Monday, April 29, 2019

Three reviews of Marvel collections I found in my drafts:

Avengers: Unleashed Vol. 2--Secret Empire

Although the second collection of writer Mark Waid and primary artist Mike Del Mundo's Avengers ongoing, this is actually the fifth volume of Waid's run on the primary Avengers team; his All-New, All-Different Avengers was relaunched after about 15 issues, because...because Marvel, that's why.

The turning point presented at the end of this volume, then, in which particular elements of the status quo introduced just last volume shift, may seem somewhat violently sudden, but it is perhaps best read in the context of the writer reacting to the goings-on in the Marvel Universe beyond his control, and as simply the latest necessary course correction rather than Waid quite suddenly thinking better of decisions he just made. As with the events of Civil War II, which took Iron Man Tony Stark out of the cast and helped shunt the younger Avengers off into their own team and their own book, Secret Empire presents Avengers with a big change, and Amazing Spider-Man apparently deals it another.

The first two issues, co-written with Jeremy Whitley of the sadly canceled Unstoppable Wasp, feature Doctor Victor Von Doom, currently wearing Iron Man-like armor and calling himself "Iron Man," teaming up with the Avengers, who are pretty frosty to the alliance. Only Wasp Nadia Pym is really into the idea, in part because of her fan girl fervor for Doom's brilliance.

Both are done-in-ones, with the Nadia/Victor relationship the most notable throughline. In the first issue, Doom stops by for tea, and then recruits Nadia's help in infiltrating a Lumberjanes camp. In the second, the Avengers are on the ropes, thanks to a power-stealing villain, but the Nadia/Victor team are able to save the day, with their science.

Both of these issues are drawn by Phil Noto, whose painterly style is a good fit with Del Mundo's. It was refreshing to finally see this post-Secret Wars Doom drawn at some length by someone other than Mike Deodato, who just draws him as Vincent Cassel for some reason (Still not sure why that is allowed to go on; can't he sue Marvel? Shouldn't Marvel be worried he might sue them for using his likeness like that?). I got lost among the relaunches of writer Brian Michael Bendis' Iron Man books, so I haven't read any of Infamous Iron Man, which Alex Maleev is drawing.

After those, Waid scripts three more done-in-one stories, two of which are set during the events of Secret Empire, and one of which is an epilogue. Oddly enough, they barely refer to the events of the event series, and make sense as tie-ins only if you've read it. If not, well, they stand alone fine, but they likely seem to be extremely odd choices for the title.

First, there's a Thor solo issue, which apparently details where she went after she was zapped away at the beginning of Secret Empire. Narrated by a native being to the dimension she was sent to, it's a nice, solid story of the character's heroism, with a fair degree of humor derived from the clashing cultures thrown in.

Then, Doctor Octopus narrates an adventure featuring Bad Cap's Hydra Avengers line-up of reprogrammed Vision, (possessed by a demon) Scarlet Witch, former Thor Odinson and mercenaries Deadpool, Taskmaster and The Black Ant. It's a very short story, but one that sends them all on a mission they see through to completion, while highlighting the self-serving villainy of some of the members and the tensions inherent in a character like The Odinson working alongside former bad guys.

The final story takes place after Secret Empire and whatever has been going on in ASM, as Peter Parker has apparently lost Parker Industries and possession of The Baxter Building, which is where the team's HQ has been for all of, well, all of just 10 issues. The six Avengers split up into pairs to have conversations with one another. The Vision and Hercules go out for coffee, and the synthezoid expresses his concerns about learning that he is immortal, and gets some surprisingly sage life-coaching from Herc. Spidey tries to find some common ground with The Wasp by inviting her to a science fair, but they get side-tracked by superhero stuff. And Sam Wilson, who here has already surrendered the shield and title of Captain America back to Good Cap but hasn't yet put on his new Falcon costume, pulls Thor aside and tries to convince her to lead the team, since he's no longer Captain America. It's a nice between-arcs breather issue, but then, because so much of the title has been reactive to line-wide crossovers, Waid's Avengers series has, more often than not, been a whole series of these sorts of relaxed breather issues.

Black Panther: The Man Without Fear--The Complete Collection

I'm glad Marvel gave prose novelist David Liss' Black Panther comics "The Complete Collection" treatment, putting all 18 or so issues of the T'Challa-starring comics he wrote between a single pair of covers, because Liss' run on the character might be murder to try to assemble through single issues (The run was previously collected into a trio of trade paperbacks under two different titles). This is because of how weird Marvel is at selling their damn comic books.

After Daredevil event storyline "Shadowlands" and Black Panther-centric "Doomwar," both Matt Murdock and T'Challa need to rediscover themselves. And so Murdock goes away, but he asks T'Challa to become the new guardian of Hell's Kitchen, where the now de-powered Panther decides he will be able to prove to himself whether he's still a total bad-ass without his former magic Panther powers and all the resources of a sci-fi fantasy kingdom to call upon.

And, for whatever damn reason, Marvel decided to make Black Panther the new star of the Daredevil comic book series, changing the title of the series to Black Panther: The Man Without Fear, but keeping Daredevil's numbering, so that the first issue of the new series was Black Panther: The Man Without Fear #513. And then, after about 12 issues, they changed the title again but kept the numbering, so the book was then Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive for a while. Oh, and then there was one of those dumb decimal-point issues, Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive #523.1. (As for Daredevil, when Matt Murdock returned, he got a whole new title with a new #1; I honestly have no idea how any of this works.)

Anyway, none of that really matters for the purposes of this collection, which reads as a complete, 400+-page graphic novel. What little one might need to know about what happened in Daredevil and Black Panther and Doomwar before gets quickly and efficiently explained in a conversation between Murdock and T'Challa in the first issue, and then referred back to organically throughout the story. And, if you're reading the entire Black Panther saga in preparation for the movie (UPDATE: I guess that's a pretty  clue as to just how dang long ago I wrote this review, huh?), well just know that this falls between Black Panther: Doomwar and the beginning of Ta-Nehesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze's Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet.

What will be most immediately evident about Liss' run is the way it looks. Artist Francesco Francavilla draws and colors the majority of it, and his art is highly, highly stylized. It is heavily "drawn" looking in a way that stands out from the bulk of Marvel's comics. His designs are realistic, but stripped down and abstracted in the rendering, with well-placed lines of shading and a lot of usage of darks and shadows. The artist whose work might most immediately jump to mind when reading Francavilla's Black Panther book is, fittingly, that of long-ago Daredevil artist David Mazzucchelli.

Even when Francavilla's not drawing, Liss' Black Panther was fortunate to have some pretty great artists involved. Jefte Palo does a lot of the non-Franacavilla art, and he draws big, bold, exaggerated, muscular figures perfect for all the skulking and brawling in the book's action scenes. As the book nears its conclusion and Man Without Fear turns to Most Dangerous Man Alive, the comic gets more and more Daredevil-y, and Michael Avon Oeming and Shawn Martinbrough do much of the art. Both are great, and neither are too far removed from Francavilla's style, although Oeming is the artist who most sticks out as different from the others; his highly cartoony take calling to mind that of that other famous Daredevil creator, Frank Miller.

So after Daredevil gives T'Challa permission to be the new vigilante in town and then bugs off to wherever, Foggy Nelson helps set T'Challa up with a new identity. Under a goatee and pair of glasses, he is now Mr. Okonkwo, a Congolese immigrant who quickly finds a new gig as the manager of The Devil's Kitchen diner and a not-so-great apartment, the better to keep an eye on the neighborhood. Because he lacks Vibranium and his fancy gadgets, he basically fights crime as a sort of cape-less Batman or color-swapped Daredevil; wearing a bullet-proof vest over his togs and punching and kicking people. He occasionally busts out a gadget he made himself with equipment from the hardware store. Storm of the X-Men, who was still T'Challa's wife at this point, is limited mostly to Skype-ing with him, as he wants to go it alone as part of his proving-himself thing, and he's afraid if his storm goddess/queen/mutant superhero hangs around too much, his cover might be blown.

The six-part "Urban Jungle" features an escalating war between the new vigilante in town, The Panther--oddly, hardly anyone ever recognizes The Black Panther as The Black Panther, superhero, Avenger and former King of Wakanda, but just call him "Panther"--and a new would-be Kingpin of Crime in town, Vlad "The Impaler". It's low-level and low-stakes for a Black Panther comic, but then, scaling his world down from the world to a New York City neighborhood is part of the entire remit of the series. It's all-around super-solid superhero crime comics, with Luke Cage and Spider-Man both briefly dropping by only to be rebuffed (Palo draws the issue with Spider-Man in it, and he draws Panther a few heads taller and a few torsos wider than Spidey, giving them a nice physical representation of their attitudes in relation to one another).

That's followed immediately by the two-part, Palo-drawn "Storm Hunter," that follows on a dangling plot point from the previous arc. This issue pits T'Challa up against Kraven The Hunter, and he gets an unwelcome assist from his wife Storm.

Next is the Francavilla-drawn "Fear and Loathing In Hell's Kitchen," a Fear Itself tie-in of sorts...although one need not know much of anything about Fear Itself to follow the story, which features the rise of a new Hatemonger and the debut of "American Panther," a star-spangled, Panther-themed version of Black Panther to provide an America First answer to the foreign-born, immigrant hero, whose "accent" is referred to repeatedly. This three-issue arc actually reads incredibly uncomfortably in 2018, as the sorts of things The Hatemonger's followers say about immigrants sound way too familiar and, well, real today. At the time Liss was writing this story in 2011 or so, he was basically taking real attitudes of bigoted and/or racist and/or nationalist assholes and turning their words and actions up from, like, an 8 to an 11. Now that exaggerated-for-superhero-comics 11 is, like, part of the national discourse. If a guy showed up in a purple Klan hood with a big "H" on the forehead for "Hate" and demanded that immigrants return America to Americans in real life today, well, the actual president of the United States might say there were fine people on both sides of the argument, or that there were violence on both sides of the torch-wielding mob marching through New York (I guess the geography of the story is dependent on mind-control and the influence of a supernatural fear god, as it's difficult to imagine the events of Charlottesville in 2017 occurring in New York City, but still...)

Then there are two done-in-ones, a "Spider-Island" tie-in drawn by Francavilla (In which Panther has six arms and fights Overdrive and Lady Bullseye...Panther's extra arms being the only thing really making this a "Spider-Island" story) and a Palo-drawn "Point One" issue in which T'Challa fights The White Wolf again, this time getting an important assist from his waitress-turned-confidante Sofija.

Finally, there's "The Kingpin of Wakanda," drawn by Martinbrough, Oeming and Palo. This story arc is the Daredevil-iest of them all, in its villains if not its tone. Kingpin Wilson Fisk has taken over The Hand, and he makes a play for Wakanda. Faced with these foes and Kingpin's two top assassins--Lady Bullseye and Typhoid Mary--T'Challa finally accepts help from his fellow super-heroes Luke Cage and The Falcon, and even reaches out to allies in Wakanda.

Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi--Captain Phasma

Yes, that is actually the actual title of this comic book, at least according to the fine print on the title page. As you can see from the cover, the actual title looks like it might actually be a little different, but, well, whichever is the case, I think we can all agree that it features all of those words in one arrangement or another, and that "Star Wars" is in there one time too many.

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Delilah S. Dawson's Phasma novel and, as a result, know way more about the new trilogy's fascinating and mysterious character than I need to, or even want to. One thing that was particularly striking about Dawson's Phasma, which is for all intents and purposes a novel-length secret origin story for the character, is that she is constantly presented as the ultimate, undefeatable badass in it, but her relatively little screen time in Force Awakens and Last Jedi hardly matches up with her reputation from the book (In Force Awakens, she rolls over for a septuagenarian Han Solo and friends then lets them toss her down a garbage chute; in Last Jedi she's quickly defeated--and maybe even killed!--by a former subordinate after a few seconds of hand-to-hand combat). Of course, I soon realized that is generally the case with Star Wars bad guys in the expanded universe stuff: Boba Fett, General Grievous, even Darth Vader himself, all of them are infinitely more skilled, powerful and dangerous in comics, cartoons and novels than they are in the actual films, where they are generally blundering boobs that are almost ridiculously easy to take down by our heroes (Vader's appearance in Rogue One notwithstanding; that Vader seemed a lot more like the comic book Vader than the one from the original trilogy).

As for Phasma's first comic book miniseries, it echoes Dawson's novel in several ways that I found somewhat disappointing. The majority of the series takes place on a planet that is so similar to her home planet of Parnassos that it's weird that her comic book is set there at all--she does make reference to the fact that this planet reminds her "too much" of one she used to know--and there's even a brief flashback to her time spent there, including the namedropping of a character from the novel, but I couldn't quite make sense of it.

The relatively short story--it's only 80-pages long--is written by Marvel rising star Kelly Thompson and drawn by artist Marco Checchetto, with colors by Andres Mossa. It follows immediately from the climax of Force Awakens, beginning with her exit from the trash compactor and detailing how she spent the rest of the film's run-time, at one point rather comically walking past Kylo Ren and Rey as they light saber-fight in the snowy woods. She has her own, desperate mission to complete ASAP: To cover up the fact that she's the one that gave Han Solo and company access to Super Death Star Starkiller Base's computer systems and thus pretty much doomed The Empire The First Order's battle against The Rebel--er, The Resistance (See, I'm getting the hang of it!).

As only one person in the First Order knows she was the one who did so, a rando officer who checked the logs, she gives chase to him, eventually commandeering a TIE fighter, its pilot and its BB-8-esque droid to chase him to the Parnassos-like planet. There she and her partner navigate a sort of civil war between the humans living there and a race of aquatic beings who have captured her prey. Because she has to make sure he's dead herself, that means she first has to rescue him.

As I said, it's a pretty short, even slight story, one that reiterates something that is made extremely clear in Dawson's novel: Above all else, Phasma is a survivor, and a ruthless one at that, willing to sacrifice and kill anyone that threatens her survival. It is, however, the very definition of nothing special, which was something of a disappointment to me, based on how much I've liked the last few Thompson-written comics I've read.

Chechetto's artwork is similarly just okay, about on par with the level of quality and general visual style of the bulk of Marvel's Star Wars comics. The pages are very photo reference-y, perhaps unsurprising given how many costume and vehicles are being visually cut and pasted from the film into a comic book spin-off, and so aside from a few different creatures--humanoid and monstrous--living on the planet Phasma hunts her prey on, he's not called on to come up with much that's new or different from what we've seen in Force Awakens anyway.

Phasma's shiny chrome armor doesn't really seem to pop in the over-colored artwork, either. Again, it looks to be consistent with the bulk of Marvel's Star Wars comics, but the result of all the different lights reflecting off of Phasma is that she sometimes just look transparent, or else just badly colored white, rather than shiny and polished, which loses her most striking visual identifier. I can't help but wonder how much better this comic might have looked--although perhaps I'm just speaking from my own personal aesthetic preferences here--were it drawn by Elsa Charretier, who was drawing Marvel's Unstoppable Wasp, and has been doing some truly superlative work on IDW's Star Wars comics. In general, I think Phasma's look would be better served by something that looks more drawn than photographic.

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