What I’m Reading 0026: 1/27/14 – TWO-FISTED EDITION!

Two weeks of comics reviews coming at you–BOOM! POW! A VERITABLE SMORGASBORD OF SNARKY, REVIEWY GOODNESS!! LET’S DO THIS!! By which I mean, let’s start with a trifecta of zombie-infested reads…

1. Empire of the Dead #1 (Marvel, W: George Romero, A: Alex Maleev). You read that right: THE GEORGE A. ROMERO is writing a zombie comic. Sounds legit, right? Well, yes and no. Bringing Hollywood-types into the realm of comics to write, and expecting them to be able to pull it off with the same skill and aplomb that they do in their day job often yields mixed results at best. Sure, for every J. Michael Straczynski who turns out a successful comics-writing career, there’s a whole slew of Heroes writers waiting to crash and burn in their turns at Marvel (ahem). Thankfully, Romero proves to be adept at translating a story script-to-panel. So what, then, does the master and progenitor of all things zombie-related give us in his turn in the funnybooks business? Not surprisingly, a zombie comic that’s set in the cinematic world of the undead he’s created. However, don’t mistake this for co-existing with the Marvel Universe (Marvel Zombies covered that nicely), either. This is a brand extension of what Romero’s been doing for nearly fifty years now, and the comic doesn’t hesitate to remind you by throwing in a bit of a twist on a classic scene from Night of the Living Dead that ties one of the comic’s protagonists back to that original film. It’s a nice touch, but a bit forced and unnecessary. Empire sees all of Long Island overrun by zombies, but also under a sketchily-defined marshall law. These zombies aren’t the ravenous, constant threats we’re accustomed to. But rather, they’re almost docile, unthreatening until threatened. The human populace has become so accustomed to their shuffling presence that they almost don’t register as a threat. Think Shawn of the Dead minus the humor and pointed social critique. This begs the question, which is the fuel that propels the series: can a zombie be taught to be human again? It’s an intriguing set-up, and just for added spice, Romero throws a second supernatural curveball in at the end, which could prove to be interesting or incredibly lame. Alex Maleev  Although my mind wasn’t blown, it was a decent enough read that I’ll be back for more. As for Romero, I don’t expect he’ll give up his day job anytime soon, but the fact that the master himself is writing a zombie comic–and not sucking at it–is cause enough for celebration. Score: 7/10.

2. Afterlife With Archie #3 (Archie Comics, W: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, A: Francesco Francavilla). With all the hype, how could I NOT check it out? But damned if Afterlife With Archie doesn’t prove to be a well-executed, mood-drenched piece of zombie fiction. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, and revels in its tropes. But that’s actually the book’s strength: taking well-worn zombie standards and applying them to the sugary-sweet world of Riverdale is a move that could have failed miserably, if writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa weren’t taking it all so seriously. There’s a pervasive sense of dread permeating every panel of this book, creating an ominous mood that not only can’t be escaped, but also sets the tone for every scene. Artist Francesco Francavilla can be thanked for that, whose retro-noir style is utterly perfect for this book (although I’m a bit disappointed that this gig has apparently stalled the second volume of his Black Beetle). Aguirre-Sacasa isn’t playing it safe, either, just because these are classic characters: without spoiling anything, another of the iconic Archie cast meets a grisly fate this issue. My one real complaint is that Archie himself seems a bit undefined this issue, although that may be my own fault for coming in at issue three. But he doesn’t have much personality other than “resourceful guy who cares about others.” However, that said, it may only seem that way because the supporting cast takes center stage this issue. It’s great seeing the likes of Betty and Veronica treated like real people instead of the cartoon characters they’ve come to be known as over the decades. This comic seemed like a mere gimmick when first announced, but Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have turned out a solid, if not wholly original, addition to the zombie sub-genre. Score: 8/10.

3. The Walking Dead #120 (Image, W: Robert Kirkman, A: Charlie Adlard). Halfway through “All-Out War,” and the casualties continue to pile up as Negan and his Saviors take the fight to Rick and company. Scorched earth is the name of the game, and the sanctity of their home is thrown into jeopardy. Nary a zombie is to be seen, but with the walls on fire, it’s just a matter of time. Accusations of Kirkman repeating the prison story here aren’t entirely unfounded, but there are critical differences: this is a Rick Grimes who is far more wise and world-weary, and determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He’s organized, a true leader, not just someone thrown into the role by circumstance. Negan, too, is a far different threat than the Governor was: whereas the latter was an unpredictable psychopath, the former is a “mere” sociopath, capable of planning, organizing, and rallying his troops into becoming disciplined military units rather than just rabble with guns. Also, the cost of losing is far greater here: whereas the prison was always acknowledged as a temporary safe haven at best, in Alexandria, Rick, Carl, and the rest have carved out a true life for themselves where they can thrive and return to a semblance of normality. That Negan threatens that existence makes him a greater threat than the Governor ever was. BUT… all that analysis doesn’t mean this issue isn’t without its problems. There’s a sense of “been there, done that” in some of the story beats–from Rick’s panic over the possibility that Carl has been injured to the mangling of several of the supporting cast in many a gruesome way. And that doesn’t help quell the accusations that Kirkman’s merely repeating himself with this arc. Is the man out of ideas? Hell, no, and “All-Out War” is going to inevitably lead to the next phase of this book’s evolution–potentially setting up the third act, as it were. (I count the first act as ending with the fall of the prison, and the second act potentially concluding with this story. We’ll see.) Most stories have a bit of drag in the middle, as it serves to set up the conclusion. That sense is keenly felt in this issue, which winds up being decent and readable, but hardly an essential chapter of the overall story. Score: 6/10.

4. Amazing X-Men #3 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A:Ed McGuinness). That Jason Aaron is leaving the vastly superior Wolverine and the X-Men to write this drivel makes me despise the book on principle despite its overall lazy execution. To whit: the X-men fight pirate demons in limbo, all in the service of bringing Nightcrawler back from the dead in a whimsical manner that fits his character. They fight pirate demons this issue, that’s it. Sure, there is a great action sequence featuring Nightcrawler in all his bamf-tastic glory, but that’s about it. Ed McGuinness’s art is as nauseatingly cartoony as usual–shouldn’t this guy be working in animation rather than drawing comics? But that’s a matter of personal taste. Again, it’s Aaron’s paper-thin plot that dogs this book. Maybe it will gain some momentum once Nightcrawler’s back from the land beyond, but at this point, it’s a mash note to that titular character that’s far more style than substance. Score: 3/10.

5. All-New X-Factor #1 & 2 (Marvel, W: Peter David, A: Carmine Di Giandomenico). If Peter David wanted to simultaneously justify the end of his previous volume of X-Factor and wow me with the debut of this iteration, he’s off to an extremely poor start. We’re introduced to Serval Industries, a Google-like conglomerate that’s decided to extend its ethos of improving peoples’ lives by starting its own team of mutant superheroes. They initially induct Polaris and Quicksilver, the former of whom recruits Gambit, currently on the outs with Wolverine the Jean Grey School. (Apparently, it’s frowned upon to be both a teacher and a professional thief.) Polaris’ recruitment method involves coming up to Remy in a greasy spoon and sitting down with him in order to talk Serval up. If that scene sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been played out a hundred times before in other stories. Likewise, every other beat in this plot has been equally beaten to death in comics: from the torture of mutants for scientific gain to the seeming benevolence of Serval that’s too good to be true, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Even David seems bored: his dialogue, usually full of clever wit and turns of phrase, is dull, drab, and not particularly exciting. Di Giandomenico’s art is stylish, but doesn’t do much to help the proceedings either, lacking any real pop to grab the reader. Issue one in particular ends with one of the most jaw-droppingly inane cliffhangers I’ve ever read, relying on the surprise reveal of a character who, at best, is a D-lister from ’90s. Yet David treats her appearance as if we’re supposed to care beyond measure. Seriously, what editor approved this? Did David promise, “Don’t worry, I got it,” and that was good enough? And on David’s end of things, why in the hell did he think this was good enough for mass release? He’s one of the medium’s most talented writers, but he clearly didn’t bring his A-game. Given time, the great Peter David could certainly turn it around. But today’s market is far less forgiving of subpar comics, and cancellation will certainly be in this book’s future if David doesn’t turn it around quick. Score: 2/10.

6. Uncanny X-Men #16 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Chris Bachalo). Issues like this rely on the perception that comic readers have short attention spans. It really wasn’t that long ago that Magneto was the ruler of the all-mutant nation of Genosha (before it got blowed up real good by Grant Morrison), yet here, when Mystique has done the same thing and turned Madripoor into the same, Magneto flips his shit because of some imagined slight involving the more underhanded means by which she accomplished the task. So, okay, I get his moral objection. My qualm is that this is MAG-FUCKING-NETO, and he has the keys to a sovereign mutant nation right in front of him, and he’s made because… what? Mystique is posing as Dazzler? She cut a deal with Hydra to purchase control of the island? What? Sorry, but that just doesn’t wash. It’s the thinnest of rationalizations for him to angrily assault her, Sabretooth, and Blob, and to reject Madripoor altogether. It’s also a callous set-up for the upgoing Magneto ongoing series. Ultimately, issues like this may make sense to newer readers who don’t have much of a sense of the X-Men’s history, but for anyone with a working knowledge of the characters, it’s eye-rollingly lazy. At least Chris Bachalo’s art is on point. Score: 4/10.

7. All-New X-Men #21 & 22.NOW (Marvel, W: Bendis, A: Brandon Peterson & Brent Anderson [#21], Stuart Immonen [#22.NOW]). So continue the adventures of the Young X-Men, merrily trampling their way across many a decade of established continuity because Marvel needed a big selling point to coincide with Bendis’s arrival on the X-books. Good thing he’s at least got focus now on this book, what with the X-kids fighting anti-mutant religious bigots and the addition of X-23 to the cast. Things continue to unravel for Jean Grey, who recently discovered all the horror she’s in for, made worse by the arrival of the Guardians of the Galaxy in issue 22.NOW. But here’s what works: by allowing the original X-Men to witness the crazy scope of what they’re in for, we readers are treated to characters who react realistically to the revelation of how insane their lives are destined to become. It’s the age-old question: if your teenage self could see what you’ve become as an adult, how would he or she react? How would the revelations of destiny affect them? Well, they’d get pissy and/or sullen, most likely. But having these characters respond in realistic ways and act like real human beings rather than snarky tabula rasas is what’s turning the book around. A fascinating new spin on what makes the X-Men great. Score: 7/10.

8. Thor: God of Thunder #17 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Ron Garney & Emanuela Lupacchino). Sweet Christmas, does Jason Aaron knock it out of the park with the conclusion of “The Accursed!” With all the cards on the table and all the players in the same room, everything comes to a head in the least predictable fashion possible. Which of course I won’t spoil! And the stage is set for an even more epic confrontation, one that might just involve… Nah! Not telling!  But holy crap is it going to be cool. This arc has suffered for lack of a consistent artist, but Emanuela Lupacchino proves to be the most capable among them. It’s a shame she wasn’t tasked for the entire story, as opposed to the banal and untalented Ron Garney. As I’ve stated before, Jason Aaron is writing the premiere superhero book of his career, and frankly, it’s second only to Scalped as his greatest work of all. But who knows? Time will certainly tell, and the son of Odin could prove to be the mightiest of them all. Score: 8/10.

QUICK HITS:

9. Daredevil #35 (Marvel, W: Mark Waid, A: Chris Samnee). The other shoe drops. With one more issue to go on this volume, Mark Waid has Daredevil do the last thing anyone would expect. If you think I’m telling you, you’re nuts. But the oft-overused phrase “everything changes” DEFINITELY applies. Score: 9/10.

10. Velvet #3 (Marvel, W: Ed Brubaker, A: Steve Epting). Image continues its string of hits by letting Brubaker & Epting do what they do best: tell a kick-ass spy story. Not only is this one of the best books out right now, it’s easily the best book Brubaker’s written in about three years AND one of the strongest with a female lead. DO NOT be left behind when this book takes off. Score: 10/10.

11. Astro City #8 (DC/Vertigo, W: Kurt Busiek, A: Brent Anderson). When her world begins to crumble around her, Winged Victory’s allies, Samaritan and the Confessor, come out of the woodwork to come to her aid. Winged Victory has always been a very womens’-lib focused version of Wonder Woman, and it’s outstanding to see what happens when the entire life she’s built for herself around those principles is torn apart. The best AC has been since it’s Vertigo debut. Score: 8/10.

12. The Massive #19 (Dark Horse, W: Brian Wood, A: Garry Brown). Dying of cancer and his entire belief system thrown into chaos after the events of “Longboat,” Callum Israel is determined to die on his own terms, which leads to him pursuing the crazy man who threatens his entire operation. This book is now firing on all cylinders as it approaches its conclusion and playing to all of Wood’s strengths as a writer: deep, nuanced characterizations, and rich, fully-defined worlds. A wonderful sleeper book that deserves wider recognition, much more so than Wood’s vastly overrated X-MenScore: 8/10.

13. Wonder Woman #27 (DC, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Cliff Chiang). I’m not sure when exactly Brian Azzarello’s masterful Wonder Woman devolved into an irritatingly convoluted soap opera, but that’s where we are. The supporting cast has overrun the book and there’s no clear notion as to whose motivations are what anymore. Still better than 99% of DC’s other output, though. Score: 5/10.

14. Hawkeye #16 (Marvel, W: Matt Fraction, A: Annie Wu). I’ll give it up to Matt Fraction: for all this book’s recent problems, he still managed one hell of a great issue here. (Even if it did ship before #15 for some stupid reason.) It’s essentially a love letter to mentally-ill Beach Boy Brian Wilson and his lost masterpiece album “Smile,” all wrapped up in a mystery Kate Bishop must solve. Kate’s less obnoxious this issue than in her previous solo jaunt, and every loving nod to Wilson rings perfectly and true. This one deserves to be up for an Eisner. Score: 10/10.

15. Wolverine and the X-Men #40 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Pepe Larraz). With only two more issues to go until Jason Latour steps up to the plate, Jason Aaron positions himself to go out on a high note and not only give us a coda for what makes the Jean Grey School so special, but also starts Wolverine and Cyclops down the road to mending their friendship. While kicking Sentinel ass. It’s X-nerd heaven. Score: 9/10.

16. X-Men #9 (Marvel, W: Brian Wood, A: Terry Dodson). All right, the hype on this book has officially worn off for me. Brian Wood’s all-female X-squad needs to start coming into its own. The story is so nuanced, it feels like nothing is happening. Worse still, the villains are completely unoriginal and uninteresting. Arkea is about as threatening as Ikea. Yawn. Score: 5/10.

17. Captain America (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Carlos Pacheco). The Mandarin, I mean, the Iron Nail wreaks all sorts of havoc in this issue as for once, a writer treats Nuke like an actual human being instead of a colorless, flag-waving obstacle to be overcome. Cap’s still in bad shape after the events of the Dimension Z arc, weary and quick to anger. Remender’s approach to the character may be unorthodox, but it’s working, relevant, and excellent. Score: 7/10.

18. Avengers #25 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Salvador Larroca). Jonathan Hickman decides to steal from the X-Men treasure chest and have the original Avengers show up. No, it’s not time travel–it’s an alternate dimension version. Close enough to still reek. Score: 4/10.

19. Avengers World #2 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman & Nick Spencer, A: Stefano Caselli). Stefano Caselli’s always-stellar artwork saves what could have been an otherwise drab affair. In the midst of some AIM Island shenanigans, under-utilized rookie Avenger Smasher gets the spotlight, and the generational results are oddly DC-ish. Which isn’t such a bad thing for Marvel to co-opt, since DC has completely abandoned the concept of generational heroism. I’m still waiting for this title to distinguish itself from Avengers proper, though. Score: 6/10.

20. All-New Invaders #1 (Marvel, W: James Robinson, A: Steve Pugh). This comic exists solely to appeal to the nostalgia factor of a certain sect of comics fans. Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, is sad and mopey out in the sticks when he’s attacked by a Kree warrior who’s in search of his piece of a Maguffin that, of course, ties back to World War II. The writing is lazy and uninspired, and I genuinely can’t find a single reason for this comic to exist at all. Pugh’s art is decent enough, and the cover is outstanding. Too bad that can’t be said for the rest of the comic. Score: 2/10.

Keep Readin’ Those Funnybooks!

~ILL DIABLO~

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