Thursday, June 14, 2007

Comics For the Week of June 13

As someone who has pretty much abandoned the DCU and openly declared an allegiance of sorts with the Marvel Universe, this week was a very good one. Since the Civil War began (before that really, but Civil War pulled it all together for me), the MU has been different from what a lot of fans have been wanting. It's darker and less fun. There are serious repercussions to actions and less escapist fantasy. And this week starts pulling in a lot of plot threads that have woven throughout the Marvel line of comics, making this the line of books I have the most vested interest in.

I'll start the week off with the books that have the least to do with the MU overall. Spoilers ahoy!

Blade #10: Another solid issue of a comic already slated to get the axe. It's really too bad that this book didn't get the readers it needed to keep it going, as this is one of the best presentations of the character to ever be put on the page. I worried initially that inserting Blade fully into the Marvel Universe would hurt the character and limit the stories, since I've really enjoyed the character in the films (the first Blade film is a fantastic action film, and no matter what people say, the second film (directed by Guillermo del Toro) has a lot of good stuff going on and proves to be my favorite when watching it again -- but the less said about Blade Trinity, the better. I will say this, though: what a steaming turd that film was. The Blade TV series was very good (after a weak 2 hour pilot, it began really kicking up the action, intrigue, and overall depth of character -- it is a sin that it was canceled.). But I was wrong. This is good stuff and the parallel narratives of Blade as a youth and Blade today work really well. Chaykin's art is superb (aside from the occasional glitch here and there) and the story overall is engrossing and well played. Especially considering that each issue is pretty much a done-in-one story. There are threads that carry on throughout each issue, building toward the whole "Blade is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy" story (which, while sounding cliche, is nicely done here).

This issue is a little quiet as we gear up for the series finale in a couple of months. Issue 12 is the end, so only 2 more to go.

Punisher: War Journal #8: I'll give Matt Fraction this. Even though I still don't know what to think about the "Frank as Captain America" visuals that are part of this storyline, I'm still on board with the story. And this is the first of those "Being a Marvel Fan is Starting to Pay Off" elements I was mentioning earlier.

Captain America is dead. He was gunned down on his way to court after surrendering to the authorities. He had been leading a rebellion of superheroes who felt that they didn't need to register themselves with the government to do their jobs. The American government and the American people felt otherwise, and after seeing the damage the physical fight was doing to his country, Cap surrendered, to make his stand in the court of law. But then the Red Skull killed him.

During the Civil War, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, returned to the mainstream Marvel Universe, showing up in time to save Spider-man's life and join the anti-registration heroes. Cap wasn't sure about letting Frank in, since Frank is a bat-shit insane killer, but he said okay. And then Frank killed some badguys and Cap went apeshit, beating Frank down. You see, Frank wouldn't fight back against Cap. His respect for Cap was so great that he took his beating and went on his way. The idea was posed that Frank was just a contemporary version of Captain America in a way, with Cap being the World War Two super soldier, and Frank being the result of Vietnam. It's an interesting idea and writer Matt Fraction has been playing with it.

This issue continues the adventures of Frank vs. American Neo-Nazis led by the new Hate Monger (and old Cap villain), and we see the creation of the combo Punisher/Captain America costume that Frank came up with. It's still a horrible image, packed with over-the-top symbols and lots and lots of guns and knives, but I feel a little better knowing that this, in the context of the story, is Frank's idea of a superhero suit that pays tribute to Captain America. It's kind of funny like that, actually.

The story itself is nicely organized and moves along at a good pace. The artwork is beautiful, as always. And there's something interesting going on here with Frank. So far, we haven't really seen him do anything. It's all been a big build-up as we jump back and forth between Frank (in "disguise") joining up with the Neo-Nazis, and being tied to a post in his "Captain America" costume and being tortured before his planned murder. But in a way, nothing has really happened involving Frank.

It's good, but it's probably going to read better all at once, instead of in the monthly format. Oh well.

Sub Mariner #1: This is the first of a six issue mini-series and I'm not sure about the art, but the story, I like. Although I must admit, it was the two-page spread of a devastated Atlantis and then the full page shot of a skeleton in Namor's clothing chained to the throne, that really made me want to give this book a shot.

So far, so good. I'll give the next issue a try, too, and see if it can maintain the energy that this first issue created. It also ties in with the current state of the MU, in that Namor has a number of (12, actually) sleeper cells of Atlantean agents living in the US. During the Civil War, Tony Stark orchestrated an attack on a group of Atlanteans (?), provoking a very tense time between the nations in order to help garner public support for the idea of a registered army of superheroes ready to stand up to just that kind of threat. Stark has been taken to task for being a little bit evil for doing this, but I don't remember anyone asking why that Atlantean group was stockpiling weapons. Maybe I've just forgotten the reasoning for that. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Namor's cousin was killed in the event that triggered the Civil War.

Anyway, there's been a major attack on American soil, and it looks a lot like the Stamford blast (that set off the Civil War). But this time, there's evidence that Atlanteans were directly involved (a mystery 13th cell). Stark confronts Namor (and there's the added tension, if you're a Marvel zombie, of the fact that these two guys have been part of a secret cabal working behind the scenes in the MU for (in-narrative) years), and Namor swears to find out what's going on.

It's well paced and I like it. The art, while calling to mind Barry Windsor-Smith at times, isn't as tight as I'd prefer. There are a lot of long noses and small eyes, but there's also a lot of nice line-work by the artist, Phil Briones, so I wont pass judgment yet. It's pretty good so far. That goes for the book overall, too.

Nova #3: This is getting really good. So long as you're not looking for escapist superhero action to make you feel better about the world you live in. In this issue, Nova (Richard Ryder) makes his choice. He's returned home after surviving and WINNING a war in space that makes the recent events in the MU look like childish bickering (which, in a way, it has been), and he's no longer the happy-go-lucky Spider-man clone the character was originally intended to be. He's a war veteran and the last survivor of the entire Nova Corps (a galactic police force similar to the Green Lanterns of the DCU). Not only that, but he's got the entire history and knowledge of the Corps in his head as a sentient (sort of) AI that could very well burn out his brain. He's been running back and forth across the galaxy, responding to distress calls and is back on Earth for a rest. He missed the whole Civil War (thanks to his own "real" war) and now has to deal with the aftermath.

You see, he used to be on the team of superheroes, the New Warriors, who were at the core of the trigger event that started the Civil War. His teammates (including Namor's cousin, Namorita) had become reality tv "stars" and it was in the process of filming their show (where they travel around capturing super villains) that they stumbled across some baddies who were a little too much for them. One of whom, a guy named Nitro, who could blow shit up real good (and is now in an Atlantean prison and seen in Sub Mariner #1 --see what I mean about the threads?), blew up, killing hundreds of people and most of the New Warriors, too.

The only other survivor (besides Nitro) was Nova's teammate Speedball (another happy-go-lucky sort before all of this began), who has now assumed a new identity: Penance. His costume is designed to hurt him with lots of internal spikes, which also trigger his power. Needless to say, he's a bit of a nutter now, and thinks that he's somehow atoning for the deaths in Stamford. He's also now part of a team of villains, hired by the US Government to hunt down non-registered heroes (Thunderbolts, written by Warren Ellis, and lots and lots of dark fun).

And did I mention the fact that Nova's parents are losing their shit after not knowing that he'd been off fighting a war in space and assuming that he was dead? They've also been a bit traumatized by the whole Stamford incident, since Nova had been a part of that team.

Anyway, the final shot of Nova looking down on the Earth before heading off take part in the next minor event in the MU, Annihilation 2 (a new cosmic threat is developing), is gorgeous. These last couple of issues have been focused on clearing up his ties to the recent events in the MU and setting him up for less "cluttered" narratives. He's off to confront trouble in space, and if the new Annihilation mini-series is half as good as the first one, there should be a few good months ahead for this comic.

New Avengers #31: Okay, now here's the biggie of the week. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the issue as a whole. It's pretty much the same, quality-wise, as the last few issues, with interesting and energetic art (that's a little hard to follow at times), and a story that is so-so (since we've already been dealing with Elektra and The Hand in a previous storyline and now we've been dealing with them again for months). All in all, a fairly average book. Until the end, that is.

You see, the New Avengers are on the run from the American government. They refused to register and so are the "underground" version of The Avengers. Stark is running the "official" Avengers over in The Mighty Avengers series, and it's a big, action-packed slam-bang powerhouse of a comic. Really, with giant monsters and everything. The New Avengers are more covert and are now supposed to be about dealing with more subversive threats (???). This means that plot threads that have been dangling for almost 3 years now are about to start being addressed. And they're pretty big ones, at that.

The Hand (ninjas, baby, ninjas!) are apparently connected with a corrupt branch of SHIELD (Tony Stark/Iron Man is now the head of SHIELD, after the Civil War, partially in order to investigate the corruption, but also in order to head the superhero army he's been building), and now comes the new revelation at the end of this issue. The Elektra that's been running the Hand appears to have been a Skrull.

There's a Skrull conspiracy a play and it involves SHIELD and the Japanese criminal underworld. It has recently been retconned that the Skrulls have been planning some sort of revenge for years (since the end of the Kree/Skrull war, when the Illuminati (the behind the scenes guys mentioned earlier, Stark, Reed Richards, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt, and Professor X) paid a threatening visit to the Skrulls in the first issue of Avengers: Illuminati). This was orchestrated by writer Brian Michael Bendis, who also writes New and Mighty Avengers and was instrumental in the formation of the plot of Civil War.

It should also be noted that the Kree homeworld was where the most distress signals were from at the end of this month's Nova, discussed above, and at the end of the first Annihilation series their Empire was pretty much fucked. What role have the Skrulls played in the Civil War, if any? My own thoughts are that they've not had much, if any, hand in it, but have been using the paranoia and hero-on-hero action to hide their actions. But what are they up to? I'm very interested in seeing where this leads and finding out how it effects the rest of the MU.

World War Hulk #1: Remember the Illuminati I mentioned earlier? Another of their big ideas was to find a planet far away from ours, with abundant food sources and good weather, and then trick the Hulk into a ship that they could then launch, getting him off the Earth for good, thereby making the world a better, safer place. You see, part of the re-envisioning of the MU that happened with the start of the Civil War, was the idea that sometimes there is collateral damage when superheroes are tearing down buildings and blowing up lots of this while fighting villains. The Hulk, in particular, has been responsible for the deaths of innocents.

Now this is a retcon that many fans don't like. It seriously damages the escapist quality of the MU, since, if innocent people die accidentally it makes the thrill of reading about the exploits of massive property damage inducing battles against evil a guilt-ridden experience. It's somehow okay for whole city blocks to be destroyed as long as no people get hurt in the narrative. That way we can have our cake (massive violent destruction) and eat it, too (no repercussions). Things have changed.

Hulk, although he as in possession of Banner's mind (for the most part) lately and was actually helping out SHIELD when he was betrayed by the Illuminati, has been deemed a threat too dangerous to allow to run free. You never know when something's going to happen (like a stray gamma bomb) that will set him off and he's going to destroy a lot of property and possibly (now) kill some people accidentally.

So the ship he was in went off-course (of course) and he ended up on the wrong planet. A planet that wasn't a paradise, but instead was ruled by a power hungry dictator, and Hulk was captured and made to take part in gladiatorial games. Of course, being the Hulk, he kicked everyone's ass and ended up a folk hero and possible prophecy fulfiller. He led a rebellion, won the planet's freedom, the love of a bad-ass woman who was going to breed with him, and was made king of the planet.

Then something happened with the ship he arrived in, the warp coil was damaged, and it exploded, killing millions of people, including the Hulk's wife and unborn child. Now the Hulk has decided that the ones who sent him into space are the ones responsible for the explosion. Now he's back, with a giant space ship, and is ready to kick everybody's ass.

And that's what this comic is, in a nutshell (okay, that could have been shorter). Greg Pak is writing it and doesn't miss a beat from his previous Hulk adventures (Planet Hulk, it's called, by the way). John Romita Jr. is on board for the art and does an excellent job, not only with the character moments, but also with the set-piece action sequences. This comic, the first in a 5 part series, with a number of cross-overs and accompanying minis, doesn't try to elaborate a meaningful political metaphor or do anything too intellectual. Hulk is here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass. And he's all out of bubblegum.

Heh, I love that line.

Anyway, this is good, very satisfying stuff. Anyone who's been waiting for Stark to get his comeuppance for the whole Civil War thing, should enjoy this. Black Bolt and Iron Man both get their asses handed to them this issue, and that's half of the Illuminati who sent him off into space, right there.

Countdown #46: And now, the only DC title purchased this week. But at least it was a good one. This series is six issues old now, and if it were a monthly I'd have dropped it a long time ago. However, it's a weekly and I'm glad I hung on. This is, without a doubt, the best issue so far. There is advancement both in character and in the overall storyline. Another Fourth World character bites the dust, to the intriguing words, "So begins the end." Holly, from last week, crosses paths with Jimmy. Jason Todd and Donna Troy encounter the Monitors' newest weapon, a character called Forerunner. And even though I know nothing at all about her, she's pretty cool. And the Rogues storyline fully embraces its inner Tarantino, letting the characters reveal themselves in dialogue instead of action (although there's some action to be had). Looks like their big plan gets underway next issue, for those readers complaining that nothing is happening with them.

Best of all, though is the Mary Marvel storyline. She confronts her first challenge as a re-powered hero, and it's a good one. Think Demon in a dead baby suit. He hurls piles of fetuses at her, for fuck's sake. That alone would put this book at the top of the pile this week.

I can see how, if I gave a shit about the rest of the DCU this title could become something of an addiction, since it gives glimpses into lots of other happenings in DC titles at the moment. However, it isn't necessary to read those other books to follow what's going on here (thank goodness). If Countdown can maintain the level of quality that this issue reached, this could be something special.

And did I mention the art? Praise Jesus! Jesus Saiz does a very good job on pencils, with a lot of very nicely structured scenes and a nice touch on the details of facial expressions and backgrounds. And hey, the Monitors have different haircuts and facial hair! Jimmy Palmiotti, on inks, does a pretty good job, but loses some of the detail here and there, making some panels look a little awkward, especially where eyes are concerned. But it's not enough to really complain about.

The back-up feature continues to move along, providing a nice breakdown of the history of the DC multiverse that was destroyed with the Crisis on Infinite Earths oh so many years ago. Would it be so hard to put in some reference footnotes telling the reader where these old adventures took place, or at least where they can be read in trade paperback format?

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