New Comic Reviews! (11-25-13)

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Superior Spider-Man Annual #1

“Hostage Crisis”

Christos Gage (writer), Javier Rodriguez (artist). Cover by J.G. Jones.

 For all of my complaints about the creative direction behind Superior Spider-Man, this annual is a good example of how the concept can be done right. There are no characters playing stupid for the sake of plot convenience. If anything, by actually applying his prodigious intelligence to dealing with his problems, Otto Octavius one-ups the Peter Parker we’ve seen in the past. Remember how a few years ago, Aunt May was shot, and instead of speaking to some of his friends (who include gods, mutants with healing abilities, time travellers etc), Peter decided it was a much better idea to make a deal with the effing devil? Yeah. The problem with characters who are supposed to be geniuses is that they’re still limited by the intelligence and creativity of their writers (and editors).

“Hostage Crisis” is a strong stand-alone story, that sees Aunt May kidnapped by Blackout (the demonic ex-Ghost Rider villain, not ‘the one with the ridiculous lightning bolt on his head,’ as Octavius puts it- he shows up in the next book we’re looking at this week). The story is tense and fast-paced, and shows just how ruthless the Superior Spider-Man can be, especially when one of the few people he genuinely cares about is threatened- lest we forget, May Parker is actually Octavius’ one-time fiancé. Weird, I know. Christos Gage’s excellent script is well-served by artist Javier Rodriguez, who both pencilled and coloured the book 9with inks by Alvaro Lopez). The result is an absolutely gorgeous book, one well-deserving of the “Superior” moniker.

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Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #6

Christopher Yost (writer), Marco Checchetto (artist). Cover by Paolo and Joe Rivera.

 In part-two of our Superior Spider-Man double feature, we have another fun little story which again gets the SSM formula right, but delivering a solid story that minimizes the series elements that test the reader’s credulity. This month sees Spider-Man and the mind-controlled Sinister- excuse me, Superior Six fighting to protect a scientific MacGuffin from the Masters of Evil and the Sinister Six, with young hero Sun Girl and her supervillain father caught in the middle. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for any comic that throws in scrubs like the Wrecking Crew (the Marvel Comics equivalent of the WWF’s Mean Street Posse), but even if you’re not as enamoured with D-List villains as I am, there’s a lot to like here. Christopher Yost delivers a fun, action-packed slug-fest and an organic progression of the Superior Six storyline, while Marco Checchetto’s pencils possess a kinetic energy to them, reminiscent of Jae Lee, by way of Jesus Salz.

Once again though, to thoroughly beat a dead horse, it leaves me wanting more in the progression of the main Superior Spider-Man story, the eventual revelation that Otto Octavius is in the driver seat of Peter Parker’s body. I realize that when the story finally hits the boiling point, it won’t be in this particular series, but opening up with a page of various characters (including Captain America and the brass at S.H.I.E.L.D.) reacting to Spider-Man fighting alongside a quintet of supervillains, it’s kind of frustrating knowing that another month will pass, and those characters will still be subject to plot-driven incompetence. I know it’s a point I’ve harped on time and again, but it’s galling, especially for anyone who has an attachment to the Marvel Universe from earlier than 2013.

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Birds of Prey #25

“Sunrise”

Christie Marx (writer), Romanlo Molenaar with Scott McDaniel, Travis Moore, Daniel Sampere (artists). Cover by Jorge Molina.

 Once upon a time, Birds of Prey was one of DC’s best under-the-radar titles, a book that may not have had the sales figures of a franchise player, but was consistently well-written, especially when Gail Simone was at the helm. The relaunched New 52 version of the title has been reasonably well received, but thus far it hasn’t clicked with me, and I can’t even put my finger on the precise reason why. It might be the team roster and the way those characters have been used (the presence of Oracle is sorely missed, and I’m in the minority who things Barbara Gordon should have stayed paralyzed). It might be the various creative teams, none of whom have wowed me. Whatever the case, any time Birds of Prey has found itself in my stack of new comics, it’s usually the last book I bother to read, and never one I start into with much enthusiasm.

This month features a stand-alone tie-in to the “Zero Year” storyline dominating the Bat-books right now, so I figured I’d give it a shot. My reaction to “Sunrise” is no more or less than a resounding ‘meh’. The story is harmless, but immediately forgettable, a by-the-numbers story of a pre-Black Canary Dinah Drake going from untrusting runaway to troubled sensei in Gotham’s slums. The art on the book goes through several jarring stylistic changes, the product of four pencilers whose pages seemed to have been assigned completely at random. The sections (which are uncredited, save for Scott McDaniel having a vague nod for ‘breakdowns’) range from competent if unspectacular, to the kind of over-rendered work more typical of mid-90s Jim Lee clones. This just felt like an exercise in mediocrity from beginning to end, and as a tie-in to the excellent “Zero Year,” it’s simply disappointing.

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Avengers A.I. #6

Sam Humphries (writer), Valerio Schiti (artist). Cover by David Marquez.

 Even in 2013, superhero comics are often dismissed by critics as being somewhat brainless, or at least one-dimensional. While it’s an unfair simplification, it can’t be denied that there are more than a few series of the genre that never introduce a problem that can’t be solved through the liberal application of kicks to the face. For anyone still clinging to that notion though, I humbly suggest they take a look at Avengers A.I., one of the smartest books Marvel Comics- or any major publisher- has ever put out.

Avengers A.I. is one of the most visually striking monthly comics coming out right now- and with some of the amazingly varied talent that has been recruiting over the past few years, that says a lot. Having taken over from Andre Lima Araujo last month, Valerio Schiti brings his own A-game to the book, mixing the clean lines and expressive faces of Kevin Maguire with an aesthetic that borrows from European greats like Milo Manara and Moebius. This month’s virtual battle between the Vision and Dimitrios lets Schiti really show off his versatility, jumping styles from panel to panel, and drawing from everything from the Street Fighter video games to Ingmar Bergman films.

The real hook for me though is the prevailing themes in Avengers A.I. about the nature of sentience and life. Sam Humphries challenges the reader with complex moral quandaries about what inalienable rights (if any) are due to artificial life forms- questions that may well go from the realm of science fiction to reality within our lifetimes. I’m also fascinated by how Humphries has written Hank Pym as a man living with mental illness- not in the typical comic book ‘I’m going to build flying robot sharks and attacks Washington’ way, but in a realistic and relatable depiction of a guy struggling with the depression and manic episodes that come with bipolar disorder. Pym has never been one of my favourite heroes- even as a life-long Avengers fan, he’s never done much for me- but this version of the character completely strikes home. The dynamic that Humphries develops between the therapeutic qualities of being a costumed hero, versus the incredible stresses that come with that particular career choice are nothing short of fascinating.

There are a lot of fantastic comic books being produced right now, and Avengers A.I. is absolutely one of the best.

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Red Hood and the Outlaws #25

“The Beckoning Dark”

James Tynion IV (writer), Jeremy Haun (artist). Cover by Giuseppe Camuncoli.

In our second “Zero Year” tie in this week, we’re looking at how Jason Todd fits into the muddled continuity brought about by DC trying to smoosh Batman’s entire history into a six-year timeframe. Apparently, that involves ninjas.

Of the few issues of Red Hood and the Outlaws that I’ve read, this is easily the best, if only because it’s not as aggressively obnoxious as the early issues, or as bland as the more recent fare. That might be part due to the focus on Jason Todd alone, who may not be my favourite character by a long shot, but is infinitely better than the detestable New 52 versions of Starfire and Arsenal.

I really wish that DC had declared some kind of moratorium on stories involving Talia al Ghul though. We’re only recently coming off the finale of Grant Morrison’s incredible run on the Bat-titles, and the entire final act involved Talia as the main antagonist of Batman Incorporated. It was arguably the best story she ever appeared in, and elevated her to the upper echelon of Batman’s enemies, but it was also a story with a definitive end point. To bring her back into the fold so quickly- albeit in a story set six years in the past- feels like it’s stepping on Batman Incorporated’s toes, and while I rather like James Tynion IV, anything that holds his work up against one of the most defining runs of Morrison’s career isn’t going to do Tynion any favours.

This is a better “Zero Year” tie-in than the one we saw in Birds of Prey, but it still feels somewhat superfluous to both the main series, and to the ordinary Red Hood and the Outlaws stories. Pick it up if you’re a completist, or a die-hard Red Hood fan- then if it’s the latter, consider re-evaluating your life choices.

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Image X-Men: Legacy #20

“The Epitath”

Simon Spurier (writer), Tan Eng Huat (artist). Cover by Mike Del Mundo

 You know, I’ve been reading X-Men: Legacy for a few months now, and I feel like I should have more to say about the book. But no… I’m pretty much completely ambivalent. It’s not a badly written series by any stretch, but it hasn’t especially grabbed me either. The art is competent, though not especially to my taste- and it feels crowded by a glut of unnecessary captions and word balloons this month, because this is an inordinately wordy comic book. It’s all just sort of… there. The key, I think, is that no matter how hard Simon Spurier works to try to make me care about Legion, ultimately I’ll always just think of him as a bland throwback to an era of X-Men comics I have no nostalgic attachment to. And really, I know it’s kind of his thing, but there is no way I will ever be able to take Legion seriously with that ridiculous haircut.

For those who are interested though, this month sees Legion battling against a destructive entity unleashed inside his mind, and the only way to beat it will be for him to unite his warring multiple personalities, and oh god I don’t care. I will say, I do kind of dig the fact that the de facto villain this month is a character who dates all the way back to 1940, but has barely been used in the modern Marvel Universe. I always geek out a bit when a writer dusts off a half-forgotten relic from the past, or even a newer character who isn’t being used much these days (which is probably why I rather enjoyed the Pete Wisdom appearances from a few months back). Honestly, the only element to this book that’s not clicking with me is Legion himself.

Cool cover though.

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