Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: March 2019


Archie #703 (Archie Comics) Great art by Sandy Jarrell, decent but disappointing writing by Nick Spencer (disappointing only in that he can be such a brilliant writer that what might be good from other writers feels mediocre coming from him), fantastic cliffhanger.

As much as I enjoy reading comic book-comics, and as consistent as the quality of Archie has been, I think I may switch to trades of it after this arc.

Avengers By Jason Aaron Vol. 2: World Tour (Marvel Entertainment) In the first volume of the current Avengers ongoing, there came yet another day like no other, when an extremely powerful Avengers line-up--this one seemingly specifically assembled to maximize Marvel Studios synergy--came together to save the world and learn a disturbing truth about the very nature of humanity. In this second volume, writer Jason Aaron gets down to the business of establishing this new version of the team, and setting up threats for them to deal with.

The first of the six issues collected in this volume is another flashback issue set during the days of the first "Avengers," Odin's team of prehistoric ancestors and analogues of later Marvel characters and concepts. It's drawn by Sara Pichelli and Elisabetta D'Amico and is the origin of the Ghost Rider who rides around on a burning mammoth we saw in the previous volume...although since this is the first Ghost Rider, then I guess this is the origin of Ghost Riders in general...? It's an okay issue, but man, the timeline of Marvel Universe prehistory is weird. This story includes a (mutant?) cave man who becomes Ghost Rider, another who is the first Wendigo (how can there be Marvel Wendigos before there was a Canada, though, according to Marvel's silly rules of Wendigo-ing?), Mephisto in the form of a large, white snake and, for a panel at least, Norse god Odin and The Phoenix.

It's the sort of issue that would normally appear in a comic book series in order to give the regular artist an issue off to keep up on deadlines, but then, the artist for this series is Ed McGuinness, and he's always behind on deadlines; he just draws portions of three of the six issues collected here (Altogether, there's 10 different pencilers and inkers involved in these issues, plus five different colorists. Only in Pichelli's Ghost Rider issue and in #10, which gives different guest-artists different, character-specific scenes, does this large number of contributors seem to be a feature rather than a bug).

On the setting-up shop front, Aaron has the team moving into the raised body of the dead Celestial that crashed to Earth and set off the chain of events in the previous volume, and this cool-looking base is at the North Pole, a good place for a powerful figure with no particular allegiance to any particular country (just ask Santa Claus). Doctor Strange peaces out, leaving an eighth chair open for specialist guest Avengers, the first of which appears on the last page of this issue. The Black Panther is chosen as the new chairman, which makes sense: As the king of a super-powered superpower, he has access to money and resources far beyond even that of Tony Stark, and his leadership resume far outstrips that of even Captain America (Also, it's kind of neat that the three founders on the team, the ones who got together to decide whether or not they should co-star in the latest incarnation of an Avengers title, all defer to someone else in that role).

Later, an entire issue is devoted to recruiting "Agents of Wakanda", a particularly motley crew of varied specialists who would make a great shadow Avengers line-up, if maybe not sell as many books as Ghost Rider and all the movie stars on the cover: The Wasp Janet Van Dyne, Gorilla Man, Okoye of the Dora Milaje, Ka-Zar, Broo, Man-Wolf, Dr. Nemesis, Fat Cobra and America Eagle (The last of whom I have never heard of, so good job digging deep, Aaron).

Meanwhile, other, rival super-teams are forming. Namor appears to murder former Avenger (and occasional Merc For Money) Stingray, although I guess he survives* (I have no idea how, though; Namor punches his head a couple of times and, once it starts leaking a cloud of blood, sics a bunch of sharks on him). Namor then pressgangs an off-model looking Tiger Shark and a bunch of underwater villains to form "The Defenders of The Deep." Their mission? To violently repel all surface-dwellers from the oceans (Aaron here moves Namor from anti-hero or "kind of a dick" territory into all-out lawful evil supervillain territory, so one suspects something's not quite right here, but I guess we'll see).

To oppose them, Russia relaunches its Winter Guard super-team, which includes familiar characters like Darkstar, Vanguard and The Crimson Dynamo, as well as a bunch of new or unfamiliar characters, making for a formidable and cool-looking line-up. Also, Ursa Major is there, a character I inexplicably love simply because he is basically just a sentient, bipedal bear (Although he doesn't seem like much fun to hang around here; Aaron introduces all of the characters with short descriptions under their names--"Darkstar: Mistress of the Darkforce," for example, or "Crimson Dnyamo: The Russian Iron Man"--while Ursa Major is described simply as "World's Drunkest Bear."

At one point, here's a three-way brawl between The Avengers, The Winter Guard and The Defenders of The Deep, but other teams also form.

The United States--or at least General Thunderbolt Ross--is so displeased that Captain America is letting an African king lead the Avengers, that they put together their own superhero team: The Squadron Supreme of America, which McGuinness draws as Justice League-y as possible (Interestingly, in a 2005 Superman/Batman arc, McGuinness introduced The Maximums to the DC Universe, an inter-dimensional team that were analogues to The Ultimates/Avengers; here, drawing Avengers, he introduces a new version of Marvel's inter-dimensional team of Justice League analogues).

Black Panther tries to set up what looks like a sort of U.N. of international superheroes, including Captain Britain, Shaman, Sabra and The Arabian Knight. And, of course, there's a vampire super-team that appears to be the focus of the next volume, as after all these issues of world-building, Panther decides that the most urgent threat facing them all is the vampire business, which is why the eighth chair goes to this guy:
There's just a lot going on in these dense issues (at least those set in the present day), and Aaron does a particularly fine job of making the Avengers (and Avengers) feel like the axis along which the Marvel Universe turns. Or, if nothing else, it seems as if you read but one Marvel comic book, this is the one that will give you the most Marvel Universe for your dollar (Or 3.99 dollars, I suppose).

McGuinness is an ideal superhero artist, which explains why he's on the title despite not actually being able to draw all that much of it. He's certainly great at the big splash pages that introduce whole teams of characters, though, as he does The Defenders of The Deep and The Winter Guard and Squadron Supreme, and he does draw the three-team battle in the book.

That said, the book is a bit of a mess, visually, as all those artists, whether announced as "guests" (like Frazier Irving, Adam Kubert and Andrea Sorrentino) or not (like David Marquez and Cory Smith), all work in quite different styles. The book would be far better served by either finding a single artist, or at the very least a couple of artists with similar enough styles that they could alternate arcs...provided McGuinness could manage a whole arc. Maybe give him standalone issues between arcs by other artists who can approximate his big, bold, action figure-like style...? (I don't know, I'm not a comic book editor; Nick Bradshaw? Aaron Kuder?)

And now, a couple of nitpicks.

First, there are several underwater scenes that just confused the hell out of me. The first time the Avengers confront The Defenders in #9, many of them lack any kind of underwater equipment, and yet talk, breathe and move underwater completely naturally. I'm not a scientist, so I guess if Thor, Captain Marvel and She-Hulk could survive space without needing to breathe, I guess they'd be okay underwater, too? Not sure about how they talk to the characters who are wearing masks...which, itself seems like it probably shouldn't be enough to get around on the ocean floor (Black Panther and Captain America, mostly; Iron Man is in his suit, and Ghost Rider in his magic devil car, so those two should be okay-ish on the ocean floor).

Surviving/communicating aside, though, artist David Marquez doesn't show them swimming or even floating underwater. Cap and The Panther just stand and walk around as if they were on land. There's even a scene where Cap throws his mighty shield and it comes back to him, unaffected by the all the water it has to fly through. It's just the sort of thing that bugs me, as you probably know if you've been reading this blog long.

Also, when General Ross brings the apparently resurrected and now evil--maybe he's got whatever Namor has got?--Agent Coulson to help him set up a rival super-team to take the place of The Avengers, he says to him, "Welcome to the Deep State" which is...well, it's a weird-ass thing for Jason Aaron to write into the story.
There are certainly aspects of the book that seem to be commenting on real-world politics, like Russia's aggressive assertion of international power (here by assembling a super-team to battle The Defenders, as this is a super-comic and all), or the rest of the world trying to figure out what to do if the United States isn't going to continue its traditional role as leader of the free world (as during Panther's super-summit with the national heroes of various world powers), but "the Deep State" comment seems to really misread the term.

Now, I might be wrong (as I noted when I originally flagged the line), but I thought "Deep State" was a term Steve Bannon introduced into the national discourse, referring to the bureaucratic, non-political actors in the federal government that kept the ship of state sailing regardless of who the president was and what party he belonged if it were a bad thing. In Bannon's usage, these were pre-Trump people championing the status quo over Trump's vision for the country (Traditionally, this is a good thing, as you wouldn't want to fire and hire the entire federal government every four-to-eight years, and many of their functions shouldn't necessarily be all that political). I suppose there are other, even more paranoid and/or conspiratorial views of a bureaucratic deep state though, views that posit it at the real government of America, controlling things behind the scenes, while an executive figurehead gets all the attention.

Since I've first heard the term a couple years ago, I've only heard it used in two contexts: Right-wing actors using it to define Trump's political enemies, real or imagined, within the federal government working to frustrate his agenda in ways ranging from slow-walking policies to trying to somehow oust him from the presidency, or people making fun of the right-wing actors who believe in it.

Here, Ross uses it refer to himself and a secret agenda to work against...The Avengers...? American superheroes? It doesn't make any damn sense at all.

Defenders: The Best Defense (Marvel) This series of five one-shots-turned-trade paperback offers an interesting take on Marvel's famous "non-team", as the four founding members of the 1970s super-team mostly inadvertently act as allies in seemingly distinct adventures separated by time and space. There are four chapters starring each of the characters by four different creative teams, the plots of which seem to have almost nothing at all to do with one another. Bruce Banner stumbles across the bones of Doctor Strange in one of those little desert towns he's always wandering to and from these days. Namor seeks a lost tribe of Atlanteans, and finds them--and a woman with peculiar, particular powers--in a strange place. An ancient Doctor Strange wanders a dead Earth in the far future, hunted by the dread Dormmamu. The Silver Surfer visits a planet whose inhabitants are in a mad, desperate scramble to get off of it before that particular world ends.

It's not until the fifth and final chapter--written by Al Ewing, who also writes the Immortal Hulk chapter--that the plot points from the previous issues begin to connect into the shape of a single conflict that the characters need to address, and that the characters start to interact with one another. But even that teamwork is somewhat limited, as Strange's astral form teams with The Hulk while Namor and the Surfer have their own team-up. All are working toward the same goal, but not necessarily as a single unit (Oh, The Hulk does share a panel or so with The Surfer, though, when he throws him at Namor).

The cosmic conflict they are all thrown together because of, and must try to stave off. is gigantic in scale, and involves a Kirby-esque god so titanic that it can pick up planets with a utensil, a god that drives a "train" of dead planets through space. It's being influenced by a creature involved in soul collecting and trading with devils in various hells. And Strange's astral form has traveled back through the centuries to stop it. So space stuff, occult stuff, Atlanteans, immortality--something for every Defender. It's quite well plotted, and very satisfying read in a single sitting like this, but it did make me curious whether it would have been frustrating when read in single issues, as it feels like it was written backwards (or at least sideways), and about half of the character-specific one-shots--the Namor and the Surfer one--don't seem to have anything to do with anything until part of the way through the fifth one-shot/chapter. (In some respects, it feels like a condensed version of the Grant Morrison-scripted interlocking Seven Soldiers miniseries from 2005).

It's a fairly clever way to handle a non-team team adventure, although it's obviously not the sort of strategy that could work indefinitely in an ongoing Defenders...although it might be fun to see how long a clever writer like Ewing could try to keep it going. (Not that anyone asked me, but if it were up to me, I'd like Marvel to do a new Defenders ongoing starring this quartet and the foursome from the last go-round, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Iron Fist).

The four writers--Ewing, Chip Zdarsky, Gerry Duggan and Jason Latour--do a pretty solid job of writing as a unit, so that the chapters all seem to be telling the same story with a similar style and tone, even if the plots start out in such different places before converging unexpectedly. The artists, however, all work in very varying styles, but that actually feels pretty appropriate here. Simone Di Meo draws the Immortal Hulk, Carlos Magno Namor, Greg Smallwood Doctor Strange and Latour draws Silver Surfer himself.

The Hulk chapter makes interesting use of "samples" of artwork from earlier Hulk comics, as something Banner experiences reminds him of something the Hulk experienced in comics drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers and so on, and those panels are set in between ones drawn by Di Meo. I continue to hate Namor's current costume with its dumb arm armor, but Magno draws cool sea life and very detailed seascapes. Smallwood's very realistic style wasn't really to my tastes, but I was quite impressed with Latour's space stuff, as he gets to draw the most variety of cool stuff. At least until the final chapter, which is drawn by pencil artist Joe Bennett and inker Belardino Brabo.

The last time I saw Bennett's work, it was in the first collected volume of Immortal Hulk, and it seemed to be the best work of his career. This looks even better still.

I wouldn't say that The Best Defense is the best Defenders, but it's pretty dang good Defenders, that's for sure.

Detective Comics #1,000 (DC Comics) As with Action Comics before it, Detective Comics crosses the 1,000-issue threshold, earning a special $9.99, 96-page, ad-free issue with a spine...more of a particularly slim trade paperback than a comic book-comic, really. The contents consist of an anthology of short stories (and a couple of page-filling pin-ups) from an odd assortment of mostly all-star creators.

The contributing writers include the current Detective and Batman writers Peter Tomasi and Tom King, the previous regular writers on those books, Scott Snyder and James Tynion, and various big name writers with varying degrees of history with the Dark Knight, Paul Dini, Kevin Smith, Warren Ellis, Geoff Johns, Christopher Priest and Brian Michael Bendis. There's also a story by Denny O'Neil, who seems to be the only writer with a long history of the character predating the turn-of-the-century to be asked back to contribute (So no Frank Miller, no Alan Grant, no Doug Moench, no Chuck Dixon, no Devin K. Grayson). Oh, and if you're counting, that is a whole bunch of men, and zero women.

The artists are similarly representative of current and recent artists on various Bat-books, like Dough Mahnke, Greg Capullo, Alvaro Martinez-Bueno, Joelle Jones, Tony S. Daniel, Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs as well as some who seem invited to the party either because they are big name artists, some of whom have drawn some Batman in the past and some of whom have drawn relatively little, like Jim Lee, Becky Cloonan, Steve Epting and Alex Maleev. Only Neal Adams and Kelley Jones seem to be the artistic equivalent of O'Neil, that is, artists who have long histories with the character dating back to parts of his career that precede, say, 2000. There are a coupla pin-ups too, from Mikel Janin, Amanda Conner and Jason Fabok. (I'm a little surprised that we don't see Alan Davis, Klaus Janson, Brian Bolland, Scott McDaniel, Ty Templeton, Tim Sale, David Mazzucchelli or, again, Frank Miller at all in here--although both Sale and Miller are represented on two of the book's ten or so variant covers). In the artist's category, there a couple of not men, but just two: Cloonan, who drew the first issue of Batman by a woman and Jones, who had a brief stint as the regular artist during King's Batman run before moving to Catwoman. And with Conner's pin-up included, that adds up to just 14 of the 96 pages.

Let's take each piece in turn, because what Every Day Is Like Wednesday lacks in timeliness, it makes up for in post-length. The kick-off piece is a reunion of the Batman/Dark Nights: Metal team of Snyder and Capullo, and entitled "Batman's Longest Case." It's only eight pages long, and has a single, sort of cute idea that is fleshed out with lots of detail, much of it falling into the category of "is this a big much?" that defines Snyder's portrayal of Batman as detective. Essentially Batman is inducted into a secret society of DC Comics' greatest detectives, wherein Slam Bradley--who this Batman has never met--does much of the talking. Also present are J'onn J'onnz, Detective Chimp, The Question, Hawkman and Hawkgirl (whose presence surprised the hell out of me), and The Dibneys, although it took me a few seconds to recognize them.

See, for some reason The Elongated Man isn't wearing his original costume, the purple one with the gloves and mask, nor his red and black Justice League one, nor his JLI purple and white one. No, he's in orange now, which I had to google because I had no memory of him ever wearing an orange costume (Apparently he adopted it during the already mostly-forgotten post-Flashpoint Secret Six revival). I'm not sure whose terrible idea it was to give a guy who already had at least three decent costumes a new one that looks so much like E-Man's that they can now be confused with one another, but there you have it (Also, who looks good in orange? Other than Benjamin J. Grimm, of course). He's standing next to a lady with long brown hair who I am going to guess is Sue Dibney, despite looking nothing at all like her--or has she been redesigned post-Flashpoint too...?

That's followed by the unlikely team of Batman: Cacophony writer Kevin Smith and "Hush" artist Jim Lee. My esteem for Smith's comics writing has dwindled over the years, and Cacophony, maybe his worst comic scripting, seemed to be the nadir. A later Batman project, Batman '66 Meets The Green Hornet, was much, much, much better, if a bit overlong. This short story is pretty strong though, and maybe his best comics work since his earliest Oni work. Again, it's basically just a clever idea with a story built around it, and there's something slightly cheesy in the execution, but I think it works really well--it's kinda sorta the origin of the bay-symbol on Batman's chest. Not the imagery, by why it's there and what it does. Along the way, Smith and Lee work in one-panel cameos by a ton of Batman villains: The Joker, Penguin, Mister Freeze, Clayface, Bane, Firefly, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Mr. Zsasz, Catwoman, The Ventriloquist and Scarface and...Onomatopoeia, the genuinely creepy villain that Smith created for his Green Arrow run (probably the highlight of his DC Comics writing), who was pretty diminished during the course of Cacophony.

It's a little weird seeing Lee working so small and constrained, packing 42 panels into just eight pages, given that his projects are generally afforded so much space, with splash pages galore. Here, the biggest image he is allowed is a half-page panel at the end. I enjoyed seeing the choices of designs for various villains he opted for, particularly when there were many options to go with. Both his Penguin and his Catwoman seem to be straight Silver to Bronze Age versions (Catwoman's in her purple dress), his Harley Quinn is in her original cartoon get-up, and for Zsasz it looks like he look at co-creator Norm Breyfogle's art for reference, although he gives him what appear to be sunglasses in order to affect the weird eyes that Breyfogle gave him in his highly-stylized art work.

Next, the "One Year Later" Detective Comics team of writer Paul Dini and artists Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs reunite for a story in which a series of Batman's rogues all recount their experiences with Knute Brody, Gotham City's worst henchman, a henchman so bad that his blundering often single-handedly leads to the scuttling of various plots. It feels a bit long at eight pages, honestly, but it's stinger ending is effective, and it gives Nguyen the opportunity to draw much of Batman's rogues gallery, including The Condiment King and Dini's Wonderland the Bat-family in street clothes.

While those three all fit the sort of retrospective spirit of the anniversary issue, Warren Ellis (Legends of the Dark Knight #83-84, the back-up in Batman: Gotham Knights #1, Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth) and Becky Cloonan's (Batman #12, Batman: Black and White #6 )"The Batman Design" reads like a condensed inventory story...although I suppose one could read Batman's lines at the end as a dark take on a definition of the character that's more along the lines of "God, I'm getting old" than "Happy birthday to me!" Batman takes on some terrorists, who we are told have super-armor and enhancements which allows Ellis and Cloonan to depict Batman blowing them up and throwing them all over without a reader wondering if Batman is killing or not. Jordie Bellaire's limited color palette gives the book the look and feel of the old Greg Rucka-written, post-"No Man's Land" run on Detective.

Man, Cloonan draws the fuck out of Batman too. She and Bellaire could really use a run on one of the character's books...

Denny O'Neil (a million Batman comics) and Steve Epting (a couple of Batwoman comics) are the creative team for "Return To Crime Ally," which looks like it was set in 1959, based on how Epting draws Leslie Thompkins as a little old lady, complete with shawl, hat, lacy cuffs on her sleeves and a purse to clutch. This is another round of their ongoing argument over whether violence is awesome or violence is the worst, and if dressing up as a human bat in order to personally punch crime in the face every night is the best use of Bruce Wayne's time, talent and resources. I feel like Leslie has ceded a lot of ground to Bruce in this fight in comics not written by O'Neil over the years. This is a pretty sharp take on that argument, but man, the thing that stays with me is that Leslie looks like she was taken off the set of The Andy Griffith Show or something.

O'Neil's one-time collaborator Neal Adams is teamed with writer Christopher Priest (Batman: The Hill, Batman Annual #13, Batman #431-432), who has made a great deal of use of the character in his lengthy run on Deatshtroke. This story too feels like an inventory story, or something that could have appeared in any of the Legends of The Dark Knight incarnations, and it focuses on Batman's ongoing war with Ra's Al Ghul, who makes his first appearance in this issue in this story (Smith/Lee and Dini/Nguyen didn't include him in their greatest hits villain stories). It's fine, but unremarkable.

The most irritating story is "I Know," by Brian Michael Bendis (Walmart's Batman Giant) and his old Daredevil partner Alex Maleev (Batman: No Man's Land #1, Batman: The Dark Knight #23-#25, a handful of other Batman comics). Set at some point in the future, where Batman is bound to a wheelchair and looks like Robert DeNiro with a beard, an equally elderly Penguin approaches him and tells him that he knew Batman's secret identity for pretty much ever, and how he found out, and why he never did anything about. Bruce waits patiently, then shoots him a bolt of lightning from his trick wheelchair. For some reason, Bendis gives Old Man Penguin the verbal tick of saying "Weyp weyp weyp" over and over again (not even "wak wak wak," which would be annoying the ninth time, sure, but also fit with his normal quacking...?), and Maleev does that thing a lot of Bendis' Marvel collaborators used to do, where they would repeat the exact same image over and over just obvious enough to make it clear what they were doing, but not obvious enough that it would appear to be an intentional joke (This might have as much to do with Bendis' dialogue heavy scripts or art directions in the story as it does laziness, but man, it looks pretty dang lazy when in a super-short story in an anniversary one-shot like this, you know?). It doesn't help that Penguin's figures out Batman's identity the same way that Denny O'Neil had Ra's al Ghul figure it out decades ago.

Next? Probably the weirdest story in here, by another extremely unlikely creative team, that of writer Geoff Johns (Batman: Earth One) and artist Kelley Jones (a 1995-1998 run on Batman, and hundreds of pages worth of miniseries). Entitled "The Last Crime in Gotham," it's basically a six-page fantasy sequence set within a birthday related framing sequence, in which Batman fights crime with a real, biological Bat-Family. These are Catwoman, wearing her current costume, Robin Damian, a daughter in a bat-costume he calls Echo (which I thought would have been a better, tangentially bat-related name for Duke Thomas than The Signal) and a golden retriever named Ace wearing a cape, cowl and utility collar. They investigate a murder with 12 victims, including the killer himself, "The April Fool...THE SON OF THE JOKER."

The set-up is neat, but the fantasy sequence seems a little flabby, and the its mood feels...not true, as demonstrated in the two stories that follow (one featuring Dick Grayson becoming Robin, the other showing off the extended 12-person Bat-Family). The idea of a lonely Batman wishing he had a family might have made more sense in, like, 1989, but now that he has enough sidekicks and allies to field a football team...? Not so much. This is also a somewhat disappointing showing from Jones, my favorite living Batman artist. The framing device is well-drawn, and there's a typically great drawing of the cloudy Gotham sky, but he doesn't get much room, so most of the panels are small and his style somewhat constrained. The image of the dead Joker II's face is fairly spectacular, but otherwise, there are too many talking heads for Jones to be all...Kelley Jones-y. For example, we never eve really see what the new character of Echo looks like, as she's only shown from the waist up a couple of times, and once in extreme long-shot.

Next, the previous 'Tec team of James Tynion and Alvaro Martinez-Bueno reunite for "The Precedent," in which Bruce Wayne and Alfred briefly debate the merits of allowing Dick Grayson to join them in their war on crime. It's a really nice story, and Alfred and, eventually, Dick both make some very good points in favor of Dick becoming Robin--of course, they have the benefits of hindsight at this point, huh?--and the artwork, inked by Raul Fernandez, is really quite elegant. The costuming choices all suggest this is pre-Flashpoint, and that even New Teen Titans continuity stands now--but given the nature of this book, perhaps we shouldn't read too much into it. Although I did think including later Batman villains like Ra's Al Ghul, Killer Croc, Bane, Harley Quinn, Hush, Professor Pyg and The Court of Owls in the panel showing Batman and Robin leaping toward their villains wasn't a great choice, given that all of those creators entered the scene long after Dick became Robin...and, in some cases, after he became Nightwing, then Batman, then went back to being Nightwing.

There's a really kick-ass last page, a silent splash showing Dick Grayson raising his right hand before Batman and a burning candle, while Batman and Robin are shown in action above them.

The book begins to wind down with "Batman's Greatest Case," a typically over-written piece by Tom King and Tony S. Daniel and Joelle Jones. Throughout various members of the Bat-Family converse with one another, trading light-hearted quips, while an MIA Batman visits a graveyard as Bruce Wayne. There is a lot of talking. The pages featuring Wayne at the cemetery are full of text boxes containing unattributed dialogue--thankfully they're not in color-coded narration boxes or boxes with symbols attached--that make Bendis seem reticent and, in some panels, threaten to overwhelm the artwork.

This one also has a bit of a sting ending, and it's climactic image is a Bat-Family photo featuring, like, everyone: Batman, Alfred, Robin Damian Wayne, Robin Tim Drake, Catwoman, Batgirl, Batwoman, The Red Hood, The Spoiler, The Huntress, The Signal, Orphan and Ace (No Titus? I guess King used Ace because he was writing; I bet if this were Tomasi's story, Titus and Ace would have appeared). The funny thing is this isn't even all of them, really; like, why not throw Azrael and Batwing in there too?

Tony S. Daniel draws the four pages featuring the Bat-Family on rooftps, two of which are devoted to a spread featuring them all posing together, while Jones draws the four pages featuring Bruce Wayne at the cemetery, one of which is a splash page of a sad Bruce standing before a Wayne monument in the rain.

Just before the final story, we get a couple of pin-ups--Janin drawing Batman chasing The Joker and The Riddler, Conner drawing Batman posing on a gargoyle while giant, pupil-less ghosts in fancy clothes swoop above him in the night sky (I assume they are his parents, giving the way the lady's pearl necklace breaks) and Fabok drawing a two-page spread of the extended Batman cast, heroes villains and all.

And then there's the final story, by the incoming Detective Comics team of Peter J. Tomasi and Doug Mahnke. It mirrors Tomasi's contribution to Action Comics #1,000, being a series of pin-ups with narration over them, organized into a story of sorts, and, like Bendis' Action Comics anniversary issue story, it sets up the upcoming run. This is a 12-page story entitled "Medieval," and opens with a splash of a green eye staring through a hole in a cracked and blood-splatter wall, as we see a close-up of Batman's big black fists battering someone. The next ten pages feature Batman fighting various villains: The Joker, Killer Croc, Mister Freeze, Man-Bat, Ra's al Ghul and Talia (with Bats and Ra's both shirtless, naturally), Catwoman and Poison Ivy, Bane, a Talon of the Court of Owls, Nobody (from Tomasi's own run on Batman and Robin and, finally, The Penguin, Hush, Two-Face and Clayface, all in a single splash.

The final image is of the so-called Arkham Knight, a character from one of those Batman video games--where I think he was revealed to be Jason Todd?--who will no doubt be someone else here. The narration is pretty purple, and ties a little too closely to the images in a metaphoric way that's a tad eye-roll-y, but this is essentially just a teaser trailer for upcoming issues of Detective, and a series of Mahnke images showing what we can expect from him drawing Batman's rogues.

Go-Bots #5 (IDW Publishing) This is the shocking final issue of Tom Scioli's Go-Bots comic, doubly so because I could have sworn this was a six-issue miniseries (although given how hyper-compressed Scioli's comic has been, five issues of this is like 12 issues of a regular comic book series. Befitting a series that was as full of surprises as this one, this final is sue includes several more, each of which are as surprising as all the previous twists, even those that were somewhat telegraphed, or at least foreshadowed, in previous issues.

Turbo makes it into the fleeing Go-Bot playset/spaceship, no under the control of Cy-Kill and the Renegades, and he battles his way through it, room by room, in one particularly cool action scene he lays on his back, speeding through the halls on his race car wheels, while his extended robot arms fire laser pistols up at his foes. In the final confrontation with Cy-Kill, he dispatches the big bad villain in a sort of shoot-out, and...that's just page six. There are still 14 pages to go.

From there, we learn the true nature of the disintegrator--it doesn't disintegrate those thrown into it, but sends them back in time. We find out what happened to Scooter's mind. We follow Turbo and other Go-Bots to the surface of Gobotron, where they meet a red and blue Go-Bot that can transform into a very familiar-looking red and blue semi-truck and has a fairly familiar-sounding catch phrase; late in the book, he tells his little friend, a yellow car, that he plans to seed the universe with alternate Gobotrons and Go-Bots, and that he's considering making a son, "an optimized version of myself." The final fate of Leader-1 and Cy-Kill is revealed, and it is as awesome as anything I could have imagined. And, on Earth, several of the human astronauts from within Spay-C decide to teach their caveman-like descendants of science, and history begins to look familiar, as various Go-Bots seem to stand in for the giants and gods of myth. Both the book of Genesis and Barry Lyndon are quoted in the final pages.

Regardless of one's affection for 1980s toy lines featuring transforming robots--and, it turns out this is almost as much a stealth Transformers comic as it is a Gobots comic--this is a masterfully made comic book series, and one that any fan of pop comics should be sure not to miss. And if you do have some affection for 1980s toy lines featuring transforming robots, well then, this isn't just great, it is your new favorite comic book of all time.

Justice League #19 (DC Comics) I re-read the Evan Dorkin-written 2000 one-shot Superman and Batman: World's Funnest, reprinted in the recently-released collection Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 3, the weekend before reading this latest issue of Justice League, and while I don't think doing so was a mistake, it probably did color my reaction to off-and-on Justice League artist Jorge Jiminez's depiction of Mr. Mxyzptlk.

I didn't much care for it--The Joker-esque face, the part in his hair-turned-bald spot, the hat that neither fits nor isn't small enough to be comically small--but, on the other hand, I had just seen the character drawn by a who's who of all-time great cartoonists and super-comics artists like Dave Gibbons, Jaime Hernandez, Mike Allred, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Brian Bolland and others, so of course Jimenez's looks off to me at the moment.

Jimenez does more than draw this issue; he also shares a plot credit with writer Scott Snyder. As for that plot, in their continued efforts to deal with all the Totality/Multiverse/Perpetua business, the League seeks counsel from Mr. Mxyzptlk, summoning him to their dimension before his appointed time and trapping--or at least attempting to trap--him. There's a nice spectacular battle, as he unleashes his omnipotent powers upon the League and they beat him back in a way that at least sounds convincing enough, and then he tells them about the Sixth Dimension, which Superman journeys into. And then...stuff happens, including the introduction of a Superman of the future and a weird, bad fate for the present Superman that evokes some of the more nightmarish parts of Snyder's Dark Nights: Metal.

Mxy is one of my favorite DC Universe characters, and this is my favorite kind of Justice League story, crashing elements specific to one particular character (here, Superman) into the rest of the DCU's other major stars. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite of Grant Morrison's JLA stories, "Crisis Times Five," albeit it nowhere near as ambitious (and one could certainly argue that earlier arc was way too ambitious, given how garbled some of it felt).

A couple of quick nitpicks, though.

First, Wonder Woman tells Mxy that there's no such thing as the Sixth Dimension, despite the fact that she and the rest of the Justice League have encountered beings from the Sixth Dimension in the past (sure, that was in 2001, but 18 years is actually relatively recent in JLA history; if you missed Mark Waid, Bryan Hitch and company's story involving the Cathexis of the Sixth Dimension, you can find it in JLA Vol. 5, which isn't as good as the previous four volumes, but much better than so much of what has come since).

Second, Mxy talks up Bat-Mite in a way that feels a bit off to me--" one of the two most powerful imps. The other watches over Batman"--given that the nature of Bat-Mite is constantly changing, and he's rarely ever depicted as particularly powerful, especially compared to some of the other fifth-dimensional beings we've seen in the DCU (That said, I don't think we've heard from Bat-Mite after Flashpoint/The New 52-boot, have we...?)

Finally, it continues to strike me as strange that Mera is on the Justice League, but doesn't seem to do anything. She gets just one line in this issue: "I'll stay, Batman. Atlantis needs me." And that's it. Starman doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do in this other than stand around and fill out the line-up in the same way that Mera does, but his powers are repeatedly referred to as having played a part in the League's schemes. Aside from maybe keeping her husband's chair warm and holding his trident, it's not entirely clear what Mera is doing there. I hope that Snyder has some plans for her in the near future, to justify here being there.

This issue includes six pages of "Mad Skewers The DC Universe", featuring some great cartooning from Kerry Callen and Sergio Aragones, particularly highlighting how great the former is at impersonating the styles of others, but some of the jokes seemed in pretty poor taste to me. I know, I know--I'm pointing out that Mad magazine might not be all that tasteful in its humor. Is this...adulthood setting in...?

Justice League #20 (DC) Can I offer you some advice? If you ever have an idea for a silly bit of fan art inspired by your favorite super-comic, or a gag that occurred to you that you don't think anyone else might have thought of just yet, don't wait months, weeks or even days to draw it and post it on your blog or tweet it out.

If so, you might be chagrined to find something you were thinking about--say, for instance, Jarro in an adorable little Robin costume, fighting crime alongside Batman as the Starfish Wonder--in an actual comic book, as canon.
Well, sort of.

This issue contains a one-page dream sequence in which Jarro is Batman's new Robin and, um, son, something I started thinking about the first time Scott Snyder had Jarro refer to Batman as "Pop" a couple issues ago. Dang it. (I might still draw some Starfish Wonder fan art though, because I haven't drawn anything in forever).

Anyway, that is obviously the best--if mildly frustrating to me personally--part of this issue, the majority of which is set in the future. It occurs during one of several brief check-ins with the home team of Mera and Starman--Mera even gets multiple lines this issue!--as they watch over Mxyzptlk, while the away team of Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl get a tour of the future conducted by a future Superman and their own future selves.

Snyder and artist/co-plotter Jorge Jimenez obviously put a lot of thought into this future, which is remarkably near...maybe 20-40 years, tops (Dick Grayson, for example, is the new Batman). The time frame seemed a bit...close to me, not only because of how radically the world has been altered in their near future (although I suspect that is the point that is being made; if things go as the future League says they do, the world will be vastly improved), but also because Superman, Wonder Woman and J'onn all show such signs of aging and, in the past, they don't exactly age at normal, human rates, you know?

The bulk of the issue--some 14 pages--are spent detailing the future world, and while it's all kind of interesting, it also seems like a waste of time and space. Especially if Snyder doesn't plan on using this setting in the future of the book; if it does come into play, then maybe giving a page or two to each of the Leaguers to learn what their future counterparts are doing won't feel like such a waste after all (I can't help but think that, were this a Grant Morrison issue of JLA, the future sequence would have lasted, like, three to five pages, tops).

It comes as no surprise that maybe the future utopia isn't quite the paradise that it's being presented as, given that so much of it feels wrong (Like Flash and Green Lantern creating worlds, not unlike Reed Richards and company were doing while they were "dead" in Marvel's current Fantastic Four) and the future Leaguers all seem really blithe about revealing things about the future to their past selves, who are quite attentive; surely all these superheroes have been around the track enough times to have developed a few general rules about time travel.

Oh, and that hint regarding Bat-Mite last issue? There's an even bigger hint in this issue, indicating that a Bat-Mite appearance is imminent. Hell, a Mr. Mxyzptlk vs. Bat-Mite rematch seems somewhat likely, if things go in the direction they seem to be leading.

My constant nit-picking aside, I do mostly like this book; there's a reason it's pretty much the only super-comic I read serially anymore.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #5 (Dark Horse Comics) Note the shape of the face area on the iron maiden that horror host Crow is stuffing Tom Servo, Teen Reporter into on Steve Vance's cover. Great detail, that. This is the fifth issue, and it continues to do what it has been doing for the previous four, with Jonah, Tom and Crow in stories from Black Cat, Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter and Horrific, respectively. It's all fine, but I'm really ready for something different from an MST3K comic at this point, and I hope they explore different ways to publish comics featuring these characters and some form of riffing--as complicated as this particular method is, I think it would work in a future series, but I would hope that they change the comics more regularly. Tom's comic has been a single, ongoing plot, but Jonah and Crow have now been in multiple stories from the same comic books.

If Dark Horse and the MST3K people do decide to do more comics after the completion of this series, I hope they keep Vance around, as more than anything his cover drawings link the comic to the TV show...or, at least, the DVD collections of the TV show.

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #47 (DC) Month in, month out, some of the weirdest, most unexpected imagery I find in my comic book reading tends to come from this rather unlikely source, a Big Two comic featuring corporate-owned characters teaming up with other corporate-owned characters. Here it's Walter Carzon drawing Scooby's head on Shaggy's body and Shaggy's head on Scooby's body. It is the result of a mad scientist and his head-swapping experiments, conducted via an energy field and thus much easier to reverse than, say, the even madder surgical method.

He's apparently been at this for a while--there are lots of exotic animals with the wrong heads in this story, "Don't Get Mad, Scientist!"--and he finds a perfect subject for his experiments at Peebles Pet Shop in the form of Magilla Gorilla. That's the cartoon star that Scooby and the gang team-up with this issue. Unlike many of the other Hanna-Barbera funny animal characters they have teamed up with in past issues, this one feels fairly natural. Seeing a pet shot, they pull the Mystery Machine over to see if they can have Scooby groomed (they've just got done unmasking a muck monster, you see), and that pet store happens to be the one Magilla lives in.

After Mr. Peebles completes the sale, he notices the address of the scientist--1313 Terror Terrace, an "eerie old castle on Haunted Hill"--so he goes with the kids to check on Magilla and that's where the head-swapping occurs.

In general, the issues teaming Scooby-Doo up with DC characters tend to be better than those teaming him up with the Hanna-Barbera funny animals, but this might be the best of the latter so far. Writer Sholly Fisch always does a fantastic--and fantastically underrated--job on this title, but the script for this issue is a particularly strong one.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 10: Life Is Too Short, Squirrel (Marvel Entertainment) You know what part of the new Captain Marvel movie I got most excited about...? The part on Monday afternoon, about four days after seeing the film in theaters, when reports of its massive opening weekend haul started coming out, and I realized that maybe Marvel wouldn't just add Captain Marvel 2 to their upcoming film slate, but might also start looking for other female superheroes to star in their own movies. As I've discussed before, Marvel Comics doesn't have all that deep of a field of superhero ladies, particularly ones who don't come as part of a superhero team package, aren't derivatives of male characters and, crucially, haven't already appeared in TV shows.

In fact, after Captain Marvel, I'd argue that there's really only one Marvel heroine capable of carrying a feature film franchise: Squirrel Girl (Okay, and Ms. Marvel too, I guess, but Squirrel Girl would be a million times better).

Until that day comes, however, we will just have to content ourselves with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, now in its tenth trade paperback collection and still Marvel's very best comic book series. This volume issues #37-41 of the series, the first four issues of which are devoted to a Derek Charm-drawn story arc, while the final issue sees guest-artist Naomi Franquiz arrive for a done-in-one.

Charm's arc begins at the funeral of Squirrel Girl, in which various Marvel heroes gather in special, funereal black costumes in order to mourn the loss of their unbeatable ally. But don't worry! While a Squirrel Girl might have died, it's not the Squirrel Girl. In actuality, it was a Skrull posing as Doreen Green, and that Squirull Girl isn't really dead either; it's all part of said Skrull's plan to...well, to do something rather un-Skrull-like, really.

It's a really fun arc, typically jam-packed with gags and dense story-telling, in which writer Ryan North allows himself interesting storytelling tropes and nerdy, North-ish topics to riff on, including a superhero funeral, how to figure out if someone is really themselves or being impersonated, applications of shape-changing powers and, of course, computer jokes. The story also has a lot of Squirrel Girl/Iron Man content, which is pretty much the best (and one reason to wish for an Unbeatable Squirrel Girl movie; it would totally guest-star Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark) and, near its climax, there is an incredibly heated argument between Tony and Doreen regarding superhero ethics and how to proceed with a very thorny issue. I really liked that particular sequence, as Tony seems to be the hero Marvel Comics regularly has engaging in such arguments with his peers, and sometimes it ends up leading to superhero civil wars that takes hundreds and hundreds of pages to resolve, usually after a few dozen fights and a couple of deaths. Here, Doreen and Tony manage to hash everything out in just 11 dialogue-packed panels; they go from raised voices to hugging it out in less than two pages. I guess a theoretical Iron Man/Squirrel Girl Civil War III event series would either be the worst or the best superhero civil war event series ever, depending on what you want from your superheroes-disagreeing-strongly comic book stories.

The arc has a pretty potent and relevant message about accepting refugees, one that parses the difference between an invader, an immigrant and a refugee, that works so perfectly in the context of the Marvel Universe that it's possible to think that the way it lines up with real world events is just coincidental. Like, maybe Ryan North doesn't read the news; I don't know.

It also gives Charm the opportunity to draw a huge swathe of the Marvel Universe. Not just at Squirrel Girl's funeral, but also in scenes featuring the current Avengers line-up, the late 1970s Avengers (circa the Kree-Skrull War, in a fantastic splash panel), and the Dark Avengers and other characters circa Secret Invasion. As I've said before, what makes Charm so ideal for this book is that he is equally adept at fun and funny shenanigans as he is at drawing all-out superhero action in his own style.

The Brain Drain gag at the end of issue #37, by the way, is but one of several "lols" I got from this book.
The final, Franquiz drawn issue is set during the short time in which Spider-Man and Peter Parker were split into two different entities in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. New villain Ms. Quizzler has kidnapped Peter Parker and Nancy Whitehead and dropped them in a death trap; each suspects the other of actually being the secret identity of a superhero known to hang around Empire University, and further suspects that the other doesn't want to act to save them both for fear of giving away their secret identity as Spider-Man or Squirrel Girl. But both are wrong! (Well, Nancy would have been right, but for the fact that Peter was temporarily split from his Spider-Man aspect).

Meanwhile, Squirrel Girl, Thor and She-Hulk are taking tests, so it's going to be up to Tippy-Toe and the Squirrel Scouts to save the captives...and for Squirrel Girl to defeat Ms. Quizzler with a challenge that also just might make her a better person and improve the whole world. Way to go, Squirrel Girl!

West Coast Avengers Vol. 1: Best Coast (Marvel Entertainment) I'm fond enough of Kelly Thompson's writing--and, most relevantly here, her Jessica Jones and the first two volumes of her Hawkeye series--that I've been buying her work simply because it's hers, but I may need to reevaluate that. As with her Rogue & Gambit: Ring of Fire trade, this didn't quite do it for me, and here I can't blame its X-Menishness, as it isn't an X-Men comic (although there is an X-person in it, for some reason!).

Don't get me wrong; it is not a bad comic, either in its writing or its art or any component of its construction. It just didn't really connect with me, for a few reasons. I somehow missed Thompson's Hawkeye: Kate Bishop Vol. 3, which is one of the nine trades Marvel suggests on their "Follow the Adventures of Hawkeye" reading list spread across the inside covers (basically the last two Hawkeye ongoings, starting with Matt Fraction and David Aja's reinvention of the character what feels like an age ago). I don't think one needs to have read, like, any of those to read this trade, but because this felt somewhat off to me, I did wonder if Kate Bishop Vol. 3 would have been helpful to me.

This certainly seems to be a continuation of that series, with Thompson finding Kate and a few of the supporting characters from that series still on the West Coast, although the tone has changed a bit, the comedy being amped up. If Kate Bishop was a very funny superhero dramedy, West Coast Avengers is much more of a superhero comedy; I mean, this first story arc's villain is a gold-skinned, long-haired, shirtless guy with an over-sized head who introduces himself as BRODOK, a Bio-Robotic Organism Designed Overwhelmingly for Kissing.

The team just kind of comes into existence, which works fine for, say, Jason Aaron's Avengers or, like, most any X-Men team, but a West Coast branch of the Avengers is a thing that hasn't been a thing in so long that it feels sort of random. That is, I didn't really feel sold on the creation of the team in-story. It just seemed like Thompson pitched a continuation of Kate Bishop as a superhero team, and Marvel green lit it.

Kate is fighting a herd** of land sharks in Santa Monica one day and naturally starts calling all her allies to help out. The other Hawkeye--you know, Hawkguy--shows up, as does America Chavez (are we not calling her Ms. America anymore?) and Fuse, Kate's boyfriend with Absorbing Man (or Grunge, or Amazing Man) powers. When Clint prevails upon Kate that she should form and lead a superhero team to protect the notoriously un-protected Not New York City portion of the Marvel Universe, she starts recruiting, and ends up with Gwenpool and Quentin Quire. If nothing else, this team is the a very color-coordinated one!

It's after the first issue, which rather rapidly assembles the team and sets the tone for the series, that I thought it bogged down a bit, for one of two reasons. First, Thompson relies on a reality TV show structure, which felt off-puttingly dated to me (This could just be me, though. I assume there are still reality TV shows on...I don't watch much television, but I read a reality TV superhero team comics in 1995, and I wouldn't recommend it).
Yes, it allows the characters to talk directly to the "camera"/reader, which helps the quick establishment of the characters and concept in the first twenty pages, and yes, it also helps provide an in-story rationale for Quentin being there and for the team having a funding source (and maybe that makes it more West Coast...?), but I've read X-Force/X-Statix almost twenty years ago; I'm not sure Thompson and company can do something new, different and better--or at least more timely and more relevant--with that premise here.

After the land sharks, the next threat the team faces is a giant Tigra, who appears to be mindlessly rampaging. It is here that BRODOK shows up to help them, and everyone immediately assumes he is actually MODOK in disguise, but they play along in order to get to the bottom of the giant Tigra business. This fills up the rest of the trade, and the visual of a giant Tigra (and a few other giant monster women who aren't pre-existing Marvel heroes/West Coast Avengers alum) and the rather sharp origin of the giant-sized monster women are definitely strong elements...but not so strong as to be able to support a three-issue, 60-page story arc. At one issue, maybe two, it would have been been fine, but at this length it dragged; it didn't read as "decompressed," as we used to call it, and there was definitely stuff in all those panels, but not the sort of stuff I wanted to spend so much time with (For contrast, the legitimately cool land sharks, which were posed and ran around a bit like giant chickens, take up only eight pages).
Thompson has a fine creative partner in Stefano Caselli, a pretty great artist who I haven't seen much of in quite a while, but whom I recall being quite effective during a long and healthy run on Avengers Initiative, the post-Civil War series that was full of newer, younger superheroes and plenty of Marvel Universe guest-stars. As I mentioned, his land sharks were fantastic--I probably would have picked up the single issue of West Coast Avengers #1 simply for their appearance, had I seen it in the wild and flipped through it in a shop--and his character work has only gotten stronger and sharper since I've last seen it. While there are a lot of panels of heroes sitting in chairs and talking to the camera, Caselli makes those characters look expressive and dynamic while doing so.

As 80 pages aren't enough to fill a $17.99 trade paperback, Marvel includes two relevant-ish reprints after West Coast Avengers #4. These are the 2008 Young Avengers Presents #6 by the oddly un-credited creative team of Matt Fraction, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer, in which Ronin Clint Barton pays a visit to the young woman whose been using his name since his death, and 2016's Unbelievable Gwenpool #1 by Christopher Hastings, Danilo Beyruth and Gurihiru, which serves as a mostly unnecessary introduction to the character (there's not that much to her, really, and she and her schtick are thoroughly introduced in the pages of Thompson and Caselli's main story).


Amazing Spider-Man By Nick Spencer Vol. 2: Friends and Foes (Marvel Entertainment) I feel like I just read the first volume of the new, Nick Spencer-written Amazing Spider-Man last month--because I did--so either I was a little late to that one and a little early to this one, or they are publishing these collections awfully damn fast. If that is the case, it certainly makes for an improved trade-reading experience, as there's less chance of me forgetting a whole bunch of minor plot points between volumes, but it probably isn't the best thing in the world when it comes to trying to sell comics serially. Like, having to wait longer than a month or two is really supposed to be the "price" you pay to read trades, and what would conceivably drive readers towards the serially-published comic book-comics (or digital ones now, I guess) if they don't have to wait all that long, right...?

This second volume contains issues #6-10 of ASM, and Spencer's collaborator on the last batch of issues--Ryan Ottley--is already MIA. Hopefully he's taking a planned break, rather than having just drawn the first few issues before departing under any circumstances. Marvel has a fine replacement for him in Humberto Ramos, though, who pencils all five issues, albeit it with smartly deployed assists from Steve Lieber on the first two issues and Michele Bandini on the last two issues.

Spencer continues sub-plots already in progress--the presence of Taskmaster and Black Ant, Peter Parker living with Fred Myers, AKA Boomerang, Peter and MJ's resumed relationship, Spidey being on the outs with the rest of the superhero community, a weird demonic figure with bandages and a giant centipede flexing his muscles--while these issues contain some remarkably fun and funny A-Plots.

The first two issues are devoted to Peter's relationship with Boomerang--not Spider-Man's, but Peter's. Realizing that Peter is friends with Spider-Man (or, at least that's the cover story Peter has convinced everyone of), used to photograph the wall-crawler's exploits and even wrote a literal book about him, Boomerang finds a very unexpected way to hang out with/use Peter. I know it's already in trade, but I still don't want to spoil this bit; it was probably the biggest surprise I found upon turning a page of this book, and I literally laughed out loud when I saw it (or "loled," as the kids say).

Sections of these issues are more-or-less a Superior Foes of Spider-Man reunion, as Spencer is joined by his collaborator on that (superior) title Steve Lieber to depict all five members of that incarnation of the Sinister Six getting together to play cards in an abandoned warehouse. While the narrator of one of those scenes is the opposite of reliable, if what is being shown is genuine, it is both incredibly sad and poignant.

The final three issues have Spidey hanging around with his ex The Black Cat, now back in super-thief/not-evil-but-still-kind-of-a-villain mode, while MJ looks into a support group for the loved ones of superheroes that sounds like it must be a front for an evil plot, although it turns out that Jarvis runs it, so maybe not so much (the people who use it have their faces obscured from one another and from the readers--in a high-tech way of enforcing the anonymous aspect of such support groups--and I couldn't guess some of the participants, which Spencer only leaves clues of. I'm pretty sure Foggy Nelson, Miles Morales' pal Ganke Lee and Fantastic postman Willy Loman were there. Maybe Scott Lang's ex-wife...?)
My guesses? Foggy Nelson, No Idea, Stature's Mom, Ganke, Pepper Potts and Willy Lumpkin. Help me out here. 
An ancient thieves guild that demands 10% of everything that is stolen is making itself known in New York City once again, and to let the whole world know they are back, they pull off a bunch of seemingly impossible robberies of the world's superheroes all at once. Like, stealing Captain America's shield after he threw it but before it returned to his hand, or snatching Spidey's web-slinger's right off his wrists or, well, this:
That was the second time I lolled this volume, I think, more so because it was just so dang unexpected a panel than due to the overall strength of that particular joke. That's one of the best aspects of Spencer's ASM, though. It's not just funny in the now-expected way of so many of Marvel's superhero comedies, but it's not afraid to be downright silly, pushing the gags a step further than necessary for the demands of the plot. (See also, for example, the panel of Boomerang and Shocker in couples therapy; like, pointing out that they went to couple's therapy is an okay joke, but then showing them there and revealing a bit of dialogue? Even more effective).

In the last two issues, Bandini draws the MJ/support group sections, leaving Ramos the superhero stuff with Spider-Man.

I've always loved Ramos' style, and his work has only gotten stronger and more refined over the years, looking less like manga/anime homage super-comics illustration than all-around strong, smart cartooning, with his heroic figures now looking slim, but with bulbous heads and big hands and feet. I particularly dug his take on Black Cat; that weird white fur on her gloves and boots is drawn much, much longer than usual, so all of her limbs have what are essentially streamers on them, making her a more dynamic figure, even when she's just standing there. (Like, what Superman's cape does for Superman? Counting her matching white hair, she's got like five mini-capes on).
Great comic, and the most fun I've had reading a comic with the words "Spider-Man" in the title since...Superior Foes of Spider-Man, I think.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands (DC) I was so incredibly irritated by this comic's very existence when I read the first issue that I didn't make it past that in its original serialized publication. That was in large part because it seemed to be a hard reboot of DC's Black Lightning character, whom DC had just rebooted and reintroduced in the pages of short-lived anthology series DC Universe Presents in 2013. After that four-issue arc, Cold Dead Hands was pretty much his next appearance--not counting, like, a cameo or two in Justice League, and, man, you shouldn't have to completely reboot a character every single time you use him. (Prior to the post-Flashpoint/New 52 reboot in DCUP, his previous revised origin story was 2009's Black Lightning: Year One.)

Having read and greatly enjoyed writer (and Black Lightning co-creator) Tony Isabella and artist Eddy Newell's take on the character in the recently released Brick City Blues collection (reviewed in last month's installment), I really wanted to revisit this Isabella-written six-issue series and see how it compared to his mid-90s run on the last Black Lightning ongoing series.

In retrospect, I sort of wish I had somehow read the prose piece that appears as an afterword in this volume before I had read the first issue of Cold Dead Hands last year...almost as much as I wish DC had really had its shit together when it decided to do a line-wide reboot/relaunch in 2011 (instead of seemingly have decided to do it with, like, a month or three's notice). Then maybe this could have been the reintroduction to Black Lightning, rather than the false start of DCUP...or even Year One, if DC thought more than a year or two ahead in their management of their fictional universe.

Anyway, as to why DC was re-rebooting Black Lightning with this miniseries, apparently DiDio simply asked Isabella if he wanted to write a comic featuring the character, and, when he agreed and asked which version of the character, DiDio told him to do whatever he wanted. And so this is what he came up with.

This is not the original pre-Crisis version, nor is it the pre-Flashpoint version. It doesn't seem to be the version from DCUP, but I never read that series, so I guess I wouldn't even know if it was. It's also not the version from the TV show, or even closely aligned to that version, as Isabella explains in his afterword, because he was writing before the show was being made and aired.

So I guess this is the post-Flashpoint, current version of the character, as his co-creator would have recreated him for The New 52, if he had the opportunity to do so back then.

This version of Jefferson Pierce, not unlike the one that appeared in Brick City Blues, has just returned to Cleveland, although now it's actually referred to in the script as Cleveland, rather than Brick City. He's returned because his father has just died, and he's got a job teaching at an inner city school, while fighting crime at night using his electricity-based powers.

While that doesn't sound too different, Jefferson now has some family, including a biological grandmother and two cousins, Anissa and Jennifer, who, in the post-Infinite Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity were his daughters, and had grown-up to be superheroes Thunder and Lightning. He's also got something of a Team Lightning, with a best friend on the Cleveland Police Department, a kinda sorta mentor, a supervillain-turned-superhero-turned trainer who used to by the fishy sobriquet of Amberjack and also a shape-changing alien ally, all of whom are pretty useful when it comes to crime-fighting.

The particular crime-fighting he is engaged in throughout this villain is the prevalence of alien-super weapons on the streets of Cleveland, being dealt by Tobias Whale. This Tobias Whale is different than all previous ones--his mention of his name being used by others seeking to capitalize on his notoriety seems to be a reference to the DCUP arc, in which Black Lightning and Blue Devil fought Tobias Whale--and is basically a big, strong, ruthless black dude, rather than an albino with a weird-shaped head. This plot reminded me a bit of the original Steel storyline, in which he was fighting to keep the "Toastmaster" weapons he helped develop off the streets.

The six issues are pretty evenly divided between introducing Jefferson Pierce and his supporting cast and villains, and this conflict. Isabella infuses the story with a bit more than simple drama and superhero stuff, though, and there are various attempts to incorporate meditations on gun violence and the friction between police and black communities (12-year-old boy Tamir Rice was shot to death by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014; the incident is named by Black Lightning in his narration).

Isabella also gives Black Lightning new and more novel uses of his powers than we've seen before, including some upgrades to his costume, which he can manipulate with his powers. These include limited flight--basically by shooting himself into the sky off of the metal in cars and then breaking his fall with his energy field--and even generating "black" lightning, which he does at one point to strike opponents with a blast they can't see coming.

Black Lightning's costume and powers are things I...worry about, for some reason (So too is Tim Drake's costume, especially once Damian Wane was introduced. I don't know why, but their costume design sometimes presents itself as a problem I need to dwell on before falling asleep now and then). I am not fond of this particular design. I particularly hate the yellow goggles, which I guess are affixed to his head with spirit gum or something...? There's a chunky, armor-ishness to the costume, which is par for the course these days, and he seems to have knee pads and, if not a codpiece, then his pants are so colored as if to suggest he's wearing chaps...? More than anything, though, it suffers from haing one color too many (the yellow of the goggles and the outlines of the blue lightning bolts) and, of course, my traditional complaint of Black Lightning costumes: There's no black lightning on it. All of the bolt designs on his costume--and here there are a half-dozen of them--are blue, not black.

The artwork is provided by Clayton Henry and Yvel Guitchet--not sure why they needed fill-in artists for a miniseries, but hell, what do I know--and it's strong, although very clean and smooth. It lacks the grit and lived-in quality that Newell brought to the 1990s Black Lightning, and the city and the characters, like the hero and his new suit, all look cleaner, sleeker and smoother. I didn't really recognize Cleveland throughout the book, but then, I guess Cleveland itself has grown a little cleaner, sleeker and smoother in the last decade or so too.

Once I made it through that first issue, with it's annoying "Here's yet another random reboot!" quality and all of the name-dropping of various DC heroes in the narration--another example of DC's worst-of-both-world's approach to continuity, in which the publisher seems to want to buttress all their stories on affection for other, older ones, but don't want to be bound by those stories--it took on the shape of a strong first story arc in an ongoing series...which it actually isn't.

I'm not sure why Isabella hasn't gotten to do a follow-up series or ongoing yet. I imagine that perhaps sales on the mini didn't justify more comics just yet, but that's just a guess, really. I'd read more...although I'd prefer a different artistic team working in a different style. As well as making he book a lot more Cleveland-y. And maybe a new costume.

I'd also like to learn more about this Amberjack fellow, who apparently lost a fight to The Red Bee at one point. But then, Black Lightning, Cleveland, The Red Bee...those are all things I'm really into.

Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth (DC) If you're wondering why this is under the "Borrowed" category instead of the "Bought" one, it's because while I had every intention of reading Brian Michael Bendis' Superman and Action Comics runs in trade, DC decided to collect his first batch of Superman comics in a $24.99 hardcover before releasing it in a trade paperback, and I didn't want to wait any longer, so when I saw this at the library, I checked it out. So I guess I saved money and didn't have to wait as long...?

The somewhat cumbersome title seems to indicate that the "Unity Saga" is going to be a pretty big storyline, and the fact that the subject of unity doesn't really come up in the story until somewhere around the fifth of the six issues collected here would seem to reinforce that. The story is a relatively simple one, which likely has a lot to do with the fact that it is setting up a bigger storyline.

The conflict boils down to this: A terrible accident has plunged the entire planet Earth into the Phantom Zone, the extra-dimensional prison space where Kryptonians have traditionally exiled their worst criminals and that Rogol Zaar was just recently cast into at the end of Bendis and company's Man of Steel series, and Superman and his many super-peers in the Justice League and beyond have to struggle to keep the Earth from failing and its people from freaking out and tearing the place apart while they try to find away to restore it. Meanwhile, Rogol Zaar, Jax-Ur and a bunch of exiles who aren't particularly fans of The House of El want to kill Superman to death, so he spends a lot of his time in space fighting them.

It's more engaging than it sounds, in large part because despite how clunky and Bendis-y some of the dialogue might sound now and then, Bendis really does "get" Superman, and, better yet, has a interesting take on Superman's relationships with others--civilians, co-workers, fellow superheroes, supervillains--that usually feels natural and true and occasionally even insightful (His talk with Superboy in a flashback in which he discusses rather bluntly how crazy Batman drives him, for example, is pretty great). There are an awful lot of cameos in here, including The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Livewire, Adam Strange and The Atoms Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi. Guys, I have no idea what DCU continuity is supposed to be anymore, but no one else seems to either, so I guess it could be worse. I did kinda dig seeing Superman presented as the center of the DC Universe's superheroes, the figure all of the others more or less rotate around. And seeing Plastic Man working with the Justice League again, even if it was only, like, a one-panel psychic check in.

There are some developments in this arc, like Superman getting a new Fortress of Solitude in The Bermuda Triangle and the return of General Zod, but the biggest development seems to be the last-page cliffhanger ending, which I knew from solicits was coming, but still have no idea how it's going to work out, and what it might mean for the future of the Super-Sons.

Ivan Reis pencils the entirety of these six issues, with Joe Prado and Oclair Albert inking. I'm rather fond of Reis' pencil work, and he does a great job on this character and on this arc. I was happily surprised he was able to draw an entire six-issue arc, though.


Supers Book One (Top Shelf Productions) Here.

*When The Avengers confront Namor for the second time in this volume, Captain America tells Namor, "We've been doing everything we can to broker peace with Atlantis. Even after you killed those Roxxon gunmen in their cells. And damn near killed Stingray, your own friend." Since "damn near" implies "not actually,"  I guess Stingray will still be available to be killed off or damn near killed off in a future story in order to show how badass a villain is.

**The Internet tells me a group of sharks is called "a gam, herd, frenzy, school or shiver," so even though "herd" was the first word I used as a placeholder and is the least cool-sounding of the names for a group of sharks, I stuck with that one. The Internet did not tell me what a group of land sharks is called, however.


Bram said...

To add to wondering about how Best Defense was received … every indvidual issue sold different numbers at the shop. Some sold out, some were left, some were left in greater quantities.

Jose Gregorio Bencomo Gomez said...

I don't know if you still remember this, but we once discussed Vince Giarrano's whereabouts and where he'd gone after basically stopping doing comics. Well, I found this webpage with his new art venues on feature: