New Comic Reviews! (12-10-13)

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Avengers Annual #1

“It’s the Most Loneliest Time of the Year!”

Kathryn Immonen (writer), David Lafuente (artist and cover)

 I’ve always been of the opinion that creating a good Christmas comic is deceptively difficult. Every year, we’re bombarded with books ranging from cloying tearjerkers and ham-fisted “Christmas Carol” pastiches, to wrongheaded ‘holiday’ stories about the Punisher killing people, Santa Claus the Barbarian or the Ultimate Warrior raping your childhood. There are certainly some stand out exceptions (the Marvel Holiday Special 2006 is a personal favourite, if only for Santron, the semi-homicidal reprogrammed Christmas Ultron), but it feels like the vast majority of seasonal specials just aren’t all that good.

With that in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one going in, especially since the official solicitation and the story name both made me suspect we might go the lazy sad-sack ‘Captain America is a man out of time and also all alone on Christmas, boo hoo’ route. But I’m happy to say I was wrong – yes, that’s part of the set up, but Immonen uses it to tell a story that is both inspirational and incredibly funny… and yes, a bit heart-warming, even for a cranky old Grinch like me. Immonen’s story also provides a ton of action, which David Lafuente captured perfectly in his madcap style.

What I really love about this comic is that it has an unabashed sense of optimism that seems almost out of place in modern comics, which often go out of their way to hammer the reader over the head with how damned serious they take themselves. This is a comic book where the Avengers seem like genuinely cool people- they’re funny, clever, and above all hopeful characters. This is a Captain America who values his memories of the past, but he isn’t haunted by them (which is a hell of a lot better than the crap being peddled in the ongoing Captain America series right now). The Hulk is still big and dumb, but he also has a childlike sense of excitement. For all his detached coolness, Iron Man is a guy who’s having fun playing with his toys. And Black Widow may be a hard ass, but she also has compassion for someone in need. These are the kind of heroes that made me a comic book fan as a kid, and this is the kind of story that reminds me why I still love reading comics two decades later.

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Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #3 (of 5)

“99 Problems pt. 3 – Combat”

Matt Kindt (writer), Marco Rudy (artist and cover)

When I do these mini-reviews of the new comics that come out each week, I tend to talk about stories more than artwork. Plots and characters can be dissected, but there’s only so much I can do to describe visual images in words alone. That makes Marvel Knights: Spider-Man a singularly difficult miniseries to review, because this is absolutely an art book. The story is a nonlinear narrative, more of a fever dream than a coherent story. That’s not a complaint, in case it sounds like one- the result is quite interesting, shifting the focus to Marco Rudy’s artwork, which shows off his incredible versatility, as he transitions effortlessly between styles every few pages.

The story, such as it is, sees Spider-Man forced into a gauntlet against (allegedly) ninety-nine of his greatest foes. Only in this issue, it becomes clear that not all of his enemies are interested in fighting at all. This is not a comic that will appeal to all tastes- it’s decidedly out of the norm for what you’d expect from a Marvel comic, let alone one starring their most famous hero (and for what it’s worth, this is an out-of-continuity deal with good old Peter Parker as Spider-Man). More than anything, it reminds me of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s 1989 Batman: Arkham Asylum graphic novel, itself a decidedly unorthodox take on an iconic character. This is a comic that takes risks, rejecting clarity and focus at times to create atmosphere. I’ve read the three issues released to date, but I feel like it’ll be a completely different experience once the next two issues ship, and the story can be read as a whole. That said, don’t wait for the trade, pick up the single issues now… this kind of innovation should be rewarded, and hopefully strong enough sales will encourage Marvel to put out more books like this.

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Green Arrow #26

“The Outsiders War pt. 1- Return to the Island”

Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist and cover)

There was a time, what feels like a lifetime ago, when Green Arrow was one of my favourite DC characters. I discovered back issues the 1988 series through the magic of quarter bins, and quickly began amassing a nearly-complete run. Then the Kevin Smith-penned relaunch hit in 2001, and for several years, Green Arrow was a must-read title. Some questionable storylines and a series of art teams that weren’t to my taste eventually caused me to lose interest, and I dropped the book from my regular pull list. I’ve checked back in a few times, but DC never managed to hook me in again. Then with the “New 52” relaunch, in an attempt to bring the character more in line with the mediocre Arrow TV show, most of the elements I liked most about the character were jettisoned.

The first chapter of “The Outsiders War” sews the seeds for a war between the Outsiders, the Samurai/Ninja/Weapons Fetishist clans seen in the pages of the recently defunct Katana. Green Arrow and Shado head back to the deserted island where Oliver Queen grew from a spoiled socialite into a tempered hunter, in search of an artefact that could give them control of the Arrow Clan, and secure the safety of Shadow’s kidnapped daughter. Admittedly, in Katana, the Outsiders plotline didn’t work for me – it felt too much like a rehash of old Daredevil stories, many of them originally told by Katana’s writer Ann Nocenti. But hell, I’m nothing if not open minded, and I’ve been a fan of everything Jeff Lemire has written lately, so once more into the breach I go. We’re off to a decent start, even if Lemire is stuck fighting against the baggage imposed on him by Green Arrow’s “New 52” reinterpretation. I’m withholding judgment until we’re at least one more issue in though.

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Swamp Thing #26

“Victor: Spoiled”

Charles Soule (writer), Jesus Saiz (artist and cover)

When Charles Soule took over Swamp Thing writing duties from Scott Snyder eight months ago, he had some huge shoes to fill – Snyder’s run was one of the best books of the “New 52”, and for my money the best take on the character since Alan Moore’s legendary run on Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980s. It took Soule an issue or two to find his footing, but by now he’s deep into his own unique and compelling take on the Swamp Thing mythos, and once again this title is near the top of my ‘Must Read’ list.

This month’s story deals with the aftermath of Swamp Thing’s failed battle against Seeder (Jason Woodrue). Swamp Thing’s powers have been stripped from him, with Seeder being chosen to be the new Avatar of the Green. Seeder is equal to prove his worth to his new masters… starting with killing the champion of the Red, Animal Man. The action is excellent, as is the narrative gimmick of Alec Holland being forced to watch in horror, powerless to stop Seeder from targeting his friends. I also really liked Jesus Saiz’s artwork, which feels a bit like a cross between what we had previously seen on the title from Yanick Paquette, and the grittier look that Travel Foreman provided in early issues of Animal Man. Soule also expands on Seeder’s origin, tying it into the Cult of the Cold Flame, the antagonists from Constantine. It’s nice to see some of the interconnectivity of the pre “New 52” DC Universe shining through – and these are the titles to do it in, because they don’t have nearly as many continuity headaches and needless revisions to slog through.

One last thing, regarding the last page… that single image sums up the current editorial direction of DC Comics so well, it’s worth the price of admission alone.

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Batman/Superman #6

“Boss Fight”

Greg Pak (writer), Brett Booth (artist). Covers by Booth and Cliff Chang.

So… this is a comic where Batman and Superman are transformed into two-dimensional video game characters, who act like complete assholes, and are driven by inexplicable rage and an underlying sense of sadism. They are controlled by and marketed towards cynical fans, violence junkies with the attention spans of over-caffeinated chimps. Given that Greg Pak is a rather clever writer, you’d have to imagine that this is fully intended to be satire; However, it’s also an discomfortingly accurate depiction of what the higher-ups at DC Comics apparently think of their fans.

This is a comic that actually contains the following, as part of Batman’s inner monologue – “Can’t believe I just said that. But that’s what you get when the hive mind writes your lines.” Honestly, I can’t begin to imagine what that little gem would mean to the dozen or so writers who have left DC over the past two years over excessive editorial meddling, scripts that have been rewritten or re-dialogued after the final draft was submitted and approved. Intentionally done or not, this comic is fascinating in how cynical and hateful it is. This is the absolutely archetypical “New 52” comic, right down to Brett Booth dutifully mimicking Jim Lee’s art style. This comic is brilliant- but it’s also an absolute mess.

(Incidentally, this comic was printed in a ‘widescreen’ format, meaning all the pages are printed sideways, so you have to rotate the print version around and flip through it like a calendar. I read a digital version so it didn’t really affect me, but if I picked up a physical copy, I’d have been rather annoyed at the unnecessary gimmick.)

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Guardians of the Galaxy #9

Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Francesco Francavilla (artist and cover)

 With the Guardians of the Galaxy movie on the horizon, I figured now is as good a time as any to check in with Marvel’s space-faring team of obscure Seventies characters. This issues serves as a belated tie-in to “Infinity” (which of course wrapped up last week), expanding on the team’s single-page cameo in the main miniseries to show the full climactic battle against Thanos’ forces in Earth’s orbit. This is a fun, action-packed issue with some very funny dialogue (in Brian Michael Bendis’ inimitable style), and some awesome artwork from Francesco Francavilla, more reminiscent of the styles of Alex Toth or Gene Colan than what you would typically see in a mainstream superhero comic in 2013.

There’s a lot going on in this issue, between the alien punch-ups, the wise-cracking racoon and the green gal with trust issues, but I’m most interested in the continuing story of Angela’s integration into the Marvel Universe. For those not familiar with her, Angela was a character who originally appeared in Image Comics’ Spawn series, and was a major part of that franchise, appearing in cartoons, toy lines and even as a small cameo in the 1997 Spawn film. Ownership of the character (along with two others) was later the subject of a dispute between her creator, Neil Gaiman, and Spawn creator/Image czar Todd McFarlane. After a decade-long lawsuit, the two settled matters with Gaiman gaining full control of Angela – who he promptly sold outright to Marvel Comics. It’s a fascinating situation, one that’s almost unheard of in the modern comic industry. Since making her Marvel debut in a small cameo at the end of Age of Ultron, Angela has become a fixture in Guardians of the Galaxy, but even now it’s unclear what her long term role will be. Given all the behind-the-scenes craziness that brought the character to where she is today, it’ll be fascinating to see what Marvel has in store for her.

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