Friday, February 17, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: February 15th

Archie #17 (Archie Comics) There's one really strong gag that runs through this entire issue, a source of mounting tension that powers it towards a climax. Cheryl Blossom, newly arrived in Riverdale, has set her sites on Archie Andrews as a way of seeking revenge against Veronica Lodge. Blossom mainly knows Archie from the fact that a young woman of Veronica Lodge's wealth, standing and superior social combat skills was madly in love with him, and thus she assumes that he is some sort of "Greek god." She therefore spends the majority of the issue laying groundwork for their eventual meeting as a secret admirer. The gag works because we know Archie differently, and the climax is, of course, when she finally meets Archie and discovers what he's really like. He makes his grand entrance in spectacularly goofy fashion...and I'm afraid artist Joe Eisma just doesn't sell the moment, which an entire one-third of a page is devoted to.

I don't want to spoil it, but the specifics of the panel, it's lay-out and interior logic, they communicate the idea, but only in the most rudimentary fashion. It's rather disappointingly drawn, a good joke poorly told, and because so much of the issue has been leading up to it, it feels even more like a let-down than some other random, poorly-executed panel might have. It's really too bad, because it's a very Archie moment, one in which the original iteration of character surfaces in the more modern, more sophisticated "New Riverdale" take, and thus really demonstrates core aspects of the Archie character.

Also! This $3.99/20-page issue again features no back-up, but instead another, albeit different, six-page ad for the CW's TV show Riverdale. Come one, Archie! Let's get that back-up back; I'm actively considering dropping you at this point. (A decision that will be made much easier knowing that sister books Jughead and Josie and The Pussycats art both many times more awesome than Archie at the moment, anyway.)

Batman #17 (DC Comics) First, some thoughts on the script:

  • Remember how last issue's cliffhanger ending was Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin all shirtless and dangling from nooses from in the Batcave, wearing signs reading "I AM BANE"...? At the time, I wondered if they were meant to be mannequins there to freak Batman out, or people dressed in their costumes to freak Batman out or...what. I still don't know! This issue opens with Batman bringing the three of them in some kind of cryogenic, status tube-looking things to the Fortress of Solitude and asking Superman to babysit them. Also, he put their shirts back on. I still have no idea what happened to them last issue, but presumably that was them hanging from nooses, and they somehow didn't die from it?

  • This is yet another issue of the recent Batman comics where the writer himself raises the issue of "Why doesn't Batman just ask Superman for help?" (As in "Night of The Monster Men," when Batman, Batwoman and Nightwing fought a bunch of giant monsters rampaging through Gotham City, and then called Superman to help with the clean up, not the monster-fighting). If you're going to go to the trouble to fly to the North Pole with your pals in stasis tubes, break into the Fortress of Solitude and then wait in the shadows until Superman arrives just so you can ask him to babysit your comatose friends, why not instead just text him, "Fighting Bane; could use a hand" and wait for Superman to fly in, locate Bane in, like, a few seconds with his super-senses and have him bend a few lampposts around Bane and fly him to Belle Reve? The answer "Because this is a Batman comic, not a Superman comic" isn't as convincing when they keep putting Superman in it too, you know?

  • King uses the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely update of the old idea of Superman having a key to the Fortress that is so heavy pretty much only someone as strong as him could lift it to open it, as seen in All-Star Superman.

  • There's a weird name-dropping of Mister Miracle, which, like the mention of Steel during "Monster Men," sounds like a holdover from the pre-Flashpoint DCU, not the New 52. Remember, Mister Miracle was just introduced during "The Darkseid War," and barely knows Batman, the Justice Leaguers or...anyone on this planet, really. And he just sort of disappeared at the end of that story, like a bunch of the characters. So it's weird to think Jeremiah Arkham hired him to design a security wing for Arkham Asylum, isn't it?

  • I was quite pleasantly surprised to see the return of Bird, Zombie and Trogg, Chuck Dixon/Graham Nolan creations from Batman: Vengeance of Bane who served as the character's original gang and confidants...and then pretty much disappeared after the events of "Knightfall" and its aftermath. So surprised, in fact, that I didn't recognize Bird until his bird showed up (artist David Finch dresses him in his more flamboyant vest and falconry outfit in a later scene).

  • There's a very nonsensical scene where Bane comes at Commissioner Gordon and Duke through a wall in an alley for some reason, but instead of punching his way through the wall (there's no sound effects there, although King makes a big deal out of the cawing of a bird later in the issue), or ripping through the wall with his bare hands (Finch never draws his fingertips or anything until he's through), the wall just gradually cracks, like Bane was...slowly pushing into it with his knuckles until it gave way....? The mechanics of the scene make no sense at all, although this might be because Finch is terrible at drawing comic books.

Speaking of Finch, a few notes on his performance:

  • Do you know how you can tell the difference between teenage girl Stephanie Brown and grown-ass woman Selina Kyle in a blonde wig? The latter has green eyes. And that's the only way! David Finch is...not real good at drawing distinct characters.

  • This may have been me more than him, because on a third reading it is clear enough, but the first time I read this I thought Bird's bird was tearing a huge chunk of bloody flesh out of the dead Catwoman, not a random dead cat.

  • I already mentioned the bit where Bane walks through a wall weirdly.

  • The placement of the splash pages is pretty weird and unfortunate, and both of them seem like complete wastes of space. Granted, this could have been King, rather than King accommodating Finch's wishes, but a tight close-up on Bane lighting a flare on a rooftop isn't the dramatic part of that scene, it's what he highlights with that flare that's the kicker, right?

So this was a pretty fun issue, with lots of the little deep DCU references I generally like (although given the uncertain nature of DC continuity, which in the "Rebirth" era seems to be an awkward use of the New 52 as canon and pre-Flashpoint allusions as permissible), but I would have preferred a different artist.

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures #4 (IDW Publishing) Batman, Leonardo and Raphael go after The Scarecrow, before reuniting with the others to tackle The Joker, Harley, their commandeered Footbots and their two new mutants, a pair of hyenas named Bud and Lou dressed in big, purple suits like The Joker's own. Given that these hyena men appear to be at least nine-feet tall, I can't imagine where they got those suits. Surely even the biggest and tallest Big and Tall store in New York City wouldn't have suits on the rack for anyone that big and tall, would they? And, in the off chance they did, would they have them in purple?

Writer Matthew K. Manning and artists Jon Sommariva and Sean Parsons seem to be doing a pretty good job at working their way through Batman: The Animated Series' rogue's gallery at a quick clip, with The Scarecrow's fear gas effects on Batman allowing Sommariva to draw a panel full of deep, deep cuts of TAS villains, from The Condiment King and Baby Doll to that Lady With The Tattoo that was in the first Catwoman episodes and That One Ninja Guy Batman Fought Once. Hell, there's Clock King, Lock-Up and...that one guy who basically just a Charles Dickens character who lived in the sewer....? (Look, it's been a long time since I watched Batman: TAS, okay?)

The Scarecrow's design is his second (not the one from his first appearance, which was my favorite of the TAS Scarecrows, nor the later, redesigned version with the noose around his neck), which looks pretty cool in at least one panel, where Batman, suffering from the gas' effects, sees him with a straight-up Jack O'Lantern-style face on his mask.

Somewhat surprisingly, Team Bat and Team Turtle are able to take down The Joker and Harley--with an assist from The Shredder's iron will and his mutant soldiers deciding to sit the fight out--which eliminates all of the above as the Big Bad's of the miniseries. The actual Big Bad appears on the last page and it's a surprising one, given his relatively low place in the hierarchy of Batman villains. There's still two more issues to go, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with this villain...or if there ends up being someone behind this villain as well.

This comic has been weird, but a pretty fun kind of weird.

Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye #5 (DC) So much happens in the three pages of Tom Scioli's "Super Powers" back-up story! The Joker and his army (now fortified by The Penguin and his army!) vs. The Green Lantern Corps on the streets of Gotham! They've already taken down Wonder Woman, stolen her clothes and tied her up in a Satanic mummy bondage dreamcatcher; what hope does Batgirl have as she uses her bicycle in hand-to-hand combat against The Joker and his talking mallet? Oh shit, Batman arrives right from the set of Batman '89!

On Exxor, the mysterious Sphinx has the lower part of his big, red robe torn, revealing a very familiar-looking pair of knee-high boots and a bit of stone-gray thigh! And then Superman's Super Powers toy-line vehicle, the one with punching fists, struggles in vain against Brainiac's ship, and Supergirl a version of her later pre-Crisis costume!

All I can say about this back-up feature this month is multiples of exclamation marks!


It is preceded by a Cave Carson story, perhaps most notable for the fact that DC is publishing a Cave Carson story at all, and Superman is discussed and will apparently appear in a future issue of this comic book title, which in this issue featured a young lady' snaked breasts and swear words! Not exactly Superman's normal stomping grounds. (On the other hand, I did just watch an R-rated Justice League cartoon with Superman in it last week, so who can say anymore?)

Future Quest Vol. 1 (DC) So DC decided to stick two of the very best artists they've got willing to do work for them at the moment, Evan Shaner and Steve Rude, on this weirdo Crisis Of Infinite Fairly Obscure Cartoon Superheroes and Adventure Types From the 1960s-style book instead of, say, Batman and Superman? Huh.

I'll talk about Future Quest at greater length elsewhere. It's...weird, but since it is part of a mini-line that includes The Flintstones, the weirdest comic I've read in years, it doesn't seem that weird at all. It's definitely the all-around best of the Hanna-Barbereboot books, and one of the all-around better super-comics DC's publishing at the moment, and this moment sees the publisher's line stronger than it has been in a good half-decade, if not longer.

Also weird isthe fact that it sucks up so much talent, Jeff Parker, Ron Randall, Jonathan Case, Aaron Lopresti and Craig Rousseau also contribute to the art, and Parker, of course, writes.

If you like superheroes, you're going to like it.

Green Lanterns #17 (DC) I've been pretty lukewarm on the various Green Lantern books since Geoff Johns left the franchise, but of the two current books, this is the one I check out most frequently. This time I did so because of the presence of one of my favorite characters, The Scarecrow.

As established last issue, something weird and fear-related is going on in Gotham City, and Batman has his two new Justice League peers, Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, helping him investigate. Because it is happening in Gotham and happens to involve fear, Baz assumes it must be The Scarecrow. And because it involves some sort of weird fear energy, Batman assumes it must have something to do with the Sinestro Corps. And it turns out they're both right!

The Scarecrow, who you may remember briefly had a Sinestro Corps ring during the events of Johns' Blackest Night, has been obsessing over the fear-fueled power ring ever since, and in his down-time had devoted some off-panel research into how it works. He didn't figure it all out, of course, but he did build a big fear energy contraption, with which he infects YouTube watchers with fear, which makes them commit terrible crimes? I don't know, exactly; the science is a bit vague.

I rather like pencil artist Eduardo Pansica and inker Julio Ferreira's design of The Scarecrow. He is still stuck in the post-Flashpoint, no-variation-ever mode of costume, in which he wears a bag over his head and a rope around his neck, but Pansica draws the bag with a bit of a tail at the top, which after five years actually looks like a rather dramatic departure. There's also a flashback panel showing him with the yellow ring, where he's wearing a hat and long coat).

He has a Sinestro Corps/fear symbol drawn on his chest, and, oddly enough, in a second minor variation, he is wearing a green shirt rather than a brown one, as he has been. Of all the times to wear green, doing so when appearing in a book called Green Lanterns and fighting against Green Lanterns seems an odd time to do it.

I might have picked this up for The Scarecrow, but the more dramatic turn of events seems to be Batman finally--finally--convincing Baz that he doesn't need to carry a fucking gun all the time when he's a fucking Green Lantern, and a weird moment at the climax where Batman tells Baz he doesn't really like Green Lanterns, but, in Baz, he's finally found one he can work with, and that he intends to ask him to do something for him at some point.

This involves Batman talking smack on Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner, a "glory hound" and " idiot", respectively (These lines could have, should have, been much longer, as Batman lists their many flaws. In this continuity, apparently Batman never really hung out with Kyle Rayner or John Stewart*, and Gotham City's original superhero (in post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity, anyway) Green Lantern Alan Scott never existed, so when he says "I've waited a long, longwork with... And you're it." he really just means five years.

James Harren's cover, which features neither Batman nor The Scarecrow, would appear to be an inventory one the editors just had laying around. Generally speaking, if you've got Batman guest-starring in your comic, you would want to drive that home by including him on the cover, but here there's just a pretty generic cover of the two stars using their powers, while Batman's appearance is announced only by the somewhat awkward use of his name and the logo of his own book on the cover.

Lumberjanes #35 (Boom Studios) I have always really wanted to like the sport of roller derby for its many appealing aspects (girls, puns, violence), but I could just never quite figure out the rules (My grandfather used to watch it on television when I was a child, and I assumed it was like professional wrestling on roller skates; I assumed wrong). In this issue of Lumberjanes, writers Shannon Watters and Kat Leyh spend two entire pages explaining the seemingly over-complicated rules of Roller Derby in the medium I find most appealing, and I still found myself zoning in and out of that sequence. And man, if a comic book involving a Sasquatch roller derby team can't get me to understand and enthusiastically embrace the sport, I can't imagine anything ever will.

That said, I really love how artist Carolyn Nowak draws the sasquatches--who look huge here, now that we see them standing right next to the tween stars of the book for scale, and the violent pun names of the various Lumberjanes, I mean, Rumblejanes, are all pretty funny.

Nightwing #15 (DC) Provisionally, I really, really liked this issue by regular writer Tim Seeley and artist Minkyu Jung. It is by far the best issue of the series since its relaunch (and yes, I realize that's not saying all that much, given that there have only been 14 issues and two story arcs so far), and one of the smarter, more clever issues of a Dick Grayson-starring comic book that I've read in...years...? Maybe since the Futures End one-shot of Grayson...?

Seeley and Jung condense a 68-day relationship between Dick Grayson and Shawn Tsang into a single, 20-page issue, with a series of flashbacks that hops and skips through their relationship, much of the information about it communicated second-hand, as we hear them describe the events that are unfolding to their friends and confidants and, ultimately, their mentors. There are a lot of little milestones--first date, first time they spent the night together, Dick meeting her parents, their first fight, etc--and a lot of guest-stars. Seeley handles all of this very well, and actually does a pretty fine job of selling Dick's relationships with various other heroes remarkably well. That's harder than it used to be, given the events of Flashpoint, which basically scrambled all of Dick's relationships, and he's maybe the most prominent DC superhero who is almost completely defined by his relationships, to the point that a solo comic starring him that doesn't mention his relationship to any other hero is damn near unfathomable (I had a hard time buying him and Jason Todd as best buds here still, and Dick and Barbara Gordon's relationship seems so weird to me now that DC seems to be de-aging Babs while Dick remains the same age).

The sole reason I say "provisionally" is because of the ending, which I won't spoil, but is hopefully more of a matter of routine mortal peril that the superhero genre is soaked in, rather than the eve of a fridging, as if it is the latter, this issue would seem almost despicably manipulative, as it so thoroughly invests the reader in a burgeoning relationship, basically "cheating" on the pacing. We'll see in a few weeks, I guess. Until then, definitely highly recommended, and a good jumping-on point for anyone curious about Nightwing in general, or at this point in time specifically.

Superman #17 (DC) This is a pretty weird issue, from the regular writing team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason and guest artist Sebastian Fiumara. Within its pages, Superboy is left home alone by his busy parents when neighbor girl Kathy comes to him for help finding her missing grandfather, who went looking for his missing cow. The pair of them go into the nearby swamp, and a series of very crazy, rather scary things start happening, in such a rapidly increasing manner that by the end of the issue, I was more than half expecting it to end with Jon waking up from a dream. Something unusual is going on, but it's quite unclear what it is. There appears to be someone or something around the swamp messing with Jon and Kathy, and there are points where here grandfather seemed like a likely suspect, and other points where it looked like it could be the mysterious extra Clark Kent (from the pages from Action Comics) or perhaps The Eradicator. It's an okay issue, but it's not a story so much as a sequence of weird, wild events, so it will likely leave most readers wanting.

I didn't buy it, but I did read this week's Super Sons #1, which has a lot in common with this issue, featuring as it does Jon in an after-dark adventure that begins after dark in his Hamilton County farm home. The relationship between Superboy and Robin, which was already established and explored in previous issues of this series, is a fun one, and what is maybe the most fun thing about it is that it is still so new, making it more exciting than many already-classic superhero team-ups. If you like Superman, there's a pretty good chance you'll like, or even love, Super Sons (I certainly liked the revelation of some of the weird shit Damian gets up to when he's bored during the day). I would add it to my pull-list, but as they have already announced that it would be getting a price increase in the near future, I guess I'm just gonna trade-wait it like I do Marvel's $3.99 books.

Kong of Skull Island Vol. 1 (Boom) This trade paperback collection includes the first four issues of the weird, apparently ongoing King Kong origin story, Kong of Skull Island. When I first saw issues of it appearing in the shop, I flipped through them and saw multiple giant gorillas and a couple of dinosaurs, and assumed that this was a prequel to the original King Kong film, and somehow related to the upcoming feature film, Kong: Skull Island. And given the price and number of cool-looking variants, I decided to await the trade paperback

It wasn't until I started reading it in this format, however, and I came across a few familiar feeling elements, most specifically the mention of a tribal storyteller and, later, strange, feathered dinosaur-like creatures that seem to be even smarter than Jurassic Park's smartest raptors that the waves of deja vu were strong enough that I realized that this is actually set in the world of Joe DeVito's 2004 illustrated novel, Kong: King of Skull Island**, a rather rollicking adventure story that served as both a sequel to the original King Kong film (and its accompanying novelization) and an origin story.

I say it doesn't have anything to do with the upcoming film, but that's not quite true. One imagines that the timing is no coincidence--the first issue didn't show up in comic shops until well after the film and its title was announced, and the trade arrives in shops the month before the film opens--and a quick Google shows me that there was at one point some legal issues regarding DeVito's book and the film, as the latter apparently includes elements of the former. At least, that seems to be DeVito's contention. My opinion, which is pretty worthless anyway in legal matters, can't even be offered until I see the film.

But here's what we've got: This is a comic book series written by James Asmus and drawn by Carlos Magno that the title page says is "Based on Kong of Skull Island created by Joe DeVito." In other words, this is a comic book spin-off of an illustrated novelization of a spin-off of a feature film. Got that? Meanwhile, a feature film rebooting the feature film that this comic is ultimately descended from is also going to be in theaters shortly, but they seem to be parallel, despite sharing a single ancestor...although whether they intersect or not can't be said for certain at this point (Well, they will intersect to a degree, at least; I mean, at the very least they should both feature a giant gorilla and an island with a huge skull-shaped mountain on it. I'm hoping for some dinosaurs and a sexy lady, too).

As a fan of King Kong, I'm certainly not unhappy about all these Kong narratives, regardless of what went on behind the scenes. I just hope they are all good. This is...well, it's not great.

The origin of the giant gorilla is revealed, and it's pretty prosaic: a mixture of selective breeding and "growth stimulants" has resulted in a race of likely impossibly giant, intelligent, bipedal gorillas (I'd have to do some research, but I think a giant gigantopithecus could potentially get in the neighborhood of King Kong's size, but gorillas? Not so much...and certainly not the size of the new movie's Kong, who seems to be closer to Godzilla's weight-class than the original Kong. Personally, I don't think an explanation for Kong's existence is necessarily a good thing, as he's the sort of character for whom an explanation drains some of the magic and mystery out of, automatically making him less interesting.

These giants, referred to collectively as kongs, aren't the center of the story Asmus tells, though. Rather, this is the story of a completely isolated civilization composed of two distinct groups, the Tagu and the Atu. They have different methods of kong training, and they use their giant gorillas to fight one another in what appears to be a mixture of ritual and sport. The actual center of the story is the political intrigue of the royals in the two warring clans, and the way they react to a potentially apocalyptic natural disaster: Their volcanic island is about to be destroyed by geological calamity (not unlike Skull Island was in the only really official King Kong sequel, 1933's Son Of Kong).

Luckily for them--well, some of them--Kong trainer Ewata had just rediscovered the cursed island full of monsters known as Skull Island, and it is there that all of the people and their giant gorillas must flee to, an out of the fire, back into the frying pan sort of situation. Ewata's first trip there wasn't exactly a successful one; they were attacked by pteradons and giant, sea-going reptiles that flipped their boat, ate a bunch of people and fought the Kongs. When they made it to the beach, they were met by more dinosaurs. They bugged the fuck out and headed right back to their homeland, which was about to be destroyed anyway.

So this is the origin story not only of King Kong, but of the Skull Island natives, who, it turns out, aren't natives so much as settlers. As one of the most problematic elements of the original film, I think dwelling on the Skull Islanders too can be a mistake, and Peter Jackson and company rightly tried to minimize their role in their remake and to drain them of ethnic/racial/national signifiers as much as possible.

It's not the Kong story I would tell, but I think Asmus builds on what DeVito did admirably enough, and with Magno they too present a people that are cryptic in terms of race, looking like a mish-mash of "native" cultures and drawn with physical features and clothing that make them impossible to place. They seem to be people of color, but they don't look black, like the people of the original film. They could be the original people who lived in the continents of North and South America, or perhaps from some island in the pacific (um, which they technically are, I guess).

As a white guy, I know I'm not particularly well-equipped to speak on this aspect of the narrative, which, as I said of the original film was pretty damn problematic (i.e. racist, but hard to eliminate completely from the basic King Kong story). Is the best way to deal with it to make the people who live on an island in the Pacific look more like Pacific Islanders than like African-Americans playing Hollywood's 1930s definition of "natives," who in the film had African signifiers...? Or is taking almost all of the black folk from King Kong and making them explicitly not black folk a form of erasure...?

God, I don't know. I wouldn't wanna have to be in the position to make these potentially fraught decisions, though. I suppose that it is now a native woman rather than a blonde-haired white girl from America who is the human star is a bit of an improvement, right?

I...didn't mean to get hung up on the race or the provenance of this particular comic book series.

Is it good...? Eh, it's not bad. It's certainly well made. It has some giant gorillas, and we see them fighting one another, an fighting dinosaurs. But we don't see enough of that, and the title seems a bit misleading, at least so far, as this is more People And Kongs Of Some Island than Kong of Skull Island.

As I mentioned on the blog after first reading Weta Workshop's 2005 The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, that was chock-full of information about the creatures of Skull Island--many, many, many more than actually appeared in the film--and it read a little like a source book upon which a shared universe setting for future films or novels or comic book series could be set. Hell, the text even suggested the events of prequels and sequels.

But that was tied to a different extrapolation of the King Kong film, the previous remake. This is set in  DeVito's particular extrapolation and, thus far at least, it's dealing with the least interesting parts of his extrapolation of the original: The origin of the Kongs and the peopling of Skull Island. It drains some of the power out of the original film, while dwelling on those parts (For example, that big wall wasn't to keep King Kong locked up in the jungle, but to keep his ancestors safe from dinosaurs, I guess? And the people who worshiped him as a god didn't just find him and acknowledge his mastery of their small island world, but they used to raise his species like cattle?).

Magno's art is top-notch, though, and there are plenty of cool variant covers included, my favorite being from a pair of artists who I wouldn't normally think of as guys I'd like to seek out to see how they would draw King Kong: Stan Sakai and Paul Pope.***

*Although this story specifically references the events of "Blackest Night," which occurred pre-Flashpoint, in a continuity where Batman worked with all four Lanterns for long periods of time on various iterations of the Justice League. Reboot or don't reboot, goddammit! Quit trying to have it both ways!

**I wrote about the book, and the next Kong-related book I mention in the above post, in 2013 here, if you are interested. Re-reading the post myself now, I see that I had noted at the time that a comic book adaptation of DeVito's novel would have been potentially difficult to pull off successfully. I think I was wright, too!

***Well, actually, I would personally like to see how every artist draws King Kong, but those aren't two guys who come immediately to mind when I think giant gorillas, you know?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: February 8th

All-Star Batman #7 (DC Comics) I suppose I wasn't paying close enough attention to the solicitations, but I thought "Ends of The Earth" would be a Mister Freeze story arc in the same way that "My Own Worst Enemy" was a Two-Face arc. Instead, this issue follows on the events of last issue's first chapter of "Ends of The Earth," but Mister Freeze's part in the story seems to be over, and this issue's focus falls on Poison Ivy.

So if the first story arc featured a bunch of Batman villains basically crashing into and getting thrown out of a story focusing on Batman's struggle against Two-Face and The (KG)Beast, then perhaps this story arc will feature a bunch of Batman villains one at a time, each one getting the focus of an entire issue (Well, not counting the back-up, of course).

For this issue, writer Scott Snyder is joined by Supreme Blue Rose artist Tula Lotay, who is extremely talented, even if she might not meet the same definition of "All-Star" as established by previous lead story artists John Romita Jr and Jock (Although I suppose you could make the argument that Jock doesn't quite meet the definition of "All-Star" established by JRJR in terms of longevity, success and body of work, so maybe we should just agree that "All-Star" is going to be used rather relatively in this series). Regardless, I suppose collaborating with Scott Snyder on a Batman comic book should go a long way towards elevating her status.

I am personally torn on her artwork. It is very good, and tells the story rather effectively and efficiently. I wasn't crazy about her Ivy redesign, which includes a green leotard and sorta silly wedge-heeled boots, all of which have what look more like reptilian scales than leaves (The version on the cover, which is more evocative of an Ivy of the "No Man's Land"/"Hush" Era, is merely an expressionistic suggestion of the character within). She does give Ivy some vaguely Furiosa-like eye make-up, which looks pretty cool.

Beyond that, Lotay seems to use computers in certain panels to capture a particular tree and the paramilitary organization that is stalking Batman (which, unless Snyder is re-inventing them drastically, seems to be in keeping with the New 52 version, who had their own, extremely short-lived title; in fact, theirs was among the very first cancellations of the initial 52, if I'm remembering correctly).

So between issues #6 and #7, the prehistoric bacteria that Mister Freeze was trying to unleash on the world that Batman thought he had eradicated seemed to have escaped after all, and shown up in Washington state. He hunts down Poison Ivy for her scientific expertise (this, by the way, is the second issue in a row in which Batman encounters one of his villains who is a fallen scientist; next issue features The Mad Hatter; depending on the continuity, all three were also people who worked for Wayne until they had accidents and/or falling outs).

Batman and Poison Ivy try to manipulate one another at the base of a special tree in Death Valley that Snyder writes so convincingly about I can't tell if it and its kind or real or not. Then the paramilitary types, which look like photographs of real soldiers run through computer filters and inserted into Lotay's layouts, attack. Getting what he needs, Batman moves on to save the world, leaving Ivy free...although she's been recently portrayed as less a psychopathic murderess and more of a Catwoman-type bad guy-gone-good type more and more frequently.

There were some neat little details in here, like the fact that Ivy apparently only eats meat and water which...well, I'm not a nutritionalist, but she looks pretty good for having such a shitty diet. Hopefully she doesn't die of a heart attack or colon cancer in her mid-forties.

The back-up story, another chapter of the Duke Thomas-starring storyline, is illustrated by Francesco Francavilla again. Interestingly, Duke says he's been at his training, which began in Batman: Rebirth #1, almost a year now. Time flies in the Batman books! Taken altogether, it would appear that at least three, but more likely four years have passed since the launch of the New 52 line (in-comic, anyway), and that therefore Batman and his peers in the Justice League have already been at it 8-9 years. They are therefore only about a year away from the 10-year-time line of the Modern Age of Heroes (kicked off by Superman's debut) established in Zero Hour!

Deathstroke #12 (DC) After last issue's meditation on gun violence and Creeper crossover, writer Christopher Priest returns to the complicated, multi-thread storytelling that has mostly characterized this book so far, in which Slade Wilson and his children's sometimes parallel but regularly-intersecting narratives eat up the many-paneled lay-outs.

In this issue Raptor, a character introduced in the first Rebirth-ed Nightwing story arc "Better Than Batman" appears, and his facing off against Slade accounts for the cliffhanger ending. The art in this issue is from pencil artist Joe Bennett, inker Mark Morales and colorist Jeromy Cox. It's all as clear as a bell, even if it obviously lacks the weird, jittery energy of last issue's collaboration by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz is back for the (well, a) cover this time, though.

Detective Comics #950 (DC) This is a big, over-sized anniversary special of sorts, now that DC has adopted the Marvel strategy of switching back and forth between rebooted numbering and the old numbering on at Action Comics and Detective. Surprisingly, hell, shockingly, there is a gigantic surprise appearance on the last page of a DC comic that was released on February 8th this week that relates directly to Detective Comics, and that last page is not in this issue but, instead, in New Super-Man (Comics Alliance has a spoiler on the matter, if you have no idea what I'm talking about*).

So what is Detective Comics doing to mark its 950th issue? Well, it is, as the cover announces, an "Oversize Anniversary Special!", a $3.99/38-page book featuring a trio of stories all written by James Tynion IV and starring various members of the current Detective Comics cast.

The first of these is "League of Shadows Prologue: Shadow of a Tear," drawn by Marcio Takara. This is apparently the prologue to the next big Detective Comics story arc, the League of Shadows being the threat that Batwoman's dad's weird, Batman-based splinter group of the U.S. military was formed specifically to fight, even though Batman and friends didn't believe the League of Shadows even existed. Hey, how ironic would it be if they did exist? (And given that the next story arc will be called "League of Shadows" I'm pretty sure that means they do.) Batman didn't believe the Court of Owls really existed either, and they totally did! The World's Greatest Detective really isn't all that great at figuring out whether or not shadowy organizations that people tell him exist really do exist or not!

This is basically a Cassandra Cain solo story, as we follow her through much of a night and are privy to her thoughts, as told to us via third-person narration in the narration boxes. She stalks a ballerina, as this new Cassandra is a fan of dance since it is a sort of language based on the movement of the human body that doesn't involve violence, she beats up some bad guys, she visits Harper, Batman, and passes by Clayface, Batwing, Azrael and Batwoman, and then retreats to what I guess is her apartment, and we see she is being watched by someone who understands her: Lady Shiva!

Takara's art is great, but may in fact be too good, as it really accentuates just how clunky Cassandra's new costume really is in certain panels. Really, the shoulder-pads and other bits of armor need to go. If her whole deal remains that she's this phenomenal, un-hit-able, invincible fighting machine, then why does she need armor? I suppose the designer just wanted to break up the black blob of the costume with bits of color (here a golden, metallic yellow), but it doesn't look very good, and doesn't really fit with the character. I think if she's drawn well enough, as she obviously is here, then she doesn't need any decoration. The well-drawn human form is a great enough design on its own, and the all-black costume and the featureless, pupil-less white eyes on the mask are more than fantastical enough to make the look pop as a costume.

There are a few moments in this story, in which we are told how much Batman means to her and how much she looks up to and relates to Batwoman, which did give me a glimmer of hope that she might return to a more Batgirl-like costume at some point, and re-adopt "Black Bat" instead of "Orphan."

That 24-page story is followed by the 10-page "Higher Powers," drawn by pencil artist Alvaro Martinez and inker Raul Fernandez. In it, Azrael and Batwing fight Sentinels in their version of the Danger Room, which is probably taking the borrowed-from-the-X-Men nature of "The Mud Room" a little far. They debate about the existence of God, and talk science and religion for a while. I'm somewhat curious about the new, post-Flashpoint take on the Order of St. Dumas, which is much, much weirder than the original, but it has yet to be presented in anything approaching an palatable fashion, as Tynion (and a few other writers here and there) have mostly just thrown details at us in the midst of other storylines more focused on and interested in other aspects of the story. It should go without saying that in a reboot-less DCU, where Jean-Paul Valley and Azrael had actual history and relationships with many of these characters, and the The Order was an established presence, this would make a lot more sense, and his presence on this little Justice League of Gotham would be more compelling.

Finally, Tynion and artist Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreira present a four-page story sent before Red Robin's "death," in which Tim Drake basically just pulls Batman aside and tells him he's figured out what he's doing, how he's manipulating his allies into various places of influence or power and assembling various teams--"And what's next? Your own private Justice League?" Tim asks--and the climax of the short story is simply Tim asking, "Why are you preparing for war?"

In answer, Batman frowns and a tag along the bottom reads "DARK DAYS are coming - 2017." Is that a Batman-specific thing, or a reference to whatever is going on in the DCU at present, the long, slow build-up to whatever Watchmen-related shenanigans have been teased since DC Universe: Rebirth (mostly in the pages of the Superman books, but here and there throughout the line)...?

I don't know.

Empowered and The Soldier of Love #1 (Dark Horse Comics) This is something new for Adam Warren's Empowered. For years he's collaborated on different artists for between-volumes Empowered one-shots, scripting them and drawing the covers and recap page while his collaborators handled the interior art work.

This is similar, but it's not exactly that. Instead, it's a three-issue miniseries written by Warren, and featuring both interior and cover art by Karla Diaz. There are two pages of back-matter combining prose from Warren and sketches from Diaz explaining how the project came about, exactly.

No sooner does a young, Spanish-speaking woman show up in town, than things start going pretty weird among the supehero community. Two heroes are caught hooking up by TMZ CMZ, and one of their significant others goes on a drinking and crying jag downtown, while he is the size of a size-scraper. Three other heroes are hooking up in a stall together during karoke night. At Superhomey's HQ, most of the team is too busy texting and sexting to even pay attention to another disaster involving heroes hooking up, and when Captain Rivet and Empowered head to the Homeycar, they find it rocking, as two of the members are inside, making it go KREEK KREEK KREEK.

It doesn't take long--well, only the entire issue, so maybe it does take kind of long--for Empowered and her gal pal Ninjette to realize that all this rampant shipping is coordinated. "This isn't just a coincidence, this is an attack!"

The perpetrator? The lady in the militant version of a magical girl costume on the front, naturally, the so-called Soldier of Love (or Solado del Amor), who appears to be causing this chaos with some combination of pink, heart-shaped fire-arms or perhaps the pink smoke emanating from her vape thingee. She also has a cute talking sidekick, Mr. Pangolin, a pink, um, pangolin with a bowtie.

Yes, it is awesome.

Adam Warren comics don't always feel right when he's not drawing them himself, given how much of his overall body of work is both written and drawn by Warren, but the pleasures of his writing, particular that of the his pun-filled superhero piss-taking Empowered scripts, are all in clear evidence. Additionally, Diaz's art, while extremely different, seemingly shares at least one similar point of inspiration in anime and manga. So the art has that in common with Warren's, while also looking completely different. This is the first tie I've seen her art, but I'm hoping it won't be the last time; she's really amazing.

The series is also in full-color, it's probably worth noting, something not new to these short-and-stapled Emp books, but still overall unusual among the vast page count of Warren's overall Empowered epic. Of course, it would almost have to be in color, also by Diaz, because there is just so much pink in it.

If you've never tried Empowered, this is probably a pretty good place to try it. One of the one-shots might have been even better, but, on the other hand, this three-issue $3.99/26-page series has a scope bigger than the one-shots but not as big as the first volume of Empowered.

Gotham Academy: Second Semester #6 (DC) We're still telling the "Second Semester" story arc (the title of the story in this book, which itself is entitled Gotham Academy: Second Semester, read "Second Semester Part 5" this issue), and it's still probably the first time in a long time that Gotham Academy felt like the book it was selling itself as. That fact makes me wonder and worry how much longer it has left before cancellation.

Together and apart, various combinations of the members of Detective Club are running around the Academy grounds with a map, trying to solve various mysteries, aspects of which go back to the very first issue, when it was still just Gotham Academy. It's good stuff. I hope it sticks around. If not, um, read it while you still can...?

Justice League of America: Rebirth #1 (DC) So the precise premise of this series is, as far as I understand it, that writer Steve Orlando really wanted to write a Justice League comic, but DC didn't want to take Justice League away from writer Bryan Hitch (even though it is not very good, and Hitch is not very good at writing Justice League comics)...or, perhaps, that Orlando wanted to write a Justice League comic with a different line-up than the one that has barely changed at all over the last 5+ years, but DC wanted to keep that line-up in place, as it is the one that will be starring in their upcoming, awful-looking Justice League movie.

The solution? Another Justice League book, this one just plain old randomly called Justice League of America for no reason apparent in the one-shot special that will presumably lead in to the actual first issue. (DC's already used Justice League of America for a short-lived book in the New 52-iverse, one that had the advantage of starring a team put together specifically to work on behalf of the United States government; they also randomly used the title JLA, for the ongoing-turned-miniseries by Hitch that preceded his take over of the main League book following Geoff Johns' departure).

But the book will of course need an in-story premise offered, too, since Batman kinda sorta needs an excuse to just go set up a second Justice League for no reason, and the one Orlando settles on here doesn't sound too terribly convincing. Here's Batman's pitch to Black Canary, who I guess commutes between Seattle and Gotham City so she can be in both Green Arrow and Batgirl and The Birds of Prey: "I've started something new. A different team. Mortal. Not gods."

Later, The Atom Ryan Choi goes to recruit The Ray and tells him that Batman is building a team, and says: "People need heroes like them. Human."

This line-up--Batman, Lobo, The Ray, Black Canary, The Atom, Killer Frost and Vixen--don't seem to fit the bill for that type of team. Like, at all. While Batman is mortal and human, and I suppose an argument could be made for The Atom, a regular guy who uses a super-tool to access powers, and Vixen, ditto, it's not exactly a regular joe, person-on-the-street, non-godlike, team, you now? You've got Batman and six metahumans, which is pretty much the make-up of his last League at the outset of The New 52 (I guess one could parse whether or not Green Lanterns count as metahuman or not, since Hal Jordan, Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz are just regular people with extraordinary weaponry on their fingers). It doesn't seem like it would be too hard for Batman to assemble a team of non-meta-humans if he really wanted to--actually, he's already got two if you count The Club of Heroes/Batman Inc and whatever he calls his team in Detective Comics.

He offers a somewhat different explanation to Killer Frost, his first recruit, when he tells her that she inspired him by telling him that "everyone deserves a chance," and he hopes to offer a group of people a fresh start. A chance to be a hero. And, there are a few points in these 20 pages where it's noted that something in particular is coming, and this is a team meant to deal specifically with that something.

This issue follows on the events of Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad, which is where Killer Frost redeemed herself and where this version of Lobo was reintegrated into the post-Flashpoint DCU, and a few mostly unnecessary one-shot specials telling the slightly tweaked new origins of Vixen, The Ray, Killer Frost and The Atom. I honestly don't think any of them are too terribly necessary to make sense of what is going on here.

Batman takes Killer Frost to a mysterious old cave in Happy Harbor, Rhode Island, which is where the original Justice League met...pre-Flashpoint, anyway. (Batman talks about the place in vague terms, calling it a "relic" and "a remnant of a bygone era.") They then go about recruiting their team, with one person approaching the next in order to convince them to join, with Batman sometimes tagging along. So Killer Frost and Batman recruit Black Canary; Canary recruits Lobo (who Batman kinda sorta semi-tricked into joining a League at the end of JLvSS, a series I plan to review in typically excrutiating detail in the not-too-distant future); Batman and Lobo go looking for Ray Palmer and recruit Ryan Choi instead (Ugh, have I mentioned lately how much I hate how nonsensical the post-Flashpoint Ray Palmer/Atom continuity is?); Choi recruits The Ray (whose helmet I dislike as drawn here by artist Ivan Reis, although it might just be a coloring choice or mistake); Batman recruits Vixen, and then they all pose for a group shot in which Batman reveals their name without explanation.

Reis and inkers Joe Prado and Oclair Albert, both of whom he's worked with extensively before, do a pretty great job. They can do this stuff in their sleep, at this point, really. I'm not crazy about The Ray's costume tweaks, and kinda hate the various costumes we've seen The Atom in so far. I'm also not a fan of how they illustrate Vixen's powers, but I think I've noted before that her powers are really hard to illustrate, and I don't think I've ever seen them depicted in a way that I thought felt quite right to me. Just a personal hang-up, I know.

All in all, there's not a whole lot to this book, it's just a quick, efficient getting-the-team-together book, but it's an interesting team full of interesting characters--far more so than the other, main Justice League book of the moment--so I'm interested in following it for a while.

I should probably also note that it ends with a page of four teaser panels, with a "Coming Up In Justice League of America!" box in the upper right-hand corner. Of these, some aren't terribly exciting--Lobo will fight a teammate, if you can believe it, while Choi will find Palmer--but I did like the fact that Batman seems to be facing off against Lady Liberty or, more likely, using a shield with her face on it for some reason (the placement of the balloon tail makes it seem like someone other than Liberty is doing the talking). I guess we'll see.

Still not sure why this isn't called Batman and The Outsiders though, to be honest...

Justice League/Power Rangers #2 (Boom Studios) In this issue, the rest of the (a?) League show up to rescue Batman from The Pink Ranger's Pterodactyl Dinozord: Superman, Green Lantern John Stewart, Cyborg and Wonder Woman. After some light combat, everyone figures out that it was all basically a misunderstanding, brought about by how damn villainous Batman looks and acts.

I'm pretty sure this entire series is worth it for this line of dialogue alone:
Honestly, the most fun parts of the series have been those in which the Justice Leaguers react to the more, um, stylized actions of the Rangers, which are, of course, perfectly natural in their own, home narrative. So the bits where Superman knocks on the Pink Ranger's zord cockpit and says "I'm going to have to ask you to land your pterodactyl," for example, or when The Flash witnesses the Rangers summon their Dinozords in disbelief (I kinda wish artist Stephen Byrne would have spent the double-page spread of that sequence more faithfully recreating how that scene might have played on the TV show, for maximum narrative clash).

Unfortunately, the series can no more be the Justice League smashing up Dinozords than it could be The Pink Ranger becoming Batman's new sidekick (Pink Robin, naturally), and so after about half a book's worth of fighting based on misunderstanding, we cut to Brainiac teaming up with Lord Zedd. The firs step in their plan? Send giant space octopuses to four cities around the globe, where they immediately begin wreaking havoc.

Magical Character Rabbit (Alternative Comics) I'll be 100% honest, Kinoko Evans' story didn't do a whole lot for me. There aren't a whole lot in the way of jokes, nor is the conflict too terribly engaging. No matter though, Evans' character design is adorable, her page construction, lettering and coloring perfect and her storytelling on point. This is a super-fun comic to look at, to read, to spend time with. Even if there was something of a cotton candy element to it, wherein it evaporated almost immediately upon consumption, leaving me with a pleasant enough sensation and a fond memory, but nothing substantial. If you like fun and cute drawings of fun and cute stuff, check it out; it is also all-ages, so it's probably a pretty good comic to share with some particularly short people of your acquaintance.

Suicide Squad #11 (DC) Well, now that Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad is totally over, including the not-really-an epilogue to it that filled the previous issue of this series, Suicide Squad resumes its weird-ass format of a 12-page lead story and an eight-page back-up story. I assumed that this was in part to accommodate the schedule of Jim Lee, who was drawing the 12-pagers for a while, and was only going to be something the book engaged in for its first few months, as the back-ups were all dedicated to solo origin stories of each of the characters on the team. But here we are, with John Romita JR in for Lee, and the back-up is...just another part of the story...? It's really weird, frankly. At least the first run of split format issues had a degree of interior logic to them.

So, writer Rob Williams gives us "Burning Down The House" Part one, penciled by JRJR and inked by Richard Friend. The Squad is on the hunt for "The Annihilation Squad" from the first arc, which here involves a big action scene in Tibet. Meanwhile, Rustam is traveling the world, cutting people in half with his flaming scimitar and causing problems for Amanda Waller. On the last page, he releases the prisoners of Blackgate in Gotham, which is good; I do so love seeing JRJR draw the denizens of Gotham City.

He is a pretty perfect match for this material too, really. His figures have only gotten bigger, blockier and more powerful over the years, and are thus very well-suited to this particular group of amoral killers with superpowers. Additionally, the cold-weather setting allows him to bundle most of the characters up, so that Captain Boomerang, for example, wears a huge coat, and Harley Quinn wears...I don't know what. It looks a little like a Harley-themed football uniform, but with more padding and straps. JRJR's style is just cartoony enough too that when random soldiers get cut down, either by magic swords or giant crocodile men, it's not gross or gory, it's just paper figures ripping each other up.

It's a sever disappointment then to turn a page and find "Life Outside" by Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreira, and a return to DC house style. In reaction to something from the first story arc, the Squad is given leave to go do fun stuff on the outside (Katana's cursed blade whispered "Shopping" to her over and over in one panel, while others complained of being worked too hard). A pretty big event happens here: Amanda Waller is shot in the chest by someone in a trench coat holding two handguns. In a sense, the previous pages are simply setting up suspects, with her temporary replacement Harcourt, Boomerang and Deadshot all being pushed pretty hard. I imagine it will end up being the one of the three who isn't on the cover every month, but hell, it could be anyone, I guess.

Wonder Woman #16 (DC) I don't much care for the chimera that show's up in this issue of Wonder Woman, if only because it looks sort of...plain, even generic. But what I found really weird about it is that it is drawn with a mane, like a male lion has. But Wonder Woman refers to the monster as a female repeatedly. Now, I'm no zoologist, and I know relatively little about sexual dimorphism in real animals, and chimeras are, let's not forget, totally not real. However, wouldn't it stand to reason that a female chimera would not have a mane on its lion head, in the same way that real female lions do not have manes...?

*I don't share Kieran Shiach's concerns, as writer Gene Luen Yang has won many awards for a graphic novel dealing with pretty much that exact subject matter, and said graphic novel was so well-received that it essentially launched his comics career, allowing him to further write about Asian identity in superhero comics in future books, including this one.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Some recent Marvel collections I've read:

All-New Wolverine Vol. 2: Civil War

I haven't been reading Civil War II, so I'm not sure how well the story of various Marvel heroes fighting one another over whether using an Inhuman with the ability to see the future to help them pre-emptively fight crime is the best idea or not is working within the confines of that particular miniseries.

From what I can tell from the tie-ins I've read so far, however, that narrative seems to be sort of stumbling around Marvel's publishing line like a drunk, unwelcome house guest--barging in with little warning, upsetting all the furniture and then staggering away just as suddenly, leaving everything feeling a little awkward.

Though the second volume of All-New Wolverine takes "Civil War II" as its subtitle, it's actually only the second half of the collection that has anything at all to do with Civil War II and, as was the case with Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat Vol. 2, there's a pretty clear, even glaring line between the events and tone of the collection before and after the tie-in.

The first issue herein is a rather unlikely team-up with Squirrel Girl, who shows up on the All-New Wolverine's doorstep in the middle of the night, holding an actual wolverine. His name is Jonathan, and Squirrel Girl thought he would be needed because she mistakenly thought that Wolverine could communicate with wolverines the way she communicates with squirrels. It was an honest mistake, and one that gives Laura and her little clone sister Gabby a pet wolverine.

Why is Squirrel Girl there at all? Well, it seems that Laura has "wronged the squirrel world," and S.G. wants her to make amends, so the two go off on an adventure to rescue a squirrel together. Though there's obviously a lot of silliness to it, writer Tom Taylor uses this issue to resolve the issue of whether Laura and Gabby are going to remain together or not, which ultimately allows him to demonstrate a way in which the all-new Wolverine is superior to the previous model...or at least trying to behave in the way she wished he had when he was still alive.

That's followed by two issues of Laura and Gabby going up against one of the greatest antagonists in the Marvel Universe: Mr. Fin Fang Foom*. It seems things go wrong during the sale of a very mysterious, very deadly weapon of mass destruction, which turns out to be what Gabby repeatedly, alliteratively refers to as "Fin Fang Pheromone," a liquid capable of drawing FFF to a target.

Laura is recruited by SHIELD (and Gabby tags along) because the first Wolverine they sent in ended up in the belly of the best. So Laura goes inside the giant dragon to rescue the older, futuristic, alternate dimensional version of the man she was cloned from, Logan from Old Man Logan.

Artist Marcio Takara has a really great panel set inside Fin Fang Foom, in which Laura, up to her knees in his stomach acid, strikes the same, somewhat iconic pose that the original Wolverine struck in that old issue of Uncanny X-Men, where he emerges from the sewer water and looks up, talking out loud to the not-present The Hellfire Club about how they've taken their best shot and now he's gonna take his.

Captain Marvel Carol Danvers and Iron Man Tony Stark, both playing remarkably nice for two pals about to engage in a civil war in a month or so's time after the events of this story arc, arrive to help out, but ultimately the only way to save SHIELD's helicarrier and New York from the Fin Fang Pheromone-crazed Fin Fang Foom involves off-panel nudity and a jetpack. (Speaking of nudity, I notice Fin Fang Foom is going commando throughout this entire adventure. It may be more realistic for a giant, humanoid dragon monster to not wear giant tiny purple shorts, but it still looks off to me.)

Takara draws all three of these issues. That's followed by the Civil War II tie-in arc, drawn by pencil artist Ig Guara and three inkers. Old Man Logan has now joined the cast, having been dragged back to Laura and Gabby's apartment to recover from having his lower half skeletonized by his time being semi-digested in Fin Fang Foom's stomach acid (Miraculously, not only does his flesh grow back, but apparently his healing factor also regrew his jeans, boots and belt!).

Ulysses, the future-predicting Inhuman who serves as a catalyst for Civil War II, has a vision in his office or cell or dark room at the Triskelion. Here's how he words it:

Wolverine. And an old man. A young girl. Flying through the air. And...I saw an angel? And screaming. And blood. A whole lot of blood.
Seriously? Those little cryptic snippets are the basis upon which Captain Marvel and the other heroes siding with her take violent action, occasionally against their peers? That's kind of crazy, like playing the stock market or formulating national foreign policy based on Nostradamus, or a few random verses of the Book of Revelation.

It's apparently enough for Maria Hill to mobilize a Captain America Steve Rogers-lead strike force to storm Laura's apartment and ask to detain The Notorious OML, on the belief that he's going to kill Gabby. Complicating matters further is the fact that he does kill Gabby in his own timeline, although as has been repeatedly established in his own book and the the X-books, his future is an alternate one, and things happen/happened/will happen quite differently in that world than they do/have/will in this one.

So the logistics of this story are really kind of a mess, with Captain America and SHIELD and OML all operating on visions and/or memories of the future, and fighting each other, with Laura and Gabby caught in the middle of what has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (It turns out that if you expect Logan might commit a violent act upon those around him, sending a SHIELD SWAT team to fill him full of drug-tipped darts and a Captain America to smack him around and speechify might actually provoke him into violence, rather than deescalate the situation).

The arc ends with Laura telling Cap and SHIELD off, by essentially calling the entire premise of Civil War II idiotic, and forcefully saying she and Gabby would prefer to be left out of the rest of the crossover, thank you very much. Based on the logic of SHIELD here, it's hard to disagree; as with the original Civil War, one side is clearly being set-up as the wrong side, and there seems to be even fewer pains taken to articulate an argument for the Captain Marvel-lead side for acting in anyway that could conceivably be seen as "right," no matter how much one squints or tilts one's head (Interestingly, the original Civil War made Iron Man look like an evil and/or ignorant villain just prior to his big screen debut in his first film, while Civil War II is doing the same to Captain Marvel just prior to her big screen debut in her first film).

Which isn't to say there aren't moments in the arc. Burglars breaking into Laura's apartment, only to find Gabby, two Wolverines and an actual wolverine waiting for them was kind of funny, and Gabby calling Old Man Logan "her interdimensional dystopian future grandpa" was kind of cute. Taylor and his artistic collaborators continue to find the perfect balance between silly normal girl and usually hidden killer with Gabby, who is a fun character...except when that darkness slips out for a panel or two.

Next up is an arc entitled "Enemy of the State II"; the first "Enemy of the State" was the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. arc of Wolverine in which Logan was brainwashed to assassinate the entire Marvel Universe, so, um, it looks like the next volume of All-New Wolverine might end up being a bit darker and a lot less fun than these first two. Damn you, Civil War II!

Black Widow Vol. 1: SHIELD's Most Wanted

Black Widow is the current book by the former Daredevil creative team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, and demands attention for that fact alone. I remember a few years back that Comics Alliance ran apiece crediting Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye for essentially reinventing Marvel's strategy for dealing with solo series starring second-tier characters, as Hawkeye was followed by a bunch of comics that seemed to feature Hawkeye-ized versions. While that's true, I think Waid and his original Daredevil artistic partners Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin deserve the credit, as their new Daredevil pre-dated Hawkeye. They established the simple formula of Good Writer + Good Artists = Good Comics, along with the idea of a simple tweak to the status quo might be all you need to make it those Good Comics interesting (Here, it seemed to simply be to stop trying to do Frank Miller's Daredevil over and over forever).

While Samnee came later, he drew a very healthy portion of Waid's run, and was key to the books continued success. He was certainly there long enough, and did great enough work, that whatever the pair did next was worth a read if for no other reason than it was what they were doing next.

And they chose Black Widow.

I found that a bit surprising, given that the character is in kind of a weird place. Outside of comics, Black Widow is by far Marvel's most popular and recognizable female heroine, thanks to her appearances in the Avengers and Captain America movies, but within the Marvel Universe, she's traditionally been a B- or C-lister, a character other characters team up with or who appears on a superhero team for a while, rather than a lady with her own book (although Waid and Samnee were giving her a second ongoing, following a short-lived, 20-issue, 2014 series by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto). I don't know exactly why that is, but I suspect it's simply a function of her realistic nature: She's a spy, maybe even a super-spy, but not a superhero. For a long time, that was probably a liability, but in the post Ed Brubaker Marvel universe, the more realistic Marvel Universe in which so many different titles and stories were focused on espionage and intrigue rather than heroes vs. villains and cosmic happenings, it became an advantage--it's the reason she works in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so well where few of her fellow female heroes would, and the reason she can appear not only in Avengers movies, but also in Captain America and Iron Man ones.

I think that Waid and Samnee are doing Black Widow at all is a vote in favor of the character, and an argument for promoting her to the studio people, more-or-less advocating a solo movie (I was resistant to that idea a half-dozen movies ago, as the fact that she was just a super-spy made the prospect of a Black Widow movie seem no more exciting or interesting than a gender-flipped James Bond movie, but at this point the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so big and populated that a super-spy movie set in it would bear the advantage of further the world-building meta-narrative and the ability to choose from a prefabricated supporting cast and neat villains that might not ever make it into the boys' movies, lie, I don't know, Taskmaster or MODOK and AIM or fucking Fin Fang Foom even*).

I note all of this because the approach that Waid and Samnee, who gets a co-writer credit as well as the expected artist credit, seems like they might have just been doing a comics adaptation of a Black Widow movie they would like to see. It is very action-oriented, opening with an issue-length action scene in which the Widow takes on and takes down a huge swathe of SHIELD agents as she escapes from a SHIELD helicarrier. She has two words of dialogue in it. She battles her way through a helicarrier, she jumps off it and fights flying cars and jetpacks while plummeting to earth, and then there are chase scenes involving a jetpack, a flying car and a motorcycle.

The second issue/second chapter of the collection shows how she became an enemy of SHIELD, as she's kidnapped by a mysterious operative named The Weeping Lion and blackmailed into returning to The Red Room where she was trained to steal a file for him. This involves secret meets in foreign countries, a European car chase, lots of fighting and looks back to her mysterious origins--as I said, it's all very action movie-like, albeit a very good action movie, one with a smart script and a highly competent director. It's a prestige action movie.

Aside from the SHIELD tech in the opening scenes, things don't get too terribly Marvel-ous until the last chapter, which more-or-less completes this story arc. That's when Iron Man Tony Stark shows up to kick her ass, she appropriates some Stark tech, and goes after the super-powered power behind The Weeping Lion. Although so clearly set in the Marvel Universe, this is a Black Widow story, not a Marvel Universe story, and it benefits from the distinction.

It also benefits by the remove at which Waid and Samnee hold the character--she has surprisingly little dialogue in several issues, especially for the title character--as she plays pretty much everything as close to the vest as possible. "No one gets into my head unless I let them," she tells the big bad on the last page, and that would seem to go for the readers as well. That's not a criticism; it's a fair portrayal of a character born and bred as one of the world's greatest spies.

This fast-moving six-issue collection, which constitutes a complete story with a beginning, middle and ending of its own--with the necessary promise of more to come--is a great example of the showing vs. telling argument of good comics-making. Waid and Samnee's presence on the book all that demands that it be read, certainly, but the quality of the quality of the work here makes it so a reader won't be sorry for meeting that demand.

Doctor Strange Vol. 2: The Last Days of Magic

In his 2015 introduction to The Demon Vol. 1: Hell's Hitman, writer Garth Ennis reflected back on both the things he still liked and the things he doesn't like about the 1993-1994 comics collected within:
There's also the inevitable scene that everyone was doing at the time, where some malevolent influence affects numerous characters in the vicinity and they start committing acts of unspeakable evil--why didn't it occur to me, I wonder, to reverse this hoary old cliche and have people suddenly become unnaturally pleasant to one another?
I thought about Ennis' reference to what was, in the early '90s, "a hoary old cliche" while reading the first issue/chapter of The Last Days of Magic, the second collection of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo's Doctor Strange ongoing, as it opens with Aaron doing something pretty similar. And then doing it again later. And again later.

Here the malevolent influence is the arrival of The Empirikul at Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum. These are an army of eye-ball headed robo-clones lead by an all-powerful character who has been traveling the Multiverse, killing any and all magicians and their magic in each dimension in the name of science. And so the examples in Aaron's scene aren't of normal people doing terrible things, but of magic stuff around the world suddenly stopping working.

The specifics are different, but it reads the same. Aaron returns to this technique again and again, as a sort of shorthand to show the worldwide, apocalyptic nature of the threat as succinctly as possible. A few scenes are dramatized, but more often than not Aaron has Strange simply telling us what's happening here or there, and there are often significant time jumps between scenes or issues.

It has it's moments, sure--Aaron at his worst is still a lot more fun and engaging than many super-comics writers at their best--but this collection felt a lot less satisfying than the one that preceded it, and was assembled in a particularly annoying and ad hoc way, as too many Marvel graphic novels apparently are these days.

The Empirikul's leader is given an origin, and it is basically just yet another riff on Superman (at least his heat vision is green instead of red!). Raised on a planet that worshiped an ancient god-monster an was ruled by magic, his parents devoted their lives to science and, when the magic police came for them, they rocketed their infant son off to space where he used science to become super kick-ass.

On Earth, he takes down Strange and a rag-tag group of magical allies, but one of their number sacrifices himself allowing Strange and the others to escape. About 30 pages after I started wondering, Scarlet Witch finally asks Strange why they don't just call The Avengers--if the Empirikul are science-based, then why not leave it to all the science-based super-armies to take them on?--but Strange has a readymade excuse about the costs of magic and so on.

After he and his allies--Scarlet Witch, Doctor Voodoo, Son of Satan, Talisman, Magik, some cool new characters that aren't introduced until after the conclusion of the arc they appear in--scrounge the world seeking out the very last remnants of magical items, they return to face The Empirikul. Meanwhile, Wong and Strange's new librarian Zelma hatch a new variation on an old cost-of-magic-workaround revealed in the previous volume, and the Empirikul find a thing in Doctor Strange's cellar.

Ultimatley, the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Retroactive spoiler alert. Bachalo's artwork is, as always, a ton of fun, and he's particularly well-suited the naturally trippy visuals of a character and milieu created by Steve Ditko in the 1960s. The Empirikul's footsoldiers, the Ibots, are really fun characters, and Bachalo, who inks and colors his own work through most of this, draws the all-white, mechanical creatures with huge spheroid heads in sharp, sharp contrast to the darker, grittier magical characters, especially the black thing in the cellar that appears to be a sentient tidal wave of tar full of eyeballs and toothy mouths.

The first issue/chapter has an eight-page sequence showing the sudden death of magic, wherein several examples are dramatized (rather than just rattled-off in list-like fashion). These are drawn by a rag-tag group of artists including Mike Deodato, Jorge Fornes, Kev Walker and Kevin Nowlan.

And then, after the conclusion of the story arc, appears Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic #1 which, some parenthetical fine print helpfully tells us, "takes place between issues #6 and #7." You know where a good place to collect it might have been, then? Maybe between issues #6 and #7.

This 45-page special features a framing sequence by Aaron and drawn by Leonardo Romero (whose clean, cool artwork is a bit of a revelation, and should appeal to fans of Evan Shaner and Chris Samnee; I hope Big Two editors are throwing offers Romero's way as we speak). In it, Zelma learns about some of the magicians of the world while trying to organize Strange's library "then," and in the "now" we see those magicians fighting their own battles against various Ibots. These include El Medico Mistico/Doctor Mystical, a Santo/Dr. Strange hybrid who is the Sorcerer Supreme south of the border (and whose spells are awesome; he summons rain...full of great white sharks); Mahatma Doom, whose name kinda says it all, and his ally Xandra Xian Xu; and, finally, "The Siberan Seer, the manliest mage in all the land," Count Kaoz, who killed and ate a magic bear as a nine-year-old boy, and "his guts have been infested with sorcery ever since. Also Trichinosis."

It...might have been nice to meet these guys before they started appearing in the story arc a reader of this collection will have already completed before hitting this story.

Between the framing sequence are two longer stories by different creative teams, one featuring a pre-existing character (and member of The Unity Squad, if that's still what they are calling the Avengers team in Uncanny Avengers), and the other a seemingly new character. Gerry Duggan and Daniel Beyruth tell a story about Doctor Voodoo, while James Robinson and Mike Perkins introduce The Wu, a Hong Kong policewoman who uses magic on the sly--think a pink-haired, Honk Kong action star who jumps around shooting magic handguns and you get the idea.

International Iron Man

This book collects the seven-issue series, which I believe was announced as an ongoing, by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev. It tells of an element of Tony Stark's origin, specifically of his relationship with a young woman when they were both students in England back in the 1990s, and his current search for his true birth parents.

It is rather neatly divided into two threads (with a weird, Iron Man-less chapter near the end), set in the present and "20 Years Ago." The present is, of course, 2016. So "20 Years Ago" would be 1996, right? Okay.

So on page 10 the young, pre-facial hair Tony Stark of 1996 is talking to his fellow student Cassandra Gillespie, who seems surprised that Tony doesn't know who she is, given how famous she apparently is. "You Googled me by now," she tells him upon their second meeting, and he replies, "I did."

Aha! He googled her? In 1996? I don't think so! Google might have been founded in 1996, but its search engine wasn't built until 1997 and it didn't incorporate until 1998, and it wasn't exactly popular right out of the gate. It certainly didn't become a verb until much later than that (Bendis, it has been pointed out several million times on the Internet, isn't known for writing convincingly distinct dialogue; there's a scene set in the 1970s or so in which a woman asks a SHIELD agent, "You do see how this all sounds crazytown?").

So Tony couldn't have Googled Cassandra back then! Ha ha ha ha! Bendis made a mistake! And I noticed it! I win! I am a winner! He must somehow try to console himself with his piles of money and the prestige of his peers within his chosen medium and his status to be able to write and do pretty much whatever he wants to do with the direct market's number one publisher, while I sit here alone in a cold, dark apartment lit only by the light of my laptop, secure in the knowledge that I saw his mistake!


Although since I suppose the Marvel Universe is its own distinct fictional shared-setting, completely separate from our own no matter how many similarities may exist between the two, it's possible Google was founded and popularized much more quickly in that universe than it was in ours, and tech-savvy people of Tony and Cassandra's caliber may have been aware of it as soon as it was created and been futurist enough to coin the word "Google" as a verb meaning "to look something up on Google" immediately. So why don't I just award myself a no-prize and get on with my life?

That aside, this reads like a well-plotted original graphic novel. In the past, a young Tony with a rocky, almost non-existent relationship with his father Howard Stark (gray-haired and severe like John Slattery's portrayal, not young and charming like Dominic Cooper's) is in college in London, where he meets Cassandra, the daughter of Stark's weapons-dealing rivals.

Tony meets her parents for dinner and they are attacked by Hydra, which seems awfully fishy to the elder Stark, who tries his best to keep his son away from Cassandra, who he believes is a "honey pot." Tony doesn't agree, however, and uses his genius to reunite with Cassandra until things climax in a Hydra/SHIELD battle.

Bendis continually cuts back and forth between that storyline and one set in the present, in which Tony-as-Iron Man is facing off against the grown-up, eye-patch rocking Cassandra and her squadron of upgraded Mandroids. Tony is now trying to figure out who his real father is and, for some reason, thinks she knows (In retrospect, I suppose this is all meant to be a red herring of some sort, as it heavily implies that the pair share a father, but it basically just gives readers some supeheroic stuff to soak in between visits to Tony's pre-Iron Man past).

Eventually Tony finds the name of his mother, and in an extended, Iron Man-free flashback, we meet his birth parents, discover how they met and how they separated, and just how exactly Howard and Maria Stark got their hands on baby Tony and raised him to believe they were his birth parents.

It's overall pretty good stuff, although Bendis is still Bendis, so the ticks about his writing that bug a lot of Marvel readers can still be found within. Alex Maeelv's art is incredibly effective, as it should be, given how often and how long he's worked with Bendis on various Marvel projects.

I'm not so sure about Marvel's publishing decisions, though. I can see that perhaps there wasn't time to squeeze this whole story into the pages of Invincible Iron Man, the other Iron Man book that Bendis is currently writing, especially since the events of the unfolding Civil War II (which is also being written by Bendis) promise a big status quo shake up for the character that will see him ceding his role as Iron Man to a new apprentice-type character, codenamed Ironheart.

But as someone who works in a library, reads Marvel comics in trades and often find myself asked which books to read in which order, I often find myself trying to figure out which books to read in which order, and Bendis' Iron Man is a bit of a mess. As far as I can make sense of it, Bendis' run on the character is collected in Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1: Reboot (not to be confused with Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man Vol. 1: The Five Nightmares), Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2: The War Machines (not to be confused with Fraction's Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2: World's Most Wanted Book One) and International Iron Man Vol. 1. There's an Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3: Civil War II yet to come, but, in the meantime, Bendis has launched Infamous Iron Man (starring Victor Von Doom) and re-relaunched Invincible Iron Man (now starring Ironheart Riri Williams) with a brand-new #1 issue. Hopefully when that gets collected it will be as Invincible Iron Man Vol. 4, but who knows.

And that's not counting the just completed Civil War II, of course, the change in status quo of which was revealed in the latest Invincible Iron Man #1 months earlier.

Like they used to say in the 1970s, it's crazytown. Don't believe me? Google it. Or maybe Ask Jeeves.

Mockingbird Vol. 1: I Can Explain

With no prior experience with or affection for either the creative team of Chelsea Cain (a successful prose fiction writer making her comics debut) and pencil artist Kate Niemcyzk or the character of Mockingbird Bobbi Morse (She was married to Hawkeye back when he used to wear that dumb cowl and loincloth? And had something to do with the Skrulls as per the dumb-ass Secret Invasion series?), I was in no particular hurry to read this. That is despite the fact that it was clearly very well-drawn and featured what looked to be highly-comedic content, and the fact that my friend and occasional co-writer Meredith insisted it was like the best thing ever (But did not ever go quite as far as she did with any issues of All-New Wolverine, and actually forced me to read it).

Well it turns out that Meredith was right; this is very much like the best thing ever. It's as funny as any of my favorite Marvel comics of the moment--Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat, Howard The Duck--but also slightly more serious in terms of conflict and interconnectivity with the Marvel Universe as a whole. In tone, it's closer to All-New Wolverine or maybe Ms. Marvel than the outright comedy series, but it definitely has a lot of gags and a lot of silliness in its DNA.

The first story arc, consisting of the first five issues of the (sadly already canceled) ongoing series, is pretty brilliantly constructed. Cain is not only remarkably good at writing comics for someone who has made her career as a writer in entirely different writing medium (A lot of novelists and screenwriters tend to struggle with a pretty dramatic learning curve before really figuring out their groove with comics), but she's actually pretty damn brilliant at it.

The first issue/chapter is a fairly weird, almost daffy one. It opens with Bobbi stalking into her weekly medical check-up, throwing a chair through a glass wall and facing a horde of zombies after a ping pong ball bounces towards her. "Let me back up," she narrates, and then she takes us through a series of check-ups, each opening in a waiting room full of super-people apparently on SHIELD's medical plan (There's Tony Stark reading a pamphlet on STDs, there's Hercules with a bag of ice on his head), where she appears after various adventures, often wearing whatever she was during said adventure/secret mission (a SCUBA suit, a BDSM fetish suit, etc). The next four issues show those particular adventures/secret missions, and also explain what exactly is going on with the ping pong balls and zombies, the final one finishing the conflict, with Mockingbird teaming up with Howard The Duck and (the formerly Ultimate) Spider-Man, both of whom were kept waiting in waiting rooms while the zombie horde was wreaking havoc in the medical center.

For the most part, these issues are like done-in-ones, but relate to various events and clues laid out in that first issue, and the conflict resolved in the fifth.

So Bobbi infiltrates a London chapter of Hellfire Club, which is much heavier on the leather, latex and whipping than previous incarnations, all in order to rescue Lance Hunter, her boyfriend (and a character from the Marvel TV show I don't watch). It guest-stars the Queen of England, which is why there are so many corgis on the cover. Then she must rescue a 12-year-old girl who has taken her clique hostage using her early onset super-powers, a feat that involves some kicking, some tech, some science and some talking. And then she infiltrates an underwater sea base run by AIM spin-off TIM (Total Idea Mechanics) where she must rescue her ex Hawkeye, who is a lot like Lance (and, like Lance, spends the entire issue in just his boxer briefs). Then we circle back to the beginning of the book, and all the details and clues fall into place, everything is explained, and Mockingbird, Howard The Duck and Spider-Man save the day. It is awesome.

Niemczyk draws the first four issues, and her style is perfect for the tone of this comic, looking just serious enough for the dangers to all be taken seriously, but with a light enough touch that the jokes all land, whether it's something somewhat silly, or the contrast between the dialogue or situation and the renderings of the characters. She's an all-around great artist, skilled with design, rendering, lay-outs and character acting. Given this book's too-short run, I hope Marvel finds a plum assignment for Niemczyk to handle next.

The fifth issue is by Ibrahim Moustafa, another talented artist who is not quite the revelation Niemczyk is, but that's only because I've heard of him and read his work before.

After the conclusion of that opening arc, another Cain-written Mockingbird story runs: That's Mockingbird: SHIELD 50th Anniversary #1 by Cain and artist Joelle Jones, which was published prior to the comics that precede it in this collection, and was apparently so well-received upon release that Cain was asked to write a Mockingbird monthly. As the events of that one-shot are set before the first story arc of Mockingbird, and inform it somewhat, it probably would have made more sense to place it before the other issues as a prologue, but then it's tonally pretty different (more serious, less funny), and would sort of spoil how well Cain constructed that arc. So I'm of two minds about its placement, really.

As soon as I finished the volume, I became deeply depressed, because I knew Marvel had already canceled the book. Having not yet read it, I had no reason to miss it, but now I do. If you missed the monthly, serially-published issues and haven't yet read the trade, I'd highly recommend it. Of all the trades reviewed in this post, it's certainly the best, and one of the better Marvel trades I've read in a while.

*This 1961 Jack Kirby/Stan Lee creation is long overdue for both his own series and an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I imagine him being the perfect antagonist for an opening action sequence in Avengers 5, after Thor and Hulk are back on the team. And, hopefully Namor. They've gotta get Namor in these things eventually!

**I can dream, can't I?