Review: Siege: Loki

Siege:Loki cover by Marko Djurdjevic.

Marko Djurdjevic provides the shiny wrapper for Jamie McKelvie's best work yet.

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

The Loki of Norse myth is a god of many faces– oath-brother to Odin, master sorcerer, trickster deity, child of the giants. He schemes and plots to disrupt the order of the Aesir and Vanir, suffers their punishments, and then is loosed at the Ragnarok to battle his former comrades alongside his giant kin. In the Marvel Universe, Loki’s relationship to the other gods is more clear-cut– he’s a supervillain, all right, and recently, he’s spent a lot of time bending the rest of that less-august pantheon to his whim. His relationships to guys like Doom and Norman Osborn define him more than his own deeds at times.

Leave it to Team Phonogram, then– Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie– to present a Loki who’s entirely in line with Marvel’s editorial dictates and very much of a piece with his mythological predecessor. Siege: Loki depicts Loki at the height of his powers, an androgynous figure of menace, cutting deals across the multiverse to secure his own interests. From Hela’s lair in Las Vegas to Mephisto’s hell and back to Broxton, Gillen’s Loki is equally at home confronting the atavistic fallen Valkyrior known as the Disir (also seen in Gillen’s recent New Mutants issue), signing deals with the Devil, and slowly nudging Norman further into the grip of insanity. It’s just what Loki is, and the one-shot captures his personality in exquisite detail even as Loki himself reminds us that no one can truly know the totality of his being.

McKelvie’s linework is, as usual, expressive on a level most other comics artists can’t touch. His Loki is pouting, playful, dangerous, a Tyler Durden devoid of macho and stripped down to the bare bones of mayhem. There’s the occasional knowing take to the camera as Loki taunts Norman Osborn, the sidelong glance when he reminds Mephisto of the value of ultimate personal freedom. When he does enter combat against Bor’s Disir, it’s almost incidental, with McKelvie couching it in a striking 24-panel layout on a single page. For all his prowess as a combat magician, this Loki’s real menace is embodied in his slinking, ambiguously androgynous physicality. Likewise, the Disir are portrayed as more than simple zombie Valkyrior; in McKelvie’s hands, their lust for the flesh of the Aesir appears as a depraved, nearly-sexual hunger. One panel of the Disir consuming a fallen god is enough to give rise to uneasy dreams.

I know Kieron pushes the limits in every issue of Thor; the amoral horrors of “The Latverian Prometheus” convinced me that he meant deadly serious business when it came to the deific end of the MU. Seeing Jamie step up and do the same in Siege: Loki made me more convinced than ever that someone needs to find him a job that pays better than Phonogram did, lock him in as far as he’s willing to be tied down, and let him get to it. As a primarily verbal person, it’s rare that I say this– but the art in Siege: Loki actually speaks more powerfully to me about the true nature of the Marvel Loki than anything I’ve read so far. If you have any interest in Thor’s part of the MU, even if you’re avoiding Siege somehow, you need this book. It’s the best thing Jamie McKelvie’s ever drawn, and that alone should be enough to recommend it to you.

Review: Demo #3

“Volume One Love Story”

Story: Brian Wood
Art: Becky Cloonan
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

How we deal can define who we are. Crisis, excitement, disappointment– the way we react shapes both our self-perceptions and the way others perceive us. Most of the time, the line between those two realities is pretty solid. For Marlo, the focus of the newest issue of Demo, however, this line doesn’t exist. All the little things most of us keep inside our own minds are forced into the open for her in the form of post-it notes. She has hundreds of them, each one a comic book thought bubble made real. They leak out of her home, onto the bus she takes every day, her innermost processing stuck to the light posts and newspaper boxes she passes. She holds a pile of them in her lap at her therapy session. They’re a crutch, but they make her happy.

Until, one day, other notes start to appear in her office, on her doorstep, in her house. Notes in another hand altogether. Notes that aren’t hers, whose author appears to know her quite well indeed.

“Volume One Love Story” wears its heart on its sleeve, just like one of Marlo’s notes. It’s straightforward and breezy, and as Brian Wood notes in the issue’s backmatter, on-the-nose is sometimes the only way to fly. Given how dark any given issue of Demo can be, this story’s placement in the middle of the series is both surprising and welcome. It’s a cheerful chaser, a shot of quirky sunshine in the middle of darker stories like issue two’s “Pangs.”

While Wood’s story- his “cutest” ever, according to Becky Cloonan- is certainly at the heart of things here, once again it’s Cloonan’s art that brings it to life. Demo‘s creative team really is a dream collaboration; I would love to see a reprint of this issue colored in the simple, bright style of the cover, just to enhance the bold linework. Becky also lettered every one of the post-its, and while Brian was careful to fill in messages for the plot-specific ones, the rest of the notes were all her own work. The end result, and the way they’re used in both story and art, is rather like a deeply personal set of the Oblique Strategies– Marlo uses them as guides to internal structure and springboards for personal expression, even consulting them during her therapy sessions.

We’re halfway through the series and Demo is holding strong with what might be its strongest entry yet. Wood and Cloonan promise another walk down the dark side of the street in the preview for issue #4, “Waterbreather.” I have a feeling I’ll enjoy the entire collection of tales either way, but I can hope for at least one more lighter note like “Volume One Love Story” before we’re done.

Review: SHIELD #1

SHIELD #1 cover by Gerard Parel and Dustin Weaver

Gerard Parel and Dustin Weaver rock the Atari 2600 cartridge art.

“The Unholy Resurrection of Leonardo da Vinci”

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
Colorist: Christina Strain
Letterer: Todd Klein

Being a Marvel fan is a difficult thing. You’re at the mercy of editorial edict when it comes to how far any given plotline can advance in a single book, which means months of timekill in the book you’re reading while other writers move pawns on the board. Books with great writers might have less-than-great artists, while books with phenomenal art talent might sport atrocious writing. Worst of all, you might get behind a great title, only to watch it vanish due to low sales five or six issues later.

Thus, my dilemma with SHIELD. Make no mistake, this is a fucking fantastic first issue from Hickman and Co. Even Joe Quesada thinks it’s a great book… but I’m hesitant to get attached this soon. S.W.O.R.D. was a solid adventuring-couple book featuring an X-Man in a lead role, and it tanked. How much worse is a multi-layered, da Vinci-inspired, first-principles retcon of the history of the entire Marvel Universe going to do in this market? I’m afraid of the answer, honestly, because I want Marvel to do more books like these, and I’m not sure it’s feasible on a straight financial level for them.

As always, the visual design of the book screams “I am a Jonathan Hickman production,” and that’s one of the great things about his work. Hickman’s design sense is publisher-agnostic– if you see clean chart work, liberal use of Arial, and predominant browns and ambers in the color palette, you know it’s a Hickman book. Sure, in SHIELD, the storytelling hews closely to the Marvel house style, but the underlying creator-owned sensibility is there in all the little touches. You know what you’re getting when you pick this up; Hickman’s solidly established his brand and sticks to it.

That fundamental reliability spills over into the narrative of SHIELD, too. Hickman’s becoming a Ken Burns for the Invisibles set; he’s a documentarian of universes that never were, alternately enlightening and confounding his viewership with his research. The major themes here are familiar– the evolution of human potential, the predestined course of history, the duality of light and darkness. Anyone who’s familiar with Hickman’s work on Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four will find a lot of shared ground in SHIELD. POV character Leonid is chosen for a higher destiny in a manner reminiscent of Reed’s elevation to the Council of Reeds in “Solve Everything.” The ongoing battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA that underpins Secret Warriors‘ “Wake the Beast” arc is obliquely referenced in a cryptic scene involving Han Dynasty warriors and a Celestial. There’s a mysterious hidden city, equally as weird as Attilan or any of the other cities of the current FF arc. The book is firmly grounded in what Hickman’s been doing all along in the 616 Marvel Universe, and that’s a positive sign.

And, of course, huge chunks of it are unabashed “so, how nerdy are you about science, progress, and the Marvel Unverse?” fanservice. Galactus! Galileo! Apocalypse! Leonardo da Vinci in steampunk power armor! An early Fist of Khonshu! Imhotep tearing chunks out of the Brood and posing like Cap! If you’ve ever thought that an episode of The Universe would be improved by Brian Cox talking about the Ultimate Nullifier, this book is exactly what you’ve always wanted Marvel to do for you. It’s every bit as audacious in concept and execution as The Nightly News was, which is something the mega-crossover-bound Marvel Universe has desperately needed.

Dustin Weaver provides rock-solid art throughout, which is no mean feat given the scope of Hickman’s vision here. Not every Marvel artist gets to go from New York in 1953 to 2620 BC in six pages with a stop in a Mysterious Underground City, after all, and Weaver makes it look easy. Christina Strain comes off her strong work on Pixie Strikes Back to deliver equally accomplished colors here, playing light and shadow off one another to create a visual metaphor for SHIELD’s battle against the premature end of human existence. The two-page spread of Rome late in the issue shows a confident synergy between Weaver and Strain; it looks good, it recalls the work of Moebius without slavishly imitating his style, and it made me have to stop and put the book down to get my shit together and keep reading.

April’s a little early to declare anything a frontrunner for “best books of the year.” There’s a lot of stuff coming up this summer that I want to see before I make any predictions– the Heroic Age Avengers titles, Madame Xanadu‘s female-artist showcase arc “Extra-Sensory,” the ongoing awesomeness that is Demo‘s second volume. Talk to me in September, though, and I think I might be able to say some very nice things about where Hickman, Weaver, and Strain are taking SHIELD.

Or, you know, it’ll be over by then. Perhaps you should all buy two, and give a copy to your best buddy who likes science porn and Celestials… just in case. I’ve already offered to FedEx mine to a friend in Massachusetts.

Review: Terminator 2029 #1

Cover for Terminator 2029 #1, by Massimo Carnevale.

Cover artist Massimo Carnevale knows his heavy metal.

Writer: Zack Whedon
Artist: Andy MacDonald
Colorist: Dan Jackson
Letterer: Nate Piekos

Dark Horse has finally launched its long-awaited Terminator comic, featuring the work of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog screenwriter Zack Whedon and artist Andy MacDonald. Dark Horse has a long history with Jim Cameron movie franchises, and this book continues that tradition pretty solidly. The setting is Southern California in 2029, 32 years after Skynet triggered Judgment Day, and the plot follows Kyle Reese and his lieutenants as they struggle to preserve their human colony from the Machines.

All things considered, this is a good setup; after Terminator Salvation, I know I’m pretty sick of John “I’M JOHN CONNOR!” Connor and his apparent lack of anything resembling a redeeming quality. (Yes, I’m back on Christian Bale Ruins Everything again.) On the other hand, Kyle’s a strong character, in both the original film and in Salvation; he’s heroic without being an iron-jawed caricature, and his arc across both films is genuinely tragic. Focusing the story on Kyle avoids having to reconcile the fundamental “is he a tactical genius, or a raving egomaniac” problem with the various cinematic depictions of John over the years, and lets us explore what’s left of the world without having to deal with the legend.

There’s not much left of Pasadena in 2029, either. Andy MacDonald gives us an appropriately desolate landscape, from the page-one callback to Terminator 2 to the final scene of Reese’s warrior band marching off into the nuclear-winter-blasted wilderness. Traumatized survivors pack up their lives and flee in Road Warrior-esque convoys. The Machines are omnipresent, menacing in both presence and absence throughout the book. The only brightness in the book comes from the snow-blasted hills in the final pages; colorist Dan Jackson sticks closely to the films’ blaze orange and rusted brown palette, conveying his strong grasp of the Terminator universe’s noirish feel with deft use of highlight and shadow.

Amidst the desolation and pervasive terror, Whedon provides readers with two native guides to the universe– Kyle’s closest comrades and sort-of-a-couple-maybe Ben and Paige. Paige hasn’t had too much to do so far other than demonstrate that she’s a Strong Female Character, whooping ass in greater measure than any of the men and proving her combat superiority over her teammates. Ben, on the other hand, is Kyle’s main strategist and confidant… and that’s where things get a little in-jokey. Ben makes some comments about Kyle’s as-yet-unrealized romantic connection with Sarah Connor that are pretty solidly in the realm of authorial commentary, and it’s obvious that Whedon’s putting words in his mouth. Jokes about Cameron’s occasional forays into creepy subtext are funny, yes– I laughed myself sick over the “if I were a horse or a bird, I would be pretty afraid around Jim Cameron” Na’vi-USB-port joke on The Big Bang Theory recently– but, if you’re writing in-universe, you need to exercise some discretion about tone to avoid editorializing.

That caveat being noted, Terminator 2029 is fairly enjoyable; there’s obvious routes for character development, although I understand this is a three-issue arc that will then lead into a new arc set in 1984. That doesn’t seem to bode well for Ben and Paige… and that’s always been the great limitation of Terminator canon. “The future is not set,” Sarah Connor says, but when you’re dealing with story bibles that have been established over nearly three decades, you’ve only got so much continuity wiggle room. Matt Wagner’s excellent Batman: Dark Moon Rising minis from a few years back encountered the same problem; Wagner could only set his stories in the years leading up to the introduction of the Joker, after which Batman’s history is pretty well set in stone. However, Whedon’s a smart writer; hopefully he’ll be able to find some clever routes around the universe’s determinism and give us some untold stories that occur in the tiny cracks between the films.

I expect to have more to say about Whedon’s Terminator run early next week, by the way; keep an eye out.

Review: Chew: Taster’s Choice TPB

Chew: Taster's Choice cover by Rob Guillory

Take a bite out of... well, whatever gets the biggest queasy laugh.

Chew: Taster’s Choice (Image)

Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
(Get it at Amazon)

This book is ruining my reputation.

People occasionally ask me for recommendations. Is Northlanders really just completely fucking awesome? What about kids’ books? What should they be reading? Which comics have flown under their radar?

And, well, lately, the answer to the last two questions has been “…can I sell you on a book that revolves around people consuming human flesh in the name of justice? What about eating dogs? Licking up cremains? Is that OK with you? Because you really should read it, it’s great… why are you looking at me like that.”

You see my problem.

Yeah, the entire premise of Chew centers on a guy who receives psychic impressions from almost everything he eats. Complicating matters, he’s a cop… which means he’s a fantastic detective, as long as he’s eating the evidence. Since we’re all familiar with movies like Speed and Crank, where a clever premise leads to constant escalation of the stakes, we know where this is going from the first page of issue one. This guy is going to eat a lot of things that most people don’t consider “food,” and we’re going to watch every minute of it.

Fortunately, John Layman and Rob Guillory are exactly the creators you want guiding you through this sort of scenario. Layman keeps the gross-outs coming at a fast clip, but never loses his grasp on what is, actually, a mighty tricky piece of worldbuilding. In the Chewniverse, chicken is a controlled substance, thanks to a mysterious outbreak of bird flu that led to mass chicken slaughter in the United States. Tony Chu is a cop, charged with hunting down chicken runners, busting chicken speakeasies, and generally enforcing the new Prohibition… an assignment that rapidly goes bad, revealing his psychic talent and forcing him into an unwanted job with the FDA. At the Federal level, the stakes on chicken running are much higher, and the overall thrust of Tony’s work becomes a lot more sinister. Is there really a chicken conspiracy? Why does the FDA have such an interest in controlling food culture? How does Tony’s brother, blacklisted former TV chef Chow Chu, fit into the FDA’s plans?

Layman keeps all of these balls and more in the air, building a complete milieu for Tony and his supporting cast while keeping the humor level high. Sure, it’s black humor– Tony’s partner, Mason, is described in the backmatter as “a cross between Orson Welles and a grizzly bear” and has the amoral attitude to match– but it’s solidly in the vein of Scud the Disposable Assassin, good times for everyone who can stand a little repulsive action. As a pointed satire of both modern food culture and the modern police procedural and its constant emphasis on the gory details (I’m looking at you, CSI: Miami), Layman’s engaging, detail-packed writing succeeds on every level.

Rob Guillory’s art pairs brilliantly with Layman’s scripts, providing plenty of gross-out moments to go with the disturbing comedy. Chew‘s art never gets any brighter than the spattered blood that’s a recurring motif, but that suits the universe– as much as it’s played for laughs, there’s nothing inherently cheerful about a world where food is a black-market commodity controlled by organized crime. The only point of light for Tony is his romantic obsession, food critic and fellow food psychic Amelia Mintz; Guillory renders her in pastels and surrounds her with a faint radiance, playing up Tony’s perception of her beauty.

Of course, Amelia’s also an FDA target of interest, having become so jaded by her abilities that she’s taken to tormenting the populace at large with vomitous psychic warfare. Everyone in Chew, in the time-honored Coen Brothers tradition, is some kind of an asshole; being the love interest offers Amelia no exceptions. Her candy-coated exterior conceals someone who’s really just as venal and petty as… well, as Tony himself, inflexibly bound to the law as he is.

And, well, that’s the real dark joy of Chew. When no one’s motives are pure and no one can be trusted, we’re freed up to enjoy the sight of them drenched in puke, chewing on decomposed fingers, or otherwise being punished for their raw assholery. Layman and Guillory give the readers more than enough schadenfreude to temper any queasiness over the subject matter.

Besides, there’s a science brothel in the last issue of the collection. You know you always wanted to see what the inside of a science brothel looks like, even if you have to watch a few people eat rotting dog to get there.

Review: Uncanny X-Men #522

Cover to Uncanny X-Men 522, by Terry Dodson.

Terry Dodson puts the focus on Kitty Pryde.

“Ghostly”

Writer: Matt Fraction
Penciller: Whilce Portacio
Inker: Ed Tadeo
Colorist: Justin Ponsor

It’s not like I can spoil this book for you, after Fraction Twittered it yesterday afternoon: yes, Kitty Pryde is finally out of the Breakworld bullet and back among the X-Men. Of course, this being one of Matt Fraction’s books, nothing’s as simple as it seems, and the implications for the entire X-contingent are… less positive than you’d think.

I wasn’t too keen on the last issue of Uncanny I reviewed– too much of the U-Men, too much boggling Greg Land art, just too much. Happily, this issue tones down the emphasis on John Sublime and his U-Men, shifts the focus back to Utopia, and starts to hint at the future direction of the title. Sure, Whilce Portacio serves up the occasional weirdly foreshortened limb, but the art competently conveys the narrative while avoiding “WA” moments.

And it’s a good narrative. Kitty’s return is a straight callback to some of Claremont’s finer late-80s plotlines. Magneto continues to be the man on the scene, managing to advance his personal agenda while being effectively catatonic for the entire issue. The X-Club, and especially the snarky Warren Ellis stand-in Dr. Nemesis, get substantial screen time as they work out ways to avert the potential danger of the Breakworld bullet’s arrival on Earth. Danger shows up, and her behavior makes it clear that her recent humbling at Hisako’s hands in Nation X had a positive effect. Hell, Reed Richards makes a cameo to drop some science on the assembled Utopians, and to let us know that the X-Men’s days of running a renegade state may be coming to an end.

This is all solid, solid stuff, now that we’re out of the U-Men weeds for the moment. There’s a clear dramatic arc here, the editorial oversight is in place, and plans are being laid for Uncanny’s upcoming three-issue participation in Second Coming. All of the tiny tensions and interpersonal struggles are starting to come together around Kitty’s return, and it’s about time (although relative event timing isn’t the fault of individual Marvel creative teams).

Fraction and Phil Jimenez deliver a short backup story in this issue, a clever parable about apocalyptic thinking set on a world that suddenly finds itself without an apocalypse. It’s a nice antidote to the current rash of 2012 hysteria, and it’s as solidly executed as you’d expect from a team like this.

Also, I stand by my contention from last time: Magneto’s still going to have three-quarters of mutantkind offering to buff his helmet for him by the time the big event is over. Never count Erik out of a good political crisis, self-induced massive trauma or not.

Review: Green Hornet Year One #1

“Green Hornet: Year One”

Writer/ Art Director: Matt Wagner
Artist: Aaron Campbell
Colorist: Francesco Francavilla
Letterer: Simon Bowland

Four different covers available for this first issue, and no fewer than four ads for other Green Hornet titles inside the book itself. Dynamite’s definitely latched onto a presumed cash cow here and are intent on milking it for all it’s worth.

Matt Wagner cover for Green Hornet: Year One #1.

Kato? What're you doing down there?

Wagner, on the other hand, has always had a strong affinity for pulp heroes, and his genre reflexes are sharp as ever. There’s a lot of “What th’ hell is DIS crap?!” from Chicago mob mooks and long, inscrutable lectures from Kato’s samurai father. I did have a bit of a pause at Kato demonstrating his English, though; the line is written in dialect in a way that comes off as uncomfortable parody, sort of like Claremont’s crazy Scots and Irish brogues. I think I might’ve been happier with stilted syntax, in place of a written-in accent stereotype, in Kato’s case. Sure, the broad depiction of Asians speaking English is a 1930s pulp standard, but I’m uneasy with it all the same.

The book is divided into two A-plots, involving Kato and Britt respectively, and one B-plot where they team up to take on some gangsters. Kato and Britt’s separate plot arcs deal in a lot of the same emotional territory from different cultural angles, playing up their similarities. Where Britt is impatient with his father’s insistence on the power of journalism to dismantle the Chicago Mob, Kato disagrees with his father’s opposition to the rule of Emperor Hirohito. We don’t get to see, yet, how any of that adolescent rebellion plays out for them; we see them fighting together as adults, but the rest of that road is left for the next three issues.

Aaron Campbell provides gritty pencils and sharp, darkly-defined inks, while Francesco Francavilla lays down menacing oranges and reds in sharp contrast to Britt’s green costume. Wagner’s obviously had a hand here in specifying how the color work should look and what mood it should convey; I’m reminded of the work of Jeromy Cox, Wagner’s colorist on Mage: The Hero Defined. That’s not a bad thing; I’m a huge fan of Cox’s work, and Francavilla could do a lot worse than to earn the comparison. The reds and oranges spill into the gutters, too, a nice artistic touch that provides a sense of cohesion to the page.

We don’t get a lot of original development or new riffage on the Hornet’s gangbustin’ crusader concept here. What we do get is a lot of setup and one pretty solid gangster beatdown, and if you like the Green Hornet already, that’s probably what you were expecting. I could wish for a little more nuance, but that’s really not what pulp is for, is it?

Capsule Reviews: Week of March 8th

Last week was busy with trailers and such. Here’s a little catch-up on last week’s comics!

Daytripper #4 (Vertigo, Moon, Bá, Stewart, Konot)

This is possibly the strongest issue of Daytripper yet, enough to change my thoughts on the book from “awesome” to “Eisner.” While the ideas I put forward in my full review of Daytripper #3 appear to still be true, I have to admit that I expected the events of this issue to happen in issue #9 or #10. This admittedly-subjective “hey, wait, what?” continues to make me happy, as it means I still have no idea where they go from here. I haven’t been so consistently surprised by something I’ve read in a long, long time. It looks like that’s not going to change any time soon.

Criminal: The Sinners #5 (Icon, Brubaker, Phillips, Staples)

I’m a fat sucker for pulp crime comics. I suppose it’s something of a blessing that our plate has been full enough that I haven’t been able to touch on Criminal: The Sinners since we opened our doors. I’m a little sad, now that this arc has finished, that I wasn’t able to give it the full treatment; hopefully that’s something I can fix when the next installment comes around.

Sometimes you need a hook in this sub-genre. Human Target is a good example. So much of Christopher Chance’s character hangs on his mastery of disguise that the subsequent TV adaptation lost all of the comic’s flavor by removing that element. Criminal, however, gets by simply on the strength of its characters. Each issue was a chance to see just how badly screwed up Tracy Lawless’ situation had become. The resolution was both better than I’d anticipated and appropriately dark. Also, the art throughout, both in Sean Phillips’ lines and Val Staples’ colors, is perfect. I love that they’re unafraid to fill the pages with black, just to the edge of pure expressionism. I’m looking forward to the next series (and maybe I can finally dig into that hardcover…).

PunisherMax: Kingpin #5 (MAX, Aaron, Dillon, Hollingsworth, Petit)

The end of this arc brings some surprise deviations from Punisher-standard narrative tropes. Jason Aaron’s having fun with his own sandbox to run Frank around in. Not only does this plotline end up with Frank getting his ass kicked, but said ass-kicking nearly kills him as well- close enough that I actually wondered if that was going to be the point of it all.

I love this version of the Kingpin, though, and I’m glad he’s fully established and apparently ready to keep on as a main player in the series. We find out just how cold he can be in #5, in amazingly restrained Dillon glory. There’s probably a comparison to be made between the events in this issue and the recent Cry For Justice ruckus, but I don’t think Fisk would give a shit, and that’s really all the difference in the world.

Next up appears to be a rather unhinged-looking Bullseye. I don’t have the same depth of affection for Bullseye that I do for the Kingpin, but in Aaron’s capable hands, I’m sure I’ll find something new to love about the character.

Review: S.W.O.R.D. #5

SWORD #5 cover by Mike del Mundo.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

“No Time to Breathe, Part 5″

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciller: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

Alas, it’s true– S.W.O.R.D. has come to its end. Fortunately for us, it’s the end Kieron Gillen intended for this arc all along, with nothing altered from the original plot. The Drenx invasion comes to a head, the internal politics of S.W.O.R.D. boil over, and there’s muffins– which, really, is all stuff you should expect if you’ve been keeping up with the series.

It’s hard not to think of what could have been, going through the wrap-up of the individual plots in this issue. Sure, Matt Fraction’s busy bringing back Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men, but I’ll forever savor the notion that she could and would have had harsh words for UNIT’s fascist Utopianism during her reunion with Lockheed. Hepzibah is shown escaping the Peak’s brig… would that have brought Rachel Grey and the Starjammers to town for an uneasy meetup with Hank? Magneto’s recent machinations on the former Asteroid M might have returned him to near-Earth orbit, which would’ve put him in direct opposition to Agent Brand, someone every bit as obstreperous as Erik himself. The image of Brand and Magneto sitting in their respective offices, scowling at each other from antipodal Lagrange points, would’ve been worth the time it took to get there all by itself.

All of these things might have happened if the series had been given a chance to play out its overarching plot. In five issues, though, S.W.OR.D. delivers a complete and satisfying package. Not a plot point is left hanging as the remaining free members of the team set forth to stop the Drenx, contain Henry Peter Gyrich, and overturn the last vestiges of the orbital Dark Reign. Gillen knows how to deliver action at this pace, and Sanders’ artwork is easily the most assured he’s ever been on this series– check out Death’s Head on page 2, neatly framed by the geometry of the scene itself, all angular, implacable menace.

Unlike Gillen and co-conspirator Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, which wrapped up its own run last month with an issue about the universal accessibility of the series’ magical paradigm, S.W.O.R.D. ends squarely where it began, with the focus on Beast and Brand. It’s right for this book; the emphasis on an adult adventuring couple remains the series’ biggest draw. It’s a shame more wasn’t done to play up the quirky romantic charm of the series when Marvel did the marketing, as I think it would have attracted more lifelong comics fans in long-term partnerships themselves.

As it stands, though, the chronicles of the crew at the Peak are over, and if you want to get in on the action, I recommend you grab the TPB, No Time to Breathe,and check it out. If you were among the S.W.O.R.D. faithful all along, I can also recommend Gillen’s Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter,a more-cosmic Marvel story that still bears his signature dry wit and high-stakes action.

It’s a sad day for comics, though. Now all I’ve got to sustain me is the faint hope that either the undisclosed Brian Clevinger project, or the new undisclosed Brian Clevinger project hinted at a few days ago, turns out to be a Starjammers book. After all, Hepzibah is on the loose again…

Review: PunisherMAX: Butterfly

Butterflies and zebras and... headshots

Writer: Valerie D’Orazio
Artist: Laurence Campbell
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit

It’s fair to say that everyone has, at one point or another, thought about what it would be like to live in the world of a favorite fictional character. Immersing the reader or viewer is an inherent part of most fiction. We’re all creative beings at heart, and a little bit egocentric, so it’s not that big of a leap from immersion to participation.

Expressing that urge to participate is a hit-or-miss proposition in modern fandom. The term ‘self-insert’ has a negative connotation. As with anything, what it really comes down to is execution. Self-insert, after all, is sort of the ultimate expression of the old writer’s trope ‘write what you know.’ If it’s done well, though, most readers wouldn’t even register it as such.

Is Valerie D’Orazio dabbling in a little self-insert with PunisherMAX: Butterfly? Probably. It’s obvious that this particular corner of the Marvel Universe is near and dear to her heart. Does she do it well? I think so. It’s not really blatantly done, and the overall story doesn’t suffer from it. I don’t think the average reader would notice or really care that much one way or another, but it’s not really a story about Frank Castle, either.

What really sets it apart, however, is how she chose to attack it. The impulse, and what makes self-insert such a mine field, is to be the main character’s best friend. Who wouldn’t want to fight next to Wolverine, or raid the secret files of an evil corporation with The Question? (…what? Sue me, I’m weird.) Making best buddies with the Punisher, however, is about as smart as suddenly finding yourself in John Constantine’s speed dial. Not only is it not terribly healthy, but it’s generally out of spec. Frank doesn’t much like anyone.

D’Orazio’s answer to this problem is to become what would actually be the next best thing for a serious Punisher fan: his target. What else is closer to love in Frank Castle’s heart, after all. From this angle, Butterfly is a success, and quite an enjoyable read. It also helps carry the idea along by being a one-shot; I’m not sure the idea could carry a series, and it works much, much better self-contained. My one quibble, and it’s minor, is the writing-about-writing aspect of the story. Janice called it ‘cheap,’ I prefer to label the choice as ‘precious.’ It would detract from the book if it was anything other than the MacGuffin it obviously is- it could’ve been PunisherMAX: Rosebud and worked the same.

Campbell’s art here is fantastic, lots of nice use of black and shadow and heavy, aggressive line work. Of particular note are the moments of violence, the most poignant of which are done without explicit gore and in silhouette, though he’s not afraid to depict more when the mood calls for it. Also notable are the moments of dehumanization related by the main character, where faces devolve into expressionless masks reminiscent of the masks in Pink Floyd: The Wall.

Between Butterfly and her Punisher short in Girl Comics #1 (the best part of that book, in my opinion), I really enjoy D’Orazio’s voice in the Punisher’s world, and I would certainly like to see her do more with it. Butterfly doesn’t have much Frank in it, but it’s a fun read regardless.