Comic Review – Scooby Apocalypse #9

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Scooby Apocalypse #9

“Before the Storm”; “Monsters”

Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (writers), Ron Wagner, Bill Reinhold and Dale Eaglesham (artists). Covers by Howard Porter and Rafael Albuquerque.

I’m just going to come right out and say it – Scooby-Doo has never been good. Whether we’re talking about the formulaic and hackneyed early series, the embarrassing cross-overs with Sonny and Cher and Tim Conway, the abomination known as Scrappy-Doo, or the live-action movies (with all due love to James Gunn) – all of that was at best mediocre, at worst completely atrocious. Admittedly I hit an age where I stopped following the new cartoon incarnations and direct-to-DVD animated movies, but from what little I’ve seen, things didn’t improve all that much. I didn’t even bother watching either of the WWE tie-in films, and I’m such a fan of bad wrestling media, I own a copy of Roddy Piper’s film Hell Comes to Frogtown.

So let’s flash back to around this time last year, when DC Comics announced their new “Hanna-Barbera Beyond” imprint, which would reimagine classic cartoon characters in new ways. Based on initial impressions, Scooby Apocalypse looked like it was going to be a train-wreck – a shallow and cynical attempt to cash in on the long-since worn out Zombie Apocalypse subgenre, featuring laughably terrible characters redesigns from Jim Lee, who is rapidly becoming a Frank Miller-esque parody of himself.

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But here’s where the M Night Shalayman twist comes in – Scooby Apocalypse is not, in fact, the worst book in the line (that would be Wacky Raceland, one of the absolute worst miniseries in comic book history). In fact, it’s shockingly good.

Unlike the traditional cartoon incarnations, the Mystery Incorporated group are actual scooby-apocalypse-9-acharacters instead of lazy archetypes, with each character driven by their own distinct motivations. Daphne Blake is a would-be Lois Lane-style investigative journalist, whose career has fallen apart. The only person in the field of news media who doesn’t treat her like a joke is her loyal cameraman Fred Jones, who not only believes in her, but has an openly unrequited love for her. Shaggy Rogers – Green Arrow beard and sleeve tattoos and all – is a junior employee at a high-tech program attempting to create “smart dogs”, canines with human-level intelligence that can communicate and operate complex tasks through the use of cybernetic implants. Shaggy immediately befriends the runt of the experimental litter, who he nicknames Scooby. The titular apocalypse comes about when the mysterious Project Elysium is unleashed on the world, transforming much of humanity into genetically-modified monsters – and from the looks of things, geneticist Velma Dinkley may be directly to blame.

The reason this series works (and this is the same formulae that made The Walking Dead such a massive success) is that ultimately the monsters of the world are just a set-piece, a backdrop to the growing relationships between a group of strangers thrown together and forced to coexist in order to survive. For film fans, it’s kind of a throwback to the era of pre-Eli Roth slasher films, where the victims were sympathetic and interesting, instead of just a pack of douchebags the audience is waiting to see get slaughtered.

scooby-apocalypse-9-bScooby Apocalypse is the type of series that by all rights should be little more than a cynical cash-in on a trend, but it actually has some really interesting things to say. In this issue, Daphne and Velma debate the power of investigative journalism in the face of an insurmountable conspiracy, Velma philosophizes about whether or not happiness is just a meaningless construct created by humanity to cope with universal entropy, and Shaggy quotes from Jack Kerouac while opening up about his struggle to remain optimistic while surrounded by a world of seemingly impenetrable darkness. That’s some heavy shit, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been considering some of the same topics myself in the past few months.

For the sake of completion, we’ll also address the back-up story, which features this world’s version of Scrappy-Doo – a brutish antihero anguished by his own duality – on the one hand, he fears reverting to a bestial state or becoming like the monsters he callously kills, but who is also driven by an almost instinctive desire to kill Scooby, who he sees as a weakling and the antithesis of what their new race of “smart-dogs” should be. Basically, it’s a present day pastiche of about a hundred different mid-90s Image comics which ripped off any given 1980s-era appearance of Wolverine. It’s not as good as the main story, it’s certainly self-aware, but it’s not great either. Your mileage may vary.

Look, none of this breaks new ground – as I alluded to, The Walking Dead has been doing all of this, and better, for going on fourteen years now. As a Scooby-Doo story though, it massively over-achieves. In nothing else, for the first time in forty-eight years, Scooby and friends have found themselves embroiled in a mystery I actually care about seeing solved.

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Comic Review – Unworthy Thor #3

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The Unworthy Thor #3 (of 5)

“The Sin Unpardonable”

Jason Aaron (writer), Kim Jacinto and Olivier Coipel (artists). Covers by Coipel, Emanuela Lupacchino and Ryan Sook.

With Jane Foster as the Marvel Universe’s resident Thor-of-choice right now, I’m not sure the mythological Odinson needs to be a focus. Foster has been a breath of fresh air, and she presents one of the most tragic and noble situations in comics right now – as a late stage cancer victim, she is literally choosing to sacrifice her life for the greater good, as each time she transforms into Thor, she resets her medical treatments to square one. Meanwhile, the Odinson is just kind of… there. Still, there are movies in the works – and as great as the comic version of Jane Foster is, I have zero interest in a Thor movie carried by Natalie Portman – so it’s somewhat inevitable that we’ll have the manly iteration back sooner than later. Hopefully Marvel has a plan for the two characters to coexist, and if this miniseries is any indication, that’s exactly the way they plan to go.

No longer worthy to wield his beloved hammer Mjolnir, the Odinson has learned of an extra-dimensional version of the hammer, once wielded by the Thor of the defunct Ultimate Marvel Universe. Unfortunately for him, Ultimate Mjolnir sits firmly in the possession of the Collector, and has attracted the attention of the followers of Thanos to boot. Luckily, the Odinson has his equestrian bestie Beta Ray Bill backing him up – assuming Thor doesn’t succumb to his mounting rage to the point that he can’t differentiate between friend and foe.

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The real reason I’m reading this miniseries is the admittedly unlikely chance that Jason Aaron will finally deliver on one of the biggest mysteries of the Marvel Universe. Back in 2014, in the penultimate chapter of the Original Sins storyline, newly evil Nick Fury whispered *something* to Thor that caused him to become unworthy of lifting his hammer. It was a great plot twist when it happened, that led to some great stories. It’s been two-and-a-half years now though… we’re getting into Smog Monster from Lost territory. For what it’s worth, Aaron has said that he does know what was said, and will eventually reveal it – and whenever and however he does so, it’s bound to be a better payoff than a half-baked DVD extra.

Comic Review: Detective Comics #948

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Detective Comics (Volume 2) #948

“Batwoman Begins, Part 1”

James Tynion IV and Marguerite Bennett (writers), Ben Oliver (artist). Covers by Oliver and Rafael Albuquerque.

As much as I love Batwoman, I pretty much washed my hands of the character when meddling from the higher-ups at DC comics led to the premature ending of one of the best creative runs of the past decade. For those unfamiliar with the situation, Batwoman’s first solo series was launched as part of 2011’s “New 52” line-wide relaunch, with J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman sharing writing credits. Despite being lauded with critical acclaim, the series was plagued by last-minute script changes, most notably the eleventh-hour decree that Batwoman would not be permitted to marry her fiancé, Maggie Sawyer. For accuracy’s sake, Williams has indicated that the decision wasn’t specifically due to it being a gay marriage, but rather a marketing decision to not have any major characters be wed in the new DC Universe, which included retconning away the marriage of Superman and Lois Lane, as well as that of the Flash and Iris Allen. Still, at a time when LGBTQ representation in mainstream comics was insultingly sparse, it was at best a tone-deaf decision, and at worst a complete slap in the face to the fans who were buying the Batwoman series in the first place. Williams and Blackman subsequently walked off the book, which ran for another year and a half with new writer Marc Andreyko at the helm before being cancelled in 2015.

A lot has changed in the last few years, and while the world of DC Comics remains disproportionately straight, white and male, major strides have been made toward including characters of all types. A new Batwoman series is slated to begin in March, written by Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion IV, both openly queer creators. This issue begins to lay the groundwork to that series, but introducing a new major supporting character – more on that in a bit – and by continuing the story of Jake Kane, Batwoman’s father and one-man support staff, who did a heel turn last year by siding with the paramilitary force known as the Colony. This issue asks the question that will likely serve as the leitmotif of the upcoming series – “What can Batwoman do that Batman can’t?”

Part one of “Batwoman Begins” follows from last year’s “Night of the Monster Men” storyline, in which Batman and his allies battled gigantic mad science-borne monsters created by Hugo Strange (which sums up in one sentence why I love comics). With the threat of weaponized megafauna still presenting a very real threat, Batman and Batwoman consult with ARGUS’ resident expert on the subject, Doctor Victoria October. After making an immediate impression by helping the Bat-duo take down a flock of mutated seagull-men (again, I love comics), October quickly catches the heroes up on the situation, showing herself to be completely at ease in their imposing presence. She’s witty, charming, eminently capable, and I immediately took a liking to the good doctor.

detective-comics-948-bThat’s almost where this review ended, until I stumbled across a much more interesting aspect to the character that I completely missed – Victoria October is transsexual, possibly the most high profile trans character in comics today. And here’s the thing – it’s not treated as a big deal. October makes an allusion to knowing Batman in her “pupal stage, before [she] came into [herself],” and makes an offhand remark about how her deadname didn’t have the same panache as her chose one. That’s it. It’s done so subtly, for anyone unfamiliar with the trans community and its terminology (myself included), the fact that Victoria October is transsexual probably flew right over their head. And that’s amazing, because the only thing more important than representation of marginalized communities is normalization of those groups, treating them like actual, fleshed-out characters, instead of cardboard cut-outs defined by a single attribute like gender or sexual preference.

Funny enough, what led me to discover the subtleties of Victoria October was an offhanded Google search about an unrelated Doctor October, who appeared as an in Dark Horse Comics’ series Ghost. That Doctor October was a villain who was presumed to be a male, until she dramatically revealed herself to be a woman by whipping aside her cape and revealing a pair of massive breasts.

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This was in a series about a female vigilante who spent her time running around in leather fetish gear (drawn almost exclusively in cheesecake poses) while monologuing about how much she hated men. She was considered to be one of the more “empowering” female heroes of the mid-1990s.

Like I said, times change – and sometimes it’s relieving to see that things can change for the better.

Comic Review: Mighty Captain Marvel #0

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Mighty Captain Marvel #0 (Marvel Comics)

Margaret Stohl (writer), Emilio Laiso and Ramon Rosanas (artists). Covers by Elizabeth Torque, Ian Herring, Dave Johnson, Phil Noto, Khoi Pham and Ramon Rosanas.

This prelude to the new Captain Marvel ongoing series deals with the ramifications of last year’s Civil War II, as Carol Danvers tries to keep from falling to pieces under the mounting pressure that comes from being both the world’s premiere superhero, and its first line of defence against all manner of interplanetary threats. As written by Margaret Stohl (a bestselling novelist and newcomer to the world of comic books), Danvers is a complex heroine, who comes into this series with some major emotional baggage. The weight she bears comes not just from her duties as commander of the Alpha Flight program, but also her well-deserved feelings of guilt and (quite literal) alienation – much of which is a result of Civil War II.

Like Marvel Comics’ first Civil War event from a decade ago, Civil War II used superhero battles to explore a larger philosophical theme. Whereas the first Civil War looked at the post-9/11-topical issue of civil liberties versus national security, Civil War II dealt with the more abstract conflict between the concepts of predestination and free will. Both Civil War stories attempted to present balanced arguments on both sides of their respective conflicts, but both also had a side that was generally accepted as the de facto antagonists – Iron Man’s quasi-fascist regime in the first Civil War, and Carol’s Minority Report-inspired Pre-Crime Avengers in Civil War II. Thus, as with the post-Civil War Iron Man books, we now have the problem of a high-profile series starring a character that is very much responsible for some extremely morally questionable actions, including the deaths of several beloved heroes.

In recent years, Captain Marvel has become a figurehead for a new wave of comic book feminism, both in terms of the character herself and the creative teams behind her series. This issue sets the tone for Mighty Captain Marvel by juxtaposing her past struggle to establish herself as a preeminent figure in the male-dominated worlds of the U.S. Air Force and NASA with her more recent activities as Captain Marvel. The concept is sound, but the execution rings false – it seems like a way to excuse, or even romanticise a streak of fascism that crept into the character during the Civil War II story, by hand-waving it away as just another fight against the evil patriarchy. In particular, there’s a recurring motif to this issue, which claims that Captain Marvel “doesn’t fly away from everyone else, she flies for them” – and for me at least, that simply doesn’t work. I appreciate the attempt to show how Carol is uncomfortable with being treated as a rock star-type-idol, and how Stohl tries to ground her larger-than-life story with relatable details like her love of the Boston Red Sox. The problem is, while Carol herself is conflicted, the story itself treats her as being more unassailable, as if it’s saying that sure, she’s made some mistakes, but she’s still the Mighty Captain Marvel, beloved hero to all, right?

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I’m not so sure. There remains a huge dissonance that comes from treating Captain Marvel as an A-list hero, while paying minimal lip-service to the fact that because of her, two Avengers are dead, and one was beaten into a coma. If this is a story about Carol Danvers finding redemption by learning to forgive herself, I’m not sure I can get behind that – I’m not even sure I believe she should be forgiven, either by the readers or by the in-universe world at large. Why would her fellow heroes ever trust her again? Why should her fans be sympathetic to a fate she absolutely brought on herself?

Then again, given that Civil War II was a critical and financial flop, it’s quite possible that no one really cares about any of this except me. In which case, hey, here’s a book starring a strong female lead, which features awesome artwork, good pacing, and some snappy dialogue. If you’re willing to ignore the inherent moral implications related to the larger Marvel Universe (or just don’t care, which is certainly valid), this gets an easy recommendation. Personally, I want to give this series another few issues before I decided whether or not I’m ready to accept Carol Danvers as a hero again.

New Comic Reviews! (6-6-16)

Batman Rebirth

Batman: Rebirth #1

Scott Snyder and Tom King (writers), Mikel Janín (artist). Covers by Janín and Howard Porter.

Returning to last week’s themes of nihilism, consider the meaninglessness that runs as an undercurrent to serialized comic books – the heroes never age, the villains always escape from jail, no one stays dead forever, and Archie will never choose between Betty and Veronica. If the New 52 was about trying to break that cycle in the worst possible ways, DC’s Rebirth event is an ambitious attempt to both embrace the recursive nature of superhero tropes, while also trying to explore some bold new ideas. With that in mind, it makes sense that this one-shot doesn’t feature an A-list villain like the Joker or the Penguin. Instead, Scott Snyder and Tom King dig deeper into DC Comics lore to pull out the Calendar Man – and what’s more, they provide a brilliantly creepy new take on the villain, who for once feels like more than a walking punch-line.

On its own, Batman: Rebirth is a bit unsatisfying. It feels like the last page comes far too soon, with the story acting almost entirely as a set-up for King and Snyder’s upcoming ongoing series (Batman and All-Star Batman, respectively). As a prequel to those books, this one-shot does its job, setting up Batman’s relationship with his newest protégé, and establishing Calendar Man as a legitimate threat. Mikel Janín’s artwork is excellent as always, and the simple script and somewhat sparse dialogue gives him lots of room to show off his skills with big panels and impressive set-pieces. I wouldn’t call this issue required reading – if you’re just looking to follow the main Rebirth miniseries, you can skip this without missing anything vital to that story. Still, it’s worth a look if you’re planning to jump onboard for the new Bat-titles… and of course, if you’re a fan of the awesome Snyder’s awesome Batman run, this is probably already on the top of your pull list.


Spider-Man 2099 11

Spider-Man 2099 #11

“Something Sinister This Way Comes” pt. 2

Peter David (writer), Will Sliney (artist). Cover by Francesco Mattina.

History has not been especially kind to science fiction produced in the mid-1990s, with its poor understanding of then-burgeoning technologies and topical social issues. Given that Marvel’s original 2099 line was one of the most aggressively Nineties things to ever exist, it’s fared about as well as you’d expect. Other than a few – very few – stand out stories, and the so-bad-it’s-good Punisher 2099 (which is wildly entertaining), the entire line has long-since been consigned to the bottom of bargain bins at comic conventions, and fodder for internet click-bait. Yet somehow, in 2016, there is somehow enough demand to sustain a monthly comic starring Miguel O’Hara – at best, only the 3rd most popular character *currently* calling himself Spider-Man.

Spider-Man 2099 was probably the best book of the original Marvel 2099 imprint, starring a technically savvy hero fighting the mega-corporations of a cyberpunk dystopia. At the time, it was arguably better than the regular Spider-books of the 1990s, of which the less said the better. Through the magic of huge crossover events and unchecked nostalgia, Miguel O’Hara was brought into the main Marvel Universe two years ago, and has pretty much starred in his own ongoing series since then (notwithstanding the hiatus and re-launch nearly all Marvel books got during and after last year’s Secret Wars event). O’Hara’s co-creator Peter David was tapped to write the series, and effortlessly picked up where he left off when he left the book twenty years ago.

Here’s the thing – a lot has changed in the Marvel Universe in the past two decades. Peter Parker is finally being treated like the brilliant scientist he was always supposed to be, and in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man he’s fighting crime in high-tech armour using bleeding edge technology. Miles Morales – the Spider-Man of the defunct Ultimate Marvel Universe – fills in the role of spirited newcomer to Parker’s seasoned veteran. We’ve got a heroine named Silk, a Spider-Gwen, a Spider-Girl, a couple of different Spider-Women, a Spider-UK, a Spider-Ham, and an entire other team of Web Warriors across an infinite Spider-Verse. With all that considered, what’s so special about Miguel O’Hara, or the Spider-Man 2099 series?

What stands out and makes this book worth reading is its humour. David is clearly having fun with his pet creation, and right at the point that the story threaten to get too serious, he immediately defuses things with a joke. On some titles, that would be detrimental – David’s penchant for silliness is nothing new, and I’d argue it’s led to a rather uneven body of work – but in this case it works. This issue sees O’Hara back in a version of his home timeline, fighting futuristic counterparts to the Sinister Six… and honestly, how could one ever take villains like Future Venom, Aqua-Doctor Octopus and Cyborg Vulture seriously? They looks like cast-offs from a bad toy-line, the kinds that sat on the discount pegs in Wal-Mart until some harried relative grabbed them at random on the way to the birthday of a child they didn’t particularly like, causing the kid to throw a tantrum, because he wanted an action figure of ACTUAL Batman, not some bullshit Pirate Batman or Samurai Batman or – actually, I’m not sure where I’m going with any of this. Let’s move on.


X-Men '92 4

X-Men ’92 #4

“Pages from the Book of Sins”

Chad Bowers and Chris Sims (writers), Alti Firmansyah (artist). Cover by David Nakayama.

While we’re on the subject of Nineties nostalgia, we have Chad Bowers’ and Chris Sims’ love-letter to the 1992 X-Men animated series. I’ve been a big fan of Sims since the earliest days of his Invincible Super Blog, and clearly this is his dream job, teaming with long-time writing partner Bowers on a show he actually analyzed in depth, episode by episode, for the website Comics Alliance. So why do I find this comic so underwhelming?

First and foremost, there’s the artwork. Alti Firmansyah’s art is fine on its own, but its cartoony, manga-influenced style doesn’t match the visual aesthetics of the animated series at all, which was patterned after Jim Lee’s work. Come on guys, you couldn’t one ex-Image Comics penciler who had some spare time in his calendar? Hell, DC Comics keeps at least ten Jim Lee clones on staff at all times.

The real problem with this book though is that it feels like a complete re-tread – generously, a remix – of old Marvel stories, with very little new content added. The first arc of this ongoing series pairs the X-Men with Dracula, something that’s been done several times. In particular, this story lifts entire elements of 2010’s Curse of the Mutants storyline, including Jubilee being turned into a vampire, and Dracula teaming up with the X-Men to fight his renegade son. The conclusion recycles the Doctor Strange “Montesi Formula” storyline from 1983 (reprinted in 2006), filtered through 2005’s House of M. None of this is exactly kept secret – there are direct panel recreations and background details that show Sims and Bowers are going for homage, not outright theft. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt though, if you’ve read the original stories they’re sampling from, there’s an insurmountable feeling of “been there, done that.” For younger reader or Marvel neophytes, this is a decent book to flip through, but I can’t get excited about it until I see something new.

New Comic Reviews! (5-30-16)

Starbrand and Nightmask 6 A

Starbrand and Nightmask #6

“Eternity’s Children (Attend University) pt. 6 – Evaluation”

Greg Weisman (writer), Domo Stanton (artist). Cover by Yasmine Putri.

Though the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” initiative has produced some breakout hits, Starbrand and Nightmask is one of the line’s first casualties, ending with this issue. The series sold itself as a fun adventure starring a tag team of inexperienced, wide-eyed heroes, but tonally, this issue felt decidedly inconsistent with that idea.

For a little context, Starbrand and Nightmask were originally characters from Marvel’s New Universe imprint, which was active between 1986 and 1989. The New Universe was briefly resurrected a decade ago in the ill-fated newuniversal, before Starbrand and Nightmask were brought into the main Marvel Universe cannon a few years ago, as part of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Avengers. Though Starbrand and Nightmask generally played second-string to more recognizable Avengers mainstays like Captain America and Iron Man, they both played a part in Hickman’s larger plan, eventually sacrificing themselves to prevent the collapse of the multiverse.

Then they came back. And here we are.

The elevator pitch for this series was essentially two heroes with incalculable power going back to college, while at the same time protecting the Earth from cosmic forces who would see our little blue ball removed from existence. This issue concludes what was intended to be the first story arc, as Earth’s Starbrand, Kevin Connor faces off against his Kree counterpart. It’s a simple idea on paper, but instead of the usual superhero punch-up, Greg Weisman takes a stranger and more introspective approach – to the ultimate detriment of the story.

[Spoilers Below]

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There’s a weird message to this book, which posits that sexual attraction is at its core a function of biological self-preservation, which transcends free will. When Kevin meets the Kree Starbrand, he’s immediately and inexplicably attracted to her… in spite of the fact that he knows she just massacred billions of sentient beings by obliterating a planet, and has the same genocidal intentions for the Earth. This is due to a failsafe buried within the Starbrands’ cosmic power sources – to keep them from destroying one another, their aggression towards one another is transformed into attraction. The more the Kree Starbrand would want to kill Kevin, the more she instead wants him to make sweet interspecies love to her. They end up at a standstill, with Kevin promising to follow her around and “make things awkward” if she doesn’t behave herself. It’s a rather cutesy solution that may have worked better if it didn’t take place in the wake of the murder of billions of innocent beings.

And hey, if that weren’t enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth, this issue ends with Kevin figuring out that his recent love-interest, Imani Greene, was the person who was actually supposed to become Earth’s Starbrand, before a cosmic hiccup gave him the power instead. That in turn means that the attraction they felt for one another was part of the same cosmic failsafe, making their sweet college romance into something much more mind-rapey.

While I didn’t like this issue, I’ve got to admit, that’s one hell of a way to drop the microphone on your way off a cancelled title. “Thanks for shit-canning my book assholes. Love is a lie, and free-will is an illusion. Enjoy your existential dread, I’m out.”

—–

Omega Men 12 A

Omega Men #12

Tom King (writer), Barnaby Bagenda (artist). Cover by Trevor Hutchison.

JESUS. If Starbrand and Nightmask left you somewhat bummed out, Omega Men is here to make you downright suicidal.

The latest iteration of the Omega Men title featured former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner trying to make peace in the Vega System, wherein warring groups from various planets are occupied by the fascistic Citadel. After his attempts at a peaceful resolution quickly broke down, Rayner join the rebel group the Omega Men in their seemingly endless war against their oppressors.

Omega Men is a pretty clear analogy to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the larger history of war in the Middle East. Though ostensibly everyone wants peace and tranquility in the Vega system, nearly every party involved has their own political interests – the powers-that-be from Earth are primarily concerned with Vega’s natural supplies of McGuffinium – sorry, that’s *Stellarium* – especially since the destruction of Krypton led to an intergalactic scramble to control the universe’s most precious resources. Not for nothing is Earth’s intervening force in this foreign boondoggle one Kyle Rayner, the White Lantern, who hopes to bring enforced peace to Vega with his trusty White Power ring…

[SPOILERS BELOW]

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…and naturally, he fails. The Citadel is defeated, but Rayner’s erstwhile allies quickly become despotic leaders themselves, or fall to civil war and crime, while the Earth contemplates its next inevitable incursion into the Vega System. Though Rayner does his best to maintain his noble ideals until the bitter end, they’re meaningless in the face of a harsh reality, and he comes out of the quagmire of interminable war knowing that nothing he did ultimately made any difference.

This issue – and the Omega Men series – ends on an oddly metatextual note, as Rayner muses on his past career as a comic book artist to point out that the typical comic’s rigid panel construction resembles the bars of a cage, creating a false disconnect between reader and story. Indeed, this comic itself was drawn using variations on a measured three-by-three formation, with the only major departure being a full-paged splash at the story’s point of climax. Rayner explains how the disconnect allows readers to remove themselves from the conflict or adventure, isolating violence or horror as abstracts concepts, even as the story they’re reading reflects the world around them.

So what do we, the readers, draw from this comic? Is it a nihilistic treatise on the inevitability of war? Is it a criticism of a jaded society so inured to violence that it’s been transformed into a source of entertainment and pleasure (such as in the very book you hold in your hands)? More optimistically, is it a message to stick to your principles no matter what, to do the right thing not for any hope of reward or success, but because it is tautologically the right thing to do?

Hell if I know. Draw your own conclusions. I’m moving on to something a little less depressing.

—–

Ms Marvel 7

Ms. Marvel #7

“The Road to War”

Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (artist). Covers by David Lopez and Pasqual Ferry.

Real talk – I’m not especially excited for Civil War II. I liked the first Civil War story a lot – the main miniseries more so than some of the tie-in books anyway – but it was very much a product of its time, a culmination of years of character evolution, as filtered through the lens of a post-9/11 political climate. Civil War II feels like a cash-in to a successful movie franchise, nothing more.

Thankfully, this nominal tie-in to the upcoming event maintains the expected light-hearted tone that G. Willow Wilson has perfected on this title. Sure enough, it’s Avenger vs. Avenger, as the Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales takes on Ms. Marvel… in a Tristate high school science fair. Though that’s a science fair in the Marvel Universe, mind you, where guys like Reed Richards and Tony Stark frequently rewrite the laws of physics, so things are going to get weird quickly. As much as I enjoy a good superhero dust-up now and then, it’s refreshing to see heroes instead duking it out in the realm of Super Science, with all the explosions and flying sharks that entails.

Ms. Marvel: Your monthly reminder that superhero comics can be uplifting and fun.

New Comic Reviews! (5-17-16)

Red Hood Arsenal 12

(Red Hood / Arsenal)

Red Hood / Arsenal #12

“Vote Now and Vote Often!”

Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Bennett (pencils). Cover by Tyler Kirkham.

We’re two weeks out from DC Comics’ big Rebirth attempt, the publisher’s latest attempt to alienate any fans that aren’t forty-year-old white guys. Every one of DC’s non-Vertigo titles is slated either for cancellation, or a shiny new issue number one. Against all odds, one of the Rebirth titles is a new volume of Red Hood and the Outlaws, once again penned by Scott Lobdell.

Way back in the far-off time of September 2011, Lobdell’s RH&tO was one of the worst launch titles of the New 52 line. The book was critically panned, yet somehow lasted for over forty issues. Was there anyone out there who enjoyed that nihilistic garbage? Apparently so, because rather than cancel the book, DC relaunched it as Red Hood/Arsenal, with the same writer at the helm – presumably because no one else gives a toss about either of those characters at this point. And here we are, with the penultimate issue of RH/A on the racks, and a new volume of Outlaws after that. If anyone out there knows just what Scott Lobdell is using to blackmail DC into publishing this tripe, let me know – or leak it to Gawker, while you still have the chance.

Red Hood/Arsenal #12 continues the recent storyline that revealed a dark time in Arsenal’s past, when a group of mercenaries he assembled went off the rails and massacred an entire town. Instead of taking any kind of responsibility for the atrocity he was absolutely responsible for, Arsenal instead trapped the team in the shell of a wrecked building, then commandeered a drone plane to blow them to pieces. Because this is a comic book, the team of mercenaries survived and gained superpowers to boot, and now the Iron Rule (as they laughably call themselves) are out for revenge.

There’s an element of meta-humour to Arsenal’s predicament – captured by the Iron Rule, he finds himself at the mercy of an online “live or die” poll, which leans overwhelmingly in favour of his execution. For those not in the know, that’s a pretty obvious reference to a poll DC conducted for Jason Todd (Red Hood) back in the 1980s, back when Todd was still running around in elf-booties as the second Robin. The fans weren’t much kinder back then, and Batman quickly found himself auditioning for a new sidekick. Based solely on that, I’d almost give this comic the benefit of the doubt, if it weren’t for the fact that by page two, someone describes Arsenal as “charming,” which is a pretty clear sign that Scott Lobdell and I aren’t going to be on the same wavelength any time soon. Plus, by the end of the issue, they go back and all-but spell out the gag, because I guess anyone reading this title was too stupid to catch it the first time. A wise man once said, jokes are like frogs – you can try to dissect one to see how it works, but it definitely won’t survive the process.

The other story thread continued from last issue involved Red Hood’s attempts to help the Joker’s Daughter reform and become an antihero like him. With almost any other character, that idea might have worked, but from her very first appearance in the New 52 DC Universe, Joker’s Daughter has been shown to be utterly psychotic and without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, she’s so one-dimensional that she’s served little purpose other than being a plot device – in this case, proving that both Jason Todd and Scott Lobdell make remarkably poor decisions. Anyway, after Joker’s Daughter went back to her old habits of wearing her leathery face mask made out of the Joker’s severed facial skin – I’m going to just let that one sink in for a second – Jason decided the best way to deal with her was to shoot her in cold blood. You can see why Arsenal and Red Hood keep being teamed with one another; they share the same problem-solving skills. This issue, we see that he didn’t kill her – in fact, after putting a bullet in the Joker’s Daughter’s chest, Jason was even nice enough to call her an ambulance. So why then did he shoot her at all? If he wasn’t going to kill her, why not just use his vastly superior martial arts skills to incapacitate her and drag her off to Arkham Asylum? Well, obviously if he did that, he couldn’t brood in the shadows, monologuing about who the real crazy-people-wearing-dead-guy’s-faces really are.

This comic does have one positive thing going for it, and that’s Joe Bennett’s artwork. Though he’s mostly wasted on a subpar script, his clean lines and dynamic page layouts shine through, especially his fantastically creepy flashback to the Joker maniacally beating Jason with a bloody crowbar. In fact, here you go…

 

Joker

 

I just saved you three bucks. Go spend it on a better comic.

Darth Vader 20

Darth Vader #20

“The Shu-Torun War pt. 5”; “The Misadventures of Triple-Zero and Beetee”

Kieron Gillen (writer), Salvador Larroca and Mike Norton (artists). Covers by Mark Brooks, Reilly Brown and John Tyler Christopher.

When Marvel Comics and their Disney taskmasters officially launched their line of Star Wars comics last year, they seemed bound and determined to fight the unfair stigma that licenced comics, by and large, suck. Sure enough, thanks to some of the best writers and artists in the business today, Marvel’s Star Wars comics have been excellent, with Darth Vader perhaps being the best of the bunch. Set in the aftermath of the first Death Star’s destruction at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, the follows Vader as he recovers from the Empire’s first major defeat. Complicating matters further is Vader’s discovery that he has a son – a revelation that takes place in the single greatest scene in all of comics from last year. Seriously, go Google that shit. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that awesome? Who would have thought you can get that much emotional impact out of a dude wearing an expressionless robot mask?

Anyway, this issue finds us nearing the end of the series’ fourth story arc. Vader has successfully dispatched his would-be rivals for his position as Emperor Palpatine’s apprentice, and now he’s off for revenge against the traitorous Doctor Cylo, the mad scientist who transformed Anakin Skywalker’s charred and de-limbed husk into the bad-ass cyborg we all know and love. Meanwhile, Vader’s agent Doctor Aphra has been captured by the damned, dirty Rebels. With the man himself otherwise occupied, Vader assigns her rescue to his personal Droids, 0-0-0 and BT-1 (Triple Zero and BeeTee, lovably murderous counterparts to C-3PO and R2-D2)… and naturally, if they can’t save Aphra, they’re to ensure her silence by killing her, and everyone else in sight.

Though setting this series in such a dense period of Star Wars lore ran the risk of handcuffing it creativity, Kieron Gillen has managed to carve out his own niche, building on both the classic Star Wars trilogy and the often regrettable prequels, bringing life and resonance to these characters in a way that few writers have successfully done so before.  The highlight of this issue is a brilliant monologue from the Emperor, charting his rise to power through the sacrifices of his previous protégés, Darths Maul and Tyranus. The speech does more to develop Emperor Palpatine’s motivation, personality, and his complex relationship with Vader than all six movies he appeared in. Instead of being an inscrutable shadow or a ridiculous caricature (or an old woman with chimpanzee eyes – look that up too), this Emperor is a Machiavellian genius, whose unwavering belief in his own vision is magnetic enough that you can absolutely understand why a troubled Anakin Skywalker would be drawn to him. At the same time though, Palpatine is shown to be fallible, his control of his Empire threatened by internal back-stabbing and the constant threat of betrayal. He maintains order through sheer willpower and constant manipulation – and though Vader is one of the few willing to call the Emperor on his bullshit, he remains loyal to him… at least up to a point.

What really strikes me about this series is that, far more so than in the movies it draws from, every character is smart, and their actions always make sense. Nothing is done simply for the sake of plot convenience – there’s no mouthy Admiral sassing Vader, just so the audience can see him get Force choked to death, while Vader spouts a bad-ass one-liner about his disturbing lack of faith. In this comic, Vader’s allies and enemies alike understand what he represents, and what he’s capable of – as much as anything, he’s treated as a virtual force of nature. His agent Aphra knows that Vader will inevitably kill her, but willingly serves him because, well, what else is she going to do? In this issue in particular, an enemy of Vader’s makes a point of not even bothering to try to deceive him, because come on, this is Darth Vader, it’s just not going to work.

Like most Star Wars tie-ins, the Darth Vader comic pays slavish attention to continuity, particularly in the form of visual details. This absolutely plays to Salvador Larroca’s skills, who shows an almost obsessive technical precision toward weapons, uniforms and ship-designs (for the most part anyway, there’s one background image of an Arquitens-class Imperial light cruiser that slightly off model, and I’m sure that put the fine folks at Wookieepedia into a right tizzy, but we’ll chalk that one up to artistic license). I could offer some mild complaints about Larroca’s style of drawing oddly incongruous faces, where his heavy rendering meshes awkwardly with colorist Edward Delgado’s vivid pallet choices – that’s entirely superficial and subjective though, personal tastes aside, Larroca’s artwork on this series is excellent. It’s certainly striking in any case, especially compared to this issue’s back-up story drawn by Mike Norton, which is perfectly fine, but fails to stand-out in any real way.

Darth Vader is a series that treats Star Wars as the grand space opera that it always should be, balancing an epic scale with some of the finest character moments the franchise has ever seen. If you’re not a Star Wars fan already, this book probably won’t convert you, but if you’re at all into the source material, this is well worth checking out.

Catwoman 52

Catwoman #52

“Faceless pt. 2”

Frank Tieri (writer), Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro (artists). Covers by Joshua Middleton and Inaki Miranda

Shifting our attention back to another of DC’s lame-duck series, we have one of the more conspicuous Rebirth cancellations. Catwoman had a resurgence of sorts over the last few years, with former writer Genevieve Valentine revitalizing things with a new direction that saw Selina Kyle mostly hang up her catsuit to focus on running a major criminal empire. Once Valentine left the book, Frank Tieri quickly brought things back to the old status quo of jewel heists and dead fences. Although there was none of the innovation Valentine brought to Catwoman’s world, her take on the character admittedly wasn’t universally accepted, so at the very least Catwoman purists were happy with the return to form.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Tieri joined the series just as it was winding down toward cancellation. He’s done a decent job introducing some new ideas while evoking better Catwoman comics of old (especially Selina’s Big Score, a clear inspiration to Tieri). The thing is, how much can anyone accomplish when you know all of your ideas will be rendered meaningless as soon as you’re gone?

This issue has Catwoman caught between the Black Mask and the White Mask, having just learned that she has a very personal history with the latter. The False Face Society looms in the shadows, there’s a cursed artefact, and solicitations for this issue promise that Selina Kyle’s life with be changed forever. It won’t, though. Even if this issue ended with any sense of resolution – and it doesn’t – none of this matters as of next month. Everything Tieri’s done in the past six months will be swept away by the tides of Rebirth, and the odds are good that none of this will ever be referenced ever again. Catwoman will eventually resurface in the pages of another book, but elements like the Faceless Skull and the White Mask will be forgotten.

That isn’t to say that anything exceptional will be lost. Tieri’s story here was average at best, likely rushed to fit into the final issue. It concludes with a non-ending that resolves nothing. As for the artwork, nothing takes me out of a story faster than inconsistent work brought on by several different artists trading off pages in the same issue. It’s fine when it serves a narrative purpose (like the flashback sections of this issue), or the different artists have complementary styles, but that’s not the case here. With Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro all sharing joint credits for pencils and inks, there are too many chefs in the kitchen. When you have can’t even maintain a consistent design for your main villain from one page to the next – especially when the work is further muddied by three different colorists.

Honestly, I’m disappointed – as one of the New 52 titles, Catwoman’s quality was always uneven, but after such a hot streak in 2015, I wish it wasn’t going out on a whimper and a mewl.

All-New X-Men 9

All-New X-Men #9

Dennis Hopeless (writer), Mark Bagley (pencils). Covers by Bagley, Pasqual Ferry and Ken Lashley.

This month’s issue of All-New X-Men begins a three-part tie-in to the current “Apocalypse Wars” storyline, a loose crossover between the current X-Men titles that I expected to have very little interest in. Of the titles involved, All-New X-Men easily has the best hook, as the time-displaced Beast and his teammate Genesis (the teenage clone of Apocalypse) find themselves sent back to ancient Egypt to witness Apocalypse’s rise first hand.

Beyond the trappings of an “event” storyline, this serves to highlight the main theme of Dennis Hopeless’ All-New X-Men, that being the battle for one’s soul. In this series, Genesis seeks to escape what he fears is his destiny, to become the same “megalomaniacal world-ending steroid Hitler” as the original Apocalypse. The teenaged Cyclops faces a similar conflict, having been brought to the present day only to learn that he shares a name and face with the most hated mutant terrorist in the world. The young Beast struggles with feelings of inadequacy over his failure to find a way to bring himself and his friends back to their own time, away from a darker modern age that he worries will corrupt them all. Oya is torn between her deep commitment to her faith, and a church that condemns her mutant powers as being satanic in nature. Since coming out as being gay, Iceman now finds himself pushing away teammates who were like brothers to him, because he no longer knows how to interact with them as he did before. Angel continues to deal with the repercussions of breaking up with Wolverine (the teenage girl version, not the short hairy guy), who he desperately loves, but cannot bear to watch acting in her reckless and self-destructive way.

That’s a lot of pathos for one comic series, but I’d argue that it all adds up to a larger idea – the battle for the soul of superhero comics in general. By that, I mean the ability to tell a gripping story without resorting to lazy conventions like shock violence, gratuitous sex and Women in Refrigerators. This is a comic that has the potential to connect with young readers in the way the first Marvel Comics of the 1960s did, providing entertainment not just for kids, not just for 40 year old men, but for everyone to enjoy.

There are a lot of fun things about this issue. You have ancient Egyptian battles, a scene of the Beast experimenting with a ton of obscure time-travel devices from old comics (my favourite being the time-crystal baseball bat from the Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine miniseries), and the pure awesomeness of Deejay Kid Gladiator. That’s not what I’m going to take away from this issue though. The thing that will stick with me is the scene where Genesis thinks about how exhausting it is to constantly maintain a happy face for the outside world, while hiding the depression or anger he feels inside. That’s something that hits incredibly close to home for me – moreover, it’s as poignant to me at age 30 as it would have been if I were reading this at age 15. Given the concepts involved in this series, I could see it resonating with a lot of readers in the same way.

As an aside, as I was writing this set of reviews, the news just broke that Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. Cooke was one of the greatest Canadian comic creators of all time, whose timeless art at brought life to overlooked classics, and brought a grace and charm to every page he created. He’s probably best known for creating DC: The New Frontier, which is fantastic, as are his run on The Spirit and (funny enough) Catwoman. At a time when so many comics looked virtually identical to one another, his retro 50’s pop-art style always stood out as something fresh and exciting. Beyond his nostalgic style though, Cooke was a master storyteller, both as a writer and artist. His death leaves behind a void that few could ever hope to fill – but hopefully not for lack of trying, because if there’s one thing every aspiring artist in the medium could learn from, it’s the sense of inspiration, optimism, joy, and sheer love of the comic book craft that shone through Darwyn Cooke’s creations.

Darwyn Cooke