Review: Casanova: Avaritia #1

Cover for Casanova: Avaritia #1, by Gabriel Ba and Cris Peter.

This is the church, this is the crucible: Casanova's back.

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Gabriel Bá
Colorist: Cris Peter
Letterer: Dustin Harbin

To borrow a phrase from my friend Josette, it’s short shameful confession time. I’ve had an advance copy of Avaritia for… four months, and it’s Tuesday morning September 6th, and I’m writing my first draft of the review now. It’ll be in store for most of you tomorrow morning, unless you happened to be in Portland this weekend and already have a copy.

I have been comprehensively beaten to the punch, it’s true. Beaten by the best kind of people– folks like Joe Keatinge and Laura Hudson, Martyn Pedler and the crazy gang at Comics the Blog that made the lamb dish from the first run of Cass as part of their review. The observations, the spoilers for issue two, the squealing fangasms… all out there already. I’m trailing up the pack.

And that’s because I don’t have an objective thing in my head about this book.

First page of Casanova: Avaritia #1 wasn't, but... yes and no?

“Was it the cancer? Lotsa folks dyin’ of cancer these days.”

Right there, on page one, I lost all my objectivity– because I was less than a month out of a cancer scare myself, less than a month from discussions of CA-125 testing, biopsies, large masses seen on pelvic CTs.

I watched Cass talk to a Newman Xeno-masked janitor and realized that there was nothing I could say about this book that didn’t talk about me, about my job, about the insane things people will put themselves through to get a credit on a comic, on a book, on a movie.

I watched Casanova Quinn exterminate universe after universe across 32 pages, and I thought about the nature of client-facing for-hire production work– TV, VFX, comics, whatever. The point of that exercise is to work yourself out of a job, every show, every movie, every issue. This is what we don’t talk about when we talk about the business.

Everything you do will come to an end, eventually. You will pack your desk into another box, your scripts into another Dropbox folder, and you will smile and write your email about what an honor it was to work with this team, this material, these characters. You’ll hand in your badge and shake a few hands and you’ll walk away.

You will want it to be the last time, every time. You will come home to your own Sasa Lisi and put your head on her thigh and you will want it to be over, and you know you will go back again and again. You will work yourself out of a job again, destroy every universe set before you, make every landscape uninhabitable and unprofitable for yourself. You will hate your team and you will expect support and what you will get is Cornelius Quinn screaming in your face about the next job and the next thing and all the ways in which you need to grind harder, do a little more.

You will work when you are sick, when you know something is gravely wrong in your own body, when your pain is off the charts. You will work until you are done, you will take the screaming, and you’ll do the little more.

You’ll do the little more. It’s you or some other guy, and there’s always some other guy, right? Some other guy will take a little less reward for even more effort. There’s always another Casanova Quinn, no matter how bulletproof he thinks he is when he starts the job.

There is, as Fraction himself pointed out in that Comics Alliance interview, no union for the professional dimension-hopping voyeur.

And when you’re actually done– you’re not done, of course; there’s another shot, one more revision, another block to write, but you’re done enough for now– then you might go to the doctor, to the hospital, have your cancer scare, have surgery. You will stay up night after night waiting for the biopsy results. You will learn that you are dodging a bullet in slow motion– you don’t have cancer, but your condition is such that your overall risk is increased twenty percent for reproductive cancers. Your personal bullet time could be over at any moment; only vigilant monitoring will tell, in the end.

You’ll probably be back at your desk a month later. Someone will have forgot a shot or omitted a crucial piece of functionality, and they’ll need you, even if you can’t sit up in a desk chair for 10 hours without painkillers. You probably won’t take the painkillers anyhow; you need to be sharp to get that last thing done.

And then you will wrap up your job and go home, and you won’t know when the next job is coming, if there is another job at all.

That brutal, punishing, there’ll-be-no-shelter-here grind is the core of the first issue of Avaritia. There is nothing beyond that here for you– if you want to be uplifted, if you want to be encouraged, this is not your book.

It is an astonishing book– Cris Peter deserves a medal for her balls-out handling of a particularly audacious fight sequence, and it’s Eisner or GTFO for Dustin Harbin at this point in the game. But it is not happy. It’s about the price everyone pays when they consent to complete someone else’s missions, about what work for hire takes out of your body and your soul.

Is it cautionary? Perhaps. But does anyone ever listen to the cautionary tales of their elders?

Go. Read. Be cautioned, be enlightened, be scared. This is what Steven Pressfield and Julia Cameron will never tell you about the way of the artist or the war that is art.

Review: Our Love Is Real

Writer: Sam Humphries
Artist: Steven Sanders
Letterer: Troy Peteri
Production: Phil Smith
Special Thanks: Brendan McFeely and Chip Mosher

“How nicely does doggish lust beg a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Cover for Our Love Is Real.

Yup, Fascist Iconography 101. With dog.

There’s a lot about Our Love Is Real that is ambitious and admirable– it’s a self-published and self-distributed comic, for starters, only available at a tiny handful of brick-and-mortar retailers, via mail order direct from writer Sam Humphries, and via ComiXology in digital form. Despite that hurdle, it’s sold out its first physical printing in a mere nine hours (a second is on the way). It received buzz as a possible speculator’s goldmine from Bleeding Cool, and the reviews have been generally good.

It’s also a dark SF noir that prominently features bestiality as a linchpin of its worldbuilding. As one might imagine, this has caused rather a lot of “ZOMG DOG SEX” in the conversation around the book. This is the only time I’m going to mention it in my review, as a consequence: Yes, this book has one panel of PG-13 dog-on-top sex between antihero riot cop Jok and his girlfriend, the eventually jilted poodle Chyna. Chyna seems to be auditioning for a role in an eventual reboot of The Rock; the panel itself could be set to, say, “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin quite easily. If you are the sort who is easily titillated by the idea of dog sex as a societal staple, that should do you fine; if you are easily offended, you will be offended.

Since there is dog sex, though, and since it is put out there as one of several competing sexual ideologies, it’s not surprising that readers are focusing on it and ignoring the rather less savory elements of Humphries and Sanders’ dystopia. Our Love Is Real posits a world that has been so bitterly divided by the introduction of an HIV vaccine that the ensuing state focuses entirely on policing sexual morality. All other forms of expression appear to have been rendered secondary to the obsessive pursuit of self-involved sexual gratification. In short, it’s Rick Santorum’s favorite nightmare come true; every canard about gay marriage leading to sexual depravity and the decline of society has been played out in this world long before we arrive on the narrative scene.

Like any good fascist regime, this degraded society has strict rules about purity. Zoophiles sit at the top of the pecking order, and everyone else has to be brought to conformity or exterminated. Jok, being one of the privileged few, has no problems enforcing this state of affairs with joyful alacrity. Anyone who enjoys a good face-stomping and isn’t too concerned with the ethics of same will enjoy this early stage of the story. The part where we learn that society only reflects the smaller-scale desires of its members comes later.

In the line of duty, smashing faces and killing rioters with abandon, Jok encounters an enigmatic mineral-sexual named Brin. Their ensuing affair– “affair” is perhaps too romantic a word– cuts to the actual heart of the story. Jok is feral, animalistic, speaking in doggish grunts and howls, imposing his desires on Brin without regard for courtship. Brin presents as a more evolved being, careful of speech, abstinent from any form of physical sex. They’re obviously poorly matched, but what do they care for emotional concerns when there’s individual lusts to be slaked?

This is where the dark and ugly heart of Our Love Is Real comes into sharp focus. Jok and Brin’s eventual trysts– not all of which are sexual– embody what British artist Robert Lenkiewicz called “aesthetic fascism:”

[Lenkiewicz] noticed that the obsessive fascination with the beloved person could often lead to acts of ruthlessness and violence. “I often feel,” he said, “that in the most intense romantic scenarios… there is an undertone of ruthless psychopathic expectation, a curious heartlessness. If one had genuine concern for one’s partner then the first thing one would do is leave them.” He was sceptical about claims that in love one ‘cared’ about the other person in a selfless sense, quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche’s pithy expression: “How nicely does doggish lust beg a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it.”

The real transgressions of Our Love Is Real‘s fairly stock noir narrative aren’t held in its perverse, Pokemon-like classifications of sexual behavior. You’re meant to gawk at the outer coating of revolting pornography. It might even distract you from the real controversy: a society that is so focused on individual hedonism that it crushes and devalues the human spirit. Saying more would spoil an integral plot twist; suffice to say that I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here.

Is it worth a read? Overall, I’d say yes; Sanders’ art is absolutely stunning, subject matter aside. Humphries’ script needs either tighter editing or more space to expand its narrative, but you can’t fault him his enthusiasm for the provocateur’s role. Our Love Is Real is in it for the shock value, yes, but if that’s your sole takeaway from this noir thriller, you might be missing the point.

Review: Uncanny X-Men 539

“Losing Hope”

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Ibrahim Roberson
Colorist: Jim Charalampidis
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
Cover: Simone Bianchi

Let’s get this out of the way first and then move on to the story itself:

Uncanny X-Men 539 cover by Simone Bianchi

I mean, really, it screams JUST BUY THIS ALREADY.

Yes, yes, Uncanny is getting a renumbered reboot. Yes, yes, people are increasingly voicing the opinion that lame-duck titles’ remaining issues “don’t count” and can be safely ignored. “Losing Hope,” being a single-issue story, isn’t going to sway anyone who holds that viewpoint…

…but the X-Office has, in a remarkable burst of foresight, put a fantastic Simone Bianchi Wolverine cover on this issue. That alone should distract the nerd rage and draw some of the hard cases to the book. Look, it’s got Wolverine on! I have to appreciate canny sales moves like that, since we’re mired in the mysterious Current Climate and whatnot.

Moving on. This is a fairly uncomplicated story that hinges on a dubious Claremont-era X-trope: female mutants love to shop and need to shake off their angst about their persecuted status, so they go shopping. Of course, since they’re persecuted mutants, shit goes down by the Hot Dog on a Stick, and they have to accept that their lives will never be normal enough to permit them the joys of a limeade. I estimate that I read some variant of that plotline eight or nine times as a teenage comics fan. (When I wasn’t reading that, there were mutants playing baseball.)

Gillen, to his credit, subverts the trope in this story by focusing it squarely on Hope Summers, the alleged mutant messiah around whom a great deal of recent events have focused. Hope’s teammates have to force her out of her armory and off the island; once they’re out, her fashion sense proves as nonexistent as her ability to accept critique. There are no armloads of Nagel-inspired ’80s dresses here, just one cranky, hyperfocused mutant savior and two reluctant disciples.

It’s a shame that those disciples– Laurie and Idie, two of the more interesting members of the Generation Hope cast– are cast aside as soon as Hope is kidnapped and the actual plot kicks in. Admittedly, this isn’t an issue of Gen Hope; expecting some elucidation on Laurie and Hope’s uneasy alliance, or Idie’s ongoing struggle to assimilate into mutant culture, is expecting something Uncanny’s not designed to deliver. But would it be too much to ask to let them participate in the action beyond summoning Wolverine? Watching the newer mutants participate in a mission alongside the definitive combat expert on the older team would have been enlightening.

What we get, instead, is a pretty straightforward Wolverine solo operation– he breaks into the Crimson Commando’s base and stages a rescue, and he and Hope fight their way out. Grudging respect is achieved in the heat of battle, and Logan monologues a bit about his reluctance to get emotionally involved with Hope. Exeunt all, including, presumably, Idie, whom we never see again after page 5.

It’s an efficiently told story, and Ibrahim Roberson’s art lends it a kinetic, muscular feeling. I believe this is Roberson’s first Marvel work, and it leaves me wondering what his take on Iron Fist or a similarly visceral character would look like. Certainly, he’s presented a compelling argument for his future employment.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong, per se, with a Logan/ Hope adventure that runs its course in 17 pages. The Crimson Commando has a compelling reason for his attempt to capture Hope. Logan’s reasons for keeping a wary distance from her are valid. Logan’s arrival in Hope’s cell is understated so heavily as to be both absolutely hilarious and perfectly fitting. (When a man is the best there is at what he does, there really does come a point where there’s nothing to be gained by showing him doing it over and over again.) But I was still left wanting a little more here… and the sort of thing I wanted is, ironically, laid out in an earlier throwaway scene with Logan, Hope, and the feral savant Teon.

Hope approaches Teon and Logan’s sparring practice on her way off the island, and Teon is instantly smitten. He runs to her feet. He’s immediately present in a raw, physical way. Hope puts her hand down and tells him to stay, like one would a particularly slow dog– and in Logan’s body language and stone silence, we see that he’s watching himself with Jean Grey, years before. It’s a brilliantly played moment, four panels of showing without telling. For the reader, Logan’s speech later is just exposition for Hope’s sake; it’s the subtle set of his shoulders as Teon rejoins him that tells us everything we need to know, and a number of things that Hope has yet to even guess.

“Losing Hope” is worth reading for that page alone. It’s a lesson in storytelling– you can be efficient, you can run from point A to point B along a well-traveled plot arc, you can subvert a trope or two along the way, but you have to deliver the unexpected punch to the gut while you’re at it.

Review: SHIELD Infinity

SHIELD: Infinity
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artists: Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, Nick Pitarra, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Rachelle Rosenberg, Dan Brown

My, it’s been a while. Suffice to say that this winter was a bit too adventurous for the Department’s tastes, and it’s not quite over yet– I may have a lot more time on my hands this summer to write than I expected, thanks to a bit of unemployment and an impending bout of surgery for a newly-discovered chronic medical issue. (I’m OK, as far as I know; if I’m not, I’ll tell you guys; yes, Wedge is taking care of me and I have very good doctors.)

That being said, I keep seeing reviews of this Marvel one-shot that don’t quite seem to grasp what Hickman’s up to here– which means, yes, spoilers galore below. You’ve been warned.

Cover for SHIELD: Infinity


SHIELD: Infinity is a bit of an odd duck as a one-shot. It’s a little bit inside baseball– if you don’t already know a bit about the Brotherhood of the Shield, its ultimate aims, and the ongoing struggle between Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as its once and future leaders from the main SHIELD book, you’re not going to pick up on everything going on in these four stories. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that regular SHIELD readers won’t miss anything if they give this pass. There’s certainly a lot of backplot here, and most of it probably won’t be covered in the main title.

Also, honestly, I have a hard time conceiving of a hardcore SHIELD fan, or a hardcore Hickman fan, who’s not going to get this book. You either really dig Hickman’s oblique nods to epic, Kirby-esque concepts, or you don’t. You probably already know if you’re in this book’s target audience.

(If you’re unsure, or, if, like me, you love this book and rarely have the mental bandwidth to grasp everything at once, you may want to read Robert Loss’s excellent review of the series, which I’m using to fill in my own gaps as I write this review.)

New readers will find the basic concepts of the Brotherhood of the Shield– a secret society of legendary historical figures sworn to protect humanity from all manner of fantastical menace, from the Brood up to Galactus himself– laid out as simply as possible in Hickman and Pitarra’s opening story, “Colossus.” Sequential storytelling doesn’t get more didactic than this, with Hickman framing a tale of classical antiquity as a Socratic dialogue between Leonardo da Vinci and his students. In ten lean pages, we’re introduced to Leonardo’s vocation as a teacher and mastermind, his inquisitive apprentices, and their fraternity’s mission statement. It’s tightly-told, with just enough action to leaven the exposition for those of us who are already familiar with the setup.

Folks who are up on their current Hickman news might note that “Colossus” is the first work we’ve seen from his collaboration with artist Nick Pitarra; they’re slated to deliver The Red Wing to Image this year, and have talked about more creator-owned work to come. How does Pitarra measure up? I’m impressed; his angular linework and muted palettes of soft pastels remind me of artists like Moebius. The sense of the fantastical Pitarra provides is well-suited to Hickman’s cosmic-level concepts. Pitarra’s panels provide clear angles on the action, whether it’s an overhead shot of Leonardo’s classroom or a pitched fight between Archimedes and an alien invader. I look forward to more Hickman/ Pitarra work; Wedge is already beside himself with glee about the time traveling fighter pilots of The Red Wing.

Zachary Baldus teams up with Hickman for the second tale, an impressionistic story of Nostradamus called “The Hidden Message.” This story falls down a little on accessibility– if you don’t already know that there’s a guy chained up in a mystical well beneath Rome, that he’s Nostradamus, and that he’s not down there for his own good, you’ll be largely lost here. That being said, the overall tone here is distant, as if this moment in time isn’t something we the readership were meant to see at all, and Hickman and Baldus carry that off ably. If it left me cold, well, I think it was supposed to– but we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

Kevin Mellon gets the graphic honors for the only tale of SHIELD’s most enigmatic adventurer, Nikola Tesla. The story rejoices in the Hickmantastic title “Life, the End of the World, and the Key.” The end of the world is a popular topic in the main SHIELD title– Newton thinks he has all the details locked down, and he’s enough of a total madman that he might be just right about that. (After all, he was right about elliptical orbits.) Leonardo, on the other hand, thinks that humanity can ascend and prevail over even the apocalypse– which should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Fantastic Four lately, or Hickman’s earlier Image works Pax Romana and Red Mass For Mars.

Yep, this is SHIELD’s version of the “Solve Everything” problem that’s underlaid Reed Richards’ entire arc in the old Fantastic Four and the new FF books. It shouldn’t be in the least bit new to anyone who has any prior familiarity with Hickman’s favorite concepts. That being said, if Hickman wants a constant touchstone to return to across his works, “the aspiration of man and his technologies against inevitable entropy” beats the hell out of either “smartphones” or “mind-controlling dinosaurs.”

Mellon’s work is pulpy and spare, playing in an extremely limited colorspace provided by Dan Brown. It works well to illustrate just how much of an engineer– of machines and people– Leonardo really is. Leonardo brings Tesla back to life not out of any real concern for Tesla himself, but for the sake of Tesla’s son Leonid, the protagonist of SHIELD. (In comparison, Tesla’s apparently named his only begotten son after Leonardo. I think Tesla’s really getting the raw end of this friendship.) This is a story about stark necessities, and the high-level maneuvering that characterizes the entire game Leonardo and Newton are playing out in their quest to immanentize the Eschaton. Hickman’s choice of Mellon’s strong visual style to underlie that unnerving message points back to his previous career as an art director; this is a writer who knows how to convey a visual concept, and an employer who knows how to bring his best talent to the project at hand.

The fourth story is where I took some exception to prior reviews of SHIELD: Infinity, though; I feel they somewhat understate the case for this book’s characterization of Isaac Newton. Gabriel Hernandez Walta pairs off with Hickman for “The Apple,” and this is where the book goes somewhere most mainstream Marvel comics never approach in this sort of detail. Simply put, “The Apple” is as much of an origin story as we’re going to get for Sir Isaac Newton, the dark mirror of Leonardo and the nominal archvillain of SHIELD. Not so simply put, well…

…Newton the historical figure was not well-liked in his time, and was, at best, what one of my friends calls “a class-A weirdboy.” He was extensively learned in both conventional sciences of the day and in eschatology, alchemy, and other occult specialties. (Wikipedia goes so far as to speculate that he came by all the science secondary to his love for the occult.) He thought he was among an elect group who could actually know the mind of God via Biblical study and interpretation; he was very secretive; he was combative with his colleagues and driven by a sense of vengeance. Hickman’s done the reading– more than I have, for sure– and he’s brought all of that to the fore here. How does he capture the mercurial, brooding genius of the historical Newton and align it with the chthonic, ideological evil of the 616 Newton?

Well, uh, Newton beats Gottfried Leibniz to death (mostly off-panel; this isn’t a MAX book) with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. That all goes down after Leibniz reveals that, yes, he has rather noticed that Isaac Newton is a god damned serial killer who’s been murdering all of his intellectual rivals.

Needless to say, this is entirely not what I expected from my SHIELD one-shot purchase. “The Apple” is about a step shy of that whole buggering-to-death business with Hyde and the Invisible Man in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it’s pretty stunning to see even in a T+ Marvel book. Hickman’s Newton isn’t so much a scientist, or even a mystic, as he’s a full-on Criminal Minds-style unsub, psychopathically driven to exterminate everyone who fails to find accord with his thanatic vision. Leibniz is no Batman, either; while he carries off his investigation, there’s nothing he can do to stop Newton from making him the next victim.

It would be easy to say that “The Apple” only has one purpose– to make you hate Hickman’s version of Newton, and, conversely, like his Leonardo all the more. I’d actually be happier if that was all it was supposed to do… but, like every Hickman story, it’s not that simple. Sure, Newton is certifiably beyond redemption, a spree killer with no thought for anyone or anything beyond his own intellectual glory, coldly driven to torture and exterminate his foes (as we saw in “The Hidden Message”)…

…but he might also be right about being the smartest man that ever lived. He might be right about everything, in the end, and that’s what SHIELD: Infinity wants you to wonder about as you close the covers. What hope can even the original Renaissance Man hold out against the annihiliatingly precise, logical vision of the end of the world held within Newton’s apple?

Review: Vision Machine #2

Written by: Greg Pak
Pencils by: R.B. Silva
Inks by: Alexandre Palomaro
Colors by: Java Tartaglia
Letters by: Charles Pritchett

Ahhh, the Singularity. The best friend of speculative fiction in the early 21st century, along with nanites and steampunk. Equal parts valid and dangerous to use, a crutch in the wrong hands and magic in the right hands.

Enter Vision Machine by Greg Pak. Normally this is where I’d give a brief breakdown in what’s come and gone so far in the first two parts. I don’t have to, however, because Pak is using this series to fully embrace the concepts he explores on the page; the comic is being released for free and under a Creative Commons license. You can find issue one and two on the comic’s website (as well a bunch of other great stuff, meta and not), and  via ComiXology for iPad and iPhone. Also worth noting is that he’s releasing this himself via his own Pak Man Productions label, sans help from any publisher at all, along with some help from the Ford Foundation.

Let me reiterate– this is all for free.  No excuses; there’s nothing stopping you from giving Vision Machine a look.  And you should give it a look, because…

…what Greg’s done here is nothing less than construct this generation’s Give Me Liberty. Frank Miller’s grim, fin-headed approach to having grown up in the Vietnam era is swept aside and replaced with the age of Apple and Google’s preternatural rise to domination of the societal hive mind. Laser cannons, brains in jars, and classical revolution are replaced with the hip new product launch, the dark battlefield of content ownership, and the overarching war for information. Every page and panel- wonderfully delivered by R.B. Silva with pencil work that just gets better as the series progresses-  is gleaming, sharp, Jonathan Ive clean. All of the usual dystopic trappings are cast aside, and instead of cheapening the message, the look serves to draw me closer to the characters.

Ultimately what’s winning me over the most so far is that it’s not automatically based on the premise that all of this has to suck. I wrote part of this on an iPad (take that, consumption-not-creation argument!); my iPhone goes everywhere I do. I enjoy this stuff because it honestly does bring me my information and computing experience to me in the best way possible for me, and also because it’s cool to use. Vision Machine takes the same stance; technology is a tool, like any other weapon. It’s not the concept of the iEye that’s evil here, it about the people manipulating it and being manipulated by it. Focusing on the makers and the manipulators instead of fetishizing the gear moves Vision Machine’s storytelling the essential step beyond the namedropping didacticism that characterizes a goodly chunk of probable-future SF these days.

There’s still an issue to go, but I have a feeling Vision Machine will be on my short list of books to hook new readers with, next to Atomic Robo and Thor: The Mighty Avenger. It’s an instantly compelling book, a fantastic read with no barrier to entry. There’s no reason not to grab the PDF and post it far and wide.

Just mind the EULA…

Capsule Reviews, Week of July 25th

Unrelated topics I’m wondering about today while I write my capsules:

  • How the hell did I go from not reading the Avengers for 20 years to “hm, I have six Avengers books on this pull sheet, and might need to add a seventh?” How in God’s name does that even happen?
  • I need to actually read the first issue of Neonomicon; it’s in the inbox of comics under my coffee table. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Alan Moore’s version of Charles Stross’s Laundry series, and that concept kind of frightens me.
  • Yes, I have an inbox tray full of comics under my coffee table. I bought it at the Container Store when I noticed that my living room was draped in bright-yellow comic-shop bags, like some sort of giant sequential-art spider had been throwing webs around the place.
  • I got around to Hawkeye and Mockingbird #1 on my iPad. Jim McCann writes them well, and it was nice to see a little Casanova in-joke in there for us Cass diehards. I’m not sure my budget can afford another Avengers book, but I certainly enjoyed the free sample.
  • No shit, Vertigo cancelled Madame Xanadu? Mmmmmmmmrrrrrrrppppppph. Where am I supposed to get my Anglo-Saxon fix now, dammit.

Uncanny X-Men #526 (Fraction, Portacio, Tadeo, Reber)

Uncanny X-Men 526 cover

Back in the X-saddle again. Cover by Terry Dodson.

“The Five Lights, Part One”

The X-Men have finally gotten out of Second Coming and can focus on their own direction for a bit. I think that should’ve happened months ago, but Marvel’s overarching plan for the X-books can be a little inscrutable at times.

Now that the big arc is out of the way, though, this book serves up a lot of old-school X-action. The ensemble-cast onslaught of the last year is nowhere to be found. Hope, Rogue, Cypher, and Dr. Nemesis make up one branch of the team, and Bobby, Warren, Scott, and Emma fill in all the cracks. Their goals are simple– investigate Hope’s family, and render assistance to newly emergent mutant Laurie. Back at the ranch, Emma has dinner with Tony Stark, and the X-Club finally make some time to attend to Kitty’s predicament. Nothing too hand-wringy, nothing too political; Scott doesn’t even have time to make an angsty speech about being the leader of all mutantkind.

Laurie deserves special mention here, as the first “light” on Cerebro’s display since M-Day. Fraction’s taken great pains to make her an appealing character– she’s geeky, she’s a little fixated on her studies, she’s having a standard finals-week breakdown. Sure, her origin is painful and upsetting, but a few minutes spent chatting with Hope and the others and she’s right as rain. I could use more mutants who aren’t totally consumed by their nasty beginnings.

The only downer here for me is that we’re losing Magneto for a while. Allan Heinberg and Olivier Coipel’s backup story, “Rebuilding,” shuffles him away from his campaign for Mutant Class President and into the Avengers’ “Children’s Crusade” miniseries. Heinberg delivers a great setup, but I love any Scott/ Erik tension I can get. I’ll miss the old man while he’s away.

Thor #612 (Gillen, Braithwaite, Rauch, Troy, Sabino)

Thor 612 cover

Tonight, he dines in... yeah, you know.

“The Fine Print, Part Two”

Mephisto has never been better than when Kieron Gillen’s writing him. He struts through every panel appearing to be fully in command of the situation between Asgard and Hell, then admits his weaknesses to the camera when no one else is looking. He’s got a soft spot for the man-eating Disir and an eye to tempting Thor, balanced only by a mortal terror of triggering all-out war between his hordes and the armies of the Aesir. Gillen makes Mephisto seethe with a brutal, sexual need for conquest, the hot-blooded converse of Loki’s cool-headed, disdainful ambiguity.

Doug Braithwaite offers up suitably epic pencils, and the rest of the art team responds in kind; this is an issue of Thor that looks and feels like a high-end RPG supplement about Mephisto and his realm. This is the book that will convince your Thor-dubious pals of his badass status. (Unless they’re fans of everything light-heartedly heroic, that is. In that case, you want Langridge and Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger, a book that is so fluffy I could die.)

Capsule Reviews for June 30th

Heralds #5 (Immonen, Zonjic, Harren, Fairbairn, Fabela)

Now that it’s done, I think it’s safe to say that Heralds will probably be best read as a trade. Marvel certainly made the right choice in releasing it weekly; the plot and action careen so wildly from place to place that most readers would’ve been completely lost with a month between issues. It makes for an interesting (and not negative) contrast with Kieron Gillen’s five issues of S.W.O.R.D., with his similar frenetic pace but neatly pinned down plot. The full run of Heralds reminds me most of the scene in Apollo 13 where our intrepid astronauts have to use the engine on the LEM to make a course correction. They light the engine and their ship corkscrews crazily through space, bouncing everyone and everything inside around. But when the burn is done, the Earth’s where it ought to be in the window and everything is fixed, if a little frayed around the edges.

Still not sure why Agent Brand was involved at all, but, hey, a party’s a party.

Atomic Robo and the Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #4 (Clevinger, Wegener, Pattison, Powell)

It’s a testament to Brian Clevinger’s worldbuilding that it’s taken a full four volumes and almost three years before he’s needed to bring Tesla’s perennial foe Thomas Edison into the Atomic Robo universe. So deep is the well of random, hilarious things Robo could encounter that Team Robo didn’t even need to go here for us to feel like we were getting a solid story. History has given us the perfect Tesladyne foil, however, and so it just feels right that Edison takes his place as the Big Bad. The callback to concepts introduced in The Shadow from Beyond Time is a nice touch, too.

The best part of this episode? The fact that the entire team- including Robo- felt it was necessary to don Ghostbuster jumpsuits at the appropriate time, but the entire gag passed without editoral comment from any of them. Brilliant.

Thor #611 (Gillen, Elson, Troy, Sabino)

Did you like New Mutants #11 Siege tie-in? Did you love the Siege: Loki one-shot? Do you wish the story threads from those books would be tied together into the arc of a relevant major ongoing series? Well, friend, your wait is over! Kieron Gillen, having towed the line through JMS’s outstanding arc plot and a major crossover event, has come back around to reap the seeds he’s sown along the way. And boy howdy, am I looking forward to this. Come for the wonderful scene between Mephisto and Brün of the Disir, stay for… everything else. Kieron’s ending his time on Thor with an absolute bang.

Having Avoided Death, I Post Some Capsule Reviews

Greetings! I still exist, despite a bout of dental havoc that had me laid up on painkillers and antibiotics for eight freaking days. Chad has been taking good care of me, and thus I can now return with a bunch of capsule summaries of books from the last couple weeks.

Avengers #2 (Bendis, JRJR, Janson, White): Bendis continues solidifying the new primary Avengers lineup with the addition of Noh-Varr. I don’t have any prior experience of Noh-Varr, but he seems likable enough. He has kind of a “Sheldon Cooper and Longshot get it on” vibe that I appreciate.

This issue ends with the abrupt arrival of a major X-Men villain, which seems a bit incongruous. I’m not sure how much of a red herring that’s going to be, given that we’re already dealing with Kang/ Immortus, but I’m willing to see where it goes. I do wish Tony Stark were a little more cognizant of his current dire financial and logistical straits, though– either Bendis is playing fast and loose with continuity, or Invincible Iron Man‘s current “Tony tries to rebuild his holdings” arc finishes up before this issue.

Fantastic Four #580 (Hickman, Edwards, Currie, Mounts): Um, it’s Arcade and the Impossible Man! Arcade seems to be having himself a mini-renaissance– he was in the Dazzler one-shot this month, too. Unfortunately, he’s never quite grown past his B-list Riddler tics, and it’s kind of hard to work up any excitement about him. Likewise, Impy seems terribly restrained here, keeping in mind that I haven’t seen a book with Impy in it for fifteen years or so.

Oh, and there’s another baffling two-page future history of Nu-Earth sequence, and, uh, Dragon Man and the other kids in Reed’s Brave New School have figured out how to cure the Thing. Sort of. But! Arcade and the Impossible Man! Majority of the book! Exploding Impossible Man toys!

Yeah, I’m not sure about this narrative arrangement either, but I find myself enjoying the hell out of it regardless. Just, please, someone figure out something else to do with Arcade already.

Young Allies #1 (McKeever, Baldeon, Sotomayor): Firestar, Gravity, Arana, Nomad, and Toro… don’t exactly team up, but they do take on a bunch of bad guys in this extremely efficient first issue. You meet everyone, you get a good handle on their personalities, there’s a fight, and it’s over. It’s a refreshingly clear-cut introduction, and David Baldeon’s art is fantastic, a bit reminiscent of Stuart Immonen with a slightly more expansive feel.

Arana and Nomad, in particular, sell this for me; they’re really the only established partnership in the book, and their banter is both realistic and hilarious. I could read an entire series focused on them and feel like I was getting my money’s worth. Throwing in Firestar is a bonus, although she hasn’t had much significant screen time yet; adding Gravity ensures that Chad, at least, will pick this book up as long as Marvel cares to publish it. (I don’t get it, but hey, there are worse people to be married to than a Gravity fanboy.)

Avengers Academy #1 (Gage, McKone, Cox): The other new team book of that week showcases a bunch of the teenaged characters from Norman Osborn’s failed Initiative, thrown together under the guidance of some disgraced Avengers. While the kids work together to find out why the Avengers have offered to train them, the adult mentors are shooting for personal redemption after their own setbacks and defeats.

It does rather read like the Doom Patrol to the Thunderbolts’ Suicide Squad, to be sure, but I don’t think that’s a problem. Gage gives every character a compelling reason to be at the Academy, which offsets the “who are these people” factor and lets you roll with the concepts. I particularly like Finesse, a young woman who’s got about the same power set as Monet from Generation X. Refreshingly, Finesse seems to lack an obnoxious, complicated family history– she’s a straight-up psychopathic polymath with no social ties, and I can get behind that concept.

If you don’t like struggling-superhero redemption stories, or you just can’t bring yourself to give a crap about Tigra and Speedball, you might give this one a pass. Otherwise, this is a quirky book with a lot of high concept, and it’s worth a read.

New Avengers #1 (Bendis, Immonen, Von Grawbadger, Martin): Well! Now that the onslaught of Avengers first issues is over, I’ve found the one I like the best. New Avengers plants Bendis squarely in his quip-tossing, hanging-out-with-the-guys comfort zone, and the results are incredibly endearing. Danny Rand lends Luke Cage a dollar to buy Avengers Mansion from Tony, for Christ’s sake. There’s no way you can hate that.

Immonen’s art suits the humor. When Peter Parker crams in a bit of dinner, mask pulled up to his nose, it’s hard not to think of Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11, constantly stuffing his face through entire scenes. Iron Fist is appropriately bemused and whimsical, genially tolerating all of Luke’s command angst. Victoria Hand, dragooned into the role of operations coordinator, is put-upon and defensive. Her body language speaks volumes about her ambivalence towards Luke and his team. This is good, and I want more like this.

The team dynamic here is far less fractious than the Tony-Steve conflict of the main Avengers title, and less square-jawed than Steve’s covert team in Brubaker’s Secret Avengers. There’s a sense of camaraderie between Luke, Danny, Jessica, and the other members of the team; the pace is relaxed, everything is congenial. It’s a fun read, with none of the tension or timestream-threatening high stakes of the main title.

Short Week, Short Reviews

New comics on Thursday night plus a lot of stuff going on at home and in the office equals one wiped-out Department operative. I’m going to run down a few things I read this week in no great detail and beg your forbearance as a result.

Cover for Avengers Prime #1 by Alan Davis.


Avengers Prime #1 (of 5) (Bendis, Davis, Farmer, Rodriguez): Alan Davis has been a favorite of mine since Excalibur, and this book has some nice work in it. He’s a little overshadowed by heavy inking and dark atmospherics, sadly, but I think that’ll ease up as the story progresses. This issue is all setup; the newly-reunited Avengers suddenly lose Cap, Tony, and Thor to a transporter accident that dumps them in three of the Nine Worlds.

Cap’s plot arc starts off fast and lively with a bar fight in Svartalfheim. Thor and Tony have worse luck, landing in vastly less hospitable parts of the World Tree. I notice that Avengers Tony is a lot terser and more brusque than IIM Tony, too– does he have some kind of inferiority complex when he’s up against Cap? I think most people would, but the more abrasive Iron Man annoys me a little. Looks like this will be fun, though.

Heralds #1 cover by Jelena Djurdjevic.

Oooh, hey, a Jelena Djurdjevic cover. Dig that Abigail Brand!

Heralds #1 (of 5) (Immonen, Zonjic, Fairbairn): This is a weekly book, a short sci-fi summer team-up for Emma Frost, Jen Walters, Patsy Walker, Valkyrie, Abigail Brand, and Monica Rambeau. While I am one hundred percent behind the Women of Marvel project, I’m a little dubious about this book. The team’s rationale for existing seems forced and, in the specific mutual-disdain case of Frost and Brand, entirely out of character. Brand’s mostly there so there can be a giant-monster-and-escaped-clones incident at an Earthside SWORD facility, which doesn’t make much sense to me either– isn’t SWORD the near-Earth response team, based at the Peak and keeping all their troublemakers there? Did I miss something? Why the hell would Abigail Brand even want to go to a Scott Summers-arranged surprise party for Emma Frost, anyhow, knowing how badly Scott’s treated Hank of late and how shitty Emma is to her? It doesn’t add up, and I’m worried that that basic inconsistency will only get worse as the book goes on.

Also, I’ve seen a couple previews of this book where the major MacGuffin character is touted as being new to the Marvel Universe. I’m fairly sure that’s not so, and that she’s an extant former herald of Galactus who’s just been handed a Pixie-style retcon. That makes me nervous. Pixie Strikes Back was fun, but when I tried to review it, a cursory check of Wikipedia to see if I’d actually gotten the basics of the plot down resulted in an acute bout of “wait, even for Wikipedia comics summaries, this is way not what I just read.” Immonen’s avant-garde approach to narrative can get pretty tangled at times, and I hope this character doesn’t suffer for it.

Cover to Serenity: Float Out by Patric Reynolds.

A square-jawed cover for a square-jawed pilot.

Serenity: Float Out (Oswalt; Reynolds; Stewart; Heisler; Whedon): Patton Oswalt’s first comic-book endeavor is a by-the-numbers elegy for Wash, the fallen pilot of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series. That’s far from a bad thing, though. The framing is simple: Wash’s old colleagues from his pre-Browncoat days get together and reminisce as they christen a new ship. As a narrative form, it’s the five-paragraph essay of comics, and Oswalt handles it deftly. I was particularly impressed with Oswalt’s grasp of Firefly‘s hyperkinetic Chinese/ Wild West/ SF patois– every caption and line of dialogue added to my sense of immersion in the setting. Patric Reynolds provides craggy, expressive linework, and, well, you’ve never seen a bad Dave Stewart coloring job, have you?

Float Out isn’t cutting-edge visual storytelling, and it doesn’t need to be. Oswalt sets out to prove that he can create a solid, short narrative and tell it well, and he does that. I understand that’s a skill a lot of novice scripters could stand to learn, and reading this book should prove instructive for anyone wondering how a first published comic should read.

Review: Fantastic Four #579

“The Future Foundation”

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: Neil Edwards
Inker: Andrew Currie
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer & Production: VC’s Rus Wooton
Cover: Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, & Javier Rodriguez

Futurists perform a quirky, but necessary, task in modern society: we function as the long-range scanners for a species evolved to pay close attention to short-range horizons.

–Jamais Cascio, “Ethical Futurism

Reed Richards has been a lot of things in his tenure with the Fantastic Four. Scientist, adventurer, hero, husband, father– he’s even been on the wrong side of history a few times in recent memory. In “The Future Foundation,” Jonathan Hickman has taken stock of those sides and given Reed one convenient identity to cover it all.

It turns out that Reed Richards is demonstrably a futurist, cast in the mold of real-life folks like Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio. There’s only one question left– is he an ethical one?

Cover to Fantastic Four #579.

Ooo, Alan Davis!

Certainly, this storyline positions Reed in the vanguard of thinkers tackling issues like posthumanism and global change. He has no problems publically taking his colleagues to task at an event that looks suspiciously like the Singularity Summit, berating them for their lack of forward vision. His futurism brooks no boundaries and accepts no setbacks; his end goal is nothing less than a star-spanning empire of humanity, broken free of the dying Earth to achieve near-godhood through science.

And that’s where everything gets problematic. Instead of inviting his colleagues to reconsider, Reed stomps off on his own to apply some long-term thinking to the problem. Remember “Solve Everything?” Remember how creepy and Machiavellian an entire roomful of Reeds operating as one body was? Yeah, this is pretty much that all over again, except this time there’s just one Reed. And he’s pissed.

Reed stomps home and institutes the Future Foundation within the Baxter Building, with the stated goal of educating the FF’s cast of wayward children in the finer points of creating a sustainable human future. Because nothing could possibly be wrong with indoctrinating your son, your alleged daughter, a Moloid head in a jar, a few Atlantean kids, and Alex freaking Power with your somewhat obsessive, singleminded, possibly-fascist worldview.

I know I sound like I’m down on this plan– and I am– but the actual setup is great, delightfully warped reading. Prior Hickman plotlines have demonstrated that Reed’s theories don’t always survive contact with their applications. We know that Reed has a tendency to sequester himself from others, mentally and psychologically, when he’s working towards a specific end. And, well, didn’t we just see Reed saying a few issues ago that he would renounce his quest to solve the world’s problems? He’s right back on the crack pipe, ladies and gentlemen, only now he’s trying to get the kids to suck the fumes back with him. This can’t end well, but it’s going to be awesome to watch it all fall apart.

Hickman’s setting up a fairly grand endeavor in this book, and it’s compelling reading even when I don’t quite grasp everything that’s going on. There are two pages of Nu-World flashbacks and flash-forwards in this issue, for instance– I thought we left Nu-World behind a couple of arcs ago. That doesn’t stop the spread from being both visually stunning (I’m still partial to Dale Eaglesham’s muscular take on Reed, but Neil Edwards brings the ultratech in an appealing manner) and poignant in its cryptic separation from the rest of the book. Hickman never gives me the sense that he’s going to leave things hanging, though, for all the isolated hints and off-beat moments. If we’re checking in on Nu-World, I know it’s going to play some role in the long game.

That innate sense of an eventual payoff, of an underlying order to the massive amount of plot presented, makes this book enormously fulfilling to pick up each month. If the finale of Lost made your inner skeptical futurist scream and throw things around the room, pick this book up and start pondering the ethics of Reed Richards, man of science and shaper of worlds.