Welcome to the final August edition of What I’m Reading! This week features quite a few comics whose stories are ending, or in the case of Thor: God of Thunder, featuring an epilogue to the recently-wrapped story. All this so the companies can get a move on ahead with Fall’s bunch of books and pave the way for next year’s offerings. It’s almost like the movies: summer has the big explosive tentpole CGI flicks, while the Fall, with its lead-up to the holidays, gives us more cerebral fare. Generally speaking. Then again, we still have one last big ol’ X-Men X-over to get out of the way in “Battle of the Atom,” DC’s Forever Evil villainpalooza, and the ongoing space opera that is Infinity, so that comparison maybe doesn’t hold up so well. Screw it. This is comics. Rules be damned! Let’s get down to this week’s batch o’ goods!
1. The Massive #13 (Dark Horse, W: Brian Wood, A: Garry Brown). Here’s a comic that’s been in my peripherals for awhile now, but it took Wood’s successful X-Men turn for me to finally relent and check the damn thing out. Like his previous Vertigo odyssey DMZ, this book takes place in the near future, in a United States radically transformed. But instead of DMZ‘s civil war being the catalyst for change, in the world of The Massive, assorted natural disasters have left America with roughly 15% of its land mass underwater, including most of the Eastern Seaboard. I tried to find a little more backstory for what preceded this issue, but surprisingly, both the Dark Horse website and the book’s wiki were extremely low on details (they were actually nonexistent in the website’s case). So forgive me if it sounds like I’m winging it a bit here, as I had to cobble the backstory together from the issue itself, which was only marginally helpful. The comic follows the crew of the ship Kapital as they attempt to navigate the vastly changed sub-aquatic landscape of New York City while trying to find their sister ship the Massive, which is obviously where the comic gets its name. In this particular issue, a former crewmate has stolen a nuclear sub, and for all intents and purposes is joyriding around the sunken ruins of NYC. The crew of the Kapital are determined to get it back before the lunatic who stole it does what lunatics do and fires off a nuke. However, just as they find the sub and are preparing to enter the city, the US navy shows up to stop them before they violate the US’s “no trespassing” signs. Similar to the aforementioned DMZ, Brian Wood has created a detailed, intricate world in which he slowly paints a larger picture with expository texts that sound like news reports: “On July 9, the year of the Crash, the entire Eastern Seaboard lost power. It’s not been restored. Subduction in the mid-Atlantic and Appalachian Mountain tectonic plate convergent zones caused damage impossible to mitigate, or in some cases, even to live with. In short, the earth settled into the mantle. The sea rose to complete the job. From the Carolinas to the eastern provinces and inland to I-95, the earth itself is completely compromised. The economic nerve center of the hemisphere, Manhattan, was abandoned fourteen days after the event. The government of the United States of America was relocated to high ground in Denver, Colorado.” And there are three more pages just like that throughout the issue, giving a true feel for the climate and geography for the situation now that nature has turned against us. I’ll need to read more to see if this book holds up on its own or if Wood’s just repeating his DMZ work, but as far as random introductory issues go for a comic that seems to hold a lot of promise, you could do much worse. Score: 7/10.
2. Lazarus #3 (Image, W: Greg Rucka, A: Michael Lark). Forever Carlysle’s journey into the Family Morray’s territory continues here, as her secret mission brings her immediately into her opposite number, Joacquim. Joacquim is not at all as expected, i.e. Forever With Boy Parts. He’s cool, confident, unafraid to assume command of a situation, but most importantly, he’s more comfortable with displaying his emotions than Forever. When they meet, it’s not as rivals or enemies, as you might assume, but rather almost as former schoolmates who haven’t seen one another since childhood and are impressed to see how each other have grown up. When the time comes for Forever to meet with the head of the Morray family to issue a new set of peace accords, the mood takes on a stately, Francis Ford Coppola feel, as these two characters who are ostensibly enemies meet on common terms. The entire scene seems to be holding its breath, as opposed to the previous scene’s easy camaraderie. Terms are met, and all seems to be going well until the last page, which I’m loath to spoil. This issue is a master class in taking expectations and subverting them, along with subtle characterization. Without any frivolous exposition, we immediately gain a deeper knowledge of who Forever is, who her siblings are (who continue to both scheme and fuck behind the scenes), and how the Morray and Carlysle families interact and regard one another simply through the virtue of their acts, words, and responses. Character work and plotting like this shows that Greg Rucka holds a deep understanding for sequential storytelling and how it can manipulate the characterization for the reader, rather than lazily conveying information to the reader via outdated and clunky text boxes. For anyone looking for the comics equivalent to the maturity of an HBO original series, I cannot recommend this comic highly enough. Score: 9/10.
3. Captain America #10 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: John Romita Jr.). The Dimension Z opus finally comes to a close, and holy shit, what close it is! Rick Remender pulls out all the stops and (along with the previous two issues) more than makes up for the serious sagging this story took in the middle (roughly issues 4-7). Cap’s desperate attempt to return home takes an unexpected, tragic turn (nope, not spoiling), a TRUE final battle with Zola turns epic in scale pretty damn quick, and all the while, the pace simply doesn’t relent. I can’t say enough good about this issue. The set up for the next story is awesome in its obvious simplicity, and the word-for-word perfect epilogue guarantees we haven’t seen the last of Dimension Z. Romita Jr. is doing some of the best work of his career, and despite having three different inkers this issue, remains consistent throughout. The detail, the scope, the raw emotion– all of it hits like lightning in Romita Jr.’s hands. It’s too bad this is his last issue on this book, because as talented as Carlos Pacheco is, who takes over next issue, Romita and Remender really got a good tandem going, giving this book an extremely unique look and feel. This (again, along with the previous two issues) proves what I thought all along: despite its flaws, Remender had a grand plan for his arc and DAMN did he pull it off. This book couldn’t be anymore different from Ed Brubaker’s previous, character-defining run, but that’s NOT a bad thing. Remender has his own plans and ideas for putting What Makes Cap Tick on full display, and despite an extremely unorthodox approach, I love where he’s going now that the basic groundwork has been laid. Score: 10/10.
4. Wolverine and the X-Men #35 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Nick Bradshaw). Jason Aaron more than makes up for last issue’s cock-up in this, the final chapter of “The Hellfire Saga.” With Kade Kilgore’s master plan falling to pieces around him, it’s hail mary time, but as the myriad X-Men, students, and even the other members of the Inner Circle close in, it’s too little, too late. All the various subplots that have been percolating throughout this arc (and before) are tied up in both pleasing and surprising ways, just in time for “Battle of the Atom” and the next move forward for this title. In brief: Toad’s struggle against mentally-imbalanced ladylove Husk comes to a bittersweet end. Quentin and Idie get their teen-hormone-love on as they overcome insurmountable odds in battle. The Philistine proves there’s more to him than meets the eye, which is one plot thread left hanging. A resolution is met concerning Broo’s current feral mindset. Wild card Wilhelmina lives up to her promise as the crazy kid your mom warned you about. Kade even shows some childlike humanity. And oh yeah, those bamfs… Very rarely do single comics wrap up so many dangling plot threads, yet feel so unforced. With this issue, Jason Aaron has effectively wrapped up everything he’s had on the boil since issue one, which is saying something (this book is nothing if not busy). If I had to gripe about something, it’s my by-now perfunctory complaint that Nick Bradshaw’s lighthearted pencils are wrong for this book, but at the same time, even I have to admit the raw energy coming off each page thanks to his art was exciting. Some of the Hellions come off as merely being jokes for Aaron’s amusement rather than fully thought-out characters, such as Snot, whose power is pretty much what you’d expect; and recurring Aaron punchline Master Pandemonium (a holdover from his grindhouse-inflected Ghost Rider run), whose presence here is utterly unrelated to anything mutant-centric. Minor complaints aside, it’s exciting to see what Aaron does for a follow-up. This title has once more reclaimed its title of Marvel’s funnest X-Men book, and that’s a great thing. Score: 8/10.
5. Uncanny Avengers #11 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Daniel Acuna). Rick Remender wraps up stories in two books this week, so maybe he had a quota to fill. Unfortunately, this issue of UA, which winds down the Apocalypse Twins arc, doesn’t have even half the awesomeness his issue of Captain America does. That’s due at least in part to the fact that this arc is really just a lead in for the next arc, “Ragnarok Now,” so it doesn’t have the same sense of closure in any sense that Cap’s exit from Dimension Z does. Picking up where we left off last issue, our various Avengers and X-Men unity squad members have their individual showdowns with the Horsemen of Apocalypse, which as you may recall are the resurrected Daken, Sentry, Banshee, and Grim Reaper. Heroes dealing with emotional baggage by fighting someone they thought was dead, whom they have a personal connection to? No, never seen that before. It all plays out fairly predictably, too, and it’s that straightforward lack of surprise where Remender stumbles. The Twins, Eimen and Uriel, approach Scarlet Witch with their master plan for solving human/mutant tensions, which is a nice pipe dream that sheds no blood: have Scarlet Witch create a whole ‘nother Earth for mutants to inhabit, thus negating the entire issue. Wanda bucks, of course, since she’s a staunch supporter of Xavier’s cohabitation dream. And then, on the last page, for no discernible reason, she… changes her mind? Wha? Why? When? Hopefully this will be explained in the next few issues, but the manner in which the change of heart is conveyed is so drop-dead dull it makes me think Remender just wanted to throw a curveball at us without thinking about the inherent lack of continuity behind it. A weird, off-beat issue that has me wondering whether or not Remender can pull this one off. Time will tell. Score: 5/10.
6. Thor: God of Thunder #12 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Nic Klein). How do you provide an epilogue to so epic a tale as the recently-wrapped Gorr saga? Bring it all back home. This issue is essentially Thor’s love letter to Earth, as he reconnects with the people of Midgard, and Jason Aaron explores just why the Son of Odin loves this realm so much. It’s a wonderfully executed story (until the hiccup halfway through, more on that momentarily), with several unforeseen twists and turns: Thor visits a watering hole in New York that brews mead the way the vikings used to. He visits a repentant man on death row on the evening of his execution. He makes it rain somewhere in the Middle East, he disrupts a gathering of a Westboro Baptist Church analogue, honors the request of a graduating SHIELD agent to join her at a cadet’s ball for a dance, and so on and so forth. If these vignettes had comprised the entirety of the issue, that would have been more than enough. But halfway through, Aaron abruptly shifts the focus on Thor’s visit with Jane Foster, who is suffering from breast cancer, and then that becomes the focus of the remainder of the issue. It’s still a beautifully told story, as Thor wrestles with the fact that there are things that even he cannot fix or fight, but the sudden shift in focus is a bit jarring. Nic Klein does a decent enough job on the art duties, but he’s no Esad Ribic. His art has a bit of an over-inked look to it that I can’t quite get into, and his faces lack definition. Those complaints aside, this issue does a fantastic job showing the human side of the god of thunder, something we definitely need more of in between these all-encompassing, cosmos-shattering stories Aaron’s crafting. Though a bit lopsided in its execution, this is still a stellar comic, a quiet change of pace that allows Thor (and the readers) to catch his breath before being plunged into whatever cosmic craziness he’s in for next. Score: 9/10.
7. Ultimate Spider-Man #26 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: David Marquez). This issue, and by extension this storyarc, could have been so much better executed, it’s sickening. It’s the classic “Spidey must get off his ass, stop feeling sorry for himself, and get back in the game” tale, but of course with Miles Morales in Peter Parker’s place. Last issue did a ho-hum job of giving Miles a reason to pull back on the costume and get a-swingin’, but this issue, which sees him (of course) back in costume and back to the business of kicking evil’s ass, is just all over the place. First of all: did this arc really need to show the origin of Bombshell, a character we’ve seen in only a handful of prior issues? And did Bendis just have to shove Ultimate Cloak and Dagger into the mix, too? And did both of their intertwined origins have to be a retread of the “shady corporation/morally questionable scientists trying to recreate the super soldier formula” cliche? Couldn’t Bendis have at least tried for something more original? The answers are “no, no, no,” and “yes.” If Bendis really wants to me to feel the urgency required for Miles to re-don his Spidey outfit, there are better ways of doing it than shoehorning all of these pet ideas into this story. David Marquez’s art is solid as usual, but even he can’t elevate this mess too significantly. This issue is an overstuffed mess, and it’s even harder for me to care since it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Ultimate universe probably won’t exist anymore after the upcoming Cataclysm event. Wake me when things get less self-indulgent and more interesting. Score: 4/10.
8. New Avengers #9 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Mike Deodato). Let me be clear right off the bat: Mike Deodato is the true star of this issue. I’ve been watching him grow as an artist for almost twenty years now, and these days, he’s in a master class all of his own. Gone are his exaggerated female physiques, the stock ’90s poses, and the ridiculous muscular proportions. In their place is one of the most self-assured artists in the business, whose style is a genuinely accomplished blend of Neal Adams and Jim Lee, with a dash of Terry Austin inks for good measure. His characters have a natural look to them, and when they move, it’s like a human anatomy book brought to animated life. Watching the Black Panther defend Wakanda against the invading alien hordes is like watching an Olympian track star invent new ways to run the 200-yard dash that defy all known logic. The sneer on Namor’s face as he comes to grips with the slaughter of the Atlanteans last issue (perpetrated by Wakanda as a part of their ongoing war) is that of a man, a king, fighting to keep his composure in the face of atrocity. Deodato’s panel layouts run the gamut between classic compositions when the scene demands a more measured pace, to diagonal and slashing during action sequences. Quite simply, he may be the best in-house artist Marvel has right now. So, how ’bout the story itself? As Thanos’s assault on Earth commences, the members of the Illuminati find themselves in the position of being very specific targets, as they are each in possession of one of the six Infinity Gems. Thanos sends his core badasses, the Cull Obsidian (whatever that means), after each Illuminati member individually, with mixed results. Dr. Strange is defeated before his scene even begins. Black Panther wallops the unholy hell out of his foe. Reed Richards and Iron Man fight like the hero scientists they are. Beast and the rest of the Jean Grey Academy find themselves in a pitched battle. But Namor? Namor gives in to the perpetual devil on his shoulder and finds a very, very crafty way to turn the situation to his advantage in his war against Wakanda. Black Bolt and the Inhumans remain a giant x-factor at this point, but their role to play seems to be coming up soon. This is just an outstanding issue, and it should shut the mouths of any naysayers who proclaim that just because Infinity is an event comic, it won’t be any good. Hickman is proving all of ’em wrong, at least at this point in the game. Score: 9/10.
9. Uncanny X-Men #11 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Frazer Irving). Uncanny X-Men has very suddenly eclipsed its sister title, All-New X-Men, in every way imaginable. Frazer Irving’s art has snapped into razor-sharp focus while Stuart Immonen’s pencils remain serviceable at best. All-New has meandered along, aimless, while, in the wake of the disastrous Limbo arc, Uncanny has become tightly-scripted and completely focused in purpose, getting better with each new issue. This is the book that gives voice to the anger and frustration so many mutants must feel in a world that perpetually finds reason to discriminate against them, and that frustration is given a perfect voice by Cyclops this issue. As he fights like hell on wheels against the Nimrod-esque robot that ambushes them at a human-led mutant rights rally, his interior dialogue finally gives us a solid reason to understand why he’s been acting the way he has since the events of AvX. It doesn’t absolve him of Xavier’s murder–he’s still in denial of his culpability in that–but at least Bendis is pushing for us to empathize with the guy nonetheless. All the supporting players, the new kids in particular, are given a voice and a reason for existing in this comic here, as these kids, who have only been mutants for a few days at best, band together to help defend themselves and their supporters against the power-adapting robot. Hell, even GOLD BALLS has his moment to shine! Freakin’ GOLD BALLS! There’s a confusing subplot involving Mystique, who is posing as newly-deputized SHIELD agent Dazzler (yeah, right–sorry, still not buying it), getting into trouble in Madripoor as she also poses as Viper and manages to piss off the Hand. But other than that, Bendis finally manages to make this comic utterly enjoyable. It’s been awhile coming, and he’s still going to have to work hard to make up for the lapses in the first seven or eight issues, but this is a great start in the right direction. Score: 8/10.
10. Aquaman #23 (DC, W: Geoff Johns, A: Paul Pelletier). Geoff Johns is a master storyteller, but he’s not without his flaws. Take this issue for example. For all the steam he’s built up over the last few issues, the sheer number of subplots brought to head in this one bog it down to the point that nothing feels particularly exciting in its conclusive execution. Atlantis’s first king is practically shoved to the back of the back of the background, for all he actually accomplishes here. The Scavenger’s assault on Atlantis comes to an anticlimactic conclusion, as Johns needlessly segues into his next arc without giving heed to the current one. Hell, even Murk, Tula, and Swatt’s attempted jailbreak of Ocean Master comes to an abrupt halt as they must choose between springing him and turning back to aid Atlantis in its time of crisis. Despite a facing-death liplock/affirmation of love with Mera, Aquaman himself is oddly stilted throughout the issue, his usual passion coming off as dull and muted. Page one: “SWIM, MERA.” Page two, as we see the hordes of Xebel mercilessly chasing Arthur and Mera down: “FAST.” I suppose Johns is trying to illustrate Aquaman’s cool head under pressure, but it just comes off as unconvincing and flat. Paul Pelletier’s art, usually serviceable only at its worst, comes off as rushed here, as definition is lost at key moments, while amped up at others, like when Arthur summons Topo to defend Atlantis. This artistic inconsistency serves to underscore the overall problems with this issue, as the “untouchable” Geoff Johns proves he’s mortal after all. Score: 5/10.
11. Batman Incorporated Special #1 (DC, W: Various, A: Various). This mash-up love letter to Grant Morrison’s quirky Batman run is fun, but is also definitely for die-hard devotees only. You’ll have a hard time convincing the casual fan that a comic with short stories featuring characters named Squire, Raven Red, Nightrunner, Dark Ranger, and El Gaucho is anything worth getting excited about. And then there’s Batcow. Yes, Batcow, that bovine joke of an incidental crimefighter, even gets her moment in the sun. The stories, like the characters, are a mixed bag, although thankfully there are no absolute duds. Chris Burnham starts off the affair writing and drawing a tale staring Jiro, the Batman of Japan, which effectively captures the sheer lunacy of Japanese pop culture without resorting to anime/manga nonsense. It also features a villain called Dr. Inside-Out, so you know you’re in for a goofy-fun time. Joe Keatinge follows that with a tale of England’s own Squire, still grieving over the death of Knight in the monthly Batman Inc. book. It’s something of a pro forma walk through the former sidekick coming to terms with grief. This story is also hobbled by the pedestrian art of Emanuel Simeoni, who frankly just doesn’t look ready for prime time. After that is Indian reservation hero Raven Red, chasing down a criminal across the skyline of what’s I guess supposed to be Gotham. This is cut between a sequence that flashes back to his time on his rez, trying to talk down what he believes is a suicide jumper, but instead getting a life lesson. The rudimentary story is pulled together by the greatly unappreciated John Paul Leon (Earth X), whose strong line is furnished with an even stronger finish. Next up finds Nightrunner, Dark Ranger, and El Gaucho teaming up in what was my least favorite story of the bunch, which finds the three mismatched heroes tackling crime and dark magic among sitcom-esque misunderstandings when it comes to El Gaucho’s hearing. Meh. Rounding out the book is a silent tale of the Batcow by Dan DiDio, who manages to foil a kidnapping just by standing in the road. It’s a breezy, fun story, and they even got Ethan van Sciver, usually reserved for high-profile event work, to draw the silly thing. Like I said, this won’t make a believer out of anyone who wasn’t already a fan of Morrison’s Bat-run. But it’s a nice tip of the hat to a handful of characters who, unfortunately, we probably won’t see much more of in the future, as Morrison is really the only writer who can pull them off entirely. But this issue’s mere existence confirms that DC at least believes that someone wants to read more of these misfits, so maybe there’s hope. Score: 7/10.
12. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics #2 (DC/Vertigo, W: Simon Oliver, A: Robbi Rodriguez). The comic formerly known as Collider (the original title was apparently held by an Australian magazine which threatened to sue for copyright infringement) really snaps into focus in the second issue. My complaints from issue one are mostly resolved: the story takes the central focus while also allowing the characters to come into their own, and the funky indie-style art gets less loose and more certain of itself. Simon Oliver has put some serious research into astrophysics, theoretical physics, string theory, and probably some stuff I’ve never even heard of into this story, which centers around a “bubble reality” popping up that threatens to harm our boring ol’ regular reality. Our main everyman character, Adam, is sent in to resolve the situation with Jay, the senior agent, who has a hell of a secret that may wind up costing Adam his life. Oliver’s magic touch is in putting regular, blue-collar guys into this fantastic situation, which gives FBP a very Ghostbusters feel to it, only with less humor and more science. This title’s poised to swiftly gather steam by turning into a trippy head-bender a la The Invisibles, but minus the LSD-inspired Eastern philosophy and more Steven Hawking. Here’s hoping Oliver succeeds, because Vertigo could really use a hit in its waning arsenal. Score: 8/10.
So long, summer, and hello, fall! See you next week for “Battle of the Atom” #1 and a whole lot of other assorted goodies.