Review: Heroic Age: Prince of Power #1

Prince of Power #1 cover.

...krakathoom me, Amadeus?

“Blasphemy Can Be Fun”

Writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente
Penciller: Reilly Brown
Inkers: Terry Pallot with Jason Paz
Colorist: Val Staples
Letterer: Simon Bowland

I’ve finally plowed through just about all of the Siege wrap-up books– I skipped Fallen Sun: The Sentry because I’m just about sick of Bob by now, no offense to the creative team intended– and am starting to get into the first few Heroic Age titles. Heroic Age: Prince of Power seemed like a pretty good place to start, and I’m glad I wasn’t wrong. Amadeus Cho’s first solo book is a fun ride.

A couple of shameful confessions are in order before I get down to business, I suppose. First off, I don’t really get into the Hulk the way I do, say, Iron Man or the X-Men. Thor’s managed to win a place in my pull thanks to Kieron Gillen, but the Hulk has never really had a creative team that appeals to me. Secondly, I’ve never read any of Incredible Hercules, and that’s entirely because I just don’t have the scratch to read everything I might want to read in a month. (I took an iPhone pic of the Department’s epically huge pull sheet for May 2010 when I filled it out. I should post that, just so you can feel my pain.)

I did, however, read the first issue of Hercules: Fall of an Avenger, and what I saw of Amadeus Cho in there, I liked. I knew that I was coming to Prince of Power at a heavy disadvantage, not having read any other books featuring everyone’s favorite boy genius… and, after my attempt at reading the new Birds of Prey earlier tonight, which presupposes a great deal of DCU knowledge, I was a little wary of what I was going to get here.

Thankfully, Pak and van Lente are smart, efficient writers who can pack a lot of backstory into a few witty captions. I went from not knowing shit about Amadeus Cho’s situation to meeting his ex-girlfriend, getting a feel for his mentor Athena Panhellenios, watching him fight the Griffin, and seeing him fail to manage his corporate holdings in any sort of reasonable fashion. For 22 pages, that’s not a bad start at all; I feel like I can read this series and understand what’s going on without having to hit up my resident Incredible Hercules fanboy every five minutes, and that’s a nice feeling to have.

The supporting cast is fleshed out nicely as well. Hebe, Amadeus’s personal assistant and Hercules’ widow, is a particular delight. She’s caught between a sense of responsibility to Amadeus, and a total unwillingness to roll with his grandiose and often poorly-thought-out plans, but she doesn’t come off as a blithering idiot or a doormat. Inexperienced, yes, but not naive; I could see her exchanging tips on “how to enable your crazy boss without incurring serious personal injury” with Pepper Potts. Given that I had qualms about Fall of an Avenger‘s habit of defining the women in Herc’s life in terms of their sexual relationships with him and nothing else, Hebe is a welcome change. She looks like she’ll grow into her role as Amadeus’s assistant over the next three issues, and that’s great to see.

Penciller Reilly Brown does some great facial expressions and a fantastic two-page spread of Amadeus fighting the Griffin here. His art is clean and straightforward, and Val Staples employs different color palettes to great effect over Brown’s strong linework. (Check out the transition from the day-glo fight with the Griffin to the subdued greens and grays of Bruce Banner’s lab. That’s some nice work.) The art has a solid contemporary vibe; Amadeus wears Marc Jacobs, Banner’s lab is stuffed full of ultratech goodies, and the Olympus Group offices have a Spartan feel to them. Nothing here feels tired or dated, and that’s exactly what I want in a book about a 17-year-old Einstein– a fresh, well-researched approach.

The A-plot comes a little late in the book, a casualty of the amount of pipe that needs to be laid to get there, but it’s a good one, and it plays off all the impulsivity and loyalty to Hercules that Pak and van Lente establish in the pages that precede it. Amadeus decides that, in order to bring Hercules back to Earth, he’ll have to become a god himself and start hunting Herc down throughout a number of parallel worlds. This is about as awesomely ill-advised an idea as Amadeus has ever had– and, indeed, this issue’s cliffhanger involves accidentally pissing off Thor, so you know it’s going to be a lot of fun across pantheons as the book progresses.

Hopefully, this book is a good omen for the Heroic Age– it’s a fast, breezy read with enough backplot to hook new readers without boring the old hands. It doesn’t require encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe’s current status quo. The writing is fresh and funny, and the art’s appealing. I’ll be pretty happy if other creators take Pak and van Lente’s cue and make their Heroic Age titles as accessible to those of us who aren’t omniscient.

Review: Siege #4

Siege 4 cover by Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, and Laura Martin.

That's three madmen down and a Heroic Age to go.


Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Olivier Coipel
Inker: Mark Morales
Colorist: Laura Martin

First off, I’m reviewing this issue from the airport in Seattle– on Monday afternoon. How, you ask, considering that I get my pull on Wednesdays like the rest of you? Well, I spent part of my long weekend in Portland, OR, home of Brian Bendis… who had comp copies burning a hole in his pocket. Bendis dropped some off at Things From Another World, I scooted over there on my way out of town, and the Sentry’s your uncle. So, hey, thanks, Bendis! Thanks, guys at TFAW!

Speaking of Bob, this issue puts the entire “what do you do with a guy who makes the Beyonder look sane” question to rest for the moment, and it’s actually pretty satisfying. Better yet, Coipel’s art is what sells it. The Sentry’s been one of the major annoyances of the Dark Reign– too powerful to play nice with everyone else, too unbalanced to be really compelling as a character– and getting him off the board gives me the sense that we may actually get some forward momentum going from here on out. That’d be a welcome change from the previous year and a half of dealing with twinked-out, superpowered lunatics…

…which brings us to Norman Osborn. He gets his in the end as well, although Spider-Man isn’t actually involved. Neither is Tony Stark, oddly– it’s all Steve Rogers’ show, set up to provide us with a little insight into Steve’s new motivations going into Secret Avengers. I certainly don’t mind Steve’s redesign, but I feel like Spider-Man should’ve had the last laugh in the ongoing Osborn drama, or maybe Tony Stark. After all, Norman was a Spidey villain from day one, and the entirety of “World’s Most Wanted” was about his vengeance on Tony. That being said, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Norman’s plot arc yet, so I’m not counting either Peter or Tony out of the final reckoning.

As for our final, and arguably biggest, psychotic madman, Loki… well. His comeuppance delivers a serious hit to Thor’s entire status quo. If you have any interest in Thor and the Asgardian arc plot whatsoever, you will need to read this issue (and, if you’ve got them, Siege: Loki and New Mutants #11, both of which appear to provide big hints as to Loki’s possible fate). After all the buildup Loki’s received in the last year, this is the sea change in his relationship to the rest of the Marvel Universe, and you will need to see it even if you’re not actively following the Siege.

While I don’t always find Thor a terribly compelling character in his own right, and I’m only starting to come around to his fandom, I want to see where Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction go with what Bendis has done here. Asgard falling appears to be the least of the Asgardians’ worries at this point in the game. Siege #4 sets up a state of affairs that can’t be ignored… and yet, over and over again in Gillen’s run, we’ve seen the gods’ childlike naïveté and willful ignorance lead them into disaster. I don’t know how long it will take the various Thor creative teams to play this one out to its end, but I expect a lot of mayhem before it’s all over.

Bendis has cleared the decks for next week’s Avengers launch in grand, cinematic style; although I have quibbles with Osborn’s eventual fate, I can’t say I’m unhappy with the denouement here. The Loki plotline is worth the price of admission on its own. Most of all, though, I’m just glad to see the Siege and the Dark Reign well and truly done; it’s past time we moved on to some new storylines and new ideas.

Review: Siege: Secret Warriors

Siege: Secret Warriors cover by Marko Djurdjevic.

Yeah, that's pretty much what's going on here. No subtlety!

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Alessandro Vitti
Colorist: Jose Villarubia
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic

I’ve read three of the Siege one-shots now– I skipped Siege: Captain America and Siege: Young Avengers, since I’m not following their home titles– and I’ve been pretty solidly entertained all along. Two of those three issues have played directly to their authors’ strengths. Siege: Loki showcased Kieron Gillen’s grasp of the Asgardian mindset, first displayed in “The Latverian Prometheus.” Brian Reed’s knack for physical comedy got full run of the place in Siege: Spider-Man, including the single best Ms. Marvel panel I’ve ever seen.

Given that, you’d probably expect Siege: Secret Warriors to go straight up the usual Jonathan Hickman alley– weird conspiracies, epic pseudoscience, and portents of disaster at every turn. You’d figure on at least a token appearance by Hydra, and you’d guess that Secret Warriors leader-in-training Daisy might be integral to the plot, as usual.

You’d be entirely wrong, too.

The focal point of this issue is Alex, the extremely creepy boy-genius son of Ares, the recently-deceased god of war. Unlike his dad, Alex is the god of fear… and while Ares can’t possibly have been the best of parents, given his treatment of his charges in books like Dark Avengers: Ares, he did leave a few very specific instructions for Alex in event of an emergency. Alex sets off to fulfill those requests as best he can, and, well, when you’re the god of fear, your best is probably a damn sight better than most people’s.

Hickman throws every bit of his usual carefully-honed subtlety out the window in this issue. I lost count of the number of people Alex chops up on his way to finding out the reason for his father’s (quite temporary, it seems) death. The entire A-plot is pretty much one dirty, protracted fight sequence; there’s not a lot of talking, just a lot of Alex going house on mortals who aren’t prepared for his assault. People who’ve been following Secret Warriors from issue one will be pleased to see Alex finally embracing his father’s amorality, which he displays in flashes throughout the regular series. His actions certainly bring up questions about how much longer he’s going to put up with being the mascot in Nick Fury’s Junior SHIELD Scouts, and I think that’s exactly what Hickman wants the reader to ponder.

If you’re not a regular Secret Warriors reader, though, Alex’s quest for vengeance probably won’t do much for you. After all, you’ve got almost no reason to care about him. You’re not going out and buying, I dunno, Secret Phobos or Ultimate God of Fear or Alex: Origins every month, because he doesn’t have that kind of cachet in the Marvel lineup. For you guys, Hickman’s thoughtfully provided a B-plot where Nick Fury and the reborn Steve Rogers renew their acquaintance over a round of hapless mooks. Vitti does a fine job with this big, sprawling Avengers-style battle, rendering Cap with a brawler’s raw physicality and Nick with the breezy charm of an amiable drunk.

The editorial dictate of the month, if this book and Invincible Iron Man #25 are any indication, is “Get all the major players in the Illuminati/ Civil War plotline back on or near the same page before June’s Avengers event.” Siege: Secret Warriors accomplishes the reunion of Nick and Cap in swaggering style. And, hey, if you’re a fan of Alex’s ongoing quest to attain the full scope of his divinity, there’s a lot to like here too. Essential for Siege diehards who were left hanging by Ares’ death, folks who liked Dark Avengers: Ares, and Secret Warriors readers. You could probably skip it if you’re not in those three categories, but you’d miss a rare atypical Jonathan Hickman story, and I don’t think I’d recommend that.

Review: Siege: Spider-Man

"blblblblbl, I'm your new boyfriend now!"

"blblblblbl, I'm your new boyfriend now!"

Writer: Brian Reed
Artist: Marco Santucci
Color Artist: Chris Sotomayor
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramanga
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic

Let me cut right to the chase: Where in the hell has this Venom been all my life?

I must admit up front that I’ve read none of the previous canon in relation to the character. When I was the obligatory angry young man, Venom’s meteoric rise to popularity soured me to the entire concept and what it appeared to be doing to Spider-Man and Marvel as a whole. I can trace my inability to find purchase in any of the Spider-Man comics to what seemed like an editorial mandate to over-hype the symbiote and its hosts. More than likely, looking back, Venom was the leading contributor to my disdain for Marvel in general for the majority of the last two decades. I’d walk into a shop, be greeted by a sea of fanged, saliva-dripping-tongued faces on posters, t-shirts, what have you, and I’d retreat hastily to the Vertigo section.

As my interest in the Siege storyline has grown over the last few months, though, I keep brushing up against the Mac Gargan Venom, especially as the action moves closer to Asgard. When Brian Reed posted the preview to Siege: Spider-Man to Twitter last week, I was dubious. But those six pages compelled me to do something I’d never even considered before.

I was going to have to buy a Venom story.

I was not disappointed, and I’m still not sure how to feel about that. I’ve invested a lot in hating Venom. It’s defined my comics fandom for twenty freaking years now. It’s not like I can just let that go all of a sudden. Reed’s sense of humor is natural for Peter Parker; when you see Spidey, you expect smartassery. The application of that same humor to Venom, though? It works, and it makes him a convincing dark mirror to Spidey– the one thing he’s been missing for me this entire time. Reed’s Venom is eminently quotable, and invoking the best lines in my head as I write this still makes me laugh hours after the fact. If nothing else, Reed deserves a medal for having Venom invoke the the phrase “OM NOM NOM” while dining on Asgardian flesh.

It’s essentially a prolonged, laugh-a-minute fight scene between Venom, Spidey, and Ms. Marvel, but the story never loses its awareness of surrounding events- the visual callback to Siege: Embedded is a nice touch that rewards observant readers. And despite everything else going on, Siege: Spider-Man never loses its actual focus on building the growing bond between Peter and Carol. How that’s going to work out in the long run is… unclear, but it makes for a nice story all the same.

The art, color, and lettering combine here in a very fluid manner to carry these hijinks along seamlessly. Caramagna’s lettering job, especially, makes Venom’s dialog shine through. And, uh… how can I say this? A naked man has never been funnier to me. Ever.

I keep having the same thought as I read all of these Siege and Siege-related one-shots from Marvel: More like this, please. Brian Reed and company actually made me like Venom, FFS. Clearly, we have entered the end times.

Review: Sif

Cover for Sif 1 by Travel Foreman and June Chung.

She don't need another hero: Sif fights her way back to self-respect.

“I Am the Lady Sif”

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Penciller: Ryan Stegman
Inkers: Tom Palmer with Victor Olazaba
Colorist: Juan Doe
Letterer: VC’s Joe Sabino
Cover: Travel Foreman and June Chung

Sif has a tough lot in the Marvel pantheon. She’s a powerful and skilled warrior goddess, but somehow she keeps getting the short end of the stick. Loki shears off her golden hair in a symbolic rape, after which she’s sent away by her parents for warrior training– apparently, that’s the Asgardian concept of crisis counseling in action. When she returns, Sif and Thor proceed to have a relationship worthy of Jerry Springer, during which Thor hits her, she runs off with Beta Ray Bill, they discover that Thor’s mind-controlled, she takes Thor back and dumps Bill… oy. It’s all ugly.

That’s not even counting Sif making a pact with Mephisto at one point, or Thor exiling Sif from Asgard for objecting to his fascist reign. Or, you know, Thor hooking up with the Enchantress and getting her pregnant while Sif’s hanging around in exile. It’s a rough life in the MU if you’re an Asgardian battle maiden, apparently– and then, just when everything started to look up, Loki provoked the Ragnarok, stole Sif’s body, and imprisoned her in the form of a dying elderly woman.

Yeah. That’s some empowerment for Sif right there. When it’s not domestic abuse and getting thrown out of the hall in favor of the evil baby mama, it’s rape and more rape. Sure, Sif kicks ass against Surtur and is every bit as badass as Brunhild, but with a personal life that painful, it’s probably not much consolation… and if you’re a female comics fan, it’s not very cheering to see a character who’s had a lot of her development come at the expense of her autonomy.

Fortunately, Sif’s been placed in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s capable hands for the first step of her recovery from this ongoing soap opera. DeConnick is arguably best-known for her work on 30 Days of Night and Image’s Comic Book Tattoo anthology; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page of her own, and that’s a damn shame. Sif is a clear indication of a talent worth more recognition.

The book is a compact, kinetic tale of Sif’s first steps on the road from “survivor” back to “warrior.” Sheltered in the uneasy bosom of the citizens of Broxton, Sif is drinking and nursing hypervigilant combat reflexes when Beta Ray Bill (and Ti Asha Ra, last seen in Kieron Gillen’s Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter) arrives. Of course, he’s not trying to rekindle any romance– no, he wants a Real Man, in this case Thor, to help him regain his ship from Borg-like space pirates.

That’s when Sif stops having any of this macho nonsense, thankfully, and puts herself up in Thor’s stead. What follows is a vicious little romp reminiscent of Die Hard— “Come out to deep space! We’ll get together, have a few laughs!” Sif tests her physical mettle against the disciples of the Salvation Condition and her mental endurance against the memories of Loki’s tortures. The Korbinites become background figures, witnesses to her trial, and the story’s all the sharper for it; this story is all about Sif and how she wins her way back to her true self. DeConnick keeps the focus tight and the dialogue terse, emphasizing the tension Sif feels every day as a survivor.

The visuals convey this sense of tension as Sif throws herself into combat; artist Ryan Stegman has a clean style reminiscent of Madame Xanadu‘s Amy Reeder Hadley, making Sif seem like Nimue’s plucky adventuring cousin. The various residents of Broxton are salt-of-the-earth types, making a sharp contrast to Sif’s hard-edged biker beauty. Beta Ray Bill is as snouty and toothy as I’ve ever seen him– Stegman’s depiction makes Bill a heavy-hearted, distant taskmaster, presiding over Sif’s ordeal for her own good. The panel transitions are rapid and occasionally unnerving, highlighting Sif’s near-manic dread and battle rage. Particularly successful is a panel (I’ll try to get a pic uploaded later today) where a disciple of the Condition grabs Sif’s ankle… followed immediately by a quick cut to her revulsed, shell-socked reaction, and then to the lethal consequences. Solid, solid storytelling, a welcome change from the vague visual narrative you see in other titles.

Sif also sets up a future direction for the battle goddess… one that seems likely to pay off handsomely for her, especially when it’s seen in light of the events of Siege: Loki last week. I certainly hope Marvel lets DeConnick and Stegman run with that plotline, because it’s one I’d enjoy seeing.

One last confession. We bought two copies of Sif today. The first one was ordered weeks ago in our Golden Apple pull… but we were so eager to see how DeConnick and Stegman pulled this off that Chad bought a second copy on his way home from work. You should be that eager too; this book showcases two up-and-coming Marvel talents turning in rock-steady work that takes the misogynist tarnish off Sif and restores her to her Ripley-esque Simonson-era badassery.

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: 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: 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.

Shit Just Got Real: Hercules, Fall of an Avenger #1

Namora punches Namor, with "MAAAANUP!" sound effect.

Yeah, Namor! You do that!

Seriously, Namor. You just got audibly served by Namora in the midst of your overwhelming, smoldering angst over Herc’s passing. Shit just got real.

The rest of this book is pretty good, by the way… until you get to the reactions of various Marvel women to Herc’s passing, which boil down to “He was a total asshole, but he had a great cock and we totally had sexy sex, so it’s OK.” Not a particularly progressive narrative moment for a company in the middle of a yearlong event focusing on women in comics, but not out of spec for van Lente’s treatment of female characters, either. It’s a shame, too– the rest of this issue is fantastic, save for that one bit that ruins it for me.

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…