Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: Ant-Man

One of the admirable aspects of the comic book-inspired shared-universe model of Marvel Studios' so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe" is that as often as they pump out superhero movies, they do seem to make attempts to hybridize many of those superhero movies with other genres (Captain America: The First Avenger as superhero/war movie/period piece, Captain America: The Winter Soldier as superhero/conspiracy thriller, Guardians of The Galaxy as superhero/Star-Wars-style space fantasy, and so on). And, to a lesser extent, they also seem to attempt to regulate the tones of those movies; while comedy is always an element, some seem much more self-serious than others, and others much more comedic in mode.

With Ant-Man, they went for a superhero/heist movie, and the tone fell on the Guardians end of the comedic spectrum rather than the Captain America or Thor end.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the cross-pollination necessary in keeping these movies connected to the shared-universe often gets in the way of making good films, however. While Ant-Man has some cute, jokey allusions, like the title character suggesting that they call in The Avengers to save the day, or the aging scientist and inventor of the Ant-Man super-suit boasting of how its better than the Iron Man suit, some of the shared-universe stuff isn't terribly important (If this is your first Marvel movie, SHIELD performs its function as "symbol for military-industrial complex that Pym doesn't want to exploit his invention to fight wars with," and Hydra performs its function as "bad guys who want to use the technology for evil." The specifics don't matter in the least.)

Other aspects are maybe more damaging to the film as a standalone work, including an extended cameo during a scene not really worth discussing, one that is fairly dependent on one knowing at least a little bit about the Avengers, even  if one didn't watch Age of Ultron all the way to the end (Of course, given how many people see all of these movies, that may not be a concern at all; I really enjoyed the cameo, and it was a nice use of the standard fight-and-team-up formula...even if the team-up part will come in...another movie. Captain America: Civil War, I'd guess.)

Marvel Studios has done a pretty great job of finding leading men who are either charming or handsome (and, in a few cases, both) to play their superheroes, and with Paul Rudd they may have their most charming leading man so far. It probably helps that the eminently likeable actor gets to play a rather likable character, who also happens to talk a lot like a Paull Rudd-character might (Rudd shares a writing credit on the film).

He plays Scott Lang, an ex-con with a heart of gold who was sent to jail for an act of high-tech burglary, but it was rather noble burglary (the victim was a jerk, and using tehnology to exploit others). Trying to find a way to make the money he needs to pay child support in order to see his darling daughter Cassie (played by Abby Ryder Forster, who apparently lost some baby teeth while shooting, and thus way too young to play Stature for a decade or so yet), he gets coaxed into one more job by a small gang of ethnic stereotypes he shares an apartment with.

That job? Steal whatever it is in old man Hank Pym's series of basement safes, which turns out to be a super-suit. Lang properly vetted, Pym (Michael Douglas) and his distant daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) recruit and train Lang to help them pull off the ultimate sci-fi heist: Infiltrate Pym's old company and then steal the size-changing technology based on his work, before it can be sold to the highest, no-good bidder by Corey Stoll's Darren Cross,who seems uncomfortably like Jeff Bridges' villain from Iron Man (right down to the shaved head).

The special effects are all pretty fantastic, in large part because shrinking isn't something we've seen in film in a good long time, and certainly not since digital effects made it to their most recent plateau. As much fun as the shrinking is, it's the ants that are more fantastic still, as the Pyms have recruited legions of them of various species and specialities (almost as if they all had their own super-powers). When these work best, however, is when the ants, the size-changing and the action all coalesce into bizarre set-pieces, like a shrunken Ant-Man fighting a shrunken Yellowjacket inside a brief case, or atop the toy train set of a little kids' bedroom.

As Age of Ultron proved, the Marvel movies keep getting bigger and bigger, as they search for their limit, the point at which they snap backwards or collapse upon themselves (Some viewers probably think Age of Ultron was it; if not, Captain America: Civil War looks like an even better candidate, with many more heroes than either of the Avengers films involved in its plot).

Ant-Man, obviously, goes in the opposite direction. Size is, after all, relative, and getting small–in terms of plot, focus or literal smallness–is the same as getting big. It's just different kind of extreme and, here, a very refreshing one.


Okay, Marvel stuff? I was pretty shocked to see 1989 Peggy Carter, played by again by Hayley Atwell, wearing old lady make-up, but not as much of it as she wore in Winter Soldier. I'm beginning to wish she got frozen in ice or a dose of Infinity Formula at some point, if they're going to keep using her (I'm also hopeful that there will be a film or Agent Carter series set in the 1960s or so in which we see her founding fact, this film introduces two superheroes to work with her during the earlier days of SHIELD). It's a small role, but it was one of those fun, exciting cameos that can still surprise in Marvel movies.

The fate of the Hope's mother Janet, AKA The Wasp, was pretty thoroughly telegraphed (I was almost wondering if Scott would bring her back from the trippy Microvers with him at the climax), but it was nice to see Janet Van Dyne in action as The Wasp (albeit briefly) and see Hope awarded her own Wasp costume (albeit at the end of the film).

I'm hopeful of a second Ant-Man film, maybe even one entitled Ant-Man and The Wasp (either way, I expect to see both of them  in any future Ant-Man movies...and any future Avengers movies).

The idea of the original Ant-Man and Wasp as "secret" Avengers fighting evil during the Cold War was pretty cool, honestly, and it's interesting that it introduces an aspect of generational heroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (rather than just having a huge gap between Captain America during World War II and Iron Man and his generation in the beginning of the 21st century).

More interesting still, at least from a compare and contrast perspective, is how different the MCU Hank Pym is from the comics version. He's only been Ant-Man, and thus lacks all that code-name baggage. And he didn't create Ultron, Tony Stark did. And he never smacked his wife. MCU Pym is pretty much devoid of the things that make comic book Pym a somewhat unsavory, or at least problematic, character.

Oh, and I guess that they can now introduce Bill Foster at some point, and just give him the name Giant-Man. Or Goliath. Or maybe Michael Douglas can dress up in red spandex an call himself Giant-Man? I mean, Michael Douglas has aged out of the superhero demographic, but maybe a it doesn't matter at giant size. Like, when you're a literal giant, does it matter how physically fit you are? Do you need killer abs and cut arms to beat up people when you're 100-feet tall? Surely a gigantic Michael Douglas can take down a half-dozen Jeremy Renners and Chris Pratts, right?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Comic Shop Comics: July 29

Batgirl #42 (DC Comics) The credits of Batgirl continue to evolve. In this issue, which is apparently the second half of the title character's team-up with the new Batman, co-writer Cameron Stewart does not get credited with breakdowns (last issue was the first he wasn't), but a Jake Wyatt and Michel Lacombe get breakdown credits instead. Babs Tarr's excellent art, colored by Serge Laponte, doesn't seem affected one way or another. In the previous issue, which she apparently drew without anyone else handling breakdowns, the artwork showed slightly more expressiveness in the characters, but that was the only real noticeable change. The same goes here. Aside from some of the faces looking a lot more like Babs Tarr faces, there's nothing going on behind the scenes that is affecting the artwork drastically, or diminishing its many charms in any way.

And as with the rest of the Brenden Fletcher, Stewart and Tarr team's run on the book, this issue is a pretty excellent one; extremely full, with panel-packed pages that belie its actual, relatively short 20-page page count.

Batgirl and Batman both pursue Livewire, their pursuit temporarily complicated by the fact that the new Batman is supposed to apprehend any and all vigilantes (like Batgirl), even if Gordon himself doesn't really want to. There are some really fun, funny moments between the two here, and it was nice to get this little reminder that Batgirl does take place in Gotham City still, as different as the book may be from the rest of the Bat-books.

Stewart and Fletcher offer some business with a handful of the supporting characters, including a very big moment for one of them on the last page, and Tarr continues to make every single character look hot, cool and sexy at the same time. A friend pointed out an issue of the old, pre-New 52 Batgirl series where that Batgirl (Stephanie Brown) also fought Livewire, and I was struck by the fact that aside from the many similarities, Tarr's Livewire looks so different. And so much better. I mean, check out her heels:
I can't wait for next month, so I can get another issue of Batgirl...

Batgirl Annual #3 (DC) Oh hey, I don't have too! There's a $5, 36-page annual out this week too! (Wait, maybe DC should have scheduled that better, so Batgirl readers would have to make more than one trip to the comic shop this month...?)

So the cover blurb promises "A Deadly Rendezvous with Grayson...And Much More!" and they were not kidding about the "Much More!" Based on the cover and what I had read of the book, I was expecting a kinda sorta almost reunion with Grayson (who, for reasons that don't really make any sense if you think about them long, Batgirl and everyone other than Bruce Wayne believes to be dead). And that is what we get for the first 18 pages. Artist Bengal, who drew the silent Batgirl: Endgame one-shot, draws that portion of regular writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher's story.

What I didn't expect is the three team-ups that followed, all of which are fairly surprising, even if they do involve crime-fighting ladies in Gotham City. And I will proceed to spoil them, so if you'd like to be delightfully surprised about what the "And Much More!" refers to, maybe don't read this post any further...?

Batgirl first meets and teams up with Spyral's Helena Bertinelli in a scene that makes both the masked vigilante and the super-spy seem rather unconvincingly naive and trusting:
They are attempting to clear a building that's been taken over by a generic terrorist organization (the kind with uniforms) and capture its leader. Complicating matters is that Bertinelli's actually there with Grayson, who is a few steps ahead of them, and is adamant that Batgirl not lay eyes on him, as even with a high-tech disguise, she'll likely be able to recognize him from the way he moves or acts.

After pages of intense fighting and near-misses, they eventually do come face-to-face, and Grayson's forced to put on a false face...
...but there's one thing he can't disguise:
From there, they go their separate ways, as Batgirl continues to investigate the terrorist organization in Gotham. She next teams up with Spoiler in a five-page sequence drawn by David LaFuente (my choice for the artist of a Gotham teen title starring Spoiler, Harper, Tim Drake and the soon-to-be-introduced Cassandra Cain), Batwoman in a six-page sequence by Ming Doyle (Doyle's a great fit for Batwoman, and while her Batgirl looks good too, Doyle's style is probably the furthest removed from anyone who's drawn the new-look Batgirl in a Batgirl book since the new look was introduced) and, finally, Olive and Maps from Gotham Academy in a seven-page sequence by Mingjue Helen Chen (who works in a style suggestive of storybooks that doesn't quite look like that of the Gotham Academy ongoing, but is in the same ballpark, to the extent that the sequence looks like a Gotham Academy sequence more than the other sequences).

A few questionable moments aside–like, for example, why the villain was trying to kill a victim via a Wicker Man, aside from the fact that Wicker Mans are cool, or how the Bat-ladies essentially just let a villain go at one point, or how Batgirl and Helena team-up ASAP–this issue was a ton of fun, and did exactly what an annual should do: Give you an extra, extra-big helping of what you like about the regular monthly.

I just wish it were a bigger helping for $5...

Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe #8 (IDW Publishing) I got the "subscription cover" by Andy Suriano, showing Shipwreck and Seaspray on it. Neither of them appear inside the book (and surely Cutter, who piloted the Killer W.H.A.L.E. hovercraft, would be a better Joe bro for hovercraft Seaspray than Shipwreck, really), but that's fine: I like Suriano's art, and Shipwreck is the very best G.I. Joe. The best, I say! (The other two covers don't have anything to do with the interiors either).

This issue is...weird. So there are a lot of splash pages in it. There are six single-page splashes, and two two-page splashes, but artist Tom Scioli's art is so detailed, so full and so peculiar that a single image of his can "read" as long as a few pages worth of panels from other writers and artists. The first splash page, for example, is a single image with two characters speaking about a half-dozen lines between them, but it features a Lovecraftian space horror god holding Billy aloft in its snake tail tentacles, several of which are wrapped around pillars in an elaborate cathedral full of cobra men (or statues of cobra men?), while a Snake Eyes covered in blood spray sits on a platter at what looks like a recreation of The Last Supper with Cobra Commander and his agents–including redesigned members of Cobra-La–while Benjamin Franklin's famous "Join or Die" snake political cartoon is in a frame behind him.

A later splash includes a frame of tiny panels arranged like a film strips bordering the large image, so it could be read as a single-panel splash, but, if you look closely, it has 32 tiny, silent panels embedded within the image.

This book never ceases to amaze with its creative presentation and its ever-deepening mythology intertwining elements of the two title franchises with whatever seems to strike the fancy of Scioli and co-writer John Barber.

The big moments are probably Snake Eyes' escape from the Cobra temple just as Cybertron finally connects to Earth, a battle to the death between Optimus Prime and Megatron and a fight between Omega Supreme and Astrotrain that doubles as a symbolic conflict between the U.S. highway system and rail in the wild, warped vision of Scioli and Barber.

Omega Supreme, like Astrotrain, gets a pretty radical re-design, with Scioli focusing on the weirdest aspect of the original toy/cartoon character (the stretches of road that formed his wings in robot mode–he was a giant robot that's alternate form was an Autobot base, you may recall), and accentuating that over everything else.

There are lots of small moments, too, though, that are often as much fun as the big ones...or at least the more rewarding for the sort of fan whose heart skips a beat when he hears the name "Scoop" spoken aloud: New characters Army, Limbot and Viper (I think), The Pretenders and the introductions of three of the lame characters from Transformers: The Movie*, one of them who Scioli draws like the motorcycle equivalent of a centaur in one panel, and another of which I kind of hope got killed off-panel, as seeing him here reminded me of my loathing for him.

On a strictly formal level, this is probably the best serial comic being published at the moment. On a fan-level, this is definitely the best serial comic book being published at the moment.

*Although to be fair, with the exception of Unicron, all of the characters introduced in Transformers: The Movie were lame.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

No one says "SKRAWWK!" quite like James Spader.
What I found to be one the most remarkable aspects of this summer’s big Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was just how responsive to criticism of, commentary on and reaction to its previous installment, 2012's The Avengers.

The characters with little or nothing to do in the first film, particularly when compared to the Iron Man, Captain America and Thor characters (i.e. the ones with their own movie franchises), all got significantly more to do in this outing, up to and including more action scenes and more dramatic “acting” scenes (Often, I should add, to the detriment of this film).

There are more Avengers in general—five new ones, total—and, almost as if in direct response to commentary regarding how white and male The Avengers are, these new heroes and the supporting cast has a great deal more people of color and people without penises among them.

And it seems like some pains were taken to make sure everyone’s favorite characters from throughout the Marvel Studios super-franchise make at least cameos, so many, in fact, that it’s surprising, even somewhat disappointing, that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts don’t get cameos.

That pair of characters are mentioned, however, in what is probably the film’s very best scene, a climax to the film that comes way, way too early: Within the first half-hour or so, I’d imagine.

That scene is a sort of after-party for The Avengers’ last mission against Hydra to recover Loki’s spear, a powerful Asgardian artifact (with an Infinity Gem/Stone lodged in it, naturally). It follows the opening scene, in which the Avengers who assembled by the end of their previous film take on the forces of Hydra and invade their castle, the six superheroes functioning together like a well-oiled machine, even successfully surviving an attack by Hydra’s secret weapons, twin super-humans Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (both raised with a healthy hatred of Tony Stark, whose weapons killed their family and pretty much made lives miserable for their country at large).

With that mission completed, our heroes put on plain clothes and basically just hang out in Stark Tower, drinking and chatting. It’s a bit like the shawarma scene, but longer, funnier, better-dressed and more satisfying. Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson/The Falcon and Don CHeadle's James Rhodey/War Machine from the Captain America and Iron Man sequels are there, Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill is there, and so is a Claudia Kim, paying Dr. Helen Cho, an Asian doctor with a small but noteworthy role (her presence also allows for the ticking off of two diversity boxes and, hey, opening up the possibility of Amadeus Cho in a furture Hulk movie, if they ever make another Hulk movie. I imagine they will someday, before they get to making a Man-Wolf or Speedball movie, anyway*).

It feels like a wrap party for “phase one” or “phase two” (or whatever cycle of Marvel Studios’ long, long-term planning they’re on), although in-film it’s essentially a wrap part for the Avengers’ mission, which has been on-going since the events of their last film (and without the benefit of SHIELD since the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I guess).

There the characters all take turns trying to life Thor’s magic hammer, with various levels of un-success—there’s a fine moment where Captain America budges it, and Thor looks worried—and then the plot of this film actually begins, when an Ultron-possessed piece of Iron Man armor stumbles into the room and attacks them (an action scene in which I really rather missed the costumes quite suddenly, as I couldn’t tell Captain America from Hawkeye during it; in fact, it was dark enough that everyone sort of blended together. Black Widow was the one in the dress; I know that).

It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that it's all downhill from there, as there were some fun surprises to follow, and it's at least interesting to see the ways in which the new characters–Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, The Vision, Ultron–get translated to the big screen (Perhaps especially so in the case of Quicksilver, as we've already seen how another actor played him, and how another film studio designed him, and how another director used him).

Stark has been working on an elaborate retirement plan for himself and his fellow Avengers (no mention is made of how exactly he went from giving up being Iron Man at the end of Iron Man 3 to being back in business here), in the form of a project he calls "Ultron," some sort of massive artificial intelligence that can work all his suits for him and protect the world in his stead. It doesn't work out, of course, as Ultron and the Jarvis AI get in a fight, and Ultron seemingly eats him and gains sentience and...Okay, it all get really complicated for a "Robot wants to kill all the humans" plot, really.

Ultron wants to hurt the Avengers' positive PR before actually destroying them (and all human life), and he also wants a new and better, human-ish body, so he plans on having Dr. Cho build him The Vision to inhabit or...whatever. Meanwhile, he recruits Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to help him fight the Avengers. Big action set-pieces follow: The Avengers vs. Ultron and the Maximoffs (Days of Future Past did much better by super-speed, although there's at least a funny bit wherein Quicksilver tries to snatch Thor's hammer out of mid-air at super-speed), Iron Man in his "Hulkbuster" armor vs. The Hulk, Everyone Vs. Ultron at the climax.

It's a lot, even without considering the additional world-building ("Wakanda" is mentioned repeatedly, Andy Serkis shows up as Klaw, Thor has some dumb sub-plot that involves continuing the years-long set up for Infinity War) and the introduction of The Vision (played by Paul Bettany and looking fairly terrible, but probably less terrible than I would have imagined...I don't think the character design is any damn good at all, so other than the all-white Vision, I'm not sure how he could look good in live-action).

But then the film has to respond to discussion of the first film, so Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye gets a random, dumb backstory (similar to that of Ultimate Hawkeye, as opposed to Regular Hawkeye), the only positives of which are that it leads to another coupla plain clothes hang-out scenes, and we get to add Linda Cardellini into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Widow is randomly in love with Bruce Banner all of a sudden (apparently they fell in love between movies?), but he doesn't want to be with her because, as he explains in the most excruttiating part of the film, he can't have kids...? (Certainly the thing about being a big, giant super-monster when he gets mad rates above his fertility, doesn't it?).

The film feels less like a comedy than its predecessor, which is too bad, but luckily James Spader's Ultron is a sarcastic robot, and he and the relatively quick-witted Vision provide most of the laughs, probably even more than Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark, who spends far too much time in his armor and being serious. As good as Spader is at voicing the title robot, I didn't much care for the design. He has eyeball and lips, and thus looks something like a smaller-scale Decepticon from the live-action Transformers films, rather than the jack o' lantern faced metal man of the comics (his first appearance does resemble that of the comics, as do drones he uses later; it's a nice demonstration of how effective the comics design is, versus the more realistic, emotive design of Ultron Prime, I guess you could call him).

As for Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, when she first uses her powers against The Avengers, she appears as some kind of ill-defined horror movie villain, creepily moving around them and giving them weird nightmares that allow for presentations of their origin stories (in the case of Black Widow) or cameos of actors playing characters from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in the case of Cap and Thor). Later, she just uses hex-bolts, which appears to be nothing but Olsen doing tai chi in front of a green screen, with special effects artists adding red energy bolts in later. She has a bizarre accent that reminded me of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, but my friend likened it more to that of The Count on Sesame Street (why she has to have an accent at all, given that it's just a made-up country she and her brother hail from, is beyond me; why they didn't cast someone with an accent is also beyond me; I think I'd prefer Asia Argento to Olsen, but hey, it's probably too late to tinker with the casting of a movie that oughta be out on DVD in time for Christmas, huh?).

The climactic battle, in a crumbling city being lifted high above the Earth in order to become a projectile capable of an extinction-level impact, is kind of all over the place, paying a little too much attention to Renner's Hawkeye and his relationship with the Maximoffs and re-casting Iron Man in the exact same role he had at the end of the first film, but there is a fantastic few seconds in which The Avengers assemble around Ultron Prime and all attack him at once; I've heard these moments described as a comic book splash page come to life, and that's a pretty good description. It's one of two moments–the other is the group shot in the trailer–that feels particularly comic book-y, as opposed to comic book movie-esque.

The long-ish denouement, which involves Stark seemingly going into retirement (again), Thor flying off to keep doing infinity shit (again), Hulk running away sadly and Black Widow also having a sad because her forced, random relationship with him didn't work out, does lead-up to a pretty swell conclusion, which I am now going to spoil (It's been months; I assume if you wanted to see the film you already have).

The week before I went to see it, I remember watching the latest trailer online and thinking how weird it was that they were adding three new Avengers–Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and The Vision–and that they were simply adding two more white people (and a red-faced android with the voice of a British guy), while War Machine and Falcon are right there.

Well, the film ends with an all-new Avengers line-up. Captain America and Black Widow are leading the new team of The Scarlet Witch, The Vision, The Falcon and War Machine. Sure, they don't actually assemble until the end, but the new Avengers line-up is one white dude, two white ladies, two black dudes and the British-voiced robot man. That's a pretty damn diverse line-up, compared to the one we started with, right?

I'm not sure how much we'll see of all these guys–I'm assuming this will be the line-up in Captain America: Civil War and any time Avengers guest-stars are needed in other Marvel movies between now and Infinity War**–but I was pretty excited by the idea of Cap and Widow's kooky quartet.

And in that regard, Age of Ultron was like your average Marvel Studios movie. There's a lot to like, there's a lot to dislike, there's a lot that's just interesting to consider from the perspective of a comics fan (what creative choices they make in terms of characters, costumes, powers and so on), but the endings never feel like endings, just suggestions of other, later, hopefully better movies to follow.

In that regard, the Marvel Studios films have been able to mimic the experience of reading comics. Not only have they created an elaborate shared setting, but they also reflect the serial nature of comics: The end of one is just a segue to the beginning of the next.

*I fully expect a third Hulk movie, a Man-Wolf movie–"Like John Carter, but with a werewolf!"–and a Speedball movie before they get around to making a Wonder Woman or Carol Danvers movie.

**Actually, we've already seen one of them show up in Ant-Man.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: SHIELD Vol. 1: Perfect Bullets

If you don’t watch the television series Agents of SHIELD, then you probably have no idea who Leo Fitz, Jemma Simmons or Melinda May are, but they are some of the characters on that show, the titular agents that work under actor Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson. You're more likely to know him, as he played roles of varying degrees of smallness in various “Phase One” Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and was later introduced into Marvel comics.

Well, SHIELD is the Marvel comic based on the TV show that is itself based on Marvel comics; why it’s not called Agents of SHIELD, I couldn’t guess. In general, it seems a lot like what I imagine the producers of the TV show wish they could do with the show, had they unlimited resources, carte blanche to fully integrate the Marvel comics universe while ignoring the Marvel cinematic one, and to use any and all Marvel characters they pleased, regardless of which film studios own the rights to which characters at the moment.

So each episode—er, issue of SHIELD features at least one major guest-star, and, like a TV show, each individual unit is structured as its own discrete story, albeit one that continues a single narrative thread forward.

The creative component more-or-less mirrors the basic structure.

As for that structure, there is a single, steady lead character in Coulson, and a consistent supporting cast (Fitz, Simmons, May and Maria Hill) and a storyline about an invading magical force with designs on conquering Earth, but there are different missions and conflicts within each issue, along with different superhero guest-stars (issues #1 and #6 are both particularly full of them).

Likewise, the series has a single writer in Mark Waid, but each individual issue has a different guest-artist, and these tend to be some rather high-quality, “name” artists: Carlos Pacheco, Humberto Ramos, Alan Davis (inked by Mark Farmer, of course), Chris Sprouse, Mike Choi and Paul Renaud.

Waid is, of course, a perfect writer for Coulson, given what relatively little we know about him from the films: That he’s a die-hard superhero fan. In a nice, sharp, three-page intro, Waid introduces us to life-long superhero fan Coulson, who studied super-people since childhood for fun, and eventually got himself a job where a deep well of such trivia is indispensable. He is now SHIELD Special Ops Supreme Commander.

“It’s fun when your hobby becomes your work,” Coulson remarks dryly in the first issue. I imagine Waid would agree.

In that same issue, Coulson describes that job as a matter of “choosing the perfect bullets,” which is half of the reason this collection is titled thusly, and is a premise that allows him (and thus Waid) to mix and match characters on an issue by issue basis. The result is maybe the perfect gateway comic to the Marvel comics universe…at least in theory.

Say you watch a Marvel movie and then start watching Agents of SHIELD. You look for a comic like that, and find this. It’s got many of the same characters, even if they now wear black and white spandex SHIELD uniforms, and then you see Blue Marvel, Valkyrie, Black Knight, The Vision, Hyperion and The Hulk all fighting the same threat in an issue…and Luke Cage, Captain Marvel and Beast at The Thing’s poker game…and so on.

As for the other half of the reason it’s called “perfect bullets,” it ties to the conflict running through the six issues.

The first and sixth chapters introduce Coulson and the series premise, as well as the threat and the way in which the threat is ultimately dealt with (although not every question about it is resolved, so perhaps it will continue to be explored in the future). These are also the ones most full of guest-stars. In the case of the first issue, they are mostly just various superheroes called in to hold the line, and a pair of specialists. In the case of the sixth, these include cameos by heroes all over the world, a new version of the monstrous “Howling Commandos” chosen for their barely functioning brains (Hi Man-Thing!) and an out-of-left-field supervillain whose pants I would like to discuss further at a later date.

Those in between are more character specific, and actually act as something of a character study of those specific characters, using their interactions with various members of the recurring cast to define them.

As mentioned in my review of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3, which collected SHIELD #2, that issue has Coulson and Simmons teaming up with Kamala Khan. It’s followed by one in which Coulson, super-obscure villain Pavel Rasputin (formerly Pavel Plotnick) and Spider-Man try to navigate Doctor Strange’s home when Strange is off-plane (By the way: Alan Davis Spider-Man!); one in which The Invisible Woman gets called in for a mission only she can accomplish; and one in which Scarlet Witch joins Fitz and May as they investigate mysterious attacks on all of the world’s mystics (allowing for more cameos, like Satanna, Son of Satan, Wiccan and so on). I like Scarlet Witch's pink winter coat she wears when they journey to the Antarctic in this issue.
The art-work is uneven by design, of course, and because that un-evenness is built into the book–it is as much a showcase for the guest-artists as it is for the guest-stars, as I mentioned–it’s not so bad. Sure, the artists aren’t particularly chosen for their stylistic compatability with one another (no one’s going to mix up Humberto Ramos and Alan Davis, for example), but the only place this is really noticeable is in the recurring characters.

Likenesses are always a tricky proposition in comics, and how closely the characters resemble the actors who play them on TV tends to vary widely from artist to artist, although most of them seem to have Clark Gregg’s face down pretty well. (I kind of hated Choi’s depiction of the dread Big Bad when he revealed him on a last-page splash in #5, but Renaud’s depiction of said evildoer looks much better in #6; certain characters just don’t work when an artist uses digital effects to create them rather than plain old pencil and ink…or their digital equivalent, I guess. That guy is probably going to be one of the top three most difficult Marvel characters to translate to film).

I’ve never watched an entire episode of the show (just bits and pieces over the shoulder of a friend who watches it) nor had any real interest in doing so (although I got pretty excited when I heard Cobie Smulders say the name “Man-Thing” in one of those bits), so I guess I can’t say with any certainty if this is a good comic for people who like that show.

But all on its own? Yeah, it’s a pretty good comic. And, as I said, theoretically at least, it is an excellent gateway into the wild, weird world of the Marvel (comics) Universe, complete with all it’s most recent changes (Thor being a lady, The Falcon being Captain America, etc).

Actually, I may start watching the show if they introduce Agent Jeremiah Warrick to it. He certainly has a compelling look to him…
...I'd post a panel of him here, but it would genuinely spoil a fun surprise, and I wouldn't want to do that.


By the way, the very first panel of the collection reveals the fact that Coulson is from Ohio. Now, where in Ohio, exactly? This will bug me until I find out:
My favorite part of that image, however, is that Coulson apparently has a signed poster of the Golden Age Namor, The Sub-Mariner, reading "Sincerely, Prince Namor The Sub-Mariner." It's hard to imagine this guy signing posters for fans, you know?

On the other hand, his hand-writing looks exactly like the writing on the Captain America and Bucky poster, so maybe The Invaders just had a press agent sign all of their posters for them...

Finally, I just thought this was kind of neat:
With all of the world's sorcerers taken out of commission, Coulson needs to find a way to enter a magical dimension using technology, and this is what SHIELD comes up with. I don't know if I've seen this before–it seems obvious enough a visual that I feel like surely someone must have thought of it by now–but it struck me as pretty clever.

Friday, July 24, 2015


I reviewed the first collection of Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosana's Ant-Man Vol. 1: Second-Chance Man at Robot 6 yesterday, looking specifically at the way that Marvel and their creators chose to navigate between the two most recent takes of the character (In Matt Fraction, Mike Allred, Lee Allred and company's FF and the recent movie), and man, did they lean hard towards the movie version.

After spending an additional 24 hours thinking about it, as much as I love that Allred Ant-Man costume design above (swap out the blue for red and the red for black and it becomes a perfect "solo" Ant-Man costume), particularly how smooth and stripped-down it is, while still looking both ant-like and man-like, I've come to the conclusion that  the clunkier, more "realistic" costume he wore in Ant-Man Vol. 1 probably suits the story and Rosana's style better.

I was a little surprised to see that Marvel bothered to put a "1" on the spine of Ant-Man Vol. 1, however, as it is the entirety of this Ant-Man ongoing, as the book gets re-titled and re-numbered this fall as Astonishing Ant-Man (while retaining the same creative team). I would hope they will just label the collection of that series as Ant-Man Vol. 2, instead of Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1, because, goddammit, how confusing is that going to be, if you want to start reading the Nick Spencer/Ramon Rosana's series, and it starts with a Vol. 1, and then continues into a second Vol. 1.

Also at Robot 6, I wrote about Godzilla In Hell #1 at much greater length than I did last week here on EDILW.

And I've had a pair of recent-ish reviews at Good Comics For Kids, neither of which I think I've linked to here yet: Bandette Vol. 2: Stealers, Keepers! and Steve Jobs: Insanely Great. Those are both very solid comics, but the latter was surprisingly good, so maybe worth bringing special attention to, as I guess I knew extremely little about Jobs and just how crazy important and influential he was in crafting the world as we know it today (I had no idea he had anything to do with Pixar, for example). The style of the book is great too, particularly for the subject matter, which, as I said, isn't anything I knew a great deal about or, if I'm being honest, cared all that much about.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Comic Shop Comics: July 22

Archie Vs. Predator #4 (Archie Comics) It's the exciting conclusion of the least-expected crossover of the year! (Well, except for Archie Vs. Sharknado, maybe.) I can honestly say that I did not see anything in this issue coming, after about page 4, so props to write Alex de Campi for that.

The book opens with just Betty, Veronica and a wounded Archie left to face the Predator, and I would not have expected which of the three would be the first to die, or the girls to have their clothing shredded so thoroughly (Andrew Pepoy's generally sexier-than-the-interiors cover aside), or for that particular maiming, or for that particular rally or for that bizarre ending.

Probably the best part, though, was the Predator discovering scrunchies:

This is the fourth and final issue, and I still being surprised by de Campi and pencil artist Fernando Ruiz's unexpected call-backs to the first and best Predator film, in the dialogue ("You are one ugly melon farmer!"), the narration ("Veronica Lodge: Ain't got time... read.") and even the visuals (I'd show you, but it would be a spoiler; bottom panel of page 14, though).

This was an enormously entertaining comic, start to finish–and the finish here is a two-page Josie and The Pussycats/Finder crossover by de Campi and Calra Speed McNeil–and maybe the most fun I've had reading a comic that wasn't Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe this year.

I do hope they do a sequel, but not picking up where it left off; I want a read a story like the one suggested by some of the variants, like Faith Erin Hicks' for this issue. You know, where Predator moves to Riverdale and starts going to school there, and becomes Archie's archrival, and no one seems to notice that he's an alien monster other than Archie, and whenever he tries to point it out to someone, they accuse him of being jealous. Yes, that's the Archie Vs. Predator comic I want to read. This one was great too, though.

Batman '66 (DC Comics) Jeff Parker does have the advantage of improving an already extant character, I know, but it's still worth noting that "Holly Quinn" is a much better and more realistic name than "Harleen Quinzel," just as "Harlequin" is a better villain identity than "Harley Quinn" (which is, of course, why Robert Kanigher and Irwin Hasen used that particular identity for the Golden Age Green Lantern villain, DC's first Harlequin). In the lead story of this issue, Parker and artist Lukas Ketner introduces the '66 version of Harley, or, rather, finish introducing her, as she appeared as an Arkham Institute doctor in Batman '66 #11, who sacrificed her own sanity to save Gotham from "The Joker Wave" that the Clown Prince of Crime was using to drive the city as mad as he was.

As noted, this Harley goes by a slightly different moniker, but is otherwise pretty recognizable, right down to her color scheme. If she had appeared on the 1966 live-action TV show, this is more than likely how she would have looked and acted, and yet Parker still manages to write her as recognizably herself from the cartoon and comics, which is surely a more difficult feat than it may seem.

Ketner's art on this 10-pager is fine, his realistic take accentuating the absurdity in the saw that the live-action TV show managed by simply putting real people in those costumes (Still, I can't help but wish cover artist Mike Allred drew the interiors, the one problem with having him do covers; every single month I see Allred's version of the characters before opening up the book to find some other artist's work, which I must then compare to Allred's and generally find wanting, if only because Allred is one of my favorite artists). Ketner does a particularly fine job during a montage of Harley's crime spree and in costuming the would-be goons and thugs that show up for her gang try-outs, all of them wearing a mish-mash of the sorts of uniforms the various henchmen of the show would wear. (Nice touch with the match in Batman's disguise too; I guess this issue also features the debut of Matches Malone '66 then...?).

The back half of the book is devoted to a story written by Gabe Soria and drawn by Ty Templeton; entitled "Bad Men," it is a kinda sorta riff on TV's Mad Men, in which The Joker, The Penguin, the Gorshin Riddler and the Eartha Kitt Catwoman take an ad agency hostage in an attempt to force them to re-brand them. Luckily, Barbara Gordon is at the agency, working a temp job. Why isn't she at the library? So that they could do a Mad Men riff, obviously. I never saw the show, so I don't know how accurate this is, or if I missed a lot of gags and allusions, but it works A-OK as is.

Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #12 (DC) There are two stories in this month's print issue, a 20-page lead issue and a 10-page back-up. Of the two, the lead is probably the stronger, but then, it does have more room to breathe. On pre-Flashpoint Themyscira, Wonder Woman and Hippolyta find an unexpected guest in the form of Poison Ivy. The two super-people decide to team-up to take on a threat to both the island and the world, the monster Typhon. You won't be at all surprised to learn that they do so.

It's an extremely straightforward story by writer Derek Fridolfs, featuring pretty great art by Tom Fowler. I thought Poison Ivy's Swamp Thing-inspired tree bark armor (complete with vegetation "wings" like Swampy sported during Scott Snyder's run on the title) was a little much, as was the intimation that Wonder Woman and Poison Ivy flew straight down for four days to get to Tartarus (without food, water or having to go to the bathroom? Is Ivy so plant-like and Wondy so magic they don't need any of that stuff, or what?).

That's followed by a piece written by Matthew K. Manning and drawn by Georges Jeanty (with Karl Story and Dexter vines inking). Set during the Watchtower-on-the-moon Era, it finds Batman calling Wonder Woman to help take down Doctor Destiny. She's upset by the crime scene, and Batman knows exactly what she needs to relax: To punch someone in the face.

It's a rather weird story, really, but the art is nice, and I suppose it's short enough that by the time one might start questioning aspects of it, it's already over.

A pretty mediocre issue all together then; nothing sensational, but, on the other hand, nothing that bad either.

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #721 (IDW Publishing) Okay, yes, I probably should have just trade-waited this (the first collection is already on the schedule), but I bought and read the first issue of all the other IDW/Disney comics, so I figured I'd at least try this one out too. I'm not a particular fan of Mickey and Goofy, except for how they may relate to Donald Duck, but this issue is devoted to the opening of a 12-part epic art from 1990, one that will involve Mickey, Goofy, Donald, Uncle Scrooge and, based on the cover, Minnie, Pluto, Gladstone, Grandma Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie, Magica de Spell, Pete and some other characters I don't know. And the Phantom Blot?

So yeah, that looks big and exciting. In this installment, there aren't any ducks, though.

That excellent cover is by...Jonathan H. Gray? But he's the translator! I didn't know he was also an amazing artist! But I really like this cover quite a bit, from the little hairs on Goofy's ears, to Donald's action pose, to, most especially, the look on Uncle Scrooge's face.
Damn, that is an awesome Scrooge. Why isn't that on our twenty dollar bill?

This issue also does a better job than the previous IDW/Disney books of contextualizing the stories, with the credits for each of the four including where they originally appeared (two from European comics, one from a U.S. Sunday newspaper strip and the fourth from a Golden Age issue of this very title) and when (1990, 1982, 1933 and 1943). The first issues of Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse did not this, and I think this is a great improvement, as that's something I'm always curious about when reading Disney comics. (Part of that likely comes from being trained to expect some degree of context by all of those excellent Fantagraphics' collections, and part of it is just being interested in where comics come from.)

These shorter back-ups include reprints of a Silly Symphonies strip, a Donald and his nephews story and a short Gremlin two-pager by someone named...let's see... Walt Kelly. He seems like a pretty great cartoonist; I wonder whatever became of him after his 1943 short subject...?


Or wait, should I trade-wait this series? Walt Disney TPB Vol. 1 is scheduled for November, according to an ad in this book, but that will only be four or five issues into the run, so it will likely include all of these back-ups, rather than just "The Search for the Zodiac Stone." Hmmm...Well, I guess I've got another month to figure out if I want to read this monthly until that storyline is over, or wait for the trades.


Anyway, 42-pages of ad-free comics for $4 is a pretty decent value. And thanks for including the credits about the original sources of the stories in this issue, IDW.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DC's Power Couple vs. The Suicide Squad

Superman/Wonder Woman #18 marked the first issue of series in DC's post-Convergence universe, in which the pair of heroes each have drastically different new directions in their ongoing titles.

In the case of Superman, he was publicly outted as Clark Kent, he got a new haircut, he traded in his old costume for t-shirts so tight they might be body paint (if Paulo Sigueira's cover to the issue is anything to go by) and he was vastly (if ambiguously and mysteriously) depowered.

In the case of Wonder Woman, she got a new outfit.

This first story arc is called "Dark Truth," and it is written by Peter Tomasi and drawn by pencil artist Doug Mahnke and a bunch of inkers (four of 'em in issue #18, but just one in #19). In part one, we find Wonder Woman in Superman's bed, wearing his Superman t-shirt (which fits her like a dress), stroking her sleeping Man of Steel and reminiscing about their relationship thus far.

Awoken at 3 a.m. by a phone call from Lana Lang that gets cut off suddenly, the characters suit up and fly to Smallville to investigate.
The goings-on there are rather strange; not only is Lana Lang and New 52 Steel missing, but someone has somehow stolen The Kent Family home and barn, and seemingly emptied all of the graves in the graveyard.

A furious Superman calls out whoever is doing this, and a blast of machine gun fire heralds the appearance of The Suicide Squad, who Mahnke draws over a two-page splash, so I'll only show the right half.
This is the first time I've ever seen The New 52-icide Squad drawn well, before. Deadshot's costume still looks terrible, but it's the least terrible I've ever seen it look, and at least as Mahnke and whichever of the four inkers inked this page draw it,it's clear that it's made out of some sort of red metal.

Superman and Wonder Woman give them dirty looks on the last page–another splash!–and Superman uses the H-word.
The cover of the next issue, the one actually containing the fight, seems to indicate a victory for the Squad, or at least Harley Quinn. Could it really go down that way though? I mean, this particular Squad consists of Harley, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Black Manta and The (a?) Reverse Flash; a fully-powered Superman should be able to take them all out by clapping his hands or blowing at them. He's not fully-powered, of course, but he is hanging with Wonder Woman. She should be able to level them all in a panel, with only Reverse Flash maybe causing her some trouble.

The fight actually lasts 8-10 pages, although two of those pages are devoted to a two-page splash showing the two opposing sides rushing at one another.

I am immediately unimpressed with supposed master marksman Deadshot, who has three shots of his blocked by Wonder Woman's bracelet, and the ones she doesn't block just bounce harmlessly off of her new shoulder pad (I guess it's a good thing she just started wearing shoulder pads!).
Actually, I'm also unimpressed by Wonder Woman. She only blocked three out of five of the shots fired at her in that panel. That's just 60%. I thought she was supposed to be the best on Paradise Island when it came to bullets and bracelets!

Wonder Woman quickly redeems herself by breaking a tombstone over Deadshot's head (ow!), kicking Reverse Flash in the face (even if he didland a few punches before she did) and then clobbering Reverse Flash with Captain Boomerang, who she is swinging around by his stupid scarf (Who wears a knit cap, scarf and overcoat in Kansas in July, anyway?) and, finally, pulling Harley off of Superman and punching her silly.

While Black Manta and Superman have a test of strength that gets broken up by the former's eyebeams, Deadshot again proves to be bad at shooting targets, while Wonder Woman simultaneously proves to be bad at blocking bullets with her bracelets.
After the Justice League's power couple finishes beating up the Suicide Squad, they talk about getting some information from them. Naturally, Superman decides the best way to do this would be to threaten Black Manta:
Oh, if only they had some kind of, I don't know, magical device like, say, a rope, that they could use to compel someone to give them information that they want.


She still has her magic lasso of truth, but she uses it mostly for entangling and strangling people.

But before either of our heroes can remember that Wonder Woman carries a magical polygraph device with her at all times, Deadshot wakes up and starts shooting wildly at them.

He is so bad at shooting:

I mean, he hits Superman a lot, but not, like, in the eye or mouth or forehead, and not in the same place repeatedly, just sort of all over the place. He brags about his "homemade high-velocity armor-piercing shells," but they don't actually seem to do too much damage to Superman, seemingly afflicting him the way a bunch of bees might affect you or I–they hurt him, they stagger him, but they don't grievously wound them, or even tear his shirt.

Wonder Woman than throws Deadshot into a tree, grabs Superman, and files away with him, leaving the Smallville cemetery littered with unconscious super-villains.

I guess Superman is weaker, but still bulletproof...?

Anyway, this is a very well-drawn pair of issues, but I'll be damned if I can make heads-or-tails of what's going on with the Superman franchise at the moment. I wish they would have let "Truth" play out in Superman and Action before we started seeing this new, weakened Superman showing up in Batman/Superman, Martian Manhunter and this title (and maybe some other places I haven't noticed), as it's not really clear what his deal is yet.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed

The third collected volume of Ms. Marvel, sub-titled Crushed, is the last collection before Secret Wars rears its Secret Wars-y head in Jersey City, sweeping Kamala Khan up in the (completely temporary) end of the Marvel Universe. The collection has three complete and distinct stories, each with a different artist and, most surprising of all, one of those three is not written by Kamala's co-creator and writer G. Willow Wilson (I think marking the first non-Wilson scripted appearance of Ms. Marvel), and is from a book other than Ms. Marvel.

All three stories are very good, however, which, in the case of the third, is actually quite a relief.

The first story is a done-in-one from Ms. Marvel #12, and features a somewhat forced appearance by Loki, currently in his Agent of Asgard appearance (handsome young man with smaller-than-usual horns on a...tiara, I guess...?) and status quo. He's sent to Jersey City on a flimsy mission to investigate the recent dangers there. He immediately meets Bruno and tries to help Bruno win Kamala's heart, and then crashes their school's Valentine's Dance.

Ms. Marvel and Loki don't exactly fight and team up; they sort of argue and then go their separate ways.

Elmo Bondoc draws this issue, and while the art is in sharp contrast to that in the rest of the book, it's within the same aesthetic ballpark of original artist Adrian Alphona, and is actually really quite sharp.

Wilson's script is as fun and funny as usual, including the way that everyone but Kamala seems to know Bruno is pining for her, and everyone but Bruno knows he'll never win her heart. There's a running gang about how no one even flinches at the site of Loki either, assuming that "viking" is just a new, hipster style that will be catching on soon (I guess that works if Loki has the appearance of a twenty-something now).

Wilson did pass up a perfectly good opportunity for a Mean Girls allusion, however, when Ms. Marvel smashes through the skylight in her school's gymnasium, points at Loki, and shouts, "Everybody stop! This guy is not in high school!"

Surely "He doesn't even go here!" would work just as well, right?

The second story is the three-issue arc from which the collection takes its title, which ran from #13-#15, and is illustrated by the always excellent, always welcome Takeshi Miyazawa. It's an awfully Inhumans-y story, and I'm not crazy about Ms. Marvel's connections to The Inhumans–her name alone saddles the character with a little too much Marvel Universe baggage, making her one of the dozen or so Marvl Comics Marvel characters, so to also link her origin to the new conception of The Inhumans and to keep referencing it doesn't seem terribly smart to me.

It's a very fun story though, even if, by it's climax, I found myself wondering if I should know who this "Lineage" character is and what became of Queen Medusa and Lockjaw in New Attilan. Kamala's parents want to introduce her to their friends son, and while she dreads it, wouldn't you know he turns out to be super-cute and to have so much in common with her that it's practically love at first sight?

It turns out he may have too much in common with her, however, as he reveals that he too is an Inhuman, after Kamala fights a young, bad guy Inhuman about her own age by the name of "Kaboom."

It's a short, swift arc, and there's a lot of fun teen drama in there, including the continuation of the Bruno-love-Kamala plot, and some business with Kamala's older brother. Her almost-boyfriend showing his true colors happens pretty quickly, and I wonder if the arc might not have been more dramatically satisfying if Wilson kept us guessing about him longer, but then, chances are she didn't have time. Secret Wars was looming, after all.

This is pretty awesome:
Because her last name is actually Khan, get it?

The final story in this collection is an issue of SHIELD featuring Ms. Marvel, written by Mark Waid (who will be writing Ms. Marvel regularly in the post-Secret Wars Avengers title) and drawn by Humberto Ramos and VIctor Olazaba.

It seems somewhat unusual to include an issue of something other than Ms. Marvel in a trade collection of the Ms. Marvel series, but I think it's a testament to how popular a character she is (readers who read her will want to read all of her appearances), and how relatively young/new she is (there aren't that many appearances of her outside her own book yet; her Amazing Spider-Man appearances are solicited to appear in Ms. Marvel #4.

In this issue, two of the SHIELD agents from the TV show, Agents Coulson and Simmons, are trying to track down a high school student dealing in old super-villain gear. And wouldn't you know the high school he attends is Kamala Khan's? Despite Coulson's continual attempts to keep her from helping out, Simmons sees something of herself in Kamala, and Ms. Marvel naturally forces the issue, helping them whether they like it or not.

Waid handles Kamala particularly, even surprisingly well, but perhaps it shouldn't be too big a surprise. One of Kamala's more endearing character traits is the extreme fannish-ness she harbors towards the superheroes of the Marvel Universe. It's a trait Waid accentuates in this issue, and certainly an old-time, old-school fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel (and DC) superhero trivia like Waid can easily relate too. It bodes well for her time in the Waid-written Avengers book.

Pencil artist Ramos offers one of the more far afield depictions of the new Ms. Marvel to date, but he is and pretty much always has been a consummate artist of teenage super-people, and he naturally does a fine job on the art for this issue as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Avengers & X-Men: Axis

Well, I really liked the logo.

Perfectly designed so that the "A" can be read as an "S" and an "I" when upside down, whoever designed the Axis logo has transformed the word into one that looks the same upside down or right side up. It was rather well used for the covers of the nine-issue event miniseries, most of which featured two characters on either side of the word "Axis," so it could be difficult to tell at a glance which way was up and down at a glance (On the cover of this collection, only the tiny little Marvel logo and "Bonus Digital Edition Included" tag let you know whether it's the heroes or the villains who belong ton the top).

It also fits with the overall premise of the book. The word does not refer to the Axis Powers of World War II, as one might reasonably believe, given the fact that The Red Skull is the major villain of the series, but rather a fixed line of reference around which something could rotate (Note the line through logo, completing the "A"). Here, the axis is that of morality or alignment, to use the role-playing game word for it.

Unfortunately, the rest of comic isn't nearly as inspired or well-executed as the logo and cover designs. This is both a shame and somewhat surprising, because the basic premise is so simple: The heroes have become villains, and the villains have become the heroes.

Now a large part of the problem with writer Rick Remender's Axis plot is that as simple as the above premise sounds, its set-up, fall-out and resolution are extremely complicated, in terms of incident. There's that, and then there's the fact that the demands of a nine-issue limited series meant to act as the spine of a line-wide cross-over event don't really make for the ideal exploitation of that premise.

The two pages of synopsis marked "Previously..." at the opening of the first issue, which include six large panels taken from other books and paragraphs of text accompanying each, start during the climax of Avengers Vs. X-Men and the killing of Professor Xavier by a Phoenix-possessed Cyclops, and the rest of the events are from Rick Remender's own Uncanny Avengers series (Aspects of the story of Axis actually go back even further, to incorporate the events of House of M...and some bullshit X-Men comics from the nadir of Marvel Comics in the '90s, but the big stuff is all from Uncanny Avengers).

To summarize that summary, just as Captain America had put together his half-Avengers, half-X-Men "Avengers Unity Squad," The Red Skull had stolen Xavier's corpse and somehow stuck Xavier's brain into his own head, giving him super-psychic powers.

Most of Uncanny Avengers dealt with the fall-out of that–with a diversion into the Apocalypse business Remender seems to always be writing–and, when the series ended, Magneto had killed Red Skull on Genosha, where the Nazi super-villain was in the process of building a concentration camp for mutants. Somehow smashing the Skull's skull in released "Red Onslaught," the Red Skull version of Onslaught, who, um, I don't know, Wikipedia that shit, I guess.

Axis proper opens in Los Angeles, where The Avengers Unity Squad and some other random-ish Avengers are fighting Plantman and trading tedious quips like they're all Spider-Man all of a sudden ("Assume anything green is your enemey, Avengers." "Even kale?" "Especially kale." I guess The Kale Growers of America should have bought that ad space in Marvel comics when they had the chance!).

The Avengers start to bicker, and then start arguing pretty savagely with one another, and then outright fighting. This is mostly due to the influence of Red Onslaught, who is sending psychic hate waves all over the world, but it starts gradually, and the make-up of these Avengers are so new and foreign to any other Avengers books I had read that I don't really know how they all get along anyway (The Vision is there all of a sudden; The Hulk is there and he has seemingly gone through his bi-annual personality re-vamps; Thor is here, and he's lost Mjolnir but hasn't yet lost his arm, so I guess the Thor in this entire series is taken from somewhere in the middle of Thor #1; Sam Wilson is now Captain America).

Iron Man continually uses "raincheck" as a verb, something he does throughout the series, so I'm assuming it's just a weird writing tick of Remenders, and none of the editors decided to say, "Hey Rick, I think this eighth instance of Iron Man saying 'raincheck' is a bit much. You're starting to sound like Claremont here, with your constant repetition of the same slang."

The Avengers eventually get their shit together, thanks to a psychic-blocking doodad of Iron Man's invention, and while the entire world breaks into random rioting, they eventually trace the hate-waves back to Red Onslaught on Genosha, where Magneto and a handful of X-people are already fighting him.

Once the Avengers, a random calvary of X-Men and other assorted character (Sue Storm, Nova, Medusa) start dog-piling on Red Onslaught, he unleashes his secret weapons: A pair of Stark-built Super-Sentinel robots, specifically designed with Civil War-related counter-measures pulled from Stark's sub-conscious brain via Skull's super-telepathy and built as the ultimate superhero-fighting and capturing countermeasure.

It works beautifully for a while, until Magneto comes up with a brilliant plan: If the robots are designed specifically to take down superheroes, they won't be able to deal with supervillains, and so he brings a completely random assemblage of villains to the party (Mystique, Sabertooth, Enchantress, Loki, Doctor Doom, Deadpool and, most randomly of all, Carnage, Hobgoblin, The Absorbing Man and Jack O' Lantern, whose new design I liked a lot...I really like characters with pumpkins for heads in general, though).

If this strategy sounds familiar, you may remember when Grant Morrison used it in 1998's JLA #17; that's the one where Prometheus takes down the Justice League using special, anti-superhero stratagems programmed into his brain, but is helpless to defeat Catwoman, as she's a villain. It worked fine as a few panels of a one-issue story, even if it does fall apart if you pick at it. It shouldn't matter if you classify the person swinging a bullwhip at your genitals, as Catwoman did to take down Prometheus, a "hero" or a "villain"...the defense against bullwhips would still be to either block them or dodge them, whoever's swinging them).

It's really just a reason to get some villains in the scene for the big switcheroo, of course, (And that at least explains why Magneto didn't just pick up some old allies from his Brotherood of Evil Mutants, but also picked out random Spider-Man villains who someone else somewhere in Marvel editorial had plans to put in Axis tie-in miniseries).

The plan is to have a couple of magic people cast a spell reversing the tiny bit of Xavier that's in Red Onslaught with the dominant Red Skull personality, giving the heroic bit control and reducing the evil bit.

It doesn't go according to plan, exactly. It works, dismissing Onslaught and rendering Skull unconscious (and presumably with Xavier in the driver's seat and Skull now tied-up in the trunk), but it also affects everyone on the island. As I said, good guys are now bad guys, and bad guys are now good guys.

And here we come to a problem.

What exactly does that mean? The idea seems to be that every hero has a little piece of evil in them, and every villain a little bit of noble, altruistic goodness, and that the spell simply reversed the proportions, bringing the evil out of all the heroes and making them bad, while bringing the good out of the villains and making them good.

This is really much more of a DC Comics concept though, as most DC villains are just evil-with-a-capital E. Over the years, layers of psychology have been given to the likes of Black Adam, Lex Luthor and Sinestro, but whatever their motivations, they're essentially rotten apples, characters who either want to rule the world or rob banks. They may have more justification than, say, The Joker, but they're just no damn good, in the same way that despite paranoia or overzealousness, DC's heroes are all good, upstanding, saintly citizens (something Geoff Johns and other writers have been rebelling against as much as possible of late, but no matter how many Parademons and monsters you have Aquaman and Wonder Woman kill in battle, they're never going to be anti-heroes like Wolverine, The Punisher and Ghost Rider).

For some of the affected, it is as literally true for them as it is for Red Skull. Genesis, the clone child of Apokolips that Remender introduced in Uncanny X-Force and has been part of the cast of Wolverine and The X-Men, apparently does have a literal seed of villainy in his inner-workings, and this spell "inverts" his Genesis and Apokolips identities (and appearances).

But it doesn't work so well with, like, anyone else. Magneto and Dr. Doom, for example, haven't really ever been evil-for-evil's sake, at least not since the mid-60s, and while both often commit despicable acts, they have always been justified in the minds of the characters, and able to be rationalized to others (Magneto especially of late, as he has literally been on the X-Men team for the last few years). No one's a villain in their own minds, and all that.

Neither of these two villians seem affected at all by the spell, really...except during one scene later in the book where Doom addresses his people in Latveria and apologizes for being such an evil tyrant to them; in personality and relationships with other characters, though, he remains unchanged.

Deadpool is also unaffected; he's there because he sells books, but his "inversion" affects his fashion more than his personality, and so he continues to talk utter nonsense and behave as usual, he just now talks with hippy slang.

Why this is such a problem is that the inversion happens in issue three, which means Remender still has six issues to fill with good guys-gone-bad and bad guys-gone-good.

Now, if this were an old-school, summer annual style event, with two oversized bookends, the story might work much better. Imagine issues #1-3 of Axis compressed into a 48-page Avengers & X-Men: Axis #1, and then every title's annual telling a story about the individual characters now that they've had their alignment's switched around, concluding with Avengers & X-Men: Axis #2, where the problem is resolved and almost everything goes back to normal, save a plot thread or three to explore in future issues of ongoing series.

But Remender doesn't have that option, and so he has to keep going. And that means he has to essentially keep the Avengers and X-Men operating as teams, which doesn't really work if they are all suddenly evil (well, he didn't have to, I suppose, but the book would have been particularly disjointed if it spent the next four or five issues spending a few pages on 40 different characters one at a time).

The now evil core group of Avengers (plus Medusa, because Marvel's trying to push The Inhumans) stay together, but wipe a bunch of the characters off the board by capturing almost all of the non-mutant characters. They repeatedly say they'll stick together because it serves their interests, but it's not clear how.

A few do go their own way, at least temporarily: These include Tony Stark, who rather than just being randomly evil like most of his peers, has his selfishness and arrogance amplified. He's basically the character he was at the start of the first Iron Man movie. It's weird that Remender picks and chooses which characters have motivations for their actions, specific aspects of their character that change, while others are just bad guys for no reason.

Then there's the Hulk, who develops a Hulk's Hulk (not unlike the Null that appeared in Matt Fraction's short-lived Defenders revival), unimaginatively named "Kluh," who has black skin, a white mohawk and glowing red lines around his torso, looking vaguely like one of The Worthy from Fear Itself.

Meanwhile, The X-Men decide to overthrow humanity for, um, some reason, wiping them all out. Apparently, the inversion of all of the X-Men's heroic natures is...that they are genocideal maniacs? (This doesn't work too well, considering that almost none of the evil mutants have ever wanted to go quite that far).

The wild cards in this new round of Avengers vs. X-Men fighting are Spider-Man, Nova, Old Man Steve Rogers, the latest Nomad (Rogers' son, apparently? I've never heard of him) and, of course, all of the villains-turned-good.

After much fighting, including one–just one–character being able to reverse his own alignment-reversal to go back to being good again by pure force of will, the remaining good guys and bad guys-gone-good are able to cast another inversion spell, this one putting everyone back to normal.

The only exceptions are Iron Man, who is able to use his technology to shield himself, and the two guys standing next to him: Havoc and Sabertooth. Iron Man would go on to star in Superior Iron Man (and presumably be restored to good again before or during Secret Wars), and the other two characters will presumably be dealt with in Remender's relaunched Uncanny Avengers, which prominently featured Sabertooth on the cover.

So in the end, it was a very simple, rather fun idea, but a very small one, and it didn't really work in the complicated, serious Marvel Universe, nor to support an event book of this scale.

I suppose some of the tie-ins might have been good, though, particularly if they offered their writers the opportunity to do more with the inverted moral alignments than Remender does here. That is, if there are tie-ins that explore how an inverted Sam Wilson or Nightcrawler differs from the regular version, aside from just being a psychotic know, if other writers do with other characters what Remender does with Iron Man and pretty much no other character in this series.

The artwork is unfortunately all over the place, and isn't even divided by acts or arcs within the series as a whole. Adam Kubert, Leinil Francis Yu, Terry Dodson and Jim Cheung all pencil the book, but come and go randomly. Kubert's there for the first, second, seventh and parts of the ninth issue, for example. Yu for the third, fourth, eighth and part of the ninth. There are nine different inkers (no, not one per issue; don't be silly) and five different colorists. It's all pretty okay artwork, and the book makes visual sense, but hoo-boy does it read like a deadline-dodging, last-minute jam book thrown together at the last minute. It's a sharp contrast to the story, which Remender was building to for years.

The opening sequence, drawn by Kubert, is particularly weird, as all of the pages have extremely wide borders filled with the Axis logo repeating over and over like the comics panels were being framed by Axis wrapping paper.

It is a nice logo, though.


So anyone have any recommendations for Axis tie-ins to pursue in trade? Were any of them any good? I remember thinking the Hobgoblin mini looked intriguing when I saw it in the shop, and I'm curious about the new Jack O' Lantern.