Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Monsters Unleashed: Battleground

Writer Cullen Bunn and company's between-events event series Monsters Unleashed had far fewer tie-ins than Civil War II. In fact, it had so few tie-ins--just eight--that they could all fit in a single trade paperback collection and that, in fact, is exactly what Monsters Unleashed: Battleground is. Rather than taking over issues of the ongoing monthlies starring particular characters, Marvel decided to publish specially, weirdly numbered issues of those series in which to put the Monsters Unleashed tie-in stories, separating them from whatever the ongoing storylines in those titles might be. So, for example, instead of taking over an issue of the Mark Waid-written Avengers, Marvel published Avengers #1.MU. This was their strategy for the Age of Ultron event's tie-ins as well.

I'm not sure if it's all that great a strategy in terms of sales, as it demarcates these issues as ones readers of participating titles like Avengers need not read if they are not also reading Monsters Unleashed. Particularly since the creative teams are different. These days, the artists changing every arc or so might not be that big a deal, but, for example, Avengers #1.MU isn't written by Waid, nor is Champions #1.MU. In fact, none of these seem to be the work of the regular titles' writers.

I think this strategy likely runs counter to the traditional conventional wisdom regarding crossover events--part of the point of them is to get readers who are interested in the event to check out books they don't already read and might not otherwise have tried--but the mainstream comics market seems so broken, or at least so changed since the days when crossover events still seemed like events, that maybe the publisher has decided it's better for the health of the ongoings not to risk associating them with crossovers, and perhaps prompting readers to jump off...?

While I can't speak to that aspect of the comics, I can speak to the quality of them, and so I will.

It should be noted that the cover is kind of terrible (the cover from the Avengers issue, featuring a bunch of recognizable-ish characters asi t does, or from Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU, featuring two very marketable characters and a solid gag, might have been preferable). Ron Lim's drawing of said cover is fine, I suppose, and it does feature Marvel's flagship character alongside some monsters, but the monsters are pretty poorly chosen. They are The Blip, Devil Dinosaur, Orrgo and Tim Boom Ba (I'm just guessing on that last one, but it looks an awful lot like TBB).

Of the four monsters, only Orrgo appears in the comics collected under the cover at all, and Orrgo's appearance is limited to a one-panel cameo. The monsters that the various heroes--The Avengers, The (All-New) X-Men, The Champions, The Inhumans, The Guardians of The Galaxy and Deadpool, Doctor Strange and The (Totally Awesome) Hulk--are engaged in battle with throughout this collection are The Leviathons, the alien monsters invading Earth. Of the Marvel monsters, only Googam and Xemnu have roles within these stories, and you'll note a distinct lack of either Googam or Xemnu on that cover.

Avengers #1.MU by writer Jim Zub, artist Sean Izaaske and colorist Frank D'Armata

Something I hadn't noted until just now that may have been another reason Marvel decided to publish these tie-ins as standalone issues rather than part of the regular series? They apparently upped the price by a whole dollar, so that each of these things ran you $4.99, instead of the customary $3.99. Of course, they are longer than the standard issue--this story is 29 pages--but man, that's a lot of money when one considers how inconsequential the story is (and a good argument for trade-waiting; this thing costs $29.99, but the individual issues would have cost you $39.92...plus tax, probably!).

Writer Jim Zub basically takes a scene from the first issue of Monsters Unleashed, re-presents it so that he and artist Sean Izaaske can essentially do a cover version of it, and than adds in a bunch of filler as a way of delaying the tie-in. It's really an awful lot of padding.

Amazing Spider-Man Peter Parker gets a tip about a mob meeting in Boston, something that he himself notes isn't really the kind of thing he spends too much time on these days ("Nowadays, I usually leave street level stuff to my younger protegee, but for the sake of nostalgia..."), and as he has a flight to catch in eight short hours, he's not sure he has time to deal with it. So he calls in the then-current adjective-less Avengers roster--Captain America Sam Wilson, The Vision, The Wasp Nadia Pym, Hercules and Thor--to help him. They too spend a few panels discussing whether or not this is worthy of The Avengers' time. So while Zub's dialogue might be snappy and clever, it's probably problematic when the superheroes themselves are second-guessing the plot contrivance.

Luckily, there's a supervillain involved, to justify the involvement of a half-dozen Avengers, two of them with god-like powers, and they have to fight The Controller for a few pages. Right where what reads just like a fill-in issue of Avengers should end, a Leviathon attacks. And then another. This passage of the issue--a full 14-pages--is right out of Monsters Unleashed. It's the same scene: Same dialogue, same action, same everything, just staged and drawn differently, and with a few extra panels between the ones it is essentially just recreating from Monsters Unleashed.

Looked at one way, I suppose that's actually kind of interesting, given that Izaaske obviously didn't have time to see what Monsters Unleashed #1 artist Steve McNiven drew, and so one curious about process could look at the issues side by side and compare and contrast how Izaaske and McNiven both approached identical elements in overlapping scripts, but man, I don't know. I read both in trades I borrowed from the library, and basically just felt a sort of deja vu that turned to mild irritation when I realized what Zub was doing; if I paid for the comics, I'd be downright pissed that I was essentially paying for filler plus a repeat.

There's a last page original to this comic, in which Spider-Man suddenly disappears before the others' eyes. It's a very weird sort of tie-in, and while it's fine looking and well-written on a mechanical level, it was basically just a huge disappointment. Given all the "toys" Monsters Unleashed offered, the Avengers tie-in eschewed them all. It is thus unsurprising that the issue isn't much fun.

Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU by writer Joshua Corin, artist Tigh Walker and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg

Despite occurring after the opening of Monsters Unleashed, in which monsters are literally falling from the sky, this issue is similar to the Avengers tie-in in that it sets up what reads like it might have been a normal Spider-Man/Deadpool story, only to throw in a Leviathon. After two in a row, I began to wonder if that was an intentional choice, to speak in some meta way about how crossovers are unwelcome invasions of ongoing narratives, as the Leviathons come hurtling from above into stories already in progress and then derail them as the heroes have to rather suddenly change focus (this will be even more apparent in the next issue in the collection). Of course, if that is in intent, then the format--standalone, weirdly-numbered one-shots rather than issues of the regular series--would have helped sell it even better.

Spider-Man has been plucked from the last page of Avengers #1.MU and deposited into Spider-Man/Deadpool #1.MU because a coven of private girls school witches outside of Toronto had captured Deadpool and cast a spell to summon his "heartmate" (they were aiming for his demon wife, but got Spidey instead). The plan was to put the spirit of their dead headmistress into said demon wife, but they have to settle for Spider-Man. While the pair are trying to sort things out, a Leviathon crashlands and starts heading towards downtown Toronto.

Spider-Man fights it from the outside, while trying to stave off his possession by the witch, who is slowly taking him over, while Deadpool tries to fight it from the outside, after he is swallowed whole by it. Eventually, and with some unexpected help, they kill it.

Given the characters, it is appropriate that Corin's script is a little sillier and a lot funnier than the previous tie-in or Monsters Unleashed itself, and given that I haven't yet read a collection of Spider-Man/Deadpool, I enjoyed the chemistry between the two...in large part because it's unusual to see Spider-Man play the straight man, as whenever he's around other super-people he's generally portrayed as the irritating, joke-cracking character.

Tigh Walker's art was nice too. Not only does he do a good job of getting his leads to emote, despite being handicapped by their full face-masks, and distinguishing them rather sharply despite their similar costumes, his monster is cool-looking and his art in general has a slightly quirky look and appealing energy to it.

All-New X-Men #1.MU by writer Jeremy Whitley, pencilers Carolos Barberi and Ron Lim, inkers Walden Wong and Terry Pallot and colorist artist Cris Peter

The "All-New" X-Men team is the one that would become the stars of current book X-Men: Blue. Though this is only a single crossover event back, its team status quo is already dated, as it was an entire X-Men franchise reconfiguration and relaunch ago. The team here consists of the time-lost original X-Men, minus Cyclops and Jean and plus All-New Wolverine Laura Kinney, Oya (although Idie Okonkwo pretty much never, ever uses her mutant name, does she?) and Genesis. They are visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Whitley basically approaches the story as a Laura team-up with Gambit, in which the rest of the team play the dual roles of supporting characters and time-wasters/space-fillers.

Like her namesake, Wolvie is more interested in going off on her own for a side mission than any sort of tourism or team socializing, and she and Gambit team-up for a swamp adventure. In perhaps the best, most deliberate example of Monsters Unleashed-preempting-a-story, Whitley doesn't even bother to get his story off the ground. The villain who Gambit and Wolverine are tracking, one Doctor Chimera, is in the middle of explaining his plan when a Leviathon crashlands and, within three panels, devours Doctor Chimera, putting an end to that plot (as for how Whitley fills his 31-pages, much of it involves the X-Men who aren't Gambit and Laura running around New Orleans doing fun stuff, until the Leviathon enters and they must all team-up to destroy it. They do.

The Champions #1.MU by writer Jeremy Whitley, artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt and colorist Frank D'Armata

In keeping with The Champions ongoing's focus on fictionalized versions of real-world conflicts, Whitley has our young, activist heroes showing up at the site of a riot-in-the-making that echoes the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (although here Roxxon is involved, making the already fairly black-and-white real world issues even starker black-and-white, given that Roxxon is basically Evil Incarnate in the Marvel Universe). The company has hired a team of young super-people with incredibly dumb names--Crush, Hotness, Might, Panic, Cursed Cass--to provide "security." These mercenaries, who collectively call themselves The Freelancers, are actually there to put down the protests, but, when The Champions get there, they provide someone for the heroes to fight.

In the venerable Marvel tradition, the conflict stops when they are faced with a bigger, more pressing threat: A couple of Leviathons. The first of these looks a little like a gigantic, spider-esque creature made out of lava, and the second is a more traditional giant lizard thing, with acid spit. Some of the more useful/less evil Freelancers help the Champions put down the Leviathons and rescue the many, many civilians who were there.

Whitely's dialogue is mostly pretty sharp, with an emphasis on zingers. The Freelancers are all pretty lame, but in at least a few cases they seem to be lame on purpose. Whitley has Ms. Marvel embiggen to kaiju wrestling-size, which was a nice application of her powers, and ends the tie-in with the team rushing off to L.A. to fight the giant eyeball Leviathon they tangled with in the pages of Monsters Unleashed proper (So props to Whitley for handling his tie-in better than Zub handled the Avengers one).

Doctor Strange #1.MU by writer Chip Zdarsky, artist Julian Lopez, inker Scott Hanna and colorist Frank D'Armata

This is the strongest of the tie-ins, as it abandons the format of the previous ones--a regular adventure followed by pages of Leviathon fighting--and ties into the most appealing part of the crossover series proper, and Monsters Unleashed's mostly unfulfilled promise. It opens in the midst of the big battle outside of San Diego, in which the Marvel heroes and the Marvel monsters fought alongside each other against the invading army of Leviathons.

Our hero is also our narrator, and Doctor Strange is in way over his head, reduced to using magical weapons and items, having been greatly de-powered at the start of his new series (Remember that Monsters Unleashed had five art teams, and Doctor Strange is one of the characters who suffered the most from the various art teams not all being on the same page; his costume design goes back and forth from his current one, his old one and back to his current one. Watch for the change in the color of his cape throughout. Similarly, Star-Lord's costume changes, depending on the artist).

This is the only story in this collection in which the monsters from the Prelude play any role whatsover. Fin Fang Foom and the previously mentioned Orrgo have cameos, and Goom and Googam both have speaking parts, with Googam actually playing a part in Zdarsky's story, which is basically a Strange/Googam team-up.

Googam is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that his dad intervenes to save him from a Leviathon at one point, and when Googam resums his battle against it, Doctor Strange hits it with an arrow that teleports it away, either saving Googam's life or robbing the Son of Goom from his victory, depending on whose take you wish to rely on (that is, either your own eyes or Googam's word). A few days later, Googam strides down New York City streets in a an old school Ben Grimm-style "disguise" of a trench coat and wide brimmed hat--which naturally looks tiny atop his enormous head--and goes to confront Strange.

Rather than fighting him, Strange recruits him for a mission to regain his honor: Helping him track down and put down the Leviathon he had teleported to a random location. Hijinks ensue.

Spider-Man Peter Parker has a few small but key scenes, and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the strategies Strange employs against this Leviathon is the same one that Deadpool and Spidey used against theirs in Toronto a few tie-ins back. Here it is much more effective, however. I'm not sure if it was in the back of Zdarsky's head when he was scripting this or not, but it echoes the way in which Googam was killed at the end of his first appearance.

Artist Julian Lopez does a pretty superb job here. The monsters and super-characters all look appropriately monstrous and super, but Lopez really manages to sell the absurdity of the clash between, say, Googam and a city street, and to he does a fine job of wringing emotion out of the bulbous-headed monster. The funniest part of the last page isn't what happens, although given the player it happens to, it is pretty funny, but the look on Googam's face as he reacts to it.

Uncanny Inhumans #1.MU by writer Paul Allor, artist Brian Level and colorist Jordan Boyd

Huh. So I think this is the first Inhumans comic I've ever read. I mean, I have obviously read comics in which The Inhumans appear--how could one not, these days?--but this is the first one with the word Inhumans right there in the title.

What's a little weird about it is that the thing people are always saying about how Marvel is trying to make the Inhumans into the X-Men? That is basically what this reads like: An X-Men comic without the X-Men.

The lead character is someone named Swain, who wears a fancy costume that, these being the Inhumans, I can't tell is meant to be a hip fashion statement, or if that's just how pilots for the Inhumans dress. But she's a pilot who has the mutant Inhuman power to touch the minds of others around her; she leaves the superheroing to the other (Medusa, Crystal, Karnak, Triton, not-really-an-Inhuman Johnny Storm and the seemingly identically powered Inferno).

While they are fighting a Leviathon in Italy (as seen in the pages of Monsters Unleashed), Swain is flying civilians out of harm's way in a space ship, but ends up having to try to lead them to safety on foot, pursued by a particularly scary-looking Leviathon. Forced to fight with her powers in a way she never has before, she has to sacrifice a piece of her self to save the others.

It's...fine. I can't say it endeared the characters to me, and I remain mostly baffled by Marvel's insistence on putting them front and center in the hopes that they will someday, somehow catch on. It didn't quite answer the lingering question I have about the Inhumans, which is why they are so front and center in public at the moment, and why they have become what at leas here feels like a traditional superhero team, complete with a member of the Fantastic Four on their "roster."

The art by Brian Level is among the strongest and most distinct in this collection. I mentioned the design of the one Leviathon, but everything here has an interesting energy and a sense of herky-jerky movement to it. I liked the look of it a lot.

Guardians of The Galaxy #1.MU by writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims, artist David Baldeon and colorist Marcio Menyz

The Guardians story somehow manages to spend all 30 pages around one of their fight scenes from Monsters Unleashed, as the team tangles with a Leviathon at a naval base in San Diego. Well, I shouldn't say "somehow," as I know how. To help fill those pages, Bowers and Sims reveal a connection between Groot and the particular Leviathon, explored in a flashback set on Groot's homeworld when he looked a bit more like he did in the latest Guardians of The Galaxy movie, as opposed to his design here, which is one I'm not terribly fond of (It's the same he had in Civil War II, with the green "hair", and the vines acting as connective tissues around his wooden limbs.

The Guardians' status quo at the time of this one-shot was pretty fraught. From what I understand, they were kinda sorta broken up at this point, and all stuck on Earth doing their own things. They are together in this issue mainly because Marvel decided to publish a Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in issue to Monsters Unleashed, as far as I can tell.

Bowers and Sims do okay with what they have here, but they don't really manage to keep from the readers how artificial the premise is.

Totally Awesome Hulk #1.MU by writers Bryan Edward Hill and Leah Williams, artists Ty Templeton and Jahnoy Lindsay and colorists Mat Lopes and Esther Sanz

The final book in the collection fills its over-sized space in a way unlike any of the previous issues. It is split into two stories, both with their own creative teams, and connected so that one leads into the other. The first story is by Hill and Templeton (whose artwork I didn't even recognize; that guy has a pretty tremendous range of styles, and his work looks good in all of them). Set in Seoul, South Korea, it features Amadeus Cho being called before Korean superhero and apparently government agent White Fox, who asks for his help in finding and stopping a monster. The monster looks like Godzilla wearing bits of armor, and no sooner has Cho beat it up that he realizes that something is wrong, and this whole story must be a dream...which it is!

The second story, by Williams and Lindsay, features Hulk waking from that dream to find its cause: Xemnu, The Hulk Titan. A Marvel monster dating from the same era as Orrgo, Googam and company, Xemnu was left out of the Prelude for some reason...and if he appeared at all in Monsters Unleashed, I have already forgotten it. Like his fellow Marvel monsters, Xemnu is trying to save the world from the invading Leviathons...but he's trying to do it by conquering the world. He has put everyone in Seoul in a trance, feeding them pleasant dreams, until Cho managed to shake it off. The art on this story is particularly good, and there are a few pretty bananas-looking transformation sequences, in which Lindsay is able to illustrate, say, Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk in a single image, varying the sizes of the Hulk's body parts to show him growing.

Then that's followed by...wait, that's three stories, with three distinct art styles. But the credits only list two stories by two artists...

Okay, wait, wait, wait. According to Comics.org, Hill and Templeton did indeed create that first story. The second one is also written by Hill, but drawn by the uncredited (in the collection) Ricardo López Ortiz. That's who did the great art in the Xemnu sequence (Each of the stories has it's own title, by the way; this second story isn't included in the table of contents at all). Then there is a third story; that's the one by Leah Williams and Jahnoy Lindsay. It features Amadeus' younger sister and fellow super-genius Maddy using her genius to track down galactic monster-hunting expert Lady Hellbender and then Oracle-ing her through a dangerous facility in exchange for useful monster intel.

Man. I can't believe Marvel fucked up the table of contents for this book so badly...

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