Friday, February 21, 2020

Marvel's May previews reviewed

As with the last round of solicits, the two things that jump out at me here are that Empyre seems like a really big event, in terms of the numbers of titles, tie-ins and  page count (and it will only be half over in May!), and that the X-Men line continues to seem preposterously gigantic to me, particularly so soon after such a well-publicized "jumping-on point" as Jonathan Hickman's taking over of the franchise as its main writer.

Do you want to talk about the specific size of each? Okay, well, here are the comics with the word "Empyre" in the title, and/or Empyre logos emblazoned on their covers: Empyre #3, Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah, Empyre: Avengers, Empyre: Captain America, Empyre: Ghost Rider, Empyre: Invasion of Wakanda, Empyre: Savage Avengers,  Empyre: Spider-Man, Empyre: Stormranger, Empyre: Squadron Supreme, Empyre: Thor, Emypre: X-Men #1 and #2, Captain Marvel #18 and #19, Fantastic Four #22 and The Union #1.

That's 17 individual comics published during the third month of the event, each of which costs either $3.99 or $4.99, meaning that if you wanted to buy and read all of these from your local comic shop, you would be forking over $73.83 cents.

As for X-Men, it doesn't look like there's an issue of the title proper being published in May, but that's okay, as there are two-issues of Empyre: X-Men, co-written by Hickman, to take its place. Completists would be looking at Empyre: X-Men #1 and #2, Cable, Children of The Atom, Deadpool Excalibur, Hellions, Juggernaut, The Marauders, New Mutants, Wolverine, X-Factor, X-Force and, this month anyway, Giant-Size X-Men: Fantomex and 2020 iWolverine.  The majority of these are $3.99, although the Fantomex one-shot and the Empyre tie-ins are all $4.99.  So, if you are reading everything X, that would mean that in May you can look forward to spending $62.85.

Now, if you want the two X-Men reprints on sale in May, a facsimile edition of X-Men #12 and X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills Extended Cut #2, the that will put you up to $71.83, which is pretty much what someone reading all of Empyre would be spending.

So it looks like Marvel's event series is basically creating a line the size of their X-Men line, at least temporarily.

That' many comics. Anyway, here's what caught my attention this month, beyond the sheer number of the things...

In the throes of war, Carol finds herself with a bold new role – and a brand-new weapon – the Universal Weapon, in fact. When a Kree soldier bombs a unified city of the Empire, Emperor Hulkling sends his new Accuser to bring down the swift and necessary hammer of justice. But what at first seems like a relatively simple directive will end up challenging Carol on a personal level she had never imagined.
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Say, if Carol is the new Accuser, shouldn't she do more than just change the color of her costume...? Shouldn't she also have to wear an elaborate headdress, like Ronan wore? Is the Accuser dress code not as strict as it used to be...?

SALADIN AHMED (W) • LUKE ROSS (A) • Cover by Mahmud Asrar
The SERPENT CROWN’s roots in the Pre-Cataclysmic Age lead CONAN back to where it all started…
…but ATLANTIS is not quite what it once was.
And even if he can locate the Crown, NAMOR isn’t going to let that treasure slip through his grasp!
32 PGS./Parental Advisory …$3.99

I know Conan has a reputation for being something of a tough guy, but I can't imagine he can hold his own against Namor, even on land. Heck, I was surprised he did as well as he did against Wolverine in the first Savage Avengers collection, and that he even killed multiple Hand ninjas. Like, I thought ninja were supposed to be really good at the art of fighting.

Jim Zub (W) • Carlos Magno (A) • COVER BY PAUL RENAUD
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fight an intergalactic foe on three fronts! In New York, a villain from the past has been super charged with alien energy. In Mexico, old hatreds turn allies into enemies. And in the Savage Land, the soul of the jungle has been stolen and Shanna the She-Devil’s life hangs in the balance. It’s mystery, magic and mayhem, in the Mighty Marvel Manner!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

I kinda love the fact that the cover for this issue of an Avengers miniseries tied to the Empyre event has zero members of the current Avengers line-up on it, with Ka-Zar, one of the "Agents of Wakanda" that serve as the Avengers' broader support staff, being the closest thing to one of the team pictured. Of course, there are plenty of former Avengers present, and hey, Man-Thing! Anyway, it's just an appealingly weird-ass mishmosh of characters.

An intergalactic war comes crashing into a supernatural showdown between the Spirit of Corruption and the Spirit of Pollution! But who will be left standing?
40 PGS./ONE-SHOT/Rated T+ …$4.99

I am behind on Ghost Rider news, I guess. I don't know which Rider that is that has green fire (although it's a pretty cool look), nor do I know who the Spirit of Corruption and the Spirit of Pollution are. Are both of them on the cover? Because the one in the foreground seems to be lacking both flames and a thing to ride upon.

MARK WAID (W) • Dio Neves (A) • Cover by PACO MEDINA
The invasion has begun! But the alien invaders soon encounter resistance in the form of the Squadron Supreme of America! As the two forces clash, only one thing is clear…the fight for America’s survival has begun!
32 pages/Rated T+ …$3.99

Waid seems to be a pretty big name for a two-issue tie-in miniseries to an event series, but it should be interesting to see a former JLA writer tackle this new Squadron Supereme of America, which Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness have positioned to be as Justice League-y as possible. Again, check out Nighthawk's scalloped cape, which is far more batty than hawkish.

The return of the new Fantastic Four?!
The events of EMPYRE threaten all life on Earth and the future balance of power throughout the cosmos!
And the secret mission that the FF have placed into Valeria and Franklin’s hands requires some big-league help!
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

Say, I like those costumes...! Well, Spidey's and Wolvie's, anyway; Ghost Rider's could certainly be more blue, and I can't see what Hulk is wearing. It took me a second to figure out Ghost Rider's chain icon on his chest, too. I think I might have given him a burning skull symbol, as that's the first thing that pops into my mind when I think of Ghost Rider, but then, maybe he thought that would be too vain.

I am assuming this Ghost Rider is the Johnny Blaze one, which, by process of elimination, would make the green fire one from Empyre: Ghost Rider Danny Ketch...? Unless there's a new Ghost Rider? Are they adding Ghost Riders to the modern Marvel Universe? Are we going to be at Green Lantern levels soon...?

Gerry Duggan (W) • Stefano CASELLI (A) • Cover by RUSSELL DAUTERMAN
The Marauders…the Hellfire Trading Company…all of Krakoa is reeling from the death of Kate Pryde.
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

Wait, Kitty Pryde is dead again...? I know I am old now and time is moving ever quicker, but it still seems to me like she just died/was thought dead. I know Marvel has long-since abandoned the "dead means dead" edict, but I think each character should be limited to one temporary death per generation or so.

Kurt Busiek (MARVELS, Astro City) is back, with the biggest, wildest, most sprawling series ever to hit the Marvel Universe, telling stories that span the decades and range from cosmic adventure to intense human drama, from the street-level to the cosmic, starring literally anyone from Marvel’s very first heroes to the superstars of tomorrow. This first issue includes an invasion from orbit, a picnic in Prospect Park, super hero sightseeing in Manhattan, the All-Winners Squad in 1947, Reed Richards during his time in military intelligence, cosmic beings beyond space and time— and that’s only for starters. Featuring Captain America, Spider-Man, the Punisher, the Human Torch, Storm, the Black Cat, the Golden Age Vision, Aero, Iron Man and Thor, and introducing two brand-new characters, all beautifully drawn by Yildiray Cinar (X-MEN, Legion of Super-Heroes, IRON MAN) in the opening act of a thriller that’ll take us across the Marvel Universe…and beyond. Plus: Who (or what) is KSHOOM? It all starts here. And it goes...everywhere.
32 PGS./Rated T …$3.99

This is the single Marvel book in this round of solicits that I'm most excited about, partly because of Busiek's involvement, partly because of how big and ambitious it seems and partly because of my fascination with Golden Age superheroes in general. I don't really know what to make of it, but it sure looks interesting, and I'll look forward to reading it in trade.

I know I haven't mentioned it since, um, last post, but that Kyle Hotz character sure is good at drawing things, isn't he...?

The Savage Avengers assemble! Wolverine, Conan, Dr. Strange, Elektra, Black Widow, Hellstrom, Voodoo, Magik...and more. The heroes draw up a battle plan against Kulan Gath, and you’ll be thrilled as Conan wields a most unexpected weapon in the fight against darkness.
32 PGS./Parental Advisory …$3.99

I'm excited to see how this book will read with a different artist drawing it, given how poorly the first collection read. And hey, Son of Satan is on the team...? At least temporarily? That's cool! I like Daimon Hellstrom. I wonder what look they're going with this--GAH! Why is his head on fire? Why does he have a long red goatee, kinda like the one I used to have, except infinitely better groomed...? Hellstrom's original look was so perfect, why are they always tinkering with it and making it so much less awesome...?

PAUL GRIST (W) • Andrea Di Vito (A) • Cover by R.B. Silva
The grand unveiling of The Union! A team of super heroes gathered from all over the United Kingdom, featuring Union Jack, Snakes, Kelpie, Choir, and their fearless leader, Brittania! But when disaster strikes on their first public debut, in the form of the invasion of Empyre, the fledgling team is immediately pushed to their limits! Don’t miss out on an exciting new chapter of Marvel from legendary creators, Paul Grist (JUDGE DREDD, JACK STAFF) and Andrea Di Vito!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$3.99

I'm pretty sure I only know who one of these guys is for sure (Union Jack), but the presence of Paul Grist is certainly intriguing, and probably reason enough to check it out. I just wish he was drawing it, as well as writing it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

DC's May previews reviewed

I really like the way that John Romita JR drew Cheetah's face on this Action Comics cover.

That is all.

I'm not going to lie, I legitimately love this cover for Batman #94 by artist Tony S. Daniel, whose work I am usually not very enamored with, even when he's just drawing covers. I mean, that is an amazing sad Batman face, and were I just casually looking at a rack of comics in a comic shop, you're damn sure I would see that sad Batman face and pick that book just to see what Batman is so sad about.

Oh, and Catwoman also looks pretty sad, too.

written by JAMES TYNION IV
art and cover by JORGE JIMENEZ
It was always going to come to this. The Clown Prince of Crime and the Dark Knight Detective go head-to-head for the last time. The Joker has never wanted to win before, he’s never wanted his battle with Batman to end, but now his motivation has shifted. He has decided that one way or another, this will be the final chapter to their story. “Joker War” begins here!
ON SALE 05.20.20
$3.99 US | 32 PAGES

What's this?! Batman...vs. The Joker?! The fuck you say!

Also, I am one billion percent positive that this is not the last time that they will go head-to-head. It's not even the last time they will go head-to-head in this month's solicitations, as they will be in conflict in Detective Comics #1023 and Batman: The Smile Killer (a sequel to Joker: Killer Smile) Oh, and he's also going to be appearing in this month's Batgirl #46.

variant cover by DAN MORA
From the visionary producers of Batman: The Animated Series come all-new stories in this seminal animated world. In this opening chapter, Wayne Enterprises in Gotham City is attacked by a giant robot that steals an entire room from the laboratory. Who’s controlling the robot? How will Batman stop the mechanized menace? And what does it all have to do with Lex Luthor’s sudden appearance in Gotham?
ON SALE 05.06.20
$3.99 US | 1 OF 6 | 32 PAGES

I'm legitimately excited about this one.

First, it's a really good idea for a comic book series and, second, that is pretty much the ideal team for it. Oh, and third, I'm looking forward to getting a good 120 or so pages of new Ty Templeton art, even if it's going to be Templeton in Bruce Timm design mode. Templeton is a great artist, and there's never really enough of his art available on new comics racks to satisfy me.

I'm a little surprised to see that this is "1 of 6," though, as it really seems like an easy enough ongoing series to do. Like, even if they could only get that particular creative team together for six issues, one imagines there are a lot of really talented, fairly popular creators who would love to play in that particular world of Batman. Hell, if they've had various Batman Beyond series running for about a decade now, then it shouldn't be too hard to keep an ongoing series based on Batman: The Animated Series going indefinitely.

written by SCOTT SNYDER
Get ready for the earth-shattering encore! The legendary team behind Dark Nights: Metal and Batman: Last Knight on Earth take center stage and reunite for one last tour.
When the Earth is enveloped by the Dark Multiverse, the Justice League is at the mercy of the Batman Who Laughs. Humanity struggles to survive in a hellish landscape twisted beyond recognition, while Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman have all been separated and fight to survive. Unleash the beast and let the head banging begin!
$4.99 US | 1 OF 6 | 32 PAGES

On one level, I am not surprised that they're doing a sequel to Dark Nights: Metal, given its popularity. Nor am I surprised by the title; I suppose it was either going to be Death Metal or Black Metal. I was pretty shocked that writer Scott Snyder decided to "end" his Justice League runor is it just a temporary ending?with a cliffhanger that will apparently see its resolution in Death Metal. Given that, as I've often complained, Snyder's Justice League has just been one single story line without any distinct, standalone story arcs, and that it spun-out of the original Metal, it increasingly looks like Snyder has crafted a single massive storyline, bookended by Metals.

That is, from a certain angle, an impressive accomplishment, and I think he deserves credit for attempting to tell the single biggest Justice League story of all time (by page count, at least), but, on the other hand, it's not a terribly satisfying read.

When I read the first issue of the post-Snyder Justice League last week, I was sort of surprised at what a relief, and what a pleasure it was to once again read a Justice League story that wasn't about Perpetua and the Totality and the Justice/Doom dichotomy for once.

I kinda wish there were more specials and miniseries and spin-offs, in the way that the JLA era was punctuated by various JLA prestige format specials, Secret Origins & Files and 80-Page Giants and the occasional awesome miniseries. Some were great, some were okay and some were bad, but there was, altogether, a lot of JLA content, and such additional content would have been particularly welcome over the past few years, when there has been, in essence, just one, single Justice League story.

written by SCOTT SNYDER
The World’s Greatest Heroes unite as the Dark Multiverse threatens the DC Universe!
ON SALE 05.13.20
$1.00 US | 32 PAGES | FC | DC
Offered to coincide with Death Metal #1.

In addition to reprinting the first issue of the original Metal series, this month's $1 reprints include 1992's Batman Adventures #1 by Kelley Puckett, Ty Templeton and Rick Burchett, which featured The Penguin and which I totally bought back in the day (It isn't worth a whole bunch of money now is it? Is it? Am I finally rich?!); 2008's Green Lantern #29, the first chapter of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis and Oclair Alberts's "Secret Origin" arc of the series (which seemed to play a role in the Green Lantern film's script); 2004's Manhunter #1, the first issue of Marc Andreyko, Jesus Saiz and Jimmy Palmiotti's series introducing the Kate Spencer version of the character; Stars and STRIPE #1, Johns and Lee Moder's introduction of Courtney Whitmore, who would eventually become Stargirl after some time as The Star-Spangled Kid; and two issues of Wonder Woman from Greg Rucka's well-written but awfully boring original run on the character.

I don't recall having too terribly strong feelings about any of these as individual issues, although I read them all. I'd definitely recommend Stars and STRIPE, though; it's the least predictable of this batch, and therefore a pretty good one for DC to offer a practically-free sample of, before a curious reader makes the commitment to buy the $35 Stargirl By Geoff Johns comic collection solicited last month.

The march toward DC’s future begins here!
By an all-star team of writers and artists!
In May, DC launches a series of special one-shots that detail the history of the DC Universe starting with the debut of Wonder Woman, DC’s first superhero, and leading all the way to a bold new era unlike anything you’ve seen before...It starts on Free Comic Book Day with Generation Zero, and continues in May with Generation One—with each subsequent month seeing a new one-shot spotlighting the next generation of DC’s super-heroic legacy.
The secret history of the DC Universe unfolds before us as seen through the eyes of Wonder Woman, Lucius Fox, King Faraday, and more!
What is the previously undocumented “big bang” of the heroic age? What was the real reason behind the Justice Society’s retirement? Which hero of the Golden Age makes a shocking transformation into its greatest villain? The answers set up the boldest DC storylines ever told in this, the first of five one-shot issues that chronicle the history of the DC Universe and lays the groundwork for excitement yet to come!
ON SALE 05.27.20
$5.99 US | 48 PAGES

Ugh. I absolutely cannot get excited about another DC continuity reboot, given that the DC Universe has been in a state of near-constant reboots since about 2006 or so, and the pace of them are only accelerating. At this point, I just want them to pick a continuity and fucking stick with it.

While the "all-star team of writers and artists" involved with this particular comic book haven't been revealed, one can assume this is masterminded by Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns and many of the creators (plus Brian Michael Bendis), responsible for all the other reboots...that quickly proved untenable, and needed new reboots. Perhaps the presence of Bendis at DC will be enough to make this the new status quo that sticks, but at this point, it's a little like this: The DC Universe line of shared-setting comics is a car and, every time it needs maintenance, you take it to the same shop, where the same mechanics tinker with it and, the next time it needs maintenance, those same mechanics look it over and say, "Wow, whoever fixed this for you last time didn't know what the fuck they were doing, and caused a whole bunch of unnecessary damage that we'll need to fix for you." And that happens over and over; I've actually lost count of how many times the same people have "fixed" the DC Universe since Infinite Crisis.

So yeah, barring some completely unexpected surprise, like Grant Morrison writing the whole thing and Rafael Grampa drawing it, I honestly don't care. I'll check out the trade eventually.

Nice cover on Justice League #46 by Gary Frank. Yes, it's a little weird that so many of the characters who can fly are shown running uphill, but that's okay, it's part of what makes it such a cool cover.

written by MATT WAGNER
art and cover by MATT WAGNER
Writer/artist Matt Wagner’s noir tales of the Dark Knight are collected in a single volume for the first time! Batman has spent his first year fighting organized crime—but nothing in his early career as the Caped Crusader has prepared him for the new menace facing Gotham City: super-villains! Plus, Two-Face creates an army of deformed slaves! Collects Batman and the Monster Men #1-6, Batman and the Mad Monk #1-6, Batman: Riddler: The Riddle Factory #1, Batman #54, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #28-30, and a story from Batman Black and White #3.
ON SALE 06.03.20
$49.99 US | 488 PAGES
FC | ISBN: 978-1-77950-259-9

Let the record show: These are all awesome comics.

Well, I think they are; I didn't read The Riddle Factory and actually have no memory of that.

Oh, wait, I can use the Internet to look for clues about it, can't I...?
Okay, now that I look it up, I see that it was a 1995 prestige format comic written by Wagner, but drawn by Dave Johnson. It was one of those prestige specials released in conjunction with the sequels in the original Batman cycle of films. Brian Stelfreeze drew the cover, which is why I couldn't picture a Wagner comic with that title.

But LDK #28-30 is Wagner's 1992 three-part, Freaks-inspired Two-Face story "Faces," which was young, teenage Caleb's first introduction to the work of Matt Wagner. Batman #54 is Wagner's 2018 collaboration with Tom King, a done-in-one-ish story in which Nightwing tries to cheer up Batman by fighting crime alongside him, which repeatedly flashes back to Dick's time as Robin (this was also, I believe, the first appearance of Dick's original costume post-Flashpoint; it also seemed to assume his pre-Flashpoint origin, having been adopted as a little kid rather than an older teenager).

The two miniseries, Batman and The Monster Men and Batman and The Mad Monk, were a pair of "Year One" era miniseries extrapolated from Golden Age Batman stories, from 2005 and 2006, respectively.

That's a fairly complete-sounding list of Batman comics by Matt Wagner; the only ones missing I can think of are Wagner's two Batman/Grendel crossover series, from 1993 and 1996, and Trinity, and his 2003 Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity miniseries.

written by DAVE WIELGOSZ
cover by KYLE HOTZ
variant cover by KEVIN NOWLAN
For years Kirk Langstrom has struggled with his monstrous alter ego Man-Bat and the serum that transformed him. But he’s finally hit rock bottom following a devastating setback, and he’s going to take out his anger on every single citizen of Gotham City. Will the combined might of Batman and the GCPD be enough to stop Langstrom once and for all? Or will this just be the start of Man-Bat’s devastation?
ON SALE 05.06.20
$3.99 US | 1 OF 5 | 32 PAGES

I like both of these covers, and boy, there sure is a lot of variance between them, isn't there? The Kyle Hotz one looks downright horrifying, while the Nowlan one makes Langstrom looks more like the original design of the character. I also kind of like how Nowlan's version really puts the man in Man-Bat, whereas Hotz puts the werewolf in Man-Bat.

Neither of them is drawing the interiors, however. Those are being handled by Sumit Kumar, who drew the Sinestro story in New Year's Evil. I liked the art on that story. The writer, Dave Wielgosz, also contributed to New Year's Evil, having written the Chronos story. The work of both are therefore still pretty fresh in my mind, as I just wrote about that book in the previous post.

written by MARC ANDREYKO
art and cover by RENATO GUEDES
variant cover byJAE LEE
After the revelation of Leviathan’s true identity in the pages of Event Leviathan, Kate Spencer—an earlier Manhunter—must go on a quest to uncover just how deep Leviathan’s plans go. What Kate didn’t expect is a conspiracy that goes back to the very beginnings of DC history! Unearthing the past to save the future, this is Manhunters: The Secret History! Eisner Award-winning writer Marc Andreyko returns to his classic crime-fighter in this hard-hitting miniseries that will reverberate across the DC Universe!
ON SALE 05.13.20
$3.99 US | 1 OF 5 | 32 PAGES

The only Manhunters I care about are the Golden Age ones, particularly the one with the robot dog, and I don't see either of them on this cover.

I really like this Young Justice cover by John Timms.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

A Month of Wednesdays: December 2019


Justice League #37 (DC Comics) For this issue, part eightPart eight!of the never-ending "Justice/Doom War" arc, writer Scott Snyder is rejoined by on-again, off-again "regular" Justice League artist Jorge Jimenez. I think it was probably a mistake for Snyder and company to have presented the final battle between Luthor and his army of orcs White Martians "apex predator" human/martian hybrids and the heroes of the DCU earlier in the story arc as a relatively long and drawn-out prophetic vision, as when the two armies clash in this, the real battle, I feel like I've already read it (One of the dangers having such a narrow focus for a Justice League ongoing series too, I suppose).

Nevertheless, Jimenez does a pretty fine job on the first few pages, with pages two and three being filled with a two-page splash of Luthor's army running toward the reader, while an airborne Legion of Doom headquarters with huge, spidery, blade-like projections and blazing guns fills the sky behind them, and then pages four and five being  filled with a two-page splash of whichever heroes from the JSA, Justice Legion-A and the DCU Jimenez felt like drawingI counted about 35 recognizably distinct ones, while the background is full of blobs of heroes. Original Hourman Rex Tyler can't fly, Miralco or no, but otherwise it's a pretty great image.

In fact, Guy Gardner's charging-into-battle face is probably the single best part of the issue, surpassing even Batman and Jarro's Geoff Johns-ian stupid/awesome retort to Luthor telling them, "Please tell me you're smart enough to surrender."
Nothing much is actually new here. The League just continues to do what it started doing in the previous issue, and Green Lantern John Stewart drives the Flash-mobile to the end of the universe to do what they said he was going to do last issue. Perpetua does throw a planet at John and Kendra though, so that's cool.

This issue sure felt like the penultimate one of the arc, but given that it's gone on so long already, I fear Snyder may actually draw it out to hit 12 parts.

New Year's Evil #1 (DC) This year's big DC holiday one-shot repurposes the name of a line of eight one-shots from 1997, each of which featured a different villain or villain team by a different creative team, with the only real binding element being that Jason Pearson did pretty cool covers for all of them.

This is, obviously, not that.

Rather it's your now standard $10, 80-page giant-with-a-spine anthology built around a seasonal theme. Here, that theme is, obviously, villains, and how some of them spend their New Year's Eve, or at least holidays that aren't too far away from NYE on the calendar. . Unlike some of the past December-published specials, this one doesn't have a framing device, but is instead just 10 standalone stories, mostly featuring the expected characters (The Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Black Adam) and a few interesting choices (Chronos, Toyman, Prankster), and mostly by the usual suspects, with relatively few surprises on any of the creative teams.

Since this post is already going to be a million words long and several months late, we might as well take the one at a time. So, what lies behind the cover by Jim Cheung and Tomeu Morey, featuring 10 villains, only three of whom actually appear in any of the stories? (I guess The Batman Who Laughs is a bigger draw than The Prankster).

The Joker in "The Amateur" by Gabriel Hardman and Corrina Bechko, Matt Hollingsworth and Steve Wands
Hardman both draws and co-writes this short Joker Story with Bechko, and it features a fairly basic premise we've seen before, perhaps because of The Joker's traditional association as a comedian of a criminal lends itself to such a riff: Someone is stealing his act (Freshest in my mind was 1990's Batman #450, as a Dollar Comics reprint of it was recently solicited for April; there's also that 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, "The Joker's Wild," wherein a casino magnate builds a Joker-themed casino, drawing the mad villain's ire).

Here the plagiarist is just some young punk with a smart phone who looks, the Joker surmises, like he might be named "Steve"; with a little make-up and non-toxic gas, "Steve" poses as a victim of a Joker venom gas attack...right in the middle of Gotham City's downtown during its New York City-like NYE celebration. Panic ensues and the Joker is not amused by having his own NYE crime upstaged.

"Steve" is both ballsy and mouthy, telling The Joker off when confronted, and even, briefly, seemingly checkmating The Clown Prince of Crime. This gets to what I think is the point of the story, though, which not only says something about intergenerational appropriation (perhaps ironic, coming as it does in a DC comic published 79 years after The Joker's debut) and also about the evolution of terrorism, and how easy it is to do so much more of it with so much less these days, thanks to things like technology, mass media and people being primed by their bogeymen.

"Steve" gets his comeuppance, Joker tries to get his credit and Batman gets the villain.

Batman's only in three panels, which is kind of too bad, if only because I'd like to see more of Hardman's Batman. One of the two good images of him we get, in profile piloting the Batmobile with Joker strapped next to him, suggests Brian Bolland's design to me. As for The Joker himself, Hardman's version seems like a pretty classic one, a more-or-less realistic human being with some alterations. Hardman's style is so realistic, that I'd really like to see him draw a longer Batman story somewhere soon, as his Batman and Joker stand out as more cartoonish characters alongside the realistic people, objects and settings.

He also does great gargoyles.

Toyman in "Slaybells Ring" by Kenny Porter, Ramon Villalobos, Tamra Bonvillain and Tom Napolitano
This was, somewhat surprisingly to myself, probably my all-around favorite story in the collection, and I'm not even particularly fond of the rather fluid Toyman character (although killer toys are a great villain gimmick), nor do I recall writer Kenny Porter's name from anything else.

Admittedly, much of that is due to the amazing work of Ramon Villalobos, who is a pretty great artist whose work I'd previously noticed in Secret Wars: E is For Extinction and Border Town, the latter a promising-looking Vertigo title that happened to have been written by a person whose alleged personal conduct made the book rather radioactive (I read the first issue, decided to wait for the trade, and then the news came out that made me not want to read it). What made Villalobos so perfect for that Morrison/Quitely-era X-Men homage book during Secret Wars is also what helps make this short story so interesting: He does a great Frank Quitely impression. Therefore, this reads a bit like a story set in the same comics milieu as All-Star Superman, although unlike Quitely, who there favored minimalist panel-design and almost non-existent backgrounds, Villalobos' panels are packed with details. I just went back for a re-read, and noticed new details in the background, like the "Kord" logo design on one of the shops in Metropolis.

It's the day of the annual Metropolis holiday parade, and Lois Lane and Clark Kent, here looking just like the disheveled lummox Quitely drew him as in All-Star, making clear that it was perfectly reasonable not to suspect that the big oaf and Superman were one and the same, are waiting in line outside of an electronics store. That's when Toyman enters via explosion, accompanied by giant robot versions of his "new line of X-Treme Justice League Figures."

"The toys are ready to play, my dudes!" the one that looks like Green Lantern Kyle Rayner shouts, while one resembling the "electric" Superman of 1998 chimes in, "Who's ready to exterminate the Christmas blues?!"

If they look a bit familiar, they should. They are basically the 1996-1998 Kenner Total Justice/JLA toy line come to life (I had Aquaman and Plastic Man). If that's not entirely clear, this panel in which Toyman shows off their packaging, in which the "Toyman Justice" logo echoes the "Total Justice" logo and we see the Green Arrow Connor Hawke and Aquaman toys, should dispel any doubt.

Toyman's plan is actually a little vague and crazy, but he is apparently going to destroy electronic devices—One by one? With just the three giant robots?in an attempt to turn children away from their phones and tablets and screens, so they can start playing with good old-fashioned toys again (Here, old-fashioned meaning the late '90s; God, I feel old. How old? Like Mumm-Ra before he transforms. Old enough to have made a Thundercats reference). It's a neat point, because Porter has Clark making a similar one earlier in the story, about kids today and their phones.

The kids themselves stand up for the honor of screens, though, helping distract Toyman and save Superman so he can destroy the robots, proving the utility of smart phones in the process. Ultimately, the kids prove that they do still know how to play outside in the snow and that their brains haven't turned to mush, and while that may be a bit over-hopeful on Porter's part, it's a nice conclusion to a short story, followed by an actually kinda touching ending.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know what Toyman's deal is, post-Flashpoint/New 52...? I saw the Hiro version show up somewhere closer to the reboot, but I've lost track of most of the villains who aren't Lex Luthor or The Joker. I'm just wondering if this story fits into the current "canon" or not. This seems to be the original iteration of The Toyman, or at least a version awfully close to him.

Sinestro in "Bright and Terrible" by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Sumit Kumar, Romulo Fajardo Jr and Clayton Cowles
I didn't much care for this one for the same reason a lot of the Green Lantern corner of DC Comics doesn't really grab me: It was outer space-y enough that I couldn't really find much in the way of a purchase. The "holiday" in this one is a made up outer space one, wherein the natives of the planet Tchaalosh celebrate Thuulamon, their "sky-savior'", with a big wicker man in a Green Lantern uniform, some bonfires and some cash sacrifices to Thuulamon's greedy high-priest (There's no space Nicolas Cage screaming about bees or being set ablaze, sadly).

Sinestro is cruising through outer space when he goes to check on the planet, which he once defended from invasion when he was still a Green Lantern and it was in his sector. He talks to a holographic projection of his Legion of Doom boss Lex Luthor throughout, basically to have someone to talk to (for the purposes of moving the story along). It turns out that he is the Thuulamon being celebrated, and he doesn't like the way that the priest used his name and image and semi-twisted what he was taught in order to fleece his people. So Sinestro uses his ultra-violet spectrum powers to appear to them, restate his fascist philosophy of justice through violence against one's enemies and then fly off.

It's an pretty decent quick character sketch of Sinestro, but not much of a holiday storyit's snowing on the planet, I guess...?-and it seems like it could have appeared just about anywhere.

Pretty nice art by Kumar.
Poison Ivy in "Auld Lang Ivy" by Jim Krieg, Aneke, Hi-Fi and Wes Abbot
Wait, Gotham City has a Bar With No Name too...? I didn't know it was a franchise! But apparently so, as that's where this Jim Krieg-written, Aneke-drawn story is set.

Okay, well, actually this particular bar is called The C-List, and its mostly full of Batman villains who would be lucky to even be considered C-List. The Penguin is a glaring exception among the clientele, which features unnamed oddballs like Zebraman, Cluemaster, original-look Ten-Eyed Man, Scorpiana (in her weird, Ian Bertram design from Batman Eternal) and The Eraser (here having a pink-skinned head which is sectioned off into hair at its top, not unlike Bart Simpson's head/hair relationship; he also appears in this form in the Detective Comics annual that was collected in The Arkham Knight, discussed below).

Ivy is there because it is New Year's Eve, and she has made a resolution to try to be more empathetic to her fellow human beings and, perhaps because she too is a villain, these are who she considers her fellow human beings. After spending some evening mingling and picking up on what a few of them might like to change about themselvesThe Penguin, for example, would like to quit smoking, and is depicted vaping which is...actually kinda brilliant. Has no one shown The Penguin vaping before?

At the stroke of midnight, she uses her pheromone powers to help push him to break nicotine's hold on him, help Orca eat healthier (Yeah, Orca's in this too; one more example that the Orca renaissance is still ongoing) and accountant-to-serial killers The Abacus to lose his fear of women.

That last one backfires on Poison Ivy, however, and so she has to kill him.
It's a pretty solid script, although the best ideas in it seem to go unexplored, like a vaping Penguin and Ivy's sensitivity to the seasonal massacre of evergreen trees, which she notes upon seeing one of their discarded corpses lying on the street. (Sadly, there are no jokes about what flavors Penguin uses; do they make an anchovy-flavored vaping juice...?)

Ares in "Winter's Root" by Dan Watters, Aessandro Vitti, Adriano Lucas and Gabriela Downie
I'm not much of a fan of Ares as a Wonder Woman villain, and the stories featuring that hero I tend to find the least interesting are those that too wholeheartedly embrace her as a part of Greek mythology, wherein DC approaches her and her story in the way that Marvel approaches Thor and his story in relation to Norse mythology, only DC hasn't run their version of Greek mythology through the prism of Jack Kirby's brain, the way that Marvel's original Thor comics were.

As much a Wonder Woman story as an Ares one, this one is set at "Winter Solstice", which I guess is what Wonder Woman celebrates in December instead of the Golden Age feast of Diana's Day. For Ares, the true holiday is "Poseidonia." They get in a fight at the base of a tree, Diana entangling him in her lasso to pull exposition out of him while they do so, and he reveals the story of a mortal lover of his, a curse, and why he wants to fight Wondy at the base of that particular tree.

Watters' story is fine, but I had trouble parsing Vitti's artwork, and either I'm out of touch with Wonder Woman's current abilities, or she appears to pull a sword out of thin air at one point after Ares goads her into using her sword for a few panels, and when it first appears it is in a very confusing panel I paused on for some time, and then went back and reread later after later pages sort of explained what happened.

That's not how comics are supposed to work.

Black Adam in "A Coal In My Stocking" by Ram V., Anthony Spay, Jon Sibal, Jeromy Cox and ALW's Troy Peteri
There's a good idea in here, although it doesn't seem to be executed properly, and the in medias res opening didn't really help much (I don't think eight-page stories should require too much jumping back and forth in time, a problem this story shares with the Ares one, although it is more pronounced here).

Black Adam, amusingly shown wearing a fur-trimmed cape for winter wear, arrives at the North Pole, magically opens up a wall of ice and picks a fight with the blue-furred yeti-like creatures (a few of whom wear tiaras) and the eyeless, green-skinned, pointy-eared, magic-wielding, robed humanoids who speak in "Byzantine Tongues" he finds waiting for him there.

Then we flashback to Kahndaq, the fictional Middle Eastern country where I guess Black Adam is once again king (V. seems to take for granted that readers will know Adam's deal, despite the last couple of reboots garbling the Shazam Family of characters). He talks to a sad little girl from a New York orphanage, who tries to explain the concept of Santa Claus to him, and how important Santa Claus is to her Christmas.

Then we flash forward to the present, where Adam walks through a doorway to "Ancient Myra," a potential minefield of exotica, which looks like a generic Middle Eastern country in a Western comic book, save for the fact that the people are all green and have pointy ears...these ones do have eyeballs in their eye-sockets, though. There Adam confronts Ni'Klaus of Myra, a white-bearded wizard in a red robe (who Adam at first addresses as The Wizard, temporarily confusing me as to whether or not this was meant to be Shazam himself). Then there's another jump back to Kahndag, then back to Myra.

The basic idea is that this Santa Claus apparently reminds Adam enough of a wizard named Ni'Klaus of Myra he happens to know that he goes to beat him up and show him where Khandaq is on a map to make sure he brings presents to the children of his country. This feels like the first draft of a pretty funny story, in need of another draft or two.

Now, Santa Claus is, of course, based in part on Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop of the city of Myra, and giving him wizard-like powers is no real stretch, given how common various super-powers are among the Catholic saints. I'm not clear why his name is given an almost Martian-like spelling, though, and apparently ancient Myra is now magically hidden in the North Pole for...some...reason...? And the green-skinned, pointy-eared people of Myra are apparently meant to evoke Santa's elves, but, I'm not sure why...? Nor am I sure what the yetis are all about.

Given how short the story is, too much time seems to have been wasted on Santa Claus-ing details (the elves, the North Pole) and on Adam fighting Ni'Klaus' guards, time that could have been better spent smoothing out the Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas/Ni'Klaus connections, and which choices were important vs which were more nonsensical.

It's a fun and ambitious attempt, though.

Spay's pencil art is decent but unremarkable, reminding me a bit of JLA-era Howard Porter. Where I think it falls down is in the choices regarding illustrating elements of V.'s script that don't quite make sense to me.

Speaking of, I suppose it's possible that Ni'Klaus is a pre-extant DCU character introduced in the pages of Shazam; I've been trade-waiting that series, and DC seems to be in no hurry to collect it. If so, and there's a story explaining Ni'Klaus and his weird kingdom of green people in the modern Arctic, please feel free to ignore my criticisms. If that's the case, maybe this should have just included a not saying "Make sure you've read Shazam #2 before this story"...

Calendar Man in "New Year, New You" by Christos Gage, Karl Mostert, Luis Guerrero and Travis Lanham
And now we get to this issue's other best story. I've been fascinated by Calendar Man since I first encountered him in Alan Grant, Tim Sale and company's "The Misfits" in the first year of Batman: Shadow of The Bat, although most of the Calendar Man stories I've read haven't been as fun as that one (A rare exception was 2010's Batman: The Brave and The Bold #12, by Landry Q. Walker and Eric Jones). I may be the only one anxiously awaiting a Batman Arkham: Calendar Man collection, in part to see if any of his older stories were as fun as the Misfits and in part because I missed and have yet been able to track down 2000's Batman 80-Page Giant #3, which would presumably make the cut.

Anyway, a Calendar Man story! The one villain who is perfect for any and all of DC's seasonal specials! Hooray!

Sadly, this story is set entirely within Arkham Asylum, so we don't get to see him in his cool costume. The particular design that artist Karl Mostert settles on features the tattooed bald head that Sale designed for the character during his Hannibal Lecter-like appearance in The Long Halloween, but he has neither the chubby build of that version, nor the hulking physique of the child-beating New 52 version introduced in 2014's (no good) Detective Comics Annual #4 (I hope that one doesn't make it into a Batman Arkham: Calendar Man trade paperback collection).

Rather, he looks a lot like one might imagine the original Calendar man might look under his costume, and he seems to be his older self, one of Batman's many clever (but just not clever enough) theme villains, albeit a bit more savage than one might have otherwise expected.

This one is, obviously, another NYE-themed story. The new head of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Teisch, is hosting a New Year's Eve party of sorts for the inmates, following up on Calendar Man's suggestion that he take advantage of the ritual to help his ritual-obsessed charges try to change their ways, in part by going around the room and having a few of them announce what they are working on.

Like the Poison Ivy story, this one is also a good place for minor Batman villains, as, in addition to to the title character, Calendar Man has a makeshift gang consisting of Killer Croc, Firefly and Amygdala, each of whom get a couple of panels of attention, as we see how Teisch attempts to heal them and how Calendar Man manipulates them.

He pretty perfectly orchestrates a riot, and is on his way out the door, when in bounds Batman, spouting off holiday trivia through gritted teeth: "You know the New Year's custom of first footing? It's good luck if he first to cross the threshold is a tall, dark man... ...bearing gifts." The first gift is, unsurprisingly, a punch in the face, and the other gifts are equally unpleasant.

Gage crafts a pretty perfect story about a gimmick villain trying and failing to change, the rub here being that Calendar Man makes a show of abandoning his usual calendar and holiday obsessions to orchestrate a perfect escape, only to unconsciously give himself a way to Batman, who gets an incredibly strong three-page depiction.

Gage does a great job on the characters, showing a Grant-like facility to working in odd trivia for basically throwaway scenes that demonstrate how smart the characters are (like in Batman's first footing line, and an earlier scene where in Day explains how a brutal murder he committed was improbably solved by Batman).

I'm not familiar with Mostert's work, but this is the second story in the collection in which a strong Quitely influence is evident. His characters pose and move across the panels in much the same way that Quitely's do, and his Batman looks an awful lot like the one that appeared in Batman and Robin.

Like Villalobos, Mostert is an artist whose work I want to see more of.

Chronos in "Father Christmas" by David Wielgosz, Cian Tormey, Dave McCaig and Andworld Design
I'm not usually a fan of time travel stories, but this one by writer David Wielgosz and artist Cian Tormey is a pretty strong one. The time-themed villain, shown here in a particularly terrible costume from I know not where (Note: Yes, I love his original costume; if you've managed to keep track of him and know where this look comes from, please let me know), is making attempt #64 to change his crappy father's life on Christmas Eve, when he himself was still just a child, essentially trying to force his dad into being a good father and, perhaps, changing himself in the process.

None of the strategies seem to work, no matter how direct he is, and no matter how much progress he seems to make, his father inevitably returns to form. Ultimately concluding there's nothing he can do, despite his ability to control time and and try over and over again, Chronos decides that his fate is written and, ultimately, his father's life mattered so little in the grand scheme of things after he impregnated his mom that there's no reason not to just give up on trying to change him, and killing him off.

It's obviously a kinda dark and depressing story, even if it's ultimately one about loving oneself, but it works well, and given that Chronos isn't exactly a traditionally dark and depressing character, this isn't exactly a derivative or predictable story.

The art's nice, and the parts of it I didn't care forChronos' costume, Captain Carrot's costumeweren't really up to Tormey.

The Prankster in "...And a Prankster New Year!" by Kurt Busiek, Dale Eaglesham, Mike Atiyeh and Todd Klein
This seems like a surprisingly high-profile creative team for a special like this, which more often than not features up-and-comers or creators not traditionally associated with DC or big DC books. It's also a pretty good one. The classic Superman villain has reinvented himself as distraction-maker-for-hire, tying up superheroes with elaborate "pranks" for enough time for their various archenemies to pull off their own schemes. No longer a solo act, The Prankster now has a whole team of apprentice pranksters, each a beautiful woman wearing a uniform that I guess I'd describe theater usher? Or maybe sassy bellhop...?

After a brief run-through of recent successes, which allows Dale Eaglesham to draw Superman, Green Lantern John Stewart, The Flash and Wonder Woman for a panel apiece (and gets Angle Man and Goldface name-dropped), Team Prankster's secret lair is suddenly stormed by a group of unexpected Metropolis heroes: Superman, Supergirl, The Guardian (the Jake Jordan "Manhattan Guardian" version) and...a transformed Jimmy Olsen...?

This isn't what it seems, of course.

As should be expected by a writer of Busiek's experience and caliber, it's a super-tightly scripted character portrait, one that simultaneously reinvents the character while adhering to his essential nature, and making a rather silly-seeming, old-school villain that some cynical readers might have expected Superman to outgrow by this point seem like a villain with a place in his rogue's gallery.

I haven't seen Eaglesham's art in a long time, so it was fun to see his work again, too. I guess this is the other other best story, after the Toyman and Calendar Man ones.

Harley Quinn in "Little Christmas Tree" by Vita Ayala, Elena Casagrande, Jordie Bellaire and Dave Sharpe
This Harley Quinn/Renee Montoya story would seem a little more unusual if the two Gotham Girls co-stars weren't currently appearing in the Birds of Prey film, which may have inspired writer Vita Ayala to pair the two for a Christmas story.

After Montoya does Harley a solid by staying overtime to process her so she doesn't have to sit in a Gotham jail over the holidaysfor some crime she is apparently innocent ofHarley decides to force merriment on the grumpy Montoya. A series of failed attempts eventually climaxes in a rooftop fire for s'mores, free psychiatric advice and girl-bonding time, and non-alcoholic sparkling cider in champagne flutes.

I tend to find the Harley Quinn character super-irritating, but having her share scenes with a particularly blue Montoya is a pretty good idea, given the sharp contrast between them. Montoya is here still moping over the loss of her girlfriend, Batwoman (Who has a TV show, but no comic right now...? That's kinda weird, right? I don't think I know of anywhere that Batwoman is even appearing in DC Comics now, outside a single Giant she shared with Supergirl recently).

Casagrande's art is pretty great, and it's no real surprise that she'll be getting her own pretty high-profile series soon, even though it's coming from Marvel and not DC.

I didn't personally care for Sharpe's lettering though, which depicts the sorts of emphasis words that often appear in italics and bold in comics in explosively bigger, colored fonts, mostly red and blue. I suppose it's used to distinguish Harley's way of speaking from that of "normal" people, and this probably isn't the only place it's been done, but it wasn't to my taste.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #100 (IDW Publishing) Okay, the publication of this issue is a pretty big deal, no matter how you want to slice it. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original volume of TMNT lasted 62 issues. Archie Comics' Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures lasted 72 issues. This run, by Eastman, Tom Waltz, Bobby Curnow and company rather dramatically exceed both of those titles, and dwarf the issue-counts of all the other ongoing ninja turtles comics. And this issue does indeed conclude the Eastman/Waltz 100-issue run that began in 2011, but next month the series continues with a new creative team and a 101st issue.

I bought and read this issue, likeNovember's #99, in preparation for that new direction, as I am a big fan of cartoonist Sophie Campbell and, visually at least (having not read much of her writing of them yet), her take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who are, of course, among my favorite comic book characters (Particularly their original, Mirage Studios iterations).

I was still somewhat lost on the specifics and many of the characters playing a role in this 42-page conclusion, but that's certainly more my fault than the creators, given how I walked out of this particular movie, like, one-sixth of the way in and then just came back for the last few minutes or so.

Everyone who was fighting in issue #99 is still here fighting, with the major development being the resurrection of the dead Sheredder that opens a gate to hell and summons a gigantic red dragon that appears to be a fusion of Western and Eastern dragon designs. The good guys ultimately win, with Oruoku Saki, Hamayato Yoshi and Tang Shen, the love triangle at the center of the turtles' origins across several iterations, all finding peace. The cost? The life of Master Splinter, who was here the reincarnation of Yoshi in a mutant rat-man body.

Splinter has died before in TMNT comics, having died in the Peter Laird-driven fourth volume, and been presumed dead by the turtles several other times, but this is here a pretty big deal, and a nice, sharp break with what has happened before, giving Campbell particularly fertile ground to start here run on.

I have to confess that the part of the book I was most excited about was the full-page "Next Month" add for #101, featuring Campbell's drawing of all five ninja turtles, the original four plus the new, female Jennika, shell-to-shell in a tight circle, their various ninja weapons raised.

Well, I think that was the part I was most excited about. There's also an ad reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin, with four names below it: Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Tom Waltz and Andy Kuhn. That suggests Eastman and Laird reuniting for a TMNT comic, which is about the most exciting comics news you could tell me, although the premise of another writer and another artist in the mix makes me wonder if Eastman and Laird's contributions will be limited to co-plotting or co-writing a story with Waltz, and, perhaps, some cover art.

I hope they are drawing more, as the Turtles never quite look like the real Turtles to me when they are drawn by people other than Eastman and Laird. Even their individual Turtles, drawn with other Mirage Studio collaborators, never look quite as "right" as those that Eastman and Laird used to draw together, when they would pass pages back and forth, so that they both seem to have touched every panel repeatedly, creating an alchemical style that is hard to find in American assembly-line produced comics.

True Believers: AnnihilationMan-Wolf In Space #1 (Marvel Entertainment) That's the official title of this publication, at least according tot he fine-print on the first page. I guess the "In Space" is needed to differentiate it from True Believers: AnnihilationMan-Wolf...? Or maybe Marvel thinks there's a chance they will do other True Believers: AnnihilationMan-Wolf comics in which the sci-fi space werewolf who is also a sword-wielding extra-dimensional fantasyland god who is also also Daily Bugle Editor-in-Chief J. Jonah Jameson's son will appear in other settings, like In The Big Apple or In Cloud Cuckooland or On Campus or 20,000 Leagues Below The Sea...?

I don't know, but I was pretty pscyhced to get this comic, for the obvious reasons. I mean, just look at the cover. And then, I was more psyched still to see George Perez's name listed alongside that of Frank Giacoia in the credits page. I mean, I came for the craziness, but I'm happy to see that it's going to have some fine 1972 George Perez art attached.

The story of John Jameson, astronaut-turned-werewolf, is obviously very much in progress at the start of this story, which was written by David Kraft and apparently originally appeared in Marvel Premiere. I don't know precisely what happened before this point, other than what the narration boxes tell usthat Jameson found a symbiotic jewel on the moon that turns him into a wolfman when he's exposed to lunar radiation, and that he has just crash-landed a spacecraft on the surface of the moonbut I know where I can find out, as there's an ad for Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection on the second-to-last page of this comic, which I have just gone and ordered on Amazon between starting and finishing this sentence.

As for what happens in this issue, Jameson flees his downed spacecraft, which I am assuming he crashed on account of the fact that he turned into a mindless werewolf while flying it, and then he  went running around the moon, protected from exposure by the magic glowing "weirdstone" that is apparently embedded in his throat. He enters a cave where he finds a temple filled with scantily clad white people who are dressed like they might have wandered in from the pages of one of Marvel's Conan or Thor comics of the day. That, and he now finds that he has his own mind back again, despite the fact that he is still in wolf form. Oh, and also, he can talk, although the way it's lettered it appears to be some sort of psychic talking (In maybe the oddest touch of the book is that Man-Wolf's face never un-snarls; his mouth is always wide open, so that it looks like he's wearing a wolf-mask rather than that he's actually a real werewolf.)

These people convince Man-Wolf  that he's now a reincarnation of the Stargod from their world, and he's meant to lead them into battle against a cruel overlord. As soon as they offer him a cool sword, he agrees. This is page four. (Page four!).

They give him some new armor and weapons, and leave the cave to find themselves on a flying mountain. They climb atop some weird red lizard pegasuses with horns in their heads, and fly into battle against skull-headed warriors mounted atop skull-faced horses with paws, exposed spines terminating in long bony tales and big, green dragonfly wings. This leads to a senses-shattering two-page spread that looks like the exact midway point between 1970s fantasy van art and Renaissance cathedral ceiling art, a spread that is well worth the $1 and that I wouldn't mind seeing painted on the ceiling of my bedroom.
The battle stretches on for a few more panel-packed pages, wherein Perez's art has an unusual amount of Kirby influence evident, before Man-Wolf/Stargod falls from the sky with a few of his fellows. There on the ground, he pulls his sword from a tree, raises it and vows, "From this moment on-- --The MAN-WOLF IS OUT FOR STINKING BLOOD!" The "next" box promises "The final, fatal conclusion of the Man-Wolf Saga!" The conclusion! This whole story was only 17 pages long, and it's almost over!

I'm not sure how on earth Jameson/Man-Wolf/Stargod will tie into the Annihilation mini-event Marvel is cooking up, but having him in it certainly piques my interest.

Hard to believe that Sony went ahead and greenlit a Morbius, The Living Vampire feature film when they were sitting on this bonkers IP, isn't it...?

True Believers: Conan: Serpent War #0The Valley of The Worm (Marvel Entertainment) Marvel apparently decided to publish this rather laboriously titled $1 reprint of a story from 1972's Supernatural Thrillers #3 because the weird Conan: Serpent War crossover between some lesser (lesser than Conan, that is) Robert E. Howard creations and, randomly, Moon Knight  that they are publishing is based on the some elements of "The Valley of The Worm." That was a 1934 Howard story starring James Allison, who could recall his past lives as various ancient heroes.

In this version, adapted and scripted by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Ernie Chua, it opens with Allison, a well-muscled, sweaty blond man on his deathbed, narrating as his past lives as various blonde dudes parade past him, and, on a pretty great two-page splash of Siegfried battling a rearing red worm-like dragon Fafnir, as Perseus, Beowulf and Saint George look on, Allison tells us that these myths are all "but the dimmest, dreariest echo--the palest racial memory-- --of the grim, underlying reality which was the adventure of Niord Worm's-Bane--!"

Now, I haven't read the original prose story this comic adaptsbut it's in the public domain now, and you can read it for free online, if you're so inclinedbut having read the comics adaptation, I feel pretty secure in saying that it's probably not so great that it makes the stories of those heroes seem dim or dreary. You've got to admire Howard's gumption, though!

The comics opening struck me as really rather racist, in a way that seems shocking today. Now, finding pretty racist content in popular pulp fiction from the 1930s is no real surprise, but it struck me a little harder than usual just because this was adapted in the 1970s, and is being reprinted today.

Niord is from a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned warriors whose babies never cried, having names like Bragi and Helga. They march southward until the encounter a jungle country and hear "the tom-toms of a savage people" that they immediately go to war with. Niord calls them Picts, and they are squat, black-haired, brown-skinned, hairy, beast-like men, the champion of which has such a hard head that he doesn't die when Niord brings his shield down upon it in a blow that "should have splattered his brains like water."

This is Gorm, who becomes Niord's bro, despite Niord's casual racism.
They have some adventures together, fighting a cool-looking saber-toothed tiger and a giant snake, before we get to the  Valley of the Worm, where Niord must slay the monster to avenge his people, whom it killed off-panel. It's preceded out of its great hole in the earth by what looks like a Bigoot rocking out on a flute, and then it emerges, a weird mixture of snake, insect, millipede and cephalopod. I really liked the bizarre design, which was the main reason I picked this up in there first place.
It reminded me quite a bit of the insect/snake "centipede" monster on the side of the case of the arcade game Centipede, although that had a series of more crustacean-like claws rather than tentacles that work like millipede legs.

Niord manages to kill the worm, but at the cost of his own life. I suspect that it is Allison and/or Niord that shows up in Serpent War rather than the worm, which is kinda too bad, because the worm is the coolest character in this book. Followed closely by the fur-covered inhuman hypeman with the "weirdling pipe."


Avengers Vol. 4: War of the Realms (Marvel Entertainment) One of the reasons I felt some pressure to read Marvel's War of The Realms series proper was that I knew some of the Marvel series I read regularly would be tying into it, series like Avengers, which, like WOTR, is written by Jason Aaron. Somewhat surprisingly though, Avengers' tie-ins to the big event series were more around the edges, comprised of a series of done-in-one issues exploring different characters and parts they played in the war, followed by an epilogue.

Ed McGuinness, the artist who launched this Avengers series with Aaron but has only ever been an intermittent presence on the book, is here for three of the four issues collected herein, and Aaron's series of done-in-ones proves a good one for McGuinness' participation, as he's able to entirely draw several complete stories without a fill-in artist.

The first issue focuses on the new Squadron Supreme, Agent Coulson's "The Squadron Supreme of America", which was introduced fairly early in the series as the United States' answer to the more internationalized new incarnation of the Avengers, which is based in the arctic and lead by the King of Wakanda. Aaron heightens the characters' existence as analogues to the Distinguished Competition's Justice League about as much as possible, and McGuinness' art is such that I wouldn't be surprised if he drew the characters on the page as, say, Batman and Wonder Woman first, and then went back and fussed with the details to make them look more like Nighthawk and Power Princess (Nighthawk, for example, even has a scalloped cape that opens up into a bat-shape in one scene, instead of the more expected feather-y look of a guy with the word "hawk" in his name).

This explores the five-hero roster a bit, as well as the wrong-ness of them, which was apparent but unexplained upon their first appearance. Clearly Coulson, who has made as dramatic a heel turn as one can make in the Marvel Universe, is manipulating them for some nefarious purpose, as he talks about the team during a dinner with Mephisto, who increasingly looks like the ultimate villain behind all of the disparate story threads in Aaron's complex Avengers run. As far as WOTR tie-in goes, Frost Giants attack Washington, D.C. while Malekith's forces are invading Manhattan. The Squadron then suits up and goes into action against them, savagely killing them as if they were Mark Millar's Ultimates, Hyperion and Power Princess fly through giants as if they were sentient bullets, and then herding them into Lake Erie and towards Canada, at which point they were no longer America's problem.

The second issue is the most WOTR specific. It's narrated by former Agent of Atlas and current Agent of Wakanda Ken Hale, The Gorilla-Man, as he goes about some of his tasks as a member of the new Avengers' support staff. These include a meeting with double-agent Ursa Major (which they conduct in a zoo), as well as helping defend Avengers Mountain from a siege laid by Frost Giants and others of Malekith's forces. Typically, there's a lot going on, and we learn that Ursa Major isn't the only character with split allegiances. McGuinness, inked by Mark Morales, is a great artist for Gorilla-Man, and this issue gives him the opportunity to draw all sorts of scenes suggested by War Of The Realms: This Avengers line-up charging into the battle in Manhattan and a sequence devoted to unveiling Captain America's Jotunheim Strikeforce, Freya's Svartalheim Strikeforce and Captain Marvel's mission to defend Earth (in a way, this issue serves as a which-member-of-our-cast-is-doing-what-during-the-crossover guide).

The third is a She-Hulk spotlight. Narrated by She-Hulk, it tells her origin and it tells of her evolution from the fun She-Hulk to the current, more Hulk-y She-Hulk, and it meditates a bit on the differences between the original Hulk and She-Hulk, and how Bruce Banner might have thought his cousin Jennifer Walters was much luckier than he for being less monstrous for so long, although, as a man, he didn't necessarily know or understand all of the things she had to put up with as a female superhero (I think Aaron does a pretty good job on this, but hell, I'm a man too; the one part that stood out to me as maybe not accurate was Carol Danvers telling Jennifer that Trolls are "mean, strong, and tough as bargain-bin bras." Is that a...truism? I do hope Aaron ran that by some ladies in his life before turning that script in, just in case).

The character work all takes place in the narration, while the images on the pages are devoted to, first, a courtroom fantasy (Er, "psychoactive calisthenics" in some kinda high-tech Wakandan meditation chamber) in which the more familiar version of She-Hulk prosecutes the current version before a jury of other She-Hulk designs and Judge Jennifer Walters), a battle against Ulik and his troll armies, her acting as reinforcements at a Roxxon facility in Antarctica, and then back to Manhattan for Frost Giant clean-up duty (where she meets the temporarily all-seeing God Without Fear Daredevil, who passes on some "super-vague and unhelpful warnings.")

There are a couple of really fun bits in the story, but I think I liked this one the best, as it took me a few seconds to process what Ulik was saying and why he was saying it at this point:
See, he's literally King of The Trolls...!

Well, I thought it was funny.

For the final issue, entitled "The Day After A Day Unlike Any Other," McGuinness is sadly MIA, replaced by artist Jason Masters. Masters' style is very realistic and seemingly reference heady, and the style is therefore one I'm not personally crazy about. It's definitely a sharp, record-scratching change from the look and feel of the previous issues.

It opens with Tony Stark and Thor nude in Avengers Mountain's hot tub—Don't worry, Tony's wearing his helmet and using it to remote control various suits of armor, so he's not totally goofing off—and enjoying some rest and relaxation after the crossover. Soon, Captain America joins them, using his mighty shield to shield his private parts as he eases into the water and then, later, Carol Danvers (in a bathing suit), Robbie Reyes (in shorts and a t shirt) and a hulked-out She-Hulk, in nothing, prompting a variety of amusing reactions. 

Throughout this scene, which the script leaves and returns to repeatedly, I couldn't help but imagine how popular such a scene would have been in the movies, if it got Chrises Evans and Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. shirtless and wet, nor could I help but wish that McGuinness had drawn it, or else some other Marvel artist known for drawing sexy dudes and ladies (Good guest-artist gig for Frank Cho? Or Chris Anka?).

While those slugs are relaxing, Black Panther and Blade are still working, the later dropping in on Coulson and the Squadron to level a threat and plant a seed of doubt among the Squad members, and Blade hunting vampires.

It's a really nice, fun, taking-stock sort of issue.

The final inclusion in the book is part of Free Comic Book Day 2019 (Avengers/Savage Avengers), a 10-page sequence by artist Stefano Caselli essentially showing snippets of story points that are apparently coming in the future: Iron Man in the past, face-to-face with the primordial Avengers team that appeared in the initial arc and whose individual members would have their origins told in occasional fill-in issues, Namor's Defenders of the Deep coming to blows with the Squadron Supreme over a Roxxon oil rig; Blade, Black Panther and Ghost Rider discussing the need to perform an exorcism on his car; and, finally,  Carol, She-Hulk and I want to say Captain America and Thor looking quite different than usual in space. 

Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 2: The Arkham Knight (DC Comics) I'm not sure precisely when it happened, but artist Brad Walker seems to have reached a new plateau in his skills. I've seen his work on various DC books off-and-on for years and years now, and I don't think it's ever looked this good. Perhaps it's simply a matter of Andrew Hennessy's inks, or perhaps it's Nathan Fairbain's colors, or maybe he was particularly inspired by the story, character or milieu, or perhaps he just decided that instead of bringing his A game to Detective he would instead bring his A+ game, but whatever it is, this sure looked like the best work of his career to me, head-and-shoulders above what I would have pictured in my head if someone said "Brad Walker's Detective Comics" to me.

To be clear, I've always kinda liked Walker's art, and he's clearly always been good at drawing super-comics. But this? This is is amazing work.

Walker pencils a majority of this second volume of writer Peter J. Tomasi's Detective Comics run, all of the title story save for the 12-page prologue that was published in Detective Comics #1,000 (drawn by Doug Mahnke and Jaime Mendoza). After the five-issue arc, there's also the Tomasi-written Detective Comics Annual #2 (drawn by Travis Moore and Max Raynor) collected in this volume.

There was some degree of mystery over the identity of The Arkham Knight suggested in that prologue, as well as in the marketing for this arc I had seen (That is, pretty much just the solicitations). This is, I suppose, because the character is making its in-continuity comics debut, having originally been created for one of Batman: Arkham video games (2015's Batman: Arkham Knight), where his surprise identity reveal was apparently a story point (He was Jason Todd, by the way. Spoiler!).

This Arkham Knight is...not, and the reveal is made somewhat dramatically three chapters in, after a cliffhanger in which the Knight unmasks before Robin and monthly readers would have had to wait a whole month to see who the Knight was...and to see that the cliffhanger was kind of pointless, as the character was a brand-new one, anyway ("Even without the helmet, I still don't know who the hell you are, and I really don't care," Damian responds to the unmasking, Damian-ishly).

The surprise readers will likely have experienced was that the Knight was actually a woman, and a rather young one at that. She is, to spoil the story which I am assuming you've read by now, Astrid Arkham, the never-before-revealed adult daughter of Dr. Jeremiah Arkham and his never-before-revealed wife (Why the guy who runs a gothic castle stocked with the world's most flamboyantly evil serial killers and madman kept his family on the DL should be kind of obvious). Her origin is told in full in the fourth chapter, and it's actually pretty interesting. She was born in the midst of a riot in the asylum, delivered by Poison Ivy while the likes of Harley Quinn, The Joker and Clayface protected them. Her mother, beloved even by the most wicked of the maniacs for her kindness to them, was killed by a batarang during the chaos (Not one thrown by Batman, but one that I transfer patient had picked up after it bounced off someone else's head as Batman was outside of the asylum, trying to stop break-outs).

Astrid then grows up in the asylum, where various members of Batman's rogues gallery act a bit like the animals in The Jungle Book to her, helping raise her. Naturally, she begins to see Batman from their point-of-view, and it's not like her father has the most charitable view of Batman either; in fact, he only really visits the asylum to drop off beat-up escapees. It didn't help that she saw security camera footage of a batarang killing her mother, either.

In my favorite part of the story, Batman says aloud, "So that explains why Astrid Arkham sees me as a curse hanging over Gotham," leading to the first of two great Batman burns in this book, this one from Damian:

So as The Arkham Knight, Astrid assembled a group of extremely devoted followers, many culled from the ranks of henchmen and criminals who have witnessed Batman's...negative influence up close, and dressed them up as knights with up-to-date answers to medieval weaponry. Her costume looks a bit like an Iron Man suit converted to resemble Batman, which is a little weird; I don't know why her Arkham Knight costume looks so Batman-y, except for the fact that the version from the video game and its comic book tie-ins did. Her crusade to rid Gotham City of Batman is part military and part public relations, and it involves such tactics as killing a bunch of bats, setting off a "sun bomb" to literally drive darkness out of the city and trying to recruit Robin to her cause. She also has many of the inmates on her side, particularly Dr. Phosphorous and (oddly, I thought) Anton Arcane, who help her fight Batman and Robin as the story climaxes.

Many of the ideas about how Batman is actually bad for the city are ones we've seen tossed about in other comics and other media before, but Astrid is a new messenger, and her weird anti-Batman Knights Templar group is an interesting concept, as was her origin, I thought. And hey, she's a quality new Batman villaineven if she's related to an older character and based on one from a video gameand we don't see those nearly as often as I'd like. It's sometimes a little surprising to me just how much Batman content gets produced so often, given how reluctant so many of the men (and it still almost exclusively men) who create it are to invent new villains whose IP they won't be able to exploit themselves.

I also think Tomasi is, at this point, by far the best writer of Damian Wayne, and he has a great handle on the Bruce/Damian dynamic, as well as how each relates to Alfred. Far too oftenthat is, pretty much everywhere other than Tomasi's comicsit seems like Batman and Robin aren't even partners anymore, let alone father and son, so rarely do they actually co-star in stories.

And, again, Walker's art is great. He does something neat with Batman and Robin's eyes, making it clear that their pupil-less appearance isn't meant to be an artistic flourish, but that they are literally wearing opaque-looking white lenses in their masks, and he allows just a suggestion of the eyes beneath the lenses at time to give us greater access to the character's expressions than might otherwise be allowed. It's pretty different than what everyone else does, but I liked it (His art also reminded me a bit of Rags Morales' here and there and, oddly enough, Bruce Timm's, at least in terms of how he draws Batman; the style is complete different, but the way he draws Batman's jawline, cowl and cape is suggestive of a realistically-rendered take on The Animated Series Batman).

I don't have as many kind things to say about the annual, which fills the last 38 pages of the book (Well, the last 38 before the variant cover gallery). So I won't say too much about it. It deals with The Reaper, introduced in the "Batman: Year Two" story arc, and how, exactly, that fits into Batman continuity at any point, let alone now that we're in this weird, unsettled period of ongoing rebooting, is beyond me. Tomasi acknowledges this, of course, having Batman pull out his Black Casebook, which deals with his "unusual and unexplainable adventures," as he says. The casebook is a concept from Grant Morrison's Batman run, and his idea was basically that all of the craziest Batman stories, even those involving transdimensional imps and rainbow monsters and robots and aliens and time travel, had really happened, just differently than they might have appeared in the original comics in which they were published.

Here I think Tomasi is using it to justify doing any kind of story about The Reaper that refers back to events in comics that I'm not sure DC says officially "happened" anymore (Even though there's nothing in it as crazy as a rainbow monster, of course).

This comic is something of an extended Morrison homage, or is at least has repeated references to Morrison's Batman comics, as it also acknowledges Batman Inc when Batman and Alfred go international to tackle what is basically Reaper Inc (We also get a look at Batman's Greek Batcave, which is pretty cool).

Given this, I rather wish one of the artist Morrison had worked with on Batman Inc had drawn this instead of Moore and Raynor, whose work is decent but unremarkable, and seems like a disappointment following so close on the heels of career best work from Walker.

Oh, and the annual does have a fantastic burn from Alfred in it:

I know that Batman is the Batman book that gets all the attention these days, as that's where all the "events" seem to happen, but Tomasi's Detective isn't just the better book at the moment, it's shaping up to be a pretty good Batman book even when compared to those from past moments, too.

The Immortal Hulk Vol. 5: Breaker of Worlds (Marvel Entertainment) Writer Al Ewing and pencil artist Joe Bennett's Immortal Hulk run seems to reach a climax, or at least a major turning point, in this volume, most of which involves Team Hulk's rag tag team of monsters and pissed-off allies uniting and taking the battle to General Fortean's Shadow Base. Fortean has bonded with the new Abomination's abominable body, becoming an extremely formidable, extremely queasy-making foe (As upsetting as The Abomination design remains, there was a new kind of ickiness revealed in this volume, when Titania is pounding on his body, and her fist sinks deep into it, leaving large, fist-sized divots in its flesh).

I've been impressed with the scope and ambition of this book since the start, and particularly with how horrifying a horror book it actually is, but it wasn't until I was reading this fifth collection that it actually reminded me of Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and company's 1980s Swamp Thing. Big, green monster man protagonist aside, the books are extremely different, but what both of them accomplish is a 180-degree turn from the superhero genre into outright horror, and then, more difficult still, keeping it up successfully. (This isn't to say that Hulk is quite as literate a book as Moore and company's Swamp Thing, which is very much the superior book, but they do share a highly-successful hero-to-horror transition in common.)

After the Hulk prevails over Fortean and seems to conquer Shadow Base, the book reaches its 25th issue, a pretty hard zig-zag into science fiction territory that I felt was a bit of a slog to read, but perhaps only because Ewing and guest artist German Garcia kept the conceit going for so many of the 40 pages. Set in the far-flung future, when the universe seems to be nearing its end, the Hulk is a galaxy-sized cosmic being and force of entropy, destroying whatever he can find to destroy, and we witness him from the point-of-view of a few members of a strange alien race that look extremely alien, and speak in such a way that reading their dialogue and narration felt more like book-reading to me than comic-reading.

The story isn't just a lark, though, nor a chance for Ewing to tell a future story that will actually never come to pass because Marvel comics are always bound by the present and, of course, the need to keep publishing more Marvel comics every month forever. No, it actually all ties back in a clever, surprising way to the return of another classic Hulk villain.

As was the case with the previous four volumes, this was a great comicand it was great to a still surprising degree.

Savage Avengers Vol. 1: City of Sickles (Marvel) This was an incredibly disappointing read, in large part because the thing that is wrong with it is so glaringly obvious and so distinct that it's easy to see how it could have been far, far better (even a pretty good comic!), had a different decision been made at the outset. Unfortunately, that thing is also perhaps the most important thing for making a comic work.

The art, provided by Mike Deodato, is not good. Deodato is pretty popular, and has a pretty particular, pretty well-known style, so I can't imagine that Marvel didn't know what they were getting when they signed him up for this book, but my difficulty with the art is far beyond that it's just not to my taste. Rather, there are repeated passages where I just plain couldn't make any sense out of it.

The action sequences, of which there are plenty, aren't just not good, but it can be perplexing figuring out what the hell is supposed to be happening, and it often required just reading ahead until the script or following panels or scenes later explaining it.

Here are a couple of examples.

This panel appears at the end of a three-page sequence in which Conan fights 3-5 Hand ninjas in the Savage Land. What is happening in it, do you think? There's an explosion of red light, and three flying stars come flying over Conan's head. Was there an explosion? Is someone firing a gun that shoots shuriken at him? Did Cyclops blast a ninja in mid flying-star-throw off-panel...?

No, a turn of the page reveals that Wolverine has just snuck up and killed the last one with his claws. That flash of red light and semi-starburst of lines is just...what it looks like when Wolverine kills a ninja with his claws just off-panel...I guess...? (You won't be able to figure out what's up with the sword and that ninja's body above with that panel out of context, I know; but it doesn't make much sense in context, either. I mean, it's clear that Conan killed him and how, but not the positioning of their bodies, as Conan seems to have teleported in the middle of the fight).

What about this sequence? In the previous two panels, Wolverine has screamed "That thing dies now!" and flown (flown?) claws first at the giant monster, his claws striking its cheek and neck and eliciting a howl from it. Then, the reader turns the page and sees these images. Did Wolverine...teleport upon striking the monster...? No, it will be revealed 15 pages later that he actually entered the creatures body through the wound his claws made, and was trapped inside as they instantaneously healed. You can see from his point of entry there, though, on the creatures tiny little neck, that there's no way that the top half of Wolverine fits in that tiny neck without sticking out the other side, though, nor that his whole body could fit within.

Or here. What's happening here? It looks like The Punisher and his gun might have disappeared in a flash of light, leaving only a bunch of bullets in his place. But what that's actually meant to depict is Elektra snatching the gun away from Castle and firing. Can you see it...? I can, but only after knowing that, and it's still not the best, or even a half-way decent way to depict that particular action.

Anyway, the book is full of garbled sequences like this. Swords, arrows and other weapons don't really seem to work like they should, or to at least fall and strike at odd angles, looking wrong. Bursts of gunfire and blood and "action lines" can be difficult to parse, and seem to be inserted after the art was drawn in many cases, either as coloring effects by color artist Frank Martin, or perhaps by Deodato himself, to help clarify actions that otherwise don't make sense (The sequence of Wolverine entering the monster's body claws-first is hard to read now; would it be more or less hard without that starburst of lines...?)

I really wish another artist had at least laid this out for Deodato, because I had a really hard time making heads-or-tails out of way too much of it, and that is, of course, not how comics are supposed to work.

And, like I said, it's disappointing because the script isn't all that bad a one, and the few examples of something kind of stupid happening within it fall pretty squarely within that realm where "stupid" meets "awesome" that can make for good modern superhero comics. With the clash of tone and milieu that is at the heart of the Savage Avengers premise, it would have been particularly desirable to have either an artist who was associated with (and particularly skilled at) drawing Conan comics drawing it, or an artist closely associated with high-quality Marvel superhero comics, or comics starring these sorts of anti-hero Marvel characters drawing it, or someone adept at both, and mixing them together for the most interesting effect.

As for the story, there's a kinda garbled 10-page sequence in which Wolverine fights The Hand in the rain and Elektra and Stick show up in an Egyptian ruin, taken from Free Comic Book Day 2019 (Avengers/Savage Avengers), at which point the story begins again in earnest, with the first issue of Savage Avengers, a loose team consisting of the characters David Finch drew all standing atop a few slim pieces of rock on the cover above.

The wizard Kulan Gath has built an improbably large city without notice in Marvel's Savage Land, and facilitated an alliance between The Hand and some magical wizard types from Egypt. They are engaged in some dark ritual involving filling a gigantic bowl with blood from extraordinary people, particularly warriors, in the hopes of summoning the sort of demon god that Conan's foes so often seem to like summon.

In order to get the best Marvel warriors available, they kidnap friends and allies of the folks on the cover (Or, in The Punisher's case, they rob the graves of his family).

So Wolverine meets Conan in the Savage Land, where I believe he was unexpectedly deposited in another Avengers comic book series (Avengers: No Road Home, I think...?) and they make like Marvel characters in a brutal, but very hard to parse, fight scene, before going their separate ways: Conan wants to steal an amulet from the city, Wolvie to find and rescue a friend. He's too late, but he arrives right on time to see Brother Doctor Voodoo Jericho Drumm get killed (But don't worry, the healing factor in his mutant blood somehow transfers its abilities into Jericho when he massages his heart, bringing him back to life; I'm not sure that's how any of that would work, but this isn't the sort of comic in which one questions such things).

Punisher blunders in, looking for his family's bodies. Elektra appears, having infiltrated the Hand. A symbiote that was being kept in a glass bottle like a genie for who knows how long is released, and temporarily bonds with Conan (somewhat unfortunately just giving Conan a big black sword and arm for a while, rather than a whole Venomized redesign). When Gath and his followers are able to raise the demon god, a centaur-shaped monstrosity, and send it into the civilized world, this ad hoc Avengers team pursues it, and there meet up with the actual Venom.

Before all is said and done, they are told by Gath that they are all now bonded by an infection or curse that will take effect within the year, so even though they mostly go their separate ways, one imagines they will continue to crisscross paths in the immediate future. Most interestingly, The Punisher is interested in Conan's Crom-worshipping faith (Or at least he says "HNNH." after Conan's five-sentence explanation of his theology, and decides to take the "long way" out of the Savage Land, dragging his family's coffins behind him with Conan, who refuses to magically teleport out).

I am exceedingly interested in Conan and Frank Castle wandering The Savage Land, fighting dinosaurs and talking about Crom, maybe comparing and contrasting Christianity with, um, Cromism, and will definitely check out the next volume. I just hope the art improves, as its exceedingly frustrating to try to separate script from art in a comic book just to make sense of the dang thing...

Star Wars: Age of ResistanceVillains (Marvel) A lot of people liked a lot of things about the latest Star Wars trilogy, and I can hardly blame themI liked a lot of things about it, too. The one thing that I didn't like, however, was how unimaginative it all felt, to the point that I rather actively disliked The Force Awakens the first time I saw it, as it felt as much like a remake of the original films as it did a continuation of them (I liked it far better the second time around, after I no longer had any expectations to be disappointed).

This collection of the suite of one-shots featuring characters from the third trilogy, one of six such series Marvel has published recently, and the third of which to feature the villains, clarifies that overall lack of imagination evidenced in those films. I mean, look at these guys; these are the new trilogy's villains? Before picking this trade up, I don't think I could have named four villains from the latest trilogy that I would have thought deserving of one-shots; after listing Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma, I would have had to start weighing the possibilities of the other members of the First Order/new Empire who are named in the films. There's Hux, sure, but do we even know enough about him to fill a 20-page comic? What about Snoke? We know even less about him.

Writer Tom Taylor, who scripted all four of these one-shots, seems to accidentally reinforce the relative blandness and lack of character of Hux and Snoke; both of their stories prominently feature Kylo Ren, indicating that there's not much too them to define them beyond their relationship to the films' only really compelling villain. Hux and Snoke are, to a large extent, merely new versions of Tarkin and Palpatine from the original film trilogy; certainly the same can be said of Kylo Ren in relation to Darth Vader, but at least that's the acknowledged point of Kylo Ren and his entire story arc (and something explicitly explored by Taylor in the Kylo Ren one-shot in this series).

Not to harp on it too much, but compare this quartet to those from the Age of RebellionVillains collection: Tarkin and Vader, sure, but there's  also a mysterious masked bounty hunter with a cool costume (Boba Fett) and a giant slug monster who is also a space gangster kingpin (Jabba The Hutt). And the Age of RepublicVillains special featured a Boba Fett redux in Jango, but also a driven, rage-fueled kung fu answer to Darth Vader with a monster face (Darth Maul), a four-armed, bug-like, skeleton robot monster in a cape (General Greivous) and Christopher fucking Lee (Count Dooku). The Last Jedi's guys in red armor that Rey and Kylo slaughtered in Snoke's throne room, Benicio del Toro's traitorous hacker character or BB-8's First Order opposite number, 9E/BB-H8 probably have about as much claim to a one-shot as Hux or Snoke do.

Leonard Kirk pencils all four issue/chapters and Cory Hamscher inks them. I think they find the right balance between drawing in their own styles and capturing the actors who play the characters and the various costume and vehicle designs of the films. Their art is quite readable in a way that not all of Marvel's Star Wars-branded comics always are.

The first featured character is Captain Phasma, who I was rather disappointed to learn didn't survive her last fight with Finn and make it into Rise of Skywalker (Sure, she seemingly died during Last Jedi, but she also seemingly died at the end of Force Awakens). Narrated by a Stormtrooper under Phasma's command, a soldier who longs to earn a name, rank and position of power like Phasma, it's a nicely to-the-point sketch of the character as a ruthless survivor willing to spend the lives of her soldiers in order to accomplish her goals. That character trait, of course, was defined more by Delilah S. Dawson's novel Phasma than the films, which the article about the character following the story makes clear; much of what we know of Phasma comes from Dawson's novel and Kelly Thompson, Marco Checchetto and company's Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Last JediCaptain Phasma miniseries, which also took its cues from Dawson's book (The same holds true of Hux; we know more about him from Chuck Wendig's Aftermath trilogy of novels than we do from Episodes VII-IX).

The two most visually striking aspects of Phasma, her height and the look of her armor, don't really translate to the comics page. I don't think her relative lack of shininess is the fault of the colorists, though, as I thought the same thing when reading the aforementioned miniseries (likewise, Jango Fett's armor lacked the film's degree of shininess in his one-shot from the first of these Villains series). Kirk and Hamscher do a fine job of keeping a degree of mystery about the character's appearance, though, as there is a scene where she takes her helmet off and they obscure her face through angles and shadows.

The next comic is General Hux, featuring the First Order's young, smarmy ginger answer to The Empire's Grand Moff Tarkin. As I said, there's not much to the character in the films, where he mainly fills the Tarkin-like role of being the non-Sith, bureaucratic villain needed to make sure the star destroyers run on time while the guy with the mask, cape and sword runs around menacing our heroes more dramatically. As I mentioned, this comic guest-stars Kylo Ren, who appears on 13 of its 20 pages (Interestingly, Phasma and Snoke also appear briefly, so that the whole gang is in this one issue).

Entitled "Marooned," the story features Hux and Ren crash-landing in a sabotaged shuttle on a planet where they are confronted by a bearded Alderaanian veteran of the last war who, like the Japanese soldier on Gilligan's Island, doesn't know the war ended, and whether or not Hux is a good guy or a bad guy. There are some fun moments in this, particularly in the bickering, adversarial relationship between Hux and Ren, who only seem to refrain from killing one another so as not to piss off their boss Supreme Leader Snoke. Though their rivalry is a draw here, there's a pretty great moment where Hux gives Ren the business by calling him "Ben" and pointing out his resemblance to his mother Princess Leia to the old Alderaanian who has them at his mercy (temporarily, of course).

That element is pretty clearly extrapolated form the films, even if the ruthlessness of Hux and his origins are taken from Phasma and the Aftermath trilogy (In fact, now that I think about it, just about everything I know about The First Order and how it grew out of The Empire comes from Wendig's Aftermath books).

Next is Supreme Leader Snoke, starring the character that J.J. Abrams positioned as the First Order's answer to The Emperor and Rian Johnson killed off unexpectedly and rather unceremoniously in one of Last Jedi's most shocking moments. Well, the comic nominally stars Snoke; in actuality, it's a Kylo Ren story, as the entire 20 pages are devoted to Snoke's training of his apprentice Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side. Curiously, this involves taking Ren to the Dagobah system and sending him into the cave where Luke had to face a vision of himself in Empire Strikes Back (Sadly, there's no scene of Ren running around giving Snoke a piggyback ride). There's some pretty sharp, portentous dialogue on the final pages of this story, and Taylor does a fine job of retroactively foreshadowing Ren's Last Jedi future in a few scant lines of dialogue here, as in the way his "The past is the past" echoes his "Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to" lines from Last Jedi.

There's not much about Snoke in this comic with his name on it, but then, there's not really much to Snoke, as Rise of Skywalker made clear. Based on his appearance, his role and what I remembered of  the Dark Empire comic,I had been assuming Snoke was going to turn out to be a failed clone of The Emperor; now that I (and hopefully you) have seen Rise of Skywalker, I guess I was about half right. I don't know if Taylor knew that revelation about Snoke when he wrote this or not, but, like much of this last trilogy, it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense...most likely because the trilogy was written on the fly, with a tug of war of sorts between the two writer/directors responsible for alternating installments, and it will likely take some Expanded Universe novels and comics series to retroactively make sense of it all (Seriously guys, what on Earth was Palaptine's plan, post-Return of The Jedi, exactly...?).

The final issue/chapter is the official Kylo Ren one, and it's head and shoulders above the rest of them, as Taylor focuses on the most prominent, defining characteristic of the Kylo Ren character: The way he has tried to reinvent himself as the Second Coming of Darth Vader, something that seems quixotic at best to other characters (in both the Hux and Snoke, Taylor has those characters pointedly rejecting Ren's wearing of a mask) and seems all but impossible to Ren himself, just one more thing fueling his volcanic fits of anger.

An old Imperial Stormtrooper who served under Darth Vader is called back in to service to accompany and advise Kylo Ren as the First Order lands on a planet in wild space and attempts to subdue it. In years past, Vader himself tried to subdue this very same planet, leading to an epic battle between the Empire and the huge, hairy, tusked sentient beings that live there, a battle that resulted in casualties of thousands on both sides. Vader was eventually forced to withdraw under the might of the natives' god, a kaiju-sized monster with unbreakable skin.

A spectacular showcase for Kirk, this plot allows him to compare and contrast Vader and the Empire with Ren and the First Order in several scenes in which flashbacks are juxtaposed with the present action. The natives, the Benathy, are pretty cool monster designs, their outrageous difference in scale providing a neat visual that first emphasizes the childish nature of Kylo Ren, who can be seen as a little kid playing dress up and pretending to be something he's not, and then powerfully, sharply arguing the opposite, when his quick dispatching of the Bethany leaders turns him into a sort of giant slayer. ("Not so tall without legs," Ren tells the last of them, after having literally chopped him down to size).

From there, Ren too must face their god, a "zillo beast" which we are told is unkillable. This Kirk draws as a sort of cross between Godzilla, a pangolin and a horny toad, with three, floppy, almost snake-like arms terminating in three blunt digits that vaguely suggest a Kirby monster. I just googled it, and it turns out the zillo beast isn't unique to this comic, but had previously appeared in The Clone Wars. I like Kirk's version better than the images I see of it online though; it looks more "natural" as a drawing in a comic book than as a CGI creation, but then, most things do to me.

Naturally, Ren kills it in the traditional way that a protagonist with a sword might kill a creature with unbreakable skin, after first diving into its open maw. I thought the scene was a pretty cool one, even if I've seen many previous instances of such monster-slayings in my past pop culture consumption. I continued thinking it was pretty cool for only about a day, though, as the very next night I read Andrew Maclean's Head Lopper Vol. 1: The Island or A Plague of Beasts. In the first chapter of that collection, the title character dives into the open maw of a giant sea serpent, stabs his sword out through the inside of the beast's throat, chops its head off with a single powerful stroke from the inside, and then, after a single beat, is shot far up into the air on the delayed geyser of blood spraying from the wound.

Ren may have one-upped Vader, but Maclean one-upped Taylor and Kirk.

These are all pretty solid comics, and they are all almost remarkably so, given how little the creators had to work with. But then, I guess that's always been the (or at least a) beauty of Star Wars: It generally gives just enough of a suggestion or impression of a character for talented folks to invent dozens and dozens of stories featuring the flimsiest characters or suggestions of stories.

War of The Realms: New Agents of Atlas (Marvel) The repurposing of superhero team names that aren't currently being used has become something between a habit and a tradition for Marvel, for the obvious reasons that it is far easier than coming up with new superhero team names and that it helps them retain their trademarks and copyrights. The most successful example of this is probably The Guardians of The Galaxy, which began life in 1969 and popped up now and then over the years, until Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning launched a Guardians book in the wake of the Annihilation: Conquest crossover, and Marvel has applied that name to that particular group of characters almost ever since, thanks to the huge boost of popularity a pair of successful live-action films delivered. The Champions is another good example, taking the name of the weird, short-lived, Defenders-like team of randos from the 1970s and making it the name of a team consisting of Marvel's premier teenage superheroes. There are plenty more, from The Howling Commandos to The Order to the just-recently launched X-Men book The Marauders.

The new iteration of the Agents of Atlas only kinda sorta does the same trick. The rather large new team line-up has a sort of bridge character between the previous Agents of Atlas, which writer Jeff Parker created based on a bit of retroactive continuity in 2006 and then kept alive through a variety of miniseries, team-ups and the occasional ongoing for the following dozen years or so, and the new team. Former FBI and SHEILD agent Jimmy Woo, who now leads Atlas, appears in this series, although his fellow "Agents" (Gorilla-Man, Namora, Marvel Boy/The Uranian, The Human Robot/M-11, Venus) are nowhere to be found. Instead, writer Greg Pak uses the team name to apply to a group of heroes whose organizing principal is simply a matter of geography and/or ancestry: All of the heroes are of Asian descent.

The connection to Atlas is tenuous at best, but Pak manages to craft a relatively short story that throws almost a dozen Asian and Asian-American heroes into a makeshift team (via the Avengers-like "And there came a day unlike any other, when earth's mightiest heroes were united against a common threat!" method of team founding) that feels natural and organic in-story, even if the real-world impetus is more artificial (That is, a new superhero team consisting entirely of Asian characters). I think it will be in Pak's next story featuring this team, given an ongoing after this War of the Realms tie-in introduction, that will truly determine how well he's able to pull off the founding of this new team.

Woo's role is sort of murky, and after 80 pages, all we really know about him from this book is that he is an experienced leader and secret agent of some kind, and that he runs a school of some kind. Of course, the fact that we know relatively little about them same could be said of almost all of the characters who appear herein. Only Amadeus Cho, formerly The Totally Awesome Hulk and now going by the name "Brawn" apparently, really gets any sustained attention. The rest of the characters are mostly introduced via name and power-set via labels applied tot he panels, which is sort of unfortunate, given the sheer number of characters, many of them apparently making their comic book debuts and/or being entirely new (From what I gather, some of the characters previously appeared in a video game of some kind...?), and even the most famous of the characters having relatively small roles.

In the first issue, Pak has Amadeus, Ms. Marvel, Silk and Shang-Chi fighting a robot at a school in Mumbai, apparently at the invitation of Jimmy Woo, introduced via text box as "Leader of Atlas and the headmaster of The Pan-Asian School For The Unusually Gifted" (As for the latter, it is the first I've heard of it, but then, switching to trades on all Marvel comics means I'm somewhat behind on much of the goings-on in the Marvel Universe; for example, this is the first time I've heard that Cho is now Brawn rather than Hulk, or noticed that his appearance has changed into a more Beast Boy-like, in-between human and Hulk form).

Jimmy is in the middle of attempting to recruit the quartet to be Agents of Atlas in a restaurant afterwardsthis is a somewhat odd moment, as all four are currently active and well-known superheroes, which would seem to contradict Atlas' schtick of being a secretly heroic organization posing as a villainous one, and Shang-Chi's long career is in sharp contrast to that of the newer, younger heroeswhen the events of War of The Realms intrude. Ms. Marvel, who has been bickering with Cho up to this point, returns to New York City, telling Cho to stay with Woo and the others to help defend Seoul from its otherworldly invaders. These are the fire goblins of Muspelheim, lead by The Queen of Cinders, and that's basically who the rest of the series will be spent fighting.

Other characters abound. In the opening pages, we meet Wave and Aero, who have obvious water and air powers, respectively. Already fighting fire monsters in Seoul when Cho and company arrive are magic-powered South Korean government agent White Fox and new (to me, anyway) characters Crescent, a "Tae Kwon Do prodigy" who can summon a huge magic bear that also knows Tae Kwon Do, and Luna Snow, a K-Pop star with ice powers. By the second issue, the sword-wielding Sword Master and Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele have joined the fray, and by the third, The Monkey King of The Ascendants has, while Red Feather checks in for a couple of cameos.

Got all of that? Because I only barely do. I only remember all of their names and powers because I just looked them up in the trade while writing that paragraph. I read the book last night, but if I didn't have it in front of me, I couldn't necessarily tell you all of the new characters' names, and certainly not their countries of origins. I would just know that there were female characters with air, water and snow powers, and that there was a little girl with a magical bear. It's not the best way to meet so many characters, and Pak over-relies on narration boxes to repeatedly state the characters' names and suchlike, but then, this series is perhaps best understood as the comic book equivalent of a pilot episode, some sort of teaser for future books. After all, in addition to the New Agents of Atlas ongoing, both Aero and Sword Master have their own titles now. Still, I can't help but wonder if the book might have been better-served if it were marketed as a Amadeus Cho book guest-starring all of these other characterswhich is, in effect, what it actually israther than the introduction of a new team with a familiar name.

At any rate, with the forces of Muspelheim descending on Asia, their assigned continent in War of The Realms villain Malekith's divvying up of Earth to his allies, the superheroes who defend that part of the worldand the Americans of Asian descent that were visiting Jimmy's schoolunite to defend it. When Jimmy gets knocked out, Amadeus is put in the position to command the others, something he is both uniquely qualified for as well as ill-suited to do (which of them knows best has been an ongoing argument between Cho and Ms. Marvel since the earliest issues of the first volume of the 21st century's Champions books).

Obviously, the heroes win the day, thanks in large part to some subterfuge on Jimmy's part, and the book ends with a conversation between Jimmy and Amadeus. When Amadeus tells Jimmy that none of them can ever trust him again, he simply replies, "But you trust each other, don't you?" At which point Amadeus gives him a meaningful look and goes off to help the others. "Carry on, then..." Jimmy says, "...AGENTS OF ATLAS," those last words appearing over a splash page in which Amadeus, Shang-Chi, White Fox and five of the new/new-er characters are depicted helping put out fires and aiding survivors in a burning section of Shanghai.

This is far from the best comic I've read of Pak's (dude's a really rather great super-comics writer), but given the challenges of writing a dozen heroes over the course of just 80 pages, it's easy to imagine how much worse it could have been had a less-skilled writer been tasked with making this work. The War of The Realms tie-in aspect certainly eats up a large part of that page-count, but Pak uses it to his advantage, with the fire goblins basically serving as a generic enemy for the heroes to team-up to repel...divorced from the War of The Realms, this tried and true Marvel team formation plot wouldn't have worked without feeling forced, I think. There are bits of humor on display here and there, but nowhere near as much as I would have expected or hoped, given how funny many of Pak's earlier comics featuring Amadeus Cho have been.

The artwork by Gang Hyuk Lim (with Moy R and Pop Mhan helping out on the final issue), is perfectly serviceable, but doesn't really stand out much from the artwork seen in so many other Marvel comics. I suppose that's a mixed blessing. I wish more effort was expended in making the characters more distinct from one another, and from all the other scores of Marvel characters, but I'm not sure Lim had much say in the character designs. Of those, too many look too functional and familiar. Luna Snow, for example, looks little different than Quake, save for the fact that half of her hair is white, and White Fox's costume looks little different than Luna's. Wave, at first glance, looks like she could be any one of several characters, hailing from either Atlantis or Asgard.

As I said, I think it will be the next storyline that determines the future of Pak's New Agents of Atlas. I can definitely see potential hereand hell, if nothing else, it's certainly refreshing to get a whole bunch of new and different characters injected into the Marvel Universe like thisbut I found this particular trade paperback more disappointing than compelling.


Mammal Takeover (Abrams) This is the third and final book in cartoonist Abby Howard's great "Earth Before Us" series, and while not a strict review of it in the most formal sense, there are review-ish aspects to this interview I did with Howard for Good Comics For Kids. I discussed the book here before too, as one of the kids comics I read last year that tackled the subject of climate change. Like the earlier entries in Howard's series, it's fantastic, a great balance of educational and entertaining, and on one of the coolest subjects there is: Prehistoric life.

The Okay Witch (Simon & Schuster) Emma Steinkellner's debut graphic novel as both writer and artist is better than okay; it's good.

Superman Smashes The Klan Book One (DC Comics) Freed from the metaphorical shackles of month-to-month continuity, Gene Luen Yang turns out what is by far his best Superman work to date. It probably helps that he's paired with the superior art team of Gurihiru (I can't help but wonder what Yang's New Super-Man series might have been like had he been teamed with Gurihiru on it). Anyway, at this point I don't think I have anything to add to what I wrote in my review, and tweeted about upon first reading the first third of their storyline. I certainly liked it enough that I hope there's more Superman from this particular team in the future; they're particularly well-suited for Golden Age Superman adventures for an all-ages audience.

They Called Us Enemy (Top Shelf Productions) Like Yang and Gurihiru's Superman Smashes The Klan, George Takei, Harmony Becker and company's memoir of Takei's childhood time spent in an American concentration camp is quite unfortunately quite relevant today. It's a pretty powerful comic, and quite well made. One thing I noticed about the book is that when Takei reaches the 1960s or so, and starts to talk about the behind-the-scenes nature of his time in Hollywood, I found myself increasingly curious about that, and for a second or three I was kind of surprised and disappointed that he didn't go into greater detail or keep going on about his least until I remembered the limited-scope of the memoir, and that this wasn't a complete biography of Takei. The world of mid-twentieth century television is so alien to me (I have, people are sometimes surprised to learn, never seen a single episode of any Star Trek show, nor any of the movies, somehow), that it seems fascinating to me, and the glimpses we see of what it must have been like to be a young, gay, Asian man trying to get roles back then sounds like pretty fertile ground for a memoir, too.