Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: July 2019



BOUGHT:


Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man Vol. 1: Secrets and Rumors (Marvel Entertainment) So there were three things that interested me in this trade paperback collection of a new, secondary Spider-Man ongoing monthly comic book. First, it was written by Tom Taylor, a very solid writer whose work is often pretty great (All-New Wolverine, for example) and often surprises by being far better than one might assume it should be (Injustice, for example).

Second, it was drawn by Juan Cabal, an all-around great artist, although I wasn't quite sure how his particular facility with character work and facial expressions would translate to a book starring a character whose full-face mask allows for less expression than your average emoji.

Third, it apparently introduced a new Spider-Man sidekick named Spider-Bite, who was apparently a sidekick in the tradition of The Black Terror's sidekick Tim or the Silver Age Flash's Kid Flash in his original costume; that is, basically just a smaller, kid-sized version of the hero.

Well, that third one turned out to be a bit of a cheat. In the sixth and final issue of this collection, Spider-Man and Spider-Bite take on Stilt-Man and The Sinister Sixty for a glowing gold maguffin, a box containing the one thing New York City can't do without. As the story progresses, it becomes pretty clear that this story isn't as "real" as the one preceding it. It turns out that Spider-Bit is Nathan, a boy who is in a hospital and struggling with cancer. Spidey has spent the day visiting him and playing with him. It's a really solid, evergreen Spider-Man story that effectively tugs at the heart strings, while also being kind of funny in the appropriate places (I liked the bit where Spider-Man regards one of his own action figures and remarks, "I wish I had this many points of articulation.")

The story that precedes it is a highly-imaginative, rather clever one, although I'm not entirely sure it's a Spider-Man story, or even a Marvel story, involving as it does a secret Golden Age hero no one has ever heard of and "Under York," a secret New York City that's built into an ocean of lava a few miles beneath the genuine article (that sounds pretty DC, right, and, in particular, rather Grant Morrison...? It's definitely not Spider-Man, or Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man). The story is obviously quite well-written, and Taylor nails the character of Spider-Man, but the story just seemed somewhat off...although, that can also be read as refreshing, I guess, given that it does break the expected mold of Spider-Man stories so dramatically.

Taylor does quite literally involve Spider-Man's neighborhood in the story, though, as the book opens with him saving some new arrivals to the neighborhood, and the conflict with Under York begins when a nosy, needy older woman in his building has him check in on a shy, shut-in who also lives in their building. Spidey's roommate Fred "Boomerang" Myers appears, as does Human Torch Johnny Storm, who is called on to babysit at one point.

There's also a sub-plot involving Aunt May introduced, which I found more irritating than dramatic. Taylor and Cabal (and the other artists) do a good job of making it seem dramatic, but it's the sort of thing Peter Parker has been worrying about a good decade or so before I was even born, so it's hard to invest much in it. Ironically, then, this single volume features both a plot that is so un-Spider-Man-like as to see wrong for the character, and another that is so typical of the character as to be tiresome. It's definitely an interesting read, then.

I really like Andrew Robinson's covers, but it's kind of too bad they differ so much from the art of Cabal, given the gulf between their respective styles. Cabal, it turns out, is a pretty great Spidey artist. Sure, there's only so much you can do with his face, but its blankness is a neat visual in and of itself, especially as it forces Cabal to do so much with the character's posture and body language, and provides such a contrast between the star character and all of those he interacts with throughout the book.


Ironheart Vol. 1: Those With Courage (Marvel) If I'm being 100% honest, the reason that this is in the "bought" rather than "borrowed" category is because the online reaction to Marvel hiring a black lady to write a comic book included so many hateful, ignorant takesmost of them disguised as concern that a professional poet couldn't write a comic book as well as a professional comic book writerthat I wanted the book to succeed in order to spite all of those spiteful of Ewing, Riri Williams and/or Ewing on a Riri Williams book. So while I wanted to read this when the trade became available, I bought it to essentially vote with my dollars.

Andsurprise!Ewing is perfectly capable of writing a modern Marvel super-comic. Ironheart, or at least the first six issues of it, didn't knock my socks off in the way that, say, the first issues of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat or Unstoppable Wasp did (to grab a copula Marvel titles of the last few years to also star young female characters), but Ewing betrays no sign of being "new" to comics, or to not getting how they work...something that a lot of writers from other fields do when they start writing comics (And hell, in terms of simple page-by-page mechanics, I would even say Ewing writes comics better than Riri's co-creator Brian Michael Bendis, whose scripts often work against the art).

Speaking of Bendis, I'm sure I've complained about how difficult to follow his run on the Iron Man character was, given that it changed titles a couple of times, one arc was randomly in a miniseries, and the numbering changed seemingly at random; in fact, I only read a trade or two of it before I got lost and gave up (According to the inside front and back covers of this collection, Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart Vols. 1 and 2 are what one would want/need to read before this). So while I've read Riri in comics before, I am not up-to-date on her story. That said, I didn't feel the least bit lost while reading this. It's a perfectly good starting point with the character and her story, as it should be.

I've mentioned before while looking at various covers that I did not quite like Ironheart's costume, which seemed to me to have one color too many, but now having lived with it for a handful of issues, I think I've come around on it, or at least gotten used to it. I really like the heart symbols, and appreciate that it's a "female" Iron Man costume only in that it is smaller and slimmer, rather than having breasts carved into it, as some previous female Iron Man costumes have (most recently, The Hunt For Wolverine: The Adamantium Agenda had Jessica Jones and Laura Kinney suit up in Iron Man-like suits of armor that Stark outfitted them with, and both suits were drawn with iron breasts and, in Laura's case, even long hair, for some reason).

Minor Spider-Man villain Clash, minor New Warriors villain Midnight's Fire (given a pretty solid redesign, and written to be incredibly formidable) and Spider-Man Miles Morales appear to give some connective tissue to the greater Marvel Universe (Oh, and Ms. Marvel appears on a screen for a few panels, in her capacity as the leader of The Champions), but Ewing and company steer clear of Iron Man himself and his supporting cast and villains, helping distinguish Ironheart from Iron Man.

I'm not sure I'll keep reading after this volumeI certainly won't buy the next onebut I am happy to report that this is perfectly okay, and for one of Ewing's earliest comics works, she's already in far better shape than other writers from other fields who decide to try their hand at comics (I thought Ta-Nehesi Coates' Black Panther was pretty rough reading, for the most recent example of a new-to-comics writer on a Marvel book I can think of).

I'll have a formal review of this elsewhere, so if this sounds like a random collection of thoughtsor, like more of a random collection of thoughts than usualthat's totally why.



Jughead's Time Police #2 (Archie Comics) The second issue of the Sina Grace/Derek Charm miniseries is set entirely in the 29th Century, where January McAndrews introduces Jughead to the future he so greatly influenced, detailing some of the many great accomplishments he has not yet achieved in his present (don't worry; she has a device to erase parts of his memory so as to avoid further corrupting the time stream that she has recruited him to help fix). It ends with a fantastic cliffhanger ending, revealing a very unexpected villain who is apparently manipulating events behind the scenes for some nefarious purpose.



Justice League #27 (DC Comics) The James Tynion IV/Javier Fernandez creative team, now joined by Bruno Redondo, continue their leg of Justice League's mega-story, the bulk of this issue devoted to skinny J'onn J'onnz being held captive by Professor Ivo (and his muscle, Amazo), who straps J'onn down to a table to vivisect him.

 As a person who has spent way too much time thinking way too much about J'onn J'onnz's powers, I don't think elements of this issue worked for me. For example, Amazo takes J'onn down by blasting him with Superman's heat visionwhich Ivo warns J'onn he is about to hit him witheven though J'onn is weakened by fire, not heat (And if J'onn just went intangible, as he spends much of this series forgetting to do, the beams would pass harmlessly through him. Technically the heat could ignite parts of the lab, producing fire which would weaken J'onn, but that's not what happens here; Tynion and company seem to indicate that Superman shoots actual fire from his eyeballs, rather than just heat).

Meanwhile, Superman's team and Forger go looking for The Monitor and Anti-Monitorthose three are "the children of Perpetua," which the cover of this issue asks the identity of, even though that was revealed many issues ago) and Starman tries to counsel Future Hawkgirl and Future Martian Manhunter's hybrid child Shayne through his understandable identity crisis.

It's all fine, I guess. The book mostly just stresses me out, though, as it's been so many issues of the state of the Multiverse in flux, and I really would just like DC to figure its shared setting out, and start telling new stories in it, rather than this sort of ongoing, constant state of Crisis.

I liked that Luthor and Brainiac's little drones all look like the Legion of Doom's headquarters crossed with one of those things from Batteries Not Included.



Justice League #28 (DC) J'onn finally finds the not-actually-dead Lex Luthor and the two chat for a while before something unexpected happens. As this mostly revolves around a weird plot element introduced many issues ago, in which Martians and Earthlings were apparently meant to be a single, amalgamated super-species but were separated by the cosmic mother goddess Perpetua to weaken them each that I didn't really get or like, the main event of this issue wasn't anything I was particularly interested in or fond of, even though it is obviously quite temporary.

For this issue, the Tynion/Fernandez team is joined by pencil artist Daniel Sampere and inker Juan Albarran, with Fernandez seemingly drawing the J'onn and Luthor portions, while Sampere and Albarran draw those sections dealing with the other Leaguers (Superman, Forger, The Monitor and most of the rest of the League are on Qward, seeking out The Anti-Monitor, while Starman is having Shayne and Jarro help him...do something with his mind and The Multiverse).

While I'm not crazy about the newer depiction of J'onn as skinny and with a weird-looking head, I like that Fernandez's slightly-scratchy lines evoke the look of Tom Mandrake's art on Martian Manhunter. His style is so different from that of "regular" artists Jorge Jimenez and Jim Cheung, but I think he's rather rapidly becoming my favorite of the current Justice League artists.

Sampere's Qward section leaves more to be desired, although some of the weaknesses might be a matter of scripting. For example, there's a panel where The Flash makes a joke about the little hats the Qwardian Thunderers wear, but Sampere only draws the Qwardians in extreme longshot, as corpses on the ground, so we don't actually see what Flash is talking about.


True Believers: Spider-Man⁠—Morbius #1 (Marvel) This $1 reprint issue of 1971's Amazing Spider-Man #101 is the apparent first appearance of Morbius, The Living Vampire, and the Roy Thomas/Gil Kane comic is some prime Spider-Man, with Peter Parker starting the issue with six arms, and spending the first six pages or so sitting around his apartment, talking out loud to himself about how having six arms will impact various aspects of his life.

As if on cue, first Gwen Stacy calls to ask him out, and Peter is a real dick to her about it, and then Robbie Robinson and J. Jonah Jameson call him with a photography assignment he must also decline (Read in 2019, when tightly-held secret identities are no longer such a prominent aspect of super-comics, there's something quaint about Peter keeping his secret ID from his girlfriend; how much easier conflicts like these would be to manage if he could only be honest with Gwen!).

Ultimately, Spidey leaves town to hang out at Doctor Curt Connors' fortuitously empty, but fully-furnished with a fancy science lab, house in The Hamptons, where he can work on a cure to his too many arms. It's there that he meets Morbius, who arrives as a stowaway in a boat, where he has been surreptitously feeding off the crew when in his vampire form (So, kinda like Dracula, but not so industrious; after all, Dracula managed to eat everyone on his boat).

Despite being something of a middle chapter—the book opens with Spider-Man freaking out about sprouting four extra arms, and ends with a cliffhanger as he finds himself trapped between Morbius and The Lizard⁠—it's easy enough to follow, and it's episode-of-a-long-running soap opera nature is actually something of a plus, as it reads even more wild without exact context.

It's also got Gil Kane art, so it's not like one could go wrong with spending a $1 on this thing, you know?


BORROWED:

Amazing Spider-Man By Nick Spencer Vol. 3: Lifetime Achievement (Marvel Entertainment) This trade paperback collection includes two distinct stories by two distinct artists, spread across five issues. The first story consists of three issues drawn by pencil artist Ryan Ottley and inker Cliff Rathburn, and gives us writer Nick Spencer's take on the recent-ish developments in the Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson relationship, namely Spidey's revelation of his secret identity to Jonah in the pages of Chip Zdarsky and company's Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man (Which reminds me: I never finished reading that series). The second is a two-issue prelude to a story arc that's been building for a bit; that's penciled and colored by Chris Bachalo, and inked by a five (five!) different artists.

In the Ottley-drawn story Jonah is about to get some bad news from his producer regarding the viability of his talk radio show, which is loudly pro-Spider-Man and anti-Mayor Fisk, when his producer is interrupted by some unexpected good news: Jameson is to be awarded a lifetime achievement award at the city's Century Club by Mayor Wilson Fisk himself. There's just one condition. Fisk insists that Spider-Man be there to introduced Jameson, and Spidey is naturally leery about the whole thing.

It becomes a moot point when Jameson and Spidey are both captured by The Enforcers (I do love those guys) and taken to a weird, Arcade-built This Is Your Life-like death trap that uses holograms, robots, the real live Scorpion and other expensive gimmicks to review Jameson's biography before killing the pair off. They survive, of course, and the villain who hired Arcade is revealed as...well, it turns out to be someone related to a classic Spider-Man villain, who takes on that name and a dramatic new form, someone who hates Jameson and Spidey pretty much equally at this point.

The character was obscure enough that I had to Google themso, more a player in the comics, and absent from all seven feature films and any of the cartoon episodes I've seento double-check that this form was indeed a new one. It's a pretty clever way to recap Jameson's history and his history with Spider-Man, with Arcade and his employer essentially attacking the pair with a malevolent info dump. (This continuity kills!)

The Bachalo-drawn issues flow naturally out of the Ottley-drawn ones. At the end of Ottley's last issue here, Spencer's favorite mercenaries Taskmaster and The Black Ant capture The Scorpion and toss him in a cell with the various other animal-themed villains they've been collecting, and in the Bachalo issues Arcade gets his next customer. Meanwhile, Spider-Man is involved with two meals. Peter Parker and MJ visit Doctor Curt "The Lizard" Connors and his family for Chinese takeout in the sewer, and then Spider-Man must rescue Aunt May when the restaurant she is dining in becomes the setting of a battle between The Rhino and Taskmaster and Black Ant.

Bachalo is, obviously, an all-around pretty great super-comics artist, but I was particularly impressed with the new life he breathed into some classic Spider-Man villains here. I shared that enthusiasm previously on Twitter, but I really liked how his Lizard looked like, you know, an actual lizard. Usually the character is drawn as a lizard man, with an emphasis on the man part, looking more like a snake-man or a human-sized T-Rex with more useful arms in a lab coat, but Bachalo gives his Lizard the general shape, proportions and even expressions of a lizard. I don't know if it would work as well in a fight scene as the more traditional design of the character, but all he's doing in these issues is talking to Peter, MJ and his family and walking around his house, so it was neat to see the character drawn as a blown-up version of the type of animal you'd find squatting on a rock in a pet store.

His Rhino and his Kraven get much less panel-time, but they're both pretty great designs, too. Rather looking like a football player stuffed inside a rhino hide, Bachalo's Rhino seems to be encased in something more akin to concrete, as his suit is cracked and flakes off. And for his Kraven, well, I basically just loved the fact that the lion face on Kraven's vest seemed to have expressions in various panels.

Immortal Hulk Vol. 3: Hulk In Hell (Marvel) The latest installment of Al Ewing and Joe Bennett's shockingly effective take on the Hulk comic as a superhero horror epic takes a hard right turn into the mythological, with a weak and hurt Hulk (note his kind gross appearance on Alex Ross' cover there) and Jacqueline McGee walking into Hell, which seems to have risen to meet them in New Mexico. Ewing's narration, meanwhile, talks about duality in a Zoroastrianism framework, Jewish mysticism and the devil; that might seem be a bit artier than necessary for a Hulk comic, even one as ambitious as this one, but it works here, particularly with the pairs use of repeating images that at first seem extremely far removed from the story the characters are currently experiencing.

Hulk's sojourn into hell is three issues long, and ties into deeper Hulk history/continuity, but not in any sort of alienating way. I certainly didn't experience any stories about Bruce Banner's abusive father when they originally played out are were referenced in previous comics, and I found this easy enough to follow--well, "easy" probably isn't the right word to use when reading about a man abusing his wife and child (the one part that did confuse me came during the two issues following the Bennett-drawn issues set in hell; apparently General Ross has died...or at "died," but the last I saw him he was alive in well in the pages of Avengers, so I think I missed something somewhere).

Those issues seem to resolve aspects of the devil/"One Below All" storyline, and Bruce/Hulk's relationship with his father, leading to something of an epiphany about Hulk and Bruce's relationship with one another. Along the way, Ewing manages to find ever greater importance in what was almost certainly simple, deadline-driven goofing by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, giving the overall Hulk story ever grander, ever operatic weight.

Those last two issues, after the climactic confrontations in hell, seem to move back toward more standard superhero territory. We check in on Betty Ross, Doc Samson and, eventually, Rick Jones...or at least, find out that there's some news regarding the supposedly dead Jones. Even these sequences suggest that Ewing is drawing connections between the somewhat random events of corporate serial superhero narratives, and trying to justify them on a meta level while also finding something new and compelling in them, suggesting here that the reason so many of Hulk's fellow heroes and supporting cast members keep dying and coming back to life isn't just because that's what happens in superhero comics, but because the gamma radiation bond they all share makes them all somewhat immortal too.

It's been 15 issues now, and I still can't get over how good this comic is, and how much I'm enjoying it (I'm pretty sure that 15 issues is, by the way, the longest I've read any Hulk series consecutively).


Star Wars: Age of RepublicVillains (Marvel) This trade paperback collects a series of four one-shots, each of which featured a particular bad guy from the prequel trilogy of Star Wars movies, Episodes I through III. Somewhat surprisingly for a project like this, all four are by the same creative team. Writer Jody Houser and artist Luke Ross do the honors, with color art by Java Taraglia (There's also a ten-page short story featuring Asajj Ventress that follows the four full stories, which is apparently part of a Star Wars: Age of Republic Special, and that is drawn by Carlis Gomez with colors by Dono Sanchez-Almara).

The particular villains featured are those seen on the cover: Darth Maul, Jango Fett, Count Dooku and General Greivous. Palpatine/Darth Sidious, the villain of the whole Star Wars saga and the only character to appear in all three of the "Age of Republic" movies, doesn't get an issue, but he does make appearances. Perhaps he didn't get a special of his own because he's considered more of an "Age of Rebellion--that is, original trilogy--villain, or perhaps because his villainy isn't bound to either particular era, but extends through both.

Overall, it's a pretty decent package. The stories seem to fluctuate somewhat in quality--although I suppose my interest in some characters over others might be a factor--but they are all pretty thorough introductions to the characters and what their particular deals are, as well as their places in the overall Star Wars story...which, of course, extends far beyond the three movies and deep into the spin-offs like The Clone Wars cartoons (All of these guys had relatively little screen-time in the films proper, after all).

Each of the four primary stories begins with what looks like a pin-up of the character in action--although I suppose these are taken from the covers of their books--with a little paragraph of prose beneath the image explaining who they are. And then, at the end of each story, there is a prose article about the character, explaining behind-the-scenes details about how they came to be and where their stories continued in the so-called expanded universe. With little in the way of continuity, they all seem like good evergreen, portrait-style stories.

Ross' art isn't too terribly stylized or dynamic, and doesn't infuse the proceedings with much of the artist's own personality, but it is quite well-suited to this sort of based-on-a-movie project, being realistic enough that the characters, costumes, ships and aliens all look like they do in the films, without any of the uncomfortable image "sampling" that can sometimes mar comics like these...including Marvel Star Wars comics of the very recent past.

My least favorite of the four is probably also the first, Darth Maul. Narrated by the title character, it's split between his efforts to establish a foothold in the galaxy's criminal underworld while hunting and killing the closest thing to a Jedi he can, and his master Palpatine/Sidious taking him to a sort of vision quest training session on the planet Malachor. There's not a whole lot to it, and it basically tells us that Maul is a really good fighter who hates the Jedi and serves Palpatine...so, nothing that no one who hadn't already seen Episode I didn't already know.

I think the panel of this that interested me most was one set during Maul's vision, where we see many Jedi with many different kinds of light sabers surrounding him. Note all of the Kylo Ren-style ones, with the little extra laser blades coming out of the sides of the hilt. It's a pretty good example of the retroactive continuity of the expanded universe, where things that are "new" in one movie are then added into the backstory, even minor, visual things like the types of light sabers there are (I was even a bit surprised to see all the purple sabers there, as I thought Mace Windu was the only one who had one).
That's followed by Jango Fett, which is as much a Boba Fett story, from back when Boba was the little moppet we saw in Episode II. Even more simple and straightforward in plot than the previous story, it is basically the story of the Fetts working with a crew of three other bounty hunters on a pretty basic kidnapping. Houser includes a two-page scene in which a hooded and robed Count Dooku hires Jango to be the base of the Republic's clone army, helping establish the story's point as an exploration of Fett's legacy in the galaxy, being the genetic father to millions of clone troopers, and raising one son himself.

The prose article following this story was kind of neat, as it revealed to me something I didn't know--Jango is not a Mandalorian, he just wears Mandalorian armor. Also, there's mention of the character's original design, which was going to be all white...before they eventually settled on the shiny silver. That's probably for the best, considering all the characters with white armor there are in the Star Wars films, but it sounds sort of striking; there's an image of an all-white Jango in the cover gallery in the back, on a "concept design variant" by Doug Chiang.

Next is Count Dooku, in which the Christopher Lee-played Jedi-gone-bad travels to a planet in order to do some behind-the-scenes stuff to continue to manipulate the galaxy into a war, and there he meets a Jedi knight. The Jedi is my favorite kind of Star Wars alien species, and one I don't think I've encountered in any Star Wars comics before, so I'm not sure what they're calling them, but he's basically just a talking, bipedal tiger. He's there to fight a criminal gang that Dooku is there to take over, and so they ally with one another...until Dooku betrays him. This story is probably the strongest showcase of Ross' skills in the book, as Dooku's character is defined by posture and personality as much as anything else, and Ross' strength with likenesses that can move, live and breathe are perfect for a story starring him.

The final issue/story is General Grievous, who is, if anything, even more simple than Darth Maul. While the film version of the character didn't make too much of an impression--certainly not as much as his first appearance in Gendy Tartakovsky's Star Wars: Clone Wars Cartoon Network "micro series" (still the very best Star Wars-related film-making, and I'll still fight anyone who says different)--he's still a pretty cool character design. A skeletal robot that moves like a bug, he switches back and forth between two great, villainous modes, either clutching a cloak tightly around his seemingly hunch-backed frame while stalking around on crooked legs like a diabolical figure, or transforming into a six-limbed engine of destruction.

As for what's beneath the design, if there's a great General Grievous story that demonstrates that he can be as compelling a character as he looks, I've yet to encounter it. This certainly isn't it, but Houser does demonstrate his single-minded interests in hunting and killing Jedi, fueled by a rage that makes Maul seem mellow. That's basically all this story is: Grievous kills a coupla Jedi, and then storms a trap-laden Jedi temple. There the Jedi seem intent on trying to teach him some spiritual truths about himself, which only enrages him further. There's a glimpse of a Grievous in his old, organic life, when he wasn't just a pair of eyes and wheezy lungs in a pile of pointy robot parts, but it's brief, accompanying a suggestion that his efforts to make himself stronger have had the opposite effect. His prose article does suggest some Clone Wars episodes to watch for insight into the character; I've never been able to watch any of that show though, as I find the animation style off-putting. Maybe some day.

Finally, there's the Ventress story, alternately entitled "Weapon" or "Sisters", depending on whether one is looking at the table of contents or the cover image preceding it. Necessarily short, it's little more than a scene. The Jedi-turned-Sith-turned-bounty hunter who seems to gravitate toward heroism in large part because of the fact that the people who tell her stories just like her so much (having watched the original, 2D Clone Wars and listened to the audiobook version of Christie Golden's 2015 Dark Disciple novel, I missed the middle of her story, that which was apparently dramatized in the later, 3D-style Clone Wars series). In this story, she gets distracted while beginning to hunt her next bounty, sees herself in some scrappy cat-girl alien street urchins, and defends them from a big muscle-y guy in the most Star Wars way she can: Chopping off his arm with a light saber.



REVIEWED:


Marvel Action: Spider Man: A New Beginning (IDW Publishing) When Disney bought Marvel in 2009, not only did the company gain access to all that lucrative movie business, they also got their hands on one of the biggest comic book publishers in the North American market. Which is why it seemed odd that Disney didn’t have Marvel publishing comics featuring their classic mouse and duck characters, but instead continued licensing those comics to IDW Publishing.

And it seemed a little silly when IDW also started publishing Star Wars Adventures, an all-ages Star Wars comic, despite the fact that Marvel was already publishing a rather sizable line of Star Wars comics.

And when IDW started publishing its new Marvel Action line, all-ages comics featuring Marvel’s own characters, well, then it just seemed ridiculous; a tacit admission that Marvel Entertainment had spent so much time catering to their adult audience that they no longer had any idea how to make comics for kids anymore. They used to at least try; in addition to the handful of quite excellent comics geared toward tweens and teens that adults can enjoy too (Think Ms. Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Unstoppable Wasp, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, etc), within the last decade or so they regularly-ish attempted all-ages comics that were quite suitable for middle-school readers.

Here's the thing, though. As ridiculous as it may seem that Marvel has begun licensing its own characters to another publisher (while, ironically, they devoted a lot of energy to publishing comics starring Star Wars characters and Robert E. Howard's Conan), the Marvel Action comics I've read so far have been really quite good. I've already discussed Marvel Action: The Avengers: The New Danger and Marvel Action: Spider-Man: A New Beginning in the previous installment of this column...and gushed quite a bit on Twitter about various elements of Delilah S. Dawson and Fico Ossio's Spider-Man reinvention (and all the great variant covers accompanying it). But here's a professional review of their Team Spider-Man approach to the Spider-Man characters, if you want to read one of those.

It features a really elegant solution to making a Spider-Man comic about more than one of the spiders, and read to me like a blending of the Into The Spider-Verse movie with Bendis and Bagley and company's original Ultimate Spider-Man.


Spider-Man Swings Through Europe (Marvel) This is a picture book rather than a comic book, but it stars Spider-Man and is published by Marvel, so it's close enough for our purposes. I read it both before and after seeing Spider-Man: Far From Home in theaters, and, having done so, I realized it spoiled nothing about the film while also being incredibly, if subtly, accurate in its adaptation of certain aspects of the film (the main focus, as the title suggests, is the cities that Peter/Spider-Man and his classmates visit on their field trip). It's totally worth taking a look at just to see artist Andrew Kolb's version of Sam Jackson's Nick Fury.  Here's a full review of it, if you're interested in learning a bit more, but I think the cover tells you pretty much all you need to know.


Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap'n Bill Adventure (Penguin) I've read The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz a couple of times in my life, but I recently made an effort to finally catch up on L. Frank Baum's Oz series...via audiobook, as I always need something to listen to while driving any sizable distance. My efforts were stymied after I finished the fourth book, Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, though, as the library systems available to me didn't have any books past that available on audio.

I did not, therefore, get to the ninth book, 1915's The Scarecrow of Oz, in which Trot and Cap'n Bill appear--nor was I aware that Baum had written two books starring these characters, the first of which was The Sea Fairies. Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee's new original graphic novel is an adaptation...but also an extrapolation. And something of a remix. To continue the pop music metaphor, it also feels a bit like they had taken "samples" from the novel. Passages feel very Baum-like, others feel completely fresh, modern and original. I liked it an awful lot, even if I never got quite lost in it. I guess, to be more specific, I admired it as much as I liked it, if that makes sense. Here's my review, if you'd like to read it.




Teen Titans: Raven (DC Comics) I was pretty surprised by the announcement that DC was dissolving their two new imprints devoted to publishing original graphic novels for middle school readers and YA audiences, an announcement that came, coincidentally, between the time I had finished writing my Good Comics For Kids review of Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo's Teen Titans: Raven and the time when it was published to the site. I was surprised because from my point-of-view, as a reader and a semi-professional comics critic, the imprints seemed to be both publishing pretty good comics as well as getting warm receptions, hitting their target audiences.

The thing that struck me while reading this one was how its general goal was somewhat akin to that of DC's confused "Earth One" line from a few years back--that is, producing series of graphic novels featuring new versions of the characters specifically for the YA book market--but doing it much, much better. For example, the Teen Titans: Earth One project was written by a comics person, drawn by a well-known comics artist and had the stumbling block of "Earth One" associated with it (Like, if you got that, then the books weren't for you...although maybe that's changing now that the "Arrowverse" TV shows have made numbered earths in a Multiverse a mass media thing).

Here we have a popular and successful YA writer, paired with an excellent artist whose name isn't already associated with Big Two super-comics, introducing the Titans one at a time in dedicated, standalone-ish original graphic novels. I guess one can't really judge this against Teen Titans: Earth One just yet, not until Garcia and Picolo have completed all their Teen Titans books, but at this early stage, I thought this was the far better of the two project, and the most likely to appeal to the intended audience.

I don't know for certain if there is or isn't a benefit to these Teen Titans books, and the Mera and Catwoman one that were previously published, being part of a dedicated "DC Ink" line rather than just being published as DC Comics, which seems to be the plan going forward, but, to a long-time reader like me, I think there is a benefit to a dedicated imprint. Certainly when I started reading comics as a teen, I knew that if a comic was a Vertigo comic, it meant something different than if it was just a DC comic. (And I can recall a time early on when I bought anything that came out on Marvel's Ultimate line simply because I associated it with the publisher's higher-quality comics, although that certainly didn't last too long).  But, again, I'm just looking at it as a reader and a critic, not as someone in charge of selling units of things to people, or promoting various brands. Maybe DC Comics benefits from having all the good stuff labeled "DC Comics," rather than divided among imprints...? But then, they're still doing those "pop-up" imprints, so... I don't know. I don't know what's going on with DC's branding these days.

I do know that I thought this was pretty good. I've no prior experience with Garcia or Picolo, and was actually a little leery of the former because she's a prose writer rather than a comics writer, and I don't have any particular affection for/interest in the character, but I still enjoyed this.

Friday, August 02, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: June 2019



BOUGHT:

Archie #705 (Archie Comics) You know, it didn't really occur to me until just now that this isn't a relaunch of Archie under a different title, as I thought it was going to/supposed to be. Yes, it says "Archie and Sabrina" all gigantic on the cover, right where one would expect the title of the comic to be, and there is a giant "1" in the upper right-hand corner. But there's also a little "of five" under that giant numeral, and there's a little "#705" in the upper left-hand corner. The fine print on the title page says this issue is indeed Archie #705, so I guess "Archie and Sabrina" is actually the title of this story arc...? Although since this issue is a continuation of the in-progress story from writer Nick Spencer, it's not even really quite a brand-new arc. Oh, and there's still that "Archie Forever" slug across the top...whatever that means.

Anyway, this all seems quite Marvel of Archie Comics.

Dig that gorgeous Elsa Charretier cover though, huh?

The interior is by Spencer and artist Sandy Jarrell. It obviously looks great, and while Spencer's writing is okay, the story is moving very, very slowly, and not much of anything is different in this issue than it was throughout the last few. Given the pacing, I think I'm switching to trades on the title--whether that title is actually Archie or Archie and Sabrina.


I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up (Seven Seas Entertainment) Kodama Naoko, the manga-ka responsible for NTR: Netsuzou Trap, created this rather delightful standalone manga with a premise pretty thoroughly delineated in its title. Straight-laced professional Morimoto's overbearing mother won't stop pestering her to get married, and is continuously sending her information about eligible bachelors. She's considered making up a boyfriend just to get her parents off her back, but she knows them well enough to know that no one she could even make up would be good enough for her mother.

That's when her high school friend Hana proposes a radical solution: Why don't they just marry each other? Sure, Hana likes girls, and once, when they were both still  in high school, she did ask Morimoto out, but, when she was rejected, she never brought up anything romantic again, beyond some teasing. Given that Hana needs a place to live at the moment anyway, a sham marriage between the pair solves more than one problem.

They quickly fall into marriage-like dynamics, with Hana, who works as an illustrator from home, handling all the cleaning and cooking, which Morimoto is helpless at. Meanwhile, Morimoto continues to commute to her office job everyday, working long, long hours. Unsurprisingly, the fake marriage and living as wife and wife leads to something more, as Morimoto gradually awakens to the fact that she doesn't just like having Hana around to keep her parents at bay and cook her dinner, but because she really does love her.

While Naoko's artwork is quite familiar from NTR, and the romance-between-women aspect is obviously here, this is much more of a romantic manga than an erotic manga, with little in the way of nudity (I think the women share one bath throughout the book, which rather mortifies Morimoto) and nothing in the way of sex, although it is quite sexy at several points. If one comes to the book specifically seeking the prurient, girl-on-girl thrills of NTR, then one will likely be disappointed, although the book obviously offers many other charms.

There's an even shorter standalone story in the back of the volume, "Anaerobic Love," which involves a kinda sorta romance between two high school girls, although this one has much higher emotions and much less in the way of romance or sex. It's basically a short, sweet sketch of a weird relationship between two teens, one of whom is a quite angsty athlete.


Jughead's Time Police #1 (Archie) The last time we saw a new iteration of Jughead's Time Police, it was in a daydream sequence in Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson's too-short run on the too-short Jughead "ongoing" series of, like, 16 issues. I'm glad there's another Jughead book on the stands, and that this one is being drawn by Derek Charm, who drew the issues of Jughead that Henderson didn't, and who is probably my favorite living Archie artist.

Charm is joined by Iceman writer Sina Grace and colorist Matt Herms. Though obviously set in the post-reboot, "New Riverdale" universe--it even has the "Archie Forever" branding along the top--the mode here is much more straight comedic, as it was in the last Jughead comic. The main conflict facing our hero is that he accidentally, spectacularly screwed up the Pendleton Family lemon meringue pie he had entered in the Riverdale pie contest to vie for the grand prize, a lifetime of pies and jams. In fact, he screwed it up so badly that not only was his entry disqualified, but he was banned from the contest--for life! (The result of accidentally putting fish oil in the pie, and thus giving all the judges food poisoning).

Obviously, there was only one thing to do: Build a time machine, and then travel back in time to stop himself from screwing up the recipe.

So he spends all of one page studying physics, comic books and time travel movies, and, with the help of Dilton Doiley and Hotdog, he's able to build a fully functioning time machine, which he and Archie use to travel back in time. Things go awry, however, and before he can make his second attempt, he is confronted by (an unnamed) January McAndrews.

Grace's script is quite economic, and there's no time or space wasted in it; he jumps from joke to joke, and there's nothing in here that doesn't serve either the silly plot or the telling of jokes. This is by far the best writing I've seen from Grace, and I imagine that has something to do with the differences of the Marvel Universe milieu and that of Riverdale...that, or perhaps the difficulty of writing Marvel's mutant characters in general. His Iceman comics always seemed pretty good, but also somewhat off, as if they were in conflict with themselves over meeting the various needs of continuity heavy corporate super-comics (also the art was, almost to an issue, not-that-great...or, to put it more kindly, not my thing, I guess).

Charm's artwork is as good as it has ever been. He is particularly great at making the Archie Comics kids look like kids, and his style is perfectly suited to bridging the more modern, realistic take of post-reboot Archie and the classic, flatter, cartoonier look of the characters. His Reggie, who appears briefly in his role as part of The Archies band, seems to have lost his Captain Marvel eyes, and Charm's Dilton seems to be a new design, with a bowl cut of a hair helmet and a sense of style that is less traditionally cool teen than that of his peers.

I had high hopes for this book, and I'm glad the first issue met them.



Justice League #25 (DC Comics) This "EXTRA-SIZED ANNIVERSARY ISSUE" includes a slightly-longer-than-usual story concluding Scott Snyder and Jorge Jimenez's "The Sixth Dimension" arc, as well as a 16-page back-up by writer James Tynion IV and artist Javier Fernandez...although the former flows into the latter in such a way that it certainly all feels like one long story. Were it not for the credits and the change in artists, one might not even realize that "The Sixth Dimension" and "The Message" were two different stories, as the back-up begins seconds after the main story ends.

While Snyder and Jimenez's story seemed to go on a bit too long for my liking, with what felt like an excessive amount of time being spent on detailing the future world, and a somewhat uninspired detour to a prison planet, now that the story is complete, it's a little more clear what the creators were up to, and precisely why the story was as many issues long as it was. It's actually a quite strong ending, highlighting particularly remarkable aspects of Superman and Batman's characters, as well as their relationship, and what the League does for Superman.

A lot of the issue involves a big fight between our Justice League and the future Justice League, with our Batman having thrown in with the World Forger's future League, and it's not that great, as big superhero action sequences go. The various Leaguers are all so powerful, that pitting them in combat with one another generally means writing them unrealistically--that is, unrealistic within the reality of their milieu.

So, for example, the two John Stewarts use their magical wishing rings to just generate large tanks (which they never actually fire one one another with, and neither bothers to use a force field for some reason, so that Future John is susceptible to a punch in the face), and the two J'onn J'onnzs just grow to kaiju-sized versions of themselves and duke it out with one another, even though the ability to become intangible should preclude blows landing all that easily on either of them.

The resolution of the fight, in which Superman escapes his inescapable prison and he and Batman determine the one possibility to avert the future that the Forger didn't think of, is pretty great though, and it's a really Superman solution to the problem (and Jimenez manages a rather nice homage to Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman, of which he's obviously a fan, in the process).

In "The Message", the Justice League, Forger and Shane (Future J'onn and Future Hawkgirl's hawk-winged martian child) return to the present, in a story that mainly covers the same ground as DC's Year of The Villain #1. Mera, Starman and Jarro get them up to speed on the Legion of Doom and Bat-Mite vs. Mxyzptlk fight (which apparently happened completely off-panel, which is awfully fucking disappointing; that would have been a lot more fun than some of the time-killing events of "The Sixth Dimension"), the Legion's attack on Waller and Luthor's announcement and very public exploding of himself.

We also see the League suggesting various ways to proceed in order to save all of existence. Forger says they should seek out The Monitor and Anti-Monitor in the hopes that the three cosmic beings can repel their mother Perpetua. Starman says they should recruit an army from throughout the multiverse, and he says so in a panel showing a handful of characters from DC One Million's Justice Legion A and Multiversity's House of Heroes. Wonder Woman says they need to recruit the whole DC Universe into a mega-League. J'onn concludes that they "need to do all of it. All of it and more."

And you know what that means? It means the Justice League splitting up into smaller teams to complete various tasks simultaneously, likely before reuniting for the exciting climax. Which is perfect, as that's their favorite thing to do.

Oh, and also we see the reborn Luthor wearing a cloak and launching some drones to go out and start making Underworld Unleashed offers.


Justice League #26 (DC) The next story arc begins right where the last issue left off, with the #25's back-up creative team at the wheel. Tynion and Fernandez launch "Apex Predator" with the Leaguers breaking up into smaller groups and pursuing the various strategies laid out last issue...with J'onn going a bit rogue.

While J'onn uses his psychic abilities to monitor the fallout of Luthor's doomsday pronouncement and searches for the supposedly dead Luthor, Hawkgirl and Mera walk-and-talk around the Hall of Justice, surveying how the dozens of heroes they've recruited are prepping for the upcoming justice/doom war, while the rest of the League visit the House of Heroes to attempt to raise a multiversal army.

The House of Heroes sequence has Justice Leagues from across the Multiverse listening to Superman and Forger, and is full of little cameos-as-Easter eggs. Kingdom Come Flash and Superman get a line apiece, there's a Batman Beyond standing around, various Zoo Crew members are scattered around the background, there's a panel of Gotham By Gaslight Batman and Kelley Jones and Doug Moench's vampire Batman with what looks like a Human Bomb and the Wonder Woman from Amazonia.

Fernandez devotes a two-page spread to "our" League standing in the foreground, addressing various Justice Leagues from different universes, and it's somewhat disappointing in how sketchy the Leagues are drawn, and how far away most of them are from the "camera." One can pick out many of the Leagues--the Bizarro one from "Escape From Bizzaro World," the New 52's Earth 2 JSA, one of DC's Avengers analogues--but I wish it was a more complete, more crisp image, where every character was easy to identify, and one could spend a good twenty minutes studying the page, and be rewarded for doing so (Like, it's a nice enough image, but it didn't floor me the way it seemed like it should, and I couldn't help but imagine what Phil Jimenez or George Perez might have done with it).

The scene in the Hall is similarly full of cameos, although there are fewer characters, and obviously less obscure ones, as they are all characters from the "Rebirth"-ed New 52-iverse, all divided into teams or squads. So Ryan Choi, Ted Kord, Mister Terrific and some Metal Men are doing science stuff in one room. Meanwhile Detective Chimp, The Question, Green Arrow, John Constantine (They let him smoke in the Hall of Justice?!) and Plastic Man (So, where is Elongated Man? Don't get me wrong, Plas is one of my all-time favorite comic book characters, but mysteries are Ralph's thing) are in a dark, detective-ing room. And, down the hall, Hawkman, Black Canary and Orphan (ugh, I hate that name) Cassandra Cain are throwing Teen Titans through walls in order to get them in fighting shape (these Titans include the teen girl version of Lobo and the blue kid, so they are completely up-to-date).

It's a pretty good issue showing how deep DC's crazy character catalog is, but it doesn't do too terribly much with all of those characters. That is, presumably, coming.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #6 (Dark Horse Comics) While the book got awfully predictable awfully quickly by the halfway point, when the mystery of how on earth they would make a TV show about riffing over movies into a comic book  was resolved and Jonah, Tom Servo and Crow's various narratives were all introduced and established, I'm still going to be a little sorry to not see new issues of this showing up. I'm reading so few comic book-format comics books anymore, I'm getting to the point where I really cherish the ones I do (with this ending and Scooby-Doo Team-Up being cancelled, I'm basically just down to Justice League and the occasional miniseries I can't wait for the trade for). That, and new MST3K content is always welcome, even in comic book format (I do sincerely hope Dark Horse, Joel Hodgson, Harold Buchholz and company will consider other types of MST3K comics in the future).

So here we get one more Black Cat and Jonah Heston adventure, the completion of Tom Servo, Teen Reporter and one final Crow horror-hosted story from the pages of Horrific. And, because some sort of conclusion is needed, the device the Mads used to send Jonah and the 'bots into the comic books is destroyed when Crow jumps into one of their "ad traps" for Totino's Pizza Rolls. This leads to one unpredictable aspect: While Crow is back on the satellite with Jonah, Tom and the others, the horror host version stalks out of the shadows of the halls of Moon 13.

I'll be curious to read this in trade some day, to see how it hangs together in one sitting. I suspect that it might read better that way. At the very least, it will downplay the frustrating, repetitious nature of the serial presentation, I think.

Anyway, I'm glad they made this comic, and hope they make more.


True Believers: Spider-Man--Spider-Armor #1 (Marvel Entertainment) This is reprint of 1993's Web of Spider-Man #100, apparently significant for introducing a new, albeit extremely temporary, costume for Spider-Man. I really rather like the design of the costume, which is here drawn by pencil artist Alex Saviuk and inker Joe Rubenstein to look like real armor: It looks far bigger, bulkier and metallic than other, later spider-armors Spidey has donned in various comics video-games and movies.

The impetus for the costume change seems to be our hero looking for an edge in an ongoing battle against "The New Enforcers." This is very much a story in-progress. In the opening scenes, Spider-Man fights Dragon Man, Dreadnought and The (a?) Super-Adaptoid to a standstill, and then develops the armor for round two. It's destroyed well before the end of the issue, so I'm not sure if this chronicles the entire career of the Spider-Armor or not, but I liked it a hell of a lot more than, say, his maroon and gold "Iron Spider" costume...!

Now, I didn't start reading any Marvel comics until around 2000 or so, when the publisher started hiring writers I liked a lot away from DC's Vertigo imprint, so I missed this whole era of Spider-Man comics. Thus the reading of this issue was the very first I had learned of Nightwatch, Marvel's Spawn rip-off character and...I kind of wish I could go back to that more innocent time when I had no idea that Marvel had a Spawn rip-off character called "Nightwatch."


BORROWED:


Angel Catbird Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books) I slept on Margaret Atwood's modern, mainstream comics debut when it was originally released, but finally got around to it this month as I was preparing to review a later Atwood-written comic. I was surprised to find that the comic was every bit as weird as the unusual title made it sound. And yet, for the various unusual aspects of the comic, it's also a somewhat surprisingly basic superhero and/or urban fantasy comic.

Our hero Strig Feleedus is a cat-owner who starts his first day at a new job, working on a top-secret project, within the first pages of the Atwood's comic, which is drawn by Johnnie Christmas and colored by Tamra Bonvillain). Feleedus' job is perfecting a chemical formula of some sort for his boss Professor Muroid, but something unusual is going on at Muroid Inc.

He gets a clue as to what one fateful evening when he perfects the formula, just as his cat runs out into the street, pursuing a rat. An owl swoops down after the same mouse, and both cat and owl are struck and killed by a car. When Feleedus stoops to pick up his dead cat, the car backs up, seemingly killing him too, and the three victims are all left laying in a pool of the formula. He awakens on the next page as a cat/owl/human hybrid.

He is thus inducted into the world of cats and half-cats (as well as rats and half-rats), the latter of which can transform from normal human form, like his coworker Cate Leone, into a sort of were-cat form. Stig is unusual in that he can turn into a cat/bird form, but he's hardly unique; among the many cat-people Cate introduces him to are Count Catula, who is a vampire half-cat, and thus has various vampire powers, including the ability to turn into a bat.

It's...pretty weird. The tone see-saws from straight and dramatic to awkward comedy to genre parody, and while I didn't know quite what to expect, I wasn't expecting such a strange comic. Had Atwood's script leaned a little harder in another direction, this could have been a pretty straightforward superhero comic, in another a comic book version of that weird sub-genre of romance fiction involving shape-shifters or, in another direction, an out-and-out comedy. Instead, it finds an odd place between the three, Christmas' highly-realistic style making sure the art never advertising the book as a comedy. It's quite funny, of course, but its organically funny, because the characters say funny things, and are themselves so strange.

Also strange? Atwood has approached the comic as a type of advocacy, to help protect wild birds from domestic cat predation, and to protect domestic cats from the dangers the wild poses them. And so, in addition to passages of her lengthy prose introduction explaining some of the motivations for writing this comic and for encouraging people to keep cats as indoor rather than indoor/outdoor pets, pages throughout end with facts and figures identifying dangers to cats and birds.

It's a weird, weird, great comic.



Detective Comics #1,000: The Deluxe Edition (DC Comics) This $19.99 hardcover is basically just a reprint of the 96-page $9.99 paperback version of March's Detective Comics #1,000 (already reviewed in this post) with two additional 12-page stories and some 44 pages worth of variant covers, which I think includes every single available variant for the original issue, but it's hard to be sure when dealing with such high numbers.

I didn't re-read the original stories, so I don't have anything new to offer regarding those, but let's take a moment to discuss the new-to-this-package material. At least one of these new stories appears to be taken from the Walmart-exclusive Detective Comics: Batman 80th Anniversary Giant #1, as the fine print mentions that along with 'Tec #1,000, while the back cover refers to the new stories collectively only as "previously uncollected."

The first of these is a Robert Venditti-written, Stephen Segovia-drawn "Table For Two." It's a decent enough idea for an anniversary story, as its plot is basically an evergreen one, and it packs five villains into a very small page count. Alfred has finally prevailed upon Bruce Wayne to sit down for a proper meal at the dinner table, but before he can even take his first bite, he's called away on Bat-business. An unlikely alliance of villains leads Batman through a swathe of his rogue's gallery--Mad Hatter, Scarface and The Ventriloquist, The Penguin, Killer Croc--with each encounter providing him a clue to the next one. Waiting for him at the end is Two-Face, and then Batman and Two-Face briefly reminisce about the time when the villain was still just District Attorney Harvey Dent, and he was one of Batman's staunchest allies in his dawning war on crime.

Unfortunately, for a story so incredibly reliant on referencing Batman continuity--the Batman/Dent alliance was part of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's seminal 1987 "Year One" story arc, and at the heart of dozens of stories since, including Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's 1996 Batman: The Long Halloween--it's awfully loose with that continuity. There's reference to Dent's attempt to prosecute Killer Croc, even though Dent became Two-Face during the first year of Batman's career, while Croc wasn't introduced until Jason Todd was Robin (pre-Flashpoint, Dick became Robin during Batman's third year). For another idea of just how far apart Two-Face and Croc's origins were, the former was introduced in 1942, while the latter wasn't introduced until 1983 (In Long Halloween, Loeb and Sale apparently wanted to use a sewer-dwelling, feral behemoth of a villain in several scenes, but they opted for Solomon Grundy, as Croc hadn't yet been introduced).

Also particularly egregious are two panels featuring Scarface. He only has 17 words of dialogue, but Venditti manages to fuck them up, apparently forgetting Scarface's signature speech impediment, always substituting a "g" sound for a "b" sound. So in his two-panel appearance, he commands him gang to fire on Batman with the words, "Clip the pigeon, boys!" instead of "Clip the pigeon, goys!"

The mistake is made all the more obvious by the fact that the story that follows it in the collection--and, this being a collection, "Table For Two" already saw print once with this easy-to-spot, easy-to-correct typo--by another story featuring Scarface and The Ventriloquist, written by the characters' co-creator and featuring Scarface's g-for-b speech impediment on like every single page.

That story is "Through The Keyhole," written by legendary long-time Batman writer Alan Grant and drawn by pencil artist Scott McDaniel (whose time drawing various Bat-characters overlapped a bit with Grant's time writing them) and inked by Rob Hunter. Grant's natural collaborator, the artist he did the bulk of his work on Batman stories with (including a great run on Detective), is sadly no longer around. Norm Breyfogle died way-too-young in 2018 (One of his 'Tec covers appears on the flaps of the dust jacket, though, and his co-creations Mr. Zsasz, Scarface and The Ventriloquist and Anarky all appear in the stories that fill the book).

As he often does, Grant returns to his own contributions to Batman's world. Villain-turned-vigilante Anarky takes a smartphone and uses it to stream his break-in of a mansion owned by one of the "public enemies" of the good citizens of Gotham. After some suspense as to the owner, it is eventually revealed to be Arnold Wesker, aka The Ventriloquist, who was able to afford and appoint such a huge and expensive home with his profits from dealing drugs (Batman's focus on drug crime is another Grant motif). While Anarky is streaming, Batman is breaking up a drug deal, and he follows Scarface and his gang back to their home just in time to stop them from executing Anarky.

There's a neat gag in here in which we see a closet full of the tiny suits Wesker dresses Scarface up in, and a typically clever ending, in which Batman lets Anarky off the hook with a brief lecture on how his heart is in the right place, but he's going about helping the world in the wrong way ("You've chosen a tough path, kid. Think long and hard on it"), and Anarky observes (to himself, and the readers), that Batman appears to be another rich capitalist and potential enemy of the common man: "Yeah. If I keep at it, I might get a car like yours one day."

It's a nice throwback of a story, seemingly set sometime in the recent-ish past--Anarky is in his original costume, Batman's wearing blue-black and gray, and has the yellow oval around the bat on his chest--but it's also kind of sad, as it's not drawn by Breyfogle. McDaniel's work is fine, of course, and it's nice DC included him in a Detective Comics retrospective project like this given how much he contributed to various Batman-related books for so long, but still.

After these two new stories and the reprinted contents of the issue as it was originally published comes what feels like 1,000 pages of variant covers.
Among the most compelling of the covers are the decades-specific ones; my favorite of these being the great Steve Rude's 1930s-style cover (inspired by Bob Kane's spooky 'Tec #31 cover), Bruce Timm's 1940-style "cover" cover of a Jerry Robinson cover and Michael Cho's 1950s cover (which was the one I ordered when I bought the trade version).

Among my other favorites were one-time Batman: Gotham Knights cover artist Brian Bolland's cover, which seemed to reference his old 1989 Secret Origins Special cover. Here he has Batman surrounded by seven villains, from classic villains like The Joker, Riddler and Penguin to a 1990s-style Harley Quinn and Professor Pyg.
Mike Mayhew similarly offers an impressive amount of villains in a single image, his painted fight scene having the Dark Knight swarmed by characters from the 1940s (Hugo Strange, The Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow), the 1990s (Bane, Zsasz), and villains as recent as a Court of Owls Talon and The Batman Who Laughs.

There are a lot of covers featuring female characters in tight-fitting or skimpy clothing, as one might expect, but some of them are downright weird. Like, it's strange how often Harley appears in these 40 or so covers. In fact, she's solo on Jeehyung Lee's cover. There's one in which she, Catwoman and Poison Ivy appear with Batman, and three in which the trio appear sans Batman. In one of these, by Dawn McTeigue, they are drawn popping out of a cake.

The weirdest cover of all, however, is probably Jay Anacleto's, which features Batman Batman-spreading on a marble throne, surrounded by this trio, as well as Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Batwoman Kate Kane, all in their New 52 costumes. Catwoman and Harley are both posed particularly suggestively, but it's such an odd grouping of women from Batman comics, as it's neither all villains nor all allies, when there are certainly enough of each to fill the page with if either theme were adopted. Instead, it's just "Here's a bunch of sexy ladies from Batman comics, some posing sexily, around Batman's crotch (Batman's the only one not in his original New 52 redesign costume, by the way). The image is so weird, with the throne and the curtain background, that I wonder if it's referencing a piece of art I'm just not familiar with.

Anyway, that's this book. It's fun. As ridiculous as the number of variants on projects like this may be, it is always interesting to see which artists DC rounds up for them, and what those particular artists decide to draw, and then to compare and contrast them all.


Hunt For Wolverine: Adamantium Agenda (Marvel Entertainment) Leading up to the return of Wolverine in, um, The Return of Wolverine, Marvel published a handful of four-issue miniseries under the shared "Hunt For Wolverine" umbrella, the idea seemingly being that each of these would explore a different aspect of Wolverine's very big, very full career...without ever actually finding him, of course, because he couldn't very well actually return before Return (Which, um, I read before this and reviewed in last month's column, if you're interested).

This collects the only one of those miniseries I was particularly interested in, as it ties into Wolvie's time with Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers, which I read quite a bit of (from the first issue until somewhere around Secret Invasion, I believe). It was also written by All-New Wolverine writer Tom Taylor, who has written some awfully good comics. Before one can get to the title comic, though, the collection includes two stories from something called Hunt For Wolverine #1; both of these are written by Charles Soule. (I do hope Marvel didn't reprint these pages in all of the Hunt For Wolverine collections, because that would have to be mightily annoying to anyone who purchased them all, and ended up paying for the same 40 pages repeatedly).

The first of Soule's stories is "Secrets and Lies," and it basically details how the X-Men handled Wolverine's burial arrangements. They left his kneeling body, encased in molten and cooled adamantium, on a pedestal in a remote cabin in Alberta, Canada, quietly putting out word where it was. The idea was, at least in part, to use it as bait for the types of folks who would want either a huge chunk of adamantium and/or the perhaps even more valuable access to Wolverine's DNA. The Reavers would like both, for example, and much of the story deals with the X-Men fighting The Reavers, eventually revealing that Kitty Pryde had used her powers to pull Wolvie's body out of the adamantium and have him buried in an unmarked grave. The grave loses its contents at some point, however, necessitating the hunt for Wolverine...or at least Wolverine's body. This story is drawn by David Marquez.

It's followed by a much shorter one, "Hunter's Pryde," drawn by pencil artist Paulo Siqueira and inker Walden Wong. This one directly sets up the various miniseries, as Kitty approaches various people to help her search for Wolverine. So she approaches Tony Stark  (Adamantium Agenda) and Daredevil (Weapon Lost), two rather odd choices, but her reasoning is that Wolverine "touched every corner of our world" and thus "we all need to be part of trying to find him." Meanwhile, word gets out, and Lady Deathstrike decides to look for Wolverine herself (Claws of a Killer), while Kitty convenes a handful of X-ladies to join her on a hunt (Mystery in Madripoor).

And that's the set-up.

Forty pages into the collection, The Adamanitum Agengda begins. Joining writer Taylor is pencil artist R.B. Silva and inker Adriano Di Benedetto. Something of a New Avengers reunion, it features Iron Man, Spider-Man, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones following a particularly promising lead: Some bad guys are auctioning off the genetic code of a superhero at a super-secret meeting aboard a submarine in international waters. Thinking there's a pretty good chance the code belongs to Wolverine, the old New Avengers infiltrate the meeting.

It turns out not to be Wolverine's genetic code, but someone else's that they all know. Mister Sinister and another Wolverine, Laura Kinney, also show up, and, while no real progress is made in the hunt for Wolverine, they do find and shutdown a improbably gigantic effort by Sinister to collect the DNA of every single person on the planet.

Doing so involves donning individual-ized Iron Man costumes, which is a fun idea, but man, Silva's designs leave a lot to be desired. Like, not only is everyone's Iron costume in their favorite colors and replicates aspects of their costumes, but, for some reason, Laura and Jessica's costumes have boobs, and Laura's even has long hair (?).
And what's up with Spider-Man's flying pose there...?
Despite the clumsiness of the art on that particular designs aspect of the book, and two random cliffhangers dropped in the last pages that may have significance to future Laura Kinney comics and/or future X-Men comics and the running-in-place nature of the overall story, Taylor does make it a rather worthwhile read.

There are some pretty solid gags throughout, like the fact that all of bidders at the auction must wear masks to disguise their identities, even though it takes a lot more than a mask to disguise, say, The Gryphon.

Taylor's script leaps back and forth between a "years ago" past, when Luke, Jessica, Wolverine and Spidey are faced with a particularly contrived trap, and the various heroes all make promises to Wolverine about what they would do in the event of his death. That's not necessarily important to the present day plot, although it does get the dead-ish Wolverine into the comic, it does explain this rather random grouping of heroes taking up eighty pages of a Wolverine-related comic and, finally, it allows us to see Taylor attempting a Bendis pastiche.


Marvel Action: Avengers: The New Danger (Book One) (IDW Publishing) This was my first exposure to IDW's "Marvel Action" comics (although I've since read the first collection of Marvel Action: Spider-Man), and while it will perhaps never not be weird to read a comic book starring Marvel Comics' comic book superheroes produced by a comic book publisher that is not Marvel, one can't really argue with the results. Frequent IDW creators Matthew K. Manning and Jon Sommariva have produced a fun, fast-paced all-ages Marvel superhero adventure that is every bit as good as the all-ages comics Marvel has been dabbling with off and on for some 15 years or so now.

I'm tempted to say it's even better than Marvel's official Avengers comic, but, well, that book has been pretty damn great lately, and so the real improvement of the Marvel Action Avengers over the Marvel Comics Universe's Avengers is, at this point, mainly just that the former are so new-reader friendly. If one's only real exposure to the team and the characters on it have come from Marvel Studios movies, that is still more than enough familiarity with them to read this book, a great starting point for the Avengers for anyone who can read.

The movies are the obvious inspiration for the series, as you can tell from the cover of this collection of the first three issues, which features the the team line-up circa the first film, only slightly redesigned (Hawkeye and Back Widow having the most extensive visual tweaking), even though The Hulk doesn't really appear within the pages of this trade. Instead, more recent popular addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are featured: Black Panther and Captain Marvel (Like The Hulk, Ant-Man and The Wasp only make a single cameo appearance in a flashback panel, and appear on some of the series' covers, so one imagines they might play greater roles in the series in the future).

The story, entitled "The Iron Mechanic," opens with a rather Robert Downey Jr.-esque Tony Stark enjoying a fancy dinner with Pepper Potts when an explosion summons him into action. But before he can suit up, an undercover AIM agent slaps a doohickey onto the back of his neck, essentially hijacking Iron Man.

Pepper calls in Widow and Panther, and, when they are unable to stop the rogue Iron Man, Thor and The Captains join the hunt--after they're done dealing with The U-Foes and Madame Masque (If Manning chose to stick with the biggest stars of the movies for the heroes, there was no such attempt to do so with the villains, as these are among the adversaries that have yet to show up in any movies...although I guess a version of Madame Masque kinda sorta appeared in the second season of the late, great Agent Carter).

The AIM plot Manning has come up with is actually pretty clever, involving zapping Tony into unconsciousness and convincing him that he's not Tony Stark, but, rather, a loyal AIM agent (thus allowing them to circumvent any of the safeguards in the armor that would have prevented them from simply stealing it). They also give the suit a paint job, so now that it's yellow and black and, after a dramatic reveal built up to by a few shadowy and silhouetted appearances, Tony announces, "I'm not Tony Stark. And I'm not Iron Man. I'm The Advanced Iron Mechanic."
That's one of those semi-obvious things that it's actually kind of hard to imagine that no one has ever thought to do before, because, once you see it done it seems so perfect and so obvious. A brain-washed and AIM-ized Iron Man isn't AIM's only secret weapon though; they've also bring a brain-washed Fin Fang Foom to the fight, automatically making this my favorite Marvel comic of the year (that isn't Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, of course).

Manning juggles the cast well, so that even if this is a team story in which Iron Man is the main focus, everyone gets at least a scene to shine, and although the particular Avengers chosen seem to be present mainly because of their movie-buttressed high profiles (and their personalities are certainly indistinguishable from their movie versions), this is pretty clearly set in the--or a, I suppose--Marvel Comics Universe, as a flashback to the original, 1963 line-up reveals, and the deeper, richer field of characters and organizations, from the uniformed, and helicarrier-operating version of SHIELD to the U-Foes and the villain working with Masque revealed in the last panel.

Sommariva's artwork is perfect for the characters. While he captures aspects of their visuals from the films, particularly in Stark's resemblance to the RDJ's Cinematic Universe Stark (and his costuming) and the busier, more armor-like (and Avengers-branded) costumes, the characters also all have more dynamic designs that are perfectly utilized in the many action scenes. The style might seem cartoony by the standards of the modern Marvel comics--certainly the millennial comics that inspired the first phase or two of movies--but it's really no more expressive and stylized than the work of, say, Chris Bachalo or Ed McGuinness.

I liked it a lot--a lot more than I expected to, honestly, given my rather limited exposure to Sommariva's previous art--and I particularly liked his flat-faced, more human-than-usual-looking Foom.
Given the price of the single issues, I can't imagine reading Marvel Action: Avengers serially, but at $9.99, these digest-sized, 60ish-page trades are a pretty good way to get high-quality Marvel comics, particularly for any audience reluctant to buy into the Marvel Entertainment's Avengers. I mean, those comics are really quite good and all, but it's sort of...relaxing not to have to know what a "War of The Realms" is or wonder what's going on with Thor's golden arm or why everyone was so pissed at Carol a few crossovers ago, or Captain America in the previous crossover, you know...?

Most of the variant covers included in the little gallery at the back are just group shots of the Avengers in action, but there's a really nice image of Carol that, when my eyes first landed upon it, seemed like one of the better images of Carol I'd seen before...and then I noticed that it was credited to Sophie Campbell, which explained why I liked it so much.


Snow White with the Red Hair Vol. 1 (Viz Media) Given that Snow White's black hair is traditionally one of her distinguishing features--along with that snow white skin after which she was named, of course--the title of Sorata Akiduki's new manga series was enough to intrigue me. It's interesting because the first chapter--the first 40 pages or so--is a fairly complete story unto itself, and one that includes the various elements that seem to have been inspired by the Snow White story. That is, there's a young girl endangered by her own beauty, an evil royal who means to harm our heroine, a flight into the woods, the discovery of unexpected allies there, a prince and a poison apple. And that's about it really. There are zero dwarves, and no witches. Akiduki isn't adapting or retelling Snow White so much as inspired by it.

Our heroine is Shirayuki, a simple peasant girl with "apple-red" hair (the manga is, of course, black-and-white, although her hair's redness on the cover doesn't exactly suggest apples). The young prince of her kingdom has heard of her beauty and unusual hair, and wants to add her to his harem. In response, she cuts off her hair and runs away, deep into the woods beyond her home kingdom and far from the main roads, just in case the prince decides to pursue her.

There she meets a mysterious trio of good looking young people, one of whom she shares an almost instantaneous bond with, and she uses her skills with poultices to help heal a wound of his. Eventually, the prince's agents track her down, and manages to poison her new friend, promising an antidote in exchange for her agreement to submit to him as his concubine. Though she's ready to sacrifice herself, things don't come to that, and her friend reveals himself as Prince Zen, the prince of the neighboring kingdom (He and his two friends/bodyguards had fled into to woods to get away from the palace for a bit when they met Shirayuki).

That's the first chapter, and, as I said, it stands alone quite well as a romantic adventure.

Though Shirayuki moves to Zen's kingdom, safe forever from the prince in her home kingdom, she wants to earn a place in Zen's palace and life. So while they remain friends, she begins to study to be the court herbalist. By this point, the second chapter, the associations with Snow White more or less cease, and are gradually replaced by a gentle romance between the pair, who never really appear to be more than very good and very devoted friends--they don't even share a kiss--although their feelings for one another aren't complicated or hidden either, so that it doesn't seem like Akiduki is setting up the sort of will-they, won't-they tension that has powered so many a manga series.

Once in the new kingdom, conflicts include a snobbish royal, a young, good-looking bandit who captures her for ransom and a challenging test that involves some fast-paced, all-nighter gardening. This being a shojo comic, each chapter includes a panel in which the author talks directly to the reader, and in the second chapter Akiduki reveals that the book was originally conceived as a one-shot--which explains why those first 40 pages read like a novella more than a pilot episode. My curiosity about the title and premise now sated, I'm not entirely sure I'll want to follow Shirayuki and Zen's future adventures, but this is certainly a well-made comic that shouldn't have any trouble at all finding an appreciative audience.

Another, earlier and unrelated one-shot comic by Akiduki is included here. It's a more straightforward adolescent summer romance about a color-blind boy called "Colorful Seasons of August."


REVIEWED:

Archie: 1941 (Archie Comics) I don't think the writing team of Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn ever quite manage to ever transcend the essential gimmick of this particular series, which reimagines Archie Andrews and company as realistic characters in a realistic comics narrative beginning during the year of Archie's first appearance in comics. But it's an interesting experiment nonetheless. It's certainly a great showcase for artist Peter Krause's considerable skills. Even if the script never entirely gets beyond the "What if...?"-like nature of a premise (although Archie's meta-ennui at the outset is pretty compelling), it's definitely interesting to see how Krause transforms the one-time gag strip stars into serious, dramatic characters while keeping them in their initial time period setting, complete with all its trappings.


The Breakaways (First Second) I found this anti-sports sports comic from Cathy G. Johnson to be enormously appealing. I thought it quite clearly captured the incredibly dubious reasons children sometimes get involved in sports (I played one season of junior high football and signed up for a summer golf program, two sports I was both terrible at and had no real interest in, for reasons similar to those that our young heroine Faith signs up for soccer) as well as making some very honest and compelling observations I recognized from my own life (the earth-stopping shock of seeing a girl's bra strap, for example).

Johnson also does a great job of showing how horrible middle school students are to one another, while also detailing rationales--or at least reasons--to feel sorry for some of the girls that might not excuse all of their bad behavior, but does help explain it.

I thought the climax was the best climax to any sports narrative I've ever seen (I spoil it in my GC4K review, just FYI), but I was a little surprised that a friend of mine who I thought would love this--being a fan of women's sports narratives and the character dynamics of Lumberjanes, which this seems to fit with in a if-you-like-Lumberjanes-you-might-like-Breakways kinda way--didn't care for it. She said it was her own experience with sports that made this hard to relate to, as she found the climax antithetical. Different strokes, maybe...?

Oh, and if you're worried that I never found a sport of my own, don't. In high school, I ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring, and was pretty okay at both--actually pretty damn good at one event in particular in the latter, if I may brag about my high school accomplishments, which I am now of the age where that is a thing one does, I guess. Both featured all of the benefits of being part of a team, without really having quite as much teamwork as other sports...at least, not while you're engaged in the competition aspect.

After high school, I got into skateboarding a bit, and that is a good, healthy-ish activity one can do in and around strip malls and parking lots after dark that doesn't involve smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or doing drugs.

So as this month's post draws to an end, I am going to take this tangent to offer some advice to any young people in the reading audience.

First, what are you doing reading this blog? Get out of here. There are swear words here. And shouldn't you be outside, enjoying the weather? Or reading a book, or doing something more productive? You kids with your screens!

Second, you should try a bunch of sports in school until you find one you like. Even if you suck at it, even if your team sucks, it is good for your physical, mental and social health to participate in a sport of some kind, even if it just involves running around by yourself or a friend or two or three, or just  rolling around on a skateboard in a church parking lot at night. It's super-fun, and you should do it while your bones are still strong. Among my many regrets in life is that I never learned to properly do a kick-flip, and now I am 42 and a skateboard just looks like a trip to urgent care waiting to happen.

What was I talking about...?

Oh! The Breakaways is good. Stay in school. Get some fresh air. Tobacco is whacko.