Thursday, April 27, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: April 26th

Batman '66 Meets Wonder Woman '77 #4 (DC Comics) As I've mentioned previously, one of the cool parts of this particular miniseries is that writers Jeff Parker (Batman '66) and Marc Andreyko (Wonder Woman '77) have taken advantage of the immortality of Wonder Woman, as well as Batman villain Ra's al Ghul, and the various settings of the TV shows it serves as a crossover of (note the years in the title) to present an adventure that spans decades, and thus various points in the characters' lives.

So we've already seen Wonder Woman and Ra's meet a pre-parents' murder Bruce Wayne back in the 1940s, and in this issue we wrap up the "'66" portion of the story, with the next two issues being set in 1977...long after the conclusion of the TV show that spawned these versions of Batman, Robin and Catwoman. It promises to be both a Wonder Woman crossover and a paper version of a Batman TV show reunion special that never happened.

But back to the "present" of the late 1960s. Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin and Catwoman have tracked Ra's and Talia to the Lazarus Pit hidden in a labyrinth near Paradise Island, and the resulting encounters lead to nods to the comics (Batman and Ra's having their first scimitar fight...shirts on, of course; Ra's calling Batman "Crusader" instead of "Detective" and to the TV shows (the heroes ending up in a death trap rather than being killed outright; the appearance of Wonder Girl Drusilla; Amazonian scuba gear).

Parker and Andreyko straight kill it with the jokes in this issue. I do so love Catwoman's puns, and this Batman's stick-in-the-mud, nerd adhesion to law is funny, particularly when framed as well as it is in a few sequences here near the end. Additionally, I really liked the idea that Wonder Woman's heroic example helped inspire the young Bruce Wayne to become a superhero in the first place. I'm getting off-topic here, but I was actually thinking about how unusual a Golden Age-less DC Universe is when it comes to Batman's mental health and life choices. For some reason, I was thinking of the various "takes" on Batman's becoming a bat at all, the "Batman's a crazy, broken person who decides to dress up like a bat and maniacally fight crime, because he's crazy" take vs. the Grant Morrison-articulated rationale that he suffered a trauma as a child and came up with a child's solution: "He became a superhero." I was thinking of it in regards to the fact that the current DC continuity lacks a Golden Age, and Batman was its first superhero, meaning he would be basing his idea on...pretty much just Zorro, I guess. James Bond? Robin Hood? Some pulp heroes? He didn't have Green Lantern Alan Scott, Sandman Wesley Dodd, Dr. Mid-Nite and the like to look up to.

Anyway, back to this comic: I can't say enough good things the art team of David Hahn and Karl Kesel. They have a truly remarkable ability to draw the characters from the TV show in such a way to resemble the actor's playing them, but no so faithfully that they look off when mixed in with all of the original characters, or when thrust into such super-crazy situations as we find here, the likes of which would have (could have) never appeared on network TV back in the 1960s or 1970s.

I know DC plans to keep doing various Batman '66 comics--the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover looks especially promising--but I'm going to miss this one when it ends. Luckily that's not for two more issues and at least one more decade.

Detective Comics #955 (DC) The hopefully penultimate chapter of writer James Tynion's current "Fists of Fury"* story arc (which I'm pretty sick of at this point, to be honest) finds an injured Cassandra Cain being read a story by the ballerina she was stalking, a fictional children's story called "The Girl Who Was a Shadow." The ballerina then offers an extensive piece of extemporaneous literary criticism of the story, which just so happens to perfectly mirror Cassandra Cain's origin story and current predicament!

Inspired, Cass goes on to fight and defeat a million ninjas and rescue her team. Meanwhile, The General Ulysses has developed a way to defeat The League of Shadows and save Gotham City, but it's a way that will mean the death of Team Batman.

Artist Marcio Takara's artwork is pretty decent here, and the attempts to make Cass' fight with the entire League of Shadows are admirable, including a sideways spread with lots of tight close-ups of her masked face and the blows she lands. Part of it is Takara's realistic style and part of it is likely colorist Marcello Maiolo's palette, but the action in this action comic just isn't very striking. The pages don't move, and the kung fu is unimpressive.

I'm really super-confused about Tynion's new take on Shiva, in which she is a terrorist rather than a connoisseur of martial arts battles--she even passes up the chance to duel Batman in order to make sure her destruction of Gotham City happens in time to get covered on The Today Show and Fox and Friends!--although there was a suggestion of an interesting dynamic here when she faces Cass for the second time this arc.

"It does not impress me to see a knife that refuses to stab, a gun that refuses to fire," Shiva says, referring to Cass' refusal to kill.

"Yes," Cassandra replies simply. "It does."

Tynion doesn't explain, and it's not like Cass is the sort of explain anything at any length, but I suppose the implication here is that it's much, much harder for a fighter like Cassandra to incapacitate a few dozen ninja without killing them than to take their lives (In the same way Superman has to try really hard not to pulp someone when he hits them, when it would be much easier for him to just throw a punch without calibrating exactly how much to pull it, you know?)

There was a promising moment where Cassandra almost tells the ballerina her name is "Orphan," and then decides to say "Cassandra Cain" instead. It gave me hope she'll be abandoning her stupid "Orphan" code name by the end of the arc (much of which has dealt with the fact that she's not an orphan, and that she need not be ashamed of her biological mother and that she has a family in Batman, Batwoman, Clayface and the others). I suppose if she's not going to go back to Batgirl or Black Bat, or take on a new, bat-oriented name (Bat? The Bat?), she could just go with Shadow or The Shadow or Shadow would have been appropriate if she chose it during this issue, actually.

The Flash #21 (DC) Part Two of "The Button" is...button-less, but it picks up right where the previous chapter left off. The Flash Barry Allen is investigating the crime scene of The Reverse Flash's brutal beatdown of Batman in last week's Batman #21, as well as the subsequent murder of said Reverse Flash off-panel (presumably by Doctor Manhattan...or maybe Hillary Clinton).

Writer Joshua Williamson has some nice bits in here about how Barry Allen and Bruce Wayne bond over criminal science, and Barry's narration of the earlier portions of this issue really seem like the one point where he gets to inject some of himself into a script that otherwise is almost certainly just checking off boxes laid out by Geoff Johns and editorial-types at DC.

Just as last issue featured a reappearance by one of the figures from Johns' DC Universe: Rebirth special (hockey fan Saturn Girl), this chapter opens with a reappearance by Johnny Thunder, futilely calling for the original version of his Thunderbolt and screaming about the Justice Society. I wonder if we'll see similar appearances in the next two chapters?

The most relevant portion of this, in terms of the ongoing "Jesus God, what the fuck is DC doing with its continuity?!" storyline is that A) The Justice League has secretly been collecting artifacts from pre-Flashpoint continuity and have a fucking warehouse full of them (J'onn's old costume! Blue Devil's pitchfork thing! Hourman III's time ship! The Worlogog...? Etc!). Among these are The Cosmic Treadmill, and Barry runs the two heroes through the time stream, where the original founding of the Justice League, a scene from Identity Crisis and I want to say either Crisis On Infinite Earths or Flashpoint or Final Crisis (Aaa! Even I can't keep up anymore!) whiz by, and then they hit some turbulence and end up in the world of Flashpoint.

The end! Until next week.

Not sure what is meant to be going on, or where this is all headed, but if it was this easy to get back to The Flashpoint all along, I have to assume that DC is going to do for the rest of the DCU what they did for Superman and Lois in the pages of their recent "Superman Reborn" story arc...during some sort of event that will bring back post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity, with the stuff from The New 52 all having "happened," but just differently, and with a handful of changes (Like, I assume Barbara Gordon will still have the use of her legs and be Batgirl). In other words, there's another reboot coming.

In the mean time, I liked seeing Howard Porter on these characters again--I really liked what he and the colorists at Hi-Fi did with Flash's running-effects in a few scenes, where in addition to the lightning there's a weird, warping ribbon of red--and it's fun to stare at the super-detailed panels and pick things out. Not only is there the scene in the room where the League keeps the Ark of of the Covenant, the H-Dial and a Prometheus costume, but also a nice two-page spread of the Bat-Cave.

Like, for example, there's a pope costume in there. I don't know if Porter just through that in for fun, or if it is some reference to a story involving a pope, or possibly bishop, that I can't think of at the moment.

Lumberjanes #37 (Boom Studios) Regular writers Shannon Watters and Kat Leyh are joined by a new artist this issue, Ayme Sotuyo. On the one hand, it's nice that Boom allows different artists to take stabs at Lumberjanes (and its occasional spin-off one-shots or crossovers), as it undoubtedly helps introduce newer, younger artists to a wider audience. On the other hand, even if many of these artists have styles that are similar enough that no one's likely to ever get aesthetic whiplash, it does prevent Lumberjanes from developing a strong visual identity. My main concern with Sotuyo's presence here, however, is that I just don't like her art, at least not applied to these characters and this milieu, at least not yet (I may get used to it after a few issues worth of exposure, I suppose).

Her characters all have very big heads, faces and noses and, when one factors in the beady little eyes, they all look like Muppets. Oddly, not all of the characters have those little black dots for eyes. For example, April and Mal's mom both have full eyes, with irises and pupils and whites around them everything. I'm not sure why certain characters get whole eyes and others just get pupils embedded in their flesh (um, which is the way that I draw eyes), but it bugs me when it's not consistent.

Like, the original Flintstones cartoon? I can't tell you how much it used to bug me that Fred and Betty had whole eyes while Wilma and Barney just had dots-for-eyes. I used to wonder if Fred and Betty were brother and sister, and Wilma and Barney the same.

As for the storyline, which kicks off this issue, it's promising. It's Parents' Day, and so the parents of all the campers--except Molly--show up to get a tour of the camp. Which presents a difficulty for everyone at camp, what with all the Yeti and dinosaurs and monsters that tend to hang around.

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #25 (DC) Ha ha, it's funny because it's true! That third tier is just priceless. For what it's worth, Green Arrow does overhear them talking about his lack of villains, and shouts back some suggestions, including, Count Vertigo and The Clock King.

As you can likely tell by the characters as they appear there, the specific iterations of Green Lantern and Green Arrow that team-up with Scooby and the gang in this issue of Scooby-Doo Team-Up are those specific to the characters' "Hard-Traveling Heroes" iteration, in the early 1970s when the teamed-up and traveled around the country together having socially relevant adventures written mostly by Denny O'Neil and penciled mostly by Neal Adams. Heck, when the pair first appear here, they even refer to themselves as "a pair of hard-traveling heroes."

This particular issue of Scooby-Doo Team-Up, by the regular creative team of writer Sholly Fisch and artist Dario Brizuela, is maybe the best in a long while. At the very least, it has the most jokes per page in it. Check out this preview on Good Comics For Kids, which consists of the first five pages. Just the first three panels has a few particularly strong gags, ones that aren't at all dependent on the guest-stars.

The jokes that follow are mostly dependent on the heroes, of course, and some rather specific, even dated portrayals of them. This book is generally very good at being all-ages, but I have to confess that this issue was one in which I kinda wish I had a little kid who I could run it by to see if they dug it as much as I did (alas, the only very young superhero and Scooby-Doo fan I know can't yet read). Certainly a child wouldn't enjoy the exact same jokes in the same way I did, such as when Green Arrow suggests aloud that maybe he'll go check in on his former sidekick Speedy and see what he's been up to. (This. This is what he's been up to.)

This is a great, great issue.

Wonder Woman #21 (DC) Greg Rucka takes another slow step towards the conclusion of the 25-issue story arc he's been telling since returning to the character. This one at least feels like it's approaching a climax, as several of the players in the modern end of the story arrive at what they think is the portal to the true Themyscira. I like artist Liam Sharp's artwork a whole lot, but I thought he kinda fell down on at least one sequence, where Veronica Cale apparently follows her falling daughter into said portal.

The big cliffhanger from the previous installment of this section of the storyline, "The Truth," turned out to be glossed over in the manner of a particularly cheesy movie serial, as being shot through the chest didn't do much more than stagger and annoy Wonder Woman rather than hurt her. I guess that's because of her Amazonian healing factor...?

*Original title, that.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Some recent Marvel trades I read, um, recently:

Daredevil: Back In Black Vol.3--Dark Art

After a really rather rough second volume (discussed in this post), the current, Charles Soule-written volume of Daredevil is back to the level of quality of the first volume. This likely has a lot to do with the fact that pencil artist Ron Garney is back, drawing all five of the issues collected herein. It may also have a lot to do with the fact that, like the first volume and unlike the second volume, Soule apparently wrote these issues as a single arc. It's not quite complete enough to read like a distinct graphic novel, as it does pick up on at least one event from volume two (Elektra having broken Blindspot's arm), and there's a pretty dramatic cliffhanger ending regarding the fate of Daredevil's new sidekick, but otherwise this is a pretty self-contained comics story.

Our heroes are doing their thing, lawyering and/or law assistancing by day, fighting crime by night, and they are forced to face a sinister new villain. The papers have dubbed him "Vincent Van Gore," which is pretty good, but he personally prefers "Muse," which isn't quite as good. He's a serial killer/artist, and his first major piece being a gigantic Guernica-esque mural painted with the blood of dozens of different victims. He's also got some weird and, frankly, ill-defined powers that make him a match for Daredevil in a scrap, particularly since Daredevil can't "see" him.

And that's pretty much that: Hero vs. villain, with the latter being a brand-new villain. There's something you don't see much anymore!

Complicating matters is that Muse's second piece involves killing of several Inhumans*, and so Daredevil and Matt Murdock try to work with Medusa and New Attilan. There's another new character introduced here--a former New York City Police Department detective who got Inhuman-ized, given a neat but subtle power and who now works as a liaison between the country and the city's police--who spends the most time with DD and/or MM, but the climax of the Inhumans' involvement seems to be to have Medusa be kind of a jerk and let Karnak and Daredevil fight. As I was reading one scene, in which neighborhood toughs attempt to murder an Inhuman, it occurred to me that this story arc may seem quite dated in a few years' time, as the scene is written almost exactly as if Soule had simply replaced the word "mutant" with "Inhuman."

I'm not crazy about Muse's mask, which appears to include a tight-fitting knit cap like the kind of a cartoon burglar might wear, and his tiny little backpack, but otherwise his design is visually striking, and of the sort that fits into the book's unusual coloring scheme (which color artist Matt Milla manages).
I can't say I'm terribly excited about what I imagine may dominate the fourth volume, based on the last, climactic pages of this arc, in which Blindspot is forced to take on Muse solo in order to save many lives, but it's quite possible that Soule will end up zagging instead of zigging.

Again, after a choppy second volume, Daredevil is again pretty tightly written super-comics, with great art and a somewhat unique visual hook to its telling that separates it from the scores of other superhero comics on the shelves at the moment (the vast majority of which are also published by Marvel).

Deadpool: Too Soon?

If Deadpool's current state of popularity is such that his presence can not only goose interest and sales in books he appears in, than this four-issue miniseries operated on almost reverse logic. This is a Deadpool comic filled with a large cast of guest-stars, most of them relatively minor characters, but ones with strong fan bases.

Writer Joshua Corin (whom I have never heard of**) sends The Forbush Man, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, The Astonishing Ant-Man, Rocket and Groot, Howard The Duck, The Punisher and Peter Porker, The Amazing Spider-Ham and, um, The Punisher to a mansion, each following a similar mysterious letter. There they are greeted by Deadpool and his apparent wife, a demon named Shiklah (I had heard he was married, although this is the first time in my extremely sporadic reading of Deadpool comics that I learned to who).

Deadpool has invited them all there to pose for his Christmas card photo with him, and has dug up enough blackmail material on each of them to force them to comply. Why this particular assortment of characters? Because, he explains, they are the funniest characters in the Marvel Universe. If The Punisher seems particularly out-of-place among this group, I suspect that is the joke regarding his presence.

This set-up leads to a locked-door sort of mystery, as when the lights briefly go out and come back on, Forbush Man is found decapitated! Is this the end of the Forbush Man, the most expendable of the guests, in that he's not currently starring or co-starring in a comic book? Looks like! At his funeral, attended by all (dig Tippy-Toe's little black ribbon), Deadpool vows to find the killer, criss-crossing the country to investigate the other suspects in the room that night (he naturally dismisses himself and his wife).

Joined against his will by Squirrel Girl, he travels to California, to Miami and then back to New York City, pursued by "Squirrelpool," a hideous clone monster created accidentally when he and Squirrel Girl share an old teleporter (I was pretty disappointed in this design by artist Todd Nauck; it suits the purposes of the story fine, although I'm not sure why it's a hulking monster-sized creature instead of being Deadpool-sized, or even just Deadpool-plus-Squirrel Girl-sized, but man, it would be so easy to amalgamate those two characters into a cool design).

When the beheadings start to pile-up, and include clearly-not-going-to-get-killed-off-for-long characters like Rocket and Groot (and, a little more shockingly, Squirrel Girl's besties Nancy Whitehead*** and Tippy-Toe), the stakes are lowered and, when the murderer is revealed and defeated with some help of Marvel's latest movie star Dr. Strange, it should come as no surprise that everyone is restored to life in some particularly random deus ex machina. (To be fair to Brad Meltzer, whose Identity Crisis is pretty much the worst murder "mystery" in comic book history, I should note that the killer is not a suspect introduced at any point in the comic, and so as a mystery, this doesn't work...not that the mystery set-up was ever meant to be anything more than a premise, of course).

Nauck is an artist I sometimes have some trouble evaluating entirely impartially, given the amount of affection I have for his work on account of his years on Young Justice. His ability--and tons of experience--balancing light-hearted supehero comedy with concinving superhero action serves him well in this particular series, though, and it's certainly interesting to see so many diverse characters translated though his particular visual style, even if they don't all seem to work (Squirrel Girl, for example, is a character that some artist seem to nail a particular take on, while others flounder a bit, sometimes for reasons I have a hard time pinning down. Nauck's version just looks like a typical super-girl character with a few Squirrel Girly features, rather than looking like Squirrel Girl.)

I was a little surprised to find a back-up, the story "Deadpooloween" taken from the Gwenpool Holiday Special: Merry Mix-Up #1, and I was more surprised still to find that it was both written and drawn by Chynna Clugston Flores. I guess it was included because it prominently features Squirrel Girl, as does the Too Soon?. It's been a good long time since I've read a Chynna comic, although I can hardly overstate how much I loved her Blue Monday in Action Girl and then from Oni (Image is currently reprinting it, and you should buy it and read it). While I'm sure she's done something for Marvel since, the last Marvel comic she drew that I read was that issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up from the earliest years of the Ultimate line, when Brian Michael Bendis had Peter Parker and pals run into the X-Men at the mall.

In her story, Deadpool belatedly realizes it Halloween, and suits up to cruise the town near Empire State University. There he finds that Squirrel Girl is hosting a Deadpool costume contest, which he angrily enters, irritated that the success of his movie has spawned so many college bros dressing up like him this Halloween.

Remember what I said about certain artists seeming to do a better, truer Squirrel Girl than others? Chynna nails hers. Her style is so different than that of Erica Henderson, but Chynna is just an all-around expert when it comes to drawing geeky young people, I guess. I would love to see more Chynna Clugston Flores Squirrel Girl somewhere in the future.

Doctor Strange Vol. 3: Blood in the Aether

With Doctor Strange's magical powers and resources utterly exhausted by his two-volume battle against the magic-destroying interdimensional entity The Empirikul, he is at one of his lowest, weakest points in Doctor Strange #11, by writer Jason Aaron and guest-artists Kevin Nowlan (who draws the scenes set during Strange's origin) and Leonardo Romero (who draws the scenes set in the present). That means there's blood in the water and the sharks are starting to circle.

And by "the water" I guess we mean "the aether," and by "the sharks" I guess we mean an assortment of villains, including Doctor Strange's arch-enemies and a few newer or more random threats.

So after the prelude chapter that the 11th issue serves as, the rest of the collection is a sort of week-in-the-life story, in which Doctor Strange runs a gauntlet of foes new and old, all the time being forced to rely on his wits, his allies and what new sorcery he can invent on the fly to save himself...and everyone else.

So in rapid succession Strange faces Mister Misery (the name the thing from his basement assigned itself), Baron Mordo, Nightmare, Satana and Master Pandemonium**** (and Pandemonium's hands), the post-Original Sin version of The Orb and, of course, the dread Dormammu. Their motives range from the dire to the petty to the idiosyncratic, and if you're at all familiar with any of these characters you can probably assign each of them to those categories without any help from me, but it all adds up to a pretty dramatic, almost arcade-like fight, with a few lighter moments to stop and exhale.

Regular pencil artist Chris Bachalo manages the bulk of the five issues that make up the actual "Blood in the Aether" story arc (with a pair of pencilers getting "with" credits on the last two issues, and eight different inkers credited on these issues...speaking of credit, it's to Bachalo and company's credit that the story actually looks pretty great, and all those different artists work together well enough that their collaboration is, if not seamless, than relatively seam-light).

It's really difficult to overstate how well-suited Bachalo is to the material, and not just to the Steve Ditko-conceived world of Doctor Strange in general, but to writer Jason Aaron's world-weary, joke-heavy conception of the character and his story specifically. As I've said before, Bachalo handles weird well, and he manages to make old characters like Dormammu, Mordo and Nightmare his own, while the characters that are his own, like Mister Misery, are hard to imagine under anyone else's pens.

Probably the best example of his work is the issue devoted to Satana, however. She plans to open up her own hell, one in which the damned can spend time with "cool" dead people, like dead rockstars and superheroes, like Doctor Strange. She pitches him over a bizarre meal in a bizarre diner (Pandemonium is both her short order cook and her muscle), filled with elaborately, cartoonishly designed creatures. To save himself, Strange must use his astral projection form in a pretty unusual way, which I'm not sure if he's ever done before, in order to achieve a particular goal I'm quite positive he never has.

I'm not sure if Bachalo has completely redesigned Satana here, or if his and colorist Antonio Fabela's version is just strikingly rendered, but this is maybe the coolest I can remember her looking. I think Bachalo draws Pandemonium's hand demons a little too gitancially, but, like Swarm, there's really no way to screw up the drawing of this crazy-ass Marvel villain.

Bachalo's Orb is another pretty great character. I don't believe I've seen him since Original Sin, nor do I quite understand how either he or Nick Fury Sr. "work" in the Marvel Universe anymore, but Aaron's conception of The Orb works well here for the purposes of a Doctor Strange comic, and Bachalo seems to have a lot of fun selling this new life of the character's menace as well as inherent humor.

This volume is really strong enough to stand on its own, independent of the two preceding it, as the only things one really needs to know from the previous ten issues get summarized in the three sentences following the Doctor Strange logo on the title page.

Power Man and Iron Fist Vol. 2: Civil War II

Here's another in the too-long line of pretty good books that got derailed and/or destroyed by Civil War II. In the case of the David Walker-written Heroes For Hire revival, I say "and/or destroyed" because the book is no longer around. That may have simply been Marvel trying to more closely tie their comics to the various Netflix series, as after this book's cancellation Walker went on to write a Luke Cage solo title sharing the name of his TV show, and a new Iron Fist series launched. Or it could have been because of this dumb-ass story arc, that takes over issues #6-9 of the then-new book, almost the entirety of this second collected volume of the series (there's also a fun, holiday annual included in this collection).

For trade-waiters like me, the other unfortunate aspect of Civil War II? Because that book was so delayed, and expanded after solicitation, it meant I couldn't read any of the tie-in trades like this until I read the main series, but so many of the tie-ins were published prior to the Civil War II collection, that basically meant holding off on reading any (or at least many) Marvel collections for a few months longer than I might have otherwise. (As it turns out though, one really only needs to have read the first few issues of Civil War II to understand what's going on here; War Machine's dead, She-Hulk is in a coma and Carol Danvers is a big, stupid immoral idiot and...that's it, really).

Now, this arc is bad, but it's still fun, and maybe as good as a tie-in to such a dumb event series could be if it really did try to honestly engage with the event instead of simply side-stepping it as fast as possible. Walker writes these characters extremely well, and has a lot of fun with Luke's refusal to swear and in recovering the often very goofy characters from Cage's deep past, and other failed or half-forgotten street-level characters from Marvel's past, and reintroducing them, often portraying their past portrayals as youthful indiscretions, or perhaps trying to be something they weren't...or, in at least one case, trying to hang on to something they never were in the first place.

The artwork by Flavianao and Sanford Green is great, and I could look at those two guys' drawings of the two guys in the title all damn day; I particularly like, as I believe I mentioned when discussing the first volume, how huge this Luke Cage is drawn, in relation to Danny, Jessica, Danielle and the whole world around him. He's a literally bigger-than-life character.

Walker's way of dealing with the Civil War II plot is interesting, and I find myself wondering whether the plot for this arc, which isn't quite concluded in this volume, is one he would have written anyway, and he was just forced to fold Carol Danvers in, or if his non-Civil War II plot was an intentional echo of Civil War II, inspired by its plot.

So the first issue opens with Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Jessica Jones and a clueless Danielle watching news footage of the battle with Thanos that took place in Free Comic Book Day 2016, which the Civil War II collection puts between Civil War II #0 and Civil War II #1 (That event series, by the way, makes an excellent case for trade-waiting, as it's really hard to tell where and when it actually starts; there are basically three different starting points, one of which isn't terribly relevant. Better to let a collections editor curate it, I think). This is the battle that ends with War Machine James Rhodes dead and She-Hulk in a coma, and the two heroes are pretty shaken for obvious reasons, with flashbacks giving less-obvious, more personal details: Cage and Rhodey's last conversation was an intense argument, and Danny thinks about the time he kissed She-Hulk. Four more pages are devoted to Civil War II: They attempt to visit Shulkie at the Tri-Skelion but are turned away, and they are warmly greeted by Carol, who then asks if they can give her a minute of their time so she can explain what's going on.

Jump to the two of them walking to their car, reiterating that Civil War II is dumb and they hope they can avoid being in it (they can't!).

"What was all that 'predictive justice' stuff Carol was talking about?" Danny yells. "Sounded like a bunch of fiddle-faddle to me," Luke says, and they agree to sit this one out, as they are also sick of hero vs. hero fights. On a two-page spread, between two tiers of them talking about it, there's a nice big spread of the Luke Cage-lead Avengers (from the second volume of the Bendis-written New Avengers, I want to say) fighting the Carol Danvers and Iron Man-lead Avengers (from the pages of the Bendis-written Mighty Avengers). Cage, who sided with Captain America in the pages of the first Civil War, was basically in a kinda cold war with the government-sanctioned Avengers between the end of Civil War and the post-Secret Invasion "Heroic Age," I think.

Walker then returns to matters related to his book, as a bunch of reformed criminals and their family members attempt to hire the Heroes For Hire to find a bunch of ex-cons who have since gone straight but disappeared shortly after encountering a group of mysterious vigilantes. And then those vigilantes attack! Followed by the police!

This ends with Danny Rand in jail for assaulting some officers, where he tries to figure out the disappearances. Many of those who have disappeared are also in jail there, and they ended up there without officially being charged or getting trials. Outside prison, Luke calls in favors from many friends to try to figure out the one clue they have, a mysterious device that mixes facial recognition software with the ability to manipulate and falsify criminal records. This is what the vigilantes were doing to bust their victims.

So you can see how this thematically kinda sorta ties in to Civil War II, as innocent--or at least innocent-until-proven-guilty--people are being attacked, arrested and punished for crimes they didn't actually commit. Civil War II comes back to the fore when Ulysses--the prophesying Inhuman that Carol Danvers is using to predict possible future crimes to prevent before they happen--has a vision of Luke Cage leading a break-in at Ryker's to free the incarcerated Danny.

In fact, a confused and frustrated Cage calls Songbird and Centurius to join him as he looks at Ryker's, in the hopes that they can talk him out of doing something stupid and figure out this whole mess, and then "Sweet Christmas, Easter and Hanukkah," in swoop Danvers, Mockingbird, Puck, Spectrum, Storm, Deathlok and a whole bunch of SHIELD troops. They are there to stop Ulysses' vision from coming to pass by arresting Luke first and, just as in All-New Wolverine Vol. 2: Civil War II, Carol's intervention is exactly what causes the vision to come to pass (slow learner, I guess).

Luke's not having it, of course, he tells off Carol in such a way to piss her off, and everyone fights, with the fight eventually spreading inside the prison after Carol punches Luke through its walls and a couple of errant energy blasts and explosions continue to escalate the situation.

There's a lot of fighting between all parties. I particularly liked the fight-then-team-up sequences involving Mockingbird, who Walker writes close enough to Chelsea Cain that she sounds like the same character, and Songbird, because they have similar names. And I'm always calling Songbird Mockingbird by accident.

It ends with Cage making a couple of speeches in Carol's direction, and then Danny making another one, and she's eventually shamed into dropping it and they help round up the prisoners and clean up the jail. (I'm not sure this all lines up perfectly well with Civil War II, by the way. In that book's third issue, Luke and Danny appear to be working with Carol and SHIELD, at least according to one big panel of a series of three images that run across a two-page spread while New York City Assistant District Attorney examines Carol Danvers, but in issue #4, Luke is allied with Iron Man on the "cool" team that shows up at the Triskelion to fight Carol's lame team.)

But just as in the pages of Civil War II, the tie-ins seem mostly designed to demonstrate that Carol is dumb and keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

As for the A-plot, which becomes the B-plot, Luke's team is just about to crack where the doohickey being used to find and incarcerate people came from, when a very powerful person in a hoodie teleports to his safehouse and steals it from the hands of his allies.

As I mentioned earlier, the rest of the collection is devoted to an annual, or, to be specific, Sweet Christmas Annual #1. Walker writes this as well, but Scott Hepburn provides the art. It's Christmas Eve, and Luke, Danny and Danielle visit a toy store to find the Pokemon-like hot toy of the season. Also there is Spider-Woman Jessica Drew and her baby. And Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, in an open-coat Santa suit. And The Krampus. And the real Santa Claus. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and Hepburn draws a hell of a Krampus, as well as a pretty sweet warrior version of Santa that isn't as over-the-top as the one in the Grant Morrison-written Santa vs. Krampus comic, Klaus.

I'm really glad it was collected here, even though the storyline preceding it didn't really reach its conclusion, because it at least means the book ends on a high note, rather than being another example of the Civil War II storlyine stumbling into an already perfectly strong title, upsetting all the furniture and then stumbling back out.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 5: Like I'm The Only Squirrel In The World

This volume takes for its cover that of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #13, i.e. the one where Squirrel Girl is hauling back to throw Tippy-Toe, who is herself hauling back to throw Ant-Man, who is all curled up like a ball in her tiny squirrel fist. Is this modified Fuzzball Special just something for the cover, or does it actually occur within the pages of the comic itself?
It does!

The Squirrel Girl/Ant-Man team-up takes place during a story arc that dominates this trade, occupying the first three of the five issues collected herein. Doreen, Nancy and Tippy-Toe join Doreen's mom at a cabin in Canada for a rather boring vacation, which is interrupted by a bid to conquer the world by a character who can split himself into many different versions of himself. His name is Enigmo, and he is apparently a pre-existing Marvel villain (The Internet said he debuted in 1994 issue of Avengers). Brain Drain, the disembodied brain in a jar atop a powerful robot body that has been hanging around with Doreen and friends for a while, teleports to Canada to help her, and he does so with the only hero he could find who was small enough to fit in the teleporter at the same time as him: The Astonishing Ant-Man, Scott Lang.

As per usual, Squirrel Girl is able to save the day, with the help of her many friends and the help of science knowledge, which writer Ryan North applies to the comic book world of the Marvel Universe as charmingly as ever. For example, there is a flashback to physics class, where in Doreen and Nancy remember their teacher's lecture on "Galileo's Square-Cube law," which explains why giant mice are impossible.

"And yes, you can get around this restriction with certain cosmic rays or other exotic particles. I am aware of Pym's work, thank you," the professor continues. "It's hard not to be when he published journal articles like 'Ha Ha, I'm Giant-Man Now: Screw You, All Other Physicists.'"

That sounds like a fantastic journal article! Should I be reading scientific journals, for laughs?

This very full arc, which actually feels a lot longer than three issues, contains not only a team-up with a very grumpy Ant-Man--who was kidnapped into participating--but lots of jokes based on Brain Drain's nihilistic view of the universe and the humor inherent in Canada, and how it is different than America.

I mention that the arc felt longer than it actually was, not as a criticism, but as a compliment. Not only does artist Erica Henderson draw lots of panels per page when called on to do so, but North clearly spends a great deal of his writing-time think of how to pack as many jokes into each page as possible. Not just the bonus jokes that come in the alt-text like sentences below most of the pages, but, for example, this panel, in which Doreen surveys her choices for magazines to read in the cabin:
North easily could have stopped at the titles of the magazines themselves, but he went above and beyond, to include several jokes on each cover, detailing the contents of those magazines.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has got to have set some kind of record for the most jokes per square centimeter of page-space.

The remaining two issues of the collections are done-in-ones. The first of these is a comic told entirely from the perspective of Nancy's cat Mew, which I believe the solicitation for blamed on Matt Fraction and David Aja doing that Pizza Dog issue of Hawkeye a few years back (In fact, there's a dog that appears in this that I'm fairly confident is supposed to be Pizza Dog, although he's not named, and I didn't see either of the Hawkeyes among the many super-heroes running around). In the background, The Taskmaster is using his awesome skills to take on a whole mess of superheroes--Iron Man! A The Hulk!***** Captain America! Spider-Man! Ms. Marvel! Ms. America! Hellcat!--in addition to Squirrel Girl, but she ultimately proves unbeatable, thanks to the fact that she has something Taskmaster can't master. This issue contains several pages by Zac Gorman, in which he draws comic strips that replicate Mew's dreams. Apparently cats dream in comic strips? Who knew?

The final issue is devoted to celebrating the 25th anniversary of Squirrel Girl's introduction by creators Will Murray and Steve Ditko in 1991's Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special #8. It's a kinda sorta origin of the character, although not in the "how she got her powers and became a super-hero" kind of way as much as a "where, specifically, she came from" kind of story (That is, it opens with her parents meeting, and the title page is her mom holding her just after giving birth). From there it jumps around in five year increments, and we meet the late Monkey Joe, watch 15-year-old Squirrel Girl help The Hulk take down The Abomination and, finally, enjoy a birthday party with her pals and some Avengers, a party which The Red Skull foolishly attempts to crash.

While the issue is mostly another North and Henderson joint, Murray writes the 15-year-old Doreen sequence, and a piece of Ditko art is repurposed to get something from the great artist into the issue.

*Oh hey, in all those recent discussions of the source of Marvel's current sales woes--you know, whether it was diversity of characters or event exhaustion or them renumbering their books twice a year or whatever--did anyone theorize that maybe it was just that everyone hates the Inhumans, yet Marvel seemed to go ahead and keep publishing Inhumans books constantly, while shoehorning them into pretty much everything they publish? Could that have been a factor? Did Marvel comics readers so hate the Inhumans that they stopped buying Marvel comics to avoid reading about the Inhumans?

**At least not until googling him. He's a prose writer and playwright, and this was his first comics work, which would explain why I had never heard of him. It should be noted that he writes like a comic book writer here, and doesn't display any of the typical flaws one sees when writers fluent in another medium tackle comics-scripting for the first time.

***I was a little surprised that Corin didn't include a joke of any kind referring to Nancy Whitehead as Nancy Whiteheadless. He is a stronger man than I am, I guess.

****I just went to check the table-of-contents of Jon Morris' The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains, the companion book to his earlier League of Regrettable Super Heroes and, to my surprise, Master Pandemonium was not included. Nor was The Orb. Swarm was however, and there's actually a pretty good showing from Marvel villains overall: Stilt-Man, MODOK, Angar the Screamer, Black Talon, The Headmen and others.

*****Not a typo! I'm just not sure which The Hulk it is, Amadeus Cho or Bruce Banner, the latter of whom I'm fairly certain wasn't temporarily dead-ish at the time that issue of Squirrel Girl was pubished.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: April 19th

All-Star Batman #9 (DC Comics) The issue is the concluding chapter of the second story arc of the Scott Snyder-written All-Star Batman, "The Ends of The Earth." Over the past three issues, Batman has faced a series of three different mad scientist-type rogues in issues drawn by different artists, all in an attempt to stave off an apocalyptic threat posed by a spreading "death spot" of a disease. In this climactic issue, which All-Star #6 artist Jock has returned to draw, the mastermind behind the plot is revealed. I would like to be coy here, so as not to spoil that villain's identity, but it is of course exactly the classic Batman villain obsessed with ending the world in its current form and, well, DC went ahead and spoiled his identity on Chris Burnham's variant cover for the issue:
This is a pretty good example of why I am increasingly sick and tired of seeing Ra's al Ghul in my weekly comics. Not only is Snyder using him here as his final boss villain, but Snyder's sometimes co-writer James Tynion IV is also using him as a villain in his current Detective Comics story arc (see below). That means Ra's a Ghul is the villain in two of the three main Batman books at the moment, and they are not part of a crossover or otherwise inter-related story (Additionally, the previous, just-ended arc of Teen Titans used Ra's as the main villain).

I don't begrudge Snyder for wanting to write his Ra's story. Prior to this issue, the only other time he wrote the character was in a brief appearance in Batman Eternal, and that was a comic he was writing with multiple co-writers, and the point of the appearance was simply to eliminate Ra's as a suspect from the series' core mystery. And the fact of the matter is, this is a pretty good Ra's al Ghul story, featuring Batman's immortal villain taking a slightly different tack than normal, and having a rather long, drawn-out conversation with Bruce Wayne about the nature of demons and stories, and how beliefs in the latter of varied over his very, very long life-time.

In other words, it's a pretty good Ra's al Ghul story, but it's hard to stand out as such when there's just sooo much background noise for it to compete against (I read this book prior to this week's issue of Detective, which does acknowledge All-Star #9 via an asterisk, but the later book diminished my esteem for this one, in large part because it has Ra's reverted right back to his more standard portrayal). If Snyder, Tynion and the Bat-office want to restore a sense of threat or menace to the villain--and given the fact that he generally appears in Batman comics when he's trying to wipe out a large swathe of humanity, he probably should have such a sense--then they really need to do something similar to what they've been doing with The Joker, and try to limit his use to once a year or so.

Jock's art is mostly fairly strong, but while he has a great style, he sometimes sacrifices clarity in the action department, as in a scene where Bruce gets pulled through a window of the Washington Monument and briefly fights Man-Bats...somewhere. There's no real sense of place, or interaction between the panels. Jock's portrayals of the Man-Bats are particularly unfortunate, too. They don't look anything like Man-Bat, but are mostly just silhouettes with vaguely bat-shaped wings and bird talons. Given that the first appears just as Ra's is discussing demons, a reader might be forgiven for not realizing that it's been established about a decade ago now (Jeez, has it been so long?) that Ra's had stolen Dr. Kirk Langstrom's formula and given it to a bunch of his assassins, so that he now has an army of Man-Bat ninjas. If Scott Snyder was your gateway into Batman comics and you never read Grant Morrison's run on the franchise, or Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin (in which Ra's al Ghul also played a huge, out-size role), I don't know if these scenes would make too much sense, as it just reads like Ra's has a cabal of actual demons to serve him.

The Francesco Francavilla-drawn, Duke Thomas-starring back-up feature also seems to be concluding--a supposition I base on the fact that it's entitled "The Cursed Wheel Finale"--and I admit to being fairly lost to what happens near the end of it. It would seem that Duke Thomas isn't quite human, although he doesn't know that, as by the end of the story his eyes glow, and, when we see things from his point of view, he appears to have some kind of Daredevil vision. If that's the case, that he's going to end up being a guy who dresses like a bat and has Daredevil-like vision powers, than maybe he will take the name The Black Bat, after the pulp hero who in retrospect seems like an amalgam of Batman and Marvel's Daredevil (Sorry, Cass!), although there's a line of dialogue in here that suggests another possible future code name: The Outsider. It's not a great codename, but it's probably better than not having any codename at all, and it does have some Batman connections, being a name used by a pair of past Bat-villains, and also being the singular version of Bronze Age Batman's first post-Justice League super-team.

Archie #19 (Archie Comics) Regular writer Mark Waid is joined by new artist...Pete Woods? Huh. That's unexpected. His style works okay here, but it's not a milieu that seems expected given the artists' super-comic resume, nor does he provide the best work on the title so far (or a New Riverdale title so far).

This done-in-one story features an unlikely team-up of sorts between Veronica and Jughead, Archie's two closest friends who don't really like one another at all. That changes when Hiram Lodge and Smithers come up with a plan to cheer Veronica up by finding her a new boyfriend, a set-up that Jughead manages to see-through and intervenes to keep his best friend happy by not letting Mr. Lodge come between them.

Could this be the beginning of...Vughead? No. No it could not.

The too-short story is followed by a six-page "special preview" of the upcoming Big Moose one-shot special, but given that it's six pages, that's like one-third of the comic, not really a preview (Bring back the classic Archie strips reprints! Pleeeeaaassse! I beg you!).There's also a full-page ad for the next issues, something called "Over the Edge Part 1", which features an image of Reggie and Archie balling their fists at one another in front of their cars, and a tag promising "The Biggest Comic Book Event Of The Year!" Can that possibly be true, or did they just forget to insert the word "Archie" between "Biggest" and "Comic"...?

My main take away, however, was that it should have been called "Over The Reg."

Batman #21 (DC) Writer Tom King gets in on the Alan Moore-trolling action with this first part of a four-part crossover between Batman, The Flash and the smiley face button from Watchmen. Despite the cover,there's actually relatively-little Watchmen-related material (other than the required nine-panel grid on some pages, although pencil artist Jason Fabok is rewarded for drawing that many panels per page by getting a two-page splash spread), but there are a lot of Multiversal/reboot-related stuff: The apparent Saturn Girl is in Arkham (and a huge hockey fan?) and the interaction of the button with Psycho-Pirate's Medusa Mask summons the Flashpoint Batman (briefly) and The Reverse Flash (not The New 52 one, but the one who was in Flashpoint). How far this particular story arc will ultimately move the "What The Fuck Has Been Going On Since DC Universe: Rebirth? " storyline will remain to be seen, but, in the mean time, it should at least boost the sales of the two participating titles, particularly The Flash.

This issue is mostly just Batman and Arkham inmates watching a hockey game on TV, and then Batman fighting The Reverse Flash, a confrontation that King and Fabok handle pretty well simply by adding a stop watch to the proceedings (a round one with moving hands might have been more Watchmen-y than the rectangular, digital one, but whatever). Batman's strategy for fighting the super-speedster is quite in keeping with King's writing of the Dark Knight's confrontation with Bane in the previous issue, too. I liked the "quite the reverse" line, too.

Given how directly it follows the events of the last two arcs of King's Batman, I'm somewhat curious how this will end up being collected. I have to assume it will be under the title The Button or Batman/Flash: The Button, but I suppose maybe it will be included in both trade collections of Batman (for the fourth volume, as this is the beginning of the fourth arc of King's run) and The Flash. Again, we'll see.

Cage! (Marvel Entertainment) I would say that this really wasn't worth the incredibly long wait between when it was first announced and today, when it finally arrives in its final, collected format, but then, as I believe I mentioned before, the wait was so long that I actually forgot it even existed until just before Marvel started soliciting the single issues.

This is, of course, the Genndy Tartakovsky Luke Cage series, set in the character's early days as the original Hero For Hire. The story is incredibly simple: Shortly after learning that various New York City superheroes are disappearing, Cage himself is captured by a pair of animal men and taken to a mysterious jungle island. There, he and other heroes from his era--Brother Voodoo, Iron Fist, Ghost Rider, Dazzler, Misty Knight and Black Panther--must do battle with animal men, created by the rhyming villain Professor Soos (Get it?). Only Cage is triumphant in all of his matches, because this is his comic, after all, and so he wins the grand prize: The honor of fighting Soos. He does, and after taking an incredible beating, he ultimately defeats the villain.

And, um, that's the whole story, spread over four issues that are mostly filled with pages containing rather few panels.

So no, there's not much to it, but that doesn't mean it isn't a blast. Tartakovsky's character designs are naturally all awesome, and it's a great deal of fun to see how his highly animated style translates into sequential art. His cartooning is pretty spectacular, and he knows how to tell an action scene and a joke in comics form almost as well as he does in animated form. Plotting aside, his scripting--the dialogue, the narration--have a perfectly appropriate, semi-hyperventilating, post-(but still inspired by!)Stan Lee style that would also have been appropriate to the era, although his comic is far less wordy than an actual 1970s Marvel comic might have been.

Tartakovsky's pencils are inked by Stephen DeStefano, himself a brilliant cartoonist whose work is far, far too rare (You can catch him in SpongeBob Comics now and again though), and their art is colored mostly by Scott Wills, although Bill Wray (another great cartoonist!) and Tartakovsky himself handle the colors on issue #2.

Included within are all of the many variant covers, most of which look completely inappropriate, given how different they are in style to the contents they would have covered. There's a strong list of artists who provided them, though: Bruce Timm (!), Arthur Adams, Damion Scott, Trevor Von Eeden, Bill Pressing, Marco D'Alfonso and Joe Quesada.

To help fill out the pages, and justify this being published as a trade paperback rather than something with staples or in something akin to DC's old "prestige format," Marvel has also included a reprint of 1972's Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1 by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska and Billy Graham. The trade will run you $14.99, whereas the individual issues would have cost you $15.96 (and you wouldn't get that reprint). So not only is this a little cheaper and a better value, but I have to say given how slight the story is, reading it in monthly installments probably would have been super-frustrating.

Deathstroke #17 (DC) The title character does something so despicable in this issue--well, in addition to all the killing of people and the weird-ass way he interacts with his children, of course--that I might have had trouble continuing to read his adventures, but given that there's only, like, one more issue left before the book crosses over with the two Titans books and then jumps to $3.99, I guess it hardly matters. From the looks of things, everything from the previous 18 issues (This being a Rebirth title, it had two #1s, because comics) will come to a head next issue.

Josie and The Pussycats #6 (Archie) While the cover says this is the start of an all-new story arc, this flows pretty directly from the cliffhanger ending of the last issue, in which Alexander Cabot finally made his first appearance in the series, to arrest the Pussycats for plagiarism.

The bulk of this issue is an Alexander vs. Pussycats story, in which he whisks them away to his family's ice palace in Antartica to put them on trial. It's pretty weird, but in the same delightful way that the first five issues were.

This is probably the best comic Archie is publishing right now, with Jughead it's only competition. It's definitely one of the better serially-published, monthly comics in the market at the moment. Don't not read it!

Nightwing #19 (DC) I'm a little lost to all the nuances of what might be going on here, but then I never did understand who the villain on the cover was really supposed to be; at one point I was convinced Morrison intended him to be the actual devil, but here writer Tim Seeley implies that he is just a crazy evil psychologist, and one in service of demons and devils of some sort. Then there's the bit with the knife made from a metal that allows you to maybe see the Multiverse when you get stabbed or something? I don't know. I'm enjoying the trippiness of all this, which I'm assuming is meant to be a homage of sorts to Morrison's run on the first volume of Batman and Robin (and Batman before it).

I really love that Javier Fernandez cover too, with the big, blue Nightwing heart.

Superman #21 (DC) It looks like Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason may very well be in the process of providing an excuse for the newly rebooted Kent family to leave Hamilton County for Metropolis, given that it turns out there's something extremely weird and menacing about their neighbor Farmer Cobb, and maybe his cow Bessie and maybe even his daughter, and Jon's bestie, Kathy. Also, the locals are pretty unhappy with Superman's attempt to save them from a giant squid monster (the same one from very early in the book's run) not being violent enough.

Batman has gone missing after the climax of the previous issue, so Superman, Superboy and Robin suit up to find him. Just as last issue providing a really great image highlighting the cultural and character clash between the The Man of Steel and son and The Dark Knight and son, as everyone gathered around the kitchen table for coffee and pie, this one has a pretty great scene of Robin interacting with the Superman family, as he perches atop Superman's broad back and tugs at his cape, telling him to hold steady.

I was really resistant to the very idea of Damian as Robin upon his introduction, mostly because I thought Tim Drake was the best (and ultimate, final) Robin, but I'll be damned if I haven't grown to love that little bastard, particularly the way he plays off of other characters (his short-lived solo title was maybe my least favorite book to prominently feature him). His budding relationship with Superboy in this book as well as the new Super Sons (also by Tomasi) has been a delight, and it was fun seeing him interacting so much with Superman here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The problem with Secret Empire is Civil War II

I was reminded today of not only the existence of Marvel's next big status quo-shaking, line-wide crossover event series Secret Empire, but also that it kinda sorta starts with a #0 issue this week, from a rather unlikely source of superhero comic news: Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter.

Marvel's last big status quo-shaking, line-wide crossover event series was last year's Civil War II, which is of a recent enough vintage that I had just read the collection of it within the last few weeks, and haven't yet gotten around to reviewing it yet (Between the two, Marvel also published a rather heavily hyped event entitled Monsters Unleashed, but somehow most of the market seems to have intuited that it wasn't a real event series, but a minor event series; I think maybe the number of tie-ins is how one determines whether a Marvel event series is an Event-with-a-capital-"E" or an event-with-a-lower-case-"e").

In the past few weeks I've observed a conversation about Marvel's apparently slumping periodic sales, and a Marvel suit's ill-advised statement that it likely has something to do with the market rejecting the current diversity of their super-characters, with many, many more female heroes and heroes of color starring in their own titles.

I almost jumped into the conversation at various points, but kept talking myself out of bothering, as the facts more-or-less speak for themselves, and I don't know that I had anything to say that someone else hadn't already said better than I'd be able to say it.

(But I'll babble parenthetically for a paragraph or so here anyway, I guess! I was mostly just perplexed by the sentiment, as it's not like Marvel has replaced white heroes with black or female heroes, they've just added them to their formerly mostly white and male line-up of title characters. I mean, there are two Captain America titles, one featuring Steve Rogers and the other Sam Wilson; there are two Spider-Man titles, one featuring Peter Parker and the other Miles Morales. Both the new female Thor and the old, male Thor are both still around, both the male and female Hawkeyes are in their own books, and so on. Does that cannibalize readers, so that instead of all the potential Captain America readers reading Captain America, some of them read Captain America: Steve Rogers while others read Captain America: Sam Wilson...? Maybe, but then, that's not about diversity so much as Marvel publishing too many goddam comics in general, as they have too-often done. It's the same calculation they have to make whenever they think about doing yet another Deadpool miniseries; just how hard and how fast to milk a particular cash cow? Like, in addition to Amazing Spider-Man starring Peter Parker and Spider-Man starring Miles Morales, they're also publishing three books starring female Spider-ladies--Spider-Woman, Spider-Gwen and Silk, plus they're in the process of launching new Venom and Scarlet Spider books, and also there's that one set in an alternate timeline where Peter and MJ are still married? And I'm missing one or two other Spider-books, I know. They're offering more and more choices to fans of each franchise, as they've always done, but what's different now is that the goddam things cost like $4 a pop, and they are no longer offering the digital copies as incentive to spend the extra dollar and then there's the thing I actually meant for this post to be about).

While there are a lot of reasons to explain an alleged slump in Marvel comics sales, diversity of characters doesn't even seem to be one of the top ten likely suspects--price, the perceived drop in value, the constant renumberings and retitling and relaunching of books, the fact that film and television now provide an option for interacting with these characters, the increasing number of other comics from other publishers providing greater competition than ever before--and, even if Too Much Diversity were the source of poorer-than-desired sales, there's not really a way for Marvel to address the problem. That's basically just saying "Our audience, racists and chauvinists, don't like people who aren't white dudes. So we've decided to stop making comics that aren't about white dudes, in order to appeal to that audience which, as we just said, are a bunch of racists and chauvinists. Don't worry, though! We'll still publish Black Panther, and the X-Men will have lots of girl heroes and other minorities in them, as per usual!"

One reason I overheard while half-observing this discussion on Twitter and elsewhere had to do with the in-universe creative direction of the character Steve Rogers, which will of course culminate in the Secret Empire event. (Here's a summary of some of the attendant controversies and plot points, if you're interested).

Without discussing the merits of that particular storyline, of which I am pretty much completely ignorant, I have an alternate theory as to why Marvel sales might be falling, or why the publisher and/or the retailers who sell their wares are noticing a lack of enthusiasm: Civil War II.

Whatever one might say about Secret Empire, the fact remains that it is being written by Nick Spencer, who has been writing Captain America comics since 2015, and this upcoming event series is the culmination of all that writing, including the previous lower-case-"e" event "Standoff," which involved the Captain America and Avengers-related books. In other words, there's a plan of some sort here, and the series should provide a climax, or at least some form of punctuation, to Spencer's time with the franchise.

In that regard, the event is somewhat parallel to Secret Wars, the big Event-with-a-capital-"E" series that Jonathan Hickman wrote, capping his years-long run on Avengers and New Avengers. That particular series is another potential source for sales strife and waning enthusiasm for the publisher. As good as the series was, and as strong as Hickman's overall multi-year, multi-book narrative arc was, the publisher essentially canceled all of their books for months and months, replacing them all with alternate universe, What If...?/Elseworlds style miniseries which, regardless of their relative quality, were very, very easy to ignore if you weren't interested in the work of the creators making them. Secret War and its many, many tie-ins represented a long, forced vacation from the Marvel Universe, that anyone looking for any reason to stop reading Marvel comics could capitalize on as the push they needed.

I know the point has been made over and over and over online, but if anyone at Marvel is thinking "Hey, maybe we don't publish enough comics starring white, straight guys?", then it probably bears repeating. Every potential jumping-on point, be it a new creative team, a new direction, a new #1 or a new title and a new #1, is also a potential jumping-off point.

Which is why I bring up Civil War II. If Secret Wars and Secret Empire were extensions of ongoing storylines, the same can't be said of Civil War II, which basically came out of nowhere, and was a particularly naked attempt to capitalize on the strong sales of the original Civil War (which it wasn't a real sequel to, and had little if anything to do with) and the marketing of the Captain America: Civil War movie (ditto).

It was presented as another Event series, it sucked up (and dragged down) pretty much every comic book Marvel published, and it radically altered the status quo of many characters, leading to another round of relaunches and changes in various status quos for some of those characters, but there was no narrative build-up in any title. It was an event for an event's sake, and that's the kind of event that leads to event exhaustion.

So imagine if there was no Civil War II. Or, for that matter, Monsters Unleashed. That would mean that the last major event storyline would have been Secret Wars, which began in 2015 and wrapped up in 2016 and, when it was over, lead to the relaunching of all of Marvel's books with new #1s; the one that were around long enough are just now publishing their third collections worth of material. Secret Empire which, again, begins in earnest this week, would have thus been the first major Marvel crossover to launch in two years. While that's still pretty close on the heels of Secret Wars, at least the series wouldn't be blurring into one another, as they do when you include Civil War II, which filled up most of Marvel's 2016 publishing schedule. The further apart "events" are from one another, then the more like "events" they might feel like.

But because of Civil War II--which, and I can't over-stress this, was not part of any long-term creative strategy on the part of a writer, but an event-for-an-event's-sake--Marvel has been in a state of constant major, status quo-altering event stories for about two years straight now.

Of course readers are going to be sick of it, whether it's about Captain America being in-story retconned into a crypto-Nazi by a deus ex machina cube or not.

Anyway, that's my two cents on that.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Marvel's July previews reviewed

If you read through Marvel's solicitations for the comics they intend to publish in July of this year, which you can do here, you'll see repeated references to "X-Men trading card variant." From the examples (or should I sa x-amples?) seen, these appear to be Jim Lee-drawn trading cards from the early '90s, presumably blown-up to comic book cover size. The images above are those from Avengers, Uncanny Avengers and Generation X, respectively.

That's kind of weird, even by the standards of modern variant covers. For one, it seems like a weird, roundabout way to get variant covers from superstar comics artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee for most of your books. It makes me wonder what Lee thinks about it, and what Marvel's motivation was, exactly; like, are they trolling him here? Will he get paid for each of these, or does Marvel own all those images with his signature on him, and he's already made all the money he's going to make from them, not getting any sort of royalty? If he is getting paid, then that's also kind of weird, given his current position.

But considering that these images all seem like they must have been created around 25 years or so ago now, it seems deeply unfair to Lee. It's a little like sharing a now famous and successful writers work from high school just because you have access to it, you know? Granted, Jim Lee in the early '90s was still a pretty okay artist, and was hella popular, but those aren't exactly the best examples of his work anymore.

As to the comics that will be appearing under those variant covers, well, read on for some thoughts on a few of the ones that jumped out at me this month...

As if the Guardians didn’t have enough trouble keeping off the radar of the Nova Corps, they’ve now run afoul of the Fraternity of Raptors! Can’t a space hero get a break?
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Based on the cover image, I have to assume that "the Fraternity of Raptors" means "Group of Dudes Who Dress A Little Like Birds of Prey" and not, like, an actual frat whose membership is completely composed of actual raptors. Can you imagine how terrifying the latter would be? I mean, fraternities and velociraptors are like two of the scariest things I can imagine. So putting them together...? Brrr!

I like this Spider-Mobile looking car thing. I am so behind on Amazing Spider-Man at this point though I don't think I'll ever catch up, or even be able to figure out how to catch-up. The last issue I read...let's see...was the one where he met newly-elected President Barack Obama...? So yeah, I'm about eight years behind now.

In the wake of the Skrull Invasion, the public has lost faith in the Initiative! What a time for Reptil to make his mark on the Marvel Universe! As storm clouds gather, the members of the black-ops Shadow Initiative must abduct one of their own — who has defected to Hydra! But Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign changes everything. Where Camp Hammond once trained future Avengers, Camp H.A.M.M.E.R. now trains tomorrow’s Dark Avengers! The new principals are Taskmaster and the Hood, and they’re registering villains as heroes and spreading Norman’s empire across the nation. But those who once made up the Initiative aren’t about to let this happen. Hunted by the law, hidden from sight, a Resistance has formed — and its members are out to stop H.A.M.M.E.R. by any means necessary!
456 PGS./Rated T+ …$34.99

I'm currently about 68% finished with a year-long project to reorganize my comics midden (I only spend a few hours every other week on it, which is why it's taking so long; I have a lot of comic books in long boxes, but not that many), and am just now finishing up the Marvel teams portion of my collection. Having just bagged and boarded all these goddam Initiative books, I gotta say, this looks tempting. I wish you could, like, trade in your single issues to Marvel and for, like, a $10 fee get a collection like this back in return. I think a hoard of trades would be far preferable to a midden of comic books--and less of a fire hazard, too!

Written by JOHN BARBER
The Master of the Mystic Arts and the One-Man War on Crime unite their unique talents! When mafia demons strike, it’ll take the combined skills of Doctor Strange and the Punisher to stop them! But does this mean Stephen Strange will adopt Frank Castle’s lethal ways? Or will the Punisher learn some new tricks? The Sorcerer Supreme works on being a little more grounded, while Frank expands his worldview in surprising new directions. But with monstrous mobsters on the rampage, this mismatched pair have their work cut out for them! The very different worlds of two of Marvel’s most unique characters collide, and the fate of New York is at stake!
128 PGS./Rated T+ …$15.99

If this isn't a story about Doctor Strange and The Punisher going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination and accidentally causing it instead, I'll consider the title of this series completely wasted.

Seriously, have any of you guys read this yet? I'm curious because of how weird the team-up itself is (although now that I've read Doctor Strange and The Secret Defenders I know Doctor Strange and The Punisher have totally teamed-up before!), but don't really know anything about the creators.

A PINK NIGHTMARE! The wall-breaking wunderkind we call Gwenpool gets ahold of the VENOM SYMBIOTE and turns into a sword-slinging, web-swinging master of disaster! But it won’t all be fun and games when Gwenpool comes across something huge… something that will directly lead to the Venom event of 2017!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

I still maintain that this is a very good idea for a comic book series. I just hope there's a Venomized Squirrel Girl in future issues. (I will settle for a Venom-possessed Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, though.)

THE SYMBIOTIC SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE! Robbie Reyes was just an average, ordinary super hero with a flaming skull…right up until he found himself bonded with a dangerous extraterrestrial symbiote! Don’t miss the first daring drive of the HOST RIDER!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Oh hey, is that what they mean when they say tongues of flame...?

The Champions are put to the ultimate test. This is no small-town problem they’re facing — it’s up to them to help right an entire world turned upside down!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Okay, I give up. Whose that patriotic-looking young man on the hoverboard...?

When Doreen Green and Nancy Whitehead enter a mysterious programming competition, they don’t suspect that the prize for winners will be…an all-expenses-paid trip to the SAVAGE LAND! Yes: THE SAVAGE LAND! Also known as “a mysterious tropical region of Antarctica that we discovered is actually populated by DINOSAURS”! In the Marvel Universe, I mean. In OUR universe, the only thing ever discovered in that region was a note from Robert Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole (he arrived there weeks after his competition, Roald Amundsen, got there first), which read in part, “This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority”! The story of those Antarctic expeditions is fascinating, but OURS IS PRETTY FASCINATING TOO, plus it has Squirrel Girl AND dinosaurs in it!! So maybe read up on the other ones but definitely check out our comic right away.
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

Finally, dinosaurs. Ryan North is really good at writing Squirrel Girl and cool teens, but where he really excels is in writing dinosaurs.

VENOM #152
COVER BY Francisco Herrera
“THE LAND BEFORE CRIME” CONTINUES! Eddie Brock and the Venom symbiote are reunited, but something’s wrong! The symbiote can’t contain itself within Eddie’s veins and has started seeping out of his pores as he sleeps. To make matters worse, Stegron is aiming to turn all of New York into dinosaurs by sunrise…and Venom is DINNER!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Oh hey, this new Venom series is up to issue #152 already? Huh. I guess I missed the solicitations for issues #2-#151 or so.

You know, nothing personal against Venom or anything, but I'd really rather read a comic book entitled Stegron The Dinosaur Man that guest-starred Venom rather than vice versa.

The Xavier Institute is on lockdown. But the X-Men haven’t succeeded in keeping danger out. Instead, they’ve just locked themselves inside with it. Can the X-Men stop the all-new X-CUTIONER before he claims any more of their number?
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Wait, there's really a really real character named X-Cutioner? He's not a brand-new character, or a parody of a dumb '90s character? Because that doesn't seem quite right. And there's no "e" before the "c"...? It's not just a dopey spelling of the word "executioner"...? His name is pronounced "eks-cuesh-nur"...?