New Comic Reviews! (11-18-13)

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Thor: God of Thunder #15

“The Accursed pt. 3- Bury My Heart in Jotunheim”

Jason Aaron (writer), Esad Ribic (artist/cover)

With the new Thor movie having hit theatres last week, I’m a bit surprised to find that new issue of Thor: God of Thunder is the middle of a five-part series. You’d think that it would make sense to time things so that a new story would begin this month, as a jumping on point for anyone who sees the movie and is curious enough to check out the monthly series. That said, there’s nothing particularly impenetrable about “The Accursed,” especially for anyone with even a passing understanding of fantasy tropes by way of Lord of the Rings. The concepts are familiar enough- faced with a powerful and wily enemy, Thor gathers together a League of heroes from the various realms- a surly dwarf, a taciturn giant, a brutish troll and elves both Light and Dark. Naturally, everyone hates everyone else, and it’s up to Thor to bring them all together, through his natural leadership qualities, and an abundance of alcohol.

This is High Fantasy, well told- though that means that anyone looking for Superhero Thor, the Thor that fights aliens alongside the Avengers, won’t find that here. For fantasy junkies though, this is high-quality stuff, with a strong story by Jason Aaron well matched by Ron Garney and Ive Svorcina’s lively artwork. It’s probably not too late to find issues 13 and 14 at your local comic store (and with more and more people reading digital copies, that’s almost a moot point), so if any of this sounds like your cup of tea, go back and read “The Accursed” from the beginning- you won’t be disappointed.

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Avengers Arena #17

“Boss Level pt. 4”

Dennis Hopeless (writer), Kev Walker (artist), Francesca Francavilla (cover)

When Avengers Arena launched at the end of 2012, it quickly became a standout, as the single worst title of the Marvel Now! relaunch. Here we are, a year later, and as the series reaches its “season finale,” it sure as hell hasn’t gotten any better. The series revolves around a group of young heroes abducted and forced to fight each other to the death, a shameless rehashing of The Hunger Games (and Battle Royale, and several other stories that were actually well written). Whereas a better writer might have used elements of subversion to turn this well-worn premise into a decent series- and a worse writer might at least have turned out enjoyable, brainless trash- Dennis Hopeless only managed to churn out some of the laziest, most hackneyed comics to be produced by a major publisher in many years. Make no mistake- this isn’t a comic that’s “so bad it’s good.” This is a joyless, brainless exercise in ugly cynicism.

But hell, this series has been selling well enough, and a second volume has already been confirmed, so some people must be enjoying it. So here you go- if you’re a disassociate, post-everything hipster, if you’re a troubled teenager who tortures small animals for fun, or if you enjoyed the film The Doom Generation, this may just be the book for you. For people who actually enjoy comics, stay as far away from Avenger Arena as humanly possible.

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Batman #25

“Zero Year – Dark City pt. 2”

Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV (writers), Greg Capullo and Andy Clark (artists). Covers by Capullo and Alex Garner

Let’s face facts- Rookie Batman stories have been done to death. Ever since Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli produced the definitive modern take on the Dark Knight’s origin with 1987’s Batman: Year One, it feels as though DC has produced one story after another, each designed to build on Miller and Mazzucchelli’s work. Aside from the obvious (and the somewhat less notable) Year Two and Year Three follow-ups, there are The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Haunted Night, multiple part stories from Batman: Legend of the Dark Knight and Batman Confidential, and many more. Some were great, others not so much, but regardless on each story’s quality, it feels like the whole period has been played out. Needless to say, when DC announced the “Zero Year” storyline, the prospect of months and months of origin rehashing didn’t exactly wow me.

Leave it to Scott Snyder to blow away my expectations once again. Yes, there are the trappings of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s story, but there’s much more going on in “Zero Year.” This is as strong of a character piece as Year One was, but it offers a unique and fresh take on these characters, while offering some refreshingly new creations. If anything, Snyder takes the expectations we have for familiar characters like Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox and plays with them, catching the reader off guard by not showing us what we’ve come to expect. That’s not to say that Snyder is cavalierly shoving aside the past either- on the contrary, he’s using it to create something unique and entertaining for a modern audience, while still paying homage to the rich history of the Batman mythos. For DC these days, that seems to be an especially novel concept.

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Deadpool #19

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly pt. 5”

 Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn (writers), Declan Shalvey with Irene Lee (artists). Cover by Shalvey.

For much of the past year, Deadpool has consistently been the funniest ongoing series on the shelves, whether it was the chilling menace of zombie presidents, Deadpool versus not-quite-Aquaman, or a trip back to the days of Seventies exploitation. That came to an abrupt halt with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” a decidedly dark and serious story that pits Deadpool against shadowy figures who have manipulated him behind the scenes for years, and have now struck at him through a daughter he never knew he had. There’s definitely a sense of tonal whiplash between this and previous stories from Posehn and Duggan’s run, but “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” might be their strongest work to date.

It’s easy to reduce Deadpool to the role of madcap comedy hero, a bloody cross between Bugs Bunny and Ashley J. Williams- and there’s really nothing wrong with doing that. Tons of entertaining Deadpool stories used him as little more than a two-dimensional caricature of other superheroes who are often taken much too seriously. But the very best Deadpool stories have looked for deeper nuances to the character, like the relationship Joe Kelly developed between Deadpool and his friend-slash-captive Blind Al, or how Fabian Nicieza showed Deadpool being forced to reconcile his bloody history with his desire to be a hero.

There’s some heavy stuff in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, much more so than you may expect from the guys who brought you with Shirtless Zombie Abraham Lincoln inside the UFC Octogon… but it’s also one of the best Deadpool stories in years. Given that Posehn and Duggan have been absolutely killing it on this book all year long, that’s really saying something.

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Superior Spider-Man #21 (art by Giuseppe Camuncoli)

Superior Spider-Man #21

“Lethal Ladies”

Dan Slott (writer), Giuseppe Camuncoli (artist/cover)

As much as I miss Peter Parker, and as much as I still hate the story that led to Doctor Octopus becoming the Webslinger, a year’s worth of solid stories have warmed me to the Superior Spider-Man. This month sees the return of 90’s supervillain Stunner, a wonderfully silly throwback to the days when people though the Internet was something you physically climbed into, and that Virtual Reality was the wave of the future. There’s also some advancement in the series-long subplot that sees someone finally figure out the Parker-Octavius connection. And that’s good, because the boy-swap story has the unfortunate requirement of Plot Blinders, where every single person who knows Peter Parker/Spider-Man must be at least somewhat oblivious to his radical changes in behaviour, intellect, speech patterns etc. There’s only so long I can accept the entire supporting cast acting completely clueless before I want to throw in the towel on the series.

Taken as a stand-alone issue though, this is still quite good. There’s the requisite villain punch-up, the advancement of most of the dangling plot threads, and a good issue-long problem that our quasi-hero solves in a fairly novel way. I just feel like to fully enjoy Superior Spider-Man, you can’t have any real attachment to the pre-Superior canon. Otherwise, the premise of Otto Octavius’ brain in Peter Parker’s body, and the logical hoops one has to jump through to make that idea work, can be too much to take.

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Fearless Defenders #11 (art by Will Sliney)

Fearless Defenders #11

Cullen Bunn (writer), Will Sliney (artist), Mark Brooks (cover)

This is why we can’t have nice things. Yes, shortly before this issue went to press, the news got out that Fearless Defenders has officially been cancelled, wrapping up next month. It’s a damned shame, too, because for the series- a tribute to the female heroes from all corners of the Marvel Universe- has been one of the best series of 2013. Sadly though, quality doesn’t always transfer into sales, and the Fearless Defenders has consistently been one of Marvel’s lowest selling titles. The fact that the Defenders brand has historically been one of the publisher’s weakest may have contributed to the weak sales figures, or the low recognisability of most members of the all-women cast- compare it to the current all-female roster in the relaunched X-Men, and you can see the immediate value attached to both a major franchise title, and familiar faces from cartoons and movies. Whatever the reason, credit should be given to Marvel for doing all they could to allow Fearless Defenders to find its audience before pulling the plug.

As it is, there’s a lot left unresolved at this issue’s end- Hippolyta is halfway through the twelve labours she is duty-bound to fulfill as payment for her resurrection, and she’s just begun to reform the Amazon nation with her team of heroines. Meanwhile, Caroline Le Fay (bastard daughter of sorceress Morgan le Fay and Doctor Doom) and her army of Doom Maidens are sewing the seeds of discord within the Amazons. There’s even a lesbian love triangle between Defenders Ren Kimura, Annabelle Riggs and Valkyrie, the latter of whom currently share the same body, and as I type this out I have to ask again, seriously, how was this not one of Marvel’s biggest hits?

Hopefully, Fearless Defenders will find new life in trade paperback form- the series’ fans have been enthusiastic and vocal, and I hope this becomes a sleep hit that makes it way into new reader’s hands over the years to come. Nextwave was a brilliant series that found wider success after its cancellation, with its influence being felt in later work (including Fearless Defenders come to think of it, which counted Nextwave’s Elsa Bloodstone among its regulars). Same goes with the 2006 The Thing series, a critical darling that underperformed in sales, but was discovered posthumously in trade. In any case, Cullen Bunn has created too many great ideas in the past year for Fearless Defenders to disappear completely- I fervently hope he picks up his dangling plot threads in a new book, an soon. “Fearless Avengers” has a nice ring to it…

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X-Men: Gold (art by Bob McLeod)

X-Men: Gold #1

Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, Fabian Nicieza, Louise Simonson, Roy Thomas and Len Wein (writers); Salvador Larroca, Bob McLeod, Jorge Molina, Pat Olliffe and Walter Simonson (artists); covers by John Cassaday and Olivier Coipel.

In celebration of the X-Men’s 50th Anniversary, Marvel has released this one-shot trip down memory lane, that sees classic X-creators returning for a bevy of untold stories from the Merry Mutant’s past. Headlining the whole shebang is Chris Claremont, the writer who took the X-Men from virtual cancellation to being the juggernaut franchise that rule the comic stands for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately, Claremont has tarnished his own legacy somewhat since then, with a forgettable return to the franchise in 2000, which he followed with the abysmal X-Men: The End trio of miniseries, and X-Men Forever, which is literally nothing more than officially sanctioned fan-fiction. Credit where it’s due, Claremont’s lead story is one of the better X-Men stories he’s done since his prime, a fun if inconsequential story about the X-Men (circa 1983) fighting Sentinels in China, ably rendered by New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod. It’s not bad, but it does serve to illustrate the fact that Claremont’s stylistic quirks haven’t aged particularly well.

Following the feature-length lead are several short stories, sadly none of which are given enough pages to build much steam. First up is a story about the original X-Men by series co-creator Stan Lee and X-Factor creators Walter and Louise Simonson. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Stan Lee in 2013- corny and unabashedly dated, but filled with his usual charming bombast- but it ends so abruptly, I half thought my copy was somehow missing a few pages. Next was an uneven but harmless story by Roy Thomas and Pat Olliffe about the first meeting between Sunfire and Banshee (both Thomas’ creations, natch). That’s followed by my favourite story, set during Giant-Size X-Men #1, that sees Wolverine casually evaluating the easiest way to kill each of his new teammates, just in case. Written by Wolverine co-creator Len Wein (with art by Jorge Molina), it’s fantastic dark humour, and underscores how well Wein has managed to adapt his style over the years to stay relevant.

Finally, Fabian Nicieza and Salvador Larroca deliver a story that will likely baffle anyone who wasn’t reading the X-Men twenty years ago, as it offers virtually no context to explain just what the hell is going on. For the benefit of those who had better things to do in 1993 than read comics, this one falls between the panels of X-Men #25, which saw Magneto rip Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton out through the pores in his skin, and Professor X retaliate by mind-wiping Magneto, leading directly to the Onslaught crossover, Magneto’s goody-goody de-aged clone Joseph, and Wolverine losing his nose for some reason. There were some monumentally bad X-Men comics back then, but those were also the comics I grew up on, as a fresh-faced eight year old kid who was just starting to seriously dive headfirst into the Marvel Universe. So even though Wein and Olliffe’s story was my favourite, this one pushed by nostalgia buttons the hardest.

Really, that’s the strongest appeal of this title. If you’ve been reading X-Men comics for at least twenty years, then no matter what era you grew up with, there should be something here for you to get misty eyed about. Of course, whether that nostalgia trip is worth a hefty $5.99 cover price is another matter altogether.

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