Something of an odd week, this, in that no one or two books stood out as being particularly mind-blowing or even strong. In fact, there’s actually a few crap books that sneaked their way into my wares! Such is life, though. You can’t always know what you’re getting into and occasionally even the best creators let you down. With that in mind, let’s get down to business with the latest X-Men book to infiltrate the masses.
1. Amazing X-Men #1 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Ed McGuinness). I guess Marvel couldn’t bring itself to go too long without publishing a book with the adjective “amazing” in its title. (Note to the Spider-Man office: fuck you.) And because Marvel also can’t go too long without walking through the revolving door of death it’s currently embraced, this needless spin-off of Wolverine and the X-Men jumps right into the pool head-first by bringing the much-missed Nightcrawler back from the beyond. Readers may recall Nightcrawler bit the dust back in ’08 during the “Second Coming” crossover, the victim of a Nimrod-class Sentinel. It was a powerful, shocking moment: I had to actually turn the pages back and reread them to fully register what had just happened. It was also completely needless, and a testament to how casually Marvel treats death anymore. Anymore, the company line is this: “We want you to shell out your money for the event of the sudden death of this character you love, and then we want your money a second time when we make an event out of their return.” Thus, instead of working Nightcrawler’s return into the framework of Wolverine and the X-Men–which could have easily been done–we’re treated to this spin-off book instead, all in the name of a) increasing profits by producing a new book, and b) getting the excess hype to go alongside a new #1. With all that in mind, then, I entered this comic very, very hesitantly, because I have an extremely difficult time buying into a comic that I know is more a product of corporate groupthink and marketing than of genuine creative impulse.
How’s Amazing X-Men stack up, then? Well, in a word? “Meh.” As I stated, this story could easily be fit into the framework of its parent book, Wolverine and the X-Men. The setting is the same, the characters are the same, the writer is the same, and the seeds for this yarn were planted in that book. Sure, by slapping a #1 on the cover and throwing (dubiously-talented) superstar artist Ed McGuinness into the mix, Marvel’s guaranteed a sales bump. But the story is pure Jason Aaron: a good mix of familiar characters thrown into a wildly PG-13 Ennis-style situation that’s handled in an ultimately fun way. And that’s the key positive takeaway for this book: it’s damn fun, provided you don’t think too hard about it. Unfortunately, I do tend to overthink this stuff. We open up with Nightcrawler in Heaven, and it doesn’t take too long for him to get into some swashbuckling antics when some demons, lead by his father Azazel, show up to get into some mysteriously-motivated shenanigans. (Props to Aaron for having the balls to bring Azazel back, the focus of one of if not the most-hated X-Men story of all time, “The Draco.”) All of this coincides with the bamf infestation at the Jean Grey institute reaching a breaking point with Beast, who, determined to flush them out once and for all, uncovers a portal secreted into the building, which of course is never a good thing. This is the origin point of the bamfs, and it turns out to be the link to… wherever Nightcrawler is. In between we have hijinks, demons, antics, humor, inappropriate casual sex-talk between Wolverine and Storm (no I DO NOT like this out-of-character bullshit “plot twist”), and the sudden and utterly meaningless appearance of…. Firestar?… at the Jean Grey Institute to join their staff. And here’s where the whole shebang falls apart for me: Firestar has no history with the X-Men, outside of briefly being a member of the Hellions back in the day. She’s more associated with the New Warriors, and even once the Avengers. So what’s the point of throwing her into the X-Men as though she’s always been there? It’s completely illogical, considering she’s NOT a popular, fan-favorite character whose presence will be guaranteed to draw attention/sales. Similarly, when the team begins poking and prodding at the bamfs’ mystery portal, it’s Wolverine and Northstar, of all people, who fall through and discover the flying pirate ship that may or may not be captained by Nightcrawler. Wolverine makes sense, because he and Nightcrawler are bestest buddies, so their tearful yet macho reunion is highly anticipated. But Northstar? Why? They HAVE NO PERSONAL CONNECTION! Why not Storm, Kitty Pryde, or Colossus? This is every bit as random and nonsensical as the Firestar business.
Summing up, it strikes me that Aaron was given all the leeway in the world to tell whatever the hell story he wanted, regardless of whether or not it made sense. It’s self-indulgence at the expense of logic and cohesion. And unfortunately, that makes this book one hell of a swing and a miss, despite its more fun aspects. Hopefully these flubs are righted as the story continues, because the return of Nightcrawler is something that should be celebrated, not overburdened. Score: 5/10.
2. Cataclysm: The Ultimates’ Last Stand #1 of 5 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Mark Bagley). And so the (almost-certain) destruction of the Ultimate universe begins. It’s been thirteen years since this pocket world of 21st-century interpretations of classic characters broke all the rules and, in subsequent years, got bogged down in its own continuity and ever-increasing obsolescence. And now it seems it’s time to close the books on this chapter of Marvel. Galactus is in the house, and after making short work of the Vision in last week’s 0.1 prelude issue, it’s time to chow down like a freakishly skinny Japanese guy in a hotdog-eating contest. His arrival is met with the kind of large-scale mass panic you’d expect. After all, nothing like this has ever been seen in the Ultimate U, which hearkens back to the kind of overwhelming dread and desperation first seen back in Lee and Kirby’s seminal Galactus Trilogy. SHIELD is outmatched, Spider-Man is utterly lost, and the Ultimates are as about as threatening as flies biting at a horse, which just goes to show that this “more realistic” version of the Avengers just doesn’t have squat on the real thing. Bendis’s writing feels slight, but that’s due to the fact that the dives right in to the chaos and fear resulting from this catastrophe. It’s go-go-go right from the start. The problem is, that approach leaves the issue itself feeling pretty thin on actual content. Unfortunately, that happens on occasion with Bendis when he breaks into full-on action mode. If anything’s truly off-kilter, it’s Mark Bagley’s art, which comes off as sketchy and rushed, possibly due to the scrachy Art Thibert-style inks of Andrew Hennessy. Or maybe, I dunno, Bagley just wants a paycheck, although I’d hate to think that of one of my favorite artists. In all, a taut, effectively-written (though thin) read, and it opens up the very real possibility that this is… THE END. Dunt dunt dunnnnnnnn!!! Score: 6/10.
3. Captain America #13 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Nic Klein). I guess Carlos Pacheco was told his sucky art was too sucky for this book, because out of nowhere, here comes penciller Nic Klein to save the day. Klein’s an artist of a different color than Pacheco, rougher around the edges, with a bit of the ol’ Klaus Janson-style inks thrown on top for good measure. This issue sees Cap get off his sad-sack and start doing what he does best again: kicking ass for ‘MURIKA! ’80s-relic Nuke is on the loose in eastern Europe, killing at will in a fictitious country that supposedly wronged the United States in some way that makes sense only to him. (Nuke is essentially the worst-case scenario of a jingoistic, deluded ultra-right-winger with an automatic weapon.) And anyone who’s ever read Miller’s “Born Again” story knows that Nuke’s one bad mofo when it comes to battle, and he’s pretty indiscriminate about outright murder in the name of his country. This is Cap’s first foray into combat since returning from Dimension Z, and boy, does he have some issues to resolve. (Death of his adopted son? Death of Sharon Carter? Back to that man-out-of-time feeling he wrestled with for years after getting out of the deep freeze in the first place? Check, check, and check.) Nuke’s pretty much the ideal opponent, except in one regard: he kicks Cap’s ass at every turn! The battle turns more desperate as the pages turn on, as Cap realizes he’s outmatched, even with Falcon at his side. Meanwhile, we get some more insight into the Iron Nail, a former SHIELD agent gone rogue and is out to… well, do bad things, essentially. His plan isn’t exactly made concrete yet, but we are treated to a great flashback sequence featuring the REAL Nick Fury, Dum-Dum Dugan, and, yup, even the Winter Soldier, all dolled up in his Soviet-assassin persona. Too bad this sequence is a glaring CONTINUITY ERROR, since his interaction with Fury is a direct contradiction to his introduction back in the early issues of Brubaker’s run, wherein Fury stated that the Winter Soldier was nothing more than a Cold War myth, which of course means that Fury has never had any interaction with him. Whoops! I’m sure they’ll either a) gloss over their mistake by saying Fury lied on the outset, or b) pretend there was no error to begin with. Silly editors! What’re they supposed to do about stuff like this, anyway? Oh wait IT’S THEIR JOB TO CATCH THINGS LIKE THIS!!! Ah well, we live in a world where somehow, within the confines of “continuity,” Cap can be on the other side of the universe in Infinity, funny and deaf over in Uncanny Avengers, and getting his ass kicked in eastern Europe here. Does this make it okay? No. Sadly, it just makes it expected. Otherwise, this was an extremely solid book, much more focused than Remender’s work in Uncanny Avengers and rolling forward with a quickness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cap hasn’t been this good in years, and yes, that includes the last couple of years on Brubaker’s otherwise-seminal run. Score: 7/10.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy #6-8 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Sara Pichelli, Olivier Coipel, and Francisco Francavilla). I admit it: I don’t immediately get the critical love this book is receiving. After scoping out the first two issues and not being particularly impressed, I decided to give it a second chance thanks to the inclusion of amazing artist Francisco Francavilla in number eight. Y’know what? Still don’t get it. Issues six and seven deal with the arrival of Angela in the Marvel Universe, which is one of those things that’s kinda a big deal if you were reading Spawn twenty years ago and/or like your angels in the sexy variety. (I’m sure there are those who do; after all, this is a day and age where dinosaur erotica flourishes.) Or if you just like Neil Gaiman giving Todd MacFarlane his comeuppance. Count me among the latter. Back to the issues at hand: issues six and seven are mainly Angela and Gamorra tussling, with an epilogue of Peter Quill deciding that she really wasn’t doing anything wrong and letting her go after his cheap-ass shot to the back takes her down. So basically, the whole sequence, for two issues, boils down to a misunderstanding fight, with no real evidence given as to why we should care that Angela’s here in the Marvel U. So for those two issues, I’m throwing a cumulative score of 6/10, based more on the strength of the Sara Pichelli and Olivier Coipel art than anything else.
However, the ship rights itself to a certain degree with issue eight, an Infinity tie-in. Sure, event comic tie-ins are a dime a dozen, and most of them aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But this puppy is a pretty well-crafted yarn in and of itself, focusing on the Guardians being summoned to SWORD HQ to rescue it from Thanos’ forces (of evil!). The Guardians take their time, plan their attack, and damned if they don’t pull it off, with more than a little of that A New Hope rescue-the-princess flair. Of course the real star of this show is Francavilla, who, although not the most obvious choice for a cosmic space opera, turns out to be PERFECT at creating that grand, sweeping feel that’s part of what makes the original Star Wars films so awesome. He has a fine eye for the details that truly matter, and uses empty space perfectly to convey the vastness of space. If only this guy weren’t so in-demand, he’d be a shoo-in for regular artist on this book, which would leave me incapable of not purchasing it monthly. As it stands, I’m still not sold on its necessity other than as a mandatory hype-builder for the upcoming movie. The characters, though fun, are fairly thin. (“I am Groot” got old FAST. Does this guy ever actually DO anything?) Gamorra and Drax are badass warriors. Peter Quill is the hesitant, yet natural, roguish leader. Rocket Raccoon is the comic relief. Groot is Groot. But why do these characters exist together? What is it about them that makes this book anything other than an advertisement for Marvel’s film division? In three issues, I really couldn’t tell. There was nothing about the plot that made it particularly compelling, other than it was just… fun. And for my $3.99 a pop, I’d like a little more than just “fun” for a book where I really don’t care about the characters. By contrast, Savage Dragon is fun, but Erik Larsen has taken great pains to make me care about the characters over the years. Superior Foes of Spider-Man is fun, but it also has brains and a mean sense of humor. And maybe Bendis will eventually get there, but he hasn’t docked at that particular spaceport just yet to make me feel this book is at all necessary. Issue 8 Score: 7/10, Averaged Score for all three issues: 6.5/10.
4. Green Arrow #25 (DC, W: Jeff Lemire, A: Andrea Sorrentino). Aaaaand speaking of books that are unnecessary tie-ins, I give you Green Arrow #25, a COMPLETELY unnecessary tie in to the “Zero Year” festivities currently plaguing the Bat-books. As if it weren’t bad enough that formerly-talented writer Scott Snyder is trying to remake the wheel so capably immortalized in Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Year One” arc lo so many years ago, now the geniuses in DC’s editorial loony bin are dragging not only this book into it, but also The Flash, Green Lantern Corps, and Action Comics. Way to milk it, guys! Bravo. There’s no better way to say, “This story is IMPORTANT!” than to have it spill into books that would better be left alone. So what we’re left with is the brakes being put on Jeff Lemire’s greater GA story AGAIN (the first time happened in September’s inane Villains Month, although I have to admit that Lemire at least pulled off one of the few truly good issues) so that DC can wank itself just a bit more. The tale here takes place six years ago, when Gotham was plunged into a city-wide blackout that coincided with a not-at-all-like-Sandy superstorm rolled through, resulting in mass chaos. This chaos was when Batman first showed up on the scene, his legend arose, blah, blah, blah. These goings-on also JUST HAPPEN TO COINCIDE with Oliver Queen returning to life after being presumed dead for a year while he was trapped on that island learning how to get his Hawkeye on. Even more coincidentally, just as he returns, he discovers his mom is actually in Gotham, playing nursemaid to those dispossessed by the superstorm. And, hell, even more coincidentally than THAT, his mom gets kidnapped, he shows up to bow-and-quiver the hell out of the situation, and then, most coincidentally of all, MEETS BATMAN FOR THE FIRST TIME. Holy cow, that’s a lot of coincidence. It’s almost like Lemire climbed to the tip-top of Bullshit Mountain (thank you Jon Stewart) for this issue. Oh wait, that’s COMPLETELY what it’s like. It sucks seeing such a capable (though Canadian!) writer as Lemire at the mercy of editorial mandate; I can only imagine the ridiculous conversation that took place leading up to this issue:
LEMIRE: “Okay! I’ve got all these kick-ass plans for Green Arrow, eh. It’s really going to reinvigorate the character, and put him a bit more in lockstep with the TV version.”
EDITOR: “Great! Can’t wait to see it. Oh wait, do you mind shoehorning a flashback issue in where he meets Batman? Like right as Batman’s getting started?”
LEMIRE: “Uh… that really doesn’t make sense. Green Arrow’s a relatively young kid and hasn’t been operating as long as Batman, eh.”
EDITOR: “So? Line-wide sales are down because nobody likes our New 52 universe. We know it’s bullshit but y’know, what can you do? We’re two years in at this point so there’s no turning back. In for a penny, in for a pound.”
LEMIRE: “Yeah, but, throwing a flashback issue in just two issues after you guys made me detour for Villains Month is going to REALLY throw the forward momentum of my story off, eh.”
EDITOR: “Look… it’s okay. Nobody cares about stuff like that! What they care about is BATMAN being in the book.”
LEMIRE: “I’m pretty sure they care about the book because it’s about Green Arrow, not Batman. If they wanted a Batman book, why not just buy one of those, eh?”
[Editor pauses, thinking.] EDITOR: “…Nah. Just do it, okay? Or we’ll bring Ann Nocenti back to write this thing, or possibly get Marc Andreyko on it just ’cause he’s openly gay and that makes for good press. Okay?”
LEMIRE: “Siiiiigh…. eh, okay.” [Lemire leaves, head hung low, dejected.] SCENE.
…And that’s pretty much all you need to know about this one. Utterly skippable, and frankly, you should skip it just on principle, just to fuck with DC for thinking they can pull crap like this. Lemire does his best, and Andrea Sorrentino is phenomenal as usual, but this time, it’s just not enough. And we have nobody but DC’s editors to thank for that. Score: 4/10.
5. Detective Comics #25 (DC, W: John Layman, A: Jason Fabok). Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jim Gordon is a cop in Gotham City. The last honest cop, as it were. He’s up against the wall facing rampant crime on the streets and rampant corruption within the police department. He refuses to go on the take, and winds up getting a beating for it. Fortunately, he has a new partner in his war on crime: a mysterious vigilante known only as “the Batman.” And together, they forge an unlikely alliance and become the greatest force for good the city has ever known. Sound familiar? It should: it’s the refrain from every Jim Gordon story ever told since Miller and Mazzuchelli’s “Year One” codified it back in ’87. Sure, the details are a little different here, but the essentials remains the same. More “Zero Year” banality; this one’s even worse than the Green Arrow tie-in because the story’s so shamelessly unoriginal. John Layman gives it all he’s got, but he hasn’t been given much to work with. I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be said about the Batman/Gordon partnership; but DC was content to give him the same ol’ car they’ve had for years and tasked him to make it run in peak performance again simply by slapping a new coat of paint on. Which is a shame; in the last twenty-five years, Jim Gordon’s gone from being a tame supporting character to one of the most three-dimensional, fully-realized characters in comics. This guy could easily carry his own ongoing comic; so why DC feels the need to constantly relegate him to Batman Begins-rehash status is beyond me. Though technically a squarely mediocre issue, its sheer unnecessity knocks its score down mightily. It’s bullshit, but then, what isn’t at DC these days? Score: 2/10.
6. Trillium #4 of 8 (DC/Vertigo, W & A: Jeff Lemire). Jeff Lemire’s sci-fi love story epic rolls on, ever so slowly giving us clues as to what the hell’s actually happening. It seems the temple in question, the scene of the time-space switcheroo between Billy and Nika, might just have a wormhole in it. And that the Atabithi of the future seem to have a tangible connection to the “jungle savages” of the past. But none of that matters to Nika’s commanding officer, Pohl, who’s more than content to just blow the damn thing to hell, leaving our leads on a seriously precarious cliffhanger by the end of the book. Lemire’s on a roll here; his rampant inventiveness is on full display here for all to enjoy. It’s on work such as this and The Underwater Welder where his singular voice truly shines: he takes the weird, and adds a distinctly humanistic twist to it. Sort of like Grant Morrison with better-written characters. Not much else to say on this one other than: buy this damn book, if for no other reason than there’s NOTHING else like it being published today. Score: 8/10.
7. Fatale #18 (Image, W: Ed Brubaker, A: Sean Phillips). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Fatale just keeps kind of trundling on, refusing to end, each issue not showing us anything we haven’t seen before. Look, I get it. She’s a bad lady, who has a bad effect on men. And she can’t help it. And Lovecraftian monster-men are after her at every turn. Time to resolve this bitch, okay? This issue sees the continuation of Brubaker’s big love letter to the late-era grunge scene in Seattle (circa 1996), where our heroine’s sudden appearance (as an amnesiac) wreaks all kinds of havoc in a local band that almost made it but not quite. There’s, shockingly, the requisite murder, paranoia, lust, and general undercurrent of creepiness that’s been central to every issue of this comic thus far. Too bad it’s selling like hotcakes, or Bru might have had the wits to wrap it up by now (remember when it was supposed to just be twelve issues?). As it stands, it’s pretty much the comics equivalent of “The Song That Never Ends.” Good execution, at least, but COME ON, MAN! Let’s end this story already! Score: 5/10.
8. Ten Grand #5 (Image/Joe’s Comics, W: J. Michael Straczynski, A: C.P. Smith). One of the main reasons (okay, pretty much the only reason) I hadn’t quit reading J. Michael Straczynski’s slogging, sagging Ten Grand was the phenomenal Ben Templesmith art. Well, congratulations, Straczynski! Templesmith is suddenly off the book for personal reasons, and now so am I for practical ones! As you can see from the sample C.P. Smith art above, Straczynski didn’t even attempt to find a similar replacement painter to lend the book a sense of artistic continuity once Templesmith bolted. Smith’s constrained, almost-art deco-style couldn’t be more of a polar opposite from Templesmith’s barely-controlled chaos. It’s not his fault he’s not his predecessor. But it is his fault that he sucks. Smith’s art is a sterile, emotionless thing; trying to appreciate it is like trying to dry-hump a chunk of marble. Not much else I can say on the art front. Straczynski’s story plods along at a snail’s pace; this issue sees our hero, …uh, what’s his name?… oh yeah, Joe Fitzgerald enter into Purgatory to try to track down the soul of his dead lady-love, Laura. While there, he hangs out with Charon (for no apparent reason he’s portrayed here as the classic Grim Reaper but with a yellow safety vest on over his cloak… I guess this is what passes for humor in Straczynski’s mind?) as he crosses the River Styx, and gets into a scuffle with the lost souls of some bad dudes he killed back when he was a mob hitman. And then he goes deeper into Purgatory and for some reason stops being able to remember who Laura is. If all of this sounds vaguely nap-inducing, you’re right: and that’s been the curse of this book for the last few issues, which is a shame since it had such a strong start. But it’s a real problem when your lead character is so poorly-defined that I can’t even remember his name five issues in. Or that your basic premise is so convoluted it takes three paragraphs on the recap page to tell. Straczynski has a nice set of ideas here; the problem is in his execution. It would have been more fun to dive into Joe’s world of ghosts, demons, and his own recurring resurrection in some one- and two-issue stories rather than just leap into the whole shebang whole hog. There’s something to be said for letting your readers get to know your character and their world so that he feel like they have something to invest in long-term. As it stands, I could really care less about Joe, Laura, and whatever the hell else this book is about. Score: 1/10.
9. Protectors Inc. #1 (Image/Joe’s Comics, W: J. Michael Straczynski, A: Gordon Purcell). This comic is too much of a grab-bag of other, better comics and half-thought-out ideas to even be properly called a mess. Calling it a mess would imply that there was some sort of attempt to do GOOD with this debacle, rather than just rush out the third Joe’s Comics book just so Straczynski could prove he’s prolific. Where to start?Even the title itself reeks of unoriginiality: Protectors Inc.? Smells a bit too much like New Universe relic Kickers Inc. There’s not an original thought in this entire comic. Not one. So I’m going to just count them off. Our story starts in World War II (1), where a mysterious meteor imbues Captain America Rip-Off #5,097 with superpowers (2). He’s not the only one; the resultant wave of super-powered people, all of whom happen to be heroes, results in the Allies swiftly winning the war (3). Captain America Rip-Off #5,097 returns stateside wanting to do good, but his peers and the subsequent generations that follow want none of that (4), opting instead to coast on corporate sponsorship (5). Eventually, Captain America Rip-Off #5,097 grows disillusioned (6), and fades away from the public spotlight to live life as a private citizen (7). It turns out, he’s now earning a living as a lawyer (8), while the next generation of heroes, coasting on their corporate sponsorships, get into the occasional gratuitous fight with one another (9), which the public barely notices anymore due to apathy (10). But suddenly, one of them is mysteriously murdered (11), and it looks like Captain America Rip-Off #5,097 will have to come out of retirement to put the mystery together (12). There is literally nothing good to say about this comic. And Straczynski doesn’t even pull his blatant rip-offs off with any skill or finesse: I call Captain America Rip-off #5,097 that not only because of his basic nature, but because the character is so sketchily defined there’s literally nothing else to say about him. Corporate sponsorship and superheroes? We’re told about it, but unlike in, say, Jupiter’s Children, we’re given no examples of it whatsoever to persuade us it’s happening and that it’s a bad, shallow deal. And the murder in question. It happens off-panel, and is indicated by nothing more than a flash of light and a disappearance. The only reason I knew what was going on is by checking the trade ads for the issue. And then there’s Gordon Purcell’s truly abominable art.He must have the ability to suck a golf ball through a garden hose to get a professional gig, because seriously, this is some of the most inexcusably poor art I’ve seen in a VERY long time. Imagine if Jerry Ordway and Dave Gibbons had a baby, but the baby held his drawing pencil with his ass cheeks, and you’ve got an idea of what we’re looking at here. He can’t even render an interesting cover (see above). In all, this is by far the worst comic I’ve read all year. If there was a score lower than zero, this book would get it in a heartbeat. Taken together with the lackluster turn Ten Grand has taken, and the fact that the man has three more comics on deck for the first quarter of 2014, and you suddenly have a picture painted of a writer who’s been out of the game for a few years and wants to prove he’s back in a big way. But Straczynski, ol’ buddy, you know what would prove that more than anything? Quality over quantity, my friend. Quality over quantity. Score: 0/10.
And that’s a wrap for this week! Let it be a lesson to you: not every week is going to be populated with the best comics you’ve ever read, nor is every comic you buy going to be worth your money. But that’s a risk you take buying funnybooks, isn’t it?
Keep reading ’em anyway!