Monday, January 15, 2018

What If...Marvel sees comic book stories as a byproduct of comic book cover production?

I recently read one of the dumber posts on The Beat that I can recall reading, of the sort that I found so irritating that I probably would have quit looking at the site over it a few years ago, but seeing as how degraded the comics press has become in the last few years, well, there aren't a whole lot of options for other places to see DC Comics press releases like that. Plus, I do enjoy reading The Beat's sales chart pieces.

The latest one about Marvel's sales was particularly interesting, and not simply because it traced the effect of the publisher's insane-looking "Legacy" variant scheme, where retailers were being asked to pump up their orders of books by ludicrously high, completely un-sellable percentages in order to unlock permission to order special variant covers that signaled the launch of Marvel's best jumping-off point in years (Instead of relaunching books with new #1 issues, or just not monkeying with the numbers at all, they moved to random-looking high numbers arrived at by adding the issues of all the relaunches over the decades together. These are numbers only appreciable to devoted comics historians and Marvel super-fans of a certain age.)

This passage by writer Xavier Lancel made me think about Marvel's scheme--in fact, their whole publishing strategy--in a different way:
Marvel is pretty happy about the situation. They sell their comics to the shops, after that be they read or not, that's not their problem. The advantage of not having a customer reading it is that he or she will not be disappointed. People buying comics mostly for their covers, they know exactly what they're gonna have: a cover they already saw in the Marvel Previews catalogs or solicitations. Readers are way more difficult to keep. So Marvel is still and again putting a large chunk of their efforts to sell their covers.
In other words, maybe Marvel is not so focused on the business of selling comic books to comic book readers now as they are as selling comic book covers to comic book collectors and, if viewed in that light, a lot of their moves start to make an awful lot of sense.

To a degree Lancel is joking about a lot of stuff, but he's pretty much on the money here, particularly as he goes on to emphasize that it is the comic book retailers who assumed all the risk in this endeavor, and who Marvel has to thank for it's success...or, as the numbers show, "success."

In almost every instance, it seems to have worked, at least looking at these sales estimates. For the most part, participating title saw their sales shoot up two or three times higher for the goofy "Legacy" cover issue, and then crash back down for the following issue to either exactly where they were the issue before, or slightly worse. Is the slightly worse a matter of standard attrition, or did this stupid sales initiative actively drive readers away in sizable numbers?

In either case, it certainly seems that Marvel's scheme worked...for all of one issue. It would seem to be a case of the publisher taking ten steps forward one month, only to take 10-15 steps back the next month. And it didn't cost them anything aside from the good will of many of the people who form the cornerstone of their current business model.

It's a damn shame too, because as far as I as a Marvel comics reader--well, at least via trade; Marvel's sales practices drove me from their serially-published wares years ago--the comics under those many variant covers are just as good as they have ever been, featuring a rather wide variety of genres, tone, art style and types of (admittedly all superhero-ish) characters. I may skip plenty of books featuring characters or concepts I have zero interest in--Captain Marvel, Inhumans, Deadpool and some of the too-many X-books and Spider-books--but the books I do read? I rarely if ever actively dislike any of them. I can't say the same for Marvel's Distinguished Competition, which genuinely seems to be focused on selling comic books to readers, rather than covers to collectors.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On Secret Empire, Marvel's not-so-problematic problematic event series

I can't recall another instance in my comics-reading life where online reaction to a particular storyline was so virulently negative but, upon my consulting the text, I failed to see it where exactly the anger was coming from. In the case of writer Nick Spencer's year-long "Secret Empire" story, which began with the "Avengers: Standoff" crossover event and built through the 25-issue Captain America: Steve Rogers series before reaching its climax in the Secret Empire miniseries, a great deal of the fan, reader and just casual observer upset seemed to stem more from the marketing of the book--up to including comments from Spencer and others at Marvel--than the text of any of those books.

Well, that and, of course, the political climate in the real United States around the time the long-simmering storyline started ramping up. Just as fascists were overthrowing the United States of the Marvel Universe, the real United States of our universe had just elected a president who attracted fans of fascism,  as well as actual, self-proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists; a president who, at one point, even proclaimed moral equivalency between a crowd of demonstrating Nazis and white supremacists and the people who were protesting them in Charlottesville, after one of their members literally murdered a counter-demonstrator.

So yeah, bad timing.

The plot of Secret Empire is, on its face, as comic book-simple as possible: A hero goes bad and, because this hero is Captain America, he betrays the United States and its globalist super-police army SHIELD for its rival, Hydra, which has long been aligned with his World War II-borne enemy, The Red Skull. Hydra is, in the Marvel Universe, essentially crypto-Nazis, adopting some of their affectations and aesthetics. Spencer went to rather great pains to decouple Hydra from actual Nazis in the pages of Captain America: Steve Rogers, but Twitter-ers either weren't reading or didn't care.

Among the louder concerns I still remember hearing about? It was offensive that Captain America would join Hydra, since Hydra is kinda sorta Nazi-ish (Although Hydra was created by Jewish creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the mid-1960s as an opposite army for SHIELD and company to fight; after the one-time Nazi Red Skull joined, it was later retconned to be a centuries-old organization that allied itself with the Axis Powers during World War II. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe--i.e. the popular Marvel Universe--they seem to have originated with the Nazis rather than with ancient aliens, but then, I don't watch Agents of SHIELD so I don't know for sure).

It was offensive that the character would join Hydra, since he was created by two Jewish comic book creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

It was offensive that a variant cover depicted Magneto as a member of Hydra, since Magneto is Jewish (For what it's worth, that was just a variant cover*, showing a popular-ish Marvel character in a redesigned costume, little different than a Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane or Venom version of Magneto; this version of Hydra is completely generic, even anodyne in their fascist philosophy of the strong should rule the weak, something perfectly in line with life-long mutant supremacist Magneto's own philosophy; and you can't judge a comic book by its cover, let alone its variant cover, as Magneto's not a part of Hydra and in the 400+ Secret Empire collection, his only appearance are two panels of him chucking chunks of metal at a Hydra helicarrier near the climax).

Reading the actual Secret Empire collection, however--which, in Marvel's curation, includes Secret Empire #0-#10, Free Comic Book Day 2017 (Secret Empire), Captain America #25 and Secret Empire Omega--it is, for the most part, as politics-free as can be. Spencer's massive story reduces Hydra's philosophy into that simple strength > weakness formulation that is, perhaps, uncomfortably close to the whole idea of superheroes. There's no real racial component or nationalist component, except to the degree that Inhumans--whom Marvel has spent several years transforming into the new mutants--are a persecuted minority, and thus have to stand in for all minorities, I guess (Mutants, if you're wondering, have established their own breakaway nation-state in northern California somewhere off-panel). But then, that's the bad guys, the villains persecuting them; the book doesn't suggest that Inhumans/mutants/minorities should be persecuted any more than any of the scores of X-Men stories featuring anti-mutant bigots can be read as a writer or publisher's endorsement of bigotry.

At its heart, the storyline remains almost as simple as it seemed from the start. Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, was zapped by Kobik, a sentient cosmic cube with the brain of a little girl, near the climax of "Standoff." Cosmic cubes being reality-warping paperweights that grant wishes, they make for nice, easy tools for super-comics writers, an in-story free pass to do pretty much anything the writer wants. As I've said before, Cap being made into a Hydra sleeper agent by virtue of a cosmic cube is little different than had he been zapped with a beam from a gun marked "Acme villainizer." It's a pretty simple heel turn, albeit it one that hundreds and hundreds of pages were devoted to chronicling.

I suppose it's possible Spencer did part of his storyline too well, in that he didn't make things quite a simple as he could have. Kobik was brainwashed by The Red Skull to believe that Hydra was the cat's pajamas, and so when circumstances arose in which she had to fix Steve Rogers, she also fixed the fact that he wasn't Hydra by making him Hydra. But in the pages of Steve Rogers especially, Spencer gave Rogers' new memories and magically-altered history a lot of attention. Kobik appeared to have re-written the world so that, in Steve and the rest of Hydra's understanding, in reality, they were going to win World War II, break with the Axis and usher in an age of benevolent dictatorship for the entire world, but for the fact that the U.S. created a cosmic cube and re-wrote reality to suit their vision, and so Cap was simply remembering what he believed to be the "real" version of events, and fighting to restore that version.

Here, then, is where Spencer gets political, but it's a lot more subtle than having the United States conquered by Nazis. The war of Secret Empire, and the year or so worth of comics leading up to it, was essentially a conflict of narratives, between characters who believed in different sets of facts, different histories, different realities, albeit with a superhero twist. In Captain America's narrative, Hydra was not only right, they were the rightful rulers of the world, having already won it once, but they were robbed by the U.S.' usage of the most fantastic weapon imaginable. In the narrative believed by Cap's adversaries, the rest of the heroes of the Marvel Universe--which, remember, is supposed to be just the real world + superheroes, he believes in an insane lie planted in his head by Kobik.

Less subtle, but more subtle than Twitter would have one believe, is the fact that Spencer has the United States crumple almost immediately to the idea of benevolent dictatorship, and are, in fact, even willing to put up with an awful lot of sueprvillainy in their day-to-day lives, like black, spikey super-robots and a surveillance state, if it means they don't have to worry about terrorists. Okay, maybe this isn't all that subtle; passages of Secret Empire #1 read like less timely takes on the 9/11-era security vs. freedom debate than what we saw in Mark Millar's Civil War (we don't have to call it Civil War I now, do we...?), and I suppose there is a belated, if clumsy, indictment of America's quick embrace of neoconservatives in times of danger, but...I don't know, it's pretty garbled. Steve Rogers' Hydra is much more Bush administration than Trump administration, and it's much more The Empire/First Order from the Star Wars movies than either. (For what it's worth, the original "Secret Empire" was a Watergate-era Captain America storyline by Steve Englehart and Saul Buscema that was an indictment of the Nixon administration, ending with a pretty strong implication that Nixon himself was the head of the evil organization that had infiltrated the U.S.).

The story is, quite naturally, a complete mess. At around 400-pages, it had an appreciably epic scale, and it is a rather rare Big Two "graphic novel" that reads like a novel. It took me two sittings, including the better part of a sick day, to read. Spencer writes the entire thing, but because this isn't just a storyline but an "event," it sprawled throughout Marvel's entire publishing line--Wikipedia says there were some 23 different comic book titles that tied-in, ranging from one-shots to whole story arcs from different books--and so one imagines a great deal of what happens in the book and seems to come out of left field was done so on purpose, leaving it up to, say, the X-Men writers to detail the founding of the new mutant nation or Kitty Pryde's team's adventures in the Darkforce dimension and so on.

But because of the publishing strategy, like Civil War II, this collection includes some stops and starts, and doesn't flow all that fluidly; there's an awkward, scattershot approach to it as a whole (it's worth noting, however, that this reads a lot better than Civil War II, and makes a heck of a lot more sense...that said, a lot of scenes and status quos in the Secret Empire are premised on the events of Civil War II, which, I suppose, makes it necessary reading).

Visually, it's even worse. There are about six primary artists, meaning pencil artists or artists who handle everything, and too many inkers, colorists and "with" credits on the table of contents. Worse, little to no effort was put to finding and hiring artists whose styles mesh in any appreciable way. The two artists responsible for the most pages are probably Steve McNiven and Andrea Sorrentino; the latter has a style I personally abhor and find incredibly challenging to read. It's extremely photo-referency, to the point tat it looks like photographs run through filters.

It's quite off-putting, especially when sandwiched between pages of more traditional-looking pencil-and-ink super-comics work. For example, Sorrentino's Iron Fist wears a mask that doesn't have the opaque white eyes of, um, every drawing of Iron Fist ever, but it has big eye holes cut into them. Some of Sorrentino's art just seems...inaccurate, too. For example, Civil War II ended with Iron Man Tony Stark kinda sorta dying, his body going into a vague coma-like state, while an AI based on his own personality began appearing to Riri Williams, his kinda sorta legacy replacement, Ironheart.

Throughout Secret Empire, Stark plays an understandably large role, and the AI seems to now be Stark in hologram form; it even wears a suit of armor independently, and rarely if ever appears with Ironheart. Spencer has Stark saying and doing all kinds of very un-AI-like things, but Sorrentino goes even further, to the point where he just seems to be drawing Tony Stark, not a hologram of Tony Stark or a suit of Iron Man armor with a hologram of Tony Stark's head projecting out of it. Were it not for the colorist almost always remembering to color Stark's head blue when, say, he goes into a bar in Montana disguised in a hooded sweatshirt, there would be no suggestion of what Stark actually is at the moment.

And man, then there's the action scene near the beginning, where Captain America and Hydra route Iron Man and a mess of superheroes who meet him in battle in Washington D.C. A bunch of...stuff happens, including Thor getting sent to a different dimension, Cap wielding her hammer, Scarlet Witch being possessed by a demon, but none of that is actually apparent, or even really makes sense as it's happening, and it's not until later dialogue that we begin to figure out what the hell happened in the battle, as it is mostly just vague poses, with some yelling and sound-effects.

It's actually kind of the opposite of how comics are supposed to work.

In the first passage of the story, that told in the #0 issue and the Free Comic Book Day issue, Captain America actualizes the plans he has been laying throughout Steve Rogers. Via mind-control, he captures and turns most of SHIELD to Hydra, taking his long-time girlfriend (and former SHIELD Commander) Sharon Carter hostage, rather than taking over her mind, too.

Captain Marvel, The Guardians of The Galaxy, Alpha Flight and a bunch of heavy-ish hitters are off-planet preparing to fight an alien invasion that Cap secretly planned, and then he turns on a super-force field, locking them out in space to face an infinite wave of alien invaders until they die.

A sizable swathe of heroes like Doctor Strange and the current Defenders are battling a small army of sueprvillains in the streets of New York City when all of Manhattan gets shunted off into the Darkforce dimension, further dwindling the heroes available to fight Captain America and Hydra.

Finally, realizing that the heroes and the U.S. are under attack, Tony Stark (or his AI...whatever) sends everyone to Washington D.C., where they are surprised to find themselves facing Captain America and Hydra. Sorrentino draws the 10-page battle sequence and, as stated above, it's illustrated gibberish and nonsense, just artfully designed images that fail to tell a story.

That may be, in part, because it is hard--no, impossible--to imagine how on earth the likes of Baron Zemo, The Taskmaster, Arnim Zola and a couple of other Hydra knuckleheads could possibly slow down, let alone take down the combined might of The Avengers, The U.S. Avengers, The Champions and others...Spencer and Sorrentino just end the scene with a dramatic image of Captain America holding Mjolnir above his head, but, um, I don't really see how that translates into him beating up, say, Hercules and two different Hulks, you know? So perhaps Spencer's script urged Sorrentino's vague art on.

The next passage, some 40 or so pages in, is where we see the state of the Hydra-controlled United States's kind of hard to suspend one's disbelief enough to buy, honestly, which is really saying something, because mere pages before I was okay with, say, a big red Hulk with a mustache and aviator glasses fighting alongside a character named Squirrel Girl, you know?

America is now a dystopia, so radically changed in everything from basic geography to school text books that it seems like years, rather than maybe weeks, have passed. The world Spencer and artist Steve McNiven and Jay Leisten here present us with seems like the sort of alternate future that "Days of Future Past" or Age of Ultron were set in.

Congress has semi-surrendered the United States to Hydra high command, with Captain America Steve Rogers acting as their leader. Cap also leads The Avengers, which now consists of former Thor Odinson, Deadpool, a reprogrammed Vision, a possessed Scarlet Witch and a handful of villains, like Doctor Octopus (I think that's who that's supposed to be) and Taskmaster and The Black Ant, who continue to serve as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Spencer's Secret Empire narrative.

As previously mentioned, Inhumans are rounded up and put in prison camps, while mutants have formed their own independent nation state on the West Coast (um, again). The streets are patrolled by Hydra storm-troopers in head-to-toe black-and-red costumes with skull-shaped masks and spiked billy clubs, and Hydra robots built with adaptoid technology hunt superheroes.

Most of the remaining heroes now dwell outside of Las Vegas in The Mount, where a distracted Tony Stark AI tinkers with shit and Hawkeye Clint Barton and Black Widow try to keep everything together.

Things get more hard to swallow before they get less hard to swallow, including Captain America ordering the televised execution of Rick Jones--by firing squad!--and the aerial bombardment of Las Vegas, essentially wiping the city off the map.

From there, our heroes splinter for a while. Hawkeye endorses Stark's plan to take a team--Hercules, Mockingbird, Quicksilver, Sam Wilson and Ant-Man Scott Lang--to seek out shards of the cosmic cube in order to "fix" Captain America. Black Widow, meanwhile, has her own plan: To assassinate Captain America. Spider-Man Miles Morales, still believing there must be something to Ulysses' vision of him killing Cap on the stairs of the Capitol building from Civil War II, volunteers to join her, and The Champions, Wasp Nadia Pym and Ironheart all go with, to support their Spidey.

Meanwhile, Captain America struggles to rule America and keep his cabal from turning on him, all the while seeking out the cube fragments for himself, which actually serves to keep him from going completely into, like, Doctor Doom territory, as the existence of the cube means he really can undo every sin he commits, up to and including bringing Rick Jones back to life.

While the main plot is going on--and, it will surprise no one to hear that its resolution involves the various groups of heroes extricating themselves from their various predicaments and then all returning to D.C. for a dramatic Round Two--there's a pretty goofy parallel track in which a bearded, amnesiac blond hunk named Steve Rogers finds himself lost in the woods, where he encounters versions of Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, The Red Skull and a few mysterious ladies. During these sequences, Spencer narrates rather purpley about hope, and how exactly these relate to the rest of the action involving the other Steve Rogers is, well, it's ultimately kind of dumb.

Bearded Steve Rogers is essentially the parts of Steve Rogers that Kobik had to excise from Steve to make him Hydra, although it's awfully vague; perhaps this Steve is the original, "real" Steve, and she replaced him with the other, Hydra-affiliated Steve on Earth, trapping the other Steve in the cube with her? At any rate, by the climax, there are two Steve Rogers' fighting one another, one of them borne of each of the two narratives.

Remember what I said about a relative lack of subtlety? Well, here we're borrowing liberally from the Superman-fighting-himself-in-a-junkyard section of Superman III. You know how it ends--Secret Empire received such a negative reaction that Marvel made the insane move of issuing a press release to assure readers that as bad as things might seem for Captain America at the beginning of the story he will, in fact, make it out okay in the end (Oddly, even one of the characters we are told dies during the events of the series--Black Widow--is teased as very much alive at the end of the story).

Even the Bad Cap sticks around. Much of Secret Empire Omega, which serves as an epilogue, features the two Steves having a conversation, with Good Cap set to go out and try to atone for what his evil doppelganger did while he was stuck in a cosmic cube or whatever, and Bad Cap doing pull-ups in a prison cell, where he can remain a viable Marvel villain.

What's next? Well, Marvel relaunched Captain America as part of their "Legacy" initiative, meaning it launched with a new, random-feeling high number. The new creative team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are incredibly talented, and seemingly especially chosen for their ability to tell more classic-feeling Captain America narratives.

I'm sure they will be good comics. I don't see anyone talking about them, though; is that a good thing or a bad thing...?


So the whole time I was writing this post, the hardcover collection of Secret Empire was sitting within arm's reach of me, which means I've spent an awfully long time with that cover in my peripheral vision. It is one of the covers for Secret Empire #1, repurposed as the cover for the entire collection, and it just just a spectacularly poor choice for the cover, based on the characters chosen to place on it. Few are in the story in any sizable way.

Captain America obviously plays an enormous role throughout the series, and Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange play sizable roles as well. Most of the other characters, though? Rocket Raccoon appears in several scenes alongside Star-Lord, and Ironheart and Ms. Marvel play small roles.

Thor and Spider-Man, though, appear at the beginning and the end, maybe a sentence or two of dialogue apiece. I have no memory of Medusa, "Old Man" Logan, Storm or any Human Torches in the book at all...I think Logan might have been in there somewhere.

Meanwhile, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Spider-Man Miles Morales, Sam Wilson, The Punisher and Maria Hill don't even get as much cover-space as the SHIELD helicarriers or the Chitauri warship.

*Marvel was obviously listening, though, and reacted to concerns. That "controversial" Hydra-ized Magneto cover is not one of the 34 variant covers that appear in the back of this collection, which does include many Hydra-ized covers in two different formats, the vast majority of them featuring characters who are not Hydra agents in the story itself.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Comic Shop Comics: January 10th

Archie #27 (Archie Comics) The ending of this issue threw me for something of a loop, as it really seemed like Mark Waid was winding down his run on the book, the scene referring back to the very first issue and the very first story arc. Archie speaks directly to the reader as if he was finishing up a story he has been telling them this whole time. The epilogue, marked "prologue" and featuring five panels of Reggie and his dad and referring back to the Blossom twins sub-plot, did little to assuage my concern, but a little Googling revealed that Waid will still be around a few more months. So I don't know exactly why this particular issue read like a summation of his run, although I suppose the fact that it did and it alarmed me so much because of that is a pretty decent indication of how high-quality the book remains.

There is, for example, a sequence in which a mopey Archie trudges home, and there's just some great visual comedy involving some kids and kites that Waid and artist Audrey Mok pull off just perfectly.

This issue reveals how both Archie and Betty respond to the ultimatums put to them by Veronica and Dilton, which means a change of status quo for the book, and the evolution of some key relationships. All of the bits abut Archie having trouble choosing offer some nice, sly meta-commentary on the history of Archie Comics but, as always, the book functions perfectly well if it is the first and only exposure you have to the publisher's wares.

And man, how about that Mok cover, huh?

Damn, that is a nice looking comic book cover...

Hawkeye: Kate Bishop Vol. 1--Anchor Points (Marvel Entertainment) I actually feel actively guilty about waiting until after this volume of Marvel's Hawkeye series--the third relaunch since Matt Fraction and David Aja's influential 2012-2015 book?!--was canceled before buying this collection and, perhaps more importantly, talking about and recommending it. I finally picked it up on that shop this Wednesday because it was such a damn light week, and Meredith had loudly declared multiple times that day that Hawkeye was her favorite book and that Hawkeye is the best.

It is pretty good.

I had lost track of Team Hawkguy due to standard modern Marvel shenanigans--I dropped the monthly when they randomly increased the price by 33%, the relaunches made it seem too onerous to figure out which trades to read in what order--but at the start of this trade, writer Kelly Thompson seems to have former-Young Avenger Kate Bishop right where Fraction left her when his volume of Hawkeye was alternating issues between Kate and Clint. She's living on the West Coast, and trying to make a go of being a private investigator/superhero (Now, in a perhaps good example of Marvel's own publishing policies leading to poor sales and, in this case, the premature cancellation of an excellent comic book, Hawkeye was for a time one of three comic book series featuring female private investigator/superheroes; Spider-Woman has already been canceled, and Jessica Jones is the last one around.)

This trade, featuring the first six issues of the series, is divided into two stories. The first, a four-issue arc, finds Kate struggling with her new-ish  PI business "Hawkeye Investigations," but making friends awfully quickly, to the point where she has a whole team in place by the end of the arc. The case involves online harassment, but with a Marvel Universe twist, meaning there is a cult, mind-control and a super-powered villain involved. The plot isn't the interesting part, though. Thompson makes Kate herself the interesting part. The character is smart, quick and funny, and which makes her a lot of fun to hang around/read about.

In the second story, a two-issue team-up with Jessica Jones--fueling some of the speculation that Thompson will be the writer who takes over Jessica Jones after Bendis' last issue of it ships*--has Kate trying to absorb every lesson she can from her mentor-figure, while the pair work a case involving a girl who has suddenly become beautiful but also occasionally turns into a dragon (The mystery of that is compelling, even if the solution is the solution to, like, everything in the Marvel Universe of late--she's an Inhuman, obviously).

Leonardo Romero draws the first four issues, while Michael Walsh draws the final two in this volume. Both have a very nice, classy, even elegant style that is perfectly suited for crime comics...or something at least adjacent, as Hawkeye is. There is a weird glitch near the end of Walsh's sixth issue, where it looks like a panel or two were scanned weird or something, as Jessica Jones all of a sudden looks weird, elongated and thin, but otherwise, this is a beautifully drawn comic. (The Julian Tedesco covers, all of which homage classic, trashy detective paperback novels with their painted covers, are a great touch too).

Which brings us to the unfortunate thing about Hawkeye. It has a cool, compelling character as its protagonist. The writing is excellent, both on an issue-by-issue (heck, panel-by-panel) basis, in addition to on an arc-by-arc basis. The art, inside and out, main artist and guest/fill-in artist, is excellent. And yet they canceled the dang thing. Why? "Market forces," I imagine, although remember that Marvel is responsible in a large part for those market forces, and it seems pretty obvious--even to a no-nothing outsider like me!--that the publisher's habit of flooding the market isn't helping. As I said, this was one of three books with similar premises until recently. It was also one of multiple books starring a super-archer who is fond of the color purple named "Hawkeye." If a Marvel reader gets all the Star Wars, Avengers, X-Men and Spider- books they want and still have some money left over, well, then they have a lot to choose from and, by almost any criteria you can imagine, Hawkeye had stiff competition, provided by Marvel itself.

Anyway, this first trade is excellent, and you should read it. The second volume just came out recently. And I imagine there will be three altogether.

Justice League #34 (DC Comics) This is, of course, the first issue of Christopher Priest's run on Justice League, and it's probably some six weeks old at this point. As previously mentioned, I completely missed it on the stands, and only realized Priest's run had already started when I happened to notice his name on the cover of Justice League #35 a few weeks ago (And then my shop sold out of #36, so I just missed that one...Yes, I suppose I should have just waited for the trade at this point..

So Priest and artist Pete Woods, a very good creative team, particularly for this poor, put-upon book/franchise, launch their run with a sort of day-in-the-life story, in which the world's greatest heroes are simultaneously faced with a trio of typical Justice League scenarios: Alien invasion, natural disaster and a terrorist group hostage situation. The team splits up to deal with each, with Batman acting as leader, telling who to go where.

The actual story starts when Priest diverges from the expected, with one of the scenarios turning out to be something entirely different, Batman missing something (based, this issues suggests, on sleep deprivation), and a few fairly innocuous events screwing up the hostage situation disastrously.

It seems like a pretty good kick-off. It's early, I know, but I like that Priest is approaching the characters not unlike Morrison did, as fairly remote, hyper-competent professionals, for whom saving the world is little different than your average office job (this doesn't quite jibe with this being a much younger Justice League with fairly few years of working together with one another, but, well, the further we get from the reboot, the more and more DC's creators seem to be willing to ignore it, and revert to elements of pre-Flashpoint continuity).

There's also a pretty well executed scene where we see Bruce Wayne walk from his bedroom into his closet and appear in the Justice League satellite (I don't know if he keeps his transporter up there now, or...actually, I don't know how the JLA teleportation works anymore. They don't seem to use the tubes, or the Authority doors that Brad Meltzer had given them). He appears there without his costume, and dresses on the satellite... maybe the whole League knows his secret identity? Arrgh, I hate the reboot and its fluid, non-existent continuity!

Anyway, it's a nice take, there are some nice touches and the art is great. I haven't been this excited about a Justice League comic since...Well, let's just say it's been a really damn long time. I hope they keep Priest around for a while, and this doesn't end up as a place-holding run until Brian Michael Bendis presents a "JLA Disassembled" story arc...

Venomverse (Marvel) Cullen Bunn, the writer of Monsters Unleashed, delivers another miniseries with a premise that is as appealing as it is simple. Kinda sorta inspired by Marvel's previous "Spider-Verse" event series, in which various Spider-Men from different, alternate dimensions all teamed up for a big adventure, Venomverse features various Venoms from different, alternate dimensions all teamed up for a big adventure. The difference here is that the vast majority of these Venoms are simply Venomized versions of different Marvel characters.

The appeal should be apparent; a glance at Nick Bradshaw's cover featuring a Venomized Rocket Raccoon, Ant-Man (in front of OG Venom's right leg) and Captain America should tell you if this is for you or not. Do you think that image is cool? Then you might like this comic. If you don't, then you can easily skip this.

Interest in 1992's What If #44, the "What If...The Venom Possessed The Punisher?" story (truly one of the more '90s of the '90s stories) would seem to indicate that there are more than enough of us suckers to make a book like this an at least somewhat modest hit (I know I have tried, and likely failed, to articulate this on the blog before, but I am really interested in seeing super-comics characters with very recognizable and/or iconic costume having those costumes temporarily altered in some way...for example, the various Blackest Night related Green Lantern stories, where different DC characters would get their hands on rings and their costumes instantly redesigned were pretty appealing to me. Such redesigns give me some sort of visual thrill in a particular part of the comics-liking part of my brain. This definitely qualifies.)

The story Bunn has crafted to go along with the gimmick is...well, let's be kind and call it sufficient. "Our" Venom Eddie Brock--it was Flash Thompson and he was in space the last time I saw him, but then, it's easy to lose track of these things--is going about his Venom-ing in NYC one night when he finds himself transported to a ruined city full of Venomized versions of other Marvel characters. Among the small band of survivors, there's a Spider-Man, a Mary Jane, a Deadpool, a Wolverine Laura Kinney, and Old Man Logan (weirdly; the Venoms that have appeared here track so closely with those in the modern Marvel Universe, one wonders why they were chosen, and why that Punisher version isn't included). Their presence is mostly due to a Venomized Doctor Strange, who has been magic-ing reinforcements to their aid, in a fight against "The Poisons."

What's a Poison? Well, they start out as little white creatures that look like carnivorous flowers balanced upon stick figures made out of blades. When they eat a Venom, they turn it into a Poison, a stronger, mostly white new kind of symbiote, with chitinous armor and bug-like digits.

And that is pretty much all there is to it. There are some twists that were no doubt exciting to engaged readers of the serially-published single issues, like the introduction of an unexpected Venom-adjacent character and the Venomzied Deadpool serving as something of a triple-agent, counting on his insanity being enough to confound his new symbiote thingee enough to make a difference, but the story is basically just something to hang the premise on, rather than vice versa.

Though Bradshaw draws the covers, the interior art is provided by Iban Coello, with colors by Matt Yackey. His characters are all big and muscled and expressive, and it reminded me a bit of Paul Pelletier's work, but not so much so that I would confuse his art for Pelletier's. The story-telling is spot-on, although it should be said that story-telling is mainly a matter of action and occasional conversation; the heavy-lifting in the art is in the design, and the way the various, Venomized characters looks and work. Most of them look pretty cool--I don't much care for the way the symbiote interacts with Logan's hair, for example, but, again, I'm not really sure what the hell Old Man Logan is even doing here--and that really seems to be the point of the series anyway.

That, and it gave Marvel an excuse--not that they needed one--to do a whole month of Venomized variant covers.

*Which I would be totally okay with. I noticed while reading this that it is an extremely verbal comic, as Alias/Jessica Jones was/is, but, at least as she demonstrates here, Thompson's variety of verbal is more breezy and chatty than wordy and tiresome. That is, she writes a lot of words, here characters say a lot of words, but the words never feel unnecessary, nor are they such in number that they overpower the art, making the imagery seem superfluous. In that respect, she may be an improvement over Jessica Jones' own creator. We'll see who ends up taking over. Having just read a Jessica Jones collection, I'm personally hoping the new artist is someone who draws nothing at all like Michael Gaydos.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Comic Shop Comics: January 3rd

Batman #38 (DC Comics) Oh hey, I got the Tim Sale cover this week! Hooray! It seems downright tragic to me that, due to variant covers, DC commissions and publishes two Tim Sale Batman covers a month, but Batman readers may not ever actually get them (Like, I think this is the first time I got one in my pull).

It strikes me as similarly tragic that Sale is just drawing covers for Batman, rather than interiors. As I know I've said at least a half-dozen times before, it would be great if they called upon Sale to draw the interiors for a done-in-one issue, of which this is an example...although, in this particular case, the specifics of the story don't seem to be of the sort that would make it an ideal showcase for Sale's talents.

What are those specifics? Writer Tom King and artist introduce us to maybe the worst Batman villain ever--"Master Bruce," a young boy who has his parents murdered and carves the names Thomas and Martha into his own cheeks. As a one-off, I'm sure it's fine, but, given King's habit of long-term plotting, I have a feeling Master Bruce and Master Bruce will meet again.

Bombshells United #9 (DC) Emanuela Lupacchino's cover seems an issue late, as Batwoman faced off against the minotaur last issue. This issue, drawn by Siya Oum, is split between two passages. The first, an extended flashback, details the origins of the Bombshells-iverse's version of Black Adam, which isn't too far removed from previous ones, with the exception that here the wizard Shazam is female and Adam meets, loves and loses his Isis in the ancient past. How exactly he got to be so big--he's a giant in the book's present--isn't explained, although his Shazam does say that if he continues to use the magic for ill, it will warp his powers.

In the second half, someone comes out of the Lazarus Pit in the labyrinth, using up one of its three resurrections. not a character I would have expected to see resurrected.

Nightwing #36 (DC) Artist Bernard Chang just about broke my heart with those last two panels of page 15. This is something of a feat, given that as dramatic as they are in the context of the story, as emotive as Chang manages to draw that face, the subject matter is still, essentially, completely ridiculous.

Star Wars Forces of Destiny: Leia (IDW Productions) This is the first of five one-shots--in another era, this might have been issue #1 of a five-issue-miniseries--tied to Disney's female focused Forces of Desinty animated shorts. Each will feature a different female lead (or, in two cases, two of them), and, more noteworthy, each will have a female writer and artist (or, in this case, a writer/artist).

I likely would have passed, given how much Star Wars I have in my life these days and that this is at the IDW price point of $3.99/20-pages, but it is drawn and co-written by Elsa Charretier, the incredibly gifted cartoonist from Marvel's under-read Unstoppable Wasp series (and who also did some notable work for IDW's Star Wars Adventures comics. That, and it's set on Hoth and features tauntauns. I kind of love tauntauns, and often think of them fondly during Ohio winter's.Charreteir's partner Pierrick Colinet gets a co-writer credit, even though he is a boy.

I hope to talk more about the book and the suite of weekly books elsewhere in the near future, but for now suffice it say that it is an elegantly told, elegantly drawn Star Wars comic appropriate for readers of all-ages...which one would assume all Star Wars comics would be these days, but, well, Marvel's weird about this stuff sometimes.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

A few thoughts on Batman and The Signal #1

*The cover proclaims that Batman and The Signal is "From The Pages of Metal". Is it? If so, a connection between this first issue and the first four issues of Metal isn't evident, although I suppose it's possible one of the last two issues of either miniseries will provide one. The character Duke Thomas was rather prominently featured in the prequel one-shots leading in to Metal, but, by that standard, one could say that any comic featuring any character that appeared in Metal is "From The Pages of Metal."

*The three-issue miniseries is being co-written by Scott Snyder and Tony Patrick. The latter apparently came out of one of DC's talent development workshop program thingees. He wrote a Duke Thomas/Jason Todd team-up in this year's New Talent Showcase anthology book that was pretty okay. The artist is Cully Hamner. He is awfully good at drawing comic books.

*The issue opens with Duke narrating, "I just want to say, I know what you're thinking," while the artwork depicts a long dining room table set for seven, with Batman's various lieutenants--Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, Red Hood, Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing, Orphan--take their places at the table. And that's without counting other members of Batman's "Gotham Knights" team from Detective Comics, like Azrael, Spoiler and Clayface.

"There aren't even any good names left," Duke says, articulating the one problem I have had with the character to date (Hell, they've even started using the terrible names, like "Orphan").

*Duke has super-powers, of a kind. He describes his powers like this: "I see light differently than other people. Can see where it's been a few minutes ago, and sometimes...where it's going to be, which gives me an edge in most fights." Hmm. The second half sounds a bit like Cassandra Cain's ability to predict movement, but it's very vague as described here, and Duke makes it sound like he and the rest of the Bats are still trying to figure out how it works exactly.

*After the dream sequence, there's a fight sequence, involving Duke and one of several, new-ish metahuman teens that have emerged lately, of which he may be one. At its conclusion, the civilians all gather around and start yelling at him about how bats don't come out during the day, and that he should be in his cave or wherever, and so on. They're...not wrong.

While the premise for the series, and Duke's niche in the Bat-family, seems to be that he's the "day-time Batman," it does sort of break the idea of Batman in Gotham City, if one thinks about it too long. That is, it's a lot less believable that there's a squad of vigilantes that work in the daylight, that pass through crowds of civilians and commuters, than it is that they only come out at night, you know?

I suppose he does have some powers, and if they were of the sort of, say, The Flash or Green Lantern or Gotham Girl, it might be interesting if Gotham City suddenly had a superhero that protected it publicly in the day time the same as Metropolis or Central City or other DCU cities, while Batman and his team protected it at night, but Duke's powers aren't of the sort that are noticeable enough that someone seeing him in action would classify him as a superhero, rather than a vigilante.

*Commissioner Gordon's parting joke about the sun was funny, I thought.

*Duke hangs out with Izzy and Riko, both members of his Robin cell from the short-lived We Are Robin, at one point. He is apparently dating the former, although I don't know if this is new information or not.

*Batman gives Duke his own little mini-Batcave, with a lame name, "The Hatch." It's behind a secret passage in the Lucius Fox Community Center, where Duke used to volunteer with amnesiac, bearded Bruce Wayne.

*And then we finally get to the name, "The Signal." Now, I've disliked the name from the start, in large part because it is simply a random noun, not unlike, say, "Oracle" or "Orphan" (although, in the case of the former, it does refer to her purpose in a poetic fashion). Additionally, the word "signal" already has a role in the Batman milieu, as in "the batsignal." It's difficult to thin of the word "signal" in relation to Batman at this point and not think of the batsignal.

Well, here's how Duke explains it:
I've been thinking about it. My mother, she's a social worker, and she always goes out first thing in the morning to meet her clients.

She says it's the best time to see things clearly. To see them in a new light.

She considered herelf the first knight on the battlefield, defending the needy and all that, I guess.

And another word for the first knight out there is...'Signal.'
Okay, that sort of works, as it plays into Batman's appellation as "The Dark Knight" and Red Robin's "Gotham Knights" team in Detective. To a degree, it even matches Duke's look, as there is something very knight-like about his helmet and visor, and his costume certainly looks a lot more like a suit of armor than many of the costumes worn by his peers.

There's still the problem of the "batsignal" connotation, though, and, well, Duke does have bat-ears and bats on his face and chest. The costume design--and, increasingly, I'm convinced his costumes were designed long before any real consideration was made for his name--all that implies that there has to be a "bat" in his name, somewhere.

Finally, there is the fact that the script itself confuses the symbolism a bit, as during the earlier fight scene, Duke cajoles himself to "pick up the signals"...does "signal" refer to the first knight on the field, or the signals he sees with his powers...?

I think Signal, as the name of a knight-derived superhero, would work just fine in pretty much any other milieu, but it seems pretty garbled in the context of the Batman milieu (Would it have been better to repurpose an old name not being prominently used at the moment, like Knight, The Shining Knight or White Knight?). As the name of a hero with signal-catching super-powers, well, I think "Sonar" is more obvious, given the fact that he's dressed like a bat. It's a pretty dumb name, granted, and sounds king of X-Men-esque, but it's no dumber than "The Signal," and it matches his costume and powers.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Some Marvel trades I've read recently:

All-New Wolverine Vol. 4: Immune

The six issues in this collection comprise a single arc, so full of guest-stars that it makes a pretty solid argument that Laura Kinney has quite thoroughly replaced Logan as Wolverine and, like her predecessor, is a pretty important figure in the Marvel Universe. She also gets a new costume! The color scheme is that of a costume she wore while serving on one of the iterations of X-Force, and now it comes with a sporty jacket.

The reason? Well, probably to goose sales a bit--these are issues #19-#24, so rather late in a modern Marvel run, I guess--but, in-story, Laura's little sister Gabby makes an off-handed comment about how the new duds are bullet-proof. Sure, they have healing factors can recover from being shot with bullets, but that doesn't make getting shot with bullets any fun.

The pair are in the middle of some Wolverine-ing when Captain Marvel swoops down and carries Laura off to a SHIELD helicarrier where Nick Fury Jr. tells here that an alien space ship carrying a dying little girl has crashed onto Roosevelt Island outside. The girl manages to say the name  "Laura Kinney" before succumbing...and, it turns out, releasing some sort of super-alien disease.

Laura goes to investigate, while various Marvel super-geniuses--Beast, Amadeus Cho, Bobbi Morse, Peter Parker, Nadia Pym, Stephen Strange--try to figure it out. Ultimately, it turns out that Laura's healing factor allows her to take the disease in, literally sucking it out of the infected as if her body magnetically attracted it, and then burning it off, healing them. She can only take so much though, so Strange rounds up others that share her mutant healing factor power: Old Man Logan, Deadpool (who hits it off with Gabby immediately) and Daken, who is not wearing a shirt for some reason.

While the first half of the arc deals with Laura leading the others in dealing with the disease, the second half follows Team Wolverine into space with The Guardians of The Galaxy (at this point, their line-up is back to that of the first movie) to find out where the little girl was rocketed from. They end up finding an alien weapons research facility, a space Wolverine (Fang, from the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, who apparently met Laura outside of her own comic in the recent-ish past) and a mess of Brood.

It's all rather serviceable superhero business in terms of plotting, and writer Tom Taylor does a pretty good job of making Laura the center of it without having to force pieces to fit too hard (eventually there's even a pretty good explanation for why the infected girl said only Laura's name when she arrived).

I know in the past I've complained about Rocket Raccoon's rather casual embrace of killing his foes--to the point of murder--in front of the sorts of superheroes who aren't exactly fans of lethal force, but there's a pretty neat moment where his willingness to kill plays both as a joke and a character moment and seems more-or-less acceptable to all involved, despite the suddenness of the moment.

There are some great Jonathan (Gabby and Laura's pet actual Wolverine) in space, and I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he meets Baby Groot.

Artist Leonard Kirk manages to pencil all six issues, with three others inking his work, in addition to Kirk himself on three issues. It's pretty fine work, particularly considering all the various characters and the wildly divergent settings of the six issues. While the changes in inker are noticeable, they are not distracting nor terribly dramatic. As a single unit, this trade paperback is remarkably cohesive, not only telling a single story from start to finish within its pages, but also looking like every page and every issue belongs together.

I really like this Adam Kubert cover:
It took me a while to notice (It's also the back cover of the trade, so I saw the image a lot over the course of the week or so the book was in my house), but I like how Kubert posed Gabby's fists and claws lining up with Laura's, so it looks like she has the three claws that Logan had...or, if you look at it another way, like Laura does.

Daredevil: Back In Black Vol. 4--Identity

This volume collects issues #15-#20 of Charles Soule's run, and it is long enough that I had honestly forgotten all about the fact that there was no explanation given for how exactly the title character got his identity to be secret again after the events at the end of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's run on the previous volume of Daredevil. That finally gets answered in a three-part story arc here, but first there's a two-parter in which Matt Murdock puts out a hit on Daredevil in order to draw out Bullseye...either in order to get a special serum from him that might help Blindspot, DD's protegee who lost his eyes in the previous collection, or to have Bullseye put him out of his misery. Suicide by supervillain.

Spoiler alert: He's tempted, but he fights back and wins.

Those issues are drawn by Goran Sudzuka, and they're pretty great, particularly since they give Sudzua the opportunity to draw all sorts of various low-level Marvel villains, both milling around in The Bar With No Name when a disguised Matt puts out the hit, or coming after Daredevil.

Regular artist Ron Garney returns for much of the arc that fills the rest of the book: "Purple." How did Matt get his secret identity back? Well, it's complicated and it is, as these things almost inevitably are, actually kind of dumb. It involves The Purple Man, The Purple Children and a massive mind-control machine that can beam mental commands to the whole world.. Once Kilgrave introduces his machine and his plan, you can immediately see how Daredevil will get his secret identity back.

Daredevil: Back In Black Vol. 5--Supreme

This is a bigger-than-usual trade from Marvel, collecting eight issues. The first chunk of those is pretty great, and the sort of Daredevil story that seems quite perfect because it's the sort of story that seems like someone really should have done by now, elements of it are so incredibly obvious, but, miraculously, no one has, so Charles Soule is there to do it. That Soule has a legal background also means that he's maybe the only writer on Marvel's roster who could do this particular story, or at least do it as well and as convincingly as he does it.

The story addresses a rather fundamental aspect of post-Silver Age superhero comics, and tries to address it and change it...because the change would be, in Daredevil's eyes, a good thing that would make the world a better place and could only be accomplished through the law, which is, of course, his particular field of expertise.

Essentially, he wants to establish legal precedence for masked, "secret identity" heroes like Daredevil and Spider-Man to able to give testimony in court without having to unmask and reveal their true identities. This would be a game-changer, as it means instead of tying criminals to telephone poles with notes or dropping them off in nets of webbing at the nearest police station would be a thing of the past.

It is, of course, a heavy lift, given that such heroes are vigilantes and, to a degree, criminals themselves. I don't know enough about any of the relevant issues to tell you if the arguments Soule has Murdock making in court are sound or not, but they sure sounded sound to my inexpert ear. And it is definitely fun to see issues of a comic book about a superhero lawyer devoted to legal drama every once in a while.

There is, of course, a personal stake in this for Daredevil too, since if the judge rules against him, he will be asked to unmask in court, and thus lose his secret identity. I imagine this would be a very dramatic moment if the character hasn't gone through several cycles of losing and regaining his secret identity, but, whatever.

That five-issue arc, "Supreme," follows Murdock's case as he works his way up from a district court all the way to The Supreme Court--and this, I guess, is the very first time Matt Murdock has argued a case before the Supreme Court which, again, seems like something that would have had to have happened by now, given how long the superhero lawyer has been starring in a monthly comic book series.

In addition to the legal drama, Matt has to patch things up with Foggy Nelson, in order to get his help with the case, and avoid the cluthes of Tombstone, who Kingpin Wilson Fisk has hired to snuff out Murdock. In one issue, She-Hulk saves Murdock--this was actually the first time I had seen the new, post-Civil War II version of She-Hulk, which is essentially the same as the original Hulk. Only a female. And she's gray now.

The big villain of the arc, however, isn't Tombstone or Kingpin, but the lawyer Kingpin hires, "Legal," a minor, humorous character from Soule's too-short run on the too-quickly-canceled She-Hulk series. He's a really fun character, and he gives a few great speeches about the raw power of the law and good lawyers.

The arguments before the Supreme Court are presented as a big fight scene, with the Justices jumping off the bench and physically attacking Murdock as they questions him. It's really a shame that artist Alec Morgan, who draws a big chunk of the arc, mostly just draws generic Supreme Court justices rather than sticking to the actual ones, although he does seem to draw Ruth Bader Ginsburg in there, delivering a flying kick to Matt at one point.

All that talk of the importance of the law throughout the arc is difficult not to relate to the current state of affairs in America, but the cliffhanger ending of the very last panels make it clear that Soule has hardly even gotten started at drawing parallels between the current political climate in the real world and Daredevil's world.

I would suspect that this were the end of Soule's run, were it not for that cliffhanger, actually, as "Superme," which features a legal career highlight for Matt Murdock is followed immediately by a story arc in which Daredevil travels to China to help Blindspot/Sam out of a jam that involves The Hand and a scary occult entity.

I rather liked the bit with the punching bag Kingpin was working, which was relatively subtly handled and, again, not something I had seen in a comic book before--at least not that I can remember--despite seeming obvious in retrospect.

I was rather disappointed by Matt putting away his black costume and putting on the older, red one, though. I liked the black one a lot, and I'm not sure how that will impact the name of the series of trade paperbacks, if he is no longer in black, but red.

Defenders Vol. 1: Diamonds Are Forever

Every Marvel Comics fan knows the four main heroes who make up the core of the publisher's famous "non-team": Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica...Jones....?

Okay, so obviously they are just reassigning the name of the old Doctor Strange/Hulk/Namor/Silver Surfer team to a new group here--looks like the retained the old logo, though!--because Marvel Studios/Netflix has already done so for the street-level super-team show. Writer Brian Michael Bendis, who is so often involved with the publisher's attempts to synergize their comics with their mass media adaptations, is taking up the task of a new Defenders book with a line-up that lines up with that of the TV show.

It's an interesting move, given that the various Netflix shows seem pretty taken with Bendis' earlier Marvel comics writing. Bendis, after all, co-created Jessica Jones. He had a lengthy, five-year run on Daredevil. His love for Luke Cage is Internet legendary, as he entangled the character in his Alias run and kept him front and center of his time on the various Avengers books. While Bendis never wrote an Iron Fist series, the character's proximity to Cage meant that he was often showing up in Bendis comics, and he was on various Avengers line-ups during Bendis time on the titles.

For Defenders, Bendis doesn't really have too difficult a task of bringing his four heroes together. Two of them are already married to one another, after all, and two of them work out of an office together. All four are, in the comics universe, long-time friends and allies. So by the time the ten-page prelude story that appeared in Free Comic Book Day 2017 has ended, the premise is more-or-less established. There's a new criminal player in town, and he comes directly at the four superheroes on the cover, retaliating against a the guys' attack on a meeting of his.

That villain is Diamondback, who Netflix subscribers will recognize as the big bad from Luke Cage. This Diamondback looks nothing like either his Marvel comics predecessor or actor Erik LaRay Harvey's TV version, buy he seems to be back from the dead, and boasting super-powers that make him a physical threat to the super-powered characters. Interestingly, Bendis is using him in much the same way Cottonmouth was used in Luke Cage, where that particular snake-themed villain had a silent backer who was kept secret for a while, and ultimately turned out to be Diamondback himself. Here, Diamondback is repeatedly questioned not only about how he's alive and super-powered, but who is backing him, as his attempt to muscle in on New York City's crime scene seems too sophisticated and expensive for him to do solo.

Bendis peppers the first five issues with characters that also appeared in the Neflix-iverse: There's Night Nurse (here rather weirdly portrayed as an incredibly curvy, buxom lady in an old-timey nurse outfit that looks more like a "naughty nurse" costume now; I greatly preferred the Marcos Martin-drawn version from Doctor Strange: The Oath), The Kingpin, The Punisher, Misty Knight and, lurking around the shadows, Elektra. The most relevant character outside of the heroes and their main antagonist, however, is probably old Spider-Man frenemy The Black Cat, who has become the new Kingpin of Crime in Marvel's New York. Diamondback repeatedly meets with her to try and cajole or threaten her into working with him, but she keeps demurring, in large part because she doesn't know who he's working with or for. Their conflict leads to the rather shocking cliffhanger ending, which is shocking enough that it can't possibly be precisely what it looks like.

That, then, is the basic plot: Diamondback is back and trying to muscle in on Harlem and Hell's Kitchen, punching back hard enough at Daredevil, Cage, Jessica and Iron Fist that they form some sort of street-level Avengers to go after him. Other players with stakes in such matters flit in and out.

Bendis is writing in what, for him, is a particularly fleet and fast-paced style, but is still what one might call de-compressed; the trade ends without ever feeling like it has even approached a resolution, with all of the questions asked in the narrative remaining completely unanswered. I'm not sure if the book will just be canceled when Bendis leaves Marvel--it's not in March 2018's solicitations, but it also wasn't among the canceled titles that were recently announced--but, if so, then it looks like this iteration of "The Defenders" will be exactly one story arc long.*

I was much more interested in the choice of David Marquez, Bendis' partner on the stupid Civil War II comic, as his artistic collaborator here. Marquez's style is slick and smooth, and he handles the character moments as well as the action in these five issues perfectly fine, but his style is very much in a more traditional superhero school than, say, Michael Gaydos or Alex Maleev, Bendis' partners on Alias/Jessica Jones and Daredevil. This looks like a superhero comic, more than a crime comic, and it's by the guy who drew one of the publisher's more recent line-wide crossovers. It's sort of refreshing and, well, fun to see this guy drawing things like Daredevil slamming a high-knee into The Punisher's face, or Luke Cage ripping off a shirt, or Jessica Jones beating down Diamondback with a mailbox.

Oh, so Jessica Jones. Marquez's version of the character looks so different than that of Gaydos in Jessica Jones that it seems like he may never have actually read any comics featuring the character before. This is the most superhero looking Jessica Jones outside of a flashback scene I've seen in...maybe ever? I guess Mike Deodato used to draw her in the Avengers comics like Wonder Woman in jeans and a clingy blouse. He looks young and extremely slim, with long black hair several inches longer than that of the more dowdy, middle-aged, chestnut-haired Jessica Jones who can be seen in the Jessica Jones comics that Marvel is publishing simultaneous to this book.

Never forget
Marquez obviously based his design off of Krysten Ritter, which is fine, but it's still a little weird to see two Jessica Jones that look so different. I know style guides are obviously a thing of the ancient past, which is why we've seen things like Alex Maleev's What If...Robert DeNiro Played Namor? version of the Sub-Mariner in a Bendis-written comic before, but you would think that the editors could at least agree on Jessica's hair color.

Doctor Strange/Punisher: Magic Bullets

I was kind of curious about this four-issue miniseries based mainly on how random the pairing of characters seem, coming as they do from two very different corners of the Marvel Universe that rarely if ever intersect (a few issues of The Secret Defenders contained the only story I could think of in which the two of them had much of anything to do with one another).

Writer John Barber addresses this in the most efficient--and thus, perhaps the least interesting--way imaginable, by simply folding the two kinds of adversaries the pair fight individually into one. And so a couple of mob types team up with a wizard type, who gives them demonic powers and opens a portal to some infernal realm that allows for more such demons to pour into New York. The Punisher calls on Doctor Strange for his assistance, and the pair fight the demon-powered mobsters until the day is saved.

There's not a whole lot to it, then, although Barber does riff on an idea from Jason Aaron's run on Doctor Strange, the idea that only magic-types like Strange even see all the eerie creatures that occupy the same space as everyday New Yorkers, in a pretty neat scene where Frank Castle is machine-gunning down monsters with the ripped-out gun from the ghost plane of The Phantom Eagle, but, to the cops and passersby watching it go down, it just looks like he's holding a WWI antique and pantomiming shooting it, like a little kid playing army.

And I thought this passage, in which Strange arms The Punisher with a magic wand to fight their foes, was pretty inspired:

Oh, Frank! You're incorrigible!

Otherwise, this is mostly a mediocre exercise and mixing-and-matching. It was a miniseries, which is why I was pretty perplexed that there multiple artists. Fill-ins make sense on a monthly series, where there's a schedule that needs to be kept, but why did Marvel even solicit this book if they weren't sure it was going to get drawn on-schedule? It hardly mattered if a throwaway series like this started a month or five late, you know? But then, that probably has to do with some aspect of comics publishing I just don't understand, where individual comics are just units, and profits and budgets adhere to quarterly schedules or something, I don't know.

Jessica Jones Vol. 2: The Secrets of Maria Hill

I read Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos and company's Alias comic, of which this re-titled series is essentially a second volume of, as it was serially published in comic book format from 2001 to 2004, and I never re-read it. So I honestly don't remember exactly what the book looked like, but I also don't remember either hating or loving the art. In the year's since, though, I've grown to actively dislike Gaydos' artwork, which made reading this collection of issues #7-#12 much more of a slog than it might otherwise have been.

As David Marquez's work proves--to choose an artist whose Marvel comics work I had read within 24 hours of reading this--one can draw a comic book that is realistic and that deals with gritty crime subject matter without one's art necessarily needing to look like, say, dirty photographs.

This particular storyline is a bit heavier on action than other Alias/Jessica Jones stories have been, including a scene of multiple Maria Hills fighting an assassin on multiple levels of New York City (Life Model Decoys play a sizable role) and another scene where Jessica fights a Maria Hill LMD after a chase across rooftops. Such scenes just do not play to Gaydos' strengths--they tend to look like ugly Colorforms atop photorealistic backgrounds--and can be difficult to make sense of. There are several passages of the book that are two page spreads that are so uniform in layout that it is actually quite difficult to tell how to read them, if one's eyes are supposed to go across the entire top tier of both pages, then the bottom tier across both pages. Or across the top tier of the first page, then the bottom tier of the first page, and then the same on the facing page. Or, most counterintuitively, up and down in each column, all the way across the spread. The artwork offers no real clues, nor does the script--these action scenes are usually wordless--and they make as much (or as little!) sense read in any of the different ways one can read them (This, I should note, is something I've noticed in other Bendis-written comics, and thus isn't entirely Gaydos' fault, although ideally good comic art guides the reader's eye through it).

There are also scenes that require Gaydos to draw things that just don't fit in his style--water, explosions, electrical blasts--which always tend to just look like the artwork is getting really pixilated. As long as the subjects are cityscapes and people talking, he's on sure footing. Almost everything else though looks off. Take, for example, Typhoid Mary's hair during her brief appearance. not even a drawing of hair, but it looks like a computer tool was used to cut the hair off of one photograph and then paste it atop the head of another photograph. It is extremely off-putting.

It's really too bad, because Bendis' scripting here really isn't that bad--occasionally incomprehensible action scenes aside. Super-spy Maria Hill, the former SHIELD commander, is on the lam, trying to evade the assassins coming to collect the substantial bounty on her head and SHIELD, who are after her too (I think for reasons seen in Captain America: Steve Rogers, but I guess it's not too terribly important). So, in an attempt to be as unpredictable as possible, she writes a ranked list of all the super-people she would turn to for help, and then turns to the one that ranked last. She asks Jessica Jones to find out who put the hit on her.

This involves LMDs, assassins, Sharon Carter and SHIELD, The Hobgolin and even an unlikely meeting with Maria Hill's father. Luke Cage gets a fair amount of panel-time too, as Jessica continues to try and mend her relationship with him, following their estrangement and the circumstances that lead to it in the previous collection.

The best part, by far, is when Javier Pulido shows up for a flashback sequence to an early-ish assignment in Hill's career as an agent of SHIELD, which, as was often the case with Alias's flashbacks, told in the visual style of an older Marvel comic (Here, Pulido's distinctive art style is applied to a 1970s-era SHIELD comic). I know Pulido's artwork, which I love, is a little too cartoony and too flat and flashy for a lot of readers, but whether you care for it on an aesthetic level or not, there's no argument that the storytelling is as clear as a bell, and even when Pulido gets rather artsy and avant garde with his layouts, they are still super-easy to read, one panel leading quickly and efficiently to the next.

While the intended juxtaposition of the clashing styles works exactly as it's supposed to, it has the probably unintended effect of highlighting the deficiencies of Gaydos' work. How much better this book might have been had Pulido just drawn the whole dang thing.

The story works pretty well. Aside from the personal life drama that carried over from the previous collection, the book is pretty self-contained, with the Maria Hill storyline's beginning, middle, ending and coda all fitting snugly between the covers of this single issue. Despite the "2" on the spine, one could pick this book up without any previous knowledge of who Jessica Jones is and what her whole deal is and make sense of it...with only the action scenes and Gaydos' peculiar way of rendering smoke and water to confuse one.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Dark Lord of The Sith Vol. 1--Imperial Machine

Marvel Entertainment published its first new Star Wars comic after securing the license to once again make Star Wars comics in early 2015, immediately following the main title with a Darth Vader "ongoing" series. That series, Star Wars: Darth Vader lasted just over two years, producing 25 issues, collected into four trade paperbacks. Then it was time to "cancel" Darth Vader and immediately relaunch it with a slightly different title and a new #1 issue.

The Star Wars-branded comics might be selling a great deal better and more reliably than most everything else Marvel is releasing these days, but that seems to be in spite of Marvel, as the publisher is subjecting the invincible brand to the same poor decisions that drag the rest of their comics line down, including over-production** of titles and random relaunches like this.

To be fair, they did take advantage of the relaunch to shift focus to a new time period. While the more simply titled Star Wars: Darth Vader was set in the same between-Episodes IV-and-V time period as its sister book, the new Darth Vader: Dark Lord of The Sith title is set immediately following the events of Episode III. And I do mean immediately; it actually opens with a two-page spread recreating the much derided "Nooooooooooo--!!!" scene. (Here, however, it is rendered as a simple, but oversized and bolded, "No.")

The new creative team of writer Charles Soule, pencil artist Giuseppe Camuncoli and inker Cam Smith focus on Vader's transition from Jedi to Sith, which means instead of the Imperial in-fighting of Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca and company's run on the previous Vader book, now we are invited to watch Anakin-turned-Vader as he makes his first halting steps toward becoming the villain we know from Episodes IV, V and VI.

The first five issues of this six-issue collection involve Vader's quest for a light saber of his own. Apparently, Sith don't just use red light sabers because red is their second favorite color after black. No, apparently they must take a light saber from a Jedi, and then, as The Emperor tells Vader, the Kyber crystal inside it must be "made to bleed."

Finding a still-living Jedi whose saber he can take forcefully is in itself a challenge, and we know he doesn't find Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda or Kanaan to take theirs. Instead, he finds a master who has conveniently taken some special Jedi vow to stay out of Star Wars canon until he becomes narratively convenient, which he does here. So the bulk of the book involves a quest of sorts, a right of passage in which Vader must use his formidable Force powers to cruelly kill a whole bunch of people, friend and foe alike, to get a kyber crystal and then, in a surprisingly effective scene, forge his own light saber.

In a way, this is a perfect Star Wars story, in that it takes some extremely trivial aspect of the original movies, something that was perhaps chosen without a great deal of forethought from the filmmakers--that is, what color Vader's light saber should be--and then invested with shared universe mythology until an epic story can be spun around it. (Hell, perhaps the best of the eight extant Star Wars films, Rogue One, was itself a feature-length explanation of why there was an unshielded section of the Death Star in the very first film's climax).

In the sixth chapter, Vader meets The Inquisitors from the Rebels TV shows, and has a brief battle with The First Inquisitor. This was the first time who the hell they are and what their deal was really explained to me, despite the fact that I watched the first two seasons of that show (where it seemed they were basically just there to give the heroes someone to have laser sword fights with).

I did not much care for Larroca's artwork at all--although a Darth Vader comic was maybe an ideal mainstream comic for a guy like Larroca, who is better at drawing machinery than human faces--so I found Camuncoli's to be a great improvement. Despite the frozen face, his Vader is an infinitely more dynamic and dramatic figure than Larroca's was, and I especially dig his take on The Emperor, who looks like a sentient grin in a robe.

The Soule/Camuncoli/Smith comic is followed by a humorous, 10-page short by Chris Eliopoulos in which Vader force chokes a series of Imperial underlings for one disappointment or another, while an increasingly anxious mouse droid--those little things that look like autonomous toy trucks and that i think are meant to clean the halls of Death Stars and Star Destroyers--tries to prep Vader's meditation chamber. It's fun to see the iconic movie villain rendered in Eliopoulous' Charles Shculz and Bill Watterson-inspired style, particularly since Eliopoulos seems to import all of the poses from the first film or two, so his Vader looks familiar but Eliopoulos-ized throughout.

Closing the book, I noticed the back cover proclaims Vader "The Most Fearsome Villain of All Time"...which seems like a weird thing for the publisher that created Doctor Doom to say about a comic featuring a licensed character. Stan Lee must be so disappointed.

X-Men Blue Vol. 1: Strangest

When Brian Michael Bendis took left the Avengers franchise and took over the X-Men franchise, he kicked off his run by bringing the original five founding X-Men forward in time into the present. That was in late 2012 or so, and in the five years since, the team has starred in three different books, relaunched with new titles and new writers twice since Bendis launched All-New X-Men.

That 41-issue run was followed by Dennis Hopeless, Mark Bagley and company's All-New X-Men: Inevitable--that sub-title appearing attached to the trade paperback collections, not the serially-published issues--that lasted about half as long, and, most recently, this book by writer Cullen Bunn and artists that included Jorge Molina and Julian Lopez. Why are these X-Men designated "Blue" instead of the somewhat ironic "All-New"...? Well, Marvel's latest attempts to keep their too many X-Men teams straight have involved color-coding (There was also X-Men: Gold and, soon, an X-Men: Red, in addition to an Astonishing X-Men and various solo titles and spin-offs).

The premise of this third book finds the five founding teenage X-Men rather firmly established in the present, working with Magneto out of a base in Madripoor. The Master of Magnetism is a particular favorite of Bunn's apparently, and while these X-Men are even more suspicious of him than their peers--since, in their time, he was still a super-villain, and had yet to become a more morally-conflicted ally of the X-Men as he's been for the last decade or so of Marvel comics--they keep their suspicions to the psychic conversations that have.

Jean is now their field leader, Beast has been experimenting with magic as he started doing in the previous iteration of their book, and they've all got another set of new costumes, although they are not too terribly blue, as one might expect from the title (I like their boots though).

In these first six issues, Bunn sets them up against familiar, even tired X-Men villains: Black Tom Cassidy, The Juggernaut, a Wendigo, Sentinels, Bastion and a Sinister. Some of them are different takes certainly, as is the case with altered or "mutated" Sentinels Bastion creates, but, well, that doesn't help keep the book's issue-by-issue plotting feel any less exhausted.

Speaking of exhaustion, a few issues in the team gets its own teenage Wolverine. Not Laura Kinney, who ran with them through much of both Bendis' and Hopeless' All-New X-Men, but Jimmy Hudson, the son of Ultimate Wolverine from the Ultimate Universe, who is basically just Wolverine, but young and blond. Between him and Old Man Logan, who is just a gray-haired version of Wolverine, I'm not exactly sure how we're supposed to miss the original if he never actually goes away (And actually, isn't he already back?).

The art is mostly strong, but all over the place, with no less than 10 different artists involved, some offering just pencils, others just inks, others credited merely as "artists." No one seems around long enough to help define the book's look or feel.

Arthur Adams provides the covers though, and he was a ridiculously good job. Most of these are merely team action poses, featuring a handful of characters running and flying toward the viewer, but the cover for the sixth issue, where Hank, Jean and Jimmy are surrounded by about 30 impeccably rendered toughs bearing screwdrivers, chains and various blunt objects it would be no fun at all to hit with?
That is a bravura cover. It appears in the trade unencumbered by the title and the various other verbiage and design elements that, in the above image, obscure various figures.

Zombies Assemble Vol. 1

Yes, like many of you, I assumed I had already read all of the Marvel Zombies comics I was ever going to read, but this one has a few things going for it that the thousands before it did not. First and foremost, it is a manga series produced by Yusaku Komiyama (Unless C.B. Cebuslki can raw too, an this is him posing as a Japanese creator again, I don't know). Secondly, it set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is actually remarkably rare.

It was honestly a lot of fun to see Komiyama drawing those versions of the characters, and rather remarkable to see an artist draw a Tony Stark that looks simultaneously like Robert Downey Jr. and a manga character (All of Komiyama's likenesses of the male characters are pretty spot-on, but his Black Widow and, especially, his Pepper Potts don't look anything like the actresses playing them).

The plot? Pepper has organized a surprise birthday party for Tony, attended by his fellow Avengers (circa the first movie). But when a weird-looking zombie staggers in, they've got a crisis to deal with. Apparently, there is a Chitauri virus that turns people into zombie-like monsters, although it doesn't seem to necessarily kill them, since both Black Widow and Thor become infected and zombified (and obviously the book's not going to kill off like one-third of the Avengers line-up).

From there, it's a race against the clock to stop the virus from spreading and cure the infected, while fighting any zombies that arise.

There are three chapters to the story, which Marvel previously published as over-priced comic book-comics, and then a #0 issue, that has nothing to do with zombies or the story that precedes it, but instead stars Iron Man and Pepper Potts, and is a kinda sorta prequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron.

*But hopefully not! I want Chelsea Cain and Kelly Thompson to take over the two Jessica Jones books--Jessica Jones and Defenders--and I don't much care which writer gets which title. In my dream world, Gurihiru and Brittney Williams will be the artists of those two books. Because I want my gritty, street-level Marvel superhero crime comics to be both funny and cute, dammit!

** This past November, for example, Marvel published two issues of Star Wars, two issues of Darth Vader, one issue apiece of ongoing monthlies Star Wars: Doctor Aphra and Star Wars: Poe Dameron and an issue of the miniseries Star Wars: Jedi of The Republic--Mace Windu. That's seven books at a cost of $27.93 spread across five Wednesdays. If you read Marvel's Star Wars line, how much money do you have left to follow the adventures of, say, a Spider-Man or an X-Men team...?