat remarkable in that they treat him the way superheroines have been treated for years, but superheroes almost never are. Not only is Star-Lord shirtless in this, like, a lot, but often times he is shirtless because whenever he's in a fight, he has a habit of getting his clothes torn off of him. When he's confronted by a villain in his apartment, he's just wearing a pair of very small shorts, and Anka draws him from various angles so you can see all his curves and muscles. Even during a sad scene, when he's taking a shower, the imagery is somewhat exploitative, with steam and water just covering the amount of nudity that would make this a Mature Readers book instead of a "T+" book.

Subjecting a male character to the traditional "male gaze" that, say, Mary Jane Watson or She-Hulk or whoever would get is sometimes played for laughs, sure, but it's also subversive and, well, welcome. Anka is a really good artist, after all. (I imagine this has more to do with Chris Pratt playing him than it does the comic book character's own history, but Star-Lord here is presented as an all-around sexy hunk, not unlike the way Thor Odinson was presented as a hottie in-universe more after Chris Hemsworth started playing him in movies.)

The six-issue, 120-page story is followed by an annual, which is a pretty damn weird thing for a six-month miniseries to have. Drawn by Djibril Morissette and written by Zdarsky, it has a very, very different tone. Quill has crash-landed on a space western planet, which isn't terribly interesting looking compared to the similar setting the characters in Fiona Staples and Bryan Vaughn's Saga are currently spending time in, that isn't quite what it seems. Here's a hint: Bruce Banner is there.

As a "it was all a near death experience...or was it?" story it would be fine, although throwing Banner in there like that kind of colors that take (Hey, this is at least the second time I've seen the Hulk undead since the middle of Civil War II....!). While it is somewhat connected to the main story via a few panels of a nightmare Quill has, it sticks out, being so far removed from the otherwise clockwork tightly-plotted, at least two jokes per page, Anka-drawn "Earth-Lord" story that precedes it.

If for some strange reason you would like to continue reading my babbling about various Marvel collections, I also reviewed Champions Vol. 1: Change The World and Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart Vol. 1--Riri Williams for Good Comics For Kids.

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